Jay unfolded like a clam and eyes filled his depths. Squirming beaks and scrabbling claws and things with teeth, and then his touch unfolded and crawled across my skin like hot wax. Words flowed across my mind, hot babbling water, baptized in an unholy creation.
Something unfamiliar, something very familiar, and then that form and our body wrenched my legs to the side before Bismarck’s hand could bash through us, and I landed, half nimbly, half awkwardly, across the rubble.
Omoi could not would not register what was happening. Instead, it collapsed to a crash screen, briefly shutting down so it could reboot under new stimuli.
And then I wasn’t alone in my own head. Jay’s mind touched across my own like a host of buzzing wasps, and his mind was inflamed with wave after wave of corruption, hot thick and heady. Like random numbers had slipped into where his thoughts ran, and static roared into the distance, and in that middle distance, there were words, and memories, and hopes, and dreads and-
“What is…?” I tried, but my mind was crows, and my body was moving nimbly. The walls roared as Bismarck gave up entirely on talking and tore through the floor in front of us, and we leapt up into the floor above, and turned. Our powerful legs pumped.
“Get Omoi back up. We don’t have time to waste!” Jay hissed, terror lining his thoughts. Already, I could feel something chewing into the side of my head, some horrible awful fate, across the rustling feathers and scrabbling claws, wing tips tied together with tar. “Now!”
I sent off a force reset to the Omoi, ignoring its attempts at diagnostics, and Omoi booted back up just in time for the last of the crows to close off in front of my eyes. Dark. Shadows. Blind.
Then my vision snapped back into place, three layers overlapping. One, Jay’s vision, tilted, twisted, manic, sparkles of gold interspersed in a field of off purple, lancing lines of strange energy fields erupting from each strike that Bismarck made. One, my own, that I’d always been accustomed to, and the third, Omoi, tracing the progress and movement of Command tongue, desperate.
Omoi began self diagnostics, and I could hear Jay muttering in his own collection of brains, networked together (he wasn’t quite crows) and his thoughts bled into mine, so close we could think together if we wanted, and a dripping glance of command tongue moved across my head, scoring a raw blow across my mind. I reeled back, and blood dripped out of my nose our nose, and I saw stars.
Bismarck erupted out of the window next to us, forcing her entire bulk back into the hallway, and disgust flashed across her face at me. There were no more words.
Omoi finished diagnosing my problems and they filled entire pages. Tears stung at the corner of my eyes. Omoi corrected me. A blood vessel had burst in my eyes. My heart was pumping dangerously fast.
“Get ready,” Jay hissed. “I need your support.”
“Jay,” I said. “What the hell are you?”
“I am an Outcast,” Jay said, staring at Bismarck as she approached. He was waiting for something. Some tension in his head that stopped him from running away. “I am One Eighth of the King.”
A bird in my mind’s eye sat. Older than the others, barely moving, and yet, there was something noble to his gaze, something noble in the way he held himself. Something greater, more perfect, like the world itself understood that it was more important than any other petty bird should be.
And yet my mind still burned like a candle.
There! In his head, Omoi diagnosed the problem. Command Tongue strung his form together, emerging from- Emerging from many of his birds. Their eyes gleamed red, their beaks were rimmed with teeth, and they had too many wings and too many arms. The red spread from the divine crow like a plague, like parasitic mold. Gold lettering and filigrees invaded our personal noosphere, so hot I could taste it, so close I could-
I owned a piece of command tongue.
Omoi churned into action and picked up on that fact, and the upgrade I’d gotten so long ago finally took effect. Omoi heated up (it was so close to being on its last legs) and then beeped against my head.
“The King was-”
“The greatest Crow ever,” Jay said, and there was the wave of sorrow I’d seen at the speech. “But we didn’t have a bomb. We only had our words.”
Omoi frantically translated the universal code into something I could use, and Jay stared straight ahead, more in control than I was.
“And the King had a lot of words. And when he was done, they tore him apart. He pleaded with us to let him die.” So much of Jay was corrupted. Their eyes were red in my mind, and they blotted out the corners of my vision like a warm blanket. He’d been holding fast around this blot for decades. It wouldn’t be long until it consumed him entirely.
Bismarck raised her arm, and this time, Jay launched himself forward and caught it when it came crushing down. I could feel my joints pop, and pain lance across my submerged form, but nothing broke, and Jay glared defiantly through our many eyes (how many rested on my face? I could no longer tell) and called upon my Omoi. Errors sputtered across my vision.
I gave him access, and our mouths wrenched open under the force of a more primal idea than either of us could bring about. It dug tendrils into the thread of my mind, and my heart throbbed and my brain ached, and Omoi lashed out, programming and the protections I’d placed settling across my brain in a most peculiar and familiar way.
