Chapter 14

A Murder of Crows


Glissinda sat atop the cliff face, cross-legged on a grassy knoll. The wind rustled her hair, much like it did the leaves atop the imposing tree off to her side. The black feathers in her hair shined as inky as her own raven locks, making them indistinguishable underneath the obscuring shade from the nearby tree.

Her hands were clasped as if in prayer, but her mind retained the quality of an empty canvas, pure and devoid of thought; least of all, words. As if to add to the illusion, head bowed and eyes closed, Glissinda breathed shallowly while maintaining an immobile posture.

At the forefront of her vision were the backs of her eyelids. The eyeshadow she wore kept most of the sun at bay, but a dull, red haze still shone through, nonetheless, infusing the darkness with a bloody fog her vision was forced to wade through. And as she sifted through her senses to her mind’s eye, she became aware of new sensations tickling at the edges of her periphery. She grabbed hold of them with a practiced ease and melted away from her body.

Glissinda felt buoyant. The wind sailed by beneath her wings while she soared a path through the clear blue sky. And as she flew ever closer to the sparse cloudfare blighting the unmarred day, moisture of the richest waters accumulated on her beak and plumage. The dew tasted of unbridled freedom. She cawed her delight.

The high air and cold water combined to cast a chilling pall on her, however; so she broke away, banking lazily yet suredly, lest she risk freezing or gaining too much ballast by way of soaked feathers. Below, the sea shimmered and glittered, dazzling in its timeless beauty like the most opulent jewel, one whose facets are jewels unto themselves. Flapping her wings, she turned north-northeast, towards the last reported sighting of the anomaly.

“I’ve acquired a vessel: a crow.” Glissinda said. Her voice resounding back on the cliff face, emanating from her human form. All of the warmth was gone from her timbre, and the words came out sounding monotonous and hollow. Coupled with her youthful but unorthodox appearance, it lent a disconcerting effect. “I’m flying now, en route to the coordinates.”

“Copy.” Ensign Mavis said, matching the woman’s inflection with her own, the sure clip of one speaking as a matter of fact. She scrawled the update onto the scroll in her lap while muttering under her breath, decidedly more animatedly, about the cypher she was supposed to use to encode the message. “I swear to Gods, I’m going to castrate whoever came up with this convoluted piece of crap. It just had to be a man."

“Quit your bellyaching.” Sergeant Xenon said, irritated at the ensign’s constant grousing. She was sure the woman was born petulant, but only had the misfortune to witness it for herself upon their first meeting, and every subsequent meeting afterwards; the behavior hadn’t stopped or showed signs of lessening; if anything, the woman was growing bolder; hence, louder. “Things are bad enough with Admiral Ashanti away, I don’t need you to give me a headache on top of it.”

“Oh, that’s rich, coming from someone who just last week—”

“Shut up, both of you.” Glissinda said. “I need to concentrate.” Despite not being in command, the others begrudgingly did as they were told. Glissinda’s role was pivotal to the assignment and the sole reason why their squad had been selected for the mission. The higher ups needed intel only she could provide.

Now it was Xenon’s turn to grumble, unhappy about having her authority usurped by a subordinate.

“Quit your bellyaching.” Mavis mouthed in her direction when she was sure the woman was looking. The incensed look on Xenon’s face turned hateful for a moment before she decidedly turned away to glare at the great tree as if it had personally offended her.

The ensign felt triumphant. At least, until she turned to look down at the scroll again, and scowled. Damn this thing…

Glissinda flew, soaring high and diving low. There was no time to waste on lazy arcs and wistful glides, but that detracted nothing novel from the experience. All her life, she had felt confined within the prison of her body, and it was only during these moments that she truly felt freed. The crow’s eyes closed as she savored the moment, the freedom, the majesty.

Squawk! The cry of a brethren resounded from somewhere beyond the crags.

A seagull took flight when she opened her eyes. It quickly disappeared and she shut out the world once more. When she next opened her eyes, a murder of crows silently loomed ahead. It was a terrible omen, even for her. There were many tales of their brood, and none of them bode well.

After continuing on her journey for several minutes, which seemed timeless, she came upon an upturned fishing vessel in the waters, the first sign of anything amiss. There was no body, but a school of dark amorphous shapes prowled the waters below the surface. Sharks, she thought.And that meant blood.

