Flight of the Fiery Ones
by Jay Wilburn
“My father calls them slutterflies.”
The other boys laughed, but Jake kept his chin rested on the ground in silence. His father just called them the fiery ones like the priests and elders referred to them in sermons and homilies. Jake could only think in fear about the anger of his father in the darkened house behind them and in terror of the creatures in the dark forest ahead of them.
Jake saw most of the boys had backed out of their oaths made in the safe light of day.
Donavan slapped Jake’s back hard enough to sting and made him jump.
“You don’t think that’s funny, Jake?”
“He doesn’t get it, but he’ll get it tonight.”
The boys laughed again as Jake kept his chin to the ground.
Donavan snorted. “Oh, we all get it tonight. How much longer are we going to wait? I didn’t risk my dad killing me to miss it.”
Toby looked back toward the darkened village. “I think it may just be the five of us. I knew Morgan would be too scared. I’m a little disappointed Cooper is yellow considering what he’s giving up. Surprised Jake had the stones to sneak out though.”
Donavan slapped Jake again making him grunt. “No. Jake is about to become a man. You’ll see.”
“Are you going to watch it happen, Donavan?”
Donavan flipped his hand under his chin at the other boy. “How can I watch with my eyes rolled up in my head?”
“His lid will pop right off, I bet.”
Toby shook his head. “No, they aren’t coming. We need to go. The village looks evil with all the lights snuffed. Creepy.”
“Slutterflies are attracted to light.”
“I’m going to tie a torch on the end of my snake.”
The boys laughed. Toby walked toward the forest and the others followed. Donavan took a handful of the back of Jake’s shirt and pulled.
Jake lifted his chin and took to his feet.
If Jake had not been in the middle of the pack with the bulk of Donavan behind him, he might have bolted for the darkened village. The trees felt very close and the darkness seemed to deepen as they weaved between the trunks.
Jake had trouble following the shapes in front of him. He wanted to reach out to feel the shoulder ahead of him to be sure he wasn’t following ghosts. He couldn’t remember if Toby led the line or if he walked directly in front of Jake. Toby would mock him, if Jake touched him in the dark out of fear.
Donavan tripped on a root behind Jake and stumbled into Jake’s back. He squeaked under Donavan’s weight as they both grabbed a tree to keep upright.
Toby called from the front of the line. “You boys playing grab and tickle back there?’
Donavan shoved Jake a few steps ahead as the other boys laughed.
“Just tripped over my trouser snake, Toby. You wouldn’t understand.”
“I’m just glad you finally found it, Tiny.”
The darkness lifted noticeably as they topped the next slope and weaved back down between the slanting trees. Jake glanced up at the interlaced fingers of braches in the black canopy above them. He could not see the Moon or stars, but he could faintly make out the veins in the underside of the leaves. Jake looked ahead between the shoulders of the boys in front of him as their silhouettes crossed one another picking their way down the slope. The light glowed beyond the trees in the distance ahead of them.
Jake shivered, but held his jaws clinched to keep the others from hearing his teeth chatter. He couldn’t imagine they were close enough to see the fiery ones yet. He could not convince himself that he imagined the light though. The Moon had not begun glowing from the ground up no matter how upside down the world felt on this most dangerous of nights.
He heard the other boys’ breath hissing through their nostrils as their chests heaved. Jake wasn’t sure whether they were excited or afraid.
He was afraid.
Jake slipped, but flailed to keep from touching the boy in front of him. He staggered back up to walking before Donavan could yank him up from behind. Jake glanced back and saw Donavan’s eyes reflecting the growing glow ahead of them. Even with the illumination, the boy’s eyes dilated out to the very edges of the normally brown color. The thought that Donavan might be afraid filled Jake with deeper dread.
Donavan pawed at the front of his pants and stared ahead as he adjusted himself. Jake looked back forward. He tried not to listen to the bigger boy’s breathing as Jake felt Donavan’s harsh exhales against the nape of his neck. His breath felt hot and sticky every time it puffed into Jake’s collar, but it made Jake want to shiver more in the night air.
Toby crouched down between the double trunks of two gnarled mangrove trees. The other boys froze in place. The light blazed up from below Toby’s perch. Jake had never seen a living mangrove, but he knew the petrified ones lined the dry canyon which split the forest. Jake’s father told him the trees marked the path of a great flooding river from a time when the world was different and the fiery ones followed ancient waters before people stood on two legs. Jake did not understand this story as the priests insisted that the first men were created standing, like a foal rising up straight from birth. The priests had no explanation for the fiery ones either.
“Are they naked?”
“What do you see, Toby?”
Toby waved his fist in the air behind him. “Shut up, before you give us up, idiots.”
Jake found himself agreeing with Toby.
Donavan walked between the others and lay on his belly peering under the curve of one of the trunks.
“God in Heaven, there must be a hundred thousand of them.”
“More,” Toby breathed.
The other two boys lowered to their hands and knees and crawled forward. They arrived on both sides of the petrified wood and stared over the lip of the canyon wall.
“It’s like daytime.”
“What do we do now?”
