The day the sky changed colour, Kayla and I snuck out to the shore to watch. It wasn’t every day that the oldest story you had ever been told came true, after all.
When Kayla and I were still small enough to weave through corals, Mom had told us about the winged beasts that would take over the world. She told us how the massive span of their wings, hundreds and thousands of them, would blot out the sunlight and turn day into night. She told us how their talons would tear through the skin of the water and pluck us out before crushing our bones. How the wounds they left on us would run as deep as their hate.
Those were reasons enough to stay underwater, in the deepest chamber where it was safest. But there was a certain perverse pleasure to take in witnessing first-hand the end of the world.
Kayla and I had imagined a million ways this moment could play out, but we could never have prepared ourselves for this sight.
They arrived with much fanfare, their shrill, terrible cries spearing the air as they loomed closer. Mom was wrong on one account so far. The sunlight had been blocked out, yes, but instead of plunging into darkness, the world was set alight with their flame-tipped wings. We were drenched so thoroughly in shades of gold and amber that we were practically gilded beings on the sand.
When Mom first told me and Kayla the story, we had no concept of fire or its properties, having never been allowed ashore until we were ten. Now, that we had ventured beyond the waters more times than Mom would have liked, though, we were well acquainted with the heat, enough to sear upon contact.
But we were enraptured. We were immovable. We could only stare at the reeling creatures in the sky and wait for the urgent press of bodies and the clash of beaks and claws to descend on us.
And in a flurry of fire and wingbeats, they did.
Up close, I could only snatch glimpses of brass-clad wings and steel-grey eyes before the whirlwind of sand forced me to clamp my eyes shut and reach for my sister.
“Don’t look, Amber,” Kayla whispered in my ear, pulling my head against her shoulder.
We huddled close together, pressed against the rock we would perch on when sunlight illuminated every part of the shallows. I was glad for the warmth of her body against mine, despite the encroaching heat around us.
There in that rocky nook we remained crouched, until we could no longer feel the abrasive scratch of sand against our skin or hear the strident calls of the birds. Until all we could feel was our hearts drumming against each other and all we could hear were our ragged breaths.
When at last the dust settled, I ventured open an eyelid to find the birds – hundreds of them skimming the surface of the sea – extending their talons into the water. I sent a silent plea to Nyssa, the Goddess, for the safety of my people, prayed that they had managed to duck into the deepest, darkest recesses of the sea, away from the birds’ determined grasps.
“Amber,” Kayla hissed, nudging me. “Look!”
We weren’t alone on that disturbed shore. What remained here were no longer birds, only human. They were dressed in full-body armour, men and women alike, just as how their wings had been dressed before the transformation. Rising from the ground, there was no trace of their previous visage. They were entirely and securely human.
We all knew about these shape-shifting beasts. They could turn into anything – woodland hunters armed with spears, silent deadly wolves or shrieking birds of prey – but never into creatures of the sea. It was why they were desperate in their attempts to possess our magic before destroying every one of us.
Now more than ever, I felt the urge to slip back into my sea-body, feel the weight of my tail again in case I never get the chance to.
The beasts – no, humans now – shook off the sand dusting their brass-plated bodies and surveyed the beach with their keen mercury gazes. Among them stood a raven-haired man with shoulders hard and hulking like a boulder. He straightened to his full height, scanning the surroundings.
From a few metres away, a tall svelte woman called, “All clear, Krothos.” The words snapped off her tongue like twigs.
A grim nod and Krothos’s jaw unclenched. His voice pelted me like a handful of chipped stones. “Advance as planned. Destroy everything that moves on this shore.”
Right then in Kayla’s eyes I saw the same fear that pulsed through me, the sickened fascination that stayed our legs. Our stupidity hit me hard then – how conceited and naïve we were to think we could escape the fate that our people were bound to!
There was nowhere to run. We might not have been severely outnumbered, but the beach was an open stretch unmarked by anything but a scattering of rocks. Any movement, however slight, would not go undetected. In any case, my legs were starting to cramp up –
Much like how my heart seized when a shadow fell over us. I thought of the roll of those massive shoulders, the unrelenting cruelty in those cold, cold eyes, and curled into a tighter ball, willing the shadow to recede.
But what appeared before us was not the hefty figure of Krothos. This one was of a slimmer build, but no less imposing. He was silhouetted against the dying light of day so I couldn’t make out his features, but his eyes flashed with a startling luminescence of their own, like molten iron.
When he shifted from his position and leaned down to survey us, sunlight threw his face into clarity. It was the face that would feature in my storm-tossed dreams for nights to come, the one that would interrupt my thoughts during the desolate lulls of the day.
“Run,” he said. Unlike Krothos’s harsh bark, his voice was a warm and treacherous wave.
I stared into his heavy grey gaze and tried to understand the intent behind that word. The beasts stayed their hands for nothing and no one. Predators they were, territorial and always hungry for domination. There had to be a price for our freedom.
I didn’t know then just how thoroughly that split second of mercy would come to destroy us all in the end.
In that moment, I only felt Kayla tugging at my arm, becoming more insistent in her efforts when I didn’t budge.
“Run,” he said again, looking straight at me. “Now.”
With Kayla’s effort, we ran without a backward glance. The stones in my feet dissolved with every fervent step I took, but my mind lingered by that rock where he had stood before me, outlined by the sun’s gilded glow.
When we finally left dry sand behind and returned to the water, Kayla and I shot straight for our chamber. The muffled cries of distant birds reeling above drove us further, faster, deeper into the sea. Fear was an anchor in my chest, dragging me down through the still and quiet waters.
After the onslaught of heat and noise and battering winds, the chilly emptiness down here was a terrifying change of scenery. The stone walls of our chambers rang with unsung songs, and, a moment later, the sob-choked wails of my sister as she tore around in search of our parents.
It seemed Mom was right about one thing after all: the beasts’ hatred for us ran as deep as the wounds they left on us.