There was no transition.
To someone with more powerful flights of fancy, the trip between worlds would be something monumental, grandiose. Something to write poems about, novels, entire legends. The bi-frost fridge. The commune with the gods.
It was simply a step through the gate instead. There was no transition between reality and the Green Hell.
At one moment, I was breathing air, and the next, the air might as well have been spores.
“Gas masks!” Excelsior barked.
I slipped mine on. He slipped his on. I was starting to get used to this.
I didn’t think that was healthy, to get used to this. I didn’t care. This wasn’t about being healthy anymore. This was about revenge, this was about saving the world.
There were bullets waiting for us back home. There weren’t going to be medals pinned to our chests. This was off the books, this was…
But Green Towassa was beautiful. We stepped out into a courthouse remarkably similar to the one we left behind. Ornate flags hung limb from the walls, their bright colors squelched with choking hostile mold. Mushrooms sprouting out of chairs and pews. The air bore a demented purple tint, and the sun ran green through the dust clogging up every surface.
There were foot steps there.
Many many foot steps. Military boots. Same pattern as the ones I’d taken from the Cuban Patrol.
And bullet casings littered the floor.
Excelsior held up a hand, and I listened. My air sense tugged through the fungal blossoms, reduced and diminished. Here the air was heavier than it should be. Gravity was too light.
Ragged slow breathing filled the space. Most came from the hiss of our gas masks. Unbelievably, they were putting up with the horrid spores in the air. Perhaps it was stupid that I was surprised; the Association and Cuban Patrol were no strangers to other worlds. Making equipment to fit the poor souls who invaded them would only make sense.
Most of the breathing came from our masks.
“There.” I pointed. A bloom of hot blood was splattered across the back wall. A soldier was propped up. Cuban Patrol regalia.
His head had been split open like a watermelon, but he still breathed. His fingers twitched in the gauntlets. I could see his heart pound with each dripping drool of gore down his frame.
There was a puddle of it where he sat.
“This is not a good place,” I said, staring at the moving corpse. The body reacted to our voices and twitched. A gurgle from the depths of a ruined throat.
He knew we were here.
Excelsior stepped forward, sword drawn, and climbed the stairs. I followed. I didn’t want to be more than a few feet from him. I didn’t understand the rules of Green Towassa.
I didn’t want to come to an understanding of them without a few feet of gleaming blade on my side.
“Be freed, tragic soul,” Excelsior said, his mask hissing the prayer. The blade came down. Where it touched, reality asserted itself.
A corpse lay there.
Excelsior knelt down and tugged dog tags off of his ruined throat. He breathed, and the gas mask hissed.
“Well,” the swordsman said, lifting up the tags. He looked at me. Blood dripped off of the name. “We know where most of Patrickson’s forces went.”
How suicidal? An invasion of another world, and yet.
I swallowed. “Patrickson has a vial of Fafnir.”
Excelsior’s expression didn’t change. “I know,” He said. “I knew the entire time.”
“So that means he can survive here, right?” I pried.
“It does,” Excelsior said.
“Are you Fafnir?” I asked.
“I am not,” Excelsior admitted. The sword hummed in the air. I’d held it once. It’d craved blood. It’d demanded that I proved I was worthy. Was I worthy yet? “This world doesn’t act on the rules of Earth,” he said, taking a step forward. I saw a glimpse of the world we’d left in the wake of his sword. Now rimmed with teeth, too many teeth, and trailing fine threads, it didn’t bite his hand.
“How does it work?” I asked.
“We are no longer mere mortals. In other worlds, we put force upon the world around us, and determine what happens to us.”
I breathed in. Breathed out. I’d seen it before. How many monsters of Green Towassa had I seen refuse reality?
And now we were here, and it was what we could do.
“Find your Truth,” Excelsior barked.
“Why are you here with me?” He asked. He didn’t look at me, but he waited all the same.
“I’m…” my tongue stuck in my mouth. I knew why I was here. Was that my Truth? “I’m going to save Colton and Hands,” I said, and it tasted right through the gas mask.
“Good,” Excelsior complimented. “Remember that over all things here. You are not here for power. You are not here to recover your hand, to undo the injuries of the past. You are not here for immortality.”
He lightly nudged me with the hilt of his blade. I could hear it singing. What was it singing?
It felt right. Pure.
I took a step closer to the blade. Around him, a gentle breeze had cleared off a portion of fungus. Realty crept in and whispered to the void that our world was correct and dominant.
“The sword will keep us safe,” Excelsior said, simply. “It is better than any artifice the Association can create. It comes from a better place entirely.”
I stepped behind him, and Excelsior patted me on the shoulder.
