|Alpha Warriors and the Phoenix of the Frozen Fire
Author: Andaren PM
A mysterious and deadly bird that hasn't been seen for centuries suddenly appears, wreaking havoc on the quiet world of Merranda ... but did it escape or did something, or someone, release it? Sequel to 'The Alpha Warriors and the Soul CrystalRated: Fiction K+ - English - Chapters: 8 - Words: 36,561 - Reviews: 3 - Favs: 1 - Updated: 12-04-10 - Published: 05-16-05 - id: 1914163
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Chapter One – Ice Burns, Fire Freezes
The cycle of the seasons had turned to autumn and the leaves blushed in hues of russet and amber, tumbling one after the other from their places on stem and branch to cover the ground with a rich, multicoloured carpet. Wild fowl had been seen winging their way across the kingdom, filling the sky with their co-ordinated formations as they crossed the sea, heading for warmer climates before winter. But Summer, unwilling to relinquish her hold, continued to blaze in all her wild glory so that the sky was a constant display of turquoise and gold. Bolindia, a small yet prosperous kingdom with rich soil and wild landscapes that ranged from hills and rolling meadows to high, treacherous mountains, dark forests, pine groves and stunning cliffs along her white coasts, sweltered beneath the heat. Grass thrived at first, then grew yellow as the level of streams and rivers slowly diminished. Farmers, grateful that their harvests had already been gathered before the blistering weather had set in, agonised over the condition of the land for the next year's crops and hoped that winter would bring some moisture with it. An occasional wisp of cloud would bring a moment of excitement, which evaporated as quickly as the water as it broke up and disappeared, its moisture sucked up greedily by the ravenous sun.
Joe Baker moved slowly along the leaf-strewn forest path, his startling blue-green eyes darting from side to side, peering around trees and into the dense hearts of bushes as he sought out his quarry. The sun cast its dappled light through the thinning canopy overhead, its heat pervading even the shelter of the trees, and perspiration glistened in countless beads on Joe's muscled arms and adhered strands of long, errant black hair to his face. Light glinted on the small, gold loop earring in his left ear; a physical testament to his heritage – of the time he had spent living, travelling and fighting with the gypsy clan he had grown up with. It was with them that he had learned his skills – skills of combat, stealth and healing that had already served him well in countless battles, even at the relatively young age of twenty-seven.
Now he employed some of the skills that he had learned; his footsteps, even on the blanket of leaves that was apt to rustle at the slightest touch, were near silent. His eyes, trained for battle, took in a lot of information in a single glance, picking up tiny traces – minute disturbances in the natural order of the forest that betrayed what he was tracking.
Joe paused at a footprint in the dusty earth, then looked in the direction it was pointing and fixed his gaze on a huge, rotten tree stump – still standing, but with the trunk hollowed by time. He made himself perfectly still, concealed by the tangled branches of brightly-coloured bushes as his keen hearing picked up the barely discernable sound of an indrawn breath, deep within the heart of the tree.
"Got you!" he whispered, his eyes lighting up with triumph as he started forward, dropping his guard for a split, fatal second. Suddenly the bushes parted and something flew out at him, catching him by surprise and knocking him to the ground. Joe yelled and threw his arms up over his face, suddenly finding himself flat on his back with his assailant on top of him. Leaves flew in violent flurries from every direction, covering him in great drifts of dry, rustling flashes of colour as a second attacker flew at him from the tree trunk.
Both assailants were giggling madly.
"Ok, ok!" Joe yelled, yelping as a small hand stuffed a fistful of leaves down the back of his shirt, "Stop it! I give up!"
A final barrage of leaves settled over him, then the weight on his chest lifted and he sat up, chuckling as he shook the rustling, dry foliage out of his hair.
"Lorrie got you!" the youngest of the two children crowed in a sing song voice, showing a gap-toothed grin before he shoved his fist in his mouth and stared at Joe through laughing aquamarine eyes that exactly reflected his own. There was black mulch on the two-year-old's shoes from where he'd been hiding in the tree trunk and several pieces of twig and leaf lodged in his tousled ebony hair.
"So she did!" Joe laughed, reaching out and brushing the debris away before pulling his small son into his arms and grinning over his shoulder at the six-year-old girl who was standing nearby, trying to control a fit of giggles.
Lauren's eyes, too, were the same colour as those of her father and brother, and shared the tendency to betray her emotions. Now they brimmed with laughter as her slim shoulders shook, causing her mass of black curls to bob around her pretty face.
