I charged forward, and imagined a fireball forming at my fingertips.
The illusory version of me threw it, and it transformed into a wave of flames washing towards the two guards ahead of me. Only the two of them were within my Vocation’s range, but that was all I needed. They leapt out of the way, clearing a path for me.
Then I made myself invisible to them.
“Heads up! Pyrokinetic!” said the captain. Good. If they thought I could do that, maybe they’d give me a wider berth.
Or they’d call sniper backup and riddle me with bullets from afar.
I sprinted at the semicircle of guards, and they aimed their rifles at me.
The moment I got within twenty-one meters, I shot another imaginary fireball at one of them, following it. The guard dropped prone to avoid it, and I leapt over him, still invisible. My legs, like my arms, were surprisingly strong, and carried me higher and faster than I had anticipated.
I made the illusion-Ana turn, running in the opposite direction as me. The guards opened fire on her, turning their backs to my real self. I made her jump fifty meters up onto the stack of crates on the ship, then run out of sight.
To the guards, it would look like I had a superhuman body.
“Target is a joiner with enhanced strength!” The guards ran after the illusion, their backs turned to me as I ran away from them, towards the edge of the harbor where my boat was stashed. They’d be distracted combing through the ship for a while, but it was only a matter of time before backup arrived.
And if there were Guardians patrolling nearby, my odds of escaping dropped pretty low.
A pair of guards emerged from one of the alleys I was running towards, outside my range. They aimed their rifles at me through the rain.
“Second target! In the road!“ Cracks echoed in my ears as they opened fire with their bolt-actions. I sprinted forward towards a different alleyway, leaning down to try and evade their bullets. My old body bounced up and down on my shoulders as I ran.
The guards were difficult to make out in the darkness. Thankfully, that also meant I’d be difficult to hit.
“Lock the harbor down! Close the gates!” I could hear shouting all around me. Glaring white spotlights in guard towers flared up, sweeping over the crates.
The dark outline of a guard stepped out behind a crate in front of me. At least thirty meters away.
He raised his shotgun.
I stretched out my hand, extending my Pith, not into his mind, but the wooden stock on his weapon, remembering all of the information about organic compounds I’d memorized.
Carbon and oxygen. Micro-fibules of cellulose and hemicellulose. Lignin. Five-carbon sugars linked together.
He pulled the trigger. I yanked my extended Pith upwards.
His barrel lifted up. A dull crack echoed in my ears, making them ring, but I felt no impact. A miss.
I charged towards him and pulled my arm towards my chest. The gun flew out of his grasp, spinning in the air. It smacked into my hand and I grabbed the grip, shaking off the stinging pain.
The guard pulled a baton from his belt and held it in front of him. He’s in range now. I conjured up an illusion of myself, making the real me invisible. The illusion changed directions, jogging down an alley towards the west.
The guard ran after it. “Second target has wood-projection! Carrying a shotgun and heading westward!”
I sprinted northward, light and fast despite all the weight on my shoulders from my old body and the bag. How am I not out of breath? It felt like I could run a hundred miles at this pace and not get winded. This new body was incredible.
As I ran through the dark lanes, rain pouring down over me, I went over my escape route in my head. There were two main gates to the harbor. North and East. As long as I got out and evaded the initial pursuit, I could double back and get to my boat, then drive it out onto the ocean to lose the guards for good.
If they were following the plan, Clementine and her cronies were to the East by the main road, waiting in a safe house to intercept the shipment at just the right moment.
I could probably illusion my way past a group of guards at the North Gate, but there the moment I got out of range, they’d see me and start following me all over again. And there was a limit to how many times I could divert them the wrong direction. Eventually, they’d realize I was a Whisper Specialist using illusions on them.
Plus, the longer I waited, the more likely it was for Guardians to show up. And then I’d be screwed.
I needed to shake the guards before that happened. Occupy them with something else. And to do that, I needed a real distraction.
An idea came to me. An ugly, uncomfortable idea.
