Another alley, another dead run down, drones whirring overhead. ETA ticking down. Inch by inch, second by second.
We were too close, too far, too close, too far. The gleaming capital city of Alabama now swarmed with jets in the sky.
The faint patter of anti aircraft guns still left behind changed swiftly into the monumental detonation of harder ordinances. Around us, building shook, shattered, and fell to the ground.
They’d be picking rubble out of the capital for far longer than we’d spent picking rubble out of Mobile.
But this was war, not heroes and villains. And I’d brought the war to Patrickson.
The tank detonated behind us with all the grace of an airstrike. The deafening roar of a jet behind us in the tangled layers of hell and alleyways, barricades and newly flaming wreckage. Green Towassa could eat their heart out.
The building shattered from the proximity, but only glass fell like ice from power lines, cascading down like a waterfall.
The ground shook underneath of our feet, alarms going off in every building, everything that still had power. A mess, a horrible mess.
Excelsior held up his hand, and we skidded to a halt in front of him.
The alley was dark and dusty. Smoke was filling the sky, setting the night on fire with bright lights and flickering notes. Like fireworks.
Posters half eaten by rain showed off laws and rules under Patrickson’s regime. An attempt to constrain the people who had fled here, or had refused to leave when the evacuation had gone out.
What was so scary here that everyone had to leave?
Where were the armies proper?
“Scythe tanks located.”
“Cuban Patrol standing by, waiting for the go ahead to launch an assault. Gale?”
“We’re making progress,” I barked. “Had to call down a strike to get someone off of our back. Any sign of more movement in the city?”
It’d been too easy.
I didn’t like it when things were this easy. It meant we weren’t operating with perfect information. The sabotage teams had been able to get in and out too quickly. Minimal casualties.
Considering Patrickson should’ve known what his own sabotage squads were capable of…
I didn’t like it.
“Tanks, drones. The occasional outpost,” Borea reported.
“You’re reporting automated defences?” Command replied. “Repeat, we are looking at an army of about five hundred. They are armed.”
The jets screamed overhead. “I’m not seeing much of anything.”
Tanks detonated in the distance. The sound of squelched automatic fire. Distant screams.
Minimal security. Where the hell was the rest?
Enough to keep the guns armed, enough to keep defences up…
“Repeat, I’m not seeing movement, I’m not-” The radio died.
We stopped, stooping in that alleyway, listening to the jets. Tapped at our radios, looked at each other.
“Calling all of the misguided souls attempting to take this city,” Patrickson said, cooing over the radio. No matter what band I checked, he was there, talking unbroken.
“If you want this city so much, you can have it. I’m leaving soon. Cassandra… I always considered you to be my second. Seeing you this way… it hurts me. Truly. Rutherford. Plotting and planning as always. Petty schemes will do nothing here. You’ve already lost.”
A long silence.
“Given that they’re here, I can only suppose that Gale’s arrived. Are you happy with your quest for revenge? Killing good men, fighting for the cause they believe in. Yes, I know what you’ve done. Releasing monsters on the world. Pretending nobility. Selling your friends into slavery to a foreign power. Prove yourself by taking out this revenant, Gale, since you’re haunting me. I look forward to meeting you. A hero, driven by revenge. A mirror image. Beacon off.”
His voice was cooler than I remembered. Deader. Flat. Where was the madness. This close to his goals, had it been replaced by steel? A determination that he had done the right thing, justified by how close he was?
What was the plan?
He made me think of being beaten. Of being powerless, ground into the floor. Fear soaking everyone there. Osteor, deprived of her immortality. Did she wonder about her death?
Was she wondering about it now? Pacifist she was.
Made me think about Gunze. Colton, trying to find someone to save him, save his friends. His mentors. His teachers. Shot dead and to pieces.
Hands, terrified. Learning she could kill.
Not everyone had to learn that.
And me. Learning I could hate.
The shift in reality was palpable. Shockwave struck the four of us like a hand grenade; compartmentalized force, shrapnel, everything.. We stumbled forward as cold uncensored reality slammed in to fill the gap left by the beacon.
Armor started screaming. Error messages flecked with raw foam. Screaming. Cracks appeared in the helmet, long lines of fragmented glass. Screaming.
Tore the helmet off of my head, ignoring the screeching speakers, blood rolling down from a sudden nosebleed, some differential pressure muddling my ears, sticking my head with the image of teeth and the trade of bile.
Vomited on the ground, hot, rasping, bitter acid splattering my throat. Colton joined me, then Hands, helmets bouncing off of pavement and nausea decorating out stomach. The smell of blood in the air.
