Teri was alone.
This wasn’t unfamiliar, not to her, especially not after the last two months of her life, where she had found herself not only alone, but trapped in a building full of murderous bug people.
The last time, she’d been stuffed in a bag by a giant wolf who had been intent on kidnapping the Warden, only for the giant wolf to turn around and become her ally, because that was the sort of life she led now as an Archivist.
This time, she didn’t even have the promise of a giant behemoth of flesh and anger to help her. This time, it was just her, her gun, and the poor scattered souls behind her.
She could count on two of those things.
If she counted her ear plugs, that was three things, which was a bit more than she had last time, at least.
Just Teri, the archivist, the one who helped crack Omoi’s protections and stole fire from the old gods, and a roomful of murderous bugs.
Teri leaned back against the wall and nervously checked how many bullets she had left. Thirteen. A lucky number. She breathed, though even that was a farce, a vague recollection of something far bigger than any of themselves, a flash back down the ancestral memories to a time when the sky bled and monsters writhed out of the wounds in the world, where stories were as complex and real as living human beings, and her ancestors hunted with spears and rifles, avenging the fallen angels of mankind.
Her lungs didn’t need that much air, but she tasted it greedily all the same. She might not be alive in the next few minutes.
Might as well enjoy herself while she could. She closed her eyes, steadied her breath, and tried to still the hearts of her birds. They had no thoughts, not while she was there, and while they enjoyed being her more than they enjoyed anything else, they were still utterly and completely terrified of everything.
She couldn’t blame them. Not one bit.
Teri stepped out of the doorway and into the hallway, gun drawn at her side, and wished she’d been able to keep the shotgun. No Fey stopped her. No Fey even moved to intercept her side.
At the next window, a Fey watched for intruders coming from the outside, eyes set outside of the shattered window. Smoke drifted inside from the burning ruins below. The frontline had disintegrated with the defender’s resistance, and now all that remained was scattered gunfire and desperate desperate birds.
Teri didn’t even realize when her talons wrapped around the Fey’s throat, but she realized when they punctured into the thin skin, and the creature rasped through a torn throat, and then she snapped his head to the side until he stopped entirely.
She looked down at her drenched fingers and swallowed, quietly picking up his gun. Two were better than one, even if she just set it down against her hip.
The building was silent. Now she was too distant to even hear the cawing and rasping of her scattered friends and family. They’d get better.
If she won.
They couldn’t be that far away. She drew up the map of the building she’d made when she’d set up the wireless on her Omoi, and compared her relative position with the signal itself, and that of the distant towers that were still up.. She wasn’t far away at all.
She turned the corner, and the Fey opened fire on her. She dove into the room and behind a row of monitors and ancient sheaths of half rotten paper, and bits of plastic and metal and paper dust floated up into the sky as automatics tore into them.
She wasn’t hurt, not really. A near miss had nearly taken out her head, but a near miss was just that. For a second, she threw up the relative location of where she’d seen the Fey up on her map for the others, and then felt their absence. To her right, one came shuffling, and she turned, gun already drawn, and shot out the bug’s knees. Three bullets, one missing, and the bug tumbled forward with a noise like a hissing cockroach.
She brought the butt of the gun down on its head while it turned to bare long needle teeth at her, and by the second hit, fluid gushed out of the wounds. On the other side of the room, the Fey stumbled on the uneven terrain, and Teri was already up, paranoid, adrenaline pouring in her veins, and fired in the creature’s direction until the first gun sprang empty, and she tore the second gun off of her hip and fired down range until that one clicked empty as well, her hands shaking.
Then she picked up the automatic from the Fey whose brain she’d beat in until it stopped looking at her, and approached the other end of the room.
The Fey’s eyes glinted in the dim, and Teri tumbled as her right leg disappeared in a hail of shells. Blind pain and agony raced through her mind, her eyes going wide, and her form wavered.
But she pulled the trigger on the other gun, and the recoil kicked it up in her weakening fingers, but the beast in front of her took the burst from the chest up, three bullets resting nimbly far behind its eyes.
Then she fell to the ground and tried to remember herself.
The Warden had described her time at the base to her as being painful. Teri thought she understood that, having lost more birds in the last two months than she had in the last two hundred years. She was down four. Just enough that she felt buzzy and weak, just enough that a haze flickered at the edge of her vision, and she tempted the birds to carry more of her while the last wisps of the dying animals escaped.
They were more of her. They had been bred to be smart, smart enough to carry her, and they greedily accepted more responsibility under the promise of being smart, of being something greater.
By the time Teri realized there was someone else in the room, by the time her ears perked to the sound of gunshots and the battle abruptly becoming so much more closer than she’d expected, she was back on her feet, thin, spindly legs, as thin as the Warden’s own, and she’d shoved the second bug’s shotgun into her own arms.
She whirled at the click of a beak and found herself face to face with-
Leader of the scouts.
Teri didn’t lower the shotgun, her eyes frantically trailing her form. Was she compromised? Had even Tane fallen?
Tane, who had led the guards to them, who had saved Jay?
Tane, who had failed to protect the Warden?
“Lower the gun,” Tane demanded, putting her hands up. “We’re on the same side.”
Teri ran scans of the bird in front of her. Most of them had been removed or destroyed, on account of being embedded in the skull of an anomaly, but a few still worked.
