The communicator working at all was strange since most of the private frequencies were being jammed to all hell.
Stranger still was that I didn’t recognize the signal at all.
“If you want to live, and if you want this assault to survive, get Gunze out of the building.” The voice was a low rasp; asthmatic, a smoker’s gristle, long destroyed lungs and miles of twisted skin. “Everything revolves around Gunze, kid. He’ll eat you and everything in his path for Green Towassa.”
I didn’t recognize it, but it sounded wrong.
“Who the hell is this?” The flare was ticking down in my hands, burning through the fuel. Where was I supposed to go?
“If you don’t, everyone in the building is going to die. You will die. I will find you in the rubble, I will separate you from the mass that has consumed you, and I will wear your body as a husk, and during the end of the world, everyone you have ever met will die to someone wearing your face, talking in your voice, and crying with your thoughts.” Direct and to the point. Got it.
“What should I do?”
“Get his attention.”
I swallowed, and jerked my eyes down to the flare, then back up at Gunze. His sightless eyes were locked on the burning flame.
Through him was my team. My friends, my mentor. They’d saved me before, when I was left behind, when I’d stumbled away.
But now I was going to save them.
I’d already been left for dead. It was my turn to save them.
I took the flare in my left hand, took off the ruined gauntlet on my right, and then shifted the grip.
Then lunged at Gunze, flare drawn like Excelsior’s sword, just like how it’d been with Negalli threatening to blow up the entirety of Mobile, and slashed across his face. Curling smoke boiled up from burning flesh.
The monster didn’t scream so much as it felt fear for the first time; the primal note that all animals feel when confronting fire. It retreated, revolted, and moved. Before I hit the ground, the flesh had moved into the ceiling.
“It’ll hate you now. Good job kid,” The voice rasped.
Then I moved.
Green Towassa hissed in my ears and made crackling static in my thoughts, but the primal brain, the one that had gotten me through that long dark night in the basement of Dauphin island, kept me running.
I could already hear the threads moving through the building. Crawls spaces abused, fractures in the walls used. It had gotten in easily enough.
I tore at the threads embedded in my right arm and almost vomited as they slowly dragged free from my skin. Husks like leeches thrown on the floor. I could feel my heartbeat through my arm.
But I wasn’t dead.
“Good. You can listen.”
“Who the hell are you?” I hissed. Heart beat beat beat. Sweat rolling down every inch of my body. Armor half destroyed. It wasn’t a gallant race down the hallway.
But it’d do.
I’d hurt Gunze, and I was going to pay hell for it.
But if the beacon was put in place, it’d pay off.
“You can call me Manny The Faces,” The voice drawled.
A beat. Several long hits of my legs against the ground, bones aching. I was too young for the bones to ache like that. Was this how IronMarrow felt when she transformed for the last time? Was this what put pressure on her bones, made them brittle fragile?
Manny the Faces. It’d been a long time since I’d heard that name. Months. A lifetime ago.
Infiltrator. Senators dead in their bunkers. Association bases scrambled.
“And Patrickson broke my contract with him.”
I breathed in, out, then hurled myself around the corner. The ceiling exploded behind me. Dead lights shattered. Dead dreams died. But I wasn’t concerned about those.
“So you’re going to help me get justice,” Manny hissed.
Turned the corner. Hoped against hope that it’d be enough. How much of my armor was intact? How much of it mattered? If I could just keep Gunze occupied, if I could just keep him moving, then…
Then it’d be fine.
“What’d he do?” I asked. Home sweet home through the doors of the Association building. Gunze thrashed.
By the movement of the wind, I barely ducked in time, and the thread he’d thrown forward like a fishing line smashed into the door and twisted it off of off of the top hinge, then the bottom, hurling it back in my direction. A vaulted over top of it and the pane of glass smashed into the behemoth.
Not for the first time, I wish I’d been blessed with more destructive powers.
But among those left in Mobile, the most destructive was probably Colton. And among the Cuban Patrol ranks especially.
“He killed Gunze,” Manny shouted, sibilant. “He killed Gunze. There was no call for- there was no need. I wanted him to live, Gale, I needed him to, I needed him to see me again.”
Outside the city was on fire. Building that had just started to collapse from the bombings had hit the ground and turned it into rubble. We were saving the capital, sure, but we weren’t doing it any favors. For a breath taking moment, the city looked like paradise. But the sky was bleeding green, and vines were invading. They cascaded down the streets.
The defence by the tanks had lost, this close to the source. We were so close. Pollen filled the air, heady, thick, sweet like rotting meat.
Gunze erupted out of the building like the plague.
“I needed him to see me triumphant,” Manny whispered.
Gunze had told me to tell Manny to burn in hell.
I had the distinct feeling that Manny was going to bring hell to Earth, and I’d get the opportunity to be more literal about it. Regardless, now wasn’t the time.
“He’s gone,” I said. Gunze screamed. From the touch of my wind he was in hot pursuit. Why did my feet feel like lead?
“He’s not gone yet,” Manny said, dryly. “No, that’ll come soon enough. So long as Excelsior doesn’t fail again.”
I slammed down the side of the street.
“But you’re not going to keep him distracted if you don’t get support,” Manny drawled. “RSA building.”
I looked up. Tallest building Montgomery. Untouched by bombs.
The next street was filled with Scythe tanks, rolling forward. I shoulder checked in through the window at the base floor of the building, rolling through the front room of a bank. Gunze screeched, carried on my momentum, and rolled in front of the tank. Repeated gunshots perforating fabric.
The flare in my hand I threw at Gunze, and it bounced off of the red fabric and sizzled against it like melting fat. Then I hurled myself back the way I’d came. RSA building. If I was lucky I’d make it.
