The worm stopped moving after what felt like forever, and long after I felt safe standing next to Isaac. Something had stolen his soul and replaced it with grimness and darkness, and I couldn’t stay next to him for much longer.
So it was gladly that when the gills of the great creature opened we slid off together and looked up at the evening sky, the first touch of the great red orb melting across distant mountains. Like the sky was a slab of sherbert hitting a final touching phase before rendering down into fats and creams.
I didn’t like it. It looked half like an omen. I didn’t need any more of those.
What did it matter if Bismarck was rational? She’d proven that it didn’t matter when she killed me. When she looked me in the eye and torn out my heart. The world was a scary dangerous place, and I’d stared into the eyes of the most dangerous creature in it.
So what if she’d been my friend? I couldn’t forget all the Crows that had died trying to save me. I couldn’t forget Dean, or Prin, or the Morrigan.
To ask me to fight because it was reasonable was- it made my blood boil. I didn’t need reason.
This was a righteous fight. There was nothing rational about it. I wanted to pluck out Bismarck’s eyes myself.
But I realized that Isaac wasn’t trying to convince himself of the logic. He was trying to convince me.
He had called me cold and cruel. The woman I used to be had been cold and cruel. My mind flickered back to the dead man, his eyes looking up at the heaven, blood splattered across the walls of the test chamber, and the dim realization that I couldn’t remember his name, nor did it matter.
I’d been- I’d-
Jay squeezed my shoulder. “You alright?” He asked. “You’re going fuzzy around the edges.”
I swallowed, and centered myself, and the crows inside of me followed the order. I steadied, arms at my side and looked ahead.
In the shadow of the forest ahead, where rippling strands of bluegrass hung heavily across what was left of a road, long since destroyed beyond comprehension, unlike the ones to the south, I could see a building. The rippling grey walls spoke of brutalism, but the american flag flapping in the wind spoke of new life. I stared at it, and my eyes followed past it to where another flag hung, the wind failing to catch it alight.
I didn’t recognize it for more than an instant, but-
“Why does this base still have flags?” I asked.
“Welcome to the Tennessee hives,” Isaac said, lightly, and then he brought us inside. Jay stayed close by me, close enough that I could feel his body heat. I didn’t need the support, not really, but he stayed there regardless. Perhaps it was for him.
Or perhaps he could see straight through my facade, and knew that this was a part of my past I couldn’t remember, just like the woman I used to be who didn’t exist anymore.
The front room bore a dozen Fey, and most of our supplies. Boss lay across the corner covered in a thick military issued blanket, meant for surviving in the arctic wastes in full cover. It just barely covered down her chest like a child’s blanket. I winced, looking at her.
“They’ll treat her,” Isaac promised. “But I need to take you to the Queen’s guard here.”
Jay’s head snapped up, and his hand darted for his gun.
I stilled his wrist before he could draw it. “Does he hate Bismarck as much as we do?”
“He hates her more than anyone I’ve ever met,” Isaac said.
“Warden,” The Regent said, standing amongst the Fey. The Crows with us were clustered together, tight little balls, furtive glances among the potential hostiles. “Are you sure this is right?”
“They’re going to help us kill Bismarck,” I said. “Right?” I looked over at Isaac. His expression was conflicted, tight like a vice. Slowly, it unfurled into something more human and less insectile.
He gave me a long look, almost looking surprised at my tone, as how vehement I was. Why wouldn’t I be? Then he shook his head and gestured us on.
The similarities between this base and the one Prince had sent me to were unsettling. The halls were far better maintained, scrubbed, and broken bits replaced, but the layout wasn’t too terribly different. Offices were occupied with flashing monitors and computers, ready for an Omoi node.
I didn’t have one, so the information remained there, locked away instead of catalogued for later perusal. I gave them longing looks as I passed. A Fey poked her head up and stared at me, catching my eye. Her fingers were stubs, tapping away at a physical keyboard.
“The Fey can’t use Omoi,” I decided. That sounded right.
