Joseph strutted and pranced through the open field of the Range, his feathers arching into a terrifying image of dominance. He repeated this routine every morning to remind the roosters and hens who was in charge.
The Range was their place to roam under the sky while protected by the wire mesh cage that the One had created for them. The mesh kept out the vile snakes that slithered in to feast on the eggs or the vicious chicken hawks that loved to prey on the tiny hatchlings, stealing away an adult if the opportunity arose. It was rare for Joseph to move around on the Range. He preferred to stay in the Roost, the proud wooden structure that housed the others and contained his sanctum. It stood eight feet tall, an engineering marvel of wood, nails, and wire mesh, and everything revolved around it.
Joseph was the Lord of the Coop; the alpha rooster and supreme ruler of the chicken’s world. He controlled it from Roost to Range with an iron wing, always keeping an eye out for competitors. He had taken it from the Elder, the oldest of the fowl and the Joseph’s own father. His coup of the coop had been sown when the Elder had grown impotent and weak from age. The only male survivors had been Brutus and Crush, twin black roosters who had sided with Joseph during the coup and coldly carried out his orders to kill the remaining roosters and male chicks.
The eggs were his domain. He decided which eggs could be raised to hatchling and which ones would be given to the One, the God of the Farm that exchanged the egg sacrifices for grain at the alter-trough. In addition to producing the eggs that supported the farm, the hens collected straw and twine each week to remake the nests.
The quacking of ducks flying overhead broke the calm morning air. O’Malley was coming back to the farm. He was an old, rough-feathered fowl whose age and various infirmities made it difficult to make the long migration flights. He often used the Farm as a stopping point and would fall back in with the flock on their return trip.
O’Malley swooped down from the flock filling the sky and skidded to a halt amid a cloud of dust just outside the mesh-shielded Range. He straightened himself and fluttered his feathers to knock loose the odd bits of dirt and dust he had gathered on his flight.
He made his way to the south wall of and peered through the mesh at the bevy of hens scurrying around inside the coop. Horatio, the retired fighting cock, pulled himself to his feet with his cane and made his way to center of the commotion.
"O’Malley, you old mangy mallard. Come back for another season? I’ll get the card table ready."
"Not this time, Horatio. I see your leg is still healing. How about your eye?"
"My left leg is gone, just withering away. It’s all I can do to walk from here to there. But I think this eye-patch makes me look distinguished. So what brings you back to the Farm?"
"I’ve come to deliver a message, and not a good one I’m afraid. I must see Joseph right away. The Council sent a message for him alone."
O’Malley’s long flight left him fatigued, but he soldiered up the thin wooden steps and ramps of the Roost. Horatio followed after him, curious to see what news he brought from the Council. Soon they were at the entrance to Joseph’s sanctum. They were met by Brutus and Crush.
"Lower your heads unless you want to lose them."
The inner sanctum of the Roost was an intimidating place for anyone not absolutely certain of having Joseph’s favor. It was a large chamber with a giant nest at one end. This was Joseph’s nest and no one could approach it without his permission. A quartet of hens filled four smaller nests at the opposite side of the chamber. These hens had been selected by Joseph to be the mothers of the chosen eggs. Ula, Joseph’s sister, was one of the chosen mother hens. They would nurture the eggs to hatching and then care for the chicks until Joseph sent them out into the Roost. The sanctum was dark and humid, perfect weather for the nurturing of the elite eggs.
"O’Malley, my old friend. Come to slum with the chickens again? Or did the ducks leave you behind."
"Joseph, I was sent here to give you a message, a prophecy. It comes straight from the Council."
"Well, well. The Council? Alright, spit it out. I don’t have much time."
"Could I at least get some water, something to slake my thirst after my long journey?"
"Perhaps, but let’s hear your message first."
"Very well." O’Malley stiffened and held his head high; remembering the exact words of the prophecy and reciting them word-for-word like he had practiced.
"On the first day of the first month, four orbs will come to you, one for each of the ravagers of the earth: famine, pestilence, war and finally death. One the fourth day of the fourth week after the first, the four more will come to you. Each must be destroyed lest the terrible power within reach maturity and hatch onto the world.
"The Council is adamant that this prophecy must not come to pass. They feel that these orbs could possible foretell a destruction that would overcome us all."
Joseph stood up and turned to peer through a window that looked out onto the Range. His giant tail feather brushed the top of the sanctum and swished from side-to-side as he stood silent, staring through the window.
