The Firebird Prince

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Araysh was in nothingness.

It was not dark, it was not illuminated; there was no sound yet it was not silent either. There was no feeling--no pain, no confusion, no peace, no happiness. He saw nothing and everything at once; he was not standing, sitting or lying down; he just existed.

There was just nothing.

But then there came a sound--a voice, rather, deep and rich, and it said:

It is not yet your time.

Araysh woke up.

He came to with a choked scream.

He cut it off, sucking in a terrified breath as his hands curled into the ground, chest heaving.


Before he could make sense of it, he realised that even though his eyes were open wide, he could see nothing, just complete, all-consuming darkness.

Terror struck deep. Where was he?

Araysh forced himself to calm down, to take in his surroundings and analyse the situation. He pressed his fingers into the ground and found that it was soil—his fingers broke through the grains easily. The walls were similar, and a sneaking suspicion crept up.

Araysh’s heart started to pound as he slowly raised his hand above himself, and—

His hand hit solid soil.

His breath stuttered, mind reeling for a moment. No.

This could not be happening. Terror shuddered through him, his ming trying to dispel it with denial: no, no, no

Araysh’s breath now came in quick, panicked gasps, but air still didn’t reach his lungs. He pushed blindly at the roof of earth, all reason beyond him.

He just had to get out.

“Oh, God,” he gasped, almost a sob. “Oh God, oh God, oh God.”

He could not calm down, could not comprehend what was happening, could not think, could not breathe The walls pressed on him, unyielding, suffocating. Araysh pounded on the roof, almost crying.

They had buried him alive.

Hysteria bubbled up and he started clawing on the mud, desperate and delirious with terror. Dirt fell on him and went into his eyes; he clutched at them, squeezing them tight as they burnt, momentarily blinded.

His heart was racing so fast he wondered how it had not given out already. Adrenaline rushed in his blood, blurring his thoughts, taking away all sense. Now completely hysterical, Araysh tried to scream for help, but all that came out was a hoarse squeak.

Araysh let out a sob of terror, chest heaving as he desperately sought air.

He squeezed his eyes shut and dug his fingers into the dirt, scratching and scraping, not daring to breathe as one thought circled in his head, over and over again.

Get out, get out, get out.

It was the only thing that mattered.

He sobbed with relief as his fingers broke through the mud. Dirt showered everywhere, but Araysh kept going, turning his face away, mouth and eyes clamped shut.

Finally, his fingers broke through.

Araysh’s breath left him in a whoosh. Relief seared through his veins and he pushed with renewed vigor, not daring to breathe.

Come on, Araysh.

In the haze of adrenaline, it seemed like a mere second passed before he had clawed a hole through the dirt. He stretched his shaking hands out, feeling the air bite at it and nearly sobbing when he felt sunlight on his fingers. He braced himself, clutching at the grass and pulling himself up.

One minute, all he could see was his own desperation—but the next, sunlight was blinding him and it had never been more welcome.

For a whole minute, Araysh lay in the grass, staring at the blue, blue sky, fingers curled into grass that had never seemed softer. He closed his eyes, breathing in the smell of leaves and flowers, the sound of birds, the whisper of wind.

Oh, thank God, thank God, thank anyone who’s listening.

Then Araysh sat up but immediately winced, hand drifting to his arm. He had almost forgotten about the wounds there but now they clamoured for attention, flaring painfully.

As he gingerly peeled away his shirt, bitterness flooded his mouth. Nina. She had done this—she had killed him.

His thoughts went back to the iron room, but as panic rose, he forcefully cleared his head. Another thing to add to the trauma list, Araysh thought resentfully, fingers clenching around his wounds. Then he shook his head, focusing again on what really mattered.

His wounds were still bleeding sluggishly, and he briefly wondered how he was still alive. By all means, he should have bled out—but then, he thought, how could I bleed when my heart wasn’t even beating?

A shudder went down his spine. He had really died—no heartbeat, no breath, no awareness. For him to be buried, he must have been taken to the King first, and would they bury him while he was still alive?

Would they be so cruel?

Even if they were that cruel, Araysh didn’t think the King would be that stupid. If he had known Araysh was alive, he wouldn’t have taken the risk of Araysh waking up and escaping.

He would have finished him off first.

He had been dead, but now he was alive.

Araysh pressed a hand to his chest. How is that even possible?

Nina’s meager ability to see the future, his magic, dark magic and odd spells aside—bringing someone back to life? What could possibly have the power to do that? Whose voice had that been, the one that had whispered to him in that void?

Questions aside, Araysh had to get himself somewhere safe. He couldn’t risk some soldier on patrol finding him here—he would only be dragged right back to the King, where the fate that waited him was all to clear.

And Araysh had no interest in confirming his suspicions.

Allowing himself just one more moment to brace himself, Araysh ripped his shirt sleeve between his teeth to make strips of bandages—he had to make do with makeshift bandages until he had access to proper first aid.

Araysh grimaced at the burst of pain as he tied the strips tightly around his wound, then took a moment to collect himself.

Alright, you big idiot, he thought, time to get going.

He heaved himself up but then staggered, suddenly dizzy. A stab of pain pounded through his head and he winced and pressed at his eyes. God, I need water.

But if he didn’t know where he was, how was he supposed to get anywhere?

Then he scoffed at himself, marvelling at how big an idiot he was. There were other ways to gauge his location.

First, he took in his surroundings. He was clearly in a forest; the sun was to his right and was setting--west to his right, east to his left. It was a bit chilly, too--he guessed he was towards the east of Karam, near the Kuori Mountains, probably. Ah, yes. There they were--the mountains in the distance. Araysh reached out a hand and rubbed a tree leaf between his fingers. Conifer, he thought. Which forest have conifer trees?

Then he got it. He was probably in the forest just outside the mountains, in the outskirts of Lin Odun. Makes sense. I had to be near the castle somewhere.

So now, he had to head to his boss’ house--which was tricky, considering that it was just outside the castle. But he wasn’t an assassin without being incredibly stealthy.

He curled his fingers around the leaf and violently ripped it from the tree. “Nina,” he growled, setting his jaw. “Oh, Nina, here I come.”

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