Prin nearly killed the Regent.
That’s not say that Prin had any particularly ill will towards the Regent, nor that any of the inquisitors, who had spent the last few decades desperately trying to flens the evil and blasphemous out of the minds of the afflicted, had any ill will towards the Regent, but down the hallway, past rubble that’d hurt even for crows to clamber through, and around where the chemical lab had been, she’d opened a door they hadn’t expected, and ducked smoothly under three shots and a thrown knife.
“There you are,” The Regent clicked, eyeing the group of them. “I thought there would be more of you.”
“Regent,” Prin saluted. “The war up top is going poorly. The Fey have us practically overrun. Where have you been?”
The Regent looked over Prin, and then over the other birds. It was odd to be one of two black birds in the room, Prin idly thought, especially when on any other day, Prin wouldn’t give the inquisitors his back to save the world.
“I’ve been keeping the city safe,” The Regent said, bowing slightly. “Why else were they forced to cripple our defences first? They could very well have just teleported in, grabbed the Warden, and then left.”
“That sounds like you’ve been working,” Prin said, idly. Too calm. He didn’t want to be calm, but training took over just like that. “Like you said.”
“I have.” She looked up at him. Their eyes met. He couldn’t read anything in her eyes, but he never had been able to. There was trust there, some unspeakable trust that the Regent was working for the greater good. “Do you trust me?”
“Always,” Prin said, automatically.
But another part of Prin could remember the day they’d carved into his mind and pried chunks of corrupted thoughts out of his head, and he’d wondered how they knew this and knew that it didn’t matter.
And another part of Prin remembered the Morrigan’s teachings, but they weren’t quite right either, were they, on the goods of USEC, and the role of Crows in the new world. They weren’t wrong either.
“I’ve been busy, as I said,” The Regent’s beak clicked, her head bowing slightly.
“Busy,” Prin repeated, like he might derive some deeper meaning out of the word by chewing on it.
“I’ve been keeping the barriers that the King and I set up on this city,” The Regent said. “And I’m glad I received reinforcements. I’m good, but I’m not-”
“We’re being chased by a monster,” Prin cut in. “There was supposed to be acid here.”
Prin’s attention flicked to his radio, but it had cut into static. He could still her alarms blaring on the other side. But he had faith that the war hadn’t been lost just yet. They were Crows. They were good at surviving, if they were good at anything at all. Keeping the worldview simple had kept him from sliding into the same depression that had taken most of the leaders of the city, after all.
“We used it,” The Regent said. “But I have something else that should do the trick.”
“We?” Prin asked.
The Regent gestured at the rest of the Warden’s grave. “Welcome to the King’s Lab.”
Prin blinked once, and let his eyes trail across the room. Computers still buzzed and hummed, though most were heavily patchworked, put together and kept that way by far younger hands than the architects and builders of old. Images embossed the white boards that were glued to the walls, sketches of Queen’s Guards and Titan beetles and corpse worms and drones alike. He could still smell the marker stink in the air.
“This is where-”
“Don’t think about it now,” The Regent said. “But I have been working, working, working, for so very long to keep this place safe. I wish… I wish it wasn’t time, I suppose.”
An inquisitor broke off from the pack and stared at the walls. He reached forward to read some of the script, and hesitated. “That’s the King’s handwriting, isn’t it?”
Prin eyed the line on the whiteboard. “For the Greater Good. But this is… Regent, this is all blasphemy.”
“And it’ll save us,” The Regent said, clicking her beak. “It has been my burden to bear, and it’ll save us.”
“Regent…” Prin started. “What about… it’s banned.” Prin said, lamely. Here, in the depths of the base, he was uncomfortably surrounded by the Regent’s own Crows, and at a word, they would obey her.
And the city overhead was burning, and they were almost certainly losing, given what he’d been overhearing through the buzz of the radio.
Prin was simple. The decision might be just as simple.
“I’ve stood by the Morrigan’s laws about not practicing blasphemy,” The Regent said. “Most of them. I even agree with most of them; before a hundred years ago, even touching these things were a death sentence. It was impossible to decipher which would kill you and which might help you or be inactive.”
“It was for safety,” Prin said, distantly. He didn’t like this, but he couldn’t argue. This was his leader, and there was a war going on overhead, and there was a creature chasing them that they hadn’t seen in quite some time. These words were familiar. Had he been here before?
“For the Greater Good, we, the Crows of Atlanta, back before it was a capital, came together and created the King project.” The Regent swept past the lot of them. “To create a better Crow, and to fight the Queen of Fey.”
Prin shook his head. “Regent, I need-”
“And it worked, here in the Warden’s grave, where the gods are still listening to bargains. We won the last war, true, but we had to send the King out without his weapon.”
Prin paused. “A weapon?” His beak clicked once. That… That was more like it.
The last day had been about a great many weapons, and lines, and defences, and graves. Here he was in a great grave in the ground, seeing to a mad-crow, and she had a weapon for him. The world was going mad already, so why not?
The Regent walked to the far wall, and she tore a bank of computers out of the way to expose a keyboard, and then rapidly typed, her talons leaving scratches in the soft plastic.
The monitors blinked one by one. “And I’ve been waiting for someone to arrive who might use the weapon, and I knew fate would send someone my way.”
