Showdown in the Sky
The Murder of Crows hurtled towards them and a great shadow cut off the Moon, larger than any bird, larger even than any plane. It was like a dark ship tossed on the sea of clouds! Surely impossible… although given everything else that night, perhaps not. Johnny clung to his stepmother, feeling an icy sense of terror. Steffi shrieked again and Johnny felt her heart thumping beneath her feather breast, her breath coming in ragged gasps. The Crows were now clearly visible – shadowy shapes of men with pitch black wings and heads of monstrous birds of carrion, wielding what Johnny thought were huge forks that glowed with dull red lights. Suddenly they pointed the forks and beams of bloody light shot towards Johnny and his stepmother. Steffi soared upwards to avoid them and began flying in erratic loops. Johnny buried his face in her feathers.
"No other way…" groaned Steffi. She was reaching into one of her belt pouches and then she screamed something. There was a sound like smashing glass and she flew higher.
He heard the clatter of her talons as she alighted on a hard surface so he looked up. They were in a narrow, wooden corridor lit up by a glimmering red light for which Johnny could see no lamp. There was a faint stink of rotting meat in the air. The lurid glare made Steffi's green face look rather strange. Her eyes were wide and scared.
"The Crows must have wanted me to board this ship. It is the Raven's Flying Fortress. They kept shooting at me until I broke through one of the portholes." She unbuckled the harness that strapped him to her and set him on the wooden planks. The ship was moving, Johnny could tell that; it felt even worse than being on a ship at sea. The whole floor seemed to sway and lurch.
There were shining tears rolling down Steffi's cheeks. "I'm so sorry I got you into this, my son. We're right in the Raven's lair... I have a plan if he should find us, but it's so dangerous…" She took hold of his hand and breathed hard, her feathered breast rising and falling. "If they want you, they will definitely have to kill me first."
Johnny shared her fear. "You said the Raven stayed in his netherworld?"
"And the portal is somewhere aboard this vessel. Come, we must be quick. The Crows will be here in seconds."
She led him down the corridor which joined another. At the end of this new corridor, there was a heavy wooden door. Steffi tore at the lock with her fingernails and the bird claws of her feet, gouging great rents in the wood. The lock came free and she kicked the door open. A harsh croaking sound assailed their ears from the room beyond: "Kak-kak-kak-kak-kak." Steffi took Johnny's hand and they stepped inside.
They were in a wide room with a higher ceiling than the corridors. With a giddy, unreal feeling, Johnny saw the shapes of men covered with black and white feathers, wings folded behind them. They had heads that resembled giant magpies! They were peering over a set of railings which fenced in the centre of the room and cheering in their harsh, quacking, barking voices: "Kak-kak-kak-kak-kak."
Steffi gave an earsplitting shriek that carried above even the sound the bird men made.
Several of them turned at the sound, surveying the two of them with beady, black eyes.
Steffi put a wing around Johnny and spread her green arms wide. "Listen to me, Magpies. I have a proposition. I can help you find all the treasure your hearts desire, make you rich beyond the dreams of avarice - if you will help me end the menace of the Raven. Please think what he intends… to kill innocent humans to sate the monstrous appetites of the Crows! How can you be OK with this?"
The Magpies had all fallen silent. Steffi's shriek had been deafening enough to carry above even their cacophony. She paused and the Magpie nearest them spoke: "The Raven promises many things, Harpy. He has promised the Crows carrion. He has promised us treasure. He has promised you a fledgling. We all accepted."
"I have a fledgling and the Raven had no part in it!" said Steffi proudly. She stroked Johnny's hair and grinned at him and Johnny felt warm and glowing inside.
"We dare not defy the Raven, Harpy kak-kak" rasped the Magpie. "We are not such fools. We know what he is capable of and how he delights in torture. What is there to gain by incurring his wrath?"
