The hunting birds were brought forth in a dark, cramped space. They couldn’t see the sky, and that made them panic. There was noise in the cave. The shouting of apes and flashes of bright, loud power. It drove them to a frenzy. They needed to be out, to be free. This cave was filled with power and noise; why had the masters brought them here? The apes smelled of power. Developed power, far too much of it for them to hunt. The prey had to be weaker. They had to get out.
They were undriven, uncontrolled; their mistress far too focused on other matters to give them a command. They swarmed, flapped and faught, cawing and crying and biting, desperate to make their way out into the light. Some were caught, shoved back by the stronger of the apes, broken against walls and winds, unable to fly. Most, however, managed to find their way out of that cramped, loud space. Some fled into the tunnels, better total darkness than the chaos of the apes. Others made it up the slope towards where the light was more natural, where they could see the sky.
The apes tried to stop them, fought in vain to corral them back with spells and nets. It did not work. They were too many. They flooded through into the light from every cave mouth, traversing the darkness of the tunnels until they found places of less incessant energies. By the end of the first hour, the swarm had taken flight above the city. From there, they began to hunt.
One hunter spied a female ape, traversing the strange, straight lined paths of this place undefended. It flew lower, and smelled her power. Untrained, unrefined. But there was potential there. It dove, silent, between the vast, geometric mountains, and raked its claws along her arm. The female shrieked, dropped a bag to the ground. But the hunter was already gone, the winds carrying it rapidly back into the skies. It opened its beak, tasted the blood now dripping from its talons, and felt confirmation. This one would do. It sent a message to the mistress, marked the female’s scent.
The hunter’s nearby fellows within the swarm received their orders from the mistress and, as one, they dove, aiding in the next task. The female wasn’t alone; surrounded by lesser apes, their scent nowhere near as potent. A minor concern. The swarm descended upon the humans in one quick, chaotic flurry, driving those around the female screaming and running, while chasing the target herself down into a dark space between two of the great stone towers. They drove her back into the shadows, where the mistress’ companion waited. The ape hit the ground before she knew what was happening. The swarm took to the air once more as the mistress’ companion carried his catch back to the nest, the mistress already guiding them, searching out their next prey.
The hunter found its next prey in a more comprehensible place. A forest, similar to those of its home, buried in the heart of this odd stone landscape. With its keen eyes, it saw the prey from afar, laying sprawled upon the grass, its skin covered in a patchwork of dark, barely healed wounds. This ape was different. Her smell more potent, yet still unrefined. The hunter moved in closer. The target seemed to be sleeping, eyes closed, breathing steady. Easy prey.
It dove, raking its claws once more along unprotected skin, drawing a shriek from the girl as she jerked from her rest. Too late to matter. The hunter licked at its talons… Nothing? Had it failed to pierce the ape’s hide? Strange. It turned in the air, swooped in low, and brought its claws to bear again, ready to slice along the ape’s flesh, harder, this time. It drew in close, ready to strike, and felt an impact ringing through its skull as the ape brought a palm up to strike it with surprising speed and force, knocking it out of the air and sending it crashing down into the damp soil. The hunter slowly pulled itself up, dizzy, staring back towards the ape as it growled its rage for all the world to hear.
Perhaps not this one.
“What. The fuck!?” The girl shouted after the fleeing bird as it awkwardly flapped away, the feathers down one side of its body left bedraggled by the blow. “I’ve had a shitty enough day already, so you can just LEAVE ME ALONE!”
Tasha stood straight and glanced around herself, massaging the skin of her palm with her other hand. She saw one or two passersby staring at her, eyes wide, and gave the closest of them the finger before stalking off to find herself some food.
He’d seen the first of them at recess, staring at him from atop the school roof while he ate his granola bar. It looked like a hawk, he thought, but that could easily have been wrong. It wasn’t as if he knew very much about birds anyways. It was certainly eyeing him like a hawk, though. At first, he hadn’t really paid it much attention, assuming it was just interested in his food before shifting his focus back to discussing the viability of firework stockpiling with Charlie. He was quietly enjoying having a chance to hang out with some of his other friends. He’d been spending most of his time hanging around with Casper, lately. It was nice getting back to his more normal friends for a while; he felt a little guilty thinking that, to be honest.
The bird only returned to his thoughts when he went to put the wrapper for his snack in the bin, and caught sight of it once more, still staring at him. It hadn’t budged from it’s spot at all in the last few minutes, and kept its gaze on him as he returned to the outdoor table around which most of his friends were clustered. Something about it felt… odd. He tried to push it from his mind, returning his attention to the discussion at hand.
When the bell rang, signalling time to return to class, he caught sight of it again as he rose from his seat, still perched there, unblinking.
