Jay stepped over to the front of the car and waited. The distinctive noise of the Crow weapons (ever so slightly different from the Fey rifles, I’d gotten used to the difference and found the Crow’s woodpecker guns more comforting) came over the hill, and then noises of ricochets and softer things taking heavier hits.
I sent a crow up ahead to look, and I saw through his hazy eyes what awaited below. It was a small contingent, smaller than even the smallest they’d used to breach the city (I could still remember the noises of landmines and drone swarms and the booming music the Crows had played to keep morale up). A bullet caught a drone, three rounds raising up through the chest, and it slumped over with half of the head missing. The Tank beetles were the real trouble, marching solemnly towards the forest. Dozens of crows swarmed over them.
We’d figured out how to crack them, and a crow dropped a tightly wound ball of fabric on top of one, and then another lit it with a flare, touching off a thermite reaction that forced me to look away while it sizzled against the carapace. It kept right on marching despite melting chitin until it stopped to fire again.
It got off a single blast, and then its internals sprayed in a super heated slurry up through the hole carved in the chitin, gore and viscera boiled into a paste, and the creature fell over with a massive thump that shook the ground. I could smell the slurry cooking from even this distance, and felt sick to my many stomachs. This wasn’t something worth seeing.
“BEHIND!” Came the roar from the front, and I whirled around. More Fey were approaching, flanking our position. Our pincer formation had turned against us.
Jay shoulder checked me back into cover, and his gun fired until it clicked, bullets spinning off. Blood sprayed from the approaching column and they fell to the ground like daisies.
“We can’t let them hit the car,” I hissed. Boss was inside, and she was still out cold. If we weren’t careful… She was already having trouble, I didn’t want her to have any more to heal.
Jay growled, and the Regent stood, her tongue across her beak, and spoke.
“Bore.” She demanded, and her will fought against the universe, and the universe lost. The world shattered in front of her as something like solid force lanced straight ahead, scattering them like wheat.
Tane tugged the Regent back into cover, and the Regent rasped for breath for a second as I watched her. “What-”
“It’s time to give up on the old ways,” The Regent answered the full question before I could say it. “Don’t you think?”
“What other words do you know?” Tane asked, sounding annoyed. She looked up, and the scouts flew overhead to deal with this second front, now disrupted. But that was a temporary measure. “Any I should care about, old girl?”
If Bismarck figured out where we were… and it wouldn’t be hard, if she was listening closely to her troop movements, she could just drop her forces onto us until the entire convoy was threatened.
The radio squealed, and Jay dropped his from his hip so it bounced against the ground. It hissed, crackled, and then spoke. “Let us handle the front. Focus on the back.” I didn’t recognize the voice. It was male, deep throated, and rough.
It’d also tapped into our frequency, which I was fairly sure wasn’t supposed to happen so easily. Whatever.
The Regent looked at me, blood dripping out of the corner of her eye, and cocked her head to the side. I hesitated, just for a moment, and a Crow was struck ahead, scattering into pieces and then fleeing in blind terror, caws broken up with bullets and machinegun retorts.
The reinforcements were still winding out of the trees behind our position.
“Take the back!” I ordered into the com. I just hoped they weren’t going to abandon us here. They wouldn’t, right?
I wasn’t a tactician.
They needed one, and I wasn’t one.
Tane popped her rifle out of cover, but not the rest of her, and blind fired, spitting bullets downhill, and from the back of one of the cars, the heavier rifles were distributed.
Then it went wrong, and one of the mobile rigs exploded. They’d been ditched the second we’d hit combat, but they still exploded, and the fireball shook the trees, scattering leaves, and a thousand million birds rose up into the air, mixed and muddled with crows both wild and kindled. The heat on my skin reminded me of the Capital and I shuddered and came back together, reaching blindly for my own weapon.
Memories that weren’t my own bubbled up and I remembered how to hold it properly, remembered years of endlessly redesigning the grip and hold and contours of it, decades of wishing I had a better mind for it and centuries of practice, and then I plunged three rounds downwind in a tight burst. A Fey drone caught it across the chest and fell to the ground asphyxiating on blood as a bullet whistled by my head near enough that I felt the featherlike hair I still had left moved, and I dove back for cover, blind terror lancing through my head.
