12-A The Ant and the Beetle

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Ana

I slid down the wall of the barracks, hyperventilating.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.  “Fuck,” I muttered.  “Fuck!”  My voice echoed double, as I listened through Wes’ ears as well as mine.

Everyone’s dead.  All the Principality soldiers inside the building had been killed.  They had to be dead in the watchtowers too.  That’s how we broke into the naval base so easily.

And we weren’t hearing anything, which meant – 

“They killed everyone in the base,” said Wes.  “We’re breaking into a bloody tomb.”

“What the fuck happened?”  I forced myself to take slow, deep breaths and floated the pieces of my machine pistol together, flitting my gaze around to look for enemies.

Wes’ eyes widened.  “The Agricultural Islands aren’t the real attack.”

“A diversion?” Jun said.

“The real attack has to be here,” said Wes.  “In Elmidde.”  He gazed over at the far end of Bartolet Naval base.  The very top of the military’s zeppelins peeked out over the tops of the buildings.  “They’re going after Paragon.”

“No,” I said.  “No, wait.  Hira read Maxine Clive’s thoughts with her Vocation.  She saw the wheatfields, and the mountain shaped like a molar tooth.  How could she have tricked Hira?”

Jun ran his fingers through his grey beard.  “Maybe she just thought really hard about the wrong thing?”

Wes and I stared at him.

He shrugged.  “It’d work, right?”

Parliament,” I said.  “They’re all holed up inside Paragon, after all the riots.”  And Commonplace knew that would happen.

“That can’t be the only reason, though,” said Wes.  “Even if they slaughtered every MP, that wouldn’t give them actual control of the country.  The Guardians would just come back and kill them all.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “There has to be something else, too.”  What, though?  What important things could the fleet have left behind?

Despite the uncertainty, despite the raw, stomach-clenching terror of all the bodies around us, I felt a wave of relief.  The Agricultural Islands aren’t the main attack.  My parents weren’t in mortal danger.  Their house, and my hometown, wouldn’t become a burning hellscape.

“Well?” said Wes.  “What the fuck do we do now?”

“We’re not equipped to fight half of Commonplace and the mob,” I said.  And Tunnel Vision.  If this was the main attack, she’d be here too.  And the Voidsteel missiles Hira talked about.  Could those be a factor too?

“And Steel Violet,” said Wes, a regretful look on his face.  He’s still a fan after all this?

I bit my lip.  “Maybe we don’t have to fight them all.”

“Yes,” said Wes.  “Running away is at least ninety percent of our tactics playbook.”

“Not like that,” I said.  “Commonplace knows they can’t beat our Guardians in a fair fight.  Whatever they’re trying to do up in Paragon, they needed to lure away our best warriors first.  They’re relying on surprise and stealth.”

“So we make some noise,” said Wes.

I nodded.  “We just need to get a signal out to the fleet, tell them to turn around, to come back here and save the academy before it goes under.”

“Will they get here in time?” said Jun.  “Boats are pretty slow.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “But it’s still our best option.”  I looked at Wes.  “You’ve toured this base before, right?  When you were an Epistocrat, with your mother.”

“Once,” said Wes.  “A long time ago.”

“Do you remember where the radio room was?”

“I remember being bored,” said Wes.

“Try,” I said.

Wes furrowed his brow.  “Takonara,” he muttered.  He paced back and forth, tapping his hands on his leg and temples.  After a minute, his eyes lit up.  “Maybe,” he said.  “A vague idea.”

“Marvelous,” said Jun.  “I knew you could do it.”

Wes led us through the complex, past barracks and hangers filled with planes.  The sailors in the other buildings were dead too, shot or stabbed or bludgeoned, lying in bloody piles on the floor.  Men and women dressed as soldiers patrolled the main streets of the base, forcing us to hide in the shadows and take a roundabout route through denser structures that gave us cover.

At a distance, the soldiers looked like ordinary guards.  But when they walked closer, I could make out the green circle tattoos on the backs of their hands.

We ran through a narrow gap between buildings, and emerged in the middle of the base’s main runway.  The zeppelins sat a few hundred feet away, next to a row of fighter planes, surrounded by armed Green Hands and a line of men and women dressed like Paragon servants.  A disguise.  Or were those actual servants?

There were only a few dozen of them.  Most of them boarded already.  The zeppelins were about to launch.  But all of them had rifles, or shotguns, or submachine guns.

Wes pointed across the runway, to a squat grey building.  “That’s the radio room.  I think.”

I saw no cover between here and there.  To get there, we’d have to traverse the runway, in plain view of the enemy.

If we had Hira with us, we might have taken them out at this range, with grenades, or a sniper rifle.  We could have had a fighting chance.

But Hira had left.  She’d abandoned us.

She knows you’re doomed.  It wasn’t cruel, not really.  I’d known who she was the entire time.  It was my fault for getting invested.  She was never your friend.

I pushed down the pain, the stomachache.  The three of us would have to make do.

Wes’ paper and my illusions couldn’t do much at this distance, and Jun still refused to make lethal weapons, so none of his gadgets could take out this many.

I could shoot at them with my machine pistol, of course, but at this distance, I couldn’t even hit a lantern whale, much less a human.

“If they see us,” I said.  “We’re fucked.”  No backing out this time.  Wes joked about it, but this was my last shot, and probably Wes’ too.  If we fled this time, I’d be dead before our next mission.  And the Principality would burn.

“How do we cross?” said Jun.  “I could use smoke bombs.  Make it look like fog.”

“Fog in the evening?” said Wes.  “Here?”  He snorted.  “Unless they all get simultaneous concussions, they’re probably going to check it out.”

That’s it.  I raised a finger.  “Wait.”  I leaned my head towards the runway, gazing at a man who looked like some sort of commanding officer, listening to him shout orders.

“That’s your ‘new idea’ face,” said Wes.  “Which means we’re either about to kick ass or die very embarrassing deaths.”

“Jun,” I said.  “Can you start a fire in the building next to us?  Something loud and obvious.”

“Is that an order?” he said.

“I don’t give orders,” I said.  “But if you could, that’d be great.”

“It is as you say.”  Jun nodded, and ran inside the building.  Thirty seconds later, sparks flew out of the front door, and he ran out, followed by a plume of smoke.

Scholars, you work fast, grandpa,” said Wes.

Flames licked the wooden wall behind Jun.  He beamed.  “With practice and self-kindness, anything is possible.”

“Will the Green Hands even bother?” said Wes.  “If I saw one of their buildings burning down, I’d probably just crack open some crisps and watch the fireworks.”

“Normally, they wouldn’t,” I said.  “But if they want to stay stealthy, they can’t let the whole base burn down.  So we wait.”

We crouched under a wooden staircase, staring out between the gaps on the steps.  Within minutes, smoke filled the air, and I could feel the heat on my face.  Our gas masks kept us safe from the worst of the smoke.

The enemy sent seven men and women to investigate, with a short-range radio and shotguns.  One of them wore a pork pie hat and a coat.  A mobster.  Maybe a projector, too.

I felt their Piths as they approached the alleyway, and before they turned the corner, I threw illusions over them, making the three of us invisible and silent.

The projector slammed the concrete, ripping a pipe out of the ground.  Water shot out of it, washing over the flames inside.

Once they’d put out the flames, I shifted my illusions, making a fake version of their CO, mimicking his face and voice, erasing the real one by the zeppelin.

Follow me, all of you!” he shouted.  “New assignment!  Two single file lines!

“Disable the radio,” I whispered to Jun.  I would fake that too.

The Green Hands looked confused, but they didn’t ask questions.  And when they’d just seen their commander two minutes ago, they didn’t bother asking for more passwords.

