Her name is Nell Ebbridge.
My lungs felt ready to burst. The dark ocean water chilled me to the bone, rushing around me and sapping my body heat, and it felt like I could collapse at any moment, or take in a breath of water and choke to death.
But still, my mind latched onto that thought. It repeated on loop, again and again.
Maybe she preferred ‘Weston’. Maybe he preferred ‘he’. But that was beside the point. Ebbridge had lied to me, manipulated me.
He was just like Lorne Daventry – an Epistocrat using other people for his own ends, then tossing them aside.
If our mission with the Broadcast King had succeeded, what would he have done? At best, he would have claimed the bounty for himself and abandoned me. At worst, he would have killed me to cover his tracks.
I’d overheard him talking to the Rose Titan on the fishing boat. He’d said that he hated himself, that he didn’t need to learn humility.
But he hadn’t apologized either. I’d seen that mindset before in my co-workers and the middle managers at Clementine’s estate.
The truth was, you could hate yourself and be a self-centered prick at the same time. The two often went hand in hand.
I needed Ebbridge to survive missions, and he knew it. But the sooner I could get away from him, the better.
My head burst through the surface of the water, and I gasped for air, coughing. How long was I underwater? I’d lost track of time.
I dry heaved and bent over, reaching my hand forward. It touched a jagged rocky surface, and I grabbed on, keeping myself from falling back into the water.
I gagged and coughed for what felt like another minute, shivering in the icy water and clamping my hand over my mouth to stifle the noise. Fuck my lungs.
This body’s anemia wasn’t helping either. It made the chill seep into my bones, a bitter freezing sensation that made me shiver.
I wiped the water out of my eyes, blinking.
I was floating at the base of a rocky cliff face, maybe a hundred feet tall. At the top, I could make out buildings through the fog, and yellow light streaming out of windows.
Hira’s two heads burst out of the water, and her two bodies grabbed onto the cliff face. Neither of them looked fazed. They barely even looked out of breath.
“Try to stay warm,” a man whispered. “This could take a while.”
I spun around. The bald mercenary was already floating behind us, staring up at the complex.
We have to wait for the signal. For the frontal assault team to draw out the enemy, leaving the rear of the base undefended. If we moved too early, we’d get discovered and swarmed.
But still, the water was bitter cold. I wished I could raise my body temperature with Joining, or that I knew how to heat the water with projection. Too long here, and I’ll get hypothermia.
I looked at the bald man. “You know Wes was joking back there, right?” I whispered. “When he said we were incom – “
“Obviously,” he rolled his eyes. “Or we would have left you on the boat. Of course, if someone dies first, it’ll still probably be one of you.”
That’s not very comforting. While Wes had trained with Hira, I’d worked on my Vocation over the last few weeks, and had managed to develop a new aspect. An extra trick up my sleeve.
But I wasn’t sure how it’d work under pressure. Our odds could stand to be a lot better.
I leaned towards Left-Hira, whispering. “It was your Vocation that figured Ebbridge out, wasn’t it?”
“You’ve got a funny sense of timing,” she muttered under her breath. “You want to talk about this now?”
“I don’t spend a lot of time alone with you.” The rocky cliff dug into my palm, and I switched hands.
Hira sighed. “I also ran a background check on your bodies. Yours was black market, though I couldn’t trace the origin. The cheap fuckers who sold your chassis did a solid job covering their tracks.”
As expected. I hadn’t been able to find much either. There wasn’t anything special about Sapphire Industrial, I’d just gotten unlucky. And the records were terrible.
“But I traced back Wes’ chassis to an eighteen-year-old boy from one of the Principality’s Northern islands. He was a prime candidate for Ousting, with some fascinating redacted holes in his file.”
Tasia. The current Nell Ebbridge. What could her history be? Did it connect to the library research the girl had been doing?
Do I want to know? Tasia was my one remaining friend, and I didn’t want to lose her too. And if Wes found out I’d befriended his replacement, there could be problems.
“Did you find anything else?” I whispered. “During your search on Wes. That you didn’t mention the other night.”
“Bad grades,” said Hira. “And bad habits in class – tardiness, late assignments, falling asleep in lectures – all of the natural human responses to the shithole of elitism and dry crumpets that is Paragon Academy.”
Is she trying to provoke me? “I like it,” I said. I couldn’t think of a witty retort.
“But,” said Hira. “No bullying, altercations with other students, anything of that sort. He was an irresponsible, disorganized fuckup on a clinical level – “
Now that, I can believe.
“ – but he wasn’t a monster.”
His school reports aren’t going to tell me who he is. And I certainly couldn’t trust my ‘gut feeling’ around Wes. He’d been able to manipulate that with ease.
“And you let him sleep in your apartment,” I said.
