Lear and Ilia resumed their quest in the morning, after stuffing their pockets with biscuits. The sun shone brightly on the path; they were only a day’s journey from Temir if they stayed on course.
Suddenly, a gust of wind came upon them. It was both powerful enough to evoke a shudder in their hearts but gentle enough that neither tripped.
“Lear,” Ilia cried. “Look! In the sky!”
Lear gasped. “It’s a phoenix! How beautiful! Oh, how Kithri would love to see a real one, after all the stories she’s told us.”
“We need to follow it.”
“What good will straying from the path do?”
“The prophecy refers to a phoenix. What if that’s the phoenix that will rise from the ashes?”
“The way is clear on the path, but we got this far thanks to your intuition, so I trust you. Let’s follow the phoenix.”
For a few leagues, straying from the path seemed to be a brilliant idea. They were advancing at a fast pace, traveling even farther than they did on the road.
“We’ll make it to Temir in no time!” Lear exclaimed.
The words left his mouth too soon. Before they could take another step forward, a terrifying winged creature swooped through the air and stood before them.
“It’s a griffin,” Lear screamed.
“What do we do?” Ilia cried. “We can’t run away fast enough.”
Just as they prepared to embrace their doom, the wizard in the curious hat returned to them, this time on the back of a mighty dragon. The dragon, large and red, with scales brighter than the sun and spikes sharper than swords, exhaled a gust of flame on the griffin, which promptly descended into a cloud of smoke.
Lear fell at the feet of the dragon in gratitude. “You saved us!”
Ilia looked as if she was on the verge of tears. “You killed a creature,” she whispered.
The Winter Knight nodded. “This death was necessary. If you hadn’t strayed from the path, you wouldn’t have encountered a situation which called for killing. This is my dragon Kairos, from the Northern Territories. He will deliver you to Temir.”
The halflings, eager to give their feet a rest, climbed onto the creature’s back. Sure enough, they landed among cluster of buildings infused with light within the hour. Creatures of all sorts, from goblins in dark cloaks to elves on the backs of unicorns, traversed the cobblestone road.
“Poetry Glorificus resides in this building.” The wizard in the curious hat pointed to a tower. “Go, and discover your destiny.”
“Thank you for all your guidance,” said Ilia.
The halflings entered the tower and climbed a spiral staircase to a room of walls lined with bookshelves on alchemy, history, and divination.
“P-Poetry Glorificus?” Ilia stammered as they reached the peak of the tower.
“I am here,” said a Tiefling woman in a wooden chair. She was tall with ebony locks cascading all the way to the floor. Her golden dress reminded them of the marigolds in Fiddlehead Forest, but her bloodshot eyes and ivory horns scared them just as much as Kithri did when she banished them from their home.
“Who enters my tower?” asked Poetry.
“Ilia and Lear of Fiddlehead Forest,” said Ilia. “I am a prophetess who seeks interpretation of her dreams.”
“What kind of creature are you?”
“Can’t you tell we’re halflings?”
“I am blind.”
“How can such a renowned soothsayer be blind?”
“I cannot see the present if I wish to understand the future.”
“Can you interpret my dream?”
“What are the words of the prophecy?”
“From the ashes a fire shall be woken, and the phoenix will rise again.”
Poetry frowned. “Have those words repeated?”
“No, but I have a recurring dream of a phoenix burning and being born again of the ashes. On our way here, a phoenix led us off the path and we were attacked by griffin.”
Poetry leaped up from her chair and stumbled to the bookshelf on the wall. Ilia wondered why she had so many books if she was blind.
“On the other side of Temir is a castle. In its innermost layer is a phoenix named Chronos. You must kill him.”
“No!” Lear argued. “I have already seen too much death for a halfling. I refuse to take the life of another creature.”
“You speak like a Warrior Poet. You New Age creatures are all the same. You are virtuous at heart, but naive in life. You forget that I survived the Old Age, when death was nothing but a daily casualty. In this world it is kill or be killed. If you want to live, Chronos must be destroyed.”
“How do we kill him?” Ilia asked.
Lear stared at Ilia, eyes widened. “You can’t be serious!”
Poetry’s blind eyes shifted toward Ilia. “In any way but fire. Best of luck, young prophetess.”
Ilia dashed down the stairs of the tower and out the door. Lear followed her, desperate to save the bird.
“Ilia. We’ve journeyed this far together, and I only want to do the right thing.”
“We are doing the right thing. Do you want the world to burn?”
“No, of course I don’t. But there must be some other way. Let us go speak to the Warrior Poets. They know how to solve problems the right way.”
“Fine. You find them. But I’m going to save the world.”
Lear found the Warrior Poets in the castle courtyard. Their fellowship consisted of men, women, elves, and centaurs who worked as scholars and scribes working in order to better the world.
“Who are you, halfling?” a centaur asked.
“My name is Lear. I come from Fiddlehead Forest. My traveling companion Ilia consulted with the soothsayer Poetry Glorificus, and now believes that she must kill Chronos in order to save M’Rod.”
“Is that what Poetry told her?”
“Yes, but Poetry does not embrace New Age morals. I cannot imagine it is right to kill a creature.”
“Even for the greater good?” questioned a man, glancing up from his book.
“I-I don’t know,” Lear cried. “I only want to do the right thing.”
“You have a noble heart,” said a kind-looking elf in a regal cloak. “Join the ranks of Warrior Poets, and we will teach you the complexities of good and evil.”
“There isn’t time. Not if the world is truly to end in flames.”
“If this is so,” said the centaur, “We must find this other halfling and explain the weight of the choice she must make. Either way, she will have to sacrifice.”
Meanwhile, Ilia traversed the palace corridors in an attempt to locate the mysterious bird. When she finally reached the nest of the phoenix, both her legs and soul were tired. She couldn’t bear the weight of killing an innocent creature, even if it was just one bird. Murder went against everything Kithri taught her. However, after everything she endured in order to hear the advice of Poetry Glorificus, she could not ignore her words.
“Ilia, wait!” It was Lear, leading a band of Warrior Poets.
“You can’t stop me, Lear. I’ve made my choice.”
“I’m not asking you to change your mind. I just want you to know the consequences of your decision.”
“I don’t have a decision. It’s my destiny.” She pulled out a pocket knife and stabbed the bird.
“I don’t believe there ever was a choice,” announced one of the Warrior Poets, pointing to the great bird.
The phoenix erupted into flames, consuming the castle and its surroundings.
Together, they watched the world burn.
In another dimension, another era, a teardrop fell on the ashes of a canvas. The Artist collected the remnants of the world he painted. Anger rose in his broken heart. How could a world of beauty be destroyed by something so trivial as a flame? If his art didn’t last, did it even matter? Did anyone, in any world, appreciate his creativity enough for it to survive?
It wasn’t fair to anyone. The world mattered to him, and it mattered to its inhabitants. Lear finally achieved his personal legend of becoming a Warrior Poet, but his world perished before he could perfect his craft. Ilia didn’t get a chance to learn about herself; she still didn’t understand what made her so special that she could understand what others couldn’t. She deserved to know, and now she never would, unless…
Unless the Artist persevered in his craft. He picked up a paintbrush and, from the embers of sorrow, rose a new galaxy: a new M’Rod, the Third Age, in which the prophecy could be fulfilled, and the phoenix would rise again.