The Ghoul plague was sweeping north on its path of death leaving Ithlin on the edge of oblivion. Squad thirteen had been requested to aid the town of Portenbach to stop the spread of the plague, which had reached into their city limits. If all goes well, The Birds of Plague would ensure that the illness would stop before more become infected.
Crow reached into his cloak, opened one of the many pouches, and pulled out the letter from Elanor Toller, Mayor Toller's wife. She had personally requested for the Birds to check on her husband. There was no doubt in Crow's mind that she would be paying with tax money she embezzled from her husband. Shaking his head, he lifted the letter to be seen in the glow of the lamps, the sun still hidden beneath the horizon.
Skimming over the letter, the sloppy handwriting brought back the memory of his younger self, handwriting almost illegible. The lifeless log he was resting against creaked, and he turned his head to see Owl, his squad-mate. Folding the letter neatly, he placed it back into the pouch for safekeeping. Once tucked away, Owl had jumped from the log and sat next to him. "You have woken early," she said through a yawn.
They were both covered in matching cloaks, the only way to tell them apart was by their masks. Crow ignored her, he already knew what she was going to ask, and scooted away from her.
Owl tilted her head, watching him curiously, "Nightmares again?"
"I do not wish to speak of this again." Crow said lowly, nearly choking on his words. He stood up to his full height and looked south.
"Will you stick to the plan this time?" Owl asked, while she stood and planted her hands on her hips.
Crow didn't bother answering her, and he knew her well enough to know her eyes were rolling, even though they were covered by the mask.
Crow headed toward Portenbach in silence. The heavy familiar scent of death and fish wafted into the air as the wind picked up. He had been to this town once before back when it was just his parents and his older sister. He thought about her and sent a silent prayer to Namazin, Goddess of Purification. He believed his prayers had been answered immediately as the sun began to rise. As soon as his hopes began to surface, they were overshadowed by reality the clouds moved in to block out the warmth of the sun.
The gears ground into place before releasing a weight, pulling on a bell ringing it constantly. Trisha woke up and opened her steam clock's face to reset the weight and stop the alarm. Yawning, she rubbed her eyes before quickly getting dressed and leaving her room. As a maid, she slept in a room connected to the Boiler Room. She immediately wiped the sweat from her forehead. Simply walking into the boiler room was difficult. She looked at the dials to make sure they were still on the correct settings.
She was happy for the heat, and for the job that she landed. It gave her a roof over her head, cleaner than most places, and was able to save money. In Portenbach, you had to be rich or lucky to have new commodities from District Ein, such as a toilet and shower. Trisha often wondered what it would be like at the top of society. She would have to make due to the Mayor's maid.
After Trisha made breakfast of eggs and bacon she walked up the grand stairs in the main room and turned right to go up another, more discreet set of stairs. The paint chipped and cracked from years of neglect. Even people with power here in Portenbach don't have money for paint jobs. She ascended the steps and rounded the corner on her right. She opened the door with her hip, set the tray of food on the nightstand, walked to each gas lamp and turned the knobs before taking a match and lighting them. Elanor, the Mayor's wife groaned as the flames flickered and lit the room.
Elanor sat up, making several signs with her hands. Using a Sign Language that was created by the Bird of Plague Crane, a high ranking Bird in District Ein. Trisha simply nodded, leaving the room as she was asked.
Trisha inhaled deeply, dusting off her apron. She just began her descent down the stairs, when a thud in the room across from Elanor's room caught her attention. Retracting her foot from the first step she crept slowly over to the room that held the Mayor until the Birds come to inspect him. The light began to dim, fear crept up her back, causing the hair on the back of her neck to stand. Then a frightened mouse scurried out from under the stood, causing Trisha to flee down the stairs.
Meanwhile, Crow was walking through the thick fog that covered the town that is within one-hundred feet of the shoreline. As he passed by citizens, he heard the mumbling, "He brings death," was one thing spoken by an elderly man to his grandson. Crow kept walking, doing his best to minimize himself to the confines of his cloak. His nose scrunched up when he noticed people relieving themselves from the dock into the water. His body shivered at the display.
