13-D The Butterfly’s Dilemma

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Ana

On the day after I stole my body, I decided to cut my hair.

Grace Acworth had kept it long, a tight ponytail that stuck out of her bowler hat, hanging halfway down her back.  A distinct, iconic look, even if that wasn’t her intention.

I was not Grace Acworth.

In the long run, I might get the body I dreamed of, the happy, red-haired girl I could have been if I hadn’t gotten Loic’s Syndrome.  The girl that Hira had painted for me, on my birthday.

But for the time being, it made tactical sense to keep this chassis.  Assume the identity of Tunnel Vision.

And it couldn’t be her body.  I had to make it my own.

So, I wanted a haircut.

But this face had been put on thousands of wanted posters, now.  So Hira had obliged me.  She went into town, stitched the best hairdresser she could find, and did the job herself.  I sat down in a chair on the balcony at Grace’s safehouse.  Hira threw a blanket over me, and I gazed out at the beach, at the Eloane Ocean and the waves washing against the sand.

I leaned back, bathed in warm sunlight, and Left-Hira massaged shampoo into my hair, just like they did in fancy salons.  A quiet, melancholy guitar song played on the gramophone in the corner, and I closed my eyes, enjoying the sensation as she washed the blood and grease out of my long brown tresses.  Her experienced touch felt relaxing, easy.

As I opened my eyes, Right-Hira pulled out a pair of scissors and a straightedge razor for precise cuts.  Left-Hira patted my hair down with a beach towel, and leaned my head back up.

I found myself thinking back to the last time I’d cut my hair.  When Clementine had Nudged me, and forced me to use a razor just like that.  The day when I’d thought up my body heist.

A year ago.  That was just a year ago.  Before I’d met Hira.  Before I’d met Wes and Jun.

Thinking of those last two made my chest ache.  Wes won.  He’d become Lady Ebbridge again.

And I wouldn’t be seeing him again for a long, long time.  If at all.

“So,” said Left-Hira, combing my hair and snipping off chunks.  “According to the stylist I just stitched from, this would be a good time to share gossip.  Who you’re dating, what your family’s doing, all the drama you’ve been up to.”

“I always hated that part,” I said, in my brighter, higher voice.  Still getting used to that.  It didn’t sound identical to Grace’s – I had my own inflections, my own tones and subtleties.  But it sure sounded similar.  “I just wished I could get my haircut in silence.”  Though I hadn’t gotten one in years.

“But you have been up to drama,” said Right-Hira, with a knowing look, as he sliced off a tuft of hair.

Might as well get started on the work, then.  “Earlier this morning,” I said.  “You said I’d become the head of the Principality’s mob, with some big caveats.  What caveats?”  What the fuck are we supposed to do now?  “I don’t want to be like Grace.”  I didn’t want to be a mob boss who exploited people for profit.  No matter how good the cause.

“You’re not like Grace,” said Left-Hira.  “You’re barely even rich.  The Pyre Witch spent almost everything on her Paragon operation.  She’s got near-zero capital left.”  She stepped back on the porch and squinted at my hair.  “If we don’t want to go bankrupt in about – “ she paused.  “Two days, we need to lean on our revenue sources.”

“No,” I said.

“Just let me explain,” said Left-Hira, going back to my hair.  “Tunnel Vision’s mob currently makes money off a variety of sources.  Some are legitimate businesses that launder money and make real profits.  Restaurants.  A bowling alley.  A shitty dance club filled with ugly blowhards, that throws people out just for having a good time.”

“You go to dance clubs here?”

“Not anymore,” said Hira.  “But my point is, legitimate businesses make up a small fraction of the mob’s income.  The real money comes from protection fees, prostitution, drugs, illegal gambling, and defective body sales.”

I clenched my teeth at the last one on that list.

“Though,” said Hira.  “Grace took special care to avoid human trafficking.  It seems even she had lines she wouldn’t cross.”

The waves washed against the beach.  I gazed at a small boat in the waters around Elmidde, far in the distance.  Looks like the one I used.  On the night of my body heist.

“Protection fees are cruel and unjust, and involve squeezing innocent people.  Cut them.”

“They’re the majority of our income,” said Hira.  “Without them, we’ll be crippled.  No money, no power, no criminal empire.”

“Cut them,” I said.

Hira sighed with both bodies.  “Alright.”

“Defective body sales are out too, for obvious reasons,” I said.  “We’re not scamming anyone.”

“What about the terminally ill?” said Hira.  “We could be honest with them, tell them about the expiration date.  They don’t have any other option.  This could give them a few more years, at least.”

I shook my head, clenching my teeth.  “Cut them.”  I won’t ever put someone else through that hell.  Even if they went willingly.  “Cut the prostitution and illegal gambling too,” I said.  “I won’t oversee that kind of exploitation, either.”

“And the drugs?”

A cool ocean breeze blew over the balcony, batting around tufts of my fallen hair.  “How many people die a year from overdoses in the Principality?”

“I thought you’d ask that.”  Right-Hira grabbed a folder off a table.  “Thirteen thousand and seven.  At least.”

“Cut it,” I said.

“Running a criminal organization isn’t cheap,” said Hira.  “Without all those, you won’t be a mob queen.  You’ll just be some illusionist with a submarine and some extras.  Especially now that the Broadcast King, the Shenti, and whatever’s left of Commonplace have all cut off contact with us.  And would probably try to murder us if they found out we killed Grace.”

“So be it,” I said.  “I don’t want to be a mob boss.  I don’t even know if I want to take Tunnel Vision’s identity.”

“You want to get your throat slit?” said Left-Hira, running her fingers through my hair.  “Want to get your eyes put out and your skin pan-fried with onions?”

“Maybe,” I said.  I probably deserve all that.

Hira flicked the back of my head with her finger.  “Don’t get clever.  Without the false identity, we’re dead.  And Clementine or Eda Fortescue or whoever’s most powerful takes over the mob.  Then they start doing all the stuff you’re trying to get rid of.”

I sighed.  “That all makes sense.”

While Left-Hira cut my hair, Right-Hira flipped through the folder in the warm sunlight, frowning.  “All these budget cuts are gonna be a fuckload of paperwork.  I can stitch an accountant or two, but I’ll need you to help me.”

“Sure,” I said.  “We can cut our expenses too, can’t we?”

“Oh boy,” said Hira.  “I know where this is going.”

I glanced back into the house, past the sliding glass door and into the comfy living room, with the couches and the mountains of pillows and the still life paintings.  And the bookshelves on the far wall.

The Lavender Book still sat on the coffee table, too, an unanswered question.  Neither of us had opened it yet.  Just looking at it intimidated me.  Later.  You’ll read it later.

“Grace kept good records, right?” I said.  “We can use those to determine the most morally bankrupt members of her organization.”

“The work will be a real tit-punch,” said Hira.  “Especially if anyone discovers our true identities.  But we can get something like that.  Probably.  How do we get rid of the troublemakers?”

“We’ll figure something out,” I said.

“But,” said Left-Hira, spraying some sort of liquid onto my hair.  “Having a small army of projectors can be helpful, depending on what you’re doing.”  She looked me in the eye.  “What are we doing next?”

My chest ached, a stabbing pain that reminded me of my old body, for a second.  I closed my eyes, forcing myself to take deep, slow breaths.  Breathe.  Breathe.  You’re safe.

Left-Hira patted my shoulder.  “It’s fine.  We can talk about that later.”  I opened my eyes, and she stepped back from me.  “Haircut’s done.”  The only mirror in the house was in the bathroom.

The ache faded, but didn’t go away.  “Thanks, Hira,” I sighed.  I swept the blanket off of me, knocking the fallen hairs aside.

“Wait,” said Left-Hira.  “Wait.”  Right-Hira ran back into the house, and emerged with a canvas bag.  “My skill-stitching from that salon left me some extra talents.”  Right-Hira held up the bag.  “And I swiped this on my way out of Elmidde.”

“No,” I said.  “I will not get high with you.”

Left-Hira rolled her eyes.  “Lund pe chadh.  That’s not what I’m asking, dumbass.”  She reached into the bag and pulled out a narrow tube of eyeliner.  “Do you want a makeover?”

I felt something in my chest.  A swirling maelstrom of conflicting emotions.  A thrill, and fear, and guilt, all mixing with my memories.

I haven’t had one of those in more than a decade.  An eternity, in this world.  I used to have them all the time.  With my friends, my mom, at a store in town.  But they didn’t feel right in my new body, so I pretended I’d just grown out of them, at the age of ten.

I felt immense gratitude towards Hira.  But at the same time, accepting almost felt like asking too much.

Fuck it.  After everything I’d been through this year, I deserved to not overthink something, for once.

I nodded to Hira, and she got to work on my face.

First, she touched my cheekbones and jaw with the tips of her fingers.  She turned my head to the left, then the right, pinning my brown hair back with clips.  Examining me.

Then, she held my eyelid open, and started with the liner.

I changed the subject.  “Did you find Cardamom when you went to the city?”  At the start of our final mission, we’d left him back in that shack with a bowl of food.

Right-Hira’s face fell.  “I looked around for an hour, but didn’t find anything.  The martial law and wanted posters made it a bit tricky.  I ordered your guys to put out missing cat notices all over Lowtown and the outer islands, but in this chaos?  Who the fuck knows.”

A pit opened up inside my stomach.  He’s gone too.  Like Jun, like Wes.  So many people I’d taken for granted.

Left-Hira drew liquid eyeliner on the rim of my eye, slow and precise.  “We might never find him,” she said.  “But we’ll do our best.”

Half an hour later, the tide had risen to engulf more of the beach.  And Hira finished her makeover.  She guided me to the stocked closet in my room, and with her stylist’s expertise, rummaged through the options available for me.

“No,” she said.  “No.  No.  Hideous.

These didn’t look like clothes Grace Acworth would wear.  She liked black.  Suit jackets and skirts and bowler hats.  Grace’s subordinates must have stocked this, mobsters filling up with supplies for a generic summer vacation.

“Hey,” I pointed at a light blue summer dress.  “That one looks nice.”  It reminded me of my combat suit.  It looked short and casual, complete with a seashell pattern and cap sleeves.

Left-Hira raised an eyebrow.  “Once a Blue Charlatan.”  She nodded.

I put on the dress while she looked the other way.

Then, I walked to the bathroom, and looked at myself in the mirror.

A girl gazed back at me.  A different girl than this morning.

Her light brown hair had been cut to a short, choppy bob, stopping just above her shoulders.  Sunlight from the window washed over her, casting her in a warm, comfortable glow.

Her face looked different too.  Winged eyeliner curved around the sides of her long, dark lashes.  Blue and red eyeshadow had been painted over her lids, and her lips had been given a natural, pink gradient, like the styles they used in Ilaqua.  Blush had been spread on her upper cheeks, in the Nekean drunken style.

Then, below that, she wore a light, comfortable summer dress, complementing the rest of her look.

The girl looked comfortable, relaxed, for the first time in many, many years.

This wasn’t the body I imagined in my dreams.  It looked like a cross, between Grace Acworth and someone else.  A sibling, with a divergent sense of style.  But it’s incredible.  And now, after all those changes, it felt a little easier.

I don’t deserve this.  I deserved to get shot by Grace, and cast into the frozen lake of Akhara’s Gate.

But I had it, anyways.  I could be grateful for that.

Left-Hira stepped behind me.  In this new body, her female chassis stood half a head taller than mine.  She placed her hands on my shoulders.

“Looks incredible, Hira,” I said.

“Yeah.  It does.”  She grinned, glancing at her makeup bag.  “And the bitch I stole this from charges a thousand pounds for a haircut.  She can buy a new kit.”

“This is nice,” I said.  “You’re acting so nice to me.  Why?”  When I don’t deserve any of it.

“Shut the fuck up,” said Hira.  “You’re my friend.  That’s all.  I look out for my friends.”

My stomach growled, and a twinge of hunger grew in my belly.  Not yet, I told myself.  I still had work to do.

________________________________________

“You’re sure this won’t get stolen en route?” said Hira.

I tied a string over the cardboard box, sitting down on a crate of apples.  In this basement’s dim light, I had to squint to work out the knot.

Then, I picked the box up and shook it.  Nothing bounced around inside.  I packed it well, then.  “Packages get stolen all the time,” I said.  “But nobody’s gonna know what’s in this.”

“Yeah,” said Right-Hira.  “But that’s a lot of money.  You said your hometown’s small, right?  Lot of homely trusting folks, low crime rates?”

I nodded.

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “I’d keep an eye on your neighbors.”  Her fingers tapped on the telephone receiver, sitting on a crate and plugged into the wall.

I glanced up the staircase, my foot tapping.  For this, we’d moved to a different safehouse.  Some basement in a suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of Elmidde.  Should be secure enough.  “And you’re sure they’re alive.”

“Your parents?” said Right-Hira.  “Yeah.  The Shenti never got within five miles of the Agricultural Islands,” I said.  “Even if they weren’t a diversion fleet, that crazy music lady got to them first.”

“The Symphony Knight.”  According to a local newspaper, Lady Corbin was already planning a live concert for the piece she’d composed during that battle.

“I mean, maybe your parents slipped in the shower and bashed their heads against the toilet bowl,” said Hira.  “But they didn’t get firebombed.”

I sat the box in my lap and scrawled the address on the top.

Phineas and Idalia Gage
19 Beech Street
Inncill, The Principality

Then I slouched over, leaning on it.  I stole three hundred pounds from them.  To a family like ours, that was no small sum of money.  I’d spent it on a ferry ticket to Elmidde and necessities, promising myself that I’d become a Guardian and pay them back tenfold.

I would never be a Guardian.  A stupid, naive dream fueled by years of lies and propaganda, but coming short of that still hurt.

Still, at least I had money, now.

Someone knocked on the door to the basement, coming from the movie theater aboveground that served as a front for the safehouse.

Left-Hira floated her shotgun into her hands and stepped back into the shadows.  Right-Hira walked up the stairs, and opened the door.  A man on the other side handed him an envelope, then walked away.

Right-Hira shut the door, and spun the envelope on the tip of his finger.  “Fuck is this?”

“I asked one of Grace’s – one of my people to buy it for me.  On impulse.”

Right-Hira tossed the envelope at me.  I caught it and peeled it open.  A scrap of cardstock fell into my palm.

FROM: ALCAROSS
TO: LANDDEN
DATE: 8/30/520 – 0730
ONE-WAY

“A ferry ticket?” said Hira.

“From one of the Principality’s northern ports to the Agricultural Islands,” I said.  “Under a false name.  I’ll be using a different body, and leaving from a port they’ll be watching less carefully.”

“So you’re going home,” said Left-Hira.  “Have you decided that, now?  Are you sure?”

I shook my head.  “I’m not sure about anything.”  According to a subordinate, Cao Hui, the Black Tortoise, had just broadcast Christea Ronaveda’s recording to the public.  The Commonplace recording, which demonstrated that Parliament had been hijacked, probably by Paragon itself.

The loyalists wouldn’t believe it.  And everyone still thought that Commonplace had murdered Parliament.  The true horrors of Paragon remained hidden from ordinary Principians.

But still, the country might see a lot more chaos going forward.  Inncill included.

And that speech meant something else, too: The Black Tortoise must have taken Jun.  A genocidal dictator had captured our friend.

“Well,” said Left-Hira.  “Either way, I picked up a lead on – “

Another knock at the door above us.  This time, in a pattern of threes.  A simple code, of sorts.

“She’s here,” said Hira.  “Are you ready?”

I stretched my neck, my stomach rumbling.  “No,” I said.  “But send her in anyways.”

Both of Hira’s bodies stepped into a side room in the basement.  Right-Hira drew his sniper rifle, and Left-Hira pulled out her shotgun.  They shut the door, hiding.

Then, Hira projected into the entrance to the basement, and it swung open, letting in my visitor.

Light flooded into the room, and a tall, slender woman limped down the steps.  Her milky white skin looked paler than usual, and her wavy red hair had grown tangled.  Her left leg had been chopped off below the knee, but rather than crutches, she used projection to move without falling.  An Elizabeth Cranbrook chassis.

Clementine Rawlyn.  Mobster.  Ex-Pilot.  Survivor of the Edwina Massacre.  And my former boss.

An expression of wonder spread across her bright eyes, her perfect high cheekbones.  False deference.

“Ma’am,” she breathed.  “You’re alive.”

“So are you.”  And she didn’t even have to swap chassis.

We exchanged passwords, confirming our identities.  Hira’s stitched codes worked fine.  She really thinks I’m Grace.

I indicated my hand, and Clementine sat down on a crate across from me, a makeshift seat in the basement.  Next, I threw an illusion over her, making it seem like I was sitting down like normal.

In the real world, I stood up, assembled my machine pistol in the air, and walked next to Clementine.  I aimed the barrel at her head.  If I fire close enough, even normal bullets will go through her ABD.  And she wouldn’t scan the room or prepare for a fight when she thought she was talking to her boss.

She’d mistreated me, attacked me.  And unlike Grace, I knew she hadn’t done it for some greater good.  Clementine would have joined Paragon in the blink of an eye, if it meant she could climb the ladder there.

“Ma’am,” said Clementine.  “May I ask why you’ve called me here?  What’s your plan, going forward?  And how can I help?”  She’s not that high-level in Grace’s organization.  Meetings with the boss would be rare.

According to my file on her, Clementine had lost her fancy house and most of her money, along with her leg, after my Verity speech and the broad crackdown against the mob and the attack on Paragon.  The woman had almost nothing.  Which meant she wanted something from me.

“Are you planning to leave the Principality?” said Clementine.  “Please, allow me to assist in any way I can.”

I see.  Clementine thought that Grace was going to flee the country, and she wanted in.  An escape hatch to evade the authorities and start a new life overseas.  Always looking out for yourself.

I want to talk about you,” I said with my illusion.

Clementine looked taken aback.  “Oh.  Of course, ma’am.”

You survived the Edwina Massacre,” I said.  “That must have been difficult.

Clementine held up her hands, her voice quickening.  “Of course, ma’am, I understand what you did.  The Massacre wasn’t your fault at all.  It was war, and all, you know.  I have no issue with any of that.”  She knows Grace is the Pyre Witch.

Sure,” I said.  “But it must have been difficult, losing your ability to fly a plane with that hand injury.

Clementine put on a forced smile.  “It wasn’t too bad!” she said, with a little too much enthusiasm.  “I got projection, which is a thousand times better, of course!”

But you got rejected from Paragon, didn’t you?  Twice.

Her smile grew more strained.  “But I got to work for you, ma’am.  That’s so much better than working for those elitist crooks.  And I hate writing essays, anyway.”  Her voice grew quicker.

My illusion said nothing.

Clementine sighed, and stared at her feet.  Her smile faded.  “You must think I’m pretty pathetic.  A bottom-feeding failure.  A disgusting cripple.  You must be pitying me, right now.”

No,” I said, meaning it.  “I’ve been rejected by Paragon too.  And I know how it feels for your own body to betray you.”  And by this point, I’d done things far worse than her, no matter how pure my intentions.  “Did it make you feel better?

“What?”

When you stood over others.  Your servants, your subordinates, the people you hurt.  When you put them down, did you feel like yourself again?  Did you feel less worthless?

Clementine clenched her fists, and squinted at my illusion with new suspicion.  “What’s going on?” she said.  “What does that have to do with anything?”

Just answer the question.

“Yeah,” mumbled Clementine.  “I didn’t feel like myself.  But it helped.”

I shifted my illusion, turning my image of Grace into an image of my old body.  The grey-haired boy’s face she would recognize as Anabelle Gage.  Revealing myself, so it seemed.

Then, I shifted the imagined position of my Pith and clothes, too, so she would think I sat across from her, and not behind her, though that took some additional effort.

Clementine’s eyes widened, and she stood up, knocking over her crate, standing on her one leg.  I felt her Pith next to mine, trying to Nudge it.  I edited my Pith away, fending off the attack with ease.  She tried Basic Sleep next, and I pushed that away.

A knife shot out of a hidden sheath at Clementine’s waist.  Before she could fling it in my face, my illusion shouted at her.

Don’t move!

Clementine paused in her attack.

And I wouldn’t use your Whisper Vocation, either.  You’re surrounded by a lot more firepower than you think.  I wouldn’t reveal myself unless I knew I could beat you.

Clementine shook, her face contorted with rage, loathing.  At the humiliation of being tricked.  At getting vulnerable in front of me.  “Where’s Tunnel Vision,” she hissed.

Dead,” I said.  “I killed her.

A mixture of shock, disbelief, and paralysis passed over Clementine’s face in quick succession.   “Then you had better kill me,” she snarled.  “Because the moment the world knows that Tunnel Vision is a fake, they’ll rip you to shreds.”

Will they?

“I have connections to the mob.  They weren’t all wiped out.”

They’re all working for me,” I said.  “A few words won’t change that.

“Then I’ll tell Paragon.”

Go ahead,” I said.  “See how far that gets you.”  If she wanted to get arrested, she could go right ahead.  I had my own plans around Paragon.

Clementine furrowed her brow.  “You’re not going to kill me?”

Her voice rang in my head, from a year ago.

Ana, why don’t you carry out the gentleman’s request?

I do pity you, poor thing.

Cut your hair off, drop the knife, then jump.

I used to think that Clementine, and by extension, her boss, Tunnel Vision, were the worst sort of people in the world.  The monsters that Guardians needed to protect us from.

Then I’d broken into Clementine’s house, and read the books in her basement safe.  Everything she’d been through after the Edwina Massacre.  Her struggle for purpose and meaning in her life, for identity, when everything she’d dreamed of had been destroyed.

And then I’d walked into Akhara’s Gate, and seen the true face of Paragon Academy.

I kept aiming my machine pistol at her head.  But I didn’t pull the trigger.

I came here to tell you something,” I said.  “You can leave if you want.  You can quit.  I won’t harm you.

“How magnanimous.”

But if you want to stay here,” I said.  “If you want your old job.”  My illusion stood up, above Clementine.  “Then you work for me, now.

Clementine clenched her teeth, taking sharp, rapid breaths, staring at my illusion.  For a moment, it looked like she would attack anyways, despite my illusions.  Despite her inferior firepower, despite her missing leg.

Then she turned around and limped up the stairs, out of the basement.  She slammed the door behind her, stalking out of the building.

I disassembled my machine pistol, and slid the pieces back into my pocket.  Hira opened the side room door and stepped back in.  Both bodies tossed their guns aside.

“She sounds pissed,” said Left-Hira.  “Sparing her could come back to fuck us.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It could.”

“So, why did you?  You’ve killed loads of people.”

I have.  In my darkest moments, I’d killed scores of enemies.  And I’d killed Clementine’s boss, too.

“I guess,” I said.  “I related to her.  And that disturbed me.”

Hira snorted.  “You are one strange bitch, Anabelle Gage.  I’m not sure I’ll ever understand you.”

“That makes two of us,” I said.  “But I’m working on it.”

The telephone in the corner of the room rang.  Right-Hira floated the receiver to his ear, nodding.  “Yeah,” he said.  “Yeah.”

“Was going to tell you before Clementine came in,” said Left-Hira.  “Someone responded to the missing cat posters.  Some boy.”

My heart clenched.  They found Cardamom.  But could this be an enemy who knew we had a cat?  A trap?

“The agents said he didn’t seem threatening, so I had him sent here.”

We’re playing pretty loose with security.  “Alright,” I said.  “Send him in, then.”

Right-Hira muttered something into the phone, and the door to the basement swung open.  I threw an illusion on the person entering, shifting my position, re-assembling my gun.

And Weston Ebbridge walked down the stairs.

A pale, freckled boy stared at me, his light brown hair tangled, his hair caked with blood and his cheek bruised.  He wore a backpack slung over his shoulders.

I blinked at him, dumbfounded.  Too surprised to say anything.

Wes held up his hands.  “Tunnel Vision?” he said.  “What are you – “  He staggered back, shocked, and fell on the stairs.

I shifted my illusion, making my face look like my old one.  Showing him my identity.

Wes, if anything, looked even more surprised.  “Ana?” he said.  “Why are you disguised as Tunnel Vision?”

“Wes?” I said.  Didn’t he Oust his replacement?  “I’m in Tunnel Vision’s body.”

Wes sighed, then shook his head.  “Tasia,” he said.  “I’m sorry.”

Of course it’s Tasia, idiot.

“Sorry,” I said.  “I’m just so used to seeing Wes in that body, and I – “

I cut myself off, paused for a moment, then raced forward and threw my arms around her.  Taisa hugged me back.

“Scholars,” Tasia breathed, in Wes’ masculine voice.  “I thought I’d never see you again.”

I thought the same.  “I’m so sorry,” I said.  “For lying to you.”  For pretending to be Ernest.  “I should have told you who I was.  I should have been – “

“No,” said Tasia.  “You were keeping yourself safe.”  She squeezed me tighter.  “I just wish that Paragon hadn’t gone after you.”

“Me too.”

Something meowed from Tasia’s backpack.  A bright green, long-haired cat stuck his head out of Tasia’s backpack and nuzzled the back of her neck.

“Cardamom!” I shouted.

Tasia and I broke off our embrace, and she slung off her backpack.  Cardamom crawled out and ran to me.  I scratched behind his ears, pet him and hugged him.  The hug seemed to confuse him, but he still rubbed his head against my leg, purring.

Hira’s bodies ran over to us, and joined in the petting.

“So soft,” I murmured.  “You are so fluffy and soft.”  Another face I thought I’d never see again.  “How did you find him?”

“I was wandering the streets of Lowtown,” said Tasia, rubbing his belly as he rolled over.  “He just ran up to me.  I think people matter more to him than places.”  And he’s got a nose like a bloodhound.

We reveled in the reunion for another few minutes, and Cardamom obliged, happy to see his humans again.  I still find him adorable.  Which meant Grace had let this body get infected with Maojun.

Halfway through, Cardamom smelled something, ran to the corner of the room, and tried to bite into a crate filled with dried fish.

“Bad Cardamom,” I said.  “That’s wood, it’s bad for you.”  Tasia pulled his teeth off the crate.

Right-Hira cocked his head to the side.  “Fuck it.”

He stretched his hand forward, and the seams of the crate ripped themselves apart in a shower of splinters.  Cardamom darted back, scared.

Then the sides of the crate fell off, and a mountain of tiny dried fish fell out, a yard tall.

Cardamom stared at it for a few seconds, in sheer disbelief.  Then he dove into the pile head-first, the front half of his body disappearing.

Eventually, he got tired of eating, and curled up on a mountain of seafood to fall asleep.

“So,” I said, turning to Tasia.  “Wes Ousted you.”

Wes – Tasia’s face fell.  “Yeah,” she said.

“Nell, now, I guess.”

Tasia recoiled.  “I’m guessing you just said my old name.”  Right.  Forgot that’s blocked off from her.  “But yeah.  It was my time.  We can talk about the details later.”  She looked me up and down.  “But what about you?  How did you take the Pyre Witch’s body?”

“Actually,” I said.  “She kind of took mine.”

Tasia looked confused.  “How?  Is she still hunting you, then?”

“Remember the pills that took Kaplen?   Kraken’s Bone?”

Tasia’s face tensed up, but she nodded.

“Yeah,” I said.  “She’s not hunting us anymore.”

Left-Hira stuck her hands in her pockets, squinting at Tasia.  “She doesn’t seem to be an imposter,” she said.  “But it’s possible to fool my Vocation.  And even if she’s the real Tasia, she might have other motives for coming here.”

“I’ve made a lot of dumb mistakes this year,” I said.  “But I don’t think this is one of them.”  I looked into Wes – Tasia’s eyes.  “I trust her.  Beyond a doubt.”

Left-Hira relaxed, and removed her hands from her pockets.  “Well,” she said.  “If you’re done hugging each other, Cardamom has reminded me how fucking starving I am.”

“Me too,” said Tasia.  “Want to get some dinner?  Catch up?  So much has happened since we last talked.”

My stomach growled again, but I shook my head.  “I have to do something first.”

________________________________________

On that night, I burned my body.

The Neke had a tradition, with the invention of fabricated bodies.  When someone went through the Liminal – reincarnated themselves in a new form, they would burn their old chassis and push it out to sea.  Saying farewell to their old life, and ushering in the new.

It seemed like a nice way to say goodbye.

Hira had dragged my old chassis out of Akhara’s Gate, using it to confirm Grace’s demise after she’d copied all its codes and passwords.  She’d wanted to toss it somewhere, use it to fake my death for Paragon.

But I’d looked into my old body’s eyes, and shook my head.  “No.”  It didn’t seem right to dump it into the bay, to wash up rotted on some shore.

So I’d bought a large canoe.  From the same company I used a year ago, for my first body heist.  I’d used illusioned money then, so I paid them a little extra this time.

After the sunset, Hira and Tasia and I rowed out onto the dark waters of Meteor Bay, with the help of our water projection.

And then, we got set up.

We lifted the shroud covering my body, laid lengthwise along the canoe on top of crumpled newspapers, with the blood and vomit washed off its clothes.  Next, we doused the newspaper with gasoline.  We stood on the surface of the bay, using a water walk to keep ourselves afloat.

Finally, I removed a stack of photos from my bag, and began to lay them around the edge of my corpse.  It had taken some effort to get them assembled this afternoon, especially in the aftermath of the battle.  The best resource had been the previous owner of The Silver Flask, who had taken all the photos with him in his house, even after the cafe had been blown up.  A few copying sessions and we were set.

First, the fallen students of Paragon.  All we could find.  Adam Lynde, who I’d sabotaged for Lorne during my time as a Grey Coat.  Marion Hewes, killed in the bomb attack on The Silver Flask.  Dozens of others, all posing for pictures with the owner of the restaurant, smiling.

They died for the wrong cause.  An academy that cared little for its students, and even less for the innocents below.  But they didn’t need to die.

And that could have been me.

And a red-haired boy, a broad smile painted across his round, cherubic face.  The baker.  The cat lover.  Kaplen Ingolf.  Without his advice about the Empty Book, I never would have learned to defend myself against Nudging.  I would have died a long, long time ago.

No matter what happened to me, I couldn’t forget him.

The fallen Guardians, I left out.  Penny and Sebastian Oakes were higher-level at Paragon.  Penny Oakes had used Lyna Wethers to get her husband, and Sebastian Oakes could have been involved with the shadier aspects of the place, like its deliberate restriction of the chassis supply.  And the papers hadn’t published anything on Isaac Brin or Florence Tuft, so they’d probably survived.

Last, I put down a surprise.  An old photo that The Silver Flask’s owner had still kept, after all these years.

A girl my age, with light brown hair and a nervous smile, looking at the camera with a massive pie in front of her, losing a Jao Lu game to the rest of her team.  Grace Acworth.  Having a moment of fun with the rest of Revenant Squad, when they were all still in school.  Before the Shenti War.  Before everything went to hell.

Hira didn’t make any disparaging comments this time, no vicious jabs.  She just helped, silent.  Tasia helped too, with a lingering, pained look at Kaplen’s face.

I didn’t have any photos of Wes or Jun.  But this was a funeral pyre, a memorial for the last year.  And neither of them had died.  They can still be saved.

Then, it was done.  The canoe bobbed up and down on the smooth water.  My body lay in the center, surrounded by those who had passed.

We stood back from the boat, on the surface of the water.  A cool ocean breeze blew over us.  There were no other boats nearby.  No lights except the dimmed glow from Hightown, far up the slopes of Mount Elwar.  Even Paragon’s lights had darkened.

“Do you have any words?” said Tasia, breaking the silence.

I’d never been the eloquent type.  But Hira wasn’t going to say anything, and Tasia looked absorbed in her thoughts.

So I gave it a try.

“They were noble, and they were devils,” I said.  “They fought for their ideals, crawled through an endless dark cave with a thousand branching passages.”  I stared at the photo of Grace.  Some with more success than others.  “They never made it out.  But they gave hope for the rest of us, that we might see the light, one day.  And they deserved life.”  Far more than I do.

I stared at my old chassis.  The hated body I’d spent most of my life in.  My broad shoulders.  My thick forehead and bulging grey veins and wispy grey hair, covered in bald patches.  I thought I’d die with that face.

Tasia summoned a spark on the tip of her finger, then flicked it onto the oil-soaked kindling.  The newspaper caught fire, with a rush of air and a wave of heat.  The flames spread around the canoe, swallowing my old clothes and the photographs.

The three of us stepped back, as the fire grew larger, taller, engulfing the whole boat.  The wood of the boat crackled, and the heat warmed our faces.

As the pyre burned, I gazed back up to Elmidde.  I looked past the outer islands, past the darkened Lowtown and Midtown, above the streetlamps of Hightown to the black floating islands of Paragon Academy, high above the city.

I’d looked up at those so many times from Clementine’s porch, when they were aglow with multicolored lights.  I’d felt longing and hope and ambition, imagining the wonders I could experience if I could just get up there and fix my broken body, if I could just belong.

But Paragon had caused my broken body.

And without lights, the broken spires looked terrifying.  A dark fortress filled with the powerful, who called themselves wise, and cared not for the fortunes of those below.  Who let thousands of people die, every year, because they didn’t want to mass-produce bodies.  People like me.

Now that I had this body, now that I knew what they’d done, what did I have to look forward to?  Going home?  Reuniting with my friends?  Something else?

In the darkness of Paragon, a tiny green light flickered into existence for a few seconds.  A faint, minuscule glow, followed by a dim white flash.  I squinted at it.  Wonder what that is?

After another minute, Tasia turned and walked away from the floating pyre, as it drifted away on the current.  Hira’s bodies followed her.

I gazed at my burning face for a few more seconds.

Then I strode away, leaving the remains to drift away on the current.

Now can we eat?” said Left-Hira.  “My stomach’s about to implode.”

“Almost,” I said.  “We’ve got some reading to do.”

________________________________________

“You got that,” said Tasia, incredulous.  “And you haven’t looked at it already?”

The Lavender Book sat on the coffee table of Grace’s summer house, innocuous.  If it weren’t for the broken mechanism and the torn Voidsteel lock, it would look like any other decoration in the room.

Tasia leaned forward on the couch, her eyes lit up with moonlight.  She looks so different from Wes.  Even in the same chassis.

“Grace told me this contained answers, not a Vocation Codex,” I said, staring at the book.  “But when she skimmed it in Akhara’s Gate, she looked frustrated, and called it worthless.”

I’m not worthy of something this important.  But neither was Paragon, and right now, I didn’t trust anyone else to hold it.

“It’s probably not a big deal, then,” said Left-Hira, leaning back on a cushion.  “Maybe Paragon just wanted a red herring for dumbfucks like us to focus on.”  Right-Hira gazed out the sliding doors at the moons and the ocean, not even paying attention.

“Grace wasn’t a dumbfuck,” I said.  “And she thought this was important.”

Tasia picked up the book and flipped through the pages.  She squinted, turned a page, then held the book closer to her face.  She flipped to the ending of it, then the middle, confused.

“What?” I said.  “What’s in it?”

“I – “ said Tasia, furrowing her brow.  “I can’t read it.”

“If it’s in a foreign language,” said Left-Hira.  “Gimme a few minutes, and I’ll find someone to stitch.”

“I don’t think it’s foreign,” said Tasia.  “But still, I can’t read it.”

“Let me see.”  Hira handed the book to me.  I flipped to the first full page.

Words and sentences had been written there.  In the Common Tongue, it seemed.  But they didn’t click in my head, didn’t form any meaningful pattern.

It reminded me of the math books I’d studied for the Paragon entrance exams, during the asides when they described higher-dimensional objects, and what they might look like in just three.  I couldn’t parse any of them.  They looked like utter nonsense, and even trying to imagine the extra dimensions seemed ridiculous.

This was like that.  Even though the language fit, even though the words and sentences seemed normal, I couldn’t understand any of them.  When I squinted at them, I could sometimes make out individual letters, one at a time, out of order, but couldn’t string them together into anything coherent.

It was like they’d been cut out of reality itself.  Like someone had carved a hole into the fabric of the universe, and scooped out the contents of this book, to dump them in some strange alternate realm.

I flipped through the book, to see if the other pages looked different at all.  Nothing.

“That – “ I said.  “That’s like – “

“ – the Spirit Block,” said Tasia.

The contents of the Lavender Book had been twisted into some alternate plane of reality, made unreadable by human eyes.  Just like The 99 Precepts, the holy book of the Shenti’s dominant religion.  Their former dominant religion.

“Could this be another copy of The 99 Precepts?” I said.

“No,” said Tasia.  “Those books are all over the Eight Oceans.  Millions and millions of them.  Even after the Spirit Block.  But Paragon took the time and effort to guard this one.  It has to be different.”

A security precaution.  Paragon, or whoever wrote this book, didn’t want other people to know the contents, even if they managed to steal it and break it open.

“Like I told you,” said Left-Hira.  “Useless.  We can’t bend reality, any more than the Shenti crackpots who get high with delirium hawks to try and read The 99 Precepts.”

I tossed the book onto the coffee table, sighing.  “All that information, right in front of us.  The truth of this world.  And we can’t see any of it.”

Tasia leaned forward, squinting.  “No,” she said.  “Wait.”  She flipped through the pages again.  “Yes,” she breathed.

I sat up.  “What?  What did you find?”

Tasia turned to the title page, and pointed to the corner.

Someone had scrawled something there with a pen, using messy handwriting.  The rest of the book looked printed, perfect.  But not this.

“A person wrote in the margins,” said Tasia.  “And their words haven’t been pulled out of reality.”  Weren’t affected by whatever was shaping these pages.

The note on the title page was tiny.  Just a single word.

Egress

“The fuck is an ‘Egress’?” said Hira.

“It means ‘exit’,” said Tasia.  “And the first letter is capitalized, which could mean it’s a proper noun, in this context.  Or a title, if it’s on the first page.”

“I didn’t stitch any grammar weirdos,” said Left-Hira.  “The fuck is a ‘proper noun’?”

“A name,” I said.  “Of an organization, maybe, or a plan, or whatever this book’s about.”  I sat down next to Tasia.  “Flip through the whole thing, let’s look for other notes in the margins.”

Tasia turned the pages, and we scanned them for something, anything that we could read.  Minutes passed.  The moon rose over the dark water in the distance, and my eyes ached.  Every line seemed to be gripped by the strange warping effect, the aura that kept us from seeing its contents.

And then, Tasia pointed at a page.  “There!”

Another tiny note had been scrawled between two lines, with an arrow next to it, pointing to something.  A line edit.  I squinted again, reading it.

10,000

“I could be wrong,” said Tasia.  “But I’m pretty sure that ten thousand feet is the deepest point in the ocean that anyone’s allowed to travel to safely.”

My stomach clenched.  The water is rising.  It drowned the Great Scholars, and was on its way to drown us.  This must have had something to do with it.

“Let’s keep going,” I said.  “There has to be more.”

We kept flipping through, scanning between every line, looking at every blank space.  More time passed.  Left-Hira got bored and stood up from the couch.  She sat on the porch outside with her Right body, gazing out at the water and taking puffs from her purple hookah.

And then, near the end of the book, we saw a picture.  A drawing, rendered in color with incredible detail.

First, I saw the ship, floating on the blue ocean at the corner of the painting, depicted from a bird’s eye view.  An old ship, wooden, with masts and sails like the ones from hundreds of years ago, before the invention of steamboats.  Judging by the sails, though, it seemed large.

The boat only took up a fraction of the image.  A tiny sliver of space.

The rest of the drawing was filled with the ocean surface.  And corpses.  It took me a second to process the details.

Not just any corpses.  Storm kraken corpses.  Hulking creatures, with tentacles big enough to pull down a destroyer.  Dozens of eyes, each wider than a man was tall.  And massive, ovaloid mouths, that could swallow an entire whale.  Some of them looked like elder krakens, stretching to the size of small islands.

Even today, just one storm kraken could still rip apart merchant ships, and the occasional military submarine.  Anything less than a battleship, and captains needed to steer clear of hurricanes, and the monsters that came with them.

And dozens of them had been butchered here, floating on the surface of the ocean.  What the fuck killed them?

They’d been laid out in some sort of strange pattern.  Tentacles and eyes and chunks of their bodies had been sliced off and rearranged.

Together, they formed a massive triangle.  Then, a smaller triangle, of the same shape, flipped upside down and placed inside, dividing the larger one into four separate triangles.

Even smaller triangles had been placed in those ones as well, dividing them up.  And triangles within their triangles, and so on, getting more and more minuscule, as far as the eye could see.  The triangles stuck out at odd angles, too, expanding from the largest one and forming endless branches in ever-smaller Y-shapes, all part of the same elegant design.

“It’s a fractal,” breathed Tasia.

“A what?”

“An infinite pattern, that repeats over and over again.  It’s a math term.  You see limited, finite versions in nature a bunch, like with algae and tree leaves.”  She thought for a moment, then nodded to herself.  “I’ve seen that one before.  It’s called Akhara’s Triangle.”

Hira and I looked at each other, both thinking the same thing.  Akhara’s Gate.

“Akhara the Polymath developed it.  A Great Scholar, and one of the Four Eternals.  It keeps getting smaller, on to infinity.  Triangles within triangles.  In theory, at least.  Magnify any part of it, and it’ll look mostly the same.  The base equilateral triangle and the three main branches are a variation on the basic one.“

I pointed.  “There’s something else in the drawing.”

An oracle snake flew above the triangle pattern of corpses, winding back and forth in the air.  A large, flat serpent, gazing down at the historic event happening below.

“On its back,” said Tasia.  “Are you seeing that?”

Its silver scales formed a pattern.  Interlocking triangles.  Narrow, with smaller, identical shapes contained within them and branching out from the vertices.

Akhara’s Triangle.  The snakeskin had the same pattern as the sea kraken corpses.  A fractal, seeming to repeat to infinity.

Below the snake, another note had been scrawled into the margins of the page.

Broken Gods

“A ‘broken god’ did that.”  I turned to Tasia.  “Does that mean anything to you guys?”

Left-Hira ignored me, standing up and walking to the sliding doors.  “Guys,” she said.

“Oracle snakes are present for major historical events,” I said.  “So maybe they had something to do with the Great Scholars and their drowning.”

“Look at the detail on those fractals,” murmured Tasia, her eyes bright.  “That structure of corpses held together in the ocean.  Despite all the waves.  How many recursions are contained within that?”

I stared at the triangle pattern.  At how every triangle subdivided and branched out, getting smaller and smaller and smaller.  Patterns within patterns within patterns.  Familiar and alien and breathtaking, all at once.

“Guys!” shouted Left-Hira.

The two of us glanced at her.  Hira pulled open the glass sliding door and stepped onto the porch.  She looked upwards with both her bodies, and the two of us followed her gaze.

Then I stood up and walked outside, shaking, my skin cold.

Two oracle snakes flew in the sky, undulating beneath the starless expanse, their triangular scales glimmering with moonlight.

Oracle snakes only appeared one at a time.  Every sighting, every history book pointed them to being solitary creatures.

A dark cloud drifted to the side, moonlight shining in its wake.  And I froze.

Not just two.

The sky was full of oracle snakes.  Hundreds of them, maybe thousands.  Small ones, the size of a man, and massive ones, larger than this house.  Larger than most ships I’d seen.

They wound their flat coils back and forth under the night sky, silent, floating high above the ocean.  Each of them had Akhara’s Triangle on their scales.

Tasia held up the Lavender Book, and we looked at the painting of the oracle snake.  It’s identical.  An icy breeze blew across the water.

Then she lowered the book, and we saw.

The oracle snakes were looking at us.

All of them had turned in our direction, staring down with tiny, pitch-black eyes.  Not at Elmidde, not at Paragon Academy.  Towards a small beach house on the coast of the mainland.

Towards us.

The rest of the world dropped away.  The sensations from my body faded into the distance, as every muscle clenched up.

Next to me, Tasia clenched the Lavender Book, her hands shaking.  Both Hiras stared up at the army of oracle snakes, eyes wide with terror.  She never looks scared.

A wave of dizziness washed over me, and I grabbed a chair for support.

I need to put together my machine pistol.  But would it even do anything, to that many oracle snakes?

I didn’t move, paralyzed, staring up at the host of serpents above us.  The waves washed against the sand, the only sounds out here.

And then.  Is that a trick of the light, or – 

Were the oracle snakes getting closer to us?  They drifted in our direction, slow at first, but constant.  Inexorable.

My throat tightened.  Sweat soaked my palms.  No.  I staggered back, falling against the glass sliding door.

And then, the oracle snakes froze midair.  In unison, they turned north.  Gazing back towards Elmidde and Paragon Academy, still dark after the attack.  They see something there.

The army of snakes scattered like cockroaches.  They shot away in a hundred different directions, flying back into the thicket of clouds, soaring away towards the open ocean.

