Colors swam like fish trapped in a bowl over top of me and buzzing like wasps in my ears, and Omoi wouldn’t shut up about exposure to hostile phenomena and a brief interface with something that had run wild circles around her programming.
My vision swam, eyes were watering. I closed them, let the tears roll out of the corner of my eyes, and refocused.
The Regent was standing over me. She nudged me with her foot. Something was sitting across my chest.
“Never seen it smoke like that,” She noted, as if she were discussing the weather.
I rubbed at my hand. The wound had sealed itself shut. I didn’t feel any different. The memories were still there, buzzing about.
“Are the wards working?”
The Regent reached out an arm, offering me her talons. I took them, and she tugged me up and away from the skeletons of dead brave scientists. The paper dropped off of my coat and onto the floor. I picked it up.
It was a photograph. I stared at it.
I sat in the center, next to Isaac. Surrounding us were twenty people, more or less. I recognized Prince among their number. An airy distant woman barely resembled Trellis. Omoi put names to them, drawing from the database around us.
Defender Kathleen. Three people who were trapped in this base, now long dead. Many others. Names, jobs, occupations and degrees.
The expanded applied Eschatology team. At least, the gulf coast branch.
Written across the bottom in faded ink,
Hold on at all costs. Jess’ll pull through.
I swallowed, something hard in my throat, and looked at the faces of my old team. I didn’t recognize most of them. Not even a flicker in my head of who they might be. But something in their eyes made me relax, in their lab coats, in the lights reflected off of their skin. I wasn’t alone. I hadn’t gotten into this alone.
Most of them were now dead.
But I’d do right in their name, wouldn’t I? What was even right anymore.
“For now, at least,” The Regent said. “It looks like you got someone’s attention with that. What’d you give up?” Her head cocked to the side. “What’d you gain?”
My tongue stuck in my mouth, and I bit at the tip, feeling bizarrely numb. “”It’s… private.” I couldn’t tell her I’d been rejected.
“Hm,” The Regent said. “I suppose it might be.”
A pause from the both of us. “It said it was proud of me.”
The Regent clapped her hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “Then they’re proud of you.”
The Bystander was proud of me, and had given me a gift.
And then I remembered why I was here.
“Regent,” I said, the familiar buzz of nervous terror building in the back of my throat. “The fey are trying to expose me. They want the Crows to know-”
“One of my swans contacted me through radio,” The Regent dismissed. “They want to burn this city to the ground, completely and utterly. They won’t care if you’re here or not. The other Crows will see that, or they’ll be run through by a fey bayonet.”
“But-” I cut in.
“This too shall pass,” The Regent smiled. “Do you not think I’ve scared off a few coup attempts in my time?”
It wasn’t as hard getting out as I thought it would be. The way back wasn’t half as mazelike with the Regent guiding us, and she hummed under her breath.
“Are the wards going to hold up?”
“That’s the hope,” The Regent said, clicking her beak dismissively. “I wouldn’t worry too terribly much. We lived through the first war.”
“You’re flippant,” I said.
“I have hope that this works out,” The Regent said. “And going into panic attacks worrying over the shape and sharpness of the sword of damocles isn’t going to help me defeat it.”
“Pragmatic,” I said.
She nodded. That was the end of that.
I suppose, if you filed away at yourself endlessly… you could get yourself thin enough to handle it.
I didn’t know if I could do that either.
Outside, Boss was pacing, her long golden hair gleaming in the thin lights of the USEC base. The door locked behind us, and the red light reflected off of ancient duvets and chunks missing out of her flesh.
“The air smells like fear,” Boss said. “There’s unrest in this city.”
The Regent nodded slowly. “I knew this would happen too.”
“Knew what would happen?” I asked.
“They’re panicking,” The Regent said.
“They can’t hear the roar of battle in their blood,” Boss said, dimly. Then she turned, squinting at the Regent. “You do still have blood, yes?”
“In a sense, as our crows have blood.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose, swallowed, and handed the rite knife back to The Regent. She snapped it up and tucked it back into her jacket. “As before,” The Regent said.
“Keep this between us?”
“What strange rituals requires the Warden?” Boss asked, cocking her head to the side.
“Defensive wards,” The Regent said. “I know that you keep similar protections around your mountain of meat, Beast. It’s of that sort.”
“What stories did you sacrifice?” Boss asked.
“My peace of mind,” I joked. “It probably saw I was only half of a person.”
“A half of a person that killed a Queen’s Guard!” Boss barked out a laugh. “You’re funny, godling.”
“Back to godling?”
“Don’t doubt yourself,” Boss advised. “It annoys me.”
Then she turned out into the subway tunnel and started to walk off. The Regent turned the other direction.
“Where are you going?”
“I have my own way through these tunnels,” The Regent said. “We’ll meet up after this is over. Don’t worry.”
