As we walked out of the tunnels the Fey streamed in the opposite way, moving with military, but not perfect precision. Eyes flicked over to us, their faces flat of affect, but they were still curious regardless of it.
I didn’t know what they wanted, what they wanted to see, but I felt almost as if I hadn’t failed.
That was all.
When we emerged from the darkness, and our eyes adjusted to the dim lights of the building rather than the dimmer lights of the place far underground, the Fey were waiting in a patient line. A great and distant line, but a line nonetheless. I couldn’t see the end of it. Quen paused, staring at them thoughtfully.
“What’s on your mind?” Isaac asked.
“They’re not quite expendable anymore, are they?” Quen said.
“They’re people,” Isaac clarified. “Not who they once were, or what they once were, but they have enough space to think.”
“And they fight, nonetheless? Even though they have only a life to give?” Quen asked. His eyes jerked over to Jay.
Jay’s single life to give, his refusal to renew himself, and his inability to scatter effectively (lest the corruption inside of him devour his mind when he was not in full focus) made him an anomaly among the Crow fighters.
It made him far weaker, and yet, nobody had questioned his ability to protect me, only my choice in guardian.
In that regard, the Crows had more in common with the enslaved Fey than they did with these freed bugs. I’d died before I’d met more than a single other mortal.
Boss hardly counted.
The evacuation took most of the day, endless streams of soldiers flowing out, armaments and heavy things moved under the scurrying feet of shared hands. The Crows came later, fluttering out of the trees. In the distance, another explosion shook the trees, worryingly close.
My crows thundered and warbled, remembering the distant explosions from the Capital, and being moved again and again from their normal nesting grounds. They remembered being small, and there was a peculiar fondness for being large instead of weak.
I smiled despite myself, a grim little cut in the moment.
The Regent sat at my side to watch them move. In the distance, Boss lifted up heavy armaments by herself and snarled at anyone who questioned her decision. Tane led drills through her scouts, and Teri helped her teach the other crows. The Inquisitors stood at rough attention, but their feathers were unkempt, eyes lacking their normal gloss.
“What’s wrong with them?”
“I’m not infallible,” The Regent admitted. “That’s the problem.”
I nodded like I understood and gestured for her to explain.
“I killed the Morrigan,” The Regent said. “I told them the very instant I convinced her to do it, you know.” She hummed. She didn’t meet my eye.
“So they doubt you?” I asked.
“Of course,” The Regent said. “They see me as the heretic I am now, a heresy I had trained them to stamp out whenever possible.”
“I have to ask,” I looked at her. “How are you using the Command Tongue?”
“I undertook a great many rites when we were losing the war,” The Regent said. “I undertook them beforehand as well, you understand. But when we were losing, I took on far more. Enough that it tangled into the very darkness of myself. I am also tainted.”
Her eyes closed, and I thought I could smell the same corruption that was eating Jay alive. Just suppressed and lesser, buried under iron wills and controls and protections I didn’t have names for.
“Just into yourself?”
“There were others,” The Regent said. “Many others. Some of my best friends. I erased their names from the wall myself.”
“How? Surely someone noticed they went missing.”
“They were hidden before we used Atlanta as our final stand,” The Regent said. “We had known about the Fey threat for a while, you know. They’ve existed for a thousand years, but we did nothing to curb them.”
I leaned back, took a few breaths, and looked up at the clear blue sky overhead. It seemed ill fitting to have it that beautiful.
“That’s the problem with Crows, really,” The Regent said. “We’re all immortal, but we’re so risk averse. It takes so much to get us involved with things that could be dangerous, because we’re all terrified of everything. It took decades for the Crows to come together for war.” She gestured at her soldiers. “I told them they were doing the right course, and now they understand that there are different kinds of right courses.”
She hummed, but her feathers shook. For once, I thought she might be having difficulty holding herself together.
“Do you regret it?”
“Yes,” she replied, instantly. “I have fed all of my friends into this stupid war. Every last one of them, with eyes full of knowledge and science, beaks wet with words, ideas. They’ll never return, no matter what I do, and they were all burned in the furnace to make bigger and better weapons. I lost most of them when we had to make the King too early. I lost the rest to normal forces. Disgust, hatred. Fear. They flew off to let the power inside of themselves devour their minds.”
“I used to think that humans were more powerful because they could hold those words in their heads without being devoured. Now I’m starting to see they’re all the same. It wasn’t just the corruption doing it, it was power itself, power to change, power to abuse the fabric of reality, and the ability to have power over others.”
I paused. “What do you mean?”
“What do you think Crow society is?” The Regent asked.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
The Regent gestured at the gathered Crows. “This is it. All of it. All of it that we know of. We never had real cities, we had communes, we had work groups, we had small factions. You had societies, great nations, hierarchies that we never had. You had the burden of laws upon yourself, you had rules to follow.” Her eyes opened, and they were wet. “I wanted that. I want that.”
I slid next to her and put an arm on her shoulder. She leaned in, feathers ruffling.
“I wanted that for them,” The Regent muttered. “Imagine how much we could do as a society, if we accepted risk. If we did something for someone other than ourselves, if we weren’t so terrified of death.”
“We can build it,” I said.
“I’ve tried,” The Regent said. “My little Capital is the biggest we had, and even with how small it was the Morrigan still disagreed with me. She was, perhaps, my last friend from before.”
A tear rolled down her beak. How very human.
“She’s not gone,” I said.
The Regent gave me a glare. “You’re not who she was.”
“I could be,” I said. “After this is over. She gave me her marksmanship. Perhaps there’s more there.”