Experimentally, he threw a little wind at it, trying to send it elsewhere. The bird stumbled slightly in the sudden brief gale, but recovered, unmoving. Again, he tried to ignore it, heading back inside. When he reached the school doors, he chanced a glance back at it.
There were five now. As he watched, another one fluttered down from the sky and took up a perch on the table he’d been seated at. All of them were gazing at him, utterly still. He swallowed and stepped inside, sliding in among the crowd of students heading to their next classes.
He managed to keep the creatures from his mind for almost an hour, when, halfway through math, their teacher, Mr Brown, had stopped talking for a moment; his attention caught by something outside the window. One at a time, the rest of the class turned to look, James among them.
There were over a hundred now, gathered on the tables, bins, and plastic rain roofs of the outside area, each gazing in at him. He felt something cold in his gut, and glanced around the class. No one seemed to have noticed where they were all looking, and none of his classmates was looking at him, either. He tried leaning slightly to the side in his chair, and watched as the birds’ heads moved to track him. This was just getting creepy.
He hid out in the library during lunch, finding himself a spot far away from any windows, and trying to make it look like he was busy reading. In truth, though, his mind was racing.
Who was doing this? Was it the family? Had they somehow caught sight of him after what happened last night? Was someone tracking him now? He tried to convince himself otherwise: told himself that he’d been careful, that he’d stayed off the ground; that he was just being paranoid. It didn’t work.
After lunch, it had gotten bad enough that their teachers made an announcement. Supposedly there was no cause for alarm. Apparently, birds were acting weird all over the place, some of them even attacking a few people in the street. That news did little to calm his fears. Why were they all still staring at him?
She waited at the reception desk until the bell rang, eyeing the birds massing outside sourly. She wasn’t sure how to feel about them being here in these numbers. To have drawn down such a sizeable flock, then her grandchildren must be powerful, which made her proud. At the same time, though, if they were drawing this much attention without even being spellcasters yet, then that would make it near impossible to keep them hidden from the elves. That limited her options.
The bell rang before long, and the students began to file out of their classrooms en masse, each heading for the parking lots at the front and back of the school buildings. She stood, stretched, and waited for her grandson to descend the stairs, edging herself into a corner so as to avoid catching the boy’s eye. He wasn’t long in coming, and stood at the base of the staircase, staring out at the swarm outside, apparently psyching himself up. She took her chance, and stepped forward silently. He leapt a half foot into the air as she slapped her hand to his shoulder; she chuckled.
“Heya, squirt,” she murmured in Japanese. “You got taller.”
“… Granny?” The boy asked, dipping into the same language without apparent thought. Tsuru grinned. She liked it when he practiced speaking it with her, usually taking the opportunity to correct some of the few remaining flaws in his diction. “What’re you doing here?” He turned towards her, his expression just a bit too tense.
“Your father found some work for the firm to take on,” she replied, waving a hand dismissively. “Really, though, I just wanted an excuse to come down and hang out with you little brats for a while.” As she spoke, she pulled the boy into a hug, which he returned, somewhat half-heartedly, to her mind. “Now, come on,” she continued. “Car’s waiting. Let’s go.” With that, she grabbed his hand, stepped towards the school door, and pulled him outside. He squeaked slightly as they hit the open air, and she felt his fingers clench a little tighter around hers for a moment. She felt a momentary flash of approval at that. If the boy feared the birds, then he had good instincts. He needn’t have worried, though. The birds seemed content just to watch them, for now. Waiting.
Tsuru ignored them, holding her head high as she pulled her grandson towards the waiting car. After the first few seconds, she felt his grip relax a tad, and nodded. They made it to the car, and climbed inside, James joining his sister in the back, Tsuru climbing into the front seat alongside Sarah.
She gave her daughter in law a small nod as she strapped herself in, and received the same in turn. She held back a sigh. Sarah was a nice enough girl, she supposed, but it would have been infinitely preferable, to her mind, if Akira had chosen someone with some actual power to continue the family line. Hell, if Sarah had possessed a little power, then she wouldn’t have to be down here running protection detail. She pushed the thought from her mind. That wasn’t the point right now. Right now, she just had to keep the kids safe.
“Hi, Baba!” Rebecca shouted merrily, leaning forwards in her seat to give her grandmother a hug.
“Hello, little one.” Tsuru chuckled, wrapping her arms around the excitable child’s shoulders. “Wow, you got big!”
That was enough to set the girl to jabbering as Sarah started up the car, allowing Tsuru to keep an eye on the birds through the window as they traveled.
