“Wow,” said Hira, munching on the Rose Titan’s crisps. “These are fucking delicious. What did you say they were called?”
“Papadum,” said the Rose Titan, turning the car down a side street. “Snack food. You toast ‘em over an open flame.” She floated one next to her and shot fire from the tip of her finger, cooking it. “Nekeans buy this stuff by the pound.”
“Impressive,” said Hira. “You island hoppers know how to get some things right.”
The Rose Titan braked at an intersection, jerking us forward in our seats. “Because you’re Weston’s friend, I’m going to overlook your rudeness, Ilaquan.”
“Oh, this is my polite voice, Neke. You’ll know when I’m rude.”
Ilaquan-Neke rivalry. None of the other mercenaries crammed into the back of the Rose Titan’s car were saying anything. I’d better speak up before they start screaming at each other.
“What do we know about this bombmaker?” I asked. “And what about the terrain? Do we have a plan?”
“We’ll brief you on the boat ride over,” said the Rose Titan. “It’s complicated, and I only want to explain it once.”
The car turned a corner and stopped next to a narrow pier, lit by a series of orange lanterns. A dirty fishing boat sat on the end, covered in peeling paint and rotting wood.
Anabelle Gage sat at the stern, reading a textbook, her feet hanging off the edge of the ship. She stared up at us and flipped the book shut.
The Rose Titan turned off the car, and we stepped out.
An icy morning wind blew across the docks, making me shiver and stuff my hands into my pockets. All of my coats were suit jackets, and the Rose Titan had said we were going to get dirty. I wasn’t about to ruin any of my tuxedos, so I’d worn one of my two plain outfits, complete with thick, baggy pants and a shirt two sizes too small. I look like a plumber.
“Say, Weston,” said the Rose Titan. “How long can you hold your breath?”
Ana looked miserable. And seasick.
Maybe it was the space we were in. Professor Brin’s fishing boat was barely large enough to fit me, Ana, Hira, the Rose Titan, and the four other mercs he’d hired. The wood was splintering, the one working light bulb flickered, and the entire thing smelled of rotting sea bass, which wasn’t even one of the good fishes.
Plus, the tiny seats in the vessel didn’t have cushions, and after what felt like hours of silent, miserable sailing, everything below my waist ached. The Rose Titan and another merc were using some water projection technique to make the boat go faster, and it made the ride even bumpier.
The Rose Titan was talking, but I was occupied with reading into Ana’s body language. Other than that first stare, she’d been avoiding eye contact with everyone for the entire trip and her legs were pulled into her chest.
Moreover, bags had formed under her eyes, and she wasn’t eating any of the food offered to her. Is she even well enough to do a mission like this?
Now that I’d gotten to know her, Anabelle Gage was a far cry from the psychotic body thief I’d expected after Samuel’s encounter. The girl had proven herself determined, focused, and if I was being honest, more level-headed than me.
But at the same time, she was also neurotic, self-loathing, and desperate. And she didn’t understand my situation.
You selfish pimply tumor. I stuffed down a surge of guilt rising from my stomach. In my position, what else should I have done? Ana wouldn’t have targeted the Broadcast King on her own – even after the promise we’d made to each other, even after we’d saved each other’s lives – she wouldn’t have stuck her neck out for a person she barely knew.
She needed a push. And I needed something to incriminate the Broadcast King and save my family. And if I’d been smarter in the penthouse, we would have gotten out with the files, unscathed, and everyone would have been happy.
I couldn’t let my family down. And I couldn’t let myself fade away into mediocrity, either.
If Ana hated me for that, that was her fault, not mine. No matter how much it hurt.
“So,” said the Rose Titan. “Did everyone get all that?”
“No,” said Hira. “Wes wasn’t listening for the last two minutes. Ana’s brooding, but in an attentive introvert kind of way, so I think she’s still picking everything up.”
“No problem,” said the Rose Titan. She leaned down and patted me on the shoulder. “Perfectly normal reaction. These things can be a tad stressful.” A map floated up next to her, unfolding. “Attlelan Island is a disputed territory between the Shenti warlord Luo Cai and the Principality. After the war ended, the Black Tortoise’s government fell to infighting, and negotiations got a little tricky.”
“Your government,” said the Shenti man in a hoarse voice, “did not feel like conceding even a tiny rock in the middle of the ocean.”
