1431 anno corvus, summer, second decade of Gemini, Copper Springs.
Remnants of stained-glass windows, clouded with time and spider webs, broke rays of light into sharp edges. The rays mingled with the musty air and the floating dust that seemed to fill the house of the gods to its very apex.
The interior of the cathedral had grown wild and decrepit, had lost its former grandeur and sacrality. Termites skittered in the wall paneling: their black burrows riddled the carven figures of sacred animals like birdshot. The stone floor slabs, which retained the memory of kings and heroes past, had fallen to an onslaught of weeds and creeping vines. Of the previous furnishings only lighter spots on the walls remained. All of the statues, the images of the gods, the astronomical clock, the sacred writings, and even the coppers from the sacramental fountain had been appropriated for the kingdom’s needs; the congregation had taken everything else. Faith had been brutally rooted out of the people’s consciousness. One after another, religions had crumbled into dust, and their ceremonies had died with the gods.
A Believer walked up to the ruins of the cathedral before Artan. Settling in by the entrance, she began to pray at length, not aloud, of course, but hardly moving her lips, chanting under her breath. To protect herself from the heat she had shrouded her head with some motley rags that were surprisingly clean. The mendicant did not smell foul or look to be ailing. She was not begging, and the coins that passersby threw remained in the road. Artan hadn’t heard the Believer say a word in over a year, but today she had either got a touch of sun or had completely lost her mind—she darted around the square, approached people, tugged on sleeves, beseeched. Artan noticed her from afar, and when he got closer, he could make out her words as well.
“This city remains in name only! Copper Springs! Where are these springs—they’ve all dried up! There were meadows! A river without end, without edge! We used to paddle around it on boats, but now? Dust, sand! They’ve ruined everything! They’ve wrecked everything with that mine, blast it! What have they done with this holy place?” screamed the Believer, pointing to the cathedral.
Artan paused. He knew these fanatics: now she would start to curse science, or plead to restore the forbidden holidays, or wedge in some kind of horridness about the king, then a guard would come up and restrain her, or maybe one of the peasants would whack her with his stick before that. Artan made himself comfortable in the shade, pulled his hat down over his brow, and began to watch.
“The people have also all gone dry! Look at yourselves — all dead, like shadows!” croaked the old woman. Gradually her laments subsided into indiscernible whimpers, and then into tears. The mendicant clutched her head and sobbed uncontrollably, not noticing that her kerchief was slipping. Some of her graying hair slipped free and Artan suddenly understood that this woman was not old, just ill-conditioned, with skin weathered from constant sunburn. Her eyes were clear and she had all her teeth. If she was older than Artan, then it was only by about ten years, not more. But who had brainwashed her so—her family or some cult?
The family was more likely, some half-witted granny pontificating about how a hundred years ago the stars were brighter, Artan guessed, and the Believer, completely forgetting herself, sank into prayer:
“Pray! Seek forgiveness! Repent of forgetting the gods! The Light from His shadow, the great goddess Inanna…”
“All right, that’s it. Enough, go on home.” Artan could not hold back, went up to the woman, and dropped a firm hand on her shoulder. The Believer started in surprise and looked back at him, frightened.
“You! Birder!” the woman unexpectedly howled, jerking her shoulder away angrily, “Soul-killer! Burn, burn in the fire of Inanna!”
“We would still be living in caves thanks to your brethren!” snarled Artan, patience lost. “I daresay that you like how the streetlights light up the town? It was worth the churches crumbling for everything that came afterward—money, and science, and weapons from the Eidolons. Don’t like it? Go to the woods and pray, see what comes to you! Try to shoo the Eidolons away! Go on! Away with you!”
Artan grabbed the woman by the arm and roughly pushed her away. The Believer stumbled, but didn’t back down. She raised her gaze to Artan, pressing her lips together, and silently walked away, holding on to her aching arm.
Artan, noticing the eyes upon him, set his cloak right and hurried into the cathedral for his watch. Because of the crooked walls the doors had long since become stuck, and he squeezed through an opening between the door panels as usual.
