She's never hated anyone before, so she isn't ready for the feeling that hits her when she sees him descend from the flame-lit sky. She wants to scream at him until her throat is raw, to fling herself on him and dig in her claws, to draw the sword he gave her and tear him to pieces. Holding herself back hurts so much that tears start to prick at her eyes, but she holds those back too.
There's some relief when he's true to his word, even if she can't stand the way he smiles at her. But as the Droll hands her the box and she hands him the crowns, Jack Noir clears his throat. "I like you, kid," he says. "You've got style." He gestures toward the headless corpse at her feet. "And, hey, looks like I've got an opening for a new agent. Interested?'"
"No." The word comes out like bile. What kind of person do you think I am? she thinks, and remembers having the same thought when he first handed her the sword and the hit list. She isn't the person she thought she was then, either, and she doesn't want to know how deep the hole goes.
"You sure? Keep in mind, doll, it's either me or the wasteland. There's nothing else left for you now."
She opens her mouth to tell him that she would rather die alone beneath an alien sun than spend another moment in his presence, but stops when she remembers the words of her Queen: patience and planning. Jack Noir is the most dangerous person to ever exist in the Incipisphere. Prospit has lost the war and everything else, but there are other planets and other people that still have more to lose. She could leave them all behind, leave him behind and escape to somewhere she'll have only her own suffering to bear up under — or she could take his offer and get in close to watch and wait, and maybe, just maybe, if she's patient and clever and very, very lucky, she'll end up in the right place at the right time to actually change something.
"All right," she tells him. "All right, I'll join you. There's one thing I have to do first. When it's done, I'll radio you."
"Smart girl," says Jack, and grins with all his teeth.
The shuttle from Skaia to Derse is the same as the shuttle from Prospit to Skaia in everything but color, which means that it's cold and cramped and not at all suited to the much longer journey. It is less packed, with only three passengers, but that makes it colder, and her mind fills in the empty space with ghost-images of the hundreds of pawns who crowded around the launch-pads trying to flee the Reckoning.
"Lab-grown soldiers," Jack told her as he drew his sword and the crowd parted before them. "No use for anything but fighting in the war. War's over now, and good riddance. It was fucking pointless. I'll be glad when every last trace of it is wiped from existence."
"They're people." She tried her best to look straight ahead at the shuttlecraft and not left or right at the sea of faces. She knew that they were looking at her, the blood-spattered, white-carapaced civilian inexplicably following in the wake of the usurper-king of Derse. "They should be evacuated."
"That's my call to make, not yours," he snapped, and so now there's just the three of them, Jack, the Droll, and herself, and she would have room to stretch her arms if it weren't for the heaviness of murder pressing in on her from the empty seats at either side.
The Droll is off in his own corner and his own world. Jack sits directly across from her. The two-foot-wide aisle between the benches is not enough space between them.
"Let's get down to business," he says. "I need to know who you were working for up until now."
"The postal system," she tells him wearily.
He spends a long moment staring at her with gradually fading incredulity before saying, "You're completely serious about that, aren't you?"
"Of course. Why wouldn't I be?"
"Fine. Just tell me who it was that asked you to deliver that package."
She considers lying to him, just on general principle, but decides she doesn't have the energy for it. "The Princess of the Moon."
"Good. Already killed that one. I hate loose ends."
It shouldn't hurt. The grief she already carries with her is so huge and crushing that she's numb to it. She longs for a safe, quiet place to sit with it for a while, to take it apart and feel it piece by piece. Until then she can't even mourn her own people, so when she thinks of the sweet-smiling alien girl she only ever met once, it really shouldn't hurt.
There's silence for a minute or so before she realizes why that's strange. "Aren't you going to ask me who received it?"
He smiles at her again, jagged and uneven like before, and says exactly what she feared he would: "I already know that."
"You followed me." She did wonder at how gamely he upheld his end of the bargain when Plan A had apparently been to have her killed as soon as she completed hers. She should have wondered more.
"Yeah," he says simply. Then, before she can think to hope that he's lying, he adds, "That scrawny little brat was the 'Prince,' right? Hilarious. Prospit really was a whole planet of we—"
"Shut up," she hisses. To her surprise, he does.
"Sorry, doll," he says, still smiling horribly. "I didn't mean you. You've been very helpful."
"I led you right to him" she acknowledges, voice cold, face flat. It's obvious that what he wants is to see her in pain, and she won't give him that, not even if it was all for nothing, not even if she's been a stupid, useless wretch this whole time, not even if she suddenly sees how hopeless this plan was from the beginning and that she's trapped in it now, trapped with him, and anything would be better than this — thirst, starvation, loneliness, anything. "No loose ends. You're welcome."
"There's something else I should thank you for," he continues. "If you hadn't tipped me off there was something important in that box, I probably would have just let it sit there. I'd still be pushing papers in particolor with the Queen Bitch breathing down my back. Now she's a stain on the cubicle floor and I'm on top of the world, but it never would have happened without you."
"It was a weapon?" She shouldn't be surprised at this point. She should really just assume that anything important will naturally also be horrible and dangerous. But the little alien girl had sounded so innocent — Oh please, oh please, oh please, Miss Mail Lady, he's my very best friend, and he's going to need it desperately!
He stares at her again, like he did when she reminded him that she was a mail carrier. "You didn't know. You went through all that trouble and misery and you didn't know what any of it was for."
"I knew that it was for the Prince and Princess," she says. "I knew that it was my job."
