“The greatest moment to live is the one just before we die.”
–Excerpt from The Twelve Sonnets of Melwin Skyloved
Flight – the process of moving through air by means of wings; traveling through a portion of space with a modicum of control and intent; a group of aircraft or avian touring together as a single unit; the act of falling with suicidal optimism.
Valeo’s flight contained every ounce of optimism he possessed.
His shirt billowed as he flipped end over end, and, for the briefest of moments, he could fly. Valeo closed his eyes and burned that feeling forever into his memory.
There was a brief glance of the ship’s rich hull, and it was gone. Everything began registering with incredible clarity, Valeo feeling his surroundings on a level he never thought possible. It wasn’t as if time had slowed down—it blazed by, same as ever—but when he knew he could die at any moment, he no longer took that time for granted.
The way his father’s belt cinched just above his hips, how the soft cotton of his shirt slapped his shoulders in the wind . . . he felt every thread. Even the act of falling took its leisure. Sky stretched on, broken only by wisps of cloud and hunks of broken island.
Blinking back wind-pressed tears, he saw hundreds of the giant birds. Each colorful wing joint rippled as it thumped against the current. Their slender necks pivoted in perfect unison, tilting and changing course effortlessly. They were spectacular, a rainbow of form and style. For an instant, Valeo forgot he was an airborne barrel of bones. Even death held no meaning compared to the wonders before him now.
He spread his arms and feet out wide.
Fleetfoot or not, Valeo didn’t like to put stock in his luck. He liked to think he was the sole arbiter of what he could or could not do. He trained constantly and worked harder than anyone. The thought that he should rely on his luck was detestable.
As he plummeted now, Valeo hoped for all the luck he could get.
How the Fayt am I supposed to do this?
Even if he could find the breath to scream through the force of wind, Valeo didn’t think he could utter a sound.
Wings became streaks. All the different hues swirled until he didn’t know where one bird ended and the next began. It was a spiraling cascade of color on the backdrop of living sky.
Going to die.
Valeo was now moving so fast he could hardly keep his eyes open. Bullets of black, red, and gold shot by. He stretched out even farther, ready to grab for anything he could.
For the love of every apple on Sora’s shores, let me hit a damn bird.
The distance closed. Valeo screamed. There was a streak of golden blue, and all the air in his lungs evaporated as an explosion erupted in his gut.
When You Follow Your Heart, Not Even Your Mind Can Catch You
The boy had only seven or eight years to him, sitting quietly at the simple table, unaware he was drawing away his final moments. He had talent. The countless portraits peppering the walls showed staggering progression, attention to detail, and a stubborn desire for perfection. That skill had no business being in a boy his age, yet here it was.
His focus was absolute, his nose growing closer to the sketch—a figure staring out over the horizon—with every line. The unexpected, yet inevitable, sneeze brought the boy’s forehead slamming down onto the table. He came up quickly, rubbing his forehead and peering around. His mother let out a tinkling laugh, proving his worst fears.
“Hummingbird, I don’t think I can like your pictures any more than I already do. Even if you do hit them with your head.” She laughed again, though the sound was somewhat forced. Her waist-length hair was pure white, but not the white of age, for she was still quite young. It was natural and vibrant, the color of a cloud that births a rainbow.
“Mom, shush! Didn’t mean to,” the boy complained, still rubbing his forehead furiously. His blush was as red as his hair, at least the patches that weren’t white like his mother’s.
“Yes, sir!” she said, saluting him, still grinning.
The smile didn’t last, the silent anxiety creeping up into her lips as she glanced again at the antique clock hanging on the wall.
A wiry Fleetfoot man burst into the kitchen. He was an intellectual sort, with the strange, tanned pallor of someone who was meant to spend most of his time indoors but refused to. With lopsided spectacles perched on a long nose, he was still somewhere near the prime of his youth, and wore a close-cropped wine-red beard that matched his hair. On most days, he would be considered handsome, but now terror lit his face and ghosts filled his eyes.