“Your defences,” Isaac said. “Fry anything that’s inhuman. I don’t quite understand how the Crows can manage it.”
“That’s easy,” I said, and I knew it to be true. “The Crows are based on humans.”
His head twisted to stare at me, and the rest of the party stopped on a dime. Jay stared at me, his eyes slightly red (I could smell the corruption inside of him now, but he was my friend, possibly my best friend, and I knew that I had a faint hint of the same virus inside of me). The Regent clicked her beak. “Well.” Tane hesitated.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“The Morrigan was based on Agent Zack and a small nest of crows,” I said. “The Morrigan is the originator of all Crows, so all Crows are based on Agent Zack’s mind.”
“I didn’t realize…” Isaac said, shaking his head.
“I did,” Jay said. “When our minds met, and I realized how similar your mind was to my own, under the static and roaring and twisting words, I figured it out.”
“Good for you,” Isaac said, dimly, his voice low. “I never… well, I never joined my mind to a Crow’s.”
“For the best,” The Regent said. “We’ve fallen, somewhat, from the grace of our parents.”
“I see a bunch of ragtag soldiers chasing after their query,” Isaac said. “That’s not nothing.”
“We’re not going to miss this time,” Tane said. She didn’t look affected by the reveal beyond the initial surprise. I didn’t know if she’d known before… but neither did I care.
The insecurity had left on that front. She was on my side. I didn’t need to know why. She’d already proved she was willing to die for the cause. That’s what mattered.
Isaac stared at her. The eyes flicked from where the rifle sat disassembled on her shoulders, to the gleaming bullets topping the magazine at her hip, held in place by ropes like suspenders. “I can see that as well.”
“Good,” Tane decided. The Regent tried to catch her eye and Tane swept past her, so she settled on looking at me.
“I noticed you managed a shot back there. Did-”
I followed Tane’s example. I didn’t want to give her any more time. She might’ve saved us, but her secrecy had cost us dearly.
If she’d been upfront… if she hadn’t hid her secrets so thoroughly, if she hadn’t held back on her projects, would Prin still be alive? Would Dean? Would any of the other dozens of birds still be around? I didn’t know their faces, but in flying formations there were holes where there ought not to be, places that hadn’t yet been filled in. Seats at dining tables remained unfilled, and roosts held nesting grounds that were untouched.
I may not have known them, but it didn’t matter. I could see the Crows were hurting beyond even that, and I wasn’t selfish enough to believe my opinion of the Regent, no matter how much it rang similar to USEC’s more secret ideals, mattered more than their wounds.
Some small part of me wondered exactly how much of that change came from my death, and how much of that came from the Morrigan stretched around my wounds like a colossal serpent, battling the dead Kind Lord for ownership of my Soul.
But that didn’t matter either. If I had to pretend to be someone I wasn’t, I could see it to the end, and then I could figure everything else out.
Isaac led us towards a hallway utterly covered with Fey in uniforms. They stood at perfect attention, hardly even breathing, but here I could see differences in their uniforms. Some resembled what I’d see from the army, and tattered, Omoi scattered memories let me know I’d seen them before, in faded meetings that Omoi had done her best to remove from my mind (but the connections never really died when it came to removing memories instead of preventing them from ever forming). Others looked far more like the navy, uniforms a mottled urban blue and grey pattern.
Isaac popped off a salute, and the two guarding the door saluted back.
“Weapons off,” Isaac said. “And only Jess gets in past this point.”
“What?” The Regent warked.
“Jess and I,” Jay corrected.
“And how do you figure that?” Isaac replied, sounding annoyed. He looked at the guards, as did I.
“Ah,” I said. “Funny that. Jay’s got about twenty percent of my mind inside of him.”
Isaac’s jaw cracked together. “He- He has what?” He hissed.
I felt slightly alarmed by the change in his features, and his eyes ran across mine, now as gold as any Beast’s. I wracked my head to see if I had ever seen anything quite like this, and my head pounded before I got too far.
