The secondary command post exploded when they were less than a hundred meters from it. Hot toxic fluids splattered the trees, sending a corona of flesh flame across their burning tops. If the Seared Oak wasn’t hundreds of meters from the treeline, I’d’ve thought it would’ve gone up next. But the fact of the matter was that it didn’t mean a damn thing that it was safe, since Hounds crawled up through the ground on either side of our convoy.
Jay shifted on his toes, drawing his gun, and stared at the mass behind us, while I stared at the Hounds in front of us.
“Do we have the go ahead to open fire?” came the calm voice through the radio. I looked up at the rooftops, where the sniper teams sat prepared, and wished Tane were among their number. But she hadn’t spoken up in quite some time, busy trying to get the weapons to whoever needed them.
I didn’t know how many groups of Crows were still fighting or holding out; the entire defence was a sleep deprived wash. A horrible wash.
Crows were dead, dying, lying in the rubble where nobody would ever find them, and still others were fighting on, unaware that their precious Warden was surrounded. I bit into the flesh of my lip until I tasted blood.
“Don’t fire,” I said.
There was no point in shooting the Hounds. They’d Inundate into something far more wretched, something our guns were useless against. Where was Prin? Quen? Boss?
It was just Jay and Dean at this point.
Dean’s talons tightened into fists. “Anyone have any ideas?”
“Die fighting?” Jay asked, in a muttered laugh.
“Ideas that’ll work without us dying?” Dean asked, again.
“We’re out of those,” I said. My fingertips pressed against the warm metal of the gun at my hip. Warm from how tight I was gripping it, though I knew that with how bad of a shot I was, drawing it would make the situation actively worse. “You have anything?”
“Just the one,” Dean said. “Get ready to move.”
The Hounds inched closer. Their skin was the mottled colors of corpses, fur had fallen out of their bodies until they barely resembled Boss at all. Insectile tendrils dug through their skin, curled and dug thoroughly into muscles until they could be puppeted by whatever beasts lived inside of the hollow of their chests.
And if those were dead, Trellis would inundate them, and we’d have even bigger problems.
I took a step back and bumped into Jay. I looked behind us. The Fey were advancing, their guns in their hands, but none fired.
“What’re they doing?” I asked.
“They want you alive,” Jay said. “If they start firing, you’ll be in the crossfire.”
I was very aware of the fact that if they caught me, they only needed me alive, which didn’t mean they had to leave most of my limbs intact. My last days being spent as a tortured husk, trapped in my own skin- well…
“Dean?” I asked. I could smell the rot coming off of the Hounds in front of us. “Your plan?”
Dean gestured up. One of the last of our drones flying overhead dropped the last of its payload. The bombs massacred the Hounds, sending blood and gore and bone shrapnel painting the street in front of us. A shard of bone whistled by my head, and then my ear exploded into pain and agony. Hot blood wept down my neck, sullying the lab coat I had on. I clutched at it, dislodging the earplug before frantically putting it back in. The sounds of war were deafening without them on.
“Now!” Dean shouted, and the convoy went from defence to hell itself. Behind us, the Fey were massacred, in front of us, the Hounds were kept in check by burning fire and smoke.
“HQ’s compromised,” Dean shouted. “Where are we going?”
“The last place we can,” Jay said. “The King’s old home.”
“That- nobody’s been there since-”
“It’s still hooked up into the grid, right?” Jay asked. “It should be just like the Regent’s place.”
“Fine,” Dean said.
“The King’s home?” I asked.
Jay’s arms came around me and lifted me up, again, bridal style, and I scowled until a particularly loud gunshot cowed my complaints, and then they moved.
In the air, the city guard gave battle against the overwhelming forces mustered against us. The Fey had aerial superiority now, and they had the land battle won. They had everything, except the lot of us buried in the ground. Jay paused for just a moment to catch his breath, and then we ran through the chaos like devils.
Dean opened fire, his pistol catching a wayward Fey scout across the thigh. It fell to the ground and Jay’s foot came crashing down on the head, pulping the brain into mush, and then we took off far to the right. Birds fell out of the sky and landed next to us, rifles clicking back together, and then we moved. There was a method to their madness, but it was nothing like the slow methodical push back to the Seared Oak, no, this was desperation, this was terror, this was-
The ground shook and the world decided that it was not in our favor today, and the coagulated mess of the Hounds, freshly reanimated, poured out of the soil in front of us.
I hadn’t been exposed to the smell, but the mass smelled of foul things, rot, decay, and the sweet petulant acids of cooked flesh. The mess smeared the world with red and cytoplasm, and the surface squirmed with barely concealed masses of insects and breeding bugs.
“Fuck,” I said, intelligently.
Jay dropped me on my feet, pressed my gun into my hands, and drew his rifle “Dean?”
“Sorry, I don’t have another miracle to drop on top of us,” Dean snarked, a hand clamped over his Omoi.
“How’re the others doing?” I said. The front half of a store had been blown out, and I dove for cover behind it. I could hear the Inundated mass of the dead squirming and schlicking forward, like a slug made of blood.
“We’ve got radio silence from all of them,” Dean said. “I think they’ve figured out we’re compromised so they’re not giving away their positions.”
“So we’re blind,” I said.
“That’s the most of it.” Dean laughed. “We just have to trust that they’re all doing their jobs.”
“I hope they’re alright,” I said.
Jay didn’t speak up, but his rifle cracked off a shot. On a rooftop, a Fey tumbled over, a hole through his head and his rifle toppling out of his hands.
“Snipers,” Jay reported. “Keep moving.”
I didn’t look over from cover. I could hear the mass of Hounds slithering forward, and I knew full well that this time, we were out of options.