His expression loosened as he surveyed his family, almost relieved by the woman and the boy, as if he could never take seeing them for granted. It was a fleeting instant, quickly replaced with a mask of horror.
“We have to go. She’s found us.”
The woman didn’t seem to understand at first. Then dread struck, matching the eyes of her bespectacled husband penny for pound.
“How?” She almost smiled, unable to comprehend. “We were safe.” Her smile faltered. “We were safest here, right under her nose!” She almost shrieked the last few syllables.
“We were wrong,” he whispered. The weight of his words struck harder than any blow.
“B-but what about . . .” she started, choking on the words, hands grasping for her son, frozen halfway out of his chair.
“We have to run”—his voice cracked, as if every syllable weighed a milestone— “. . . and he can’t come with us.”
The rage was thunderbolt, the woman’s once sparkling green eyes turning a fiery, blooded violet. “I know.”
“There’s a plan,” the man said hastily. “Know you’ll be far from fond of it, but we aren’t left with many choices. Not anymore.” He signaled toward the hall.
A burly old man cowered into view like a dog struck by a whip. He saw the woman’s eyes and seemed to regret his entrance, glancing back toward the door.
“Wait, Jakk!” The bespectacled man held up a hand. “Remember why you’re here, what must be done.” He was now standing between his wife and the old man. “Mira, listen to me. We—”
She took a step forward and punched him with all her might. He staggered backward, glasses flying off his nose.
“How dare you!” she screamed. “There was no choice left, but I would never have believed you actually willing to do this. Dom, you know what this man did to me.” She raised her hand again. “No.”
“Now wait a minute,” the old man began, puffing up. The look she gave him withered the tongue between his teeth.
“Mira, listen to me,” Dom began.
“I said no.”
“Dammit, Mi! Use your head!” Dom roared, a flash of rage flaring to match his wife’s. “You knew our time would soon be spent. We must let him go, give our son the only chance we can . . .”
He turned and fetched his glasses, using the act to calm himself, but his fingers were still shaking as he brought them to his face.
“Mi, the guards will be here soon, and we all must be long gone by the time they are,” Dominic choked, his glasses slightly askew. The left lens was cracked, but not enough to hide the tears brimming underneath. “This is the only way we save our son.”
Mira’s face fell, shoulders slumping. She closed her eyes. The moment lengthened while everyone watched her reaction. Finally, her head rose. She nodded almost imperceptibly before turning to face the old man. He was the biggest among them but cast the smallest shadow now. She glared hard, eyes piercing thought and bone.
The only person in the room devoid of any emotion at all was the boy. He was utterly still.
Dominic rushed toward his son, dropping to his knees to embrace him. The rough hair of Dominic’s beard scratched his cheeks, but the boy only stood slack as his father hugged him for the last time. He felt cold metal as his father pressed something into his hands—a final gift.
The woman’s composure shattered. She ran to the old man, all anger forgotten. Grabbing his thick arm, she began to plead. “Jakk, take care of my son. He may be quiet, but he is so smart.” She spoke fast, trying to fit a lifetime of knowledge in a few precious moments. “He loves drawing, so get him paper and charcoal, as much as you can.” She sobbed, gripping his arm like a vise. “You’ll have to take it slow; he can’t run very well. If you take the cliffside passes, remind him not to look down. He’s afraid. He won’t like flying on a ship but will do it if you ask.”
She turned, reaching for her son one final time.
“Remember, Jakk. Remember what I told you,” Mira said as she hugged her son. “Do not fail in this.” The old anger flared, a wound that could never heal.
“I won’t,” the old man rumbled, his voice husky and wavering. “I promise. And, Mira . . .” Tears began streaming down his tanned and aged face. “. . . I’m sorry.”
She wasn’t listening, eyes only for her son. “My little Hummingbird.” She brushed the hair out of his eyes, smoothing cheeks devoid of all the tears coursing down her own. His eyes were glassy, confused. She waited for them to lock onto her before she spoke.