A second later, they were gone.  Vanished, without a sign that they’d ever been here.

But the three of us still stood there, scanning the starless sky, looking behind the clouds to see if any of them had lingered, if they would come back.

A minute passed, and nothing came.  The night grew colder around us, biting into my skin and making goosebumps prickle on my arms.

Five minutes passed.  Then ten.  Then what felt like half an hour, or longer.  No more Oracle Snakes.  Nothing in the sky.  Just the quiet sound of the waves, splashing against the sand below.  They’re gone.

Tasia exhaled, and I unclenched my fists, letting my arms fall to my sides.  Left-Hira slumped over on her porch chair, exhausted, and Right-Hira hunched over, his eyes dark.  I slid down the glass sliding door, sitting down on the porch, knees pulled into my chest.

For a few seconds, nobody said anything.  Then Tasia spoke up, for the first time in an eternity.  “It’s cold out here,” she said.  “Let’s continue this inside.”

Everyone moved, in silent agreement.  Nobody wanted to spend another second out here.  Not tonight.

We shut the sliding door and the drapes behind us, cutting off our view of the ocean.  Hiding us from its eyes.  Then we sat down on the couch again.  I felt heavy, all of the sudden.  My muscles ached, and my lungs felt winded.

“Maybe we should move,” I said.  “Get out of here.  Those things, they know where we are, now.”

Right-Hira shook his head.  “If they wanted us that bad, they would have attacked.”  But they saw something.  “And the clouds blocked us from view of the city.  Paragon doesn’t know about this either.  Probably.”

Left-Hira nodded.  “And they found us here already.  In this safehouse that nobody else knows about.  Where could we possibly go to hide from them?”

That’s not much of a comfort.

My hands dug into the couch cushion, and I forced myself to take slow, steady breaths.  “I don’t know,” I mumbled.  “I don’t know.”  But if that’s true, then our lives hang by a thread again.  By whatever strange force in the city that drove the oracle snakes to flee.

“They wanted this.”  Tasia flipped open the Lavender Book again, scanning it with a new fervent zeal.  Then, she jabbed her finger into the last page.  “There,” she said.  “There’s one more note written in the margins.”  That wasn’t carved out of reality.

Then she looked closer at the note, and her hands clenched the book.  Her eyes widened, and she stopped breathing for a moment.

I leaned forward to look at the handwriting.  It sat in the middle of the page with an arrow, replacing something, or adding to something.

Then I read it, and the world dropped away for a second.

Rowyna Branigen

What?  “Wes’ mother is involved in all this?” I blurted out.  Branigen is her maiden name.  Wes told me she’d picked up ‘Ebbridge’ after marrying a newspaper heir, his father.

“She’s a part of the conspiracy,” said Tasia.  “Whatever’s going on here with this ‘Egress’, she’s involved with it.”

The ache in my chest returned.  “Which means Wes is going to get tangled up in this, too.”

First, he’d put himself back into a hell-den of competition and viciousness.  Now, his mother had joined some huge conspiracy.  Something involving the oracle snakes, and the rising water, and ‘Broken Gods’.

Something terrible.  And far, far above any of our pay grades.

“You know,” I said.  “A day and a half ago, I thought Wes got the sweet deal, going back to Paragon.  But now?”  I shook my head.  He’s out of the fire, and back to the frying pan.

“So,” said Left-Hira.  “What the fuck do we do, then?”  Right-Hira stood up and walked out of the room, into the hallway.

“I have no idea,” muttered Tasia.

I reached under the Lavender Book, beneath a magazine, and pulled out the envelope with my ferry ticket.

FROM: ALCAROSS
TO: LANDDEN
DATE: 8/30/520 – 0730
ONE-WAY

My path back to the Agricultural Islands.  Back home, as soon as I put together a proper false identity.

A part of me wanted to grab this and run.  To flee all of this madness.  To sleep on my bed and eat my mom’s pancakes and not feel terrified for my life every day.

But then, I thought of confronting my parents.  For the money I’d stolen, yes.  But also the mob I’d stirred up, the violence I’d incited.  All the people I’d killed for the wrong side.

And I thought of Jun, dragged away by Pictogram to Cao Hui.  Wes, being caught up in this vast apocalyptic conspiracy.

I closed my eyes, and I saw the games of Jao Lu I’d played with them.  All the times Wes had saved my life, when Jun had patched me up.  Both of them, offering me their earnings from Brin so I could afford a replacement body.

“In some of her last moments,” I said.  “Grace said something to me.  ‘We’ve committed great sins, the two of us.  It would take a lifetime to atone for them.’

“Bitch didn’t pull punches,” said Left-Hira.

I tore the ferry ticket in half, and floated the pieces into a trash can.  “So,” I said.  “Let’s get to work.”  I have much to answer for.  And recognizing that failure wasn’t enough.  I had to act.  “We can’t abandon Jun to some murderous Shenti dictator.”

“Yeah,” said Left-Hira.  “For all we know, they’re already torturing him.”

We all fell silent for a moment.

I exhaled, and nodded.  “We’ll get to him first.  Free him, no matter how secure the prison, no matter how strong the locks.  We’ve got an illusionist and the best password thief in the Eight Oceans.”

“And if the Black Tortoise just executes him?” said Left-Hira.  Always the cheery one.

“Jun hasn’t seen his father again,” I said.  “He can’t die.”  I patted the Lavender Book.  “Then.  We go rescue Wes.”

Left-Hira grumbled.  “That boy is way over his head.”

I nodded.  “And with every day that passes, it’s going to get worse.”  I gazed at his mother’s scrawled maiden name.  “We’re going to pull him out of this Egress conspiracy thing.”

Tasia flipped through the unreadable pages.  “And while we’re at it, we can get to the bottom of this.”

I looked at the shut drapes, and thought of the waves lapping against the shore.  The dark clouds where the oracle snakes had hovered, staring down at us.  My breath shortened, and a chill spread through my flesh.

“The water is rising,” I said.  “It’s time we find out why.”  I glanced at Tasia and Left-Hira, then held up my hands.  “If – if you want to join me, of course.  It’ll be beyond dangerous, of course, and there probably won’t be much money.  And Tasia, you don’t even know Wes and Jun.  You don’t have to – “

“Ana,” said Left-Hira.  “You’re not the only one who gives a shit about Wes and Jun.  I’m coming.”

Tasia looked at me.  “I don’t know your friends,” she said, in Wes’ voice.  “But I know you care about them.  You’ll need help if you want to rescue them.”  She indicated her head to the book.  “I still need to save my sister.  And whatever she was looking after had something to do with this.”  She beamed.  “And I’d never pass up the chance to uncover the world’s secrets.”

I nodded at both of them.  “We’ve got a submarine, now.”  I smiled.  “Let’s go on an adventure.”

“But after we save them,” said Tasia.  “What then?”

“Assuming we survive,” said Hira.

“Then,” I said.  “We strive to become Exemplars.”

“We’re not becoming Guardians any time soon,” said Left-Hira.  “So what the fuck does that mean, now?”

“Paragon has their ideal,” I said.  “And so does everyone else.  The Shenti value discipline.  The Neke value humility.  And the Harmonious Flock values empathy.”

Some of the Harmonious Flock,” muttered Hira.

“An Exemplar is your best self,” I said.  “So it means whatever we want it to.”  Write the next page.

What do I write next?  What kind of person did I want to be?

A year ago, I would have said “Guardian”, without hesitation.  Even when that dream grew impossible, I’d given wrong answers to that question.  Again and again.

I’ll have to figure out a new one.  I found myself looking forward to the task.

Then my stomach growled, with a lingering ache, like it had been all day.

Hira and Tasia looked at me.  “Please don’t tell me you swallowed more Kraken’s Bone,” said Left-Hira.

I’ve been so busy with everything today.  I hadn’t had the time for a meal.  A proper meal.

And I’d transferred out of my old body.  My senses would work fine again.

I’d be able to taste food for the first time in years.

“I’m hungry, too,” said Tasia.  “That…incident outside took my appetite for a bit, but it’s back.”

I leaned back on a couch cushion, exhausted.  “Do we have anything in the pantry?”  I had next to zero cooking experience, except with Kaplen’s stress baking sessions, and felt far too tired to try tonight.

Tasia stood up and rummaged through the kitchen cabinets.  “I could boil some pasta,” she said. “Add olive oil.  I’m not a great chef, but I can do that much.  Heating water gets real easy with projection.  Might taste a little bland, though.”

“I don’t mind,” I said, massaging my growling stomach.  “As long as it’s not Maldano’s Canned Lentils.”  I’d only eaten those with a broken mouth, and shuddered at the thought of actually having to taste them.

“Actually,” said Left-Hira.  “I have something for this.”

She beckoned, and Right-Hira stepped out of the hallway, floating a heavy stockpot next to him with projection, Cardamom draped over his shoulders.  He set it on the coffee table, and Tasia jogged over.  The three of us gathered around it, and I leaned in.

“What’s that?” said Tasia.  Her eyes widened.  “Oh!  That has to be – “

“Shut it, bookworm,” said Left-Hira, scratching behind Cardamom’s ears.  “Don’t spoil the surprise.”

Right-Hira took off the lid, and an incredible scent wafted before me, as the air grew warm.  Cinnamon and allspice and cloves.  A faint whiff of fresh oranges.

And apple.  The overwhelming aroma of baked apples.

It smelled like a home I’d never been to, like nostalgia for a life I’d never lived.  It made me think of comfort, rainy days by a warm fireplace, and all the hopes I’d once gripped in my heart.

I gaped at the stockpot, filled with a steaming liquid the color of autumn.  “Is that – “

“Paragon Academy’s mulled cider,” crowed Hira.  “Hot and fresh.”

“But – “  I blinked.  “How – “

“During the cleanup,” said Hira.  “While I went into town to copy that hairdresser, I stopped by one of the Paragon relief tents.  The ones they set up for Humdrums, with lighter security.  Then, I just had to find a chef and use my Vocation to steal their famous recipe.”

“And?” said Tasia.

“It’s not that complicated,” said Hira.  “The trick is the ingredients.  Those took me some time to put together earlier this evening.  But this should be as good as the real thing.  Better, since it isn’t being served in a tacky banquet hall filled with imperialists.”  She grinned.  “And I wrote down the instructions.  I’m going to leak it to a foreign newspaper somewhere.  Fuck their secret recipe.”

“I – “  I stuttered.  “I’m not sure what to say – “

“So yeah,” said Left-Hira, avoiding eye contact.  “I thought you, well, might appreciate it.”

I stood up, ran to Hira, and hugged both of her bodies, taking care not to knock over the pot.  “Thank you,” I breathed.  “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

“Lund pe chadh,” she mumbled.  “That’s for saving my life, dumbass.”

We broke off, and Right-Hira floated a quartet of mugs into the air.  Four streams of mulled cider arced up from the stockpot, pouring into them.  “You don’t need to blow on them,” he said.  “I heated them to the perfect drinking temperature.”

I placed my hands around one of the mugs and pulled it out of the air.  The others did the same.

Cardamom jumped onto the couch and curled up next to me, purring.  Left-Hira tossed him a dried fish, and he snapped it out of the air.

I sat back for a moment.  Feeling the warmth on my unblemished palms.  Enjoying the smell of apples and spices.  I looked down at the cider, steam rising off the surface.

Then, on a whim, I projected into the drapes to the balcony, throwing them open again.  I gazed out past the glass door, past the beach and into the empty night sky.  Past where the oracle snakes had been.  Long gone, now.  Above, to the two moons shining overhead.  Two full moons, or close to it.

I turned my head leftwards, and gazed at the darkened Paragon Academy, the dim lights of Hightown.  I saw the cable car station, far in the distance.  The place where I’d clipped one of the trees near the peak, during my frantic descent to chase after Grace.

I’d imagined myself looking at that view, sipping mulled cider in one of Paragon’s common rooms or its banquet hall, with my newfound friends.  I’d imagined soaring through the air.

But this was better.  This was so much better.

“Thinking of those oracle snakes?” said Tasia.  “I think Hira’s right.  They’re not working with Paragon, or that battle with Commonplace would have gone very differently.  We should be safe here, for a while.”

I shook my head, and pointed to Paragon.  “Thinking of how I got down from there.”

“Hira tells me that you flew, right?” said Tasia.  She got knocked out near the end of the battle.  A curious spark had been lit in Wes’ eyes – her eyes.  As I recalled, her raw projection hadn’t been strong enough to learn flight, despite her academic prowess.  “How was that?”

“More like falling to my death,” I said.  “There was a fair bit of screaming and wobbling.  Kind of a miracle that I didn’t crash, given the state of my body.  And that I’d never trained for it.”

“Yeah,” said Tasia.  “But how was it?”

I breathed in the scent of the cider, still not drinking it yet.  “When you get past all the fear,” I said.  “All the horrible stuff that was going on.”  I paused for a moment, closing my eyes, remembering the sensation.  “I suppose it was electric.”

Tasia smiled.

I lifted the porcelain mug to my lips, and took my first sip of mulled cider.

A storm of flavors unfolded inside my mouth.  The apples, sweet and thick and simple.  A tinge of orange, adding a faint sour note.  All the spices, intense and rich, each distinct, but building on each other.

And the warmth.  The cozy heat, running down my throat.

Incredible.  Beyond everything I’d ever hoped for.  Every note hit with perfection.  It felt like taking a breath, after I’d been choking for years.  It felt like hearing music, for the first time.

I took another sip.  Then a gulp.

Then, I chugged down the whole cup, and extended it to Right-Hira, who refilled it with another projected stream from the stockpot.

I pet Cardamom’s soft green fur with my off hand, looked at my friends, and thought back to what I told Isaac Brin, the night I’d met him on that boat.  Bobbing up and down on the dark ocean, while I bled out from his dart.  My response, to his generic, vague encouragement.

See yourself as a caterpillar, he said.  Imagine your future as a butterfly.

Most caterpillars die in the cocoon, I’d told him, laughing.  They’re eaten by ants or birds or reptiles. Parasitic wasps will lay their eggs inside them and sprout out of them.  The vast majority never make it to adulthood.

I was right.  Many caterpillars do die in the cocoon.  You can fail yourself in a thousand different ways.  The world can be more brutal and dangerous than you imagine, as you forge your Pith, write the next page.

But if you survive, you get to fly.

And doesn’t that make it all worth it?





End of Volume 1





Author’s Note:

Hi all.  It’s done.  It’s really done.  I actually finished the first Volume of this story.  I’ve written stuff before this, but never anything this long.  Not even close.

And despite its considerable length, in a lot of ways, Volume 1 is only a prologue to the rest of the story.  The biggest, wildest stuff is yet to come.  God help my sleep schedule.

Since TopWebFiction isn’t back up yet, Pith has now been cross-posted to Royalroad!  If you want to support the story, the best thing you can do right now is leave us a rating or a review there, so we can get visibility and reach a wider audience.  Any help would be greatly appreciated.  Or, just check it out if you feel like reading it without the dark background.

Being able to edit chapters in advance and make big shifts in the story before publishing is super important to me.  And over the last four months or so, I’ve burned through the majority of my backlog, and am only writing a few chapters ahead of the actual story.  So, to give me time to catch up, Pith will be going on break for three weeks.  The Volume 2 prologue, titled ‘Free Waffles’, will drop on March 8.  During or soon after the break, I may post a rough retrospective, of sorts, where I analyze the writing of Volume 1.  If you’re interested in learning about my convoluted, work-intensive writing process, feel free to take a glance.

To be honest, the last year has been pretty rough for me.  Through all the horrible stuff, this story has been a lifeline for me.  It’s grueling work, but breathing with these characters, this world, is deeply rewarding.  And seeing your comments – your thoughts, your reactions, your theories, has been nothing short of incredible.  It makes all of the hours of editing and outlining and pacing around my room feel worth it.

So to anyone who made it this far, thank you.  From the bottom of my heart, thank you.  And welcome to Pith.  Hope to see you in Volume 2.

– MWS

Previous Chapter

13-C – Max

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



“You were right,” said Max.  “You were always right.”

Max’s Nekean therapist nodded from the other chair, scribbling in her notebook.

“This world is the real one,” Max sighed.  “My revolution was a dream.”

The therapist smiled, something in between warm beaming and a smirk.  And for a moment, Max wanted to kill her more than anything.  She wanted to gouge that woman’s eyes out, pull each tooth out, one by one.  She helped cut me up for the scientists.  For all she knew, that therapist had given Max all these torturous dreams.

But Max couldn’t make a move against her.  The commands and the Nudge Powder prevented her from doing any sort of violence, or using commands to free herself.

“I’m glad you’re facing reality,” said the therapist.  “What happened?”

“My revolution failed,” said Max.  “We took the academy, briefly, and got a message out to the people about the truth of their leaders.  But we lost in the field.  My best friend captured the Lavender Book, a critical item, but I’m certain she’s dead now.  We failed, largely, due to the efforts of a girl in a decaying body and an Ousted Epistocrat.  Two people who should have hated Paragon more than anyone.”  Max slumped back on her chair.  “But they never came round.  They stayed indoctrinated to the end. ”

Why had Max put so much faith in people?  What had Max believed that all the people would rise up in unison?  So many people act like Anabelle Gage.  Like Weston Ebbridge.

People had a way of disappointing you.

“It makes sense now,” Max continued.  “That the revolution didn’t happen.”  This elaborate dream was just some other torture method.  Giving her hope and then tearing her down again, to make it more painful each time.  She’d never been in control.  She’d never done anything important as the leader of Commonplace.

And now that her revolution had failed, her dream world looked just as empty and cruel as Buttercup Lodge.

Maybe I knew it would end this way.  Pure agony.  A puppet full of needles, screaming as it danced on the strings.

“So,” said Max.  “Please.  How do I get rid of them?”  Her voice grew weak, desperate.  “I want to stop dreaming.”

“There are ways,” said the therapist.

“Do I need to die in the dream?” said Max.  Maybe Paragon would finish her off, or she’d finish bleeding out in her next dream.  And then, she’d wake up here for good.

Before, if she felt a hope, however faint, that the world of her revolution was real, she couldn’t kill herself there.

But the hope had evaporated.  Max just wanted to wake up.

“Perhaps,” said the therapist.  “But you’d probably just start dreaming about something else.  Or your dream world wouldn’t let you kill yourself.”

Max leaned closer.  “You can do something, then, can’t you?”  They’d already broken her mind in so many ways.  Controlled her, ripped away all her autonomy, peeled apart her identity.  Fixing some bad dreams seems simple, in comparison.

“I can’t,” said the therapist.

“Can’t,” hissed Max.  “Or won’t?”  She enjoys watching me suffer.

“It’s not within my powers,” she said.  “But you can make the dreams less painful.”

“How?”  Max clenched her fists.

“You need to find something to bind yourself to this world,” said the therapist.  “The real world.  Something you love.”  She stared into Max’s eyes.  “Then, you’ll find the power to endure the illusion.  In the dream, you’ll be unbreakable.”

Max slumped back on her chair, feeling more exhausted than ever.  She stared outside the window, past the fluttering drapes and over the flowing yellow hills of Buttercup Lodge.  The buildings where the scientists tortured and imprisoned her.  The watery pit where hell itself had leaked through in her dream.

How can I love something in a place like this?

________________________________________

To her great disappointment, Maxine Clive woke up.

Her eyes snapped open, and she found herself in some stranger’s bedroom, a dusty studio apartment with a kitchen and small bathroom.  Much like the ones she’d spent her teenage years in, before Buttercup Lodge.  Used newspapers, empty beer bottles, and a half-eaten box of takeout fish and chips littered the floor.  Morning light streamed in through a blurry window in the corner.

For a moment, Max thought she’d returned to her old life, her life as a bicycle courier.  Maybe I dreamt up Buttercup Lodge.  Maybe I dreamt up everything.

Then she saw the headline on one of the newspapers, stuffed into a mail slot in her door.

PARAGON ACADEMY SAVES ELMIDDE

And below it:

SYMPHONY KNIGHT AND HEADMASTER VANQUISH COUP

Max turned over on the bed, and closed her eyes.  Her legs ached, her chest covered in bruises.  And her clothes didn’t help, either.  Whatever she was wearing, it felt tight, rough, squeezing her waist and legs and stomach.  These aren’t pajamas.

One glance, and she saw her outfit.  A dark blue military uniform.  A Principality uniform.

A strand of light brown hair fell into Max’s face.  My hair.  This wasn’t the Maxine Clive chassis she’d used for the battle.  I got swapped again.

Memories flashed through her head.  Grace, carrying her bleeding body through the streets.  A red-haired Principality soldier, leaving a house, aiming her rifle at Grace.  Grace, jamming the gun, tackling the woman inside her home.

And then Grace, kneeling over Max, purple and white lightning crackling around her.  Performing a forced transference on her and the soldier, swapping their bodies.  Pushing Max’s Pith into the healthy body, and pushing the enemy soldier into the one covered in blood.

“I’ll draw them off,” Grace had said, slinging the body over her shoulders.

“Your Vocation,” mumbled Max, the world blurring in and out around her.

Grace turned around.

“It’s been focused on nothing but this mission for the last decade.  What does it think is going to happen next?  What future is it perfecting you for?”

“Nothing,” said Grace, her voice flat.  “I see nothing.”  Sirens rang in the distance.  Approaching police cars.

“The day we met,” said Max.  “We went out for lunch together, to that salad place.” She chuckled.  “I tried to eat healthy, but you only ate croutons and olive oil.  The entire restaurant stared at you.  Do you remember that?”

Grace shook her head.  Her Vocation’s erased it.  Her knife scored down the woman’s forearms, faking a suicide.

“Don’t worry,” said Max.  “I’ll remember it for you.”

And then Grace had left.

In the present, Max sat up in her bed, her military uniform tight and uncomfortable.  She staggered to the window and stared out, squinting through the morning sun.  A military truck rolled past the street, filled with Principality soldiers.

She knew the protocol for this situation.  Protocol that she and Grace had set up.  If everything went to shit, and Max got isolated, she could give a signal in a dead drop and convene an emergency meeting of whoever survived.

So many contingencies.  Max had insisted on contingencies.  Grace only cared about Plan A, her single perfect world that she drove towards with all her might.  She anticipated victory, at every turn.

Max, on the other hand, had expected failure from the start.

Thanks to all the drills she’d insisted on, Max knew exactly which code to use, which location to place it in.  She knew exactly how to regroup, figure out the next steps for fighting Paragon’s tyranny.  She could do it right now, if she wanted to.

Max crawled back under the covers, and closed her eyes.

She tossed and turned for half an hour, unable to sleep.  So she started thinking.

Our revolution failed.  It had given Paragon a scapegoat to kill Parliament, so Commonplace might have even made things worse.  A return of the Conclave of the Wise seemed likely.

They’d made that damning recording with Christea Ronaveda, demonstrating how Paragon had hijacked their own parliament.  But without the Radio Man, they couldn’t broadcast to every radio in the Principality.  They just had to pick a channel and hope that people were listening.

And judging by the headlines, not enough people had tuned in.  Or a few of them had, and Paragon had muzzled the newspapers.  It didn’t matter either way.  Max didn’t have a copy on her anymore.

Grace.  Afzal Kahlin.  Pictogram.  All the Nudge terrorism she’d authorized.  The chassis scams on innocent people.  The ordinary soldiers she’d butchered.  The servants she’d used for their Paragon assault.  All the violence and cruelty and death.  All the moral compromises.

What did those accomplish?  What was the point?

In the flood, Max had become the cruel ant queen, ordering others to give up their lives to join the living raft.  And they’d drowned anyways, ants and beetles alike tumbling into the water and choking out.

Only Max, the tyrant, had lived.

Max thought of Khona and the Farmer, the parable she told Pictogram, when she met him.  The world is Khona.  And I am the farmer.  Committing atrocities over and over again, hoping for some end to justify the means.  An end that never came.

Our revolution failed.  The stars were still gone.  And the water was still rising.  Humanity’s twilight has begun.

Please, Max thought.  Can this dream end already?

Max lay in bed for hours, at least.  She had no clock in the room, but the sun rose in the sky, and sunk into the early afternoon.  Lying here made her more exhausted, not less.  A headache started to throb in the back of her skull, and her muscles burned where she’d been lying on them.

And the more exhausted Max felt, the harder it was to pull herself out of bed.  A vicious cycle.  She’d been carrying such a heavy burden on her shoulders for the last few years, and now, it felt like her feet had been cut off.  The weight crushed her.  She couldn’t even crawl.

It’s all a dream, right?  This world was empty, in the end, just some figment of her imagination.  Might as well enjoy it.

Max rolled out of bed and slumped onto the dusty floor, on all fours.  After a minute, she pushed herself to a standing position, stumbled to the closet, and ripped her military uniform off.

As she did, she glanced at the back of her hand.  A white scroll on a blue square had been tattooed on this person’s wrist, with a sword stabbing through it.   The Principality’s flag.  A military symbol.  This soldier had been a true believer.

Max kicked her military clothes into the corner of the room, and pulled on a simple pair of pants and a shirt, with a pair of shoes.  A wallet sat on the bedside table, next to a pistol and a holster.  The wallet had a few pounds in it, plus the woman’s identification cards, and a small key.  Ailith Roland.  Thirty-four years old.

She whispered a quiet apology to Ailith, then picked up the pistol, examining it.  I could put this beneath a coat.  Conceal it, so she could still defend herself on the streets.

Max put the gun down.

Then, she walked out the front door, into the glare of the midday sun.  She found herself looking at a flat Midtown street, wrapping around the western slope of Mount Elwar.

A pair of soldiers jogged past her on the sidewalk, carrying submachine guns, and she staggered back, out of their way.  Don’t piss them off.  Max didn’t need extra attention.

A bicycle had been chained in front of the apartment building.  On a hunch, Max knelt by it and used the key on the lock.  The mechanism clicked, and it came undone.

Max tossed the chains onto a pile of trash.  And she biked off into the city.

As she passed ruined storefronts, Max thought of what she could do.  What’s supposed to be fun?  Max didn’t know anymore.  So she just followed the first thoughts that popped into her head.

First, she went to a movie theater.  One of the ones that hadn’t closed.  She bought tickets for all the showings, and at the last minute, wandered into The God and the Dancer, a cheesy Ilaquan romance flick about a famous chef falling in love with a backup dancer.

In the lobby, Max found herself tempted by the popcorn on display, and the ice cream sodas she saw everyone else buying.  But she didn’t order them.  I still don’t know if my sense of taste will work in a new body.  If she had a problem with her Pith, then it’d be broken forever.  And besides, she craved bacon, not theater food.

Still, Max enjoyed the movie.  She found herself laughing at all the jokes, joining the rest of the audience.  Such a normal act, after such a violent day.  Max found herself surprised, that the citizens of Elmidde weren’t hiding under their beds, or praying, or getting blackout drunk right now.

Their city had just been attacked, and here they were, watching a matinee.  It seemed almost remarkable.

Is this what normal people do?  Is this a normal life?  It seemed nice.

When the credits rolled, Max walked back to the box office, bought another ticket, and watched a second movie, A Hero Rises, an action flick about some heroic soldier during the Shenti War.  This one irritated Max a bit.  Untrained guitar players can’t land headshots at a hundred meters.  Totally inaccurate.

Plus, A Hero Rises came off as war propaganda.  She had a hard time ignoring that, no matter how much she tried to turn off her Pith and watch the explosions.

I could have done this for years.  Instead of fighting for a future that she’d never see.  For a world that would never answer her prayers, an empty dream designed to torture her.

This could have been me.  If she’d ignored that fake letter from Paragon.  If she’d just stayed in her apartment, looked away from the temptation.

She’d spent all the money in her wallet, so she biked back to the apartment to pick up more money.  When she got back, a stack of bills had been shoved through Ailith Roland’s mail slot.  This doesn’t slow down, either.

This time, Max also noticed a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, a veritable mountain of filthy pots, pans, and plates that would take half an hour to clean.

Where do you see yourself in five years?  The job interviewer asked her, so many decades ago.

Doing dishes, Max had thought.  Bleeding out of my ears.

Yes, maybe this would have been her life.  The monotony, the money troubles, wading through bureaucracy until she died.

Max stuffed the dirty dishes and bills into a large trash bag, then pulled open her rear window and threw them out.  They landed in the alleyway below with a crash.

Then, on one of the bookshelves, she spotted a stack of Nekean romance manga, Panda Blossom.  Volumes one through fifty.  This wouldn’t irritate her with war propaganda, or feeble attempts at realism.

Max refilled her wallet, took all of them, and went to a cafe.

She sat at a window table, drank hot water, and dug into the stack of foreign comics.

It was the most ludicrously stupid thing she’d ever read.  She dug through fifteen volumes in an hour.

Heavenly scents of coffee and fresh pastries drifted into her nose, with the heavenly scent of fresh bacon, sizzling on a pan somewhere.  But Max still didn’t order anything, no matter how tempted she felt.

On volume twenty-seven, Max reached a boring part of Panda Blossom, some lengthy side POV, and glanced around the cafe for a moment.

The men and women here looked exhausted.  Half-awake.  They slouched over at their tables, didn’t talk, stared at their drinks with baggy eyes.  A tank drove down the street outside, its motor growling, its metal joints screeching as it bumped over piles of rubble.

These people don’t look normal.  They looked like the citizens of Kiterjede after the Corsairs’ conquest.  Or the Shenti, in the aftermath of the Spirit Block.  They’ve lost the will to exist.  And now they were drifting through life, aimless, waiting for the next apocalypse.

The simple life was never possible for me.  A ‘simple’ life required financial stability and free time.  Her boss at the bike company had taken that from her when he decided to pay her starvation wages.  The moment he fired her for showing up late on one delivery.

In Ailith’s life, the fantasy would fade.  She’d have to buy new dishes and clean them.  She’d have to fish those bills out of the trash and pay them.

This would be her future.  A slow, lonely existence.  Going to work again and again, until she grew old, imploded from the medical bills, and died, wondering what could have been, whether any of this had been real.

Until they forget me.  This was the future of so many in the Principality.

Max gazed out the window.  A lone Green Hands ran away from the military, his hands cuffed behind his back.  A Principality soldier tripped him, and another one kicked him in the face, sending up a spurt of blood and broken teeth.

Max flinched.  This is my fault.  This wouldn’t have happened if they’d won.

She stared at the bleeding Green Hands, as the soldiers dragged him into a truck.  You deserve the magnificent world that I hoped for.  But she hadn’t built that.  She’d crumbled.

Even if this was a dream, even if this was all pointless, Max still felt responsible.  No matter what she did, the weight of the world still pulled down on her shoulders.

Max left some money on the table for her hot water, though it was technically free.  Then she picked up her manga and left the cafe.

________________________________________

Max strode towards the edge of the North Bridge.

She leaned over the metal railing, next to one of the massive steel cables suspending the whole structure over the water, connecting Elmidde to the mainland of the Principality.  A warm summer breeze blew through her brown hair.  Behind her, a line of trucks and automobiles waited at a military checkpoint, undergoing inspections before entering or leaving the city.

Next to them, military trucks sped into Elmidde, filled with Principality soldiers.  An endless parade of enemies.

Max stared down.  The Carheim Ocean sat hundreds of feet below, a flat expanse of water extending far into the horizon.  It looks so blue.  So clear and inviting.

She closed her eyes, and pictured clambering over the railing.  Leaping off, dropping through the sky, and crashing at the bottom.  At this height, the impact would crush her in an instant, and with the military and hospitals this busy, they wouldn’t have the time to fish her out and tend to her wounds.

A burst of warmth flooded Max’s veins as she thought of this.  She couldn’t save this city or wake up from this nightmare.  But she could control this, at least.

If this was a dream, Max could finally free herself of its cruel whims.  And if this was real, then Max wouldn’t have to live with her failure.  She would get the punishment she deserved.  The endless water would take her, just like it had taken the Great Scholars, and so many others.

The sea remains.  She’d used so many slogans, but should have focused on that one.  The one prevailing truth, that preceded all others.

Max pushed herself up on the railing, clumsy, unfamiliar with this body.  She vaulted one leg over, and glanced back at the road, towards the pedestrian walkway on the other side of North Bridge.

A short woman stared at Max, dressed all in black.  The two of them made eye contact for a second.

Then the woman opened a grey carton, and threw an egg at a passing tank on the street.  It struck the vehicle’s slanted blue armor and ran down the side.  Impotent.  Harmless.

The woman sprinted away, and a police officer tackled her, slamming her onto the concrete and knocking the carton out of her hands.  He pressed her face into the pavement, while another officer cuffed the woman’s hands behind her back.

She knows she can’t harm the tank.  That she was powerless next to the military might of the Principality.  She had no guns, no explosives, no projection.  The tiniest ant against a beetle the size of a mountain.

But she still threw the egg.  She still made a petty act of defiance, even though it would cost her freedom.

Max broke out into laughter, doubling over on the railing.  Her shoulders shook, and her chest ached as she guffawed, the noise echoing over the bridge.

One of the soldiers stared at her, fury in his eyes.  “Hey!” he shouted.  “Shut the fuck up!”  He’s giving me an out.  In case Max was laughing at something other than him.

Max kept laughing.  She stared at the tank with the egg white running down the side, the yolk broken on the sidewalk.  And she kept laughing.

The soldier sprinted over to her, crossing both streets filled with stopped cars.  Then he grabbed Max’s shirt.

For a moment, it seemed like he was going to shove Max off the bridge.  To give her the silence she’d wanted for so long.

One push, and it’d all be over.

Then he pulled her off the railing, onto the bridge’s sidewalk, and started kicking her.  His steel-toed combat boot slammed into her stomach, knocking the wind out of her.  The next kick smashed into her face, breaking two of her teeth and blurring her vision.

Max didn’t stop laughing.  Not even when the third kick went between her legs, sending agony throughout her body.

The soldier raised his boot for a fourth kick, a stomp to her nose that might be enough to kill her.

“Enough!” a voice shouted in the distance.

Max’s vision cleared.  Another soldier stood behind the man kicking her, placing a hand on his shoulder.

“Enough,” he said.  “See her wrist, book-burner?  She’s one of us.”

The man grabbed Max’s right hand and held it up, staring at the tattoo of the Principality’s flag.  Then he stepped back from her, clenching his teeth, his boot stained red with blood.  “Why the fuck was she laughing at us?” he snarled.

“She’s shell-shocked,” said the other soldier.  “It makes people do crazy shit.”  He knelt next to Max.  “Hey.  Sorry about that.  Do you need any help?”

Max shook her head.

“Let’s go,” he said, standing up.  “You’ll have other outlets for your anger, Clarke.”

“Forget it,” said the violent soldier.

Both of them walked back to the tank, and stuffed the handcuffed young egg-thrower into a truck.  The kinder soldier slammed the door shut, and they drove off.

Max lay on the ground for a few minutes, curled up, as the aches subsided, blood and drool leaking out of her mouth.  That could have gone much worse.  The soldier hadn’t kicked her in any important places.  If I didn’t have that tattoo.  She didn’t want to think about it.

But she’d survived.  Instead of jumping off the bridge, she’d broken out in laughter.

Max stood up, brushed herself off, and strode down the sidewalk, blood dripping down her chin.  Back towards Elmidde.

That evening, as she walked through the streets, she overheard a radio broadcast, echoing out of a cafe on the street.

A man’s voice, deep and measured, with a thick eastern accent.  “My name is Cao Hui.  The Black Tortoise.  The Scholar of Economy.  Conquerer of the Nekean Islands, Ilaqua, and the Principality, and Grand Marshal of the Shenti Empire.

Max froze.  Impossible.  The Black Tortoise was wasting away in a hut somewhere, not broadcasting on the radio.  The Shenti Empire had dissolved into a chaotic mess of squabbling warlords and bombed-out buildings.  It wasn’t unified.

Then she ran into the cafe.  A group of waiters had gathered around the radio on the counter, listening to the broadcast.  “Where’s that coming from?” Max said.

One of them shrugged.  “Some music station out of Alcaross.  I think someone broke in.”

Cao Hui continued.  “Two days ago, we orchestrated our greatest attack yet against the imperialist butchers of the Principality.  Our agents in Commonplace, under the command of my generals, struck a mighty blow, to bleed the enemy.

Max clenched her teeth.  Bastard.  He was taking credit for all of Commonplace’s hard work.  Her Shenti warlords had provided funding and training, and an elite soldier, Pictogram.  But Max had set all the priorities, not them.  She wanted to build something.  They just wanted revenge.  They wanted to use me.  And maybe they’d succeeded.

They exposed the truth of the Principality’s so-called democracy.  Their bloated, aging government, propped up by stolen wealth and mental hijacking.  They made a recording, with their own spoiled celebrity, who could tell nothing but the truth.

He found out about Christea Ronaveda.  Then he’d heard the recording, even if most of the Principality hadn’t.

Paragon Academy did its best to hide all copies of this recording.  But it failed.  And so, I share it with you today, so that you may know your enemy:

A woman’s voice crackled onto the radio.  “My name is Christea Ronaveda.

Cao Hui played the full recording from the Great Library.  Exposing how all of Parliament had been hijacked, that Paragon was responsible.  How many people are listening to this?  It didn’t sound like a popular radio channel, but the word would be spreading.  People would be tuning in around the country.

See you in paradise, squidfuckers,” said Ronaveda.

The recording finished, and Cao Hui’s voice came back.  “So,” he said.  “To all my brothers and sisters of the Shenti.  To our children who have left our shores, and traveled to the lands of the enemy.  To all who feel the infinite cruelty of the Spirit Block.  Our hearts, ripped from us.”  He paused.  “I call on you to fight with me.  To gather your arms and your bodies and all your strength.  Join me, and witness the rebirth of the Shenti Empire.

The recording ended.

The cafe fell silent.  None of the waiters or the guests spoke, frozen in pure shock.  The Black Tortoise has returned.  The enemy they thought they’d defeated a decade ago.  The Praxis specialist genius who had turned the Shenti’s industry into an unstoppable war machine.

Eastern dogs,” muttered one of the waiters.

If the Principality had been harboring any doubts, they were definitely going to invade now.  Their enemy had revealed himself.

Max forced herself to take slow, calming breaths, slowing her rushing heartbeat.  Then she stepped out of the cafe.

She had a dead drop to make.

________________________________________

Leo’s Place, the sign said, bathed in the orange glow of a streetlamp.  A contingency of a contingency.  A few alphabets away from Plan B.

One of Max’s subordinates had given her a list of locations to memorize before the battle, a long series of emergency backups in case of catastrophic failure.  All the other spots ahead of it on the list had been demolished, or had closed, with the owners missing.  Or had a heavy police presence nearby.

Someone had smashed the front window of the bar, and streaks of black ran up the walls from a firebomb.  But otherwise, it looked fine.  Next to the rest of the country, it’s pretty much paradise.

Max strode through the front door.  The bartender, a middle-aged man cleaning glasses, indicated his head to the back room.  I’m late.  The meeting had already started.  Max had kept herself busy this afternoon.

She strode through the door, to a dusty hallway in the back of the building, lit by a single dim light bulb.

Voices echoed from the room ahead.  Two men, angry.  Nelson Hicks and Cyril Hosmer.  Two of her lieutenants, lower on the command chain, who hadn’t participated in the attack.  Makes sense that they survived.

“They’re dead,” Nelson said.  “Tunnel Vision and Clive.”

“What about the Broadcast King?” said Cyril.

“Kahlin’s safehouse got attacked, too, after the battle.  He’s gone missing, which means he’s either dead, a traitor, or on the other side of the world.  And our Shenti contacts have gone silent, now that their new boss has taken our credit.”

“Eastern dogs,” a woman muttered.

Nelson’s voice grew heavy.  “We’re alone.  We have nothing.”

“Then who called this emergency meeting?” said a female voice.  Flora Davis.  “Only a few people have those security protocols.”

“Maybe it’s a trap,” said Nelson.  “Maybe a few of us in this room have already been hijacked, or replaced, and they’re just waiting for more of us to show up before they sweep in and arrest us.”

“No,” said Flora.  “Paragon is reeling and disorganized after the battle.  They don’t have the resources for that kind of offensive right now.”

“They weren’t supposed to have the resources to crush us like this, either,” said Nelson.  “Maybe this is just the last, dying gasp of our movement.”  His voice echoed through the shut door.  “We’ve spent our money, our guns.  And our people are dying.  We invested everything into the attack on Paragon.  An empty, pointless defeat.”

“It wasn’t pointless!” hissed Flora.  “Look at how many Guardians we slew.  Listen to the radio!”

Nelson and Cyril started shouting at the same time.  Flora and another two voices joined them, making an incomprehensible din.

Max burst through the door.  “Hey!”

Inside, a dozen men and women stood up from a table and pointed guns at her.  New body, new rules.

“Three-One Purgatory Exclamation,” she said.  The password.  “Sit down.  We have a lot to discuss.  I didn’t call this meeting so we could all yell at each other.”

Her lieutenants lowered their guns, and stared at her.  Then, one of them spoke up.  “Ma’am?”

“I told you,” she said.  “‘Max’ is fine.”

“You have a plan, right boss?  Max.”  Flora gazed at her, expectant, puffing on a cigarette.

“Of sorts,” said Max.  “Give me all your guns.”

The men and women around her flicked their safeties on and handed their weapons over.  Max stacked pistols and submachine guns and sawed-off shotguns in her arms, a pile weighing her down, even in this fit soldier’s body.  An array of customized, death-dealing tools, each tailored and perfected by its user.  Loaded with steel and Voidsteel and all sorts of buckshot.

Then, she walked to the edge of the room and dumped them in a trash can.  They clanked to the bottom, making a crunching sound on a paper bag inside, none of them firing on accident.

The men and women shouted, made sounds of irritation and confusion.  “I spent five thousand pounds on that gun!” yelled Cyril.

Max raised her hands to quiet the din.  “We,” she said, “can’t fight with these anymore.  You just described why.”

“Then we can die honorable deaths,” said Cyril.  “Or fight until the people rise up and join us.”

Max strode to the edge of the room and threw open the curtains, letting in dim light from the streetlamps.  From this window as a vantage point, they could see some of the larger streets of Lowtown in the distance.

Even at this late hour, tanks rolled down the boulevards, past storefronts and apartment buildings, accompanied by soldiers and the occasional Guardian.  Far more soldiers and firepower than Commonplace had ever gathered in one place.

That’s what we’re up against.”  Max paced back and forth in front of the table.  “Paragon has overwhelming strength.  Very soon, they’ll come after us with all their military, all their intelligence and projectors.  We don’t have Kahlin, or the Shenti, or the Pyre Witch to fend them off.  We won’t even have Parliament’s bureaucracy to slow them down.”

“Then,” said Nelson, his voice heavy.  “What are we supposed to do?”  He snorted.  “Peaceful protest?  Like a decade ago?  Give out free hugs to the armed riot cops?”

“We have only one, slim chance for victory,” said Max.  “Scatter.”

Dead silence.  None of them had expected this, not from her.

“Flee to the corners of this nation.  To the corners of the Eight Oceans, if you have to.  Cut off contact with all other major branches of Commonplace, and perform memory wipes, so if any one group gets hijacked, it won’t affect the others.”  Her voice grew quiet.  “Forget your colleague’s faces.  Forget their names.  Forget the internal workings of Commonplace.  Forget me.”

The silence lasted for another second.  Then everyone broke out in shouting again.  Questions, protests, suggestions of alternatives.

“But if we separate,” said Flora, breathing out smoke.  “How can we coordinate action?  Keep fighting the war?”

“We can’t,” said Max.  They still had some soldiers, their Conduit, and a few leads Max hadn’t explored yet, but none of those were enough to take on the full force of Paragon.

Flora slouched over on her chair, putting out her cigarette.  “Then we’re fucked,” she said.  “The Principality is lost.  Paragon Academy will roll over us, and the forces of cruelty will own this nation.  At least until the water drowns us all.”

Max thought of the young woman on the bridge.  The one who threw the egg.

“We’ve lost the military war,” said Max.  “But – “  She reached into her coat, pulled a folder out of her pocket, and set it on the table.

“What’s that?”

“A poll,” said Max.  “Finished four hours ago.  Three hours ago, an appointed security panel banned it from public release for ‘purposes of national security’.  So an office assistant gave it to one of our people.  They passed it on to me this evening.”  She slid it to the man next to her.  His eyes widened as he read it.

The folder circled the table, each time stirring surprise and wonder from the people gathered.

