The tavern went silent as soon as the two strangers walked through the door. The bald one wore a scowl as dark as the icy gaze he was currently receiving. The one with the wide-brimmed navy blue hat beamed pleasantly, as if he was blissfully unaware of any tension.
“Never seen you around here before,” Nory said, from her place behind the bar.
“That’s because I’ve never been here before,” replied the one in the blue hat, casually making his way across the room and taking a seat at the bar, sliding a worn leather satchel off his shoulder and setting it gently on the counter. His smile never wavered despite the cold reception. “But one tavern is as good as any. My companion and I are looking for a drink and a place to sit for a spell. We’ll be out of your hair once we’ve finished.”
His companion hesitated, then followed him to the bar and plopped himself down onto a stool. His travelling pack hit the floor with a heavy thunk.
“Going to the mountains,” he said. His words were stilted and awkward, as if he spoke only to acknowledge that something should be said.
“There’s nothing in the mountains,” Nory said. She spoke too quickly for her own liking, and continued before the two men had a chance to respond. “What I mean is, this town’s not a stop on any road you folks would care about. I don’t know what you’ve heard, but the trail goes nowhere. There’s nothing out there but death and wilderness.”
“I know,” the first man said, placing his blue hat on top of his satchel. He threw his head back and ran a hand through thick brown tresses that already had a few strands of grey. He looked like he was trying to grow a thin goatee, but his face didn’t seem to be particularly invested in the cause. “Turns out that’s exactly what I’m looking for.”
Nory stopped. Whatever she was expecting, it wasn’t that. There was something disarming about the man’s uncanny ease.
“You came here to die?” she asked.
“Well, no,” the man said. “But I did come for an adventure. And a pint, if you can manage it.”
Nory shrugged, then grabbed two steins from the shelf behind her and filled both of them with amber ale. The room filled with a steady din as the rest of the tables returned to their conversations.
“You’ll have to forgive me,” she said. “We don’t get many visitors. I know every single person who walks through that door. So does everyone else sitting in this room. When we see someone we don’t know, it makes us all uncomfortable. We’re not the most gracious hosts.”
“Perfectly understandable,” the first man said, taking a sip of ale and licking the foam from his wispy mustache. The other man stared at his mug. “I grew up in a town much like this one. Makes me feel like I’ve come home to see old friends.”
“Not yet,” Nory said. “You got a name.”
“Rath,” the man replied. “I’m the most famous adventurer you’ve never heard of.”
“I’m Nory,” she said. Rath raised his pint in acknowledgement. “What about your friend here?”
The second man had barely stirred, and was still gazing sourly at his beer. Rath and Nory looked at him, but he waited a few moments before responding.
“Munch,” he said at last, without looking up. Rath sighed.
“You’ll have to excuse my companion,” he said. “We met on the ship to Sunpeak, and I decided to join him when I learned we were headed in the same direction. I find that conversation makes for easy travel, but Munch here has proven to be a bit of a disappointment.”
If Munch heard the insult, it didn’t seem to register.
“I can see that,” Nory said. “But that’s odd, isn’t it? We haven’t had a visitor in months, and now we get two of you on the same day. I know you didn’t come here for the beer.”
“Kill a bird,” Munch mumbled. Nory’s eyes shot out to the rest of the room, but the other tables seemed to be absorbed in their own conversations. Rath had placed his forehead in his palm.
“A bird?” Nory asked.
“I’m a hunter,” Munch said, finally looking up. His monotone voice had the rough consistency of sand. “Heard a story about a roc in the mountains. Came here to kill it.”
“Why?” Nory asked.
“I kill big things,” Munch replied. “Heard it was big.”
Nory gave him another glance. Munch certainly looked like he had wrestled with a barbcat once or twice. He also had the appearance of a thing that had been left too long in the mud. His face and head were covered in deep scars, including one that ran all the way from his left eye to his lip. His scraggly beard matched his worn leather armor and thick fur lapels, and he seemed to be missing the smallest finger on his right hand.
Rath, on the other hand, was dressed in a comfortable array of loose fitting colors, including a pair of maroon trousers and an unfortunate yellow shirt with a deep neckline that was open to his sternum. Despite his comical appearance, Nory couldn’t help noticing that he had a dagger tucked neatly into his leather belt. She turned back to Munch, but kept an eye on Rath.
“You’re probably talking about the Sunwing Roc,” she said. “But you’re wasting your time if you came here for that. No one has ever seen the thing. Every year a few hunters go up to the mountains to search for the mythic beast, but not a single one of them has ever returned.”
Munch’s eyes lit up.
“I could kill it,” he said. “That would make it safe.”
“Didn’t you hear me?” Nory asked. “There’s nothing in those mountains but rocks and dust.”