Glissinda inhaled, trying to whiff the aroma. The heady and unpleasant tang of salt assailed her nostrils. Squawking, she lamented her impulsiveness. She wasn’t a hound this time around. Rubbing her beak against her feathered wing helped alleviate some of the acrid bitterness. Shaking her head free of the scent altogether, she carried on surveying her environment. Starting with the boat, she noted that there were gouges taken out of the hull. Gunshots.

She described her findings to the members of the team. Crows could not talk, so her body naturally filled in the missing gaps in her newfound biology with her own.

“I’m heading west.” Glissinda said. It was the last reported bearing of the anomaly.

Mavis updated the report as grumpily as ever.

As Glissinda’s vessel took flight again, Xenon stalked off to sit at the base of the large tree before she gave into temptation and strangled the ensign. Plopping down onto the soft earth with all the aplomb of a dropped sack of potatoes, Xenon huffed as she crossed her arms and turned to glare out across the clearing. The tall grass blew in waves underneath the wind’s caress, a reflection of the rippling waters surrounding the atoll they were occupying.

Their squad had already been out in the neighboring island chain doing botanical and geological surveying. It was demeaning work for a soldier, but Admiral Ashanti had signed off on the orders herself before leaving on her own assignment, abandoning them to the indignity of said recognizance.

Xenon had noticed that the old geezers, those in charge who seemingly controlled the world, made a habit of delegating the most banal assignments to the shieldmaidens’ contingent. This, as far as she knew, held true irregardless of locality, because men naturally assumed leadership. Women were unequivocally and systematically being suppressed across the board, either in a gambit to keep them safe or the preservation of the male ego because, surely, no man cared to be outshone by a woman. In Xenon’s experience, it was usually a mix a both with a heavy dose of the latter.

She sighed. I hate this…

Picking flowers and sailing from grassy knolls to coral reefs was not what she had signed up for, nor for what she had forsaken her womb. Her hand found her abdomen. Shieldmaidens couldn’t get pregnant, because the philosophy was that a mother made for a feeble warrior; though, she knew from experience that was not the case; at least, if her own mother’s ferocity were any indication. I could’ve been a mother… She hadn’t wanted to be a mother; still didn’t, but the thought festered, nonetheless. Deprived of something she didn’t want, she had gained nothing and, yet, in the process, still felt cheated.

They weren’t all virgins—though she, like many, were members of said sorority—but they weren’t allowed romance either. Many of the girls got around this restriction by finding romance in each others’ arms, spreading the false impression that all shieldmaiden’s were lesbians. It was a rumor she had been forced to loudly decry when informing her parents of her intentions to enlist, but she had never personally acquired the proclivity, not that she begrudged anyone for it either. She longed for a pair of strong arms to be embraced within and lose herself, not to be the one offering such services as petty as that sounded.

Sitting beneath the tree, she wondered, not for the first time, if she had made the right decision. Had it all been worth it in the end? Would it, eventually? In times of doubt, Admiral Ashanti, her role model, lent her the strength she needed to stay the course. She wanted to be just like the admiral, but knew the road was fraught with hardship, and she often wondered if she would be strong enough to brave it.

Looking down at her sizable bust, she scowled at her breasts. Even bandaged flat, they were as large as melons. She palmed one, wondering why this thing, nothing but a mound of fat and flesh, made such a crucial difference. Why it would somehow make her less of a warrior in the eyes of others; men, mostly, but, to her consternation, some women as well. Her knees parted and her other hand found her thigh, then kept searching. She often wondered what it was like to have a penis… Did it make you more formidable? She felt the absence of it between her thighs and sighed.

“Hey, pervert!” Mavis called out unnecessarily loudly. “Stop playing with yourself for a minute. We’ve got something.”

“Gyah!” Xenon shrieked, embarrassed for having forgotten herself and been caught in the act of… Oh, gods! She couldn’t even finish the thought. “I-I wasn’t!” Her voice came out sounding so panicked and high pitched that she barely recognized it as her own.

“Yeah, whatever. I can help you out with that later, if you want, but Glissy’s got a bead on something.”

Red faced with embarrassment, Xenon let anger wash over her as she stormed from her perch, drowning out the ugly emotion of shame with a darker one. “I’ll pass.” She said hotly. “What is it?”

