I’d been to the Montgomery Association Headquarters once. It was an ornate building. Gleaming Glass, steel. The avant garde arm of the government, kindly reminding you that Super Heroes were here to help.
Now the gleaming letters were scattered on the ground, shattered, and the top half of the building had been blown to pieces in a display of force.
Rubble littered the streets around it. Shattered glass like flowers, and ribbons of green drooling from the heavens on top of it, setting it full of life like a burning candle.
“New order,” Excelsior barked. “Don’t let those vines touch you. Don’t let any of it touch you!”
Behind us, the city block sounded like the fourth of July, cascades of suppressive fire and the determined whizzing of drones.
But the building ahead of us promised safety. By the beacon in Excelsior’s back, it promised the military their goals, and me, my revenge. Arm’s deep in hell.
We breached through the front door in a flurry of motion, feet skittering off of broken glass, and then down into the first hallway. Muffled screams in the background sounded like the keening spirits of hell, boiled alive in hot water and blood.
“Which way?” I asked. Excelsior spun around the corner and squinted into the dim. No power to the building.
“That way,” he pointed, and we raced straight into a dead end. Rubble strewn across the most direct hallway.
Hands started shifting through the rubble, and Excelsior nudged her away. “No, we don’t know how stable the building is. Shift the wrong pieces, and the whole pile could go crashing down.
If the beacon area were buried, we were screwed. The entirety of the gulf coast would be screwed.
Hands shrank away from the rubble. Behind me, Colton stared, peering back the way we’d came. “How long do you think they’ll hold him off?”
“A matter of minutes, if we’re lucky,” Excelsior said.
“It,” I corrected. “It’s what you call monsters.”
Colton bit his tongue and turned away from me. “Sure.”
Excelsior pushed his way past us, and trudged down the hallways. “Can’t I ever go somewhere that isn’t half collapsed with you three?”
Hands laughed. “When we go on vacation, you pick it, alright?”
Excelsior smirked, and I followed after, fighting the urge to peak at the renegades fighting to buy us time. After a moment of peering down the hallway, we were right back to running.
The capital had been mostly evacuated to hold other areas. The HQ was the same way. Unlike the last time I’d been in such familiar hallways, I didn’t get to see dead bodies, destroyed before they had a chance to bloom. There were no student casualties, and the worst I saw was destroyed electronics.
I could picture the soldiers going room by room, breaching and clearing the building. But it made me wonder at what point they’d declared the region a loss. Was it when containment had been lost in some distant facility?
Who had weighed the scales of war and decided to leave us to die rather than save us?
What bureaucratic nightmare had decided to kill us, that we weren’t worth saving? If I ever met them…
The back of the building was lined with labs. Countless affairs, each individually sealed, and each perforated with bullets to ruin the atmospheric containment. I could see broken glass in each. Work ruined.
War was pointless, a waste of time, and I could hear the sky screaming from holding the void back. Could hear Green Towassa hungrily slavering away to devour the entirety of the gulf, held firmly in tentacular embraces, tugging at souls.
“Don’t think, keep moving,” Excelsior shouted, and we turned the corner.
Behind us, the screams stopped abruptly, and the noises of the tanks diminished one by one.
Then stopped altogether.
Excelsior muttered under his breath, drowned out by the pace of our boots on the ground, drowned out entirely by anything that made sense at all, and then he turned, nearly slamming into the wall and somehow sped up, sprinting down the hall. I tugged on the wind to aid us in following him, and then the creature was upon us.
I’d always wondered how Gunze had gotten to be an A-rank with a defensive power.
I didn’t have to wonder much longer, because threads came in through the walls. They came for Excelsior, still sprinting down the hall, and his sword flashed out, decorating the walls in a fine spray of his own blood and the bloody tendrils of the monster.
They came for Hands and she lashed out, tearing the threads off of the walls, they writhed and screamed in her grip and fell to the floor.
