The shaking in my arms stopped soon enough. The wounds on my hands sealed under the peculiar radiation of the green sun. Despite the gas mask, I was starting to smell the other world. The soil ran with insects, coiling and crawling over top of each other infinitely, but they parted as we walked through. Millipedes ran on fingers tipped with nails, carapaces caked with spent gore.
“They recognize we are challengers,” Excelsior murmured. “It is not their right to challenge us in return. They have a king to do that..”
“Where’s your partner?” I asked.
“At the gala,” Excelsior said. “I hope you don’t mind a little night music.” He walked forward. Proud. He didn’t care about the gasp of the air on his body, nor did he mind, for more than a second, the wind whistling past.
Was this what it meant to be a hero?
My mind ached from throwing myself against the barrier, and I still tasted steel from the touch of the Truth sword. Was I worthy yet?
I knew I wasn’t. How could I be?
Excelsior started on his move, step by step, inch by inch, and the forest moved out of his way. Trees inched beside, space growing between them. Animals bowed in reverence.
“What are they?” I asked.
“Life that made deals,” Excelsior said. “They won’t leave here again, but they’ll live.”
Broken limbs, healed crooked. Scars healed into tumors. The rugged rolling ridges of exposed bone.
The animals were hardly kept together, but they knew their fate all the same. They knew they’d been tricked. They knew they’d been wrong. They’d been wronged.
I could hear their whispers on the tight coil of wind I kept on hand. Hoping it might be useful. Excelsior flicked the blood of reality off of his blade and it fell off like molten stone, laws, rules, lies turning into slag on the ground, crystallized into a dozen colors spread out like fordite.
“There,” Excelsior grinned, showing off white teeth. His eyes were glowing now. Truth rolled out out of his mouth in wisps of light, and split down out of his eyes, leaving after images in the placid ruins of the reality we were invading. The sword brought out rules with it, but behind us, reality was starting to heal.
“We’ll have to fight our way back out, won’t we?” I asked.
“Not if we kill the Goat King,” Excelsior said. “There won’t be much left of the rules of this place if we kill him.”
“Sounds…” I said, swallowing. Killing all of the rules of a world sounded…
“It’s a parasite,” Excelsior said. “A reminder, that this place has sat encrusted and sealed on the back of the earth for thousands of years. It’s a tick. Long fangs dug into Gaia’s neck, whispering promises of longevity.”
Maybe he was right, and removing it would be a blessing. My head still reeled from the idea that this was what caused the deleterious effects of old age. Did it cause all of them? Did it even cause most?
“Is that…?” I asked, because somewhere rising over the gloom of the wiregrass forest, where the animals had stopped making their gentle noises in order to listen to our reprisal, I could hear something. Music.
“It is,” Excelsior said, his face tight. “Ready for another fight?”
“A proper fight, or…?”
“A mix,” Excelsior said. “Don’t get overwhelmed. Don’t take deals, no matter what happens.”
“Are those Fafnir rules?”
“I’ll tell you the rest later,” Excelsior said. “But above all else, you’re not playing by their rules. You don’t have to play by the rules here.”
“Do you?” I asked.
“I play by another set,” Excelsior said, a knowing grin on his face. “After all, I have the sword.”
The ridge swelled like a cancerous growth upon the landscape, and trees slowly tilted as we went deeper into the forest. Densely packed thickets were rare here, only when the brambles emerged high and mighty as nuclear bunkers, and the steady press and demand for a path brought one out of the ground.
But we crested the ridge regardless of the danger.
Geography failed to explain the sight before us. A great valley rimmed with teeth, and in the darkness, a live band played. Their fingers were nestled with teeth and prongs of bones. Delicate feathers sat over their eyes. Their mouths were rimmed with fingers.
They played the drums, guitar, and a bizarre crooning beat.
A waltz. ¾ time.
