Author’s Note: This short story is the first case where the gods from my Starside Saga were ever mentioned. At the time I had no concept of Kila Sigh and her telepathic cat Nax. All the references to Kil or Til were in-the-moment creations. The story itself was part of a sprint-writing challenge. I was given the story prompt of “feathers” and told to start writing. This was the result.
A prospector seeking ultra-rare medicine for his grandmother stumbles into adventure. But is it a tall-tale or true?
The Cool Side
I had never found a comfortable pillow until I tried phoenix feathers. People tell me I’m crazy whenever I bring it up, but I don’t pay them no mind. And I’ll tell you why.
Do you now what the single most important quality of a pillow is?
That’s right. It needs to stay cool.
You may find this hard to believe, but that phoenix feather pillow was the coolest I ever put my head on. But there’s a problem with them. Phoenix feathers combust. They soak up your head heat and just keep on soaking it up, until one day, poof! And you better hope you’re not using it when that happens.
That was until I found a solution to the problem. . . .
Four years ago I journeyed deep into the mountains of West Grenna, searching for an abandoned claim. A friend of mine, Neller Fesbek, told me that some explorers had uncovered a vein of gold so rich they all retired and hired people to dig it out. Only one of the diggers ever came back, though, and he was half crazed, telling wild stories of how the cave’s tunnels only let you go down. He spoke of going so deep that he had to remove his clothes to endure the heat.
I headed to West Grenna faster than you can spit. But it weren’t for the gold. I was looking for the phoenix, because she likes deep, solitary places close to the warm heart of the Mother.
And no, I wasn’t after her just for stuffing my pillow. That silly business merely started my fascination with the noble creature. I learned that the bird’s heart has remarkable healing powers when mixed into a salve. Well, my dear grandmother had a twisting pain in her knees and shoulders and hands. A sweeter woman has not walked this world in an age, and if I could relieve her affliction for half a blink, it’d be worth a lifetime of toil.
That was why me and my mule, Teena, worked our way up those goat trails. We had to double back more times than I could count, undoing days worth of foot work. I got some good swearing done in those cases, like my wife Mirtle, rest her soul, when she had to undo her knitting.
We come down the other side, into the Karf Valley, and it was like falling through the mirror into the land of Gort. Just like that children’s story. Trees everywhere, waterfall as high as you could imagine. Probably even higher.
That river cut right into the bones of the Earth, leaving cliffs full of caves.
Neller had alerted me to some landmarks to look for. The typical sort, boulder that looks like a turtle, tree stump on a sliver of island, a bend in the river curved like a hound’s leg. Useless for the most part. Which one do you think was the one I spotted?
That’s what I thought you’d say. Wrong.
So there was Teena and me looking at the stump, trying to divine what direction to go next when I spotted the cave. And it was not more than two arm spans above the far rocky shore. The only thing that would have made it easier to get into would have been a ladder.
And Til provided one, after a fashion. A fallen pine, which I leaned up against the rock wall. In no time I was walking into the depths of the Mother herself, holding my trusty oil lamp in my left hand and my pick in my right. I left Teena behind, of course. She was a hardy beast, so I just let her wander to find what graze she could.
The tunnel made a sharp turn, and poof! my lamp went out. So now I’m playing Blind Man Lights the Candle, which meant I spilled oil all down my trousers and nearly lost my flint among the assorted rocks on the floor.
I was feeling around for the damn thing when my hands closed over a smooth shaft of something. Weren’t no rock, so I tucked it into my sock real quick so as not to lose track of it. Then I got busy getting my lamp going, and I felt no small relief when I did.
So I pulled that little gimcrack from my footsack, and as Til is my Soul’s Father, I was holding a shard of a man’s leg bone in my hand. Imagine the feeling, knowing you’ve committed one of the ten sins and not realizing it until after the fact.
I dropped it and said five Jal Fips (to which I don’t give much credit in the light of day) and turned back for open air.
And that’s when I ran smack into a stone wall and fell on my snicken. I had a bruise for thirty seven days after that.
Now I’m not the superstitious type, but you don’t handle a leg bone and then have the cave close in behind you by coincidence.
Of course, you’re looking at me right now, so you’re thinking there’s no mystery to this tale. I survived or I wouldn’t be flapping my lips at you in this very moment.
Just you listen.
Taking care not to tromp on the holy remains of my fellow man, I descended into the gut of that cave, winding when the way wound, climbing when it went down. Sometimes I had to leap, and once I jumped. I came to a wide cavern just as my little lamp burned red, then blue, and in the last of its dying flickers I spotted another tunnel framed by a low arch of rock.
My lamp burned out, leaving me in silent blackness. But Til had showed me the way, so I dropped to my belly, and wriggled my way into that arch, hands out and feeling my way.
The passage got lower, and by and by I couldn’t go any farther without dropping my satchel. I was loath to leave it, for it held my hardtack, which to be honest might have been switched with granite at some point. My teeth couldn’t tell the difference, nohow.
I was even more sorely disinclined to leave behind the birdcage, for obvious reasons.
What? I never mentioned the birdcage?
