The Corvus Castrum
“Not all who feather into Raben survive. We call the young without feathers natives and natives from certain tribes do much better than natives from other tribes. Roost native survival rates for women are ninety percent with the transition to Raben. Tribe Bebed comes in close with eighty five, and the Bramble and Macaw tribes come in at an average of seventy. Why did it have to be a Robin... A female success rate is averaging sixty percent from Robin. But there are upsides to this. She was instructed with medical first aid and above average medical techniques. We might need another medic. She is also trained in veterinary disciplines were are priceless in Raben. She will have job flexibility with is more than many can say in Avisland.”
-Personal note: Marshal Verner-
Avisland: The Northern Airspace.
“You slipped out of the marshal’s bird.” A woman’s voice came to me. Wind had dried two red streaks back towards my hair. I could still feel a phantom itch and
“What’s happening to my eyes?” I screamed from under the wings of the massive raven. A warmth emanated from the soft underbelly of the monster. The stinging gusts were quick to dry the blood dripping from my eye lids but they did chill me. Shuddering sent a wave of motion through my body into every single hair and feather. I must have scraped it or something. It was like opening my eyes under water with a red hue.
My feathers were blasted in the wind now. They laid down on themselves and folded so gently even in the wind. The exception was when the giant raven banked or curved in flight. For a brief instance, there would be a gust of cold at a new angle under the feathers before they adjusted.
“That’s Raben’s Mark, girl. Felsic and Mafic were right. You’re our new bird. But congratulations won’t be in order for a day or two.”
She was silent and I thought that was probably all I would get out of her. She was not as tall as the two who had grabbed her. Mafic and Felsic, she had realized, were easily half a head taller than Verza and were much longer. Their arms were lankier and their forms had a strange grace to them. Verza was my height and had much more muscle than Mafic, Felsic, or myself.
“What have you done with the Roost guards?” I shouted as the terrible wind sucked the words from my lips with a blast of air. The continuous whirl of the winds whipped my ears and the claws around my arms tightened.
“Oh, those chickens? Well, it looks like one of them got too close and our squad Marshal had to deal with him.” Verza released hooked claws from her hand and crawled head first down the neck of her bird towards its feet were I was. Her bird was dressed in chain nests all over its belly. A chain harness had her connect to her saddle in a few places and she was much more of a talker than I first thought.
“What?” Wren shouted in a disgusted rage so much so she lurched in her harness swinging from the chains slightly.
“My best guess is... He’s probably hog tied somewhere. What? You though we killed them? Oh, you thought they would kill us! Ha, not a chance. We're not on an entirely different level or anything. We just don't play their game.” She said with a laugh. Her voice would enter into strange pitches while the wind messed with her voice.
Her face was directly upside-down from my own as her mask peeled back. Two red eyes and black hair seemed to float not even phased by the wind. As everything else flew in the wild torrent, the red orbs just floated and the hair moved fluidly in the sky around me. Her skin was bleached pale except for two streaks I considered the richest of rose reds I had ever seen. They began at her eye lid and went down from there.
She looked wiser and almost eagle faced. Narrow for sure, with a dark brow and only now did Wren notice her entire bird was wearing nets of chains. This agent had more than three chains coiled around both arms and a leg as she crawled on all sides of the behemoth bird.
“Verza Raben Kass, dear sister. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” She roped a chain around my thighs and my arms.
“Don’t worry, I have you in an extra harness, my bird is going to let go now, I have this chain here so you don’t spin around. You're safe, I've been on extraction teams before, but today is my first day leading one. If your capture goes well I might get a promotion.” Before I could protest, a snap sent my lungs tightening. My chest felt like they were squeezed empty as I jolted down to be caught under a chain harness Verza attached just moments before.
She didn’t speak to me for some time into our flight. I screamed uncontrollably until I needed air, which the wind speed was eager to provide. They didn’t want to kill me clearly, I wasn’t in danger around them but they still hadn’t given me clarity. I was a recruit apparently. But not invited. No definitely not invited, more like chosen, but by whom? Who or what singles out a Robin from the entire realm.
