The frontlines had shifted again. The air battle wasn’t quite a failure, the wasps were failing and becoming scarce, and the drones were more numerous now that the flak guns had been taken apart, but the ground defences had nothing to support them, and if there was one thing the Fey were good at, it was walking in a straight line.
Earplugs in, Teri pressed herself down against the building, her many eyes poking just out of cover. The edge of the forest was on fire, and nothing could stop it from burning now, there was nobody else to put it out except for the scant pockets of resistance. The scraps fought like hell, guns poking out of cover to annihilate anything that wasn’t sporting armor; but ever since the portal had opened up right outside of the city, the enemies were increasingly wearing armor.
Still, Teri considered, bullets worked eventually.
But the Crows might very well run out of bullets before the Fey ran out of soldiers, and then where would they be? Huddled together for warmth next to a burning forest. Teri gestured with her many wings as a column of Fey troops were ambushed underneath of the building, and she took to the sky, joined shortly by the other scattered archivists. A few stray bullets kissed the sky, but they were wildly aimed and didn’t touch them.
They flew across two buildings, onto an abandoned sniper nest. Teri gestured at the guns and weapons they’d left behind in the rush to evacuate when the position had been overrun, and many of her tiny feet lifted a discarded a shotgun. The archivists took up similar weapons.
Most of the archivists didn’t have the same combat memories that the other Crows had; they’d stayed out of most of the fighting. But the basics were simple enough to guess at, and they’d spent years dissecting and figuring out how to use technology that conformed to a classical understanding of physics, so-
Teri dove off the side of the building and they flew to the next like scattered shadows. Below the concrete was covered in scattered crows, their tiny broken bodies like fallen ash upon the burning pavement. They darted past that, and then further into the line of combat, where the guard still controlled territory, and awkward blots of Crow buildings swarmed with unguided Fey.
She could hear the radio blaring with warnings and klaxons, and it wasn’t hard to put together what exactly the Queen’s Guard was focusing on. It felt wrong to fly the opposite direction but-
Keeping Jess alive stopped them from losing the war. This might help them win the battle.
“You’re out of position!”
On the next building, the City guard were still stationed. Some twenty of them, keeping the wayward edge protected. They bristled with guns and rifles, scopes and all. Teri landed in front of them.
“I’m requisitioning you,” Teri shouted, materializing back together. “You need to protect-”
Teri turned her head and pointed at the tallest building in the area. Teri had been apart of the effort to string up the wireless out there herself, after all, so it was vaguely fitting that this was where she’d give a last stand.
That was too fatalistic. After all, she’d tried to do a last stand in the military base, and managed well enough there until Prince had knocked them all out cold.
And Boss and Jess were still here and fighting, so maybe it wouldn’t-
“What’s over there?” The leader of the rooftop asked. Teri barely hear him over the plugs, which meant they were doing their job. Filk, Teri thought, or maybe Falk. That might be his name.
“Just the wireless,” Teri said. “It’d be bad if we lost this even now.”
“Ah,” Felk said, and turned to the other birds. They turned as one to stare at him. Teri crossed her arms against her chest and watched them. Their rifles moved in a slow steady unison, like many fingers attached to a harmonious core.
Why was he being so quiet? Couldn’t he-
The other archivists landed on the building top, and Teri’s eyes slid to the guard’s painted beaks. “Do you have any first aid?” she asked, vaguely gesturing towards her group. “I think we might be able to save a bird here…”
Filk gestured just as vaguely towards a box to the side, next to the spare weapon parts (in case anything went wrong or something was dropped) and the ammunition. Teri walked over, careful not to strike her talons against the stray piles of spent shells and popped it open.
Earplugs. There were so many sets of earplugs scattered about.
Teri flicked her eyes to the guards on the roof. None of them were wearing their earplugs.
She took a few deep breaths, and pulled out a roll of bandages.
“That all?” Filk asked. “We can help you with that-?”
“We can handle it from here,” Teri said, forcing her hearts to calm down. They weren’t wearing ear plugs. Suddenly, their mechanical precision seemed less marvelous and more like the arms of a great spider hamfistedly controlling a puppet. Where was their irregularity?
By staring into Filk’s eyes, was she staring through him and into Trellis’s eyes?
Teri signalled behind her back at the other archivists behind her, using their Crowmoi chats.
A flurry of chat messages went off. Teri repeated herself.
No earplugs. Watch their movements.
Her hearts thumped like little bullets in her chest, like little explosions, and she took a casual step towards the edge of the building.
Filk’s head turned to look at her, eyes glassy and voidless spots of black. Teri swallowed. His hand drifted down to his rifle.
None of them had taken shots at the Fey below since they’d landed, Teri abruptly realized. They were being listened to.