"The Council’s message is indeed an ominous one. They seem quite insistent that I destroy these eggs rather than let them hatch for fear of unleashing a great power on the world. How stupid do they think I am? Do they think I would truly relinquish something so obviously meant to improve our kind? There were no duck eggs in the prophecy. Therefore this is not a problem for the Council. Any eggs laid here are my rightful domain and I will do with them as I see fit. Perhaps the Council should re-think their ploy. They have grown weak beneath their soft, supple down if they think me so naïve that I would hand over a weapon so obviously sent as a gift to the farm fowl."
"Joseph, this is no political ploy. I spoke with the oracle myself." O’Malley stepped forward, his wings outstretched toward Joseph.
"Return to your oracle and the Council and tell them that I have considered their advice and reject it. I choose to use the eggs myself."
Joseph turned to the twin black roosters flanking him and nodded. The twins stepped forward and surrounded O’Malley and Horatio. The twins’ black eyes betrayed by a thin smile on both of their beaks.
The twin’s stark black feathers ruffled a bit as they walked slowly behind the trio.
At the bottom of the lowest level, O’Malley turned back to Brutus.
"I don’t want any trouble. I just came to deliver a message."
Brutus stepped forward his feathers flaring behind him.
"And you’ve done so. Now you can leave without any ‘trouble’."
O’Malley turned back toward the gate. He saw the concern on Horatio’s face, but knew there was little more he could that would not incite Brutus’s wrath. HE slipped under the mesh gate and took flight, making his way back to the Council with the message Joseph had given him.
Horatio turned back toward the range and saw Ula walking out from the Roost.
"Horatio, my brother has gone mad. You heard the prophecy. Those eggs carry a great evil, yet he intends to hatch them. You’ve got to stop him."
"I……I cannot. Not anymore. My days for that sort of thing are long gone."
"Then you’ll let him destroy us all. If he manages to control the power, he will become a greater tyrant than he is now. If he fails he could destroy everything."
The next morning, Joseph perched on the roof of the Roost and screeched a piercing crow that woke everyone on the Farm. Four separate hens screamed as they awoke. Joseph, Brutus and Crush raced to the nests and inspected the eggs beneath each of the wailing hens.
The first egg was as black as midnight. Its surface quivered and squirmed, like a molded gelatin. The second was a bright white; a white so pure that it absorbed all color around it. The third egg was deep crimson and radiated a heat so intense that the hen that laid it had singed her feathers during the night. The final egg was found under the youngest of the hens. It was pale white and was cold to the touch.
"The prophecy has come true. The four eggs have come to me. They will be taken to my sanctum and incubated by my chosen hens until they spring forth the powers that will enable us to finally reign over the entire world. Then, as with all things born into the Roost, they will be mine to control."
Ula approached her brother.
"Joseph, you cannot bring this to fruition. Please heed the warning of the duck."
"Ula, my sister. You are weak, and a non-believer. I banish you from the sanctum."
Ula was escorted from the sanctum by Brutus. She was no longer one of the chosen and would no longer have the privileges or protection of being a mother hen. Instead she would have to earn her keep among the laying hens of the lower levels.
The next three weeks were tense, but uneventful as everyone in the coop speculated about the contents of the eggs.
Just past midnight on the twenty-first day, the obsidian egg began to crack. The shell splintered into a hundred tiny black slivers that slithered away from the nest. Joseph tried to grab them but they slipped through his feathers and between the thin spaces in the wood floors.
"The grain. They’re attacking the grain."
Ula’s scream brought Joseph and the twins to the grain storage on the Range.
The tiny black slivers were sliding all over the grain. They were ravenous, devouring bushels of grain in an instant. Joseph tried to swat them away, but for every one he managed to knock away four more took its place, until the grain was gone.
Horatio stepped forward from the crowd and smashed one of them with his talon.
Joseph turned toward Horatio.
"What did you say?"
"Famine. The first ravager of the earth? Weren’t you going to control them?"
"You dare challenge my authority within my own Sanctum? Everything here is mine to control. Even your very life, should you care to challenge me again."
One of the mother hens poked her head through the tiny hole that looked out onto the Range.
"Joseph! In your sanctum! The second egg is cracking!"
Joseph and the twins raced to the sanctum. Inside the second egg had split and fractured. Joseph ran his wingtips over the pearl white oval. He heard a buzzing sound from within the oval. He tried to scoop it up into his wings, but the shell gave way and shattered back onto the nest. A pair of black mosquitoes buzzed out from the shattered shell. They flew high into the Roost and out of sight.
"I don’t understand, Joseph," cried Brutus. After all that, the prophecy brought us a mosquito?"