My illusion-commander set off running.  The Green Hands and the mobster followed it, forming two lines of people.

Then, the three of us ran alongside them, on their right.  The jogging Green hands formed human shields between us and the crowd by the zeppelin, blocking us from their view.

Now, we could run to the radio building without being seen.

My illusion led the dozen Green Hands into the building, then held up a hand.  “This is the radio building, yes?

The mobster nodded, raising an eyebrow.

“The radios are upstairs, I think,” said Jun.

I need you to – “  I had to keep them busy with something.  “Gather all the scrap metal and wood you can from the first floor.  Put them in a pile here and meet here in five minutes.”  Commonplace had weird plans, right?  This could be plausible.

Sure enough, the Green Hands spread out to follow my order, none of them asking any questions.  And the three of us jogged up a staircase to the second floor.

Three more Green Hands sat inside the radio room on the second floor.  I threw more illusions over them, making ourselves invisible and creating the CO again.

As my illusion stepped in, the three radio operators stood up.

At ease,” the illusion said.  “I want to ask you something before we get under way.

“Of course, sir.”

We can listen in on the Principality’s radio channels from here, right?  Does that mean we can also send them misinformation?

The woman gave me a confused look.  “Sir, I thought you just explained this to me an hour ago.”

Fuck.  Hopefully, she didn’t know much about the Blue Charlatan.  “Explain it back to me.

The woman pointed out the window, at the rest of the naval base.  “We’re here because it’s a good vantage point.  These machines are useless.  The guys in Paragon up top have a projector, some physical specialist called Radio Man.  He’s controlling all the radio signals in and out of the city, and a ways beyond.”

“Oh,” said Wes.  “Dear.”

They thought of everything.  We wouldn’t be able to call for reinforcements.  The entire city had been silenced.

My stomach and chest tightened again.  Sweat collected under my armpits, and I closed my eyes, forcing myself to take slow, deep breaths.

Wading into a massive battle had always been a frightening prospect.  But now, we had to fight everyone.  Nobody was coming to rescue us.

I imagined the painting, the red-haired body that Hira had drawn for me.  What Paragon’s mulled cider might taste like.

They were shrinking in the distance.

Most caterpillars die in the cocoon.  What about a beetle?

But none of that mattered now.  We had only one way out, now.

“Let’s get to Paragon,” I said.  “We have to take out the Radio Man.”

Wes unflattened three syringes of tranquilizer, and injected them into the operators’ necks, one by one.  Then, we projected into their dark green shirts and pants, stripping them and throwing them on over our own.  They weren’t proper uniforms, but they’d help us blend in, as long as no one looked too closely at our hands.  We took their rifles too.

I stretched my Pith out and threw illusions over the Green Hands downstairs, the ones now gathered at the front with scrap metal.  I made us invisible and created my fake CO again, having him jog down the stairs in our place.

Sort this into heavy and light for the next two minutes, then get on the blimps,” he said.  “Others will take care of the rest.”  I had my illusion run out the door, to meet up with the real version.

The Green Hands looked, if anything, even more confused, but they did as they were told.

Two minutes later, they jogged out the front door, and this time, we jogged right after them, taking up positions at the back of the line, blending in with the troupe of Green Hands.

When we got to the blimp, the engines had started up.  Everyone had loaded onto it already, and the commanding officer I’d impersonated stood at the on-ramp, impatient.  I maintained my illusions over the group, editing out his voice and movements.

“Where the fuck have you been?” he said through gritted teeth.  “Get on the blimp.”  He held up a notebook, checking Green Hands’ names off a list, muttering passwords with them.  We won’t be on there.

As we approached, and I got in range, I made a loud clang behind him, making him look back.

By the time he looked forward again, I had erased the three of us from his vision, letting us clamber on without going through their full security, codes and all.

We jogged up the ramp, and slipped past the CO, just before he slammed the door shut.

Inside the zeppelin, the dark walls closed in on us, cramped, with almost no windows, lit only by dim lights overhead.  The Green Hands pushed forward ahead of us, up a flight of stairs and past a control room.

“Should we take the controls?” whispered Wes.

No point,” I said with illusions.  “There are no real guns on this ship.”  None that would work in Paragon.  “And we’re headed to the same place anyway.

“Let’s find somewhere to talk,” whispered Jun.  “This way.”  He turned right, splitting off from the main group of Green Hands.  He unlocked a metal door with projection and stepped in.

We followed him, pushing through into an even tighter space, a long, narrow room deep within the confines of the zeppelin.  This one was even darker, with no lights inside.

People filled this room too, but in the darkness, it took a minute to make out their features.  They’re servants.  Not Green Hands.  Men and women who mopped the floors in Paragon, cleaned the bathrooms, cooked the food and kept the lights on.

I recognized one of them.  Hyman Northwood.  They weren’t all just fakes.  Some of them were real.  Did Commonplace steal their bodies?

Then I saw the blood pouring from their ears, and choked.

They’ve been Nudged,” I said through illusions.  “And –

“They’ve had their eardrums stabbed,” said Wes.  “To prevent them from hearing anything that might free them.”  He clenched his teeth.  “It’s the same trick I used on you back in Commonplace’s civilian HQ, with toothpicks.  To prevent you from getting Nudged again.”

Feels like a lifetime ago.  But Commonplace had remembered.  And they’d copied our gambit.

The blimp jerked, taking off into the sky.

“What are the orders?” said Jun.  “Maybe we can free them.”

“Not with their ears like this,” I said.

“But,” he said, “if we – “

“Yes!”  Wes’ eyes lit up.  He looked at me.  “Make sure nobody comes in.”

I nodded, pressing myself against the door to keep watch.

In the corner of my eye, Wes placed his palm against one of the servants’ foreheads.  Green and white lightning crackled around the point of contact, as their Piths streamed through their bodies, swapping places.

A woman walked down the hallway, past the door, and I projected around her Pith, throwing an illusion to hide us and the electricity.

The lightning faded.  Wes stood in the deaf servant’s body, and the Nudged servant stood in Wes’ brown-haired chassis, now able to hear.

I Nudged the servant.  “I release you from all commands and Nudges,” I said.

The man gasped, leaning over and taking sharp, wheezing breaths.

“Hey,” I said.  “I know you’re scared right now, but I need you to tell me what they commanded you to do.”

“I don’t remember,” he said, in Wes’ voice.  “I don’t remember.”  He started shaking.

Nudging plus memory wipes.  Standard Nudge terrorism.

“I’ll keep watching the door,” I said.  “We don’t have a lot of time, but Wes, Jun – “

“Already on it,” said Jun, placing his wrinkled palm on another servant’s forehead.  Wes started swapping with the first man.

The two of them spent the rest of the trip doing as many swaps as possible, freeing men and women from the Nudges.  The freed servants gathered near the door, staying quiet.

After a few minutes, the zeppelin jerked again, and Green Hands started running around in the hallway.  “It’s time,” I said.

Jun and Wes stopped, transferring back into their own bodies.  They’d barely freed a third of the people here.  Wes grabbed a backpack off the wall, flattened it with his Vocation, and stuffed it in between two sheets of paper in his briefcase.

When I strained my ears, I could hear gunshots, echoing in the distance.

I squinted through the window on the door.  Green Hands and mobsters rushed through the hallway outside, hefting shotguns and rifles.  A packed stream, hundreds and hundreds, all crammed into the blimp, somehow.

They couldn’t all have Voidsteel, but only about half the students would have ABDs.

They ran past, ignoring us.  After a few minutes, the stream of people dried up, the zeppelin empty.  And a mobster strode towards our room.  I threw illusions over him, making us invisible, and making it look like we hadn’t freed anyone.

The mobster opened the door, stepped in, and pulled a flashlight out of his pocket.  That’s what they’re using to signal their Nudged victims.