I planned to put the phoenix in it, of course. You can’t just kill the phoenix, for she’ll burst into flame and all you’ll have is a pile of useless ash. That, and a very angry new phoenix to contend with. To get the heart out of her, there are spells and such required.
Now you see why leaving that birdcage behind was such a hard loss. But I had no choice.
I ate the hardtack, which I thought quite a clever at the time. But the birdcage was too tall, too wide, and too fat to push through that low passage.
The same could have been said about my head, but I turned it sideways and scraped my left ear along the floor and my right along the roof. My shoulders have always been thin, and my belly flat. I pushed with my toes and inched my way in, marveling at the way my body molded into that space like dough in a muffin tin.
And then I got stuck. I pulled, I pushed, I wiggled.
It was the hardtack, I think. I’d eaten just enough to widen by body. But I knew a trick to try, and that was to blow every ounce of breath from my lungs, and then squeeze out a little more. And so deflated, I pushed my way through the pinch point and was soon able to stand, albeit in utter blackness.
By the echoes of my heaving breath and curses, I deduced I had come into a sizeable cavern. I recovered my wind and then held it, becoming silent as a falling leaf.
The faintest tune of dripping water circled my ears. I moved forward, holding out my pick, swinging it in a slow arc.
To fend off the fear closing around my heart like the fist of Kil hisself, I used an old trick I’d picked up from some crusty soldiers I used to travel with. When things got bleak, they cracked jokes.
Do you know the one about the three legged farmer?
Trust me, it’s a lot funnier in a dark cave with no one to hear it.
I got a little lightning in my step from that joke, and it carried me twenty paces before despair closed in on me anew. I had splashed ankle deep into liquid colder than snow and stiller than a dead maiden’s heart.
I found a stone just beneath the surface and tossed it before me, heard the plunk resound and echo. It was a lake. I backpedalled, shivering as if Kil himself had licked my spine. The creatures what lurk in the black depths of undermountain lakes are not of this world. The faintest heat of a living being draws them as a flame draws a paper moth.
So I’d come to the end of Gerson’s Quest, but short of my Golden Drum. In my case, the damn fire bird.
I rubbed my hand through my beard and stomped my feet. I committed the third, seventh, and tenth sins repeatedly, and loudly. I honked my nose at the unseen sky, miles above my deep grave. And it was this, the second sin that stopped me cold.
The hand I’d dipped in the lake weren’t wet with water. It was slick with oil.
Before I could allow my mind to fabricate a notion, I whipped out my flint and steel and struck them. The sparks showed me the fleetingest hint of glistening walls and a smooth lake surface pierced by columns as thick as Til’s neck.
The spark fell and settled onto the lake.
And in a flash, like the innkeeper’s wife ripping the curtains aside because you slept past noon, the cavern burst into white light and such heat that my beard got singed all the way into my face, leaving my skin bepocked and red. That’s why I always wear a beard nowadays.
But this wasn’t a natural fire, not the kind that sucks the air from the world and leaves a man holding his throat and gasping. For though it were hot and burned away my shirt and my ancient hat and my trousers, it did not slay me outright.
And neither did I cry for mercy like a criminal receiving Til’s fiery justice for committing the first sin.
No, I basked in it. I spread my arms wide and hooted, and spun, and did the farmer’s jig on one foot and then t’other.
And out of the flaming sea burst the pheonix, as I suspected she might. She wove through the columns on scarlet wings, her emerald eyes flashing like a mountain pond.
I mimicked her call, and she dove for me. I tried to grab her, but she clutched my hair in her talons, lifted me into the air, and plunged into the lake of fire.
I scarcely credit what happened next, and I was there!
The bird took me deep into the fiery depths, where huge creatures swam, their scaled bodies glowing blue and violet. Those hell-beasts gave her a wide berth, though, for which I was truly thankful. Down, down she carried me, until I saw a wavering barrier approach, as if I were surfacing to daylight from a dive into a swimming hole.
We burst through, and I cried out with fright. For below me lay the entirety of the wide world, a broad disc of blue and green floating upon an endless sea of black. The phoenix continue her plunge, until I made out mountains, a waterfall, a river running between high cliffs, a mule munching on a wad of sugarflowers. In a flash, the phoenix carried me into a cave in West Grenna.
The next morning, or maybe the morning after, I awoke just inside the entrance to that cave, naked as the day and chilled from stones to bones.
I climbed down into the open world, worried that Teena had run off or been eaten. But there she was rubbing her hind quarter on an outcrop of rock. I dug into her pack for spare clothes and a chunk of hardtack, then settled down for a good think.
Though my failure to capture the bird consigned my dear grandmother to live out her life wracked with pain, I could not begrudge the bird her life. Til made each of us for a purpose, and hers was not to surrender her heart for a healing salve.
As I philosophized, I scratched my head. And I discovered this stuck into the curled crop of singe on my scalp.
A phoenix feather!
Ain’t it a beauty?
A peculiar thing, this feather. I can’t explain it, but it don’t burn up. And here is the best part.
You put this lone feather into your pillow, and you’ll always rest your head on the cool side.
What’s that you say?
Oh, I wouldn’t think of it. Unless . . .
No, forget it.
Are you sure? I wouldn’t want to offend you. This is rare, after all.
Well . . . how much have you got?