“I did. And that body has a weak stomach for booze, so believe me, it wasn’t easy.”
“And you spend time with him, don’t you?”
“You want to know how dangerous he is.”
I nodded. And how dangerous you are.
“Good question,” she said.
“You told me about Wes’ betrayal. How he used me.” The icy water lapped around me. “But it would have been easier to say nothing. There would be no friction in Queen Sulphur, and you could have used us exactly the way you wanted to.” I shivered, the lower two-thirds of my body going numb. “But you told me anyway.”
“And you want to know why.”
It could have been to earn my trust. It could have been to drive a wedge between me and Wes. But I still didn’t trust Hira much, and I didn’t see how a fight between me and Wes could benefit Hira.
“It’s simple,” said Left-Hira. “I’ve known a lot of people like my father.” She shrugged. “I didn’t want Wes to become one of them.”
Before I could respond, a low boom echoed in the distance.
“A mortar,” said Hira.
The bald man swam forwards to the cliff. “Follow my route,” he muttered in a monotone. “If you fall, don’t make any noise and I’ll catch you with your clothes.”
He clambered up the wall like a spider. Water squeezed out of his clothes and trickled into the water, drying his outfit.
Both Hiras followed, pulling both bodies up the cliff with the same hand and footholds. This time, the water sprayed out of her clothes, splattering my face and making me flinch.
I reached up, took a deep breath, and pulled myself out of the water. The rock was cold underneath my fingers, and wet from the damp shoes of Hira and the bald man.
When my feet were out of the water, I projected into the water in my clothes, squeezing most of it out.
I followed the two of them up the wall. The icy wind blew across my bare skin, making me shiver. I should have brought warmer clothes. My arms burned every time I reached for a new hold. More booms echoed in the distance, with the cracks of gunshots.
My body was already weaker than most sedentary people my age. Next to a trio of combat chassis, I felt like a dead fish. When Hira and the bald man were climbing onto the ledge at the top, I was barely a third of the way up.
My arms shook, and I found myself short of breath. Damn this body. Many of the handholds required unusual stretches, making the strain even worse. At this rate, I wasn’t even sure if I’d get to the top. And if I did, I might be too exhausted to fight.
My shirt and my pant legs tightened around me. Projection. They pulled me back from the rock wall and lifted me upwards, dragging me up the cliff.
When I reached the top, the bald man flicked his wrist, and I floated onto a narrow grassy ledge, landing on my feet next to a lit window.
It was humiliating. But I needed to conserve what little strength I had.
The bald man held a finger to his lips. Both he and the Hiras were positioned on the far side of the window. Left-Hira had drawn her pitch-black trench shotgun. Right-Hira loaded a clip into his Blackburn sniper rifle.
I leaned forward, glancing inside. Four Green Hands knelt on the floor of a room, smoking cigarettes, surrounded by open crates filled with bullets. They loaded them into magazines in front of them, lining up the clips in front of them.
The Hiras looked at me. “Your turn,” she mouthed.
I reached my Pith into the room, layering an auditory illusion over the four inside to block out our voices.
“They can’t hear our voices,” I said. “If you’re going to make some other noise, tell me first so I can edit it out.
I assembled my machine pistol and projected the water out of it, remembering what my coach at the firing range had taught me. Trigger discipline first. I kept my index finger outside the trigger guard, pointing the barrel at the ground.
“On my count, secure the door,” said the bald man. “Three, two, one, go.”
He tapped his finger against the corner of the window, and the glass shattered silently, breaking inward without making a sound.
The largest shards of glass shot to the other end of the room, making a series of wet, meaty thuds.
Hira and I vaulted over the windowsill, into the room. The Green Hands were strewn on the floor, shards of glass embedded in their necks and faces. I winced. Don’t feel bad. They made their choice.
Footsteps echoed outside the room, coming closer. What? We didn’t make any noise. Someone coming to deliver the ammo to the front lines, maybe.
I threw up visual and auditory illusions, editing us out and making the dead men seem alive. “Move the bodies away,” I muttered. The bald man waved his hands, and the four corpses slid to the corners of the room.
A woman burst into the room, dressed in military slacks with green circle tattoos on her hands and a small cart dragging behind her. She reached down to the blood-stained ammunition to pick it up.
“Wait,” I made one of my illusions say. “New orders for you from command. Wait here for further instructions.”
She looked confused. “Um, alright.” She stood off to the side. Hira projected into the door, swinging it shut.
Faint blue lightning crackled around my hands. Faking two senses at once was easier than before – this time, I barely even felt a headache.
“Next step,” said the bald man. He clenched his fingers into claws. The coats on three of the dead men slid off, floating in the air. The blood squeezed itself out of the fabric, removing even the stains.
Then they separated and flew towards us. I caught one of the jackets, shook off the glass, and slipped my arms into the sleeves.
