12-C – Florence Tuft

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“I know,” said Zhou Lan.  “That you’ve been planning an escape.”

The old woman leaned against the back wall of the women’s dorm, her breath fogging up the night air in front of her.

Fuck.  “What are you talking about?” muttered Florence.  “An escape?”

Zhou Lan rubbed her wrinkled hands together for warmth.  “You can feign ignorance if you want, round eyes.  You and your half-and-half friend.”  Grace.  Who’d gone out, preparing for their escape from the Shenti redemption camp.

An escape that was happening tonight.

“You can keep it from the guards,” said Zhou Lan.  “But we live in the same dorm.  I can hear you whispering outside.  You’re not as quiet as you think you are, and I have sharp ears for my age.”

Fuck, fuck, fuck, no.  Not now, not tonight.  The plan was precarious enough already.  Too many complications, and it would crumble like a sandcastle before the tide.

“Seriously,” said Florence.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Maybe she’s just desperate, probing for information.  If she only knew a fraction of the truth, she could be fishing for the rest of it.

“Very well,” said Zhou Lan.  “You’ve observed a mid-level guard, who’s been stealing supplies from the camp and selling them on the side.  You’re using that fact to blackmail him into drugging five guards on duty tonight with a slow-acting sedative that your friend cultivated from local herbs and drugs you stole from the medical building.”  Her eyes glinted in the faint moonlight.  “Shall I go on?”

Florence shook her head, shivering.  No, no, no.  Lan didn’t have all the details – Grace’s plan was absurdly intricate, with every step seeming impossible at first glance.  But the old Shenti woman knew enough to sabotage them, to bring down the guards on their heads.

Florence suspected that Grace had developed her Praxis Vocation in recent months, which explained the recent outburst of brilliance.  But even that had its limits.

“I will be blunt,” said Zhou Lan.  “I will tell the guards tonight.  Your plan will fail.  And you will be executed.”

“So why haven’t you?” said Florence.  In the redemption camp, reporting other prisoners could boost your economic score, get you a warm bed or enough food to not starve.  Most people jumped at the opportunity.

“I don’t know all the details,” said Lan.  “But as far as I can tell, you have a good plan.”  She closed her eyes.  “I have a son, Zhou Kun.  In the men’s dorm to the southwest.  He can barely walk, and they’re working him so hard.”  Before Florence could react, the old woman clasped the stump where her hand had been, imploring with her eyes.  “Take us with you.  If you can’t fit me, then take him, at least.”

Florence avoided eye contact.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “I can’t.”

Please,” Lan whispered, her voice weak.  “We won’t last here much longer.  The door is closing.  Please.  Save my son.”

“I can’t,” mumbled Florence.  “The plan requires fitness and extensive practice, and has to happen tonight.  I’m not sure it’ll even work with more than two people.”

“You’re smart,” said Lan.  “Your friend is smart.  You can think of something.  You can think of something.”

Florence blinked, and tears welled up at the edges of her eyes.  She forced them shut.  Don’t let her see.  Don’t let her see your sympathy.

She wanted, more than anything, to erase these memories.  To encrypt them and throw away the keys.  But this was the present.  She was living this.  And she had to face it.

“You were a soldier, weren’t you?” said Lan.  “You stand up for the innocent.  You fight for them, even when it seems hopeless.”

“Alright,” said Florence, staring at the ground.  “Maybe I can talk about it.  We can try to rework the plan, or get a different version and execute it later.  We – “

An arm wrapped around the old woman’s throat, yanking her back and cutting off her voice.

A half-Shenti woman emerged from the darkness, her black hair tangled and greasy.

Grace Acworth.  Choking the woman from behind.

Grace knelt on the icy grass, lying on her back with the old woman writhing above her.  Zhou Lan strained against her grip, tried to bite down and punch and scratch the Guardian.  But Grace was far stronger, younger, with a perfect rear naked chokehold, the crook of her elbow squeezing on Lan’s windpipe and neck arteries.

It wasn’t even a contest.

Zhou Lan wheezed, gasped, her face turning purple.  But the sound of the wind drowned it out, blowing over the dark tundra.

The woman’s eyes looked up to Florence, desperate.  Help me, they said.  Help me.

Florence froze, her stomach dropping, unable to move.  She just stared at the two of them.  Powerless.  Is this what an Exemplar would do?

After less than a minute, Zhou Lan went limp.  A minute later, her hands stopped twitching.  But Grace held onto her throat for another two full minutes, to make sure the woman wasn’t playing possum.

Why?  Florence wanted to say.  Why?

But she knew why.  Unconsciousness wouldn’t last long enough.  They had no way to truly incapacitate the woman, no rope to tie her up with or gag to stifle her voice.

And there would be no second chances with this plan.  The stars would only align once for an escape.

Grace let go of the woman’s throat, flopping back onto the grass, out of breath, hair covered in sweat.  Then she pulled herself away from the corpse, and pushed herself upright, shaking, her neck bulging.  Grace’s eyes filled up with horror, rage, disgust.  Florence could only imagine at what.  The Shenti, the world, herself.

Grace gazed down at the body of Zhou Lan, unblinking.  She opened her mouth, and for a moment, it looked like she was about to whisper an apology, an epitaph for the life she’d just snuffed out.

“Come on,” said Grace.  “We’ve got work to do.”

________________________________________

It was time.

Florence and Grace would never have another opportunity like this.  Too many precise elements lined up at the same time.

The sedative on the relevant guards had kicked in, knocking them out at their posts.  The ones at the watchtowers, manning the machine guns and overseeing the perimeter fence.  They’d cleared a path, of sorts.

Florence and Grace ran through the camp, between distant, spread-out buildings, across grass and beneath trees.  They stayed away from the lamps, pools of moonlight, wide open spaces, staying in the shadows.

Other guards walked around on patrol, and Grace led the two of them around their pathways, out of their sightlines and through gaps in their movements.  The three knocked-out guards lay in places that wouldn’t be spotted, leaving them just enough space to slip through.  A perfect, synchronized dance down to the second, that would have been impossible with just Florence.

A sick man couldn’t do this.  If Zhou Lan’s son could barely walk, he could never have managed this.  Grace had done the right thing.

Zhou Lan choked in Florence’s mind, gasping for air, scrabbling against Grace’s cold grip.

She did the right thing.  She did the right thing.  Florence refocused herself on the mission.

Both of them wore many layers of clothes – two pairs of thick pants each, with two shirts, three coats, and winter hats, complete with scarves and gloves.  Even still, the cold bit through to Florence’s core, making her shiver.

By the time they reached the perimeter fence, they were both out of breath.  It stretched above them, only twenty feet high, but deadly.  It consisted of layers of barbed metal wires, stacked too close for a person to slip through, and lit up with enough voltage to kill someone in seconds.  If you grabbed it, the current would force your hand to clench, keeping you locked in as it electrocuted you to death.

For despairing prisoners who didn’t care for the Choice of Rice and Wine, it was a common way to end the pain.

Beyond it, the Yachi mountains extended into the night sky, a snowy, treacherous range of peaks, valleys, and frozen lakes.  Their destination.

“So,” said Florence.  “How do we disable the fence?”

Grace had left that part out of her explanations to Florence.  They couldn’t cut the fence without alerting the guards.  They hadn’t messed with the power supply at all.  And they didn’t have the tools or time to climb over or dig under it.

“First,” said Grace.  “Let’s run over the basics.”

She reviewed everything she’d been teaching Florence.  The maps they’d memorized of the area.  The specific route they had to take to avoid guards and Joiners that would pursue them – and how to hide from people with enhanced senses of smell, keen eyes, and sharp ears.  An intense journey through sleepless nights, cliffs, and ice.

As Grace did this, she pulled a rag from her pocket and wiped the sweat from her palms.  Florence’s palms too.

Florence nodded through all of it.  She encrypted most of her memories of the camp, but this, she made sure to remember.

Then, Grace hugged Florence.

“Good,” she said.  “Because we can’t disable the fence.”  She smiled.  “Say hi to Rowyna and Isaac for me.”

