Ten minutes crept by, and the evening stars were starting to bloom on the far horizon, escaping the gaze of the sun behind the mountain. Air crept down into the tunnel, fresh, and then we were free, emerging into a cave with a massive skylight.
Harley crept forward, and then, with her muscles bulging, and joined by everyone else, shoved a great rock out of the way of the entrance.
“Well,” She said, squinting into the evening gloom. “Not a lot of us left,” She said, flat.
The chef slid off of Sev’s back, staring out into the woods surrounding the mountain. I wondered what he was thinking. Vali’s eyes scanned across the mountain, and then she pointed. On the far side, almost entirely obscured by foliage, the front gates were brimming with soldiers marching inside. Full occupation.
I swallowed. They hadn’t just been chasing down stragglers from the upper levels. They’d been preparing for a full purge of the structure. There were enough soldiers there to force themselves into any tunnel or escape the mountain had to offer.
I shook my head. “There’s so many of them.”
“They’re like ants,” Harley said. “In the first assault, there were islands crawling with them, overwhelming defences by sheer force of number. Howling about honor and their rights… So pointless.”
“Not to them,” Vali said, flatly.
Jerome signed once. I recognized this one, finally, as being Pinion’s sign.
“She’ll be fine,” Harley said. “She’s gotten out of worse situations.”
Jerome raised an eyebrow.
“Not very many worse situations,” Harley amended. “But she got out of the Capital, and that was-”
“You don’t have to remind her,” Vali said. “Or me.”
“My island cousin, does it hurt you as much as it hurt-”
Vali glared at her until even Harley stopped talking, shaking her head. “What’s our next move?” the injured siren asked. Sev knelt down next to a tree, breathing heavily. I watched him until he started crying, and walked over to his side. He looked up, fat tears running trails through the blood spattering his white fluff, and opened his mouth, but all that came out was an agonized wail.
I carefully patted him on the chest, avoiding the worst of the blood. Some of it was his.
“I w-want,” Sev stammered, while the sirens muttered behind us. “I want the Captain. Charm, I want Captain.”
Jerome signed something that looked like her sign for Sirens, so I figured it might be the Captain’s sign.
“Not an awful idea,” Harley said, breathing. “If they weren’t captured, then that’s an assault force unaccounted for out here.”
“And I’d finally get to meet her for more than a few minutes,” Vali muttered.
The chef straightened up. “Where are we going to…” he gestured at the wounded Sirens, strewn about the cave like the discarded shells of nuts.
Harley knelt down before one. The siren leaned up and searched the archer’s face for something. He clearly failed to find it, and laid back down, quiet as death.
Her head snapped up and she looked at Sev. “Beast-”
“My name is Severiel,” Sev said, straightening up and trying to look proud. He failed when another tear splattered down his fur and hit the ground, and when his breath hitched into another half sob.
“You’re going to stay here,” Harley said. “And guard these warriors. If anything happens, you’re going to pick then up and run for it. The best we can do for them is not move them. I’m not a medic, and neither is anyone else.” She straightened up, her spine flexing until she looked even more authoritative. “Soldiers… I don’t care if you’re wounded. When it comes down to it, you’ll fight.” She hesitated. “Right?”
“Yes ma’am,” one said. The others murmured in assent.
Harley shook her head. Jerome flashed a sign at her, and Harley shook her head even more. “Don’t lie to me Jerome. I’m awful at this. There’s a reason why Atalanta leads and I plot.” Jerome gestured again, but Harley turned away instead of reading. Jerome scowled at her, turning to face me instead. She looked me over a few times, then nodded once.
She looked out into the distance, where the ocean lapped at the edge of a pebbled beach. Vali straightened up. “No sense wasting time. We need to catch up with the free sirens if we want to secure the beaches.”
“I can only hope that they were successful,” Harley said. A great hill separated our view from the human held parts of the island, preventing us from getting a good look at their port. “Otherwise…”
“We’ve been losing for a while,” I said. “Haven’t we?”
Harley laughed. “We’ve been outmoded and outnumbered from the start. This is just the last island we had from the old empire… old now. Used to be that it was just the empire. The numbers never matched up, we’ve been fighting a losing battle since the very beginning.”
“Oh,” I said, intelligently.
“How don’t you know this?” Harley asked, curiously. Vali took a step in front of me.
“He’s been serving as my servant for quite a while,” Vali said. “I just hadn’t mentioned it due to his species.”
“Mm,” Harley grunted, clearly unconvinced.
I swallowed. Would that become truth if I died here? Would I awaken, wiped of anything that conflicted with that story?
Sev sidled into the cave and swallowed, shooting me a salute. “Bring back the Captain, okay?” Sev said, his voice shaking. “She’ll make it better. Won’t she?”
I turned away so he couldn’t see my face. “She’ll make it better.”
I just didn’t know how anyone could make anything about this better. It was a lost cause, so far as I could tell.
But that was giving up.
I wasn’t ready to just give up. I couldn’t just give up. I couldn’t give up for Sev’s sake, and if I gave up here, the Professor-
After all, the people on this island had escaped in the real world, despite the hell that had overtaken the island. This was just a memory of how it could happen. If I kept calm, and if I hadn’t ruined everything by being there… I might get out yet.