“Two weeks ago, national support for Commonplace sat at thirty-one percent,” said Max.  “Four hours ago, it sat at fifty-three.  Paragon’s crackdown.  Our revelations about Parliament.  They didn’t fall on empty ears.”  She shrugged.  “Of course, it wasn’t enough to turn the whole military, or key government officials, or deliver us the country.  Anabelle Gage exposing our Shenti connections didn’t help.  Neither did the Black Tortoise revealing himself.”  Cao Hui was a genocidal maniac, not an ally they could trust.

“That’s a cute number, Max,” said Nelson.  “But we can’t overthrow an oligarchy with slips of paper.  That fifty-three percent is going to be bombarded with propaganda.  Without Kahlin’s papers, we can’t counter it.  And there’s the matter of the Shenti, too.”

“Yes,” said Max.  “The Principality will invade Shenten.  For a time, this may rally the public around their struggle, and against us.  Righteous vengeance against a shared enemy.”  She smiled.  “But sometimes, nations wage wars because they’re weak, not because they’re strong.”

“What does that mean?” said Flora.

“Paragon won’t fix any of their subject’s real problems.  And so, a day will come when this nation tilts off-balance.  When a foreign war can’t quell dissent anymore.  When the people’s horror overwhelms their apathy.  When that day comes, we’ll be waiting.”

“Waiting with no guns,” said Nelson.  “No serious force of projectors.  No money.”

“I’m not telling you all to be peaceful,” said Max.  “I’m telling you to be quiet.  For now.  Hide.  Listen.  Train.  Let Paragon think we are defeated, broken.  They’ve always underestimated us.”

Nods around the table.  On that, they all agreed.

“Our job, for the present,” said Max.  “Is not to trust in foreign intervention, or wealthy backers, or the raw power of Tunnel Vision’s mob.”  She looked at each person in the room, one at a time.  “No fancy Vocations.  No awe-inspiring power.  No ambushes or assassinations or terror strikes.”  She exhaled.  “Our mission is to trust in the people we’ve spread the truth to.  The Common Foundation.”

“A slogan,” muttered Nelson.  “Against trained Guardians.  Against the Symphony Knight.  Forgive me for feeling a bit disillusioned.”

“When garbage collectors skip work,” said Max.  “The city chokes.  Trash fills the streets.  When factory workers stay home, the war machine grinds to a halt.  And when farmers all quit, people go hungry.  Even the Symphony Knight needs to eat.”  She clenched her fist.  “No nation, no matter its strength, can survive without the Common Foundation.”

Nelson relaxed his jaw.  Then he nodded.  The others nodded with him, reluctant.

Max sat down at the table and poured herself a glass of water.  “Now,” she said.  “Let’s hash out the details.”

________________________________________

That night, Max fell asleep in Ailith Roland’s bed, and woke up in Buttercup Lodge.

For the first time in her life, she felt ready for it.

The wake-up music drifted into her ears, same as usual.  “Sway on the blue, skip on the sea, dance on the waves with me.

Max’s eyes snapped open.  Her sleepiness vanished, and she sat upright at the edge of the bed, pushing away the covers.  Just like she’d been hijacked to do.

The nurse came to dress her, gave her the daily dose of Nudge Powder to extend her commands, and led her through the field of buttercups on the island.  Past the silent waterfall, and the deep pit of black water, as the sun rose over the ocean.  Into the building where they’d chopped her up and put her back together.  To the room where she’d talked for hours and hours, outlining all of her plans, her hopes and dreams and failures.

“So,” said her Nekean therapist.  “In your dream, you’ve taken a new body, a new name.”

“Yes,” said Max, sipping her tea from a dainty porcelain cup.

“And you commanded your people to go into hiding.”  She scribbled in her notes, furrowing her brow.

“Yes.”

“Because you got inspired.  After you saw a woman throw an egg.”

“Yes,” said Max.  “We showed the world that the Principality is fragile, that the might of Paragon Academy can be challenged.  That was our first attempt.  You should fear our second.”

The therapist kneaded her forehead, and sighed.  “You’ve been busy in your fantasy world,” she said.  “You sound pleased with yourself.  But you need to abandon the fantasies.  Have you thought at all about what I said earlier?”

“Yes,” said Max.  “I have.”

She’d thought about that lots after her meeting at the bar.  You need to find something to bind yourself to the real world.  Something you love.

“Maybe it’s not important, which world is real,” said Max.  “The important thing is which world I care about.  Even if they’re both real.  Or if they’re both fake.”

“So you’ve found something here,” said the therapist.  “Something to anchor yourself here?”

“Well,” said Max.  “I found something to anchor myself.”  She stood up, her voice calm and measured.  “I’m going to kill you someday.”

The therapist looked taken aback.  “What?”

“I thought that if I endured enough pain, I could somehow find the strength to escape this world, to live in a place with possibility and hope, instead of hollow misery.  To wake from this nightmare.”  She shook her head.

“Max,” sighed the therapist.  “We’ve been over this.  You can’t wake up from here because it’s the real world.  I thought that you were – ”

Max stomped on the wooden floor, making her therapist flinch.  She couldn’t perform any direct violence, but the commands didn’t prohibit loud noises.

“But I am a Humdrum!” Max cried out.  “We don’t get shortcuts.  We don’t get easy solutions.  But we endure.  We can get knocked down and spat on and hijacked, and we still find a way to kick you in the balls.  We still strive to be our own Exemplars, our own best selves.”  She smiled and closed her eyes, thinking of the woman throwing the egg.  Of her friends in Commonplace.  Of Grace.  “I know which world matters to me.”

“It – it doesn’t matter,” said the therapist, stuttering.  “You can’t escape.”

Max shook her head.  “Someone did this to me.  Put me in this hellish dream world.  I don’t know who, but if they did it, they can undo it.  I don’t care how long it takes.  I will outlast you.”  Her smile widened, into a grin.  “I’m not your patient, or your victim.  I’m your worst enemy.”

The therapist just blinked at her, shocked.

Max leaned forward, placed her palms on the woman’s ears, and kissed her forehead.  “Hope you’re ready for war.”

The kiss shook the therapist out of her stupor, and she jumped out of her chair.  “Guard!” she shouted.  “Guard!”

The guard burst into the room and whistled, freezing Max’s movements in place.  He hefted his rifle.  “Ma’am, are you alright?”

The Nekean woman exhaled, her forehead and armpits damp.  “We’re done for the day,” she said, out of breath.  “Escort the patient back to her room.”

The guard gave Max another clicker-whistle signal, compelling her to follow.

Before Max stepped out of the door, she called out to the therapist.  “See you tomorrow, genius.”

A thousand Whisper vocations at your fingertips, thought Max.  And I’m the one who made you sweat.

________________________________________

Max woke up in the real world.

The world of a thousand flaws.  The world where she’d met Grace, fought alongside thousands of comrades.  Where she’d failed.

Max had escaped Buttercup Lodge.  She had led a revolution.

It didn’t matter what Whisper Vocations the scientists had thrown over her.  It didn’t matter what kind of soup they’d turned her Pith into.  To Max, this world was real.  This world was worth fighting for.  And that was all that mattered.  The next time she fell asleep, she would wake up in Buttercup Lodge again.

But she would be ready.

Her eyes snapped open in bed, and she jumped out, feeling her bare feet on the cold hardwood floors.  An anchor.  Max smiled.  That therapist was right about one thing.

She couldn’t dwell on her internal struggles.  Paragon’s crackdown was about to start.  She had work to do.

First, though, she needed breakfast.

One quick trip to the grocery store, and she had two large bags filled with supplies.  One large supply, really.  The soldiers on the street stared at her, but the sun had risen.  Curfew had lifted hours ago, and she still had her military tattoo on this chassis.

Max slammed her apartment door shut, and turned on every burner on her stove.  She flung open the cabinets and pulled out every pot and pan that Ailith Roland had bought.  That she hadn’t thrown away already.

Then she reached into her grocery bags, and pulled out two dozen packages of bacon.  Since she’d never made bacon before, she set the burners at all different temperatures, then ripped open the packages and slapped on the strips of meat.

In minutes, the smell of bubbling pork fat filled the room, thick and rich and smoky.  It stung Max’s eyes a bit, and she pulled open the window to let it out.  The bacon sizzled in small lakes of oil, crackling and browning.  One of the pieces went pop, splashing droplets of hot liquid onto her arm.

Max flinched, then smiled.

As Max cooked the bacon, she gazed out of the open window, past the alleyway with her trash and to the street outside.

Soldiers jogged down the sloped street, all carrying rifles or automatic weapons.  A pair of them kicked down a door across the road, running in.  A tank rolled next to them, its engine growling, and a pair of trucks drove behind, stuffed with groggy men and women in handcuffs.

The purge has started.  The mass arrests in the aftermath of the attack on Paragon.  With luck, most of the victims would be sent to prison, rather than murdered.  The Principality hadn’t descended to that point.  Not yet.

Max slid pieces of bacon from the stove onto a clean bath towel, calm, draining out the grease.  They ranged from almost raw to crispy and burned.  She stuffed them into the largest paper bag she could find, then tossed the grease-filled pans out of the window, into the alleyway.

Then, she dressed up in her military gear and left the house.  Ailith Roland had gotten a phone call from a superior, ordering her to help with the ‘cleanup’ efforts, excoriating her for missing a day of work.

Max had faked some sickness.  Her CO had bigger things on his mind, and at this level of the military, people didn’t use personalized passwords.  That bought her a day, but to maintain her cover, now, she had to go to work.  Report to the office in Midtown for her assignment.

She shut the door behind her, locked it, and walked through the streets, calm, as sirens rang in the distance and soldiers shouted orders.  The sun rose over the Eloane Ocean, casting warm, orange light over the city.

A few soldiers and cops gave Max odd looks as they jogged forward.  As she stared at them.  But none of them aimed at her.  Whenever any of them got close, Max flashed the military tattoo on her wrist, and they backed off.

It only took a few minutes for Max to get to the tram station.  A pair of soldiers guarded the lobby, forcing people to go through an inspection to get on public transportation.  As a result, the line of people stretched around the block.

When Max came up to the checkpoint, the soldiers smiled at her, and waved her through, not even bothering to check her bag.

As usual, the station’s platform was full, a crowd packed shoulder to shoulder, shouting, jostling for space near the front so they had a chance of getting a seat.  Purge or no, these people had places to be.  When the train arrived, they pushed forward, flooding into the tram.

Max didn’t push.  She just strode forward, calm, and squeezed herself into a corner of the car.  Indistinguishable from any of the hundreds around her.  Just another member of the crowd.

When the engine started, the crowd pressed Max up against a window.  So as the train chugged up the slope, Max had a perfect view of Elmidde as it spread out beneath her.  The sun rose behind Mount Elwar and Paragon Academy, casting them in a dark silhouette, obscuring their features.  And even with the military, people walked to and fro on the streets of Lowtown.

A magnificent city.  A wondrous people.

As the tram rumbled on the street, Max whispered a quiet prayer under her breath.  For the innocents she’d killed in her Nudge attacks, her assault on Paragon.  For the young students she’d hurt, indoctrinated into a cruel system.  Matilla Geffray and all the others.

But most of all, she whispered a prayer for the citizens of the Principality.  The Humdrums who would face terror and death and endless propaganda.  Who would watch their country and their hope slip away from them, inch by inch, day by day.

We’ll take it back, one day.  But it wouldn’t be soon.  It wouldn’t be easy.

I hope we make it that far.

Max reached into her bag, pulled out a thick piece of bacon, and bit into it.

The tastes of salt and fat and pork blossomed in her mouth.

Not bad, she thought.  Not bad.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




13-B The Butterfly’s Dilemma

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Wes

The first thing I felt was the cold.  The sweat soaking into my suit, and the wind blowing across, turning me into an icicle.  I lay on something hard, like a rock, and it jabbed into my legs and back and neck in all the least comfortable places.

My eyes snapped open, and I found myself lying on a pile of rubble, grey morning light streaming in through the shattered glass roof of Paragon’s entrance atrium, making my eyes sting.  A corner of the room had collapsed, forming a squat hill of brick and metal off to the side, which I’d passed out on.  Or been dragged to.

Men and women shouted orders in the distance, and my head ached.  Nausea bubbled up from my belly and I gagged.  My mouth had dried up, and the slightest movement made my lips crack.

It felt like a nasty hangover.  I’d been dry for a while, so the feeling was strange.  Jun’s tranquilizer hits hard.  I groaned, a ragged, creaky sound.

Principality soldiers streamed around me, emerging from a reattached cable car and a pair of zeppelins nearby.

One of them pointed a gun at me.  The other one shook his head.  “Hey,” he said.  “Are you alright?”

I pushed myself to a sitting position, an agonizing effort.  Then I forced myself to stand.  My back ached, and my legs burned from the effort.  Is this how Jun feels all the time?

“I’m fine,” I said.  I stepped forward, tripped on a brick, and caught myself before I fell.

Guardians with wingsuits flew overhead beneath the grey sky, circling the perimeter of the academy.  More soldiers jogged throughout Paragon, but I didn’t hear any gunshots, or sounds of fighting.  I couldn’t even hear shouting.  Is it over?  Had we won?

One of the soldiers glanced at me, then handed a five-pound bill to the man next to him, grumbling.

“See?” the other one said.  “Told you he was alive.”

The lights in all the buildings still looked dark, wrapped in a layer of early morning fog.  But I didn’t see any more smoke.  They put all the fires out.

On the far side of the room, Principality soldiers paraded a line of Green Hands forward in handcuffs.  In the hallway outside, another squad of soldiers zipped up rows of body bags stretching into the distance.  So many body bags.  Students in blue school uniforms and Green Hands alike.

Inside one of the bags, Adam Lynde’s eyes stared up at the ceiling, unmoving.  The soldier zipped it up, covering his face.

The battle had ended.  And the Principality had won.  But at what cost?

Cry, she said.  Lose sleep.  But crawl forward, if you have to.  And find a thousand reasons to keep crawling.

A wave of panic bubbled up in my stomach.  I shook off my stupor and ran to the nearest soldier.  “Hey!” I shouted.  “What happened to Anabelle Gage and Hira Kahlin?”

“Who?”

“The Blue Charlatan,” I said.  “Queen Sulphur.  The mercenary group that was fighting here.  Their names and faces appeared in the paper recently, after they attacked the Verity host.  Do you know what happened to them?”  They sacrificed themselves to go after the Pyre Witch.  But they might have survived.

The soldier shrugged.  He has no idea.

“What about Chimera Squad?” I said.  “They’re students here, they would be on a list of official casualties.”

“Sorry, kid,” he said.  “I don’t have any list like that.”

“Who does?”

“Admiral Rowyna Ebbridge is leading the cleanup effort,” he said.  “She’s set up a temp HQ in Alabaster Hall.  Least damaged building in this place.  It’s straight and then to the – “

“Thanks!”  I ran off.  She’s running her operation out of my old dorm.  Where I’d spent my last night as Lady Ebbridge.

I jogged down the hallway, past the rows of body bags and soldiers, past the broken glass and demolished walls.  Layers of dust covered the floor, coating the soles of my shoes.  Ash rained from the sky, making me cough as I ran.  Lightbulbs flickered on and off overhead.

I gazed to my right, out a shattered window.  The grassy pavilion for squad battles had burned down, the green lawn turned into a blackened crisp.  To my left, dozens of soldiers guarded the path to the Great Library.  There would be even more inside.

My entire body ached as I ran.  I hadn’t sustained any serious injuries during the battle, but it had exhausted my body and Pith on every level.  The tranquilizer and a nap on hard rubble hadn’t helped much.

In the distance, across another bridge, Opal Hall had been demolished, the front half crumbled into rubble, spilling off the edge of its floating island.  Fog swallowed the other half.  Further away, I could make out the remains of the banquet hall, burnt down by Deon’s coal dust fire.

Deon’s dead too.  It didn’t feel real.  The fog surrounding Paragon seemed like the ethereal mist of a dream, or some strange place between sleep and consciousness.  And in this part of the academy, the soldiers’ shouts faded into the distance, leaving a bitter quiet hanging in the air.

I’d been hearing screaming, gunfire, explosions all day.  Now, I only heard the wind.

For a moment, I ran through the ruins of Paragon alone.  Just me and the ash and the rubble.

I jogged across the sturdy wooden bridge to Alabaster Hall, one of the few that hadn’t been damaged by the battle.

A squad of soldiers stood on the far side, in front of Alabaster Hall’s front door.  They leveled their rifles at me, and I raised my hands, stopping.  “Password?”

I sighed.  “Can I just talk to my mother?”

“Give us the password, or fuck off,” a soldier said.  “You know how many tricks Commonplace has played in the last forty-eight hours?”

“If I was Maxine Clive,” I grumbled.  “I would already know your stupid password.  And if I was the Pyre Witch, I would have already set your stubborn faces on fire.”

She tightened her grip on her rifle.  “Is that a threat?”

I jabbed a finger at my face.  “Does it look like I’m alive enough to burn anyone right now?”  So much paranoia.  Maybe I should have set myself on fire.

The door swung open, and my mother’s voice called out from inside.  “Let her in.”

The soldiers stepped aside, glaring at me, and I walked in.

On a normal day, Alabaster Hall’s common room would be filled with students.  Studying, playing Jao Lu, chatting around the crackling fireplace.  Popcorn and chocolate and mulled cider would sit on all the tables.

Today, the fire had been put out.  Maps and supply boxes sat on all the tables.  Military officers and Guardians streamed about, muttering to each other.

And mother, Rowyna Ebbridge, stood in the center of it all, still wearing her blonde Maxine Clive chassis.  She stared at several stacks of papers on her desk, and floated a dozen pens around her to read and write on them all at once.

After all the deaths, all the destruction to her second home, she looked normal.  Cool and collected, like today was just another ordinary day.

She’s alive.  Despite everything she’d done to me, an odd sense of relief washed over my body.  How messed up is that?

“516125871-R,” she said.  “You survived.”

“How do you remember all those numbers?” I said.  “I sure can’t.”

She said nothing, continuing to scribble on her stacks of papers.

“My friends,” I said.  “Chimera Squad.  Queen Sulphur.  Are they alright?  Are they alive?”

“Queen Sulphur?” she said.  “No idea.  But Chimera Squad’s alright.”

I exhaled, my shoulders relaxing.  Samuel and Leizu and Eliya are safe, at least.

And my mother had just told me.  A rare act of kindness.

“516125871-R,” said my mother.  “Do you know what day it is?”

I shook my head.  This can’t be good.

“Do you know what day is tomorrow?”

The answer came to me.  And I didn’t like it.

________________________________________

At the crack of dawn, I was to enter the most important challenge of my life.  A battle with no holds barred, a final exam to determine my future against an opponent who had crushed me once already.

I showed up half an hour early.

My mother had let me sleep in a temporary bed in Paragon, stuffed into an empty lecture hall with a dozen others, temporary shelters for students and soldiers whose dorms had been destroyed.

I’d paid another student with an internal alarm clock to shake me awake early in the morning, and I’d gone to sleep early after a lengthy afternoon of studying, making sure to get a good night’s rest.

Then, I’d taken the cable car down here, and walked to the mansion grounds.  No champagne flutes this time.  My mother had fired Oswald, the family butler of twenty-three years, when she could no longer afford his salary.

I took all the Ousting written tests.  Normally, they happened over of a week, but we’d run out of time before the official Ousting date.

And, to my surprise, the tests went well.  My new studying methods with Hira seemed to have paid off.  Or Tasia did really poorly on them.  Or both.

And now, I’d made it to the final stage.  Single combat.

Since I had extra time, I did a routine of stretches and warm-ups that Jun had taught me, getting my body ready for the bout ahead of me.  This time, the Ousting area in the Ebbridge mansion’s grounds looked different.

The stands had emptied.  No Chimera Squad.  No Epistocrat onlookers or curious professors.  Just my mother, sitting in the front row, slouching over for the first time in her life.  Everyone’s busy with the clean-up.

Chimera Squad hadn’t lost anyone, thankfully.  Queen Sulphur, on the other hand, had gone missing.  Nobody had seen them since the battle.

Nobody had seen the Pyre Witch, either, who Ana and Hira had been chasing after.  According to my mother, the vast majority of Paragon’s intelligence bureau thought she’d escaped overseas.

Which meant she’d probably killed my friends.

My throat clenched.  My fingers tapped on the side of my suit leg, faster and faster.  Don’t get distracted by speculation.  Focus on what’s in front of you.

I adjusted my suit jacket over my thin combat armor, a dapper white three-button ensemble fitting over my mother’s provided defenses.  A layer of beauty and elegance over the cold and practical.  If I win, this might be the last suit I wear.  I wore Samuel’s white crane mask, too.

Two minutes before the scheduled start of the match, a girl jogged up to the raised wooden platform.  Her black hair had turned into a mess of tangles, her flawless skin looked pallid, and dark circles had formed under her sharp green eyes.  Her blue combat armor looked loose in a  few places, like she’d thrown it on at the last minute.

Tasia.  The imposter.  The girl who’d taken my name, my body, my life.  Who I’d fought, and fought alongside.  The prodigy with strange dreams of immortality and the secrets of Null Particles.  Ana’s friend.

She climbed onto the stage, sat down at the edge, and closed her eyes, taking slow, deep breaths.  It didn’t look like she’d gotten much sleep last night.

“A judge has approved this last-minute Ousting ceremony,” said my mother.  “In spite of the circumstances, and the recent events in this nation, the ordained day is still upon us.  All participants have survived, uninjured, so tradition will be upheld.”

I jumped up and down, stretching my arms like Jun had taught me.  Tasia pushed herself upright, forcing her eyes to open.

My mother went over the stakes of the duel, reciting the same speech as last time from her book on the Epistocracy’s traditions.   “We are gathered here to decide the fate of the female progeny of the House Ebbridge. The winner of today’s bout will keep the name, body, and enrollment in Paragon Academy of the family member for all time.  Further Ousting ceremonies may not commence, as the member in question will pass the maximum age for expulsion before this day of the following year.“  And the loser would have to separate from the family, lose the name, and wipe significant Paragon knowledge from their Pith.

Remember your planning.  All those late-night sessions with Hira, working out what Tasia might have learned, what tactics she’d bring to the table now that she knew most of my abilities.  Now that she’d been studying at Paragon for a year.

I’ve been studying too.  Squad battles looked cool from a distance, but at the end of the day, nothing made up for real battle experience.

Jun’s patient discipline.  Hira’s versatility.  And the tactics of Anabelle Gage.  I carried a piece of each of them into this battle.

Tasia stared at my mother as she talked, with a look of profound exhaustion and disappointment.  Nothing like the focus she’d brought to my first Ousting.

“ – the first to touch the ground beneath the platform will be considered the loser.  May you strive to become an Exemplar.”  My mother turned to me.  “First combatant, are you aware of the rules and able to commence?”

I leaned over and picked up my burnt fish leather briefcase, unlatching the top.  No crates of projection material for me this time.  I didn’t need them, and Tasia would just use them against me.

Is this what you want?  I’d been moving so fast over the last day that I’d barely had time to reflect.

I thought of the body, and felt nothing.  I thought of Tasia’s struggles.  But then I thought of Leizu and Eliya.  Of Samuel, embracing me.  Of the pardon for my crimes, that Ana and Hira had sacrificed themselves for, that had caused Jun to get captured by the Shenti.

Crawl forward, if you have to.  And find a thousand reasons to keep crawling.

It doesn’t matter that I have to disconnect from my old life.  I had nothing left there.

“Yes,” I said.  “I’m ready.”

“Second combatant, are you aware of the rules and able to commence?”

Tasia slid her foot back and bent her knees in a combat stance.  She raised her fists in front of her, and blue-purple lightning crackled around them.  Then she nodded.

“Sorry, Tasia,” I said.

“Begin!” my mother barked.

My briefcase swung open, and I shot stacks of paper out of it, fanning them out into the air.

When I’d first fought Tasia, I didn’t realize her Pith-draining Vocation until halfway through the battle.  I’d thrown my aggression at her, and she’d used that to suck all the energy out of my soul.

Not this time.  Instead of swarming Tasia, I held my sheets a few meters away from her, making a rotating dome of paper.  Her Vocation pushed other Piths out and drained their energy.  I’m not going to give you free resources.

Tasia stared at me for a second.  Then the blue and purple lightning swirled around her, coalescing around her right arm.  It formed a long, narrow sword, and she slashed at the rotating dome, aiming to push out my Pith.

Her attack looked clumsy.  Slower than I would have expected.  I pulled back the paper around her attack, dodging her strike and preventing her from gaining any energy.

At the same time, I pulled in the paper behind Tasia, on the far side of the dome.  It slashed at her exposed ankles, drawing blood.  She summoned the blue-purple lightning around her feet, but my sheets of paper pulled out, dodging just in time.  They joined the rotating dome, blood staining the white paper.

That trick’s only going to work once.  She would be expecting a simultaneous paper attack from behind, now.

Which meant we had reached a stalemate.  If she committed to attacking me, I could retreat and slash at her with paper, hitting exposed places that she couldn’t cover in time.  But if I committed to an attack, her Vocation would crush mine in an all-out brawl, pushing out my attacks and draining my energy.

Then Tasia called out to me.  “Remember what you told me?” she said.  “On the day we met here, exactly one year ago.”

“Not even remotely,” I said.

We circled each other.  I darted two more sheets of paper at her from behind, aiming for her neck.  Blue and purple lightning crackled around her spine before I could touch it, and I felt my Pith being pushed out, the energy being drained from it.

Tasia summoned an orb of lightning around her fist and threw it at the edge of my rotating sphere.  I moved my paper aside, making a hole in the sphere and avoiding her attack.

Jabs.  Testing each other’s defenses.  Both of us careful.  A far cry from our desperate melee a year ago.

“You told me, ‘they will peel away your time, your energy, your mind’,” Tasia said.  “‘Layer by layer.  And when you have nothing left, they will cast you aside and make you thank them for it all.’”  Blue and purple lightning ran up and down her arms, and she stayed in her fighting stance, legs bent.

“Wow,” I said.  “You have a really good memory.  I can see why mother liked you.”

“You were trying to mess with my head, distract me for the fight,” said Tasia.

“Yes,” I said.

“But you know what?” said Tasia.  “You were right.”

What happened to her over the last year?  Had my mother done something to her?  Or maybe she’d seen something.

Tasia’s lightning formed a pair of axes in her fists, and she darted forward, swinging them at me.  I shot paper at her from behind, and dove to the side of the wooden platform, projecting into my armor and dodging her strike.

As I did, the flat of Tasia’s axe curved around behind her, brushing aside my paper attacks and pushing out the Pith there.  A crate behind Tasia exploded, and a cloud of sand shot towards my eyes.  Same as last time.

I projected into my suit and lifted myself, jumping to the far side of the raised platform and dodging the sand.

It turned midair, following me, and I projected forward, into one of Tasia’s crates that had been filled up with water.  I pulled a gallon of water out of it and floated it in front of my eyes, ears, and mouth, forming a transparent mask, goggles, and earmuffs to protect me.

The sand blasted over me, scraping my exposed skin, making my neck burn.  But it didn’t get in my eyes.  It didn’t cause unbearable pain, or block my vision.

Wooden rods shot at me from all angles, trying to hit my neck or my face to incapacitate me.  But they looked slower than before, less accurate.  My paper is blocking her sightlines.

I projected into my armor, dodging the strikes.  One rod got close to my face, and I projected into my briefcase, swinging it around and batting it aside.

Blood soaked into Tasia’s socks from the cuts on her ankles, the only times I’d been able to touch her.  She kept attacking.  And I kept dodging her.

Green lightning crackled around me, and a headache throbbed in the back of my skull.  This isn’t easy for me, either.  All the dodging and blocking and simultaneous attacking took energy out of my Pith.  But with this year’s non-stop fighting, I’d worked my soul out like a muscle.  And I’d grown far stronger.

The first time she’d chased me, I’d had far less energy than her, and tired myself out in under a minute.  But this time, she’d barely drained anything from me.  And she looked sweaty and out of breath, too.

Tasia paused her attack for a moment, and we both leaned over, catching our breath.

“I’m not sure,” wheezed Tasia, “why you want to go back into the diamond cage.  But whatever happens, I hope you’re happy at the end of this.”  She stared at me.  “I hope you’re happy.”

Focus.  Don’t get distracted.  She was screwing with my head, like I’d done to her last time.

But something about her words hit close to me, twisted a knife inside me that I’d forgotten about.  And hot rage bubbled up under my skin.

“And why aren’t you happy, then?!” I shouted.  “You took everything, you’re a prodigy, and you still couldn’t be satisfied?  What is wrong with you?”

Her sister, Ana’s voice whispered in my head.  She’s trying to save her sister, remember?

And she thinks you’ll be just as miserable in her place.  That I’d feel just as empty and hopeless, that a victory would be pointless for me.

The thought filled me with loathing.

I projected a metal cable out of one of Tasia’s crates, made a single loop, and lifted it behind her, silent.  Preparing to do Samuel’s attack from last time.  The trick that had almost beaten her last year, choking her out and immobilizing her while keeping my Pith a safe distance from her.

Tasia charged forward at me again, and I used the end of the cable to shove her ankle sideways, tripping her.  She fell on her stomach with a hollow thud, dazed for a moment.

As she pushed herself up, I dropped my rope over her, just like last time.

Tasia whipped two of her orbs to the side, tossing them at the ends of the cable my Pith was projecting into.  She expected this.  The spheres of lightning flew down the length of the cables and pushed out my Pith.  The cables fell beside her, limp.

I felt a stabbing headache, and green electricity flickered around my eyes, as my energy dropped.

As she blocked my cable attack, I shot a single piece of paper towards her face, preparing to cut her eyes.

Tasia bent her knees, about to leap to the side and dodge.  If she does that, my trap won’t work.  My ultimate gambit for this battle would fall apart.

Then she flitted her gaze towards me, and we made eye contact for a fraction of a second.

She summoned a flat shield of blue-purple lightning around her palms, and held them in front of her face to block the piece of paper.  Yes.

As she did, I jumped back off the raised platform, projecting into my suit so I didn’t touch the ground and forfeit the match.  I pulled my legs into my chest, using the wooden arena as cover for myself.

Tasia’s shield passed through my sheets of paper, forcing out my Pith, nullifying my projection there.

And the three frag grenades I’d squeezed between them unflattened, no longer bound by my Vocation.  Three frag grenades with the pins pulled.

A strangled yell came out of Tasia’s throat, and a low boom rang through the trees.  Shrapnel flew overhead, and punched through the wooden floor, tearing splinters out of the platform.

As my ears rang, I projected into my suit and yanked myself back onto the stage.  Tasia flew backwards, limp, surrounded by blue and purple lightning.  Not her Vocation.  I exhausted her Pith.  Defending herself from the blast took almost all her energy.

I saw no blood, no torn limbs or punctured flesh.  She isn’t injured.  But the blast wave had to have stunned her.

Always confirm the kill.  I wouldn’t fall for her possum gambit a second time.  I flew forward, projected into another crate, this one filled with metal spheres.

I lifted it above Tasia’s head, green lightning crackling around me from the effort.  Sheaves of paper swirled around me, and I stretched my arms forward, clenching my teeth.

Do I really want this?  Will this make me happy?

A headache stabbed into the back of my skull, and my arms shook.  Focus.  Always confirm the kill.

I clenched my fists, and brought the heavy crate down on Tasia’s chest.  It smashed apart and knocked her to the ground.

Tasia landed on the grass, rolling.  She’s touching the ground.  It was over.

Still, I stood in a combat stance for a good thirty seconds, casting my gaze around me for surprise attacks, feeling Tasia’s armor with my paper to make sure she’d actually touched the ground.

This day, this victory didn’t feel real.  This is too easy.  I had to be on the guard for something going wrong.

My mother clapped, the only member of the audience.  It’s over, it’s over, it’s over.  I’d won.  I’d Ousted her.  Tasia groaned on the ground, rolling over and rubbing her temples.  I let my Pith fall out of the paper storm around me, and they fluttered to the ground, or drifted away on the breeze.  The green lightning faded around me, and my briefcase fell out of my hand, thumping onto the wood.

And my mother was applauding me.  She walked forward in the stands, still clapping, staring down at us with a triumphant gaze.

I just stood there, stunned, arms limp at my sides as the wind blew over me, and the sun rose from behind the fog.

________________________________________

I didn’t remember my first Ousting.  My mother’s memory wipe had lingered in my Pith, wiping out everything that took place for two days after my defeat.  All I’d been left with was a lingering sense of resentment, and the pain.

This time, I got to be awake for the ceremony.  Tasia had been knocked out and laid on the roof of my family’s mansion, enveloped in a shallow bath of blue liquid with the consistency of wet concrete.  

Both of us had been changed out of our combat uniforms.  Tasia wore simple blue pants and a shirt, the same light shade as the liquid bed she lay on.  I wore Tasia’s old clothes – old, ratty pants and a faded red shirt with holes in the back.

The sun rose over the fog, casting Elmidde in a yellow glow.  From the roof here in Hightown, we could look over the whole city.  Smoke from the fires in Midtown and Lowtown.  The bordering islands where I’d lived with Ana and Hira and Jun.  Military trucks driving through the streets, enforcing martial law.

I could see people, too.  Ordinary people, on bicycles and cars and on foot.  Going to work, or checking in on their families.  Skirting around the police and the tanks and the blockades.

And, of course, Paragon Academy.  Floating above our heads, spires broken, bridges collapsed, buildings turned to rubble.  How many died up there?  How many bodies had I run past?

“Come,” said my mother.  “It’s time.”

I nodded, and lay down on the blue liquid, opposite Tasia.  It fit my body perfectly, and shifted me forward, so the soles of my bare feet touched Tasia’s.

Her skin felt ice cold.

“Will you transfer us?”  I looked at my mother.

She looked down on me like I’d gone mad.  “This is your name,” she said.  “You need to earn this.”  I have to do the transfer.  Force Tasia’s Pith back out of my body and into her old one.  “Are you ready?” she said.

No.

“Yes,” I said.

My mother raised a hand, and gravity shifted around me.  It pulled me towards my head, instead of the floor.  It felt like I’d been turned upside down, my feet right above my head.  The floor became a wall, and Tasia stood above me, encased in the blue concrete, her feet still pressed against mine.

Blood rushed to my head, making my skull throb, and my forehead feel warm.

This is everything you wanted.  A triumphant return.  My friends back, my world back.  A pardon for the crimes I’d committed over the last year.

Hira’s face flashed into my head again.  Jun’s smile.  Ana’s determined glare.

I thought of my life when I was first Ousted.  Struggling on the streets.  The poverty, the desperation and self-loathing and dead-end future.  That’s what I’m dooming Tasia to, now.

Is this what you thought when you first Ousted me?

But then why didn’t she fight back harder today?  I could have fought her for much longer, won a slow battle of attrition, but the Ousting duel had been so easy, in the end.

A diamond cage, she’d called it.  Did she let me win?

A cloud drifted away, and the noon sun glared into my eyes.  I closed my eyes, my head thumping.

“What are you waiting for?” hissed my mother.  The headache grew worse, accompanied by a wave of dizziness.

I opened my eyes, and stared above me, straining to see the body I would be inhabiting.  My body, since birth.  My real body.  Silky black hair.  A heart-shaped face, and pale white skin.  A beautiful porcelain doll, elegant and sharp.  Do I want that, too?  I’d spent so much time outside of it.  The thought of inhabiting it again felt so foreign.

Then, I thought of Samuel’s warm body, pressed against mine.  His steady hand.  And your mother’s finally proud of you.  She’s finally proud.

I gathered all the willpower in my soul, all the strength.  And I reached.  I stretched my Pith above me, through my feet.

Then I felt Tasia’s soul, flickering through the nerves and brain of her body.  And I pushed.

An electric buzz spread over my skin, pins and needles that covered every inch of my body.  Green lightning flashed around me, and a stabbing headache exploded in the back of my skull.  Blue-purple lightning flashed around Tasia.  It felt like trying to lift a refrigerator with my pinkies.  Forced transference.  The only Whisper vocation that used brute force.

I’d swapped bodies a few times in my life.  But this didn’t feel like any of those.  This felt like a fork scraping over porcelain, except with my skull.  After a few seconds of agony, Tasia’s Pith budged a few inches, jostled out of place by my projection.  I kept pushing, my limbs shaking, sweat coating my hair.

Is this what giving birth feels like?  With luck, I’d never find out.

Tasia’s Pith gave way, and I felt my essence streaming upwards through her feet.  Everything moved.

And the world vanished around me.  I floated through a black void at the speed of sound.  I remember this.  From when Hira’d given me a forced swap with Afzal Kahlin’s decorator.

But this time, I still had my body.  I hadn’t been dissolved into my abstract being.  I glanced down, and I could see my arms, legs, all like normal.

And I saw someone else.  Tasia, racing towards me from the far side of the void, headed for my point of origin.  Wearing her blue shirt and pants from before.

We both froze next to each other, a moment of stillness before we rushed past each other.

Tasia leaned forward.  And she hugged me.

What?  I stared past her, into the black emptiness.  Too stunned to hug back.  I opened my mouth to speak, but the void swallowed all my words, an infinite silence encroaching on all sides.

Then, the world pulled us apart, shooting us towards our opposing destinations.

My eyes snapped open, and I found myself standing right side up.

I glanced down, and saw a brown-haired boy hanging upside down, unconscious.  Wes.  The chassis I’d inhabited for a year of my life.  I noted the long hair brushing my shoulders, making them itch.  My smooth, cold skin, rubbing against my blue pants and shirt.  My swollen chest, heavy, unbalancing.

The lightning faded around us.  It worked.

Now, I stood above Tasia.

“Your name,” said my mother.  “Is Nell Ebbridge.  And you are my daughter.”

________________________________________

Nell Ebbridge, I told myself.  My name is Nell Ebbridge.

I thought I’d be happier with it.  Like knowing it would fit some missing puzzle piece in my mind, make everything come together.  That word had been blocked from my mind, a space at the center of my Pith for the last year.

But it was just an ordinary name.  Nothing special.

Other memories had been un-encrypted from before.  Classes I’d taken at Paragon, books I’d studied.  According to my mother, those would give me a boost in some of my physical projection, and help me catch up on what I’d missed with my academics over the last year.

On top of that, my father had hugged me for a good thirty seconds when he first saw me, tears running down his cheeks.  “We’re so proud of you,” he said.  “So proud.”

A part of me felt relieved, like exhaling after holding my breath.

Another part thought, you stood by as mother Ousted me.

My mother had given me a brief overview of our debt situation, too, now that I’d rejoined the family.  With the Broadcast King a fugitive, the debts owed to him by the Ebbridge family had been declared null and void.

The family still had almost no money, and had lost critical connections with other Epistocrat families.  ‘Great House’ no longer described us.  But we’d pulled ourselves out of the red.  Thanks to me.

“Well done,” my mother had told me.

With those words?  She might as well have knelt before me.  Maybe that was what I was fighting for.

To mark her approval, she’d given me an allowance again.  A reward for my great victory, up in Paragon and in the Ousting arena.  In the long term, they would set a proper account up, but for now, I had a stack of paper bills in an envelope.

Over the last few months, I’d come up with a shortlist of items I’d been missing in my exile, that I would buy as soon as I returned to my old life.  Fortunately, I remembered them all.

  1. Fine liquor
  2. Teacakes
  3. Proper suits
  4. Makeup that doesn’t give me rashes
  5. Bubble baths

I’d think of more in the coming weeks, but for now, those would occupy my time and wallet.  Hightown had sustained less damage from the battle than the rest of Elmidde, and most of these items could be found there.

But, on the day of my victory, I found myself walking not through my family mansion.  Not through my garden or my lavish bedroom or the Hightown streets nearby.  I walked towards Lowtown.  Most of the trams still worked, so I took one of them from Hightown towards the lower reaches of Mount Elwar, wearing a dress and coat that made my armpits sweat.

I gazed out the window.  Soldiers patrolled the streets with rifles.  Cops stuffed lines of protestors into police vans.  Men and women swept broken glass from their broken storefronts.  Halfway down, a fire truck sped past the tram, sirens howling, on its way to put out another blaze.

What a bloody disaster.  I’d grown up during the Shenti War, and I still hadn’t seen anything like this.  The whole Principality had never seen anything like this.  Not within its borders.

I found myself walking towards a familiar bar, with an ash-stained sign hanging out front.

Leo’s Place

The front window had been demolished, and pieces of the front wall had turned black, from a fire.

My stomach dropped.  Oh, fuck.  I sprinted inside, bursting through the front door.

The inside of the bar looked better.  Some windows in the back had been shattered, a few chairs had been smashed, and a corner of the room had been burnt, with some overturned tables.  Other than that, nothing had changed.

A middle-aged man stood in the corner, sweeping glass into a dustpan.  He leaned over and massaged his thick neck, his brown hair damp with sweat.  Leo.

I let out a half-exhale.  He’s alright.  And his place hadn’t been destroyed.

Leo glanced at me, and jumped, shocked.  His grip tightened on the broom.

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” he said.  “Can I help you?”

Of course he doesn’t recognize me.  Not in this new body.

“Hi,” I said.  My female voice sounded high, breathy.  I’d gotten so used to my masculine tones that this sounded almost unnatural.  “You know me.  I’m Wes.  Sort of.  Not really.”

His eyes widened with recognition.  “Well.  That’s a nice look.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “My fiance might kiss me back, this time.”  I glanced at his sweeping.  “Need any help?”

Leo glanced to the side.  “Thanks.  I think I’ll be fine.”

“Please,” I said.  “You look like a Shenti factory worker.  Have you been cleaning all day?”

He winced, leaning on his broom.  “Since four in the morning.”

“Aside from a light alcohol dependency, this body’s pretty strong.  Let me help, it’s the least I can do.”  After all the chaos I helped incite.

Leo paused for a moment, then nodded.

Minutes later, I found myself mopping the floor, washing away dust and grime.  Leo started his sweeping again on the far side of the room, quiet.

“What happened here?” I said.

Leo said nothing for a few seconds, then spoke up, his voice soft.  “Gang of loyalists came in,” he said.  “Felt like throwing their weight around.”

A stabbing pain exploded in my chest, and I closed my eyes.  “I’m sorry.”  I hadn’t led the Loyalists, but I’d been a part of Ana’s operation with Verity, the spark that lit this fire.  I’d incited so much of this.  “You read the paper?”

“Yeah.”  Leo’s voice grew heavy.  “I saw your photo.”

Then he knows.  He’d seen everything I’d done.

“Mother’s a stickler for tradition,” I said.  “According to our esteemed Ousting traditions, I can’t even be here.”  Full disconnection from the old life.  “But she’s busy, at the moment, cleaning up bodies and talking down to the survivors.  So she won’t notice.”

“But that’ll change,” said Leo.  “So this is our last meeting.”

I nodded.  “I’m just here to say goodbye.  And thank you.  For taking in the drunk, selfish little homeless wretch.”

“That was easy,” said Leo.  “You were desperate.  You needed help.  Don’t seem so desperate now.”

“Don’t count on it,” I said.

“Judging by your new body, I’m guessing you got your old life back.”  From his tone, it almost sounded like an accusation.  “I hope you made the right choice.”

“Me too.”

I projected into the water-filled bucket, picked it up, and walked over behind the bar to mop it.

“Hey,” said Leo, a note of anxiety slipping into his voice.  “You don’t need to go there.”

I stopped.  “Oh.  Sorry.  Want me to mop anywhere else?”

He shook his head.  “Thanks for all the help.  Think I’m done for the afternoon.”

There’s something that he doesn’t want me to see.  I stretched my Pith forward, behind the bar.  Stacks of papers sat in one of the cabinets, the only new addition I could feel.

I projected into them and read the contents.

Hope is Eternal
We are the Common Foundation

Posters.  Commonplace posters.  Accompanied by pamphlets about how to join the political group.

Everything made sense.  Leo joined Commonplace.  That’s why loyalists had attacked his bar.  They must have found out he wasn’t a fan of the Epistocracy.

I felt no weapons behind the bar.  No references to the underground, violent part of Commonplace.  But those pamphlets felt official.  Like they’d come from the organization, not from some random street artist.  And he’s distributing them.  Which meant he’d committed himself.

A month ago, being a peaceful member of Commonplace would earn you glares from Guardians.  Now, it might be illegal.

Leo glanced at me, clenching his broom with shaking hands.  He avoided eye contact with me, but I could see the fear in his gaze.

And I made a decision.

“Don’t worry,” I said.  “I won’t tell anyone.”  I meant it, to my surprise.  “And you won’t ever see me again, after today.”

Leo’s shoulders relaxed.  He let out a slow exhale.  Relaxing.  “It’s been a long year,” he said.  Do you want a drink?”

A drink sounded so delicious.  After everything that had happened over the past few days, the pleasant buzz of liquor would be like heaven.  And Hira wasn’t here to stop me.

