“That’s it then,” Dean spoke up. He broke the silence. “It’s all lies.”
Murmurs among the ranks. The Morrigan stood at the back, her head hung low. I remembered how reverently she spoke of the man who had saved her. How reverent she had held human kind.
Their indomitability, their reckless attempts to save themselves, it was what might bring doom to Crow kind altogether.
Quen was there, too, swimming through the mass of stunned birds. He had known, too. How could he have not?
He and the Regent had been trading power for decades.
I swallowed, but the words were stuck in my throat. No more speeches. Just guilt, nauseating guilt.
“It was made of lies the entire time,” Dean repeated, laughing. “This city, our noble quest. They’ll kill us all the same. We’ve spent five thousand years of pointless moral crusades, thousands of years cleaning after messes, just because we thought we were doing the right thing. And now we know we weren’t.”
I looked behind me. Boss stood, impassive. She had never cared. Jay looked down, then up at the statue beside us.
“It’s all lies. The Morrigan, Zack, The King.”
“The King?” Jay said, looking over at him. “How do you figure he was lying?
“What’s our noble ideas now?” Dean asked. “USEC was nothing more than selfish thugs. They’re our massacre, our plague. All this time, holding ourselves back, trying to remove the filth from our souls, and-”
“Don’t speak ill of the King,” Jay repeated, glaring at him. “Not like this. He never lied. Not about those things.”
“He had to have known,” Dean said. “He was kindled in a military base. He had to have figured it out. He was complicit-”
Jay slapped him so hard that Dean spun around on his talons. “Shut up.”
“What the hell?” Dean hissed, rocking back on his heels. “Have you lost your mind? What’s this violence good for?”
“Let me tell you about the king,” Jay said. “You squawking idiot.”
“You were the last person to see him,” Dean said. “I guess you’d know something about failure.”
“I was the last person to see him,” Jay said. “And I was outcasted for it. We all were. But let me tell you what he stood for, you selfish coward. Say one more thing about him, and what he stood for and I’ll rip out your throat.”
“Coward?!” Dean hissed. “I’ve spent my entire life trying to break into Warden technology. Calling me a coward is-”
“Fuck off,” Jay spat.
“Fuck off?” Dean spat right back. “You can’t tell me what to do. We’re sick and tired of being told what to do around here! Things were better before the Regent was in power! There’s nothing left! They all knew, and they didn’t tell us!”
“Things weren’t better,” Jay said. “You were lonely, and pathetic, and singular.”
“Such a shame that you failed your precious King then,” Dean hissed.
“I failed the king?” Jay asked, rhetorically. “I failed the king?!”
Dean opened his beak, and Jay moved into action, hurling himself up onto the base of the statue. “Fuck it. I’m sick and tired of this charade.” He drew in a deep breath, and then he started shouting. “WHO WANTS TO HEAR WHY I WAS OUTCASTED!? WHO WANTS TO HEAR ABOUT HOW I FAILED, AND HOW THE KING FAILED?! THERE ARE A LOT OF YOU WHO WANT TO TAKE HIS NAME TONIGHT.”
Dean tried to speak up and Quen threw an arm in front of him, then wrapped a hand around his beak. “Shhhh. I’ve been waiting for this.”
Dean clawed at the hand, but Quen’s grip was strong. He could scatter, but…
I shifted next to Tane for more protection. The crowd was loud.
Here it was. Jay was going to say it.
Even as I was scared for myself, I wanted to hear this. I wanted some small bit of hope, because here it was.
If this didn’t work out, if Jay’s speech didn’t work, it wasn’t like a solution was going to pop up.
“I know part of it,” Quen said.
Jay looked down at him. “Do you want to tell what you know? They know you better.”
Quen laughed, and unheld Dean’s beak.
“I don’t see how this changes anything,” Dean said.
“Shut it,” Quen said. The warleader hopped up onto the statue’s base as well. “We were losing the war. I don’t know how many of you knew that. The reinforcements we were counting on to come in weren’t going to come in time, if at all.”
