The horde started to move, and I with them. We moved like ants across the jungle floor, a bristling flood of weapons, armor, and adrenaline filled screams.
Patrickson ended the reprieve abruptly. The shaking of the army choked off the sound of the rumbling below. He struck like a hammer from below, sending armor and ghosts screaming into the heavens.
From the rising writhing ashes of the burning city, from the smoke choked skies and the dead and the still writing came the Red Warriors. Their skin stained with the blood of others, they dug up out of the ground with bladed fingertips.
They were answered by a hail of ghost bullets. Their bodies hit the ground in pieces, writhing under the strange green sun faintly visible overhead, then slowly slid back together.
But we were moving, and slow wasn’t good enough. The army enveloped them like ants and they were crushed underneath of hundreds of boots.
But they had not gone without taking victims. A few soldiers were down, unmoving, awaiting their demise as their wounds bled in that place between death and life. Blessings and farewells upon their tongues, and the vines that drink dreams drifted over top of roads and out of the mouths of skeletons to envelop their passage.
But the remaining ones struck out like a wounded animal. Flames charred at heavy roots, defoliants withered the anomalous plantlife, and heavy machine gun fire sent it retreating back into the earth, and we kept moving, ghosts prying their broken bodies off of the ground to limp behind us. Machine gun fire changed the silent world to a mire of staccato rhythms and hellish war-screams.
But we were moving, and the roads of mexico city couldn’t bare the pressure we put upon them. Foul beasts that couldn’t be describe met machine gun bullets and flamethrowers, and they fell beneath of our boots and died by the masses. In the distance, I heard the bellow of another man, high and mighty above the marching feet around me.
The heavens distorted, and the red hands of Gunze emerged, ripping through the void to provide air support. For a heathenous second a prayed to other gods, and then the anarchic monstrosity rammed into the side, turning the heavens from the pale green sun into a roaring tide of red energy and cancerous masses. It was enough to see by, and that’s what mattered.
But we were moving.
“Looks like air support’s tied up,” Mads joked. He stopped, taking up position on a building, and started to assemble his rifle, piece by piece. “I’m sure they’ll show up eventually.”
“You going to do the support yourself?” I asked as the army made a push at another massive wall of thorns.
“You’ll need someone pushing real steel downhill,” Mads said. “No need to waste your bullets yet, you’ll need them in that hospital.”
My heart was pounding again and again, my veins throbbed like live wires. Here was the final push.
A divine creature fell from the heavens, burning with bullets and agent orange, and the men cheered as the walls of the heavens burned. Briar patches popped like kernels, and the alcohol flowed from hidden supplies. It stank and rang like bells. Here was the reality of man, in wild and open defiance of the gods walking among them, the gods fouling up the heavens with lightning and blood, and the god waiting to take control of the world.
“Ho!” came the cry of the men (and women, the Cuban Patrol was egalitarian of course) and Excelsior strode through the armies of the damned like a conquering king, his sword firmly out. His hair rippled behind him in the wind as he walked towards the wall, which was defiantly still standing.
“Let me show you how to breach a wall,” Excelsior shouted.
The sword came down, and like the eye of a hurricane the world roared. It split like the atom, sending plant life spinning out of control. It rained down for minutes afterwards, and Excelsior stepped through like Moses parting the red sea.
“Fuck the gods,” Excelsior muttered, but it carried over the hellish noises of our army to our ears, repeated with cheers and applause.
On the other side of the wall, the hospital sat. I recognized even from here as the same one from my memories. It was burning with a brilliant purple flame. Even from here I could tell there was more detail to it than there ought to be. Every ridge crystalline and purified.
This was what Patrickson remembered the most about that day, and this was what the world remembered the most.
“Well?” I asked, stepping through the army.
“Orders stand,” Mads said, lugging his rifle back.
“It’s not the two of us anymore,” I said to Excelsior.
He shook his head. “Way to get us an army, Gale. I shouldn’t’ve doubted you.”
“They got us an army,” I corrected. “Thank Mads for convincing them.”
Excelsior grinned and bowed to Mads.
“Wow, High and Mighty Association cape, indebted to me,” Mads whistled.
“Don’t get too excited,” Excelsior said. “Not much I can do for a dead man.”
“Break a bottle of bourbon over my grave,” Mads said. “I’ll call us even.”
“The good stuff?” Excelsior asked.
“Of course the fucking good stuff,” Mads swore, stepping forward. “Fucking Association bastard better not skimp on it.”
“I’ll make sure he gets the good stuff,” I volunteered.
He squinted at the hospital. “I feel like the second the army gets out there, we’ll start popping. That’s the most protected spot in the entire plane.”
“So?” I asked. “You going to chicken out?”
