A Throne For Crows (Part 43)

Teri and Tane couldn’t know it, but halfway through the last hallway, the last bastion of independent resistance was either scattered, possessed, or so thoroughly squanched that they couldn’t be called a distraction. That left three, and then two groups left.

One carried the Warden, and the other was scything through the tower, a flock of angry scouts eviscerating any insect stupid enough to poke their heads up. Crows battled, possessed rigid creatures ensorcelled and ensnared versus the indignant and almost mythological wrath of Tane’s birds. The other remained down below, preventing the entire arrangement and defences from being completely nullified.

But Teri and Tane couldn’t know the exact moment that it all went to hell, because they were lodged in the depths of the building.

Tane slammed the first door open, and Teri called out, through Omoi’s limited scans, how many were in the next room.

Six bullets for five targets. One went wide, and the other first hit vital organs, Tane was back at the prime of her life. She reloaded while Teri inspected the bodies, then drifted to the exposed cables running across the walls.

Tane looked up at them. “Are those important?” Her hearts thumped in her chest, and everywhere else, and she could just barely keep a self satisfied croak out of her throat. There was a simplicity to being this far into the battle.

It was wrong to enjoy it, but she did anyway. She was just back in the hunt.

Teri sighed, kicking a corpse out of the way. It bled readily across her toes, and she twitched, her feathers puffing up. “Looks like they’ve damaged them.”

Tane leaned next to her, squinting at the cables. Some were out of place. “Can you fix them?”

“Of course,” Teri said. “It’ll just take time.”

Tane looked down the hallway. “And there’s more out there, aren’t there? More rooms?”

Teri nodded slowly. “And they’ll be damaged, too.”

Tane gently pressed Teri’s gun back into her hand. “My scouts will buy us all the time we need,” Tane promised. She knew they would. They were angry, and angry birds were focused birds. They’d keep fighting well past when they’d normally disperse.

She was just as angry, but it stayed just under a boil, thrumming through her unison. Her birds were angry as much as she was. They were in sync. They knew when their homes were under attack, being threatened, and they begged her to take action.

Tane counted the bullets left in her guns, then looted the rest from the bugs on the floor. She did the math, picked up their nearly full magazines, and gestured at Teri to join her. “Come on, let’s hurry.”

“What if this doesn’t work?” Teri asked, quietly.

“It’ll work,” Tane said.

“But what if it doesn’t?” Teri asked. “We’ve lost the war then, haven’t we?”

“There are birds in other places,” Tane said. “They’re not as good as we are, but perhaps… perhaps we’ve carved through enough of their number they’ll be weak enough.”

She didn’t believe that. She knew Teri didn’t either.

“I don’t-”

Tane flicked the safety off of her gun and gestured at her. “We’ll deal with that when it comes, alright?” She kept her voice low and easy, friendly. Teri had survived being trapped inside of a Fey base, but Tane knew the difference.

This time, there was no bastion of safety on the other side of the walls. There would be no people looking for them if they fled.

This was their safety, and if they lost here…

Tane kicked open the door. Teri called out a number. Tane’s bullets caught three across the chest, and they stumbled back, and then Tane switched guns and their reinforced carapaces cracked and fell to the ground in a spill of fluids and bones.

There would be a place for Tane out there in the wilds. She could practically taste the sun across her feathers, she could practically smell the forest, hear the tiny sounds of uncivilized creatures without a care in the world.

Teri checked over the equipment in front of her, and Tane watched, her eyes closing. Outside, the battle was picking up. Gunshots were being steadily drowned out by the hellish noises that wasps made in the air, an infernal buzzing. At first, their numbers were thinned.

But Tane could hear the tank beetles incoming as well. Great awful stomping noises, and then the patter of many other feet in their wake.

They’d lost the air battle. Their defences were destroyed. All that was left was their mobility, and what standing armies they had left.

Tane could run the math. It was pretty easy.

