There were no more clearings, and the forest floor was covered in darkness. Gleaming objects poked out of the foliage and leaf rot.
I paused and nudged one with my foot. It rolled over, rotting leaves clinging to it. Ivory.
I looked up, and the area changed in shape. Features became recontextualized. Rocks and rotting cars were revealed as something else entirely.
Skeletons, wrapped in ivy. Jay waited while I investigated, quietly staring ahead at the oak, avoiding the bones.
I knelt down and brushed vines off of bones around me. Shed carapaces of massive insects dotted the ground.
Some with gnashing jaws full of teeth. Others with bulky arms and legs, like Boss’s skeleton might resemble. Other skeletons of beasts I couldn’t name. A great snake stretched out most of a city block, ending in a skull filled with enough cracks and holes to put a god out of its misery, much less a living breathing creature.
“Do you like it?”
I jerked from my studies. Sitting in one of the trees, Quen stretched, then fell to the ground. He landed nimbly, straightening up.
“The War-leader joins us,” Jay noted.
“The Outcast still follows you, Warden,” Quen noted.
“Say what you want about what he’s done,” I reminded. “He survived all these years without the benefits of Crow-kind. He can defend me just as well.”
Jay brighted visibly. Quen glared at him. “Surviving was his crime,” Quen said. “So I suppose he’s good at it enough to protect you.”
“Where were you?” Jay asked. “I thought you were going to guide us.”
“I was debriefing members of Forge-Nest,” Quen said. “As you can imagine, traitors among our ranks is quite disheartening. Especially since the mayor was in a position of power.”
“So you’re going to strip his name?”
“Precisely,” Quen said. “Luckily for us, we’re almost at the wall of names.” That, at least, sounded self explanatory.
“Like you did with Jay’s name?”
“You named him?” Quen asked.
“I needed something to call him,” I said. And giving him my brother’s name wasn’t the worst way to cope. I’d always been able to depend on Jay, after all.
And in this world, I needed more people like my brother.
“Whatever you say, Warden,” Quen said, humoring me. “I suppose I should give you a better tour. We’re in the graveyard of beasts.” his beak clicked on the last syllable to hiss the ‘s’. He gestured grandly. “Here, while Jay and I fought tooth and nail to save the city, the city’s defenders were routed.”
Then he turned to keep walking towards the great tree.
“Why’d you leave the bones here?”
“Few people need to walk,” Quen pointed out, dryly. “And there’s no point in getting rid of them. The ground is for beasts. We own the air, and the top of buildings. Everything that matters. The ground is for…”
His eyes flicked to mine. “Beasts and Wardens. So I suppose it does have some small charm.”
Jay glared at him. Quen, naturally, ignored him.
I’d gotten used to the casual abuse of Jay, bizarrely. He was a good enough Crow that I could trust him to watch my back, and when it was needed, I’d push people to accept his input.
But we were in a new city, and I didn’t want to strain what few connections I was making. That was a losing strategy. Even if I wanted to shake everyone that talked badly to him, out of some desire to protect him.
But he was a soldier, and he was clearly used to it. Even if I didn’t agree, who was I to disagree (a friend that’s who).
The bones faded in density, only a few here and there. At the end, a massive beast, a Hound if I had to guess, stretched across a clearing. Skull cracked open in a dozen places. Did it speak with a voice like thunder, tongue dappled in Command of the cosmos?
Or was it simply possessed by the Fey, like everything else.
“How have the war efforts been?” Jay asked.
Quen sighed. “You know, I’ll humor you on that, Jay. We did work together.”
I breathed out a sigh of relief. I didn’t know how to navigate the tension of killing a king. That seemed like something outside of my doctorate. And everything else.
“Poorly,” Quen said. “There’s not much of a war going on, you understand. Our side got heavy casualties, they lost the majority of their forces when we routed them. It’s hard to get much support for a war when everyone remembers the last fight.”
“And you can’t get permission for an inquisitor,” Jay guessed.
“That’s the Regent’s purview, not my own,” Quen said, dryly. “For the Warden’s sake, an Inquisitor is used to remove memories from a Crow. Say, they became partially infected with a corrupting agent,” Quen gestured at Jay.