I spun around and changed directions, running towards the east gate. A minute later, I arrived, and peeked around the corner to look over my opposition, cloaked in shadows.
Ten guards stood with their backs to the mesh gate, shining flashlights and aiming barrels out in every direction. A guard tower extended above it, complete with a roving searchlight and two riflemen.
From my hiding place, I could get a good look at their faces. They were terrified. Their eyes were wide. Their weapons were shaking in their hands. One of them even looked like he was crying a little.
To them, they were fighting a pair of monsters with fire projection. For all they knew, I was about to fry them to a crisp.
How the hell was I supposed to get past this many at once? I could weave illusions over the eighteen guards on the ground, but unless I was right underneath it, the tower was out of my range. Even if I used illusions to scare them, they weren’t likely to open the gate.
One of the men started shouting. His tone seemed inspirational, and his dark blue hat was taller than everyone else, so I assumed he was a captain of some sort.
“Listen up, everyone! We are dealing with multiple assailants, capable of both wood and fire projection! At least one of them is capable of invisibility, which means light or mental projection may be in play as well. We have two Guardians en route, with a possible third if we’re lucky. Our job is to keep the targets in here until they arrive! Hold your positions, but don’t do anything stupid!”
I exhaled, stretching out my soul towards the guards like a fog. Settling on each of them, I pressed, conjuring up a suite of sounds in my mind’s eye, all coming from outside the gate.
The growl of an engine. The slam of a car door, and the clink of metal boots on the concrete pavement. Auditory illusions.
Then a deep female voice, confident and light. “Is this the right address, or did we make a wrong turn?” I ad-libbed the lines, trying to remember what Florence Tuft, the Scholar of Air, had sounded like during Paragon’s radio ads. “Open the gate so we can rescue your asses.”
All ten of the guards spun around. As they did, I shifted the illusion from auditory to visual, imagining an armored truck stopped outside the gate, with a man and a woman waiting outside.
After flipping through so many newspaper clippings and catalogs, the Guardian uniforms were easy to conjure up. Padded black body armor, made from layers of rigid, interlocking squares. Steel-tipped boots. And the iconic dark blue cloaks slung over their shoulders. Their faces were Majors Florence Tuft and Isaac Brin, two of my favorite Guardians who were known for their exploits and heroism.
My Tuft illusion waved, motioning for the guards to open the gate. I held my breath. If the guards had any official codes prepared, or knew which Guardians to expect, they’d see through my ruse right away.
And if guards talked to my illusions, they wouldn’t be able to talk back – modifying two senses at once was an incredible strain for me, and I could only do it for a few seconds before breaking from exhaustion.
The captain waved his hand. “Open the gate!” One of the guards pulled a key out of his pocket and inserted it into a metal box on a pillar. The metal gate creaked and slid open. The guards in the tower looked down, confused as to what the commotion was about.
My illusions of Tuft and Brin strode past me, and I adjusted my grip on the body over my shoulders.
Then I sprinted forward, towards the open gate, making myself invisible to the guards on the ground.
This next part would be tricky.
The men in the tower shouted out. Both of them were out of my range, so they could see me, even through the rain. They aimed their rifles at me, but I was weaving in between their comrade. They couldn’t shoot without risking friendly fire. “Target spotted! Going towards the gate!”
The men on the ground looked around, confused. In a flash, I shifted my illusion for the guards on the ground, creating a fiery version of myself emerging from the South, not the West. Far away from where I actually was.
They knew a target was going for the gate, but they didn’t know from what direction.
My illusory Guardians turned in their direction, and adopted fighting stances. The real soldiers followed suit, aiming guns at the fake me. I zipped past them, practically flying out of the gate.
The moment I moved away from the crowd, the guards in the tower started shooting at me. Cracks echoed in the night air, and bullets took chunks out of the pavement around me. “Target has escaped harbor! Going east!”
I clung to the right side of the street, legs pumping beneath me. A bright white light washed over me from behind, casting the concrete around me in a harsh glare. A spotlight.