“I have so many questions,” I whispered.
“You only need to know that Patrickson is attempting to become god of this land,” Excelsior said. “And we’re going to execute him for it. Your Truth is that Hands and Colton are wherever Patrickson is.”
I tugged my air sense around the room, trying to get use to the additional weight of the air. My powers weren’t entirely useless.
“My Truth…” I hummed.
Well, my power had always been practically useless. It just meant I had to use tactics, common sense. However much that would work on an alien world.
Excelsior led the way out of the courtroom and I followed. “Why does it look like home?” I wondered.
A mirror of the world we’d left. Covered in vines. A few bodies squirmed among them.
Excelsior cut them down and put them out of their misery. The plants had grown under their skin and into their veins.
“It has been here a long time,” Excelsior said. “Believe it or not, Faraday and I were meant to neutralize it while we were here.”
That was a long time ago.
“In some ways, the current problem is our fault for not stopping it.” Excelsior shook his head. “If we’d gone a day sooner… if we’d…”
“It’s not your fault,” I said. Truth. It sang across the world around me, whispering in a thousand hoarse tongues.
“You sound a bit like Faraday,” Excelsior said. “Now he was a fine addition to Fafnir. His mobile reality field worked marvels. Imagine, instead of having to invade realities on their terms, we invaded on ours.”
His voice was wistful, if half stolen by the hiss of the gasmask. He stepped outside, the hinges on the door well oiled despite the clogging mold, and I followed.
The Courthouse had been intact.
The rest of the city wasn’t. Skyscrapers were covered in wood and bark. Florals blooms opened and closed like mouths, and bony growths dappled the interior. Insects flew about, too large, too big, too pre-historic. I swatted one away and it buzzed irritably before flying off. A human eye was embedded in the abdomen.
A hive stood where a bank had. Insects buzzed out of it, and honey drooled from a massive wound tore in the side. It still smoldered faintly.
The Vines were everywhere else. Every surface that had not been blasted or burnt or cleared was covered in Vines. Vines covered in teeth. Vines with dripping eyes, watery, viscous. Vines with fingers, slowly crawling along the few paths that remained in the hellish landscape. Eyes with tongues.
Excelsior’s boots touched the ground, and the trees bloomed in a thousand colors. Spores and pollen shot up into the air. They gleamed with too many colors, too many hideous vibrancies, polluted from the green sun gleaming overhead.
I could look at it without it hurting my eyes. It made my skin itch.
“Green Towassa,” Excelsior introduced. “The parasite of Cancer,” he clarified. “came to this world some thousand years ago. It leeched into the dreams of the people living in the gulf coast. It whispered great things and promises.”
The swordsman took a few steps into the street. Where the sword moved, the ground cleared. Vines drug themselves away on their many appendages, ignoring their lack of mobility.
“Have you never wondered why Jubilees happen? Why thousands of millions of fish and crabs and animals hurl themselves upon the shallows?” Excelsior asked. “It is because they know they have overstepped their boundaries by turning their back upon this place. This was one of the first worlds quelled by Fafnir.”
“How long ago?” I asked.
They’d failed somehow. Green Towassa was back, and trying to kill us all.
“The 60s,” Excelsior said. “When the Prophet projects were being disbanded, they discovered that there were dozens of worlds like the Emperor was drawing power from. One had been taken prominent heroes and making them stronger.”
He swung his sword and enforced reality. The streets below his feet oozed with asphalt, and false life shrivelled and died. I could hear his body hum, could feel the sword cutting through.
“Disgusting,” Excelsior declared. Truth. It sang from the blade like a siren. Ambulance.
Where Excelsior walked, the air became purer. Wherever the sword touched became easier to move.
It wasn’t quite hope clinging thickly to my heart. But Excelsior was the closest thing to a professional that I had.
“Where would they go?” I asked.
Excelsior gestured. “Towassa,” he said, simply.
I followed his line. In the distance, an immense palace sat, visible as it broke through the tree lines. Living wood throbbed like muscle tissue. Birds screeched in asynchronous harmony.
Here a god sat.
Here, a world sat, conquering all in its wake.
Here unbridled growth sat defiant.
Here death knew no domain.
Here the world would crumble.
Here the world would grow.
Here the world would
“It’s grants immortality,” I muttered. “But not for long.”
“The paradox of a parasite,” Excelsior said. “Is that when a parasite is too successful, it kills the host. These worlds will grow. I suspect, that the worlds to the north are being handled by something more than a half dead swordsman and a surprisingly adept D-class.”
I took a step closer to him.
“B-Class,” I corrected. Truth.
