The tree was a skyscraper. I didn’t know what it was growing towards, but with each step, I could see it growing larger, and wider, sucking in light, the void, and the ground itself. The roots were digging in deeper, devouring the pesky remains of Green Towassa proper, leaving behind only Patrickson’s vision of enforced artificial peace. Church bells tolled in the distance, mirroring the screams of the anarchic demons at the hiss of woven flesh mending again and again. Conceptual creatures locked in eternal warfare.
Did I have the guts to try that? To dodge and dodge and evade in this strange world until I took a hit?
Knowing that if it was too late, and Patrickson managed his task, I’d be stuck here for eternity until I died from a false move?
That Excelsior would be here for eternity?
The thought didn’t give me any company as we made out way up. It cut some of the sting from my legs from travelling up. It cut out some of the static from false sensations.
At the top of the stairs, an eternity away, we were greeted by the mexican flag, flapping in the wind. A scythe tank stood guard, powered off. Bisected cleanly in half, munitions spilling out of its guts, with the on board computer program destroyed beyond repair. A battlefield, a whirring spirally battlefield.
The sun wasn’t green here, instead of it was red, a burning brilliant red, and sirens played in the distance.
Even Excelsior’s aura of stability did nothing to curtail the effect. As I searched him for a reason, I realized his skin was unnaturally pale.
“What?” I asked.
“We’re back here,” he said. “We’re back in Mexico. On the day of bleeding.”
The simulacra of those who had passed littered the streets with their guts torn open like cattle. Maddened souls pecked through their livers in search for treasures, ignoring the blood dripping down their face or the cries of infants. Cars were overturned and burning, and crude shrines spiralled out of the piles of bones that were even now being pecked clean by carrion birds.
“We are,” Patrickson agreed from behind us.
“Fuck,” Excelsior swore, spinning around at the same time I did, but Patrickson was already striking. A hand covered in hard bone smashed into Excelsior’s sword hand, and the sword went flying into the distance, but at the same moment, Excelsior’s foot slammed into Patrickson’s stomach, sending him reeling back.
I met eyes with the A-Class hero. His eyes jerked towards his sword.
We both nodded, and I spun into where Excelsior had been standing.
It was an easy decision. The sword was our best shot here, and it wasn’t like Patrickson was going to let us grab it uncontested.
“He leaves you to protect his back,” Patrickson mused. Something was wrong with his face. The slight aristocratic features had been smothered in something.
A wind blew in across the burning city, and his face ruffled. Petals.
He was turning into petals.
It’d been a life time since I’d seen his face. I’d faced monsters. Hunted down would be gods in the darkness, and dealt contracts with armies of devils.
It still didn’t prepare me for hearing his voice this directly, or seeing his face.
My heart thumped. Swam. I couldn’t help but remember the last time.
I’d nearly died. He’d broken half the bones in my face, and shot Gunze because of my…
“You have someone to fight with you this time,” Patrickson said, his voice low. “Bizarrely, none of my trusted men will fight for my vision of the future. I suppose they realize the symbolism as much as I do.”
Keep him talking, Gale. Keep your head. Your truth might be hatred, but hatred meant nothing if it got you killed.
He gestured at the burning wreckage. “In my pursuit of righting the wrong that was done to me, when Association troops invaded my country and sought to kill my president, I wronged another, and now they’re here to try and right the wrongs that were done to them.” Smoke billowed out of a building behind.
I swallowed down the anger. This…
I didn’t want to hear this, but if I had to.
“You left me alive on purpose,” I said.
“I wanted this comeuppance,” Patrickson said. “Can you blame me? I spend decades waiting for this moment, manic thoughts and ideas on how I could bring it to pass, and on the eave of my ultimate success, some idiot band of misfits arrives to rescue monsters from their monstrous den. And you were there.”
The petals ruffled across his face. In the wind, a few blew free, replaced by ever so slightly darker blossoms.
It’d been a lifetime since I’d seen him. It didn’t prepare me for the wait.