I ran out of range of the guards on the ground, and more gunshots rang out around me. Voice shouted behind me, and I heard the thumping of boots on the ground. Something grazed my forearm, and a hot stinging pain flared up on the skin. I felt a trickle of warm liquid down to my shoulder. Blood.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. They knew where I was, and they stopped and thought about it, they would figure out my Vocation created illusions. I was running out of tricks.
I hoped this last one would be enough.
I took a sharp turn left town a dark street. Two more streets, then right, then left, then forward two streets. The gunshots had stopped, but the guards couldn’t be far behind me.
I turned a corner and found myself facing a tiny house, painted dark green and wedged between two larger ones. The lights on the first story were turned on, and the blinds were pulled down. That’s the one.
I ducked into an alley when the guards were out of sight, crouching behind a dirty used couch chair left on the sidewalk.
As I felt their minds running within my range, I created an illusion of myself, making the real me invisible. The fake image of me ran to the green house, opened the front door, and ducked in, slamming it behind her.
The guards fanned out around the door, taking cover around the street. I backed away, as more of them streamed towards the building.
One of the guards ran in my direction, eyes fixated on the house. He glanced at my hiding place, squinting.
If I ran, I’d alert the rest of the guards to my location and put myself out of range. I cowered behind the chair, making myself as small as possible.
On the far side of the street, a guard strode up to the green door and lifted his boot to kick it down.
The door blew off its hinges with a dull boom, knocking him back into a puddle.
The guard turned on his stomach, dunked his head in the water, and gulped down mouthful after mouthful.
Extreme thirst. Clementine’s Vocation.
Bright white light exploded from the doorway, glaring brighter than the sun, and I forced my eyes shut. For a moment, night turned to day, as the pale glow flooded the street.
The guards dropped their rifles, clutching their faces. Light projection. Even with my eyes shut, I could feel the burning glare on my corneas.
A knife flew out of the doorway, and wove between the guards’ calves, slicing three of them. Blood poured from the wounds, and they collapsed. The metal blades turned, and shot towards another pair of men.
I’d led the guards to Clementine’s safehouse. And now, they were distracting each other.
Everyone opened fire on the house, bullets cutting through the thin wood. The man walking towards me turned around, following suit. A shotgun blast discharged from inside, clipping him in the shoulder.
She’s going to tear them apart. Even amateur projectors like these were more than strong enough to crush a group of Humdrums like this. I suppressed a pang of guilt. With luck, once the real Guardians arrived, they’d take them into custody with ease.
I stood up and started running again, heading north in a roundabout path to my boat. For the first time tonight, I felt a little tired, and noticed the full weight of my old body pressing down on my shoulders.
I cut through side streets and public parks, my chest burning. Was that sweat trickling down my forehead, or raindrops? Every so often, I glanced behind me at the street, to see if anyone was chasing. It was empty, rows of houses and apartment buildings extending into the darkness behind me.
I emerged from a narrow alley onto an empty street square, and bent over, taking in heaving breaths.
The square was quiet. The only noise was the pattering of raindrops on the pavement, and the trickling of a fountain in the center, lit by a dim orange street lamp. I staggered towards it, set down my old body and the shotgun, and leaned against it, panting.
The fountain’s water lifted up in a wave, washing towards me. It crashed into me like a truck, and the world spun around me. Something hard slammed into my back, and a sharp pain exploded through my spine.
The water wrapped around me, forming a human-shaped sheath around me and pinning me to the wall of a building. I twisted back and forth, trying to break free, but the water around me was as hard as rock.
Raindrops froze in midair, hovering in place around me.
The silhouette of a woman strode out of the darkness, wearing a dark Blue Guardian’s cloak and extending a hand in my direction.
Her other hand reached into her pocket and pulled out a flare. She uncapped it, and it floated high above her head, weaving back and forth above the rooftops. Signaling our location.
As she stepped into the light, I could make out her face more clearly. Her dark green eyes were narrowed in concentration, and her mouth was curled up in a grin. She had to be a year older than me at most. Did Guardians graduate that young?
