The worms came the next day. Isaac took a look at our crowd, his gaze lingering on Jay, and shook his head. “We should split up. If we’re attacked…” He trailed off.
“You’re the important one,” I said. “You know how to do the rite.”
Isaac laughed. “Hearing that from you would mean a lot more if I knew you were the same as you used to be.” He shrugged, a limp half effort that ended with him shaking his head. “I’ll stick with the Admiral, thank you.”
“I’ll go as well,” Thorn stepped forward. Isaac stared at the bulk of monstrous flesh, and sighed, shoulders falling.
“I couldn’t ask for better protection. Jess? Stay safe.”
“I have everyone here I could want,” I said. At my side, Boss sat, as did Tane, and Jay.
“Move out!” Isaac barked out in order. He lined up for a worm, large, heavily armored. They all were this time, done up in a dozen colors. I slid into the crevice of the worm, jammed pack. This time it reminded me more of the cryo-stasis I’d been thrown out of, and the dozens of the dead who hadn’t been quite so lucky. Two fey piled in with us, Boss taking up an entire chamber and Jay slid into mine. This close, I could feel the memory of our unison, the complex of our minds, and remembered how it tasted.
The worm shut, sealing us off. The air was humid and wet.
Silence, and then movement.
“What are you going to do after this is over?” Jay asked.
I didn’t answer. Not for a while.
“One day, I will devour Jess,” Boss noted.
“Preferably not before the war is over,” Jay returned. There was hostility there. I elbowed Jay, and he rolled his eyes, clicking his beak.
“Before that,” I said.
“Is she serious?” One of the fey asked. I turned, started, and stared at where the bug-man stood. I’d… I’d forgotten that the Admiral’s brood was unchained.
“Completely,” Boss said. “On the eve of the warden’s ascension, I shall devour her fully and finish my quest to eat the gods.”
“She’s just like this,” I said. “I think it might be a metaphor.”
Boss shot me a dark look. Clearly she didn’t appreciate that.
“I’m glad she’s on our side?” The fey asked, elbowing his companion. She stretched as little she could in the tight confines of the worm’s body.
“It’ll be fine,” she said. “The Admiral hasn’t led us wrong yet.”
“How long have you been serving?” I asked.
“Two decades,” the woman replied. I could see the fey written into her bones, and she passed as a normal drone except for the fact that she could fidget. It did good for humanizing her, making her look more like a friendly. “I was captured from Bismarck’s northern front two decades ago.”
“He’s been fighting her for longer than we have,” I said.
“We’ve been fighting all the fey for longer than you have,” the woman corrected.
“Don’t you get tired?” Jay asked.
She closed her eyes. “This body’s made for tireless actions. When we were, changed…” She frowned.
“Do you remember who you used to be?” I asked.
“No,” they both replied.
The woman continued. “Not at all. The process destroys those things. When the parasite devours your brain and grapples with higher functions…”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, automatically, then winced. “I’m sorry, that was thoughtless.”
The man looked amused. The woman didn’t so much. “You can apologize by winning the war,” She said, pointedly. “This is your fault.”
Jay ruffled his feathers and glared at her.
“It is,” The woman returned. “The bird next to you is the entire reason the world’s like this.”
I grimaced, looking away into the darkness of the cavity.
“But no, I don’t regret being made,” the insect woman said. “My mind is made for battle now. It’s not as brittle or delicate as it used to be, and yet, the Admiral’s decision to unchain us is equally important.”
“It’s a gift,” The man said, simply.
Boss cast a steady gaze, her eyes gleaming with an internal light that made her look demonic or angelic, one or the other. “The tactical benefits are obvious.”
“Oh?” I asked.
“Bismark’s fey are constrained by a single mind,” Boss said. “It makes them weak, individually.”
“Oh,” Jay said. “Whatever group she’s not focusing on will have slower reactions.”
I paused, thinking back on the war we’d come from. Had we figured it out? I couldn’t think about the battle without hearing the roar of guns and explosions, and thinking about the pressure on my chest and the horror of seeing Bismarck crawling unscathed through everything we threw at her. I shuddered. Jay draped an arm over my shoulder.
“We shoot and move better as a squad than the hordes do,” the woman said. “But there are not infinite of us, and we won’t do the suicide plays that Bismarck has.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Ah,” she said, laughing. “I’m a tactician.” She bowed her head. “Rebecca. This is Anthony.”
There it was, I’d never been a tactician. An advisor at most. To be protected and not to fight. I felt guilt about it. I didn’t want to think about how many Crows died just so Bismarck would take a little longer to get to me personally.
That we’d failed there made their lives seem wasted in comparison. I winced.