He laughs at that. She doesn't want to know why. "Have I mentioned yet that I like you?" he asks. "Because I do. I really, really do. We'll get along swell."
She doesn't answer, and he says nothing else until the shuttle docks at Derse. He's out the door the moment it opens, and once he's gone she buries her face in her hands and sits shuddering violently. She doesn't cry, because once she starts that she won't be able to stop, and she doesn't have long; if she doesn't follow after him soon he'll come looking for her, and she refuses to let him see how much she's suffering.
"Please don't be sad, Miss." She looks up at the sound of the voice, sees no one, remembers the Droll and looks down instead. "I was sad earlier today, because we lost a friend, but now we've met a new one, and that's exciting!"
"I'm not your friend!" she snaps, and instantly feels bad for saying it. She's picked up by now that there is something very wrong with the Droll, but whatever it is, she doesn't think it's his fault.
"Sure you are!" the little Dersite chirps, unfazed. "What you did earlier was really mean, but that's okay, lots of my friends do mean things sometimes. I forgive you, so you don't have to worry. And anyway, I'm glad you're around, because the boss is always so angry, and you make him happy instead."
"What? I do what?"
"He smiles at you," the Droll explains. "The boss never smiles at anything. Ever."
A chill goes down her spine. Again, she shouldn't be surprised — Jack's smile hardly looked like an expression he was accustomed to wearing — but somehow it's the most terrifying thing she's heard since she stepped aboard the shuttle.
"Put this on." Jack throws her a black, clasp-fastened uniform like the one he was wearing when she met him (like the one the Hegemonic Brute was wearing when she killed him) and glares at her expectantly.
"I'd like to keep my clothes," she says.
"Don't be ridiculous. They're torn and stained all over. You're a fucking eyesore."
"I can fix them." She isn't actually sure about that. Maybe blood doesn't come off, ever. She's never had to know before, but she's willing to give it a try.
"They're also pastel. That can't be fixed. Switch them out."
"They're from Prospit," she tells him. "I'm going to keep them."
"No, you're going to switch them out and give them to me so that I can burn them. And unless you'd like to climb on the pyre too, you're going to stop arguing with me about every little thing that offends your delicate sensibilities."
She wants to fight him on this. She wants to fight him on everything, at every turn, every chance she gets. But she knows that isn't going to work, so she takes the uniform and ducks around the corner to change. It's stiff and starched, and the clasps are heavy and cold against her chest. All the clothes she's ever worn had loose cuts and light fabrics that whispered like wind over her carapace. This itches and doesn't feel like her. She gazes wistfully for a moment at the Skaian-blue rags showing brightly against the dark violet-on-violet room they've been tossed out into, sees the splotches of browning red, tells herself that they really aren't anything to regret losing after all. She doesn't gather them up. He can get them himself.
"Happy?" she asks, stepping back into the room.
"Yeah." Jack is hunched over his desk writing something down on the backs of unpaid traffic citations, but when she comes in he looks up and looks her over. "I am, actually. You look good."
She decides to ignore that that just happened. There's really nothing else to do. After a moment he puts the pen down and hands her the papers. On them are a numbered list of names with addresses and physical descriptions, as well as a few hastily-scribbled maps in the margins. "What is this?" she asks, because it can't be what she thinks it is, not already.
"Aristocrats," he says with distaste. "Loyalists. People who might be a problem later. Right now, I've got bigger fish to reduce to piles of severed limbs and chunks of bloody torso."
"I don't want that kind of work."
One of his tentacles whips forward to knock her legs out from beneath her, and her knees hit the floor with a small jolt of pain. He draws his sword, presses the tip against her throat, and with the dull edge of the blade tilts her chin up so that she's looking into his eyes. "In case you haven't caught on yet, doll," he tells her, "what you want is completely irrelevant."
This is the second time in as many days he's held her at the point of a sword in this room. Then he was nothing but a bureaucrat with a sadistic streak. Now he is a king, and more than a king, and his black wings stretch out around her like the jaws of oblivion, poised to snap shut and swallow her down into darkness. She wonders, given that, and given this time he's brought the blade so much closer to drawing blood, why she was more afraid of him then than she is now.
"I'm not stupid," he continues. "I know what you're here for. I know what you feel every time you look at me. I see it in your eyes, and I remember; it wasn't all that long ago I was in the same place. You're waiting for me to have a bad day, a day like the old King and Queen just had. I'll tell you right now, doll, it's not going to happen. Accepting that will reduce your suffering significantly."
"You're right," she whispers. You're right: it wasn't all that long ago. It's too soon for you to be that confident, Jack.
He smirks, oblivious. "You're dangerous, but that could be useful. You could be useful. The moment I stop believing that is the moment your life ends." He drags the tip of the sword down her neck all the way to her collar. The sound of metal scraping against chitin rattles her, and she gasps out a rattled breath. "I'm heading back out to the Medium," Jack says, turning away from her. "When I return, you will prove to me that you have made progress on the list, or I'll do to you what I did to the rest of your planet."
There's still no fear, as she watches him walk away — only the same cold, focused anger she felt on the Battlefield when she brought her sword down on another person's neck and felt his shell and flesh and bone give way. She isn't afraid to die, but she's angry at the knowledge that Jack could make her, and she's more aware than she's ever been before of just how strongly she wants to survive.
"Who are you?" the stranger asks, eyes narrow.
