A Morning In The Embers

The dawn’s light cut through ornate temple windows, casting winding shadows all along the floors and walls. A young woman sits in a shadowy corner, keeping her attention to her hands. Flames dance across her fingertips, leaping up to catch what little extra oxygen they can reach. She turns her hands over, watching them twist and sweep about to stay vertical.

‘Child.’ A deep voice cuts through the room. A monk stands in the doorway, his broad frame taking up most of it. A flash of brown-black hair sweeps back over his head, tied into a ponytail. A regal red bird sits upon his shoulder, completely silent. Claws press into his robes made of a light, vibrant material. A reflection of the Temple of the Phoenix. He sounded impatient. She must not have heard him call her the first time. Surely. He gestures down the hall behind him. ‘The ritual is ready. Come.’

She stands, patting out the fire on her clothes. The ragged ashen fabric shows she’s done this often. She strides past him without sparing him a second glance.

‘Child, remember,’ the monk follows after her. ‘This trial cannot be overcome with raw power. You face the very notion of fire itself. Sustenance. Destruction. Metamorphosis. The necessary balance of

‘I know, Fez,’ the girl huffs. She reaches up to her ear just as her caretaker notices the pebbles in them. She plucks one out, bringing the cord connecting them behind her neck before they clack together magnetically. She pulls a small tablet out of her baggy robes, feeding the cord into a small hole in the top, and the earbuds snap taut to it.

The monk snatches the music player out of her hands, showing restraint. ‘Hephaestus. You will honour your elders. This is important, child.’

‘I’ll call you Hephaestus when you call me Rhona,’ she runs her hand through her fiery orange ponytail. ‘I already know the ritual. I’ve been waiting twelve years for this.’

Hephaestus cuts in front of her, putting a hand to her shoulder. His anger shows in his burning fingertips. When she winces, he lets her go, cursing his lack of self control. ‘I will stop calling you child when you stop acting like one. This impatience will get you killed. The Leyline is not some playground. It is a reflection of your heart. You must guide your emotions and draw the phoenix to you. But your emotions control you. They will drag you to the phoenix, and from there, it is impossible to escape.’

Rhona shoots him a scornful glare. ‘Then you and Prometheus will finally be rid of me. Everyone gets what they want.’

Hephaestus pulls back, stung by his brother’s words. He deflates immediately. ‘He does not see in you what I see. Your mother entrusted you to me, and you are her daughter. I see how easily you embrace the flames. You have greatness in you. You can become even more than the next Phoenician. If you would just heed my warnings. Please.’

Her anger dulls, and she takes a deep breath, centring herself. They continue down the hall, and Hephaestus holds out Rhona’s music player. She presses it to his chest. ‘Keep it. I don’t want to break it in there.’

They enter the rotunda, and Rhona takes a long look across the room. The Mantles of Flame stand in a circle, evenly spaced, facing the great gemstone in the centre. A Leyline crystal.

A lone monk beyond the mantles stands next to a panel, the technician for the portal housing. He flips some switches and the mechanisms around the crystal rise. A pair of metal arms separate, wrapped around the crystal, holding a ring facing Rhona.

‘Brothers and sisters.’ From behind the crystal, Prometheus, the highest mantle, strides around Rhona. ‘Today we gather to witness an ascension! Sister Rhona will seek the truest flame, the very notion of fire! Should she succeed, she will take up the mantle of the truest master of fire magic. The Phoenician!’

The monks give a soft round of applause for Rhona’s oncoming ascension. She almost feels impressed by how much Prometheus can pretend to support someone he hates. She gives the gathered monks a smile and wave. ‘Thanks e

‘She will peer deep into the Leyline, and finally learn what so many of us have before: Strength; wisdom; humility.’ There it is. ‘She will learn the importance of discipline, and respect. Selflessness, and

‘Manners?’ Her interruption earns a glare from Prometheus. Rhona holds back a smile, and in the circle, someone struggles to stifle a laugh.

‘If we’re lucky,’ the elder turns back to his audience. ‘Let us send her off with well wishes, and may she become the bright flame that this temple needs.’

Prometheus returns to his position behind the crystal. Rhona takes her turn to address the crowd. ‘Thank you everybody. I really appreciate you all for helping me with this.’

‘I must be certain,’ Hephaestus draws Rhona’s attention to him. ‘Show me the glyph of capture.’

Rhona sighs, then sweeps her arms in circles. Flames swim into a circular symbol lined with a long unspoken tongue. Hephaestus nods, and Rhona dissipates the symbol with a shrug.

Hephaestus pats her on the shoulder. ‘When you’re ready, light the ring.’