"Think it's funny, do you?" Joe suddenly jumped up, grabbed the girl around the waist and lifted her into the air. Lauren squealed with laughter, suddenly finding herself suspended upside down with her curls brushing against the forest floor.
"Stop it, daddy!" she managed to yell through her maniacal giggling. She flailed her arms uselessly, "Put me down! Put me down!"
Julian danced around the pair, adding his bubbling laughter to that of his sister and father until, eventually, Joe took pity on Lauren and set her back on her feet.
"Dragons and demons I can handle," he said ruefully, though his eyes still twinkled with amusement, "But my own daughter can beat me hands down!"
Lauren grinned and threw her arms around his shoulders, making his heart melt.
"Come on you two," he said after a moment, trying and failing to brush the worst of the dirt and grime off the two children's clothes, "We'd better head back before your mother sends a search party out to look for you."
"You're too late for that," said a gentle voice at the back of Joe's mind.
The young father turned, still grinning like an idiot, as a graceful form emerged from the trees and trotted towards them.
The creature was utterly beautiful. Its glossy coat was so white that light seemed to shine from within it and silvery hair cascaded from mane and tale like foamy waterfalls, strands of it falling in a graceful fringe over the creature's sapphire eyes. Gilded hooves and a matching, twisted horn protruding from its brow glittered in the sunlight and it seemed to move with unnatural ease, gliding rather than trotting towards the gypsy and his two children.
"Limbius!" Joe cried, grinning more broadly, "Long time no see!"
The unicorn dipped his head in greeting, then nuzzled Joe's shoulder affectionately.
"Indeed," he said, speaking telepathically as all his kind did, "It seems like an age since we last met."
The children stared at Limbius in awe; they'd never seen a unicorn this close before – or at least they were too young to remember the last time they had seen one. Much to their delight, Limbius dropped his head and nuzzled the both of them, not even seeming to mind when Julian reached out and grabbed a handful of his flowing mane.
"Julian!" Joe bent down and disentangled his son's small fingers.
"It is alright. It is nice to see your son again, and your daughter."
Joe lifted Julian into his arms, then turned his attention back to the unicorn, "Did you say that Tara had sent you?"
The unicorn nodded in response, "She was getting worried. And restless. I think her time might be close."
Joe sighed – Tara was nearing the end of her third pregnancy and, after the events of the past few years when their lives had been turned upside down more than once, and Julian's less than easy birth that had nearly resulted in both of them dying, she was apt to worry and panic. Perhaps after the baby was born, things would return to normal – if 'normal' even existed.
Then Joe frowned. Tara had been told after Julian's birth that she couldn't have more children, so her pregnancy had come as a shock, especially as at the time she found out she had foreseen the deaths of not only herself but of Joe, Limbius and her brother, Jason, among other close friends. What if something went wrong again? Tara barely made it alive the last time she gave birth. He couldn't bear it if he lost her – not again.
"She is fine," Limbius insisted, reading Joe's tumultuous thoughts, "But she is asking for you. Would you like a lift back to the castle?"
Joe forced a smile, but his eyes betrayed his fear, "That would be great, thanks Limbius." He lifted the delighted children up onto the unicorn's back, then raised himself with ease up behind them, wrapping his arms protectively around Julian, who was growing drowsy.
Limbius set off at a fast trot, weaving his way easily through the trees towards the nearby turrets of the white-washed castle, nestled in the heart of the enchanted forest on the kingdom's northern coast, bound on one side by the ocean and mountains on the other. In less than no time they had reached the gate and were trotting across the lowered drawbridge and through the arched entrance as the portcullis was raised with a loud grating noise.
A short, portly woman came rushing out of the castle as the unicorn and his three passengers arrived, flinging up her arms in a fashion that would have been comical if the look on her face hadn't sent a dagger of terror plunging into Joe's heart.
"Oh, Milord, thank goodness you're home!" she squealed frantically as she drew level with them, clutching at Joe's shirt and trying to drag him with her even as he hastily dismounted and lifted the children down.
"Tara…?" Joe asked fearfully, feeling his heartbeat faster and faster in his chest, "What happened? Where is…"
"She's had one of 'er turns!" the woman gabbled, starting off in the direction of the castle and hauling Joe in her wake, "Went all stiff an' funny with that strange look in her eyes, then she started cryin' an' we 'aven't been able to get any sense out of 'er!"
