The Capital’s foundry was a massive building, having been made out of a crumbling ruin, long since picked over for scrap and metal and then later reforged and put back together. It was older than the majority of Crow structures left intact, and sat well behind the battle lines.
Which made the Titan Beetle assaulting the front doors all the worse for it.
Tane’s scouts opened fire on the supporting troops, cutting down drones and intermediates, their human skulls turning to mush inside of their frames, and Tane marched forward, grenades crammed into her hands, and shielded her eyes as the beetle erupted into another peal of conjured lightning, blasting molten metal across the door frame.
Then she launched herself forward, pulling the pin, and shoved the grenade into the side of the beast, where hot exhaust and steam hissed out from the being’s overburdened and overheating lungs. Then she kept right on walking forward.
Behind her, the beast attempted to draw in air to keep up the assault and detonated instead, shrapnel and flame perforating the internals of the armored behemoth. It exsanguinated, fluid and ichor mixing together instead of precious oxygen.
“Scouts!” Tane barked. They weren’t supposed to be following her orders, they were supposed to be seamlessly integrated with the Capital’s troops, but at this point she was just thankful she had someone to watch her back after all. “Secure the foundry.”
As she walked up to the front doors, she noticed dead birds littering the front, and paused, hesitating at the front. “Anyone have contact with the birds that are supposed to be inside?”
Command was oddly silent until the warden spoke up. “Looks like our cameras have gone dead inside,” Jess said. “Be careful.”
“Everything going well?”
“The flak turrets are down for now, and Teri’s on a mission,” Jess said. “We’re not stretched thin just yet-”
Tane clicked off the radio. She could hear the reports of assault fire across the city where the line was being held, and the skies were running with fewer and fewer Crow made drones. She could put the picture together.
They were fighting the unholy legions of the Fey, the same creatures that had taken almost everything from them in the first place. They weren’t expecting to win.
But they were going to, if Tane had anything to say about it.
“Secure the perimeter,” she barked. “And if anyone sees a Queen’s guard, I expect you to at least scream so we know what’s coming.”
Then she scattered, breaking her rifle down into pieces, and flew in through one of the open windows.
The machines were running, which meant that whatever had happened had happened recently, since the automatic cut offs hadn’t activated. Which could only mean-
Tane scattered before the mound of flesh and skin could consume her, but she could see feathers and the tiny bones of birds floating in the mass of goo and bones and what had once been Beasts.
She could only hazard a guess that the same ludicrous power that kept Boss intact had been perverted even further to keep the abominations on their proper path, completely under control of the Fey. It didn’t help her to think that anyway. “INSIDE!” She hissed at the radio, and the birds flew in.
She palmed a grenade and threw it forward. Crow made, and she dove behind a machine as the sphere detonated, smearing goo and tendrils of filth across the walls.
“Check Teri’s lab!” Jess suggested. Alarms were going off on that side of the command station, and Tane clicked her beak.
“Keep yourself safe,” Tane said. “And we’ll see about everything else.”
“Got it,” Jess said.
Tane clicked off the radio, and the scouts engaged. Few had any grenades left; they’d been lightly armored from the collapsing frontline, and even now it showed. Sleep deprivation rimmed some of their shots, sending bullets wasted across the walls instead of embedding solidly in their target. Tane could feel that too, but it wasn’t time to sleep.
It wasn’t time to rest, not at all.
Tane walked, then ran her feet making sharp little noises against the metal floor of the foundry, and ran past the active machines. Heat rose off of their frames, rustling her feathers, and she drew her gun in time to catch a wasp in the air, three bullets perforating the chest of the creature. The drones hiding inside didn’t have time to scream before it crashed into the side of the heated tanks, burning chitin and soft flesh before they fell to the ground the last two stories to splatter across the floor.
Then Tane punched open the last door and found the lab she’d spent a day in. Blueprints still covered the walls, feverish sketches of things that had once existed sat next to things that had never existed at all, and she slammed the butt of her rifle into a lock until it shattered and pulled out the basket she knew she’d find.
