15-B – Leizu

Previous Chapter

In ten minutes and thirteen seconds, the members of Chimera Squad would jump out of a plane, into a hurricane of bullets, shrapnel, and ice.  Joiners with perfect aim might shoot at them, with Voidsteel bullets that couldn’t be knocked aside by ABDs, or explosives that could level buildings.  If they got unlucky, they might even encounter a Shenti Commando, who could pull their organs apart with their little toe.

So it made sense that Eliya was panicking.  In some ways, it made her the only sane person on the flight.

The cabin shook with turbulence, and Leizu gazed out the window, at the dark clouds passing below, and the ranks of paratrooper planes soaring alongside them.

Everyone else on the benches had blank faces, cold and flat.  Keeping their nerves to themselves.  But even in the dark cabin, Leizu’s enhanced eyes saw their twitching fingers, their sharp breaths.  They’re terrified, too.

Eliya’s fear looked obvious.  She hyperventilated, her one eye wide, and her whole body trembled, sweat soaking into the armpits of her wingsuit and her platinum blonde hair.  Leizu’s Joined hearing picked up her racing heartbeats, faster than everyone else’s.

Normally, when the girl had a panic attack, she’d excuse herself and go somewhere private, or would hide the symptoms well enough to appear normal.

But there was no privacy on a K-19 plane.  The Guardians and the Humdrum paratroopers squeezed shoulder to shoulder on the benches of the cabin.  They were going into war packed tight like canned tomatoes, just like the poor marines who would assault the beaches in a few hours.

The largest amphibious and airborne assault in history.  That’s what the brass called it.  It made them sound like an overwhelming, invincible force, a statistic to pump everyone up before the big day.

But Eliya didn’t believe that, evidently.  And neither did Leizu.

Leizu leaned over and rubbed Eliya’s shoulders, trying to make the gesture not look too intimate.  If the two of them looked romantic, Eliya would stress about them getting discovered, and that would add another layer to her terror.

“Breathe slow!” shouted Leizu, fighting to be heard over the engine.  “Count ten objects you can see in the plane!”

Eliya nodded, and murmured under her breath, muffling the worst of her panic attack.

“I’ve jumped from dozens of planes like this,” shouted Leizu.

“And it’s not that bad?” shouted Eliya.  “We’re going to be fine?”

“Well, um, no,” said Leizu.  “If the enemy knows there’s projectors here, we could get shredded by Voidsteel flak!  The plane could catch fire, and explode!  The wing could get blown off, and we could crash!  And we could get spotted and sniped after we jump!”

To your friends, honesty is a duty, not a courtesy.  Whaleshit comfort wouldn’t help Eliya.

“But!” Leizu shouted, clenching her fists.  “I will keep you safe!  Even if it kills me!”

Artillery fire rang out in the distance, and the plane shook.  Puffs of smoke and fire exploded in the sky, beside them and the other planes.  Anti-aircraft fire.  But not too much of it.  It meant the bombers had done their work, softened up the ground in advance.  We’ll make it to our jump target.

“I don’t want you to die either, moron!” shouted Eliya.

“We had a saying in Shenten!” said Leizu.  “The fool has bottomless luck.”  She patted Eliya on the shoulder.  “So you have good odds of surviving!”

“Hey!” shouted one of the paratroopers next to her.  “Shut the fuck up!  Your whaleshit is worse than the flak!”

“You first, squealer!” shouted Leizu.  I’m ensuring an ally’s combat readiness!  And helping a friend!”  She glanced out a window.

“Why are you even here?” shouted the paratrooper.  “Shouldn’t you be down there, running in the snow with the dogs?”

Leizu placed a hand on Eliya’s shoulder, stopping her from doing anything to the man.  Even if Eliya did something, it might be blamed on Leizu, and the consequences could be nasty.

And, more importantly, this squealing fuck was a fellow soldier.  Fighting on the same side, jumping from the same plane.  Leizu’s job was to watch his back, even if he didn’t return the favor.

Leizu gave a simple response, that was mostly true.  “I’m here to liberate my home,” she said.  “And you’re going to help me.”  He doesn’t deserve the full explanation.

The paratrooper laughed.  “We’re here to finish what we started,” he said, repeating a talking point from the new Verity.  His voice fell quiet, just loud enough to be picked up by Leizu’s enhanced ears.  “You know what that means.”

One of the other paratroopers grabbed his shoulder.  “Ed.  Shut your hole.”

Ed fell silent, but stared straight at Leizu, his eyes glinting in the dark cabin.

The gunfire continued around them.  A few minutes later, First Sergeant Stella Hargreave, their CO Guardian, shouted at all of them.  “Guardians, ready!”

Leizu straightened up.  The projectors and Humdrum paratroopers shared the same planes, but thanks to the wingtroopers flight capabilities, they were jumping far earlier than the parachute boys.  The planes just conserved their energy for the first leg of the journey.

“Stand up!”

Leizu stood up, with Eliya, Samuel, Nell, and the other three Guardians of Hargreaves’ squad.  Turbulence shook the plane, knocking Nell off balance, and Leizu grabbed the other girl’s arm, steadying her.  None of my squad are ready for this.  ABDs or no.  Command was pushing them in far too young.  Just like me.  Years before.

The exit door swung open at the front of the cabin, and the light beside flicked on, red.  Leizu felt the freezing wind on her face, and shifted her Joining to heat the surface of her skin.

“Check suits!” shouted Hargreave.  The gunfire grew louder around them.

Leizu projected into her unfurled wingsuit, checking for holes, tears, or loose clasps.  The other members of Chimera Squad shouted off, one at a time.  “Five good!” shouted Leizu.

The light changed to a yellow.  Almost there.  The wind howled in the cabin.  Leizu bent her knees, loosening herself up, and remembered the training that Lieutenant Yi had screamed into her.

Making the jump isn’t about courage.  It’s about the force of habit.  It’s about discipline.

What was that her mother had said about the root of discipline?

________________________________________

Leizu stared over the icy cliff, her stomach hurting.

She shuffled with her skis, moving herself higher up the slope, away from the drop.  Leizu’s mother said something about roots, then stabbed one of her ski poles into the snow and squeezed Leizu’s arms.

“You’re a good skier, pumpkin,” her mother said, pulling down her scarf.  “You can make it.”

Leizu hugged her mother, burying her helmet into her stomach, still recoiling from the cliff.

Why did we have to come this way?  Leizu’s mother loved skiing in odd places.  Especially since the resorts were so expensive.

So they’d gone on an adventure, which Leizu normally enjoyed.  The scenery looked beautiful.  Frozen waterfalls and towering peaks and quiet thickets of snow-covered trees, far away from civilization.  Their own little corner of nature.

Then, they’d gotten lost, and found themselves at the edge of a cliff.  Now, they could either jump off to get down the mountain, or make a long, painful hike back up the slope and find another route.

“Come on!” called out Tao at the bottom of the cliff.  “You’re way better than I am, and I made it!”

Tao had been friends with Leizu since they were babies.  So he knew Leizu was scared of heights.

“I don’t know,” Leizu murmured, still clutching her mother.  “I don’t think I – ”

Leizu’s mother hugged her back.  “Hey.  Hey, it’s okay.  I’m not going to push you if you’re not ready.”  She yelled to Tao.  “You know how to get down, right?”

Tao nodded.  The boy wasn’t even ten, but he’d spent his whole life in their town at the foot of the mountain.  He knew his way around the slopes.

“Meet us there, alright?” said Leizu’s mother.  She pulled off her skis, put them together, and slung them over her shoulder.  Then she did the same to Leizu’s.  “If we make good time, we should be back by nightfall.”

“Thank you,” murmured Leizu.  They started their long, uphill hike.

They made excellent time.  Leizu’s mother led her through the woods for an hour, found a familiar landmark, and got them skiing to the bottom in no time.

They arrived at Danhai village at sunset, winded, tired, and ready for a warm drink and a huge dinner.

When they walked in, armed soldiers were marching through their streets.  Men and women with rifles, wearing red military uniforms with the mark of the Black Tortoise.

The Caoists controlled the country.  They could have come here any time they wanted to.  But according to Leizu’s mother, Danhai village was remote, unimportant.  There was no need to visit them, even as Shenten’s war with its neighbors grew hotter and madder.

So why are they here?  Why couldn’t they just leave the town alone?

“Where’s Tao?” whispered Leizu, wishing she could curl up into a ball somewhere.

Leizu’s mother clutched her hand, and speed-walked Leizu through the town, towards Tao’s family’s house.

When they arrived, a lone soldier waited outside, leaning against a wall and smoking a cigarette.  Leizu’s mother rushed past him and burst through the front door.

Tao sat at his dining table, his eyes red from crying.  Leizu’s mother raced forward and knelt beside him, speaking in a rapid, low voice.  “Where are your mom and dad, Tao?”

“They took them,” sobbed Tao.  “The soldiers took them.”

Leizu’s mother looked back at Leizu.  “Stay here,” she said.  “Wait with Tao.  Stay away from the windows.”  She marched past Leizu and strode out the front door, slamming it behind her.

Disobeying the orders, Leizu ran up to a window and poked her head over the sill, watching her mother confront the cigarette-smoking soldier out front.

“What did you do to the couple that lived here?” said Leizu’s mother.

“Their economic scores were calculated,” said the soldier.  “They were found to be insufficient for normal public life.  They’ve been taken to redemption camps, for reeducation and job training.”

“They had jobs,” hissed Leizu’s mother.  “He was a carpenter.  She spent her days working on farms.”

“And they spent their nights in terrorist meetups,” said the soldier.  He breathed a cloud of smoke into her face.

Leizu’s mother jabbed a finger in the soldier’s face.  “They were good people,” she growled.  “Show me the proof.”

“Back up please, ma’am.”  The soldier hefted his rifle.  “Were you friends with this couple?”

“Acquaintances,” she lied.  They’re close family friends.  “Investigate me if you want, you’ll find nothing there.”

“Please return to your home, ma’am,” he said.  “We’re conducting important state business, and it’s not safe for civilians to walk about the streets.”

Leizu’s mother took her and Yi back to their house.  She fixed them a cup of hot tea, then put Tao to bed on a sleeper sofa.

“Go to sleep, everyone,” she said, her voice tired.  “We’ll fix this in the morning.”

Yi sobbed, curling up on the mattress.  Leizu’s mother squeezed his hand, then went off to her own bedroom.  Leizu hugged him.  “Maybe this is just a bad dream,” whispered Leizu.  “Maybe it’ll all be better when we wake up.”

She hugged Yi until his sobs quieted, and he fell asleep.  When she retired to her own bedroom, she felt shocked by how normal it looked.  When she looked outside her window, she couldn’t see any soldiers on the street.  She couldn’t hear screaming in the distance, or shouted orders or passages from the 99 Precepts on loudspeaker, like she’d heard from the radio.

I thought it’d feel different.  That Cao Hui’s men marching through and abducting people would look and sound special, an obvious horror unlike anything else she’d seen before.

But Danhai Village looked ordinary.  She still heard the snow crickets, the burbling river in the distance.  Saw the fresh snowflakes falling on her windowsill.  An image of a peaceful town, a wonderland.

The world looked normal, even as it crumbled to pieces around her.

It look Leizu hours to fall asleep.  When she woke up the next morning, her mother had received a sealed black envelope from the soldiers, drafting her into the war.

________________________________________

Leizu ditched school after lunch, so she missed the bomb.

Her chemistry teacher, Ren Yuhan, had yelled at her during the morning period.  Leizu had been bored in class the last few weeks, so she’d gone ahead and finished every problem set in the textbook, setting her up for the whole year.

As a result, she had nothing to do in class today, and had said as much to Teacher Ren when she approached Leizu and asked her why she wasn’t writing with the other students.

Teacher Ren had viewed the mass problem-solving as a great transgression against her authority.  “Impudent child,” she’d said, matter-of-factly.  Then, she’d torn up Leizu’s three weeks worth of work, and ordered her to do the assignment with the other students.

Old teachers in Shenten were used to using The 99 Precepts as a foundation for their classrooms, no matter the subject.  After the Spirit Block, and the breaking of Cao Hui’s empire, teachers, especially older generations, had no idea how to run things.  More often than not, they just defaulted to yelling.

Leizu wanted to slap the shriveled hag.  But then the senior secondary school’s guard would beat her up.  Leizu had the muscles of a diseased mouse, so she wouldn’t stand a chance against him.

So, Leizu settled for ditching school.  Tao was already skipping the whole week for some project, though it put his grades into a critical red.

She walked down the hill, halfway to her apartment, and heard a thundering boom behind her.

Leizu jerked into motion, darting behind a tree trunk for cover.  A tiny orange fireball expanded over the secondary school.  A hot wind washed over her face, making her flinch.

A second later, Leizu sprinted back up the hill, as fast as her puny legs could carry her.

She arrived minutes before the firefighters, if you could call them that.  They were really just a few volunteers from town, with the most basic training and other jobs to finish during the day.  There hadn’t been an actual trained firefighting team in Hengxiang since Warlord Qian had taken over.

A wall of the school building had been reduced to rubble, along with a third of two floors.  A layer of dust and brick covered groaning survivors and corpses alike.  A weak fire burned in the corner of the building, and the other students and teachers rushed out of the building and onto the street.

It wasn’t a huge bomb, all things considered.  Bigger ones had gone off in Hengxiang in just the last few months.  But it didn’t need to be huge.

When the volunteer firefighters arrived, Leizu helped them move aside rubble and put out the spreading fires and lift injured survivors onto stretchers.  They needed all the help they could get.


Later that day, covered in dust and soot from her work, Leizu glanced at a bulletin board in the town square and saw Teacher Ren counted among the dead.

Leizu got the week off school while they rebuilt the classrooms.  Or at least tried to rearrange the rubble and desks into a vaguely functional shape.  It let her work an extra part-time job, building terraces on a rice farm, helping to pay the rent on her shared apartment.

And at night, Leizu slumped down in her subdivided apartment and ate dinner with Tao, her one roommate.  The one-room space looked more like a glorified cage than an apartment, barely large enough to fit the two of them.  Half the time, the building didn’t even have running water or working radiators, though the combined body heat of all the people stuffed in helped warm it.

But in spite of that, with just a tabletop stove and a cutting board, Tao had put together a delicious meal of homemade soup dumplings, an exquisite luxury considering their circumstances.  We all have to stay sane somehow.  Though Leizu certainly wasn’t.

The two of them sat on their bed, doubling as a couch, and ate dinner, huddled together under a blanket.  Two orphan teenagers, forced to pay rent and go to school.

“Did they find out who did it?” said Tao.

“The police showed up,” said Leizu, sipping a cup of hot water.  Two tired-looking soldiers.  “They made a half-ass attempt at interviewing people.  Then they went back to their post and said they’d ‘get to it later’.”  They didn’t have the resources to conduct a real investigation.  And it was probably just the insurgents Warlord Qian was fighting, anyways, an attempt by another warlord to demoralize the populace and take over the region.

“They’re going to blame this on Minzhu Junren,” said Tao, nibbling the top off a soup dumpling and letting it cool.  “Warlord Qian wants to tighten the noose on us.”

Leizu saw where this was going.  “I’m sorry, Tao,” she said, chewing a dumpling.  “I can’t.”

Minzhu Junren was a popular, doomed movement that had cropped up in Hengxiang over the last few months.  It advocated against warlords, and in favor of universal suffrage and civilian rule, but it hadn’t gained much traction.

“Just one protest,” said Tao.  “You can wear a mask, and stand in a spot where you can run away if the cops get close.  Democracy works great in the Principality and Neke.”

Leizu shrugged.  “Maybe it does.  But we’re never going to have a democracy in Shenten.  Protesting is just going to cause more chaos and division and violence.”  She leaned back against the wall of their tiny flat.  “Warlord Qian will just send in his projectors and beat you guys up, if there aren’t enough of you.”

“And what if there are enough of us?” said Tao.

“Then some other warlord will use the chaos to take over Hengxiang with their projectors.  And then they’ll put you down and it’ll just be more of the same.”  Leizu stuffed five dumplings at once into her mouth, letting their soup explode over her taste buds.  “It’s pointless.”

“What would you do, then?” said Tao.  “Sit and go to school and wait for a bomb to take us?  Our parents are gone.  The adults were the ones who let Shenten rot into this.  It’s up to us, now.”

“Shenten needs unity,” said Leizu.  “I’m tired of watching people die.”  She closed her eyes, and saw the bomb explode again.  Saw the survivors groan under the rubble.

Then, she reached under her pillow and pulled out a bright yellow pamphlet.  One of the paper booklets that had been dropped by an enemy plane soaring over Hengxiang.  Warlord Qian had made them illegal to possess, but he couldn’t search every apartment in the city.

“You’re reading Gao Mei’s propaganda?” said Tao, in disbelief.

“I hear gossip, too,” said Leizu.  “Gao Mei has conquered two other warlords.  More than anyone else in the last few years.  And she’s building roads, turning the water back on, putting people in factories.  She’s trying to reunite the nation again, give us all hope again.”

Tao scowled, and rapped the pamphlet with his knuckle.  “She’ll make a bunch of empty promises, and then she’ll do the same things that all the other warlords do.  Loot, kill, burn.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” said Leizu.  “But it’s better than relying on the mercy of Warlord Qian.”  She clasped his hand.  “I don’t want to watch those animals in the police gun you down.”  She clenched her teeth.  “I want to gun them down.  And their boss.”

“We can’t,” said Tao.  “I’m sorry.”

“I won’t just sit around, waiting for some riot cop to riddle me with holes,” said Leizu.  “I’m going to fight.”  She punched the concrete floor.

And the ground shook, vibrating like a struck bell.  A low clap of thunder rang out from the point of impact, and a cracks spiderwebbed out beneath her knuckles, fissures opening up in the concrete foundations of the apartment.

Leizu held up her hand, staring at it.  A hint of red lightning flickered around her fingers.

Tao stared at her hand.  She stared at her hand.  Both of them in disbelief, their eyes wide and their breaths short.

I’m a projector.  A Joining specialist, of some sort.

“I’m going to join the military,” said Leizu.  She pointed to the pamphlet from Gao Mei.  “The real military.”

Tao looked at her with concern.  And maybe a little fear.

________________________________________

Leizu stared up at the cliff.  Her impossible task.

“You can’t erase pain,” said Lieutenant He, her instructor.  “But you can endure it.”

A fundamental rule of Joining, one they’d learned on their first day of training.  And one they repeated now, on the day of her final examination.

Joining relied on the connection between you and your body, and that connection depended on your nerves and their sensitivity.  Numbing the pain from impacts and attacks was impossible with Joining.  There were Praxis Vocations and drugs that could reduce pain, but doing so would sabotage your power.

So a Joiner had to endure great pain, in battle.  And they had to train their spirits to weather it.

“Remember this lesson,” said Lieutenant He.  “Remember your training, and you will pass.  Fail, and you will plummet.”

Leizu stood at attention, dressed in her physical training uniform.  A red shirt and shorts, nothing more.  Sneakers, instead of fancy climbing shoes.

Lieutenant He pointed to the cliff, thousands of feet high.  One of the largest cliffs in the world, towards the south of Shenten, where the weather was warmer.  Then, she handed Leizu a drawstring pouch.

“Your task is to scale this face, retrieve a bag full of honey from the Kiterjeden bees that make their nests here, and deliver it to the first lieutenant at the top.”  Lieutenant He paced around Leizu.  “You may not use Physical, Whisper, or Praxis vocations.  And you may only use a single Joining vocation: a Venom Shield.”  A technique of the blood and organs, that would prevent anaphylactic shock or a death by poison.  No enhanced strength to scale the toughest pitches.  No upgraded senses to spot the best routes and handholds.

And no hardened skin to ward off the bee stings.

“If you use any other form of projection,” said Lieutenant He.  “We will know.  And you will be disqualified.  If you fall, you may use any projection to save your life, but you will be disqualified.”

In the last thirty-seven hours, Leizu had already passed numerous tests of Joining, marksmanship, tactics, and projection to reach this point.

The final examination didn’t test for those things.  It tested for will, and the strength of one’s discipline through the sheer exhaustion.  If Leizu succeeded here, she would become a wingtrooper for Gao Mei’s divisions.  If she failed, she would have to restart the year, or get transferred to a different branch.

“Do you have any questions, Private?”

Did you know I have a lifelong fear of heights?  “No, ma’am,” she said.

“Lady Gao Mei needs true soldiers to rebuild this country,” said Lieutenant He.  “Push past your limits.  Achieve victory.  You may begin.”

Leizu strode forward, and began climbing up the cliff face.  No rope, no Joining.

From the first handhold she grabbed, it felt strange.  She had climbed many cliffs like this.  She’d scaled smooth glaciers with her bare hands, using her fingers to stab handholds for herself.  

But she’d had Joining for all those.  She had leapt from rock to rock, graceful and quick and untouchable.

Here, she had to take it slow.  Pull herself up at the pace of a drunk slug.  Her thick muscles burned from the exertion, and she found herself out of breath, unable to use Joining to boost the oxygen in her system.  Her hands got sweaty, her skin and body temperature running uncontrolled, and she coated her palms with climbing dust to keep the friction up.

And she looked down, every now and then.  Though she knew it was a bad idea.  She saw the flat fields and towns spreading out beneath her.  The terraced rice farms that looked like a strange, geometric painting.  I used to work on those.  It would take her a whole day to build just one.

From here, they looked so tiny.

And the ground looked so far down.  Leizu imagined herself slipping and falling.  She imagined herself splattering on the ground, too tired to Join up her durability or slow her fall.

Her stomach dropped.  But she kept climbing.

Then, she started seeing the bees.  They looked sparse, at first.  Hovering to take pollen from a cliffside flower.  Circling around Leizu to inspect her, curious, before darting away.  None of them landed on her, or stung her yet.  I’m the first one to climb today.  They hadn’t learned that humans were their enemies.

As Leizu climbed, the bees grew denser.  Clouds of insects, swirling in patterns over the cliffs, transporting resources in and out of the hives far above.  The ambient buzzing noise grew louder and louder, even with normal hearing, until it drowned out the wind.

Some of the bees settled on handholds, forcing Leizu to wave her hand to disperse them.  But that didn’t make them attack.

After another slow, painful half hour of climbing, Leizu spotted a hive.  No, three hives, clustered together under a rocky overhang, sheltered from the elements.  Three vertical shelves of thick, layered honeycomb, clustered together and filled with bees.  Each of the hives was larger than a pickup truck, covered from top to bottom with crawling insects.  Some of the bees landed on her clothes and hair, but no stings, yet.

There might be other hives further up, thought Leizu.  Smaller hives, lone hives, that would be easier to plunder.  But she couldn’t tell with her normal eyesight.  And if there weren’t more, Leizu would have to climb back down to this hive, which was impossible at her level.  I’ll fail.

This was her best shot at getting the honey.

Leizu closed her eyes, and imagined reuniting Shenten.  She imagined sending Tao to a nice apartment, with a giant kitchen and running water and year-round heat.  She imagined a quiet street, a peaceful city with no bombs, no vicious warlords.

She opened her eyes and climbed to the hive.  She clung to a tiny handhold with the first knuckles on her left hand, and used her right hand to loop the string on her pouch around her left wrist.  The bag hung draped against her forearm, its mouth wide open.

Then, Leizu reached up with her right hand, grabbed a chunk of honeycomb, and ripped it off of the hive.

The bees responded in an instant.  The buzzing filled her ears, a surreal, animal siren.  Thousands of bees shot off the hive and swarmed over Leizu.

Leizu clenched her teeth and readied her body.  But nothing could have prepared her for the pain.  They stung her on every inch of her body.  The exposed skin on her thighs and calves.  Her belly and chest and back, stinging through her thin shirt.  And her neck and face.  So many on her neck and face.

It felt like someone was burning her alive.  Like a thousand hot needles were being jabbed into her skin and muscles and bones.  The bees coated her skin.  Implanting their stingers, then pulling out.

Leizu screamed, her whole body shivering.  But she didn’t let go of the handhold, even as bees stung her fingers.  Even if her hands weren’t occupied, there were far too many to squash or wave away.  As she screamed, a bee flew into her mouth and stung her tongue, and she snapped her lips shut.

You can’t erase pain.  But you can endure it.  Leizu flipped on her Venom Shield, the one vocation she was allowed to use.  Her blood purged the venom from its system and quarantined it, protecting her internal organs from the worst symptoms and suppressing an allergic reaction.

Her shaking hand slipped on the chunk of honeycomb, and it slid out of her grip, dropping down the cliff.  So she tore off another chunk, closing her eyes to prevent the bees from stinging her there.

Leizu held the chunk of honeycomb over the open pouch, and squeezed it in her fist.  The honey leaked out between her fingers and poured into the bag, thick and viscous.  She opened her eyes for a split second, confirming her success.  Then, she tossed aside the crushed honeycomb, and ripped off more, repeating the process.

Kiterjeden Bees were far more vicious than ordinary honey bees.  They wouldn’t attack without provocation, but once they started, each sting secreted a pheromone that sent the hive into a killing frenzy.  Now that they had marked her, they would chase her to the top of the cliff, and keep stinging until she died.

The bees kept attacking.  Soon, Leizu had more stingers in her than a porcupine had quills.  She looked like a strange acupuncture patient.  Her fingers on the handhold began to shake from the exertion.  It felt like she could fall every second, but she kept going, ripping honeycomb, squeezing out the contents, and tossing it aside.

Finally, she filled up the bag.  She pulled it tight with the drawstring, and clipped it back on her waistband, tears dripping from her chin.  Her fingers shook, so she moved slow, taking care to not drop the bag down the cliff.

Then, Leizu wiped her sticky, honey-coated hand on the legs of her shorts, and started climbing again.  The bees pursued her, as her limbs shook and she inched up the cliff.  The swarms kept zipping around her, stinging her everywhere there wasn’t already another stinger.  Leizu cranked up her venom shield, preventing her body from shutting down, even as agony filled her mind.

This climb was even slower.  Sometimes, she reached for a handhold, only for her hand to touch a smooth rock face.  Mirages.  Several times, her legs or one of her hands slipped, and her body would slam against the face of the cliff, forcing her to cling on to keep herself from falling.

In the last leg of the journey, the swarms of bees finally thinned around her, then stopped pursuing her altogether.  At the same time, Leizu’s nose picked up a sharp, sour odor coming from the top of the cliff.  Repellant.  That kept the top of the cliff clear, pheromones or no.

The stingers stayed, though.  And the burning heat spreading through her veins, her muscles, over every milimeter of her skin.  Every second, she wanted to let go of this stupid cliff and give up.  I can’t do this anymore.  Not a single handhold more.  Fuck it all.  Then she would reach for the next one.  Leizu had never felt this much pain in her life.

Physical pain, at least.  As Leizu climbed, and her body shivered, she saw her mother, reading the black envelope that sent her to fight Cao Hui’s war.  She saw the bomb go off in her school, killing her classmates and teachers.  And she saw Tao, sitting in their tiny, freezing apartment and shivering under a blanket.  Suffering under Warlord Qian.

Finally, Leizu let out a ragged scream, and pulled herself on top of the cliff, flopping onto her back.

First Lieutenant Zhen leaned over her, smiling.  Then he knelt and unclipped her pouch full of honey, inspecting the contents.  He nodded at Leizu.

I passed.  I fucking passed.

The test over, Leizu turned on all her Joining that she’d been suppressing for the climb.  She felt the strength return to her muscles, the breath return to her lungs as power and focus rushed through her nerve endings again.

She stood up, and tensed her muscles.  The bee stingers shot out of her skin like darts, flying through the air and drifting away on the wind.  Her skin calmed itself, the redness and bumps turning pale and smooth again.

The pain from the stingers remained.  But it couldn’t harm her anymore.

Leizu smiled.

That night, the trainees who passed the examination had a feast of barbecue pork, glazed with the honey they’d stolen.  A rare sweetness, that proved the strength of their wills, their discipline.  Today, they had become true wingtroopers.

Lieutenant He raised her wine glass, and toasted them all.  “Congratulations,” she said.  “Serve your country well.”

________________________________________

The Shenti plane flew towards the drop point.

In a few minutes, Leizu and the other wingtroopers would jump out, to soar through the air and descend hundreds of feet below, to fight a deadly enemy that had taken over Huangdi Academy, what had once been the premiere school for Joiners to hone their talents.  Their target, Warlord Qian, had dug himself in, and surrounded himself with battleships, Joiners, and anti-air batteries.  And Leizu had never fought in a real battle before.

She was having so much fun.

“Three times,” said Private Zi.  “I can get three times as many kills as any of you dumbfucks.”

“Only if you’re counting trees,” scoffed Leizu.  “I saw you miss five shots in our last marksmanship training.”  Anti-aircraft fire exploded around them, and the plane shook, but they still quipped at each other.  They had their durability vocations up to the max.  Even a direct hit with flak shot would just ruin their uniforms.

“Yeah,” said Private Yin.  “You’re a good shot, and good in a melee.”  She snorted.  “If you manage to land.  You fly like a drunk goose.”

“A drunk goose made of diamond.”  Leizu thumped her chest, hard enough to make it thud like a drum, louder than the gunfire and the plane engines.  “How about a gamble, Zi?  Whoever gets the least kills has to pay for a squad dinner.”

“You’re on,” said Zi.  “I like steamed bass and longevity noodles.”

“Yeah?” said Leizu.  “I like soup dumplings, and those are expensive.  So get ready to shell out the cash, you cross-eyed rabbit.”

“Everyone quiet,” said Lieutenant He, in a soft voice that everyone picked up with their enhanced ears.

Leizu and Zi fell silent.

Lieutenant He stood up at the front of the plane, and reviewed the plan.  “You are to secure the perimeter of the academy.  Then, you are to move up in teams of two through the main corridors, taking out any enemies along the way.  When you reach the central building, you are to rendezvous with Colonel Xu, a Shenti Commando dropped in two hours ago.”  Her eyes shone in the dark cabin.  “Then, you are to remove Warlord Qian.  Alive is better, but not a priority.”

Nods all around the plane.  They’d reviewed the strategy a hundred times, memory bursted all the maps and blueprints of the area, and the likely distributions of enemies.

“Once Qian is gone and the sector secured, our forces will have united the nation’s capital, the academy, and this whole province!  And every man, woman, and child will rejoice at the dawning of a new era.”

The whole plane erupted in cheers.

Hengxiang will be safe.  Where Tao still protested against the same warlord she was fighting.  Soon, it would have running water again, working electricity and intact roads.  We can make it better again.  But only if they won.

Lieutenant He finished her briefing.  “Stand up!” she shouted.  They all stood up, and performed the standard equipment checks.

When the red light turned green, Leizu didn’t hesitate.  She walked forward and jumped out of the plane, flicking on her Darkvision suite.

A massive battle spread out on the water beneath her.  Formations of battleships and destroyers fired at each other on the waters of the massive lake, a deafening thunderstorm of steel and explosives.  Bright orange fires burned on the decks of submarines, filling the air with smoke.

And formations of wingtroopers flew towards the academy from three separate directions, near-invisible in the darkness.  Warlord Qian’s Joiners will see us, though.  Their eyes were anything but naked.

As Leizu approached her landing zone, she flattened her arms and legs to her sides, accelerating straight down.  She aimed at a terrace overlooking the docks, filled with at least two dozen Humdrum soldiers behind sandbags, manning an anti-air cannon and a pair of machine guns.

They saw her just a few seconds too late.  She landed in the center of them, cracking the stone ground beneath her and shaking her bones.

Then, she opened fire.  Two triggerless automatic shotguns lifted themselves out of holsters on her back and opened fire, floating over her shoulders and aiming at enemies with projection.  Leizu used projection to feed more shots into the weapons as they fired – ammo belts feeding out of special chambers on her backpack.  It let her fire without stopping, filling the air with buckshot.

As Leizu fired, she separated the shaft of her Voidsteel glaive into two pieces, and grabbed them in her fists.  She jumped and darted amongst the enemies in their makeshift bunker, slashing and shooting and repositioning herself.

One of the soldiers shrugged off a shotgun blast to the chest, without even a bruise.  A Joiner.  But he doesn’t have an ABD.  So Leizu fired four shots at his face to distract him, then flung one of her half-glaives at him, projecting into the shaft.  It sliced his head in two, killing him in an instant.

Leizu walked up the slope of the volcanic island, headed for the central academy.  Private Zi met up with her on a pathway.

“Thirteen,” he bragged, his eyes bright.  A heavy machine gun floated above his head, attached to a similar projected ammo belt.

“Twenty-five,” said Leizu.

“Shit,” he said.

They pushed through the giant front doors to the academy’s entrance hall, taking cover and using their infrared sight to scan for the countless enemies they expected to see.  This is going to be tough.

There were no heat signatures in the entrance hall.  Could be enemy Commandos.  Concealing their body heat and their presence.  But if that was true, they were already dead.

Leizu gestured, and the two of them moved forward, casting their enhanced vision around the hall.

Everyone inside was dead.  Bodies had been scattered about the room, slashed through the throat or with their heads exploded.

“Someone did our job for us,” said Private Zi.  “Guess I’m paying for dinner.”

They moved through the halls and staircases of Huangdi Academy, over bridges between buildings.  In normal times, Leizu would have marveled at the architecture, the paintings, the artistry and the history of the whole place.  But she had a job to do.

As they ventured further up the volcano, the sounds of the naval battle grew more muffled outside.  They met no resistance.  Only corpses.

And then, they pushed open the doors to the main banquet hall, as marked on their internal atlases.

A massive carpeted room spread out before them, with a ceiling hundreds of feet high.  A giant oval table sat in the center, covered with a red tablecloth and stacked high with food and flower arrangements.  Glittering chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and thick curtains covered the windows.

It looked like a wedding banquet.  Or some sort of expensive feast.

And the room was filled with bodies.  Figures sat on the chairs around the table, their heads slumped over onto their plates, their suits and dresses coated with blood.  A child had fallen out of his seat and onto the carpet, blank, unblinking eyes staring at the wall.

Warlord Qian lay on the floor, the left half of his face buried in a puddle of red bean soup.  His family, butlers, maids, and cooks all as dead as him.  Leizu didn’t spot a single living soul in the place.

Except one.  A young woman, sitting at Warlord Qian’s large chair, devouring the banquet with ravenous delight.

A Shenti woman, tall and skinny and pretty, dressed in a dark camouflage uniform with her black hair cut short.  She wore heavy, dark red eyeshadow and black lipstick, a heavy, dramatic face of makeup that she didn’t spill a drop on, even as she stuffed food into her face at blinding speeds.  Steamed bass and prawns and and roast duck and longevity noodles, all eaten with an intense sort of grace, without the slightest droplet of sauce touching her cheek.

A white monkey mask sat on the tablecloth next to her.  Colonel Xu.  The Shenti Commando who’d shown up here two hours ago.  The woman they were to rendezvous with.

“Two thousand, three hundred and eight,” said Colonel Xu, casual.  “I win.”

Leizu stepped forward, her hands shaking.  “These – these are civilians.  They weren’t a part of this war.”

“Any one of them could have been the real Qian,” she said, shoveling rice into her mouth with a pair of chopsticks.  “He could have put a double in his normal body, hidden himself in a civilian nearby.  This is the best way to be sure.”

But Shenti people don’t do body swaps.  Even with the Spirit Block in place, the people of this nation remembered that transference had been forbidden.

“This wasn’t in our orders,” said Leizu.

Your orders,” said the Colonel.  “Lady Gao won’t mind.”

Leizu’s enhanced senses flitted from person to person, straining to detect a heartbeat, a sign of breath.  Someone still alive, who could be given medical attention.  But she sensed nothing.  Commandos are thorough.

“Don’t be sad, pumpkin,” said Colonel Xu.  “It happens to everyone.”  She wolfed down a platter of crispy noodles, her makeup still perfect.  That isn’t part of a normal uniform.  Gao Mei must have let it slide, in her desperation for trained commandos.

Leizu let go of her twin glaives, frozen to the spot.

“Now,” said Colonel Xu, finishing her meal.  “Pick up Qian’s body.  We need to take it to the boss.”

Her body numb, her thoughts blurry, Leizu shuffled forward and slung Warlord Qian’s corpse over her shoulders.

________________________________________

After the assault, Leizu could have screamed, or fought Colonel Xu, or lay in bed and refused to train, or any other extreme reaction.

Instead, she wrote a formal letter of complaint to her CO.  Lieutenant He had adopted a serious expression, and promised she’d look into it.  And that was the last that Leizu ever heard of it.

Tao moved with her to a nicer apartment in Hengxiang, in a neighborhood with running water and consistent power.  They had heat, multiple rooms, and a giant kitchen for Tao to cook his signature soup dumplings with.

But Leizu didn’t talk about it to him.  Didn’t mention the floor of corpses, or the civilians Colonel Xu had butchered and eaten over with such casual indifference.

After all, she’d been a part of the operation, too.  She’d stood back, and followed the Colonel’s every order.

And she was still fighting and killing for Lady Gao Mei.  Another soldier might have quit from a situation like that, but not Leizu.  Not the girl who’d gotten a thousand stings for the sake of her country.

Privately, she lay awake in bed, staring at the ceiling, tossing and turning and unable to get comfortable.  She imagined what would happen if she confessed to Tao.  How do you sleep at night? he’d ask.

I don’t, she’d reply.

She couldn’t fall asleep at night, and she couldn’t fully wake up during the day.  She completed training and operations for Lady Gao Mei like she was walking through a dream, cleaning up the remnants of Warlord Qian’s forces that didn’t wish to submit.

On the worst nights, Leizu went on jogs through her neighborhood, even in sub-zero temperatures and blizzards.  Intense, long sprints that got her winded, even with Joining.  Since Warlord Qian’s defeat, the neighborhood she’d moved to with Tao had the lowest crime rates in the city.  It boasted clean sidewalks and working electricity and all the luxuries other nations took for granted.

But her runs took her to the rest of Hengxiang, through the old neighborhoods where she used to live.  And after five months under new leadership, it looked identical.  Run after run.  The same beggars, the same dry water pumps, the same malnourished children.

Leizu felt tired, but not sleepy.  She just felt so tired.

After one of her two AM runs, she returned to her apartment and found the living room light on.  They had a living room, now.  A year ago, Leizu would have found that a miracle.

Tao stood on the balcony outside, awake, gazing over the rest of the dark city as snowflakes fell on his black hair.  And it was a dark city, beneath the wooded hill of their neighborhood.  Streetlamps and consistent electricity hadn’t been restored to the other districts.

Leizu stepped out onto the balcony with him, and looked down at the frozen streets.  Her breath fogged up the air in front of her, but Joining kept her blood hot, each snowflake hissing and evaporating as it touched her skin.

Tao looked at her.  “What did she do?”

He couldn’t know about the Commando, Colonel Xu.  He means Lady Gao.

“Nothing,” said Leizu.

“You look horrible,” said Tao.  “Even with your Joining, you look horrible.  I’m guessing this isn’t the first late-night run you’ve finished.  You barely talk to me, and you barely eat.”

“Don’t have to eat,” said Leizu.  With Joining, her body could sustain itself with little to no food.

“But you love eating,” said Tao.  “So what did she do?”

He’s still part of Minzhu Junren.  Gao Mei might not be happy if confidential information got leaked to a public protest group like that.

Leizu clenched the metal railing, crumpling it in her fist.  Listen to yourself.  It was Tao.  If she could trust anyone, it’d be him.

So she told him everything.  About the mission, the Commando.  The piles of dead civilians and her ignored complaint to Lady Gao Mei.  And how Leizu was still following orders, by sheer force of habit.

“I’m sure you hate me,” said Leizu.  “And I know you told me so.”  She slumped over.  “But.  Maybe I don’t know anything anymore.  If you want to live with someone else, I understand.”

Tao looked at her for a moment.  Then he leaned towards her on the balcony and hugged her.  Leizu turned down her body temperature, so as to not burn him.

Leizu’s eyes felt warm, and she realized she was crying.  She could have used a Joining technique to make it stop, but she didn’t.

When they broke off, Tao looked at Leizu with a new, hardened expression.  “So Lady Gao Mei didn’t respond to your complaint.”

Leizu shook her head.

“What do you think she’s going to do when she learns you’re best friends with a protester?”

She might forgive me.  Well-trained Joiners didn’t come cheap.  But Tao would go to prison.  Or worse.

“Lady Gao is a warlord,” said Tao.  “Just a slightly more successful warlord than everyone else.”

“What are we supposed to do?” said Leizu.  The protests had shrunk after Warlord Qian had been deposed, and under Gao Mei, the crackdowns would be even more brutal.  And all the other military forces she could join were just more warlords.  More fake promises and violence and looting.

Tao took a deep breath, like he’d been preparing for this his whole life.

“We need to leave,” he said.  “Not just Gao Mei’s domain.  We need to leave Shenten.  Go to one of the other three Domains, or one of the islands.”

“You’d give up on your protesting?” said Leizu.

“Each week, the protests get a little smaller,” he said.  “And the cops get a little meaner.  I’m not a spy, I can’t run a rebellion.  And more people are recognizing my face.”  He closed his eyes, his shirt sprinkled with snowflakes.  “If I stay here much longer, I’m going to get killed.”

Leizu ground her teeth together.  “And then what?”  Her voice sounded weak.  “Gao Mei keeps a close eye on her borders.  If we try to leave, we’ll have Joiners on our tail within a day.”

“You can fight them off.”

Leizu snorted.  “I’m seventeen.  They’ll break my spine like a dry noodle.”  She stared at the hill on the far side of town, where her school had blown up.  “And even if we do escape, then what?  Give up on Shenten and watch it rot?  Let it descend into barbarism?”

“We’ll come back, one day,” said Tao.  “We’ll come back.”

If there’s anything left to come back to.

________________________________________

“I want to sit out the invasion,” said Leizu.  “I’m going to ask to stay back in the Principality.”

Professor Charles Hou draped himself over on his thick feather sofa, his head on one of the arm rests.  The only other Shenti person in Paragon Academy.  “Interesting.  How?  You and Chimera Squad have orders, no?”  An umbrella unfolded over his head, shielding his face from the sun .

“The Principality is already wary of sending Shenti soldiers to the front lines,” said Leizu, standing on a thick fur rug on the outdoor half of Professor Hou’s office.  “I will tell them I’m not comfortable fighting my countrymen, and that’ll be more than enough to reassign me.”

Charles Hou floated a handful of strawberries out of a mini-fridge, a breeze blowing through his light blue hair.  He pressed two of his slender fingers together, and the strawberries blended themselves into a pulpy juice, pouring into a martini glass.  He poked a hole in a lime with a toothpick, and squeezed a stream of juice out of it.

With his drink finished, he opened his mini-fridge again, and floated something in front of him squeezed between a pair of chopsticks.  Leizu’s enhanced vision recognized it in an instant.

An eye.  A human eyeball.

Professor Hou popped it in his mouth and took a sip of strawberry-lime juice, swallowing it whole like a pill.

Leizu recoiled, her stomach churning.

“Calm down,” said Professor Hou.  “My Joining Vocation gives me precise control of everything in my stomach, cells and microbes included.  So my R&D involves swallowing a lot of organic materials.”

“Makes sense,” said Leizu.  “Still gross.”  She sat down on a chair across from him.  A purse had been left on it, and Leizu moved it aside.  “This from one of your guests?”  The women of Paragon found Hou to be an exotic attraction, apparently.   As gossip had it, Hou didn’t mind the treatment, so long as he got to enjoy the perks.

“I’m your professor,” said Hou.  “Don’t be inappropriate.”  He took another sip of strawberry-lime juice.  “Now, why don’t you want to join the invasion?  You’ve told me before that you wish to bring democracy to Shenten, no?”

“Yes,” said Leizu.  “And I do trust the Principality, and everything we’re fighting for, and – “

“Leizu,” said Professor Hou.  “I sweep this place every morning.  It’s not bugged.”

Leizu exhaled, and nodded.  When she spoke again, her tone was less guarded.  “The Conclave of the Wise is back.”

“It is as you say.”

“And if Parliament keeps giving them power, our reps will be figureheads in no time.”

“It is as you say.”

“And it violently suppressed Commonplace, a protest movement with legitimate concerns, which pushed the country into half a civil war.”

“It is as you say.”

When Leizu had enrolled in Paragon, the Guardians had made so many promises to her, about their ideals, their hopes and dreams and respect for human dignity.  Gao Mei had made promises too.

“We’re just getting out of that,” said Leizu.  “And our parliament is crumbling.  Are we really the best choice to help Shenten?”

“No,” said Professor Hou.  “But the alternative is Cao Hui.  And he’s far worse than anything this academy has to offer.  For all their flaws, Paragon never built redemption camps.  If the Black Tortoise is left to his devices, his empire could roll over the world again, bring all of that back.”

If he can build an empire with the Spirit Block in place.  Leizu gripped the wooden arms of her chair, turning down her muscle Joining so she didn’t turn it to splinters.

“I don’t want to settle for a lesser evil,” said Leizu.

“The world is drowning,” said Professor Hou.  “Lesser evil is a luxury.  A blessing, one we cannot ignore.  The Neke are not fighting Cao Hui this time.  Neither is Ilaqua.  Where else will you go?”

“I visited Gestalt Island the other night,” said Leizu.  “The mob burned down half of it.  It looks worse than Hengxiang under a warlord.  And they barely talked about it in the papers.”  Which made it more disturbing, since it meant the information was being suppressed.  “This country loathes people like us.”

“Don’t speak to me of loathing.”  Hou swallowed a test tube full of green liquid.  “You’re still new to these shores.  I lived in the Principality during the first war.  Guardians accused me of being an agent for the enemy, even though Shenten was known for its weakness at foreign intelligence.  They accused me of being a Caoist, even though I defected from Cao Hui’s government.”

He cared more than they could ever hope to.  Guardians and veterans alike sometimes bragged that they’d joined the war for the cause of freedom, or to liberate innocents from redemption camps.  But most had enlisted out of obligation, not as wannabe saviors.  Unlike Professor Hou.

“Even a year ago,” Professor Hou snorted.  “They wanted to give me a tiny basement office, before Headmaster Tau intervened.”  He finished his drink.  “But for every two zealots, there’s one who respects me.  Who sees what I’ve done for the Eight Oceans.”

“And what have you done?” said Leizu.  Professor Hou was known as a body designer, and Leizu knew he worked with the biology and infectious disease departments, esteemed for their impressive medical leaps.  But Paragon kept his work confidential.

Charles Hou stood up.  “Can I show you something?”

He led her out of his office, down an elevator, and to the kitchens, basically a group of tents with cooking equipment, after the Banquet Hall had burned down.  Some of the servants had died during the Paragon attacks, but less than the students, who’d gotten directly in Commonplace’s way.  Leizu still recognized most of their faces.

Steam and the smell of cooking seafood rose into the air, as they prepped lunch.  Some sort of tomato-fish soup, with all the usual accessories.

While one of them looked away, Leizu floated a half dozen chicken turnovers off of a cooling rack, stuffing them into her pockets.  She tossed a pair of them into her mouth, and winced from the burning heat.  You can’t erase pain.

Charles Hou led her to the side, just out of earshot of the chatting chefs.  He pointed to the closest one.  “That’s Dillon Faqir.  He was dying from Jannat Flu when I finished my therapeutic drug.  Now, he goes on twenty-mile hikes on the weekends.  And after I developed a universal flu vaccine, no one gets Jannat Flu anymore.”

“The flu vaccine,” said Leizu.  “You developed that?  In your stomach?”

“Vomited it right up,” said Professor Hou.  “It’s not pretty.”  He pointed to one of the servants washing a table.  “That’s Joyce Coulthurst.  She had a nasty case of hookworms in her blood.  Could have lost an arm and a leg.  Literally.”  He smiled.  “But, with a sizable investment from Paragon, and a thirty-second Synapse, I managed to throw up a bacteria that kills hookworms, makes antibodies, and costs almost nothing to make.  Now, hookworms are a thing of the past, too.”

“And your bodies?” said Leizu.  Hou was involved with the biology department, but was best known as a luxury chassis designer, who shaped the most elegant faces in the world.  “Do you help lots of people with those, too?”

Professor Hou’s face darkened.  “The academy is less interested in my ideas around those.”

“Ideas?”

“I’ve tried, numerous times, to get our department to massively increase its supply of fabricated chassis.  It’s the greatest medical invention in history, and it’s absurd that we don’t have more of them.”  He shrugged.  “But I just make faces.  And even the Headmaster couldn’t budge the Epistocrats’ minds on that.”

“And you don’t see that as a red flag?” said Leizu.

All body fabricators around the Eight Oceans have a similar mindset,” said Professor Hou.  “If I worried myself over every unsolvable problem, I’d never sleep at night.  And I never would have made any of my accomplishments.”  He gestured forward.  “Countless thousands died of those diseases.  And now, thousands of people get to wake up and see tomorrow.  They get to eat breakfast with their families, drink with their friends, explore the mysteries of the world.”

And Paragon keeps his involvement under wraps.  “You’ve probably saved more lives than anyone else at Paragon, then,” she said.

“See,” said Professor Hou.  “Paragon is full of elitists.  And cruel people.  And bad decisions, to be sure.  But Headmaster Tau ensured that I got funding for my projects, and I worked with a dedicated research team of Humdrums and Guardians.  I finished them in my stomach, yes, but we formulated those compounds together, and spread them to the populace.”

“And the Epistocrats didn’t let you take any credit.”

Hou shrugged.  “It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.  I help this nation’s public health and don’t criticize them, and in exchange, they give me money and space, even though I rarely fight on the front lines.”  He gazed up at the towering Great Library in the distance.  “Despite its flaws, I’ve leveraged this academy’s resources to help people.  To reshape the world for the better.  And you can, too.”

“How?” said Leizu.  “By going to war?”

Professor Hou lifted a finger, and glanced around to make sure no one was listening in.  “Force the Principality’s hand.  Put them into a position where they don’t have full control of Shenten, and build up enough international pressure to kill any dreams of conquest.”

“International pressure?”  Leizu said, folding her arms.

“This nation still depends on Neke and Ilaqua for trade.  And both were former colonies of this nation.  If they see the Principality overreaching, they may threaten financial consequences.  And if the Black Tortoise is dead, and an occupation is too expensive, then an opportunity will present itself.”  Charles Hou lowered his voice.  “For anyone to shape the nation of Shenten.  To push it in one direction and watch it tip over the rest of the way.”

Leizu snorted.  “So the warlords can take it again?”

“Maybe,” said Professor Hou.  “Or maybe something else.  There are pro-democracy groups within the nation that can be funded, assisted, kept thriving and alive during the chaos.”

“Stop Caoism and hold back Paragon?” said Leizu.  Shenten was filled with natural resources.  Oil and coal and steel and more.  And plenty of industrialists in this nation that would love to get their paws on it.  They would have, ten years ago, if it weren’t for the chaos in the wake of the Pyre Witch’s massacre.  “That’s some fucking tightrope to balance on.”

Hou shrugged.  “You’re a Joiner.  Tightropes are easy for you.”

“And if I want to quit the circus?”

“Neke and Ilaqua are sitting this one out,” said Hou.  “If you want to shape the future of Shenten, then you can’t sit on the sidelines.  You have to play the game, just like I do.”

“I hate the fucking game,” growled Leizu.  “I can kick an airplane in two.  I can bathe in a pool of lava and climb a cliff full of Kiterjeden bees.  But I wasn’t trained for politics.”  Influence-grubbing was for other, more tricksy folk.

“You won’t be alone,” said Professor Hou.  “I’m going to Shenten, too.  And so is Headmaster Tau.  This is the place where we can help the most.”

Leizu gazed out at one of the floating islands, at a line of Guardians running combat drills on the grass and dirt.  She gazed below, making out the edge of Gestalt Island past the foot of Mount Elwar.  Her enhanced vision looked over the rows of homeless people on the streets, the houses burned down by the mobs of loyalists.

If I sit out, it’ll just get worse.  And she would never join the Black Tortoise, and the rotting mess he’d made of Shenti culture.  The 99 Precepts could crumble, for all she cared.

“It’s not too late to save the Principality,” said Professor Hou.

I wish I could believe that.

But it wasn’t too late to save Shenten.  There’s still time.

Leizu extended her hand to Professor Hou, and he shook it.  “Fuck it,” she said.  “Let’s go home.”

________________________________________

The jump light turned from yellow to green.

“Go!” shouted First Sergeant Hargreave.  She jumped out of the cabin door, soaring into the darkness.  The other three Guardians in her squad followed after her.  Wind whipped through the cabin, and the plane engines rumbled.

Without hesitating, Leizu stepped forward, projected into her suit, and leapt into the air.

Her stomach wrenched, as she dropped through the sky, but it felt comfortable, now.  Like riding a bicycle, after losing the habit for years.

Leizu’s internal clock counted out three and a half seconds.  Then she extended her arms and legs, opening her wings, and shot forward through the sky, above the clouds.  She pushed her suit forward with projection, accelerating herself after Sergeant Hargreaves’ squad for a few seconds.  How could I have ever feared heights?  This was the best feeling in the world.

Flak shot exploded in the air around her, and a heavy chunk of shrapnel slammed into her neck, bouncing off her Joined skin.  Not Voidsteel.  Designed for planes, not projectors.

But her ABD hadn’t deflected the larger chunk of metal.  It might give the others trouble.  Leizu glanced behind her, at the other members of Chimera Squad flying behind her.  Samuel looked focused, Eliya looked terrified, and Nell looked like she was having the time of her life, flak shot or no.

Leizu turned to a different angle, separating from Hargreaves’ squad to a different objective, watching her position on her internal atlas.  She had the most flight experience and the best eyes in the squad, so she’d been assigned the navigator role.

She tilted forward and descended through the clouds.  And for the first time in years, Leizu saw her homeland.  The white-capped peaks of the Xinan Mountains.  The tiered rice farms below, climbing up the slope of a hill and forming beautiful elegant patterns of circles.  The trees with bright red leaves, signifying the passage into autumn.

And the snowflakes, drifting through the air around her.  Light and cold and each of them different.

Leizu didn’t regret leaving.  But scholars, she’d been missing this place.  She switched to her infrared vision, using it to navigate through the early morning darkness.

This part of the country was a quieter, rural area filled with farms, to the north of Wuxian city.  But a series of artillery batteries had been set up in some of the rice terraces, aimed at the beaches in the distance, and anti-air guns to defend them from planes.

One of the soldiers below spotted them and pointed, shouting out their location.  The men rushed about, aiming their anti-air guns and rifles.  But they moved slow, at an ordinary pace, with no enhanced muscles or reflexes.  No Joiners.  No obvious ones, at least.

Leizu flattened her arms to her sides, shooting her straight for the ground.  A few soldiers fired at her, but none of them came close, and she doubted the bullets were Voidsteel, anyways.  Just a distraction.

She slammed onto the ground, floated her twin shotguns over her shoulders, and opened fire, leaping and shooting and slashing amongst the Humdrum soldiers.  The other Chimeras landed on the other terraces, and started fighting.

Leizu cleared her assigned artillery gun in under five seconds.  So she leapt thirty feet into the air, and landed on Nell’s terrace to help her out.  A storm of paper swirled around Nell, blocking her from view and making paper cuts all over the enemy soldiers.  But not on any major arteries.  She’s still holding back.  So Leizu opened fire, clearing the zone and doing Nell’s job for her.  Hesitating gets you killed.

Then, she scanned for the other members of Chimera Squad.  Samuel had done his job with careful precision.  Eliya had taken out her targets too, but she’d messed up one of her kills, and the soldier was still alive, groaning, with his torso covered in blood.  He’s not going to survive that.

Since no one else was moving, Leizu aimed her shotgun at his face and pulled the trigger.  The crack echoed over the hillside, and Eliya flinched.

“Rest well,” said Leizu.  She projected into piles of unloaded artillery, signaled for Chimera to step back, and detonated them.  The guns blew up, four fireballs lightning up the night.  Done.  Who knew how many lives they’d saved on the beach?

Principian lives, at least.  The poor draftees firing machine guns in the bunkers wouldn’t be so lucky.  Her mother had died much the same way, after being pressed into the front lines of Cao Hui’s first mad war.

She stood for a moment, among the bodies.  Cloaked in orange light from the fire.  And she thought back to her conversation with Professor Hou.  The invitation to play a dangerous, uncertain, near-impossible game with this war, in the distant hopes that it could help Shenten.

I hope I made the right choice.

Their mission was over.  Easy.  Too easy.  Leizu’s instincts buzzed in the back of her head.

“Something’s wrong,” she said.  “There should be more resistance.”

Nell shook her head.  “My mother gave us an easy assignment on purpose.”  She bit her lip. 
“She wants to keep me safe.”

Leizu relaxed a hair.  That explains it, then.  Samuel got on the radio and informed command of their success.  They prepared to move to their second target, an airfield that may have been speed-repaired after its latest bombing by the Principality’s warplanes.

