Song of the Venturing Owl (Part 43)

“This isn’t real,” The reaper queen whispered as the skin on her face burned off, enraptured in dark fire. “But it could be, couldn’t it? We could pretend this was real, we could pretend the battle meant something, we could pretend that we are safe here, that we can cling to this moment, this most important moment, couldn’t we?”

Atalanta threw her spear. It slid through the fire, flew like a bullet, and then smashed into the creature’s great eye, barely ensconced by the last remnant of the creature’s upper ribs, and stuck there, throbbing like a dead point. Dark purple ichor dripped out of the wound.

“If it bleeds,” Pinion whispered, and Atalanta picked it up.

“It can die.”

Jerome gestured at it, and around us, the armies drew their weapons.

“MAKE IT BLEED!”

The Captain stepped forward to join, and Pinion threw an arm out in front of her. “You’re real. Don’t bother. Let us do the hard part.”

They stared into each other’s eyes for a moment that felt too long, long enough that I could smell the char rising from the burning memory, and then the Captain smirked. “Sure, grandma.”

Pinion laughed. “What an ungrateful child your mother had.” Then she turned away, spear held lightly in her fingers, and stepped in front of the Captain.

I took a step back and the armies charged the great creature. It stood over ten feet tall, brandishing a dozen arms from a dozen places and as the first of the horde attacked it, with swords and spears and arrows, it bled, yes, but it also whirled about, and arms grabbed and squeezed until their blood fell to the ground like rain, and then swept them to the side.

“You’re all fools,” The reaper queen hissed. “You could live here forever. You could be with me forever! You are all toys here with me. None of you will live to remember this!”

But I could see where Atalanta’s spear had buried in her massive gleaming eye, and could see where she was bleeding, and soon another arrow got past the endless array of whirling arms and struck her, and then another, and she bled readily, fake and false.

Then Atalanta dove in, snatching up a great hammer from a man with armor, and she struck hard down on an exposed bone, and the arm shattered and then disintegrated, falling to the ground, and she struck again and again like a smith as a forge, and then her last strike smashed up into the creature’s rib cage, and then she fell to the ground. She laughed, weakly, and when the next hand came, she could not dodge it.

She died on the battlefield as the creature whirred about, deflecting countless blows. But she died and faded out with a smile on her face. Freedom at last!

Pinion stepped up next, her long spear in her hand, and she darted through the chaos of battle where crossbows and sword clattered, a desperate mass of memories avenging old wrongs and making new more exciting ones, and she scored a savage blow across the eye, splitting open the skin like an exotic fruit, and ichor spilled out, making the ground slick. Her talons dug into the mud for grip, but it wasn’t enough to stop a hand from shattering her spear. As the reaper queen stared down at her, and as her form became indistinct and she started to face, she dove in, a flurry of shadows and talons, and kicked up into the mess of the reaper queen. Freedom at last!

The chef dove in and scored a shallow cut with his knife, and as he was cut down, he saluted. The roar of combat became duller and duller. The Reaper Queen’s toys spread cut after cut upon her body until the ground smelled like nothing more than turpentine and old mold and cloth and feathers. Freedom at last!

Harley arrived, an arrow sticking out of her gut, her entire front and legs painted thick and hot with her own blood, and shot the lot of us a grin. “We didn’t die here. Remember that. We died hundreds of years ago. We’re nothing but memories, tortured here for centuries. We’re being freed at last.” She laughed, and drew her bow.

She managed a single shot before the creature took her, but that single shot sank deep into the eye, scoring a wound as great as any of the spear strokes and as mighty as any that had been struck before. Freedom at last!

Then, there was only Jerome. She glared straight ahead at the great creature, at the eye, torn to shreds and bleeding, at the mouth that moved without words. She signed once, and the creature laughed, a tired horrified thing, and then she dove in, and her spear dug in tight enough that it pierced straight to the very center, and clicked against something hard.

She saluted us, a great and perfect thing, and the Captain and Vali saluted back. Jerome signed once more, and then the beast cut her down.

“We die for the living,” Vali muttered. “They knew at the end. They knew at the very end,” she shook her head.

And then there were just the living to fight her. At some point, Thyn had crawled to our side, and we both stared, slack jawed, at the great thing in front of us.

“It’s our time,” The Captain smirked, leering at Vali. “Are you ready for the big moment?”

“They died,” Vali said, staring blankly ahead. “They died for us.”

“They died hundreds of years ago,” The Captain said. “They recognized that, once I shook the island’s belief in this lie. This is the last round. And they did the fighting for us.” She drew her guns and laughed. “Now we kill.”