A true Shenti. The kind Principians would throw stones at, if he ever spoke his mind in public. Why was he working for Professor Brin? Can we trust him?
“It’s close to Elmidde, so the Luo Cai would never dare move in with a military force. But the Principality isn’t interested in escalating either, so they’re staying away. Which is – ”
“ – why the Guardians aren’t getting involved,” I finished.
“If things get really bad and we get captured by the Shenti,” said the Rose Titan. “I’m going to use the Memory Encryption vocation to encode our recollections of the last twenty-four hours, with a key that only Isaac has. To avoid starting a war and all.”
“And the bombmaker?” I said. Shenti were dangerous enough when they punched things. Bombs just made it worse.
The Rose Titan passed a photograph around. A young, muscular Shenti man in a military outfit, smiling into the camera.
“This is Jun Kuang. Twenty years old. A weapons engineer for Luo Cai. Either a Physical or Praxis specialist, or a combination of the two. The man’s not a fighter, but his signature’s all over piles of rubble in Shenten. Dude’s known for getting the biggest bang for the lowest cost.”
He looks so happy. The ones who smiled over their kills were the scariest.
“Why is he with Commonplace?” I said. Were the Shenti working with the Green Hands? If that were true, everyone in this nation would hate them. No one liked the Shenti. Even the Shenti.
“We’re not sure,” said the Rose Titan. “Our intel is limited. But expect traps. Unconventional attacks.”
“Traps. Lovely.” This is going to be irritating.
As the Rose Titan finished going over the plan, I nodded. It was a good strategy, though these sorts of things tended to fall apart after five minutes in the real world. If and when things went to shit, I’d improvise.
“What’s your experience with open combat, Queen Sulphur?” asked the Rose Titan. “What have your previous missions looked like?”
“Well,” said Ana. “Our Vocations are effective, as long as we have the advantage of close range and limited visibil – “
“We suck at it,” I said. “Mostly, we try to infiltrate somewhere, get found out, and then run away screaming before we get pummelled. It’s kind of a miracle we’ve lasted this long.”
“Children,” muttered the Rose Titan. “Isaac has no right to be sending you into this.” She opened the door and ducked out into the grey morning, letting in a frigid gust of air. “Stay in the back. If there are projectors, let the rest of us handle them.”
Yeah, that’ll definitely keep us out of trouble.
Striding to the front of the boat, she leaned forward, squinting over the horizon. “Thirteen minutes. Double-check your gear and weapons. Use the bathroom if you need to. Trust me, you do not want a full bladder when the bullets start flying.”
I opened my new briefcase on my lap, lightweight and pitch black. Then I checked the contents:
Five stacks of printer paper. Wide and thin and sharp, with a few of them ripped up in case I needed smaller projectiles. Squeezed beneath them were another pair of seroflourin bombs I’d flattened using my Vocation, from Hira, which we’d all been immunized to for the mission. At his request, I’d also shrunk down an ordinary frag grenade.
Samuel’s white masquerade mask sat on top, so I could hide my identity at least partway, even if it looked atrocious with my outfit.
Was I supposed to pack anything else? I always forgot something important in situations like these, like the keys to my dorm room or pencils on exam days.
The other mercs around me examined sniper rifles and submachine guns, loading bullets into clips and strapping on helmets with goggles.
A helmet. I should have brought a helmet. Hira stuffed grenades and razor blades into hidden pockets on his clothing, then took a puff on his hookah, leaning back against the ship’s railing.
None of them spoke a word. The only noises were the low growl of the boat’s engine and the rushing of the water as the ship shot forward through it.
These people know what they’re doing. And it looked like they were prepping for a war.
I reached for a piece of paper in my briefcase and folded it into a fish, tapping my foot.
You look like an idiot, a part of me said. You are an idiot, another part said.
I found myself moving across the boat, towards the bench where Ana was sitting. No, don’t do this, dumbass.
I kept walking. Ana was still nose-deep in her textbook, some thick, numbing tome on the fundamentals of chemistry.
“Are you alright?” I said.
Ana turned a page on the book, not looking up. The boat hit a swell, and the floor jerked beneath me.
