Song of the Venturing Owl (Part 40)

Pinion grabbed a great branch from the forest, set it on fire with a torch gathered from her troops, still churning smoke into the air, and then, without a command, the other sirens did the same until they were lit up by smoke and tar and cinders, and then they came down on the human camp with daring that could only come from anger and desperation.

“TIL OUR FEATHERS RUN WITH BLOOD!” Pinion shouted, and the sirens lunged as one, their voices raised in a pitched scream that made my heart thump and my ears ring like bells..

A siren fell out of the sky, struck down by an arrow, but the rest of the swarm that came from the depths of the fortress fell upon nobody at all. We passed the downed siren on the way there, Jerome and Harley content to hover next to Vali to keep the two of us landbounded company. Harley knelt, examining the siren’s features, and then snapped and removed the arrow. She tore off a strip of her shirt under her armor and bound the bird’s wounds, then told the siren where to go before looking back up at us.

“Ready to die?” she asked, blithely.

“Death is a friend of mine,” Vali said. “He knows not to bother me at this time of night.”

“That was almost funny,” Harley said.

Jerome threw a sign up that I half missed except for the crackle of torches at the perimeter of the camp. Then she pantomimed a chuckle. I shook my head, then let my fingers drift over to my heart.

After a moment, I found where we were going again. I could recognize the feel of Thyn’s heart. That, and it was also the one place in the camp that humans weren’t streaming out of to end us.

“They’re over there,” I said, pointing at the lower part of the encampment.

Already, fires were burning across the wooden roofs of the interior, and char tickled at the wooden walls. The sirens had lost their home. They’d at least do the same for the humans.

Jerome put a hand on my shoulder, and then threw her hands around me, mashing me against her feathers and armor, and then, without a word or a sound except for the hiss of air in her massive lungs, she vaulted over the edge of the wall. Her feet came within inches of the spikes mounted at the top, and we came within a foot of a guard cowering at the top. He startled at the sight of us, and raced for his torch.

Harley landed on top of him and her talons found his throat before he found his voice. She threw out her wings and dropped Vali out of her arms. Vali landed, shooting her a glare, and Harley tossed her a spear.

“Well?” Harley grunted. I pointed at a building at the back of the camp. The rest of the camp was a mess. Fire spread through food tents and men screamed as the sirens fell upon them, vengeful and petty, and children pleaded for their parents and parents pleaded for their children, and the sirens knew no mercy.

Vali nudged my head away from the chaos and slaughter so I wouldn’t linger, and we crept away from the roaring fire and the soldiers and the sounds of swords on swords and spears finding nothing that could match them, and instead slid forward.

Harley’s arrow found a guard’s throat before I saw him, and Vali sneered at another, driving her spear through the thin armor he was wearing, splattering her knuckles with his gore. Both kicked their guards to the ground and whirled about to hear a sickening crack.

Jerome dropped the woman she was holding with the broken neck, and she stepped forward, taking the keys out of her pocket for the door.

The door opened before she could finish unlocking it, and Jacob stepped out. His eyes went wide, and his sword dropped from his numb fingers. He threw his hands up. “H-he-” He breathed out.

Harley drew the arrow back further, and his eyes dilated. They flicked from the three dead in front of him, to the blood staining the vengeful siren’s features, and dropped the keys from his hands onto the floor. Behind him, guards were surging to their feet.

“Stand down,” He ordered.

“Stand down?” Harley asked. “You’re not going to give me the honor of killing a man trying to resist?”

“Jacob,” One of the men said, staring at us. His eyes fell on me. “Ah,” he said, intelligently.

“We’ve lost,” Jacob said. “No point in protecting this place with our lives,” He said, matter of factly. “Just let them have the prisoners. For our lives,” He said, offering up the trade to Harley.

“The colonel won’t like that,” a man said in the back. “You know she won’t.”

“What’s better? A court martial or a slaughter?” Jacob reasoned, shaking his head. “She’s… she’s not been well lately.”

His words fell on many ears, but there was still a nervous tension in the air, held in check by the few who had not lowered their weapons. Jacob gestured for them to do so, and none did, and then he gestured again, more frantic, and a few dropped their swords onto the table in front of them. “Well?” Jacob said, swallowing. “We’re surrendering.”

The blank faced bird thought it over for a long moment. A man lost his nerve while she thought about it, drawing his crossbow, and without looking away from Jacob the arrow left Harley’s fingers and found itself impaling him through the nose. He gurgled, clawing for it, and then he died a few seconds later.

“Is this cowardice or honor?” Harley asked.

“H-honor,” Jacob said. “These are… these are my men. And we’ve lost,” he said. “The keys are down there,” He said, gesturing to where he dropped them.

“If you join the others in fighting,” Harley said, smoothly. “I’m going to kill you all.”

“You,” Jacob said. The smell of blood was in the air from where it dripped out of the dead man’s head, soaking into the cards still strewn across the table. “Personally?”

