Trellis bled from her wounds. Her heart pounded in her chest. She looked like garbage, and she clutched at her stomach where the bullet had struck and glared in wild defiance at me. I could smell harsh things when her hand moved, and fluid spilled from her guts.
I stared back at her, my brain still buzzing, and Jay took a step in front of me. This was easy for him. Gingerly, I tugged the wires off of me, fixed them out of the side of my Omoi, overheated, half charred, scrambled choked with static, and then it shut off and the voices and words and grumbled choked half phrases stopped flowing through my head. Gingerly, I drew my gun.
“War’s over,” Trellis said. “Your beast is dead, torn apart by my troops. Your knife is lost in the wreckage. All you have left is a single bird to stop me.”
“I trust Jay,” I said. “And you’re more than half dead.”
He stood in front of me like a shield.
“Do you?” Trellis asked. “Because he’s still standing here, and every Crow and Fey in this city’s stopped living. And I can’t see him in my mind. So the question becomes, what is he?”
Jay took a step forward, drawing the pistol from his hip. Two shots, and Trellis was hurtling forward through the air. The third caught her across the chest, and she spun, hitting the ground in front of us. Jay looked down at her, and almost automatically, checked how many bullets were left in the pistol.
“Trellis,” I said. “I…”
“You can call me by my real name,” Trellis said, half gurgled, standing back up. Tears were running out of her eyes, half dull, glazed from pain. There wasn’t much left of her. “If you remember that. You know by now that I’m part of your old team.” She pulled herself to her feet, blood trickling out of the edge of her mouth. “And you know that I’ve already won.”
“How’ve you won?” I asked, staring at head. I could smell the blood. It smelled a lot like mine, mixed with the gun powder, and Jay kept the gun trained on her, discipline keeping her at an arm’s distance. He’d pull the trigger before she got any closer.
“Because,” Trellis said. “The defences have been cleared. There’s nothing stopping the city from being taken.”
“There’s just you,” Jay said. “It’s just you left.”
“You forgot someone,” Trellis said.
Jay fired his gun and Trellis hit the ground, gurgling, her reinforced form more full of holes and cuts and abrasives than not, and then Jay hurled me to the side. The window shattered.
The window, some twenty stories up in the air shattered, and an arm pulled itself inside. Long. Too long, too many joints on the finger. I caught a glimpse of the rest of that arm, and the beetle attached to it, and then the prim trimmed face of Bismarck on the other side, and then I was already running, throwing myself over Trellis on the way out.
Jay emptied the rest of the bullets across that one massive hand, bursting a knuckle so it dripped green onto the floor, and followed after in the same instance. Birds greeted us as we opened the door, crows bobbing idly across the ground, little clueless things still scrambled by the after effects of the static pouring out of the speakers, and it was just us left, just the two of us.
Jay skidded around the corner with me, shoving another magazine into his pistol, then shoved it into my hands. I numbly remembered how to hold it. “What are we going to do?” I asked, quaking.
“I don’t know,” Jay said. “I think we’re out of options. I didn’t think… I didn’t think Bismarck would come back.”
The window shattered, and Jay peppered the hand with a spray of automatic fire, and I was down the hallway.
Trellis melted through the ceiling, spraying metal and caustic stone in her wake, and landed, but I was already moving. I cleared the path with a spatter of inaccurate shots, and Trellis nimbly wasn’t where the bullets were, and I was gone past her. Jay smacked her across the head with the butt of his rifle as he reloaded, and Bismarck tore open the side of the building like a tin can, concrete falling hundreds of feet onto the city below. Crows panicked and flew out of shattered windows.
The radio stations were dead, and Omoi was running diagnostics in my head, trying to reroute through half charred circuits and my own cooked flesh, bars of errors appearing at the corner of my eyes. I’d gone too far, and too fast.
We were too far gone, and too fast. Trellis hit the ground in a lump of bleeding tissue, and as she got up, she cried out in pain, but she was still determined, staring at me, eyes wide. I knew those eyes, and even then, I took a potshot at her.
It missed, striking the ground in front of her head, sending a puff of floor tile across her porcelain features.
