We stopped just after midnight, when the shudders had stopped and replaced themselves with a cold numbness that stretched across my skin and down to what few feathery tufts that refused to remove themselves despite my best effort and a buzzing in the back of my head that made stringing together coherent thoughts difficult.
Tane asked if I wanted to leave the van, and I didn’t, so she threw blankets inside and told me it was fine, so I slept in the nook that Boss didn’t take up and scattered into a dozen birds who just simply couldn’t worry as well as the full Jess.
We’d had to stop to refuel. The trucks at the back of the convoy proved to be full of the full emergency oil the Capital had extracted from the offshore platforms that were still working (few of them did, but they were supplying a small city, not a nation, so it was enough) and mobile refinery equipment had been dragged along on some of the larger trucks.
“Breakfast,” Tane said, rousing me from contemplation. Jay looked up, annoyed from where he’d been staring at the horizon, sun barely crawling up by the horizon like a large pernicious insect.
A few tables had been sat up and they were covered in birds. Few were in anything remotely human, and those that were didn’t meet my eye.
Tane sat across from me, her eyes on the others, and Jay sat at my side. Quen joined me, his feathers having lost most of their sleekness. The birds were staring at us.
I felt the absences most deeply. Dean was gone. Prin, who I had barely known, who had stepped up to battle for us, was gone. The Morrigan…
She wasn’t there. I didn’t want to think that the first Crow had passed, but… it was starting to look that way.
The Regent sat next to Jay, and the eyes shifted, abruptly, to focus on her and not me. I breathed out a sigh of relief and ate the greasy meat, ravenously hungry, and crunched on hard breads until I could pretend that it was alright.
There wasn’t enough out there for that.
The Regent didn’t react even slightly to the eyes, but she met mine.
“Warden,” she said. “Good to have you back.”
I swallowed. “It’s… good to be alive,” I said, and the crows inside of me shuddered in memory. The poor things couldn’t understand the sensation of being dead. Few things would. Parts of me hadn’t returned from it, parts that I’d never be able to recall or muster up. They were just gone. Gone like Dean, and Prin. Gone.
I wondered what the funerals had been like. Without the Morrigan, how would they-
“Good,” The Regent said, bowing her great head. “They’ll be looking to you for guidance now, you know.”
I stared at her. “Why?”
“Because,” The Regent said, and Tane turned and glared at her, which didn’t seem to stop her for a second. “You’re the Morrigan now.”
It had been a long time since the Morrigan had seen a Crow suffering from the effects of the fade. It was an antiquated illness by the current time. She’d instituted hundreds of draconian punishments to prevent the spread, and seen almost her entire first batch of crows fall victim to it.
She’d given her notes to anyone who asked. Only one person had in recent memory; The Regent.
Jay sat in front of her, and scales grew out of his feathers, and he shuddered violently. He’d always been a favored child of hers. She’d done this by allowing him to live. It was her fault she could see the light drooling out of his body, rolling down his face like candle wax.
But she couldn’t force herself to her feet. Instead, she stared into his eyes and wished perhaps that she’d taken another path. It hadn’t just been the Regent who had shut her out; she’d been distant from her flock for a time far longer than even that. The weight of thousands of years kept her blind to the current day far more effectively than mere subterfuge.
It was for that reason, after all, that she had not been living in the Capital. She’d been content to be an outsider and peer inward, a spiritual leader instead of what she could’ve been.
Jay cried out, his beak rimmed with teeth, and the fade stole something else from him. She stared dimly into his eyes, and hoped she might find something there.
Another eye opened (that made half a dozen) and this one jerked, darting away from the light of the room, past the carnage hovering just outside of the window (the city was still burning, and the forest was still smouldering) across the arc of the room before settling on the Morrigan. She breathed in, taking a greedy breath, and gently took one of his hands and squeezed.
“Are you still there, Jay?”
The eye quivered, wet and dark red, the pupil an afterthought, and it remained locked onto her. The hand squeezed down in reply.
The door behind her opened. The Regent stepped through. The Morrigan didn’t need to look behind her shoulder to know it, the Regent had a particular gait.
“The others wish to know what you’re doing,” The Regent said. “If you’re not busy.”
The Morrigan squeezed Jay’s hand. “I am.”
“He’s gone,” The Regent said. “I’ve seen this a dozen times. More than that. Once they get to this stage-”
“And why have you seen this?” The Morrigan asked, her voice bitter. “I’m not blind to your experiments, Regent.”
“Of course you weren’t,” The Regent said. Her voice had lowered to a whisper. “You were the one I started it for. How quick the memory that I came from-”
“A military base to the south,” The Morrigan finished. “Where a group of like minded birds raised and taught the King everything he knew.” She still didn’t look at the Regent. “You made him, didn’t you? Do I want to know how many of your attempts ended up like this?”
“Whole cloth,” The Regent replied. “We were losing, and we needed a leader, and you-” She cut herself off.
The Morrigan squeezed Jay’s hand, but she couldn’t meet her eyes. She hadn’t been up for the war herself. She could’ve done it. She could’ve rallied them all together, but even now, decades years later, she was bone tired. She could feel it in her mind, where the passage of time had blurred everything but the most important details. She could feel the first memories burning in her mind like a brand, and the rest, petty details flecked with landmines like emotion, and her person to bear the shrapnel of stumbling into them.
She was tired.
