We sat on that hill for a long moment, staring at each other, face to face, and then he stepped forward, ignoring the clicking over almost a hundred guns (we had lost many in the battle for the Capital) and embraced me.
He squeezed, and I wondered at the touch of actually human hands, and I was close enough to feel the breath conjured from his actually human lungs, and then he released me. He laughed into my ear. “Please tell them not to shoot me.”
I held up a hand to stop them, and then lowered it to get them to lower their arms. Behind Isaac, behind the man out of time, a few of the uniformed Fey were meandering up the hill. Their expressions weren’t quite as blank as they ought to be, and a few sat down to rest. I stared at them almost as much as I stared at Isaac.
“So you threw your lot in with the Crows? I would’ve thought-”
“Thought what?” I asked.
“Tell me the specifics of project Undying Talos,” Isaac replied.
I must’ve looked clueless, though there was this pained flash from the back of my head, like something was snapping, roaring twisting, and confusion donned his features.
“Good afternoon, Isaac,” The Regent said, bowing politely. “It’s good to see you in good health.”
“Did you really bring them all here?” Isaac asked, and Teri stepped out of the crowd and bowed, and a number of other Crows spoke up and waved. I stared at them all.
“I did,” I said. “It’s Bismarck, she’s-”
“I know,” Isaac said. “You’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“I do?” I asked, my voice weak.
“You do,” Isaac said, hand on my shoulder. Then he took a step back. “I threw my lot in with a few others. You should meet them. They’ll want to talk to you.”
“The other Fey factions,” The Regent muttered. Jay’s gun was still in his hand, and I stared at him. Unlike many of the others (Quen excluded, he stood in much the same way) he was still ready to raise the gun and pull the trigger in a heartbeat if need be.
I could respect that. I respected that more than I had at the start of this.
One of the heavier Fey turned and saluted Isaac in proper United States Military fashion. “Sir! We’re nearing the time for extraction.”
The Fey could talk.
Isaac looked back at me after nodding. “Admiral will want to see you. It’s good; we need all the help we can get or we’re going to lose this war.”
“We already lost,” I said. “She grabbed the heart.”
Isaac’s complexion, already impossibly colored with dirt and his own natural skin tones, went tight. “Ah. It’s worse than I thought. You told her?”
“She guessed,” I said.
Jay took a step forward to my side. In the next second, Tane was at the other.
“We’ve got injured,” I said. “This… Admiral, does he have medical supplies?”
“Admiral’s got full control over the Tennessee hives,” Isaac said. “He’s got more medical supplies than he knows what to do with.”
I stared at him, desperately wishing my reincarnation had given me more magical powers. Not dying when shot was pretty useful, but I could do with an ability to see if someone had changed in the five thousand years it’d been since I talked to them last, or a way of seeing how close we were to dying.
I looked down at the fields of dead insects around us. “Bismarck’s going to know where we are soon.”
Isaac reached out and rested a hand against the bright blue worm. “Well. We’ve got transport out.”
“Elder?” The Regent asked, looking directly at me. “We’re down a tanker; it’s not likely we’re going to make it the rest of the way to our destination.”
“Can you transport our things as well?” I asked, curious. “We have a few artifacts…” I wondered, for the first time, what had happened to the recorder that held the audio of the First Memories. Did that reside in a box? Was it even labelled?
“Emanations, or…?” Isaac trailed off. It was still so very strange to hear his voice. I wanted to punch him. I’d punch him later.
“Ordinary pieces of religious significance,” I said.
“I’ll admit, this is our first time entertaining birds,” Isaac said. I flicked my eyes back to the ground. Jay was staring at a Fey, who was staring back at him. Some small amount of sentience stood on the bug’s face. I could see how that creeped him out more than anything else. “Since I moved here, at least.”
“The Capital was just routed,” I said. “We could use another base of operations.” I paused. “But how do I know I can trust you?”
“How do I know I can trust you?” Isaac asked. “Last time I checked, you were playing for the other side.”
“Clearly not,” I said. “I hid their damn god, didn’t I?”
Isaac laughed. “Five thousand years is an awful long time to hide something as big as a god. How’d you do it?”
