True to Boss’s word, the fey were dead outside. Not a flicker in their minds, not a single broadcasted though in the heads. If it wasn’t for the slow movement of their lungs and the quiet hiss of air through their many varied teeth, I’d’ve thought they were statues. Boss swept her way through them, taking no care at all to avoid them. Teri huffed and smacked one around.
I just avoided them entirely, there was no need to be cruel to them. Nobody had ever cared about them before. Was it strange that…
It didn’t matter.
Without the maze of passages stuffed full of guns and bullets, the military base was depressing. Crackling lights, dispersed mold and just the beginning of decay greeted us.
In another world, it’d’ve been only a few decades after the end of the world. Here, it was frightening to see it so well preserved.
The world was wrong. Whether it be the Kind-Lord’s dominion, or the Watcher’s touch on the land, this was not the normal course of history.
But I wasn’t going to be able to fix that.
But I might have the information to fix that.
The outside world was strange and foreign; the sun glinting across a landscape have salvaged, half saved from the devastation I remembered from completely collapse of biospheres, half buried in the past of humanity. Boss gleamed in the sun, stretched out in it and basked, taking a long moment to puff up in the heat of the sun.
I just adjusted the tattered lab coat I was in, tried to ignore the splatters of various horrible fluids on it, and breathed out.
Teri pointed at the edge of the front doors (the american flag had rotted but the flag pole hadn’t. The nation was gone, but the infrastructure was still there. What determined what died and what lived?) and I followed the finger out to where a truck waited, loaded up with ingots.
“I thought we were missing those,” Teri clicked her beak. Then sighed. “We’re really going to have to kill Irri, aren’t we?”
I swallowed, squeezed her shoulder, and swept forward. “Do you think she’s still around?”
“That’s not our make of truck,” Teri said.
“No, that’s the Fey’s,” Boss corrected. She tapped her claws against the edge of her armor. “They’re looking to rebuild their armies they need the materials for it.”
“But why did Irri go along with in the first place?” I asked.
Teri shrugged, scattered into a half dozen birds, and landed on the truck. No reply from scattered Crows, I knew, so I slid over to the driver’s side and opened the door.
Boss squinted at the truck, then hopped in the back, curling up into a ball.
“You sleepy?” I asked.
“I enjoy the sun,” Boss said, and tucked her head in under her own fluff. I could see heat rising off of her armor, and caught the glint of the light off of the dark polish of her axe. Whatever made her happy.
Keys were already in the vehicle. It wasn’t like there were that terribly many people who knew how to drive, much less were willing to go to the old military base, so who wouldn’t leave the keys in.
Started up the engine, felt it shift and sputter angrily.
Started it up again and it caught.
Time to save Jay.
The road was nonexistent for most of the way. Every bump sent Boss’s ear flicking about, then she’d settle back in. She actually balanced out a bit of the weight, making the drive smoother. Teri reformed inside of the cab of the vehicle, tapping nervously at the edge of the interior; utilitarian with the bare minimum set aside for comfort.
The steering wheel was just the right size for a human pair of hands. Small wonder since it was made for Queen’s guards. They had some intelligence left to them. I shouldn’t be upset if I found more human like devices, but the thought of them…
The thought of their betrayal didn’t set well with me.
I’d known in the past that it was likely that most of our organization had been infiltrated. Long term loss of control over the infection, much like termites in a wood house. But to see them still alive. To know they hadn’t been wiped out in the apocalypse… I’d known that already.
But to see it face to face. To have the man’s second brain in the pocket of my lab coat, it was unnatural.
And yet, it was the truth.
“What’re you thinking of?”
“Queen’s guards are humans,” I said, baffled. “That was a USEC scientist.”
Teri clicked her beak and looked out the window. “I don’t know what to say.”
I kept an eye on the road; almost entirely reclaimed by soul and overgrowth, but completely off from where the decay patterns should’ve taken it. If I ignored it, it wouldn’t bother me. What had disrupted the natural processes and left them all in this strange place that was once earth?
“I just killed a USEC scientist throwing around eldritch tongues and betraying everything that was human.”
“That’s a good thing,” Teri said.
“I know,” I said. “That… was just the first human I’ve met since I was out, and he was evil. So very evil. Do you think they’re all going to be like that?”
“I think you’re going into shock,” Teri said, tapping the side of her head where the Omoi node sat. “Omoi’s asking to play some music.”
“I’m fine,” I dismissed, waving my hand. “I…”
“First kill?” Boss said, sliding open the back window of the vehicle. Her massive head took up most of the rear view window (another nostalgic feature). “There’s no point in feeling guilty.”
It wasn’t guilt. It wasn’t fear, either, that I felt wrapping around my heart. It was something else entirely. I’d seen through the man’s memories and seen his once family. I’d seen that he’d had good knowledge of USEC protocols, enough to twist my memories of them.
