The group ended up being Boss, myself, Jay, the Regent, and Teri. The rest were more than happy to stay behind and help fight to the best of their abilities. The Regent hesitated at the end, talking quietly with one of her white crows, who nodded as she whispered furtive things into their ear. Then they scattered into a dozen white birds, and then flew off to tell the others.
“Everything handled?” Boss groused. “We’ll need to be very careful. The Cats are infamously flighty, and they’ve been nursing a massive grudge against me especially.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“I fucked the Headcat’s son a few times,” Boss declared. “He took it poorly. The headcat,” she clarified.
I stared at her.
The other crows stared at her.
I blinked a few times, and my staring lessened, though the rest kept staring at her.
“Crows!” Boss threw her arms up into the air, scowling. “You’re useless!”
“So why are you leading us?” I asked.
“I want to see the Headcat’s son again,” Boss said. “And, I’ve fought the Headcat before.”
“So were you two dating?” I asked.
“What?” Boss blinked. “No, he was hot, and I was hot, so we fucked,” She rolled her shoulders. “Don’t try and throw human emotions into this. I have seen enough of those among the Fey and the Crows to know that none of you have any idea what you’re doing!”
“That’s fair,” I said. Jay made a face at me. “What? I’m still mostly human!”
Teri gave me a surprised look at my declaration of humanity, but before she could say anything, the Regent spoke.
“If we could get our transport…?” The Regent cut in, shaking her head.
“Bah,” Boss growled, stepping forward, and then she brought a savage stomp down on the landscape. A few seconds later, a worm burst out of the ground, bearing it’s many long teeth and the hundreds of gills cut into the side. “This is unbecoming of anyone, let alone myself.”
“When we first met, you were very much against the weapons of humans,” I said. “Because we didn’t know how they worked and couldn’t be stopped by a single man.”
“This is still true,” Boss said. “The works of humans have made horrific worm monsters and corpse crawlers. Just because this one is on our side for now doesn’t counteract my point.”
“I don’t disagree,” I muttered, squinting at the great creature. I looked over at Teri. “Do you think this is safe without Isaac?”
“There were far better times for them to kill us,” The Regent reminded. “Leaving a single worm to do it is practically irresponsible.” She stepped forward.
Teri hesitated, and then followed after her. I frowned, watching the tech Crow walk. She had a familiar weight to her gait, and it made me squint. Not because it was unfamiliar, but rather because it wasn’t familiar to Teri’s walk.
I stepped forward, and Jay did as well, leaving only Boss behind. She rolled her many eyes (Eight this time, she was being showy) and stepped into one of the vents of the worm. Jay and I took another for ourselves, and then I could hear the Regent and Teri slide along as well.
Jay and I squinted at each other in the darkness, lit only by the lights blooming off of Jay’s continual corruption.
“Do you think-” He started and then stalled, cutting himself off as the worm sealed around us. The interior didn’t smell much like an organic creature, now that I had the time to think about it. It smelled more like dry stone, or the interior of a great canyon. It wasn’t a bad smell, but it was unnerving in the side of a worm. “Do you think that the Morrigan can still hear us?”
For a moment, I didn’t understand his question, and then I did. The Morrigan hadn’t just saved me. She’d once again sequestered the corruption into Jay, sealing it off with her very presence. In a very literal way, we were both the Morrigan’s children now.
“I can shoot a gun now,” I said.
Jay blinked, and the light flickered.
“The Morrigan could shoot a gun, so I picked it up off of her,” I clarified. The worm shook and we were horizontal. I clung to the side like a rat, hoping it wouldn’t last long. “I don’t know if she’s still there, but maybe, after this is over, we can try to extract her. When there’s enough of us left.”
Jay frowned. “I don’t know if there’s enough of me left to begin with. I already feel like a thin shell of myself.”
I carefully tugged a hand loose from the death grip of the interior of the worm and squeezed his shoulder. “I can’t do this without you.”
His eyes closed, and I swallowed guiltily. That hadn’t come out right. It was true, but that was more of a burden.
“I won’t do this without you,” I tried. Still wrong.
“Jess,” Jay said. “I just don’t know if I can keep going. I lost. I should be dead. And now we’re talking about bringing the King back- I just don’t know if it’s right.”
“It’s not about what’s right,” I said, and bizarrely, I felt as if I had said those exact same words five thousand years ago, when I had set the world hurtling towards this end. “It’s about what gets us to the end. It’s not about us.”
“It is about us,” Jay said. “Because we’re the only ones that can do this.”
“We have to think beyond the two of us,” I said, and then I laughed. “You already know how to do that, what am I even saying?”
“You’re bad at this,” Jay declared, and I shrugged. The worm shifted, and I squeaked, throwing my arm free from his shoulder to hang on even tighter to the wall.
“What would USEC say about you now?” he asked, quieter.