“Hands,” the bald man said.
We held out our hands. Droplets of green paint shot from a vial at his waist and splattered on the backs of our hands, forming green circles. It seeped into our skin, drying and becoming temporary tattoos.
Green Hands didn’t have formal uniforms, but often wore forest green coats. Now, we’d blend right in. My hair and grey veins might stand out, but poorly-made, decaying bodies weren’t that rare in the Principality.
Next step. I had one of the dead men illusions stand up. “Here are the new orders:” it said, “The two of us need to go to the labs and move the Bombmaker.”
The woman’s eyes widened with fear. “Him?” she stuttered. “But – that’s, that’s not my responsibility. I’m assigned to the top levels and perimeter.”
“What’s the matter?” my illusion asked. “Why does the bombmaker scare you?” According to his file, Jun Kuang was barely a man, less than a year older than me.
The Green Hands stared at the floor. “The boy, he’s built things, they – “ She shook her head. “They tested a few drops on a prisoner and his skin boiled. All the Shenti scare me. The further away I am from them, the better.”
Fuck. So the Shenti were working with Commonplace. A foreign government, sponsoring terrorists. And supplying them with monstrous inventors.
And even Green Hands were scared of them.
I had my illusion-man shrug. “Orders are orders. I just do what I’m told.”
The woman bit her lip. “Fine. But let’s move fast. I’d rather be on the front lines than down in the laboratory.” She strode out the door and the rest of us followed.
“You know what’s been going on out there?”
“Word is, “ she said. “Pictogram just landed on the island. The invaders are fucked, now. We’ve just got to stay out of his way.”
Pictogram? Who the fuck was that? We have to figure out and warn the assault team. This was why Hira should have split her bodies between the teams. I’d argued for that on the boat, but she’d refused, not wanting to expose even a little of her connection.
If we made it to the comms room, we could contact them.
We ran through dimly lit corridors and foggy courtyards. Green Hands jogged around us towards the front of the facility, carrying machine guns and rifles. Men and woman barked orders, and the sounds of gunshots and mortars got even louder.
“I don’t know much about Pictogram,” I had my illusion say. “How can one man turn the tide if the rest of us are losing so badly?”
“I told you,” she said. “All the Shenti scare me. But our enemies should be terrified of them. Pictogram’s a Praxis specialist. Scholar-ranked. He’s in charge of them.”
“Is he a commando?” If the enemy had a Shenti commando, fleeing was our best option.
“Don’t think so,” she said. “But he’s the next best thing.” She smiled at me. “Don’t be afraid. We are the Common Foundation.”
“Do you know a Pictogram?” I muttered to Hira and the bald man, keeping our voices hidden from the woman.
“Nobody,” whispered Left-Hira. “Nobody well-known in the underworld.”
The bald man shook his head. Nothing.
The woman led us into another building and down a long set of stairs. We had to jog to keep up with her, and my head ached from maintaining the illusion.
At the bottom of the stairwell, the lights got dimmer, and the hallway turned from wood to concrete.
At the end of the hallway, a pair of Green Hands stood in front of a set of double doors, carrying submachine guns.
“Thirteen-yellow-grey,” said the woman. The password.
“Who the fuck are they?” said one of the guards, pointing to us.
“They?” said the woman I’d illusioned, looking confused. “I only came with one person.”
Before I could throw up new illusions on the guards, the bald man jabbed two of his fingers forward. One of the pipes on the wall burst, and water exploded out of it, encasing the men and the woman’s heads in three separate spheres of liquid.
He pulled his fingers back into a fist, and the spheres twisted, snapping their necks. They spun a full hundred and eighty degrees, and the skin on their necks ripped, blood pouring down over their uniforms.
I grimaced, suppressing a wave of nausea. It was a brutal way to kill people. And this entire time, the bald man’s expression hadn’t changed, staying cold and flat and stoic. He reminded me of Isaac Brin.
“You didn’t need to,” I said. “I could have used my illusions on them.”
“Give it time, kid,” said the bald man. “You’ll see things my way.”
Muffled music streamed out of the doors ahead of us. Ilaquan nightclub music, the kind that made you go deaf if you listened to it for more than a few minutes at a time.
This is the laboratory. The bombmaker’s lair.
“No traps that I can detect,” said the bald man. “You ready?”
Both Hiras nodded. I nodded.
He shoved open the double doors.
The room was filled with wooden tables, stacked high with glass jars, bottles of liquid, scraps of metal, and loose wires, all strewn about. A bookshelf sat on the far end, stacked with boxes. Inside, the Ilaquan dance music was deafening, drums thumping in my ears.
At the far end of the room, a man with his back to us measured grey powder into a bowl, humming along to the tune. He’s outside my range.