A panicked voice replied over the radio, using all the right codes.  “The beach – “ it said.  “The beach.  Reinforce the beach.  Use flight and travel to Sector R with haste, and reinforce the landing parties there.”

“Typhoon-1, interrogative,” said Samuel.  “Has enemy response differed from expected patterns?  Over.”

The radio operator just repeated the command, his voice panicked.

“Let’s move,” said Samuel.  Chimera Squad unfurled their wings again and launched themselves into the air.  They flew low over the ground, back southwest towards the beaches.  The anti-air around them didn’t fire, either taken out, or unable to spot them at a distance in the dark.

Something’s very strange.  If the beach assault was going wrong, then why wasn’t there heavier resistance here?

They flew for half an hour towards Sector R, as the sky grew brighter above them.  They passed more rice farms, a flooded forest with red trees, and a darkened hamlet with all of its lights turned off.  For Leizu, it felt like a brisk jog, but she spotted the beginnings of blue and green lightning around Eliya and Nell, respectively.

Then, they circled around a mountain, flying close to the slopes for concealment.  They passed to the seaward side, and saw the crimson beaches beneath them.  With her Joined eyes, Leizu saw the details first.

The Shenti’s bunkers and machine gun nests had been destroyed all along the beaches.  Their anti-tank obstacles and barbed wire had been demolished, blown into scrap.  The landings have started.

And the ground was covered in corpses.  And the blue Principian uniforms far outnumbered the red ones.  Leizu saw dead Guardians, too, wearing enhanced body armor with their limbs blown off.

Dead soldiers, and no living ones.  The Shenti had shredded the first wave.

A new group of landing boats arrived – twelve troop carriers pulling up towards the closest beach.  In response, a group of men and women charged out of a Shenti camp at the bottom of the mountain, carrying heavy backpacks and heading to intercept.

They sprinted faster than normal.  Joiners.  Using a zero dash and enhanced muscles to accelerate them.  They bounded over hills and onto the red sands of the beach in less than thirty seconds, as the Principality’s soldiers began to run onto the beach.  A few of them stumbled over rocks and fell, but picked themselves back and kept going.

Leizu made a hand signal, and Samuel motioned for Chimera Squad to land on the slope of the mountain, behind a thicket of bushes, so they could observe the battlefield before entering the fight.

They ran forward, ignoring the bullets fired at them, and pulled triggers attached to their vests.

A thundering boom rang over the ocean, and the landing boats exploded, a cloud of dust and sand enveloping them.

When the smoke cleared, the Principian marines had been blown to pieces.  And the bombers climbed out of sand dunes and piles of rocks, their clothes in tatters, bleeding, bruised.  Two of them lay on the beach, unmoving, but the rest of them had lived.

Then, the Joiners ran back towards the camp by the mountain, where a group of soldiers had unloaded more heavy explosive vests for them.


A Joiner bomb.  Suicide bombing, minus the suicide.  A dangerous tactic that had become popular after the Spirit Block.  Use muscle Joining to get a big payload to a target, fast, then use durability Joining to survive the blast.  It used bodies instead of money – a favorite tactic of warlords.

But Joiner bombs were dangerous.  Without an Invincibility Suite, setting off high-yield bombs in your face caused damage in the long-term.  And judging by their wounds, and their clumsy running, these Joiners were novices.  No match for a real Guardian, or even a Paragon student with real training.

This is a bad strategy.  Under the Yokusei Pact, a nation could only have a few projectors at a time, so quality beat quantity every time.  That was the philosophy that had birthed Guardians and Commandos and War Priests alike.  And even Cao Hui hadn’t ever broken the pact, not at scale.  Such chaos would be impossible to control.

So why is he wasting his Joiners?  The Black Tortoise wasn’t an idiot.

And then Leizu squinted, looking further away and straining her enhanced vision.

Dozens more Joiners blew up landing boats further north on the coast, and further south, too.  Dozens of dozens.  Hundreds.  More of them charged out on the water, combining zero dashes with water walks.  Charging the Principality’s ships en masse, further out on the ocean.

Their running looked awkward, too.  Clumsy and unpracticed.  More amateurs.  Who’d been given rushed training and pressed onto the battlefield.

But they moved fast enough.

And there were so many of them.  And Sector R isn’t the most important beachhead in the assault.  It was of middling importance, at best.  Which means they’re everywhere.  The enemy Joiners were everywhere.

Leizu began to understand a fraction of the radio chief’s panic.

Nell stared down the mountain, looking confused at the chaos below.  “What the fuck is going on?  Where’s the Symphony Knight?  Where’s Headmaster Tau?”  The sun rose over the mountains of Shenten, bright and glaring and merciless.

Leizu’s voice tightened, and she forced herself to speak in a steady, measured voice, so her squadmates wouldn’t see her fear.  “The Black Tortoise broke the Yokusei Pact.”  Broke the arms treaty.  “He’s trained an army of Joiners.”

Authors Note – The H Word:

Hi all,

I really hoped I wouldn’t have to do this. I hate having to write this, but here goes.

Here’s the basics: for the last month, I’ve been suffering from a moderate to severe repetitive strain injury, as a result of poor posture combined with a extreme amount of typing. In the weeks since, I have seen multiple doctors and specialists, while continuing to post chapters at a slower rate using my backlog. But the reality is, recovery has been excruciatingly slow and painful. And I’m pretty much out of chapters.

In this period, I have written almost nothing new. I am using a dictation program right now, but progress is still very very slow. Even my editing has severely dropped in quality. I basically have had to put my entire life on hold, and pretty much everything that I’ve been working on, Pith and otherwise.

So, I am putting Pith on hiatus.  This chapter, which is currently available to patrons, will go public in two weeks. Otherwise, there will be no new immediate content.

I don’t know how long this is going to take, or how much of my life plans are going to be sabotaged by this injury. I may cross a significant point, and start recovering way faster. I may reach a level of competence with my dictation to where I can actually voice type chapters. But I don’t know how long that’s going to take. But in the meantime, I feel that the best thing I can do, for myself and for the story, is to focus on recovery.

I still love this story. I still love this world and these characters and all the big plot points I have planned. I have no intention of giving up on this project or this world or these characters.

Thank you to anyone who has read, commented, or supported me on Patreon. And I am sorry to disappoint. I hope to be back with the story as soon as possible.

– MWS

recovery update-6/7/21:

hi all. Thought I would try to give semi-regular updates on my condition and recovery, so y’all can keep track of how I’m doing. I am typing this with Dragon, my new dictation software. It’s a very powerful tool, but I’m still getting used to it. I’ve been able to type notes with it and rudimentary outlines, though editing, navigation, and copy paste are still very slow. I’ve switched to a split ergonomic keyboard on an adjustable tray, with superior posture. I’ve also been seeing a physical therapist who has been working on strengthening my body, so I don’t make new injuries, and hastening the healing process. On that front, I am pretty weak but am making gradual progress. I also went to a massage person but they pushed a little too hard and it didn’t seem to help.

On the whole, recovery is still brutal and slow. I miss writing at my normal pace. And driving. And lifting heavy objects. But I am moving in the right direction, I think.

-MWS

recovery update-7/5/21:
hi all. Sorry for the long wait between updates. For the last two weeks, I’ve been an incredibly hectic process of moving cities. There’s been an overwhelming amount of logistics, tours, lease signings, and horrifying roommate drama-all of which gets more difficult without effective use of my hands. I just finished moving into my new place though, and am resuming things like my exercises. I still can’t drive. And I can’t even carry my own heavy grocery bags. It still sucks.

As a result of the chaos, progress on my injury for the last few weeks has been, to be honest, flat. It’s extremely frustrating. I am resuming all of my therapeutic activities, and am searching for an RSI specialist in my new city who can give advice and possibly steroid shots, as well as an acupuncturist-just throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. Since I’m still essentially putting my life on hold, if I don’t make satisfying upward progress in the near future, I intend to get carpal tunnel surgery. I’d rather not if I can avoid it, and the RSI may not be limited to that area, but I need my hands back. Dictation is a Band-Aid, but it doesn’t really cut it.

Thanks to all of you for your patience. I’m sorry I don’t have more good news right now. But there’s still a lot that I haven’t tried.
-MWS

recovery update-7/19/2021:

hi all,

now that I’ve settled into my new place, I’ve begun to make progress again. I’ve started up my exercises and heat plus icing routine, but since that has only produced very slow results so far, I’ve also scheduled appointments with two separate hand therapists and a hand specialist at an orthopedic center, all of which are happening in the upcoming weeks. So we’ll see how that goes in the near future and the next few updates. I will get surgery if necessary, but I’m also exploring other therapeutic options. Other than that, I haven’t made a significant amount of progress on the injury. I am still working as hard as I can towards recovery.  And I am still in pain.  Ow.

In addition, I have begun to explore the possibility of traditionally publishing the first book of Pith. The volume would have to be significantly, significantly shorter with a variety of other edits, but it’s something that I’m thinking about while I get better.

Thanks as always,

MWS

recovery update for 8/2/2021:

hi all,

not much to update with right now, unfortunately. I went to an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in hands, but his expertise turned out to be pretty much everything except RSIs, and he didn’t have much to say about nerves and tendons, which is almost certainly what the issue is. However, my first hand therapist appointment that I mentioned in the previous update is tomorrow, with a second therapist the week after, and a third therapist later in the month. Hand therapists seem much more experienced with my kind of problem, so I’m hopeful that will provide a breakthrough to get me past my current plateau. To be honest, I feel kind of stupid for not having gone to more specific specialists earlier for this. It’s stranded me in a semi-disabled place for months with a lots of basic tasks very difficult to do.

On the plus side, I’m getting more familiar with my voice typing program. Not enough to get back into chapters on its own, but when I start recovering, it should let me use a hybrid approach where I type some and voice type other stuff.

Thank you all for the messages of support! They mean the world to me. I am still here kicking (if not punching), and hope to have more, good news for the next update.

-MWS

recovery update for 8/16/21:

Hi all! I am still in pain, but I finally have some good news! After seeing one unhelpful orthopedic surgeon and a mostly unhelpful hand therapist, I went to another hand therapist with much more finesse and experience with my sort of issue. After a ton of tests, she gave me a tentative diagnosis for my very diffuse injury: I have thoracic outlet syndrome. Which is something I knew nothing about until I googled it. It’s messing with my nerves and causing all sorts of problems downstream in my arms and wrists and hands. I also have mild tendinitis in my right forearm, but it’s pretty mild.

The first appointment was just about diagnosis-I haven’t started any therapeutic treatment or exercises, etc. Because the therapist is pretty busy, I’m not seeing her again until the end of August. But once I start treatment, she says to expect distinct results in about a month. Not curing it, mind you, but a noticeable change for the better.

To be honest, I’m scared of getting my hopes up. But I’m praying that I can get past my plateauing recovery soon and actually make forward progress.

Again, thank you for all your patience and generosity. I initially thought this issue would be over much faster, but these last few months have felt like an eternity. But I am, if anything, redoubling my passion for the story. I am going to make this work.

-MWS

Recovery update for 8/30/2021:

hi all,

I just got back from my second appointment with the hand therapist I like. And I’ve just started treatment. The first, foundational step is to adjust my posture, so my shoulders and nearby muscles stop pinching my nerves, and causing all sorts of neural tension and problems further down my arms and wrists. Apparently, this involves fundamentally altering the way I breathe, and the way I stand, which is simple, but very difficult. I guess a recovery like this is all about paying attention to things you took for granted about your body. But regardless, the process has begun. I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, I am voice typing, making a bunch of notes and messing around with outlines. I have also been able to do some work editing Volume 1 for potential traditional publishing.

Much appreciation to all of y’all, and hope you’re doing well.

-MWS

recovery update-9/13/2021:

hi all,

hand therapy is going well! The forward progress is slow, and gradual, with a variety of exercises and posture corrections that they’re having me do to reduce the tension on my nerves coming into my arms and hands, but I am making progress. The newest thing is something called “neural unloading”, which essentially involves stuffing pillows under my arms to change the position of my shoulder and collarbone, so they are no longer pinching on my nerves. And a weird exercise where I bend over a counter and rock on my heels, again to move my shoulders. Because it’s all about relieving tension, I have now learned that some of the strengthening exercises I was doing earlier with a previous physical therapist were actually making the problem worse, in some ways.

It’s too early to celebrate, but not too early to be optimistic. The people that I’m currently seeing seem to have a lot of expertise. Hope y’all are doing well!

-MWS

recovery update for 9/27/21:

hi all,

I’ve been sick with a stomach bug the last few days, and I’m still feeling under the weather, so I’ll keep this short. My work with my hand therapist is continuing to go well, and I have now begun to make a deeper adjustments to my posture-recovery is still slow, but the overall pain is decreasing. Much appreciation to all of you!

-MWS

recovery update for 10/11/2021:

hi all!

Things continue to go solidly. My hand therapist has given me a million new exercises, mostly to loosen my shoulder up with the surrounding muscles, and to get my pec to relax. Progress is still slow, but is definitely happening. The other day, I was able to type for short bursts without significant pain! And after months of delay, my ergonomic chair has finally arrived, which should help me with my posture! I am in pain but less pain, and am starting to get optimistic. Hope y’all are doing well, and thanks again for the support!

-MWS

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15-A The Jump

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Nell

I hated the fucking ocean.

In the first hours of our voyage, I’d been wowed by the beautiful vistas.  The shimmering expanses of blue water.  The sea birds flying overhead, and the endless horizon in every direction.  On the first night, we’d even seen a pair of lantern whales, glowing red and blue and pink and orange under the waves.

I’d stood up on the flight deck of the Rhona for long stretches, gazing ahead of us towards our faraway destination.

But then, indoors, the ship’s incessant bobbing motion made me feel nauseous, churning up the mess hall’s bland meatloaf in my belly.  I’d clutched my stomach and hid in my tiny quarters on my bunk bed, taking slow, deep breaths to calm my insides.

The mattress itself felt uncomfortable, designed for hardened sailors, not spoiled Epistocrat nobles.  Chin up, idiot, I’d told myself on the first night, as I lay on the top bunk above a passed-out Samuel.  Everyone else is sleeping in the same conditions, don’t be a spoiled brat.  I hadn’t complained a single word out loud, a rare feat for me.

But berating myself didn’t help.  I didn’t sleep a wink, and spent half the night pacing around the hallways of the ship, trying to get myself exhausted enough to pass out.


To no avail.  I had dark purple circles under my eyes the next morning.  And as we traversed northeast towards Shenten, passing into the Shi Xue Ocean, the inside of the aircraft carrier grew colder, and the outside became a giant walk-in freezer, far too cold to enjoy the view.  It forced me indoors, where my seasickness felt far worse.

I spent the second night awake, too.  Everything felt uncomfortable.  The bed, the rocking motion of the ship, my body – everything.  I was still getting used to this new, old form, its obscenely smooth skin, and its new proportions.  Doesn’t normally take me this long.

My mother had assured me that the naval portion of the invasion would be quick – that the Shenti’s fleets couldn’t match the Principality even a little bit.  Most of the fighting will be on land.  I felt grateful for that.  If we’d been fighting Neke instead, I might have turned around and accepted the teaching offer.

My nerves weren’t helping either.  I was going to war.  A real, proper war.  And I hadn’t even mastered an Autonomous Bullet Defense.

I twisted and turned in bed, flipping myself on my stomach to see if that would be more comfortable.  The hard mattress pressed into my chest.  Nope.

And that offer from Maxine Clive.  That bloody terrorist madwoman.  Even after I’d refused her, threatened her, all but spat in her face, she’d still left her door open to me.  She thought I’d become her spy, betray my country for her.

She’d stayed calm and measured the whole time, with her stupid tea and her stupid bacon bits.  Who the fuck eats bacon like cereal?  It made me want to punch the ceiling.

And I still haven’t told anyone about it.  That infuriated me even more.  What’s wrong with me?

If I just lay here, I’d have to face my swirling maelstrom of thoughts for hours and hours.  That sounded like agony, so I floated some slips of paper from my footlocker and practiced my projection.  A useful distraction.

In these conditions, I couldn’t practice my ABD, and in the darkness, I couldn’t reread the vocation codex I’d brought.

So I played with my Physical Vocation.  I floated random bits of junk from my footlocker in front of me, squeezed my palms together, and flattened them into two dimensions.  An empty box that had held packaged donuts.  Spare sheets of paper.  A metal device you could fidget with.

I could flatten them, then squeeze them between sheets of paper, since the expansion force was almost nil.  But if I left them like that for a while, they would stay flattened, and never pop back into three dimensions.  This happened to different objects at different rates, and it kept me from amassing a large collection of flattened weapons.  The third dimension just bled out of them.

Nothing clicked.  I experimented with the various objects, flattening and unflattening, even flattening them multiple times, but I didn’t see any obvious results.

Maybe you’ll always feel this way.  Maybe you’ll never feel at home anywhere again.

Shut up, I said to myself, and went back to distracting myself.

I switched to messing around with paper projection.  Not my Vocation, but something I’d taken a liking to.  With my new shiny library card, I’d read some new vocation codexes over the last few weeks.  New techniques.

One of the techniques was called “mirroring”.  I folded an origami crane in my hands, and projected into a dozen pieces of paper at the same time, floating above my mattress by the ceiling.

Then, I directed them to mirror my movements to perfection, a level of precision and speed I’d never managed before.  When I folded one sheet, the other sheets folded themselves, identical.  When I finished the crane, my projection finished another twelve identical cranes above me.

This technique wouldn’t be that useful.  Unless you accept Maxine Clive’s offer.  Then it had some unique tradecraft functions.  So why are you teaching it to yourself?

I crumpled the origami crane in my fist, and the other cranes crumpled into the same shape, every crease identical.

Maxine Clive knew you wouldn’t report her.  A Humdrum with no Whisper vocations, and she’d still wormed her way into my brain.

I let the paper fall around me, and sagged back on my pillow.  Sleep is crucial.  I needed to get my rest and stay lucid for the upcoming battles.

Getting a drink would help you sleep.  The Rhona was my mother’s flagship, so I couldn’t ask any of her sailors, but with projection, it would be easy to steal a bottle and drink it somewhere quiet.  It would cool the swelling discomfort in my body, quiet all the chattering thoughts.

It sounded so relaxing, when the last few days had been anything but.

“Fuck you,” I muttered to myself.

I lay back in bed, opened my eyes, and resigned myself to a long, sleepless night.

In the morning, Samuel shook me awake.  The exhaustion still hung over every inch of my body, but I’d somehow managed to fall asleep.

“Come on, Nell,” he said.  “We’re late.”

I groaned, muttering nonsense phrases and half-growls, and my eyes fluttered open, looking around.  The cabin had emptied.  Eliya and Leizu and the other students had left.

“Where is everyone?” I mumbled.

“You were sleeping, and looked very peaceful,” said Samuel.  “So we let you skip breakfast.”  He kissed me on the cheek.  “Come on.  We’ve arrived.”

I half-fell out of bed, and threw on my blue military uniform.  The simple pants and shirt felt so much nicer than the tight corsets and cold dresses I’d been wearing back home.  Not everything about sea life sucks.

Samuel tossed me a piece of toast with a mug of tea, and I scarfed them down as we walked through the corridors of the aircraft carrier.

We stepped out of a door, into the glaring morning sunlight, and joined a crowd of sailors on the ship’s flight deck.  Samuel and I pushed through, finding a spot at the edge next to Leizu and Eliya, and we gazed forward.

A flat, snowy island spread out before us, packed to the brim with soldiers.  Blue rows of tents covered every inch of the ground, stretching from coast to coast.  Trucks and tanks drove about on makeshift roads, turning the snow to brown slush beneath them.  Dozens of ships were parked on the beaches, and at makeshift harbors, and fighter planes flew circles overhead.

And more ships were coming behind us.  More soldiers, more tanks, more supplies.  The largest army I’d ever seen.  The kind I’d only heard of in news broadcasts from my childhood.

“Welcome to Pingtan Island,” said Eliya.  “Our last staging area for the invasion.”

A chill wind blew across the ocean, and I shivered.  I’d forgotten my jacket in my room.  Samuel handed me his coat, and I threw it on, murmuring thanks as he rubbed my shoulders.

“It was under the control of the warlord Lai Zan, who opposed the Black Tortoise and didn’t want to fight the Principality.  So they didn’t dig in here.  They just left.”  She smiled.  “They’re still disorganized.  Intelligence says they might not even have a good coastal defense.”

“You don’t know the Black Tortoise,” said Leizu, munching on five separate pieces of toast with jam, stacked together like a sandwich.  “The guy sorta made a habit of beating up cocky people.”

“Now is the perfect time to strike,” said Eliya.  “I’ve studied warfare, I know what I’m talking about.”

“Lucky for us,” I said.  “Eliya’s very humble.”

“If things get back,” said Leizu to Eliya.  “Hide behind me, blondie.  I will protect your tiny body with my giant bulletproof shoulders.”

“I’m taller than you,” said Eliya, her voice indignant.

Leizu pinched Eliya’s arm.  “You are skinny, so you are tiny.”

“You’re a dumbass.”

“Yes,” said Leizu.  “but at least I can do a pull-up.”

When the ship landed, we stepped off, got a new set of assignments, and moved our gear to a new tent near the command area.  Other Paragon students and Guardians milled about and chatted with one another.  Keeping us separate from the Humdrums.  Even without a floating school, even on a muddy, slush-covered island, they wanted to keep us aloof and distant.

I spotted Stella Hargreave, Alistair Pakhem – one of Samuel’s brothers, and Lorne Daventry himself, practicing his projection on a ball of molten steel.

Many of the students looked ill at ease.  They flinched as planes flew overhead, or looked at their orders with confusion, or made themselves small as tanks drove by.  They’re used to classrooms and squad battles.  Not military uniforms and tents and battleships.  The last Shenti War had ended close to a decade ago.  And most never imagined we’d have a second one.

Lorne, on the other hand, looked more comfortable than I’d ever seen him before.

We arrived at our tent, and read our official assignments for the rest of the day.  My eyes widened.  The invasion’s tomorrow morning.  We had a tentative date.  Things were moving so fast.

However, since we’d been briefed and given flight training already, the four of us had few assignments for the rest of the day, and nothing during the morning.  We had a spot of free time.

A year ago, I would have played Jao Lu, or gotten myself a drink, or a long bubble bath.

“Hey,” I said, to the other members of Chimera Squad.  “Can you help me practice my Autonomous Bullet Defense?  It might take a while.”  I’d run over the vocation several times in the past, and reviewed it again during the journey, since the vocation codex was low-level enough for me to loan it out from the library.  I thought I might have it down, but I’d never actually tested it before.

And, to my embarrassment, every other member of Chimera Squad had already mastered the technique.

Leizu and Eliya glanced at each other.  “Leizu and I will be busy,” said Eliya.  Eliya’s too busy to train someone like me.  She hadn’t even turned twenty, and she’d already almost finished her Vocation Codex.

Samuel nodded at me.  “Sure.”

________________________________________

We couldn’t find anywhere on the island to practice.  Every inch of its snow and mud had been packed with soldiers and supplies.

So, with Samuel’s connections, we got clearance from the local patrol commander so no one would shoot at us, and walked out on the icy water itself.  The commander assured us that the enemy wouldn’t come anywhere near the island.

The island shrunk in the distance.  A breeze blew past us, and the cold bit into my skin, even through my white body armor and jacket.  But the clouds had vanished, and the morning sun shone over the glimmering water.  Dozens of warships went to and fro in the distance, an intricate dance, moving guns, Guardians, and supplies towards the northeast, in preparation for tomorrow’s assault.  Fighter planes flew overhead, on patrol routes around the ocean.  At this distance, they looked almost peaceful.

I stepped on the icy water, the surface rippling around my snow boots.  Half a year ago, I’d struggled to accomplish a water walk with Hira.  Today, it felt easy.

Samuel walked beside me, silent.  Why did Leizu and Eliya have to be busy?  Being alone with him made me uncomfortable.  What if we end up talking about us?  Or how he’d abandoned me after my Ousting.  Or worse, whatever relationship he’d formed with Tasia.

Just thinking about it made me feel angry.  Or maybe you’re just being a petulant, possessive bitch.

Either way, the less we talked about it, the better.

“I’m surprised,” said Samuel.  “I thought you’d finished learning your ABD.  Since, you know, the invasion’s tomorrow.”  And mother said I can’t go into battle without mastering it.

Of all my mother’s unfair cruelty, that directive made sense, at least.  The modern battlefield was filled with gunfire and shrapnel, and with the Obsidian Foil dead, Paragon didn’t have enough heavy enhanced body armor to go around.  Charging in without backup meant near-certain death, like when Ana had tried being a mercenary without a Nudging defense.

I scowled at Samuel.  “I’ve learned it.  I’m just not sure if I learned it right, yet.”  I’d wanted to learn and test it earlier, but I thought I’d have more time before the invasion.  Even during the voyage here, I thought I’d at least have another couple of days, or weeks, while the navy prepped for the invasion.  Guess everyone got here before we did.

Then I pulled a steel marble out of my pocket, and tossed it to Samuel.  He caught it with projection, floating it in his palm.

I bent my knees, widening my stance, and inhaled, then exhaled, taking slow, deep breaths.  I closed my eyes, and my mind ran over everything I’d crammed about the ABD.

A Nekean Physical Specialist named Raghu Kapil had developed the vocation fifty years ago.  He’d written his codex, sold it, and promptly used the profits to retire at the age of twenty-five and start a band, wiping most of his projection from his head so he wouldn’t count towards the Yokusei Pact.  He’d become the laughingstock of the international projector community, even as they used his work on the battlefield.

But while everyone else had been fighting and dying, he’d been strumming his sitar and eating banquets every night.  So who was the real fool?

The ABD created a field of passive projection around your skin.  When a fast-moving metal object entered it, your Pith would automatically reach out and bend its path around you, using a variety of forces.  I ran through the chemistry and physics and math equations in my head, and tensed my Pith as the codex told me to.

Then, I exhaled, and felt something thrum around my body, faint.  That’s got to be it.

This is for everything.  If I failed here, I couldn’t join my friends in the field and protect them.

I opened my eyes, and nodded at Samuel.  He projected into the marble, and flung it at my armored stomach.  Not fast enough to do actual damage, but just fast enough to trigger an ABD and get batted aside.

I flinched, and the marble slammed into my stomach, and I doubled over, wheezing.  “Ow,” I gasped.  “Ow.”  Fast enough to hurt like a bitch, I guess.  If it hit me in the solar plexus.

“Oh, Scholars,” said Samuel.  “I’m so sorry.  Do you need a bandage, or – “

Again,” I hissed, catching my breath.  I redoubled my focus on the ABD’s science, on everything I’d learned from the codex.

Samuel floated the marble back into his palm, a concerned expression on his face.  Then, he flung it at me again.

This time, it thudded into a different part of my stomach, another painful impact as I flinched, and a new lingering ache afterwards.  That’s going to leave a bruise.

We tried variants of this for the next half hour, my skin getting more and more abused, even under the body armor.  What’s wrong with me?  I knew all the science.  I had the book with me, and re-read passages to make sure I was getting them right.

But I couldn’t block a single marble.

“It took me a few months to learn the ABD,” said Samuel.  “Maybe you just need time to sit with it.”

“I don’t have time,” I growled through clenched teeth.  The invasion’s tomorrow.  “Again.”

Samuel shot the marble at me again, thudding into one of my ribs.  “Takonara,” I muttered.

“What does that mean?” said Samuel.

Octopus cunt.  Nekean slang taught to me by Leo.  Which made me think of Maxine Clive, inhabiting his body, giving me her offer.  Which only made me clench my teeth harder.

“It’s just a general expression of annoyance,” I said.

Samuel gave me a gentle smile.  “Maybe you missed some sections from the book.”  He took the codex from me and flipped through it.  “Are you focusing on an unconscious response?  ‘Making sure your Pith, and not your mind, is grabbing the bullet’.”

“Yes,” I said.

Samuel proceeded to read through the book, explaining the simplest, most dumbed-down version of the science and technique from every chapter.  He thinks I skimmed it.  He had the tone of voice you’d use for a crying five-year-old.

Then, he went on a tangent explaining magnetism to me.  He thinks I don’t know magnetism.  That’s how stupid he thought I was.

“And the force is applied across – “

“I know the basics,” I snapped, interrupting him.  “You don’t have to treat me like a flighty, drunk child.”

A look of confusion passed over his face.  “I’ve helped you before, like this,” said Samuel.  “It didn’t anger you before.”

“Yes,” I said.  “Before the Ousting.”  Before you abandoned me as a lost cause.  Before he’d decided that talking to me was more trouble than it was worth.

“Listen,” said Samuel.  “I have to go soon for an appointment with my father, but I can help you more with this after.  I might have to cancel my dinner plans and a few other things, but I think I can shoulder the burden.”

The burden.

“Go to your dinner,” I spat.  “I’ll learn it on my own.”  I stalked away from him on the water, back towards the island.

________________________________________

I went back towards my tent, intending to collapse on my bed and have a short mental breakdown before getting on with the rest of the day.

Then, a much worse idea came to me.  I need a drink.  And a conversation that wouldn’t worm its way back to my Samuel, or my mother.

I wandered out of the fancier command area, away from the Guardians and drafted students and nicer tents, glancing behind me to make sure no one was following me.  One of the uniforms they’d given us matched a generic soldier’s outfit, which let me blend in with the Humdrum soldiers around the camp.

After half an hour of drifting around, I found a group of four men playing Jao Lu, sitting on stools around a supply crate.  They sipped liquor out of metal mugs, chatting and laughing amongst themselves.

I hung at the edge for a few minutes, watching their game.  Then, one of them spoke up.  “I’ve got to head out.  Second Lieutenant’s riding my ass.”  He put a hand on two of the others’ shoulders.  “If I don’t see you later: Good luck tomorrow.  You’re a bunch of bastards, but you’re bloody fine bastards.”  He walked off, leaving one of the stools empty.

One of the soldiers started cleaning up the game pieces, and I stepped in at the edge, raising a finger.  “If you boys want to play another game, I’d love to join you.”

They raised their eyebrows at me, looking me over with a certain fixation.  I avoided eye contact, staring at the slush-covered ground.  It had been a while since I’d had strangers look at me that way, and I didn’t miss it.  It might have been flattering, if I’d actually earned this chassis.

One of them slapped the other two on their knees, shocking them out of their stupor.  “Look normal, dumbasses.  Acting like you never seen a WM before.”  He gestured at the empty stool.  “Play a game or two.”

“Sorry,” one of the wide-eyed young men said.  He couldn’t have been more than a year or two older than me.  “I’ve had a drop or two down the gullet, and I’m – “  He blinked, his eyes going unfocused.

One of the other ones poured me a cup full of some pungent, clear spirit, and handed it to me.  Gin, smells like.  I murmured thanks, and clenched the metal mug.  How long have I been sober, now?  I’d lost track, but it couldn’t be more than a few months.  Still, that’s your best record since preschool.

We started on the game, and I focused on the strategy to distract myself.  It felt nice to think about something that felt familiar, that didn’t change with time.  Jao Lu didn’t get patronizing, or distant, or confusing.

The three marines weren’t bad.  They didn’t know fancy historical strategies, but they had a good eye for improvisation and dodging traps.  They played far better than those elitist Paragon students I’d fought in the Petal Tea Lounge last year.  And they were playing drunk.

Still, my experience with the game paid off, and soon, all three of them had to team up against me.

I moved my Blue Charlatan, ambushing two of them at once.  It reminded me of Ana.

“Fuck!” one of my victims shouted.  “What kind of fucking marine gets this smart?  Did your drill sergeant forget to slip bleach into your coffee?”

“He just did that to you, Bill,” said another one.  “That’s why your face looks so funny.”

“Maybe,” said the third one.  “The bitch is just better than you two.”

“It’s cause she’s sober,” said Bill, pointing at my untouched mug.  “This is the finest shit we can get as dumb grunts.  Drink the fuck up.”

I looked down at the sweet-smelling gin.  It looks so delicious.  And that sharp odor smelled so fresh.  Clean.  Normally, I’d be able to come up with an excuse.  These soldiers seemed nice enough.

But normally, I had alcohol.  Socializing sober was like walking a tightrope with your legs tied together.

I need another distraction.

“I can’t help but notice,” I said.  “None of the other marines here are partying like this.  They’re all running about, with some task or another.  You’re the only ones I see relaxing like this.  Why is that?”

Bill smiled, his voice still light.  He pulled a piece of paper from under his butt and unfolded it in my face.  I squinted, reading it.  An assignment for the invasion.  Jade Beach.  Sector K.  And what looked like a position number, in the single digits.

“Command gave us the night off,” said another one of the marines, Gilbert.  “Cause when those troop carriers pull up on the beach tomorrow, we’re the first ones off.”  To charge bunkers and machine-gun nests.  Command was using Humdrum marines as meat shields on the front lines.  A death sentence.

An uncomfortable silence fell over our game.

I thought about what Eliya had said.  “I hear that there might not be a lot of naval defenses,” I said.  “The Shenti might still be reeling and fighting each other.”  I wanted to believe it.

Bill shook his head, laughing.  “I fought on this island a decade ago.  I know who I’m up against.”

“You don’t look scared,” I said.

This time, Gilbert laughed.  “We’re terrified, can’t you see?  Why do you think we’re having so much fun?”  He chugged down the rest of his drink.  “Tomorrow, our lives will be in the hands of fate.  Stressing about it will just make us jittery and stupid on the field.”

“But you’re thinking about it right now,” I said.  “You’re not trying to hide it.”

“Yeah.”  Gilbert shrugged.  “We’re about to face death out there, in one of its purest forms.  The least we can do is acknowledge it.  It’s a balance, between doping yourself and shitting your pants.”

I nodded.  Then I set down the metal cup on the Jao Lu board.  “I’m not thirsty,” I said.  “You shouldn’t waste good booze on me.”

Bill snorted.  “Excuses.  Just admit you’re too young to drink.”

I grinned.  “Better than being too old to hold my liquor.”

Gilbert shrugged.  “We are on the verge of death, technically.”

An idea came to me.

Not if I can help it.

________________________________________

I found my mother in a command tent, poring over maps.  A half-eaten plate of boiled game sat next to her.  She only spared me a glance as I entered.  “Be quick,” she said.  “The invasion’s tomorrow.”  And she’s swamped, no doubt.

This is going to be a tough sell.  I took a slow, deep breath.  “I would like to request a position reassignment for the assault,” I said.

“You’ve been briefed and trained already,” my mother said.  “Why?”

“Currently, Chimera Squad is assigned to an artillery position behind enemy lines with a company of paratroopers.”  I pointed to a location on the map.  “I would like to be assigned to Jade Beach.  Sector K.”  I pointed at another location on the map.  And to protect some people on the front lines.

“Why would you want to do something stupid like that?”  My mother didn’t even look up from her notes.  “Have you even mastered an ABD?”

“Mostly,” I lied.  I had the theory all down, but the execution was proving far more difficult.

“So why Jade Beach, Sector K?”

I thought of my actual rationale.  Our soldiers are being told to sacrifice themselves.  So many Humdrums walking into the meat grinder for the sake of this invasion.  The least we could do was fight alongside them.

Do not put your faith in gods, Maxine Clive whispered in my head.  No matter what ideals they profess, they only see you as a cheap tool.  Quick to break, and quicker to throw away.  In my imagination, she looked almost identical to my mother.

Shut up, I whispered back.

I rattled off some half-baked justification.  “With my paper barriers,” I said.  “I think I’m less well-suited to a stealth operation.  I’d be better at fighting fortifications and keeping our troops safe on the front lines.”

Recognition dawned in my mother’s eyes, and she stood up from her desk, walking around to face me.  She pushed aside the flap of her tent, and pointed out into the distance, at the CNS Rhona, her aircraft carrier.

“My flagship,” she said.  “Was iconic during the last war.  It has symbolic importance.  And the enemy knows me as the Typhoon of the South.  A dangerous strategic mind, critical to our war effort.”  She turned back to me, her green eyes cold.  “They will likely send enemies after the Rhona tomorrow.  Joiners, wingtroopers.  Maybe even Commandos.  Even after we decimated their navy.  And they will target me.  Do you know how many projectors I’ve assigned to defend the carrier?”

My throat tightened.  I shook my head.

“Two,”  She walked back to the map.  “Myself, and one other Guardian.  I’ve dedicated the others to offense.”

I swallowed, a pit forming in my stomach.  This might be the last time I see her.  Somehow, I doubted it, but even the thought sent a myriad of emotions rushing through my mind. 

“My life is at risk,” said my mother.  “I know my role.  The marines landing on the beach, they know their role too.  Someone has to be the first off the boats.  And they’re volunteers, at present.”

She knows.  “You’re not mad at me?” I said.

“Any good commander knows not to throw away her troops,” my mother said.  “It’s not a bad instinct.  But you can’t save them all.  And you have a role, too.”

“Which is?”

My mother looked at me like I was an idiot struggling in math class.  “Survive,” she said.  “And ensure that Samuel Pakhem survives, too.  That objective takes priority over all others, including your official marching orders and anything you get in the field.”

Because my mother is such a romantic.

“Your engagement to the Pakhems is the future of this family.  They possess money and influence, and their older children are also fighting in the field.  Which means if they die, Samuel will become the sole heir to their fortune and influence.”

A chill came over me as she said that.  I doubted that she was actually planning to murder Samuel’s older brother and sister, but she knew the family.  It wasn’t normal to talk about deaths like that as an opportunity.

“The Pakhems, more than anything, are our best path to reclaiming our glory and position.  I have convinced one of our generals to assign you and Chimera Squad to a relatively easy position for the assault.  The easiest I could get away with.”  She looked straight at me.  “It is an opportunity.  Do not waste it by dying.”

I wanted to ignore Samuel for another century, no matter how red-hot he looked.  But I’m still going to marry the blonde bastard.  It all felt so strange and difficult.

But my mother wasn’t going to budge on this.  I knew her too well.

“Understood,” I said, and turned to leave.

Time to bring it up the ladder.

________________________________________

I couldn’t find Headmaster Tau anywhere in the camp, so I wandered around the ocean again, aimless.  I practiced my ABD over and over, feeling it thrum and pulse around me.  But it still doesn’t work.  It still didn’t click, no matter how many times I tried it.

I thought of Bill and Edward and Nathan, the nice soldiers I’d played Jao Lu with.  I closed my eyes as I wandered, and imagined them getting chopped up with bullets, five seconds after stepping on the beach.  I imagined all the other soldiers around them, getting shot full of holes, blown up with mortars and artillery, ripped to shreds by the bare hands of Joiners, on a scale unlike anything I’d seen before.

A part of me knew my mother was right.  War is war.  People die.  But the horror still lingered.

I opened my eyes, and saw someone nearby.  Two men, sitting on a dry picnic blanket that floated on the still surface of the ocean.  They sipped tea and ate scones, as if they were sitting in Darius Park on a quiet summer afternoon, and not in the freezing ocean, on the edge of enemy territory.  I guess it is tea time.

One of the men had his back turned to me, sporting deep brown hair.  The other had his face to me, pastry crumbs coating his black beard and beige suit.  I recognized him in an instant.

“Headmaster Tau?” I said.  “What are you doing here?”

He lifted a dainty teacup.  “We’re preparing for battle, silly.  Can’t you see, Lydia?”

He doesn’t recognize me.  People with older Piths had that problem, sometimes.  “I’m Nell, sir,” I said.  “Nell Ebbridge.  We met recently and talked in your office?”

He blinked at me for a few seconds.  Then the realization spread across his face, and he smiled at me.  “Ah, Nell!”  He beckoned at the blanket.  “Sit, sit.  Have some tea.  Have a cake.  The pear cake is especially good, and we even got a bit of crab.”

I walked forward, sat on the blanket, and saw the man our Headmaster was taking his tea with.

A tall, broad-shouldered attractive man, with a thick brown beard and biceps that looked ready to burst all his clothes.

The last time I’d seen that body, it had been blackened, burnt to a shriveled, crispy mess by the Pyre Witch, its hand still clutching a pitch-black rapier.

“Professor Oakes?” I half-shouted.  “You’re alive?

“Drat,” said Headmaster Tau.  “You know our secret.”  He shrugged.  “Guess we’ll have to kill you now.”

Sebastian Oakes, the Obsidian Foil, raised a whole, unburnt hand towards me, in a reassuring gesture.  “Nicholas jests.  He would never extinguish a brave soul such as yourself, Lady Ebbridge.”  He leaned forward and patted me on the shoulder.  They felt like soft punches.

“You died,” I said.  “Tunnel Vision exhausted your Pith and burned you up.”

“She did indeed,” said Oakes, pouring me a cup of tea.  “But the witch did not use Voidsteel.  And I managed to hold onto life.”  He floated a tiny cake onto a plate for me.  The setting sun cast his face in warm orange light.

That’s fucking absurd.  It didn’t always take Voidsteel to extinguish a Pith.  Enough damage to the body, and the brain would stop working right.  And if the brain broke down, so would the Pith.

“I was in the hospital, in a coma,” said Oakes.  “A barely breathing corpse, even after they transferred my soul to a backup chassis.”  He put Tau in a headlock, grinning.  Tau’s eyes widened with confusion.  “But when Nicholas here got back to the city, he woke me up.  And once I woke up, the rest of my Joining kicked in, and I fixed all the rest.”

“Mostly,” said Tau, looking uncomfortable in the headlock.

“And your wife?” I said.  “Penny?”

Oakes stared at his feet.  That was answer enough.

“I’m a ways away from my full strength,” said Oakes.  “And the eastern dogs think I’m still dead, so I wanted to keep it a secret.  I wanted to stay in this chassis for recovery, and so I wouldn’t lose my Joining for an emergency.”  He gestured around them.  “So we’re having afternoon tea out here.”

People don’t come back from those injuries.  Not even Joiners.  But here he was, loud and boisterous as usual.

But if anyone could bring him back, it’d be Headmaster Tau.  And I was glad that the Pyre Witch’s body count was one less than I’d thought.

“You look troubled,” said Tau, munching on a crab leg thoughtfully.  “What’s on your mind, child?”

“It’s been a strange week,” I said.  “Let me give you the basics.”

Then I explained everything.  I started out giving a simpler version of everything, leaving out the most embarrassing bits, but then I kept talking.  And kept talking.  My mother, and Samuel, and the ABD.  The doomed soldiers I’d played Jao Lu with.  Damn my loose tongue.  And my impulsive nature.

Tau adopted an expression that managed to look sympathetic without pity, or condescension.

“Like I told you,” he said.  “I never wanted this war.  But now that we’re in it, and the Conclave is refusing to back out, you’ll save more of those soldiers by completing your assignment behind enemy lines.”  He licked one of his fingers.  “You are assaulting an artillery position, yes?”

I nodded.

“Who do you think that artillery is firing at?”  He gestured at the ships passing around us.  “And if you were to fight on the front lines, then men will die elsewhere.”

I grit my teeth.  “I know, but – “

“If you are to fight in a war, you must acknowledge and confront death, or you shall become paralyzed.”  He floated a tiny sphere of water out of the ocean, shaped like a marble.  “You cannot dodge the bullet,” he said.  “And you cannot destroy it, either.  You must face it head-on, respect its momentum, and nudge it in a slightly different direction.”

“The codex didn’t mention anything like that,” I said.

“The author spent half his life in a band,” said Tau.  “It was bound to have some issues.”

I sat back down on the picnic blanket.  You cannot dodge the bullet, and you cannot destroy it, either.  It felt right, somehow.  An intuition that clicked where nothing in the book had before.

“Would you like to practice your Bullet Defense?” said Tau.

I glanced around the blanket.  “I don’t see any metal nearby.”  They were eating their cakes and scones and crab with their bare hands and projection.  No utensils.

“Not a problem,” said Tau.  “I’ll just make some.”

“Out of thin air?” I said.  “Is that even possible?”

Tau just winked at me.

Oakes’ eyes widened.  “Nicholas, I’m not sure if this is the best idea.”

“Nonsense,” said Tau.  “We’ll be fine.”  He lifted his hands in front of him, cupping an invisible ball, and purple lightning crackled between his palms.  So he’s a Praxis Specialist.  His Vocation wasn’t known to the public, or even the ordinary students of Paragon.  Another factor to his mystery.

A faint light glowed inside his purple electricity.  I saw the edges of a chunk of metal emerge from the glowing sphere.

Then, Headmaster Tau passed out.  He slumped forward onto his face.  The water collapsed beneath us, his water walk ending, and the picnic blanket sank into the ocean, along with the tea and scones.

The freezing water closed in on me, and I floundered, shocked.  Then Oakes projected into the water and pushed us back above the surface, drying and heating our clothes and the blanket beneath us.

But the tea had already spilled.  The scones had already broken up, soaked through with saltwater.

And Headmaster Tau lay on his stomach, his face buried in the blanket, fast asleep.  His back rose and fell with his breaths, and a peaceful expression spread across his face.  Cold water had been splashed on his face, but it hadn’t seemed to wake him up.  If the two of us weren’t here, he might be dead right now.  An ignoble end for a man who’d been the strongest projector in the world.

“Scholars.”  I spat saltwater out of my mouth.  “Is he alright?”

“Sometimes, when he does difficult projection, he passes out,” said Oakes.  He stared at me.  “You are to speak nothing of this.  To anyone.  Or about how I’m alive.”  According to my mother, the standard procedure for this sort of thing would be a memory wipe, but Oakes was choosing to trust me.

I stood up, taking this cue to leave, and started walking back to the island.

“Nell,” said Oakes, his voice deep and sonorous.

I turned back to him.

He smiled at me.  “Good to see you again.”

________________________________________

I pushed open the door of Chimera Squad’s tent, since I couldn’t knock at it.

“Eliya?  Leizu?  You two in here?”  I stepped in.  “Boys can be such bloody trouble.  Trust me, I was one for a year, and things got very weir – “

I stopped, staring forward.  Blinking.

Eliya and Leizu lay in bed together, the covers pulled over them.  Their hair had been mussed, and their clothes lay in a pile on the floor.  Eliya wore only her blue eye patch.  They’re never that messy.  Why are they so messy?

The two of them stared at me, a horrified look on their faces, like I’d just caught them in an act of murder.

Then, it all hit me at once.  “You’re sleeping together?” I blurted out.

Eliya jabbed a finger at me.  “If you tell anyone,” she said.  “I will pull out your teeth, grind them into powder, and snort them at the next party I go to.”

“No you won’t,” said Leizu.  “You don’t do hard drugs.”

“I, uh,” I averted my gaze from the two of them.  “I won’t tell anyone.  Sorry, I should have asked before coming in.”

Eliya flicked Leizu’s shoulder.  “I told you, we don’t have a tent to ourselves, Samuel and Nell could come back early.  We should have been more careful.”

“It’s Nell,” said Leizu.  “She blew up Lorne’s pelvis and joined a deadly war, just to protect us.  We can trust her.  Right, Jitterbird?”

“I – “  My mind rushed through every second I’d spent with Eliya and Leizu, every word and gesture I’d seen them exchange, putting them all in a new context.  I’m so stupid.  How had I not seen this earlier?  “Why today?” I said.

“Eliya started picturing herself dying,” said Leizu, matter-of-factly.  “She thought about getting shot with Voidsteel, and her skull getting pulverized by a Joiner, and her spleen getting pureed by a blast wave, and her blood getting frozen by a blizzard, and – “

“Thanks, Leizu,” said Eliya.  “That’s enough.”

“So,” said Leizu.  “It seemed like a good night to consummate the relationship.  That’s what they do in all of Blondie’s silly romance movies anyway.”

Daphne Petty-Belle isn’t silly,” sputtered Eliya.  “It won twenty-five separate awards.”

Leizu snorted.  “You just think the lead is red-hot.”

“Relationship,” I said.  “How – how long?”  All under my nose, right there in plain sight.

“A year and a half,” said Leizu.  Eliya fell silent.

My stomach twinged.  “Why didn’t you tell me about this?  Why didn’t you trust me?”

“Because no one should know,” hissed Eliya.

“That’s a strong statement,” said Leizu.  “But Paragon and the Epistocracy haven’t always been the friendliest to romances like ours.”

I shrugged.  “A few Guardians have done it, haven’t they?  Paragon didn’t exactly kick them out.”

“They won’t kick me out,” said Eliya.  “But this isn’t Ilaqua.  They’ll pass me up for promotions.  They’ll pretend I don’t exist.”  She exhaled.  “My father’s shame is enough of a burden already.  If this gets out, I’ll never become chief of counterintelligence.”

I stared at the floor of the tent.  Another sin of the Epistocracy.  Another scar from its old, vicious traditions.

“Be careful, then,” I said.  “I’ll keep my big mouth shut.”  I smiled at them.  “But I’m happy for you.”

Eliya’s shoulders relaxed a hair, in relief.  Leizu looked unsurprised at my blessing.

“I would hug you,” I said.  “But you’re both still naked, and I don’t want to make things more awkward than they already are.”

“So,” said Leizu, propping her arms behind her head.  Her biceps looked massive, side by side with Eliya’s.  “Why are you here?”

“I came to ask for boy advice,” I said.  “Which, in retrospect, might not be the best idea.”

“I know boys,” said Leizu.  “Trained with loads of them in Shenten.  All you have to do is beat him at arm wrestling and befriend his parents.  Then he’ll be showering you with expensive gifts you don’t fucking need.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Not sure if that applies here.”  I explained the situation with my ABD and Samuel.

“He didn’t fuck her,” said Eliya.  “I told you that, didn’t I?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “But they got emotionally intimate, didn’t they?”  And he looks down on me, now.

“Give him time and distance,” said Eliya.  “We need everyone clear-headed for tomorrow.  Just stuff it under the mattress for now and deal with it later.”

“If you stuff food under the mattress,” said Leizu.  “It rots and brings ants.”  She looked straight at me.  “Get in his face and fix this tonight.  We don’t need unresolved whaleshit before the battle.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “I’ll think about it.”  I walked towards the exit, poked my head out of the tent, then came back in.  “Get cleaned up, guys,” I said.  “Samuel’s walking here.”

And I could go out the back, now.  Wander around camp some more and not have to deal with this nonsense before the battle.

You cannot dodge the bullet.  Headmaster Tau’s words rang in my head.

By the time Samuel arrived, the bed had been made, and Leizu and Eliya had thrown on their clothes, smoothed down their hair, and gathered around a desk, in a pantomime of studying.  Leizu pulled a box of soup dumplings from a cooler, heated them with projection, and stuffed them into her mouth, five at a time.  That gesture looked genuine.

And I stood by the entrance of the tent, waiting.

Samuel pushed open the flap, and I stood in his way, staring straight at him.  “We need to talk,” I said.

“Yes,” he said.  “I think I figured out what you’re doing wrong with your ABD.  I talked to my older brother, and we reviewed the science together, and – “

“No,” I said.  “We need to talk.”

Samuel looked confused.  “You said the word ‘talk’ twice.  I don’t see how that’s different.”

“After I got Ousted,” I said.  “You pulled away from me, even when we could have found a way to talk in secret.”

“Your mother found us out,” said Samuel.  “I could have been Ousted.  Admiral Ebbridge doesn’t make idle threats.  And Leizu and Eliya could have faced penalties.”

“Yes,” I said, raising my voice.  “Let’s talk about those two.  You tried to get them to give up on me.  Abandon hope that I’d ever return.”  I jabbed a finger in his face.  “And you fell in love with my replacement, Tasia.  Not just her tits, either.  What’s under her tits.”

“Her ribs?” muttered Leizu in the back of the room.

“Her heart,” I said.  “Her soul.”

Now, it was Samuel’s turn to stare at his feet, unable to meet my gaze.

“You used to respect me,” I said.  “You knew my faults, but you respected me as an equal.  As a leader.  Now, you see me as a drunk liability, ready to snap and bring everyone down at a moment’s notice.”

“I’m not sure you understand the reasons – “

“I’ve heard your reasons a thousand times,” I said.  “What I’ve never heard is sorry.”

Samuel fell silent.  In the corner of the tent, Leizu slurped the soup out of a giant dumpling,  deafening in the quiet tent.

Samuel clenched his teeth for a moment.  Then, he deflated, sagging over with a long, slow exhale.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “For my disloyalty.  For not believing in you.  I was exhausted, and beset by pressures on all sides, and – ”  He stopped himself, and shook the head.  “No, the reasons don’t matter.  What matters is that I failed you.”  He knelt before me, like he was proposing marriage all over again.  “I will prove myself to you on the battlefield.”

I took his hand.  “Oh, stand up,” I grumbled.  “You’re a college student, not a mid-era knight.  Just watch my back tomorrow, and I’ll watch yours.”

Samuel stood up, looking down at me from his taller combat chassis.  He smiled at me.  “I’m so glad you’re back.”

I didn’t think it’d be this easy.  Since I wasn’t sure what else to say, I got on my tiptoes and kissed him.  He kissed me back, and I let myself get lost in his beauty and warmth again.

It still didn’t feel perfect.  A little wet, a little strange in some ways.

But it felt better than before.  And that was the best I could have hoped for.

And now, I felt ready.

________________________________________

I stood on the dark ocean near Pingtan Island again.  An icy wind blew across the water, ruffling my black hair.

At night, the warships seemed to have tripled around us.  A swarm of battleships, destroyers, and aircraft carriers sailed to and fro from the island, preparing for the assault at dawn.

“Come on,” said Eliya.  “If we stay up all night, our brains will be soup by the morning, and some Voidsteel sniper’s going to catch us with a lucky potshot.”  The wind had messed up her platinum blonde hair, and she shivered, even under her coat, not used to the freezing weather.  She floated an orb of projected light above us.

“I guarantee you,” said Leizu.  “The Voidsteel snipers aren’t sleeping tonight, either.”  With her Joining, she didn’t even have to wear long sleeves.  She spun a dark metal bullet on the tip of her pinky.

“She’s ready,” said Samuel, looking at me with a hint of faith.  “I know she is.”

I took in a deep breath, and ran through all the science again in my head.  You cannot dodge the bullet.  And you couldn’t destroy it, either.  You had to curve it around yourself.  Nudge its path.  You cannot dodge the bullet.

Then I exhaled, tensed my Pith, and felt the thrumming, electric sensation over my skin again.  I nodded at Leizu.

She flung the bullet, and it slammed into my stomach, sending another painful ache throughout my gut.  I doubled over.  “What the fuck?”  I thought I’d gotten it right this time.

Leizu floated the bullet up in a sphere of water.  She held it to the orb of light, and its metal looked green.  “Oh, whoops,” she said.  “This is one of my Voidsteel bullets.”

“I see your eyes are as sharp as ever,” said Eliya.  So much for enhanced vision.

“Joining takes energy,” said Leizu.  “So I’m on a break for the evening.”  She pulled a normal round out of her pocket.  “Let’s try that again.”

“I – “

Before I could finish speaking, she flung the bullet at my chest.  My eyes snapped shut, but I didn’t flinch.

I imagined all the possible paths of the bullet.  Racing towards me, faster than sight, then curving around me, nudged by the subtlest of pushes.

Nothing hit my stomach.  Then I opened my eyes, and heard a soft plop behind me.  The bullet.  I spun around.  “Did you miss?” I said to Leizu.

“She didn’t miss,” said Samuel, smiling with pride.  “You have learned an Autonomous Bullet Defense.  In excellent time, I might add.”

So I’m joining him tomorrow.  I smiled back at him.  Let’s hope we can blow up that artillery fast enough.  That it didn’t make mincemeat of our boys on the beach.

“Now,” said Samuel, gazing up at the two moons.  “Let’s all get some sleep.  Our plane leaves before dawn.”

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14-F – The Wingtrooper

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Han Yong killed a man and felt nothing.

A decade ago, he’d killed his first, a Principian soldier charging at their sandbags.  The soldier had pulled the pin on his grenade, ready to toss it in and kill Han’s companions.  Han had fired his rifle, and the man’s chest had exploded.

Back then, he’d felt a potent brew of emotions.  Grief, horror, shock at how easy it had been, even when he thought he was a Humdrum.  He’d felt relief, too, that his comrades would be safe from the grenade.

Scariest of all, Han had felt pride.  In his skills, in the nation of Shenten, for honing him into an efficient weapon.

He’d killed more after that, on the field.  And many more, once his projection skills had emerged and he’d received wingtrooper training, with the sacred arts of Joining to hone his Pith into a proper shape for its body.  But through it all, he’d felt something, every time.

And he maintained a respect for the dead.  No matter who they were.  There had been rituals, practices and words from The 99 Precepts he’d used to make sense of his duty as a soldier.

All lost now, all dragged into the meaningless void that was the Spirit Block.  The sea remains.

Han Yong killed a man, and felt nothing.  He descended from the starless night sky, clad in his camouflage wingsuit and flanked by the three others of his squad.

