8-D – Grace

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Grace Acworth’s friend was stabbing someone.

A young woman, with a bag of spilt groceries next to her under the streetlamp.  Blood trickled out of the side of her stomach where the blade had punctured her.

The carpenter’s boy, Edric, held the hilt of the dagger, his eyes wide with shock.

Neither of them were moving, both frozen in place by some unknown force.  Edric’s arm shook, as tears ran down his face.

Waves washed against the side of the boardwalk, but other than that, the dark cobble street was silent.

Edric was the son of an old carpenter who did repair work on Paragon.  Since they were Humdrums, their memories were modified after every job, but they were paid handsomely in return.

Due to the Whisper vocations on them, Edric and his father often got confused while they worked on campus.  Other students and Grey Coats would keep their distance, but Grace would strike up conversations, take her lunch break with them.  To her surprise, the pair would actually remember a lot.

A dark red streak ran down the woman’s pant leg, making a small pool beneath her shoe.  How long have they been standing there?

And the dagger.  It had all sorts of markings up and down the hilt, and a Voidsteel blade.  He wouldn’t own something like that.

“Edric?” said Grace, her voice unsteady.

Edric’s eyes turned to look at her, the rest of his body still frozen.  Someone’s hijacking him.

She projected around his Pith, Nudging him.  “I release you from all – “

“Stop.”  A boy’s voice rang out behind her.

Grace spun around.  A black-haired boy strode towards her from the far sidewalk, gazing at her with big, innocent blue eyes and an easy smile under a straw boater hat.  He spun a kitchen knife between his fingers.

Lord Tybalt Keswick.  Her student boss at Paragon.  A rising young Epistocrat.

“One moment,” he said.  He pried Edric’s fingers from the engraved dagger and pulled it out of the woman.  Then, he replaced it with the kitchen knife, which fit neatly into the hole already made.  “There we go.”

Grace’s gagged, and she stepped back, feeling dizzy.  He stabbed the woman.  No, he gave his dagger to Edric, then Nudged him to stab the woman.

“So, Grace.”  The blood floated off the dagger’s green blade, sailing into the harbor.  The blade slid back into the sheath with some hidden mechanism, and Tybalt put back into his coat.  “What brings you to this part of town?”

“I – “ she stuttered.  “You wanted me to pick up a package from a storage unit.”  She pointed down the street.  “Sir.”

Grace’s stomach ached.  Why?  Why would Tybalt do this?  He was so sweet in Paragon, so considerate.  Of all the students to be a Grey Coat assistant for, she’d felt like she lucked out.

Tybalt snapped his fingers.  “Right.  So silly of me, I forgot.  I was actually going here to pick that up myself.  That’s when those two Humdrums tried to mug me.”  He jabbed a thumb at the pair behind him.

Does he expect me to believe that?  “The woman – she has groceries,” said Grace.  “And she mugged you?”

“That was part of the act,” Tybalt said.  “She asks for help, gets you to come close, then both of them turn on you.”  He shrugged.  “Well, they picked the wrong target.”  He turned to them.  “Piss yourselves.”

Edric closed his eyes.  A dark spot appeared on his pants.

“That’s – that’s my friend,” said Grace.  “This is mental hijacking, this is murder.”

Tybalt rolled his eyes.  “It’s self-defense.  Don’t be dramatic.”

“You’re a good person,” said Grace, her voice unsteady.  “I – I know you want to do the right thing.  Let’s get these people to a hospital and talk to Professor Oakes, or Headmaster Tau, or – “

The woman collapsed onto her back, unconscious.  Edric held the knife steady, still frozen.

Grace was frozen too.  What am I supposed to do?  She wasn’t a match for Tybalt in combat.  He was the best fighter in their year.  And as a first-year Grey Coat, her projection was subpar at best.  She didn’t even know what her Vocation was.

And even if she was strong enough, she wasn’t sure if she could fight him.  Everything felt distant, blurry, like she was viewing her own life through hazy water.

“This is difficult for you,” said Tybalt, his voice soft and comforting.  “I understand.  Let me help.”

A cool spring breeze blew across the water, and one of the streetlamps flickered.  What?

“My family has enough clout to get just about anyone an admission to Paragon.  With a full scholarship.”

What?

“You’re hard-working, you’re great in class, you’re loyal.  You’ve got a great shot already.  But I can fast-track you.  Get you a guaranteed admission, right away, without you having to pay a dime or go into debt.”  He smiled at her, as the bleeding woman coughed.  “You can forge the stars in your image.  And we can call an ambulance for this mugger.”


“If I – “  If I keep quiet about all this.  Tybalt could memory-wipe his victims, but not her.  Given the nature of this crime, there would probably be a Paragon investigation, and people might ask her questions.

She would have to lie for him.

“If I – “

“Yes,” said Tybalt.  “That would be a necessary step.”

Grace stared at Edric’s wide, bloodshot eyes, his cheeks stained with dried tears.

“And Edric,” she said.  “He’d go to prison.”

Tybalt shrugged.  “The guy did try to mug me.”

Liar.  “And if I’m not interested in that?”

Tybalt’s face fell.  “That would be unfortunate.”  His voice turned sympathetic.  “We would not be able to continue our working relationship, and my family would have to inform Paragon of your character.”

They’ll use their connections to smear me.  And being half-Shenti would make things even harder.  Grace would never get a Grey Coat job again.  She would never get into Paragon.  And she’d go back to being a functional Humdrum – she might even get her memories of projection classes wiped.

That girl is still bleeding.  If she waited too long, the damage could be significant.  But if Tybalt wasn’t held accountable, who else might he hurt?

Tybalt drew the Voidsteel dagger from his coat, and the blade shot out of the carved hilt, bright green and as long as his forearm.

“This is Reverie.  A Nekean Tanto knife gifted to my ancestor by a war priest, after the enlightenment of the Neke Islands.  He told my ancestor a story along with it.”  He leaned forward.  “It’s called The Ant and the Beetle.

Tybalt spun her a parable, of ants and beetles in a forest, where selfless ants built a boat of their corpses to save the colony during a flood, and a selfish beetle survived off the backs of their sacrifice.  Throughout, Grace glanced at the unconscious woman.

“The story has been passed through my family, along with the knife.  The idea being that, when the floods come, our family will stick together and float.”  He shook his head.  “But here’s my theory.”  His voice got quiet.  “There are no ants.  You can pretend, you can be tricked, but deep down, everyone is a beetle.  Survival takes priority over everything.”

Spoken like a true beetle.

“So,” he said.  “Tell me.  Which are you?  Ant or beetle?  What is your future going to be?”

Grace stared into Edric’s eyes.  He stared back, pleading.  The waves washed against the pier.  Tybalt sheathed Reverie, then unsheathed it, moonlight reflecting off the green blade.

Grace made a decision.

________________________________________

The couple walked out of the emergency room, eyes red from crying.  Grace leaned against a wall next to the exit, watching them out of the corner of her eye.

The victim, their daughter Priscilla, was alive and recovering.  But the hospital bills had been enough to put them in debt.  They could lose their house.

And Edric had been sentenced to life in prison.  When the police found him with the bloody knife in his hand, his fate was sealed.  His lawyer took a plea deal to keep him from a potential death penalty, and it didn’t go to trial.

Grace didn’t even get to visit him.  Such an act would cast too much suspicion on her, bring questions that would lead back to Tybalt.

Paragon had carried out an investigation, but Grace was shocked at how small it had been.  She’d only been interviewed once.  And after just a week, the investigators seemed to lose interest in the case.  Maybe they were investigating it in secret, but Grace somehow doubted it.

It was like Paragon’s internal police didn’t even care.  Not when someone like Tybalt was involved.

And the victims remembered nothing.

The couple walked across the parking lot to their automobile.  They sat in the front seats, slumped over, staring forward with dull eyes.  All the tears had been drained out of them.

Tybalt had held up his end of the bargain.  Grace had a full scholarship to Paragon next year, as a student, not a Grey Coat.  She had a prestigious, comfortable future as a Guardian ahead of her, an entire life opening up like a vast blooming flower.

But she was disgusting.  Repulsive.  All she wanted to do was go somewhere private and hurt herself.

Tybalt held your future in his hands.  There was nothing you could do.  If she had reported him, what would have happened?  If she had fought him with the element of surprise, could she have won?  If, if, if.

The rage bubbled up inside her Pith, turning her blood into a frothing storm.

For Priscilla, the incident would be a scar, haunting her for the rest of her life.  And for Edric, his neighbors, his friends, and his family would see him as a deranged murderer for the rest of his life.

As he decayed in prison in the coming decades, Edric might start to believe them.

Something shattered nearby, a deafening sound yanking her back to reality.

Grace looked around.  All the car windows in the parking lot had been broken.  On the first two floors of the hospital, glass walls collapsed into piles of shards.  A water glass shattered in a nurse’s hand, falling to the floor as she screamed.

Men and women shouted, or murmured expressions of confusion and shock.  All Humdrums.  They’d probably attribute it to some freak accident.

Had Grace been projecting into the glass around her?  She hadn’t been paying attention to her Pith.

She looked down at her hand.

When she squinted, she could see a bolt of purple lightning, flickering around the edges of her palm.

________________________________________

Grace was in hell.

She didn’t believe in an afterlife – this was no mystical experience.  And the Shenti had no hell in The 99 Precepts, but managed to make a good impression of it anyways.

After sacrificing themselves to save their squadmates, her and Florence had been sent to a Redemption Camp.  The Immaculate Vanguard, the Shenti’s most skilled Joiner, had cut off Florence’s hands with a Voidsteel sword.

And now, Florence had given up on reality.  After saving Grace’s life from another prisoner, the former Guardian was now encrypting most of her memories every night, curled up on the concrete floor of the women’s quarters.

Grace knew the vocation herself, and the Null Venom only blocked her from external projection, not fiddling with her own Pith.

But she didn’t use it.  She couldn’t.

Florence was losing so much in those memory wipes, so much she deemed ‘non-critical’.  Horrors, yes.  But horrors that Grace couldn’t look away from.

“Society’s treacherous sloth must be purged!” Grace chanted with the other prisoners, reciting the most famous line from the Black Tortoise’s speeches.  A propaganda session pulled from the pages of The 99 Precepts.  Or, at least, one man’s interpretation.

“This is your redemption!” shouted the soldier.

The moment Grace first heard that slogan screamed in her face, she knew: This wasn’t just the one camp.  This wasn’t one of a handful, for the most extreme prisoners, or as an experiment.

This was happening all over the country.  To millions and millions of people, most of them Shenti citizens, Humdrums.  The old, the disabled, political dissidents, anyone with an ‘economic score’ low enough to be deemed a burden on society.  An unimaginable number of people were being exterminated through labor.

Florence didn’t want to think about that – she didn’t want to imagine the scope of the horror.  And other prisoners escaped into their imagination.  In the morning, they recounted dreams of lavish dim sum meals, reuniting with their families, going out on the town to drink and dance.

But Grace could never avert her eyes.  Could never escape from reality.

The exhaustion, the sleep deprivation that made the whole world blurry.  The blaring horn that woke them every morning, and the cold concrete of the women’s dorm that served as their only mattress.  The frostbite she would get on her feet after trudging to the tread factory, turning her toes swollen and crusting.  The blackish-brown color her clothes took on, after being worn over and over without being washed.

And the stench.  Body odor and stale urine and dried blood.  Even after months in the camp, it made Grace’s stomach churn.

And the hunger, of course.  The hunger was stronger than everything.

Back in Paragon, food had just been a necessity.  Grace had never understood all the fuss about it – the mad rush for scones at breakfast, the huge banquets, the obsession with the academy’s famous mulled cider.

It was all just fuel.  Nothing special.

Now, she understood.  Food was on her mind as she woke up aching, as she fit together tank treads with shaking arms, as she shivered on the concrete and tried to fall asleep.  First, the pangs in her stomach, the ache that grew larger and larger every minute.  Then the sheer exhaustion, as her arms became heavy and her thoughts became consumed.

Sometimes, Grace would eat her bowl of rice all at once, to experience a moment of full, satiated bliss.  Other times, she would divide it up over, one clump every hour, so it would last longer.

When she did that, other women in the dorm would try to take it from her, some begging, others with threats or violence.  

Wan Guo, a farmer from the south of Shenten, was the first, and her death prompted Florence to begin encrypting her own memory.  But she wasn’t the last.  Other prisoners were competition, not allies.  If one of them succeeded, that meant more suffering and death for the others.

To the victims of this camp, the guards were a fact of the world, an inhuman, unchangeable presence who could not be fought.  Grace was the one taking their food from them.  And Florence, since she was the only one who Grace shared her rice with.

The first time Grace killed someone in self-defense, she became a sobbing wreck for weeks.  But after the second, and the third, it started to seem ordinary.  The other prisoners had been reduced to locusts.  They would eat each other if the guards permitted it.

Before long, Grace simply got used to seeing the unmoving women every morning in her dorm, the ones who drank wine, went to sleep the night before and never woke up.  Guards would drag the body away, and a new woman would come to take their place.

As time passed, Grace saw less and less actual Shenti soldiers.  Most of the people who enforced the rules were prisoners themselves – just the higher-level ones with an economic score of five or higher, whose good performance could earn them true freedom from the cmap.

Those guards were the cruelest of all.  When you were this low in life, sometimes the only comfort was knowing someone else was worse.

And they always made sure to remind her.  “What was your profession, locust?” they would shout at her during discipline sessions.

“Teacher,” muttered Grace, the Humdrum-friendly response the Shenti interrogators had assigned her, to conceal the truth of her projection.

“Serving a corrupt nation,” the guard said, sneering.  “Forcing the propaganda of imperialists onto the youth, indoctrinating them against the state.  Spawning another generation of locusts just as worthless as you.”  She gestured to the other prisoners standing on the grass.  “Show her what she deserves.”

In unison, the other prisoners grabbed clods of mud from the damp ground and threw them at her.  Grace closed her eyes, flinching.  They hit the side of her cheek, her chest, her legs and her arms, staining her clothes brown, dirty water trickling down her skin.  They screamed at her, that she was trash, that she was complicit in murder and torture and treacherous sloth and that she was nothing, nothing before this camp and The 99 Precepts and the Black Tortoise’s mercy.

Florence couldn’t throw anything, but she screamed too.  There would be more beatings if she didn’t.

When it was Florence’s turn to be humiliated, Grace would do the same.  Even with Florence’s mind-wipes, they were both becoming fluent in the language of the Black Tortoise.

Life blurred into a perverse routine.  Avoiding beatings, trudging to the factory, eating scraps, stepping over the bodies on your way out the door.

And at first, it was thoughts of freedom that sustained Grace.  In Florence’s state, she wasn’t in any shape to provide support.

This is temporary, Grace told herself.  You’ll find a way to escape, or the Principality will liberate this camp.  All the guards would be punished.  Cao Hui would be brought to justice.

But nothing came up.  The Null Venom injected into her veins prevented her from external projection.  Internal projection was unaffected, but she knew almost no Joining, and Grace’s Praxis Vocation still eluded her.

She thought of messing with the Null Venom schedule.  But the men injecting her were thorough, never late, always injecting a large dose with a wide overlap.  The watchtowers had no blind spots, and the fence was electric.  A prisoner had tried slipping through it at night, and the Shenti left his smoking body on the live wire for a week as a reminder.

Most Humdrum POW escapes happened with tunnels, but no one had the energy or tools for that.

She attacked the problem from every conceivable angle.  But nothing clicked.

And the Principality’s liberating army never came.  Just the horn, every morning, jolting her back to reality.

Day by day, Grace’s future began to fade.  And without that, what goal was there to strive towards?

Prisoners with higher economic scores still dreamed of climbing out, but at levels one and two, there were no such delusions.  They had been abandoned by society, as repulsive, worthless things to be ignored at best.

What are you living for?  What was the purpose of their continued existence?  To fuel the Shenti’s war machine?  To help build tanks and factories and train tracks that would help the monsters conquer the Eight Oceans?  To turn the entire world into camps like these.