Break it,” I said to Jun.

Jun raised his hand.  The mobster pressed the button, and the flashlight didn’t come on.

I closed the door behind him.  “Silence it.

Jun shot me a regretful look, and nodded.  “It is as you say.”  He projected into the walls and door, making them absorb sound.

I raised my machine pistol.  The barrel almost touched the mobster’s scalp, close enough to bypass his ABD without Voidsteel.

Then I shot the mobster in the back of the head.  The sound of the suppressed gunshot echoed around the room, but didn’t leave.

The man’s corpse slammed to the metal floor with a splatter of blood.  One of the servants retched, turning away from us.

Hira’s electricity had been our best nonlethal technique.  Without her, we had to make do.  And we only had a few syringes of tranquilizer with us – we had to save them.

Don’t look at his corpse.  I didn’t have time to worry about him, to reflect or feel regret.

I suppressed the wave of guilt, forcing myself to think forward.

Hey,” I spoke to all the men and women we’d freed.  “I need you to lead the Nudged people to one of the dorms.  Whichever one is closest when we exit.  They’re the smaller buildings near the edges of the complex.

One of the women walked forward, her covered in sweat.  “Why?”

You can’t stay on the blimp, and you probably want to avoid the fighting.  The others here haven’t been signaled with a flashlight yet, so they might not be forced to do much.

“No, I mean, why should we trust you?”

Oh,”  I switched to my normal voice.  “I’m not sure.”

“We could have Nudged you,” said Wes.  “But we didn’t.”  He stared at the floor.  “And I used to be a student here.”  He tapped his fingers on his leg.  “The chef on Tuesdays always burns the scones.  There’s a red stain in the corner of the banquet hall that won’t ever come out, and everyone jokes that it’s blood.  And none of the students ever say thank you.  The stuck-up assholes somehow find a way to look past you, like you’re just some machine built for their convenience.”

Everyone stared at him.

“So yeah,” he said.  “Sorry.  I know that’s not enough, but I’m saying it anyway.  And good luck.”

The freed servants jogged ahead of us, followed by shuffling men and women who hadn’t been freed from the Nudges.

A minute later, we ran out of the room, through the empty metal hallways and out of the zeppelin, still dressed like Green Hands.  As we clambered down the ramp, a different Green Hands strode back up, past us.  She shut the door, and the zeppelin took off, back towards Bartolet Naval Base.  Picking up more troops.

I stepped onto Paragon Academy, and stared forward.

The three of us stood on Paragon’s grassy pavilion, where all the squad battles took place, and where students hung out and studied during the day.

Lampago and Basilisk Squads lay on the field, bleeding and covered in bullet holes.  I recognized Adam Lynde.  The boy who’d attacked Hira’s house with the Guardians.  Who I’d helped sabotage for Lorne.

His eyes were wide open, staring at the sky.

Wes choked, and clenched his fists, clutching his briefcase until his hand shook.

Two squads down already.  And they’d barely made a scratch on Commonplace’s forces.  Paragon didn’t have a lot of students.

Ahead of us, the lines of Green Hands had moved on, over the wooden bridge connecting the grassy field, and towards the next island in the academy.  A towering cluster of white marble spires and columns on the largest chunk of rock, where the majority of classes took place.

We ran to follow them, past the bodies of the students I’d watched, looked up to, sabotaged.  We didn’t have the time to look back.  Our shoes clunked on the wood of the bridge.  The thick stench of smoke grew in the air, as I took deep, gasping breaths, my chest and legs aching.  The decay has done its work.

We ran after the cluster of Green Hands, slamming through a tall pair of double doors into the main classroom building.

I stepped into a hallway, and a wave of orange fire blasted towards us.

Jun projected below and ripped out wooden floorboards to serve as a shield.  It deflected most of the flames.  A tongue of flame slipped through the cracks and lashed my cheek, searing the skin.

I cried out in pain, and we sprinted towards a side hallway with some cover, as another fireball shot towards us.  The Green Hands were already there.  A pair of them leaned out, taking potshots at the Paragon students shooting the flames, and another pair sprinted forward, taking cover in a classroom further up.

None of them looked at us.  They think we’re Green Hands too.

“Who are we up against?” shouted Wes at one of the Green Hands.  I threw on illusions to replace his briefcase with a rifle, alter our faces so we wouldn’t look like the criminals in the newspaper.

“Just students, here!” shouted the Green Hands.  He flinched as a fireball curved around the corner, slamming onto the wall above him.  “Most of the real Guardians are gone!  But these are still a bitch to deal with.”

The students are still holding on.  They’d been trained well.

As I thought this, a throng of servants sprinted down our hallway, screaming.  They fled from us, running towards the students, hands stretched in the air, nonviolent.  I watched them run through a reflection in a window.

A Green Hands leaned out and shot one of them in the back.  The bullet ripped through the janitor’s stomach, sending out a spray of blood, and the man collapsed.

The Paragon students let them pass.  Why wouldn’t they?  The servants were nonviolent civilians, and the students were used to looking past them.

So of course they wouldn’t notice the bloodstains around the servants’ ears.

The servants rushed over the students’ makeshift barricade.

Once they got behind them, the servants pulled kitchen knives from their pockets and stabbed the students in their backs.

“Stop!” shouted a boy, probably Nudging them.  “Stop!”  But with their ears stabbed out, the servants couldn’t hear him.

“Now!” barked the Green Hands we’d talked to.

Before I could react, all the Green Hands charged forward, aiming their guns at the distracted students.

The guns!” I shouted at Jun with illusions.

The Green Hands pulled the triggers, but nothing happened.  Their rifles and shotguns had been jammed.  I threw an illusion over them, making it look like their guns were working.

Then, Wes flicked open his briefcase, and a storm of paper exploded from within.  It rushed over the enemies, slicing at their hands and faces and legs.  Jun projected into their shoes, making them trip.

The three of us slid on gas masks, and Jun tossed out a knockout gas grenade.  Within seconds, the Green Hands were unconscious, lying still on the wood floor.

We sprinted forward through the white gas.  But by the time we got to the barricade, the students were all dead, or unconscious, bleeding out of dozens of stab wounds.  The servants had scattered, running off in different directions, searching for their next targets.

“No!” shouted Wes.  He punched the wall.  “Fuck!”  He raised his fist again, and Jun put a hand on his shoulder, stopping him.

I stared at the students’ faces.  Like the others, their eyes were wide, unblinking.  When I stretched out to feel their Piths, I could feel their souls dispersing.  Fading.

I recognized some of their faces.  Patricia Talmythe, of Sphinx Squad.  Emily Hewes, who’d given me her tactics notes when I’d fallen asleep at a lecture.  Now they were dead too, soaked with blood and a thin layer of dust from an explosion.

Wes clenched his fists, staring at them with me.  This was his home, too.  More than mine.  “Come on,” he said.  “Let’s go fuck some people up.”

We charged through the classroom building, down narrow hallways and past empty lecture rooms, chasing after squads of Green Hands with our disguises.  Every step sent new aches throughout my body.

We worked in smooth, effortless unison.  Wes used his paper to attack from all angles.  I used my illusions to make the shooters turn on each other, filling their allies with bullets.  And Jun tossed his knockout gas grenades, until he ran out, and had to sit back, watching our rampage.

We made sure to only attack the weaker groups, the clusters of enemies with less than twenty members each.  We took them out before they could shout for help, jamming their radios to cut them off.  The Humdrums had been equipped with tools to fight projectors – grenade launchers, flamethrowers, with individual mobsters to accompany their groups, who projected into the weapons to keep them from getting jammed.  But those weapons worked on their allies, too.