“They’d say I was corrupted,” I said. “And depending on how important I was, they’d take an equivalent amount of effort to extract the information they needed out of me before treatment.”
“But they’d treat you?” he asked.
“Employees are very important,” I said. “Scientists often specialize into fields that nobody else ever will, and a single death could set projects back by entire decades. Inoculations against the unknown take a long time to build up, after all.”
I closed my eyes, and it was almost as dark as it had been with my eyes open.
“What about soldiers?” he asked. “Like Zack?”
“We saved them,” I said. “They had field experience, when they survived for a while, which was invaluable.”
“If USEC valued lives so much,” Jay asked. “Why did they destroy the world?”
I kept my eyes closed.
“If you had to choose between everyone you know and love dying,” I said. “Or the entire world dying, which would you choose?”
Jay hesitated, his beak clicking in the darkness. “It’d be about the same to me, wouldn’t it?”
“It’s calculus,” I said. “The thousand people you know and have met and love, or billions of people.”
“Why’d they choose the billions?” Jay asked. I clicked my jaw together. With the project only have completed, it looked like we’d taken the more selfish choice.
“The world was disintegrating,” I said. “A total collapse of reality as we knew it was about to unfold, and our only solution was years out from being a success,” unsaid was that it was my solution. Jay had shared a ride in my headspace, so he didn’t need the reminder.
“So you killed them all?”
“I didn’t,” I said. “That wasn’t my project.” Unsaid was that if I’d been quicker, they wouldn’t’ve had to die. “But with a god, we could undo all of that.”
“Well,” Jay said. “Isn’t that just calculus as well? The sum and total of post apocalyptic life for the sum and total of the old world? Isn’t that the same problem?”
I clicked my teeth together. Paused, thought it over for a moment. “Regardless of whether or not it’s right, we can’t let Bismarck do it.”
I knew it was a cop out. I knew it was putting the decision off longer.
But in the cool darkness of the worm’s gills, I couldn’t make the decision. I couldn’t just throw the human race away.
I could throw my life away stopping Bismarck from bringing them back however she wanted. That I could do. That was right. I couldn’t trust anyone besides myself to do the right thing, if the right thing were to wipe out of the wastelands and bring back the old world.
I couldn’t even trust myself to do that, if I were being honest. The world ill needed a tyrant, even a tyrant such as I.
We remained somewhat silent, both feeling the guilt. He’d been in my mind. He understood some of the processes. I’d been in his. I still didn’t.
We both knew that.
The worm opened up and vomited us out into a field. An unending field of rippling grass, blue, stark. The air was filled with pollen and the noises of bees and other insects flying around. It was as if the world had never known the touch of humanity.
Boss straightened out, and went down on all fours to stretch further, popping her long spine. “Are you alright?” I asked. “You… ate Trellis, I think.”
“After you were dead,” Boss clarified. “I ate her after you were dead.”
“And then collapsed from your wounds,” I said.
“It had been a long day,” Boss said.
“A very long day,” Jay agreed.
Teri clicked her beak like she wanted to say something, and I looked over at her. She wasn’t quite the same bird that I remembered her being. There was something different in the feathers, something different in the presentation. It… it hurt to see the difference.
The only crow-complex who hadn’t changed lately was the Regent, and she was the only person I wanted to be different. She reminded me too much of, well, myself. The self I was starting to understand, the self that had destroyed herself for knowing too much.
I didn’t know if either were strictly good people, but I understood entirely that the world wasn’t run off of the backs of strictly good people, so that was fine too.
“How about you?” I asked Teri, being blunt.
“I’m working it out,” Teri said. “I’m me-” She paused, clicking her beak. “I’m me with a little extra. It’s not… Normally, what was done doesn’t need to be done. I’m still working through all the static, but I think I’m fine.”
“Good,” I said. I looked over at Boss. “What’s this forge like?”
“It’s a forge,” Boss said, vaguely. “I never bothered with it.” I glared at her. She met my glare with a great number of eyes. They were all smug. “Does that bother you?”
“No,” I said. It was Boss. That was just how she worked. She was fine with not knowing things if she didn’t have to know them, that’s what made her who she was.
I took a step over to Teri’s side, and Boss blinked, her eyes disappearing until there was slight confusion, and then she looked away.
Teri reached out with a wing and touched my arm. “It’ll be fine, Warden. As fine as it can be. I’ll have plenty of time to figure it out after we save the world.”
“That’s the spirit,” The Regent said. “Now, if we’re going to meet up with the Cats, where should we?”
Boss shrugged bonelessly. “They already know we’re here. If they don’t, they’ll know soon enough. No offence, birds, but you all still smell like blood and war.”
“And you’re so innocent?” I asked.
She huffed. “I bathed before we arrived! I cannot help my natural smell of predator and bloodshed!”