“Yeah,” I said. “You’d probably rather stuff hot coals down your throat than talk to me. Or climb the Infinite Peak with only your pinkies, or hug a fire porcupine in the summer, or – “ I stopped myself. “The point is, you look exhausted. And sleep-deprived. And sad. We need everyone to be aware and at their best if we don’t want to get eviscerated by these Commonplace fucks.“
“Oh,” said Ana. “Are you concerned about my safety now? That would have been helpful when you were sending us into a death trap with ex-Kuttas.”
“Of course I’m concerned about your safety,” I said. “You’re a nineteen-year-old with grey hair, your veins look like you have the plague, and you have the self-preservation instinct of a Shenti monk after the Spirit Block. I’d be insane not to worry.”
“Do your job,” said Ana. “And I’ll do mine. And if you get cornered by a Whisper specialist again, don’t expect me to swoop in and rescue you.”
I blinked. When I opened my eyes, Ana had disappeared.
“Real mature, Ana,” I said. “I know you’re still sitting there.” I waved my hand towards the empty seat, and felt nothing.
Damn her. Had she been gone for the entire conversation? I could stretch my Pith out and scan the area for her, but I’d have to distinguish her soul from the others. And that sort of move drained your energy a lot. I wasn’t about to exhaust myself for some petty revenge.
I walked over to the Rose Titan, who was lying on the deck of the ship. Her orange rosevine spear sat beside her. She took a deep breath in, and exhaled with a low “hmm”, holding her palms flat on her stomach.
If I was being honest, it looked rather silly.
“Hey,” I said. “Have you seen Ana?”
“Oh,” said the Rose Titan, pointing. “She’s right over there.”
I looked where she was pointing, and saw only empty space. “I can’t see her,” I said.
“Then maybe,” the Rose Titan said, opening her eyes. “You shouldn’t be looking for her.”
“I was trying to check her combat readiness. And she spat at me. Maybe literally, I wouldn’t know.”
The Rose Titan exhaled with another low hum. Then she repeated herself, not opening her mouth.
“Are you going to say something?” I asked.
“If you want keen insightful unpaid motherly advice from me,” she said. “You’re going to need to tell me why she hates you.” She checked her watch. “And fast, because in nine minutes you’re going to be either kicking ass, having a mental breakdown, or both at the same time.”
“Why would you assume I want advice?”
“Just a guess.”
I knew it was a bad idea to overshare to all these people. The Rose Titan’s bemused warmth might be a front to disarm people. There were all sorts of ways a person could use my emotional hangups against me, and we were minutes away from jumping into live fire.
So, of course, I told her everything.
My initial plan with Ana. Saving each other’s lives on the Golden Moon. Tricking her into going after the Broadcast King. Hira, spilling the truth to her moments after being accepted into Queen Sulphur. And my training with Hira since. Venting like this was irresponsible, but I didn’t have anyone else. The only thing I left out were Hira’s real name, abilities, and his two bodies.
The Rose Titan glanced at Hira, raising an eyebrow. “The Ilaquan mercenary exposed you. And then you engaged in horizontal foxtrot with him.”
Is that what the Neke call screwing? I scowled. “My fiancé had just told me he didn’t need me, and my best friend lost her eye. I was in a vulnerable place.”
“And you’re not angry with him. For telling Ana the truth.”
I sighed, leaning over the railing, and a wave of exhaustion passed over me. “Maybe I deserved it. I couldn’t lie to Ana forever. I just wish she wasn’t so…intense about it.”
“Do you know the ideals the Four Domains are based on?” asked the Rose Titan, looking at me. The boat jerked as it hit another swell.
“Think so,” I said.
The Rose Titan held up a single finger. “The Principality’s beliefs spring from the ideal of Ambition. The individual’s desire to achieve wonders, ” Forge the Stars in Your Image. She held up another finger. “The Neke’s beliefs come from the ideal of Humility. The Harmonious Flock, and by extension, Ilaqua’s beliefs come from the ideal of Empathy. The Shenti’s beliefs were lost after the Spirit Block, but as far as we can tell, they were centered around the ideal of Discipline.”
Is this entry-level philosophy? Is she about to offer me a free personality quiz? “How is this relevant?”
“There are philosophers who say that to become a true Exemplar, you must master all four.”
“Well,” I said. “Most philosophers couldn’t wipe their ass without writing a twenty-page treatise on the morality of paper first.” I could see where this advice was going. “Which one do I need to work on here?”
“All of them,” she said.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“But if you’re looking to repair your relationship with your friend – “
“Co-worker,” I said. “Accomplice. Ally born of necessity.”
