It was down the street, where nobody else was around, that I turned to look at Jay. “Why did you leave last night?”
Tane looked curiously over at Jay.
“I heard a noise on the roof,” Jay said, flat. “I went to check it out to make sure it wasn’t dangerous, but when I got there, I couldn’t see anyone. I figured someone had dropped a rock or something.”
“And you didn’t check?” Tane asked.
“It was late,” Jay defended. “And it’s already hard enough for me to get up on the roof; I can’t just fly up there unlike you, Tane.”
“You can climb perfectly well,” Tane dismissed sighing. “But I believe you.”
“Good,” I said, looking around. “I just hope to Zach that wasn’t Teri getting scattered we heard.”
Jay puffed up, looking faintly sick. “That was probably the dead crow hitting the roof we heard, and I just didn’t see it.”
“Bad thought,” I said, sweeping forward. The hotel building up ahead had the top half of it mined out. Floors reduced to rubble. The rest of it maintained structural integrity enough that it didn’t look unsafe.
Omoi weighed the visual evidence and suggested the building should be condemned, but it was safe to enter.
Four floors; it probably consisted of the majority of Forge-Nest’s meagre population. You didn’t need that much room to keep the place alive, not when you were just strip mining it years on end.
“Where’s the forge, you think?” I asked.
Jay shook his head. “Probably not far from the main mining areas; back where we entered the city, perhaps?”
“Reduces the distance between where they mine and where they get ingots,” Tane said. “Clever, I guess. Are you going to ask?”
“Ask?” I asked.
“About why I got moved to Prime-nest.” Tane said.
“I don’t care,” Jay said. “You’re here now.”
“I’m going to guess disrespecting authority,” I said. “Considering you were willing to speak up and make suggestions against the Elder.”
I got the suspicion, judging from how Tane stopped cold, that I’d hit home, and she swung her head away from the two of us. “I may have gotten in trouble for second guessing orders a few too many times.”
“Bad move,” Jay said. “But it got you over to the Elder. What’d she do, share the First Memories with you?”
“She thought I’d do better with the quieter duties of helping out the scouts,” Tane said. “And I was pretty good at directing them and logistics and the like, so it was pretty good for me after all.”
“Elder knows best,” Jay sighed.
A flock of crows exploded out of the fourth floor and flew overhead, warking at us as it went. Tane squinted up at them, then counted out the windows. She shook her head.
A flash of green on their beaks. How strange.
“What?” Jay asked, eyeing the building.
“Nothing,” Tane said. “Trying to figure out the angle here. Why would they go after Teri now?”
I shook my head, staring at the construction. “We don’t have enough information for that yet. Do you think they keep the hallways locked up?”
“Maybe,” Jay said, looking over at Tane. “What do you think?”
“I wish you two could fly, it’d make this easier.”
I walked over to the side of the building and peered into the bottom floor; the window was already open. A nest of chirping crows warked at me inquisitively a few times, and then a sleepy Crow poked their head up from a spare room.
“Oh, hello Warden,” They chirped. Somewhere between male and female.
I looked around the tiny apartment. The window could be shut in case of storms; a few rough edged sewn pieces hung on the wall, and a few tattered books sat on shelves, pages nicked from many talons.
“Is the hallway door unlocked?” I asked.
The Crow cocked their head to the side. Shrugged, then walked to the back of the room where a series of dusty paintings hung, splitting the room up. At the bottom of it I could just barely see a door frame.
“I’ll get it,” Tane said, digging through her feathers. After a few tugs, a pin or two graced her talons.
“You know how to pick locks?” Jay asked, startled.
“I’m a scout, Jay,” Tane said. “Of course we know how to pick locks, there’s lots of locked things out there. What am I supposed to do, drag the entire safe with me?”
He shrugged, muttered something under his breath, then gestured at me.
“You can come in,” The Crow said. “Mind the rugs, I really like them.”
The rug proved to be a slumbering human face, floating in cryo solutions, blonde hair cascading across their face, tilted to the side to ensure androgyny.
