“Warden,” Boss said, startling me from half asleep. I cracked open my eyes into that dim night. Exhaustion threatened to take me again.
Sleep wasn’t coming easy to me that night, despite how tired I was. Muscles ached and quivered, but scenes played behind my eyes. Old faces and older ideas. Memories from the wrong brain played back and forth until they were shredded into pieces like a bad VCR recording. Fuzzed into unintelligibility.
Memories don’t transfer easily without Omoi.
Jay slept stretched across the floor, though this time he had an additional pillow he’d liberated spitefully from the dead crow’s supplies. Boss slept with her back against the wall, curled up into a tight ball. Her armor sat next to her, fingers wrapped securely around the heft of her axe.
But she was awake now.
Tane and Teri and Lani were getting reacquainted. Sharing information.
“She should get her rest,” Jay said. “She’s had a hard time.”
“Rest comes when the mission’s over,” Boss corrected. “Don’t leave things undone that could be finished now.”
“Blunt,” I muttered, and rolled up out of bed so my head rested against the wall. “What do we need to talk about?”
“We leave for the capital soon,” Boss said. “Am I to go as well?”
“You’re with me,” I said.
“The wolf has a point,” Jay said. “She’s not exactly… typical.”
“Be blunt about it,” Boss said, grinning with her teeth. “The crows fear anything that’s willing to keep them dead. And my kind has hunted them in the past.”
“Not recently,” Jay said.
Boss laughed. “The memories of immortals ruins the idea of recent. How am I to make sure you are not swept up in something again, Jess?”
“Is this about the terms of contract?”
Boss shrugged. “I owe you for now. I’ll repay it with my service.” She barked out a laugh. “I’d rather you not die before you make something of yourself. A warden, given all of the tools for success… you could be ferocious if you want. A demon if you want. All of the resources the Crows are willing to give to you, the ability to know the old world. Humans killed themselves with their weapons, but they still exist out there.”
She was flattering me. “I’m touched,”
Boss smirked. “And when you are the height of your power, and you have your armies, I will be there.”
Jay clicked his beak. “At her side?”
“Devouring her flesh,” Boss said. “The greatest predator of the world. What would she taste like?”
And the moment of being touched was gone, replaced with a vague unease.
“Trade your secrets,” I said, changing the subject. “You worked with the Fey, you know more about their inner workings than anyone else.”
Boss leaned back, her head thumping solidly against the side of the shrine. “Bargaining for passage?”
“It’s smart,” Jay said. “Are you sure you trust her, Jess?”
I looked over at him. He was a complicated bird. He’d protected me for the last few weeks. He relied on me for passage to any Crow city, being my Guardian. He was a soldier under the guard of the missing king. He tore out a throat without a moment of hesitating.
Looked over at Boss. Murderous mercenary. Penchant for cannibalism. Owed me. Thought I would one day be dangerous.
There wasn’t really a right choice here.
Breathed in, tried to think it through. Thoughts were shorter without Omoi in my head, but I’d spent the last day feverishly thinking through the hole in my head. No statistical equations to run, no probability arcs.
“As much as I can,” I said. I didn’t think I could get away with getting rid of her. She was… a blunt, forceful option. If she was on my side, she would be a great…
I couldn’t think of them as collections of pros and cons. They were people with their own thoughts and quests, banding together with me.
I dipped my head into hands and clutched it with my finger tips. Breath caught in my throat. Trailing fingertips touched the void in my head.
I was so out of my depth. Knees came up. Head pounded. Arms around knees. Curled up into a ball.
“She’s not well,” Boss commented.
Jay carefully slid out of his makeshift bedding and touched my arm. I shrank away from his touch. “Hey… you’re alright.”
But I wasn’t.
A long moment of silence. Could hear Boss’s lungs dragging air through her teeth.
Then Jay was next to me. “You made it out of there, Jess. We’re here, and we’re going to go to the capital, and we’re going to be safe.”
But I couldn’t get the memories of the man I killed out of my head. They swam like hornets; no longer coherent, a mire of bladed impulses and decaying worlds.
And I was scared I’d be taken again. I was so scared I’d be taken again, or I’d wake up somewhere.
And next time I wouldn’t have Boss there. I wouldn’t have Jay. Tane. Teri. I’d gotten lucky.
What were the odds I’d get lucky again?
Prince’s Omoi sat nestled in my supplies, a token of the death I’d barely averted. Time would only tell if it was good enough.
It was harsh, a bit awkward, but Forge-nest couldn’t go on. The mayor was dead, and a major movement of Fey was in the area. It was only a matter of time before the rest of the citizens were taken, killed, and who really knew what else.
