I stared at him blankly. Excelsior and Hands caught up after a moment. “What do you mean they’re dead?” I asked.
Colton gestured, throwing up his finger again to keep us quiet, and I peered through the tiny crack we’d left behind the monitors so Colton could keep watch.
A dead body greeted us, ill lit by the radium strips far ahead. Helmet shattered. Blood pooled, lines of it drawn across the tiny fraction of a degree we could see through.
I could see through his head; a straight hole from one end to the other. My heart thumped in my chest. His eyes were still wide.
He’d been surprised.
There was never another way to handle it.
“What happened?!” I hissed at our guard.
Colton shook his head. “I kept quiet as a mouse; and the sound doesn’t travel from deeper in the cave, not until just now, and they started walking down the hall. Sounds like they took hammers to the locks to get through; they’ll all broken. They fanned out. Was about to go warn you, I turned around, and I hurt a meaty thump. Didn’t see what happened, but he was already dead.”
Excelsior nodded, taking a few breaths. “They’re not idiots. This was… a surprise to them, too.”
“We’ve taken them out so far,” Hands pointed out.
“I’m an A rank with a grasp of tactics, and Gale can cheat with grenades,” Excelsior said. “We used fast hitting disruption tactics; the fact there are so many of them still up and moving…” he paused, staring at the corpse. Where was all the blood? Why wasn’t it pooling beneath the corpse’s broken skull? “Were so many up and moving… speaks to their training.”
“If they’re all dead,” I said, quietly. “There’s nothing stopping us from getting out here,” I pointed out.
“If they’re all dead,” Excelsior said, clicking his teeth. “Then something out there killed them.”
Colton breathed out, and it whistled through his teeth. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
I’d’ve been more afraid if I was alone this time.”
“So we just get out, kill whatever’s out there, and we’re home free,” I said, reaching for the computer base.”
Excelsior held up a hand. “Gale, you and I are going to be the close range fighters. No offence, Hands.”
“I’m on protection duty this time?” She asked, eyeing Colton.
“Keep whatever’s out there from him,” Excelsior said. His hand slipped into his pack, and then slipped the beacon into Colton’s equipment.
“And we’ll all make it?” I asked.
“Depends,” Excelsior said, his hand drawing his sword. I could smell blood in the air from the way the hilt cut into his hand. What did it cut through?
“My lies, mostly,” Excelsior said. “It eats them, you see. Hungrily, consuming all of the useful and useless lies we mortal humans tell. Lies about being protected. Lies about being unable to die.”
He pulled the sword out of the sheath just a hair, enough for the glow stick light to reflect off of it and-
Something moved outside.
A long red coil of fibers drifted through the open hallway doors, parting one by one as if looking around.
Then they lashed, burrowing into the body with a hiss of parting tearing flesh, hot, wet, real.
Sweat rolled down the back of my neck.
Another horror. It had to be.
Spanish flowed from the half destroyed helmet, out of our sightline, but all of the soldiers had them. Couldn’t make out anything around the buzzing.
I remembered that voice.
Colton’s lips moved, translating the words, but I wasn’t looking at him; too transfixed by the corpse.
The voice from my nightmares;
The body moved outside.
Excelsior froze. Colton froze. I froze. Only Hands, who couldn’t see from her position crowded in with us, didn’t. Her eyes flicked nervously back and forth.
But the corpse rippled as if taking in more air, chest inflating. Blood pumped through veins that had already stopped working, gushing it across the body’s nose, leaking from all of the delicate organs disrupted by the passage of whatever had opened his head up.
Then the soldier calmly stood up, brushed himself off, and then knelt down again to pick up his gun. He spun it once, as if to get a feel for it again, then smiled. The tendrils of fibers sprouted out of the back of his neck, each line lazily darting down to the corpse’s vertebrae like delicate wires.
Turned away, picked up his helmet, hole and all, and placed it back. Twisted it to make sure it fit.
Then he walked away. I could see the bare flicker of the dim lights through the hole in his head.
My lungs burned from lack of air and I took a quiet draw from the musty cave around me. I could taste fear and sweat from Colton, and resolution from Excelsior.
“Wha…” Colton hissed, and Excelsior pulled his hand against his mouth to keep him quiet, and then Colton pointed at the corner of the room, where the blood had sprayed into a solid line, drifting through the winding hallway.
From the bloody lines drug in the ground from the creature’s passage, more threads rose up. Crept out into the hallway.
Seconds crawled by into minutes, twisting on top of each other in desperation, lewd tangles as it darted towards ten solid minutes, and then I could hear footsteps.
Drawing closer and closer. Hidden behind the heavy computer, we could just see an inch of space
One by one, the dead walked out, drifting through the passages and the hallways, walking back towards the entrance. Thick cooling blood rolling out of their heads, their chests. Threads lined their back, darting in and out of their uniforms, lined up perfectly. Like clockwork soldiers, they marched back the way they came.
Colton’s breath sped up quickly, and I wrapped the sound away into the folds of the cave, hoping that it didn’t draw the attention of the creature.
It was better to hide than engage. To just wait until it left. Hopefully before it noticed us.