Joe was jogging now, trying to keep up, but some of his panic dissipated. It sounded like Tara had had one of her visions, which was a whole lot better than some of the images that had been running around in his mind.
"Where is she, Lucy?" he asked. Then, when the portly woman ignored him, he said loudly, "LUCY! Where is she?"
"In the library, Milord, but…"
"Never mind," Joe pulled her to a standstill, "I'll take care of her."
"I need you to take care of the kids!" Joe said firmly, giving her a gentle but insistent shove towards Limbius and the children before he took off at a jog into the castle, his footsteps ringing through the narrow corridors.
The library's many arched windows were open; admitting shafts of golden light that glittered on the swirling eddies of dust particles around the windows and shimmered on the polished stone floor. Joe slowed his pace and made his way slowly through the tall rows of bookcases, mopping his sweating brow with the back of his hand.
He heard muffled sobbing and, shielding his eyes against the glaring sunlight, he finally saw his wife.
She was seated at a table, her slim arms folded over the polished surface and her face buried within them. Her long, dark brown hair tumbled in shining waves around her, cascading over the table as her shoulders heaved as she wept, trying to stifle the sound so that no one would hear.
"Tara," Joe said softly, slipping into a chair beside her, "Honey, what's wrong?"
Tara stiffened, then raised her head and looked at Joe through dark, red-rimmed eyes as though stunned that he was there, then she heaved a great sob and threw her arms around his neck, shaking violently.
"Maid," Joe said, using a nickname he had made up for her when they first met, when she'd been working both as a milkmaid at her father's farm and also, secretly, as a barmaid in order to keep paying the rent. Joe had been the only one who knew and the name had developed into a term of affection, "What's happened? Have you had another vision?"
"Yes." It was no more than a choked sob, laced with terror.
Joe sighed, "It doesn't mean anything – you know your Sight isn't reliable at the moment; you're pregnant, it's bound to be affected by that."
Tara laid her head on his shoulder and he stroked her hair gently, feeling the bulge of her swollen stomach press against him and a barely discernable movement from within. Gradually, Tara's sobs subsided and she grew calmer, though she was still trembling. Joe sat quietly, waiting for her to talk first, wanting to give her the chance to discuss what she had Seen without pressuring her into it.
"This was different," she said at last, "This was … horrible! It was cold … so cold … and there was so much screaming, I couldn't tell where one scream ended and another began!" She shook even more violently, her eyes wide with terror and so troubled that Joe felt anxiety stirring within him. "It was all so muddled – fire and ice, cold flames – licking, burning, freezing! And Jason … Jason…" she trailed off, obviously confused.
"Jason's still in Canthonia," Joe soothed, "And it's even less freezing there than it is here, Maid – it's mostly arid land."
Tara pulled away from him, stood up and began pacing, her hands resting on her bulging middle as the hem of her blue gown rustled against the ground.
"I know it doesn't make sense," she said irritably, "And that my visions have been sparking up over nothing, or showing me nonsense, but this was different. It was … stronger, more real and … and …" she shuddered and hugged her shoulders as though she were freezing, though the heat of the day had not yet relented and promised to lead into a stifling night.
"Honey," Joe said gently, "You need to calm down, you're due any day now."
"I know that!" Tara snapped. Then she seemed to grow worried again and ran a hand through her hair as she began to pace even more wildly. Joe stood up and went to her, catching her hands and forcing her to stop, to look into his face, into deep eyes full of love and worry.
"Look at me," he said softly, "I'll not let anything happen to you or our children, do you hear me? There's absolutely nothing to worry about, except when this little one is going to grace us with his or her appearance." He grinned and placed his hand on her stomach, "You're 'nesting', Maid, that's all – the Sight just creates a few extra problems, that's all."
Tara sighed and placed her hand over his, closing her eyes as the baby moved again.
"I hope you're right," she said softly, "I really do. But I'm afraid it can't be long before chaos breaks out again – and Jason's on his own."
"The chances of Jason encountering ice where he is are extremely low," Joe insisted, "I know you haven't heard from him for a while…"
"Two months," Tara interrupted.
"…Two months, but that doesn't mean that there's anything wrong, he's probably just lost track of time, or forgotten, or…"
"He's in trouble."
Joe sighed again and gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze, "If you're that worried, Maid, why don't you try contacting him over the crystals?"
"I already did," Tara's eyes were shadowed by dread, her face oddly gaunt, "He's not responding."
