It wasn’t a far walk, though I was uncomfortable at how close the explosions were. Every so often, a particularly loud one would shake the trees, clearing them of five thousand years worth of deviations from the animals I used to know. They scampered away, familiar but slightly off. They’d finally adapted back to a world with thick verdant forests.
The clearing we came to was marked by a single stone in the center, and a dozen stumps, clear cut and burned to prevent new growth. It gave the air a scent of char that went against the pollen and buzzing insects, but it was far more familiar after just barely escaping the burning capital.
Across the stone, marked with a dozen words in a language I didn’t speak, a great beast sat. Seven feet tall, his muscles bulged underneath of skin stretch taut like a drum. He moved unnaturally, as if his organs moved independent of everything else, or his outline was only a suggestion. His fur was a golden color, and his eyes looked like flecks of silver in his bestial head. His ears twitched, and he turned, opening another set of eyes that flicked over the rest while the top set remained on me.
I missed Boss already.
He sniffed the air, and both sets narrowed into thin slits and glared.
“Isaac. You did not bring the same party as last time.”
“Thorn,” Isaac greeted from behind me. I realized that he was- well, he wasn’t quite hiding. But the position had to be intentional. “Things have changed. Meet the Morrigan.”
I’d’ve sent a glare at him if he wasn’t behind me, and then Thorn slid over, a single massive paw larger than the stumps of the destroyed trees and leaned forward to sniff. His massive head shook from the effort, and his tail twitched behind him. “She smells like blood. And birds. And…”
His hackles rose, and his pelt became thickened, hair standing on end like a dense murderous cloud. I tried to take a step back, but Isaac’s hand on my spine kept me right in place.
“What do you want?” Thorn asked. I could count every set of teeth in his mouth, and he had more than one, rows of them sliding down his maw like a shark’s. I could see where they had dug into his tongue, forming raw bloodied spots. Even as I watched, they sealed shut with new life.
“I want-” A few things flew through my mind. Not all of them were directly related to what I was after. Several of them were more philosophical and had no right to show up in the very instant I was staring down the gullet of a great apex predator. “I want to use your forge.”
The great beast blinked one set of eyes and then the other, and then relaxed ever so slightly. It was hard to tell by the shifting flesh and fur and muscle across his form, half amorphous over top of bones that could stop bullets and crack concrete, but he seemed more at ease.
“My forge?” He asked, more calm. “That’s all? I thought you also requested our services.”
“I’m not aware of the full bargains this base has requested,” I said. Isaac hissed in a breath behind me. “I’m interested in your forge. I won’t pretend to bargain for them.”
Isaac stepped out from behind me and Thorn’s gaze turned hard and rocky upon him. “Ah. So this one does not ask us to die in her name. You still do, Isaac?”
“In the name of the Beasts,” Isaac said. “I demand you to follow your past bargains. The same one’s made under your father.”
“My father is dead,” Thorn said, casually. “I do not know the sum and total of what he promised you, and since he did not tell me, I cannot assume your words are truths.”
“Damn you,” Isaac hissed. “You and I know full well what’s at stake here. We need you!”
“I see an army of your own,” Thorn said. “And I know an army of birds have descended upon the forest. Already my scouts are reporting an alarming number of blackbirds devouring everything in sight, and scouts in the trees with rifles.”
I flicked my gaze over to Tane, who looked slightly smug, then back at Thorn. A set of his eyes were focused on me knowingly, before settling on Isaac again. “Why do you need us? We are simple beasts.”
I’d seen Boss throw herself through reinforced walls and pull herself through ceilings. I knew she was exceptional, even for her species, but a single Beast could go toe to toe with a squadron of Fey drones and come out on top.
I suspected the complaint wasn’t in the match up, but in the sheer size of the Fey swarm. That was where it came from.
“So that’s it?” Isaac asked. “You’re just going to back out?”
“I’ve long since ceased to see what you can offer me,” Thorn said. “I see nothing of interest here except the scratchings of the old world and the pathetic insects that are fighting over their spilled toys.”
“But you’re still coming,” Isaac said.
“People would complain if I did not maintain the idea of civility,” Thorn replied. His tail flicked. He was amused.
“She’s coming for your mountain,” I said.
Thorn’s attention shifted to me, and his hackles rose up again. “Oh?”
“She’s coming for your mountain,” I repeated. “And she’ll kill everyone in her path.”
“We die hard,” Thorn offered. “And what defences would you have to offer us?”
I hesitated, because I didn’t know the ritual, and I was fully aware that the party I was with consisted of one normal Crow containing the soul of an eldritch king, a heretic whose mind was blessed with dark powers, a crack shot with a rifle, and whatever the hell Isaac had decided to be while I was gone. Between all of them, I didn’t know what I could offer. “If she’s coming for you…”
I trailed off.
“If she’s coming for me,” Thorn said. “What would a pathetic scrap of crow flesh like yourself offer?” He took a single step forward, and I remembered how Boss had looked when I’d first met her, golden eyes in a dark room, half tortured and manic.
