--------this is a short story set in a larger world, so there are some references to other things, but it should be easy to understand! ----
It was a normal February day, right up until the phoenix landed on my windowsill.
Now don’t get me wrong, it is always a good day when a phoenix lands on your windowsill, but at the time I happened to be in the middle of one of my favorite pastimes - entering things in my Treasure Guide(the journal I kept with all of my spoils as a Keeper treasure hunter). So, to my eternal shame, when the phoenix landed, it scared me so bad I ended up spilling ink over the page I was entering on a seashell that kept producing pearls every time you closed the lid.
“Alex! London!” I yelled, throwing open the door to my room. “Come quick! There’s a phoenix on my windowsill!”
“There’s a what?” Alex said incredulously, turning to stare at me.
“Did you say a phoenix?” London was in the kitchen and he stared at me like I had lost my mind over top of his turkey sandwich.
“There’s a phoenix on my windowsill!” I repeated, still a bit too shocked to properly understand how awesome that was.
“There is no way there is a phoenix in your room,” Alex said, getting up and shooting me a glare. “You probably just got it confused with a giant eagle or something.”
Did eagles have golden feathers and a long tail? I thought mildly to myself, following after Alex into my room.
He stepped one foot into the space and then froze, staring at my windowsill.
“Th-that’s actually phoenix,” he stuttered, mouth open like a guppy.
“Yes,” I replied. “It is a phoenix.”
The phoenix on my windowsill stared back at us, looking much less surprised by the three adolescents it found itself faced with. The February afternoon sunlight glinted off of sleek golden feathers, making it look the bird itself was made of gold. As the wind blew past, the feathers ruffled to reveal brilliant scarlet and bronze underlays to the gold, a riot of fire on the bird. Long tail feathers, scarlet and bronze and gold themselves, fluttered in the wind outside my window, more gorgeous than even a peacock’s. Wise dark eyes gazed at us as we gaped.
“So...how do you have a phoenix on your windowsill, Nova?” London asked, the first one to actually regain his words. Though he spoke softly, like he was worried being too loud would scare it away.
I didn’t think much would scare away such a creature.
“It just landed there?” I tried. I might not think that it would fly away, but I still spoke low. “I don’t know why it’s here. I don’t even know how it got on the island!” Our island home was protected by a barrier that should have stopped anything that wasn't a diver from entering, so it was beyond odd that it was even here.
“Animals can pass through the barrier,” London replied. “Must count it as an animal.”
Alex raised his phone and took a picture.
“Alex, don’t photograph the phoenix!” I snapped. “They’re super rare!”
“More of a reason to do it,” Alex replied. “We might never see one again.”
“Maybe instead of arguing over the ramifications of taking photos of the phoenix, perhaps we could attempt to figure out why it could be here?” London suggested softly.
That was a good plan, I thought. A very good plan. Too bad that to get to the grimoires on my bookshelves I would have to move and I was mildly concerned that moving might prompt the phoenix to either flee or attack me.
I did not want to get dive bombed by a firebird.
But, when Alex glared at me and gestured for me to get moving, I realized I would have to bite the bullet and do this.
I took a step, slowly, and then when the bird showed no signs of moving, took another. Like a snail, I slowly made my way over to my heavy bookshelves, selected the grimoire of Ancients and then crept even slower back to London and Alex.
If you were to ask me what I knew about phoenixes, the answer would be: not a lot. I knew they were Ancients, one of the species that had lived on Middleworld and didn’t disappear during the Bloody War. Like all Ancients, they were more like wild creatures than the stewards and the worlds the Origins had been. The phoenix lived in forests away from populated regions and were said to live forever through a cycle of burning and rebirth in the ashes.
I reached my comrades and opened my book, flipping past the sections on yetis, krakens, and giants, before reaching the pages I was looking for.
“The phoenix is a rare Ancient with a unique power to burn to ashes and rise from the ashes as a young bird,” I whisper-read. “Phoenixes with primarily red feathers lose all memories when they are reborn where phoenixes with primarily golden feathers keep their memories. It is for this reason that they are often used as sentinels for treasure. It is said that a golden phoenix will only appear to those it has deemed worthy of seeing its treasure.”
