Less than a month ago by my timeline, I’d been a physicist working for the United States Extranormal Containment agency, Georgia branch.
The world had been covered in humans unaware of how close they were to death, whether it came from the presence of the great elder pantheon looking down upon the petri dish of Earth, or their influence upon the world, or man made horrors created from twisted knowledge.
Then it ended.
Five thousand years later, I’d made it out, and a couple other, newer, grimmer hells, and now I sat in a battered van, wheels thumping along a road that should’ve been long since rotten and destroyed if the world had made any sense at all with a behemoth of a beast in the back named Boss, and two crow-gestalts named Tane and Jay, though Jay didn’t really have a name.
In the center of the car was a bag full of crows, which had mercifully been silent for most of the trip.
Beside me sat the First Crow, an elegant creature named Morrigan, who favored a form that would’ve resembled a human if it weren’t for the feathers across her dusky skin, or the way her face vanished into a beak. She was the creator of all other Crows, in so much as her gestalt had created other gestalts that’d kindled other gestalts.
Other vehicles joined us, filled with other artifacts of cities evacuated; Nests, detritus. A thousand machines storing information and data.
The sky was filled with crows, loosely weaved gestalts governing their positions. Crows could scatter into their various pieces when threatened, or simple to get from point to point faster, since their humanoid forms couldn’t fly.
Most Crows could scatter. Jay couldn’t. Among the hundreds of fluttering birds, and the Beast in the back who could regenerate from wounds, Jay and I stood as the only true mortals. Which had just been tested, given that I was still covered in scratches, wounds, bruises. A burn lancing across my foot still ached under the spare shoes I’d stolen from storage. A hole cut in my head, bandaged.
But we were alive, and I had friends, and for a brief moment, everything felt utterly safe.
“Try the radio,” Jay suggested.
“We’re that close?” Tane asked. “Don’t we have another hour?”
“Try it anyway,” Jay said.
My eyes flicked off of the endless road in front of me, and over to the radio. “This works?”
“Of course,” Jay said.
I clicked it on. Static hissed and crackled like popcorn, and Morrigan lightly squeezes the knob, turning the station.
Then distantly, I could hear music playing through the speakers, under the mess of static. It sounded a bit like old rock music, but with a few too many string instruments. And they weren’t tuned to the chords I knew.
The signal was only getting stronger though. A slight smile touched my face. Holy shit. Crow music. The social scientists would’ve been drooling.
“So it does,” I said.
“How long has it been since any of you were at the Capital?” Morrigan asked, turning to look over the three free occupants.
Irri, the bag of bound crows filled with her mind, remained quiet.
“Too long,” Jay said. “Decades.” As an outcast, Jay had been chased off from most cities. Only the Elder had been willing to entertain his presence.
“Only five years,” Tane said, and Jay looked over at her.
“Right, you were trained there, weren’t you?”
Boss, the beast at the back, opened up a single massive eye and flicked it around, before stretching out. There was just barely enough room across the back three seats for her if she curled up into a ball. Thankfully, I didn’t need the rear view mirrors. “What is that racket?” Her armor was stretches across the roof, though her axe was tucked securely in the trunk where hopefully it couldn’t hurt anyone. The guns, thankfully, had been taken apart, except for the pistol that I’d refused to give up.
There was safety there.
“Music,” I said. The radio strengthened still. They weren’t human voices, but they were singing, and there was guitars, and there was a drum, so what the hell why not, it was great to hear something that wasn’t canned orchestral.
“I was,” Tane replied to Jay. “It’s… well, it’s a far sight prettier to look at than Prime-nest, and certainly better than Forge-nest.”
We’d just destroyed Forge-nest. Without the mayor of the place, and given the history of the Fey dragging away innocent Crows, the capital had deemed that resources expended too great for too little return.
So they’d fragged the buildings with thermite and went on their way. So that the Fey couldn’t get anything out of it. The very same Fey who had put me through a series of brutal tests to see if I was worthy of joining them.
They were a race of suspiciously human like bugs, ruled by a series of suspiciously insect like humans, though I’d only found that out when I’d killed the leader of the base that’d stolen me while defending myself.
Of everything that had happened so far, that was the worst. The Crows more or less worshiped the Wardens, those few humans who had worked for USEC, the American agency responsible for tracking down anomalies. How would they react when they found their most dangerous enemy was ruled by the very creatures they exalted?
Teri had been there. Boss had been there. Boss didn’t care, so why would she tell?
And Teri, she’d been at my side. She knew that I wasn’t evil. She’d promised, in the middle of getting everything together, that she wouldn’t speak either.
It… was a burden. A heavy weight.
That same weight in the pocket of my lab coat drew my attention again. Two Omoi Nodes. The last gasp of the old world; pocket computers implanted into the head; using radio and electric signals to communicate with brains.
Prince had used his to try and hijack my brain, after tearing out my Omoi. It hadn’t ended well for either of us, but it’d ended with him getting a few extra holes in his head after he’d decided to put one in mine.
It still ached, behind my eyes where the Omoi was supposed to go, but the wound had healed and only occasionally leaked. My thoughts were still scattered without the AI assistant, but I was adapting. If I just found a technician… we could put mine back into my head.
