"I have to go, you know I do."
"But I love you!"
A single tear of fire escaped Ember's eye and wafted off into the breeze, flickered and died. He brushed her cheek with that warm, soft touch she had grown so fond of.
"I love you too."
He remembered their parting like it was yesterday. The memory of his human lover, Elizabeth, was the only thing that kept Ember going. That, and knowing it was only he, the last fire sprite, who could save the world.
The wind whipped at his hair, and he reached to pull his short burlap cloak tighter around him, before remembering how he had consumed it the night before, for warmth. Across the valley ahead, Ember saw the billows of smoke rising. He could smell the sulphur even from here, and a part of him thought it smelled like home. Ash fell like snow, tickling his nose here. Closer to the supervolcano, it would choke the air.
He checked the egg in its pouch - still intact - leaned his weight on his hiking staff and trudged on down the hard-packed soil.
The valley was dry and dead, covered in a delicate crust of salt. It crunched under his feet and sizzled away, the little trapped moisture evaporating from his body's great heat.
It was painful, like walking on broken glass. Every step, with its pinpricks of water and incombustible salt, sent needles of pain shooting up through Ember's feet to a spot just above and behind his eyes. He grimaced through the pain looking for any breaks in the monotonous salt landscape. Any dried old branch, any clump of withered grass, even just a gap where he could stand on hot sand. There was nothing in sight. Just the salt and its relentless stinging underfoot.
Halfway across the valley, Ember's feet had swollen to the size of footballs. They looked like crystal clubs, with an accumulation of salt on every side. They stung and ached. He felt he couldn't go on, and fell to his knees, the walking staff no longer supporting him. He let out a yelp of pain as the salt bit into his knees and shins, fresh skin that had not yet burned. He whimpered and sat there, wallowing in self-pity. The sulphurous smell of the supervolcano called him on, and the phoenix egg needed to be delivered, but he couldn't take one more step. The only thing he had left to eat was the staff itself, his grandfather's.
He looked at the staff, at the volcano, back to the staff. He noted its intricate carvings, the carefully hand-burnt patterns that coloured them. He took special note of the delicate head, carved somehow in three delicate concentric shells, one inside another, like spiderweb eggs of oak. He would eat that part last.
Among the many things Elizabeth had taught him was to appreciate old things that take time, details and artistry, love of fine work. She was a sculptor who dabbled in photography, and they met while Ember was just a teenager, really, stoking a bush fire with glee. She had been photographing the fire, the damage, the ashes left behind, for a new sculpture on loss. Ember had just been burning everything in sight, consuming old wood and new, houses, trees, bushes, animals, anything he could get his destructive hands on.
She shouldn't have been able to see him, but something caught her eye.
"Who ... what are you?" she asked, blunt and to the point. It was the first thing he loved about her.
He had looked around for a few seconds, trying to decide if she was looking at him.
"Yes, you," she said, with a laugh.
Their giddy romance lasted just a few months before the world started to burn and Ember realised his phoenix egg - his most prized possession - would renew the whole planet if dropped into the supervolcano. And he was the only one who could get close enough to the heat.
While he was reminiscing, Ember noticed, he had eaten most of the walking staff, leaving the delicate head. It had given him enough strength to keep going for now, and the pain in his feet had lessened. He stood and walked on, the salt plain pain feeling like nothing more than a faint tingle now. He clutched the egg protectively and reached the lip of the caldera. The true eruption had not yet begun - the magma was still building pressure below the surface - but it was too hot already for any human to survive. Ember felt the phoenix egg twitching in his fist. It felt the heat, too, and was getting ready to hatch, but he needed to get it deep down first. There was only one way forward. Ember opened his mouth wide and swallowed the egg, being careful not to crack the shell, though really there was little danger of that. He leapt high in the air and dove into the caldera, burrowing into the earth with his internal heat, burning up and pushing aside soil and rock like the volcanic flow he was going to meet.
When he broke through to the high-pressure magma, he was spent, and it burned through him to the phoenix egg in his belly, whose fire-life infused the molten rock. The magma did flow to the surface, but now it brought life, and the Earth was restored.
A week later, Elizabeth sat in her garden, mourning her lost love, when a young bird, the size of a crow but whose feathers shone in reds and yellows and a strange hint of blues, landed nearby. The way its crest fell to one side made it look just a little like Ember, and she smiled for the first time since he had left.
Mokalus of Borg
PS - This very strange combination of events is a result of this Chuck Wendig flash fiction challenge.
PPS - My random draw of elements was "Dying Earth paranormal romance featuring a perilous journey and a mythological bird".