What was the point?

Grace didn’t have an answer.

So, instead of sleeping, she spent many nights outside the front door of the dorm, shivering.

After the first few times she did this, a Shenti woman began to join her on the front steps, leaning back against the wall of the dorm, her breath turning to fog ahead of her.  At first, Grace thought she was trying to befriend her, as some sort of long con to steal Grace’s food.

Or perhaps she was an agent, sent by the Shenti to earn her trust and secure her loyalty.

But the woman said nothing.  She just sat there, staring into space.  Most of the time, there wasn’t even eye contact.

Grace and the woman just sat there, two insomniacs passing in the night.

Until one night, Grace spoke up.

Maybe she was curious.  Maybe she was just desperate for connection.

“Why do some of them drink wine?” Grace asked.

The woman turned to her, mouth half-open, a look of surprise on her face.

“The people in our dorm.  I don’t pay much attention to them, but sometimes, I see them drinking wine before they fall asleep.  What’s the purpose?”

The woman laughed, a hoarse, weak sound that turned into a wet cough.  “You’ve been here for months, round eye, and you still don’t know about the Choice of Rice and Wine?”

Half round eye.  Grace’s father was Shenti.  “No, why would I know that?”

“I sit behind you on the cognitive tests so I can read over your shoulder,” said the woman.  “I know how smart you are.  How is it not obvious?”  She cocked her head to the side.  “Or maybe you just don’t want to see it.”

“Fine,” said Grace.  “What is the Choice of Rice and Wine?”

“The guards are hungry too,” said the woman.  “Not as hungry as us, but they’re not exactly getting a feast either.  When they can, they’ll steal our food.”

“Yes, obviously,” said Grace.  Her infrequent bowls of rice had been snatched by the guards before.

“But sometimes, we can trade our food to the guards for other things.  A ration of rice wine, in this case.”

Grace raised an eyebrow.  “But we need the rice to survive.  The wine is a pointless luxury.”

The woman chuckled.  “The wine isn’t about survival, dummy.  It’s about giving yourself one pleasant night before it all goes away.”

Oh.

“It’s about accepting your fate, that the struggle is too much.”

Grace slouched over.  “That’s the most bleak thing I’ve ever heard.”

The woman shrugged.  “Humans aren’t built to last in a place like this.  It’s only the selfish monsters like me who last more than a few months.”

“If you’re so clever, how did you end up here?”

She sighed.  “I tried.  On the day Cao Hui’s thugs chopped the emperor’s head off, I knew I had to get out.  I was unemployed, living through part-time jobs and the occasional violation for drunk and disorderly.  The Black Tortoise doesn’t like my type.”

“Drunk and disorderly?”

“There aren’t a lot of public bathrooms in Ri Chu City.”

“So why didn’t you leave Shenten?” said Grace.

“Do you know how hard it is to get a visa for another country?  When you’re dirt-poor with an economic score in the pits, nobody wants to give you a free ticket to their country.  Nobody wants to give you anything.”

“Sorry.”  Grace pulled her knees to her chest to warm herself.  That could have been me.  If she’d reported Tybalt and gotten expelled, had all knowledge of projection wiped from her head.

The woman shrugged.  “At a certain point, people stop acting disappointed and just start ignoring you.  It’s easier then.  But by the time I found a good smuggler, the state decided I was worth more here.”

On impulse, Grace stuck out her hand.  “I’m – I’m Grace.”

The woman looked at her with confusion, then shook the hand.  “Right, I forgot you westerners did that.  I’m Sun Bi, but you can just call me Sun.”  She smiled, her dry lips cracking.  “I spilled my guts.  Your turn.  What did you do on the outside, round eyes?”

“Well,” said Grace.  “I was a wizard.”

Both of them laughed, their voices echoing over the dead tundra.

Through all the bitter chill, Grace felt a pulse of warmth.

After that, Grace and Sun had many conversations outside the dorm, huddling close for warmth, staring out at the moons, at the factory, at the watchtowers in the distance.  Even in spring and summer, the cold was brutal, and their talks made them lose sleep.

But they didn’t stop.  They both knew that this was their lifeline, the flimsy thread keeping them from drinking that wine.

Months after they’d started talking to each other, Sun ruined it all.

“What if I told you,” she said.  “That I was planning an escape?”

Scholars, please, no.  “I would ask you what the plan is,” said Grace.

Sun huddled closer, lowering her voice.  “I’ve been developing it for over a year,”  she said.  “The guards have a shift change every night at a regular time.  During that period, there’s a moment when nobody is looking at the wire.”

No, no, no.

“The tread factory is only a quarter mile from the perimeter.  If we mess with the gas system and use a timed fuse, we can create a fire during the shift change, drawing all the nearby guards – including the ones at the watchtower.  With the distraction, we can cut the wires on the electric fence and go.”

Grace slumped over, staring out over the tundra.

“Well, what do you think?”

Grace gathered up the energy to speak.  “I thought of that plan,” she said.  “Four months ago.”

“What?” said Sun.  “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because it won’t work,” said Grace.  “In the event of an emergency, all perimeter guards are to stay at their posts, and increase their vigilance.  And the wires on the electric fence are connected to an alarm system.  If they get cut or the circuit gets broken, it sends off an alarm.  You wouldn’t make it a mile.”

We wouldn’t make it a mile,” said Sun  “If you’ve thought about it this much, we can perfect this plan together.  Get out together.  You, me, and your handless friend over there.”  She indicated her head to Florence back to the dorm.

A hole opened up inside Grace, growing and growing until it felt like her torso had been hollowed out.  “I tried,” she said.  “I tried.  But it’s a dead end.  All my escape plans were dead ends.“

Sun shook her head, eyes wide.  “No, no.  That’s not possible.  I thought this through.  A big enough explosion, and the guards will have to come running.  And there’s no way of knowing if the electric fence has an alarm to it.”

“Please,” said Grace, her voice soft.  “I don’t want to watch you die.”

“I’m going to die if I spend another year here,” said Sun.  “I don’t know if it’ll be fever, or a guard, or hunger, but I can’t last much longer.  Sooner or later, I’m going to choose wine instead of rice.”

“Then wait,” said Grace.  “Wait just a little.  We can come up with something else, it’ll just take time.”

“Can you guarantee when you’ll have something else?  Or if you’ll even have anything at all?”

Grace forced her eyes shut.  Please don’t do this.  Please.

“Then I can’t wait.”

She’s in denial.  Sun had placed all her hopes on this plan, and couldn’t imagine a world where it would fail.  It would be impossible to convince her otherwise.

But Grace tried anyways.  She tried for hours into the night.  And the next night.  And the next.  Until the two of them stopped talking, and Grace went back to shivering on the concrete.

And Grace started to think, knees pulled up to her chest, staring at the far wall of the dorm.

If Grace reported on an escape attempt from another prisoner, she could boost her economic score, move up a few levels.  If she was lucky, she could pull Florence up with her.  She’d probably never get out, but she and Florence would have a lot less agony, a much higher chance of survival.  They would have twice as much food, warm bedding.  Maybe even an easier factory job, that wouldn’t tear their muscles and leave them shaking at the end of the day.

Just the thought was enough to make Grace’s mouth water.

And Sun would be killed if she tried to escape anyways.  The outcome would be the same either way.

Grace drifted off to sleep, full of indecision.  The horn jolted her awake a few hours later, screeching in her ears.  Within a few minutes, she was marching in a line with the other prisoners to the factory, her swollen feet aching with every step on the dirt path.

“Guard,” she croaked.  “Guard.”

One of the Shenti guards walked over to her.  On the other side of the line, Sun glanced at her, eyes widening.

The guard scowled at her.  “What?”

Grace and Sun made eye contact for a few seconds.

But Sun’s gaze wasn’t terrified, or angry, or vindictive.  It was sympathetic.  Understanding.

Sun turned away, walking back into the line.

“Well?” said the guard, gripping her rifle.  “Fuck you want?”

Report Sun.  Save yourself.

Grace snickered.  Then chuckled.  Then broke out in hoarse laughter, tears running down her face.

The guard punched her in the solar plexus.  Grace doubled over, gasping for breath.  She collapsed to her knees, wheezing.  Scholars, that hurts.

“Back in line, locust,” the guard said.

Grace crawled back in line and pushed herself upright, taking slow, labored inhales and exhales.

Step by step, she staggered towards the rising sun.

A week later, Grace heard a loud explosion at the factory, and Sun went missing.  A week and three days after that, the guards marched the prisoners down a different path in the morning, leading them to a hill with a tree stump in the middle.

The guards dragged Sun to the stump.  Bruises and bloodstains covered her face, but she was still breathing, still lucid, eyes darting around.  They looked into Grace’s for a split second.

There was no speech, no dramatic introduction.  One guard forced Sun onto her knees, pushing her head forward over the edge of the stump.

Another guard drew a curved Voidsteel dao sword, and brought it down on Sun’s neck.

Blood spilled onto the frozen grass.  “This is the symptom of society’s treacherous sloth!” shouted a guard.  “A great failure of intellect.  Do not try to leave.”

And then they went back to work, like nothing had happened.

Grace didn’t scream.  Any strong reaction to the incident might be seen as collaboration.  She pushed her emotions down all throughout the day.

Finally, late at night, she found herself on the concrete floor again, leaning against the wall, knees pulled to her chest, staring forward into space.

Next to her, Florence was erasing all the memories of the execution.  She might even be erasing her memories of Sun.

And it all washed over Grace.  Tears poured down her cheeks, and her face twitched.  Her chest gasped, in quiet, violent sobs.  She clenched her hands on her knees, her brittle fingernails digging into her skin.  Her stomach ached, a part of her mind already drifting to her next meal.  Even now, all my body wants to do is survive.

Sun could have saved her life if she’d given Grace’s name.  The guards knew the two of them had talked, all they needed was an excuse.  Grace and Florence would have been tortured, at least for some time, and Sun could have gotten a new chance at life.

The rational choice, the choice of survival, was to report Grace.

But Sun hadn’t.  She’d let herself die.

Ants and Beetles.

Grace had to make her sacrifice count.  Merely continuing to exist was insufficient.

In that moment, she decided: I am going to get Florence Tuft out of this prison.  Even if it meant dying.

Everything coalesced around that goal, that one singular obsession.

Intention: Get Florence Out

Purple lightning crackled around her wrists.  It spread to the rest of her body, becoming a cloud, growing brighter and brighter until it was an electrical storm, blurry through a film of tears.

The headache grew too, a stabbing pain that split her skull down the middle, but the rush was a thousand times stronger.

Grace let go, relaxing her Pith.  The lightning vanished.  The handful of prisoners who had woken up fell back asleep, no doubt convinced it was some hallucination.

Alignment.  Perfect alignment.  Everything made sense now, everything clicked.  A slow process at first, then faster and faster.

Intention: Get Florence Out

It rang in her head, thrumming as if her soul was a tuning fork that had just been struck.

And her mind responded.

In an instant, her memory focused, spitting out a schedule of every guard’s rotation for the past year.  Their names flashed through her mind, ones she had forgotten, or had only heard once in passing a few months ago.  The tiniest details from years ago became clear, sharp.

Then, she surmised their weaknesses.  Qiu Heng was a drunkard.  Kang Hai was wracked by guilt, and showed great sympathy for the prisoners.  Zhao Lin feared being reassigned to the front lines.

Han Shufen.  Cui Fu.  Li Ping.  Tao Xue.  Su Jing.  All of them had vulnerabilities.  Humans were the weak point in every security system.

But the insights didn’t stop there.  From a single glance at a cable technician a month ago, Grace guessed where the power for the electric fence was generated, how much longer Florence would last before she made the choice of rice and wine, how to stay strong and functional through the coming winter.

Within a few seconds, her hunger faded into the background, along with the other aches and chills.  The pain was still there, but it was like an adrenaline rush – the other thoughts were stronger, making it easier to concentrate.

And her Pith began to run through all her flawed escape plans, all the failed attempts she’d seen other prisoners make.

In the span of two minutes, she came up with three new ideas for how to break into the guards’ weapons locker.  Grace had never fired a gun before, but that wouldn’t be a problem now.

The next day, when Grace ate her weekly bowl of rice, she couldn’t taste it.

Her sense of smell had been dampened too.  On a hunch, she tried to think back to her childhood.  What did her house look like?  Did she have any pets?  Who were her neighbors?

All a blur.  And other memories of her earlier years were vanishing by the moment.

In that moment, Grace understood the truth of her Praxis Vocation.  It was a True Praxis Vocation, as they called it, a technique that modified her entire Pith, not just a few tiny aspects of it.

It wasn’t a clean upgrade to her intellect.  It didn’t give her perfect plans.  It was focus.  Obsession.  When Grace held a specific goal in her mind, her Pith adjusted at a rapid pace, sharpening itself to solve the problem at the cost of everything else.  Sections deemed unnecessary for the goal were written over, replaced.

The Shenti could control her body.  They could inject her with Null Venom, starve her, and work her to the breaking point.  Her skin was covered in frostburn.  She was shivering, frail, swollen from the hunger.

But her mind?

Her mind was burning.

________________________________________

It had taken two more years to escape the camp.

Two more years of agony, of mastering her Praxis Vocation.  In the process, she’d even forgotten her name a few times, needing Florence to remind her of it.

Florence had survived.  To Grace’s surprise, she’d made it out too.

And now, nobody cared.

There were noises of sympathy, of course, medals for surviving capture by the enemy, newspapers with their faces on page five.

But when Grace went into the details of the camps, everyone seemed to change the subject, or forget.  And when she pressed the issue, they would dismiss her, accuse her of embellishing her story, diagnose her with false memories.

Florence barely talked about it at all – she just wanted to forget.  And the Epistocrats believed Grace even less.  Being half-Shenti didn’t help with that.

Everyone was happy that the two of them were home, but nobody seemed to care about what they’d been through, what was still happening to Humdrums all over Shenten.  Nobody believed her.

Grace coped by training, making herself strong, so that nobody could force her into a cage ever again.  She mastered Palefire, a technique she’d barely understood before the redemption camp.

Then, she’d gotten herself a job in foreign intelligence.  With her Praxis Vocation, finding patterns in the data became as easy as breathing.

And now she had proof.

Grace pressed the button.  Clockwork filigree mechanisms spun and whirred before her, bringing the elevator down the shaft to her.

Level Five.  This was the highest level in the Great Library, where the Conclave of the Wise met to rule the country.

And above it, Headmaster Tau’s personal study.

While she waited, she glanced around the room.  This level of the Great Library was nothing like the ones beneath, full of effects that seemed impossible based on what she knew of projection.

The entire room was shaped like a sphere, and gravity itself had warped around it.  The ceiling was the walls was the floor.  Jade glass bookshelves covered every inch, each book sealed in its own separate compartment.  A miniature crystal sun floated in the center, shining warm, natural light over everything.

Hooded figures stood around the sphere, clad in dark blue robes, their faces obscured, watching her.  The Librarians.  The real librarians, not the Guardians who watched the entrance or the clerks who helped fetch books at the lower levels.  Silent watchers who protected the most dangerous codices, wielding unknown powers.

Paragon took their book security very seriously.  Most of the damn academy was based around restricting people’s access to information.

The elevator arrived, a tall birdcage made of blue filigree metal, covered in spinning gears and cables.  Due to the warped gravity of the sphere, it rose up from the floor, even though it was technically coming from above.  I’m standing upside-down, thought Grace.

The door swung open, and Grace stepped in.  It swung shut, and the elevator descended into the floor, whirring and clicking.

The world went dark around Grace for a few seconds.

Then the elevator emerged, right-side up, noon sunlight glaring in Grace’s face.

Grace gaped at her surroundings.  That doesn’t seem possible.

The elevator was rising through the open air.

The entire top level of the Great Library was invisible from the inside.  Grace gazed down on the floating air islands of Paragon, and, thousands of feet below, Mount Elwar and the ocean, all lit by the warm sun.  When she glanced up, there was no cable supporting the elevator, nothing other than the spinning mechanisms on the cage itself.