Nothing about these foreigners even added up. They knew too much about where I would be, who I was, how to get me, and how to evade the Roost Guard. They didn't seem like foreigners either, they had the run of the woods. So they must have been in our land before and many times at that.
All I could do was take a long stare at the ground hundreds of meters before me until I heard Verza speak again. The trees were like grass from the dizzying height and the swarms of black birds that surrounded us were like flies. Trying to take it in made me sick. I would have puked if I had eaten. But I hadn't eaten since morning.
But the trees stopped for a few miles and there nothing but broken cobble, crumbling bricks, and great slabs of obsidian going up a hill. Metamorphic stone covered a hillside like nightmares on a sleeping child. The jagged and razor rock dotted the land now. We were approaching a long dead cinder cone. The wind was warmer here as the sun reflected off the glass like stones heating the air above them.
I had seen this place before.
“What do you want with me?” I shouted back as the rushing winds returned.
“Welcome to your new home, new bird.”
An Arbiter tribe caravan once led students through the history of Avisland. We’d seen the castle from a distance but this was something else.
On a caravan visit, we would perform a month long trick during the summer and visit every major tribe and sub tribe. We took a visit to an old fortress constructed for Roost during the invasion of our land. We visited the galleries of Macaw that they cycled with new artwork every year, and the Bramble Tribe's wood cutting and wood work. The Bedded Tribe gave us a limited view as the factories were very dangerous as were some of the fumes, but we stopped at this place towards the end.
Now we were dropping back down from the sky towards ruins and cobble on a great hill. The ruins of dark and foreboding castle were built upon vast webs of fortifications and towers swarming with crows.
We knew the castle was built before the cinder cone sprouted from the ground. It left the castle in several places but it seemed like nobody lives there and nobody had ever lived there.
“You’re our new recruit. But we can’t get our hopes up, odds have you at just below a sixty percent mortality rate."
I just swayed there in the air nervously. So out of one hundred people they abduct, forty people die?
"But you might make it.” Verza said. She pulled my chains closer as we descended.
We approached the ruins of every generation, as we called it. The elderly castle had been ruined in sieges of the first realms. When humans used stones thrown from wooden machines, to cannons blasting away at the outer walls, to artillery raining from the sky, the castle had endured everything. The eruptions that occurred later added disastrous elements to the landscape out of nature’s malice.
It was a castle resting in the bowels of hell vomited back up. A breeding ground for crows of every size apparently. The ground was fertile but uneven and probably more effort than it was worth to try and farm with our means, but the vegetation sprouted in grandeur during the spring with the brilliance of the orange shades in the fall now.
The creature landed with me dangling by its feathery and fluffy chest. It was quite warm and even soft to the touch despite my own numb cheeks from the nonstop wind. It picked a guard tower.
A hole in the great heights of the ruins had a bird nest of bizarre size which the Raven aimed for. It landed on wall battlements. It gave a few humorous bird hops into the interior of the tower.
Outside, the sun was setting, and my legs were numb having flew from my home. I was also starving having, not eaten in hours.
And to make matters worse the structural integrity looked dodgy. The rock was crumbling, but once inside, there was structural reinforcement and insulation on every wall going up the entire tower.
An old keep seemed like the perfect place for a nest. Especially atop such a tall structure. Dozens of twigs, branches, and scraps built complicated nests we were resting in. The raven out of instinct or spite decided to nuzzle and get itself snug in the rather fluffy nest, on top of me.
“I’ll have you free now. Well, I’ll have you off the the bird.” Verza said in strange clarity.
It was only myths to us. The old castle was always the fort we created as children, the scary stories told to us, the field trip during our studies. But it was never patrolled by the Roost Tribe and I know why now. Only caravans that traded with foreigners used it to meet up, often trading lost articles and relics for supplies. Probably just a cover story. This must have went deep.
Around us was the decaying castle’s darkly lit interior. The rest of the squad was on the approach now. They flew in above us and their birds landed in nest located in higher levels of the castle's tower.
Just below the main tower, there laid a pit. I gazed from my harness just below the nest and my blood froze When I flopped out of the birds nest with my arms bound. The pit went down into trees and more croaking birds. It would be a dozen stories down.
