As her sword tumbled hilt over blade away from her, the Colonel reached into her belt and pulled a final dagger. It gleamed, carved out of exotic metals, a blue sheen to the blade. Then she lunged in, half mad, a snarl on her lips even as blood fouled up the speckles of saliva frothing up from her mouth from a trailing edge of the siren’s talons.
In the next moment, the sword hit the ground, clicking once, and then went stiff against the body it had come from. I threw myself to my feet, and the Captain whirled about with the Colonel, talons digging into flesh, fighting her for the knife. The Captain scored another hideous blow and the skin tore off of the Colonel’s arms, coming off in thickened sheets, and the human’s other hand came up, the knife coming down. I cried out and it came as a messy gurgle of panic.
In the same breath, the rest of the Colonel’s group had caught up, but even they didn’t intervene. They’d just watched her execute two of their own. In this moment, with the camp ablaze, and their kin slaughtered, and in what little light there was, there was very little difference between the two enemies.
The Captain backhanded her across the face with the edge of her wing, forcing the blow to miss as she reeled back, a cut opened up across her cheek and in the next instant the Colonel’s other hand reared back even as the siren’s talons settled across her knife hand, tearing it to the side. In the sand, her foot slipped, and they went down on top of each other. The knife came up, and the Captain wrenched it to the side, forcing it out of the Colonel’s fingers and onto the sand, just in time to catch the Colonel’s knee in her gut.
The siren fell to the side, stunned, but not long enough for the Colonel to do much more than slam her into the ground. The Colonel reeled towards the knife, fingers outstretched, and the Captain’s long legs flicked out again and raked down the human’s arm. I could see her muscles and tendons, and something came loose in it, in that mess of pretty skin and muscles and flesh, and then the Colonel keeled over onto the sand. The Captain loomed over top of her, chest heaving with every breath hissed between her teeth. “Any last words?”
“Burn in hell,” and the Colonel caught the Captain across the face with her one good arm, barely kept intact despite the bleeding, despite the shock that had to be setting into her system with a savage punch, cutting into her skin with rings.
The Captain lurched back and untangled herself, losing purchase with her talons from the sheer volume of red across them, matting her feathers. It gave the Colonel just enough room to haul herself to her feet, knife back in her hand.
With the Colonel untangled I took a few steps away to prevent her from lunging for me. The orb still burned in my hands. I could hear the grinding ever louder as the sun sank towards the horizon.
Half the Captain’s face was pink with a scatter of burns, and her feathers were singed, and a long cut rested across the surface of one of her palms, tangled up in her wing. She bore the same smirk she always wore, the same casualness she had always had except recently, and my heart soared with a half contagious glee, half manic, and the whispers and grinding stilled in my ears. Perhaps it recognized a greater predator.
The Venturing Owl had fallen. There was no escaping. We’d be overwritten soon enough. The escape condition had fallen, it was only a matter of time before-
“Who the hell are you?” The Colonel swore. “You’re not any of the sirens who we’ve seen before.” Every breath made her body shake. Every beat of her frantic heart made her bleed all the faster. Bravado kept her upright.
“I’m the Captain,” The Captain said, and her talons were slick with the Colonel’s blood, running wildly down her thighs. But the Colonel was stronger than she should be, even bleeding as she was, even half ragged and half dead as she was, she kept standing.
At my back, fingers grabbed me, then hugged me close, and Irony’s chin dug into my shoulders to keep me safe. Her voice rasped, half hoarse, half destroyed, and I couldn’t catch any of the words, but here we were at the end of the world.
“You’ve lost,” The Colonel said. “Give up. I’ll make your death swift.”
“You misunderstand me,” The Captain said. “I don’t give up. I don’t give in.” She wiped blood off of her face and spat out a clot from where her teeth had snapped across her tongue. “Not to you. Not to this island.”
“Why?” The Colonel asked, sweeping her arms across the burning fortress. “Your forces are in tatters. Your fortresses run ragged with my men, and your escape is lost. Lay down and die and save us the trouble of killing you.” She gestured with the knife. “And you’re bleeding, and weak, and weary. Lay down your arms.”
