Getting the Omoi installed was the easiest part of the process. An anesthesiologist was procured from the ranks of the Crows of Swan House (a previous variant of their techniques involved knocking out their patient, and they had the whole of medical knowledge from dozens of hospitals to figure out my anatomy) and I slipped under.
It was the most restful sleep I’d had in weeks.
Halfway through it, Omoi chirped, electromagnetic signal dipping into and synchronizing with the neural impulses of my brain. Images ran across the insides of my eyelids, patterns run, equations teased out, anomalies sketched out of what I’d seen.
By the time I was fully awake, she was back in my thoughts, nestled in with all the weight of the world at my fingertips. No longer alone in my own head.
Then Omoi screeched and started running through my thoughts again and again, flashing images of Prince. Watcher-anomaly; files retroactively gathered and organized. Crows given new classification; Inquiry-anomaly, Kind-Lord-anomaly, stats flew up, trains of thoughts were put back on their rails. A map buzzed behind my eyes, fluttering my eyelids.
Atlanta was noise. Walls of old messages still littered server banks kept anomalously active. Begging for someone to help. Pleading for someone to save them. Advertisements were still being generated from randomizers, plying at my travel history and conversational records, though the wider network was down.
Distant, I felt the buzz of the archivists in their home, signal reflected and received from extant towers and various structures erected by the birds. The verdant expanse rang with radio signals. Omoi identified them one by one and played a sample of it.
Speeches, poems, audio dramas, the hint of a Crow culture forming at last. It was beautiful, seeing it stream across my eyes like wildfire. Seeing icons dance like sugar plum fairies and race across every inch of the operating room like wild insects, buzzing.
I flicked it off the most of the signals and sat there in the quiet, visual artifacts still dancing across my vision.
I’d had an Omoi for over a decade.
This was the first time in more than five years that I’d felt uncomfortable seeing the scatter blast of lights and noises. In the back of my head, Omoi whirred, fixing and affixing memories back into place; improving my operating logic with smooth consistencies.
I could almost taste the sigils and god-tongue embedded in the device, keeping me safe from being consumed by the world.
I breathed in. Held it, felt my lungs burn after a moment, and breathed out. Quiet. Elegant, cold, logical. Quiet.
And bizarrely, I found myself crying. Just saline from my eyes, running furrows down my face. Cortisol and other chemicals bundled up together, stress hormones activated and playing across my neurons.
It wasn’t going to be okay. Not if I didn’t try to make it okay.
So I’d make it okay.
Another breath in, held until my ribs ached and I felt like I’d been punched again, another failed gym class spiralling up from the back of my head to play across the back of my mind’s eye, and then I let it back out.
I had the Warden’s gift again; a fully functioning Omoi. I was surrounded by Crows, who had managed to put together a makeshift civilization with all the positives and benefits I’d had back home, minus decent roads. They were living breathing creatures. They needed me here.
Omoi flittered about, running more diagnostics. Even with my eyes closed I could see the lights where bones had been cracked, pressure had twisted muscles, and infection chances increased as white blood cells poured in to deal with invaders.
Breath in. Breath out. They needed me in one piece. My world was dead, but…
The Fey were my co-workers. They were going to try and do something utterly impossible. Stupid.
Nothing could be done for humanity if the Kind Lord was dead. If they thought they’d fix it by killing whatever life had eeked out an existence in the world the gods had left behind in favor of more exotic lands, they were wrong.
Maybe I’d been wrong.
Breath in. Breath out. Get used to the feeling of digital hands guiding thoughts about, easing over irrationalities.
Maybe it could ease over my torment as well.
Ten years in, and it felt like the first time. I’d gotten used to the easy feel of adrenaline and anxiety, the casual terror that kept everything distant, kept everything brutal.
Taste the air. Feel it flutter in your lungs. War’s coming.
I managed to fall into something like sleep, but the feel of the mechanical centipede knitting my thoughts together kept me out of dreams.
I felt like I could hear the Kind Lord’s voice again, a booming drone of crackling astral static blessing the planet with omnipotent noise. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
Hell of a thing to get into, Jess.
Hell of a thing.
“She’ll wake up soon, right?” Jay muttered.
“Dean said it wouldn’t be much longer. The Elder wants her awake for the announcement.” Tane replied.
I flicked my eyes open. Omoi chirped a greeting. I muted her. Boss stood in front of the window, her eyes gleaming deep set in her skull. Her grin grew wider when she saw the whites of my eyes. “Rise and shine.”
Tane stood behind her, staring out towards the Seared Oak, watching the sun’s light flicker across the polished ashen branches. Jay sat at the foot of the bed.