Mavis smirked at her mischievously, waggling her eyebrows suggestively. Perhaps the woman meant it to came across as flirtatious, but Xenon found the insinuation repulsive; least of all because they were the same sex, but mostly because of who it was that was pitching woo. She scowled.

“I’m following… something.” Glissinda said flatly, saving them from the argument which was sure to otherwise ensue.

The woman’s trancelike state belied none of her emotions, which Xenon found simultaneously unsettling and soothing. But it allowed her to believe that the woman wasn’t judging her as she knew not to expect from Mavis.

Glissinda offered no more.

“Uh…” Mavis paused, pen in hand and poised above the parchment. “Did you… I mean, is there more?” She asked expectantly. “Or did you want me to report that back verbatim?” She drawled.

“A disturbance in the water table.” If Glissinda was annoyed, her state wouldn’t allow her to show it.

At the cryptic description, Xenon looked at Mavis for clarification, but the other woman looked as clueless she felt.

Guileless, Mavis shrugged.

“I’m following it as it ripples away from me. I think it might be a wake.”

“As adverse to sleeping on the water?” Mavis asked incredulously.

“You idiot.” Xenon chastised. “A wake, as in a boat.” She turned to Glissinda for confirmation. “Right?”

“Right.”

“Still west?” Mavis asked.

“Yes.”

“And now we wait…” Mavis said boredly. “You know, if you wanted to get back to what you were doing… my offer still stands. I could lend you a hand.” She wriggled the appendage.

“Go to hell.”

“Is that a euphemism?” She quirked her head.

“Yes, for go to hell.”

Xenon sighed. She really wanted to get away from Mavis’s intolerable attitude, but didn’t want the attention that it would bring.

Sitting down in the clearing, she watched Glissinda’s stony visage dapple in the mottled rays of sunshine. A bird landed on the woman’s still form, taking residence on her shoulder. It’s head spun to and fro, this way and that, with a speed that was unmatched by human vertebrae and musculature. After a minute of inspecting its new environment, hopped onto the woman’s head, nesting into voluminous raven locks.

“I always knew she was a birdbrain.” Mavis whispered, seemingly amused with herself.

“I’m sure it takes one to know one.” Xenon whispered back, keeping her voice low, unwilling to disturb Glissinda when they were on the verge of… something—a breakthrough?

“Ooh, real mature.”

“Thank you for the compliment.”

“I’d compliment you more often, if we got along better.” Mavis’s hand found Xenon’s thigh, and started wandering north.

“I told you I wasn’t interested.” Xenon said, speaking through gritted teeth. Her ire was steadily rising. “You’ll remove it, if you want to keep it.”

Mavis sighed melodramatically, but removed her hand. “Fine. But it’s just such a shame.”

“I’m flattered.” Xenon said sarcastically.

“Not you. Me.” Mavis said scandalized. “I’m told that I’m an excellent lover, I’ll have you know.”

Xenon rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”

“You’ll come around. They all do; eventually.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Seriously, though. You know who you remind me of?” Mavis tousled her hair, feigning contemplation. She bit her lip while looking the woman over.

Xenon shuddered, feeling naked despite wearing chainmail.

“I’ll give you a hint. It’s in your name…” Mavins leaned in to whisper. “… and she’s incredibly sexy.”

“Your mother.” Xenon said flatly.

Mavis looked at her incredulously, scandalized by the imagery.

Xenon smiled, feeling oddly triumphant. Then they broke into a fit of soft giggles.

Glissinda rolled her beady bird eyes at the repartee. She could hear everything being said back in the clearing, even the hushed conversations that her cohorts believed she weren’t privy to. It was a consequence of slamming a human consciousness into a vessel ill-equipped to house one. The human mind was far too complex to be contained by such basal biological functions, and if the vessel she inhabited were base enough, her human senses filled in the gaps with her own, much like in the case of her missing vocal cords. Crows only heard so well, and she was used to receiving a larger font of sensory input from her auditory organs.

She soared high, following a ghost, the waning phantom of something that used to inhabit the places she searched. From her position in the clouds, she was able to tell that the wake was a plurality, a surplus of ships, each fractality compounding the other. It worried her, because from her vantage, it seemed as if the entire ocean were in the wake of this massive fleet of leviathans.

Caw! Her crow body responded to her distress, crying its displeasure.