I stared at the foundry as the guards brought in thermite bags. I didn’t really question where they got the thermite, the world was covered in rust and it wasn’t terribly hard to manufacture. A few hours of packing and setting things up, and the entire structure melted. Smoke rose up into the sky, unusable metal left smouldered and blackened.
Salt the fields so the enemy couldn’t use them. It only made sense.
Another Crow outpost lost.
Joli’s funeral wasn’t attended by many people. In the end, most couldn’t figure out how to deal with the mayor’s betrayal.
So I stood next to the Elder as she lowered his dead crows into the ground, singing softly under her breath.
“They’ll remove his name, you know,” The Elder said.
“Knowledge of that tongue is corrupting,” Morrigan said, staring down at the small black bodies at the bottom of the hole. “If he’d lived and been taken prisoner, his memories would never be allowed to spread.”
“Are you okay?” I asked, slowly reaching out. She took my hand and squeezed it with her taloned fingers, shaking her head.
“It’s a tragedy when any of my children die, Warden.” Morrigan shook her head. “Especially when they go bad. If only I had known, perhaps…”
“It’s not your fault,” I said.
“If I were more involved with Crow-kind, Warden,” Morrigan said. “Then perhaps there wouldn’t be those who ventured astray.”
I looked away from the grave. Smoke rose up from the destroyed foundry. The apartments were being stripped clean.
The guards weren’t going to just escort me to the capital. They were escorting the contents of two cities. Hundreds of coms, delicate murals, intermingled pieces.
I only hoped that the capital was up for the task of holding us.
“That’s a bad way of looking at it,” I said. Though perhaps she had a point. “You’re not responsible for everything that goes wrong with Crows.”
“I resolved that we didn’t need a leader,” Morrigan said. “When I walked the land, clearing it of hazards, we didn’t need a leader. We all had tasks to do, and they were obvious tasks, and they were validating, Warden. Why would Joli turn to the Fey? They represent the antithesis of what we are.”
I couldn’t answer, not entirely. “He was angry.”
“Anger doesn’t make a traitor,” Morrigan said. “Death is… foreign to many Crows. Or it was. Perhaps it was mortality that twisted him. There’s not a lot of that in this world. Not to anything that matters.”
She shoved the shovel into my hands. After a moment, she gestured, and I started filling the hole. With a small knife, she etched symbols into one of the bricks from the mayor’s office.
Similarly, it’d been razed to the ground.
The bodies were buried, and she set up the stone over top of them. The symbols would ward off predators. They knew when they’d been out matched.
Then Morrigan turned to face me, gave me a slightly nod of acknowledgement, then scattered into a great number of crows.
Perhaps the distance between each mind curbed the burden of years upon her frame.
Perhaps it was simply an easier way to get away from her failure.
I couldn’t decide which.
The shrine came next. Watching it go down brought a strange feeling to my heart. Rubble and ashes; the Crows were thorough in purifying the land.
“I wasn’t there for you,” Tane said behind me.
I didn’t look away from the rubble. I’d worried she was dead the entire time I’d been in the building.
She’d come through in the end. Late, but alive. Was there any point in being angry at her, when she’d given herself up so I could escape?
“I got out alive,” I said.
“I’ll do better next time,” Tane swore. “Faster shot, better aim.” And she meant it. She really did.
“The fey don’t fight fair,” I reminded her. “What if you can’t do that?”
Her talons clenched. “Then I guess we’ll have to go back to training you too.”
Take the shot before the enemy takes you. Master the fight, determine how it goes.
“I’d like that,” I said.
Tane hesitated for a moment, then returned the hug I’d given her when Joli had died. “I’ll make you strong,” she said.
After a moment, I gave the hug back, closed my eyes.
Pretended I didn’t feel vulnerable again, now that the fight had passed entirely.
“Tane?” I asked. Voice small.
Somehow I missed the fighting.
“Yes?” She asked.
I was quiet for a long moment, watching the building burn. “We’re going to be fine at the capital, right?”
Tane’s beak clicked. “If we’re not, I’m going to make it happen.”
Hollow words. But the way she said them, they sounded so sure. I wanted to believe.
Tane stood in front of the truck. The various Crows had scattered and affixed themselves to almost every surface left around us. A path was clear between myself and the car, but several hundred eyes stared at us.
The Morrigan sat shotgun next to me. Jay stretched across the middle seating. Boss lay across the back, contorting a bit to fit. After a moment of fussing, Tane fit in as well. The sky was filled with crows, birds flitting in and out. They’d see if anything was coming.
There was only one place left to go.
I turned the key and left the dead city behind.