“So you made him,” The Morrigan said. “Took the best parts of twelve different birds, and-”
“It was a bit more involved than that,” The Regent said. “But you don’t care about the details right now.” She took a step forward, and then another, and then knelt before Jay. “I’d suspected he’d taken a piece of the King with him, you understand.”
“He didn’t want to let go,” The Morrigan replied. “Surely you understand that, considering you’re still the Regent.”
“I understand that quite well,” The Regent said. “But now my pet project’s failed us and taken another life.”
Jay’s hand squeezed the Morrigan’s, and she squeezed back. “We’ve lost,” The Morrigan said.
“Have we?” The Regent said.
“The Fey left us here and took off. They got what they wanted,” The Morrigan said. “It’s only a matter of time now.”
The Regent looked down at Jay and thought. “Jay,” She said.
Jay squeezed the Morrigan’s hand.
“Jay,” The Regent repeated. “Wake up.”
He squeezed harder.
“Open your eyes,” The Regent spoke in a hiss. “Your Warden needs you.”
All of Jay’s many eyes opened, rimmed with blood. The pupils were mere after effects as the corruption sank into his bones. Mere suggestions to a dying corpse. The Regent peered down at him. “You’re still awake in there.”
“He shouldn’t be,” The Morrigan said. “It’s been long enough- I’ve seen this before, more times than you. I lost the entire first generation to this, you understand.”
“I do,” The Regent said. “But this is different.”
“Jay,” The Morrigan said. “Why are you different?”
“I should point out,” The Regent noted. “That there is one Crow who has never truly succumbed to corruption, even when exposed multiple times.” She looked up and at the Morrigan.
The Morrigan’s jaw clicked together. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“You do,” The Regent said. “Because you are the oldest crow, and you have never once succumbed. How many times were you exposed, and how many times did your brain run feverish with visions of how the world might be?”
The Morrigan shuddered and her feathers slowly raised. “It’s not worth talking about.”
“But it is,” The Regent said. “Why is Jay not going through the same symptoms as everyone else?”
“You were a product of a nest of crows,” The Regent said. “And a dying man.”
“Then,” The Morrigan said, running her thumb against the palm of Jay’s hand. “Perhaps…”
The Morrigan looked down. “We pulled him off of her corpse,” she whispered. “We only have assumptions to work with there.”
“Jay,” The Regent said. “Are you alone in there?”
The eyes flicked towards the Regent, and the red paled to an off pink. His throat worked, and his jaw opened, a gritty grainy grinding noise. “Jess,” He warked.
The Morrigan squeezed down, hard enough that her fingers ached, and met the Regent’s eyes. “If this is what you think it is, then what can we do? The corruption is still taking him from the inside.”
The Regent gave her a long level look, and then turned that contemplating face onto Jay. “The question becomes, what does Jay bring to the table? What does Jess bring to the table?”
“Bismarck killed her,” The Morrigan said.
“It doesn’t have to stay that way,” The Regent said. “The Beast reported, before her condition, that they had been in a flock together. That it was only after Jess had truly died that she had been removed from it.”
“So?” The Morrigan knew where this was going.”
“His crows have her still on them,” The Regent said.
“So she too is being corrupted.”
“She too is still alive in there,” The Regent said.
“So I’ve failed both of them,” The Morrigan muttered.
“Listen to yourself!” The Regent hissed. “Those are not the words of our immortal warlord! Those are not the words of someone who single handedly carved the corruption out of south america, who liberated the lizards of the south, who has fought side by side with USEC agents from far flung times. Those are the words of a coward.”
“I’m tired,” The Morrigan said. “And I am not the same bird who did those fantastic things. I am the bird that lost the first war, and has now lost the second war. I… I don’t know what to do here.”
“Fight,” The Regent said. “Fight for the better future. That’s what you made us all for. Those are the words that you spoke to me when you made me! And I dove into hell itself for you!”
“I wonder if I should’ve,” The Morrigan muttered, shaking her head.
“No!” The Regent hissed. “You do not get to lose hope. Not here, not now.”
“Then what?” The Morrigan asked. “We’ve lost. Half of my children are dead, and this city is destroyed. I see your precious civilization has fallen as well.”
“Bismarck seeks a god,” The Regent said. “We live without gods. We’ve always lived without gods. Humanity lived without gods. She’s a mutation of the old ways. We have to fight against her.”
“The last person who could stop her is trapped in the corpse of a crow, dying piece by piece as we speak,” The Morrigan pointed out.=m grimly. “I see the commonalities. An avenger scything through the wasteland, and right as her plans are about to come to fruition, the person who made her arrives? Those are tests. That’s the Watcher’s work; I don’t know if we can fight a god’s will, Regent.”
“You’re doubting yourself,” The Regent said.
“I don’t see why I shouldn’t,” The Morrigan sighed. She closed her eyes. She couldn’t look at her failures anymore. This was the end.
“Then we save her.” The Regent said, grimly.
“How?” The Morrigan asked.
“A human died to create you,” The Regent said. “We still owe him a debt. You still owe him.”
The Morrigan looked down at Jay, watching the pain wrack his features. The nerves misfiring inside of his body sent his bones jarring clumsily together. He still maintained his humanoid appearance through sheer force of will, or perhaps because he had for the last several years. “I suppose it’s only fair to return the favor.”
“Make the world a better place, Morrigan.”