They breached into empty rooms. Barricades were already evacuated, rooms already cleared. A curious and complete and total absence of anything even resembling the enemy.
Apart from the automated defences.
I was in hell.
Cass went into surgery. The nurses weren’t willing to get close to me, so I had to leave the room. At some point, the chair I’d been sitting in had been flung into a wall, putting a dent in the quick-crete frame.
“No!” My fist slammed into the door.
Inarticulate scream of rage. Loss of control, situation out of reach. I tore, fingernails, fingertips, at the walls, lashing out blindly. Where were my precious weapons? They couldn’t tear the beast that was roaring inside of my heart, they couldn’t blunt their teeth, they couldn’t reach into the root of the problem.
We’d won. We’d lost.
City was ours.
Bruises dappled my fists. They ached. They burned. A splotch of blood on the door where I’d punched it.
Super human strength wasn’t part of my grip of powers.
Neither was durability.
It didn’t stop me from tearing the room apart, screaming until my throat was hoarse. It didn’t stop my lungs from closing up. It didn’t stop the pain, it didn’t stop the lancing denial, it didn’t stop the guilt.
Papers were still scattering around when I stopped, tugged about by an uncharacteristic loss of control over the wind in the room. I curled up in a corner, staring blankly at the floor. My hands shook. Left still twitched and clicked unnaturally. Idly, I slipped into doing hand stretched to dull the pain.
My right just hurt from slamming it into anything vaguely breakable. That, that wasn’t something I could do anything about.
The smell of my own sweat made me want to vomit.
My stomach heaved, so I followed through. Just acid and bile. Just pointless, stupid.
Thought about what we’d lost.
Hands had a family. A real family, not the sham I’d always pretended my home had. I didn’t even know who all of my brothers were. Who my mother was. How did that compare to Hands at all?
Colton had a job. He was out there, doing actual work for the Association, before he’d had the bad luck to meet up with me.
He’d’ve filed paperwork to move positions, I knew. If his distaste for violence spread any further.
He was killing people with pieces of his mind, I should’ve seen it coming. Either turn into a full sociopath, or realize that I wasn’t going to stop asking him to kill and leave.
But he wasn’t going to do that now, he wasn’t going to do anything at all.
The only thing I hadn’t managed to break was my Com, laying across from me. Purple capes. Heroes of war. Casing was more durable than anything else I owned.
Tired, I picked it up and slid it back into my pocket.
If I was lucky, they’d take me out back and execute me for fucking up this badly.
We’d taken the city, but Patrickson was gone, gone, gone…
And so were Hands. Colton.
Dozens of soldiers.
We’d somehow managed to misplace half the Renegades in one fell swoop.
And I knew they weren’t going to find them in the rest of the city.
I knew where they’d taken them.
And there wasn’t any way to follow them there.
This was it. I’d just…
In and among my ragged gasps and cries, someone got brave enough to open the door. “Gale?”
Rutherford had deemed the city safe enough to have his presence there, managing things.
Which told me exactly how little danger there was left. Left where we could get them.
He took my hand and hauled me to my feet. Strange aches and pains in my bones, in my muscles. “Shhh. We need to debrief you.”
Conference room felt cold as ice on my skin, didn’t leave much to the imagination that this was what I was going to be feeling for a long time. Armor didn’t suit me just them.
Burn my cape, cast the remains into the sea.
“Congratulations,” Rutherford said. “Mission accomplished.”
His smile didn’t reach his eyes, because we both knew, full well, that we’d failed.
Montgomery was secure, but we both knew that without Patrickson’s body, nothing was secure at all.
We both knew he’d gotten away.
“What about Patrickson?” I croaked.
Rutherford’s smile slipped just a hair. “We don’t have the ability to chase after him.” He paused. “It’ll take time before anyone can get to him. We halted his occupation of this city, that’s the important bit. The Association will be able to track him down before anything happens.”
We both knew he was lying.
Even if the Association could move in, it wouldn’t be for weeks. Not with the hell on earth the states were in.
Not with the hell on earth we’d narrowly averted. With Hands and Colton gone… There was only one real place Patrickson could’ve gone.
I didn’t need to do the math. I’d come to this realization hours ago.
“Good job,” he said, quietly. “I’ve received word from the Association bases to the north that they’re going to make moves on Birmingham next.”
“And then?” I asked.
What would their tombstones look like?
The good guys were supposed to win. They were always supposed to win. I wanted to win.
I’d killed many people. Their lives extinguished in seconds. I thought back to the shrines of the Fourth Wave, and wondered what they’d think of me if my body count ever got declassified. Would I be a lord of rage? Would they paint my expressions hateful or would they settle on just?