Excelsior’s hand settled on my shoulder and squeezed. “Well. This is why we’re here.”
Then the noise hit.
Far above, in the sky, gleaming over top of the capital straddling Goat Hill, the sky shattered. The overcast clouds died in a heartbeat, splitting under the weight of a massive explosion to reveal a green net of sky. A horrific noise, a screech, an undying shrill murmur.
The sun was wrong.
“Green Towassa.” I pointed at the sky. “That’s…”
“The other world,” Excelsior said. “How pretty the stars must be at night, in the place where dreams die and immortals writhe in their dying gasps.”
Colton drifted closer to Excelsior and I. Moss bloomed on city streets, though not around my location. Was it my resistance, or the beacon we were carrying?
The radio woke up. “Gale, here’s your call. Get to the Building, set up the beacon, and we can get in.”
The scythe tanks screamed and screeched, opening fire on the surrounded, drones burning vines seeping up into the depths. The Vines that Drink Dreams roared as only their hungry maws allowed, teeth, rippling threadules of questing thirst.
Colton straightened, a machete forming in his hand, and stared dead ahead. “Alright. Let’s do this.”
Hands swallowed, her hair blown by the sudden summer winds spiralling off of the other place. Beacon off. Nothing was going to stop this world from being consumed.
But there was something that was going to stop us. The sky was bleeding. Fat drops of red from the torn sky far above, where trees hung and the primal forest sang. Dripped down. Down. Down.
We turned and watched sky bleed.
Watched it land.
Landed, pulverising the payment behind us. The buckling shook the city. Glass shattered.
Glass was always shattering; fragile human artifice dwarfed by the horror mankind had laid upon itself.
Then the entire mass, hot, dripping, melting, molten, a colossal knot of red threads and human skin opened up a human mouth, a human mouth that… That…
Gunze straddled the entire mass of red threads, skin perforated and seamlessly transition between humanity and pulsing red vessels, and opened up an inhuman mouth and screamed.
For a moment, we were utterly silent. Vines drooled from the open maw of the void and settled on the tops of buildings. And spread, digging in with great thorns.
Then Excelsior broke it with perfect professionality. “Time to move,” He said, and drew his sword free from the sheath. It hissed and crackled against the skin of his gauntlet
“Move?” Hands hissed. “What the hell did they do to Gunze?”
Possibilities flicked through my head. Did Patrickson…
No. There wasn’t a world where Patrickson had control of this; this wasn’t something easily controlled if they had to drop the beacon to let him out. That was removing their safety nets on their terms, so they could mop up the survivors.
Which could only mean that this was Green Towassa’s puppet. Not Patrickson’s.
But that didn’t mean a thing against my hard hard heart, thumping painfully in my chest, staring at the man who had given up his life to give me mine.
“He died for us…” Colton trailed off. “He died for…”
“He’s right,” I said, and reached into my kit for another grenade. “He’s not… he’s an obstacle. We have a mission.”
“Gale…” Hands said.
“I said we have a mission,” I hissed, turning to look at her. “It… It doesn’t matter. We have to keep… keep going alright?!”
Two stories tall, he was bigger than the menaces we’d faced before. But this was bigger than anything we’d ever done before. Military action.
We couldn’t hesitate.
With the clean green light cascading out of the hole in the sky he looked even worse. Old skin had given way under wretched tears in the mask that had been left behind. Bones transitioned into lines of red, flicking about.
Bullet holes lingered underneath of a threadbare outfit that barely resembled the mess he’d brought with him. Turned black from age and decay, rank, blooming with fungal growth but…
Who could mistake the man that’d died in front of me?
Who could mistake the visible stain of the sins rent upon this land, the throbbing scar that had been carved into my psyche?
The veritable plague wrenched upon the lot of us, that day that I’d learned how fragile I was?
He was an obstacle.
“Eyes up and keep alert,” Excelsior barked. I could smell the blood in the air, hot and hungry as the sword dug into the sweet skin under his gauntlet. A cost for such a power.
Hands hesitated, just a moment longer.
I couldn’t wait for her. I could only hope she’d move when I did.
The grenade was also in my hand, and I threw it, ignoring the sting of pain from overexerted muscles, ignoring the sweat rolling down my back. This was a mission.
We couldn’t look back.
Before the grenade was halfway there, Colton’s knives joined them. They flipped hilt over edges through the air-
And a toothed maw of red threads devoured them moment. A momentary muffled flash, explosion, and then smoke trailed out of burning threadules.
Then the threads snuffed out, and I called the smoke up through the suddenly rainless sky.
