Dean has destroyed many things in his life. He’d rallied against shackles and constraints, had desperately tried to remain as free as he could, terrified of being trapped. He’d wanted freedom, and he’d wanted safety, and he’d wanted life above all things.
But now, staring at the ruined mess that had once been the tower, he would trade that for a decent set of tools.
Teri’s Omoi had already diagnosed the damage. Outside, the approaching armies of the Fey were locked onto their position. They were the last point of resistance in the entire city, and weary Crows, fleeing the movements of the army, were descending, cutting a gory path through the fliers outside. There weren’t a lot of them.
But they knew what to do now.
And Dean could hear the songs. The bands had traded their instruments for rifles and ordinance, but they were singing, and their voices were knitting together to drown out the noises of war, to hear something above the ear plugs that left them numb. They were singing because they wanted to hear each other’s voices before they fell, to feel a connection between one another.
And Dean sat at the top of the tower and glared at the utter disarray that it’d been left in. The Warden had the exact same expression on her face.
Jay- The Outcast- Jay, who had seen the King last, who had survived an excursion to hell itself, remain posed against the window, watching.
“ETA?” The Warden asked, her voice half hoarse and raw. Jay looked up.
“Less than two hours before they’re on top of us.” Jay said. “Most of the Crows are already here.”
“ETA?” The Warden asked, turning to look at Dean.
“Five hours,” Dean said. “At the bare minimum before we can get this sorted out. If we had the right tools, maybe three hours.”
The Warden’s eyes closed, and her face bore lines of stress. Circles around her eyes from lack of sleep. Sweat pooled and ran down the dirt clinging to her features.
She was still beautiful in that unearthly angelic way. The same part of him said this that still believed in the Morrigan’s voice, who still believed in a peaceful world.
But this wasn’t that world.
They weren’t that lucky.
The Warden ran her tongue across her cracked lips and looked outside the window. “So,” She said. Dean squinted at the wreckage, his hands still fixated on mending wires and repairing the wreck that the Fey had left behind. “So what do we need to do here?” she asked.
“We don’t have anything that can run the signal,” he said. “It’s gone.”
“We have the entirety of our army camped around here,” The Warden said. Her voice was rough, edged with something he couldn’t quite identify. “Prin’s running down there with a goddamn magic dagger, and Trellis is just waiting for us to mess up. We don’t have five hours.”
Dean threw his hands up in frustration. Teri clicked at him and he went back to mending wires, tape spooled next to him. If he had the power source attached at least, maybe they could…
Maybe they could get a message out.
That wasn’t good enough, Dean reasoned.
“So what do we do here?” The Warden asked again.
“We don’t have anything that can get the signal out,” Dean said, again. “We don’t-”
The Warden placed her fingers against the node embedded in the side of her head. “Will I do?”
Dean’s eyes slid over to the Warden. “W-what?!”
The Warden stood up. Jay slid away from the window.
“Can you run the signal through me?” The Warden asked. “I can interface with what remains of our network, and we can run the signal through that.”
“It’s… not a nice signal,” Dean said. “It’ll… I don’t know what it’ll do to you. You’ll have to turn off your defences.”
“So it’s an emanation?” The Warden asked. Her face was calm. A tendon in her neck twitched. Her eyes were filled with the same serenity that had touched them since Prin had arrived. Since she’d seen that dagger.
“Yes,” Dean said. “It’ll neutralize anything in its path. Anything that isn’t protected.”
The Warden took a step forward towards the wreckage. Teri looked up at her. “You… don’t have to do this. I don’t know what it’ll-”
The Warden knelt beside him, and for a moment, Dean considered that perhaps she was as angelic as he’d wanted her to be. She took his hands, and helped, mending the wires from where they’d been shot. “I don’t know what they’ll do to me out there,” The Warden said.
Dean’s beak clicked. Jay shook his head, but he didn’t say anything.
“But I know what’ll happen to you all. They’ve made that very clear,” The Warden said. “And I have not done enough for your kind, when you’ve been nothing but kind to me. You’ve given me shelter when I was scared, and you’ve given me defence when I’ve been frightened. And you’ve all been on my side, and killed those who would see me injured.” With the Warden’s help, the wires were mended faster, and faster.
“That’s…” The rest of the words didn’t come.
“So let me do the same,” The Warden said. “I made these damn Omoi nodes. I put together the defences myself. Perhaps… perhaps take a chance on Omoi protecting me this one last time.”
Jay’s eyes cut into his. He was stern as he’d always been, a black shadow behind the Warden. He carried within him the same dark anger that Dean had seen in all of the outcasts. He’d seen a reflection of it in Isaac, when they’d met, before he’d had his memories removed of whatever they’d spoken of (and he could taste blood in his many mouths from even just the trailing edge of it) and he’d seen it in the Regent when her guard was down.
But he nodded nonetheless. This too shall pass.
“Are you sure?” Dean asked.
“You need a computer that isn’t half broken, that won’t scatter or turn off the second the signal starts,” The Warden said.
Dean could only agree. He nodded. Outside, the smoke had turned day into night. “We won’t be able to run the counter signal,” He said. “We’ll all be scattered.”