“I was there,” I said. “And you showed me how much of a fucking monster you are, Patrickson.”
“Anger doesn’t suit you, Gale,” Patrickson said. “And how very impressive you’ve become while I was gone.”
My fists clenched. I called upon the wind. Patrickson warred with me for control. Out of some stupid ego to prove I was useless.
But I knew I wasn’t. I’d fought worse. I’d scrabbled for life in the darkness, and I’d scurried past nightmare beasts.
I’d killed the Lost boy to rights, though Excelsior took the last of that credit.
So I let the wind go, and let my air sense die. It was his world anyway.
“Was it all because of me?” Patrickson asked.
My teeth grit in my head. Excelsior had better show up soon.
“Did you push yourself forward so far because you remembered the feel of my boot on your face?” Patrickson wondered aloud. “Is it not odd how it takes…” He paused, and my legs moved before my brain recognized danger.
Wind whistled, retroactively, and I was abruptly looking at a massive tree root, studded with spikes that had burst out of the concrete streets. My heart thumped faster now.
“A certain notion of danger,” Patrickson continued. “Before we start to reach our full potential?”
A scream from the inside of my head, and I darted to the side in time to dodge another massive tendril, then used it as an anchor to hurl myself out of the way of another one.
“In a way, it’s adversity that’s made you strong. Imagine a world where I had… not brutalized you,” Patrickson said. “Would you have been able to survive the creature I left in the depths of Dauphin island?”
I landed, hard, on my legs, and rolled, because the ground wasn’t safe anymore. Another root slammed out of it, this time, it caught the back of my armor and lifted me off of my feet. I clawed at the side of a building until my boot caught purchase, and then hauled myself up onto the roof a handhold at a time.
“Well? What do you think?” He was on the roof now.
“Trying to claim credit for my advances is unbecoming,” I said, after I caught my breath. My headache from the snap of my neck. I’d get whiplash.
“Don’t you think?” I asked.
“I learned, afterwards, that you were the one who slew Negalli,” Patrickson confided. “Not the swordmaster currently chasing after his magic weapon. Not even Faraday, with a stray blast, or Gunze, the retired monstrosity. But you, some bloody heroic fool with almost no powers.”
I breathed in, breathed out. There was a hitch in my lungs, and I tried to clear it. Not the time.
“And I think that makes me very similar to you,” Patrickson said, leaning forward. The blossoms on his face rippled in the wind again. Not all of his skin had been replaced, just about half of his face.
The other bore heavy scarring, bruises, and wounds. “Because I too have killed someone I shouldn’t have been able to, without powers,” Patrickson noted.
I had dreamed of this exact moment for centuries.
I slammed my fucking fist into his face.
For a moment, his eyes were locked onto mine. The sheer self satisfaction on his face gave my pause.
Then his body exploded into petals.
“Did that feel good?” The vines whispered. The kudzu was back. The vines that drank dreams were back, and they spoke with Patrickson’s voice.
“I’m going to kill you,” I said. “When I do, I’m going to laugh about it, because there will be one less murderous self righteous idiot in the world.”
“There’s no need to describe yourself like that.”
This time I recognized what my body recognized. A tremor deep in the ground, far below my feet, like a beat of a heavy bass drum three rooms away. I hurled myself off of the roof and the entire damn thing detonated like bomb. I landed several yard away, my knees stinging from the impact, and kept moving because the tremors wouldn’t stop.
“Go on. Tell me exactly what you’re going to do to me,” Patrickson said from his vines. “I’ve felt that rage before, fighting against the god of nations. How long did you think I planned my assault? I treasured it, cradled it, tucked it in close at night so it would keep me warm.”
Three more tremors, and I threw myself to the side, missed a step, and rolled with it across the burning ground, kicking myself back up to my feet with a slam of my legs. It ached.
But I wasn’t the same Gale that had fought Patrickson the first time. This one had been on their feet the entire time, not missing a beat, running for their life every time they were deployed.
This one didn’t flinch away from the pain of living. This one kept going. Another tremor, and this time I didn’t hesitate.