Below, a weathered palace stretched out of the snow, complete with sharp towers, balconies, and withered gardens, covered in snow and peeling red paint.  An enemy lookout on one of its ruined towers spotted something.  A flicker of dark movement in the sky.  Something out of the ordinary.

Before the man could inhale and scream, Han Yong jabbed his hands forward.  A pair of blades shot out of sheathes by his ribs, shaped like long, narrow leaves with no hilt.  Troops called them ‘commando blades’, though Han was no commando.

The blade blew through the lookout’s eye and out the back of his skull.  Han Yong lost control of half the blade for a moment as the man’s Pith pushed out his own, by virtue of Rashi’s Second Law.  Then he grabbed it, and yanked it out the back of the man’s skull in a fraction of a second.

The lookout died in an instant.  And Han Yong couldn’t bring himself to care.

Han Yong projected into the man’s clothes, stopping him from falling and making noise.  As he did, he noted how sloppy the lookout’s clothes felt.  A Shenti soldier’s uniform, but old, covered in holes, loose threads.  The back of his shirt wasn’t tucked in, and Warlord Qian had added some pointless gold embroidery and a few ribbons, a ridiculous attempt to make it unique.

Wrong, all wrong.  All chaos and ego.  No discipline.  It reminded Han of his own warlord, Lai Zan, who didn’t even comb her hair some days.

Han Yong set the corpse down gently, and used his infrared vision to scope for other enemies in the vicinity.  No heat signatures in the tower, or in the snowy grounds around the walls of the palace.  A skilled Joiner could hide their body heat, but there wouldn’t be any here.

Humdrums, all of them.  No projectors.  Most warlords didn’t care about the letter of the Yokusei Pact, but Joiners were tough to teach, and tougher to control.  No real training, either.  These people were glorified security guards dressed up as soldiers.  Maybe they’d have one or two Voidsteel bullets among them, but Han Yong doubted it.

Even a normal Joiner would have wiped the floor with these people.  A Commando could do it drunk, with a pinky finger, and their feet tied together.  Han Yong’s wingtroopers weren’t that special, but this would still be easy for them.

The four of them landed on the roof of the broken palace, silent.  Han Yong scanned the wider area around them, flitting between modes of his enhanced vision.

The Infinite Peak extended above them.  The tallest mountain in the Eight Oceans, miles high, covered with snow, crevasses, and treacherous ice.  A massive waterfall tumbled over a cliff, pouring into a short river to the ocean below.  Behind Han, the icy waves washed against the coastline, picked up by his enhanced hearing.

As usual, dark red clouds surrounded the top quarter of the mountain, obscuring the peak itself from view.  An unnatural fog, that never changed color and never moved, no matter the winds.

No enemies below.  And no snipers further up the mountain.  Makes sense.  People found the Infinite Peak terrifying, and all sorts of superstitions had risen around it.

The superstitions were ridiculous, and irrational.  The fear wasn’t.

Empress Ushi had built this summer palace at the foot of the mountain, and had died two days after finishing it.  With such terrible luck affixed to the place, no one had lived here for years.

Then, centuries later, Grand Marshall Cao Hui, the Black Tortoise, had set up a research outpost, and had sent prisoners and exiles here.  The exiles managed much of the operations.  The prisoners, with rock-bottom economic scores, would be affixed with supplies, warm clothes, and sensors.

Then, they’d be sent up the mountain in pairs, to the red clouds swallowing the peak.  Their task was simple: Pick a leaf from one of the legendary trees at the top, and return it to the bottom.

None of them ever made it.  Just like the trained mountaineers who’d gone up before them.  No one ever came back from the Infinite Peak.

So, for Warlord Qian, it made a perfect hiding place for his supplies.  When everyone thought the mountain was cursed, they’d be less likely to raid the area.  And after the Spirit Block, no one cared about long-term research anymore.  Warlord Qian just used bullets for his executions, not mountains.

Han Yong dragged himself back to reality.  Why am I getting so distracted?  Every mission deserved his full attention.  Carelessness led to stupid, embarrassing deaths delivered by amateurs.

Han knew this, rationally.  But he couldn’t bring himself to care.

Clear,” said Tian Shui, in a whisper just loud enough for his enhanced ears to pick up.

The rest of his squad chimed in.  “Clear, clear.

Clear,” whispered Han.  The only enemies in the area were below them.  Enemies they could see and deal with easily.  The mountain was dead.  Still.  The only sounds Han could hear were the waves in the distance, and the breathing of the sleeping thugs beneath him.  No wildlife, even.

Han gave a hand signal, and in unison, the wingtroopers jumped through a hole in the roof.

They descended through the palace’s main room, over a hundred meters tall.  Han activated his zero dash vocation, making his body near-weightless.

They aimed their S-4 Reapers, modified heavy rifles, and fired, taking out the lights.  The suppressed gunshots sounded like thunder to Han’s enhanced ears.  The room turned pitch-black, impossible to see for non-Joiners.  Darkness swallowed the beautiful wall paintings and towering sculptures of the room 

By the time their targets realized what was happening, most of them were dead already.  Four wingtroopers, firing several times a second, using projection to load in new clips to their reapers and fire without pause.  Scoring shots to the center mass, one after the other, never missing.

Men and women ran about below, in various states of uniforms and undress, clambering out of sleeping bags and reaching for weapons, shouting with confusion.  Hundreds of them.

And hundreds died.  In the darkness, most of them couldn’t even run for cover, or make their way into the side rooms.  The Reapers didn’t even produce muzzle flashes, leaving Han and his companions invisible.

By the time Han’s boots touched the dusty floor, everyone in the hall had died already.

Han whispered another order, and the other three wingtroopers fanned out into the side hallways and staircases of the broken palace, hunting down the handful of remnants left in the building.  With their thermal vision, the enemies had nowhere to hide.  Han stayed in the room, holding down the center of the building in case anything unexpected happened.

He sighed, and glanced around the massive hall with his night vision eyes.  It would have looked beautiful, in the light, with its carvings and paintings and massive wall hangings, some of which, miraculously, hadn’t been scavenged.  It would have looked even more beautiful when it was built, hundreds of years ago.  Craftsmen, architects, and artists all coming together for a shared vision of beauty and majesty.

In today’s Shenten, it was just another warehouse.  Warlord Qian’s thugs had stashed piles and piles of crates here.  A glance at the labels told Han the contents.  Non-perishable food, ammunition, medical supplies.  And lots of it.  Nothing supernatural, to match the haunted atmosphere of the Infinite Peak.

But Warlord Lai, Han’s boss, didn’t need anything mystical.  She just needed the basics.  Since the Black Tortoise had announced his return, life had been hard for the average warlord.

Lai put on a face of strength, dismissing this new Cao Hui as a fraud in all her propaganda.  She’d maybe fooled a few of her cronies, but Han Yong could see the desperation in her eyes, hear the quickness in her voice.

Thanks to her Joining, Lai Zan didn’t look a day over twenty.  But for a moment, Han had seen the years, leaking out through her face.

Han Yong’s squad was the strongest group she had, and in just a few weeks, Cao Hui had already gathered three other warlords under his banner.  He had commandos, factories, and all the most critical locations.  The former Great Library, the Emperor’s Tomb, and Huangdi Academy itself.

Warlord Lai had doubled Han’s salary, and reminded him that her kindness was keeping his hometown, Quanzou, safe and fed.

Han had nodded, but couldn’t bring himself to care.  If Han stopped killing for Warlord Lai, maybe she’d massacre the village.  But maybe she’d just throw a temper tantrum and go on as before.  Maybe none of it mattered.

A decade ago, Han had needed funds, and to protect the vulnerable people of his hometown after the Spirit Block.

But now?  Everyone he knew from home had died, or moved away.  His high school ex had even joined the Droll Corsairs, the crazy bitch.

No, Han wasn’t killing for anyone.  He wasn’t even killing for money.

He was killing because of inertia.  Because this was all he knew.  And he didn’t care enough to alter his path.

Han looked down at the piles of corpses on the floor, still warm, bleeding onto a marble floor built for epic feasts.  “I’m sorry,” he murmured.  “Please forgive me.

His three subordinates returned, nodding to him.  All done.  No survivors.  Han made another series of signals, and Tian Shui floated herself back up through the hole, onto the roof of the building as a lookout.

The rest of them started going over the boxes, confirming their contents.  Han nodded.  “Radio the supply ship.  We should be clear for picku – ”

The low thuds of artillery rang out in the distance.

Incoming fire!” whispered Tian Shui on the roof.  Even with her whispering, Han could hear the urgency in her voice.

Then the roof exploded.  Tian Shui crashed onto the floor next to them, bruised.


“Move!” shouted Han Yong.

The four of them darted for cover, moving into the side rooms built with the strongest foundations.  But the artillery fire kept coming, smashing down into the building and ripping through the upper floors.

The ceiling of the side room cracked.  How?  How were they getting bombarded?  They’d scanned the area and found nothing.  Giant gun formations weren’t easy to hide.

Han kicked down a wall and led his squad outside, into the snow and ice.  Thick clouds had passed over the moon.  A blizzard will start soon.  But not soon enough to help them escape.

The sounds of artillery sounded deafening in his ears.  Armor-piercing in addition to anti-personnel.  Which meant the enemy knew they were fighting enemy Joiners, not just a bunch of fragile Humdrums.

Han sprinted around the side of the building and peeked his head out, sweeping his vision around to look for the source of the shells.

His enhanced vision shifted and adjusted, making out the dark objects flying through the night, tiny at this distance.

He spotted them, plotted their arc out in his head.  Then his throat clenched.  The enemy was firing artillery from the other side of the mountain.  Even enhanced vision couldn’t see through that much rock and ice.

A trap.  Someone knew they were coming.

A shell shot straight at him, aiming right for his hiding place.  Han projected into his uniform and yanked himself back, out of the way.  The shell smashed into the snow, and he felt the blast wave shake his body, a pressure that would rip apart the organs of a normal human.

Han clenched his rifle.  This is bad.  The enemy was shooting blind, and still knew exactly where to fire.  Someone’s acting as a spotter from another angle.  Their Joining was strong, but it wouldn’t last long against sustained, repeated artillery hits, especially if the enemy used Voidsteel.

And the enemy had ambushed experienced wingtroopers.  Which meant they had talent.  Warlord Qian shouldn’t have this many resources.  He’d hired the Droll Corsairs once, but years ago, when he had actual money in the bank.

He glanced back at the palace, already half-demolished.  Many of the supply crates had been blown up, the food and medical supplies turned to ashes.  Fires burned around other crates of ammunition, and they blew up in quick succession like hot kernels of popcorn.

They’re not here for the supplies, then.  Which meant it probably wasn’t Warlord Qian.  Who the fuck is attacking us?

With so little information, a battle plan would be difficult.

Major,” whispered Xuan Heng.  “Orders?

More shots impacted the palace, and cracks spiderwebbed throughout the wall above them.

“We need to move,” said Han, stating the obvious.

Where?” hissed Tian Shui.

The shots were coming from the North, so they had a few options for proper cover and distance.  

Han glanced up at the dark mountain, and the red clouds swallowing the top of it.  Going up the Infinite Peak meant certain death, and sent chills over his skin.  Not there.  He glanced behind him, at the coastline and the ocean.

There.  “We go down to the water,” whispered Han.  “Then we go south along the coast to get us some distance from those bastards.”  With their enhanced vision, distance from the artillery could let them dodge shots far in advance.

Nods all around.  “It is as you say,” said Tian.

“Then, we circle back and find out whoever’s messing with us.  And show them what Joiners do at close range.”  It could be a trap, but Warlord Lai didn’t like full retreats.

The four wingtroopers moved, darting down the icy slope towards the water, splitting and leaping in a zigzag pattern, making harder targets for the artillery.  They activated their Zero Dashes again, making their bodies light as leaves.

Their Vocations helped with their long-term health, nothing flashy on the battlefield.  But the rest of their training worked just fine.

Despite this, the enemy’s fire kept predicting their movements, forcing them to watch the skies at all times, dodging strikes before they impacted.

It’s so dark.  Which meant the enemy’s spotter was a Joiner, too, with infrared vision or something similar.

The shells blew up around them, flashes of white light in the darkness, kicking up showers of snow and dirt.  A tree exploded, its splintered trunk catching fire.

A few of them hit close to Han, tearing his uniform and making his bones shake.  Each impact sent screaming pain throughout his nerves.  He felt every inch of his flesh, his skin, his veins, as the blast waves and shrapnel smashed into them.

Red lightning flickered around him, and a headache swelled in the back of his skull, as Han strained his Pith to hold his body together.  He exhaled, forcing himself to stay relaxed, to not panic.  He danced and wove around the artillery fire, flowing like water around a rock.

With pain, and bruises, the four wingtroopers moved onto the frigid ocean, leaping over waves and sprinting on the surface of the water.  They circled around, moving southward along the coast.

Then, as they passed under a short cliff, a chunk of snow broke off from a nearby cornice and shot towards them.  With his enhanced vision, Han could see what was beneath the snow.  Grey metal.  An explosive, the size of a man’s torso.

All four of them scattered.  They pushed off the water and yanked themselves away with their uniforms, moving in opposite directions.

But not fast enough.

The bomb exploded in the middle of their group, and a bright orange fireball engulfed them, batting them aside like kites in the wind.  A powerful blast, stronger than any of the artillery.  Red lightning flickered around them, as their durability Joining fought to hold their bodies together and not get blown to vaporized pieces.

Han felt like he’d been dropped into a vat of magma, then pummeled with sledgehammers.

They splashed into the ocean, too dazed to harden the surface beneath them.  Waves washed over them, splashing Han’s face and filling his open mouth with saltwater.

Han blinked and sputtered, treading water.  His eyes flitted around him, looking for the enemy.

A massive chunk of rock and snow had been torn from the cliffside.  A giant bomb.  One that could have demolished the whole summer palace on its own.  And a perfect trap, that the enemy had hidden from Han’s enhanced eyes.

But it was a conventional explosive.  Enough to rip holes in a bunker, but conventional, nonetheless.  Voidsteel shrapnel would have killed his team.  So either the enemy is poor, or they want us alive.

The wingtroopers leapt out of the dark water and landed on the surface, taking up fighting stances.  Their S-4 Reapers and their commando blades had been ripped apart, and all of them had lost most of their energy.  They caught their breaths, dripping wet, wisps of red lightning flickering over their skin, their wings in tatters.

But their bodies had been Joined to their minds, moving in perfect harmony.  They could still fight.

Han couldn’t see the enemy.  No matter where he looked, he only saw ice and snow and water.  No heat signatures.  Nothing.

Then, a chunk of ice moved by the coast.  A single hand, raising, then waving hello.  A second ago, it had looked identical to the ground.  Perfect camouflage.

Then Han looked closer, and saw.  Was allowed to see.

A figure crouched by the shore, wearing light, flowing clothes.  A thin layer of paint swirled on the figure’s skin and garments, letting it blend into its surroundings.  An S-4 Reaper had been buried in a snowdrift, with just a millimeter of the barrel sticking out and aiming at Han’s team.  In place of boots, the figure walked with bare feet.

And on its face, a white mask of a snarling dragon.

Han Yong had studied the Lion’s Blood vocation, which kept his body temperature warm no matter how cold it got outside.  But still, he felt ice flow through his body.

A Commando.  They’d been fighting a Shenti Commando.

Han Yong put his hands up and knelt on the surface of the water.  Surrendering.  His squadmates did the same.

Even with their weapons, even with full energy, they wouldn’t have stood a chance.

A perfect trap.  Using the artillery to lead them here, then blowing them up and cornering them.  Beating the bushes, then disarming and exhausting them.

And now, the lone Commando just stood there, silent behind their mask.  Saying nothing.

Han Yong breathed out, exhausted.  “Well?” he mumbled, too soft for a normal person to hear.  “You’ve got us?  What do you want?”

The Commando still said nothing.  Their uniform looked perfect.  Even without the camouflage paint, it had no wrinkles, no rips or tears or poor design choices born of meaningless ego.

Han Yong thought he’d be more scared.  Thought he’d fight harder, resist and kick and scream when he faced death.

But he just stood there, in the darkness, catching his breath on the icy water.  Waiting for the relief to come.

A man’s voice echoed from above, deep and focused.   “When I was a child, I used to walk in my sleep.”

I know that voice.  He’d listened to it a thousand times before, on radio broadcasts and in speeches.  Hearing it now brought back a wave of nostalgia.  Han’s throat tightened, and his heartbeat thumped in his ears.

“A dangerous habit.  I could fall, get myself hurt.  So my mother would guide me back to bed, gently, taking care not to wake me, and scold me in the morning.  I apologized, and meant it.”

Han heard footsteps from above, bootheels crunching on the snow.  Slow, and inexorable.  Han’s breath quickened, and he took a step back on the water.

“But a few nights later, my unconscious mind pulled me out of bed again.  My mother guided me back, and repeated the same lesson.  Again and again.  But it never worked.”  The man laughed above.  “Then, my father came home from a trip abroad.  The first night he found me sleepwalking, he guided me to the stove, turned it on, and pressed my finger to a hot frying pan.”

Han’s squadmates stepped back with him, staring up at the short cliff above them, transfixed.  Tian Shui looked terrified.  Xuan Heng looked amazed.  And Qiu Chun looked like both at the same time.

“I woke up in agony,” the man said.  “And for weeks, I had nightmares.  But I never sleepwalked again.”

Han saw the man’s breath before everything else.  Slow, careful exhales, that fogged up the icy air in front of him.  Moonlight shone down on the clouds, making them appear to glow.

Then, the speaker walked up to the edge of the cliff, revealing himself.  A tall, dark-haired man in his early thirties.  Lean muscles bulged under his dark red military uniform.  A simple coat, with only a tiny black star on his collar that signified his rank.

And his eyes.  Deep amber eyes filled with determination, capable of great warmth and great violence at the same time.

Cao Hui.  The Black Tortoise.  The Grand Marshall of the Shenti Empire, who’d nearly conquered Eight Oceans with the sheer force of his industry and tactics.  A deadly Joiner, known for his raw strength and perfect timing in the ring.

And a resurrected ghost, brought back from exile and shame.  Who’d outmaneuvered Han’s team with breathtaking ease.

Cao Hui looked down on them.  “Han Yong.  Tian Shui.  Xuan Heng.  Qiu Chun.  You are sleepwalking through this world.  And I have come to wake you.”

Han stuttered, at a loss for words.  What do you say to a legend pointing a gun at you?

“The warlord known as Lai Zan is dead,” he said.

He killed the boss.  Han thought he’d feel angrier, or hurt.  But he just felt a growing admiration for the Black Tortoise.  He beat us, and took out our employer in a single night.

“H – how?” stuttered Han.

“I explained my vision for the future of Shenten to her,” Cao Hui said.  “She was not interested in helping her nation.”  He nodded his head to Han.  “Your hometown is under my protection, now.”

“Thank you,” Han forced out.

“You have acted as common thugs.”  A hint of contempt slipped into Cao Hui’s voice.  Just that flicker was enough to make Han take another step back.  “But Shenten needs talent.”  He jumped off the edge of the cliff and landed on the surface of the water.  “That’s why I set this trap for you.”  He stepped forward, and his eyes shone with the moonlight.  “Our nation is returning.”

He wants us to work for him.

“Why should we follow your orders?” said Tian Shui.  “If what you say is true, then we’re no longer bound to anyone.”

“Yes,” said Cao Hui.  “You are free to go.”  He made a gesture, and the Shenti commando lowered their weapon and sat down.  “You can join the Droll Corsairs, or retire to an island somewhere.  You can run and wither, as your nation drowns.  And then you can die, with a hollow legacy, wondering if there was anything you could have done to save it.”

Save Shenten?  An absurd idea, even for the Black Tortoise.  “There’s nothing,” said Han, speaking up through his fear.  “This place was already a mess.  And now, the Principality is coming, thanks to that inciter, Anabelle Gage.  Their navy is a thousand times stronger than ours.  Their army is larger.  Their industry.”  It hurt to say, but it was true.  “You can make them hurt for it.  But you will lose.”  With his commandos and pride and mountain artillery, he would still lose.

Cao Hui was a giant.  But the world ground up giants all the same.

“You’re right,” Cao Hui said.  “We can’t beat the Principality.”

The sea remains.

“Conventionally,” said Cao Hui.  The Black Tortoise leaned in, and Han saw the electricity in his stare.  Cao Hui softened his voice.  “If there was a chance,” he said.  “To ensure our survival against the demons at our borders.  To forge a better world for humanity.  That would be worth dying for, wouldn’t it?”

Yes, he thought.  But he kept it to himself.  Emotions were bubbling up inside his chest.  Things he hadn’t felt for more than a decade.

“How?” said Xuan Heng.

Cao Hui’s smile lit up the dark ocean.  “I’ve discovered a young man,” he said.  “Who can see through the Spirit Block.”

Silence.  An icy breeze blew over the dark ocean.

Impossible.  Beyond impossible.  No one could see through the Spirit Block.  Cao Hui himself had been one of the strongest Praxis Specialists in the world, and the Spirit Block had snapped him like old bamboo.

But the others in his squad leaned forward, transfixed.  Cao Hui was not known to be a liar.

“We just need to slow the Principality down,” he said.  “Buy ourselves time and space to crack open this boy’s gifts.  And convince the milkface Epistocrats that Shenten is more trouble than it’s worth, if we can.”

“And how do we do that?” said Tian Shui, skeptical again.

Cao Hui pointed past the cliff, through a jagged valley ripped out of the rock by the Commando’s bomb.  Han followed the path of his finger.

The Black Tortoise was pointing at the mountain.  At the Infinite Peak, choked by crimson clouds.

“Red is a lucky color,” Cao Hui said.  “The same color as our flag, our money – “  He thumped his chest.  “The very souls of our Joiners.”

Han froze, gripped by fear again.  But not of Cao Hui.  Of the mountain, and the snow, and the cursed clouds that had swallowed up so many before him.  What does the Black Tortoise want from this frozen grave?  How could it possibly help Shenten?

“There were Great Scholar ruins,” said Cao Hui.  “On this very ground.  Empress Ushi tore them down to build her summer palace, but the records inside hinted at something else.  Something much larger.”  He pointed again.  “Near the top of the peak.”

“Larger?” mumbled Han.  He didn’t like where this was going.

“A power.  Sealed away,” said Cao Hui.  “That can unleash hell.”

In the far distance, the peak stretched out of the earth, a jagged tumor of rock and ice and snow.  The largest, tallest mountain in the world, and the most unnatural.

“Warlord Qian learned of this power, many years ago from an archaeologist.  But he gave up on this mountain, and its secrets.”  Cao Hui clenched his teeth.  “Cowardice.”  He strode forward across the water, and gripped Han Yong’s shoulders, looking into his eyes.  “He could not face the darkness.  But we can.”

And Han Yong realized.  He wants me to climb that peak.  Retrieve that power for him, whatever it was.  A suicide mission.  Or worse.

“No one, sir – “  Already calling him ‘sir’.  “No one’s ever come back from there, sir.”

“Yes,” Cao Hui said.  “Joiners of your training have never attempted the climb before, but it is as you say.  I ask for your lives.  Nothing lesser.”

Silence again.  Tian Shui clenched her fists.

“But – “  He gripped Han’s shoulders tighter.  “Your deaths will ensure our victory.”

He made a gesture with his hand, and the Commando stood up, striding forward.  they pulled off their white dragon mask, letting their black hair cascade around them.  Her black hair.

A tall, slender woman stood before him on the water, with bright red lips and high cheekbones.  A flawless woman, who’d sailed ahead of him in his Joining classes at Huangdi Academy.  Who’d sailed ahead of everyone at Huangdi.

The Immaculate Vanguard.  The strongest Joiner in the world.  And the best soldier Han had ever fought alongside.

Her bright green eyes stared at him with burning focus.  “If you don’t do this,” she said.  “I will.”

Han knew the Vanguard.  He even knew her old name, before she’d taken on her title.  She wouldn’t lie to me.

And without her talents, Shenten had no chance of survival.  None.  If the Vanguard died on that mountain, their hope would die with her.

“We can save Shenten,” said Cao Hui.  “No more scrabbling for food and roofs and clean water.  We can bring our people into a golden age.  Streets filled with cars.  Television.  Skyscrapers touching the clouds.  A united, victorious nation.”  His voice turned cold.  “But to reach it, we must unleash hell.”

The Immaculate Vanguard clasped Han’s forearm, and he clasped hers.  The politicians and generals will play their games.  But as soldiers, they could understand each other.  The Vanguard knew the depth of the Black Tortoise’s request.

Han Yong had forgotten what this felt like.  To be a part of something, to feel like he was risking his life for something.  Not the petty ego of a despot, but a nation.  A people.

It had been over a decade since he’d read a line from The 99 Precepts, felt the glorious pattern it made in his thoughts, the insights that formed the foundations of his soul, gave his thoughts meaning.

If Han went up that peak, someone else might read those words again.  The snowy garden of his childhood could bloom again, out of this rotting carcass of a nation.

Superstition and red clouds wouldn’t stop him.  He was a wingtrooper.  A Joiner of body and mind.  Honed by some of the finest training in the Eight Oceans.

This is what I’ve been waiting for.

“Can I trust you and your squad, Han?” said Cao Hui.  “Is Shenten worthy of your talents?”

To answer, Han Yong pressed his right fist against his left palm.  A salute.

Cao Hui and his Vanguard saluted back.

________________________________________

They climbed the mountain in silence.

Normal mountaineers would have to coordinate ropes, unstable ladders over crevasses, bottled oxygen to ward off delirium and exhaustion.  But the wingtroopers’ Joining let them bypass all that.  They jumped over canyons with their zero dashes, clambered up icy cliffs in seconds with their bare hands.

With the Ox’s Breath vocation, they didn’t have troubles with the thin air, either.  They weren’t even winded.

They had begun their ascent after recharging their Piths, several hours later in the darkness.  The fewer people saw them, the better.  And there was no time to waste.  Cao Hui had pressed them forward, and they’d agreed.  Why had they all agreed?

They jumped over the mountain’s lone river, tumbling over a cliff in a giant waterfall towards the ocean.  Snowflakes swirled through the air around them, slow and peaceful, the beginnings of a much stronger blizzard.

And even with their Joining, even with the ease they navigated the mountain, Han Yong felt the peak’s overwhelming size, with every step.  Every handhold and jump.  A giant larger than any Joiner.  Larger than a Commando, or the Immaculate Vanguard.  Or even Cao Hui himself.

Han wore enhanced camouflage provided by the commandos.  A thin layer of paint over his military uniform, that could be adjusted to the landscape around him, making him near-invisible, though it wasn’t his expertise.  And with their Joining and snow projection, their movements made no sound.

The Commando could have gone in their place.  The silent, masked individual who’d wrecked their whole team.  But Commandos were irreplaceable.  Wingtroopers were not.

Han and his soldiers all knew this.  Just as they knew their odds of returning.  And what strategy could they plan, from the tiny information they knew of the threat on the peak?  Nothing.  They could only climb, and steel themselves.  There was nothing more to say.

As they climbed, the snow grew thicker around them.  The winds blew faster, and the temperature dropped.

Han glanced back, as he clambered up an icy cliff.  Even with his enhanced vision, he could no longer make out the half-ruined palace, or the coastline below them.  Thick clouds hid the ground from view, leaving only the mountains around them.  The world outside grew fainter, as the blizzard sealed them in, dimming the moonlight overhead.

But this storm and the darkness helped them, too.  Whatever thing sat in that red cloud.  Whatever force, or person, or creature was killing people as they ascended, it might have a harder time spotting their ascent.

Han Yong felt hopeful, for an hour or two.

And then, they started breaking.

Han and his soldiers had learned internal atlases, and memory-bursted maps of the area, combined with training that gave them an exceptional sense of direction.

And for the first time in his career, Han got lost.  He jumped over a crevasse, landed on the other side, and lost track of where they were.  A few whispered words confirmed that the other members of his squad had suffered the same effects, despite their Praxis vocations.

So they paused for a moment, and dug through their memories, made exceptional with vocations and raw practice.  Backtracking their progress and comparing it to their maps of the area.

And Han felt gaps in his recent memory.  The others had blackouts too, random chunks of their short-term memory wiped from their minds.

Next, they tried estimating their speed, and using the internal clocks in their Piths, accurate to the microsecond.

Han thought it was 0421.  Tian thought it was 0250.  Xuan thought it was 0143.  And Qiu thought it was 0513.

Their clocks had broken, too, as had their intuitive sense of time.  It had been hours, at least.  But maybe it had been longer than that.

Whisper effects.  They’d been told to expect some.  In a normal mission, these setbacks would push them to retreat, to regroup, coordinate with whisper-sec, and make better sense of the enemy.  Going forward heightened their risk of mental hijacking, and crushing defeat.

But this was not a normal mission.

With their navigation broken, Han and the others relied on a much simpler method.  Go up.

And after minutes, or hours, or days, they reached the edge of the red fog, a thick cloud that wrapped around the top quarter of the mountain, blocking the view from even the best Joiners and the most advanced telescopes.

Up close, it looked even stranger.  The fog seemed to form shapes before them.  Triangles.  Countless triangles, and smaller triangles inside those triangles, or branching out of the vertices.  An endless pattern of pattern of patterns.

Han stared at them for a moment, transfixed.  Is this another hallucination?  Another Whisper effect?

Tian put a hand on his shoulder, shaking him back to reality.  And together, they fished the rest of the gear out of their backpacks.  Gas masks, and full-body hazard suits.

Their Iron Liver vocation suite let them resist poison, and their Immunity vocation suite let them shrug off bioweapons.  But they took no chances.  The strongest prisoners and mountaineers had made it to this point.  But once they stepped into the red cloud, none of them had come out.

And then they stood there, all geared up, gripping their Reaper rifles, blending into the terrain around them.  No one said a word or moved, waiting for Han’s order.

A silver oracle snake wound back and forth in the dark sky, slow and distant.  And Han shivered.  An overwhelming terror seized him, stronger than anything he’d felt before.  Run down the mountain, his instincts told him.  Never come within a hundred kilometers of this place.

But Cao Hui’s voice echoed in his head, too.  We can save Shenten.  But we must unleash hell.  The Principality’s ships were sailing towards this continent, and nothing on the ground could stop them.

Han had a duty to his country.  His determination, too, felt stronger than any that came before it.

He hefted his rifle, took a deep breath of rubber-smelling air, and strode into the fog.

The red fog surrounded him, thick, impossible to see through, even with his heightened senses.  It swallowed him like quicksand, muffling the noise from the outside world and isolating him.

Han took another step over the snow.  And another.  It felt like he was walking through a river of flowing mud.  Only, he couldn’t be sure which way the river flowed.

He’d been trained to deal with Whisper Vocations, as best as one could.  And the Principality had no shortage of hijackers on the battlefield.  But Han hadn’t felt anything like this before.  It felt like reality and a dream at the same time, a strange consciousness which he drifted through, clutching his sanity like a drowning man to driftwood.

And most of his anti-Whisper training boiled down to two things in a fight: Keep your distance.  Kill them fast.  Without those tenets, all bets were off.

Then, the fog grew thinner around him, something he could see through, and he crouched behind a chunk of ice, glancing back.

The cloud gets thicker on the outside.  A barrier, of sorts.  Inside, visibility looked bad, but far from impossible, with enhanced vision.

Tian, Xuan, and Qiu emerged from the barrier, confused looks in their eyes, like they’d all shown up to the wrong house for a party.  They crouched beside Han and looked around them, watching for enemies.  And their eyes widened.

The highest peak in the world, one of the coldest spots in the Eight Oceans, was a jungle.  Trees, ferns, moss and vines and overgrown weeds grew out of the ice.  Like a swampy island, ripped out of the sea and dropped on top of the peak.  Snow covered the greenery, frozen, but still growing.  How is it all still growing?

The foliage grew dense ahead of them, impossible to see through even with enhanced vision.  And the fog didn’t help, either.

Han tightened his grip on his rifle.  This is bad.  They would have to go through the jungle to get to the top of the peak, and presumably, the Great Scholar ruins Cao Hui had told them of.  But with this visibility, a talented enemy could ambush them with ease.

He projected forward, to see if they could silence the foliage ahead of them, so they could push through without making noise.

And all the plants had Piths.

What?  Plants didn’t have Piths.  Only creatures with a brain were supposed to have those.  Are these conscious beings?  Were the trees themselves killing people?

But the Piths in these things felt different.  Simpler.  Each plant had only a handful of soul particles, with only the faintest activity.  If you stitched a whole forest of these together, they might have as many connections as a dog’s brain.

But they weren’t stitched together.  They appeared separate, with minds dumber than earthworms.  The trees aren’t the threat.  So what was?

Either way, they couldn’t project into these things.  So they’d have to make some noise.

Forward,” whispered Han.  “Don’t cut the foliage.

They moved forward, into the dense greenery.  The plants rustled as they pushed through them, but otherwise, didn’t seem to respond to their presence.  They’re not attacking us, at least.

Han glanced behind him.  The jungle trees already blocked his view of the fog barrier.  Another door closing behind them.

More time passed.  They pushed through ferns and bushes and thickets over the snow and ice, the red mist close around them.  They climbed up frozen cliffs covered with vines, past small glaciers with flowers sprouting out of the ice.

And it felt so much larger than the rest of the mountain.  Every landmark, every shift in the terrain felt like the end of a great journey.  And as he walked, the trees and leaves that had appeared chaotic at first were following a pattern.  Triangles within triangles, branching out and overlapping each other.  Just like the fog.

Han began to understand why they called it ‘infinite’.

Then, Qiu Chun tapped his shoulder.  Han turned, and the woman made movements with her mouth, speaking silently without even a whisper.  Visible with his enhanced vision behind her gas mask.  Han read her lips.

Someone’s watching us,” said Qiu.

Xuan nodded.

Han focused on his enhanced senses, pouring energy into them and stretching them to their limit.  He couldn’t sense any enemies around them, any targets.

But Qiu was right.  The instinct, the feeling of being watched felt unshakeable.  Another Whisper Vocation?  Or a warning?

Cao Hui had given them ample supplies of Voidsteel bullets and grenades, and their Joining let them rip tanks to shreds with their bare hands.  More firepower than had ever been brought up this mountain.

And yet, Han felt a nagging, growing sense that those tools wouldn’t be enough here.

We can still go back,” said Tian with her lips.  “We’ve collected useful intel already.  That can help others make expeditions here.  It’s not too late.

They all knew her implication, beneath the words.  If we stay here longer, we’re going to die.  Or worse.  And if they went down the other side of the mountain, they could flee the area before Cao Hui or his commando caught up.

Han shook his head.  “That’s not enough.”  The Principality’s armies were sailing across the ocean.  Cao Hui might not have many experienced Joiners to spare for expeditions.  “We need to retrieve the weapon.”  Whatever it was.

He turned forward again, and they kept going.  They climbed and they climbed, past trees growing out of cliffs and dark mycelium weaving through glittering ice.

More time passed, and a faint light glowed in the distance, a dim, pale globe shining through the red fog.  Three of their four internal atlases saw it as coming from the east.

That’s the sun.  Dawn had arrived.

With the new light, they made out a faint black outline in the distance.  The jungle foliage ended, making way for a sloped clearing high on the mountainside.

You seeing this?” mouthed Tian.

That’s it,” said Han, every muscle in his body wound up.

The object grew larger as they trudged through the snow and fog.  They pushed through a thicket of leaves, and it came into view.

It’s a ship.  A beached vessel, made of metal.  Han stretched his Pith far forward, and the hull repelled his soul.  Voidsteel.  Colored differently.

But it didn’t look like any ship he’d seen before, ancient or modern.  It didn’t even look human.  Its curves and angles looked sleek, elegant, geometric in all the ways that a normal boat was utilitarian.  Six metal legs stuck out of the sides, each as thick as a tree trunk, ending in a wide, metallic hoof.

A ship that can go on land.  That had parked itself on the side of a mountain.  The Great Scholar ruins.  A tomb worth a large fortune.

With those appendages, and its shape, it looked like some vast, alien insect, that had crawled out of a hive in the deepest pit of the universe.

And Han could feel a presence, too, radiating out from it.  A pressure, like an explosive’s blast wave, only constant, and slow, and inevitable.

They moved forward, against that current, over an empty field of ice.  Approaching the ship.

Those legs,” said Xuan, with his lips, silent.  “Technology?

Or projection,” said Han.

The ship grew as they approached it.  It’s massive.  The size of an aircraft carrier, at least.  How did it get up here?  If the Great Scholars here had been fleeing the water, they didn’t need to go this high.

Then, Han’s projection felt something, in the snow ahead of him.  An unfamiliar object, made of wood and Voidsteel.  He projected into it, lifting it in front of him.  Snow fell off of it, revealing its contours.

A musket.  Not a design he’d seen from history, but a musket, nonetheless.  A valuable insight into the Scholar’s technology.  If this is true, then they were less advanced than us.

Han felt something else below.  Structures of rocks and minerals, mixed with latticework structures of collagen and calcium phosphate.  All molded into a familiar shape.

There’s a skeleton below,” said Han.  “A human skeleton.  Partly fossilized.

He felt around with his Pith some more, a wide-area scan.  Not just one skeleton.  Hundreds of them, buried beneath the snow and ice and dirt, mixed with more muskets, daggers, and other preserved weapons.  The remains of a battle.  A battle from very, very long ago.

The bones, too, had been broken into pieces and fastened into triangle shapes.

Tian looked at him.  “They’re all headless.

Han felt around.  She’s right.  Among all the ancient skeletons nearby, none of them had a skull.  There weren’t even decapitated craniums, or bits of jaw scattered around the area.

It was like their heads had all vanished.  Not a typical way for people to die in battle.

But they’re inert.  No Piths in them, no sign of movement.  Not a threat, or their goal.  They had to keep moving.

Xue pointed ahead.  One of the lower doors on the ship had broken off.

Han nodded, and they jumped up, one at a time, entering the ship.

They walked through dense, curving hallways, aiming their rifles around them.  It was dark inside, with only the faintest red light creeping in through cracks and holes in the passageways.  So they switched to their night vision eyes.

The inside looked alien, too.  Nothing at all like a normal ship of this size.  It seemed artistic, almost, like every wall and floor had been shaped by some mad sculptor, rather than an engineer.

And the corridors had emptied, save for the dust and snow.  No debris, no clutter or weapons or supplies or skeletons.  This ship died a long, long time ago.

Stay together,” mouthed Han, with his lips.  “Watch each other’s backs.  Report any new Whisper symptoms.

He flipped on his mapping vocations, to sync with his internal atlas and help them keep track of their position.  But given his previous malfunctions, who knew how well that’d work?  Worst case, we can punch our way out.  If they hit the Voidsteel right, and they protected their bodies,  their Joining could still work on it.

For a normal mission, they’d comb a ship like this from the bottom up, making sure it had no surprises for them.

We’re going straight for the center,” said Han.  “No sweeps.  Let’s get this artifact and leave.”  

Nods all around.  The less time they spent here, the better.  They used their mapping programs and intuition as best they could, and moved towards the heart of the ship, turning up and left and right through the dark passageways.

They emerged in a massive chamber, pitch-black and shaped like an egg laid on its side.

Like the rest of the ship, it was empty.  But a door, of sorts, had been unhinged in the center of the room.  A storage locker, embedded in the floor.

Han gestured, and they all approached it.  Han grabbed the heavy door of the locker and lifted it off, easy with his strength.

As one, the four wingtroopers leaned forward and looked inside.

Two brown spheres sat at the bottom.  One the size of an orange, looking like a small coconut, and another one, much larger, the size of a bicycle.  They’d been made of a simple clay, or dried mud, looking like relics from a more primitive culture.

Elaborate patterns and symbols had been carved on the spheres, that Han couldn’t piece together.  It doesn’t look like the Great Scholars’ normal languages.  He couldn’t even make out clear pictograms, or any obvious images.

“Anyone recognize these?” said Xuan.  Shaking heads all around.

Han projected into it, and felt resistance.  Similar to the presence of another Pith, but static, frozen.  It’s not ordinary clay, and it’s not Voidsteel, either.  Some sort of projection was going on.  But with what soul?   Where’s the Pith?  Were these mind-spheres, perhaps, containing the souls of Great Scholars put in stasis?

Han projected one of his commando blades out of its sheath, and tapped the flat of the blade against the larger sphere.  It thumped, a hollow sound.  It’s not a mind-sphere, then.  Not a normal one, at least.  The clay acted as a shell, for something contained inside.

This is what Cao Hui wants.  Beyond a doubt.

Load them up,” said Han.  “Full containment.

They sealed the spheres in airtight bags, in case there was some sort of biohazard in there.  The strongest flexible material they had, in a thick layer surrounding each one.  They loaded the orange-sized sphere into Xuan Heng’s bag.  It was light, almost weightless.  Han projected around the larger one and floated it up next to him.

Time to go,” said Han.  They stepped towards the door where they’d entered.

And Han heard himself scream.

He bent his knees in a combat stance, feeling every millimeter of his body with a Joiner’s heightened awareness.  His mouth hadn’t opened.  His vocal cords hadn’t vibrated.  I didn’t make that noise.

But his scream was echoing around the room, emanating from the mist itself.  A second later, the screams of his squadmates joined them too, echoing from every direction, shattering the silence.  A mirror, imitating their voices.

The fog thumped around them, like a heartbeat.  Faint at first, indiscernible to normal ears.  But it went faster and faster, louder and louder.

Out,” whispered Han, speaking out loud.  “Now.

And then he heard footsteps.  His enhanced hearing picked up the sound of bare feet on metal.  Humans, moving through the distant hallways of the ship.  Slow, walking footsteps.  Getting closer and closer.

Dozens of them.  No, hundreds.  Far away still, but blocking their path towards the exit.  Sealing them in.

Enemies sealed off primary exit,” whispered Han, as the screams quieted around them.  “Go up.  Direct path, maximum speed.”  He made a series of hand signals.  In unison, Tian and Qiu jumped up, sailing a hundred feet into the air, and punched the ceiling of the chamber, their fists wrapped with metal gauntlets.

Voidsteel was stronger than normal metal, and uniquely messed with Piths.  But it wasn’t immune to the laws of physics.

A clang echoed through the room, and a hole tore open in the ceiling.  Tian and Qiu flew up and punched a hole in the ceiling above that, and the ceiling above that.

The footstep sounds didn’t speed up.  They kept walking towards the squad, slow and deliberate.  The fog’s thumping heartbeats grew louder, until it was like an impact, thudding in their ears.

Han and Xuan activated their zero dashes, and flew through the holes after their squadmates, out of the Great Scholars’ dead ship.

They landed on the roof.  The fog swirled around, thumping with its strange heartbeat.

Han couldn’t see far in these conditions, but he could hear.  More footsteps in the jungle below.  Walking towards the clearing, towards the ship.

Then he looked up, at the warped barrier above them.  A misshapen dome of thicker red fog, that they’d pushed through to get in here.  We get through that, and we’re good.  Getting down the rest of the mountain would be easy.

A hand signal, and they all bent their knees.  Red lightning flickered around their leg muscles, and they pushed off, leaping straight up in the air.  With their zero dashes, their bodies accelerated much faster, and projection into their uniforms helped them push through the air resistance.

Then, at the last second, Han barked an order, and they switched off their zero dashes, making their bodies heavier and boosting their momentum to punch through to the outside.

Han’s gun passed through the smoke in front of him.  Then Han slammed into the barrier, bouncing off with a thud.  The other wingtroopers bounced off too, once after the other, the red fog acting like a solid for them.

They fell back to the roof of the ship, flipping back on their zero dashes.  We’re locked in.  This was why nobody had come back from this cloud, even the ones with gas masks.

The footsteps grew closer from below, still walking, still patient, but moving towards the roof.  Inexorable.

Again,” said Han.  “Punch a hole first.

They bent their knees and jumped again.  This time, as they got close, they opened fire with their S-1 Reapers.  Normal rounds and Voidsteel.  Deafening gunshots rang in his ears.  They flung grenades ahead of them too.  The majority of their explosive ordinance.

The bullets went through the thick fog.  The Voidsteel grenades exploded inside the barrier, making swirling patterns in the fractal triangles on its surface.

Then, as they flew towards it, Han and Tian focused on their legs, gathering up all their strength in a flickering storm of red lightning.  Xuan drew a Voidsteel broadsword from the sheathe at his back, and slashed at the barrier dozens of times, his arm moving in a blur.  A second later, Han and Tian kicked it, their bootsoles lined with Voidsteel.  Strikes that would rip holes in concrete bunkers.

To no avail.  They bounced off the barrier again and fell back to the roof.  So physical force won’t be enough.  And neither would Voidsteel, though that did something, at least.

And then, Han’s mask broke.

He sensed the oxygen tube decay and break, along with the exterior of his air tank.  The emergency filters on his face were breaking down too.  Fraying at the edges.  Melting like a pat of butter in boiling acid.

Mask breaking down,” said Han.  Nods all around the group.  It was happening to everyone.  He projected into his gear to hold it together, but it kept breaking down.  Physical force wasn’t enough to keep it intact.

In unison, the four of them sucked in one last breath, and held it.  A more advanced Joiner could use their Piths to make their own oxygen, and sustain themselves forever without breathing.  They didn’t have that – they could last for a while on a single lungful, but sooner or later, they’d have to inhale, or pass out.

The footsteps grew closer.  The fog’s heartbeat grew louder.

Han understood, now, why the enemies were walking, not running.  Why their unseen pursuers didn’t seem eager to chase down the four intruders.

Because they don’t have to.  They could be as slow as they liked.  Because the wingtroopers, for all their training and Voidsteel and pride, could not escape.

Han squinted, and made out another faint shape in the fog, further up the slope.  Too far away to be the source of the footsteps, and too blurry to make out properly.  But the shape was massive.  A vast, inevitable thing, moving in the distance.

That scared him more than the rest put together.

The wingtroopers’ masks broke, completely, and fell off their faces.  They held their breaths, and aimed their Reapers at the torn hole in the roof, ready to fire at whatever crawled out of the ship.

Then Han lowered his rifle.

What?” mouthed Tian.  “What the fuck are you doing?”  The others looked just as confused.

It doesn’t matter what’s coming from the ship,” mouthed Han without letting out his breath.  “Even if we can kill them, we’ll still be stuck here with no exit and no functioning masks.  Eventually, we’ll have to breathe.”  And then they’d be lost.

Horror dawned on the others’ faces, as they processed his words, realizing the truth of them.

Then what the fuck are we supposed to do?” said Tian.  The heartbeat grew louder, a repeating thunderclap, again and again and again.  The footsteps kept walking through the ship, towards the top.

Our bodies didn’t go through the barrier,” said Han.  “But –

Our guns and bullets did,” said Tian.

Han nodded.  “Even the ones that weren’t Voidsteel.”  He stared up at the red dome sealing them in.  “Whatever this thing is, it can block Piths from leaving, but not ordinary matter.  We can’t escape – ”  He floated the sealed clay sphere next to him.  “But these can.”  Shenten’s future.

But there was a Pith-like substance around the edges,” said Qiu.  “It still might bounce off.

Only one way to find out.”  Han pulled the smaller clay sphere out of Xuan’s bag, fitting it in his palm.

Then he wound up his arm and lifted his leg like a pitcher, red lightning flickering around him.  He poured energy into his muscles.  His arm, and his shoulders, and his back and his leg.

Han’s entire body twisted, and he flung the sphere towards the outside of the red dome.  It shot forward and up with overwhelming force, at a speed that would blow through a suit of body armor.

The sphere zipped through the red barrier, slicing a hole in the dense fog, and sailing out into the clear mountain air.  A sliver of warm daylight shone in through the gap.

A fraction of a second later, the hole shut itself, the fog barrier flowing into the gap.  Hope that thing doesn’t break when it lands.

The wingtroopers all looked at each other, communicating with their widening eyes.  Now, Han understood why the presence here hadn’t touched these artifacts, or turned them into triangles.  The artifact repels it.

And if the artifact punches a hole in the barrier, then – 

Han floated the larger sphere in front of him, as wide as a man was tall and as light as a snowflake.  He projected into the sealed bag around it and shot it forward and up, at a diagonal angle towards the barrier.  This way, if his squad emerged and got knocked out, they’d fall outside the sphere, not back inside.

The sphere pushed through the barrier, and a much larger chunk got sliced away from the red fog, wide enough for the four of them to fit through.  For a fraction of a second, daylight flooded in again, before the dome sealed the hole again, faster than before.

Han kept projecting into the sphere, stretching his Pith as far as it could go, and pulled the artifact back into the dome.  It sliced through again, and the daylight appeared again.

But this time, the red fog closed the hole even faster.  This place is adapting to us.  Shifting its tactics, strengthening itself there.

Which means we only have a few more seconds.  Before their window of opportunity slammed shut.

Han gave another set of hand signals, and they bent their legs again, red lightning crackling around their thighs, zero dashes flickering on to drop their bodies’ masses to almost zero.

They jumped in unison, towards the floating artifact at blinding speeds.

Han pushed the artifact through the red barrier, one last time.  Slicing a hole to the outside.

As one, the four wingtroopers shot through the closing tunnel, reaching for the outside.

Han’s head and shoulders made it through the barrier.  Bright, midday light shone down from the sun.

Then the red fog snapped shut around them, squeezing in to fill the gap.  It felt like a massive claw, clenching Han on all sides, squeezing out the life from his flesh.

Han lost sight of the other three.  Red lightning crackled around him, and a headache stabbed into the back of his skull, as he poured energy into his muscles and skin and bones, keeping himself from getting crushed to a pulp.

Han brought the clay sphere towards him, pressing it down on the barrier to slice through it again, to give them more space.

This time, the red fog swirled around the point of contact, but didn’t budge from the sphere.  The artifact didn’t cut through the barrier anymore, repelled just like the humans.  It’s adapted.  The artifact wouldn’t help them anymore.

So as Han struggled and pushed to free his arms, to drag the rest of his body out of the choking fog, he projected into the sphere, and flung it away, down the slope of the mountain.

Even if they didn’t make it, the Shenti people would have a weapon unlike any other.  A tool to break their enemies, if they unlocked its secrets.

Then, Han focused everything on his Joining, freeing one arm and using it to drag himself forward.

It felt like doing a one-armed pushup with no Joining and a car on his back.  Han moved a millimeter, then two.  His chest ached, his lungs ready to burst.  One of his ribs snapped, as he freed his second arm, sending stabbing pain through his chest.  The headache grew, turning his skull into a balloon of agony, ready to pop at any second.

But he moved another millimeter.  Then another millimeter.  I’m making progress, I’m making progress.

His Pith’s energy dropped, though, the reserves running dry.  He dug into all the deepest parts of his will where he stored his desperation.  It’s not going to be enough.

So Han dropped all of his durability vocations, dropped his Ox’s Breath technique, and put everything into his arms, for a single, final shove.

Something snapped in his pelvis, and his leg, but his body shot out of the fog, soaring into the air and to the side.  I’m doing it, I’m doing it, I’m doing it.  A surge of triumph and delirious joy washed over him, overwhelming the screaming pain throughout his body.

Han dropped through the sky, his arms and legs limp, his body not responding.  He didn’t even project into his uniform, his Pith utterly out of energy.

He dropped onto a snowdrift outside the dome, at the edge of a cliff.  His body slid forward, crunching in the white powder, and he stared over the edge of the precipice, through a gap in the clouds below.

The mountain spread out before him.  The Infinite Peak, majestic and perfect.  Pale snow and icy glaciers and the massive waterfall near the bottom, pouring into the glittering ocean.  An entire world, away from the city, away from the madness of the oncoming war.  A quiet sliver of nature.  The tallest mountain in the world, and the most beautiful.

Han exhaled, and breathed out a cloud of red fog.

The crimson mist swirled, forming triangle patterns in the clear air.  My lungs.  With its endurance Joining flipped off, with all his efforts focused on brute force and his mind delirious, his body had acted on its own during that last push, desperate for oxygen.

And Han’s lungs had sucked in a single, deep breath of the mist.

Han looked down.  His pelvis, femur, and calf had been crushed, and were bleeding on the snow.  None of his squadmates had emerged from the hole, which meant they probably hadn’t made it, and had been smashed to jelly, or been forced back inside the dome, where they’d be trapped.

Tian Shui.  Xuan Heng.  Qiu Chun.  His comrades, his friends, who he’d trained and fought alongside for years.  The men and women he cared for more than anyone in the Eight Oceans.  And they were probably dead already.

His lungs inhaled and exhaled again, a slow, relaxed motion.

Han Yong felt great.





Author’s Note:

Hi all! I’ve got some bad news, unfortunately. After having seen doctors, at their advising, I am still taking a temporary break from typing, because of repetitive strain injuries on my tendons and nerves.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to make a speedy recovery and get back to writing. But until then, to avoid causing permanent damage, I’ll be typing very little in the coming weeks. I have somewhat of a backlog remaining, but so I don’t run out, I’ll be temporarily publishing chapters once every two weeks, like before, instead of the usual once a week. Patreon subscribers will still read one chapter ahead of everyone else. In this vein, Episode 15 (titled “The Jump”) will publish on April 26 for patrons.

I apologize for the inconvenience. And thanks for reading.

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14-E Imposter Syndrome

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Ana

Mercurial slid open the door, and I stepped into the room, my socks near-silent on the floor mats.  Tasia followed close behind, saying nothing.

The floor felt warm beneath my toes.  Heated.  Sunlight filtered into the room from the far wall, which was made entirely of glass.

The furniture was simple, minimalist.  The only pieces in the room were a low kotatsu table in the center of the floor, complete with a blanket and a heater, and a trio of pillows set around it on the floor.  Two for us, one for her.  A small black box and three shallow white bowls sat on the wooden table.

I projected into the black box, and felt Voidsteel lining inside the smooth wooden shell.  Someone wants to hide what’s inside.

And all of it had been cleaned to perfection.  I couldn’t find a single speck of dirt.  It reminded me of traditional Northern Nekean design, all clean geometries and careful shaping.

The colors, though, looked more Southern.  The mats and wall hangings had been painted pink and yellow and green, bright and vibrant and loud, forming elaborate patterns of flowers and spirals and stars.  Oil lamps shaped like teardrops sat around the edges of the room, unlit during the day.

It looked bright, but rustic.  Simple, but lively.

Tasia looked around, smiling, her eyes still wide.  Girl’s easy to impress.  Though that was probably better than the opposite.

A pool of water made up the other half of the room, stretching from the center to the glass wall on the far side.  Clear, still, without a ripple or a hint of disturbance.  Bright green lotus flowers floated on the surface in concentric circles, unmoving.  The late afternoon sunlight made them appear to glow.

A Nekean woman with dark green hair sat cross-legged on the surface of the pool, facing away from us.  She looked through the glass wall, at the view spread out beneath her.  From here, you could see the whole rest of the hot springs on the slope below, and the waters of Airavata Bay, with the boats traveling in and out, drawing lines across the turquoise expanse.

Like the pool, the woman didn’t move, still as a painting.  She didn’t talk, either, ignoring us or not noticing our entrance.

Izanami.  The Green Lotus.  It had to be.

To the side, a private hot tub sat outside the building at the other end of a jade glass door, steam rising off of the surface.  Trees surrounded it, hiding it from outside view.  So she likes to get luxurious.

Tasia and I sat down on the cushions by the low kotatsu table, because that seemed proper.  I was sure there was some tradition I was forgetting to follow properly.

The two of us waited a minute, respectful and quiet.  But Izanami didn’t say anything, or acknowledge our presence in any way.  Her back expanded and contracted a fraction of an inch, as she inhaled and exhaled.

So I coughed, speaking up.  “Izanami?”

Izanami yelped, startled.  The water broke beneath her, and she fell into the pool with a splash.  Soft waves lapped against the wooden floor, and the perfect circles of lotus flowers scattered in a hundred different directions.

The tranquil atmosphere vanished, as Izanami floundered in the water, swimming to the edge of the pool.  She grabbed the mat at the edge and clambered out onto the floor, dripping wet.  Her perfect green hair clumped, soaked through, and her clothes had been drenched.

I blinked.  “I – “

Izanami stood up, inhaled, and exhaled, making a gesture with her hands.  The water flowed out of her clothes and hair and the mats, drying them all in an instant and sliding back into the pool.  The ripples stopped.  The lotus flowers returned to their four perfect circles.

The room’s serenity returned, as fast as it had vanished.  Izanami lifted a finger and wiped a droplet of water from her light brown cheek, and she looked perfect and pretty again.  Three horizontal green lines had been tattooed across her forehead.  Three Liminals.  Though the woman looked to be in her late twenties, her Pith was far older.

When she dried off, I realized that she wasn’t wearing any traditional clothes.  Her blouse looked normal enough, but she matched them with a pair of green pajama pants, with light purple polka-dots.  She slid on a pair of fuzzy slippers, sat down on the pillow across from us, and floated another wooden box from beneath the table.

