“Put the gun down,” I said. “All of you.”
If the Crows thought I had authority, then I’d use it.
Irri’s gun twitched, her finger slipping away from the trigger. “I can explain, I really can.”
But she’d been the one to put me in the hell of that military base, so my patience with her was gone.
“There’s nothing to explain,” Joli said, breaking the silence. He kept the gun trained firmly on Jay’s head. “I’m getting my damn justice. You killed the king, you let him die, and my friends died with him. Why in the world did you live and they didn’t?!” Joli, obviously, was in on it.
Jay didn’t reply, but his feathers puffed up and his beak clicked.
“If there’s nothing to explain…” I trailed. “Let him go. On my authority.”
“I refuse,” Joli said. “You walk in here like there’s nothing wrong, like you can stomach yourself, Warden. Where the hell was your kind in the war? Why should we treat you like gods when you’ve done nothing to help us? If ever there was anything good among your kind, they died with humanity.”
I wasn’t there, but that didn’t justify a second of the hell I’d gone through. It didn’t justify a thing he was doing.
Boss drew forth her axe. “Well, Warden? What’s your verdict? I can cut off his head in a heartbeat.”
I held up a hand. If we made a move, Jay would lose his head.
But the tide was turning..
With a ruffle of guns, as if they’d been waiting for the signal all along, the gathered scouts pointed their guns at Joli. But they couldn’t take the shot. Unlike everyone else here, Jay stood on my level; completely mortal. Unable to scatter, or regenerate.
It was truly odd to think about one of the immortal beasts around me dying, but the thought of letting Jay die made my heart thump and my blood run ice. Nobody could take a shot.
Where was Tane when I needed her?
We had to let him talk. Find a solution from there.
Teri clicked her beak. “You’re being ridiculous, Joli. The Wardens are here to help us.”
“The Wardens are false gods,” he declared, shifting Jay in front of him like a hostage. This wasn’t my training. I wasn’t an agent confronting a cult. I was a scientist, and I was blind without my tutorials. “And they’ve never done anything for us. Look at us!” He gestured grandly with a wing. “We sit in a dying city scrounging for metal like rats. And the Wardens wake up every few decades and we’re supposed to pretend like they mean anything? Cluelessly scampering around this world? What do we gain from them?”
Keep talking. My eyes locked with Jay. His beak opened. I jerked my eyes towards Joli.
“That doesn’t mean you get to deal with the Fey,” Teri said, taking a step forward. “Nobody gets to deal with them and make it out alive.”
“And that’s just it, really.” Joli swung Jay about. “At first, when they approached me, I thought it was sacrilege. Anomaly. Wrong. But when they came back around… I saw it was an opportunity, to make things right with those who’d died.”
Teri blinked, then narrowed her eyes. A growling wark in the archivist’s feathered throat. “The Crows who disappeared… None of them saw real combat.”
“Can you believe that during the war, there were those who didn’t lose Kindlers? Who didn’t end up half fragmented from buckshot? Artillery blasts vaporizing flocks out of the air; helter skelter. Dozens of ancient minds lost because we had to resist. And the worst?” He laughed. “They still earnestly believed the Wardens were anything other than idiot gods dancing about on top of a bed of match sticks. That at any moment, some ancient warrior would emerge and obliterate them all!”
His grip tightened on Jay, and Jay let out a disgruntled yelp from talons digging into his skin.
“Let Jay go,” I said. Slowly drew my pistol. What could it do?
But Joli swung Jay ahead in front of him. “So when the Fey asked for them, on days when the harvest was low, I let them take them. They sent their creatures, and I thought that surely hardened soldiers could withstand their attacks. I thought they’d survive, and I’d have to explain myself. They never did!”
How many Crows had disappeared into the hungry maw of the Fey? How long had this been going on?
Teri snarled. “You murderer!”
“Like you have room to talk, Archivist. You saw that an Outcast was walking among us, and you took it upon yourself to befriend the plagued ones following him!”
“He’s the Warden’s guardian,” Teri returned.
“And he’ll be dead like the Outcast’s deserv-” A shot in the distance, and the ground in front of him exploded in shrapnel. He backpedaled, dragging Jay with him.
It could only be the sound of reinforcements. For who, I couldn’t say. I’d had enough of screaming and hot splintering death for the rest of my life. Shouts could only mean more of it.
Joli puffed up, and despite the distance I could read the desperation on his face.
Desperate creatures made stupid decisions.
“What did you betray us for?” Teri asked, taking another step forward.
“Protection,” Joli said. “The power to protect anyone I care for from anything.”
I had a feeling I knew what was coming next. The Crow’s beak crackled with energy.
“And the power to destroy anything antithetical to that world. A demonstration?”
“If you do it, everyone here will kill you,” Teri said.
“I was dead the second the Warden showed up,” Joli pointed out. “So I might as well take you all with me. A final proof that the Fey are going to win, and we’re idiots for resisting.”
I met eyes with Jay, still tugged along. Gun still kissing the skin under his feathers.