I leaned into the root, kicked my feet across it, and let it launch me. I stole my grip of the wind out of Patrickson’s control and sailed through the air.
A stray piece of shrapnel flicked across the bar skin on my face, a bloody furrow cut and left weeping. It stung.
For a moment, I was flying. For a moment, I was with my Father, and his storm kept me aloft.
For a moment, I was a greater hero instead of a fool far over their head.
And then I hit the ground running. I knew full well where Patrickson would be keeping the bulk of his attention.
“I’m a god now,” Patrickson said from reality itself. “There’s no debating this. I own this world.”
“Gods can die if you use enough bullets,” I spat back.
“After I kill you two, there won’t be enough bullets left in the world to kill me,” Patrickson said. “I’ll have eaten three Fafnir. It’ll be hard to find someone who has devoured that many concepts, but I’ll be sure to eat theirs as well.”
A hiss from an alley, and I leaned into the run, threw the air behind me, and jumped onto a burning car. Trunk, then roof, then hurling myself up onto the roof of a burning gas station.
“What are you running from?” Patrickson asked. “You knew you weren’t getting out of this alive when you walked in.”
“You can’t unwrite me,” I spat. “You already tried.”
“My paradise wasn’t good enough for you,” Patrickson hissed from the mouth of a blooming plant. “Perfect peace and innocence wasn’t good enough for you. All of your friends alive and well. Your goddamn family intact. I’m even dead in that world, and it wasn’t good enough.”
“It wasn’t real,” I said. I leaped across the gap, felt the burn in my legs, hit a roof on the other side.
There would be only one place where Patrickson would keep himself.
He’d be in the room his son had died in.
“I gave everyone everything they ever wanted. Do you know what the Goat-king did with visitors? He had them eat their own entrails; sustenance at the cost of flesh.”
I dodged out of another bladed tendril out of the ground, another spire of bone rising from the heart of the earth.
“And this is what I get for it,” Patrickson spat. “Murderers. Why did I even think that an Association lackey would understand?”
“Understand what?” I asked. “You betrayed your new family, you betrayed your men, and you betrayed the laws of nature themselves.”
“Real is relative,” Patrickson said. Then the road in front of my exploded with the force of a dozen landmines, and a barbed patch of briars rose in its place. “You feel that cut on your face?”
I did. The blood had gotten into my eyes.
“I caused that. In this world, everything I demand is real,” Patrickson said. “When I breach into your real world, everything I demand will be real there as well.”
I stared at the rising briar patches. Where the hell was Excelsior when I needed him?
“I don’t care,” I said.
“Why?” Patrickson asked. “I am giving you everything you’ve ever wanted. All will be perfect under my command. Patrickson will cease to exist, and the world will act as if I had died instead of my son.”
“And everything else will be-”
“I will keep him alive. No matter what he does,” Patrickson cut in. “I have a very narrowly defined interest in how I manipulate the timeline, Gale. I’m sorry if it offends you that I want to protect my son.”
“He’s dead, Patrickson,” I said.
I had no warning before the briars detonated. The shockwave sent me behind a car. Glass shattered as far as a city block away, and concrete dust filled the air.
“He’s not dead,” Patrickson said. “You heard him as well as I did. As long as I am alive, as long as I am in control, he’s going to get to live his goddamn life. And no amount of you savage Association fuckers are going to be able to take that away, not as long as I live.”
I disagreed, but who was I to argue with briars the size of my fingers? I squinted into the the remnants of the wall; still multiple stories tall, high enough that I couldn’t jump it and scaling it well…
The hospital was on the other side.
And if he was planting stationary defences, it meant that he was unable to move his heart. Not easily. That gave me hope, and it gave me an avenue for attack. If there was a single place I could attack, that made this suicide mission less suicidal.
“Give up,” Patrickson suggested, kindly.
“You’re killing my friends,” I replied. “Take your suggestions and fuck off.”