Prin stared at her back. He was a simple Crow; it was why he was the head of the city guard. He followed orders, and he didn’t try to ponder the secrets of the universe. But here, his morals were wrong.
He’d been following the leaders because they’d been right. But now, the Regent was a heretic, the Outcast was a hero, and the Morrigan had been wrong, dead wrong, about everything. The Last Warden was useless, and everything he’d ever worked for was falling apart.
He didn’t want whatever the Regent was digging for. He didn’t want it.
But even as he admitted that, even as he craved the simplicity of a week ago, he knew that it wasn’t that simple.
The Warden wasn’t useless, she specialized in a field that no longer existed. A field that might very well save all of them. The Morrigan hadn’t been wrong; she’d guided them on principles she’d learned from a dying man. And they’d gotten the Crows here, to the last great battle of maybe the entire history of Earth, if they lost here.
And The Regent had lied to them. For the Greater Good. The ambiguous idea that self sacrifice and hard decisions were needed to make the future brighter. In this den of sin, The Regent had broken her laws, but she’d sacrificed herself for it. They all had. There were many more sets of handwriting here than just the Regent’s and the King’s.
The Inquisition had been born from it. The King had made his science here, perhaps even forged his battle plans, here where the Wardens had built a nexus for their plans.
His world hadn’t gotten scrambled at all. His world had always been so simple. It was just up to him to realize that, and deal with it how he wanted. The world wanted to make things complicated, but it wasn’t. Not really.
There were good guys here, and there were bad guys here, and he was on the right side.
The room opened, a door hidden by paint clicking into the wall before servos rattled and exposed a hidden room. The Inquisitors nervously shuffled behind him. Not a one of them moved.
“Looking at it made me uneasy, so I hid it,” The Regent said without looking up.
Prin moved, and followed after the Regent as she disappeared into the inky void of the hidden space. Few lights lit it up; just the occasional flickering dreams of a few words, hovering against the darkness of the void. The Regent ran her talons over a few of them, and letter by letter, piece by piece the glowing grew.
“These should be in the pit,” Prin said, distant, like he was looking over his own shoulder. Where was the fear that he was supposed to be feeling? Where was it now? The protective coat of it had left him behind.
In the distance, something exploded, and something shifted.
They were still being chased after all.
“Perhaps,” The Regent said. “But then we would all die, and that would be a horrible ending to this novel, wouldn’t it?”
She plunged her hand into the thickest darkness, where light refused to intrude, and drew forth from the depths a knife. Long fluted tongues of metal drifted away from the core, like the molten metal itself had streamed away from whatever hell had been entombed in the center.
Prin stared at the blade.
“We came across the design from a great tomb in the far north, where the bombs had destroyed an even greater city, and the survivors had spent decades burying and mourning their dead,” The Regent said, her voice distant. “I and the King spent our time there, in the still silence, for not even Beasts were willing to stand next to the tomb for long, researching at the old universities, basking in the knowledge of the wardens.”
“That’s it?” Prin asked. He felt dimmed, like a bulb flickering for the last time, or a spent candle.
“We took their ashes for the knife, recognizing such things have power.”
She tilted the knife, pointing it towards herself, and offered it to Prin.
He took it, automatically. “Why am I doing this?”
“You trust me,” She offered. “The world is ending, and you’re scared,” she offered again. “You want hope,” she offered another time. “You believe that we might still win, if we try everything.”
“How much of it was real?” Prin asked, curiously. The knife had a most peculiar weight in his hand, heavier than a skull, lighter than the wind.
“It was all real,” The Regent said. “My name was real, and I traded it away. I did the same with my life, and my truths, and my lies, and my stories.” Cautiously, she spun him around and pushed at the small of his back. “And now, I trade my weapon, so that we all might be safe.”
He stepped forward.
Prin felt rather small, like the entirety of himself might fit within the dark hollow at the center of the blade, where the stars and the sky was leaking through. But he stepped forward, nonetheless.
“Why me?” Prin asked, his voice smaller than he felt, a faint croak on the wind. “Why is it me this time?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” The Regent asked, sliding past him. “You were one of us, once, when there was more to my order than just myself. A great hidden trespass against the laws of the land was what won us the war last time, Prin. And my order purged themselves to prevent that trespass from taking the rest of us. And I, one of the last, am too corrupted to use it.”
Prin drew the knife in front of him. It felt… it felt natural. Better than it should, like the weight, and what a heavy unfathomable weight the conversation had in his hands, like the weight was right.
He twirled it between his fingers, and felt the weight settle into a mere stone. The inquisitors parted in his wake, not a word or noise from their white bodies, and he walked forward.
The Regent trailed behind him, and a cloak wrapped itself across his shoulders, in the royal colors of green and purple, ornate golden filigree and silver buttons, and the old USEC symbols for protection.
The Beast that had once been many, with grasping cells and cursed tongues stared at him from the other side of the hallway, and Prin crept forward, talons clicking against the floor, and cloak trailing behind him like a cape. It stared with many eyes as if it could not grasp what was happening, and as the light intensified from the blade (and the blade was humming now, from close proximity to the beast) it shied back, pressing itself against a corner.
It knew fear as well as Prin did. They were both so very scared.
Prin brought the blade down, and they both screamed.