“ – Then as a loyal expat of the Neke islands, I’d recommend you start with Humility. Take a brutal look at yourself and drown your ego in the ocean.”
“Seriously?” I said. “I hate myself. I know I’m a pile of trash, and I keep myself up at night just thinking about just how much. You think I need to learn humility?”
“And I hate cryptic advice,” I said.
“That’s the thing about wisdom,” said the Rose Titan. “It all sounds stupid and cryptic until you practice it.”
She shrugged. “It works or it doesn’t. On your right.”
Something flew at me from the side, and I spun, catching it in midair. It was a helmet, shaped crudely out of an off-white metal. I put it on my head, and it fit perfectly.
“I noticed you didn’t have one, so I ripped a piece out of the ship’s hull, lined it with some fabric on the inside, and rigged a chin strap with one of my shoelaces.” She beamed. “It won’t stop a bullet, but it’ll keep the shrapnel and debris out.” She stood up, towering over me, and patted me on the shoulder. “Stay safe, kid.” She checked her watch and glanced at the horizon. “Line up, everyone!”
The mercenaries lined up on the front of the boat, backs against the railing. Ana, who was now visible, both Hiras, and a muscular old man split off, forming a separate group.
The Rose Titan stepped up to face us. Behind her, the controls of the ship moved of their own volition, controlled by projection.
“With a few exceptions,” she said, “none of you know each other.” Her voice was measured, but focused.
My eyes flitted left and right. All eyes were on her. Hira and Ana. The Shenti man, and the three other mercs. Flat grey sunlight streamed through the clouds, illuminating her light brown skin, and reflecting off her dark green pupils.
“You’re from all corners of the Eight Oceans. You’ve studied different forms of combat.” She looked over all of us. “And you haven’t fought alongside each other. You’re mercenaries, who don’t even know one another’s names.”
And let’s keep it that way. After today, anyone who survived would be our competition, the men and women fighting us for Professor Brin’s gigs.
“If things get bad out there, your first instinct is going to be to run, because no paycheck is worth your life.” She glared at each of us in turn. “I’m going to tell you now. Leave that all on the boat. Because if you don’t watch each other’s backs – “
I glanced at Ana. Her gaze flitted towards me for a moment, then back to the Rose Titan.
“If your soul thinks only of retreat, instead of strategy, aggression, teamwork, we will lose.” The Rose Titan slammed the butt of her spear on the deck, making me flinch. “And you won’t make it fifty meters into the ocean before you get filled with bullet holes. So:” She leaned forward, and lifted her spear above her in a tight fist. “Remember your passwords. Remember the plan. Fight together. And dream of victory on crimson beaches.”
I tightened my grip on my briefcase, wiping a sweaty palm on my shirt. You can do this.
The Rose Titan glanced at the horizon. “Distance out one-twenty-six.” She squinted. “No, one twenty-seven. Speed, thirty-one knots. Equipment check!”
“Clear!” yelled the Shenti man, who had donned a full-body suit of armor made of asbestos, like the ones firefighters used for intense temperatures.
“Clear!” shouted the purple-haired woman next to him, hefting a huge bag over her shoulders. Everyone sounded off one by one after him, confirming their readiness.
When it was my turn, I yelled “clear!”, even though my helmet was sliding down over my eyes and I had no idea if I’d missed something important.
“Step over!” yelled the Rose Titan.
Everyone climbed over the ship’s railing and stood on the other side, hanging off the edge. I followed them, holding onto the railing with one hand and my briefcase with the other. My broken fingers had healed, but I still used my stronger hand for the briefcase.
The water looked awful cold. The Principality’s winters were anything but kind.
“You better hold that thing tight,” the old man glanced down at my briefcase.
I inhaled, and exhaled, forcing my lungs to expand.
“On my count,” said the Rose Titan.
I sucked in a deep breath.
“Three. Two. One. Dive.”
I jumped into the ocean.
The icy water engulfed me, a freezing shock that made me want to scream. It was colder than I could have imagined, a biting chill that seemed to sink into every fiber of my body, slowing my movements. I can’t stay in this for long.
I focused on the water around my briefcase and stopped it from seeping in, protecting the dry stacks of paper inside. This is going to be a nightmare with Ana’s shivers.
Below me, the light dimmed in the dark, endless ocean, an expanse stretching down into infinity.