But as we moved through the buildings, the piles of bodies grew thicker, bathed in the orange light of the setting sun, streaming in through broken windows.  And the throngs of enemies grew bigger, denser, forcing us to hold back some of the time.  So many enemies.  How had they gotten so many up here?

Sunset turned into late evening, and the daylight faded, replaced by cold moonlight and the warm glow of the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.  But we found no leader, no sign of where the enemy might be keeping the Radio Man.

Finally, after an eternity of wandering through the building, we hit the jackpot.  A tall, broad-shouldered man with a longcoat and a fedora over his gas mask, limping down a hallway, his boots squelching in a puddle of blood.  Accompanied by four other projectors, also wearing gas masks.

I glanced at him from behind, then ducked back into the classroom where we were hiding.  “I know him,” I said with illusions.  Gabriel Cunningham.  A mid-level mobster who operated in the southern part of Lowtown near the docks.

And I’d poured wine for him.  On the day Clementine fired me, the day I cut my hair, he’d been one of her guests.  One of the people she’d tried to suck up to.  Show us the full chassis, why don’t you?  His voice rang in my head.

I only had one Voidsteel bullet.  And I wasn’t going to waste it on him.

That’s our ticket,” I said to Wes and Jun.  “Wes, you still have flattened gas grenades, right?

Wes nodded.  And I gave everyone their instructions.

Before the enemies walked out of range, I threw illusions over them and we approached from behind.  Wes tossed out a knockout gas grenade, unflattening it midair.  I made something appear to explode in front of the enemies, with a deafening boom.  At the same time, Wes used pieces of paper to cut the straps on their gas masks and pull them off.

It took them only a second to notice, during which they took several inhales of the knockout gas – which they couldn’t see or smell thanks to my illusions.

The mobsters projected into the masks and slammed them back on their faces, but while they were lightheaded, distracted, I got close, and put my machine pistol to their skulls, one at a time.  I pulled the trigger four separate times, close enough to bypass their ABDs.  Shooting everyone except Cunningham.  The machine pistol kicked back in my hand, the cracks of the gunshots ringing in my ears.

At the same time, I dreamt up elaborate illusions, creating a false Paragon Squad attacking the mobsters from the front, appearing to kill Cunningham’s allies.

Before Cunningham could respond, I created a fake version of Tunnel Vision, blasting away the Paragon students with a wave of Palefire.  Jun pulled out a small flamethrower and shot it next to Cunningham’s cheek, mimicking the heat.

To him, it looked like Tunnel Vision just saved him.

If he wasn’t expecting me, he might see the Palefire Vocation as proof of her identity, that she wasn’t some other Pith inhabiting her body.  Keep it short.

“Ma’am,” Cunningham said.  “Thank you.  Be careful, there’s gas.”

They’re going after the Radio Man,” said my fake Pyre Witch.

“What?”

The Guardians, they’ve figured out where he is, come on.

“Flag-Nine-Seven,” Cunningham said.  The first part of a password.

Hira could have grabbed the other half.  But she’d left us.  Here we go.

I shifted the illusions, making a new group of enemies attack from the side.  The illusion-Tunnel Vision charged at them, driving them away from Cunningham.  “Go!” she shouted.  “Get to the Radio Man!

Gabriel Cunningham glanced behind him, to make sure he wasn’t being followed, and ran the other direction.  Now we just have to follow him.

The three of us sprinted after him.  In seconds, I found myself wheezing for breath.  I pumped my arms, chest rising and falling, sweat soaking into my thin blue armor, shivering, numbness spreading over my skin.

He’s wearing a combat chassis.  Which made him stronger than Jun, an old man, or me, in my withering chassis.  We won’t be able to keep this up for long.

As we ran through the hallways, we passed more battles.  Mobsters and Green Hands fighting squads of students, blasting fire and ice and lightning at each other, making the ground shake.  A full Guardian stood in the center, a man decked out in full armor, tearing through Humdrums like damp tissue paper, before a stray Voidsteel bullet blew through his skull.

Cunningham didn’t stop for any of them.  He kept running, eyes forward.

My lungs burned, and my stomach ached.  My legs shook from the exertion as they thudded on the wood floor, and I wobbled back and forth, dizzy.  But I kept going, running just fast enough to keep Cunningham in range of my illusions.

The gunshots and explosions made my ears ring, made my head ache.  I still flinched every time I heard a loud noise.  But the quiet parts were worse.  When we passed the battles that Commonplace had already won, filled with the bodies of servants and students, more and more, until the building resembled the floor of a slaughterhouse.

As we ran, Wes closed his eyes, his shoulders shaking.

Gabriel Cunningham burst out of a pair of double doors, into the night air.  He unfurled a wingsuit from beneath his suit, and leapt off the edge of the island, soaring into the air.

The three of us screeched to a halt  Jun hacked and coughed, his grey beard soaked with sweat.

None of us could fly.  But the moons shone overhead, reflecting off Cunningham’s bright hair.  I could see where he was headed.  A tall, rectangular structure surrounded by pale columns.  The Banquet Hall.  Across two more bridges.  He smashed into a window near the top of the building and vanished inside.

We ran across the wooden bridge, towards the next island, and a pair of figures shot down from above.

One of them grabbed me and Wes by our shirts and slammed us down, crashing through the wooden planks on the bridge.  My stomach dropped and my limbs flailed in the air, wind whipping around me.

Before I could react, ropes shot at me from every direction, binding my limbs, yanking me to a halt over a thousand-foot fall.  They bound Wes and Jun too, and wrapped over my mouth, muffling my shouts.

A figure with a helmet landed on top of me, and held a pitch-black rapier to my throat.

My eyes widened.  The Obsidian Foil?

“Blue Charlatan?” he said.  “Queen Sulphur?”

I layered illusions over his vision, spelling out ‘yes’.  Then I said it with auditory illusions, and gave him the scent of raspberries.  Confirming my identity with my Vocation.

Professor Oakes, the Obsidian Foil, flipped up his helmet.  Next to him, his wife, Penny Oakes hovered above Wes.

“Allies are most welcome,” said Oakes, lowering his deep voice.  “But what in the Scholars’ name are you doing here?”

“Professor!” said Wes.  “You’re still alive.”  He sounded surprised.

The three of us proceeded to explain the basics of how we’d gotten here – and what we knew about the enemy’s operation.

“So,” I said.  “We think that the projector called Radio Man is stopping anyone from calling for help.  We have to take him out.”

“That’s a good thought,” said Penny Oakes.  “But we can’t help you.”

“Why?” said Wes.  He raised his voice.  “I didn’t see you fighting anywhere.  Do you know how many of your students are dying up there?”

The Obsidian Foil closed his eyes, clenching his teeth.  “They need our help,” he said.  “But we’ve been ordered to a different task.  I cannot say more.”

“So that’s it?” said Wes.  “You’re just what, hiding?  Ambushing people on a bridge?  Leaving everyone to bleed out?  Are there any Scholar-ranked Guardians here besides you?“

“I’m sorry,” growled the Obsidian Foil.  “I cannot say more.”

“But you can spread this message to the other students:” said Penny Oakes.  “They need to stay inside Paragon.  The enemy isn’t trying to kill students, they’re going after the library.”

The Great Library.  Of course that was their target.  With the Vocation Codices in there, who knew what kind of damage Tunnel Vision could do?  And Parliament was locked in there, too.

“If students go to the dorms, they won’t be attacked,” said Penny.  “But if they try to fly away, the Shenti sniper, Pictogram, will shoot them out of the sky.”

“You are strong, Queen Sulphur,” said Professor Oakes.  “You can overcome the enemy.  Defeat the Radio Man.  Call for help.  Then hide, and wait for reinforcements.  Keep each other and the students safe.”