In the corner of the room, an old man sat on the ground, his hands chained to a pipe on the wall. His long grey hair and beard obscured most of his face, but what I could see was covered in bruises and dried blood.
A prisoner. He rocked back and forth, delirious. “The pork buns,” he mumbled in a Shenti accent. “At the top of the bookshelf.”
“Bì zuǐ,” said the young man at the table, speaking in Shenti. “Wǒ zài gōngzuò.” He turned to us, grumbling. “What is it? You wanted a bomb in ten minutes, yes? I’m working on it.”
A greasy strand of pitch-black hair fell in his face. I noted his wide chin, narrow eyes, and high cheekbones. That’s Jun Kuang. That’s the bombmaker. His face matched the photograph perfectly.
My stomach clenched. Don’t underestimate him. He’d killed countless innocents already.
“We need to move you,” said Hira. “Now.”
Jun Kuang flicked his wrist, and the dance music stopped. He raised an eyebrow. “Password, please.”
“Thirteen-Yellow-Grey,” said Left-Hira. “We are the Common Foundation. Now can we get a move on?”
“That’s the password for the top level,” he said. “There’s a different one here. You got it for me?”
There was a moment of silence. Hira can use her Vocation to copy the password from him. All we needed was another few seconds.
“The pork buns,” groaned the old prisoner. “At the top of the bookshelf.”
Jun Kuang reached into a drawer and pulled out a pistol.
As he aimed it towards us, the bald man flicked his wrist, and a globe of water shot towards Kuang’s head, enveloping it.
The liquid evaporated into a cloud of white steam, obscuring the far half of the room.
When the steam cleared, Kuang slumped over. The pistol clattered to the ground next to him. The steam cleared, and I gagged.
Jun Kuang’s face, neck, and scalp were burnt to a black crisp. That has to be the bald man’s Vocation. I hadn’t seen anyone heat up water that fast.
His arms and legs twitched, and a faint wheezing sound emanated from his throat. I recoiled. He’s still alive.
Hira whipped her fist forward. A combat knife shot out of her sheath and stabbed Kuang in the side of the head. The man went limp.
It’s done. It wouldn’t bring back the lives the bombmaker had taken, but at least he couldn’t hurt people anymore. And I hadn’t been forced to pull the trigger this time.
“Target eliminated,” said the bald man. “Next, we get to command and control.” He motioned to us, and we walked back to the door.
“The pork buns,” murmured the old prisoner. “At the top of the bookshelf.”
“Wait,” I said. “The prisoner. He’s muttering weird phrases and he’s covered in bruises. I think they’ve been torturing him. If we leave him and they come back, the Shenti or the Green Hands might kill him.”
“So?” said Hira. “He’s a Shenti bastard. One of theirs. Not our problem.”
Left-Hira stepped out of the room and tripped over the front door, landing on her face.
She didn’t get up. Her Right body did the same, falling to its knees, then slumping to the floor.
“What’s happening?” yelled the bald man, floating orbs of water around him. “Whas – wha – “ He dropped down, twitching, and the orbs splashed next to him.
A wave of dizziness crashed over me, and I leaned against the wall. Tears welled up in my eyes, and my chest tightened, making it hard to breathe. I knelt, my muscles twitching, wheezing for breath. My Pith twitched too, crackling and shifting, making it difficult to project. What the fuck? What the fuck what the fuck what the fuck. I thought the bald man had screened for traps.
“The pork buns,” said the old prisoner. “At the top of the bookshelf. That’s where I keep the antidote for my nerve gas.”
Nerve gas? Tears streamed down my cheeks, and my stabbing pain exploded in my stomach.
Then: ‘My’ nerve gas?
As my muscles tensed and relaxed, I forced myself to stare up, at the bookshelf on the far side of the lab. I blinked, clearing the tears, and squinted. The wooden boxes on the top shelf were labeled with pictures instead of words. I saw a tiger, a bird, a cup of tea, and –
A pork bun.
I crawled forward, gasping for breath. The bald man and both Hiras didn’t move. The gas already got them.
Sweat soaked my armpits, dripping off my shivering back. My fingers dug into gaps in the splintering wood, dragging myself forward. My arms and legs burned from the exertion. Or maybe that was the gas?
An eternity seemed to pass, and the room spun around me. My breaths grew short and rapid, taking in less and less oxygen with each inhale.
“Almost there!” shouted the old man. “You can do it!”
My left hand touched something cold and wooden. The bottom of a bookshelf.
I tried pushing myself upright, but my muscles twitched, collapsing out from under me. Fuck.
Flipping onto my back, I stared up at the bookshelf through my watery eyes, making out the pork bun box at the top.
With all my effort, I stretched my Pith upwards. Blue lightning crackled around me, and I projected into the wooden box, pulling it off the shelf.