The Warden’s eyes flicked over to Jay. He shook his head. “I’ll be here.”
“Why?” Dean asked.
“Ask another time,” Jay said.
“And the Regent?” The Warden asked. There was some knowing lilt to her voice.
“She’ll be here too,” Jay said.
“And Quen?” The Warden asked.
Jay’s eyes closed. “He’ll be there too.”
Dean took in a deep breath. “Stay safe, alright?” He turned to look at the other archivist. “How’s getting the power back over here?”
“Generator should be ready shortly.” Teri gestured at the Warden. “…Anything else you want to say?”
“I’m sorry,” The Warden said, and Dean couldn’t look at her, because who knew how much she was sorry for? She’d… he’d seen what this fight was about, the video, the begging, the crying. He could figure out the rest from there.
“It’s… fine,” Dean said. “We’ll all be fine, right?” Dean lied.
“We’ll all be fine,” The Warden said, and she stepped forward.
“Fifteen minutes,” Teri said. “Before we can do this.”
The Crows had all gathered in front of the building. All of the Crows, and the single Beast who still stood on their side. Boss pulled herself out of the wreckage, wounds decorating her side. Here and there buckshot had taken her skin and turned it into hamburger, and a long cut lanced down her side, turning her golden fur into a thick mess of red and brown.
Quen landed next to her in a cloud of birds, but before he hit the ground entirely he was back in full form, gun at his side. “Did you ever think it would be like this?”
At the other end of the street, the legions of the Fey were approaching. Bombs blew up in their ranks from the few defensive weapons the Crows had salvaged. Behind them, nests of baby birds squalled, guarded by their parents. Boss could hear it over the gunshots and the roar of distant creatures that had once been her kin.
They’d at least managed to evacuate the tree.
“Think what would be like this?” Boss asked, carrying her amused drawl. Her heart throbbed in her chest like it had never throbbed before. In those ranks ran the blood of gods. She’d make it run outside, too.
“The end,” Quen said. He was covered in ammunition. It clicked against his body. His tiny birds had carried it through the air. Behind him, the wounded and the injured were listening to the Morrigan. He could just barely hear her speech.
Justice. Hope. Normalcy. There would be a day when peace returned.
And it was up to them to fight for it over all other things.
Unincorporated birds were offered to the injured, and the Morrigan helped, weaving a tale of the first battles, where the sky was fluid and the world bled, and mankind tried to crawl back out of the ashes.
Her voice joined in with the songs, the deep thrumming things carried across the choir of arms, and Quen breathed in and felt it tickle his many lungs.
Boss breathed out, and her lips curled into a grin. “This isn’t the end,” the beast laughed. “This is the beginning of every story they’ll tell for the rest of time itself! The Boss, the master of this world, looking death in the face and baring her teeth.”
She lifted her axe. Quen peered at the reflection, and watched the army sliding towards their position. Landminds detonated, sending early runners into pieces.
“Think they’ll speak of me, too?” Quen asked.
“They better,” Boss said. “The Warleader stands in front of his armies, defending the last bastion of hope in this world!” She shouted, barely heard over the cacophony of noise and the hymns of the Elder. “How is there a better story than that?”
“Does it matter if its a good story?” Quen asked.
“This world is the Watcher’s world,” Boss said. “The only thing that matters is stories. My kind has known this since the beginning. I have a wonderful collection back home to show you.”
Prin stepped out of the shadows he’d carved out of reality and slid in front of them. He picked over the line, and then set down Boss’s armor. Boss stretched out.
Between his hands, and the hands of the other soldiers, who stank of nervousness and blood lust in equal proportion, Boss was armored up.
“Until my axe breaks, I’ll still be here,” Boss said. “And after that, too. This is a war worth fighting, isn’t it?”
“The only thing worth fighting for,” Quen said, and bizarrely, he felt the same as she did, some thrumming destiny glancing his way, like the ignoble eye of the Watcher was resting upon them in some last happenstance of a story. Was this not the closing of some great tale?
Was this not the end of this novel?
Prin brandished the knife, and it hissed little things into his mind, memories of things it had carved through, the script they had played across. Quen read through the scraps. Exit stage right.
He didn’t see his death among the scraps that flittered in front of his vision. He didn’t see his name at all. “How’s the knife?”
“I am numb,” Prin said. “But it is simpler that way, isn’t it?”
“I guess,” Quen said. “I thought… I thought Jay would be down here, fighting with me. The last fight.”
“Then we can’t have this be the last one,” Prin said. As if it were just that simple. Quen’s eyes slid off of the dagger instead of staring at it. No matter what he did, he couldn’t get a good look at the dark steel.
It gleamed with blood, but when Prin forgot to flick it off, it sank into the blade instead. Heretical.
Quen couldn’t care at this point. They’d lost everything else. What were their morals in the face of death?
“Ready?” Boss asked. Another landmine detonated as the front approached. They were surrounded by the army of the Fey. They were completely and utterly surrounded.
The last battle for Atlanta.
“As ever,” Quen said.
The hymns picked up. The deep Crow songs picked up. The reassurances that they were right, the voice of the Elder behind them. The Regent, deep in the ground, preventing their position from being overrun from the start.
Boss lowered her axe, and the battle was joined.