“It’s time. I’m getting out of here.” Aeg stood up, pushed away the fluff from around him, and turned to the window.
Shelli stared at him in shock, frozen in place. “Why now? Its about to begin!”
“Its the perfect time. They’ll never see me going.”
Outside, the hollow trumpets were starting, and the colony of eggs rustled to their feet. The procession was minutes away from starting. Shelli glanced at the woven fluff in her translucent fingers. “You didn’t even finish your eyre-band for the new Sulfurite.”
Aeg glanced through the window up to the rafters over the street, peering up through the dimness to the blurred heights above.
“No one will miss me,” he grunted. “They’ll all be focused on the ceremony.”
In a few minutes, the eggs would all gather together to celebrate a new member of the Sulfur Circle. Small, white, and delicate, the eggs lived in village flats nestled in crannies of their strange world. Every few weeks, a new egg would start to smell, and grow weaker. They were wrapped in the gentlest fluff, fibers teased from the residue of vast, sky blankets that dripped fluff from the great beyond. At least, that’s what they thought. The fibers were braided with the faintly glowing, feathery down that sifted from the skyline.
“You can’t talk me out of this, Shelli.”
“I’ll never see you again,” She stammered. “I know you’ll slip and crack somewhere. We’ll never find your fragments. Why can’t you be a decent, ordinary egg, like all of us?”
Aeg pushed open the windows. “I’ll be careful.” He patted the fracture near his thigh, a web of cracks on his ovoid shell. He managed a short smile. “I learned my lesson last time.”
Shelli stood, tying off the end of the braid, and turned for the door. “You better. I always hoped to lay the last braid for your sulfuration.”
He hopped up on the window sill. Below, the pale bobbing, streams of eggs gathered together like bubbles, streaming to the town center nestled within sheer, shadowy canyon walls. “Maybe you’re more grown up than me,” he said, “But I’m not going to my nest without knowing what’s up there.”
Shelli didn’t look back. She trundled down the stairs, bent her little candle to light it, and quietly joined the procession.
Aeg sucked a quick breath into his gut, and then hauled himself out and up onto the wall. Eggs didn’t usually look up, especially when the skyforges were silent. The timing was perfect.
The eggs parted into lines to allow a palanquin through. Propped up on the shoulders of larger eggs, the latest elder was being carried to his final nest. He was wrapped in colorful eyre-bands, designed to protect from every bump and jostle as his shell weakened. The rancid, sharp scent of sulfur wafted up, ripe with age and ready for the Ovumsleep.
Aeg shook his head, which shook his whole body. He hauled himself up, his shell clinking against the wall, fingers pressing into cracks and rifts. He’d picked that eyrie for that reason, the nearness to this crack.
One comment from his friend a few cycles ago had twisted his yolk into a new shape. What if there’s something up there? What if a good egg did more than weave eyre-braids? What if they climbed up into the lights to see what the skysounds were?
A day later, his friend’s shell fragments and albumen were found smeared across the floor of a canyon. He’d always been better at asking questions.
Aeg was better at climbing.
The wind was starting to pick up. His thin fingers were starting to ache. He twisted his body to look up. The dark sky was a little nearer. He shoved with his legs, inch by inch.
Down below, the eggs looked like eiderdown crammed into cracks, tiny twinkling torches lining the village lanes, guiding the latest Sulfurite to his resting place.
Aeg didn’t know what to think about that. A life spent down in such shadows, only a few weeks, and then tucked into a deep crevice among hundreds of other Sleeping Ones. Perhaps thousands. He didn’t know. They never spoke, just sat there, slowing shriveling and drying out. Some stared into the darkness. Soundless. And they all stank.
He grunted, finding a ledge, and hauling himself onto it for a rest.
Shelli never understood him and his urge to climb. She was a good little egg, smooth and shiny from daily polishing. Crack free, too. That wasn’t totally unusual. Cracked eggs usually leaked albumen, and drained before they could turn. Having a crack was living on a timer, and meant you found your own crevice somewhere to enter the Ovumrest.
He grimaced, forced himself up. Not Aeg. If he was going to sleep, he wanted to know what the forge fires were made of.
Eggs were terrified of fire. Their tiny torches were mere sparks, cool light twisted out of the glowy down that sifted softly from the sky.
Aeg wanted to know where that down came from. He pressed his fingers against the wall, knuckled around dents and edges, and kept climbing.
Heat did weird things to eggs. They seemed to slow, their speech blurred. Their eyes misted over, and they struggled to move. Aeg had seen one once. Some outlier guards on a perimeter check said a flaming downy ‘spear’ had fallen on them and blocked a canyon path, and only a few made it back.
They were shell shocked, slow to speak. They didn’t have the healthy inner jiggle of a normal egg. One of them had gone solid, and they even rolled him back into town. It was incredibly weird. He went sour after a while, but lasted a long time. Weeks.
Aeg had wanted to see that spear. But the guards forbade it. He did anyway. It took a while, but he found it, and kept a safe distance. It was incredible. It wasn’t a spear. It was a feather. A gigantic feather, each shaft, barb, and slender vane a brilliant fiery bronze, giving off light and heat like a thousand downy twists.
He knew it was a feather, somehow. Like a memory. Memories were also weird. Everyone only had vague memories of walking out of the darkness. Nothing really before then.
He checked his crack. A bead of albumen had leaked out, and hardened into a sticky, clear glue. That was better than leaking. Trying to stay calm and take deep breaths, he kept climbing.
Could an egg pull themselves apart from the pressure of climbing? He didn’t really want to find out. Some younger eggs liked to test shell strength by pulling on each other. One had actually sheared in half, a crown of cracks around its middle. They called him Crackling. He didn’t move for the rest of his days. Crackling made good jokes though. Like “Why should you be careful about what you say around egg whites? Everyone knows they can’t take a yolk.”