My Pith snapped back in my body, and the box clattered to the ground next to me, spilling metal syringes on the ground.
“The neck!” yelled the old man. “Inject it in your neck!”
My fingers scrabbled on the floor, grabbing a syringe and holding it above my neck. I paused for a moment. Can I trust the old man?
I couldn’t. But what choice did I have?
I held the tip of the needle over my neck. Scholars, this is going to hurt. I closed my eyes, clenched my teeth, and stabbed it into the side of my neck, my hand shaking. Before I could think, I pushed the plunger down with my finger and ripped out the needle.
Liquid ice washed through my neck, a chilling pain that made me writhe. The freezing sensation ran through my veins, spreading throughout my body.
My lungs gasped for air, taking in a full, huge breath. My muscles stopped twitching. The agony in my stomach vanished, and my eyes stopped watering.
Scholars. The old man was telling the truth.
I clambered to my feet, fighting off the dizziness, and grabbed three more syringes off the floor. One by one, I sprinted to Hira’s bodies and the bald man, injecting their necks one after the other.
After a few seconds, they stirred, gasping for breath and wiping away their teary eyes. The symptoms faded in the span of a few seconds.
“Are you alright?” said the old man. “Sorry about that.”
“Why – “ I coughed. “ – did you help us?”
“The sea remains,” said the old man. The Shenti’s words, after the Spirit Block. “Every person you’ve ever met. Every word you’ve ever spoken. Every tower you’ve built. It will all sink beneath the waves. And you will vanish, forgotten.” He stood up, beaming, and his chain went taut. “But until that day, we must eat, learn, and spread kindness.”
Left-Hira pushed herself upright. She floated her shotgun into her hands, and aimed it at the old Shenti man. “Who the fuck are you?”
“I’m Jun Kuang,” he said. “I’m the real bombmaker.” He waved at us. “Hi.”
Silence hung in the air.
“No you’re not,” I said, glancing at the charred corpse. “Jun Kuang is twenty years old. And we just killed him. He matched the photograph, and he was making a bomb.”
“They made a copy,” said the old Shenti man. “From photographs. My real body has larger knees, less hair on its chest, and a mole on my calf.”
“Kuang is a projector,” I said. “How could they hold you with handcuffs like that?”
“Null Venom.” The old man coughed. “They gave me my last dose two hours ago. Along with the antidote to the gas trap. Sorry again.”
“And why put you in an old man’s body and put up a decoy?”
“Because of that.” ‘Jun Kuang’ looked at the burnt body. “My captors see me as valuable. They don’t want me to get sniped.”
Left-Hira stuck her hands in her pockets, staring at the old man. Copying his skills.
After a few seconds, she turned, walked to the table, and began pouring the same powder the dead man had been measuring. Screws, bits of metal, and wires floated around her.
Hira nodded. “The old man is Shenti-born. And knows a ton about making bombs. And mechanical engineering. And a detailed recipe for wonton soup.” She turned to the dead man for a few seconds. “The other guy’s Pith is dying, but he barely knows anything about explosives.”
Then he’s telling the truth. This strange old man was the real bombmaker. The real murderer.
“Sure,” said the bald man, wiping spittle from his chin. “Let’s kill him.” He floated a water orb forward.
The old man – Jun Kuang – held up his hands “If you wish to take my life, I understand. But hear me out first. They made me work for them. They beat me.” He pointed to the bruises on his face, and the chain. “Why else would they lock me up like this?”
The bald man’s expression didn’t change. “Even if he’s telling the truth, he’s still an enemy asset. If we leave him, they could evacuate him. If we take him with us, he’ll slow us down.”
At the table, Hira was still constructing her bomb. She raised her hand, and a syringe extracted a vial of blood from the old man’s arm. It poured into a beaker, mixing with other chemicals.
“I can help you.” Jun brushed hair out of his face, revealing more bruises on his cheeks and neck. “I can build things. And I know things. About Pictogram, about Commonplace.” He lowered his voice. “Even a few things about their leader.”
How would he know that much? John Calpeur, the ostensible chief of Commonplace, was a figurehead. Was that who Kuang was talking about? Or was he referring to someone else?
The bald man looked to Left-Hira. She shrugged. “My Vocation only copies procedural memory – they need to practice it for me to steal it. I can’t even get a password if someone’s only been using it for a few days. I have no idea if he’s telling the truth.”
“And the Null Venom?”
Left-Hira shook the beaker with Jun’s blood sample. It had turned dark orange. “He’s telling the truth about that.”
The bald man grunted. “He’s still a risk. Null Venom only blocks external projection. He can still enhance his mind, use Joining on his body.”
“I’m not a Joiner,” said Jun.
“He’s Shenti,” the bald man said. “Even after the Spirit Block, their domain contains more joining specialists than the other three combined.”