Then the water tightened around my body, yanking me into a flat position with my arms and legs squeezed together. It yanked me forward, shooting me through the ocean.
I felt myself accelerate, then accelerate more, until my briefcase seemed to weigh a hundred pounds. How fast am I going?
In the dark water, I could make out several human-shaped blurs to my left and right, flying in a v formation like a squadron of fighter planes. The one at the front looked like the Rose Titan, projecting into the water and steering us all. We’d gone deeper as well, making us invisible from the surface.
My lungs burned, a warm pressure that built inside my chest, a pain growing exponentially by the second until it was all I could think about.
I would have killed for a breath of fresh air. Just one moment to swim upwards, breach the surface, and suck in a lungful of oxygen. Fuck stealth, let’s go in guns blazing. Who cared if a few guards saw us approaching from the shore?
The cold water sapped the heat from my skin and flesh, chilling me to the bone. Just one breath, please. Scholars, please.
It felt like I had only a few seconds left, that if I went beyond that, I’d suck in the water and choke to death.
Then I found a new well of determination, forced myself to hold on for another few seconds, and the cycle repeated. Scholars damn my replacement. If the thieving bitch had built up a bigger lung capacity on this body, or better cold resistance, I wouldn’t be in this situation.
Another five minutes passed. Or maybe it was five seconds, I couldn’t tell.
My head breached the surface back-first, and I slid onto a grainy, flat surface.
I sucked in a breath before my mouth was completely above the surface, breathing in water. I coughed, spitting, and crawled forward, away from the crashing waves.
As I hacked and wheezed, I collapsed on a dry patch of ground, and began to get a sense of my bearings.
I was lying on a beach of dark red sand, enclosed in a narrow cove with rock walls extending upwards on all sides. Crimson beaches. The Rose Titan’s speech made a lot more sense now.
A breeze blew over me, and I shivered. Projecting into the water in my clothes, I squeezed it out, letting it drain into the sand around me. It didn’t make my clothes warm, but it did make me dry, which would help me avoid hypothermia.
I hope Ana’s alright. With the icy water and her already-damaged lungs, this trip wouldn’t be easy for her. Her, both Hiras, and a third mercenary had split off from our group, heading to a different landing zone.
The other team members were already out of the water and dry. The old Humdrum man, scanning the cliffs around us with his sniper rifle. The Shenti man wearing asbestos armor. The purple-haired woman floating nine large bags behind her, with a tenth hefted over her shoulder.
Where’s the Rose Titan? I glanced up, to see her standing at the top of the cliffs.
She held a finger to her lips and mimicked a person sleeping. Two bodies lay on a stone staircase beneath her. She knocked them out. Her Vocation had something to do with dreams and sleep.
If I squinted, I could make out some of their features. Men, clutching bolt-action rifles in their hands, with green circles tattooed on the backs of their hands.
Commonplace. Hira’s tip was right.
The Rose Titan brought her palms together and made a chopping motion with them. One of her hand signals that she’d made us memorize.
The four of us lined up on the beach, with me in the very back. Another hand signal, and we jogged up the zigzagging stairs up the cliff.
When we got to the top, I saw the extent of Kahlin’s operation.
The island was filled with crates. Small wooden crates and giant metal ones, stacked on top of each other in rows towering above us. It was like a miniature city, complete with roads and alleys weaving in between the mountains of smuggled goods. The pathway here cut off a hundred feet ahead of us, so it was impossible to tell how large it was.
They’re all filled with weapons. Guns, ammunition, explosives. And who knew what else.
What happens when they bring these to Elmidde? When they armed thousands of terrorists in a nation on the verge of civil war?
The Rose Titan made a third hand signal, and split off from the group, leaping thirty feet up in a single bound. She sprinted barefoot across the crates high above us, leaping across gaps and alleyways without making a sound.
The rest of us moved from cover to cover, watching the pathways ahead of us. Dew from the grass soaked into my socks, getting them damp, and I projected into the water to pull it out.
The old Humdrum glanced around a corner and held up a hand, then pointed. I reached my Pith forward and felt three glimmering lights ahead of us. Three guards.
I heard three soft thumps, and the old Humdrum motioned for us to move forward. Another trio of Green Hands lay asleep in front of us, carrying submachine guns.