Joe felt his stomach clench – if Jason wasn't responding to Tara's call then …
He tried to hide his misgivings, for Tara's sake, but he was sure that his fear must have been showing in his eyes – it was virtually impossible for him to conceal his emotions; they always gave him away.
"I'm sure everything's fine," he insisted, hugging her, "Why don't you go get some rest and I'll see if I can track that brother of yours down."
Tara opened her mouth to protest, but Joe interrupted her.
"No use risking harm to the baby over something that may … probably … hasn't happened," he gave her a gentle push towards the door, "You take care of yourself, let me deal with Jason."
After a few more protestations, which got her nowhere, Tara turned and swept out of the room, the sound of her gown rustling on the floor following her for a long while. Joe waited until the sound had died away, then dropped into a chair and let out a loud, exasperated sigh.
"I'm going to kill that man when I get my hands on him!" he grumbled, cursing Jason for causing so much worry. Then he frowned, wondering what could have happened to his brother-in-law to make him ignore a call from his sister – especially over the crystal, which he was supposed to always have with him, hanging on a chain around his neck like the rest of his family – like the rest of the Alpha Warriors. After a moment Joe reached under his shirt, withdrew his own fragment of the blue, magical stone and spoke into it:
"Jason? Jason can you hear me? Answer, you idiot!"
There was no response. The crystal remained cold and empty, devoid of the reflection of his brother-in-law's smiling face that should have been there.
"Damn it!" Joe sighed, letting the crystal drop back against his chest. It didn't seem that long ago since Jason had left with Joe's old gypsy camp for Canthonia, hoping to find somewhere where he could forget – or at least come to terms – with some of the things that had occurred in recent years, such as the truth about his and Tara's heritage, the fact that Tara was a Seer and that he, Joe, Limbius and other close friends had actually died near the climax of their adventure and been restored to life by Tara, who had to give up her new-found existence as a goddess to do so.
The camp returned a few months later, but Jason had decided to stay, sending a message to say that he needed a new start in a new land, away from all the memories of what had happened. At first he sent letters back weekly, informing Tara and Joe that he'd found somewhere to live, had met a girl that he seemed to be infatuated with and seemed to be settling down well.
Then the letters stopped. At first Joe assumed that he had simply forgotten to write, or else was so busy that he hadn't been able to find the time, but now … now he wasn't so sure; if Jason wasn't even responding to the crystal, then …
Joe was so preoccupied with his thoughts that he didn't notice at first when Limbius tried to contact him.
"Joe!" the unicorn repeated, his voice an urgent whisper at the back of the young man's mind, "You had better come out into the courtyard – something is terribly wrong!"
"What's wrong?" Joe asked, jumping when he finally realised that Limbius was speaking to him, then thinking about how strange it would look if anyone walked into the library now and found him apparently talking to himself.
"You should come," Limbius repeated, sounding unusually agitated, "There is something very wrong!"
Joe sighed and made his way back out into the courtyard, where he found the silvery-white unicorn standing alone, stock still, staring out through the bars of the lowered portcullis and into the trees beyond, a strange expression of fear in his eyes.
"What's going on?" Joe drew level with the unicorn and peered in the direction he was looking and saw nothing unusual in the dwindling evening light. Limbius's ears pricked forward and he snorted, prancing in fear.
"There is something coming, something bad … something dark, something dangerous."
Joe had been through too much with Limbius and his kin not to trust his instinct. He clicked his fingers, summoning his sceptre – a long wooden shaft capped with a spherical crimson gem and entwined by a carved snake with red jewelled eyes – and held it ready, anticipating that something was going to leap out of the trees, perhaps even breaking through the portcullis or leaping over the walls.
Faintly at first, then growing louder, a distant, rhythmic sound reached Joe's ears. He tightened his grip on his sceptre, narrowing his eyes as the sun hit the horizon and sent out one last burst of light in a blinding blaze of glory, obscuring his vision.
The sound grew louder and closer – thud thud, thud thud … strangely familiar.
"Hoof-beats," Joe muttered, suddenly realising what it was, "And at a gallop – probably no more than one horse, though."
Limbius pranced and snorted, obviously agitated as the horse – a chestnut mare with someone bent almost double across her neck as she raced towards the castle – came into view. In less than no time she reached the portcullis, reared and screamed, throwing her rider from her back.
The rider hit the ground hard and lay there, motionless save for the rapid rise and fall of his chest, which expelled air from his lungs in ragged, terrified gasps.
