“Follow,” The leader growled. He turned to walk across the vale.
We joined him, passing by the collection of hunted meat. The nesting grounds of the Colony lay at the center, whose bedding was softened grass and whose passage was marked by the compression of thousands of small paws. Then we crossed over to the other side without pause, and into the grass again.
Jay spoke when we were free from the camp. “Are all Beasts like this?”
“Like what?” Boss rumbled.
“Constantly showing off to one another.”
“It’s brinkmanship,” The leader said. Behind us, the grass moved as a few of the leader’s followers joined us. The few members of the Colony that were following us did so out of curiosity, or perhaps because they could smell our supplies. “Whoever pushes further wins.”
“It’s us,” I finished. “Boss doesn’t push farther because we’re with her.”
Boss turned an irritated gaze down at me. “God-slayer, you are too smart and too stupid for your own good.”
“God-slayer,” The leader muttered. “God-slayer. First my son, and now the God-slayer.”
Boss snorted at him. “You’re old.”
“So I am,” The leader said. “I am still in charge. I am still the largest.”
“So you are,” Boss returned. There was something like respect at the very center of her voice. It was like respect, but it also wasn’t. There was something sarcastic even in how she gave respect.
I had to wonder just how far Boss had been pushed from her own way of life to treat everything almost as acidically as she treated crow kind. I’d only taken a glimpse of it here.
But what must it be like to know the end was coming and still have everyone you know turn you away? To have warned, and warned again, and still have your people fragmented and petty?
I didn’t think I’d ever know. Perhaps, in the same way I was even now growing more and more disillusioned with the whole of USEC, now that I had seen what I had done in its name, the depravities I had sunk into to try and save the world, I could understand that way.
But that was not a lack of collective effort, but the full scope of it, narrowed and focused and honed into a single hyper specific point. The opposite problem. It set my teeth on edge, and my heartbeat uncomfortably.
The blue grass cleared out soon enough, and buildings appeared. These were newer, clearly recently constructed, and ranged from scrap heaps cobbled together to more modern pieces, not a crack in their bases. I stared at them, pausing in place. “What are these?”
“These are the places we’ve made,” The leader said. “Homes we’ve built, and places to store all that we’ve gathered.”
He swept his gaze over and gave me a look. “You didn’t think we were strictly primitives, did you?”
“I did not,” I said. Obviously they were not, since Boss had strong opinions on philosophy and clearly an understanding of currency. But if not money, what were they paid in?
“Knowledge,” Boss rumbled. “They’re libraries of what we’ve gathered. The Cats trade in stories.”
I remembered how the Tiger had been so happy to share his story.
“You have not offered us a story yet,” The leader reminded.
“My story doesn’t have an end yet,” Boss replied. “When it does, it shall be the greatest story. I will not weaken it by spoiling it for you now.”
“Are you only made of boasts?”
“No,” Boss rumbled. “I’m also made of meat.”
“As long as you know that.”
The last of the Colony beside us were black cats, their green eyes full of mischief and curiosity, and soon there was only one, walking alongside the leader as if he were roughly equivalent. Perhaps he was. He remained with us, even after the bluegrass thinned to the point I no longer had to walk behind Boss, and even after we were in what looked like a well trampled field. I could still smell the blood of a fresh kill, and see where it pooled to the side.
“Good kill,” Boss complimented.
“My son managed it,” the leader said, idly. “He’s learned since you were here,”
“Good,” she said. “Now, the forge?”
“You know where it is,” he said, and gestured ahead. Rising up from the last hurrah of an ancient town, now transfigured by everything growing out of it, mushrooms, gleaming flowers and a single clearing that tasted like ash in the air. A building sat there, doors long since torn off. The leader crossed the threshold in a few single bounds, and waited there for those who were more dependent upon walking.
I whistled. The inside was clean, clear, and tasted thoroughly of char. “This is your forge?”
“This is where the old weapons of war were made,” Boss said. “All of the post fall species have their crucible to survive, their forging point. If they don’t survive, they are devoured by them.” Her eyes closed.
“You aren’t going to tell the story?” The leader asked.
