Guinevere screamed back. The world decided, upon closer inspection of the script it was reading, that it was actually on fire, and retro-causal insertion took place, smoke appearing in my lungs rather than being drawn in. I coughed, and threw my grip of air around my face to keep oxygen flowing into my body.
“That,” Excelsior said. “Is what you’ll be dealing with, Guin.”
Guin didn’t reply. I’d seen the look on her face on other animals. Cats, perhaps, when the cat had pinned a bird to the earth and was listening to the scream and rasping demands of the sky beast. Sharks had something similar, if less gleeful, upon the detection of blood.
Wasps had nothing to the glass-giants look of predation. Excelsior breathed in, took a deep tug of air through his aura of relative absolute truth, and tugged me to the side. “You don’t want to see what happens next.”
“We just saved her,” I said. “We’re going to abandon her?”
“Trust me,” the swordsman said. “We’re not abandoning her. We’re distracting her; she can’t really let loose while we’re nearby.”
Her sword swung through and a building exploded in the distance, unable to decide between sprawling overgrowth and the utter desolation of purest anarchy. Plumes of spores turned into a vent of burning ash, then flickered back and forth consensus entirely lost. I could see the underlying cracks in reality, could hear the void whistling through before it sealed shut.
From the grip of molten glass Guin tugged up from the earth, a lance as long as November formed. Spiralled with molten glassy images, embossed with rage and open defiance. A woman arsenal, intent on avenging her lost time.
Green Towassa lashed out, and from the ground, the screaming vines that we’d barely repelled in Montgomery launched towards the angry behemoth. They incinerated across the edge of her pale reality, hitting the ground in flaming wreckage.
The line shifted towards us.
Excelsior flicked his eyes towards it.
“It’s about to heat up.”
I took a breath- “You mean-”
Asphalt boiled and melted and vaporized. Stone turned molten. A building a block over lost cohesion and hit the ground, melting, splattering across the world like a fragment from a volcano.
“So beautiful,” Excelsior muttered. “Does she have to do this every time?”
He grabbed me by the shoulder and tugged, and soon enough, we were walking-running-sprinting down the city block. Buildings gave way underneath of Guinevere’s assault. Things died by the dozens. Trapped Renegade soldiers were finally freed from their eternal pain as the heat incinerated their corpses with absolution instead of cancer.
Excelsior pointed forward. My heart pounded in my chest. My legs ached, but it was a good pain.
“Is she going to win?”
“The best thing we can do,” Excelsior hissed through his teeth, his sword thumping against his hip. “Is make sure that our part goes through. If we take out the lord of this plane, Gunze stops being a threat. Which means we don’t have to worry about her.”
A scream. Not feminine, or masculine, but a scream nonetheless. Was it a monument giving way? Or a beast rescued from the clutches of molten death?
Gunshots. Artillery barrages.
I felt the heat blossom against the back of my neck, but I couldn’t turn to face it, no matter how much I wanted to.
Truth. Burning spores and floral components, but deep inside, the loam of the earth.
It didn’t matter. The Cathedral was in front of us still. If there were any form of governance left alive in this hell. Well. Religion would probably be the one I’d vote to stick around.
Would the shrine in the fourth wave show my face as it was now? Smudged, covered in ash. A cut winding across a cheek? It stung when I move, but I couldn’t remember where I’d gotten it. Perhaps in the contest of truths.
We were on it in the next few minutes. The swordsman didn’t speak for fears of the cathedral hearing his voice. Armor littered the ground like drifts of snow, shrapnel, bullet casings, zealots, true believers. They gathered like nothing more than trash across the bottom.
There was chanting in the background. Jazz music played from bony saxophones, swelling to the beat of a heart. Mardi-gras. The scent of fish in the air. It was almost time for the Jubilee. Are you ready to see the fish froth to the surface in suicidal glee? Look upon the men far below, see how they break themselves upon our defences. We have lived a hundred hundred hundred hundred
Excelsior’s sword sliced through the lie and another Towassan fell to the ground in pieces, singed and burning.
“All gods taste the same, in the end,” Excelsior muttered. “False.”
We were under the vines now. Bloomed and trailing crawling parasites made the foundation look far sturdier than it really was. Mushrooms bloomed from the corpses dappled below, giving the appearance of pavement, though the asphalt had long given way to nature and her demands. I didn’t need a history lesson of the area. I wanted to save the people screaming in pain. Dreamlike, I stepped among their ranks.
