A BLACK CONDOR DIPPED her featherless head and flapped her wings, straining for height. Another vulture drifted in front of her, forcing the condor to climb higher in the crowded wheel of circling birds. The condor struggled, her body weak from having little to eat over the past month. The sun had yet to crest the hilly peaks to the east, but already, dozens of bald- headed condors had taken up stations high above the mist-shrouded valley below. The other vultures were hungry, too. The birds flew without calling to each other. Only the sound of their massive wings working laboriously in the humid air marked their passage.
Long-tailed shrikes darted between the condors, refusing to settle in as they twisted and banked among the larger, slower birds. When this sport became dull, a shrike ventured down to the roof of the mist, skimming along its rolling surface and kicking up a cottony spray in its wake. It darted to and fro wherever the mist churned and a hole appeared to open, but it was never fast enough to dive through before it closed.
Shadows passed over the condor and she turned her attention from the shrike. The wheel was breaking apart. The reason flew several hundred feet above. Three pairs of green-breasted eagles had been drawn by the waiting flock. The condor tensed. She was significantly larger than the eagles, but the birds of prey were aggressive and unpredictable. Hunger made the condor brave, and she kept to her course. The other condors settled in behind her and the wheel resumed its slow rotation.
When the eagles showed no sign of attacking, the condor allowed herself to look down again and quickly spied the shrike flying inches above the undulating whiteness. A large wave of mist surged upward momentarily before collapsing, pulling down the mist around it and creating a gaping tear in the otherwise uniform surface. The shrike chirped and dived toward the opening. It managed to penetrate several feet before the walls of mist closed in around it. The shrike’s chirps grew frantic as it twisted and tried to fly back out. Its wingtips brushed the mist and were instantly tangled in wispy skeins that stuck to its feathers. The shrike flapped harder but only succeeded in becoming more enmeshed. Its wings were still beating as the mist closed over it and the condor lost sight of it. The condor kept an eye on the spot where the shrike had vanished, but the bird did not reappear.
The sky began to take on a rosy hue. Shadows cast from the eastern peaks drew jagged black teeth across the mist, reaching all the way to touch the peaks running parallel along the western boundary of the valley. Though the birds couldn’t see it, they knew a thick, brown river surged through a fertile plain of lush green vegetation far below them. They could, however, smell the life that teemed in the jungle, but that wasn’t why they had assembled so early.
It was what they heard, still miles away to the south.
It had happened three times before, over a month ago, in valleys to the south and to the east. In each case, holes had been torn in the impenetrable mist that walled them off from the life below, revealing the jungle and all its inhabitants, and beckoning them down. They had only to circle, and wait.
It was faint and distant. A soft, rhythmic sound that carried like the coppery tang of fresh blood through the humid air. It was a sound foreign to this land, but one to which the circling birds had quickly adapted.
The condor dipped her right wing, allowing herself to drift beyond the wheel and out over the eastern ridge as she angled toward the distant sound. While the eagles continued to circle, the rest of the flock followed her, forming a descending spiral that eased into a single column as they leveled off above the ridge. The condor began to rise as she caught the heated air roiling up from the sun-warmed side of the ridge, but she ignored her instinct and tacked away from the updraft, continuing to follow the ridgeline toward the end of the valley.
It was louder now, echoing off the ridgelines in a growing crescendo. She caught movement out of her right eye and tilted her head. The eagles were finally descending, coming straight down toward the sound instead of hugging the ridge-line.
The condor turned her attention forward. The mist at the very southern end of the valley stirred as seven dark shapes carved along its surface. She shuddered but kept flying.
The eagles screeched, tucked in their wings, and dived, aiming directly for the approaching intruders. Talons and beaks glinted in the sun as the birds of prey called out their challenge at full throat, meeting the interlopers at speed.
The screeching ended abruptly in sprays of red mist.
Brown and green feathers tumbled in the wake of the dragons as they flew on, their wing tips gouging enormous swathes of mist while their tails churned it into froth. Gossamer threads stirred up from the mist found little purchase against the dragons’ scaly hides and did nothing to slow them down.
The condor, with the flock in tow, kept her course as the dragons closed the distance between them, their formation unnaturally precise. It unsettled the condor. Nonetheless, she kept to her path over the ridgeline. She had no concept of what “bravery” was, not that she needed one. Hunger made her fearless. Better to risk being eaten than to feel her insides being gnawed to nothing as her strength faded.
She took a chance and tacked toward the dragons, desperate not to miss the fleeting opportunity that would soon present itself. It was unnerving, but she had no choice. The dragons offered the only safe passage through the mist.
As the dragons came level with her, the closest predator flew only a couple of hundred yards away. The beast turned its head slightly and fixed a large, black eye with a gleaming red pupil on her. The condor’s wingspan would fit inside this dragon many times over. Every part of the creature elicited fear. It was all pointed teeth, stone-hued scales, wings bristling with thorny spikes, and oddly shaped bumps astride the dragon’s shoulders.
The four lead dragons, smaller and more agile, suddenly slammed their wings hard on the downward stroke, vaulting them high above the mist. Even at this distance, the condor was buffeted by the move. The dragons arced gracefully in the air until their momentum burned off and they hung motionless at their flight’s apogee. As one, they flicked their tails hard left, pointed their heads toward the mist, and shot their right wings out in a sudden flare.
Grace became violent force.
The dragons snap-rolled onto their backs and plummeted toward the mist, each one tucking its wings in tight alongside its body. Their tails elongated as two small fins at the tip took on a rakish angle, imparting a rotation to the hurtling dragons. The wind whistled through their teeth and thrummed across the membranes of their wings.
When they were still fifty yards above the mist, the four dragons opened their maws and breathed fire.
The condor squawked and turned away as the heat washed over her. Shit and piss and feathers flew through the air as the flock broke up in wild panic. The mist crackled and sparked.
She turned back in time to see the dragons plunge through the smoking hole in the mist and disappear. A moment later, the remaining dragons, much larger than the lead four and sporting many more of the odd bumps along their backs, lumbered down through the hole.
The condor banked and flew after them, hurtling through the gap in the mist, which was already starting to close. Though the opening was polluted with the caustic odor of the dragons’ fire, the blood of the eagles hung in the air and she opened her beak out of reflex. This was why she risked everything. Wherever the dragons appeared, death followed, and that meant food.
Turbulence buffeted the condor as she flew downward, but she splayed her pin feathers and kept herself away from the rolling walls of mist. She pumped her wings faster, determined not to become trapped.
She was still accelerating when she exited the hole and the entire valley stretched out before her like a vast, green sea. The wet, thick air with all its earthy smells filled her nostrils as if she’d dunked her head underwa- ter. For a moment, the pangs in her stomach vanished. Below, the dragons were hundreds of yards away and angling toward the ground.
The condor splayed her wings and slowed her descent. She could easily track the dragons from here as they flew toward the valley floor. She began to circle well below the layer of mist, comforted as other birds came through and fell in behind her. The waiting began again and she became aware once more of the hunger pangs in her stomach. That pain would not last much longer. Already, a new scent was rising in the air. The condor opened her beak in response.
Deep in the jungle below, blood was spilling.