Toby sniffed. “If you have to ask, you probably just need to pull on yourself while you watch the men handle them.”
Donavan glanced around the trunk at Toby. “What do we do now?”
Toby shook his head. “I’m not sure. This isn’t like your sister behind the chapel.”
Donavan punched Toby’s shoulder. “My sister wouldn’t have you to save her soul from damnation, you donkey.”
Toby nodded. “That’s why this isn’t like that. We get to have them and damnation too, I think.”
Jake thought about all the years they had played in the dry canyon as children. Families did not allow their daughters to join the boys playing in the forest. Boys could not be trusted. The priests and elders said so at every opportunity. To Jake’s knowledge, all they ever did until now was run, fight, dig, and come back dirty.
The canyon was shallow enough to run down the sides without losing one’s feet and easy enough to climb without ropes. It lay close enough to hear bells from the village and most mothers’ calls.
The canyon now seemed unworldly and impossibly far with the village blacked out in fear behind them.
“We shouldn’t be out here.” Jake didn’t realize he had spoken until the words were far past his lips.
Toby turned his head. “Here it is. The coward speaks his heart at the very moment of victory.”
Donavan waved his hand. “Take it easy, Toby. The cowards never left their houses. Until we take the plunge ourselves, we’ve all come the same distance.”
“Are you comparing me to that gelding who won’t even look over the edge?”
Donavan stared. Jake saw the light pass over the bigger boy’s face and eyes. Jake counted at least four hues just off the skin. He imagined their wings and naked bodies as they migrated through the canyon.
He wanted to look, but his feet stayed planted.
“What is that dripping off of them?”
Donavan and Toby didn’t look away from one another.
Toby leaned in and blocked Donavan’s face from Jake’s view. “Are you going to pull and watch with the other geldings, Donavan?”
Donavan said, “I’ve come as far as you, Toby. I just don’t talk as much to fool people into believing I have courage as some feel they must.”
“It looks like honey.”
“Except that it glows. Do you think it’s sticky?”
Toby stood and braced his foot in the crux of the trees. “You can watch me fly with the slutterflies and we’ll talk courage once I’m spent.”
Donavan snorted. “I’m not scared, Toby. And you’re still talking.”
“I bet it’s sweet.”
“It looks hot like metal from the furnace.”
“I think one just looked up here. Toby, get down.”
Toby held the trees and stared into the light of the canyon. Donavan laughed. Toby stood on the tree and spread his hands.
“Come and get it, ladies.”
Donavan kept laughing as the other two boys cursed.
Donavan slid under the trunk and off the edge still laughing. Jake jolted as the big boy vanished and his laughter echoed out from the dirt channel unnaturally.
Toby cursed and looked back at Jake. Toby’s eyes stood wide and his jaw hung slack.
“I can’t believe he did it. They caught him in mid air.”
“They already have his clothes off.”
Jake shook his head and took a step back. “Don’t do it, Toby.”
Toby smiled and leapt through the fork in the tree still looking at Jake as he dropped off the side.
“Oh, that had to hurt.”
“He’s up. He’s up.”
“I’ll go, if you go.”
The other two snaked off the side and down into the canyon. The light twisted and flickered off the trees in rapid pulses. Jake backed into a trunk and held it with both hands behind him.
Someone cheered and Jake heard a grunt and moan from two different voices.
A hint of wings surfaced in Jake’s sight. They glowed yellow like the midday sun with swatches of red and purple like the setting or the dawn. He saw a curve of bare skin the color of honey in light. It did look hot.
Jake tried to swallow, but failed. His throat caught and he felt the urge to cough.
He saw more motion at the edge of the canyon.
Jake clapped his hand over his mouth and backed away from the edge deeper into the trees. His breath escaped through his fingers in muffled barks.
A song lifted up from the canyon in a chorus of feminine voices speaking different syllables and tones in a language that couldn’t be human. The song lacked beauty, but it filled Jake with desire.
He heard a scream and he did choke. Jake fell to his belly and hid from the light behind a living tree farther from the edge.
“Help me. Help me. God, please.”
He still had his mouth covered as he moved his head from behind the base of his tree.
He saw the skeletal fingers clutched the crux of the mangroves. Jake waited for the wings, but Donavan’s bloody scalp rose into view.
Jake drew back behind the tree and closed his eyes on the world. He wished himself away from the trees and darkness. He wished himself back to his bedroom where his mother told fairy stories about portly women in winged gowns granting wishes.
He saw light through his lids around the edges of his eyes and it gave him no comfort.
Someone screamed and it echoed off the walls of the canyon. Jake opened his eyes and peeked around the tree.
Donavan scrambled naked and scarred over the trees on his knees on the ground.
Jake held his breath as a figure soared into the air behind Donavan. Jake opened his mouth, but no sound came. As the body spun in a corkscrew, Jake saw the eyes still open wide and the jaw hanging slack.
Toby’s body hurled through the air above Donavan and past Jake’s tree. He heard it strike the trunks deeper in the woods and fall to the ground.
Donavan held onto the tree staring past Jake and cried.