Grace dove onto the lowest wire of the fence.  Her body twitched, smoke rising off her burnt flesh.  With her weight, she pressed the barbed metal down to the ground, just far enough to make a gap above her.

A gap that a person could fit through.

In an instant, Florence understood.

They couldn’t disable the wire, so one of them had to sacrifice themselves, acting as insulation and grounding, protecting the other one from the lethal voltage.  The layers of clothes, keeping themselves dry – all that would help, too.

She had no time to argue, no time to gape over Grace’s shaking, dying body.  No time to even process this.

Florence knelt, and crawled over her friend, dragging her body over Grace’s shaking back.  Electricity prickled her skin, making her hair stand up.  But it wasn’t strong enough to cause real damage.

As she finished crawling through, a barb on a wire sliced the edge of her ankle, cutting through her thin sock.  A burning sensation spread over her skin, like someone had pressed her leg onto a frying pan.

Florence choked off her scream, forcing her lips shut, and pulled herself forward, to safety.  Then, she threw off her coat, wrapped it around her hands, and dragged Grace off the wire, onto the icy grass.

The front half of Grace’s body had been covered with burns.  Red, white, and black, the skin peeling off her stomach, her arms, the edge of her neck.  Her chest rose and fell, straining with each breath.  And she didn’t move, otherwise.  Limp, unconscious, already dying.  She can’t have that much time left.

A raindrop landed on Florence’s nose.  Then her cheek.  Rain started dribbling around her.  Grace had predicted this too, despite having zero access to any weather forecasts.  It would help wash away their footprints and scent.

Water is a conductor, too.  If they’d started an hour earlier, their clothes would have gotten wet and they would have both gotten shocked on the wire.  This is the perfect timing.  Grace had planned for everything.

And she planned for me to leave her behind, too.

Grace knew that crawling over the wire would fatally wound her, or incapacitate her at best.  She’d said her goodbyes.  And thanks to her training, Florence had all the tools to finish this on her own.

As long as she left Grace.

She sacrificed herself instead of someone else.  The drugged guards were out of reach, but she could have lured another prisoner into their escape plan, to use as a human shield.  Maybe even Zhou Lan’s son.

But she didn’t.  And now, she lay on her back, covered in burns, eyes wide open and staring at the sky, tears pouring down her blackened cheeks.  Trying to get Florence to abandon her.

No.

Florence knelt and pushed her stumps beneath Grace.  She wedged her arms underneath the woman, then lifted, slinging her body over Florence’s shoulders, as the rain poured down around her, making her clothes damp.

The weight crushed her.  In Florence’s weakened state, it felt like holding up the world.  The muscles in her back ached, and without hands, Grace could lose balance and slide off any second.

Florence could barely hold her own weight, much less a whole other person.  Her long journey would be near-impossible with this extra burden.

But she wasn’t going to leave her friend.  Fuck you Grace, you don’t get off that easy.  When this is over, I’m going to eat the biggest roast duck in the world with you.

Florence jogged forward, up the slope of the tundra and towards the mountains.  Into the storm.

________________________________________

Florence jogged forward across the flight deck, flanked by Lord Giles Olwen, the new director of counterintelligence, and Rowyna Ebbridge.  Blue lights on the runway cast an eerie glow over the top of the CNS Rhona, illuminating the night.

“Northeast!” screamed a lookout.  “Northeast!”

A shell crashed into the dark water next to the ship, sending up a spray of water.  What the fuck is going on?

The Principality’s fleet had been sailing at full speed towards the Agricultural Islands, ready to fight a ruthless horde of Shenti firebombers and battleships to defend the nation’s food supply.  To save millions of lives.

And then, halfway there, a radio message had come in from Elmidde.  Commonplace was attacking Paragon Academy.  The Agricultural Islands were a diversion from Tunnel Vision for the real attack.

Two minutes after the message came in, half the fleet had opened fire on them.  The Principality’s own battleships and destroyers and at least one aircraft carrier had all attacked the rest of the fleet in unison, a mass act of friendly fire.  Their two submarines had gone offline, too, so they could have been compromised as well.

Chaos.  Panicked communications, confusion, shouting.  All while the Principality’s ships burned, lit up by their own torpedoes and artillery.  Florence wasn’t even sure which side most of the other ships had taken.

Without the Shenti firing a single shot, the Principality’s force had decimated itself.

The explosions had shaken Florence out of her bunk, and her first thought was enemy projectors.  Whisper Vocations. Someone’s hijacked our boats.  But the Shenti didn’t like mass hijacking, or Whisper-centric warfare.  And to be honest, neither did Commonplace.

And then it hit Florence.  They’re not being hijacked.  They were choosing to side with Commonplace.  Bloody Humdrum navy.  How many of the top admirals had the Pyre Witch turned?

Fires burned in the distance, and projectors soared into the air, unfurling wingsuits.  A Principality dive bomber shot down towards the Rhona, dropping its load towards the flight deck above Florence.

Florence glanced up, lifted an arm stump, and unleashed a gust of wind.  It knocked the bomb back into the plane, and exploded, a bright orange fireball lighting up the starless sky.  Chunks of shrapnel rained down around Florence.

And in the darkness, far above, an Oracle Snake wound through the dark clouds, its outline lit with faint moonlight.

They’re keeping us from returning to Paragon.  And maybe keeping them from making it to the Agricultural Islands, too.  If the Shenti fleet was still real.  A many-pronged attack, carried out in unison to deal with Paragon’s military might.

“We don’t know the exact makeup of the enemy at Paragon,” said Lord Olwen. “But the message used the proper code, and other messages poured in as soon as the Radio Man was defeated.  Backing it up.  There seems to be a high likelihood that the Pyre Witch is in the city.”

“So you know nothing,” said Florence.  “Other than your absolute failure to predict this attack.  We just swan dived straight into their trap.”  And why did we have to leave the Lavender Book at Paragon?  Leaving it there was protocol, and at the time, it seemed safer than to bring it into a pitched battle.

“We know they’re also targeting our experimental Voidsteel missiles off the coast of Tyvelth.  We have a separate team heading in that direction.  The majority of our enhanced forces.”  If the enemy takes those missiles, they could launch them at the fleet.  Nullify the Principality’s projector advantage.  “Tunnel Vision, Steel Violet, Pictogram.  They could be with the missiles or at Paragon.  We’re not sure about that, either.”

 “And based on the other radio reports,” Lord Olwen said.  “The enemy has made significant gains in Paragon already.  Most, or all of our students may be dead already.”

Everyone fell silent for a moment.  Waves crashed against the side of the aircraft carrier.  Artillery rang out in the distance, and another round splashed into the water nearby.  Florence’s throat clenched.  Fucking monsters.

“We need to move fast, then,” said Florence.

“Yes,” said Rowyna.  Her eyes lit up, blue and bright and pretty.  “Your physical Vocation can reduce the air resistance in front of your plane, accelerating it to far greater speeds than what’s normally possible.  You can get back in time.”

“It won’t be fast enough,” said Florence.  “That’s a long distance, and my plane is heavy.”

Isaac Brin rolled down the dark runway in his metal wheelchair, wearing a full suit of combat armor.  Demoted.  Barely more than a soldier, with half of his body unresponsive.  But still ready for combat.

“Isaac’s Vocation can make your plane almost weightless.  With the two of you combined, you can get back to Paragon in time.”

“If we hit a bird at that speed,” said Florence.  “It’ll rip through us like a tank round.  Who are we taking with us?”

“Just you two,” said Rowyna.  “One of the boys downstairs ran the numbers.  More Piths means more bodies or mind-spheres on the plane.  Means slower speed.  We have projectors who could offset that, but they’re all headed for the missiles already.”

“Seriously?” said Florence.  “For all we know, we’re going up against Grace, and in this entire fleet you’re just sending the two of us?  You can’t fit anyone else in our plane?”

“Novice Guardians won’t be enough to help.”

“So send us with experienced Guardians,” said Florence.  “Scholar-ranked squidfuckers.  The Symphony Knight, Professor Hou, the Headmaster.”