Around them, the Debutantes danced. Ball dresses took up their entire forms, turning their abdomens into corset clad nightmares. The cloth on the dress clicked together with each step, a slow steady noise across the mirror finish on the ground below. Snakes watched from the distance. Some venomous. Most were just king snakes waiting for the opportunity to pounce on fresh prey. They whirled in perfect synchronization. How long had they been at it?
They bore no faces and their mouths bore no teeth except long rotted gums. Who had they been in life? Had they been anyone at all? Was this just a mockery, or were they trapped here? Was this what awaited Gale and Hands, trapped in this strange waltz?
“There she is,” Excelsior said, his voice low, staring down at the center.
I’d mistaken her for a statue. Carved stained glass stretched endlessly across a figure that was impossibly larger than life. Eight feet tall at the least. A lance had been in her grip, tucked around massive stained glass fingers.
The glass stretched out for feet on end, multiple points of entry and cracks surrounding it.
The woman in the center had red skin. But that wasn’t the most noticeable of sights.
But the most worrying of the sights was that she’d been impaled through the chest. A bright crimson splotch in the center of her chest, a massive sword keeping her locked in place perfectly, pinned against a massive tree. Red hair fell from the branches like spanish moss.
Was she alive? I couldn’t tell. “Is that…?” I asked.
Excelsior grit his teeth. “It is,” he repeated. He was quiet, watching the dance, eyes locked on the very center.
“Is there any reason we can’t kill the lot of them?” I asked. I wasn’t bloodthirsty. I just didn’t want to know what they’d do while we were trying to break them out.
“I need to think,” Excelsior said. He turned away. I stared down at the figure in the center.
A pool of blood had formed underneath of her. Was she dead? Was this what…
Would I find Hands and Colton like this? A puppet, hands clasped and clutching strings of catgut?
Excelsior closed his eyes. He listened to the music, his foot tapping to the beat. What did he taste in the land of life?
“She wouldn’t take a deal,” Excelsior decided, eyes slowly opening. “So they’re torturing her.”
“She looks…” I said, staring down at the behemoth below.
“She’s better than that,” Excelsior said. His eyes flicked over to me. Stern. Very stern. “Belief, Gale,” He said. “Is very important in this worlds. And I refuse to let them win by declaring her dead.”
“Is that… is that how that works?” I asked. Excelsior’s sword embedded into the ground, tip first, so he could free a hand.
He snatched a grenade off of my armor. “Does it matter?” He asked.
I stared at him. Were his eyes glazed with Truth, or did he simply see things that I did not in this world?
Could he see the twitch of the woman imprisoned in stained glass and impaled through? That I could not?
I brought my airsense down to her and couldn’t detect life. But…
There wasn’t a point in trying to be rational about this. This wasn’t a rational world. This was a parasite, a tick, clad on the underbelly of my world, and it had taken my people, and it had killed them, devoured them, and it still whispered of all the things we might be if we only gave up.
Maybe there wasn’t a point in trying to use logic.
I pulled a grenade out of my kit. Excelsior watched me, saw the steady clench of my muscles, the irritation growing into a blossoming rage.
I’d been desperate and angry when I’d entered.
I was desperate and angry again, because we were embedded into a cancer upon the planet, it had taken our friends, and we were going to smash through, by hell or high water.
A brief pause.
“Does hell exist?”
Excelsior laughed. “Not in anyway you’d recognize.”
He pulled the pin, tugging it against my uniform. The pin dropped to the ground silent. I stared at the orb in his hand. He threw it down wind.
“Orders?” I asked, muffled by the mask. I wasn’t as daring as he was to take it off and trust that it’d be fine.
“Kill them all,” Excelsior announced.
The orb bounced off the head of a debutante. It turned to look, though the vacuous holes where eyes had once been couldn’t track, and then the entire thing exploded.
Only to be joined by the next one, thrown by me.
The music stopped.
Good. I hated waltz music.
“Here in the grove, the young are told they are perfect and beautiful, again and again,” Excelsior said as if reading. “Those who were taken before their time, pleading their memories and experiences to try and claw to life. Tricked and taken away.”