“Instead of outcasting them, we could simply find which crow has the majority of the corruption, and excise them from the gestalt. Leaving us with a Crow that is hopefully less likely to go insane and start scattering Crows.”
“Are you going to do that to Irri?” I asked.
“Your prisoner?” Quen replied. “She’ll be lucky if she isn’t put to death. I hate to kill a Crow, but that level of cowardice… that level of treachery, it stretches deep inside of her character. It’ll depend on how willing she is to talk, I suppose. I don’t look forward to attending that.”
“But maybe, Jay, with the information that the Fey are moving in on us again… We can get some real work done.”
Then there were no trees left, and we stood entirely in the shadow of the great oak tree, and the building supporting it. Quen was silent. Jay was silent.
I didn’t bother breaking it to ask another question.
The oak tree was larger than life. Large enough to build houses inside of the trunk. Large enough to fit subways inside of it. Power line stretched across it, linking up more polished structures straddling the top of buildings. Now that I was closer, I could make out the thin black lines.
The Crows had electricity. Fantastic.
Across the bottom of the tree sat a narrow platform. Around it, black monoliths, forming an arching wall. Quen stepped over to the monoliths and I joined him. Dappling the structure were names. Hundreds of different names, four lettered in the style of most Crows. Quen hovered over them, one by one, searching.
I saw it before he did. Joli, the now dead mayor of Forge-nest. Traitor who had collaborated with the Fey to capture me.
His talon dug into the side of the name and he scraped it clear with an agonizing scream of stone. Then he did it again, and again, until there was just a gouge left behind. Gravel littered the floor beneath of his talons.
I took my gaze off of the gouge and looked over the walls. Many names had lines through them. Few were gouged.
Jay gestured at one of the gouges, towards the middle. “Do you know who gouged mine?” he asked, quiet.
Quen shrugged. “It took me decades to get to this position. Perhaps the old War-leader took care of that. You can trust it wasn’t personal.”
Then there was a soft silence. Jay deflated. “I miss having a name.”
Quen clicked his beak. “I imagine you would.”
“In another world, I stayed behind and you went with him,” Jay pondered.
“And maybe the King wouldn’t be missing,” Quen said.
“That’d be a better world,” Jay agreed.
Quen was silent.
Getting up the tree wasn’t that difficult. In the building the tree had grown into, there was a working elevator, spliced into the grid of generators and power lines more or less hidden by the trees. Jay and I walked over to it.
“Mostly used to move freight and supplies,” Quen pointed out. Not unkindly. “It works for those less fortunate as well. This is one of the few working elevators in the city, most choose to deactivate theirs after finishing their nests.”
The elevator walls were decorated with various murals. Pictures of an island to the south that I didn’t recognize. Sea scenes. It was nice.
Music hummed faintly in the elevator. Thrummed and thumped with a bass instrument and a string. Whispered words of protection mixed in with prayer.
“Elevator music,” Jay complained.
“You should be grateful that it doesn’t literally set you on fire,” Quen gruffed. “If there were any justice left in the world…”
Jay was silent.
I didn’t speak or try to intervene. There wasn’t a point to that. Not really.
The elevator rumbled in the long dead building, creaked, whined, and eventually vomited us out onto a high floor. Jay and Quen walked out immediately, leaving me behind. I darted between the doors as they started to close and joined them.
“Some place you have set up here,” I wondered out loud. The floor had been cleared out. Windows opened into the void of air. Trees decorated the ground like an upholstered carpet.
“The Regent has her foibles.” Quen noted, and stepped forward. A solid segment of the room had been destroyed by the long movement of the tree’s prodigal growth, cutting through concrete and tangling with the supporting walls. To spite the irregular surface carved in the tree, someone had carved a flat area, with sweeping wood.
“Nice work,” Jay noted, stepping over to it. He ran his taloned fingers across the surface, marveling in the smoothness. Swallowing, I walked over and joined him.
The branch was easily wider than the average road, this distance from the main trunk. Whoever had carved it had to have spent months.
