Tane knelt down and gently picked up one of my crows and put them next to the others, and then ferried them all together. “Come on. You have to be back together. We don’t need a flock right now, we need you.”
I didn’t want to be me. Being me was painful, being me meant listening to that again. Being me meant-
Jay knelt down and gently took my flock into his arms. He whispered sweet half words until slowly I came back together under his guidance, and I blinked my mostly human eyes.
“Impact,” The Regent said, sweeping into the bunker. “There’s only one thing they could be talking about. There’s only one chain of events.” The Regent peered at me. “Jess,” She said, smoothly. “How did you kill the Kind Lord?”
As much as we wanted it to, the answer didn’t magically come around. I didn’t regain everything all at once, and we weren’t suddenly sure of ourselves. We were still refugees on a suicide mission, but we had a goal.
“North,” I said.
“Kentucky,” The Regent said. She sat in our car, a radio in her hands, resting against Boss’s side. She still hadn’t woken up, but I could see her chest slowly moving up and down. She still smelled of blood and infection, but now she smelled faintly of medicine, not that we had too terribly much of that.
“Kentucky,” I repeated..
“The Kind Lord touched down over the mountains there,” The Regent said. “A sickening sight. I was on one of the Morrigan’s movements there, after we helped clear out the worst of the monsters.”
“One of my Kindlers was there,” The Regent corrected, shaking her head. “Thon. Thon was there.” She looked distant, tracing through the memories that had been donated to her over the years. “Beautiful country. The forests are only broken by streaks of blue grass, and the hills whistle in the morning breezes and-”
I tuned her out, not because I wanted to, but because I saw Jay staring at me from the corner of my eye. When I met his eyes, he looked away.
“That was who you took my name from,” Jay said.
“It was,” I said.
“You can take it back if you want,” he said. “Now that you know what happened to him. He followed your orders all those years. It-”
“It’s yours now,” I said. “Jay would’ve been happy to give it to someone who kept me safe. He used to do that in school, you know.”
“School,” The Regent said, laughing. “What a novel idea. Perhaps, when this is over, we should build a school, Tane.”
Tane shook her head. “That’s not, that’s not really how we learn.”
“It could be,” The Regent said. “Imagine, having enough Crows that we could afford to let them learn things instead of just giving it to them. It’d clear up so many of our problems with creativity,” she trailed off, dreamily. Her feathers ruffled on her features, and I ran fingertips over my own bare skin. It was dusky, half grey like the Morrigan’s had been.
She was inside of me now. Her memories refused to bubble up, dealing with whatever corruption had taken ahold of me. It was, it was for the best that happened. I didn’t know what I would do with her there, able to see all of my flaws. Able to see how little I could deal with this.
“North,” Jay said, sighing. “Looks like we’re going to meet Boss’s family after all,”
I stared at the wounded Beast in the car and swallowed a few times. The Regent held up a hand and barked into the radio.
“Refinery A, this is the Regent, how is our fuel doing?”
“We won’t have enough for a return trip, Roger.” Refinery A reported, voice distorted by the signal.
“We have everything important onboard,” The Regent replied. “We can return after we’ve saved the world again.”
“Roger that,” the radio said, snarled with static.
“You have that much faith in me?” I asked.
“I do,” The Regent said. Her eyes closed and she leaned back, setting up into a position mildly more comfortable. “You have the sum and total of many of the best Crows I’ve ever met inside of you.”
I stared at her eyelids and looked away.
The Morrigan was gone. I was all that was left. If I was being honest… I hadn’t processed the scale of death that the Crows had gone through while I’d been dead. Trying to think of the time inbetween just filled my head with an awful roaring static and a sensation of fire and acid. I still felt lesser after the experience.
Despite myself, my eyes fell on Jay. He’d gone through the same thing; had been going through the same thing since the fall of the King. He’d gone through it without support, walking from place to place, cut from the fold.
He kept his eyes ahead while driving and didn’t look at me. He probably hated me.
That was unlikely, but I knew he did. I ran my tongue over my teeth a few times. They were as I remembered them, but still off. I knew it was going to be off for the rest of my life, that I was now just an intelligence piloting a mass of willing birds, a fascimile of my old form, a thin anomalous skin that only resembles who I used to be, but it hadn’t sunk in yet just how much had changed.
“You’ll figure it out,” The Regent said, her eyes opening again. “We made it this far. There’s a story being told about us by the Watcher. He’s greedily awaiting an ending to this madness. He wants to be freed, Jess, and he wants revenge.”
“I was part of the team that caged him in the first place,” I reminded her, though I didn’t know the details beyond brief flashes. I’d seen something in my death, felt his immense mind against my own. “It’s hardly revenge.”
“It’ll have to do,” The Regent said. “Too many people have died for it to go any other way, you understand. This is the end, one way or another.”
“Don’t let her talk like that,” Jay said.
“Oh?” The Regent asked. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s not predetermined,” Jay said. “This may be a novel, we may be trapped in a grand twisting art piece by some immaculate audience, waiting on every word and sentence like some ludicrous voyeurs, but it’s being written as it’s happening. We are the story, and we are in control,” he said.
The Regent blinked. “That being said-”
“We are in the cosmic grasp of a massively hostile entity intent on creating art,” he interrupted. “But more importantly, he’s bored. What makes more sense? Complete control for thousands of years? Or free will among his playthings so that they could conjure forth something to entertain him? He doesn’t create for the substance of it, he creates because there’s a vacuous void inside of him that needs filling.”
“I wasn’t aware you were versed in cosmic theory,” The Regent said.
“There’s bits of Jess inside of me,” Jay said, dismissively. “And the King was aware of this as well. I’m sure you knew that.”
