Someone was shaking me awake. Hands were clamped to my shoulders, and they hauled me off of the table. The crows that held my mind buzzed uncomfortably, unnerved at the sensation of the first memories buzzing through them, pounding like its own heart beat. I swallowed, and swallowed again, and again.
The pain in my throat faded like it had never been, my body adapting it away. That was what it meant to be a Crow, and to have an assumed form rather than a rigorous one. That was my life now.
And I was the Morrigan.
“Why?” I rasped, staring at the Regent. “Why did you bring me back?”
“We saved Jay as well,” The Regent said. Jay wouldn’t meet my eye. The Regent held it all too well. She’d probably informed far worse to far greater people. I swallowed again, pushing the plate away from me.
There were more eyes on me now, from the other birds. They knew I’d just been informed. I’d, I’d lost time.
“You killed her for me,” I hissed. “You killed the Elder. To save me.”
The Regent laughed, and her gaze became less severe. “The Elder isn’t dead, Jess. The Elder was just memories. Memories that you now possess. Even now they are winding through your frame, hidden just out of sight to keep you stable.”
I worked my lips and stared at her.
“What are we?” The Regent asked. “We aren’t the birds we roost upon like parasites, Jess. We’re the minds that they support. And now, the Morrigan has joined herself to you, so that your memories might be sustained. There was no sacrifice. There’s merely a difference in continuation.”
“Jay,” I asked. “Is… is that how it works?”
Jay couldn’t look at me. He hadn’t been able to look at me since I woke up. I breathed in, tasted it across my simulated longs, and breathed out, wishing it mattered. “You forgot why she did it, Regent,” he said, voice low.
The Regent shook her head. “You were both thoroughly corrupted from what the Outcast had been holding.”
“The King you mean,” I said.
“Yes,” The Regent said. “The King. I’ll fully admit it. Jay held a piece of the King inside of him.” Around us, what few Crows that hadn’t been paying attention turned their full focus on Jay. “Who was a powerful corrupting force inside of him, and threatened to devour you both.”
I reached up behind my ear where my Omoi ought to have set, and frowned when it wasn’t there. My death flashed before my eyes again.
“You had a group dedicated to that,” I said.
The Regent looked pained and only then did she look away from me. “The Court,” The Regent said. “That’s what we called ourselves. We thought we knew better than the Morrigan did. I’ll admit that as well. We may even have been right.”
“They’re gone, aren’t they?” I asked.
“Nobody is ever gone as long as their knowledge is with us,” The Regent lied. I still remembered Prin.
He was gone. Whatever was left of him had been scattered in the midst of the city we were fleeing like rats.
Dean was gone as well. He’d never get his apology accepted. Even now, I couldn’t accept it. Perhaps because he was dead rather than anything else, but I couldn’t accept the apologies of a dead bird.
“You miss them,” I said, staring at her.
The Regent peered into my eyes. “Now, what I don’t know is, is that the Morrigan inside of you, or did you grow a spine?”
Anger flicked the inside of my thoughts, spurned on by the birds inside of me, chittering with excitement to experience the slightest bit of emotion. “I can be my own person, damn you.”
The Regent remained there, placid and unaffected.
“What do you want from me?” I asked.
“The world to not end,” The Regent said. “That’d be a start.”
“You know I can’t do that,” I said.
“Not yet you can’t,” The Regent said. “But by the end of this, you will. Mark my words. You’re a creature of destiny now, whether you were originally or not.”
“I’m not your messiah,” I said. “I barely remember anything that happened!”
“You’ll have to figure it out,” The Regent dismissed. “We don’t have another option.” She looked behind me. “Barn, are the cars refilled?”
A Crow nodded, afraid to interrupt.
“Alright!” The Regent said, standing up to her full height. “Let’s get on the road. If we’re lucky, we’ll hit our stop by nightfall.”
We hit it earlier than nightfall. The road was bumpy, and made bumpier by the hundreds of corpses littering it. The fey stared up with blank eyes and perforated corpses, burst open like sacks of flour and left to decay on the street. Wild things had bitten into them and a horde of vultures fled as we drifted near. Our tires splattered their bodies.
Jay turned on the windshield wipers to keep on driving, and the radio finally started working as one of the few remaining bands whistled and slapped and warked their warbling tones, the local transceiver working out the back of their full van.
For a moment, we could pretend all was well.
“This is the single greatest movement of Crows in history,” Tane said. “All at once. Going in a straight line.”
“I’m surprised you had enough vehicles.”
“You can fit a lot of crows in a car,” Tane said. “With shelves and the like.”
“I know you’re trying to help,” Jay said, not looking up. “But we’re here.”
He gestured ahead. A tank beetle sat, stomach carved open so all the internals sloshed across the ground. It was still smouldering faintly. I shuddered.
Jay stopped the car and walked over to its side. One of the downed insects twitched, and he shot it three times before I could even blink, a pathetic cry leaving the downed creature’s throat before it went completely still.
“What the hell did this?” He muttered, knocking on the chitinous shell.
A flock of crows fell out of the sky and coalesced into Teri, who straightened. Her outline was still a bit blurry. “The scouts report there’s not a living thing within a mile!”
My head snapped over to her, and the crows inside of me warbled and jostled for position at the news. My outline wavered before snapping back into the more human form that just felt right. “What?”
Jay narrowed his eyes. “I don’t like this…”
Tane saluted back at Teri. “Thank you. Make sure to give them my regards.”