After a few minutes, the elevator rose into a hole on the side of a platform, that appeared to be floating midair.  And Grace Acworth entered the headmaster’s study.

In comparison to the surreal wonders of Level Five, Nicholas Tau’s office was quite humble.  The only notable object was the globe, a vast metal sphere five times wider than she was tall, engraved with all the continents of the world, hanging from the ceiling high above, complete with a pair of tiny moons.

Natural sunlight shone in through countless windows, illuminating a handful of bookshelves behind the desk, including the Lavender Book itself.  Those can’t be normal.  There were no windows on the outside of the Great Library, or the tower at the top.  The same effect as the elevator shaft, probably.

The most remarkable thing in the whole building, of course, was the bearded man in front of her, wearing a bathrobe, bare feet resting on the smooth wooden desk, sipping tea and reading a book.  A gramophone played a smooth piano song, and he nodded along with the rhythm.

“What are you reading?” said Grace.

Headmaster Tau beamed at her, taking his feet off the desk.  “Shellfish Secrets: A Hundred Different Recipes for Crab,” he said.  “Riveting.”

“The Shenti are winning,” said Grace.  “And you’re reading a cookbook.”

Tau chuckled.  “You know, most people would have just feigned interest.”

Grace shrugged, and slid her dark blue and purple business card across the desk.  An introduction, of sorts.

Captain Grace Acworth
Foreign Intelligence | Paragon Academy
31 – 1621 – 8273

“My apologies,” said Tau.  “I may not look it, but I’m rather old, and we have a different sense of pace than you saplings.”  He indicated his hand.  “Please, sit.”

Grace sat down on a couch chair.

“You seem quite intent, young lady,” Tau said.  “So I’ll try not to fuss around.  What do you have for me today?”

Grace showed him her evidence.  Pages and pages of it.

“So, in summary,” she said.  “The Shenti are operating over five thousand redemption camps, some in captured territories, but most within Shenten itself.  As per Cao Hui’s system, those with the worst economic scores are sent to locations where they are exterminated through labor.”  She took a deep breath.  “Between two and nine thousand are killed every day in these camps, mostly through starvation and disease.”

Tau exhaled, a mournful look on his face.  “This is excellent work, Grace, thank you.  It is a great horror you have uncovered.”

A horror that would have been uncovered a year ago if people listened to me.

“You’ve had to endure great suffering.  Especially given your parentage.“

Grace grimaced.  “I’m as native to the Principality as any.”

“Of course,” said Tau.  “But your father was from Shenten, no?  And the growing instability was one of the reasons he left.  Do you have any family at risk of being sent to one of these camps?”

“No,” said Grace.  “But why should that matter?”

“A horror,” muttered Tau.  “A horror.  But, forgive me – ”  He folded his hands on the desk.  “The population of these camps are almost entirely composed of Humdrums, yes?”

“Yes,” she said.  “Florence and I were the only projectors in there that we know of.”

“And the perpetrators are Humdrums, yes?”

Grace didn’t like where this was going.

“Cao Hui, the Black Tortoise, is a Praxis Specialist,” she said, “and he runs the whole country, but yes, everyone else involved is a Humdrum.”

A tired, pained expression passed across Tau’s middle-aged face, and he closed his eyes.  “The Treaty of Silence is… rather strict.  Our own world must be kept separate from the Humdrums, for their safety and our own.  Every civilization, back to the Great Scholars, has understood this.  Acting against the camps would threaten to expose us.  There is a natural balance, that should not be upset.”

“But we’re not separate,” said Grace.  “The Conclave of the Wise – the council that rules this entire country – is made up of Epistocrats.  Guardians insert themselves in the military.  Projectors run all the major newspapers.”

“A necessary step,” said Tau.  “A few centuries ago, all it took was an invisible school and a memory wipe every now and then.  But today, the Humdrums have radio, television, mass media.  Secrecy is a fragile thing in these times.  We need all that to conceal ourselves.”

“And the war?”

“We can fight Shenti projectors, as you and your comrades have bravely done, but it must be kept secret, hidden.  Through all the atrocities of this war, the Treaty of Silence is the one aspect all sides have agreed on.  If anyone were to break it, entire societies would collapse.  Our way of life depends on this.”

“But we can help them,” said Grace.  “They’re humans, just like us.”

“If we solved one problem for them, they’d expect us to fix everything,” Tau said.  “And do not imagine they’d be grateful for your help.  The thoughts of a Humdrum are close-minded and stubborn and prideful all at once.  If they found out people like you existed, many would try to burn you at the stake.  They’d try to burn all of us.”

The world is already burning.  “But even if we can’t act, what about our Humdrum military?  We could bomb the rail lines leading in, or disrupt their communications, or – “

Tau sighed.  “As you’ve described, we’re losing the war.  A year ago, we had landed on the beaches of Shenten.  Today, we’re a thousand miles west of that, and we’re losing islands by the week.  We can focus on helping the Humdrums when we’re not on the verge of destruction.  Then, we’ll do everything we can.”

They’ll all be dead by then.  Grace clenched her fists.  The anger bubbled up again inside her chest, the same sensation she’d felt in the women’s dorm so many nights.

“I know how much pain you’re in,” said Tau, his voice calm.  “And right now, it may seem as though the whole world is against you.  But if peace were easy, we’d never have to fight for it.  By maintaining balance, we – and the Treaty of Silence – are protecting the lives of countless millions of Humdrums.”

Tybalt Keswick’s face flashed through Grace’s memory, lips parted in an easygoing smile as he forced Edric to stab Priscilla.

What are you protecting, Headmaster? thought Grace.

Grace had tasked her Praxis Vocation with gathering evidence of these camps.  Overwhelming evidence.  But she’d never imagined that she would need to convince people beyond that.

The truth was enough, wasn’t it?  Once people knew of the cruelties happening in the camps, they would act, right?

“Life is so complicated these days,” sighed Tau.  “I must confess, I wax nostalgic for the days of my childhood.  The world was so much simpler back then.”

The world was never simple, said Grace in her head.  You just thought it was.

“A kinder world,” he said, a faraway look in his eyes.  “A kinder world.”  He stood up and squeezed her hands.

Grace stepped back.  “Thank you for your time, sir.”

“But still, I’m glad that we have young idealists like you to defend this nation.”

Grace bowed to him.  You might end up regretting that.

________________________________________

“We’re almost there,” said Penny Oakes.

Grace swung her pick into the ice above her and pulled herself onto the ledge.  Snowflakes drifted all around them, a light storm passing through the mountains.

Isaac pulled himself up after her, and Florence floated close behind, lifting herself on a gust of wind.  Revenant Squad was using both projection and ordinary methods to climb the mountain, in order to preserve their strength for the mission.

Penny Oakes unfolded the map from her bag, floating it in front of her.  “We’re still going the right way, yes?”

Grace glanced over her shoulder, and nodded.  “My intel says the training grounds should be on the other side of the mountain.  The storm will give us some cover.”

Shenti training grounds.  Commandos were difficult to fight, but if you killed them before they finished their training, not so much.  And a place to teach Joiners wouldn’t have any Humdrums present, so the Treaty of Silence would remain intact.

It was a perfect target for Paragon.  And a perfect excuse to bring Revenant Squad back together, with the exception of Rowyna, who was busy leading half the fleet now.  Penny Oakes served as her temporary replacement.


“At last,” said Florence, wiping snow off her face with one of her stumps.  “We can get shot instead of freezing to death.  Have I mentioned that I hate winter?”

“Nineteen times in the last week,” said Isaac, leaning against the rock wall.  “I counted.”

“Now I know why the Shenti are so gruff,” she said.  “If I spent all my time this cold, I’d probably want to punch something too.”

“How’re you gonna punch something, Florence?” said Grace, indicating to the woman’s stumps.

“I’m a Guardian,” said Florence, grinning.  “It’s our job to be creative.”

Grace’s intention still rang clear, her Vocation operating at full capacity.  She glanced up at the ridge near the peak of the mountain, snow falling all around her.

“Thank you,” she blurted out.

A look of confusion spread across Isaac and Florence’s faces.  “What?” Florence said.

“After we’d escaped from that camp, Florence, I was unconscious,” said Grace.  “You could have abandoned me.  Vastly increased your chances.  But you carried me through that wasteland.”

“I don’t remember that,” said Florence.  “I’m sorry.  What’s this about?”

Grace smiled at the two of them.  “Of all the vicious, ignorant people I could have had as squadmates, I had you guys.  I’m grateful, I guess.”

“I dunno,” said Florence.  “We’ve got some issues.  I’m pretty sure half my brain is melted cheese at this point.”

“And still,” said Grace.  “I’m grateful.”  She went back to climbing.

A few seconds later, they clambered over the ridge, to the edge of a cliff.  Far beneath them, through the storm, they could make out the details of the structures below.

A grassy, flat tundra.  A factory puffing out black smoke.  And an electric fence, stretching as far as the eye could see, dotted with watchtowers and floodlights.

“Huh?” said Penny Oakes.  “This looks too big for a Joiner’s training grounds, and that looks like a factory there on the left.  Captain Acworth, are you sure your intel is accurate?”

“I’m sorry,” said Grace.

“No,” said Florence.  “No.”  Her eyes widened.  She understood in an instant.  “You can’t – you can’t – “

Isaac crouched down at the edge of the cliff.  “This is the camp, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Grace.  “This is Jiachong, the twenty-third redemption camp constructed by Cao Hui’s government.”  The place where I forged my Vocation.

“And the training grounds?” said Isaac.

She pointed at a second location on the map.  “That’s not a Shenti brigade, as written.  The real training grounds are at those coordinates.  You can go there if you want.”  She put her hands on Florence and Isaac’s shoulders.  “Or you can join me.”

“What’s going on?” said Penny Oakes.

“You’ll be breaking the Treaty of Silence,” said Isaac.  “Attacking Humdrums.  You’ll overturn thousands of years of secrecy in an instant.”  His chest rose and fell at a rapid pace.

Tybalt’s face flashed through Grace’s memory, followed by Edric, the carpenter’s boy, and Priscilla, the young woman who’d been stabbed.

“And if you do this,” said Florence, stepping close, speaking under her breath.  “You won’t just face the Shenti.  Paragon will hunt you down.”

“Those are Humdrums down there?” said Oakes.  “No projectors?  Then if you engage, the sentence is a full memory wipe at best.  And death at worst.  I won’t fight you here, but I will report you.”

“I know what you went through,” said Florence.

“I’m not sure you do anymore,” said Grace.

“And – and I know enough about revenge,” she said, her eyes glistening with tears.  “It won’t make you feel whole again.  All it does is add more misery to the world.”

“I know,” said Grace.  “I’m not doing it for me.”  She hugged Florence and Isaac, pulling them close at the edge of the cliff, as snow fell around them.

Revenant Squad.  Look at us.  All broken in their own way, all straining under the weight of the world they fought in.

“I love you,” she said.  “Please.  Remember this.”

She let go of them, and jumped off the cliff.

On the snowy tundra, a group of prisoners trudged forward, directed by the guards, forming rows and columns around a hill.  Many dorm’s worth, hundreds and hundreds.  Snowflakes drifted around them, the air still and silent, the sun covered up by clouds.  High in the sky, a silver oracle snake wound back and forth, tranquil and distant.

A surreal moment of peace, amidst the daily violence that was the norm in Jiachong.  They all knew what was coming.  They’d been to this hill before.  But most just looked grateful for the chance to rest, to not be walking or working or scrabbling for food.

So there was no surprise when a guard dragged a limping prisoner to the tree stump.

“This locust attempted to steal food from the storehouse!” the guard cried.  “His treacherous sloth rots from within.  He lacks the discipline, the intellect, the moral spine to be a patriot!”

“No!”  The prisoner yelled, his voice hoarse.  They hadn’t beaten him into silence, and these were his last words.  He was going to make them count.  “I campaigned for the Black Tortoise, for Cao Hui!  I fought for his vision, to restore our nation’s beauty, to save us from the monsters at our gates.  Were it not for my injury, I would have joined the front lines.”

“Silence!” A guard kicked the prisoner’s face.

The prisoner spat up blood, and kept going.  “And now that Cao Hui no longer has use for me, I am sent here to die.”  He looked at the guards around him, at the prisoners.  “Is this what you wanted?  Is this what we wanted?  What was the point?” he wheezed.  “What was the point?”

The other prisoners just stared at him, apathetic, exhausted.  Snowflakes collected on their withering hair, their slow, labored breaths fogging the air in front of them.

The guards ignored him too.  How many times had they heard rants from locusts, cries of regret and despair?  The accusations, the questions meant nothing to them.  They knew their role in this society, and were filling it.  That was all.

The guard next to the stump drew his broadsword, lifting it above his head.

The prisoner screamed, his voice cracking, a raw, animal noise.  Raging at his life cut short, at his complicity, at how powerless he was.

Grace screamed with him, and lit the world on fire.

A flash of pale light lit up the sky, washing over the executioner.  He dropped to the ground, limp, his skin charred and white.

The Voidsteel sword fell out of his hand, spinning through the air.

Grace’s hand reached out of the storm, and grabbed it.

Time stood still.  The guards stared at her, in disbelief.

Then Grace screamed again, and set them all on fire.  Nineteen precise blasts of palefire shot out around her, crashing down on nineteen guards from above.

They were dead before they hit the ground.  The fire vaporized the flakes in the air, turning the snow into steaming puddles.

Two of the perimeter watchtowers turned to her and opened fire with their machine guns.  The rounds bounced off her autonomous bullet defense, deflected with ease.

Grace flicked her fingers, and a pair of fireballs slammed into the towers, blowing them up with a dull boom.

Then, she projected into her body armor, and unfurled her wingsuit, shooting into the air.

The difficult step was disabling the lines of communication.  She flew all over the camp, breaking all the radios from the inside, knocking out the signal before any guards could alert their superiors.

Then came the simple part.  She slaughtered the guards.  She stabbed them with knives, turned their own guns on them, pulled the pins on the grenades at their belts.

But mostly, she burned them, flying through the snowy air and raining down waves of pale flame.  An angel of fire and rage.

The guards were Humdrums.  Men and women from another world.  None of them had been outfitted with Voidsteel.  Why would they need it, in a remote camp with the Treaty of Silence intact?

Killing them was easy.  Easier than every battle she’d fought, even the ones in training.  Unless they shot her point blank, her Autonomous Bullet Defense would deflect everything they had.

And once Grace destroyed the trucks, broke the mechanism on the gates, the fence the guards had built now served to lock them in.  Some of them tried to claw their way out, only to be shocked and burnt on the electric wire.

Meanwhile, despite the boiling anger in her veins, Grace took pains to control her flame, making sure that the tundra didn’t burn, that there were no lasting fires that could spread to the dorms or cause collateral damage to the prisoners.

No collateral damage.  That was important.  Some of the guards tried to take hostages of the prisoners, or execute them, but she just jammed their guns, or pulled the knives right out of their hands.

One guard dropped his weapon before she could burn him, falling to his knees on the snow.  “Mercy!” he sobbed.  “Mercy, mercy.  Please.”  Unique among the guards, he wasn’t Shenti, looking to be somewhere from the Principality.

Grace landed on the ground in front of him, still holding the broadsword from earlier.  Dried blood coated its green metal.  They’ve done many executions with this.

“My name is Corporal John Enright.  I was a prisoner too,” said the guard, shaking.  “And I was a soldier in the Principality before I was sent here.  I’m not one of those eastern dogs.”  He ripped his shirt, showing lines of scars up and down his chest.  “They would have killed me if I didn’t join in.  I was just trying to survive.”  He closed his eyes.  “I was just trying to survive.”

He’s a beetle.  Like the old parable Tybalt had told her about the flood.  Someone who only cared about self-preservation, who would commit all sorts of atrocities if it meant they could endure.

Grace set the broadsword on the grass next to him.  Then she Nudged him.   “Do to yourself,” she said.  “What you did to the prisoners.”

A look of horror dawned on John Enright’s face, and he picked up the sword.

Mental hijacking was immoral and cruel.  But in this case, she’d make an exception.