“You could’ve been happy here,” The reaper queen said, but her voice was very tiny, and instead of the human tones I recognized the voice of a siren. “You could’ve fought for your life. You could’ve had purpose in your lives.”

“This isn’t how it went,” The Captain said. “And I’m not inclined for mercy. Not here.”

“Who cares how it went,” The island said. “It doesn’t matter how it went. I wanted it… I wanted it to go this way, don’t you get it? Everyone who came here… They wanted this too. They came here wanting to know about the opulence of our empire… I couldn’t disappoint them, I couldn’t-”

Vali straightened, brandishing her spear. Thyn put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. Irony leaned against me, half dead, delirious.

The Captain drew her guns, pointed it at the eye, at the reaper queen that was now just barely standing up, whose skeletal legs shook with each step, whose many arms had been decimated to broken stubs, and fired until her guns clicked.

The eye took it, rocking back, step by step, until it crashed into the side of the prison compound. “I just wanted- I didn’t want it to happen like this, I just wanted-”

“Fuck you,” Vali said, and her spear slammed home inside of the eye, hitting the hard stop that Jerome had pointed out, and then she slammed up, and the eye tore open like a grape, and the orb fell out.

The reaper queen shook and rippled and died. The fire dimmed, smouldered, and then went out without a trace of smoke.

“That’s it?” Thyn asked. I looked around. At the far distance, the students were evacuated, huddled next to what had been the front gates.

“That’s it,” Vali said, going slack. Her shoulders fell. “The end’s… the end’s not here.” She laughed, and it fell on deaf ears, but it just kept coming, shaken from her chest, bubbling forth like a brook. “We’re dead now. There’s nothing here, there’s no rescue. Nothing’s coming to find us.”

Thyn sat down. Irony sat down too, and they stared at each other. Thyn bled from his many wounds, his scabs torn open just from being able to walk, and he was quiet. Vali’s shoulders shook as she laughed and laughed and laughed, and I stared at the horizon.

“Is it over?” I asked. “Did we really lose?”

“Do you really think I’d leave it like this?” The Captain asked. I didn’t know who she was talking to. “You can’t bury this. I already know. I’ll show everyone else, if that’s what you want.”

The edges of the great dream we were in shook and dimmed. Things lost definition around us.

“I won’t die like this,” The Captain repeated, and she spread her wings, the great grey wings of the albatross. Her eyes gleamed like amethysts in the dying light of the sun as it dimmed to darkness. “This isn’t how it ended.”

“How did it end?” I asked. “How did it end?”

The Captain’s eyes flicked down, and she grabbed the orb, the great eye, that this battle had taken place over. It wasn’t large enough, I found myself thinking, staring at it blankly. It was so important, but it wasn’t large enough to be that important.

She held it aloft.

“This is what the island wanted to hide,” The Captain said, and she held it higher, and turned to look to the west, where the sun had disappeared, and the only light was the light in her eyes, and the gleam off of the orb. It was dark, and the world was growing very cold.

“What was it hiding?” I asked, though I bore no lips and my body was disappearing into the aether itself.

“The humans aren’t responsible for the dead sea,” The Captain finished, and the eye gleamed in her hand. “And this is an Eye of the Worm.”

The sky cracked open until all that was left were stars, arranged in endless lines, and even then, they weren’t stars, but eyes, endless eyes, etched into the fabric above, watching, hunting, seeking, hungry. Teeth as great as galaxy’s moved overhead, a great arc of the sky taken up by nothing more than endless segments.

The Worm had arrived.

“W-who?” My voice came out in a strangled hoarse tone. I could see the eyes staring down at us, the one true worm suddenly very aware of how this hypothetical would end, summoned by the gem sitting in the Captain’s hand. The memory surged back into focus, and the world rang like a crystal bell. I could see for miles over the edge of the ocean.

“My ancestor is, responsible.” The Captain said, and she raised the orb high, high as she could, and pointed, into the distance, where even in the darkness, the endless waves of the human empire were approaching. “She called down the full power of this eye, at the end, when all seemed lost!” Their ships were illuminated by torches and the gaze of the Worm, a hungry, never satiated gaze that set my teeth apart and crackling together. “She called down the Worm upon this land! And the worm devoured their hypothetical gains!” I could taste copper, thick and heavy in the air. “And it’ll work here! Because this too is a hypothetical.”

The Eye of the Worm gleamed in her hands like a star itself, and then as the Captain closed her other hand, she called out to the creature from the heavens.

The Great Worm shot down from the sky faster than the eye could track and devoured us all at once, and then things were together between the teeth and there was a great disaster and a sound like a chorale and then the and then the and then the and the island died.