Mostly numb, voices bubbling from crow beaks. Arguments. Shouting.
The common area for Prime-Nest was a floor below the high rise entry; in a room that had once been a ball area. The remnants of a stage was shoved to one side, but the long tables, aged, cracked, repainted dozens of times, took up the most of the room. The open windows had stained glass in them, delicate patterns of past triumphs, heralded moments. Open as they were, birds flittered in and out of them, dissolving or reforming as needed.
“The nests are able to be moved,” Tane said, addressing the Elder. The Elder sat next to me, idly poking at meat.
If I didn’t look at it, I could pretend I knew they weren’t eating the bug I’d killed. Or possibly the bug Jay killed.
She remained quiet. More birds streamed in, their pitter pattern and warking only breaking when they smoothly changed into being Crows instead of just crows.
“Where are the nests?” I asked.
“Rooms up above,” Tane gestured. “Defensible locations, you understand.”
“Has Lani reformed?” I asked.
Tani’s eyes closed. “She’s… picking new crows. I think what remains of her murder is favoring a guy or two this time.”
I opened my mouth. “Does that matter?”
Tane looked confused. “Why would that matter?
I clicked my teeth together. “Is there an advantage to that?”
“It means she can donate her crows to the nests when it’s her turn to donate.”
I clicked my teeth together. “So you raise nests? Are they all from the Crow?”
“It’s good policy to have a few normal crows around,” Tane said. “Though we can go without.” Her eyes closed. “Not that I should be explaining everything to you… but I suppose that humans have always been curious, Warden.”
Teeth clicked together. Couldn’t look at what most of the birds were looking at; but I couldn’t blame them either. At the end of the day, they were still birds.
They ate bugs and whatever else they could find. I slowly chewed through another Vidalia and stared out through one of the windows.
“You look like you’ve been through hell,” Tane said. “Something happen with Jay?”
“I…” My teeth clicked together. Jay wasn’t around, which was strange, considering how omnipresent he’d been since I’d woken up.
He swung back inside, carrying a box with him.
“Well, Jay?” Tane asked.
“She was looking for some of her old supplies,” Jay lied, smoothly. “We encountered a Queen’s Guard in the wreckage, and we got into a brief firefight.”
“A Queen’s Guard?” Morrigan asked, slowly standing up. “This close?” She paused, looking at me. “They’re Elites. They were fed some of the best crows we had. They tend to have a certain strangeness to them.”
A certain strangeness like being able to predict bullets? A certain strangeness like layering their voices with commands?
“Was she following a queen or…?” Tane asked.
Jay flicked his gaze over to me. “Jess can explain.”
“The Warden,” Tane corrected, automatically.
“She spoke of an organization looking to pick up Wardens,” I said.
Morrigan closed her eyes and leaned back into her chair. Crossed legs, balanced by her taloned feet on the painted surface of the table.
“There are bounties up for those who are willing to trade Wardens over to the Fey,” Morrigan said. “It only stands to reason they’re hunting Wardens; and whatever the reason, it’s probably bad.”
Tane clicked her beak. “And one of the Queen’s Guard was… just over at Warden’s Grave?” She shook her head. “That’s far too close… and with our guards the way they are…”
In sum and total, only twelve Crows had arrived for lunch.
Tane sighed. “The nests are ready to be moved, Morrigan,” she repeated. “We can make a move towards the capital. They’ll keep you safe there.”
“It’s not a matter of keeping me safe, Tane,” The Elder snapped. “If we leave now, where will the Wardens go? This is where Wardens first meet Crows.”
I looked away. “No Wardens left in that building, I’m afraid.”
“With us,” Tane said. “We’ll bring her to the capital, too.”
The elder cut in, shaking her head, irritably. “You can’t just make decisions for her. She’ll want to go chasing after the fifth warden, I suspect.”
Tane and Jay stopped and looked at me, dropping their argument. “It’s of utmost importance that we get the Warden to safety. Sacred place or not,” Tane said. “The First Memories are important, and…”
“I don’t think taking the elder to the Capital is that good of an idea,” Jay said. “They’re apart for a reason.”