“Hi,” she said, her eyes twinkling.  “I am Izanami.  Care for a snack?”  Her voice sounded warm, welcoming, with a hint of excitement underneath, like she’d been waiting her whole life to meet us.

“Yes, please!” said Tasia.

“Sure,” I said, feeling less certain.

Izanami lifted the warm blanket of the kotatsu.  She floated out a plate of garlic bread, setting it in front of Tasia.  Then she floated cocoa powder and milk into the white bowl, mixing and heating them into hot chocolate.  For me, she floated a stream of autumn-colored liquid into my bowl.  Steam rose off of it, and I inhaled.  That smells like spiced cider.

The woman knew our favorite foods.  I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or creeped out.  She mixed another bowl of hot chocolate for herself, adding toasted marshmallows on top of hers and Tasia’s.  And through it all, she left the Voidsteel-lined black box on the table, untouched.

I didn’t touch my drink yet.  “You told your man to spy on us,” I said.  “Then you saved our lives, and brought us halfway across the world.  Why?”

Izanami sipped her hot cocoa, nibbling on one of the marshmallows.  “Because the world is ending,” she said.  “And I think you can help.”

The water is rising.

“We survived the first great drowning,” she said.  “Even if the Great Scholars’ civilization did not.  In large part because enough landmass remained to sustain agriculture and civilization.  But the water is rising again.  And we won’t endure a second cataclysm.  Humanity’s twilight is upon us.”

Tasia nodded, leaning forward and biting into her garlic bread, spilling crumbs onto the smooth wooden table.

“Some people choose to look away,” said Izanami.  “To hide in despair, or apathy, or ignorance.  But we don’t have that luxury.  You have seen things most humans could only dream of.  And I have dreamed of things.  Slithering, empty things, that swallow the stars.”

I gazed past her, at the turquoise surface of the bay, far below.

“We know this isn’t random,” she said.  “We know this won’t go away.  And we know the name of our enemy.”

Egress,” said Tasia.

My shoulders tensed, and I threw an illusion over Izanami to hide that reaction.  “Don’t blurt stuff out,” I said to Tasia with an auditory illusion.  “Don’t reveal what we know.

“You’re well-informed,” said Izanami.  “A conspiracy within Paragon Academy, that threatens our very existence.”

“So you know about Egress,” I said.  “And you want to protect yourself?”

Izanami shook her head.  “Mercurial told you about the new law.”

I nodded.

“Until greater techniques are developed, mass-produced bodies will age much faster than usual.  A different, but not dissimilar process to the one that happened to you over the last ten years.”

So there’s the catch.  Countless people who needed replacement bodies would get them.  But they would get grey hair, wrinkles, and weaken faster than their normal colleagues, unless they got lucky enough to win the expensive kind.

“Mercurial also took you to a celebration in the town of Kamishoto.  Tell me, what did you see?”

Tasia smiled.  “Dancers, and music, and an ice sculpture.  And food carts.  And Mercurial, wearing a mask.  Doesn’t his Vocation break some laws of projection?  I tried asking him about it a few times, but he just smiled at me.  Is that real Voidsteel?  Or is it something mimicking the effects, using a combination of Praxis and Joining vocations?  I’d love to talk to him and find out.”

“Mercurial’s abilities are, for the present, confidential.“  Izanami didn’t smile back.  “Did you see anything else in the town?”

I shrugged.  Tasia shook her head, confused.

“The sea,” she said.  “Kamishoto sits on the edge of the ocean, less than a foot above sea level.  The rest of the Neke Islands aren’t much better.  We sit lower than any other of the Four Domains.”  She finished her bowl of hot chocolate, and exhaled.  “The world is drowning.  But we will drown first.”

“That doesn’t answer my question,” I said.

“I have no allegiance to governments,” said Izanami.  “Or money.  Or myself.  I am an unimportant vessel.”  She gestured behind her, at the bathhouse on the slope below.  “Like Kokina To, I belong to the Nekean people.”

She wants the Lavender Book.  That had to be it.  She wanted that information, that power for herself.  She had no other reason to meet people this low on the food chain.  And the book’s contents were tied closely to the rising water.

“Let’s assume I believe you,” I said, taking a sip of spiced cider.  “What do we have to do with it?”

“You have the Lavender Book,” said Izanami.

I choked on my cider, coughing.  She said it up front.

“I would appreciate a copy,” she said.

“It’s useless,” I said.  “No one on the planet can read it.  Egress installed an unbreakable defense mechanism on the information itself.  It’s been cut out of reality.”

“Yes,” she said, nodding.  “Just like the Spirit Block.”

She came to the same conclusions as us.  And fast.  Maybe she knew it already.

“Have you considered that the effects blocking The 99 Precepts and the Lavender Book are not just similar, but the same?”

“It crossed my mind,” said Tasia.

“It’s impossible to know for certain,” said Izanami.  “But the Spirit Block took immense effort.”

“Yes,” said Tasia.  “Headmaster Tau was the greatest projector in the Eight Oceans.  And he had the benefit of the Synapse.”

“Yes.”  Izanami made herself another cup of hot chocolate.  “Official records do list him as the progenitor of the Spirit Block.  Official records, at least.”  She thinks someone else may have been involved.  “What would be easier?  Pulling off the impossible twice?  Or casting a wider net the first time?”

Tasia’s eyes widened.  “So you’re saying, if we want to read the Lavender Book – “

“Then we need to undo the Spirit Block,” Izanami said.  “Rewrite reality and let the Shenti’s philosophy back into the world.”

“But the Spirit Block is necessary,” I said.  “I hold no love for Paragon, but without their intervention, Cao Hui’s Empire would have rolled over the world and thrown us all in redemption camps.”

“Indeed.”  Izanami bowed her head, in the faintest of nods.  “We do not need to change all of it.  Given what I know, it may be possible for just a handful of people to see through the veil of altered reality.  Not enough to bring the Black Tortoise’s full strength back, but enough to uncover the truth of Egress, and stop them.”

Sounds too good to be true.  And Izanami probably wouldn’t hesitate to lie, if it meant achieving her goals.

“And you want us to work for you.”

“Work with me, indeed.  I am not important enough to have a group such as yours on my payroll.”

“So why should we work with you?” I said.  “Trust is hard to come by these days.  Why do you deserve ours?”

I didn’t feel quite as suspicious as Hira, but all this niceness worried me.  Something had to go wrong, sooner or later.

“Because,” said Izanami.  “I know where they’re keeping your friend, Jun Kuang.  And I can help you save him.”

Like Mercurial mentioned.  She could be lying again.  But she could be telling the truth, and that possibility felt even more dangerous.

“Please,” said Tasia, her voice urgent.  “Can you tell us now?  He might be getting tortured right now.  Every day that passes, Cao Hui may decide to execute him.”  Especially if he keeps up his pacifism.

Izanami shook her head.  “I don’t believe so.  The Shenti captured him for his talents, and the man is rather frail in his current body.”  Hira said the same thing.

“Boy,” I said.  “He’s just a boy.”  In an old man’s body.  As long as the Shenti didn’t swap him out, which was unlikely, but possible.  “And what if he refuses to use his talents?  What then?”  I clenched my fists.  “What’s to stop Cao Hui from killing him in a fit of rage?”

“My apologies.”  Izanami bowed her head, regretful.  “But even with my help, you cannot save him.  Not yet.  His prison is too well-protected.”

That narrows it down.  But not by much.  Shenten had no shortage of fortresses and bunkers, many of which weren’t known by the public.

“If I told you your friend’s location,” said Izanami.  “You would feel obligated to go there right now, with a very low chance of success, even if I provided you with forces of my own.”

“Then how would you save him?” I said.  “If we do everything you want?”  If this isn’t just some hollow promise.  Like Isaac Brin’s shitty salary.

“The Principality has the largest fleet in the Eight Oceans.  And the largest army.  They both exceed Shenten’s,” said Izanami.  “By a significant margin, even after Commonplace’s coup attempt.  As does their industrial reach.  It will take time, but they will push into the country, and draw off Shenti defenders.  That will present an opportunity for your friend’s rescue.”

“We don’t need an opportunity,” I said, willing myself to believe it.  “Hira and I have some experience with infiltration.  We can manage.”

“I do not wish to impugn your skills,” said Izanami.  “Which I cannot deny.  But if you go now, and you fail, then your friend has no chance of survival.”

My throat tightened.  She has a point.  We’d gotten our asses kicked plenty of times last year, too.  And I’d made my fair share of stubborn, thickheaded choices.

Izanami bowed her head, her voice pained.  “I’m sorry.  But I cannot tell you Jun Kuang’s location until the war has progressed.  I believe that is his best chance at survival.  And I believe that Queen Sulphur is a valuable asset for civilization.  We should not lose you.”

And it forces us under your thumb.  She sounded so certain, so pained, so genuinely concerned for us and Jun.  So certain that I almost believed her.  A new body.  All this money, all this power, and I’m still depending on others.

If we got Hira up here, we could just make Izanami think of the details, then pull them from her head.  But Hira wasn’t allowed up here.  Starting to understand why.  And with her in two prison bodies, sneaking her in range would be tough.  I hadn’t seen any obvious defenses in the hot springs, which felt scarier, if anything.  Not even proper Whisper-sec, to verify our identities and autonomy.  It means they’re well-hidden.

“Alright,” I said.  “Let’s say I go along with this.  Why us?”  Going off of Mercurial, Izanami had plenty of deadly agents at her beck and call.  “We’re not anything special.”

Izanami shook her head, with a graceful smile.  “I respectfully disagree.  With only a year in the field, your group has shown tremendous talent for subterfuge.  Your work under Isaac Brin.  Your successful escape from Guardians, and your operations against Commonplace.”

I looked away on that last one, though my illusions hid my movement.  I helped Paragon demolish them.  A repulsive act.

“I believe you are undervalued,” said Izanami.  “You’ve altered the course of history several times in the Principality, all while you’ve had to juggle assistant responsibilities, schoolwork, a decaying body, and each other.”  She looked straight at me.  “And you emerged successful, and on the right side.  Despite your mistakes.  Despite everything.  I admire you.”

The words made my heart swell.  She’s flattering you.  But flattery still worked, even when you recognized it.  

“We were successful butchers,” I said.  “For the very people we’re both fighting now.”  I’d shot people, used illusions to make people shoot their friends.  I’d destroyed a revolution, sicced half the country on Shenti citizens with a single speech, and helped start a war.

I’d be insane to feel good about myself.

I glanced at Tasia, and thought about what she’d said on top of the submarine.  Are we doomed to work for monsters our whole lives?  Chasing around the ocean from one complicit act to another, stubborn and manipulated and hollow.

“You have the location of our friend, and you’re not giving it to us,” I said.  “That’s not quite a hostage, but it’s not the act of a friend, either.  So I’ll ask you again.  Why should we trust you?

I didn’t expect her to reveal much on the surface, but her answer might let some information slip.  And Izanami would have been suspicious if I didn’t act this way.

And ultimately, this was different from Isaac Brin.  I wasn’t bleeding out on a boat.  If I wanted to, I could say fuck off in a heartbeat, and leave.

“Because of the big picture,” said Izanami.  She stood up and walked to the other side of the room, onto the surface of the pool, sliding off her slippers.  Her bare feet didn’t even make ripples.

I gazed where she gazed.  Out at the waters of Airavata Bay.  And beyond, towards the edge of the ocean.

“The water is rising,” said Izanami.  “And no one else cares.  No one else with power.  People imagine it’s someone else’s problem, or focus on their own interests, or pretend they’re immune.”

Death happens to other people.  An Ilaquan saying that Hira had passed to us once.  And even if people saw their own death, they didn’t imagine it could happen to their civilization.  They didn’t think that the status quo could shatter like a glass under heat.  Though maybe some in the Principality thought differently, after seeing a conflict almost rip the country apart.

“I don’t want immediate political goals, like Maxine Clive,” said Izanami, gazing out of the jade glass wall.  “Or revenge, like Grace Acworth, or the Shenti.”

She turned back to us, folding her hands behind her.  The sunlight caught her from behind, turning her into a silhouette.

And even in her polka-dot pajamas, the woman looked regal for a moment.  Invincible.

“I intend to save humanity,” she said.

Tasia leaned forward.

“And I share many of your ambitions, Tasia,” said Izanami.  “Null Particles can be defeated.  The Great Scholars’ secrets can be unlocked.  You have committed great offenses against your sister, but she can be saved.”

Trying to pull Tasia into orbit.  The girl had less experience with subterfuge, so it just might work on her.  And she knows so much about her.  The woman had to be a Praxis Specialist of some sort.

“Follow the wrong path, and you will be forgotten,” said Izanami.  “But follow the right path, and you can be renowned as the hero who led our civilization out of a barbaric age.  Just like your namesake.  You can become an Exemplar, and keep the souls of your loved ones safe.”  My mind flashed to Kaplen.

Tasia moved her hands into her lap, and hunched her shoulders, making herself small.  Then her chin moved down and up, in the faintest nod.

“Moreover, I am not Isaac Brin,” said Izanami.  “You are not beholden to me.  I will give you information and allies, and you can pursue leads on the enemy at your own pace.  Most of my agents are tied up here and in Ilaqua, or on other leads.  But when the time comes, I will provide help to rescue your friend.”  She smiled.  “Jun Kuang is also a valuable asset.”

“Even if he doesn’t make bombs anymore?” I said.


“Then Jun Kuang is still a valuable asset.”  She leaned forward, reaching under the blanket.  “As a gesture of good faith, I have three gifts for you.  First:”  She handed me an envelope, and I peeled it open.

Money papers.  Detailing a freshly opened account at Jogalekar Bank, a Nekean bank with branches all over the Eight Oceans.

Tasia looked over my shoulder, reading them.  Then her eyes widened.  I followed her gaze, and gaped.

Total Value: £1,000,000

“I used Principian pounds, since it’s still the most popular international currency,” said Izanami.  “The account is yours.  No strings attached.”

After assimilating Tunnel Vision’s mob, we had about twice this sum in the bank, if I recalled correctly.  But still, she was giving this to us.  For free.

Just a few months ago, I’d been scrabbling for tiny fractions of this sum.  And she’s just throwing it away.  It meant the woman was rich.  Unimaginably rich.

I squinted at Izanami, suspicion rising in my gut.  “Seriously?” I said.  “Even if we don’t work for you, you want to give away a million pounds?”

“We have similar goals,” said Izanami.  “Even if you choose a different path, it benefits us all if you have the resources you need.”

Next, she extended her palm to the right and floated over a wooden box from a closet.  She spread her fingers, and the sides of the box came off, stacking in a neat pile on the matted floor.

Inside, a black metal contraption drifted into Izanami’s palm.  It looked like a typewriter, but thicker, longer, with a line of feeding tape instead of a roller for paper.  Several wheels with numbers sat on the top, reminding me of a bike lock.

“This,” said Izanami.  “Is a Paradox Machine.  The Shenti keep them on their submarines and ships, and wire them with explosives to make sure they’re never captured.  The Principality would pay tens of millions for one of these.”

“A code machine,” breathed Tasia, leaning her head to examine it from every angle.

Izanami nodded.  “You can use it to decrypt long-range Shenti communications.  No matter where you go in this war, it should help keep you and your submarine safe.  From the Shenti, at least.”

Another valuable treasure.  Given for free.  Izanami had almost definitely made copies of this, but if we got caught by the Principality, then the decision could have dire consequences.

“And the third gift?” I said.

“Before that,” she said.  “An explanation.  My first bit of information for you.  My sources indicate that the Black Tortoise has been studying the Spirit Block in Shenten’s former Great Library.”

“Former?” said Tasia.

Izanami nodded.  “When Cao Hui first came to power, he had most of the books moved to another location.  He believed that the old, traditional library was too hard to defend in a modern war.  But it’s still remote enough, so he’s been using it to crack open the Spirit Block.  Or, trying, at least.”

“That’s all you know?” I said.  “And you want us to break in.”

“It’s a potential lead,” said Izanami.  “One of many.  If you don’t like what you find, or don’t wish to work with me afterwards, then we can go our separate ways with respect.  And afterwards, you can give me a copy of your Lavender Book.”  She spread a map of Shenten across the table, pointing.  “It’s in the southernmost peak of the Yachi Mountains, near the coast.”  She looked at me, her eyes twinkling.  “It’s also the home of a rare species of butterfly.  The Black Sulphur.”

“Like the Queen Sulphur?” said Tasia.

“A distant cousin.  They’ve achieved greater success by blending into the darkness.  Achieving stealth at night so they can eat in peace.  A good example to follow.”

“I don’t understand,” said Tasia.  “Is the intel the gift?”

Izanami shook her head, pointing at the map again.  “Shenti naval defenses are very much outclassed by the Principality’s, but they still patrol the waters of the continent.  While they do, your submarine cannot approach the library safely.  I know projectors who can nullify sonar, but all of them are occupied for the moment.”

Great.  Out of our league again.  Forced to conform to someone else’s schedule.  It sounds plausible.  But Tunnel Vision didn’t have many agents in Shenten, so it was hard to confirm one way or the other.

“Fear not,” said Izanami.  “The Principality will attack in a few days, and in approximately a week, I expect the defenses there to open up, as the Black Tortoise responds.”  She folded her hands on the table.  “But I recommend waiting at least a few days before setting out in your submersible.”

“I’d like to confirm this information for myself,” I said.  My handful of remaining mob connections might have something to back up this data.

“Of course,” said Izanami.

“Where are we going to wait?” said Tasia.

“The sub, probably,” I said.  More cramped bunk bed living.  But we would be safe, there, barring anything weird from the crew.

Izanami beamed at us, and handed me a slip of hardened paper.

Kokina To
Spa Coupon
One Weekend with Suite and Amenities
Bearer and up to 3 Guests

I blinked, confused for a moment.  This wasn’t quite what I expected.

Tasia looked at the coupon, then looked at me.  “Please?”  She clasped my hand, her eyes wide like a puppy’s.  “Please please please?”

The sub is safer,” I said with illusions.  “We don’t know Izanami.  She could have ulterior motives for having us stay a few days.

“I don’t want to eat the same three meals and sleep in a tiny bunk bed and hit my head on the same pipe another fifty times.”

You’re going to be doing it as soon as we leave,” I said.  “I don’t like it either, but we’re gonna be spending a lot of time in that sub.

“Exactly,” said Tasia.  “Which is why we need to get as many good times in as possible.”

The bathhouse is open to the public.  And if Izanami had a nasty Whisper Vocation we hadn’t noticed, a few extra days probably wouldn’t make much of a difference.

I nodded, and Tasia’s freckly face lit up.  “Hira won’t be pleased about this.”

________________________________________

“God damn it,” growled Right-Hira.  “Why is this so comfortable?”

He’d draped himself half-naked on a massage table.  A Nekean projector stood above him, kneading his back with spheres of warm water.

Such a mundane use for a projector.  The Yokusei Pact didn’t limit projectors if they weren’t trained in combat, or anything with sufficient power.  Maybe that’s what this is.  It could be a case of illegal projection, but most countries avoided that at a large scale.  Like Paragon, the other three domains knew that fewer projectors were easier to control.  Less likely to cause chaos and destruction to derail their societies.  Even Tunnel Vision’s mob had limited its projectors.

For ancient projector societies, elitism was about self-preservation.  Survival.

“Apologies,” said the masseuse.  “Would you like me to stop?”

“Fuck you,” said Right-Hira.  “Keep going.”

I treaded the warm water of a hot spring around me, watching the proceedings through a thin veil of steam.  A useful new skill to practice, in case my water projection ran out of energy.  The last time that happened, I’d almost drowned while going after Lyna Wethers.

But bathing here also felt relaxing.  I could soak in the minerals and the heat, and gaze out over the spectacular view.  The rest of the bathhouse on the slope below us.  The snowy mountain peak high above.  And the blue-green waters of Airavata Bay.

Far to the north, Principian warships were steaming towards Shenten.  The largest war in a decade was about to begin.  In less than seven days, I would dive in head-first.

But here, now, the water was warm and the world was quiet.  I could breathe, for a moment, and enjoy life.

“What’s the matter?” said Tasia to Right-Hira.  She sat next to him in a lounge chair, getting a mani-pedi in Wes’ body with a face mask draped over her.  Her finger lifted, and a chicken skewer floated off of a plate next to her, and into her mouth.  “It’s all free.”  Left-Hira had gone off to the bathroom.

“You’re all letting your guards down,” said Hira.  “That Izanami bitch is probably listening in to this conversation, finishing her psych profiles on us.  Or they’re hijacking us over time, and they’re going to trap us here forever.”

“You’re being awfully loud about it,” said Tasia, nibbling on a skewer.

“Subterfuge would be pointless,” said Hira.  “She already knows I know.  There’s always something shitty under the surface of nice things like this.  She’s probably grinding kittens into sausages under the mountain or something.  Where none of us are looking.”

Tasia recoiled.  “That’s a horrible image.  Why would you say that?  And why do you dislike Nekeans so much?”

Hira snorted.  “Read a history book.  During the Shenti War, every free nation joined forces and fought the Black Tortoise’s invasion.  But the Neke stayed out of it.  They sacrificed nothing, and got to reap all the rewards.  And now, they’re trying to steal from Ilaqua, too.”

“You know Ana’s a quarter Nekean, right?”

“She wasn’t born there,” said Hira.  “It’s different.”

The masseuse finished his massage and walked away.  Tasia’s pedicure person did the same a few seconds later.

Right-Hira lay on the massage table, content.  “But I can manage,” he said.  “Because I know how to make this vacation bearable.”

Uh oh.

He pointed, and Tasia and I glanced down the slope, squinting.

Left-Hira darted between bushes at the bottom of the mountain, near the locker room where we’d stored all our stuff.  She ran from cover to cover, staying hidden from the staff members nearby.  When she got close enough, she stood up and walked down the stone steps to the shower rooms.  She wore a stolen staff uniform and a medallion, disguising herself as a bath attendant.

“Hira,” I said, deflating in the hot pool.  “Please don’t tell me you’re taking your weapons back.”

“Weapons?”  Right-Hira looked at me like I’d gone mad.  “No, I’m taking my fucking hookah back.  The staff uniform gets me through the door, and pretending to take a shower gets me the rest of the way.  I’m going to grab it right from under their noses.  And then, I’m going to smoke it as much as I goddamn please.”

Left-Hira picked the lock, then walked through the door, casual, and shut it behind her.

“Hira,” said Tasia.  “Have you ever considered that you maybe smoke too much?”

“That’s what my father said,” said Right-Hira.  He grabbed one of Tasia’s chicken skewers and shoved it down his throat.  “I used to smoke only a few times a year.  Special occasions.  Then my father ran this whole anti-smoking health campaign for Ilaqua.  Big expensive government marketing, arguing that smoking causes premature aging and cancer.”

Tasia looked confused.  “But…smoking does cause premature aging and cancer.  And you can’t even swap bodies.”

“Now,” said Hira.  “Almost no one in Ilaqua smokes.  And my father bragged about his success to me.”  He shrugged.  “So I said fuck you, and started doing it all the time.”

“You took up an entire smoking habit,” said Tasia.  “just to anger your father?”

“Yeah,” said Right-Hira.  “Fuck him.”

“Sometimes, people confuse me,” said Tasia.

“I hate any bastard that thinks they can control people and tell them what to do,” said Right-Hira.  “My father’s a piece of shit when he does it, and so is this ‘Izanami’ you met.”  He gestured down the mountain.  “And now, I’m about to slip through her pathetic security in three, two – “

Something shattered below.  Left-Hira burst through a window on the third floor of the entrance building, her hair wet.

She projected into the white towel wrapped around her, her only clothes, and lowered herself, rolling on the grass below.  A mud mask sat on her face, and cucumbers on her eyes, part of some makeshift disguise.  Water dripped from her soaked hair.

Left-Hira swallowed the cucumbers, blinked, and sprinted up the slope, clutching her miniature purple hookah in her fist.  A pair of security guards burst out of a door behind her and sprinted after her.

“Alright,” said Right-Hira.  “That was a bit harder than I expected.”

“Hira,” I said.  “What did you do?”  Neither of the guards carried weapons, so it didn’t look too serious, at least.

“Some mild property damage,” said Right-Hira, concentrating on the chase, providing a vantage point for his other body.  “No one got hurt.”  He grimaced.  “God damn it.”

Left-Hira ran through a restaurant below, knocking over tables full of food and vases full of perfectly arranged flowers.  The guards leapt over the obstacles, undeterred, and kept sprinting after her.

The guests at the restaurant recoiled from Left-Hira’s antics, their faces a mixture of surprise and horror.  A Nekean woman averted her gaze, mortified.  A pretty Ilaquan man glared at her with disapproval.  And the two guards kept chasing her, sprinting fast enough to get closer and closer.

As the guards drew close, stretching their hands to her, Left-Hira changed course, darting to the side.  As one of them reached out his hand to grab her, she jumped, projecting herself up and forward with her towel.

She did a front flip midair, for flourish more than anything, and landed on the roof of one of the slanted wooden elevators as it pulled itself up through the hot springs.  In seconds, she rose out of the guard’s reach.

The guards still raced after her, splitting up in different paths.  One of them sprinted up staircases, through the pedestrian route up the mountain.  The other one jumped off a bridge, and appeared to swim up one of the waterfalls.  A water projector.  It looked a bit ridiculous.

“Hira,” said Tasia.  “I’m trying to have a vacation before all of us dive into a war zone.”

“So am I,” said Right-Hira.

Left-Hira jumped off the elevator, and climbed up a set of pipes and some hanging vines on a wall beside us.  The guards kept sprinting after her, getting closer.

Then, Left-Hira sprinted past our group, her wet hair streaming behind her.

“You,” said Tasia.  “Have a very strange idea of – “

While neither of the guards could see, Left-Hira flicked her wrist to the side, and tossed Tasia her hookah.

Tasia caught it, stunned.  She blinked, staring at it, unsure of what to do.  Left-Hira sprinted away, a diversion.

The guards came into view, and I threw a visual illusion over them, making it seem like Hira still held the hookah.

Then, because I felt nice, I made it look like Left-Hira was running in the opposite direction, up a different path through the hot springs.

The guards ran in the wrong direction, and the real Left-Hira jumped down a waterfall, then disappeared in a cloud of hot steam from a pool.  A successful escape.

Below, men and women stood up from their ruined meals, among the knocked-over tables and shattered vases.  They looked irritated.

Right-Hira leaned over and plucked the hookah from Tasia’s hands.  “Is anyone looking?”

Tasia stuttered, her thoughts still muddled.

I glanced around.  “Don’t think so.”

Right-Hira unfolded the hookah, lit it, and started puffing on it, letting out a relaxed breath.  “Ah,” he said.  “Better.”

“I like this place,” said Tasia.  “If they find you smoking, they’re going to kick us out.  I don’t want a lifetime ban.”

“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” said Hira.  “I’ve been lifetime banned from three separate fast food chains.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “Both your bodies?”

Hira nodded.  “And calm your tits, Tasia.  I’m sure that pajama woman will cut us special treatment now that we’re helping her save the world.”  He exhaled, breathing out a cloud of cherry-scented smoke.  “And besides, I wore a mud mask, so they didn’t see my face.  I’m not going to get caught.”

Mercurial bowed to Right-Hira from behind his chair.  I jumped.  Where did he come from?

He extended a slip of paper to Hira.  “Your bill,” he said.  “For the damages.”

Right-Hira snatched it and looked over it, furious.  “Lund pe chadh,” he growled.  Then he crumpled it into a ball and tossed it to me.  I caught it, unfolded it, and read it.  A manageable number, especially with the small fortune Izanami had just added to our own.  I nodded at Hira.

“And,” Mercurial said, regretful.  “I must ask for you to stop smoking if you want your party to remain on the premises.”

Right-Hira glanced at Tasia, who pleaded at him with her eyes.

He sighed, let out one last puff, and handed the hookah back to Mercurial.  Mercurial, in response, handed him a box filled with sealed packets.  “In the interim,” he said.  “We can provide guests with these nicotine patches.”

Right-Hira projected into a dozen of them, ripped them open in unison, and slapped them all over his skin, leaning back on the chair.

Tasia rushed over to Hira and hugged him.  “Thanks,” she said.

“Don’t mention it,” said Right-Hira.

“I knew you had it in you,” said Tasia.

“No, I mean, literally don’t mention it again.”

Tasia broke off from Hira, and smiled.  “It’s going to be a great weekend.”

________________________________________

Near the end of the weekend, Izanami and Mercurial gave us more details on our target, including blueprints of the former Great Library, a map of the city nearby, and an overview of what the local defenses might look like.  Plus, a few other details, which made the mission seem far more terrifying than I’d first thought.

“It ought to be pared down a bit,” said Mercurial.  “Since they moved a lot of the books.  But it’s still a Great Library.”

I nodded.  Maxine Clive and Grace Acworth had planned for years just to get into Paragon’s library, and they’d barely managed that.

“Normally,” said Mercurial.  “This location wouldn’t be notable.  But recently, the Black Tortoise injected a bunch of money into it, and shipped over some of his few pneumatologists.”

“Great,” said Right-Hira, still covered in nicotine patches.  “So we might find nothing there.”

“There are many leads,” said Mercurial.  “You’re just exploring one of them.”

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” I grumbled.  “Why didn’t she give us this briefing at the start of the weekend?”

“Maybe she wanted us to have a proper vacation,” said Tasia.

Mercurial nodded, smiling.  Hira’s right.  We couldn’t trust these people.

“Izanami would also like to request that I join you on this journey.”

Hira scowled with both bodies.

“I will not supersede your authority, or order you around.  Queen Sulphur has the prerogative.”

He doesn’t say he’ll follow our orders, either.  A free agent, then.  Powerful, but someone who could also throw a wrench into our plans.  And Izanami didn’t give us her business card.  Which meant she didn’t trust us fully.  Not yet.

“And if we finish the mission and decide we don’t work well together?” I said.

“Then we can go our separate ways,” said Mercurial.  “Though we would still like a copy of the Lavender Book.”  If things go bad, he’ll grab all our books and run.

He’s powerful,” I said to the group, with illusions.  “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this, but he’ll probably be a valuable asset.”  And we couldn’t do everything on our own.  Without the Rose Titan, we would have died on Attlelan Island.  Without Chimera Squad at Paragon, we would have gotten shot a hundred times.  Without Mercurial, our first Vice-Captain would have suffocated me.

Hira grumbled, and we debated the issue in private.  After mulling it over for another few hours, Hira agreed to bring Mercurial along, a new light glimmering in her eyes.

We took Mercurial’s boat out to the submarine, floating us for a rendezvous at night, a distance out from the entrance of Airavata Bay.  Away from any civilian ships or Nekean naval defenses that might spot us.

Mercurial jumped onto the surface of the sub, and climbed down the ladder into the ship, following us.  Cardamom padded up next to him and rubbed his leg.

Vice-Captain Byfield, the new woman in charge, approached me, her hands folded behind her back.  “Your orders, ma’am?”

I handed her Izanami’s folded-up map, with the course corrections.  We’re not ready.  But it was time anyway.

“Alright,” I said.  “Take us into Shenten.”

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14-D Imposter Syndrome

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Ana

The Voidsteel man bowed to me.  “Anabelle Gage,” he said, in a light Nekean accent.  “A pleasure to meet you.”

I blinked at him, kneeling on the metal floor of the submarine, my lungs pumping, catching my breath after the Vice-Captain’s suffocating trap.  A headache throbbed in the back of my skull, and I massaged my temples, coughing.

The red lights stopped flashing overhead.  The alarm went silent.

The Nekean man extended a hand to me, made of flowing, liquid Voidsteel.  No, it can’t be Voidsteel.  It had to be something else.  A mundane metal colored green, or some other compound I didn’t know about.  Voidsteel projection is impossible.

I took his hand, cold and smooth against my skin.  He pulled me up, and I stretched my Pith forward, to throw an illusion on him and disguise my position.

My soul bounced off of his skull.  His Pith didn’t feel like the normal tree of connections occupying a body.  It felt like a blob, in the shape of a man.  Foreign.  Blocking me out.

That’s really Voidsteel.  Which meant I couldn’t use illusions on him.

I leaned against the wall, taking sharp, rapid breaths as the air cleared.  And I glanced at Hira’s trench shotgun, lying on the floor next to the Vice-Captain’s corpse.  But the gun didn’t help him against this person.  And would Voidsteel bullets even work on a person made of Voidsteel?

No, unless some backup came, I was at this man’s mercy.

He just saved your life.  And he hadn’t reported me to Paragon.  But that didn’t make him a friend.

“Please forgive me,” said the Voidsteel man.  “For the violent introduction, and for breaking into your submarine.  But I had to ensure your safety.”  He glanced down at the corpse by my feet.  “I’m sure you knew this, but your Vice-Captain, Wil Glenham, was conspiring with four other crew members to steal this vessel and sell it to the Droll Corsairs.”  He indicated his head to two other corpses down the hall.  “Two others tried to stop him, not realizing he had a gun.”

Four other conspirators?  I’d known about Glenham, but not the rest.  And the Droll Corsairs made sense.  The private military company would pay good money for a ship like this, and wouldn’t ask too many questions about where it came from.

Obvious.  So obvious.  I’d missed it.  And Hira had missed it, despite her assurances.  We need to do better.  Or we wouldn’t last a week in Shenten.

“Are you alright?” said the metal man.

I nodded, the headache fading with every breath I took.  “You were following me,” I wheezed.  “Since I became Tunnel Vision, you’ve been following me.”  I’d noticed something was amiss – a glint of metal in the distance, but I hadn’t actually spotted him, or caught him.  I’m so fucking new at this.

The metal man nodded.  “Another transgression I must apologize for.  I wished to approach you, but needed to ensure your identity and character first.  When I discovered this plot against you, I wished to assemble proof, and approach you with it.  But I was forced to move my schedule up.  The Pyre Witch has not been friendly to us in the past.  But you are not Grace Acworth.”

They know a lot about me.  And they’d noticed the Vice-Captain’s betrayal, when Hira and Tasia and I had all missed it.  “Why didn’t she like you?”

“We shared similar goals,” he said.  “But we found her methods crude.  And for her part, she saw us as weak.”

I stared at his flat metal eyes.  “And who is ‘we’?”

He bowed again to me, placing his hand on the chest of his green tunic.  “You may call me Mercurial.  I’m a representative of Izanami, the Green Lotus.”

Who?  “I’ve never heard of an ‘Izanami’ before.”

“By intention,” Mercurial said.  “She prefers to keep her activities quiet.”

But that name.  And his accent.  “She’s Nekean?”  I said.

He nodded.  “Izanami is an independent benefactor, seeking to ensure the future for the Neke Islands.”

“I’m half a world away,” I said.  “What could the Neke Islands possibly have to do with me?”

Mercurial held up his palm, and it swirled, images getting etched onto its liquid surface.

Triangles.  Triangles within triangles, branching off in three directions and getting smaller and smaller in an infinite fractal.  Akhara’s Triangle.  It reminded me of that army of Oracle Snakes, floating in the dark sky over the ocean.

The hallway felt colder.

“If we don’t defeat the enemy,” said Mercurial.  “The future drowns.  For everyone in the Eight Oceans.”

He knows something.  About the snakes, or the Egress conspiracy, or ‘Broken Gods’.  “What do you know?” I said.

“Not much,” he said.  “But she knows more.  Maybe enough to unlock that purple book of yours.”

My throat clenched.  He knows about the Lavender Book.

“And,” he said.  “She knows how to save your friend.  Jun Kuang.”

My breath quickened again, though the air had cleared, now.  “You want something from us.”  The Lavender Book, or our Vocations, or something.

“I do not ask for your allegiance,” said Mercurial.  “Or your money.  Or even the book itself, wherever you have hidden it.”

So he doesn’t know everything.  Or he knew, and was pretending not to.

Footsteps rang from the staircase.  Hira and Tasia emerged and rushed down the hall.  Hira aimed his sniper rifle and a pistol at Mercurial with his bodies, and Tasia held crackling orbs of blue-purple lightning in her fists.  Both ready to fight.

Mercurial bowed to both of them.  “Tasia Holcot.  Hira Kahlin.  If I had to guess, that glorious display of fireworks outside was your doing.”

Left-Hira stuck a hand in her pocket.  Then she shot Mercurial in the leg, the gunshot deafening in the tight metal corridor.  I flinched.

The bullet bounced off his liquid metal skin.  He ignored it.  “A pleasure to meet you both.”

“The fuck?” said Left-Hira.  “Ana, did you hire another crazy misfit?”

Tasia leaned forward, her eyes wide.  “Is he made of Voidsteel?”  She looked at his eyes.  “Are you a robot, sir?”

“Can I shoot him?” said Right-Hira.  “Will grenades work, at least?”

I exchanged basic passwords with the two of them.  “He saved my life,” I said, indicating my head to the bodies.  “We’ve got some talking to do.”

________________________________________

Mercurial explained everything again.  After a few minutes of talking, Hira lowered her guns.

“We can’t trust him,” Right-Hira said.  “Mysterious types always have some nasty shit up their sleeve.  We don’t know this ‘Izanami’’s Vocation.  A few hits with the right Whisper specialist, and we’ll all be puppets.”

“I assure you,” said Mercurial.  “My superior is not a Whisper specialist.”

“Can you tell us her Vocation?” said Left-Hira.  “Assuming she’s not a Humdrum, of course.”

Mercurial closed his metal eyes.  “I am not at liberty to disclose that.”

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “That’s what I thought.  He saved your life to get in your pants, Ana.  He’s trying to warm us up to his boss.”

“Maybe,” said Tasia.  “But that’s not always bad.”

“Nekeans are slippery,” said Hira, glaring at Mercurial.  “They’ll act polite and sweet while they ram a knife into your ass.”

But we don’t have any leads,” I said with auditory illusions.  I’d almost jumped into a death portal to get one.

Tasia nodded.

If we go into Shenten right now, we don’t even know where we’d land.  We have no idea where to start.  And no way to resupply.

“You were the one who pushed us to leave sooner,” said Left-Hira.

Because of the war.  Because there’s a faint chance that we’ll discover at least a clue while we’re there.  But the odds aren’t high.”  This Izanami woman had found us backed into a corner.  “And this man says his boss can help us.”

“And,” Mercurial added.  “The Neke Islands are to the east.  Much closer to Shenten than the Principality.  We can refuel your submarine as many times as you need.”

That solves that problem.  If we stayed friends with this Izanami woman, and gave her what she wanted.  And not everyone had malicious intent.

And risk is inevitable in this profession.  If we declined all meetings with new people because they might be Whisper Specialists, we wouldn’t get much done.  And they have leads for us.  Scrabbling for hints on our own would be more dangerous, not less.

I extended my hand to shake.  “Let’s do it.  I would love to meet Izanami.”

Mercurial smiled.  Cardamom padded down the hallway, out of a side room, and walked up to us, purring.  He rubbed the metal man’s leg, bumping it with his furry green head.  Mercurial pet him with part of his coat, not touching the cat with his skin.

“Fine.”  Hira scowled.  “But you can’t travel with us.  Give us a location to go, but you don’t get to go in our sub.”

Tasia nodded in agreement, biting her lip and avoiding eye contact.

He nodded.  “Of course.  I believe I have removed all your betrayers, so you should be safe here, now, with the rest of your crew.”

“And Izanami,” said Left-Hira.  “Can you tell us anything else about her?  Anything to make us trust you.”

“It is best if she tells you herself,” said Mercurial.

Hira glared at him with both bodies, even more suspicious.  She didn’t ask any more questions.

“Go to Kamishoto,” he said.  “In the north of Neke.  I will find you in the town center.”

Then he slung the Vice-Captain’s corpse and the other bodies over his shoulder.  He left, striding out of the submarine with a casual step.

The three of us stood there for a moment, processing what had just happened.

Then Hira growled, and holstered her weapons.  Tasia floated a bucket over from the storage room and started projecting the blood into it.  Cleaning the floors.

“Thanks for coming so fast,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Tasia.  “The fireworks were nice.”

“The fuck were you doing in the sub alone?” said Right-Hira.

“Last-minute checks,” I said.  “I got stressed.”  I didn’t mention my plan to throw myself into Akhara’s Gate, to a potential early grave.

Hira squinted at me, but she didn’t put her hands in her pockets, or question me further.

Tasia finished cleaning up.  “We should all get some sleep.”

Away from the rest of the crew,” I said.  “With watches.”

“Busy day tomorrow,” said Tasia.

I nodded.  The first of many.

________________________________________

I slept in one of the upper rooms, beside Tasia and Hira in sleeping bags.

Hira had assured me that she’d explained the situation to the other crew members and checked them again with her Vocation, and that no one else wanted to backstab us.  Mercurial had said much the same.

But she’d been wrong before.  And the metal man couldn’t be trusted yet.  So we decided to play it safe.  We also decided to postpone making backup copies of the Lavender Book, a process that Tasia had confirmed was possible.  We didn’t have many places to hide them, and didn’t need the crew running off with one.

The floor felt hard and cramped beneath my sleeping bag.  I missed the bed in Grace’s summer safehouse.  And the warmth.  And the painting Hira had made for my birthday, which had depicted an adult, red-haired version of me.  Cardamom curled up on a pillow next to us, but it still didn’t feel like home.

Still, despite all this, the sheer exhaustion drove me to sleep after an hour of tossing and turning.

At dawn the next morning, we woke up and ate a breakfast of eggs and toast with the crew.  A quiet, uncomfortable meal, after five of them had tried to kill all of us.  But I got to know all of their names, and their positions on the ship.  A lot of them seemed shaken after the betrayal too.  The Vice-Captain had been planning to kill them, too.

Then, we left the Principality.

The submarine dove into the waters of the cove, deep enough to pass under the rock formations surrounding this hidden outcrop where it had been parked.  It drove southeast for a while, underwater in the Eloane Ocean, getting out of range of any patrolling Principian ships that might spot us.  The Principality had the largest, strongest navy in the Eight Oceans, dwarfing even Neke’s.  We weren’t about to take any chances.

The electrical engine whirred, and I sat on a chair in the CIC with Tasia, watching the crew turn knobs and talk to each other.

Some of them still looked shaken after hearing about their five co-workers that had almost murdered them, but most of them took it in stride.  They must be used to that sort of thing.  When working on a secret submarine for mobsters.  Vice-Captain Glenham had already been replaced with a new man.

Then, after a few hours, we surfaced, turned straight east, and started chugging along with our diesel engine.  Eventually, we’d make our way to Shenten, towards the northeast.  But for now, we were making a pit stop in the Neke Islands for some gas and information.

The daily routine on the sub took some getting used to.  Here, we had no personal space.  We slept together in a tiny space, squeezed past each other in the narrow, squat hallways, and ate together in the mess, which involved a lot of repetitive meals.  Eggs and toast and sausage.  Cabbage and trout and cherry pie.  A solid selection, but a far step below mulled cider and the dizzying array of takeout options in Elmidde.

I got used to the chugging sound of the diesel engine, and stopped getting lost in all the twisting hallways, though I still recoiled from the buttons and levers on the walls, terrified that I would touch something and mess up the ship.

But still, I felt gratitude with every groggy morning, every lap I jogged through the metal passageways.  This is better than a sleeping pod.  And far better than a mattress in Clementine’s basement.  It would do.

After a few days, Tasia and I realized that we could be most comfortable on top of the submarine, sitting on the roof while the ship chugged along on the surface.  The metal hull flattened at the top, with railings around the edge.

With some blankets and pillows, it made for a solid spot.  No low ceilings, no tight corners.  Just us, the ocean, and the sky.  Hira smoked her purple hookah, since she couldn’t do it inside.  I practiced my projection, working it out like a muscle.  And Tasia read her books, continuing her research.

The sub’s propeller churned up the water behind us, leaving a white line in our wake.  The sun shone down on us, bright and warm during the day, burning our skin.  I gazed up at the sky, scanning for the presence of Oracle Snakes.  If we saw even one, I’d order the sub to dive.

But the sky looked empty, clear.  Not even a cloud in sight.

Our new Vice-Captain avoided major trade and patrol routes, so we didn’t see any other ships on our path.  Just the endless horizon, in every direction.  In this part of the ocean, the sun turned the water a bright, clear blue.  Tropical, almost.

The ocean had drowned the Great Scholars, and might drown us.  It contained profound terrors – storm krakens, and Broken Gods, beings strong enough to butcher storm krakens.

But here, it looked beautiful.  An endless expanse, full of possibility.

“A name,” said Tasia, her voice carrying over the rumble of the engines.

“What?” I said, glancing up from the chunks of metal I was floating.

“We never settled on a new name for the sub.”

“No,” said Right-Hira.  He leaned back against a railing, puffing on his hookah.  “We got distracted by the murder attempt and the man made of Voidsteel.”

“I’m not sure I like ‘The Elder Kraken’,” said Tasia.  “We’re not pirates, and we’re not mobsters.”

I bit my lip.  “Agreed.”  But I didn’t have any other ideas.

Hira shrugged.  “Don’t look at me.  Elmidde’s underworld called me ‘zappyhands’ for my whole first year as a mercenary, and my own skills aren’t much better.”

We all thought about this for a moment.

“Well,” said Tasia.  “Keep it in the back of your heads.  It’s a good ship, and it’s ours, now.  It should have a proper name.”

“Damn good ship,” said Hira.

I nodded, and went back to my practice.

Hours later, Hira got bored and started water-skiing in the back, with projection and a cable clumsily tied to a railing, her bare feet skimming across the surface of the ocean.  With the sub’s diesel engine at max speed, she could pick up just enough velocity to pull it off.  Cardamom sat at the back of the sub, his head bobbing up and down as he watched her bounce on the waves.

Lund pe chadh!” she shouted.  She couldn’t speak Common right now.  Her Praxis Vocation ran out if she used it too many times on one person.  Halfway through the week, I suggested that Hira not spend all her uses on us and the crew, to preserve it for emergencies.

Hira had agreed, and had let the hours pass without copying anyone’s skills.  No extra languages, no fancy gun tricks.  She didn’t even know how to tie her shoelaces.

But she does know how to water-ski.  She’d had a very peculiar childhood.

Tasia and I sat on the other side of the sub, at the front, gazing out at the bow cutting the water.  The sun set behind us, in the west, casting warm orange light over the ocean.

“I’ve been thinking,” said Tasia.  “About what you told me about Paragon.”

I raised an eyebrow, as I threw a Basic Sleep attempt at her Pith.  She deflected it with ease.

“The creation of Honeypot.  Restricting the supply of bodies and letting thousands die.  What Maxine Clive said about that place, ‘Buttercup Lodge’, which is probably true.  Plus, all the other stuff we don’t even know about.”

I leaned forward, wrapped in a blanket, and squeezed Tasia’s hand.  “You shouldn’t feel bad about being a student there.  You were helping your sister.  Working for a greater cause.”  I just wanted to save myself.  And I’d been a true believer in a way that Tasia never had.

“That’s not it,” said Tasia, pulling her knees to her chest.  “What about this Izanami woman?  I screwed up last time when I joined Paragon to help my sister.  What if we’re screwing up again?  What if Izanami is just as bad as Paragon?  Or worse?”

“We’re not committing to join her,” I said.  “We’re just checking her out.  If she’s bad, we don’t have to do shit for her.”  Assuming she doesn’t just hijack us.

“But what if it’s not obvious?” said Tasia.  “Paragon wasn’t obvious, not at first.  Or we’d never have fought to get in so hard.”

She has a point.  I shrugged.  “We face dangerous enemies.”  And I almost died to just the Vice-Captain.  “And we’re in over our heads.  We need allies.  Powerful allies.”

“But that’s the thing,” said Tasia.  “What if everyone in power is just inevitably evil?  What if we’re just doomed to chase around the oceans, doing people’s dirty work over and over again.”  She slouched over, her eyes flat.  Now that look, I’m used to seeing on Wes’ face.  “And then Sarah never gets cured.  Just like Kaplen.”

I stood up and moved my pillow next to her.  Then I sat down and hugged her.  She hugged me back.

“During my Pith surgery on Sarah,” whispered Tasia.  “I heard voices.  Not her voice.  Men and women, in all sorts of languages.”

“Hallucinations, maybe,” I murmured.

“Maybe,” she said. “Or maybe I tapped into something.”  She shook her head.  “This world is so much bigger than me.  Than any of us.”

I hugged her tighter.  “You’re one of the kindest people I know.  Normal people would have given up long before you did.  But you still care.  You’re still trying to save your sister.”  And you haven’t killed anyone.  Unlike me.  “I know you’ll do the right thing.”

“I don’t want to lose you, too,” said Tasia.

I broke off from her, and stood up.  Hira water-skied in the distance, jumping up and down on the sub’s wake.  “Come on,” I said.  “That’s enough studying, right?  How does Jao Lu in the mess sound?”

Tasia nodded, exhaling.

“You stashed some garlic bread in your locker, didn’t you?”

Cardamom batted at Hira’s water-skiing cable with his paw, playing with it like a toy.  The knot shook, then unspooled from the railing, breaking Hira off from the sub.

Left-Hira shouted something in Ilaquan, then slapped into the water face-first.  She shrunk in the distance, as the sub sped away from her.

“Though we should probably deal with that first.”

________________________________________

Kamishoto.  Our rendezvous with Mercurial.  Not the Floating City, but a much smaller town on the northern coast of the Neke Islands, closer to Shenten, though there was still plenty of ocean between there and here.

A huge military submarine would draw unwanted questions, no matter where it showed up.  And Nekean naval defenses were legendary, according to our new, less murderous Vice-Captain.  So we surfaced a distance off the northern shore, in the middle of the night.  Tasia and Hira and I had climbed down the edge of the sub, in plainclothes with hidden armor and weapons.  Then we did a water walk the rest of the way.

We arrived at the coast as the sun rose, by an empty stretch of road.  We caught our breath, sat down for a few minutes, and started walking into town.

A car drove up behind us on the road, and stopped next to us.  My throat clenched, and I projected into Reverie, its blade hidden and sheathed in a pocket of my coat.

A Nekean man stuck his head out of the window.  “Hello!”  He spoke that one word of Common in a heavy accent.  “Anata wa nekīn o hanashimasu ka?”  It sounded like Northern Nekean.

Left-Hira stuck her hands in her pockets, copying his skills.  She cleared her throat.  “Hai!  Kono hareta asa wa dōdesu ka?”

The two of them carried on a conversation.  Then the man beckoned to us and opened the passenger door.  Hira climbed in, and Tasia and I followed.

“What did you talk about?” I muttered to Right-Hira, crammed into the back seat with me.

“He asked if we were headed into town for the celebration.  I said yes.  I don’t like walking.”

I relaxed my Pith, letting it slide out of my dagger hilt.  Not everyone’s an enemy.

In the man’s puttering automobile, it only took us a few minutes to get to Kamishoto.  He parked on the side of a street, near some wooden houses with sliding doors.

Then we got out, and he led us into the town.  “He’s not going to lock his car?” I said.  “What if someone steals it?”

Right-Hira shrugged.  We followed the man through the winding streets of the town, filled with trees and quiet houses and bridges over narrow streams.  Towards the center, where we’d meet Mercurial.  Given how conspicuous the Voidsteel man looked, it was probably good to rendezvous somewhere with lots of distractions.

The sounds of music and shouting echoed from ahead of us.  Drums and strings and flutes, striking up a merry, upbeat tune.

Then we turned a corner, and saw the celebration.

A crowd had gathered around the fountain in the center of the square, and had broken out into spontaneous dance.

The fountain’s water streamed out of one end, becoming a stream cutting through the town square and running down to the ocean, just a hundred feet away.  A saltwater fountain.

A pair of water projectors had built a thirty-foot ice sculpture in the middle of it, in the shape of a man I didn’t recognize.  They floated around it in a circle, constantly melting and rebuilding it.  In a few seconds, the man became an elderly woman.  Then a girl my age.  Then a boy.  A model of everlasting change.  A group of women musicians played music on a raised wooden stage, bobbing their heads in sync.

Wreaths of flowers hung from nearby buildings, in Nekean green, as well as orange and yellow and pink, forming elaborate shapes and patterns.  Beneath them, men and women hawked goods in food stalls.  Flatbread and samosas and takoyaki and cold noodles.

Tasia gazed around the square, her eyes wide with amazement.  I stared with her.  This isn’t even the Floating City.  Not even one of the bigger cities.  Is this some religious festival?  I wasn’t familiar with Nekean traditions.

“Excuse me.”  Tasia tapped a woman on the shoulder as she passed by.  “Is this a holiday?”

The woman glanced at her, then pointed to her ears.  Doesn’t speak Common.  Despite her heritage, my mother hadn’t taught me any Nekean or Shenti.  This could be a problem in Shenten, too.  At least we had Hira.

A man stepped up behind us, wearing a green ceremonial mask, with a pair of gloves and a scarf.  Odd clothes for this weather.

“Have you read the news lately?” he said, his voice muffled behind the mask.  Mercurial.  Hiding his metal body behind his clothes.

“We’ve been on a sealed-off submarine,” said Right-Hira.  “The fuck do you think?”

“Our National Congress just signed a law,” he said.  He pointed at the stage with the music-playing women, and I took a closer look.

All of the women had the same face.  Dark hair.  Light brown skin.  Almond eyes, and narrow jaws.  A dozen identical twins in their early twenties, playing in harmony.

“Fabricated bodies,” I said.  “They look expensive.”

“They’re free,” he said.  “Those were all terminal cancer patients.  Until they weren’t.”

“Whaleshit,” said Hira.  “There’s got to be a catch somewhere.”

“Your congress signed a law?” I said.

“A group called the Free Body Movement has been protesting for years,” said Mercurial.  “But the government finally caved to their demands.”

The Free Body Movement.  I hadn’t heard of that before.  Maybe it’s a Nekean equivalent of Commonplace.

“The new law sets price controls for all chassis, requires a medical need, and introduces a lottery system for the time being.”  He gestured at the stage.  “Now, anyone can get a new body, as long as they would die without one.  No matter how rich or poor.  Cosmetic needs, for the present, are taking a backburner.”

Tasia stared up at the stage with wonder.  “That’s incredible,” she breathed, buying a platter of takoyaki from a vendor.

“I’m sure all the rich fucks have ways to cut the line,” said Hira.

“But the supply would still run low, right?” I said.  They must be on the verge of running out.  “There’s no shortage of terminal cancer patients, mortal injuries and the like.”

“That’s the other part of the law,” said Mercurial, speaking over the loud folk music.  “The elite projectors who make bodies.  They’re required to share their knowledge with the public.  The government is opening university departments around the islands to teach this art.”

“Mass-production,” said Tasia, making it sound like a birthday present.

Mercurial nodded.  “It will take time to implement.  There are significant barriers involved, and some downsides that Izanami can speak to you about.  And in the interim, many will still die.”  He beckoned his arms to the square and stepped forward.  “But soon, Neke will produce more fabricated bodies than the other three Domains combined.”

“And that’ll drive down the prices,” said Tasia.  “Everyone will have to follow in your stead, in the long term.”

“And this ‘Free Body Movement’ did this,” I said.  I kept my face passive, hiding the thrills running under my skin.  This is incredible.

“Well,” said Mercurial.  “You did, sort of.  By accident.”

“What?”

“The country’s been moving in this direction for the last decade, with strong popular support.”

“But,” I said.

“But many traditionalist projectors had other interests.”

“Did they hijack the congress?”  Like our Parliament.

“Of course not,” he said, taken aback at the mere suggestion.  “Our congress simply relied on specific sources for campaign funds.”  He gestured at me with a gloved hand.  “But when they saw the chaos of the Principality over the last year, Izanami argued to them that the status quo could not be maintained.”

This Izanami has a lot of government influence, then.  A useful bit of information.

“So they passed this law,” said Mercurial.  “To help ensure that a violent civil war did not come close to breaking out.  To make their citizens happy.”

Commonplace takes credit for that, not me.  Mercurial was flattering me.  I’d spent the entirety of last year fighting efforts like that, indirectly.  And now, the group’s remnants had all but vanished, so it didn’t matter, anyways.

“Your people protested for something,” said Tasia, incredulous.  “And their representatives just gave it to them?”

“Yes,” he said.

“No riot cops, no pepper gas, no mental hijacking?  They just…listened.”

Mercurial cocked his head at her, confused.  “Why wouldn’t they?”

Sounds nice.  Paragon Academy and Egress had made such change near-impossible in the Principality.  Ants, not beetles.  I wondered what Grace had thought of Neke and its government.

Months ago, when we’d first become fugitives from Paragon, Jun had suggested going to the Floating City.  And I’d shot him down.  What a stupid decision.

Mercurial spun around to face us.  The music swelled, and a burst of confetti exploded over him, in sync with the ice sculptors and the drums.  Through a slit in his mask, I saw his Voidsteel mouth curl up in a smile.