"Oh my gods!" Joe hissed, recognising the man's pale face beneath his unruly dark brown hair. He ran towards the gates, screaming at the guards as he did so, "Raise the portcullis, I know him!"
The portcullis lifted with the same grating sound that had greeted him on his arrival with the two children and Joe ducked under it even before it was fully raised, dropping to his knees beside the prone man.
His brother-in-law was oddly pale, and his dark eyes were brimming with a mix of pain and fear – nothing like his usual carefree self at all. There was blood on his brow, but it was dry and seemed to stem from nothing more than a minor cut along his temple – probably delivered by a whipping branch as he raced through the forest. That in itself was amazing – Jason never had been very good at riding and the fact that he would risk a gallop through the closely growing trees put Joe on edge more than anything else.
"Jason!" He said urgently, "Are you alright? Where have you been, Tara and I have … hey, what's wrong?"
Jason had suddenly grabbed hold of Joe's shirt, pulling himself up into a sitting position with a hiss of pain as it jarred muscles damaged by his undignified dismount. Fear blazed like fires in the furnaces of his eyes and his breath was coming out in rapid, terror-filled sobs, causing hot tears to course down his cheeks, leaving pale tracks in the accumulated grime of long travel.
"Joe…" he gasped, "I … it's coming…"
Jason gave a shuddering gasp and promptly fainted, offering no response. Joe cursed and looked over at Limbius, who had trotted over and nuzzled Jason, trying to make sure that he was ok.
"Do you know what he was talking about?" Joe asked.
"No," the unicorn responded, his eyes still wide with agitation, "But I can sense it; a foul presence in the air, on the wind … as cold as death!"
Joe was startled by this; even though the sun was setting, the heat of the day had not abated and, if the past few weeks were anything to go by, it would last throughout the night – a close, clinging heat that, without even the smallest of breezes to bring relief, was likely to keep everyone awake. He gazed up at the cloudless sky, now studded with stars as the daylight faded, then turned his attention back to Jason, who was coming around.
"Jason," Joe said wearily, "What's going on?"
"This…" Jason whimpered, grabbing hold of Joe's shirt once more in a worryingly weak grip, "…was never meant to happen! It was never meant to…"
His words suddenly died out, drowned by a sudden shrill shriek, which tore across the fast-falling silence of the night, searing the starry sky like lightening. Joe yelled and clamped his hands over his ears, feeling as though the harsh sound was going to burst his eardrums as even the trees seemed to move – startled by this abrupt unholy resonance. Limbius reared up and screamed, his eyes rolling in fear and his ears flat against his head. A short distance away, the chestnut mare did the same thing before bolting into the forest, her hoof-beats lost in the echoing screams overhead.
Joe leapt to his feet, clutching his sceptre defensively, his body tensed for immanent battle.
"What," he yelled at Jason, who had, if possible, bleached even whiter when the terrible cry had sounded out, "Have you done?"
Jason was saved the trouble of answering as a shadow passed overhead, blotting out the stars and moon and bringing a wave of deathly chill sweeping over the land. Joe watched, horrified, as his breath turned to vapour and the ground iced over, right before his eyes, imprisoning every blade of grass and fallen leaf in shimmering crystal coat. The sweat that had been dampening his hair solidified, too, turning it from ebony to ivory in just a few seconds. Shivering, he looked up – and let out a yell of fear at what he saw.
A colossal bird hovered overhead, its ice-blue feathers crackling like multiple bolts of lightning – or flames caught in the deathly chill of some malignant spell. Pale blue eyes, brimming with malice, burned above a cruel, sharp silver beak that snapped open and shut with a sound like thunder. Each thrust of its wings sent another wave of chill air sweeping over the forest and castle, transforming the landscape into a world of sharp, jagged edges as it froze everything in place.
"What in the name of all the gods combined?" Joe hissed through chattering teeth, pointing the jewelled end of his sceptre at the strange bird as it fixed its gaze upon it, staring at him in a startlingly cruel and calculating way. Suddenly it shrieked again – causing the two humans to clamp hands over their ears and the terrified unicorn to rear and plunge in a wild panic – folded its gargantuan wings along its back and plummeted towards the ground, sending a shocking wave of cold cascading over Joe and nearly bowling him over with the shock of it.
Joe yelled, recovered himself quickly and dodged out of the way as the creature's cruel silver talons dug into the frozen ground with a sound like rock being torn asunder. It turned, shrieking wildly, beating its wings to regain the air as Joe spun around and, speaking a sharp word of command, shot a large fireball from his sceptre at the beast.
