At the crack of dawn, I was to enter the most important challenge of my life. A battle with no holds barred, a final exam to determine my future against an opponent who had beaten me at every turn.
So naturally, I didn’t start studying until the night before.
I had made promise after promise to myself, reminded myself of the consequences if I failed. The low hum of panic at the back of my mind had kept me awake for nights on end, imagining the worst possible outcome in numerous different permutations.
It didn’t matter. The longer I waited to start, the more impossible the task appeared. And I let myself be distracted by easier, less terrifying thoughts. Until, less than twelve hours before the duel, my mind snapped into wild focus.
In this way, I had passed essays, tests, and tactical slugfests designed to confound geniuses. Despite my chronic laziness, I had managed the bare minimum of adequacy for my parents, my professors, and my fiancé’s family. Until recently.
And now here I was, pacing back and forth in my dorm room at Paragon, muttering equations under my breath, and wishing I had half a dozen shots to wash away my dread.
It was still dark outside when Samuel stirred from my feather bed. I noted him out of the corner of my eye, intent on my studies.
My white lace nightgown clung to my legs, soaked with sweat. A notebook sat in my left hand, filled with notes on fluid dynamics, organic chemistry, and projection strategy. Meanwhile, my right hand fidgeted with a ripped page, folding it into an origami crane.
A hand touched my shoulder and I jumped, before remembering who it belonged to. “Get any sleep?” Samuel’s voice was deep, calming. He was still dressed in his button-down and slacks from last night.
I snorted with laughter. “You?”
I turned around and kissed him, running my fingers through his dark blonde hair. His chest rose and fell, warm as it brushed against mine. My aching eyes fluttered shut.
He squeezed my arm, murmuring through his grogginess. “Anyone ever tell you how beautiful you are?”
I smiled. “You. About twice a week, with the same line.” I let myself relax a hair. Let myself forget everything except how warm and comfortable and simple he felt. Enjoy it while you can, dumbass. Stupid, stupid idiot.
“You know, at a certain point, it becomes more efficient to sleep instead of cramming further. How long until – “
I shook my head. “Two hours.”
Samuel stepped back from me. His measured expression broke. “You’ve reviewed everything, then? Play conservative, make her expose her Vocation as early as possible. Go for tendons and neck arteries and the – “
“- Face. And hit the bitch from behind like the devious little shit I am. Thank you for the reminder.” I tossed him the notebook. “Your tactical notes are as thorough as they are dull. Your fiancé may be stupid and lazy, but she can read.”
A finished origami crane dropped from my hand, joining a pile of several more on the floor. “There’s something else I want to discuss. Something personal.”
Samuel strode to the window and threw it open, letting in the cool morning air. “Is this the best time?”
A bitter laugh escaped my lips. “When have I ever done anything at the best time?”
He didn’t have an answer to that. “What about the technique I taught you?”
“Practiced it once or twice. Not very confident about it.”
He frowned. “Any discoveries with your Vocation?”
I reached my Pith out into the masquerade mask on my desk, saturating it with my soul and yanking it towards me. It floated between my hands, narrow, pristine, and coated with white feathers. An old gift from Samuel, from when we went to a themed ball.
I pressed my palms together, calling on my intuition, my physics lessons, my instinctive understanding of space and dimensions.
Green lightning crackled around the mask, and it warped, flattening into two dimensions. It looked like an oddly-cut piece of paper, hanging vertically in the air. My Vocation.
I held it for a few seconds, then receded my Pith. The electricity vanished, and the mask snapped back into its normal shape, clattering to the floor.
Samuel tried to look hopeful. “I’m sure there’s some application for literally folding space and – “
“I’d stuff it in the bitch’s throat and let it unfold, but it doesn’t have enough expansion force. And full lethal is forbidden. That’s not what I wanted to talk about. If things go bad – ”
Knocking at the door interrupted me. Three sharp raps. Poppy. “Come in!”
Poppy stepped into the room, dressed from head to toe in the lightweight navy blue body armor of a Guardian and staring at the floor. Her hair was tied up in a bun, the same pitch black as mine. Her narrow, heart-shaped face and bright blue eyes echoed my own. It was like looking in a mirror, or at a twin sister. The only difference was her muscles, bulging underneath her outfit in contrast to my lithe, delicate frame.
Her salary wasn’t cheap. And neither was the combat chassis she was inhabiting. I’d had to beg my mother for her, pull out every argument and persuasion technique I knew.
In the end, I convinced her that even if we were saddled with debt, keeping up appearances was important in the Epistocracy. A combat chassis had to be strong, and a social one had to have a proper lady’s proportions. A fitness double was a worthwhile investment, and Poppy was one of the best, ensuring both my bodies were in perfect shape.
