BIRDS OF A FEATHER
By Robert James Mediavilla
It takes years of pain, loss, and self-destruction to become worthy of the Raven Mother’s trust. Only the devoted can act as an extension of the Mother’s will, enacting and enforcing Her laws across the Queendom of Hrok. Only the righteous receive a Talon from the Mother, and thus are burdened with a portion of Her infinite knowledge. Only the stalwart are gifted the markings of Her divinity, which at all times separates them physically from the other Ravens under the Mother’s care. The Corvos are her chosen few; when Her realm is endangered, they travel to the corners of Her lands and beyond to restore balance. In accordance with that duty, a seasoned Corvo finds herself driving to the border of their nation, the Queendom of Hrok, and the neighboring dominion, the City-States of Volt. She slows into a makeshift “checkpoint,” a small, unsanctioned security point manned by armed rebels. Inside the structure waits a young woman with sunbursts for eyes and cropped pink hair. Her rifle is aimed squarely at the Corvo’s face.
“State your business– oh!” she meets the Corvo’s gaze and her voice catches in her throat. The divine markings of a Corvo– a swirling cosmos contained within the pupils and a brilliant golden cross tattooed over the eyes and down the nose and lips–are known to every Raven, but knowing the arcane and staring into it are two very different experiences.
“My… my sincerest apologies, ma’am. It is such an honor to welcome you to our city,” she gushes, her tone flattering but truthful. Her reverence toward the Corvo is hardly surprising, though. “Crows,” the lawless Ravens who live on the outskirts of society, allegedly adopted their purpose from the legends of Corvos past. But the Crows view the laws of the Raven Mother, the tenets by which the Corvos live and breathe, as a cage which keeps Hrok from soaring to greatness. To that end, they nest on the border between Volt and Hrok and “protect” the Ravens of Hrok from any and all threats, “free” from the Mother’s command. While the Corvo finds their cause… admirable, she finds their methods questionable and their willful disobedience reprehensible.
“The Mother has sent me to investigate a crime,” the Corvo announces. The Crow stiffens instinctively and averts her gaze. Her mouth opens and closes, but she is too frightened to speak. Fear and confusion in the presence of a Corvo is hardly an admission of guilt, neither is the quickening of the Crow’s heartbeat or the dilation of her pupils; the Mother’s gift is a stifling, unrelenting force that overwhelms even the strongest-willed. But this Crow–Badb, the Corvo’s Talon whispers–is burdened by more than the Corvo’s presence. A truth is caught in her throat, but she remains silent, bound by loyalty to her fellow Crows. Sensing the futility in waiting, the Corvo changes her approach.
“Look Badb,” she sighs, running her hand through her violet hair, “there are rumors that our treaty with Volt has been violated. If any Vultures have crossed into our land, they’re my responsibility. You understand?” Crows are well known for their unbridled patriotism despite their refusal to obey the Mother’s law. They emblazon Hrok’s flag throughout their city and even drape it around their bodies; appealing to a Crow’s sense of loyalty is almost comically effective in obtaining information from them. On cue, Badb’s eyes light up.
“Oh thank the shadows!” Badb exclaims. “I thought you were here to punish Mori’s gang for keeping the Vulture boy locked up in the Well. They were only protecting the city from those dangerous monsters. The Vultures snuck into the city and killed Hughes and Mani, and Mori just wouldn’t stand for it. They fought it out and killed everyone but the boy. Mori thought it was best to find out what he knew in case more of them were coming, ma’am…”
The Corvo grips the steering wheel and stares ahead into the setting sun. Her Talon stirs with the threat of retribution and magick courses through her body.
“Were you there when the Vultures attacked?” The car fills with the sound of crackling energy. Badb remains oblivious, held under the sway of the Corvo’s Talon.
“No, ma’am. I’ve been at this outpost all week. Mori’s been texting me the details,” she mutters sleepily. The Corvo’s Talon draws out Badb’s truth, and her words dance harmoniously in the air, free of corruption– she lives. The Corvo shakes the energy out of her fingertips and warmly regards Badb again.
