The hairs rose on the back of my neck. Goosebumps down my arms, chills through my spine.
I’d hoped that was what he was going to say. That he’d have a miracle cure.
But looking at his face, hesitation rimming his eyes, the thumping of his heart in my wind sense, I knew there was more than just that. I’d known Excelsior was in on most of the secrets I’d wanted to know about.
I’d known it. But…
I’d gotten used to nobody addressing the elephant in the room. I’d gotten used to it being locked behind miles of operational security concerns.
When Excelsior stood on the equation, the symbols hummed and throbbed.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Something that if the Association were in control would get me killed,” Excelsior admitted. “Couple of bullets, straight through the head. Then my body would be incinerated. You excited?”
He grinned. Something relaxed in his face.
A few more chills. This was it.
I was going to get answers. Save my friends- comrades.
Then he closed his eyes, and his uniform ruffled in the wind coming up from the glowing lights.
I breathed. Tasted the green of the other side. I could hear the whispers. “Why am I here?”
“Because last time I went to Green Towassa,” Excelsior started. “I left you behind. Then I came to save you.”
He’d been there before? Of course he had. He’d dealt with all of the monsters so easily. And I’d always known he’d left for a good reason.
“And… you left your partner there,” I said.
His eyes opened again. They gleamed from the light below.
“I did,” he confirmed. “And I didn’t want to go back, Gale. So I hesitated. Waited. Bided my time. Got myself an army instead of the scant heroes the Association had for us to use.”
I was quiet.
My heart was starting to pound in my chest. Cruel jailor the ribs were, that prevented it from leaping out and strangling me.
“They went to the other side,” I muttered. Slowly tilted my head up. Excelsior nodded again.
We were doing this.
“I wanted to tell you before I went,” Excelsior said. “It wouldn’t be right to leave you in the dark. Not when you’re this close to understanding all of it. And… You need a second when you enter.” he hesitated.
“So, I wanted to give you a chance to go with me. There’s not a lot of people like us among the younger generation. Colton would understand. Hands, perhaps. You… You’d understand it.”
My arms were on fire. Blood ran hot in my veins. The secrets… I was so close.
I could understand.
“So what is it?”
“If I tell you… if we go,” Excelsior said. “There’s no going back. And I can’t go alone.””
“And what of what I’ve done makes you think there’s a going back for me?” I said. “Look outside. We brought war to Alabama. I’ve fought monsters that used to be men. Good people have died.”
“If you leave now, and go back to the Association building, and wait for me to return, you can become a d-rank again. You can go back to having a normal life.” Excelsior said. “You won’t have to worry about the monsters in the darkness again. You won’t have to worry about the friends you make getting pulped by a stray thread of reality. You won’t have to worry about whether or not your eyes are lying to you.”
His hand slowly inched down to his sword.
It… it would be nice to give it up.
If I closed my eyes, I could pretend the last few months had been a horrible nightmare. I could just retreat into the arms of the Association. Let them handle my scars. Find me a nice desk to hide behind for the rest of my life.
Reunite with my father.
“I’ll do my best to save Hands and Colton, but I’ll have to take Boreas instead. See if he’s up for the plunge.” Excelsior said. A long pause. “Perhaps wait for Cassandra. She might survive.”
“Not a lot of battle tested heroes left around here,” I said. “And I have to do this. I… I-”
“This isn’t your fault.” He cut me down.
They wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for me.
“Patrickson isn’t your fault either.”
If I hadn’t made the choice to go to Dauphin island, Gunze would be alive.
Colton would be dead if I hadn’t gone. Traded lives.
“You can leave, Gale,” Excelsior said. “You can choose to go back to your regular life and forget everything happened. I won’t judge you. I really hope you do turn around and walk out. What I’m offering is far and beyond even the call of the Association.” He laughed. “That’s why they’d kill me for it.”
“My hands are so red, Excelsior,” I said. “There are so many people dead because of me. It isn’t fair. How can I go back and pretend? This question isn’t fair.”
“It’s never fair, Gale,” Excelsior said. “That’s why we’re in the Crisis. Why should we keep Fafnir for ourselves, when South America cowers under the wrath of foreign realities? Why should we pretend that any other country would have a higher failure rate of Fafnir? The failure rate is already so high.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“If I tell you,” Excelsior said. “There’s no going back. I want you to understand that. If I tell you, you’re going with me to Green Towassa, and we’re going to bring the war to Patrickson.” His words were clipped. Sharp. Harsh. “If not, you walk out, and the war’s over for you.”