“Which one? There’s a dozen I could tell,” Boss pointed out. “This is not where my axe was forged. That was forged farther south, in the care of Bismarck.”
“Bismarck,” The leader repeated. “One of the Fey then? That’s who you fell in with?”
“I like to think I’ve thrown myself in with these,” Boss said, drily, gesturing behind her. She turned and looked at Teri. “You remember how to work a foundry, right?”
Teri blinked. “I – uh, yes actually.”
“Good,” Boss said. “Mind the heat.” She turned to face the Regent even as she stepped forward. “Bring out your damned knife.”
“You’ll be using it now?” The leader asked.
The Regent pulled a small bag out of the supplies she was carrying, and opened it to remove a smaller bag (this one now rank with the same disquieting air that Prin had carried with him, and then pull the knife out of the third bag. The leader took a step back.
Even just from touching it, the Regent already looked lesser.
“What are you going to use for the rest of it?” I asked.
“Bones,” The Regent answered. “Bones of a good Crow.”
“Good choice,” The leader complimented, though he refused to look at the knife for any longer than he had to. The black cat sat at his side, cleaning at paw thoughtfully.
“Prin?” I asked.
The Regent nodded once. “If this was a better world, he would’ve won, and we would have no need for this. But… it’s not.”
She pulled from within her supplies another bag and this one clicked and clacked as she brought it out. She handed it off to Boss.
“It’s not that better world,” The Regent said, almost to herself. “Not yet at least.”
Make the world a better place Morrigan.
I could do that still. I had a chance.
“And for the rest of us?” I asked, looking back at Jay.
“Stay here and watch,” Boss said. “You’re not the only one who has discovered magic from the cold embrace of the world. You aren’t the only one who can steal fire from the gods.”
“And whatever happened to humanity extending its reach too far?” I asked.
“I am not human,” Boss replied, and then she and Teri and the Regent walked deeper into the facility. “And I can break this weapon if given a choice.”
The black cat followed them, watching with a flicking tail. The leader hesitated, turning to look at me, and to look at Jay.
“Are you our escort?” I asked.
The leader shook his head and walked after them. “Follow.”
The interior was sterile, clean, and burnt to the ground. I could smell the peculiar char of rendered fat and hair, and something that tasted like desperation.
Then I saw the skeletons against the wall. Old things, or possibly new things, it was hard to tell with the ash that clung to every surface, hollow eyes staring up into heaven. They weren’t human. They weren’t animal, either, with their ribs reinforced like jail bars and thighs thick enough to break through concrete. Boss callously tore bones out of the set, disturbing them, and turned away before the ash and dust could disturb her path. In front of her sat a single screen, which Teri was already cleaning.
“When was the last time you forged anything worth talking about?” Boss asked.
“How callous you are to your brothers and sisters,” The leader said, looking down at the thigh bone. Boss hefted it like a particularly light club.
The machine clicked on at Teri’s touch, and I looked at where her Omoi node sat and felt faintly jealous. There was an entire world out here that I couldn’t see, would never see again, but Teri still kept her connection to it, defiant to the end.
“Well?” Boss asked him. “Are you going to help us?”
“If you insist,” The leader said, and stepped forward, leaving just Jay and I to watch. I looked down, sketched out where the thinnest parts of the ash were, and planted myself there. Jay followed.
“Have you ever done anything like this?” I asked Jay, quietly. The great machine was slowly turning itself on like a slumbering king, and the heat in the room picked up, piece by piece, beat by beat. There was a quiet splendor to it, in the dry heat already starting to rise, in the air moving around the old building that had survived time, or perhaps had been rebuilt time and time again. There was a sort of god in a machine that lasted that long, or there was a sort of god in a place like this.
Or if not a god, a presence from the old war, reaching through time and space to exist in that peculiar moment.
Or perhaps it was selfish to believe that all things wonderful came from the world I had left, which couldn’t be true, not with how long it’d been since I’d lived there.
So I wasn’t quite as surprised as I ought to be when it started screaming and reality ceased to follow the logic I had seen it follow. A great hand, a screaming tendril of ashen smoke and curdled flesh emerged from the machine. Teri and The Regent both froze as it stole the dagger from the Regent’s right hand and the bones from the left and then disappeared back into the depths of it with a horrible crunching noise.
