The bird moves like a scythe through the air.
Black wing tips cut through the dead blue sky with little resistance, moving silently as a whispered threat. Anything it preys on now will not hear, will not see danger until wrapped in the tangle of sword-like claws. All they may feel is a chill as the black feathered mass blocks out the sun. Only its shadow, big as a tree, gives it away.
The bird is looking. Hungrier and emptier are the days now, between kills. There is less of everything now. In the beginning of its new largeness, there were wingless two-leggers everywhere, almost the only things enough to satisfy the craving for meat. The bird felt a sparkling explosion of animalistic joy the first time it dove into one with its beak, fingers still twitching.
It still does not fully understand how the tall gods of all its life and the birds before it suddenly became squirming pale things far below on the ground, scurrying to and fro enchantingly as if in some game. It does not care how now. The flesh is sweet, and easy to cut through once one is caught, and that heady redness to drink in drives out all thought except for more.
One – An overgrown miracle
Where were they?
Ash pressed her back against the crumbling limestone archway and glared hard into the dawn.
She didn’t particularly feel like dying today more than any other day, so she looked again. But the sky was empty of oversized wings. Empty of rain too.
It was not good, this, venturing out when you couldn’t see them. But what choice did she have? There was nothing left. Ash pictured it in her mind, to give her courage: the last measly handful of lentils, barely enough to keep one of them from starvation. Vanita’s face flashed before her eyes. That did it. She hoisted her crossbow over a shoulder and darted out before sense could stop her.
As soon as she was out in the open, it was easy to remember that her childhood home was gone. Rhodopalais looked eerie in the grey morning light, with red scrawls of mob profanities graffitied on the walls, the withered remains of mazes lying under the sightless gaze of vandalised statues, staring not at their own missing limbs but out at the pinkening sky.
Then a crunch on the gravel that was not her own.
“Honestly Derrick, people have been shot for less,” she whispered over her shoulder, a small smile in her voice.
“One day, just one, I’ll manage to sneak up on you.”
“Well, not today. Come on.”
They moved fast, homemade crossbows high as they darted across the dead ground, past the rusted trampled things that had once been imposing gates of gilded fleur-de-lis.
Ash’s heart was hammering in her ribs, the way it always did. She tried to think of something else. But her mind kept coming back to the size of them, and the way they tore through flesh like hot butter before their victims had even died. And their sheer heat as they stood over you, cocking their heads from side to side. But dread would only slow her down from what she had to do, so she tried to wonder instead what the foray would bring.
The last thing she was expecting on another day at the end of the world was an overgrown miracle.
They had scarcely gone half a mile when they saw it, standing on its own in the veld-like expanse that had once been green. A pumpkin the size of a doorway.
They both stared up at it in silence. Finally, Derrick whistled.
“A pumpkin fit for Cinderella.”
Ash snorted, too loudly in the dry air. It was ludicrous to connect the very thing that had poisoned the ground with some social-climbing dead celebrity from a time when problems consisted of who to marry.
Still. It had been so long since she had seen one of the freakishly engorged vegetables of the Expansion Project. She couldn’t stop looking at it, half convinced that if she looked away it would vanish.
How was it even still there? After the Expansion Project failed, all the neighbouring estates had sent staff out for weeks to gather up the last of the gigantically deformed produce. Then their elderly, and then the children. Until there was no one left to send. Were they the only household left? It was impossible to know. No one ventured outside anymore, because of the birds.
As if she had summoned them with her mind, Derrick‘s voice rang out.
Ash turned away from the pumpkin, just in time to see giant talons coming in for her face.
Before she had time to think, instinct threw her to the ground. Claws the colour and size of poisonous coral snakes landed next to her head.
A pigeon - that was lucky. The pigeon carriors had become large from feeding off of the Expansion grain while it had lasted, and technically weren’t supposed to eat meat, unlike the scavenger carriors like crows that had taken a liking to humans. The pigeons were among the dumbest kinds of carriors, but that didn’t mean they weren’t dangerous. Ash had seen plenty of surprised-looking corpses out in the fields that had been crushed to death by being landed on by one of these horse-sized oafs, who would try peck at the body, fail, and swoop off again, leaving its kill for the scavengers. Still, at least they were dumb.
The massive bird was in profile to her now, facing Derrick. It bobbed its head and looked at him with yellow-green eyes. For a moment, Ash felt a small wave of awe go through her. The big pest, so commonplace when it was ankle-height that she had never really looked at it, was magnificent. Within its feathers were flashes of iridescent pinks, lilacs and greens, and the smoky grey plumage on its head gave way to downy lighter grey feathers the colour of clouds, dappled on its wings like a horse’s flanks.
Then it pecked at Derrick’s shoulder, cooing monstrously, and the spell was broken. With a winded sound, he fell over backwards. Quickly, Ash readied her crossbow and planted her elbows more firmly into the cracked earth. She breathed out slowly once, twice, then readied her aim. The carrior was about to come at Derrick again, and that was good. It was distracted, it’s chest was exposed. Ash twitched her finger, let her iron bolt fly and felt the meaty ring of satisfaction in her own chest as it pierced straight through the side of the bird towards the heart centre.
She must have hit a lung, for it gurgled monstrously without any piercing shriek, then crashed gracelessly to the ground. It was silly after all this time, but she always felt the twistings of guilt in her gut after she’d made a kill. This one had its long neck contorted backward and its eyes closed. Ash did not really want to, but she found herself looking at the soft, downy feathers on the bird’s chest and how they were interrupted by the ugly dark bolt of iron she’d put there. It almost looked helpless.
Derrick was hovering in that way he had, massaging the shoulder the pigeon had pecked. “We should get the body back for eating.”
Ash shook her head, still looking down at the poor creature. “I know we can’t be picky about meat nowadays, but we have to choose. The carrior made a noise when it fell, and people are learning to hear what a dead carrior sounds like. There will only be time to make off with one before any mobs come. What if the carrior attracts Expansion-sized maggots? Plus, the bird would require plucking and cooking. Who is going to help, Vanita?” She snorted at the idea. “No, I think the priority is the pumpkin.” They both looked over at the huge orange globe again, and Derrick nodded.
It took the better part of two hours to hack the rope-like stem, find thick enough wood to act as a lever and then finally roll their find onto its side. In silence, the strange procession began: the girl with a crossbow and expectations of only bad things, circling the boy rolling the giant orange sphere like something out of a fairy tale.
Today, it seemed, they would be fed.