“I said no such thing,” Mads sad, faux offended. “Just saying, the army schtick is going to fall apart the second we start breaching. We’ll get you into the hospital, but the rest is up to you.”
“Got it,” Excelsior said.
“So I’m staying behind.” Mads said. “I’ll put a shot downwind where it matters. Then he’ll kill me.”
“The best we can hope for,” Excelsior said. “Don’t turn into a Revenant on us.”
“None of us are going to die with regrets,” Mads said. “We’re doing our job. I guess we never thought we’d get to do it in the afterlife, too.”
“This afterlife sucks,” I said.
“Well,” Mads said. “Take it up with the manager when you get there.”
“READY?” Mads roared.
The army raised their weapons and shouted into unintelligibility. Their blood was up. This wasn’t a coordinated military assault anymore, this was the deep cry of humankind deeply wronged. This was the wrath of mortals lashing against the heathen gods, demanding freedom.
We charged into the killing fields.
The roots of the plant that was god attacked with blows like sledge hammers. Armor crumpled and shattered, but the sheer weight of bodies kept the force of the attack moving. Rockets destroyed walls, and fire burned against reinforced reality, warring mortal attacks against the defences of a concept. The casualties diminished, not because we were winning, but because we were running out of people to die.
Excelsior and I managed to avoid the worst of it, hiding among the ranks of the army, and Excelsior’s sword provided a path for us.
Ichor, sap and blood was all that was left of most of the soldiers. We hit the hospital doors with half a dozen. One of them was limping. They stopped at the entrance and shook their heads. The doors wouldn’t open for them.
There was no place for them inside.
But bizarrely, even as our numbers had fallen, the defences had grown sluggish. Finesse had been replaced with complete and utter brute force. Fast moving blades turned into clubs the size of mountains, lithe replaced with area of effect.
Patrickson stood in the waiting room. His face was blossoms, his body, though still in a facsimile of the armor he had worn in life, made of hardened wood instead of metal.
“You turned my army against me,” Patrickson said.
“You weren’t a good enough commander,” I retorted.
“They followed me into hell,” Patrickson wondered aloud. “But they weren’t willing to fight to keep it.”
“They broke morale,” Excelsior said. “So that we could break you.”
Patrickson laughed. “I had hoped you would grow tired of this. Is there nothing I can say to convince you otherwise? To abandon this pointless endeavor?”
“You have my friends,” I said.
“You want to hurt mine,” Excelsior said. His sword was out.
“I see we have no choice then.” Patrickson gestured, and Excelsior cut the visage in half.
I slammed into Excelsior, and we narrowly avoided being bisected by a root coming out of the ground.
“I think,” I said, and was cut off by another rumbling. I darted, grabbing Excelsior by the shoulder, and with momentum and Excelsior’s help, we slung our ways out of the way of the next root. It came close enough to make my ears ring from the destruction. “That he’s running out of defences.”
“He’s willing to destroy his hospital,” Excelsior said.
“Where’s his heart at?”
“I don’t know, you were the one that was here!” Excelsior hissed. A buzzing filled the air. I couldn’t focus on it because the roots came in again and again. Chairs shattered. Computers broke, sending out arcs of electricity from their remnants.
“The terminal ward,” I said.
“Why?” Excelsior said. We threw ourselves on either side of the hallway, another hellish root breaking through the ceiling. The contents of the floor above rained down on us, and I narrowly dodged out of the way of an oxygen tank.
The buzzing grew louder at the windows.
“Wasps,” Excelsior reported.
“Wasps,” He nodded, and then in a speed that ignored that he was a head and a half taller than me he sprinted towards the terminal ward door, grabbing me by the shoulder halfway there.
We burst through them and the air was filled with smoke and blood, tempered with gunpowder.
Phantoms of the Red Warriors danced in front of us. They wore no armor, nor did they need to, not with the swords that hovered in front of them. Their eyes gleamed with gold, painting their faces with unnatural shadows.
They made no attempt to stop us, and we passed through them without being stopped. They walked towards the terminal ward alongside us. They whispered of the need for teeth.
“It’s always teeth,” I muttered.
“Teeth were and are important,” Excelsior said. “They’re what grants the body sustenance. Very important to consider symbolism in planes like this.”
“They harvested children for their teeth,” I spat.
Excelsior cut through a phantom with his sword. Despite the being immaterial and transparent, the figure still died.
Then the wasps were at the door behind us. They were big, the size of my hands. Excelsior stopped staring at the dead body and we kept right on moving. The wasps descended on the Red warriors, and they screamed like stuck pigs.
“Where the hell are we?” I asked.
“Patrickson’s thoughts,” Excelsior said. “He must come back to this place a lot.”
“This is where his son died,” I said.