He raised his hand, and the ropes yanked us upward, tossing us back onto the bridge, on our feet.

Oakes’ voice rang out around us.  “Good luck.

Then they were gone, vanished, with only a hole in the bridge to indicate they’d ever been here.  Whatever their secret mission is, I hope the payoff is worth it.  Something worth sacrificing countless students for.

“Cowards,” muttered Wes.  “There are piles of bodies in the hallways.  And he’s leaving all the hard work to us.”

“Come on,” I said.  “The Radio Man is in the banquet hall.”

We ran across the rest of the bridge and over another island, Agate Hall, past a squad of Green Hands guarding the entrance to the dorms.  One more bridge, and we found ourselves on the stone pathway leading up to the banquet hall.

One of the massive front doors had been blown off its hinges, hanging half-open at an angle.  At this distance, I could smell the smoke coming out.  Gunshots and explosions rang out from within, along with shouted orders and cries of pain.

A group of Green Hands rushed past us, streaming into the building.  “Be patient,” I said.  “Don’t attack right away.  Inside, we’ll be outgunned.

The three of us jogged forward, through the doors and into the entrance room.

This way.”  I led Wes and Jun down a side passage, through a trio of locked doors and down a staircase.  We emerged at a small metal portcullis on the side of the banquet hall, the place where Grey Coats had been cordoned during the opening feast.

I squinted through the metal bars, shivering, and watched the battle within.

A hundred feet up, the glass roof had been shattered in a dozen places, opening up to the starless night sky.  The shards were scattered all over the overturned tables, the ripped blue tablecloths and broken porcelain.  Food had been splattered everywhere – scones, grapes, roast lamb, all knocked over and smashed on the floor.  In the corner, mulled cider leaked out of a barrel, shot up with bullet holes.  Warm, yellow light still shone from the walls, illuminating the darkness, but it flickered, like a damaged light bulb.

To the right, at the far end of the room, Green Hands with rifles aimed from the raised teacher’s area, using the Headmaster’s carved chair and the balcony as cover.  To the left, by the main entrance, a group of mobsters stood beside a huge metal vehicle, covered in thick armor and treads.

A tank?  How did Commonplace get a tank in here?

Gabriel stood next to the tank, with a tall red-haired woman in a fish leather coat.  Clementine Rawlyn.  Of course she’d be here too.

A muscular man stood behind the tank, wearing thick body armor and a helmet to hide his face.  That has to be the Radio Man.  This wouldn’t be easy.

Who are they all fighting?

A thick dome of water swirled in the center of the room, forming a shield for those inside, absorbing bullets from the Green Hands up top.  I squinted at the figures inside, trying to make out their features.

As I did, Clementine stretched her hand out, lifting a trio of metal tables.  She jabbed her fingers forward, shooting the tables at the barrier.

The dome opened, and Tasia leapt out.  She spun in midair, throwing orbs of blue lightning.  They passed through the tables, forcing Clementine’s Pith out, and the tables fell, inert.

Behind Tasia, Samuel Pakhem shot a metal chain forward at her.  It wrapped around her waist, and yanked her back inside the dome before anyone could shoot at her.  Next to him, I could make out a muscular Shenti girl, and a platinum blonde one with an eyepatch.  Leizu and Eliya.  Leizu’s Voidsteel glaive had been knocked aside, out of the sphere.

Wes froze.  “No.”  His hands shook.  “No.

Chimera Squad was supposed to be at the Agricultural Islands, with Paragon’s fleet and the rest of the Guardians.  Hira’s intel had told us as much.  Why are they here?

And the dome of water looked familiar.  Could that be Naruhiko, in Golem Squad?  Is Lorne here too?

The tank fired, a deafening crack that made me stumble back, clutching my ears.  When the smoke cleared, a metal barrier had been erected behind the watery dome, thick enough to stop the tank round.

One of the figures in the dome touched his palm to the floor.  The wood crumbled around the dome, turning into pitch-black coal dust.  Deon’s Vocation.  Golem Squad was here.

The circle of coal dust spread wider and wider, sucking in wooden tables and chairs and piles of food.

Clementine took a step backwards, and a spark sailed out of the dome.  Oh, shit.

The spark landed on the coal dust.

A deafening boom rang in my ears, and a wave of fire and dust blasted out in every direction.  It crashed into me, slamming me onto the floor.

When I regained my senses, fires crackled in a dozen different locations, licking up the walls and swallowing up wooden tables.  The smoke drifted towards us, making my eyes sting.

Deon was burning down the banquet hall.

Inside, dozens of Green Hands lay on the ground, limp, covered in burns, or writhing as they burned.  The others ran away, out of the building.  The tank didn’t move, singed but unharmed.  Neither did the mobsters – Clementine, Cunningham, the Radio Man.  They’d taken cover behind the tank, and had thrown on gas masks for the smoke.

As the flames grew, the Radio Mean leapt on top of the tank, placed his hands together, and jabbed his bare fingers forward.  A dark green beam shot out of them.  A laser.  When did he learn that?

It went straight through the transparent water, aiming at Naruhiko inside.  The Nekean boy dove to the side, but it still sliced at his shoulder, cutting his arm off.

Even through the water, I could hear his screams of pain.

The dome of water crashed down, becoming a wave, spreading in every direction.  It snuffed out most of the fires with a hiss, making a thick cloud of steam, and splashed through the metal door, soaking into my pants.

Ana,” hissed Wes.  “We can’t just sit back and watch.  What do we do?

The tank fired its main gun again, and Lorne swung his hands up, lifting his metal shield.  This time, it tore his barrier to pieces, knocking him back.

One of Golem’s members had already gone missing.  Where’s Matilla Geffray?  Had Commonplace already taken her out?

The tank fired a third time, and Leizu stepped in the way, sinking into a low stance.  The round knocked her back into a pile of tables, making a shower of splinters.

I started drawing instructions over reality, outlining a plan for the other members of Queen Sulphur.

Gabriel Cunningham leapt at the two squads, hefting a massive warhammer over his head.  He’s a Joiner.

Eliya stretched her hand out, and Gabriel Cunningham went limp midair, twitching.  Stunned.  At the same time, Samuel made a slashing motion with his arms, and razor-thin wires whipped through the air, slicing at Cunningham’s limbs.

But the wires didn’t cut through his skin.  He didn’t budge.  A second later, Cunningham regained his senses and ripped open the wires, charging forward.  He swung the hammer at Samuel’s head, and Leizu jumped in the way, blocking it with her bruised arms.  That, too, knocked her back again.

The members of Chimera Squad and Golem Squad stepped forward, covered in sweat and blood and bruises.  Out of breath.  Limping, bleeding, coughing.  Exhausted.

The enemy was focused on them, above all else.

Now,” I said.

The metal door swung open, made silent by Jun’s projection.

And Queen Sulphur moved.

Paper exploded in every direction from Wes’ briefcase, spreading around the edges of the room.  They slashed at the handful of remaining Green Hands, making them cry out in pain and run back, covered in paper cuts.

Jun projected into my uniform and threw me forward, over the wooden railing that I’d sat behind during the opening feast.  I shot towards the tank, and as Clementine turned around, I threw illusions over them all, making us invisible to them.

“Illusions!” shouted Clementine.  “The Blue Charlatan is here!”

But her teammates couldn’t hear her.  I’d already edited out her voice.

Next, I threw an illusion over the Radio Man, making it seem like Leizu was charging at them.  He shot a laser at her, and she dodged it, sprinting close to him.

I layered the Leizu-illusion in front of Clementine, and the Radio Man fired the laser at her.  She dodged, but an instant too late.  The beam cut through her thigh, slicing off her left leg with a sizzle like meat on a frying pan.