“Welcome to Neke,” he said.  “If you still wish to meet Izanami, I can take you to my boat.  The journey should be short and comfortable, and you can contact your submarine first, if you wish to give them a later rendezvous.”

“Cute town,” said Right-Hira.  “Must have been a bitch, getting us to arrive on the same day as this celebration.”  She looked at Tasia and me.  “I’ve seen enough.  We don’t need another string-pulling puppetmaster looking over our shoulders.”  She doesn’t trust the Neke.

Tasia bobbed her head to the music, Wes’ eyes – her eyes sparkling.  “I say we meet her.  If she’s behind any of this, then she’s worth our time.”

I’m the deciding vote.  Though we didn’t have an official democracy for Queen Sulphur.

I looked around at the musicians who’d escaped cancer, the happy citizens who got an actual voice in their nation.  The joy, the ease that I hadn’t seen on the streets of the Principality for years.

If my mother had emigrated to Neke instead of the Principality, and I’d been born ten years later, then maybe things could have gone differently.  Maybe I wouldn’t have turned out this way.

And this ‘Green Lotus’ woman had helped with this?

I nodded to Mercurial.  “Show us to your boat,” I said.  “Let’s go meet Izanami.”

________________________________________

The boat ride was uneventful.  Comfortable, like Mercurial said.  His boat wasn’t a luxury yacht or anything, but it had couches and pretzels, more than enough to keep us entertained.

We drove out from a dock in Kamishoto, and puttered over the water for an hour or two.  South, down the coast of the Neke Islands, where the weather got warmer.

None of us talked strategy much.  We didn’t want to discuss anything sensitive within earshot of our host.  Mercurial kept himself busy with driving the boat, and didn’t seem all that conversational.

Normally, of the three of us, Hira would be the one to initiate new conversations, but she spent the trip fuming, pacing back and forth belowdecks.  Tasia touched up her eyeliner, and gave me a remedial crash course on everything I’d forgotten about it over the last decade.  It still felt strange to see makeup on Wes’ freckled face.

We drove through a bank of fog, and around the backside of a mountainous island, green with thick jungle trees growing up the slopes.  “We’re getting close!” said Mercurial, calling to us from above.  “If you wish to see the view, you may observe from the starboard deck.”

Tasia clambered up the stairs, and I followed after her.  “So,” said Tasia, excitement slipping into her voice.  “Is it a secret lair?  A hidden fortress with illusions?  An underwater temple?”  She leaned against a railing, squinting at the green water ahead of us.

Mercurial didn’t answer.  He just smiled, a faint expression that was difficult to pick out of his metallic face.

The boat passed around a rocky outcropping, and we saw the view.

A bay, filled with bright turquoise water, glowing under the light of the sun under clear skies.  Countless rocky islands dotted the center and edges, large and small, made of a yellow stone covered with thick jungle vegetation on top, hanging down cliff faces.  They formed pathways and smaller coves throughout, making the bay a labyrinth.

Narrow outcroppings of grey rock stuck out from the surface, forming natural sculptures that looked like surreal modern art, casting odd shadows on the water.  Submerged cave entrances extended into the cliff faces, winding down into the rock below the water, filled with curved stalagmites and stalactites.

A wooden village floated near the edge of the bay.  Men and women sat on tall platforms, sorting fresh fish into crates from motorboats.  A few other passenger boats passed by, filled with men and women.  Ferries, by the look of them, heading in and out of the bay.

Other than that, I saw no one in the bay.  No loud noises.  Just a tranquil calm.

Tasia gazed at the vista, her eyes wide.  “I’ve seen this place in books before.  This is Airavata Bay.”

He nodded.  “A wonder of nature.  The Nekean government limits tourism to the area, to preserve its beauty.  But our destination is ahead.”

The boat cut through the waters of the bay, traveling to the far side, then turning around islands and natural rock sculptures, navigating us through the maze-like structures.  We passed more fishing villages, including one balancing on top of a pair of narrow islands, with rope bridges and pulley systems hanging above the water between them.

We saw more boats, headed in the same direction as us, including one full of foreigners.  Tourists.

Then, we sailed around an island, and saw another marvel.

A mountain extended out of the turquoise waters of the bay, taller than the rest of the islands and green with vegetation.  A complex of buildings sat on the steep rocky slopes.  Bamboo, with slanted thatched roofs and sliding doors, in the northern Nekean style.  Tiered waterfalls cascaded beneath wooden bridges, above carved stone staircases and networks of pipes.

Narrow trees grew up all around the buildings, casting circles of shade on the tiled, winding pathways.  A trio of wooden lifts moved on diagonal metal rails, carrying goods and people up and down the slopes.

And, of course, large pools of water dotted the complex, steam rising off their surface.  In the distance, I could see tiny men and women bathing in them.

It looked like a magical hideaway.  Something I’d read about in a fairy tale from my childhood.

“This is a hot spring,” I said.  “A Nekean hot spring.”

“Onsens, we call them,” said Mercurial.  “Or Garm Jharanas.  Though it’s really more of a public bathhouse, due to our lighter rules.”

“And this one is famous, isn’t it?” said Tasia.

Mercurial nodded.  “Kokina To.  It would fill up with people, except strict limits are placed on how many people can enter the bathhouse, and the bay, at a time.”

Our boat pulled up to a dock at the bottom of the mountain, next to a handful of ferries.  Mercurial put his mask and gloves back on, adding a staff outfit and a thin medallion around his neck.

Then he led us down the gangplank, leaving the boat keys on a couch, and showed us to an entrance hall where a short line of people waited to get in.

I saw all sorts of people in the line.  Nekean, mostly, but foreigners, too, from Ilaqua and Shenten and the Principality, and some other ethnicities I couldn’t place.  Rich and poor, with fur coats and moth-bitten rags alike.

“What’s the entry fee?” I said.  This place doesn’t look cheap to maintain.

“None,” said Mercurial, as he led us through a side door.  “We receive all necessary funds from the Nekean Government and anonymous donations.  To enter, there is a free lottery.  If one wins, they can bring themselves and up to three guests.”

“And rich fucks buy up all the tickets, I’m sure,” said Hira.  “‘Fair’ systems have a way of bending themselves over.”

“How many people enter the lottery each year?” said Tasia, as we stepped into an empty locker room with mats on the floor.

“About three-quarters of the country,” said Mercurial.  Then he beckoned to the lockers.  “I must ask you to deposit your weapons and bathe before entering the main complex.”

“You gonna check us to make sure our balls are clean?” said Right-Hira.

“Cleaning yourself is customary for locations such as this,” said Mercurial.  “It signifies respect, and helps keep the space hygienic.”

“Is giving up your guns traditional too?” said Left-Hira, her grip tightening on her trench shotgun.

“Come on,  Hira,” I said.  “We’ve come this far.”  I switched to illusions.  “And if Izanami is this powerful, having a gun won’t change much.”  If things went bad, our strongest weapons were projection, anyways.

Tasia didn’t have any weapons on her, but I gave Mercurial my broken-down machine pistol, a stun grenade at my belt, and a few spare clips, along with Reverie, my extendable Voidsteel dagger.  Hira grumbled, then gave up her shotgun and sniper rifle.

Mercurial stashed them all in a handful of lockers, then turned back to Hira, extending a hand.  “Your other weapons as well, if you please.”

Hira growled, and both of her bodies reached into the folds of her clothes, pulling out hidden pistols, micro-explosives, and knives.  Mercurial put them in lockers, and didn’t even bother locking them.  “No one will touch these.  They can be returned to you at the end of your stay.

Then, we washed ourselves in individual showers, with diagrams of smiling people in five languages on the walls, indicating which places we should scrub with an uncomfortable level of detail.

When we finished, Mercurial gave us new, clean clothes to wear.  Soft green pants and tunics, with sandals that fit my feet perfectly.

Then he stepped up to Left-Hira, folding his hands in front of him with a regretful expression.  “I’m afraid I must ask you to wait in the public hot springs, rather than attending the meeting.”

“Fuck you,” said Left-Hira.  She floated her trench shotgun out of her locker and into her hands, still wrapped in a towel and dripping wet.  “I scrub my asshole for five hours and now you want me out?”

“Your Praxis Vocation involves the reading of minds,” said Mercurial.  “Izanami simply wishes to be cautious, and preserve her privacy.”

Left-Hira cocked her shotgun, even though we all knew it wouldn’t work on the metal man.  Behind Mercurial, Right-Hira hid a grenade behind his back, which had a faint chance of doing some damage.  Probably not, though.

“And what if I insist on coming?” she said.

“Then,” said Mercurial, unfazed.  “I’m afraid I will have to request that you leave.”

“Hira,” said Tasia, her voice scolding.  “Don’t be impolite.”

Hira,” I said, with illusions.  “Please don’t get us all killed.

Left-Hira gripped her shotgun for another few seconds.  Then she sighed, deflating, and floated it back into the locker, then slammed it shut.  “Fine,” she growled.  “Do you have a bar here, at least?”

“We do not,” said Mercurial.  “And I must also ask you to leave your smoking implement in your locker, for the health of other guests.”

“It’s called a hookah, you bhenchod,” grumbled Right-Hira, folding it up and floating it into the locker with his weapons.  “Uptight fucking Nekeans.”

“The minerals of the hot spring have many regenerative properties,” said Mercurial.  “They may help you relax.”  So he’s capable of passive aggression, at least.  He opened another door for us, polite as always.  “Right this way.”  He led us up a stone staircase, and into the heart of the bathhouse.

We ascended a winding path, passing tiny restaurants with sizzling meat where the chefs grilled and boiled and sliced food on counters in front of guests.  Men and women bathed in steaming-hot pools, or lounged on soft chairs by the water, reading books, all wearing bathrobes, some variation on our spa clothes, or nothing.  The foreigners seemed to wear more clothes than the native Nekeans.  A few of them went into buildings with sliding doors that looked like bedrooms, some of them staying overnight.

We passed over a wooden bridge beside a waterfall, cool mist spraying in my face, and Mercurial turned back to the Hiras, at the foot of another stone staircase.  “I’m afraid I must ask you to part, now, for a brief period.”  He handed Left-Hira a pamphlet.  “This guide should tell you all you need about the activities available to you during your wait.”

Left-Hira snatched the booklet out of his metal hands and scanned through it, leaning on a wooden railing.

“It also includes all rules that we ask guests to follow during their stay.  Many traditions have been bent, or broken to accommodate foreigners, and as a result of our access to projection.  But we still have guidelines.”  Mercurial turned back to the staircase, facing away from Hira.  “Respecting staff members, proper hygiene.  Not littering.”

While he looked away, Hira let the pamphlet slip out of her fingers, dropping it into the waterfall.  Then she turned and stalked off, her two bodies headed in separate directions.

Mercurial guided us up the staircase, and through another winding path, down a row of trees.  After another few minutes, we arrived at the highest building in the complex.

I glanced back, and saw the whole rest of the baths, spread out on the slope of the mountain beneath us, waterfalls and bridges and hot springs.  And beneath them, the blue-green waters of Airavata Bay, dotted with green islands and rock formations.

Mercurial opened a sliding door and beckoned us into an entrance room.  Tasia and I stepped out of our sandals, and changed into pairs of socks provided to us.  Then we walked into a hall, on the matted floor.

Mercurial approached the door, then paused.  “Are you ready to meet her?”

No, I thought.  For all this cozy atmosphere, if Izanami was a proper Whisper Specialist, we’d all be in trouble.  Or if she thought we were better off dead than alive.  So many things could go wrong.

But this woman helped us, too.  And allegedly, she’d helped the people of this country, too.  Let’s see what she has to offer.

I nodded, and Mercurial slid open the door.

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14-C Imposter Syndrome

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Nell

“What?”  I said.  “What?

The shopkeeper stepped out of the room and closed the door behind him, but left it ajar just a crack.  Not locking it.  This wasn’t an ambush.

I projected into the bills in my wallet, floating them out and hovering them midair as weapons.  “Maxine Clive?

Maxine Clive smiled at me with Leo’s body.  “‘Max’ is fine.”

“What in the fuck are you doing here?”

“Waiting for you,” she said.  “I figured you would come here sooner or later, given your interest in this shop.  When my man told me you were coming to this neighborhood, I got here as fast as I could.”

“And why,” I said.  “Are you in my friend’s body?”

“Well,” she said.  “If anyone finds us out, or one of your mother’s birds spots us, then – “  She gestured at her body.  Leo’s body.  “You were just meeting up with an old friend from last year.  Illegal, as per Ousting rules.  But not committing treason.”  She gestured to the other chair across from her.  “Please, sit.”

“Why am I committing treason?”  I floated the paper closer to Maxine Clive.  “It’s not treason if I give you fifty paper cuts on your carotid artery, is it?”

Maxine Clive took a sip from a tea mug.  “No,” she said.  “Killing me would be perfectly legal.  Encouraged, even.”  She picked up a bowl of crushed bacon bits and spooned them into her mouth like cereal.  “But you could have reported Leo.”  She spoke with a full mouth.  “And he tells me you spared him.  Gave him your allowance, even.”

I placed some of the bills against Clive’s exposed neck, ready to slice.  She didn’t react, continuing to eat her bacon bits.

“Leo,” I said.  “Didn’t kill any of my classmates.”  My shoulders shook.  “He didn’t Nudge innocent people to start terrorist attacks.  He didn’t blow up my favorite cafe and shoot up everyone inside.  He didn’t free Lyna Wethers and sic her on civilians.”  Eliya’s face flashed into my mind.  “And he didn’t take my best friends’ eye.”

When I closed my eyes, I could still see Honeypot’s smirking face.  After everything, it still looked gorgeous.

I sliced a bill across Clive’s cheek, drawing a thin stream of blood.

“Yeah,” she said.  “I deserve that.  And far more.  I did all those things.”  She set down her bowl of bacon, staring me in the eye.  “I had allies who helped, who pushed me.  But I chose to approve those projects.”

“Then why,” I hissed.  “Do you deserve to live?”  If I kill her, then Leo will be stuck in her body.  That wouldn’t be ideal, but a target this big was probably worth it.

“Because I’m not the only one you’re angry at, am I?” said Clive.  “We freed Lyna Wethers, but Paragon Academy created her.  We sold your friend, Anabelle Gage, a defective body, but Paragon refuses to mass-produce chassis, dooming people like her to an early grave.”

“Don’t talk about Ana,” I said.  “You killed her.

“And,” said Clive.  “Your mother Ousted you.  Kicked you out of her family and replaced you.”

“I wasn’t worthy, then,” I said.  I was a drunk, duplicitous wretch with no empathy.  “I am now.”

Maxine Clive raised an eyebrow.  “Is she kind to you now, then?  She hasn’t mistreated you, now that you’re back?”

My mother’s business card is in my wallet.  She’d given me the Ebbridge family armor to train with.  And she’d told me how proud she was of me, multiple times now.  She’s nicer to me than ever before.

And she’d installed a Whisper vocation on my Pith.  An excruciating thing, that dissolved my entire sense of self and left me writhing on the floor in agony.  She threatened to use it again.  If I spoke out of turn more, or did something else that earned her wrath.

I pressed the slips of paper against Maxine Clive’s neck.  But I didn’t slice.

“Here’s how it’s going to go, Wes,” said Clive.  “Can I call you Wes?  Do you prefer Nell?  Or Lady Ebbridge.”

I said nothing, still clenching my teeth.

“Here’s how it’s going to go.”  She leaned forward.  “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.”

She thinks she’s going to change my mind.  The thought made me even angrier.  But still, I didn’t slice.

Maxine Clive told me a story, with a dozen blades pressed to her neck.  She told me of her youth, as a bicycle courier, when she received a false acceptance letter to Paragon.  She told me of Buttercup Lodge, the place where she claimed Paragon had mutilated and hijacked her, destroying countless lives as they developed the first fabricated bodies.

She told me of her miraculous escape, more far-fetched than any fiction I’d read.  She spoke of her time in the Droll Corsairs, and her mutiny on the desert continent of Kiterjede that led to the formation of Commonplace.

When she finished, I found myself sweating, cold, my shoulders tense.  A strange, absurd tale, full of shocking details and profound horror.  A story that damned Paragon, and countless others.

If she’s telling the truth.  But Commonplace couldn’t be trusted.  And Maxine Clive had every reason to lie to me now.

“It’s crazy,” I said.  “Why should I believe a word of it?”

“Your mother,” said Clive.  “If she thought it was necessary, do you think she wouldn’t cut a woman into pieces?  Do you think she wouldn’t kidnap innocents and hijack their minds?”

My breath caught in my throat.  “No!”  I said, half a shout.  “No.  She has lines she won’t cross.  She can be an ass, but she’s not a monster.  Not like that.”

Clive went back to eating her bacon bits.  “Then why hasn’t she told you?”

“Told me what?”

“Your friends.  Ana and Hira.”  She leaned forward, swallowing a mouthful.  “They’re alive.”

The world dropped away from me.  My body grew distant, hollow.  I staggered back, leaning against the door of the storage room.

What?  It was whaleshit, it had to be.  She’s manipulating you.  She knew how much I cared about the other members of Queen Sulphur.  She was leveraging my grief for her own ends.

“I’m not sure,” said Clive.  “But your friends are almost definitely alive.  And your mother almost definitely knows, too.”

Why?”  I hissed.  “Lie to me, and I’ll paper cut your eyeballs.”

Maxine Clive sighed, a weary look passing over her face.  “Since the Paragon attack, Grace hasn’t reached out to my emergency channels.  And she’s acted strange, off her usual patterns and routines, even the ones she’d use after a great defeat.”

I snorted.  “That’s your evidence?”

Someone defeated her,” said Clive.  “And Ana was chasing after her.  Not Guardians.  Queen Sulphur were the last ones seen pursuing Tunnel Vision, before they vanished.”  She hunched over.  “And Grace just turned most of her lieutenants into Paragon.”

“What?”

“She laid a trap for them with Guardians and got dozens of her best people killed or arrested.  Grace would never have made such a move.”  Clive shook her head.  “Your friends are alive.  My friend is dead.”

I took deep, rapid breaths, sweat coating my armpits.  No.  She’s lying.  She has to be.

“Though,” said Clive.  “I’m not about to confirm that anytime soon.  If your friend killed Grace, she needs to face consequences.  And in the meantime, we can’t afford to approach her.  Commonplace is in a fragile state at the moment.  Even the smallest slip-up could cost us most of our resources.”

And yet you’re approaching me.  She was confident that this gamble would pay off.

“Let’s assume any of this is true,” I said through clenched teeth.  “That this isn’t just a lie to butter me up.”

“I am trying to butter you up,” said Clive.  “But it’s all true.”

“Even if it was true,” I said.  “You honestly think I would join you?  Leave my life?  My family?  Abandon all of my friends?”

“No,” said Maxine Clive.  “I want you to help your friends.  Help the people of this country, like you helped Leo.  But in a much bigger way than a few bills floated through a window.”  Her eyes glinted.  “I want an inside voice on the Shenti invasion.”

“Why?” I snorted.  “So you can give tips to your best friend, Cao Hui?”

“The Shenti have cut off contact,” said Clive.  “And I thought I was funded by a warlord,” said Clive.  “If I’d known the Black Tortoise was involved, I never would have worked with them.”

“So you say.”

“He’s a monster,” said Clive.  “If I was born in Shenten, I’d be fighting him right now, not Paragon.”

We’re going to fight him,” I said.  “Paragon Academy.  The people you hate so much.  Who you want me to spy on.”

Clive laughed, a bitter, tired sound.  “Yeah.  Funny how the world works, isn’t it?  This will be the biggest war in a decade.  And the last time the Principality fought Cao Hui, the world changed forever.”  She leaned forward.  “So, I need to know what’s going on there.”

“What?” I said.  “You don’t already have fifty spies in our military?”

“You people killed them all,” said Clive, a mournful look spreading across Leo’s face.  “We spent most of them trying to pull off our revolution.  Most of the rest have disappeared.  Our intelligence network has been shot to shit, like most of our resources.”

Serves you right.  After everything they did, it felt nice to see some small measure of justice.

“You don’t need to break in anywhere,” said Clive.  “Just write letters, telling us what you see.  Leaving things in dead drops.  Maybe the occasional meeting, if we think we can swing it.”  She spooned bacon into her mouth.  “I’m not asking you to betray your friends.  I’m asking you to recognize that an unhinged Epistocracy is not what this country needs.”

“Violence and terrorism aren’t what this country needs, either.”

“I agree,” said Clive.  “We need democracy.  True rule by the people, not the charade we had before.  But now, it seems that Paragon is doing away with even the charade.”  Her voice dropped, quiet.  “Let me ask you this: If things get bad, truly bad, do you think your mother will protect you?  Do you think Paragon will?”

A million thoughts swirled through my mind.  If even a fraction of that Buttercup Lodge stuff is true, then Paragon – I couldn’t even imagine.  And given what I knew about my mother, some fraction of it seemed plausible.

But they’re Commonplace.  They were monsters, they’d committed so many atrocities against me and my friends.  I couldn’t just ignore that and start working for them.

“No,” I said.  “Fuck you.”

Clive bowed her head.  “If you change your mind,” she said.  “Go to a store like this, wherever you are.  Give the clerk exactly four ten-pound bills when you buy something.  And then we’ll get in touch, even if you’re in Shenten.”

I laughed at her.  She spent so much of last year in control.  And now, she didn’t even know basic facts.

“I’m not even going to Shenten,” I said.  “You book-burners picked the wrong person to indoctrinate.”

Maxine Clive’s eyes lit up, as recognition spread across her face.  “Your mother’s keeping you back, isn’t she?”

I said nothing.

“She’s trying to keep her heir safe.  She thinks you’ll be a liability on the battlefield.”

“Fuck you,” I said.  “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Here’s some free advice,” Clive said.  “Admiral Ebbridge respects strength.  If she thinks you’re strong enough to benefit the family on the battlefield, then she’ll let you go to war.”

“Wow,” I said.  “Astute.  No wonder you got so far.”

“Winning single combat against a powerful foe should do it, probably.”  She nodded to herself.  “Paragon likes single combat.”

I lifted the paper from Maxine Clive’s neck, and floated it back into my wallet.  “You’re a piece of shit,” I spat.  “Good luck with the revolution.”  I threw open the door and stalked out of the room, my fists clenched.  Before I slammed it shut behind me, I glanced over my shoulder, looking back at Clive.

“Mm?”

“Coconut Paradise,” I said.  “How did you know that was my favorite brand?  How much are you spying on me?”  Clive had said her intelligence network had fallen apart, but she could be lying to me.  I’d never seen that clerk behind the desk before, so maybe Clive controlled the entire shop.  Or the owner, too.

Max reached behind her and tossed two bottles of Coconut Paradise at me.  I caught them, staring at her.

“Of course it’s your favorite,” said Clive, eating her bacon bits.  “It’s the best one.”

________________________________________

Lorne’s autumn party was perfect.  And I hated it.

Daventry made a point of throwing spectacular gatherings, outdoing all the other students at Paragon.  Even adults came to his parties, en masse, treated it like one of their own prestigious events.

At these parties, the conversation was lively, the live music beautiful, and the decorations breathtaking.

And, of course, the drinks never stopped flowing.  And I wanted to stay sober.

So I stood in a circle of blabbering students, sipping a virgin cocktail that tasted like grape juice, and containing my irritation.  My black dress squeezed in on my body, tight and painful.  Girls wore them to show off their curves, but in practice, it was like glueing your legs together.

The young epistocrats chatted about the upcoming war.  How easy it would be, that it’d be over in a month tops and people were overhyping how big it’d be.

Ignorant children.  Even though some of them were in older classes than me.

I felt bubbling anger from other sources, too.  Maxine Clive just thought that I would work for her?  Just like that.  Like some fake story about getting chopped up and a few revelations would be enough to change my mind.  Would make me work for the people who took Eliya’s eye, who blew Samuel’s guts out of his stomach.

Absurd.  Bloody absurd.  And her arrogance made it worse.

I should report this immediately.  The brass thought Maxine Clive had killed herself.  But she was alive, and organizing in the shadows.  Spilling this information would help my family, too.

But I hadn’t said anything yet.  Not to my mother, or Lord Olwen, Isaac Brin’s replacement in counterintelligence.  Not even to my friends in Chimera Squad.

And the longer I waited, the more guilty I looked.  But still, I hadn’t done it.

And that bit of advice she’d given me.  Winning a duel to impress my mother.  It actually sounded like a good idea, which pissed me off even more.  Assuming I could win.  I did beat Tasia, but the girl had been sleep-deprived, exhausted, and maybe throwing the match.

But this was my best shot at getting a duel like that.  So for now, I could focus on that, and procrastinate my decision about Clive, the way I used to procrastinate my homework.

“Please excuse me.”  I shuffled out of the circle and moved through the crowd, awkward in my dress.

I found Lorne Daventry at the other end of the ballroom, talking to a trio of girls under a glowing lantern, a view of Elmidde spread out behind him through a fifty-foot window.

“We’re going to miss you, Lorne,” one of the girls said, pouting.

Lorne shook his head.  The girls smiled, but he didn’t.  “I’m performing my duty for my country.  And I’ll have the best bloody soldiers in the Eight Oceans defending me.”  He gestured around him.  “This is a sending-off party, for all the brave souls going to Shenten.”

“Wish we could go with you,” breathed another girl.

“Sure,” he said.  “Give me your business cards, and I’ll have you both sent to the front lines in no time.”

The girl blinked.  “Oh.  Um, no thanks.”

Lorne Daventry repulsed me, on so many levels.  But to make this work, I needed his cooperation.

“Lord Daventry,” I said, putting on my best court lady impression.  “A moment of your time, please.”  Acting prim and proper made me want to douse my face in a vat of acid.  If I stay, this will be my life.  For a long, long time.

“Lady Ebbridge,” he said.  “Come here to complain?  Wish you could be charging off to an early grave?”  The girls walked away, joining another conversation.

“No,” I said.  “I – “

“Or perhaps, deep down, you’re simply relieved that you don’t have to put your life on the line.  Perhaps you just want to stay home, sit on your ass, and drink.”

“No,” I said, keeping my voice steady.  “I came here to challenge you to a duel.”

Lorne raised an eyebrow, surprised.

“Single combat,” I said.  “Ousting rules.  We can have a referee watching.”

Lorne snorted.  “You think you can beat me?”

“No,” I said.  “But I intend to try my best.  And if I’m strong enough to beat you, then I’m strong enough to go to Shenten, I’d say.”

Lorne looked at me with a new light in his eyes.  “Alright,” he said.  “I accept.  But we’ll use Paragon’s training gear.  No fancy family armor – you won’t have that in the field.”

I nodded.

“And I’ll use my Vocation.”  His molten beam of metal.  That had massacred Green Hands during the attack, so deadly that Paragon had banned in squad battles.

“I accept those terms,” I said.  This could be a huge mistake.

“And if you want to beat my Vocation,” said Lorne, biting his lip.  “You’ll need better movement.  Paper walls and slicing at my face won’t cut it.  And your offense is strong, but lacks variation.  You’ll need something that can puncture metal.  Thick metal.  All while I’m adapting to you.”

What?  “Why are you giving me pointers?”  Is this a trap?  But they sounded like good pointers.  “Why are you helping me?”

“If you go to war,” said Lorne.  “You’ll be my ally.  There’ll be lives depending on you.  Good soldiers.”  He stepped close to me, glaring in my face.  “If you want to join us, you’d better be spectacular.”  Then he walked off, headed towards the bar.  “We’ll do it tomorrow.”  He glanced back at me.  “Don’t half-ass it.  Or I’ll burn your limbs off.”

“Hey!”  I called out to him as he left.  “Did you do this for Kaplen, too?  This advice.”

He paused for a moment.  “Yes.”  His voice was soft, hard to hear across the cocktail party.  “Not everyone’s built for hell.”

Is that a bad thing?

Lorne left, joining another conversation.

I moved in the opposite direction, stumbling towards the exit in my tight dress.

Samuel stepped up to me, handsome in a grey three-piece suit.  “Why are you leaving?”  Concern slipped into his voice.  “Are you not having fun?”

Damn you, Maxine Clive.  Why is this working?

“I’ll see you later,” I said.  “I’ve got prep work to do.”

________________________________________

I showed up to the fight early.  And Lorne had already arrived.

He’d talked to one of the grounds managers, and got an Ousting arena set up on the grassy lawn where Paragon normally held squad battles.  Thanks to Commonplace’s massacre, that schedule had been poked full of holes, leaving us with space for our bout.

But this Ousting arena looked different.  The ones I’d used before were made with wood, a simple circular platform raised maybe five feet off the ground.

This one looked sleek, modern.  It had been built from jade glass, translucent with a tinge of green, and much stronger under pressure.  The rising sun shone down on it, making it glimmer.

And its diameter was three times that of the old one.  Lots more space to run.  That might have meant something against Tasia, but Lorne would just blast my arms off, even from the far side of the ring.

If Maxine Clive gets me killed, I’m going to hunt her down as a ghost and paper cut her tongue.

No stands had been set up for an audience, besides the normal ones for squad battles, far away.  But both Golem and Chimera Squads had still shown up to watch, standing around the edges of the platform on the grass.  Samuel gave me a concerned look.  Leizu gave me a thumbs up.  And Eliya just glared at Lorne with her lone eye.

I’d told my mother about this, and invited her, but she hadn’t seemed interested.  If she hears news of my victory, it might still work.

The gear locker sat near the edge of the floating island, filled with all sorts of goods for squad battles, and Paragon’s official training armor.  Lorne had already selected one, and matched it with a gas mask attachment to his helmet, with a spare hooked onto the belt at his waist.  So much for chemical weapons.

I approached the locker and picked out my own set.  A thin, flexible material for my pants and arms, a lightweight helmet, and a thicker, rigid vest for my vital organs, strengthened with synthetic ceramic plates on the pouches inside.  That weird old material that neither of us could project into, strong enough to stop bullets.

The Obsidian Foil’s stuff was better.  When Sebastian Oakes had strengthened armor with his Physical Vocation, before his death.  And my family armor is better.

But this would do.  As I slid on the vest and buckled it, I adjusted a flattened object inside one of the pouches, making sure it didn’t pop back into three dimensions.

A backup plan.  One I hoped I wouldn’t have to use.  I’d thought of it last night, in a fit of pacing around my dark room.  But now that the sun had risen, now that everyone was watching, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to follow through.

I picked up my singed briefcase, walked back, and climbed onto the jade glass platform.  Lorne did the same.

Berthel, the janitor, climbed up on a step stool that rose above the arena.  Our referee, assembled at the last minute.

He cleared his throat and went over the rules.  Same as Ousting.  The first one to touch the ground lost.  No full lethal, but both me and Lorne had replacement bodies on hand, lying on the grass behind our squadmates.  So anything that wasn’t a brain-destroying headshot or Voidsteel was permitted.  As long as the other combatant could transfer into a replacement body, which would also be counted as a loss.

“Bet you’re used to these arenas, Ebbridge,” said Lorne.  “How many times has that body changed hands now?  Ten?  Fifteen?  But I’m sure that alcohol dependency feels like home again.”

“I may be a drunk,” I said.  “But when we leave here today, I’ll still have friends who love me.”

“First combatant,” said Berthel to Lorne.  “Are you aware of the rules and ready to comm – “

“Yes,” snapped Lorne through clenched teeth, his eyes cold behind his gas mask.

“Second combatant,” said Berthel to me.  “Are you aware of the rules and ready to commence?”

I bent my legs and unclasped my briefcase.  “Let’s do this.”

“Begin!” he shouted.

I flipped open my briefcase, and shot a storm of papers out at Lorne.  Small sheets, cut into narrow triangles for aerodynamics.  A thousand paper airplanes, with sharpened wings.

They surrounded Lorne in a second.  Then they attacked in unison, from every angle.

A barrel exploded behind Lorne, and a sheath of water wrapped around his body, blocking out the paper.  He left a space for his gas mask, so he could breathe.

Had to expect that.  People had grown far better at blocking my basic attacks.  But now, he thinks I’m focused on paper.

I threw explosives at him, flattened with my Vocation and squeezed between sheets of paper.  Souvenirs from the school armsmaster.  My Vocation reduced their mass, but the extra weight still slowed them down, making them arrive a hair slower than the normal paper.

They looked identical to my previous attacks.  But Lorne wasn’t fooled.  One glance, and he blew another crate behind him, shooting a giant pile of metal chains at himself.

He stretched his palm behind him and touched the steel.  It melted, with a bright orange flash.  The liquid metal wrapped over him, forming a dome, then cooled back to a solid.

I unflattened a pair of grenades on the outside, detonating them.  Lorne’s dome clanged, but didn’t buckle.  No point in using my gas grenades, either.  Not with his mask on.

For a moment, both of us stood there, a standoff.  Lorne was stuck in his dome.  If he opened it up to look at me, I would attack with explosives.  He could feel around with his Pith, but wide-area scans drained lots of energy, and I could fly further away.

But at the same time, I didn’t have the ordinance to blow through his dome.  You’ll need something that can puncture metal.  Thick metal.  Lorne’s advice was right.

And I couldn’t play a game of attrition.  He has far more raw strength than you.  I’d exhaust myself long before he did.

Then, a beam of metal shot at me from behind.  An orange light flickered at the corner of my vision, and on instinct, I projected into my armor, pulling myself up.  So, instead of my neck, the beam of liquid steel smashed into my spine, knocking me forward.

Heat exploded across my back, and I felt sections of my armor tear off.  I flipped forward, the wind knocked out of me, spinning around to face the source.

Lorne floated behind me, hovering in the air.  He got out of his dome.  He shot another beam at me, and I pulled myself to the side, unfurling my wingsuit.  The wind caught me, and I lifted into the air.

Below me, Lorne floated up to his metal dome and touched it with his palm, melting it again.  He shot more narrow beams at me, fast and burning-hot.  I darted left and right, making them only clip the edges of my suit.  Every time they grazed my thin leg armor, or my arm, stinging pain spread across my skin, and I flinched.

As he gathered the metal into a sphere, I saw a hole, cut in the bottom of the stadium under his metal dome.  That was his trick.  He’d used his metal to cut a hole in the arena without making noise.  Then, while I was distracted, he’d flown up behind me when I thought he was still trapped.

Then Lorne unfurled his wings, and we took to the skies.  We soared around each other, and I surrounded Lorne with a sphere of paper and flattened bombs, ready to attack at a moment’s notice.  He formed a smaller sphere of molten metal around himself, protecting himself from my attacks, with a windshield of jade glass on the front that he could see out of.

He shot an orange beam at me, and I flattened my arms to my sides, pulling myself down to dodge it.  At the same time, I floated sheets of paper in front of Lorne’s windshield, blocking his vision.

Lorne responded with a blade of molten metal, sliding it back and forth across his glass visor, a windshield wiper to keep me from blocking it.  He’d studied some light eye-Joining, too, which would make blocking him even harder.

He shot another beam at me, and I stretched out one arm, flattening the other to make me spin around.  As I did, he shot another beam at me.  I dodged that one, too, but only partway, and it ripped off a chunk of the ceramic on my chest armor and tore my wing, searing the side of my belly.

His flying speed’s making it tough to block his vision.  And his rapid, unpredictable movements made it near-impossible to surround him.  I could envelop myself in paper walls, but that would block my own vision, too, and if he knew my general location, he could cut through with his metal beams.

My one reprieve was his limited ammunition.  Whenever he ran low on metal for his attacks, he had to fly back to the ground and retrieve the raw material, giving me time to hover, think, and catch my breath.

Alright, he’s strong.  Stronger than me.  He had experience with long flights, and I had none.

The tear in my suit expanded, ripping my entire left wing in two.  Green lightning began to flicker around my arms, from the sheer effort of keeping myself afloat.  And that won’t help, either.  One wing, and running out of energy.

But I didn’t want to use my secret weapon.  My squad would find it immoral, and it definitely counted as cheating.  I need a genuine win.

Lorne gathered his metal again, and shot straight at me, reforming the molten sphere around himself.  This time, I flew further away, projecting into my left arm to compensate for my broken wing, as a headache started throbbing in the back of my skull.

He fired another beam at me, and I darted around a ruined tower, using it as cover.  He won’t blow up Paragon, will he?  For a second, he passed out of sight, on the far side of the dusty grey stone.

Then, Lorne’s sphere curved around the bottom of the tower and shot up at me from below.  Dust coated the jade glass windshield, but I could see his helmet below.

A decoy.  A classic trick.  Lorne wasn’t in the dome, he was going to attack from somewhere else.  My eyes flitted left and right, and I moved my head to the side, glancing above me, the opposite direction of the decoy.

Clear skies.  No sign of an ambush, above, below, or to the sides of the bombed-out tower.  Where is he?

Then, the brick wall of the tower exploded.

A thick, orange beam blasted out from inside the building, and slammed into my torso.  I jerked myself up and to the side, dodging in a storm of green electricity.

Too late.  Molten metal dripped from my armor.  Chunks of synthetic ceramic dropped off.  Fire spread over my wingsuit, turning it to crumbling ashes.

And the headache tripled, as Lorne darted towards me, readying another beam.  I can’t fly anymore.  I had to land, or I’d run out of energy.

So, I flew back towards the jade glass platform, where I could touch down without forfeiting the match.

Lorne fired a thick, heavy beam at me.  Powerful, but less accurate.  I darted to the side, dodging it with ease.  That one won’t track me that well.

Then he kept firing it, ignoring me.

And I saw his real target.

Lorne Daventry blasted the ousting platform itself.  His molten metal smashed into the floor, the support beams, everything, ripping the arena into blackened shreds.  Then burning the shreds into ashes, tearing them apart into millions of tiny pieces.

In seconds, the arena turned into a pile of black and grey dust.  A second later, Lorne projected into the remains, blowing them away on the wind, scattering them into the air above Elmidde.

Now, I had nothing to stand on.  Nothing to regain my energy.

I had to keep flying.  Even if it broke me.

And then, Lorne attacked me again.  With half a dozen smaller beams, this time.  Faster, harder to dodge, that moved as I moved.

I zipped left and right, up and down and diagonal and backwards to dodge them, the headache exploding inside my skull, green lightning swirling around me.  He knows I’m tired.

My dodges got slower.  Every inch of my soul felt exhausted, sluggish.

And then, one of the metal beams curved midair, and slammed me in the chest from above.  Heat washed over my body again, and I dropped out of the sky.  I projected into my armor, pushing myself to the side and upwards, slowing my fall.

But Lorne’s beam grew even stronger.  Resisting it felt like trying to swim up a waterfall.

My back slammed into something hard, and the beam stopped.  I glanced around, and saw grass.

I touched the ground.  The battle had ended.

I lost.

And I wasn’t going to war.

“Winner!” shouted Berthel.  “Lorne Daventry!”

I collapsed onto my back, too tired to even move.

Lorne hovered above me, staring down.  He stretched his hand forward, projecting into my armor, and ripped off my vest, then the thinner armor underneath.  He flicked a finger to the side, and muddy water splashed over me from a puddle, coating my face.  I spat, blinking.

“Hey, asshole!” Eliya shouted.  “The battle’s over!”  Leizu held her back, as she started at Lorne with a murderous glare.

“Leave her alone,” said Samuel.  “You’ll get written up for this.”

“You’re not going to Shenten,” said Lorne, his first words of the entire match.  “All that talk, and this is what you amount to.  How did you ever survive Commonplace?”  He splashed me with mud again, then clenched his fist.  The mud wrapped around my ankles and yanked them up, hanging me upside down.

Fuck you, Daventry.  I should have expected this from him.

“Maybe they felt bad,” said Lorne.  “For the girl living like a peasant boy.  Or your freak friends from Queen Sulphur.”  He shook me around, but I didn’t respond, my arms hanging limp as the blood rushed to my forehead.

Rage bubbled up inside my gut.  He insulted Ana.  Insulted Hira and Jun.  The people who’d helped save his precious school, and he just pissed on them, with no respect.  No honor.  And now, the friends I have left are leaving me.  Maybe forever.

“Come on,” said Lorne.  “You gonna procrastinate your revenge, too?  You gonna get drunk and cry?”

I let out a ragged yell, and activated my backup plan.  I clenched my fingers into a claw, stretching my Pith into Lorne’s armor.  Specifically, the pouch to his lower left side, filled with a synthetic ceramic plate that neither of us could project into.

My Pith stretched, ripping the pouch on the inside.  And letting the flattened explosive squeezed there pop back into three dimensions.

A low boom rang out over the grass.  I felt a thudding impact, and a spray of blood splattered on my face, blinding me.  The mud let go of my ankles, dropping me to the dirt.  I saw Lorne’s outline thump to the ground too, my vision blurred.

I wiped the blood and dirt off my face, starting forward.  As my vision cleared, I saw what I’d done to Lorne.

The boy lay on his back, staining the grass with red.  His armor vest had been blown up from the inside out, and lay in tatters around him.

Lorne’s pelvis and intestines had been turned to a pulpy mass of flesh.  The lower half of his guts had been torn up and blended by the explosive.

Oh, scholars.  My stomach wrenched, and I felt sick.

He screamed, his body shaking from the sheer agony.  Everyone else around the lawn fell silent.  Chimera Squad.  Naruhiko.  Berthel on his step stool.  All staring at Lorne, and me, with a combination of surprise and horror on their faces.

A lethal blow, if he didn’t have his replacement body on hand.  But illegal, because of how I’d got there.

Then Naruhiko moved, sprinting forward with Lorne’s replacement body floating next to him.  He ripped Lorne’s gas mask off and placed the chassis’ hand on his forehead.  Green lightning flickered around Daventry, as he transferred his Pith into the healthy body.

And as Lorne transferred and bled out, he looked at me.  And he grinned, his eyes wild.

“Not bad, Ebbridge.”  He spat out a globule of blood.  “Not bad.”

His eyes closed in his old body, and opened up in the new one.  Then he jumped up, shaking his limbs, clearing away the memory of the pain.

My ears rang from the blast, a faint, piercing sound in the distance.  I sat on the dirt, staring into space.  What the fuck did I just do?

Then Lorne walked up next to me, and stretched his hand down.  “Well fought,” he said.  “Didn’t think you had what it takes.”

I didn’t take his hand.  Did he get me angry on purpose?  Was he pushing me to see what I could do?

Lorne retracted his hand and walked away, silent.  The rest of Chimera Squad jogged over to me.  “What the fuck?” said Eliya.  “How did you do that?”  She extended her hand to me, and I grabbed it, pulling myself up.

“Jittterbird cheated,” said Leizu.  She saw with her enhanced eyes.  “She flattened a bomb before the match and put it in Lorne’s armor.  Sabotage.”

“Which is against Ousting rules,” said Samuel, a concerned look on his face.  “Berthel would have disqualified you.  But now you did it outside the match, this might be seen as assault, depending on – “

“She’s fine,” said Eliya.  “Lorne’s not going to press anything.  He was smiling at her.  And she acted in self-defense, anyway.”  Her eye glinted.  “How did you know Lorne wouldn’t find out your plan.”

“The training armor uses synthetic ceramic plates,” I said, groaning.  “A weird type, that projectors like us aren’t used to.  So when Lorne put on the armor, he wouldn’t project into the pouches.  He wouldn’t notice the sabotage.”  I glanced at the burns on my skin.  Nothing too bad.

“But Lorne got here first,” said Eliya.  “How did you know which vest to sabotage?”

“Yeah,” I said.  I projected into my own vest, floated it far away, and tore one of the pouches.  Another boom rang across the lawn, and the armor exploded.  Everyone flinched.  “I sabotaged all of them.  Snuck in this morning and used projection to take the hinges off the locker.”  It wasn’t proper military gear, or offensive weapons, so the training stuff hadn’t been locked down all that tight.

“Brilliant.”  Eliya nodded.  “Nasty, but brilliant.”

Leizu clenched her fists.  “You know why assholes cheat and maim people?  Because it’s easy.”

“Please,” said Samuel.  He clasped my hand.  “Don’t make a habit of this.”

Then, my mother strode onto the field.  She stretched her hand out, floating the other flattened explosives out of the other armor vests in the locker, pressed between sheets of paper.  They detonated above her head, one at a time, making her golden hair shake from the impacts, shining with the light of the rising sun.

She clapped, staring straight at me.

I rubbed my eyes.  “You were watching the whole time?”

She nodded.  “I wanted to see how you’d act when backed into a corner.”  She nodded.  “And Lord Daventry was right.  You carried yourself well in the battle.  Better than you did the entire last year.  You’re capable of creativity.  Focus.  Raw aggression.  Though you’ll need to learn an Autonomous Bullet Defense.”

Leizu sighed next to me.  I stepped forward, a thrill running through my body.  “And?”

“Pack your gear,” my mother said.  “You’re going to Shenten.”

That night, I gave myself a bubble bath, lying in a tub filled with coconut-scented foam.  And I wondered whether I was happy.

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14-B Imposter Syndrome

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Nell

I didn’t want to fly.

For years, I’d dreamed about this day.  Soaring through the heavens with my wingsuit, free and unbound.  Watching Harpy’s plane had motivated me last year as a mercenary, when I’d been using the name ‘Wes’.

And now, I stood at the top of North Tower in Paragon, overlooking the grassy floating island where we held squad battles.  A flexible wooden platform extended out of a doorway, hanging over the clouds like a diving board.  And a strong, lightweight fabric had been strung between the arms and legs of Paragon’s practice armor.  My wings.

Everything fit perfectly.  The armor, my helmet, the wingsuit and my goggles.  All of it light and easy and simple.

I was ready to jump.

But I didn’t want to.

“You’ve trained for this,” said Professor Tuft, scowling.  “Stop fucking around and jump.  The invasion’s in just a few months, and you need to fly for that.”

Tuft hovered in the air, wind blowing through her short brown hair.  The noon sun shone down on her.  She wore goggles in place of her usual librarian’s glasses, and her wingsuit instead of her usual outfit, which resembled an elderly librarian’s.

The suit covered up her scabs and injuries, but I could still see the dark circles under her eyes.  Her pallid skin and the weary expression on her face.  Still recovering from her bout with Tunnel Vision.  With her prison body, she couldn’t transfer to a fresh chassis, and had to rely on her weak Joining to heal her.  A slow, agonizing process.

“I have to change my bandages in an hour,” said Tuft.  “Haven’t got all day.  Come on, you’ve trained for this.”

True.  In the last few weeks, I’d practiced the basics of maneuvering in a vertical chamber filled with Tuft’s projected wind.  And I’d jumped off loads of shorter platforms to drill the muscle memory into my Pith.

“And I’ll be tailing you,” said Tuft.  “If you get out of control, or close to hitting anything, I’ll take over.  And I’m much faster than you.”  

“My armor’s got Voidsteel in it,” I said, feeling material I couldn’t project into, in the narrow pouches all over my suit.  “You won’t be able to project into it.”

“That’s not Voidsteel,” she said.  “It’s an old synthetic ceramic.  We don’t use that material anymore, so most younger people can’t project into it.  But I can.”  She pointed to the grassy pavilion ahead of us.  “You just have to fly down there.  Straight shot.  And you did fine in basic training.  You’ll be a good flier.”

But the fear wasn’t holding me back, either.  I’d trained and practiced and studied for this.  Even though the boring, painful parts of the lessons.  I’d used the techniques I’d perfected with Hira to maintain my attention, keep my mind active and learning.  I knew I wouldn’t crash.

But I’d dreamed of this for so long.  What if it’s disappointing?  What if it didn’t live up to my expectations?

Memories rushed through my mind.  Samuel’s kiss.  Getting my mother’s business card – the symbol of her approval.  And that Whisper Vocation she’d put on me, the one that dissolved my whole sense of self.

Ana and Hira’s faces flashed through my head.  Dead.  Both dead.  I clenched my teeth, taking a sharp, rapid breath.

Cheering rang out in the distance.  I glanced down at the grassy island below.  A boy and two girls stood on the edge, waving at me and making noise.  Samuel, Leizu, and Eliya.  Chimera Squad.  My friends, and my fiance.  They’d finished their first flights over the last few minutes.  I was the last in line.

Nell!  Nell!  Nell!”  They cheered my name, pumping their arms in unison.  “Nell!  Nell!  Nell!

I glanced down at myself.  Paragon’s practice armor covered my body, hiding most of its contours, but I could still feel everything.  Could still hear that name, that had been locked away for a year.

It all felt so strange.  Familiar, but strange.  Like coming home, only to realize your bedroom had vanished.

I squinted, making out Samuel’s elegant, chiseled face.  Beautiful, comforting.  But strange, too, in its own way.  Uncomfortable.

Nothing is turning out the way I expected.  And what if nothing ever went back to normal?  What if everything would always feel off-color, like an itch in my mind that couldn’t scratch, like I was watching myself through a pane of foggy glass?

I sighed.  You have a beautiful fiance, wonderful friends, and money.  I had nothing to complain about.  Stop complaining, jump off the platform, and just have fun.  My throat clenched.

“Hey.”  Harpy softened her voice.  “Look at me, Nell.”

I looked at her.

“Ignore them,” she said.  “Don’t focus on me, either.  Don’t think about the drop, or what it means, or anything larger.  Look at the big picture too much, and you’re gonna tie your brain in knots.”  She jabbed an arm stump in my face.  “Shut your brain the fuck up.  Right now it’s just you, your suit, and the air.  That’s it.”

Alright.  I nodded, and let my thoughts go blank.  I pushed away the discomfort, the questions, the endless background noise in my mind.

And I stepped off the edge.

My stomach dropped, and I fell through the sky head-first, my arms and legs flattened to my sides so my wings didn’t open.  Wind rushed in my ears, deafening, but the suit kept me warm as I accelerated downwards.

The grassy island floated in front of me, with only the open sky and Mount Elwar below.  I’m not about to hit anything.  So I closed my eyes for a moment, and let myself free fall.

Harpy’s voice rang in my ears, carried on the projected wind.  “Nell, you’re falling too far, you’ll undershoot the island.  You need to fan out your arms and legs.

“Open your wings!” Leizu shouted at me.  “Open your wings!”

I’m fine,” I whispered, knowing Harpy would carry it to her ears.  “I know what I’m doing.

My eyes snapped open, as I undershot the grassy island where my friends stood.  I projected into my training helmet, made of a metal I could project into, unlike the ceramic of the suit.

I pulled my helmet up, making my body flat, horizontal.  The islands of Paragon shrunk above me as I fell.  I’m about to pass outside the deceleration field.

Then I spread my limbs, opening the wings of my suit.  The wind caught me like a sail, and I shot forward through the sky.

I flew.  The suit accelerated me forward, and I darted under the grassy island, wind whipping past my goggles.  My arms wobbled, and I projected into the outside of my suit, stabilizing myself.

Left to its own devices, the wingsuit was just a glider.  It could move me forward, but I’d lose altitude, and couldn’t fly up.

So I projected into the rest of the suit.  The parts of it that weren’t the old ceramic plating.  And I pushed.  I accelerated myself forward, adding thrust to my glider.

Then I pulled, turning the suit vertical again and soaring up, up, up.  I flew above the floating island, watching my friends gape at me from the grass below.  Then I flattened myself and shot forward again.

Flying felt natural.  More natural than most of the things I’d done the past few weeks.

The assignment was just to fly straight and land.  No one else had gone past that.  I’d already overstepped by flying under the island and going back up.

But I felt like doing more.  So I stayed in the air.  I circled over the grassy island.  I did loops, vertical, one after the other.  I flattened my arms, let myself fall, then stopped myself at the last minute, soaring back into the sky.  Green lightning crackled around me, and my temples ached.  But I kept projecting, kept doing spins and spirals and flips.  My raw projection’s grown over the last year.

For a moment, it felt like I had left my body.  Like I’d was just a Pith, a free spirit soaring through the air.

Chimera Squad kept cheering, impressed by my antics.  Finally, my Pith grew too tired to keep me afloat, and I landed on the lawn, jogging and slowing myself to a stop.

Samuel and Eliya and Leizu ran up to me as I caught my breath, their faces lit up.  Samuel approached me, at an intimate distance, and kissed me.  I kissed back.  He’s beautiful, stop overthinking it.

Leizu rapped my shoulder with the back of her knuckles.  “Not bad, Jitterbird.  Not bad.”

Eliya snorted.  “Showoff.”  But she still looked impressed.

“You’ve got to be more careful,” murmured Samuel.  “Reckless behavior could get you hurt.”

Eliya elbowed him.

“But that was some nice flying,” he said, smiling.

“If you say so, squad leader,” I said.  Still getting used to that.  At my recommendation, Samuel had taken my place as the head of Chimera Squad, even after I’d returned.  I’d been gone for a year, and didn’t feel comfortable being in charge for a while.

Samuel still didn’t want the job.  But I’d asked.  So for now, at least, Samuel would lead us.

And I could fly, free of the burdens of leadership.

“You’re using too much energy.”  A boy’s familiar voice rang out from across the grass.

We turned to look at the source.  A pretty boy with pitch-black hair approached us, staring at us with cold blue eyes.  Lorne Daventry, accompanied by a tense-jawed Nekean boy.  Naruhiko.

What are they doing here?  Maybe they were up next for flight training.

“What?” I said.

“Those fancy flips feel nice and everything, but they’re worthless in battle.  They’ll just slow you down, waste your energy with all the altitude gains.  Just makes you free pickings for the eastern dogs.”

Leizu bristled at that phrase, but didn’t say anything.

“You wouldn’t last sixty seconds against a normal Shenti Joiner,” said Lorne.  “Much less one of their commandos.”

Stay calm.  Hit back, and don’t show vulnerability.  That’s how my mother would handle this.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I don’t have much battle experience.  But at least my squadmate wasn’t a mole.”

Lorne snarled.  Matilla Geffray, his first-year squadmate from last year, had been Commonplace’s inside agent here, enabling the Pyre Witch and her goons to break into the academy.

Lorne’s other squadmate, Deon, had died in the battle.

“How many people lost their lives here?” I said.  “On the dirt we’re standing on.  How many of our friends and classmates?”  I sighed.  “We fought side by side, Lorne.  This prep school bullying routine is getting old.”

“I remember.”  Lorne clenched his fists.  “I just got back from my best friend’s funeral, moron.  And I remember a lot from the last few months.  Like when my mother had the Pyre Witch in her sights, before your girlfriend, Anabelle Gage, betrayed us and used an illusion to save the enemy.”  His eyes bored holes into me.  “Do you remember why she did that, Lady Ebbridge?”

I avoided his vicious stare.  Samuel stepped in front of me, a human shield from Lorne’s words.

“Because you got captured by the enemy.  Because, for all your chaotic strategies and last-minute saves, you got in the way when it mattered.”

“Shut it, Lorne,” said Eliya, glaring at him with her one eye.  “Go polish your knob with bleach, and leave the rest of us normal people alone.”

My friend is dead,” said Lorne.  “Because of your failure.”

I squeezed my eyes shut.  Shut up, shut up, shut up.

“But I shouldn’t be so harsh on you,” he said.  “You can probably relate to me, considering what happened to your real squadmates.”

Ana and Hira and Jun.  Dead, or captured by a genocidal monster.

“She saved this country, you ignorant pus sprite,” said Eliya.  “None of us would be standing here if she hadn’t warned us about the Paragon attack.”

I opened my eyes, and Lorne spread his arms, gesturing around him, at the broken towers, the ash-stained walls, the piles of rubble.  Most of the debris had been cleaned up in the last few weeks, but some remained, lit up by the noon sun.

“Does it look like she saved the country?” said Lorne.

“She did more than you, rich boy,” said Leizu.

“Finish your business and leave,” said Samuel.  “Why are you here?”

“For you, Chimera Squad,”  Lorne said.  “I wanted to be the one to tell you.  You might want to step up the pace with your wingsuit training.”

“Stop being vague,” said Leizu.  “Just spit it out.”

“The invasion’s starting in a week,” said Lorne.  He looked straight at Leizu.  “Chimera Squad’s going to war with your best friends.”

What?  “Whaleshit,” I said.  “The Shenten invasion isn’t starting until the end of the winter.”

“Yeah,” said Leizu.  “Daksha the Butcher was the last one who tried a winter invasion there.  Very long time ago.”

“What happened?” I said.

“As I recall, he fell into a lake of ice water,” said Leizu.  “I guess you could say he froze under pressure.”

No one laughed.  Eliya patted her on the shoulder.

“Why did they move up the invasion date?” said Samuel.  “They must have had a reason.”

Lorne laughed.  “You think I’d tell you?”

“So soon,” I murmured.  “The last-minute prep’s gonna be a nightmare.”

“Oh,” said Lorne, laughing.  “I forgot to mention.  The real Chimera Squad’s joining the invasion.  You get to stay home and fatten yourself on tea cakes.”

The world dropped away from me, becoming blurry, distant.

“You’re not included, Nell,” said Lorne.  “We’re going to war without you.”

________________________________________

I knocked on the door to my mother’s office, floating a mirror next to me to make sure my hair looked proper.