By the time she’d dealt with all the guards, many of the prisoners had coalesced around the tree stump, where she’d first stopped the execution.  Most of them were hiding in their dorms, but a few had wandered out.

Grace descended near them and strode past the stump.  The burnt body of the executioner had been covered with a thin layer of snow.  As she passed, the prisoners stared at her.

Walking to the electric fence, Grace grabbed it.  Demonstrating that the power was out.  Then, she lifted her arms, projected into the fence posts, and ripped them out of the ground, tearing out a wide section of the perimeter wall.

“Listen closely!” Grace shouted, speaking in Shenti.  “The guards store their food in the grey building to the northeast!  They store weapons in the red building next to it!”  She projected into her bag, shooting out a storm of pamphlets.

A few prisoners picked them up, reading through them.

“These include directions on how to travel through the mountains to the Principality’s lines!  Do not linger!”  Her voice softened.  “The journey will be cold and difficult.  Some of you will not survive.  But in struggling, you may help ensure the freedom of others.  And that’s all any of us can do.”

She repeated the speech in Common, Neke, and Ilaquan, for the foreigners in the camp, instructing them to spread the information and pamphlets to the ones in the dorms.

Then, she consulted the maps that her Vocation had seared into her memory.  The next closest redemption camp was Luoyesong, thirty-two miles southeast of here.  They had no idea she was coming.

The Shenti’s Joiners and commandos were far away from the homeland – fighting on the front lines around Ilaqua and all over the oceans.  It would be a long time before they could move against her.

Intention: Free as many as possible

Her Vocation kept working, optimizing her Pith for the next camp, burning away all that was unnecessary.

The Treaty of Silence would burn too, as a side effect.  But Grace could accept that collateral damage.

Grace flew into the snow, seeking her next pyre.

________________________________________

Basilisk, Lampago, and Ouroboros squads had been hunting Grace for four weeks.

The chase had spanned glaciers, through cave networks beneath mountains and across vast rivers.  She’d liberated countless redemption camps already, fighting off Humdrums and Joiners along the way, making the occasional detour to resupply or help steer the new refugees in the right direction.

But her goal made her easy to track.  At the next camp, Lianhua, they were waiting for her.

Even in the middle of a war, Paragon could spare three whole top-ranked squads to hunt down one of their own.  Grace wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or repulsed.

Every time she found a path out, they cut her off.  Every time she fought them, they came together, keeping her palefire at bay and wearing her out through the sheer force of their projection.  They slept in shifts, allowing them to pursue her twenty-four hours a day.  Her Vocation helped her function without sleep, but her body could only take so much.  And on top of that, one of them had touched her with his hand, putting a tracer on her Pith.  Now, every time she projected outside her body, it would send them her exact location.

And now, they’d cornered her here, some unnamed lake deep in the Yachi Mountains.

Cliffs surrounded her on all sides, steep faces extending from the shore to a dozen snowy peaks high above.  Guardians in blue armor stood on ledges throughout them, encircling the whole lake.  If she tried flying out, they’d intercept her.

The other two squads strode down the river, the only real entrance into the valley.  And the only exit.  In the winter, the lake had frozen over, so they didn’t even need a water walk to stride towards her.

Grace sat on a small rocky island in the middle.  She hunched over, catching her breath, resting her hands on her knees.

Her armor was in tatters now, peeling, full of holes.  It had broken off her body in most places, revealing her ash-stained clothes beneath.  Her brown hair had grown tangled, greasy, singed at the tips.  A patch of her scalp had burned, leaving a shriveled bald spot.

Bruises stretched up and down her arms.  One of her ribs had broken, sending stabbing pain throughout her chest every time she moved.  And a Guardian’s Voidsteel knife had grazed her neck, leaving a red scab across her trachea.

As the main group approached from the front, the other Guardians descended from the cliffs, closing in on all sides.

Grace exhaled, a slow, aching motion, her breath fogging up the air.

The main group stopped thirty feet away, and the tallest one flipped up his helmet.

Short black hair.  Round, innocent blue eyes.  And a warm, open smile that, when you squinted, turned into a smirk.

Professor Tybalt Keswick.  Her old student boss, spry and rested, gazing at her across the frozen water.

“Normally,” he said.  “They don’t send former connections after people like you.  They get emotional, hesitate, don’t want to hurt their former friends.”  He folded his armored hands behind him.  “But when I asked, they made an exception.”

Grace just stared at him.

“This is the part where I ask you to surrender, one last time, so I can tell Headmaster Tau that I did everything I could.”  Tybalt adopted a sympathetic look.  “He’s heartbroken, by the way.  Won’t even look me in the eye.”

“You don’t think I’ll come quiet?” said Grace, her voice hoarse.

Tybalt laughed.  “You’re such an angry little creature.  To be honest, I was surprised you didn’t try to kill me all those years ago, on the night with your Humdrum friend.  I wish you had tried.  The world would have stayed a lot simpler with you in a prison cell.”

“The world was never simple,” said Grace.  “You just thought it was.”

Tybalt spun Reverie, the Nekean Tanto knife, between his fingers, the green blade shooting in and out of the hilt.  “You know what you’ve done, haven’t you?”

“I saved people.”  Thousands and thousands of them.

“Is that what you’re telling yourself now?”  Tybalt’s voice took on a surprised tone.  “You went mad.  You burned every Humdrum in sight, soldiers and civilians.  You created mountains of ashes.  They’re calling you ‘The Pyre Witch’ now.”

Lies.  Grace had expected a smear, an attempted cover-up, but nothing on this level.  How many will they have to memory wipe to achieve this?  Paragon Academy couldn’t admit that a traitor did a good thing, a moral thing, something they lacked the spine to do.

She had to be seen as the monster.

“And,” said Tybalt.  “You attacked Humdrums.  You shattered the barrier between our worlds.  In retaliation for your little tantrum, the Shenti’s Immaculate Vanguard massacred an entire carrier group.”

A carrier group.  Does that mean Rowyna – 

“The Edwina,” he said.  “May Vice Admiral Kerst have rest.  Projectors are now fighting in the open.  The Treaty of Silence is over.  You exposed us to the Humdrums, and now they’re going to try and destroy us all.  The world as we know it is going to burn.”

“Some things,” Grace said, sitting up with effort.  “Deserve to burn.”

“This is your legacy, Grace Acworth,” Tybalt said.  “This is how history will remember you.”  His smirk widened.  He knows the truth.  And he was taking pleasure in the lie.  This country will always protect people like him.

Grace’s calloused fingers dug into the skin of her leg.  The rage was almost enough to make her scream.

“What’s the sentence?” said Grace.  “Memory wipe or death?”

“If all your memories are wiped, and your personality flattened,” Tybalt said.  “The Conclave has ruled that you may live.  If you want to survive, there’s only one rational choice you can make.”

Ants and Beetles.  It always came back to the ant and the beetle.  Sacrifice and survival.  Death and life.  A selfish man like Tybalt, thinking everyone was just as empty.

But it was almost time.

When the Guardians arrived, they had stretched their Piths over the area, looking for traps, hidden allies.  They would have noticed a sunken metal ship on the far end of the lake, but that was it.

And scanning an area was costly, took energy.  They would have only done it once, preserving their strength for the fight, as per Paragon’s tactics guidebook.

And why bother with more?  Their target was exhausted, cornered.  They’d prepared for her palefire, bested it several times already.  And the Guardians had chosen this battlefield, not her.

So, during the course of their conversation, they wouldn’t have noticed the pieces of the underwater boat breaking apart, reassembling themselves.  The particles of cordite rising from the lake bed, packing into bullets behind Voidsteel rounds.

They didn’t know the details of her Praxis Vocation, that Grace had been to this place before.  That every loss, every failed escape had been part of Grace’s plan.  That her body was exhausted, but her Pith was not.

Intention: Kill enemies and escape

A dozen rifles finished assembling in the icy water, each loaded with a Voidsteel bullet.

They floated, one by one, beneath the ice, separating.  Aiming at their targets.

“You know,” said Grace.  “When I was looking through data in foreign intelligence, I had some curious insights about you and your family, Tybalt.”

Tybalt laughed.  “Got any fun conspiracy theories?”

“About Buttercup Lodge,” said Grace.  “And Egress.”

Tybalt stopped laughing.  For a moment, a look of genuine surprise passed across his face.

“If your squadmates knew about that,” she said.  “They’d probably kill you for me.  But that’s a moot point.”

“Why?”

“Because none of you are leaving here alive.”

“I don’t think that – “ Tybalt moved in the middle of his sentence, his body shooting forward in a blur.  He’d studied some Joining, and his reactions were enhanced.  He would strike her in a fraction of a second, at a speed a Humdrum wouldn’t even see.

Grace moved faster.

________________________________________

Revenant Squad moved.  Isaac Brin, Florence Tuft, Rowyna Ebbridge.  The Scholar of Mass, the Scholar of Air, and the Typhoon of the South.  Two of them now scholar-ranked.  All sharper and improved since the last time she’d seen them.

Grace moved faster.

She washed palefire over the trio, melting their armor.  Florence pushed back, funneling the oxygen away from them to starve the flames, but Grace was far stronger.  Green lightning crackled all around Florence, betraying her effort, but Grace wasn’t even getting sparks.

Back during the war, Grace wouldn’t have dreamed of hurting her best friends.  Even a year ago, she might have stayed her hand, moving to drive them off instead of killing them.

But her Vocation had kept working, writing over the unnecessary, focusing her thoughts, driving her towards her ultimate goal.

Now, she could slaughter them without blinking an eye.

The trap she’d set wasn’t perfect.  Grace didn’t know about the attack until ten minutes ago.  And advanced projectors had a new vocation these days, Voidsteel Sense, that let them detect Voidsteel at close range – the trick she’d used with Tybalt wouldn’t work.

So she’d hid in a separate, hidden room with countless other Piths around her.  Revenant Squad wouldn’t know which one to hit.  Isaac had shot his Voidsteel darts already.  Rowyna’s birds had been burnt to death.  And in these tight quarters, Florence had no plane, and couldn’t dodge around much.

In close quarters like these, the best strategy was the simplest one.  Revenant Squad’s makeshift shields would protect them from Voidsteel bullets, so raw, overwhelming fire was the best method to break down their defenses.

Once they had no energy left, it didn’t really matter which way Grace killed them.  Without their projection, they would be helpless  And though Florence could push out her palefire for now, it was taking all her concentration, leaving her unable to attack.

By her estimation, Grace would win the battle of attrition in less than a minute.

So, Revenant Squad went on the attack.  Rowyna shouted some inspirational speech from her blonde Maxine Clive chassis, another decadent symbol of wealth.  Isaac tore bricks out of the walls, accelerating them and increasing their mass with his Vocation.  He shot them at everyone, unable to make out faces through flames, but able to feel their Piths.

They slammed into the men and women around her, blowing through their skulls, turning their heads into showers of flesh and blood.

Grace stopped one of the bricks before it hit her and broke it up.  Then, she dropped to the floor, acting as though she’d been hit in the head.  Her Vocation added to the illusion, making her Pith appear to flicker out and disperse, like her brain had been turned to a pulp.

Playing possum like this wouldn’t buy her that much time, but it would help.

Grace projected into the concrete floor, making it vibrate with her voice.  “Did you ever ask why I turned against this nation?” she said.  “Did you ever wonder who you were defending?

As she taunted them, she upped her attacks, ripping explosives from parts of the walls and detonating them near Revenant Squad, blasting through their defenses further, showering them with shrapnel on top of the fire.

Of course not,” she said.  “What should I expect from a band of broken fools, who stood by and watched while innocents died?

The raw force was too much for Revenant Squad.  Green and blue lightning crackled around them, evidence of the strain.  Florence’s thin combat suit had begun to burn off in the heat, and the explosions had broken off pieces of Isaac’s armor.

Isaac shot darts and bricks at the ceiling, punching through the brick and concrete with dull booms, forming a hole back to the surface.

The projectiles tore through pipes, and the street above them had flooded, pouring a wave of water onto them from above.  It met Grace’s palefire, turning into a vast cloud of hot steam, expanding in all directions, blocking all vision.

But they didn’t flee.  Not yet.  They thought the water would be enough to deal with her.  Big mistake.

Huge volumes of water kept pouring out of the broken pipes above, crashing into the room from a dozen angles and flooding it.  Grace jabbed her palm forward and blasted her palefire again.  This time, Florence’s air projection snuffed almost all of it out, turning a cone of flame into faint wisps.

Now, Revenant could go on the attack.

Grace kept a sheathe of projected air around her, all she could manage with her limited air projection.  It kept Florence from choking her out or ripping her apart with a vacuum.  So instead, Florence shot her winds behind Grace, swinging her handless stumps to the sides and snapping the necks of the mobsters behind her.

Now, Grace was alone.

Florence Tuft,” said Grace, making the water vibrate with her mocking voice.  “Addicted to wiping away your pain.  You have forgotten your moral compass.  You are not worthy of your title.“  As she spoke, she started to freeze the pipes above her, in places her enemies wouldn’t see.

Isaac floated another wall of clutter behind him.  Chair legs, bricks, chunks of stone and scraps of metal from the pipes.

He dropped their mass, shot them forward, then made them heavy again, shooting them all at Grace with the speed of a machine gun.

Grace clasped her palms together and pulled them apart in a circular motion.  Purple lightning crackled around them, and a shield of electricity blossomed in front of her, forming the shape of a passion flower.

The projectiles hit the shield, and froze, inches in front of Grace’s face.  A Deceleration Shield.  A rare physical vocation based off the deceleration field surrounding Paragon.

A few chunks of stone shot at Grace from behind, above and below, but she could see their reflections in the streams of water around her.  She projected into her black skirt, harness, and suit jacket, yanking herself left and right to dodge.

Isaac Brin,” she said.  “Trapped in an empty past.  Whimpering in fear, terrified of the people you’re supposed to protect.  Can you even get out of bed without a panic attack?

At the same time, a dense flock of birds shot down from the sky, through the hole in the street above, splashing through streams of water.  Rowyna’s Vocation.  Hundreds of swiftlets, tiny and fast, each equipped with a small explosive designed to take out a single enemy.  Each programmed to seek out Grace’s face and attack.  The deceleration field wouldn’t stop them.

Grace slammed her fists together, activating Ninety-Nine Faces, another rare physical vocation.  It used crude light projection, creating dozens and dozens of illusory copies of her head, floating around the room.  At the same time, it bent the light around her body, making her invisible below the neck, allowing her to blend in with the fakes.

It wouldn’t fool the enemy projectors.  But it would fool the birds.

The flock spread out in every direction through the flooded chamber, diving for the fake Tunnel Visions and exploding.  Grace ripped off two pieces of metal from the pipes above, sharpening them into blades.

A few swiftlets dove at her real head, and Grace sliced them with her makeshift cleavers, chopping them before they got close.

Kurayo Shrivatsa,” said Grace, to Rowyna.  “You hollowed yourself out.  You bled away your name and love for a newspaper company.  How’s that working out for you?”  She snorted.  “You are not fit to rule a classroom, much less an army.

Grace sliced the birds, dodged Brin’s projectiles, and maintained both a deceleration shield and her Ninety-Nine faces.  All at the same time.  And her Praxis Vocation was optimized for the plan right now, not for this fight.

All together, it was taxing.  Purple lightning crackled around her body, showing the effort on her Pith, and her head ached.

And in the process, Grace slipped.  Her control of parts of her wind sheathe dropped, for a fraction of a second.

In that instant, Florence grabbed control of Grace’s arms, yanked them out, and locked them in place with her air.  Holding Grace.

Green lightning crackled around Florence.  This is taking all her energy.  But it was working.  With her arms imprisoned, Grace couldn’t dodge anymore.

Isaac Brin pulled a Voidsteel dart from a wall, and shot it at her chest, jabbing his index finger forward.

As he did this, Grace lifted the two metal knives she’d made, clenched her teeth, and brought them down on her arms.

The heavy blades cleaved through flesh, and bone, chopping her arms off at the shoulders and freeing her torso.