The spire of the cathedral had collapsed during the war, and an open hole from an artillery blast yawned in the tower, but it had nevertheless remained standing and was still the highest point in Copper Springs. The floor of the uppermost landing had been cleared of rocks and garbage, the remnants of the walls reinforced, a roof cobbled together/patched, and an acoustic cannon installed.
Artan climbed to the top of the tower, mounting the three hundred steps. He yanked his clammy, sweaty neckerchief from his face, wiped his forehead and neck with it, and tossed it to the floor. He spit out a piece of scratchy grit from between his teeth. The warmth from the stone floor, ever hotter, permeated the soles of his boots. This year the Light had tested the entire kingdom by drawing out the unbearable heat all summer. Artan surveyed the city, picked up a canteen, and took a few small gulps. Having quenched his thirst, he repositioned the canteen’s cork and then pushed it into place with the palm of his hand.
Opposite his gaze, pinned to the wall with a trio of daggers, was a worn scroll with official stamps. An order of exile. Artan had received it four hundred and twenty two days ago. He cast a glance at the lines scratched on the wall, and drew another one. He produced a piece of venison jerky from his bad and listlessly bit into it. Thus began his last dekada in that corroded hell.
With a sigh, he sprawled in an iron chair. A second chair, identical to the first, sat empty. His mentor now emerged from his den only for the tavern or the hunt. Today he had gone for the first option, so only the idling acoustic cannon droned next to Artan. The view from the tower encompassed the whole city. The houses, bleached sallow, were drowning in sand. Dust blew around the back streets, lifted by intermittent breezes. Dogs lazed under carts, and pangozes climbed scorching stone walls.
The Believer had been right about something. Tired figures, calling to mind faceless shadows, drifted around the streets. Men, women, and children were identically tanned and had rust-stained clothing. Most citizens of Copper Springs were in the mine. Its breath smoked at the edge of town, and a line of workers swarmed to and fro around the clock. At night the road was ringed by lamps. The work paid well. The king valued the miners’ labor almost as much as that of the Birders and the healers, and therefore there were always plenty of volunteers. The townsfolk did not fear the dry, dusty air, the cloudy, metallic-tasting water, or the many kilometers of gray wasteland that surrounded the city.
They weren’t afraid of the crows either. The place was too unappealing to them: the dust got into their lungs, the water poisoned them, the light burned their skin, and crows need healthy, uncontaminated bodies. In the past it had been thought the crows Hunted whenever they wanted, but actually a single creature changed bodies only once every twenty or thirty years. By this age a Copper Springs citizen was ruined, and consequently crows didn’t settle or Hunt there.
Instead, the Eidolons inhabited Copper Springs.
Artan sighed deeply and took a small phial from his pocket. He unscrewed the lid and took a drop of blue-black liquid into an eyedropper. Bitterness filled his mouth before the solution even touched his tongue. Artan grimaced. He should have become accustomed to it after fifteen years, but it was still such awful stuff! He shook his head and resumed his vigil. First he took in а fissure in the sky, then directed his gaze lower, to the mine itself. The bustling before his eyes intensified, and Artan bit his lip so as not to blink. A curtain of dust overflowed, first gray, then green with red flecks. There it was. The scene before him rippled, slipping away, but Artan managed to home in on it. The figure became larger, gained depth, and in a few minutes the eidolon had manifested in all its glory.
Its hammer-shaped head touched the clouds, swaying in the wind. Its mighty neck was at least three kilometers in height and cut across the sky in a fat line. The eidolon yawned with toothless jaws and vented black clouds of smoke from its nostrils that extended to somewhere beyond the line of the horizon. The workers marched directly through the body of the monster. The unseeing.
