King of Flame

Janie Brunson

 

 

They blamed that summer’s wildfires on climate change and dropped cigarette butts. They were wrong.

I tried to tell them.

I explained, “There’s a war in the Other Realm. The King of Flame has abandoned his duties. That’s why the forests and deserts are burning.”

No one at hospital would listen.

“I can see it all,” I pleaded, putting my hand on the psychiatrist’s arm and looking into her face, “I can see the Other Realm. It’s in chaos. The war must be stopped!”

She glanced at the orderly and slid her arm away. She thought I didn”t see her write: “Acute Psychosis: hallucinations and delusions,” but I saw.

And I had seen the King of Flame when he went searching a redwood forest one warm, dry summer night, his burning cloak fanning out behind him. His one true love had returned. He glimpsed a dark shape — his beloved shadow spirit, sliding elusive and lovely through the trees. He called, reached out. She turned and he saw her liquid eyes, deep as night. She smiled, but darted blithely away, making no sound on the crackling forest floor.

He gave chase, weaving quickly between the trees. The brightness of his cloak hid her rippling form, so he shrugged off the symbol of his kingly role and responsibilities.  It fell flickering to the ground, abandoned. Now he shone like a narrow beam of orange light in the moonlit summer night. He followed his beautiful shadow spirit. Behind him, beneath the cloak, the dead leaves and dry wood began to ignite.

 

My time in the hospital was at an end. The drugs they’d given me I had spit out or threw up when no one was looking. The evaluating psychiatrist determined I was capable of self-care and not a danger to myself or others.

They thought I couldn’t hear them gathered in the staff room discussing my case. But I could hear both Realms. I listened, sitting on the hard, greasy couch and gazing out the window as the legions of air battled the forces of the Prince of Smoke. It hurt to watch the spirits of air die, the prince’s smoke-armored troops tearing them to shreds. They were wind and breath, yet they still bled, bright blood, and I could hear their screams as they fell and dissolved.

The Court of the Wood gathered to discuss the danger, fearful as the fierce energy of the fire sprites danced close to their sacred meeting place. They couldn’t fight fire so they sent messengers seeking the King of Flame, to beg him to control his subjects. But he could not be found.

He had followed his shadow spirit deep into the dark heart of the Other Realm, where they gave up their game of chase. They turned to each other and embraced, whispering secret words, and the King vowed never to leave.

So the fire sprites leaped and danced through the burning redwoods, consuming all they touched and searching for more. They showered sparks over other forests, over great oaks, orange groves, and desert scrub. Their flames reached towns and cities, consuming buildings and forcing people to flee.

And in the Other Realm, a fire of anger against the missing king grew.

I signed my release papers barely seeing them, overwhelmed by the onslaught of sights and sounds from the Other Realm. I heard the voices on the wind and witnessed the battles unfolding on the earth and in the sky.The hospital gave me money for bus fare ‘home’ and took me to the station. They told me I had family to go back to but I knew this was a lie, I knew home and family had long been shrugged off, abandoned. I had nowhere to go.

I wandered from the bus station to a park. An old man sat staring at the sky. Maybe he could see the battle. I tried to explain.

“The King of Flame has found his shadow spirit love,” I said, “He dropped his cloak and ran off with her. Now the spirits of air are bleeding and dying.”

He winced, as if I had been speaking too loudly. He stared at me as people came and stood on each side of me. A woman sat next to him and told me to leave.

And now I saw in one of the great sky halls of the Other Realm the Prince of Smoke flanked by his attendants and facing the Queen of the Winds.

The Queen’s gaze was as cold as a sudden gust from the north, “I have stopped the winds. The fires will die.”

“My father’s fire sprites can fly far without the wind.”

The Queen’s gossamer robes swirled about her, “You wish to prove yourself, to win his love, but we all know the King has left. He has no interest in you or your struggles.”

The Prince of Smoke trembled. He turned so the Queen of the Winds would not see his tears.

A thick, black pall was covering the land.,The people coughed and choked, the forests and deserts burned, yet the King did not return. Furious with his father for abandoning him to this chaos, ashamed for lacking the strength to control the fire sprites or bring his father back, he snarled “Then let the Realms burn.”

He strode from the sky hall, and the fires raged.

I left the park. I heard warnings on radios and watched men in uniforms tell everyone to leave town. The sky was dark with smoke and ash, and everywhere was the smell of burning. People looked about nervously. They packed and gathered up their children. No one noticed me.

I walked out of town and along the highway, heading for the smoke on the horizon. I walked until I saw the walls of flame. Until I saw what had been a redwood forest before the King of Flame saw his true love’s eyes in a shadow.

I headed for the towering fire. I began sweating and gasping, struggling to breathe, but I kept on. I saw the silhouettes of firefighters in protective gear. Amid the smoke and flame they looked like men in hell. They did not see me.

I moved into the heart of the fire, though my lungs burned and tears streamed down my eyes. I listened to the crackling voices of the fire sprites around me as I forced myself on. Finally, I fell to my hands and knees, choking, dizzy, my skin searing and crisping, covered in ash and surrounded by flame. I knew I was in the right place, where all it had all begun. I reached out and grasped the edge of the King’s cloak. I pulled it to me and draped it over myself. Then I collapsed, and the flames consumed my body.

 

Floating in the dark heart of the Other Realm is peaceful; there is no war or death here. After some time the one who had been the King of Flame came to me and helped me rise.

He gently settled the bright cloak around my shoulders.

“It suits you,” he said.

“I’ve come to beg you to return to your duty, to stop the fires, the war, the destruction.”

He sighed. He looked sad, but also at peace as he glanced back over his shoulder into the shadows where his Love waited.

“I did my best,” he said, “but still there were fires, war, destruction. My energy is spent. No flame can burn forever.”

“But who is going to—

He reached out and touched the cloak again, lightly.         

“As I said, it suits you. Time to be your own king.”

I trembled. I nodded.

“Help my son,” he said, “the Prince of Smoke. He too must become his own king.”

“I will be by his side,” I vowed.

He smiled and turned to go.

“Wait! What am I to call you now?”

He looked back over his shoulder as he started to slip into the shadows. “I am the king of that moment between death and rebirth, that silence between destruction and new beginning. I am that grief, that peace.”

I bowed, “I obey the King of Changes.”

He left, and I went striding through the Other Realm, my burning cloak billowing about me, bringing my legions of fire sprites to heel. I would create peace within and between the realms. The King had returned.

“The King of Flame” © Janie Brunson,  first published here in Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores
Janie Brunson is a law student from California who writes fiction in all the spare time she doesn’t have. She enjoys fantasy novels, dark chocolate and Broadway musicals. Her short stories have appeared in publications such as Bards and Sages Quarterly, the Colored Lens and 365 Tomorrows.

 

Illustrations by Fran Eisemann; stock from Pixabay

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