Down the pit is a whole room below the castle. And there was heat coming from there too. A few of the birds didn't linger at their nests but dived down the pit into the dome below circling and call to their own kind. The walls lifted up black battlements that stood half as tall as its towers. Only a single road reached the gate and massive fortifications of rusted iron tank traps and sprawling spears rose out from the ground reaching up the hill. The entire landscape was frankly depressing and fully endorsing the macabre themes outside.
Two voices started above me. “You have to see this place in the spring, the ivy, the flowers, a few of us garden around it. But fall… It’s just a bit depressing. There is no such thing as a good first impression in Raben.” The Raben twins, Mafic and Felsic, shouted down while Verza loosened my harness.
The entire castle was in disrepair on the outside. Rubble and broken ramparts were littering the open areas and a swamp occupied the southern most region. Rain had eroded a few of the tower roofs but still the walls held firm.
Verza crawled from the saddle of her bird and used her claws to navigate down a net of chains on the side of the harness. They rattled and shook with each motion of the bird’s breath. She climbed like a squirrel; head first straight down.
I could see her visor getting closer. Her legs and arms moved like a spider until she was upside down hanging by her feet from the chains as she commanded her bird to stand up. The two of us were just hanging off the crow's feathery breast. I saw my nose and my eyes in the reflection of her face guard she had reapplied. They were different then last time I saw them. Be it my eyes bleeding, or my reflection changing I couldn't be too sure. Her feet had hooks attached to the heels and each hand carried four blades on the knuckles that I had seen switch into blades on the inside of the hand with an adjustment to the claws.
“You’re okay new bird.” Verza said. “It's very complicated and we’ll need you to stay with us. We’re very relieved that you didn’t lash out or hurt yourself. You’re a real blessing you know that. Happy Feathering!”
Mafic and Felsic started clapping above me.
I doubted her words with serious concern. "My eyes were bleeding." I objected furiously because that was clearly the best way to protest when tied up and immobile stuck to a giant bird, trying to avoid public and abject terror at the wave of greasy feathers unfurling on my arms.
"That's normal. New bird, welcome to the Tribe!" One of the Raben men yelled down as he got off his bird.
She detached the harness and released me from the bird when it moved away from the pit. She was still atop her bird and I ran the moment I reached solid ground. It was far more hazardous than it looked with one leg asleep.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Going home!” I yelled back. I had no real guess while I was here but cooperation made me ill.
“You just need to shift your perspective a bit. Did you even like farming?” Verza’s words stung at me in ways I didn't think possible.
But I didn't trust her devilish words, tempting and honey tongued voices are often convincing on due to their content alone, and not their reliability. It is a skill I tried to practice once if I should become an Arbiter, but I was never very good at it. It said exactly what I wanted to hear and that was suspicious enough. A small sting, her words were, but the poison had already wormed in. I had not hated it, did I? I’d have taken any Tribe over farm work though. Nothing wrong with that. Just bland, repetitive, and a bit underwhelming.
I realized there, I actually did hate it. It was tedious and I was so restrained from any advancement. If I was a native I could only work in entry level jobs until I feathered away. I was basically trapped in a single role until I could escape at the ceremony into another tribe. Unless I implanted in and gambled my body and form for family and familiarity.
“You just mended little slivers so the real doctors could perform miracles. And you just did farming maintenance I bet? At the very best you did day to day work that the higher tribe members did if they had too, but look, a useful native can fill the role because all they needed was a pulse.
"Shut it!" I work up some spit and sent it flying, but as it flew it was surprisingly more viscous than thought it would be. The strand of spit had stretched an arm's length from my mouth.
"Another symptom." Verza called up to the main force she had led, now dismounted. "I’ll have to help Avarice out of his saddle, he frets when I leave it on." Said Verza as she let me loose from the bird, but she still had me bound.
"It was in her blood at first, now it's doing it's work." Mafic said.