“He’s a twenty-year-old in an old man’s body,” I said. “Joining is almost impossible for him.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said the bald man. “When you’re dealing with high-ranked projectors, it’s too dangerous to take prisoners. If they break free, they can cause untold damage. And even if they forced him to, this man has built weapons to kill mountains of innocents.”
I looked at Jun Kuang again. Despite all his bruises, despite the cuts and bloodstains on his neck and arms, and all injuries that we couldn’t see. Despite the fear in his voice, and the way his hands were shaking, the old man was smiling.
He’s trying to stay positive. To calm himself in the face of death.
What would a Guardian do? A true noble Guardian like the Symphony Knight or Sebastian Oakes or Headmaster Tau, not a ruthless pragmatist like Isaac Brin. A warrior who combined intelligence with a kind heart and a vibrant spirit for justice.
I felt that pain in my stomach again. My arms and shoulders tensed. You’re not a Guardian. You’re not a savior.
But I wanted to be. I wanted to protect people. Desperation was no excuse to let my morals slide.
My mind flashed back to the Golden Moon yacht, to the safe room at the lowest level with men and women crawling over each other, blind and dumb and broken.
I’d gotten there too late. But that wasn’t the case this time.
“We should keep him alive,” I said. “We can bind his wrists and gag him for the rest of the mission, and decide what to do with him after.”
Hira glanced at me, still making a bomb on the table. “Are you sure?”
“No,” I said. But I couldn’t live with myself if he died.
The bald man clenched his fist, and two strips of cloth ripped off Jun’s shirt, wrapping around his eyes to fold a blindfold and gag.
“Thank you,” said Jun, closing his eyes. “Thank you.” The gag wrapped over his mouth.
Kuang’s cuffs snapped open, and he fell back onto the floor, taking deep, gasping breaths. A steel cable lifted off a junk pile and wrapped around Jun’s wrists, tying them behind his back.
“You’re responsible for him,” said the bald man. “And if he becomes a liability, I’m going to snap his neck.”
This had better not come back to bite me.
“Fair enough,” I said.
Our group raced up the stairs. I led Jun in front of me, guiding him forward with my hand. Considering his body and the treatment he’d been through, the bombmaker was remarkably spry. Even blindfolded, with his hands tied behind him, he took the steps two at a time. He might be in better shape than I am.
We emerged from the top of the stairwell, back into the foggy complex. Only this time, it was different.
Hundreds of Green Hands jogged past us, hefting rifles and submachine guns. They ran through hallways and into buildings, ignoring us. All coming from the front of the facility, retreating into the base. Gunshots and mortars rang out in the distance.
But they were all Principians. No Shenti. No Pictogram. Something bad’s happening out there. Wes and the Rose Titan’s team were losing.
I grabbed one of the guards by the shoulder, throwing up illusions to make myself look and sound more normal. “Thirteen-Yellow-Grey. Where’s the radio room? I just got transferred and need to deliver something.”
He pointed to the side. “Top of the hill, over the bridge, highest floor.” He ran off with the rest of the Green Hands.
The bald man indicated his head, and we followed the flow of the crowd, jogging up the slope through the complex, alongside a long, slow-moving river.
After a few minutes, the buildings ended, and the river jerked down, becoming a deep chasm in front of us. On the far end stood a steep rocky hill. Staircases spiraled around it, towards a round, squat tower at the very top with lights shining out of its windows.
A wooden bridge arched over the ravine. Green Hands jogged over it in both directions.
We walked across. A few guards gave the blindfolded, gagged Jun odd looks, but nobody stopped us.
When we stood in the middle of the bridge, I turned back, looking down at the rest of the island.
Thick grey smoke covered the whole area, even as the morning’s fog began to fade. Gunshots and mortars rang out from inside the cloud, but it was impossible to see anything.
If there are gunshots, they’re still alive. Even though I hated Wes, I found that thought comforting. That sympathy is irrational, I reminded myself, and not shared by him.
Left-Hira tugged at my sleeve, and I followed her off the bridge, to the stone steps leading up to the radio room. Once we were there, I could use my illusions to give us the upper hand.
A woman’s voice rang out behind me. “Anabelle Gage.”
I spun around. A pale, slender woman stood in the middle of the bridge, towering above us in a green striped dress. She brushed wavy red hair out of her face with one hand, and held a pistol in the other.
My chest tightened. I took a short, sharp breath, half a gasp.
She smiled. “I almost didn’t recognize you with that hair. I can see why you used so much dye.”
Both Hiras and the bald man froze, turning back to look at Clementine. Left-Hira tightened her grip on her shotgun. Right-Hira did the same with a rifle, and the bald man grabbed Jun’s wrist, holding him in place. Green Hands streamed around us, ignoring us.