"Doesn't matter," she tells him. "What's important is that you are in terrible danger, and you need to leave here as quickly as possible. If there's somewhere on the planet you can hide out, go there. Otherwise, exile yourself. I know it's dangerous, but it's less dangerous than doing nothing."
"What are you talking about? Why should I believe you?"
"Could you recognize Jack Noir's handwriting if you saw it?" she asks.
"The Archagent's? Probably, it's on everything."
Without another word, she hands him the scrap of paper with his name on it.
This is the difference she has decided to make: the people on her list will live. It may not be anything huge, but it isn't small either. Innocent people's lives aren't small, and they aren't expendable. She refuses to become like Jack just to cling to hope of bringing him down.
She knows she isn't being particularly patient, but she does have something of a plan. She's passed the information along to three of the marks already, and two others appear to have beaten her to the punch and disappeared before she got to them. Once she's finished with her rounds, she'll take her own advice and make a run for the Veil. Granted, as of now she doesn't really know how to get there, and obviously no one who looks like she does will be able to hide anywhere on Derse. Still, she can try, and if Jack catches her, she'll tell him that his targets have all cleared out, and of course she isn't running because she's guilty, she's running because she knows he won't believe her. If she can't talk him out of killing her, she'll smile softly and reveal to him that it's the truth, actually, but does he want to know why they cleared out? And she'll laugh in his face as she dies.
(That's the image of her death she holds up for herself whenever she has to consider the very real possibility of dying: him furious, humiliated, powerless in all ways but one; her fearless and careless and laughing. If she doesn't hold tight, other, contrary images start to push their way to the front, and then she is paralyzed until she wrestles her mind back under control.)
The Dersite finishes looking the hit list over and looks back up to her. "What is this?" he demands. "How did you get it?"
"He gave it to me when he ordered me to kill you," she says evenly.
The Dersite's fists clench, crumpling the paper. (It isn't a letter, she has to remind herself. It isn't a letter and you aren't acting as a mail carrier. If you're going to panic, it shouldn't be about that.) "Y-you're lying!"
His sudden, stuttering anger makes no sense to her, and puts her on edge. She is trying to be helpful. Why is he yelling at her for being helpful? "Why would I be lying?"
"Why wouldn't you be?" he counters. "You're Prospitian. Prospit is the enemy."
"There is no Prospit anymore," she forces herself to say (not scream, not choke out through tears she still has no time for). "The war is over. We have no reason to be enemies."
"What? It happened already? Derse won?"
"No. Jack won. Everyone else loses." He looks at her in bewilderment, and she explains, "Derse is in the hands of a super-powered sadist. That doesn't sound like a win condition to me."
"You're saying there was a coup?"
"You didn't know?" she asks, startled by the question. "I realize it was less than a day ago, but everyone else I spoke with had at least heard rumors."
He stares at her in silence for a moment, jaw clenched, fists trembling, then throws the paper to the floor in a wadded ball. (It isn't a letter!) "No! No, no, no! I don't believe it!"
"You have to believe it!" She's almost shouting now, because he is shouting at her, and that isn't fair. "If you don't get away he'll come after you himself or send someone else! I need to get away too, so please, just stop arguing with me and do what you have to do!"
"Who are you to tell me what I have to do?"
"I am someone who is laying down her life for you, you stupid little man!" (She'll laugh. Jack will be furious, and she will laugh, and it will be the best, most heroic thing she could ever do. (And what if he decides to torture you first? Will you keep laughing, through broken teeth and the blood in your throat?))
"I am not stupid! I'm not! See here, Miss!" He shakes his finger at her, jabbing it up toward her face with such viciousness that she has to take a step back, and he steps forward with her, pursuing her. "Maybe some of what you're saying is true, but I don't for a moment believe all of it! I can't believe all of it! Our Glorious Monarch… No!" His wildly stabbing finger catches her in the throat. It doesn't hurt, not really, but suddenly the panic that's been welling up steadily swells and bursts through the final barriers. The world doesn't make sense and she is going to die, and this Dersite has no idea and is still saying things. "Maybe there's blood flowing in the sickly yellow streets of your planet, but Derse will always be—"
Shell and flesh and bone and flesh and shell and air. What happened on the Battlefield. What didn't happen in the wrecked office. It's barely a decision; all she does is stop fighting against the current and allow her conscious mind to sink beneath the surface. Her body moves with the memory in her muscles and the heat in her blood. But before that, the thought is there — if only for one brief flash of a moment — that this is a man whose life she would be willing to trade for her own.
While she's still numb she has a second flash of thought, and the head goes in the satchel to take back with her.
She doesn't make it ten steps away from the door before the world un-tilts, and she collapses to the ground and is violently sick until her stomach is empty.
She stays on the ground simply because there is no point in getting up. There is no point in anything. Everything she's tried to do has ended in a horrible bloody mess. Just over a day ago, she had never touched a weapon in her life. Just earlier today, she was a killer but not a murderer. Now she is both.
She was supposed to help him. He needed her help. He wasn't a bad person; he was isolated and terrified and half-mad with shock and denial, and he needed her patience and compassion. It's painfully easy to see that now, but she can't go back to that moment any more than she can go back to her home on Prospit. And she can't go forward, either, because there is something very wrong with her, something that she doesn't know how to control, and she can't let this happen again. She would rather die.
"There you are. The Sovereign Slayer is looking for you."
She doesn't recognize the voice, but she doesn't look up either. "Stay away," she says quietly. The sound of footsteps approaches, heedless, and she repeats, "Stay away. I'm crazy."