“Get ready to take the shot,” I said, looking over the scouts. “I don’t want to-”
“Shut up.” Jay said, and slammed his head into Joli’s glowing face.
The Command Tongue stopped abruptly, and Joli stood, flabbergasted. Blood trickled down his feathers.
But Jay didn’t hesitate.
The battle had shifted, and Jay was a dancer. Joli’s finger twitched on the gun still aimed at Jay, and the Outcast moved.
His head slammed down and the gun dragged across the top of it before unloading, shaking the feathered ruff on the top of his head.
The scouts moved to intervene.
But Jay moved even faster than the gathered scouts.
“You are an idiot,” Jay spat. Then he dove right on in to prove it.
His foot slammed into Joli’s gut, and then in the same moment wrenched the gun up into the air.The gun went off right over top of him, the sound echoing like the laugh of the devil, and then Jay was on the mayor like Boss had been on the Hound. Savage, angry, hungry.
The gun clicked with the next trigger press. Unintentional. From pain.
Short sharp strikes flecked off from Jay’s talons, and Joli screamed like a wounded animal, and then a gurgle from Jay’s talons shredding his throat. Blood filled the air for a moment, impossibly thick and frothy, a brief vision where all that was present in Joli’s depths was soul sucking black, and then he scattered into his birds, rifle dropping to the floor.
The second he hit the air, the scouts went at him. A flurry of bullets from rifles. Birds erupted into feathers and fell from the earth.
There was no mercy here. There was only justice, swift, angry. He’d broken a rule.
The hole in my head ached.
Irri abruptly realized they’d lost what little advantage they had, and backpedaled, raising her rifle. She was screwed. The loathsome traitor was screwed, and she knew it. She couldn’t figure out where to point it at, Jay, his talons dripping in blood, or at myself. She figured out she should point it at Boss when the armored behemoth growled and stomped towards her. “You picked the wrong side to go with, Irri.”
“You’re one of them!” Irri squeaked, back pedalling. “You can’t say that!”
“Too late,” Boss said, “I already did.” The axe came down and Irri danced to the side as the behemoth sledge fractured the aged feet of city street.
Then she pivoted, flared the rifle at the surrounding scouts. I couldn’t figure out her target for a moment.
“Death to the old world!”
Oh. It was me.
For a brief moment, I recalled everything in that blasted military base, the fear, the terror, the blood, the pain. The torment in my mind. The victory I’d had.
A bullet would still kill me.
“DIE!” Irri shouted. Boss’s arms were already moving to intercept but I, clueless I, staring at the rifle, pistol like a lead weight in my hands.
Her gun exploded.
Not in the way that guns normally explode, where projectiles leave at great velocities. I mean that the side of the gun erupted as a round hit it, and then another round hit it, and the gun leapt out of Irri’s taloned hands.
“I’ll just stop you right there,” Tane said, landing. Her rifle still drooled hot smoke from where she’d taken a shot in the air. Perfect indignant aim.
“Tane!” I almost hugged her right then.
“Was starting to get worried,” Tane said, her wings spread wide. She landed next to me, squeezing my shoulder with a talon. Her rifle still hummed with the after effects of multiple shots. Smoke. “You heard her confession, take her alive. We’ll get what we want out of her.”
Irri squeaked. “And who’s taking me alive?”
Then the sky went dark.
I’d wondered at what exactly the guard would look like to be able to hold off the anomalous fey, but I hadn’t considered the logistics of their existence. Hundreds of crows descended from the sky, flying with military precision. They didn’t need to form into bodies. They had sheer force of mass on their side.
Irri squeaked and cowered, throwing her arms over her head, and the birds took her. A roiling pile of angry birds swarming her to stop her escape.
“Glad Jay broke free in time. They were going to start taking shots through him.” Tane clicked her beak.
Somehow, my arms ends up around Tane and hugging her, and she gave me a brief pat with her wings before slipping away.
I stared down at the birds as they overwhelmed Irri, throwing her on the ground. Jay dug himself out of the mass of feathers and slouched beside me, running a taloned hand through his feathers.
“That was a bit close.”
“The guard,” Teri said, staring down at where the mayor had been only moments before. “The guard got here in time.”
“And the elder?” I asked.
“Right behind us,” Tane said.
Morrigan landed a few seconds later, frowning at the dead birds littering the street. A solemn look on her aging beak, almost human features contorted into sadness. “A shame… always a shame when someone turns.”
A sack was procured from Boss’s supplies and presented to the guards, and Irri was unanimously stuffed inside, tied off, and brought, kicking and screaming and warking and crying, to rest in front of my feet.
The guards assembled into gleaming Crows, painted beaks and glistening eyes, and bowed before me.
The leader, his beak embossed with heavy silvers, raised his head up to speak.
“Warden. I’m here to take you before the Regent. It’s an honor to finally meet you.”
“Oh,” I said, rather pointlessly. Then the mixture of bloodloss, adrenaline, and general combat stress hit me, and I fell on the ground.
“Graceful,” Jay muttered.
The guard captain squinted down at me. “Correction. Bed first, then Regent.”