Jay twisted, putting an arm on my shoulder. Boss looked unimpressed.
I glared at her.
Rebecca sighed. “It’ll be nice to have to worry about what comes after,” She said, elbowing Anthony.
Anthony’s insectoid features shifted. “It’ll be a whole new world out there.”
“Yeah,” Jay said. His feathers puffed up at the thought. “That’ll be a strange one, not having to worry about genocidal warlord bugs or whatever else is out there.”
What was the end? I didn’t know. I still had the capacity to complete the mission. The tools were all there, the pieces were still in working order, so I had the choice. Did I save the new world, or the old world?
And it was a stupid consideration because I didn’t know how the device had been made or the mission set up. I’d obliterated that out of my head, torn it out and thrown it to the Bystander. The decision was a blind one, if I wanted to save humanity.
It ate at me. Humanity had died thousands of years ago, but they only remained dead if I let them stay that way. To give up on them would be to personally bear the responsibility for all of their deaths, a genocide on a scale that had never been seen before.
Eight billion lives hung in the balance, versus how many lives were in the new world. If I chose the eight billion, I’d see the new world just as dead.
They were counting on me to stop this madness, and yet I didn’t know if I could make that decision. That was guilt. Guilt trickled into my muscles and made them hefty and brittle, slid into the spaces of my complex-mind, suspended in the brains of a dozen birds and made them squirm in the meta-gestalt. They didn’t like that feeling, as much as they like the complexity of running my mind.
I couldn’t blame them. I was circling instead of providing answers. I didn’t have enough information to make a decision. If only I were an action hero, able to make decisions with minimal background, able to take the world by storm, choke it with my fingers.
“Stop thinking,” Boss said. I opened my eyes. We were still in the darkness of the worm. Her eyes gleamed.
“What?” I asked.
“I can smell your guilt,” Boss said. “The mighty goddess of war does not need guilt.”
“I don’t know what that means,” I said.
“Be as a beast,” Boss suggested. “Righteous and right. Let your fists declare whether or not your cause is the right one.”
I glared at her. She returned it, unimpressed by my only having two eyes. For the hell of it, I had my form grow more, tiny crow eyes growing from the gestalt. The new eyes gave me a headache nearly instantly, so I had them diminish until they weren’t even around.
“Glad she’s on our side,” Anthony muttered. Jay laughed.
It wasn’t much longer until the worm stopped. It’d twisted softly over time until we were resting on our backs, feeling the raw sensation of it slithering and moving through the ground less like a worm and more like an immense missile. Boss dug into the side to stop from moving, and she peered down at us, and then up at us as it rotated, ignoring the needs of its passengers.
Then up and up and up, bumping past various things until with a rumble of sifting sand and rocks, the earth gave way and light dappled the side of the folds.
“That’s our stop,” Rebecca said, opening the passage with her hands. She stepped out, followed by Anthony. Boss pushed through, and then held it open for the two of us. Jay and I stepped out.
The air smelled awful. It was hideous, a wretched stale smell of rot and decay. I saw the moment where Boss inhaled it and her eyes went glossy with nostalgia. She turned, looking off into the distance. I followed her gaze.
A mile, maybe less away, the edge of the great creature that had fallen upon the earth, piercing itself across the tops of mountains rested. A sheet of old rotten skin sat covered in dust and fungal spores. It was dead, every part of me told me that it was dead and had died long ago, and yet, I watched the skin shudder.
“That’s worse than I thought it’d be,” Rebecca said.
“This is Beast territory,” Boss said. “This is my territory.” She stretched and prowled towards the edge. Ahead of us, the rest of the soldiers emerged, rippling with their uniforms.
I didn’t see the Admiral anywhere in front of me. Neither hide nor hair of the cockroach was visible, which was a good thing, this close to the active edge of the Kind Lord I didn’t want to know what could go wrong.
“Alright!” Isaac barked out in order. “Worm Squad Delta! Escort the Regent and Quen underground. They’ll be placing wards and bombs in the ground to make it harder on that hell beast chasing after us.”
“Sir!” One saluted Isaac. Isaac turned around, a flicker of discomfort on his face before he erased it like he’d erased the contours with sparkling golden ink. “We have reports of movements behind us.”
“Movements?” Isaac asked.
“Remnants of an airforce of insects, and Tanks,” the bug reported. “Are we clear to engage?”
“No,” Isaac said. “Keep the tank beetles alive. If you can get to a decent position before firing, take out the air force. The eagles aren’t going to fly to mordor today.”
I gave him a look. He returned it, mouthing the word ‘hero’s journey’.
I nodded, gritting my teeth.
