Teri watched the warden pace the length of the command center, a few Crows staring at her, concern reflected in their black eyes.
“Are you alright?” Teri asked, before anyone else could.
“No,” She cut in. Her thin shoulders were shaking with nervous tension. Beads of sweat ran down her skin, though, admittedly, the command center was boiling hot despite the dozen fans pointed about; the computers were all running hot. “Boss was taken out by Queen’s Guards last time,” she said. “I don’t want to know how resistant the lot of you are to Trellis’s tongue.”
Teri clicked her beak and closed her eyes.
Jess had taken out the last one, but it was impossible to deploy her. She was a civilian practically as useless as a newly kindled bird. She was good at physics, not anything worthwhile.
But the other Crows were all staring at the Warden like she’d have a solution at any second, and Teri could see how it was eating at her. She reached out with her omoi and queried Jess for a conversation.
The warden shut her down, her eyes flicking over to her, and she shook her head.
Dean clicked his beak. “I… might have a solution. It’ll be painful to put together, but I have something we could use…”
Teri turned and looked at Dean. “What do you have?”
“I studied Jess’s reports on the Queen’s guards last time, and I managed to isolate the frequency they communicate on.”
Jess turned and squinted at Dean. “The frequency they communicate on? We can disrupt the fey?”
“Or at least stop them from getting their commands. Just one problem; it disrupts me as well,” Dean said. “So I haven’t been able to do much testing.”
Jess’s eyes lit up. “You’ve been studying how they communicate! That’s what the networks were on?”
“As a side project to my side project,” Dean said. “But like I said, its similar to ours. The Crow mind must run off of a similar force to what the fey are using to communicate. Every time I’ve turned it on, I’ve scattered myself for hours.”
“The Watcher, or one of the others…” Jess muttered, and started pacing again. “So we can-” Her Omoi pinged the area, and Crows turned and glared at her sourly.
Jess flicked her eyes over to Teri, and then specifically at her Omoi. “I can probably jam their communications. Can you get that signal out before Trellis finishes setting up? If we disrupt her, we might be able to swing this battle. Or at least, stop her from winning it instantly.”
“What exactly can Trellis do?” Teri cut in, before she replied to Jess, she had to know. Prince had been able to convince her to throw down her weapon after just a few words, though the Warden had been more resistant to that.
“She very nearly converted me to their side the first time we met, if not for Omoi-”
Jess’s mind slammed against Teri’s own, as their Omoi connected. Jess pushed upgrade code through the comm channel, half hacked together, half professional, and Teri’s eyes watered. Her form wavered under the strain, the Omoi turning hot under her feathers, and she shook.
“-I might be on their side as a brainless puppet. She’ll be working on taking our side, converting anyone she comes across.”
The code finished downloading into Teri’s head, and her eyes were wide, staring at Jess. That wasn’t- That wasn’t fair! They couldn’t just-
But they could, because Teri knew that the fey were similarly dominated. Trellis had just figured out how to expand it to other species.
The warden leaned in, squinting at Teri. “Do you think you can run that?”
Teri read through the code, frantic, still half eyeing the flow of the battle and how nearly close they were to losing it.
“Not… not without assistance,” Teri said. “The Crow-mois are too- we’ve made them ignore too much already, so if we make them run this, it’ll disrupt us-”
“I’ll stay connected,” Jess said. “Keep the network going through the city, and I’ll stay with you, alright?”
Dean nodded. “Only one issue; the fey are already targeting our infrastructure, looking to blind our cameras. So we need a team to get behind the lines, find a tower that’s still working, and keep it that way.”
Teri closed her eyes, mind still buzzing with extra programming running through her node. Some of the processes weren’t offloading correctly into the Omoi’s separate systems, and her neural tissue chugged with the extra lines of command. The node’s protections hissed from being in the mind of a heathen organism, but Teri was centered, noble and true.
Her eyes snapped open. “Well. Looks like it’s time for me to pay you back, Warden.”
Jess nodded once, her mind lingering in the node’s shared space. “We’re splitting the guards even further.”
“We need a team of Omoi powered Crows for this,” she said, turning to look at Dean. “Any archivists not busy?”
