The Mistress was scared. The swarm could feel it through their connection with her, but none of them could truly understand why. They felt it as she issued the first of her commands, pulling them back from the scent of the strange cave where the other mistress had dwelt. The other mistress had been so much stronger than the first, and stronger made for greater prey. None among the swarm could see why that should be a thing to fear. Perhaps it was the smooth ones that had begun to hunt them, stalking among the more lumbering apes in ones and twos, plucking hunters steadily from the skies. No. The mistress did not fear them. The smooth ones only made her angry. The mistress spurred her hunters onwards, driving them to seek further, gathering them in tighter groups to overwhelm the smooth ones’ attempts to defend the apes from them.
One hunter found a new ape traversing the concrete pathways that lined this strange, angular mountainscape. This one was young, only partly grown, but he smelled of power, and that was enough to please the mistress. The hunter dove in silence, and tore a ragged strip from the covering on the new prey’s back. The hunter was not surprised when the ape tried to dodge, acting to avoid the attack before either sight or sound could have reached it. The hunter did not care at all, for its attack landed, and the taste of the blood was good. This one would make for fine prey. The swarm felt the momentary annoyance from the mistress as a pair of the smooth ones made their approach, drawn by the sight of the attack, but she soon calmed. They were a minor concern, at worst. Her companion could remove them if they became too troublesome. The hunter’s brethren began to gather, the mistress drawing the swarm down upon the surfaces surrounding their new target, keeping them out of sight. When her partner was in position, they would strike.
If Casper hadn’t been holding his powers stretched out so far to keep track of the birds, he doubted he ever would have noticed the two figures following him. Heck, it was only because of how tightly his nerves were wound that he was even able to twig that something was off about them to begin with.
At first, he’d thought they were dogs. Their emotions held that same light, autumnal orange quality as Maxie’s had. It had only been when he glanced behind himself and caught sight of the pair that he’d realized there was something wrong. They were people; at least, they looked like people. By appearances, he’d have said they were both in their early twenties, dressed in matching pin-striped suits and bowler hats, like they’d just walked out of a detective movie. When the one on the left caught him looking at them, they murmured something to their companion, and the two quickened their pace towards him.
Please don’t be following me, he wished silently to himself as he turned away, speeding up a little to keep ahead of them. Please just be regular, normal people who aren’t about to chase me across town.
At the next intersection, Casper changed streets, hoping to leave the pair behind. It didn’t take, and his pursuers sped up. The two were closing now, only sixty or so feet away.
Casper resisted the urge to glance behind himself again; he didn’t see any way it could really help. Instead, he took a peak at their minds. Neither of them was feeling anything aggressive, not that that really did anything to alleviate his fears. Lewis hadn’t felt any aggression, even when he’d done whatever it was that’d paralyzed Tasha. The one on the left was determined, while the one on the right was a little nervous, touched by a hint of what he’d almost call protectiveness. Well, that was unhelpful.
If this had happened before yesterday, Casper might have panicked. He probably would have started sprinting and simply hoped to get away in time. Since Lewis, though, he’d spent a little time thinking.
He glanced around the street and caught sight the sign for a bagel house just a few doors away. His power told him there were a fair number of people inside, too. Perfect.
He forced himself to keep his pace steady as he approached the shop, determined not to draw them in quicker, then, when he reached the door, he ducked inside, the strangers still some forty feet behind him.
The inside of the bagel place was fairly small, just five or six inexpensive round tables and some chairs sandwiched between a few self-serve drinks fridges and a bakery counter where a freckled girl in her twenties was chattering merrily to one of her customers. Apparently, they knew each other. The girl shot him a cheery sort of grin as he stepped inside, and he tried to return it, but something in the attempt made her frown. He noted the concern edging in at the corners of her mind, and turned his face to the floor, sliding himself through the thin gap between the first few seats and the counter until he found a table that wasn’t occupied and sat down, choosing the seat in the clearest view of the security camera.
There, he told himself, trying to calm his nerves. I’m in a public, crowded place. There’s a bunch of witnesses, and I’m under a camera. They can’t do anything to me without it causing trouble. Much as he tried, however, his thoughts refused to bring themselves to calm.
Casper watched as the two strangers approached the front of the store, their eyes roaming the interior until one caught sight of him and alerted the other. This close, he was able to see how odd they both looked. Both figures were slender, short, and finely featured; androgynous to such an extreme that he couldn’t tell for the life of him if either of the two was a man or a woman. They reminded him of the children from the Family. Just a little too well made to be natural.