Off in the distance, she began to see the first stirrings of a tangible discovery. The wakes in the sea coalesced the further she flew, back into their original form. Glissinda felt as if she were flying through time, watching the wakes in the sea reverse themselves. Eventually, the vessels would reveal themselves. And in essence, it’s what she was doing by closing the distance to her quarry.

The ripples in the water rewound themselves as tangential branches of displacement were reabsorbed back into their source, like a riverbed drying up and retreating. She was beginning to see the first semblance of disparity, and with it came the resemblance of order. She could count the different patterns. Though this knowledge didn’t lighten her heart, because there were many.

And then there were none.

Glissinda faltered in her flight. An unexpected roll into a steep descent, prompted by her stunned inaction, elicited a sudden fit of flapping in order to keep her airborne. She couldn’t believe what she was looking at—or wasn’t.

As if crossing a divide between order and chaos, from light to dark, the sea shone undisturbed on one side but tumultuously on the other. In the center, where there should’ve been something, was nothing. Glissinda hadn’t known how spot on her thoughts about chasing ghosts had been. Spooked, she gained even more altitude, as if to distance herself from this unnatural phenomenon.

“I’ve found it.” Glissinda said, reporting back to the others. “The anomaly.”

“What is it?” Xenon asked.

“I don’t know yet.”

“Great…” Mavis groused. “This again.”

Xenon ignored the woman. “Coordinates?”

“About a league from the last set, maybe eight or nine-tenths, due west by west-northwest.”

Mavis pulled out a map from her scroll pouches and unfurled it over the comms scroll already on her lap. She pointed to a set of coordinates previously marked on the map, then traced a course west by west-northwest with a slender finger. The route terminated at Istan. She paled and turned to Xenon, who stared back wide-eyed.

“Glissinda,” Xenon said, “we need confirmation. How close are you to this thing?”

“I’m right on top of it. You should see it, it’s…” she trailed off.

Mavis queried a brow. After it seemed that Glissinda wasn’t going to elaborate any further, she turned to their sergeant, whispering conspiratorially. “This is why I’ve never made a move on that one. I don’t think she ever finishes anything.” Her brow twitched insinuatingly.

“Shut up.” Xenon chastised, lowly. “Glissinda, I want you to get as close to this thing as you can. Get inside of it, if you have to. We need this intel. I don’t need to tell you that the last thing Admiral Ashanti wants is for another of her squads to return home to the brass empty-handed, to give them another reason.”

Glissinda’s beak twitched, feeling a deep desire to frown well in her gut, but lacking the appropriate anatomy and musculature to do so. She had learned through trial and error that the only of her senses to completely transfer over to her vessels via their shared link was that of replete motor control. No matter how much she moved, in which direction or with which joint or muscle, her own body remained immobile, locked in a statuesque trance without the slightest trace of motion. This remained true even in bodies without arms or legs, or in bodies with a surplus of limbs she was unaccustomed to wielding. She shuddered in remembrance.

Glissinda had once glanced upon her own body lying dormant before, and it had been a hauntingly surreal experience which she hadn’t wanted to repeat. But she imagined herself frowning now, and hoped the sentiment was conveyed, even if the action weren’t.

“I know how you feel about putting your vessels at risk. I’m sorry.” Xenon said placatingly. “Just get it done.” At the end of day, they were shieldmaidens with a job to do.

Caw! Glissinda cried out her frustration to the heavens. Caw!

Before pitching, nose down, into a dive, Glissinda spared a prayer for the crow’s safety. A foreboding sense of dread took root in her chest. Her worry hadn’t abated at all during her journey, only intensified.

On the descent, a line from a favorited childhood edda came to mind. ‘When do the crows cry?’ The rabbit asked the scarecrow. ‘Why, when there’s a murder.’ replied the strawman.

Glissinda’s vision swam as the wind rushed past her in spates, roaring like the raging waters of a white river’s rapids to her diminutive avian ears. In the back of her mind, she heard the edda as if it were being recounted anew.

Caw!

‘When do the crows cry?’

She blamed the wind for the moisture in her eyes.

‘Why, when there’s a murder.’

Caw!

But she struggled to find an object of blame for feeling blossoming explosively in her chest.