Clementine stood far outside of my range. To illusion her, I’d have to charge forward.
She lowered her pistol and pulled out a cigarette, lighting it with projection.
“To be frank,” said Clementine, in a warm tone. “I’m surprised to still see you in that rickety old thing, after you’d stolen that sparkly new one.”
She knows. She knew about my body heist. Or she’s bluffing. Why hadn’t she alerted the guards yet?
“What are you talking about?” I said. Keep up the disguise. “I joined Commonplace. Of course I don’t have a new body.”
“My mission folder went missing on the same day I fired you.” She took a puff of her cigarette. “Then the police showed up at my safehouse. It wasn’t an ambush, which means they weren’t tipped off. They’d been directed there, which means someone was using me as a distraction.”
Blood rushed in my ears, and I felt short of breath. Folded behind my back, my hands were damp with sweat. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Escaping,” she said. “Wasn’t easy. We lost a few people. And I got demoted for screwing up the mission.” Her voice softened. “My bosses laughed at me.”
A warm, heavy force pressed at the edge of my consciousness. She’s trying to Nudge me. Your mind is an Empty Book. I shifted my Pith in response, easily forcing the invader out.
“You’ve learned a bit.” Clementine gave a mirthless chuckle. “Did my little Nudge upset you that much?”
A chill wind blew across the chasm, whipping my thin coat around me. I shivered. Damn this anemia.
“What,” said Clementine, “were you doing that night?” Her voice grew soft, hard to hear. “The night after I fired you.”
Did she install body language vocations? Without illusions, I couldn’t hide my reactions.
“I slept in a homeless shelter,” I lied. “It was freezing.”
“You know,” said Clementine, “if I shout right now, the Green Hands will kill you.” Soldiers rushed past her. “You’ll take down a lot, you might even beat me. But you won’t make it out alive.” She flicked her cigarette into the chasm. “But I’m not shouting. You know why?”
Think, idiot, think. I swallowed, wiping my sweaty hands on my pant legs. She has an ABD and I don’t have Voidsteel bullets.
“Why?” I said.
She pointed at Left-Hira and the bald man. “I know them. Copycat, The Boiler. If you’re working with them, you’re a mercenary too. Working for the Principality or the Droll Corsairs, most likely.”
“What’s your point?” I said.
“Mercs work for the highest bidder. And I am always merciful.” She extended her hand to me. “Tell us who your employer is, and you won’t just survive. You’ll make double your old salary.”
“Or you’ll just kill us,” I said.
She’s lying. I knew Clementine. The moment she had what she wanted, she’d give us to the mob’s torture artists.
Is she stalling? The longer we waited, the more time this “Pictogram” person had to cut down our allies.
“You embarrassed me last time,” said Clementine. “In front of my party guests. You spat in the face of my kindness. But did I kill you?” She shook her head. “No. Because I cared about you.” She leaned forward. “So tell me, Anabelle Gage. Do you still deserve my pity?”
I projected into the Piths of the Green Hands within my range. Thirty-seven men and women in total. I threw up a visual and auditory illusion over their perceptions, imagining a Guardian in a combat suit descending from the sky.
My illusory Guardian landed on the wooden bridge with a loud thud and snapped Clementine’s neck, taking her place. He threw out blades into the Green Hands around him, cutting them.
Thirty-seven Green Hands turned, seeing Clementine as an enemy Guardian. “Target on the bridge!” one of the women shouted.
As one, they raised their weapons towards Clementine and pulled the triggers.
In a manner of seconds, several things happened:
Bullets hit Green Hands on the bridge and bounced off Clementine’s autonomous bullet defense, flying in all directions. None of them were being shot close enough to penetrate her shield.
Left-Hira made a slashing motion with her hands, and the supports on the bridge snapped. The wooden floor collapsed, dropping Clementine and dozens of Green Hands into the ravine.
At the same time, the bald man pushed his palms upward. The river in the chasm shot upwards. With a hiss, it exploded, becoming a wave of steam. It rushed over us, and I felt a burning heat on my face. I covered it, kneeling.
When I opened my eyes, the steam had surrounded us, a thick white cloud covering everything in sight. Gunshots rang out around us, and men and women shouted orders. The noise was deafening, overwhelming.
Calm down. Refocus. Get your bearings.
Through the steam, I made out a female figure hovering where the bridge used to be. Clementine. She flew up, not bothering to check on her injured comrades forty feet below.
She’s trying to get a better vantage point. And stay out of range of my illusions.
I sprinted forward, using an illusion to talk to the bald man and Hira. My range for Hira had improved since I first met her. “Lift me up,” I added a visual illusion, highlighting my position in the smoke. “From behind, don’t let the projector see me.”
I leapt off the edge of the ravine, and my clothes tightened around me, yanking me upwards, pulling me to Clementine’s level from behind her back.