“How might someone get to the Well from here?” the Corvo requests, sliding her hand into Badb’s. A map of the city fills the Corvo’s mind. Sitting in the very center of the city is the Well, a bar frequented by all of Crows in this and even nearby Crow cities. Every street branches into the Well, like a circulatory system routing to the heart of the city. The city itself is modest in size but extravagant in design, an amalgamation of Gothic and Greco-Roman styles. Despite their rebellion, the Crows share the Raven Mother’s fascination with the cultures that failed long before her. Perhaps it is some reverence for the struggle humanity endured before finally finding its wings.
The Well itself is perhaps the gaudiest building in all of the city. Hanging ominously above the establishment is a massive neon sign scorching the name of the bar into the air. Large statues of battle-Ravens, the same ones who once accompanied the Raven Mother into war, loom on either side of the sign, painted in lavish colors. The Corvo steps out of her car, and her Talon whispers again. The thick residue of magick produced by a Talon floats in the air. Figures take shape within the fog; a group of clustered Ravens dragging a Vulture into their den. She follows the shapes up to the door and enters the Well after them.
The bar is empty and dimly lit, with tables sparsely placed throughout the main floor. On the walls hang several Hrok banners and photos of the Crows who own the bar, undoubtedly Mori and the others mentioned by Badb. The walls themselves are painted with a relief depicting a monstrous black cloud comprised of black birds feasting on the bodies of rival countries. At the other end of the room is the actual bar, and behind it is a metal door leading to the kitchen. The Crow spectres drag the frantic Vulture across the floor, stopping occasionally to strike it. They reach the metal door and freeze. Their shapes begin to warp and distort. Across the room lights flicker on and off, and the temperature falls.
“You are outnumbered,” a voice announces from behind the door. A woman with fiery ruby hair, pupiless eyes and marble white skin walks into the room. Her veins throb and writhe beneath her skin, shifting color from blue to purple and then back to blue. The same magick residue that the Corvo sensed outside clings heavily to her. Her name is Mori, the Corvo’s Talon hisses, and she possesses an “unrefined” Talon– a Talon without the Mother’s blessing. Even as their bodies strain under the stress of raw magick, those who wield these Talons bear great but inconsistent power. Mori saunters toward the Corvo with measured, confident steps. Several Crows follow behind her, weapons armed and ready.
“Even with your considerable Talon, you’d be hard pressed to kill us all and walk away unscathed,” Mori reasons. Her allies seem substantially less confident, and the Corvo’s Talon whispers their fears and resignations to her. They have done wrong, and they fear retribution. If it is retribution they deserve, the Corvo will show no mercy. In the name of the Raven Mother, the wicked are always punished.
“You have a Vulture hidden underground. The Mother has sent me to discover his status,” she declares. Her Talon empowers her words, and the words tug at the hearts of the Crows. A young Crow behind Mori–Poe, his guilt screams–is compelled to speak his truth.
“It wasn’t our fault! The Vultures killed Hughes and Mani, and then they ate their bodies, all because– hrgh!” An invisible force grips Poe around the neck, constricting his throat. His eyes bulge wildly as he attempts, unsuccessfully, to catch his breath. Above Mori a single light detonates, raining tiny sparks down on her. Her fists are clenched and shaking.
“Don’t you fucking shade one of my Crows. This isn’t the royal city; you use your Talon, I use mine,” she scowls. Poe’s eyes have swollen to grotesque proportions and his body convulses from the lack of oxygen. Without an admission of guilt, Poe’s only crime is living in violation of the Raven Mother’s law, which is not punishable by death… yet. The Corvo places her hands in the air, deferring to Mori.
“Your bar, your rules,” the Corvo states in a pacifying tone. Mori releases Poe from her hold, and his body crumples to the floor. The other Crows lift him up and drag him behind the bar.