Breathless I watched them come for Colton, but he was already ready with a broadsword forged from his mind, and this time the threads were cut with broad swipes like a machete.
Which left me. The threads jerked up out of the ground and I leapt over top of them, close enough that they tugged at the bottom of my boots.
Then things went worse.
It caught me around the ankle. Halted my momentum. Tugged me back. And
Mid air, the threads struck me, rupturing the armor and knocking me on my back. Spun me in the air. Flecks of black Cuban Patrol armor littered the rumbling ground. Meant to take bullets, not threads of death.
In the cartoons, in the comic books, this was where they’d save me.
If Dad were there, he’d be able to obliterate Gunze with ease, tearing him into shreds.
If Excelsior had gotten here, he could cut through it. He’d already shown that. They’d be safe.
But this wasn’t a mission about keeping us all safe. This was a mission about deploying the beacon. I’d already accepted that casualties were permitted as long as the beacon was deployed.
If Cassandra were there, I’d’ve laughed and pretended it was just like That Thing In The Basement, but the comparison was too apt, because in a moment, the threads were upon me. No sense using grenades in such close quarters with the others. Gas wouldn’t debilitate them.
But Cassandra was bleeding out in a building near by, and we were going to make sure she was fine, just like this situation was going to go perfectly fine.
“Gale!” Colton shouted, and the knives flew through the air. Again again again.
The threads came in through the ceiling and in through the floor, and the knives struck the edges of gleaming filaments, diverting them in mid air and then the rest just bounced off of solid columns of growing flesh, spearing through the ceiling and floor. A prison, and I was on the wrong side of it, being dragged away. Mounds of it, like the jaws of a madman, gums, gleaming red.
The difference between an A-rank and a B-rank had never seemed so large.
I could hear laughing, I could hear rasping noises, I could hear death, and I could hear the whisper of Green Towassa in my mind, the delicate instruments they played and the promises of eternity.
But the wall of flesh in front of me was all too real.
A heavy assault of threads took my left arm and forced it down against the ground. The old injury ached and screeched out, hand contorted well out of the range I had earned through weeks of physical therapy and exercises. I bit down on my lip. Tasted blood.
“Gale!” Hands shouted.
“Keep going,” I demanded, staring at them through the thinning cracks in the wall in front of me. Did Gunze recognize me? Was that why it was isolating me? “Support Excelsior!”
If Excelsior got ambushed with the beacon, it didn’t matter if I survived or not. He needed the support more than I needed saving, especially if the whole bulk of the threads was going to try and take me.
They had to keep going.
“We can’t just,” Colton started. “Gale!”
Through the dimming lines, I saw Hands grab Colton by the shoulder. “We’ll be back,” she said, muffled.
They turned away and the hallway was filled with rotting flesh and lines of drooling muscle. Why wasn’t it doing anything?
Hands would keep going. They had to catch up with Excelsior keep him safe at all costs.
And I had to hope to whatever god was watching, whatever grinning spectre of a demon had orchestrated this, that my resistance would work here too.
Then like the spectre of death himself, the once corpse of Gunze drug itself out of the rubble that had become the ground floor.
Even riddled with bullets the sight of him brought dread to my heart. This was my failure. This was my cost. I had cost him his life, and he had seen something in me that had been good enough to die for.
It would be ill fitting of me to die to his reanimated corpse, no matter how frantic the situation was.
Breath in. Breath out.
The tendrils flexed in my armor. Burrowing through it layer by layer. Were they attracted by the heavy beating of my heart, or the weakness in my soul?
Gunze’s dead eyes stared at me.
I wasn’t going to die here. I couldn’t die here.
Then he slammed me into the wall, and I felt my nose crack alongside my ribs. Blood gushed from my nose. Felt my teeth shift in my mouth. Pain, hot and throbbing, cascading down my chest. Felt it in my legs.
Then it threw me against the ground again.
“Why…?” I trailed off. Air didn’t come so easily to my lungs.