A few of the mine teams poked their heads up, and a few of the Crows who weren’t using any drones (they’d been shot to pieces or sacrificed) volunteered. They might not want to be there, but…
There wasn’t any place to go, and the Fey weren’t interested in taking prisoners.
“This won’t… hurt,” Jess asked, looking over at Dean. “Running this software, right?”
“I’ve got a system set up to handle it. It’ll stream it to servers I’ve got set up, the same place we store our information, and they’ll handle the majority of the work- We just need an intact human placed Omoi for it.”
“That’s me,” Jess said.
“Might give you a migraine, having your attention split in so many places-”
“Omoi won’t censor anything I’m not paying attention to,” Jess said. “Got it. Just feed me painkiller until I puke, alright?”
Teri saluted, and the other Crows saluted, and then she swept off to the side to grab her equipment. The warden looked positively ill, watching the Crows move out.
Teri felt for her, she really did, but there was no way in hell that they were letting the Warden outside. That was a lose condition for the entire battle.
Light armor, tools, wires, and all the equipment they could carry, and Teri scattered herself into a dozen birds and then the lot of them took to the sky as a flock. The sky was on fire, the world was screaming and-
In the distance, she could see the whole of the fey army streaming in.
Her heart fell out of her stomach and onto the floor, a beating throbbing mess.
But she didn’t need a heart to fly. She had a brain, a few last hopes, and a dozen pairs of eyes, angry needy. They’re pluck out the viscera of the invading army and see it broken.
And across the field, Bismarck had left the army entirely. That was the greatest hope.
It was up to the Crows to handle this.
Prin scattered to avoid debris and rubble kicked down from the explosions above, and darted into tighter and tighter formations to weave through cracks and crannies in the path ahead. Behind him, the inquisitors followed, their feathers one of the few coherent things he could see in the darkness apart from the light kicked up from the flashlight of the gun he was carrying in his talons.
Beneath, flesh melted and lapped like hot cream, frothing and bubbling in heated muck. Occasionally, an inquisitor would drop a flare to mark their path and it would rarely strike the mass they were leading, but when it did, when the magnesium hissed across living controlled molten flesh, the sight and sound stuck in Prin’s head just as well as the old Capital burning had twenty years ago.
But this time, Prin was in charge, and this failure would be on him.
Despite the edging pain in his wings, or the trail of stagnant air beneath his feathers, he couldn’t be the reason they failed. Not this time. So he flew faster, and provided the light for the other birds to follow.
Below, the bubbling muck of flesh that had once been Beasts (though Prin knew full well that anything taken by corpser beetles couldn’t be reclaimed and was as good as dead) shot up, sending a hair thin lance up into the air, causing the flock to scatter, birds flying this way and that to avoid it. One strand clipped the edge of one of his many wings and that bird tumbled, frantically throwing back everything it knew before it hit the ground, feral, and disconnected. Prin had been reduced, ever so slightly.
He flew faster still, eschewing safety, and dove through the vacant window of the stalled rusted train ahead. The others joined him, tucking their wing tips in to avoid cutting themselves on the rust covered frames and for a moment everything was silent. Light dappled the scene from above, open holes in the tunnels showing that it was just evening above, and they’d been fighting for less than a day and they were losing, but maybe, if he just succeeded here, they wouldn’t be losing so badly.
Maybe, maybe, maybe, he hated not knowing.
But then turned the last corner, flying high over a sea of rubble, high enough that the flock had to squeeze through a narrow opening, and then he landed in one piece on the other side, gesturing at the lock to the Warden’s Grave.
“Warden!” Prin hissed. “The door’s locked!”
He swiped the radio off of the ground and tuned it, trying to clear up the connection, but they were underground. Behind him, the other inquisitors landed and they waited, their feathers ruffled. A few darted nervously. Less than a minute behind him were the creatures, inundated into a sludge, and they all knew they had nothing on how to deal with them.
“The door’s locked?” The warden’s voice came through tinny and tiny, more squeaky than the practiced and natural human tones Prin enjoyed. But it wasn’t the time to think about that.
“Get it open!” Prin hissed, ever louder.