“You wanna know what happened to the Vulture? Come along.” The Crows swarm around the Corvo, forming a perimeter behind her and guide her into the kitchen. Like the main room, the kitchen is abandoned. The spectres reappear, albeit still distorted by Mori’s Talon. They drag the Vulture through the kitchen toward two identical freezer doors against the back wall. On the floor, a faint streak of red connects the entryway to the freezers. Large dents line the right door–impact craters caused by blunt force from inside of the freezer. Mori approaches this door and presses her palm against it.
Her veins glow and swell, and the air grows heavy. Gears within the door twist and scrape against one another, producing monstrous metallic groans. The door opens slowly, and the metallic groans are replaced with hoarse shouts from the Vulture, trapped but alive, below.
“Is that good enough, or do you need to see his body?” Mori jeers, but her comments fall on deaf ears. The Corvo’s Talon strips apart the Vulture’s mangled song, giving life to its story. The memories of the Crows fill in the blank spaces, and a vision appears in the Corvo’s mind. A gathering of Crows screeches across a wide chasm at a wake of Vultures. The Vultures unfurl massive, patchwork wings, sewn together from the flesh of those they’ve devoured, but they do no act. The Crows bristle with growing impatience and group closer together, hungry for conflict. Affected by the animosity, the chasm collapses in on itself, drawing the two foes together. The Crows watch anxiously, huddling closer and closer until they become one black mass. Face to face with the Vultures, the black mass screeches and allows its rage to carry it over the chasm. Unrestrained, the black mass descends upon the Vultures and feasts on them. A few Vultures survive the assault. They bite blindly at the mass but are dragged back over the chasm as the mass flees.
“Enough!” Mori screams, shattering the vision. Her veins are practically tearing through her flesh, and her nose is bleeding profusely.
“I warned you Corvo!” she sqwaks, knocking back the Corvo with a blast of energy. The Crows flock around Mori and open fire on the Corvo. Bullets sink into the Corvo’s body, forcing her onto the ground. Mori’s Talon churns and whips around the air in the room, generating lightning. A bolt streaks from the gathered magick and strikes the Corvo’s body, then another, and then another.
“You come to punish us, but we are above your judgement!” Mori screams between thunderclaps. Golden ichor spills from the Corvo’s body and seeps into the floor. It travels, guided by the Vulture’s cries, into the dark void beyond the freezer. It finds the Vulture, starved, mutilated and chained to the floor, but sustained through rage… and something foreign. Something fearsome. The ichor ignores this danger. It feeds the Vulture, and then it releases him.
“Nothing can stop us from protecting our people! We’ll kill every fucking Vulture in Volt–” A storm of feathers races past Mori, tearing her arm off at the elbow. Blood gushes from the severed limb and splashes onto the ground. The released Vulture screeches with bloodlust as he devours Mori’s arm. The Crows raise their arms at the Vulture, but their guns jam and misfire, tainted by the Corvo’s Talon. The Vulture finishes consuming Mori’s flesh and dives upon the others. They become a maelstrom of nails and teeth and gore, from which only the Vulture survives. Now that blood flows freely and flesh is abundant, nothing will stop the Vulture from feeding his fill.
“Corvo… please help us,” Mori begs meekly. Her Talon has patched the wound and stemmed the blood flow, but she is shell-shocked by her own bloodied appendage.
“Please, Crovo. Help us. Help me. In the name of the Raven Mother–.” Teeth shred through Mori’s scalp, spraying brain and and blood across the floor. Her eyes fall from their sockets and bounce against her open mouth as the Vulture gorges on her body.
“…the wicked are always punished,” the Corvo finishes. Half of her duty has been completed; now only the Vulture remains. He is completely lost to his hunger, having already eaten down to Mori’s collarbone. The magick from Mori’s Talon is too potent to exist within the Vulture’s body, however; if he continues to feed, the magick will incinerate him. Knowing words will be useless, the Corvo reaches out with her talon and enters the Vulture’s mind.