Crows were immortal, so that was slightly less impressive.
But what drew my attention was the view proper. We were merely supported by the ancient branch, once one abandoned the comfort of cool aged concrete. (which should be gone, how was it not?) And-
We were easily twenty stories up.
I’d just discovered that apparently I had a slight fear of heights after all.
Jay took a step off of the edge, tapping his feet across the sturdy oak wood. “Treated to prevent parasites?”
“To the best of our abilities,” Quen said, solemn. “This tree will outlast us, perhaps.”
“How many Crows died defending this place?” Jay wondered aloud.
“Too many,” Quen said. Both were quiet.
Quivering, I put hands on either side of the railing and put a foot out onto the wood instead of the building. My head swam, my heart thumped like a damn rocket, and Jay and Quen took another few steps out of my reach.
“Did you have anything like this, Jess?” Jay asked, turning back to see… that I was falling a bit behind.
Quen worked his head to the side. The equivalent of a raised eyebrow, perhaps. Jay scuttled back, talons clicking on the ground. “What’s wrong?”
I gave him a nervous embarrassed grin and tried to ignore the fact that if I fell, it’d be between 3 or 4 seconds before I hit the ground, depending on how my body reacted to the sudden intrusion of rushing air.
Long enough to give an undignified squealing scream, and then poof, no more Jess.
“Just… the height. I don’t exactly have wings,” I noted, then swallowed. Come on, I’d been shot at, nearly clawed to death by a giant monster, nearly had my face melted off. I could do… a minor display of heights.
Jay tucked himself in next to me, carefully propping one of my arms against his shoulder. Quen sighed.
Jay clicked his beak demandingly, and Quen followed after him, propping up the other side of me.
“You have a fear of heights, Warden?” Quen asked, disappointed.
“I have a healthy fear for most things that’ll kill me.”
“She says, making friends with a Beast from the north,” Jay muttered.
“She says, making friends with an Outcast,” Quen noted, a playful lilt to his voice.
“She says, deciding to investigate a scattering,” Jay continued.
I rolled my eyes, and stepped forward. The two birds kept me supported, kept me rather balanced. The wind whistled over top of the skybridges, each step bringing up further and further onto a thicker and thicker branch.
“Do you know,” I said, swallowing, trying to fight the urge to look over the edge. “Why this tree is so fucking big? Honest question,” I said.
“It was here when the King decided to make it out hold out spot,” Quen noted.
“Wasn’t burnt yet,” Jay said, “It’d been growing for the last thousand years.” He clicked his beak. “It probably has something to do with the USEC base it’s growing out of.”
“Oh,” I said. I took another step forward, and the wind whipped past my hair. A few weeks out, and I was already thinking of how I needed a haircut, if only to keep it out of my eyes. “Of course it’s out of the USEC base. Does it also vomit toxic spores? Catch itself on fire, perhaps? Scream?”
“It hasn’t screamed since it stopped burning,” Quen said, dryly.
I shot him a look.
“It also hasn’t screamed since before that,” Jay retorted.
“You two really are old friends,” I said.
“We worked together,” Jay supported.
“It’d have been better if he died on that mission,” Quen conceded. “Because I wouldn’t have to carry this dual understanding of him. Most people don’t have to worry about that, they simply see an Outcast and know that they’ve been deemed beyond saving. Since most of the Outcasts still around were…”
“Failures,” Jay submitted.
“Guards of the Missing King,” Quen said.
Another step forward. The sun was trailing from behind clouds, casting ornate and elegant shadows through long followed buildings. How many skeletons had been lifted out of the buildings by working Crows? How many had been left?
I didn’t want to be another collection of bones.
Another step forward.
“Because I can remember your ‘Jay’ as being a comrade,” Quen noted. “But I know that the Inquisitors deemed him impossible to save.”
“I’d love to hear my name,” Jay said. “Just once more.”
Quen was silent.
The wind whistled over us, and their feathers ruffled. Quen didn’t break his quiet. Jay gave up on waiting at all. It was too far, too late to make amends.
I didn’t know if I agreed with that.