A young man at
Her saddle reminded me of the saddles that the Roostmen use for their bipedal birds. They couldn’t have been making these themselves. Someone in the Bramble Tribe must have made those, or maybe someone in Tribe Bedded. Had they been stolen perhaps, maybe older models of Roost saddles? There was Robin Tribe leather worked into a light weight frame with intricate stitching. This was a very tricky thing to make with no small amount of science applied to the design. No number hoodlums could ever produce this by themselves.
I leaned and rolled over from my belly to my back and I could see around the cloak she had tied at her shoulders, just outside her leather vest. She had four metal pipes strapped into holsters and two pouches with handles, but I knew those anywhere, fighting knives and fire arms. We have a few names for them, fire arms, fire pipes, the weapons with the spinning loaders are revos. And on parade the Roost Tribe's High Guard marched with Jezail rifles.
Every household in Avisland owned a single combat blade and owned a fire pipe. The fire pipe was a single use flare non lethal shell. The use of one of these could mean banishment if you weren’t under attack in your home. And during times of strife, Roost would distribute lethal ammunition for them.
The traditional firing pipes had a single shot and the knife was a slashing and chopping tool only, it functioned very well as far as knives go but the design of Verza's was a dagger; pointed, polished, and professionally sharpened.
Dad and I were farming one day when the town bell was rung and the emergency signal flashed. A Roost patrol spotted an incursion of Fiends. Desert and mountain mutants. Roost was forming a charge but ordered all able bodies to use their emergency weapons. The charge broke them but a wounded one tried to flee in our home. We were happy we had those. Even wounded, the friend was likely even more dangerous. Dad fired his shot with a volley from the neighbors and the fiend was down. before it got close.
My mom and dad had only a pair of weapons. Verza had them in abundance, and they almost seemed trinket-like to her. I could guess the claws she had could be even sharper than the knives. With four bladed gloves and her combat knife, that’s nine sharp points on her body.
I still had the knife I used to cut my ropes. My father told me never reveal it unless you're using it. He said this mostly so I wouldn't attract concerned views from Roost patrols or frighten children. But when I cut myself free before I hid it again.
I was quiet for a moment. If they could take out Goldfuast, I’m not going to win in a fight. If I’m going to escape, I’d have to bid my time.
“Fine.” I didn't run. I held my ground but my arms were still restrained.
She dismounted and opened her arms wide as she began her introduction. “Welcome home.” She slipped the saddle off the bird’s back as the great raven’s muscles and feathers flexed out to the relief of its burden.
Each wave of oiled black feathers caressed another in a tide of ripping peaks in a never ceasing ebb and flow as the bird breathed . They looked just like my feathers. Slick and black, yet mine responded to me. If I flexed they tightened up and make a wide coat of interwoven feather layers. When I was calm, they spread out.
The itch was reappearing now in a new location, it didn’t feel as bad but it covered a larger area now.
I felt the twinge and the irritation on my bicep to my shoulder and down my back.
I hadn’t been able to see my arms under the giant raven's claws but the feathers were complete. I’d pulled two handfuls of them out on my left when the bird had me but they’d grown back thicker and longer. It was also painful and I guessed that was a permanent mistake.
She moved to free some of my restraints now.
“There are a few things you need to know. You have received the mark of Raben. So we might be tribe sisters if you end up in my clan. It’s a mutation. It turns up every once and awhile, at most three or four new birds at once but rarely more than that. About two a year, sometimes more, and sometimes less. Next, now that you have feathers you will need an oil and oil remover when you bathe or shower. If you were to shower or bathe right now the water would slide off your arms and fingers. Oil and water, basic chemistry. I’m not sure how you were educated I know the books change every few years. But that’s the idea.” Verza monologued until I but in. I think she had a check list she was reading from mentally.
“I was taught mathematics, literature, history, chemistry, and biology. I get it; oil, water, feathers, my mom and dad had feathers too you know. And speaking of feathers, Robin is going to have a bone to pick with you. If Robin deals in food with you, we can simple cut that supply off. If you get tumors, we'll just stop cutting those off. You’ll starve to death, and you'll dwindle without medical experts. Of course you can live a while with water but that means you get a slow death. Your people are too local to not be receiving our supplies. They would never let you grow your own.” I threatened her.