"That's hardly a novelty around here." A hand closes around her wrist. "On your feet, girl. It isn't smart to keep him waiting."
He pulls her up, and she tries to stand, if only to keep from falling back down and hurting herself, but she's light-headed and weak-legged and her stomach is twisting and clenching and trying its best to come up with more to expel. The man — tall, cold-eyed, dressed like one of Jack's agents, with a diamond-shaped pin on his uniform — sighs and slips an arm under her shoulder to steady her. "Don't touch my neck," she tells him.
"I know. Just don't." She gets her feet firmly under her and pulls away from him, feeling uneasy about the physical contact. "Thank you for that… uh..?"
"The Draconian Dignitary," he tells her, and looks her over appraisingly. "The Slayer led me to understand that you were something special. I don't think I believe him."
"You shouldn't. I'm just… I was… I'm a Parcel Mistress." He stares at her blankly, so she explains, "I carry mail." Without any other change in his expression, his eyes shift to the blood-soaked satchel hanging from her back. She had successfully forgotten she was carrying it, and she has to fight back the urge to get it off of her immediately and fling it away. "I don't…" she stutters helplessly. "I mean, it doesn't usually…"
"Don't talk. Just walk. You don't seem to be breathing well enough to do both."
She obeys. It's easy enough, if she doesn't think about where she's walking to — certainly easier than trying to find words that can explain the disconnect between who she thinks she is, thought she was, always has been, and the blood on her pack and her sword and her hands. In the silence she can process what was just said and only half-heard through the haze in her mind, and once she does, she has to ask, "What do you mean, he said I was special?"
"You fought and won against the Hegemonic Brute," says the Dignitary. "And you brought us the crowns of the King and Queen of Prospit, which was a neat trick, however you pulled it off."
"Oh." She really hadn't fooled anyone about that, then. She should have known; there was something Jack had wanted to go back to the Medium for. The more she learns, the more obvious it becomes that she hasn't done any good at all. But she has done harm — immeasurable harm — and maybe, she considers detachedly, the thing to do is just die already.
"I think you'll survive," the Dignitary tells her, and for a moment she's startled into wondering whether he can read her thoughts, "as long as you can refrain from doing anything extraordinarily stupid. He does like you."
"Likes me." She remembers how coldly he spoke of killing her, and almost laughs. But then she remembers other things — his smile, the way his eyes went over her after she put on the clothes he forced her to wear — and suddenly it isn't funny at all. "You don't think…" She doesn't want to say it. "He doesn't…" She doesn't even want to think it. "Does he… does he want me?"
"It's possible, I suppose" says the Dignitary, either not noticing or choosing to ignore the horror in her voice. "But don't count on that to keep you safe."
"Safe," she says dully. "How can you think that would make me feel safe?"
"I only said it was possible."
"Does he treat you the way he does me?" she demands. "Knock you to the ground? Hold a blade to your throat to remind you how powerless you are against him?"
"Jack was someone else's chew toy for a very long time," the Dignitary explains calmly, steadfastly refusing to mirror her urgency. "Now he's decided to make you his. There may or may not be anything more to it than that."
"Not a chew toy," she says, thinking aloud. "A doll. He dresses me up and throws me around and rips out…"
She puts aside that line of thought when they reach the doors of the palace. It occurs to her how strange it is that this building, identical in all ways but color to the one on Prospit, can fill her with such dread and unease, when that other felt so welcoming and made her heart skip with excitement even in the face of the heavy task before her. And now, somehow, the feeling is even more oppressive than it was before. She is struck by a sudden, overwhelming sense — a sense she tries to ignore, because it's completely irrational, of course, and superstitious, and absurd — that once she walks in through those doors, she won't ever walk back out.
"I… I don't want to see him." She does not look at the Dignitary as she speaks. The towering, intricately carved purple doors command her full attention. "I'm sorry, but I have to—"
There's a soft click, and she turns around to see a gun pointed at her head. "Don't mistake courtesy for kindness," the man aiming it tells her.
She recognizes the impulse to reach for her sword as lethally stupid and, with some effort, suppresses it. Maybe if she'd thought to try it earlier, when they were standing closer together, before he knew that she would want to escape, before he had a chance to go for his gun…
But, of course, she didn't think of it then. She couldn't have. And, in a way, she's glad.
She turns back to the doors and, with a deep breath, plunges forward.
Jack sits on the throne. He is covered in blood and lit by a harsh, almost blindingly bright glow, and yellow tendril-like sparks roll off of his body. His head is tilted back, his eyes closed, his fingers curled in toward his palm, where the light is brightest. It strikes her the moment she sees him that this is the look of a man savoring the fact that he has gotten everything he ever wanted.
Once she's a bit closer, she sees that the final orb of the Queen's ring has been lit, and that in addition to his earlier prototypings he now wears what appear to be the tail and ears of a wolf. The latter twitch as she approaches him. He opens his eyes, shakes himself briefly, then fixes her with a smile. "Hello, doll. What have you brought me?"
She wants to take the bloodied satchel off of her back and hurl it at him with all of her strength. She wants to enough that she actually does it.
Green fire flares up about the throne, and space twists around the projectile in a way that hurts her head to look at. It switches direction without slowing down and smacks her in the chest with all the force of her own throw.