“Sir yes sir!” The fey popped off a salute before relaying orders into a radio.
“Jess!” Isaac barked, marching forward. Jay joined me at his side. Isaac squinted at Jay for a moment before letting it go. There was no need for anger, not there. “You fine feathered fem.”
“Fem?” I asked.
“Females sounds clinical,” Isaac explained.
“This is incredibly important,” he said, turning to stare at the flesh before us. Despite the creature’s death, it rippled, stirring up crazed patterns of roots and snowflakes. “Do you remember anything about the Kind Lord?”
Words flowed to the top of my mind, too many to sort through at once. My fingers drifted through them and they swam away like fishes in the sea.
But I wasn’t just Jess, I was also Jay, and I was also the Morrigan, and my fingers reached out and stabbed one on my talons and withdrew it, dragging it back out.
“When I was 21, I was in university for a chemistry degree,” I said.
Isaac’s face went straight to confusion. “What?”
“The Kind Lord came to me in a dream and told me that I would do a great duty for it.”
I took a step towards the mass of flesh.
“That doesn’t help us. Do you remember anything else?”
“No, it helps us,” I countered. “I’ve done something to it. All we have to do is find out what.”
“You intend on going with the expedition party,” Isaac realized, giving me an incredulous glare. “You do realize that-”
“I’ll scatter if anything happens,” I said. “Jay needs to go as well.”
I gave him a look for the first time this conversation. He had a questioning lilt to his beak. “…I remember that. Like a mouthful of stars, buzzing in your throat.”
“How did USEC let you in?” Isaac asked.
“They chose me because I was a highly intelligent scientist that had already been compromised. No need to stop me from leaking secrets if I was already in their ranks,” I said, stepping past him. “What’s the breaching team look like?”
“Breaching…” he sighed. “It’s me. I’m going with you.”
“Seems risky,” Jay said. “Putting all of our eggs in one basket.”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, birdman,” Isaac said. “We’re at the end of our risk. Behind us, Bismarck is already nipping at our heels. We need to set up, and fast, if we want even a chance of this not backfiring on us. Do you have the sword?”
“Teri’s got it,” I said. “TANE!”
Tane descended from the sky and formed next to us. Her rifle flicked together in her hands, turning from ten separate pieces to a single fluted instrument. “Yes Warden?”
She looked official, devoted, determined. I didn’t know if I liked that look on her, when I still remembered how fragile she’d felt before. But here, surrounded with soldiers, she knew what she was doing. “Can you get the scouts to set up a warning line around the perimeter?”
“My soldiers can handle that,” Isaac said.
“We’re working together,” I pointed out. “This is their strength; a flexible movable line of birds.”
His jaw clicked shut. “Yes Jess.”
“Don’t give me that,” I said. “Do you have any idea how to get inside?”
“Preferably with a gas mask,” Jay noted.
“Will that even work with your beak?” Isaac asked.
Jay’s body shifted, malleable under the skin. I thought I saw red eyes flash in the eyes of corrupted crows, the whisper of whatever knowledge they kept locked inside of themselves where it couldn’t hurt anyone, and then he looked more human. Less avian. Like someone had taken myself and shifted male.
It was uncanny to look at after observing the Crows dedication to their unison of avian and mortal. “Yes,” He said.
“That… was awful to watch,” Isaac said.
“At least you didn’t get turned into a bug,” I said.
“At least I still have all my organs,” Isaac agreed. “The Admiral bleeds hemolymph. So much of that man is unnecessary… I suppose I should be grateful to the Queen for leaving most of his mind intact.”
“Will he be joining us?”
Isaac winced. “Eventually. He’s… rather devoted to the cause of destroying Bismarck.”
“You knew he’d do this?” I asked.
“I expected it,” he replied. “I expected you to betray us as well, so… don’t do that.”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” I said, laughing.
“Good,” He said. His voice wasn’t half as cheery as mine. “Come on.”
He barked out more orders, and from the ranks, Fey assembled. The tacticians from early were busy setting up a forward base with tents, and a burly fey was setting up an armory, rifles and armor and whatever else they could need to control the point we were sitting on. We walked with him, and then past him.
Teri stumbled out of one of the last worms, the sword still attached to her back, and ambled towards us. Without even asking, she thrust the sword at me. Jay took it before it could touch my skin, his feathers shifting under an imaginary wind.
“Take this,” Teri hissed. “I don’t like how that makes me feel.”
“I don’t like it either,” Jay said. “The Regent will have a lot to answer for after this. This is not a good weapon.”
“It’s a sword,” Isaac said. “It kills people.”
“Not a big believer in good and evil?” Jess asked.
