The sky became crows. A black rainbow of talons scratching, beaks biting, caws shrieking, and I knew the world was lost. I had lost it.
The Crow Queen. I’d called Her and She came. To save me. To save the world.
Crows swarmed the Lonely Tree, flapping wings louder than the distant explosions. Back home, I could’ve never told the difference between one crow and another. Here, now, was different. One bobbed its head side to side and cawed—gently—against the cacophony of its fellows in the sky, and I knew it. It recognized me too, and it landed. It brushed my face with the broad of its beak as if to comfort me, but staring into its black eyes was no comfort at all.
Another, firmer. Insistent. It liked my taste. My heart thudded, pushing life from every cut and wound to mingle with the already blood-sodden ground, steaming against the surrounding snow.
With the third jab, it plucked my eye from the socket, gulped it into his beak and flew off. The pain.
Enough to bury every hurt I had now, or had ever, received. A thousand glass shards scraping over a blackboard. A dam burst inside me and I screamed myself raw in one yell. I kept my good eye crushed shut, as if that could stop the pain. Hoping not to see the state my body had been left in.
But, I could still see.
I saw myself, a speck, from above.
A second crow took my last eye, unleashing a new reservoir of screams. Their friends landed in the tree and took the rest of me. I watched from above until I could watch no more. I saw Her then, through the eyes the crows had stolen, a cloud of fluttering darkness. Snatching souls liked I’d sniped food off a friend’s plate a world away. Murder spread across the sky and She took me home.
It was the end of the world. This world, at least.
I’d been sent here to save it. To stop it.
And fight I had. I’d never learned the world’s name. Maybe it no longer had one; its name could’ve been lost, cut up in the Rising when the dead started to walk, and eat again.
I could save this world—every world—from what waited in the dark. I couldn’t fail. I had to show Her my gifts had found the right home. How many good people would have followed Her to Her cave? How many would’ve accepted Her gifts? How many would’ve made the Bargain.
I couldn’t say. I’d never know.
All I knew was I had. And I wouldn’t fail.
Who would’ve thought, as I got lost in the woods, I’d have stumbled into Her. Into this world, staring at the summit of Marrow Hill. There was no avoiding it. It drew the gaze like a black hole eating light. We’d been trying to take it for years.
I’d left my Sally back across an ocean of worlds, so far I couldn’t find a memory of home in the night stars. Her locket hung against my skin; a small portrait filled the silver heart. The only silver I hadn’t melted to fight the End King’s army.
I spat in mud black with blood and offal. Long before this war began, men fought over this hill, for empires long dust. I’d seen what happened to the worlds where champions failed to rise. I wondered how She chose when, where, to send Her champion, when there was so much pain and hurt and conflict in existence. Why had She sent me here?
A scream and the stink of burning meat jolted me from reverie. I forced myself to listen. We burn our dead now, the dying too. Fresh wounds, old wounds, infection, trench fever. That used to be that. They were given Gods’ Rights, and put in the ground. Then they started coming back. The soldiers had protested the fires, until our dead clawed from the earth to join the enemy. Christ, that’d been a lifetime ago. A world away, I would’ve protested too. But not here. Not now. Not after what I’d seen. And done.
Our sorcerers, hunted and Turned, became necromancers in the End King’s army, accelerating the assault against us. It was hard. Hard for the soldiers. For me. We had to kill friends. Brothers and sisters. Again.
Now you’re wounded and the doc don’t like it, on the pyre you go.
It’s a hell of thing to have to do. To have a dying person’s hand clutch your wrists, nails scraping your skin as they go screaming into the fire. Cursing you, your family. Cursing their fate. We used to give them a soporific so they wouldn’t go in awake, but we ran out of drugs two years ago. There was no other choice. Kill them before they go in, and they shamble off the stretcher to gut you. Another scream. You wonder what you’re losing trying to stay alive. If the fight is ever worth it, given how you must fight.
Once, I would’ve felt the same. Here it made me believe She was with us. We hadn’t died yet. We’d fought hard. If I pleased her, this world might be spared.
We fought in shifts, but we always fought. No one had enough sleep—not even the dead. There was no escaping the sounds of battle as you planned the next attack. Explosions rang out against the din causing earth and detritus to rain down, peppering my neck and sliding under my jacket.
My friends waited.
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