It didn’t take long for the rest of the glass and crystal to litter the ground. The flesh winding across the soil retreated as she stepped forward. She grabbed the sword in one hand, despite it stretching up as far as the trees, and turned to face the both of us. She laughed.
The air tasted like rubble and ash. My heart thumped in my chest like the blast of a long-gun.
“This the new recruit?” She asked, and the world begged there be an answer. Heat rose from her skin and curdled the humidity in the air, sapping the foul blood taste out of the miasma rising from the ruined corpses.
It crept like magma across my mind, boiling emotions and tugging the darkest ones to the surface. Anger. Rage. Things I’d denied of myself.
Not my Truth, no, but motivations.
“Careful,” Excelsior said. “Gale’s not used to Fafnirs yet.” The feeling crept back as Guinevere leaned away.
“Hurricane’s kid?” Guinevere asked, stepping to the side. She passed in front of me. I could feel the fire boiling from her body. The ground was charred where her boots rested.
“And hopefully, I won’t have a recruit after this,” Excelsior said, flicking his eyes over to mine. There was a strange note there. A demand that I didn’t follow in his footsteps. A demand that I know how to leave well enough alone.
I didn’t, of course. I had Hands and Colton to save. If it meant Fafnir… well…
“What… does a Fafnir do?” The question had buzzed on my lips for months at this point, and I begged for an answer.
“Whatever I want,” Guinevere said, stepping past Excelsior. She clapped her heads together and the trees burned. Sparks leapt from where leaves once rested, and the bone branches melted in her wake. She kept right on walking.
As she met the edge of the valley, the world tasted more and more like blood.
“Keep beside her,” Excelsior said. “You want to give your Truth a rest. You might be resistant, Gale, but… you’re in enemy territory. You’ll only be able to resist for so long before you’re overwhelmed.”
“What about her?” I asked.
“She’s Fafnir,” Excelsior said. “The Truth of this world can’t kill her.”
“Are you two coming?” Guin asked. I stepped closer to her. The air shifted back from blood and decay to boiling heat and ashes. It wasn’t that much of an improvement, but I didn’t feel like I was trading my mind for oxygen.
Just the integrity of my lungs, even through the gas mask.
She reached out to the edge of a tree and touched it. The bony carapace of the false tree charred, then gleamed with internal heat, then melted into her hand.
“Guinevere,” Excelsior said. “Capable of turning anything she touches into molten glass.”
“Anything?” I asked.
“Anything,” Guinevere said. “Except for Fafnirs, of course. It makes combat quite the chore.”
Reality charred at the edges. I could see the edges of her control where smoke still drifted, where Green Towassa demanded it’s trades.
But in her aura, there was no such burden.
“Why is Gale here if you’re not interested in a recruit?” Guinevere asked.
Excelsior lengthened his stride and caught up with her, shortly followed by me. In her wake, in her aura, and in her control, my wind sense was distant and muddled.
I’d detect whatever she wanted me to detect, and probably nothing more.
If she kept us safe, I didn’t care.
“It’s personal,” Excelsior said. “And we lost the other Fafnir in the area.”
Guinevere’s fingers moved in patterns across the molten glass in her hand. It smelled like charred hair from where the bone had given up. Marrow fumes danced across her skin like steam from a pot. “So you brought your secretary?”
“It’s a long story,” I said, and swallowed. Fine. Backbone it was. Ignore the lingering pain, and pretend it was alright now that I’d finally found competence. “But I’m in charge of Mobile at the moment.”
“Hm,” Guinevere hummed under her breath. She clenched her fist, and then dragged the glass through it. It arced and froze until it was a shield in her hands. Gleaming fogged glass, spirals of color. Nothing would stop her. She would take the materials of resistance and make them her weapon.
I was spellbound to see someone that powerful after having to make do for months with grenades, a mismatch of heroes, a mysterious and misanthropic and nihilistic doctor, and only my iron bound grip that we’d make it to keep us alive.
It was… bizarrely intimidating, and this came from someone who had tangled with invincible monsters.
“It always is a long story,” The Fafnir said. She didn’t turn to meet my gaze. The hostile space made way for her smoky aura, cutting a trail through the area. “While I was… indisposed, someone else invaded.”
“They did,” Excelsior said. At the top of the hill rested a gate. Long chains kept the wild dancers from escaping to freedom. Thorned hooks of metal and barbed wire joined together with the vines to keep us in place.
Guinevere reached out and the metal boiled. Drooled to the ground in a collection of fire and will, glassy concepts floating on the surface; trades, endless trades, endless hours toiling in a pseudo caste system, now left to rot under the green sun, forever, forever.