The scythe tanks didn’t last too long after that. Whatever they could do against Green Towassa had nothing on Gunze; bulletproof, a mass of sizzling threads.
But they bought me a minute.
How frightening to stare at death itself, remember how they’d almost taken our lives, and then see the monster chasing me move through them like they wasn’t there.
Leaving blood drooling behind me, I threw myself down the main road.
“RSA building,” Manny repeated. “It’s where the survivors are congregating.”
“Survivors on what side?!” I hissed.
“The side that isn’t planning on killing you,” Manny drawled. “I don’t think it matters who they belong to, it only matters if they’re willing to hold the creature off.”
“Gunze,” I said.
“What’s left of him.”
Across the main street the worst case scenario greeted me. Lines of cars left abandoned, unable to ditch in time for the evacuation. And astride them Green Towassa dripped, vines with teeth, teeth and eyes and pollen.
It’d be pretty if it weren’t in front of me.
It sounded like grand a graceful waltz, but I flew down the highway anyway.
The air screamed at me and I ducked. Another long pronged attack, hurtling into the car in front of me. I ducked to the side and jumped, landing on top of a car. The alarm went off.
Then I slammed myself against it and leapt to the next, then gave up on jumping altogether to just run across the tops, feeling delicate upholstry give way, and a sea of car alarms go off.
One day, I’d be strong enough to do something other than run. One day I’d be able to fight back.
But that wasn’t today.
Threw myself across the bed of a pick up truck, then bounced to the side. Hit the ground in a roll, felt the fragmenting armor take the most of the blow and come even more undone.
Did I look like a crumbling soldier, or a melting figurine?
Down the next hill was a stretch of mansions and plantation houses. Graffiti had taken their front doors, strewn with slogans and interrupted decay. A skeleton sat surrounded by burst spray paint, his blood a part of the final work.
Then Gunze roared, cars perforated and filled with the same viral threads that had tried to invade my body, that had scrambled muscle tissue and flirted with my nerves, and dove into the street below.
“I’d get moving,” Manny said, dry. “The offer to reanimate you as my puppet is still on the table.”
“It’s not-” The ground shook, and my went wide, leaping forward. Pavement bucked and crumbled. A playground for a monster, with nothing able to stop it.
What would the refugees even do?
“-not much of an offer if you’ll do it no matter what I do.” I coughed. My ribs were sore. Pinched. Heart going a million miles a minute. But I had to keep pressing on. Head getting a bit light.
“A mutually beneficial transaction,” Manny said.
The street was long. Gruelling. And the monster swam through it like sand.
Was this was heroes dealt with on a daily basis? Unsure of their enemy’s total abilities, unsure whether or not they’d even make it home? Gunze lunged up through the pavement, a screech of indignation and agony and hunger and a thousand other tiny little things, and the threads ate a grenade, pin dancing against the floor.
A single moment of breathing space, boiled burning threads left behind as the Fafnir gathered itself back together.
But I was already dancing around the corner, hoping that the shadow of the distant building would offer some respite.
Straight into the parked car right out of sight. My airsense was thrown far behind me to give me a moment when I’d know when the monster had recovered. Which was my only excuse, really.
If I hadn’t been running for my life, exhausted, blood trickling from various wounds and eyes half glazed over, it might’ve really been something hilarious.
As it was, my knees were taken out and I flipped over the top it, crashing through the already cracked windshield of the convertible, and landing, half strewn, dazed, across the front seat of the car.
Impact brought my head smashing against the radio of the helmet. Turned it on, looking for a signal.
Dazed, I heard english.
“Eyes on the Soul-Taker,” The radio buzzed. Tuned into a half dozen frequencies, searching for a sign. Broken glass wrapped across my skin, cradled me like the Association never had. The touch of my father in a thousand sonatas and myths, golden statues twinkling behind my eyes.
I wasn’t even hurt that badly. I was just…
I was just done, and out of time. Maybe…
“What’s he chasing?” Pained noise from the radio.
“Looks like a runaway soldier. Distracted it with grenades.”
“Grenades?” she asked.
“Looks like it. Where’s their rifle?”
“Hahahaha,” The voice laughed. “Fucking take the shot. Send in whoever’s still yanked up in combat stims out there. We got t-minus 3 minutes before control’s re-established over reality, by my watch.”
Cheers from the radio on all fronts, people breaking format and rules. The desperate camaraderie of survival.
Gunze loomed over top of me, his face, burnt, charred, boiling fat and placid intolerance written across the aging face. Eyes flicked over my form, strewn across the seats. What did he see? What did he want?
Then three sniper shots downwind.
One clipped the beast in the head, and the mask of flesh split open, conjuring forth only black ichor. Then the other two clipped across the neck and the entire creature reeled back in a display of angry threads.
A second later the bullets exploded, embedded deep in the skin and tangled up with threads, and the oppressive front of rotting meat and burning fabric dissipated.
Never for long; the bulk was still there.
A moment of hope.
My right arm spasmed as I put weight across it, but I spat out a curse into the radio and forced myself to my feet.
Heroes always get up.
Heart thumped, smearing more of my life blood across the armor.
Heroes always get up.
Eyes fluttered in my head, rolling up. Up. Up.
Slitted eyes. Muscles heaving, trying to get out of the car. Glass crunching under arms.
Spanish over the radio, flittering in and out. As the beast reeled back, temporarily suppressed, I crawled out of the car. Breath caught in my throat. Could see the vines eating reality dancing behind my eyes, crawling into my weakened thoughts, opened wide to receive it.
Heroes always get up.
I spat on the ground, and waved at the Renegades coming to meet me. Combat shotguns in their hands erupted into fire over my shoulders, sights painted across monstrous boiling skin.
“Soldier acquired. Bringing them in.”