An hour later and the inquisitors had arrived, asking questions and starting to move the massive body of the insect. A truck had been requisitioned, another truck, and they were moving it despite how it drool ichor out of the shattered hole that had been its face.
I hadn’t moved much, transfixed by the sight.
“Well,” I said. At least I knew that the bug wasn’t my fault.
“We made it,” Jay said.
I breathed in until my lungs burned and then let it out. Just had to convince myself that I was safe again, and maybe I would be. The world was just crazy enough for that to work.
“Sorry we were late,” Tane said, finally.
“Late?” I asked. “You killed it.”
“Moving the prototype onto the truck was harder than we thought it would be,” Teri said. “Also getting the truck here was hard.”
“So that’s a human design?” I asked, sweeping over to examine it. “Did we ever use it?” I already knew the answer. Not for war, certainly, but we’d used it to kill many different anomalies that were no longer practical to study or had decided to go on a rampage after figuring out they were special.
Very few things were going to be able to react to a hypersonic bullet travelling through their heads.
It was also fairly efficient at dealing with traitors.
My hands were shaking. I pressed them against the truck so they’d stop.
Boss inspected the rifle. Picked it up despite the weight, looked it up and down.
“Careful,” Tane said. “It’s a prototype, we didn’t exactly care for longevity on this one.”
“This is where you’ve been holed up?” Boss asked.
“Teri came to me and asked what the max weight my scouts could carry,” Tane said. “The idea is we have each individual crow carry a piece of it, and we just assemble them on the rooftops, like we do for our normal rifles, but this one will take two Crows instead.”
“Support against everything,” Teri agreed. “I was thinking on whether or not our rifles would deal with anymore Hounds, and couldn’t decide, so I went with overkill rather than underkill.”
Boss flipped one of the bullets around in her hands. I shied away from it, standing next to Jay instead.
“Derivative, but acceptable. Take care that you don’t use this against my kind,” Boss said, showing off her fangs again. Her eyes narrowed into slits. “Because it would not do for you to get into another war this soon.”
Teri fluffed up and turned away.
Tane shook her head. “Don’t threaten the geek, Boss. She’s doing her best to help us.”
“I am already cautious about fighting when there are snipers behind me,” Boss said. “I don’t want to feel one of these in my back if you decide I’ve outlived my usefulness.”
I swallowed. “They’ll answer to me if they do that.”
Boss flicked her eyes over to me, glowing and yellow. “And what will you do?”
My tongue stuck in my throat.
“Well, she has me,” Jay said, sweeping over to examine the twisted statue of the king. Bent and chipped and chewed on, he pushed at it. “Help me with this, Boss?”
Boss lumbered over to his side and between the two of them, and later other Crows, they managed to right itself.
“Now the better question is,” I said, peering at where the hole in space had been. “How did they do that, how do we stop it, and what stopped it?”
“What stopped it?” Tane asked.
“They only got one monster through,” I said. “There were a couple in a line waiting to pass in, and the portal snapped shut just like that.”
“That’s right,” Jay said, snapping his talons. “The gate closed almost instantly. Good thing, I didn’t want to figure out how to save you from two bugs.”
Almost immediately, I figured out what had probably caused it to closed, and regretted I’d opened my mouth.
It was a simple matter of eliminating possibilities. Nothing that we knew of in the city could protect us. The Crows certainly hadn’t managed it.
Which meant it was something else protecting us. Something anomalous. An emanation of one of the lords most high.
Something that almost certainly belonged in the pit with everything else the Crows had cast out of the city.
“More importantly,” I said. “We need to figure out where that war camp is.”
Jay frowned. “If I knew the fey…” He turned his head and looked to the west. “They’ll be trying to reuse an old place. Genetic memory would say it’s mostly safe.”
“And then?” Teri asked.
“They’ll be trying to establish nests and hatcheries,” Jay said. “In preparation for the full invasion.” He closed his eyes, forced himself to relax.
I couldn’t. I could still smell guts and gore. Guts and gore.