But he was certain, dead certain that my projects were more than they appeared.
And he’d been willing to kill over them. Making one bad ill informed decision was one thing, but that surety, the damnedable surety of his attack upon me.
“What god did your people feed on?” I asked Boss.
“We have no need for their names,” Boss replied. “They are dead. The Mighty shed their names after death, so that the world may use them again.”
The weight of Prince’s Omoi node felt heavy against my chest. Sweat trickled down the side of my hands, wrapped around the steering wheel.
It all mattered. Mankind had done a hell of a number on the future.
I might be a minority in accepting that the old way was gone.
Forge-Nest seemed like a dream at first, the spiralling city streets and sprawling urban decay looked like the welcoming gates of heaven after what felt like weeks trapped in claustrophobic corridors with only skeletons to greet me.
Teri kept her rifle loaded, flicking it open to check it a few times. Made me nervous, despite the weight of the small pistol at my hip.
Boss probably classified as heavy artillery, so we entered the city as more of a military convoy instead of the transport for a weary scientist.
But no Crows greeted us as we made our way inside. No birds dotted the sky like ashes, and nothing kept watch as we moved in.
The road finally decayed into lines of rubble when we passed by the foundry itself, so I threw open the doors and Boss slipped off of the back, stretching out.
“Where is everyone?” Teri asked. “I’d’ve thought…”
“Mm. Smells like death approaches,” Boss said, taking in a long drag of air. Her tongue darted out for a moment, then her jaw snapped close with a click of too sharp teeth.
I peered over the top of the ridge of rubble and found them. Hundreds of birds scattered about. Jay in the center.
I recognized a firing squad when I saw one, but if we launched incorrectly…
We already knew that among their number were traitors, and I only had one life.
Running out of time. If they knew that the guards from the capital were arriving soon, they’d be pressed into action.
And these birds were involved in a conspiracy. A conspiracy to the tune of a missing Archivist, Warden, and who knew what else. A quick and tidy end was necessary.
“Boss?” I asked, giving her a look.
“How fast can you move while carrying me?”
“Full speed,” She bared her teeth.
I swallowed. The last time she’d carried me it was through a field of guns and swinging bullets. Sprays of hot blood and gunpowder smoke.
But fuck it. This wasn’t about me. I was going to save Jay if it killed me.
It’s what my brother would’ve wanted. It’s what Zack would’ve wanted.
It was what a lot of pointless motivators wanted in my head, and I was half scrambled already.
“Well?” Boss asked, a smug look on her face as she watched my expression. Was that hunger, or some other foul emotion?
“Teri, prepare to land, and expect them to be hostile about it,” I barked out. “We’re going to call out their bluff. Boss? Get ready to leap into action.”
“Ready,” Teri confirmed, looking over top of the ridge.
“Ready,” Boss said, clicking her teeth. Her arms settled across me, then settled for picking me up bridal style. Her axe clicked to the back of her armor, strapped in place.
“Go,” I said.
I wasn’t expecting Boss to howl as she flew through the air like a bullet. That hadn’t been part of the plan. But the hellish noise winding from her mouth made everyone jerk their heads up. Guns flew from being pointed at Jay to pointing at me.
“Hold fire!” I shouted. A brief hesitation.
The gathered scouts I’d travelled with dropped their weapons from Boss, and stood at attention. They knew the gig was up, and they weren’t fond of being played.
Then we landed in front of them, and Boss dropped me firmly in place.
And I glared at Joli, still holding his gun to Jay’s head.
“I’m back,” I said.
“Jess!” Jay said, flicking his head to the gun against his head. “Knew you’d be back. You’re cutting it a bit close.”
“What the hell is that supposed to be?” Joli asked, gesturing with a wing at Boss.
“Where’s the Elder?” I asked. Took a step forward. Then gestured the guns down with my arms.
One by one the various other Crows put down their weapons, apart from Irri herself. Whoever was left who was in on the Fey would be rooted out later. But Irri knew that the game was up for her. Irri quivered, her hands shaking as her rifle wavered back and forth.
Teri landed next to me. “You heard her. Where’s the Elder?”
But my eyes were locked on Joli, whose gun hadn’t moved from Jay’s head. His eyes were fixed on me.
“She’s fine,” Irri said, squeaking. “She’s… she went ahead to wait for the guards.”
“And you decided to take care of me while she wasn’t here,” Jay said, disagreeably. His eyes flicked from looking at the gun against his head to looking at me, a quiet plea.
“Murderer,” Joli spat.
“I haven’t murdered anyone here,” Jay hissed. “And I have already attoned for my past crimes.”
“It’ll never be good enough,” Joli ground the gun into the feathers of Jay’s head. “You can’t bring back my family.”
The Outcast looking at his death, versus the Warden, finally looking like the heaven sent soldier they’d made me out to be.