The crowd was silent. Even the fair weather warriors were listening. “The King believed in us,” Quen said. “He never gave up hope on us. His schemes always revolved around us holding on to the last moment, of fighting against the darkness. There was no lie there.”
Jay laughed. “I remember all the plans we burned for not working.”
“The King came up with a plan. They were planning to march in and burn our hatcheries. The killing gates we’d set up were choked out, and the Queen was starting to teleport fuckers behind our lines anyway, so we didn’t have much to lose.” The laugh that followed was bitter and half choked. “We were going to sneak in and take out their hatcheries first.”
“He gathered together his greatest warriors, the ones he trusted the most, and he came up with a plan so utterly stupid and repulsive that we couldn’t help but try it. We’d known where their main base had been for weeks at that point, a lucky scouting mission had tipped us off on Montgomery. So we were going to trick the queen. Splinter her attention, buy time for both the city and the plan. He said that we were the best of all of us.”
Jay looked over at Quen. “You were part of the ruse.”
“I was,” Quen said. “I led a small team of scouts to do a run overtop of Montgomery. We’d be acting like we’d just discovered it. The Queen would be forced to choose between recalling forces or making due with the skeleton crew left behind.”
“While in reality, the King would be leading in the top bombing squad he had on a suicide mission,” Jay finished. “The King had a secret weapon with him.”
“We drew straws to figure out who would be on the A team, the ruse, and the B team,” Quen said. “I was on the Ruse team. It went straight according to plan. We found Montgomery, and half the team disintegrated under flak.”
“Quen got to a safe place and called us in, told us what he’d seen and where everything was, and they started looking for him to make sure he couldn’t report back in.” Jay said.
“The attack was still going on in Atlanta. What was left in Montgomery was a defensive hold, and what few reinforcements the Queen was still birthing,” Quen said. “So they didn’t get all of us. Just half. I was down to four scouts with me, and the King found my building and we used it as the final staging area. He told me-” Quen’s voice wavered. “He told me I’d done enough. That I could rest, and the bombing team would handle the rest. If I’d gone… if I’d gone, maybe…”
Jay looked over at Quen. “You were hurt,” The Outcast said. “It… it wouldn’t’ve worked.”
“If I’d drawn differently,” Quen said. “If I’d flown a bit faster, a bit straighter-”
“So here’s the part you didn’t know,” Jay said. He straightened up. His beak clenched, his muscles tensed.
“We flew in under the cover of night, long after the sun had set. They were only preparing their defences at that point, since they knew none of the scouts had gotten out of the city, so we caught them off guard. They weren’t expecting all of us.” Jay gestured over the crowd. “The bombing started at midnight. Buildings exploded. Not a structure was left intact. But the Queen wasn’t in any of those,” Jay said.
No. I knew where she’d been hiding.
“She was inside of the Warden’s base,” Jay said. “A hundred Wardens were sleeping in cryo there. We’d tried to save them, but nothing we did could rouse them without them dying. A hundred wardens were being held captive by the Queen, who was going to do who knows what.”
I shook my head. They were…
I’d been lucky.
“The King made a decision that we were going to breach the base,” Jay said. “A change of plans. We were going to take out the Queen right then and there.”
“With what?” Dean asked.
“A bomb,” Jay said. “A big bomb. A nuclear bomb.”
Dean clicked his beak together. There was silence. “Where the hell did the King get a nuke?”
“Does it matter?” Jay snapped. “We had a fucking nuke in our armory left over from when the King travelled everywhere. He’d brought it with us on the artifact truck just in case. Well, here was the case.”
“The team split from B into C and D. D ran distractions and kept the bombing up.” Jay said. “I was left on C. There were three of us, if you can believe it, with the King. Some guards we were. We broke in while the world was going insane around us, fire and glass and shrapnel, wheeling a fucking bomb in on wheels. The King knew where to go, and he knew where the cryopods would be. We set the time and ran for it.”
