13-A The Butterfly’s Dilemma

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

“Write the next page,” said Kaplen.

He lay back on the grassy ledge behind Alabaster Hall, next to Tasia and me.  We stared up at the moons overhead.

“Take responsibility for your soul,” he said.  “And write the next page.  Even if it’s the weakest, faintest effort, you can still finish it.  Then the next one, and the next.”

I thought back to some of my recent exploits.  Helping Lorne Daventry bully other students.  Scrubbing the floors of Clementine’s house, a mobster who hurt innocents.  I did all that to survive, but what if I didn’t?  What would be the meaning of all those hard choices, then?

“What if the book gets destroyed?” I said.  “What if you work so hard to write the next page, and then realize you were writing the wrong ones this whole time?  That you were building the wrong foundations for your soul?”

“In my experience,” said Kaplen, sitting up.  “When your sense of self gets annihilated, you have a choice.”  A cool breeze blew through his hair, and he stretched his hand above him, pointing his finger at the sky.  “You can let yourself wither.  Or keep writing, and find out who you really want to be.”

“I hope I write a soul that I’m proud of,” I said.

“Me too,” said Tasia.

Kaplen leaned over and hugged Tasia, then me.  “Well,” he said.  “I’m already proud of both of you.”

The moon shone down on us.  I returned the hug, squeezing him tight.  Holding back my tears.

Please, I thought.  Let it be worth it.  Let it be worth it.

________________________________________

I slumped over on my chair, my arms and legs squeezed down with metal cables.  The purple sun shone overhead, casting Grace Acworth’s office in a dim lavender glow.

Nausea bubbled up in my stomach, growing stronger by the second.  A throbbing headache assaulted my senses too, worse than before.

I’d cry, but I felt too exhausted.  I’d scream, but I didn’t have the breath.

So I just lay back, shivering, gazing around at the crumbling factory of Grace’s mind.  Staring at my enemy, as she strode forward with her Voidsteel dagger.

Grace picked up the gramophone that had been playing Maxine Clive’s broadcast, and flung it out of the window, too fast for me to catch with my projection.

Then, she slashed the strap on my helmet, pulled it off, then tossed it into her bag, sealing it shut.  The last piece of metal in the room that I could have maybe, maybe used as a weapon.  The chairs were too heavy, Grace was projecting into the cable, and I didn’t have the strength to rip a chunk out of the walls.

Then Grace leaned forward with the knife, raising it to my throat.

“Wait!” I wheezed.  “Wait!  Please.”

She placed the blade against my windpipe, about to slash it.

“Hira’s outside!” I shouted.  “Hira’s waiting outside.”

Grace kept the icy blade against my neck, but didn’t cut my throat.  Waiting.  Her eyes shone in the darkness, the rest of her face covered in shadow.

“Hira’s waiting for me in your submarine,” I said.  “With both her bodies, a fuckload of weapons, and more energy in her Pith than both of us combined.”  My breaths grew rapid, short, and I talked faster and faster.  “You’re not strong enough to beat her, not in your state.  Not in a fair fight, when you’re this exhausted.  If you kill me, you’ll have to deal with her.”

“My crew is disciplined,” said Grace, massaging a scab on her neck.  “They will not allow your friend to control the sub.  I can wait to regain my strength.”

“I don’t know how this place works,” I said.  “But I do know that it’s breaking down.  You won’t be able to stay here much longer.  Kill me, and she’ll butcher you, and be thrilled doing it.”  My voice turned into a bitter hiss.  “She’ll blow up your submarine, wait for you to swim out, and cut your fingers off.”  I inhaled, choking down the nausea.  “So let’s talk.  Let’s make a deal.  Please, Grace.  We don’t have to fight.”

Grace sighed, removed her knife from my throat, and sat down on the chair opposite me.

For now, she wasn’t killing me.

I leaned forward on the metal cables, exhaling.  Still tight.  Grace didn’t loosen her grip.  The stomachache exploded with new intensity.  If I wasn’t bound to this chair, I would have doubled over.

We stared at each other, silent.  I threw a basic illusion over her, using it to flatten my body language so I wouldn’t give anything away.  Out of sight, a chunk of metal fell from the factory, crashing into the ice of the lake below.  A chill breeze whistled through the holes in the wall.  In the back of my mind, my internal clock vocation measured the time.

For several minutes, neither of us spoke.  For what seemed like an eternity, the two of us just watched each other, wary, exhausted, catching our breath.  I clenched my teeth, forcing myself to stay awake.  It could have been five minutes.  It could have been an hour.

Then, I spoke.

“You were right,” I said, my voice faint.  “I saw your memories.  You were right about Paragon this whole time.”

Grace snickered, then broke out into laughter.  “You topple our whole revolution,” she said.  “You murder scores of our people.”   Her shoulders shook as she guffawed.  “And now, you see the obvious.”

“You don’t care, though,” I said.

Grace shook her head, slow.  “Max might have still recruited you.  After everything you’ve done, that woman would have forgiven you.”  She stared at me.  “I am not Max.”

“I don’t want to join Commonplace,” I said.

She doesn’t want to let me live.  But she hadn’t killed me yet.  She’s stalling.  I had some guesses as to why.

“You were right,” I said.  “So why did you hire people like Clementine?  Why did you have to scam my parents?”  My voice lowered to just above a whisper.  “Why did you have to hurt Kaplen?

“Who?” said Grace.

“A boy,” I said through clenched teeth.  “A kind, blameless boy, who found himself at Lyna Wethers’ yacht party.  After you freed her from prison to make Paragon look bad.”

“She hijacked him?”

“He’s dead,” I said.  “He forced me to help his suicide.”

“I’m sorry,” said Grace.

The stomachache was pure agony.  A corkscrew twisting through my gut, just like the night I’d met Isaac Brin.  It made it difficult to think.  But I tried anyway.

I glanced at Tunnel Vision’s off hand, at the Lavender Book in her tight grip.  I’m not strong enough to pull it out of her grasp.