“That’d do it,” Excelsior said, and he spun on his heel, slicing his sword into the wall. It gushed blood, painting the floor with it, and then he dove through the crack in reality. The wasps were coming onto us, having devoured the phantoms behind us, and I dove through, feeling it soak into my armor.
We emerged on the next hallway over.
“Which room?” he hissed.
“How am I supposed to know?!” I hissed back.
“You were here!” Excelsior said, gesturing with his sword. Reality hissed where it parted.
“His son was still alive in the dream!” I said.
“I know where he is,” I said, shaking my head, and took off running down the hallway. Excelsior sped after me, his longer legs letting him catch up, and I threw the wind behind us. The wasps were gaining on us.
I turned the corner and hurled myself into the room where Guinevere had been tortured. Terminal ward, check. Room of importance, check.
Blood stain on the floor, check.
Dozens of dead bodies piled up high, the Red Warriors of Mexico painted with the presidents ensemblage-
That wasn’t what I was looking for.
Excelsior’s sword flashed down and bisected the operating table. Then it flashed through, destroying the furniture. It all bled and the dream wavered, but when it was done there was no heart.
“Where the hell is it?!” Excelsior hissed.
“We don’t have time for this,” I said. The wasps were gaining. The tree was growing. I could hear Patrickson’s laughter. He was getting his defences back.
If we were inside for much longer, we’d be sitting ducks, no matter how well prepared we were.
“Think,” Excelsior hissed. “Was there anything, anything at all that would tell you where he’d put his heart?”
I stared at the destroyed room. “So this takes place after his son is dead, right?”
“I imagine this is what he thinks about. The empty room, the piles of the dead,” Excelsior said. “But this isn’t what he remembers the most.”
I snapped my fingers. “He buried his heart where he buried his son.”
Excelsior sighed. “A graveyard? We’re going to a graveyard?”
“I’m tired of the undead,” Excelsior said. “Even if they’re just conceptually undead.”
“Not the time,” I cut in. “Where would the hospital keep its graveyard?”
The wasps buzzed at the closed door, and I glared at them.
“Well,” Excelsior said. “I don’t know where they’d bury them normally… but I do know there was a memorial set up to honor the victims.”
“That’d be it,” I said. “Where?”
Excelsior pointed out the window. At the center of the hospital, at the center of the looming painted white walls where a small park sat to be enjoyed by the sick and the ill and their families, a man stood with a blade. Half of his face was obscured with blossoms.
Excelsior cut through the wall and stepped out onto the park. Flowers were in bloom. Baby’s breath, bloodflowers, amaranths, chrysanthemums. The grass was soft underfoot, unlike the harsh broken slabs concrete we’d crawled through.
“There’s no stopping you,” The lord of the realm said.
“You knew there wasn’t,” I said.
“Blind zealotry lends great strength,” Patrickson agreed. “It pulled me through many places I should not have lived.”
“So you know what comes next,” Excelsior said. “You’re going to have to stop running now.”
“Running?” Patrickson asked. “I haven’t been running. I’ve been waiting for you here.”
I flicked my eyes around the park to see if it was an ambush. One probably didn’t just walk into the heart of a god.
“And the wasps and the roots?”
“You thresh wheat before you make bread,” Patrickson shrugged. “And your powers will be a bread for my heart.”
“You’re going to eat us?”
“You and I both know that if you had to eat someone to get your dreams, you would,” Patrickson denounced.
I couldn’t say I wouldn’t. If it killed Patrickson at this point… if it saved my friends…
“Your heart’s in that monument, isn’t it?” Excelsior guessed.
“They buried my son here. They couldn’t make sense of the bodies, you understand, after they were flensed, so they took up a mass grave and contacted the parents after the chaos was over,” Patrickson said. “So I never even got to see his body. I came here often in the years that followed. It’s fitting that my ultimate victory comes here.”
“You can’t even snuff out your own men,” I said.
“Why snuff out ants?” Patrickson asked.
“Those ants brought us here,” I said, voice turning harsh. “And they brought you here as well.”
“When I win, they’ll be brought back,” Patrickson said, arching an eyebrow. “And I will hold no grudges for the treachery. After all, a god is endlessly forgiving and patient.”
“You’re not a god,” Excelsior said. “You’re a man with delusions of grandeur.”
“We’ll see whose blood waters this field,” Patrickson said. “But you walk in my world now.”
“You killed the last leader of it,” I said. “Being the leader doesn’t make you immortal.”
“I didn’t kill him,” Patrickson smiled with far too many teeth in his blossom mouth. “I ate him.”
Excelsior struck with his sword, and the body evaporated into a flock of butterflies. I vaguely recognized the species as one that drank tears.
Then the ground under our feet shook.
“Oh,” Excelsior said.
I scrambled, back, knowing that meant roots.
Then the entire park startled to rumble and I fled to the outskirts.
