I caught a nap at some point, but it was hard to focus for the noise of the guns from cameras, the distant typewriter noise of assault rifles, and the ever present screeching of the insects. Where the wasps were culled from the heavens half a dozen drones were falling, and where there were successes, there were doubled failures.
But all was going to plan.
That changed around the evening, as I rubbed sleep from my eyes and joined the conjoined brains of the crows, our Omoi’s syncing up again, and the alarms were blaring.
Tane called out a shot, and the roads erupted into a hellish panic.
Ancient asphalt cracked and split, and claws emerged. Then the rest of the Hounds arrived, their gleaming eyes dripping with power, their claws replaced with filed metal.
They weren’t quite as tall as Boss, but there was an entire pack of them, and they dove through the earth like fish, parting the ground without a second’s pause, moving less like flesh and more like water and I heard over the radio through the censorship of a dozen Omoi’s a Word, a Word of the Command-
And so they did.
The first defences were overwhelmed almost immediately, the gnashing claws of the Hounds catching several Crows off guard. Some escaped, scattering before they could be taken, but several were cut down before they could do much more than yelp.
Then they disappeared, shifting into the trees. The birds flew after them like darts, harassing the backline, but they found soil instead of road and burrowed into the earth, disappearing from view.
Quen called out over radio. “Anyone have eyes on where they’re going?”
“No idea,” an archivist chirped. Dean was frantically trying to keep control over the drone fleet while birds slumped out to take breaks. A few snored in the corner, roosting on any available surface, and his feathers puffed up with each word.
“Shit,” I said, after taking a second to think. “They’re coming for the subway system.”
Jay’s head snapped up and looked at me. “What? Why would they-”
His eyes flicked to the monitors, specifically the ones guarding the Seared Oak, and he shook his head. “They’d have access to every part of the city from there, the tunnels go everywhere. And then-”
My words froze in my mouth for a second, and then I shook my head. “They’re going to come for us.”
Jay growled. “You sure?”
“She’s a tactical genius. Who knows what she’s doing, but- can we take a chance of letting them get that far? Get me to a radio,” I said. Someone tossed me one, and I fumbled with it, looking it over, and swallowed. “They’re heading for the subway system. If the Inquisition can handle that…”
“That reduces the guards for us,” Dean cut in.
“Would you rather they had tactical advantage?” I cut back in. “We can’t be everywhere at once.”
And more importantly, the one thing keeping them from overwhelming us was in the subway, where the ruler of the city was frantically fighting back against what looked like a literal actual bulletproof fey.
If we lost that, then…
We’d be dead before dawn.
“Give the order,” The Inquisition said.
“Protect the Regent,” I barked. “She’s in the subway, preparing it for invasion.”
“I’m going with them,” Prin barked over the radio. “Guard, hold the streets, I’ll hold the tunnels myself!”
And then the guards around the aquarium lessened, and a hoard of white feathered birds moved from their position. I watched them fly overhead, punctuated by exchanges of fire with the wasps and the occasional clicking of the hounds. If anyone could deal with the Hounds… it was probably the Inquisition, no matter how little I liked their existence.
I breathed in, trying to catch my breath, and Jay squeezed my shoulder, stealing the radio back. “Hold the front line, we’re dealing with the runners.”
Spatters of gunfire. A few of the inquisition turned on cameras so we could keep an eye on things, and flashlights kept the tunnels lit up. I crossed my fingers, hoping, hoping that I wasn’t wrong. Prin stood there, finely painted feathers standing out from the waves of white birds.
The frontlines were reinforced, rebuilt, enough bombs thrown forward to clear the path, and a few of the younger bloods were put on defences with rifles reclaimed from the chaos.
And then, in the tunnels, they emerged, directly in the path of the waiting white feathers down stairs. They weren’t holding rifles, they were holding-
The Hounds were greeted by three dozen shotguns, and they shredded into pieces, hot lead piercing through their bodies. Those that weren’t instantly taken out fell to the ground, howling, gurgling, their ears bleeding and punctured.
The Inquisitors removed their ear protection. “Tunnel cleared.”
“Watch the bodies,” I warned. “They have bugs inside.”
The ear protection went back on, the birds shot the bodies a few more times. If only I’d had an entire squadron of trouble shooters back at the military base, it might’ve gone better for me and Boss and Teri.
The bodies gleamed with light. Omoi spattered out warnings. “Command tongue! Watch out!”
The radio crackled with the noise
The bodies turned to liquid and started to pour down hill. The inquisition took to the air, scattering en masse.
“What the hell is that?!” Jay hissed, staring at the once hounds. Now they moved with purpose, chasing after the trouble shooting squad.
“It’s not dead yet,” I muttered. “Or is it…?”
“We have blasphemy enhanced units on the perimeter,” Tane called out. “Count your shots, aim for their brains, we don’t need that nonsense here.”
I kept my eyes on the sewer, but thunder claps and DEVOURING LIGHT echoed from the other screens. Peals of thunder claps and lightning echoed out, devastating structures and defences. Buildings crumbled, collapsed, and fell to the ground.