“Our remaining Scholar-Ranked projectors are going for the missile silos,” said Rowyna.  Then, she gestured around them, at all the chaos and friendly fire.  “The Symphony Knight is going to take on the fleet of eastern dogs coming for the islands while the rest of us deal with this mutiny and speed back to the mainland.”

One woman against a whole fleet.  Florence felt bad for the Shenti.

“But this is Paragon we’re defending,” said Florence.  “The Lavender Book.  Don’t you care if that falls into enemy hands?”

“There are things you don’t know,” said Rowyna.  “About the Lavender Book.  The missiles are the true priority.”

“And our students?  They’re fighting for their lives right now.”

“Penny and Sebastian Oakes will defend them,” said Rowyna.  “Past that, we’ll have to put our faith in their training.”

“What about you?”

“You want to stuff a thousand birds behind your seat?  Or do you want to get in the plane and stop wasting time?”  The plane was almost ready.

Florence kneaded her forehead.  “Fuck.”  Me and Isaac against Grace.  Those odds didn’t look good.

“Let’s get some payback,” said Isaac.  Grace took his legs.  And destroyed his career.  And had cost him a mercenary that he’d cared about – the Blue Charlatan, Anabelle Gage, with her group, Queen Sulphur.

His eyes turned cold, hollowed out.  Whatever he’d once felt for his old friend, he was ready to eviscerate her this time.

But she beat us once already.  Florence hadn’t had her plane, and neither of them had much room to maneuver.  And this time, she might be more tired.  If we’re up against her at all.

But Grace might have more allies, too.  Other projectors.  And they wouldn’t have the element of surprise.  Or the option for an easy escape.

We’re flying into a death trap.  This was a last-ditch effort from the Principality to save the Lavender Book, Parliament, and the students of Paragon.  But if they failed, with control of the missiles, the fleet could sail back and retake the country.  Raw military power took priority over everything else.

The city is relying on us.  Their students, too.  What a disaster.

And at the end of the day, this could be yet another trap.  This could be exactly what Grace wanted them to do.

But there was a catch.  A unique weakness of their enemy.

On the other end of the runway, a mechanic held up a hand with four fingers.  Four minutes until the plane is ready.  The carrier’s anti-aircraft guns fired into the night sky, lighting up the darkness with tracer rounds.

“I decrypted all my memories of Grace,” said Florence, staring at her feet.  “After she fought us in the tunnels, paralyzed Isaac.”

“And?” said Rowyna.

“She sacrificed herself for me.  And she killed an innocent woman so we could escape the redemption camp.  All within an hour of each other.”  I encrypted those memories for a reason.  Even now, the pain felt so fresh, sharp and bitter enough to keep her sweating through many sleepless nights.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Rowyna.  “Did it tell you anything about her strategies?  Her weaknesses?”  Her voice grew frantic, louder.  “You need to beat her.  You need to survive.”

“Well,” said Florence.  “Grace’s Praxis Vocation has blind spots.  It focuses her on a single goal, above all else, but she can miss things along the way.  She thought I’d abandon her at the fence, leave her to die.  But I didn’t.”

“How does that help us?” asked Isaac.

“Maybe,” said Florence.  “Grace can see the twisted fabric of our world.  But she doesn’t know humans as well as she thinks.”

Florence felt stupid as she said it.  She’s manipulated so many people, run such complicated operations.  How could she not know how humans worked?  But something felt right about that, still.

“Are we still humans?” said Isaac, bitterness creeping into his voice.

Florence’s blue-striped plane, Crooked Talon, moved next to her, attached to the carrier’s hydraulic catapult.  It’s ready.

Isaac Brin floated off his wheelchair, and shoved himself into a hollowed-out space behind the cockpit seat.

Rowyna stepped forward and hugged Florence.  What?  Florence hugged her back, hesitant.  She never does this.  Florence felt the heat of the Maxine Clive body, the herbal scent of Rowyna’s shampoo.

“I’m sorry,” murmured Rowyna, too quiet for anyone else to hear.

They broke apart, and Florence blew herself into the cockpit with a gust of wind.  In two seconds, she projected into the inner workings of the plane, finishing the pre-flight checks and starting the engine.

“Don’t die,” said Rowyna, backing away and clearing the runway.  “I’ll be waiting.”

From Rowyna, these days, she might as well have kissed her.

“The nation,” she said.  “The people.  The light.”

Florence gave the ‘go’ signal, and the hydraulic catapult shot down the runway, accelerating Crooked Talon towards the edge as the propeller spun up.

“I’ll do my best,” said Florence.

________________________________________

Florence and Isaac returned under the pale moonlight, in a storm of wind and lightning.

Crooked Talon shot through the sky, at speeds Florence couldn’t even begin to calculate.  Isaac projected into the entire plane, using his Vocation to reduce its mass to that of a feather, and pushing it forward with his projection.

At the same time, Florence projected into the air in front of the plane, pushing it out of the way and making a near-vacuum, dropping the air resistance to almost zero.  She kept a few light streams of air, enough to supply the two of them with oxygen and keep the plane flying straight.

They’d crossed the sonic barrier long ago, flying at absurd speeds to get back in time.  The plane shook from the motion.  Isaac groaned, squeezed into a tiny space behind her chair and pressed against his stomach.  The man barely had enough room to breathe.

Florence tuned her radio to the original long-range channel that had sent out the distress message.  Her plane’s weaker radio should now be in range.

“Five-Eight-Eight Black.  Five-Eight-Eight Black.  This is Major Florence Tuft, of the Principality Air Force.  Does anyone copy?”

She repeated the message several times, before the radio crackled with another voice.  A girl’s voice, or maybe a boy’s.  “This is Anabelle Gage, the Blue Charlatan.  I can’t prove my identity.  But the distress message we sent is real.”

She launched into an explanation, filling Florence and Isaac in on the events of the past few hours.  Florence slowed the plane to a normal speed, buying herself time to take in the situation.  Pictogram, the Shenti sniper, was on the prowl.  The Pyre Witch had grown tired, but still strong, and Steel Violet members were flying fighter planes to take out enemies on the ground.

On top of that, large pockets of the local Humdrum military had taken Commonplace’s side in the attempted coup, and both Sebastian and Penny Oakes had been killed by Tunnel Vision and Pictogram.

And,” said Ana.  “She has the book.

They all knew what that meant.  The Lavender Book.  Grace had taken the Lavender Book.  That was the worst news of all.

But whatever earth-shattering power was in those pages, Grace would need time to absorb the contents, utilize them.  We still have time to beat her.

“Who is with you, Professor Tuft?” said Gage.

“Myself and Maj – Mister Brin.”

“That’s all?”  Despair crept into Gage’s voice.  “You’re all they sent?  Where are the rest of the Guardians?  Where’s Headmaster Tau?”

Isaac Brin spoke up, twisting his head around to speak into the radio.  “Ana,” he said.  “We’re the only ones who could get here this fast.  Please, get to cover, protect other students if you can, but don’t engage unless you have to.”  He cares about her safety.

“Professor,” said Ana.  “We could have avoided much of this if you paid me fairly.”

“You’ve done spectacular work,” said Isaac.  “But please, don’t endanger yourself more.  I’ll do everything I can to make sure that everyone on your team gets a pardon.  You don’t need to worry about the Ousting to get basic safety.  I give you my word.”

“You’ve been demoted.  Your reputation barely saved you from a court-martial.  And you’re about to fight the most powerful enemy in Paragon’s recent history.”  Gage snorted.  “Your word means nothing, Isaac Brin.  I’ll see you on the battlefield.”

Isaac sagged over, going half-limp.

The plane shot out of a cluster of clouds, into the open sky.  Florence gazed forward with her Joining-enhanced eyes.

Elmidde burned in the distance.  Many of the city’s yellow lights had gone out, replaced by orange and red fires, burning throughout Midtown and Lowtown, sending up a thick cloud of smoke.