Poppy extended her hand towards me, pulling off a black glove.
I grasped her hand, and pushed my Pith forward, pulling hers around me and towards my body. Green lightning crackled where our skin touched, and I blinked. I found myself standing in her place, staring at a sweaty, exhausted version of myself in a nightgown with tangled hair.
Do I really look that bad?
Poppy, having swapped bodies with me, began to comb her tangled dark hair, and picked the paper cranes off the floor. “I did your requested workout last night, Lady Ebbridge, and made sure it was warmed up and fed for this morning. The suit has been fitted with wooden strips in the arms, legs, and torso for maneuvering. I hope it’s to your satisfaction.”
I stretched my arms. The body was energetic, strong. My hunger pangs had vanished. Almost enough to make me forget how much sleep I’d lost. Nodding at Poppy, I picked up the white feathered mask, turning it over in my hands, and slid it into a spacious pocket on the combat suit.
Now fully dressed, I indicated my head to Samuel, and we strode out the door.
Normally, Alabaster Hall’s common room was bustling at all hours, filled with students scribbling papers, trading gossip, or playing Jao Lu by the fireplace. More often than not, a bowl of popcorn and a jug of hot mulled cider would be set out on a table, sometimes with a tray of sweets and chocolates.
Today, it was dead quiet. Dark. Swept clean by the janitors, with the chairs flipped upside down on the tables. I took one last look at it as we stepped out the front door.
Alabaster Hall, like the other dormitories, was connected to the central buildings of the Academy by a sturdy wooden bridge, all floating more than a thousand feet above the city of Elmidde. In my parent’s day, it had been hidden from the Humdrums below, a team of sleep-deprived light projectors keeping it invisible to the naked eye at all hours.
Now, the Academy hung like a magical fat cloud of classical architecture above the metropolis, visible to any common dimwit with dreams of becoming a Guardian.
If I fail today, I’ll be just as hopeless as them. We crossed the fog-covered bridge through thick clouds of grey, and I held back the question I needed to ask.
At this hour, even the main corridors of the Academy were empty, lit only by the dim morning light streaming in through the windows. I noted the lecture halls I’d had classes in, the grassy pavilion where I’d won dozens of squad battles, the wooden bridge leading to the Great Library.
Huge hoops floated in the sky above them, courses for wingsuit racing. I was slated to start flight training next semester, during my second year. It was something I’d dreamt of since I was a little girl, and now, it was just beyond my reach. If you make it through today.
Ahead of me, Samuel walked with a slight limp, a single imperfection in his otherwise flawless physique. I banished my daydreams and jogged up beside him. Ask him.
“Leg’s looking strapping as ever,” I said, making small talk. Some body-snatching psycho had blown it off with a shotgun while he was on call last week, rendering his knee a disgusting mess of flesh and bone. Luckily, Paragon Academy was one of a handful of places in the Eight Oceans where you could get a new body at the snap of your fingers. As long as you were a student.
“Thanks,” he said. “Pellets weren’t Voidsteel, so my Pith stayed just fine.
Ask him, coward. “Ah, the joy of midnight patrols,” I said. “Last time I was assigned one of those, I had two papers due the next morning. If they Oust me, I will at least be spared from that particular extracurricular.”
“Liar,” said Samuel, a smile playing at the edges of his mouth. “We both know you wish you’d been there.”
I chuckled with him. “Would have sliced that amateur into gourmet steaks.”
We stepped into the main building’s atrium. Flay grey sunshine streamed through the skylight stories above us.
The crystal fountain trickled in the middle of the room, not a soul in sight. It took the form of a glittering statue of Darius the Philosopher, spurting water from a carved scroll in his hand. Tour guides and the Headmaster presented his ancient legacy as an ideal to eternally aspire to. These days, it seemed more like an impossible standard to eternally fall short of.
I stopped next to it, sitting at the fountain’s rim and motioning for Samuel to join me. We sat together for a few seconds, neither of us saying anything.
It was unfair, so damn unfair that we had to have this conversation.
Samuel rested his hand on mine. “You want to talk about – “
“Yeah.” Instinctively, I reached into my suit’s pocket and pulled out a square piece of paper. Poppy had stashed spares, scholars bless her. I fidgeted with my fingers, folding it into another crane. “If I lose – “
“You won’t,” he said, a little too quick for me to believe him.
“Wonderful,” I said. “I scored two points lower on the natural science exam, four on the tactical reasoning essay, and almost eleven on the pneumatology test, but now that you said I won’t, I’m sure I’ll be fine. Thank you for allaying my fears.”