In the next instant, I was too far to see her, and we skidded past another pile of crows that might’ve been Dean, or Teri, or any of the other archivists, and the window exploded and two massive hands darted by, plowing through banks of computers and other equipment, shattering glass and scattering shards of circuit boards. My heart pounded in my chest. Sweat ran down my weary body, and everything ached.
Jay tugged me to the side before the fingers could get us, and slammed the door across one of the massive hands. “Where do we go?”
“I don’t know!” Jay said, frustrated. He shoved another magazine into my hands, and I fumbled with it a few times, gasping for air, before it slid home. His eyes went wide, and he dove out of the way. Bismarck’s hands ripped the door to shreds in a second, and she peered in at us.
“I see you,” She said, casually. “We can do this all day until you surrender,” she raised an eyebrow at me, straddled atop her massive bulk. “So I’d give up.” This was the first time I’d gotten a good look at her. Her black carapace gleamed with ink and sigils. I recognized a few of them; Watcher symbols, intermixed with a few symbols of Lord Life.
Bismarck’s smile was painted on like the face of a doll. “We don’t need you alive. Not anymore.”
I swallowed, and my heart gave an awkward thump.
“It’d make it far easier if you were alive,” Bismarck said. “But now… now we’re keeping you alive out of misplaced sentiment. A chance to live through the end of days.”
My hands raised, and the gun felt like a toy in my hands, unreal. Bismarck’s head stared down the barrel. “Y-you’re a traitor,” I squeaked.
Beads of sweat ran down my head. Bismarck leaned in slightly, her arm as long as the room before her, twisted and knotted mottle flesh, and the fingers danced in front of me, nearly close enough to snare.
“I might be,” she acquiesced. “But this is the end of the line,” She looked pleased with herself. “I’ll admit. You got far farther than I thought you would. I haven’t lost an entire army like this for centuries, since the rights of succession.”
Trellis was gone. Where the hell was Trellis?
I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Bismarck, even though every sensor in my entire head was screaming at me to look away. Every warning painted her as easily the most corrupted life form I had ever seen, and I’d stared at Boss for far longer than was necessary.
“I’ll give you one more chance.” Bismarck remained in place, staring down at me. “On account of old friendships. After all, if you’d only been given more time…”
I could remember Defender Kathleen. She was a hero.
I could hear the crows around, clueless, cawing, investigating, and I knew full well that when they awoke, too many of their number would be dead.
“What’s the plan?” I asked. “Why do you need me?”
Jay squirmed at my side, clearly thinking everything over. There were things written in his eyes that even I wasn’t comfortable describing.
“What’s the plan?” Bismarck cocked her head to the side. “You’ve got a doctoral degree in a relevant field, Jess. It’s quite simple. This world is enslaved to the will of the Lords. Most of them have left us behind. If the remaining Lords waver for even a second, we’ll cease to exist.”
I blinked at her. Complete existential failure. Things clicked in my head. “Then we… we triggered…”
“We convinced the Lords that we were ready,” Bismarck said, her voice still friendly, still authoritative. If she hadn’t been a giant bug monster who could rip me apart in literal seconds, I might’ve believed her. “On accident. When we routed the last of the Cult of the Watcher. When his last grandprophet fell dead was the moment we doomed the planet earth.”
My mind drifted back to the beginning, where the cryochambers had been littered with the long dead form of the watcher’s men, and how even Bismarck’s body bore symbols that gleamed of his power.
“We threw off the last of the shackles of the Lords,” Bismarck said. “And our reality began to crumble. Massive crop failures, existential decay, anomalies propagating at absurd rates. Our world was falling apart. So you,” She said, leaning forward. “Came up with a plan.”
“You’d create a god for humanity. A great gleaming god that would observe us forever, and we would ascend and join the rest of the galaxy.”
“How would I even…”
“Jess,” Bismarck said. “You’ve been special from the very beginning. Why else would that coup attempt try and take you out?”
I tightened my grip on the gun. It wouldn’t do much against her armored limbs.
“Join me, and we can finish what we started those thousands of years ago. We can save this wreck of a world, and we can bring back everyone who died.”
“Why did the world die?” I asked. My feet shook. My heart lurched. “Why did it-”
“That,” Bismarck said. “Was my project. It was a simple idea, really. You didn’t have enough time to finish your project in time to save the world. So I’d make a deal with the devil himself to give us time.”