Quen stared at Jay. “Why… where does?”
“The timer didn’t work, Quen,” Jay said. “The timer didn’t work. They disarmed it, and the remote detonator, and everything else we had.”
“The King went back for it. We told him to leave it, but he was the only one who knew how to make it work again. We knew what that meant. So there’s our first fucking failure,” Jay said. “And we had to run distraction for him. So now there were five teams,” Jay said, and his voice was breaking here. “All of the king’s guards running distraction for him alone, and he was inside of that building by himself, and the Queen found us.
I’d never seen anything that ugly,” Jay said. “So many arms. Human hands. The face was too long, too many eyes, chitin compound eyes. I’d seen… I’d seen it in my nightmares, and wondered how long it had been in my head, and the thoughts were loud enough to drown out my own, and I wondered what it might be like to serve it.”
I clenched my teeth. Was that what we were going to face next?”
“But I remembered the King. Remembered what he was doing for us. Remembered what we were giving up with this mission. I remembered the damn tree over there, and the nests, and I remembered all of the friends I was missing, whose names were going to be erased. Tombstones I was going to carve, and funeral speeches the Elder was going to give. And I gave it my all.” Jay raised his talons into the air. “I carved out one of her eyes despite the demands to stop, despite the screaming in my own head in my own voice. She screamed and the building shook, and I flew out through a window and she chased me, manic, giddy, laughing screaming crying because I had no thoughts left except that I needed to get away.”
“And the others?” Quen asked.
“They were doing the same thing. We fought like Beasts,” Jay said, flicking his eyes down at Boss. “We made noise, we burned. Nothing was left intact. No monster could stop us while we fought that night. And all the while the King himself entered the chamber with the cryopods, in the heart where all the nests had been built, where the Wardens waited to be turned into monsters and-”
He paused for a breath. There were tears rolling down his face, making a mess out of his feathers.
“Let me tell you about failure,” Jay said. “Because the Queen went back for him, despite being half blind and bleeding. She figured out the plan and went back.”
Silence. Complete and utter silence. Nobody had heard the specifics of the Montgomery miracle.
Nobody had wanted them before.
“When she was halfway there, the bomb detonated,” Jay said. “It took the entire building out. Sent floors crumbling down. Caught the queen, half immortal beast she was, and tore her into pieces. Shattered her stupid bulletproof chitin, burst her organs, turned her into scrambled eggs, and I dove into the radiation and fire screaming, and the rest of us were there to, half mad, dancing in death itself because we had left our King to die.”
He was shaking. He was shaking and there were tears in my eyes.
“It took an hour of sifting to find him. He was barely holding on. He’d kept from scattering to try and protect himself, but it was bad, it was all bad,” Jay said. “Something had gotten him in the darkness. Some illness, some contagion, and he was barely holding on and he said to me, he said to me.”
“What’d he say?” Quen asked.
“Don’t let them make me into something I wasn’t. I’m not a god. I’m nothing but a Crow, That’s what he said,” Jay said. “And he told me he loved me. He told me he loved us all,” Jay shook. His feathers were ruffled. His hands were at his side.
“He told me that he was proud of us,” Jay said. “He said we were… we were good now. We’re good birds. We might be mistakes, we might be wretches of this new world, but we’d changed it. We’d saved the world, and we stood there atop our successes and we saw the shadows of the one who’d given it to us and we were hiding in those shadows because we were scared, we were scared of outshining them, and in that moment, when the King had known what he was going to do to win the war, he had seen, in his dreams, that there would be a gleaming city full of Crows. That it was good to be a Crow. That we’d made ourselves a city, a country, a world for us, the Crows. We who inherited the Earth, and cleaned it, and saved this entire continent,” Jay said.
“He didn’t want us to survive, Dean,” Jay said, slowly turning to face the archivist. “He wanted us to thrive. He knew there would be dangerous days. He knew there would be pleasant days. He knew there would be days when we’d want to scatter to the winds, but zackdammit he told me to not let it happen. And maybe, just maybe, I’m failure at that too,” Jay’s beak dropped and he looked down before turning to look at the statue of the King. “Because he gave that mission to all of us who saw him lying there. He told us to never forget what he stood for. To keep Crow Kind on the right path.”