It lifted up out of the ground and split into a humanoid form of tree roots and vines. Patrickson’s face of blossoms stretched across the colossal neck, and gravestones poked out of the mass like boils on flesh. Long arms stretched far too long and when he finished hauling himself out of the earth his legs were like tree trunks. He towered over the hospital.
“If you want my heart,” the thing that had once been Patrickson said. “You can wrench it out of my chest yourself.”
Excelsior looked down at his sword, then up at the great beast.
“What a time to have your heavy artillery occupied,” He muttered.
“Oh my god,” I said, staring up at the behemoth. “It’s so big.”
A single gnarled wooden hand grabbed a small gardening shack and lifted it up. It rolled it between fingers, shingles falling off, glass shattering, and then hurled it towards us. Excelsior didn’t bother blocking, and instead through himself to the side. I followed suit.
The concrete hut plowed into the side of the hospital and shattered a brick wall, collapsing millions of dollars of medical equipment conjured up out of the god’s memories. I stared for a moment at it.
“Oh god,” I said.
“He’s not a god yet,” Excelsior corrected, hauling himself to his feet.
“How are you so calm?!” I hissed at him. Patrickson reached into his body, grasping at the edge of a tombstone.
“I either win here,” Excelsior muttered, fatalistically. “Or I die, either way, I don’t have to see his face for much longer.”
“You need therapy!” I hissed.
“There are very few therapists with my clearance,” Excelsior noted.
Patrickson’s gravestone pulled free with a nauseating noise of blades on flesh.
Because it was a blade. A heavy blade of stone, carved out of marble and inscribed with the names of the fallen.
He was using the monument itself to kill us.
“New plan,” Excelsior said, staring at the sword.
“Don’t get hit?” I offered.
“Don’t get hit!” Excelsior said.
The blade flashed in the rays of the green sun, polished surface reflecting the light of the distant clash of the titans.
“How the hell are we supposed to-”
He struck the earth and it burst like a tumor, spilled out virulent green life. Where it splattered, vines spread with teeth. The crater left behind filled over with fresh grass.
I hauled myself up onto the roof. “Excelsior!” I shouted.
He was already taking cover. Grenades scattered among the fresh growth. They took care of the rest, leaving behind charred earth, scattered shrapnel and burning wreckage. Then Excelsior darted in as the sword rose up, and grabbed onto the side with his armored gauntlets.
The great behemoth tugged the blade up, and Excelsior let go half way up, letting momentum carry him up to the great beast’s face.
The sword flashed out once, and half of the blossoms fell to the ground in a great chunk, and then Excelsior landed on the other side, half covered in sticky sap. It almost looked like blood.
And mixed in was blood indeed. A long lacing cut stretched across the side of his neck, mixing in with the fluid.
But Patrickson was mostly concept at this point. A single cut did nothing to dispel the lie.
Patrickson took a deep breath and turned, slow, while the blossom mask and the stump it left behind reconnected with a flurry of vines, tugging it back into place.
“Enough,” Patrickson roared. “I’m tired of this. Our philosophies are incompatible. That’s not unacceptable. When I win, I will bring you back and you can argue all you want. My evidence will be my omnipotence.”
“That means you’re going to die now, Gale.”
The ground shook. From my second floor vantage I could see the land ripple. Excelsior looked over at me.
I met his eyes. I was across the field from him. The hell was he supposed to do? If Patrickson wanted me dead…
The land shook underneath of me. A deep breath. I could feel it against my lungs. My dad had come to see me in the dream.
He said he was proud of me. I stared at the masked monster in the center, rippling with all the power I could dream of.
Would he still be proud of me as a corpse?
I ran, and the world shattered into tree roots, gnashing teeth and the scream of the unknown.
The first, I kicked off of, narrowly avoiding the massive thorns, the terminal ward sign hanging off of it sparked and spat fumes and made my eyes water, but I ducked underneath of it, ignoring the screech of my joints to stop that.
The second swam up through the collapsing roof, bristling with needles and surgical knives, and my hatchet came out and swatting it out of the way, cutting in deep.
The third I didn’t get to dodge.
The third came directly against my middle, denting the plate, sending it pushing hard against my lungs. Metal buckled, and the force came unabated. My trajectory died in the air, and then the root carried me forward. Hurled me through the air.
I tugged for something. Anything at all, anything to keep me from hitting the ground.
Wished I had more time to spend with my friends. Wished I hadn’t pissed it all away being scared for my life, with pointless years in the academy when I knew I wouldn’t get any more powerful. Years spent doubting the people who loved me, idolizing propaganda.
It wouldn’t save me from the ground.
I closed my eyes. A coward didn’t want to see the ground coming. A coward wouldn’t want to see the ground catch them.
“Air support coming in!” Mads screeched through the static of the radio.
Something else caught me entirely.