Bismarck came in hotter and hotter with each swing. With each step she became faster, and we became slower.
Words babbled at the back of our throats, but the static died at our ears. Bismarck cocked her great head to the side at a distant scream, echoing like broken glass.
It wasn’t torn from our bleeding throat.
“Seems like Trellis is gone,” She said, cavalier. “Do you really think its proper to murder them? She was my last friend, you know. My last confidante, the last of the old order who believed in me.”
I kept watching her hands, desperate for something, anything to help me, and then the golden words etched into my thoughts, into the epistemes and habitus of my neurons, lurched back to life.
We cried out, and Bismarck took it across the chest. Chitin burned and charred, and organs liquified and then dispelled entirely, evaporating away into a heated mist. She stared down at herself like a cored apple, and then kept right on walking towards us.
Why wouldn’t she? She had another hundred kilograms of other organs in her main body. Why would we assume that her torso was important?
Why would we assume anything at all dealing with her? Why would…
That was hysteria.
With each step, the universe took notice of Bismarck’s wounds, and the powers that be (which I now knew could only be The Watcher, and the thought of the audience that must be watching this, the last dying testament of an entire empire of artisans, obliterated just as easily as before sent shivers down my spine).
What was I to that? What petty power would I pretend to be that could stand up to that? What petty power was I, to the power of a lord?
Jay moved while I was stunned, tasting our own cooking meat, just in time to avoid the floor caving in behind us. He sent us running ahead, Bismarck’s many eyes locked onto us, and then we slid underneath of her gleaming chitinous bulk. He grabbed one of her legs, and pulled, trying to force it out of place. Chitin buckled, crackled, shattered, sending shards and globs of green to decorate the floor beneath her.
We kept right on going, throwing the leg out of the window on the other side of the hall, and Bismarck slowly turned to face us. Her armor dented and distorted, an unspeakably smug aura to her, and then her carapace burst open in a spray of green fluid, and Bismarck stepped out of her old body like a molting spider.
Jay’s minds buzzed with anger, frustration, terror, and a dawning feeling of hopelessness. Mine mixed with his until I could hardly tell where I began and he ended, and in that merger there was just terror. There was just terror, pain, and knowledge.
“I am the protagonist,” Bismarck repeated. “The book doesn’t end here, not with my death. Don’t you get it? What makes more sense here? A five thousand year old immortal, endlessly warring to save humanity, corrupting herself and becoming enslaved, instituting a monstrous coup using an alien race, dying to someone who’s been free for less than a few months?”
Jay shot her.
I’d forgotten we had a gun, but he still shot her. The bullet bounced off of her armor, still glistening with juices as she pulled herself out of her own dead body, limbs cracking into place, and she continued unabated, unceasingly.
And then, finally, Omoi turned off.
Our body didn’t disintegrate. Our minds didn’t become unshackled to one another, unconnected. For a moment, there was no difference, no difference at all, between Jay and I, and we thought as one, one connected line. Thoughts transfigured against one another, a brief and total synthesis, and memories flowed over top of one another of dozens of crows and a single very human body.
The quality was awful at best, memories swarming and swimming into each other with no rhyme or reason, and I barely realized we were moving, or that something was approaching us. The dams were broken, and I was the weaker of the two in the body. His mind dwelled across my memories and he took them, and I stumbled through his memories, a red aberrant haze painted across them from the corruption still spreading through his mind, walled off only by an iron will.
“Jess,” Jay said, and we were moving, and I could smell ozone and I could taste blood, pouring from wounds. Was it even mine? Was it real?
Bismarck’s head stood over top of us, perched atop her massive body like a star on a hill, and she smiled down at me.
Memories I’d forgotten swarmed back.
She’d looked like that, rarely, at work. Moments shared over cups of tea. I’d listened to her thoughts, her fears, her determination, and I’d admired that over bagels, and I’d admired that when she’d been in the lab. She hadn’t looked so manic then, but I could see the toll that our impossible task had been taking on her.
I blinked away tears, and I blinked away pain, and Bismarck caught us both with a massive punch. Bone cracked. Another crow died bearing the brunt of the force, and Jay grew fainter, and we slid back before hitting a wall. More bones cracked. My lungs, somewhere in the metaphysical construct that was ourselves, felt pain and started to bleed.
It was hot, and dripped up through my throat and into my mouth. We vomited, and it was dark and fresh, and we stood up and stared at Bismarck.
“I said I didn’t need you anymore,” Bismarck offered, kneeling down to watch me. I took a half hearted swipe at her, and she caught my hand and squeezed, squeezed down hard enough that bones cracked and splintered and muscles gave up existing at all. “I wasn’t lying.”
“I… I don’t know… what you want. I’m… I’m sorry,” I tasted like copper. I stared down at my mangled hand with some amount of trepidation and fear, and I didn’t know what to do with all the shards but stare.