“Sure you can’t,” I said. “What are we looking for?”
“Cats,” Boss said. “You do know what a cat is, right?”
“Of course,” I said. “My aunt had a few. They hated me.”
“That’s a cat for you,” Boss said. “Capricious little devils.”
She took a step forward and squinted out into the mess of swaying bluegrass. In the distance, old trees stood like sentinels against the infestation of half prairie lands, marking the exact place where the savage beasts might make a stand against the swarms of other elder animals. At least, that’s what I imagined.
The grass rippled, and then, far below knee height, a normal cat poked their head out. Then another, and another, and another, mottled greys and blacks and a tabby orange, green and blue eyes staring at us from the gathered field. I stared down at them.
“They’re cats,” I said.
“That is what I said,” Boss said.
The Regent knelt down to stare at them. “Hmm. This isn’t quite what I remember-”
And then the grass parted, and a hulking behemoth revealed itself, shaggy orange and striped fur stretched across a form with swollen musculature and teeth long enough to slip out from underneath lips. Long whiskers dropped like heavy metal sparklers, and eyes the size of my index fingers, round without slits. Scars crossed his great form, rippling out from underneath of fur that had thinned for the summer.
“Oh,” I squeaked. The crows inside of me squabbled desperately to scatter, but I held them in place. Boss hadn’t taken me here to die. She’d want to do the honor herself.
The tigerman turned and snarled at Boss, baring all of the fangs in his mouth, yellow with exposure to the air. “You!”
“Me,” Boss returned.
“You were banned from ever setting foot here again!”
I glared at the back of Boss’s head. Boss stood to her full height, straightening up for once. Bones cracked and shifted under the effort (She was quite the big beast nowadays, since her long coma) until she stood half a head taller than even the tiger. “What was that?”
“I said you were banned!” The Tiger scowled.
“I demand an audience with your ruler!” Boss boomed, her voice loud enough to flush birds out of their hiding places in the dense grass. “For I have returned! Triumphant!”
“I seem to recall you promising not to return until you’d bring your damned war back with you,” The Tiger said. “Have you truly come to doom us all?”
“I have come to ensure we fulfill the pact we took!” Boss said. “The same one that you swore to uphold!”
“That was centuries ago,” The Tiger returned. From the grass, other housecats were staring at us, dozens of them inspecting us with their tiny shaggy forms, eyes watching us with no small amount of worry. The Tiger inspected them, and took a step forward, and the anxiety and fear left the small things’ bodies.
I blinked at the dynamic. “We mean no harm to your small things,” I said. “The doom that Boss has brought was coming here regardless.”
Boss turned and scowled at me, eyes narrowing into slits. I could read the mood. She didn’t want me undercutting her.
“Oh?” The Tiger asked, turning to look at me. “And what would you know about the doom she promised?”
“Well,” I said, and took a risk. I reached up to my coat and unbuttoned it, piece by piece, well aware that this was incredibly not human to do, and exposed the scar I knew would still be there, the one thing that kept me awake at night and told me I was no longer quite human.
“It did this to me,” I said, and kept my eyes level on him as the scar across my chest became very clear. I’d never been anything except modest in life, but- if the Beasts respected strength, then they’d respect this.
The Tiger stared at my chest for a time, and I swallowed back the nervous flush that threatened to ruin the moment. Boss stared at me as well, looking mildly impressed.
“Hardly a big threat if you survived,” The Tiger muttered, but it was less hostile.
“I didn’t,” I said. “I died.”
The Tiger raised an eyebrow.
I scattered into a host of crows and settled on top of Boss’s arms and head. The Tiger returned his gaze to her.
“So you bring a dead woman with you,” The Tiger said. “Is that your precious immortal warrior?”
“She is my god slayer,” Boss said. “As I promised I would bring.”
“Your godslayer,” The Tiger said, flat. “And what god did she slay?”
“Is it not obvious?” Teri spoke up. The Tiger looked over at her, and raised an eyebrow.
“And who told you that you could speak, bird?”
“Fuck you,” Teri replied, drawing her gun. Jay took a step forward.
“She killed the Kindlord.” he spoke.
The Tiger paused, and looked down at the birds scattered across Boss. “Reform.”
I did so. He stared at me, and stared at the remnants of the lab coat that still censored my form even as I buttoned it back up.
“I’ll have to talk to the chief about this,” he said. “You understand that, yes?”
“We just want to use the forge,” Boss said. “Forge a weapon of fate. You know, like the three hundred legends of both of our peoples.”
“I hesitate to think about what abominations your kind has made of our legends,” The Tiger said, flatly. “But I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking-”
A final cat popped up to stare at us. Large, black, with angry eyes. It settled out of the grass and walked, with purpose and intelligence and no small amount of malice, to sit in front of the Tiger. It mewed once, then settled in to wash its front paws.
“That’s all the decision I need.”