Jay let his head slowly straight back up until he was looking at none of us at all, but at the setting sun. “Those fucking bugs aren’t going to stop if we run. They’ll hunt us down one by one for their pure world. They’ll turn us into soldiers, or they’ll run experiments. To them, we’re not people. To them, we’re less than nothing. We’re pests. And let me tell you, speaking as the last person who saw the King alive, we will die together, or we’ll die alone and screaming.”
“What…” Quen said. “What were his final words?”
“Stay good Marc,” Jay said. “It was the last time I heard my name. From his beak it sounded sweeter than any other. Sweeter than the day I was kindled. He told me to stay good.”
“Stay good,” Quen said. “And why were you Outcasted?”
“He was corrupted,” Jay laughed. “The lot of us were corrupted from being that close. Something in the air, maybe or something in that den of sin got us. When the Inquisition pulled us free, I knew what they were going to take from me, Quen.”
The tears were flowing.
“If I wanted to go back to being a Crow, they were going to take the King’s last words from me,” Jay sobbed. “And here I’m a damn failure again, because I didn’t try to take charge. I didn’t try to do anything, because I was scared I’d lose even that if I tried. But you know what?!” Jay spat. “I’m here. I’m good. I hold the King’s Last Words, and he told me that we would be great. And I promised him that we’d be great.”
Jay looked over the crowd of soldiers. They’d been terrified. They’d been angry.
“And maybe the ideals we were raised on weren’t from USEC,” Jay said, looking at Dean. “Maybe they weren’t. That doesn’t make them any less real. We saved this continent on those ideals. We saved ourselves off of them. The King died for them. We don’t need USEC to make those real,” He took up straighter, shoulders back. “Because we made them real ourselves.”
Now they were angry at something else.
“And now we’re asking ourselves if it’s worth it. If we’re supposed to fight for people who would kill us,” Jay said. “And we’re not fighting for them. We’re fighting for ourselves. USEC might not be the angels we thought they were, but by Zack, they knew how to fight.”
“So here they are. They’re back,” Jay said. “And we’ve let them scare us. We’ve lied to ourselves that we can just run from this. But the King wanted us to thrive. I want us to thrive. The Morrigan wants us to thrive. So maybe it’s time we came together, not as individuals, not as factions, and not as Janitors, but as Crows, and we decide what that fucking means,” Jay said, and he stood tall and strong next to the last statue of the King. “Because without USEC, that’s what we’re able to do. We get to decide what it means now. And you know what?”
“And I think that means we’re going to kill every last one of those fucking bugs,” Jay said. “If you want to leave, get the fuck out of my city so I don’t waste the resources on you. If you want to kill those bastards for every friend they took from you, for every love, teacher, kindled child and kindler, then stay here, because we’re going to do it. We’re going to rip that pretender Queen to pieces, and we’re going to salt the earth they stood on so nothing will ever fuck with us again!”
A pause. The crowd was more energetic. Nobody moved.
“AND IF YOU’RE WITH ME,” Jay shouted. “KNOW THAT THE WARDEN IS WITH US. SHE SEES WE’RE THE WINNING SIDE OF THIS WAR. WE’RE NOT GIVING IN TO ANY FUCKING BUG, NO MATTER THE CAUSE. WE’VE GOT A WAR TO FIGHT. WE DIDN’T WANT IT, BUT WE’RE GOING TO END IT!”
The crowd burst into screaming. I couldn’t make sense of all of them, they wove together. There were names mixed in. Names of the fallen. Names of the missing. Rage.
Long live Crow Kind.
“THE KING IS DEAD!” Jay shouted. “LONG LIVE THE KING!”
“LONG LIVE THE KING!” The crowd shouted right back.
“Now we have a war to win.”