Then I glanced at the other book on the far wall, behind her.  Could I use that as a weapon?  It sat far away, and I wasn’t Wes – I couldn’t control paper that well.  But it’s something, at least.  Grace hadn’t put it in her bulging duffel bag.  Maybe it’s too full.  And the book seemed important to her.

I reached my Pith forward, starting to stretch it towards the book.

Then Grace stretched her hand behind her, and the metal wall crumbled behind the book, and it went tumbling towards the lake, a new hole opening in the side of the factory.  I felt no loose scrap metal around the hole.  No weapon.

Grace glanced back at the noise, then back to me.  Now, there was truly nothing else I could use in this room.  It was all in Grace’s bag, or her hands, or her projection.  Bypassing my illusions.

“Where are we?” I mumbled.  “None of this should be possible with projection.”

“Akhara’s Gate,” said Grace.  “An artifact.  A shard of projection, frozen in time and fitted to my Pith.”  That’s still impossible.

“It’s seen better days,” I said.  Why is she telling me all of this?

Grace nodded.  “My Praxis Vocation shaped my mind towards a single goal.  It failed.  I have spent myself, and this world reflects that.  For now.”

“You had the truth,” I said.  “You were right.  So why did you need all this cruelty?  Was there no other way to win the public?  To make the necessary funds?  Why?  Has your Praxis Vocation consumed that much of your soul?”

Grace hunched over, exhausted too.  “Why did you kill so many for Isaac Brin?  Why did you join Lorne Daventry in his bullying?  Why did you give a speech that turned this nation into a maelstrom of rage against its Shenti citizens?”

“I thought – “ I said.  “I thought it was necessary.  I didn’t think I had a choice.”

“You have answered your own question.”

“I’m barely twenty,” I hissed.  “I was dying.  What’s your excuse?”

“Even as you killed and suffered,” Grace said.  “This world sheltered you from its worst transgressions, its deepest horrors.  Knowing what you know now, how would you have fixed this nation?  Our elected officials were all being hijacked.  Peaceful protests were suppressed, ignored and dismissed by society.”

“Yeah.”

“The world was never simple,” she said.  “You just thought it was.  The parliament of this nation is beyond saving.  They will never act against their masters.”

What?  “Parliament is dead,” I said.  “A gas attack.  You killed them all.”

Grace’s eyes widened a fraction, a hint of surprise passing over her face.  “We never planned for that.  We wanted to hold a trial, show the world.  We didn’t even bring lethal gas to the library.”  She clenched her teeth.

“You said they were hijacked,” I said.  “You hate them.”  I took deep, slow breaths to stifle the nausea, coughing.

Paragon killed parliament, book-burner,” said Grace.  “It had to be them.  It covered their tracks, gave them martyrs.  And now, it gives them pretext to return this nation to the Conclave of the Wise.  They must have a bomb on that level of the library, as a precaution for when Parliament gets holed up there.”

“Or you did it,” I said.  “And you’re passing it off as a false flag.  Just like your Nudge terrorism.”

Grace shook her head.  “Why would I lie to you now?”

“If that’s true,” I said.  “If Paragon killed Parliament, and not you.  Then it’s your fault that they had an excuse.  They used your revolution to crack down, and now what little democracy we had is peeling at the edges.”

“This was inevitable,” said Grace.  “Without us, they would have done it years ago, in a less violent and entirely legal manner.  This is a conspiracy beyond your comprehension, with plans for humanity that stretch beyond the deepest horrors you can imagine.”  She rubbed her eyes, dark circles underneath them, dried blood staining her cheeks.  “At least I tried to fight it.  At least I put my life on the line for something worthy.  Have you ever heard the parable of the Ant and the Beetle?”

“I saw it,” I said, shivering.  “When Professor Keswick explained it to you.”  The story about the self-sacrificing ant in the flood, and the selfish beetle who survived.

“Ah,” she said.  “Then you witnessed my shame.  When I caved to Tybalt and helped him get away with his crime.”

“You couldn’t have beat him in combat,” I said.  “And Paragon wouldn’t have believed you.  You made the right choice.”

“Yes,” said Grace.  “That is the difference between us.  I am an ant.  You are a beetle.  You have protected yourself and justified it, again and again, even if it meant letting the world crumble.”

Is it really that simple?  I’d stood by Paragon, even when they weren’t looking out for me.  I’d refused to steal other people’s bodies, even after I’d been expelled from Paragon, and after Lorne had lifted the tracer on me.

I killed so many people in the field.  I could have captured one of them, taken their body and left them to wither away in mine.  Like Lorne had done right in front of me, when Deon was already dead. While I just watched.

But I never did.  And yes, a brute-force transference took energy and time.  Yes, I was more familiar with this body for battles.  But that wasn’t all.

I didn’t want to be a thief again.  I wanted to be a hero.  Or, a part of me did.  A silly, delusional part that refused to die.

And now look at me.

“But I have this now.”  Grace held up the Lavender Book.  The Voidsteel lock on the cover had been ripped open.  A broken mechanism lay on the inside, some kind of bomb she’d disarmed, designed to explode and incinerate the pages if someone tried to force the book open.  “I’ll have all the answers I need to reshape this rotting planet.”

“Answers?” I said.

“You’ve been told,” said Grace.  “That the Lavender Book contains vocation codexes.”  She shook her head.  “A lie.“

“Then what’s in it?”

“The truth,” she said.  Grace finished prying off the lock, and flipped the book open for the first time, staring at the pages.

She squinted, flipping through to the end, then random points in the middle.  Her teeth clenched, and her grip tightened on the book, her hands shaking.  She slammed the book shut, and threw it in her bag, angry.

“Worthless,” she muttered.  “Fucking worthless.

What did she see in there?

Stabbing pain exploded in my stomach, even worse than before.  I gnashed my teeth.  The fear overwhelmed my thoughts, my senses, everything, making my limbs twitch.