I leaned the mop against the counter.  “I’m good,” I said.  “Enjoy the day.  It looks beautiful outside.”

Then, I walked out the door, nursing that thirst itch in my throat.

Outside, I glanced back.  One of Leo’s second-story windows had been shattered, too.  The room where I’d stayed during my first week after the Ousting.  Thanks to his generosity, I’d stayed off the streets and away from the crowded homeless shelters.

I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out the blue envelope where my mother had stuffed my allowance.  A small package, bursting with hundred-pound bills.  It would have been a fortune, to someone like Ana.  But Ana was gone.  Probably dead, a voice whispered in my head.  Probably a charred corpse in a gutter, and you just don’t want to admit it.

I glanced back through the window, to make sure Leo wasn’t looking.  Then, I unpeeled the envelope, projected into the bills inside, fanned them out, and shot them all through the broken window on the second floor.

They drifted to the ground around the bed where I’d slept.  A small carpet of money.  This way, Leo would find it as he cleaned up later today.  And he might not know who sent it.

A small sum, in the grand scheme of things.  But it would help him rebuild his business.  So much for my shopping afternoon.  Maybe we had teacakes at home.

I strode back up the road.  The midday sun shone above me, bathing me in warm light.  And for a moment, the street seemed free of arrested protestors.  Free of military trucks and grim-looking soldiers and rubble and smoke.

A salaryman, walking home with a briefcase.  A brown-haired woman on a bicycle, pedaling around the city.  A kid my age, jogging around the block for a workout.  Ordinary, going about their business.

For a moment, the street looked normal, again.

I walked towards the cable car up to Hightown.  As I recalled, my mother wanted to meet me around two.

________________________________________

I stood across from my mother, in the chilly confines of her study.

On normal days, the towering chamber would be filled with birds, frozen in place on the thin wooden perches throughout the walls.  Today, they had emptied.  Casualties from the battle.  Or they’d left to do work.

Just me, my mother, and my father, in a stone room without much furniture.  My mother stood across from me.  Her twin typewriters sat still, unused.  I had her full attention.  My father sat at the edge of the room, behind me.  A cool summer breeze blew through the open window.

A human-sized object stood on the far end of the office, covered with a blue sheet.  My mother nodded at my father, and he projected into it, sliding it off and revealing the figure below.

A mannequin, wearing a suit of dark blue armor.  Its surface, rather than normal plate or chain mail or bulletproof armor, was made of countless interlocking triangles, a modern, geometric look that belied its ancient age.

The Ebbridge family armor.  Constructed centuries ago, and passed down through the generations.  Light as a t-shirt and stronger than diamond.  It could deflect Voidsteel anti-tank bullets, be reshaped to fit any user, and modified to hold any sorts of holsters, hidden weapons, or wingsuit attachments desired.

A work of pure beauty, that my mother rarely took out of our vault.

I stared at it, transfixed.  Why is she showing it to me?

“You,” she said.  “Need to start training with this.”

“W – what?”

“You are the heir to the Ebbridge Family, from now until the day I die.  A worthy heir.  And you must be prepared to wield this tool.”

A rush of warmth came over me, with a mixture of feelings.  Pride, honor, the sheer thrill of hearing my mother say those words to my face.

“Are – “ I stuttered.  “Are you sure?”  Stupid. What a stupid question, why are you asking her that?

“You are my daughter,” she said.  “I chose you.”  She indicated her head forward.  “Go ahead.  Touch it.”

I stepped forward, tentative, my eyes locked on the glittering patterns in the armor.

Then my hand stretched in front of me, slow, careful, and grazed the tip of the helmet.  I projected forward into it, and felt every interlocking triangle of it, a perfect jigsaw puzzle assembled in three dimensions, each piece fitting together no matter which way you adjusted them.

And for a moment, I felt the legacy of our family.  Generations of minds, working in harmony.  Struggling, failing, and making the wrong choices, but making a better life for their children, in the end.  Enduring through hellfire, just like this armor.

I can fly in this.  I could soar to the moon, magnificent, invincible.

My mother handed me a card.  Blue, with a pale square in the center, with words embossed on it in a plain font that reminded me of lettering on newspapers.

Lady Rowyna Ebbridge
Admiral | Principality Navy
73 – 9989 – 4095
17 Patricius Street, Elmidde, The Principality

Her business card.  The signifier of her favor, her approval and trust.  She’d never given this to me before.  I knew how to call her, of course, but the gesture mattered.  The pride.

“In times such as these,” my mother said.  “Our armor must be unbreakable.”

My mother sat down, and leaned on her desk.  And for the first time in my life, I saw her looking tired.

“What’s the damage?” I said, sitting across from her.

“More than eighty percent,” she said.  “Of Paragon’s students have been killed.  The gas attack killed every single member of Parliament.”

I sagged back in my chair, the room wobbling back and forth.  Eighty percent?  No, no, that couldn’t be right.

“This is the worst attack on the Principality’s soil in history,” said my mother.  “Even the Shenti never got this far.  And the Pyre Witch has dropped off the grid.  As far as we can tell, she’s disappeared.”

My entire body grew heavy.  And images flashed through my head, one after the other.  Adam Lynde’s eyes, staring up at the sky, unseeing.  The rows and rows of body bags in the ruined halls of Paragon.  Ana and Hira’s farewell hug.

“But,” said my mother.  “We found Maxine Clive’s body on a river bed.  The one she used for the attack.”  She exhaled.  “Her wrists were covered with cuts.”  She snorted.  “So much for the common foundation.”

Suicide.  It made a certain sort of sense, if her life’s mission had failed.

“It could be a fake-out,” said my mother.  “An imposter in her chassis.  But it could be real, too.  We might never know for sure.”

I stared at my feet.  The things Maxine Clive had told me and Ana.  The disturbing details of her creation.  She’d only given us snippets, but I could guess at the rest, even if she couldn’t prove that Paragon had done any of those horrors.

No matter what she became, no one deserved a fate like that.

“Afzal Kahlin has been crushed, his debts nullified and his assets seized.  Oracle Media Group has been disbanded in the Principality.  The Principality’s law enforcement has seized its newspapers and radio programs, and is considering us as a beneficiary when they are redistributed.  The Ebbridge family has lifted itself out of the red, but that’s about it.  We have this mansion and nothing else.  If things go on like this, we’ll have to sell it and buy something cheaper to live in.”  She sighed.  “Once we were great.  An esteemed house.  We sat on the Conclave of the Wise, noble and wise.  Now?”  She snorted.  “We might as well be Humdrums, or Shenti scavengers.”

My shoulders tensed.

“In terms of our power and money?  Our respect?”  She gave a mirthless laugh.  “We’re not much better than those grey creatures you spent the last year chained to.”

Leo’s face flashed into my head.  Jun’s warm smile.  Don’t say anything.  I couldn’t be Ousted anymore, but I had other ways of jeopardizing my future.

I clenched my teeth, and leaned forward.  “Humdrums are determined,” I said.  “They’re intelligent, and they’re capable of acts of empathy that we’ve choked out of ourselves.  And the Shenti are not just simple brutes.  We were fools to dismiss them, and we’d be fools to do it again.”  I raised my voice.  Ana and Hira’s faces flashed through my head.  “And if you hadn’t dismissed my friends for the last year, maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Admiral Ebbridge lifted her pinky finger, and the world dropped away from me.

My senses turned to a soft blur, and I felt my thoughts dissolve, my memories and consciousness melting into a puddle.

What’s my name?  I couldn’t recall.  Where am I?  What do I look like?  If you’d asked me who my friends were, my favorite foods, my personality traits and desires, I couldn’t have told you any of them.  Do I even exist?  Is there an ‘I’ in here?  Which person, or persons were imagining these thoughts?

My chair tipped over, and I fell on my side, sliding on the cold floor, dropping my mother’s business card.  The borders between my Pith and existence had dissolved, and my sense of self was melting like a snowball in the sun.

Terror flooded into my veins, and my chest tightened, making me gasp for breath.  No other emotion seemed possible.  I couldn’t even remember what other emotions felt like.  I writhed on the floor, wheezing, shaking.

In the swirling maelstrom of my soul, the flickering connections in my synapses, a single desire rose into existence, the only coherent thought in the chaos.

Please.  Stop.  A cure, a bullet to the brain, I didn’t care how.  I didn’t have the words to say it out loud, but the thought ran throughout my head, again and again.

Then, as quick as it started, it stopped.  The sensation vanished.  My limbs stopped writhing.  My thoughts put themselves back together, and I remembered my name again, my friends, my desires.  You are Nell Ebbridge.  Nell Ebbridge.

I lay on the floor, soaked in sweat, shivering and twitching.

“This,” said my mother, “is a reminder.”

I stared up at her.  Reminder?

“While you transferred back, I installed a Whisper vocation onto your Pith.  It causes a temporary disruption of the ego.”

“Disruption,” I muttered, wiping drool off the edge of my mouth.

“The effect, I’m told, can be uncomfortable.”  She stood up, towering over me.  “In previous years, you could not control your habits.  So this will help you.”  Her voice hardened.  “You will not immerse yourself in your old life.  You will not let your academics slip.  And you will not use that old name again, that old body.  You will do nothing to jeopardize your upcoming marriage contract with Samuel Pakhem.  And I will never have to use this again.”

A reminder.  Of who held all the cards, all the power, even after I’d pulled this family out of debt.  I would have to earn every inch of respect.

“Do you understand?”

I squeezed my eyes shut.  That Whisper vocation felt worse than anything I’d ever experienced.  Worse than any physical pain, any emotional wounds.  It was a slow, agonizing death of my identity, or at least, that’s how it seemed.  And the foreignness of my new body didn’t help, either.  I had no anchor, nothing familiar to hold onto.

I couldn’t experience this again.  Not even once.

My mother stared down at me, expectant.  My father sat on the far end of the room, his expression pained.  But he didn’t intervene.

She baited you into this.  She’d said bad things about Humdrums and my old companions as a test.  And I’d failed.  So stupid.  I’ve been so stupid.

“Yes,” I whispered.  “Yes, I understand.”

“Do not rot the fruits of your labor, Nell,” she said.  Then she extended a hand to me, and pulled me on my feet.  “You’ve done great things.  Incredible things.”  She put a comforting hand on my shoulder.  “I underestimated your abilities.  It seems this Ousting was just the push you needed to unlock your true potential.  With this progress?”  She nodded.  “In a decade, you’ll be just like me.”

The world dropped away from me, and for a moment, I was looking at myself from a distance, staring at this strange porcelain doll and her strange, porcelain life.  Everything felt cold, numb, like someone had wrapped an ice pack around my Pith

“And,” my mother added.  “You’re just getting started.”

I shook myself back to reality, picked up my mother’s business card, and stood up.  “What do you mean, ‘just getting started’?”

“With your help,” said my mother.  “The Ebbridge family can reclaim its old glory.  All the wonders that have been denied to us.  We can forge the stars in our image.”

“How?”

“All’s well that ends well.”  She patted my shoulder and sat back down at her desk.  “In the aftermath of the Parliament attack, this nation recognized the need for strong leadership to guide us through this crisis.”  She smiled.  “The new appointments to the legislature have authorized the reformation of the Conclave of the Wise, to serve as a military advisory during the coming conflict.”  Excitement slipped into her voice.  “The old ways,” she said.  “They’re coming back.  We just have to play our cards right, and we can usher in a golden age again.  For this nation, for this family, for everyone.”

My stomach dropped.  This feels bad.  But I had to ask.

“The coming conflict?” I said.

“Of course,” my mother said, her eyes glimmering.  “Those eastern dogs funded and helped mastermind an attack that massacred our projectors of all ranks, butchered our government, and stole the Lavender Book.  We need to finish the job you started.”

Oh, dear.  I sat down in my chair.  “What does that mean?”

“War, Nell,” she said.  “We’re going to war.”

________________________________________

Unsure of where to go next, I found myself striding to the ruins of Paragon’s banquet hall.  No one seemed to know where the rest of Chimera Squad had gone today, though they assured me that none of them were dead.

Deon had burned the building down, during the battle, but the arriving soldiers had cleared the rubble away and set up temporary tents for food.  Lunch had finished, so most of the soldiers and surviving students had cleared out, leaving the wooden benches near-empty.

I got myself a cup of mulled cider, sat down, and took sips, slouching over on the table.  The apple tasted sickly sweet, like sugar being painted on my tongue.  Too strong.  Too heavy.  I recoiled, and put down the mug, leaving the rest unfinished.

Ana would have loved this.  I enjoyed Paragon’s cider, but I didn’t adore it.  Ana would have been in awe.

Too hot.  I blew on the cider, then took another sip.  The clatter of construction and the roar of machinery echoed in the distance, as soldiers continued the cleanup.  In contrast to the clouds of yesterday, the sun shone clear through the sky, warm and bright.

Here, at least, the ash had been scrubbed away.  They’d moved the body bags to other islands in the academy.

So I enjoyed a moment of odd peace, in the aftermath of the battle.

Before we went to war with the Shenti.  What have I started?  With every second that passed after this battle, it became clearer and clearer that Ana and I had been children playing with matches.  No, children playing with dynamite.

“Hey,” a man’s voice rang out behind me.

I glanced back.  Professor Isaac Brin wheeled towards me, floating his wheelchair over loose bits of rubble.  He leaned back in his chair, tired, but alive.  In a new chassis.  An empty cup sat on his lap.

He might be willing to talk about Ana and Queen Sulphur.  My mother had told me she knew nothing, but that could have been a lie, to keep me from thinking about my old life.

He wheeled next to me, under the shade of a tent.  I picked up the pitcher of mulled cider and filled his mug.

“You made it,” I said, my voice quiet.

He sipped the cider.  “So did you.”

“What about your friend?  Professor Tuft.”  Harpy.  But I wasn’t rude enough to use that name to his face.

“Her Joining saved her.  Got her back to shore and to an emergency room in time.  She’s in the hospital,” said Professor Brin.  “Your mother’s visiting her, I think.  But it looks like she’ll be alright.”

“At least someone survived this carnage,” I muttered.  The Rose Titan’s face flickered into my head, unbidden.  “I never asked.  What happened to your other mercenaries, once Ana got exposed?”

Brin’s face darkened.  “When my own people came to arrest me, I had no choice but to give up their names.  A few of them got caught, went to prison.  But most of them fled the country, the Rose Titan included.”  He sighed.  “Don’t imagine I’ll ever see them again.“

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’d mark that project down as a failure.  Maybe think about that next time before you start recruiting Ousted Epistocrats and Paragon rejects again for your suicide missions.”

“You know,” said Professor Brin.  “I always hated you as a student.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “You and half the academy.”

“You turned in late assignments.  You never paid attention in class.  And despite that, you still had that smarmy attitude, that thin veneer of smirking wit to cover your insecurities.  It was insufferable.”

“Thanks, Professor.”  I probably deserve that.

“But Scholars,” he said.  “You made a bloody fine mercenary.  I expected you and the rest of Queen Sulphur to peter out in less than a month.”  He leaned back in his wheelchair, satisfied.  “But here you are.  Guess I never knew much in the first place.”  He snorted.  “All that paranoia, and Grace still got a mole in Paragon.”

“A mole?” I said.

“That poor girl in Golem Squad.  Matilla Geffray.  Grace snuck her in right in front of me.  In the center of my blind spot.”  He clenched his teeth, tapping his hands against his leg.  “If I’d been more attentive when I found her.  If I hadn’t left those Commonplace thugs to bleed out on the street…”

I shrugged.  “It’s pointless to speculate.”  Though I had no idea what he was talking about.  I’d never even met that girl, though I’d heard Ana mention her name once or twice.

“My fear kept this nation safe,” muttered Professor Brin.  “For so many years.  But I failed.  At every turn against Grace, I failed.  Perhaps we need more.”

Now’s a good time.  “I want to know what’s happened to the rest of Queen Sulphur,” I said.  “My mother knows nothing, or won’t tell me what she knows.  Do you still have connections with counterintelligence?”

“I don’t have much clout there anymore,” said Professor Brin.  “I’ve been demoted, remember?  As a result of my illegal black ops mercenaries.”

“Sorry,” I said.

I’m sorry,” said Professor Brin.  “I underpaid you to keep you on a short leash.  I pushed you into difficult missions, and when Grace exposed you, I couldn’t protect you from the brass.”  He stared at his feet.  “Demotion is a small price to pay for my sins.”  He finished his mug of cider.  “But I’m proud of you.”

“What?”  I must have misheard him.

“I wish Miss Gage was here, so I could say it to her, too.  I remember when she was just learning a Nudging defense.”  He laughed.  “I saw a bundle of fear and desperation and self-loathing, and wondered if I’d made the wrong choice.  But she struggled.  She fought.  And she proved me wrong.”

“Proved both of us wrong,” I said.  I thought she was just a psychotic body thief.

“Thanks for the drink.”  He turned his wheelchair around.

“But do you know anything about Ana and Hira and Jun?” I called out.  Will I ever see them again?  “What happened to my friends?”

Professor Brin looked back over his shoulder.  “It doesn’t get easier,” he said.  “But you do get used to it.”  His wheelchair pushed itself away.  “Chimera Squad is back in Alabaster Hall,” he said.  “Welcome back, Lord Ebbridge.”  He wheeled across the burnt grass, into the distance.

I glanced down at my frilly dress, at my long black hair.  Lord Ebbridge?

________________________________________

I burst through the front doors of Alabaster Hall, sprinted up the stairs past my mother and the soldiers and all the crates and papers of the cleanup operation.

Three figures sat on a couch in the hallway upstairs.  A square-jawed, muscular Shenti girl.  A wiry, tall platinum blonde with manicured nails, a blue eyepatch, and an impatient expression, leaning on the other girl’s shoulder.  Leizu and Eliya.

And a boy with dirty blonde hair, slouched over, with dark circles under his eyes.  Samuel Pakhem.

Eliya’s eyes widened as she saw me.  She jumped off the couch, raced forward, and threw her arms around me.  I hugged her back.

Leizu raced forward a second later, and joined the hug, squeezing both of us until my chest ached.  “Welcome back, Jitterbird.”

We stood there for a moment, embracing each other.  Breathing together.  We’d seen each other during the battle, and for a moment in the van after they’d rescued us.  But this was different.  We weren’t under fire, desperate.

And I’d returned.  Despite everything, I’d returned for good.

With their bodies pressed against mine, I could feel every inch of my new chassis.  The painful tightness of my dress.  The weight on my chest.  You’ll get used to it.

Then we broke off, and I looked at Samuel, as he stood up from the couch.  We made eye contact for a long time, neither of us moving, or speaking.  After a few seconds, Samuel avoided my gaze, wiping his sweaty hands on his pants.

“They never fucked,” said Eliya.

I turned to her.  “What?”  My bright, girlish voice still sounded foreign, too.

“Blondie, is this the best time?” said Leizu.

“Him and Tasia.  They didn’t kiss, either.  I never even saw them holding hands.  For the whole year, Samuel held onto his loneliness, and he stayed faithful.”  She glared at him.  “Though he developed something of a friendship with her.”

“Do you miss her?” I said.  “The girl who lived in this body.”

Samuel said nothing for a few seconds.  Then he nodded.  “Of course I miss her,” he said.  “But I missed you too.”

I’d missed him as well.  With an agonizing longing that I would never admit out loud.

Damn him, why does he still look so beautiful?  The sweep of his hair.  The sharpness of his jawline and the steady, deep tones of his voice.  The easy strength of his thick muscles.  I could stare at his face for hours.

I admired him for a minute, and just let his comfortable beauty wash over me.  Let it relax my shoulders, slow my tense breathing.  Lyna Wethers’ pretty face flashed into my mind, sallow and smirking and perfect, and my stomach wrenched.  Then I banished it, letting Samuel’s comfort drown out the agonizing memory.

Then I strode forward and kissed him.  His lips felt cold and wet against mine, and all the sensations seemed odd in this new chassis.

Then he kissed me back, and I let myself forget all of that.

I bathed in the sheer bliss for a moment.

Then we broke apart, and gazed at each other.  I let myself get lost in his adoring eyes.

I didn’t want to think about how he abandoned me, how he opened himself up to Tasia, my replacement.  I just wanted things to return to the old days. With Samuel, at least.

But it feels different.  Tainted.  I didn’t relax around Samuel, anymore.  I didn’t feel safe, the way I felt before.

Eliya and Leizu crowded around us, smiling.  Leizu punched both of our shoulders.  Happy at our reunion, his apology and my implied forgiveness.  Chimera Squad had returned.

I couldn’t tell anyone about the hole opening up in my chest.  I couldn’t ruin the fun, demolish some of my only intact relationships.  Ana and Hira had perished, most likely.  The Shenti had captured Jun.

This is all you have, now.  If Leizu, Eliya, and Samuel found me too much of a downer, I wouldn’t have any friends left.

Tears welled up at the edges of my eyes, unbidden.  I blinked, and wiped them away, but Samuel still caught notice.

“It’s alright, Nell,” he said, rubbing my shoulders.  “You’re home.  You’re home.”

I smiled at him, gazing at his perfect face through a film of tears.

________________________________________

I spent my first night back at Paragon.  In my old dorm room at Alabaster Hall, on the feather bed I’d missed for a year.

No makeshift cots on the upper levels here.  No command center.  No soldiers or dust or rubble or ashes.

Just the room.  The bright blue rug.  The old wooden desk and bookshelf.  The soft moonlight, shining through the window.  And a gramophone, complete with an album of Steel Violet’s greatest hits.  It looked the same as it did a year ago.

Here, for a moment, I could pretend that things were alright again, that life would be comfortable and stable and easy.

Samuel cuddled up next to me, his head pressed against my shoulder, a smile spread across his sleeping face.  Faint snores came out of his nose.  That helps, too.

At least, it should have.  But the summer air already made the covers feel too warm.  With Samuel’s body heat, the bed turned into a furnace.  My nightgown got coated with sweat, and I adjusted my position for what felt like hours, unable to fall asleep.

I couldn’t even toss and turn without waking Samuel up.  One of his arms had draped itself over me, locking me in place.

And on top of that, the new body felt uncomfortable.  New, like I was riding a bicycle for the first time.  All the proportions felt off, a new irritation that made it harder to relax.

In a decade, you’ll be just like me, my mother said.  In a decade, you’ll be just like me.

So, after hours of failing to fall asleep, I slid out of bed, letting Samuel’s arm fall on the warm depression on the mattress.  My damp nightgown stuck to my legs, and I stretched my neck, my body aching.

I glanced back at Samuel, straining my ears.  Still snoring.  And his chest rose and fell in slow, steady breaths.  He’s asleep, not pretending.

I slid my wardrobe door open, projecting into it so it didn’t make any noise.  I pushed past the dresses and skirts and school uniforms on the hangers, and pulled the fish leather briefcase I’d stuffed in the corner.  A black singe mark sat in the center, from where I’d used it as a shield to protect Ana from palefire.

Then, I unclasped it and pulled out the false bottom.  A precaution for my mother’s searches.  A temporary hiding place, until I could find a better one.

A flattened object popped back into three dimensions, no longer pressed down by the false bottom.  A suit.  A black slim fit, double-breasted with a peak lapel and cuffed pants, made with the finest Ilaquan wool.  One of the suits I’d stolen from Lyna Wethers’ yacht, almost a year ago.

I slid my nightgown off and tossed it in the corner of the closet.  Then, I pulled on the suit, as quiet as I could so I didn’t wake Samuel.  The material felt cool and rough against my skin, a refreshing sensation after the wave of heat, after all the stifling discomfort of my bed.  I buttoned up the jacket.

Then I added my white crane mask, pulling it over my eyes.  The one Samuel had bought me for the masquerade.  The only object from my old life that I’d taken into Queen Sulphur.

I stepped out the door, projecting into the hinges to keep them from creaking, and padded through the hallways, barefoot, on the balls of my feet.

Downstairs, in the common room, the makeshift command center had emptied, inactive during the night.  The soldiers had gone home for the day, or were sleeping elsewhere throughout the academy.  My mother had returned to the family mansion for the night.

I tiptoed to the corner of the room, pushed a crate of medicine aside, and knelt.  Then I twisted out a pair of screws, lifted some floorboards, and pulled a bottle of whiskey out of the hole.

Alabaster Hall’s hidden stash of liquor.  They didn’t confiscate it.  It had survived the last year, survived the battle and the posse of soldiers filling the room.  I clenched the bottle in my fist and strode out the front door, still barefoot.

The moons shone down in the night sky, full and bright.  Around me, the ruined Paragon Academy had turned dead silent.  Everyone had either fallen asleep, left, or been killed.  I stepped forward, and my bare feet padded over a layer of ash on the grass.

I gazed over the demolished buildings, the burnt-down banquet hall, the splintered bridges.  It’s never going to be the same.  Inside, I could pretend with Samuel, but one look out here shattered the illusion.

What are you doing here?  I needed to go to sleep, to regain my energy for the busy day ahead of me, all the trials my mother would put me through.  You need to be strong for the family.

I turned around, facing the red, triangular building of Alabaster Hall.  I stared at the front door, through the windows into the dark common room.

Then I turned left, and walked alongside the wall of the building, over a layer of ash and gravel towards the edge of the floating island.

Ahead of me, a narrow rocky ledge ran alongside Alabaster Hall, leading behind it.  I projected into my suit to steady myself, pressed my back against the wall, and crept forward.  Below me, thick grey clouds blocked out my view of the city, reflecting pale moonlight.

This body’s proportions felt unbalanced.  I’m too bloody top-heavy.  What a nuisance.  The suit felt light and gentle on me, but chaos reigned beneath my skin.  But with the help of projection, I made my way over the dark, bumpy rock without falling.

I wrapped around to the back of Alabaster Hall, and found myself at a grassy ledge, an outcropping of rock the size of a large rug.  A single pack of cigarettes leaned against the wall.

This is the place.  The place Ana had told me about, where she’d spent time with Tasia, and the boy, Kaplen Ingolf.  The first casualty of this half-baked civil war.  And now, they’re all gone.

I sat down at the edge, my feet dangling into the air with my smooth suit pants, still clutching my whiskey bottle.  Below me, the clouds had blown away, revealing the city beneath.  On normal nights, Elmidde looked like a carpet of fireflies, street lamps and houses and towers all glittering with bright lights, in Hightown and Lowtown, Midtown and Gestalt Island.

Tonight, darkness enveloped most of Mount Elwar.  Power outages from the battle.  Curfew.  The only lights I could see were from Hightown, with mansions like my mother’s aglow with yellow.  The smooth business roads near the cable car station had working street lamps, too.  They got the repairs fast.

The rest of Elmidde?  They had to make do with moonlight.

I glanced behind me, and floated the pack of cigarettes into my hand.  All of them had been smoked, except for one.

Damn, no lighter.  I pulled out the cigarette, held it in my fingers, and focused on making a fire at the tip.  My flame projection had always been terrible, and I hadn’t studied it at all in the last year.

Make a spark.  Just make a spark.  I strained my Pith, focusing on the cigarette in my fingers.  Green lightning flickered around my body, illuminating the darkness.  I fight half a war, and this is what exhausts me.  Figures.  Why was a single spark this difficult?

Then, the cigarette exploded in my hand.  A bright flash of light filled my vision, with a blast of stinging heat on my hand.

“Ow!”  I recoiled.  “Takonara.”  Scraps of tobacco and paper drifted away on the wind.  A bright red mark had been seared onto my palm.

I should be back in bed, getting a good night’s rest.  Not breaking my sobriety streak, or setting myself on fire.

I glanced at the whiskey bottle clenched in my fist, peeled off the label, and started folding it.  Hira’s not here to stop you anymore.  No one was here, anymore.  They’re all dead, or worse.  Ana, Hira, Jun.  All torn to shreds by this damn war.

And all those people in Paragon.  All those body bags.  Adam Lynde staring up at the sky with blank eyes.  Those Nudged servants, forced to stab the students, hijacked and deafened.  The stench of blood and smoke, filling the hallways of my adolescence.

How many more would die, in this war against the Shenti?

And you survived.  I got this name, this wealth and power.  This body.  Without deserving any of it.  All my new work ethic, all my struggles, and that fundamental fact hadn’t changed.  You don’t deserve any of it.  I wouldn’t be a better Guardian than Ana.  I didn’t have Tasia’s academic prowess, her lofty ideals.

I finished an origami crane from the whiskey label, a dark bird to match the pale one on my face.  

Then I unscrewed the bottle of whiskey, tossed the metal top over the edge, and lifted it to my lips.

I stopped, halfway there.  At this distance, I could smell the liquor, a sharp, comforting odor.  This is what I deserve.  A withered mind and the pain of addiction.

You have turned despair into a security blanket, said Jun in my head.  Caring, and then failing, has become so terrifying, that self-loathing is a comfort.  Like I said, a coward.

Write the next page, said Ana.

I projected into the whiskey bottle, floated it in front of me, and squeezed.

Cracks spiderwebbed all over the glass.  Then it imploded, shattering into a thousand pieces.  The dark brown liquor poured into the dark sky, out of sight, and the glass shards broke further, becoming a million glittering grains of sand.

I let go of them, and they drifted away on the breeze.

Then I leaned back, on my hands.  In the future, I might not have the willpower to do that again, not without Hira.

But for now, I would go thirsty.

Is this what it feels like?  To strive to become an Exemplar, to be the best possible version of yourself.

I chuckled to myself.  What the fuck does that even mean?  What was ‘best’?  What was ‘yourself’?

I gazed out over the city, over the dark, endless ocean.

A single orange dot shone on the water.  A tiny fire on the surface.  Miniscule, but still flickering.  Still alive.  Still fighting against the void.

Weston Ebbridge.

Tomorrow, I would be Lady Nell, the good daughter, the noble hero of Paragon.  Tomorrow, I would be Nell forever.  I would enjoy my new life, be grateful and humble and honest and hard-working and moral, in all the ways Ana would have wanted.

But here, for just a moment, I would be Weston.  Wes, for short.  I would indulge in the hedonic pleasure of that name, the great privilege.

I gazed down at the orange light on the water, and smiled.

Wes.  For the time being, it would do.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




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.

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12-F The Ant and the Beetle

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Ana

I flew.

My arms and legs stretched out, forming a kite shape with my red wingsuit.  The air blew through like a sail, and I shot forward through the dark air.  The wind blasted into me, knocking my beanie off my grey hair and taking my breath away, drowning out every other noise.

I was too shocked to scream, or shout.  My mouth just hung open, until the wind forced it to clamp shut.  I passed through Paragon’s deceleration field, and the temperature dropped, making me shiver in the air.

A numbness spread over my skin and into my muscles.  Is that the cold?  Or my chassis, breaking down even more?  There’s not much time left.  Just keeping my limbs straight made my muscles shake with exertion, made my shoulder ache.  Every inch of my body felt weak, frail.

The slope of Mount Elwar rushed towards me, faster than I could have imagined.  I projected into the arms of my wobbling suit and steadied it, turning myself right, then left, steering myself towards Right-Hira’s red flare by the cable car station.  The limbs of the wingsuit squeezed my joints, at least two sizes too small for my broad shoulders.

I squinted through my flight goggles, and the city spread out beneath me.

Elmidde.  Hightown, Midtown, Lowtown.  Darkened streets from cut power lines, and bright orange fires, flickering throughout Lowtown and Gestalt Island towards the bottom.  At the same time, the city seemed to have quieted down, as the police suppressed the rest of the protests.

My gaze flitted over all the places I’d traveled over the last year, in rapid succession.  Clementine’s expensive house, by the water, shining in the moonlight.  The southeast docks, where I’d attempted my first body heist.  King’s Palace, with my sleeping pod.  Commonplace’s headquarters.  The Kesteven Building, with Kahlin’s penthouse.  Hira’s old house, on North Island.  Christea Ronaveda’s mansion, across Meteor Bay.

All that in a year.  I’d known so much pain, so much violence and decay.  I’d done so many horrible things.

But I’d met Tasia, too.  Hira and Jun.  And Wes.

I never thought I’d meet people like that.  And I never would have imagined becoming friends with them.  Playing Jao Lu and going to picnics and risking my life for them.

Nothing like that had happened to me before.  Not in my hometown, and not with Clementine.

This year had some bright spots, too.

For a moment, I let my body relax.  Forgot the cold, and the wind, and my unstable steering.  Wes is safe.  That mattered.  More than hunting Tunnel Vision.  More than this nation.

I gazed out at the spectacular vista.  And I let myself feel grateful.  A moment of sublime tranquility and peace.

I got to fly, too.

My attention snapped back to reality, and I realized I was going to overshoot Right-Hira’s flare.  By a lot.  I flattened my arms and legs to my sides, collapsing my wings and diving straight down.  I’d seen Paragon students do this before.

This time, I screamed, though the wind took the sound away.  My stomach dropped.

The dense forests at the peak of Mount Elwar shot towards me.  When they got close, I spread my arms again, and jerked the front half of my wingsuit upwards to right myself.  The chest of my red wingsuit ripped, flapping around and revealing my blue combat suit underneath.

The wind caught the suit again, and my path curved to a level one.

I skimmed over the tops of the trees, streaking towards the cable car station and Hira’s flare.  My limbs flailed for a moment, but I steadied myself, and I flew again.

Don’t you crash, I told myself.  Don’t you dare crash.  For this nation.  For Kaplen.  For me and all the other lives Tunnel Vision had destroyed.

And for Hira, too.  She couldn’t finish this mission on her own.

I projected into the front of my wingsuit and angled it upwards, using the wingsuit as a drag chute to slow myself down.  I projected into the belt, too, yanking it backwards, arresting my momentum.

I’m going to undershoot Hira.  Right-Hira floored the accelerator, driving the car up the street towards the cable car station, getting closer to me.  He jumped out of the car, stretching his arms out, as if to catch me.

As we planned, I pulled my Pith out of the wingsuit, and Right-Hira projected into it.  Purple lightning flickered around him, and my wingsuit yanked me back even further, slowing me more and more as I fell towards the street, the cobblestones rushing beneath me.

I landed on my feet, and my foot twisted to the side as I jogged forward, staggering to a stop.  Stabbing pain exploded in my ankle, and I doubled over, coughing and catching my breath.

“You alright?” said Right-Hira.

“Twisted ankle,” I wheezed.  With just the slightest impact.  Another sign of my advanced decay.

Left-Hira landed on the pavement next to me with a cloud of purple lightning, rolling to soften the impact.  She sprung to her feet, out of breath.  That fall took almost everything out of her.

I limp-jogged to the car, each footstep sending stabbing aches up my ankle.  I ignored the pain.  I will see my parents again.  I will drink that mulled cider with Wes.

“Come on,” I said, in between coughs.  “She’s getting away.”

We clambered into the car, and Left-Hira floored the gas.  The accelerator shoved me back against my seat next to her, and I strapped in my seatbelt as the car shot down the sloped pavement.  

Right-Hira stood up in the backseat, and poked his head and torso out of a hole he’d cut in the top of the car.  His black sniper rifle hung by his side, ready to aim and shoot at a moment’s notice.

We sped down Mount Elwar through the streets of Hightown.  We passed squads of riot police, closing in on sparse groups of protestors, slapping handcuffs onto them and shoving them into paddy wagons.  The arrested protestors got more common in Midtown, as we descended through the city, but most of the actual riots had ended, or looked sparse at best.

Further down, military trucks and tanks streamed over North Bridge, driving into the city.  Reinforcements from the mainland.  They would be more than enough to suppress the remaining unrest.  Another sign that the core fights had ended.

The car turned a corner, tires skidding on the pavement, and sped into the Midtown square where Tunnel Vision had been fighting the police.

Dozens of dead cops lay on the street, or inside their cars, blackened to a crisp.  The police cars and vans nearby had turned into burning wrecks.

Only one of the cars hadn’t been destroyed, driving towards the far end of the square.  It flipped its siren on and accelerated down a street, heading towards Lowtown.

“That’s her,” I said.  “Go.

Left-Hira floored the gas again, and we shot down the sloped pavement, racing after Tunnel Vision’s stolen police car.  As we closed in on her, Tunnel Vision accelerated even faster, swerving left and right, making random turns onto side streets to try and lose us.

Left-Hira tossed me her trench shotgun, and I leaned out of the right window, my aim unstable.

Gunshots rang out from above me, as Right-Hira opened fire with his sniper rifle.  With all the turns, and the bumpy cobblestone pavement, none of his shots hit.

I pulled the trigger, aiming at the cop car’s tires.  Hira’s trench shotgun thudded into my shoulder, my ears ringing, but all my shots missed, too.

Right-Hira dropped an empty clip into the backseat, and loaded another one.  Tunnel Vision made another left turn, and we went back down a steep slope, entering Lowtown.

She’s headed for the water.  All the bridges would be locked down by the military pouring into the city.  The ocean was her best chance at escaping.

Storefronts and apartment buildings raced past us in a blur.  In this part of town, the police cars and arrested protesters grew more sparse.  Despite all our gunfire, no one moved to chase us.  The streets had emptied here.  No pedestrians.  No one to see us fight.  She’s aiming for a quieter part of Lowtown.  Avoiding attention.

And most important of all, the Pyre Witch hadn’t fired a single blast of palefire at us.  Not even a single fireball, or a chunk of metal flung at our windshield.  She just drove away from us, making the occasional glance back towards us, revealing her face.

She’s really out of energy.  Her Praxis Vocation, too, would be weaker.  Less capable of adapting her to this situation.

She could be using her decoy again.  Just like she’d done to deceive Paragon earlier, to draw them away from the city.  But something told me she wasn’t doing that this time.  Hira had kept eyes on her this whole time, as she’d massacred the police with her palefire.

Of course, she could have fooled Hira too, but that would have required a lot of preparation.  She’d have to plan for her big mission’s failure.  A part of her would have to expect that, on some level.

And the witch has tunnel vision.

We sped through Lowtown, the car thudding on the potholes in the street.  This part of town was a straight shot to the water, and Tunnel Vision didn’t turn onto any of the side streets.  Dead ends, all of them.

Ahead of us, high in the sky, a massive, flat silver serpent wound back and forth in front of the moon.  An oracle snake.

Right-Hira fired, and one of the car’s rear tires popped.  Tunnel Vision’s car swerved left and right, but purple lightning flickered from inside, and it steadied itself, careening straight towards the ocean.

Right-Hira fired again, popping the car’s other rear tire.  Tunnel Vision’s steering wobbled even more, but she kept it moving forward.

A wide pier stretched ahead of us, extending into the ocean and blocked by a wooden gate and a low railing, with a ramp leading down to it.  A pedestrian walkway where people sometimes stored boats.  A line of orange lamps lit it from end to end.

Tunnel Vision’s car turned right, skidding on the pavement towards the pier.  But instead of driving down the street, Tunnel Vision flung her door open and jumped out, using the momentum of the car to shoot herself forward.

She dove off the edge of the walkway, dropping out of sight towards the water.  Her car slammed into the metal railing, making an awful screeching noise and bending it backwards.

At the same time, Hira slammed the brakes.  The tires screeched, coming to a stop just in front of the wooden gate to the pier.

I stretched my Pith forward, feeling Tunnel Vision’s Pith ahead of us and below, on the surface of the water.  I threw on an illusion, making it look and sound like our car had crashed into her car, and that both Hira and I had been knocked unconscious.  She wouldn’t have the strength to feel around with her Pith and spot the fakery.

I squinted over the railing, gazing down at the dark water below, trying to spot her.

A pitch-black submarine steamed forward across the surface of the ocean, sailing away from the shore.  Tunnel Vision stood on the top, and clambered down a ladder inside.  She glanced back at my burning-car illusion, and slammed the hatch shut behind her.

A second later, the submarine pulled her out of my range, dropping my illusions on her.

Her escape plan.  Of course she’d have a top-notch escape plan.

“A fucking submarine?” yelled Hira.  “How the fuck did she get a submarine?”

Fuck, fuck, fuck.  My stomach clenched, and my sweaty hands tightened on Hira’s shotgun.  “Commonplace controls the naval defenses right now,” I said.  “If she dives, we won’t be able to find her.”

“The hatch is shut!” shouted Hira.  “She’s about to dive!”

I glanced at the wooden gate, and the ramp leading down to the long pier.  The submarine chugged forward, parallel to the dock, only ten feet away from it.

Then I pointed.  “Can you make it?”

“Let’s find out.”  Left-Hira put the car in reverse and backed up the street.  Right-Hira sat down in the backseat and strapped himself in.  I braced myself with my hands and feet, unclenching my teeth for the impact.

Left-Hira slammed the gas, and shot across the pavement, picking up momentum.  “Fuck you!” she shouted.

The car crashed through the wooden gate with a shower of splinters, the entire inside shaking.  We landed on the ramp and drove down, onto the flimsy wooden boards of the pier.

The vehicle wobbled and bumped on the uneven wood, and an awful cracking sound rang out from below.  This isn’t designed to hold a car’s weight.  Hira swerved right, then left, her driving unstable.

“Steady!” I shouted.

“I know!”

Ahead of us, the submarine picked up speed, cutting through the water towards the open ocean, the orange light of the lamps reflecting off its dark metal hull.  The end of the pier shot towards us, getting closer by the second.

Then, our car caught up to the very end of the submarine.

“Hira?”  I said.  “Hira?”

“I’m not blind!” she snapped.  Right-Hira clambered out of his firing hole and onto the roof of the car.  I unstrapped my seatbelt and squeezed myself into his place in the backseat.

Right-Hira shot a cable out of one of his wrist launchers, wrapping it around one of the submarine’s railings on the top.  He jumped, reeling it in to pull himself forward, and slammed on the roof of the submarine.

I climbed up through the hole, onto the top of the car.  The end of the pier raced towards us, even closer, and I wobbled as the vehicle shook underneath me, dizzy.

“Come on!” shouted Left-Hira.

I inhaled, exhaled, and bent my knees, projecting into my clothes.

Then, I jumped.  My limbs flailed in the air, and I dropped towards the water, coming up short.  I yanked my clothes forward, pulling myself up and towards the submarine.  Right-Hira stretched out his hand, and I grabbed it, slamming onto the curved side of the sub.  My twisted foot landed on the metal, and I screamed, clenching my teeth.

Right-Hira pulled me up and over the railing, onto the top of the sub.

Left-Hira projected into the steering wheel, holding the car steady as she threw open the passenger door.  The car shot off the edge of the pier, and she clambered out, using the door as a foothold to push off and leap towards the submarine.

Right-Hira shot his other cable launcher at her, and she grabbed it midair.  She landed on the side of the submarine, just a few feet above the water.  The car splashed into the ocean behind her, and she pulled herself up the cable like a rope, climbing onto the top of the sub with us.

The submarine sped away from Elmidde, and rumbled beneath us.  “It’s about to dive!” Hira shouted.

We ran forward to the top hatch, and I stretched my Pith downwards, feeling two people below us.  Guards, or crew members.  I erased the sight and sound of our presence, hiding our actions from them.

The submarine began to lower itself beneath the surface, frothing up the water around it.

Hira projected into the lock inside, spinning the wheel.  No Voidsteel, thankfully.  She threw open the hatch, and slid down the ladder with both her bodies as the water rose around us.  I clambered down last, and Hira projected into the hatch above me, slamming it shut and sealing it as the submarine dove.

We landed in a narrow, squat hallway, surrounded by metal pipes and wires, lit by pale bulbs overhead.  We stood next to two crew members, chatting amongst themselves.  Neither of them armed, both of them hit with illusions.

“Alright,” one of them said.  “Back to work.”  She walked down the hallway and went through one of the doors.

Right,” I said to Hira.  “Let’s find out where Tunnel Vision is.

Hira looked at me up and down in the light, a proper look after our car chase.  I look like shit.  The sub’s hallway filled up with the stench of my body odor, mixed with a new smell, like rotten fruit.

“You sure you’re up to fighting her?” said Hira.  During our final conversation, I’d convinced her that I could fight Tunnel Vision better than Wes, since paper didn’t work so great against someone who used fire.

But I think Hira had another reason.  She didn’t care about the cause the way I did.

No, she’d grown close to Wes over the last year.  She didn’t want him to die.

I shifted my weight, putting more on my good foot, and winced.  “Don’t have to be at my best.  You’re strong enough to fight her.”  In Tunnel Vision’s current state, after fighting so many scholar-ranked projectors, Hira might be strong enough to beat her.  Unlike the rest of us, Hira had just joined the battle.  Her Pith and body would be far less exhausted.  “I’m just your illusion backup.  And a distraction, since I bet she hates me more than you.”

“Everything you learned this year,” Left-Hira grumbled.  “And your grand strategy is ‘let Hira do the work’.”

