The scouts brought in fresh food that day from one of the distant green houses. It garnished the table like on old farmer’s market. From the depths of the deep storage, a single steak had been procured and placed on the plate in front of me. Heated. Cooked to rare, it was familiar among the destruction still visible around me.
My fingers were black with soot and gun grease, and a strange pain was winding up through the muscles.
“Movements to the north,” Tane reported. “Scouts say they’ve seen a drop in native wildlife from there; seems like they’re prepping for a move.”
The Morrigan was quiet from her seat at the table.
Jay clicked his beak. “Any reports on why they’re pushing in now?”
“The Warden’s here,” Tane suggested. “That’s enough reason for most people to make a push. Why not the Fey?”
“They hardly have the same thought as we do,” Jay said. “I hardly think they can think at all; their lower ranks certainly don’t seem to be able to question orders.”
Tane sighed. “The point is that I think we should move out soon, if we’re going to do it at all. I don’t want to get cut to pieces by Fey.”
Morrigan finally spoke up. “I’ve sent off one of my flock to the nearest Capital controlled city to ask for assistance. We either get guards, or we leave Prime-Nest entirely.”
“That’s it?” Tane asked.
“That’s it,” Morrigan confirmed.
Jay looked away, clenching his beak.
“I know that’s not what you want, Outcast,” Morrigan said. “But we’re distant from the main body of Crows. We’re farther away than is defensible.”
“Defensible,” Jay spat out the word like uncooked fat. “This is Prime-Nest, it doesn’t need to be defensible in order for people to protect it.”
I dug into my steak, grateful for the opportunity to eat meat at all, though I wish it were slightly more cooked.
“I agree,” Morrigan said, simply. “But if the guards aren’t willing to fight for it…”
The end of the statement went unsaid. If there weren’t people willing to step up to defend the First Memories, they’d need to go to where the people were. To keep them safe.
It was dangerous here, now.
My fingers flicked over to an exposed band on my skin where a hot bullet had grazed. It had joined the cuts still healing from the broken glass in the lab. Had joined the bruises in my thoughts from having the Queen’s Guard ripped out of my head by Omoi.
It was almost safe enough for me to let my guard down, but… it wasn’t time to set up roots.
I could read the writing on the wall well enough.
Jay gave an agitated wark from his beak and turned away, crossing his arms.
“Why are you so concerned about this place, Outcast?” Tane asked. “This isn’t your home.”
“As you keep reminding him,” I said. “Careful with that, he’s one of the protectors.”
Tane cast me a side long look. “So you haven’t told her?”
“There’s no point,” Jay said.
Morrigan shook her head. “We will not be divided now, Tane. Especially if we’re making a move towards the Capital soon. We’ll need everyone we can get to move everything important. Any… objects we have.”
“And more importantly, the Warden,” Tane said. “She can’t exactly scatter and fly away if there’s danger.”
Jay glared at her.
“You can take care of yourself.” Tane replied, dryly. “I’m not going to pretend you can’t. There’s no point in catering to that delusion.”
“Is it wrong to want a place to lie my head?” Jay asked, looking away from her. “A brief moment where my contributions are appreciated?”
“They’re appreciated,” Morrigan said.
“They’re appreciated, but they don’t solve the issue of who you are,” Tane poked. “They don’t solve the fact you’re nameless.”
I growled. “Stop doing this,” I hissed, glaring at Tane.
She stopped, staring at me. “You’re not supportive of this?”
“He’s helped me, constantly,” I said. “He led me out of the ruins. He brought me to you. He saved my life. He’s killed for me. He fought of the Fey for me. He’s teaching me how to shoot. And what have you done?” I asked.
“He’s teaching you, hm?” Tane asked, flicking her gaze over to Jay. “Well, I can do that too.”
I blinked. “What?”
“Tomorrow,” Tane said, brightly. “I’ll teach you something about hunting.”
Jay shrugged. “More training never hurt anyone. Especially the scouts.”
Tane looked over at Morrigan. “Help, I’m agreeing with him.”
“Children,” Morrigan muttered. “These descendents are all children.”
Jay fluffed up. “If that’s all, maybe we should make tracks and find a bed?”
Tane was waiting for me at the edge of the skyrise, dangling her scaled legs off the side. She turned her head and stared. Another of those curious long rifles stretched across her back, the same model as Jay’s. No other clothes.
“So, you want to learn how to hunt?” Tane asked, playful in her tone.
“That’s right,” I said, hesitating and walking over to the edge to join her. The forest below, sprouting out of ruined concrete, looking almost idyllic if not for the ruined rust caked wreckage littering the floor. Animals could live here.
I doubted humans could live here without figuring a few things out.
“What do you know? Surely the mighty Warden knows a few tricks.”
I gestured at the city. “The best trick was walking down to the store and paying someone to give me food,” I said. “Maybe a couple hundred miles away, an animal was killed, torn into composite pieces of meat, and trucked across the nation to deliver it to me.
Tane clicked her beak, then chirped, rolling her eyes. “No hunting skills at all, then?”
“Not at all,” I returned, just as cheerily. “I’m afraid you’ve got a tabula rasa here.”
“Blank slate,” I defined. “It means I have nothing to add here.”