There were words in the world that were greater than mere words. Words so powerful, so earnest, so deep and connected that the world couldn’t help but react.
And the universe demanded that the world be turn asunder, and it reached out like the last swing of a knight protecting his liege, and with the force of every wavering hand that had ever held a blade in defence, and every moment of heroism that had once dappled the dying world we lived in, and it took Bismarck’s right arm. For a moment, there was a hesitation, some flickering uncertainty on whether or not she deserved the pain, the agony, and then the world made its decision.
And the arm in front of us evaporated. Ash replaced it, and it fell to the ground. The recoil of the Word sent my thoughts into cacophony, an infernal buzzing not helped by the squabble of terrified creatures inside of Jay’s head. The overwhelming feeling of triumph from the rest of the creature we’d become was worth it.
It didn’t help us dodge Bismarck’s other massive hand, which smashed us into a wall. The crows took the blunt of the force, their hyper dimensional arrangement cushioning the impact, but my head still smacked into the wall, making my pounding dying headache all the worse.
“You’d turn yourself into a monster to fight me?” Bismarck asked. One of her massive arms was straight up gone, evaporated down to the elbow, but the other was still moving.
“Fuck you,” I croaked, sounding braver and more of a hero than I felt. I felt mostly dead, and that my head was full of birds, and my skin was birds, and everything except the blood dripping out of my eyes might as well have been birds. “Fuck you.”
I ached. I was a single bruise, a wound, forced to stand back up again and again.
And for once, I was powerful. If I was good enough, if I could just stand back up again and again, maybe, maybe I could end it all here.
“We did date for a time,” Bismarck said, gently. “But I doubt you’d remember that. Fascinating how different we were at work and at play.”
Jay screamed in my head and we barely managed to avoid the next slam. Brick and mortar and fiberglass insulation gusted up like a foul wind, and then three more swipes of Bismarck’s long limbs, pointed legs digging into reinforced structures and her last arm slammed into the wall and tore out a great chunk of it.
“But enough play.”
I squinted my eyes to avoid burning my many many corneas and when I opened them again, she wasn’t there. That side of the hallway had ceased existing as well. Omoi was quiet. We’d fried the audible portion of it, but the tightly bound box that I’d forged out of some fell knowledge, way back when I’d still been great, kept the backlash from frying us.
Her fist slammed into my back, and I skidded forward before slamming into the wreckage in front of me. A crow died. I felt it like a piece of myself shattering, a brief momentary gasp of a creature that had wanted so desperately to be me, that had wanted to protect me, and then there was nothing where once there had been me, and had been Jay, and had, at once, been King.
Blood dripped out of my lips from somewhere in the gestalt and nausea swam to the surface. Jay took over, hurling us to the side, just in time to avoid a leg tipped with a sharpened point, and then he lunged back up just in time to avoid the limb that had replaced us. It dug into the heavy rebar and squelched, spraying green across the floor.
By the time she’d brought it back up, the wound was healing.
“I am an ontology,” Bismarck said, her voice low. “The world itself demands that I remain, so that this story may end satisfactorily. But you… you Jess, you’re an afterthought. A last loose end, sent here to keep me tormented, to remind me of what once was, and how far I’ve fallen.”
Jay leapt atop the arm. Bismarck took the resulting punch without breaking her sweat. She took the next, an elbow, with a bit more pain, chitin cracking, and then Jay sprang back before Bismarck’s too many arms and legs could take him down.
Bismarck sighed, like she wasn’t in pain, and then her front half flexed, muscles bulging under chitin, and then she grew still.
We paused, taking deep breaths. I burned, Jay burned, and my mind buzzed with static. My thoughts swam like fish, desperate to free themselves from the net Omoi had cast. The corruption wracking Jay’s form warred against the protections I had, whispering dark truths about the universe which I couldn’t hear over the buzz of Jay’s thoughts entwined with mine. This was it. This was all of it. I just needed to-
“Is she dead?” I asked aloud.
Bismarck lunged out of her own chitin, shattering it to pieces, and punched us across the gut.. She emerged like a cicada shedding skin, or a spider molting, with far less grace and far more power. She roared, and her mouth split open to expose rows upon rows of teeth, dripping with fresh viscera.
We skipped across the floor, leaving a smear of blood where we’d been, and Jay threw out his wings to stop us. We slid, talons scratching across the ground, and our back hit the window, cracking it.
Bismarck lurched forward, her eyes dripping with fresh blood and both of her arms were back, freshly reforme from her molt.
“You can’t kill me,” Bismarck spat. “I am the protagonist. I am ontologically destined to win this battle.”
I swallowed, and considered, however briefly, that this might be the end after all. Jay sent me images of where he’d been, the victories he’d won, and the places he hoped to be buried.
Our fingers curled back into fists, and I stared straight ahead.
“What now?” I asked.