“It’s a compliment,” I said.  I threw an illusion on the remaining crew member, making it seem like his friend was walking back through the door.

Hey,” my illusion said.  “I forgot again.  Where did the boss go?

The man rolled his eyes.  “We’ve been over this.  She’s in her magic door thing.”

Magic door?  Hira and I looked at each other.  What?

Her magic door?” my illusion said, in a tone that could be ignorant, or irritated.  As if to say, that’s what you’re calling it?

“The something gate, or whatever,” the man said.  “She got it moved down to the far end of C deck a while ago.  I don’t know how it works.  But don’t go in there.  She said no disturbances until we get out on the open sea.”

Got it,” my illusion said. “I can wait, I guess.

“Right,” said Hira.  “What if we took one of the crew’s bodies?  Used that as a disguise?”

“Wouldn’t work for you,” I said.  In your prison bodies.  “And we don’t have any tranquilizer left to knock the person out.  A chokehold won’t last.”

“Your illusions, then,” said Hira.  “Use them on the crew.  Make them turn on the radio so we can contact Paragon or the military and let them know our location.”

What about the radio?” I said to the man, with my illusions.  “Is that working?

“Radio?”  The crew member gave me a confused look.  “We don’t have a radio, remember?  We use some fancy encrypted telegraph system.  And no, it doesn’t work.  Not unless the boss activates it with her codes.”

Exclusive codes from Tunnel Vision.

“We need Tunnel Vision, then,” I said.

Hira nodded.  She stuck her hands in her pockets, stitching skills from the crew member.

“If we kill her, the crew probably won’t be much of an issue.  And while she’s dying, you can use your Vocation to stitch her codes from her.  Then we can use the radio to contact our allies.”

“Wes is getting the pardon, remember?” said Hira.  “Who the fuck are our allies?”

“We’ll figure it out,” I said.

I made my illusion walk away from the crew member.  Hira and I followed it, stepping through a door and swinging it shut behind us.

The two of us stalked through the submarine, down claustrophobic hallways filled with pipes and levers and buttons.  A low chugging noise rang in the distance, the sound of the sub’s inner mechanisms.  I cast my Pith ahead and behind us, throwing illusions on anyone who came close enough to see us.

Many times, we had to back up, or squeeze ourselves against a wall to prevent ourselves from bumping into a crew member.  We passed many of them, turning wheels, checking equipment, and staring at gauges on the walls.  None of them carried guns, however, or showed obvious projection skills.

But the operations they carried out looked arcane, beyond complex.  If we fight and kill them, there’s no way we can pilot this submarine.  Even with stitched skills from Hira, their tasks would be impossible to coordinate.

With my twisted ankle, every step made the pain worse, but I could still walk.  So I pushed myself forward, ducking my head to avoid obstacles above us, flinching every time a pipe clanged or a crew member shouted.

In this submarine, there was no night, no day, no seasons.  The lights glared down from above, and the cold bit into my skin, making me shiver as I walked.  Every corridor looked the same, an endless labyrinth of tunnels turning in on each other.  If it weren’t for Hira skill-stitching the crew member, I would have gotten lost in minutes.

We descended a staircase, and I stepped on my foot wrong, sending stabbing pain through my ankle.  A wave of dizziness crashed over me.  The grey walls of the submarine spun around me, and a pair of hands grabbed me, stopping my fall.  A burly Ilaquan boy.  Right-Hira.

“Bitch,” said Left-Hira.  “You are falling apart like an arranged marriage.  I’m thinking you should take a nap with Wes.  Like you said, I’m strong enough to take on Tunnel Vision without you.”

I blinked, my eyes aching, a numbness spreading inside my muscles.  My chest rose and fell, taking rapid, shallow inhales.  I made sure to maintain my illusions, to keep any crew members from bumping into us.  “No,” I wheezed, catching my breath.  I grabbed a pipe and yanked myself upright, still wobbling.  “I can rest when it’s over.  Long rest.”  I sighed.  “I’m done with butcher work.  Fighting.  Illusions.  All of it.”

“Settling down at age twenty.”  Hira snorted.  “I’ve seen worse burnouts.  But I guess you’ve earned a break.”  And some bloody mulled cider.  The water was rising, but I was tired.  So bloody tired.

“I need to make honest money,” I said, doubling over.  “Send it back to my parents.”

“And then?” said Right-Hira.

“Go home,” I said.  “Apologize to them.  For failing.”

“Loads of kids fail Paragon admissions,” said Hira.  “And I’m sure you didn’t steal that much when you left.”

I shook my head, the dizziness draining out of it.  “Not that,” I said.  “They spent their life savings on this body.  My future.  And I became a violent, rotting killer.”  Even if my enemies are evil.  I stared at a smooth metal plate on the wall, at my distorted, grey face, gazing back at me.  “For a decade after the transfer, I never recognized myself in the mirror.  This body looked so foreign, so different.  From the first day, I knew it wasn’t mine, that I had to escape and make something better for myself.  But now?”  I closed my eyes.  “I look at my reflection, and that disgusting thing I notice?  It’s me.

Hira hugged me.  Both her bodies stepped forward and wrapped their arms around me.

I hugged her back.  Neither of us said anything for a few long moments.

Then we broke off and Left-Hira gripped my shoulders.  “Shut the fuck up,” she said.  “And focus.  We’re not out of this yet.”

We descended a staircase, walked past the crew quarters, and flung open the door to a room.  I stepped in, and Left-Hira shut the door behind me, flipping on the lights.

This is Tunnel Vision’s magic door?” I said.

The room was empty.  No door.  Not even a single piece of furniture.  Just a metal box, barely five feet across.

“Calm the fuck down, you neurotic bunny rabbit,” said Left-Hira.  “This is why we have skill-stitching.”  She strode over to the wall, dug her fingernails under a metal panel, and pulled it up, revealing a series of number wheels, like a safe.  Hira turned the dials, entering the right combination, and pressed the button on the bottom.

The numbers spun, resetting back to zero, and a hidden safe door opened on the far wall, revealing a small closet space.

I gaped, staring at the contents inside.  That doesn’t seem possible.

A glowing hole seemed to have been cut in the back of the wall, shining a bright purple light into the room.  Its border flickered and vibrated, looking like the shadow of a heat wave, or a curved lightning bolt.

And the hole didn’t lead to some other room in the submarine.  It led to another world.

A massive factory sat in the middle of a frozen lake, standing on a rocky island.  Cliffs and mountain peaks encircled the lake, covered with snow.  An electric fence surrounded the island, blocking it off from the lake.  A thick fog covered the icy surface of the water, and searchlights cast an eerie glow into them, aimed by guard towers along the edge of the factory.  Voices whispered from the mist, echoing throughout the lake.  Or was that just my imagination?

But everything looked wrong.  Overhead, the sun had turned an eerie shade of dark purple, casting the whole lake in an unnatural glow.  A surreal, eternal eclipse.  The factory’s smokestacks sat inert, along with its conveyor belts.  And the factory itself was collapsing.  The entire outside had rusted, missing chunks of wall.  A tower tipped over and crashed into the fog, cracking the ice beneath it.

And the concrete bridge to the island had collapsed, leaving no clear pathway from the door to the island.

Hira gaped at it too.  “That’s not – “ she said.  “The laws of Projection don’t – “

“Yeah,” I said.  “I guess there’s a lot we don’t know about the Pyre Witch.”  I wiped my sweaty hands on my shirt, gripped my machine pistol, and stepped forward.  Hira grabbed my shoulder, stopping me from entering.

“Wait,” she said.  She drew a pair of wire cutters from her backpack and tossed them underhand into the portal.

They landed on a snowbank on the lake’s shore, unharmed.

“The door might still kill us,” said Hira.  “But at least we tried.”  She let go of my shoulder.

I inhaled, exhaled, and ran through the portal.

As I did, I felt something pass over my Pith.  A sort of presence, like when another person’s soul touched mine during an enemy projector’s scan.

I jogged forward into the snow, my ankle throbbing, and I understood in an instant.  Something just detected my mind.  Tunnel Vision knew an intruder was here.

“Hira!”  I spun around as Left-Hira started running through the portal, pushing off with her legs, her tangled brown hair swirling around her.

Before she could pass through, a translucent purple barrier flickered into existence over the door.  It sliced off tufts of her hair, and she slammed into it face-first, bouncing off.

“Fuck!” Her voice sounded muffled through the barrier.  Right-Hira stepped up to it and slammed it with his fist, looking at it up and down.  Dark purple electricity crackled over the wall, the same shade as the sun shining above me.

“She felt my soul go through the door,” I said.  “She knows an intruder’s in here.”

I glanced behind me.  Nothing moved in the factory.  No lights flickered on.  It looked just as dead and inert as before.

“You could try shooting it,” I said, my voice echoing through the barrier.

Hira shook her head.  “I don’t want to alert the crew.  And I doubt it would do anything to something like this.”

I raised my machine pistol, and flipped the internal switch to load my one Voidsteel bullet into the chamber.

“No,” said Hira.  “A Voidsteel round might go through, but I doubt it’d break the barrier itself.”

“Only one way to find out.”

“Save it,” said Hira.  “Tunnel Vision is regaining her strength.  She’ll have her ABD back up, in all probability.  You only get one shot, so use it well.”

An icy wind blew around me, far colder than the inside of the sub.  I shivered, clenching my teeth.  This is bad.  Hira was our best chance of taking out the Pyre Witch, not me.  We couldn’t send out signals without Tunnel Vision’s codes.  And now, I’d have to face her alone.  Exhausted.  Half-dead.

“I’ll hide here,” said Hira.  “Don’t think I can commandeer the ship on my own.  The moment that wall disappears, I’ll step inside and meet you.”

I wrapped my arms around my chest, warming myself.  “If I’m not back in half an hour,” I said.  “Blow up the submarine.”

“With what explosives?”

“This sub runs on gasoline,” I said.  “You’re creative.  I don’t know if it’ll kill her, but it might keep her from escaping.  Force the sub to surface, and you can get out before it blows.”  I leaned down towards the closest snowbank and pulled out Hira’s wire cutters.  My shaking hands brushed snow off them, and stuffed them into my belt.

Left-Hira nodded, gritting her teeth.  She looked conflicted, but we had no time to argue.

“Don’t die,” she said.  “Please.”

“I promise,” I said, putting every ounce of determination that I had into the words.  “I’ll see you in less than half an hour.”

I turned around, and ran into the Pyre Witch’s domain.

My pained breaths turned to fog in front of me.  My shoes sank into the snow, getting my socks wet.  I’m not dressed for this.  Why would I have?  It was summer in the outside world.

A chunk of wall collapsed from the factory, crashing into the fog and ice below.  Other than that, nothing moved.  If Tunnel Vision hasn’t attacked me already, then she’s probably waiting for me somewhere.  Tired, but ready to ambush me.

But I didn’t feel the same sensing presence that I had when I went through the portal.  That feature only worked on the door, and the Pyre Witch would be too tired for wide-area scans with her Pith.

So, for once, I had a chance to ambush her, too.  Advanced projectors had Voidsteel sense, which meant I couldn’t just walk behind her with illusions and shoot her point-blank.  But I had other tactics.

I walked around the collapsed bridge, down the snow-covered shore, and stepped onto the frozen lake.

The ice creaked beneath me, but it didn’t crack.  I raised my machine pistol, aiming ahead of me, and took slow, tentative steps into the fog, testing the ice ahead of me.  More creaks, but it didn’t break.

Unsteady.  It could collapse under me at any second.  I’d read somewhere that going on your belly was safer – spreading out your weight.  But that would be slow, and even colder.  And with the state of this miniature world, the ice might get more unstable if I took too long.

So I moved forward, one step at a time, my breath fogging up before me.  The mist gathered around me, making it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead.  The purple sun shone through from above, lighting my way forward.

I perked up my ears and made my footsteps as quiet as possible.  If she comes down here, I might be able to hear her.

But no one came.  I heard no footsteps, no telltale signs of a person approaching.  Just the whispering voices in the mist.  No sound came from the factory or island.  The guard towers’ searchlights pointed into the fog, static, and I avoided them with ease.

I just moved forward over the lake, through the cloud, shivering, each step making my sprained ankle scream in pain.  If it weren’t for the regular agony, I’d think this was a dream.  The purple sun.  The mist.  The surreal, collapsing world and the portal.  None of them seemed real.

Minutes passed.  I focused on my orientation, making sure I was headed towards the island, since I couldn’t see anything in the fog.  But without the bridge, the walk went slow, and the distance was long.  My shoulders grew heavier, and the chill spread inside my fingers, my muscles, my bones, painful at first, then numb.

I need to get inside, before I keel over and freeze to death.  Or maybe this was just my decay, in its final stages.

Then the whispering voices grew around me.  I’d heard them from outside the door, but they’d stopped for a moment.  Men and women, young and old, in Common and other languages.  They started quiet, so soft you could mistake them for hallucinations and the wind.

But then they grew louder, more coherent, forming words and sentences.

“There are no ants.  You can pretend, you can be tricked, but deep down, everyone is a beetle.”

“Sooner or later, I’m going to choose wine instead of rice.”

“If peace were easy, we’d never have to fight for it.”

“Please.  Remember this.”

“Do to yourself.  What you did to the prisoners.”

“The world was never simple.  You just thought it was.”

I recoiled, bending my knees and leveling my pistol around me.  Is this some sort of attack?  But Tunnel Vision didn’t have the strength for this kind of air projection.  And she wasn’t supposed to have that level of refined control anyway.

Maybe it’s some tool of the world she’s using for defense.  Like the initial scan, or the barrier she’d put up.  But the voices had been echoing here before I entered.  Before Tunnel Vision knew an intruder had come.

Perhaps it wasn’t intentional then.  Maybe it was just another strange feature of the decaying world that the Pyre Witch commanded, alongside the sun and the electrical wire and the collapsing factory.

The voices got louder, more coherent, forming exchanges of dialogue, not just random phrases.  The fog swirled around me, changing colors and forming shapes.  Cars.  Buildings.  Cobblestone streets.

And two people.  A girl, my age, and a boy, on both sides of me.  The boy held a green dagger in his hand, stained with blood.

I drew my cattle prod and stabbed at the boy.  The weapon passed through his body, and his torso exploded into loose mist.  I pulled the cattle prod out, and the boy’s chest gathered itself back together, the same as before.

“So, Acworth,” the boy said, talking past me to the girl.  The dagger’s blade slid back into the hilt, and he tucked it in a pocket of his shirt.  “What brings you to this part of town?”

“I – “ said the girl, wearing a grey Paragon uniform.  “You wanted me to pick up a package from a storage unit.  Sir.”  She also ignored me.

Acworth.  A Paragon uniform.  Are these Tunnel Vision’s memories?

Two more figures coalesced from the fog.  A girl, being stabbed by a Nudged boy, standing next to Tunnel Vision and her student boss.  The Pyre Witch was a grey coat?

Tunnel Vision talked with her boss.  Not just any boss: Tybalt Keswick.  The younger version of the kindly professor she’d murdered.

As the conversation went on, he didn’t seem so kindly.  It became clear that he’d Nudged the boy here to stab the girl, for some petty reason.  And now, he was trying to use his Epistocrat family’s clout to blackmail Tunnel Vision into staying silent.  If she helped him cover up his crime, she’d get free admission to Paragon.

The ends justify the means, right, witch?  Of course she’d take the deal.

Isaac Brin’s face popped into my mind.  The look he’d given me while I bled out on that boat, and he’d offered a grey coat position in exchange for my mercenary work.

Tybalt Keswick told Tunnel Vision a story.  The parable of the Ant and the Beetle.  The selfless ant, who made itself part of a living raft during a flood so the colony would survive.  And the selfish beetle, who stood over the sacrifices of others, surviving without helping.

“There are no ants,” said Tybalt.  “You can pretend, you can be tricked, but deep down, everyone is a beetle.  Survival takes priority over everything.”

Tunnel Vision took the deal, and I found myself disgusted at her.  But a part of me knew, deep down, that I would have done the same.

The memories didn’t seem threatening.  They served as diversions, at worst, loose scraps of Tunnel Vision’s mind spilling out into her world.

Perhaps it’s a trick.  Some fake memory she’d created to try and convert me to her cause.  But Tunnel Vision probably knows it’s me.  And I’d already turned down her offers.  Why bother convincing me now?  And the voices started before I entered.  They were already here.

Don’t get distracted.  I kept moving forward over the frozen lake, shivering, watching for the real Tunnel Vision and testing the ice to make sure it didn’t break.

As I did, I watched Edric, one of the victims, get sentenced to life in prison.  And I watched Tybalt Keswick walk free without even a slap on the wrist.

Next, I watched Tunnel Vision in a Shenti redemption camp.  I watched her starve alongside Professor Tuft, get beaten by guards, fight with other prisoners over scraps of food.  I watched the pathetic state that hunger reduced her to.  The chants she obediently joined, the clods of mud she threw at her squadmate.

The Pyre Witch is so prideful.  She’d never show me something like this willingly.  Could this be real?  Could all of this be real?

I watched Tunnel Vision befriend Sun Bi, another prisoner.  I watched the agony she went through, as Sun Bi attempted an escape, failed, and got executed before her eyes.  Even though Tunnel Vision had refused to report her.

Focus.  Stay focused on the target.  I found myself feeling bad for Tunnel Vision, despite knowing everything she’d done.  This is it.  This where she’d gone mad, decided to massacre innocents.  This was the moment she’d developed her Praxis Vocation, and become the Pyre Witch.

Later, after Tunnel Vision escaped, I watched her take evidence of the camps to Headmaster Tau, giving him a full presentation on the details of the Shenti’s horrors.

I stopped walking.  No.  That couldn’t be right.  Paragon hadn’t found out about the redemption camps until near the end of the Shenti War.  Not during the middle.

And then, Nicholas Tau refused to act.  Refused to help the thousands of people dying every day in the enemy’s camps.

“The population of these camps are almost entirely composed of Humdrums, yes?” he said.  “And the perpetrators are Humdrums, yes?”

Tunnel Vision said yes.

“The Treaty of Silence is rather strict,” said Headmaster Tau.  “Our own world must be kept separate from the Humdrums, for their safety and our own.  Every civilization, back to the Great Scholars, has understood this.  Acting against the camps would threaten to expose us.  There is a natural balance, that should not be upset.”

A wave of nausea bubbled up in my stomach.  They knew.  My mother was half-Shenti.  She’d had friends who’d suffered under that regime, who disappeared and never came back.

They knew, and they did nothing.  Because the victims were Humdrums.  Because they wanted to stay hidden.

Then, the mist shifted again, forming another scene.  I watched Tunnel Vision lead her squadmates, Florence and Isaac, towards Jiachong, the edge of the redemption camp where she’d been imprisoned years ago.  I watched her hug both of them, bidding them farewell.

This is the moment.  When she’d lost herself and gone on a massacre of the Shenti, soldiers and civilians alike.  When she’d let herself become a monster.

Tunnel Vision leapt off the mountain, unfurling her wingsuit, wind whipping her hair behind her.

She landed on the snow, and she incinerated the guards, blasting them with spears of palefire.

What?

Then, she flew throughout the camp, disabled the radios, and killed the rest of the guards.  Without slaying a single prisoner.  Then, she told the camp’s survivors how to escape back to the Principality.

My throat clenched, and my hands shook as they gripped my machine pistol.  No.  That couldn’t be possible.  This had to be fake.

Tunnel Vision went to another redemption camp, and freed the prisoners there.  Then she liberated another camp.  And another.  And another.

Nausea swelled up in my stomach, and I doubled over, clenching my teeth, hyperventilating.  She didn’t kill any civilians.  She hadn’t massacred anyone except camp guards.

Then, three elite squads of Guardians ambushed her at another camp.  They hunted her through the mountains, and cornered her in a frozen lake.  One that looked identical to the lake here.

Professor Tybalt Keswick stood among them, and he smirked at Tunnel Vision.  Knowing the truth.  Reveling in the lie and his power.

Tunnel Vision massacred all twelve Guardians, drawing them into a trap and shooting them from beneath the ice.

And for once, I didn’t hate her for it.

I squeezed my eyes shut, shivering, and stopped walking over the ice.  Everyone lied to me.  I’d lied to myself.  My breaths grew faster, more panicked.  Blood rushed in my ears, and my chest ached.

My mind flashed back to Hira’s apartment.  Getting attacked by the Guardians, branded as a criminal.  Wes’ mother, arguing that I should have let her son die.  The Symphony Knight, ready to sacrifice my friend for the sake of defeating her enemies.

And Isaac Brin, flinging a dart through my stomach under a dark sky, almost murdering me for the crime of trying to survive.

My head throbbed.  Sweat collected under my armpits, even in this bitter cold.  I staggered backwards, dizzy.

My mind jumped to all the people I’d hurt.  So many, I’d lost count.  The mobsters I’d tricked into killing their friends.  The Green Hands I’d shot in the back.  The Shenti-born citizens who’d lost their businesses, their homes after my speech on Verity.

I fell backwards, landing on the ice with a thud.  What have I been fighting for?  What had I been killing for?

What have I been breaking myself for?

The fog shifted around me again, becoming a hill, overlooking a burning prison on a moonless night.  Guards raced around the perimeter, aiming flashlights into the darkness, looking for someone.  But none of them got even close to this hill.

Tunnel Vision stood behind me, in a new body, wearing her usual long ponytail with her skirt and suit jacket.  A mobster dragged a woman up the hill and dropped her in front of Tunnel Vision.  She looked up, and I saw her sallow eyes, her blonde hair cut short.

Lyna Wethers.  Honeypot, wearing the dark orange uniform of a prisoner with dark circles under her eyes.  This is when Tunnel Vision broke her out of prison.  She wheezed, out of breath.

“Use your Vocation on me,” said Tunnel Vision.  “And I’ll peel your skin off, starting with your eyes.  Understand?”

Lyna Wethers nodded.  “Who the hell are you, lady?”

“You have hijacked people’s minds,” said Tunnel Vision.  “You wiped away their identities and their love, and replaced it with hollow, mindless infatuation.  And you helped my friend destroy herself.”  She knelt next to Lyna Wethers, holding a ball of electricity in her palm, next to the woman’s cheek.  “You are a leech, a disgusting creature.”

Lyna Wethers smirked.  Scholars, I’d forgotten how much I loathed her face.  “But you freed me, didn’t you?  Which means you need me for something.  All your power, and I’m still in control.”

Tunnel Vision moved her hand next to Lyna Wethers’ cheek, singing it with the electricity.  Honeypot dropped onto her back, hissing and clutching her face.

“You’re Paragon’s monster,” Tunnel Vision said.  “They created you, and then they threw you in prison.  So go back, and unleash nightmares on them.  Give them the agony they deserve.”

This is how Kaplen got hijacked.  This was how he died.

I pushed myself up from the ice, to a standing position.  And I remembered why I loathed Tunnel Vision.  A wave of anger crashed over me, mixing with the panic and confusion and everything else, adding to the pain.

She can’t be forgiven for this.  But Tunnel Vision had a point.  Lyna Wethers had told Wes herself: Paragon created her.  They’d nurtured and fostered her mental hijacking, until it no longer benefited them.

The cold bit into me again, and I remembered where I was.  Keep moving.  I started forward again, and the scene shifted around me again, becoming the cabin of a zeppelin, flying high above the water.  The door had been flung open, and wind blew through the room, deafening.

Tunnel Vision stepped forward and kicked a man out of the door.  He screamed, falling through the air, and she shot a rope downward with one of her hands.  It wrapped around his ankle and jerked him to a stop, holding him in place, upside down, thousands of feet above the water.

“You’ve been injected with Null Venom!” shouted Tunnel Vision, leaning out of the door.  “Your projection won’t save you here!  So let’s talk shop!”

The man nodded, frantic

“You are Cuthbert Benthey, Lord of Carlyn, Third Scion of the North.  And Second Chief Sculptor of Chassis.”

“Yes!” Lord Benthey shouted.  “Yes!”

My breath fogged up ahead of me.  I stepped forward on the ice, and it cracked under my foot.  I pulled back and walked to the side, circling around to find a thicker part of the lake.

The Elmidde Chronicle’s Projector edition calls you a man of ‘limitless imagination’.”  Tunnel Vision read from a newspaper.  “It says your genius with face construction is ‘unrivaled’.”  She glanced down at the man swinging from the rope.  “So tell me.  Are you genius enough to make a chassis from scratch?  Entirely on your own?”

Lord Benthey shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “We spread out critical knowledge.  To construct a functioning, high-quality chassis from scratch, you’d have to kidnap at least a dozen of our highest-level craftsmen.  I know the basics, but if I tried to make a chassis on my own, there would be problems.”

“Problems?” said Tunnel Vision.

“The bodies would appear fine for a while,” he said, his voice just barely discernible over the wind.  “But the underlying structures holding them and the Pith together would begin to fray over time.  The inhabitants would experience significant decay after several years, and some accelerated symptoms of aging.  The bodies would become worthless, pretty fast.”

“By worthless,” said Tunnel Vision.  “You mean dead.”

Lord Benthey nodded.  “If you want to set up a black market for chassis, you won’t be helping those people.  You’ll be turning them into time bombs.”

Tunnel Vision stared off into the distance.  “But demand is beyond high,” she said.  “Such an operation could net a small fortune, while Paragon reels from the war and their exposure to the public.  Especially if the chassis is mass-produced.”

Another wave of disgust crashed into me.  This was when she created me.  The moment she had decided to crush countless people like me underfoot.  She kidnapped a significant designer, faked his death, then used him to start up the entire chassis black market.

“You can’t mass-produce chassis!” shouted Lord Benthey, swinging back and forth on the rope.  “It’s impossible!”

Tunnel Vision put more slack on the rope, making Benthey free fall for a second.  He screamed again, and the rope yanked him up, making him float in the air, level with her.

“A lie,” she said.  “Try again.”

“Fabricated bodies can’t be industrialized!” he gasped, out of breath.

Tunnel Vision grabbed his index finger and bent it back, snapping it.  He screamed again.  “Why can’t you mass-produce bodies?  Why are they so expensive?”

“You need precision!” he shouted.  Tears ran down his forehead, dripping off into the air.  “Artistry, the talents of many projectors working in unison with advanced techn – “

She broke two more fingers.  “Another lie!” she shouted  “One more, and I’ll start sculpting your face!  Why can’t you mass-produce bodies?

We can!” he screamed.

This time, Tunnel Vision didn’t break anything.  “What?” she said.

“We could mass-produce bodies,” Lord Benthey choked out.  “We could have done it decades ago, and Ilaqua could do it too, now, I’m sure.  Maybe even Neke, and a few of the richer islands.”

Why?” hissed Tunnel Vision.  “Every year, hundreds of thousands of people die of cancer, of heart disease, of genetic defects like Loic’s Syndrome.  So why don’t you save them?”

Loic’s Syndrome.  Like me.

“Because we’re special!” Lord Benthey shouted.

The wind whistled through the air.  Tunnel Vision stared at him, her eyes wide.  “What?”

“If the world knew our secrets, in months, there would be tens of thousands who could do everything we could.  The beauty and majesty of our art would be reduced to fodder.  We wouldn’t be the greatest craftsmen in the world, we would be relics.”  He talked faster and faster.  “And if that many Humdrums get a taste of projection like that, they’ll start asking for more magic, more invitations to our world.  More power.  Just like they already have been doing since the Pyre Witch’s massacre.”

Tunnel Vision grabbed the rope, her knuckles turning pale.  He doesn’t know she’s the Pyre Witch.

“Paragon is safe and noble and good, because we’re exclusive.  Because only a few people have overwhelming power.  When we lose that, our world shatters.  Everything shatters.  We need to be special.  We need to be.”

Something shifted in Tunnel Vision’s eyes as he said those words.  “I understand,” she said, her voice soft.  “Thank you.”

Lord Benthey held up his hands.  “Wait!” he shouted.  “Wait.  I can help you mass-produce your decaying chassis and make money.  That’s what you want, right?  You need my expertise to school you in the techniques!  You need me!”

Tunnel Vision cocked her head to the side, thinking over his words for a moment.  “Yeah,” she sighed.  “You’re probably right.”

Lord Benthey relaxed.

Then the rope let go of his ankle, and he dropped through the sky.  He screamed, his arms and legs flailing.

He shrunk out of sight, and the wind drowned out his shouts.

Tunnel Vision coiled the rope next to her, and pulled the door shut, exhaling.  A mobster stood behind her, pursing his lips.  “He had a point, ma’am,” he said.  “We could have used his skills for the operation.  How are we going to start our chassis markets now?”

“We stole some notebooks when we kidnapped him,” said Tunnel Vision.  “We’ll figure it out.”

Maxine Clive stepped next to her in her original body, her face deformed and covered in scars.  “Are you sure about this?” she said.  “Selling defective bodies to people.”

“I didn’t want them to be defective,” said Tunnel Vision.  “I wanted them to work.  But I guess that option’s off the table.”

“Sick people are going to buy those bodies,” said Clive.  “And they’re going to be horrified in the years afterwards.”

“If we sell them nothing,” said Tunnel Vision.  “They’ll be dead.  These people are too poor to buy real chassis.  A few years is better than what Paragon’s given them.  And we need the money.  But it’s your call.”

Maxine Clive thought for a moment.  “The price of chassis,” she breathed.  “The desperation.  The low supply of bodies.  It’s all on purpose.  It’s all part of their plan.  I always suspected, but I never knew – “

“It’s their sin.  Their lie,” said Tunnel Vision.  “We’re just using it to fund a revolution.  So we can bring down this entire rotting system and build something new in its place.”

Maxine Clive leaned back against the wall, closed her eyes, and sighed, looking older than ever before.  “Do it,” she said.  “Sell the defective chassis.  Drag us beneath the point of forgiveness.  Generations of the future will piss on our graves, but they will live in peace and safety thanks to our sins.”

The two women dissolved, along with the blimp and the sky and the entire scene.  The fog closed in around me again, and I found my hands dripping with sweat again.

Tunnel Vision did do all this to me.  My initial guess had been right.

She did steal my future.

But the Principality – Paragon Academy – had stolen it first.  They’d hoarded their miracle for themselves, restricted the supply and let the underclasses wither.

Why?  Why is this happening?  Why am I cursed with these visions?

The fog swirled around me again, and I found myself in a room by a radio, standing next to Tunnel Vision.

My voice echoed from the radio.  “So, to the citizens of the Principality,” I said.  If you believe in order.  If you still love this nation, despite its flaws.  If you still believe in magic.  I ask you to fight.  Beat back the Shenti, and their puppets.  Take back the Principality.

My truth-compelled speech with Christea Ronaveda.  A memory from not too long ago.

Tunnel Vision stood up from her chair, knocking it over.  She threw on a wingsuit and jumped out of the window.  It unfurled in midair, and she shot across the waters of Meteor Bay, towards Gestalt Island.

An hour later, she stood in front of a row of apartment buildings and restaurants, wearing a cloak and hood to hide her identity.  The buildings and restaurants had signs in Shenti characters, not a letter of Common in sight.  The Shenti slums.

A mob stood across the street from her.  Men and women.  All native to the Principality, many of them wearing blue.  Loyalists.  They screamed at her, shaking baseball bats and kitchen knives and fists.  Eastern Dog was a frequent term.  Traitor, was another.

One of them charged towards her, and the rest followed.  Tunnel Vision projected into bricks in the pavement, and slammed them into the Loyalist’s chests, knocking the wind out of them one at a time before they reached her.

A loyalist woman lit a fire cocktail, and tossed it at the restaurant.  Tunnel Vision projected into it, stopping it midair, and threw it back at the charging mob.  It exploded at their feet, and they screamed, fire licking their bodies.

She’s defending the people there.  Even if it had nothing to do with her plan.  When the police were nowhere to be seen – when the Guardians decided to ignore Gestalt Island.

She still defended them.  From the violence I caused.

This is your fault.  I had no idea there would be this much violence.  This much horror inflicted on the people here.

But my good intentions hadn’t mattered.  I still broke into Christea Ronaveda’s mansion, still recorded that segment, still used fear of the Shenti as a cudgel against Commonplace.

You did this.  And the effects of my speech were still rippling throughout the Principality, sparking fear and cruelty.  I couldn’t justify any of what I’d just seen, couldn’t explain it away.

The scene collapsed around me, turning back into fog.  The weak purple sunlight shone overhead, and the chill closed in on me.  My footsteps slowed on the frozen lake.  My arms fell to my sides, weak.  Limp.  My head throbbed, feeling like a swelling balloon about to pop.

I couldn’t forgive Tunnel Vision.  But I couldn’t forgive Paragon Academy, either.

I couldn’t forgive myself.

Maybe we all deserve to die.  Maybe the whole world was hopeless, its moral compass rotting away just like the chassis Tunnel Vision had sold me.  Burning, just like the fires I’d started all over this nation.  Drowning, just like the Great Scholars, cruel and inevitable beneath an empty sky.  Maybe no one was an Exemplar.

Most caterpillars die in the cocoon, my voice echoed in my head.  The vast majority of them never make it to adulthood. They’re not inspirational stories, they’re victims.  This whole world was a caterpillar too.

No matter how bad it gets, said Isaac Brin, do you think your soul is worth fighting for?

I don’t know,” I whispered.  I’m sorry Kaplen, I don’t know.

I stepped onto the shore of the lake, and found myself facing the electric fence.  The factory towered above me on the island, stretching towards the purple sky.

Focus on the mission.  Focus on the mission.  I pulled Hira’s wire cutters out and floated them forward, cutting the charged wires from a distance, preventing myself from getting shocked.

I stepped through the gap, and climbed into a hole in the crumbling metal building.

Inside, silence hung over the factory.  Conveyor belts and metal arms and buzz saws stayed inert, an intricate machine turned into a hunk of scrap.  Now and then, a loose chunk of metal would fall somewhere, and a deafening clang would echo through the building.

The narrow hallways and short ceilings closed in on me, forcing me to duck my head.  I leveled my pistol ahead of me.  Like Tunnel Vision, my Pith had grown far too tired for wide-area scans, so I had to rely on my eyes and ears, despite their decay.

And as I stalked through the metal monstrosity, up staircases and through doorways, I thought.  Monster, a voice rang in my head.  You deserve to burn.

Not until she does, another voice said.  Not until Kaplen is avenged.

My stomach ached, and the cold kept biting into me, draining my energy.  I don’t know anything anymore.  I don’t know, I don’t know.

A gramophone crackled from the levels above, and a woman’s voice rang throughout the factory.

My name is Christea Ronaveda.”  A recording.  One that Commonplace would be broadcasting everywhere they could.

The noise made it hard to hear anything from the upper levels.  Tunnel Vision is disguising her movements.

I’m sitting in the top level of the Principality’s Great Library,” said Ronaveda.  “My boss, Afzal Kahlin, is holding a gun to my forehead, which is – “  She chuckled.  “Not how I expected our professional relationship to end.

I reached a staircase to the highest room in the building, leveling my pistol around me.  The music rang out from above, warm and nostalgic.

The recording of Verity’s radio host continued.  “I’m being coerced, but my Vocation prevents me from telling a lie.  They’re telling me that they’ll set me free, to verify that this speech isn’t from an imposter.  But, I can’t imagine I’ll last long after that.  I’m a liability for too many people.

Tunnel Vision’s in that room.  And she’d be watching these stairs, ready to ambush me.

I stretched my Pith upward, blue lightning flickering around me, trying to scan for Tunnel Vision’s Pith.  But something strange had happened in this place.

Everywhere felt like someone’s Pith.  I could feel it in the air, in veins running through the walls, branching and connecting all over.  It was like the same Pith had been reflected on itself over and over again – a hall of mirrors with a single soul inside.  The reflections got denser and denser further up the factory, coalescing somewhere in the room above.

Maybe I could throw an illusion on this strange monstrosity if I got closer to her, maybe.  But I couldn’t see where Tunnel Vision was hiding.  Is this entire world inside Tunnel Vision’s mind?  It would explain the purple sun, the memories leaking out, the frozen lake and the electric fence.

The recording of Christea Ronaveda laughed.  “So much for Ilaquan karaoke and a beach house.”  She snorted.  “The water is rising, anyway.  Beaches are gonna be shit.  So this recording is probably the last you’ll all hear of me.  Here goes:

I can’t sense Tunnel Vision’s location, and I can’t put an illusion on her at this range.  How was I going to beat her?

Maybe you shouldn’t.

But she wouldn’t forgive me.  Not after everything I’d done.  And I couldn’t forgive her, either.

When I use my truth aura Vocation on people who’ve been hijacked, they go haywire.  Get paralyzed, for a time.  So you can’t implant lies in someone’s mind to fool my abilities.

I glanced behind me.  A maintenance hatch sat on the wall with the hinge half-broken.  The top half leaned outwards, letting in purple sunlight.

That’s something.  I walked over and projected into it, muffling the vibrations within to dampen its sounds.

Then I shoved it.  The rusted hinge broke off, and the hatch door dropped into the fog below.  It cracked on the ice below.

With luck, she’ll think it’s just another piece of her factory breaking.  I leaned out of the opening and glanced up, towards the dim purple sun overhead.  A ladder ran along the vertical wall of the factory, several stories up towards the slanted roof at the top of the building.  There we go.

I used my Vocation on the parliament of this nation,” said Ronaveda.  And all of them were hijacked.  Our seat government is being puppeteered by someone.  And while I don’t know for sure, I believe that someone is Paragon Academy, the people in charge of their Whisper security.

I froze.  No.  That couldn’t be right.  Maybe Commonplace faked her voice, or something.  And now that they’d killed all of Parliament, nobody could prove their outlandish theory wrong.

This nation,” said Ronaveda.  “Has never been a democracy.

It didn’t feel like a fake.

Gunshots rang out in the distance, filled with static.  They’re coming from the recording.

Whoops.  Time’s up,” said Ronaveda.  “Weird fucking country you’ve got there, Principality.  Good luck with that.”  The gunshots got louder on the recording.  “See you in paradise, squidfuckers.

The recording cut off, leaving only silence.

No.  No, focus.  Don’t think about that.  I had to keep moving.

I picked up a tall piece of scrap metal – a short metal beam, projecting into it to keep it from making noise.  Then I balanced it on a flat portion of the floor, on top of a staircase.  The effort made my whole body shake, took the breath out of me.

At some point, the unstable chunk of metal would fall over and roll down the stairs, making noises to distract Tunnel Vision.

I broke my machine pistol up again and stuffed the parts into my pockets.  Then I reached up and grabbed the bottom rung of the ladder.  Two of my fingers had withered, and the rest felt cold, but I clung on anyways, clenching until my hand shook.  I grabbed on with the other hand, and climbed out of the hole.

The wind howled around me.  The purple sun grew dimmer overhead.  A chunk of metal came loose from above me and tumbled through the icy air.  I pressed myself against the building to avoid getting hit.  This ladder could come loose at any second.

Every breath made my lungs burn, made the air fog up in front of me.  Every rung made my arms and legs ache, made my twisted ankle explode with pain.  My sweaty fingers slipped on the cold metal ladder, and I had to grip even tighter to keep myself from falling off.

I felt heavier by the minute.  The chill closed in around me.  Another wave of dizziness rose in the back of my mind, threatening to wash over me any second.  I need to get inside.

Two-thirds of the way up, the right half of the ladder screeched, and detached from the building.  The ladder swung on its left half, like a tall door on a hinge, unstable.  I wobbled, leaning back and clutching onto the ladder as it moved.  If the rest of it detaches, it’s over.

As I climbed onto the slanted roof, the other half of the ladder screeched and detached itself.  It flipped over and vanished into the fog below.  No going back down now.  Not that way, at least.

The dizziness hit me, and I slumped down on the roof for a moment, catching my breath, my arms and legs and fingers aching and burning and shivering all at once.  

A minute later, I stirred myself again, and pushed myself to a standing position.  It felt like lifting a semi-truck on my shoulders.  My body is spent.  This couldn’t be a prolonged fight.

I staggered forward.  As I’d expected, the factory’s metal roof had broken in places with the rest of the building.  A large chunk had fallen away from a corner, and Tunnel Vision’s music drifted out of it.

I projected into the roof to silence my footsteps, reassembled my machine pistol, and crawled to the edge of the hole, glancing through.

Tunnel Vision stood below with her back to me, holding a weak flame in her palm and aiming it at the staircase, faint purple lightning flickering around her wrist.  Waiting to ambush me.  The flame didn’t even look white – another sign of her weakness.

It could all be an act, of course, but I had to take that chance.

This room looked like some kind of office.  ‘Barebones’ didn’t do it justice.  Two metal chairs sat in the center of the room, with no other furniture or decoration.  A pitch-black book sat on a shelf on the far wall, and a huge duffel bag sat on the floor, but that was it.  Otherwise, the room was dark, bare metal, purple light flooding in through chunks torn out of the walls.

Tunnel Vision clutched a light purple tome in her off hand.  The Lavender Book.  She hadn’t hidden it anywhere or passed it off to a subordinate.  A day ago, I’d have taken that as a sign, that the Principality was counting on me, to save it from the monstrous Pyre Witch.

Now, wasn’t sure.  I don’t know, I don’t know.  But either way, she was still my enemy.  She was still here to kill me.  I had to focus.

I waited here for several minutes.  I checked all my equipment, then checked it again, loading my single Voidsteel bullet into the chamber.  And then, my distraction went off downstairs, a loud bang followed by a quieter series of clangs.  Now.

My Pith stretched into the floor, silencing it.  I jumped through the hole into Tunnel Vision’s office and landed on my good foot, the impact thudding throughout my body.

I aimed down the iron sights of my machine pistol, pointed it at Tunnel Vision, and pulled the trigger.

The gun kicked back in my hands, deafening in my ears.  Tunnel Vision fell over, limp, blood pouring into her shirt.  I hit her in the back.

I trained my pistol on her, staying focused on her.  I didn’t hit her in the head.  She could be playing possum, even if I’d hit her somewhere important.

A hand whipped through the air behind me and slammed into the side of my neck, just below my ear.  My ears rang, and my body shook, numbness flowing through my veins.

Even as my muscles went limp, I spun around and raised my hands to defend my head, dropping my machine pistol.  As I did, a palm shot through a gap in my defenses and smashed my nose.

My vision went blurry, and my head ached.  I staggered back, and the woman in front of me punched my solar plexus, knocking the wind out of me.

I reeled, wheezing and doubling over.  A steel cable shot out of the duffel bag and pushed me backwards.  It forced me into a sitting position on the metal chair and wrapped around me, binding my arms and legs, tying me down.

Tunnel Vision stood in front of me, her fist extended towards me, legs bent in a fighting stance.

A spare chassis.  Tunnel Vision had animated a spare chassis as a decoy, and hidden somewhere where I couldn’t see her.  Always five steps ahead of me.  My Pith moved in a rapidfire storm.

I swallowed several times, coughing and gagging, and stretched my Pith forward and imagined myself invisible and silent, close enough now to use illusions on her and erase myself.

But it was too late.  My clothes tightened over my skin, Tunnel Vision projecting into them.  She can feel me.  I threw on another illusion, trying to modify the positioning sense of her projection, but the headache tripled, making blue lightning crackle around me.  I slumped back.  Too much energy.  The newer technique would drain me more.

I coughed, gasping for breath.  She used martial arts on me.  Her body had strength, but her Pith was still low on energy.

I exhaled, slumping over.  And I made myself visible to Tunnel Vision again.  No point in hiding now.

The Pyre Witch looked over me for a second, then projected into the hidden pouches in my combat suit.  She ripped out my spare ammunition, my explosives, Wes’ flattened objects, that popped into three dimensions as grenades.  Everything.

She floated my gear in front of her for a second, then stuffed them all into the duffel bag, except for the grenades, which she flung out of a hole in the wall.  She broke down my machine pistol, threw the firing pin out of the room, stuffed the pieces in, and sealed the bag at the top, locking everything in.  Preventing me from projecting into it for a surprise attack.

I saw nothing else in the room I could use as a weapon.  All of my hidden tricks, my backup plans had been ripped from me and stuffed into that bag.  Now, she didn’t have to watch my every move, or scan to the room in case I was throwing illusions on her.

I pushed against the metal cables with my bound arms and legs, using what little strength I had left.  They didn’t budge.

Tunnel Vision had me cornered.

Sweat soaked my blue combat suit from head to toe.  My stomach ached, and I slumped back.  I looked up at her, catching my breath.  Really looked at her, for the first time in my life.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.  “I’m so sorry.”

“I know,” said Grace.  She unsheathed her Voidsteel dagger.  The purple sunlight shone down, casting her bloodstained face in a lavender glow.  “Me too.”