Glissanda flapped her wings. Past the roaring sheets of wind, sounding dulcet to her avian ears, she heard the cries of a flock break through the cacophonous jets. Her brethren had returned as if summoned by the mysterious and compulsory forces which linked birds together; one of a kind to another. They were nipping at her heels—or, rather, tailfeathers.

She passed through a disjointed veil of some kind, a rending in the fabric of reality, and a piercing brightness invaded her vision as the sun, which had been shining behind her, shone brightly in front of her ill-prepared eyes. The light slammed into her underdeveloped senses, rendering her perception of the world into that of a diffuse whiteness, which shone opaque and all-pervasive. Then, as suddenly as it had come on, it was gone, only to reappear on the left, then the right and, indeed, every other direction. A kaleidoscope of everything that existed in her surroundings appeared before her and around, fractured and displaced from the environment, both dilated and inverted until becoming unrecognizable as what once had been, existing as something else entirely. If the word she knew was governed by order, then this was the world governed by chaos, entropy in its rawest form.

A million, billion, trillion shards of infinity glittered even more dazzlingly than the cumulative refractions in all the oceans the world over. Her underdeveloped birdbrain could not begin to comprehend the magnitude of it, and Glissinda conceded that maybe Mavis might’ve been right to call her out on it after all, because she doubted that even her human mind could cope with such an imposing sight.

Before, the world had bled with ever quickening speed as feet, then yards, and even wider lengths blurred past her as she flew before she had the chance to register that they had even been there in the first place. Now, it seemed that every millimeter were a struggle to reach the next. But to remain stationary would mean residing in this realm of entropic chaos. Glissinda flapped, cawed, and tore her way through the veil. She emerged upside down on the other side, abruptly lapsing in a tailspin.

Fidgetily righting herself, her wings quickly caught on the wind and she leveled out, steading her flight into an easy glide. Glissinda dared not look up for fear of seeing the veil again, but she needn’t do so, because what she saw below was even less welcoming.

Ships, a legion of ships. They sailed the flag of Isolde, packed tightly in formation like sardines in a jar. Around them, the veil clung to the walls of reality like a parasitic scourge, masking the world beyond with a paler vision of the chaos she had just witnessed. Against her better judgement, she looked up to see if it extended full circle. A squawk of fright escaped her beak as a reflection of herself stared back at her—not the crow’s body, but her human form. Then it was gone, lost among the ever-shifting kaleidoscopic fractalities.

What the hell is going on?

She intended to find out.

Mavis had never heard Glissinda curse. The woman was too reserved, too cool to possess a potty mouth. Her brows raised in surprise. It was hardly much of a curse, but it counted, nonetheless. Dare she say, she was mildly impressed. But more than that, she worried, because anything that could drive her stoic comrade up the proverbial wall wasn’t anything good.

Looking over at Xenon, she saw that the other woman was just as worried, if not more so, but if she had been impressed at all by Glissinda’s cursing was difficult to say.

“Did she just?” Xenon asked.

“Yup.” Mavis nodded.

“Glissinda?” Xenon asked hesitantly. “Are you alright?”

The statuesque woman remained silent.

“Glissinda?” Xenon’s worry seeped through into her voice.

The bird atop Glissinda’s head skittishly pranced in place before flying away, but the woman herself said nothing.

“Hey, bitch! Wake the hell up!” Mavis said, infusing her patent blend of excess volume and self-assurance, earning herself a glare from Xenon. Mavis shrugged. “What? It was worth a try.” she said. They turned to see if it had worked.

It hadn’t, but Xenon found that she couldn’t argue with the logic. Glissinda wasn’t rousing, which was troubling. This had never happened before. She felt herself begin to lapse into deeper realms of worry until she was swimming anxiety, drowning in it. She bit her nails to quell her fidgeting.

“Should we pull her out?” Mavis asked.

Xenon worried her lip while contemplating the question, the same one she had been asking herself. Her brow furrowed when she found herself without an answer.

This wasn’t the first time she’d had to choose between mission failure and a comrade’s wellbeing. The manual told her to employ caution and act in the self-interest of personal safety, but the book was all but propaganda. It was as useless as it was irrelevant to how the military operated in practice, and what her superiors had come to expect from their subordinates. The bottom line was that they needed this intel that only Glissinda could provide. It was likely worth more than her life or theirs, combined.