"Pretty neat, huh?" says Jack. "Now why don't you try that again — the right way." Without a word, she picks up the satchel and holds it out to him. "Wrong again. I am the king; kneel to me." She catches her frustrated scream against the back of her teeth and gets down on her knees — both of them, the posture to which she fell when he forced her to the ground through violence, rather than the respectful one-knee-up-one-knee-down bow she gave to the Queen and King of Prospit. That seems to satisfy him, because he stands and takes the bag from her, and she reflects — bitterly, but also with a small twinge of something like triumph — that of course he would not be able to tell the difference. It's a stupidly petty thing for her to be thinking about, as she realizes when he pulls the head out and she has to turn away and close her eyes just to keep breathing. A tentacle catches hold of her beneath her chin and yanks her face back toward him. "Don't be like that, doll. It's your work. You can look at it."
"Don't touch me," she snaps. He's brushing against her neck and her sword arm twitches like something with a life of its own. She presses her hand against the floor and leans on it hard, because in spite of everything, she still wants to survive. She doesn't want to be conscious right now, but she wants to survive. There has to be something left for her to do. She can't have gone this far for that not to be true.
"Open your eyes," he commands, and when she doesn't, he twists her head back at a painful angle and doesn't let go until she obeys. "There. Is that so bad?"
"It is," she tells him. "It's the worst thing in the world." There is everything wrong with this picture, and before she can look at it for more than a few seconds, it gets blurred over by tears she can no longer hold back. She doesn't care anymore if Jack sees. He has already won in every way that matters. "Not the blood. The emptiness. The fact that he can't ever taste food or look at the sky or get a package in the mail, not ever again. I did that. I did that to someone who never did anything to me."
Jack says something else, but she isn't listening anymore. Her whole body is shaking and her chest feels like it's full of broken glass. Before she can stop herself, she's crying for Prospit, too — for the Queen, and the girls at her work, and the man at the grocery she bought fruit from, and everyone who ever smiled and thanked her when she handed them a letter. She cries for the strange, soft-skinned children on the moon. She even cries for the horrible man who attacked her on the Battlefield.
She doesn't notice at first that Jack is slapping her, and even when she does, she doesn't care. "Focus!" he snaps at her. "I asked you a question. Shut up and focus!" He strikes her hard enough that she topples over and smacks her head against the tile floor. "It was funny for a while, but it's started to get annoying."
"What do you want?" she asks wearily.
"How did you get the crowns? You had me going at first, but by now it's pretty damn obvious that you cheated on the deal."
She takes a deep breath, in and out, and pushes herself back onto her knees. "I asked nicely."
He stares at her. "Now you are just fucking with me."
"I asked nicely," she repeats. Her head is starting to clear, thanks to the jolt, and she feels cold all the way through and ready to hate him more than she does herself. "It worked pretty well. You should try it some time."
"And the ring? You 'asked' for that too?"
"No. That was her idea. She was abdicating, and she needed someone to keep it safe."
"You fucked that up pretty badly, huh?" He grins. "It's kind of hilarious. I know you were thrown in over your head, but carrying things around was basically your whole job before then, wasn't it? If there was anything you should have been able to do well, it was that."
"I know. I was horrified when I thought I'd lost it." She meets his eyes. "But I didn't lose it, did I? It was stolen." There is no other way he could know all of this.
"Like I said: you fucked up. It's a real shame, too. If you'd had it on you at the Battlefield, you might have been able to stop me."
That cuts, but it also gives her an idea. "So you have it now," she says, trying to sound defeated rather than hopeful.
"Now why would I keep something dangerous like that around and not just destroy it immediately? Sorry, doll. You missed your chance."
She's about ready to scream. He looks about ready to laugh. "The blood you're wearing," she says finally, because she's been wondering from the beginning, and as much as she doesn't want to know, she feels she has to ask. "It's theirs, isn't it? Royal blood."
"Nah," he says, surprising her. "They're irrelevant. If she was on Prospit, she's dead already. If he's on Skaia, he'll be dead within the hour when the Reckoning ends. Even if they somehow got away, they probably just ran for the wasteland. In any case, they're powerless now. You and I saw to that. The only real threat left is the humans. I killed the three bigger ones, then got tired of chasing around the brats and came back here to rest. But that's fine; they'll either come to me, or they'll die in the Reckoning."
He says it all so casually. There is malice in his voice, but it's a passionless malice, as though hatred for him were simply a matter of course and not the fire and ice that by turns scorches and chills her heart whenever she looks at him. "And what happens then? What do you do when Skaia is gone and the Medium is gone and nothing is left in the universe but Derse?"
"I rule," he tells her. "I run this planet the way it always should have been run: efficiently. I kill who I want to. I give my crew what they want, within reason. I play with my Prospitian Marionette."
It takes her a moment. "You didn't just do that," she says very quietly. "You did not just name me. You don't get to name me."
"Yeah, actually, I do. I get to name you. I get to dress you. I get to pull your strings and make you kill for me and watch you cry your bleeding heart out afterward." He reaches out and brushes his fingers across her face. When she recoils from him in horror he simply smirks and holds out his hand to show her the blood that was splattered on her cheek. All at once, she realizes that this is not survival. This is him making a game out of erasing her, and she has been playing along. It's a slower road to oblivion than death, but just as sure of one. It scares her, when she thinks about it, how little continuity there is between the person she was this time the day before and the person she is now. And she will keep slipping, because she has nothing left to hold onto besides her hatred for him and a vague hope that she will find a way to stop him from hurting people. Bit by bit, she will lose or relinquish more and more control until even if she gets her chance, she might not be in any condition to take it.
Well, to hell with that. She'll take her chance now. She stops thinking, draws her sword, and lunges.
