The sword flicked up in his arms as he pointed it thoroughly at the door. “Report,” he barked.
Excelsior tore his sword out of the elevator door frame and it slid shut with an agonizing echo. Hot and heavy breathing as I clutched at my leg, squeezing it, tears running down the inside of my gas mask. Ribs ached. Legs ached. Arms ached. Bloodied, bruised, battered.
“Medical supplies are still down there,” I wheezed, struggling to catch something. The light streaming through the ruined windows made everything too bright with how long I’d been in near total darkness, and the way that Hands and Colton remained completely stable even when I wasn’t looking at them stuck with me.
Some sort of solidity. “Not sure how we’re going to get them back.”
Cass rolled over onto her back and breathed, her skin even more clearly red now that we were out of the darkness. Not a human complexion. She spat out a chunk of something black and hard onto the ground and laughed deeply. “That… is not our problem.” She rolled with her spine and leapt to her feet. “Let our death squads handle that,” Cass said, brightly.
“Also I met Cass down there,” I said, lamely, staring at her. How the hell did she have any energy left? “I think I need a doctor.”
“Hopefully one of these days you won’t need one,” Hands muttered. “Still, I don’t see you spurting blood this time, just leaking it.”
“Not funny,” I muttered, sullenly. It was actually quite funny, in that hysterical way, that I had once again managed to escape death, if only by luck and a moment of monstrous strength.
“Sorry about the knives,” Colton said, in an equally lame way. “I know they weren’t…”
“Shh, we made it,” I said, firmly. “We can assign blame or whatever when we’re home, alright?”
The elevator doors slammed open under the weight of gelatinous flesh, pouring into the room. “Fuck!” I shouted, readying my wind to blow someone out of the way, or give them warning. Pain shot through my legs and I hurled myself up, brain wobbling from the effort, lack of energy, and Excelsior sneered, his left hand snapping down to pick his sword up.
My eyes widened as the thing lashed out, covered in teeth, illuminated entirely so I could see the wraggling flailing tongues and rippling veins dripping with teeth and hunger.
He shot me a look as the shadow of the beast loomed over top of him and then his left arm came up.
For a moment, the distant sun streaming through the cracked glass glazed over his form like fine armor, and I thought I stood before a knight instead of a super hero.
A bladed arm bashed down beside him and he nimbly leapt over it, driving his sword through it and leaving the appendage scrabbling for purchase.
The beast roared in agony, skin splintering. I could see every wound that had been wrought in it, this close to the sun. Could see angry shotgun blasts carving out chunks of skin, exposing bone and marrow. Could see every angry moment.
“You are what I loath worst in this world,” Excelsior said, pointing his sword at the best.
Colton’s knives readied in his hands.
“Let me handle this,” Excelsior barked, something harsh in his inhuman eyes. “It’ll be another lesson.”
The beast dove in, maw smashing down. Words hissed out in a language I had never heard.
“You, beast, have overstepped your bounds.” The blade smashed in and another appendage flew off with a gush of ichor. Then he stepped closer still, and the beast slowed. Was in all the work we had put into it, or perhaps…
It knew fear.
“You who would abandon your principles for another grasp at life. You’re what is wrong with this world.” The blade caught another blow, and he riposted, hurling it up into the bony carapace. Locked into place as it was, it struggled, trying to haul more of itself up the elevator.
“And I CAST YOU OUT!” The A-Rank shouted, and the blade shone gold with all the light in the room, glowsticks blipping out, flashlights dimming, emergency neons disappearing.
He whirled about faster than even I could predict, muscles whining and twinging past normal into the super natural, and he sliced through the air, the blade hissing at it smote the particles themselves, up up up and then
Down down down.
And came back down across the center of the creature. No resistance as the blade let out an eldritch keen.
A single long slash, smooth, heavy, audible in how the wind split in half, and it let out an agonizing noise. He kicked it once, solidly, in the center of it while it bled and hostile air hissed against burning skin—
and the beast fell back down the elevator in chunky, gory pieces. “Begone,” he said, flicking a spray of blood against the wall.
“Go back to hell where you belong.”
Distantly, the beast hit the floor several stories below with a resounding crash.
The nightmare was gone. It had taken all Cass and I had to get out of there, and Excelsior had slain it where it stood.
Then the sword tumbled from his hand as it bled freely.
Colton and I stared at him. Hands walked over to the doors, and with her invisible appendage, slammed them shut and bent the steel so it wouldn’t open again.
“Holy shit,” I muttered. “Could you always do that?”
“I am an A-rank hero,” Excelsior pointed out. “Even diminished as I am… and the beast was already injured.” he said. “You both did great.”
Cass chuckled. “You used a sword. A sword!”
Excelsior shrugged at Cass.
I giggled. “Diminished as you are.”
“Holy fuck,” Colton muttered. “Can you teach me that?”
Excelsior breathed out a sigh and dropped the sword back on the ground, smearing another line of red across his shirt to denote yet another time he’d been forced to use his weapon with the wrong hand. I stared at them. It was impressive, gory, and probably full of significance but
“You can use our drier,” I said, matter of fact. Woozy. Dizzy. Been there before. Didn’t like it.