“You’re not going to make a deal with me,” I said.  “Are you?”

Grace looked at me like I was an insect, some repulsive bug that she had to squash as quick as possible.  She shook her head.

“You were never going to let me live, were you?” I said.  “Even with Hira outside.”

She shook her head again.  The steel cables tightened around my arms, pressing into my skin.

I don’t have much time left.

So I asked Grace Acworth my final question.  “Do you feel any regret?” I said.  “For the innocents you’ve hurt.  Your Nudge terrorism.  Kaplen.  Me.”

“Once,” said Grace.  “But my Vocation got rid of that.”  She clenched her fist.  “And if I could go back, I’d do it all over again.”

I sighed, a faint breath of air escaping my lips, that turned into a wheezing cough, my lungs burning.  Alright, then.

“But I am sorry, Anabelle Gage.”  She stared at me.  “I am sorry for the life I cursed you with.”

The two of us made eye contact.  A breeze blew through the holes in the wall, and purple sunlight made Grace’s eyes shine.  My stomach felt ready to burst.

“We’ve committed great sins, the two of us,” Grace said, her voice quiet.  “It would take a lifetime to atone for them.  Unfortunately, you don’t have that long.”

My eyes fluttered shut, then snapped open.  The world blurred in and out around me, a purple maelstrom of reality and thought.

I do pity you, poor thing, whispered Clementine.  Even if you fail, said Isaac Brin, you’ll still get to protect the people of this nation.

Life passes in blinks, said Jun, and then you die.

Your minds are the most beautiful gifts in existence, said Maxine Clive.  And you are wasting them, on a thousand elaborate reasons for the boot to stomp on a face.

Grace stood up from her metal chair and dragged it over to mine.  Her knife blade shot back into the hilt, and she tucked it into her belt.

Most caterpillars die in the cocoon, I thought.  Most caterpillars die in the cocoon.  Most caterpillars die in the cocoon.

I’d walked beside death so many times, fought so many battles.  I’d been beaten, shot at, almost drowned.

But now that I stared death in the face, sliding towards it, I thought that I might see something profound.  The meaning of my struggle.  Some deep coda to build a vast and beautiful narrative out of my pain.

When I’d met Isaac Brin, bleeding out on that boat almost a year ago, I pictured death as a light, warm and embracing, a brief cocktail of tranquility before my soul was extinguished.

Now, I just saw darkness.  An infinite, final silence, rushing towards me at the speed of sound.

Wes’ grin flashed through my memory.  Hira’s faces, Jun’s warm smile.  Cardamom, purring and curled up next to me.  My body relaxed, no longer shivering.  The stomachache paused for a moment.

I’m glad, at least, I thought.  I got to make some friends.  It wasn’t enough, but I was glad for that.  I could have shriveled up on my own, in a homeless shelter or a prison.  This way, I got a year with a little less loneliness than usual.

I could make peace with that.

“You’ve guessed,” said Grace.  “Why I haven’t made a deal with you.”

“I disgust you,” I said.  “And so does Hira.  You think both of us deserve to die, no matter how many apologies I made.  No matter what words I say.”

Grace nodded.

“But why haven’t you killed me already?”

“Because you were right,” said Grace.  “If I fight your friend Hira in this state, I’ll lose.”  She stepped next to my chair, standing over me.  “So,” she said.  “I’m going to be you.”

My nausea grew, overwhelming, and the room seemed to drop two degrees.  “What?”

“Copycat is no fool,” said Grace.  “The moment she sees you walk out of this place, she’ll use her Vocation on you and confirm your identity.  If she senses an imposter, she’ll attack.”

I strained against the metal cables, giving myself friction burns on my exposed neck, casting my Pith around the room for something, anything.  But Grace held me tight.  And I found nothing.

“But now that I’ve talked to you,” said Grace.  “I have a pretty good sense of your personality and skills and thoughts.”  She adopted a withdrawn, nervous expression, slouched her right shoulder, and exhaled.

The motions looked familiar, on a deep, unconscious level.  She’s mimicking my body language.  Perfectly.  That was why she’d stalled, instead of murdering me right away.

“My Praxis Vocation has been working double-time,” Grace said, in a voice that sounded eerily like mine.  “You’ve been using illusions to flatten your body language, but you’re tired, too.  Every time I say something that shocks you, it slips, and I see your true face.”

That’s her Vocation’s new goal.  Mimicking me.

“And now that I’ve fed it a bit, I’m certain that I can fool your friend’s Vocation.  And my crew responds to codes, not bodies.  They won’t attack me, either.”

I clenched my teeth, pushing my attention away from the agony in my stomach.  “It won’t work,” I said.  “Hira will find out.  There are nuances that your Vocation can’t copy.  And you can’t make illusions, either.”

Grace nodded.  “Yeah,” she said.  “She’ll find out soon enough.  That’s why I’m going to kill her right away.”

The world dropped out from under me.  I felt dizzy, like I was falling, another sensation to add to the imploding furnace in my belly.

“Palefire to the eyes plus a bullet or two ought to do the job,” said Grace to herself.  “Just need to get the drop on her.”  She looked down at me.  “And she’s sure to give me a bit of leeway,” she said.  “After I show her that I’ve killed Tunnel Vision.”

She’s going to swap us and kill me.

“And now that I’ve revealed this to you,” she said.  “I know what your shocked reactions look like.”  She clenched her teeth and narrowed her eyes, mimicking my surprise and tension.

“Wait,” I said.  “Please.  There has to be a different way.  You don’t have to do this.  Take me, please don’t kill Hira.”  The nausea and stomachache kept growing and growing.  It felt like a miracle that I hadn’t thrown up already.  That my intestines hadn’t burst on the spot.  “I have a backdoor!” I shouted.  “Hira has a code that only I know!  She won’t respond to anything else!”

Tunnel Vision ignored my desperate lies, sat down on the chair across from me, and placed her palm on my forehead.  Pressure exploded at the point of contact, and blue lightning exploded around me in a panicked storm.  Purple lightning exploded around her, showing the effort for her, too.