It might’ve been a death knell against a normal army, but the Crows were… well, birds. They flew away from crumbling buildings and set up position on other places, moving their defences as they collapsed, bombing them back.
But each lost city block increased the set up for the Fey.
“Get to the Warden’s grave,” I hissed into the radio, watching the Inquisitor’s fleeing through the dim tunnels of the subway. “It’s designed to keep these things in and out.”
Then I thought quickly, watching the flesh move and bones and blood slosh about.
On the topside, Tane led her scouts through the rubble, taking shots to cover their retreat. She pulled her gun free off its mount and then dashed to the side, disassembling it into pieces. As another blast of lightning struck the side of the foundations, she scattered, her birds seizing the pieces and flying off with them, and then she landed on the next building. A bit higher ordinances, the bombs were bigger.
They hadn’t been on the first building because they didn’t want to blow apart their defences. Now that they’d been forced to move buildings…
“Bombing run!” Tane called out, then dove for cover as a wasp launched a fey drone, gleaming with sigils and intent towards her position. Before it could land, an archivist rotor took it out with a spatter of shots, pelting the roof in fey sludge. Tane swore, reassembled her rifle, and pointed it down wind.
Then took a shot right as a Titan Beetle opened up, golden letters just starting to roar through the air, and it exploded like a landmine, pelting the squirming twitching hoards of rubble with shrapnel. A flurry of intermediates died on the spot.
Tane looked behind her. Two thirds of her scouts were still in one piece. If another sixth had retreated…
Tane was going to have to put more names on the board by the end of this.
“They keep coming,” one of her scouts muttered. “They just keep coming.”
“It’s not in the queen’s best interest to run out of troops. They drones are cheap and easy to create.”
That, and Tane was starting to suspect that the Fey had spent the last few decades building up their troops rather than being in total disarray.
“So? We don’t have that luxury.”
“The drones are just as easy to kill,” Tane said. “Take out the Titan beetles, those are the ones they’ve got loaded with actual weapons. Leave the rest to the others.”
Tane flicked the spent shell out of her gun, checked her ear protection, and fired. Another beetle detonated a half mile away.
“And keep your head down,” Tane warned. “They need us suppressing them or else the city’s going to be overrun in hours.”
The scouts reset their rifles and joined her.
Tane just wished this wasn’t horribly familiar, like she was borrowing her kindler’s skills, distant as they were.
But they’d gotten the Regent through hell itself. They’d get Tane through as well.
A pause in the fighting, just a momentary lull, and Tane took her breath. The dozen birds that made up her gestalt filled their lungs with air in the metaphysical blurring of forms, and
Below them, the ground rumbled.
Tane launched herself to her feet, already turning to draw her pistol, and the first long tendril of flesh and pulped bone dove out of the downed building. She shot it down in a spray of her gun.
“BELOW!” She roared, and the scouts scrambled away from the advancing enemy line to deal with their own problems. Spatters of gunfire cut them down, a few picking up discarded Crow assault rifles, chambered in higher calibres.
Tane didn’t have the luxury, and when her pistol clicked free, she dove forward into the mass of the dead fey underlings and picked up one of their rifles- only for the rifle to move as she picked it up, an eye attached to a tendril bubbling free from the mass of tissue growing underneath her.
Tane didn’t pause for more than a second, and dug in with a knife, flicked open out of the multitool she kept at her chest, and then opened fire into the mass of the pile underneath of it. “PULL BACK!”
But the radio crackled. “Don’t let that thing near the other defences!” Dean barked from the other side. “We don’t know how to-”
“Fire,” Jess hissed from the other side. “Fire or ice, you need to kill the cells or drive them apart, I think I’ve seen this before somewhere-”
“Ice?” Tane hissed. “Ice-”
She turned off her end of the radio and opened fire as the entire building shook, shuddered, and then the remnants of the drones and children and intermediates and hounds rose atop their feet in a great lumbering mass of flesh and bones and neural tissue, opening up a mouth rimmed with eyes, and swung at them. Bullets whirred through it, sending sprays of tissue and pulping muscles, and a limb fell off, squirming and screeching from many different pockets but-
INUNDATE and the pieces stretched back together into a coherent husk
And the beast had no coherent form, and it ate into Tane’s eyes to see it like that.
“INCOMING!” Dean shouted.
A predator drone flew by, half on fire from nearby flak, and impaled itself into the great flesh. The creature devoured it, pulling it deep inside of itself, forced constricting and pulping the plastic construction.
“DOWN!” Tane shouted, and the scouts braced themselves. The predator drone exploded in a massive detonation, the payload vaporizing the creature in a spray of gore and shrapnel.
The impact scattered Tane, tossing her vision from binary into twelve disparate pieces, and her thoughts grew sluggish over distance until they locked back onto the radio falling onto the ground. She snagged it in a pair of talons, and the rest followed suit, grabbing weapons and bullets, and then she was joined by the rest of her scouts.
Across Tane’s many eyes she saw the battlefield manifold. Creatures roamed, searched for defences and pouncing upon them, the skies were blotted with chaos and destruction, and buildings fell under the assault. They weren’t losing.