“Thank you,” The A-ranker said, bowing. “I grow tired of the smell.”
“Hotel doesn’t have a drier?” Hands asked.
“It requires quarters,” Excelsior admitted. “I haven’t used quarters in a few decades.”
I took a ragged breath and burst into giggles again. Excelsior turned in all of his magnificence, and kicked his sword up in the air. We watched it whirl about and then land back into its sheath. “Let’s get out of here. We have greater things to worry about.”
“Did you find the food supplies?” I asked.
Colton nodded. “And a few bits of spare armor. To replace the vests we went through.”
I barely managed to get back upright so we could walk out.
The ruins of Dauphin island somehow seemed even less friendly than ever before, and that was saying something. Every gunshot spoke of a struggle to survive though the pounding rain swallowed up the phantom ring of distant guns in my head. Here and there I could remember running for my life, and howl of IronMarrow drawing attention for us.
Could hear the sarcasm of fallen Gunze.
Could feel the anger roaring in my veins.
Could feel the throb of very real and very physical wounds, winding through shattered weary nerves.
I hesistated at the back of the small procession, and it took a few steps for them to notice while I flipped open the Com, putting my chest over it to keep it dry.
Rebecca picked up within a few moments. I could see in the background of her screen that she was hovering over a small child.
Dispensing genetic testing. I hoped he got out of it okay. We didn’t need another moral quandary at this hour.
“Gale,” Rebecca said. “This is an emergency line. Are you alright?”
I flashed her a shaky grin as the Excelsior slowed, shooting me a look, followed by everyone else except Cass, and showed Rebecca a brief movement of my injuries. She appeared perfectly calm until she saw where the skin of my leg had been lashed off, blood still trickling down from strange whip patterns. Eyes widened a bit.
“You were in the labs, I suppose?” She said, with an air of practiced calm.
The group around me stopped and looked down at the com, and I looked right back at them. “Yeah. I need someone to help stitch me up. Think you can clear out your schedule?”
Her eyes narrowed. “I think you’ll be able to find me at the nurse’s office in your home base.”
Then the com clicked off.
“Clipped as always,” Excelsior noted. “Have you ever seen her cheery?”
“I’m not that sure,” I admitted. “She seems like she has a lot on her mind most of the time.”
“She scares me a little,” Hands admitted. “I don’t think it’s a good combination to be that smart and also be the one to stitch us up. What if she starts getting ideas?”
“She’s a geneticist, not a psychologist,” Colton cut in. “The worst she’ll notice if if we’ve picked up an extra chromosome or two from heroing, and she might be able to whip something up to take care of that.”
“I don’t know what you were taught in school but that is not how that works,” Cass said. “You can’t just go around editing genetics like that; the long term effect of your powers are almost always permanent.”
Colton sighed. “Yeah, I know, I was just trying to lighten the mood.”
Cass bit her lip, and I turned and looked at her, limping up into the main column of the pack. The rubble diminished as we walked past it, and I could almost pretend everything was fine as we passed the first mile of summer homes on the isle.
After a moment of that, and the pouring rain, I remembered that there were few people left on the island; the makeshift protection we were offering didn’t extend there, and after what I witnessed in that blasted place, I was stripping the protections even further. I wasn’t sending people there if I could help it.
I breathed in, felt the rain pound across my skin, acidic and stinging across wounds, and kept right on going.
“I’ll be back soon,” Cass said, breaking off before we met the checkpoint guards. “My boss will want to have words with the lot of you.” She flicked her eyes over to mine. “Try and find a better looking suit than yours; you look like you just got out of a war.
My uniform was utterly destroyed again. Great. With Cass gone, we were quiet as we slid back into Hands’s car. The first few minutes were quiet with just the radio to keep up company and the smell of sweat and blood.
“I’m sorry,” Excelsior broke the silence, looking down at his left hand. Even from here I could see the sores cut into it. Then the hand closed and he dug into one of the pouches across his gallant uniform to tug out a strip of bandages.
Without looking, Hands used her extra appendage to grip one end so that Excelsior could get it to work, stretching it out and wrapping the palm tightly. He tore it off in his teeth.
“I’m sorry you had to get hurt,” I said, unsure of what to make of it.
“No, no,” Excelsior said. “I’m sorry for that, too, but more sorry that I let you get hurt in the first place.” He laughed a bit.
“I don’t think now’s quite the right time for this,” Colton said.
“Bah,” Excelsior said, waving his hand. “We’re in an enclosed space, so I can’t run from this. Let me be the adult here, the older man and just admit that I fouled this all up, alright?”
Quiet in the car. I shot a look at Hands through the mirror, but she didn’t look at me apart from checking the road. She wasn’t going to stop this.
The arbiter had decided this should pass.
“You didn’t…” I started to speak, but he held up his bandaged hand.
“No, no… I…” Excelsior sighed. “It’s funny, I practiced this a few times, so I could just… apologize.” Quiet silence as he counted his own breaths, or maybe that was just me counting them.
“I left you here in Mobile alone,” he said, looking out the window. I caught his eyes in the mirror, but not long enough to get anything across except how tired I was. “And I thought you were dead.”