Catastrophe’s body shook with exertion. I could recognize it, she’d been out most of the day, and had only just now escaped from the burning wreckage of the ships, and without resting had plunged back into the battle. But her eyes were alert, and her expression steadily sliding towards being smug.
“What the hell are you smirking about?” The Colonel spat. “You’ve lost!”
“Because there were more than two in my party,” Catastrophe said, and in the next instant, I heard and saw the Colonel’s eyes widen and her breath leave her mouth in a gasp, and she turned just in time to see Atalanta, and her spear, enter through her chest, the massive blade piercing out the other side in a splatter of royal ichor and blood. Her eyes met Atalanta, and words tumbled out of her mouth, lost to the ages, tied up in nothing, nothing that meant anything at all.
Then the Colonel died.
The air went dim, and the air went cold, and Atalanta shoved the corpse off of her spear, not caring that it tore through organs and hateful viscera and blood, and then she whipped it to flick the blood off of it.
“Good job,” The Captain said, taking a few deep breaths.
“Thank you,” Atalanta said, blood splattering the front of her soot stained uniform. “But… we’ve still lost.”
She was right.
“It doesn’t matter that she’s dead. The other ships will still be coming here,” Atalanta looked out into the distance as if she could see them now. “And we saw the Venturing Owl fall.”
The Captain stared off as well, and I finally peeled myself away from Irony’s numb fingers and crept over to their side.
“They’ll come for us,” Atalanta said, her voice distant. “We killed the Colonel, and even now, their forces march for us here in the camp. We spited them every inch of the way, and we bled for it, but we’ve still lost.”
In the distance, despite the cold, and despite the dim, I could hear them marching. Boots. Countless boots. The end came in armor.
Vali crept over. “We’ve lost,” she said, shaking her head. Blood painted her front, and a sick bruise was spreading across her face, shaped like the pummel of a sword, and blood crept out from her feathers on her face. I could see the sweat and grit and ash on her, lit by the failing sin. “We’ve lost.”
The Captain’s fists clenched. “I refuse.”
“What?” I asked.
“I refuse,” The Captain said, looking off at the horizon. “We know this isn’t how this was supposed to go,” she said, and there was something strange in her voice that spoke of some deeper idea, some deeper understanding I didn’t know.
But I’d seen it before, in the depths of the ghost ship, when she’d tried to talk the ship down. There was only steel left in the Captain’s frame.
“In fact,” The Captain said, spreading her wings. “This is a damned lie.”
“What?” Vali asked, her voice weak. “What do you mean?”
“This entire place is a lie!” The Captain shouted. “And I’m not going to believe it any longer. You hear me? You’re trying to make me believe that this is how it would always happen! And I know better! The Venturing Owl survived, damn you! You can’t convince me this is how it happened.”
“What are you doing?” I asked, half shocked. But it was just like the Captain to do this. Did it matter?
“AND I WILL ALWAYS KNOW THIS ISN’T HOW IT HAPPENED,” The Captain’s voice boomed, like she was giving orders. “And by the Worm itself, you’ll have to kill me before I stop believing it. Come at me, you stupid fucking island!”
On the ground, the Colonel shifted, and I stared in horror at the body at my feet.
And then two arms grabbed the orb from me and pressed it against her chest.
“What have you done?” Vali hissed, and the Captain laughed like a mad woman, taking a step back.
“TO ME, SIRENS! TO ME, SOLDIERS! THERE IS ONE LAST BATTLE!”
The Colonel’s dead body throbbed, and her eyes snapped open, but the sockets were empty, vacant, replaced with flames, and her body shook and wobbled and her skin stretched like a thousand fingers were just under the surface.
“Get back,” The Captain hissed, and Irony tugged my weak body back. I could hardly breath from the smoke already, and my lungs burned from my run. Despair replaced itself with fear as I stared at the corpse.
