Tane and the Regent had left us in the meantime, sliding back to whatever needed to be done among the ever more ragged ranks of the Crows that were left.
It hurt that they left, but I was an adult and knew that they had their own jobs.
Isaac’s office was in the basement, a brutal place covered in photographs of dissections and vivisections, and gleaming things that my eyes refused to focus on, and equations, hundreds of thousands of them sketched on the walls in what looked like face paint. Most of it was empty spaces, though a few computers winked at us as we passed.
“How’d you come back to life?” Isaac asked. “You’re not a Fey, so you clearly didn’t come back with the Queen.”
“The Eldest Crow gave up herself to keep my mind intact,” I said. “I’m on top of her.”
Isaac’s eyes swept over my body as if he could see her (and I wish he could, but I could only feel her distantly, her mind and memories wrapped around the pain and sickness inside of me like a thin candy shell) and then he nodded. “You’re just memories then,” he said.
“Just memories?” Jay asked, sounding offended. “We’re all just memories.”
“I mean,” Isaac turned a bit pink, and shook his head. “Nevermind. It doesn’t matter what I meant. You’ll do fine.” He grabbed a tablet off of the wall.
“Alright.” He drew a circle. “So here’s where we’re at.” He wrote down words across them, and I squinted at them. “There.”
The circle was labelled ‘The Hero’s Journey’. At the top was labelled Bismarck. An arrow showed the direction around the circle.
“The first step is supernatural aid.” He put my name next to it.
“Isaac,” I said. “What did you specialize in?”
“Applied emanations,” he said in a clipped tone. “Originally I helped with the sigilic alphabet, but I moved on to manipulating lordly powers. You’re the supernatural aid, since you arrived with the plan and your magical equations.”
“They weren’t magical,” I said.
“Nobody cares,” Isaac said. I huffed. He drew the next step. “The Head Priest of the Watcher was the threshold guardian. Bismarck had to defeat him in one battle or another in order to move onto the next step.”
“Which was the apocalypse,” I said.
“The threshold into the new world,” Isaac clarified, looking over at Jay. Jay squinted down at the tablet.
“This is just story, narrative stuff. I get that we live in a strange world, but how is this supposed to mean anything?”
“When we gave control of the world over to the Watcher after shackling him to the planet with chains made out of bones, the world changed. Pay attention,” Isaac said, drily. Jay glared at him. “That’s what I helped turn the world into. I based it around this.”
“So then there’s the helper and mentor,” I said. “Who are they supposed to be?”
“They’re likely dead,” Isaac said. “We don’t know precisely what manner of hell she came from, but we do know that the Queen’s Guard all came from the Fey Queen’s private army, and she deliberately sought out as many people associated with the end of the world as possible.”
My head snapped up. “What?” I asked. “She did? Why?”
“I had thought,” Isaac said, pausing. “That you had a part in that.”
“I don’t know who I used to be,” I said. “But I’m not the boogeyman.”
“So she spent a long period of time here,” Isaac said, ignoring my comment. He poked at the bottom of the map. “Putting together the moments that would lead to the downfall of the Queen.”
“I was there,” Jay said. “The King did that.”
“The Admiral claims that the downfall of the Queen was a collaborative effort between most of the Queen’s guard to get the Queen in the right place for it to happen.”
Jay’s beak snapped shut, and he looked angry, his feathered ruffled. “Then why are we even bothering with the Admiral? If he’s in league with her?”
Isaac held a hand up. “I wouldn’t know, personally, but apparently, just after the Queen died, there was a massive power play between the guards for what was left. That’s why everyone has different broods.”
“Like Bismarck’s tank beetles, or Trellis’s fliers, or Prince’s corpse-worms.” I said, snapping my fingers.
“Or the Admiral’s burrowers.” Isaac said. “They were all part of the Queen’s army, and had different nests they came from.” He paused. “The point is, death and rebirth are fairly obvious. The death of the Queen unenslaved the Fey.”
“Then she took over and re-enslaved her army,” Jay cut in.
“Yes,” Isaac said, looking pained. “She did.”
“Which is her transformation,” I said, reading off the next part of the circle. “Which leads into…” I paused, frowning. “Isaac, that says atonement.”
“Yes,” Isaac agreed. “Yes, it does.”
“Isaac,” I said, taking in a deep breath. “Do you really mean the very next step in her prophesied journey, the very same one that’s made her immortal, is for her to /win/?”
Isaac drew a small line across the top of the chart, and divided the segments into the known and the unknown. “That’s the size of it.”
“Well,” I said.
“But she’s been on that step for several decades,” Isaac said, as if that made it better.
Jay growled under his breath and glared at Isaac. “Alright. Fine. What about this new rite?”
“I’ll need a few things.” Isaac shook his head. “A great quest-”
“How does not dying to a megalomaniacal bug suit for the quest?” Jay asked, crossing his arms.
“It suits fine,” Isaac said, pencilling that in on a new circle. “Good quest, really.”
“And for supernatural aid, let’s go with the creation of an organization dedicated to defeating the unknown,” I added. Isaac paused, then pencilled that in at the start.
“What’s the threshold guardian?” he asked.
“The Queen,” I said. “The King defeated the queen.”
“The King’s dead,” Isaac said.
“The King was shattered,” Jay corrected. “And his people took his shards into themselves to keep him alive.”
Isaac’s eyes flickered over to Jay’s, settling on his eyes, then went back to the circle. “Alright. So how many pieces of him do you have?”