“We weren’t,” I pointed out.
“I thought you were dead because I knew that the only thing left in Mobile were the retired and a host of heroes that the Association had dropped back here as easy missions. After the base died here… it wasn’t a hard assumption to make. All that we had left here were… people who were rough, run ragged. People who were untrained. People who were the exact opposite of being on top of things. People who might be selfish and refuse to fight.”
The car drifted into the bumps and Hands tugged it back into place.
It dawned on me what he was saying. And I didn’t want to hear it. On some level, I had wanted him… I had wanted him to be supporting me all that time.
I had wanted the idea that Excelsior has never given up hope.
“You said…” I started. “You said that I inspired you.”
He went a bit slack in his seat, closing his eyes. “You did. I… I lost Faraday. I lost an arm. Those are both reasons the Association retires heroes, you know. Losing someone like that… we were a neutralization squad. Got deployed all over the place before we were sent on resting missions, being obvious. We went through a lot together. Knew each other’s favorite foods. That sort of thing. And I wanted… to quit there.”
Could hear my own heartbeat thumping in my ears. Could hear it crescendo. Didn’t know what to say. Didn’t think there was anything good to say here, either.
“And I didn’t. Didn’t quit the Association,” he breathed out, in a heated little note. “But I quit you guys. I quit Mobile.”
There it was.
He’d left us for dead.
“Montgomery was a juicier target,” he tried rationalizing it out loud. “Way more people there. I wanted to save it, though if we could just hold the capital we might keep the state from falling apart. Got there just in time to watch the quarantine go up. Watched men and women turn into monsters. Villains. Creatures fit for the sword.”
Then I remembered the beasts down below Dauphin island. Remembered the pain in his eyes. “You’d seen it before.”
He laughed, but it was hollow, not filled with any richness or happiness, just there, existing. “In other countries. Places that I also failed.” he leaned back, his mouth opening as he remembered something else, then teeth clicking shut. For a moment, the facade was gone, and Excelsior looked almost like a teenager, wrangling and fighting against barely concealed despair. How old was he?
“Thought of the other places then, wondered… wondered if I’d have to burn the whole state to the ground.”
“Then command’s gone here?” I asked.
“Mostly. Forces got pulled out of this area to go keep Atlanta locked down. I think… if we just kept a few more cities here there would more impetus to get support. If we were bigger, had somewhere else more important.” Excelsior said. “I think Atlanta is holding up, but Alabama… just got left behind. Like always, I guess. I never spent enough time here to think about it, but Alabama’s never a place you stay on purpose, right Gale?”
I wanted to chuckle, or break the awful idea that I’d been left for dead, or the idea that my death had been rationalized away, or the pulsing guilt coming off from him.
“I never thought I’d be here for this long,” I said. “I’ve been staying with Colton instead of our room.”
“I know,” Excelsior said. “And I just wanted to say that I’m sorry. Sorry that I’ve failed everyone, but most of all, I’m sorry that I made the wrong choice to not stay here.”
I was quiet.
Didn’t know what hurt more, really. Didn’t know if I should be hurt. Never did know.
When he left I was just a day out from no longer being a pencil pusher. How could he have known I’d go far, coasting on his words?
Coasting on the idea that he..
That he had thought I was worthy?
That I could be a hero?
It wrankled me to think that way but.
I couldn’t see the flaw in his logic. It was wrong, but… Montgomery was a bigger prize than Mobile. It made sense to try and save the capitol. It made sense to leave the Dauphin island base to protect us.
“Fuck you,” Hands muttered, grim, shooting him a glare for a moment. “All the apologies in the world won’t make up for the fact that you thought you’d just let us die.”
Excelsior flinched. “I…”
“I don’t know who the hell you think you are,” Hands said. “But you’re damned lucky we’re better than you. You’re damned lucky that you had a Mobile to come back to, because what we went through, what we fucking watched, every ounce of it is on your head right now.”
“Hands,” Colton hissed.
“What?! I watched men die because this bastard wasn’t here. Because he thought he’d go and lose his life in Montgomery rather than take responsibility. He put Gale in charge.”
I shrank in my seat.
“That’s not a dig against you, Gale,” Hands said, slowing the car as we pulled in towards our base. “That’s a dig against him. He put someone he had little confidence in charge, in the vain hopes that we’d become someone else’s problem. On some vain stupid suicidal quest.”
Excelsior hissed slightly. “Should… I go?”
“Fuck no,” Hands said, slamming the car’s brakes a bit too hard, sending his head thumping against the shade overhead. “You’re staying here, and we’ll bleed every last ounce out of you until everything’s back to normal.”
Excelsior’s mouth opened. “But…”
“UNTIL THE SITUATION IS HANDLED,” she hissed, turning off the car and slamming the door open. “Until then, you don’t get to walk off. I don’t care what orders you get.”
Excelsior flashed a look in the mirror and Colton and I, then back at Hands.
Colton gave a scared look over at Hands.
“Are we clear? Nobody is leaving anyone behind. Not again,” Hands said.
I could get behind that.
Excelsior chuckled. “If you would like to keep me, then who am I to disagree?”