Then, just as we were far enough back that I could no longer see her teeth, the skin burst like web canvass, and dozens of hands, bony and covered in black fire arose from her corpse. Her stomach disgorged into more and more bones and more and more hands, and then her ribs shattered into dust, and a great eye sat.
The same eye that I had seen surrounded by reapers. The same eye that Irony had burned in the heart of the mountain.
This was the island’s soul.
This was the queen of the reapers.
“What in all of the nine rivers of hell,” Vali whispered. Atalanta drew her spear and pointed it at the creature. The tip of the spear burned, turned red hot from proximity to the fires rimming her body, but Atalanta stared at it nonetheless, only removing it when the shaft of the spear started to smolder.
“That’s right,” The Captain spat, delighted. “You’ll have to kill all of us to keep your precious illusion. You get that, don’t you? I’ll know for the rest of my dying days that you’re too scared to face the truth, and you’ll never erase that from me. I WENT INTO THIS ISLAND KNOWING WHAT HAPPENED HERE!”
Vali tilted her head to the side and stared at the Captain as if she was possessed. “What the actual-”
The Colonel- the reaper queen, the eye at the soul of the mountain, raised a single massive arm, the hand large enough to crush all of us, and then brought it down, fast enough that wind whistled through her bones.
The Captain stared at it without a single trace of fear, and didn’t move a muscle. Her grin just grew until it nearly split her face.
At the last moment, a long spear slammed into the arm and the tip crackled through forming bone and shattered off chunks like whisps off of a boiling egg.
Pinion landed next to us, and behind her, the other sirens joined her, bloodied, half beaten, but staring at the enemy ahead of us. “What the hell? Guard yourself!” she hissed at the Captain.
“About time you showed up,” The Captain crowed, her voice booming across the wasted expanse of the fortress.
Then the reaper queen laughed, and Pinion’s eyes lost their focus. Her spear didn’t waver, but her feathers steadied themselves. “What is this supposed to be?”
“What’s keeping this place intact,” The Captain said. “There’s a world out there. A living one, that hasn’t been stuck lying to itself for centuries. Do you think you can smell it? You got off this island there.”
“What, I-” Pinion’s arms shook, and then she looked down. The Reaper Queen stared down at Catastrophe.
“How’re you doing this?”
“They’re my ancestors,” Catastrophe said. “They didn’t get this far by lying to themselves. And you, you’ve been stuck here long enough. They’ve been noticing that something’s wrong, they’ve been putting it together through these rotations!”
“This is pointless,” The queen said, her arm slowly reforming despite the horrible cracks across it. “There’s nothing that can-”
“I remember now,” Pinion muttered under her breath as the creature formed itself up. The heat was immense, terrifying, and I took a step and another away from her. “This isn’t how it was supposed to go.”
“This isn’t how it went,” Atalanta said, staring ahead, transfixed. “You’re right.”
Jerome flashed a sign, a desperate little thing and her fingers shook as she did so. Then steel flashed across her eyes and her spear became steady.
Pinion shook her head. “You’re right. This isn’t right- This isn’t- This isn’t how it was.” Her fingers curled around her spear as things clicked into place, as the memories from the endless months trickled through her head. Her eyes narrowed and her lips parted into a sneer, baring her teeth. “This isn’t how it’s going to be.” She puffed up. “My friends and enemies,” she said, and her voice was low until the Captain thumped her spear against the ground. “This isn’t real!”
“This isn’t real!” Vali said, her voice low.
“This isn’t real!” Irony rasped.
“This isn’t real,” I whispered.
“This isn’t REAL!” The Captain boomed, and the humans soldiers, transfixed by their dead leader’s transformation, flickered by what little memory they had left of their past lives.
“THIS ISN’T REAL!” They thundered, and the reaper queen let loose a low noise that sounded like every denial that had taken place for hundreds of years.
“THIS ISN’T REAL!” came the cries of the sirens, and I thought that even the dead might have joined in.
The Queen of the Reapers howled, but the illusion was fading fast, and the world rippled with the truth. Her armies had turned against her, her toys had gone rabid, and everyone knew that she was hiding something.
It was time for the end of the story.