"I don’t know."
That night, the hens collapsed from fatigue after the exciting but oddly uneventful day. Everyone in the Roost was fast asleep when a slight buzzing sound appeared in the rooftop. The pair of mosquitoes dropped down from the roof and feasted on the fresh blood of some of the sleeping hens.
Joseph rose early and prepared to crow the dawn. He took a deep breath, but was interrupted by a shriek from the henhouse. He flew quickly down to the first level of the Roost and ducked inside. Three of the hens lay dead in their nests and a dozen more were burning from fever.
Ula stepped into the coop behind Joseph.
"Avian Influenza. I recognize it from O’Malley’s stories. Very deadly.
Horatio turned to face Joseph.
"Pestilence. How much longer do you plan to go Joseph? Destroy the eggs."
The next night, the hens gathered in the bottom of the roost to mourn their fallen friends.
Henna, one of the oldest of the hens spoke first.
"Joseph is playing with our lives. We have lost our food and now this. We can’t just sit here and wait to die. We have to do something. But what can we do?"
Ula decided the time was ripe to end her brother’s mad quest.
"We can take the last two eggs from him and destroy them."
"But how? He is the alpha. And he had Brutus and Crush."
"Simple. There are four of us and only three of them."
The spark of defiance was fanned by their desperation and grew into an intense blaze of rebellion that swept over the hens. The entire group ran up the steps to the top of the Roost and smashed through the doors to the Sanctum. But their zeal could not match their awe when the third egg hatched just as they entered the Sanctum. The third egg’s dark crimson surface was glowing. A tiny crack appeared in it and released a bloody shaft of light. The light split into two beams, one striking Brutus and the other hitting Crush. Their normally coal black eyes began to burn with the crimson light.
Feathers began to ruffle and fluff and both launched themselves into the middle of the flock. Beaks slashed and talons ripped, tearing into the feathers and flesh of the hens that had dared to attack the sanctum. Joseph felt his legs grow weak and steadied himself against the wall as blood began to flow freely, filling the wooden floor.
Horatio and Ula were still on the lower levels. They quickly learned the fate of the others as the blood began to drip down between the slats. Horatio merely hung his head, while Ula began to cry.
"Why? Why did it come to this?"
"War. The third ravager. Your brother has been blinded by his own power, by his own importance. And it has doomed us all."
Brutus and Crush were the only thing living among the pile of torn flesh and blood-stained feathers. Each turned to Joseph and bowed their head.
"Leader, forgive us. We were overcome by the light."
"Fear not, my brothers. The first three eggs were only a test, to measure us for the power that we will receive from the fourth."
Joseph turned to the final egg, still warm beneath the last mother hen left in the sanctum. He brushed her aside and scooped the egg into his wings. He reared back his head back, closed his eyes and drove his beak hard and deep into the side of the egg, shattering it. He opened his eyes to see an empty shell; a broken, but utterly empty shell filling his wing.
Horatio and Ula made their way back to the sanctum, resigned to whatever fate her brother would bring to the coop.
Brutus was the first to notice them.
"Horatio! What are you two doing here?"
"We have come to see how Ula’s brother deals with releasing the fourth ravager of the Earth."
Joseph casually tossed the shattered shell to the ground and walked to greet his sister and her keeper.
"Come now, my old friend, my sister. Did you truly believe that I would not overcome the power of the eggs. This is my Roost, my coop. I control the eggs. And now, I have taken the power of the fourth."
"Death?" Horatio asked, the words hanging long in the air after he spoke.
"Yes. Death. I have birthed death into the world and made it my own. I have become death."
Joseph’s eyes began to glow with the same fiery crimson that had overtaken Brutus and Crush. In one single move he lashed out with his talons, slicing through the throats of his two soldiers. Both stood for a moment, then collapsed as their lifeblood flowed from them.
"Death!" cried Ula. "It is over, Joseph, the coop is dead. You have killed us all."
"Not yet, dear sister. Not quite yet. There are still three of us left alive. Or at least one of us."
© 2007 by Steven Patrick
Bio: Steven tells us, "I am a freelance writer living in the Dallas, TX area with my wife and daughter. I have a Master's Degree and work in law enforcement during > the day, while pursuing my writing after hours. My writing has appeared in Surreal, The Writer's Post Journal, and Dark Recesses Press, among others. I have recently completed my first novel about a British soldier struggling to survive in the trenches of World War One." Steven's story Three Wishes in the Iraqi Desert appeared in the July, 2004 edition of Aphelion under a different pen name.
E-mail: Steven Patrick
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