Late that night, while the sounds of construction echoed over the mostly empty city, my fingers touched on the pendant buried at the bottom of my materials. The rusted surface ached across the delicate skin of my fingers. I cried for my mother and father, long dead. I cried for my brother.
I cried for my coworkers. Those who hadn’t turned into apocalyptic monsters. I cried for my past self, since it looked like she’d had a hell of a choice to make.
I cried for Defender Kathleen, and the other war heroes I’d known. The ones I’d- the ones this stupid conspiracy had killed.
I pretended they could hear me, I pretended they would forgive me.
I didn’t forgive myself.
My hands were stained red from rust. It clung to the delicate membranes of my nose, made my eyes water.
Not for the first time, I wished the world wasn’t intact; that’d I’d been vomited out into a world that was perfectly untouched by humanity, just so it wouldn’t hurt so much to see the buildings still standing like tombstones.
But that wasn’t the way things were. I needed to accept that.
My thoughts slid slowly back in time to home.
It didn’t help me fall asleep, but I did anyway.
Six o’clock found me awake, wandering the city with a light guard of Jay. I dipped here and there, wandered around empty stalls that I’d eaten at or visited the day before, before my feet finally found me walking to where the Morrigan had been placed.
Jay paused at the threshold, looking around. “It’s weird. I never thought I’d make it back here.”
The room was sparse. A few chairs, recently made, sat in the room, cleared of dust and decay. Perches had been inserted in the wall so that scattered Crows could wait in comfort.
Nobody else was there. The door to the Morrigan was closed regardless.
“I didn’t,” Jay said. “And here we are, at war. We don’t even know what we’re doing yet.”
I rocked back against the chair until it dug into my spine. Tension so thick I could sink my teeth into it. Wondered what the blood would taste like.
Jay clicked his talons against the tiled floor. Fluidity of movement for a gestalt.
If I focused, I could think beyond the screaming in my head. I could think beyond ideas of guilt, and I could think beyond my fears for the future.
But it was so hard to think that far ahead. What would I be in a year? Dead? Past this war?
Could I make it here, even if the world was at peace? My… my time here had been predicated on obsession, to figure out the past so I could be at peace.
But that wasn’t why I was doing it. I was trying to figure something out. Absolution, perhaps.
I bit my lip.
Bit down harder, until I tasted blood. Shook a little. Wrapped my arms back around my knees to try and warm up.
Jay quirked his head at me. I shook mine.
I breathed in. Took a swing at the radio. Broadcasts of the Regent’s speech on most channels. It wasn’t the right time for art.
I hoped there would be time for art later.
A Crow walked out of Morrigan’s room, took a look at Jay and I, and scattered, flying out of the open window in a flurry of screaming birds.
“Good sign,” Jay muttered.
“Next,” The Elder said from her room.
I stood up. Jay didn’t. He shook his head. “You don’t need me in there.”
I squeezed his shoulder and slipped inside.
The Elder’s room was dusky, barely lit by a light pointed at the far corner. Mosaics covered every inch, made of glass, reflective materials, and banks of coms. Birthdays twinkled across their recent messages. Mortuaries. Funerals. Declarations of partnership. Achievements. They dappled my vision like hazard alarms.
I hesitated before I cleared them off. Dozens of four letter names.
“There’s more of us than what’s here,” The Elder said, not looking up. She was face down, staring at a thin book. “Hello Jess.”
“Hello,” I said. My voice wavered.
“Take a seat.”
“You’re feeling guilty,” The Elder said.
“I am,” I replied.
“Why?” She asked.
A few things came across my tongue. Some of them tasted like blood. Others like bile. Others tasted like the static dappling my thoughts, the frustration at the holes in my memory, the flaws in the narrative I’d been building. Flashes of the dead. Flashes of adrenaline pounding moments where I’d been utterly useless (I couldn’t fix that, the average Crow had years more training than I did, I’d pretty much always be useless in a fight.) and the smell of viscera.
“I don’t belong here,” I settled on.