“Shouldn’t you be-” I started, then my jaw clicked together. “Oh, you’re guarding me.” I felt a flush touch my cheeks. Jay stared at it curiously, gently reaching up to touch the flush with his fingertips. I ducked away from him.
“The interior’s been breached already,” Teri said. “I don’t think we’re going to find what we wanted to find.”
Finally, I stopped looking at the Crows and in front of me. The governor’s mansion had been two deviations away from a McMansion, a sprawling ugly thing armored against most of the horrible things that had been left in the world. I could almost taste the rank hypocrisy in the world, and yet… my Brother had been stationed here. I stepped forward, and Tane and Jay moved in lockstep to my sides.
“We need to look anyway,” I said.
“As you say!” Teri chirped, then took to the skies as a flock. A minute later, as the mansion became larger and larger, the rest of the flocks settled around us, forming up into ranks of the birds. They moved silently and quietly.
The front doors had been blasted apart, they sat in three different pieces around what had probably been a decently nice place at some point. Then they’d dug straight through the walls, shattering china and burning nice things until all that was left was a soft smouldering wreck that gently sloped down.
Half a dozen dead Fey stood at the top of the tunnel, their heads and chests blown apart by rifle fire. Their guns sat beside them, spent cartridges littering the ground like snow. I followed the tunnel on. It was almost like something had been fighting these the entire way. It made me nervous that I didn’t know what it was, but it made me happy because it meant the Crows weren’t alone.
But who the hell had been here before us?
At the end of the tunnel the fighting had cleared out. A massive iron door had been melted through, breached by a piece of the Command Tongue and discarded, leaving only the interiors of the bunker. Dead plants and mold and skeletons. I swept around, looking for- I didn’t know what I was looking for.
I followed the footprints of some massive insect through the dust and gloom and mold that had been there so long it had evolved into different and unique forms of mold particular only to the bunker. Bismarck’s trail led through exploded door frames as she forced her bulk through, so it was easy to trace her alongside the footsteps.
Then, in a far room, a skeleton sat next to an old cryochamber.
It’d failed, as time had taken it, and the occupant’s skin had turned a necrotic black, the bones were visible under the human leather. But I was more focused on the skeleton.
Next to where he’d sat was a break in the dust. About the size of a box, foot and a half by a foot and a half.
My mind was still devoid of context. I’d still robbed myself of the instructions on how to save the world. Given how Bismarck had turned out… I was starting to think it had been nothing short of intentional.
That I’d actively hid the god from her.
That I’d seen some of this happening in the old team and made a concerted decision to doom the world to thousands of years of stasis- or perhaps I had thought that some fragment of my team might survive and do the job for me. But I was here now, and I knelt before the skeleton. A tattered tag sat in the figure’s chest.
Jerome Williams. Jay. Jay Williams.
I stared at his placid figure, and couldn’t help but note that he looked like nearly every other skeleton I’d found. A tad bigger, he’d always been a big man, but dead he was nearly impossible to distinguish from any other dead man. How many dead brothers had I passed on the street already, anyway?
I pulled the tag from his chest and it was heavier than it ought to be. I flipped it over.
He’d attached a small black device on it. It had a single button.
“Jess,” it said, and I jumped back, staring down at it. “I tried.” The voice was tired. Rasping with sickness. The lungs were wet. “I tried waiting for you.” I swallowed. Tears beaded across the edges of my eyes, and then they just poured down. It’d been so long since I heard his voice, and there it was, dying, wet. Lungs shredded.
“I’m sorry,” The voice said. The dead man spoke, dulcet tones.
Jay put his hand on my shoulder, and reached for the device, and I shoved his hand away.
“What are you sorry for?” I asked the past.
“I looked inside of the box,” my brother spoke. I’d given his name away. I didn’t feel guilty.
“What was it?” I asked the recording.
“You gave me a heart,” my brother spoke. “A rumbling throbbing heart in a box. How was it still beating after all these years? I thought it was staring at me.”
A heart. I’d given him a…
I’d given him what?
“It said it was going to be alright,” he said. “I don’t know if I agree on that. Certainly feels like I’m just dying. It’s going to remember me and what I did for it.”
My breath hitched in my many lungs, and it ached, having so many small things choke up at once. Like I was being throttled.
“I don’t know what I’m doing, Jess,” my brother spoke through time. Thousands of years ago and yet I could still hear his voice. “I… I kept it safe. I wanted… I wanted to see you again.”
I knelt down beside him, where the dust no longer sat, and rested, my back against the cool bunker wall.
“Looks like you’re too late,” He rasped across time, and I gave up on holding in one piece and scattered. My mind stretched across the dozen crows and they slowly spread out until my mind buzzed under the effort of holding together, and the human emotions wavered, unable to be processed by the poor creatures carrying me along.
He kept speaking regardless. “You’ll come,” He decided. “I didn’t think you would. But I think you’ll come. The Bunker’s air systems are clogged with mold and fungus. I don’t know why. I think it has something to do with the impact up North. When I hold the box, it’s all I can think about. I think you took something from it, Jess. I don’t know how you’d do that, but I think you took something from it.”
I swallowed through many throats.
“You have to return it,” the old Jay said. “You have to return the heart. You have to return what you took. The Kind Lord says you have to fulfill your promise. It’ll remember everything you told it to. You have to return it.”
His voice rambled on and on until he went quiet, voice hoarse.
“I love you little sis,” he said. “Wish I’d been around to see you again. Meet you on the other side, if there’s something there with all these lords and nonsense.”
A wet cough. The recording covered in breathing for a few seconds, and then cut off.