We all glanced up at the bird at that point, its golden feathers shining bright in the sun.
“...are you saying it wants us to see its treasure?” Alex finally said. He no longer used the low voice we had been. Having been shocked for the second time in less than twenty minutes apparently did wonders on a person’s ability to control their pitch.
The phoenix then moved for the first time since landing on my window. It squawked, the sound more like someone striking something against metal than anything a normal bird could create, and fluttered its wings slightly. Embers fell from its wings and smoldered on my windowsill.
I briefly prepared myself to cast spells to extinguish any fire that may or may not start before it could send my room up in flames, but when no flames appeared I relaxed.
“I think that means yes,” London said. “Do you want us to follow you?”
The phoenix on my windowsill squealed again, fluttered its wings, and then took off into the blue sky.
We all stood frozen for a few seconds.
“We have to follow that phoenix!” I yelped.
And thus began our journey to follow the phoenix.
“Why’s it flying into the woods?” Alex asked as we followed after the bird. The phoenix was flying slowly and low, enough so that we only had to walk at a mildly fast pace to keep up with it. It was rather nice of it.
Snow covered the ground around us as we tromped through the fields behind the Diver Academies. It sparkled in the sunlight like glistening jewels, our shadows like bending stick figures. Ahead of us, the forest that made up most of the northern end of the island rose tall, the green of the pines giving more color to the landscape.
“There are rumors among the Keepers that the woods hold treasure,” I said. “Wouldn’t surprise me if it was actually true.”
Alex grunted in a way that made me almost positive that his question was rhetorical. I regretted nothing.
The phoenix dived into the woods with one final cry and we picked up our pace after London made a remark about losing sight of the bird in the trees. But despite that even after twenty minutes of marching through the forest, we hadn’t lost sight of the golden bird once.
“This is odd,” London muttered, breaking the hush that had fallen over us.
“That we’re following a bird into the woods because Nova’s sketchy collection of grimoires told us it might lead us to treasure?” Alex asked. “Because that was weird from the get-go.”
“Hey, my grimoires aren’t sketchy!” I protested.
“You left one in the living room overnight and when I got up to get a drink of water it was glowing and dripping blood.”
I rolled my eyes. “That was because I forgot to lock it.”
“My point stands,” Alex shoved his gloved hands deeper into his coat and hunched his shoulders so that he resembled a pale and angry turtle.
“No,” London glanced around. “I’ve been in the woods countless times to train, but I swear I’ve never been to this part.”
“Really?” I asked.
“And even weirder, look at the ground.” I did as London instructed, but found nothing.
“I don’t see anything,” Alex said.
“That’s the point,” London said. “There’s nothing here. In a normal forest, especially one this size, there should be tracks all over the place.”
“It’s like we’re the first ones in here all winter,” I breathed. Now that meant something.
Despite the new information and the slight chills it brought along, we still felt that following the phoenix was our best bet. Eventually, the trees cleared away and we stepped out into a massive circular clearing, just as fresh and untouched as the rest of this area.
But there was one difference, in the center of the clearing there was a metal tree. Not just a tree, but a tree with a silver trunk and bronze leaves that shone so bright that it hurt to look at. It was so big that there was no doubt a house could fit inside its trunk. It stretched up into the heavens so far it struck me as odd that I had never seen it before. A tree that big, how could I have missed it?
The phoenix let out one long cry that seemed to resonate through the entire clearing, shaking the leaves of the tree and rattling inside of our skulls in a strange but no painful way. It swooped low past us, close enough to feel the heat emanate from its feathers before flying up and landing on the lowest branch of the metal tree.
As soon as its claws closed around the limb, the clearing began to shake. It started small, a tremor small enough that I could barely feel it, but it soon escalated until it was hard to keep my feet. Snow was shaken from the trees and fell on top of us, blanketing our world in white.
I shrieked as the icy cold snow hit my already cold face and found its way into my coat and boots. I frantically pawed at my collar to try and close it, but it was futile, just as soon as we had been covered, the snow stopped and we were standing with clear fields of vision once more.
“Dang it,” Alex muttered. “There’s snow inside my coat. I do not want snow inside my coat.”
“What was that?” London asked. I knew he had snow down his coat, too, but he didn’t show it. Apparently representing the urge to get cold out of your collar was something else he was good at.