Above the city, the islands of Paragon Academy burned too, with dozens of smaller fires on the lecture halls and bridges.  And below, on the water, two of the Principality’s battleships were burning.  Sabotage.  Or friendly fire.  Two blimps floated in the air, taken by the enemy and outfitted with bombs.

This is a civil war.  The beginnings of one.

In the distance, Florence could make out a figure on a bridge at Paragon, surrounded by sniper rifles.  Pictogram.

A swarm of planes flew around the city, too.  Dozens, piloted by Humdrums and members of the mercenary group Steel Violet.  They made strafing runs on groups of police on the ground, guarding the cable car station, or dropped bombs on the Principality’s troops entering the city.

C-7 Butchers, and C-1 Bonehawks.  Bombers and fighters, designed and used by the Principality’s military, as well as the Droll Corsairs.  Top-shelf, precision machines, faster and more durable than anything else in the Eight Oceans.  Using our own weapons against us.

And Tunnel Vision, hiding somewhere, watching them.  Waiting for the perfect time to strike.

Florence started bobbing left and right, up and down and diagonal in a random pattern, moving to avoid potential sniper fire from Pictogram.

“Alright, what’s our play?” asked Isaac.  I guess I do outrank him now.

“We can’t predict where Grace will attack us,” Florence said.  “But if we fight her and the rest of her allies at the same time, we have zero chance of winning.”  We need to take out her support.  “You handle Pictogram,” she said.  “I’ll take out their air support.”

The cockpit slid open above them, and Isaac Brin shot out.  He flipped over the back of the plane and unfurled his wingsuit, attaching it to his arms and limp legs.  His projection kept the lower, paralyzed half of his body from flopping around.  The injury that Pictogram had given him.

Then he shot forward with a random zig-zag pattern, powered by a random number generator installed in his Pith.  At short distances, it wouldn’t matter, but at long distances, it would give him some level of protection from the sniper.

The enemy planes turned from their targets, and came together, flying at Florence in formation.  Thirty enemies.  Manned by a combination of amateur pilots and Steel Violet, metal projectors who would have skill-stitched from some of the best pilots in the Eight Oceans.

For a normal pilot, this would be an impossible task, an instant death sentence.

For Florence, this would be easy.

The enemy planes spread out, trying to come at her from multiple angles, while Florence maintained a normal speed, an illusion of weakness.  In aerial combat, getting on your enemy’s tail was one of the most important things you could do.  And with their numbers, they had unlimited ways to do it.

But that assumed that one was playing by the normal rules.  The Humdrum’s rules.

Florence adjusted her goggles, and stretched her arm stumps.  Here we go.

Florence brought her arms down in a slashing motion, projecting into her plane and the air around her.  Green lightning crackled around her, and she rocketed towards the cluster of enemies, ten times faster than before.  A boom rang through the night sky, as she went supersonic.

Before the enemy could open fire, she jerked her plane upwards in a ninety-degree hairpin turn, and shot above the fighters.  Joining controlled the fluids in her body, letting her accelerate at high speeds without getting a stroke.

Then, half a second later, she spun her plane to the right with projection, performing a perfect one-eighty degree turn.

Florence shot towards the fighters from above, and squeezed a trigger with projection.  Her main guns fired, heavy caliber semi-automatics, accurate and big.  Closer to a sniper rifle or a tank gun than a normal fighter’s machine gun.

She hit an enemy pilot, shattering his cockpit and shooting through his head.  Killing him instantly.  A third of a second later, she re-aimed the nose of her plane, and fired again.  And again.  And again.

She aimed at the Humdrum pilots first.  The ones without ABDs or other defenses.  She used the wind to accelerate her, and blazed into the center of the cloud of enemies before they could even turn to face her.

Now, they couldn’t aim at her without risking friendly fire.

Florence went to town on them.  She flew around inside the enemy formation, in elaborate loops and patterns at blinding speed.

More wind.  More headshots.  More shattered cockpits, and planes careening out of control.

In a few seconds, she killed all the Humdrum pilots.  Only Steel Violet remained.  Florence had no Voidsteel bullets in this plane, nothing that could kill them reliably.

Purple lightning expanded around the remaining planes, Steel Violet exerting themselves.  Realizing the power of their opponent.  They projected into their planes and accelerated with a series of sonic booms, breaking the sound barrier.  This would also keep the inner workings of their planes together, making it harder to destroy their engines.

They fanned out in a random, swirling pattern away from Florence, shifting their positions, moving with incomprehensible chaos.  With their fast shifts in movement, they left no single opening, no easy direction she could attack from without exposing herself to their fire.

But none of them could move as fast as Florence.

As they got close, Florence dipped her plane to the right, flying it vertical instead of horizontal.  She projected into the wings, making the reinforced edges more narrow, sharp.  Strengthening them even further.

Then she spun her plane forward, like a rocketing buzz saw.  She used Joining on her inner ear and a spatial awareness vocation to keep herself from throwing up.

Crooked Talon’s wings acted like a saw blade, shooting through the formation, moving faster than her enemies could react.  They sliced through the wings of three enemy planes with a crackle of green lightning, chopping them off.

Three enemies spiraled towards the ground, losing control of their planes, and three members of Steel Violet ejected, splashing into the water as the vehicles crashed.  They could have unfurled wingsuits and kept fighting, but they were mercenaries.  They cared more about self-preservation than fighting to the bitter end.

A half-second after she did this maneuver, she opened fire again with another volley, aiming at the enemy’s engines this time, firing again and again.  The enemy could use ABDs to protect themselves, and patch up or shield their engines with projection.  But enough high-caliber bullets, and the engines would still break.

As the others spun in midair to shoot at her, she used a gust of wind to smash two of the closer ones together.  Her air projection overpowered their metal control, and they crashed into each other, exploding in a massive fireball, lighting up the night sky with a bright orange inferno and a cloud of debris.

Florence blew her plane into the flames from below, using it as a smokescreen.

The final two members of Steel Violet saw Crooked Talon emerge from the top of the fireball, shooting towards the moons overhead.  They shot after her, machine guns whirring as they fired into her engine and wings and cockpit.

But Florence wasn’t in the cockpit.  She’d leapt out of her plane.

Florence shot out of the fireball, projecting into her thin black combat armor and wingsuit.  Behind the remaining members of Steel Violet.

She floated two torpedos beside her, that she’d detached from Crooked Talon.  Florence whipped her arms forward, green lightning crackling around her stumps.

The enemy planes started turning the instant Florence left the cloud, even though they couldn’t see her from their cockpits.  Thought-stitching.  The other members of Steel Violet were watching her from below, and sharing their senses with the others.

But they moved too slow.  The torpedoes crashed into the final planes, blowing them up in a cloud of shrapnel.

Crooked Talon slowed down, then flipped over, shooting back towards the ground.  Florence flew next to it, matched its speed, and landed back in the broken cockpit.  The controls and engine had broken, but gusts of wind and projection steered her towards another plane.  One of the ones with a dead Humdrum pilot, flying in a random direction, unmoored.

Florence flew below it and projected forward, stopping her engine.  She peeled open the metal at the bottom of the other plane, ripped out the engine, and ripped out her own engine, the metal creaking and groaning.  The C-7 Butcher shared an engine with Crooked Talon.  In five seconds, she replaced the shot-up engine with the new one, reconnected all the critical elements and welded the remaining bits together.

That should hold for another hour or two.  She stabilized her flight and unhooked another two bombs.  These she flung in a high, vertical arc into the night, green lightning crackling around her from the strain.

The first one landed on the blimp closest to her, exploding with a dull boom.  The zeppelin’s gas wasn’t flammable, but it still sank from the sky, crumbling into pieces.

The second bomb missed by a hair, diverted at the last second.  A projector is defending that one.  She would fight that one with Isaac.

Florence exhaled, as the last of the burning debris splashed into the water beneath her.  The fires died down, and the clouds of smoke cleared.  In the ocean below, individual members of Steel Violet swam away from the city, towards the northern coastline of the Principality.

In just over a minute, she had demolished the enemy’s entire air force.  Not bad.  Though she still felt rusty.  Florence wiped sweat off her goggles, and patted the side of her plane with her stump.  Thanks, Talon.