Forced transference.  One of the few Whisper vocations that relied on brute force.

Which meant, to force my Pith out, Grace had to overpower me.  And I could fight back.

I screamed, clenched every muscle in my body, and held my soul inside my body, tensing my Pith like I was taking an endless inhale.  Heat spread across my skin, and the tips of my fingers and toes went numb.

No!” I screamed.  A force pushed against Grace, holding me in my body, but she smashed through it like a sledgehammer through porcelain.  The numbness spread to my feet, my legs, my arms, as I felt my Pith flowing out of my body, ripped out of me by the inexorable force of Grace’s soul.

Then my body vanished, and the pain with it.  No more stomachache.  No more nausea.  I floated in the black void, dissolved into liquid.  I could feel the empty space around me, pulling at me, breaking apart my mind at the edges.

A dot of light flickered in the distance, and grew to fill my vision, wiping out the darkness.

And I watched the world through two sets of eyes.

Anabelle Gage, the Blue Charlatan, sat draped against the chair, held down by a projected metal cable.  A square-jawed boy with a thick forehead, wide shoulders, and balding grey hair.  Wearing a torn blue combat suit, grey veins bulging out of the gaps.  Eyes wide with shock, fear, pain.

A loathsome, decaying cage, that I’d been locked in for over a decade.  Thanks to Paragon’s elite indifference.  Thanks to Grace’s willingness to exploit that.  And thanks to my failure.

Grace Acworth, Tunnel Vision, the Pyre Witch, sat back against the opposite chair, gripping the other body’s forehead, blue and purple lightning swirling where they touched.  A tall young woman with long, tangled brown hair, blood staining her face, her suit jacket, her skirt.

Her eyes glinted in the dim purple light.  Staring forward.

From this angle, it almost looked like they were burning.

Then Grace Acworth’s body vanished, the second set of vision popped out of existence, and I found myself gazing at my own body.

I’d avoided mirrors as much as possible over the last few years.  I’d pulled myself into the abstract world of my mind to avoid thinking about that masculine chassis.  I’d fought, worked myself until I collapsed, just to distract myself from that repulsive face.  The agonizing pain had grown so ordinary, a constant piercing background noise that blended into my daily life.

And now, I’d been freed of it.  Even if just for a few seconds.  I’m grateful for that, too.

Grace Acworth’s body felt tired, from its head to its toes.  Every muscle ached, and the cold bit into my skin, making goosebumps prickle up and down my arms.  I felt the sting of recent wounds on the back of her neck, her legs, and smelled the unpleasant stench of dried blood and ash in my nostrils.

But compared to five minutes ago, it felt like a palace.  I could feel all my limbs, all my fingers and toes.  I wasn’t as cold as an icicle, and my breathing was smooth, easy.  The intense ache in my gut had vanished.

I’d forgotten how much pain I was in.  After so much constant suffering, an ordinary body seemed like a miracle.

As I recovered from the shock of the transfer, my old body flung its hand forward.  The metal cable unwrapped from its chair and wrapped around mine, holding me down again before I could stand up.

I pushed back against the cables, straining, my muscles clenching.  I felt stronger in this body, too, a breathtaking power that most people took for granted.  Every movement didn’t feel like swimming through quicksand.  Compared to my old body, this one felt light as a minnow.

For more than ten years, I’d been dead.  For a moment, now, I got to be alive.

Grace stood up in my body, wobbling on my sprained ankle, and opened the duffel bag she’d been projecting shut.

The pieces of my machine pistol floated out of the bag and slid themselves together, assembling in her palm.  She examined it from every angle, making sure it worked.  She ignored her Voidsteel knife at her waist.

She needs to sell the story to Hira.  Hira had to see ‘Tunnel Vision’ dead from one of my bullets, not a knife wound.

I could throw more illusions on Grace, disguise my position, or invent false enemies to fight.  But I couldn’t move.  She knew my exact location.  And she wouldn’t believe any of my whaleshit.

And my Pith felt tired, so tired.

My old body looked down at me.  Its cracked lips moved, and Grace spoke in a perfect imitation of my old voice, even more surreal when coming from outside my head.

“Goodbye, Anabelle Gage,” my old body said.

She pulled the trigger.  Click.

The grey-haired boy – Grace – removed the clip from the machine pistol and examined it.  Empty.  “Clever,” she said in my voice.  “You emptied the bullets from the clip while they were in the bag.”  She shrugged, and reached into the bag, projecting a stream of bullets out and inserting them into the clip, one at a time.

That only buys me seconds.  I didn’t have the strength to rip the bullets out of the bag, or apply enough force to make them blow up, so that was the best I could do.

As Grace loaded the bullets, I summoned up all the energy in my new body, all the strength in my soul, and I made eye contact with her.  I called out to her, speaking in her voice.

“Your plan to kill Hira,” I said.  “It won’t work.”

“Oh?” said Grace, as she worked.  “Why?”  She pushed in the last bullet and loaded the clip into my machine pistol, gazing down at me with my old body.  A withered, furious chassis, covered in grey rot and swollen veins, bathed in dark purple sunlight.  An exemplar of deformity.

“Because,” I said.  “I’m not a beetle.  And I won’t let you hurt my friends.”

Grace aimed the gun at my forehead.

And she retched.  She gagged, doubling over.  Her hand grabbed the chair for support as she wobbled back and forth, dizzy.

“What did you do?” she hissed.  “What did you do?

She vomited, splattering warm liquid onto my black skirt.  Then she knelt and ripped open the duffel bag, rummaging through, ripping out my cattle prod, my empty bullet shell, my spare ammunition.  All my gear.

I’d seen cold rage from Grace Acworth before.  Calculated focus.  Disgust.

For the first time in my life, I saw her look terrified.

She pulled out my metal pillbox of Ventrinol.  Kraken’s Bone, the poison I’d given to Kaplen.  She flipped it open.

