Jay woke up. It took him time to realize he had woken up in pieces, many eyes staring off in many different directions, as it had been quite a long time since he’d been able to fall apart. His many crows squabbled in confusion, but nevertheless, as his flickering mind willed them, they hopped towards the central crow, bearing a dozen eyes and cancerous with the Missing King’s radiance.
It was hard to coalesce, to come back together again, but it wasn’t as hard as it ought to have been. It wasn’t hard to figure out why; it was the same reason it wasn’t as hard as it ought to have been to be scattered. For the first time in a long time, Jay didn’t quite feel the burn of his existence, the candle flickering at the heart of his being, protectively circled around the remnant of his King. The Highest Crow’s remains did not hiss or crackle at him, and so it was up to him to feel a more peculiar pain. An absence.
He rolled to his feet, and his form shifted, and he coughed, hacking up a line of blood.
His eyes closed, and he tasted it, thick and foul, rank. Not as rotten as it usually was. Then his eyes flicked back open. Jess sat across the room. Long wires- no, sinnew- no, nerves, neurons-! Littered her skin, digging underneath of the soft flesh. Jay sprang up to his feet, marveling at how light he felt without the whispers in his mind, and he tried to piece together everything that had happened.
Buzzing noises, he remembered that. Pain. Lots of it. Separation. What had…?
Isaac stirred from where he’d been sitting, watching, his eyes flicking from Jess (she was surrounded, encircled with wires, while he’d been sitting there!!! What an absolute bastard! Anything could be happening to her, and Jay had been- Jay had been rejected?) to Jay, and his mouth moved. It took a while for Jay to process the new words.
“Are you alright?” Jay finally figured out English and Isaac shifted, standing up.
“I…” and then Jay realized that Jess was gone from his brain. He’d nearly gave up on being alone ever again, and had built himself around the harshness of Jess’s death to try and keep her intact. He had kept most of it from her, he’d hoped.
It was gone.
He was just Jay again, and awkward lump of birds, unable to do much more than burn, and even now, the flickering fire had gone out. “I’m fine,” Jay said.
He realized it was true. Sitting in the very center of the life god, Jay realized that- no, he wasn’t cured. The corruption had just been put back. He’d been- separated.
Slowly, his eyes flicked back towards Jess, and he knew where the rest of her had gone. Her form twisted, twitching as the crows that made up her body received… whatever it was. The neural fibers throbbed and thrummed softly.
Jay took another step forward, and Isaac stepped in front of her. “What’re you doing?” The scientist asked.
“Checking to make sure she’s alright.”
“She’s fine,” Isaac replied.
“How do you know?” Jay returned. He didn’t trust the Kind Lord anymore than he trusted any of the other flesh horrors he’d fought since he’d been Kindled.
“Because I trust the other Jess to have done her math correctly,” Isaac said.
Something about that made Jay’s crows churn uncomfortable. “Math correctly in what?”
Isaac tilted his head to the side. “This. This entire plan.”
Jay let his hand slide down towards his gun, just to watch Isaac flinch. “I don’t care much for this plan of yours. It’s been vague from the start.”
“Then why are you here?” Isaac challenged.
“Because Jess believed in you more than I did,” Jay returned. “And there’s no Jess left inside of me, so you’d better start talking about this plan.”
“Fine,” Isaac said. “Do you want the sum or the brief?”
“Pretend I’m stupid,” Jay said. “I’m used to it by now.”
“Humanity achieved an early dominance over the Lords. The Lords saw this as a solved system, and began to depart to allow us to create our own Lord, and sustain ourselves without their gaze.” Isaac said.
“What does that mean?” Jay asked.
“That means that there weren’t any Lords left to sustain the world. It was going to fade, collapse, cease existing.”
“So you killed everyone?” Jay pried.
“No,” Isaac said. “We killed everyone to keep the Watcher here. If the Watcher remains watching, the world’s intact. Jess is the one who had the plan to make a Lord.”
Jay gestured woodenly at the Lord they sat in. Dripping flesh, a distantly pounding heart. “Seems like we’ve got a lord here, no? Can’t we use this one?”
“That’s the plan right now,” Isaac confirmed.