“You don’t have to belong here,” The Elder said. She gently snapped the book shut and looked up at me, setting it back down on her desk. “We aren’t going to ask you to belong here.”
I breathed out. Leaned in the chair so it rested less heavily against the knobs of my spine. “But I think I want to belong here.”
The Elder stared at me across the desk. “You want to belong.”
End of statement.
I wanted certainty. I wanted solidity, I wanted concrete. I didn’t want this constant shift of danger and knowledge. I was learning things about myself I didn’t want to know, not anymore.
My fingers rolled across the surface of the necklace in my pocket. Rust and oil.
“Yeah,” I said.
“That’s natural,” The Elder said. “Animals want to be in a flock by nature. They seek out other creatures of their kind and form families.”
I tilted my head to the side.
“Crows, are somewhat of an exception,” The elder admitted. How strange to see her not under the influence of her old memories.
But the Crows didn’t need the original Crow today, with her last glimpse of the old world. They needed the oldest Crow’s insight, they needed her power, her survival skills. It made sense.
“Are they?” I asked. “Crows are coming to you for advice.”
“They’re scared,” The Elder said. “They are very deeply scared of what’s going to happen next. That doesn’t make it necessary.”
“It makes them respect you,” I said.
The Elder rolled her head back and laughed. “I raised their kindler’s kindlers. They all remember what it’s like to be a part of me, no matter how small. The philosophers speak of it as the original fire; tainted by my perspective. I am powerful. I am survival.” She clicked her beak. “They miss that.”
I missed my parents too. I missed the blind folly of childhood. The blind certainty that I was doing the right thing with my time at USEC. What on earth had been so important that we’d killed ourselves over a chance?
A god was dead. A pillar of reality had died.
I clenched the necklace and it dug into the palm of my hand, leaving indents.
“Stop it,” The Elder barked.
I blinked, roused from my thoughts. “Huh?”
“That,” The Elder said, looking down at me. Almost human eyes contrasted with a downy layer of black feathers on top of grey skin. “You’re drifting away in thoughts quite a lot for someone with under 40 years of experience.”
I flushed slightly, looking away. How could I tell her what I knew?
“Whatever it is doesn’t matter now,” The Elder said. “Unless it does. So pick. Does it matter? Is it going to change what you’re going to do next? Or can you move on from it? Prioritize your wounds.”
I suppose it wasn’t. Just because I’d… I’d… I’d been apart of whatever it was I’d been apart of, that’d turned Isaac rabid and Prince into a monster, whatever stupid desperate scheme that’d been cooked up by the Fey… my goals were still the same.
I wanted to know what happened, and I had to keep the Fey away from the god we’d made. That didn’t change just because I’d-
It didn’t matter what I’d done. Now was now. Then was then.
The Regent was right. I wasn’t the same person who had made that decision; I couldn’t remember a thing of it.
My gaze softened in front of the Elder. “There,” She pronounced. “You look like you’ve figured something out.”
“What were you reading?” I asked, quiet.
“A few poems,” The Elder said. “And a few propositions. Some of the archivists are going to take a swing at constructing a few more novelty programs; a few managed to salvage some of their longer running narrative constructs.”
I blinked. “Like… video games?”
“You could call them that,” The Elder said. “Someone wants to set up an…” She clicked her beak, thinking of the word. “An arcade, for Crows to dwell in between shifts on the lines.”
I laughed. “That’s what they’re working on?”
“I think it’s quite nice,” The Elder said. “We could use a bit more joy in the world. I guess…” She shrugged, leaning back. “We’re making steps to tackle on our natural enemies; the wrong, the monstrous. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t make our own fortresses a bit more hospitable.”
She looked vaguely pleased with herself.
The Regent would be pleased, regardless. Cooperation would go well with her plans for civilization.
I bit my lip.
“Anything else you want to talk to me about?”
“Are you…” It was stupid. “Mad about me bringing you into the war?”