Tane shuffled uncomfortably. “All this talk of Lords makes me nervous. Did you learn about this after we split off?”
“I did,” The Regent said. “I split you off of me specifically so that you wouldn’t be corrupted by it. I’d hoped that…” She shook her head. “I hoped that I might die off after this mess was over, and you would be able to live your own life.”
“You ran out of time,” I said. I knew how that felt.
“If I’d had another year, maybe two, the King would not have been forced to go out without his weapon,” The Regent said. “Prin would still be alive as well… the King’s Court, my loyal researchers, they would still be here.”
“I ran out of time as well,” I said. I looked out the window, at the crumbling urban landscapes around me. They seemed to be decaying faster and faster as we neared the north, and the sunset grew darker and deeper and more complex as well. I stared at that for a time, so it wasn’t until I saw Jay shifting that I realized the Regent was staring at me.
“You did?” She asked.
“I did,” I said. “I’m the reason the world ended,” and when I said it, I realized I knew it was true, and that hurt more than I thought it would. “I ran out of time on my project,” I gestured vaguely at the world around me. “This is what resulted. The world ending.”
“Then you’re responsible for our creation,” The Regent said. “Good came from that.”
“It did,” I agreed. “It was still my fault. My mistake- it wasn’t a mistake,” I laughed, miserably. “There just wasn’t enough time.”
“We’ll catch Bismarck this time,” The Regent said. “We will.”
“When’d you become an optimist?” Tane asked.
“Since I sent the Morrigan off to save Jay and the Warden,” The Regent said. “I had to pick up the slack on her optimism.” She crossed her arms over her feathered chest and stretched back, resting her head on Boss’s uninjured hip. “That was my idea.”
“Thank you,” Jay said. “You shouldn’t’ve had to do that.”
“Bismarck is,” I said, then trailed off, because I didn’t know what to say. What could I say? “She’s-”
“She’s the protagonist,” The Regent finished. “I listened to the recordings,” she clarified. “I had every building in the city rigged up with them.”
“What about privacy?” Tane asked, cross.
“Privacy is secondary to safety in war,” The Regent justified. Having come from a surveillance state, I disagreed.
“Did you bring your inquisitors?” I asked.
“They make up just under a third of our fighting forces,” The Regent said. “Though they’ve had cause to question me since we left the city we were sworn to protect. I left a token force behind to protect the tree, of course.”
I sighed. “I just-”
The radio sparked to life, preventing me from incriminating myself. I’d been about to speak on Bismarck again. I frowned.
“We’ve got action up ahead, Regent.” Sweat started to bead on the back of my neck, and I sank lower in the car. I could feel pressure against my chest.
“Arm yourself,” The Regent said. “What’s the situation?”
“Not sure. It looks like Bismarck’s tank beetles are engaging with something in the tree line. Whoever’s on the other side’s using military tactics, might be another Crow group.”
“Warden?” The Regent asked. “Thoughts?”
“Thoughts?” I squawked, and realized it was a true squawk. Color burned against my cheeks.
“Yes,” The Regent said, clicking her voice off of the radio so we could converse in private. “There’s not a lot of us left. Do we hide it out and conserve our forces, or should we help whatever side’s there out?”
I swallowed, and realized Tane was watching me as well. I panicked for a second, heart in my throat, then grabbed the radio, clicking it on.
“How many Fey?” I asked. “Is this the full bulk of her troops?”
“Looks like just a couple hundred Fey. There’s no sign of Bismarck; I don’t think she’s even near here.”
She was carrying precious cargo. It probably wasn’t nearly as bullet proof as she was. She wouldn’t be near the frontline at all, and she wouldn’t trust the box with anyone else, not after spending the better part of several thousand years looking for it.
She’d been looking for a god- how many times had she passed the building my brother looked in, scouring the country looking for a hidden god? When it was just a box?
I’d’ve laughed if it wasn’t so bad.
“How’s our munitions looking?” I asked.
“We have enough for this and enough bullets for every Fey that went across the Capital, and then some,” came the retort.
I swallowed, looking at the others. “Engage. They won’t be expecting an attack from behind.”
“Roger.” The radio clicked off, and then there was a hellish screech from all of the other radios, communicating on all channels. “ENGAGE!”
The Regent stared at me for a moment. “Quick to violence,” She said, almost approvingly.
“Every Fey we kill now is a Fey she won’t have,” I said.
“Keep yourself down,” The Regent said. “And scatter. We don’t want them to know you survived. We killed off both of Bismarck’s specialists, all she has left is brute force. We don’t want her getting smart on us as well.”
I scattered almost instantly, and my vision switched back twelve fold, making my head swim. Jay’s fingers pressed hard enough into the steering wheel to depress the aluminum the Crows had carved it out of, and then he turned at the edge of a hill and parked the car.
“Guard,” he barked, looking over at the Regent.
Tane nodded. “I’ll be needed on the frontlines with Quen. And Teri for that matter,” she shook her head. “You’ll be fine without me, right?”
I cawed in response. It was easier to be a flock of birds.
“Good.” She scattered, leaving the four of us alone. The Regent reached into the car, and with a few clicks, soon had a rifle assembled in front of her. Jay did the same, and we sat at the edge of the hill.
Then an explosion, and the distant roar of Command Tongue (Devouring Light) and a tree exploded, sending a plume of smoke and fire up where we could see it. I swallowed uncomfortably through many throats, and the tiny birds that made up my swarm shuffled uncomfortably. I could see, in what memories they had that weren’t taken up by me, their own memories of hatcheries buffeted by fire and distant explosions and eggs that would never hatch.
At least I wasn’t alone in that fear.