He steps back into the circle of monks, and brings his hands together. The brothers beside him mimic the motion, and when the mantles synchronise, a burning ring surrounds Rhona and the device. She takes a deep breath, and with a thrust, fire leaps from her fist.

It swallows up the metal ring, spreading across brass rods lining the interior of the arms. The crystal glimmers in the flames, and beneath it, the stone of the floor catches alight. In an instant, waves of fire bellow off of Rhona, and everything beyond disintegrates in the impossible blaze. As far as the eye can see, the world burns, mountains on the horizon trembling and leaping like the very fires swirling around her. Stones on the ground flicker and dance in the roiling heat.

Catching the gust of Rhona’s spirit, they twist and writhe, folding arms and legs out of their once solid form. The stones push upright and newly formed jaws cough fire, focusing on their fuel source. The burning fiends leap from beyond the ring, and Rhona spins, catching each of them on the head with her fists. The creatures shatter, and within moments, the stones twist again, trying to find form.

Rhona takes a deep breath and exhales, waves of flame smoothing the ground around her. With the threats dispatched, she sits, crossing her legs into a meditative pose. She reaches inward, and the terrain shifts. Flames climb, forming new stones around her. Soon, the Temple of the Phoenix rises above her head again, built of her own will, just as practised.

She furrows her brow, then opens her eyes. The phoenix is nowhere to be seen. She closes her eyes again, trying to draw this idea into reality, but nothing works. The temple walls crack, showing the wear created by her frustration.

Her anger peaks, and she sends out a shockwave, toppling the temple to start over. She closes her eyes and focuses on the home of the phoenix. The flames swirl again, bound to her heart.

She opens her eyes, and her blood runs cold. The flames shrink away, amplifying the familiar scenery around her. She sits in a path carving through a dense forest. Up the path, she sees a secluded cabin. Home. She makes practised motions, trying to guide the flame, but when embers jump to tear away at her memories, she hesitates. Smoke swallows up her surroundings, and she coughs violently.

She strikes at the fog, and a fiery wind pushes the smoke away. But the heat tickling at her back tells her those flames were not hers. She turns, and before her stands a figure clad in leather. She’s draped in a feathered cloak, and under the hood rests a birdlike mask. The garb of the last Phoenician, Idonia. Her mother. Rhona’s heart catches in her throat at the sight.

‘My child,’ she places a soft hand on Rhona’s face. Rhona nearly falls into her, overwhelmed. ‘Tell me, what do you see in my flame?’

The words feel hollow, and Rhona’s heart sinks. The Leyline is a reflection of the heart.

She grits her teeth. ‘I see my goals realised.’

Her mother draws her gaze. ‘And what are your goals?’

‘To become the next Phoenician.’ There’s a catch in Rhona’s voice.

‘And what will becoming my Phoenician bring you?’

Rhona’s eyes fall to the ground, she struggles to answer. ‘Closure.’

The flames around them rise, and her mother’s face hardens. ‘Your heart burns. Give it words.’

Rhona clenches her fists, and the flames rise higher. ‘I want justice. The church of Solaris took my mother’s life.’

‘Tell me,’ the Phoenix’s shadow covers Rhona. ‘Who held the knife?’

The forest ignites, and Rhona drives a burning fist into the stomach of the Phoenix. Rhona slides back, unable to move the fiend. Rhona shifts her footing, swiping at her mother’s doppelganger with an uppercut. The phantom woman leans back, effortlessly dodging the blow. She sweeps her arms, sending the cape twirling. Feathers flutter off of the cape and burst into flames, knocking Rhona back.

When Rhona rights herself, she sees the battle stance of the Phoenix Templar. She readies her own stance and the two crash into one another, each sending gouts of fire just wide of their opponent. The Phoenix spins, and again Rhona is caught in the blast of burning feathers.

Rhona works her way onto her feet again, and in a swirl of flame, dons the Phoenician garb. She rushes in, and again, they dance around one another, trying to land a blow. The Phoenix scores the first blow across Rhona’s face. Then another, a kick to the thigh, destabilising her enough to catch a palm to the chin. Rhona redoubles her efforts, but her anger is her undoing. The phantom catches the draft of Rhona’s flames, completely outmanoeuvring her and sending the poor girl tumbling into a tree.

The trunk explodes, and the tree tips into the Phoenix’s waiting hand. She leaps up and hurls it at the hunched Rhona. The girl’s rage finally benefits her as she blasts the tree to splinters. However, she’s blindsided, felled by another punch from the doppelganger.