“Mind the heat,” Boss barked, and Teri snapped to attention, manning the console. Her eyes were wide and half glass (what did she see in the Omoi’s feed?) and her hands shook, but she remained in one piece. I couldn’t help but wonder what part of her was handling it better.
The maw of the great thing opened wide and showed a mouth ribbed with teeth, wrought iron and creeping rust like blood, and smoke bellowed out like a screeching soul. Ash filled the air and most peculiarly, it was not new ash, but old ash, brought forth from wherever it had rested.
And then I could hear the screaming, and feel the distant ancient impacts of bombs upon the landscape, a landscape choked in ash where once had been man, and once again, the great furnace bellowed and choked upon it, and swallowed them back down. I lost track of Boss-
No, she was standing on top of the machine despite how heat rose off of it and her fur smouldered, and she glared down at it, her mouth wide and her teeth bared. A dozen eyes stretched across her form (she had been different since my death) and she stared with eager glee at what came next.
I took a step back.
Jay drew his gun.
The leader watched.
From the depths of the thing as it opened up all ports and bellowed and screeched, a great thing rose forth, carrying a gleaming dagger in one hand that made my headache to stare at, and throughout the rest was a clattering of bones, an echo, a recollection of what had once been. It raised the dagger up high over top of Teri, and Boss was on it in a second, scattering it this way and that, and in the next moment-
The world was the Capital, and the bones were Prin’s, and a great scarlet eye gleamed over the city, as large as the moon and recording everything in sight. Here, the Watcher stood in full glory, a star so close to the world that the tides danced beneath it. Yellow chains kept it bound here, chains as wide as cities and twice as thick, blooming with skulls and bones and corded sinnew tying it all together with irradiated metal. It thrashed against the restraints, but even so massive and so distant was it that it was nothing more than a flick against the mighty mill stone it was tied upon.
But it stared at the narrative we were weaving, and I thought it might’ve tasted hope in the ashes of bones and the single knife that didn’t gleam so much as devour the light cast down upon it, and then Boss leapt out of the metaphor and stood, proud, atop the image, and her dozens of eyes met the Watcher’s one, and she grinned, and her teeth reached back into her throat.
And the thing that had once been Prin stabbed down again, now coated in a shaggy set of feathers that were at once ash and at once fur, and she caught the arm and battled with it, her muscles bulging hard enough to split the skin, and the Watcher laughed, a devil’s note blasted into the thin atmosphere of the planet below. And she fought, and wrestled with the forge, this thing that was at once nothing more than metal and was also nothing more than the hand of a chained god itself, creation and narrative interwoven into a single tasteless point, like a splatter of red ink across a canvass.
And from the corners, they came as legion. The shades of those the ashes had come from, thousands, millions of lives existing in urban. Children reaching for their parents, and parents reaching for their children, and the reckless incoherence of those that had already been sacrificed, whose narratives had been cut short without a hint of a satisfying arc or climax, who had never known the full taste of life and might never know the full taste ever again.
They could smell that we were real, and they were memory, and they despised us for it, us strange creatures a thousand years in the future where even their names had been forgotten, and what they stood for was gone, and what they meant was dead.
And then Boss howled into the illusion, the metaphor that had replaced my mind, and she called out no more.
And the Watcher ignored her.
And then Boss howled into the night, into the wide world that the Watcher demanded exist.
And the Watcher ignored her.
And then Boss howled into the minds of those around her, who would not be bound for more than a second longer, who would struggle into their dying days against the approaching end of the world, whose stories were so much more than ink on a page, and would always be more than ink on a page, for she had seen that there would be no ending them on the final days,
And they listened.
The gun at my hip was in my hand, and in the next moment, the bullet split the air, and the illusion faded. Ash settled on my skin, burning, I could feel blistered, could hear the panic of the crows upon my skin, and simultaneously I had been torn apart by the light of the Watcher, by the ink that made up my skin boiling off and simultaneously I was there, sitting next to a foundry that burned stories, and here I was at the last and greatest story that the world would ever know, and the gun was smoking in my hand, and there was the body of the narrative lying ahead of me, every moment that had kept me chained and languid and lazy.
