Corvus had seen more with his one eye than most had seen with two. Not that he resented the loss of his eye. After all, he’d plucked it out himself. No, one eye had served him well enough. But how would he fare with none?
He swept low through the trees, looking, looking while he still could. There were the usual distractions. The rabbits and voles. The guts the bears left along the river. A splash of bright color tucked against the dark soil. But the time for those things had passed.
The Bright One called.
He followed the curve of the river around the base of the bluffs, up its clattering gravel bed, past the salmon’s breeding grounds writhing with new life and new death. Worth a visit, had he the time. But the Tors loomed high ahead. A tremor ran down his back. How had he spent his time so quickly?
Would he ever feel the sun on his black feathers again? Would he taste rotted squirrel?
Was it all over?
Corvus banked into the deep shadow of the Tors, disappearing into the darkness. He considered pinwheeling back out into the light, just once more, just once, but didn’t dare. Mustn’t keep the Bright One waiting.
A seam loomed hollow and deep against the base of the Tors. A shadow in a shadow, and shadowed Corvus slipped inside. A world of dark and dim, of blindness and endless sight. The world of the Bright One. How long had it been since he’d been inside that cave? How long until he left again?
He’d known this was coming. He’d known that he was trading much more than an eye. No point whining about it now.
Corvus ducked the low ceiling and landed on the loose scree with a clatter that echoed deep. He hopped down the length of the cavern as the weak sunlight from outside dimmed and dimmed and disappeared. His one eye had seen its last.
And his empty socket saw again.
The walls swirled with color and life, solid stone that slept and sang and swam, if only you stood still long enough to see it. Corvus looked forward and saw another creature fumbling blindly toward him. A badger, her fur and bone ablaze with life and movement.
A supplicant to the Bright One, but still with her natural eyes. Might Corvus claim an eye from her some day? Might she be his relief?
No matter. Not yet anyway. He fluttered past her, enjoying the sightless way she turned her furred head this way and that, the tenseness in her stance, but he couldn’t harry her further. Not on the Bright One’s grounds. They were all siblings here, and Mother didn’t tolerate squabbling.
The seam opened into a broad cavern, and there she was, all light and color.
The Bright One.
She lifted her great horned head weakly toward him, her empty sockets piercing him. “Corvus.”
He hopped closer, head tucked low. “Bright One.”
“Achlis will do,” she said weakly. “Have you enjoyed your purchase, little one?”
“It passed too quickly.”
She huffed on a laughed. “Don’t I know it. It always does. How does the world look?”
Corvus considered. What would he want to know about, when his time came? “Beautiful. The trees are all yellowed for the Cold. The vermin are plentiful. The face of the land changes.” He hesitated, wondering how much she could see down here. “I watched the river change in its banks. I watched the forests spread and contract. I watched mountains shake off their skins, and fires devour the land.”
“Mm.” She nodded slowly. “Always the same.” They were silent for a long while and Corvus watched brilliant gold pulsing in her chest, spreading out and then disappearing, each pulse weaker than the last. She dimmed at the edges, the brightness leaking out of her.
A millennia is inconceivably long when you’ve got a scant two decades in you. To live, to cheat death, to breath and eat and fight when all the rest weaken and die… What a bargain it had been! But the prize was suddenly soured. All those years watching the forests blaze with autumn and burst green with spring, over and over and over again, and now… Now he would watch nothing at all, the beating heart of the world, trapped in a cage of ribs.
Could he flee? What would happen to him then?
What would happen to everything else?
“Are you ready, Corvus?”
No. No, he wasn’t. He drew a rapid trio of panicked breaths. “Yes, Achlis.”
“Good. So am I.” She rested her head on the skree and waited.
He could fly. He could fly and she couldn’t stop him.
But he didn’t. He blink, blink, blinked with his one true eye and lifted a shaking talon nicked and pitted by centuries. He’d known. He’d known this was coming. He tucked that talon under his eyelid and pushed, a strangled cry of pain fighting loose. His eye, his eye, it fell to the gravel floor and he shuddered and bled and breathed.
She watched, infinite relief roiling in those empty sockets. “Bright One,” she whispered to him, and then the golden throbbing stopped.
White light flamed through him, burning away death and rot, burning away age and want. Burning away Corvus. He saw everything. He saw the writhing twist of the river, and the flaming heart of the world, and the sloughing, scabbing, scarring skin of the earth, and he could not, could not, close those hollow eyes.
“Bright One,” he breathed, and settled himself in his kingdom with a sob.