A frantic noise on the other side of the radio, where practically everyone could hear. Prin waited, his eyes closed. Had he been sent on a suicide mission afterall? It would… I might be all over if they couldn’t get the gate open.
“Throw your flares around you,” The Warden said. “I saw on your cameras-”
Prin lit a flare from his kit, tucked around his arm in cloth strips small enough to fit his birds when scattered, and turned to glare at the rubble pile.
“And hand the radio to an inquisitor,” The warden finished. “I need to figure out which lock they’re using, and maybe I can get you all in.”
”Maybe?!” Prin hissed, the flare held out like a sword in his hand.
“I will,” The warden corrected. “One way or another.”
The flesh bubbling out of nooks and crannies in the rubble. Here and there, chunks of it were still burned, still toxic, and faces and eyes flowed readily across each other. Behind him, the Inquisitors worked at the lock, making a variety of voices in tandem with Jess.
Prin had no godly idea what they were doing, but it wasn’t his job to think about that. They were deep underground, in tunnels no Crow had right to be in, but if it kept the Fey at bay, he’d break every rule in the book.
The flesh lunged forward and Prin struck it with the flare and it hissed and bubbled and retreated, and he struck again, sliding forward, the hot light of the flare lancing across flesh in a boiling arc.
“Mind the flares!” The Warden said. “If you run out, I don’t think you’re carrying anything that’ll effect it, short of grenades.”
Prin knew it, and the Inquisitors knew it, which was why a few more flares were tossed in his direction, unlit. When the flare in his hand started to sputter, he lit the next and then tossed the first into the darkness.
“If I die, make sure they say proper words for me,” Prin said.
“Like what?” The Warden asked. Another meaningless code word stumbled out of her lips, and the door rejected them.
“Fought monsters,” Prin said, swiping at the darkness with the flare like a warrior of old. Explosions rattled the tunnel, sending bricks and concrete dust drifting down from overhead, the stagnant aged world forced to reckon with the theatre of war. “Killed monsters. Protected everyone.”
“I’ll make them make you a poem,” Jess said. Then across the line, she snapped her fingers.
Prin struck forward, burying the burning flare into the flesh of the roiling mass, and it screamed and scattered. He lit another and struck again and again, and again, and then a lancing line struck him in the arm.
So he did the only reasonable thing and dug the flare into his own skin. His gestalt flickered, a small black bird looking at him in betrayal, but it was better to lose a part than lose the whole, and then he was ten pairs of eyes and a hell of a lot of flares, lighting them off of each other and flying like tiny daggers, suicidally plunging into the darkness. Where mouths formed flares plunged, where wounds formed talons dug and where the beasts howled Prin screamed.
Behind him, the inquisition joined, one by one. Their flares were running out, for all that the beast was burning, it was healing just as well. Fire wasn’t going to do it, and they were running out of fire regardless.
“USEC Eschatology team override,” The warden squeaked. “Hold on at all costs; Jess’ll pull through!”
“Override accepted,” The door chirped, and then it opened. Silence from the other end of the radio, a stunned surprised silence.
Prin dropped the flares and darted for the open door, more manic frenzied bird than anything properly sentient and then the doorway flooded with birds.
Prin came together just in time to slam the door shut and exhale, listening to the airlock click into place at the front entrance.
“That worked?!” The warden hissed. “Right, right,” she continued. “Find something cold or very hot or very- the base has remained mostly climate neutral for all these years, there’s no way- try the chemistry department! I’ll be trying to guide you through some of the cameras; a few are still intact, and the base is letting me into the few who are still running.”
“Guide us,” Prin hissed into the radio. He gestured and the Inquisition spun around the room to get full eyes on it. Tree limbs, roots, and pollen. Was this what the sacred cave was at the end of the day? Just another root infested crevice?
“Left,” The warden said, turning them into a room almost entirely blocked off with roots. Almost didn’t count to a hoard of hand sized birds, though it was slow going to get through it. On the other side of the air sealed door, they could hear clicking and scratching. Prin shot it at a glare with one of his birds, keeping watch while the others moved through the gaps and scrabbled for purchase on the other side.