“Anyways, your eyes will also change so you’ll need a shade or lens when you’re riding your own bird, they get sensitive at first. Our helmets fix that issue. But it lasts for about the first year.” Verza said anyways. She was ignoring my threats entirely.
“Did you hear me?”
“Of course I did New Bird. But you do not represent Robin anymore. I see no brown feathers. I see the heraldry of Raben. You... you wear the shades very well for a new bird. You'll fit in quickly. As of this moment on, you were born to wear those feathers.”
I caught a flash from my reflection in her helmet again. I’m losing myself feature by feature. “My hair, feathers, now my eyes too?”
“Yes, moving on… every citizen will receive a great raven. And you will be allowed to capture and tame your own bird. But more often than not, they capture you and try and eat you. After a good scrap you teach it who’s boss then show it love. They're smart, not strong." She said with exaggeration. "It will hold a grudge but it’s worth it. If you fail to do so, you will be bird-less, or you’ll be eaten. Since you’re proving yourself very sane, and this resilient, I've given you a light briefing but I’m not sure how well that itch must be. Most new birds are totally psycho by now.” Verza finished her introductions.
“What itch? Oh, you’re the worst. But still, you ignored my warning but it’s coming.” I threatened again, “You don’t cross Robin. You can’t cross Tribe Robin." I felt belligerent. I was saying the same old jargon thinking myself cunning.
I was well ingrained in Robin politics, of course Robin being the most powerful of the Tribes controlled the food supplies. But that power was built on reliance. Just because we had a choke hold on food didn't mean we could guard it, or maintain it, or improve it. We assured life to the tribes, and the other tribes assured our lives.
We were the Nest’s surgeons and medical specialists, as well as food producers. Food was an extremely valuable item and maintaining a surplus that was rationed correctly without waste was hard. Sure, we farmed and I hated it, but we knew it was important.
“Just so you know, the tribes reward Tribe Raben for our services. 'Tribe,' Raben I’ll remind you. We’re not foreigners, girl. They’ve made this clear nearly two-hundred years ago. They don’t want our people in their territory. And you count as our people. We’re too dangerous and they’re not lying. But we’re the best at our work. So now we have the free reign to abduct and induct anyone we find with the Raben Mark. It does everyone a massive favor.” Verza counters. “Face it. The moment you grew feathers was the moment your tribe left you. You can’t leave the Corvus Castrum until you’re ready. And the Robin tribe will no longer harbor you.”
“I’m not a Raben. I’m a Robin. Can I go home to see my family again? Am I trapped here?” I’m lamenting but reality just set in.
“A Robin? Oh must have been a mistake. We should just swing passed Macaw on my bird on the way home and pick up some paint to give you a brown coat. Trust me, that trick works one time and one time only, after that your feathers wither because most paints are not very healthy. Anyways you’ll see your parents when we say you can, and you are home. You’re also a Rabeness... a Raben true. Some people get ticked when they hear Rabenite. It’s a Sir or Mam thing. Like a title for a few people here, but I don’t care too much say whatever you feel like saying. But when you go on missions you call your leaders Marshals, keep that very clear.”
“What do you even want with me?” I asked.
Verza’s attitude was bothering me. “You never let me finish Wren. When you have your initiation completed, you’ll be arranged with the Nacht Knights of your clan and your parents, and you will be assigned your deed. You’ll be given a large and generous amount of land either surrounding the castle or within it to be added as an inheritance after a year or two. You and any potential husband, and any possible dependents will own it to their name.”
“Sorry, I never had a feathering ceremony. They never sent me to Tribe Raben. You made a mistake.”
“No, Rabeness or Rabenite ever attends a ceremony. We are always early by either a day or a few hours. The moment we saw the birds surrounding your house we moved in. We plant spies this time of year. No member of Tribe Raben has ever attended a ceremony, if we didn’t see to that then their would be blood split in every tribe. But we’ll still throw a party for you. Probably. It’ll depend on your impulse control.” Verza went on. “But I think you get enough of what’s happened, that or you’ll figure it out. I’m required to ask you three questions now. Then I’ll show you your quarters. First, do you have any love interests?”