Every third person in the kingdom was born “unseeing,” and only every thousandth “sighted.” The rest were “sleepers”,” who could learn to open their eyes to a greater or lesser degree. The unseeing couldn’t see or feel the eidolons, even when they weren’t hiding themselves; the sighted could even discern a crow in human guise. Artan, like all birders, had drunk a toxin since childhood that, once it sufficiently accumulated in a sleeper’s bones and tissues, gradually allowed him to see creatures. At first you saw only small ones, but by the end of your training you could see the most terrible monsters. With time the skill sharpened to the point of a reflex, and for this reason Artan often couldn’t fall asleep, detecting the stirrings of shadows in the corners. But he would sacrifice anything in order to be able to pick out a crow at a glance.
The sighted always got the best posts: those in proximity to the king, in aristocrats’ personal escorts, on the Council of the Guild. They most certainly were not exiled to insignificant provinces in the middle of nowhere so that they could shoot at eidolons from time to time.
If Artan had continued to look, he would have also seen the deep purple hide of the monster, and probably its enormous tail as well, encircling the mine, and far ahead still another pair of the same beasts. But Artan was not interested in this. He swiveled the cannon about, aimed it, took hold of the lever and pressed the pedal. The weapon warmed up and began to shake, rumbling louder every second, and when the handles were practically jumping out of his hands, Artan fired.
ZZZZZZZZZZZHHHHUUUUM! The acoustic wave startled the pigeons from the roofs, flew over half the city, and struck the monster in the chest. Not everyone could hit the mark from such a distance, but Artan was a good artilleryman. The lingering, pained cry of the eidolon rang out – a charred hole marred its skin and exposed some of its ribs – but the wound quickly began to scab over.
“Go on, go on, get out of here,” grumbled Artan.
The eidolon turned its head, as though looking for its assailant, but didn’t move from where it was, and Artan shot it again. The creature roared and slowly surged to its disproportionately thick legs, took a step, and again began to lower its head. Artan, though he know that the gorax wasn’t dangerous during the day, lost courage momentarily, but the creature, with the intrinsic sluggishness of its kind, began to move away from the mine. It couldn’t be killed with a single cannon, just driven a bit further off. At night the goraxes went to sleep on the ground and produced a poisonous slime in which they trapped their prey to secure until morning.
Artan got to his feet. His ears had popped from the shots, and besides that he needed to use the privy terribly. He had stopped climbing down to make use the sacramental fountain on his third day of exile and had since been relieving himself in the stairwell below.
Time passed slowly. Dropping his hands, Artan rocked back and forth in the chair, producing piercing, plaintive screeches. In the past few hours he had shot a few more beasts and had even found a muckworm under the broken bell. It was long, almost a yard, and was greedily collecting the grain of emotions that floated in the air, wriggling its entire body. A small black tongue darted out of its eyeless head. Artan suddenly, disgustedly, understood how the creature had materialized there. Clots of his rage had settled to the floor, amassed there, and had attracted the eidolon. The muckworm had initially hidden itself in the dark place, crawling out at night to nourish itself, but now had matured and grown daring. Artan took the creature’s measure at a glance, but he wasn’t going to start spending precious chemicals on trivialities. It would take but a drop of his toxin to dissolve the muckworm, but there were only three ounces of the violet stuff left in his phial, and he didn’t know what he might have to fight in the future.
In the past year he had seen enough monstrosities to fill an entire bestiary: heruds, whisperids, nightmares. Once he had even encountered a carnivorous tree that had sprouted in a butcher’s shop. It had appeared abruptly, breaking through the floor and the ceiling; its roots had enveloped the entire shop, and its leafless branches were gobbling up the cuts of beef on the counter. By the time the birders rushed in, it was too late: the tree had already eaten butcher as an appetizer, dragging him to its trunk and swallowing him entirely. Then a transparent yellow cocoon had appeared between its branches. Its membrane burst and an abrakh popped out – a demon vulture, about the size of a grouse. It had cried out as though stung and rushed at the hunters. Artan had chased it around the shop while the others uprooted the tree; the mentor had merely stood by and smirked maliciously. He knew, the old bastard, that his pupil had been sent a certificate of reinstatement that required his signature and that he could now lord it over the youth however he wished. And Artan really had put his back into things for the past constellation. He had fulfilled all his duties. The young birder had been dreaming of his return to the capital for a dekada already, and he was afraid to even sneeze in front of the mentor. The mentor had at one time been a legendary birder—the number of crows he had killed approached a hundred, and those he had captured alive were still being held in torture chambers.