Three bullet holes rested in the creature’s chest, and one wound its way between the seven eyes, rising up as a thin trail of smoke.
And Boss stood upon it, her eyes wide and wild, and she brought her fists down upon the metaphor and blotted it out, and she howled and she screeched and she sang like a violin and her fists bashed like big bass drums and bones shattered and things burned and it was a melody of a sort that made my hearts beat uncontrollably that sent me racing ahead behind and reminded me of times I could not remember where my fingertips were stained in blood and I painted a distant canvass of how the world ought to be and-
In the very next moment, there was just a forge. A star gleamed in the sky, distant, and red, and I fell back like a cut puppet and remembered how to breath again.
“Now this,” Boss said, standing tall and proud, despite the burns eating into her skin through her fur. It healed, slowly, even as we watched, cells flying wildly as tumors bowed down to her absolute authority and reconstituted her form instead of wild and rampant, for even her own pathetic cells might be afraid of what the maddened creature might do to them if they disobeyed- “This is how the world ought to be.”
Jay offered me a hand and I rubbed ash off of my skin and stared straight ahead. The Regent looked somewhat numb, somewhat confused, and the machine belched char as if nothing had happened at all.
Boss stood proudly as the machine chugged and heated and hissed a sweet soft tune that I couldn’t place but sounded nothing like blood and metaphorical chains, as binding as they might be.
There really was nothing more than the workings of the machine, and the tattered flap of aged posters hanging on the wall, and ash streaks where once there had been creatures of the dusk, half remembered shades reanimated by the idea of themselves.
My heart pounded heavily in my chest, and I clutched at it, clutched at the hearts of a dozen crows in plain synchronicity, and hoped that they’d calm down one day.
I didn’t know how long we sat there, half stunned by the metaphor that had almost devoured us, watching the forge work. Occasionally there would be a glimpse of something a thousand times brighter than the sun, and a child’s whisper of warning, and then something that sounded like a forlorn dog, and the quiet noises of industry, now far removed from humankind.
Only when it had ended did Boss step off of the forge. Where she’d stood were scorch marks, and her skin knit back together with char in her wounds. Shhe reached into the depths of the machine and pulled the blade Disconnect free, long trails of hot metal dripping from it like fresh blood. It did not gleam so much as it did the opposite, snatching greedily and readily at what little light was left in the room.
“That’s all,” The leader said, grimly. “Now get out of our territory.”
Boss tore her gaze away from the sword so fast and with such force that I was surprised the metaphor didn’t bleed. “That’s all?” she asked. The sword cut shadows across her face as she twisted it this way and that. They were petty, abnormal, and spread like ink when I wasn’t looking at them. It set my teeth on edge.
“Get out,” he repeated. “I don’t know what you brought here, but I think we both know that whatever it is, it is more trouble than it’s worth. Look at what you’ve done to yourself.”
Boss set the sword down. I could still smell the heat, though there was no visual indication of it apart from the smoke sliding up from her fingertips. Even those healed shut.
She’d eaten Trellis. Nauseating as it was, I couldn’t see much of anything bothering her for a while, eldritch sword or not.
“Well?” I asked the Regent. She blinked at me.
“Do you think that’ll qualify for our legendary weapon?”
“It’d better,” Teri said, taking a step away from it. “I don’t think I can do that again.”
Jay swore under his breath. “I’m supposed to carry that thing?”
“Not for long,” The Regent assured.
The leader was already starting to walk away. I squinted past him into the dark evening. “Back to your hollow?”
“I have questions to ask the Colony,” The leader said. “It’ll tell me what to do.”
I blinked, then considered for a second longer before following after him. Boss held the sword slightly above the grass, and I kept out of her reach.
Even the barest brush of the grass against the blade, even yards in front of her, sent shivers down my spine from the sound. Each touch of the black edge, thin as a lockpick, felt like a touch against my spine instead of against the grass. I turned and looked over my shoulder.
It split through the grass as if it had been cut instead of brushed. Boss had a grin on her face, one that made me uncomfortable watch; full of teeth and a slight hint of eagerness.
