Quen darted forward, Boss at his side. Where she moved, Quen followed.
“Have you ever lived like this before?” Boss laughed, her armor deflecting a spray of bullets with little metal pings. A heavy round dented her plate and she found the intermediate and slew them, tearing them apart in her bare hands.
Quen set down another charge on the ground and swung behind her, using the overburdened Beast for cover.
“Once,” Quen said. “I don’t like talking about it.”
“Talk,” Boss said. “We live as comrades here!”
Quen checked the explosives, counting off how many he had left. The King’s luck kept him safe, for now, but they were buying hours instead of getting anywhere.
“There were many battles before we darted back to the Capital,” The warleader said, dryly. “Believe it or not, but I had other names before I took power.”
“Like what?” Boss asked, turning the corner in the tunnels. A squadron of drones spotted her and she scythed through, bashing through their thin skulls and painting the walls in drooling waves of gore.
“Lightfoot,” Quen said. “On account of my mine work.”
Boss dove back into cover, a sniper’s fire pulverizing the wall behind them. “Glad I’m not working with an amateur.”
“Mm,” Quen said, shoving a handful of grenades into one of Boss’s paws. “You good at throwing?”
“Tell me more.” Boss demanded, glaring spitefully at the grenades. She still used them. They may be brutal and violent, but Boss had survived encounters with Fey on Fey combat before, and while she didn’t like the explosives, there was a difference between using a borrowed gun and using a borrowed grenade.
Downwind, the room exploded, shredding a mess of flesh. Ballistic armor wouldn’t do much against shrapnel from a grenade, unlike the heavy plate Boss wore.
“We were in Auburn.” Quen said, keeping himself flat against the wall. They listened for movement.
“They fey were stupider there,” Quen continued.
“As stupid as telling a story while battling?”
“I’m immortal, and you’re bulletproof,” Quen countered.
“But we’d been cut off by corpse burrowers- the bugs that create Hounds from beasts.”
“Ah,” Boss said.
“So we had to lay down a minefield behind our retreat to protect our base. Otherwise, we’d be stuck with guerilla tactics.”
“So?” Boss asked. She darted out of cover and ran down the hall, into a room where an intermediate sat, belly punctured in seven places.
The other half of him was strewn around the room. The bug stared at them with hate in its eyes before Boss pulped its brains in a single meaty paw.
“I ran afoul of a Queen’s guard. Pulped his entire group in one moment, passed out in the blast.”
Quen dropped the last of the charges behind him, as Boss punched out the window.
“Woke up with the King standing over top of me. He’d just been happy I’d made it out alive. He didn’t even care about the casualties. They don’t matter to the Fey.”
Then they left. Somewhere in the distance, over a hill the Fey had already claimed, peaked with fresh rubble, they heard the ruined subway station explode.
Quen and Boss turned to the line of Titans blocking their path, and then looked back at the spreading armies of the fey, hiding behind cover.
“If we don’t take out the guns, we’re going to lose air dominance,” Quen hissed.
“Then we take out the guns,” Boss reasoned. “Are you scared?”
“Scared of death?” Quen muttered. “I’m not scared of death.”
“Then you understand what we have to do, and that we’re the only ones out here,” Boss reasoned, looking down at her axe. “And you’re Lightfoot.”
“I’m not scared of death.” Quen repeated. “I’m scared of failing them. That’s what I’ve always been scared of.”
Boss paused, a stray shot slamming into their cover, a cloud of dust and rubble rising out of the dust.
“Scared not of dying, but not dying well,” Boss grinned. “I think I like you, Crow.”
“How much?” Quen asked. He scattered, poking up nine pairs of eyes out of cover to peer at the advancing flank of the army. The intermediates were marching, but if the last thing they did was report Bismarck was moving, it would be worth it.
She sat there, cold, bare, not even moving, while the hordes of hell marched through the opening.
“Not as much as Jess.” Boss watched his crows move. “Any breaks in their formation?”
“None yet,” Quen said, forming back together, feathers and bodies moving like quicksilver. “What do you see in Jess?”
“Jess is and will be like coal,” Boss said. “She will cut off her own arm to spite the enemy, she will burn like the brightest of flames to destroy her foes, and she shall call down the heavens and pull out the hearts of gods if only she believes she can.”
“You see all that in that slight form? She cowers at a gunshot.”
“She electrocuted herself to save me, and cut herself. She boiled her flesh to end an enemy that might’ve ended me, and she killed a Queen’s guard through thought and ingenuity alone,” Boss said. “She is the end that will come for the gods.”
“Daring,” Quen said. He pulled up his radio. “I don’t know what you see in her, but- after seeing you fight, I’ll believe in you this once about her. Perhaps the Warden has hidden depths.”
“Or you have a crush on her.”
“Bah,” Boss growled. “We’re pinned down, and that is what you’re thinking of? Pitiful flights of fancy?”
“We’re not pinned down,” Quen said, hefting the radio. “Because we might not own the sky, but we’ve still got friends up there.”
Boss cocked her head to the side.
“Dean, I need you to drop a predator behind their lines. Full payload.”
“I don’t have many more of those left,” Dean warned. “I don’t think we can-”
“We’re going to make a run for the guns, and we need the distraction,” Quen said. “Do you have the means or not?”
“Roger,” Dean growled. “If you lose this-”
“I am your Warleader,” Quen reminded. “I was elected to win your wars. Let me win this battle, for a start.”
“Drone coming your way.”
Quen turned and looked smug at Boss, her monolithic armor blocked out even a trace of her expression.
“It is nice that you’re not scared of me,” Boss noted. “The other birds are-”
“The other birds are afraid of the unknown,” Quen said. “I’m not afraid.”