Clementine roared in pain and projected into her clothes, flying away.  As she did, Jun ran forward and projected into the tank, clapping his hands together.  The main gun fell off the top, disabled.

Next, I made the Radio Man shoot his laser at Gabriel Cunningham.  It couldn’t slice through his Joining-enhanced skin, but it burned through his clothes, making him stumble and grimace as he held his body together with projection.

Cunningham clenched his teeth, his gaze flitting back to the Radio Man.

While he looked away from Chimera Squad, Tasia threw an orb of lightning through the back of his chest.  He fell to his knees, weakened, his Pith drained of energy.

Leizu, covered in bruises, pushed herself upright and leapt into the air, projecting into her glaive.  It spun through the air and landed in her clenched hand.

As Cunningham got up, Leizu swung the Voidsteel blade at his neck.  It sliced his head off with a splash of blood, and his body went limp.

Lorne flew up, projecting into his body armor, and landed on the disabled tank while the Radio Man couldn’t see him.

“No!” shouted Jun.  “They’re harmless!”

Lorne placed his bare palm on the metal, and the entire tank turned a bright orange, melting into a ball of liquid steel.  The Humdrum tank operators screamed from inside for a split second before the steel muffled their voices.

Scholars.  Lorne had no sense of restraint.

He backflipped off the sphere of metal and jabbed his finger to the side.  The liquid metal shot forward with the force of a water cannon, blasting a hole in the side of the banquet hall, revealing the nearest bridge, filled with Commonplace soldiers rushing towards us.

Lorne fired again, and the beam of molten steel tore through the wooden supports on the bridge.  It crumbled beneath the Green Hands, and they fell into the air, crying out as they tumbled into the clouds.  Part of the metal cooled and became a cable, wrapping around one man and stopping his fall.

While I was distracted, the Radio Man projected into his armor, soaring into the air.  In less than a second, he’d flown to the broken ceiling, out of my range.

He shot a laser at Lorne from above, and Lorne lifted his hand, forming a shield with the molten steel, blocking it.

Then Lorne jabbed a clawed hand upwards, and hit the Radio Man head-on with a beam of metal.

That’s why Lorne ignored him at first.  Lorne’s Vocation worked better at range, so he’d let the Radio Man fly away first.

The liquid crashed into the Radio Man, and he dropped out of the sky.  He smashed into a table, smoke rising off his armor.

Before anyone could speak, Lorne projected into Radio Man’s helmet, tore it off, and shot another jet of metal at his head.

When the smoke cleared, the Radio Man’s head was a puddle of ashes and red-hot steel.  Always confirm the kill.  Jun gagged, and even Wes looked uncomfortable.  Lorne stared at his handiwork, hair soaked in sweat, taking deep, ragged breaths.

“Ernest,” he said.  “You have a funny sense of timing.  Hoping to earn some favor with a rescue?”  He flicked his hand, and the cable in the distance yanked the Green Hands onto the stone steps by the hall’s entrance.  Naruhiko flew towards him, blood trickling out of the stump where his arm had been, and transferred his soul into the uninjured body, green lightning crackling around him.

“I’m here for me,” I said.  “And Wes.  And the students.  Not you.”  You selfish prick.  But I couldn’t dwell on that.

Wes stared at Chimera Squad.  Leizu, Eliya, Samuel, and Tasia stared back.  “Why – “ he said.  “Why aren’t you with the fleet?”

“Why the fuck are you spying on us?” said Lorne.  “We got new orders at the last minute.  All students are to stay behind at Paragon.  Didn’t tell us why.”

Then Leizu ran forward and threw her bloody arms around Wes, hugging him.  Eliya followed a second after.

Samuel didn’t move, uncertain.  And Tasia took a step back.

“Jun,” I said.  “Can you check – “

“Already on it,” he said, assembling a contraption from the Green Hands’ abandoned radio and bits of scrap metal lying around the room.  A long-range radio.  “Mr. Daventry,” he said.  “An antenna would be most welcome.”

“An eastern dog and a terrorist,” Lorne said.  “I’m surprised you brought him here.”

“I’m surprised I haven’t chopped your nipples off already, Daventry,” said Wes.  “But here we are.  We need to call for reinforcements.  You want to help or you want to whine?”

Lorne clenched his teeth, and shaped the molten metal, forming a long, thin antenna.  Jun projected into it, ignoring Lorne’s comments, and finished assembling the radio.  He leaned close, fiddling with the controls.  “We’ve got signal,” he said.  Then we did just kill the real Radio Man.

“Lorne,” I said.  “We need the frequency.  To call the Principality’s fleet.  It’s not just the attack here.  We think they might be going after a silo of long-range missiles tipped with Voidsteel, to destroy the fleet when it returns.”

“What?” he said.  “You didn’t already steal the code with your Ilaquan freak?  Where is he, by the way?”

We don’t have time for his petty bullying.  “Lorne,” I said.  “The frequency.”

Lorne’s eyes flitted between us, no doubt trying to find the scenarios where we were tricking him.  Finally, he stepped forward and grabbed the radio, twisting the dials to the right frequency.  We’re on the same side.  For now.

He knelt close, speaking into the microphone.  “Code Nine-One-Seven Black.  Paragon under attack by a large force of Humdrums and Projectors from Commonplace.  Full numbers and strength, unknown.  Long-Range missile silos may also be a target.  Send help at once.”

No response came out.  Long-range messaging could be difficult.  Jun pressed a button on the side of his radio, and Lorne’s message repeated, sending out on a loop.  Then we hid the radio, behind a large pile of rubble, positioned so others wouldn’t find or see it.  So it could keep sending out the message, again and again.

Lorne tore apart the other bridges, preventing Humdrums from crossing onto the island.  And for a moment, we paused, watching the burning ruins of what had been Paragon’s Banquet Hall.

“Now,” said Jun.  “We can sit tight, get cover, and wait for the Guardians to come home.”

Eliya nodded, sitting down and slouching on the stone steps in front of the banquet hall.

“No,” said Wes.  “That’s what The Obsidian Foil and his wife are doing. We can’t sit on our hands.  Our classmates are dying.  ”

Ex-classmates,” said Lorne.

“The Pyre Witch and Steel Violet are out there,” said Jun.  “Pictogram might already know our location.  And enemies keep streaming in by the hundreds.  I’d like to help too, but I’m not sure we can do much in the open.  The students’ deaths may be inevitable, for those who fight instead of fleeing.”

“If Pictogram can see us,” coughed Leizu.  “Then he might be able to see the radio too.  And we should defend it to make sure the signal gets out.”

“Wes is right,” I said.  “We can’t stay here.  We need to get to the Great Library.”

“The library?” said Wes.  “I don’t even know if there are any students there.  Given that this was a surprise attack, there are probably almost none.”

“But Parliament is there,” I said.  “All of Parliament.”

My words sunk in.  Wes’ face fell.  Parliament had been taken here for their safety after the riots.  And that has to be part of their plan.  Killing them wouldn’t seize the country for Commonplace.  But there had to be something more there.

“The enemy is already there,” I said.  “Whatever they’re planning with Parliament, with the high-level codices there, they’re doing it now.”

“The librarians are there,” said Lorne.  “There’ll be Guardians, too.  Most of the ones left in the academy.  It’s the most secure building in the country.”

“You know all that,” I said.  “You think the Pyre Witch doesn’t?  You think Maxine Clive just forgot?”  I looked at the rest of Queen Sulphur, then the Paragon students.  “Paragon’s fleet is days away.  The reinforcements won’t get here in time.”  And the Obsidian Foil and Penny Oakes were on their special mission – they wouldn’t be able to help.