Eliya had helped me with my makeup, and selected a trim blue dress for me.  Tight across the chest, but it looked elegant.  The outfit of a well-mannered court lady.

As I knocked, my mind drifted to Lorne’s news.  We’re going to war without you.  I was going to be separated from my friends again.  I’d worked so hard to get back to them, and now, they were leaving again.

And this time, it might be for good.  I can’t protect them from an ocean away.

Taking them away was just cruel.  But Admiral Ebbridge might be able to do something.

“Come in,” her voice called out from inside.

I opened the door.  Admiral Ebbridge sat at her desk, writing on a pair of typewriters with projection.  She still wore her blonde Maxine Clive chassis, even after the events at Paragon.  It looked like she was writing in a pair of books, with an ink that I couldn’t project into, obscuring the words.  Her Vocation codex.  That Afzal Kahlin had coveted so dearly.

When she saw me, her face lit up.  Has she ever reacted like that before?  Seeing enthusiasm in her eyes still felt strange.

“Ah, Nell,” she said, pausing her typing.  “Have a seat.”

I sat down, making sure to sit up straight and maintain proper posture.

“I read your latest chemistry exam.  Excellent work.  I shall have to up your allowance.”  She folded her hands on her desk.  “But that is not why you came, I think.”

Don’t beat around the bush.  My mother liked directness.

“My squad is going to war,” I said.  “But I’m not.”  I paused, taking a breath.  “Did you have something to do with this?”

“Perceptive,” my mother said.  “You figured it out quick.”

My throat clenched.  Stay calm, don’t yell at her.  If I talked back, she might use that ego-dissolving Vocation again, and I would have no chance of joining my squad.

“Why?” I said.  “You said it yourself.  The war is a chance to reclaim our family’s glory.  To build a magnificent legacy.”

“True,” said my mother.  “And you’ve done marvelous work so far, my daughter.”  Her voice hardened.  “But still.  You are not ready for war.  You don’t even know how to make an Autonomous Bullet Defense.”

“What of my performance over the last year?” I said, keeping my voice steady.  “I have more experience in the field than most of the students in my year.”  Except for Lorne, who’d started fighting at a young age, and Leizu, who’d been a Shenti wingtrooper before defecting here.

“True,” my mother said.  “They’re not ready for war, either.  Even weakened, the eastern dogs have a talent for butchery.  I would never say it publicly, but a single commando could match half a dozen of our Guardians, at least.  And many of our younger graduates have no experience fighting Joiners.”

“You’ve beat commandos, haven’t you?” I said.  During the last Shenti war, when she’d fought alongside Isaac Brin, Harpy, and the Pyre Witch.

“No,” my mother said.  “We lost.  I barely escaped.  If I face one again, I can’t speak to my odds.”  She scowled, staring down at a map of Shenten on her desk.  “Normally, I wouldn’t push students into this, but Commonplace killed a great deal of Guardians.  And their coup attempt in the military took out a substantial chunk of our army and navy talent, once we finished our vetting process.  We need every projector we can to fill our ranks.”

“But not me.”

“Yes,” she said.  “I’m sparing the first-year students, and you.  I wished to save Samuel Pakhem as well, due to the importance of our marriage alliance with his family.  But his parents would not allow it.”  She sighed.  “I will have to keep him away from the worst fighting.  We cannot afford to lose your pairing with him.”

“And what of our legacy?” I said.  “What of opportunity?”

My mother smiled.  “We have a far larger crop of first-years this fall, to make up for our losses.  You will help teach the new generation of projectors.”

What?  “I am to be a….teaching assistant?”

“Many of our professors will be overseas, fighting.  And there will be many students.    The task shall be difficult, especially for your temperament.  But it is important, nonetheless.”

“Is that even legal?” I said.  “Training that many projectors at once.”

“Yes,” she said.  “But only because we lost so many.  You’re referring to the Yokusei Pact, yes?”

I nodded.  That’s what they call it, isn’t it?

“The pact limits the numbers of trained projectors for any individual nation.  All the great nations have maintained it, even during the Shenti War.  Breaking it would mean chaos, an arms race of world-shattering power.”

“Because projectors are dangerous.”

She nodded.  “It is critical to ensure that there aren’t too many of us.  Isaac Brin broke this, when he hired his mercenaries.”

Queen Sulphur.  Us.

“A stunning transgression,” she said.  “Were it not for his esteemed record, he may have been memory-wiped and exiled, or put to death.”  She leaned forward. “But this new crop of students exists to fill in for our losses.  It will not put us over the limit.”

“But,” I said.  “This war.  It won’t be that deadly, will it?”  I stared down at the map.  “The Shenti aren’t an empire anymore.  After the Spirit Block, they’ve collapsed into infighting and poverty.  Until the Black Tortoise came back, they were a bunch of disparate warlords squabbling amongst themselves.”

“All true,” said my mother.  “But in the last decade, our spies and informants in Shenten have dried up, one by one.  Other than the basics, we know little of what’s going on there.  And are you familiar with Cao Hui’s Vocation?”

“He’s a Praxis Specialist, right?” I said.  “Something to do with economics.”

“A more accurate term would be logistics,” my mother said.  “Nowadays, wars are not won in singular, epic battles.  They’re not won through brilliant strategy, or mighty projectors.  They’re won by industry.  The nation that pumps out the most tanks, planes, ships, and oil to power them will win.”

“And that’s where Cao Hui comes in.”

She nodded.  “When he orchestrated his coup against the Emperor, some divisions of the Shenten army still used crossbows.  But by the time he started invading his neighbors, no Domain in the Eight Oceans could match his war machine.”  She rested her elbows on the desk and massaged her temples, a rare show of vulnerability.  “Only a fool would underestimate such an enemy.”

I bowed my head.  “I apologize.”

“You asked questions in good faith,” my mother said.  “Never apologize for that.  And as I said, your task is important.  You will have opportunities to distinguish yourself, help make a name for this family.  With you safe, reducing the risk of our alliance with the Pakhems being shattered.”

“While staying home.”  Away from my friends.

“Study,” my mother said.  “Train.  Grow stronger.”  A dark look passed over her face.  “You’ll get your taste of war soon enough.”

I nodded.  The rational argument didn’t work.  So I only had one tactic left.

“Commonplace butchered my classmates,” I said.  “And the Shenti funded them.  The people that I care about most in the world are going to fight them.  I’ve grown up with them, studied with them, drank with them.  I’ve shared secrets and confessions and pain with them.  When I was at my lowest, they dragged me back to the light, saw potential in me when no one else would.”  I looked my mother in the eye.  “Let me repay the favor.  Please.”

“You are young,” my mother said.  “So I will accept this, for now.”  She stared at me, unblinking.  “But your emotions have no place in this decision.”

I kept my face passive.  At the same time, I clenched my fists under the desk, at an angle where my mother couldn’t see it.  The frustration built under my skin, ready to burst forth like a popped balloon.

She has a point.  In a few places.  And it wasn’t like I could challenge her authority.

But I couldn’t abandon my friends.  I couldn’t watch them sail away on a battleship, and sit at home playing teacher, waiting for terrible news to come about Leizu, or Eliya.  Or Samuel.

I stood up and bowed.  “I understand, mother.”

Time to look for alternatives.

________________________________________

Headmaster Tau ate lunch in the tents where the Banquet Hall used to be.  Humdrum construction workers moved around the edges of the space, rebuilding the structure.  You’d think that all the food would be filled with sawdust and bits of concrete, but projectors were special, I suppose.

Various Paragon teachers sipped on bowls of fish soup around the administrator’s table.  I noticed Harpy, Professor Derrington, and Professor Olwen.  None of them spoke, too tired to strike up a conversation.

The headmaster sat at the end of the table, twirling his spoon to make patterns in his soup.  He stared at it with a vacant look in his eyes.  Splashes of tomato stained his black beard and the front of his beige suit, from where he’d spilled it on himself.  A bit of crab had fallen in his shoulder-length hair, and nobody had pointed it out.

Nicholas Tau still looked middle-aged, on the surface, but if you watched for more than a second, you could see the depth of his age.

“Headmaster?” I said.  “Do you have a minute?”

Tau didn’t look up, still stirring his fish soup.

“Excuse me, Headmaster?”  I raised my voice a hair.  “Headmaster?”

Professor Derrington tapped Tau on the shoulder.  “Nicholas,” she murmured.  “A student’s here.”

Tau blinked, and dropped his spoon.  It splashed into his soup, and he glanced up at me.  Recognition spread across his face.  “Afternoon, miss.”  He smiled at me.  “What can I do for you?”

“I understand you’re busy,” I said.  “But could I ask for a few minutes of your time?  Alone, if possible.”  Headmaster Tau didn’t have office hours, and some of the higher-level professors bristled at someone that much lower on the hierarchy asking for their time.  “I understand that’s a serious request.”

Tau beamed at me.  “Of course!  I always have time for my students.”  He stood up, and the bit of crab fell out of his hair.  “Want to talk in my office?”

A few minutes later, Tau was guiding me through the half-broken Great Library, past more construction workers and up temporary ladders in places where the staircases had broken.  He flashed his Level Five library card at one of the security checkpoints, but even with his authority, it still took us forever to get through the Whisper-Sec and ID confirmations.  Not taking any chances after last time.

As Tau climbed up the ladders ahead of me, my throat clenched for a few moments when his grip loosened and it looked like he could fall.

Pith aging is a true nightmare.  Maybe that was why he’d accepted my request, and had walked off in the middle of lunch.

“This is a lot of ladders,” I said.

Tau laughed, and nodded.  “My body double keeps my chassis fit, so it’s not so much of a problem for me.  Besides – “  He gestured around Level Four, where glowing, unbound pages swirled through the air, arranging themselves in geometric shapes.  “What a view, right?”

We climbed up into Level Five, the sphere with warped gravity that Commonplace had invaded.  Where Parliament died.  And I’d been too slow to save them.

Before, the mysterious Librarians had defended the high-level books here, like they did in the other Great Libraries.  But the Pyre Witch had incinerated them all.

Now, ranks of Humdrum soldiers and Guardians stood here, ready to slaughter anyone who came through unauthorized.  Headmaster Tau gave his passwords, and we walked around the sphere, the floor becoming the wall, then the ceiling as we traveled to the far end, upside-down.

Tau pressed a button, and clockwork mechanisms spun.  An elevator rose out of the floor, shaped like a blue filigree cage.  The door swung open, and we stepped in.

I’ve never seen Headmaster Tau’s study before.  Even Maxine Clive hadn’t gotten this far.

The door shut itself, and the elevator descended into the floor, gears whirring.  The world went dark around us for a few seconds, and it became impossible to distinguish up from down.

Then we emerged, into the sunlight.  And I stared, frozen to the spot.

Because the elevator was floating in the open air.  The blue cage flew straight up, giving us a spectacular view of the islands of Paragon Academy, and the sloped city of Elmidde far below.  No cable pulling it.  No wind or projection or obvious magnetism.  Just the spinning gears, untethered, propelling us into the sky.

Below us, I saw the conical levels of the Great Library, with the temporary patches from where the Pyre Witch had blown holes in the wall.  We must be in the tower.  Which meant it was invisible from the inside.

Permanent projection.  Like the floating pages in Level Four of the Great Library.

That shouldn’t be possible.  But here we were.

The elevator rose through a platform that seemed to be floating in the air, just like us.

We passed through the darkness again, and emerged in Headmaster Tau’s study.

And in contrast to the elevator, it looked quite simple.  A desk sat in the middle of the room, with some cushioned chairs and a folded blanket.  A set of bookshelves sat behind it, illuminated by the warm noon light from the many windows on the walls.

No, not windows.  There were no windows in the Great Library.  Some of the walls must be invisible from the inside.  Just like the rest of the tower.

I glanced up.  Sunlight glinted off a giant metal sphere above me, hanging from the tall ceiling.  The Eight Oceans and the continents of the world had been engraved on its surface, and a pair of tiny moons had been hung near the edges of the room, attached to their own steel mechanisms.  A globe.

Headmaster Tau lifted a finger, and a record spun on a gramophone, playing soft classical music.  He strode forward, sat down behind his desk, and slumped back in the chair, closing his eyes.  His head lolled to the side, and his chest rose and fell, slow and steady.

Did he just fall asleep?  I knew his Pith was old, but I hadn’t expected it to be this bad.  He didn’t even say anything to me.

“Um, Headmaster?” I said.  “Headmaster?”

No response.  At least he isn’t snoring.

I coughed, clearing my throat.  “Headmaster Tau?”  I raised my volume just a hair, shifting back and forth on my feet, fingers tapping against my pant leg.

Still nothing.  His face looked peaceful, like a great burden had just been lifted from his shoulders.

I inhaled, taking a deep breath.  Let’s hope this doesn’t make him pissy.  “Headmaster Tau!”  I shouted.

Headmaster Tau’s eyes snapped open, and his gaze darted around the room, taking in his surroundings.

Then, he sighed.  “Please excuse me.”  He gestured to the chair across from him, and I sat down.  “So, what did you want to talk about?”

I explained my situation to him.  “I love my friends,” I said.  “They’ve kept me going when no one else would.  And now, they’re going to war without me.  My mother wants me to stay home for my safety, and I understand, but – “  I looked Tau in the eye.  “What about my squad’s safety?  What about them?”

The Headmaster nodded, folding his hands together with a thoughtful expression.

“And I wanted to ask for your advice.”  So you can use your clout to get me back with my squad.  But I couldn’t say that up-front.  “You’ve lived through so much, and I know you’ve gathered untold wisdom.”

“Would that the Conclave of the Wise cared for my wisdom as you do.”  Tau massaged his tired eyes.  “If they’d asked for my opinion, I would have told them to stay home.  Don’t pursue this mad war.  Don’t get innocents killed.”

“But they didn’t listen to you.”

Tau gave me a wan smile.  “I’m not Headmaster Tau, anymore,” he said.  “I’m just a senile old man with dreams of peace.  Sometimes, I feel as if forces are moving about in Paragon that I cannot sense.”  His shoulders sagged.  “I can no longer see into this academy’s heart.  It’s darkened to my gaze.”

I leaned forward.  “But you made the Spirit Block,” I said.  “You still don’t think war is necessary?  After all the students they killed?  After Parliament?”

Tau gazed out through one of the transparent walls with a regretful look in his eyes.  “Our own citizens did this,” he said.  “The Black Tortoise just helped.  If we’d built a better world for them, then maybe none of this would have happened.”

I stared at my feet.  He has a point.  The Shenti had funded Commonplace, but the movement had some legitimate concerns, mixed in with all the terrorism.

“I saw Isaac growing marigolds behind the stands in the pavilion, today.”  Tau’s face lit up.  “He’s starting a flower garden, I think.”

“That’s nice,” I said.  But what does this have to do with anything?

“We should be building gardens,” he said.  “Not warships.”  He brushed a bit of soup from the edge of his mouth.  “Or seafood restaurants.  The crab in this city isn’t what it used to be.”  His voice quickened.  “I think overfishing in southeastern quadrants of the Eloane Ocean has changed the composition of the ecosystem.  As a result, there are fewer crabs, and they tend to be blander.  Less of a salty bite to them, you know.  Nekean crabs have much richer flavor, but that’s because their government puts strict limits on the fishing trade to ensure a more stable environment.  I think if we shifted national policy, then – “

He continued his strange tangent about the Principality’s shellfish industry, a faraway look in his eyes.  I sat there, half-listening.  Be polite.  Don’t interrupt him.

Tau paused for a moment, to take a breath.

“Headmaster?” I said.  “We were talking about the war?”  This used to be the smartest man in the Eight Oceans.

“Ah, yes,” he said, his mind drifting back to reality.

“A decade ago,” I said.  “The Black Tortoise almost conquered all Eight Oceans.  Only the Spirit Block stopped him.  With his Praxis Vocation, Shenten could turn into an unstoppable force again.”  Like my mother said.

Tau shrugged.  “I don’t know.  But I am sure of one thing: No matter how desperate we are for projectors, none of our students belong in a war.  You included.”

“Why?” I said.  “We’re of age.  We’re not children.”  The Principality recruited Humdrum soldiers as young as eighteen.  Though Tau probably didn’t approve of that, either.

“War breaks something in you,” said Tau.  “And when you’re young, that something is the foundation of your soul.  The roots from which the rest of your life will grow.  Break when you’re older, and you can regrow yourself.”  He got a heavy look in his eyes.  “Break when you’re young, and you’ll have those scars forever.”

I sighed.  He’s not going to get me to the front lines.  His pacifism reminded me of Jun, with a much younger body and a much older mind.  He needs my help, too.

“So I can’t give you special treatment,” said Tau.  “Even if I know how you feel.”

“I understand,” I said.  “But in that case, could you get the rest of Chimera Squad to stay back?  Then I wouldn’t have to worry about their fortunes in the war.  And I’m sure we could use the help back here.”

Tau put a hand on my shoulder.  “I will do what I can.”

“Thank you.”  That’s the best I can hope for, now.

“But this academy respects power and intelligence,” he said.  “Mine, I’m afraid, are decaying at quite a rate.  Please.  Don’t be too disappointed if I fail.”  He leaned back in his chair, a soft exhale escaping his lips.

Should have expected that.  Tau’s influence wasn’t what it had been, either.

I stood up and bowed to him, even though it wasn’t custom.  A show of gratitude.

When I straightened myself, Headmaster Tau had already fallen asleep again.  If I’d seen what he’s seen, maybe I’d be tired too.

But he’s not wearing a coat.  And clouds had passed over the sun, turning the weather more chill.

Before I left, I picked up the blanket from his desk and draped it over him.

In his dreams, Nicholas Tau smiled.

________________________________________

I shot a slip of paper at Leizu.  She tensed her legs and leapt over it, flipping forwards.

As she jumped, I fired another dozen sheets at her, closing in from behind her.  She can’t maneuver as well when she’s airborne.  Her Joining was her fastest tool, and she needed something to push off for that.

But Leizu knew that too.  She projected into her clothes, dragging herself onto the grassy hill of the pavilion.  Then she darted left and right, contorting her body to avoid my attacks.

Not one bit of paper touched her.  But I kept going, launching feints and counters and surprise attacks all at once.

If I touched her with paper, I won.  If she lasted another ten minutes, she won.  A game of tag.  And practice, at the same time.

Leizu bent her legs and leapt five stories into the air, high above any of my paper.  She flipped in the air and laughed, showing off.

As she twirled, I ripped my sheets of paper, splitting each one into a dozen scraps.  Smaller, faster, and covering a wider area.  Then, before she hit the ground, I came at her from every angle, a sphere enclosing her on all sides, with no hole large enough for her to fit through.

Red lightning crackled around her fist, and something moved there, so fast I could barely see the blur.  A cone of force blasted out, knocking aside half my sphere with a dull boom and clearing a path for her to escape.

“Oh,” said Leizu, her tone light.  “Is that your best, Jitterbird?”

“Yes,” I said.  “I’m very weak.  Please lower your guard some more.”

Leizu didn’t fall for it, and we kept up our game.  Her Joining gave her body strength, agility, and speed, but it had blind spots, too.  Weaknesses.  And this is good practice for fighting Joiners.  There would be a lot of them in Shenten.

“Hey,” said Eliya.  “Your move.”

My attention flitted back to the Jao Lu board on the picnic blanket in front of us, and the clock ticking down for my turn.

I was multitasking today.  For training.  And for fun.  Flipping back and forth helped keep my attention, so I didn’t get too bored from any one task.

“Ambush,” I said.  “You just fell into my ambush.”  I squinted at the hexagons on the board, and moved my dancing painter forward.  “No, wait, I’m a turn too early.  Shit.”  Shouldn’t have said that out loud.

Eliya moved her blue charlatan back, avoiding the ambush I’d just told her about.  She sipped a mug of mulled cider, a thin smile playing across her lips.

Normally, with my Jao Lu obsession, I’d crush her, but with my attention divided, we were having an even game, for once.

Samuel sat on the picnic blanket next to me, studying a book written in Shenti.  Preparing himself for the war.

While I stared at the board and moved, he leaned over and planted a kiss on my cheek.  I jumped, surprised.  “What?  What was that for?”

He smiled at me.  “Nothing.  Just wanted to kiss my fiance.”  He ran his fingers through my long black hair.  “Your hair is so pretty.”

“Oh, right.”  I smiled at him.  So sweet.  And his face still looked perfect, beautiful.  Attraction wasn’t the issue.  So why does it still feel so strange?  Maybe I was still getting used to this life.

Eliya rolled her one eye, the other behind a blue eyepatch.  “Gross.”

“My red-hot boyfriend?” I said.  “Or the fact that you’re still losing?”

“Both,” she said, pressing the button on the clock.  “Your move.”

I sipped the mulled cider.  It tasted better than last time.  Less sickly sweet, more balanced.  And I let my shoulders relax.

This is nice.  This was what I’d fought for.  Getting to spend time with my friends, with Samuel.  Being home.

My stomach twinged, and my shoulders tensed again.  Everything felt heavier, more exhausting, like I’d sunk chest-deep into a river of mud.

I relaxed my Pith, letting the pieces of paper attacking Leizu drift to the grass of the pavilion.  Leizu darted sideways, keeping a safe distance.

“Everything alright?” said Samuel.

“I’m thirsty,” I said, taking a sip of mulled cider.  I could use a drink.  A real drink.

Samuel stared at me.  “Be strong.  You can do this.”

I pushed the thought of liquor away from my mind, and it crept back at the edges.  You can’t ruin things now.  No matter how lost I felt, I couldn’t lose all my progress.

But how long would that last, if my friends went away, into snow and blood and violence?  If I had to weather all of this alone?

“It’s fucked up,” I said.  “That all of you are going to the invasion, but not me.”

“We could train you some more,” said Samuel.  “Get you an ABD.  Try to convince your mother that you’re strong enough.”

I shook my head.  “Doubt it’d change her mind.  I just get to be a fancier Grey Coat, trying to teach projection to a thousand smarmy first-years at once.”

“You were a first-year pretty recently,” said Samuel.

“Yes,” I said.  “So I know what I’m talking about.  First-years are idiots.”

“Trust me,” said Leizu.  “You’re the lucky one.  A real war will break your spine.  Leave you sobbing on a pile of corpses.”

And she knows that better than most.  Even after the war, Shenten had been fighting with itself constantly.  Leizu had served as a wingtrooper for one of the many warlords there.

“Yeah,” I said.  “And you guys have to go into that hell without me.”  I sighed, leaning back on the picnic blanket.  “I should stop whining.  I have a fortunate life, wonderful friends, a beautiful fiance.”  I squeezed Samuel’s arm.

And I don’t know what else to try.  Now that my mother hadn’t budged, and Tau probably couldn’t do anything, I’d arrived at a dead end.

“I feel fortunate too,” said Samuel, giving me a sad smile.  “You’re going to be spared the worst horrors of war.  I don’t have to worry for your life.”  But you are going to worry for my liver.

I sat up and glanced around the pavilion, at the other students.  Studying, practicing projection, throwing a ball around.

Just a few weeks ago, this lawn had been filled up with body bags.  Endless rows of Green Hands and Guardians and students.

I imagined Samuel and Eliya and Leizu joining those lines of corpses, and felt sick.

“Stay safe, alright?” I said.  “If any of you die, I’m going to hunt you down in the afterlife and give you a paper cut.”

“I promise,” said Samuel.  Eliya and Leizu nodded agreement.

As Leizu nodded, I brought a tiny slip of paper up behind her and scratched her behind her ear.  She jerked, ducking down and darting to the side, but it had already grazed her.

“Got you.”

Leizu snatched the paper out of the air, crumpling it up in her fist.  For a moment, her muscles tensed, and it looked like she was about to get mad.

Then, she grinned at me.  “Well struck.  Another round?”

I nodded, reset the clock, and shot a volley of paper at her.

________________________________________

After another two rounds, Samuel and Eliya had classes, so we all went our separate ways.  After all that, the uneasy feeling stayed, a discomfort at the back of my throat.

So I went to Midtown, to my favorite store: Impeccable Bath Goods.  They offered all sorts of products, but their finest offers were bubble baths.  Glass bottles of liquids that you could drop into your tub, to elevate your bathing experience to a whole new level.

I’d missed them during my stint as a mercenary last year, so I used them all the time, now.  And I’d ran out yesterday.

I pushed open the door and strode in.  At three in the afternoon, the store had emptied, so I had it all to myself.

My eyes passed over the shelves, looking for Coconut Paradise, my favorite brand, made by the owner of the store himself, rather than bought and shipped in.

The shelves marked ‘Coconut Paradise’ were all empty.  I sighed.  Should have got here sooner.

“Hey,” the clerk said, behind the counter.  “Looking for Coconut Paradise?”

I glanced at him and nodded.

“Sorry, we’re out of stock.  Resupply in a week or two.”

“Alright.  Thanks anyway.”  I turned to leave.  Nothing’s going right for me today.

“But,” said the clerk.  “If that’s your favorite, I can show you our experimental supply.”

“Experimental bubble baths?”

He nodded.  “Stuff we’re still mixing in the back, and aren’t ready to show to the public yet.  Crazy stuff, that moisturizes your skin and keeps the water warm and smells great.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “Alright,” I said.  “You’ve piqued my interest.  Show me.”

The clerk opened a door behind the counter, and I followed him into the back of the store.  We went through a hallway, and past an office, before the clerk pushed open a door to a storage room.  “Right this way.”

I stepped up to the room, and froze.

A middle-aged man with brown hair and a thick neck sat in the center of the room.  Leo.  The bar owner who’d taken me in after my Ousting.  Who’d become a secret member of Commonplace.

“Leo?” I said.  The fuck is he doing here?  “I thought I said we’d never see each other again.”

“Leo isn’t here,” said Leo.  “He’s lending his body for the time being, so we can talk.”

“Lending?”  I clenched my fists.  “To who?”

Not-Leo sighed.  “I’m sorry to approach you like this, but I can’t be seen with my normal face.”  He chuckled.  “And to be honest, I didn’t want to remind you of your mother.”

Then, it came to me.  The identity of the woman inhabiting Leo’s body.  The only option that made sense.

I staggered back, reaching my Pith for paper around the room.  “You’re – “

“How’s it going, Wes?” said Maxine Clive.

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14-A Imposter Syndrome

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Ana

“My name,” I said.  “Is Grace Acworth.”

Down the street, the group of mobsters leaned in, crowding around the radio at the center of their table.  I could pick out their faces.  Eda Fortescue.  Arthur Radley.  Avice Drayton.  And many more.  Tunnel Vision’s lieutenants.

I spoke into the microphone, my voice transmitting to them in their building fifty meters away.  From this abandoned house, I had a good view of them through my pair of binoculars, squinting at their meeting through a dusty window.

Our meeting, technically.  I’d called this gathering of Elmidde’s underworld, on this empty street in North Island.  One of the mob’s safehouses.

I let go of the talk button on my radio.  “Say the word, Ana,” said Left-Hira.

I looked up from my binoculars.  Right-Hira crouched next to me in the dark room, aiming his pitch-black sniper rifle out of a broken window.  Left-Hira sat next to her, peering through a spotter scope.  Ready to open fire on my subordinates at a moment’s notice.

At least half of the mobsters had ABDs, and with our resources stretched thin, we only had a handful of Voidsteel bullets.  But Hira could still cause a lot of misery with that weapon.

Left-Hira held up a watch, showing the exact time.  3:08 in the morning.  And fourteen seconds.

My stomach twinged.  Soon.  It’s happening soon.

Then I spoke again.  “I am the Pyre Witch, “ I said, in my high, brighter voice.  Still not used to this body.

Murmurs of interest from around the table.  They all knew, of course.  Some of them had been told years ago, and others had found out after my radio broadcast on Verity.  But Grace had never talked about it openly like this.  Me sharing it like this could be a sign of trust, or a new chapter in our relationship.

None of them looked suspicious, though.  None of them seemed to catch on about their new leadership.

I thought it’d be harder to impersonate Grace.  But with the codes and the notes Hira had stolen, I just had to adopt her personality.  The cold, righteous fury.  The desperation, and the vicious determination.  All of it came to me like breathing.  The high-level decisions I’d been making would seem odd, but these were odd times, and Acworth was known for unconventional gambits, that seemed confusing or unknowable at first.

To top it off, many of Grace’s most competent lieutenants had been killed in the Battle of Paragon.  The ones left were less competent dregs.  And Clementine hadn’t warned them.

The masquerade wouldn’t last long, but I didn’t need it to.

“Paragon Academy has dealt us a great blow,” I said.  “With their victory in the skies.  As a result, we’ve instituted a great many changes.  And I’m sure you have questions.”

Nods around the table.  Just a single, dim bulb lit the mobster’s room, but I picked out a few irritated glares, or clenched jaws.

“You have undergone memory wipes on many critical aspects of this organization.  Passwords, locations, methods operations.  Revenue branches have been shut down.  Protection fees.  Prostitution.  Drug running.  And sales of defective bodies.”

“Ma’am,” said Eda Fortescue.  “Not to question your decisions, but all of those were vital for our income.  We can’t sustain ourselves without them.  My portfolio has tanked in value.”

I saw the frustrated look spread across the woman’s face, and closed my eyes.  I felt Fortescue grip my wrist in Clementine’s dining room, preventing me from leaving.  Hey.  Isn’t Ana a girl’s name?  She’d pricked a bulging vein on my chest with a cheese knife, after I’d stripped in front of her.  Stay still, please.

Other mobsters chimed in, agreeing with her, their voices tight, irritated at their losses of money, their inability to pay the down payments on their yachts and beach houses.  If it had been any other mob leader, they would have been screaming.  But Elmidde’s criminal underworld had learned to fear Tunnel Vision, and her unpredictable nature.  A fact that had helped me set up this meeting.

“Enough,” I said.  “We spent the bulk of our resources on the Paragon assault.  We need these changes.  To protect us.”  From what I’d heard, Commonplace had employed a similar stripping-down of their operations, to hide from Paragon.

But Commonplace didn’t have rich mobsters to please.

Left-Hira tapped her watch again.  3:11.

My stomach clenched.  It’s late.  I needed to keep holding their attention.

So I continued, going off-script.  “I told you my true identity for a single, critical reason.”  I took a deep, slow inhale.  “You’re not like Commonplace, who wanted to reshape this country.  Or the Shenti, who wanted revenge.”  My voice turned cold.  “All of you care about money.”

Arthur Radley spoke up, cautious.  “Ma’am, I’m not sure that’s an entirely fair – “

“When I took over the Principality’s mob,” I said.  “You survived by staying obedient.  By following my lead and not making trouble.  But you never believed in any of it.”

“That’s not true, ma’am,” said Eda Fortescue.  “We care more than anyone about the mission, the – “

“You hijacked people,” I said.  “Got them to kill innocents, commit suicide.  You murdered and stole the body of a student.  You allied with genocidal tyrants who almost conquered the Eight Oceans.  Then, you lied about our connection to them.”  I clenched my binoculars.  “You did terrible things.”

Avice Drayton raised her voice.  “You did all that stuff, too.  You ordered us to do it.”

“Yes,” I said.  “And I thought I had a good reason.  You just did it for money.”  I sighed.  “But in the end, it doesn’t matter.  Because we failed.  We’ve all done the unforgivable, no matter our reasons.”

This time, the mobsters didn’t have a comeback.  They just sat there, unsure of what to say.

I closed my eyes, thinking of everything I’d done over the last year.  Shooting that boy.  Killing so many mobsters, so many Green Hands, and forcing them to kill each other.  Making that broadcast with Christea Ronaveda, stirring up the country against the Shenti.

“I don’t like the person I’ve become,” I said, truthfully.  “I loathe it.  So, perhaps I’ll be someone else for a while.  Another person, a better person.”  Strive to be an Exemplar.  Write the next page.  “And I once hoped that you could change, too.  No matter what you’ve done.“

More noises of confusion and frustration from the mobsters.  A few of them stood up from their chairs, suspicious.  “Why the fuck are we here?” muttered one of them.

“But we don’t get the world we dream of,” I said.  “All we have is this imperfect, rotting universe, and we have to make compromises.”

Left-Hira tapped me on the shoulder, and pointed.  I glanced up into the night sky, and the two crescent moons.  Something moved in the distance.  Human shapes, flying through the darkness.

Human shapes with wings.

“What I’m saying, is,” I continued.  “You all deserve second chances.  But I’m not giving them to you.  So I came here to apologize.”  My voice tightened.  “And to say farewell.”

Everyone in the room started shouting at once.  I turned off the radio, silencing their voices.

The winged humans dove straight down on the building from above, pressing their arms to their sides.  Grenades floated out of their belts and curved through the air, smashing through the windows of the room.

A flash of light and a peal of thunder rang out from inside the room, then darkness.  Stun grenades.  Other explosives shot out of the flying humans, blowing out chunks of the roof.  The figures shot down into the building, punching holes in the top.

Gunfire and shouting broke out inside the building.  Flashes of blue and green lightning.  Bursts of fire.  Even from down the street, the din made my ears hurt.  A low boom rang out, making our building shake.

Guardians.  A few minutes late, but they’d still shown up.

“Alright,” I said.  “Time to go.”  I stood up in the dark room, and stuffed my binoculars into my backpack.  Hira floated the radio equipment and her sniper rifle into a duffel bag, filled with laundry to stop the metal objects from clanking against each other.

It only took us a few more seconds to pack up.  I glanced at the street, making sure nobody was looking at us.  Right-Hira slung the duffel bag over his shoulders, and Left-Hira projected around the room, pulling in the dust and oil of our fingerprints from the floor, the door handles, and the windows.  Leaving no trace.

We left the house on the ground floor, the opposite side from the fighting, leaving a building between us and the Guardians.  The two of us had dressed in dark, shabby plainclothes.  If anyone saw us, they’d think we were just more homeless people, fleeing from the loud noises.

Two alleyways and one street away, we arrived at the shore of North Island, and a boat waiting for us, bobbing up and down, tied to a half-broken pier, hidden from view by a ruined building.

We stepped onto it.  Then Right-Hira untied it, and we sailed off, away from the dying remnants of the Principality’s mob.  Hira projected into the outside of the engine, stopping its vibrations and muffling its sound.

Our boat slid across the dark waters of Meteor Bay, painted a navy blue to blend in.  As North Island and the rest of Elmidde shrunk in the distance, I looked behind us with my binoculars, scanning the starless sky.

No movement.  My former subordinates were keeping the Guardians busy.  They weren’t pursuing us.  A greenish-silver glint caught my eye from a window, then vanished.  Is that something?  It was too far away to see.

“Well,” said Left-Hira.  “I’d say that went well.  Though I still think the whole idea is whale.”

I nodded.  Almost every lieutenant and middle-manager in the Principality’s mob had been arrested or killed in a single night.  When Paragon captured the survivors from the battle, the memory wipes would ensure that they couldn’t spill critical details about me and Hira.

The operation had gone off without a hitch.  I’m not a mob boss anymore.  I was just Anabelle Gage, with a submarine, some money, a few legitimate businesses, and a very strained intelligence network.  Which was still more than I’d ever dreamed of a year ago.

But still, that twinge in my stomach didn’t go away.

Anabelle Gage wasn’t enough, anymore.

I fished the radio out of Hira’s laundry bag and started it up again, tuning it to a specific channel.  My subordinate stood on the other end, connecting me to a payphone.  They probably wouldn’t be able to trace this, but, just in case, I was doing it on a boat, not in our safehouse.

“Don’t fuck this up,” said Left-Hira.  “Or they’ll hunt us down and kill us.”

I nodded.  “Do it,” I said, into the radio.

Acknowledged.

On the other end of the radio, my subordinate shoved a few coins into the payphone and dialed the number.  The phone rang for a few seconds.  The boat bobbed up and down on the moonlit water, as Hira drove it across the bay, and the islands of Paragon Academy floated high above us, lit up with multicolored lights once again.

Then someone picked up the phone, and a man’s weary voice rang out from the radio.  “Isaac Brin.  What is it?

I stopped breathing for a moment.  It worked.  Brin had given me his business card a while back.  Luckily, his number hadn’t changed, even with a demotion.  And he still answered phone calls twenty-four-seven.

Or he wasn’t sleeping.  He just said ‘Isaac Brin’.  Not ‘Major’, not even ‘Professor’.  His illegal mercenary program had gotten him punished a great deal.

Hello?” said Brin.  “Who is this?

I took a slow, deep breath.  “This is Anabelle Gage,” I said.  “Calling from Grace Acworth’s body.”

Silence.  The waves lapped up against the boat, and a chill autumn breeze blew across the water.

I’m sorry,” he said.  “Please repeat that.

“I’m Anabelle Gage,” I said.  “Your former employee.  I killed Grace Acworth, and took her body for myself.”  I gave him my verbal password, one of the old ones I’d used to confirm my identity with him.

Another long silence, as he processed this.  I don’t blame him.

If you’re really Anabelle Gage,” he said.  “You’ll forgive my skepticism.  You could have tortured the passwords out of Miss Gage, used your Praxis Vocation to mimic her patterns of speaking.

She almost succeeded at that.  “Yeah,” I said.  “I wouldn’t believe me either.”

And even at her greatest heights,” said Brin.  “Anabelle Gage was never capable of taking you on.

Thanks for the vote of confidence, teacher.  Though he was right, mostly.

“The other battles exhausted her,” I said.  Then I explained what had happened inside the submarine, inside Akhara’s Gate.  Everything, minus the bits where I saw Grace’s memories and admitted how right she’d been, on so many points.  “It’s a ridiculous story,” I said.  “But it’s true.”

Hm,” said Isaac Brin, thinking.

“That’s why Paragon’s intelligence department got an anonymous tip yesterday,” I said.  “Informing them about a meeting of high-level mobsters.  They’re being arrested as we speak.”

I got fired from counterintelligence,” said Brin.  “But I heard about that.

“Would the real Grace Acworth do something like that?” I said.  “Give up almost all of her people, reduce her power that much?”

Probably not,” said Brin, sighing.  “Unless she thought it could get Paragon off her back.  Get us to pursue a different target.

Fuck.  I wasn’t getting through to him.

You want to prove your identity?” he said.  “Show us your Whisper Vocation.  Set up an in-person meeting with us and show that you’re capable of making illusions.  Grace Acworth could never mimic that fully, and you never wrote a Vocation Codex for her to read.

“You know I can’t do that,” I said.  “A meeting with public enemy number one?  Even if they confirmed my ID, they’d arrest me at best.”  At worst, they’d put a Voidsteel bullet through my skull from a thousand yards away.  I had no delusions about me and Hira’s fighting ability.  Not against top-level Guardians.

The Black Tortoise is public enemy number one,” said Brin.  “But.  I understand.  This means we’re at an impasse.”  His remorse sounded genuine.  “I’m sorry.  I’ll relate this information to my superiors, and you might not be our priority anymore.  But I can’t promise we’ll stop hunting you.

“Yeah.”  I slouched over on the boat, massaging my temples.  “Yeah.”

Even if you did kill my old friend.”  His voice sounded regretful at that.  Even if it’s just a name.  That name attacked our nation.  It butchered our students, murdered our parliament.

No, a conspiracy within Paragon did that.  Given Isaac’s demotion, I could guess that he wasn’t in on it.  But I couldn’t know for sure.

There have to be consequences.

I closed my eyes, seeing Kaplen’s cherubic face, his bright smile.  “I understand.”

And even if they believed it was you,” he said, his voice crackling.  “You never got a pardon.  There’s still a warrant out for your arrest.  Rogue projectors are seen as a threat.

“I know,” I said.  “I know.”  I stared up at the bright lights of Paragon Academy, cold and piercing in the night sky.

You knew it would end this way, Miss Gage,” he said.  He called me ‘Miss Gage’.  He believed me, even if his superiors might not.  “So why did you make this call?  That can’t have been your only reason.

“You taught me my Nudging defense,” I said.  Part of it, anyway.  “The foundation of my skills.  You used me, treated me like a cheap investment, but still.”

I’m sorry,” he said, like it meant anything.

“You didn’t finish me off on that boat,” I said.  “And you made me a mercenary.  A Grey Coat.  ‘This is your chance’, you said.  ‘A poor chance, but your last one.’”

Yes.

“I called you to let you know,” I said.  “You gave me a life.  And I’m not going to waste it.”

Stay safe, Ana,” he said.  “For both our sakes, I hope we never see each other again.

“Till next time, Isaac Brin.”  I turned off the radio.  On the other end, my subordinate would hang up the call, set up a timed memory wipe as a contingency, and leave, on the off chance they’d traced his payphone in that short time.  But I doubted it.

Hira’s boat slid into a cloud of dark fog.  And for a moment, Paragon Academy seemed to vanish.

________________________________________

I slumped down on the couch, letting out a slow, ragged exhale.  Every inch of my body felt exhausted.

“Stop looking so glum, bitch,” said Right-Hira, wearing a bright yellow dress.  “The operation worked.  And that Guardian bastard actually believed you.”

I rolled over on the couch to face him.  He sat on the far side of the coffee table on a cushioned chair, puffing on his purple hookah.  Grey morning light shone through the sliding door, illuminating the cloud of smoke around him.  Still morning.  I hadn’t slept much after the operation.  I still wore my stealthy plainclothes from last night, instead of pajamas.

Cardamom jumped on my couch and curled up next to me, purring.  “Sure,” I said, petting him.  “I guess.”

The chair next to Right-Hira was empty.  Tasia had jumped on a ferry to visit her sister.  An urgent trip, after a year of being Nell Ebbridge and being forced to cut off contact with her old life.

The girl had seen something in Paragon, something that disturbed her.  And she’d promised to talk about it, and her research, as soon as she got back.

I hadn’t objected to this.  It made perfect sense.

But until she got back, we couldn’t leave.

I picked up a fresh newspaper on the coffee table and unfolded it, reading the headlines.

PARLIAMENT DECLARES WAR ON SHENTEN

Parliament had made it official, but the newly rebuilt Conclave of the Wise had made the real decision, and would be overseeing the day-to-day operations of the war.

A hybrid government, they called it.  The loyalists loved it.  Commonplace, less so, but the political organization had been vanquished, with almost all its Green Hands.  Riot police were more than sufficient for its civilian supporters, and their various sources of news.

We’re running out of time.

“Ana,” said Left-Hira.

I jumped, startled out of my thoughts, and looked up from the newspaper.  “Yes?”

Left-Hira strode out from the hallway, dragging a cart full of wooden crates behind her and wearing a grease-stained mechanic’s uniform.

I sat up, rubbing my eyes.  “What are those?”

She projected into one of the crates and pulled the top off, showing off the contents.

Fireworks.  Rows and rows of fireworks, orange and purple and all sorts of colors, shaped like rockets and sea animals and various other shapes.

“I skill-stitched a few experts,” said Right-Hira.  “Modded them out.  Figured that without Jun here, we gotta make our own explosives, right?”

“I guess,” I said.  Doesn’t the mob have its own weapons caches?

“I found this empty cove to the south.  Only accessible from the sea, no hiking trails nearby, nobody.”  She grinned.  “Wanna test this shit out?”  Her eyes gleamed.

I sighed.  “This isn’t about preparation, is it?  You’re just playing around with fireworks.”

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “But it’ll be fun.  And this way, you get to feel like it’s all part of the master plan or whatever.”

“Can’t,” I said.  “I’m working.”  I picked up another newspaper from the coffee table.  A Nekean publication, translated to Common, since local sources weren’t reliable anymore.

BLACK TORTOISE CLAIMS THE PYRE WITCH IS INNOCENT

I gaped, and skimmed through the article.  After revealing Christea Ronaveda’s recording about Parliament, Cao Hui had dropped another news bombshell, in preparation for the real ones he’d be dropping in a few months.

The woman known as the Pyre Witch was an enemy, the quote said.  But our conflict was a tragic misunderstanding.  And the woman known as Tunnel Vision was a friend.  A tragic hero, fighting against the Principality’s imperial reach.

He continued, spinning a story of Grace Acworth’s noble struggle against the Principality, most of it true.  Though he left out the part where she set his redemption camps on fire.  Grace might have accepted your help.  But she didn’t trust you.  She might not have even known that the Black Tortoise had returned.

“Why do this?” I muttered.  “What does he gain from massaging my reputation?”

“The Pyre Witch’s reputation,” said Right-Hira, glancing over my shoulder.  “Maybe he thinks she’s still alive, and is trying to curry her favor.”

“He cut off contact with us.”

Hira shrugged.  “Then it’s probably just more propaganda.  Trying to demoralize the Principality, trying to rile up the world and his people against the invasion.”  She slammed the lid back on the crate.  “This is good.  If the Shenti like Tunnel Vision, that makes things a lot easier for us.  You can keep that disguise, and maybe that’ll open a door or two.”

I nodded.

She patted me on the shoulder.  “Cheer up, Ana.  You’re popular, now.”  She dragged the cart full of fireworks into the hallway.  “Now let’s go blow up the sky.”

I sighed, and picked up my to-do list from the table and held it up to her.  “There’s a ton of work to prep for our trip to Shenten.  We haven’t even tested the submarine properly.”  My breath quickened.  “And the crew – “

“The crew is fine,” said Hira.  “They won’t betray us.  Even if they found out our identities, they care more about stable paychecks than whoever their boss is.  And they’ve been working around the clock.  By the time Tasia gets back, we’ll have a sea creature that can fuck up battleships.  Just calm the fuck down, and we can – ”

“We can’t make mistakes!” I blurted out.  “Or Jun dies.”

Hira fell silent.

“I got us into this mess,” I said.  “I got us to break into Ronaveda’s home.  I made that radio broadcast and incited the whole country against the Shenti.”

“Yeah,” said Right-Hira.  “But you’re doing the right thing now.  You can’t waste time wallowing in your guilt.”

“And,” I said.  “I helped Wes back into Paragon.  Got him mixed up in this Egress conspiracy madness.”

“You did do that,” said Right-Hira, puffing on his hookah.

“And we failed to protect Jun,” I said.  “He’s probably in a frozen cave somewhere, getting tortured by the Black Tortoise.”

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “But the Shenti don’t like body-swapping, so they can’t torture Jun too much, or he’ll die.”

“The Shenti didn’t like Grace, either,” I said.  “We don’t know shit.”

I projected into the bookshelf at the edge of the living room, and floated the Lavender Book into my hand, flipping it open.  “And we still can’t read any of this.”

Tasia had tried her hardest.  She’d tried translating it into different languages, including mathematical ones.  She’d tried to use one of us to store individual bits of information, then have Hira stitch from them.  She’d made copies of the pages, and individual letters, then tried to read them far away from the original book.  Everything she could think of.

But nothing worked.  Nothing cracked open the secrets inside.  The Shenti had already tried those gimmicks for The 99 Precepts, and they hadn’t worked then, either.

I flipped to the page with the drawing of the oracle snake, and the dead storm krakens laid out like Akhara’s Triangle.  “None of this makes sense,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“And I’m not sure how this ‘Egress’ conspiracy works,” I said.  “But I’m guessing that we’re running out of time.”  I tapped the pages.  “We need a lead to make sense of this.  And we need a lead to figure out Jun’s location, because we have no idea where he is.”

“Yeah,” muttered Hira.

“Fucking around with fireworks won’t get us a lead,” I said.

“Neither will sleep deprivation, dumbass,” said Left-Hira.  “Remember last year?  Around your birthday, when you worked yourself to death?  And you turned into a bitter, desperate fuckwit with no morals.  Though you kind of did that year-round.”

“That was different,” I said.

“Yes,” said Left-Hira.  “Now, you’re a bitter, desperate fuckwit with a functioning moral compass.”

The truth was, I didn’t have the overwhelming workload of last year.  I didn’t have Paragon schoolwork.  No essays or tests or pop quizzes to study for.  And I wasn’t Lorne’s Grey Coat, so I didn’t have to run errands for him.  Tunnel Vision’s people ran errands for me, and I didn’t have to stress about prices at the grocery store.

And I wasn’t a mercenary, anymore.  I didn’t have missions every week to prep for.

But I still worked myself like before.  I still had sleepless nights.

Because you don’t deserve a break.  I didn’t deserve rest.  Every night, I closed my eyes and saw my old face, bathed in purple sunlight, vomiting blood at my feet.  I saw the mob on Gestalt Island, burning down Shenti homes and businesses after my speech.  I saw the bodies, filling the halls of Paragon Academy.

Blood rushed in my ears, and I stared at my feet.  We’ve committed great sins, the two of us.  It would take a lifetime to atone for them.

“I have to fix this,” I said.  “Even if it means breaking myself.”

“You,” said Hira, “need to stop giving too many fucks.  Or the fucks you give are going to give back and fuck you.”

“What?”

“You should blow up some fireworks with me.”

I stood up and walked out onto the porch, staring out at the grey skies, and the endless dark waters of the Eloane Ocean before us.  Our path forward.  And our enemy.

“Every minute we spend here is a minute lost,” I said.  “The day, the second Tasia gets back from her trip, we need to leave for Shenten.”  I frowned.  “I can’t waste time with fireworks.  Even if it’s fun.”

Hira walked outside with both her bodies, Cardamom perched on her shoulder.  She leaned against the railing, and sighed.  “Alright,” she said.  “Want to look at the sub?”

________________________________________

The motorboat cut through the fog, sliding across the waters of the ocean.

“We parked the submarine in one of Tunnel Vision’s hidden spots,” said Hira.  “That random passers-by wouldn’t just stumble on, that wasn’t near any settled places or footpaths or military bases.  And that random boats won’t pass by.”

“But not too far from Elmidde,” I said.  Cardamom poked his head out of my backpack, nuzzling the back of my neck.

The waves crashed against a cluster of jagged rocks ahead, deadly obstacles in our path, half-obscured by the fog.  Cardamom dove back into the bag, hiding.

“Yeah,” said Left-Hira.  “So it’s not that easy to get to.”

Both Hiras lifted their hands, projecting into the boat, and steered it through the rapids, holding it and pulling it so the waves wouldn’t dash it against the rocks.

I clutched the side of the boat, flinching at every sudden turn, cold saltwater spraying into my face.

“Listen,” said Hira, as she twisted and turned the tiny ship through the watery labyrinth.  “I’ve already taken some looks at the submarine.  I’ve had chats with the crew, and we’ve got everything under control.”

When Hira says ‘under control’, that usually means ‘on fire’.  “I don’t know,” I said, rocking back and forth as the boat bumped on the waves.  “Let me see it, first.”

“As you wish, princess.”  Left-Hira indicated her hand forward, and we passed out of the fog.

The grey clouds vanished, and the sun shone down, warm.  I gaped, staring at the view before me.

A small, rocky island sat in the middle of the ocean, bathed in warm sunlight.  And the submarine floated next to it.

A massive, pitch-black tube of metal, smooth and elegant and curved.  It looks different than at night.  In the day, with its bulbous, protruding bow, it seemed more like a grand ocean mammal than a vehicle.  A mechanical whale, with a conning tower and a metal fin in place of a blowhole, and a pair of torpedo tubes instead of a mouth.

It had first belonged to the Radio Man, a mobster.  Then Grace Acworth had stolen it from him.

And now, it belongs to me.  To us.

“Gorgeous, isn’t she?” said Hira.

Something swelled in my chest.  “It’s beautiful,” I breathed.

A blonde man walked on top of the sub, carrying a toolbox.  He waved at us, smiling.

“Vice-Captain Glenham,” said Hira.  “He’s in charge of the day-to-day shit on the sub.”

I gazed over the submarine, watching the sunlight swallowed by its black paint.  “What is it called?”

“The Radio Man’s family called it The Elder Kraken.  Grace called it ‘the submarine’.”

“And you?”

“I thought we could wait for Tasia, come up with something fun.”  Hira’s motorboat pulled up next to the submarine, and we climbed up onto the deck.

Vice-Captain Glenham offered me a hand and pulled me up, smiling.  “Madame Gage,” he said.  “A pleasure to meet you face-to-face.”

My throat clenched, and I threw an auditory illusion onto Hira.  “Madame Gage?

“Oh, right,” said Right-Hira, floating herself on top of the submarine.  “Forgot to mention.  The Vice-Captain knows about us.”

“How?”  I clenched my teeth.

Left-Hira shrugged.  “I was hanging around the sub a lot.  He put two and two together.”  Right-Hira patted me on the shoulder.  “We talked, I stuck my hands in my pockets, and we’re all fine.  Glen here doesn’t care about Tunnel Vision’s cause, or avenging her.  He just wants to get paid, isn’t that right?”

Vice-Captain Glenham bowed, not breaking his smile.  “I look forward to our business relationship.”  Then he straightened himself.  “Now, what can I do for you?”

Tunnel Vision here wants a tour of the submarine.  Wants to see if everything’s ready for our field trip.”

“Certainly,” the Vice-Captain said.  He walked to the hatch on the top.  “Follow me.”

Right-Hira slid down the ladder, into the sub, and I climbed down after him.  The last time I came here, I was breaking in.  Hiding from the crew, thinking up ways I could defeat Grace.

The Vice-Captain led us through a narrow metal hallway, the walls and ceiling covered with metal pipes, levers, and wires.  Not a lot of wasted space.  This ship would be our home for the next few months, at least, and Cardamom’s, if we took him.  Big downgrade from the summer house.  But my comfort wasn’t important.

“Everything does something,” said the Vice-Captain.  “So please avoid touching any of the wheels or levers.”

He led us past watertight doors, down staircases and through the claustrophobic hallways I’d seen before.  We passed men and women, dressed up in plainclothes and carrying wrenches or screwdrivers.  They paid us no mind, shouting orders to each other, pulling levers and running tests on the complex machinery in the walls.

And then, the Vice-Captain showed us places I hadn’t snuck through before.  The CIC, the combat information center, filled with screens and chairs, and dials, where the captain could coordinate action and receive critical intelligence.  The dorms, with the tiny bunk beds where we and the crew would sleep.  Hira and Tasia and I didn’t get our own room.

And the engine room, where a diesel mechanism thumped in my ears, keeping the lights on.

“This motor is really loud!” I shouted over the engine noises.  “How stealthy is this thing?”

“Ah,” said the Vice-Captain, with a knowing smile.  “We run on an electric motor when we submerge!  If we used the diesel engine underwater, the sub would fill up with toxic fumes!”

“Which would kill us,” said Right-Hira.

“Rest assured,” said the Vice-Captain.  “When it comes to stealth, the Elder Kraken can hide with the best of them.  It even matches up to some of the latest Nekean models.”

I stepped out of the engine room, closing the door to muffle the noise.  “And if we do get spotted?”

“The makers of this sub wanted an emergency getaway,” said the Vice-Captain.  “Or a hidden command center.  They weren’t preparing for open war.”  He pointed to a rack with two torpedos sitting on it, secured.  “We’ve got four of those, and a heavy machine gun up top, for point defense.  But if you go up against a battleship, or worse, a carrier, I can’t vouch for our chances.”  He smiled.  “But we’re more than capable of fleeing one of those monstrosities.”

“See, Tunnel Vision?” said Hira.  “We’re fine.  Calm your tits.”

“And projectors?” I said.  “What happens if a Joiner gets close and starts tearing holes in our hull?”

The Vice-Captain pointed up.  “The heavy machine gun has a belt of Voidsteel ammo.  Past that, it’s up to folks like you to keep the boat safe.”

“I barely know how to swim,” I said.  Hira was giving me lessons, but like many things, I was not a natural.

“This is modern warfare, Madame,” he said.  “Projectors are critical for success.”

He led us to a large storage room near the bottom of the vessel, filled with lockers, and piles of crates stacked at the back.

“So,” I said.  “Long-distance journeys.  How often will we need to resupply our food and water?  And where would we refuel?  The Principality isn’t just going to let us use their refueling ships.”

“Excellent questions, madame,” said the Vice-Captain.  “I see you are possessed with a keen mind.  With rationing, our food and water supplies can last for months.  For fuel, previous owners used a vessel disguised as a civilian ship.  It could fill up with diesel at an ordinary location, sail out here, and fill the tank up.”

“And if we go overseas?”

“In Ilaqua or Neke, the same tactic could be used,” he said.  “Assuming we could maintain a low profile.  The Neke’s naval defenses are known to be exhaustive.”

“And in Shenten?”

The Vice-Captain’s smile cracked.  “We have enough fuel to get us there.”

“And to get back?”

“We will need to find another method.  I can’t vouch for the safety of Shenten’s ports.”

And it’ll get worse when the war starts.  Shenten was filled with inlets and lakes and deep rivers.  Having a submarine could be helpful there.  But we might not even be able to take it back.  And we and the crew would be stranded on a war-torn, icy hellscape.

“We’ll figure something out,” said Hira.  “You’re an illusionist.  All it takes is one refueling ship full of Humdrums, and we’re golden.”

“We’re going into war,” I said.  “This isn’t a back-alley gunfight.  We’re not trained for this.”

“You weren’t trained for back-alley gunfights, either,” said Left-Hira.

“You left us,” I said.  “Before Paragon.  Because the prospect of a real battle terrified you.”