For a moment, she is weightless, enveloped in a cloud of bloodied feathers. The feathers part and she is standing alone in a dark space. No, not alone– the sound of crunching bones echoes from behind her. She turns and finds the Vulture, Leta, pinned down by a grotesque, towering creature as it rips open his stomach. The creature’s skin is inverted, so that its sinew and muscle lie bare. On an innumerable number of claws it possesses an immeasurable number of talons. There is no nose or eyes on its face, only mouths filled with row after row of teeth. Whenever it pulls its face up to snatch away Leta’s organs, the wound immediately heals, only to be split open again. Leta screams and thrashes against the creature, but he is losing his strength. Despite this, he spots the Corvo.
“You! I… I know you! You’re not a Crow!” he cries happily. The Corvo floats toward Leta, which draws the creature’s attention as well. It ceases attacking its prey, but it doesn’t look over at the Corvo. It simply… waits. The Corvo has never seen madness like this. She treads carefully, but when she is within inches of the thing, it suddenly chomps back down on Leta. His demeanor alters immediately–instead of his previous excitement, or pain even, he becomes cold and bitter.
“But… you’re still a Raven. I have killed your kind, and your kind have tried to kill me. You owe me nothing! You are here to kill me!” The creature continues devouring Leta’s innards, but the Corvo swears she can see a smile tugging at the corners of its maw.
“I have loved Vultures as I have loved Ravens, sometimes even more than that. I have loved Owls, Doves, and even Eagles. I am not your enemy,” the Corvo assures him. Leta calms slightly at the statement, but the creature becomes enraged. It levels its face with the Corvo’s and glows slightly. In the physical world, Leta’s body stirs and swallows the ribbons of Mori’s flesh hanging from his mouth.
“You’ve already killed the Crows who were your enemy,” the Corvo reasons, as the beast moves toward her in Leta’s mind, and Leta’s body crawls toward her in the real world. The Corvo’s Talon hisses and shakes, but she suppresses it.
“I’m here to help you. I’m here to bring you back to Volt. You just need to fight this.” The creature lunges at the Corvo and sinks their teeth into her neck. Blood and divine ichor mix, and the Corvo realizes how wrong she has been in attempting to rescue Leta. This is no madness, no manifestation of Leta’s internal struggle attacking her–if it was, she would not feel the flames of magick coursing through her wound. This monstrosity was birthed of Mori’s Talon and given shape by Leta’s psyche.
The Corvo grabs the creature by the back of the neck and her physical body mimics the action. In spite of the pain she clears her mind and remembers her training. She envisions lighting a spark in her Talon, and funnels that spark through her fingertips. Black flames explode from her hand and run along the creature’s body. It howls and flails as the fire razes its skin, but it doesn’t loosen its hold. The Corvo has misjudged the creature’s strength– it has fed on enough of Mori’s Talon to resist the Corvo’s efforts.
If it grows in strength, it will undoubtedly take control of Leta’s body. If Leta is consumed by the creature, the Corvo will have to put Leta down. If she puts Leta down, the Corvo will have failed in her purpose, and the negotiations between the Raven Mother and the Committee of Volt will unravel. Instead of uneasy skirmishes, this border will see a never-ending bloodbath, just like in the old days. If Leta dies, many, many more will die.
“Leta, Leta, you have to fight this thing,” she pleads, careful to keep the flames on the creature potent enough to distract it, but not enough to risk killing it and Leta. “It’s not you, it… it’s an infestation! I can kill it, but you need to help me. You need to fight its control!” The creature lifts the Corvo between its teeth and slams her against the corners of Leta’s mind, seeking to feed on her Talon. It smells the power emanating from the Corvo and wants it desperately. It bites and claws and howls, but the Talon remains ever out of reach. The Corvo’s Talon is her curse, and her curse alone.
“The Crows killed my family!” Leta screams, the rage from the creature further addling his mind. His eyes and nose have been replaced with rows of teeth.