‘Your mother was immortalised as a fearless warrior. A champion,’ The fiend looks down at Rhona, taunting her. ‘But you know she died a coward, years after defeating Solaris. You learned just how entwined the Leyline is to the Palpable. Tell me, Rhona. Who held the knife?’

Rhona roars, launching herself at her aggressor. Her tackle lands, and she slams the doppelganger onto the jagged tree stump. The sight is sickening, but Rhona steels herself. She stands, then draws the capture glyphs into the air. The Phoenix bursts into flames, and a new body leaps from the flames, knocking Rhona onto her back. ‘Well done! Your first blood!’

Rhona struggles, forcing the phantom off of her only to have her cape grabbed. The fiend continues to mock her. ‘Tell me, little bloodsucker, who do you seek vengeance on? The twice-dead corpse of Solaris? All His little believers? Everyone? Good! Become the Phoenician! Become everything they feared, and burn all that is Palpable into oblivion! Free yourself!’

The Phoenix whirls on her heel, swinging Rhona into another tree. Planting a boot on Rhona’s face, the fiend yanks the cape, pulling it tight around Rhona’s throat. Again, the phantom roars. ‘Free yourself!’

Rhona writhes in agony, torn by the cruel words spat from her mother’s once soft voice. Her dreams of finding justice for her mother become twisted, and soon she envisions the monster she would be, laying waste to town and city alike. The fiend was right. All that fear and hatred surrounding the Phoenician. It would corrupt her, just like it had her mother. She would fall into despair, and either follow her mother to the grave, or become something far worse.

The fire dwindles, and the Phoenix stomps Rhona’s face into the ground. The forest around Rhona becomes brittle, embodying the crushing weight of her broken dream. She could never become the Phoenician. She could never make things right. More and more of the inferno snuffs out with her waning strength. The ground gives way beneath her, and the phantom lets go of Rhona’s cape. Rhona fades into the darkness.

She falls. For how long, she couldn’t tell. The void around her is a biting cold. She pushes heat to her fingertips, but it seeps right out. Her will falters. Her raw potential is just a flash in the pan compared to the supernova of the Leyline.

The darkness deepens, and within it, something catches her eye. Some withering embers have followed her into the abyss. They fall alongside her, just out of reach. She stares at them, listless. What’s the point? Mom saved the world and all she got was demonised. The temple were the only people that seemed to care. Who even cares about me? Will I be missed? Hephaestus was the only person left, and even then…

She drifts through the Leyline, and now more than ever, she feels truly alone. Tears fill her eyes, and she trembles, in desperate need of a hug. Something, anything. Just warmth. A desperate idea crops up, and she leans out, scooping the ashes to herself. She holds them tight to her chest, just beneath her neck. She flinches as some of the still burning cinders bite at the exposed skin under her mask. The sensation draws her back to the scolding near sunrise. ‘You have greatness in you. You can become even more than just the next Phoenician. … Please.’

Rhona grips the embers in hand, setting her arm ablaze. The inferno surges through her body, and she rockets upward, crashing back through the false forest floor. Her explosive entrance uproots the tree she’d been pinned against, and it tips. The Phoenix bats the tree aside as it falls, and Rhona gets her opening.

She swoops, slamming into the doppelganger’s chest. They tumble, and the fiend grasps frantically for purchase on Rhona. She gets a grip on the cape and yanks. Rhona shoves her off, and when the cape goes taut it snaps free, sending the Phoenix tumbling.

Rhona drives her fists into the ground, and flames jump up, hardening into white hot steel gauntlets. She leaps at the prone Phoenix, arms wide. The Phoenix makes a practised dodge, only to be caught in the side. The gauntlets’ fingers end in claws, digging into leather and flesh alike. They swirl, the Phoenix trying to shake Rhona loose, and Rhona gaining momentum to bring the other claw around. The phantom meets her mark first, driving a boot into Rhona’s mask.

It crumbles as a new mask clamps down, sharp teeth digging through the tough leather of the doppelganger’s boot. It looks something like a skull, with sharp, exaggerated features akin to a cat. Flames pour from under the hood, wreathing the skull in a wicked orange light. With the fiend’s leg pinned, Rhona gouges her claws into the Phoenix’s thigh, hurling her down onto her neck.

Rhona stands over the broken doppelganger, looking at her molten claws. ‘You’re right. The Phoenician has become corrupted. There’s no future in that name. I have to be more than that. Better.’

The Phoenix ignites, bursting forth from broken flesh anew. She swipes violently at Rhona, who ducks the swings, sweeping beneath her. Her clawed hand catches on one of the phantom’s legs, pulling her aground. Rhona leans forward, belching fire onto the downed warrior. Again, the Phoenix rises, and again, she’s caught up in Rhona’s claws and thrown to the forest floor with a sickening crunch. 