“Well,” Tane said, rolling back and hauling herself up to stand properly on the road. “What do you know about guns?”
Omoi brought up a flurry of tutorials… but it was false to pretend that it was my knowledge. To claim I had anything because I had books I could read, video tutorials to watch.
A disservice to the idea of taking someone’s life, reduced to a few colored steps on screen. I was more than willing to use that for other things, like piloting a helicopter, or breaking through a door or anything that didn’t involve snuffing lives like a candle.
Call it stupid, but…
The flashing lights indicating where to hit an animal to keep most of the meat intact didn’t interest me today.
“I shot one a day or two ago.” they were already blurring together. I didn’t like that, didn’t like how it was all a blur. A smear on a camera lens. “And Jay has been training me on a rifle. Trying to get me comfortable.”
“Why are you so comfortable with him?” Tane asked, curious.
“He’s kept me safe,” I shrugged. “And… there’s something bizarrely familiar about him. I guess it’s just that he hasn’t given be a reason not to trust him.”
“I’ll cede to your judgement for now,” Tane said clicking her beak. “But…” She walked over to my side.
I watched her.
Tane grabbed my shoulder and squeezed. “When he betrays you in the end, I want you to remember I warned you.”
I growled at her, and caught her shoulder, glaring at her. “Stop that.”
We stayed there, her bird eyes flicking across my face, her ivory beak clicking, for what was probably only ten seconds before I remembered myself and tugged myself back away from her.
“Fine,” Tane clicked, walking ahead. The rifle tapped out a steady rhythm against the leather strips on her back. “Hunting.”
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Little port town to the south of Montgomery,” Tane said. “Lots of fish. Little happens unless you want to pick up a trade. Was Kindled to a family of leatherworkers. It was a nice gig, I guess.”
“How’d you end up here?”
“Compulsory military service,” Tane clicked her beak. “Everyone’s had to learn how to fight since… well, the humans attacked.”
“Them,” Tane agreed. “Though most will just call them the humans.”
I clicked my teeth.
Another pick up on the bird’s body language. “Do most like the Wardens?”
Tane laughed, flicking her eyes over to me. “You got hell ahead of you, no matter where you go,” the scout cocked her head to the side. “But maybe you’ll do alright. You’re hanging out with the Outcast already.”
I didn’t like the sound of that.
“But why here?” I asked. “Prime-Nest?”
“It’s… a refuge for those who don’t fit in other places. Everyone’s supposed to do a stint here, so we can see where we come from.”
“Supposed to?” The high rise swept under our feet as we talked.
“Well,” Tane gestured at the nest behind her. “You might’ve noticed there’s not a lot of us left here. The Capital’s been sending fewer and fewer Crows here each year. Mostly just people who screwed up, so they can take advantage of the time off. There’s not much strategic importance here, not for the Fey.”
That didn’t parse right. “What about the Wardens?”
“We got rifles in every building in the city. Just waiting for scouts to pick them up and use them, Any playful attempt to seize one of you… well. They’d be sitting ducks while they tried to carry you off.” Tane clicked her talons together. “Learned that defence from the assault on the Capital.”
“Were you a part of it?”
“Curious Warden,” Tane said, teasing. “No. I joined after that. I was part of the efforts to clear them out. After the Miracle, they scattered like wild animals. Beasts instead of killing machines. Bears instead of murderers.”
And you could deal with bears if you had enough guns. An invading army on the other hand…
It’d be harder to deal with something like that. It’d be too hard to deal with something like that, I didn’t want to think about it.
But the numbers spun in my head regardless. “That many afflicted humans…”
“Originally, we thought all humans were pure,” Tane said, not looking at me. Her eyes scanned the horizon. “But now we recognize that the Wardens were the pure ones. That the majority of your people weren’t even involved in handling anomalies. That you had masses of people who didn’t fight. Who didn’t hunt. Who didn’t…”
“You can say it,” I said.
“Struggle.” Tane shrugged, point into the distance. “Think there’s a herd of cattle over in the distance. You want to try and pick one out?”
I gave her a side long look. “You mean… steak?”
The longing in my voice made her snort. “Sure. Like steak.”
She remained in one shape as we talked down the remnants of the road for what felt like a mile. My legs were already aching, harsh, pain, shooting lines down abused muscles, but I’d gotten used to the pain and dearly hoped it’d go away from all the walking.
“The first thing about the hunt,” Tane said. “Is you need to respect the animal you’re hunting. There’s not a lot of weak things left in this world, Warden.” She shrugged and the rifle jostled on her shoulders. She lifted it and handed it over to me. The weight was harsh in my hands.
I muted Omoi’s guides and held it as close to how Jay had taught me as possible. My fingers slipped. Tane pushed them back into place.
“I get that,” I said looking ahead.
“I don’t think you do yet,” Tane replied. “But you will. Or you’ll die, I guess,” She shrugged.
“This isn’t my world anymore,” I admitted. “So what’d you do to screw up?”
Tane tensed, and rolled her shoulders. Crack of joints. “It’s a bit private, I guess.”
I grimaced. “My apologies.”
“No, no,” Tane said, slipping in front of me. “Meet you down by the edge of the trees. Don’t worry, my pieces will be watching you.”
Then she dispersed into a cloud of black birds, and I was left curiously alone.