The soldier’s foot steps rapidly changed from terrifying to routine. Instead, I was transfixed as the puddle of blood diminished, strands rolling back out of the room, and the last of the soldiers left the way we’d came. Leaving no trace of blood behind.
Which was around the time the coms went off.
They were quiet, set on vibrate, but Excelsior and I locked eyes. He flicked his open. Read through the message, transcribed by the software automatically.
The team I’d signalled for was en route.
“Awaken Dreamers, and return home,” Colton whispered, translating under his breath. “The hell is that supposed to mean?”
My eyes traced the passage of the corpses, one by one, where they’d gone, narrowing, and as I was starting to get used to doing as part of my role, connected the dots.
Frantically, I typed a quiet reply on the com.
“What are you saying?” Excelsior said.
“Telling them to hold back!” I replied, frantic. “The soldiers are leaving, and I don’t want to know what they’ll do to someone unprepared.”
“Ah,” Excelsior said, quietly, then reached over, gently shoving my fingers to the side so he could type in a coded phrase.
“Apa?” I asked. “The hell does that mean?”
“The death of my highschool essays?” Colton wheezed, adrenaline gone and pain replacing it.
My ear throbbed. I was well aware the side of my head was covered in it, and it stuck my hair together and clothes, stained armor.
“Anomaly in Progress, Avoid,” Excelsior said, leaning back against the tiny cave wall. “It’s…”
“A Fafnir thing?” I asked, annoyed.
“No, it’s a general courtesy thing,” Excelsior retorted.
Hands glared at the three of us. “So we’re just going to let it go?”
“Gale’s right,” Excelsior said, coolly. “We shouldn’t try and tangle with it, and if it’s leaving…”
“What if it goes towards Mobile?” Hands said, cutting in. Harsh. “I have family there. We have family there.”
“The Cuban Patrol’s base will intervene and take it out, once we make our report on what we encountered,” Excelsior leaned back. “They’ve a bit more experience than the Association does in dealing with things like this with more mortal means, we can probably count on them. Besides, if we engaged it now, with just four-”
“Three people capable of putting up a fight,” Excelsior continued, patting Colton on the head with his left hand. “Then we might lose the beacon.”
Hands pursed her lips unhappily, glaring at Excelsior, and then over at me. “It just seems arbitrary when it’s acceptable to risk our lives, and when we hide in tiny tunnels hoping the devil doesn’t look in.”
“I’m sure that when we get memorialized in an inaccurate comic book, the artists will listen and have us fight it,” Excelsior said, his eyes closing. “Until then, we have to wait.”
Hands growled in her throat, but didn’t move the passage any more open than it already was.
The tension grew as we sat there, curled up in that tiny nook, staring into the dark hallways. Right when I was about to speak up, Excelsior flipped open his com and sent a message.
Movement on the ground. Anomalous in nature, red threads. APA still in effect?
Excelsior’s fingers tapped out a reply.
Unknown capabilities, reanimating effect; APA still in effect.
How long can you remain hiding from it?
Tap tap tap.
As long as we need to.
“We’ll keep you informed.”
Colton wheezed and leaned back against the cave wall, whimpering. His eyes lolled off to one side. “Gale…”
I broke eye contact with Excelsior and slid over to Colton.
“Oh my god it hurts, Gale,” Colton whined, shrugging at his armor. “I just…”
“Hey, hey,” I said, leaning in close to him. “What were you going to say to me before we found the trapdoor?”
Colton twitched a little, and looked over at Excelsior and Hands.
“They won’t judge, okay?” I said, shooting them a look. “We need to pass the time, okay?”
“I-” Colton swallowed, and I could see the pain sweat rolling down his exposed flesh, marked with blood from the helmet he’d stolen. “I lied about the mission that got me sent to Dauphin island, alright?”
My eyes flicked over to him.
Excelsior sighed. “Do I need to remind you about Opsec, Colton?”
“Gale’s my squad leader,” Colton said, growling at Excelsior. “Evidence of my moral fortitude is acceptable when it comes to making decisions.”
“Quoting bylaws at me?” Excelsior said. “You know, I’m fairly sure that if you have to do that to do what you want, you’re breaking the spirit of the rules.”
“We are in a nearly apocalyptic scenario, hiding in a small cave, covered in bones of people the rules forgot,” Hands said, leaning back. “I think we can whisper dark secrets too, if you really want to set the stage.”
“When’d you get snarky?” I asked.
“It’s the only way I can remain sane, I just learned that if I squeeze people too hard, they split in half.”
I gave the invisible hand a look. At least, I assumed I did, given I couldn’t see it at all.
“Go on,” Hands said, gesturing grimly at Colton. “We’ve got time.”
Colton took in a deep breath, and wheezed out again. “The mission that went wrong. With the psyker; her cult around her. Her followers, or whatever you want to call them.”
Excelsior’s eyes glinted like steel as he watched the door, a stiffness to his back. “That’s the one that earned you your demotion, correct?”
“You know about it?” Colton asked.
“I read your file when I learned I’d be working with you. The Association keeps track of their more lethal members, especially when something like that happens.”
