It’d been awhile since I’d seen a Crow. Too long. Beady black eyes were tightly closed, hidden under feathers. The splatter of green oozing from the headless body in front of her, gun pressed hard into the open cavity.
The body thumped against the floor.
Smoking gun cradled in her hands, Teri looked up, her beak painted red to keep her apart from the other birds. Indignation, rage. Human emotions reflected back in that avianoid eye.
Teri looked up from the corpse of the Fey, her beak painted green from close proximity to the shot.. Her eyes flicked wildly from Boss, the gun in her hands flashing at her.
For a heavy moment, not a trace of recognition graced her eyes.
Then they settled on me.
“Heh,” Teri laughed, letting the gun tumble from her fingers; the Crow shrank away from the bodies around her. “Guess I know what the alarm was about. You came to save me after all, Warden.”
Then she hugged me. Fluffy feathers pressed around an almost human form; she bore the same trace of humanity I saw in Boss’s body. Why did the populations left behind model so heavily off of humans?
Why wouldn’t they have gone other paths? Were artifacts so anthropocentric- my head hurt too much to try and figure it out.
“Something like that,” I said, stepping in front of Boss, and regretfully breaking the hug.
The armory bore shelves of all kinds; rusted weapons hung from them, long since mostly melted to the point of uselessness. Crates of destroyed ammunitions, taken by time, and hoards of computers, long since degraded to uselessness. Fabric spread across one corner, the newest addition to the entire room, without a speck of dust.
“And you brought their monster with you.”
“Not theirs,” Boss replied, stepping in front of them. “Prepare for the hounds, bird.”
“Teri,” Teri said.
“Jess,” I said. “Call me Jess, as well.”
“If we get out of here,” Teri promised. “I’ll call you that.”
“Are you okay?” I asked, looking at the bird.
“I’ll lie and say I’m alright,” Teri said, shaking her head a few times. “I’ll… I’ll also lie and say I’m good with killing. For the next while, I guess.”
“Works for me,” I said, inspecting the room. “They… they tore my Omoi out.”
Teri clicked her beak. “Well. That would explain why you were showing up as being in the radio tower, I suppose.”
“We have to get it back,” I said. “It’s…” It clicked right then, exactly what we’d have to do to get out of here.
“We can signal for help from the radio tower,” I said. “It’ll have enough signal to get to the nearest city… Forge-nest.” I hesitated for a moment, hand drifting to the side of my head. Off balanced without the weight. Without the burden of my thoughts. “And I’d like to get my Omoi back.”
How would I get it placed back in? Not like there were any certified surgeons around…
“It’s a part of you,” Teri said. “Besides, I wouldn’t feel too good about leaving Omoi’s node in the hands of the Fey. Who knows what they could get out of a fresh one?”
The thought was terrifying. Chunks of my memories persisted on it. Albeit, they were locked behind layers of encryption, and the lion’s share of anomalous data was stored in what Isaac had taken, but it was still… still me.
“Like my armor,” Boss said, walking over to the corner.
“Your armor?” Teri asked. “I don’t recall you wearing it when you stuffed me into a sack.”
“Is she a friend of yours?” Boss asked, pulling up the fabric. Harsh metal plates, fabrics, leathers. Gleaming dully in the crackling lights overhead. Anachronistic to decay models. “If so, I apologize for breaking one of her necks. I needed to erase witnesses.”
Teri clicked her beak. “Whether we’re friends or not doesn’t matter. I can’t get out of here by myself. You ruined a lot of things, you know.”
“Ruining things is a pastime of mine,” Boss said, taking greater care with the armor than I’d seen her take care of her own skin, as regenerative as it was. “I don’t care about your problems, I’m here to get the warden out, and intact.”
Boss gestured behind her ear meaningfully. “Intact.”
Teri hissed at her and scoffed, turning to face me instead. “Is she trustworthy?”
“Better than trustworthy,” I said. “She’s basically bulletproof.”
“Strange allies in dangerous times,” She shook her head. “Are you okay? You look… well, injured. Almost delirious.”
Unexpectedly, I found myself hugging her, squeezing her feathers. She let out a startled wark. “Warden!”
“I’m so glad you’re okay,” I said. “Jay’s been set up for your scattering, and Irri’s been working with the Fey the entire time.”