They were marked the pristine white of an unlabelled grenade, pulled out of the same computer she’d pulled the long rifles from. Tane bounced the incendiary in her hands and turned to face the creature her scouts were engaging.
They hadn’t been put on the frontlines for fear of burning down their forest. At this point, Tane couldn’t give a damn about collateral.
The Crows could all fly away. The enemy couldn’t.
“MOVE!” She shouted, and then she chucked one into the depths of the beast in front of her. A mouth opened up with teeth as translucent and blood like as ever before, and then devoured it whole. She pulled the pin on another and tossed it forward.
The first erupted into phosphorus and gaseous rocket fuels, and what had been a single spot inside of the beast ballooned into a white hot nodule of flame.
The second hit it, and Tane and the rest of the Crows scattered. Tane’s flock bore the rest of the munitions.
But that wasn’t all of them. The real bounty was the shot of it she’d gotten on camera.
“Get that schematic over to the lab. Tell them to start making them; I don’t care how much time we have left, we don’t have a way of dealing with those and they’re running amok across our defences!” Dean hissed, half muffled on the other side of the radio connection.
“Right,” Jess said. “Foundry’s a loss, I guess. Can you reinforce Teri’s position? She’ll need the help.”
“Got it,” Tane said. “Keep safe.”
The alarms were still blaring on the warden’s side of the connection.
“I have Jay to help with that.”
And bizarrely, Tane thought that might be enough.
Command was on fire.
Or rather, part of it was. The frontline had collapsed within two days, and command had been bled of guards, piece by piece, to deal with the spread of Fey troops within their borders, and to deal with special interest projects that might stop the swell of the tide.
I stared at the wall and tried to ignore the distant crackle of flames. Half the archivists were left. It might not have been so painful if I didn’t have cameras pointed at every available surface.
Jay paced through the free space.
“I didn’t want this to happen,” Dean said, to break the crackling silence. “I wanted us to leave-”
“Not everyone has the option to fly away,” I said, looking at Jay.
“Yeah,” Dean said. “I guess not everyone does.” He leaned back from the monitor, staring blankly at the burning city. “Do you think we might deserve this?”
“Nobody deserves this,” Jay said. I looked up and followed Jay’s gaze to a killing field that Crows were just barely holding. A few dead birds littered the streets in front of wave after wave of nearly human monstrosities, guts spilled open upon the asphalt floor. “That’s what war is, I think. It’s what nobody deserves.”
“They don’t care about the individual life,” I said. “It’s just… I never pictured there’d be so much of it. Where’d the great tactician I’d used to know go?”
A camera turned to static, and then another, and then another, and I swallowed, looking at a whirring copter still live on the scene and looked down upon the broken patch of city that still lingered like a bleeding oil slick.
Trellis stepped forward, walking casually through the sway of bullets. Her steps were practiced, with not a hint of hesitation, and bullets whipped by her like lines of god, but even the godrays couldn’t touch her.
She’d been there at the very beginning of my journey, and she looked bedraggled, tired, her white hair a contrast with the suntan that’d grown across her skin in the intervening month.
“Mute the feed in that area,” I said, quickly, and Dean looked up, hesitated, and did so.
A Crow opened fire upon the Queens’ Guard, and a stray bullet touched the side of her cheek, cutting a line of red. She spoke once, and the bullets stopped. An eerie and awful stillness filled the frame as she walked forward. A gesture, and even the drone flying overhead was taken out by a burst of Crow assault rifles.
I swallowed, staring up at the blaring static. As I watched, one by one, more cameras bled out into the dark night. Evening had snuck up and passed us like a train at noon, leaving us waiting for another to take us away.
It wasn’t going to come like that.
“Efficient,” Jay muttered. “Dean, make sure they’re wearing their earplugs.”
“It makes it far harder to give orders,” Dean defended.
“Then tell them to guard the command center without hearing!” Jay hissed. “If the enemy just walks up to us, don’t you think-”
I held up a hand. In the distance, the gunfire had stopped. “Guns up,” Jay said. “Anyone not busy, get ready.”