“We can declare the Crisis over,” Boreas interrupted, stepping inside. “Restore complete communications for the entire Gulf coast, and reach out to shattered communities. Save, evacuate, everything.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be returning north?” Rutherford asked, eyeing the bandage around his head.
“Association hasn’t recalled me yet,” Boreas admitted. “It’s a bit of a mess. Besides. Gale needs family right now,” Boreas said. He flicked his eyes over to me. Something hidden in that gaze. Something I wasn’t being told.
I hated it.
Rutherford arched an eyebrow.
“I wasn’t aware you two were close.”
“We’re close now,” Boreas lied, taking a step in front of me. “And we should be clear that Gale’s with the Association, now that they’re sweeping in.”
“Of course,” Rutherford agreed. “We’ll mark Gale down as a favored associate.”
Breath in. Breath out. Would that mean more work? More chances of death?
More comrades vanished? More.
I was crying again. Fucking hell.
Rubbed at my tears. Where the hell was a proper uniform instead of body armor. We were heroes, we weren’t soldiers, we weren’t.
Colton was right. I really was just one intelligent fuck up.
“I’ll leave you two alone,” Rutherford said, and left them behind.
Boreas opened his mouth.
I looked up at him.
“You said you’d do anything to get them back, right?” Boreas asked.
Again. There wasn’t words to describe it.
“I would,” I said.
“Mission’s not over,” Boreas said. “Is it?”
The words hung heavily in the air. Everything in the building stank of wounds, gunpowder, injuries. Sweat. I hated it.
It wasn’t over. This was a false peace. There would be more to come.
“It’s not,” I said.
“Assets were taken,” Boreas said.
“They were,” I agree.
Boreas’s eyes took on a slightly haunted look. “You know. I never thought I’d be sentencing a sibling to something like this. I talked to Excelsior.”
I stared at him levelly. “And?”
“Excelsior’s working on a solution. Go talk to him. May god smile on you.” He paused. “Bring armor, and don’t talk to anyone about this.”
War wasn’t over yet.
With all the movement of the main army into the Montgomery, and the very beginning of the effort to try and restore the place into something decent, or at least vehicle worthy, it was hard to get out without being seen.
But tucked into a set of armor, I looked no different from any of the other soldiers. With the chaos of deployment, it wasn’t hard to walk all the way to the Capital, flashed a set of orders at the guards, since we were on the same side, and get into the building.
A day or two of rest had made my muscles a bit better.
It hadn’t fixed my heart in the slightest. Just walking through the front door hurt like a gunshot. Made me stagger to the side.
Security checkpoints inside of the building had been destroyed. Looked like they’d taken hammers to it.
Desks were overturned, Ammo crates left undisturbed, hold out points disarmed.
Walking past them felt like the set of a great movie, the end of some monumental task.
But we’d lost.
Alabama’s government had been evacuated to a different bunker from most of the citizens. I could pray that the great green hadn’t gotten them.
But I still swept into the main room and stared down at the floor. Legislative pit, long lines of chairs and tables. Buttons to vote yes or no.
Glyphs. Equations. Mottled patterns of paint and dark red turning to dark black. Long mottled lines.
They looked like my thoughts, thrown and tossed about in my brain. The winding obsessions to detail, the endless predictions and predilections.
The need to continue on. Somehow the scrawl all rang true of that.
I knew what it meant though.
“You’re here a bit early,” Excelsior said, standing up from the bench he was sitting on.
No armor on his body. Instead, he was back in his hero clothing. Reds. Golds. A-rank insignia on his chest.
Excelsior had never been the most visible figure among the Association ranks, but he’d always been one you could show to an audience. There was nothing awful about his appearance, and whatever scars he’d gotten had always been family friendly or easily hidden.
His sword at his hip hummed slightly. Each step increased the pitch. Down. Down he stepped until he stood in the center of the sigil.
“I came as soon as I got the order,” I said. “What’s this about?”
I didn’t want to look at the sigils any longer. They reminded me of that Prophet project, of the skeletons the four of us had found there.
The two of us.
Excelsior gestured with his arm. Pointed at the floor. “This is where they went.”
Each time he pointed, a splotch of blood. A stain here, another over there. Interspersed across the numbers like smeared graffiti.
I swallowed. Which splotches of blood were Colton and Hands?
Which was Patrickson?
“Where’d they go?” I asked. A slight tremor in my voice.
There were a number of things I didn’t want to hear.
“It’s quite simple,” Excelsior said, and then he stepped onto the floor of the amphitheater. “They went to the other world.”
“And I’m going to get them back,” The A-rank said. Simply. The Truth-Sword touched his hand, and there was no blood.
Where he stepped, the floor buzzed and reshaped itself to accept the new variable.