“I control wires that can cut metal. Leizu can flatten tanks with her punches, and Eliya can cause mental breakdowns with a snap of her fingers. But in one-on-ones, you beat us almost every time. You’re gold-ranked. There’s a reason we made you squad leader.”
“Do you know who I’m fighting? Do you know what her Vocation is, or what projection techniques she’s studied?”
“Of course not.”
“Then please,” I said. “Spare me the empty reassurances.” My right hand tensed underneath his, as my left folded another bird. “If I lose. If I get Ousted. If everything I’ve learned here gets scrubbed from my mind, and she takes my name, my body, my position, what will you do?”
“You know – “ Samuel’s eyes fell. His expression looked both apologetic and frustrated. “You know what’s required of me. You want me to give up everything and go down with you? Let my family swap me out too? Do you want me to postpone the rest of my life in mourning? Just, tell me what you want me to say.”
Tell me you won’t forget me. “I don’t know,” I said.
His voice raised. “I wish none of this was happening. I wish I had a Vocation that could fix your mind and make you get straight As in every class. But I don’t, and I’m sorry. I love you, and it hurts, but all I can do is watch.”
“If she beats me. My parents. The squad. I won’t be allowed to see anyone I – “ I stopped myself. “It – It would just be nice to talk to someone. That’s all. You can do that, right?”
Samuel hesitated. “If we get caught – “
“Remember the place on my estate? Where we used to, you know – “
Samuel nodded. Arranged marriages were supposed to be chaste until the wedding day, but I was a famously impatient degenerate.
“A week from today,” I said. “If everything goes to shit, meet me there at six in the morning.”
Another nod. “And if you win?”
“Then I have a year to perform a vanishing act on my family’s debt. Before they get another chance to throw me away.” A Guardian could make vast amounts of money, if they rose high enough in the military or became famous. If they were smart. If they weren’t serial procrastinators.
I rested my head on his shoulder. His muscles were soft and warm. I felt him sigh beneath me.
I wanted to live in that moment for another five minutes. Another hour. But my mother had promised to disqualify me if I showed up late.
I stood up, beckoning Samuel to follow.
A trio of half-asleep guards with bolt-action rifles stood at the corners of the cable car station. Another two sat by a pair of heavy machine guns mounted on the windowsills, pointed to cover the transport’s entrance. New additions, ever since Commonplace had stepped up their suicide attacks.
As my eyes flitted towards the edge of the platform, I found myself smiling. A girl with bright blonde hair leaned against a railing, next to a square-jawed Shenti girl with narrow eyes. Eliya and Leizu.
With Samuel, that meant the entirety of Chimera Squad had come to support me. An audience to my performance, for better or worse.
Leizu’s mouth broke into a wide grin as she saw me. She ran up to me, gripping me in a tight bear hug, a faint reminder of her enhanced strength. When she released me, she punched me in the shoulder, hard enough for it to ache.
“Good luck, Jitterbird,” she said. Her nickname for me, after my fidgeting habit. No empty encouragement, no fake optimism. It was oddly comforting.
Eliya glared at me, looking both elegant and harsh under her wide-brimmed feather hat. Eliya liked her feather hats. “I don’t want any pussyfooting around in that ring. You’re coming back to us. You, not some stranger wearing your body. So no more of this self-pity nonsense, understand? Win.” She was the kind of friend who ordered you to be happy, and declared her desires as absolute destiny.
I stepped into the cable car, sitting down on a cushioned seat. The others came in after me, shutting the door behind them. “Any advice?” I said to Eliya.
“Go for the – “
“Face, I know.”
“I was going to say ‘crotch’, but that works too.”
She waved at one of the guards. An engine groaned above the station as the machinery started up, and the cable car descended from the station.
The floor beneath us was made of reinforced jade glass, as tough as steel, but completely see-through. Hundreds of feet below, I could see the vast mansions and terraces of upper Elmidde, perched almost at the peak of the mountain. Hightown. The wealthiest, most exclusive club in the Eight Oceans.
Not ten years ago, when the secrets of projection were kept hidden from the masses, the Ebbridge House had been revered here. It had held seats on the Conclave of the Wise, negotiated with holy emperors and hive minds while ruling the nation. It had owned the largest newspaper in the city.
Today, bumbling Humdrums governed from Parliament, our wealth was deep into the negatives, and my parents were considering replacing their only heir. Change was such whaleshit.
Once we reached the bottom of the line, it took us thirteen minutes to walk to my estate. The wrought-iron front gate was wide open. Our butler, Oswald stood in the middle of them, balancing a silver tray of champagne flutes on his palm. He bowed as we approached, cool and collected, as if he were welcoming us to another dull luncheon in the garden.
“How long have you been waiting there in that pose?” I said, resisting the temptation to snatch a glass or six.
