The dust was starting to settle when Tane pulled herself out of cover, and I followed after the swish of her long glossy black feathers. The ground had been disturbed; trees marked by the press of many bodies, occasionally nicked with horns. “Why does the forest not extend outside of the city?”
Tane shrugged. “Probably worse quality soil, I’d suppose,” she said.
A hideous thought darted over my head. What better to grow the soil of the future but the inhabitants of an entire city? But that was just stupid thinking.
There was no point blaming the trees for the world they’d spread out of. How many years had it taken them to take over the city? Perhaps… perhaps it was some long forgotten Crow project; some memory lost in their Kindling transfer process.
Or perhaps the memories had simply not been given to Tane. She was just a scout from a fishing village, after all.
We stared out at the world outside, and Tane plucked the rifle up from the table. Fed another bullet into it.
“So what do you think of me?” I asked.
“You’re curious,” Tane said. “You’re always asking questions. You always want to know things.”
“That’s not a bad thing,” Tane said. “There’s a sort of presumption that Crows can just… learn everything on their own. That their memories are already what they need. A lack of ability to change, I guess. A lot of us are really old, you know,” She laughed.
They didn’t have to pass on if they didn’t want to. They could just put their identity into more crows. The Elder wasn’t even composed of any of the original birds, I remembered. How strange.
How much would the old world had given to be able to persist that long? How many failed experiments for immortality had we suffered through. Decades of scientific progression to eek out another handful of years, our fat knuckles unable to pull more out of the candy jar.
‘I’m young,” Tane said. “Only 30 or so, I think. Lots of long years, though I think they’ll get shorter.”
“You’re nearly my age!” I laughed. “That’s young?”
“Unsure how old the Outcast is, he’s cagey as can be when it comes to talking about that,” Tane kicked a rock with her talons, and it skittered down the road, landing next to a growing pile of dirt. “And yeah, thirty’s young.”
I clicked my teeth in understanding.
“Strange how you picked that up,” Tane said. “It’s such a Crow thing to do.”
“When in Rome…”
Tane shrugged, shouldering the rifle. Safety on.
“Where’d you get that from?”
“There’s factories by the capital,” Tane said. “They’re nice enough. Old timers inside, ancient secrets,” she shrugged. “The guns kept us alive, so it’s tradition to just have them out and about. We don’t really need them to hunt, but… it is safer for us, instead of just mobbing whatever we’re hunting to death.”
“So it’s just a long rifle?” I finished.
“What’d the Wardens use?” Tane asked.
Omoi chirped up a few statistics, and I hesitated, trying to figure out how to interpret the stats for the future. “Mostly handguns.”
“Pistols, really?” Tane laughed. “I pictured them with big guns. Like on the helicopters I’ve seen downed.”
“Secrecy and privacy was more important,” I said. “Running around with big weapons would freak people out, and freaked out people are hard to predict.”
Tane stared off into the middle distance. “You had enough people that that mattered?”
I gestured at the city around us. “Each and every building was filled with people. To the brim.”
Tane whistled through her beak. “I can’t even imagine. That’s more people than I can even think of.”
“What about Crows?” I asked. “How many are in the Capital?”
“I can’t even say,” Tane laughed. “The Capital is so big. Way bigger than this place.”
Atlanta. It could only be Atlanta. A good Capital for anywhere. A city that large…
What could it look like after the end?
“Looking forward to going there?”
Tane shrugged. “I just don’t feel comfortable staying here. There’s death waiting out there, you know, and the Capital’s always held. So we might be able to make it.”
“And if you don’t?”
“Crows are hard to kill,” Tane said. “I’ll scatter as far as I can and fly off.”
I didn’t have the luxury. Wouldn’t even have the luxury.
How would life look if you knew you could just get out of any situation. What sort of world did that build?
Then, the high rise was in front of us, and we rejoined Prime-Nest.
Another scout greeted us by the door. “Saw the herd go wild out there. You finally mess up a shot, Tane?” he asked.
“No, Yeni,” Tane said. “There’s another hunter out there, pulling out of our wild herd.”
The other crow, his eyes flecked with red, went tense. “That’s daring.”
“Very daring,” Tane said. “Which makes me think exactly what you’re thinking.”
“Fey?” I asked.
“They’re sending a message,” Tane said. “Or testing the waters. Or seeing how far we’re willing to be pushed.”
I clicked my teeth together, and spun off to the corner of the front room, where the mosaic sat in silent overwatch.
Yeni’s eyes settled on me. I stared back at him. He quirked the ridge of his eye, and I followed suit.
“Never talked to her before?” Tane asked.
“Not as such,” Yeni said. “I was expecting… I don’t know, I guess.”
“She’s not fey possessed,” Tane said. “So I’m fine with her being around. You been keeping the eye on the Outcast?”