“So why is she still there,” Jay said, taking a step to the right to look over Isaac’s shoulder. “Shouldn’t she be…. out?”
“I don’t know, Hero,” Isaac said. Jay flinched, his feathers ruffling. “You don’t like that word?” Isaac asked.
Jay had never liked Isaac to begin with. Jess was more than enough for him to keep up with. “I don’t get you,” he replied.
“What’s there to understand?” The sigil kissed man asked, running fingers lazily across the markings. As they shifted across his skin, one moved across the surface of his eyes, lighting up the entire orb in much the same way Jay knew his eyes lit up when the flames of corruption were too high.
Jay shifted, feeling the weight of his gun on his back, a reassuring presence when Jess was gone. He’d gotten used to being alone, but here, at the very heart of things, where the Importance hung in the air like a physical body from a noose. “Who you are.”
“I’m Isaac,” he said, as if that explained everything. Jay glared at him, and he held his hands up disarmingly. “Warden, and last human scientist in USEC’s command.”
“Why didn’t you end up like the others?” Jay interrogated.
“Jess,” Isaac returned. He went back to sitting down, and Jay walked forward until he held up a hand again. “Look, I get it,” he said. “You’re used to a war, and I look like the people you fought against, and I have their history too.”
“Why didn’t you end up like a Queen’s Guard?” Jay cut in with his actual question.
“It’s not that interesting of a story,” Isaac said, looking towards Jess.
Jay looked as well. Jess’s brow now dripped with sweat, her mouth gradually falling open. Suspicion colored the Crow’s thoughts.
“Tell it,” Jay grunted out.
“Jess is why,” Isaac said. “I worked with her, very closely, during the end of it all. I watched, piece by piece, as she grew more and more suspicious of everyone else involved with the project. Then came the assassinations and-”
“Wait assassinations?” Jay asked, confused. His head tilted slightly to this side, and he clicked his beak.
“Yes,” Isaac said. “There were a great many of them. The original team for these projects were massive, consisting of anyone who remotely qualified; everyone was trying to think of something. With the Kind Lord leaving, birth rates had been dropping. With the Bystander gone, scientific interest dropped. Those Lords; living relies on their presence, in many ways. Things particular to the human experience, notions of expansion, curiosity, narrative, human exclusivity; they were all dissolving.”
“What was left?” Jay asked.
“Death,” Isaac rolled his shoulders. “And all those people who had been brought in? They lost faith in the project. As the proposed suggestions grew more and more extreme, they leaked details of it to the world. By the end of it, very few people actually believed in us.”
“They believed in you enough to get Jess to the Kind Lord,” Jay said, gesturing at the arena they stayed in.
“Ha,” Isaac shrugged again. This time Jay heard something pop in his joints. “Jess was always the best of us, you know. Always so devoted, thinking solutions out of problems we thought were intractable. We’d thought we’d never be able to make our own god; she decided to hijack one of those ones who were leaving, and make our god out of its heart. We thought we’d never finish in time, she suggested suspending time for as long as it took.”
His eyes flicked towards Jess. A low wail had started to build in her throat.
“What’s wrong?” Jay asked, staring at the biological interface.
“I suspect she’s having her memories fixed up,” Isaac said, his voice sounding a bit low.
“Fixed?” Jay asked.
“You said she was strewn between the two of you,” Isaac said. “She’s getting them all, and maybe everything in the system.”
“Including the bitch?” Jay asked.
Isaac’s jaw worked until it popped, and for once, he looked concerned at the altar. “Would she have…? Yes… That does sound like something she’d do.”
Jay lifted his gun, and Isaac surged to his feet. “What are you-”
“I don’t like being tricked,” The Outcast said. “Even if Doctor Williams is doing it. Jess didn’t sign up for that.”
“We’re no- Sto- IMMOVA-”
Isaac dove for cover all at once, his sigils flashing as he failed to get out of his piece of the Command Tongue in time.
Jay opened fire on the Kindlord with his gun.