I didn’t agree with the worship of humans, but it reminded me of the old church I’d went to when I was younger. Touched something in my head to think about the Crows thinking of the old world so warmly.
We slid inside, Tane sliding forward to avoid the swing of the paintings. They might be dusty, but the bird clearly liked them. Muttered muffled curses.
The Crow occupant blinked at us a few times. “So… What’s your name, Warden?”
I looked over at them. “Jess. You know, you’re the first Crow to ask that.”
“I hope it isn’t too rude to ask,” The Crow said, looking over at Jay.
“Were you recently kindled?” Jay asked. “I don’t recall your name.”
“Only a few decades ago,” The Crow said. “I’m looking forward to doing my shift over here at the forges and maybe slipping off to the Capital.”
Jay gave the Crow a shy smile. “That’s good. Keep that enthusiasm, okay?”
The Crow with the pretty rugs smiled back shyly, and turned away to tidy the place up a bit more. Tane clicked her beak, and the lock clicked open, followed shortly by the entire door. Dust from the hallway drifted through the wake of the wind kicked up by frame passing through.
I nodded politely at the Rug-Crow, and ducked out. “Have a good day, and hope you get out of here soon.”
“Just another decade or so,” The Crow admitted.
“Good luck,” Jay said.
441 was up three more floors, and the set of stairs that led up to it bore thick dusty talon marks from hauling things up and down the stairs. Ill used, still.
Tane picked through the lock in a few minutes. Jay clicked his beak as we stepped inside.
Teri’s collection of objects mostly consisted of scattered coms. Casings open, casing shut, Omoi scanned through them all, churning up raw data to parse through. Jay swept to the side and peered out the window, then blinked.
“Huh. This is right next to the room where those crows flew out of,” He mused, clicking again.
“Really?” Tane said. “Wonder what they needed to handle.”
“Well,” I said, my eyes setting on the empty span of nests in the corner of the room. “She didn’t go here after she scattered.”
“Figured as much.” Tane said. “This would be the first place anyone would look.” Then she paused. “Actually, why did we go here?”
I gestured at everything else, specifically the Coms. “She was researching something. We’ve already had one Crow scattered for what she was holding… We might as well look and see if Teri was scattered for it as well.”
Jay sighed. “Ah. That’s what this is about.”
The hotel room consisted of a desk, a series of small nests where the bed should’ve been, and a tv table that didn’t have a tv to justify the name. A single holoscreen sat, alongside a pair of tattered glasses, lens cracked to expose the layer of exposed LCD screens inside of it.
Jay peered down at the glasses. “These look like the ones you found in the cryo-chambers.”
The Cryo-chambers. The Cryo-chambers with the gunshots and the Fey and the moment where death had been an option and an ending to this stupid story had been offered and
sensation of unreality.
“They do, don’t they?” I asked, peering down at them. Omoi chirped they were consistent. Streaming glasses; to give non Omoi users access to the feed from another’s nodule, or access to data banks compatible. But this pair was broken. “When we find Teri, we’ll ask her to take a look at…”
I’d pulled the other pair off of a corpse. A corpse I’d…
It all hit me at once, the memories of what I’d done. I’d vandalized a corpse because I’d gotten scared by a monster. Now I was supposed to solve a murder, lead a team of crows to figure out who scattered who. Overwhelming.
Too much, perhaps, but..
Omoi centered my thoughts, scattering the objectives into their own individual folders to keep my attention focused, narrowed. Not much more to say. Jay’s head perked up. Tane and I looked at him, his head turning towards the door.
“Company?” I asked.
Tane gestured. “Go take a look, we’ll make sure to finish our search.” I looked down at the com on the desk, and then started looking through the drawers.
Jay stepped outside and shut the door with a click, leaving us alone.
“You really trust him, huh?” Tane asked.
“I do,” I said. “Are we really going to get into this conversation again?”