I pondered on Gold for a minute. “No.” We were friends. He put himself on the line for me but he wasn’t a romantic. He loved Pavise and he was a changed man without her.
“Okay, you seemed a bit young for anything serious. Right, any illnesses, allergies, or infectious outbreaks?” Verza moved along.
“No. I’ve been sick before but only when I was younger. The flu, occasional cough, and I had a pox once. Why do you need to know that?”
“We don’t want to bring any dangerous things into our halls. It’s for your’s and our safety. If we have germs and things that you can’t handle, then it’d be best to give you some needles. A good healthy solution with a quick sharp ping and you’re fine. You said you had a pox?”
“Well if that’s the case I’ve had the plague, air borne.” My own humor just made me angry.
Something about this person caught me off guard. I’d get a hint of it as she paced but I couldn’t put my finger on it. She wore a black cloak with a purple trim. Beneath was a leather vest of sorts. It had three buckles around her waist. The metal on her clothing had been rubbed dull and none of it was reflective. The front of her visor was the only thing with reflective properties.
Her hair was bound up in her helmet and it poked out the back in a braid. She’s had her helmet off for the most part. Her lips weren’t wearing any glosses, but she probably used something to keep them from drying out. Her teeth were white and her hair was black. Her skin was ghostly pale.
My hair was just like hers now. If this was a feathering it was nothing that father described.
“A pox? When was this?” Asked Verza.
“A few years ago.” I answered back with a sigh.
Verza reached for a note pad. It was scribbled with an extensive chart of columns and rows forming a catalog.
“That’s good for you to point out, we had one go through here around that time too, you’ll have some immunity. Anyways, last question: what does this look like?” She whipped out a dazzling glare emitting object. I couldn’t even describe what it truly was.
I couldn’t even make out what it was under its intense beam.
“Nothing, it’s just brightness.”
“Good, you’re almost done. Your transition is about to start. What does it look like now?” Verza put the blinding object behind her. She took it out again but now my eyes fixated to it. It was an eerie black. Then it turned red. The world bled. The light had never darkened. I just had the image of the light trapped in my sight. She’d turned it off but now their was a shifting glow about where I focused. Everything I could see was blurring into a haze.
“Verza? Verza? Everything is red. My eye feels wrong. Do you see anything? Is there something in it? Really, I’m trusting a Rabenite?” I’m not normally this rude. But being abducted doesn’t really give them any favors.
Verza sighed. “Rabeness… whatever. Do they hurt? I can take a look for you. I’m your tribe sister now. You can trust me.” She didn’t convince me. “Any normal person would have you taken to a doctor. But I see this with every recruit. The same thing happened to me.”
“What? I’m concerned. Is this a medical thing? Just some weird observation? It happened when you showed me that…thing.”
“Just don’t look in a mirror for a while. You’re going to have a red tint to everything you see. It’s not harmful, it’s perfectly natural for a Rabeness. It will ebb off by tonight. Well, it lessens until tomorrow.”
"Well!" I yelled back. "You could just bring me to a proper doctor, like my mother."
My sight was returning bit by bit. As I breathed in and out trying to remain calm.
“We have a room for you until we can place you in a clan. Raben has slow growth. Since you were the only one brought in, you’re probably the only one with the Raben Mark this year. If we hadn’t grabbed you, you’d have died in two days tops.” Verza said as she waved her bird away. It’s wings beat and I was almost knocked over with the sudden gust of wind.
Another operative approached us. “So this is the new bird. I cannot remember the last time we had a Robin go Rabeness.” It was a man. Probably his late twenties. The group began to remove their gear and their armor. Verza’s helmet left her head and I nearly gasped. In good lighting and without the crazy adrenaline in me, she looked demonic.
Her eyes… blood eyes. The skin below her eyes had a design of sorts or maybe a scar. Two streaks flowed right down under her skin in red flesh. They must have been a birth mark or some sort of tattoo.
She literally had red pupils with what only looked like several incisions in her flesh going down from her eye lids.
Whatever it was, it didn’t matter. I ran as soon as she made eye contact with my blurry, bloody, face. I hadn’t been cut around the eye lid. I was bleeding out my eyes.