I looked back at Sev, then back at Vali, and nodded. “Stay here Sev,” I said, swallowing, and straightening back up. “We’ll get the captain.”
“And what are you good for?” Vali asked, curiously. I kept my spine straight. “You’re down your little pendant and I don’t know if you’re good for much else. No offence.”
“Even I know that was meant to offend,” Harley said, flat. Jerome shook her head at Vali, glaring.
Vali huffed, drawing a dagger off of her hip, and knelt down to hand it to me. “You know where to put this, right?”
“We both know that I do,” I said.
“I just think you might need to-”
A pitched screech wound its way through the forest, sending birds scattering up into the heavens, and Harley and Jerome both stiffened.
“What?” Vali asked.
“That’s Pinion,” Harley said, drawing her bow again. “She’s late for our rendezvous, something must have happened. Come on. Let’s move.” Jerome nodded, and then both took off into the forest. Vali paused, giving me a look.
“You sure you’re up for this?”
I looked back to where Sev sat, shifting the boulder back over the passage out. “We don’t have the numbers to split up further,” I said.
Vali’s eyes slid up to where the group had left, and then she dug into her pocket and pulled out a necklace. My necklace. She handed it over to me. My heart beat like a throbbing drum against my chest again, and my sense caught on fire, set alight once more.
“How?” I asked.
“I picked it up while we were running,” Vali said. “They’ve got dogs on us, not Navigators.” One of the few stragglers stared at the two of us before I slipped it into a pocket on my shirt and hurried after the others.
Harley and Jerome had a headstart on us that seemed to last forever, but Vali kept us on path, a steady straight line that led us through burnt out clearings and stretches of dense forest only punctuated by the splatter of blood from man siren and dog alike. It was only when we rounded the same hill that we’d found the professor on that we found Pinion.
She’d been beaten, and a sword wound ran round her shoulder, bleeding lazily. Around her, two sirens sat, dead. Three of the humans were in similar straights, armor caved in like hollow drums, blood dripping out of cracks in the armor. The bodies of her sirens had been left arranged just so that she could see them no matter where she turned. Her chest heaved with each breath, and a hint of pained bloodied drool came from her lips.
She scowled when she saw us, her eyes, glazed with pain, narrowing on me. “You.”
Her eyes closed, and Harley and Jerome rushed to her side. Jerome paused, hesitated, and stared at the dead sirens. She shook, her talons curling into the ground, then tore her gaze away.
“Pinion,” Harley said. “Are you-”
“I’m fine,” Pinion said. “Help me up.”
“You don’t look fine,” Vali said.
“I’m fine,” she repeated, shaking her head. “We’re all going to die if we don’t lead an assault on the human camp at this moment. A few injuries…” blood drooled down her shoulder like loose paint. “Aren’t going to stop me… from leading the attack.”
“Pinion-” Harley started.
“They got the eye,” Pinion said, gruffly. “I don’t know how they found me, but they did, and-” her eyes slid off of the dead next to her like she couldn’t bear to look at them. “They left me alive to make sure I’d be there when they used it.”
“The eye?” I asked.
Pinion and Harley both looked at me, then at each other.
“Well?” Vali said. “Are you going to tell him?”
Harley hesitated, and Vali glared at them before turning to face me. “The Eye is the reason they’re slaughtering this island. It’s a gem the size of your head, black as pitch, and it whispers.”
“It’s sacred to them,” Vali continued.
“Sacred to them?” Pinion scoffed. “It’s sacred to us. It’s ours. We pulled it out of-” She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter where we pulled it from. They’re killing us, every man woman and child over it, and if they want it that badly, that only means they have a use for it.”
“What does it do?” I asked, my hand sliding towards where my heart sat. Could it be…?
“It turns land fertile,” Pinion said. She slid out of Harley’s grasp and tested her stance, talons digging into the ground. “They’ve destroyed their lands with wars and endless fighting. They decided they wanted it from us.”
I closed my eyes. “Why is it bad if they have it?”
“It doesn’t much care for what’s on the land before it makes it fertile,” Pinion said. “It’ll turn just about anything into liveable soil. Including us. They’ve already proven willing to kill for it. We left it here,” she broke off into a wet sounding rasping cough, then shook her head. “Because we couldn’t decide who should have it among us. Idiots.”
“Oh,” I said, swallowing. “Then why aren’t we-”
“They have to get away from here first,” Pinion said. “Or they’d get caught in it.” She winced, and Jerome flocked to her side, tenderly touching her wounded shoulder. It wasn’t moving right.
She flashed a sign at Pinion, and Pinion shoved her away. “I’ll handle it.” Jerome shot her a scowl, and then threw her hands up, stalking away from her.
The Siren Leader stretched out, and then, with a savage grunt, she twisted her shoulder back into place. It crunched, and blood drooling out the wound. “Harley,” Pinion said, turning to face her. “Set off the signal torch.”
