Everywhere we fly, people scatter below us.
They see the great shadow of our swarm above them, and they run.
We fly over a cityscape that has been charred, broken, and mostly abandoned. San Francisco used to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with its trolley cars and famous restaurants. Tourists used to stroll Fisherman’s Wharf and cruise the crowded alleys of Chinatown.
Now the grungy survivors fight for scraps and harass terrified women. They scurry into the shadows and disappear as soon as they spot us. The only ones left are the most desperate who choose to stay out in the open, hoping to escape the gangs for the few seconds it takes us to fly by.
Below us, a girl hunches over a dead man lying with limbs spread wide. She hardly notices us, or she simply doesn’t care. Here and there, I see light glinting off something in a window, signs that someone is watching us through binoculars, or maybe aiming a rifle at us as we pass.
We must be quite a sight. A cloud of scorpion-tailed, man-sized locusts blotting out the sky.
And in the middle of it all, a demon with enormous wings carrying a teenage girl. At least, Raffe must look like a demon to anyone who didn’t know he was an archangel flying on borrowed wings.
They probably think he kidnapped the girl he’s holding. They couldn’t possibly guess that I feel safe in his arms. That I’m resting my head on the warm curve of his neck because I like the feel of his skin.
‘Do we humans always look like that from above?’ I ask.
He answers. I can feel the vibrations in his throat and see his mouth moving, but I can’t hear him above the thunderous buzz of the locust swarm.
It’s probably good I didn’t hear him anyway. Angels probably think we look like roaches scurrying from one shadow to another.
But we’re not roaches or monkeys or monsters, no matter what the angels think of us. We are still the same people we once were. At least, we are on the inside.
I hope so, anyway.
I glance over at my cut-up sister who is flying beside us. Even now, I have to remind myself that Paige is still the same girl I’ve always loved. Well, maybe not exactly the same.
She’s riding on the shriveled body of Beliel, which is being carried like a palanquin by several locusts. He has blood all over him and looks long dead even though I know he’s still alive. It’s no worse than what he deserves, but there’s still a part of me that wonders at the primitive cruelty of it all.
A gray island of rock appears ahead of us in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz, the notorious former prison. There’s a whirlwind of locusts above the island. It’s a small part of the hive that didn’t come when Paige called for help on the beach a few hours ago.
I point to an island behind Alcatraz. It’s bigger and greener, with no buildings that I can see. I’m pretty sure that’s Angel Island. Despite the name, any place has to be nicer than Alcatraz. I don’t want Paige on that hellish rock.
We veer around the locust whirlwind and head to the larger island.
I motion to Paige to come with us. Her locust and the ones closest to her follow us, but the majority join the swarm above Alcatraz, swelling the size of the dark funnel above the prison. Some seem confused, following us at first, then changing direction and heading back to Alcatraz as if compelled to be part of the hive.
Only a handful of locusts stay with us as we circle Angel Island for a good spot to land.
The rising sun highlights the emerald greens of trees surrounded by the bay. From this angle, Alcatraz sits in front of the wide panorama of the San Francisco skyline. It must have been a breathtaking view once. Now it looks like a jagged line of broken teeth.
We land by the water on the west shore. The tsunamis left a rubble of bricks on the beach and a mass of splintered trees on one side of the hill while leaving the other side mostly intact.
When we reach the ground, Raffe lets me go. I feel like I’ve been curled up against him for a year. My arms are practically frozen in place around his shoulders, and my legs are stiff. The locusts stumble around when they land like they’re having the same issues.
Raffe stretches his neck and shakes out his arms. His leathery bat wings fold and disappear behind him. He’s still wearing his mask from the party-turned-massacre at the aerie. It’s deep red shot through with silver, and it covers his entire face except for his mouth.
‘Aren’t you going to take that off?’ I shake the numbness out of my hands. ‘You look like red death on demon wings.’
‘Good. That’s how every angel should look.’ He rolls his shoulders. I suppose it’s not easy having someone cling on to you for hours. Despite trying to relax his muscles, he’s on full alert as his eyes scan our eerily quiet surroundings.
I adjust the strap around my shoulder so that my sword, disguised as a teddy bear, sits against my hip for easy access. Then I step over to help my sister off Beliel. As I near Paige, her locusts hiss at me, jabbing their scorpion stingers in my direction.
I stop, my heart pounding.
Raffe is beside me in an instant. ‘Let her come to you,’ he says quietly.
Paige climbs off her ride and pets a locust with her small hand. ‘Shh. It’s okay. That’s Penryn.’
It still amazes me to see these monsters listening to my baby sister. Our stare-down lasts a moment longer until the beasts lower their stingers under Paige’s gentle crooning. I let out my breath, and we back away, letting Paige soothe them.
Paige bends to gather up Raffe’s severed wings. She had been lying on them, and the stained feathers look crushed, but they begin fluffing almost instantly in her arms. I can’t blame Raffe for cutting them off Beliel before the locusts could suck them dry along with the rest of the demon, but I wish he hadn’t had to do it. Now we’ll have to find a doctor to reattach them to Raffe before they wither.
We start up the beach and see a couple of rowboats tied to a tree. The island must be occupied after all.
Raffe motions for us to hide while he heads up the slope.
It looks like there used to be a row of houses on one side of the hill. On the lower ground, only the concrete foundations remain, littered with smashed boards stained with water and salt. But on the higher ground, several boarded-up buildings are intact.
We skitter behind the nearest building. It’s large enough to have been barracks of some kind. Like the others, it’s sealed up with white painted boards. They look like they’d been shut up long before the Great Attack.
The whole thing feels like a ghost settlement except for the house on the hill overlooking the bay. It’s a perfectly intact Victorian, complete with a white picket fence. It’s the only building that looks like a family home and the only one with color or any sense of life.