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Temple of the Sun, Heliopolis, Egypt -- 1976
They had been digging for three days, and still the famed feather eluded them.
Three days underground, away from the sun and the heat of day, away from the darkness and the cool of night, timeless and airless and stuffy with the enclosed scents of history. They followed footprints left in the sand of subterranean passages millennia ago and compared their own feet for size. They drew their fingertips along the walls and sniffed the dust in wonder. Somewhere in each intake of breath was the skin of long-dead men and, perhaps, the sheddings of things other than men. Each time they opened their eyes after a short sleep, they were filled with awe. And every time they closed their eyes, their dreams were of greatness.
If only they could find the feather, these dreams would come true.
Richard Blake sat and consulted the ancient Book of Ways given to him by his father. Its author, Zahid de Lainree -- doubtless a pseudonym designed merely to confuse -- had been a man of mystery and obfuscation, and Richard had become adept at casting brief spells of course to wend his way through the man's writings and diagrams. If the ancient text said left, it sometimes meant right; if it said up, it could mean down. And occasionally, instruction to search in this world could hint at delving into another. This chapter, this very page, had already brought them to the secret entrance of the true Temple of the Sun, a place undiscovered by archaeologists and all manner of explorers who had torn this land apart.
The brothers knew that the Book was filled with arcane secrets, but that did not dilute their frustration.
"Gal," Richard said, "I'm reading this right, I know I am. I don't understand!"
Richard's twin brother, Galileo Blake -- one wronged man named after another -- was sitting several feet along the passage, casting his flashlight around him. The splash of light illuminated tool marks on the tunnel walls and ceilings, cracks in the bedrock, little else. "These damn tunnels are here for a purpose," Gal said. "Nobody builds tunnels from nowhere to nowhere. There's no reason for it."
"No reason..." Richard said. "Perhaps that's it! Gal, maybe we've spent three days looking for a reason. We've been walking through mazes looking for the middle, but maybe there is no middle!"
Gal shone the flashlight directly into his brother's face and smiled when Richard cringed back. "Sometimes, Rich, you're full of shit."
"Yeah, but magic shit." Richard smiled and closed the book so he could think. After a few moments, he cast another spell of course, then opened the book again. He held the penlight between his teeth, flicked to the chapter he had been staring at for three days, and began to read between the lines.
An hour later, they found the feather.
"I told you!" Richard said. "I told you!"
"Yeah, yeah, nobody likes a smart-ass."
"But just look at it . . ."
They had followed the lines scratched into the walls as described, choosing direction from the hidden messages of Zahid de Lainree's text, and it had taken them only another hour to find the right place. It was where the carved lines stopped. The creature that had made those lines so many years ago -- its wings tucked in but still too wide for this narrow passage -- must once have stood exactly where they stood now.
A sudden breath of warm air haunted the passage, a ghost memory from another world.
Ten minutes of digging unearthed the feather, as long as a man's forearm, a stunning royal purple flecked gold at its tip. Many centuries of burial had done nothing to dull its vibrancy or beauty.
And now Gal held it out before him, and they both stared. They could do little else. Here was evidence, here was proof, here was the first of many testaments to mythology they needed to find over the coming years. Their father would be waiting, lurking in exile and still mourning their murdered mother. Here, at last, in this feather from a creature that most would insist had never existed, the potential for revenge had found form.
"You send it," Richard said.
"Me?" Gal's usually gruff voice was tinged with a hint of trepidation. Even fear.
"Yeah, I've been reading the book."
"That's because you're good at casting the spell of course. You can divine hidden meanings. I just see ink on a page; you see whole worlds."
Richard sighed. "I make out the theory of the Memory in Lainree's writing. You can actually touch it. You know you've always been better than me."
Gal sighed. "Well . . ."
Neither of them could look away from the feather.
Richard took it from his brother's hands. "Father will be so pleased," he whispered.
"Did you ever doubt him?"
Gal smiled, still gazing at the plume. "Never. But I think perhaps he doubted himself."
"This will put an end to that." Richard offered the feather back to his brother. There was power in that gesture of sharing, and trust.
"Yes. This is the beginning of everything." Gal placed it on the floor of the passage, and Richard stepped back to give his brother the room he needed.
Gal drew a rough shape in the sand, closed his eyes, and whispered a series of gruff, guttural words. Eyes still closed, he sought out the feather, lifted it, and placed it gently within the shape. Its spine was so hot to the touch that, at first, it felt ice-cold. Instantly the sand around Gal's feet began to glow and skip, like a million tiny fleas striving to reach his outstretched hands. The glow expanded, remaining weak yet still bright enough to read by.
Then the heat truly arrived.
"Hot," Richard whispered. The passage grew warmer, his vision began to swim, and within seconds he was gasping for air, lying down and staring sideways at his kneeling brother. "Hot!" Each breath scorched his throat, and he wondered how his clothes had not erupted into flame. Is this what it feels like to burn to death? he thought.
Gal muttered louder, felt the world grow dim around him, and as the phoenix feather flamed from this world and drifted gently through another, for a second he felt that other place. He sensed the Memory, the haunt of all mythical creatures, and he burst into an involuntary outpouring of grief and rage at the sadness radiating from there. It was a forgotten place whose very name emphasized the hopelessness of its existence. And it was dark, filled with drifting forms, many of them threatening and exuding menace, but only in the way that an old man will intimidate those younger than him with age, wisdom, and knowledge. They were fearful entities he saw, but ineffectual.
Ineffectual where they were now, at least.
The light faded, the heat withdrew, and Gal fell shivering to the floor of the passageway. If his hex of transmission had been right, the phoenix feather would be with his father even now. Given time, the light of revenge would begin to bleed into that darkened void.
As he withdrew from the Memory, he felt it shimmer with an echo of hope. His hope. And even through his tears, he smiled.
Copyright ©2006 by Mike Mignola