“The prospect of father capturing my legless ass terrified me,” said Hira.  “And that was before we got the stealth sub.  You’ve been improving your pistol aim.  Tasia’s been reading up on the enemy’s Joining techniques.  And I’ve been putting all the rest together.“  She looked me in the eye.  “We can do this.

And what about Jun’s location?”  I threw an auditory illusion over Hira, speaking to her without the Vice-Captain hearing.  “What about the Lavender Book?

Hira didn’t have a retort for that.  Not out loud, at least.

“On the whole,” said the Vice-Captain, smiling, ignoring our argument.  “It’s a spectacular vessel, if I may say so.  With these specs, and these capabilities, it was likely one of the former Tunnel Vision’s most expensive possessions.  If you weren’t using it, you could sell it for a solid fortune.”

“Thanks, Glen,” said Hira.

“There’s one more room,” said the Vice-Captain.  “A room you’ve been to, I think.”

He led us through a hallway, and showed us an empty metal room.

Then, Right-Hira pulled open a wall panel, spun a series of number wheels, and pressed a button.  The numbers whirred, and a hidden closet door opened up on the far wall.

Revealing the portal to Akhara’s Gate.  A glowing hole cut in the back of the wall, bordered by flickering lightning.  Before, it had been tied to Grace’s Pith.  The lightning had been purple, and the doorway led to a frozen lake, and a metal factory inside.

But Grace was long-dead.  The electricity had turned pale, its light dimmed.  And rather than a world, the portal opened up to a white void.  Blank and empty.

“I haven’t fucked with this,” said Hira.  “Not after I read Tunnel Vision’s notes.”

I stared into the emptiness.  “What did they say?”

“It doesn’t say where she got it.  But it took her years to step in and bind it to her Pith.  And she still didn’t understand half of its powers.  The bitch seemed to respect it, in her way.”

“Why?”

“Because,” said Left-Hira.  “According to her notes, the gate kills about ninety-five percent of the people who try to open it for the first time. They walk in and never walk out.”

Shit.  “That’s a problem,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “Bet you wanted to use it as your special secret lair.”

“No, I mean we left something in there,” I said.  “Something important.”

Left-Hira indicated her head to the Vice-Captain.  “Give us a minute.”

He bowed his head and stepped out.  The door swung shut behind him.

“We got the Lavender Book,” Left-Hira hissed.  “We got your machine pistol.  We even got her knife, and your old body for your funeral thing.”

“I saw another book,” I said.  “It was near the top of the factory, in her office.”

“Only two books in an office,” said Right-Hira, musing.  “Then it was – “

“Her Vocation Codex,” I said.  “For her Praxis Vocation.  Or maybe something else.  I can’t be certain, but it looked rougher than a Paragon book.  And what else would be valuable enough to keep there?”

Fuck,” muttered Right-Hira.  “Why the fuck didn’t you tell me back then?”

“I didn’t put two and two together,” I said.  “And it probably fell in the lake, anyways.  We couldn’t have found it before the world collapsed.”  I shrugged.  “It probably got destroyed with the avalanches and everything.”

“Maybe,” said Hira.  “Or it’s floating in the void there, somewhere.  Waiting for someone to open Akhara’s Gate and take it again.”

Grace’s Praxis Vocation.  The ability to focus around a single goal, perfecting one’s mind for it and nothing else.  A power that had let her stay five steps ahead of Paragon Academy for the majority of last year.  But it also likely drove her to atrocities.  To view people as disposable objects for her quest.

A terrifying power.  One that destroyed both you and your enemies.

But it didn’t matter, if it was sitting in Akhara’s Gate, with only a five-percent chance of survival if we tried to open it.

“Is there any way to boost our odds?” I said.  “Did Grace’s notes mention what made people succeed and fail at their efforts?”

Right-Hira shook his head.  “I considered throwing all the nastiest enemies we could find in here, too, until one of them got lucky and opened it.  But the five-percent success rate was from highly-trained projectors.  With the intense desire to take control of the gate.  I don’t think we’ll get results with prisoners.”

I glared at him.  “And we’re not treating prisoners that way.”

“Sure,” said Hira.  “Whatever.”

“But,” I said.  “It could be the key to unlocking the Lavender Book.  To saving Jun.”  I stared into the blank portal.  “We need some sort of clue.  Grace’s Praxis Vocation could give that to us.”

“Assuming one of us could learn it,” said Hira.  “And that it wouldn’t turn our brains into soup.”

“But you say that going in is a ninety-five percent fatality rate,” I said.

“For me?  For you?  Make that ninety-nine percent.”

I nodded.  “Then we don’t need to take that risk right now.”

Left-Hira exhaled with relief.  Then she gestured around her, at the walls of the submarine.  “Well?” she said.  “Do you feel calmer now?  This ship is incredible.  I’d have killed to have stolen one of these when I ran away from home.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “We’re all set.  Except if we fight a skilled Joiner, we’ll lose.  And if we fight a battleship, we’ll lose.  And even if we avoid both of those things, we’ll still run out of fuel before we can get back to the Principality.”

Hira sighed.  “You’re never fuckin’ calm, are you?”

I’ll calm down when this world stops being a death trap.  “This is good work, Hira,” I said.  “You did good.”

Hira smiled at that.

Someone knocked on the door.  “Madame!”  The Vice-Captain shouted.  “Message for you, over the encrypted telegram!”

Left-Hira opened the door and snatched it out of his hands, reading it.

“What is it?”  Did Paragon find us out?  Were there Guardians on their way here?

She smiled, and looked up at me.  “Tasia’s back.”

________________________________________

Hira stayed on the sub, saying she had a few more things to wrap up.  One of her bodies helped me navigate back out through the rocks, and I sped back to the safehouse, seeing another boat already parked on the beach.

I burst through the front door.  A freckled boy sat on the couch, reading a book.  Cardamom lay on his shoulders, batting around his light brown hair.

Not a boy.  And not Wes, either.  Tasia.  Still had to get used to that.  Tasia carried her body differently, to be sure.  She sipped tea from a porcelain mug, dainty and precise in a way Wes never would have done.  Her eyes looked bright, eager as she flipped through her book, rather than frustrated.

And I caught a hint of black liner on the edges of her eyes.  Wes never wore makeup, either.

“Tasia?” I said.

Tasia half-jumped out of the couch.  “Scholars!”  She still sounds like Wes.  “Didn’t hear you come in.”  She put Cardamom down on her purple suitcase and ran to me.  We hugged each other, a long, comforting embrace.

We broke off, and I sat down on a couch chair across from her.  “How was your trip?”

A smile spread across Tasia’s face, lighting it up.  “Sarah’s alive.”

Yes.”  Sarah made it.  Tasia had excised the tumor in her Pith, but at the cost of aging her sister by decades, crippling her mind with Null Particles and putting her on the verge of death.  But she’s still clinging to the world.

“I still have time,” breathed Tasia.  “Not much.  But more than I’d thought.”  She closed her eyes.  “People still die of Pith cancer.  People still die of normal cancer.”  She shook her head.  “This is a barbaric age.”

On that, we can agree.  “And your father?” I said.  He hadn’t been kind to Tasia or her sister, especially after finding out they were projectors.

“He’s furious at me.”  She pet Cardamom’s long green fur, closing her eyes.  “For messing up her Pith.  And he has every right to be.”  She smiled.  “But he’s taking care of her.  He’s keeping her active, working her mind.  He’s probably the only reason she’s still alive.”

My parents would be furious at me too.  For stealing their money, for my speech about the Shenti.  But I hope they’re taking care of each other.  That the money I’d sent had gotten to them.

“I gave them the money,” said Tasia.  “And after a lot of yelling, he agreed to move with her to a new location.  A safer location.”

“Where?”  Not a lot of safe places these days.

Tasia shrugged.  “I encrypted the memory.  If we ever get captured, I can delete it in less than a second.  She’s gone on an important mission, and there might still be enemies after her.  She can’t be anywhere obvious.”

“And did you find anything?” I said.  “Anything that could help our mission.”

Tasia floated a notebook out of her suitcase, flipping it open.  “This is Sarah’s notebook.  A member of her expedition gave this to me.  I hid it before I got Ousted, but parts of it were written in code.”  She floated a second notebook, filled with scribbling in Tasia’s handwriting.  “I found the cipher in Sarah’s room.”

“And?”

Tasia sighed.  “She went searching for the Buried City.  A Great Scholar ruin in the deserts of Ilaqua that mostly exists in myth.  She was trying to find out why they died out.  Why they drowned.”

Which relates to the Lavender Book.  And the oracle snakes.  And those strange fractal patterns, Akhara’s Triangle.

“I don’t think she ever found it,” Tasia said.  “But she did stumble on a few key insights.”  She flipped to the middle of the notebook.  “The Great Scholars succeeded at defeating Null Particles.  In discovering immortality and limitless Praxis vocations.”

“And then they drowned,” I said.

“Yes,” said Tasia.  “But not until nine centuries later.  The two might not even be related.”  She stared at the Lavender Book, sitting on the shelf.  “Something happened in those nine hundred years, that set them on the path to calamity.”

“More questions,” I muttered.  And not many answers.

“And Sarah found an insight for my work,” Tasia said.  “It’s impossible to destroy a Null Particle.  That’s why they keep building up in the Piths of old people.”

What?  “But you just said the Great Scholars defeated Null Particles.  How did they manage that, without destroying them?”

“I don’t know,” said Tasia.  “But, it seems that, in her own way, Sarah was working towards the same goal as me.”  She stared at the notebook.  “She was helping save herself, even though she didn’t know it.”  Her hands shook.  “But – she was barely breathing.  Her eyes were open, but she wasn’t looking at anything, and – and – “

I sat down on the couch next to her, and gave her another hug, squeezing her shoulders.  “It was an accident,” I said.  “You were trying to cure her.”

“I lost Kaplen,” she muttered.  “And now, I’m going to lose my sister, too.”

“Tasia,” I said.  “In class, you breezed through concepts that took me weeks.  If anyone can solve Null Particles, it’ll be you.  You’ll make it better.”  Is this a good way to comfort people?

Tasia nodded, holding back tears.

“Can I ask you something?” I said.

“Sure.”  She rubbed her eyes.

“After it happened – after Sarah turned out like – that, and you blamed yourself.  How did you survive?  How did you keep the guilt from crushing you?”

Tasia looked at me.  “Are you alright?”

“I have trouble sleeping,” I said.  “When I do, I have these nightmares, where I fight a demonic clone of myself.  There are bright spots, but – “  I sighed.  “I think, at some point in the last few years, I forgot how to relax.”

“I destroyed my old identity,” said Tasia.  “I killed my old name, and chose a new one: Ebbridge.  And then, Tasia.  My old self?  He was a monster.  Horrifying.  Guilty.  I couldn’t be that person anymore.  I had to be someone else.”  She stared down at her body, uncomfortable.  “That’s how I survived.  For all the good it did me.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” I said.  “Did you want a new chassis, rather than the one you were born with?  We’re not loaded with cash, but we’ve got more than enough to buy something.”  I sensed discomfort from Tasia in her body.  Maybe the same mind-body dissonance that I felt for the last ten years.

Tasia shook her head.  “Tasia Ebbridge wasn’t all that admirable either.  She bowed down to a cruel mother who expected the world of her every day.  She let her grades slip as she spent all her time on research.  She fought on the side of immoral people.”  She hunched over, making herself small.  “And she couldn’t save her friend, Kaplen, from one of the worst fates imaginable.”

I squeezed her shoulder again.  “You did your best.  And you still got your notes out.”

Tasia glanced at another notebook in her luggage, filled with bits of information copied from the Great Library, then hidden in Lowtown, with a timed-delay memory encryption about their location, that would make her forget its hiding spot if Admiral Ebbridge tried any scanning.

She had snuck out information from the Great Library.  From the higher levels, even, despite Paragon’s restrictions.  In normal times, they might have kept a closer eye on her before and after the Ousting, to make sure this sort of scenario didn’t happen.

But Admiral Ebbridge and Paragon had been reeling in the days after Commonplace’s attack.  And so far, at least, they didn’t seem to have caught her.

When they Ousted her, the Ebbridge family had wiped her research, her classwork, and more out of her memory, deeming her unworthy of the knowledge.  But now, Tasia could relearn it all.

And she read fast.

The preparation of it all surprised me the most.  It took a great deal of planning to pull off a theft like that.  Planning that started before the attack on Paragon.

Tasia thought she’d get Ousted.  She’d seen it coming, way back in the spring.

“Sure,” said Tasia.  “I got my notes.”  She tossed the book aside.  “But with all that research, all those sleepless nights, I still didn’t make any real progress on Null Particles.”  She snorted.  “I thought I was so smart.”  She shook her head.

“Well,” I said.  “Do you want to keep the name, then?  Do you still want to go by Tasia?”

“I named myself after Tasia the Explorer,” she said.  “An adventurer who discovered the continent of Ilaqua, in the far south.  She was brave, and wise, and always looking for new knowledge to help people.”  She nodded.  “Someone worthy to look up to.  I’ll keep the name.  And I’ll keep the body for now, too.”  She gazed out the glass sliding doors, into the rippling blue ocean.  “I need to figure out where I belong.  What I deserve.”

“And in the meantime,” I said.  “You’ve got me and Hira.”  I scratched Cardamom behind his ears.  “And him, too.”

Tasia smiled at me, but her eyes looked tired.

“Are you sure you’re up for this?” I said.  “Going into Shenten.  Rescuing Jun in the middle of a war.  Taking on a conspiracy that’s woven into Paragon.  Into the whole world, maybe.”

“Don’t worry.”  Tasia stood up.  “I’ll fight with you.  Even if I’m still unsure about myself.”

“Good,” I said.  “Because we’re leaving tomorrow.”

________________________________________

We finished the preparations faster than I’d expected.  Vice-Captain Glenham had thought of almost everything.   The submarine was stocked and ready for a voyage.  He’d even set aside a cat bed in the back of the dorms, so that Cardamom could join us.

Hira and Tasia and I had hidden the Lavender Book without the crew present.  We switched out its distinctive purple cover with a simple red one, ripped from a copy of The 99 Precepts.  Then, we stuffed it in a bookshelf in Tasia’s locker, next to a dozen others.

This way, if someone broke into the ship, they’d see it as an ordinary copy of the Shenti’s holy book, unreadable and boring.  We couldn’t copy any of the words or encrypt them, so this was the best we could do.

I’m still not ready for a real war.  None of us were.

But it was time to go.  Jun’s waiting for us.  And the Principality’s invasion would start soon.  The moment they landed, conflict would explode around Shenten.  And our jobs would get harder, or impossible.

On the night before we left, I walked through the sub, from the bottom up, making sure I hadn’t missed anything.

When I climbed out of the top hatch, I found Tasia and Hira, sitting on a pair of motorboats by the hull, bobbing up and down on the dark water of the cove.

Right-Hira sat in the first boat, filled with wooden crates and duffel bags, weighing it down.  Left-Hira and Tasia sat on the other one, poring over a map under a projected orb of light.

I exhaled, enjoying the cool breeze on my skin.  Enjoy it while it lasts.  Near Elmidde, early autumn still had plenty of warm days.  But Shenten would already be an ice block.

“What’re you guys doing?”

“You were right,” said Right-Hira.  “Fireworks aren’t about practicality, they’re about blowing shit up.  So me and Tasia are gonna go launch them all.”

“Not here, right?” I said.  If Paragon finds our sub, we’re done for.

“Calm down, killjoy,” said Left-Hira.  “We’re going to the far side of Meteor Bay.”

“I’ve never actually seen fireworks before.”  Tasia’s eyes lit up.  “My town banned them after a pyromania incident.”

“Aren’t those illegal here?” I said.

“Bitch,” said Left-Hira.  “We’ve been doing nothing but illegal shit for the last year.”

“I mean, the coast guard might come after you.  And we’re still wanted by half the Principality.”

“We’re rigging them on the shore with a delayed fuse,” said Left-Hira.  “Then we’re going out on a boat for the best view.  Even if the coast guard got there in five minutes, they wouldn’t catch us.”

“We’re going to watch it and eat garlic bread!” said Tasia, holding up a paper bag full of takeout.  “Want to join us?”

“I dunno.”  I bit my lip.  “We’re leaving tomorrow at dawn.  Might want to check some more things on the sub.  I don’t want some beginner mistake getting us all killed.”

Hira sighed.  “We checked everything.  The Vice-Captain is finishing the final confirmations with the crew, but we don’t need to be there.”  She held up a radio.  “They can call us if anything comes up.”

“And,” said Tasia, holding up a thermos.  “We’ve got mulled cider, too!”

That does sound nice.  I wavered on the top of the sub, uncertain.

“Fuck it,” I muttered.  I projected into my clothes and slid down the metal side of the submarine, then pushed off with my feet and lowered myself into the boat.

A few minutes later, Hira and Tasia finished prepping, and we sped off in the two boats.  Right-Hira navigated us around the rocks and the fog, and we puttered north along the coastline, back towards Elmidde.

Before setting up the fireworks, Hira drove the boats towards the city, and parked them at an empty pier in Lowtown.

“Got some last-minute supplies to buy,” said Hira.  “Some of the stores should still be open.”

“We’re on wanted posters,” I said.  “We were on the front page of a newspaper.”

Left-Hira held up a pair of rain jackets, complete with hoods.  “We’ll use your illusions when you get close.  In case they recognize any of your faces.”

Your faces?” said Tasia.

“Unless you want some random squidfucker to steal our fireworks, then I need to stay with the boats.”

We threw on the ponchos, pulled up our hoods, and walked into town.  After a few minutes, Tasia found a twenty-four-seven hardware store with the stuff Hira needed, and we walked in.  No one else was in the store, so it was easy to throw on illusions over the lone store clerk, altering our faces and voices and making it look like we’d thrown off our hoods.

Tasia looked through her shopping list and picked the various pieces off the shelves.  Pieces of metal, adhesive, and screws.

While she browsed through the store, I waited at the front desk, maintaining the illusion on the cashier.  He listened to a radio broadcast, slouched over in his chair.

Welcome to Verity!” A man’s voice shouted from the speaker.  “The only radio talk show that tells you nothing but the truth.

Christea Ronaveda’s show.  But Ronaveda had vanished after the attack on Paragon, along with her boss, the Broadcast King.  And this didn’t sound like her voice.

I am your new host, Arthur Faylare.  And while I don’t have a Vocation that forces truth-telling, I promise you, I will offer nothing but my brutal honesty.”  Arthur Faylare uncorked a bottle.  “And that’s why we have the gin.

Wes’ father owns it now.  The Principality had seized all of Oracle Media Group’s assets in the country, and some of the shows had been doled out to the Ebbridge family, helping to resurrect their dead newspaper.  It won’t be the same without Ronaveda.

Let’s talk about the only thing anyone gives a shit about.”  The radio host burped, finishing a glass.  “The Shenti.  Parliament’s declared war on the eastern dogs, and I say: took them long enough!

The store clerk perked up and leaned in, as the radio host got louder.

There are people,” Arthur Faylare said.  “Who don’t want me to say this!  Who would love to shut this program down, get me fired for speaking the truth.  But fuck them, this is my job, so here goes: We never finished the job.

Oh, shit.

We turn on the Spirit Block, wipe out their religion and break their empire into pieces.  And then, we just left them alone for a decade?  The fuck were we thinking?

I think we were dealing with Commonplace,” said another man.  Maybe a co-host.  “Or the general fallout from the Treaty of Silence ending.

The Black Tortoise funded Commonplace!” shouted Arthur Faylare.  “You heard that radio broadcast from the Blue Charlatan.  We gave him ten free years, and now, he’s rebuilding his empire.  And unless we rip out his heart, we’ll all be in redemption camps by the end of the decade.  The eastern dogs will be in our streets, burning our houses.  Hands that can crush diamonds will be around the throats of our sons!  Our daughters!”  His voice hardened.  “If we want to survive, it’ll take all of us, working in tandem.  One nation, one people, one light.  I’ve invested half of my savings into war bonds.  I urge any patriot to do the same.

Nausea swelled in my gut, and I doubled over, clutching the desk for support.  I threw an illusion over the store clerk so he wouldn’t notice.  The room felt warm, and sweat coated the back of my shirt.

Tasia finished her shopping and checked out.  The two of us stepped out of the front door, and I leaned against the wall, panting.

“Hey,” said Tasia.  “You alright?”

I threw on an illusion, making myself look less sick, less distressed.  Then I nodded.  “I’ve got some unfinished business in the city.  Something I forgot to check before we leave.”

Tasia pouted.  “So you won’t be able to watch the fireworks with us?  No garlic bread and cider?”

I shook my head.

“Need any help?  If it doesn’t take too long, we can finish it and do the fireworks after.”

“I’m good,” I stared down the dark Lowtown street, leading into the rest of Elmidde.  “I can do it on my own.”

Tasia gave me a concerned look.  “You sure?”

I put on a smile.  “Yeah.  See you back at the sub.”

“I’ll leave one of the boats for you.  We’ll remove a part from the engine and hide it in the corner, so people can’t just drive off with it.”  Then she hugged me.  “Stay safe.  Please.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Of course.”

Then we broke off, and went our separate ways.

I walked through the streets, keeping my hood on in case anyone recognized Tunnel Vision’s face.  Now that the city had quieted down, the curfew had been lifted, and the soldiers stopped patrolling the streets of Lowtown.  But on a weeknight, after 1 AM, the roads had still emptied.  Not a car or a person in sight.

It took me a few minutes to walk around the lower edge of Lowtown, along the waterfront, and towards the bridge connecting Gestalt Island to the rest of Elmidde.

When I stepped off the bridge, everything looked different.  The Shenti slums here had been withered and impoverished a year ago.

But tonight, they looked like a war zone.

Row houses and storefronts had been burned down, reduced to piles of blackened rubble and ashes.  A piece of graffiti had been painted on a ruined wall, and I squinted to read it.

Rabid dogs get put down

As I walked through the street, I saw other bits of graffiti, calling the people here traitors, eastern dogs, tools of the Black Tortoise.

I turned a corner, to see an entire street filled with homeless people.  Pushing metal carts filled with supplies.  Sleeping on the sidewalk, covered in moth-ridden blankets, huddling close to each other for warmth.

Forced out when they lost their houses.  And some of the homeless shelters might not want to take them.

I had no idea it was this bad.  The news made it sound like the mob smashed two windows, fought some Shenti rioters, then left.  And I’d seen Grace’s memory of defending this place, but only a sliver.  And I thought that was the worst of it.

As I passed, a few of the awake men and women on the street held out bowls to me, pleading with their eyes.  I didn’t have much in my wallet, but I gave them what I had.

And this isn’t just happening here.  Shenti citizens across the Principality were getting attacked, watching their hard work and livelihoods burn in front of them.

In the Agricultural Islands too, I’m sure.  Would it hurt my mother?  She was only half-Shenti, but the other half was Nekean, and Principians couldn’t always tell the difference.

My stomach dropped.  You did this.  I’d riled up this mob as a cudgel against Commonplace, a makeshift tool for my revenge.

It had worked.  That backlash had been a key element in putting down their revolution.  A bomb, going off right in the center of Maxine Clive’s plan.  And now, these ‘Egress’ people have everything they want.  The Conclave of the Wise had returned.  Despite everything, a large chunk of the population supported that, supported Paragon.

And my actions had rippled out.  A butterfly’s wings starting a hurricane.  And now we’re going to war.

I turned around, walking back to my boat, and someone put a hand on my shoulder.  I jumped, spinning around, and saw one of the Shenti slum-dwellers standing behind me, staring at my face under my hood.

She recognizes me.  I staggered back, preparing to throw illusions on her.

“Don’t worry,” she whispered, in a thick Shenti accent.  “I won’t tell anyone.”

I held off my illusions, frozen in place.

Then, the woman clasped my hand.  “But you saved my cousin’s bao shop.”  Her eyes glinted in the moonlight, tearing up at the edges.  “Thank you,” she mumbled.  “Thank you.

She thinks I’m Grace.  That I was the person who’d fought back against the horrors, not the one who started them.

I stared at her, avoiding eye contact.  What do I say to that?  I couldn’t tell her the truth.  But I couldn’t accept her gratitude, either.  I don’t deserve it.

The woman nodded at me, then let go of my hands and walked away.  She lay down on an ash-stained mattress and pulled the covers over her.

Something crackled in the far distance.

I looked towards Meteor Bay, and saw a bright green firework explode in the sky, forming the shape of a flower.  A blue and purple shower of sparks came after it, forming a pair of interlocking circles.  Tasia and Hira got started.

From this distance, in the middle of Gestalt Island, I didn’t have the best view, but I could still make out the edges of the spectacle.

A few of the homeless Shenti stirred from the noise, and gazed up at the sky, watching with me.

Then, the fireworks quadrupled.  A rainbow of colors, in the shape of hearts, ovals, faces.  Fireworks exploding into other, smaller fireworks.  Human figures, depictions of Darius the Philosopher, clutching a scroll and wreathed in blue.

And a deafening wave of sound.  Far more than a normal summer festival.  They’re launching them all at once.  And waking up half the city in the process.

A beautiful sight.  Hira and Tasia must be having fun.  Sipping their mulled cider, munching on garlic bread.

I sat down on the sidewalk, breathed, and watched the fireworks.

An awful idea came to me.

________________________________________

I drove the boat out to the coast of the Principality, then tied it to a tree leaning near the coast, and did a water walk for the rest of the way.  My eyes felt heavy, and when I was this exhausted, I didn’t trust myself to navigate through the rocks and fog without getting my boat smashed.

When I emerged from the fog, Tasia and Hira’s boat hadn’t been parked next to the sub.  They’re still out.  Tasia had bought a pretty large bag of garlic bread.

Good.  If they were here, they might try to stop me.

I projected into my clothes and floated myself up the side of the sub, then pulled open the hatch and slid down the ladder.

The metal corridors of the submarine had emptied, though the diesel engine still chugged below us, filling the halls with noise.  The rest of the crew must have gone to bed.

I walked down some steps and through a pair of doors, making my way to the empty room with the number wheels on the wall.  Cardamom approached me, nuzzling my leg.  I pet him, scratched behind his ears, and put him outside, then closed the door.  Don’t need him to see this.

I spun the dials, pressed the button, and watched the hidden door open.

Akhara’s Gate crackled before me.  A swirling, ragged portal, with pale lightning crackling around it.  Opening up into the white void.  A strange, twisted artifact that even Grace didn’t understand.  That killed nineteen of every twenty that tried to shape it with their minds.

But Grace’s codex is inside.  Or something powerful.  If it hadn’t been shredded or liquidated in there.  The key to her Praxis Vocation.  Vocation Codexes often contained important information from the writer’s past, as well, so there might be other useful information, too.

And right now, it seemed like our best shot at unlocking the Lavender Book.  At saving Wes and Jun.

I felt short of breath again.  My shoulders felt heavy.  You started this war.  The Principality had already been a powderkeg, but I lit the fuse.

My life was disposable.  With Hira’s codes and passwords, Tasia could easily take my place as Tunnel Vision.  They could rescue Jun, pull Wes out of the strange conspiracy.

I pulled a pen and notebook from my bag, ripped out a page, and scribbled a note on it, then dropped it on the floor.  Tasia and Hira would find it later.  They would be heartbroken, but they would understand.

I’m sorry.  I stepped forward, towards the portal.

A fist knocked on the metal door outside.  “Hello?  Anyone in here?”

Vice-Captain Glenham.  If he was here, and not Tasia or Hira, then something had come up with the submarine.  My expedition could wait.

I put an illusion on the man outside, erasing the open portal and my note on the floor.  Then I opened the door.

“Miss Gage?” Vice-Captain Glenham said.  “Sorry – Tunnel Vision.  Ma’am.”  A surprised tone crept into his voice.  “Everything alright?  Where are the other two?  I thought you were all going out to watch fireworks.”

“They’re fine,” I said.  “I just had some business in the city.  Split up.”

“Oh.”  He massaged his neck.  “Then what are you doing back here?”

I’m going to jump in a magic door and bind it to my soul.  Or, more likely, die in the attempt.  But if I told him that, and didn’t follow through with it tonight, then he might tell Hira and Tasia.  Which could cause complications.

“I, uh.”  I blinked.  “I wanted to check on a few things.  Make sure everything’s good before we leave tomorrow.”

He nodded, his fingers tapping against his thigh.  “That’s excellent timing, actually,” he said.  “We found a problem in the storage area on the bottom deck.  I think some books are missing that you wanted to include.”

My chest tightened.  Fuck.  The only important books were the Shenti-Common dictionary, the guides, and the Lavender Book itself.  The rest just served as cover.  Someone might have stolen the Lavender Book.

I shifted my illusion, hiding my distress.  “Let’s check it out,” I said, clenching my jaw.  “Now.”

“Of course,” he said.  “I’ll show you the bookshelf.”

I floated my goodbye note into my pocket, and he led me through the cramped metal hallways, past the CIC and dorms, and the chugging diesel engine room.  My breath quickened.  Did you just lose the most important book in the world?  I’d been careless, thinking our defenses were enough.

Vice-Captain Glenham pulled open the door to the storage room.  “There,” he pointed.  “At the end.”

I speed-walked forward, straining my gaze forward at the bookshelf as I approached it.

Then I saw.  The shelves were full.  The Lavender Book still sat there, wrapped in its red cover.  All the books were still there.

“Vice-Captain,” I said.  “Which books did you say were miss – “

Clang.  The door slammed shut behind me.

My skin turned to ice.  I sprinted back to the exit, stretching my Pith ahead of me to throw on illusions.

Something else clanged in the door, and footsteps rang out in the hallway, receding in the distance.  I reached the door, and felt the Vice-Captain’s Pith for a second, before he sprinted out of my range.

What the fuck?

I grabbed the handle and pulled, but the watertight door wouldn’t budge.  It’s not supposed to do that.  I projected into the lock.  The mechanism inside had been mangled.  I tried shifting a few of the pieces, but none of them moved.

Sabotage.  The Vice-Captain had trapped me in here.  I kept fiddling with the pieces, trying to unseal the door, but my metal projection still couldn’t apply much force, and I knew nothing about the inner workings of a machine like this.

I felt inside the lockers of the storage room, for the explosives and weapons and tools we’d stashed.  Nothing.  All of them had been emptied.

And then, something hissed behind me.  A slow, steady sound coming from somewhere in the room.

I turned around, and looked at the air duct in the corner of the room.  The grate covering the vent had been removed.

The sharp odor of diesel fuel filled my nostrils, like I was standing behind a car’s exhaust pipe.  A wave of dizziness rushed over me, and I wobbled back and forth, leaning on the wall for support.

The vice-captain is pumping engine fumes into this room.  And he’d locked me in.  A death trap.  But why?  He’d made it clear that he didn’t care about revenge for Grace.  That he just wanted money, a stable, safe paycheck.  He’s a mobster, not a Green Hands.

And then it hit me, so obvious it hurt.  The submarine.

Vice-Captain Glenham had talked at length about how much The Elder Kraken was worth.  That it was one of Grace’s more valuable possessions.  And at the same time, he’d talked about his concerns for taking it into open war.

He made a calculation.  Decided that it was less dangerous to betray his new bosses, steal their submarine, and pawn it off for a fat stack of cash.  Stabbing us in the back was more profitable, and less risky than diving head-first into Shenten.

My lungs sucked in another breath of pungent fumes, and a dull headache throbbed in the back of my skull.  My vision blurred at the edges.

But how did he set this trap for me?  He didn’t know I was going to come back to the sub alone.  And he’d looked surprised when he saw me by Akhara’s Gate.

It came to me again.  This trap isn’t for me.  It was for the rest of the crew.  The ones who wouldn’t want to go along with his plan.  He wanted to avoid fighting us.  In his ideal world, we would spend the night watching fireworks, and come back to find the submarine vanished.

But I’d shown up at a bad time.  A complication.  So Vice-Captain Glenham had sprung his trap on me, alone.

Another wave of dizziness came over me, and I took rapid, short breaths, my limbs growing heavy.  Hira, how the fuck did you miss this?  Hadn’t she read the crew’s minds with her Vocation?

But only for a few seconds.  What if Vice-Captain Glenham had come up with this idea after Hira checked him?

Stupid.  We were such stupid amateurs at this game.

The headache doubled, and my whole vision went blurry.  I slid down the wall, wheezing, my chest aching.

Stop whining and think.  The Vice-Captain wasn’t expecting a projector in his death trap.  He would have left gaps in his plan.

A red light flashed on the ceiling, and a siren shrieked in my ears.  An alarm.  Shaking the crew out of their bunk beds.

My throat clenched.  The crew.  That was my ticket out.  Vice-Captain Glenham was trying to funnel the crew out of the sub, so they wouldn’t find out his murder plans.

And because he knew my abilities.

I stretched my Pith above me, and felt a handful of Piths moving around.  The Vice-Captain’s out of my range.  But the rest of the crew wasn’t.

This is Tunnel Vision!” I shouted with auditory illusions, turning off the alarm in their ears.  “The Vice-Captain’s betrayed us!  I’ve been sealed in the storage room with poison gas!”  I gasped for breath.  “Help me!  Don’t trust the Vice-Captain!

I repeated the message to any souls in range.  From this position, I couldn’t tell which Piths were which.  Just have to hope that some of them are on my side.

The Piths above me moved faster, after I’d sent my message.  Not towards the exit hatch, but the stairway below.  Towards me.

They’ll still have trouble forcing this door open.  Given the thickness of the metal, they might have to blow it with explosives.  I kept fiddling with the door, but nothing moved an inch.  Jun could have done this in a heartbeat.  But I’d let him get captured.

The walls closed in on me.  Nausea bubbled up in my stomach, and my breaths grew desperate, sucking in less and less oxygen with every inhale.  Faster.  Please move faster.

Shouting rang out from the hallway, drowned out by the siren.  Then a pair of gunshots, deafening.  The crew doesn’t have guns.

My stomach sank.  The Vice-Captain must have smuggled some on.  Or stolen one of Hira’s.  Which meant he could slaughter the rest of the crew with impunity.

I stretched my Pith forward and felt others around me in the hallways.  But I couldn’t tell who was who, or what was going on, which meant I couldn’t help much.

The gunshots grew closer, louder.  I slid down the metal wall, my vision growing more blurry, and the cracks seemed to echo in the distance, like I was watching the world through a dark, foggy tunnel.  My lungs pumped, frantic, to no avail.

And then, the hissing sound stopped.  The room still stank of exhaust fumes, but the air duct went silent.  He stopped venting gas in here.  But why?

Another pair of gunshots rang out, just outside the door.  And then a clang.

A spear stabbed through the armored door, punching through the thick steel like it was made of soft cheese.

The spear looked metallic, green.  Voidsteel.  Stained red with blood.  The Vice-Captain didn’t have anything like that.

The gunshots stopped.  The sub went silent.  Even the rumbling of the diesel engine had quieted.

A pair of Voidsteel blades stabbed through the edges of the door, and sliced in a rotating motion, drawing an outline around the frame.  Cutting through the locking mechanism and the hinges.

The metal screeched.  The door tipped over, then slammed onto the floor with a bang.

The toxic engine fumes rushed out of the storage room, mixing with the normal air in the hallway.  I crawled to the hole, taking wheezing breaths with every pull.

But this time, the inhales satisfied my lungs.  Every gasp filled my body with a fresh jolt of life.

Someone saved me.  Hira, perhaps?  Tasia?  But neither of them used a Voidsteel weapon like that.

As I regained my breath, and my vision cleared, I glanced up.

Vice-Captain Glenham hung in the air, his head impaled on a long, narrow spear of blood-soaked Voidsteel.  The same one that punched through the door.  His arms hung limp at his side.  Hira’s black trench shotgun slipped out of his dangling fingers, clattering to the floor.

I stared at the spear, following it down to its base.  It wasn’t just tipped with Voidsteel.  The shaft was Voidsteel.  The entire weapon was a long, thin needle.

No, the spear was a finger.  Elongated and sharpened, extending from a hand made of a liquid green metal.  A hand made of Voidsteel.  Attached to an arm made of Voidsteel.

I blinked, my vision clearing, and saw the face of my savior.  A slender Nekean man.  No, what resembled a slender Nekean man, wearing a light green tunic.  A flowing mass of liquid Voidsteel, molded into the shape of a human and animated.

With one of its fingers stretched out, and stabbed through the roof of a man’s mouth.

The spear pulled out of Vice-Captain Glenham, shrinking back to a normal index finger.  The traitor’s corpse dropped to the floor, splattering blood onto the sub’s metal.

The man made of Voidsteel bowed to me, and smiled.  His mouth opened, and he spoke with a light Nekean accent.

“Anabelle Gage,” he said, his voice soft.  “A pleasure to meet you.”

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Prologue – Free Waffles

Content warning: Severe depression

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On a chill autumn night, two days after his twenty-third birthday, Andrew Huang made a payphone call and learned how the world was going to end.

He picked up the phone on the empty corner of Coach Street and Walnut, at three in the morning in the remote town of Helmfirth, near the heart of the Principality.  It cost him five pence.

When it was done, Andrew let go of the phone and slumped down against the stand.  A thick cloud of despair and apathy settled over him, and he lay there, half-dead, too tired to walk away.  Too tired to stand, even.  The weight of millennia pressed on his shoulders, crushing his spine.

As he lay back, shivering, he closed his eyes, and contemplated the decisions that led him to this point.

Three minutes and thirty-seven seconds later, forty-one Voidsteel-lined V-4 rockets slammed into the town, impacting in a window of twenty seconds, launched from a silo in the Principality’s Glasbron Valley.

Pale flashes of light lit up the sky, turning night into day.  Peals of thunder roared through the air, drowning out sound and thought.  The ensuing blasts leveled every building in Helmfirth, killing every person within miles and setting the forest nearby on fire.

When the smoke cleared, the corpses had been vaporized, or torn to pieces and blackened from the flames, crushed beneath the rubble of their own houses.  Manicured lawns and flower gardens were reduced to ash.  Cafes and bakeries and newspaper stands had been flattened, unrecognizable.

Eventually, the forest fires died out, and the flames over the wooden rubble ebbed, then faded away into the moonless night.

Only silence remained.

________________________________________

To celebrate his twenty-first birthday, Andrew Huang lay in bed.

Not that lying in bed was special.  He did it every day, for hours and hours.

And today, he got to lie in bed and feel even shittier than usual.

Maybe a meteor will strike the planet, he thought.  End this miserable experiment in sentience.  A sweet fantasy, one he imagined often.  He would die, and nobody would remain to gloat over his corpse.

“Do you ever wish you were someone else?” a man shouted on the street outside, into a megaphone.  “Do you ever wish you were living a different person’s life?  A happier person.  More successful.  More attractive.”  His voice sounded distant through Andrew’s drapes.  “Don’t be constrained to dreams!  Open your minds to the Harmonious Flock, and your souls shall gain a thousand facets!”

That Ilaquan street preacher was at it again, right outside the apartment.  Screeching and making noise during Andrew’s prime sleeping hours, noon to four PM.

Andrew turned over in bed and folded his pillow over his ears, muffling the noise further.

Get up, parasite, he told himself.  You’re going to be late for work.

A headache throbbed in the back of his skull, common after lying down for this long.  Afternoon daylight shone in through cracks in his drapes, the dim yellow of the setting sun, taunting him as it left.

It illuminated all of the failures in his studio apartment.  The piles of dirty clothes.  The cigarette butts and cans of Jwala’s Orange Soda and torn food packages, some of them starting to smell funny, filling up his sink and his trash can.

He could have cleaned up, but then it’d get dirty later, and he’d have to clean it again.  And again, and again, and again, until he died.

Andrew couldn’t think of anything more pointless.  And besides, he lived alone and never had people over.  No one important had to endure the filth.

Clean your room, dear, his mother had told him, in that concerned, grating voice of hers.  You’ll feel so much better.  Studies show that people with clean houses are forty-three percent less likely to develop mental health diseases.

A stack of unread Nekean manga sat on the floor.  The Mountain Slayer, an action series.  He was at least several months behind.  A radio sat next to it, turned off.

But Andrew felt too tired to read his favorite manga.  He felt too tired to listen to the radio, even, a passive act that only required him to open his ears.  Fun took too much energy.

He felt too tired to live, even though he spent all day resting.

Andrew looked at his yellow notebook, filled with his scribblings, half-stuffed under his bed.  The scariest item in the room.

The thought that struck him, most of all, was how similar his birthday felt.  Similar to the day before, and the day before that.  Why did I think it would feel different?  Another year.  Another year ticking down from his life.

What was he supposed to do during the afternoons?  His job shifts happened in the evenings.  With their time off, other people might go out for lunch with their friends, go on dates, call up their acquaintances to get drinks or see a movie.

But he had none of those.  He could have called his family, but – 

You are a parasite.  His father’s voice rang in his head.

After months of a gentler approach, his parents had refused to leave meals outside his bedroom door, starving him until he came down for a ‘family meal’.  Then they’d cornered him.

We love you dearly, which lets you hurt us more than anyone alive.  His father’s tough love continued.  Right now, all you do is read your comics and listen to your radio, locked up in your room.  Do you produce anything?  Do you add anything of value to anyone else’s life?  ‘Parasite’ is a strong word.  But maybe that’s what you need.

The 99 Precepts didn’t think much of unemployed people.  Caoism, the ideology of the Black Tortoise, thought even less.  In Shenten, Cao Hui assigned every person an economic score and sent the lowest ones to ‘redemption’ camps, for job training.

The Huang family had moved to the Principality seven years ago, but his father still loved Caoism, still followed tradition with all the discipline of a zealot.

Andrew’s father couldn’t send him to a camp.  But he could kick his son out of the house.

So Andrew had left, before his father got the chance.

And guess what, dad?  I’m not spending your money anymore.  Andrew had his own place, a job.  He had to get one, once he left home, or he’d starve.

Now, he was a functioning member of society.  Ready to work until he died.  Though it wasn’t like his job added any real value to society.

The Shenti had a term called Guolaosi, for when people overworked themselves to death.  The combination of poor diets, anxiety, and grueling schedules caused strokes or heart attacks.  Or workers took their own lives.  That counted as Guolaosi, too.

It sounded like a nice way to die.  Go out working too hard, making rude gestures at your boss and the coroner.  And then his father could read the obituary and feel like a failure.  See, squidfucker?  Your tough love didn’t work.  You don’t get to feel smug about your parenting.

Yes, you have a job, parasite. Andrew yelled at himself, clenching every muscle in his body.  Which you’re going to be late to.  So get the fuck out of bed.  If he stuffed a candy bar and some crackers down his throat, maybe he’d have enough energy for a full shift.

And then, when his shift ended, he could reward himself with a meal from Philosopher’s Waffles, his favorite restaurant.  He could get a whole plate, slather them with dark chocolate sauce and cherries, and scarf them down during a less busy part of the day, when he wouldn’t have to look at couples or friend groups or anyone else that might bother him near his table.

He might go hungry for a few days after that, or skip his next drugstore run for toothpaste and the like.  But if it took that to get him out of bed, then the sacrifice would be worth it.

That’s all he had to look forward to.  The sum total of his plans for the future.  I used to have so much more.

Because, a year ago, the magicians of Paragon Academy had revealed themselves to the world.  An entire secret society, a world of marvels hiding right under their noses.  Matched only by the wizards of the other Four Domains, the other great nations with their own projectors.

The Scholar of Music, the Symphony Knight herself had done a presentation in the town square near him, performing in front of a cheering crowd.  He’d been on his way to buy groceries, otherwise he never would have left his room.

Andrew had seen the crowd on his usual path, and turned away to find another route.

Then, the sound of his footsteps and the cheering crowd had drained out of the air, turning to total silence.

Andrew froze, and an orchestra rang through the quiet, an ensemble of flutes and pianos and horns playing in perfect harmony.

He turned back to the town square, and an ensemble of glowing dots materialized in the air, purple-green, like a swarm of fireflies.  They vibrated, and music came out of them.  Each one of them acted as an instrument, flickering and swirling, like a pattern of shooting stars in the dim evening sky.

Andrew didn’t even like classical music.  But it was the most incredible song he’d ever heard.

Then, the Symphony Knight had floated herself on top of the glowing dots.  A slender beauty with wavy red hair, wearing a bright green gown that flowed around her as she conducted.  She balanced on her tiptoes, each dot strong enough to hold her complete weight.

The entire audience had stared up at her, transfixed.  By her song, by her beauty and her light show, and by the spectacular display of her power and grace.  Andrew stared, too.  Tears welled up at the edges of his eyes, unbidden.  The perfection, the majesty, it all overwhelmed him at once.

Andrew froze up when looking at girls half as pretty as the Symphony Knight.  The woman’s beauty made the effect a thousand times stronger, more overwhelming.

Then the music stopped.  The Symphony Knight balanced on top of a single floating dot, hair flowing behind her, as the audience sobbed and applauded and cheered.

She bowed, and launched into a speech, her voice ringing through the town square.

“There are rare individuals!” she shouted.  “Around the world.  Born with the incredible gift of projection, who can apply to Paragon Academy and join us in our eternal quest.  To defend this nation.  To discover the secrets of the universe, of the human soul.  To achieve enlightenment, and forge the stars in our image.”  She smiled, and her face looked more radiant than the sun.

For a moment, Andrew forgot his misery.  He raced forward, and grabbed one of the pamphlets being handed out by Paragon representatives, along with a practice test to see how he’d fare applying to the academy.

He bought his groceries, raced home, and imagined himself as a mythical Guardian, blessed with a unique, powerful Vocation.  He pictured himself going to Paragon Academy, and going on adventures overseas in his wingsuit, fighting enemies and performing feats of heroism.

Just like the main characters of his manga.  Ordinary people, that got pulled into fantastical worlds where they could learn ultimate power and engage in epic melees, surrounded by beautiful girls, admirers, and friends.

Then, Andrew started the practice test, and gave up a quarter of the way through.  All the sections seemed impossible, requiring feats of math and science and strategy that dwarfed anything he’d ever done.  Just that fraction took him an hour longer than the time allotted for the entire exam.

And the critical reasoning section asked for an essay.  Common wasn’t his first language, and the test had no option to fill it out in any other way.

Andrew had always had trouble with writing.  Even Shenti, his first language, had taken him years longer to master than normal students.  Xue Feng, Andrew’s best friend, had helped him with class assignments, so he didn’t fall behind too much.  Eventually, Andrew got up to a respectable level.

But when the Huang family had migrated to the Principian city of Alcaross for his father’s job, Andrew had to learn Common on his own.  A whole new hell.

Thanks to the war, the Principality held no great love for its Shenti citizens.  All the signs had been written in Common, and almost nobody spoke their native tongue.  It made the job hunt even more impossible.  And Andrew could forget about making new friends.

The Shenti had a community of sorts in Elmidde, on Gestalt Island, but to be honest, Andrew’s other countrymen didn’t like him much either.  They saw him as a slacker, a weirdo with weird interests and no respect for tradition.  Parasite.  You are a parasite.

And trying to write an essay in Common was the deepest nightmare he could conceive of.  It wanted eight paragraphs arguing for or against a philosophical statement, using examples both from his own life and from history.

Andrew couldn’t have done that in two years.  Giving him half an hour was just cruel.

So Andrew just accepted it.  Magic was real.  But he wasn’t a wizard, and would never be.  Paragon offered pamphlets on how to resist Nudging, a common and dangerous technique, but the information looked dense, unintuitive.  Paragon offered free classes to go with the pamphlets, but the lotteries were always overstuffed.  And Andrew didn’t want to go to some lecture hall where an instructor would shout at him.

No, Andrew was what they called a “Humdrum”, through and through.

And that was so much worse than before.

You don’t know real pain, but you will, he thought, shaking himself out of his stupor.  If you get fired, you’ll never get a new job.  He would get kicked onto the streets like a feral dog.  Get the fuck out of bed.

Andrew curled up under the covers, and buried his face in his pillow.  A headache throbbed in the back of his skull, and his muscles ached where they’d been pressing into the mattress, his joints stiff like an old man’s.

Xue Feng could have gotten him out of bed.  He always knew how to pull Andrew out of these spirals.  No one else at high school had bothered talking to the quiet kid.  He was invisible to most of them, and the ones that saw him thought of him as creepy.

But Xue Feng, outgoing and curious, had adopted him, took the time to eat lunches with him and hang out after school.  They’d read manga and listened to the radio and hiked to the interesting nooks and crannies in the snowy woods outside town.  Xue Feng had regaled him with his scientific theories about gold semiconductors, and Andrew had nodded along, pretending to understand.

Andrew didn’t love school, but Xue Feng made him want to love school.  And for a time, he wasn’t alone.

“Do you ever wish you were someone else?” the preacher shouted, starting his speech again.  “Do you ever wish you were living a different person’s life?  A happier person.  More successful.  More attractive.”  Shut up.  Please, shut up.  “Don’t be constrained to dreams!  Open your minds to the Harmonious Flock, and your souls shall gain a thousand facets!”

Xue Feng’s not here, parasite.  Just Andrew, and his boss, and this rotting world.  So get the fuck out of bed and go to work.

But for that, he’d have to get dressed, change into a whole new outfit.  Walk to the tram and endure an entire shift, then come back and get ready to do it again.  Dying a slow death from unemployment wasn’t fun, but it sounded better than that.

And Xue Feng might not even have been real.

Who is Xue Feng? His father had said to him.

My best friend! Andrew had shouted.  You’ve talked to him dozens of times, he’s slept over here.  And now he’s missing.  We have to do something.

A mixture of concern and horror had descended over his mother’s voice.  Andrew, I have no idea who you’re talking about.

Andrew had gone to the police, but none of them had any record of Feng.  He’d gone to Feng’s house, and the boy’s parents had no recollection of their son.  Feng’s photos were still in the school yearbook, but nobody except Andrew seemed to notice them.

He’d showed the photos to his parents, the police, everyone.  But no one else noticed them.

It was like Andrew’s friend had never existed.

Andrew had dropped it.  Nobody believed him, and he didn’t want to get sent to a mental hospital.  He kept his grief to himself, letting it out when he tried to fall asleep, crying and shaking on his bed.

A part of him held onto Xue Feng.  His friend had existed, and vanished, for some reason.

But those thoughts faded over time.  Because it didn’t matter if his friend had been real.  Because he only existed in Andrew’s head, now.

If Xue Feng was here, maybe Andrew could have made something out of his life.  Wouldn’t be such a worthless loner, who’d never kissed anyone except his mother.  He’d wanted to be an archaeologist, exploring the ruins of Great Scholars and uncovering buried secrets.

But there were no jobs in Archaeology, no money.  He’d gone to college to learn history, to become a teacher.  But that hadn’t lasted either.

I’m so tired of this.  But dying sounded so painful.

If he could just pass away in his sleep, that would be best.  In some way that didn’t traumatize his landlady when she found his body, that didn’t force other people to clean up his rotting corpse, and wouldn’t make his mother sad.

Andrew wished he could disappear, just like Xue Feng.  That someone would just write him out of reality.

Alright, he promised himself.  If you get up and go to work, I’ll reward you with some planning.  The forbidden type of planning, that ended with him vanishing.

Andrew opened his eyes, threw his covers aside, and pushed himself out of bed.

________________________________________

Andrew showed up to work just in time, out of breath from the tram he’d sprinted to catch up to.

Some oil magnate was holding a birthday party in a Hightown ballroom, so he’d picked Milk and Honey to cater for him.  No guests had shown up yet, but the caterers had to set up in advance.

Andrew’s dress shirt looked wrinkled at the bottom, unironed.  And he hadn’t had time to shower, so he probably smelled bad, with some kinks in his hair.

But still, Andrew had shown.  He’d pulled himself together just in time.

Simon, his boss, glanced at him.  “You look sick, Huang.”

“I’m fine, sir,” Andrew lied.

Simon sniffed.  “Go to the bathroom and throw on some deodorant, at least, please.  We’re in food services.”

You disgust him.  You disgust everyone.  Andrew’s stomach clenched.

Andrew put on his mask, the blank, easy smile of a waiter.

Father said a job would build my social skills.  And he’d been right.  Now, in the prime of his life, Andrew was a friendless virgin who also knew how to serve appetizers to rich people.

“Right away, sir.”  Andrew nodded, and jogged over to the bathroom.

His co-workers had gathered in a group, leaning on the only sink.  They murmured, gathered around a thick red tome.  The 99 Precepts.  The foundational text of the Shenti’s philosophy.  Andrew caught snippets of their conversation.

“I really can’t – “

“Incredible – “

“If that’s not fucking magic, right there, I don’t know what – “

“Um,” said Andrew.  “Excuse me.  Sorry.”  He stared at the ground, avoiding eye contact.

The closest one, Edward, looked at him.

Ask them.  Or Simon is going to yell at you.  Andrew’s stomach ache doubled.

“Hey, um,” said Andrew, his Shenti accent slipping through.  “Do any of you guys have deodorant I can borrow?  The boss says I need some, but I, um, forgot to bring any.”

A spark lit up in Edward’s eyes.  “Huang,” he said.  “You listen to the news lately?”

Andrew shook his head.  The war stressed him out, and that’s all the news talked about these days.  Which city the Shenti had taken.  Which battle group was engaging the Black Tortoise’s forces.  And now, which magical Guardian was fighting where, engaging the enemy’s fearsome Commandos.

At this rate, Cao Hui would take over all Eight Oceans, the Principality included, and send Andrew’s life into an even deeper hell.  He didn’t need reminders of that.

Another boy, Oliver, stifled a laugh, and extended The 99 Precepts towards him.  “Want to try reading this out loud for us?  Any passage.”

Andrew kept staring at his feet, at the green tiles on the bathroom floor.  “I’m, um, not a Caoist.”  Not a follower of the Black Tortoise’s strict interpretations of the text.  “I don’t follow any of the teachings in it.”

“Sure,” said Oliver.  “But can you read it anyway?”

This sounded like some sort of prank.  But it seemed harmless, and if he did what they said, maybe they’d let him borrow their deodorant.

Andrew flipped to a random page in the middle, and recited the first line his eyes landed on.  “‘No,” said The General.  ‘I fight three wars.  One with the Qishou, one with my nation, and one with myself.  If I neglect any one of them, then our libraries shall burn and my nightmares shall crawl over the ashes.

The boys broke out into laughter.  Edward doubled over, leaning on his knees.  “The look on your face.”

Andrew’s throat clenched, and he felt a pressure behind his eyes, tears of embarrassment waiting to burst forth.  They’re laughing at me.  But why?  “What’s so funny?”

Oliver snickered.  “You can’t read it!  You can’t read any of it.”

“No,” said Andrew, confused.  “I just read a line from it.”  He looked at the line and read it again, articulating every word.  “I fight three wars.  One with the Qishou, one with my nation, and one with myself.

“You didn’t read shit,” said Edward.  “Your freak religion has been wiped off the planet.  And now, you’re losing the war.”

Andrew read another passage out loud, from a different page.  “The General wept, and the blood of his wounds mixed with the blood of his foes.  When he looked at his red-soaked palms, he could not tell them apart.”  He spoke in Common, not Shenti.

His co-workers kept laughing, none of them reacting to the phrase he’d just thrown at them.  This has to be another prank.  A stupid one, that made no sense to him.  Just go along with it.

Andrew handed the book back to them.  “You got me,” he mumbled.

Edward stuffed his hand into a backpack, and tossed Andrew a can of deodorant.  “Hey.  It’s fine, it’s just a bit of fun.  No need to get worried about it.”

Andrew sprayed under his arms, on his chest, and once on his face, the fresh scent covering up his body odor.

He tossed it back, went up to a sink, and smoothed down his hair.  When he went back to the kitchen, his boss gave him a platter of pomegranate lamb skewers.  “You’re up, Huang.”

Andrew steeled his mask and strode into the ballroom, balancing it on his palm.  What were those boys playing at?  The platter wobbled, and he caught it with his other hand.  Stay focused, or Simon will fire you.

Men and women chatted with each other in the ballroom, wearing expensive suits and dresses, all of them looking young and beautiful and perfect.  Other caterers milled around the social circles, carrying platters of appetizers and fizzy wine, the dappled light of the chandeliers shining over their flawed faces.

Andrew approached a group of men, with a blank smile on his face.  “Shimofuri Lamb with a pomegranate-garlic glaze.”  A few of them grabbed skewers off his plate.

This was Andrew’s job.  To serve appetizers to rich people too lazy to walk to a buffet table.

But technically, it was a job, which meant Andrew stood a few millimeters above the bottom of the barrel, in the eyes of society.  And it paid for his cheap noodles and manga and the rent on his miserable cage.

As Andrew patrolled the ballroom, he listened in on conversations to pass the time.  A lot of it seemed boring.  Who snubbed who, who the cliques secretly hated and which Paragon students looked promising.  Even when Andrew walked next to them, the party guests kept talking about their private matters, as though he were invisible.