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12-E The Ant and the Beetle

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Wes

Me, Ana, or Tasia, I thought.

Me, Ana, or the imposter.

One of us would come out of this intact, and the rest would be cast aside, to be scorned or banished, doomed to live out the rest of their lives in resentful mediocrity.  A brutal competition for a name, a body, a family, a pardon.  Citizenship in this country.

That was the deal my mother had offered us, that Paragon offered everyone, to some extent.  Forge the stars in your image, or drown in the mud with the pigs.  It wasn’t kind, it wasn’t fair, but it was the world.  What power did we have to change it?

If it came to it, I would have to fight Ana myself.  What a bloody farce.

A spear of palefire shot through the top level of the library, aimed straight at Ana.  I stepped in front of her, holding my briefcase up to shield us.

The white-hot flames crashed against my briefcase and singed my hand, making me yell in pain.  “Takonara!”  The skin on my fingers had turned a waxy red.  That’s going to leave a scar.  Worse, the front of my briefcase had been burned a sickening black, ruining it.  I liked that briefcase.

Something boomed on the far side of the warped gravity sphere, the floor shaking.  I waved sheets of papers like fans, blowing away the grey smoke filling the room.

Tunnel Vision and Maxine Clive flew out of a hole in the wall, soaring into the night.

No!” shouted Ana.

We sprinted after them.  I shot a storm of paper in their direction, and Ana raised her machine pistol, firing bursts at Maxine Clive, who lacked an ABD.  We ran around the sphere, over corpses and overturned bookshelves, until the hole in the wall became a hole in the floor.

None of my paper even touched the enemy.  Ana missed all her shots.  The enemy had flown too far away, too fast.  And neither of us had the raw projection strength to fly and pursue them.

Ana kept firing bursts at them, aiming down the sights of her machine pistol through the hole.  But she didn’t spend her one Voidsteel bullet.  Not at this range.

“Hey!”  The imposter – Tasia – shouted at us from the far side of the room, using my old voice.  “Parliament!”

That’s right.  We had a mission, to rescue the most prissy yellers in the county.  A group of public servants that spent most of their time sipping tea and making uninspired digs at each other.  Though, in their defense, that was my daily routine too.

I turned to the hundreds of MPs clustered on the far side of the sphere, surrounded by Afzal Kahlin and a bare handful of Green Hands and mobsters.  Is that all that’s left?  Lorne had been thorough with his molten carnage.

The three of us ran around the sphere towards them, and something exploded in the middle of the crowd.  A cloud of yellow smoke ballooned around the MPs and Commonplace.

“Gas!” Ana shouted.  “Gas!”

I flipped open my briefcase and pulled out a trio of flattened gas masks, letting them pop back into three dimensions.  Projecting into them, I floated them to Ana and Tasia, and pulled mine over my tangled brown hair, my burnt fingers stinging from the movement.  Lorne can take care of himself, right?

The yellow smog washed over us, filling the room and obscuring everything more than a few feet away from me.

Go!” shouted Ana with illusions.  “That gas might be lethal!

“Wait!” I shouted.  “Samuel’s down on Level Four!  He doesn’t have a mask!”  Maxine Clive’s grenade had ripped his body apart, so I’d begged Jun to tend to him and save his life.

“He’s right!” shouted Tasia.  “This way!”  She threw an orb of blue and purple lightning through the gas, illuminating a path towards the double doors back to Level Four.

Jun could assemble his own masks, but only if he had the right materials.  He could flee the gas, but dragging Samuel might worsen the boy’s injuries.

Ana nodded, and the three of us ran back, leaping through the double doors on the floor of the sphere.  Tasia projected into our clothes, slowing our fall through the vast chamber of Level Four, as we emerged from the cloud of gas.

Samuel lay on the wooden floor, glowing pages rearranging themselves in geometric shapes above him.  His arm had been blown off, and a chunk of flesh had been torn from his shoulder, forming a pool of blood underneath him.  Bandages and some congealed concrete-like substance had been wrapped over his wounds, stopping most of the bleeding.

He’s alright.  He’d last long enough for a transfer later.

I’d flattened a green backpack full of stuff from the blimp we’d used to get in here, and I was pretty sure it included a first aid kit.  But that didn’t seem necessary here.

But where’s Jun?

I raced forward and knelt by his side.  As I slid Samuel’s mask on, the boy’s eyes fluttered open, and he stared at Tasia, half awake.  Delirious.

He smiled at her.  “[    ],” he said, static crackling in my ears.  “You’re finally back.  Scholars, I’ve missed you.”

He thinks that she’s me.  Something twisted in my stomach, and I leaned over, hugging Samuel as he fell unconscious.  “I will see you again,” I whispered.  “I promise.”

“Where the fuck is Jun?” said Ana.

“Grandpa can make his own mask!” I shouted.  “He doesn’t need us.”  And the man didn’t like fighting, anyway.

Ana pointed to a pile of scrap metal on the floor.  “Jun would have taken those with him.  And he wouldn’t have abandoned his patient.”  She turned towards the hole leading to Level Three.  “Help Parliament.  I’m going to find Jun.”

I had no time to argue or think through strategy.  I stood up, nodding, and Tasia projected into my suit, yanking us back up through the glowing pages and the double doors, back into Level Five and the cloud of yellow gas.  I didn’t have the strength to pull myself up.  How am I supposed to Oust her when I’m this weak?

We touched down on the floor of the sphere, and I ran forward, panting, my lungs burning from the effort.  Every step made my body ache, made my shoulders feel heavier.

The gas made it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead of me.  Figures moved to my left and right, running in the opposite direction, ignoring me.  Or were those just shadows in the fog?  Focus on the MPs.  Save the MPs.

I used my sheets of paper as fans again, blowing away the gas in a circle around me and Tasia.

And we saw Parliament.  Men and women, middle-aged and old, wearing their ceremonial robes.  Draped over each other on the floor, limp.

None of them were breathing.  Dead.  All dead.  There were over a thousand of them, packed into one half of the dome, and all of them lay on the floor, their eyes open, spittle foaming from their lips.  I noticed Enoch Trembath among them, my classmate’s father, with his bushy mustache.  His eyes stared at the ceiling, unmoving.

A handful of Green Hands lay next to the dead MPs, also foaming at the mouths.  Guess they didn’t get their gas masks on in time.

Tasia retched, doubling over.  My stomach churned, and my skin turned to ice.  For a moment, both of us stood there, dumbfounded.

Commonplace killed them.  Commonplace had just murdered all of Parliament.  The seat of government.  The democratic core of this nation.

Tasia ran around, touching people’s necks, looking for pulses, shaking people to see if they woke up.

But nobody moved.  Nobody breathed, or stirred.

Afzal Kahlin, and the rest of Commonplace were nowhere to be seen.

I shot my paper towards the double doors, clearing a tunnel through the gas.

A thin Ilaquan man with a gas mask glanced back at us.  Afzal Kahlin.  He jumped through, falling out of sight, flanked by a pair of mobsters.

He did this.  He’d set off that gas bomb.  A tsunami of rage grew in my belly, running through my veins and making my hands shake.  Overwhelming the shock and horror.

I let out a roar, and sprinted through the sphere, ignoring my pain, my exhaustion.  Tasia ran after me, and we dove through the double doors, floating down to Level Four below.

Samuel lay on the floor, his chest rising and falling, and Ana had vanished.  Kahlin jumped through the hole to Level Three, and the two of us ran after him, our arms pumping.

We jumped through, gaining on him.  The world seemed to blur around me, everything except Kahlin growing distant.

I ran through the swirling letters in the air, and down the staircase to the second level.  In front of us, Kahlin ran beneath the glowing blue lanterns towards the massive hole Tunnel Vision had torn open in the wall.  He ripped off his gas mask, letting it fall onto the pile of rubble.

He jumped out of the hole, and I jumped after him.  I slammed onto the slanted, conical wall of the Great Library.  Kahlin slid down the wall ahead of us, opting to move down instead of flying.

Tasia and I slid after him.  One of the mobsters next to him raised a submachine gun, and I fanned out a wall of paper in front of us, hiding us from view.  I had a flattened parachute in my briefcase, in that backpack I’d taken from the blimp.  But that would take too long to get out.  Make us fall too slow.

Bullets zipped around us.  Tasia slid in front of me, using her ABD to shield me from the gunfire.  Why is she helping me?  She knows I’m her competition, doesn’t she?  I held my burnt briefcase in front of my face, another layer of protection.

Then we slid off the edge of the diagonal wall, and fell through the air.  My stomach wrenched, and my limbs flailed, as the two of us shot downward.

Once again, Tasia projected into our clothes, slowing our fall.  We landed on the grass, and I peeked through a gap in my paper wall.

Afzal Kahlin and his goons ran across a half-demolished bridge.  The floorboards had been destroyed, so they ran on top of the railing, the only part left intact.

“Come on!” I shouted.  Tasia ran in front of me, still using her ABD to shield me.  The enemy’s out of Voidsteel bullets, then.  Or they didn’t want to use them until they had a clear shot.

We clambered on top of the railing and ran forward, balancing on the narrow strip of wood.  My foot slipped, and I projected into my suit jacket, steadying myself as I waved my arms around me, keeping my balance and stopping myself from falling off the bridge, hundreds of feet down.

Every few seconds, I made a gap in my paper shield, and glanced where the enemies were going.

And we kept running.  We chased them through Paragon, over quiet islands and silent hallways, past lecture halls filled with bullet holes and a banquet hall that had been reduced to a pile of ashen rubble.

My lungs burned, and my legs screamed at me to stop, to slow down and give myself a breather.  But every time we passed the body of a student, I ran a little faster.

So many of them.  Girls and boys.  First-years and those on the verge of graduation.  Wearing combat armor or their blue uniforms or even just pajamas.  They didn’t even have time to get dressed.  And they’d still given their lives to slow Commonplace down, to break the enemy’s attack and protect their school.

It wasn’t for nothing.  For every dead student, I saw half a dozen Green Hands corpses, illuminated by the flickering lights overhead.

And apart from the mobsters’ gunfire ahead of us, Paragon Academy had fallen dead silent.  All the fights had ended.  The survivors had retreated to the dorms, and the rest were bleeding out onto the hardwood.  If there are survivors.  If anyone had made it out of this burning ruin.

None of this would have happened without Kahlin.  His propaganda, his vicious rhetoric had turned so much of the public against us, filled their heads with lies and conspiracies and hatred.

Maxine Clive, Tunnel Vision, and the Shenti were the key architects of this nightmare, but Afzal Kahlin had laid the foundations for them.

And he’d destroyed my family’s newspaper.  Thrown us in debt and squeezed us for every penny we had.

And now, he was about to escape.  To retire away to some faraway island and escape all the horrors he’d built.

He’d live a life of luxury, and the Principality might never find him.

I clenched my fists as I ran, my fingernails digging into my palms.  My pace quickened.  “Come on,” I growled to Tasia, panting.  “Faster.”  The bitch had taken one of my combat chassis.  She had no excuse.

Kahlin turned a corner, and two of his Green Hands set off smoke bombs at a crossroads between hallways, filling the air with white fog.  The gunfire stopped.  Trying to hide their movements.

But even after a year away, I knew Paragon like the back of my hand.  I knew where they were going.

Through the smoke, I overtook Tasia and turned right, then left, sprinting down a flight of stairs.  Guiding her to the cable car station.

Even if Isaac Brin had broken the cars themselves, the cables could still be used to escape Paragon.

We emerged into Paragon’s front atrium, into another cloud of smoke.  The skylight overhead had been shattered, letting in the faint moonlight, and glass shards crunched beneath our feet as we ran.

We passed the crystal fountain of Darius the Philosopher, its head knocked off.  The place where I’d sat with Samuel, almost a year ago on the day of my Ousting.

And then, we arrived at the cable car station, still surrounded by smoke.  I waved sheets of paper in front of us, blowing the smoke away and feeling my way around.  I felt the wall of the cable car station, and the open door leading to the platform.

My sheets of paper shot inside, ready to slice up everyone there.

They felt nothing.  No one’s inside the station.  No Green Hands, no mobsters, no Kahlin.  I fanned my paper behind us and to the sides, casting a wide search for the enemy, looking for an ambush.

Still nothing.  Did I guess wrong?  Did the enemy not want to escape this way?

A figure emerged from the pool of the fountain, surrounded by a suit of water.

Before I could shout, or attack, or even react, the figure shot through the smoke and punched me in the neck.  As Tasia turned to look at it, the figure’s leg whipped around in a roundhouse kick and slammed her face, knocking on her back with a thud.

I doubled over, coughing, gasping for air.  I shot sheets of paper at the figure, but they went limp when they touched its liquid armor.

Then I fell on my back, dropping my briefcase.  A sheath of water wrapped around the openings of my briefcase, locking my paper and flattened objects in.

Then, I saw the figure’s face.

Afzal Kahlin.  A skill-stitched master of martial arts, aware of my weaknesses.  He used the fountain to hide from my paper.  To ambush us.

Green Hands and mobsters emerged from the fountain behind him, a dozen in total, all clad in liquid.  As the smoke cleared, I got a look at one of their faces for the first time.

Joseph.  The Green Hands from the beginning of my journey.  The man who’d chased me through the streets of Lowtown.

They raised their weapons in unison, loading Voidsteel rounds.  Aiming them at me and Tasia.  My paper wouldn’t go through the water.  My last flattened grenade sat at the bottom of my briefcase, and I couldn’t push it through the sheath of water locking it in.

I closed my eyes.  I’m sorry, Samuel.

A loud crack rang through the air, and my eyes snapped open.  One of the mobster’s heads exploded, and a window shattered.  Two more cracks rang out, and two more bullets blew through people’s heads, making spurts of red mist.  Joseph tackled Kahlin to the ground, and another gunshot rang out.  The bullet zipped through Joseph’s neck, and he collapsed, clutching his neck.

What?  My throat clenched.  What’s happening?

Kahlin rolled backwards, taking cover behind the crystal fountain, putting it between him and the station.  The others did the same, crouching behind the fountain, ignoring me.  I stood up, running towards the platform, and gazed out the broken windows.

A young Ilaquan man lay flat on the cable car’s taut wire, aiming a sniper rifle up at the academy from just inside the deceleration field.

Even with a faint sliver of moonlight, I could recognize his face.

Right-Hira.

At the same time, Left-Hira sprinted up the cable, balancing like a tightrope walker with her trench shotgun slung across her back.  Providing eyes for Right-Hira to aim.  Her bright yellow blouse stood out from the darkness surrounding her.

Out of the corner of my eye, Kahlin stood up and ran forward, stretching two clawed hands in front of him.

The cable shook.  Then at the very top, it snapped, sending the whole wire careening down towards the city.  Kahlin broke it.

As it broke, Right-Hira reached behind him and opened a parachute.  Left-Hira bent her knees and leapt forward, half a baseball field away from the cable car station.  An impossible jump.

But she kept soaring forward, lifted by her projection, her legs flailing beneath her.  The remaining enemies peeked out of cover and fired at her.  But none of the bullets hit her.

As she flew through the night, she drew her shotgun and aimed it at her father.  At the man who had experimented on her.

Kahlin ducked down, and Hira pulled the trigger.  The round hit one of the Green Hands behind him, knocking him over.

Then Hira landed on the platform with a roll, firing his shotgun as he went.

He grinned at me.  “What’s up, pretty boy?” he said.  “I show up in time?”

I just gaped at him.

Then he darted forward, firing his shotgun.  Engaging the rest of the enemies.

As he did, Afzal Kahlin sprinted around his son, towards one of the broken windows.

The rage bubbled up inside me again.  You’re not getting away.  I flipped open my briefcase and shot every piece of paper that I had.  I shot a flattened grenade, too, pressed between two sheets.

The paper dug into his flesh.  Darting, slicing, drawing up blood.

As he ran past me, I pressed the flattened grenade against his neck.

Then, he dove out of the window, sailing into the air.

I ran to the edge, staring down.  Kahlin fell towards the peak of Mount Elwar, and gazed back up at the floating islands.  Making eye contact with me.

The flattened grenade still pressed against his neck, the pin already pulled.  I just had to move the sheets of paper pressing it together, and it would pop back into three dimensions and explode his head from the neck up.  An ABD wouldn’t help him at this range.  He would die in an instant.  And my family would be avenged.

His debt is the reason your mother Ousted you.  Why my family had been so desperate for a strong heir.  He’d done vile experiments on Hira, my friend.  And he’d orchestrated so much destruction, so much death.  Paragon Academy was a burning ruin, thanks to him.  How many of my classmates has he gotten killed?  How many of my friends?

And he’d tried to kill me, multiple times.

And if he gets away, he’ll do it all over again.  Or worse, now that his first attempt had failed.

Kahlin fell further away, blending in with the darkness.  I had to squint to see his outline.

Ana would already have killed him.  Hira, too.  And my mother wouldn’t have hesitated.  In the first few months after I’d been Ousted, I would have killed him and felt good about it.

I closed my eyes and saw Jun’s wrinkled smile.  Samuel’s patient eyes.

If I killed him, I would almost definitely be selected instead of Ana for my mother’s competition.

I’d be Lady Ebbridge once again.  All the unfettered decadence of my childhood would be mine.  And I’d get to see my friends.

I didn’t move the sheets of paper.  The grenade sat on Kahlin’s neck, flat, not detonated.

He grabbed it, tearing it away from his neck, and threw it into the air.

Then he fell out of sight, vanishing into the night.

I could pursue him.  But that drop looked far more than I could handle.

And even if I could, that would mean abandoning Hira.  Abandoning Ana, wherever she was.  The fight hadn’t ended yet.  And my friends needed help.

I turned back to the cable car station and ran back to the atrium, shooting paper in front of me.  Two of the Green Hands fired at Left-Hira, pinning her behind a piece of cover in the corner of the room.  The last two.

I charged at them from behind and slashed up the webbing on their hands, making them drop their submachine guns, crying out in pain.

Hira jumped out of cover and shot his cables at the two Green Hands.  They jabbed into their legs, and both of them fell over, twitching from the electricity.

I unflattened two syringes of tranquilizer from my briefcase and jabbed them into their necks.  A few seconds later, they went limp.

Hira sprinted to one of the broken windows, staring down into the night air.

“He’s gone,” I said.  “He got away.”

Hira gave me a sideways glance.  “You couldn’t kill him.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  I sat down at the edge of the fountain, catching my breath.  “You came back to fight your father, but I couldn’t help you.  I guess I’m pretty useless after all.”

Left-Hira punched my shoulder, hard enough to ache.  “I didn’t come back for Dad, dumbass.  I came back for you.  You’re alive, aren’t you?“

I nodded.  “Thanks, Hira.”

This time, I meant it.

“Good,” she said.  “Then stop whining and tell me where Jun and Ana are.  We’ve got a team to save.”

“She went searching for – “

An explosion rang out in the distance, and the floor shook.  I ran towards another shattered window in the atrium, following the source of the noise.

A cloud of smoke and fire ballooned out from one of the outer islands.  Opal Hall.  A dormitory.  Hira grabbed a sniper rifle off of a corpse, and tossed another one to me.

She crouched by the window, aiming it, and I squinted through the scope on mine, using it to see the island, even if I couldn’t shoot with it.  My aim wobbled, unsteady, and I squinted, adjusting my eye to get a better view.

The smoke cleared in front of Opal Hall, and a muscular Shenti man staggered out, covered in blood.  Pictogram.  His right leg had been blown off below the knee, and he used a projected crutch to help him walk.  The fires from the front of the building lit up his face in a flickering orange glow.

Pictogram held a pistol in one hand.  With the other, he dragged another man in front of him, using him as a human shield.

The smoke cleared, and I made out the features of the human shield.  An old Shenti man, with a long white beard and tangled hair.

Jun.  Pictogram was taking Jun as a hostage.  He must have kidnapped him while he was tending to Samuel’s wounds.  While the rest of us were preoccupied with Tunnel Vision and Maxine Clive at the top of the Great Library.

Then Ana emerged from the cloud of smoke, limping.  Her helmet had fallen off, revealing her withered grey hair, covered in bald spots.  She took cover behind a rock, aiming her machine pistol at Pictogram, hands shaking.

Even from this distance, I could see the fury in her eyes.  But she couldn’t fire.  Not without hitting Jun.  At this point in her decay, her aim was probably the worst it had ever been.

“They’re retaking the bombmaker,” I said.  The Shenti want their man back.  Even if their mission here had failed.

They were going to enslave my friend again.  Beat him and break him like when we’d found him, half a year ago back on Attlelan Island.

My hands tightened on the grip of the rifle.  “Shoot him,” I said to Hira.  “Shoot him!  Shoot him!

Pictogram would have an ABD, but Hira could use Jun’s own body and Pith to nullify it, like we’d done when Paragon attacked our house.  He just had to shoot through Jun in a non-vital location.  Then Ana could finish Pictogram off with the Voidsteel bullet in her pistol.

Gunshots rang out next to me, painful in my ears, as Hira opened fire with his stolen sniper rifle.

Without even looking, Pictogram raised his pistol and fired half a dozen shots in our direction.

I ducked down, but none of his rounds went anywhere near us.  Did he just – 

“He knocked away my bullets,” said Hira, breathless.  “He knocked away my bullets, with a fucking pistol.”

Hira reloaded and fired another clip at Pictogram, the rifle thudding into her shoulder with every pull of the trigger.  “Fuck,” she muttered.  “Fuck.”  It wasn’t doing anything.  For every bullet she fired, Pictogram could knock it away midair.

I peered back through my scope.  Ana kept aiming her pistol at Pictogram, but didn’t fire.  Her eyes widened, the horror on her face growing.

Pictogram looked at her, at Hira, then at me, staring into my scope, with a pained expression.

I’m sorry,” he mouthed.

He leaned off the edge of the island, and soared down into the darkness.  Ana leaped out of cover and limped forward, aiming her gun down.  But Pictogram had already fallen out of sight.

“No!” I shouted.  Eastern dog.

I have a flattened parachute.  But I couldn’t teleport it to Ana.  And even if I could, Pictogram could just shoot her out of the air as she fell.

I let go of the rifle and slumped back, dizzy.  They took Jun.  They’d taken Jun, and we couldn’t do a thing to stop them.  He was going back to the people who’d tortured him, thrown him in a camp.  Some Shenti Warlord.

What are they going to do to him?  And how much would they hurt him this time?

“She’s coming,” said Hira.  “Ana’s limping back here.”

While we waited for her to get here, I walked over to the fountain, glancing down at Tasia, who’d been knocked unconscious by one of Kahlin’s roundhouse kicks.

I stared down at my old body.  A bruise ran up the side of its cheek, half-covered by its long black hair.  But other than that, she looked fine.  No serious bleeding, and her chest rose and fell at a regular pace.

She lucked out.  A kick like that could do much worse.

A few minutes later, Ana burst through the doors of the atrium, out of breath.  Blood stained the side of her blue combat armor, and her eyes fluttered, half-shut.  The grey veins on her neck looked even more swollen than usual, and her entire body shivered.

Her body’s about to fall apart.  ‘Last legs’ was an understatement.

I rushed over to her.  “You’re hurt.”

“Shrapnel by my ribcage,” she said, coughing.  “Not as bad as it looks.”

“Too late,” growled Hira.  “That Shenti fucker got away with Jun.”

Ana walked to one of the broken windows.  “We have to go after them,” she said, glancing at the broken cable.  “There has to be something.  Look through your scope, can you see them down in the city?”

I shook my head.  “It’s Pictogram.  He’ll know how to stay out of sight.”

Left-Hira aimed down her scope anyway.  After a few seconds, she shook her head.

Ana slumped down, falling to her knees.  She leaned back against a wall, the light draining out of her face.

“Hi, Ana,” said Left-Hira.  “You look like shit.”

“Thanks, Hira,” she said.  “For coming back.

Hira nodded.  Then her eyes widened.  “Hey,” She adjusted her sniper rifle.  “Look at this.”

I picked my sniper rifle back up and peered through the scope.  Ana did the same.

“Up and left of the big fire.  See the police sirens?” Hira said.

I adjusted my wobbling aim, casting my vision around and finding the spot Hira referred to.

A semicircle of cop cars sat in the center of a city square, blocking off one end with their sirens on.  In the middle of the circle, a woman crouched behind a garbage can, her long brown hair tangled and matted, her black skirt stained with blood.

Tunnel Vision.  The cops opened fire on her, bullets pinging off the metal trash can.  They can’t have Voidsteel bullets.  Which meant her Pith had grown too tired to maintain an ABD.  Another good sign.

Tunnel Vision lifted a hand, purple lightning crackling around it, and a blast of palefire shot out.  It moved slow, slow enough to see, but too fast for the cops to dodge.  The flames washed over three of the cars, and they exploded, sending police officers flying.

The other cops kept shooting, but nobody else seemed nearby to back them up.  Most of them have scattered.  Occupied with fighting the protestors, or the military’s infighting.

A blast of palefire wiped out another dozen cops, with another storm of purple lightning.

I clenched my teeth.  Scholars.  Even in the Pyre Witch’s weakened state, Humdrums were no match for her.

A gunshot rang out next to me, deafening, and I winced.  Another two rang out, and Tunnel Vision’s gaze flicked towards us.  Two car hoods ripped off, forming a shield for the Pyre Witch, and Hira’s sniper bullets bounced off.

And Jun.  Jun was nowhere to be seen.  He’s gone.  He was really gone.  My stomach ache doubled.

“Clive,” said Ana.  “Do you see Maxine Clive anywhere?”

“Nothing,” said Hira.  I couldn’t spot her either.  Did she get killed?  Had Tunnel Vision transferred her to another body and hidden her somewhere?

“That’s fine,” said Ana, her voice flat.  “Maxine Clive didn’t kill Kaplen.  She didn’t sell counterfeit bodies or set hundreds of students on fire.”  She’s still focused on The Pyre Witch.

I looked up from my sniper rifle, at both Ana and Left-Hira.  “We’ve both been instrumental,” I said.  “In the defense of Paragon.  The main battle’s over, and we’ve earned more than enough for my mother’s offer.  We don’t have to chase after Tunnel Vision.”

“You’re wrong,” said Ana.  “We have to.  Not for us, but for Paragon.  For the nation.”  She looked at me, making eye contact.  “The Pyre Witch still has the Lavender Book.  And she massacred Parliament and all those students.  No matter what her ideals were, or are, she’s dangerous now.”

The Lavender Book was serious.  Who knew what kind of earth-shattering Vocations were hidden in those pages?

“It doesn’t matter that her revolution failed,” Ana said.  “If she gets away with those techniques, she’ll return with powers that will make Palefire look like a birthday candle.  And she’ll be even further bent on revenge.”  Ana gazed down at the burning city.  “It might not give her the power to remake this country.  But it could give her the power to wipe it off the map.  Given the opportunity, what do you think she’d do with that?”

I had nothing to say.  Ana had a point, but I knew what this was building up to.

“Look at the lightning,” said Ana.  “Her broken ABD.  She’s exhausted, and that includes her Praxis Vocation, too.  We’ll never have another chance like this.  All the other Guardians are either dead, unconscious, or half a continent away.”  She grimaced.  “It’s up to us.”

“But,” I said.  “How are we supposed to get off Paragon?  Neither of us is strong enough to lower ourselves to the ground.  Not at this height.”  If either of us tried that, we’d run out of energy halfway down and turn into a red puddle on the street.

We both looked at Left-Hira.  She shook her head.  “I’m exhausted, too.  I can lower myself, maybe.  But that’ll take everything I have.  No strength for passengers.”  Her male body had already descended into the city below.  “My other body’s getting a car, though,” she said.  “If we get down there, we can use it to catch up to her.”

“Jun could have made something,” said Ana, her voice pained.  “But I’m drawing a blank here.”  She looked around the cable car station and the atrium.  “We don’t have time to look through the academy.  I don’t see a parachute or anything on these fuckers.”

I flipped open my briefcase, and removed the bottom of it.  A dark green backpack popped back into three dimensions, and I pulled it open.

“What’s that?” said Ana.

“I took this from the zeppelin on the way in here and flattened it,” I said.  “I thought a parachute or two might come in handy.”

I pulled out a pair of flight goggles, a pistol, a sheaf of papers, and a water flask.  “No,” I said.  “No.  There was supposed to be a parachute in here.”  My stomach sank, and I flipped the bag over, shaking out the remaining contents.

A combat knife and a pair of binoculars fell out.  No parachute.

Then a pile of dark red cloth fell out, buried at the bottom of the bag.  This is what I thought was the parachute.  “There we go,” I said.

“That’s not a parachute, dumbass.”  Hira picked it up, and it hung limp in her hands, forming the outline of a person.  “That’s – “

“A wingsuit,” I said.  “That’s a wingsuit.”  A Shenti model, judging by the color, designed for projectors.

That’s all we have.  One wingsuit.  One wingsuit, and almost no time.

A cool summer wind blew through the shattered windows.  Ana and I stared at each other.

“You don’t know how to fly,” said Ana.

“Neither do you,” I said.  “But if it’s just a short flight – a fall, really.  Then maybe.”  I’ll do my best.

We both looked at the red wingsuit again.

“So,” I said.

“It has to be one of us.”

One person to chase after Tunnel Vision.  One person to stay here at Paragon.  Left-Hira could lower herself, so either Ana or I would use the wingsuit.

“Hira and one of us,” said Ana.  “Probably won’t be enough to beat Tunnel Vision.”

“No,” said Hira.  “It won’t be.”

“Will you fight with us?” said Ana.  “Given those odds.”

“Finish your bickering,” she said.  “We’re leaving in ninety seconds.”

Whoever goes with her is probably going to die.  And whoever stayed was going to accept my mother’s offer.

Ana turned back to me.  “Let me go,” she said.  “You’re exhausted.  And the Pyre Witch is my target.”  This is personal for her.

“You’re just as tired as I am,” I said.  “I don’t even know if I want my old body anymore.”  I gestured to her.  “And look at you.  You look like you can barely stand.  Your fingers are screwed up, and you’re shivering.  My chassis isn’t about to drop dead.  I can survive like this.  You can’t.”  I glanced back at Tasia.  “If I Oust your friend, I have no idea if I’ll be able to get you my spare chassis from my body double.  And that’s if you survive the Pyre Witch.”

Is Ana okay with me Ousting her friend?  Maybe she really thought Tasia would be fine, that she’d done enough research and stored enough backups to carry on her work.

Far down, in the dark city, a red light flickered near the top of Mount Elwar, next to the cable car station.  A flare.  “That’s Right-Hira and the car,” said Left-Hira.  “That’s where you need to land.”

I stared at the wingsuit.  “You’ve been through so much pain this year,” I said.  “Your body heist.  Kaplen.  Me.  Working yourself half to death, then getting expelled and chased down by Paragon.  And then being pitted against your friend, all while your body decayed.”  I thought for a moment.  “Yeah, wow, all that happened in a year, didn’t it?”

Ana nodded, reluctant.

“And what have I done?”  I said.  “I lied to you.  Used you against the Broadcast King.  I’m an elitist, self-centered prick who never deserved to fight alongside you.”  I laughed.  “When I met you, I thought you were just some psychotic body thief who shot my fiance.”  I shook my head.  “I was the unworthy one.”

“Maybe at the beginning,” Ana said.  “But you’ve earned my trust.  You’ve earned this.”

We’re out of time.  I could unflatten a syringe of tranquilizer from my suitcase and use it to knock her out.  The enemies had cleared out of Paragon, so she’d be safe here.

But the needle wouldn’t go through her blue combat armor, thin though it was.  And I couldn’t do that without her seeing.

Ana has a pillbox of Kraken’s Bone in her pocket.  The drug Ventrinol.  I could offer her water from Hira’s canteen.  Then slip one of her own tablets in.  She wouldn’t be expecting that.

But if I got the dosage wrong, Ana wouldn’t fall asleep.  She’d vomit up blood, and die a rapid, excruciating death.  No antidote.  After a few minutes, she wouldn’t even be able to transfer her Pith out.

Just like her old friend, Kaplen Ingolf.

I can’t risk that.

“Go.”  I stepped towards the wingsuit.  “Drink that mulled cider in Paragon.”  What’s left of it.  “You’ll find new friends to drink it with.”

Ana stepped in front of me, blocking my path.  And she hugged me.

Her body pressed against mine, warm.  I wrapped my arms around her, hugging her back.

“Alright,” she said.  “Alright.”

Ana conceding a point.  That’s a first.  I let out a sigh of relief.  She’s going to be alright.  Even if I was swan diving into a river of fire, Ana would make it out okay.  She couldn’t fake the sense of touch with her Vocation, so I knew this hug was really her – she wasn’t using her illusions on me.

“I’m going to miss you, dummy,” I mumbled.

“Same to you, rich boy,” she said.  “Say hi to Tasia for me.  Hug Eliya and Leizu.  Kiss Samuel.  They’ve been missing you for so long.”

What?  Ana had just agreed to let me chase after Tunnel Vision.  She was talking like I was the one staying, not her.  Like I would be Ousting Tasia, not her.  My throat clenched.  Something’s not right.

“Fail,” she said.  “And try again.  Break.  And put yourself back together.  Get bored and tired and frustrated.  Cry.  Lose sleep.  But crawl forward, if you have to.  And find a thousand reasons to keep crawling.”  She squeezed me tighter.  “Write the next page.  Strive to become an Exemplar.  Make something beautiful out of your soul.”

And then I noticed.

Her body is warm.  I could feel the heat as she pressed her body against mine.  Ana’s body is cold.  And these proportions felt all wrong.

“I promise,” said Ana.  “I will see you again.”

I pushed away from her, staggering back.

Anabelle Gage morphed into Left-Hira, the illusion falling away.

I’d been hugging Hira, not Ana.  Which means Ana is – 

I looked at my overturned backpack.  The red wingsuit had vanished from the pile of clutter.  I sprinted to the edge of the cable car station and gazed down into the darkness.

Anabelle Gage fell through the sky, her arms flattened to her sides, wearing a pair of flight goggles and the red wingsuit over her clothes.

For a moment, the two of us made eye contact.

Then, she flipped onto her stomach and extended her arms, opening the wings of her suit, stretching the thin material between her legs and beneath her arms.  The wind caught her like a kite.

And Anabelle Gage flew.

She used Hira.  Convinced her behind the scenes to hug me so I’d be distracted while Ana put on the wingsuit.  So I would think I was safe from her illusions.

So she could sacrifice herself, instead of me.

“Ana!” I shouted.  “Ana!”  I clenched my fists, blood rushing in my ears.  Damn you, Ana.

Something jabbed into my neck, and an icy sensation spread throughout my body.

“Sorry,” said Left-Hira.

I turned around, and she stepped back, holding a depressed syringe.  Jun’s knockout drug.  Stolen and unflattened from my briefcase.

A wave of dizziness crashed over me, and I staggered forward into the atrium, away from the edge of the academy.  “N – No,” I mumbled, slurring my words.  “No.”

She’s gone.  She’s leaving.  Everything she’d been through, and she still chose to sacrifice herself.

Not for her nation this time.  For me.

“Your battle’s over,” said Left-Hira.  “You’ll be safe here.  This is just so you don’t follow us.”

I mustered together all my willpower, all my coordination, and forced my mouth into a coherent shape, making the outline of a single phrase.  “Keep…” I slurred.  “Keep her safe.

Hira nodded.  “See you around, pretty boy.”  She jumped off the edge of the platform, and dropped into the night.

My eyes fluttered shut.  See you around, Queen Sulphur.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




12-D – Max

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Max leveled her shotgun at Tunnel Vision’s back, and fired.

It only took two seconds for the mobster to crush her.

As Max squeezed the trigger, Tunnel Vision flicked her palms up, and tore chunks of stone from the street below, forming a shield behind her, without even looking.  The Voidsteel pellets tore through the rock, making a cloud of grey dust.

As Max cocked back her shotgun, another chunk of stone shot out of the dust cloud.  It whipped around and slammed into her gun, knocking it out of her hands.

A second later, Tunnel Vision shot out of the cloud too.

She slammed into Max’s solar plexus, tackling her.  The two of them flew backwards, propelled by the mobster’s projected clothes.  They shot down the winding stone path out of the village, and over the edge of the seaside cliff.

The mobster let go of Max, dropping her towards the Hibun Ocean hundreds of feet below.  The wind whipped through Max’s hair, deafening in her ears.  Max closed her eyes, and her stomach clenched.

I just wanted to help these people.  Her fledgling group, Commonplace, had been gathering support in the rural West of the Principality, and several of the locals had asked them to help with the local mobsters, who were crippling the town with protection fees.

Max thought she was laying the ambush.  But this mobster had proven herself more than your average thug.

And now, it was over.

Halfway down the cliff, Max’s clothes dragged her upwards, slowing her to a stop.  She hovered mid-air, arms and legs flailing.

Tunnel Vision leapt off the edge of the cliff, and floated down towards Max.  Max drew her pistol from its holster, aimed it at the brown-haired woman, and fired.  It clicked.  She jammed it.

The mobster woman ignored Max’s efforts.  Her Pith pushed into the edges of Max’s consciousness.  She’s trying to Nudge me.  Like the scientists at Buttercup Lodge.  Max shifted her mind in response, scrubbing out the foreign Pith.

“You,” said Tunnel Vision.  “Are not one of Paragon’s beetles.  But you are in the way.”

She raised her hand towards Max, and a flicker of white flames sprouted from her palm.

“Wait,” said Max.  “Wait!”

Tunnel Vision ignored her.  The flames grew into an orb of fire.  Max could feel the heat on her face.

“You fight the Principality too?” said Max.

“Yes,” said Tunnel Vision.  The orb didn’t vanish, but it didn’t shoot at Max either.

“Why are you with the mob, then?” said Max.  “Why are you extorting innocent people for profit?”  I thought she was just some profiteer.  Just another projector trying to use people as vacant tools.

“I’m fighting a war,” said Tunnel Vision, looking down on her.  “I need resources.”

“No,” said Max.  “You need a cause.  You need people.  Not just lackeys.  A common foundation.”

Tunnel Vision clenched her teeth.  “I won’t be lectured by some half-witted Humdrum.”

“We have the same goals,” said Max.  “And I’ll bet you have some fancy, expensive vocation to tell if I’m lying.”

“You have no power,” said Tunnel Vision.  “No projection.  No army.  And you stand in the way.”

“Obstacles are good,” said Max.  “They force you to maneuver.  Grow.  Confront who you really are.”

The mobster didn’t move.  But she didn’t burn Max either, or drop her into the water.  Not that it would have mattered.  None of this is real.  I’m asleep in Buttercup Lodge.

“Here’s how it’s going to go, Tunnel Vision,” said Max.  “I’m going to tell you who I am.  And when I’m done, you’re not just going to spare me.  You’re going to join me.”

Tunnel Vision closed her fist, snuffing out the flames.  She folded her arms.  “You have nine minutes, Humdrum.  I’m on a schedule.”

What a strange dream this is, thought Max.  What a strange, strange dream.

She took a deep breath, and began.

________________________________________

Inch by inch, Max clenched her hand into a fist.  Max walked down the stone steps, deep into the rocky base of Buttercup Lodge.

They’re going to execute me.  The scientists were going to dunk her into the pool at the bottom of the silent library.  They’d cut her apart, stitched her back together, and used her as the blueprint for hundreds and hundreds of clones.

And now that she’d served her purpose, they were disposing of her, in some other experiment that none of the subjects at the lodge had ever returned from.

Max loosened her fist, and clenched it again, confirming that she was free of the lodge’s commands.  The strange man in the room across from her had given her the override command, a series of clicks and whistled notes that paused all of the other orders that controlled her body.

A whistle and clicker signal from a guard would subdue her in an instant, turning her back into a puppet.  So her escape would be difficult.

For now, she would play along.

The scientist in the yellow lab coat led Max down the stairs.  The man who’d killed someone in front of her.  Whose face she’d spat in.  Dim pale light bulbs hung from a wire strung on the ceiling, illuminating the tunnel as it wound down into the island.

The scientist didn’t speak.  Their footsteps echoed on the hard steps, the only sound in the tunnel.  It wound down, turning left, right, in spirals, seeming to go on forever.  And as the minutes passed and Max descended further, the air grew colder, her breath fogging in front of her.

It’s a hot summer on top of the island.  How was it so freezing down here?  Max had gotten used to Buttercup Lodge over the months and years.  But this place?  No one should be down here.

A sudden urge seized Max, to turn around and sprint back up the steps, four at a time.  To abandon the scientist or knock him out, then make her escape.  Down here, it would take a while before anyone found him.

Run, a voice whispered in her head.  Get out of this tunnel and far away from this island and whatever’s at the bottom of the pool here.

But her entire body ached.  Every step sent stabbing pain throughout her muscles, her bones, all over her skin.  It took almost all her effort to keep herself from falling over.

I can’t overpower this man.  And even if she could, the island was swarming with guards.

She needed a better plan.  But she couldn’t think of anything.  The exhaustion permeated her entire body.  Her eyes wanted to flutter shut.  Her legs wanted to sit down.  And her skull throbbed, a dull pain that made it hard to think.

Before she could plan anything, she and the scientist emerged from the tunnel, into a cave at the bottom of the pit, lit by more lightbulbs on the ceiling.  Thin wooden walls divided the space into rooms, but Max knew what the entrance of the cave looked like.  A ledge, leading into the pool of silent water with a cage and pulley hanging above.

Paintings covered the walls of the cave, faded from the wear of time.  Letters had been carved into the stone around them, mad scrawlings of letters in some language Max couldn’t read.

In the paintings, primitive human figures drowned in a rising ocean of pitch-black water, flailing and sinking beneath the waves.  A single boat floated on the surface, packed from end to end with people, overfull.  Men and women threw figures overboard, tossing them into the dark waves to lighten the load.

The Great Scholars.

In other places, chunks seemed to have been torn off the walls – paintings and writings that had been broken and removed.  For every foot of the wall adorned with a message, another ten, twenty feet had been erased.

I need to get out of here.

In this cordoned-off room, a line of prisoners sat on the floor, leaning against the cave wall behind them.  No handcuffs.  No rope.  Why bother, when their own minds were trapping them?

The scientist gave her a clicker and whistle signal, pointing behind him as he walked back up the steps.  Directing her to sit next to them.  The command held no sway over Max, but she played along, trudging to the edge of the cave and sitting down.

A guard stood at the far end of the room with a rifle, watching them.  His fingers tapped against the hilt of a knife at his waist.  No clicker.  The guard could shoot her, but wouldn’t be able to turn on her controls again.

None of the prisoners spoke.  Muffled voices rang out from the other end of the cave, but Max couldn’t make out any words.  A thin mist hung in the air, chilling Max’s face even further.  Spray from the waterfall.  The pool of silent water was just in the other room.

One of the scientists emerged from that other room.  With a clicker and whistle signal, she had the woman at the front of the line stand up and follow her.  The door swung shut behind them, and the muffled voices continued.

A few minutes later, the woman took the next prisoner in line.  Then the next.  Faint orange sunlight shone over the top of the makeshift walls, and faded into evening, then pure darkness.  And the scientists kept taking prisoners, one by one, like they were all waiting at the doctor’s office.  And none of them came back.

Two hours ago, Max would have welcomed the endless silence, the chance to escape her pain for good, to get rid of this mangled creature they’d turned her into.  Maybe she’d die for good.  Maybe she’d wake up from this strange, extended dream.

But she was free, now.  The strange man across the hall had given her a second chance.  To escape, to share the truth of this place and right all its wrongs.

Max couldn’t die.  Not anymore.  I have a purpose.

Now she just needed an opportunity.

More time passed.  More prisoners got taken.  The light drained out of the sky.

And then, the ground shook.  Short, rhythmic impacts, less like an earthquake, and more like a bomb, or many bombs.  Dust rained from the ceiling of the cave, and the light bulbs flickered overhead.

Another impact, and a chunk of rock broke off from the ceiling, smashing on the ground in front of Max.  But despite the intensity of the blasts, there was no sound.  No rumbling, no booms or thuds in the distance.

As the world fell apart, Max could only hear silence.

The other prisoners’ eyes widened.  They cast their gazes around the room, frozen in place, unable to move anything but their pupils.  Unable to even flinch.

Then, someone shouted in the distance.  A muffled scream from far above, a yell from the room next door.  Gunshots rang out.  All distant.  All muffled, like they were echoing through a vast ocean.

The one guard in the room hefted his rifle and looked around, panicked.  He aimed his rifle at the door to the next room.  Towards the pool of water.  Trembling fingers pulled back the hammer.  He ignored the prisoners behind him.

The ache grew in Max’s stomach, as she shivered.  If I stay here, I will die.  Or worse.