Her voice was cheery, almost singsong. “Please refrain from trying to go invisible, criminal! I got a ninety-nine on my latest aquakinetics exam, and if you try anything, fire or wood or light, I’ll boil you!”
She was a Paragon student, then. A trainee.
“Not to mention, my partner will be showing up shortly. He’s a metal projector, and his Vocation lets him control ultrathin metal wires. One wrong move, and he’ll cut your limbs off.” Her grin widened. “How would you like to live as a cripple, thief? When you shoot at innocent people, fuck with our soldiers, we’ll do all that and more.”
Shoot at innocent people? I hadn’t used the shotgun at all, or even made illusions of guns. They must think I’m working with Clementine.
I tried to project into the water around me to force out the girl’s control, but her projection was too strong, and it refused to budge.
Lucky for me, they thought I was actually an experienced projector. They had no idea I was vulnerable to nudging. If they knew, I’d be putty in their hands. A few words, and I’d tell them everything.
I didn’t know what this girl’s partner looked or sounded like, so I had no way of faking his presence. If I went invisible or made an illusory version of myself, she’d feel where I was with her projection and sear the flesh off my bones.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. I had to think of something.
The girl strode over to my old body beside the fountain and flipped it over. She picked up my stolen shotgun, turning it over in her hands. “Want to tell me who you are, why you were doing this? Make the paperwork a little easier for me?”
She reached for my mask. As she pulled it off, I pictured the first face that came to mind. The diner owner from this afternoon. I layered his features over my own, erasing the bulging veins on my neck, making my skin look wrinkled, and shifting my hair from grey to dark brown.
The girl tore off my cloth mask and threw it into a puddle. Her nose wrinkled. “Yuck. Gross old fart. Looking for a taste of youth before your mind turns to mush?”
“No!” I yelled. “I – “ I stopped myself, realizing how high-pitched and bright my voice was. Even after years of training my larynx and vocal cords, the female voice in my other body wasn’t even close to that. “I – “ Even that stutter sounded more melodic and sweet than anything I’d uttered in the last ten years. The hum in my throat was soft, easy.
The girl reached for my bag, and I replaced its interior with an illusion of empty space, making it look empty inside. She peered inside for a moment, then pulled the drawstring shut, turning her attention back towards me.
“Well, if you’re not a creep, who are you working for? The Harmonious Flock? The Shenti? Very naughty of you, trying to steal our design secrets.” She smiled, and flicked her hand. The water coffin around me shifted, forcing me to lie down on my back. She stood over me, a shadow blocking out the light of the moons.
“Please. It’s not what you think. I’m not – I’m not – ” I said. I felt like I was about to cry. She thought I was a monster. A religious fanatic or an emotionless killer, sent by a foreign government to undermine the Principality.
I wanted to tell her how much I admired her, that I dreamed of studying and fighting alongside people like her.
My voice stuttered. I wasn’t sure if I could articulate the right words. “I – I didn’t want to hurt anyone. Didn’t think violence was necessary.”
The girl slid a combat knife from a sheath and crouched down, hovering the tip over my eye. “Want to know how many innocent men your group killed? But your boss doesn’t care, does she?”
She still thought I was working with Clementine. “They’re not – I’m not – “ I forced my mouth shut.
She’s trying to get information out of me. Her insults were calculated, loaded with allegations she was encouraging me to deny. Every time I protested, I let slip another detail. Mind games like these were part of Paragon’s core curriculum, and even a student as young as her was effortlessly playing me.
Not that it matters anyway. Five minutes into an actual interrogation and they’d find out I was susceptible to nudging. I’d spill everything in a heartbeat.
“Not what, freak?”
I looked up towards the moons, centering my attention on something other than her voice. Something besides the stinging embarrassment I was feeling. Rain pattered on my face, little droplets getting past the girl’s projection.
As I focused on my senses, I realized how cold the water had gotten. It had been cooling down steadily over the past few minutes. I shivered. Another technique to immobilize me in case I broke free.