His hands were throbbing from exhaustion when he finally reached an edge, that proved to be a ledge, and then finally the top. The top of something. He didn’t care.
He hauled up onto it, gasping and trembling, rolling onto his back so that his limbs flopped around him. This was the highest an egg had ever been. He was positively up in the sky now.
His shell trembled near his crack. He glanced down, and the lines were longer. His gut lurched. His yolk was definitely off center now, and he felt slightly light headed.
He rolled over to glance down. The village was a line of light in the distant dark. And he’d left a smear of his albumen on the canyon wall.
He pushed up to his feet. Getting down would be hard. But, with some rest, maybe not. He’d had a stupidly simple plan. Find out how new eggs appeared in the Rifts, and wend their way through the canyons to the villages. That would be his way down again.
He glanced around. Everyone always said the sky was a forge, because light and fire often flared far above. ‘The most dangerous place to be for an egg,’ the Sulfurites muttered. That was where you got scrambled where you stood. Only bad eggs ended up there, shattered and mixed into a hard yellow froth. Good eggs prepared for a safe Ovumrest.
His heart hammering, Aeg blinked and stared around. He realised the ground up here was smooth, and littered with cool, glowy feather down. But there was a lot more up here. Huge drifts of it. He parted trails behind him as he pushed through.
Ahead he saw a distant series of mounds, and far glowing lights. He tried to make out details in the darkness, but couldn’t. They had strange edges, not smooth and flat like the canyon walls. These looked like gigantic braided textures, so big it baffled his mind.
Higher up, he could begin to see tiers, rows, layers of things. More of those mounds. And some of them seemed to move.
He froze. Move?
He knew that surviving these firelands risked a Hardening. The chances of keeping his yolk inside were slim. But he had to know.
On his left, a mound lurched and stretched, and rustled. He dropped down to the ground, hoping to be invisible.
The mound broke apart for a moment, like a torn braid, and something rolled out. An egg.
Aeg stared in shock. The egg was rolling helplessly away, flailing limbs. One turn and its wild eyes caught his. It shouted for help for a second, and and then suddenly disappeared into the ground.
Aeg held his breath, glancing back up at the mound. Warm light was breaking through the cracks. He frowned, trying to understand what he saw. He couldn’t. He stared through the fractures, piercing the glow. He thought he saw a clutch of eggs, ovoid globes huddled together in light.
He almost choked. The Sulfurites were right. This was hellfire up here. This was… an ovumrest where everything hardened. No silent darkness with peaceful sleeping.
Aeg felt sick. He crawled to the place where the egg had disappeared. It was a canyon edge.
Far down below, he could see it blinking, dazed. It crawled off a pad of dense, downy feathers that had broken the fall.
Aeg yelled and waved to the egg. But it was too far down. The egg probed its shell in wonder, shivered, and stared around at the walls. Then, with trembling, baby steps, tottered up and stumbled away into the darkness.
Aeg felt a sudden rush of hot wind on his back and he rolled over in terror.
The mound had exploded with light, a terrible, gorgeous light like morning dawnrise. Only now it was blazing… right above him.
He realised what the mound was. An eyrie. A giant eyrie made of feathers and down, braided together into a giant ring. And a behemoth beast was swelling above it, pressing the crack back together into a neat wall.
It was bigger than his mind could gather.
This beast was covered in the glowing feathers. It had massive fingers like huge, braided, downy quilts, splitting off into spears of red, orange, and golden light. And it had big, brilliant eyes. It held a shiny, coppery shard of canyon wall on its face, splitting it into two shards to grip and snip at bits of the mound.
It caught sight of him.
He froze so still that he could feel his yolk settling against his backside.
The gorgeous, terrible beast pulled itself up to its height, and tilted its head on one side.
How did it do that? It’s head was separate from the rest of its shell?
Aeg had never seen something so gorgeous in his life. Feathers streamed light and cool fire like glowing rain. Was it… an angel? A sulfurite with rheumy eyes once spoke of such things, like a beautiful dream.
This angel had the kindest eyes.
Would something with eyes that kind flash scramble him?
“There you are, little one,” the beast split open its face shards and spoke. The voice was vast and thrilling, warm and welcoming. Aeg’s whole shell vibrated instantly with its words. He even felt his yolk tremble and rise off the back of his shell.
“What are you?” He asked.
“Come back to the nest, and stay warm.” The angel extended a massive feather wall toward him and scooped him up.
Aeg almost screamed with terror, if he hadn’t also been thrilling with joy. The tone of her words made him feel bright and airy, like he was expanding into light too.
He knew it was a her. He didn’t know how. Something about her voice reminded him of Shelli. That same… somethingness, a her-ness…
The beast angel lady brought him up before her face, and the eyes were like giant pools of stars and fire and red gold sparks.
“You’re a bright one already, aren’t you?” She murmured.
“What are you?” he asked.
The giant head tilted to one side, and she turned her face to watch him with the brilliant, dark depths of her other eye. “A firebird, my child. And you are too. Perhaps an Alerion, or a Pheonix. Time will tell.”
“What will you do to me?” Aeg shivered, delighted, terrified, unable to look away.
“Why, warm you and help you hatch, sweetling.”
“Hatch?” He knew he was light headed, but he knew he’d never heard that word.
“So that you can fly, like me.”
“I’m a perfectly ordinary, decent egg. I’d like to stay one, please.”
The laughter rippled through the angel’s vast body, and light shivered and shimmered off the red feathers. “You cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must all be hatched.”
“Or else, we’ll go bad.”