We moved on through the labyrinth of shipping crates, passing larger and larger groups of unconscious people. Guards, workers in hardhats, women slumped over at the controls of forklifts.
The Rose Titan is sort of terrifying. Whoever she was. But I was glad she wasn’t killing the people, even if they were monsters bent on destroying the country from within.
So far, so good. But it was only a matter of time until someone checked in with the sleeping guards, heard silence, and turned on the alarm.
We turned a corner, to see the Rose Titan kneeling in a dark alleyway. The rows of crates ended, opening up into a grassy hill. Roads crisscrossed it up and down, with not a bit of cover in sight.
A cargo truck drove down from the top of the hill, and we ducked back into cover behind the crates. The truck turned to the side, driving towards a dock with a ship in it. It passed a pair of airplanes sitting on the lawn. Bombers.
A dense collection of grey buildings sat at the top of the hill. In the pathways between them, I could make out tiny guards carrying rifles.
“Obviously,” said the Rose Titan under her breath. “Stealth is out of the question now.” She motioned to the other mercs. “So now, it’s time to get loud. Step two.” Be the distraction.
The purple-haired woman with the bags floating behind her stepped forward. The bags fell to the ground, revealing nine separate mortars and a small mountain of ammunition. They flew out, setting themselves up in a row in front of one of the metal crates.
The old Humdrum peered into his rifle scope, and the Rose Titan squinted, leaning forward.
“The left road,” said the Humdrum.
“The two armored cars parked up top,” said the Rose Titan.
“The sandbags at two o’clock,” said the Humdrum.
The mortars adjusted themselves, pointing towards the targets.
Then the two fell silent, and there was a moment of silence, when all I could hear was the ocean breeze, and the distant waves splashing up against the cliffs of the island.
“In three,” said the Rose Titan.
I flipped open the clasp on my briefcase.
The Humdrum pulled back the bolt on his sniper rifle.
Ammunition floated towards the mortar tubes, hovering at the top.
The shells dropped into the tubes, and the mortars fired.
I held my breath.
The top of the hill exploded with a series of deafening bangs, showering dust and debris out in clouds. An alarm rang out with a loud screech, and men shouted orders in the distance.
The armored cars were flaming wrecks. The machine gun nest was a wreckage of sandbags and dirt.
In seconds, men and women swarmed out of the buildings like a disturbed anthill. Dozens and dozens, armed with all sorts of weapons.
“Aim at chokes!” shouted the Rose Titan. “Fire!” The mortars blasted again. They impacted along the roads and doorways, where the Green Hands were funneling into. This time, corpses and limbs exploded with the debris. I flinched, feeling a wave of nausea.
In response, the enemy spread out, setting themselves up behind rubbled buildings, inside windows, and behind the smoking wrecks we’d blown up. I spotted machine guns, and worse, sniper rifles being aimed at us. Two of them even had mortars of their own.
Gunshots rang out, making my ears ache, and bullets whizzed through the alleyway where we were taking cover.
I peeked my head out, and the enemy mortar positions exploded with dust and debris. More bullets whizzed past my head, and I pulled back into cover.
The Rose Titan nodded her head to the Shenti man wearing the asbestos suit. “Step three. You’re up.”
The man leaned out of cover. In the thick suit of armor, his movements were clumsy and slow.
Green lightning crackled around his outstretched hand. So he’s a Physical Specialist.
Dozens of tiny fireballs shot out of the storm of electricity, trailing smoke behind them. They glowed orange as they flew through the air, shining bright against the dim grey sky like miniature fireworks.
It took me a moment to recognize what the substance was. White phosphorus. A chemical used by the military in incendiary weapons. It would stick to your skin, burn until it melted your flesh, and then poison your blood and lungs.
The Shenti man had asked to use it directly on the enemies. Typical Shenti. But the Rose Titan had refused.
The white phosphorus spread out, landing in a semicircle near the top of the hill. None of it landed a direct hit on a Green Hands.
The grass caught fire, turning into a ring of flames around the front of the compound. In another few seconds, the smoke had formed a thick wall between us and the enemy, blocking our line of sight.
That’s why they’re using it. White phosphorus also produced massive quantities of obscuring smoke. I couldn’t see the Green Hands, and they couldn’t see me. The asbestos-suit man launched more white phosphorus, spreading the fire and smoke even further.
But the mortar lady and the Rose Titan were Joiners. Their projection-enhanced eyes could see just fine.
