The mountainous black cloud roared across the blood red horizon,as Aruk stood watching from the cliff's edge. When the dark smokeslipped over the hills and settled in the valley, he woke Anika.
She saw his silhouette against a sickly sky, brown and soiled,a sepia hue catching in her throat. Wordlessly, Aruk dragged herfrom the hole he'd dug for them, and she stumbled to her feet,staggering behind him lazily as he plowed ahead determined.
She tried adjusting her skins, but Aruk yanked too tight ather wrist. She cried out in pain, but he ignored her and pressedforward on bare feet, climbing the first slope of the mountain.Before she could raise her voice again, her breath leapt from herlungs when she saw the birds.
All around her, like a garden of motley flowers, ink black and treetrunk brown, lay a field of dead birds, wings akimbo,feathers still softly falling to the grass. And even then, more birds,freshly dying, pelted the valley floor like a trickle of hale, landingwith wet thuds.
The darkness of these omens was not lost on the young girl.A great terror roiled in her belly as the afternoon sun shonepathetically behind the veil of poison cloud, too weak to burnthrough and brighten the land. That scant taste of diffused lightwould be her last before the night settled and the great winterarrived.
They reached the highest peak they could manage, and fromthere they watched as the smoke filled the sky like clotting blood.The blistering winds had started several suns ago, but each day theygrew sharper and more furious. By the fourth day, when theatmosphere soured and the sunsets lit up with colors unfamiliar, thewinds were now a chronic feature, whistling ominous warnings towhatever life still lingered.
Aruk and Anika watched for several days, going hungrywith the meager supply of berries they managed to forage on the bare mountain's crown. They sucked on icicles and stayed close toshare their body's heat. The merciless winds stamped out anyattempts at building a fire and the hilltops were so barren there wasscarcely enough bramble to catch let alone logs to burn.