But I did worry.
Night had fallen outside while I had labored with the Regent, and the revelations hung like blood across my neck. The world was… it wasn’t any less wonderful, because it wasn’t that I had learned an ugly truth.
I’d learned a beautiful bittersweet truth, that hidden in the earth, USEC had never given up fighting the end.
And I was, perhaps, the last of its efforts to fight the end.
That, and whatever twisted promise that Bismarck intended on extracting from whatever God I’d made, whatever secret plan that still existed in the ruins of man.
But here I was.
Bismarck, Trellis, and I, had made it to the end of mankind.
I swallowed. I reached out and grabbed Boss’s arm and clung to it for a moment, and she shrugged and put me on her shoulders when we left the tunnel.
Despite the night, lights were still bright in the city. Few were sleeping. I could still see military drills carried out in the darkness, flitting forms seeing by the light of the pristine stars and the gleam of lamps on the ground.
It wasn’t until we got back to my room that I realized something was wrong. The books had been slammed out of the shelves, pages littering the floor. The bed had been destroyed, slashed open. My lab coats had been rifled through, and I was missing all the dirty ones, all the ones I’d piled in the corner.
I bit my tongue. Boss stared, her eyes like gleaming suns in the dark, and flicked her eyes up to the corner of the room.
I followed her gaze. There was someone standing their, ink black feathers blending into the shadows.
“Did you think I was stupid?” Dean asked. He stepped forward. “When we were talking?”
“What’d you take?” I asked.
“I didn’t take anything. Quen, and his folk, they took whatever they thought might be suspicious,” Dean said.
“I can tear out his throat,” Boss reminded. “That’d make me feel better.”
“Don’t,” I said, holding up a hand. “I want to know what’s wrong.”
“Did you think I was stupid?” Dean repeated.
I swallowed. “Afraid you’re going to have be clearer than that.”
“I could put it together,” Dean said. “How the Fey move seamlessly over hostile USEC terrain. How they infested important structures over strategic ones; they were going with what they knew and understood. But I figured it out. USEC never died. They just turned into the monsters they were fighting! And you knew!”
I bit my tongue. “I did.”
“And you knew it was /voluntary/,” Dean hissed.
I sighed, and I felt the fingers of guilt close like a mouse trap around my lungs. “I did.”
“And I figured it out,” Dean said, wondering. “And they removed my memories of it.”
I breathed in, breathed out. Certainly looked like that.
“I should’ve put it together. I wanted to put it together, but I couldn’t believe it!” Dean said. “But you were all hiding it from me.”
“The fey are…” I trailed off.
“What I didn’t expect was for one of them to go for the capital. Not after Isaac left in such a hurry.” Dean took a step forward.
The skylight was open. That explained how he got in the closed room.
“You’re accusing me of what?” I asked.
‘Being a fey,” Dean said. “A queen’s guard. A saboteur. You were here to get what you needed off of Prince’s Omoi and then run for it after getting us involved in your stupid war.”
Boss laughed, her eyes lit up and wide. “You think that Jess, Jess who still squeaks when there are loud noises, Jess who refuses to eat raw meat, that she’s a Fey?”
“Or if not a fey, in line with them.”
I tasted my own blood. Ran the edge of my punctured tongue across my teeth.
“What’d you find?” I asked.
“We ran the message through an authenticator. Defender Kathleen is real. She worked at your base.” Dean pointed out, dry. “And more importantly, I bugged Prince’s com before I sent it you way. Took a while to piece through the footage, but isn’t it strange how the Fey have been everywhere except where you’ve lodged yourself? And how interested they are in you? After we’d fought a war with them, we’d have a vested interest in protecting anything they were after, and they knew our history with the wardens.”
“The Crows have kept Fey out of their territory,” Boss said, taking a step forward. “Obviously, if Jess wanted to avoid them, that’s where she’d go.”
“And how would she explain that she worked with the three Queen’s Guards who were at this very moment plotting to sac this city and kill everyone inside of it?”
Boss flicked her head over to me. I lowered my hand. Boss growled.
“That was five thousand years ago,” I said. “I can’t possibly be held responsible for whatever they’ve done since then.”
“You can see why I can’t trust you on that,” Dean said. “When you’ve had ample time to explore every inch of the city, and you wormed your way into the good graces of every leader we have.”
“So what? What did you tell them?”
“I showed them the video,” Dean said. “The ‘superweapon’, Jess. It’s a kill switch, isn’t it? That you helped make. And gave to those monsters. The monsters who killed the old world, and want to kill this one too.”
I didn’t know what it was. But it wasn’t hard to piece it back together.
What exactly the god would do.
It’d replace the kindlord, and more importantly… humanity would be in control of it. They’d be able to banish every kindlord anomaly instantaneously.