The world shrieked, and he stepped forward defiant. A Gale conjured up through the trees, whipping threw branches as limber as sinew, and as red as heart strings. The leaves were hard enamel, clicking together one by one. The Gale begged me to follow it. To eschew my body and fly.
My father had wanted me to fly.
Here was a mockery of his words.
“He trades in teeth,” Excelsior said. “He trades in fingernails and toe nails. He trades in hair. When you have none of those left, he trades in bones.”
“What does he grant?”
I didn’t need to know who he was.
The Palace spoke all I needed to know.
The Palace that Patrickson was going to attack.
There was no point in pretending we weren’t going to do the same thing.
“Life,” Excelsior smiled. “He grants Life past our natural span. How many people linger on the grave, and rot while they live, Gale? This is where that comes from.”
Revulsion crawled up the back of my throat. “This place causes old age?”
It could cause something so intrinsic to the human condition? How could old age be caused by anything other than…
“It lets people trade vitality for life,” Excelsior said, softly. “That is not old age. That is acting in defiance of death itself. It allows people to cling by their fingertips. And we aid it.”
He stepped forward and the world shivers. Where the blade trailed, reality bled. Where he walked, life cried out.
“I can’t blame them for defying death,” Excelsior whispered but I heard every word despite the mask. Like he was speaking in my ears. “It’s human nature to seek ways out. We will trade, whether we want to or not, any number of things for life.” Another step forward, and his boots left imprints on soil that replaced itself with raw pavement, aged from years of use.
“That’s not what our Truths are today.”
I stepped behind him.
We were walking towards the forest. Where else could we possibly go?
“I suppose you can see why we’ve kept this place alive,” Excelsior said. “It’s… handy to have a few years lying around. Even if we must trade our memories for it. Our teeth. Our ability to take care of ourselves. After bones comes our memories, and our minds.”
“You can’t mean that this is the root of old age.”
“This is the root of cancer itself,” Excelsior intoned. “It grants immortality Gale. But not for long. And very rarely does it grant it to us. Our cells betray our wills long before we betray ourselves. A whisper from beyond.”
The trees hissed at Excelsior while he walked forward. Their branches bled hot red sap and syrup, rolling down their bone fingers and splattering on the ground. It hissed like acid.
The forest barred our path. Branches noduled like bones stood in our way, dripping with oozing sinew. This wasn’t a battle that was done with mortal weapons. This was something beyond.
“What are we doing here?” I asked.
“We’re saving the world,” Excelsior said. “Whoever controls Green Towassa can defy death itself. It is important that no evil person controls that.”
“Who owns it now?”
“The King of Goats.” A tendon in Excelsior’s neck tightened. “The merchant.”
The trees attacked. Birds flew out in a mire of connected heartstrings and thrashing claws! The vermin descended from the branches, teeth stretched long like a string! The fur braided into ignoble heresies!
Excelsior slashed at the world, and the world bled. It shattered, long jagged lines of off pale purple, across the blade of his sword.
“I am Excelsior!” He shouted, and the sword hummed with power, gleeful at devouring the lies of the world in front of him. It crackled with truth. “YOU WILL BOW BEFORE ME!”
Whose truth, I wondered.
What truth did we deserve at all?
“I am the sword that bears the burden of reality! I AM HE WHO BURNS LIES! I COME HERE NOT TO CONQUER! I COME HERE TO SAVE YOU! RELINQUISH YOUR ATTACKS!” He demanded of the forest. It hissed, and the lines of crackling force bore down upon him and demanded he surrender. The sword shook in his hand. “And I demand you point me to Guinevere!”
Cracks in the placid world that we’d built together flared up. Long red lines, hellish, crazed, rimmed with long lines of numerals and cascading with lines of glowing letters. They whispered about the fate of all life.
They whispered lovely things about quaking muscles and the decline of vitality. How all people would be consumed in the end.
They were but a vanguard for all parasites. They were but a representation of what man refuses to admit.
They have burrowed into the flesh of hundreds of planes. Greater than humanity would ever be. Humanity would always falter and beg for more life.
They would always be there to make an exchange.
They would one day join together into a single unified death, holistic and self consuming. Disease, decay, rot. This was the plane that fed upon such things. This was the plane that made such things.
Life would bow to death, and would struggle for immortality.
Petty Kingkiller. Tell us what your Truth is, that brings you into this trade-house of life.
And I stood there, watching this clash, the humming of thrumming realities and competing truths, and felt unbelievably small in the wake of such things.
What the hell was I doing here?
But my own Truth answered. I was going to save my friends.
I was going to break Patrickson.
Was that a good enough Truth?
“Gale,” Excelsior said, breaking the script. “If you could hold my hand? I could use another to keep the sword intact.”