The elder looked annoyed, and I stared at her.
“Oh, hell,” Tane sighed. “The capital could use some reminding of the vows we took, anyway. Fine. We can move out of Prime-Nest. We don’t need to stay here; they’re clearly not interested in sending anymore troops here.”
“Tane,” Jay said. “This is Prime-nest. We can’t just leave.”
“Prime-Nest was only important to guide Wardens, after everyone else moved,” The Elder said, grimly. “Tane’s right, Outcast. And… the Warden’s input is important. If there’s no more Wardens to guide… perhaps…”
“Perhaps…?” Tane pried.
“I’ll need a few days to think it over. This is our home,” Morrigan said. “Being chased off of it this easily… it isn’t what I want.”
Tane clicked her beak in quiet victory.
“What of the graves?” Jay asked. “What of all the things we’ve built here? What about them?”
“We can build more things,” Tane said. “You can watch.”
Jay hissed at her.
“Enough, Tane,” Morrigan said, shooting her a sharp glare. “Give me time to decide, and cease this stupid argument.”
The elder snatched up her section of bug and scattered into a hoard of crows, leaving the room.
Tane stood up and then stalked over to a window. She streamed into birds, fleeing the room.
Jay took a deep breath and walked through one of the ill used rooms. Silence left in the room, apart from the steady clicking of beaks. One by one, the Crows dispersed into regular crows, took their food, and fled the meeting room. Leaving me alone.
The food wasn’t bad, though it cooled rapidly from the wind rustling in and out of the old building. I ate slowly, picking at the fruits and vegetables in front of me, then dabbled, staring at the meat left behind in front of me. If I closed my eyes, it smelled like nothing I’d ever tasted.
I wasn’t quite there yet, so I sat my plate down, and set off after Jay.
I found him kneeling in front of a small shrine. Dark lines scattered across dimly lit walls, his eyes closed, his clothes loose on his body. At the sound of my footsteps, his head jerked to look at me.
“They’re hard on you,” I said.
“It’s deserved, trust me,” Jay said, not looking up. He made a gesture with his talons, then pressed his talons, uniting the lines into a USEC symbol I’d mostly only seen when anchoring regions into normalized reality.
“It’s not,” I said. “You saved my life.”
Jay flicked his eyes up towards me. “I don’t want to leave here.” He stood up, ruffling his feathers. “This is our place.” He turned away from the shrine and sighed. “This is a lot to put on you, I understand.”
“Train me,” I said.
Jay blinked. “/Train/ you?” His feathers puffed up, beak slowly sliding open. “Why on earth…”
“You saved me,” I said. My heart fluttered. What would Trellis have done if… if it had continued. She’d been offering me a place.
In another time, I took that offer quicker. Didn’t hesitate so long. Didn’t stare evil in the face and wondered how easy it would be to fall to their caress.
Didn’t take as long to wonder if this was evil, soft, jagged. Deadly. Didn’t know what would happen if I’d taken it. If Omoi hadn’t told me I was being zapped. If I hadn’t moved out of the way.
If Jay hadn’t made sure I was alright.
“So I want to be able to save myself next time.”
Jay’s eyes closed. Then he shrugged. “It’ll give us something to do while we wait for the elder’s decision.”
The scout target range was a mess on the bottom floor. Ordinarily, one simply scattered into birds and flew from place to place, but considering Jay and I, what took merely a minute extended into several hours of walking there.
An open concept lobby lay littered with scarecrows and various other bright objects. Jars. Pots. Glass bottles. Tin cans. Some splintered beyond recognition. Some put up properly.
As we slipped inside, the single scout practicing exploded into a cloud of birds, leaving us alone.
I slipped through Omoi’s help logs and dragged out the tutorial for firearms again, slowly nodding my head as I looked through. General notes. Strategies.
None of it compared to panic pulling the trigger and killing a little girl subsumed by bugs. My skin shuddered. Goosebumps.
Jay slid over to one side, and gestured for me to follow him. I did, and he slowly slid the long rifle off of his back and presented it to me.