There was no answer from the monster. Perhaps it simply needed to tenderize me before it tried to incorporate my tissues.
The tendrils took my right arm and slammed the armor against the ground. Raw pain. The armored gloves splintered. Cracking my coverings open like a damn lobster.
I mewled, and taste blood as it rolled down the back of my nose and into my throat. Coughed once, a spray of fresh mixed with my spit.
He stared at me as I mewled. He’d watched me suffer like this under Patrickson’s heel. He’d watched the man beat me half to death and decided I was worth dying for.
Now he was just watching me take hits.
Watching to see what I’d do.
I couldn’t disappoint him here. I couldn’t dishonor him here.
I couldn’t die here.
Ancient training took hold from school about worst case scenarios. I’d traded my life for five minutes, then thirty minutes. Gale, you’re a hero. You need to keep standing up. Your life for others.
I was getting tired of offering the trade at all.
My right arm jerked as the threads finally hit skin, through layers of insulating fabrics, and the first touch felt like clawing lightning
And I’d held lightning for a fabulously awful second, when the world had mutated and demanded reality to assert itself, when I’d held Faraday’s gauntlet and demanded the Lost Boy to die.
But this was different because now I knew how the Lost Boy had felt when the pain had been too much. But the Lost Boy had-
It burrowed home, and as I tried to haul my legs under me to stand up, the pressure of the mass across my stomach pushed me back down. Legs gave out under the weight.
Heard armor cracking. It’d consume me whole.
Not like this.
Not like this.
The impact jostled free one of my last grenades. It bounced across the floor and rolled just out of reach, then rolled across the pin, tapping against the last of the supplies at my hip.
Training took hold, and the pain stopped for a hideous moment. Another death lost to the path of fate.
My left hand twitched, and I ground it into a fist, ignoring the pain of torn muscles, fighting against hope itself.
And then I threw my left arm, twitching, clenching, broken almost useless and grabbed a signal flare off of my belt.
The threads expanded in my right arm, running across the skin, tracing my muscle. Getting a feel for a new puppet. Why didn’t it kill me? If I didn’t think about it, if I didn’t think about it
We were supposed to use them to signal where we were after the beacon had been in place.
But I remembered, abruptly, just how effective the fire had been against the beast in the darkness under Dauphin island.
And I remembered that fire had worked against all of Green Towassa’s creatures. The rolling waves of green by the Cuban Patrol’s makeshift headquarters, a carved out sanctuary among roiling hell. The fire teams sent up to clear the hell that was the sea of skin.
I gripped the flare, struggling to hit the safety and the trigger at the same time with how mangled my left hand was. It ached. Nerves misfired.
Then it clicked after the second try.
And then it went off and I swung it in an arc, burning the threads attached to my right arm in a heartbeat. Smelled like burning jeans. The threads squealed and writhed under my skin. Couldn’t worry about that now.
Gunze screamed from his human husk, and opened his jaw. A flicker from his eyes, but I knew that wasn’t him in there.
And it wasn’t him hurting me. Shifted the flare from my left hand to my right. My hand still worked.
Which meant I could get the rest.
Then, with a sweep from my twitching right hand, I cut through the lines of thread invading my armor. They squealed, hissed, cried out, and died. With the flare active, the threads retreated.
Blood dripped down my right arm. I couldn’t look at it. If I didn’t look at it, I could pretend it was fine, and the bleeding wasn’t lethal.
I wasn’t dead yet.
I stood up. Just the briefest moment of respite. Even animals knew to avoid fire.
But Gunze was staring at me, intelligence in those beady eyes, long since taken by rot. They crossed and stared at the flare. Then flicked back to my face.
What was left in the corpse’s head? Anything more than a flicker of life, some flicker of knowledge. Something of the man I’d known?
But no, romanticizing this was wrong.
Gunze was dead.
And it was at that moment of realization that the communicator in the helmet went off.