What illusion could convince her to let me go? Even if I knew who her commanding officer was, I couldn’t fake a conversation with only one sense at a time. A possible answer jumped into my head, and I started assembling the details.
I pushed them into her mind, starting with auditory illusions. The click of a rifle behind her. The stomping of feet. And a man’s voice, coming from straight behind her. “Don’t move. Release our colleague, drop the weapon, and put your hands behind your head. Project anything, and we open fire. You have ten seconds.”
Sheathing her knife, she put her hands behind her head, and turned it slightly.
The girl backed away from me. As she glanced behind her, I switched my illusion from sound to sight, and created fifteen masked men with rifles in a semicircle. All aiming at her.
The girl let go of the knife, and turned to face my fake soldiers.
“Let’s talk.” She made eye contact with the fake gunman in front of her. “Pull those triggers, and he’s dead.”
I kept him silent. Unless she looked away, I wouldn’t be able to make the auditory illusion of speech. I made him raise his gun and aim it in between her eyes.
“You want me to release my hostage?” she shouted. “Let’s negotiate! Hello?”
No response. She sighed. Then she moved.
In a single fluid motion, she spun around his rifle and pulled her knife back to her hand with projection, plunging it towards his throat.
Her other hand reached around him to drag him towards her as a human shield. Streams of water shot out from the fountain towards the other images. If they were real men, they’d have been knocked over from the sheer force of the jets.
Her blade and hand passed through empty air. The water splashed onto the ground. She blinked for a moment, confused, then whipped back around towards me. “So. You can fuck with my senses, is that it? You’re a whisper specialist.”
I withdrew my projection, and the men vanished. My last advantage was gone. Now that she knew about my Vocation, it was pointless to try anything on her
I heard footsteps in the distance, and felt another soul at the edge of my range. Her ally, the metal projector. The one who was going to cut my limbs off. He was about to turn the corner and see us.
“Eliya! Status?” The voice came from to my right and behind me. He was coming from the narrow alleyway next to us.
The girl opened her mouth to yell at him. Almost on instinct, I reached into his mind, layering over ambient sound and editing out her voice. She shouted out in his direction. “Samuel! Poppy-Seven-One-Six! If you’re real, target has illusions! Only respond to pre-assigned passcodes!” She grinned at me. “Sorry to disappoint you.”
Samuel didn’t hear her. And if he was approaching us from an alley behind, he would only be able to see the flare. We would be hidden from his view until he turned the corner.
I imitated the sound of the girl, Eliya’s voice. I imagined her accent, how every syllable and word would sound coming from her mouth. Then I added it to my projection into his mind.
“Poppy-Seven-One-Six!” my illusion-Eliya screamed. “Help! She’s going to kill me!” I prayed that he was alone. That was the only way this would work.
A second before he turned the corner, I shifted my illusions from auditory to visual.
Using my Vocation, I swapped the positions of Eliya and myself, making it look like I stood over her, instead of her standing over me. I positioned my arms in the exact same position and configuration as hers, with a pistol gripped in each hand. To him, it would look like I was about to pull the triggers, and end his teammate’s life.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a broad-shouldered man in a Guardian uniform turn the corner. I caught a glint of a narrow steel wire floating next to him in the moonlight, before it shot forward.
There was a high-pitched whistling sound as it whipped through the air, and I flinched.
Eliya’s hands fell off. Blood spurted out from the two red stumps of her arms, splashing onto my chest.
She screamed and dropped to the ground, thrashing. I gagged, feeling a rush of nausea come over me. Razor wires. He must have cut clean through her wrists.
The hovering raindrops fell to the ground, unfrozen. The hardened water around me turned to liquid.
I clambered away, making my real self invisible to both of them. I moved the Eliya-illusion on top of the real Eliya, and made it open its mouth in what appeared to be a scream. I made the Ana-illusion fall off to the side, unconscious and bleeding.
Samuel ran over towards her, cradling her in his arms. “Eliya! What’s wrong, why are you screaming? Did she hurt you?! Did she use mental projection?!”