Jack is impossibly fast. Without any apparent effort he catches her wrist mid-strike, swings her around, and throws her in the direction of her own momentum. He's impossibly strong as well; only a collision with the throne stops her from flying clear across the room, and that at the cost of a cracked shoulder. It's her off-shoulder, though, so she gets to her feet and lunges again. "Please, please just die!" she shouts.
There's a burst of green fire, and he's vanished. "Behind you," she hears him say, but before she can turn, something wraps around her neck and pulls her off her feet and into an arc through the air and she can't breathe she can't breathe she can't breathe slams her face-first against the ground. She lifts her head and finds herself looking up the back of the throne to Jack, who crouches perched on the top glaring down at her like a bird of prey. There's blood in her mouth from biting her tongue, and every inch of her body feels battered and shaken, but her neck isn't broken, and with a little luck nothing else important is either. Before even attempting to get to her feet she takes a swing at the tentacle with which he grabbed her, but he dodges easily.
"I can't stand that something like you exists," she says as she picks herself up from the floor.
"I know that feeling well." There is something almost like sympathy in his voice. Almost, but not quite. "It burns, doesn't it?"
"Don't you dare," she says. "I don't even care what she did to you. I could have, once, but I don't. There is no way that this is the same. We are not the same." She leaps for him, slashing at his legs.
"No, you're right about that." A crackling sound fills her head. The Regisword combusts, and in an instant is consumed by green flames, leaving her clutching at air. It reappears in his hand. "I was never quite this stupid." He jumps down from the throne and levels her own sword — but it was never really hers, was it? — at her throat. "Checkmate."
He knocks her to her knees again, and when she tries to stand, he winds his tentacles around her arms and pulls her back down. "I can die on my feet, thank you," she snaps, struggling against him.
"Just calm the fuck down," he tells her, tossing the Regisword over his shoulder. She watches it clatter across the floor and struggles harder. "I haven't even decided yet whether you're going to die, or just spend the next little while wishing you were dead. Maybe both. Either way, I'd rather be looking down at you."
When she gets her mind around what he just said, she laughs. She doesn't even have to force it; it's genuinely funny. Here they are now: she is helpless and under his power to torture or kill as he pleases, and he feels insecure about the fact that she is taller than he is. She looks at him — sizes him up — and for the first time sees how he wears his prototypings like stolen clothes; they don't fit because they aren't his, and they never will be. "You are ridiculous," she tells him.
"Yeah?" he says, stepping forward and grabbing her chin roughly. "Do you know what you are?"
Dead, she thinks, and waits for him to snap her neck.
Instead he tilts her face up, leans in far too close, and smiles. "You are mine." And then he kisses her as though he means to smother her.
He wants her. Her lungs seize up and her stomach turns over and her mind races, panicked. He wants her. That shouldn't scare her more than dying. It doesn't, really; it's just that she was ready to die, and there was no way she could have been ready for this. He wants her. Why? How? She isn't pretty and she isn't like him and she can still taste her own blood and he probably can too now and he probably likes it and oh, that thought makes her sick, she wishes she could have died without ever having had that thought. Jack Noir wants her. Why does he want her?
Then the panic cools and turns glass-clear, and her thoughts coalesce into the sort of dark epiphany that has become all too familiar to her since the Battlefield. It's about power. It's never anything else, with Jack, and, after all, he has already told her what she is to him. When he looks at her he sees Prospit fallen and innocence twisted and maybe just a little bit of what he used to be, what he believes he's risen above. He sees someone that he can control, someone that will fight back enough to entertain him and keep things interesting, but that will always ultimately bend to his will. He sees her as just perfect, because all this time she has unwittingly been playing his game, and it is far too late for her to get out.
Well, that's fine. She'll just have to start playing to win.
Finally — finally — he pulls away from her. "Do you want to live?" he asks her.
"Yes," she says with an absence of emotion that's only half an act. "I want to live." Not as much as she wants to take him down, but she doesn't have to tell him that, he'll find out soon enough.
He leans back down to kiss her again, but stops when she tugs one of her arms against his grasp. "What are you doing?"
"I'm just… Can I… Can I touch you?" He loves it, of course. He loves that she has to ask when he doesn't. He doesn't let go of her, but he does let her move her arm — only very slowly, but that's all that she needs. Why shouldn't he? She's weak and she's broken and if she wants to play along, well, that could be amusing. She lays her hand against the side of his face and he just keeps smiling. He has her beaten and backed into a corner, and he thinks that means she's not dangerous. It could almost be funny, if it weren't all so horrible.
Without warning, she jerks her thumb upward and gouges his one good eye on her claw. She is not his war prize. She is not his toy. She is not going to live very much longer, but neither is he, and at this point that feels like a fair trade.
Jack howls in pain and rage. He lets go of her with his hand in order to apply pressure to his bleeding face, but his tentacles only pull more tightly around her arms — tightly enough to shatter her carapace and drive the broken fragments into the flesh beneath. "You. Fucking. Bitch," he spits out at her.
"Good," she gasps through the pain. "I like that better than 'doll,' I think." She's done what she needed to do — everything she could do, really — and her own survival no longer matters quite so much. In the end she couldn't kill him, but she has ensured that the next person to try will have a fair chance at it. This part will hurt, but once it's over she won't ever have to hurt again. The knowledge makes her feel reckless and just a little bit giddy.
