The city of Atlanta stretched before me. Another re-purposed place for the after-party of America. Nothing more than pain spread drooling across bricks. Another stark reminder of… everything I hadn’t wanted to think about. Comparatively, Quen was a positive obstacle.
Quen stood proud, towering over the other birds, and stared down at our party.
Waiting for one of us to speak.
I took the ball. They wanted a Warden. I couldn’t give them that, but I could give them something other than sniveling coward Jess.
“Does that make you the Regent?” I asked. Prin shifted beside me.
“No, no, she’s a different Crow altogether,” Quen clarified. “In charge of more civilian matters, and in charge of myself. I lead in war, not… Do you have something to report, Prin? There are far more people here than I thought there would be.”
“We’ll need a cell prepped for a prisoner. And for an inquisitor,” Prin reported. “And we’ll need an audience with the Warden. I suspect she has much information that’d interest you and the Regent.”
Quen paused, then looked over at me. Eyes flicked over my… everything. Stained, smudged lab coat. The purple of many bruises. Delicate skin, scratches visible. What did he think of me, really? “Of course, the Warden… I had pictured you being taller. But nonetheless, I’m being impolite.”
“Impolite?” Prin asked.
His eyes then flicked over to me. I was more or less aware at this point that Crows could look however they wanted, but Quen’s short beak separated him from the legions of birds around him. “A warden, for instance, should be greeted by the War-leader,” He smiled slightly, and bowed his head. “What’s your name?”
“Jess,” I said, slightly quiet. I didn’t want to be a part of a power struggle.
There were now a few too many creatures around. There were most definitely too many of them staring at me. Would I ever get used to being mistaken for one of their holy warriors from the old world?
Since I knew I wasn’t what they were expecting, probably not.
“The Regent will speak to you first,” Quen said. “Then we can talk about whatever she deems is important enough for my ears.” A slight bow again.
I’m sure it was meant to be charming, his introduction, but he was a completely different species and I wasn’t even remotely warm blooded enough to bother with the anomalous races. Also, what was even charming to a Crow?
It hadn’t been too long since I’d been held captive. Since I’d had my wrists strained trying to fire at monsters, and since my ears had rang from distant lightning.
“And the Elder?” Morrigan asked, stepping out of the van. Eyes flickered over to her from the gathered guards. “Was the Regent too busy to meet me herself?”
“She was occupied with another matter,” Quen said. “I’ll give her your regards, Elder.”
The Elder stepped smoothly forward, ignoring the clean lines of separation between the scouts, the guards, and the city defenders. “I’ll give them to her myself, thank you.”
Prin clicked his beak next to me, flicking his eyes to me, then back to the War-leader. He sighed. “Shall I be debriefed in private, War-leader?”
Quen clicked back at him. “Report to the barracks for-”
It was around this time that the rest of the vans unloaded, and Jay slipped into view.
“You,” Quen blunted, the charm and charisma draining from his voice like a ruptured fuel tank. “I was fairly sure we told you to find some place to make yourself useful. Away. From. Here.”
“I did,” Jay said, smiling slightly. “It looks like you’ve had a good run of things, Quen.”
I gave Jay a look. Jay shrugged back at me, but his hesitance had disappeared. Instead… he looked. Annoyed. Amused.
“Don’t use my name, Outcast,” Quen said.
“But Quen,” Jay said. “We served together. Can’t I compliment you on rising through the ranks? Your glorious ascension?”
“I just gave you orders,” Quen retorted.
“I’m an outcast,” Jay replied. “I’m not in your hierarchy.”
Tane slid out of the van as well, and gestured for Boss to join her. I didn’t want to know how they’d react to her, if they reacted so poorly to Jay.
Quen clicked his beak angrily, and swept across to look at the guards. “Well? There’s an outcast at our border. Escort him out.” The guards hesitated.
I’d brought him after all, and he was in the same van as the Elder. Prin hesitated at my side. I took the advantage. Gently.
I touched Prin’s arm, and he looked down. “Actually…”
Prin quirked his head. “Yes?”
“He’s with me,” I said. “The Outcast is my guardian.”
Tane’s scouts walked over, and their various bodies surrounded the van. Here we were. The remnants of Prime-nest. The archivists, Lani and Teri, both of which had been targeted for their old world knowledge, stepped up as well.
I was glad they’d recovered enough for that; they’d both been forcefully scattered in the last week or two.
Quen’s beak snapped shut, and he stared back at me with… more than a bit more indignation. “You chose that bird, of everyone you could’ve possibly met, to protect you? That one in particular?”
“She is also in my protection,” Tane said, stepping in front of the van. A declaration.
I would’ve admitted most of the significance of this was lost to me, but I appreciated it nonetheless.
“Do you have… any other surpr-” Quen trailed, looking behind me. “By Zack, why the hell is that thing anywhere near my city borders!?”
Guns raised, pointed at Boss.
Boss rolled out of the van entirely, and without answering, stretched, popping her numerous joints and her back, before straightening to her full height, towering well over the rest of the guards. “Just try me,” Boss dared.