Florence squinted, straining her Joining-enhanced eyes, and watched Isaac’s fight in the distance.

Gunshots rang out in the distance, and Isaac kept zigzagging at random, avoiding the bullets at a distance.  As he got closer to Paragon, he dove down into the city, weaving between buildings and through alleyways, using them as cover.  Large chunks of stone cracked and broke off of the street, and he held them over him as a shield, as bullets thudded into them.  With his Vocation, they would be as light as a twig, and Pictogram would have to aim at an awkward angle to hit the target below.

As Isaac reached the cable car station, he flung a dart at the ceiling, ripping a hole in it and flying through.

A second later, he emerged, holding the metal cable car itself as a shield above him, tearing it off its line.  It flipped over, and Green Hands spilled out, falling through the air onto the buildings and streets below.

At this range, he couldn’t dodge a sniper, but he could lighten a shield and use it to deflect bullets.

He shot towards Paragon, and the bridge where Pictogram stood.

Pictogram shot at the cable car with his rifles, huge anti-tank weapons that could punch through steel.  He hit the same spots on the cable car again and again, turning big dents into bullet holes.

Isaac moved in response, feeling where the holes were being punched and repositioning himself behind his shield to avoid them.  Green lightning crackled around him, lighting up the dark clouds as he flew through them.

The cable car buckled, from the rapid motion and the endless volley of bullets.  Then, it broke, splitting into a dozen hunks of jagged metal and jade glass.  In unison, they shot at Pictogram, larger than darts, harder to dodge.

Pictogram leapt aside, projecting into his combat suit.  The chunks ripped through the wooden bridge, reducing it to splinters and dust.

Isaac flew above Paragon, shooting darts at the Shenti sniper.  Pictogram flew towards the front door of Opal Hall, shifting left and right to avoid the projectiles, as they punched into the grass around him, tearing up showers of dirt.

The impact of the darts shook the rock of the floating island, one of the thinner ones at Paragon.

That gave Isaac an idea.

Green lightning crackled around him, and he shot a dart from below the island.  An attack that even Pictogram might not see coming.

This one went many times faster than the others.  It slammed into the bedrock of the island with a dull boom, thundering through the night air.

Pictogram leapt to the side.  As he did, the ground exploded beneath him in a cloud of stone and dirt.

Through the cloud, something moved in a blur, too fast for even Florence to make out.   Blood spurted into the air, and Pictogram’s knee exploded, tearing off half of his right leg.

But Pictogram kept moving.  He flung open the front doors of Opal Hall and flew in, even as his leg spun through the air, as blood poured out of his body and rubble rained down around him.

Isaac flew through the storm of dirt and rocks, chasing after him.

And while Florence watched him, a streak of palefire blossomed on the top of the second blimp and shot towards Crooked Talon.

The second blimp floated far away.  Florence had ample time to jerk her plane upwards, shooting it on a gust of wind that kept out the oxygen in a sphere around it, fending off the flames.

At the same time, Florence trained her vision on the woman standing on top of the blimp.  A long, brown ponytail.  A black skirt and suit jacket, with a bowler hat on top.

Grace Acworth.  Found her.

One blow, and all the white fires died out, before another tongue of fire shot out towards her.  Her palefire is much weaker.  Much slower than before.  Was it the long range?  Or had that fight with Sebastian and Penny really tired her out that much?

More blasts of palefire, lighting up the night.  More dodges and shields.  Florence kept her eyes focused on Grace, but out of the corner of her eye, she caught a flicker of red in one of the tufts of flame, before it turned back to white.

Florence choked.  It’s normal fire.  Not palefire.  Made white using light projection.  That’s why it’s so weak.

Which meant the real Tunnel Vision wasn’t standing on the blimp.  Which means she’s – 

Something moved in a blur in front of Florence, coming up from below.

Grace Acworth flew across the nose of her plane, right in the way of her flight path.

Before Florence could blink, Grace clasped her palms together and pulled them apart in a circular motion.  Purple lightning crackled, and a flat disk of electricity expanded in front of her in the shape of a flower.

A deceleration shield.  Right in front of the plane’s nose.

Before Florence could turn, Crooked Talon passed through it at over a thousand miles an hour, and stopped instantly.

The force crumpled her plane like tin foil, flattening it into a metal pancake and shooting Florence out of the cockpit.  Her seatbelt tore and the glass broke, flinging her towards the spinning pieces of her propeller blades.

The plane exploded, flinging shrapnel in every direction.  As it did, Florence made a gust of wind, blowing herself up and out of the way.  Shrapnel bent around her in a storm of green lightning, as her ABD deflected the chunks of metal.

At the same time, a burst of palefire shot around her.  Real palefire.  It singed her legs, sending white-hot pain up her skin.  Florence cried out, then bit it down, forming a shield of air around herself.

She blew herself through the night air, away from the source of the flames, flipping herself upright.

And Grace didn’t pursue her.  She just hovered midair, watching Florence.

Why isn’t she charging at me?  Or shooting more palefire?  Was she stalling for time?

Florence squinted.  She has the Lavender Book on her.  With her Joining-enhanced vision, Florence could see the outline of the cover beneath Grace’s suit jacket.  It could be a fake, but Florence doubted it.  Grace wouldn’t trust it with anyone else.  She would stake it all on herself.  Her own ability to protect it, survive, and win.

Grace landed on top of the blimp, the only remaining vehicle in the sky.  The wind blew through her long brown ponytail, flapping it behind her in the moonlight.  And she stared at Florence.  Waiting.

Behind her, the fake Tunnel Vision leapt off the blimp, unfurling a wingsuit, and flew away.  She’ll just slow the real Pyre Witch down.

Isaac Brin shot back towards the blimp instead of chasing after Pictogram, green lightning crackling around him.  Most of the sniper rifles had been destroyed, and the Shenti man had been dealt a near-mortal injury.  He won’t be bothering us any time soon.  Confirming the kill was important, but Grace and the Lavender Book took priority.

In less than a minute, Isaac reached her.  He and Florence drew close to the blimp, floating on opposite sides of Grace.

They circled her, flying above the blimp as both sides scoped out their enemy.  Wind blew over the dark ocean, ruffling Florence’s short brown hair, fluttering Grace’s ash-stained skirt.  Blood dripped from cuts in the woman’s legs, trickling down the curved metal roof of the zeppelin.

A cloud moved aside from one of the moons, and pale light shone over the three of them and their faces.  Isaac stared down at his target, his expression twisted into a flat mask, hiding the terror underneath.  Grace’s eyes flitted between Florence and Isaac with an unreadable expression.  Is that rage?  Cold, calculated determination?

Or was that a flicker of regret?

“You saw me,” she said, not raising her voice.  Just loud enough for her words to carry over the wind.  “Fly down to the redemption camp and unleash fire.  Did I burn the prisoners there?  Did you see me kill them?”

Florence and Isaac didn’t respond.  She might have killed other civilians.  Where they didn’t see.  But those words sat in Florence’s stomach, a persistent, uncomfortable twinge.

“I saved them,” she said.  “And a part of you knew that, all along.”

The twinge turned into an ache.  Grace is willing to kill civilians now.  That’s what mattered, right?

Let’s get started, then.

Florence jabbed her stumps forward.  The air around Grace’s mouth and nose grew still and flat, preventing oxygen from flowing in.  Grace projected into a thin sheath of air like during their last fight, keeping her limbs from being bound, but the woman lacked the air projection strength to force oxygen in.

In a few breaths, she would run out of air.  It would take time, but the Pyre Witch would eventually choke out.

If Isaac and Florence survived for long enough, staying in range and maintaining the hold, then eventually, Grace would pass out and die, Praxis Vocation or no.

Grace sank into a fighting stance, lifted her index fingers, and jabbed them at the two Guardians.

Two spears of palefire shot towards Florence and Isaac.  Halfway through the air, they blossomed like roses, expanding into massive white fireballs, filling Florence’s vision.