“At least four,” The Regent said, stepping inside. Jay blinked at her, and then stared at Quen behind her. He looked… diminished. Perhaps losing the war had hurt his pride.
“I was under the impression this lab was guarded,” Isaac said without looking up. “Did you hurt the guards?”
“Of course not,” The Regent said. “I just impressed upon them how important it was to talk to you.”
“Helper then,” Isaac said.
“That would be me,” I said. “I’m the helper who helps the King find his way.” I stared at Jay.
He stared back at me, clearly confused. “What?”
“And the Morrigan was your mentor,” I continued.
“What’s the temptation?” Jay asked, cluelessly.
“Temptation was to remain silent,” The Regent said, shaking her head. “And avoid revealing your own failures. And well, death and rebirth are obvious… yes, we could use Jay as the new hero.”
“Me?!” Jay squawked, taking a step back. “But I’m- We don’t have enough of the King, anyway.”
“I have a piece,” Quen said. Jay stared at him. Quen cocked his head to the side. “The King gave me a piece to ensure I made it back after being scattered.”
Jay’s eyes narrowed in memory.
“And I made the King,” The Regent said. “So I have a piece from before he was the King.”
“Anyone else?” I asked, shaking my head.
“We have the Morrigan,” Jay said without looking at me. I startled, and abruptly remembered that I wasn’t Jessica Williams, scientist. I was Jessica Williams, Crow abomination. And at my heart lay the Elder’s memories, the first memories. Powerful enough to chase away any amount of the darkness.
“There we are,” Isaac said. “Our target. Jay, and by extension, the King of Crows.”
I swallowed. “Is it really that easy?”
Jay looked up, then back down at the circle. “No, it’s not. Where do we do this rite?”
“At the most important spot for the plot,” Isaac said, setting the tablet to the side.
“And where is that?” I asked.
“The Kindlord,” he reported. “We have to find the very center of the Kindlord.”
The Admiral joined us at the very mouth of the main base. In the distance, the crackling of guns and the booms of high explosives sent birds fleeing from the tree line that had devoured most of Tennessee without human intervention. His antennae twitched at each blast. “Do we have a plan?”
“A makeshift one,” Isaac said. “I don’t have all the supplies for it yet.”
“Then get them,” The Admiral said, as if the supplies for an arcane rite that involved the manipulation of literary elements was something you could get at the corner store.
“I’ll need items of significance,” Isaac said. “And a weapon.”
“What weapon does Bismarck have?”
Isaac smiled grimly. “Her words.”
“Would a sword work?” The Regent offered. From her clothes, she pulled free a knife as black as pitch. My eyes rolled off of it. It reminded me of Prin, and despite the emotion pouring up I could feel nothing so long as I was near it.
“What in the Lord’s name is that?!” Isaac hissed, taking a step away.
“The King’s knife,” The Regent said. “I’ve taken to calling it The Disconnect.”
“That’s a knife,” Isaac said, wrenching his gaze away from it. The sigils clustered around his eyes gleamed with barely constrained power; protective in nature, if I could understand the specific words.
“It doesn’t have to stay a knife,” The Regent said.
“We need a weapon, a chosen one, a mentor, a god, and a place of purpose. We’ve got most of that. We just need the weapon.”
“If I might,” Tane said, stepping in. Isaac glared at her. Tane glared back at him, not backing down even slightly. I could admire that. “Since nearly everyone else is here.”
“Whatever happened to propriety?”
“I died,” I said, blandly.
“If I might,” Tane said, clearing her throat for space. The Regent looked at her curiously. “Where did Boss get her axe from?”
I pondered the question for a moment, blinking. I’d assumed that it’d been from the Fey- but I’d never seen another Fey with an axe. They tended to specialize in the sheer force of numbers, guns, extranormal enhancements and reality-bending words of destruction. I paused.
“Well,” Jay said. “If she didn’t get it from the Fey, then she had to get it from the Beasts.”
Tane snapped her talon-fingers. “There we go. If we need a forge, we could see if the Beasts have worked with anything like the knife.”
“I’ll admit,” The Regent started. “The Morrigan was the one that met with the Beasts the most. She negotiated our way past the thick band of them around Kentucky so we could get to New York.”
“That’s where you got the knife from?” Isaac asked, cluelessly.
“We extracted the carbon from the ash there,” The Regent clarified. Isaac took a step farther back from it.
“Jess,” he said, deciding to ignore the Regent for the moment. “Next time someone makes a hellish blade forged out of the ashes of millions near me, warn me first? I’ll show a more appropriate reaction, and maybe find a nice box to lock it in before I chuck it into a volcano.”
“That’s funny,” The Regent said with a perfectly straight face. “Are you only alright with weapons of mass destruction as long as they work in consensus physics?”
Isaac scratched the back of his head and sighed. Jay spoke up.
“So we need to meet up with the Beasts then?”
“We needed to do that anyway,” Isaac said. “We’ve been negotiating their help in the war, but it’s been slow going; there are too many groups of them. A couple of hours of negotiation gets us maybe a dozen each time.”
I thought of Boss, still quiet and sleeping off her wounds, and winced. If we had her… if we only had her, this would be easier.
“Well,” I said. “Maybe there’s a leader?”
The Admiral interrupted for the first time, turning away from the soldier that’d distracted him. “There’s a party moving towards us, actually. If you want, Jess, you can see if your legendary charisma will work on them.”
I blinked cluelessly.
“That’s sarcasm,” Isaac clarified. “You were particularly acidic around the end.”
“Oh,” I said, then glared at the great big cockroach. Jay slid in at my side.
“Take us there.”