There were cooling corpses down below. A few debutantes, unable to grasp the world around them in anything more than compliments and heretical whispers, continued to dance to no music. They didn’t have bones, just rubbery splinters and cartilage, pretending to be the humans they once were.
They needed freeing. They didn’t need mercy.
Excelsior picked his sword back up in his hand and smiled down at the carnage below.
It wasn’t a fair killing by any metric of fair. We were up on a slope, they were down below. We had grenades, they didn’t.
As they swarmed up hill to try to deal with us, the explosions cut them back down. They were but flesh and blood, but even the survivors had trouble doing more than crawl with perforated chests and burst organs.
“Pathetic,” Excelsior pronounced. Broken teeth filled the air with a bizarre smell of explosive smoke burning flesh and ventilated pulp.
When it cleared, all that was left were the band.
Excelsior twirled his blade in hand and started walking down. The dance floor smeared with blood, every surface drooling pulverised and aerisoled viscera.
The band looked up at Excelsior walking down the slope. Behind the swordsman, I felt reality heal in favor of the Green Towassa, where you can live forever, if not for long. So I followed, letting the tread of the military boots keep me upright in the opposite world. The green sun didn’t warm my skin, but I didn’t need the warmth of a false sun when I had chemical explosives tied to my body. They clicked with each step.
“They were perfect,” A band member said. Were they a recent addition? Had they been another death in the shadow of Montgomery, a hidden band slain and forgotten?
Or were they older, when the area had been seedy and younger, a festering ground for cultures and revolution?
I couldn’t tell. They had no faces, but mouths and eyes and fingers, so many fingers. Skin long removed.
“Why did you hurt them?” The band member asked.
Excelsior answered by cutting him in half. He slid into two equal parts, still moving, though where the blade passed, the monster returned into human tissues and bled. The blade flashed out again, and even that squirming stopped. There would be no suffering while Excelsior was around. There would only be the promise of a swift death.
I stepped behind him and tried not to wretch into the mask. The blade flashed out again, again. This wasn’t a desperate battle where I tried to survive. This wasn’t another occasion where I almost died, gun pressed to my head.
This wasn’t even a fight.
This was Excelsior, his cape fluttering in the wind ever present even in the heart of the valley, announcing just how much better he was than the world.
The last head rolled away, and Excelsior flicked blood off of his sword. It crystallized in midair and fell to the ground as gemstones.
“Are they gone?” I asked.
“For now,” The True Hero replied. “They’ll return in a few months. A few people disappearing there, a few unnecessary deaths. Nothing to attract too much attention. Then it’ll have more servants, more people to offer deals. How petty lies the head beneath the crown.”
Without the dances or the music, the ball valley was only greeted by the steady whistling of wind and the noise of trees. Were they watching us down in the pit?
Excelsior didn’t care. He only had eyes for the woman in the center. “Do you think they know that this is a mockery?” He asked, walking over the sword. It was longer than a man. Longer than two men, though the blade with impossible thin, like a needle for a giant. It did the job regardless.
The woman inside of the glass tomb didn’t move as we approached. I stared at the stained glass, now pockmarked with hundreds of pieces of grenade shrapnel. Her tomb had kept her safe. “Is the armor supposed to mean anything?” I asked.
Excelsior put the sword back into its sheath. “It’s her armor, Gale.”
I swallowed. Stared at the massive vault the figure dwelt inside of. That was… that was from her?
Eight, no, nine feet now that I was next to it of solid stained glass, ornately forged, immaculately kept, and that was all for her? She stood taller than Osteor. Taller than Ironmarrow. Taller than the Lost-Boy. And that was all her?!
I could feel heat raising off of the armor, a boiling searing dry heat.
Excelsior gave the sword a tug. Nothing moved. I listened to the world around us.
“You better be alive,” The swordsman scowled. “Because I came back for you.”
“What if it’s too late?” I asked, the words slipping out before I could say anything.