I thought back to the small part of the floor next to my brother’s corpse that didn’t have a thorough coating of dust. They’d all been looking for something very big.
It was something very small.
“I lied about what it was.”
Isaac looked me over, and the sigils inscribed on his face twinkled in the light of the noon sun. I felt simultaneously more and less than I’d ever been. If we were inside, crouched in front of a screen, I might’ve been able to pretend that everything was back to normal.
But we weren’t.
“You lied even to me what it was,” Isaac said. “You know that, right?”
“I must’ve been quite paranoid.” I gestured at the side of my head, pulling my hair back so he could see the lack of a node. Not that it mattered, since I was an abomination of over a dozen crows, and getting a node might very well kill me unless we broke it.
I already missed her words and the way she soothed my thoughts.
“Ah,” Isaac said. “Say no more, and don’t squirm.”
I turned and looked at the Crows. “We’ll be transported back to their base.”
Jay raised an eyebrow at me, but didn’t say a word. Tane looked pained at the idea. The Regent stood tall and calm. Why wouldn’t she? She’d blasted out a word of the Command Tongue like it didn’t go against every inch of Crow Lore, and I’d just let her instead of contradicting her. She’d be impossible to disarm.
Isaac pulled off a radio from his belt (it was nigh identical to standard USEC equipment, which had been standardized to hell and back for safety reasons) and barked out a guttural word in a tongue I didn’t speak.
In the next instant, the ground shook as the worms slid back inside of the earth.
I looked down. Isaac stepped forward, throwing an arm over my shoulder, Jay leapt to my side a second before and then the worm took us.
It soon became clear that instead of being devoured properly, the long lines on the outside of the worm’s sides that the Fey had been riding in were actually the gills. They were narrow things, and my eyes frantically tried to adjust to the total darkness, with just enough room for a person to stand sideways inside if they had perfect posture.
“This always unnerved me when I started out,” Isaac whispered into the darkness, his skin gleaming despite the abyss. I could make out the expression on his face, haunted, wistful.
“I can’t imagine why,” Jay said into the darkness. His gun was loose and ready, but even he looked unnerved in the belly of the beast.
“Who’s this?” Isaac asked.
“Jay,” Jay introduced. “I’m her guardian and escort.”
Isaac looked down at him, his eyes, gleaming with their own light, moving from his gun to his form. “You need one of those now?”
“I do,” I said. “Since you left me in stasis.”
“I’d thought you were dead,” Isaac said. “Can you blame me? Imagine the odds.”
“I can,” I said. “They’re quite good. Given what we did to Bismarck.”
“Have you started to figure that out as well?” Isaac asked.
“She just healed from…” Jay trailed off. “Everything. We killed her, we killed her a half dozen times and she just kept sliding out of herself. What on earth did you two do to her?”
“We made her the protagonist,” Isaac said. “We trapped the god of stories onto this place of existence, bound him to a rock with chains made out of the bones of billions, and then we gave him a hero to follow, a narrative that would save us all.”
I squeezed my fingers into fists until I could feel my nails, now anomalously reinforced into points, dig into the delicate pseudo skin I’d imagined for myself. I could do this. This was something I had done, and I could do it now. I had to face this if I wanted to go anywhere. But Isaac’s voice sounded so vacant, so half lost. Jay snorted. “Doesn’t seem to be working.”
“It’s working better than any of our other plans,” Isaac said. “She’s lived five thousand years looking for that last piece.” The worm shuddered around us, the cartilage vibrating to make a high pitched whine as it pitched up and down and sideways, flicking us around like debris. Isaac kept a death grip on one of the bony folds, and soon we learned to do the same.
“How much do you remember?” I asked.
“Enough,” Isaac said. “Not everything. Not even remotely, but enough to know that what we did was wrong.”
“Total vacuum collapse,” I said. I remembered the words like I’d said them yesterday, but they were just a fragment, a horrible moment that’d been entombed in my brain so hard that it had resisted being scrubbed away, but had hidden away in the folds of my self so thoroughly that it had taken death itself to wrest it free.