Florence blew into her wingsuit, pushing herself aside like a kite, dodging it.  The edge of the flames grazed her ankle, burning through her thin black armor.  Searing pain exploded across her skin, but she kept flying.

Isaac ripped off pieces of the blimp’s metal roof, made them light, and formed a box around himself, blocking out the flames.  Some of them slipped in through the cracks, singing him.

At the same time, a pair of Voidsteel darts shot out of his metal shield.  Florence threw out a gust at the same time, pushing Grace off-balance.

Grace reeled for a fraction of a second, then projected into her suit and ducked down, dodging one of the darts.  The other hit the top of her bowler hat, tearing it off with a chunk of her hair.  It flew away into the air, falling towards the ocean.  Pieces of hair rained down around her, and her long ponytail came undone, blowing loose in the wind.

Opening jabs.  Testing each other’s defenses.

Grace stood back up, and everyone paused for a second.  Sizing each other up again.  We can handle her at this speed.  Florence and Isaac fought better in the open air like this, with more room to maneuver.

But Grace would be using her Praxis Vocation, adapting to the fight, getting better by the second.  And she might be concealing her real speed.

Grace blinked.  Then she made claws with her hands and jabbed at Florence, twice as fast as before, forming two walls of palefire in the shape of a V, blocking off Florence on both sides and below.  She exhaled, and breathed out another wall of fire, shooting down from the top.  Imprisoning Florence.

Before, Florence had been able to choke Grace’s flames by blocking the air around her.  But she’d had the help of an onslaught of water, pouring from the pipes above.  No such luck here.  The palefire could not be blocked.

So Florence dodged.  She focused all her energy into a spot on one of the fiery walls, and blew a gust of wind to make a hole for herself.  She shot through it, avoiding the fiery cage.

As Florence passed through the hole, her skin burned, the palefire heating the air around it.

Grace ignored Isaac.  He’s not the one strangling her.

The flames turned into a many-headed hydra, dozens of pale snake heads weaving around each other in a blur, darting at Florence, cutting off avenues of escape.

Green lightning crackled around Florence, as she gathered all the winds of the sky to her.  She crashed them into the flaps on her wingsuit, blasting herself around to dodge.  Florence flew between gaps in the hydra’s heads, darted backward to avoid strikes.  When a head got too close to dodge, she blew a gust of wind at it, strong enough to knock over a house.

But when the heads got close, they exploded into massive waves of fire, crashing in on all sides in a sudden burst of force.  Florence couldn’t blow it all away, and every time, it would burn her on a different part of her skin.  Her ankle.  Her wrist.  Her neck.

The searing pain grew up and down her body, until smoke rose off her thin black armor, and tears welled up at the edges of her eyes, unbidden.

Grace’s movements got faster and faster, but clumsier too.  A blast of palefire that missed its target.  An extra gap in her attacks.  She’s running out of oxygen.

Florence couldn’t flee from the blimp, or retreat towards the water, where she’d have better odds against Grace.  I need to stay close to maintain the choke.

Darts flew out of Isaac’s armor, shooting at Grace in volley after volley.  None of the Voidsteel would surprise her, since she’d grown advanced enough to learn a basic Voidsteel sense.

But Grace spread her palms and held up her purple deceleration shield from before, purple lightning in the flattened shape of a flower.  She held it on one palm, using her other hand to launch blasts of palefire at Florence.

Most of Isaac’s darts were non-Voidsteel.  When they came in contact with the shield, they jerked to a halt, flattening from the force of their momentum.

The Voidsteel darts shot through the shield like it was made of air, but Grace bent her knees, bobbing and weaving and pulling herself by projecting into her combat suit.

She dodged all of them.  They flew past her in a blur, vanishing into the night.  Isaac could change the path of his darts midair, but only at very close range.

At the same time, Grace jabbed her fingers at Florence, shooting whips of palefire at her above her and behind her.

Before Grace could tighten the fiery cage, Isaac flew straight at her, towards the roof of the zeppelin.  Getting close.  He fanned an array of darts in front of him, forming a dome around Grace, surrounding her.

His boots touched down on the metal surface of the blimp, his legs hanging limp beneath him.

And he moved towards Grace.  Her shield is flat.  It couldn’t block every angle.

The darts started to move around Grace, made nearly weightless by Isaac’s Vocation.

A black rapier stabbed out of the blimp’s roof.  It shot through Isaac’s armor and into his right hip, sinking deep.  One of the Obsidian Foil’s swords.

Isaac grimaced, blood spurting out of his dark blue armor.

He still shot the darts at her, flying at her in a dome, close enough for Isaac to change their path mid-air.  Green lightning crackled around his fists.

But the darts looked slower.  Weaker.

Grace leapt forward, towards Isaac, holding her shield in front of her.  None of the darts came at her from behind, the one hole in Isaac’s dome, since he didn’t want to hit himself with any of his projectiles.

A volley of darts froze as they passed through Grace’s deceleration shield.  The other darts curved midair, still aiming at her.

The obsidian sword yanked itself toward Grace, chopping off Isaac’s leg with a spurt of blood.  Grace whipped it around her, knocking aside darts, slicing them up before they could strike her.  She had no Joining talent, but by projecting into the sword, she could swing it faster.

Then she swung at Isaac, and he dodged backwards, before shooting another series of darts at her from behind.  The two of them moved in a blur, a close-quarters battle on the surface of the blimp.

Grace’s sword darted around the edges of Isaac’s defenses, slicing off a finger, a chunk of armor, drawing thin red lines across his skin, even as it deflected Voidsteel darts from all angles.

At the same time, bursts of palefire shot out of her left hand, wrapping around Isaac and closing off avenues of escape.  When he moved away from her obsidian blade, the fire singed his skin, or burned off pieces of his armor.

Isaac shot darts at her from every direction, Voidsteel and ordinary, curving midair so they couldn’t be dodged.  Grace knocked the Voidsteel ones aside with her sword, and stopped the ordinary ones with her deceleration shield.

Florence kept her distance, maintaining the choke.  Every time Grace shot palefire at Isaac, Florence swirled the wind around him, keeping him safe from the worst effects.  And every time she moved to dodge or deflect, Florence hit her with a gust of wind strong enough to knock over an oak tree, disrupting her aim.  It blew through Grace’s loose brown hair, turning it into a tangled mess.

Grace still blocked almost every attack, and chipped away at Isaac’s body, piece by piece.

But, second by second, her movements got faster.  Clumsier, with more raw aggression than finesse.  She left an opening with her palefire here, missed a sword stroke there or let a dart slice across her forehead, sending blood trickling down her face.

She’s running out of air.  And getting desperate.  Grace wheezed, gasping for breath, her skin turning a faint shade of blue.

But even a choking, oxygen-starved Grace wielded far more power than them.

The blood from her forehead cut trickled into her mouth, and she spat, shooting a globule of red spittle into Isaac’s eyes like a bullet.

Isaac jerked to the side, but the liquid still splattered into one of Isaac’s eyes, making him flinch.  It hissed, steam coming off of it, and Isaac screamed.  She heated it to a boil in her mouth.

Isaac staggered back, clutching his eye, and Grace jumped forward, slashing down with her stolen black rapier, an attack that would split him from shoulder to hip.

Before the blade could touch him, Florence blew a gust of air at Isaac, knocking him backwards off the blimp, out of the way.

Isaac dropped towards the sea, blood streaming out of the stump where his leg had been.  He vanished beneath the zeppelin, falling out of sight.

A second later, he flew back up, above the blimp, projecting into his armor.  The blood stopped dripping from his leg stump, projected into a bandage with his control over water.

Grace’s cuts, however, kept bleeding, running over her black shoes, soaking into her socks.  No projected bandages for her.  She cared about defeating Isaac and Florence, nothing else.  Tunnel Vision.  Her Praxis Vocation, living up to its name.

She turned to Florence, her chest heaving, and unleashed an inferno.

A wave of Palefire exploded across the sky, bright as the sun, turning night into day.  It enveloped Florence on all sides before she could blink, impossible to dodge.

Florence whipped the air around her into a sphere, a thick barrier of nitrogen to choke off the flames and prevent them from getting close.

