In some of the old texts of the fourth wave, the end times would be fought between the forces of heroism; the exemplars of mortality, and the great emptiness from which the world was born. The new aged prophets could hardly agree on what form the emptiness would take. Was it a literal emptiness, like the one the long dead hungarian warlord could create? Was it a more metaphorical one, like the wave of hero associated suicides caused by a runaway empath in Cuba?
If I had to pick, the battle looked like what I came back to. Excelsior stood locked with a being five stories tall. Long red gossamer threads trails off like silken hair, knotted with ropes of woven vines, still whispering the promises of the old world. Gunze sat at the front of the monstrosity, his age skin long since peeled back into bones. An eye still sat in socket. The other had been obliterated. The void was filled with blood, the distant light of the green sun, and the still screaming severed threads of a great beast.
A fist reared back, and Excelsior’s sword whipped out and sent it flying into the void, following the logical progression of momentum.
Because the ground was gone.
More accurately, it was shattered. What was left was shards. A chunk of building here, the trailing edge wrapped in vines and gleaming and long toothed thorns.
In the farthest distance, a tree sat anchored in the single solitary landmass left intact. A thousand soldiers sat at attention, their arms held at their sides like the ranks of a board game. Every so often, another corpse would free itself from the mass of rot and decay that made up the Woven Fafnir, and it would fly back to join the other ranks of the once dead.
But I was more focused on Excelsior at that moment, and the red that covered my body, that had torn me out of the false world, that sped me on, gave me wings.
When the next fist pulled back, and the hundreds of tendrils still choked with the flesh of the dead that had plagued it reared back for another blow, I intervened. I reached out with hands lancing with anarchic energies, a brief glimpse into power itself, and the appendage ceased existing, seared off in a shower of sparks and blue flame.
Excelsior’s sword came down, and his eyes flicked up. I could hear his thoughts in the void. Taste his despair like a strange alcohol across my tongue. The soul doubt was medicinal, and treated a few of the wounds of my soul. The rest went across deaf ears.
“Gale!” Excelsior hailed. He straddled one of the biggest pieces of building still left intact, the capitol building we’d entered through. I landed beside him, crackling, energy lancing through my muscles.
Felt the mass of freedom and energy, unchained, uncontextualized and free for it shift inside of me, and then erupt out of my open mouth.
The prisoner-Guinevere coalesced into a form of her own. Red skinned as before. She skidded to a halt. “Sorry about the delay.”
“No need to apologize,” Excelsior said, taking the moment to wipe the sweat off of his brow. It spiralled off into the distance infinitely. “What took you?”
“Patrickson decided to test how unkillable Fafnir are,” The prisoner said. She stretched in her human form, though her outline flickered.
“Probably to figure out how unkillable he’ll be.”
I brushed dirt off of myself and stared at the hulking mass that was the freed Woven Fafnir. “He will be?” I asked. “He’s dosed with it, and he rules this world. Doesn’t that make him unkillable?”
“Anyone can rule one of these worlds,” Excelsior said. The blade flicked out and he stood in front of us, splitting a punch that could split planets in half across the blade of his sword. They lanced off into different directions without hitting the building. “You just have to destroy the owner of it first.”
“The other bit. The part where we can kill him,” I hissed.
“It takes several months for Fafnirization to complete,” Guinevere offered. “Crystallizing the self concept is a complicated process; only the absolutely most driven people could get it under a month.”
My mind flicked back to Patrickson’s… Son. I clenched my fists. Patrickson fit the bill for being driven.
“So?” I asked. As long as I stood behind the two super soldiers… well… it was the safest place I could be.
“His human heart is still vulnerable. It’s the last to change. Don’t ask me why,” Excelsior said, locking his eyes on his enemy. “I actually don’t know this time.”
“Classified over our security levels,” Guinevere said.
“There’s a higher security level than Fafnir?!”
“Ruling security levels,” Excelsior said. Guinevere stared off at the tree in the distance.
