Deep below the city, The Regent opened her eyes and looked down upon the skeletons in her closets. They stared back at her with their empty sockets, the dead demanding voices that she couldn’t give.
She stepped between their bones and made her way to the memorial stone. It sat with names that had been scratched out far above, but here, in the darkness below, she could mourn what they’d traded away. Life after life, plunging into the depths of the great machine they’d created to win the war. How many had died?
How many had even lived?
She knelt before a pair of skeletons that had once belonged to her, and wished that Tane were still among her, that she had not traded away her morals.
Then she might be able to know if she were still doing the right thing.
But she had traded that away.
So she sat, far away from the battle, wishing, wishing, wishing that she knew that she was right, and hoping hoping hoping that this was the right path.
She had traded away everything to this path to the end.
She wanted it to be the right decision.
For a moment, a glorious moment that sparkled in the back of Boss’s head, where she kept some of her most cherished moments of glories, and even more rarely, ideas of peace, the battle was going well.
She pulled her axe out of the depths of another creature, and spun, bisecting a drone. Then she leapt across the street and threw another creature into a wall hard enough that bones broke and blood dripped out of its open mouth, and then she was back to being a whirling dervish, axe sinking deeper and deeper, the blade turning duller and duller until it was more of a hammer than a cutting edge.
But that was just as good against the Fey. Quen kept off a blast of suppressing fire, barking orders as loud as he could to keep them focused. Stragglers flew in from overhead, landing behind the ranks, and Quen took it upon himself to make sure they weren’t being controlled.
The back rooms were filled with scattered birds that had failed the test. They weren’t dead, because to the Crows, it was sacrilege to waste a life, but they were being kept from coming back together. The Morrigan scurried about, pretending that all might be well.
Boss slammed her way through the depths of hell, and her blood roared, and the voice of the mountain called her name.
She wasn’t quite yet ready to return. But she could hear it all the same, the dead lord of life and death clamoring for her attention. This was a place for dying.
Prin cut himself out of the shadows and landed in front of her. “Incoming.”
Boss glared at him. “All hell is converging right here on this pos-”
She turned, placing her back against the enemy, and bullets pinged off of her heavy armor. Even her muscles were starting to ache from carrying that much hardened steel around, but she’d have to maintain the burden for a bit longer. They needed her, and this was a war.
Her broken body would serve as a token for their purchase. This was a worthy cause.
She straightened up.
“Trellis incoming,” Prin corrected.
Boss’s heart didn’t miss a beat. That would be ridiculous. It was obvious that she was coming, after all. There was no reason for her to not come here. It just happened that Boss had no way of dealing with the seer, and the seer had probably already calculated the several thousand ways Boss would try to kill her, and had figured out the proper path to weave through bullets without getting hurt, and how to avoid from being torn limb from limb by her personally.
She would swim, like a dancer, through the hell that the Crows could put downwind, and she would gracefully walk past Boss’s defence.
“And?” Boss asked, gruff.
“I’ll engage,” Prin said. The knife in his hand scratched at the fabric of space and time again, sending darkness pouring across Boss’s vision. She shook her head.
“How’re you going to do any different?”
Prin shrugged. “I don’t think she’ll be able to see me coming, as long as I have this.”
Boss cocked her head to the side. “It’s just a fancy knife.”
“Did anyone see it coming?” Prin asked.
Boss picked up a brick, turned, and hurled it at the legion of Fey walking towards her. It punched through a skull, toppling a rank of the weak bugs, shattered, and then pelted a tank beetle with insectoid gore.
A few seconds later, the tank beetle exploded, cored with a single massive bullet.
Then Tane waved from one of the lower windows, then ducked to avoid a hail of bullets.
“Sniper’s back,” Boss said.
“Good,” Prin said. “If I don’t make it out of this…”
“Do you have someone waiting for you?” Quen asked.
“I want you to pick up the knife,” Prin said. He still stood behind Boss, as if he completely trusted her to block every single bullet.
She wasn’t used to that sort of faith from anyone short of the Warden. The Godling had always seemed to believe in her, even when she hadn’t. “Pick up the knife and keep at it, alright?”
“I will,” Quen promised. “If I don’t make it out, I want you to find Jay.”
“Jay?” Boss asked.
Quen took on a pained look. “Find him and punch him for me, and tell him I got to meet the King before he did.” Then he ducked back behind cover, reloaded his rifle, and went back to providing suppressing fire and hitting the wasps and controlled crows that were still assaulting the upper floors. The other scouts had picked up positions along the glass windows, though most had been shot out by this point, and their bullets found homes along the bugs approaching the last point.
There were too many of them for Boss to count.
That was how she preferred it. There was no need to waste brain space with pointless numbers.