Tasia stepped forward, glancing at me out of the corner of her eye.  “I agree with Ern – Anabelle.  I’ve been to the upper levels of the library.  They aren’t strong enough to hold back the Pyre Witch.  Not for long.”

I glanced back at Tasia, and we made eye contact for a second.  Does she still trust me?  Does she think I’m a monster, a fraud?  Does she regret the time we spent together?

“Thanks, Tasia,” I said.

Then I smiled at her.  I couldn’t help myself.  I’d thought I’d never see her again.  And this might be the last time.  I had to appreciate it.

Tasia didn’t smile back, but she nodded, making the slightest movement of her head.  That’s enough.  For now, that was enough.

“So,” I said.  “I’m going to the library.”

“I’m not sure it’ll be enough, Ana,” said Jun.  “If our enemies are that strong.”

“It probably won’t be,” I said.  “But I’m going anyway.  Who wants to join me?”

“I will,” said Wes, stepping forward.  Jun stepped next to him.  I wish Hira was here.

Then Tasia nodded again, along with Eliya and Leizu, though Eliya still glared at me with her one good eye.

“Fine,” said Lorne.  “Even with us, we’ll probably still die.  But better to go down kicking.“  He touched the cooled blob of metal that used to be the tank, and it floated up next to him.  Then he sprinted forward.  “The fuck are you waiting for?” he shouted.

We ran after him, towards another bridge to one of Paragon’s islands.  Golem Squad, Chimera Squad, and Queen Sulphur.  Working together, even if just for a moment.  On the other side of the bridge, three squads of Green Hands pointed at us, and they raised their weapons at us.  A mobster turned with them, blue lightning crackling around his fists.

Lorne touched his palm to the blob of metal, and it melted into an orange sphere of molten steel, glowing in the darkness.  A second later, he roared, and it shot at the enemies, blasting the mobster back.

The survivors dove for cover behind rocks before they could fire a single bullet at us.  Those lasted another few seconds, before the sheer force and heat of the metal tore the stone apart, and knocked them onto their backs.

They were dead before they hit the ground.  The molten metal sizzled on the grass, burning it, smoke rising off the enemies’ blackened corpses.

We ran over the island, and Lorne lifted his hands, coalescing the metal into a sphere again.  He whipped his hand to the side, and it curved around the edge of a classroom building, striking something out of sight.  A man and a woman screamed where they’d made contact.

Other than the roar, Lorne’s expression betrayed nothing.  No thought for the souls he’d just taken, the Piths he’d burned away for an eternity.  He kept jogging forward, even as Wes and Tasia stared at him with horror, as Eliya glared at him with barely disguised loathing.

This is the boy I worked for.  The boy I’d spent months trying to please.  I’d been his loyal dog, I’d downplayed the worst aspects of his personality.  But this was always who he’d been.  Always.

Naruhiko raised his hand, and a pipe burst out of the wall, spraying water around him.  He clenched his fists, and it streamed into a sphere around him, ammunition for his Vocation, shining with the moonlight overhead.

We ran across another bridge, and Lorne blasted a group of Green Hands on top of it, incinerating them to a crisp.  Naru swept his hand aside, making a tentacle with his water and knocking another group off the edge.

Then, we arrived at the Great Library.  The largest island of Paragon Academy.  A massive cone of marble and silver, topped with a spire extending into the dark clouds above.

We burst through the front doors into the atrium, past rows of corpses, both Principality soldiers and Green Hands.  They put up a fight.  Some of the soldiers were little more than blackened skeletons.  The Pyre Witch has been here.

Normally, this part of the library would be a security checkpoint, filled with guards, snipers on balconies above, and reinforced voidsteel, with lanterns and chandeliers casting the whole space in warm light.

Here, all the guards were dead.  In their place, a trio of mobsters stood with a squad of Green Hands, aiming their guns at us.  Almost all the lanterns had gone out, leaving the atrium in dim light.

The Green Hands opened fire.  Lorne floated his molten orb in front of us, cooling and expanding it into a sheet of metal.  Even if those bullets were Voidsteel, they wouldn’t puncture the metal.

At the same time, Leizu leapt high in the air and dropped down on the enemy mobsters from above.  They raised their hands to blast projectiles at her, but Eliya jabbed her hands forward, and for an instant, they froze, stunned.

Leizu landed among them, and her arms and legs moved in a blur, jabbing and kicking in rapid succession.  In three seconds, the mobsters were out cold.

Then Naru shot a wave over the top of Lorne’s shield, knocking back the Green Hands.  Lorne turned the metal back into molten liquid, and blasted it at them.  The Green Hands screamed, with a hot sizzling noise echoing from the far side of the shield.

And then, silence.

Naruhiko gathered his water again, with even greater ease than last time.  His Physical Vocation gave him more and more control over a volume of water, as long as he kept projecting into it.

We walked through the long, dark marble hallway towards the bottom level of the library.  The waterfalls on the walls were broken, or turned off.  There are supposed to be ten high-level Guardians here at all times.  Disguised as guards.  That was the rumor, at least.

The door in front had been pushed open, letting in artificial sunlight.  We raced forward.  Wes with his paper, Lorne with his metal, Naruhiko with his water, and the rest of us, scanning the space around.  All of us ready for the fight of our lives.

And the library was empty.

The tall, circular walls extended above us, with balconies and filigree staircases overlooking the narrow sun crystal in the center of the room.  And not a single soul stood among them.  No Green Hands, no mobsters, no enemies.  Not even any corpses.

Dead silence filled Level Zero of the Principality’s Great Library.

“Are they hiding?” said Jun.  “Maybe they’re hiding.”

“I sense no Piths on this level,” said Eliya.

I gazed at the mural high above on the ceiling of the chamber, separating us from level one of the library.  Depicting the greatest moments in the Principality’s history, and the face of Darius the Philosopher.

A scroll painted near the edge inscribed Paragon’s guiding words.  Forge the Stars in Your Image.

I’d been so awed the first time I’d seen that.  How much of that is true, though?  Paragon didn’t expect star-forging from someone like me.

The ceiling cracked.  Fissures spiderwebbed out from a single point on Darius’ face.

“Hey!” I shouted.  “Above!”

The ceiling collapsed.  Chunks of marble rained down around us, crashing into bookshelves and staircases and chandeliers.

And Tunnel Vision dropped down with them.  Her suit jacket and skirt flapped with her long ponytail, over a layer of thin black body armor.

“Naru!” shouted Lorne.

Naruhiko whipped his arms above his head, forming a shield with his water.

Tunnel Vision pushed her palms forward, and a flash of white light lit up the towering room.  A wave of heat seared my face, and steam blasted around us.

Even with his strength, Naruhiko’s water had evaporated in a single attack.  “Back!” shouted Lorne, replacing the watery shield with one made of molten metal.

We sprinted back the way we came, through the narrow hallway as rubble fell around us, and the Pyre Witch shot down at us.  Lorne took up the rear, covering the hallway with a wall of metal, warding off blasts of palefire.  Green lightning flickered around him, and he clenched his teeth from the effort.

We emerged into the atrium, and the Pyre Witch flew through a crack in the wall, blasting palefire at us from another angle.  Lorne blocked most of it, and Leizu stepped in front of Eliya, protecting her from the bits that got around.

All of us attacked in unison.

Wes shot a storm of paper at Tunnel Vision, with several flattened explosives.  Lorne turned his metal back into liquid and blasted it at her, a beam of molten steel powerful enough to knock her out of the sky.  Tasia turned her orbs into a ring of lightning, and threw them at her sides, blocking her escape.  Samuel slashed his hands forward, whipping his razor-thin cables at her.  And Deon turned the wooden security checkpoint into coal dust, shooting it at her.