“Long enough, Lady Ebbridge. You are a welcome sight.”
“I want to see my mother.”
“She’s at a meeting in her study. And for the rest of you.” He beckoned to his left, towards the lush tea garden on the side of our family’s mansion. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you will follow me, I shall lead you to the location of the event.”
As the other stepped away, Samuel embraced me. “See you soon,” he said. When we broke away, I pulled the white masquerade mask out of my pocket and handed it to him. He looked surprised. “Do you not like it anymore?”
I shook my head. “If she beats me, she’ll have everything I’ve ever owned. I want you to keep something that’s mine. Just mine.”
For a moment, Samuel looked like he was about to protest my pessimism again. But he just nodded at me, then turned away to join the others.
My mother’s office was in the highest tower of our mansion, at the top of a twisting marble staircase that left most people sweating by the time they reached the top. She loved to flaunt her dominance in the pettiest and least subtle ways.
I composed myself outside her door, calming my face and masking any emotional chinks she might seize on. As I cracked open the door, I could hear voices arguing inside. My mother’s, sharp and collected, and a man’s, rich and melodious, the kind exclusive to I-Pop singers and Joining specialists.
“That is the third time you have repeated yourself, Hornet,” said my mother. Hornet. She was talking to a member of the Harmonious Flock. A foreigner. “My time is valuable. Did you come here to screech and shake like a broken phonograph, or do you wish to negotiate?”
“You look agitated, Admiral Ebbridge.” I imagined the man smirking as he talked. “Is the great Typhoon of the South disturbed by my presence? I shall be brief, then. I will forgive six month’s payment and lower your interest rate to zero. In exchange for simple information.”
“No.” She already knew what he was asking for.
“Your Vocation Codex. I am told it makes up nine books in total. I would very much like to learn your little gimmick.”
“I am not as great a fool as the Humdrums that read your propaganda. No.”
The man snorted. “Then I shall not squander my morning any further. It appears your daughter has arrived to berate you in my stead.”
How did he know it was me? I pushed open the door to see a thin man in his thirties staring at me. His skin was light brown, his eyebrows thick. A native member of the Flock, then, hailing from the windswept deserts of Ilaqua.
It took a few moments for me to recognize him from the photos I’d seen. Afzal Kahlin. More commonly known as the Broadcast King. Owner of at least a dozen of the most popular newspapers, radio stations, and magazines in the Eight Oceans. And the man holding our family by the balls.
He sauntered past me, paying me no heed. “I expect your check by the end of the week, Admiral.”
My mother’s study was as joyless as it was huge. Though it was three stories high and had more floor space than most living rooms, the only pieces of furniture in it were her desk and a few wooden chairs. A framed diploma from the Academy and a smattering of medals were stuck on the wall behind her, next to a single bookshelf holding less than a dozen volumes.
The only notable things in the room were the perches, over a hundred thin wooden bars sticking out of various points in the walls. Each one had a small swallow, falcon, or needletail sitting on it, unmoving. There was no chirping, no fluttering of wings. If it weren’t for their blinking, one could have mistaken them for statues. My mother’s coveted Whisper Vocation at work.
Their effect was rather cold and unsettling which, knowing her, was probably the point.
As usual, the Admiral was inhabiting a Maxine Clive, clothed in the dark blue uniform of the Principality Navy. An old classic: the same model as the very first fabricated body, all sweeping blonde hair and milky-white skin. It gave her the appearance of a woman in her late twenties.
Those flawless golden tresses were tied back in a tight military bun. Long, tapered fingers flipped through the pages of a file on her desk. Bright green eyes flicked up, acknowledging my presence.
“Dearest Mother,” I said. “How do you fare this magnificent morning? Was that fine gentleman the Broadcast King?”
Two typewriters sat to my Mother’s left and right, clattering of their own volition to punch letters on two pieces of paper. Metal projection. My mother pulled one of them out of the machine, stamping a hot wax seal on the bottom.
“I thought you might want to bid me farewell,” I said. “Perhaps fling a few more insults your daughter’s way before you disown her. Blight on my family, lazy drunk cretin, the usual.”
“What do you want?” My mother pressed the Ebbridge seal to another piece of paper, setting it on a pile of letters.
I strode up to her desk, putting on my best confident expression. “Call this farce off. You’ve made your point.“
My mother inserted two more pieces of paper into the typewriters and went back to her reading. “Which is?”
“You can throw me aside any time you want to. You can wrench away everything I care about in an instant. And you’re right. I fucked up.”
She continued her work, refusing to make eye contact. Does she want me to beg? I sat on the wooden chair across from her. “Let me retake the class this semester. I promise, I will pass it, and I will work twice as – “
“Promise?” my mother said. “What trust should I put in the word of an addict? I wonder how many times you’ve promised your professors. You barely could even show up on time to this assessment.”