And I reached over and took his hand in both of mine.
The sword whispered into my mind. Trailing fingers of some elder thing trapped in the blade, some hostile Truth that had long decided to aid the world and dispel falsehoods. It dug into my head through my fingers, traveled up nerves, blistered at skin. It clung, and sought and hummed, and ate merry of my doubts.
I was strong, I was strong, and yet-
The world whispered. Gentle winds tugged at my fingers. If I let go for just a second, just a second more…
And the red lines of invading reality swam up into my arms. They burned like fire. Letters written across skin, charred into place.
And then it spoke to me like it had never spoken before.
It presented deals.
It could fix my hand, if I wanted, Green Towassa could. It had fixed many a cripple in it’s time. It had preyed upon many hopes. Traded away morals for muscles.
The natives had named it.
It was partial to the name.
It could fix everything.
It gave me a taste of what that could look like and I saw stars and colors I had never seen before. I tasted things beyond me. I sat at the edge of a great cliff, a great precipice, a thousand thousand worlds covered in flesh and writhing, singing into the void. And still more worlds awaited.
And still more worlds awaited, filled with wondrous things, and they would all be mine. Ships off the edge of the galaxy, burning like wildfire as they burrowed into other worlds. A vanguard fleet of parasites.
It could return.
I could join it.
My father had never truly deserved me, had he. He’d seen powers and tried so hard to be there.
But he’d drifted away, hadn’t he.
It could fix that. It only knew how to love.
Hate was also love, if you were close enough.
It could do everything my family had never been.
It knew the name of my mother. My mother, oh my mother. She would be proud of me if I gave it up.
Just give it up.
I was shaking. How could I not be shaking. It gave me ideas. It told me how great I could be. How wonderful it would be to just. Give up.
“Your Truth,” Excelsior barked. “Gale! Your Truth! Do not let it overwrite you! You are stronger than that!”
I wasn’t there for healing. I wasn’t there to heal any of the aches I bore, nor to heal the nerves that still shook in my hand.
We could heal your attacks. The shaking. The quiver in your heart. The shake in your step. Just a moment of your life, and we could fix it all.
I wasn’t there for that. I wasn’t there for that.
That wouldn’t help me find my friends.
That was the Truth. Making deals wouldn’t get me through it.
The blade shook, and I felt it laugh as the old thing inside scanned me and found me more worthy than before.
Blood still dripped across all three of our hands. Excelsior’s Truth burned and felt like the sun itself, radiating off of his power.
And somehow underneath of it, there were my lesser truths. My lesser will, tangled up with it. A pale purple.
“I AM EXCELSIOR!” He shouted, and reality pulsated and stung like a guitar. “I AM NOT AFRAID! I HAVE SLAIN A HUNDRED WORLDS LIKE YOUR INFESTATION, AND THIS WILL NOT BE THE END OF ME! YOU WILL TELL ME WHERE GUINEVERE RESTS!”
And it was True.
The forest broke in front of us. The lines of reality that had sought to subvert us shattered.
Our world asserted itself. There was no roar. There was no revision. There was only us, and the bleeding wood. The bark cracked and burst like rotting skin.
The leaves fell as in Autumn.
The guard of Green Towassa was down. It had barely been standing, now that I could see. Riddled with bullet holes, the laws barely stood.
The Army had been through here.
The guard gave the swordsman what he wanted anyway.
And knowledge flowed into Excelsior. I couldn’t describe if I tried. In the other world, there was Truth, and there was Knowing, and There Was What Was. And it flowed from the dessicated corpse of what we’d slain, and tickled at the air.
Excelsior pulled of his mask and breathed at the fresh air that wrapped around us, and laughed.
Then he spat out blood, dispelling whatever strange twist we’d been in, and I finally tugged my hands away from the sword. They bled readily.
“We need to find Guinivere quickly,” Excelsior said, his air coming out in gasps. “We need a Fafnir. I probably won’t be able to deny them again without one.”
I shook, and I still tasted the beyond. I could’ve been healed, I could’ve been made whole-
Colton and Hands were more important. They were more important.
Had to keep telling myself that, because I needed it more than anything. I needed to stay intact.
“Thank you for not leaving me there,” Excelsior said. “I’ll admit. I wasn’t worried at all about you.”
“But thank you anyway. I know how it can sway even the greatest of us.”
“Thank you,” I said. I hadn’t even believed in myself. The other world was so vast. My expertise was lost here. “What now?”
He stepped forward and turned to make sure I was following. “Now?” He barked out another laugh, tearing off his mask entirely and throwing it to the ground. His skin gleamed with Truth. “Now, it’s time to save my partner.”
The forest was bare before us. It was time.