I didn’t walk so much as stumble inside. The air was thick and heady with mold and plantlife. Bushes and green leafy things existed in the light of bioluminescent algaes, coating everything in a strange mixture of greens and blues. The Regent stood at the center.
“The city came under attack,” I said. What was I supposed to say? About the dead bodies? About the… about the thing they’d made.
“It did,” The Regent agreed. “I had to make sure the wards stood intact. Otherwise, they might have gotten in.”
Omoi sputtered with so many warnings that I felt the node grow hot in my skin, and I flicked through them and adjusted the protocols on what would trigger them.
It wouldn’t do to be blind now.
I stepped towards her, and she stepped to the side. The corpse in the center of the nine circle had long been reduced to mere bones. The tree had grown through his stomach.
His skull, just over the eyes, was rimmed the sacred tongue. It sparkled with a light that didn’t reach the walls. It had been inscribed while he was still alive, down to the bone.
I was standing at the edge of a great rite-circle. A grand equation of reality bending proportion. Like what was inside of the Omoi, but twisted out into real space.
Like the sigils that hung from the walls of USEC for protection, but larger still.
A great rite circle that just happened to be beneath the Seared Oak.
That the Regent was praying with.
I didn’t have to all my memories to know what was going on. I’d seen this in my dreams, in nightmares that played behind my eyes, divorced from context.
I’d seen this on the news in the ruins of Alaska, I’d seen this reflected in a dozen messy murders on the evening stations.
This was a rite circle. Things had been sacrificed here.
“This is the Second Saint,” The Regent introduced, gesturing at the corpse at the center. “Responsible for all of Crow kind’s existence. And life, in general, on the gulf coast.”
I took a hesitant step forward. Fresh plant life crunched under foot.
“Hell of a boast,” I said, standing beside her.
“No boast,” The Regent said. She took a step to the side. Where she’d been standing, and-
I kicked dirt out of the way. On the ground of the greenhouse, the conditions of the divine equation sat there. Images of- no, not the watcher. Not even the Kind Lord. Nor Lord Movement, Physical, Fire.
The most unlikely of gods. The Bystander.
Lord Knowledge. His symbol appeared again and again, the great eye. A bartering, a contact…
The symbols read off of my tongue like I still knew them. Could you ever have a language destroyed?
Or perhaps it was an effect of Lord Knowledge himself, that even this far into the future all who read it would know what had happened.
“We barter on behalf of USEC an audience with Lord Knowledge,” I read, peering down at the dirt.
My eyes kept sliding away to look at the body in the center, impaled by the tree.
“What’d they trade? And what for?” I asked.
“The Second Saint,” The Regent said. “They were running out of time. They had hope that someone else would wake up.”
Her eyes were on me now. I knelt down. Tried to negotiate some of the trickier runes, waited for Omoi to clear out the mess of warnings.
Went to the first warning. I’d never seen a class 5 before.
The God himself had intervened. That’s what a class 5 was. Instead of indirect, instead of the presence of a vast comprehending base of knowledge drifting across a planet ruining how space and time worked, this was a cognizant and conscious decision.
My heart quickened in my chest.
“What did they trade?” I asked again, staring at the corpses. The words were entangled in their body. I read over them.
The world had no life left. Infertility was flourishing. Life itself would come to a halt.
That’s what they were bartering with Lord Knowledge for. A replacement.
Like the one I was supposed to be making, only…
Only I’d run out of time on that. They weren’t willing to wait.
I looked around. What had they traded?
What had they traded?
But all I could see were the makeshift symbol we’d made for humanity. The same one that I’d used, the scramble of lines that had been centered into the whole of the space humanity took up in the cosmos.
All they’d offered had been…
My eyes drifted down. Omoi called up a map.
Below us, the cryopods sat. The roots disappeared into the floor.
I did the math. Connected the dots.
Hypothesized what the deaths of an entire sleeping base could power.
My knees gave out. I hit the ground, dust kicked up in my path, and I stared at the nine dead scientists. All they’d offered had been humanity. All they’d had to offer was humanity.
“They traded your kind,” The Regent said. “Imagine, believing in something, anything at all, so much that you’re willing to trade everything you know, and the lives of everyone you know for it.”
If the world was dead, there would be no activation of the fail safe. The entire world was affected by a single anomaly, a single emanation of the gods.
That was overselling it. It was a patchwork of them, keeping reality intact instead of letting it fade like the other worlds. We’d failed to ascend.
But we hadn’t failed to save the Earth.
I was sick. Bile was tracing my throat. It burned. My eyes were burning, water rimming the edge of my vision. Like a haze, I could picture their desperation. Total planetary extinction as life failed to proliferate. They’d reached for anything, anything at all, but all they had to offer had been…
I read over the equation. Looked at the center of the room, where the tree gleamed with old power, old manipulations.
Saw new things written there.
The Regent looked at it, stroked feathers across it. “This is the wards I was talking about.”
“Right.” I said. I slowly hauled myself to my feet. I couldn’t let it hit me.
But it did.
Thousands of people had died here. They’d thrown thousands of people into this rite circle.
Billions had died when the bombs fell. I should’ve been-
What did it matter when I couldn’t think in terms of those scales?
“The King and I derived these out of the Warden Graves we visited,” The Regent said. “It took a lifetime to learn them, and even longer to figure out how to tap into this place.”