Through a narrow gap in the flames, Florence watched purple lightning explode in a storm around Grace.  Her Pith is getting tired.  She didn’t fly around, either, standing on the blimp to conserve her soul’s energy.

The pale flames crashed into Florence’s shield, pushing in on all sides.  The world turned white, a blinding light shining in from every angle.

The wave of heat came next, searing Florence’s skin, making her eyes burn, turning her air cocoon into an oven.

Smoke rose off of Florence’s black combat suit.  The fire filled her mind, drowning out almost everything but the pain, and Florence screamed, writhing in the air.

But she held onto her cocoon.  Green lightning crackled around her from the sheer effort, but the palefire didn’t get through.

And she kept choking Grace, too.

Pain is good.  It meant her nerve endings were still intact.  The burns aren’t that bad.

Florence pushed her bubble of air outwards, making a few gaps in the fire she could see through.

Beneath her, holes tore open in the blimp’s metal roof, and a series of bombs flew out, shooting at Florence from below.  They ranged from as small as a baseball to as large as a person.

A storm of darts shot out from Isaac, and tiny chunks of metal ripped from the roof.  They slammed into the bombs midair, detonating them before they got close to Florence.  A thundering series of booms rang out, like an entire lightning storm compressed into three seconds.

Shockwaves washed over Florence, making her ears ring.  Each strong enough to rip apart a man’s internal organs.  Green lightning crackled around her, and her headache tripled, making her shake, but Florence’s bubble of air protected her from the worst effects.

Chunks of shrapnel punched through her air barrier, tiny shards of metal flying at the speed of bullets.  Most of them curved around her, deflected by her Autonomous Bullet Defense.  Florence darted around, twisting her body to reduce her profile and get hit by less.

But her Voidsteel sense flicked on for some of the metal.  It ignored Florence’s defenses, and punched through her arms, legs, and the side of her stomach, drawing blood.

Blood spurted into the air, and stabbing pain flared up all over Florence’s body.  Before she could move, cables burst out of the blimp’s roof and wrapped around her legs.

Florence blew air upwards through her wings, pushing herself away from the cables.  But they grabbed on even tighter, holding her down and squeezing the veins on her legs.  Green lightning crackled around her, and it felt like hammers were bashing her skull, but she didn’t budge.

Sniper rifles emerged from the roof, aiming at Florence.  At the same time, a pale fireball expanded in Grace’s palm, an attack that would envelop Grace, burn her to a crisp.  I don’t have the strength to block it anymore.  And the cables prevented her from dodging the Voidsteel bullets that would come from the rifles.

At the same time, green lightning flickered around Isaac.  A single dart rose above his head, shaking from the sheer energy he poured into it.  A single strike.  But Grace’s eyes flickered towards it, aware.

She’s ready to dodge.  One overwhelming attack wouldn’t be enough.

Isaac shot it at the roof of the blimp.

It impacted below Grace’s feet with a thundering boom.  Even within her bubble, Florence could hear the explosion.

The metal shell crumpled, caving in at the point of impact.  Half a second later, an orange fireball blossomed from within.  Isaac hit their explosive magazine.

The zeppelin exploded, like a water balloon struck with an arrow.  The blast rocked through the air, and ripped the zeppelin in half.  Shrapnel and fire flew in every direction.

The pieces of the blimp dropped to the ground.  Tunnel Vision leapt back, flying into the air.  The cables binding Florence snapped, freeing her limbs, and the guns pointing at her fell away with the burning zeppelin.

For a moment, none of them moved.  Grace and Isaac and Florence hovered in the night air, green and purple lightning crackling around them.  A summer breeze blew over the water, cooling the sweat on Florence’s clothes.

We’re all exhausted.  Even Grace’s Pith was crackling, showing the effort from this fight and her previous bout with Sebastian and Penny Oakes.  You’ll pay for that, witch.

Florence and Isaac wheezed, catching their breaths as the zeppelin parts crashed into the water, sinking into the ocean.  But Grace had no breath to catch.  Florence’s air projection still blocked her mouth and nose, stopping her from drawing breath.

She stared at Florence.  Her eyes had turned bloodshot, and the skin on her face had become an even deeper blue.

But still, Grace Acworth took the time to pause, and analyze her opponent.  To calculate her final strategy.

Then she leapt up, and shot straight at Florence, shooting a wall of fire behind her to cut off her retreat.  She moved ten times as fast as before, her tangled brown hair streaming behind her.

Florence blew a massive gust at Grace to push her back, strong enough to flip over a tank.

Grace barely slowed down.  She zipped in front of Florence and swung down with her obsidian sword in her right hand, aiming to cut Florence in half.

Florence’s Voidsteel sense pinged her around Grace’s left sleeve.

Florence blew herself to the side, dodging the cut.  As she did, a hilt flew out of Grace’s left sleeve, and a Voidsteel knife blade shot out of it.

Grace stabbed at Florence with the knife, and Florence dodged it.

Then a broken Obsidian blade shot out of Grace’s sleeve, ripped from another rapier.  It sunk into Florence’s left thigh, and Florence hissed in pain.

Florence blew herself further to the side, and Grace yanked the blade out.  Blood spurted out of Florence’s thigh, pouring down the leg of her combat suit with agonizing pain, but she could still move it.  Grace didn’t hit any nerves.  The Voidsteel wouldn’t cripple her.

Then the sword and dagger came at her again, two slashes from opposite sides, and Florence had to dodge again, leaning back with a gust of air.  The obsidian blade grazed her collar, and palefire shot out of it.

Purple lightning crackled around Grace’s hands, and the flame seared Florence’s neck, making the skin sizzle.  Florence hissed again, as the pain exploded in her mind.

But one thought cut through all the agony, as Florence blew herself away again.  That’s less fire than before.  With less accuracy, too.  And the purple lightning meant Grace was straining her Pith.

We’re making progress.  Grace had almost run out of energy, oxygen.  As she slashed and burned at Florence, her hands shook, every slash getting slower, clumsier.

Isaac flew above Grace, getting close.  With no darts left, he shot chunks of shrapnel at Grace, putting enough mass on them to punch through her weakened ABD.  She dodged, interrupting her strikes, putting all her effort into avoiding the projectiles as they curved towards her.

Grace dodged in a blur, but Florence hit her with a gust.  One of the chunks of shrapnel clipped her arm, slicing through the edge of her bicep.

Grace’s eyes widened for a moment, in pain.  Her dodging stopped, and she fell through the air, turning upside down.  An opening.

And in that fraction of a second, Isaac shot down, closer, within range of her swords, drawing a single, final Voidsteel dart from his armor.  All it takes is one.

And then Isaac froze.  Stopped moving, midair.

A purple deceleration shield crackled around Grace’s toes, passing through Isaac’s legs from behind.

A trap.  She’d taken the hit on purpose, putting herself in a position where Isaac wouldn’t be looking at her legs.

And Isaac’s foot was stuck, unable to accelerate through the shield.

Grace stabbed her black rapier forward, and Isaac shot his last Voidsteel dart at it.  The obsidian blade shattered in Grace’s hand, chunks of dark shrapnel flying in every direction.  One of them stabbed into Isaac’s shoulder.

Grace relaxed her palm, letting the obsidian hilt fall past her.

And she unleashed hellfire.  Isaac couldn’t dodge this time, couldn’t block the overwhelming waves of pale flames, burning white with sheer heat, crackling with purple electricity from Grace’s Pith.  Florence blew a shield of air around him, but she was too far away, too tired.

The flames wrapped around Isaac’s body, turning him into a pale, glowing silhouette, writhing in the air.

Florence’s wind drowned out his screams, but she could still hear them, faint.

Then Grace closed her fist, and the fire sputtered out, dissolving into the air.

What emerged barely looked human.  Isaac’s armor and skin had been burnt to a blackened crisp.  His helmet had been torn off, and his hair underneath had been incinerated, too.  Florence couldn’t make out the features on his face, the color of his eyes, even whether he was conscious or not.

Florence choked.  No.