Steffi glared, breathing hard, her breast rising and falling. Her husky voice trembled as she replied: "Oh I don't know, how about innocent lives?"
"Not worth his wrath," grated another Magpie.
"And what of my wrath, mine?" Steffi's spoke these words more softly, but Johnny could tell she was getting really angry - she was breathing harder, her breast rising and falling.
A third Magpie shook his head and pointed a talon over the railing. "Forget it and look at the results of his magical experiments. Kak-kak - We're humans to whom he has given the powers of birds. He's also tried giving birds human traits with dark magic. Look at these abominations."
"What?" Steffi picked up Johnny and spread her wings wide, striding forwards. She shoved aside two Magpies with her strong wings so that she could see over the rail. In the center of the room there was a shallow pit with a wooden floor and strange, misshapen things were crawling around in it. Johnny thought that they were like plucked chickens, but with four legs and swollen heads, their beaks opening and closing like they were struggling to breathe. He felt sick. What a horrible wizard the Raven must be to treat birds like this.
Steffi choked and put a clenched fist to her mouth. Johnny glanced up to see tears in her blue eyes.
A Magpie pointed into the pit. "They hate themselves – they hate each other… look…"
One of the bird-things gave a wheezing gasp and scuttled at one of its fellows, pecking at it.
"We're taking wagers on which will peck which to death," added another Magpie.
"Stop, stop now!" screamed Steffi, flapping her great wings with terrific force, bowling the nearest Magpies aside like ninepins. She reached into her belt pouch and took out a handful of glittering powder, just like the stuff she had thrown at the Raven that afternoon. She flung it at the Magpies, screaming in her Harpy voice and there were bright flashes of rainbow coloured lights all around. "Get out! Get out! How could you be so depraved?"
The Magpies retreated to a door in one of the walls, croaking things like: "A witch! kak-kak" and "Magic! The Raven can handle it."
Steffi was crying as she gazed transfixed at the pit and her tears splashed onto Johnny's face. The bird-things had scuttled to the corners where they cowered in fear at the commotion. "Alive… and hating themselves…"
This was a horrible idea and it made Johnny feel sick, but he knew Steffi had to focus. "It's the Raven's fault, not the Magpies," said Johnny.
"Quite right, darling! I must get you out of this foul place."
She folded her wings, set him down on the wooden floor and took his hand, leading him to a door in the far wall. This corridor was darker and the dull red lights were the faintest glimmer. Johnny felt like they were moving unnaturally slowly as if through water. He looked up at Steffi for reassurance. She gave a small smile, but looked worried. "The stink of dark magic is all around," she murmured.
A pitch black shadow suddenly loomed in front of them and the Raven's voice cut through their minds.
"Direct defiance is it, Harpy?"
Steffi shrieked and flung a handful of glittering powder at him. There was an explosion and flashes of rainbow lights, briefly illuminating the dingy corridor. The shadow retreated, but there was no time for relief. There was a clattering sound and a mirror with an ornate silver frame and clawed bird's feet propelled itself down the corridor towards them with incredible speed. In the mirror they saw the head of a huge raven with glowing red eyes and a wickedly sharp beak.
The Raven's voice resounded in their heads, louder and harsher than ever. "Very well – suffer living Hell until the Crows arrive to devour your carcass and that of your brat."
Steffi flung her arms round Johnny, shielding him with her wings, but then to Johnny's horror she began to scream and scream without pause and collapsed to the ground, her arms still around her stepson, writing in pain.
The harsh sound of the Raven's hollow laughter echoed above Steffi's screams. "You can shield him from my spell for a moment, but not for long! I remade you, Harpy. I can unmake you. I take great pleasure in making you suffer! And know this before you die: The night of the Raven will fall on the world below. The Crows will feast!"