The container was empty.

I’d swallowed every tablet inside.

Grace’s eyes bulged.  And she vomited onto me again, splashing liquid onto my shirt.  I looked down.  Red liquid.  Grace was throwing up blood.

Her arms and hands shook.  Her skin turned pale.  She bent over at my feet, vomiting again and again, a puddle of blood spreading over my combat boots.  Thanks to the Kraken’s Bone, she couldn’t transfer out of the chassis now, either.

“Careful with that body,” I said.  “It’s a piece of shit to handle.”

The tight metal cables around me loosened, as Grace’s Pith drained out of them.  I stood up, throwing off my bonds and knocking the chair over with a clang.

Bent over in front of me, Grace clenched my machine pistol in her shivering hand, steadying herself on the ground.  She started moving it in my direction.

I projected into the hilt of her Voidsteel knife, tucked into her belt.  It yanked itself out of her belt, flipping through the air.  I snatched it and projected into the mechanism inside.

The green dagger blade shot out of the hilt, and I flung it forward and downwards, directing it with projection, the Voidsteel cutting a hole in her ABD.

Grace aimed the gun at me, and the knife thudded beneath her oversized forehead.  It sunk hilt-deep into her grey eye.  My eye.

The machine pistol and pillbox fell out of Grace’s hands.  She slumped onto her back, in a puddle of her own blood.  One eye had a blade embedded in it.  The other stared at the purple sun overhead, unblinking.

Goodbye, Grace Acworth.

When Hira found me, I was staggering through the electric fence in Grace’s body, delirious, covered in blood and stomach acid.

The purple sun had grown faint, and the mist had cleared over the lake, the voices and memories nowhere to be seen.  Both Hiras jogged over the ice.  Right-Hira shone a flashlight through the darkness and held a pistol.  Left-Hira aimed her trench shotgun at me, keeping her distance.  The door must have opened back up.

Where the fuck is Ana?” both bodies growled.  “I’ll give you five seconds, squidfucker.”

I threw an illusion over her, and imagined a bunch of arrows pointing to me, floating in the air.  It’s me, I wrote above my head in bright lights.  My Pith had grown too tired to modify two senses at once.  It’s me.  We swapped bodies.

Then I collapsed onto the snow, face-first.

Hira ran towards me, purple lightning crackling around her hands.  Confirming my identity.  Right-Hira knelt beside me and flipped me over.  Left-Hira pressed a finger to my neck, checking my pulse.  She shone the flashlight into my eyes, over my cut leg and the scab on my neck and all my injuries.

The ground shook, a rumbling earthquake beneath us.  A massive chunk of metal fell off the factory and crashed into the lake.

“Wait here,” said Left-Hira.  “I’ll be right back.”  Both bodies stood up and sprinted into the hole I’d climbed out of.  Into the factory.

The earthquake grew more intense.  I turned my head in the snow, looking out at the world around me.  An avalanche tumbled down a mountainside in the distance, sending up clouds of white snow.  Then the mountain itself fell, crumbling into a pile of rocks.

The rest of the bridge collapsed into the lake.  The pale searchlights in the guard towers went out.  Then the towers themselves tipped over, and crashed into the electric fence.  Grace’s world is falling apart with her Pith.  It meant this wasn’t another act.  Her soul was really crumbling.

The purple sun flickered in the sky like a broken lightbulb.  Then it went out, turning the world pitch black around me.  The snow seeped into my clothes, getting them damp, but I didn’t push myself off of it.  I just lay there, every inch of my body and soul drained of energy.

A few minutes later, both Hiras sprinted out of the factory, shining their flashlight ahead of them through the darkness.  They held my machine pistol, Grace’s Voidsteel dagger, and the Lavender Book Grace had stuffed in her bag.  Left-Hira had slung my old body over her shoulders.

Left-Hira tapped her temple.  “Her Pith was unconscious and fading, but not quite dead.”

Her Vocation.  She’d used it to copy Grace’s passwords and skills, conscious and subconscious.

“Is she gone, now?” I mumbled, looking at my old, greying chassis, limp in her arms.

“Yeah,” said Left-Hira.  “She’s gone.”

The ground shook again, and the far half of the factory crumbled, crashing into the lake.  Time to go.  But I could barely keep myself awake, much less run.

Right-Hira picked me up in his arms, and Hira’s bodies ran across the frozen lake.  Cracks spiderwebbed beneath them, but they kept running.

The ice broke under them, and they projected into the lake beneath them, doing a water walk.  Behind us, the dark silhouette of the factory collapsed with an almighty screech, turning into a pile of scrap metal in the center of the island.

Ahead of us, something rumbled, and another massive avalanche crashed down the cliff ahead, headed straight for us.

Hira doubled her pace, and sprinted onto the shore.

Above us, cracks of pale light spread over the sky itself, like the heavens here were just another frozen lake, a thin layer of ice.  Fissures opened up in the cliffs and mountains surrounding the lake, letting in more light.

Both Hira and the avalanche shot towards the door.  A crack opened in front of the two Hiras, and they leapt, projecting into their clothes with a crackle of purple electricity and pulling them over.

From this angle, I could see the white light shining from below, casting Right-Hira’s face in a pale glow as he carried me.

My eyes fluttered shut, then open again.  In that light, he almost looked mythical.  Like some otherworldly savior, come to save the day.

Then Hira landed on the far side of the fissure.  As the avalanche crashed over us, Left-Hira dove through the door to the submarine, and Right-Hira dove above her.

In unison, Left and Right-Hira reached away from the light.

We emerged from the door in the dark side room of the sub.  Right-Hira tripped over the door and fell, dropping me with a clang onto the metal floor.

Behind us, the violet portal flickered on and off, just like the sun.  Snow rushed over the world inside, blocking our view of the collapse.

The portal vanished, becoming a flat metal wall of the room.  Just an ordinary feature.