I leaned forward. “I’m still smarter than half the humdrums out there combined. I’m one of the best fighters in my year.”
“Then this should be easy for you. Defeat your challenger, and you’ll be set until a year from now, no matter what I say. Ousting is only allowed to happen annually at the end of the summer. You are only ousted if the challenger defeats you at everything. You must prove yourself inferior in each category. The deck is stacked in your favor.”
I changed tactics. “No matter what you think about me, the replacement you have lined up? She won’t be as loyal, as trustworthy. Even if she takes my name and body, she won’t be one of us. And you need your family in times like these. The Principality is filled with enemies.“
“I do need our family. I need our family to be strong, competent, tireless. I need a child who will win glory for our name, help pay off our debts to that hornet and lead us into the light.” She stamped two more papers from the typewriter. “Epistocracy houses have ousted their unworthy for centuries. Do you honestly think they didn’t factor loyalty into their tests? So far, the young man I’ve selected has performed quite well.”
It took a moment for the words to register. “Young man? You’re trying to replace me with a boy?”
My mother placed another letter in front of her, ignoring me. As she brought the seal down, I projected into the paper, yanking it out from under her. The hot wax thudded on the desk. “Look me in the eye,” I growled.
She looked me in the eye.
“You know the mortality rates of Ousted children. You know how many end up in homeless shelters. You know the suicide rates. I am your daughter. You raised me since birth. Surely, somewhere in your heart, there must be some remnant that still cares for – .”
In an instant, every bird in the room turned its head towards me. Hundreds and hundreds of unblinking eyes, all staring at me in unison, silent. My mother’s gaze could have cut diamond. “You have always treated your membership in this house as a luxury cruise, and after all my attempts to teach you, you are still as ignorant as a Humdrum. Name is a privilege. Body is a privilege. Memory is a privilege. You don’t deserve any of them.”
My shoulders tensed. “The first excuse you have, the first talented commoner you find, and you try to throw me out.” I chuckled. “You think I’m going to lose. You’re sure I’m going to get pummeled by your golden boy. Everyone thinks I am.”
“Yes,” she said.
“Have you imagined how stupid you’re all going to feel if I win?” I stood up, stepping towards the exit. “And since the decision is out of your hands now…” Bowing towards her, I pulled it open. “I hope you drown in birdshit, you odious squidfucker. I’ll see you outside.”
In the gardens to the side of our mansion, I passed over burbling creeks and dewy grass, through walls of fog and over terraces, until I reached an archway made from two trees bent towards each other. Purple, green, and bright blue flowers wreathed the trunks and branches, lighting them up with color. I could make out some sort of wooden structure set up on the other side, on one of the lawns.
My father stood next to the archway, wearing a Louis Maugham, the male version of the Maxine Clive line. He smiled weakly as I approached, running his fingers through his sandy hair.
“Hello, little duck,” he said. He wrapped his arms around me in a tight embrace. After a moment’s hesitation, I hugged him back.
I let go a few seconds before he did, and he stepped back, awkward. “Your mother…” he said, hesitant. He was asking about the conversation I had just finished. The argument he was too spineless to even attempt with my mother.
“Endearing as always. She wasn’t in the mood for mercy this morning.”
“You have so much potential. I always told her.” He stared at his feet. “So much potential. Such a clever girl, with such a unique Vocation.” He wrung his hands, fidgeting. An unfortunate habit I had inherited. “I don’t think we’ve seen a fraction of what you’re capable of.”
As usual, I wasn’t sure whether to thank him for his support, or curse him for being too weak to stand up to my mother. “That routine gets pretty old, Dad.” I sighed, and let my feet carry me through the archway of flowers.
The arena for my upcoming fight was a circular wooden platform, about ten meters across, elevated to chest height above the grass below. To my left, raised bleachers had been constructed, where Samuel and the rest of Chimera Squad sat, silent.
A figure stood on the far side of the glade, near the treeline. A boy, maybe nineteen years old, with a mop of light brown hair, freckles spotted all over his clean-shaven face. His clothes were loose, baggy, making it difficult to tell how muscular he was. He wasn’t even wearing any armor.
He glanced at me for a fraction of a second, before darting his head away, looking at the ground. Anxious. Good, I can use that.
Seven small crates stood on my half of the circle. One crate was filled to the brim with water. Another with short steel rods. Four more with stacks and stacks of paper.
The last box held several long coils of rope, woven from a dozen different materials, including Voidsteel. The ends of the ropes were tied around thick wooden stakes. A recommendation from Samuel. My opponent had his own materials, but I wasn’t allowed to look at them.