"I could have laughed the rest of it off," Jack says. He draws his sword and holds it sideways and level with her eyes to let her get a good look at the weapon she will die on. "I could have just sliced you up a bit to teach you a lesson, maybe left you with some scars to make you think twice next time. Not now. Now I am going to wring all of the blood from your body, drop—" He cuts her. "By drop—" He cuts her again. "By drop!" He shouts and drives the sword through her abdomen, piercing her carapace twice.
It's okay, she tries to tell herself as she crumples forward against the hilt and watches her blood spill out onto his hand. It's all for the best. You knew it would end like this. The pain will stop soon. None of those things makes it hurt any less. "Bet you're sorry you can't see this," she says weakly.
"I can still hear you scream." He twists the blade, and she does. "Tell me, doll, before you die — was it really worth it, just to get to play hero for a little while?"
"'M not a hero." She can barely manage more than a whisper, now. "'M a murderer. 'S no worse… than I… deserve. But…" She takes as deep of a breath as she can, and forces the rest out all at once. "The real heroes will be here soon."
She believes that. She believes that she is dying having made a difference. Jack will fall, the Reckoning will stop, the people on Skaia and the Medium planets will live, and she will have had something, just a small something, to do with that. It doesn't change what she did to get here. It doesn't change that she is crazy and violent and potentially dangerous to everyone around her. This is for the best. She believes that, up until the moment that her mind fades out entirely.
(Before that happens, though — it's strange, and it must just be her pain-crazed and blood-deprived brain playing tricks on her, but — she thinks she can hear the Moon Princess's voice calling out to her.)
She hurts. That's the first thing she's aware of. It wasn't supposed to keep hurting, after she died.
Her vision is clouded over, but she can hear — barely, distantly — the sounds of shouts and explosions and clashing metal. Someone is holding her head up awkwardly and pressing her jaw shut. Her teeth close on something soft that breaks and gushes bittersweet liquid into her mouth and throat. When she swallows, the pain in her gut feels just a little bit duller.
"—the fuck are you doing, Jade?!" A boy's voice.
"I have to!" Princess? Again? "She's still alive and I have to help her because she's my friend and I couldn't help any of my other dream-friends because I had to save John first and I think this is partly my fault and oh please, Miss Mail Lady, wake up, wake up, wake—!"
Her hearing cuts out, and she doesn't hurt anymore.
Her mouth tastes full of sugar and ash. The pain is still there, but not as overwhelmingly strong. She can push it into the background and almost ignore it. She is lying flat on her back, her head resting on something lumpy and soft with a hard center. There are more voices.
"—did win, but we skipped a bunch of things that we weren't supposed to skip and the universe basically hates us right now."
"—smaller needles and some strong thread? We're out of the magic candy, and I've never sewn up anything that was still alive before, but I think I can do it!"
"—we talking spitballs-and-swirlies hatred, or fuck-this-shit-dad-I-am-taking-your-semi-automatic-to-school-with-me-today hatred?"
"—and anyhow I am uncertain of the efficacy of sutures upon exoskeletons. Just keep changing the bandages."
"—like tie-you-up-in-the-basement-and-torture-you-for-months-on-end-before-killing-you hatred."
"—think the bleeding's stopped, but she's all torn up and it's just so sad to look at!"
"—okay cool so the universe is Snowman and we are Spades Slick. Oh by the way, have I mentioned? That Jack guy? Dead ringer."
"Have you not been paying attention at all? There are more important things to be obsessively freaking out about!"
A hand brushes her face. Her own hand lashes out, and her claws catch on something too soft to be carapace but just as full of blood. There is a scream. Her pillow jumps away from her and she smacks her head on the floor. There was probably a time she would have described the experience as "painful," but at this point it's only mildly unpleasant. She opens her eyes and finds herself looking up into the face of the Princess, who stands pouting and cradling her wounded arm.
There is a blur of red, and suddenly a human boy is staring down at her with the girl peering around from behind him. "Hey," he says, casually hefting a sword as wide as his head over one shoulder. "Not cool."
"I'm sorry!" she says. "I am so, so sorry… Princess? It is you, isn't it?"
"Um… not really?" says the girl. "I mean, I was the Princess of the Moon of Prospit, but only when I was being her. And I can't be her anymore, because she's… gone. So you can just call me Jade, I guess! And you don't need to worry, it's really only just a scratch! I'm sorry I startled you!"
"You have nothing to apologize for, Jade. You were taking care of me, and I hurt you." She has very little idea of what is going on right now, but that much she has managed to piece together. "And I'm sorry for that, I really, really am." Before she realizes it, she's babbling. "Ever since the Battlefield I keep hurting people, and some of them deserve it, but some of them don't, and I don't want to but I can't stop! You're better off just not touching me. You're better off not being around me at all. I don't deserve your kindness. It might have been better if—" She cuts herself off abruptly. She won't say that. She won't even think it. She was lucky enough to survive, and she is going to keep surviving until she can find a way to make up for the bad things she has done. After all, Jack wanted her dead. Why should he get anything he wants?
"Excuse me," says a voice that belongs to neither Jade nor the boy in red. She turns her head and finds that the whole room is gray like the ceiling, and off at one edge of it, standing before an enormous computer terminal full of glowing buttons and blinking displays, is another human girl, this one wearing a purple dress and a small, tight-lipped smile. "Did you just say you were on a battlefield?"
"On the Battlefield, yes. Why?"
"Mm, let me guess." The girl begins ticking things off on her fingers as she speaks. "Intrusive re-experiencing, intrusive recall, recurring nightmares—"
"Oh jegus, Rose," the boy interrupts. "Is this really the time?"