She heard the click of guns, and her pistol was out and facing Filk. She blind fired three times, and then her archivists, some pacifists, some who had joined for the sheer joy of learning and discovery, opened fire on the guards. Feathers and shells danced across the air like a whirlwind and then-
Then she dove off the side of the building in one mass. The air ripped through her feathers like tiny daggers. For a second, as she plummeted, holding back from scattering for a few scant seconds to remain at the very top of her level of thinking, she thought they’d gotten away with it.
Then the guard squadron erupted into a plague of black birds, and Teri scattered. The air became a meatgrinder. The archivists scattered and dove off the building.
Filk’s flock dove, a few birds falling out of the sky, wounded, unable to keep up the pace, and then Teri came under attack. Filk’s birds were bigger, stronger, but fewer. Talons and sharp beaks came at Teri’s many wings, and she rolled with it. The air filled with screams and caws as flocks attacked each other.
But the Archivists had many things in their favor. They’d struck first, and the ranks of the guards were reeling as bits of themselves dropped out of the sky like fat blots of raining ink.
They were smarter; they weren’t being controlled by an impossibly distant bug.
But they weren’t used to fighting.
One of Teri’s eyes was put out by a talon, and the entirety of her flock screamed as the bird soon fell out of the air, tumbling, a wing broken. It disappeared from the flockmind and Teri pulled away from the battle to land on the next building.
She came together in one piece and with one gun and it was honestly only pure luck that saved her from dying because she hit the floor flat instead of upright, and the fey hiding just out of sight just narrowly avoided blasting her with the shotgun.
She threw out a frantic signal of distress through the Omoi network- which chose, at that very moment, to turn off the wireless signal to the rest of the city.
The Omoi themselves had weak wireless transmitters and signal reading, but without the network…
The drones dropped signal strength instantly, and the air battle went from nearly won to nearly lost.
They were compromised. They were /deeply/ compromised.
Teri didn’t let that stop her from slamming the Fey against the wall like she’d seen Boss do, hard enough that blood trickled out of it’s thin skin, and then she shot it through the head. The gun tumbled from its dead almost human fingers, and Teri grabbed the shotgun before it hit the ground and turned-
Just in time for a city guard to land next to her, coming together with a handgun.
Teri hesitated here, because she couldn’t- She couldn’t tell if he’d been compromised or not, and it was wearing a friendly face.
The gun flicked up, and Teri bashed the guard across the head with the shotgun, and he scattered, a dazed bird hitting the ground. The Omoi network came alive with chatter, birds sending out texts with their mind, pictures, a flurry of images.
Teri gestured at the building she was in, and sent them a message of the top. The tower they needed to retake if they were going to get anything done.
Then she swept the birds, standing dazed, confused, out the window. They fluttered dumbly to the ground, wings catching the air. Then she turned, stole the rest of the ammunition off of the dead fey, and stared out the window at the flocks engaging in battle.
Crows fell out of the sky. Teri couldn’t be sure, but she thought this might be the single greatest loss of Crow life in the entire battle so far.
Birds settled next to her in a trickle, and each time they did she kept the gun leveled on them. An archivist here reformed and slumped against the wall, chest rising and falling in desperate terror, and then another guard who she beat across the head.
“Fuck,” Teri said. They slowed to a bare trickle until it was just archivists joining her. They were worse for wear, even their full morphs were small and lesser.
She was down one bird, but she suspected the others, who hadn’t recently been in combat, were down far more.
“Alright,” Teri said. “We should assume,” She started pacing, because she needed to move, and she needed to think. She sent the rest through the Omoi chat.
Everyone we meet is going to be assumed compromised. We can apologize later.
The building they were in was an old office complex, the same sort of place that Zack had died, which was one of the few memories that everyone of the crows had. There was a special significance here that Teri wasn’t comfortable exploring. Crow Kind had been born in a place like this, and now, now they had a chance of dying in it.
Teri checked over the stolen shotgun, trying to hide the shake of her hands from nervousness. The network was down. They were on their own, a tiny rag tag team of scientists and nervous outcasts that’d undergone the Omoi surgery. A dozen pair of eyes watched her.
They could run, Teri realized. They could try and beat a retreat and join the others. But the tower would still be down, and they’d be down even the chance of doing this.
But the monster walking through the city was distracted now, and clearly couldn’t guide the army with nearly as much grace as the creature that had been watching before. If her attention was split, well, this might be the only chance they had.
They were just a bunch of tower repairbirds. They weren’t too much of a threat.
In another time, they might’ve even be right. Teri’s talons curled around the barrel of the gun, and she cleared her chat window of an order to retreat.
Kill everyone. We’re taking this tower back.
Teri was tired of cowardice, she was tired of nightmares and bad dreams, of whirling blueprints not being enough to stop monsters. She was tired of it all.
The archivists drew what weapons they’d managed to gather, a pistol here. One had managed to scrounge together a rifle from the interchangeable parts that had made it into the building.