Grace projected into her suit and leaned back, dodging the dart.  It grazed her forehead, slicing her skin.

At the same time, she finished freezing the pipes above them.  The streams of water stopped, and the air became clear.

Blood spurted from her twin stumps, and her enemies gaped at her.

In that instant, Grace exhaled, and a hundred streams of palefire blasted out from her mouth.  They shot at Revenant Squad from a hundred different angles, fast enough to look like a flash of light.

Florence raised her stumps, blocking with a wall of air.  But too little, too slow.

The fire washed over the trio from head to toe.  Rowyna’s armor protected her.  But the other two sizzled.  When the smoke cleared, Isaac and Florence were covered in crusty black burns.

Revenant Squad,” said Grace.  “You will never become Exemplars.  And I regret ever caring for you.

As one, Revenant Squad shot into the air, back into the dark rainstorm on the streets of Lowtown.  Another flock of birds flew down from the sky, helping to cover their escape.

And that was Grace’s plan.  She stretched her Pith upwards, feeling the smoke to sense what her enemies were doing.  Searing pain exploded in her shoulders where she’d cut herself, but her Praxis Vocation kept her thoughts sharp, prevented her from going into shock.

Pictogram, the Shenti’s attack dog, stood in the window of an adjacent apartment building, seeing through the steam with his joining-enhanced eyes, analyzing their movement with his visual recognition Vocation.

And in eight different rooms, from eight different angles, the Shenti man projected into eight anti-tank rifles, each loaded with a fifteen millimeter Voidsteel bullet.

He fired.

Rowyna’s family armor stopped the bullets, the rounds making three large dents in the head and chest.  Disappointing.  It had been created through projection, but it seemed even Voidsteel wasn’t enough to penetrate.

Florence dodged.  Pictogram had assembled the guns on short notice.  The models weren’t as good as standard commando gear, so they still made a muzzle flash.  With her Joining and reflexes, that gave her enough time to spin herself around with a gust of wind and a yank on her suit.  Only one of the bullets grazed her leg.

She pushed Brin too, but slower.

A bullet tore through his armor, entering through his stomach and blowing out his back.

The lower half of his body went limp.

Pictogram pulled the bolt action on the rifles, preparing to fire again.  Before he could, in a fraction of a second, hundreds of birds with explosives descended him.  They smashed through windows and detonated themselves on the guns, turning them into piles of scrap.

Others flew at him, targeting his face and gait.  Pictogram knew almost no defensive Joining, couldn’t harden his skin.  A single explosion on his forehead would be enough to kill him.

Pictogram detonated a series of smoke bombs, and leapt back into the building, shooting from a dozen pistols floating around him.

While he fled for his life, Revenant Squad soared into the air, shooting straight for Paragon Academy.  They slowed down to a near-halt before reaching the edge of the first island, passing through the deceleration field.

More birds descended through the steam and rubble, gunning for Grace and the survivors of the attack.  With a single breath, a wave of palefire turned them all to ash.

Don’t pursue,” she said to Pictogram.  Guardians would be on their way now, and they had to leave this hideout before they arrived.  Their secrecy mattered far more than pursuing three targets, and Grace wasn’t prepared to take on the Symphony Knight, or the Obsidian Foil, or Headmaster Tau, senile old fool though he was.

As Grace slipped through the sewers with her mobsters, and transferred into a spare chassis, she thought about what had just happened.  The Voidsteel bullet had hit Isaac in his spinal cord.  The man was going to be paralyzed from the waist down.  If he was lucky.

And so many of her allies had died, blown up by Rowyna, torn to pieces by Isaac, choked out by Florence.

Grace searched her mind for the pain, the guilt, the agony at knowing so many of her subordinates had died, so many broken.

She found nothing.

She looked for the happy memories she’d made with her squad, all the fun times they’d had together at Paragon.

Again, there was nothing.  Only rage, determination.

Those memories were not necessary for her goal.  In some ways, they were detrimental to it.  For all she knew, they were some of the first things her Praxis Vocation had stripped from her.

A flicker of regret passed through her mind, a flare of nostalgia for what she’d lost, for what she would lose as she continued her mission.  Victory would take a thousand sacrifices, starting in her own mind.

It hurt, knowing how much she’d burnt away.  She stopped for a moment, resting on the side of a sewer tunnel and catching her breath.  How many lives have I taken?  Innocents hijacked by Lyna Wethers.  Guardians and Humdrums, Shenti and Principian.  And soon, if her plans succeeded, her friends in Revenant Squad.

Water dripped from a pipe behind her, splashing into the filth.  She glanced at the water, at the woman staring back at her.  Do I even recognize that face?  She’d been in and out of so many bodies, altered so much of herself.

But before she could even finish the thought, the pain vanished, replaced with a renewed sense of purpose, a reminder of her Intention.

Grace picked herself up and kept moving forwards.

________________________________________

The next morning, Grace sent two messages.  One for a friend, one for an enemy.

She sat at her desk, sheathing and unsheathing Reverie, her Tanto knife.

Through her window, she watched two figures enter Akhara’s Gate through the front door.  A ginger woman in an Elizabeth Cranbrook body.  Clementine Rawlyn.  And a tall, muscular Shenti man with a sniper rifle slung over his shoulder.  Pictogram.

Clementine gazed at her surroundings with wonder and fear, clutching the file in her hands until her knuckles turned white.  This was the first time she’d been granted access to the Gate, and she had no idea how any of it worked.

A vast, circular factory rose before the woman, fumes rising from a dozen smokestacks.  It stood on an island, in the middle of a frozen lake surrounded by cliffs and mountain peaks.  An electric fence surrounded the base of the factory, dotted with guard towers and floodlights.

And the factory was changing.  Metal arms and welding tools moved of their own volition, building towers and elevators and gears.  At the same time, buzz saws sliced off huge portions of the building, tearing apart walls and doors and cables.  They pushed the parts onto conveyor belts, dumping a steady stream of metal into holes in the ice of the lake.

Constant destruction, constant regrowth.  An endless cycle.

Clementine walked across the concrete bridge, the only path over the lake and past the fence.  As she approached, voices whispered around her, men and women, young and old, in Common, Shenti, and a dozen other languages.

There are no ants.  You can pretend, you can be tricked, but deep down, everyone is a beetle.

Sooner or later, I’m going to choose wine instead of rice.

Clementine recoiled from the voices, but they kept going.

If peace were easy, we’d never have to fight for it.

Do to yourself.  What you did to the prisoners.

Please.  Remember this.

The world was never simple.  You just thought it was.

The bridge circled around the building, forming a pathway towards the top.  Clementine walked up with Pictogram, through metal chambers, cringing at every loud noise, every burst of sparks.

At last, the two arrived at the top, where Grace sat behind her desk.  Clementine bowed before Grace, her eyes wide.

“Stop,” said Grace.  “Don’t do that.”

Clementine straightened herself.  “Ma’am.  Where are we?  I walked into a door in your submarine, and then – ”  She gazed around.  “I’ve never heard of projection like this.  How is this even possible?”

“The projectors of this nation,” said Grace.  “Have very narrow vision.”  She left it at that.  There was no need for Clementine to know more about Akhara’s Gate.

Clementine handed her the folder.  “The operation was successful.  We succeeded at breaking out the key asset.”

Luke Mayns.  A researcher on pneumatology, and, more importantly, one of the few living Conduits in the world, a man whose thoughts had merged completely with that of another.  Almost no one knew that second bit, which would prove invaluable to the plan, along with a certain Paragon student, the Principality’s experimental weapons supply, and Grace’s intimate knowledge of international shipping logistics.

“We also broke out the secondary asset,” Clementine said.

A sort of warm feeling spread throughout Grace’s body.  “Thank you,” she said.

“But I wanted to deliver this in person, ma’am, because I have a request.”

“Speak.”

“I would ask your leave to pursue a target.  The girl who broke into civilian headquarters, killed Lyna Wethers, and helped with the assault on Attlelan Island to take our bombmaker.”  She took a deep breath.  “The Blue Charlatan.  Anabelle Gage.”

“Denied,” said Grace.  “The matter is too personal for you.  But Gage is an irritation.”  A small problem, like most of the Principality’s black ops mercenaries, but one that could grow.  Thanks to her spying, the Guardians had discovered Grace’s identity as the Pyre Witch, and Revenant Squad had attacked her base in the sewers.

Even if they’d done no real damage in the long run, or found the real boss, it was accelerating things at a frustrating rate.

Pictogram drew a piece of photo paper from his bag.  It shifted colors, developing into a photograph like paint dripping on a canvas.  It revealed a picture of a young masculine chassis with ragged grey hair, a wide jaw, and a thick forehead, veins bulging in its neck.  “That’s Anabelle Gage, yes?”

Clementine nodded.

“My facial pattern matching found something when doing my rounds.”  He leaned down and whispered in Grace’s ear.

Interesting.  Having Pictogram around could be frustrating.  A Shenti warlord had sent him to supervise her along with the money and weapons, which meant he was always full of questions and nitpicks.  And if the public found out the Shenti were funding her and Commonplace, there would be huge backlash.

But still, the man had his uses.  Case in point.

“Clementine,” said Grace.  “Why is Gage working for Paragon?”

“She’s dreamed of being a Guardian,” said Clementine.  “But most likely, she’s trying to buy herself a body.  Her current chassis is decaying, and she needs a fresh one in order to survive.”

Survival.

Grace handed Clementine a sealed envelope.  On her desk, she began writing a group of letters with a few dozen projected pens.  “This envelope contains instructions for transferring a foreign bank account, getting identity papers, buying a ferry ticket to the Glass Oasis, and giving it to the second asset.”

“Edric Gorney?” said Clementine.  “Ma’am, if I may ask, why are we sending an asset away and giving him money?”

“He has no strategic value to the plan,” Grace said.  “He’s a Humdrum carpenter who’s been in prison for most of his life.”

Clementine nodded, then looked confused.  “Then, not to question your decisions, ma’am, but then why did you free him?”

I owe him.  “He’s important,” Grace said.

She had let Tybalt destroy Edric’s life.  It was her fault that he had spent his twenties and thirties in a cell.  And now she was getting to fix it.  He would live a comfortable life in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, with a small house on a quiet street.  It wouldn’t give him back the years he’d lost, but it was a start.

Did Grace feel anything as she did this?

She didn’t smile.  A twinge of happiness flickered at the edges of her mind, but nothing more.

Clementine left, and Grace handed a stack of letters to Pictogram.  These were to be sent to members of parliament, along with various Guardians, journalists, and police officers, ensuring that the information would spread.

They were sealed in silver envelopes, the same color as admissions mail from Paragon.  Given the circumstances, it seemed appropriate.

The target profited off lies and manipulation.  She was unwilling to consider the bigger picture, the moral weight of her actions.  All she cared about was her own survival.  A beetle.

And she would be dealt with like a beetle.

Pictogram slid the silver envelopes into his bag, striding back towards the door, surrounded by a thousand hissing voices.

The letter read as thus, addressed to individual names:

Dear ______________,

‘Ernest Chapman’, a Grey Coat assistant at Paragon Academy, is an imposter, a girl with the mask of a boy.  Her real name is Anabelle Gage, a three-time failed applicant who attempted a body theft from cargo ship 9187, crate serial 541256h, attacking and nearly killing two students in the process.

She currently acts as an illicit mercenary for Major Isaac Brin.  A Whisper Specialist with the ability to make audiovisual illusions at a range of around 30 meters, she has used illegal projection for military purposes, working out of King’s Palace Sleepbox and Depot and 189 Emerald Street, a house on North Island.  Her accomplices include the former Nell Ebbridge, an Ousted Epistocrat whose Vocation can hide objects, Copycat, an Ilaquan agent who can steal skills and passwords, and Jun Kuang, a Shenti terrorist.

She remains at large.

Now that was enough to make Grace smile.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




8-C – Rowyna Ebbridge

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Rowyna had to be here.  She didn’t really have a choice.

The Epistocrats at the art gallery acted stiff and distant to her, and it had been a long day.  She’d rather curl up with a good book in her dorm, or have a quiet game night with the other Paragon students.

But, these were some of the most powerful, influential people in the Principality, and Rowyna needed to network.  

The girl across the way had made an overnight fortune in the stock market.  The boy to her left had developed a new microscope model over his winter break.  And the boy next to him had more music awards than fingers.  And those were just the first Paragon students she glanced at.  The students.

The standards were high – impossibly high.  If Rowyna wanted to stand out, find success, she had to take little steps like this, pushing past her limits to build her connections.  Lose an hour of sleep here.  Cancel something fun there.  Fill up this chunk of free time.  She needed to prove, beyond denial, she was better than the competition.

In the long term, it would add up.  For now, her legs were sore.

The art was pretty, though.

They depicted all sorts of uncanny, ethereal scenes.  Landscapes of endless waves.  Infinite triangles within triangles, an eternal fractal that got as small as the eye could see.  Ancient men and women reaching towards a starry sky as water rose over their shoulders.  The Great Scholars, perhaps.

And from this gallery in Paragon, Rowyna could gaze out one of the windows and see the entire city glowing beneath her.  If she looked out another one, she could watch the sunset over the ocean, staining the clouds pink and orange.

Epistocrats milled around Rowyna, in suits and dresses and designer bodies, whispering and making comments on the gallery.  She overheard one circle chattering about the painting in the corner of the room, a work from the anonymous street artist Kashaf Ram.  I need a fresh opinion to stand out there.

So she strode to the corner, and pondered the art.

Of all the pieces in the exhibition, this might be the only one that disturbed her.

It depicted a woman in a dark maroon dress, singing as though she were in some sort of opera.  She stood on top of a massive crashing wave, stretching from the top to the bottom of the painting, a tsunami of epic proportions beneath a carpet of stars.

It rushed towards a city full of people, but none of them were running, or hiding.  They were smiling, standing in front of the oncoming wave, tears running down their faces.

The painting had no description, and no title.  Kashaf Ram has a twisted sense of style.  But she needed something more insightful than that.

Is it depicting a fictional scenario?  Some theory as to what happened in the past?  What is the wave supposed to represent, when – 

“It’s all whaleshit, you know.”  A girl’s voice echoed from behind her.

More interruptions.  Rowyna turned behind her again.  A girl with a vaguely eastern look strode towards her, hands in her suit pockets.

“Excuse me?” Rowyna said.

The girl patted down her tangled black hair.  “It’s all a scam.  The galleries pick a bunch of random fucks to designate as ‘artists’, inflate the prices, then sell it off to oligarchs to fill their pockets.”

Rowyna smirked.  “I think the Epistocrats here are a little smarter than that.”

“They’re in on it!” the girl said.  “They can use it to hide their money.  Write off taxes or avoid them entirely.  At best it’s a bunch of nonsense so they can prove they’re richer than all the other squidfuckers.  All the dinner and flowers and prestige is just to make it look dignified.”

Rowyna folded her arms.  “So you don’t think it has anything to do with beauty?  Or talent?”

“This – “  The girl gestured at the caterers, the view of the city, the walls filled with art and the live band playing soft classical music.  “Is just rich assholes justifying their power.  Half of high culture is rich assholes justifying their power.”

“Not everyone is just out for themselves, you know.”  Rowyna raised her voice.

“Not everyone.”  The girl nodded.  “Just these people.”

Rowyna’s face grew warm.  The girl would dismiss the great plays and symphonies of history, the novels that had shaped the world, the sculptors who shaped the very ground they walked upon.  Such rudeness.

“Just who are you, exactly?” said Rowyna.  I don’t want to have to talk to this bitch ever again.

The girl handed her a dark blue and purple business card.

Grace Acworth
Second-Year | Paragon Academy
31 – 1621 – 8273

“I’m your new squadmate,” Grace said, extending her hand.

Oh scholars, please no.  Rowyna raised an eyebrow.  “I don’t think I’ve seen you around classes before.”

Grace shrugged.  “I was a Grey Coat the last two semesters.”  She pointed at Rowyna.  “You’re passionate.  I like that.  For all the wonders we get to uncover here, not many people seem thrilled about them.”  She snapped her fingers, creating a puff of smoke.