The valley was more full when we arrived, the day’s hunters having pooled together their kills. The Colony was taking their pick, sitting in front of pieces while the larger Beasts tore chunks off to feed to their many mouths. It was here, with the leader in front of the hollow where most of the Colony sat, than he knelt down and listened. Eyes of many of the Beasts drifted over to us. We were outsiders, and we were exotic, and we were carrying weapons.
Time passed. I couldn’t mark it exactly without Omoi’s perfect clock, but it passed nonetheless. Teri sat down and pet one of the Colony’s many faces, and it wound its way between her legs as she did so, purring faintly.
It was only after my legs had fallen asleep that the leader stood again. “Get out.”
“What?” Boss asked.
The leader narrowed his eyes at Boss, who curled her lips back and bared her teeth like a wild animal. “I told you you could use the forge. You have. Now get out.”
“You’ve gotten cold feet,” Boss accused. “You know full well that we just did something magnificent and now you’re scared of it!” The Colony reacted to her words by moving away. Even Teri’s cat left her, scampering back to the hidden hollow.
“I think you’re reaching too far,” the leader said. “And I don’t want you near my troop when it topples over on you. I don’t want them fighting for your sword either. The Colony agrees.”
Boss’s hackles raised up.
“What does it matter?” I asked. “He’s got maybe twenty fighters.”
“And what’re we going to do when it comes to converting the next group?” Boss asked. “I’ll still be an outsider, and we’ll have even less of a case because we won’t have a sword to forge in front of them.”
My teeth clicked together, and I turned away from her. Ah. Well. That was different. The other Beasts were watching us intently. More intently than they ought to, if their leader were just barking orders.
What was the catch?
“You brought a god slayer into my territory,” The leader said, grimly. “And I did nothing. You dirtied my forge with hellish powers, and I did nothing. So I’ll do nothing more for you. Begone.”
Teri narrowed her eyes at him and gently picked up the sword by the hilt from Boss’s hand. It forced me to take another look at it. Despite having come straight out of the machine, it’d changed almost completely. From where it had been a small thing, with the blade far smaller than the grip, it’d changed into a lanky thing. It wasn’t meant for Boss’s paws, but for a human’s grip, and the blade was still thin enough to fit between a pair of human ribs to find the heart. It was more of a lockpick than a broad sword.
It’d do the job.
I could see the moment that the sword’s touch graced Teri’s mind, and I shuddered, taking a step back from it. Her eyes lost their light, and her form swam back and forth, my eyes glazing when I tried to keep track of her.
“Begone!” He barked again, and slowly, the others were roused to his side. They crept from the sides, mouths still red from fresh death, and fresh hunts, and hackles slowly raising. They were making their decision.
Boss glared, her eyes narrowing, but Teri had the sword, not her. There wouldn’t be a slaughter here if Teri could help it.
“You’re not welcome here,” he repeated, once more, and Boss took a step back. That was when I realized we were actually in trouble. Her hackles rose. “I speak for the group!”
“You haven’t changed at all,” She accused, baring her many teeth. “I thought-”
“Actually,” came another voice from behind the leader. His eyes went a bit wide, and he turned. “I have a suggestion,”
“A change in leadership.” A hideous noise of tearing flesh. In an instant, the lanky cat had arrived, the same that had followed us, and the same that hadn’t made any noise. The very same that hadn’t followed the same movements of the others. And his claws were harsh with blood.
The leader hit the ground bleeding, and then the son turned, baring his fangs at the others. His left hand was slick with hot blood. The claws gleamed with metal tips. I took another step back, to make sure I wasn’t in reach.
Boss’s growl slid off of her face into a harsh grin.
“I’m afraid my father is indisposed,” Jack said. “In the meantime, I’ll be taking command.”
A Beast snarled at him, and Jack whirled around to glare at him, one foot solidly on his father’s chest, keeping him pinned as he gurgled below. In an instant, another lanky figure lunged out of the grass and attacked the snarling creature, a whirlwind of fur and claws.