If I had, it’d been safely ensconced in the node that Bismarck had stolen from me before she killed me.
“So if you want Jess,” Jay said. “You need me.”
Isaac’s hand slid up to his forehead, and he squeezed, all the little tendons under the skin popping up under the pressure, and when he removed it, I could see small scratches from his nails. Blood drooled underneath his hand, but the cuts sealed themselves back up before more than a few microscopic bits had beaded up.
“I get it,” Isaac said. “I see Jess hasn’t stopped being dramatic just because the world ended.”
“Excuse me-” Jay started.
“I don’t mean it in a bad way,” Isaac said, shaking his head.
He held up a hand, and gestured at the guards. They moved out of the way, and Jay and I moved forward. Jay at my side felt far more natural than it ever had, and I could feel the warmth of his feathers.
The crows inside of me recognized that as well, and they calmed down until the difference between them and I was so small I could no longer detect it.
Then I breathed, in and out, and knocked at the door.
A gruff voice replied. “I’m not to be disturbed.”
Isaac leaned against the door frame.
“The last member of Project Undying Talos is here,” He said, keeping his eyes, golden, but only flecks now, fixed on mine.
The sound of rustling papers, and then the door opened. “Come in.”
I stepped inside, and Jay followed. The office was dark, pitch black honestly, and I struggled to see.
The door shut behind us, and then the lights flickered on, too bright, blinding.
The desk was set 90 degrees from the door, where the door had to swing inside, so that the desk always had forewarning on whoever was on the other side before anything could happen. It was a large desk, proud and dedicated, well polished and cares for. There were dents in it from bullets, but they had been lovingly restored and sealed under a layer of varnish.
The man behind the desk was old. His eyes were segmented things, and two antennae rested on his head, twitching faintly like the long sensors of a cockroach or a cricket, but age had touched his skin and left spots upon it, and his hair was dry and poorly preserved, and ashen faded brown. He wore a military coat with dozens of USEC specific honors tacked onto it.
I recognized him in a heartbeat. He was the general associated with Georgia. He had personally come up with the plan that had led to the capture of the chief prophet of The Watcher’s Cult, the man who had written a hundred plays and culled a hundred children, the man who had turned Savanna fictional and the man who had erased half a decade of history.
This was the man who had ended the world by ending the cult’s, and ending the reason for the Lords to stay around. This was the man who had single handedly told the universe that humanity was not to be questioned, and could survive without influence.
He’d been wrong.
I didn’t know why I knew half of that, but I knew, knew, knew that I had met this man before, even if I couldn’t remember the specifics.
“Admiral,” I said, bowing my head.
He drew a gun out from behind the desk and pointed it at me. It was covered in gorgeous symbols and letters, and I could just barely start to make out which sigils had been scribbled before I tasted blood in the back of my throat.
“Shoot her and I shoot you,” Jay said, his own gun raised.
“She’d still be dead,” The Admiral said, his voice rasping with age.
“I’d make sure it took for you,” Jay promised.
The Admiral laughed, and lowered his gun. Jay was slow to follow, but follow he did.
“I had to make sure that the rumors were true.”
“What rumors?” I asked.
“That you aren’t who you used to be,” The Admiral said. “You aren’t the steel eyed bitch who killed a dozen of her colleagues, who ripped a god from the sky, who looked me in the eye and told me to obliterate Humanity to buy you time.”
I felt nauseous. Perhaps this was where I recognized him from. Had I really been there? Had I- I had. I already knew that I had. I already knew that I had a very personal role in dooming the world. Had a very personal responsibility in the personal hell I had twisted the world into.
“I only had to buy humanity time because you were too efficient,” I returned.
The Admiral laughed, and the gun slid out of sight. I knew he could draw it in a heartbeat. None of the Queen’s Guards had ever made me feel like they couldn’t kill me in a heartbeat.
“Trellis is dead,” He said.