“What are you doing?” hissed Rowyna.  “There are Humdrum caterers here.”

“Sorry,” said Grace, waving the smoke away.  “What I’m trying to say is: it’s nice to meet you.  You seem better than most of this lot.”

“It’s been a long, hard climb to get to this level,” said Rowyna.  “But we all deserve it.”  Disagreeing with Grace and complimenting her at the same time.

“How did you get here?” said Grace.  “If you don’t mind me asking.”

Rowyna mulled over the question.

________________________________________

How am I still here?  Kurayo wondered.

It just didn’t seem fair.  Jonathan Hosmer down the street got to attend the college of his dreams, all because his great-uncle had made a fortune off some soda company.  Meanwhile, Kurayo was stuck in this mediocre seaside leech of a town, that would suck the life out of her until she became as boring as the baker.

All because she hadn’t checked the mail.  Because her mother had gotten to it first.

Kurayo’s mother shook the packet in her face.  “You applied to Elmidde University?”

If Kurayo had gotten to the front door first, before her mother went through the mail, she could have kept this hidden.  But she hadn’t expected the letter to arrive this fast.  Now, she – 

“Look at me when I talk to you!” her mother shouted.  “Show your parents that much respect, at least.”

“You promised us,” her father said, his voice measured.  “That you wouldn’t apply.”

“You locked me in my room,” Kurayo said.  Keep your voice calm.  “You wouldn’t let me out until I agreed.”

“You manipulated us,” her mother said, pouring hot tea into a cup.  “How could we have raised such a deceitful child?”

“You said I was a moron yesterday,” said Kurayo.  “Which is it?  Am I a deceitful genius, or a moron?”

In response, her mother took Kurayo’s bowl off the table and scraped the rice and salmon into the trash.  The metal spoon screeched on the porcelain, making Kurayo wince.  Other kids at her school got eggs and bacon.  She had to settle for fish, the kind that made students wrinkle their noses at her lunch.

“You’re just proving my point,” her mother said.  “Scholars, I love you, but you can be both short-sighted and cunning.”  She filled the teapot up with boiling water.  “Now, do you think you deserve to sleep in the house we bought?  On the bed your father built with his blood and sweat?”

Kurayo stared at her empty bowl.  Stay calm.  When she cried, they called her hysterical.  So she drained the emotions out of her face, turning it into a stone mask.

“I think everyone deserves a bed to sleep in,” said Kurayo.  “And the chance to build their own life in the world.”

But her calm tone and rational arguments were futile.  She was standing up to them, and that was enough to damn her.

“Come on,” her father said, placing a hand on her chair.  “Let’s go.”

Kurayo could resist, but they had other ways to punish her, and she had no legal recourse.  Her parents never hit her, so nobody in town gave a shit.  Never mind that she’d gotten sick when they starved her, caught cold when they made her sleep outside.  Unless she came to them covered in bruises, the police would just laugh at her and her quirky foreign parents.

So she went with them, walking through the front door and out onto the lawn.

The worst part was, she didn’t even deserve it.  Kurayo was a good kid.  She got exceptional grades, stayed out of trouble, hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol like other teenagers.  She had even joined her school’s science club to study physics and chemistry in her spare time.

They should have been proud of her.  But they loathed her.  And she had no idea why.

“In a few decades,” her mother said.  “You’re going to grow old, and your skin is going to sag, and your naive dreams are going to fade away.  Then, you’ll stop thinking of yourself as the next Great Scholar.  Then, you’ll understand how this world works.”

Still holding the teapot in one hand, her mother ripped open the packet, reading the content inside.  A smile spread across her face.

“Looks like this conversation is moot,” she said.  “You’re not going to Elmidde University either way.”

No.  That couldn’t be right.  Admissions were competitive, but Kurayo had gone above and beyond with her application.

Her mother held the letter in her face.  A rejection.  Clear and inarguable.  Elmidde University had rejected her.  No, no, no.

“You’re mediocre,” Kurayo said, the words spilling out of her mouth.

“Excuse me?” 

I should stop talking.  “You’re miserable and mediocre, and you never made money in the Principality because you’re not talented enough.  And Dad wanted to be a painter in the Floating City.  He married you and immigrated here because he failed at his dreams too.”  She clenched her fists.  “I won’t let you drag me down with you.”

Her mother said nothing, her face twitching.

Then she threw the teapot at Kurayo.

Time seemed to slow.  “No!”  Kurayo reached forward, holding her hands in front of her face as she snapped her eyes shut.

Unbidden, all the physics of motion she’d studied ran through her head, all the chemistry.  She reached.

The teapot never hit her.  And there was no sound of shattering porcelain, no splash of hot liquid on the concrete.

When Kurayo opened her eyes, the teapot was hovering in midair.  The tea splashing out of it was frozen in time, too.

Her parents gaped at it, whether in awe or horror, she wasn’t sure.  She stared with them, feeling dizzy.

Then she blinked, and the teapot fell to the ground, shattering on the stone pathway through their lawn.  The tea splattered on the grass.

Her parents looked at her with a new disgust.  Whatever Kurayo had just done, it was more frightening and immoral than the rest of her transgressions put together.

Wordless, her mother stalked towards her, clenching both fists.

And then, two steps away from Kurayo, she stopped.  Her angry expression melted, into a blank, vacant stare.  She blinked, and beamed at her daughter.

“Come inside, dear,” she said.  “We’re just about to have breakfast.”

“Yes, dear,” her father said, with the same smile.  “It’s grilled salmon with rice, just the way you like it.”

They strode back to the door, beckoning her in.  What’s going on?  Her parents never acted like this.

Normally, after something like this, Kurayo would run away, to hide in the local library or at the back of some cafe.  But despite everything, her instincts were telling her there was no danger here.

So she followed her parents back in.

When she came inside, an elderly man was sitting at the table.

She blinked.  No, not an elderly man.  A middle-aged man with a long black beard and a patient smile.  He just seemed old in his bearing, wearing what was either a monk’s clothes, or a bathrobe.

“Who are you?” said Kurayo.  She’d never seen this man before.

The stranger tipped his hat to her.  “In a moment.  But first, if you please, I would love to take part in this scrumptious feast.”

Her parents smiled when they saw him, as if he was an old friend.  “Tea?” her mother said.  “How do you like your fish?”

“Black and crispy.”  The man tucked his napkin into his collar.  “But anything would be lovely, Mrs. Norrys.”

“And you, Kurayo dear?”

Kurayo blinked.  Her mother never called her ‘dear’, and never used a tone that sweet.  “Um.  The same, I guess.”

A few minutes later, her mother placed a hot bowl of food in front of her, like she hadn’t just thrown one away in a fit of rage.

“Eat,” said the stranger through a mouthful of rice.  “Thish ish amazing.”

Kurayo nibbled a piece of fish, keeping her eye on the man.

“They never would have let you go, child,” said the man.

“What?”

“No matter what you said to them, no matter what you did to please them, they would have kept you locked up here for the rest of your life.”

Kurayo’s mother poured her a fresh cup of tea, still beaming.

“How do you know all that?”

“Your parents are afraid of your gifts.”  The man took a sip of tea.  “Your intellect and hunger that outstripped theirs many years ago.  They are furious at the thought that their child might surpass them, might live a life that eclipses their strangest dreams.”  He handed his empty bowl to her father, murmuring thanks.  “They have been through pain, but they are unkind.  Even for Humdrums.”

Humdrums?  “Is this about what I did to the teapot?”

The man nodded.

“Who are you?” she asked again.

“I’m the reason you didn’t get into Elmidde University,” he said.  “You’re an exemplary student.  You were near the top of their list, but I made them reject you.”

The anger bubbled up in Kurayo again, and her throat clenched.  “Why?” she said.

“It was ill-suited,” he said.  “For your talent.”

“It’s the best school in the country,” she said, through gritted teeth.

The man chuckled at that, a warm, light sound that made Kurayo feel at ease.

“What’s so funny?”

The man leaned forward.  “My name is Nicholas Tau,” he said.  “Headmaster of Paragon Academy.  How would you like to find a real home?”

________________________________________

“There are four schools of projection,” said Headmaster Tau, floating cross-legged above the water.  “Physical projection is concrete and external.  It modifies the physical world around you.”  A green orb of light appeared in his palm.  “The nation of Neke excels at this school.  To balance it, you must learn humility.”

I don’t want to talk about Neke.  Kurayo had left all that behind.

“Like when I stopped the teapot,” she said, sitting on a boat next to him.

He nodded.  “Joining projection is concrete and internal.  It modifies the physical world inside you – your body.”  He held a rock in his other hand and squeezed, crushing it into pebbles.  The orb of light turned red.  “The Shenti are known for this school.  To balance it, you must practice discipline.”

Kurayo nodded, clenching her fist and staring at her light brown skin.  Not sure if that’s the school for me.

Praxis projection is mental and internal.  It modifies your own Pith – your mind.”  The orb turned purple.  “Our colony Ilaqua, and its religion, the Harmonious Flock, are most adept at this school.  To balance it, you must have empathy.”

That leaves out my parents, then.

“Whisper projection is mental and external.  It modifies the Piths of others.  The Principality was best known for this, but in recent decades, we’ve improved in the other schools as well.”  The orb turned blue.  “Your Pith was blue, which means you’re a Whisper Specialist, with a Whisper Vocation, even if you don’t know it yet.  To balance it, you must practice ambition.”

“Why?” said Kurayo.  “What does ambition have to do with mind control?”

“Whisper Specialists often feel incomplete,” said Tau.  “They escape into their dreams, or the minds of others, minimizing their own identity in the process.  This often helps power their Vocations.  To balance this, you need to have a strong sense of individuality, and a goal to hold it together.  Without those, you risk losing yourself.”

Kurayo closed her eyes.  Individuality.  A goal.  Simple enough, right?

“That’s what Paragon is all about, isn’t it?  Forge the Stars in Your Image.

“Yes,” he said.  “Not everyone can forge the stars in their image, reach the highest levels of the library.  But the ones who can?”  He smiled.  “They can create beauty beyond our strangest imagination.”

Kurayo would train for at least another year, before attempting her first great challenge.  It would be strenuous, far more difficult than anything at Elmidde University.  But through it all, she would make sure to hold onto those words.

________________________________________

It was the crack of dawn.  Kurayo was to enter the most important challenge of her life.  A battle with no holds barred, a final exam to determine her future against an opponent stronger than any she’d faced before.

And her enemy was an hour late.

Kurayo paced back and forth on the dewy lawn, making the occasional glance up towards the wooden platform where the ceremony was to take place.  Her enemy’s Epistocrat parents sat off to the side, next to Headmaster Tau, the only witnesses attending.

Tau made eye contact with her, and they smiled at each other.  His training over the last two years had been patient, but thorough.  Still, she was shaking from the anticipation.  Or was that the cold?

Kurayo had no choice – it was this, or let herself be crushed under student debt at Paragon, with far weaker opportunities for advancement.  But still, she felt guilty, at ripping someone out of their life like this.

The feeling wouldn’t last long.

Rowyna Branigen, Kurayo’s opponent, emerged from the fog, wearing a Maxine Clive, an expensive designer chassis.  Her blonde hair was a tousled mess, and her eyes twitched back and forth, bloodshot, a telltale sign of recent nudge powder use.  She’s high for her own Ousting.

“Apologies,” Rowyna said, floating herself onto the platform.  “My assistant forgot to wake me up.  When this is over, I’ll go shopping for one of the five servants in this city who isn’t a book-burning idiot.”

Kurayo climbed on top of the stage, and Rowyna strode towards her, muttering in her ear.  Does anyone care how illegal this is?  “Eighty thousand pounds,” she whispered.

Kurayo said nothing.

“I hired someone to do some digging, Kurayo Shrivatsa, and I know that’s more money than you’ve seen in your life.  All you have to do is…”

Throw the match.

“You’ve only been training for a few years.  You’re not even from here.  I’ve been training my whole life.  My parents have tried Ousting me several times before, on all sorts of whaleshit charges.  I showed up to them even more groggy and shitfaced than I am now, facing girls with more experience than you, with more anger on their faces.”  She leaned close and whispered in Kurayo’s ear.  “I beat all of them.  I’m not going to lose to some island rat.”

Kurayo had beaten Rowyna on the written tests, but only barely.  And according to Tau, the other candidates had gotten this far too.

“Even if you did win,” said Rowyna, still quiet.  “You don’t want my name.  To you, this world is still brimming with magic and wonder.”  She shook her head.  “This world is empty.  You might have been the most clever rat in some Nekean backwater, but here, there are thousands smarter than you.  More special than you, with a grander destiny.  When you realize that, deep down, you’ll get how this world works.”

Then, Kurayo understood her enemy.

Rowyna was mediocre.  Like Kurayo’s parents, she aspired to nothing, stewed in envy, and resented those who reached higher than rock bottom.  She wanted to prove that the whole world was as miserable and uninspired as she was.

That’s why, despite Rowyna’s obvious talent and intellect, she’d done nothing with her life.  Had failed enough to get herself in this position.  As long as she could feel superior to someone, she’d be satisfied.

This family, this country deserved better than her.  That Maxine Clive body deserved to be worn by someone who would treat it right, not rot it with alcoholism.

No one would ever follow Kurayo Shrivatsa into battle.  A name like that was doomed to mediocrity.  But they would follow Rowyna Branigen.  They will follow me.

Rowyna’s mother gave the standard ceremonial speech, and the explanation of the rules.  “ – the first to touch the ground beneath the platform will be considered the loser.  May you strive to become an Exemplar.  First combatant, are you aware of the rules and able to commence?”

“Yes,” said Rowyna.

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

Kurayo said her first and only words to her opponent.  “Do you want to know who trained me?”

Rowyna snickered.

Kurayo pointed to Headmaster Tau in the stands.

The confidence drained out of Rowyna’s face.

“I’m ready,” said Kurayo.

“Begin!”

Kurayo reached out with her Pith.  The dozens of cages behind her swung open, and a wall of birds expanded behind her.  Falcons, eagles, delirium hawks.  Enough to blot out the rising sun behind her, cloaking her in shadow.

A look of fear passed across Rowyna’s face.  Then the girl snarled, green lightning crackling around her fists.  “Come on!” she shouted, in a burst of desperate bravado.  “Show me what you’ve got!”

Kurayo showed her.

________________________________________

Rowyna’s men were losing.

Gunshots and mortars rang out in the snow-covered hamlet far down the coast, tiny flashes of light in the darkness.  It was hard to see details at this distance, but the Shenti’s tanks were pushing the Principality’s soldiers back, shattering their assault.

And Rowyna couldn’t do a thing about it.

There were many thousands of Humdrum witnesses here on both sides – far too many to memory wipe.  And no enemy projectors had been reported, so Revenant Squad couldn’t step in, thanks to the Treaty of Silence.  They had to sit back and wait for the enemy’s Joiners, who might never show up.

What a strange dance this is.  Fighting a secret war beneath the ordinary one, with its own set of strict rules.

Still, her body appreciated the break.  Her squad had been fighting Shenti projectors for the past week, soaring on wingsuits between ships and over moonlit waters.  They hadn’t encountered any commandos, thank the scholars, but even the weaker Joiners were threatening.  They never seemed to tire, and a single punch could snap your spine.

Every muscle in Rowyna’s body ached.  Everything felt heavy, sluggish, like she was moving through a five-ton river of mud.  Even her breaths felt heavy, and when she lost focus, her eyes fluttered shut and she had to snap them open again.

If Revenant did come across Shenti commandos, Rowyna didn’t like their odds.  They’d only graduated from Paragon a few years ago, and gold-ranked Joiners were still giving them trouble.

“You’re brooding,” Florence said.  The woman strode towards her cot, playing with her blonde hair between her fingers.  Waves crashed against the cliff beneath them.  “Overthinking.  Am I wrong?”

“Hey, Florence.”

“Can I join you?  It’s been a week since I showered, but I promise I don’t smell that bad.”