Harley stared out at the mountain. “It’s crawling with soldiers, Pinion. Who could see it?”
“We’ve been evacuating all day,” Pinion said. “The island’s covered in forests and caves and hiding places. Light the torch. I’m tired of waiting.” She turned to look down at me. “Your Captain was right. This island will fall before our reinforcements arrive.” She swallowed, and her eyes became less glossy. “So we’ll need to buy ourselves the time we need.”
“I could get hurt,” Harley said, reasonably, but her eyes were locked on Pinion’s bleeding wound. She sounded distant.
I didn’t understand. The archer had seem unshakable earlier, but now…
Pinion turned and grabbed Harley be the shoulder, squeezing her. For a second, I could see the Captain in this woman, by the way she was suddenly sure and full of fire. “Harley. You’re going to take this torch, and you’re going to light the signal at the top of our mountain, and then we’re going to ride down and slaughter anyone in our path. Do you understand me?”
Pinion flexed, her shoulder still crackling, and shoved a small pouch towards her. Then she turned, with a growl, and stared at me. “You working with us, kid?”
“He’s with me,” Vali said.
“Good,” Pinion said. “Your Captain’s off doing good for me. I’ll do good for you.”
She reached down and grabbed a spear that was ornate, heavily sculpted, and covered in blood from the siren she’d taken it from, and handed it over to Vali. Then she grabbed a short sword off of a dead soldier and handed it to me. “You wanted to save your friends, right?”
Harley flew like a missile to the top of the mountain, her wings fanning out to catch the thermals. She was unerring, straight, her talons trailing behind her.
“Yes Ma’am,” I said. Pinion’s eyes had lost their glassiness. She knelt down so we were at the same height.
“Here’s your chance. While we lead the assault, You and Vali and Harley and Jerome are going to free their prisoners-”
“There’s so many of them,” I said, reasonably.
“They’re out of position,” Pinion said. She gestured at the mountain, as Harley fell upon it, a blazing torch in her hand. “They’re out of position, and we’re far faster than they are. We’ll take the camp and slaughter every last bastard inside of it while they’re still frantically coming back to reinforce it,” her voice had taken on a husky hoarse quality, like she’d been left to scream. She crackled with anger, like a spring, coiled until it could almost break.
Harley’s torch fell upon a sconce at the top of the mountain, and then it gleamed, bright enough to be seen in the growing evening.
Then Pinion swayed, putting her hands on my shoulders to keep upright, dug into the pack next to her, and pulled out a horn.
“Cover your ears,” She said, and we did, and she blew a note so loud it made the Captain’s booming voice sound like the mewl of a kitten. The noise buzzed in my bones and vibrated my organs until everything tickled and ached.
It echoed long after the bureaucrat had pulled her lips away from it, and then she scowled. She leapt up into the tree beside us, perched at the very top, her talons digging into the bark, and then she screeched like the creature she was, a primal awful noise.
And from the forest, the screeches came in reply. A mixture, a great cacophony that sounded like my liege’s bird gardens, if only they were invaded by the damned.
The sky became filled with the noise of hundreds of wings, and then they came. They drifted from every surface, from every camp, from every hidden nook and cranny where they’d scattered after the initial invasion, and they landed next to us until we were surrounded by over a hundred bristling spears. Some still wore heavy armor, and yet others came only in leathers.
Even the chef had arrived, armed with his cleaver. He wouldn’t meet my eyes. What was there to say? We were down a member, and Sev couldn’t join us.
“Milady,” an armored bird saluted. “What are your orders?”
Pinion looked over the gathered masses. “I’m a worm damned bureaucrat,” Pinion spat. “I don’t have royal training, and I barely have an ounce of that bloodline in my body. I’m beaten, I’m bruised, and I’m going to fall over and vomit blood before the day’s over. You shouldn’t be listening to me in the first place, you know that?”
The sirens were quiet, listening to her talk.
“And despite that, I’m going to run down upon that ugly fortress they’ve set up on my beaches, where my daughters used to play, where our ships used to come, and where we’d fish, and I’m going to beat them until they choke to death on my corpse. If anyone thinks I’m not going to, they can call me out on it right now!” Pinion spread her wings, and she was transformed from a petty bird who the Captain had fought with, who had wanted to retreat and hide, into a warrior.
“There’s a fortress down on the beach,” Pinion said. “They’ve taken our eye. We’re going to tear out theirs. Those are your orders,” she said, snatching up a spear. “I want the Colonel’s head on a pike. We’ve got maybe half a day to slaughter their fortress before the main bulk arrives, so let’s make this count.”
She raised her spear.
“Until our feathers are clotted with blood.”
The armored bird raised her spear. “Until our feathers run red with blood.”
Then the rest raised their armaments, and their oaths fell into a slurry of cacophonies and promises of death.
Vali raised her spear last. “Until the Venturing Owl saves us from hell itself.”
“Well,” She said, turning to look down the cliff. In the distance, the smoke burning from the encampment looked like an open invitation. “Let’s get this over with.”
She spread her wings, and leapt off to meet her fate.
And then the rest of the birds spread their wings and flew off to join her.