A woman lied facedown on the craggy shore, crumpled over a rock and dripping in the rain and the cold. Scrambling down the jagged rocks that lay scattered surrounding the body, I landed beside her and turned her head over. I gasped. Small dark blemishes were visible on the deep indents of her face, under her eyeballs and over her torn cheeks, their edges purple and bruise-like. Her head looked rotten and bleeding.

Her exposed veins and arteries swelled out of a large part of her face, peeking out from folds of festering skin, and her beautiful eyes bulged out like a dying cow, staring silently ahead. She dripped with briny seawater, turned into a hideous pink by her blood. Her auburn hair poked out of tiny streaks of untouched skin on her forehead, and slowly regained its foothold on her scalp towards the back of the neck. From behind, she looked untouched.

A crowd was forming around the shore, and a military hovercraft thundered overhead, through the clouds, to places unknown. I reached over to close her eyes, exhaling deeply, hesitating to touch her ravaged face. A droplet of water touched my forehead, followed by another, and yet another. It was beginning to sprinkle. I hurriedly shoved my hand in the ragged pockets of the trench coat I was wearing, and produced a pair of tattered leather gloves. Putting them on, I kneeled beside her, and set my hand on her face. I brushed a few strands of hair off her eyes, and positioned my hand to close them.

The eyes focused on me.

I yelped and fell over like a mere child. Tears and rain blurred my vision. I sat there for a minute or two, I staring at her, and she staring at me. The bleeding had stopped and the blood had started to coagulate. Her pale hand, outstretched limply by her side, weakly gestured for me to come. I slowly crawled forward, halting next to her. She was dressed in an ancient stained coat, worn with years of usage. She mumbled something weakly through her exposed and ripped gums. I leaned in closer, almost completely over her. She didn’t seem to notice, and reached upwards, squeezing my gloved hand with a pale hand. I looked into her eyes. A weak voice rose up.

“I... I can speak,” she whispered.

I stared at her confusedly.

“I... I can speak,” she said again, with more emphasis. I kneeled there for what seemed to be hours. The sky was beginning to darken, and the glow of lights, saved only for the nighttime, began to illuminate the empty shadows of the destroyed ruins of the city. Thick grey thunderheads grew larger in size by each passing second. Smoke billowed from the roofs of buildings, from fires and stoves, from warmth that seemed to hug oneself lightly before wafting upwards to the heavens. From far away a dog yelped, and people laughed. I checked a cracked watch that I had strapped loosely onto my arm.

It was 7:15. I glanced down at her, this mysterious woman, and held my breath, for she was lying with her eyes shut. Was she dead? I tried pulling my hand from her grip to no avail. Moments later, she coughed loudly, gagging on her own blood. I turned her sideways and it dribbled sloppily out of the corners of her mouth, pouring down the rocks in unequal increments, spattering on pebbles and seaweed before getting absorbed by the thirsty sand. She looked upwards at me as an infant would look upon its parents. Her teeth quavered.

“I can speak,” she said once more.

Her voice was weakened, but at the same time betrayed a semblance of pride. Her eyes welled up with tears, and the remnants of her lips arched into a vague smile. Her hand slowly parted with my fingers, and pointed down the rocks, across the beach, and to a bloodied mask lying on the shore. I choked. The inside was covered in hundreds of needles and tubes, pointing menacingly outwards. It resembled a beak.

It was raining with full fury now. Thunder rumbled and lightning flashed miles above us in the sky. The crowd of people had mostly dissipated, not wanting to stay in the torrential downpour. They had dinners to cook and friends to meet. I whimpered and focused my eyesight on her.

“You... you were a Beak?” I asked, knowing the answer. She nodded slightly. I glanced away from her, feeling my face turn hot with tears. I gasped. The only people in the crowd remaining were Beaks.

They stood in a rudimentary crescent around us. They were covered in hooded rags, soaked with water and refuse. Covering their faces was a terrible beak-shaped mask, extending about one half of a meter from their head. It was a dark grey metal, with hundreds of tiny dents caused by years of damage and decay. Over their eyes were two opaque lenses, black colored and caked with grime around the edges.

Sharp rods pointed upwards along the sides, bringing the lower jaw of a horse’s skull to mind. A low, raspy breathing emanated from three small vents located below their empty sockets. One of them procured a notebook from a pouch hidden within his clothing. Another one handed him a Sharpie, which he snatched without diverting eye contact from me. Opening the book, he wrote quickly on a scrap of paper before ripping it out. He stepped forwards, and knelt, setting it at my feet. He stood up and returned to the others. They turned towards him briefly, before twisting back to face me. I gazed at him momentarily before grasping the note.

“SHE IS DYING,” it said.

“Because she removed her mask?” I hollered through the roar of the deluge. The one who handed me the notebook gravely nodded. I studied her bruised forehead and skinless cheeks, her auburn hair, mottled with crimson blood, and yellow teeth. Her beautiful eyes.

“Is there anything I can do?” I cried. No response. Their eternal silence, broken only by their hoarse breathing, and the patter of the rain, was answer enough. I bended towards her face.

“I... I can speak,” she croaked.

“Yes... yes you can.”

Her head sluggishly turned to peer beyond the shore, over the innumerable waves of the bay, to the massive government Citadel rising over the waters. She blinked, and her eyes lost their piercing focus. She slumped against the rocks, bereft of life. I knew she was dead.

The Beaks howled and an unearthly electronic noise penetrated my ears. I collapsed onto the rocks, clawing at my ears. To my horror, I feel a trickle of blood drip down the side of my head. One of the Beaks crumpled onto the ground, wailing, weeping, sobbing. Their infernal cries pierced the night, echoing across the walls and the harbor. More furious than the roar of lion and more sharp than a saber, the Beaks lamented into the oblivion of the night, cursing, screaming against the drone of the rain. From atop the Government Citadel afar, the curfew siren rung. Lights one-by-one went out across the city, gradually plunging me into darkness.

Eventually, the howling ceased. The Beak with the notebook stood up and silently ordered the others. They surrounded the woman’s body, slowly picking her up. A mournful bellow replaced the screeching as they raised her above them, taking her corpse into the obscurity of the night. The notebook Beak remained with me.

I was crouched on the ground, my trench coat saturated with rainwater. He wordlessly handed me his journal and descended into the rapidly rising fog. I hesitated for a moment, before opening the front cover. Scrawled onto a page of notes were the words “THANK YOU”. I closed the notebook and shoved it into an inner pocket of my coat, as to prevent the ink on it from getting more diluted.

The rain quickly was washing away all evidence of her existence, save for one thing: her mask. I leaped down the rocks, skinning my knee on a chunk of granite. I ignored it. I quickly arrived at it. The mask lay at my feet, glinting in the moonlight. It was identical to the masks of the others in size and shape, save for its shattered edges, and warped silvery rods, bent facing in opposite directions. I squinted inside its cavernous maw. Oblivion greeted me back. Cursing the world, I turned and disappeared into the mist.

Written by The Minister of Fear
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