Artan did not know what such a renowned man was doing in this backwater. Why had the Guild sent one of their best hunters, along with his ashati, to a place where there were no crows? The city guards whispered that he had injured his knee on a hunt, and that it had been proposed that he recuperate in Copper Springs (where, by the way, one year of service counted as three), but Artan did not believe this. For one thing, the mentor had not been limping at all when Artan arrived in town, and for another, the Guild not only hadn’t called the hunter back to active duty, but had also foisted upon him a pupil who had been sent in disgrace from the capital. At first Artan had been pleased as punch—to study under such a master!—but it wasn’t advisable to ask the mentor about his reasons for being in Copper Springs. The only time he had asked, the old hunter merely smiled, the scars covering his face making him look monstrous, and then made Artan run along the city walls until he nearly passed out from heatstroke. Artan had not asked any more questions, and with time his training had become more bearable and had in general been quite useful, proving that the mentor was capable of training more than an ashati. And how amazing the hunter’s cat was! Well-trained, obedient, strong despite her advanced age… Artan had heard the story of the mentor and Arakul from the time he was a boy. Numerous scars covered her hide, and there were bald patches in her gray fur. Her chipped horns had long since lost their snow-white luster, and had now begun to resemble charred stumps. Her left eye had been crisscrossed by a crow’s talons, and was almost immobile, with light blue depths. But when she wanted to, the ashati could bite through a backbone like a bear; Artan had personally witnessed this feat on the hunt. For entire days Arakul would either loaf around back streets snapping up little eidolons, or, like any ordinary cat, would spend the greater part of the day asleep in a cool corner. The mentor took her with him only on dangerous excursions (of which there were not many), and in the summers all the work fell entirely to Artan.
Artan, without noticing, had started to doze off, and he started at the high-pitched squeal of the cannon. He had almost fallen asleep at his post! He got up with difficulty—he had a splitting headache, and the heat was mounting. Artan removed his hat and poured half the contents of his canteen over his head, mopped the sticky drops from his brow, and turned to fixing the cannon. He pointed its wide barrel upwards so as not to hurt anyone should it go off accidentally, and opened the casing under its belly. Smoke was pouring out of the case. Artan swore and, burning himself, picked up its wide translucent solar element by the corners. The element was cloudy and fissured around the edges. He picked up a new one and turned the cannon on its side and toward the light to install it. One could take these broken parts to the lamplighter and get oneself ten frants for them; everyone knew that birder artillerymen stole a few solar elements, and the Guild looked the other way and allowed these side deals. But it would cost the mentor nothing to extend Artan’s exile for another few constellations just out of spite.
Once he finished with the cannon, he decided to clean and sharpen the remaining weapons. He took down the swords and daggers in their scabbards and sharpened their blades on the whetstone unhurriedly. Then he checked on the wrist crossbows, took inventory of the arrows and poison darts, and, finally, greased the sturdy old snares. Artan wiped the dust off their spools and very carefully pulled out their little rings. The razor-sharp filaments were coming out in fits and starts. Artan scowled and oiled the spools’ interior. His hands shook a little as he let the rings go, and the snares rewound themselves again. With a satisfied smile, he imagined himself in full battle regalia, with two revolvers, smoke and sonic bombs, a net launcher, and an amethyst jewelry box full of crow shorls.
[Shorl (from the Old Tongue Schörl - “black tourmaline,” soul-catchers, with the help of which crows could hunt for new bodies. Outwardly the stones looked identical to human eyes.]
The cannon let out a chirp and began to drone quietly, but it had completed only its first cycle out of nine (the whole charging process took about two hours), and already Artan had nothing to do.