“No,” I said, taking a step back. “Why would you betray us like that?”
“I didn’t betray us,” Bismarck said. Outside, the crows swarmed, confused, frightened, rising high above the burning smoke of world they knew. “I saved us.”
“You threw in your bulk with the Watcher!”
I tore myself to the side, just out of the reach of her dancing fingers, and ran down the hallway. I could hear her on the outside of the building like a giant spider, and even with Jay at my side I knew I was caught thick in her web.
A door blasted open, and hands drifted through, squirming fingers and questing elbows.
“I did no such thing,” Bismarck said. “Who do you think the god of this world is, Jess? It’s the Watcher.”
I swallowed. “I’ll… I’ll fix that,” I hissed. I squeezed the trigger, and one of Bismarck’s knuckles split open, exposing bone. The hand recoiled, scraping shards of stone and wood back through the door. I could smell wires burning. “You sold it to him!”
“Sold it?” Bismarck laughed, and glass shattered as the great beast forced her way into the tower. Two massive hands pressed at the door frame, and Jay tugged me back before it ripped open, and the great beetle forced her way inside. “That’s what you think happened?”
I shot again. The bullets flattened against her super armored carapace, sending shards of hot lead across the room.
“He’s not there willingly, Jess,” Bismarck said. “We forged the chains that hold him here. He’s been forced to watch and record our existence for the last five thousand years. Each moment validated and witnessed so that it would never fade away.”
“You…” my mind drifted down to the Warden’s grave beneath the city, where the scientists had made the decision to sacrifice their kind.
Then my mind put together the pattern of detonations around the planet. They’d been nigh simultaneous, Omoi could tell.
“I made contact with the other cults of Lord Extinction, after I slew their leader. It took a long time, you understand, but they could tell the end was approaching, and they wanted to burn like a torch, not go out like cinders. The governments of the world were failing, one by one, like fleas, snuffed out under their own civilians, their own complete failures to deal with the chaos. So, I went to the Watcher. Made contact with him. Offered him a simple deal.”
“I’d kill them all,” Bismarck said. “And he’d watch humanity die.”
“You monster,” I said. “You just… you snuffed them out. It’s your fault.”
Jay tore down the hallway, snatching my hand to make me follow. He was quiet, but I knew that he’d have his thoughts on what was happening. Here it was. The end of the mysteries. The end of everything.
Behind us, Bismarck’s armored legs dragged her after us, the ceiling just barely high enough for her to scuttle under.
“It’s our fault,” Bismarck said. “USEC became complicit after all their other attempts failed. The only thing that would stabilize and save our world was another Lord. And we didn’t have any of those lying around.” She paused. “At least we didn’t. So I killed the people of earth, we all did, and enslaved the Watcher in a rite circle. To buy your project time.” We ducked into a door, but the next hallway was pinned under rubble from the war. A Fey sat in the midst of it, perfectly placid, deprived of a guiding mind. It barely even realized we were there. “Well, time’s up.”
Dead end. I swallowed, and Jay swore, and we both turned to face Bismarck.
She laughed. She knew this was the end. The city was empty except for the four of us. “He’s been stuck on this burning ash waste of a planet for five thousand years, witnessing every moment, because we haven’t died yet, Jess. There are so very few of us left, you know. There are so few of us left, we’re so very close to the end. So… I want you to take my hand, so we can finish this together.”
My heart beat so hard in my chest that it hurt. “That’s why… that’s why the world hasn’t rotten, isn’t it? The Watcher… The Watcher’s the one keeping everything intact. He thinks it’s art to watch us writhe around in the old places, struggle to survive? He wants us to remember what we lost.”
“He burned his world to a crisp. His only lingering hate for his magnum opus is that they didn’t suffer enough,” Bismarck said. “Take my hand, Jess. We can fix this together.”
“USEC doesn’t deal with Lords,” I said.
“They didn’t,” Bismarck said. “Not until the end. Or the beginning, if you look at our organization. How hypocritical we were to pretend that we were anything more than another cult? Another enforcer of some dogma, some false idea of what the world should be. It was just as fake as the others. And USEC’s laws fell. We didn’t break our rules fast enough. And when we did…” Her eyes, so many of them, fell upon my face. “That the world ended because one of the Kind Lord’s prophets couldn’t make life fast enough.”