A cry like hell itself split the air, and then the far doors parted open. Boss stepped inside, her axe dark red with blood, and her armor about as messy, and moved with languid precision. Quen hopped off of her back and took a long breath.
“The frontline’s falling,” Quen said. “We’re moving to evacuate you all.”
I stared up at the screens, my eyes moving over to where Teri’s feed was. She wasn’t in position yet. I bit down into the thick of my lip until I tasted blood.
“Where are we moving?” I asked.
“A secondary point,” Quen said. “The seared oak. The place is still a minefield, we only need to reactivate them.”
My eyes drifted down to Prin, in the sewers, playing across the side of my Omoi. A private little hell as they swam through darkened rooms, and then I settled back on Quen.
“I hope your defences are going to stand up a bit better there.”
Quen looked pained, and couldn’t meet my eye regardless. “They were better prepared than I thought. I was… under the impression there would be fewer of them.”
“This is most of the gathered Fey,” Boss said. “Bismarck won’t have much to fight off the other Guards when they come for her.”
“Must mean that what’s here is worth taking.” I gestured at myself, trying to crack a grin, but it hurt, and my lips were chapped and cracked from worry.
Boss tilted her head, the black of her eyes, just barely visible under her armor, tinted with a flicker of humor. “It means she’s desperate, and I think she realized how far she was pushing in.”
“And sent Trellis instead,” I said. “That hole outside the city… is it closing?”
“Slowly,” Quen said. “I’ve reports that it’s been shrinking in the last few hours, but… well.”
I closed my eyes and then flipped back to Prin’s channels. The screen was going hazy from being that far underground, distortion from distance and concrete and whatever hell the Regent had cooked up down there. “Prin,” I said. “I need you to find the Regent. Make sure she’s safe, she’s in there with you. Help her if you can.”
The Regent’s machinations had kept the city free from teleporting bugs, but it was a loss if they could just walk in right next door. Maybe there was something down there…
But that was hope talking.
I couldn’t let hope talk for long.
More of the cameras went dark.
“Warden?” Quen asked. “It’s time to go.”
Dean bowed his head. “Archivists… I know I’m not your leader, but they’re offering a better defended location for us. Keep the air battle alive, if you can, but we’ve got to run if we want to make it out of this.”
I stepped over to Boss’s side, Jay trailing behind me. His hand squeezed my shoulder and I shook my head.
The Aquarium wasn’t home. It’d been a bed and a few chairs and a hive of technology and questing birds. But it wasn’t right to be chased out of it like that.
Down the hall, the security doors buzzed open. I turned to wave at the guards and then Boss slammed herself behind me, a guttural roar parting her lips.
The Crows opened fire and a fell chill ran down my neck.
“They just buzzed her in,” I said. “They just. She just took them over and they-”
Jay squeezed me again, then grabbed hold of my arm, firmly, and then started to run. I stumbled, then fell into his beat, racing down the halls behind him. Quen joined Boss, waving me off.
“You better come out of this alive,” I shouted.
His reply was quiet from distance and down the hall. “Of course we will.”
A roar of frustration, and then the noise of bullets rebounding off of polished plated steel.
We’d had an evacuation path already prepared. It wasn’t heavily defended with Crows, since it pointed towards the interior of the city instead of the exterior, and the entrance and walls were guarded with automated sentries.
Dean waved ahead at the door and the locks clicked open, then waved at the senties and they let us through without a click of recognition. Outside, the remnants of the city guard awaited us, the white feathers of the Inquisition mottled in like salt and pepper on the burning carcass of Atlanta. The sky was filled with hell itself, winding trailing clouds of ash and fire erupting, smoke pockets from destroyed drones and even the clouds were dappled with vaporized blood from perforated wasps.
But the convoy was silent apart from the flutter of many birds. The rooftops were covered in guards in position. Occasionally, one would fire, and an enemy would fall dead, and then enough would scatter and land on the next rooftop until we had long cleared the prior one, and in that way they kept us in perpetual cover from anyone in sight.
It might’ve even worked in the long term if the Fey were stupid, or commanded by a giant bug instead of a trained tactician that had spent thousands of years preparing for that very moment.