Her voice was sharp as a knife. Twice as dangerous. Rang through the still air like a razor.
Turned and looked at her; the voice was female. She stood at my height, with a shock of pale hair tossed down her shoulders. Her hands rested on the armor of the Hand, tugging at it. Chitinous armor, dark, black. Interwoven like sin. Covered in marks.
“So many wasted bodies. So many people dreaming of the old world,” The woman said, cocking her head to the side. Her lips didn’t move right. Something was off about her. Was it her position; the flawless skin I knew no person ever had? Or her mouthful of teeth, slightly pointed.
Or perhaps it was just the sound of buzzing I could hear. A rasping psionic chittering.
“Do you think that when they died, the dreams ever ended? Was there a cessation? A termination? An end to the unyielding storylines they crafted for centuries, fed by their Goddess Omoi to keep them sane?” The woman asked. “What right is there to cling by your fingertips for soooo long…?”
“Who the hell are you supposed to be?” I hissed.
Omoi brought back a reply to that quickly; No humans in the area.
The woman clicked her teeth together, and chittered. A buggish whine tore from her throat. She took a step forward. “When I heard a Warden had woken up, I’d assumed they’d keep you better protected. Wasn’t that long ago that this place was crawling with sentries. A bit of a shame.” The woman’s eyes (black as coal, black as the night) flicked behind me onto the woman floating in the vat.
“I am a member of the species that inherited humanity’s grace and ambitions.” Her tongue clicked. “You can call me Trellis, and I am here to take you back to our open arms.”
“You don’t get my name,” I said. Instantly hostile. On guard.
“So hostile, Warden,” she took another step forward. Her muscles didn’t move right. Something was off, something. “I just want to talk.”
Omoi chirped about Symbolic Dangers and rapidly my vision shifted; fading out colors into a monochromatic display. For a moment, Trellis looked like a noire character, long legs, a glint in her eyes, danger in her hands.
Then I brought the crowbar in front of me. It wasn’t a gun.
But I didn’t need training to know how to use a crowbar as a weapon.
And I certainly didn’t need training to know the woman was trouble.
Omoi fluttered up some tutorials anyway.
“No need for violence,” Trellis said. “I can see you’ve been led astray by those Crows.”
Isaac’s warning fluttered in my head. Avoid the Fey.
Well. It was too late for that.
“I’m going to need you to step out of USEC,” I said. Voice wavering. Tightened it at the end, so I didn’t squeak so much.
“My darling Warden,” Trellis took another step forward. “You may be forcing me to be rather nasty with you. Why don’t you come with me. Drop the crowbar.”
For a second, my fingers slipped. Why did I have a crowbar in the first place? Why couldn’t I just… give in and-
Maybe I should go with her. At the end of the day, she’d just… I was so tired, and she was offering me…
chittering was too loud, drowning out my
Symbolic danger detected. Unusual fluctuations in brain chemistry in response to voice; quarantine suggested.
Omoi distorted the woman’s voice unintelligibility. Subtitles grew under the edge of my eyes, reading out everything she said.
“Drop the crowbar,” She repeated.
My fingers tightened their grip on it.
“Fine,” the subtitles read. “The blessings of Omoi really are on you. Fascinating.”
Omoi slowly relaxed the safety precautions. “So I’ll extend the ultimatum the old fashioned way.”
“I’m not going to listen to you,” I spat.
“Bravado is rather useless nowadays,” Trellis murmured. “I get it, really. You’re lost. Alone. The Crows have taken you in. Made you feel /special/,” Trellis whispered.
Didn’t like the way my skin crawled. Didn’t like how cold it felt in the room.
“But you could be better. We have every facility you could ever need. Everything you could ever want. Just… come with me.”
There were symbols on her armor. Like a series of triangles. Folds. Eyes. One of the old watcher gods. It wasn’t my department to know about it.
It was staring at me.
“I said I’m not listening to you about it!” I repeated. Wanted it to sound harsher than it was. My legs shook. The crowbar wavered.
“There’s no listening to me about it,” Trellis said. “Here’s the ultimatum. Go with me now. I won’t hurt you at all. I’m a member of a group that is looking to harness the skills of Wardens such as yourself to better benefit the world. The remnants of human power, ready to take back this continent from the races that have grown out of the ashes.”
Somehow, I didn’t believe her. Was probably from how she’d tried to inject suggestions into my head. I didn’t even know you could do that- but that wasn’t my department. That was the woman behind me’s department.
“Whether it be through… those that studied signatures; saw the prototypical forces in the world from which we might learn how to harness them… or through the force of suggestion. This world has been shattered, into pieces, and we’ll need to unite it again before it can be bettered. So I offer you this gift, now, freely.” Trellis said. “Join us.”
My fingers ached from holding the crowbar so hard. It shook with each throb of my heart. Adrenaline. Sweet adrenaline.
“And if I turn you down now?” I asked.
“Then I let you go,” Trellis replied. Calm. “And I’ll pick you up when the rest of my organization thinks you’re ripe and ready. By force. You could be a queen, you know. You have knowledge that would benefit us.”
“And did you extend this same invitation to Isaac?” I asked.
“Isaac has…” Trellis considered. “Been rather vocal and violent about his dissidence. Not from me, per se, I could’ve gotten him in line, but… I don’t know what’s wrong with you physicists. I’m offering a grand deal here. Join me. Rebuild the world. Take back the lands the Crows took from you when they took your name in vain.”
“And all it costs is my immortal soul?” I asked.
“A bit of shared brainspace,” Trellis shrugged, gesturing idly. “Nothing major. Nothing minor.”
I swallowed. “You guys couldn’t break a capital run by a bunch of feather brains,” I said. “And you can’t convince me you’ll do any better running the continent.”
“Spurious resistance, and we were hampered by factors not in our knowledge. Hampered by past… leadership troubles.” Trellis dismissed. “It’ll be easier the more past minds we save. Give up on your petty ideas about making your own way; the world’s not long for unaligned humans.”
My hands shook.
If I was lying to myself, I’d’ve said I stood there, firm. My hands weren’t shaking out of fear. Tiredness. Being half broken already.
I’d’ve said that I didn’t think about joining her; her idea and offer of structure, of something out there looking for me didn’t touch me in the slightest.
Something darkly familiar. A mover, a shaker, where I’d never been one in my entire life. Would say I’d never wanted that.
But that’s not what happened, because I’m a coward, and I just thought about it, since that’s all I’d ever been good for, thoughts whirring through my head like buckyballs.
But this isn’t a story where I got to make that decision.
“Down,” Jay shouted, and I slammed myself flat against the ground.
She moved like quickened silk. Then the gun went off. Smoking, trailing. Shattered glass.