I tossed my bag and old body over my shoulders, and grabbed the shotgun I dropped off the ground.
“Don’t worry. Whatever she did, I’m taking you to a medic now.” I ran over behind Samuel, and held the end of the barrel to the back of his knee. Close enough for his autonomous bullet defense to fail.
I wrapped a shaking finger around the trigger, and pulled. A crack echoed in my ears, and his kneecap exploded in a shower of bone and blood.
Samuel collapsed, clutching his leg. Blood poured out of the tangle of flesh where his knee used to be.
His screams soon joined Eliya’s.
I ran, sprinting Westwards towards my boat and leaving the two trainees howling in agony behind me. I layered an illusion of myself jogging East as I ducked into an alley, making my true self invisible. When backup arrived, they’d pursue me in the wrong direction.
And as I ran, dripping water, I thought about what I’d just done.
Reinforcements would find Eliya and Samuel’s flare long before they bled out or sustained permanent damage. If they were anyone else, they might have been mutilated for life. However, as Paragon students, they could transfer into replacement bodies in a flash, and suffer zero lasting effects.
Unlike me and everyone else, they were valuable assets worth repairing. The pain would be excruciating, but they’d be fine in no time.
Still, it was hard to get those screams out of my head.
After a few minutes of nonstop running and checking for pursuers, I arrived at my boat, bobbing up and down on an empty part of the harbor.
I clambered on and ducked down into the room below decks. I stuffed my old body behind a crate full of lifejackets, wanting it as far out of sight as possible. When I reached my destination, I would swap back to avoid detection, but for now, I wanted to savor my new, fully intact self.
Once I had dropped all of my gear, I undid the knots around the ropes tying it to the pier, and put back the parts I’d removed from its engine. The motor started up with a putter, and the tiny vessel slid out onto the ocean, away from the bright lights of Elmidde.
After a few minutes, the empty buildings by the waterfront shrunk into dots in the distance. When they were too far away to make out, I let my legs collapse, and flopped into a sitting position deck.
I realized how hard I’d been breathing, how winded I was. Even with this body, there was an upper limit to how fast human lungs could draw in oxygen.
The rain had stopped. The skies were dark, but clear. The two moons shone above me, unobstructed by clouds. I projected into the water in my clothes, squeezing it out and drying them.
My shoulders relaxed. My mouth drooped open and my eyes fluttered shut. My fingers and toes traced the grain of the wooden floor. In a few minutes, I would have to stand up and steer a roundabout route back to the city. But for now, I was content to lie back and do nothing.
I’d done it. Against all odds, I’d done it. I’d escaped the choking shackles of my body, into a new one that could taste food. One that wouldn’t kill me in a year.
None of this felt real. The theft, the chase, the fight, they all had the trappings of a nightmare, complete with the blood and gore at the end.
And the body. The auburn-haired body that moved like a dancer, light and powerful and fast. I had the physique of a model, the face of an Epistocrat, the strength of an athlete. I had never really expected this plan to work.
It was too good to be true.
If this was a dream, this is the part where I’d wake up in Clementine’s basement with the other servants, roll off my mattress, and resign myself to another day of monotonous, back-breaking work.
But I didn’t wake up.
I took a deep breath, sucking in the night air.
None of my dreams were this vivid. My olive skin was uniform, without the slightest hint of swollen veins or greyness. Everything about my body was in perfect alignment, intimately familiar even though I’d worn it for less than an hour.
A laugh escaped my lips. Then another, louder, before I could clamp it down. I hadn’t made sounds like that in years. My mouth curled up in a smile.
I wouldn’t become a Guardian. I was a thief, miles away from striving to become an Exemplar. The dream I’d held onto for years was dead. And I’d be a fugitive from now on. There would be hardships in my future. There would be battles, difficult battles to fight for my freedom and security.
But for a moment, I was content with that future. I would do it as my best self. I would do it as me. My lungs exhaled, and my muscles relaxed.
That was when the arrow flew out of the darkness, and punched a hole in my stomach.