“No,” Tane said. “I’m going to trust your judgement, I guess. I’ll trust him too, until he gives me a reason not to.”
The drawers were empty, apart from a few half eaten pens and pencils, beak marks knicked all over them.
“Just data,” I said. “Looks like another archivist.”
“They train in most of the same places,” Tane said. “Maybe Lani would know more about her?”
“When she gets back together, we’ll ask,” I said, firm.
Jay let out a worried noise from the otherside of the door. Tane and I looked at each other, then stepped out.
Jay stood surrounded by a small procession of Crows. A nervous bird, green laced across the edge of her beak, peaked up from behind Joli, standing at the head of the pack.
“Overseer,” I said, staring at the group. Up this high, we were surrounded.
Tane and Jay could get out easily but-
Why was I looking for ways out?
“We’ve come to take this creature away for interrogation.” Joli said. “I hope you don’t mind that I brought a few guests to make sure he’s compliant.”
“On what suspicion?” Jay cut in, his eyes darting about the crowd.
“I have an eyewitness to the crime,” Joli said, pointing at the nervous bird. “Teri’s assistant, Irri.”
I narrowed my eyes on the assistant. Her eyes went wide, then she tucked her beak away behind a wing.
“I saw them,” The assistant said. “He was dark, and looming, and his eyes were bright red, but it was Jay with his bone white beak! He slashed!” She made a swing with a wing. “And then she scattered!” The green beak twitched.
“I did no such thing,” Jay said, hissing. “My eyes don’t even glow red.”
Joli raised an eyebrow at Jay. “But I’m sure they would if you were channelling.”
“The Outcast,” Tane said, stepping in. “In all of the time I’ve known him, has never had red glowing eyes. I don’t know what you saw, but it wasn’t him.. Besides,” She clicked her beak. “If it were him, where are the rest of Teri’s pieces? There’s not a one in this room.”
Joli’s eyes swept back to the assistant.
“He ate them!” The assistant pointed, talons trembling. “He opened his beak wide and ate the lot of them!”
“This is stupid,” I said, stepping in front of Jay. Now was not the time for doubt. Now was the time for solidarity, and not buying into whatever narrative they were planning on furthering.
Joli puffed up his feathers, and loomed a few inches taller, just enough so that he towered an inch over my head. “This isn’t stupid, this is a matter of public safety. I don’t see how you could possibly believe we wouldn’t suspect your beast, Warden.”
“I’m no-” Jay started.
“He’s not a beast,” I said, cool. Remembered how the Elder had dealt with him. “And if you lay one hand on him I’ll-”
“You’ll what?” Joli cut in.
“She’ll do nothing,” Jay said, his voice low. “Because I’ll go in with you, Overseer.”
Joli clicked in confusion. “Wha- I mean, yes, you will. Good beast.” Joli clicked his beak. “I’m sorry, Warden, but I’m taking this creature into custody on accusations of cannibalism and murder.”
“This isn’t how justice works,” I hissed after him.
“Oh?” Joli asked. “I don’t suppose you’re questioning this court of crows?”
Tane hissed, puffing up to loom even over Joli. “You’ll regret this.”
“And why is that?” Joli asked. “If the Warden can turn over evidence that proves it’s someone else, then I’ll apologize and let the beast go. If not… well, we’ve got someone for the guards to haul away.”
Jay stepped into the crowd of Crows. “Just let it happen, Jess,” He said. “They’re looking for a reason to take me in, just clear my name and get me out.” he paused. “Before the guard shows up, preferably.”
Joli poked at Jay. “Can you fly?”
“Obviously not,” Jay said, sour. “We’re walking to your office, idiot.”
The Crow mob swept to the side, Jay walking with them. Tane waited, counting under her breath, her voice growing angrier and angrier.
“We’ll be back for you, Jay,” I said, before he was out of range.
“That’s what I’m counting on,” Jay said. “I’m getting tired of having crimes thrown at me. Make sure to save me too, Warden.”
Then they were gone.