Since she floated out of my Vocation range, I aimed my machine pistol and shot at her, my withered hands shaking.  She’d have an ABD, but maybe deflecting my rounds would spend more of her Pith’s energy.

I only have one proper bullet for you, Pyre Witch.  One Voidsteel round.  And I’m going to spend it when you’re least expecting it.

But the Pyre Witch stood in a league of her own.

She jabbed her fingers down, and a flash of palefire exploded from her hands.  The paper burned to a crisp.  The coal dust ignited before it got closer to her, and exploded, blasting aside Lorne’s beam of metal and Samuel’s wires.  And Tasia’s energy-drain ring flew past her.  My bullets, of course, did nothing.

Tunnel Vision didn’t even need to dodge.  She’d crushed our attack with an afterthought.

Then, she clenched her fist.  The spread-out wisps of fire from Deon’s coal explosion turned into lances of palefire, striking us from all angles.

This time, the tongues of white flame curved around Lorne’s clumsy barrier, striking us from the sides, rather than above.

Tasia moved to respond, forming a sphere of blue and purple lightning around us, pushing out the Pyre Witch’s soul.

That stopped her from projecting next to us.  But it didn’t stop much of the fire.  It washed over the people closest to the edges, filling my eyes with white light.  Leizu, her hair singed, clothes burnt to a crisp, still blocking Eliya from the worst of the flames with her Joined body.

Naruhiko had surrounded himself with watery armor.  His skin hissed, the last of his water evaporated, and he collapsed, unconscious, covered in red and white burns.  He’ll live, if he gets a replacement in time.

“Move!” barked Lorne.  He widened his shield, and the rest of us ran towards the exits.  “Leave him!”

At first glance, it seemed callous.  But he was protecting his Nekean squadmate.  If we keep the fight away from Naru, he’ll be safer.  He didn’t have any serious injuries.

We burst out of the library’s front doors and ran across the bridge, blasts of palefire following us.  We didn’t even bother counterattacking.

Lorne and Tasia took up the rear, defending with their Vocations, but it wasn’t enough.  On the bridge and the next island, Leizu took two more full blasts of palefire to protect Eliya, and collapsed, red lightning flickering around her burnt skin.  Her Joining spent.

On the next bridge, Eliya took half of a blast, and collapsed too, motionless.  My shins ached as my feed thudded on the wood.  My chest burned, as I gasped for air, coughing in between breaths.  It felt like I’d become a corpse, and my Pith was some strange puppeteer, forcing my limbs to move and run no matter how tired they felt.

I glanced at Jun.  Even he looked better than me, pumping his arms in his father’s grey-bearded body, barely out of breath.

A spear of palefire shot at Wes’ eyes, and he flinched.  Tasia stepped in front of him, whipping an orb made of lightning, and blocked the attack.  Neither of them acknowledged each other.

Think, idiot, think.  We were just running.  We had to come up with a plan, a gambit, something, or we’d all be barbecued in a few minutes.

Tunnel Vision will never get in range of my illusions, or Tasia’s orbs.  Or a proper attack from Samuel.  All our attacks that had a chance of really affecting her.  And she’d demonstrated that she could beat our long-range attacks with ease.

To the Pyre Witch, we were harmless, a pointless distraction.

My stomach clenched, and a thought cut through all the pain, all the aches.  Wait.  If we were harmless distractions to her, why follow us?  Why was she chasing us if Parliament and the library were the targets?

Do we have something she wants?  Something felt strange.

We arrived at the half-broken bridge connecting to the main lecture building.  Where the Obsidian Foil and Penny Oakes had ambushed us.

Another wave of palefire shot at us from above, and while we looked at that, tentacles of water burst out from the grass below, and touched our bare ankles, slipping between the gaps in our armor.  A chill ran through my veins, and my muscles twitched, clenching and unclenching.  Electricity.

All of us fell to the ground, shaking.  Now that Leizu had been left behind, none of us knew any defensive Joining, even Lorne, who’d studied how to enhance his eyesight.

“You are complicit actors in a vicious system!” she shouted, her voice ringing through the air as all of us twitched and writhed.  “And for this, you shall be punished!”

She lifted a pinky, and a wave of fire washed over Deon, the one lying closest to her.  The flames licked over his school uniform, burning everything below his neck.

Deon’s skin sizzled, and the air smelled like burnt meat.  He screamed.  She’s torturing him.

Lorne roared, his voice quivering from the electric shock.  His hunk of metal melted into five separate orbs and shot at Tunnel Vision from all angles.  Pushing through the agony to attack.

Tunnel Vision zipped through the air, projecting into her suit jacket and skirt, and the thin black body armor underneath.  She dodged all of them, and unleashed another spear of palefire, coating Deon’s head.

Lorne screamed with his squadmate, and the beams of metal curved.  One of them sliced across Tunnel Vision’s face, burning her cheek.

But she grit her teeth, and kept electrocuting us.  Kept burning Deon.  

After the third blast of Palefire, he was little more than a blackened skeleton.

My stomach lurched.  And I realized why Tunnel Vision had driven us here.  Why she was torturing us to death, one by one, so loudly.

Oh, fuck.

Before I could blink, The Obsidian Foil shot out of the sky, and slashed at Tunnel Vision’s neck with his black sword.

Tunnel Vision leaned to the side, evading it, but the tip of the blade grazed her throat, drawing up a line of blood.

She landed on the grass, and the electricity stopped, freeing us.  I exhaled, gasping for breath.

Sebastian Oakes touched down on the dirt, holding his swords in front of him.  Penny Oakes landed next to him, floating a cloud of yellow gas above her.

He’s here to protect us.  He cared about his students, and couldn’t bear to see them like this.  Not right in front of him.

Just like Tunnel Vision wanted.  She’d used us as bait.

“Go,” Penny Oakes said to us.  “Leave.  Now.  Get Deon another body, if it’s not too late.”

“Welcome back, Ms. Acworth!” shouted the Obsidian Foil, his voice booming around us.  “After all these years, you’ve returned to your alma mater.”  He bent his knees, sinking into a low fighting stance.  “So.  I think we’ll give you a lesson.  Prepare yourself, monster.”

Tunnel Vision just stared at them.

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3 thoughts on “12-A The Ant and the Beetle

  1. Attack on Titan! Attack on Titan! Attack on Titan!

    Oh, right, I guess Pith is having its climax, too. The beginning of the climax, at least. Volume 1’s climax. We’ve got a lot of story left.

    Hi all. The editing process on this chapter has been a bit odd. I was helping my friend move this weekend, with a truly absurd amount of driving and stuffing mattresses into cars. I’ve also been distracted by the spectacular new season of Attack on Titan, which, especially as a manga reader, is *so goddamn exciting*. As a writer, it’s important to study your faves and figure out what makes them awesome.

    But, bottom line, I still found the time before and after to go through this chapter and make changes.

    This chapter isn’t quite as refined as I’d like it to be. Could probably be a few thousand words shorter. It’s a lot of fight scenes one after another, and the challenge there is to make them unique, visceral, and exciting. Clear geography is a super important part of all that, and while I do try my best, my prose isn’t as sharp as I’d like it to be. So I hope it doesn’t all blur into mush, and I hope the spectacle and emotional beats are compelling.

    Regardless, thanks for reading! See y’all next week.

  2. Why all the stuff about switching bodies to un-nudge people, when Ana can create auditory illusions? Do the auditory illusions not work on people with popped eardrums? Can you not un-nudge someone with an illusion?

    Could you silently nudge someone using an illusion?

  3. Where’s Parliament? Aren’t they supposed to be in the Great Library? Are they hidden somewhere, and that’s what the Obsidian Foil and Penny Oakes are guarding? Is the Pyre Witch just a distraction from whatever the rest of CP are doing in the library?

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