Jay swallowed, many times birds bobbing in some half space. “We keep fighting,” Jay said. Our legs shook. Our gestalt was unstable. Our minds warred with each other, and we stared down at the very apocalypse we’d wanted to prevent.
Bismarck stepped forward.
Omoi chirped out a warning.
Critical levels of corruption reached. Protections will fail in one minute.
The end had arrived.
Trellis could feel herself dying.
It wasn’t the first time she’d felt like this. The first had been at the hands of the last queen, when she’d been half torn apart in her cryo chamber by errant Fey looking for a quick boost to the ranks to deal with warring factions, when her eyes had opened and she’d seen, through the dreary husk of cryo storage, her own viscera leaking out of her, needles torn off in her skin, and felt her heart throb out of beat. Throb like a chained demon, throb like some awkward thing clawing out of her head, and she knew what death tasted like; spent cryofluid and loathing.
She’d seen god in a box, and she would not live to see it come alive. This entire battle had been spent to get the key, and now, they were so close. Trellis was so close to making it out alive.
Then she’d been scooped out of her chamber, her home for hundreds of years, and then shoved into the Fey ranks, stitched back together with biological glue and forced to labor under command of increasingly bizarre creatures until she’d come face to face with the queen, who had assuaged any of her ideas about dying because she was too useful.
But now, Trellis could feel herself dying. Blood drooled out of her wounds, made a mess of the floor, and even her enhanced body could not deal with having so many wounds, could not deal with the cuts the infernal knife had left on her form.
And her future sight did not tell her the future anymore. Just images, scatter shot ideas. Dreams from when she’d been younger, and she still had dreams. Her father had, her father had wanted to see the stars. She could… he might still see them.
She received flashes of the battle below, Bismarck and – her vision terminated before she could see the other party, and she limped, limped, limped until she made her way to the main control room, the very place she’d gotten Jess away from.
She grabbed handfuls of wires and guided them into the Omoi that still sat on her head, that same one that she’d had to repair countless times in the darkness of the hive, hoping against hope that nobody believed she’d lost her usefulness, that she would not be fed to the great spawning pits nor would she be mined for information, and hooked herself up into the systems.
And she knew that there was nothing in the future left for her after this, and she hesitated, for a moment, because she could not see the future. It had all converged to this one point, this one point where she would win all the wars, where there would be no more struggle, and she could die, in peace, knowing that she had, at last, saved the world.
Trellis whispered over the speakers, what few were still left on the city, and heard her voice distantly as she mashed herself into the places her Fey had repaired in taking the city, bypassing the locks she herself had placed upon them.
“It’s time, little birds,” She said, and she thought of the hawks her father had raised, the ones he had taught to detect hell on earth and report back, the lab conditions he had dreamed of and eventually received funding for, just before the end of the world had started. She remembered the world she had seen on fire, burning like a coal in the void as the very last sensation of sense left the small corner of the universe that humanity inhabited.
“Come together,” She said, and across the city, crows stopped what they were doing and listened to her. “Join with us. Your war is ended. There is a greater place for you left in this war-”
And her breath hitched and she felt something wet dripping out of her mouth and down her chin and across her collar, and she swallowed, feeling the ragged gasp of her lungs. “There is a greater place, by our side.”
Across the city, the Fey woke up, and they did not wake up alone. Gestalts reformed under Trellis’s command. Her will stretched out as thin as threads and as brittle as glass, but they arose nonetheless. Crows, their minds networked and enslaved, flowed like quicksilver, and Trellis felt her mind glance across theirs. They would be needed for the final battles.
There was still one place they had to breach, and they would be finished.
There was still one place they had to yet to go, and they would-
Trellis saw her death a few moments before it happened. She had enough time to think it over, and finally, make peace with it.
“I am tired of following orders,” Boss growled, the Dagger stuck in her hand. She bled readily from her wounds, and blood streaked out of her ears. “I am so very tired of listening to your hubris, your shame, your pathetic whiny notes. You lead through lies and magic.”
Trellis stared at her, and blood drooled out of her nose, and down her ears, and beaded out of her skin. Her heart throbbed.
“Shut up.” the beast growled, and Trellis could only see her with her eyes, and not through the future, and she did not know, suddenly, where the world would go. “You killed my friends. You talk too much. Die.”
She did not know, suddenly, if the world would change.
The dagger flashed out, and Trellis’s voice died with the flick against her throat. Her vocal cords squelched wetly.
The creature left it stuck in her throat, and Trellis saw all of her futures, all of the thousands of millions of ones that had led her to that very moment, constrict down into one singular path.
The very last sight that Trellis, the prophet, the last loyal Guard among Bismarck’s forces saw was teeth, teeth before a maw that stretched far too wide, and eyes, many eyes, many hungry eyes.
And then another Warden fell.