“This is a coup,” he grinned, baring his teeth with glee. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“You made it!” Boss crowed, taking a step forward. On the ground, the leader bled like a stuck pig, coating his once ornate leonine frame in harsh red notes. I took another step back and tried not to be sick. In the background, the fights started out, lithe lanky creatures pouring out like blood from a wound. Snarls became muffled as they took over.
“He’s not dead,” Jack said. “It’d take more than a slit throat to kill him. But he needed the hot air let out of him.”
Boss turned and stomped on the downed creature and he choked, spattering his frame with it.. I took another step back until I bumped into Jay, who held me upright. “That’s- we’re just-”
The Regent straightened, and I watched the doubt and surprise slide off of her like water off of a duck. “So you’ll be working with us?”
“Of course,” Jack said. I took another look at him. Where most of the Beasts had specialized in bulk and muscle, Jack, who was clearly some sort of ascended house cat stood on the lanky side. Flexibility over sheer power graced his orange body, shown in every wiry muscle and every twitch of his extended form. He was almost the exact opposite of Boss.
Another Beast took a step forward, and Jack turned and snarled. “I just slit his throat. I’ll do the same to any of you!” He stood up, his shoulders raised. “He asks you to do nothing! There’s a war coming, and we’ll die if we’re cut off from the others. It’s time! It’s time to make new legends!”
“We’ll die if we fight,” One of the Beasts said, though his voice wasn’t as strong as it ought to be. “What’s the difference?”
Jack growled. “Would you rather die on your feet, or executed? Would you have had a chance or not?” His eyes closed, and when they opened, the pupils had narrowed into slits sharp enough to cut. “This enemy will erase every story we’ve ever heard. They will take everything we have ever made and ground it into the dust! Do you want to die as prey, or die as predator?”
The Colony mewled behind him and he didn’t turn. “I don’t care what you think! But I will gladly walk into the mouth of hell if it means escaping cowardice! I am tired of listening to your talks about doing well enough! We could be great!”
“This is your lover?” I asked Boss.
Jack snorted, and turned a curious gaze over to the great wolf. “That’s what you called it?” Behind him, the Beasts were considering his words. Perhaps, they were considering the smell of blood in the air, and the significance they could yet pose to the narrative.
“I said I fucked him,” Boss said, grouching. “Not that I loved him.” She took a swing at his shoulder and he leaned out of the way. “Already the new leader? It only took you the entire time I was gone.” She kicked the old leader in the ribs until he rolled over, and he started breathing again as blood trickled out of the hole carved in his throat.
I lost the war with my stomach and tasted bile. I hadn’t had anything to eat for most of the day, so I only tasted bile. “Oh, godslayer,” Boss said, shaking her head. I could see a bit of blood clinging to her chin. “How are you to do your job if you get weak kneed at the very first sign of conflict?”
“I’ll-” I swallowed, looking away from the downed creature. There was so much blood- but he was going to be fine? I didn’t-
It was the end of the world, I couldn’t exactly get cold feet over another species politics. “How is he going to help?”
“I represent a more liberal faction of Beast,” Jack said, taking a step forward. I couldn’t see too many scars marked on the Beast’s pelt. “There aren’t too terribly many of us- but there’s enough to sway the packs to our side. You should really thank your pet Beast.”
“I am nobody’s pet,” Boss harrumphed. “If anything, they’re my pets.”
“So?” I asked. The smell was immense.
“So you have my word that when the time comes, there’ll be a pack of Beasts at your side unlike any other the world has known,” Jack said, bowing his head politely. “In honor of old times.” He turned and looked over at the leader’s- his- the leader’s pack. “Is anyone going to disagree?”
Alarmingly, despite the size difference between Jack and everyone else, there was hesitation across their faces.
“I am the representative of the Colony,” Jack said. “I speak for them. We will fight.”
One took a step forward and bowed. “I will fight.”
And another. “I will fight for honor.”
Another. “I will fight for glory.”
Another. “I will fight for my grandfather.”
Another. “I will fight for the Colony.” Behind Jack, the Colony, roused by his words, or perhaps at some greater command, moved like a sinuous river to join him, a swarm of mottled multi colored bodies.
And the rest fell in line
“And to save the world,” Teri clarified.
“Sure,” Jack said, shrugging. “That too.”