Omoi chirped out warnings about various anomalies, Kind-Lord, Watcher, who knows what else, threatened to censor Boss’s image for potential dangers, but at this point, if Boss was going to kill me through exposure, I was already dead. I shut off the blocks with a few flicks of my eyes.
“It’ll start soon,” Tane remarked.
“The Regent’s making an announcement?” I guessed. I knew full well what it would be. Didn’t know the whole of it, however.
“About time,” Boss said, shifting out of the window’s light. “Was starting to get bored hunting bulls.”
“The city’s grateful for that,” Tane said. “Ugh… I just got my scouts integrated. Guess I should’ve been slower.”
Jay flicked his head over to look at her. “Having seconds thoughts?”
“No,” Tane said. “I’d just prefer to still be in control of troop movements… my troop movements.”
Slowly, groggily, and hearing the protest of new sensors intercepting signals from my nerves and spitting out diagnostic feeds (I was low on potassium, very low) I pushed myself up to a sitting position, then slid out onto the floor.
“How’s the node?” Jay asked.
“Loud,” I said. “Very loud.”
I inched my way over to the window and peered outside. There were many crows now. They moved and fluttered about the sky. Crows in humanoid forms were starting to line the streets. The Elder was among their number.
I bit my lip.
Usec had been involved in a few. Most kept under wraps. The war against the Watcher… well…
I hadn’t fought there.
In this war, what was I supposed to do?
The radio was filled with songs, poems, speeches. One spoke in a baritone that I’d never heard among the Crows.
The city already knew what this was about. Word spread down through the inquisition, spread down from Quen.
“It’s in this time that we all must come together,” The voice said, low, flat, melodic. “We must all join as one flock, lest they pick apart the individual birds. It’s time-”
I took a breath, flicked off the radio. They hadn’t bothered taking off my clothes, so I didn’t have to worry about modesty (what point was there to modesty anymore? What point was there to pretending I had anything to worry about, surrounded by- it didn’t matter, human irrationalities.).
“Shall we?” I asked.
Boss tilted her head forward. “I told the Regent what I knew of their patterns.” She grinned. “They all serve a Bismarck. There were more of them, but the Crows picked off half the Queen’s Guards in the war.”
“How many bugs are we looking at?” I asked, closing my eyes.
“Enough to make the other swarms think twice,” Boss reported. “Perhaps a fifth of the remaining fey.”
“Just a fifth?” Tane asked. “What about the rest?”
“The Fey lands are very big,” Boss pointed out. “Without their Queen, there’s a lot of land to fight over.”
I closed my eyes.
“So their numbers aren’t limitless this time,” Jay said. “This’ll be easy.”
“They’re smarter,” I said, automatically. “They’ve been infiltrating the Crows for who knows how long. They’ve been communicating using the radios, and they’re likely to have plenty of equipment to muster against us.”
“A challenge,” Boss said. “You led me where I wanted to go after all.”
“Save it for tactics,” Tane said, clicking her beak. “We’ve got enemy movements to consider, and information from three different departments to comb over; let’s have this conversation at a more productive time.”
“We’re all going to be in tactics?”
“Boss is a source of information and tips on hunting,” Tane listed. “You’re involved, because obviously you’re involved, the role of Warden is, well. Jay’s involved because he’s your guardian, and-” Tane’s eyes flicked over to Jay. “You’re a trained soldier who is one of the sole survivors of an invasion force into the Fey. I’ll be calling on you as a witness.”
I started towards the door, and they followed after. Boss shut it behind me.
Dean smiled at me as I passed him in the swan house. The birds were making their noises in the treatment chambers, Boss’s ears twitched with each noise.
“Operation successful?” I asked.
“Operation successful.” His eyes flicked to the node in my head. “Pleased to have you back, Omoi.”
I had her muted, so she didn’t reply.
By the time we got out of the building, even the white medical crows were joining the throng of birds. A few thousand crowded through the graveyard of beasts. More were flying in the air, perched on buildings.
It was absolutely nothing compared to how many humans had lived here once, but it was close enough to it that I felt nostalgic.
I couldn’t see Quen either.
The Regent opened up the window at the base of the tree. We swung forward through the crowd, Crows parting in our wake. I could see the twinkle of Omoi systems embedded in the archivists, the mixed bands of white feathers from the Regent’s own, the smear of paint across beaks to demarcate what guard group they were apart of. Even against black feathers, there was a rainbow of responsibilities and professions.