Many had tried to kill themselves where they fell, and their minds hung in pieces, festooned and twisted around us. Things grew from their viscera, the great beating heart drum somewhere distant keeping the pieces throbbing with vitality.
I breathed in. Rot, mold, blood.
Closed my eyes.
“Hands and Colton, are they…?”
“I don’t see them,” Excelsior said. “If he’s smart, he’ll have kept them alive for the finale.”
“The finale?” I asked.
Excelsior stepped on the first stair and it sang like a choir. Something holy, deep. Amazing grace with each step. Hymnal deep tones. The Cathedral quivered overhead wetly.
I swallowed and took the next step.
I was out of horror at this point, and all that drove me from the knowledge that this was the end, that every step brought me closer and closer to being free of Green Towassa. The tendrils that had slid into mind, that had turned so many in Mobile, that had convinced so many to give up on the right paths were withering inside of me.
This was no way to live, even if it gave life. I didn’t want to think what it gave the rest of the world.
Why in god’s name had the Association allowed this place to exist?
Surely there were…
The steps sang with the voices of angels. Each step I felt the vibrations slide up through my boots, and each step made my sternum ache and vibrate.
“This the worst you’ve seen?” I asked.
“No,” Excelsior said. “But I haven’t seen a place this far along in infestation in quite some time. Another month, perhaps, and it could fully breach at all points, not just localized weaknesses. Then it would be far harder to contain.”
I thought of the corpses, shot and burned in a pit. Of the firebombs glistening in the heavens, and unruly voices of those I’d left behind.
I thought of my Father. How long had it been since I’d seen him last? It felt like decades now, twisted in this hellscape.
Excelsior drew his sword again, and it cut a line through the unsubstantiated nonsense underlying this demi-plane of existence, twisted in and out of itself, folded up like a tesseract, and cut a bleeding line where the tip passed.
The wound in the world quivered, and bled, but my foot touched the next step. Then the next, then the next. A spiral staircase built out of a backbone of some poor unfortunate soul that hung on to the bitter end.
“Steel yourself,” Excelsior warned. “The lord of this plane has had months to prepare himself for confrontation. Don’t give into his defences.”
A body fell down the stairs, sans head. Fungal spores drooled out of the open head, the Renegade armor clicking each time it struck. Excelsior stepped to the side, and it fell off of the edge.
“That one was fresh.”
Excelsior nodded, and sped up the slow methodical pace. As long as I walked behind him, I was safe from the worst of it. One day, I’d be able to walk in front of him intact.
Now was not that day.
At the last turn of the spinal staircase, we saw the double doors of the horizon. Painted figures adorned it. A great goat beast, a hundred eyes twinkling grimly underneath of the horns, clashed with a figure bearing a great and terrible blade. The lock stretched three stories, the keyhole shaped like the sun.
But it’d already been opened. Destroyed, actually. Both doors stood wide open.
And I could hear laughing.
Then a gunshot that pierced the sky itself, and shattered the sun.
In the distance, Guinevere waged a bloody war against reality itself. Long lances pierced the very soul of the heavens and left great gouts of blood; the apocalypse knight took no prisoners. There were screams, far away, from those who weren’t aware of what was happening.
Green Towassa pretended that everything was perfectly fine, despite the spiral out the side of the building where logic and reason and morals had gotten tangled up in front of the bullets, dragging it far along like a mess of wet cloth behind a trailing finger. Shrapnel appeared in the memetic spectrum, tugging at ideas of family and hopes and dreams and nationalistic pride.
Then terminated, abruptly, in the shattered spectrum of the heavenly guardian above, where the green sun, perfect and hideous, abruptly erupted into nothing more than shooting stars.
The next bullet came like the end of the world, a cosmic softball where time and space failed to budge from the path, yet yielded like soft cheese in an elegant ripple. Despite himself, and the slow dawning look of horror on his face, Excelsior’s sword drew forth and cut the cretinous blast in half, sending it flying down the spiral staircase.
But that didn’t prevent the king of Green Towassa’s body from falling to the ground, nor did it stop the smear of stars from leaking out of the top half of his head to drool and languish across his body, like all the capillaries had held nothing but galaxies instead of blood. “At Last,” Patrickson said. “I’ve won.”
He was turned 90 degrees from us. Long gouges in the walls led to sap leaking from all sources, the spatter and pattern suggesting shrapnel, and lots of it. The vines were slowly moving back into place to protect the walls from the elements.
A chandelier carved out of a spine lay shattered to the side, flickering candles carved out of human fats, solidified from years of torture.
