We stopped by the cafeteria. The city’d been placed on reduced rations, even further; a meat derivative from the cows that’d been brought in, mixed with other high protein things and salt to keep the birds happy.
“Not the best recipe,” Boss said.
A message flickered in front of my eyes, dancing as Omoi scanned it. A progress bar flashed, and then ended. Teri, from the archivists. I opened it up.
Tane and I would like to show you something cool. Come to this building.
The letter came with coordinants, and Omoi did the rest, spinning away to a map to show me the location. The future was wild.
Boss waved a hand in front of my face. “Warden?”
“Are you up for guard duty?” I asked.
Jay poked his head up. “You need to go somewhere?”
Did I really need two guards? Fine, whatever. “Tane and Teri had something interesting to show me. You up for going somewhere else today?”
I might keep the spectres out of my thoughts for a while longer, if I was lucky.
“Better than poking at food that’s never lived,” Boss disparaged.
I stood on my tip toes and smacked her on the nose. She recoiled, eyes going wide, and woofed, and I turned away from her. “Be nicer to the chefs.
Boss huffed, shifting away from the table. “Fine.”
As I turned and looked around, I noticed the archivists were staring at me. Their eyes weren’t on Boss, but instead on me. I bit my lip, and gave a hesitant wave at the lot of them, black eyes like mirror balls, and they didn’t reply or move or cease.
Jay stepped in front of me, clicking his beak dismissively at the collection of birds, and then we left.
It was probably nothing. I hoped.
The coordinants were on the other side of town. I’d mostly stayed on the residential areas for the most part, avoiding anything that even sort of reminded me of Forge-Nest. But then we turned at a road we’d always gone straight, and the world, though still green and verdant from the omnipresent forest littering the floor of the city, changed from the variety of clinging green vines in bloom to the darker harsher grey of an area that’d seen far more toxic smog.
The factories were churning today, sending steam into the heavens from their towering smoke stacks. There weren’t terribly many of them, but they’d been hacked together and then jury rigged to last. Not a one of their exteriors of positions made them look like they’d been planned. A truck gingerly drove by, weaving through trees, almost ignoring us entirely.
A few squirrels were still daringly close to the factory floor, though the building crackled with armed electrical gates to keep the majority of non flying creatures out.
“This is a change,” I said, pausing. There was a brief clearing in the mess of this place. A fountain bubbled up from the mouth of a Crow, staring at me from the other side of the clearing. A plain crown sat on his head made out of fence wire and barbs, and his eyes were carved to be warm and inviting, though the rifle in his hand gave me pause.
“They didn’t waste time at all getting the old factories up and running,” Jay said. “I bet the Regent had been eyeing the logistics of this for a while.”
I sucked in a breath through my teeth until the cores of them ached. They’d been planning this for a long time, it wasn’t my fault so much as I gave them the excuse to push on.
That didn’t sound right either, because I knew full well I had something to do with the end of the world in the first place.
I stepped into the little park. The benches were carved for human use, but towering over them were perches for crows. A few of them were heavily used, showing defects in the paint and finish on the gleaming metal.
“Is that what the king looked like?” I asked, eyeing the statue.
Boss ruffled and inspected the benches while Jay walked forward. “One of his forms. He took on one or two as the situation called for it.”
“Did you?” I asked.
Omoi screeched out a warning in my head as I stepped in front of the statue. A hideous noise, static, distorted, warbling.
I backpedaled, eyes watering, clawing at my ears.
But I knew full well what it was, because I’d heard variations of it before.
Command Tongue. This far into this city?
Spoken like a swear instead of any incantation, like it rolled off of the tongue on accident rather than anything deliberate, but the air rippled in front of us.
Boss eyed the bench curiously, flexed her hands and grabbed the edge of it.
Jay flicked the safety off on his gun, then grabbed the Com off of his hip.
I stared, a hand drifting down to my hip. Shaking hands lifted the pistol.
“Industrial park here, we need reinforcements.”
A pause on the other end of the line. I could imagine their confusion. Reinforcements for what?
Twelve massive black fingers stretched out of the rippling in the air, seizing reality firmly. Then tore in each direction.
I took a step back, hands still shaking. I wouldn’t be able to hit the side of one of the factories.
“I said INDUSTRIAL PARK, GET REINFORCEMENTS HERE NOW!” Jay shouted.
Then the hands spread wide, and in the void they left behind, I saw her for the first time.
Eight feet tall, she stood astride on the back of a grand beetle. No, not astride. The slender almost human curvatures slid from where the head should be, pouring up like blood out of a wound. Horns rested across her brow askance like a crown. Her skin still looked human, but only as a mask did. Eyes were as black as coal, and her lips were just as dark.
There was no friendliness in that gaze.
And I recognized her. I’d seen that face before, minus the twists whatever cruel god had manifested upon her.
She had four arms. Two long black things that ended in massive hands, holding open space and time, and two more human affairs, slender, ending in a proper number of fingers.
Our eyes met.
The camp she stood in was covered in bugs. Guns rested against every surface, and the fey, hideous things I’d tried to keep out of my dreams, they were arming themselves.
The beetle that I knew could only be… Bismarck, leaned back so her hands weren’t in the way.
And replacing her was something far bigger.
I’d seen tanks at a distance before, when I’d visited military bases for inspection duties. This was a tank, if a tank were a great insect. Gnashing jaws were more designed for crushing armor than civilian casualties, but they’d do in a pinch. Legs were overbuilt to deal with the overwhelming weight of the war walker, but I could almost see them straining under the weight.