I projected around Clementine’s Pith, making myself invisible to her.
Then, I reshaped the carnage below, creating visual illusions of myself, the Hiras, and the bald man below, barely visible in the thick clouds of steam. I layered them over enemy Green Hands, matching the enemies’ movements and gestures.
I made sure that fake-me was visible to Clementine, and that it stood far away from her. This way, Clementine would think she was safe from my illusions.
Clementine flicked her wrists, and a trio of knives shot out of sheathes at her waist. They flew down, slicing into her own troops.
Green Hands fell over, blood gushing out of their necks. I had my illusions dodge, so the knives appeared to cut them in non-lethal places. Then I had them run until they were lined up with another group of Green Hands. More enemies for Clementine to attack.
Down below, I saw blasts of water explode from inside the cloud – the bald man at work. Waves of water knocked Humdrums off the cliff by the dozen. They plummeted into the ravine, landing with wet thuds. Jun had vanished, out of sight.
A cloud of yellow smoke ballooned out in the middle of the steam, obscuring the battlefield further, adding to the chaos. Hira’s Seroflourin gas. Inside, men and women doubled over, coughing and rubbing their eyes, while we were immune.
Left-Hira, the female body, ran to the top of the hill, and the base of the command building.
A cluster of Green Hands stood at the top, but none of them shot at her – Hira was still dressed like one of them, with the hand tattoos to boot.
Bullets flew out of the gas, striking them. Every shot hit them in the head or chest, fired with perfect accuracy. None of them could shoot back at the cloud without hitting their own. Left-Hira pretended to cower with them.
Hira’s using her female body to sight targets. She could sense the positions of her bodies relative to each other, and use them to snipe when one of them was blinded.
Clementine stopped attacking her allies. Has she caught on?
An ache built in my stomach and throat, an overwhelming urge that grew exponentially. Hunger and thirst. How long had it been since I last ate, or drank anything? I couldn’t remember. And it had been so, so long since I had tasted any food or drink.
In spite of myself, I imagined my father’s beef stew. I imagined the ramen shop down the street from King’s Palace and my sleeping pod, with its hot bowls of pork and noodles.
I imagined Paragon’s mulled cider, the dream I was reaching for.
Clementine looked down at me. Her Vocation. She’d made my concentration slip, breaking my illusions.
Before I could hide again, she dropped into the ravine, flying out of my range.
The bald man noticed, and I shot down with her.
Her Pith came back into my range, and a pair of knives flew towards me. I threw another illusion on her, ducking while making it look like I was shifting to the side.
The knives flew past me, and I was safe for a moment.
Images spilled over in my mind. An ice-cold glass of Jwala’s Orange Soda. The crispy snacks the Rose Titan had given us on the ride over – Papadum. Bunches of fresh green grapes, stuffing them into my mouth.
Concentrate. I held onto my illusion this time, keeping myself hidden.
And I flipped on the new trick to my Vocation, the one I’d been working on.
I didn’t hide my Pith from Clementine. That was impossible, right now. But I changed the position of my Pith, making it appear to be in a different place.
Clementine could still project into my Pith, but she’d sense it to her left, not her right. A clumsy technique, but it’d do the job, keep me from getting impaled.
Fuck, I was hungry. I needed to eat something, anything.
Clementine’s knives swirled around her in a random pattern, looking to hit something. Air projection was far too advanced for her to use it on me.
Clods of dirt flew above my head and exploded into soil, showering down over me. Fuck. I could mask the position of my Pith, but if that dirt hit me, she’d feel my outline. She’d know my exact location.
“Move me below Clementine,” I said to the bald man.
My clothes pulled me down, below Clementine. Her body shielded me from her rain of dirt, keeping me hidden.
The steam and gas above my head began to clear. Almost all the Green Hands around us were dead or incapacitated, knocked into the ravine, shot by Hira, or affected by the seroflourin.
One of Clementine’s knives grazed my calf, and a burning pain shot up my leg. I clenched my teeth, and a trickle of warm blood poured down into my sock.
Clementine spun around in the air and grabbed me by the shoulders, pushing me forward. I slammed into the rock wall sideways, and two of my fingers snapped, pain exploding throughout my hand.
“Help!” I screamed with my illusion. “She’s got me pinned!”
The bald man turned to look at me, and a bullet blew through his head.
His eyes widened, blood trickling down his cheek.
Then he collapsed, falling into the chasm.
A Voidsteel bullet. But the Green Hands around us were dead. And we were surrounded by steam and smoke. How could they see us?
And then it was obvious.
The shot had come from down the hill. From where Wes and the Rose Titan were fighting.
It was the Shenti man, the Praxis specialist. Commonplace’s trump card on the island.
Clementine’s face broke into a slow, inevitable grin.