“Transport,” I said, gesturing at the base behind me. “Weapons,” I said, gesturing at the Crows standing with me. “Knowledge,” I said, gesturing at myself and Isaac.
“And if I have no need of those things?” Thorn asked. “As delightful as your company sounds,” And at this, he eyed me thoughtfully, and I had no idea what he had in mind so far as that went. “I think I can do better with the Beasts.”
“Then you’ll die,” I said. “Horribly. She’ll pluck out your heart before your eyes and crush it.”
My own hearts, all twelve of them, beat faster at the memory of my death, and we- I we breathed in to steady ourselves myself. Myselves.
Thorn’s eyes closed, and his ears perked up. In the distance, an explosion sent the wildbirds fleeing again, streaming up into the heavens like rain in reverse, and I could see the moment he made his decision.
“Sadly,” Thorn said, standing up. “I don’t see anything you could offer me. Not now, certainly.”
I growled under my breath. Thorn snorted, and let off a deep low growl that sent the primal part of my brain fluttering with fear. “That’s a proper growl, girl. Don’t try again, or I’ll teach you just how outclassed your little company is!”
In the distance, another explosion, this one far closer, and I turned to look behind at the base. “What?”
Thorn narrowed his eyes. “No. You couldn’t’ve.” His voice was flat and completely without emotion, but his fur started to stand on end. “Why have the Lords forsaken me.”
Then there was another growl, and a golden blur launched itself across the clearing, burying itself into Thorn’s guts.
Boss roared, showing off a mouth of teeth that had never seemed sharper. Her eyes (and she had so many now) opened wide, red and angry, and gleamed in the dim of the tree she’d tackled Thorn into. Leaves fell like droplets from it as she reared back and buried another massive fist into the Beast’s gut. “YOU!”
Thorn vomited onto the ground, his teeth etched in a spray of half red half acid, and then kicked up and hard into Boss, sending her skidding away. It was only for a second, and then Boss dove right back in, and the tree shook with another massive punch. “You thought I wouldn’t know!?”
“Boss?” I managed. The rest were just as shocked.
“She woke up when she heard the growl,” Quen said, stepping out of the trees. “I figured this was where she was going.”
Quen- Quen had seen better days. I’d seen him, distantly, in the convoy, bearing every single wound he’d accrued on his mind, feathers unkempt and unsettled, and eyes glossy with disuse. I could tell nightmares from a mile away.
It was common back in my time, given what we were working with. Given what I was working on, I now realized. Perhaps even given who I used to be.
He stood up, and saluted, sending it off towards the Regent and I. “Reporting for duty.”
“I thought you were going to watch her,” Tane muttered.
“I’m watching her right now,” Quen said.
Boss buried her fist into Thorn’s gut, and a massive tree limb fell down, inches from his head. He kicked up again, and this time Boss dropped him, then leaned up in his face and roared like a lion, her mouth splitting wider than it had ever gone before to demonstrate her number of teeth (they were different from the last time her mouth had been open, just seconds before). “I’ve returned to claim my place.”
“Boss?” Thorn hissed, finally standing up. I could count his broken ribs, and hear them snap back into place one by one like the crack of knuckles. “I was under the impression-”
“We die hard,” Boss sneered. I wondered just how much she’d been awake for. “And it seems to me like you thought I’d die like a coward behind enemy lines!”
“You haven’t shown up in years.”
“I promised I wouldn’t come back until after I’d tasted the blood of a god, and I brought the apocalypse back to you!” Boss sneered, a massive hand gripping his shoulder to tug him back up to his full height. “Aren’t you lucky I’ve done both?!”
Thorn sneered right back, his hackles fully raised.
Boss had- Boss had grown nearly a foot in height. I didn’t know how she’d fit in the van ever again, or if she even wanted to.
Thorn scowled. “Good for you. You managed to find a group of people pathetic enough to not see through your little visions of glory. And what god did you taste?”
Her tongue (long and forked, it had never been long and forked before) flicked between her lips. “I devoured one of the Queen’s Guards. As was my right! And I bled out, and I was returned! The hand of the Watcher came for me and I bit it back!”
“Sister…” Thorn said. “I am the leader here. You must accept that.”
“I’ll accept nothing from you,” Boss said. “Except your unconditional surrender.”
She roared, and the trees shook again, and I became aware of a dozen more eyes poking their way out of bushes. Thorn looked back at them, and then at Boss, and steeled himself.
Then a wound tore a path across his chest, and his paw snapped across it, blood smearing the edges of his digits. The crack of the gun that fired it felt like it came seconds later. He growled, pulling it away, the bullet forced out through muscular contractions, and glared at the source. Boss joined him.
Tane flicked another bullet into the bolt action and kept the gun pointed straight ahead, this time at his face.
“You dare interrupt this?”
“I’m going to interrupt your pissing contest,” Tane said, flatly. “We’re not getting anything out of it, and given what you two are, you’ll be at it all day.”