“Coming here was a mistake,” Bismarck said. “But I thought, perhaps, as the Protagonist, I could convince you to join my cause. Give up the evil path you’ve surrendered yourself to.” She stepped forward, and her many hands groped forward into the doorway.
“But I see now that you believe in the old ways. Jess, Jess, my darling prophet, my godslayer, my desperate architect, there’s only one way. The way of the conqueror. The way of the protagonist. The way of the narrative.” The door frame splintered. Wood shattered.
Jay broke his silence. “Jess,” He whispered. There was something in his voice. Darkness. A wound in his tone, like his very heart had been stabbed.
“What?” I asked. I couldn’t look away.
“Because I see now what I failed to see all that time ago,” Defender Kathleen said. “I was never going to turn you away from your own schemes.”
“I don’t…” I whispered.
“So one more time,” The great queen said, whispering, a sibilant noise. Her hand burst through the frame, massive, long enough to snap my bones like a twig. She held it forward, expectantly, watching me. Her body was scarred, carved up, covered in old wounds where the chitin had grown back over them. “Take my hand, and let us end this pesky charade. The gods of the void are waiting for us to join them as the gods we were supposed to be.”
“Jess,” Jay said, his hand settling on my shoulder. “Do you trust me?” There was something final there. It was an offer. A horrible offer. I didn’t know what it meant.
But here we were, down to the absolute wire, monsters at our doorstep, and we were so close to losing.
And he was finally ready to accept something. I could taste his emotions across my tongue, hot, humid, like his mind was unraveled.
His hand was warm against my skin. I could hear his hearts beating, a frantic noise. He’d remained when everyone else had fallen.
“Ten seconds,” Bismarck said. “And then I’ll rip the Omoi out of your skull and throw you off of this building, and my Fey will devour your body, and you will be nothing but a footnote in this grand moral play.”
I was in shock, I realized, staring at her. I stood before the last remnant of the chain of command, and she was insane. Or worse, she wasn’t insane, and I had failed, and they’d done something so horrible, so utterly incomprehensible that it had worked.
And I didn’t know which one I wanted to believe more.
That there was a chance this could all be undone.
Or that it was the murderer in front of me that stood the greatest chance.
Yet another voice in my head reminded me that if Bismarck could do it, so could I.
“And who,” I said, looking at the hand. I was just out of it’s reach, and behind me, the rubble burned. “Who would get to decide what the world looks like?”
“Why,” Bismarck said. “I would. As the protagonist. As the creature forced to labor for five thousand years, fighting all the battles in the world, who had been hardened, again and again and again and again, enslaved, freed, a leader and a petty whore for the world.”
“And that’s it? That’s all I can trust in?” I said. “You’ve killed billions of people, and I’m just supposed to trust you’ll set it back to rights?”
“I’ll do better than that,” Bismarck said. “I’ll make the world better than it’s ever been. I’ll make an empire the likes of which has never been seen, where nobody need fear the darkness and the things that can’t be understood inside of it.”
She was human. She was disturbingly human.
And she earnestly believed that what she was talking about could happen. All the Fey had believed it. That made it all the worse.
Jay’s hand tightened on my shoulder. The next step back, as Bismarck stepped forward, brought me across the edge of the wreckage.
“Do you trust me?” Jay hissed into my ear. A last offer.
If I went with Bismarck, I was as good as dead. I’d be a coward at best, and a co-conspirator to a breach of reality the likes of which had never been seen before, and it would all be at the hands of a woman whose idea of a good time was a massacre of enemy soldiers. What would her world look like, at the end?
What would she do with the power of my god?
What would she do to get it?
If I went with Bismarck, I was dead.
If I turned her down, I was dead.
But I wanted what she wanted so badly it ached. I wanted an easy solution. I wanted to walk out into the sunset, and then wake up in a world where the end had never happened. Wasn’t it worth it? Would a god empress be so bad if everyone was back?
Bismarck took a swipe at me, and I stumbled back onto the pile of rubble.
“Jess,” Jay said.
The decision was made.
“I trust you, Jay.”
“This’ll hurt,” The Outcast whispered.
His talons slid into my shoulders. Skin split.
The world changed.