“They killed friends! They killed children! I became a traitor to kill them, to take vengeance on them! I would become a traitor a thousand more times to avenge my Vultures!” Leta’s figure phases in and out like a flickering flame, his essence almost entirely absorbed by the creature.
“Leta, listen to me!” the Corvo begs. “I’ve been asked to bring you back home! Back to your family! I can’t bring you back like this!” Leta disappears entirely, and his face appears on the creature’s. He snaps and howls like a base animal, but the Corvo can still hear his words.
“Traitors have no home! Traitors have no family! Only vengeance! Only death!” The Creature’s stomach swells grotesquely, as if something is attempting to escape from within it. It ceases gnawing on the Corvo to rip open its belly, revealing the faces of Mori and the other Crows. They mock and jeer at Leta, fueling his rage. Enraged, the creature pounds savagely on the Corvo’s body.
“You chose to leave your home,” she gasps between blows. “You chose to become a traitor to seek justice for Volt. You must take responsibility for that loyalty and answer for your crime. If you don’t, if you become this thing, then all of this was for nothi–.” A chill grips the Corvo’s arm, stunning her. Her vision blurs for a moment, and her control over her Talon lapses. The unrestrained Talon envisions pain and retribution on the violator of its host. In the physical world a brilliant flare surges out through through her wound, releasing raw lightning into Leta’s body. He seizes and convulses, but does not release the Corvo. In his mindscape, the lightning separates Leta and the creature. The Corvo only has one chance.
“Leta, I wasn’t sent here to kill you! Don’t make me kill you!” the Corvo demands, forcing her Talon into every word. “If I kill you, our nations will go to war! Crows will slaughter Vultures by the thousands! But if you come with me, you’ll honor the dead. You’ll save the living…. You’ll be a hero!” Another shockwave of energy travels through the Corvo into Leta, stopping his heart for a moment. White light floods the mindscape and both Leta and the Creature collapse in a huddle. A moment passes before his heart beats again, but it is faint and insubstantial; it is strong enough, however, for the creature to regain its strength.
“I want to honor them, but… I–I am afraid,” the Vulture admits, weeping. “I love my country. I’m a Vulture. I’m a Vulture.” Groggily, the creature stalks over to Leta to consume him completely. The Corvo places herself between Leta and his assailant.
“I know, Leta. And Volt was lucky to have you.” The Corvo assures Leta and readies herself for the worst. The creature rushes, ready for a feast. Leta accepts his fate.
“Corvo…” he whispers, “help me.” The Corvo’s Talon sings triumphantly and ascends to its full glory. Black flames pour out of the Corvo’s body and envelop Leta’s mind. They dance on Leta’s skin, but he feels nothing but a warm, welcoming sensation. The creature roars in agony, swallowed whole in the full fury of the Raven Mother. The Crow faces engorged in the creature’s stomach howl into oblivion. The fire shreds apart the creature inch by inch, draining every bit of Mori’s Talon, until nothing but a shivering sack of flesh remains. The Corvo plunges her hands into its body and splits it apart. The two halves wither and disintegrate, permanently purged from Leta. The Corvo exits Leta’s mind, lifts the exhausted Vulture’s body in her arms and leaves.
The Corvo rarely travels to the borderline between Hrok and Volt. Her duties lend themselves to watching over the cities, especially the ones surrounding the heart of the nation. But as she catches sight of the border through her windshield, she is in awe of its beauty. The Crow’s home is desertous and dry, but the border is its oasis. Rolling, lush hills stretch as far as the eye can see and wild and fantastic animals roam freely. Ambient magick abounds so plentifully that the Corvo’s Talon is no longer an individual entity, but a drop of water in a great ocean. It throbs rhythmically with the rippling grass. Hrok and Volt warred over these lands once, but in the end they split it as a symbol of goodwill. The Ravens use it to power their machinations, and the Vultures, who are inherently less sensitive to magick, live on the land and cultivate it with restorative crops. The Corvo hopes that bringing Leta back to Volt will inspire a similarly beneficial situation.