“Listen to me, Hummingbird. I can’t know all of tomorrow, no matter how hard I try, but we will be together again.” She gripped him tightly to her chest, hoping to brand the feel of him into her arms. “Follow your feet, and we’ll meet you at path’s end. One day.
“With all that love can bear, I promise you this.”
As the boy was whisked from the house, he didn’t speak. He looked back over his shoulder, only able to watch, terrified, as his home began to burn, great tendrils of flame clawing at the sky as they tore his life asunder. His father stood silhouetted in the doorframe, head bobbing with wracking waves of tears even as his hands gripped the lighter. His mother was on her knees in the little yard in front of the growing inferno, hands outstretched toward her son, doing nothing to close the increasing gap between.
He wanted to tell her he loved her, wanted to tell her he would be strong, would be so fast. He wasn’t going to be afraid. Mostly, he wanted to tell her how much he was going to miss her apple turnovers. She was his one steady stone, and he didn’t think he could stand to be without her. He wanted to say he loved her with everything he had, but he didn’t.
It was the last time he ever saw his mother and father again, and Valeo never said a word.
It was the only thing Valeo could think as his eyes flashed open. He couldn’t inhale. Under him was a struggling mass, but he had no idea what it was. He could see open space and, at the corner of his vision, a solid shard of molten sky.
Just let me breathe.
There was a sharp tug on the tail of his shirt, jerking him upright with a sickening slice of pain across his back. His lungs unlocked and he heaved a gasping squeal, looking up into blinding sunlight.
Clouds rushed past the bright, sapphire sky. The whole world was moving . . . except it wasn’t the world, it was him.
Albatross were everywhere. They seemed big from far off, but were absolutely enormous close up. All around, multihued wings, easily twenty feet across, flexed and rippled in the wind.
He was also sitting on one of them. Slow off the line as he was, the Albatross had certainly noticed him. It lashed at his face with its gigantic hooked beak, pulling at his clothes.
Its feathers were an incredible shimmer of blue sky the instant before the sun sets . . . no, the dazzling gold as the sun rises . . . Valeo couldn’t make up his mind. The colors flowed together until it was impossible to tell the difference.
Deep in the well of his groggy state, he just couldn’t catch up. As his mind clamored through the fog, he just stared at the Albatross in awe.
Thick muscles rippling, it peered back at him through orbs of cold silver. Its face was menacing, showing more emotional range than a bird should be capable of creating.
He felt he should be ecstatic, should be alive with the fire of victory, but he couldn’t connect the pieces in his addled brain. So Valeo just smiled and waved. There was a shock of bright red feathers along the Albatross’ crown. That line of crimson seemed to be coming closer. Valeo couldn’t figure out why. Maybe it was playing a game. Maybe it was all a game. He even giggled a little. He was having such a pleasant time.
The bird slammed its skull into his, Valeo’s nose and forehead exploding in agony. He was thrown backward, hands scrabbling at fistfuls of stiff feathers and knees clenching hard to remain on his perch.
Valeo’s world spun, the humor now gone as the bird tried to fling him to his death. For a fleeting second, the sun was down and the shadows of Darksky were up. The Albatross veered left, its wings dropping down. It did the same thing in the other direction. Valeo swooned, holding on with all his might.
Only his calves and thighs had any real purchase; the rest of his body flailed between the effects of the wind and the bird’s maneuvers. He grabbed at feathers again, jerking several out. The bird screeched.
“Sorry, sorry! But you brought this on yourself. If you’d just relax, wouldn’t be happening now, would it?”
His mind began to clear as the fresh air whipped across his face. It could’ve been the fresh air, possibly the avian headbutt, or maybe the flips every few seconds meant to dislodge him to his death . . .
. . . No. Definitely the fresh air.
The great bird stiffened its wings, leveling off. Valeo contracted hard and pulled himself upright, securing a better hold for all four of his limbs. On baited breath, he waited to be thrashed about again. Except . . . it never came. As quickly as it had started, the great bird had ceased its attacks entirely.