Which included the Crows. They were a living breathing lifeform that didn’t make any particular sense under conventional understandings of the laws of physics.
Dean had put two and two and two together, and now he was holding up six.
If that had been what I’d done, and the hole in my thoughts was curiously blank on that matter, then just activating it would kill Boss, Jay, Tane, Teri, The Morrigan, everyone.
It’d be a genocide on a scale unknown since the bombs dropped the first time.
And I’d made it. I could hardly blame him for being angry, for realizing that the very weapon this war was being fought over was my fault.
That’s what the failsafe would be. An attempt at reversion, using a jury rigged god. If I only knew how I’d done it, if I only had access to those few memories, then maybe I could piece it together from there.
My fists tightened up.
“It’ll kill all of you,” I said. “They think I know where it is.”
“Well?” Dean asked, his eyes reflecting the quick of the moon far overhead. “Do you?”
But I didn’t know why the world had to end. Was it to reduce initial strain on the false god? Give it time to adjust to the load?
It was inhumane to think on those terms, but if we were going all in on it…
I couldn’t… I was missing something. Goddammit I was always missing something.
“My godling gets more impressive by the moment,” Boss rumbled, taking a step in front of me. “Shall I kill him?”
“Don’t,” I said again. “I don’t know where it is, Dean. They want to try and pry it out of my quivering brain, regardless of whether or not it kills me.”
“Or,” Dean said. “You’re a spy, and you’ve gathered enough intel to neutralize every bit of the city’s defences. And you don’t want us to wrest you free and send you home in a tinderbox.”
I swallowed. “You know that’s not true, Dean.”
“What I know doesn’t matter,” Dean said. “What matters is what everyone else thinks. I’m tired of being told what memories are safe, and what I’m supposed to believe. The Regent can’t bury your transgressions, they’ll have to figure out what to do with you themselves. That’s fair. We’ll all have to decide now.”
“That’s what this is?” I asked. “You’re pissed I didn’t tell you?”
“I’m pissed,” Dean said, clicking his beak, stepping further into the light of the stars twinkling over head. “Because we’re at war, and you’re still hiding stupid facts from your past from us all. What’s next? You used to date the warlord? You killed a god? Take a moment and consider this, because I don’t think you’re thinking straight.”
Boss grunted. “I don’t care for these logic puzzles. Say your piece and leave.”
“They’ve taken all of your things. They’ll come for you next,” Dean said.
“And when they find I’m innocent?” I asked.
“Then they decided that on their own terms,” Dean snipped. “And that’s all I want. No more of these stupid secrets, no more shadowy things in the dark. We’re past being scared of the darkness, Jess, and I’m tired of bowing to people who tell me to still be scared.”
“Why are you warning me?”
“Because…” Dean’s beak clenched. “You helped me. But that’s not enough to make up for what you did. And you can make up for it by being my tool here. Quid pro quo. Face your sins, tell us what we’re really fighting for. Can you do that?”
I opened my mouth, then bit down on my lip.
I don’t know what he saw there, but he flinched. “Then we’ll let the others drag it out of you.” Dean said, and then he scattered, flying up in long elegant arcs, and left out the top of the room.
I swallowed. Took a few breaths, steadied myself up against the wall.
Alright. So they knew what I’d just found out.
That I’d had a part in the end of the world, and that the Fey were after me in particular.
That my existence was key to their current plans.
That I’d served with them.
That Usec was playing against them, their holy warriors were demented bugs out to sac and loot and kill everyone last one of them.
I breathed in, let it hiss out between my teeth, and turned to face Boss. “You have anything you want to say?”
“You get more interesting by the day,” Boss mused. “You’ll lead me to interesting fights.”
“Is that all that matters to you?” I asked, reaching into the ruins of my bed.
I knew, almost instantly, what was missing besides the obvious. My locket.
My locket was missing.
I’d lost even that.
Fingers balled up into fists, nails cut into the skin of my palm.
It was burning down again. The world was burning down again. I didn’t like it.
But I knew what to do this time. Find my friends, find a place, and figure the rest out.
I’d find my friends. The place would be with the Morrigan.
And the rest, well… I’d have to figure it out as it happened.
Weren’t a lot of missing pieces now. The world was over, The Fey were going to wipe out every last trace of the anomalous from the planet with a god I’d made, and try and start again, the Crows were in the way.
I didn’t know why the Kindlord was dead, and I didn’t know how I’d made the god or where it was.
But if I wanted to save the world again, I’d have to figure out that last one.
“Where to?” Boss asked, raising an eyebrow. “The mob’ll be down on you soon. If I know Crowkind, they’re nothing if not dedicated to their hypocritical morals.”
“I need to gather our friends.”
“Friends,” Boss laughed. “Friends are poor replacements for armor, godling.”