Rowyna nodded, and Florence slipped under the thick blanket with her.  After hours of shivering in the cold, the warmth was pure bliss.

“Remember back in Paragon?” said Florence.  “During winter break, when I showed you how to make a snow falcon.”

“Is that what this is?” said Rowyna.  “Trying to get me to ease up?  We’re fighting a war, you know.”

“All I’m saying is, the last time you did that, it led to your first kiss.”  Florence rubbed her hands over Rowyna’s, warming them up.    “So maybe you should try it again.”

Rowyna pointed down the coast, towards the village of Binan Suo.  “Our Humdrum soldiers are dying over there.  Isaac is panicking at the edge of camp.  Grace is fuming that we can’t do anything to help them.  Any moment, we could be called into battle.  I can’t relax now.  But I’m too tired to think.”  She sagged down further.

Something moved beneath the surface of the water, a distant light getting brighter and closer by the second.

Rowyna’s breath caught in her throat.  “Is that – “

“It’s not the Shenti,” Florence said.  “We’re alright.”

The light grew, flickering blue, green, purple, red.  The sea exploded into a rainbow of colors, and Rowyna finally understood.

Lantern whales.  A whole colony of them, skin shining bright, swimming past the coastline, bathing the frozen cliffside with a warm glow.  They didn’t usually come this close to large landmasses, and Rowyna had never seen them before.  Just one of them was longer than their entire camp.

Seeing twenty of them, Rowyna forgot to breathe.

Isaac strode to the edge of the cliff next to the cot, gazing out at them.  Then Grace, wiping the angry tears from her cheeks.

They might all die tomorrow in this frozen wasteland.  They might lose the war, watch their country torn to pieces.

But for a moment, Revenant Squad stood together, and watched nature light up the darkness.

Florence wrapped her arms around Rowyna, and Rowyna pulled her closer.  There were no more words that needed to pass between them.

Rowyna let herself relax.

It was enough, for now.  It was enough.

________________________________________

Rowyna screamed.

She’s gone she’s gone she’s gone she’s gone she’s gone.  Both of them were gone.  Florence and Grace.  The Shenti Commandos had taken them in the blizzard, after breaking Isaac’s spine and massacring most of their unit.  Eastern dogs.

Rowyna had kept her cool throughout the escape from the pass.  As they slipped past Shenti battle lines and clambered over icy cliff faces, she’d stayed calm and rational for the sake of the mission.  For the sake of Isaac, who was still in critical condition, and the handful of Humdrum soldiers who had survived the commandos’ nighttime assault.

But now, they’d made it back to camp.  Isaac got his replacement body, and the handful of surviving Humdrums were memory wiped.  They were safe.

And Rowyna was free to break down.

She knelt on the cold stone ground, eyes welling up with tears, hands shaking.  Isaac, in his new body, put a hand on her shoulder and she shrugged it off.  “Don’t touch me.”

“Step back, please,” said Tybalt Keswick, a new professor, looking at the other Guardians around them.  “Give her space.”

Rowyna projected into the ground, and ripped.  She punched the stone, and cracks spiderwebbed out beneath her fist.  She reached to the side, projected into the frozen pond next to their camp, and shattered it, turning the ice into fine dust.

Then, she projected into a trio of trees in the distance and slashed her hand through the air.  The trees burst into flame.

The other Guardians backed up.

Except for Headmaster Tau.  He knelt beside her, his robes brushing the ground.  “There are no words,” he said, his voice soft.  “But there are others here who have known what you did.  They are all here for you.  As am I.”

Professor Keswick nodded, along with Sebastian Oakes and a handful of the other Guardians.  It’s been a brutal war.

“What do you know of loss?” she spat at him.

“More than you could imagine,” he said.

Rowyna inhaled and exhaled, catching her breath.  She closed her eyes.  “Do we know they’re dead?”

“We don’t,” said Professor Keswick, folding his arms.  “They were undoubtedly taken for interrogation, but as per protocol, they’ll have erased their relevant memories.  Past that, we’re not sure.”

He’s not saying the obvious.  If Grace and Florence were no longer useful, the eastern dogs would execute them.

“Why, for fuck’s sake, did they have to be so stupid?” she said.  “There were other solutions, other strategies.  They didn’t need to throw their lives away.  We could have immobilized them and hit them with our Voidsteel bullets, we could have split them up and fought them four on one.”  There were so many options.

“It’s not always that simple,” said Headmaster Tau.

“They chose to sacrifice themselves,” said Professor Keswick.  “So that you and Captain Brin could keep fighting.  Grace served as my Grey Coat back in Paragon, and I know she wouldn’t settle for anything less.”  He stared at her.  “Mourn however you need, but honor that.”

Rowyna exhaled, a slow, agonizing sigh.  She projected into the icy water of the lake, washing it over the burning trees as she wiped away her tears.

Then she nodded.

________________________________________

The battle was over.  The last enemy ship had been bombed into a burning hunk of metal, one of almost a dozen nearby in the Chamakna Ocean.

And Rowyna was still losing the war.

Her forces had been outnumbered more than two to one, with far superior equipment on the enemy’s side.  This was the fourth bout she’d won this month against impossible odds, and she’d only lost two small ships in the process.

But the Shenti kept coming, week after week, with more battleships, more bombers, more carriers.  And they kept gaining ground.  At this rate, the nation, the people, and the light wouldn’t be around in a couple of years.

Even now, after a victory, Rowyna had to abandon Shizukesa, a tropical island with an airfield that was close enough for the eastern dogs to launch long-range bombers at Jaye Aman, the capital of Ilaqua.  The strategic value was obvious, but she no longer had the manpower to hold it.

In the end, it wasn’t grand strategy that mattered, but simple economics.  The nation with the more efficient industry would win.  And in that aspect, the Principality wasn’t even close to the Shenti, thanks to the Black Tortoise.

For all of Rowyna’s creative tactics, she didn’t matter much more than a Humdrum grunt.

But the sailors were all cheering around her, thumping their boots on the ship’s metal deck, chanting the nickname she’d recently picked up.

Ty-phoon!” they shouted.  “Ty-phoon!  Ty-phoon!”  The Typhoon of the South.  Since she’d been operating in the southern seas around Ilaqua, and because of her unique strategy two weeks ago.

The rising sun bathed Rowyna in warm orange light, and she let the cheering wash over her.  They were losing, but it felt nice, for now.

“Attend to the damage!” Rowyna shouted.  “Make sure nothing got broken after that last strafing run.  Then report back here for ice cream.  Captain’s orders.”

At the phrase ‘ice cream’, the sailors doubled their cheering.  “Ty-phoon!  Ty-phoon!  Ty-phoon!”  They’d been eating stale bread and powdered eggs for the past five months.

It had been an exhausting few weeks, and the troops needed a morale boost.  They’d saved the ice cream for this sort of occasion.

Rowyna would let them have this.

The soldiers dispersed, and Rowyna was free to trudge back to her cabin.  The moment she got the door shut, she slid off her tight bra and unclipped her military bun, flopping over on her cramped desk.

She fed a piece of paper through her typewriter, beginning her report.  Who do I even write it to?  Vice Admiral Marsham had drowned a week ago when her ship was torpedoed.  And Rear Admiral Baret, her replacement, was in the medical bay, pissing herself and shivering, dying of whale’s fever.

Rowyna outranked most of the Humdrums, but still had little experience as a naval commander – she’d only just got command of the destroyer squadron five weeks ago.

And now, it looked like she was going to be in charge of an entire carrier group.  It was all so much, so fast.

Someone knocked on the door.  “Come in!”

It swung open, and the sounds of laughing men drifted in, mixed in with happy shouting and the occasional cheer.

Her assistant leaned in, extending a metal bowl of ice cream towards her.  “Vanilla?  We ran out of all the other flavors.”

Rowyna took it.  “Thanks.”

“The guys are really happy about your performance in the last battle.  Feel like joining us?”

Rowyna shook her head.  “Work.  Always work.”  Her assistant nodded, and swung the door shut.

Kerst.  Vice Admiral Kerst, of the CNS Edwina.  He was her immediate superior, and the person she would send the report to.  The man was a Humdrum, but she hadn’t encountered any projectors in the last few weeks, so who cared?

After she finished the report, Rowyna rubbed her eyes, resting her face on her arm.

This isn’t what she wanted to do.  She’d wanted to lead a mission behind the Shenti lines with Isaac and other Guardians, to see if Grace and Florence were still alive.  And if they were, then rescue them.

But Headmaster Tau had recommended her for this position.  And a part of her knew, deep down, that such a mission would be pointless.  The Principality executed enemy projectors that were Platinum-ranked and above – imprisoning them was just too dangerous.  And the eastern dogs were far less civilized.

And it had been two years.

It was funny.  Rowyna had dreamt of being an admiral for so long.  And now, on the verge of fulfilling her dream, it barely felt like an afterthought.  The world is ending, we’re losing a war against monsters, and half the people I care about are dead.  In the face of that, everything else seemed trivial.

She glanced at the pile of letters to the side and flipped through it.  The mail had arrived weeks ago, but she hadn’t had the time to look through until now.

One message caught her eye.  A marriage offer from another Epistocrat.

When she read the name on it, she blinked, and had to check it again.  Lord Felix Ebbridge.  Heir to The Elmidde Chronicle, the largest, most prestigious newspaper in the country.  She’d seen him at a couple of parties, and he’d seemed funny and easygoing.

She wasn’t attracted to him, of course, but this was an incredible offer, from a family far more renowned than the Branigens.  Love had nothing to do with it.  His family was simply recognizing her accomplishments, and opening a door to untold opportunities.

Florence’s face went through Rowyna’s head, and she felt a twinge of guilt.  Are you going to hold yourself back because of a memory?  Marriage was a vital part of Epistocrat life.  Without the war, Rowyna would have married ages ago.

If she survived, this would be the most important decision she made.

There was glamour in being a rebel, in defying the system.  But realistically, if Rowyna wanted to forge the stars in her image, she had to accept this offer.

Florence would have understood.

She squeezed her eyes shut, clenching her fists.  It shouldn’t have to be like this.  This world could be so cruel.

Another knock at the door.  “Come in.”

Her assistant peeked in again.  “Headmaster Tau on the phone for you in the comms room, ma’am.”

Letting me know about my promotion to Vice Admiral, no doubt.  That she was about to be put in charge of an entire carrier group.

Rowyna glanced down at her ice cream bowl.  In her haste, she’d forgotten to eat it.  In the heat, half of it had already melted into soup.

“Of course,” she said.  “Let’s go.”

As she left the cabin, she glanced back at the letter from Felix Ebbridge.

She would think about it.

________________________________________

When Florence and Grace returned to the Principality, they had a reunion like no other.

There was crying and hugging and food.  Their friends were breathing, healthy, and not compromised.  Against all odds, they had escaped from the Shenti.

Rowyna brought blankets, flowers, and balloons to meet the two of them at the port.  The members of Revenant Squad embraced each other and went to a Midtown soda fountain to celebrate their shore leave.

Then, Rowyna broke up with Florence.

Florence just smiled at her, resting her wrist stumps on her lap and nodding.  “I understand,” she murmured, staring at her strawberry float.  “I understand.”

“And I can’t do anything secret with you,” said Rowyna.  “No forbidden romance.  No midnight trysts.”

“I understand.”

“Because there’s no guarantee that we could hide it.  And if it ever got out, it’d hurt us both.  And you deserve a real relationship.”

“I understand.”  Florence kept smiling at her, behind her huge glasses with deep brown eyes.  In her new body that the hypocritical Shenti had forced her into.  Scholars, she’s still beautiful.  It wasn’t fair.  “I’ll find another great love.  I’ll be fine.  And we can still be friends.”

Rowyna steeled herself, suppressing all of her emotional reactions.  Florence’s new body was less conventionally attractive than most of the chassis at Paragon.  Shorter, mousy, less symmetric, duller lips, skin with moles and imperfections.  And, of course, she’d lost both hands.

But still, Rowyna kept feeling twinges when she glanced at her.

And the guilt.  The guilt felt like a black hole opening up inside her stomach, swallowing her organs one by one.

“I’ll be fine,” said Florence, taking a sip from a straw.

Grace slammed her empty glass on the counter.  “She won’t be fine.”  She pointed at Florence.  “Look at her face.

She’s right.  The frequent blinking, the tense upper lip, the glances at the floor.  Florence had never been good at hiding her pain.

“We survive hell,” said Grace through clenched teeth.  “She loses both her hands.  And the first thing you tell her is that you’re leaving her?  For some boring lord with a newspaper?”  She jabbed a finger in Rowyna’s face.  “We went through things we will never talk about, but I’ll say this much: You were the thing that got Florence through the camp.”

“It’s my choice,” said Rowyna, her voice quiet.  “This is for my career.  For the rest of my life.”  Being with Florence wouldn’t destroy her career, but it would damage it.

“Is climbing the ladder all you care about?” said Grace.  “Is there a line you wouldn’t cross if it meant you could achieve success?”

Florence forced her eyes shut.  “Please,” she half-whispered.  “Let’s not fight.  We’re friends.”  She looked at Rowyna.  “Grace has been through a lot.”

And that’s no excuse for being an ass.  “I wanted to be up front,” said Rowyna.  “Address the major issue right away.”  She sipped her chocolate float.  “Florence has every right to be mad at me, but I’d rather it be now than later.”

Isaac piped up.  “I’m just happy that you’re both alive, and that the Shenti didn’t hijack you.”

Florence slouched over further, her face practically buried in her ice cream float.

“I’m sorry, Florence,” Rowyna said.  “For what you went through.  And for – for this.”

“I know,” said Florence.

Grace turned her gaze on Rowyna.

“It’s the hardest choice I’ve made in my entire life,” Rowyna said.  “But I have to follow my ideals.  I have to make something beautiful in this world.  And – “

Something slammed into the side of her face, and she fell off the stool, her head spinning.  Rowyna slammed on the ground, and spun around to face her attacker.

Grace stood over her, fists clenched.  The knuckles on her right hand were red.

She punched me.  Then: She punched me?

The side of Rowyna’s head ached.  That’s going to leave a bruise.  She pushed herself back to a standing position, and stared back at Grace.

The two made eye contact.  No one spoke.  After a few seconds, Grace turned and stalked out of the soda fountain.  The door swung shut behind her.

The headache was bad, but not nearly as painful as the memories running through Rowyna’s head.  The feeling of Florence’s body, intertwined with her’s, as they stared out at a colony of lantern whales.  Their first kiss in the fresh snow at Paragon.

“It was difficult for her,” said Florence.  “Very difficult.  She’ll be better next time.”

Rowyna paid for her drink.  “I need to make a phone call.”

________________________________________

“Thank you for seeing me on such short notice,” said Rowyna.  “I know your schedule is full, but I’m shipping back out tomorrow.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Lyna Wethers, known in the field as ‘Honeypot’.  “I always make time for other Guardians.”

Rowyna stared out the window of the lecture hall, casting her gaze over the city of Humdrums below.  A layer of light projection kept Paragon Academy and the cable car hidden from the outside, making the view blurry.

She almost envied the Humdrums.  They walked those streets in ignorance, free of impossible expectations.  They could live a simple life without the weight of the world on their shoulders.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” said Wethers.

It was all legal, of course.  There had been forms to sign, interviews to complete.  Counterintelligence was monitoring this conversation, all to ensure the transaction was voluntary, not mental hijacking.

But Rowyna did not make this decision lightly.  After spending more time with Tuft, her feelings for the woman hadn’t diminished at all.  Even after a stint in a prison, Florence still had the same energy, the same curiosity and eagerness.

She would be spending more time with Revenant Squad, and marriage alliances were fragile.  If she was caught with Florence, her betrothal to Lord Ebbridge could be shattered.  That family had connections all over the military.  They would know.

And after she’d accepted their offer already, trashing the alliance would make them attack her reputation, spread rumors amongst the other Epistocrats.  The Ebbridges would demolish her chances of another marriage alliance.  She would go from the Typhoon of the South to the laughingstock of Hightown.

