A moment comes when I suddenly stop.
There are blackened corpses everywhere - I'm huge, and they're piled almost thigh-deep in places. They are all cooking and blackening as I stand there. My chest is heaving - I realize I'm trying to suck in more air, can't through the mask - I drop it, and immediately have to choke down puke.
The stench is too much. What do a million smoldering dead bodies smell like? I'll never have to ask. I'm an expert now on smoldering dead bodies. Come to me for all your smoldering dead-body needs. A laugh sneaks out and thickens into a sob. I take a last big gulp of air - the Eyeless are swarming over the latest line of their own mangled dead - or re-dead - and I come forward.
They've already overrun this position, and the one behind. I hear they're at the command center, then the radios went static-y so I only hear pieces of shouts or screams.
They've overrun the position, but not me.
I'm back on the Sennin, trying to scrape the charred flesh from my armor. I notice that the others hardly notice the smell anymore. I don't really either. A lot of it sloughed off when I shrunk back down, raining back down on the Eyeless and terror-stricken Goshi idiots screaming and running among them, panicked, crying blood. At the back are First Minds now. The Spaghetti Guy. That's when I decided I was actually going to leave. I know there isn't much I can do against Spaghetti Guy.
I also saw something that can't possibly be right. I thought - now Moses, that was a long time ago, that isn't now. That was when we first got the Sennin, when Trencher and Julian were...before you...before Katashi Blade...before all of that. When you went to the fire. When we met the Dusk Sages. That was the green-island-story. Now you're in the killed-by-eyeless-story.
But now they're the same story. "Did you see it?" Rei asks.
I'm kind of at a loss.
We meet back at the big machine. The God - no, the Artifact - has bonded to Sousa-whoever's machine, like it bonded to me. There are six conduits. I can't help but think legs, arms, heart, head - where they came out of me, when I got what's by far my biggest scar. They're talking and then Zipporah is there. She whispers something about our baby moving, quickening. I stop paying attention and start thinking of names - something like Goshi? To remind us? Goshen? Midian? That's a cool name. But what about a girl. Miriam? A family name.
Jin-Kalys is gesturing, then flaring his big flaps of colored skin, they're all talking to each other...I don't need to know what they're saying. The island is coming, flying through the fucking sky, and we have to bring it down. Jin points and I look up - there is a small orange mote nearing the top of the sky.
Before that mote gets to the top of the sky, over the city.
I find myself thinking...its just an island. Someone put it up there, and so we beat that person up and it comes down. Simple.
Rei says a name she keeps saying, but I finally hear her. Nero.
I remember my promise. When we met Nero. Arrogant son of a bitch, full of threats and dressed like a pansy. I wondered if I could shove him through that vent into the lava. Rei warned me against it. But I promised him. You get in our way again and I'll kill you. I'd never forgotten the promise, because I'd never said anything like that before. It just came out of me.
Tanuki is going ape-shit. He wants out so bad. It makes me happy, as it always has, to not give him what he wants. We're long past the point where we could have a good working relationship. Fuck you, big-balls. And, if I get my way, goodbye.
Rei is arguing with "Ama-chan" again. And she has a plan. I hope we're talking to Rei this time, and I hope, without even knowing what it is, that her plan fails. There's only one plan, and its where we die and the Enemy dies with us.
We land on the island, now barren of anything but sick plants and Kyo-tee-shee, and Kyoshi does...something...and I forget the promise. Light flares out of him, starts coming out of his mouth. The island wavers and drops a few hundred feet. I'm still on the Sennin. They're talking to Nero, but I can barely hear - their voices are so thick and slow. "...you're still alive!..."
I'm looking at a schematic for a spaceship, listening to someone talking about our history, the history of the Cheldrun. We...we filled the stars, once. We flew between points of light that even light had to wait until it reached. We had worlds and worlds, moons, metal worlds that we built circling planets.
And the First Minds...were like the Dusk Sages. Some rebelled, and they became the Enemy, that chased us here, that is over our heads right now, driving their army forward. I look down at my hands, and light spills out...we could fly. I'm on the island now, and the fight is on.