They were losing, she had to admit it, if they couldn’t figure out countermeasures.
Tane’s crows landed on a building farther away and she dragged herself back into one piece, half stunned from the explosion. “This is Tane from the scouting front. Our buildings are overrun, and we’re seeking better positions. Does anyone have anything that might help against the… flesh things?”
“Get to the foundry,” an archivist spat into the radio. In the background, gunfire distorted the noise; their position was under attack. “We’ve got the main tower under control, but we need you to see if Teri got her prototype finished.”
Tane stared down at the radio, then slowly craned her neck up to look at the hell on earth that had come to the Capital. Lightning blasted at building foundations, wasps flew in, disintegrated as the hoards of pissed off birds returned fire, flesh monsters bubbled up, taking out by high explosives and scattered back into their core components, and somewhere, distant, a queen was watching them and learning.
Her fingers curled into her fist. She didn’t like this. It was a bit too much even for her, who had spent the last decade or so on the far flung lines guarding the Elder, but who was she to turn down a bit of extra responsibility?
Tane turned, watched her scouts land next to her, and tossed the weapons prepared on the building top to them. “You heard the radio. Let’s get to the foundry.”
“What about the frontline?” Her second in command asked, sourly.
“What frontline?” Tane gestured at the chaos of the destroyed buildings. “This is the frontline. If we don’t come up with a good enough solution, then-”
A tank beetle blasted a spray of lightning across the field, illuminating Tane from behind, and struck the mass of trees that made up the ground level cover. It exploded rather than bursting into flame.
“Then we lose.”
The scouts nodded, picking up shotguns and assault rifles. One still had managed to keep a long rifle with them, and Tane nodded gratefully at them. “Keep the tanks down, and fly off when the going gets rough.”
The Crow saluted, and then Tane flew off into the depths of hell, her squad flying in v before her feathers.
The wasps were attacking readily now, winning through sheer force of numbers, and the fey fell from the sky on ribbed wings and inflated lobes, drifting like pollen. As she flew by one, it hissed, and she punctured the lobe with a flick of her many talons across her many birds, and it plummeted, hitting the ground with a crack of breaking bones.
The skies over the aquarium, at least, were clear, though that had more to do with the flak turrets that’d been tossed up more than anything else, and also the strength of the Inquisition’s team work, even if they’d been split into two groups to try and deal with the threat.
Tane was forced to acknowledge that the Queen had been stupid last time, a great enormous mind capable of many great things, but stupid in the manner of tactics. She had simply had enough troops to walk in and take the Capital, and the Crows had bled her for it, but her tactics had nearly succeeded regardless.
Bismarck… Bismarck was going to blitz them down in under a week at this rate.
But they hadn’t started their counter attack yet-
Their counter attack was going to have to rely on Tane and her groups, and getting the prototypes deployed.
Tane turned the corner sharply, sharp enough that she could feel the heat rising off of the building her talons nearly skimmed across, and found the foundry under active attack. A tank beetle sat in the midst of a cloud of intermediates and lower ranks, and they were attempting to blast the reinforced doors opened.
Tane plummeted out of the sky, her many birds tossing the pieces of rifle up into the air, and by the time she hit the ground she snagged them out of the sky and clicked them together.
The intermediates were just turning around when the rest of the scouts were assembled, and Tane opened fire. Bone pulped itself as the intermediates fell and then-
A stray round from the turning children caught her across the leg. Her form rippled, and she staggered forward, finishing the rest of the rounds in her magazine, and then she toppled over to the ground. The many birds that made her up were scared, and she slid past them to find the one injured. It stared up at her with pathetic little eyes, a trace of herself subsumed in the mass of bird brain and squabbling flesh.
Gingerly, she pet the little creature, knowing the scouts were mopping up most of the straggling attackers, and cooed softly down at it.
It let out a sad caw. It had been a part of her long enough to understand what it meant to take a hit like this, even if it was her.
But it remembered what it was like before, a flicker of dry nests and caretakers. Tane whispered down to it, and her memories flowed back into her hole, bright happy moments, and bare shivering cold moments, where the world wasn’t bright or happy enough for her to keep standing back up, and then she held it in the palm of her hand.
The bird’s most precious memory of being her unspooled freely, and she saw herself, standing at the edge of a great chasm, hunting, free, rifle in her hands, without a command on the wind or a moment of reprisal.
She enjoyed that memory too. The bird cawed once, and then hopped up into her hand. She held it aloft.
The injured bird, bleeding, flapped once, and flew off to find its own death. She didn’t begrudge it.
Tane breathed evenly, the wound in her leg vanishing with the stray bird, and turned to face the cannon beetle. It blasted out a note of the command tongue, and she growled, glaring at it. “Anyone got a long rifle?”
Nobody had any; it was a bit of a pain to drag it along, enough that only Tane bothered with it most of the time, and they’d left the other behind to harass the enemy infrastructure.
She clicked her beak and scowled. “Fine, we’ll have to do this the hard way. Get me the grenades.”