It’d be a lie to say things settled back into normal after that, because they didn’t. Quen stopped by the park and rounded us up.
“Looks pretty bad,” he said, not looking at our little group.
“It’s dead,” Boss said. “And I got the corpse worm out of it.”
“That’s a relief,” Quen said. “They can’t have too many of those things left. We won’t have to worry about our dead coming back to haunt us.”
I swallowed. Did they put those in the humans they found that were less willing?”
I didn’t want to think of what it’d do to me. I was plenty aware of what it had done to Prince.
“Has the Regent been informed?”
“The Regent is busy,” Quen stated. “I’m ruling in her absence. She left me to run damage control. Typical.”
“Damage control?” Jay asked.
Quen’s eyes flicked over to his. Contempt dissolved into resignation. “While this was the only Fey to get through, there were other holes torn open. More or less all of the city bore witness to the enemy today.”
My stomach dropped a bit further.
“What did they see?”
Quen plucked a small piece of paper out of his uniform and held it up to me. “Read it.”
I gently took it from him and looked it over.
My stomach dropped even further.
To those Concerned,
Abandon your city and Jessica Williams. We have unfinished business with her that needs remedied. Failure to do so will result in the complete termination of all non insect life-forms in the area, after recompense has been extracted. Do not attempt to interfere.
I didn’t have to use Omoi to remember that name. That name wasn’t classified or held in my work memories.
Defender Kathleen was a war hero.
More than that, she’d been one of my bosses, if Prince’s assault had been true.
My stomach dropped harder than the atomic bombs had on America. I stared at the piece of paper.
“Huh. Their skin really does turn white,” Tane said, clicking her beak.
I jumped and whirled around, fingers digging into the paper. “I need to- I have to-”
“That’s panic,” Quen stated. “Is there something…?”
My heart thumped in my chest. If these were all around the city… no no no no… this was a threat, this was…
I put a hand to my chest to try and stall the thumping of my heart, but my mind was already back in the narrow corridors of the military base, with the distant sound of gunshots and the fey echoing through them.
They’d brought the war here.
Veteran of the war against the Watcher. She’d fought and partaken in numerous missions, several of them even declassified. She’d been at my interview when I’d first joined the company.
If she was Bismarck…
By god, if she was Bismarck, she probably had access to every base in the entire nation. Maybe even access to other countries’ equivalents!
More importantly, she wanted…
Her voice echoed through my head.
She was directly over me on the project where I made a god.
Omoi spoke up, despite the mute, and warned me of an oncoming panic attack.
I could’ve laughed, because obviously I hadn’t made the god by myself, there had to have been other people, but here we were, across thousands of years, separated by only a few miles and on opposite sides.
A frightened scientist who had spent her entire life peering at the unknown, trying to unravel the history and processes from light cascading from millions of years away.
A hardened warrior who had earned the respect of the public. Had won over their hearts, and won over their support. What the hell even-
And she was with the fey.
Not only was she with the fey, she’d
She’d directly linked USEC and the fey, just like that. Thrown all attempts at secrecy out of the water. No use trying to cover it.
Jay waved a hand in front of me. “Jess…?”
“I recognized the name,” I said. “She… she was in the b-base with me. At th-the end,” I stammered. “She was…” I scowled. “We need to scramble our Omoi’s, she’s probably got access to them, or she will soon.”
“Jess, take a few breaths,” Jay said. Boss cocked her head to the side and stared at me.
Could she smell my fear?
Could she? Did she know what I was thinking?
It was all coming together. Uncomfortably close together. The time was getting close. I could hear the ticking of the second hand.
“It’s a fake,” Boss said, finally. Quen looked over at her.
“Oh? That was our guess.” The warleader asked. His eyes settled back on me. “Certainly seems to have frightened Jess.”
“That’s the point,” Boss said. “They can’t get any troops over, and they intend to weaken our resolve. Petty things, considering the most of you wouldn’t even die if they pushed bombs through.”