All eyes turn to HighDive. I fill with every image of every frustrating damn thing she's ever done, my fists clench, but I know this is just a Kata - and then she's completely covered in knives. They rush past me and I feel the wind when they do like shots from a tank that barely miss, like artillery hitting the building next door. Everything slows down.
She's spinning in the middle of them, a tiny fucking squirrel hardly bigger than one of the knives, and she's just poking them with her paws and feet and grinning to herself. She's never there to hit...and as they miss her, the over-shoot, and go whirling back at Nero. I watch and grin and gape as fifty knives slash him and slam into his body, tearing up his stupid clothes.
Kyoshi attacks, slashing. Una shrieks and tears into him as she flies past. I throw myself into the column of energy that's holding him up and as I sail past, I hit him with an earthquake that sends shards of green gem slashing past us both and I go sailing up into the air.
As I fall and spin I watch another storm of knives miss HighDive entirely and slash into Nero instead, this time hitting harder than tank shells. He's staggered and the island falls a bit. We attack again, but the most dangerous thing to him are his own knives.
The next attack comes at us all. He's done with HighDive kicking his ass - everyone gives up at stopping her at some point. I throw up a dome to protect who I can ...and see Una fall and Kyoshi torn apart. Then High Dive circles the world in green fire, and winds us back to the moment before Kyoshi collapses. I use all of my energy, throw up two domes - "this is easier if you stick together" and let the knives hit me. I remember the tank shells from the battle of Stardown. They ping off of me, slowed by Rei's shield, and I feel energy flow into me.
I land, and Una is using her power again
I feel a heartbeat in my chest that isn't mine, echoing, I feel it through my feet, the whole world pulsing
You are mine.
The world is speaking to us. I feel like I burst out of my skin, filled with...something I can't even describe. Too much me. Too much Karia.
And suddenly the island is falling through the sky.
Nero is a...teenager? Standing there, touching the green NeverGem beneath his feet. "What was that? What was that voice?"
That was Karia, Nero. He yells at us to get off the falling island. Aimi is landing the Sennin. We're really, really doomed if we stay.
My promise. I remember the six conduits. I surprise myself.
"No. We need you with us." He argues for a second, the sky is falling away and I know the ground is rushing up toward us. "This is how we end malice." I grab him and brush past a surprised Rei into the Sennin and deposit him inside as we all scramble in, just in time.
Millions of kilos of green NeverGem island slam into the mountain range encircling Stardown, heaving the first few mountains aside, throwing up a cloud of green gem that blots out the sun and chokes everything in fine green dust. It grinds longer than I'd think, visibly shaking the ground, collapsing buildings in Stardown that are still standing, putting huge cracks in the ice that the refugees are fleeing across, until there is a rolling wave of chunks of NeverGem, some crashing down into the valley of Stardown, before it clatters to as stop.
Everything has stopped to watch. I can see that the Goshi soldiers have turned and are all fighting the Eyeless now. They must feel what I feel, what Rei and Kyoshi feel...what Nero felt.
Nero is just a kid. We explain to him what has to happen. That he's been chosen by Karia to save the world.
I think of Mokuzai. He's got Mokuzai's Kyo-tee-shee in there. I saw it when we fought him on the flying island. Mokuzai was chosen to save the world. Mokuzai, not you you sniveling monster. You're a kid and I wish things had been different for you, but you've killed more than enough to make you all grown up in my book. Old enough to fight, to change you mind...old enough to die.
And he seems to want to. He makes sure that the machine will kill him before he agrees. I save feeling bad about this for later.
For now, I'm making sure my promise is kept, by the machine if not by me. We can't feel bad for every twisted bastard child who tries to kill millions of people, who clearly killed the last of the Dusk Sages so that he could have more power. There's so much to feel bad for at this point that this little broken kid is just a drop in a big, big bucket.
We land, and we're ready. I get to see Zipporah one last time. One last time. What do you say? They're talking and I'm not listening. She's clinging to me and we're crying.
I can't help thinking about the future. I forget about the past. I think about...the world without us, without the Oni, without the renegade First Minds or the greedy, stupid Kyo-tee-shee. Will she name him Moses, if he's a boy? Will he grow up Prill or Cheldrun? Or will it be a girl? Do Karians know that kind of thing?