“There’s always something to kill in a place where people die.”
Rath perked up.
“Well done, Munch!” he said. “If I didn’t know you so well, I’d have said that was profound!”
“Not necessarily,” Nory said. “The desert is more dangerous than it seems.”
Munch ignored them both and sipped his ale. He seemed determined, as if nothing she could say would sway him from his chosen path. Rath seemed equally unmoved.
“The Roc might be a myth, but I’d still like to see the mountains for myself,” he said. “I’ve heard the view of the Azure is magnificent.”
Once again, Nory turned her attention to the dandy.
“Why did you come here, Rath? Did you come to chase a magic bird?”
Something in her tone gave Rath pause. He surveyed her coolly from behind his half-finished pint of ale, which he set down before he continued speaking.
“I’d heard rumors about a bird, certainly,” he said, choosing his words more carefully than before. “I don’t know that I had any notions of killing it. I try to avoid that bit, unless something is out there trying to kill me.”
“Well, like I said, there’s nothing,” Nory said again. “You’re risking your life on a fool’s errand.”
“That’s what makes it an adventure,” Rath said. “And like I said, I’ve heard the view is magnificent.”
Munch had downed the rest of his beer.
“I’m going to kill a bird,” he said, lifting his heavy travel pack up to his shoulder. He reached into his pocket and shoved a copper coin across the bar, then turned and made his way to the door. Rath sighed, then polished off his own pint and grabbed his satchel.
“That’s the trouble with hunters,” he said. “Always in such a rush. No one takes the time to enjoy a pint.”
Rath paid for his drink. “I really must apologize for his lack of manners. Thank you for the ale. One of the best I’ve had in months.”
“Wait!” Nory called out and tried to grab his arm, but Rath happened to step to the side and slid just out of her grasp. She left her post behind the bar and gave chase as Rath strode out the door. She nearly crashed into him when she burst through and found him standing at the edge of the stoop, staring up at something in the sky.
“I can’t let you do this,” she said. “You go up there, and—”
Nory followed Rath’s gaze, and trailed off once she saw what he was looking at. An enormous creature with two wings and four legs sat perched atop the clock tower in the town square. It wasn’t quite a bird—the beast had too many legs for that—but it was quite regal, with a tall crest and brilliant red plumage tinged with spots of silver and gold. Rath was watching the creature with a bemused look of wonder. Munch was eyeing it hungrily from the middle of the dusty street. The creature stared back impassively, as if it had some experience with men like Munch and had learned to judge them accordingly.
“Big bird,” Munch said.
“That it is,” Rath agreed. Munch reached into his pack and tried to grab a crossbow, but the bird spread its wings and climbed into the sky before he could load a bolt. The massive wings beat against the air, kicking up dust and sand with each push as the bird gained altitude. The wingspan was nearly ten feet across, and with a large dot of silver feathers in the middle of each wing.
“Feels like it’s watching you with those wings, doesn’t it?” Rath asked.
“Yes, it does,” Nory admitted. She got the sense that Rath was not at all surprised to learn the myth was real. The bird was now hundreds of feet above the ground, and flew towards the barren mountains to the north. They tracked it until it was little more than a speck on the horizon.
“Big bird,” Munch said again, this time directing the words to Nory with a munch more accusatory tone.
“The Sunwing Roc,” she corrected him. “And you don’t want to go after it. I’m sorry I lied, but it’s like I said. Many hunters have gone after it. Not a single one of them has ever returned. You go into into those mountains, and we won’t send anyone to look for you.”
“Those men were cowards,” Munch said. “I will take its head and set it on your mantle.”
With that, Munch swapped his crossbow for a pair of handaxes, then secured his pack and marched out of town in pursuit of prey. Rath stood with Nory and watched him go.
“You seem nervous,” he said, scanning the quiet town for any signs of life. He didn’t find many. The midday sun was blisteringly hot, so most of the locals preferred to stay indoors, in cool buildings made of stone and clay. Located in the middle of the desert a two day’s ride from Sunpeak, the town of Skyfire was little more than two wide thoroughfares with rows of low facades on either side. The land beyond was flat and barren, with no trees and sparse vegetation to break up the surrounding landscape. The mountains to the north were red and jagged, as inhospitable as the desert itself. To an outsider, it seemed a foolish place to build a town.
“I’m worried about your friend,” she said. Despite the heat, a great fire was burning in a pit at the intersection where the two roads met, although Rath could not have said what it was burning. It was an odd sight, given the lack of wood in the area.
“Don’t worry. I’ll keep an eye on him,” Rath said. “We don’t want to get into any trouble.”
He put the navy blue hat back on his head. It was a strange look, but it went better with the yellow shirt than Nory expected, and it did seem to block the sun.