If she ran, the guards would kill her, hurt her, control her.  And the guard hadn’t left.  She couldn’t flee without being noticed.

For months, years, since Max had boarded that boat, she’d been taught obedience.  Fear.  Staying in line.  What do I do?  What do I do?

Max’s hands shook.  From the cold, or her fear, she couldn’t tell.  And then, with a fraction of a thought, she pushed herself upright, sliding off her shoes.  Her feet carried her forward on the cold stone, silent.

Her shaking hand reached forward, grabbing the guard’s face from behind, putting her hand on his mouth to muffle him.  The other hand pulled the knife from his sheath and stabbed it into his stomach.

The guard wheezed, scrabbling at Max’s hand.  Max pulled the knife out and stabbed it into his chest.  The guard exhaled, a soft hissing noise escaping his lips, and his arms went limp.

Max let go, shaking, and he lay down on the floor, coughing, bleeding into his shirt.  A thin line of blood stained her right hand, which had held the knife.  Max staggered back from the guard, shivering.  She slid her shoes back on.

And she ran.

She sprinted back up the winding staircase, leaving the knife and the guard and the pit beneath her.  She left the other prisoners too.  I’m sorry.  The guard didn’t have a clicker on him, and she couldn’t make the right sound with her mouth.

Every step made her legs burn.  The light bulbs flickered again, then went dark, turning the tunnel pitch-black.  The ground shook again, and Max placed a hand on the wall to steady herself, using it to guide her through the darkness.

Blinded, she had to take the steps slower, or she would trip and fall.  Her chest ached, and she wheezed for breath.

But she kept climbing.  Kept taking the steps, one at a time.  The tunnel muffled all the gunfire and shouting in the distance, so the only sounds she could hear were her pained breaths and the clack of her shoes on the stone.

Don’t stop.  Don’t stop, and don’t look back.  She didn’t want to think about what was happening below her in the cave.  It had something to do with the pool they kept dropping people into.  The pool, and the scientists’ experiments.

Then, she emerged from the top of the staircase, into the moonless night.

Buttercup Lodge had turned into a den of chaos.  Men and women ran across the fields, trampling the flowers underneath.  Guards hefted rifles and machine guns, sprinting towards the edge of the pit and the top of the waterfall.  Men in blue armor unfurled wingsuits and jumped into the pit, blue and green lightning crackling around their fists.  Scientists cowered in buildings, or ran away, scattering.

A dark, silent fog surrounded the pit and the waterfall, impossible to see into.  Guards ran into the cloud, but didn’t run out.  None of them paid Max any attention, or re-activated her commands.

Max sprinted away from the cloud, away from the pit, down the path towards the edge of the island.  Go, go, go.  She needed to get off this island.  Away from this nightmare into some brighter reality.

A young man stepped onto the path, in Max’s way, and she jerked to a stop.  He smiled and waved at her, wearing a yellow prisoner’s uniform.  “Hey, Max.”

She recognized his voice in an instant.  The strange man across the hallway.  Who’d given her the override command and freed her.  He’d broken himself out, too, somehow.

The island shook again.  Max leaned on her knees and wheezed, out of breath.  “What’s going on?” she gasped.

“The scientists made such sweet music out of my mind,” he said.  “But I played their instruments too.  When they heard the right notes, they made some mistakes.  Reached too far.”

Max glanced behind her, at the billowing dark fog around the pit.  What did he do?

“This world is a web,” said the man.  “And all of us are squirming bugs, stuck on the threads, unable to move from our predestined fates.”  He lowered his voice.  “They plucked the strings, and the spider woke up.”  He beamed.  “And now, you get to walk out of here!”

“You’re freeing me?”

“Of course, silly,” he said.

The lump swelled in Max’s stomach.  She had to leave, now, but a single question burned in her mind, overriding the others.  “Why?

“You were on the way out,” he said.  “And people’s minds are fascinating.  Your’s especially so.”

Max gave a mirthless chuckle.  “I’m a pretty skull,” she said.  “Was, at least.”  She’d just gotten unlucky.

“Most people wouldn’t have spit in that scientist’s face,” he said.  “Most people would have stayed in that pit, watching the guard, waiting for someone to save them.  Another thirty seconds down there, and you wouldn’t have made it.  But here you are.”  He stepped to the side, off the path.  “The rest is up to you.”

“What?”

“You have four minutes and thirteen seconds to leave this island,” he said.  He strode past her, towards the pit.  One of the guards pointed her shotgun at him, and pulled the trigger.  A gunshot rang out, but nothing happened to the man.  She pulled the trigger again, but nothing seemed to hit him.

The guard looked down, at two fresh bullet holes on her own chest.  Blood spread into her shirt, and she collapsed on the buttercups.  He reflected the bullets.  How?

“I look forward to seeing you forge the stars in your image.”  The man stepped over her body, walking to the center of the island.

“Wait!” shouted Max.

The man stopped.

“Are you controlling me too, then?  Are you using me to play your music?”

“And ruin all the fun?”  The man looked offended.  “See you later, Maxine Clive.”  He strode into the dark cloud, out of sight.

Max grabbed the guard’s shotgun, prying it out of her limp hands.  The rounds at her belt and the gun’s mechanism seemed to be made of a greenish metal, something she hadn’t seen before.

Go.  She ran, not down the main path, but behind one of the dorm buildings, through a thicket of bushes to the secret path she’d spotted earlier.  The scientist’s secret escape route.  Her stitches burned, and her lungs ached all over again, but she kept running, clutching her stolen shotgun.  Don’t look back, don’t look back.

She pushed through another dark thicket, emerging next to a short pier with a boat floating at it.  A scientist threw a stuffed bag onto the deck and jumped on, the last one.  He ran belowdecks, not noticing Max.  The boat’s engine sputtered to life, pushing the boat away from the dock.

Max ran down the pier and threw the shotgun ahead of her.  She jumped, and grabbed onto the edge of the deck as the last boat sailed away from the island.  She pulled herself up and over the railing, her body screaming in agony, her stitches tearing.

She collapsed on the deck for a second, curling up, nursing her aching fingers and arms.  Then she grabbed her shotgun and used it as a cane, pushing herself up.  She staggered forward and tiptoed down the stairs belowdecks.

A group of scientists sat on the couches belowdecks, shivering and passing around a flask of wine.

They saw Max, and froze.  Among them, Max recognized three of them, two men and a woman.  Surgeons who’d chopped her up and sewed her back together.

And the man who she’d spit on.  The one who’d forced her to sit still and watch someone die.

He held up a non-threatening palm.  “Maxine,” he said.  “Let’s talk.  Please, don’t do anything rash.  Please.”  One of the other scientists inched his hand towards his collarbone.  Towards a metal clicker hanging from his neck.

“Say it,” said Max.  “Apologize for what you’ve done.  For all the people you’ve hurt.”

“I’m sorry, Maxine,” said the scientist, with his mouth, but not his eyes.  “I’m so sorry.”  His voice stayed calm and steady.  The other man’s hand had almost reached the clicker.

“Thank you,” said Max.

She pulled the trigger.

________________________________________

“Monarch Squad!” shouted Captain Reddish.  “Fire at will!”

Max squinted down the sights of her heavy rotator gun.  Dark-skinned men and women streamed across the arid, cracked ground, bathed in noon sunlight.  They sprinted over bodies and tangles of razor wire, over the no man’s land from their trench to the Droll Corsairs’.

Max pulled the trigger.  The machinery of the weapon whirred, and a storm of bullets shot out of the barrel.

The gunfire cut through the charging soldiers, and they tumbled over like bowling pins.  They clutched their stomachs and legs, screaming in pain, or went still.

Please, let this be the dream, said Max.  It felt so real.  The stench of blood and chemicals and trench foot assaulted her senses, overwhelming.  Scars on her finger pressed into the gun’s trigger, remnants of her old stitches.  The heat boiled her like an egg, drenching her uniform with sweat and making her lips dry and cracked.

Insurgents had taken over the desert continent of Kiterjede, according to their briefings.  The Droll Corsairs had been hired to defend the innocent people of the nearby towns and cities.

Max had rolled her eyes at this.  The Corsairs had a majority stake in the vast deposits of Voidsteel here, discovered in Great Scholar ruins uncovered a year ago in the desert.  That might have had something to do with their decision to fight the locals.

But she’d kept her mouth shut.  She needed the money, like every other sucker here.

In her days as a bike courier, she’d never gotten sick.  But after getting chopped up at Buttercup Lodge and escaping, she fell ill all the time.  Local infections, viruses and joint problems.  Within months of escaping to Ilaqua, she’d racked up a huge list of medical bills, and debt that would cost her ten lifetimes to pay off.

Everyone told her to get a job, but potential employers would take one look at her face and kick her out of the interview.  She didn’t bother to explain her story – no one would believe a word of it.

But the Droll Corsairs?  They could give a shit what you looked like.  They only cared if you could hold a gun and limp.  A rage-filled, indebted freak was what the Corsairs called a ‘perfect hiring opportunity’.

Another wave of insurgents charged across the desert, screaming.  Max shoved down her nausea, and pulled the trigger again.  Her accuracy wasn’t the best, but she knew which enemies to hit first.  The clusters, the fast runners, the ones with grenades at their belts or flamethrowers.

Monster.  I am a monster.

Max had received two rushed months of basic training and weapons handling, before being pushed onto the battlefield.  A glorified meatshield, and the pay reflected that.  But if she succeeded, her pay would go up, and she’d get more training.  A greater investment for a greater asset.

The last insurgent fell, bleeding into the dry earth.  Dark-skinned bodies filled the no man’s land, stacking on top of those of the Corsairs.  The medics from both sides got shot at, so they left the corpses in the sun, throwing up a thick stench of rotting meat.

A man strode down the Corsairs’ trench.  One of the bosses.  “New orders!” he shouted.  “All teams are to attack the enemy position at the sound of the siren.  We will finish the enemy off while they are disoriented and vulnerable!”

The trench went dead silent.  Every soldier’s throat clenched, their eyes hollowing out.

Captain Reddish thought about it for a minute.  “No,” he said.  “My men will get chewed up.  The enemy’s still got all their machine guns and fortifications.  They’ll do exactly what we just did to them.”

As usual, management had no idea what they were doing.

Or maybe they knew, and didn’t care.

The boss clenched his fist and punched it in the air.  “Soldiers!” he cried out.  “This is your moment!  Future generations will tell stories of how we defended this island!  Of this elite troop, which fought against impossible odds and came out victorious!”  He pointed towards the enemy trench.  “Soldiers.  Our actions today will sing across eons!  Now is the time for legends.

Silence.  No one cheered.  No one clapped or stomped their feet.  They just stared at him, equal parts confused, repulsed, and dehydrated.

“Fire me, if you want,” said Captain Reddish.  “Court-martial me.  Put this in my quarterly performance review.  But I’m not sending my people to die.”  The soldiers respected him more than any of the higher-ups.  They would listen to him.

The boss clenched his teeth, furious.  Then he put his hand on the captain’s shoulder, and his rage melted into a smirk.  “Please?  Inspire them.”

Max sat right next to him.  Under the boss’ hand, she glimpsed a dim flicker of blue lightning.

Captain Reddish straightened himself and saluted.  “Yes, sir!”

Max’s stomach sank.  The boss controlled him.  Just like her.  Just like the prisoners at Buttercup Lodge.

Her bosses, the ones in charge of the Droll Corsairs, were just like the scientists at Buttercup Lodge.  Magicians.  Who didn’t mind trampling people underfoot.

Is this the entire world?  How many governments and corporations had been taken over by these cruel demons?  Or was her dream just torturing her again?

Captain Reddish clambered out of the trench.  “With me!  Remember why you joined this company!  Come, and the survivors will get their lives back!  We can win!”

He charged, and they followed, shaking off their exhaustion and fear and sprinting across the desert.

Gunfire rang through the air, and bullets whizzed around them.  A soldier tripped on an enemy corpse, and a mortar launched him into the air.  Max wheezed for breath through cracked lips, her feet aching, her eyes heavy.  The sun glared into her eyes, and she charged through a cloud of sand, coughing.

Among the company, only Captain Reddish had been brainwashed.  But everyone still followed him, including Max.

As Max sprinted forward, as her comrades died around her, she found herself wondering.  Why?  They all knew that charging forward meant certain death.  The Corsairs punished insubordination with prison and hard labor for violation of contract, not execution.

So why?  Why was she still charging?

This world teaches us obedience.  It didn’t need magic to hijack their thoughts.  It taught you that kneeling, breaking yourself for the powerful was a good act, a just act.  Max remembered that fake letter from Paragon, her long hours as a bike courier.

And she laughed, as she ran.  She laughed, even though it made her chest hurt.

And then she let herself fall beside a pile of bodies, clutching her side as if she’d been shot.

A mortar struck the ground ahead of her, sending up a column of dirt, batting aside a pair of men charging ahead of her.  Max slammed onto a pile of corpses, stunned.  If I hadn’t taken a dive, that would have hit me dead-on.

When Max looked down, she had no injuries, besides bruises and cuts.  Nothing fatal.

Max lay on a pile of bodies, staring up at the sun, as the rest of her squad died ahead of her, blown up by mortars, cut apart by machine-gun fire and set on fire by incendiary grenades.

And she kept laughing.

________________________________________

“And you think that was all a dream?” said Tunnel Vision, floating above Max.

“Yes,” said Max.  “This conversation, too.  This is all a dream.”

“Let me get this straight.”  Tunnel Vision waved her hand behind her, and chunks of rock broke off from the cliff face, forming a ledge that she stood on.  “You got a fake acceptance letter to Paragon Academy, got lured to an island laboratory filled with buttercups, then got chopped up to create fabricated bodies, then escaped when the scientists woke up…something, thanks to some mad prisoner who talked about ‘music’.  And then you started having vivid dreams every time you go to sleep, that split your world in two – one real world and one dream world.”

“Yes,” said Max.

“I have a built-in lie detector,” said Tunnel Vision.  “And I’m not sure I believe a word you’re saying.”

“But you haven’t killed me yet,” said Max.  “I’ve been talking for a lot longer than nine minutes.  You’ve had plenty of chances to drop me into the water.  But you haven’t.  Because a part of you knows that I’m right.  And that part wants me to keep talking.”

Tunnel Vision grunted, and lifted her hand.  Max’s clothes yanked her up, and she landed on the makeshift ledge in a sitting position.

“Fine,” said the mobster.  “Finish the story, then.”

“After I got hit with the mortar,” said Max, “My superiors left me for dead.  I lay there for almost a day, as bullets flew over my head.  Dehydrating in the sun.  Filled with regret and self-loathing.  Tanks rolled past me, crushing bodies only feet away from me beneath their treads.  But still, I lay there.  Succumbing to the temptation of inertia, the exhaustion.”

“But,” said Tunnel Vision.

“But the answer came to me, finally.  When the Corsairs tried to take this field hours later.  And got massacred again.  And again.  And again.  And I realized: They were going to keep sending people to die.  Over and over.  Not just on this field, but around the Eight Oceans.  Across Kiterjede and in the Four Domains and on all the island nations.  People would be born, sent into debt, and pushed into service, to die and be replaced a thousand times over.  Places like Buttercup Lodge would find an endless stream of Maxine Clives to chew up and spit out.  Bodies to build the foundations of their magic.  Unless – ”

“Unless someone stopped them.”

Max nodded.  “Because the demons can always replace you.  No matter how young, or strong, or pretty, or smart you think you are.  They can always replace you.  But you can replace them, too.”  She hunched over on the rock ledge.  “So I dragged myself back to our lines.  As the world burned around me and I withered from dehydration, I crawled.  The men and women in our trench watched me for hours, expecting me to collapse, get shot.”  Max inhaled.  “And then I made it.  I drank water, got tended to by physicians.  A week later, I was on my feet again.”

Tunnel Vision snorted.  “They gave you free medical treatment?”

“I became a hero.  I boosted morale, inspired grit and determination.  So many had charged into that field of death, but only I came out alive.  My treatment didn’t come out of their medical budget, it came out of their PR budget.”  Max leaned back against the cliff face, exhausted.  “The troop’s respect continued, as I fought alongside them and showed them my competence.  They promoted me to First Artillery Lieutenant.”  She sighed.  “But that was when the real trouble started.”

________________________________________

Maxine Clive finished her beans.  Then she started a revolution.

She’d wanted to eat the bacon from the mess hall instead, but she needed to keep her health good.  In this rotting desert, in her fragile body, health was mandatory.

Men and women mumbled around her in the mess tent, chugging lukewarm water, forking bacon into their mouths.  Too exhausted to laugh or shout or crack jokes, the way they’d done in training.  The desert heat didn’t help either, soaking their clothes with sweat and drying their mouths.

The high-ranking officers were in their own tent, in a different part of the camp.  As rumor had it, they had air conditioning.

Max swallowed her beans, put down her spoon, and grabbed her metal tray – two trays, stacked on top of one another.  She split them apart, climbed onto the table, and banged them together.  “Excuse me!” she said.  “Please excuse me!”

The giant tent fell silent.  A thousand men and women stared at her, confused.

“The fuck?” someone muttered.

“Hey guys,” she said.  “Sorry for taking up your lunch.  We don’t get a lot of breaks.  But I promise this is important.”

A lot of the soldiers glared at her, pissed.  But nobody yelled at her, or ignored her.  She’d earned that much respect.

Max took a deep breath.  “I’m starting a union.”

Everyone yelled at her.  People shouted questions, frustrations, noises of fear.  The mess tent filled up with the noise of arguments and rants, an overwhelming din.

Because unions were forbidden, of course.  Tantamount to desertion.

Max banged the lunch trays together again.  “I’ve been talking to a lot of you in private!” she shouted, making herself heard over the chaos.  The noise quieted down.  “I’d hoped to do this quietly but I’ve just received word about our marching orders from the bosses!  We’re attacking the Bulun Pass tomorrow!”

Dead silence.  The Bulun Pass was a true nightmare, a chokepoint further north where tens of thousands of men had marched through, only to get torn apart from hundreds of hidden gun positions.

The Bulun Pass was a death sentence.  They all knew it.

“So,” said Max.  “We’re out of time.  We can beg our bosses, we can cry and shout and petition our COs to take back this whaleshit.  But they won’t.  This isn’t a democracy.  The executive board wants to take this bloody desert, and the enemy is dug in.  They’ll keep throwing us at those trenches until the sand buries all of us.  Until the world forgets we ever existed.”

A grim acceptance sank over the soldiers in the hall.  A part of them had expected this from the very beginning, a whispering voice that told them nothing mattered.  That they would be meaningless food for the desert ants, no matter what they did.

“Leomer.”  She pointed to one of the men nearby.  “You’ll never go home to your wife.”  She pointed at a woman.  “Orabella.  You’ll never open your ice cream shop.”  She pointed at another.  “Thorkel.  You’ll never drink pomegranate juice on the beaches of Ilaqua.”

She let that sink in.  Death meant nothing.  Their lives – their stolen lives – they meant everything.

“We didn’t join the Droll Corsairs for a cause,” said Max.  “We joined them because we were desperate.”  She swallowed.  “We’ve brought so much death into this world.  So many souls extinguished forever.  We can’t blame our debt, our orders.  We don’t have the right to fall into apathy and despair.  It is our duty to change our fate, and – ”

A hand grabbed her shirt and yanked her off the table.  She slammed onto the ground.  As she coughed, a man and woman wrestled her arms behind her and dragged her across the mess hall, towards the entrance.

Max thrashed and struggled, but both of them were stronger than her.  As she did, a third soldier pulled a gag over her mouth.

Commander Hibben stood at the entrance.  His soldiers dragged Max towards him, and he took slow, deep breaths, calming himself.

Then, he started crying.  “The Droll Corsairs are a family,” he said.  “We provide for each other, care for each other.  And in exchange, we respect the chain of command, so that order doesn’t break down.”  A deep calm settled over his voice, and he wiped away his tears.  “We believe that cooperation, not conflict, is the best road forward.”

Max screamed through her gag, and one of the soldiers punched her in the solar plexus, knocking the wind out of her.

“In fact,” he said.  “We were just about to announce a new perk for all of you, since you’ve been doing such great work.  Starting tomorrow, once a week will be Beer Day!  You’ll all get to take an extra hour off and drink complimentary ice-cold beers.  With air conditioning.”

One of the soldiers spoke up.  “The Bulun Pass?”

“A lie,” he said.  “You aren’t being sent there tomorrow.  Tomorrow is Beer Day.”

The soldiers dragged her across the desert.  The noon sun glared in her eyes, making her squint.

“What happens to Phoebe?”  Max’s fake name in the Corsairs.

“Phoebe broke the rules,” said Commander Hibben.  “So she’s going to be imprisoned for a few months.  Then we’ll reassign her.”

Everyone knew what that meant.  Max wasn’t going to be reassigned.  Not after the trouble she’d just caused.

A series of gunshots rang out.  The man and woman carrying Max fell next to her, letting go of her.

Then, Commander Hibben fell on top of her, splattering a warm liquid over her face.

Max’s ears rang from the gunshots.  The world spun around her, her face burning up, the sun beating down.  She didn’t move.  She couldn’t move.  Everything felt numb, distant.  That’s blood covering my face.

Someone shoved Hibben’s body off of Max, freeing her.  Still, she didn’t move, her chest rising and falling, out of breath.

Another soldier knelt beside her with a wet towel and wiped the blood off her face.  He grabbed her hand, and pulled Max back to her feet.

Max shook off her stupor, and looked around the Corsairs’ camp.

The entire company gathered around her in a half-circle.  Two of them had smoking rifles, and another group surrounded the officer’s tent, preventing them from leaving.

Silence hung in the air for a few seconds.  A scalding wind blew across the camp, kicking up sand.

“What did you do?” One of the soldiers shouted, his voice tinged with panic.  “What the fuck did you do?  They’ll kill us all!”

Mutiny was unforgivable.  When High Command found out about this, they would send soldiers to this camp until every last one of them had died.

“Let’s defect to the natives!” another shouted.  “At least then we’ll have someone on our side.”

“The people we’ve been gunning down for months?” said the first soldier.  “Even if they didn’t shoot us on sight, they’re losing.  They’re trapped in the desert and starving.“

The camp broke out into chaos, everyone shouting or arguing or staring into space.  What the fuck do we do next?  How will we survive?  Through the overwhelming din, Max sucked in a deep breath, and bellowed.

“Hey!”

Once again, her shout quieted everyone down.  Everyone turned to her, expectant.  Is this what a leader looks like?  Am I worthy of this?

No.  But it didn’t matter.  Nobody else was stepping up.

“First, we get out of this bloody desert,” she said.  “We’re not native, we don’t know where to hide here.  Command will have a much harder time tracking everyone inside a dense port city, and we can leave a false trail to make them think we’re still in the wilderness.”

A man pulled the holstered gun and belt off the dead Commander Hibben and extended it to Max.  After a moment’s hesitation, she tied it around her waist.

“Then,” she said.  “We get more people.”

________________________________________

For the first time in their conversation, Tunnel Vision looked surprised.

“You defected from the Droll Corsairs?” she said.  “And you survived?”

“I smuggled us off the island of Kiterjede,” said Max.  “And back to the Principality.  Some of us went into hiding.  Others drifted away to countries where the Corsairs couldn’t extradite.”

“And what, the rest of you started a local militia?”

“The Droll Corsairs weren’t our only enemy,” said Max.  “The Principality were the ones behind Buttercup Lodge.  And they enforced our debt, supported the Droll Corsairs’ claim to our lives.  We had to stop them.  So I laid the foundations, built a secret group of Humdrums united against the elites in power.  Commonplace.”

Tunnel Vision raised an eyebrow, impressed.

“The Treaty of Silence still existed during our founding.  Paragon’s self-isolation helped us grow unnoticed.  They thought little of Humdrums, so they didn’t deign to notice us.  When you set the Shenti on fire and exposed them, our membership turned into an exponential curve.”  Max’s eyes lit up.  “We’re like a drip of water, steady, but inevitable.  We’re going to turn it into a flood, an almighty tsunami like the one that brought down the Great Scholars.  And from the wreckage, we’ll build something beautiful.”

“You did all that.  As a Humdrum.”  Tunnel Vision still looked surprised.  “How?”

“Simple,” said Max.  “This is a dream, and you’re all figments of my imagination.  Every risk I’ve taken, every leap of faith has been because I know that.  You’re not real.  This world isn’t real.  It’s a twisted joke, played on me by my captors at Buttercup Lodge.  So why not reshape it into something magnificent?“

For a moment, the mobster almost looked scared of her.

“In this dream, I am cursed to live, so I must continue my mission as long as I’m still asleep.”

Max pointed up.  Tunnel Vision followed the direction of her finger, gazing towards the top of the seaside cliff.

A dozen snipers lay on their stomachs, green circles tattooed on their hands, aiming their rifles down at Tunnel Vision.

“Don’t underestimate Humdrums, Grace Acworth,” said Max.  “On our own, we’re not capable of much.”  She smiled.  “But string our minds together, and there’s nothing we can’t beat.”  Max stood up on the ledge, now level with Tunnel Vision.  “So.  What do you say?”  She extended her hand.

Waves crashed against the rocks below.  A chill sea breeze blew through her hair.  The Green Hands held steady, waiting for the order to open fire.

Tunnel Vision shook Max’s hand.  “Allies,” she said.  “For now.  And I’ll leave this town alone.”

Max exhaled, slouching over, and waved at her snipers to stand down.  “Phew.  Thought you were going to kill me for a second, there.”  She adjusted her green longcoat, sweat soaking into the armpits.  “Want to get lunch?  There’s a great salad place where I tried to shoot you earlier.”

Grace nodded, dumbfounded.  She lifted herself back up the cliff, projecting into Max’s clothes to lift her as well.

“And I’m sorry, Maxine,” said Grace.  “This world is real.”

“You know,” said Max.  “That’s just what my therapist said.”

________________________________________

“This will either save us,” said Max.  “Or screw up everything.  Forever.”

She stared out the window of the tiny cabin, into the blizzard.  The fireplace crackled behind her, and Grace slid her Dancing Painter forward on the Jao Lu board.  A hilariously bad move.  For a Praxis specialist genius, Grace had no skill at board games.  A side effect of her Vocation.

“He’s here,” said Tunnel Vision.  “Let’s hope he doesn’t murder us.”

“He can do worse than that,” said Max.

“Like what?”

“Buy us.”  Max pulled on her longcoat and threw open the front door of the cabin.  The two of them strode out into the blizzard to greet their guest.

A figure emerged from the blizzard, a silhouette skiing down the mountainside.  A Shenti man.  Muscular, square-jawed, with a heavy sniper rifle slung on his back.  He slid off his skis, jogged towards them, and shook both their hands on the doorstep.

“Pictogram,” he said.  “You must be Ms. Clive and Ms. Acworth.”

“I’m Max,” she said.  “This way.”  Max led him back inside the cabin, little better than a shack.  Grace had picked it up from a mobster she’d deposed, who’d set it up as a last-ditch hiding spot in the Silver Mountains of the Principality.  She’d waited for him here, then set him on fire while he ran to the front door.

Pictogram floated a packet of meat from his bag with a frying pan. “I brought some bacon.”  He held them over the fire.  “I thought you two might appreciate something warm after waiting so long.”

Max loved bacon.  “I don’t eat bacon,” she said.  She had to stay healthy in this body.

And besides, this was a tactic, trying to soften Max up, endear her to the Shenti’s cause.  I am not so easy to purchase, Pictogram.  He was looking at her like a magnificent sword, or a hammer waiting to be swung.  He wanted her to be a mere figure in his hands, a mask of popular support to wear over his master’s agenda of revenge.

“Let’s begin, then,” said Pictogram.  He launched into his initial pitch, a flurry of statistics and logistics numbers, outlining all the small arms, tanks, explosives, and training they could bring to Commonplace’s operation.  Then, he outlined his experience, working as a military leader during the Shenti war and training guerillas overseas.

“Stop,” said Max.  She held up a hand.  “I’ve read all this in your reports.  We don’t need to rehash it, this isn’t a job interview.”

“Of course,” said Pictogram.  “It is as you say.  My apologies.”

“I’ve talked to revolutionaries in all corners of the Eight Oceans,” said Max.  “I’ve read the works of many that came before.  And I see a recurring theme.”  She leaned forward in her chair.  “Trust in the people.  Don’t taint yourself with foreign influence.”

When revolutions had let other powers define them, they lost their identity, lost the faith of large segments of the populace.  Worse, they risked turning into violent police states, even if they did succeed.

“I’ve walked,” said Max.  “Through the ruins of your country’s redemption camps.  I’ve seen the piles of dirt where you put your mass graves.”

Pictogram stared at his feet.  “A disgusting, evil policy, made by a government that no longer exists.  A leader, the Black Tortoise, who no longer rules the nation.  Our fight is righteous, now.  We battle against the Principality, against imperialism and cruelty.”

“Your enemies are evil,” said Max.  “That doesn’t make you good.”

You could say the same of us.  If this deal corrupted them.  Grace said nothing, staring into the crackling fire.

“I know your skills,” Max continued.  “I know the kind of weapons Warlord Luo Cai is willing to give me.”  She picked the package of bacon off the table, turning it over in her hands.  “My question is this: Why the fuck should I trust you?”

“You can’t,” said Pictogram.

“Excuse me?”

“I can share my life story, why I believe in your movement and think we can help each other.  But they’re just words.  I will have to prove myself with my actions.  But you’re going to need a, what’s the expression?  Leap of faith.  Because without us, you’ll lose.”

“Commonplace is larger than ever,” said Max.  After the Edwina Massacre and the exposure of projection, the public had channeled its frustration and powerlessness into the public side of her movement, exploding into protests and street organizing.

Everyone was adapting faster than they could have imagined.  In a few years, people wouldn’t remember a world without projectors.  Without Paragon Academy.  They might even overthrow the government with the sheer force of nonviolent protests.

“When The Black Tortoise took power in Shenten, the people tried a peaceful revolution.”  Pictogram leaned back in his rickety chair.  “Not to restore the Emperor – to institute democracy, broad civil rights, and investment in public works.”

“I’ve never heard of anything like that,” said Max.  Grace nodded in agreement.

“Because the records got destroyed,” said Pictogram.  “They failed, and the world forgot them.  When they took to the streets, the calm moderates and statesmen of the old world painted them as violent agitators.  The media backed up this smear, and the military sided with the Black Tortoise, mere weeks after his coup.”

Max shivered, and she moved her chair closer to the fire, wrapping her arms over her chest.

“Soldiers broke up demonstrations.  Despite their public support, the revolutionaries had no choice but to fight for survival.  When the time came, they had slingshots, kitchen knives, and bricks.  And the Black Tortoise had machine guns.”

Max hunched over.  “So.  What’s the lesson, then?”

“There are many,” he said.  “Who prefer calm instead of justice.  And when those people come for you, you had best be ready.”

So many revolutions had been forgotten by history.  So many visionaries and idealists shattered on the cold truth of this world.

“You’re not naive, Maxine Clive,” said Pictogram.  “But you’re not strong enough, either.  If you go up against Guardians right now, you will shatter.  And in ten years, no one will remember you.”

Max closed her eyes, massaging her temples.  “Can I tell you two a story?” she said.

“Of course.”

“It’s called Khona and the Farmer.”

Pictogram raised an eyebrow.  “Haven’t heard of that one.”

“It’s from the Great Scholars,” said Max.  “Once upon a time, there was a farmer.  A rich farmer, whose okra and wheat fed his village of hundreds.  One season, a terrible blight spread through his land, killing his whole supply.  So he prayed to the God Khona, imploring him to save his crops, to save his people from starvation.”

Snow battered the windows of the cabin, and the wind howled outside.

“Khona appears, and tells the farmer: Kill one innocent, and I will bring your crops back.  The farmer agonizes over the decision, but at the end of the day, it’s a god’s offer.  So the farmer takes his knife, and slits the throat of one of the villagers he’s trying to save.”  Max’s voice grew quieter.  “Khona comes to the farmer again and tells him: Your sacrifice was not enough.  Kill five innocents, and I will bring your crops back.”

“What kind of idiot would take the same offer again?” said Grace.

“The farmer is horrified, and distrustful.  But his crops are still dead.  Hundreds will starve, and he needs to do something.  What are five lives next to five hundred?”  Max exhaled.  “So he takes up his knife again and butchers a few more couples.  Khona appears again, and tells the farmer: Kill ten innocents, and this village shall be fed for eternity.”

Pictogram leaned in.  He knew where this was going.

“The farmer, disgusted with himself, still cannot turn down the prospect of a God’s blessing.  Not in this cruel and dangerous world.  So he kills ten more, and returns to Khona, dripping with blood and tears, finally worthy.”  Max closed her eyes and listened to the icy chaos outside for a moment.  “Khona laughs at him.  ‘This doesn’t prove you’re worthy,’ he says.  ‘It proves you’re a killer.’  The farmer is furious.  ‘I’m not a monster!’ he cries.  ‘I cared about the villagers!’.”  Max’s voice fell almost to a whisper.  “‘Really?’ laughs Khona.  ‘Then why did you butcher so many of them?’  Covered in the blood of his neighbors, the farmer turns himself into the villagers, who throw him in prison.  Only then do his crops bloom once again.”

She let the words sink in for a few seconds.

“Wow,” said Pictogram.  “Khona.  A vicious trickster, then.”

“He was the god of justice,” said Max.

Am I the farmer?  Was Grace?  Was Pictogram?  She couldn’t tell at this point.

But moral purity was a luxury Max didn’t have.  Paragon Academy would fight dirty, so Max would too.

Because she couldn’t lose.  Because her cause was more important than her feelings.

“Alright,” said Max, turning to Pictogram.  “Let’s work out the details.”

________________________________________

Max fired her shotgun at a Guardian.

The Voidsteel pellets punched through a thin piece of armor on his neck, and he fell over, gurgling.  A mobster pulled off his helmet with projection, and fired another round into his head, finishing him.  The kickback felt light, easy for this combat chassis, this brand new Maxine Clive, without any scars, without any of the wear and tear on its body.

Green Hands and mobsters streamed ahead of Max through the dim hallway, stepping over the corpses of Guardians and soldiers.

Max pushed open the door.  And for the first time in her life, she gazed at the Principality’s Great Library.

A vast, open chamber towered before Max, filled with circular levels of bookshelves on the walls, and balconies overlooking the vista.  Even in the middle of the night, warm sunlight filled the room, glowing from a tall, narrow crystal in the center of the space, stretching hundreds of feet tall.

Two slogans stretched across the mural on the ceiling, in between images from the Principality’s bloody conquests.

Forge the Stars in Your Image
May You Strive to Become an Exemplar

One nation’s Exemplar is another’s devil.  The Principality had the strangest values.

Max gaped at everything, transfixed.  This has to be a dream.  No reality would ever look this beautiful.

Her feet carried her to the center of the room, and her hand stretched out, touching the sun crystal.  It burned her hand, as hot as a car hood on a warm summer’s day.  But Max didn’t recoil.

This is everything we fought for.  This moment.  The pain, that felt real.  When her hand burned, she could believe in the reality of this world.

“Maxine,” a man’s voice called out in the distance.  “Maxine!”

Max shook herself out of her stupor.  Afzal Kahlin, the Broadcast King, stood behind her, covered in bulletproof armor.  “They know we’re here.  Parliament’s probably holed up in the top level.”

“Well,” she said.  “We voted for half of them, didn’t we?”  She removed her burnt hand from the sun crystal and hefted her shotgun.  “Let’s go get our MPs.”

Max jogged up the stairs with her soldiers, past bookshelves and the security checkpoint from Level Zero to Level One.

Level One looked just as breathtaking.  The sun crystal extended upwards, into the higher levels, and a metal staircase wrapped around it, ascending to the higher levels.  The bookshelves stretched even taller here, accompanied by tower ladders attached to curved rails running along the floor, so a clerk could reach any height if they desired.

And here, pieces of the conical outer wall had been made transparent from the inside, turning into one-way windows, glimpses of the night sky outside.

But Max didn’t have time to admire the view.  Another group of soldiers fired at them from the other end of the room, with grenade launchers and sniper rifles.  A squad of Guardians tore chunks off the metal staircase, flinging them like throwing knives at the Green Hands below.

Max took cover, firing back with her shotgun alongside the other Green Hands.  The mobsters rushed forward, engaging the Guardians.  In a few seconds, the enemy soldiers had been torn apart.  The Guardians flew up to Level Two, retreating to higher ground.

They don’t want to come at us one squad at a time.  They’d gather all their strength together and attack in unison.

They ran up the half-broken stairs.  The Broadcast King stayed near the back, unable to fight.

Level Two was empty of soldiers or Guardians, filled instead with blue lanterns, floating around the sun crystal and casting the bookshelves in an eerie glow.

I could spend a lifetime in this place.  Simply marveling at the architecture, the feats of wizardry and the endless piles of books.  But she had a job to do.

Here, the enemies had destroyed the metal staircase behind them, forcing the mobsters to float everyone up with projection, one at a time, then throw down knotted ropes beneath them.  Slowing us down.  Buying time.

The enemies had fled Level Three as well.  In this part of the Great Library, there were no shelves.  No books, either.  In their stead, words and letters floated in the air, lines of ink swirling around the sun crystal like orbiting planets, forming thousands of streams and eddies and lakes.  Blank sheets of paper and covers sat beneath them, stacked on top of desks.

Max picked a piece of paper up, and letters poured out of the air, bleeding onto the page and forming text.  The empty book.  This shouldn’t be possible.  Not with the projection that she knew.  What else is Paragon hiding from us?

They ascended another level, to Level Four, the second-highest in the library.  Here, the sun crystal ended, turning the space almost pitch-black.  The light came from the unbound pages themselves, which floated in the center of the room, rearranging themselves in arcane geometrical shapes.  Explosions rang out beneath them, and the building shook, but Max paid them no heed.

The mobsters moved to the sealed double doors on the ceiling, preparing to throw them open.

“Wait,” said Max, holding up a hand.

“Ma’am?”

“The enemy Guardians are all waiting up there,” said Max.  “With the Librarians.  We’re not strong enough to fight them on our own.  We wait.  For Grace.”

The Green Hands dug in.  The mobsters sat on the floor, staring up at the flowing pages overhead.  Max knelt with the radio team, listening to the transmissions coming in.  On this level, the walls muffled the outside sound, and no one spoke, so the only noise came from the rustling paper above them.

If this wasn’t a dream, it sure felt like one.

Minutes later, Grace soared through the hole in the floor, purple lightning flickering around her suit jacket.  She collapsed, out of breath, blood dripping from her black skirt and shoes.

And the purple lightning just now.  For something as simple as flight.

Grace was exhausted.  Whatever she’d just been through, she had almost none of her energy left.

Max knelt beside her friend and pulled a bandage out of her bag, wrapping it around Grace’s leg.  “What happened?  Are you alright?”

Grace blinked, half-awake.  “No time.”  She looked up at the door to Level Five.

“Can you do it?” said Max.  Are you strong enough?

Grace nodded, as Max bandaged the rest of her wounds.  “Have to.”

This might kill her.  But they’d survived this much.  I’ll put my faith in you, Pyre Witch.  One last time.

Max squeezed Grace’s hand, and Grace flew up to the ceiling.  She slammed her palm against the double doors, throwing them open.

Arcs of blue lightning shot out of the Fifth Level.  The bolts crashed into the soldiers and mobsters next to Max.

They all went limp.  Dead.

Five hooded figures stood around the edges of the door, clad in dark blue robes, blue lightning flickering around them.  The Librarians.  Max hadn’t known much about the Librarians going in – who they were, what sort of abilities they wielded.  Only that they had power, and loyalty to a set of arbitrary rules.  Only that they would be dangerous.

Grace flew into Level Five, blasting Palefire around her, turning the Librarian’s attention onto her.  Other soldiers and mobsters flew in after her, supporting her.

Afzal Kahlin tugged Max’s shirt.  “Wait,” he said.  “Please.  We need you.”

Smoke, dust, and debris filled the air of Level Five, making it impossible to see inside.  Blasts of palefire rang out from inside, gunshots, screaming and the dull booms of explosions.  The building shook.

A minute passed.  Then two.  More shaking.  More blasts of fire.

And then silence.

A soldier emerged from the cloud, as the debris cleared.  He waved Max in, and Kahlin floated both of them up through the double doors.

Level Five was stranger than the others put together.  Its floor curved in the shape of a massive sphere, and gravity curved with it, letting people and jade glass bookshelves stand on the ceiling, the floor, and the walls.  Another sun crystal hovered in the center of the sphere, casting warm yellow light over everything.

The members of Parliament clustered together on the far side of the sphere, at least a thousand of them, all staring up at Max.

Corpses littered the curved floor.  The blue robes of the librarians, and the armored bodies of Guardians.  But Green Hands, too.  Mobsters.  A carpet of bodies, spreading blood in pools beneath them.

Scholars.  There were so many.

And Grace, lying back against a bookshelf.  No.  Max sprinted over to her, her stomach dropping.  She ripped open the woman’s shirt, noting the bruises and cuts running up and down her torso.

“Grace,” murmured Max.  “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t worry,” Grace mumbled.  “I’m – “  She winced.  “I’m not dying.  Probably.  Spent the last of my energy healing the hole I stabbed in my neck and the worst cuts.”

Grace’s Joining.  She’d only learned the basics over the last few months.  Just enough to let her breathe out of that hole, enough to keep her away from death’s door in that body.  If Penny Oakes had touched her with any of her poison chemicals, Grace would have been in trouble.

And enhanced healing, slow as it was, drained energy like nothing else.

Grace indicated her head to the piles of robes where the Librarians had been.  Then she chuckled.  “It’s been a long day.  Maybe I’ll take a nap.”

She’s spent.  All her energy.  All her willpower.  Max had never met anyone as single-minded as Grace.  The Pyre Witch might not be dying, but if she was passing out here, she’d given everything she had.

“You won, Grace.  You won.”  Max squeezed her shoulder.  “Thank you.”  She gestured behind her, and a mobster pulled a hooded figure through the double doors, pulling off its hood.

A skinny blonde woman blinked at her, squinting from the sudden light.  “Scholars,” Christea Ronaveda grumbled.  “If the world is ending, could you just shoot me and get it over with?”

Kidnapping the radio host of Verity had been simple.  Anabelle Gage and her friends had already injured most of the private guards around her mansion, and the mass protests and street violence had provided a useful cover for the operation.

“Hey,” said Max.  “Your Vocation can’t cure mental hijacking, but it can identify it, yes?”

“Yes,” said Ronaveda.  “Is that…a Maxine Clive?  Scholars, you need to buy a new one, whoever you are.”

Max grit her teeth.  “If your truth Vocation’s been used on someone whose Pith has been modified a lot, it’ll basically paralyze them, yes?”

Ronaveda nodded again, incapable of telling a lie or misleading someone.

“Good,” said Max.  “You’re going to come with me, and you’re going to use your Vocation on the members of Parliament, one by one.”  That would tell them which ones had been mentally hijacked, which ones had been caught up in Paragon’s grand conspiracy.  “Then, we’ll use you to broadcast a message to the country.”

“A message?”

“About how Paragon Academy has hijacked members of their own government.”

“How do you know it’s Paragon?” said Ronaveda.  “It could be Ilaqua.  Or the Droll Corsairs.  Or maybe it’s you guys.  I’m not a liar, but I’ll bet you guys are.”

“Use it on me.”  Max jabbed her fingers at her skull.  A low hum settled in the back of her mind, compelling her to tell the truth.  She leaned closer to the radio host, lowering her voice.  “My name is Maxine Clive.  I will show you how hollow your kings are.  Then I will set you free.”

She’d release Ronaveda to a foreign country with protection, so that the public could confirm that she was the real Ronaveda, not some imposter stealing her body.

Max had already planned on exposing Parliament’s hijacking to the world, but she’d never thought to use a radio celebrity to do it.  That idea had come from Anabelle Gage, and her gambit to turn the public against them.

A Green Hands jogged up to Max, running around the sphere.  “News, ma’am!  I have news!”  Joseph, his name was.  “Enemies are fighting their way up the library.  Paragon students.  And The Blue Charlatan’s group.”

Gage.  Why had Max ever thought she could recruit her?  The thick-witted idiot would sacrifice herself for the elites at Paragon, again and again, no matter how many times they kicked her.

A warning.  Many Humdrums in this country were like Gage, violently committed against their own self-interest.  Pacifying them would be difficult.

Gage, on the other hand, would be much simpler.  They just had to kill her.

“Can we beat them?” said Max.

“Our forces have dwindled,” Joseph said.  “We’ve taken out the remaining Guardians and the students in our way, but we’ve lost most of our troops in the academy.”