“My guess,” Guinevere said. “Is that he’s going to take his false world and shove it onto the gulf-coast at large, if he can get his army together.”
“Would that work?”
“We’re down to how many Fafnir in Association hands?” Guinevere asked rhetorically.
“Counting us, there are 2 left in the gulf coast.”
“Fuck,” I said. “So what are we going to do?”
Guinivere‘s form shifted. Skin split open like hardened leather, or a butterfly stepping out of a cocoon. Scales, immense muscles, wings. A maw with too many rows of teeth, and eight pairs of eyes. The anarchic dragon gripped the side of the building we were on. Her old skin fell off of the side of the platform and tumbled into the void below.
“No, no, no,” Excelsior said, jumping towards the dragon. “We’re doing this together, goddammit. This is too dangerous, the situation’s escalated too far.”
The roiling mess of hatred, fibers, and the biological components of some one hundred odd corpses reached out with leeching questing mouths for the dragon.
Guinevere grinned, showing off her teeth. “Come back for me again, sword-boy.”
Then she hurled the building. Excelsior drifted vainly towards the side, but the gravity of the structure kept hold, even as he desperately raced to grab onto Freedom herself.
The dragon looked small by the time I managed to pick my way through the rubble to stand at Excelsior’s side. He was watching her as she faded into the distance. “Goddamn her,” He hissed.
“You’ll come back,” I said.
“That doesn’t matter,” Excelsior said, his fist clenched tight enough around the sword I could see the tendons bulging. “I just…”
There was silence. There wouldn’t be silence for a long time soon, with how the building was moving towards the great tree, the only real landmark in the great green expanse of the void.
“I thought you were dead again,” Excelsior said.
“I wasn’t dead,” I said. “Just…a bit lost.”
“He was going to overwrite you,” Excelsior said. “Snuff you out like you never existed. I guess, since he’s not a full Fafnir yet, he can’t manage that.” A pause. “Not without your permission.”
“It was nice there,” I said.
“I’ve heard it is,” Excelsior said. “That they have their paradises somewhere. A few of them have offered me to stay there. I only really wanted to stay with Calliope, and that was only to avoid the nightmares.”
“I’m not dead,” I repeated again.
“I was afraid,” Excelsior said. Guinevere was already a goddamn pinprick, I could hear screaming, and the roar of the dragon’s flames.
Goddamn that amorphous blob of red, flesh, and rage.
“Afraid of what?”
“That I’d be alone,” Excelsior said. “And I’d have to go into the Eternal Sigil?”
I didn’t ask.
He answered anyway. “If a Fafnir can’t neutralize their target, and most of the time, in these places, they can’t, they are to neutralize the doorway out and engage the target for as long as possible.”
“That’s suicide,” I said, automatically, without thinking. Then I went pale. “That’s… that’s not suicide. A concept can fight forever.”
“Forever,” Excelsior said. Fighting against a single enemy that threatens to destroy everything you’ve ever loved. How long does the thought of your loved ones keep you strong? How long can you keep the two of you from running together?”
Rhetoric. He answered anyway. “The average is two decades before one side is utterly corrupted by the other.”
“You’re not a Fafnir, right?”
“I’d try for at least a year,” Excelsior decided. “But it’d be lonely.”
I placed a hand on his shoulder. Squeezed it. He turned to look at me, his eyes filled with tears that weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. “It’s not time for that now.”
He laughed. “It’s never the right time for that. You ready?”
“I’m just a human,” I said. I turned to stare at the tree in the distance. “What am I supposed to do?”
“You’re not a human,” Excelsior said. “You’re a hero. There’s a villain waiting for us. They’re going to destroy everything you love and replace it with the reality of your choice.”
My heart quivered at the thought of war, but I still remembered the placidness of Patrickson’s vision. The cool idea of someone caring, an end to wars.
But that couldn’t come at the expense of everyone I knew being rewritten like a character in a bad draft of a paperback.
“I can do this.”