“So what, he took out someone he shouldn’t’ve. That’s not… I mean, I already knew that.” I said, looking at Colton.
Excelsior sighed. “I’ll let him finish.”
“I felt her mind slipping over mine, and felt the agony of her truth, felt the tear of her visions at the veil. Felt the strange urges overcoming me and-” Colton swallowed. “I gave up. Just for a moment.”
I stared at him. Where was the hunger now?
“I wanted to become her, I wanted to know her truth.”
Hands blinked. “So instead of killing her…?”
“She became knives,” Colton whispered, staring at nothing in particular. “They all became knives, because they were all my thoughts, and I lost control and they all just…”
Where was he looking?
I followed his gaze and stared at a splotch of ancient blood on the wall. “It was my fault,” Colton continued. “I lost control. I’m one of those problem heroes they have flagged in their big book.”
“The ones that they need to keep a close eye on. Like Faraday, or Negalli, or some of the other titans,” Excelsior explained. “Rebecca, Osteor, her too. People who have powers that are particularly threatening to the world around them; if they lose control, casualties result. So he lost control.”
“And when you say they…” Hands said.
“Everyone she had control over. Everyone who had her thoughts in their head, her whims, her powers. They turned into knives, too. And I can’t unsee it, because for a moment, I was knives, and I was there, and I was all of them, and I felt their skin separate, pull free from the bone, flayed, and felt-”
For a moment, I tried to picture what it’d feel like to be made of flesh, and then very abruptly knives.
I couldn’t manage it, it made my skin crawl and beads of sweat roll down my neck.
So much death. So much death.
“What did you feel?” Excelsior asked, taking over for me.
“I felt like there was someone watching us, and it thought it was hilarious. Something from beyond, watching me. When I came too in the hospital, I think I laughed for hours.”
“So they sent you to Dauphin island,” I said.
“That’s where they send heroes who can’t be trusted not to fuck up in the field,” Colton said. “There’s some trainees there; we have them among our ranks, and there’s some teachers there, doctors, masters in the field of trying to make heroes unsnap, but….”
Patrickson had dealt a deeper blow than just weakening the Association’s grip on the area.
I didn’t think I’d ever get to understand exactly how bad it was, because every time I thought I’d figured out everything I needed to be pissed at, something else popped up.
Colton paused to take a breath. “And-”
“Perhaps,” Excelsior said, looking down at his com. “While we wait for the all clear, I could tell you about some of my more recent screw ups. So you know that I’m not impervious either.”
Hands sighed. “So what, you’re going to tell us about the time you left us all for dead?”
“I suppose I deserve that jab,” Excelsior breathed, leaning back against the narrow tunnel wall to give us a bit of space. “No, I left behind someone else, back in the Birmingham Exclusion Zone.”
I breathed out. Thought back to the com he’d left behind. “Guinivere?”
“My old partner. From before Faraday, you understand. Faraday was supposed to be a vacation. A very long vacation. I guess I failed that too. Left him behind as well.” Excelsior’s eyes got distant, staring at the dark at the end of the tunnel, from the empty chamber we’d left behind after stealing its soul.
Silence for a long moment. I wasn’t going to break it, and Colton’s desperate gasps for air didn’t break it.
“Where was she?”
“Ground Zero up in Birmingham,” Excelsior said, his eyes closing. “She’s always been a first responder, but she was one of the first blips to go dark after we started closing off the outer perimeters of the city.”
“Your girlfriend?” Hands asked.
“I don’t really do that sort of thing,” Excelsior replied. “Not really in my nature. But no, we were partners. We made a bit of a set, the two of us.”
“She’s classified to high hell,” I said.
“Of course you tried to look her up,” The swordsman said. “She can turn anything she touches molten, and throw glass out of it.”
“Anything…?” Colton whispered.
“Anything,” Excelsior returned. “Ground, doors, windows, walls. People, sometimes, if they get too close.”
“And now she’s gone?” I asked.
“More than likely. Birmingham’s not really been Birmingham since the rolling green took it,” Excelsior said. “Or, I suppose…” he trailed, looking back in my direction. “You’d recognize it as the vines that drink dreams.”
My breath came in sharp and short through my teeth. Words I hadn’t wanted to hear.
Dangerous to hear, because I could only remember the other dark place I’d been recently.
“Looks like you managed to hurt Gale,” Hands said, softly.
“I suppose I did,” Excelsior breathed. “About all I’m good for, nowadays.”
“Doesn’t your sword cut through lies?” I asked.
“Doesn’t stop me from telling them,” Excelsior replied. “I wish it did sometimes.”
“Hands?” I asked, looking at her. “You going to tell a story?”
Hands shook her head. “I’m really not that interesting. I don’t have any awful failures to my name.”
From the air around me, I knew she was lying. She had something to tell, but…
“I won’t press you,” I said, finally. “Which just leaves me, right?”
Hands, Colton, Excelsior. They each paused, then waited patiently.
The com went off. I blinked, and looked down. Rescue efforts in progress.
“Maybe another time,” I said, and flipped the com closed. It was time to get out of here.