Rhona huffs, sounding more like a snarl through her feline mask. This time when the phantom leaps, Rhona erupts, tearing away the forest surrounding them. Her leather armour hardens, and when the Phoenix crashes into her, Rhona snatches her out of the air. The tatters of Rhona’s cape are set ablaze, swirling into the capture glyphs, wrapping around the fiend in her grasp.

The whole realm swells with fire, and Rhona comes bursting back out of the Leyline, slamming her molten quarry to the ground. She works quickly, and the swirling flame of Leyline energy is given form. From the embers, a brilliant lion with a burning mane rears onto its hind legs, loosing a fiery roar. Her mission completed, Rhona scratches under her new familiar’s mane, pulling him close.

The elders approach Rhona, cautious of her strange leonine familiar. Hephaestus puts a hand on Rhona’s shoulder. ‘What happened?’


In Hephaestus’s study, Rhona sits on the floor with her great burning lion wrapped around her. She scratches his head vigorously. ‘I’m thinking Flash. How’s Flash sound, buddy?’

The beast mewls, headbutting and snuggling up to her. Rhona looks at Hephaestus, who has been quiet for several minutes now. ‘Fez?

‘You’ve given me much to contemplate, child.’ He’s drawn out of space for a moment, then thinks about what he said. ‘…Rhona. You’ve given me much to contemplate, Rhona.’

‘You couldn’t just come out of the portal with a damn bird, could you?’ Prometheus leans on a bookshelf, rubbing his temples.

‘Not for lack of trying, thank you,’ she huffs and hugs her familiar’s neck.

‘There have always been theories that mass belief can alter reality. To believe that Idonia was feeling some sort of strain,’ Hephaestus rests his head in his hands. ‘The Solaris faith has become dangerous in ways we hadn’t even considered.’

‘So what do we do now?’ Prometheus looks between Rhona and his brother. ‘Can we raise the phoenix again, knowing what we know? Should we?’

Rhona locks her eyes to the floor, deep in thought. ‘We need to find out just how substantial this effect is.’

Hephaestus looks up. ‘What would you suggest?’

Rhona leans forward. ‘I guess the best word for it would be a pilgrimage. Travel the world, view the Leyline beneath. See if there is some proof of a change.’

‘The electromancers,’ Prometheus stands straight. ‘I’d read that the electromancers kept records of all manner of things. Weather patterns, air quality, the cohesion between the Leyline and Palpable space. That might be a good place to start.’

‘Rhona.’ Hephaestus looks at her with a powerful intensity. ‘Today you’ve done the impossible. It pains me to add to your heavy burden, but as the new flame incarnate, can we entrust this to you?’

Rhona digs into Flash’s mane, absentmindedly giving him heavy neck scritches. ‘You can count on me.’

She stands, and Flash joins her, getting in a mighty stretch. ‘I guess I’ll go gather my things.’

She adjusts a strap on her armour, and Hephaestus catches a glimpse of melancholy on her face. ‘Hey.’

Rhona looks up just in time, barely saving her music player from hitting the floor behind her. She gives Hephaestus an exasperated glare. He shrugs. ‘Don’t forget that.’

‘And send me a message from time to time.’ He fiddles with his hands, searching for the right words. ‘…To let me know you’re alright.’

His worry overwhelms Rhona, and she rushes up to him, pulling him into a tight hug. ‘Thanks, Fez.’

She pauses for a moment, then corrects herself. ‘Dad.’

Hephaestus is taken aback, and he clings to her arm. Tears roll down his face. ‘I love you, Rhona. Please be safe.’

‘I love you too. And I’ll be sure to call you when I get there,’ she leans back, and they share a teary smile. She bounds to her familiar, and hops onto his shoulders.

‘B- D-Do not ride that thing through the halls you–’ The great burning lion rears onto its hind legs and roars, drowning out Prometheus’s complaint. The monstrous animal tears down the hallway, and Prometheus throws his hands in the air. ‘Fffeathers, that child.’

‘She’ll be alright,’ Hephaestus smiles softly and tidies his desk. ‘We’re living in historic times, brother. We’ve seen the last Phoenician.’

He eases up against his chair, looking at the cat-shaped scorch mark on the floor. ‘And now, the first Lionheart.’

About the Author

Christa Michelle O’Connor is an author and artist, plagued with an ever-shifting tide of ideas. An uncultured American, she’s best described as all around filthy. Her goal is to spread her vile ideas far and wide, until they’re seen as bog standard.