“Boss?” Prin asked. His fingers wrapped around the hilt of the knife again, and the lights in his eyes went as dim as the seared steel. Even his feathers grew darker, like the burden had devoured his light.
“I’ll pluck the knife off of your corpse,” Boss said. “Stay on your feet.”
The sky battle doubled in ferocity, but it was a temporary affair. The turrets had been knocked out of commission earlier in the battle, but as Boss kept her street clear of anything too awful, as her body started to ache from heavy gunshots and explosions, and her armor wore heavier and heavier, they opened back up. The archivist’s handiwork had been made out of fear and desperation, and had been overbuilt to be rugged enough to repair. Wasps fell out of the sky, hitting the ground at terminal velocity, their cargo pulping against the ground. One cried out, desperate, still alive, and Boss drove an armored foot through it on the way to handle a movement of drones streaking straight towards the lines behind her.
The wasps thinned, and then finally, they were gone. Evaporated into blood and the petty broods they’d come from, far in the distance, from mountain topped flesh citadels writhing in hunger and purpose.
They sky battle had been lost, yes, but neither side had the advantage then. Trellis had never been the strategic brains behind Bismarck’s fey army, Boss knew.
She’d just been the eyes and ears. Always having a good knowledge of everything that was going to happen. She’d slide across paths, and she’d find the right one.
Not the most efficient one.
Boss’s shoulder exploded, despite the armor, and behind her, the wall was painted in a collage of her own bones and marrow. Instantly, the axe tumbled from her numb fingers. She rolled over into cover, her right arm flopping behind her, and she bit down on her lip, sharp teeth sinking in deep. It was pointless to say she tasted blood. A creature like her always tasted blood.
She still couldn’t find the sniper.
The tank beetles marched forward, their massive jaws opening and closing. Too many for Tane to deal with, not with how slow the gun was to reload, and far too many for the defenders. Boss did the simple arithmetic of war, grabbed her right arm, wrenched off the armor on her right arm with the fingers of her left, and then wrenched her shoulder back together. She panted, fat long lines of drool between her lips, mixed with freshly spilled blood and waited for her healing factor to take over.
The long guns erupted and the tank beetles took their hits, hyper dense chitin cracking and crumbling. They moved slower and slower as the heavier armored ones survived in an ultra fast period of darwinistic evolution; undulating masses of heavy armor marching towards the last building, and Boss waited for her shoulder to knit.
She still couldn’t find the sniper.
The enemy gun went off, and Quen exploded into a flock of birds. One fell to the ground, dead, and the rest poured back into the defences. Boss closed her eyes.
She waited for her shoulder to knit. She still couldn’t find the sniper.
She breathed in, felt her lungs demand a rest. Even a war bound creature like her couldn’t fight for this many days at once. It had been too long since she’d devoured a sapient creature, though the hunger gnawed at her stomach. The Fey hardly counted for much of anything.
The enemy sniper went off, and Prin was suddenly there, the bullet sparking off of the edge of his fel-knife, and Boss felt her shoulder catch, forced back into place. She could feel the bullet still trapped in the joint, and she swallowed down more drool, more blood. She closed her eyes, counted back from a hundred by sevens, listened to the war hymns of the Crows take on a more desperate keel.
Her ancestors might be watching her even then. Her father, indestructible, stretched across a dead chasm from where nature had taken his heart back. Her mother, maddened, trapped in a cave in the ground, her eyes wild, tiny pinpricks in a massive skull, staring at her.
Daring her to be a coward.
But cowards didn’t lodge themselves in one of the last great cities in the war for all things.
Cowards didn’t follow angels as thin as paper into hell itself, just knowing and hoping that visions of the future would play out, and Cowards didn’t hope to be at truly final battles.
And Boss knew this wasn’t a final battle at all.
Boss’s shoulder knit itself back together, except for the lead pressed hard against her bones and writhing like electric collars against her nerves, and then she vaulted back into the battle.
The front line was messy, slick with blood, and the bullets came slower. Boss wrenched her axe off of the ground and then-
The sniper round came down and Prin was there in front of her. The bullet bounced off of the blade.
“How’re you doing that?” Boss asked him. Their eyes met.
There wasn’t a flicker of sentience in Prin’s eyes. Just a perfectly blank affect, as if the soul had been sucked out of him long ago. He was a simple Crow. This was his job.
“The Sniper’s Trellis,” Prin said. “I can see what the wardens are doing,” Prin’s eyes closed. “And she can’t see me.”
Boss followed the range the round had come from, and then up on a nearby rooftop.
Then she threw her head back and howled.
“Time to hunt,” Boss said, growling. “Let’s go.”
And then the two of them left the battlefield proper.
Prin’s tiny knife might be the only thing that Trellis wouldn’t see coming. It was more than sharp enough to kill.
Boss would dine on the flesh of gods this day.