It all streamed together at once, without any logic or narrative convenience. A great massive mesh of the inner chamber, details tangled up in themselves in a knot of infocarcinogens. Here and there, among the shattered stained glass and the weeping of the Green itself, I saw soldiers. Most of them were already taken out, or half devoured by the floor. Their helmets were off. Their faces, smudged with sweat, grime, gunpowder, the stench and burdens of years of trauma, looked upon their command with something that could only resemble hope and faith.
Their hands were clasped together in a prayer, words moving quickly in Spanish. Here was their absolution. Here was their safety, the result of their months of dedication, the end of their sins. Here, in this holy place.
Time stretched like a torture rack. More details.
The man on the floor wore a coat made out of teeth, woven together by long lines of pulp; still alive. His body twitched and curled, his hands still grasped for something to hold onto.
Patrickson stuffed his gun into the sea of stars gleaming from his head, brought it in nice and deep, and fired one more time, and his last struggles ceased.
Behind him, I finally saw them. As Green Towassa’s power died, euthanized at last, the illusion faded.
Colton’s hands were impaled on thorns. He hung upon the wall like a cross, blood lapping and looping around his fingertips. His eyes were open.
This, despite the scattergun buckshot of the room, this I could see. My heart thumped in my chest.
So much to take in. So little time. We were late. Were we too late?
A jerk to his chest. Shallow breathing despite the pain. A line of drool had made its way down the side of his mouth, flecked with blood. He was plastered with sweat, it made his skin shine like a spotlight.
On the other side of the chamber, my eyes were naturally drawn, in symmetry, to where Hands was hung. Her skin was covered in cuts. Gleaming things, glossy and slick with blood. She’d gone down far harder than Colton had.
It figured. Colton had gone down first thing last time as well.
But her chest moved. She was breathing. It hurt to see her like that, prostrated before a foreign god. But they were both alive.
My heart ached. Physically, literally, metaphorically, symbolically. It didn’t matter here, too terribly much, which one it was.
Pain. Sympathy. Empathy. Pity. Anger.
Patrickson sat in full armor, his Patrol gear covered in stars and the gleaming nectar of gods. Ichor dripped down his exposed face. One eye was covered, clouded over, mangled. The other was turned on us.
“Somehow, despite the odds, I knew you two would show up,” Patrickson said. “I wanted this.”
“What in god’s name have you done?” Excelsior asked, his sword held out in front of him. What were we waiting on? “What are you trying to do with this?”
“I promised him, you know,” Patrickson said, leaning forward. He was nose to nose with the downed man. The dying king’s skin was covered in coarse fur. Horns curled up from the desecrated skull. “I promised him that I’d come back for him, that he’d be safe.”
He sniffed the body.
I tugged at the wind in the room, then dug into my kit. Fuck it. It was time. My hands drifted from the grenades looped around me like party favors, and then further down. A hatchet.
The room was stable. His gauntlet wasn’t on. He wasn’t even wearing it.
“You’re here now,” Excelsior said. “You don’t want to do this.”
“I have seen,” Patrickson said. I realized his skin was gleaming. His eyes bore Truth inside of them. A gleaming citadel of stars and promises. I could almost read them in the air. “A dozen gods invade my country. I have seen a dozen organizations rise to try and defeat them. The Cuban Patrol may be the most successful, but they will never be able to what I have just done.”
“What did you do?” I hissed. The hatchet was in my hand. No grenades here, there were friendlies. I didn’t know what a hatchet would do here, but god fucking dammit I wasn’t going to be useless. Not here. Not now. Gone was the tactician. In was rage.
“I killed a god,” Patrickson said. And then he dug his teeth into the scalp. Stars spilled across his flesh.
I’d never heard what reality sounded like dying before. I’d heard it wounded, I’d hurt it myself. I’d seen it re-oriented in the way of Fafnir, forced to bend under superior wills, wills whose force had turned it into their own perpetuation. Guinevere had made it into her own, but there was no void.
The shattered remnants of the sun died overhead. Complete and utter darkness consumed the world, leaving nothing behind but the cold light of Patrickson’s working gleaming eye.
“You’ve doomed yourself,” Excelsior whispered in that void. “No man should bear the burden of a god. Not willingly.”
“I have dined upon the flesh of a Fafnir,” Patrickson hissed. “And now I own this world. I have won it by conquest. There’s not a force here that will stop me. There’s not a force here you can level at me that will stop me.”
“There will always be a force that can stop you,” Excelsior countered. “That is the way of these worlds.”
The world changed.