“They’re not dead,” Patrickson reminded. “I haven’t snuffed them out. That’d be cruel, inhumane. I’m above that. When I’ve taken over enough of the world, I’ll even let them go, have their free will.”
“After you’ve killed everyone that can resist, right?” I asked.
“Killed is a strong term,” Patrickson cooed.
I lashed out with the hatchet and slashed through the vine that was talking. It erupted in a cloud of purple spores, and my wind took them away from me before I could breath them. I hefted the hatchet and glared at the wall of briars.
This was stupid.
But fuck it, I wasn’t going to get anywhere if I didn’t try stupid.
I flicked the hatchet back into the loop of my pack, because I knew full well I’d be using it in a minute, and reached for the grenades.
Pins fell onto the ground, and I threw them into the briar, bracing behind another car. The explosion at this point felt more like an old friend, a comrade reaching out from the heavens with a finger to smite the general area I needed destroyed.
Before the smoke had even started to clear, the hatchet was in my hands, and I hacked at the burning shattered briars in my path. I kept my head down to keep the thorns away from my face, but they raked at the bare skin across my shoulders, long bleeding welts that ached with drugged significance.
But the Hate burned brighter than that. The hate burned bright enough that the hatchet struck forward, driving me inch after inch into the briar patch, then feet after feet, when I hit bare patches where the explosion had taken hold. I heard the wall rustle behind me, and knew it was regrowing as fast as I could embed myself.
But fuck Patrickson, I wasn’t going to let a wall stop me. I had people to save. I had the entire goddamned gulf coast to save, and I wasn’t going to let something like blood loss interfere with that.
When I stumbled out the other side, my right arm was on fire, my left was shaking, and my scalp was covered in lacerations. The paint of my armor was half gone, turning the bright crimson into a patchwork of monotone plasteel and kevlar.
But I was on the other side.
“That would be mildly impressive,” Patrickson noted. I smashed the fucking plant with the hatchet.
“If I hadn’t thought you might do that,” Patrickson continued from another plant. I smashed.
“I have spent decades planning this,” another plant dead.
“Brute force isn’t going to cut it.” smashed.
“Give up.” ripped.
“You’re going to bleed yourself out. I won’t have to do anything.” torn.
“What are you even trying to accomplish here?” the hatchet sparked against metal.
“You’re a powerless monkey with next to no training stranded in hostile territory. All you have is a basic understanding of this other world, half remembered lessons from monsters you barely trust, and an idea that you might be able to defeat me if you try hard enough. Give up. There’s no point. You don’t have a chance.
If you sit down and die, you can return to the peace you left. That’s my offer. Think about it.”
“Fuck off,” I spat, rearing back to deal another fucking blow. My arms were shaking. Before I could land the blow-
The next plant died from a goddamn gunshot, and I looked up, feeling blood trickling down my face.
“Fuck your peace,” Mads said. The army behind him roared in approval. Flamethrowers dappled their ranks, and the vines infesting Mexico city burned.
“You-” I said, breathing heavily. My lungs ached, my mind was…
Well, honestly, I was getting used to it now, but it was still reeling.
“What does it matter if he kills us?” Mads asked aloud. “I hate to get nihilistic here, but me and the others had a talk about letting you go on without us,” he gestured at the ranks behind him.
“He’s a god,” I muttered, straightening up. I pulled the edge of my elbow across my face to dab at the blood and the briars, they stang like whiplash.
“We got enough bullets for that, I think,” Mads said, shooting me a knowing grin. “What do you think, Patrol? One last battle against a god?”
Affirmation. They screeched and shrieked like wild animals. Flamethrowers dappled their ranks, defoliants, machine guns, heavy ordinances. Patrickson had had his Renegades outfitted with equipment designed to brave the harsh world of Green Towassa. Now they were just as effective against the Usurper.
Smoke and heresy filled the sky as they established a basic camp on the other side of the briar wall, which burned bright into the mexican skies.
