Song of the Venturing Owl (Part 37)

They reeked of blood and fear. Violence, happenstance, pain, and they said nothing when they started to talk. A knife at my back urged me forward.

If I wasn’t so useless- but that wasn’t fair. I wasn’t useless. I just… wasn’t… the same as everyone else.

Steps turned into yards and then down hallways and then into a main antechamber. A corpse sat to the side, feathers stained red. There weren’t that many sirens left on this island to begin with; how many had they gotten?

The Commander stood in the center of the room, wiping at his sword with a cloth. He turned to face his guards. “Ah,” he said, daring to smile at me. Without his helmet, he was a mess of sweaty black hair, freckles, and the beginnings of a beard from where he hadn’t shaved. He had friendly eyes. His helmet sat next to him, dented beyond use. It looked like a solid spear hit had almost taken his eyes, those friendly familiar eyes.

His armor still smelled like blood.

“There you are. I thought we might miss you in the attack.” He bowed his head politely, clearly waiting for me to do the same. All I managed to do was shake.

“Nothing to say?” he asked. “You did the lion’s share of this, you know. The Colonel used you to sound out their defences. It took a few days or so, but it wasn’t that hard, once she figured it out.”

The blood left my face. I didn’t know where it went, because I was horribly cold. Numbness slipped across my features. My fingers curled up into fists.

“So we should be thanking you. Our trap worked.”

“You wanted me to be recaptured?”

“I’ll admit,” The Commander said. “I wasn’t expecting it to be that violent, or that soon.”

Looking closer, I could see that the vessels of his eyes were still inflamed. That, that was satisfying. I wanted to… I wanted…

“But… it worked,” He said, gesturing around the fortress. “We’re here, and we’ll rout the rest of them when we find them. It won’t even be hard. We have the number advantage, the armor advantage… there’s little we don’t have, now. Thanks to you.” He bowed his head.

I didn’t reply.

Had it gone like this in the real world, or was this alteration entirely because of me? The most- I had to face facts, most of the people here didn’t matter. They weren’t real. The person taunting me wasn’t real either, not in the same way I was.

“What I don’t understand,” The Commander said. “Is how exactly the Sirens got ahold of someone who is the spitting image of our Colonel’s young son.”

I swallowed.

“Are you some sort of fell double? Some phenomena of the island that we don’t understand? I’m not entirely stupid, there’s no way this is coincidence.” He took a step forward. “Are you going to answer me, kid?”

What was there to say? I was doomed if I said a word, and I was doomed if I didn’t. There wasn’t much of a chance left for any of us.

I could only hope that the Captain managed to get Irony onto the ship. Then we’d get at least 2 free.

“No,” I said, bluntly.

“A shame,” The Commander said. “The Colonel will be upset to know you’re dead.”

I swallowed.

“But I’ll tell her the Sirens did it.” he looked up at the men surrounding him. “Isn’t that right? He’ll go down in history as being a victim instead of a traitor.”

The surrounding guards didn’t say much of anything at all, their ranks closed around the two of us.

“Do you have any last words?” The Commander said, drawing his sword. He took a step forward. The blade flashed in the dim light of the torches, and I saw my own face reflected back. The same bone structure as his own, the same muffled features. I looked young, gaunt, beaten, bruises across my face.

This was the face of a man about to die.

“Just two.” That wasn’t my voice.

“Fuck off,” Harley spat, and her arrow struck the Commander between the eyes.

It wasn’t quite like it is in the stories. There wasn’t a moment where he knew his fate, nor was there a moment of quiet appraisal where he considered everything he’d done. In one instant, the sword was flashing back to take my life, and the next, the blade was toppling out of his fingers, and he was no longer a man so much as a collection of meat, a puppet without strings.

I closed my eyes, twisted my head to the side, dropped to my knees, and threw will like water down a drain into my heart until it erupted into a massive flash, and then, half blind, I ran myself as hard as I could towards the gate, dodging through the mass of armor.

I clipped a man with my shoulder and felt a blade hiss by my head, rank with polish and oil, and nearly slammed into the wall next to it before I could see through my squinted eyes, but I got out without being butchered.

Harley laughed like a maniac from the rafters, and her arrows found another mess of flesh, cutting through the thin of armor and I could smell fresh blood.

Her laugh echoed through my ears as I ducked into the hallway, after images of the flash in my eyes, and I opened them. Everything was dim in comparison to that desperate terrified moment, and I heard armor turn my way, people shouting for cover, and I took off in a blind run towards tunnels I knew better.

I made it halfway down one and the torches snuffed out, plunging the mass of it into darkness, and then two taloned hands dragged me to the side. A wing pressed over my mouth, preventing me from crying out. Armored feet trampled through the ink, passing us by in seconds, and then after that, she waited there, completely quiet.

My heart throbbed so hard it hurt, like it might come unseated from the moorings that kept it safely attached to the rest of my viscera, but I could also hear the throbbing of the siren hugging me against her chest. It was softer. Larger than mine by far, to keep their strong bodies working, but it was softer, more even. Against my will, I found myself calming down.

Then she released me, and her talons moved in elegant little arcs, lit up by the gleam of my pendant around my throat.

Jerome. She’d made it out.

I swallowed back a sob of relief (it hid behind my eyes, making even the darkness into a blurry mess) and hugged her. She patted me on the back quietly, and then pried my arms loose. Knowing I couldn’t understand her, she pointed into the darkness, then placed a hand over my chest to dim the light. I nodded once, and she moved like quicksilver, outline blurred by the darkness, and I kept my hand clamped over my heart to keep it from giving us away and moved after her.