It took a few minutes for my mother to make her way down from her study and to the top of the stands. When she did, I climbed up onto the wooden arena. The boy mirrored me.
My mother stood up from her seat. “The Epistocracy of the Principality operates on merit, not blood. We are not like the aristocrats of other nations, withering in folly and blind orthodoxy. When our branches grow rotten, we trim them.” She was reading out loud from a book, some old tome on the Epistocracy’s traditions. “We are gathered here to decide the fate of the female progeny of the House Ebbridge. The winner of today’s bout will keep the name, body, and enrollment in Paragon Academy of the family member, until this day of the following year, when other challengers may be appointed to oust – “
I tuned out my mother’s speech, focusing instead on my opponent, who was stretching, and Samuel, grinding his teeth, the mask I’d given him in his hand. We made eye contact, and his expression softened.
My mother’s voice droned in the background. I was so tired. Another hour to sleep. That was all I asked for. Another hour, and I could beat a whole battalion. Another hour, and my mind could work again.
You could have had another week’s worth. Months, once you added up all of the time I’d frittered away at Paragon. Stupid, so stupid.
“ – the first to touch the ground beneath the platform will be considered the loser. May you strive to become an Exemplar.” My mother’s voice came back to my attention. “First combatant, are you aware of the rules and able to commence?”
The boy nodded, sinking into a defensive stance.
“Second combatant, are you aware of the rules and able to commence?”
I have a name. “Yes,” I said, trying to sound confident. I reached my Pith out into the crates holding water and steel rods behind me, leaving the boxes of paper be for now. Best not to expose my fighting style right away.
“Begin!” Before my mother finished barking the second syllable, I was already moving. Swinging my fist dramatically, I sent two rods flying to my left, whipping around to hit from the boy’s side.
As his eyes followed the obvious attack, I shot the water straight at him, this time not telegraphing it with my body. It formed a torrent strong enough to blast a dozen men clean out of the ring, crashing into his upper body. He raised his forearms to his face, protecting his head.
Through the stream of liquid, I could make out the flicker of blue and purple lightning radiating from his fists. His Pith was two colors at once. He’s both a Whisper and a Praxis specialist. He could both fuck with my mind and enhance his own. A rare and dangerous breed of projector.
A wave of dizziness washed over me, like I’d drank a bottle of whiskey on an empty stomach. I blinked, regaining my balance, and saw the brown-haired boy standing in a puddle of water, soaked but unfazed. The two metal rods were clutched tight in his hands. Did he fucking catch them?
The lightheaded feeling passed as quickly as it came, but left a sense of fatigue in its wake. My body felt heavier, drained, like I’d been exercising for hours already.
I called out to him. “Do you know what they tell you on your first day of orientation at Paragon?“ He didn’t reply, circling towards me. “‘Wisdom is not for the weak.’ They like their catchphrases here.”
I mirrored his movements, keeping him on the opposite edge of the arena. If he was a close-quarters fighter, I wanted him as far away as possible. “Sure, they advertise the adventure and lavish feasts and heroics. Wingsuit racing! The largest Great Library in the Eight Oceans! But up there, nothing is free.”
As I spoke, I projected into the puddle of water. Recalling my studies of pressure, thermodynamics, and the crystallization process, I willed the temperature to drop, freezing it into large chunks. “The costs are small at first, but over time, they will peel away your time, your energy, your mind. Layer by layer. And when you have nothing left, they will cast you aside and make you thank them for it all.”
I feinted with the iron rods a second time, floating a pair of them in front of me as I launched the icy blocks from the side. If the trick had fooled him the first time, it certainly didn’t now. He lifted his fists as the hail of slabs flew towards him. Translucent orbs of electricity expanded around his fists, as large as his head, spherical maelstroms of bright blue and purple.
That’s his Vocation. As the first shard came close, he swung the orb at it. The multicolored lightning passed through the ice, and once again I felt a wave of dizziness and fatigue.
The chunk froze in midair, then shot straight at me. I pushed a metal rod in its path, and it shattered. Shards of ice flew past me. One of them sliced my cheek, and I felt a warm trickle of blood down my chin.
A second later, a dozen more chunks followed. The rods blocked half of them, but the other six crashed into me. The damage was absorbed by my suit, but the momentum shoved me backward, tipping me off the ring.
A surge of panic swept over me, as my inner ear realized I was falling. As I accelerated towards the ground, I projected into my combat suit, into the wooden strips Poppy had inserted into chambers in the arms and torso.
I yanked the strips upward and wrenched myself to a halt. My torso floated horizontally off the edge of the platform, my feet still in the ring.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the boy sprinting towards me, holding the metal rods in his hands, aiming to knock me off for good. The bastard was fast.