“Step four!” she shouted over the gunfire. “Go!”
We sprinted to the side, from this alley to another one fifty yards north. Because of the smokescreen, the enemy couldn’t see us move. As far as they knew, we hadn’t moved from our initial cover spot.
The mortar woman set up in our new location. Seconds later, she was shooting her nine mortars into the cloud of smoke.
This time, I could only hear the effects. Dull booms in the distance. Shouts and screams and more ear-shattering gunfire, only none of it was coming close to us anymore.
Even if they guessed we’d swapped cover, they still couldn’t see us. The white phosphorus smoke was too thick, and now they had a fire in their complex they’d have to put out, which would divert more of their soldiers.
Beneath the gunfire and the mortars and the ringing in my ears, I could make out the screaming from inside, the cries for help mixing with the enemy’s shouted orders.
They’re not civilians, I reminded myself. It’s not our fault they attacked the country.
“Any second now,” said the Rose Titan, leaning on her spear. “With the situation we’ve set up, there’s only one proper strategy they can take.”
Men and women charged out of the smoke, spreading out to avoid the mortar fire. They sprinted down the hill towards us, pointing and shouting. Oh, fuck. They must have doused a part of the fire to cut a path for themselves.
It was slow work. The Green Hands had to navigate around the patches of fire and white phosphorus and smoke, all while mortar fire rained down around them.
As they ran, they took the occasional shot in our direction, but with all the chaos, none of them hit near us.
“Step five,” said the Rose Titan. “Mr. Brown.” My fake name.
I shot my paper out of my briefcase, fanning it out in a wide arc. With all of the smoke, it was difficult to make out the enemies running towards us, but I could feel the positions of every sheet I was projecting into.
When I felt resistance, I knew one of them had hit a target.
I blew a storm of paper towards the guard and covered them in cuts. I focused on the webbing of the hands and the face. None of the strikes would be lethal or disfiguring, but would cause enough pain to incapacitate them.
I felt my first target drop to the ground, and heard a man’s scream of pain from the same direction. Once again, I pushed down my discomfort. It’s them or you.
I cut a second enemy. Then a third. Then five more, again and again until I lost count, until it felt like there were more angry Green Hands than I had sheets of paper.
Green lightning crackled around my arms and torso, and a headache built up beneath my forehead as I strained to whirl and slash and cut with every piece of paper I had.
As the smoke drew closer, I coughed, and the Rose Titan tossed me a gas mask, and I strapped it on under my helmet, blocking my vision for a moment.
When I glanced back forward, a man was sprinting out of the smoke, leveling a shotgun at me.
A gunshot rang out, and blood exploded out of the back of his head. Both of them dropped to the ground.
Across the alley, the old Humdrum sniper adjusted his aim and fired again.
The Rose Titan extended her spear forward, and the rosevine wrapped around the shaft extended forward, lashing into the smoke like a sentient whip. Within, I felt dozens of guards drop to the ground, unconscious.
We’d set the perfect trap, a neat funnel to lure their troops in and cut them to pieces. They had to attack us, and we’d blocked their other assault routes.
A man crawled out of the smoke, with bleeding stumps in place of his lower legs. Blown off by a mortar. His blood stained the grass red behind him. He slumped over, limp. A woman writhed on the ground, covered in flames.
I’d heard so much about the heroic exploits of Paragon’s Guardians, about their feats of bravery and cunning throughout the battles of the Shenti War. They can’t have been like this.
But regardless of the carnage, we were winning.
I felt the soldiers in the smoke pull away. They’re running back up the hill. A retreat?
My shirt and pants jerked to the left, yanking me onto the ground. I slammed into the grass face-first.
A pair of gunshots rang out. Something wet splattered onto my arm.
My clothes dragged me behind a metal crate, forcing me into cover.
The mortar woman and the old Humdrum fell. Blood poured out of bullet holes between their eyes.
Everything moved in slow motion. How? The smokescreen was still up. A sniper couldn’t even see us, much less score two perfect headshots.
“Stay in cover!” shouted the Rose Titan. “Don’t move!” She leaned her head out of cover for a fraction of a second, then snapped it back behind the metal crate. “Scholars.”
“What’s happening?!” I shouted. I pointed at the mortar woman and the old sniper. “Are they – “
“You can’t do anything for them,” said the Rose Titan.