Bismarck leaned forward. “What did you get your brother for his last birthday?”
“W-what?” I asked.
“What did you-”
My mind drifted back against my will and-
There was a blank there.
There was an awful hole where it should be. My left hand drifted to my throat, where the locket sat, and I popped it open. Blood dripped down from torn skin and burst muscles, but I stared at his face.
There were only holes in my memory when it came to my work. My sensitive work. The only reason why I shouldn’t remember what I’d given him was-
My eyes widened. “I sent him-”
Bismarck smiled. “I give you peace of mind, Jess. I’ll let you die knowing that someone will finish your work. All I need is your Omoi.”
My heart dropped. Bismarck clipped me with the back of her left hand, and I spun, feeling more bones crackle like cheap wood, and I hit the next well. Jay surged up to take that blow, but we both knew how this was going to end. There was no use pretending. We were losing.
Jay was only a fragment of the King, and we were going up against the newest queen, and we didn’t match up at all.
Which left one option.
I brought my left arm (my right was starting to hurt, it was really starting to hurt, I could feel every broken and shattered nerve, and I could feel the bones poking through the skin, up to my head, and Bismarck sauntered forward like a proud dog.
I swallowed, and dug into myself, staring up at her. She blocked out the sun. She’d block out death itself. She’d kill the unkillable, and she’d deliver the enemy’s heart on a plate.
I remembered all of the rumors about her, all of the files I’d had access to, brief fragmented flashes that my work Omoi hadn’t completely managed to destroy. All summoned up under the pain of death.
I remembered the last mission reports, her squad covered in blood. They’d executed every last cultist in the compound. Men women and children. Their plays were ended with gunshots, their art burned, and their stories left unheard.
There was nothing left of them after they were done. Jay surged towards me with horror, and I stared at Bismarck, hand pointed at my own head.
I remembered the scientists deep under Atlanta, realizing what they had to sacrifice if they wanted the world to recover. I thought of their bravery, their desperation, and their deaths.
Finally, the answer to the question I’d been asking. Would I have the courage to do it?
“No,” Bismarck said.
My lungs curdled with blood, and I stared unblinkingly at the leg that had been driven through my torso. Sharp as a spear, through my shattered sternum, embedded in the floor below. Bismarck leaned down, the command tongue bubbling off of my lips, rising into the void with a mist of vaporized blood and gore.
“Goodbye Jess,” She whispered. My heart stopped. Blood dripped out of my open mouth, running hot and fluid down my neck. I twitched, and my body begged for air, my body begged for-
For a single moment, there was nothing left of the two of us except pain, and I saw fate itself as a great eye watching the world, chained by a billion human arms to the very heart of our sun, and it hated, and it loathed, and it pleaded to be freed at last. The story had gone on too long, and The Watcher wanted freedom more than anything. It had done wrong, and now I, I, in my last moments, understood what it was, and saw the rite holding it in place, and I, and I And I And I
Black around my eyes
Brain chugging, screaming, gurgling.
Bismarck twisted her leg.
Jessica Williams died five thousand years after she was born, in an office building, fighting to save a race that had saved her. The monuments would read of that day.
But there were more monuments. There were more stories to tell. There were more sacrifices before the world knew a peace.
But another Warden died that day.
Bismarck straightened, snatching the Omoi off of the cooling corpse’s head, and turned to face the window. A second later, Bismarck hit the wall, and a roaring beast stood in her path, knife clutched in a massive paw-hand, rimmed with claws and covered in blood.
“You’re late,” Bismarck advised, a grin splitting her face. “You can chase me, or you can help her,” She said, gesturing lazily behind her.
There was nobody left for Bismarck. There were no more friends, no more allies. There was only herself, and the quest she’d been given thousands of years ago. One last piece, and it would all be done. She would go north, to the great mountain of flesh, and she would see it revived.
And then the world would change, at last, and she would be at the head of that change, a great empress to protect the whole of humanity for the rest of time.
The creature growled, spattered in blood, and turned. Bismarck thought for a moment of tangling with her, but there was no point. Nothing in this city would stop her.
Nothing was left that could even slow her down. Bismarck brought her hands down against the glass of the window and it shattered into a hundred thousand fragments.
And then she tore open a hole to where the remnants of her army sat, unattended.
And the world knew an absence once again.
In the other room, crows drooled off of a cooling corpse, rabid, frantic, angry, in pain, desperate. Memories dripped off of his many beaks and his claws and out of his eyes like quicksilver, but it flowed through his talons like water.
They were monstrous, twisted, beaks ringed with teeth, too many claws, eyes spattered across their form, but they pooled themselves together, clutching at straws, digging for needles.
There had not been enough of a King to sit upon A Throne for Crows. But there might be enough for one last play.
There were always more actors.
This has been A Throne of Crows. Stay tuned for An End for Crows, coming soon.