“What do they want?” I asked, quiet.
“You, probably,” Jay said. “Humans bring in a big bounty for the fey.. Let alone Wardens. They’ll get pissed off when they figure out that I’m here too, though. I’m mostly worthless.”
I gave him a strange look. Up until then I’d assumed they meant the same thing.
But that was naive, wasn’t it? To assume that my base was the only one to get people out alive?
It wasn’t the time for that.
“Because you don’t have a name?” I asked.
“Because I’m more trouble than I’m worth keeping alive,” Jay said, flashing me a cheeky grin from his beak. Or at least, that’s what I assumed it was supposed to be.
“I’m sure they’ll be amused when they find out,” I said. Struggling to control my breathing. My body simply didn’t want to dart again, and my eyes were locked, transfixed on the body above. What alien creature could it be? What could it possibly be?
“Well, they won’t be amused,” Jay said, flicking his talons across the gun at his hip. “Because I’m going to kill them fucking dead.”
My jaw ached. Teeth smashed together within the confines of my tense jaw. Omoi chirped out a diagnosis and recommended painkiller, but even her voice in my thoughts was warped with tension.
“Just keep down, alright?” Jay whispered, poking his head up over the top of the counter. The long rifle slid into his hands, pointed at the window.
It was around that time that I heard it.
A strange rustling noise. Hideous. Disgusting.
Like the cry of a baby warped and mutilated. It sank into the lower registers of my hearing and demanded I take a look.
Jay remained vigilant, going stiff. I could see his head twitching to look around the quiet expanses.
“There!” Jay shouted.
The long rifle went off, and bucked back, sending a spray of smoke and a single spent shell dancing across the floor like a ballerina.
Click went the weapon, chambering another round. Jay’s talons went fast, and he eyed down the rifle. Sights aligned.
“Did you get it?”
I asked. Dim. Quiet.
Jay replied with another blast of the rifle, my ears ringing from the close proximity, Omoi reducing the effective volume but doing nothing for the actual ears, and I squeaked as the shell bounced up from the gun and then across the sleeve of my outfit. Hot, smouldering like smoke.
“Watch our back,” Jay said, not looking up from the rifle. He swung it around (tracking, tracking what?) and I turned my eyes to the kitchen behind us. With the dim lighting, it was nothing short of monstrous; a mix-match of raided refrigerators, ruined equipment, and a single skeleton curled up in the back. Omoi pinged objects of interest, and my shaky hands drew the pistol from my hip and pointed it forward.
Flicked my eyes up. The Red blur was still on the ceiling. Roof distant overhead.
But the sound continued on unabated. Made my teeth grate.
Then I saw the backdoor was open. Or rather, at some point, during the intervening years, had stopped existing entirely.
“Door’s open,” I reported, and Jay swore.
“Keep an eye open, okay?”
My hands shook again, but I steeled them. Shuddered, but I could still see in the darkness, Omoi editing the colors to make things stand out. Make them more visible.
The long rifle went off again.
Movement from the corner of my eyes.
Omoi sang out every single relevant warning in her manual at once. Fast moving object. Strange anomaly detected. Lack of signal.
Jarred my muscles and pointed the gun at the blur, and it coalesced into something I could finally see.
Four feet tall. Childish mop of black hair, uncombed. Clicking mandibles attached to a jaw too close to humans for comfort.
Thin spindly arms topped with dagger claws. Compound eyes. Human nose. Human teeth.
Bare skin only halfway covered by a crude approximation of a dress; covered in strange symbols.
The Fey hissed at me. Reared back.
Call it USEC training I barely remembered.
Call it blind fear.
Call it common sense.
Call it whatever the hell you want to call it, the thing lunged at me, claws clattering against the pots scattered overhead, and the safety was off on the gun, and the bullet splattered across the beastgirl’s neck, lighting up a spray of dark green lymph that decorated the wall behind it, a cascade of something that smelled like citrus and dark things that light never touched.
She spun like a ballerina, startled, a hand slowly reaching up towards her neck, and then she fell back against the wall, disturbing a set of sturdy drawers.
The girl garbled out something that sounded like words, the claws twitching in the air, her mandibles clicking a few times, and I stared in rising horror as her stomach undulated, twitching.
Then she curled up on her back and stopped moving, her neck awash with green.
“THERE!” Jay shouted, and the long rifle fired once more. The chittering grew softer. I looked up. The red blue on the roof wasn’t moving. Took a few staggering deep breaths, and tore myself away from the bug on the floor, sliding back towards Jay.
The crow tilted his head, looking up from his job, just for a moment, then stared at the expression on my face.
“Jay, there was something in the backroom and-”
“You shot it?” Jay replied. “Good job, glad you hit it.”
I stared at him for a long horrified minute. How had he known I hit it?
A drip of something slid down my nose. I’d assumed it was sweat. Reaching my finger up to touch it, it was sticky. Green.
My stomach heaved. I threw up on top of the small pile of spent shells next to Jay, tears rolling down my eyes. The Crow took a step to the right and went right back to his previous position, not missing more than a beat.
Hot, ragged breaths, drawn from my burning throat. Lungs ached. Hated. Pulled myself up closer to him. “How many more?” I asked, breathless.
“I took down one…” Jay counted. “You took down another. Probably one more, and then the leader, if this is just a scouting party.”
“They… have a regular formation?”
“Pheromones or something,” Jay said. “The lowest ranks can’t think at all; makes them easy targets.”
I breathed out, slowly collapsing next to him, eyes half lidded. Could barely breath. Fuck.
I was not made for this. This was not for me.
“Where’s the leader?” Jay asked.
I flicked my gaze back up again. Not a movement from the creature on top of the building.
“Hasn’t moved,” I reported.
Jay swore under his breath to Agent Zach, and pointed me back to the entrance to the kitchen. “Keep an eye, I don’t want to get flanked, alright?”
“Do…” I said, trying to sink breath through my teeth. “Do I have to go into the kitchen?”
Jay didn’t look up from his perch. “Just watch the door.”
I shuddered. The kitchen now had a curious sickly sweet smell to it, and it drifted through like meat gone bad, a cloud of it rising from the ocean of-
I watched the door. Omoi chirped out a warning about shock, but at this point, she was already playing music as loud as was permissible under the protections and warnings built into her code, so she just advised to find a nice cup of tea and maybe sit down for a while.
I dispelled the nonsense and kept watch. Heart hurt from pounding. Like my rib cage was jail bars. Cryo suit was restrictive on my body, made me feel choked; heavy leather. Exposed.
The chittering had stopped.
Distantly, the cry of a bird.
Then many birds. An entire flock of them. Breath slowly steadied, piece by piece. Flicked my gaze around to find where they were landing.
Then the scouts landed in front of the building; a great cloud of black feathers and warking.
From their ranks, the three from earlier formed. Tane at the front, her features slightly more feminine. Perhaps they controlled how their form looked when they entered back into the gestalt? It’d allow for more expression, more manipulation, especially if their beaks prevented a lot of the more subtle body language that I could pick up.
The benefits of gestalting, I suppose.
It wouldn’t convince me to give it a try. Not that I could. But.
Maybe having someone else near wouldn’t be that bad. I had Omoi, after all, though she was just an assistant.
Omoi let out a despondent little chirp, but I knew she was just simulated to be as lifelike as possible. At the end of the day, she was just responding to the expectations of my underlying thoughts. Responding to needs of reassurance. Pain.
Tane walked forward.
“Sorry for the delay.”