“He’s fine,” Yeni replied. “Pissed that we’re probably leaving here. Who can blame him, though, there’s not a lot of places that accept Outcasts anymore.”
Tane clicked her beak in agreement. I glared back at the two of them.
“It’s the way things are,” Tane protested, throwing up her talons disarmingly.
I scowled and slipped past her.
“I might never understand her,” Tane muttered behind me.
Dinner. Part of a cow had been reclaimed from the opposite side of the city, where the stampede had reached mostly unhindered by any serious hunting. The Elder sat in the corner, curiously diminished, quiet, Morose.
I couldn’t keep my eyes from flicking across her body every so often, despite the fresh steak in front of me. Too rare by far, but my stomach craved protein after all of the physical activity, so I ignored petty complaints and dug in with the utensils they had scavenged up (or forged from far off cities).
Jay sat in the corner next to the Elder picking at his plate. Our eyes didn’t meet, despite my best attempts to draw them over to me.
A single crow flew in through the window and melted into the Elder’s form. Life, vitality, completeness blessed her, and her straightened up.
Crow was back. It could only mean one thing.
The Elder cleared her throat and what little chatter that blessed the table died like the bombs had dropped again.
“I have come to a decision,” Morrigan clicked. “The Capital has informed me they cannot spare guards from the border cities to protect Prime-Nest.”
Jay’s talons dug into the side of the table, hard enough to pierce the faux wood surface, digging through layers of paint.
“Therefore,” Morrigan said, her eyes falling onto me. “We’ll be escorting the Warden, and everything important here, to Forge-nest, in the east. From there, we’ll meet up with the guards they’re willing to send there, and we will rejoin the main bulk of Crows under the reign of the missing King.”
Jay’s talons dug the rest of the way through the talons. “And I will be allowed to come?”
Tane clicked dismissively. “If you feel like getting shot to death by the guards, Outcast, you’re more than welcome to come with us.”
Jay narrowed his eyes and hissed at her. “I am the Warden’s Guardian.”
Tane hissed right back, like a cat. Or a goose. “You’re really going to claim that?”
Morrigan closed her eyes. “The Outcast was made from a separate process from the Wardens,” An eye flicked open, and it swam over to rest upon me. “So there’s nothing stopping him from being her Guardian.”
“Apart from logic, common sense, and morals?” Tane asked, rolling her eyes. “Elder, this would be madness. He can’t even be let into most cities.”
“It’s a dangerous world,” The Elder said, the other eye flicking over to Jay, who stared at her with a growing sense of confusion, edged with vague… hope?
If I could just get a better read on their body language, perhaps. “So…?” Jay pried.
“Perhaps we should have the Warden protected by the most dangerous of our ranks,” Morrigan muttered.
Tane’s beak clicked shut. “If you say it like that…” She looked over at Jay instead of snarking. “You are the one with the most experience fighting the Fey.”
Jay blinked at the acknowledgement. “I am.”
“It may be madness,” Tane admitted. “But perhaps instead of a soldier protecting her from afar, she needs a monster. Just don’t expect me to be happy about it.”
“I have long suspected that you will never be happy about anything,” The elder drawled. “Especially when it comes to the Outcast.”
“What is the Guardian?” I asked.
“Like I said,” Jay said. “When we first met. I’m going to be your guide in this world. I’m going to keep you safe,” Jay thumped an arm against his chest, and then saluted in proper USEC fashion.
It was bizarre to see it on him, but it made me feel…
Well, not safer.
“And,” The Elder said, even drier. “Cities can’t turn him down if he’s your guardian.”
“He’s contaminated,” Tane said. “If he would only submit to a purging, we could pry it out of him. Return his name.”
The Elder sighed. “There’s not a bit of him that isn’t contaminated at this point, Tane. It’s not a matter of purging a crow or two; he’s painted red all the way through.”
Tane’s eyes softened slightly, and she looked away, unable to bear the sight of Jay.
Jay snarled. “I don’t need your pity, Tane. I’d do it again in heartbeat. I’d do it again in three heartbeats.”
“Survival, right,” Tane said, though her voice wasn’t quite as sharp. “How long have you know you couldn’t…”
“Since the second I dragged myself back,” Jay replied. “Since the very moment I submitted to the Purge and they tried to take my life.”
“So they took his name instead,” The Elder said. “In honor of his service during the war.”
“And I’ve been wandering ever since,” Jay replied. “But now, I have a Warden to protect.”
Tane clicked and lightly nudged her plate away from her. “How’s Lani doing?”
“She’ll reform soon,” The Elder said. “You can see it in the eyes of the crows she’s chosen, she’ll be put together while we’re on the road.”
“Well,” I said.
Jay was a soldier. An Ex-soldier, perhaps. Captured, maybe. Dragged behind enemy lines.
And now he was attached to me. I was both his object for existing, and his ticket back to regular civilization.
“When are we going?”
The Elder smiled.