The edges of reality bubbled and hissed as the great beetle strode across it, not ceasing for a moment. Abruptly, it was no longer in the field of war, and instead in the middle of that park. Another beetle nosed in behind it, demented, twisted, glowing-
And then the edges of the hole in space time contracted, rimmed with… silvered leaves, and long questing roots. The second the roots touched one another, the hole vanishes with an angry crackling hiss.
Cut off before they could send their entire payload.
Then the statue was torn off of it’s foundations and chewed by the beast’s massive jaws. It spat it out, massive gouges cut into the steel.
It wouldn’t have so much trouble on flesh.
The command tongue’s effect stopped dead and cold like it had never happened, whispering voices and Omoi censorship notwithstanding, and then there was just us and the beetle.
The noise that crawled out of my mouth wasn’t so much one of terror as it was one of sickness and dismay.
“We have a Titan beetle in the industrial park,” Jay reported. “I repeat, we have a Titan beetle. Do you copy?”
“We copy,” came the radio. “Sniper teams are on their way.” A tree exploded as the titan snapped it’s jaws through it.
Jay looked down at his pistol, then at the beetle’s thick chitin, and swore. He flicked his head over to Boss. “Think you’re up for beating one of these to death?”
“I have always wanted to beat one of these to death,” Boss said. Her muscles bulged, shifting underneath of her mottled fur, and she wrenched the bench out of the bolts holding it to the ground in a display of fury and avarice, leaving only sharp metal tears on the ground.
Jay tackled me. I squeaked, half falling over, then his hands lifted me up behind my knees and my shoulders, and carted me off bridal style.
“????!!!” I squeaked.
“Yeah, no,” Jay said. Over his shoulder, Boss brought the bench down on the beetle’s head, and it screeched out. Not a dent on the hardened carapace. She grumbled, looking at the dented bench, and went in for another hit, slamming away. There wasn’t a real reason not to try again.
“They can teleport in troops?!” I squeaked. Jay placed me down a decent position away, hiding behind the front table a burnt out coffee store. Just like old times.
“The Queen can,” Jay said.
“So that means…” I trailed. They had a queen?!
“No,” Jay said, staring at the beetle. “I wish I had a bigger gun,” He hissed, clicking his beak. He spat into his com. “Canine asset 1 is engaging the enemy to reduce casualties. Be warned, this one looks like they made the armor thicker.”
“No,” he repeated. “They don’t have a queen. If they had a queen, we’d all be dead. I think their leader picked up a new trick.”
I peered over the top of the counter and watched, through the tiny space I’d allowed myself, as Boss picked up the bent and twisted statue and smashed it into the beetle. Not more than a single scratch across the glossy chitin, but that was enough for it to turn and look at Boss.
“That’s not good.”
“They get a barricade breaker in, and that’s all you can say?” Jay hissed.
I leaned away from him and watched the battle closer. My heart thumped. Come on Boss…
Boss looked around the park for something else to use, as the statue was twisted and hollow, and heavily deformed from the beating.
She didn’t find it before the beetle charged. The few scraggled bushes in full bloom between her and the beetle exploded as the beetle passed through, blossoms and petals floating in the air. Boss darted to the side, but the beast wasn’t made for speed or agility. So it wasn’t unexpected that Boss took the hit with a meaty thump and went flying back with a snap of bone. The beetle slid across the loamy surface of the forest floor and rolls over on its back, long dagger legs twitching in the air.
I winced. I didn’t want to know how long that’d take to heal.
The sky buzzed with incoming signals, and I looked up, sliding a bit further out of cover. Crows were on their way, their tiny wings cutting up the air. A few flew in concentrated teams, claws scrabbling to carry rifles into position at the top of buildings. That didn’t do anything at the moment.
I grit my teeth. Boss straightened up, put weight on her leg and hissed. Broken. Okay. How was she…
She reached down, cracked the bones of her legs back together, glared at the beetle, then slammed down on all fours, her spine arching flat to deal with the new strain.
Jay caught me leaning forward and tugged me back. “But-” I hissed. “Boss-”
“She’s fine,” Jay said. Boss looked over at us, shook her head, and then turned and backed off, moving like a proper wolf instead of a Beast.
“Good,” Jay said. “She knows when to back up.” He reached down and pulled up his com. “Are the firing teams in position?”
“Firing team A is in position! Report on potential casualties?”
“I have the Warden with me,” Jay said, “and we’re taking cover. Don’t mind us, unless you feel like letting the beetle have us instead.”
“On your mark then,” the com blared, half static.
I stared at the beetle. It scratched ineffectually at the building Boss had disappeared into, and then remembered that we existed, and turned to face us. Then it charged.
I was already on my feet. Jay twitched, and then I grabbed his arm and tugged him up the hallway to the stairs at the back. We made it about halfway there before the store front shattered like a cannon had hit it, rubble and grit and dirt painting the ground in a disgusting display of human ingenuity.
“At your mark,” the com reminded.
I threw myself behind the stairwell wall, sturdy and thick, and Jay took up position at my side. “Fire!”
I’d never had the pleasure of hearing a full firing squad.
Well, I had. Joli had more or less been executed as he’d tried to flee after Jay had ripped out the throat of his gestalt.
But they’d been firing past me, and a lot had been happening. Now there was just an angry beetle, several teams of firing squads, and the two of us.
I breathed in, let it hiss and sizzle behind my teeth, and then puffed it out.
The rifles were silenced, disorienting, and almost inaudible. The bullets on the hand had no reservations.
They struck the beetle with a metallic ping, then the bending ring of ricochets. Bricks shattered. Old chairs puffed up and rotted through finally met their bitter end. Glasses shattered into pieces, screeching out discordant beats.
A single screech of pain from the beetle.
But I could still hear it breathing.