He felt his heart beat a little faster as the shorter of them pushed the door open and stepped inside, the other taking up a position outside of it that he could only think of as ‘guarding.’
Please just be buying a bagel. Please just be buying a bagel.
Casper tried to hide behind his hands as the newcomer began maneuvering their way through the cramped space towards him, completely ignoring the girl at the counter, whose mind was growing more and more concerned by the moment. Casper tried to ignore that. He didn’t need any additional fear.
That was when the window pane split.
It came as something of a surprise, the single, long crack radiating out across the storefront with a sound like a plate striking the ground. Everyone in the shop turned to look at it for a moment, surprised. It made the strangers nervous. Casper used the momentary distraction to his advantage, and began to quietly push himself out of his chair, turning towards the kitchen area of the shop where, he hoped, he might find some kind of back exit. He never had the chance to find out if there was one, however, because before he was even half way, he felt the birds gathered around the block take flight.
Those still looking at the window were momentarily confused by the mottled black and brown swarm that rose from every rooftop in sight, many of them taking it for some strange kind of smoke, temporarily blocking out the light of the mid afternoon sky. Then the swarm began to dive, and the inhabitants of the shop became afraid. The first few birds that struck the window were harmless, simply bouncing off of the heavy glass frame without effect, dazing themselves. Then, however, they began to strike in bulk, and their sheer weight of numbers began to place pressure on the fissure in the surface, and the crack began to spread.
The stranger who had remained outside was being mobbed by the things, furiously batting them away as they pecked and clawed at anything they could reach. That confused Casper. Weren’t they on the same side?
Casper was halfway towards the back rooms when the stranger turned back to face him, a spike of sudden panic embedding itself into their mind as they strode across the short distance to him. He began to run, but it was no use. He felt a hand close around his shoulder, just as the window finally gave, and the inside of the room was filled with claws and the squawking, cacophonous cries of a hundred hunting birds.
All around him, people were panicking, adults frantically shielding children, customers cowering under the indiscriminate assault of talons and beaks. One particularly quick thinking man had hefted a table, and was struggling to shift it up against the broken window frame in an attempt to halt the influx of new attackers. It didn’t help.
Casper jerked away from the hand gripping his shoulder, trying to free himself to run, but it held firm.
“Let go of me!” He yelled, barely able to hear his own words above the din.
“We need to get you out of here!” His assailant shouted back, tugging him back towards the shop front. “I work with the government! We’re taking you to a safe house!”
If nothing else, that gave Casper pause. Not the words themselves, but the degree of desperate honesty that he felt radiating from the stranger as they spoke them. He didn’t know how to respond to it; but he had nothing better to go with. Belatedly, he stopped struggling.
The stranger pulled Casper in beside them as they moved, using their bulk to shield him from the majority of the birds, his other side pressed against the bakery counter as a makeshift barrier. A few feet away, he caught sight of the one who had been in front of the door struggling through the swarm towards them. He thought he glimpsed them pulling a cylindrical object from a pocket, before the one beside him pressed a hand to his eyes. A second or two later, he gagged as something acrid and cloying met his nose, soaking into his lungs and sitting there like mud. He began to choke, every breath pulling more of that horrid vapour into him, like trying to breathe sand. Whatever this stuff was, it seemed to upset the birds even worse than it did him, because their attention seemed to shift. He felt it as their focus broke, that cold, complete hunger giving way to an almost mind numbing panic. As one, they ceased their attack, focusing instead on trying to get away, each of them scrabbling and fighting against one another in their haste to vacate the tiny space. Some were left behind, knocked to the floor by the wings of their fellows. He watched one of them fall to the ground, its whole body seemingly in spasm.
“Christ, that stuff’s foul,” the stranger beside him muttered, coughing slightly as they spoke. “C’mon, kid. We gotta move!”
Before anyone else within the shop managed to come to grips with what had just happened, Casper’s new companions each grabbed him by a shoulder, and he found himself being lifted up onto the tall one’s back. He tried to protest, but he couldn’t gather the breath. His lungs felt like they were made of lead. Underneath him, his supposed rescuers carried him out of the store and began to run. In other circumstances, he might have panicked, but as it was, he couldn’t bring his mind together enough for fear. It was all he could do just to hold on.