Valeo had done it.
He laughed and sat up, blood trickling down the cuts on his back and his nose. “Well,” he shouted gleefully, “far easier than expected. You know, scary bird, it’s not so bad, jumping on the backs of giant beas—”
The bird lurched and shot straight down. Valeo’s stomach rocketed up and out his mouth as the Albatross spun in great arcs. Valeo, however, wasn’t spinning at all.
The truth hit him harder than the bird’s skull. The only thing he had ahold of now was an endless supply of sarcasm.
Both bird and man hurtled headfirst into endless shadow. Valeo looked down, which was now up, and up, which was now down. Every move a struggle, he glanced back at the Albatross still twirling a couple meters away. His options were now certain death or hop aboard the back of probably certain death.
With those odds, he was betting on the bird. He turned in the air, tightened his body, and angled hard toward the beast. The gap between them slowly began to close. Other Albatross whipped past as he fell, shrieking at him, one even snapping inches from his face.
The bird came out of its dive, but Valeo was still too far away. He willed himself to go even faster.
Come on! Come on!
The bird pumped its wings. Valeo was rocketing now, hair dancing atop his skull. He stretched his arms as far as they would go, reaching for anything he could get his hands on.
Scales brushed his fingertips. The Albatross let out another tremendous screech. Valeo shot right past it.
He was lost.
In the last instant, he closed his eyes and felt warmth bloom in his chest: his luck. An incredible sense of daring seized him, and he seized it right back. There was a tremendous jerk at his ankle. The sun, climbing into the morning sky, was under his feet, and then over his head, and then under his feet again.
Valeo looked toward his body. The blue-gold Albatross was flying upside down and chewing at something caught on its leg.
Well that’s weird.
No. It wasn’t flying upside down . . . he was upside down. The bird’s beak tore at a hempen knot caught on its talon. Oddly enough, that same length of hemp seemed stuck to his leg also.
“Oi, bird! Stop that!” he croaked, waving pathetically at the Albatross. It paused momentarily to look down at him, then resumed worrying at the knot.
Fear coursed through Valeo once again, putting fight back into his exhausted limbs. Grasping his ankle, he began pulling himself up the rope, every grab fire. Sweaty hands slipped on the third grab, tossing him back into space. Swinging wildly, eyes rolling, his gorge rose. The rope lurched as its braids began to give way. The bird was so intent on the knot it didn’t even notice the idiot human getting closer and closer, climbing its own leg.
More twine snapped, unraveling under the bird’s furious beak. Sheer adrenaline shot through Valeo’s gut, prickling down his arms into his bloody hands. The muscles in his forearms tensed, and he flung himself upward with all his might as the rope snapped free.
For a terrible instant, he thought he didn’t have enough in him to make it.
Hands latching onto feathers, Valeo scrambled up onto the giant’s back. Tears of exhaustion and terror flowed from his eyes onto the beast’s graceful neck. He was so tired he didn’t care what happened next, just thankful the Albatross had stopped attacking him for the time being. He wanted to lie there forever, bloody and exhausted.
A strange sensation began creeping up Valeo’s body. It started in his toes and worked its way slowly through every tired limb, thrilling and terrifying in tandem. It began to mount, gaining speed as his whole body began to vibrate. A heart attack? Maybe the damn bird was having the heart attack, and like everything else in their short relationship, passing that pain on to him. Whatever it was, it was going to kill him. Just as the vibrating became unbearable, when his life must surely end, the Albatross cried out, and Valeo looked up.
He never even saw the Albatross jerk, the back of its plumed neck ramming into his upturned head again. He tried to hold on, but if his fingers heard, they couldn’t respond. One by one, they slackened. With one final buck, Valeo was falling, the roar of wind rushing past his ears. Hundreds of shapes whipped by, this time no bigger than butterflies. His eyes drifted closed as he fell on the tailcoats of a dream, nothing to catch him this time but the embrace of darkness.
Down, down, down.