It wasn’t fast. Most of the students had been hobbled or hurt so they couldn’t run, so it wasn’t an elegant sort of move that brought us there, but rather a hurried procession of limping. Every so often, a soldier would stumble upon us, and the sirens would fall upon him like rain, and he’d be left there, body opened to the elements, or she’d be left there, body opened to the elements, and then the sirens would straighten up as if they hadn’t just torn out a man’s throat, and we’d keep right on walking.
In the day, when I’d been hustled around like cattle and used as bait, the camp had seemed insurmountable. This time, with everything in chaos, I could see the cracks in the facade. The humans were tired, both from fatigue and the simple fact that those left behind in the camp had mostly been the injured. It wasn’t an attack so much as a slaughter.
A ten minute walk turned into a thirty minute amble, and by the time we got to the gates, the battle was starting to die down but the fire was roaring high, any attempts to stop the blaze stopped by the slaughter of the fire teams. I could see their bodies in their own cooling pools of blood, reflecting the moon overhead. Humans were intermixed with the bodies of sirens. Humans of all shapes and sizes, children, women, and men.
Was this how it had gone down in reality? Or had our presence twisted it even further?
I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know. Suddenly, the old war stories my father told seemed far less brave and far more awful.
The gates stood in front of us, and Jerome stepped forward to figure them out, Harley standing on top of the wall to keep watching.
I crossed my fingers that the others had gotten out. That nobody had found Sev watching the wounded, that the professor had found his escape, that Irony and the Captain would be fine.
Thyn kept his eyes level on me while we waited. “You made it back,” He said, his voice still in a heavy rasp.
“I told you I would,” I said.
He laughed again, leaning against the wall. His breathing was ragged.
“What’d they do to you?”
“What didn’t they do to me?” Thyn asked. “How’s… everyone. Are they alright?”
I didn’t know what to say. Not really. What was there to say to that? My breath hitched in my throat. The doors started to rattle open. I stared through them at the dangerous island beyond.
“They’re coming!” Harley said, and before she could say another word she fell off of the wall. I blinked, my world blurring together, and then looked behind us.
The Colonel stood there, a cadre of armed guards around her, and Jacob’s dying body stood in front of her, blood dripping from her knife and his throat running into the crunchy half dead grass around her.
“Well,” She said, pleasantly, wearing my mother’s face. “Now I see what’s going on.” Vali and Jerome- they didn’t move on her, instead, they ran to Harley’s side.
The others crept away from me, but I was stunned- transfixed, staring at her and the dead man who had decided saving his men was more important than following orders. Beside her, wrangled by more of her men (and the front gates were open, I realized, and the soldiers were trickling in) came Henry, the man who was friends with Jacob. His eyes locked on mine. There was fear there, there was fear, there was anger, and a realization that everything had gone horribly wrong.
In a single stride, she crossed the distance and grabbed Henry by the shoulders.
“Colonel, how can I help-”
“My camp is full of traitors,” she said, smoothly, and the dagger stabbed into Henry’s throat, and he fell on top of Jacob, a half hearted embrace between friends. “And petty parasites thinking they can strike while my guard is down.”
I swallowed. “Look upon this, my children!” The Colonel said, brandishing her knife. “This is what happens when you question the plan. You die. This is our destiny. This is what is ordained. We will conquer this people, and then we will rush like a red tide across the continents, to claim what is rightfully ours. Do you understand? Get in our way, and you will crush yourself underneath of our boots.” She whirled about and stared down at me next. “And you!”
Her soldiers didn’t move to join her. They stared. Some, at their friends, dying. Others at the corpses around them.
“My Commander, dead,” The Colonel said, stepping forward. The dagger flicked blood across the ground. “My son, slain where he stood in the mountains. My men, traitors. My front, humiliated. And you stand there, wearing his face like a mask, like skin stretched over a skull,” She mused. “I don’t understand why you keep fighting.”
I didn’t either, for a horrible moment.
“But I suppose, with your soul as mutilated as mine, you can no more sway yourself from your path than I can. Like Polaris, we guide, forever on our roads…” She mused aloud.
And abruptly, I could feel her heart. Massive, cruel, as heavy and as thick as the island before us and-
I knew where the soul’s island sat, and it was in front of me, embedded in the Colonel. And the island’s soul could see me, there, surrounded by the men she’d killed and the memories she’d dispelled personally, a playground for her to languish in.
“I know what you’re here for,” she said, reaching into her coat. She pulled out an orb. Rank, pitch black, as dark and as cold as ice. The temperature of the burning camp dropped several degrees. “You want this. A petty rat wanting his trinkets.”
She wiped her dagger off in her fingers, and smeared the blood across the surface. “You want this, and you want your precious ship to save you.”
She leaned forward, and gripped the sphere securely, and cruelly and horribly, it started to beat like another heart. Sweat ran down my face, down my neck, drooled across my clavicles and down my chest.
It wasn’t a human heartbeat.
“I’ll fix that.”
She raised the sphere overhead, and the clouds, dim and distant, like thin tendrils across the surface of the moon, gleamed and reached out like crackling sparks.
And then the storm obeyed her command, a whirling cloud of darkness and hatred and spite from a creature that had been trapped between the pages of a book for four hundred years.