The tightness of his sleeves prevented the hair on his antebrachium from standing. All the Birds are covered head to toe, including multiple harnesses to carry pouches, combat gear, and grapplers with one hand adjacent to his weapon he continued. More often than not folks in Tredecim would shelter ghouls in hope that they would naturally heal. The fact is that they are only prolonging their loved one's suffering. As brainless as the ghouls become they are still slightly conscious. There are even those, like the Zealots, who seek to hinder the Birds operations. They believe the ghouls are a part of "Gods' wrath," and the people of Ithlin deserve it.
Crow stopped when he saw a small girl looking at him from the doorway of what he assumed was her house. Even though the girl could not see it, he met her gaze. The girl's curly brunette hair reminded him of his little sister, and he felt the same concern for the girl as he would his own family. "Is there something on my face?" His slightly muffled voice startled the girl. His right hand came out of his cloak and felt his mask just to make sure. He took slow, cautious, steps over to the young girl, like she's a wounded animal he doesn't want to spook. At first glance, Crow could tell that she was not getting enough food. "Are you hungry?" He asked calmly.
Her curly, dingy hair bounced as she nodded quickly. Crow reached in one of his pouches to pull out some pieces of dried deer meat. He held it out to her in the palm of his hand. She hesitated before grabbing it and within seconds it was completely gone. Crow chuckled, a fond smile ghosting his lips, hidden by his mask. "What is your name?" He was curious as her appearance was becoming more familiar the more he looked at her.
"M'names Pidge mister. I'm six" She said while holding up seven fingers. His smile grew unbeknownst to her. He remembered hearing of a woman who was in Bird Squad 13B. She was known as Pidgeon. He had seen her face only once when he was younger, but this had to be her daughter. Her small, malnourished hand interrupted his train of thought. She had reached to feel his mask, a small frown pulling at her lips, "What happened to your face mister?"
As he let her touch the mask, the wonder in her eyes make it clear she had never seen or felt leather before. Folks in Trebecim were more behind the times than the rest of Ithlin. Most of all technological advances just do not make it down south.
"My face is just fine," Crow replied.
"Why do you have a mask?" she asked, starting to pull at the straps.
Crow quickly stepped back, "It protects me young one." He motioned to his entire outfit, "Everything you see on me is meant to protect me while I heal others." Pulling back his cloak to show her everything he had hiding beneath.
"Can I has a mask?" she asked innocently. This struck Crow in his heartstring, she doesn't feel safe here. Her hesitation from before made sense now. Crow stepped closer and placed his hand on her head.
"I apologize young one. These are very special masks. But I will see what other masks there are." He ruffled her hair then stepped back out into the street. "I best be going! Wouldn't want to be tardy to my first appointment." Pidge frowned but waved at him as he walked away.
The mayor's house was not far from his current location. Back in the direction he came, several blocks down, it would be the corner house on the left. The mayor's house was not far from his current location, according to the directions of a man working in the bakery, back in the direction he came, several blocks down, it would be the corner house on the left.
Once at the house he knocked on the door. Within moments the maid, Trisha, opened the door. "Greetings Master Bird. Lady Elanor is getting everything ready for you upstairs. May I get you something to drink while you wait?" Trisha asked, then curtsied. Crow was taken back at the manners she possessed. It was rare to see in Trebecim.
"No thank you. If it is fine with you I need to see the patient immediately." He said, grasping his hands behind his back.
"Of course. Master Bird…"
"My name is Crow." he interjected.
"Ah yes. Of course Crow." She nodded before leading the way up the stairs. Once they reached the top of the stairs Trisha stopped and turned to him ."Allow me to fetch Misses Elanor." She made her way swiftly down the hall to the right. Crow looked down the hall in the opposite direction, noticing the door at the end shrouded in darkness. Trisha returned, followed by Elanor. The woman looked to be in her mid-forties, grey hair laced in among the blonde.
