Devlin woke with a heaving cough, dust and feathers issuing from his mouth. His brain was foggy. He could barely think. He could barely breathe with all these birds, black birds, brown birds, birds the color of dirt and shadows and dried blood, fluttering about his shoulders and face, shedding filthy down in his throat, cawing and chirping in his ears. In his daze, he could barely hear it, but it was all he could hear. Where was Orphelia, he wondered. Why couldn’t she chase them off? Why were they still here?
He wiped the crust from his eyes and looked about the alley. It was getting dark, and she wasn’t here. That wasn’t right. She went about during the day, of course. She brought food and water and the blanket she’d used to erect the makeshift awning over his head, but she always came back before it got dark. He roused what little strength he had and crawled to the mouth of the alley.
The street was nearly empty, and Orphelia was nowhere to be seen, but a sudden flicker of movement in the shadows prompted Devlin to recoil. He scrambled backward as a figure appeared, pausing at the mouth of the alley. It was the old blacksmith from across the street–the one Orphelia had warned him not to speak to. He lingered for only a moment, meeting Devlin’s gaze with a reassured nod before hurrying away. He had a large object–a spear, or perhaps a halberd–balanced on his shoulder, and somewhere amidst the confluence of details, it occurred to Devlin: Something was wrong.
The flock took off in surprise, instinctively squawking, pecking at his hands as he clambered upright. He began to stagger after the old man. The haze and the birds pulled at him, the fog gathered at the edge of his vision, but he willed his legs to keep moving. Orphelia should have been back by now. People were hurrying through the streets with weapons at twilight. She could be in trouble.
He kept hobbling after the man’s shadow for what felt like hours. Was the town really so large? How many houses had he passed? On his periphery, he kept trying to count, to note signs and features of the doorways on either side, but the birds kept fluttering about his shoulders, blocking his view, breaking his train of thought. It was only with a semblance of cognition that he realized he had followed the blacksmith into the square at the north end of town, and then almost immediately he was knocked to the ground, senses assaulted by a blast from the old theater on the other side of the square.
Bleary, he righted himself in a half-crouch to see, through the storm of screeches and feathers, a tall, black-clad figure climb to its feet amongst the debris from the explosion, only to be engulfed again by a torrent of fire jetting from the theater entryway. In the sudden abundance of light, Devlin could see the figure all the more clearly, that it did not seem to heed the flame licking at its voluminous cloak, that its movements were too smooth, too precise, as if it were unfolding rather than simply standing. The birds seemed to see it too: As the flames around the creature died down, leaving it apparently untouched, the screeching chorus faded with them, and for the first time in weeks, Devlin could see clearly.
Standing in what remained of the theater’s doorway was the greasy man Devlin knew to be Marko, the artifact dealer, brandishing a stone sculpture of a face in his left hand, his right covered in blue fire, surging from a glowing bracelet on his wrist. On the other side of the square, as yet unnoticed by either, the blacksmith waited next to a stack of crates, halberd ready, attempting–like Devlin–to take stock of the situation.
“You can get lost if y’ain’t got nothin’ to say!” Marko called out. “We do business here. You can take your threats and leave!”
The figure did not respond, but it did glide forward a pace, prompting Marko to raise the stone face. Instantly, the ground in front of the figure compacted with a loud thud, as if struck by something massive, sending dust into the air and leaving a crater in the dirt. As a warning shot, it would have terrified Devlin, but the creature seemed unfazed, and in the moment of aftermath, as Marko attempted to judge the efficacy of his intimidation, it charged, closing the distance in an instant. It batted the stone face from Marko’s hand and, ignoring the plumes of fire he reflexively raised, tackled him, impaling him through his shoulder on a spike jutting from its cloak where a hand should have been.
The blacksmith was already in motion, running toward them, halberd bracced for a wide swing, but Devlin found himself approaching as well. In the uncanny silence of the birds’ absence, he found himself beset by a bizarre, intrusive desire. He wanted to touch the creature. He wanted to see what was beneath its skin, to stab his beak into whatever served as its eyes and savor the strange taste of flesh. There was a part of him confused, that recoiled halfheartedly at the wet fervor that had overcome him, but it was tired, far too tired to resist.
The blacksmith arrived first, his wild cleave catching the creature at the base of its neck, pulling it from atop Marko and sending it reeling toward Devlin’s position in the middle of the square.k But though he seemed to have struck a solid blow with the sharpened edge of his weapon, the creature righted itself swiftly with a clicking undulation, barely inconvenienced, much less decapitated. It issued a jarring sound, somewhere between a hiss and an otherworldly hum, and poised itself for another charge. Then Devlin reached it.
With a confidence he had never known in himself, he reached out and grasped the limb the creature was passing for an arm, and with a terrifying, practiced familiarity, he projected a presence into the creature, found its whirring voice, and took hold of it.
As expected, it fought back. The hum and the harmonies swelled, intensifying, weaving into vicious complexities as they writhed in his gnarled grip, and then they burrowed into him. Devlin imagined a clicking, modular eye, studying him, unblinking, segments dialing and focusing, but the image remained for only a second before his mind was recalled to reality.
The creature was shuddering, resonating violently, and the force of the vibration was all but wrenching Devlin’s arm from its socket. His confidence was gone. He panicked and let go. Still twitching erratically, the creature whirled on him, but before it could continue the motion, it lurched sideways into the ground with a metallic crunch, and the twitching stopped.
Looking past the fallen creature, Devlin noticed Marko, clutching his shoulder with one hand, the stone face raised tepidly in the other. Behind him stood the blacksmith, undisguised concern written on his brow, attention divided between Devlin and the motionless heap of cloth and spines at his feet.
“What…” Devlin croaked, the query only half in mind before the screeches and feathers returned to drown it out. Then the haze returned. And the fatigue. Then his legs buckled, and everything went black and mercifully quiet.