Then it flashed back into existence, except the world inside had vanished.  Instead, the door opened up to a pale void, an endless white expanse stretching into infinity.  The lightning around the edges of the door had changed from purple to white.  A blank canvas, now that Grace’s Pith no longer shaped it.

I didn’t get up from the floor.  The world blurred around me.  Everything felt so heavy, so difficult.  I wanted to lie on this cold hard metal for a week, a month, the rest of my life.

Right-Hira picked me up again, and Left-Hira burst through the submarine door.  “Hey!” she shouted.  “Hey!  I need help over here!”  Right-Hira ran after her, keeping close, but with every shout, Left-Hira’s voice sounded more distant.

A pair of sailors came running down the hall, and they stared at Hira with suspicion.  “Who the fuck are you?”

“Marble Provoke Seven-One-Seven-Eight!” shouted Left-Hira.  “Quit fucking around, the boss needs medical attention.”

Confusion pressed in around me.  The boss?  Who is she talking about?

And then Right-Hira adjusted his grip, and a strand of light brown hair fell in my face.  I’m in Grace’s body.  The submarine crew thought I was Grace.

One of the crew members bit his lip.  “I didn’t see you get on the sub.”

“Obviously,” said Left-Hira.  “We came from Akhara’s Gate.  So unless you’re a pneumatology expert, I suggest you stop fucking around and get us to the nearest safehouse.  The boss needs our help.”

The crew members nodded, and ran back down the hallway, towards the bridge of the submarine.

Right-Hira looked down at me, and squeezed my hand.  “Breathe, Tunnel Vision,” he said.  “You won.”

My eyes fell shut.

________________________________________

Clementine Rawlyn thought sleep was a luxury.

When I’d been her servant, she’d kept us working from sunrise to late at night.  On top of that, I had to fit in time every day to study for Paragon’s entrance exam, which drained even more rest out of my schedule.

Then, I’d become a mercenary for Isaac Brin, and a Grey Coat assistant at the same time.  Schoolwork had its demands, Lorne had his demands, and every mission had a mountain of planning and practice to go before it, if I didn’t want to get killed.  So a good night’s rest still eluded me.

Then, I’d become a fugitive, an unpaid, vengeful butcher for the Principality.  My body had decayed to its worst point, and new stresses and revelations bombarded me from all sides.  Meeting Maxine Clive.  My speech on Verity.  Admiral Ebbridge’s Ousting offer, forcing me to compete with Wes.  There, I’d slept plenty, lying on my bed for the vast majority of the day.  But no matter how much I slept, I still felt exhausted, every minute.

So when I woke up now, well-rested, it seemed like a miracle.

The first thing I felt was warmth.  The heat of the soft, heavy bed covers, and the toasty air inside the room itself.  A soft wind blew across my exposed feet, cooling me to the perfect temperature.

My eyes fluttered open, and I found myself lying on a bed with blue sheets, in a wooden bedroom.  Sunlight streamed in through a pair of swirling pale drapes, and a breeze blew through the open window.

Seagulls cawed outside, and I heard waves washing against a shore, smooth and gentle.  A clock ticked on the far wall.  11:05 am.

I bathed in the cozy atmosphere for another minute.

Then I got out of bed.  Not because I had a deadline to meet, or a job to prep for, or a test, or some inane task Lorne or Clementine wanted from me.  I didn’t need some agonizing feat of willpower or discipline.

I got up because I felt like it.  And right now, I didn’t need anything else.

How much of last night was real?  The memory hadn’t faded, but so much had happened, so fast.  It feels too good to be true.  Sooner or later, the floor was going to fall out from under me, and I would realize it was all fake, or pointless, or temporary.

I walked into the hallway, wearing a pair of blue pajamas, and turned into the bathroom to splash water on my face.  I turned on the sink, looked up, and gaped.

A pretty girl in her early twenties or late teens stared at me through the mirror.  Her long brown hair still looked tangled, caked with ash and dried blood.  A hint of eastern features shone through in her hazel eyes and her angular jaw.

I splashed water onto my face, and Grace Acworth gazed back at me, gaping, water dripping from her forehead.

It wasn’t a dream.  She’d really swapped with me.

I blinked, and walked out of the bathroom and down the hallway, into a simple, but well-furnished living room.  Couches and a coffee table sat in the center of the room, on top of a bright yellow rug.  Warm sunlight lit everything in a soft glow, and the sea breeze blew through another set of curtains.

It looked like a beach house from a brochure.  The kind they used to trick you into buying overpriced furniture.  Inviting and simple.  Luxurious without being gaudy.

I’d read magazines like that when I was shopping for Clementine.  I would flip through them in the store, hold the images in my mind, then imagine myself there while I lay in her basement.  The kind of vacation a Guardian could afford.

The Lavender Book sat on the coffee table, unopened, its lock still broken.

I left it there.  I’ll deal with you later.

The breeze blew one of the curtains aside, revealing Left and Right-Hira sitting on a table outside, on a balcony overlooking a beach.  Left-Hira puffed on her purple hookah, and Right-Hira flipped through a notebook.

They saw me and waved me out.  Left-Hira put down the hookah, waving the cherry-scented smoke away.  An unusual act of courtesy.

I stepped out of the sliding glass doors.  Both Hiras grinned at me.  “Morning, slayer.  How does it feel to wake up after 6 am?”

I know that’s Hira.  Both her bodies were prison chassis, so Grace couldn’t have swapped in or out.  And Grace never would have carried me out of Akhara’s Gate.  Only Hira would have saved me.

Exhale, girl.  The Pyre Witch was gone, for good.

“What happened?” I mumbled, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes.  My voice sounded different too, effortlessly high and bright and smooth without me even trying.  I’d heard it so many times before, loathed it, fought against it.

But now, it was mine.

“You felt a bit tired after the battle,” said Left-Hira.  “So you slept in for – “  Right-Hira scribbled some numbers on the notebook.  “ – twenty-nine hours.”

Scholars.  “I slept through an entire day?”