Already annoyed at the fact that they had been keeping the Mayor in a dark room, he sneered, "Why are the lights off in the patient's room?" He stared at Elanor incredulously. The woman glanced at Trisha, shock evident on her face.
"She is deaf, let me translate." Trisha signed to her and quickly Elanor signed back.
"To save on steam and gas."Trisha looked ashamed as she gave Crow Elanor's answer. He stepped closer to Elanor and squared his shoulders, standing tall. Elanor gaped, feeling Crow's anger seep into her very soul. Scared for her mistress, Trisha stepped in-between them, using herself as a shield.
"Let me guess you also have not been feeding him? He has probably already turned into a ghoul." Crow shouted as he stormed down the hall, and flung open the door. He pulled out some matches only to find the lights were electrical. Slamming his palm on the wall he felt around for a switch. Finding it he flipped it, not at all surprised by what he saw. Elanor and Trisha gasped, the Mayor was bloated beyond belief.
"It's too late. I need to go get the rest of my squadmates so we can put him to rest properly." He noticed Elanor tearing up at the sight of her poor husband. She pushed past him, to get to the side of what once was her lover. "Stop! You are too close!" He shouted to no avail. Trisha tried to move past him as well but he caught her by the arm. "Go somewhere safe. The swelling means he turned into an absorber ghoul. On touch and she is gone too." Horrified, Trisha looked at him one last time before she ran.
Carefully, Crow walked over to Elanor and placed his hand on her shoulder. Her body jolted in surprise, but otherwise she was still. She reached out to her husband, but before he could stop her, her unprotected had touched the swelling, undulating flesh. Tendrils of disease-riddled flesh, latched onto her, pulling her in. Everything happened so quickly, Crow didn't have enough time to react. The absorber ghoul grew twice its' original size, pushing Crow out of the room and into the Hall. Quickly he unhooked one of his many pouches, containing a special powder. It was created by the head scientist of the Birds of Plague, Peacock. The powder is a mix of an unknown metal and something called Sun ore; A rock that absorbs pure water. Crow poured it out in a line from wall to wall. As the flesh moved closer it touched the powder, which caused the ghouls to shriek and recoil. It went back into the room looking for a way to escape. Moving to the window, it used its' weight to shatter the glass and fled from the house.
"Damn!" Crow Exclaimed. He ran through the room and leaped from the window. Moving his hips, aiming at the house across the road from the Mayor's, Crow slammed his left hand on the left grappler. With a discharge of steam, the grappling hook and cable shot out, piercing the wall and locking in place. With his right hand, he quickly reached around to his back grabbing his weapon. While swinging down he released the safety switch. A pole slid out from the bottom along with another on the inside. The large curved blade flipped out and locked into place. He swung his scythe at the ghoul, barely grazing it, causing little damage.
"What happened to following the plan? What is all of this?" Owl said coyly from the roof of the house he was currently hanging from.
"This is no time for banter Owl!" Crow was annoyed with himself for letting the situation get out of control. Ibis, Hawk, and Sparrow all looked over the edge at him then at the ghoul.
"Looks like you let this go to your head." Hawk scolded Crow.
"We will pick up your slack." Ibis sighed, only adding to Crow's self-blaming. Just then the ghoul began to roll away, picking up those too slow to get out of the way and absorbing them. The longer it rolled down the road the bigger it got. Luckily the town sat atop the ocean.
"Alright. You know what to do, box this pile of once human flesh in and take care of it. With that, the four of them dashed from rooftop to rooftop, all in separate directions. Crow was confused about why they would do this when all they had to do is destroy the central brain of the ghoul. Crow released the grapple from the wall and fired off the right one. As he swung down to near the street he cranked back the left and fired it off. Doing this quickly he swung down the road, over the ghoul and landed in front of it.