And lightning flashed from the heavens, under her command, the hideous beating heart throbbed against her fingertips and lashed out, like a finger of god himself, and in the distance, a massive ship, a great and mighty ship, erupted into flame, and as the flame dispelled itself, the wood melted into ash, and then crumbled to the ocean floor as fresh soil.
And then the waves took what was left and threw it to the bottom of the ocean where it belonged.
She turned to face me, and blood dripped out of the corner of her eyes, and my throbbing heart told me to run. But I couldn’t move, couldn’t move my legs. My heart was in my mouth and it throbbed and I could taste blood and bile and my own fear like a honeyed salve.
“There,” She said, vaguely pleased with herself, and she turned just in time for Pinion to kick her in the face. The eye flew out of her grip and rolled across the surface of the grass.
Pinion’s face was blank, devoid of light, or heat, or anything of the sort, but her spear was drawn in seconds. “Charm,” She said, flat. “Get out of here.”
My eyes locked onto her, and for a single second, I read acceptance across her face. She wasn’t leaving this island. Not like this, not today. In this world, in this timeline, I could see her grand royal blood making sense of what had happened, and jettisoning all of her plans for the future for something more local and more present.
And if she could do that, then I could too. I couldn’t pretend we were getting out of this alive anymore, not on that ship. But if we were all going to die, I wasn’t going to let the Colonel kill us.
In the next moment, even before I could trace the thoughts themselves, I sprinted through the narrow clearing, past stunned soldiers turned speechless by the work of their Colonel, slid across the ground, and grabbed the orb. It felt like ice in my hands, as cold as snow, and it burned my skin, but that didn’t stop my legs, and I was running straight as an arrow back into camp. The Colonel screamed in anger, and in the next instant, she was at my back, and the guards were at my back, and the entire camp turned as one to stare at me.
And again, I had the full and complete attention of the island’s soul, locked inside of the form of the Colonel.
And I ran between buildings and the world howled after me. I didn’t know where I was going, and people moved like formless masses of limbs and armor and cloaks, and in the next moment I hurled light out of my Heart at them, and they recoiled away, the darkness leaving them with only bones and hate. I swept forward, and forward, half blind as the world came down to a crashing halt around me and-
I could hear the orb whispering in my grip. I could hear worlds chug to a halt and a great grinding sound like thousands of teeth against the edge of the universe, and as much as I tried to ignore it, all of the sounds of combat beat to the same steady grinding noise. The siren screech sounded like the high notes and the howl of the dogs as they died sounded like the low notes, and it mixed together like hellfire, like death itself was chasing after me.
In the very next moment, the Colonel stood in front of me, at the end of the street. Long cuts danced across her body. She hadn’t managed to leave Pinion behind intact.
“I can’t let you go any further,” She said, and her eyes crackled with an unholy light. “The King will want that orb, and I have nothing left but him now. You and your kin forced that upon me.”
“I-” I said, and I swallowed, because I could hear the rest of the crowd coming after me, and the sounds of my allies were distant. My only thought had been to keep the eye away from her, to prevent her from killing the rest of us, and now- and now-
“You forced this,” The Colonel said, taking a step forward. “You’re backing the wrong side. You don’t want to know what they’d do if they won this. They’d kill us all.”
“You’re killing them all,” I said, and my voice was quiet, but I found something in myself. “You’ve done nothing but kill them all since you got here! You used me as bait from the very beginning, you’ve seen them as less than you just because they’re not human.”
“They have the ability to fix all of our woes,” The Colonel returned. “Every misfortune, every famine, and they’ve hoarded it to their islands! Is that not enough of a declaration of war?”
“Do you give swords to monsters?” I asked.
“I don’t need to answer myself to a slave boy,” The Colonel hissed, and she took a step forward. “Now, give me the orb, and I can change this fate.”
I glared at her, and I opened my mouth to spit venom-
And then behind her, at the edge of the fortress, her ships exploded. She shook and stumbled forward as the fireball spread as high as a mountain, a great plume of smoke blotting out the sun setting behind her ships, and then, just like the Venturing Owl, they sank to the bottom of the ocean.
“Broke your stupid ships,” I spat. “Looks like you’re stuck here as well.”
“There will be more ships,” The Colonel said, and she dropped the dagger from her hands and drew a sword off of a corpse. It bore no ornamentation, and looked off putting in her ordained hands, but it held a killing edge all the same. “They’ll rescue me after I’ve cooled my blade in your corpse!”
She lunged forward, and it was only the fleeting after thoughts of adrenaline that managed to let me dart to the side. I could see the strain of the battle take hold of her as well, her eyes were wild, and her resolve was half broken. We could feel the heat rising off of the harbor, the docks they’d thrown together to host their vessels burning merrily in the evening, and I could see the doubt, for the first time, trickling into her inhuman eyes.
But at the end of the day, she was a trained military woman, and I was a barely trained idiot with a magic necklace. As I rolled to the side, her foot came out and pressed down at my neck, sharp and fierce, and her sword hovered over one of my eyes. I could smell the polish, the immaculate care that dead man had sunk into his blade to match the strict rules governing the human military arm. I could see my own reflection in the surface, could see my eyes wide and wild.
“How many times do I have to tell you,” a voice came from the darkness, and the Colonel whirled about, slicing a narrow cut over the bridge of my nose, inches from my eyes, and then the Captain slammed a taloned foot into the Colonel’s arm, wrenching the sword away from her. Blood spurt out from the wound, splattering across the ground.
“Death’s for other people!”