But then, Andrew started hearing conversations about the war, and a startling new development.  It seemed like the Principality had done something to The 99 Precepts.  The Shenti holy book had been wiped out of reality, pulled into some parallel, alternate mode of existence.  No one could remember a single word from it, or comprehend a single line of its text.

Now, every Caoist on the planet had lost their core beliefs, with no way to get them back.  They called it the Spirit Block.

But I can read it, Andrew protested in his head.  I read those lines in the bathroom.

Later that night, after work, Andrew listened to the news broadcast and found out just how strange the world had become.

Nobody else on the news seemed to have this unique ability, this power to see through the lock on The 99 Precepts.  Cao Hui’s empire was collapsing because of this “Spirit Block”.  With no ideology to hold them together, the Shenti people were committing suicide en masse, or were giving up and refusing to fight, refusing to go to work at their factories.

Cao Hui, the Black Tortoise himself, had gone missing, and his opportunist generals were squabbling amongst themselves.  Infighting had already started between some divisions of troops, and all offensive operations against other nations had ceased.

In a single day, the Shenti War had ended.  Not with a battle, but a spell.  The Principality’s projection had, somehow, wiped an entire set of beliefs out of the world.

So, Andrew felt special for a few months.  For once in his life, he had an ability that no one else did.  Not even fancy Praxis projectors who could modify their own minds.

He could see through the hole in reality.

It didn’t take long for the thrill to fade, though.

Because it didn’t matter, his special ability.  He couldn’t use it to make money, or do anything fun like wingsuit flying.  All it let him do was read a book.  He didn’t even like The 99 precepts.  When he tried reading through it, it took him weeks just to get through the first few sections.

This ability hadn’t gone to a priest, or a devout Caoist.  It had gone to some random filth, who didn’t even care.  Fate’s cruel sense of humor.  And it wasn’t like Andrew could share this with anyone.

For all Andrew knew, he was deluding himself again, just like with Xue Feng’s existence.  He had no way to verify it.  And all the isolation, the erratic sleep schedules, the shitty food.  None of those helped his sanity.

Andrew could offer himself up as a guinea pig.  To Paragon or Cao Hui’s crumbling empire.  But the Principality had shown him nothing but cruelty, and the Black Tortoise’s world deserved to burn.

At the end of the day, he was still a Humdrum.  A friendless Humdrum who’d never even held a girl’s hand.  Not that he blamed them.  Rejecting Andrew was a sign of common sense.

So the novelty faded.  And Andrew’s life settled back to its normal monotony.

He woke up at all the wrong hours, lay in bed all day, and struggled through his catering gig in the evenings.  He read porn magazines and manga to give himself brief flits of escapism, before he remembered where he was.

This time, he started to notice all the aches and pains in his body.  His skin itched from the bedspread.  His stomach burned from all the trash he stuffed into it.  His crying sessions and drinking and long stints in bed left him shriveled up and dehydrated, cursed with headaches and parched lips and dizzy spells and nausea, often all at once.  Every waking moment, he wanted to lie down and fall asleep, but he never got any proper rest, lying in a perpetual middle ground between consciousness and dream.

And this is my fleeting youth.  One afternoon, Andrew had a vivid dream about his fortieth birthday.  About lying in this apartment, a middle-aged man, with nothing else different in his life.

He woke up covered in sweat, an empty candy wrapper lying on his pillow.  The mental agony was like a dull knife, tunneling into his skull.

So Andrew picked up his yellow notebook again, and started researching methods.  At first, to distract himself from the screaming agony.  And then, to give himself twinges of feeling.  Something to look forward to, to get him out of bed.

Then, he catered for an Epistocrat party.  Some charity gala, for the Elmidde Symphony.  The orchestra charges a hundred pounds a ticket.  They didn’t need charity.  Where were the galas for underemployed lonely trash bags?

But he showered for it.  He got dressed, froze a smile on his face.  And he found himself wandering around a massive rooftop patio, a warm summer breeze drifting over the hardwood floor and the fire pits.

Andrew balanced a platter of chocolate-hazelnut mini-eclairs on his palm, and offered them to men and women with breathtaking beauty.  All rich people, nowadays, had a certain raw elegance about them, but Epistocrats were on a different level.  They made the normal rich people look like wrinkled anglerfish.

He stepped behind a dark-haired man and a blonde woman in animated conversation, preparing to offer them a micro-dessert.

Then the man spoke.  “The wise man will never provoke war.

Andrew froze.  That’s a line from The 99 Precepts.

But if war is provoked on him,” said the woman.  “The wise man will achieve victory.

Andrew’s throat clenched.  He hadn’t heard a line like that since the Spirit Block – not spoken by another human being.

“So you’ve become a member,” the man said.  “Congratulations.”

“‘Egress’ is a pretty silly name,” said the woman.  “But it makes a certain sort of sense.  But shouldn’t we keep this conversation to a more private setting?”

The man laughed.  “The Spirit Block has dealt with that problem.  Even if someone listens in, they won’t pick up anything important.  And without that line you just said, they can’t impersonate us, either.  We use memory wipes on ourselves a great deal on our operations, so catching up is part of the game.”

Andrew’s skin turned to ice.  The warm rooftop became a frozen tundra.  He turned away and glanced at them from the corner of his eye, so it didn’t look too suspicious.

“If you want to keep up,” the man said.  “You’ll have to think sharper than that.  And besides – ”  He indicated his hand around him.  “We’re in the presence of friends.”

“Who else is a member here?”

“Not everyone in Paragon,” the man said.  “But more than you think.  And a good chunk in the field, or in deep cover.  The woman who invited us here is in on it too, Scholars know why.  She’s a complete book-burning idiot.  I can’t say more than that, not at your current level.  Most people, even Guardians, aren’t ready to know what we know.”

Andrew’s palm grew sweaty beneath his platter.  The party faded out in the background.  The spectacular view of Elmidde turned to a blur.

“That’s what the Lavender Book’s for,” the woman said.

The man nodded.  “If the wrong people found out about our plan, the entire thing could collapse.  Our allies are strong, but our enemies wield unimaginable power.  And if the public found out what we’ve done…”  He shook his head.

“And do members receive any concrete benefits?” said the woman.

The man chuckled.  “You’re saving humanity.  Isn’t that good enough for you?”

“I know, but I was hoping – “

“For your debt to be forgiven?” the man said.  “For Afzal Kahlin to be arrested?”

The woman said nothing in response.

“I know all about your money troubles, Rowyna Ebbridge.”  The man’s voice hardened.  “And this isn’t a country club.  We’re not here to bail you out.”

“Of course, sir.”  A note of pain drifted into Rowyna’s curt tone.

“Prove your worth, and we can help you.  But not before.”

How do I prove my worth?” said Rowyna.  “I barely understand it right now.  The mechanics, the laws, the calculations.  It’s almost impossible to wrap my head around.”

“You don’t need the details,” the man said.  “But we will prevail.”

“Either that,” said Rowyna.  “Or the water drowns us all.”

“When its host is dead,” the man said.  “A parasite will eat itself.”

An eclair slid off of Andrew’s platter and landed on the floor.  His stomach wrenched.

He turned away from the two of them, weaved through the crowd to the edge of the patio, and staggered into the side bathroom, the one for the servants.

Andrew dropped his platter on one of the sinks, and doubled over, dizzy.  He turned on a faucet and splashed water in his face, then grabbed an eclair off his platter and stuffed it into his mouth.

The world blurred around him.  What the fuck did I just hear?

Edward, his co-worker, stepped into the bathroom, his hand covered in meat gravy.  “You look like dog vomit,” he said.  “Boss yell at you again?”

A thousand thoughts swirled within Andrew’s head, pushing out everything else.

“When its host is dead,” murmured Andrew under his breath.  “A parasite will eat itself.”

Edward looked at Andrew, confused, as he washed his hands.  “What?”

“It’s a saying I heard, once,” said Andrew.  “When its host is dead, a parasite will eat itself.

“What saying?  You haven’t been saying shit.”

When its host is dead,” said Andrew, again.  “A parasite will eat itself.

Edward scowled at him.  “Are you going to talk, or are you just going to stand there gawking at me?”

It hit Andrew.  That piece of information is like The 99 Precepts.  Written out of reality.  Unknowable, except to him, and now, the trusted members of this Egress thing, too.

“I’m sorry,” said Andrew.  “I’m feeling really bad.  Can you tell the boss I went home?  I’m spending one of my sick days.”

Edward dried his hands, grabbed a mini-eclair, and tossed it into his mouth.  “Will do.”

It took all of Andrew’s energy to make it to the tram station.  He slumped down on the seat, his hair coated with sweat, water dripping off his face, as the city rushed by him and the tram puttered down the slopes of Mount Elwar.

Then, a short walk, a few agonizing flights of stairs, and he was back home.  Andrew slammed the door behind him, jumped on his bed, and curled up, shivering, even though his room felt warmer than ever.

He didn’t sleep that night.  He didn’t even change out of his work clothes.  Egress.  The Lavender Book.  The rising water.  When its host is dead, a parasite will eat itself.  And a conspiracy of people that also had his ability to peer through the Spirit Block.

In the morning, Andrew ran to the library, still wearing his servant’s uniform, and rifled through old editions of newspapers to see who this “Rowyna Ebbridge” was.  An Epistocrat.  Married to a former newspaper tycoon, who lost his popularity and fortune after the Pyre Witch shattered the Treaty of Silence.

Then, he rifled through pictures and catalogs of known Epistocrats.  The gleaming profiles and the magazine spreads about their glamorous lives.  Finally, he found the man she’d been talking to.  Lord Chester Benthey.  An admiral in the navy.  Another Epistocrat, another figure with limitless prestige and clout.

And he’d said there were other conspirators in Paragon.  Not everyone, but more than you think.

And of all the heroes who could have uncovered this, all of the powerful projectors and savvy investigators, Andrew had stumbled onto this.

This doesn’t change who you are.  The core of his failure.  But still, he had a unique opportunity.  A person who could see through the Spirit Block, but hadn’t joined this ‘Egress’ conspiracy.  The ones talking about committing atrocities.

It gnawed at his curiosity, the way nothing had before.  An unanswered question, with implications that could be devastating.  Andrew needed to know the answer to this puzzle.

And so he had a purpose, for the time being.

When he got home from the library, he kicked his yellow notebook full of methods under the bed.  I don’t need you.  Not yet.

Andrew would solve the greatest riddle in the universe.  Then, he would kill himself.

________________________________________

Andrew swapped his yellow notebook with a new one.  Purple, to match the mysterious lavender book the conspirators had mentioned.

And he stopped spending his days asleep, or reading manga, or listening to the radio with his mind rotting.  He had work to do.

Getting information on this “Egress” conspiracy would be difficult.  The conspirators valued their secrecy, and would kill Andrew, or worse, if they found out how much he knew.

And Andrew couldn’t even win fistfights against grade school bullies, so taking on a Guardian sounded like a tall order.  His unique Spirit Block abilities hadn’t given him anything with actual power.  He was still a Humdrum, despite all this.

But Ebbridge and Benthey hadn’t been talking in a dark alleyway, or a secluded chamber.  They’d been discussing their plans at a cocktail party, surrounded by non-members and caterers.

They’re relying on the Spirit Block.  That strange effect that prevented everyone outside the conspiracy from hearing even the most basic concepts.  Everyone but Andrew.

Which meant there could be other details, other elements hiding in plain sight.

As Andrew assembled the basics, he checked out books from the library, for the first time in years.  He’d loved reading as a child, but these days, even getting through a few chapters felt like such a chore.

Andrew took out every pneumatology book he could get – anything left open to the public that talked about the complex mechanics of the Pith.  All of them had been written in Common, with tiny letters and no paragraph breaks, which made his eyes ache when he tried to read them.

But he struggled through it, fueling himself with a diet of coffee and chocolate and Jwala’s Orange Soda, rather than sleep.  He learned basics, like Rashi’s Three Laws, and more advanced concepts, like Pith Burning and the Synapse.  He studied how babies picked up projection, which involved a lot of talk about genes and evolution and innate ability.  Though pneumatologists didn’t seem to know much about that subject.

Andrew spent the whole weekend thinking over these details.  Then he took another sick day.  He paced back and forth around the room, bouncing concepts and theories and ideas around in his head, stepping over piles of food wrappers and empty beer cans, his room turned to an oven of stale body odor.

He was on to something.  The rest of the world could wait.

After his second sick day, Andrew did go to work for the week, since he didn’t want to get fired, but he barely got anything done there, his mind focused on the puzzle rather than his platter of wine glasses.

As he researched pneumatology, Andrew looked into the two conspirators, and Paragon Academy itself.

He found the basics of Rowyna Ebbridge – that could be found in the public record.  Her youth, marred by rowdy public behavior and alcoholism.  Her young adulthood at Paragon, where she’d inexplicably pulled her act together.  Her marriage to Athel Ebbridge, the son of a newspaper tycoon, before their newspapers went under.  And her meteoric rise through the ranks of the Principian Navy, earning the nickname “The Typhoon of the South”.

General Benthey’s profile had less on his personal life, just his impeccable record on the field and his careful stratagems.

As for Paragon itself, all the history books had only the boring, basic details, the ones revealed five minutes after the Treaty of Silence had ended.  Its noble and esteemed history.  The formation of the Conclave of the Wise, and all of the noble decisions they’d made to intervene in other nations’ barbaric affairs.  The various heroes it had produced, and a list of its headmasters over the centuries.

Nothing about its shadier affairs.  Nothing about its ancient history, or its founding, or any hints towards the conspiracy.

So Andrew looked into the history of the Great Scholars, the magnificent civilization that came before.  The philosophical root of all Four Domains.

And how they died, by a great drowning, that created Eight Oceans and turned their tallest skyscrapers into buoys.  A cataclysm that ripped apart their civilization and erased the stars from the sky.

But when they’d drowned, so many of their records had vanished.  Their philosophies had survived, but their histories had been destroyed, to the point where modern researchers weren’t even sure what their technology had been.  Were they masters of engineering and science, or medieval thinkers who’d used projection to compensate for their primitive machines?

Historians knew that Voidsteel had been a significant part of their culture.  Great Scholar ruins were often made of the stuff, common enough to be used as a building material.  As a result, most of the available ruins had been ransacked by governments or scavengers.  Archaeologists and historians had objected, hundreds of years ago, but no one in power had given a shit.  More records lost, melted down and repurposed for the modern world.

The rest of the Great Scholar ruins sat on the ocean floor.  Below the ten thousand foot marker, the lowest depth that humans could legally go.

In the older years, during the Treaty of Silence, it hadn’t been illegal, just dangerous.  The projector-run governments of the world had talked about the great dangers of going down there – storm krakens and water pressure and the like.  But now, certain records had been released, and it turned out, projectors didn’t go that deep either, though submarine technology and projection could protect them from the pressures there.  When anyone descended past a certain point, communications went haywire, and they vanished.

The public had pressed governments for answers.  Why can’t we go past ten thousand feet?  For that matter, why couldn’t people go higher in the sky?

The governments of the world had collectively shrugged their shoulders, and answered: More krakens.  The ravages of low atmosphere.

Ranjil Nagashima was not satisfied by this explanation.  A Nekean scientist with big ideas, he’d built a helium balloon and a gondola to go twenty-five thousand feet above sea level, since none of his probes had come back, or successfully sent back information.

What happened to stars?  He’d said.  I want to see.

So he’d gone, equipped with a high-powered radio, and, more importantly, armored message packets, that he could write notes in, seal, and drop out of his balloon every thousand feet, for when his radio failed.

Hundreds of telescopes had aimed at him, hoping to see his progress.  Then, he’d risen into a thicket of clouds, out of sight.

Ranjil Nagashima never came back down.  Nor did any radio broadcasts, or message packets, or even the remnants of his balloon.  He’d vanished.

This would come to be known as ‘The Nagashima Incident’.  A month later, the governments of the world passed laws to make future expeditions illegal.

This did not help with the conspiracy theories.  He went to heaven and ascended to the afterlife.  He met the gods of the moon, entered the gateway of the universe, and kissed the Oversoul.  The whole planet is inside a giant Voidsteel cage and the government doesn’t want us to know.

Theories or no, everyone knew the implications of this.  This world is a cage.  Locked in from above, by whatever had made the stars vanish, and locked in from below, by the force that made the seas rise.

But why?  Who, or what, had built this massive prison for humanity?

Someone knows.  Someone had to know.  That was the answer to the universe’s puzzle.

A stabbing pain erupted in Andrew’s stomach, dragging him back to reality from his swirling, chaotic thoughts.

Andrew doubled over, kneading his belly.  I’ve been eating too much.  Or too little.  And missing a few nights of sleep.  He felt dizzy, too.  Thirsty, with a throbbing headache at the back of his skull.  And he’d run out of sick days.

That’s fine, he thought.  Because now that he’d done research, he could run tests.  Gather information without breaking into Paragon, which was impossible.

At his next catering gig, some party for a yacht club, Andrew gathered every bit of courage in his body, and chatted with his co-workers in the bathroom.  Even though it made him want to crawl under a table and cry.

Andrew tried to steer the conversation towards the history of Paragon and the Great Scholars, with some pneumatology on the side.  And he floated his theories to them, his best ideas.  If a piece of information had been blocked from his co-workers, incomprehensible to them, then that meant the Spirit Block was locking away that specific bit of knowledge.  That meant it was true.

With this method, Andrew could brute-force information by sheer process of elimination.  Figure out what the Spirit Block was blocking, besides The 99 Precepts.

But after a few clumsy attempts, Andrew lost all hope for this method.  He barely knew anything about this conspiracy, which meant his test statements were shooting in the dark.  And for all he knew, the Spirit Block could be wiping out false information, too.  It could be slicing away the truth with a broad axe, to prevent this exact sort of testing.

He tried anyway, but the conversations earned Andrew confusion and irritation from his co-workers.  And almost nothing else.

After the fourth failure, Andrew concluded that he had only one path forward: spying on another conversation.  Listening in to more conspirators like Ebbridge and Benthey who thought that nobody could hear their secrets.

Lucky for Andrew, his catering company served food at lots of fancy, exclusive events, so he’d have lots more opportunities.

Andrew finished serving his mini-tarts, helped clean up, and walked towards the exit door, ready to go home and do some more reading.

Simon, his boss, stepped in front of him, blocking his path.  “Hey, Andrew,” he said.

Oh, no.  Andrew’s chest tightened.  “Um, hi.  Is everything okay?”

“I just want to tell you – “ his boss said.  “There’s no need for you to come into work tomorrow.  Or any days after that.”

Andrew blinked, confused.  “What?”

Simon’s voice grew tight.  “You skip days when we’re understaffed.”

On official sick days.

“You wander around like some drunk bum and take twice as long to serve than the other waiters.”  He clenched his teeth.  “And, you’re unhygienic, in a job that handles food.

“I – I’m sorry,” said Andrew, feeling tears of embarrassment well up at the edges of his eyes.  Don’t cry, it’ll make you look pathetic.  Imagining that scenario only made the tears stronger.

“I’ve talked to you about this before,” said Simon.  “But it seems like you’re not interested in changing.  So I’m afraid we have to end our relationship.”

A normal person might have protested, begged or argued.

“I understand,” mumbled Andrew.  “I’m sorry.”

Then he turned and speed-walked away.  The tram ride and the trip back to his apartment went by in a blur.  When he got back to his studio, Andrew slumped down on the bed and didn’t move.

Andrew was no longer a crusader for truth.  He was just a virgin in his twenties, who smelled like fish sweat and had no friends.  And now, unemployed too.

Welfare and unemployment could keep him afloat for a while, but in this state, how was he supposed to find a new job?  Without a good reference, he had almost no chance of getting another waiter gig.  Not with his problems, and his Shenti accent, and in this economy.

And without his catering job, Andrew had no way to listen in on Epistocrat conversations.  No way to get new information on Egress.

Stupid, fucking book-burning idiot.  Worthless, inhuman filth.

His obsession with the research had sabotaged him, preventing him from holding down his job.  And now, Andrew had come to a dead end.  He would die without ever knowing the answer to his puzzle.

“Do you ever wish you were someone else?” the preacher shouted outside.  “Do you ever wish you were living a different person’s life?  A happier person.  More successful.  More attractive.” Repeating his speech.  “Don’t be constrained to dreams!  Open your minds to the Harmonious Flock, and your souls shall gain a thousand facets!”

So many preachers.  So many solutions.  Clean your room.  Learn to speak Common.  Apply to become a Guardian.  Join the Harmonious Flock.

This time, Andrew didn’t even have his work to push him out of bed.  He couldn’t even drag himself up for food.  When the hunger pangs grew too intense, he ate a bag of crackers, or swallowed a few candy bars.  But he ate just a single meal a day, or less.

His appetite had shrunk to that of a locust.  A pitiable, filthy one.  Parasite.  You are a parasite, his father said.

What would Xue Feng think of me, now?  Would he still care about Andrew, feel his pain and help him back on his feet?  Or would he get tired of his spiraling, hopeless friend and move on?

Maybe it’s better that he never existed.  That Xue Feng didn’t have to watch his friend become such a wretch.

Andrew felt too tired to cry, too tired to scream or beat himself up more.  He stopped reading his manga, stopped listening to the radio.  On many days, he didn’t even change his clothes, which, combined with his skipped showers, made the stench even worse.

In a few months, the unemployment checks would end, but Andrew couldn’t bring himself to care.

After another few weeks of this, Andrew summoned up all the energy in his bones, threw off his covers, and fished his yellow notebook out from under his bed.

He opened it up, picked up a pencil, and started making plans for his demise again.  And that, more than anything else, gave him energy back.  For once, he got to control something in his life, build towards something that wouldn’t be ripped away.

He ran the numbers, and his odds seemed good, especially if he did it in the early, dark morning, making him harder to fish out of the water.  Jumping didn’t require health insurance to obtain meds, or a proper gun permit, neither of which he could afford at the moment.  A good budget solution for his needs.

It’s settled, then.  The thought filled him with relief.

At first, Andrew set the date for a month from now.  The next day, something cracked in his shoulders when he crawled out of bed to buy groceries.  He saw a girl at the twenty-four-hour store, buying cigarettes at two in the morning.  Pretty, his age, with dark circles under her eyes and smeared eyeliner.

Andrew avoided looking at her, kept his distance to avoid making her uncomfortable.

It didn’t matter.  She took one look at Andrew, put down her cigarettes, and hustled out of the store to her car, driving away without buying anything.  I terrify her.  And he didn’t blame her.

That night, he changed the date.  Why the fuck wait?

Andrew was going to do it right here, this morning.  In two hours, at four AM.  No prep needed.

With the sudden burst of energy, he shaved, showered himself, changed into a clean set of clothes.

An hour later, Andrew walked through his neighborhood, one last time, in the peaceful twilight, under the warm light of the streetlamps.  The busy roads had emptied, the rest of Elmidde asleep.

A magical hour, when the sun had almost risen, and it felt like Andrew was the only person in the world.  An hour that belonged to the insomniacs and the loners.  People who had no motivation to fall asleep, and no motivation to wake up.

Andrew stuck his hands in his pockets, walking in the center of the street, past darkened storefronts and houses and apartment buildings.  Past the town square where the Ilaquan preacher shouted from, with a burbling fountain in the center.

He sighed.  It’s a nice view.

Andrew turned and started on the path towards North Bridge.

Then he stopped.  Philosopher’s Waffles, his favorite spot, had a new sign out front.

NEW SALE!
1 FREE WAFFLE DISH WITH EVERY BREAKFAST FOOD AFTER 1PM ON WEEKDAYS

They must be trying to pick up business during quiet days.  When they didn’t have weekend traffic or the morning breakfast rush.

An incredible sale.  You could buy a cheaper breakfast food, like a single sausage or an egg, and leverage that into a free platter of high-quality waffles.  And Andrew loved eating in near-empty restaurants.

Andrew had never seen anything that good from Philosopher’s Waffles.  And he hadn’t eaten there since getting fired, thanks to his money situation.

Should try that.  He’d been craving those waffles for a while.

He turned around, walked home, and went back to bed in his apartment.  I can wait a day, right?  He wasn’t in any rush.

The next day, at 3:30 in the afternoon, Andrew went to Philosopher’s Waffles.  The perfect time – after the lunch rush, and before early dinner-eaters.

As expected, the place had emptied, despite the sale.  The waiters were off shift or on breaks.  The only other human in the building was the owner, an old Nekean lady he’d seen around the place before.

Andrew sat down in a booth and ordered a breakfast sausage, with a free add-on of his usual meal: Waffles with cherries and dark chocolate sauce.  The old woman took his order, nodding.  I’ll give her a big tip.  He was going to kill himself tomorrow anyways, so he could spare the change.

Then he pulled out the Mountain Slayer volumes he’d fallen behind on, and started reading them.

A few minutes later, the old lady came out with a steaming plate and set it in front of him.  It looked like she’d added extra chocolate sauce, slathering it on until it formed a miniature lake beneath the waffles.  Perfect.

Andrew cut into the first waffle, and the old woman called out to him.  “Wait.”

A cringing sense of dread washed over Andrew.  Oh Scholars, no.  Was she going to start up a conversation?  Make small talk?

What if she asked what Andrew did for a living?  He wouldn’t be able to give a convincing lie.  And then she’d be disgusted by him.  What a worthless, unemployed slob, she’d think.  In his early twenties, and already such a great failure.

Andrew’s throat clenched.  His hands shook under the table.

“That’s The Mountain Slayer, right?” the old woman said.

Andrew blinked at her.  “What?”

“The comic you’re reading.  Have you caught up, yet?”

An old lady, reading Nekean manga?  “Um – “

The woman leaned in, reading over his shoulder.  “Ah.  You’re a few arcs behind.  Golden Fortress is terrible, total downer.  But it’s over fast, and the next one, Lightning Bridge, has some delightful fight scenes.”

Andrew stared at her shoulder, avoiding eye contact.  What?  “You, um, read The Mountain Slayer?”  He couldn’t hide the surprise in his voice.

“Yes,” she snapped.  “We don’t all just sit around playing bridge.”  She rapped his stack of comics with her knuckle.  “My grandson introduced me to this last year.  After I finished the first arc, I made his parents visit every week so I could read more of it.  They thought I needed help grocery shopping.”  She snorted.  “I don’t think so.”

“Oh,” said Andrew.  “Um, thanks.  I’ll keep reading, then.”  He didn’t know what to make of this, but the longer the conversation went on, the higher his risk.  The old lady could find him out, or something terrible and dangerous.

“I have all the volumes on me, up to the latest one,” she said.  “Come back here after the weekend, and I can lend them to you while you take advantage of the sale.”

What?  Why was she doing this?  Did she want something out of Andrew?  There had to be something wrong here, some way for this situation to twist the knife further.

“Um,” said Andrew.

“I see you here all the time,” the old lady said.  “When nobody else is around.  You’re one of my best regulars.”

“Thanks,” said Andrew.

“The free waffle sale’s gonna keep going on weekdays, and I’ll even cut the breakfast food price in half for you.  Come here again and read.  Then you can tell me what you think of the grand kerfuffle that comes after chapter one-fifty.”

Such a generous offer.  Like the original waffle sale.  If Andrew could do it while invisible, he’d accept it in a heartbeat.  But what if she wants something?  What if she grew to resent him, when he didn’t act grateful enough, or did something embarrassing?  What if this all blows up in my face, and she’ll hate me, and – 

“I’m sorry,” Andrew blurted out.

The old woman raised an eyebrow.  “Sorry for what?”

“I just – I’m sorry.”  Blood rushed into Andrew’s face.

The old woman adopted a sympathetic expression.  “Hey, if you’re not interested, that’s fine, no pressure.  And you don’t have to show up all the days, just a few.  If you want to.”  She smiled at him.  “But the offer stands, if you’re ever interested.  That’s all I wanted to say.  I’ll leave you to it.”

She walked away and went back to scrubbing tables.  Andrew went back to his manga.  And he dug into his waffles, getting sauce on his cheeks.  Spectacular.  Sweet and rich and chocolatey with a hint of sour balance from the cherries.

Andrew went home for the evening, lay down in his bed, and thought about jumping off that bridge tomorrow.  Your life hasn’t changed.  He was still worthless trash.

But he couldn’t afford the rest of The Mountain Slayer, right now.  It would be nice to catch up, at least, before he offed himself.

So if Andrew went back to the waffle house next week, he could read more and eat more free waffles, at an even better price.  He could try some of the zanier items on the menu.  Nothing wrong with postponing again.

So he lay in bed.  And endured the pain.  And waited.

The next time Andrew showed up to Philosopher’s Waffles, the old lady gave him a free side of fries.  You would think that they wouldn’t go well with the waffles – all the salt and sweet together.  But they worked great.  The time after that, Andrew got katsu pork as a topping with cabbage and a savory brown sauce.

Andrew ate it, and he finished the Golden Fortress arc in his comics, starting the next one.

Like the old woman said, the manga got way better starting here.

When he finished his meal, he found himself disappointed, as he thought of his plan.  Never getting to eat here again.  Never getting to finish this series.

I want to do this again.  Even though he’d lost all hope for solving the riddle of Egress.  Even though he hated being in debt to someone.  Even though the old woman might find him out, and the prospect of more conversation terrified him.

And even though he could hear his father’s voice whispering in his ear.  Parasite, parasite, parasite.

So he went back a second time, showering before so he didn’t gross the old lady out.  He ate waffles with a berry compote and a side of bacon, and got through more of the Lightning Bridge arc.  This time, the old woman talked to him about the sequence he’d just read.  When Andrew talked back, with enthusiasm, the old woman sat down across from him, and ate a waffle of her own.

“I’m Sarama,” she said, extending her hand.

“Andrew.”  He shook it.

On his fourth visit, they talked again.  And on his sixth, and eighth, and ninth.  Andrew made use of the sale every time.  I’m practically stealing food from her.  The guilt rose in Andrew, a thick cloud engulfing his mind.

And on the tenth visit, he spoke up, staring at his plate of ice cream-topped waffles.  “I, um.  Just wanted to say.  That you don’t have to do this sale for me every time.”

“It’s fine,” she said.  “Good sale.”

“I mean, I don’t see a ton of other people using it.”  Andrew wiped his sweaty hands on his pants.  “And I just wanted to make sure that, um.  That you thought it was fair.  That I’m not costing you too much money or anything.”

“I’m not trying to make money off of you,” Sarama said.  “And I know you can’t afford the normal prices.”

“I just – “  Andrew stuttered.  “I don’t want to be a negative influence, or anything.”

Sarama leaned forward on her elbows, sighing.  “I know what you’re going through.”

No, you fucking don’t.  “What?”

“I came to this country forty years ago.  Back when it was less popular, and the companies here just wanted cheap labor from the colonies to work their fishing boats.”  She gazed out the window.  “When I got off work, reeking of trout, I just sat in my room.  Sometimes, I read books.  The few ones I could find in my language.  But most of the time, I just hated myself.  For not speaking Common better, for not having more friends.”  She closed her eyes.  “Most of all, I hated myself for leaving my home, and coming to this strange, rainy nation.”

“I’m sorry,” said Andrew.

“Then,” she smiled.  “I met my husband.  Qazi.  The sweetest man I knew.”  Like Xue Feng.  Minus the death and vanishing and maybe not even being real.

“And he pulled you out of your spiral?”

“No,” she shook her head.  “I got cold feet before our first date.  I was terrified that he’d find me repulsive, or weird.  I stood him up.”  She looked at Andrew.  “I came to him, apologizing, trashing myself, dumping all of my problems on his lap, and he told me something: I can reach my hand to you.  But only you can grab it.

Andrew avoided eye contact with her, staring at his syrup-coated waffles.

“I didn’t choke on our next meeting.  Or the next one.  And with his help, I made enough friends to last a lifetime.”  Sarama leaned forward even further.  “After getting a miracle like that, figured I owed the world.  So please.  Keep coming back.”

Andrew thought about those words as he lay in bed afterwards, almost two weeks since his initial planned demise.  I can reach my hand to you.  But only you can grab it.

Instead of planning his next jump, Andrew exhaled, picked up his purple notebook, and took another crack at Paragon’s grand conspiracy.

Andrew lay in his room, and went over the conversation he’d overheard between Rowyna Ebbridge and General Benthey.  They’d recognized each other.  But they started off with an exchange of passages from the 99 Precepts.  Why bother with that?  Principians didn’t seem to care much for Shenti philosophy.

The answer came to him, obvious.  It’s a password.  To recognize other members of Egress – others who had been given the power to see through the Spirit Block.  A perfect code, since no one except them could even comprehend the words, much less steal them.  If someone wanted to impersonate a member, they’d have to know the lines that had been written out of reality.  An impossible task, even for the strongest projector.

But not impossible for Andrew.  And that gave him an idea.

So, Andrew took a shower, and put on his best, most official-looking outfit.  He shaved, combed his tangled hair, and glanced at himself in the mirror.  I look presentable.  Ugly, still, of course, but presentable.  He wouldn’t catch any dates with this look, but he could at least seem official and serious.  Not like the stinking wretch who’d gotten fired for incompetence.

Then, he went to Milk and Honey’s offices.  A few floors in a crowded building, filled with other companies stuffed into the narrow hallways.

Andrew pushed through the front doors, looking as confident as possible, and approached the secretary at the front desk, carrying a package stuffed inside his messenger bag.  “I’d like to see Simon,” he said.

The secretary smiled at him.  “I’m sorry, sir, but Mr. Whitt is busy at the moment.  Do you have an appointment?”

“Tell him it’s an old friend,” Andrew said.  Normal people have those, right?  “He’ll know what that means.”  I sure don’t.

The woman nodded, picked up the rotary phone, and called the upstairs offices.  “Yes, Mr. Whitt.  Of course.”  She glanced at Andrew.  “Go right up.  Floor five, room 581.  He has a few minutes.”

Andrew forced a smile back at her, and strode to the elevator.  Can’t believe that worked.

The elevator stopped at the fifth floor, and Andrew stepped out into a hallway lined with offices.  A lamp and a vase of flowers sat on a table outside some of them, each identical to one another.

Andrew removed the envelope from his bag and got set up, making sure nobody was looking in his direction.  Then, he walked forward to room 581, and knocked on the closed door.  “Come in!” Simon called.

Andrew opened the door, and Simon’s expression curdled.  “You,” he said.  “Are not an old friend.  Please leave.”

The shame and loathing washed over Andrew again, and he flinched.  “A minute of your time, sir,” said Andrew, making his voice calm and measured.  “Just a minute.  I’d like to, respectfully, ask for the chance to get my job back.”

“Then you should have made an appointment,” said Simon.

“Would you have accepted an appointment from me?”

“No,” said Simon.  “But you should have done that anyway.  This is not how you get a job.”  He stared at the pile of papers on his desk, his voice tight.  “Get out, Huang.  I don’t have time for this.”

A woman’s voice called out from the hallway.  “Simon Whitt.  Simon Whitt to the front desk, please.  Simon Whitt to the front desk.  Simon Whitt to the front desk.

A look of confused irritation spread across Simon’s face.  “There’s always another thing,” he muttered.  “Always.”  He stood up, and glared at Andrew.  “The answer is no.  You’d better be gone by the time I get back.”  He stepped out and speed-walked down the hall.

Andrew closed the door, turning the handle before to avoid making noise.

Then, he sprinted to the other side of the desk.  Andrew yanked open the file cabinets sitting behind Simon’s chair, and stared at the labels on the top.  Accounting, Recruiting, Supplies, Dividends.  So many categories.  Three whole cabinet’s worth.

But then, Andrew hit the gold mine.  Contact Spreadsheets.  Andrew yanked the file out, and flipped it open on the desk.  Recent parties, recent parties, recent parties.

Then he got it.  Elmidde Symphony, Charity Ball.

Andrew looked at the names and numbers associated with that.  The owner of the venue, the janitors he’d hired for cleaning.  And – 

Client | Lady Alice Pakhem | 65 – 9209 – 4362

The one who’d paid for everything.  The Epistocrat who’d hosted the gala.  And a member of Egress.  General Benthey called her a ‘book-burning idiot’.

And now, Andrew had her phone number.

Andrew pulled a pen and paper from his bag and scribbled the number down.  65-9209-4362.

Then he shut the file, adjusted the papers like they were before, and stuffed it back into the cabinet.  Simon will come back any second now.  His hands shook, sweaty, so it took him several tries to fit it in.

Andrew slammed the file cabinets shut, ran to the door, and opened it, stepping into the hallway.  The elevator doors opened, and Simon glared at him, striding down the carpeted floor.  “The fuck are you still doing here?  Get out.”

Andrew bowed his head.  “I’m sorry, sir.”  He walked past his boss, and heard the door close behind him.  Nobody’s looking at me.

He leaned forward next to one of the tables, reached behind the flower vase, and pulled out a tape recorder, complete with a larger speaker to amplify the volume.

Sarama had lent him this, and recorded some lines with him, after Andrew promised he wasn’t going to steal anything or hurt anyone.  Forty-five seconds of silence, followed by her voice calling out.   Simon Whitt to the front desk, please.

Andrew had not expected this to work this well.

He stuffed the tape recorder into his bag and strode to the elevator.  Next step, buy a train ticket.  To the most remote town he could find on a map.

It was time to make a phone call.

________________________________________

Andrew pushed the five-pence coin into the slot of the payphone, his hands shaking.  A chill breeze blew across the empty street, and he shivered.

He glanced down the street.  Empty darkened storefronts, all.  No lights on.  Nobody awake, or looking at him.  No cars, either.  People in this town seemed to use bikes more.  The moons didn’t show themselves, so Andrew had to go by the pale, dim light of a single streetlamp.

People were sleeping in these buildings, but right now, it looked like a ghost town.

Andrew had chosen the town of Helmfirth for just this reason.  It was remote, in the rural heart of the Principality.  If someone traced his phone number, it would take a while for law enforcement or Guardians to get here.

His twitching fingers turned the dials of the rotary, entering Lady Pakhem’s number, wearing a pair of cheap gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints.  He got it wrong the first time, and had to hang up, pay again, and enter it a second time.

Calm down.  He had to act confident, if he wanted to have any chance for this ludicrous plan.  Odds were, this woman would figure him out, tell him nothing, then have him killed.  Andrew wasn’t some super-spy projector.  Just some unemployed dumbass with an idea.  She might not even pick up.  Most people’s offices closed during these hours, and even a military office might have those rules.

He finished entering the number, and picked up the receiver.

“Office of Lady Pakhem,” a man’s voice said.  “How may I help you.”  It worked.  Lady Pakhem was available twenty-four-seven.

“I’d like to talk to Lady Pakhem,” said Andrew.  “It’s urgent.”

“She’s sleeping at the moment.  Can I take a message?”

“Wake her up,” said Andrew.  “Tell her it’s about the exit.”  A different way to say ‘Egress’.  Should get her attention.

The assistant put him on hold.  Andrew clutched the phone and gazed up to the starless sky.  Are they tracing my location now?  Were they getting ready to hunt him down, and stalling him to buy time for themselves?

He stared the other direction down the street, towards the hill and the thick forest on the outskirts of town.  I can run there and hide if things go bad.  The bikes on the street nearby hadn’t been locked down, so he could use those.  But he wasn’t going to outrun a wingsuit.

An eternity seemed to pass.

Then, a woman picked up the phone.  “Hello?  What is it?”  Lady Pakhem’s voice sounded panicked.  “Oh, right, um.  The wise man will never provoke war.

The same line from The 99 Precepts.  The perfect password, that only Egress members could even hear.  They didn’t change it.  Why bother, when it was impossible to steal?  When the laws of reality itself protected your secrets?

But if war is provoked on him,” said Andrew.  “The wise man has a duty to win.

Who is this?” said Lady Pakhem, her voice crackling from the speaker.  “I don’t recognize your voice.

“You ever heard of body-swapping?” said Andrew.  “I’m on a field op.  We don’t have time for introductions.  You’re the only number I remember.”

I – um – I don’t think this is according to protocols.

And here comes the big lie.  “I’ve forgotten the protocols,” said Andrew.

What?

“I erased my memories to prevent enemies from picking up key details about Egress.  I think.”

But why?”  Lady Pakhem sounded confused.  “All the details are sealed away by the Spirit Block.

“Some details,” said Andrew, making his voice sound hasty.  “Not my mission.  I don’t have time to explain.  I’m not safe.  I only have a few minutes before I need to leave this location.”

A pause on the phone.  “Shit.”  Her concern sounded genuine.  “I can get someone else on the line, someone more experienced with forward operations.

“No!” said Andrew.  “No time.”

A slow exhale.  “What do you need me to do?

Andrew’s stomach clenched, and his skin felt tingly.  She actually believed it.  This conspiracy didn’t just recruit brilliant generals and spymasters.  It pulled in weak spots, too.

“I need details about my mission to finish it,” said Andrew.  “Who am I?  What am I doing here?  What’s my objective?”

I don’t know,” she said, flustered.  “I’m sorry, I don’t know.  I’m new here.

“Then tell me as much context as you can,” said Andrew.  “What you do know about our operations from the last two weeks.  I’ll piece together what I can.  Then you can give me the other phone numbers, and I’ll call them in a few hours.”

This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever thought of.  There was no way they’d fall for this.

But a conspiracy like this thrived on elitism, on their perception of exclusive access.  They weren’t expecting anyone except one of their own to even comprehend the password, to see through the Spirit Block.  The moment Andrew had repeated those lines from The 99 Precepts, a switch had flipped in Lady Pakhem’s mind, and she viewed him as a trusted source.

And if Lady Pakhem was as gullible as the other conspirators said, then this just might work.

Then, she told him how the world would end.  And everything dropped away from Andrew.

She didn’t tell him everything.  But she told him enough.

“Wait a moment,” said Lady Pakhem.  The tone of her voice shifted, suddenly.  Becoming more hesitant, more careful.  “I can explain more to you, I just need to pull up my records.  Can you wait just one minute?”

She’s stalling, Andrew realized.  She’s caught onto me.  And was buying time for her to trace the call.  Or they’d already traced it, and they just needed time to fly here.  She’s not great at subtlety.

But they know.  They were onto him.

Andrew hung up, let go of the receiver, and slumped down onto the concrete sidewalk, leaning against the payphone’s stand.

The night closed in.  The pitch-black sky surrounded him, starless, moonless, infinite.  An icy wind blew across the empty street.

Tears welled up at the edges of Andrew’s eyes.  His breath quickened, shallow, rapid movements that made him feel dizzy.  His chest ached, and the world blurred into the distance.

Andrew imagined the dark sky reaching down, filling him with its emptiness.  He imagined the waters rising over this country, this entire continent, a tsunami crashing over this quiet valley.

And he imagined worse things.  Far worse things.

He wouldn’t have to imagine for long.

What they’re planning for this world.  It defied logic, sanity, everything about this universe that Andrew took for granted.

Andrew had grown up with Cao Hui’s rise to power.  He’d seen his share of utopian fanatics, driven by mad ambition.  And the hatred.  So much hatred.

This conspiracy was full of love.  And he’d only caught a sliver of their machinations.

Andrew shivered, his limbs twitching.  Sweat soaked into his armpits, the back of his shirt.  The sense of doom permeated on all sides.  Infinite.  Bottomless.

No.  It was too much to think about.  Too much for any one person to handle, much less one idiot twenty-something Humdrum having a constant mental breakdown.

Andrew lay back, and stared up at the empty sky.  If his guess was right, then someone from Egress was already on their way, to put him out of his misery.

Not long ago, he’d thought that this was a good way to die.  Uncovering the world’s greatest riddle, unlocking secrets most people couldn’t even comprehend.  A suitably epic method of suicide.

Not anymore.  I don’t want to know these things.  He didn’t want this crippling burden on his mind.

But at least he’d be dead at the end of it.  That would get rid of his problem.

Andrew sat there, the metal of the payphone pressing into his back.  And as he did, he thought about the implications of all this horror, despite himself.

I’m the only person on the planet who knows about this.  Other than the members of Egress.

Everyone in the Eight Oceans was in for some deep shit.

And Andrew might be one of the few people who could do something about it.

It’s pointless.  All of the most important details would be impossible for anyone else to comprehend.  He’d just be some crazy Humdrum to them.  Despite their slip-up here, the members of Egress had developed a true air-tight method of keeping secrets.

And even if other people could comprehend it, they’d be fucked anyways.

And why would I want to save this rotting world?  This vicious, miserable place that rendered him a worthless creature, turned his life into constant misery.

Sarama’s voice echoed in his mind.  I can reach my hand to you.  But only you can grab it.

And there was a chance, an infinitesimal chance, that Andrew could alter the world’s path.

Andrew reached his hand above him, grabbed the metal lip of the payphone, and pulled himself up.

Then he shook off the dizziness, and sprinted down the empty street.  He grabbed a bicycle lying on the sidewalk, unchained.  No lock needed, in a small neighborly town like Helmfirth.  Sorry.

Andrew slung his leg over the saddle, put his feet on the pedals, and biked down the street, pumping his legs as fast as he could, headed for the forest on the far slope of the valley.

It took him about five seconds to get out of breath.  He doubled over on the handlebars, wheezing as the novelty storefronts and quiet houses zipped past him.  Should have done more push-ups in my room.

None of the lights flicked on nearby.  No dogs barked.  No one came out to look at him.

The only sounds were his breath, rapid and struggling, and the whir of the bicycle’s gears beneath him.

Then, he reached the end of the street.  The buildings receded in the distance, and the pavement below him turned to an uphill dirt path, next to a fishing store for the lake nearby.  Andrew’s legs burned, and his speed slowed to a crawl.

So he jumped off the bike, pushing it into a thicket of ferns to hide it.  With luck, his pursuers wouldn’t see it, but someone in town would stumble on it eventually, and return it to its original owner.

Then, Andrew ran up the hill, his chest and stomach on fire, his shins aching and his muscles shaking.  Nausea swelled in his belly, and his pace slowed to a pathetic half-jog.  I’m going to throw up.  Or collapse.  But he didn’t stop.

Then he reached the treeline, and fell to his knees, gasping and coughing.  I can’t go any further.  Not up this slope, not with his puny bird legs.  He had to take a breather.  He crawled behind an oak tree, putting it between him and the town.  Here, at least, he would have some cover.

Andrew turned himself around and peeked out from behind the trunk, taking deep, aching breaths and stifling his nausea.

He squinted at the buildings in the valley below.  Is anyone pursuing me?  From this distance on the slope, he had a good view of the whole village.

But Helmfirth looked normal.  Quiet, dark.  No movement.  No sign that anyone had noticed his mad dash with the bicycle, or that anyone had woken up, for that matter.

Andrew exhaled, relaxing his shoulders.

Then the town blew up.

A flash of white light lit up the sky, swallowing the buildings of Helmfirth.  A deafening roar blasted in his ears, and a scalding wind crashed into Andrew’s head and shoulders, lifting him and flinging him through the air.

Something slammed into Andrew’s back, knocking the wind out of him.  His ears rang, pain erupting inside both of them, like someone had stabbed them with chopsticks.  His vision went white, filled with spots.  His eyes, and the skin on his cheeks burned, a searing agony.

Andrew screamed, but his voice sounded distant, like he was hearing it from the other side of a swimming pool.  More explosions went off in the distance, their blast waves thudding into Andrew like a giant boot stomping his ribs, over and over again.

Then, they stopped.  Andrew blinked, the spots on his vision clearing, the dark world coming into focus.

In the valley, below, a thick grey cloud swelled over the city of Helmfirth, swallowing the buildings and streets and gardens.  Dots of red and orange blossomed within it.  Fires, started by the explosions.

Near Andrew, several of the trees in the forest had caught fire, but not the one he was hiding behind, or the one he’d been slammed against.  That could spread.  He needed to get out of here.

His entire body ached, or burned.  His cheeks stung, and a headache thumped in the back of his skull.  The world wobbled back and forth around him, unsteady.

The cloud expanded, engulfing the edges of the forest where Andrew hid.  A grey blizzard of dust filled the air, making Andrew cough, settling on his burnt clothes and getting in his eyes.

They didn’t send someone to Helmfirth.  They just blew it up.  With bombs or missiles or something like that.  All this for some idiot.  Why waste so much ordinance on a puny Humdrum like him?

Not quite.  They didn’t know who’d made that phone call.  Maybe they thought Andrew was some mighty projector who’d broken the Spirit Block, gathering intelligence on their plans.  Maybe they thought the missiles were safer than letting that enemy go.  That slaughtering their citizens was worth it, if it meant keeping their secret.

Me, a mighty projector.  Andrew would have laughed, if he wasn’t in so much pain.

He rubbed the dust out of his eyes, wincing.  As the smoke cleared, he got a sharper view of the town below.

The entire village had been flattened.  Every building had been reduced to a pile of rubble and ash.  And they’re all dead.  Hundreds, maybe thousands of people had been vaporized, burned, crushed in their sleep.  Because of his phone call.

Because of me.

In his room, he’d fantasized about a meteor striking the planet much like this, wiping the slate clean.

But this wasn’t clean.  There was no rest here.

Just silence.

Andrew pushed himself to a standing position, his chest and legs aching, his ears still ringing.  I have to get out of here.  The forest fire might spread.

And the enemy was coming.

A tree burned next to him, flames crackling over its trunk, warming Andrew’s skin.

He blinked, shook himself out of his stupor, and ran up the hill, into the forest.

________________________________________

“You did what?” said Sarama.  She dabbed ointment on Andrew’s burnt cheek, a horrified look on her face.

“I tried cooking,” he said.  “Left the stove on.  Bit of a boom.”  Please buy that.  Please don’t ask more questions.

“Scholars,” muttered Sarama, brushing ash out of Andrew’s hair.  “Lost your job, then this.  You’ve really been through it.”

“It is as you say,” said Andrew, sipping from a glass of water.  “Rough few months.”

“I’ll do what I can,” said Sarama.  “But I’m no doctor.  Can’t you go to urgent care?”

Andrew shook his head.  “Can’t afford it.”  And he couldn’t go to the hospital with these injuries, or the members of Egress might find him out.

“I can pay for you,” said Sarama.  “Your health is worth it.”

“I’m good,” said Andrew.  “Really.  Thanks.”

Sarama got to work on his broken wrist, wrapping a splint around it.  As she did, Andrew glanced at the newspaper on the booth table, and the headline.

STOLEN MISSILES DESTROY TOWN

He choked on his water, coughing, and skimmed the article.  Droll Corsair rogue faction breaking into silo.  Intent unknown.  No survivors.

So that was the official explanation.  It wasn’t like the members of Egress could tell the truth.

As far as Andrew could tell, a majority of Paragon wasn’t in on Egress, so the internal explanations must have been a pain.    Even ignoring the price of those Voidsteel missiles.  They spent a lot of resources on that strike.

They saw Andrew as a serious threat.

But after that phone conversation, he understood.  Andrew knew things, now.  Information etched into his soul.

He glanced at the middle of the article, at the death toll.  Three thousand, one hundred and sixteen innocents.  Murdered in their sleep, because of his idle curiosity.

Andrew’s chest clenched, and his breath quickened, a wave of dizziness passing over him.

“Andrew?  Andrew, are you alright?” said Sarama.

Andrew squeezed his eyes shut.  You’re worse than worthless, now.  Before, he’d only ruined his own life, and leeched money off of society.  Now, he’d gotten an entire village bombed, from his sheer stupidity.

I should have made that phone call in a city.  The Guardians might have found him more easily, but they never would have launched missiles at a city.  I should have seen this coming.

Sarama glanced at the headline.  “Listen,” she said.  “About where you got these injuries.”

“A gas explosion – “ he blurted out.  “Really.”

“I wanted to say that I don’t care,” she said.  “And I won’t tell anyone about this.  Your business is your business.  I trust that you won’t do anything nasty.”

But I did.  That phone call had ended so many lives.

Andrew exhaled.  “Thank you,” he mumbled.

When she’d finished patching him up, Sarama gave him a plate of his favorite waffles: Dark chocolate and cherries.  “On the house,” she said.

Andrew picked up a fork with his good hand and dug into them.

Then they talked.  Not about his injuries, not about the horrifying news in the papers or Andrew’s future.

No, they talked about the Mountain Slayer, and the latest, controversial chapter.

“He belongs with Akagawa!” said Sarama.  “And that’s obviously what’s going to happen in the end, anyway.”

“I hate love triangles,” said Andrew.  “They’re always so forced.”

“And?”

“And Sachiko is a much better match.  They’re not just childhood friends, they’ve fought each other.  Forged a bond of trust.”

Sarama snorted.  “I’ve fought with my landlord, and we’re not about to date.”

Andrew savored the chocolatey, fruity waffles, and the conversation.  I found someone who enjoys my company, Xue.  Not someone he’d expected.  But someone.

Halfway through their talk, a truck of supplies drove up outside.  Sarama walked to the back to sign off on it.  “Finish your waffles,” she said.  “I’ll be back in a bit.”

“Wait,” said Andrew.

The old woman turned back to him, raising an eyebrow.

“Thank you,” he said.  “For getting me off my ass.  For everything.”  He still had a thousand suicidal thoughts every day, of course.  But now, he had something else, too.

She shrugged.  “Sometimes, all you need is a hand and a friend.  One day, I hope you’ll do the same.”

Then she stepped out of the room.  Andrew closed his eyes, leaned his head forward, and murmured a quiet goodbye.  To her, to the Principality.  And to Xue Feng, once again.

Because Andrew had a responsibility.  He couldn’t abandon himself, or the world anymore.  Couldn’t retreat into his room and his self-loathing, or sheer terror.  Even if he was a parasite.

I have to make this right.

Andrew stood up from the booth, left a fifty-pound tip, and strode out the front door.

________________________________________

A month later, his ferry docked in Wuxian, the largest port in Shenten.  And Andrew’s hometown.

Andrew walked onto the gangplank, out of the boat and into the sun.

He hadn’t visited Shenten in years.  And the city looked different.  Cao Hui no longer commanded Shenten.  Nor did the line of emperors that came before him.  The warlord Luo Cai now owned it, and used its profits to fund his military.

Before, a giant concrete statue of Tegudar the General stood on a hill at the center of the city, watching over the port with patience and discipline.

Today, the statue had lost a head and an arm.  The rest of the structure leaned at a sickening, unstable angle.  A bomb attack, probably.

In Andrew’s childhood, the street near the docks had been filled with market stalls and food carts, selling all sorts of wares and delicacies for killer prices.

Today, beggars and refugees filled up the sidewalks, holding up bowls and murmuring for coins.  Cooking rats on sticks, huddling close to shield themselves from the cold.  Snowflakes fell through the sky, covering the ground in a thin layer of white powder.

They’re fleeing from poverty.  Or the battles happening in the rest of Shenten, as the Black Tortoise’s old friends fought each other for a piece of his fallen empire.

Soldiers filled up the streets too, guarding key locations in the port with submachine guns, slouching over with dark circles under their eyes.  Trucks filled with gunmen drove from a building in the port towards the main road, splashing brown slush in their wake.

The war’s over.  But Shenten was still at war.  They just fought themselves now, instead of the world.

Near the port, a monastery had burnt down, or been bombed out, missing a front wall and half of its roof.  Squatters slept on the floor, on piles of rubble and the burnt pages of The 99 Precepts.  Why bother repairing it?  Such buildings had lost their sacred power, thanks to the Spirit Block.  They can’t even remember the real name of their religion.

“Please excuse me,” the man behind him said, in Shenti.  I’m blocking the path.

“Sorry,” muttered Andrew.  He shuffled down the gangplank, into the crowd on the pier.  Snowflakes drifted through the sky, landing on Andrew’s face, and he shivered.  He’d thrown away his winter coat when he came to the Principality, and he didn’t have the money for a new one.  So he had to make do with a thin sweater.

The crowd pushed forward onto the streets, shoulder to shoulder.  Andrew stepped into a grey puddle of slush, making him even colder.

After a few minutes, he broke off from the crowd and walked down the street with a wet sock, to a building he remembered from his childhood.  The Military Laboratories.  A building where Cao Hui’s best and brightest carried out experiments for the betterment of the nation.  Xue Feng had loved it, of course, and had dragged Andrew there multiple times, even if they couldn’t get past the lobby.

It hadn’t been blown up.  So it would work.

Andrew stepped into the lobby, his body warming as he pushed through the revolving door.  The building had been made in the wartime style, all brutal angles and cold grey stone.  And yet, Andrew felt a certain comfort from it.

“Hello,” said the woman at the front desk.  “State your business.”

Cao Hui’s world deserved to burn.  But Cao Hui was gone.  Someone needed to uncover the secrets in Andrew’s head, share them with the world and save humanity.  The stakes were far too high to sit on this, and he didn’t have the expertise to accomplish much on his own.

And Paragon wasn’t going to do it.  It was up to Andrew.

“My name is Andrew Huang,” he said.  “I can see through the Spirit Block.  And I think I can help you.”

He reached his hand forward.

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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

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