I centered myself. Tried to. It was like fighting a shark with a fishing pole. Not exactly a winning affair.
But it was happening nonetheless. Breath slowed. Heart beat more in tune with itself. Pulling myself back from the panic attack.
“They’ve been in every USEC base north and west of here,” Jay said. “Getting access to working tech doesn’t mean anything.”
Quen nodded, but his eyes didn’t leave me. “Warden, you look quite frightened.”
“The Watcher scares me,” I admitted. “He’s the worst.”
And here we are, coming to the end of a narrative. The Fey were throwing out secrets left and right. Showing their hand.
They smelled the end of this unfortunate tale.
I just wanted to know if it was a comedy or a tragedy.
Quen’s head cocked to the side. “Of all the gods, the Watcher is the one that scares you the most? Not Lord Power? None of the others? I’ve heard that Alaska was caused by Lord Power.”
It had been caused by Lord Power- Lord Physical, by another name. A cult had been set up to cement themselves in immortality. Their ritual had backfired as the rings spun, blasting open the crust of the planet. Lava burst up into the surface.
It had happened near Juno, and had been utterly impossible to cover up.
Of course the Alaska incident would be the one to make it into Quen’s head.
“Lord Narrative ends things,” I said. “He renders things extincts, and snuffs out lives.”
He was the bearer of the end.
“Much as the letter says, they want to kill us all if we don’t leave,” Quen said, evenly. “Nothing new has been gleaned.”
I wanted it to be fake.
I wanted Bismarck to be someone else.
But who else would have survived the apocalypse but my boss? Who else could’ve commanded Prince? Been involved with our projects?
Pretending otherwise was…
It made a lot of very nasty suspicions very real.
“Nonetheless, we’ll take this into consideration,” Quen said. “Nothing stops them from dropping bombs in next time, after all, if they’re going to continue to teleport things on our heads.”
I breathed in. Breathed out. Let it cool across my lungs. “And the Regent?”
“Gone,” Quen said. His eyes flicked away, then down. “A horrible time for her to disappear.”
I didn’t follow his gaze. We both knew where she’d gone. Quen would’ve been stupid to have missed that his Regent didn’t visit the USEC base.
Tane cleared her throat. “I’ll go talk to the scouts. I don’t think she can teleport in from too far away, she’s not a queen yet.”
“I’ll go with you,” Teri said, having been largely quiet the entire time. I knew why. We’d both known that USEC employees had willingly joined the fey. Having it shoved in everyone else’s face like this, however…
It didn’t bode well.
Boss had lied for me. I’d remember that.
“There’s going to be an uptick in people waiting for Morrigan,” Quen sighed. “A shame. I was hoping to talk with her myself.”
“Looking for forgiveness?” Jay asked.
“Only if you go first,” Quen replied.
Boss stretched out, cracking her joints noisily. The conversation stopped after she snapped a particularly harsh crick in her back, her bruised body stretching to a more proper posture. “Sounds like this war won’t be quite as easy as you thought, Jay.”
“They’re tricksy,” Jay agreed.
More than tricksy, they wanted me.
But they also knew that the Crows would never give me up. Why did they send the message at all?
Why would they…?
I didn’t like riddles.
Especially when they involved a tactician like Kathleen.
Underestimating her would end me. It would end all of us.
“Boss?” I asked.
“Oh?” The beast crooned. “What can I do for you, /warden/?” She hummed.
I didn’t like that tone either, but being annoyed by Boss was part of my daily routine. “Can you watch my back? I don’t want to get blindsided by another beetle.”
Jay’s eyes flicked over to me, then back to Quen.
“I could use your help,” Quen said. “If you think you’re up for calming people down… I imagine this brought up some nasty memories for a lot of people.”
Jay’s eyes closed.
“Stay safe Jess,” He commanded.
I scowled at him, but I wasn’t actually infuriated. My track record was sketchy at this point.
“Got it Jay,” I said.
Our tasks in hand, we separated, spinning off.
I had something to confirm.