“This is where life comes from now?” I asked. Incredulous.
“Some of it,” The Regent said. “I want you to think about all of the Warden Graves out there, Jess.”
Omoi brought up the map. Hundreds of locations spread across it.
“Oh,” I said intelligently. I knew what she’d say next.
“Most of those had living staff left behind to manage things,” The Regent pointed out. “This is one place that we know succeeded. But they were in contact with other bases.”
But with over a hundred others… just here in the US alone…
Was this how the fey had been made? A hundred tries to make life work again after the end, and they’d managed to staple together something stable. There had to have been a few missteps.
“And that’s why I admire humanity,” The Regent said. “There hasn’t been a Grave I’ve been in that didn’t try something or another, or didn’t spend their entire time trying to save this world. They never gave up.”
“What about mine?” I asked.
“Yours was dead before it had a chance,” The Regent said. “Invaded by cultists and they killed everyone who was supposed to bring you out of it.”
Ah. Like always, the Watcher had made things terribly inconvenient.
I’d have laughed but then I’d start crying again.
“Something to aspire to,” I said.
“The wards keeps the queen out of the city,” The Regent said. “When her portals open, they’ll slam shut before much gets through. It’s what I’ve been working on since… well, the King went missing.”
I was piecing it together. Sure, I didn’t have the memories of the language of the gods in my head anymore, but it was easy enough to pick up and conjugate. To read the gist of it, if not write it.
Here was a symbol for transference, a symbol for a tree and then a symbol for something I’d never seen in my entire life.
“That’s the living element,” The Regent said. “I’m at a crossroads here. The wards have grown weak; they’re supposed to be attuned to me with the King gone, but… well, sacrificial rites are what they are.”
“You gave up your name,” I realized. I squinted at the last symbol. Balance the equation. “And Tane.”
“Tane wasn’t given up,” The Regent said. “I made sure she would be safe. I gave up other things. Memories of who kindled me. I know who they are empirically, and I know what they look like, but the memories are simply gone. Some other things that weren’t important at the time, but I miss them now. But that’s the burden of power I guess, isn’t it?”
It was hollow.
“It’s growing weaker,” I repeated, reaching forward. My fingers traced over the carving. I could feel it like a mother knew when her child’s heart was nearing the end.
“Having most of the tree burned didn’t help,” The Regent said. “The tree’s still alive. Old trees like this can come back, if everything goes well. Might take a few centuries, but I’ve been focusing most of my attempts to keep it intact.”
“So what are you going to trade it?”
The Regent paused. “I’m not sure. I’m rapidly running out of pieces of myself that I’m willing to give up… or can give up without compromising the city. There’s only so far you can sharpen a knife before it breaks.”
I swallowed. She admired humanity for giving up their dying years trying to stop it. I almost admired her for what she was willing to do for the city. Was it for the love of Crows, or the love of the King?
I pinched in and pressed my finger against the final symbol. Felt the ridges of the smooth contortions, like a great whirling set of drills had grazed it while shooting for the heart of life.
“I’ll do it.”
The Regent cocked her head to the side. Stared at me.
Her dark eyes met mine, and then she offered a knife to me. Long, twisted, the tip invisible. It was made out of bones.
“Pick something you can afford to get rid of.” The Regent suggested, not unkindly. “You don’t have to do this.”
It was heavy in my hands. I spun it about, felt it shift. Well balanced.
“How do I work it?”
“Slash your palm,” The Regent said. “And give it away. The Bystander will take it from you and add it to their storage of all knowledge in the universe.”
I stared at the edge. Saw how Omoi vainly tried to keep it censored, popping up with dozens of warnings.
But I knew this sort of trade. I knew it in my bones, in the harsh taste of metal in my mouth, in the screaming void where my memories of darker times had been devoured.
I brought the memory into the front of my head. That blind terror when Prince had stood over top of me. That part of me that pitied him. That wanted to help him.
The part that had shrivelled up and died when I’d put a bullet in him.
I curled it up, coaxed it into being (Omoi brought the memory up in a video for me to watch but I ignored that too) and let it fill my mind.
And I brought the knife down on my palm.
And I told the Bystander to choke on my feelings of uselessness, the despair I had at the thought of facing the greatest woman I had ever met in battle. All that self loathing, bubbling up to the top.
The sigils inscribed gleamed an elder red, and smoke rose up from the root of the Seared oak. I wanted it to hurt, in a sick way, from the sin that had made it, and how it had long since devoured everyone who had trusted USEC to protect them, the cold womb of the state a foul place to rest.
But the feelings didn’t disperse.
There was no lessening of that burden. The buzzing thoughts and emotions didn’t escape like a hoard of wasps, and I didn’t feel any different apart from the aching cut in my palm.
“Did… Did it work?” I said, looking down at my palm. Then I looked back up into the sigils and found a new one had appeared.
Then it hit me.
A hook slammed into place behind my eyes, digging into the brunt of the harsh buzzing memories. Like ten fingered hand, it tugged at nothing at all and my identity, my soul, and found something it recognized. A great eye stared at me from a million miles away and found that I
I could give no more.
The stars gleamed across the edge of my vision, a single tear ran down the corner of my right eye and down my face, rolling across skin that hadn’t felt the touch of another human for five thousand years and I could see the face of a gleaming god and knew that I knew that I knew and
It was proud of us.
It was proud of us
It was proud
And I was good