“Are bullets scarce?”
“Not as scarce as Wardens,” Jay said, dry. “And I’d rather waste bullets than see you wasted.”
I took the gun. Omoi pinged various points on it where to hold it, and I swallowed, sliding my fingers over there. Jay reached over and adjusted my grip, and Omoi chirped as his press and her guide lined up properly.
“There’s a lot of that going around. What’s so important about Wardens?”
Jay’s beak clicked. “You were untainted, unknowing… you didn’t have this world to show you how awful it was to fight the unknown,” Jay gestured vaguely at the destruction. How the glass on the bottom floor had been taken out by impacts too many years ago. How the city streets were still covered in ash, despite efforts taken to clean them. How many birds had given their lives to try and tug this place back together.
Only to be defeated, now. There weren’t many birds left here, despite being their founding city.
“And you fought anyway. Without that reminder.”
I could remember the first time I’d met the unknown.
The rifle felt heavy in my hands.
Grad school; three beers and an energy drink into my gut. Curled up against a wall, numbers dancing at my finger tips. Omoi wasn’t there yet. Describing theoretical constants that didn’t exist yet, missing numerals, missing ideas; a framework contagious.
Woke up with thoughts in my head that weren’t mine, of ideas of a universe long lost, that had never existed. That could never exist, but internally sound. Discussed with my advisor, frantic, tears running down my eyes, disturbed, unsure. Wondering at the face of a caring god somewhere in the universe, watching us from afar.
Put a halt to my classes, she did, and I curled up in a drunken haze for a weekend before the agents arrived at my front door.
Testing. Endless testing.
A pinprick of knowledge erupting into the whole of the universe, from some place far beyond. It wasn’t I who was anomalous, simply that…
There were holes in human cognition where dangerous things could slip through. Nature had given us the capacity for abstract thought; and there were things that could only exist when thought of, in a deep tangle in a lonely grad student’s mind.
And while mine had simply been benign; a mention of a world that USEC had known about, something they’d visited in the dark of the night, flirting with drones across massive distances, there were many that weren’t benign.
And they needed cataloging.
Jay carefully guided the gun into my hangs again, pointing at the scare crow along the far wall.
“See that?” Jay asked. “That’s not too far away, I hope.”
I stared at the scarecrow and wished it didn’t look quite so human. And it didn’t look human, not at all, but…
My mind flashed back to Trellis, whose arms moved almost as fast as I could dart away.
My finger rubbed against the trigger. Cold as ice. Hands shook.
“Pull,” Jay said, clicking his beak.
And I did.
The gun went off, and wide as I jerked, taking out a chunk of crumbling wall, breaking a brick in half.
“You’ve got a bit of a jerk,” Jay said. He sighed, then carefully adjusted my grip again, holding the rifle in place. “You need to be careful if you plan on doing anything other than hunting.”
Bullets were dangerous. I knew that already. But he had a point. If people were going to come after me…
People with anomalous powers. People that USEC would’ve kept caged. Locked up. For being so dangerous.
I needed to be able to at least shoot a gun. Needed to not freeze up at the slightest hint of danger. Omoi gave me a crutch to lean on, but it meant nothing if I just fell over again and again.
Swallowed. Focused myself. Lined up the shot.
“I had this weird idea that when the next warden would wake up,” Jay said, keeping his hands on the rifle, helping me line the shot.
“What?” I asked.
“That you’d be some sort of agent. Some unkillable mad creature that’d save us all.” He continued. “Rid the world of evil. Defeat that which we’ve been fighting for years.”
I laughed, but it was bitter. “You’re not going to get that from me.”
“I know,” Jay said. “And I wasn’t okay with that at first.”
I paused, finger on the trigger.
Bullet went astray.
“But I think I’m going to be okay with that now,” Jay said. “It’s… pleasant to have someone willing to talk to me.”
“Is that so?” I asked, looking up from the rifle.
He gently put my head back to the sights. Looked away from me for a moment.
I took a breath.
Pulled the trigger.