“The war was coming,” The Elder said. “No amount of scattering or shattering or lying to ourselves was going to stop it. Our enemy wants to kill us, one way or the other, and now that the Regent has her evidence…” She closed her eyes. “I hate to see my children bleed, Warden, you understand. But there are things worth bleeding for. I just hope they see that.”
I settled into my chair. Steady breathing.
The air smelled faintly like incense. I think I liked that.
I settled into the seat a bit further. Dug around for things that were bothering me.
I had the oddest feeling I wouldn’t get much of a chance to do this again. Not like this, unweighted by the things that were going to happen.
“I feel…” I started. “Like I’m just not helping that much.”
“Oh?” The Morrigan asked. Her eyes flicked across my skin and then she turned to look out the window. She walked over to it and threw open the curtain (recently woven, no human would put together that pattern) so that the murals received the full blessing of the sun’s dappling light. They gleamed and bristled with color. “Why’s that?”
I swallowed. A therapist’s answer if I had heard one. “Every time I show up, bad things start happening. Call me paranoid… but also, I don’t feel like I can do much about it. My hands shake with a gun, and I’m still so very scared. Everyone says they’ll keep protecting me, but why?”
The Elder kept staring out the window. By the slight rise and fall of her chest, I could see she was still breathing, at least.
“I recall you fought for Jay despite everyone being more than happy to bear his throat to the knife,” The Elder said.
Was it fighting? “I just told them to leave him alone. Kept trying to stand up for him.”
“I recall you tried to clear his name,” The Elder said. “At great personal cost.”
It hadn’t been clear to me at the time that I was going to pay for it. That wasn’t heroism. That was just poor coincidence.
“That doesn’t convince you that you’re doing a service?” The Elder asked. “What of Boss? Teri? Lani?”
I breathed out. My mind flew to conclusions about each in order. I’d saved Boss to save my own hide, I needed the help. Teri had been accidentally saved… though I’d wanted to find her. I hadn’t saved Lani so much as I’d helped find her work again.
But… maybe I was just being too hard on myself. The shock of what the Regent and I had learned was sending me reeling, making me try to find negatives about myself. Forwarding a narrative that I was bad.
Did I want to be bad? It’d… well, it’d make things easier if it was that black or white.
“I thought for the first fifty years that I was responsible for Zack’s death,” The Elder said. I listened. “I was born from it, after all. I awoke, and he did not. It was that simple; his life had disappeared and mine had flourished. They should be linked, with the correlation being my fault.”
“That couldn’t be your fault.” I already knew where she was going.
“The circumstances of your awakening are not yours,” The Elder said. “One does not choose to be kindled.” A pause. “One does not choose to be kindled in most cases. The Fey were going to come after you regardless of who you were, Jess. They are bound by their nature. No matter what you did these things would’ve happened.” Her beak clicked. “Unless you think you should’ve given yourself up.”
A flash of the beast from Prince’s memories. Roiling chitin and eyes, so many eyes, and a bisected jaw. Undulating creamy yellow flesh.
“I didn’t think so. You’ve been doing good in the world since you arrived. Sure, we may have well wished you were some dangerous holy warrior, but we understand your nature. We understand what you aren’t, Jess.”
I clenched my teeth. “It’s a war out there, Elder.”
“I’m not good for war,” I said.
“Not for fighting them,” The Elder said. “But we can find a solution for that. The archivists have a few ideas on how to make this war far more winnable.”
I breathed out. It ached in my throat. Tears burned behind my eyes, turning my vision glossy.
Omoi corrected for the extra water, and synthesized what the world probably looked like.
The Elder turned away from the window. “I believe I have someone else here to see me, Warden. My apologize for chasing you out the door.”
“It’s no problem,” I lied.
But I was feeling better. That was what the Elder was for.
I wasn’t fixed. The guilt was still there, but… maybe that was just human. Or Crow.
Or just what living free willed beings did.
One day, I’d be able to give advice to the Crows myself. Stupid immortal knowledge beasts.
As I left, a white Crow slipped into the open door and sat down. Even the inquisition needed help in this hour.