“Go!” Excelsior shouted. The building wasn’t far away. We just needed to slam the beacon home, and Gunze would-
I had no idea what Gunze’s form would do if we returned reality to how it should be. Would he be like the Lost Boy and defy death until the very end, or would we see him shrivel up and die on the spot?
Didn’t matter because we were already moving through the smoke. The building was from the opposite direction of Gunze.
If we just out paced him, then-
The first red thread whistled by my head and dug into the ground like a vine. Cannon fire in the distance, automatic bullets from the scythe tanks loosed like hounds chewing up the sprouting vegetation dotting the buildings like crawling ants.
But around us directly, there was only Gunze, and the threads. The single red thread looped and dug through the ground, grinding through concrete and stone, and arced underneath of us and then in front of us, a running thread.
It reared in front of us and dove in. Wind whistled from the passage.
“Gale!” Colton warned, and the thread glanced off the edge of his saber, light refracting off of his mind made real, and the thread arced in front of me and –
Excelsior was already there. He wasn’t surprised in the slightest. A single swing, and the thread was severed, ignoring how the edge of Colton’s sword had done no harm to it.
It screamed as it writhed, but we raced past it instead of watching it die.
And then I was too far away to maintain even the facsimile of a cloud of dust I’d tried to keep us cloaked in, and there was nothing at all to protect us from the view of the gleaming green expanse twinkling in the sky.
Plant the beacon and it’ll get better. Plant the beacon…
Gunze screeched and the heavens shattered a bit more. Long cracks spiralled off like saplings tasting the first rain of spring, freed from the shackles of cruel winter. Shards of ruined sky rained down, crashing, splattering into molten light and hissing at the resistant mortal structures below.
I could hear the whispers. Life without end. Growth without death.
The Beast beneath Dauphin Island had heard the same siren song.
If I was dying, I didn’t know if I could refuse it.
But I wasn’t dying.
But the body (gunze) (hero) corpse (man) god (FAFNIR) chasing us
I chanced a look
Gunze moved silently, suspended upon thousands upon thousands of tiny red threads, moving him without even his massive bulk making a noise upon the pavement. Every so often we would pass between two massive buildings and the threads would slide off into them without noise. Without anything than the steady pitter patter of raw blood.
I was used to the creatures screaming more. I was used to them making noises.
Gunze was a silent monster.
Which was how he was gaining so fast on us without making a single noise.
Hands read something in my body language that made her look behind us, and she squealed when she saw Gunze, saw the sickness in the pale skin still languidly attached to the corpse, saw the rivulets of raw blood dripping across string. Stretched like ichor across moving arms.
I jerked my head back and the threads buried into the world around us went taut.
And the entire street rumbled. Fractured. Cracked. Swarmed with squelched horrific life. Swam with threads.
Then an idea. A horrific, stupid idea.
But I was getting used to those working.
The street splintered in front of me, and I hurled my wind to keep me balancing, sliding into a tight turn. Excelsior followed instantly, and my trailing arm caught Hands and spun her to follow after us.
Colton skidded to a halt and nearly lost it when the floor erupted into hot red spires, smouldering from contact against the air, but a flurry of blades stopped the thread from latching onto him and he spun with me.
Gunze’s bulk sent him sliding when the threads gave way underneath of the pillar of red flesh. I could almost hear his voice, hear the tentative words in his mouth. Hear the laugh.
Hear his last words.
Was he in hell now? Was this hell? Was this our hell? Had the world faded into the fires of eternal punishment, and we were just now getting the message.
It didn’t matter, because I knew where we could get a distraction from the antibody released by Green Towassa. From the rip in the sky.
“Wait, we’re heading right back to the part of the city still being patrolled,” Hands said, her breath coming out in ragged gasps. We were pushing too hard. It didn’t matter. We needed more.
“Exactly,” I said.
Excelsior laughed. “The tanks will have to see the giant fucking thing as a threat, and they’ll swarm.”
“And we don’t have missiles, so-”
Colton was interrupted by a spray of autogun fire in the distance, and the sudden cloud of spores in the air as we passed over a bare portion of city and into a rapidly flourishing urban jungle.
I’d seen this back at the Cuban Patrol base. Fireteams and agent orange sprayed across the landscape to defoliate the angry patches of nature. The old things that hated.
The things man had long stomped into the ground. We’d left Gunze there, in a dead place, and look what’d happened. Had Patrickson known that Green Towassa’s Revenant was chasing him?
Or had he simply expected that the world would be chasing him. What was his plan?
What was he doing with…
I looked up and swallowed. Nothing good.