Boss looked up at the heavens, the skies filled with so much blood that the clouds threatened to turn red. “What are you then?”
“I hate the unknown. I see the savagery of the beasts and I am disgusted, but I know what they are. I see the fey and I loathe them with every fiber of my being,” Quen paused. “And I hate them for it.”
“And what is a Beast?” Boss asked.
“A miserable pile of meat wanting to eat more meat,” Quen tsked.
“Aren’t Crows just piles of meat made out of smaller piles of meat?”
“And oftentimes, I hate them too,” Quen admitted. “Because I understand all the sides, I can see their motivations. I know not to hate the drones we kill, or the intermediates, for they have no minds and no wills. There’s one, maybe ten people in the whole of the Fey.”
“You know who to hate,” Boss muttered.
“We’re all meat,” Quen said. “The fey just have more meat. After this war is over, and the Crows rise from the ashes, who’s to say that the Beasts won’t pick fights with the Crows next?”
“I’m to say,” Boss rumbled.
“And you’ll defy the natural order of your kind, and deny them the right to feast on warriors?” Quen asked.
“You’re learned in my people,” Boss said. “We devour the honored dead.”
A pause, the roaring of a drone building. The flak fired up into the heavens, impacts.
“And the Crows?”
“Pathetic morsels,” Boss dismissed. “Not enough meat worth eating.”
Quen laughed, and then they both turned as the hiss and wail in the air grew louder and louder.. The predator struck the ground and detonated in a massive explosion.
“We love you too, Boss.”
And then they were on the move.
The carnage from the predator collision was intense, if localized. A segment of the beachhead lay in ruins, but with the Fey’s command structure being what it is, they were on their feet and moving in minutes.
Minutes was just enough time for Boss and Quen to rush across the courtyard, scrubbed clean of dead bodies but still reeking of fey blood and gore, and sidle up behind the flak guns. The drones were in disarray, their commanding forces occupied with fending off a reprisal of grenades and lobbed projectiles into the fire of the Crow drones crashing down.
The flak guns gleamed, polished, man made and reeking of polish and exact manufacture. It almost made Quen regret the satchel of explosives he was carrying.
It was rare to see something this well preserved, let alone a tool of war.
But the gun in his hand answered seven times, and five drones fell to the ground with blooms of red and green spurting from their chests. They hissed and wailed and screamed as the Queen’s mind left them to die, their claws scrabbling and reaching for them.
Boss grunted, and turned as Quen finished planting the last explosive, his satchel alarmingly empty, and they turned as one to stare at the other side of the field. Boss’s hackles raised and her fur puffed up until she looked even more swollen and dangerous than before.
“What’s going on?” Quen asked, seamlessly reloading the pistol before changing it out for one of the shotguns littering the floor.
Bismarck was staring directly at them. For the entirety of the last day, she’d settled her eyes straight ahead, unerringly in the direction of the aquarium, and now the many eyes were rested upon them.
The eyes narrowed.
She was pretty, in a bizarre way, in the same way that Jess was elegant and the same way Isaac had been noble, in that twisted part of his head that still wanted him to bow down and worship everything that had been warden, the same part that the King had systematically bashed into submission in exchange for loyalty to the throne. Her mouth opened once, and then she stretched, opening the hole in space and time ever wider. Behind her, the armies rallied.
Quen had been facing waves of troops, hiding and striking from cover, using his own tactics and experience, and Boss’s almost invulnerability to make up for the sheer numbers disadvantage.
But on the other side, what looked like the full weight of the Fey forces stretched out for miles, and Quen’s beak fell open.
“Congratulations,” Bismark spoke, perhaps for the first time since the battle had begun. “You’ve made me deploy my second in command.”
And her arms stretched out wider, wider enough that he could hear bone and sinew crackling, and then the hole spread from just her hands into the air, and it rippled and warped and tore until the hole was miles across.
Boss lifted Quen on her back, his light form squashed against heavy armor, and then she leapt ahead past the flak guns, and then even further until they were at the rows upon rows of Titan Beetles, their hissing carapaces warm from blasting and combat.
Then Boss leapt on top of one, and Quen emptied the rest of his explosives down onto the ground for a distraction, and she hurled the two of them past the lines and into the rubble fields.
Quen pulled the trigger and the flakguns exploded. But what was supposed to be a solid victory had turned bitter sweet.
He pulled out the radio once they were safe. As safe as they could be when the area was full of gunfire and crawling bugs and the sky was full of fire and the tunnels were full of bugs, but they were holding on for the moment. “Bismarck has deployed her second in command, whatever that means. I repeat, Bismarck has deployed her second in command.”
Boss stole the radio from Quen between two reinforced claws. “Her name is Trellis.”
“Trellis,” came Jess’s voice. “Trellis, she’s-”
Quen barked into the radio. “Tell us everything you know.”
“She can hypnotize people. Earplugs on, people, stick to your radios for navigation, and if you encounter her, flee as fast as you can,” Jess cut in.
Quen closed his eyes. Just what they needed.
“Boss, Quen, we need you to report back to headquarters, we have more areas for you two to reinforce.”
“Got it,” Quen said, and turned off the radio.
Boss growled, and let him down off of her back. A drone shot at her back, and was dead before she could finish turning around, Quen’s pistol just as true as the day he’d made it in the forge.
“No rest,” Quen said. “You up for that?”
“Legends aren’t written about warriors who break down after the first battle,” Boss grinned. “Besides. I have a Queen’s Guard to devour. She’s been deployed at last!”
Behind them, Bismarck turned, ignoring the chaos she’d carved into the heart of the defending birds, and walked away to let her army trickle through under another’s command.
She had a search to attend to.