And crack the other one for information.
But the Capital, the very city we were riding towards, held the best of Crow civilization. Medical. Science. The tools I needed to be properly healed, and the tools I’d need to access the nodules in my pocket. The information that could change… well, everything.
It all rested in the Capital.
“Nothing can look better than Prime-nest,” Jay said. “The trees, the forest… the shrines…”
Morrigan gently shook her head. “What’s important is that we got out of there alive,” The Elder clicked her beak dryly. “Don’t worry about what we left behind.”
“We left behind thousands of years of history,” Jay protested. “The Fey have gotten to desecrate one of our holy sites, just because…” he clicked his beak and sighed.
The Capital had refused to send guards to defend Prime-nest, but they’d been more than willing to send guards to escort us to the city itself. It was an insult, if I’d ever seen one. The Capital was Atlanta, by the maps I’d been given.
What better city for the Kind-Lord to smile upon, or the Watcher to view with distaste?
Were the old gods still watching us, watching this curious ant colony struggle to survive?
I hoped not.
I turned up the radio and both Crows went silent. “We made it,” I said.
Tane leaned back in the thin chair, not willing to challenge Jay again.
Boss whined, closing her eyes again. The van was hardly a place for a murder beast of her proportions, but it moved far faster than she could over long distances. And she was following me, because I’m promised her greater prey to hunt.
It was selfish to keep these people around me, but…
I was terrified I’d wake up in a cell again.
Get told to kill. Only to find out I couldn’t do it this time. Or maybe I’d just give up.
My knuckles went white, squeezing the wheel, and the pain of my wrist from clinging to Boss’s fur jostled me out of that memory.
“There,” The Elder said, pointing at the horizon.
A forest. A great, mighty, bountiful forest. Trees sprouted out of destroyed streets, concrete reduced to barely visible under rotting foliage. The buildings, however, were intact.
They towered over everything else, skyscrapers and buildings, with a single exception. The tops polished and gleaming, sealed steel and repurposed rebar. Nests. In the distance, large as a skyscraper, a massive tree sat entwined with several buildings. No leaves. Just a skeletal frame.
And the radio welcomed us to the City for Hunters with a heavy guitar riff, and some heavy weight slid off of my chest. The stronghold of resistance against the Fey. Was there anything else I could want in a place to hide?
But maybe I didn’t want to hide. Prince had told me that I’d been apart of something big in the old world. Before Trellis, another Queen’s Guard, that caste made of humans, had forseen his death.
Half of my knowledge had been taken by a coworker, since his had been destroyed in the intervening years. If there was anyone who’d know about a Warden at large, and where that knowledge would be, they too would be at the Capital.
A place to hide. A place for answers.
A place to protect the Elder, who carried those destructive First Memories, who bore the burden of the first Failure of Crow-kind.
A place for Tane to find a way to forgive herself for letting me be captured.
A place for Jay to find his absolution.
A place for Boss to find her prey.
And maybe a place where I could feel like Jess again, instead of the new world survivor. There was a great mystery out there to solve.
And maybe I was, after all, just the old-world scientist to do it.
Atlanta, more than any other city I’d been in thus far, was the most intact. Towering buildings, rising columns of old world ingenuity and avarice, and gleaming radio spires. Tane’s talons clicked against the upholstery.
“Security checkpoint coming up,” she warned.
Boss grinned, showing off her long teeth. “I can’t wait to see what they think of me,” she purred.
Like a dog might, not like a cat might.
The road terminated under cover of the forest, but this close, it was easy to see that the trees were all young. Only a few decades old
And at that, a swarm of birds dropped out of the sky in front of the van, landing among the makeshift forest, and I pulled the brakes long before I even came close to the trees.
Then the guards of our convoy descended from the sky. They landed on every available surface, clustered together. Many different timbres and notes of various bird noises, and then they formed into the elegant gold painted beaks of the Capital Guard.
Then, in an almost separate clump, Tane’s scouts fell from the sky and took up residence. There were subtle difference between the three. The city guards were marked with red on their beaks, the guards that were escorting us were adorned with gold, and the scouts favored green (though I hadn’t seen it on their beaks before; their malleable forms allowed them to do about anything they wanted to their bodies).
After a moment, the guards from the city formed up as well, dropping out of the trees and landed as Crows.
I stepped out of the van, and behind us, various other vans opened up.
The guard captain landed in front of me and nodded at the guards in front of him. “Third guard company reporting in.”
“Prin,” spoke the largest of the city’s border, if I was reading the ornate paint on his beak correctly. Clipped, short, bright reds and golds and a hint of blue. “You’re later than expected.”
Prin, the guard captain, bowed his head slightly.
“And you brought quite a bit more than we were expecting, as well,” The crow spoke.
“Quen,” Prin looked up from his bow. “I was expecting someone else to come and debrief me. Is anything wrong?”
The Crow, larger, towering over the others by head, shook his head. “No, Prin. It was decided that I’d be the one to debrief you after all. Welcome to the city, Warden. I am Quen; The War-Leader.”