“I figured that out myself,” Teri said. “But if I return, I can just explain the entire business.”
“Good to hear,” Boss said, fiddling with her equipment. “They approach.”
My hand slid down to my pocket, and I drew forth the pistol. Flicked the safety off of it with a click. Teri brought her rifle back up from where she’d dropped it on top of a dead drone.
“Who’s they?” Teri asked.
Boss wrenched off a segment of the wall in her arms, and pulled forth what
I could only describe as an axe; a hefty black blade attached to a solid construction.
She was bulletproof. She didn’t need complicated weapons. She needed to be able to eat her enemies, not worry about picking lead out of them.
“I really don’t think I’ll-”
The axe slammed down, bisecting a drone. The slick noises of parting chitin, the splatter of off colored fluids across the ground of the armory. Boss moved like a ballerina and hit like a truck, blade gleaming dimly in the gloom.
Teri shifted, her feathers puffing up, then clicked out an angry war cry, diving in.
There was a chaos of shifting feathers, unguided drones, and the vengeful shrieks of the archivist fighting side by side by her scatterer.
I didn’t have much of a part of that, so I stepped to the side and tried to ignore the chaos of the war party behind me. Human artifice lasting long past any reasonable expectation, again, again, again?
Radio was far away. Across the building. Another trek. Another slew of bodies and bullets.
God must be a comedian whose laugh sounds like dying screams.
“Ha, this isn’t so bad,” Boss said, grinning as she danced through the ranks of the drones.
If I didn’t watch her, I could pretend the axe wasn’t parting almost humans as easily as it would part actual humans, driven by her inhuman constitution and endurance.
A step to the left, a spray of automatic fire from Teri’s rifle, suppressing the other side of the hallway, and I poked my head out, pistol at the ready, just hoping I could do something other than die.
“What about-” the hounds?
“We’ll worry about them when we get there!” Boss shouted, wrenching the door off of the hinges. Her armor rested like heavy weights on her form, cutting through fur and muscle and turning her from a goliath into an armored behemoth. Gnashing teeth, glowing red eyes. A demon at the end of a horror movie.
Teri came skittering to a halt, and rounded the corner, taking cover behind the great creature, and I slung back towards her. For a moment, we were fine. Three of us against the rest of the world. Her assault rifle sputtered and drones died, small arms fire slicing and ricocheting off of the heavy steel plating Boss wore.
“Radio tower,” Teri muttered under her breath, nearly obliterated by the fire from her rifle. Same make and model as the one that the bugs were using.
Didn’t take a genius to figure out where that’d come from.
Then I heard the Hounds. A strange whisper, a digging thought into my mind, and then the overwhelming taste of thunder in the air.
And it went downhill from there.
There were languages that weren’t meant to be spoken. Dark things whispered in the shade of night, twisted words co-opted into symbolic and literal dangers. Code phrases with impersonal meaning.
Much as Omoi had filled my head with protective phrases and insulating codes, so too were there more dangerous things out there.
Things that the Crows might shun and banish to a hole in the ground where they buried all such dangerous things.
But I’d never heard it spoken properly before. Observed it behind plated glass, seen the effects of objects touched with such things, seen artifacts of great powered destroyed, melted, subdued.
And the word demanded DEVOURING LIGHT.
And there was.
Boss screeched and threw herself behind the door, and white hot lightning sparked across my vision. Hideous, malformed, demented, twisted. Over in a second, but it filled my vision with something like gnashing teeth.
The door bore the blast, sending the edges into molten red metal, gleaming. Boss lost grip of it, and her nerves shuddered and shook, singes through her fur.
But she’d gotten used to be electrocuted for disobedience, and lightning had nothing on a slave’s desire for freedom.
The thunder rocked me off of my feet. I hit the ground with a solid thump, just long enough for Boss to-
“Hound!” Boss called out.
And down the hall, there it was. Something like Boss herself; a monstrous creature of fur and muscle, twitching eyes taking up too much of the canine’s face. It screamed, opening maw wide, too wide, until the jaw cracked against the hinge.
Fur charred black, I could see every singed muscle twitching, barely contained. Ribbony anchors of chitin lanced through the skin. Bleeding wounds, laced with puss. Infested.
The Hound. Had creatures like this led the last charge into the Capital?