Boss sent a disappointed look at Tane, and rolled her many eyes. Slowly, they returned to just having the two, slits of flesh closing in her great head. Thorn closed his additional pair and gruffed, a noise low in his throat.
“Well?” Boss barked into the trees. “Come on out! I know Thorn’s too much of a damned coward to show up without backup.”
“They’re not backup,” Thorn said. “They’re observers.”
The back up and or observers crawled out of the woods. They weren’t all wolves or canids like Boss and Thorn, a few of them bore features of pigs or bears or other similar creatures. Not a one of them had anything to do with a bird. They stood in a bizarre variety of heights, ranging from shorter than I was (just one, some sort of large rat wo/man) to almost as tall as Boss when both stood with spines straight (a wolverine, if I wasn’t missing my guess).
“No cats?” I muttered.
Boss turned and gave me an incredibly offended look, then shook her head. “These,” Boss said, gesturing over at us (and when she did so, I could see her injuries, long cuts that were refusing to heal properly, even now drooling blood from the violent impacts against Thorn, and bulletholes like winking roses of red against her golden fur). “Are mine. Much like your pack, Thorn.”
Thorn’s ears pinned against his head, and he snarled. Tane audibly unloaded and reloaded her gun again, and he rolled his many eyes. “We’ll agree to disagree on that,” he declared.
“That’s what a coward says when he wants to avoid a loss,” Boss said, smoothly.
“There’s a damned war on,” Thorn said. “Disagreements over power structure will only get us killed.”
“A damn war I told you to prepare for decades ago!” Boss said, puffing up her chest.
Thorn sighed. “Yes. Yes you did.”
“And what did you do?”
“Languish with our victories until half a decade ago,” Thorn replied, his voice aggravated. “That was then, this is now.”
“I am Boss!” Boss declared.
Boss socked him in the face. Thorn hit the ground and spat out a broken tooth. He glared up at her even as the next tooth slowly ground it’s way back into place. “I bring you your fated war, Thorn. Like I said I would. I devoured the flesh of a Queen’s guard and-”
“Look,” I said, interrupting. Boss looked even more horribly offended at me, but didn’t take a swing. She probably understood the limits of other’s bodies. “What was the prior deal?”
Isaac stepped forward. “Troops and passage through their territories.”
“I cannot speak for every troop of Beasts,” Thorn said.
“Another failing on his part,” Boss said, dismissively. “If Father were still around-”
“It’s a damned good thing he isn’t,” Thorn replied. “He’d’ve killed the lot of you and worn your skin!”
I took a step in between the feuding apocalypse monsters, and both stared at me. Thorn gave a sniff of the air. “Is she yours?”
“What?” Boss said, her voice breaking.
“Is she yours?” Thorn asked again. “She smells very thoroughly of you.”
I recalled how I’d woken up, with Boss stretched like a half dead blanket across most of the van, and supposed that would make me smell like her.
“None of your damned business,” Boss growled, baring her teeth.
“If she’s not,” Thorn said, slyly. “I could-”
“RRRRGH!” Boss growled.
I held up my hands, ignoring them for a moment. I didn’t even want to know what sort of things they did to annoy the other. “Focus!”
A long line of anger flecked drool dropped out of Boss’s muzzle onto the ground, and she turned away, crossing her arms.
“We need passage to your forge,” I said. “And to the Kindlord.”
“The what?” Thorn asked.
“The meat mountain,” Boss said. “It’s name used to be the kindlord.”
“Who cares about the name of something that long dead?” Thorn asked, confused.
“That’s what I said!” Boss replied.
“We don’t own the forge anymore,” Thorn said. Boss’s head snapped around, popping her great neck.
“Then who does?” Boss asked.
“The Cats took it with their last offensive.”
Boss growled under her breath. “I should’ve known you were too useless to hold them-”
“Then we’ll talk to the cats,” I said.
“Not without me,” Boss said. “They’ve always been traitorous creatures. They’ve sacked and burned many of our museums and our tapestries!”
“Your what?” I asked.
“She smells heavily of you,” Thorn muttered. “But clearly you didn’t teach her any of our ways.”
Isaac pinched the bridge of his nose. “Could you two stop whatever hellish sibling relationship you have and help us save the world!?”
“He has a point,” I said.
“Fine. We’ll go deal with the Cats,” Boss said. “Bring whoever you need for that, and I’ll take the group that way. Meanwhile, everyone else needs to help Thorn. He’ll be torn apart by the first tank beetle that shows up.”
“I have killed ten of them,” Thorn said. “With my bare hands.”
“He needs all the help he can get,” Boss muttered grimly.
“I have been fighting this war for the last year and a half,” Thorn reminded her. “Without you or your help.”
“Otherwise, he’ll turn into a red smear the second the fighting gets rough,” Boss continued, completely and utterly unphased.
Thorn glared at her, then turned around in a huff. “Well? What are you waiting for? We need to prepare for the end of the world!”