Shifting my weight, I pushed off with my feet and pulled my suit upwards with my Pith. I spun through the air to my right, landing on my feet, once again on the opposite side of the ring. In spite of everything, I found myself grinning, savoring the adrenaline rush.
No matter how high the stakes, there was something beautifully simple about combat. There was no meticulous research, no intensive studying, no essays to be written. There was just you, and your opponent, and the brawl. The chattering distractions in my head melted away into sharp clarity.
I laughed, letting my giddiness show on my face. “So, why do you want to be one of us? Money? Power? Getting your ugly little face in the papers?” I had only taken the one class on psychological warfare, taught by the rigid Professor Brin, but it had been one of the few I’d excelled in. And today, anything but outright killing was fair game.
I grinned. “That’s it! You must have failed with your own family. You fucked up so bad, you’re crawling into someone else’s and taking it from them. That’s pretty pathetic, don’t you think?”
I was hardly one to judge, but if he was willing to spend the rest of his life with another family, it had to be a soft spot.
The boy clenched his teeth, color rising to his face. Yup. He flew at me even faster than before, orbs coalescing around his hands. Good, get him angry, clumsy, eager to end it fast. It seemed his Vocation had the power to push my Pith out of objects I was projecting into, and caused some sort of fatigue on contact. I didn’t want to see what would happen if it hit my body.
My feet pushed off again, and I pulled myself upwards with projection, flipping above the boy’s head.
He turned around, changing course, and I projected into the stacks of paper in my crates. They exploded, swirling around him in a storm of sheets. I aimed for the arteries on his neck, his joints, his face, willing the material to harden, press down, slice.
His orbs could only cover so much area. And if I hit anything vital, my Mother would intervene with a fresh body before he bled out.
The boy staggered back in the swarm of white, yelling in pain. He swung his orbs around him, focusing on his face and neck. As the orbs passed through, I felt sharp pangs of fatigue and dizziness again, energy draining from the mental bank I used to project.
His Vocation was sapping the life from my Pith. He’ll run out of blood long before I run out of juice.
And then I noticed.
The orbs were bigger.
Their diameter had almost doubled since the beginning of the fight, and their shape had become flatter, closer to disks. He could protect his face and neck with only one hand now, the other swinging like a fan to sweep aside the rest of my attack. With every swing, the lightning around his fists swelled and I felt another jolting drop in stamina. The paper seemed heavier and heavier to move.
A chill came over me. He wasn’t just pushing away my Pith. His Vocation was stealing my fucking energy.
And I’d been feeding him this entire fight. Where I was sweating and short of breath and struggling to project, he was stronger than he’d ever been, and would only get stronger as the fight went on.
In short, I was fucked.
“Think about – your – family.” I spoke in between gasps, catching my breath as fast as I could. Sensing his advantage, he leaped at me, crossing the entire arena in a single bound.
Wincing at the effort, I projected into my suit, flying around the edge of the circle to evade him, feet bounding on the ground to relieve some of the weight. The effort felt like trying to hoist a car onto my shoulders.
But this time, the boy moved to respond faster, changing direction and sprinting in my wake the moment I lifted off. I accelerated, trying to stay out of his reach. The boy matched my pace, clinging to my heels as I flew around the platform.
I could fly straight up, try to bombard him from above. But I doubted I could sustain it for more than twenty seconds, and when I came crashing down, I wouldn’t have enough energy to defend myself.
So I kept my half-flight, half-run away from the brown-haired interloper, digging into my reserves and beyond. He wasn’t even breaking a sweat as he went after me. Think, idiot, think. None of my ranged attacks would work – he’d just absorb them and come back at me harder.
Get him to make a mistake.
“You would leave your parents? Your friends?” I rasped. “You would abandon them? You would take mine? For what? For what? What is worth the cost?” I spat at him as he chased me. The saliva hit his heaving chest, dripping down his chest next to the bloodstains from my earlier papercuts. “Selfish freak.”
The boy snarled, opened his palm, and flung the orb at me. I jerked aside, to the middle of the platform. The sphere passed through my ankle.
The dizziness was overwhelming. I crashed to the floor, my Pith snapping back into the confines of my body. When I stopped, I realized one of my arms was hanging off the edge. A meter away from losing it all.
The boy charged towards me. Time seemed to warp, freezing me in this single instant. I felt paralyzed. I could close my eyes and breathe, and he would knock me out in a few seconds. Close my eyes and the stress would finally be over.
Eliya’s voice came cutting through my mental fog. “Ebbridge! On your feet!” she screamed, her voice joined by the yells of the rest of my squad. “Jitterbird! Get up!” bellowed Leizu.