It was down to the two of them, and Tane had to press her faith into the archivist, her head heavy with an Omoi node. It was simple as that. No time for doubts, and no time, at all, for regrets.

“Repairable?” Tane asked.

“If I had more people.” Teri said. “I don’t know if I can do it.”

“You can tell me what to do,” Tane said. “Let’s keep going.”

Teri nodded, drawing her gun this time.

Tane slammed the door open.

Teri called out a number.

Tane pulled the trigger until the gun clicked, and when that wasn’t enough, she slammed her talons into a squishy neck until green fluid drools across her knuckles and down her arm. She could feel the moment the Fey stopped breathing, and she marvelled at the sensation of cessation. Here, she was as much of a god as the Lords above.

Here, she might be defeated just as they had.

Teri did diagnostics. Tane could only assume her Omoi was helping with that, making short work of all the repairs she’d need to do.

“How many more rooms?” Tane asked.

“One,” Teri said. “It’ll… It’ll probably be the most defended. Are you sure we’re up for this?”

Tane tossed Teri a gun, safety on. Teri fumbled with it. “You dragged yourself, the Warden, and a savage beast out of a military base,” Tane pointed out.

“That was different,” Teri said. “I had more hope there. It wasn’t… It wasn’t this.”

Tane nodded. She’d known this. She needed the repetition. 

The door cracked open. Three gunshots.

Tane was already moving, and Teri had dropped to the ground, flattening her profile, and then Tane filled the door with more bullets, crackling straight through the faux wooden frame. It was old, but not too old, and they hit something on the other side, and bones broke and skin punctured, and Tane hit the ground next to Teri.

Teri shoved her gun towards Tane. Tane took it, then took her other gun, and they moved like a joined snake, sliding across the ground. The door cracked open.

Tane filled the drone with enough lead that it fell to the ground, a pool of green fluid drooling out of wounds and turning the ground into a slippery mess.

Tane took a shot at the next.

Tane took a shot at the next.

They weren’t all her memories, not really, in her head. She could remember, if she went far enough back, what the King even looked like, even if she’d spent most of her time making things in a port town, fishing off the coast, enjoying the bounties of crabs and celebrating the Jubilee. But the snap and pop of gun fire, the scent of gunpowder in the air, they weren’t all Tane.

Here, in the chaos, and the pain, and the thrumming of hearts, and the desperation that she could feel buzzing in her brains, feel in her livers, feel in her blood, pooled together in a temporary construction, she could taste the Regent’s own presence.

And it was clinical, and cold, and she had never liked it, but here, at the end of the world, it touched her and carressed her like a blanket. Like feathers trailing against her own.

The gun clicked empty in her hands, and the air was still in the other room. Teri slid forward, curiously, and Tane blocked her passage with an arm before joining her.

They last room connected directly to the tower overhead.

Wires like snakes linked together, spilled together, knotted against a computer studded with bullets. The screen crackled with electricity, flickering on and off. Teri walked over.

Tane could see the shudder in her limbs. Tane could smell ozone in the air, electrical smoke. “Well?”

Teri closed her eyes for a moment.

“It’ll take some time.”

Her eyes snapped back open. “But I think we can make it work.”

——-

I’d never felt so exposed.

I’d once had to debrief a military commander about USEC operational security, removed from my own work-mind. I remembered it, and remember the light interrogation they’d used.

I’d been chosen because of how instrumental I’d been to the process. They asked me questions, soldiers strapped with enough armor and guns to make me shake, and they treated me like a monster.

Even then, there was a sense that there was a place to go if the treatment was too bad. There was some authority in the land that would save me, would remove me from their care.

That I was important enough to save.

A bullet whistled by and a store front exploded, fire licking at the aged brick and mortar. Buildings that had stood in defiance of the outside world for thousands of years had simply vanished under the insectile war machines.

Here, I was important. I was so important that the last of the defences had been placed around me. I didn’t have anything to show about it, not really. What was I going to do?