“I haven’t been here in a long time,” Mads said. A medic had cleaned the briar scratches off of my face, tossing the bloody cloth into the burning fire. The old ranks and leadership roles had dissolved into anger and rage, dedicated to keeping the perimeter around me. “Hope you don’t mind the escort.”
“All this just for me?” I asked.
“Well, we’d do it for your swordsman pal, if we knew where it was,” Mads said, leaning back. He lifted a flask from his kit with a twinkle in his eye and drank. “But it’d be a lot less enthusiastic. Bastard’s association to the core.”
“And I’m not?” I asked.
“Hell no. No Association brat would ever ally with us without support from high command,” Mads laughed. “Do you know how many missions we’ve ran with Association in grey status, not friend or foe? Waiting hours until our commands can talk to each other to figure out what to do? Just saying, having someone just declare allegiances was a hellishly gutsy move.”
He offered me the flask. I sniffed it, and reeled back. He quirked an eyebrow, the grin not leaving his face, and I took a swig. Harsh, bitter.
“Really, do you know how much of a pain it was to get bourbon?” Mads asked.
I tasted it, felt it roll against my tongue, and my eyes watered. I swallowed, handing the flask back. “Isn’t that a Kentucky thing?”
“It is, but booze flows into central america from everywhere,” Mads explained. “And well, when you’re on neutralizing teams, they give you whatever the hell you want so you don’t go insane.”
“So you drank?” I asked.
Mads recoiled. “Oof, past tense already?”
I shrugged helplessly.
“Fair enough, I guess. I am in this to die,” Mads laughed. “Yeah, we drank. I figure I’ll die with a flask in hand this time around. Last time, I couldn’t get my hands on the damn flask, so I guess that’s one last regret out of the way.”
I didn’t reply, but I reached for the water instead.
“Way we see it, there’s only two living people left in this plane right now,” Mads said. “The Cuban Patrol was founded on fighting back these fucking monstrosities after the governments collapsed, and like hell we’re going to stop just because one of us turned into one of them. Sounds like a betrayal, doesn’t it?”
“You convinced them?”
“You’d be surprised how easy it is to convince someone they’ve been played after they spent the last day or two impaled by a goddamn mushroom unable to die, abandoned and waiting,” Mads said. “Until Patrickson ascended and told us we were going to fight for his new world peace.”
“Please, I know you saw them,” Mads said. “Your group put quite a few of them out of their misery. A few saw what you were doing and were mad you weren’t doing it to them, but honestly, they weren’t hard to win over either.”
I looked at the armed warband around me. They were painting images of the Cuban Patrols regalia on the ground with spray paint. The buildings had been set on fire, then razed to the ground with high explosives until only rubble surrounded us.
The ground underneath of our feet remained utterly and entirely solid. The regalia gleamed and flickered in the wind.
“You ready?” Mads asked, standing up. He offered me a hand. I took it, and he hauled me back to my feet.
“He’ll kill you,” I said. “He’ll unmake you.”
“I know,” Mads said, laughing. “That’s what I’m counting on.” The neutralizer stepped to the edge of the army, took a deep breath, and started shouting.
“ONE LAST PUSH!” Mads laughed like a maniac. “PHANTOM PATROL, DO YOU READ ME?”
“ONE LAST PUSH!” The hoard roared back. “DEATH TO TRAITORS!”
“ONE LAST PUSH!” Mads shouted, putting his arms in the air. “WE KILL GODS HERE, DON’T WE?”
“WE KILL GODS!” The army shouted. “WE KILL GODS!”
“DEATH TO PATRICKSON!”
“DEATH TO PATRICKSON!”
Mads turned to face me, and offered me his hand again. I took it. He squeezed it tight enough that the bones ached.
His face slid into something serious. “If you find my family out there, in the big wide world, I want you to tell them I went down fighting, alright?”
“You got it,” I said.
“I don’t want the story to go that I sat by and let some half baked Association hero do all the work now,” Mads said, his seriousness fading fast. “Because WE KILL GODS!”
“LET’S GO! KILL EVERYTHING THAT DOESN’T HAVE A CAPE, BOYS!”