“Uh...guys?” I said. Ice water dripped down the hollow of my back, but I couldn’t have cared less. “Look.”
The metal tree in the center of the clearing had been cleaved in two.
Well, that wasn’t exactly accurate. But it had been split. From the base of the trunk clear up the side to the first branch there was a hole. I couldn't see into it, but it was obvious that it led inside the tree.
“Woah,” Alex breathed.
The phoenix screeched and we all looked up to see it dive into the hole in the tree.
“I guess that means we should go in!” I chirped, running forward. This was so awesome! Even after everything that I had seen and experienced, getting to go after treasure never got old. Everything was new, exciting, and oh-so-fun! I loved it.
My footsteps were muffled by the snow, but they rang solid when I stepped into the hole in the tree. Just like the outside, it was obvious that the inside was made of metal as well.
I took off one of my gloves and ran my fingers along the inside. It was so smooth and cool to the touch, like the surface of a mirror.
Hard footsteps rang into the silence of the dark hole, signaling that Alex and London must have entered as well. My suspicions were confirmed when, second later, Alex complained: “I can’t see anything! What’s in here?”
As if summoned by his words, something burst into life a while away into the darkness. A flickering flame suspended in midair. I blinked at it, surprised, and then several other flames burst into life. Then, suddenly, the entire hole was awash in light. The sudden brightness shocked my eyes for a second, but then they adjusted and all I could do was stare.
The inside of the tree was made of bronze and it was gorgeous. High and arching, there was no visible ceiling in the chamber we had found ourselves in. Massive statues of warriors in full plate mail, carrying massive broadswords edged with white jewels lined the circular walls, gazing down at us with blank metal expressions. The light had come from torches set into the walls high up, their flickering orange glow casting an even light onto the floor below. Set lower into the ground was a circular platform with scrawls of hieroglyphs in a language I didn’t recognize. And in the very center was a spire of white gems and leaning against that was a very familiar face.
“Relli?” I exclaimed. “What the heck are you doing here?” I hopped down into the lowered platform and strode up to my kitsune friend, still not quite believing my eyes.
Relli had been gone for the day doing whatever Relli did when he wasn’t with me, but seeing him here, in the belly of a metal tree in a clearing of part of the forest that didn’t even seem to exist, was just plain weird.
“You guys found this place!” Relli cried with a grin. “Awesome. I didn’t know if you follow Pireen all the way.”
“Pi-who?” Alex demanded, striding up from behind me. “What is going on here? How are you even here!?”
“Pireen let me here,” Relli said, a pleased smile on his face. At our confused looks, he elaborated. “The phoenix. I met her a while ago but it took me until now to get her to show me her home. She led me here earlier and then I asked her to get you guys. Pretty sweet place isn’t it?”
“It’s great,” I said. “But where’s the treasure?”
“Treasure?” Relli echoed. He glanced at the spire of white jewel that obviously seemed important that he was using as an elbow rest. “Oh. Pireen says there is no treasure.”
“No treasure!?” I shrieked. Relli, Alex, and London winced at my high pitch but I didn’t care. “No treasure!? This is a giant metal tree probably hidden by magic in the middle of a magical island. This is obviously a chamber of some importance and there is a phoenix guarding it,” I gestured at Pireen, who was watching this from her perch on top of one of the sentinels. “And you’re telling me there is no treasure!?”
“Well,” Relli scratched the back of his neck. “She says that it was originally supposed to hold the Orb of Wisdom…”
“The Orb of Wisdom?” I echoed. “The same Orb that is currently in the Vault of Knowledge?”
Relli avoided my eyes. “Apparently this was meant to hold the orb, but the Vault was finished first so…” He shrugged.
“So why are we here?” My voice was getting dangerous and I didn’t care. I had followed this phoenix into a treasure room and I was going to get some treasure, dangit.
“So I could show you this awesome place!” Relli said.
I was gonna kill him.
After I finished reaming Relli out about his mode of communication(a golden phoenix just sends the wrong message), I came to the realization that while I hadn’t found any real magical artifacts, Relli was right. This place was incredible and it was definitely worth the time.
But...I wasn’t about to tell Relli that.