“You weren’t,” he replied. “Behaving as you would saved my life a few times out here.” A finger traced at the edge of a glowing tattoo still carved into his face. “Arming myself saved me more than I thought it would.”
“We’ve both become anathema,” I said. “USEC would-”
“Lock us up?” Isaac suggested.
“Execute us,” I finished.
“Right,” He winced. “I… yeah. After this is over, can we talk?”
“We can talk now,” I said.
“No,” he said, turning to look behind us. I wondered what he saw, and figured it was the war coming for us. “We don’t. Right now, we have to capture the Kind Lord’s corpse before Bismarck completes her journey. No time for idle chatter.”
“Boss!” I shouted.
Boss bounded over. In the distance, more Beasts approached. “Yes God-Slayer?”
Well, here was the god I killed. It was accurate at least, even if it was still breathing. “You have family in the area, right?”
“I do,” Boss said. “I have shouted out to the Elders that I have returned. Time will tell if the foul cowards will answer my call or if I will have to drag them out, bones broken and bleeding.” Her lips curled at the prospect of rabid violence.
“Isaac,” I said. “What are we going to be dealing with here?”
He shrugged. “Only you’ve been inside before.”
“And me,” Boss said.
Jay was testing the balance of the sword, deep in thought, but he spoke regardless. “You’ve been inside?” he asked.
“I was banished for it,” she said, and walked over to the edge. “It is ritual for every Beast born to take a bite of the flesh of this creature. Inside contains all the knowledge and raw power for us to destroy kill hunt and maim every creature we will ever encounter.”
“What were you banished for?” I asked.
“It grants great visions,” she said. “Of what’ll come, of what has happened. Godly creations and human vices.” Her lips curled.
“It’s a bit big,” I said.
“I despise it,” Boss said. “Whatever race made this creature was destroyed by it just as easily as man was destroyed by its spears and will be destroyed, soon if not never, by the foul thing chained in orbit.” She curled her lips back farther until her teeth were bared.
“I took a second bite, decades after the first, because I wanted answers on how the world came to be how it was.”
“What did you see?” Isaac asked.
“Jess,” Boss grinned. “Jess tearing out the heart of the god before you, laughing while blood trickled between her fingers. And The Great Kind Lord was Happy! Happy to die at last, wrenched free from the immortal prison from which is had failed again and again!”
My skin shuddered in revulsion. Isaac’s eyes flittered over to me. Teri’s too, from where she stood next to the armory, helping to get things in order. Quen and The Regent were already gone to prevent Bismarck from getting to us so quickly.
“It showed you the moment of its death?” I asked. “Why haven’t you mentioned it before?”
“And I saw the end of the world!” Boss crowed, continuing on. She was on her back legs, arms spread wide to their full extent, muscled rippling and bubbling underneath. “And I saw that it came on insectoid legs, with the heart of a dying soldier trapped in ichor and chitin! There would be a clash, and there, during the clash, I would finally achieve the glory I had been promised since I was young!”
“I thought your original name was runt,” Isaac muttered.
“My name is Boss,” she snarled, baring her teeth. Long lines of thick drool hung from her fangs, and three more eyes flittered across the surface of her skin like running ink. “And here, I shall make my legend! Pitched combat against the greatest enemy the world has ever known!”
“Good intentions and projects whose scopes run wild!” Boss said. “Here it is! So no, Warden, you will not receive my help in the Kind Lord’s Gullet. That is your domain; that is where you claimed and hunted and killed a god. You have so little need for my help that I will be a hindrance.”
“So what are you going to do?” Jay asked.
“I will rally together a war party the likes of which the world has only known in movies and ballads!” Boss roared!
All around, the fey stopped and stared at her. “Even now, Jack’s message is reaching the others. I shall prepare a great bonfire, and we shall dance the dance of the end of days and tell the stories that cling to our darkest hearts of hearts!”
“So… you’re putting together a fire,” Isaac said. All of the interest had dropped from his voice.
“Bah,” Boss dismissed. “You do not understand. You will, soon. Don’t worry. There are many lessons you have left to learn.”
She fell on all fours and moved like a wild animal, rampaging off into the distance.
“Are we sure she’s on our side?” Isaac asked.
“She wants to eat Bismarck,” I said. “Let her have this.”
Two bites of the Kind Lord’s flesh; my hands, covered in the blood. The beating heart of the great god before me.
Much as it had been in the arms of my brother for all these years. I grit my teeth. I was missing information.
Here we were, at the very end, and I was still missing something. The Crows, the Beasts, the Fey, the last human scientist of USEC yet alive, we were all here, together at last.
Bismarck was approaching.