Johnny felt really sick that Steffi was hurting so badly and his heart was fluttering. If he could only help, but what magic did he know? Then he remembered their lullaby – the melody without words that could be used to help a loved one relax and forget their pain. She had been teaching it to him just that afternoon. He hummed it into her ear as loudly as he could although her screams were making his eardrums throb. He thought of how he had grown to love his stepmother and how it would hurt him if he lost her and he concentrated and concentrated and hummed the haunting melody louder.
Abruptly, Steffi stopped screaming and writhing. She glared up and the mirror, her blue eyes furious and fixated. "Your portal is not harder than diamond," she wheezed and held up the bright diamond she had packed in the cave.
"No!" barked the Raven
But Steffi gave another scream and covering Johnny with her wings, she flung the diamond with terrific force at the mirror.
There was a flash of blinding silver light and a brittle shattering noise that seemed to go on and on… then a tinkling of broken glass.
Steffi and Johnny looked up. The empty mirror frame stood lifeless in front of them, the fragments of the shattered glass lying in a heap at its clawed feet.
The diamond lay nearby and Steffi picked it up and helped Johnny to stand. There was a terrible, inhuman cawing sound and they turned to see a small group of Crows staggering around in circles, yelling in their harsh voices: "The Raven is lost… lost… all is lost caaaawwwww."
Steffi curled her dark green lip at them and flung another handful of sparkling powder, causing them to rush away back down the corridor.
"Without the Raven, they've no idea what to do! But they almost had us. They made it as far as this corridor."
"Is the Raven dead now, mum?"
"Only stuck in his netherworld, darling, but I would say he is defeated de facto."
Back in the room of the bird-things a small group of Magpies were milling around. One of them addressed Steffi. "The Crows have lost it – kak kak… they were going after you and I'm afraid they ate the bird-things… thought they were carrion…"
Steffi glared at him with frightening intensity. He staggered back at the force of her gaze, holding up his arms in a pacifying gesture. "But now they're getting their comeuppance. They used dark magic for murder and it will exact its price. I doubt they will survive. kak-kak Now what do we do? The Raven's magic propelled this ship and without him you're the only mage left here."
Steffi sniffed. "I'll steer the ship, but only because I don't want it to fall from the sky onto civilians below. You lot just stay out of the way."
The Magpie held up a wing and his feathers began to fall out. "I'm changing back into a man… we're all going to revert…"
"Well what do you want me to say? Congratulations? Come, dear Johnny."
Steffi led him through another doorway and up a flight of stairs into a room with a broad window which let in the silvery light of the full Moon, lighting up Steffi's face. She grinned at him. "We'll park this thing in the mountains and then fly back home. We've won, darling. We've both won! I could never have done it without you, my little love."
After landing the ship on a mountain top, Steffi strapped her son to her again and revisited the cave, depositing some items and collecting others, including a dress which she packed into a leather bag which she then strapped to her belt. They flew back to their home with all speed. They landed in the back garden and Steffi unstrapped Johnny and set him down on the lawn. The first faint streaks of dawn were visible on the horizon.
"Yes… I think I can still change back…" she murmured and reaching into her tangled mass of dark green hair, pulled out the night doll. Her hair began to turn yellow again and her wings began to shrink.
"Excuse me please, darling, I must change..." She hurried into the garden shed and a couple of minutes later emerged. She was her old self again, fully clothed. She grinned at him and gave him the thumbs up.
Johnny threw his arms about her, greatly relieved. "You see mum, the Raven was lying when he said there was no road back."
Steffi stroked his hair. "A lie will always be exposed in the end, darling. And now I must tell your father the truth."
The back door was flung open and there was dad wearing his dressing gown and a big frown. "What's going on? Where have you both been?"
Steffi gave a wan smile. "Please Henry, we need to sit down on the sofa with a cup of tea and talk about it. Be assured that Johnny has been a great help and I would have been lost without him."
"Come, let us go in." Steffi took Johnny by the hand and linked her arm in Dad's and they all went indoors. The sun was rising. The night of the Raven was over and it was the beginning of a beautiful day…