It was hard to escape, even when you didn’t have it. I looked up and saw the bullets had shattered the glass on our van, in and out the driver’s window and through the wind shield, and had kept right on doing, breaking only through every tree in the path.
Then the first tank bug rolled up, and I stared, straight ahead at it, and swallowed.
We weren’t made to resist those.
“Thanks,” The radio bubbled. “We’ll handle it from here.”
But the ground didn’t stop shaking for more than a few seconds, while the trees of the forest burned and gun fire came pouring out of them (I couldn’t see who was in the trees, they were in cover and angry) the ground shook like an earthquake.
Or like something was in the ground.
A tank beetle flew up into the air from the front of the battle crashing among a horde of the Fey, now swarming like ants, and nearly crushing a Crow who scattered out of the way just in time, and when I turned to look at where it had come from, my stomach dropped. A massive thing protruded from the ground, a great display of a thing with jaws and gnashing teeth.
An enormous worm had burst out of the ground, and the sides of it opened up and Fey dropped out, armed with guns and-
A second later, they were already firing on Bismarck’s Fey, scything them down and another worm burst out of the ground and deposited more and more, vomiting them up. The first went down in a detonation from a tank beetle, but another crow squadron took it down with thermite while it was still overheated, and it burst like a balloon, sending chitinous shrapnel every which way across the field.
The front was a rout, an utter slaughter. From the back, the Crow troops took out anyone that tried to flee, and from the sides, the angry looking Fey rampaged unchecked, and the ground shook as worms burst out of the ground to knock the tank beetles out of position.
It took less than five minutes for the rest to be slaughtered, and for the final tank beetle to hiss as the thermite ate through the shell and took out whatever delicate systems balanced the heat created by it’s infernal universal weapon.
But that still left the reinforcements streaming towards us. Even with the Regent’s command, even with their orderly lines broken, there were always more Fey than there were Crows.
A tank beetle opened up its massive maw, and I saw, written there, another line of command tongue. I could almost sound it out in my head, bubbling with a thousand years of unconnected thoughts, frantically repeated and told to other birds until all that was left was myself, and I could hear it in my head as well as in my heart, beating as frantically as a great bass drum and
Then the hill underneath of us rumbled and I barely managed a squawk before a worm burst out in our backline, launching the tank beetle high up into the air, and knocking me over.
It sat with a dozen eyes all peering at all directions at once, and then disgorged from it’s side a slurry of Fey in military camos, a mix of green and a few navals. At a closer look, they did look angrier, their eyes were narrowed and more pointed, and their faces were painted, done up in a variety of designs. Then lurched towards the back, and the ground shattered again and again until they stopped, half a dozen giant worms making a mess out of Bismarck’s heavy troops, dozens upon dozens of fresh Fey joining the battle on our side.
It was an awesome sight, seeing their brutal almost human faces with something other than blind terror. I still felt it, in my heart. I could see it in the faces of those around me, where we didn’t know if we were out and ruined or if we’d be saved. The Regent’s eyes narrowed as she stood up, another sinful noise on her lips, and then a worm burst out of the ground in our midst. This one was larger than any of the others, and the flesh had been dyed a hellish blue.
Then it opened up and the Fey fell like rain, these wearing heavier armor and thicker skin, and even larger rifles. They sounded like concrete falling from rooftops, and the bullets bruised and then broke tank beetles under their anger, ringing out like the great hammer of liberty.
I scattered under the rumbling haze of war. The bullets rang and casings fell, spilling like hot water down the hillside-
Until there was only silence, the reinforcements broken and bleeding out on the ground in front of us.
Then a last compartment, larger than the others, unfolded, and a man stepped out. His skin was dirty, caked in dirt and scars, and his hair was the mane of a wildman, and golden lettering sat scrawled around his features, practically obliterating what I could see of him.
But I knew who it was. I reformed, preening my features of anything inhuman and took a step forward even as Jay and the Regent drew their guns.
“Isaac?” I asked.
His eyes were wide, having noticed the trick I’d just pulled, but despite that, a small grin had settled on his features.
“Dr. Williams,” he bowed slightly. “I presume?”