I shook my head at her, and she, without breaking the grin now stretching across her face, walked to my side.
Prin took full stock of her.
“A beast from the north,” Prin said. “Unorthodox, but… sturdy.”
“I didn’t ask for your opinion, Prin. Unorthodox?” Quen said, stepping forward. “That’s a monster! How can you forget what the hell creatures like her wrought?”
Boss quirked an eye, and gave him a toothy grin. “Is everyone here as loud as you are?”
“It’d displease me if you were anything less than welcoming to our guests,” The Elder said, stepping in front of Quen. She was slight and human like, a dancer, where he was bulky and defensive.
He took a step to the side to subvert her, and the elder followed. Quen couldn’t keep a glare on his face for long when the Elder was involved, and gave up on even trying after a few seconds of sustained looks from Morrigan.
“Guests,” Quen said, and he sighed. “Yes. Guests for my city. Despite your… strange proclivities, warden, our streets are, as always, open to you.” Quen turned away from the convoy, the vans, the variety of guards, and walked into the strange half forest. A strange imitation of Prime-nest, but larger. More intricate.
He noticed my drifting eyes as he turned, and he quirked another half smile. So much as a Crow could. Took a breath, watched his chest inflate. He held it, thinking for a moment. Then gave up pursuing whatever other thought he’d had.
“I’ll lead you to your quarters. And then, after debriefing, and a night’s rest from your trip, I suppose you can explore.”
Underneath the cover of the urban forest, I couldn’t get more than a few glances at Crow structures. Gleaming spires straddled ancient stone towers. Stained glass glistened through hollow buildings, coating the ground far below in nothing but the rainbow. History had blessed with place with the power of a new civilization.
It’d also destroyed the city I’d once known, apart from a few landmarks.
One of them just happened to be where I was staying.
The Atlanta Aquarium was the designated resting place for Wardens. The variety of animals inside had all died, whether by age or lack of specialty care, so the strange phenomena that had frozen the rates of decay did nothing to stop starvation. Their various structures had been cleared out, turned into rooms of various makes, models.
The Morrigan had left us, drifting out to explore the city proper. There was no point giving her an escort now.
In the city, there would be dozens of people willing to die for her.
Crows drifted past us, making sure everything was situated for the various rooms.
It took me a while to figure out what united those Crows, but I caught Jay looked at his com too often for me to dismiss it. “This is an Archivist home,” he said.
Quen didn’t acknowledge him until Tane repeated it.
Quen nodded. “This wing is your own, but the archivists were willing to help you move in. They have various rooms in this complex set to the side for experiments.
I could get behind it. My heart beat in my chest, but for once, it wasn’t from fright or horror. This was a place for me after all.
I wanted to scurry off and find the other Archivists, to see what they were working on, but I had to tour my own home first. Regrettably.
Pictures of old Warden structures. A library, here and there, made of salvaged books from vaults and lockers; places where the tides of time hadn’t touched, or perhaps, would never touch.
I caught Teri slipping away with Lani, hand in hand, discussing what they’d seen in my company. Their words disappeared before I could get much more than my own name.
So I turned my attention back to the other Crows following me.
Tane looked about, though I could see that she’d seen it before. Hadn’t been that long for her, in terms of time. Boss was prowling behind us, just far enough that it was hard to see her without stopping entirely.
Just enough to cover the area behind us at each exhibit. Her axe was on her back, tucked in place around a harness.
I could count on her to keep me alive.
I’d seen the aquarium alive before. It’d been beautiful then, too, filled with caged life like a petri dish zoo.
To see the rooms barren and evaporated, repaired, reused. A strange nostalgia, melancholy. Great works of artifice reclaimed by an alien hand. Even surrounded by new friends, it was… an experience.
“What do you call this place now?”
“This is Warden-nest,” Quen said. “Even before this was the Capital, it was a frequent destination for Wardens and other humans. A failed human reclamation took place in this city as well, some few thousand years ago.”
I looked at him. “Were you alive then?”
“I was only kindled a few hundred years ago,” Quen said. “But one of my kindler’s kindlers was alive then. I have a few vague memories of the ruins left behind by their wake.”
There’d be a USEC building somewhere in this city, if I could find it. See what’d been left behind.
I adjusted the lab coat on my shoulders.
And maybe get some more clothes. While the coat was a decent way for me to cling to my roots… it’d be nice to find something else.
“What took them?” I asked.
“Age,” Quen replied. Trailing behind us, the other Crows were silent. Mourning, perhaps.
Or just to let Quen talk. Jay stayed well out of the war-leaders sight.
“It’s strange to think how quick your lives run,” Quen said. “When we can just change out our parts when they wear out, our constituents flowing in an unbroken line, it’s… different for you.”
A stark reminder that there probably weren’t enough living humans left to fill a thimble of the world reclaimed, much less to restart human civilization. A wandering group of specialists, living out their natural life spans.
Generations would diminish over time. Viability declined.
Another reminder of my own mortality, and a world that had evolved past that. Prince’s nodule was heavy in my pocket.
Answers. I wanted answers.