Not surprising.  They’d prepared well, but Guardians and students were well-trained, tenacious fighters.  “Tell everyone to retreat to the higher levels,” Max said.  “We’ll make a final stand up here, together.”

The man nodded.

“What’s your other news?  Our assault in the North?  Do we control the Principality’s missile silos?”

“We – “  The Green Hands stared at his feet.  “We have lost contact with all teams assigned to the missile silos.  The last we heard, they spotted Headmaster Tau flying towards them.  No one else.”

Max closed her eyes.  A critical piece.  Lost, now.  Taken out single-handedly by that senile old fool.  Guess he’s still got a sliver of his old strength.  Enough to fly back in time and wipe the floor with their assault team.

This is bad.  Without those Voidsteel-tipped missiles, they would not be able to defeat Paragon’s Guardians in the field.  Grace had raw strength and tactics, but even she would pale against Scholar-ranked projectors like the Symphony Knight, like Headmaster Tau.  And she already looked exhausted from the battle.

“And what of our Shenti allies and their diversion fleet?  What of our mutiny?”  Talking to the Admirals had been difficult, but it had paid off.  Now, at least a third of the Principality’s Humdrum navy had joined their side.

Joseph avoided her gaze, his voice growing soft.  “Gone,” he mumbled.

Gone?” said Max.  “What do you mean, gone?”

“The Symphony Knight took out our mutiny fleet in less than five minutes,” he said.  “Then she flew to the Agricultural Islands and took out our diversion ships.  On her own.”

Max’s stomach clenched.  No.  The Symphony Knight was powerful, but they’d never expected her to be capable of this much.  When they’d fought earlier, that must have been but a sliver of her real power.

All those aircraft carriers and battleships and submarines and planes.  Thousands and thousands of sailors, pilots.  All the work they’d done to convince their fellow Humdrums of the righteousness of their cause.

All gone now.  All sinking to the bottom of the ocean, with their hopes of an overwhelming victory.

Max had hoped that their initial revolt would inspire more of the military to join the coup – both scared idealists, and those who wanted to pick the winning side.  No chance of that, now.  All would cower in fear of Isabelle Corbin, the Symphony Knight.

It would take that music bitch a while to get back to Elmidde, but when she did, Max didn’t like Grace’s odds.

“We can still win,” muttered Max, for herself as much as the others.  If they convinced enough people, set up enough of the other pieces, the public could still turn against Paragon.

A whirring mechanical clock ticked on top of a bookshelf, its metal hands stretching towards the artificial sun.  Tick, tick, tick.

“You should leave, ma’am,” said Joseph.  “If you and Tunnel Vision and our other top people escape, we can fight another day.  We’ve already dealt a serious blow to the Principality.  But we can’t win conventionally anymore.”

“I keep telling you,” she said.  “‘Max’ is fine.”  She turned away from Joseph.  “Ronaveda!” she barked.  “With me.”  She waved her pistol at the celebrity, and the two of them jogged to the members of Parliament.  A pair of mobsters and engineers floated electrical parts in front of them, jerry-rigging a high-powered radio for the broadcast.

Christea Ronaveda approached the closest MP.  A loyalist named Enoch Trembath.  Blue and purple lightning flickered around her, as she threw her truth aura over his Pith.

He twitched and shook, and rolled over on the floor, his lips blurting out incoherent syllables.

Ronaveda recoiled.  “He’s been hijacked.  Badly.”

No surprises there.  The hardline loyalists would be kept under a tight leash.

“Next,” said Max.  She took Ronaveda to Esau Westlake, a political moderate who sympathized with Commonplace, but voted with the loyalists most of the time.

He rolled over and had a seizure too.  Another victim of Paragon’s hijacking.

Max clenched her teeth.  “Next.”  The building shook, and she led Ronaveda to Joyce Fulmer, a strong pro-Commonplace MP.  She voted against Paragon’s interests almost every time.

Fulmer twitched, shaking and babbling nonsense.  No.  “Scholars,” breathed Max.  No, that’s not possible.  She had expected a large conspiracy, yes, but this?

Ronaveda tested another one.  And another one.  And another one.  And another ten.  Loyalists and Commonplace sympathizers and everything in between.

All of them had the same reaction to the truth aura.  All of them seized up, shivered, lost their ability to speak.

Ronaveda’s eyes widened too, her breaths quickened.  She knew what this meant, too.

“They’re all – “ she said.

“They’re all being hijacked,” said Max.

Every single member of Parliament was being hijacked.  From the most devoted Commonplace idealist, to the most staunch loyalist.

Max knew there was hijacking going on, but she’d never expected anything on this scale.  Paragon’s controlling everything.  Absolutely everything.

Max staggered back, dizzy.  It’s worse than I could have imagined.

The building shook again.  They’re coming.  Max was running out of time.  She ran over to Grace, slumped against a bookshelf.  Still too weak to fight.  They couldn’t rely on her anymore.

“Don’t worry, Grace,” Max said, kneeling beside her.  “I’ll fight strong enough for both of us.”

Grace tried to push herself upright, clenching her teeth.  A second later, she dropped back down, too exhausted.

Max placed a hand on her shoulder.  “You’ve done so much for us, Grace.  You’ve brought us to the doorstep of freedom.  We can do the rest.”

She hugged Grace.  Grace hugged her back.

“See you at the finish line.”

Grace went limp in her arms.  Max let go of the hug, and watched the woman’s chest rise and fall.  Passed out.  Not dead.

“Well,” Max said.  “She deserves a break.”  She turned to the Green Hands and mobsters gathered in the spherical library room.  Just a few dozen left, along with the Broadcast King, standing off to the side, unarmed.  Others trickled in through the double doors, bleeding from wounds, covered in burns, unconscious or dying.  This is it.  The last line of defense.

They all looked at her, waiting for orders.

“In the next twenty minutes,” said Max.  “We will win.  Or we will lose everything.  Two different worlds stretch before us.  Two different countries.  Two identities.”  She made eye contact with all of them.  “You get to choose.  With your actions, we all get to choose.  So let’s get to work.”

Joseph tossed Max a grenade launcher, and she directed everyone to their positions.  They used the bookshelves as cover, aiming at the barricaded double doors, which someone had knocked a bookshelf on top of.

The doors boomed and shook, something crashing into them from below.

Then they exploded outwards, flinging aside the bookshelf on top of it.  A beam of molten steel shot through the doors, forcing them open.

Max fired a grenade at the door.  It bounced off, exploding on a bookshelf.  She loaded and fired another one.  It bounced too, exploding off to the side.  Bloody Shenti, giving us their second-hand trash.

A cloud of fluttering paper shot through the doors, spreading throughout the room.  They dove into the crowd, slicing at every inch of exposed skin.  Sheets of paper slashed at the webbing on Max’s hands, her face, her arms.

She cried out in pain, squinted to protect her eyes, and loaded another grenade.

Paper.  The Ousted Epistocrat’s weapon.  Max glanced around, forcing herself to concentrate as blood poured down her arms, soaking into her shirt.  The paper disrupted the Green Hands closest to the door, but further away on the sphere, the effects were weaker, more limited, and the mobsters were able to use water as armor to foil the attacks.

The enemy is fighting blind.  They’d have to come through those doors sooner or later.

A metal wall floated through the door, bent in a V shape to cover different angles.  It looked thick enough to stop Voidsteel bullets.  Even Max’s grenades, probably.

They’re following Paragon’s Tactics Guide.  Max had read a stolen copy.  Which meant one of the students was in charge, not Gage or a member of Queen Sulphur.  So predictable.

A corner of the wall lifted for an instant, then jerked back down, the enemy taking a glance at Max.

Max raised her grenade launcher, and thin metal wires shot towards her, making a whistling noise as they flew through the air, wrapping around her throat.  Preparing to chop off her head.

Max fired her bouncing round.  It shot over the top of the metal wall.  The warped gravity of the room made it curve, and it bounced off the floor, flying through a narrow gap and behind the enemy’s makeshift cover.

A dull boom rang out from the double doors, and the room shook.  Cries of pain rang out from the enemy’s improvised bunker, and the wires around Max’s throat went limp.

Max tore them off and tossed them aside, her fingers sticky with blood.

“Samuel’s down!” an enemy shouted, their voice muffled.

Good.  Badly injured and unconscious was better than dead.  This way, they would take action to help their friend.  Queen Sulphur’s only real doctor, Jun Kuang, would be compelled to heal him.  One more enemy they didn’t have to deal with.

On the other side of the sphere, Christea Ronaveda spoke into the radio, held at gunpoint by Afzal Kahlin.  Come on, come on.  They just had to finish getting the message out.

Before Max could load another shot, the metal wall melted into a glowing orange sphere.  An armored man floated beneath it, touching it with his bare fingertip.  Lorne Daventry.

The sphere fanned out, turning into a dome to give him cover.  At the same time, it blasted out in a beam, shooting all over the sphere in random directions.  It sheared through bookshelves, and knocked into a pair of Green Hands, bowling them over, ripping off their limbs, and covering them with molten steel.

Everyone fired at the sphere, trying to hit the boy hidden inside.  The air filled with the deafening thunder of gunshots.  “No!” shouted Max.  “Wait!”

The rounds punctured the molten metal, and they did so at angles.  With his projection sense, Lorne could map out the paths of the bullets, and deduce where everyone was shooting from.

“Move!” shouted Max.  “He knows where you are!”

The beam shot out again in short bursts, fueled by a supply of melted-down scrap metal from below.

This time, it didn’t miss.  It hit people’s faces and chests, scraping away their skin and hair, killing them in an instant.  Some tried to take cover behind the jade glass bookshelves, crawling away from their old positions.  As they did, Lorne Daventry lowered his sphere to see them and shot them anyway, safe from return fire.  His beams tore the ancient bookshelves into pieces, sending scraps of paper and shards of jade glass flying into the air.  The mobsters held up shields of water and metal and stone, trying to defend themselves from the overwhelming assault.

It took Daventry a second to tear through their defenses, and a second to kill the rest of them.

Then, he turned to Max, as she dropped her grenade launcher and drew her shotgun, the handle slippery with blood.

Max dove backwards over a fallen bookshelf, and fired.  Daventry made his molten sphere again, and chilled it, turning it back to solid metal, with a narrow slit he could see through.

The Voidsteel pellets clanged into the solid metal, unable to puncture.  At the same time, a smaller orb of molten steel floated above and shot out at her.  It clipped her side, batting her aside and ripping a hole in her green longcoat.

Max slammed onto the floor, the right side of her torso covered in burns.  Pain exploded across her skin, and she screamed, clenching her teeth.  She tried pushing herself back upright, and the pain tripled, making her shake and drop her weapon.  Blood poured over her clothes, and she felt dizzy, like she’d just downed a dozen shots.  Her vision went blurry.

On the far side of the room, Afzal Kahlin turned off the radio, and herded Christea Ronaveda behind a group of Green Hands.  It worked.  They’d finished sending the message.  Without Radio Man, its reach would be limited, but it would do something.  The public still took Ronaveda at her word.

A chunk of metal pushed the fallen bookcase aside, removing her last piece of cover.

I’m the last one.  And it wasn’t enough.  They hadn’t bought nearly enough time to get the radio broadcast out.  She’d run out of Voidsteel.  Normal pellets would never get through his ABD at this range.

Daventry stared at Max through the metal slit in his dome.  She picked up her shotgun with a wobbling hand, and aimed it at him, squinting to make out his features.  

And she spat at him.  A final act of defiance.

A Voidsteel knife shot across the room, flying at Daventry’s face.

Daventry turned his dome back into liquid, forming a molten blockade in front of the eye slit as he leapt upward.  Before he could harden it, the dagger shot through his liquid metal, and a cry of pain rang out from inside.

Is he playing possum?

The liquid dome collapsed, and Lorne Daventry crawled forward on the floor, the Voidsteel dagger lodged in his belly.

Not playing possum.

Grace Acworth limped forward across the sphere, and extended her hand.  Purple lightning crackled around her, and the tanto dagger, Reverie, dragged itself through Daventry’s guts, then pulled itself out and flipped into her hand.  Even that was a massive effort for her.

Lorne groaned, bleeding onto the curved wooden floor.  Grace raised the knife, preparing to finish him off, and he turned the metal to liquid again, forming a cocoon around himself and hardening it, protecting him.

On a normal day, Grace would have cooked him in seconds.  Now, she didn’t have the energy to punch through.

“Max,” she shouted, hoarse.  “Max!”  Her Pith was exhausted, but her body looked far more intact than Max’s.

“I’m alive,” said Max, dropping her blood-soaked shotgun.  “For now.”

Three figures emerged from the double doors.  A brown-haired boy in a suit, carrying a briefcase.  A dark-haired girl with orbs of blue and purple lightning crackling around her fists.  And a masculine chassis, covered in bulging veins, wearing a grey beanie and holding a sleek machine pistol, limping and clutching her side.

Weston Ebbridge.  Nell Ebbridge.  And Anabelle Gage, the Blue Charlatan, the unseen variable.

Gage opened fire, and Grace dove behind a bookshelf, projecting into Max’s clothes to drag her into the same cover.

The woman stared at Max with desperate eyes.  Wide, exhausted, bloodshot.  She can’t beat those three.  Not in her state.

“Do you trust me?” said Grace.

“After all we’ve been through.”  Max smiled.  “Do you really need to ask?”

“Grab on.”

Max wrapped her arms around Grace’s back, holding on tight.

Grace projected into the belts of two dead Green Hands and pulled the pins on their smoke grenades.  Then, she stretched her hand towards the far wall of the sphere, purple electricity swirling around her, tears running down her cheeks from the effort.

Cracks spiderwebbed through the wood.  Then it exploded outwards, opening up to the dark sky.

Bullets whizzed around them, and Grace blasted spears of fire out of her fingers, distracting the enemy.  Then she shot forward, across the sphere and out of the hole.  Max hung on, dragged with her.

The two of them flew out of the smoke cloud, and into the air.  Anabelle Gage ran to the hole, still shooting at them, but they were too far away, and the enemy couldn’t fly.

The wind whipped through Max’s blonde hair, blowing droplets of blood from her sleeves.  She sucked in breaths of the cool, fresh air, every gasp making her side burn.

“We’ve lost,” she mumbled, the wind drowning out her voice.  They’d gotten a message out, but their military coup had failed.  They’d lost their fleet, their missiles, their forces in Paragon.  The battle had ended.

The blood kept pouring out of her skin, and the burns on her torso looked bad.  This body doesn’t have much time left.

“No,” said Grace.  “No.”  A cloud of purple lightning swirled around her.  This flight is killing her.

“Our defenses on Parliament are gone.  Our message won’t get out to the public.”  The street violence would continue, but subside.  There would be no revolution, no epic defeat of the parasites in charge of the Principality.  “We spent all our resources on this,” she whispered.  “We have nothing left.”

“No,” said Grace.  “We have this.”  She opened her jacket, revealing a thick purple tome, sealed with a Voidsteel lock.  The Lavender Book.  The most important volume in the world.

It hadn’t all been for nothing.  Even if they lost today, they’d escaped with something.

“I know you want to wake up, Max,” said Grace.  “But please.  Hold onto this dream just a bit longer.”

Do I want this to be real?  Do I want to live in this world?

Max stared down at the burning city below, the crashing waves against the shores of Elmidde.  The people dying down there.  Breaking against the horrors of this nation.  Their hope and effort and passion.  All riding now on a single book.  A single door to a brighter future.

She held on.

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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?  Grace 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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12-B The Ant and the Beetle

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Ana

Penny Oakes, the Obsidian Foil, and the Pyre Witch stared at each other from across the floating island.

Moonlight shone over them, reflecting off the Pyre Witch’s bowler hat, and Sebastian Oakes’ twin rapiers.  A cool summer breeze drifted through the dark grass, making swirls in the cloud of yellow chemicals floating above Penny Oakes.

That’s not the same stuff she used on us.   No knockout gas for the Pyre Witch.  No, this concoction would probably kill her with a single touch, or worse.

“Leave, students,” said Sebastian Oakes, keeping his eyes trained on his enemy.  “Please.”

“We’re not abandoning you, professor,” said Wes.  He stood up with the rest of us, shaking off the jitters from the Pyre Witch’s electricity.

“Yeah,” said Lorne, touching his blob of steel, and turning it back into a molten sphere.  “What the freak said.”  Even now, he finds the space to be cruel.

The other survivors gathered their senses and stood beside us.  Jun, Tasia, Samuel.  They held their weapons up.  A concussion grenade, metal wires, orbs of blue and purple lightning.

“Shut up, Lorne,” said Samuel.

“You won’t be able to help us,” said Penny Oakes.  She crouched, tensed up like a tiger about to pounce.  You’ll slow us down, she meant.  Tunnel Vision had lured Oakes and her husband in using students.  If she attacked us, she’d force the Guardians to defend us, rather than focusing on the fight.

We’d weigh them down.  We might even make them lose.

I exhaled, forcing myself to take slow, deep breaths, pushing down the panic swelling in my chest.

Then I threw an auditory illusion over the Guardians.  “It’s a trap,” I said.  “She tortured Deon to lure you two in here.  Whatever your mission is, you need to focus on that, not the Pyre Witch.  We also killed the Radio Man and sent out a signal to the fleet.

“I know, Ms. Gage,” said the Obsidian Foil.  “Please, let us do our jobs.”  They knew, and they chose to protect us anyway.  A true Guardian’s spirit.  Would Isaac Brin have ever done that for his students?  For us?  “We won’t let you butcher another student.”

“They were in the way,” said the Pyre Witch.  As if that justified it.

“So,” said the Obsidian Foil.  “Leave!  Go to the library!”  His voice boomed through the air, echoing into the night.

I touched his exposed wrist, and stretched my soul around his Pith.  I latched onto his auditory and visual processing centers, the areas I targeted with my Vocation.  Instead of pushing illusions onto his mind, I pulled information in with the technique I’d developed earlier, the subset of my illusions.

On top of my own senses, I saw with Sebastian Oakes’ eyes.  Heard with his ears.

It would strain my Pith to maintain this ability, take up most of my focus and keep me from participating in fights.  But the rest of our group could compensate.  And it was worth it.

I needed to see the outcome of this fight.  If we lost, the Pyre Witch might target us next.

Wes grabbed my hand, pulling me away.  Lorne ripped dirt from the ground and wrapped it around Deon’s burnt body, lifting it.  Then, we ran off the bridge, sprinting back the way we came.  Back towards the Great Library, and whatever Commonplace was planning there.  My shins ached again from the effort, and I started huffing, out of breath in an instant.

Good luck, Professor Oakes.  And Professor Oakes.

But they would need a lot more than luck, if they were to defeat The Pyre Witch.

We ran through the darkness, over islands and bridges lit up by pale moonlight, back towards the Great Library.  I wheezed for breath, and a chill, tingling numbness spread over my skin, despite the warmth of the summer night.  My stomachache doubled, this time cropping up in multiple places.

After a minute, we found an unconscious, breathing Green Hands.  Someone we could swap with Deon.

Lorne set his friend down, now a blackened skeleton, and pressed his hand against its charred skin.  Green and white lightning flickered around him, as he performed a forced transference between Deon and the Green Hands.

The lightning faded.  Deon’s Pith now lived in the Green Hands’ body, a tall man with blonde hair.

The man’s chest stopped moving.  He’s not breathing.

“No!” shouted Lorne.  “Fuck you!”  He slammed the ground with his fist, making the earth shake.

I reached out towards Deon’s Pith.  Even though he’d been swapped into a healthy body, his Pith had become no more than a few wisps of lightning in his skull.  He sustained too much permanent damage to his brain.  We had taken too long.

We couldn’t do anything for him now.

“Deon,” said Lorne.  “Please.”

“Lorne,” said Wes.  “I’m so sorry.  We need to – “

Lorne stood up, clenching his teeth, fists shaking.  “Fuck you,” he snapped.  “Let’s keep moving.”

On the way back to the Great Library, we passed the unconscious bodies of our squadmates.  Eliya, covered in burns but breathing, her blue eyepatch turned black with scorch marks.  Leizu, unscathed, but unconscious, exhausted from the Joining she’d done to keep the rest of us alive.

And Naruhiko, slumped over in the library’s tall atrium, red and white burns crisscrossing up and down his skin.

As we passed each of them, we dragged them to safer locations, away from the main paths and the fires, then covered them with light dustings of rubble.  Enough to camouflage them and their breathing without blocking their source of oxygen.  In the darkness, hiding them was easy.

If we won the battle, we could excavate them.  They would be safe until then.

I watched through one set of eyes, as we ran through the hallway into the 0th level of the library, then over the rubble of the broken ceiling mural and towards the staircases to the 1st level, high above.  I huffed and wheezed, my legs, shoulder, stomach all aching.

At the same time, I watched through a second pair of eyes: The Obsidian Foil’s.  I strained through a headache and flickers of blue lightning to hold onto the effect, to maintain my view of his and Penny Oakes’ battle.

The three kept staring each other down.  They’re both buying time.  The guardians wanted time for our reinforcements to arrive, the ones we’d signaled on Jun’s radio.  And Tunnel Vision wanted time for her Praxis Vocation to get to work, optimizing her mind for this one battle.

Every now and then, the Obsidian’s Foil’s vision turned black-and-white, with a blob of white in the shape of Tunnel Vision standing in front of him.  Thermal sight.  An advanced Joining technique, that would help him see in the dark.

Lorne pushed open the door to Level 1.  As we ran in, both the Pyre Witch and the Guardians glanced down, over the edge of the floating island into the city.  Sebastian Oakes’ enhanced eyes made out precise details far down Mount Elwar, illuminated by flickering street lamps.

A line of tanks and military trucks sped up the slopes of Hightown, painted with the blue flag of the Principality.  Local troops.  They shot past protests and police cars, headed straight for the cable car station.  They’re going to retake it.  Cut off Commonplace’s escape.

High above them, in the sky, half a dozen fighter planes shot through the darkness, passing down the northern coast of the Principality towards Elmidde.  More soldiers.  Commonplace might be dominating within the walls of Paragon Academy, but the city, the country would be much harder to take.

Smoke rose off the fighter planes in the distance, and they veered off, plummeting towards the ground.  They crashed into the city, one by one, sending up orange plumes of flame.

Then, the tanks at the front of the line exploded, blocking the rest of the group from advancing.  The other vehicles scattered, but they also exploded, one after the other.

And then, the Obsidian Foil saw them.

A swarm of planes soared over Elmidde, flying from the direction of Bartolet Military Base.  Commonplace launched their air power.  Fighters strafed over the trucks and unleashed machine-gun fire, forcing soldiers to scatter.  Dive bombers dropped their ordinance on tanks, turning them into red and yellow fireballs on the streets of Hightown, setting manicured gardens on fire.

The Obsidian Foil squinted, and I saw the faces of Commonplace’s pilots.  A few faces I didn’t recognize, piloting the slower, clumsier planes.  Humdrums, probably.

And a series of attractive Ilaquan men and women, decked out in purple flight suits.  Even beneath their flight caps and goggles and oxygen masks, I could guess their identities.

Steel Violet.  Wes’ favorite I-Pop band.  Ex-Kuttas.  The Broadcast King’s mercenaries.  They must have skill-stitched some pilots.

And now, they were overwhelming the Principality’s military.

Scholars,” whispered Penny Oakes.

“Alright,” said the Pyre Witch.  “That should be long enough.”

She began her first attack.

She shot straight into the air, projecting into her combat suit, putting distance between her and the Obsidian Foil and his blades.  At the same time, pieces of jade glass and canvas assembled on her face, forming a gas mask for Penny Oakes’ attacks.

Tunnel Vision’s fingers jabbed down, and threads of palefire shot out, becoming a flash of white flame, lighting up the dark island.

Penny Oakes moved to counter.  The yellow cloud of gas dispersed, forming a sphere around Tunnel Vision.  When the fire reached the sphere, it sputtered out and dispersed, choked of oxygen, just like their last fight.

This gas is non-flammable too.  And resistant to the absurd heat of palefire.

Less than a second later, Tunnel Vision shot bolts of lightning out of her hands, a storm of electricity, just like last time, to break through the chemical shield and electrocute Oakes.

But Penny Oakes had fought The Pyre Witch before.  She had prepared.  She drew another orb of chemicals around her, a dark purple gas that obscured her features from even the Obsidian Foil’s enhanced eyes, reflecting the light of the moons and stifled flames.

The bolts of lightning crashed over the sphere, and dispersed, harmless.  Penny Oakes did her homework.  None of the bolts shot at Sebastian Oakes, who had proven himself immune to them.

We ran through Level 1 of the library, just as tall as Level 0, but more narrow, with just a single metal staircase at the center, leading up to the security checkpoint at the ceiling guarding the second level.  I barely had enough headspace to glance at the scenery.

I leaned on my knees, my thighs burning from the effort, and Jun placed a hand on my shoulder.  “You can do this,” he said.  “Just a little farther.”  For the library or this year?

I nodded at him, and kept going, pushing through the pain and dizziness.

Next, Tunnel Vision raised her index fingers, and summoned the green lasers from before, the ones that she’d used to decapitate Penny Oakes.  They shot towards her again, slicing through the sphere of purple gas.

Hidden from view, Penny Oakes cried out in pain.

The Obsidian Foil fanned his hands out, and shot a series of white disks out of his backpack.  They flew in front of the green lasers, blocking them.  The white light reflected the energy, dispersing it in all directions, and the disks didn’t burn from the heat.

He strengthened them with his Vocation.  Just like his swords, and Paragon’s body armor.

Tunnel Vision flew around the purple orb, lasering it from different angles, but the Obsidian Foil moved the disks with her, defending his wife.  A few of the lasers struck his armor, but did nothing.  His strengthening Vocation in action.

“How are the professors doing?” Wes asked me, in the library.

“They’re blocking her,” I wheezed, climbing up a flight of spiral stairs.  “All her attacks.”

We burst through into Level 2, a shorter, more narrow floor lit only by dim blue lanterns.  On the far side of the room, a group of bookshelves had been knocked over, and squads of Green Hands used the piles of books as cover.

They aimed machine guns and long-range flamethrowers at us.  Their squad leader barked an order at them, and they all fired.

Lorne spread his molten metal into a wide, flat shield, and we all squeezed behind it, as bullets zipped around us, and flames licked the edges.  Wes shot a storm of paper over the top, above the fire.  The gunfire lessened, and shouts rang from across the room, as his slips of paper sliced up and distracted the enemy.

Then, Lorne pushed his shield forward, and the rest of us advanced behind him.  The others can handle this.  I needed to focus on my connection to the Obsidian Foil.

When we got close, Samuel jabbed his fingers forward.  His metal strings whistled through the air, and in unison, dozens of enemies screamed in pain.

Samuel nodded.  Lorne lowered his shield.  The Green Hands lay on the floor, writhing, spurting blood from their hands.  Their thumbs and index fingers had all been chopped off.

“I’m sorry,” said Samuel.

We moved on, towards the third level.  This is only a rear guard.  A paltry force, scouts.  One of them had a radio on him, flipped on.  The rest of Commonplace knows we’re here, now.

The real enemies would be waiting for us, ready.  They might even know our Vocations.

We ascended another spiral staircase, towards the third level.

And a few islands over, the Guardians went on the offensive.

Penny Oakes’ yellow nerve gas closed in around Tunnel Vision, pressing towards her mouth, her bare skin.  It stopped an inch away, pushed back by an invisible barrier.  A cushion of air.  Tunnel Vision could do air projection, so with some effort, she could keep the deadly chemical from touching her.

Then, the Obsidian Foil bent his knees, and leapt at her, still blocking the lasers with his white disks, unfolding a wingsuit below his arms.  In one bound, he jumped up half a dozen stories to Tunnel Vision’s level.

In his left hand, a black rapier moved in a blur, slashing at the Pyre Witch’s throat through the cloud of nerve gas.  I watched the motion through his eyes, every detail magnified, precise, enhanced by his Joined eyes.

Tunnel Vision projected into her suit and jerked back, a short, sharp motion, just enough to keep the tip from grazing her skin.

But in the same motion, he stabbed towards her leg with the rapier in his right hand.  She jerked it out of the way, but not fast enough.  The blade sliced her calf through her combat suit, drawing a bloody red line down the black material.

Tunnel Vision flew backwards and down, away from the islands, not bothering to counterattack with Palefire.  The Obsidian Foil flew after her, slashing, jabbing, moving his swords in a blur, forming elaborate patterns of feints and strikes.

Through his eyes, I watched him soar through the air, darting up, down, and sideways like a hyperactive dragonfly.  Every few seconds, his vision would switch to his monochrome thermal sight, and he would flit his eyes around him, watching for an ambush in the darkness.

As I ran, I had to stare at the ground ahead of me, to make sure I didn’t fall over or throw up.

Purple lightning crackled around Tunnel Vision, lighting up the night sky, making flashes of brightness inside the yellow cloud of gas.  Every few seconds, she burst out of the sphere of chemicals and jabbed her palms forward, shooting off a burst of palefire, making a cloud of smoke in the darkness.

But every time, the gas moved in response, shifting around her to stifle the flames before they could spread.

Lightning bolts and green lasers shot from all angles, too, pounding the Obsidian Foil, since he’d blocked them from hitting his wife.  They burned through his enhanced armor, slicing charred lines through the dark blue material.

But the Obsidian Foil didn’t slow down.  Didn’t lose limbs, or writhe, or even bleed.  He screamed, the sound echoing through his ears, ringing in his skull.  But he didn’t slow down.

His skin is too strong.  An impressive Joiner, especially for the Principality.

And no green lightning flickered over his skin, which meant these maneuvers weren’t straining him.  He has more raw power than the Pyre Witch, too.

Penny Oakes leapt off the edge, unfolded her wingsuit, and started flying, too.

Now, it was a game of maneuvering.  Tunnel Vision, darting to stay out of reach of Professor Oakes’ blades, towards Penny Oakes so she could hit her with a close- range attack, or get an angle where the white disks couldn’t block her lasers.  Penny Oakes, maintaining her defensive purple gas to deflect the lightning, and the offensive yellow gas to choke the palefire, staying close enough to wield her chemicals, but far enough to stay safe from Tunnel Vision.

And her husband, Sebastian Oakes, defending Penny from the lasers with a dozen white disks, while enduring her lightning and attacking Tunnel Vision at the same time.

A complex dance, three projectors soaring through the moonlit sky.  Two mosquitos versus a firefly.  Bursts of white flame, clouds of purple electricity.  Clusters of green lasers and storms of ordinary lightning bolts.  Clouds of hot smoke expanded everywhere, surrounding the battle.

Below Paragon, Tunnel Vision flew up beneath one of the floating islands, cloaked in the shadows beneath the rocks.  Professor Oakes followed her up, and slashed at Tunnel Vision’s thigh, drawing up another line of blood.

Another slash, and a piece of her black suit jacket fluttered down.

The Obsidian Foil tripled his slashes, unleashing a barrage of strikes, faster than before, green lightning flickering around his wrists.  She’s pinned against the rock.  She couldn’t escape downwards without going through him.

Is this it?  Had they really found a counter to every tactic that the Pyre Witch could use?  It made sense, on some level.  Sebastian Oakes was one of the stronger Scholar-Ranked Guardians at Paragon.  One of the few projectors who could hope to match her.

This still doesn’t feel right.  It was too easy.  And the Guardians had to know that too.  Both of them had a hesitancy about them, Penny Oakes keeping an extra distance.  They weren’t underestimating her.

And Tunnel Vision spoke.  Her lips moved, and the rock above her vibrated, making a deafening whisper, hissing through the night air and the clouds of hot smoke towards Sebastian Oakes’ enhanced ears.

Such a perfect couple,” she said.  “Fighting in perfect unison.

The Obsidian Foil slashed at her skull, and she bent over, dodging it.  He stabbed at her arm, and she rolled to the side through a puff of hot smoke, making it only graze her skin.  Another cut, another line of blood.

But you’re just as hollow as the rest of this place.

The Guardians ignored her mind games, and kept pressing the attack.  In between a pair of slashes, the Obsidian Foil lashed his foot out again in a roundhouse kick, aiming for Tunnel Vision’s shin just like last time.

A chunk of rock broke off of the island and slammed into Oakes’ leg, deflecting his kick and breaking into pieces.  The Pyre Witch darted to the side, making more space for herself.

When I broke Lyna Wethers out of prison, that monster told me everything,” she hissed.  “How Penny, of the Alden family, begged Wethers to use her Whisper Vocation on a marriage prospect.  To make him fall in love with her, instead of Wethers.

Chunks of rock from the island blasted through the yellow smoke around her, making a hole.  A rope of palefire shot out, and the Guardians dodged it.  It exploded, sending up more clouds of grey smoke in its wake, joining the rest of the dark smoke from the battle.

Sebastian felt nothing for Penny.  And she made Wethers drill into his soul to change that.  To make it her own.

In the library, we ran through the second level, and I stared at my feet, at the hardwood floors, wobbling from my extra set of eyes, as blue lightning flickered around me and the headache stabbed into the back of my skull.  My legs burned, and I shivered, sweat soaking into my combat suit.

And when it was done, Penny Oakes begged Lyna Wethers to erase her memory of the act.  To cover up her failure, her shame.

For a fraction of a second, the two Guardians paused in their attack.

Love is just another tool that this place uses to control you.

Sebastian Oakes tightened his grip on his rapiers.  “Do you believe in anything, witch?”

Before she could answer, he whipped his left sword towards her throat, already bleeding from a shallow cut.

Blood exploded out of the Pyre Witch’s wound.  It wrapped around the rapier’s dark blade, catching it mid-swing.  The Obsidian Foil yanked the blade back, but the projected blood held on tight, refusing to let go.

Tunnel Vision smiled.

The Obsidian Foil flitted his eyes behind him.

Something zipped out of a cloud of hot smoke, a tiny blur of movement so fast even Oakes’ enhanced vision could barely see it.

Oakes’ vision shook, and his armor thudded with multiple impacts.  Dozens of loud cracks rang out in the distance.  Supersonic bullets.  Too fast to dodge, or block.

They struck the same places in his armor multiple times, one after the other, sending chunks flying off.  Anti-tank rounds.  Designed to punch through four-inch steel plating.

The Obsidian Foil moved aside, but the impacts still tore through his enhanced combat suit, puncturing it in his stomach, his arm, and his leg.

Sebastian Oakes groaned, and through his eyes, I saw blood pouring from the bullet holes.  Voidsteel rounds.  Capable of tearing through an ABD and Joined skin.  He zig-zagged through the air in a fast, random pattern, making himself harder to hit.

The cloud of hot smoke dispersed, revealing a muscular Shenti man wearing a wingsuit and combat fatigues, surrounded by dozens of floating rifles.

Pictogram.  Tunnel Vision had used the clouds of smoke from her battle to hide him.  The heat from the smoke and fire had disrupted the Obsidian Foil’s thermal sight, and she’d forced aggression out of him, distracting him further.

And she positioned herself on the bottom of an island.  Letting Pictogram line up his shots without being seen.  They’d even deliberately revealed his presence to the Guardians on some different part of Paragon, to make them think that the sniper was somewhere else, away from the fight.

The Obsidian Foil grunted with pain, blood dripping down the dark blue plates of his armor.  But none of the wounds looked fatal.

His eyes flitted to the side.

Penny Oakes dropped from the sky head-first.  Limp.  Half her skull had been blown to bits, leaving a grey and red pulp in place of the right side of her face.  Blood streamed into the air above her, as she fell through the dark air.

One look from his enhanced eyes, and I could tell that she was dead.  No Pith could survive that kind of an impact from a Voidsteel bullet.

A second later, the Obsidian Foil’s wife vanished into a dark cloud, dropping towards the burning city below.

Professor Oakes roared.  But as he did, the cloud of yellow fireproof nerve gas dispersed around the Pyre Witch.  With no Penny to project into the chemicals, Sebastian couldn’t keep it tightened.

With the Obsidian Foil’s chemical defenses down, Tunnel Vision jabbed her hands forward, and unleashed a flash of palefire.  Precise, too fast to dodge.  It enveloped Oakes in an instant, filling his vision with white fire.

Oakes howled.  His Joining didn’t seem to lighten the pain.  Or maybe that’s rage.

The flames licked his skin.  Oakes’ Joining kept him from burning, but green lightning flickered around him, showcasing his effort.  He’ll tire before she does.  Long before she did.

Which meant he only had one chance to win this fight.

The Obsidian Foil pressed his arms to his sides, and flew at Tunnel Vision.  A direct charge.  On his path, he darted up, down, and to the side at random, to throw off Pictogram’s aim.

Tunnel Vision maintained her jet of flame, and flew away from him, back up towards the Great Library.

Towards us.

The Obsidian Foil chased after her, dodging bullets from Pictogram by keeping an eye on his rifles.  They flew at blinding speeds, green and purple electricity crackling around them, palefire lighting up the night sky.

As they passed through a cloud, his right arm moved in a blur, and his black rapier shot forward, thrown at the speed of a bullet.

Tunnel Vision kicked it aside midair, and it sliced through her steel-soled boot, ripping out a splatter of blood.  But it didn’t hit the rest of her body.

The two of them shot through the air, weaving between dorm rooms, spires, the burnt wreckage of the banquet hall.  The Pyre Witch, fleeing her enemy and shooting flame in her wake.  And the Obsidian Foil, desperately trying to catch up as his Pith grew exhausted.

Finally, on the bridge leading to the Great Library, the Obsidian Foil’s Pith ran out of energy.  Joining his skin together through the palefire proved too strenuous.

He collapsed on the wooden boards, lying on his back.  And the fire burnt his skin, no longer enhanced.

In an instant, it turned to a blackened crisp.  Oakes writhed for a few seconds, then he went limp.

Demon.  I clenched my teeth, and my hands shook.  She’s a demon.  In minutes, she’d taken out a talented Guardian, and one of the strongest projectors at Paragon.  My professor.  The kindest teacher in this place.

His eyes fluttered, staring up at the two moons overhead.

And the Pyre Witch stepped above him.  She strode towards him and unleashed another hellish wave of white fire, turning his arms and legs into blackened skeletons.

As his vision blurred, she knelt, reached into his armor, and pulled out a thick hardcover tome, colored a light purple.  The only thing that hadn’t been burnt.

The Lavender Book.  My throat tightened.  Now, it all made sense.

That’s why Tunnel Vision had lured the couple in, torturing us with fire to use us as bait.  That’s what the Oakes’ secret mission had been, why they weren’t fighting with the other students or defending the library.

The Lavender Book, the all-powerful Vocation Codex, hadn’t been taken with the fleet.

It was here.  In Paragon Academy.

And now, the Pyre Witch had taken it.

Tunnel Vision gazed up towards the library.  Towards us.  Then she glanced back towards Pictogram, perched on a bridge behind her.

“Stay on perimeter watch,” she said.  “Whistle if you see something important.  I’m going to root out the students in the library.”

Pictogram indicated his head to the Lavender Book.  “You’re going to hold onto that?”

“Of course.  No safer place.”

Pictogram unfurled his wingsuit and leapt into the air, soaring towards a different part of Paragon.

Tunnel Vision stepped towards the library.  She’s coming for us.

Behind her, the Obsidian Foil spun around and stabbed his blackened arm towards her.  The burnt flesh and his hand broke off midair, turning his arm bone into a sharp, blackened spear.  Green lightning crackled around him.  One last desperate effort.

The Lavender Book didn’t motivate him.  It was people like us.  His students.

He wants to keep us safe.

Tunnel Vision jerked her leg up, and his bone only grazed her calf, slicing her skin.  She stabbed a clawed hand down at him, and a final burst of palefire washed over him.

The Obsidian Foil went limp.  His vision cut off, disconnected from my Vocation.  His Pith isn’t working anymore.  She’d confirmed the kill.

No,” I whispered.

Wes looked back at me.  “What happened?”

“She killed them,” I said, my hands shaking on the grip of my machine pistol.  “She has the Lavender Book.  And she’s coming for us.”

Lorne’s eyes widened.  “Move,” he said.  “She still needs to fly through the lower levels.  That means we still have time to – “

The building shook.  Cracks spiderwebbed out from the marble wall.  I gaped at them.  This is the second level.  Even the walls in lower areas were reinforced with projection.

The structure was supposed to be impregnable.  What horrific techniques has the Pyre Witch unearthed?

The wall crumbled, chunks of rubble spilling down the outside of the building.  As it did, a flash of white light rushed in towards us.  Palefire.

Lorne raised his shield of molten metal, but chunks of rubble slammed into it, breaking the thin, liquid barrier all over.  Palefire rushed through the gaps, and washed towards Lorne.

In an instant, he pulled the shield back into himself and cooled it, forming a rigid metal shell of armor around him, blocking out the fire.  His Vocation could control the temperature of metal, so he could keep himself cool with it.

In response, the fire rushed towards Wes.  Samuel and Tasia stepped in front of him, lifting metal plates and orbs of lightning, respectively.

The white flames ignored Tasia’s barrier, and rushed over Samuel’s, washing over his body.  Samuel dropped to the floor, and screamed, covered in flames.

Tasia threw a shield of lightning over him, and the fires stopped.  Burns covered his skin, but it hadn’t blackened.

The Pyre Witch strode over the moonlit rubble, her brown ponytail and black skirt stained with ash and blood.  She held one of Professor Oakes’ obsidian rapiers in her fist, clenching it with white knuckles.  A pile of library books burned next to her, casting her in flickering orange light against the night sky.

Sweat soaked the armpits of her suit jacket, and her chest rose and fell, out of breath.  That fight took a lot out of her.  She still stood a thousand miles out of our league.  But she didn’t crush us in an instant.  Which meant she was tired, at least for a moment.

Tunnel Vision found the breath for a single word, as she limped forward, blood trickling out of the cuts on her legs, over her thin body armor.

“Goodbye,” she said.

She raised her hand towards us.

A whistle rang through the cool air.  A sharp, piercing noise, it screeched in the distance, making my ears ache.

Pictogram’s signal.  Someone else had arrived.  Someone important.

Tunnel Vision leapt backwards out of the hole she’d made in the wall, unfurling her wingsuit.  She soared into the air towards the other islands of Paragon.  Away from us.

Everyone ran to the edge, staring at her, towards the dark ocean in the distance.  What was she responding to?  What did Pictogram see?  I squinted, straining my eyes to look into the darkness.

Nothing.  At least, nothing I could make out.  Just lapping water, moonlight, and dark clouds.

“Lorne,” I said.  “You’ve studied some Joining with your vision, right?  What do you – “

“A plane,” he said, his eyes widening.  “A navy blue plane, with white stripes, flying towards the city from the northeast.”

Crooked Talon,” said Wes.

Professor Florence Tuft’s plane.  The ultimate weapon of the Harpy herself, the Scholar of Air.

Reinforcements.  Paragon had sent back reinforcements.

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12-A The Ant and the Beetle

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Ana

I slid down the wall of the barracks, hyperventilating.

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

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

And we weren’t hearing anything, which meant – 

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

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

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

“A diversion?” Jun said.

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

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

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

Wes and I stared at him.

He shrugged.  “It’d work, right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So we make some noise,” said Wes.

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

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

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

“Once,” said Wes.  “A long time ago.”

“Do you remember where the radio room was?”

“I remember being bored,” said Wes.

“Try,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Hira had left.  She’d abandoned us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that an order?” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mobster nodded, raising an eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, sir.”

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” said Wes.  “Dear.”

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

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

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

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

They were shrinking in the distance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Should we take the controls?” whispered Wes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The blimp jerked, taking off into the sky.

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

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

“But,” he said, “if we – “

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nudging plus memory wipes.  Standard Nudge terrorism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Break it,” I said to Jun.

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

I closed the door behind him.  “Silence it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone stared at him.

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

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

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

I stepped onto Paragon Academy, and stared forward.

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

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

His eyes were wide open, staring at the sky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The servants rushed over the students’ makeshift barricade.

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

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

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

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

The guns!” I shouted at Jun with illusions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wes nodded.  And I gave everyone their instructions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My eyes widened.  The Obsidian Foil?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are they all fighting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The spark landed on the coal dust.

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

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

Deon was burning down the banquet hall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The enemy was focused on them, above all else.

Now,” I said.

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

And Queen Sulphur moved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scholars.  Lorne had no sense of restraint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jun,” I said.  “Can you check – “

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ex-classmates,” said Lorne.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, Tasia,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, silence.

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

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

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

And the library was empty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey!” I shouted.  “Above!”

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

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

“Naru!” shouted Lorne.

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

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

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

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

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

All of us attacked in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do we have something she wants?  Something felt strange.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tunnel Vision just stared at them.

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