She stepped over the puddle. It was hardening when I joined her. Excelsior chuckled. “I missed this.”
“War?” Guinevere asked.
“Being free, I suppose,” Excelsior said. “Each step we take in this world is a step unmonitored. Nothing can follow us here but what we bring.”
“Like me,” I said.
“You won’t enjoy this now,” Excelsior said. “But feel the wind against your skin. Feel your will bared against the world. It’s… simpler in the field.”
All I could feel were the aches and pains that I’d dragged with me. The clicking of my bad hand. The suppression of my air sense made my world smaller than ever before. But…
I could feel the blood moving in my veins. We were heading towards what could only be the direction Patrickson had went. Breathing in I could smell spent gunpowder and blood.
In the land of the drinking vines, only invaders carried weapons proper.
I breathed out.
“Don’t burden the kid with that,” Guinevere said. “Hostages, I’m guessing?”
“How’d you-?” I started.
“It’s how many people end up in Fafnir,” Guinevere said. “Someone gets taken. Someone makes the mistake of bringing them along.”
“Not a mistake, not this time,” Excelsior said. “Gale’s fought a Lost-Boy and an Abberant-”
“And taking Gale here has made their life far worse,” Guinevere cut in.
“It has,” Excelsior sighed. “But we’re on their trail now.”
“No need to run,” Guinevere said. “We’ll not get there any faster if we impale ourselves on their defences.”
I heard a groan over the top of the next ridge. The green sun painted everything like the apocalypse.
It was strange to be somewhere this green without the buzz of mosquitoes or the cry of wild birds. Green Towassa knew we were here. There was no point in pretending normalcy. We had invaded, killed its enslaved children, freed
The city streets were caked with algae and fungal spores. Large fruiting bodies protruded from corpses. Guinevere’s foot came down on one and it groaned, begging for life from shattered lungs. Blood drooled from perforating lungs. Branches grew out of shattered craniums.
But life persisted.
The Renegades had swept this way.
Guinevere reached out and snuffed their lives.
Life didn’t persist when Guinivere said otherwise.
I breathed in. Smelled charing burning flesh, fat melting like candle wax, bones charred into an appetizing barbecue. Looked away when eye sockets caught ablaze and fungal spores erupted into funeral pyres.
“It grants immortality,” Guinevere said. “But not for long.”
It was easy to see where the palace was. This was Montgomery, a parasitic reflection upon the real world. The massive cathedral wasn’t exactly hard to spot.
I didn’t expect it to be so high into the sky, carried aloft by thousands of strands of kudzu, bamboo, and virulent weeds. Great dandelions gently drifted in the wind, and clouds of spores and seeds hovered in the air, trying to decide whether or not they were capable of rain. They were densely packed, like a lawn that hadn’t been mowed in years, but would never bear true flowers.
I knew that. That was the Truth.
It hummed in my lungs, played havoc with my blood. How much of me was conceptual, and how much was flesh and blood, the Gale I’d always been?
At the top of the vines the cathedral sat, a twisted arrangement of stained glass, orchids and oleander. Plumes of toxic pollen and drooling lines of blood and viscera spattered the outside.
Why had the Renegades invaded this death trap?
An explosion wracked the back half of the building. It burst like popcorn, sending out shrapnel of great white chalk.
“That’s the target?” I asked.
“That’s the size of it,” Guinevere said.
Excelsior’s hand drifted down to his sword. He ran the tip of his index finger along the hilt. “I promised you three I wouldn’t abandon you again. Do you think this counts?”
“You’re getting me there,” I said. “It counts that much.”
“You can count it as a victory if we get them out alive,” Guinevere decided. She tapped the side of a building, half stone, half twisted wiregrass tree, and melted it. She stepped inside. Each step made her taller, and taller, and taller. Armor formed across her body, glass, palatial features. Stained metal wire and embossed designs, soft features drawn across her colored Truth.
At the end of it, the massive knight stood in her place. I could barely see her body through the muck of it, through the distorted kaleidoscope the pictures left.
“Anything before that is premature.” Her voice came out heavy and distorted through the tons of glass. Each step cracked the ground in front of us.
Here was our tank.
A brief hesitant flicker across my heart. Our feet were moving across corrupted asphalt, leaving trails of burning ash in our wake; a rebuttal to the infinite promise of cancerous growth. Was Guinevere made for this?
Of course she was.