“What the fuck happened?!” My hands were shaking, and I felt lightheaded. Just like that. One split second, and they were gone. It could have just as easily been me.
“There’s a Shenti man at the top of the hill,” said the Rose Titan. “In the middle of the smoke cloud.”
Shenti. Shit. He had to be a Joiner with enhanced vision, who could see infrared, or something would let him spot us through the smoke.
“The bullets punched right through Angela’s ABD, which means he’s got Voidsteel rounds in his pistol.”
“His pistol?” The Shenti man was hundreds and hundreds of yards away from us, looking through thick layers of smoke, and firing two shots so close to each other they looked simultaneous.
And he was doing it with a pistol. Who is this guy?
“We have to assume he can see us through the crates, too,” said the asbestos-covered Shenti man. The friendly one. “Either he’s going to try and get close, or he’s going to – “
Two low thuds echoed from the top of the hill. A familiar sound. “Titan,” I called out, staring up at the grey sky. “Titan!”
The Rose Titan dropped her spear and lifted her palms above her head.
Two mortar rounds froze in the air, hovering, barely a yard above our heads.
The Rose Titan whipped her hands to the side, and the miniature bombs flew away, exploding on top of a distant crate. The wooden boxes blew into splinters, spilling machine guns and grenades onto the grass.
As she did that, the mortars fired again. That eastern dog knows exactly where we are.
The Rose Titan deflected them again, tossing the mortar rounds back up the hill to explode in the wall of smoke. Then deflected another two. And another.
“My metal projection isn’t good enough!” she shouted. “I can’t throw these back at him! Not without exposing my head for a while!” Which would be fatal. She looked at the white phosphorus projector. “Can you get him?”
“My attacks aren’t fast. He’ll have time to dodge. And I’ll need to look for a fraction of a second every time he changes position.”
“Do it anyway. Wide spread.”
The white phosphorus man poked his head out of cover for a moment, then popped back. Green lightning crackled around his hands, and bursts of smoking white phosphorus shot out, soaring over the crate.
The Rose Titan popped another glance out of the other side of the crate. “Target is running down the hill. But he’s going at a normal speed. His leg muscles aren’t strengthened.”
The white phosphorus man poked his head out and fired again, white phosphorus shooting out like shotgun blasts. “It’s not enough!” he shouted. “I can’t hit him!”
“He’s stopped,” said the Rose Titan. “He’s not getting any closer.”
That doesn’t make sense. “He’s a Joiner with Voidsteel bullets, mortars, and perfect aim,” I said. “Why isn’t he finishing us off?”
“He doesn’t know our Vocations,” said the phosphorus man. “He might be cautious, keeping his distance without committing.”
“No,” the Rose Titan said, tossing aside another pair of mortars. “He sent off the other Green Hands – all the Humdrums. He’s confident he can take on all of us on his own.”
Then it came to me.
“He’s stalling,” I said. “They’re onto our plan, and all the Green Hands are headed back for our real infiltration team.” Ana and Hira. “They’re going to get slaughtered while we’re pinned down.” They weren’t equipped to fight through an entire army.
“Oh dear,” said the Rose Titan.
“And since the Shenti fucker’s vision is so good,” I said. “ I bet he can read our lips through the crates.” I gathered my paper around me, swirling it over my head. “We’re both aware of each other’s strategies. But if we want to help our comrades, we need to defeat him here before it’s too late.”
“There’s something else,” said the Rose Titan. “When I glanced back last time, other people were going back inside with the Green Hands. They didn’t have tattoos or firearms, and they were dressed in more expensive clothes. I think they were mobsters.”
No guns means they’re either non-combatants or projectors. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach, the same wrenching sensation I got when falling.
“Did you recognize any of them?” I asked.
“Jasper Fryth. A joiner who runs smuggling out of Gestalt Island. Torkel Donnet, who operates over a dozen money laundering operations for the mob.” She clapped her hands above her head, detonating two mortars before they got close to us. “And Clementine Rawlyn, one of Tunnel Vision’s low-level lieutenants.”
Ana is fucked. And so was Hira, the poor bastard. And so are we. Normally, this would be the place when Ana and I would cut our losses and run away. Takonara.
But I was pinned down by a freakish sharpshooter, and Ana was deep in the enemy stronghold. There was no escape to be had here.
We had to go through them.
“Alright,” I said. “I have an idea.”