"—insomnia, hypervigilance (be quiet, Dave), feelings of detachment, uncontrollable anger, increased aggression, exaggerated startle response — does any of that sound familiar?"
"Most of the ones I could understand do," she admits, feeling more bewildered than ever.
"Oh, excellent," says Rose, and there is malice behind her smile and ice in her voice. "I suppose that torturing people who already existed just wasn't evil enough."
"Uh, Rose?" This time she has to lift her head to find the source of the voice. He is sitting in a corner at a much smaller terminal, and he looks exactly like the Prince of the Moon. That makes four inter-dimensional aliens and three people she thought for sure were dead in this room. "You're not about to flip out and start blowing things up again, are you?"
"No, John, I am not. In fact, I am feeling very, very calm. For a video game to exhibit such realism and attention to detail is highly commendable, don't you think? If that means generating a real war with real people and real consequences — well, 'gritty' titles are in vogue right now!"
"You're angry at me, aren't you?" This whole situation is getting more confusing by the second, but one thing she is fairly certain of is that she does not want Rose to be angry at her. Rose is scary.
"Not at you, no," the human girl assures her. "I don't really know who I'm angry at. But I will find out, and when I do, I am going to kill the bastard."
"Jack," she says.
"No, not him," Rose says blithely. "We took care of him."
She knew that already, actually. She thinks she heard one of them say he was dead earlier, and anyhow she assumed as much just based on the fact that she wasn't. But she doesn't really believe it. If she believed it, she would feel something — relieved, at the very least. She doesn't, and when she hears talk of evil she can see his smile and feel his grip around her arms, and then she can hardly think of anything else. She's suddenly afraid that he is going to be with her forever. "Are you sure you killed him?" she wants to ask, but doesn't, because once she starts that she'll just keep asking over and over again — "Are you sure? Really?" — and the answer will never satisfy her. Instead she asks, "Were you in time to stop the Reckoning? Is Skaia safe?"
"Yeah," John says. "Yeah, we were. It is. But now the whole Incipisphere is kind of—"
"There were some side effects," says Rose, cutting him off. "They are our problem. We will sort them out, and you will be fine."
"I believe you. You brought down the Sovereign Slayer. I believe you can handle anything."
Rose's smile softens just a bit. "Thank you. You see?" she asks, looking around at her friends. "The woman is speaking sense."
"Well, we did have help with that," says John. "I mean, he couldn't see and use his powers at the same time. I'm not sure how we would have done it otherwise."
There is a heaviness in the moment of silence that follows his words, and she cannot understand why.
"Um," John continues, "I'm not really sure if this is the appropriate time to say this, but I've been thinking, and…" He takes a deep breath. "I think I'm glad that we'll never know which one of them did it. That way it can sort of be like it was all of them, if that makes any sense. And I know this is selfish, but I really want to keep believing it was my dad." He rubs at his eyes, and though his voice is steady, she realizes he is wiping away tears. "He was just so cool, you know? How does a normal business man even get to be that cool?"
Oh. She remembers, now. The only real threat left is the humans. I killed the three bigger ones…
"No matter what, they really did all save our lives," Jade says softly. "All of your Guardians really loved you a lot. They didn't—" She stops and looks at the floor. "No, sorry. Forget it."
"They didn't need to be taken out behind the shed and shot," says Dave, and Jade smiles weakly at him as though it were something comforting (it probably is, in context — a very dark joke, most likely).
"You warned me, bro," the former Princess says. "You warned me about—" Suddenly, she crumples up against him and begins weeping into his chest. "Bec. Bec. Why, Bec?" Dave wraps an arm awkwardly around her back and pats her shoulder.
They've suffered as much as she has, she realizes. But they’ve suffered together. She finds herself wanting what Jade has, and she knows that she can't have it; even if there were someone to hold her, she can't be touched without losing her mind.
"Miss Mail Lady?" Jade sniffles, not crying anymore, but still clinging to Dave. "I'm thinking, now, about things that are maybe my fault, and I'm wondering: when Mr. Noir was hurting you, was that because of the box?"
"Yes," she says. "I am quite certain that's all it was about." She likes it when the right thing to do is so simple and obvious that she doesn't even have to think about it. She's missed that. "But it isn't your fault at all. I made many very poor choices, most of them after I figured out what I'd gotten myself into."
Jade smiles and thanks her and apologizes anyhow and calls her "Miss Mail Lady" some more. It's strangely soothing, since she isn't entirely sure she even still has a name at this point.
The humans talk among each other. For a while she tries to follow their conversation, but eventually she is forced to give up on that. Then they go off to do whatever it is they are needed to do, and she is left alone.
They will win. She has no doubt about that whatsoever. About her own future, she is much less certain. She has a couple of ideas about what to do when she is healed enough to move on her own. She can go to Skaia, where there should still be a handful of Prospitians left alive, and hope that one of them has a better idea of how to move forward than she does. She can go to one of the Medium planets and nurse her scars in seclusion where there's less danger of hurting anyone by mistake. Wind and Shade, in particular, might still be able to use her help with the Pixis system. Either way, eventually — and it hurts even to consider this, but that's fine, it should hurt — eventually, when she has her head a bit more together, she will have to go back to Derse and search for a way to atone for the innocent blood she spilled there.
That's the future, though. Right now, she knows exactly what she is going to do. Right now, she is going to cry until she feels like stopping. She has time.