Remembering him as the little bird who hurt him before, the Ghoul lashed out with two tentacles. Covering the outside of them with bones so it can cause more damage. Crow spins his scythe with trained precision. Expertly severing the tentacles from the rest of the ghoul. With the same shrill shriek as earlier, it raised two more tentacles in the air. With the same shrill shriek as earlier, it raised two more tentacles in the air. It pushed flesh to the tip forming both into mallets. With the weight of twenty human bodies, it slammed the mallets down. Crow shifted his weight into a backflip. Narrowly escaping the attack.
However, he was not fast enough. Around eight Spears made out of bone shot forth from the ghoul's mouth. Two impaling Crow's right arm causing him to drop his weapon. He twisted his body, but the six bone spears still tore through his shirt, cloak, and ripped half of his mask off. Losing his balance, he fell onto the road, clutching his injured arm.
Crow could see the ghoul getting closer. Is this the end for me? On my first mission? He thought. The whizzing of grappling cables tore him from his thoughts. Six grapplers latched onto the ghoul. Sparrow, Hawk, and Ibis had shot their grapplers into the ghoul, running counter-clockwise, restraining most of the ghoul. In a fit of rage, it tried to lunge at Crow.
Five small blades, Owl's talons, exited the ghouls' head. She had destroyed the central brain, causing the overgrown flesh to convulse. As it exploded several houses next to the road collapsed under the force and weight of the flesh.
While Owl helped Crow up, she refrained from the urge to look at his exposed face. Respecting the fact that he did not want his face to be revealed. Crow looked around and recognized the street sign. His heart skipped several beats as it broke. He stumbled out of Owl's support he rushed as fast as he could over to one of the houses that had been destroyed.
Digging through the rubble he found he found Pidge lying in a pool of her own blood. A section of pipe had impaled her, right through her chest. Crow knelt next to her and patted her tear-stained cheek.
She opened her eyes slightly, and whispered, "It hurts Mister, It hurts so much." The tears that were threatening to spill, had done just that, rolling down his face. "Can I has a mask now mister?" She asked, an air of innocents still surrounding her.
Crow took her hand and squeezed gently. "Of course Pidge. You can have a special one like mine." He huddled over her dying body so no one would see his face, as he gave this child her last wish. Unstrapping his mask he placed it over her head.
Her eyes widened as she breathed, "Jacob?" before her little body became lifeless.
The tears wouldn't stop flowing from the well of his soul. In their last moment, he realized why she looked so familiar. They were cousins. Pidgeon, Pidge's mother, was Crow's aunt. As stoically as he could muster he lifted her body off of the pipe. With his head down, he began to walk her out of the town so he could give her a proper burial.
Hawk came up next to him and draped his cloak over Crow so he could hide his face. There was always a price to pay for being alive in such a cruel world. Once out of the city Crow located a shovel and dug Pidge a grave. When her burial was over, Owl took him aside.
"I'm going to send this report to Eins. The top birds won't be happy that you have lost your mask."
"I do not care. This whole ordeal is my fault. I was not quick enough in dealing with the ghoul." He said sullenly.
"I'm here for you. Believe it or not, we have all been through something similar. Don't let it hinder you from helping others, but don't you dare get used to this feeling. Don't let it eat at you, or it will consume you." She placed a hand on his shoulder before heading over to the cart they used to haul everything they couldn't physically carry.
Pulling out a piece of parchment, a quill and some ink Owl wrote the report, rolling it up once it was finished. Opening up a cage, she pulled out an actual Owl, tied the report to its leg, and gave it a keyword. Lifting her arm it took flight. Flying non-stop it reached Eins in about nine days. It flew into the Messenger Master's coop. Untying the letter, he rushed it to Peacock.
He found him sitting in a dark lab, the only light coming from beakers and Bunsen burners. The shimmer of Peacock's cape of beautiful death caught the Messenger Master's eye, and he slid the letter onto the Peacock's work table. He gulped, the tension was always high near Peacock.
A sly smirk lifted one corner of his mouth, before he cackled, "Yes. Bring him in."
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