“You’re a hero,” Excelsior repeated. “There is nothing left in you that could fail.”
I had a lot of things to think about, careening on the edge of a building, feet balanced across a massive marble pillar. There weren’t any scents in that void. Tastes were a suggestion. Sounds carried a thick honeyed quality, as if even they were a second thought.
How was this any more real than the hospital had been? The soldiers in the distance still looked like ants, but without anything to stop our momentum, we fled in their direction. Not a thing could stop us.
“Any last thoughts?” Excelsior asked.
“Do you think,” I said, staring at the tree in the distance, clutching the last sphere of land that remained in Patrickson’s world. “That there’s still a place out there I can rest my head without nightmares?”
Excelsior laughed for a moment. “You’re going to have to carve out a place like that. Or retire.”
“Retirement didn’t work out for Gunze,” I pointed out.
“You’re right,” Excelsior said. “So there’s just carving yourself a place.”
The soldiers weren’t firing on us as we approached. Their rifles remained at their sides.
“What are they waiting on?” I asked.
“Who knows,” Excelsior said. “These sentries… they never act quite as you think they should.”
“Sentries?” I asked. “Aren’t those his men?”
“What’s left of them,” Excelsior said. “They’re in Patrickson’s world now. Their minds act as Patrickson’s expect they should.”
It had been a long time since I’d had my mind click like that. Felt like years. I’d spent so long planning, panicking, and scrambling for something, anything at all. Fighting against monsters that didn’t need to think, they just acted.
Excelsior raised his sword as we drew closer. “You ready for a fight?”
I stared at the ranks of the Renegade soldiers, their armor monolithic and polished, their guns still unraised.
“Put the sword down,” I said.
Excelsior paused. “Truth will set them free, Gale. It’ll be a blessing.”
“They’re already free,” I said.
The capitol landed on the edges of the island with a crunch of stone and a shattering of windows. In the distance, the great anarchic dragon roared as it tangled with the woven beast, and lightning flashed across the whole of reality. Excelsior’s sword was still drawn.
Rifles came up to follow him. A radio crackled ot life, static billowing out. This was it then. This was the decision.
“Well?” Excelsior asked.
I put my hand on his arm and tugged it down. The sword wavered, hummed, thrummed, and then the rifles lowered as he did.
I stepped in front of him, and stepped off of the crumbling building.
“They weren’t in the dream,” I said. “None of them were there.”
Excelsior stepped off beside me. His fingers were still on the hilt of the blade, running a smooth circle across the hilt.
“That’s right,” The soldiers parted, one by one, shuffling to the side. At the edge sat a man that I didn’t recognize in the slightest. His armor bore slightly different markings. “None of us are in his dream.”
I bowed my head slightly. “You’re not shooting at us,” I said.
“We’re not,” he agreed. “Patrickson’s not won yet.”
“So what?” Excelsior said. “You going to hold fire until you know if he wins?”
“Not something so blase,” the man said. “I’m… dead.”
“A lot of that going around,” I said.
“Wasn’t exactly expecting to come back,” The man said, stepping forward. “But it seems like anyone that dies in this city ends up here. I’m Mads.”
My head tilted up. “Cassandra’s Mads?”
“Not quite that possessive,” Mads said, stepping through the ranks of the men at attention. “The way I see it, the way a lot of us see it, we’re dead.”
“You are,” Excelsior confirmed. “You’re only being kept here by a mad man. Not even kept here, really, you’re more figments. Suppositions.”
“That’s not quite true,” Mads said. “I remember dying. Nobody else was there, or watching me, I’d been left behind after taking a hit.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I told them to do it.” Mads cut in. “I knew the risks. Don’t diminish me.”
“I’m-” He held up a hand to cut me off.
“This is wrong,” Mads said. “Being here at all. I’m dead. I earned my place in the void, or whatever comes next. I didn’t earn my place here.”
Another man spoke up. “Patrickson told us that he could turn back the clock to Mexico. He could give me my son back.”