The Regent stepped out onto a thin narrow platform at the base of the window. She stood some six stories in the air, with her throne room just faintly visible behind her. Distant, refined.
She’d lie to keep us all safe. She’d kill to keep us all safe.
Here was the first real leader of the Crows. She’d do her best to make sure she wasn’t the last.
Across her shoulders a purple cape stretched. Recently woven, embedded with symbols of the Crow people. Images of humans long past. Images of the moon. A crown. It fluttered in the wind behind her.
She held up a hand. The other clutched a microphone.
The Crows weren’t particularly loud before. It was obvious what this announcement was going to be. They’d always known that war wasn’t far away. They’d just hated thinking about the day it would come.
She waited, hearing the last few keen cries of the birds flying overhead.
“It is time,” She started. Her voice came from speakers around the crowd, as even the Regent wouldn’t bother hurting herself to scream to the birds. “To admit something we have deluded ourselves into avoiding.”
Silence now. I flicked my eyes around. I wasn’t part of the crowd. Where was the Morrigan?
I caught sight of the Crows from forge-nest. They looked sullen, depleted after having the traitors scythed out of their ranks.
I caught sight of the guards that’d saved me, and Prin, standing at the forefront of them. Tane should be with her scouts.
“We are at war.” The Regent bowed. “We have given ourselves an armistice for mourning, a pause so we could collect ourselves, and in our sorrow, in our hesitance, in our fear and illness, we let it drag on for far too long.”
“You know the enemy,” The Regent said. “It rests in your nightmares. It hovers in mine. Clicking teeth and the scratch of chitin against itself. Tongues too long and laughing jaws. Voices like thunder and ozone. When I close my eyes, I still see the last war. I fought in the campaigns,” The Regent continued. “I know the ills it brought us. The scratches in our immortality, the wounds in our memory. The names of the wall beneath of me.”
“We are at war,” The Regent said again. “It’s time to remember what that means. I know there are many of you who do not want to remember the reign of the Fey Queen, the long arms, the reach that destroyed our settlements clear into Mexico, sweeping through archivist dens and loners alike. There are many of you who swore off conflict when the Queen was confirmed dead. I promised you then that there would be an end to the war.”
A few murmurs from the crowd. Their feathers moved about in the slight wind. They knew what was going to be asked from them.
“I was wrong.” The Regent turned and walked inside. Silence. A younger Crow let out a questioning Caw, and the caretakers gently shushed the child.
She walked back out with a tablet.
“Forge-nest. Lopi. Noli. Brek. Matt. Earl.” Her beak clicked. “Confirmed taken and killed by the Fey for experimental purposes. They were not successful in their ventures. For them the war never ended.”
A gutteral grinding noise. The Regent continued like northing was happened.
“Bay-nest. Flit. Nort. Ness. Taken in their sleep and dragged away. They were not successful in their ventures. For them the war never ended.”
The noise continued.
The list of names continued on and on. Abruptly, I realized I knew where Quen was, and flicked my eyes down to the wall of names. He was etching them in.
The Regent said another name. His chisel dug in. It echoed like a rasping laugh across the crowd. The grim reaper sharpening his blade.
The Watcher’s bones grinding together.
“It is time for the rest of us to come to terms with the fact we left a job unfinished.” The Regent said. “We have come into possession of information of great importance which demands we act now. The Fey are looking for a weapon strong enough to grant their master the Extinction he craves; and we are aware that they will sweep, salt, and scour the area for it. Every Crow that lives here will be killed. Every living creature will be devoured under the horde.”
“We have always been in the business of protecting the world from the monsters and aberrations that cover it,” The Regent said, her voice softer, though no less harsh from the crackle of the speakers. “It’s time we conducted one last raid to put the Fey where they belong; another unmarked grave. For our sakes, if not the sakes of religion or happenstance, or duty.”
A pause. Her voice echoed off of bare buildings.
“Or we will find ourselves in a pit in the ground instead.”
The Regent’s eyes closed. A moment formed. My heart thumped in my chest. This was what it looked like.
This was what it looked like when a war reignited.
“The Morrigan is available if you wish to talk to her.” The Regent gestured at one of the buildings. “Veterans, report to your barracks. Take whatever you need with you. For those who have not been involved before… we will find you. This is a heavy burden, I understand. We’ll carry it together.”
“If there were another way, I would’ve taken it. Damn the consequences.” A pause. The speech was clearly over now, and all that was left was the bird standing over top of everyone else.
“For the greater good.”
The Regent bowed, her robe flickering in the wind that blessed the Seared Oak’s face, and then she walked back into her throne room, shutting the glass behind her.