Still, that element had really come out of alignment pretty quickly, he thought. Usually they lasted for a whole constellation, and in the winters you generally didn’t have to change them at all. Artan turned over the coins in the pocket of his cloak pensively. The mentor was in a different part of the city and the patrolling guards were cooling off in the cellar of some tavern with a mug of beer. The lamplighter was but ten minutes’ walk from the cathedral, and though his work didn’t start until twilight, he wasn’t opposed to rustling up some extra inventory during the day. Artan wavered a bit more, then decided to chance it. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to fill his purse a bit before leaving for the capital, and ten frants was nothing to sneeze at. It was almost a third of his monthly pay.
Ehh, I don’t know, it’s clouded pretty bad,” drawled the lamplighter, an old man of more than fifty, drearily. His front teeth were missing, and while he was speaking the tip of his tongue frequently showed between his lips.
“Just like all the ones before,” said Artan emphatically, not wishing to haggle and waste time. He immediately regretted it—the lamplighter instantly sensed that he was in a hurry.
“Cracked pretty bad too,” the man continued. He affixed a small circular watchmaker’s loupe to his glasses, and sighed with affected sorrow. “I’ll only get two lanterns out of this one. How about seven—sound good?” he offered with a smile.
“Are you out of your mind, old man? You’ll save twenty frants thanks to this!” Artan burst out. His anger threatened to spill over, but he managed to find the strength to calm himself and said, firmly, “Nine.”
“All right, eight,” smirked the lamplighter. He quickly removed his glasses and shrugged. “Don’t get your dander up, boy. Next time scratch it neater, not with a knife. Use a needle probably, it’ll be better.”
“I don’t get it. Are you suggesting something?” Artan was getting fired up again. “It was that way when I took it out of the casing!”
“Mm-hmm, of course, of course,” agreed the lamplighter quickly. “Must’ve got jostled from the shot and cracked again something inside. Clamp or some such. Them panels are right fragile! Here, have a lookie-loo…” He jabbed a finger at the largest chip—plink!—“the energy’s started to build up pretty bad, the glass’s all dark, the split goes up further. All the same to me, though, it’ll make a fine lantern. Clean ’er up, polish ’er up…” The lamplighter went into his little storeroom, continuing to mutter something, and came out with the money. “Here. Yours.”
“Okay.” Artan scooped the coins into his fist and hurried out of the stuffy room. He put some into his purse immediately and pushed the rest into various pockets and hiding places. Birders weren’t above everyday inconveniences; they could get robbed on the highway like anyone else. Your cloak and your money—well, those could certainly be stolen, and your weapons (sword or dagger) could be taken to be resold (because what kind of idiot would walk around with a birder’s blade?). The net launcher and toxins, however, they wouldn’t touch, as well as the little caskets with the crows’ eyes. Any normal person would recoil from them, and would never think to pick them up. But money was the same everywhere, and therefore Artan decided to hide one coin in his hair tie (his hair almost reached his shoulders) and another in his toxin phial, pouring water over it to hide it. He would have put another couple in his amethyst casket, had he had one. Two frants was quite enough for a rainy day: he could stay for a few nights in some little village and send a letter to the nearest fort for help. There would even be some left over.
Artan rounded the corner, skirted the workshop from the rear of the courtyard, walked for a ways along the narrow path, and came out on the wide street that led to the market, in the direction of the cathedral.
To protect themselves from the unrelenting sun, people had hung wide multicolored woven sheets between the houses, and now red, green, blue, yellow, and gray shadows fell on the road’s surface. There were always a lot of people here. A troupe of actors was putting on its various scenes and comedies; a bit further people haggled over spices—cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, cloves; a dressmaker hung long skirts and shawls about; and passersby stopped, looked, tried on, and tasted noisily, one conversation bleeding into the next. Artan got lost in the crowd, and then in the multicolored whirlwind of colors he suddenly saw her.
