THE HAWK AND THE DEMON
A large crowd had assembled to watch the procession pass through the main street of town. The various trades had their floats decorated to show their guild's histories - cardboard kilns for the potters and a papier mache rock-face from which the tilers pretended to take leaves of blue slate. Small children, mainly boys apprenticed to the guilds, ran around the crowd begging for money and most of the spectators seemed pleased to indulge their childish greed. People leaned over from bridges and balconies to throw streamers and cheer at the passing floats.
Janine had grown bored of watching the slowly processing trucks with their archaic scenes. The histories they depicted were clean and romanticised, a far cry from the hot, dry kilns and blasts of skin-shrivelling hot air in the potteries, or the scrabbling about in damp, slippery slate mines. She pushed herself away from the crown and headed back into a less crowded part of town which the procession had already passed through. A few people were clearing up the debris of paper streamers and guild recruiting pamphlets.
The building were tall and grey with ornate balustrades. Some sported balconies which were linked to those on the other side of the street by soaring grey bridges. The city was built on many levels from the road below to the various levels of balcony and raised sidewalks linked by bridges. Unable to spread out sideways, people had spread upwards. Vines and plants prevented it from looking sterile. Janine had lived in the city for several decades and it both fascinated and repelled her. Another several months and she knew she would be recalled, taking a step sideways into the summerland.
Feeling hemmed in by the walls and the crowds, Janine looked around. The street cleaners had gone and there was no-one watching her. She climbed onto the stonework of the nearest bridge which arced over the wide main road and feeling the delicious surging of blood, she leapt out into the air, her arms out-flung. She heard the gasp of a chance pedestrian who thought it was a suicide leap, but Janine caught a column of rising air and …
…. Almost immediately she felt the racing of her blood turning to a tingling sensation as her body contracted into itself and the bones of her hands lengthened and fused. The skin of her arms prickled as glossy brown-black feathers sprouted from the pores. Her clothing was absorbed into the plumage. She felt the scales and talons of her hawk's legs fold and tuck under her tail as she flew on strong wings above the canopies and awnings of the ground level shops.
Sharp eyes, hawk-keen but with a human-like brain to interpret the images, took in the dusty city vista of greys. A down-curved beak seemed to sneer at it. In this shadowland, Janine could fly no higher than the third storey of the buildings, he body was restrained by the peculiar gravity and her own weight. She promised herself that when she returned to the summerland she would spend days dancing on air currents, high enough to make her light-headed; air-dancing with other travellers. Janine caught the updraught of a chimney and flew onwards, through streets, between buildings and decaying towers of brick and metal. Eventually the need to fly began to ebb from her mind.
Curiosity made her settle on the corrugated temporary roof of a gutted cinema. There was a disturbance in the air about it, a feeling of wrongness in a land that already felt wholly wrong. She drew in the feathers and instead of a hawk, a woman was soon kneeling on the fragile roof. The flapping of opaque plastic sheeting piqued her curiosity to the point where she had to investigate. There was a mechanical murmur and even the sun felt colder. She thought it was some sort of distortion, or something "other" trying to break through into the shadowland. If it managed to get into the shadowland then even the summerland might no longer be safe.
Pulling aside a loose piece of metal, Janine peered down into a vast emptiness where dark-clothed men move corpses - animal and human and some neither one thing nor the other - to and fro. The chill feeling came from inside. Whatever they were doing was against nature. Janine felt the metal roof beneath her start to give way and she jumped back into the hawk's body, taking to the air in a rattle of wings and disintegrating metal. Before she could gain height, she was sucked down into the other-worldly coldness of the building. She landed on the floor of the building, several storeys below, hard enough to shock her, or knock her, right out of the hawk's body and back into her own. She was immediately surrounded by dark shapes and darker voices in the chemical tang of the interior.
"A changer from the summerlands!" exclaimed one of the voices, grating like nails on a blackboard, "Our friend has wanted to have one of these for a long time," and grating laughter agreed.
One of the shapes gripped her shoulder and hauled her upright, "Yes," it hissed, "He's been waiting a very long time, for one of these."
Their "friend" arrived at that moment. He wore a suit and collarless white shirt and had a mop of curly brown hair. His eyes darted about and he licked his thin lips nervously. His darting eyes lit up in unpleasant delight at the prospect of a summerlander. The madness in those darting eyes and his incongruously amiable smile was more than enough for Janine. She whirled into winged form and flew at ceiling height along the corridor which led outwards, away from the machines and the bodies. The curly-haired madman scientist and his dark-clothed demons clattered at floor level after her. The door, which she knew had to be at the end of the corridor, could only be opened by hands so she changed again in order to grapple with the handle.
The door was bolted from inside and she wrestled the bolts and stepped outside as the others reached the door. Curly-hair was within arm's length as she flung herself skyward … and stopped, frozen in mid-air.
"Oh, it's no good running away now," sneered the scientist, "We've ways of dealing with summerlanders. Nice ways and nasty ways. If you come back, it can be the nice way and you can help us. If not, well let's say that not summerlanders don't seem to last very long …"
Janine beat her wings, trying to break free of whatever held her in one place. It was no good, she was being sucked, there was no other word for it, towards the scientist fellow and she could see him frowning with effort. So he was some sort of psychic then; some in this world had the talents. She had to concentrate hard to keep her distance from the him and failed to notice one of his minions drop a metal cage onto her. Cage-bound, the summerlander dropped to the ground, kept in hawk-form by the restrictions of the cage. The minion who had caged her laughed and Janine could do no more than squawk and mantle angrily, frustrated by captivity. The coldness settled round her like a blanket and she realised that he was not merely a curious, talented, human.
"There, there," soothed the scientist, "You know I had a summerlander-cat once, but she passed away before I could learn the secret of changing." He was quite mad.
He carried the cage back into the building, through a maze of side corridors to a laboratory area. Cages covered one wall and animals, or what was left of animals, scuffled or whimpered inside. Luckily the hawk had little sense of smell, but Janine knew that the place must stink of fear of ruined flesh. The floor was stained dark where things had died.
"But pretty one will tell me, won't pretty one?" he hissed menacingly and Janine noticed more than a mad gleam in his eyes; he was "other".
No scientist then, she thought, something has broken through and it's interested in the summerland, not in this shadowland between our worlds. A few months more and I could have returned there myself. In the depths of a cage, something chittered, something malformed with what should have been its inside now draped on its outside. The demons had a very direct way of finding out how something worked - they did things with it until it stopped working. Janine hissed angrily. Her cage was strong, but her duty was to keep the demons away; too late to report to her colleagues though. Some other way of escape then, not to the summerland but to somewhere more desperate. Glossy feathers were withdrawn and flesh tried to fill a space too small for it. No air dancing on the highest winds with fellow travellers, but at least no secrets given up to the demons. The shadowland barrier still held.
The demon scientist hissed in anger at the half-hawk, half-Janine mess and turned his attentions to torturing something. "I had a fairy-cat once," it said in a sing-song voice as a finger claw ripped open the skin of something which might once have been a puppy, "and a summerlander-hawk. But they never seem to last long." Clawed fingers were forced into the body cavity, "But this world is so much fun …" the demon said, and with a twist of its fingers, it turned the shrieking creature fully inside-out.