“We’re here,” the Corvo states, parking the car. Leta nods, but doesn’t move. Across the border, another car screeches to a halt. A woman with chestnut hair, a rifle strapped to her shoulder and wearing a dispirited expression, slides from the vehicle and walks toward them. Her name is Aiye, and she, for all intents and purposes, is Volt’s equivalent to the Corvos– the Raptors. She has no title and bears no physical markings to denote her status as a Raptor, save for her beautiful russet and blonde wings. Unlike the Corvo, who only reveals her wings in dire times, Aiye proudly displays them wherever she goes, a trait the Corvo has always admired. She stops at the border line and calls over to the Corvo.
“So no war today, Bel?” Aiye quips. The Corvo smiles lightly, almost regretting her decision to tell Aiye her real name: Belasco, which was her father’s name once.
“Not today, A,” Bel replies. She turns to Leta, who remains seated in the car, and motions for him to join them. He dutifully obeys, marching over to the two women. He spoke little to Bel during the drive and Bel did not press him; his is a tough fate to return to.
“Thank you, Corvo,” Leta avows, surprising Bel. “Thank you for helping me complete my duty. I know it wasn’t easy to sacrifice your kin to bring me here.” Bel raises her hands to dispel the sentiment.
“My kin don’t endanger their country for petty squabbles or senseless bigotry. The Crows sealed their fate by murdering your people. They struck, you struck back. We Ravens believe firmly in an ‘eye-for-an-eye.’ If the situation was reversed and you had drawn first blood, I’d have let the Crows kill you without a second thought,” Bel reveals, in a harsher manner than she intends. However Leta nods, sympathetic, and they shake hands.
“Leta,” Bel continues before Leta can return with Aiye, “regardless of the legality or morality of your actions, you, by coming back, have kept our countries from going to war. That’s no small thing. If nothing else brings you peace, take solace in that.” Leta’s eyes tear up, and he nods again. He turns to Aiye and she pulls him into a tight embrace.
“I’m so damned proud of you,” she chokes out. “Everyone is. They know what you did, and they know why you did it, and you’ll be remembered as a hero. A true Vulture. Nothing less.” Leta openly cries, and Bel turns to give them privacy. She stares into the horizon that is her own land and knows that Leta does not cry alone. She imagines Badb, alone in her checkpoint, crying when the news of Mori reaches her. She imagines the Raven Mother, crying in her chamber over her wayward, lost children. She hears crying from every home, every nation. They all cry together, birds of a feather.
“Bel, let’s go,” Aiye demands, her voice steely. Leta is no longer standing beside her; he is meters ahead, marching his way back to a Vulture town. The Vultures stand in unison on the outskirts, welcoming Leta home. Aiye mechanically draws her rifle from her shoulder and loads it.
“Idiots, the lot of them,” Aiye growls, clutching the rifle with both hands. “Your Crows, my Vultures, the Committee, the Raven Mother…” Some children push their way to the front of the gathered crowd and cheer and wave to Leta. The elderly Vultures sing a mournful tune.
“You… Me,” Bel counters. Aiye steadies her rifle against her shoulder and stares down the scope. Several Vultures fall to their knees and curse the Crows, and the Crows’ children, and the Crows’ children’s children. They curse the Raven Mother and they curse the Corvo. They curse the beginning, and the end, and finally themselves. Bel hears every word.
“They’ll keep fighting,” Aiye continues, repeating herself for the hundredth or thousandth time. “They’ll keep fighting and one day we’ll have to fight, won’t we?” Bel doesn’t answer; she blinks away a tear, kisses Aiye on the cheek and returns to her car. Aiye grits her teeth and whispers an apology to Leta. Leta pauses in front of the village and looks back at Aiye, tears rolling over the corners of his mouth.
The Vultures circle around Leta’s lifeless body. They thank him for his service, they pray for his soul, and then they devour him. Bel hears the sobs and the crunching of bones all the way back to the city.