What were we bracing for? Some half baked hope that I could conjure forth a miracle?

Jay stood in front of me, and I stared at him instead of the war around me. The smoke was thick enough to tickle my lungs, and each breath brought me out of the world I wanted to be in and into the certainty of death.

There was no reassurance left. There was only dark powers on our side, and the whistle at the back of my head that this wouldn’t be good enough. That none of this would save us.

But they fought on regardless. And who was I to question their decisions? I, their heavenly warrior, who could barely hold a gun, let alone hit anything with it?

This far down the line, they were the heavenly soldiers, and I was just a damsel.

An explosion distant lit up the sky. My Omoi picked up a transmission about another group being compromised.

My crew had their ear plugs in. Diminished ability to react, but it’d protect them from Trellis. Which was more deadly? A single USEC employee through time, or bullets?

I’d’ve laughed but I was too nervous.

Prin reappeared among the ranks of the feathers friends, his knife glistening with fluid. He flicked it once, bowed before us, and gestured ahead. Wordlessly, we followed. The knife ate at the dim light overhead. The smoke was so thick I couldn’t tell if it was day or night anymore. Sleep deprivation did the rest.

Jay rested his hand on my shoulder, squeezed once, and gently led me through the train of crows marching.

The front lines encountered Fey, and Prin left us again. Bullets encountered heavy armor and the knife encountered no resistance. He slid between seconds, cut between thoughts and between metaphors. Teeth were no sharper than knives, and he cut between those as well, until all fell before him.

What was left in his wake the soldiers took care of, until Prin was back by our side, eyes dark as coals, but not as dark as the steel on the rite-knife.

“Does it hurt?” I asked, staring at it. I could barely look at this face. Was this dispassion, was this disconnect real?

Or had I simply seen too many things in too short a time.

“It’s cold,” Prin admitted, “And it tells me what to do, and where to go. It leads me on, I think, because it sense something real among their ranks, realer than we are. It wants it, it wants it more than anything. Do you think the King felt this?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

The tower gleamed with wasps. The ground was littered with dead crows, and a few live birds hopped about aimlessly. They’d bred the fear out of them, over the course of thousands of years.

They were almost cute, but this close to the knife all I could think of was how tiny they were. I could fit them in my mouth.

“I never met him,” I said. “But don’t you think he was warmer?”

The tower gleamed with wasps, but it also gleamed with swarms of birds. They fell upon the insects like bladed rain. They fell upon the world like daggers from heaven.

They fell upon the world.

And we joined them in the chaos. Jay stood over top of me, Dean tucked at my side, and I listened to the radio, the sole creature that could, and waited, desperately, for something, anything at all to save us. The battle was horrible, it was bloody, but my eyes glazed over trying to keep track of it. Fey slaughtered, Crows scattered, and the horrified screeching of birds trying to communicate, but unable to get past animalistic noises. Memories poured from their peaks like ichor.

And I sat and cowered in the corner.

It might’ve lasted a bit longer if I hadn’t received a message on my Omoi. A personal message.

Teri.

Warden, we need a fully functional Omoi in the tower or we’re all going to die. Think you’re up for it?

Followed by a picture.

Tane posing in front of what could only be the wireless controls for the entire tower. Half blown to pieces.

I slid out of cover, nudging Jay. Jay startled looking up from where he was guarding.

I pointed at the tower.

He shook his head.

I pointed at the tower.

He shook his head.

I pointed at the tower. He hesitated.

“Teri,” I mouthed.

He hesitated again, his feathers shifting. Dean looked up from where he was hiding.

I sent him Teri’s message, and he straightened up further.

The tower.

Jay held out his hand. I took it.

I gestured at the mass of soldiers around us, and then at the tower.

He sighed. He nodded.

It wasn’t the greatest place for a last stand, but it’d have to do.

Fate had a sense of humor.