“Yup.”  Right-Hira leaned back in his chair.  “I thought you might be in a coma for a second, but your doctor did a full check-up and told me that you would be fine.  Your Pith just needed a recharge.”

“My doctor,” I said.  Jun’s face flashed through my mind.  He’s gone.

“Tunnel Vision’s doctor,” said Left-Hira.  “You’re the Pyre Witch, now.  Congrats on the promotion.”

“Everyone believed it?” I said.  “They didn’t just kill us on the spot?”

Hira shook her head.  “I copied all of Tunnel Vision’s passwords, remember?  Even the tricky subconscious ones.”

Her Praxis Vocation doing work.  I’d grown so used to Hira’s presence, I’d forgotten her strength, why her father had been so keen on capturing her.

“And they’re used to her acting strange.  The skill-stitching has faded now, but I wrote down all the codes and operating procedures that I could remember.”  She wiggled the notebook between her fingers.  “Plus, it looks like the bitch kept detailed records for almost everything.  Guess she didn’t want to waste memory space in her head.”  She gestured to the beach house around us.  “So, you’ve got the full amenities befitting the head of the Principality’s mob.  With some big caveats, we can get to those later.”

I sat down on a cushioned chair on the deck across from Hira, still half-dazed.  Then I gazed out over the water.  To the north, up the coast, I could make out Mount Elwar, and the various parts of Elmidde.  Hightown, Midtown, Lowtown.  Gestalt and South Islands.  A few of the larger bridges.

And Paragon Academy, half-hidden in a puffy white cloud.  One of its spires had been broken at the top.

A safehouse.  Where Tunnel Vision could be safe, while still being close enough to watch the city.

I leaned back into a sunbeam, bathing in the summer warmth.  “So,” I said.  “Tell me.  Why are you here, sitting with me, and not there, fighting?”  I pointed back at Elmidde.

“The Principality won,” said Left-Hira.  “No more fighting left, for now.  Commonplace was hinging on those missiles and having some time alone with the city.  But Paragon got a warning real fast and got back in time to save everything.”

“Thanks to us.”  Radio Man.  We’d turned the tide, when we killed Radio Man and signalled Paragon’s fleet for help.

In the distance, on the horizon, a pair of battleships sailed towards Elmidde.

Left-Hira raised an eyebrow.  “You don’t sound all that pleased.”

“I killed her.”  I stared at the table.  “I killed Grace.”

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “I was not expecting that.  I thought she’d wreck you, and I’d have to peel her skin off with a bread knife.”  She leaned forward.  “How the fuck did you manage that?”

“I poisoned her,” I said.  “By swallowing my own Kraken’s Bone.  I did it under an illusion, then slid the pillbox back into my pocket before she disarmed me and stuffed it all into her bag.  She thought she had everything covered, but I’d already finished my most critical move.”  She couldn’t predict everything.

Hira whistled.  “That took balls.  Before the swap, at least.  Bet your timing had to be fucking perfect.”

“I stalled her,” I said.  “I knew the moment she swapped our bodies, she’d kill me.  So I slowed her down as much as possible.  And after she started vomiting blood, the Kraken’s Bone locked her in that chassis.  So even if she beat me again, she couldn’t transfer out of that body.”  I knew that from personal experience.

“But the Kraken’s Bone could have locked you in your dying body,” said Hira.  “Before she transferred you.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It almost did.”  Grace had pushed through the drug’s barrier before it got too strong.

“So how the fuck did you time it?” said Hira.  “Swap too early, and Tunnel Vision would shoot you.  Too late, and the poison would kick in and kill you.  So how did you know she’d swap with you at that exact time?”

The waves washed against the sand below.  I gazed out towards the ocean, the water extending over the horizon to infinity.  Such a perfect blue.

“I didn’t,” I said.  “I took the Kraken’s Bone at my first, and only opportunity, as soon as she’d beaten me up.  I knew that she was too exhausted to use her Praxis Vocation much, or fight you.  I knew that impersonating me was her best chance of killing you.  And that taking the Ventrinol was my best chance of stopping her, one way or the other.  My internal clock helped me track the time, but I got lucky.”  I sighed.  “To be honest, I didn’t think the poison would kick in fast enough to save me.  But I did it anyway.  I didn’t want her to kill you.  You’re my friend.  You came back.”

Both Hiras stared at me, as my words sunk in.  She folded the notebook shut, and leaned forward.  Of all the people in Queen Sulphur, she might understand the best.

“Well,” she said.  “Either way, it’s damn impressive.”

“It had to be done,” I said, in my strange, melodic voice.  “But it’s the shittiest thing I’ve done all year.  And that’s saying a lot.”

“The shittiest thing?” said Hira.  “What happened to hating the bitch?”

I took in a deep breath, and explained everything I’d seen in Akhara’s Gate.  Grace’s memories, from the moment she’d caved to Tybalt Keswick to the moment she’d become the Pyre Witch, and the snippets I’d seen after.  Including Paragon’s deliberate restrictions on chassis supply.

As I spoke, Hira leaned in closer, clenched her fists, and stared at me.  When I finished, she slapped the table, making me flinch.

“Fuck,” she said.  “Fucking liars.  Lund pe chadh, are you serious?”

“When was the last time you saw me make a joke?”

“Well,” said Hira.  “Back in the winter, I called Paragon a shithole, and you said ‘I like it’.  That was pretty funny.”

“You never liked Paragon much, did you?”  I leaned back, balancing my chair on its back legs.

“No shit,” said Hira.  “I joined Queen Sulphur, at first, to keep myself safe from my father.  Then, I came back, because I cared about my friends.  With a brief spell in halfway through where I fought with you because I was fucking Wes.”

My chair tipped back, off-balance, and I flailed my arms.  Hira projected into the chair, slamming it forward onto four legs.  “You were sleeping with Wes?” I said.

“Point is,” said Hira.  “I never had your blind spot, as a citizen of the Principality.  Ilaquans have always known the true face of this nation.  I always hated our bosses.”