I barely recognized the tone.
His fingers circled the hilt of his sword. There was no blood now. It recognized a hero.
“Why are you going back?” I asked.
“Because I made a promise to myself I’d protect you, after I failed the first time. I made a promise to my partner, that I’d be there for her.” Excelsior said. His fist clenched hard enough that the tendons showed. “I’m tired of breaking promises. I’m tired of pretending that everything will be okay if I take a moment to breath. So to hell with my breather. To hell with mourning the loss of a limb, mourning Faraday! To hell with all of it! There’s a world that needs saving! And you- And when I…”
I was silent, staring down at the patterns on the floor. They were shifting slowly, moving around, rearranging. What did it solve for? What did it need? Another variable?
“I told you that you were an inspiration,” Excelsior said. “And you were. But it wasn’t enough. We couldn’t do it. I saw the Opal Palace behind my eyes and knew I’d been made. And I fled.”
“And when I returned from Green Towassa, I saw that you were willing to fight it. And you didn’t have my boons. You didn’t have the gifts granted to my partner, nor did you have the Truth-Sword I bear. You just fought because you had to,” Excelsior surmised.
I looked up at him slowly. “What is Fafnir?”
“That’s not how it works. You can’t go halfway, Gale,” Excelsior said. “You need to commit now. No information. Make the choice or leave.”
I remembered the first big choice I made. Dauphin island, and hope we could help, or stay and watch it burn.
Remembered standing up again and again, Patrickson keeping us at bay with his gauntlet.
Remembered the body I’d left behind, Gunze gurgling. What had he seen in me?
But Gunze had known what was to come.
“Are you going to join me today?”
I took a few steps forward. The rumbling whirring of the Truth-Sword against the equations on the ground set my teeth on edge.
There was a choice here. It was a hideous awful choice.
The selfish part of me, the part I’d been ignoring and exalting for the past few months, the part that rebuked and rejoiced in attention and responsibility…
The part that had always hated my ranking, but enjoyed the easy life.
It told me to run.
That there was no information in the world that was worth never being able to go back. I didn’t want the constant adrenaline. I didn’t want the forbidden knowledge from the tree of eden.
I didn’t need to taste the sweet juices rolling down my chin.
But then there was the part of me that loved fighting. That loved the burn of muscle. That shouted that I could save more people. The part of me that still believed in heroes. The part of me that shouted about revenge.
That I didn’t matter so long as the mission succeeded.
The part of me I’d been listening to for so long.
But it wasn’t healthy. I knew that. Excelsior knew that. He was burning too, flames running over his metaphor.
But there was the crossroads. The path I was on, could I continue?
How could I not, knowing what the world had?
I could leave. I could hide.
Would it ever stop the shakes?
“Yes or no Gale,” Excelsior reminded.
I made my decision.
“Will you… protect me afterward?” I asked. Voice was small.
Excelsior tilted his head. “I’ll do my best. But they’ll find out what happened here. They always do. And whatever you’ve built up before that will be gone.”
I stepped forward.
When my boots touched the equations and floor of the political amphitheatre, they swam again. Paint rearranged itself. Colors flashed as if reality was laughing. It was laughing.
Excelsior gave me a long look. Sadness. Regret.
Determination. I’d seen that in the mirror before. Never reflected with quite so many lines of age and stress.
“Take my shoulder, Gale,” Excelsior said.
I breathed. Put my hand on his shoulder. “What’s Fafnir?”
“When you asked last time, after I slew the Lost Boy, with your help,” Excelsior said. “I wasn’t lying. Fafnir is the special designation for Association forces put together to quell areas of unreasonable peril.”
Areas of unreasonable peril.
Green Towassa, my mind leapt, it screamed.
“They were put together to kill Green Towassa?” I tilted my head.
He shook his head. My heart stopped.
Excelsior raised his sword. “The world isn’t what you think it is. The enemies you see now aren’t our deadliest. The fact they’ve gotten so far has put us at risk of the worst.”
“To defeat the invasion of our reality by any means necessary,” Excelsior hesitated, and an elder gleam touched the edge of his blade. His hand wasn’t bleeding anymore. It didn’t shake. It was held firm, high above his arm. “We flagged those who stood the greatest chance of surviving. Many people have often wondered, exactly, what would cause an A-rank to intervene, short of war itself. What would cause an S-rank to intervene, short of global calamity.”
“And the simple answer is that the world has been in calamity for the last hundred years, and we’ve gotten very good at pretending it hasn’t been the way.”