Samuel said my name. “Nell,” he said, softer but somehow clearer than the others. “Come home.”
I thought back to the technique he had taught me, the one I had barely practiced at all. And in a split second, I came up with a plan.
I projected towards the crate of Voidsteel-laced ropes behind me, into the wooden rods tied to the ends.
Then I shot two cords through the beams and supports beneath the wooden stage. I lifted them behind my charging adversary, dragging the Voidsteel with the wood.
Two loops descended on the boy as he leaped at me, a larger one over his chest, and a smaller one around his neck. I yanked the wood batons on the ends of the ropes, and the knots pulled taut, stopping him dead in his tracks.
Then I yanked with my Pith, harder than I’d ever done before, tightening the ropes and squeezing shut his windpipe and neck arteries. Samuel’s technique, with my own twist on it.
His first response was to swing his orbs at the ropes around him, expecting to push out my projection and wrench them out of my control.
To no effect. The ropes were lined with Voidsteel. It was impossible to project into them. I was controlling them with the four rods on the ends, far out of his reach. While he tried that, I rolled to the side, getting behind him. He craned his neck to keep an eye on me.
Next, he flung the orbs at two of the rods on his sides, realizing what I was doing. I shifted them out of the way, still maintaining the choke. My Pith was screaming in agony, desperate to stop projecting, to rest and recharge before something snapped. Sweat poured down my back, and my muscles shook. The headache from the strain was enough to make my eyes water. I ignored it.
Gasping for air, the boy swung wildly with his fists. A dozen full burlap bags flew out of a crate behind him. The few that got near me exploded, spraying sand at my eyes. I rolled to the side, avoiding the cloud. “I am Lady Nell of the House Ebbridge!” I shouted. “I have a family to save, teammates, a fiancé to go back to!”
More jabs from the boy, this time sending metal rods and shards of ice flying at me. His attacks were getting clumsier, more predictable. I bobbed and weaved, dodging them all, my feet stepping away from the piles of sand on the floor. “You think your little gimmick is enough to make me leave them?!”
The rods and ice circled my head. They shot at me from all sides, but the attacks were getting more and more inaccurate as the boy lost oxygen. Samuel, you beautiful, brilliant squidfucker. I let my body armor absorb some of the hits, maintaining my focus. Any second now. The brain, and the Pith it contained could only sustain so much.
Twitching on the rope, the boy flung forward his arms and legs. The wooden crates themselves lifted from behind him, hurling at me. I shot a metal rod straight into the closest one, and it exploded in a shower of planks and splinters around my head.
The boy went limp on the rope, head lolling to the side. The crates around my head dropped to the floor. The metal rods clattered next to them.
Cheers broke out amongst Chimera Squad. I caught a glimpse of my mother out of the corner of my eye. Shaking her head. Full lethal was forbidden, as was permanent brain damage. Let him go, she said with her glare, if he dies, Commonplace will have a field day in the papers.
I released the rods, and the boy crumpled to the floor with the ropes. I pushed two of the metal rods towards him and slid him off the edge. There was a soft thump, the sound of a body hitting the dirt ground.
In spite of myself, I let out a sigh of relief, sagging from the effort I had just put out. One year. I have one year to rescue my family before she tries to pull this again.
Now the real work would begin.
Something hard collided with the back of my neck. I felt something crack, and my vision blurred. A split second later, a metal baton slammed into my throat and the piles of sand around me blasted into my eyes.
I gasped for air, clutching my burning eyes, and caught a glimpse of a figure rising on the other side of the platform, lifted by his blood-soaked clothes.
The boy wasn’t unconscious. He had never touched the ground.
An orb of lightning flew through my chest, almost the size of my torso. My body dropped to the ground, letting go of all projection, the world spinning around me. I tried to project into my suit, a weapon, anything. I tried to move my legs, my arms, push myself back upright. But nothing was responding. All I could do was lie there as the boy staggered towards me, and watch the spectators’ reactions while my vision cleared.
My father stared at the sky, no doubt trying to remember something less painful.
Eliya slouched over, dead-eyed, as if she had expected the worst outcome all along.
Leizu’s teeth were clenched, sending a murderous glare towards my adversary. If the rules permitted it, she would probably be trying to snap him in half.
Samuel was the only teammate who looked me in the eye, shaking. He clutched my crane mask, his gift, until his knuckles were just as white as it was. In my last moments, I wanted to reminisce about him, all of the wonderful times I’d had with my friends.
But all I could focus on was my mother, as she stared down at me, cold and smug. Body is a privilege. Memory is a privilege. Name is a privilege. You don’t deserve any of them.
As the world faded, and another orb flew at my head, all I could think of was how right she was.