Its time. The end is here. Kyoshi goes onto the Sennin...to say goodbye. Goodbye.
As I gently stand up and sidle toward the Sennin, I practice saying it. My mind can't wrap around the word.
I set Zipporah on the ramp up into the Sennin. I try to say goodbye but what comes out is "I'll see you again, one way or another. But you can't be here when this happens."
Real romantic. Will they put that on your tombstone?
Will there be anybody to carve a tombstone?
We just look at each other as the Sennin lifts off. I keep looking long after its too small to see clearly, faded into the green dust still raining down on us. I just...ran out of things to say.
I walk back to the machine, walk over to HighDive. I've been saving a surprise for this moment, once I learned what had to happen with the machine. I stand over her, point to the armored plate on my chest.
Her eyes light up. She straightens, reverently. I can see her little heart pounding through the fur of her chest. She scampers up, puts a pay on one of the bolts holding the armor in place.
I've loosened it. Her eyes go wide. Wicky-wicky. Wickywickywicky...and the bolt falls away, clattering to the floor.
The moment is interrupted.
Jin-Kalys says the Oni need to be lured here. I grimace at HighDive - sorry - and tighten the bolt back down.
I've got a little mana left. I run for the stairs, swelling so that I can just step past them. I leap over the battling Laughers, trailing cinders, and land amongst the Eyeless, shield up and batting them aside. And that's it. I'm all out.
I met Suraisu-Oni and snapped off one of his drill-arms, tossed him into the air, shot him, so that he was visible from a long way off, and then ran back to the chamber.
I leap inside, shrinking, and see the other Oni have found us already. Kyoshi is saying something -
"We've come here to fulfill our purpose. In the name of justice, we will create balance. We will find the power to forgive, and will bring our people freedom. And there will be peace."
I grit my teeth and jam the cable into my chest, having knocked the plate protecting it free. We all do the same, Nero last (I think of jamming the thing in his chest if he hesitates too long, but I don't have to). The Oni come down into the chamber. Chunks of us are teleported away. HighDive withers and dies of old age in a sea of sludge. Una is incinerated. And - just as Rei, dying, gestures and the cable slips out of my chest - Suraisu-Oni's drill bit erupts from my body.
I grab for the cable, but my hands are covered with this slippery rainbow stuff. Then I think I'm dreaming because Zipporah is here, puts a hand on my arm, looks at me and then slides the cable back in. Its a happy dream, this dying-dream. I reach back, find Suraisu's head, think of Mokuzai a last time, grab his head and twist until I hear the squeal of machinery tearing.
"My child will live in a world without you."
The rainbow stuff falls out of all of us, is devoured by the Oni, who shovel it into their mouths, slurping it up, down to the last drop -
But the last drop catches, won't come out. I feel Tanuki laugh. This isn't funny, Tanuki.
Yes it is, little-balls.
Everything goes backwards, fast, faster, rainbow goop rushing into us, the Oni deflating and becoming like ghosts, then being sucked in, and it all flows through us into the machine. There is swirling light everywhere - all of the Kyo-tee-shee, swirling madly like stars - and they're all sucked in, and there is a burst of light, and the Wandering Star is torn from the sky, breaking apart, chunks trailing fire like burning hail...
The tubes slide from our chests easily. It is entirely quiet. The green dust has settled onto everything, like we've been lying here like this for years, undisturbed. Jin-Kalys is crumpled in a corner, in a kind of lizardly shock. Zipporah is sprawled out on the ground in front of me.
The wound in my chest is gone. I pick up Zipporah, and in a daze, climb the stairs.
The city is...a mess. The Eyeless are all gone. There is gore and charred remains of buildings everywhere.
From the park nearby, where the Anakarix were draping their wounded in the trees, Boristakan, looks around, looks at me.
We start laughing.
Back inside, HighDive has found her battered, pitted, scarred pot, filled with the names of the dead inside. She turns it right-side-up, rubs out the names written there, fills it with water, and starts making pasta.