“You’re still going? After everything I’ve said?”
“You’ve made your point,” he said. “But I’ll make my own decisions.”
Rath stepped into the street and hurried after Munch, moving so quick that he seemed to skip through the air and pop into existence further up the road. Nory shook her head, figuring it was nothing more than a trick of the light.
Nory sat on the stoop in front of her tavern and watched the sun rise over the mountains, bathing Skyfire with a blazing array of red and orange. She hadn’t slept, and had instead spent the night staring into the fire in the square. The fire shrank as the night went on, until it was little more than a faint pile of smoldering embers, as it was at every dawn. Nory wondered if it would ever burn again, or if the light would finally go out.
She watched as a solitary silhouette strolled down the central thoroughfare. The color filled in as he approached, until Nory could make out a navy blue hat, maroon pants, and a hideous yellow shirt. The hat was now had red, gold, and silver feathers tucked into the brim.
“You were right,” he said. “Nothing up there but rocs and dust.”
Nory scowled. For the first time, Rath looked as if he regretted his words, and hastily apologized.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought that would go over better.”
“Where’d you get the feathers?” Nory asked. “What happened to the Roc?”
“Nothing,” Rath said. “The Roc is fine. I picked these up on the trail on my way back down.”
“Then what happened to your friend?”
“Munch? Munch is dead,” Rath said. He reached into his belt and flourished a handaxe. “But parts of him live on. It’s got a good weight. I might call it ‘Bite’ to remember him.”
His cavalier attitude took Nory aback.
“I thought you were keeping an eye on him.”
“I did. A man like that will break anything you put in front of him. You’ve got to make sure he doesn’t get his hands on something valuable,” Rath said.
Nory sensed that Rath knew more than he was letting on. She heard the rhythmic beat of heavy wings, then saw the shadow of the Sunwing Roc pass over head. The beast landed on its perch atop the clock tower, ruffling its feathers as it settled on its haunches. Then the Roc threw back its head and filled its lungs before showering pit at the base of the tower with a torrent of flame that reignited the dying fire. When it was finished, the fire in the central square was brilliant and blazing once again.
“So how does it work?” Rath asked. “Do you need wood, or does the fire keep going on its own?”
“The fire needs something to burn, but the material doesn’t seem to matter,” Nory said. “Wood. Stone. Sand. It’s all the same. If the Roc lights it, the fire will burn at a steady pace. It gets smaller as we take it to cook our food and light our homes. The Roc comes to light it again in the morning. But you knew that, didn’t you?”
“Bits and pieces,” Rath said. “I’d heard the Roc was important, but the details were a little vague.”
“So you came to investigate a rumour?”
“Not exactly,” Rath said. “A man named Tarose sent me. I assume you know him?”
Nory nodded. Tarose had left Skyfire a decade ago, and though he often sent letters, no one had seen him in town since he departed.
“He still thinks about this place,” Rath continued. “Still worries about the rest of you. When he got wind that Munch was on his way, he asked me to follow him. Don’t know why he was worried. Munch would’ve needed good sized airship and a better brain to have a chance against that bird. As soon as we got to the nest, I set my weapons down. He rushed in, screaming like a lunatic. The Roc lit him on fire, then beat its wings and pushed him off the far side of the mountain. It let me approach, and I’d like to think I made a friend.”
“Well, thank you,” Nory said. “But from the sounds of it, you didn’t need to bother.”
“I still wanted to see the Roc,” Rath said. “It really is a magnificent creature.”
“Yes, I suppose it is.” She paused. “And I suppose you were right. Next time you come back, you’ll be visiting old friends. Are you staying long?”
“I’m afraid not. Tarose had another job for me once I was once with this one, so I’ll be on my way. Thank you again for your hospitality.”
He tipped his feathered cap to Nory.
“Not a problem,” she said. “And I have to say I like the feathers.”
Thanks,” Rath said. “Maybe I’ll add some red to my shirt to complete the look.”
He started down the road to the center of town, but stopped after a few steps.
“A quick word of advice: don’t tell a hunter a monster is impossible to kill,” he said. “The bad ones will take it as a challenge, and sometimes they get lucky.”
The Sunwing Roc spread its wings as he approached the clock tower. Rath doffed his feathered, navy blue cap. The creature bowed, then pushed itself into the air and soared across the morning desert.
This week’s Archive story comes from Eric Weiss, a Toronto-based writer, performer, and media critic. In addition to his work with EMBERWIND, he is the current Associate Editor (and former Games Editor) for ThatShelf.com, as well as the writer and co-creator of the stage play Not All Fedoras.
Art by William Liu. Will is a freelance artist from Toronto, Canada who is passionate about designing and illustrating creatures and approaches life with a calm, curious demeanour.