A young woman in a bright blue dress. Regal, with a proudly straightened spine, hands very correctly posed across her stomach. Her face was shaded by the shadow of a lacy parasol carried by a young page. He walked a little ahead of her, elbowing aside slow-moving pedestrians. And her — what would you call her? Definitely a lady. A young one, but nonetheless a beautiful lady, like the holy fox from the fairy tales! The daughter of a merchant or a judge, or maybe just a countess. Clearly a mistress of many lands, but which? What was she doing here? She had pale skin that hadn’t been touched by the savage rays of the sun, so she must not have been there long.
“Who are you?” Artan wondered. He started to follow her, looking around anxiously. He still had plenty of time, and he followed in the unfamiliar woman’s footsteps.
It was strange that nobody was paying attention to her. The crowd wasn’t touching her, men weren’t tossing her curious glances, and shopkeepers weren’t trying to sell her their wares. She proceeded to the end of the street and entered the market. In the midst of the dirt, muck, and stench, the woman in the blue dress looked inappropriate and silly. The page gave her his hand and helped her to step over various effluvia in the street, and led her to the furthest stall, which was tucked away next to the city wall. The dried fish seller unhurriedly got up and intently followed the page’s examination of his wares. The woman merely nodded thoughtfully.
Artan stopped ten paces back. He stretched out his hand as if he wasn’t sure whether the vision he saw was real or some kind of specter. The woman was magnificent: a slender, delicate figure, a waterfall of silken black hair falling to her waist. Spellbound, Artan slowly raised his gaze higher and higher, aiming it at the little bow at the nape of her neck.
He held his breath.
The woman jerked her head up.
Artan fired his crossbow.
Birders’ crossbow arrows were short, and Artan’s first shot went into the fish seller’s throat right up to its fletching.
His second pierced his lung, completely concealing itself within his rib cage.
Artan didn’t see right away where the third one went. He froze in a silly pose, leaning forward, unable to lower his weapon. The crossbow was still vibrating from the shots. Or was his hand shaking?
The man grasped at the bolts, choking. Blood bubbled up from his chest and streamed from his mouth. The arrow in his throat bobbed up and down from the spasmodic contractions of his larynx. He teetered and collapsed onto the counter. It all happened in a single breath. And only now did Artan hear shouts, crying children, people running about, the guard being called; right next to him someone sank to the ground, covering his head with his hands. People scattered from the square like a frightened flock of birds.
But the woman in the blue dress remained standing in place. She pinned the page to her side with her left hand, and with her right hand she held the crossbow bolt that she had caught in midair, holding it to the throat of her servant. Her hair was mussed—the first arrow had torn through her braid and left a long thin cut on her cheek. In order to dodge the shot, she had had to drop her human form, and now the crow was looking at Artan, and its stony black eye was spitting green sparks.
He raised his second crossbow, aiming at the crow.
The crow began to hiss and raised the little boy a bit higher, pulling up his chin, and clicked its tongue admonishingly. The page jerked away, flailing his arms. His eyes, wide from fear, filled with tears, and he scratched and bit at the arm holding him, but the crow looked only at the birder. Only he posed any threat. It bristled—its hair stood on end and sharpened, beginning to resemble plumage—and its face was shadowed, hiding its gaze, but Artan could see its triangular smile. It was smiling with another’s lips, the beast, and grinning with another’s teeth!
“Do you think he’s anything to me?! Huh?” screamed Artan, and furiously unwound his snare launcher. Its shining thread reduced the shop counter to kindling and bit into the body of the fish seller, slicing through him. The crow shoved the page and covered its head with its hands. Blood spurted, scraps of fish flew about in all directions, and then clang!
Artan felt something catch the line with his left hand. After a moment’s resistance, the line broke. Artan reeled his second line in, the mechanical reel screeching as it wound itself up again.
Coins fell on the sand, cut by the line into scrap metal. Drops of blood slid down the woman’s face. The sleeves of her dress transformed into perforated rags. The crow straightened up and began to detach itself from the line, which had gotten stuck between the feathers that had pierced its clothes and shielded the beast. The crow took the line between two fingers and with ostentatious disdain dropped it on the ground. Artan had not known that a crow’s armor was capable of withstanding a hit from the snare launcher.