She didn’t have a clean basis on what a compromised bird would look like. She didn’t have the tools for it, or the research models, or anything.
She was in blind. Blind again.
“How do I know you’re really Tane?” Teri clicked her beak.
Tane gestured outside. A crack of an immense rifle rang out, and Crows engaged Crows in the sky, flocks of birds madly pecking at each other until entire flocks fell to the ground.
“What do you think?” Tane asked.
Teri took in a deep breath. She was unsteady. If she lost another bird… if she lost another, she was probably out of it forever.
Her own death was staring her in the face, and it took up her thoughts, her desperate desperate thoughts.
“Steady there,” Tane said, slipping over. “Are you alright?”
Teri’s form wavered as the crows inside of her panicked. She was seconds from coming apart but- but she wouldn’t. She couldn’t.
Tane reached forward and hugged her. For a moment, there was just fluff and the faint warmth of another being and then a crow slid out of Tane’s gestalt and offered itself to Teri’s.
Teri stared at it incredulously. It hopped up her arm and settled on her shoulder. “Don’t you need that?”
“I have enough,” Tane said. “Besides. I’m another gun. We need a technician here more than we need me.”
The crow slid into her gestalt like an old friend, an old friend with memories of guarding the Elder, guarding the Warden, and the horrific sting of failed jobs. It tasted off from the rest of Teri but- but her form stopped wavering as their memories mingled. And none of it tasted like Fey, not a bit of it rang of Trellis, walking forward like the shadow of death. Tane was safe.
Teri, Teri was…
She was mostly Teri, with just a hint of Tane, and that would have to do for now.
It wasn’t what she wanted, but it’d stem the thought rot from taking her.
“What’s your orders?” Tane asked.
“I need to reset this tower,” Teri said. “But the Fey are crawling all over it.”
Tane snatched up the automatic rifle from where Teri had discarded it.
“Then we take the tower.”
The way Tane announced it, Teri couldn’t help but believe it might just be that easy.
They could still win this.
The next room was simple. Tane’s bullets found their mark before Teri could even start planning, taking out a Fey standing at the corner, bisecting his neck so his head fell to the ground off of a ruined stump of a neck, and then she slammed the butt of the rifle into the tiny Fey sitting idly in the corner, a blank stare marking him as unpossessed.
“Trellis doesn’t seem like she’s that good at possessing,” Tane muttered. Teri perked up Banter might keep her sane yet.
“That’s because she’s possessing our people as well,” Teri said. “We probably take more effort than her Fey, since we’re a completely different species, and we have minds of our own.”
“Right,” Tane said, shaking her head. “Not really my department.”
“That’s fine,” Teri said, making sure to stand behind the murderous Crow. “Just make sure I can get to the part where it becomes my department.”
Tane laughed. “You and the Warden should hang out more. I think you’d have more to talk about.”
It might be understating, but Tane was not only the head of the scouts, but she also had the working memories of one of the greatest Crow heroes who had ever lived, the Regent. She might not be that Crow, not anymore, but it still helped. The next room was cleared almost as easily, taking advantage of latency in the network.
“Why aren’t they trying to stop us?” Teri wondered aloud.
“They’re probably making a bigger move on other places,” Tane said. “Hunting down Boss and Quen, or Prin, or maybe focusing everything on an attack of computer banks.”
Teri’s memory drifted through the crow that Tane had shared with her, and for a moment, they both felt the same dread. Filtered, rough, and distant for Teri’s sake, but the same dread Tane had.
Teri had her own dread, she didn’t need anymore.
Tane cleaned the barrel of her gun from a spatter of fluid that might’ve been blood. “How much farther? We need to hurry.”
Teri tapped her Omoi and flicked over to the map. Then she gestured up. “The main room will be upstairs; we took advantage of a tower that was already part of the building.”
Tane’s eyes closed. “I remember now.”
Outside, the sound of Tane’s scouts intensified, and a massive dark shadow plunged out of the sky, smashing into the side of the building in a smear of gore and spent blood. Tane flicked her eyes over to the window, then back up. “Not much time left.”
“Then we need to hurry up,” Teri replied. She wasn’t as calm as the scout. Maybe it was because she hadn’t been trained right. Maybe it was watching the Fey pick apart her squad with barely a second’s pause.
Maybe it was the nerves settling in. If Teri couldn’t do this, the battle would be over.
Tane clicked her beak. “Bit of an understatement.” she looked ahead. “Cover me?”
“Cover-” Tane’s hands adjusted Teri’s gun.
“Are you up for this?” Tane asked, turning Teri to face her.
Teri looked away. The edge of her mind was still loose. Not too loose that she couldn’t keep a solid hand on it, but close enough that she dreaded coming apart one last time. There might not be enough left of her to last.
But- if that was the case…
Teri looked at Tane. Swallowed once.
If that was the case, and Teri came apart under an injury, she knew what she’d have to do. She’d give Tane the rest of it. The rest of her. Every memory in her head that might help, everything she could salvage.
She swallowed. That… that was what it meant to be a hero. Would the Warden do the same thing, if only she could?
Teri wanted to say yes. She wanted to say that all of the heroes she met would do the same thing. Had done similarly stupid things, made sacrifice plays that would’ve left the world without them.
She lifted the gun and pretended it wasn’t such a foreign weight. “I’m ready.”