A human skeleton rested against the wall. Prin averted his eyes from the body while they reformed, out of some respect, or perhaps because he could very easily picture Jess in the same position. It was unkind to think of the wardens as they were, rather than what remained of them.
They might’ve had the last good warden, but that was how Prin was going to keep focused on the present. They had the last good warden.
“What’s in the chemistry department?” Prin asked.
“Enough acid to dissolve that thing,” Jess said.
“Ah,” Prin said, intelligently, and then he slid through the mass of white-feathered soldiers before settling down on the other side. He pushed open the door and-
“Down!” Jess warned.
He ducked, and behind him an Inquisitor scattered. A dark tendril wound itself like fishing line into the inky artificial blackness of the next room. A beak full of teeth, bones exposed across ruined flesh, and eyes half rabid.
Prin found himself looking at a mutated Crow, corruption having taken him entirely and fully, and in the next instant, before his brain could catch up with things, his gun was up and he dove forward. Scrabbling feet punctured holes in delicate steel and concrete, and an arm like a hammer came down where he’d been a second ago, narrowly missing.
Then he rose like the sun and tackled the beast against the wall. A toothed beak clicked overhead, eyes a bloody red, and Prin wrestled with it, talons like knives pressing against his wrists, arms like cannons fighting against him but Prin had fought in both wars and in close quarters before, and he jerked the gun hard enough that it almost disrupted his gestalt and pressed it against the creature’s throat.
Then he fired once, twice, three times, and the enemy’s gestalt flickered and faded.
He hit the ground and armed, clipping two birds out of the air before they could get away.
Half were toothed creatures, eyes red, spitting up various strange fluids and corrosive bits, flesh drooling from their predatory maws.
But worse still were the ones that were recognizably just birds, hopping about and screaming in confusion anger and fear, just to get away from the creatures that had imprisoned them.
“Heresy,” An inquisitor said, stepping forward. “That was-”
“In a sealed room.” Prin said, looking about the chamber. A flashlight lit up the nooks and crannies. A bank of destroyed monitors greeted them, monolithic and spread like eyes, and an old bed straddled one corner of the room, thoroughly used by the beast.
“That was an Outcast,” Prin said. “Warden, you know anything about this?”
“That?! That was an outcast?!” The Warden asked. “Aren’t they more Jay shaped?”
“Corruption spreads in untempered minds,” Prin said. “I don’t recognize who that was but-”
“I remember something like this,” An inquisitor said. “From the last war. We were given memories of a place… where we removed taint and infection from a mind. Gleaming walls… the monitors were alive back then.”
Prin watched his allies, withholding judgement for the moment. He didn’t like the implication, but the full of it made sense. The Regent had to get her tactics for cutting out memories from somewhere… why not from trying to treat the corrupted?”
His eyes looked down upon the toothed creatures, and he raised his gun.
He shot twice more.
They were dead. Whatever had been left of the gestalt lost the power it needed to keep networked, leaving the birds as simply birds the memories falling out of their heads like water through feathers.
“We could’ve helped them,” The inquisitor said, looking at Prin.
“They’ve been locked up for a long time,” Prin said. “If they could’ve been helped, the Regent would’ve helped them.”
He breathed, closing his eyes, and recentered himself. The burden of the murder he’d committed would come back to haunt him later.
“Do you believe that?” The Warden asked.
“I do,” Prin said. “The Regent has made questionable decisions in the past, but they have always been made to benefit us, and they have always made us stronger.”
“I moved the camera feed to private,” The Warden reported. “For the sake of your rules.”
“Good,” Prin said. “I don’t want to hurt the war effort.” he gestured at the other birds. “Come. We need to keep this place safe.” He paused. “No matter how many awful secrets it may contain inside of it.”
They fanned out and kept moving, and went through the next door. The monitors were intact over there, and they contained notes, months, weeks, days of notes of surgeries and interventions, and they fell on blind eyes because Prin walked past them on his way to the storage houses and the Inquisitors said nothing for they did not want to think further on their origins, and there simply was no time for moral quandaries while the whole of the fey empire was intent on stomping them out from existence.
There was no time for it.