“I don’t want you to be who she was,” The Regent said. “There’s more to you than just her. There should be more than she was. I don’t want us to cling to a past we never belonged to, out of duty or love or what have you. I want us to be more.”
I looked off at her Inquisitors, still rough and still lost.
“And we promise ourselves it’ll be different after the war,” The Regent said. “But I don’t know how different it should be. The world has never known a society of immortals. Do we devolve into packs like the Beasts? Do we become slave hoards like the Fey? We are somehow in between, and we pretend we are greater for it when we are nothing less than pathetic for it.”
“We can choose what we want to become,” I said.
“On what authority?” The Regent asked. “We are a people of perfect freedoms. We are all islands; what great works can we create that can’t already be done? This war, this stupid war that’s taken everything I’ve ever cared about is the closest we’ve ever come to having something worthwhile, to have something beyond the individual, and it’s a horrible horrible thing.”
I was silent then, because for all my knowledge and my experience, none of it had told me how to build society. None of it had told me how to help her. So I reached over instead, grabbed her shoulder and squeezed. She turned, her beak clicking together, and she sighed.
“I miss the Morrigan,” The Regent said. “She was… perhaps, the one that understood. I see great cities and I see the shacks we build on top of them. I want to be something other than parasites, Jess. We’ve had thousands of years, and all we’ve done is squat on top of it. The world should be a beautiful utopia and we’ve failed again and again.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be,” The Regent said. She sighed. “I am a great deal older than you, and here I am expecting that you’ll have magically derived the means to fix the problems I have struggled with my entire life.”
“And your inquisitors?” I asked, bringing the conversation back around. I didn’t know how to help her. The crows inside of me shifted uneasily. This was an emotion they had not been prepared to experience. Doubt, self loathing, curiosity and shame.
“They’re starting to see the cracks in my grand design,” The Regent said. “In that I am the monster they have been trained to fight against, and we are allying with the very same creatures we were fighting. I told them that morality was simple.”
She drew a hand over her eyes and leaned back. “I’ve failed.”
“So you have,” I said. She startled, looking up at me. “You’re giving up on your dreams. So you’re failing.”
I offered her my hand, and she took it. I didn’t know what I was saying either, but it felt more right. I didn’t like seeing her sad, even if she was- was who she was. “But we can build it. Together. Later.”
“It didn’t work last time,” The Regent pointed out.
“I’m not the Morrigan,” I said.
She paused again, and her eyes moved over me like she’d never seen me before. “For a moment, you sounded like her.”
“But I’m not. I don’t have your history with her. You can start again.” I shook my head. “But you have to play it straight.”
The Regent’s feathers pinned themselves against her body, making her profile smaller.
“I’ll be expecting you to tell everyone what you’ve done,” I said. “If you want to be apart of that world.”
“The Morrigan let my crimes go unpunished,” The Regent noted. “How fitting her replacement would drag me into the light.”
“Impartial justice is something that only civilization provides,” I said. “In anarchy, you can only go to trial by your close peers.”
“I accept,” The Regent said.
I released her shoulder and stood there for a moment. Anxiety burned through my stomach, sending the birds that my mind hovered like a parasite upon nervously shifting. Here I was, making decisions for the future of Crow-kind. Based entirely off of some mere supposition that we’d win, and that there’d be a world left behind. The promises had never burned so hollow.
They felt like a candle, only kept alive by the faintest whisper of spent wax. Here we were on the edge, and I felt like we could barely keep the room lit, let alone the outside world.
The Regent started to leave, and then, a prompt and needed distraction;
The front doors ripped open, and Boss prowled through. Behind her, following with all the grace and frustration of a sibling, Thorn strode in, followed by his procession of beast-monsters.
She flashed me a wide grin, rolled her many eyes at the Regent. “This is the face of your goddess of the apocalypse!” She crowed, gesturing at me. I stared at her.
I felt the eyes of the monsters crawl across my body. Some showed a faint sense of reverence. Most showed nothing but doubt.
Boss turned and snarled at them and they straightened up, snapping to attention, and perhaps belief.
“Boss, what is the meaning of this?” Isaac asked, poking his head in from the other room. “We’re busy and-”
Boss picked up a massive piece of equipment and started to walk out.
“Oh,” Isaac said. “You’re helping.”
She snorted. “You’ll be-” a pause so she could move the piece out into the open with the others, while the Fey watched with something like horror, since it had previously taken six of their number to move it, “-moving into my territory.”
“My territory,” Thorn corrected.
“I’ll be along with you,” Boss said, ignoring her brother again. “It is too dangerous for mindless birds to just stumble into.”
I took her words at face value. After all, she’d been right about quite a lot of other things- even if she’d been wrong about how to face them. Her plans for the war came to mind. “Isaac?”
“I- I guess…?” Isaac frowned. “Will any of those dangers be in the ground?”
“I would not try to burrow underneath it,” Thorn said. “In fact,” He turned and barked out a series of gutteral words. I didn’t speak that language, whatever it was, but his troupe snapped to attention.
Boss snorted, and gave me a look. “He’s sending a member to each of the worms. Hope they’ve got room for them.”
“Is this everyone?” Isaac asked.
“No,” Thorn said. “This is just who I have with me. There are a number left behind at our camp that are on their way.”
“You’re helping us after all?” I asked.
Thorn shot a glare at Boss, who merely returned the look without a hint of aggression, and he snorted dismissively. “I have business at home.”
The great beasts emerged and moved equipment, great guns and armaments, and then there were only the biggest guns, the sort of things that had never seen use in the old world, new aged variants of time honored classics, and now, cleansed of rot and decay, might see use once more.