“We’ve been at war for a very long time, Gale. And I’m sorry, because I’m dragging you into that hell with me. There are far more worlds than just Green Towassa and Earth. And the majority of them are hostile, hellish places that would like nothing more than to devour the peace we have here. We have…” his breathed hitched, and his eyes grew bright with longing, staring into the middle distance. ”Allies, among them. Beautiful, transcendental places. But they won’t save us. We have to do that ourselves.”
“To that end, the United States dedicated decades of research to come up with a process. In the seventies, they perfected it, and deployed it en masse, to dozen of candidates. Killed half of them. The rest… they became Fafnir. What even is the acronym we’re pretending to work under, anymore? Fast Acting Forceful Neutralization of Invading Realities?” A brief, self indulgent chuckle. “It doesn’t matter what the department pretends we are. We’re monsters now.”
“Project Fafnir. A means to fight against reality itself. When reality knocks, it kills. It ignores mortal thoughts of death. It ignores everything. Except Fafnirs.” Excelsior breathed out. “The world would kill to make Fafnirs. Negotiations for Fafnir were involved with the end of the Cold War. A perfect defence against the likes of the Emperor of Japan. That’s how they sold it to us, when they asked for volunteers.”
There were other worlds. I’d known that.
And they were invading.
We were being invaded, and the Association was fighting back. It all made sense. Where the armies had gone. Where the heroes had gone, elsewhere. Why we’d been left alone.
And we hadn’t given Fafnir to anyone else. No wonder the world hated us. No wonder South America was in shambles. No wonder there were so many enemies.
They knew, they knew we could fight back.
And they knew we’d been keeping them from it.
“Why didn’t we share?”
Excelsior smiled, thin as the edge of his sword. “We created the greatest weapons in the history of mankind, Gale. Weapons that would determine the fate of nations,” his smile twitched. “Why would we share them with something as banal as our cold war enemies? Not without extracting heavy prices.”
I breathed. Stared at the edge of the blade. Excelsior’s arm twitched.
And all at once, I felt like reality was bleeding.
The equations finally stopped moving beneath of me.
“Did Project Fanfir succeed?”
“Not nearly as much as we wanted it to,” Excelsior said. “But it’s enough that we can fight back. And we are fighting back. The world is fighting back, every day, even without them.. Whether it’s the Cuban Patrol negating areas taken over by other realities, or the European Sanctifiers burying them under layers of abstraction so that nothing can get in or out.
But they can’t go there themselves. They can only treat the site of the wound. To root out the infection, to use soldiers instead of autonomous scythe tanks… that takes something special. Fafnir. The world would kill for a Fafnir.”
“But the world has killed for many things.” Excelsior finished.
I breathed out. Heart was in my throat.
“And now, we’re going to kill a world.” A pause, and the sword gleamed as it trailed through the air. “What lie are we, Gale?”
“My sword cuts lies. The equations here, the universe knows we are both liars.”
“Student and teacher… Two Soldiers pretending just causes…” He took a step and the sword dragged through the fold of reality. It caught, dug into the air, long gnashing lines of teeth. “Ah. Two commanders pretending to know better. A classic. You’re too young for that, I’m sorry again.”
“Pretending that even home is safe from our enemies,” The sword arced down, down, down. He took a step around me, and the swirling pattern followed after him, listening to his cause.
“I am Excelsior. I bear the Truth’s Blade. Upon it lies break, and upon it I see nothing more. There is no safety while this world lies under attack. There is no separation between these worlds. I command you to obey my blade. I command you to tear past the veil of lies. Open, Green TOWASSA!”
One last arc, and the trailing glowing lines in the air met.
And then he swung the sword through them.
The sword came slashing down, and it cut through the whole of the world itself. A long gash in the fabric of space time. A trailing edge that poked into a hell of green, with a sky so perfect. Where one could be a immortal. If not for long.
“This is now Operation Teratogen. Follow my orders, and we might just save the Gulf Coast after all.”
“Mission objective, sir?” I asked.
“Retrieve Fafnir Guinevere. Avoid the Goat King. Plant our flag. Kill Patrickson. Save your friends.” Excelsior grinned, and then hefted the beacon we’d stolen from the old Association base.
“Then?” I asked, staring into the heart of the other world.
“We kill the king and go home.”
I could get behind that.
“And then?” I asked.
“We sleep until the firing squads arrive,” Excelsior said. His hand didn’t shake or bleed. The sword was satisfied with his actions at last.
He wasn’t lying to himself anymore.