“Well,” I said, my voice heavy.  “I’d say you’ve earned an ‘I told you so’ today.”

“What kind of person do you think I am, Anabelle Gage?” said Hira.  “No, I’ll be saying ‘I told you so’ for at least another five years.”

“Five years,” I breathed.  I hadn’t even expected one.  “I thought I’d be dead by this point.”  For as long as I could remember, I’d barely been able to think more than a week ahead.  Five years seemed an eternity.  “But I am sorry,” I said, staring back towards the coffee table inside, to the Lavender Book sitting on top.  “You were right about Paragon.  Jun was right.”

“Yeah,” said Hira.

“And so much of the evidence was right in front of us.”

“Yeah.”

“Wes and I were fools.  Hijacked, vengeful, stubborn fools.”

“Yeah.”

“Can you forgive me?” I said, glancing at the side of Left-Hira’s head.  Avoiding eye contact.

“I fought alongside you,” said Hira.  “I killed alongside you.  If you’re guilty, so am I.  I’m not the people who deserve your apology.  So I can’t give you absolution.”  She slapped my shoulder.  “But thanks.  For saving me from white hellfire, I guess.”

I laughed.  “If you weren’t in danger.  If Grace had cornered me alone.  I wouldn’t have lifted a finger.  I would have just sat there, and let her do what she wanted.”  I gave her a wan smile.  “So really, you saved my life.”

“Great,” grumbled Hira.  “Two people with a death wish.  Queen Sulphur’s going to become a suicide pact.”

“Does Queen Sulphur even exist anymore?” I said.

Hira shrugged, gazing out at the battleships sailing towards the city.  She didn’t have an answer for that.

I gazed with her.  “I thought I’d feel happier,” I said.

“What?”

“I thought I’d feel happier, after getting a new body,” I said.  “I do feel happy – “

“That sounds nice.”

“ – But I thought that this would solve all my problems.  That I could just lay back in the sunlight and revel in my victory, and everything would feel easy.”

Hira shook her head.

I thought back to the men and women I’d shot.  Forced to hurt their friends.  I thought of The cruel Professor Keswick, and Grace Acworth, and all the things I thought I’d known about the Principality.

“I guess my problems run a bit deeper than that,” I said.

“Some of them,” said Hira.  “Still.  You did it.”

“I did it,” I said, closing my eyes.  I did it, I did it, I did it.  I made it.  That sweet joy, that triumph filled me up with warmth, despite everything.

Wes and Jun’s faces flashed into my mind, and my blood ran cold again.  A bitter taste lingered after the sweetness.

“Where’s Jun?” I said.

Hira flipped to a page in her notebook.  “Tunnel Vision’s agents couldn’t locate him.  Luo Cai and Gao Mei, her Shenti Warlord allies, seem to have broken contact with us.”

The Shenti don’t like failure.

“But, as far as the agents could gather,” said Hira.  “Jun is alive.  And he’s being taken somewhere in Shenten.”

I slumped back on my chair.  They’re using his skills again.  He was going to make weapons for some power-hungry warlord again.

You got him into this.  I’d recruited him, pushed him into our final mission against Commonplace.  Despite his pacifism.  Despite his aged body.  Despite my misgivings about Paragon.

You’re a monster.  I was everything Grace had accused me of.  And now, my friend was being dragged into hell.

“And what about Wes?”  We need to find Cardamom, too.

“Once the military and Guardians returned to the city, it didn’t take them long to clear out all the poor Green Hand fuckers.”  Left-Hira clenched her teeth.  “The moment she returned to her mansion, Admiral Ebbridge moved forward with her plans, even while the firefighters raced around the city, putting out blazes.”

Oh, fuck.  I had been so focused on Commonplace’s attack that I’d forgotten the calendar.  “What day is it today?” I said.  It happens on a specific day near the end of Summer.

Left-Hira cleared her throat.  “Admiral Ebbridge performed an Ousting ceremony this morning.  To decide who would end up her daughter.”

Wes versus Tasia.  I stood up, and blood rushed in my ears.  “Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?”  My throat clenched.  “Who won?  Who the fuck won?”

Hira slid a folded stack of papers over the table, held together with a paper clip.  “Your agents filled out a report on the aftermath of the battle, including the movements and notable actions of all Epistocrats in the city.”

I sat down on the chair, unfolded the paper, and began to read.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



If you’re enjoying the story, we’d love a vote on TopWebFiction! (Click the link, then “Boost” in the top right corner)

7 thoughts on “13-A The Butterfly’s Dilemma

  1. Hi all! The chapter isn’t very long today, but it’s pretty eventful. It’s been very long in the making, so I hope it’s satisfying. Climaxes are difficult. But I think I’m happy with this one? Not sure. These things sometimes go over different than I expect, so every release is both exciting and stressful. That is the way of web novels.

    I’m doing a bit of a tricksy author move, where a character has a secret plan that they don’t reveal in their first-person narration. It’s maybe, sort of cheating, but I thought that for special occasions such as this, it was worth it. Especially for a limited time. To be honest, these sorts of scenes are much easier to write in screenplays. But I’m curious as to what y’all think.

    This is sort of a point of no return for the story, in that everything will be significantly different moving forward. But I feel like every good serialized narrative should be full of those, especially at the ends of arcs/seasons/volumes. And I’m excited to share what’s to come.

    Only three more chapters left in this Volume. As always, thanks for reading!

  2. I never comment on internet things, but your work is so consistently impressive I had to comment this time. I found the climax convincing and TV’s death felt very earned. Looking forward to reading what comes next

  3. I did not expect that. Congratulations, you have completely bamboozled me.
    When I read your story, I get so completely absorbed in it that the rest of the world fades away. Not many stories can do that. I look forward to reading the next chapters.

  4. Honestly, that was the only way how Ana would get a new body. Switch her and kill the defective one.

    I bet she would switch back, if Tunnel Vision was atill alive.

Leave a Reply to anon9001 Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.