“No sacrifices,” Jay spat, watching flecks of fluid drip from the place he’d shot. The fey guards with them raised their rifles and aimed. Jay waved them off, glaring at the heart of the fallen god. He could taste it, something deep inside of him, some hidden knowledge, purged from the original context from the Kind Lord, that he’d stolen from Jess’s depths.
No more sacrifices. Jay would not have another person die for him.
I cracked open eyes that ached, a throbbing pain like a fishhook between both of them, the stem disappearing somewhere into my brain. Things were buzzing, hissing. Something dripped onto my skin, thick and viscous, and I cracked open my eyes just in time for something to drip around the edge. I stumbled, nearly losing my balance on top of the podium.
“Jess?” came a rough voice.
It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the interior of the Kind Lord. Thoughts were scrambled running over top of one another. I felt memories like spiders, tiny bladed legs hooking into the folds of my brain, and visions swam as my form struggled to remain intact.
Like puzzle pieces, my mind slowly flipped into place. Memories trickled, interwove, felt correct, felt right.
I stood, and Jay raced to my side. I smelled gunpowder, and turned.
The Heart of the Kindlord, glorious and incandescent in suicidal ecstasy lay riddled with bullet holes, and it bled red and blue, mixing together but refusing to form purple. From the dozens of camera eyes ran long tears of cleaning fluids.
“You shot it?” I asked, working my jaw for the first time in what felt like forever. Old and new memories waged war with one another. Jess. Jessica. Jessica Williams. Doctor. Doctor Williams.
The First Mage of USEC. The Last Hope for ManKind. The Spare. The Warden. The First Crow. The Morrigan. Names and titles, all thrown together with all of the care of an angry child. I could sift through it for the rest of my life, and yet-
I looked down at Jay, and the newer memories surged forth. Old ones begged for supremacy, for a chance at the light, but their pain dappled contours, the coldness, the death of emotion that had been painstakingly demanded from work so precise and dark that it could never truly see the light of day without obliterating all of the kindness of the new world held barely a candle to the brief pleasures that I, Jess, The Morrigan, The Resurrected experienced.
“Jay?” I asked. My voice felt wooden, ill used, but my throat hurt.
“You were screaming,” Jay said. Isaac pulled himself off of the ground (how had he got there?) and rubbed at a cut across his jaw. His gleaming golden First Word tattoos were etched in blood, dripping sticky crimson around the sides.
“You punched me,” Isaac accused. “And shot the Kindlord.”
“Not in that order,” Jay replied.
“Oh,” I said, sounding very small in the moment. The memories continued to flicker and fidget. The Old Mage, the one that had settled in the mainframe of an ancient machine for far too long, thrashed and begged for dominance.
The Morrigan looked down at her, and the First Memories twinkled with all the rage and passion that it took to sustain an entire civilization for thousands of years. Across space and time and the weight of experience, Agent Zack reached out to a nest of infants and offered kindness at the end of all things, and the Old Mage acquiesced.
“You alright?” Jay asked, reaching over. His hand squeezed my shoulder, and I leaned into the touch. The fear and dread that’d been hanging hard over my shoulders dripped, fell away like water.
“What’d you learn?” Isaac asked.
“The other Jess is dead,” I said, gesturing vaguely towards the machine. The Other Jess screamed incoherently in my head, but I had already learned from her how to work a scalpel, and piece by piece as she left bleeding rends in the holes in my head, the Morrigan struck, pinning her in place. “Is dying.”
Isaac flinched, looking back at Jay. I tilted my head to the side.
“S-so,” Isaac stuttered. “Was it worth it?”
I blinked. Thoughts clashed. “I can run the systems from here,” I offered. “There’s still enough energy left over.”
“Good,” Jay said.
“That’s the weapon, and the rite site prepared,” Isaac said. “All’s ready for the ritual.”
I flicked my eyes ahead, and then through the lingering connection the Kind Lord’s body. Like fractals I saw the world through thousands of eyes.
“Good,” I said through my mouth instead of through the millions of dead speakers. It was an effort to keep myself from running into the great empty expanses of the dead god’s mind, cavernous and seductive.
In the far distance I could hear them coming, footsteps like thundering drums, the last great legion of the last war that might ever be fought on the planet Earth.
And at their helm, Bismarck sat.
The last warlord.