The handful of grenades I had left hit the ground, dropped one by one, pins falling off of the lapels of my uniform, and erupted behind us underneath of Gunze’s threads.
Slowed him. But I hadn’t been intending on stopping him. I knew better now. We didn’t have Cass at our side, and the whole of the other world was here. Not just a few threads of it. Not just a few desperate gasps. But a gateway in the sky. A grand nexus point where Green Towassa could peer down upon us and see our weaknesses.
Then we turned the corner and the scythe tanks were upon us. Anti hero- no, they weren’t anti hero mechanisms, were they?
Part of my plan hinged on whether or not they’d be able to deal with the abrupt change of power in the city.
The rolling masses of green sliding out of the sky, great long vines, it was spreading. We were just invading Montgomery. Green Towassa had the same plans.
Clever, to use one of our enemies against us, instead of wasting his own forces.
Which begged the question, where exactly were the rest of Patrickson’s troops? And why were they supporting him in this?
But the scythe tanks left active were handling the situation perfectly. Turning the corner, I could smell charred vegetation, and saw the gleam of lasers and burning vines as the drones swarmed the buildings around the tank corp like herbicide.
Crouched in the center of the tanks were a few straggling Cuban Patrol members. Kept alive by the tanks.
They were designed to deal with this exactly.
They were designed to penetrate territories in complete loss like this one. Autonomous, not affected by the world around them. Capable of repair with the drones, capable of killing anything that moved.
They weren’t just good against heroes. They were reclaimers.
My radio buzzed, and I opened it back up.
“Don’t attack!” The Patrol members swore.
“SHOOT THE THING BEHIND US,” Hands roared, not even breaking stride for a second.
Bright shiny death. We’d been trained on the tanks weaknesses and strengths. Now there was only the hope that they’d be as strong as we thought they were.
Because if they weren’t, this gamble was stupid.
The drones exploded off of the building and flew over our head like whistling bullets. I couldn’t stop either. Hurtling towards the tank, seeing them read our presence.
“Soul taker has been sighted, I repeat, soul taker has been sighted. ETA on the beacon being back up?” the enemy said, desperately hissing into the radio.
“Radios are compromised,” came the buzz from other channels. Then a message in Spanish, presumedly repeating the exactly same meaning.
“BRING THE BEACON BACK UP, WE HAVE STRAGGLERS!” The tank pod screamed.
Silence from the other radio operators. But the guns went off from the Scythe tanks, and Gunze screamed in agony.
I waited for the guns to catch us as well, but…
Excelsior sheathed his sword and swept inside.
Miraculously, the autonomous threat ranking in the tanks determined that Gunze was the bigger threat, and for a brief moment I was in awe at the size of the battle platforms, sliding between their ranks. Large enough to bulldoze through urban areas choked with cars, armed enough to take on God himself if need be. The powerful howl of deep gasoline engines, the whir of cooling systems.
Without even a moment’s hesitation, the Renegades parted to let us through, pointing their weapons at the monster behind us. Rifles went off. Ammunition on the ground.
A man stepped to the side, nursing a visible injury. Gun shot through the side, armor twisted around it. He tapped the insignia on his chest. Leader.
“Beacon?” The leader said hopefully. Hands slid to a halt.
Ostensibly, they were our enemy.
But I’d seen the red threads reanimate the dead. Kill them, and bring them back as puppets.
Excelsior paused, then patted his backback. “Beacon,” he repeated.
How strange was it that this felt like staring down the Lost boy?
The leader nodded once, then turned to his men. Swallowed visibly. “We cover your back,” He gestured at the great beast.
Excelsior nodded. “We will remember you. Name of your squad?” He said.
“Fourth Tank Patrol,” The leader said, leaning back against the Scythe tank at the back. Every so often, another vomit of drones, lasers targeting individual threads flying through the air.
Safety. If but for a moment.
It was a stupid idea, but I took a look at Gunze. How close was he? How far away was he?
Bullets twisted through the clawing tower mass of red fibers. Red blood erupted out of the back of the monstrosity. The blast of tank rounds broke threads into pieces, decorating the ground like parasitic worms. The smell, the smell, the smell
Blood, gasoline, twisted up in each other, and the distant whisper of Green Towassa overhead as the sky vomited forth more vines, more spores, more death hot and pretty and twisted.
I didn’t want to see anything more, but there wasn’t a choice. I had to keep watching him.
See how his dull eyes bore no pain as automatic fire sank through the thin veneer of skin left on his body. Saw how his mouth said no words. A dying man propped up by his power.
“Fafnir,” Excelsior said.
“What?” The leader asked.
“Not Soul Taker,” Excelsior said. “Fafnir.”