“Aye,” Isaac said. “We stopped that.”
Jay took a staggered step in front of me, his feathers brushing against my side as he shoved past. “Aye,” Jay repeated. “You’re going to stop Bismarck too, then.”
“She wants to save the world,” Isaac said. But clearly, he was going to try and stop her. Or die trying.
“We couldn’t trust her to do it regardless,” I said. “She’s gone insane.”
“She was always insane,” Isaac said. “She fought, tooth and nail, for decades without break. And now she’s just been left to her own devices and her own armies and-”
Jay flashed a smile at Isaac, baring his sharp beak, and a single red eye gleaming from the corruption that had settled deep inside of him, as many eyes as he wished to have. “We’re going to stop her.” He repeated.
Isaac stared down at him with no small amount of reproach, and if I was reading him right (six years was a long time to be away from him, but I’d worked with him for close to a decade before that) no small amount of wonder.
“You’re right,” Isaac said. “We’ve run into a rather deistic conundrum.”
“We have?” I asked.
“If Bismarck is insane, we lose nothing by fighting her. If she wins, there’s no guarantee that the world she creates will have us in it, or won’t be an infernal hellscape from which no hope will escape,” Isaac said, clinically. I could see his face lit up by the burning red light from Jay’s mind, still eerily illuminated like a candle.
I could remember the desperate pain and agony of the King, trapped inside and fed bits of Jay to remain alive.
“If we win, we win,” Isaac said.
“What if she’s sane?” I asked.
“If she’s sane?!” Jay started, and Isaac looked down at him in surprise and gestured for him to keep going, even as the worm shuddered like a living lung. “I’m not going to sit and discuss philosophy while I’m inside the lungs of a worm,” He spat, sourly. “We’re going to kill Bismarck. That’s it.”
“If she’s sane,” Isaac continued. “Then she’ll understand that we’re only making rational decisions to stand in her path, and she’ll save the lot of us with her absolute power. So if we lose, we also win.”
“You’re insane,” Jay accused.
“I never spoke to my sanity,” Isaac said, flatly. “My sanity doesn’t matter, so long as we stop Bismarck.”
“Because she’s insane.”
“And if she’s not,” Isaac said. “Then we have no rational reason not to fight her.”
I squinted at him in that dim light, where the great worm around us squirmed through the earth like a missile, and my own heart fluttered with each bump, and only the touch of Jay’s feathers against my side kept me centered instead of drifting back towards the great void in my thoughts that was my death, where my thoughts ran headlong into Jay’s, intermingled into a warm confidence and determination that made my own balk and quiver like the wretched thing it was, and even farther back, ran into the minds of the Morrigan’s past, iteratively learning lessons and holding the whole of the post apocalypse inside of her many forms.
In this light, it was easy to see the impact of time upon him. Scars criss crossed his face, a few half hidden behind the sigils drawn into his face with a shaking hand. His eyes held little of the scientist I knew, but instead rang of some primal force pressing down upon him like a hammer on a nail. Bizarrely, his eyes reminded me of Boss’s eyes, determined, furtive, flickering, like a predator had taken up residence behind them and only peaked out through the irises like a pinhole camera.
Jay moved to speak, and I put a hand on his shoulder. “This is personal for you,” I said.
Jay stilled. Isaac looked at me for a long moment, tasting his words, taking stock of his thoughts. “I-”
“Who’d she kill of yours?” I asked.
“I threaten to give up the whole of humanity,” Isaac said. “And you ask me who it was that broke the camel’s back.”
“I am,” I said. “I have to know if you’re on our side.”
“You haven’t changed a bit,” Isaac said. “I remember you being crueller and more powerful by far, but I can see that mercenary hiding behind your eyes as well. How do you think this will go down?”
“I’ll tear out Bismarck’s throat,” Jay said.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“The world revolves around us,” Isaac said. “It revolves around Bismarck as well but it revolves around us.” He tilted his head back, and I could see every ounce that the world had stolen from him, the fat that had drained from his face, the bones that poked out under the mask that made up his skin.
“Jess,” Jay said. “Your friend is mad.”
“I know,” I said.