The page lay supine and continuously howled a single note, drowning in tears.
“RUN!” Artan yelled at him, casting his entire line while simultaneously loosing an arrow. The boy leapt to his feet and ran for the hills, and Artan immediately put him out of his head. The crow ducked and dodged, leapt backwards up onto the stall counter, and took the birder’s measure—its shorl began to glitter with white sparks—and Artan braced himself, preparing for an echo, but it didn’t come. The crow did not begin its attack. It sighed noisily, leapt over the counter, and took to its heels.
Artan lingered, just for a moment: he hadn’t expected such an abrupt retreat, but then he was seized by a singular rage, and he hurried after it.
Apprentices differed from true hunters in that their mental reflexes were not as well developed as they needed to be. For Artan this lack of reflex was fateful.
He continued his hunt.
Artan understood quickly that he wouldn’t overtake the beast in the mob. The crow ran much faster than he and agilely skirted passersby, not running into anyone.
[17.02.2017 1:26:57] kerry.philben: The houses stood so close together that Artan could easily leap from rooftop to rooftop without slowing his stride. Soon he broke even with the crow—agile though it was, it was held up by the crowd. Artan sped up. Hop! Roof, three steps, another hop, and now he was ahead: he raised the crossbow and fired. The bolt bounced off of a stone above the crow’s shoulder. The beast flinched, hesitated, and Artan took his chance. He leapt from above. The blade of his sword hit its exposed wing. The crow wriggled free and kicked at his stomach, but Artan blocked the blow. He loosed another bolt, almost point blank. The crow jumped, its talons catching on the wall of the building, and crawled backward, lizardlike. Artan shot three more times, but the beast dodged, jumping from wall to wall, and returned fire with sharp-edged feathers. Artan dropped the ground. He heard the whistle of the crow’s missiles just above his ear.
The city alarm sounded. Somewhere in the distance the city gates rumbled closed.
“You’re done, beast! There’s no way out unless you tunnel through!” yelled Artan madly. The crow leapt to the ground and hissed. Artan raised his sword and heard the clinking of the guards’ armor very close by. The beast stopped its racket and backed into an alleyway.
Artan was there almost immediately, but saw only guards’ corpses, and picked up his pace. His blood burned and urged him on; he came racing out onto a wide crossing in time to see the crow stave in the flimsy gates into a rear courtyard at a run and hide itself in a granary.
He ran in after it without hesitation.
[17.02.2017 1:27:08] kerry.philben: Empty. There was no other exit, and Artan decided in a panic that his eyes had deceived him, and was already turning to run back out into the street when he heard a rustle in the corner. He fired without looking, hoping to flush the beast into the open. The crow screamed and crawled out on all fours into the spot of light stretching from the open doors.
“Mmm! Mmmbaa… Uuuukhhhh, aaaagggkhaaaa…” it whined and sniffled as though it had suddenly lost the ability to speak. It moved its hands around the floor, like it was feeling around hoping to find something, but Artan was not moved. He shot it in the heart—the body silently crumpled to the floor, raising a cloud of dust—and reloaded. He switched his crossbows over to single fire and began to loose all his remaining bolts, one after another, into the crow’s chest, sorry that he didn’t have revolvers to turn the girl into human-shaped mush. The mechanism continued to fire from the clip, indifferent.
“Piece. Of. Shit. Rot in hell!”
Artan shook his head, sheathed his blade, and turned the body onto its back with his foot. The woman’s head lolled limply. Tangled hair covered its face. Blood bathed its neck and ran in two streams onto the ground. The black feathers on its hands shriveled and fell out.
Artan gazed at the corpse as he would a work of art, admiring it while he caught his breath. He then took thin white gloves out of his pocket and for the first time in many years put them on with great anticipation. Finally, for the first time, he would husk a crow, and in his little casket, which they would issue to him on the spot, would appear his first trophy. He bent over, holding a blade to its throat just in case, and carelessly pushed a strand of hair out of its face.