“He could,” Excelsior said.
“I didn’t want it like this,” the man said.
“I didn’t want it like this,” another agreed.
“I’m clinging to life here,” Mads said. “There are people already mourning me, but I know that I can’t leave here. What am I supposed to do, just accept that Patrickson’s going to shove everyone in here?”
“They’ll fight back the entire way,” I said.
“I know they will,” Mads said.
“My brother will,” One of the men said.
“Rutherford will fight it,” Another said. “Man’s like a bulldog.”
“My wife’s not going to give up,” Another said.
I took a step forward. The army kept parting. “I don’t want them to get hurt. I don’t want to hurt them.”
“You’re in his group,” Excelsior said. “He’ll use you to fight.”
“I’m dead,” Mads said, laughing. “I’ve done my part. It’s not so bad, I think, if they just let me fade away.” He paused. “Say good bye to Cassandra for me.”
The army was talking now, muttering to themselves. They had been brought here so they might be immortal.
Now they were aware of what it’d cost their loved ones. More war. More useless wars. They’d seen what it had brought their home countries, their home cities. The military had been a place where they could fight back.
“You’ll invade a thousand worlds to get what Patrickson needs. He’ll be alive the entire time, if we don’t act soon.”
They weren’t willing to fight back forever.
Mads raised his arms in the air. “All in favor of letting the heroes pass unhurt?”
A scream of affirmation from the army of the damned. It echoed across the bizarre void, spiralling with pollen and spray paint, and sang across the old shattered stones. Flags waved, drawn from the legions of their bearers. They waved in no wind, for Patrickson had not created any.
“Fight for our right to die,” Mads said. “I’ll be waiting for you in whatever afterlife awaits, Gale.”
I bowed my head, nodded once, and straightened. At the edge of the army, where they waited guard on the tree, their equipment sat in a pile. Excelsior walked over to it. “Last resupply before the end. You ready for this?”
I restocked grenades, and I picked through the armor. The legions of the dead took note of my wounds and helped me into the most fitting piece. Words of advice flowed from their mouths, and Mads stood at the front of it all, long rifle rounds sparkling like gemstones between his fingers, woven brass knuckles against the world.
He placed them into my hand as I passed. “You’ll put them to better use. It’s True metal in them.”
My eyes flicked to Excelsior’s sword.
“Not quite the same,” Mads laughed. “But close enough. Nail the bastard for me, won’t you?”
“I will,” I said.
“And tell Cassandra I don’t have any hard feelings, alright? Like I said, I knew what I was getting into,” Mads grinned. “It’s… It’s weird, how much I want to just fade away now. A reward for living I guess.”
I clapped him into a hug. The dead soldier blinked for a second, then hugged me back.
Then even he joined the bulk of the army, those traitorous sentinels seeking freedom from their contract, and it was just the two of us walking forward.
“If we kill Patrickson,” I said. “Will that free everyone inside of the dream?”
Excelsior shook his head, then hesitated. “Ordinarily… I’d say no.”
“But?” I asked. I’d met Colton in there, Hands too. Had they been real?
“Patrickson’s not a true Fafnir yet,” Excelsior said. “So it’s possible that if we disrupt him, his reality will crack open and all the free minds inside will fall out. I’m not a scientist, Gale, I don’t really know.”
The shadow of the tree gleamed over our heads.
“I have to try,” I said. The weight of the bullets in my hand felt more like a knife. But… I didn’t really have anything I could do with them, so I put them into my pocket for later.
Maybe I could beat the absolute shit out of Patrickson with Excelsior’s help, and then slam them in to make sure he died.
The bark of the tree was bone. It didn’t bother me, not after having been in here for the better part of a day (I suspected, but it was all trailing together now) but it smelled like rancid meat. A staircase was cut into the side of it, largely made of fleshy protuberances. Excelsior drew his sword.
“Heart’s at the top,” I guessed.
“Spiral stair case,” Excelsior said. “It never gets old.”