“She is,” I agreed.
“I hear her murderer is downstairs, in a coma,” he said, softly. “Will she be alright?”
“She’s a beast,” I said. “Maybe she ate something that disagreed with her.”
“It’s been a very long time,” The Admiral said. “How is the world to the south? I heard- well, I heard Bismarck had done her thing.” He gestured vaguely. “I should’ve killed her at the end. I read her psych eval, you know, and thought I saw something there that the psych didn’t- we relaxed the conditions because we didn’t have anyone better.”
“We could’ve used Agent Zack,” I said. Jay looked at me, then back at the Admiral.
“Why’s he there?” Admiral asked.
“He’s got the rest of me inside of him,” I gestured vaguely. “I died recently.”
“You really are just a few steps away from being a Queen’s Guard,” The Admiral said, shaking his head. “You know what they did to me-” He cut himself off, coughing. He reached into his desk and pulled out a cigarette, lighting it with a snap of his segmented fingers, then blowing on the sparks until it caught. The air smelled of soured smoke, if I let myself smell anything over the pounding of my heart. “You wouldn’t. It’s not worth mentioning. Was your death pleasant?”
“She crushed my heart,” I said.
“Bismarck?” The Admiral asked. “That sounds- I should’ve killed her. I’m sorry. Again.”
“Perhaps,” I said. “She’s winning.”
“She’ll have to break herself across every last one of my men first,” The Admiral said. “With Isaac’s help, we’ve embedded a dozen wards between here and the Mountain. If she wants to get there herself, she’ll have to march.”
“So you bought time,” I said.
“We bought time,” The Admiral agreed. “It’s what I’ve always done since I met you.”
“We need to stop her permanently,” Jay said. “How do we do that?”
“Well?” The Admiral asked, turning his aged gaze on me. “Any ideas, Doctor?”
I swam through my head, desperately searching for information, flashes of what had happened, flashes of what might happen, of what we could, so and what she had said. “She’s the Protagonist,” I said, searching my head. “So there’s an antagonist.”
“The Queen,” The Admiral said. “She’s dead.”
“There’s another Antagonist,” I said. “Or she would’ve won already. Someone just as important, someone who stands for the opposite of what she stands for. That’s how it should work. The story’s not over.”
“Well,” The Admiral said, staring directly at me. “I wonder where we could find something like that.” His eyes closed. “We’ve turned this world into a farce of what it used to be, you know. Just for you, Jess. The world’s a joke now, an awful cruel joke filled with blood and viscera.” He hummed, and his long antennae twitched. “But sure. I’ll play along a bit longer and we can find ourselves an enemy to rally behind.”
“And how would that help us?” Jay asked.
Who indeed stood directly opposite of Bismarck at this point? Bismarck, who was now all purity of vision, whose idealism shattered mountains and broke cities. Bismarck, who had killed all of her friends and now stood alone as she barrelled towards the enemy.
I realized that the Admiral was still staring at me, and swallowed. “We could try and reassign the ritual,” I said. “This is the Watcher’s story. We could try and get the story to accept a new Protagonist. A designated Chosen one.” I looked over at Isaac. He nodded, slowly. Some part of me was angry, impossibly angry that he hadn’t been there for the battle for the Capital. If it hadn’t been for the Morrigan- for Jay, I’d’ve died there and he’d’ve been none the wiser, hiding behind his army of loyal bugs.
“How would we do that?” The Admiral asked. “I’m not too good at this bit. I know a single line of Command Tongue, and it’s not subtle in the slightest.” He looked rather proud about that.
His plan to assassinate the High Priest of the Watcher had involved the destruction of a city block.
It had taken out three.
Sometimes, in the business of USEC, who had long prided themselves in minimizing damage, and who worked under cover and as secretive as possible, it really was as easy as ignoring all that for a fireball.
“We give him a conflict he can’t ignore,” I said. “And we give him a reason to care.” It sounded right.
Jay nodded. “We’ll need the King.”