The handsome young man took a moment to check his reflection. He could see himself clearly in the window beside the front door. He was both pleased with what he saw, and accustomed to being pleased with what he saw. He ran a hand through his long blonde hair. It would need another trim soon. The young man whistled an off key tune. The box of chocolates he had purchased while in town rattled in his vest pocket almost rhythmically. Felix Magnusson was having a wonderful day.
He cracked the door open and peeked inside. Nobody was in view. Good. He would never hear the end of it if Naoise caught him with the candies he had bought for Brita. He might be twenty-seven now, but in his older brother’s eyes he was a perpetual adolescent.
When Felix had left for town that morning, nearly everybody was safely out of the way in the nearby greenhouse, but they could have returned since then to ruin his plans.
Felix couldn’t help but laugh at himself. Here he was, a grown man, sneaking around with a school boy crush. If his friends caught him, he’d deserve their good natured abuse. He entered the house.
Not a creature was stirring. Because they were dead. He just didn’t know it yet.
Felix resumed his whistling. It must be his lucky day. He wiped his boots carefully on the reed mat before beginning his search for Brita. She could usually be found playing with Hrist and Mist in their upstairs bedroom. To get to the stairs, he took a shortcut through Merlin’s formal dining room. The long table was set for lunch, but none of the food had yet been touched.
Felix’s whistling achieved fever pitch. It really was his lucky day; everyone had waited for him to return before eating. He sampled a chicken drumstick. It was cold. Uh oh.
If they had been waiting long enough for the food to grow cold, they were not going to be in good moods. He increased his pace, hoping to find Brita before anyone else found him.
Felix was a smart guy. He might not have figured out something was wrong when he found the cold meal, and he might not have figured out something was wrong when he walked through the entirety of Merlin’s house without seeing another soul, but he definitely figured out something was wrong when he became the second person to trip over Merlin in the stairwell.
“Merlin, oh fuck, what the fuck?”
The tough old buzzard was still tenaciously clinging to life, but he didn’t look pretty.
“Help! Somebody help! Merlin is hurt! I think he fell down the stairs!” Where was everybody!?
“Felix.” Merlin was trying to gain his attention, “It’s just us. An Inquisitor came, there was a fight.”
“No, not Konstantin. Someone else.”
“Shit. Oh shit. Shit!”
“I need. First aid kit. In the closet. Down the hall.”
“Right, umm, right yeah,” Felix backed down the stairs, “you just stay here.”
Merlin gurgled a faint laugh. “Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.”
Felix barreled down the hallway to the end closet. He found the emergency first-aid kit buried under some extra blankets and a stack of board games, and brought it back to the stairway. Slowly and carefully he pulled Merlin down off the stairs, getting him where he could actually work on him.
He wished Brita was there to help him; he was a little out of his league. “I wish Brita was here to help me, I’m a little out of my league.”
“She was upstairs with the girls, the Inquisitor went up there and Fred followed. Nobody has come down yet.” A couple sloppy bandages and some pain killers later and Merlin was already looking better. He really was tougher than he had any right to be.
Felix had done what he could to make the old man comfortable. Now he had to figure out what happened to everybody else. He went back up the stairs. They were creakier than he remembered.
“Damn it!” he yelled back downstairs, “Merlin, I found Brita! She’s not breathing!”
Every time he thought of Brita, Konstantin felt like he had been punched in the chest. Light flashed at the corners of his gaze as he gasped for breath.
“What is it?” Deirdre still sat hunched over the controls in the pilot’s chair, guiding the helicopter South-east over an endless expanse of white-capped waves. “What’s wrong?”
“I…don’t know.” Konstantin was already sinking back into his daymares. “Everything I guess.”
He felt his murder-mates shifting on the branch beside him, their presence a constant source of comfort. There was safety in numbers. Never good to be alone.
He bent his head, preened glossy feathers with a sharp beak. Life was good for the clan these days. The world was getting loud again. Whenever the world got loud, things got dead.
The clan fed well.
He had barely finished his cleaning when he felt the summons. The goddess was in trouble. The goddess was alone. He dropped from the branch with a cry, flapping across the beach and out over open water. He would guide the goddess home.
“Wake the fuck up!”
Konstantin rubbed his gritty eyes and stretched as well at the cramped cockpit would allow. “I’m not asleep. I was just thinking.”
It was true. He couldn’t come close to sleep with the torment of Brita’s loss twisting his insides. Konstantin brooded for a while longer; watching the ocean come ever closer to the helicopter’s landing skids.
“Deirdre, why are we losing altitude?”
“We’re almost out of fuel. We’re running on fumes.”
“So what do we do?”
She gestured at the unbroken expanse of black water below them, the only thing visible in any direction.
“What can we do? This thing is going to drop out of the sky any minute. I don’t know about you, but if the crash doesn’t kill us, I’m going to keep swimming after that psychotic bastard until I catch him or until I’m dead from hypothermia, dehydration, or the Kraken.”
“Deirdre, hold on,” Konstantin pointed out his side of the aircraft, “We might still have a chance. Look!”
A glossy black raven was pacing them, flapping madly to keep up with the slowly sinking helicopter. The bird seemed to be able to sense their attention. As soon as they both looked at it, it peeled off at an angle and started winging away across the water.
“Follow the bird! If it made it out here, we can’t be too far from land.”