Xenon wanted to pull her out and simply try again, but the raven-haired woman’s powers in acquiring vessels only worked to an extent, within a range close to her physical body. From there, she could travel beyond such restrictions. Theoretically, there might not be a limit to how far she could travel from her body as they had yet to discover one during their reconnaissance missions. And Glissinda had long since travelled outside of that initial range. Judging by the coordinates she last gave, it would take far too long to repeat the reconnaissance. The anomaly would have long since reached Atreia’s shores by then.

“Zee?” Mavis prodded gently. “What do we do?”

The sun glistened off Glissinda’s inky black hair. Her tan skin mottled in the disambiguation between light and shade. Xenon tucked a stray strand behind the woman’s ear. A few had come free, and a few more lay cascaded over her chest, which rose and fell in slow shallow breathes.

Xenon sighed. Fuck.

“Pull her out.”

Mavis nodded. She already had the manna salts out. “Ugh. I hate these things. They taste like the lovechild of an ass and an armpit. Poor Glissy.” She pilled one into her hand while Xenon opened Glissinda’s mouth. “Sorry.” Mavis said remorsefully while slipping the salt inside.

Manna salts were a crystalline substance that dissolved under the tongue. They delivered a jolt of magic to the system, which disrupted the body’s central manna system. Normally, it would not be detrimental, unless the recipient were engaged in an activity that required consistent and implacable manna control, such as casting a spell. Their squad kept them on hand in order to cut off Glissinda’s connection to her quarry in times of emergency.

Glissinda’s body jolted, signaling that the salt had dissolved, before falling limply to the ground. The woman dropped like a marionette bereft of strings. Xenon caught her unconscious form, and laid her down gently on the grass.

“You know Admiral Ashanti isn’t going to hear the end of this from those old crones, right?” Mavis asked, weirdly matter-of-factly.

“I know.” Xenon said, staring down at Glissinda’s unmoving body.

The woman was breathing deeper now, and a flush of color had returned to her skin. It typically took some time for Glissinda’s consciousness to return to her body. The theory was that it had to travel back from where it had last been, but how one went about confirming or denying a theory like that… Well, who knew? Not they.

Mavis couldn’t detect the tracest tinge of regret in Xenon’s eyes. The woman had chosen loyalty over fealty, and seemingly damned the consequences. This, she decided, is why she was okay with having Xenon as their squad leader, despite occasionally giving her a hard time about it. It wasn’t the reason she wanted to bed the woman either, because she was, admittedly, much shallower than that and Xenon was attractive in her own way, but she noticeably swooned a bit more after the revelation, a fact she was sure Xenon wouldn’t appreciate. But that was really the woman’s own fault, because if she didn’t want to be objectified, then she shouldn’t present herself as such an attractive package. Was it hypocritical? Why, yes. Yes, it was. But her libido was doing the talking, and she was content to play second fiddle.

Glissinda’s eyes fluttered open, and the first thing she saw was Mavis drooling from both sets of lips. Ugh. If this was what awaited her, she would’ve preferred to remain a crow amongst wolves.

As if summoned by her thoughts, the remembrance of her ordeal in the veil came flooding back to her. She remembered the ships, and what else she had seen. Glissanda gasped, jolting to a sitting position, and frightening her comrades. Eyes wide, she heaved a deep exhalation of disbelief.

“Glissinda?” Xenon asked worriedly. “What is it?”

“I remember…” she said breathily as flashes of soaring alongside boats and topsails entered her mind: the flag of Isolde blazoned with lustrous yellows and greens; a rough count of numbers and classifications; but most eerily, she remembered a sailor who had at once met her eyes, a young boy with piercing dichromatic eyes of his own, and as he raised his rifle to shoot her down, she awoke within her own body once more, the taste of manna salts heavy on her tongue.

Glissinda mused that such wretched bile had never tasted sweeter. But she sobbed out a breath of distress for the poor creature that gave its life so that they could retrieve this invaluable information. In the end, the omens, the edda, and her instincts had proven prophetic. And now a new feeling stirred in her gut, that by day’s end, nothing would ever be the same again.

“What?” Mavis asked, ever the impatient one, earning herself another glare from Xenon.

“I remember…” Glissinda said softly. Her voice was like the first cracklings of ice breaking on the surface of a frozen lake. “… everything.”