She tilted her head forward. Vali snatched the keys off of the ground and bulled past Jacob, tugging me with her.

“I’m sorry,” Jacob offered to me as I passed.

“I’m not,” I said. Harley kept at the front of the door, as if her very presence, and Jerome’s would prevent anyone from breaking from the stalemate. She just might, covered in blood as she was.

Out the back I recognized the rough floor from where I’d stumbled, blindfolded, and then I smelt the iron polish that went on the bars constructed into the wood. The smoke was growing bad back there, something was burning nearby, and it was rank like garbage. I could hear coughs from the prisoners. Vali stepped forward, tossing me the keys, and drew her spear, pointing it at the door we’d came through.

“We’re freeing all of you,” Vali hissed into the darkness. “Prepare to fight, or prepare to flee. I don’t care either way.’

“We’re friends,” I said, lamely.

“Get those cells open,” She barked, and I stumbled over to the first cell. It’d held Vali in it. I opened it, and a siren stepped out, one wing torn ragged, and bruises marring his face. He growled like a beast, and Vali nodded at him. They slid in front of the door, listening intently.

The next cell held another bird, and he joined the first two. He was missing talons on his feet, half shattered stubs lying where they’d once been. He looked down at me with half glassy eyes, and without even thinking about it, I handed him my sword. His fingers squeezed across the hilt, and something came back to him because his spine straightened, steel gleamed behind his grey eyes, and he stepped out and joined the others.

The next held a beastman, who stared at me, eyes dull for a long moment. “The professor sent us,” I said, and he brightened, joining the sirens, and it was much the same for most of the cells until I got to the last one, and Thyn was sitting inside of it, rather quiet. Bleeding sores had replaced most of the spines of his back, and his eyes snapped over to mine.

“About time,” Thyn muttered, standing up. A pained whine left his mouth.

“What’d they do to you?” I asked. A bit of fresh blood trickled from where the scabs cracked.

Thyn laughed. “I took the punishment for the students,” He said, and his voice was raw and hoarse from use. “How could I do anything but? I’ve taken worse.”

As Thyn stepped out, the other students came to his side and helped him to his feet, supporting his arms. They were a mottled crew, predators, prey, a rabbit with a gleam in her eye that frightened me, and piece by piece they found weapons, whether it was a discarded bloodied spine that had been pried out of Thyn’s back, or loose prison bars or even a rock that could cave in a skull.

“You can’t fight,” I said, watching weakness slide through Thyn’s arms. They bobbed and wobbled as he moved. It’d been beaten out of him.

Thyn chuckled under his breath and broke down into coughs a few seconds later. A student supported him when his weight shifted. “You’re right, Charm. The Captain still out there?”

“I haven’t seen her in a few days,” I said. His eyes closed, and he breathed, greedily, and stretched. His joints popped one by one, and with each one he winced.

“What’s our plan?” he asked, when he was finished.

“All of us need to be on the ship out,” I said, walking to his side to keep him upright. A fat drop of his blood ran across my hands, and I winced.

“Well,” Thyn said, looking at the students. “None of us are in much shape to fight. So,” his eyes flicked across the others.

“So?” Vali asked. “You going to make good on your promises, Thyn?”

His eyes moved up to hers. “I didn’t think you were listening to those,” He said.

“It gets around,” Vali repeated. “You going to keep these kids safe?”

Thyn straightened, though I could see the pain stretched across his face from the effort, like leather over a drum, and gestured towards a barred door at the back. “Come on. We’re getting out of here. Charm? Come with us.”

I hesitated, looking over at Vali. She cocked her head to the side. “The ship’ll arrive soon,” she agreed. “Sounds like you have quite a few people to get out.”

I stared over the students. They were beaten. Not broken, but beaten. There was still some small strength left in their bruised and bloodied bodies.

But I couldn’t ask them to fight. They didn’t know how to fight anymore than I did. This wasn’t my decision.

“We’re getting out of here,” I said, gesturing at the students. “Follow us.” Vali’s grin twitched, and she drifted upstairs. When she returned, Harley and Jerome were with her.

“Let’s get out of here,” Vali said.

“What happened to recruiting them for fighters?” Harley asked, before she saw them. I could see numbers spinning in her head, and she shook that head. “Ah. They’re useless for that.”

A student managed to glare at her, but most of them were too tired to do anything about it.

Harley stepped over to the side door, glanced down at the lock, then stole a rock out of a student’s hands and shattered it with a monstrous blow, aided by the siren’s long limbs. Then she lifted the bar, and gestured out into the chaos outside. “Here’s my plan,” Harley said. She pointed. Through the haze and the smoke and the chaos, I could see a massive door, still closed. Why would they have opened them, all the attackers were sirens capable of flying.

“That’s the plan,” she said, without clarification, and she stepped outside, drawing her bow again. I gave the students and Thyn a quick look, swallowed down the fear and unsuredness, and walked out of cover.