The bird hissed in anger as the ball of flames collided with its chest, its fiery light combining with the eerie glow of the beast's blue feathers to create a momentary purple effect – but then the flames died away, not leaving so much as a dark blemish of ash to show that Joe's spell had hit its target. The creature hissed again and dived at Joe once more, sending his body into convulsions as, failing to get out of the way in time, a talon as cold as ice slashed through his shoulder. At the same time a blue feather slapped against his face, making him scream in agony as it seemed to burn and freeze him at the same time. It was like flame and ice striking him simultaneously – frozen fire.
Joe shuddered and tried to muster up another spell, but the contact with the creature seemed to have sapped all the strength out of him. His legs buckled underneath him and he found himself flat on his back, staring up into cold eyes above a sharp beak glinting in the moonlight.
The bird landed, its legs on either side of his body and its wings stretched out, blocking out all heat as it snapped its beak angrily, its head twisting from side to side as it regarded him malevolently. Joe felt his body freezing rapidly, his breathing growing shallower and shallower as it became increasingly hard for him to draw air into his lungs. Ice formed over his feet, then his legs, then up to his chest – slowly imprisoning him in a transparent, frozen tomb that threatened to hold him suspended forever.
"Joe!" Jason yelled frantically, trying to dodge under the creature's wings to help, but finding that he lacked the strength; evidently the bird's power had already leached all the energy out of him.
"Take care … of Tara," Joe rasped, closing his eyes for what he was sure would be the last time as the ice reached his chin, blocking out all thoughts except how cold he was and how much the ice burned as it shrouded him.
Then suddenly he heard the bird shriek in anger and launch itself into the air, taking the majority of its oppressive cold with it. Joe gasped and opened his eyes, feeling the ice retreating, leaving his body extremely chilled. Looking up he saw the creature writhing in the air, an arrow embedded in one of its eyes. A moment later he heard the familiar whistle of another missile flying through the air and a second arrow lodged just below the creature's beak, drawing a thin trickle of crimson that splattered and hissed on the frozen ground.
Joe used every ounce of energy he had left to shift his eyes to the source of the voice that had spoken his name and saw a man with curly blonde hair and a bandanna tied around his sightless eyes leaning over him,
"Are you ok?"
"Never better." Joe mumbled, feeling his entire body shaking with cold and pain. The blonde-haired man reached into a pouch at his waist, withdrew a handful of some kind of powder and threw it over Joe. At once Joe felt the heat return to his limbs, his breathing sped up to normal and the burn on his face healed perfectly.
"Now that's better!" he groaned, standing up with the help of the blonde-haired man and turning his attention back to the bird, who was screaming so loudly that it was a wonder the windows of the castle were still intact as it repeatedly struck out with its talons at a light-haired woman on the ground, who was firing arrow after arrow at it, her blue eyes glittering with steely determination.
"Joe!" a familiar voice cried and, suddenly, Tara was at the gate, her enchanted sword, Iustus, in her hand.
"Tara, what are you doing here?" Joe yelled in alarm as, just as quickly, the bird redirected its attention to the gravid queen and came swooping down on her.
Joe growled, his eyes glittering with anger at this threat to the woman he loved and sent another fireball rocketing at the beast, closely followed by a second, and a third – but the only effect they had was to make the bird more angry. With a defiant shriek it sent Joe flying with one powerful sweep of its wings, which also bowled over the man and woman who'd appeared to help with such impeccable timing.
Winded, Joe struggled back to his feet as Tara aimed a swipe at the creature, which drew another stream of blood as it sliced through an outstretched talon, then dodged out of its way with surprising agility considering her condition.
The bird hissed and dove at her again, knocking her off her feet and sending another wave of cold cascading over Joe and the others, almost knocking them out.
Joe, closed his eyes against the pain and, through the darkness of semi-consciousness, he heard a familiar voice screaming as the powerful thrust of the bird's wings lifted it into the air. Then all sound stopped. There were no more unearthly shrieks, no more hissing, no more flying arrows. All was eerily – unnaturally still.
Another moment and the oppressive heat that had been haunting the world for weeks returned with full force, somehow not seeming to be warm enough after the experience Joe had just been through.
The bird was gone – but something was terribly wrong. Slowly, dreading what he was going to see, Joe opened his eyes.
"No!" he screamed, his heart leaping into his throat as an expression of deep fear flashed in his eyes, "Oh gods, no!"