I awoke to the sensation of warmth. It was a dry, mobile heat. Not the heat of the sun. There was also the sound of… snapping? A fire, then. It was so warm and soft. I hadn’t been this cozy in ages. I decided not to ruin it, and laid there.
As I thought about it, I realized there was an entirely different noise all around me. It sounded like cracking, but was methodical and almost melodious. The snapping of the fire was obviously the deep pop of snowpine wood, but this was a higher pitch.
I opened one eye. The fire seemed to be directly below me. And there were figures standing around it. They almost looked like birds. Really tall birds that stood upright like humans.
Rubbing my eyes open, I pulled the blanket off of me and sat up slowly. Was I hallucinating? Or, more likely, dead?
“The Windcaller has woken!” one of the birds said.
Startled, I swiveled around to look at it. All of the birds were staring at me now, tilting their heads slightly to look at me with beady eyes. The color of their plumage varied from brown to white to blue, but other than that they were identical. By human standards they were small–maybe four feet at the most. But for a bird that was enormous. And they spoke!
None of them moved. They were just watching me intently. And I thought the Windcallers’ scrutiny was unsettling. There must have been forty of these things all around me in this dark room. The only light source was the fire underneath me.
Suddenly, I realized that the bed I was on was a stone slab covered in blankets, and somehow it levitated over the huge fire below. They made a full circle around me. If I tried to escape from the fire by jumping off the bed, I would crash right into one of the bird things. If they wanted me dead, I was in no position to object.
“Uh,” I stammered. “Hello.”
“Honor to the Holy One,” one chanted in its chirping, clacking bird call. As it said this, all of the other birds bowed to the ground in deference, repeating “Honor to the Holy One” as they did.
I had no idea what to do. Who did they think I was? The Archon? My first instinct was to correct them of their error, but there was no way of knowing how they would react to anything I did, so it was probably best to avoid angering them.
Play it safe. That’s all. “What… I mean… who are you?”
“The Chosen disciples of the Windcaller, Holy One!” a bird thing said.
“Awaiting the day of judgment when you returned to us and lead us back to the Promised Land, Holy One!” another chirped.
I examined them thoroughly now. It was impossible to tell male and female apart, assuming the ones before me weren’t all the same gender. They wore no clothes, but a few had adorned themselves with jeweled necklaces and beak piercings. Their resemblance to humans was striking. The biggest differences, aside from the feathers, were their pronounced beaks and what had to be wings folded into their arms.
“Ah, yes,” I nodded, voice more authoritative now. “Allow me to get my bearings first. I will require one attendant to aid me as I rest.”
One of the birds made a screeching sound, and a different bird stood. It stared at me, cocking its head to each side. My attendant, I supposed.
“Very good,” I nodded. “The rest of you may leave.”
They complied without a word, shuffling out several doors. This room looked like a main entryway. It had larger doors straight ahead of me, and behind a few columns and torches there were several smaller doors scattered throughout the room, which seemed to have a heptagon shape.
Soon, I was left alone in the room with the bird that had stood. “So, uh, what’s your name?”
It made the same screeching noise that one of the others had made to address it.
“Skriishre?” I asked.
“Yes, Holy One,” it replied. I had a distinct yet indescribable feeling that this one was female. “Anything I can provide to you. You need only ask.” It bowed again. The bird’s bow seemed more like the equivalent of a human’s squat, since it only bent it’s knees. Their legs bent opposite to a humans, which made the gesture seem odd.
“I asked for you because I need answers. First, though, I could do without the fire.” Even if I could leap over it, I was curious to see just how subservient these creatures were.
“Yes, Holy One,” she said quickly, rushing to one side of the room.
“I’d rather you didn’t call me that, though,” I called after her.
She found a wooden trunk and pulled out a blanket. “Yes… Lord Windcaller,” she amended, saying the words slowly. It was strange to hear such human-like speech coming from those beaks. In any case, I could accept that title, even if it was still inaccurate.
She returned to the center of the room and cast a blanket over the fire beneath me. The roar of the flames died down immediately, and the room was left with an uncomfortable silence.
“Skriishre,” I said. “Sit down. Or, uh… make yourself comfortable I guess.” She looked hesitant but squatted down on the floor where she had stood. She was already so small, and me still sitting on something that was floating off the ground meant I was looking down on her even more now. It made me uneasy, so I used this as an excuse to get off the slab and leaped onto the ground below.
Upon landing on the stone beneath me, my legs gave out in a weariness I hadn’t realized was there, and in a cry of pain I collapsed to the floor. At least it was warm from being so near the fire.
“Lord Windcaller!” Skriishre cried, frantically jumping to her feet and helping me up. Her feathers were warm and softer than I expected, but since she was so much smaller than me she could only aid me in the act of standing, not staying upright.
“Why didn’t you warn me about my state?” I asked, suddenly realizing that all of my aches and pains were whisked away by a warm bed and blanket. A bed and blanket that were no longer there to shield me. I looked at my arms. My palms and arms were wrapped up quite a bit, and the bandages on my hands were stained red, even if they were dry.
“It is not my place to speak or judge,” she said, quiet and careful. She tried to gently encourage me back onto the bed, but I refused. I didn’t want to go back to sleep, I wanted to investigate. So I took to investigating the room, even at a slow, stiff, and painful pace.
The room wasn’t all that big, but it defied the laws of the natural world. The floating slab in the middle of the room was impossible enough. The smooth columns were rigid squares, but they were so smooth you could cut yourself on the edges. I couldn’t tell whether they were carved out or placed here. Upon further inspection, I realized that they couldn’t hold the room up at all! In fact, about eight feet up, the column abruptly ended, and about a foot later continued on as if the space in between was not there at all. And inside this empty space was a fire that helped illuminate the room. And the fire was levitating, too! “Am I in the Zephi–the Windcaller’s Temple?” I said. I couldn’t hide the amazement in my voice.
“Yes, Lord Windcaller,” she said. “Iike and the other High Chosen found you outside the Temple. You journey here from the Promised Land must have been a long one indeed if it could exhaust a god such as you.” Her feathers suddenly perked up. “If, you’ll forgive me for saying so, Holy One!” she added hastily.
“Right. Tell me about your, uh… people. Why are you here?”
“Forgive me Holy One–I mean Lord Windcaller–but I don’t understand. You were the ones that brought the Chosen here centuries ago. Our kind has awaited your return ever since.”
“And I am to return you to the ‘Promised Land’?”
“That is what the prophecies say, Lord Windcaller,” Skriishre said, head locked on me as I meandered the room. “Only a Windcaller can enter the Holy One’s Temple. The common humans would die if they tried to approach without controlling the winds.”
“So I am the first to enter in centuries.”
“The first to enter since the Holy One, yes. Prophecy says that when the Windcaller left, a small piece of himself would remain, and when that piece grew, it would return and lead the Chosen back to the Promised Land.”
“I see. And what if a human had arrived at the temple without ‘controlling the winds’?”
“Well, that is impossible, but somebody claiming the title of Windcaller without controlling the winds would be a heretic. The Chosen would have no choice but to cast them off the mountain.”
Well, it was a good thing I was the Lord Windcaller, then.