Deirdre complied, looping off from her previous course to chase after her namesake. She was the first to see the dark smear on the horizon.
“It’s an island!”
“Yeah, but which one?” Konstantin wondered.
“I don’t know, possibly one of the Faroe Islands. Who cares, where there is land, there might be people. If there are people, there might be fuel. It’s a dim hope, but it’s better than swimming.”
The approach to the island was a tense affair. There was no guarantee that they would find anything at all when they reached land, and the aircraft had already experienced a few ominous misfires. If they crashed now, there was little chance that the twins would survive beyond the next few weeks. The nearest stretch of land hove into view as the helicopter was sputtering through its last bit of fuel. It was heavily forested all the way up to a slim stretch of rocky coastline, the island’s interior dominated by a craggy mountain range which was partially obscured by mist and cleft by a sheer sided canyon.
Fingers were crossed, nails were bitten. The helicopter was moving slowly, its rotors barely maintaining lift. It was going to be close.
“I think we’re going to make it!” Deirdre exulted. Then the helicopter’s engine putt-putt coughed, and they were crashing.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!” Deirdre screamed, while Konstantin groaned like a wounded animal.
Forest. Beach. Ocean. Forest. Beach. Ocean. Forest. Beach. Ocean. Breakfast.
Konstantin vomited across the cockpit windshield as the chopper’s death spiral continued; his sick blocking their view of the rapidly approaching ground. It didn’t need to be seen. It let them know when it had arrived.
They crunched into the corner of an old dock first; it’s dry, dusty timbers slowing their fall as it disintegrated beneath them. Even with Deirdre shrieking a powerful shielding spell, the mangled remains of the helicopter still hit the ground hard enough to rattle its occupants to the bone. Exposed electronics sparked and smoldered as they skidded up above the edge of the surf, but the ruined aircraft never exploded. There was no fuel left to burn.
“Shit! Fuck!” Deirdre thrashed against her restraints, kicking and punching against the closest bits of the cracked and crumpled interior of the helicopter. “That monster is going to get away! We’ll never catch up to him before he gets back to Rome if we don’t have a way to fly! I should have checked the fuel before we left. Oh All Father…the girls…I failed them.”
“No.” Konstantin grabbed her flailing arm, “No. You didn’t. You’ve gotten us this far, and we’re still alive. You’ve done well. Rex is a monster, but he’s still mortal. He can fly faster than we can run, but he still has to eat, and sleep, as do the girls. They’re of no value to him dead. He’ll keep them safe and unharmed until he gets back to Rome. We have time.” During their flight, Konstantin’s desperate rage had evolved into something equally as powerful, but more coldly logical and calculating. “Even if we don’t catch up with them before they get to the city, even if we have to walk to Rome and break down the gates with our bare hands, we’ll get the twins back. And I WILL kill Solomon Rex.”
Deirdre fought for calm. She had done well. The two were both bruised and battered, but still alive, and as they climbed from the smoking ruin onto the rocky beach, lights could be seen glowing on the horizon. She calmed herself with visible effort of will, and nodded decisively. She even surprised Konstantin with a cruel smile.
“You’re right. We will catch up to them. Even if we do have to pound on the gates of Rome itself. But if we’re going to do that, there’s no reason we have to do it alone.” she unclipped her harness, slipping gracefully out of her crooked seat.
“Come on. Let’s go raise an army.”
Preceded by their winged harbinger, Deirdre and Konstantin started walking.
After limping a few miles on the beach and then turning inland along the steep bank of a swiftly moving river, they were relieved to see the lights grow into a strange little village perched along a ledge on the canyon wall. Invisible from out in the open water; they probably would have never seen it if they hadn’t crashed where they did.
Never more than a few streets wide, the village hugged both riverbanks for several miles but never spread up above the top of the canyon. They approached cautiously. There were motorboats moored to the community dock, some vehicles parked beside a few of the larger buildings, and what might have been an anti aircraft gun emplacement stored under a tarp on the more populous side of the river, but no people were visible.
“What is this place?”
“I don’t know. I can’t read Faroese, can you?”
Even though some of the houses had wisps of smoke rising from their chimneys, and there was a truck idling at the village’s only stoplight, no people were in sight.
“Where is everyone?”
“They’re hiding in their homes.” Konstantin didn’t need magical powers to sense that they were being watched.
“Well, let’s see if we can get them to talk,” Deirdre climbed up into the bed of the truck, cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled, “We know you’re here! We are not a threat! If anybody can understand what I’m saying, please come out and speak to us! We need your help!”
Deirdre’s request was at first greeted by silence, punctuated only by the croaking complaints of her newest raven friend. Then the shutters of a second floor window on a nearby home cracked open, and a heavily accented female voice called out to them.
“Go away!” she said, “You’re not welcome here! You need to leave!”
“You’re right!” Deirdre yelled back, “but that’s what we need your help with! Can we please talk?”
Neither Deirdre nor Konstantin could hear the conversation which must have followed inside the house, but eventually the front door opened up. Since nobody came out, they took that as an invitation to enter. Konstantin helped the witch down from the back of the truck, and they cautiously entered the house together.
His wings beat ceaselessly. His heavy breathes misted in the cold night air. The twins’ eyelashes glistened with frost. He did not have to rest. He did not have to eat. Not yet. He flew on toward his hero’s welcome.