It wasn’t long before the gathered flock took off, following after the car and circling overhead. Well, that settled it. They were definitely following the kids. Either that, or they were interested in her. But she doubted that. It would have been very stupid for the hunters to design their hawks to pursue someone of her level.
She wasn’t the only one watching them, she noticed. Every minute or so, James would sneak a glance out of the window into the sky, his expression growing a little more nervous with each look. Had they gotten to him that much? Surprising. She grunted, filing the observation away for later.
“Problem?” Sarah asked from the driver’s seat, her voice tense. Tsuru couldn’t blame the girl for nerves. It must be hard being in a situation like this when you didn’t have any real training to draw from. To be honest, she felt it was almost cruel of Akira to have told the girl. Why put that stress on her?
“No,” she replied evenly. “Nothing major. Just watching the birds.”
Sarah nodded, her eyes on the road, and gripped the steering wheel a little tighter in her hands.
Tsuru sighed. At least Bex wasn’t on edge. Blessed girl.
They got to the house in short order, and Tsuru saw the other three inside before the swarm once again began to gather. There were more of them now, clustering on rooftops and driveways and whatever pathetic excuse Manhattan allowed for gardens. She glared at them. A strategy needed to be picked, and fast. She hated standing idle. Preferably something that would put her grandson’s mind at ease. She thought for a long while, staring at the birds while Sarah watched anxiously from the doorway. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw James through the living room window, gazing out at the birds as well, concern written clear on his face.
“… Can I borrow some bread?” She asked after a time, not turning her gaze from the birds. “I have an idea I want to try.”
Sarah didn’t respond, simply stepping back towards the kitchen, and returning a few moments later with a plastic wrapped loaf of bread, still cold from the fridge. Tsuru took it from the girl and nodded.
“Thank you. I won’t be a minute.” With that, she stepped towards one of the chairs sat on the tiny patch of grass that passed for her son’s front garden and sat down. James watched her, his expression anxious. “Might want to close the door.” Wordlessly, Sarah complied.
Now. How to do this without showing her hand to the boy? She thought for a moment, then reached into the bag, her fingers wrapping around the first thin slice of bread. Under her breath, she started whispering the words to one of her older spells, an old favorite she rarely had the occasion to use anymore.
In a few seconds, the magic took its hold, and she felt her mind expand, filling out a bubble around herself, no longer confined to the boundaries of her body. Calmly, she began crumbling the bread into small chunks between her fingers. The bubble swelled, expanding to fill the garden, then the house, then the street. She felt something press against her mind as the field expanded. Not people; the spell didn’t work on people. She pushed it further, the first of the birds becoming caught, unaware, as of yet. She needed a display of force. A warning. Something to convince the hunters to stay well away.
She grew her bubble out further, feeling it make contact with what felt like hundreds, maybe even thousands of other minds. Each one tiny, diminutive compared to her. That should be enough. The bubble stopped growing. She took a moment to separate the ones she wanted to ignore from the rest. Household pets, local wildlife, the few small traces of amphibious life dwelling in the pipes far below. It was the birds she wanted.
She could feel something behind those minds: an energy, a will far more powerful and complex than a mere swarm of hunting birds. She looked closer, and felt the mind on the other end take notice, its focus homing in on her in an instant. She chuckled. Good. She had their attention.
She looked one of the birds in the eye, and smiled, pulling a piece of bread from the bag, and holding it in her hand.
The force behind the swarm made no move, confused. Then, the old witch made her power move. She pressed her spell against the first of the hawks, and felt resistance, the other mind offering a surprised counter to her attempt to take control. Tsuru kept smiling, pressing her spell further into the creature’s mind, slowly forcing her adversary back. She could feel the elf grow angry behind the mob; felt her command the other birds to strike. Nothing happened. The novice hadn’t even noticed when she took control.
She smiled a little wider and slowly, almost casually, forced the first of the hawks to flutter down from its roost and pluck the bread from her hand, before allowing it to fly away. She felt the other mage wrestling in her mind, furious, trying desperately to pry control of the swarm back from her. It was almost cute. She didn’t budge. Her grip was iron. She allowed the elf just enough control to be able to watch as she brought each of the birds down, small group by small group, and fed them all a single shred of bread.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw James begin to relax, happy to see the birds acting a touch more like he expected them to, before turning back towards the inside of the house.
‘Good,’ she thought. ‘Task number one: completed.’
She kept going for a good half hour, enjoying the feeling of the beastmaster growing angrier and angrier at her usurpation of the swarm. When she was down to the final one, she leaned in and patted it on the head, her final demonstration of supremacy.
Then, she released them back to their mistress and watched as, one by one, they flew away, defeated.
That done, she stood up, stretched, and dusted the breadcrumbs off of her knees, before going inside to spend some time with her grandkids.