I hadn’t seen what was down this tunnel, as it was a side structure that hadn’t been important, but now I wished I had, if only to keep up with her pace. At every junction, she paused, waiting for me to join her, and then she took a path and I followed after.

We hit a junction that was still lit, and sirens peeled out of the darkness. They were grim, and Harley pointed an arrow head, held in her hand, at my neck.

“This is your fault,” She spat.

I held up my hands and swallowed. “I didn’t know.”

“No,” Harley said, scoffing. “I suppose you wouldn’t. It’s… also my fault.” She took a breath. “I should’ve known it was too easy to rescue Vali,” She gestured behind her, where Vali sat. Her wing was freed from the cast, and sat, bare skin plucked and covered in scabs and lacquered with honey and other pastes, her expression turning murderous.

“Did you get him?” Vali asked.

“I did,” Harley said, laughing. “You were right. He didn’t have his helmet on.”

“I clubbed the bastard, but he just kept moving,” Vali muttered, darkly. “If I’d been faster, struck harder, we might’ve kept the top floor.”

“We still have each other,” I said.

Harley pulled the arrow back into the quiver and sighed, closing her eyes. “There’s so many of them. They must have nearly everyone moving on this place; my scouts are telling me that there’s a battalion marching. At this rate, they’ll have the entire mountain scoured by the end of tomorrow.”

I swallowed, and then looked up. “You said they’re putting everything they can into this mountain, right?”

“Yes?” Harley asked.

“What’s left in their camp?” My eyes flicked over to Vali’s.

Harley thought about it for a moment, and then tilted her head to the side. “The Colonel, for one.”

With her to the side, what else…?

Harley’s eyes flicked to the tunnel behind us. “We’ve got company. Everyone, stand up.”

There were less than seven sirens among their number, I realized. Harley, Vali, Jerome, and four others I didn’t recognize. One was bandaged, blood leaking across the edge of it, and another bore a stripe of bandages across one eye.

We weren’t in any position to take on the armored troops in a fair fight.

Harley listened closely, and then pointed down three of the tunnels. “They’re coming from there and there and there. This way!” She gestured at another tunnel, and a siren struggled to his feet. I raced over to his side, helped him up, and he dug talons into my shoulder standing up. I could feel pinpoints of blood messing up my clothes, but I couldn’t care.

Then we made a run for it. Vali lingered behind us, dousing the torches to keep visibility at a bare minimum, and we raced to catch up with the others.

Harley threw herself to the side at the next junction, and soldiers streamed out of the mess of tunnels ahead of us. She nocked an arrow into her bow, waiting patiently, and not a soul of us breathed too hard, waiting for her signal.

After another few minutes, she jerked her head back, gestured behind us, and set the arrow back into her quiver and moved forward.

“Where are the others?” I hissed.

“Downstairs,” Vali said. “They can seal off the levels; they’ve been working on it since the war started. They’ve got enough supplies down there to keep them alive for weeks-”

“-That doesn’t help us,” Harley said, crossly. Jerome flashed a sign at both of them, and Vali snorted.

“Pinion isn’t going to save us up here,” Vali said. Jerome glared at her until Vali softened up. “Not that she wouldn’t, I mean.”

Jerome nodded, and Harley held up her hands. We sat in another junction. “We need to make plans. What are we doing?”

“We need to get them out of the mountain, right?” Vali asked, looking down at me.

“Preferably,” Harley said. “We need to get on those ships without being massacred. If they’re too busy taking the mountain…”

“Charm, what were you thinking earlier?”

“We could attack their camp,” I said. “While they’re busy. Cause a big distraction-”

“And they’ll have to abandon the total assault or risk losing their camp,” Harley said, nodding her head. “That might work. Only one problem.”

“What?” Vali asked.

“There are seven of us, and three of them are about to become casualties,” Harley looked over her ranks. The wounded were growing slower and slower with each step, despite Harley’s dispassionate gaze sweeping over them.

“They have prisoners,” I said. “If we can free the prisoners, we’ll quadruple our fighting force.”

“I can’t do it with four people and a human,” Harley shook her head. “Dying like that won’t help anyone. But maybe… I’m to meet up with Pinion. If her topside forces are intact…”

“Ugh-” she didn’t understand, we had to free them. We had to get them all out, or else-

Well, she knew full well that we were all going to die if the humans got ahold of us. They weren’t interested in communications, or friendship, or anything like that. They were running a campaign of extermination.

Harley held up a hand, and her feathers puffed up. “Dammit, they must’ve triangulated us somehow-” She glared down at me, and then snatched my heart off of my throat hard enough that the chain broke.

“They must be using this. How important is this stupid thing?” Harley scowled. “You know what? I don’t care.” She hurled it down the hallway. I watched it bounce, once, twice, three times, before disappearing out of my view.

I felt emptier without it. It wasn’t a bad thing, but I’d grown used to the warmth around my neck and against my chest, and the brief sensation of power.

But she was right, it didn’t mean anything if it was going to get us killed.

“Raise your arms,” Harley said, and Jerome pressed a short sword into my hands. It was practically a long dagger in Siren terms, but in my hands, it was a sword. Harley’s fingers drifted to her bow, and she pointed it down the tunnel.

The tunnel shook. I startled, catching my balance before I fell, and the soldiers looked around. Harley didn’t hesitate, and her arrow caught another man through the neck, and he fell to the ground, choking for air.

It shattered what little peace there was in that moment, and the men raced at us.

“Ahead!” Harley shouted, and then she charged down the empty tunnel, drawing her sword. “To me!”

In the darkness and mold scented stretches of the old tunnel, mixed in with the smell of oil paints and feathers, something shook the earth.

Something screamed.