The vulture’s claws scrape my arms like fire and find purchase on the grit of stone. There is a moment where all is quiet, and only the lush fall of wings breaks the silence. Their talons are made to dig deep, and they do. Small chunks of rock splinter off my shoulders like glass and if I could bleed I would be. The missing pieces burn like raw nerves. At least I know they can’t take stone Underground.
Salem glows a little in the fog down below. The Vulture’s wingspan can’t quite drown him out. His brightness is good, they’ll have trouble pulling him down with the energy he’s got. It buys me time. Salem flails, all fists and elbows, as if his suggestions of arms will make a dent in a Vulture. They won’t. His visage flickers like it’s not getting a signal, and I know it’s the pull of the Underground already stealing the tiny bits of his soul.
I look back to the church. Derik watches, and I know this is my test. Salem hangs in the balance. My skin still burns where his own brushed it.
This Vulture that holds me has made a mistake. They never grab us, mostly because we’re heavy but also because we bite. There’s something like venom in us, but we have to be strategic about it. My eyes pan below me, and the Vulture wheels for a crop of trees just as Salem reaches the church. He’ll be safe in there, but much less on the other side. Even if he sprints to the Gate, he’s an easy target if I don’t get out of the sky to cover him.
I stroll down the halls. Detention starts at 4 o’clock, but I don’t want to be early. Or on time. Or even five minutes late. Those times say, “I’m trying.” My locker is gray and bland. I dump the books and papers I’ve collected today inside. A few sheets slip between the cracks and down into the locker below. No reason bringing homework home that I have no intention of completing anyway.
This hallway has no windows, but I feel eyes on me. The hairs on my arms stand on end. I worry the ring on my thumb before slamming my locker door shut. The metallic boom echoes down the empty corridor. There isn’t a student or a teacher in sight. Guess no one wants to be here longer than they have to. The heavy tread of my boots thumps in time to the beat of my heart. I hum the summer’s one-hit wonder and follow my mental map of the school.
A half set of stairs leads down to the Science wing. The temperature drops by ten degrees and the skin on my arms prickles in response. They must keep it cooler down here for health reasons or they lack the funding for fridges. They better have protective clothing. No way I’m dissecting shit and getting formaldehyde all over my vintage 1990-era Screaming Trees threads. The shirt was dad’s … before the accident.
I push past the double-swinging-doors labeled “Dissection Lab – Beware” and find myself in a large room filled from floor to ceiling in stainless steel appliances, tables, cabinets, and flickering fluorescent lights. If I didn’t know better, I’d believe I’d stepped into a morgue. Imagined eyes sweep over me. I ignore the way my skin crawls because the room is as empty as my dad’s spot at the dinner table.
Attilles warned me of the destruction the leggers would bring to the land. As I fly south, smoke from their dying fires chokes me. The sky is still deep gray, though if I squint I can see the hairy sleeping bundles. I have a few more hours to find his body before they wake.
I left the roost yesterday evening when Threnody, the hen from Kouhmar settlement, told me Attilles was dead. His blood feather is in the pouch around my neck. When I try to picture Attilles, Threnody’s gray face looms before me instead, and her words:
“He seduced me. I didn’t know he had your feather, Rai.”
She tried to touch my hand, and I nearly slashed her with the knife I’d readied for myself. Instead, I left. A warrior’s body should be cremated, so the soul can fly…