“Then we all die. Mission over,” Excelsior said. “Because I’ll spend all my time trying to bring her back.” He looked up from his task and glared at me. “Faith, Gale. Have some faith.”
I breathed out. “F-faith?!” I stammered. “We’re in hell!”
“Hell is a much different place,” Excelsior said. “And far nicer than this hole in the ground. They have structures there. There’s more than just a king on a hill presiding over miseries and death, pretending that he’s achieved some glorious nirvana by torturing the poor souls that go to him for help.”
I reeled back. He gripped the sword again and tugged. The heat buffeted the light wind, sending a wave of indignation across my skin. It tickled at aches and pains.
Was I going to let it beat us?
I walked over to this side. His glare softened, and he slid to the side to give me more room to grab on the massive hilt.
It was hard to get traction on the wooden floor with all of the blood, but we found it nonetheless. The sword budged, then stuck again.
“I won’t give up on you,” Excelsior growled. “I will never give up on you. Never again.”
He threw himself into it, and music softly played. The instruments left abandoned on the ground twanged out a strange theme. I could recognize it, if I tried.
I threw myself into it, feeling my muscles bulge. I’d never been able to grow them out more than necessary. I was built for running, not strength.
But entombed in the armor was a Fafnir, and the ticket to freeing my friends. To getting rid of Patrickson (and was it telling that the thought of him made my rage peak, made my heart pound, made the taste of blood in mouth rich, vibrant, delightful, vibrant, I wanted to sink my teeth into his heart and swallow it whole like a wolf devouring the sun I wanted to I wanted to hold Colton and Hands close and feel their body heat, listen to the thumping on their hearts, tell them they’d never be hurt ever again, that I was stupid for signing on with the Patrol, that they were right, that I was wrong, I wanted to argue with them again, I wanted something other than the oppressive knowledge that I’d sent them in-)——
“It’s not your fault,” Excelsior said.
I startled, coming back to myself. The world around stopped being quite so grey. My eyes were rimmed with fluid. Was it blood? Was I bleeding? My heart pounded emptily, what was I.
“It’s not your fault,” Excelsior repeated. He tugged again. “This entire thing isn’t your fault. You’re doing the best you can do. You may have made a few bad decisions,” he grunted, digging his legs in. One hand. His sword hummed underneath of us. Was it trying to tell me it was true? “But that won’t end us.”
“What’re we going to do after this?” I wondered.
“That is my cross to bear,” Excelsior said. “I will figure that out.”
I glanced at him. “You can’t possibly mean to take responsibility for it.”
“I am the A-rank here,” Excelsior reminded. “Everything that has gone wrong in Mobile is under my purview.” He breathed. Let it slide through his teeth. Then he went back to tugging. “It’s not your fault.”
“I don’t care if it’s my fault,” I said. For once, I felt myself resonate. This was true. I didn’t care.
“I’m going to fix it.”
“Fix what?” Excelsior asked.
“This. Everything,” I tugged, throwing my aching body into it.
The truth swelled up.
“No,” Excelsior countered. “You’re not.”
I blinked at him, the truth faltering. “I’m not?”
He turned, offering his back to the immense sword pinning her in place.
“We’re going to to fix it.”
The sword budged. The music picked up.
And then the armor moved. A creak of glass grating against glass, a screech of antiquated hinges, joints, and finally, a tired groan from blood encrusted lips. Two massive hand gripped the sword impaled through the red skinned woman inside.
The sword caught again, on something deep inside of her, but nothing as petty as being speared through the heart would stop a being as mighty as a Fafnir.
She spoke, and the sword shattered into non existence, the rules binding her in place denied, broken, cast aside. “Excelsior. Glad you finally decided to join the party.”
This wasn’t Green Towassa’s rule set anymore. It was hers.
And then she spoke; a declaration of intent.
“I am Fafnir. I am the force that breaks castles. I am the fire that burns diamond. I am everything that society demands shackled. I shall not be leashed again.”