For a moment, Isaac hovered in the air, suspended by his projection.

Then he dropped out of the sky, a blackened figure spiraling into the dark air.  As he fell, his suit jerked him up in short bursts, slowing his descent.  Green lightning crackled around him each time, but he didn’t fly back up, and his body still hung limp.

He’s still conscious.  And had just enough strength in his Pith to lower himself to the water.

Paragon students were trained to confirm the kill.  I won’t let you, Grace.  Florence held a bubble of hardened air around the Pyre Witch, holding her in place as she kept losing oxygen, her nose and mouth blocked with Florence’s other projection.

Grace thrashed, writhing in the air, losing control more and more as her brain screamed for oxygen.

Then Isaac fell out of sight, and Grace relaxed her limbs.  She stared at Florence, not strangling, not gasping for air or panicking.  She didn’t even look winded.  An act.

How?  How has she not choked out already?  Why is she still conscious?

An awful hunch came to Florence, and she gathered a massive gust around her.  She blew it from beneath Grace, pushing the woman’s brown hair up, away from the rest of her body.

At the same time, Florence blew herself up and forward, flipping through the air to get a glimpse of Grace’s back.

As she saw Grace’s exposed skin, her stomach clenched.  No.

A narrow red hole had been drilled in the back of Grace’s neck.  During the fight, she’d covered it with her long hair, preventing the Guardians from noticing.

She must have stabbed herself with Oakes’ sword.  Minutes ago, before the fight even began.  She anticipated this.  And the hole didn’t bleed, which meant she knew how to use some Joining after all.

Florence’s projection had blocked her mouth and nose, but Grace could still breathe out of the back of her neck.

Grace’s thrashing, her blue skin and bloodshot eyes.  It was all an act.  She had all the oxygen she needed.

Again.  She played us again.  They’d worked so hard, putting all their effort into buying time, choking her.  All for naught.

And Florence’s had spent almost all of her Pith.  Flying back here had taken quite a bit of energy.  Her gusts grew weak.  Every movement of the air felt like trying to lift a mountain.  And just floating in the air was enough to make green lightning crackle around her body.

Grace looked exhausted, too, purple lightning crackling around her as she darted forward.

But Florence couldn’t dodge her in time.

As Florence blew herself away, a shard of the obsidian blade stabbed her in the lung.

Florence flipped back, and Grace threw the shard forward, punching it into her stomach.  The obsidian pulled itself out of her intestines with a spurt of blood.  It spun through the air, and Grace caught it.

Agony exploded in Florence’s belly and chest, an overwhelming ache that made it impossible to think.  The stabbing pain tripled as she breathed in, blood pouring into her left lung.

She wobbled in the air, blood dripping down her torso, unsteady.  Green lightning crackled around her from the mere effort of staying afloat, a throbbing headache building in the back of her skull.

Florence released the air in front of Grace’s face, too exhausted to maintain it.

It’s over.  Florence’s Pith didn’t have the energy to keep fighting.  The long flight, battering back Grace’s flames, all the wounds.   They’d all taken their toll on her.

Florence’s Pith slipped out of her combat suit, snapping back inside her body.  Half a second later, Grace projected into it, snapping Florence’s arms to her sides, holding her in place.

Grace floated through the dark air, holding her green dagger in a bloody fist.  She stopped in front of Florence, staring at her old squadmate.

Always confirm the kill.  That’s what they’d been taught, what Florence told her students.  What Grace’s Vocation pushed her to do.  Florence didn’t have the strength to fight back anymore.

Grace Acworth stared into her eyes, holding Florence’s gaze.  Wind blew through the night air, ruffling her tangled brown hair.

Then Grace’s Pith pulled out of the armor, and Florence fell through the sky.

Her stomach dropped, and wind whipped past her.  Blood spurted out of her stomach and chest, droplets trailing into the air, reflecting pale moonlight from above.  Every breath sent excruciating pain throughout her chest.

Florence’s eyes fluttered open and shut, the world growing blurry and distant around her.  She sent a gust of wind upwards through her suit, jerking herself to a halt and slowing her fall.  The effort made her skull feel like it was imploding, and made green lightning crackle around her.

But it’s enough.  It could slow her fall just enough to keep her alive.  And the worst wounds had been with a non-Voidsteel blade, so her Joining could keep her alive and help her heal, since she couldn’t transfer out.

Grace floated high above her, shrinking in the distance.  Cold eyes stared down at Florence, as she tumbled through the darkness.

We failed.  They’d known the odds going in, but there had been a sliver of hope.  But we failed.  The missiles would be secure, but Grace had the Lavender Book now.  Who knew what she would do to the country, once she learned the secrets within?

But despite all that,  all the pain, Florence smiled, and a quiet sense of calm grew inside her.

Grace had a Praxis Vocation pushing her to be more ruthless.  She’d been trained as a Guardian to not take mercy on her enemies.

But she’d spared Florence and Isaac.  She’d spared her friends, when she’d had the chance to finish both of them.

Florence sighed, coughing up blood from her windpipe.  We might never see her again.  Win or lose.  Florence and Isaac might succumb to their injuries before they reached the shore, or before Isaac found a replacement body.

But this was a fitting goodbye.

Florence dropped towards the water, closing her eyes.

Thank you, Grace.  Thank you.

Florence would remember this.

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11 thoughts on “12-C – Florence Tuft

  1. Hi all! Merry almost-Christmas. Got a long chapter for you today, though in many ways, a very straightforward one. Lots of plot and fight scenes. Big climactic showdowns. Spinning a plane like a buzz saw. These sorts of big combat scenes are always fun to brainstorm, but very difficult to write out, mostly because it carries higher demands on the prose. So I hope it’s enjoyable. And there are some relevant character notes in there, so as always, I hope those hit right as well.

    We’ve still got plenty of chapters left in Episode 12, and one more Episode after that. And I continue to pray for the full return of TopWebFiction, so that Pith can be listed. Thanks for reading!

  2. Small nitpick: Isaac roaring when he gets impaled in the leg implies that he roars in pain, despite him having (presumably) lost feeling below the waist.

  3. It… is becoming less and less enjoyable to read, sadly. Grace is fun, but I think it is a flaw of the story to have her beat everyone back to back, because it’s just… expected, at that point. There’s no tension. We knew from the get-go she would win the previous fight. We knew from the get-go she would win this fight. We know she’ll win the next fight too, until she gets defeated by the main characters later down the line.

    Faceless mooks bite the dust, but your villains don’t die. Maybe they will later, but right now, there isn’t much suspense at all in fights involving them, I would say.

  4. This story is amazing. For a talentless reader, I’m very picky about the media I consume. I blame r/rational for exposing me to intelligent stories, but it’s also what got me to start reading this.

    You manage to make the highs higher and the lows lower than almost any other dark fantasy, without going overboard and being campy yet sadistic.

    I CARE ABOUT QUEEN SULFUR and while I hate to see any developed characters die, it adds an awesome sense of realism and discards plot armor. Off screen deaths of characters in battles are hard to swallow, so you make sure we’re right there in the passenger seat while these badass superhumans get wrecked.

    To the reviewer who said it was getting less enjoyable because Grace is OP, I think it follows the story quite well. An elite upper class trying to remain oblivious to the problems of the common folk after they opened the biggest can of worms in public history. A person with an optimizing power who has traded her old sense of self in the pursuit of a goal that has become her identity. Who used that power to find Forbidden Jitsu.

    Anyway. I’ve binged this far in a week, devouring years of your writing, and while I think the writing has been strong from the beginning, it’s pretty obvious you’ve been improving, and THE COMBAT IS SO BADASS

    BUZZSAW PLANE. AHAAAA

    Thank you so much! I’ll be voting on TWF and I’ll make a more concise review on Royal Road, along with joining your Patreon.

  5. Seriously, the Guardians keep trying to 1v1 and 2v1 Grace, feeding into some hero trope, of course they are gonna be punished. It’s their hubris and claiming to be wary of her while still underestimating her because of the ego they’ve gotten from being the war vets and teachers

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