Jake stared for a few seconds before he realized the flesh of the bigger boy’s hands had split and peeled back from the bones of his fingers. When Donavan staggered to his feet, Jake gagged at the sight of the shreds of flesh between his legs.
Donavan ran forward. “Help me.”
Jake rested his chin against the ground hoping not to be seen. He dug his fingers into the soil under the mat of wet leaves and waited for Donavan to step on him. He waited for the bigger boy to drip sticky on him from his wounds.
Bile leaked up into Jake’s throat and burned.
Donavan pulled up short and arched his back. Light blazed in long beams between his legs, under his arms, and around his head. Jake’s mother called that effect a halo. Jake had heard the priests call it horns of glory.
Transparent wings unfurled behind Donavan as he stood with his head thrown back and his mouth open to the sky. Jake pictured the boy evolving into a new life form. He stared at Donavan’s bones through his broken hands and imagined the boy’s human skin folding away like a cocoon to reveal what he became from his passion with the fiery ones.
The bright fingers slid over Donavan’s shoulders from behind and laced around the boy’s throat. The glowing arms seemed too thin to carry any strength. Amber fluid oozed off the dainty forearms and ran down Donavan’s bare chest. The flesh sizzled as furrows formed through the charred skin.
The fingers closed and Donavan’s tongue protruded into the air pointing toward the sky.
Jake rolled up to sitting behind his tree with his back to the trunk and the deadly canyon. He closed his eyes, but was too afraid to lift his hands to cover his ears. He feared the monster would see his elbows around the sides of the tree, so he heard every terrible sound with his palms against the ground.
Something rolled to a stop beside him and Jake whined, but would not look.
More screams echoed in the canyon. A piercing screech replaced the chorus of alien singing. The light built in the sky above Jake, but he kept his eyes closed. He heard the leaves crackling above him and felt the hot bits of ash snow down onto his cheeks and into his hair.
He kept his eyes closed.
The object rested on his wrist and he felt warm liquid seep over the back of his hand. It rolled to one side and Jake felt the cold lips brush his arm and then the dry tongue.
He jerked his hand away and opened his eyes. Jake looked up so he would not see what he knew lay beside him. The branches of the trees above him swirled with flame.
“They can see me.”
Screeches answered his whisper.
Jake took to his feet and ran between the flickering trees as smoke swirled down from above him.
Something locked onto his ankle and brought Jake down to his knees. He expected his foot to sheer off like the bigger boy’s skull.
“Help me, Jake, please.”
Jake turned and saw Toby holding him twisted against the ground. Jake jerked his foot away from the naked boy’s grasp.
Jake grabbed Toby’s arm and expected him to scream as his bones ground against one another. The bloody boy surprised Jake by regaining his feet even after his terrible flight. Toby held one hand clamped over his crotch and Jake looked away as they ran through the burning trees.
Light raced across the canopy above them and ignited more trees. Toby stared upward as Jake guided him along in a staggering run.
Jake stared at the ground until he was grabbed from behind and pulled down under a felled log. Toby spun and dropped to the leaves a few steps farther along.
Jake opened his mouth to scream, but a powerful hand clamped over his lips and Jake waited for his head to twist off his neck.
“Be still, son. They follow if you run.”
Jake rolled his eyes and saw his father’s face under the log with him. Jake felt ashamed.
Toby scrambled to his feet and kept running.
Jake’s father called. “Boy, don’t lead them to the village.”
Jake started to rise, but his father pressed his shoulders back to the ground. He rested his chin in the leaves with the weight of his father’s hands on his back.
Streams of flame raced down through the trees at Toby’s path from different angles.
“Jake, don’t look. You don’t have to see it.”
He kept his chin to the ground and closed his eyes. He still saw the bright flashes through his eyelids and he imagined what there was to see as he heard Toby scream in the distance. Explosions sounded farther ahead and shook the ground.
“Did they find the village, father? What about mother?”
“There is nothing we can do about it now. Be still.”
“I’m sorry I disobeyed you. Will the fire reach us?”
“The ground is wet. We might be okay depending on the wind and the length of their attack.”
“Can I be forgiven for this?”
His father did not answer, but kept his hands on Jake’s back as they hid under the log. The fire burned behind them and the smoke dried Jake’s throat. They remained still through the night even after the explosions ceased. Jake eventually slept as his father watched.
About the Author:
Jay Wilburn is an author of horror, sci fi, fantasy, and other speculative fiction. He recently received a life-saving kidney transplant and is currently working on training to run ultra-marathon distances. He taught school for sixteen years before quitting in February of 2013 and has been a full-time writer ever since. You can find his work at http://www.jaywilburn.com/books/ or on Amazon. Check out the Dead Song Legend series, The Great Interruption, The Enemy Held Near, Yard Full of Bones and more.
"Flight of the Fiery Ones" is a bit of a horror take on the Fae. It plays with perspective as the characters deal with the unknown, the forbidden, and the bold ignorance of being young and male.
About the Author:
S. K. Gregory is an author, editor and blogger. She currently resides in Northern Ireland.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”