I’d get to see the deaths of everyone I cared about, all at once, then get dragged in front of whatever the Fey wanted to do with me. Pick my brain apart, desperately searching for whatever they needed, whatever last piece I’d forgotten.
Another crack of Jay’s rifle, and I could see it through Dean’s Omoi, another head rolled, an intermediate fell from a distance and hit the ground, bones shattering.
My heart thumped in my chest. The Hounds were getting closer, closer, closer still, and we were, we were…
We were surrounded, and the bullets were pouring in hotter and hotter, and- I threw myself out of cover just in time to avoid a Fey vaulting over top of it. My hands flashed up, and in the chaos, I’d drawn my gun and I squeezed my fingertips and the heart of the creature (she looked like she was twelve, she looked like she was twelve) pulped in the confusion, and the Fey gibbered and screeched like a cockroach and stuttered across the floor.
I shot it again, because insanely, didn’t one good turn deserve another, and it stopped moving, legs vaguely kicking up, and then I turned.
The front of the restaurant was covered in bugs. The Drones stared at me as they walked forward, half stuttering, like they were being given commands from far too long of a distance. I pulled the trigger, because what else was I supposed to do, and I was having a panic attack, and some of them died but most of the shots went wild because how was I supposed to aim when there were so many of them, and Jay was across the street, and our eyes met and I’d never seen him so panicked before, and Dean was mere feet away from the great mass of Hounds, and pinned down by automatic fire, and the city guard were racing towards me (how did we get separated, it was another gambit, another ploy)
And they were close enough that I could smell their breath on my skin, a foul smell I’d previously only encountered when we’d tested endless cockroaches back in graduate school, exposing them to various bands of radiation to test tissue decay and
My gun clicked empty, shoved as it was against the head of the creature in front of me.
He cocked his head to the side, his eyes (a young child’s innocent eye, and I hated it, hated it, hated it, it reminded me of everything we’d lost) locked blankly on mine and
The side doors blew off of their hinges, and a black blur shot forward. My eyes weren’t working right anymore, and Omoi censored the rest, a great writhing mass of emanations of some false god or another, some hanging mass of a great mind observing the dying world, and by the time it had cleared, they were all dead in front of us.
Prin stood there, holding something covered in enough warnings I couldn’t even begin to process it, and the Fey bodies were charred as if the blade had cauterized itself along the way.
The bodies fell to the ground, and the inquisition rushed in behind him to mop up the rest. They fell upon the insects with a holy fury, a reverent bloodlust.
“Holy shit,” I managed, or croaked, or some other pained utterance because my head was on fire and the side of my face was covered in blood from the torn flap of my ear, and Prin bowed politely.
“Sorry we’re late. We got held up getting the weapon that’ll win us the war.”
I stared at the warnings and slowly flicked them to the side, one by one. Dozens of them flashed by until I gave up and turned them off altogether. A black knife, a knife so foul and profane that even the metal itself tried to escape during the forging.
I vaguely recognized the metal as the same that lingered in the Regent’s own rite knife, but this, this was- this wasn’t for ceremony or for pleasing the gods, this was for subduing them. And it was beautiful.
Without a clue or care in the world, I reached forward for the knife. Prin’s eyes locked on mine. He bore the same half blank expression I knew was on my face, and yet, when my hand slid over the hilt I knew without words that it would be slightly off warm, like it’d been left on a radiator or left plunged inside of a beating heart.
Prin lightly pried my fingers off of it. “Orders?”
“Quen and Boss are- I don’t really know what they’re doing. I think we’ve been compromised,” I said, shaking my head. “They should be alright, they are who they are after all, but…”
But I didn’t want to see them hurt.
“Alright,” Prin said, evenly. Jay walked over, Dean at his side. Dean’s form wavered in and out, clearly held together by just sheer force of will.
“We don’t really have a leader right now,” Dean said. “But if I could make a suggestion…”
“Go for it,” I said. At this point, I was willing to take anything.
Dean gestured into the distance, where the tallest tower sat, gleaming with Crow made fortifications. “Teri went that way. My plan is, I think, our best bet.”
Prin lifted his new knife, and I turned Omoi’s warnings back on before I was transfixed again. “We do have this now.”
“I don’t think that’s good for stopping sniper rifles,” Dean said. Not dismissively, but… “I get that it does what we want it too, but still.”
Prin nodded once.
The gathered Crows landed among us. There weren’t enough of them, really, but I knew it’d have to be good enough.
“We should get you to safety,” Jay said. “There’s a lot of bugs looking for you out here.”
“Where’s safety?” I asked. I knew he wouldn’t answer.
He did anyway. “At my side.”
I turned and looked at him, and he put a hand on my shoulder, and in the moment, we might’ve believed that was good enough.
“Warden?” Prin asked. “Your orders?”
Where would safety even be? All of our safe houses could very easily be compromised, giant traps waiting to swallow me whole.
So there was no safety, not really for me.
And I couldn’t be so selfish as to demand it, not when we were this close to losing entirely, not when there was nothing for it.
“The tower,” I said. “We’ll reinforce the tower. Prin, you’ll be diving into the worst of the fighting now.”
It was the wrong decision, I instantly knew, because there were no right decisions. This one had the best chance of us winning. Playing to our outs. We could hide, we could burrow into the depths of the earth, but that wouldn’t deal with the Fey swarming at our door. They had all the troops in the world, and we had a single chance to deal with them.
If we put out a big enough signal, the Fey would stop in place, just like they had back in Prince’s lair.
And that would end the battle on the spot. My safety was…
We could play safe, or we could play to win.
It wasn’t a hard decision, not anymore.