Shall we? Teri offered.
Nods, and a chat full of crowmojis in various displays of terror and agreement.
She gestured behind them and the Archivists obeyed, half of them turning to watch their flank. Then Teri opened up the door leading out of the office. A camera gleamed, lens choked with dirt. She held her breath, leaning the shotgun against the wall, and put a bullet through it with her pistol. Then she picked up her shotgun and gestured for the others to follow. They weren’t any special combat operatives, but they’d do.
She trusted them.
She turned into the first room, her feathers puffing up to make her look bigger and more threatening. Lines of cubicles, spun out like a spider’s web. She held her breath and stepped through, shotgun at her side like a sword of old, and hesitated, however briefly, before nudging a closed office door with the top of the long shotgun’s barrel.
Something clattered on the inside, and Teri panicked, flinging the door open. A gleaming white set of bones greeted her, insects having long since picked the skin off of a corpse. It stared at her with hollow eye sockets, a burnt out screen humming in front of it, hooked up to some central systems that’d decided to work, against all odds.
Her breath caught in her throat, and gingerly, she judged the skull with the top of the gun and it fell to the ground with the rest of the bones she’d jostled loose from the chair. Then she waved at the Crows watching her that the room was clear.
They cleared each door, one by one, opening it and flashing their weapons, then going cubicle to cubicle to make sure nothing was hiding.
Nothing but a few skeletons, bones broken and shifting. Teri breathed out a sigh of relief, and they moved quite like that from room to room. It was inefficient, but at this point, they were directly engaging a Fey mind they weren’t knowledgeable in and- well, it was good for the heart to know there was nothing behind them.
Teri opened the next door, and reflexively shot before her eyes could finish processing it. A fey halfway down the massive open space collapsed from the spray of shot, but the ones farther away took a few stray shots instead.
It wasn’t that the spray of shot was wide, but rather, that the room they were looking at was a hell. Almost half the floor, and the room took up close to three floors vertically looked out towards a wide glass window, tinted enough to cut down on the glare of the evening sun.
Enough that Teri could see the sky battle, and what remained of the Crow Drones in this part of the city biting it to wasp attacks. And even more obscene were the black birds flying with the bugs in the air, like tiny daggers to Teri’s heart.
She might’ve had time for more poetic reflection if the Fey hadn’t returned fire at them, forcing her to dive back back, slamming the metal door in the path.
The archivists stared at her, and she stared back, then swallowed, loading another round into the oversized gun. She gestured at the emergency map sitting behind glass by the door.
The stairs were on the other side of the room. With the sky battle outside gone the way it had, if they went out to try and find another way to the room near the top, they’d be cut to pieces.
Teri closed her eyes, and used the Omoi to rewind the last few seconds of her memory. Then she marked where the Fey had been on the resulting map and shared them with the rest of the archivists. She marked down how fast a drone could move (it varied, depending on the type, but these looked like the classic type, who had enough armor to put up with a punch, but not enough armor to deal with low calibre bullets) and then made notations on where they could be when they opened the door.
The archivists returned with the same mechanical suggestions they’d always had when collaborating, discussing where the Crows should be when the door opened. Like a project manager, Teri approved their ideas.
Then she checked how many rounds were left in her pistol (not enough) and checked over the Crow-moi chat to make sure everyone was aware of what would happen next. They were.
Assured, she opened the door, and then tiny crows flew in under the rim of the desks flooding the room, guns trailing behind in their talons, and Teri pulled the trigger on the big shotgun twice. A third of the way across the room, a Fey caught it across the chest, only a foot or two off from where they’d calculated it might be. The Crows took up their position, and the Fey moved to meet them, just as planned.
Three shots from a pistol later, and there was only one Fey left standing, and that ended with a spray from their last rifle. Short, easy, mechanical, sweet. If Teri was lying, she’d say it didn’t even make her heart pound.
A straggler Fey, hiding, was drawn out and shot by methodical clearing of cubicles, their minds linked together until each bird had nearly 360 degree vision from shared sights.
They weren’t built for combat, so they had to treat this like something else. Troubleshooting, or project design.
On the other side of the room, Teri breathed out a sigh of relief. They were up five guns, though one was heavily dented from the spray of the rifle, so they discarded it rather than trust it. If everything went like this, well…
This wouldn’t be that bad.
Teri turned to look at the sun, and hesitated, because a massive shadow trailed across the edge.
Then a Wasp (how big could they get, was there a different word for it, this one was, this one was) struck the glass window. Spider webs and cracks lanced across it, chips of glass raining down like snow.
Then it struck again and the window shattered.
Plans flooded the group chat. Previous images on camera from the control room, how people whose hands didn’t shake on guns had dealt with it, or how the Crow copters had dealt with it.
Teri pointed her shotgun at the beast and opened fire.