At the edge of the next hill we saw the scythe tanks playing. Spores gleamed across their skin, but the automated systems were firmly on the side of the Renegades, blasting away at countless things emerging from the verdant expanses. Their drone armaments lit up the ground, their cannons and flamethrowers took care of the rest. The endless regeneration did little against concentrated flame, but unlike Guinevere, there was nothing beyond physical damage suppressing the world.
Each time a Towassan fell, another rose up to take its place. Another failure of man, another echoed reality long forgotten. A trade.
The tanks were effective, nonetheless. They were failing, even I could see it, but they weren’t designed for invasion, they were designed for protection.
A failing countermeasure, but I could admire the Renegades for trying.
Well, I couldn’t, I was going to rip off their heads and-
Guinevere raised her sword and stepped in front of us. As one, the tanks turned to greet her.
“This is where we take cover,” Excelsior said, tugging me behind a building that had been forcefully fumigated. Smoke still trailed with purple plumes of spores, catching aflame far overhead in the corrupting rays of the sun.
“What would this do to me?” I asked.
Excelsior tilted his head back towards the downed Renegades. “Alone? You’d make a fine meal. Fafnir never works alone, however.”
I got the message. Legions of trained soldiers were meeting their end here. What were they struggling towards? Why would they throw themselves so suicidally into this?
I looked towards the edge of the building. I could hear guns revving up. The swordsman followed my gaze, and tilted his sword to act like a mirror so we could follow Guinevere.
She stepped towards the tanks. Anti armor rounds melted across her body, hot flare ups of toxic gases and molten metal. Flames dances across her hardened glass carapace, but there was no damaging the unstoppable force.
The pavement buckled as she gained mass, accruing it from the very weapons being splattered towards her, and then she met the first tank.
Her hands reached out, covered in glass gauntlets thicker than steel beams, and then she melted through the bulk of the armor. It hissed as heat touched internal systems, and then the armament stores detonated.
Shrapnel obliterated pseudo flesh store fronts. Office buildings cracked and crumbled under the weight of their fake glass, shattering like the paper thin bone and membranes they secretly were. Smoke obscured the Fafnir.
It didn’t obscure her for long enough; the molten monster walked in a straight line down the street. Tanks open fired. Occasionally, a direct hit would obscure her again, and at one point, a single crack lanced around her form before the intense heat melted it back together, but it was as simple as her touching the tanks before they stopped working. Treads fused with the ground.
In the wake of the Fafnir’s path, reality reasserted itself, and even the burning wreckage of the spent takes were overtaken by vine beasts and toothed plants.
“That’s our cue,” Excelsior said, stepping out of cover.
I stepped out behind him. “Holy shit,” I said.
“She’s really something,” Excelsior said, staring at her.
“Fuck, we really are weapons of mass destruction,” I said.
“Her?” The swordsman said, walking through the trails of ashes and the first wisps of moss seeking to reclaim the world she’d left behind. “She’s a Fafnir, Gale. They tend to… get like this after a few missions.”
Guinevere laughed like a dog barks, and smacked the last burning wreck into a building. It exploded again, and the building caught on fire as arcs of molten glass were lifted up by the wind.
Even a city block away, I could feel the heat of her path. I could see it, steaming up from the slowly repairing streets. Green Towassa was being invaded now.
“Patrickson doesn’t stand a chance,” I muttered.
“Well,” Excelsior said, frowning. His hair was caught by the edge of the burning wind. “There’s one problem with that.”
Abruptly, at the edge of Guinevere’s reality radius, where the green and the burning desolation of a full glass furnace across paths, angry red lines spread. Like cracks in beautiful art.
Guinevere’s fist smashed into the ground, shaking the world.
But Green Towassa had already claimed a Fafnir in this war. Long red tendrils extended from the ground, burning forth. They screamed with tooth mouths, and drooled poison. The street buckled as she punched, again, again, again.
Then the bulk of Gunze emerged from the ground and roared like the death of ages.
“This,” Excelsior said. “This is why Fafnir missions are always done with two or more Fafnir.”
Reality screeched as it tried to decide between Gunze and the glass beast. One path bore nothing but desolation and anarchic energies; the voice of a people who had long decided to go ungoverned and free, to embrace survival and none of the niceties of the modern era. The other the voice of the angry earth, survive, thrive, devour.
A gleaming red sun warred in the heavens against the verdant forest of mouths and deals, and the world rang like a damn bell.
Fafnir couldn’t die in these worlds.
But they could be corrupted.
The monster once known as Gunze stood as a final watchdog of Green Towassa. I could hear the Renegades screaming from the inside.