Below, in Paragon’s pavilion, students sat on the grass, their heads buried in books and pages of notes.  All studying.  All working their hardest to move forward for their country, to achieve greater heights.

Everything she’d sacrificed.  All the pain she’d put herself through.

It couldn’t be for nothing.

Forge the stars in your image.  Strive to become an exemplar.

Rowyna had to be here.  She didn’t really have a choice.  Her first name, her parents, her Nekean roots.  Those were all just things holding her back.  This was no different.

After this, she would have genuine love for her husband-to-be, and be free of her uncomfortable feelings for her squadmate.  She could go on with her life, and fight beside Florence without complications.  Unlike others who used Wethers’ services, she would keep all her memories, so she maintained perspective.

This was the responsible choice, the rational one.  Even if it made her feel like a monster.

Rowyna projected into the window and cracked it open, letting in a cool summer breeze.  She exhaled.

“Ms. Wethers,” said Rowyna.  “I have a question for you.”

Honeypot leaned back in her chair, putting her feet on a desk.  “Shoot.”

“Piths are not singular entities,” said Rowyna.  “They’re made of soul particles that form clusters.  And those clusters combine and flow into each other.”

“Of course,” said Wethers.  “That’s basic pneumatology.  Everyone knows that, why are you telling me this?”

Rowyna breathed in the fresh air.  “Old people, truly old people, as they age and build up null particles, begin to lose clusters.  They’ll get aggressive, forget their loved ones, become apathetic or compulsive or cruel.  People who know them often say they’re not themselves anymore.”

“Yes,” said Lyna.  “What’s your question?”

“If an important part of you dies, one of the most important parts – “  She exhaled.  “Does that mean you die?”

Lyna Wethers laughed, tilting her chair back.  “People say the strangest things.”

“What?”

She slid out of her seat, walking towards Rowyna.  “You’re just a bunch of glowing bits stitched together in a skull.  The you, that’s just an illusion, a story we tell ourselves because it’s more convenient.”  She tapped Rowyna’s forehead, and Rowyna flinched.  “You can’t die, because you were never alive.”

“Is that supposed to be comforting?”

“Your mind is whatever you make of it.”  Wethers shrugged.  “That’s either a blessing or a curse, but it’s true either way.”

Rowyna shut the window.

“Do it,” she said.  

Wethers raised her hand.  Rowyna looked off to the side, as if she were getting a shot and afraid of needles.

Out of the corner of her eye, Rowyna could see the blue lightning.  Flickering, growing, and finally, engulfing her vision.

________________________________________

Killing Humdrums was easy.

There were a total of twelve in the mobster’s safehouse, six armed with Voidsteel bullets.  And one projector with them – a Joining Specialist.  But it didn’t matter.

In unison, Florence, Isaac, and Rowyna flew through the pouring rain and crashed through the windows of the second floor.  Florence’s projection kept it silent, and their armor protected them from the glass.

Florence grabbed one Humdrum, using her air projection to immobilize him.  Their guide, to get to Tunnel Vision through the sewers.

The rest were expendable.

A Voidsteel dart shot through the Joiner’s forehead, exploding it.  Isaac.

Then, three dozen swiftlets, one of the smallest, most agile birds in the Principality, dove past Rowyna to the stairwell and nearby rooms, with a package tied to each of their legs.

Rowyna’s Whisper Vocation programmed the birds to search the rooms, scanning for humanoid shapes and unrecognized faces.  They would blow holes in doors and fly in, darting to avoid gunfire.

When they found a target, they would dive for its face at seventy miles per hour, then squeeze its talons twice in quick succession.  The tiny shaped charge attached to its leg would detonate right on the enemy’s forehead, destroying the brain.

Rowyna’s birds could pick out a target in a crowd through a layer of fog.  To them, this was as easy as breathing.

All Rowyna could hear were a series of faint pops, one after another.  It only took a few seconds for her scouting birds to return to her, broadcasting images of the dead targets.

Next step.  Rowyna stretched her Pith forward, Nudging the one breathing target.  He’s immune.

Isaac leaned down and muttered something in the man’s ear.  A threat.  The man’s eyes widened, and he nodded.  Mobsters, not Green Hands.  These people weren’t eager to die for the cause.

The man stood up and led them down the stairs to the basement.  Inside a closet, he brushed off a layer of dust to reveal a hidden trapdoor, then yanked it up.  He explained the layout of the tunnels – what he knew, at least, then Isaac placed a hand on his forehead, knocking him out with Basic Sleep.  An associate of theirs would come to arrest him later.

One by one, they dropped into the trapdoor, down the rusty ladder into a sewer tunnel.  It stretched into the distance, barely wide enough to fit in without hitting your head, lit only by the occasional dim lightbulb hanging from the ceiling.

They strode forward on top of the water.  Rowyna noted Florence’s thin, black armor, skin-tight in all the relevant places.

And she felt nothing.  Even after her death, Lyna Wethers’ Vocation was doing its job.

“Rowyna,” said Isaac, his voice carried by Florence’s Vocation.  “Your turn.”

Rowyna flipped open the visor on her family’s armor, wrinkling her nose at the stench of the sewer.  She blew a whistle, making noise at a frequency humans couldn’t hear.

A stream of birds exploded from the trap door.  Bee hummingbirds, all colored pitch black, small as a fly, and able to see in the dark.  Her scouts.

They dispersed into the tunnels, flying silent, keeping to the shadows.  Another cluster of birds stayed with Rowyna, a group of larger, more agile fliers with explosives.

A few minutes later, the scouts flew back, streaming information into Rowyna’s Pith.

“Five targets ahead,” she said.  “One thousand feet, left-right-left.  Pistols and a radio.  Mobsters dressed like construction workers.”

“Let’s get close,” said Isaac.  “Stay quiet.”

They approached, staying behind the bend, out of sight.  Florence extended her Vocation forward, carrying the enemy’s faint voices into their ears.

Pointless chatter, all of it, complaining about the smell and diseases down here.  Then, after a few minutes, a woman’s voice crackled on the radio.  “Pearl Vale.

“Feather Ink,” the man said in response.  A code.  Regular check-ins.

Isaac glanced at her, nodded, and gestured forward.  Execute.

Rowyna sent a signal to the birds behind her.  A dozen of them shot forward, fanning out.  Thanks to Florence’s Vocation, there was no sound from the explosions, not even a splash as their bodies dropped into the filth.  Rowyna projected into the radio so it didn’t fall into the water.

After a few seconds, they strode forward, past the five bodies with holes in their heads.  They took the radio, moving faster.

The sewer tunnels wound back and forth, going further down the slope of Mount Elwar.  There were no more guards.  The enemy didn’t want to call too much attention here.

Ten minutes later, the radio crackled.  “Pearl Vale.

Florence used her Vocation, making vibrations in the wind to copy the exact sound the guard had made.  “Feather Ink,” the wind replied.

Near the bottom of the mountain, below Lowtown, they reached a service door, blocked off and marked as an area taken out of commissions.  According to the man they’d threatened, this was where Tunnel Vision’s territory began.

The locking mechanism was Voidsteel, and the door itself was built of reinforced steel, designed to tank heavy explosives.  Inside the mechanism, Rowyna could feel wires and circuits, some of them Voidsteel as well.  If they were broken, they’d set off alarms, traps.

And Rowyna could feel the Piths of people inside, at least a dozen, maybe more.  Probably not the target, but there was always a chance.

Isaac knelt by the door, pulling off the gauntlet on his armor.  He felt the door with his bare palm like a doctor with a stethoscope, closing his eyes and nodding.

“Alright,” he said.  “Stand back.”

“Leave one alive,” said Rowyna.

They stood back.  Isaac drew seven darts from his belt, floating them at specific points around him.

He made them light, shot them forward in unison, then made them heavy.  They struck precise points in the door with a clang, disabling key systems and smashing structural weak points, blowing seven clean holes in the metal.

No alarms went off.  None that they could hear, at least.

The door swung open, and Revenant Squad dashed in.

This room was larger, well-lit, with a ceiling two stories tall and a variety of furniture inside.  Couches, chairs, tables, bookcases, even a second floor with a balcony and a staircase.

And the people.  Mobsters, men and women, young and old, from all corners of the Eight Oceans.  All carrying guns.

Florence struck first, cutting off all the sound leaving the room.  Gusts of wind blew everyone to the ground, slamming their heads against the hardwood floor.  A layer of projected air fit over their heads, holding them to the ground, blocking their noses and mouths.

Four mobsters in dark coats resisted Florence’s blast, staying on their feet.  Projectors.  One of them raised a fist, green lightning crackling around it.  A Physical Specialist.

Then their heads exploded.  Four Voidsteel darts impacted the wall behind them, making small craters.

Florence’s targets choked, unable to breathe in or out, and Rowyna’s birds shot forward, diving for their foreheads and necks.  A series of cracks rang out, with small explosions of bird feathers and gore.

And a few seconds later, it was over.  Revenant Squad stood in a room filled with corpses.  The enemies hadn’t gotten a single gunshot off.  Most of them had died before realizing what was happening.

This had been easy.  She wasn’t even out of breath.  But the real fight hadn’t started.

Rowyna’s Pith cast around the room, and her birds scanned the area, confirming that they’d killed everyone, save for the one man they’d kept alive.

Rowyna stared at the bodies, and felt a growing wave of disgust.  We risked our lives for you devils.  Guardians had fought and bled and died to keep the Principality safe from the monstrous Shenti hordes.

And now, these ungrateful wretches were repaying them with betrayal.  As cruel book-burners with Commonplace, or selfish monsters with the mob.

Which one is Grace?  Perhaps neither.  It didn’t make sense.  Grace had fought in the war with other Guardians, she understood their value.

Maybe we’ll figure it out after we kill her.

Florence released the last remaining enemy, the Humdrum woman dressed in the most expensive clothes.   The one most likely to be in charge.

Brin knelt next to her, his voice muffled by his combat armor.  “One chance.”  A single bloody dart hovered behind him.  “Where is she?”

She told him.

Two minutes later, they reached the area she was talking about, a door at the end of a dark hallway.  They would have used the air ducts, but they were too small for a person to fit in.

One of her chameleon birds shifted the color of its feathers, blending in with the background, and inched its head up to look through the window, relaying the images back into Rowyna’s Pith.

Rowyna’s breath caught in her throat.

Unlike the dark concrete tunnels of the rest of the area, this room was pure white, glaring under the light of lamps far above.  The walls were made of some foam-like material, the kind that absorbed sound.  It looked like some surreal billionaire’s office.  How can someone build a room this big without being noticed?

Desks packed the tiny space wall to wall, filled with mail clerks, people on phones, guards with shotguns.

And all of them were wearing Tunnel Vision’s body.

Every single one of them had Grace’s light brown hair, in a thin, long ponytail.  Every one of them wore some form of suit jacket and skirt.

There was no obvious person in charge, no single desk that rose above the others that everyone seemed to be reporting to.  It was organized chaos, a swarm of ants moving in a swirling pattern.

“Isaac,” Rowyna whispered, indicating her head.

Isaac peeked in, staring through the window.  He could get spotted, but his threat analysis vocation, Eyes of the Makara, might be the only thing that could pick out her target.

A few seconds passed.  If the real Tunnel Vision sees him, it’s over.  Or if someone opened this door.

“I’ve got one,” said Isaac.  “A pattern, someone who’s connected to everyone else, who people are treating like an authority figure.”

“How sure are you?” said Rowyna.

“Sixty percent, maybe.”

Shit.  “Then target them all,” said Rowyna.  “Every dart you have, sorted by how likely you think each target is.”

“Judging by their actions,” said Isaac.  “Some of them may be prisoners.”  He kept staring through the window.

“If we don’t kill her right away,” said Rowyna.  “She’ll burn us to death.”  She was too competent for them to leave alive.

“There’s a good chance it’s a trap, too,” said Isaac.  “If that’s the case, we should leave.  Now.”

“If it’s a trap,” said Rowyna.  “It’s already too late.  The only way out is through.”

“We should leave,” said Isaac.

Isaac’s not being rational.  Maybe it was a trap.  Maybe there were prisoners in that marble room.  But Isaac Brin, the Scholar of Mass, was simply afraid of killing his old friend.

Isaac turned to Florence.  “What do you think?”

The black helmet hid Florence’s expression, but Rowyna could see her shoulders tensing.  “Do it,” she said.

Isaac Brin floated almost every single dart from his belt, from the extra slots in his armor and the bag slung across his back.  A hundred, at least.  Maybe half of them were Voidsteel.  They made tiny adjustments, angling to aim at every person in the room.

“Florence,” he said.  “You remember the standard fast breach?”

A nod.

“Then on my mark.  Three.  Two.  One.  Mark.”

Even with Rowyna’s keen eyes, the attack was almost impossible to follow.

Isaac’s first four darts hit the door’s hinges and handle, and Florence made a gust of wind, blasting it to the ground.

Then something moved in a blur, a dull boom rang through the air, and a hundred heads exploded.

Eleven Tunnel Visions were left standing.  Autonomous bullet shields.  Non-Voidsteel darts.  Half a second later, their heads exploded too.

A flock of birds darted in, scanning for survivors in the room, for hidden chambers or enemies playing possum.

All headshots.  No movement.  Rowyna cast her soul out, and felt a room full of dying Piths, dispersing in the air without a vessel to hold them.  Nothing living.

The desks and white floor were coated with blood and bits of grey brain matter, with a layer of corpses draped over it.

“Did we get her?” said Florence.

“No,” hissed Isaac.  “This is too easy.  She has to be somewhere else.  Look for her.”  His eyes widened.  “No, a trap, we – “

The lights went out, turning the subterranean room pitch black.

In the split second before they could react, a wave of palefire washed over them, filling the room with white light.

Rowyna spun around.  Florence stood between her and the source of the flame, wind whipping around her, creating an invisible cocoon to keep the fire out.  She’s holding it back.  Keeping it starved of oxygen.  A storm of green lightning raged around her body, and the Scholar of Air screamed from the effort.

Rowyna’s family armor was maybe the best of its kind in the Principality.  It kept the worst of the heat out, but still, it felt like someone was pressing her face to a hot pan.

And in this burning nightmare, as the desks, the corpses, her birds turned to blackened crisps around her, as the back of her mind raced to come up with an exit plan, Rowyna thought of the night she met the Pyre Witch, at that art gallery, when she’d just earned her name.

She should have paid more attention to that moment.

Did I ever really understand Grace Acworth?  Did any of us?

Another thought: How much has she found out about us?

“Guardians!”  Rowyna shouted over the wind.  “If you ever thought yourself an exemplar, if you ever dreamt of forging stars, then do not stay your hand.”  She ripped out a chunk of the floor, using it as a shield.  “The nation, the people, the light!”

As one, Revenant Squad dove into the river of flame.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




8-B – Florence Tuft

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Florence Tuft wanted to remember this.

When she was old, she’d have a long life behind her, with a lot of happy memories competing with this one.  She wanted to hold onto this one.

Even though she was getting her ass kicked.

Rowyna moved her Dancing Painter forward on the board, knocking Florence out of a key hexagon.  A few more losses like that, and this game of Jao Lu would be over.  Their board states were even for now, but Florence could tell how outmatched she was.

On an ordinary day, she would hate losing like this.  Once, as a child, she’d headbutted a kid in the face just so she could score the winning goal in a football match.  According to the referee, that was ‘against the rules’ and ‘enough for a lifetime ban’.

She never played football again, but Paragon Academy didn’t care how competitive she was.

And yet.  She’d never had this much fun losing.

Maybe it was the quiet noise of triumph that came out of Rowyna whenever she took one of Florence’s pieces, or the focused stare in her deep green eyes as she analyzed the board.

Or the way she avoided looking at Florence’s face, like it was bright and blinding as the sun.

When Rowyna did look in her direction, she made glances at the blizzard outside the window, the crackling fireplace, her mug of mulled cider, all around the common room.  As if to prove that she wasn’t gaping at Florence.

Rowyna was setting a trap for her that would decimate her board.  If Florence avoided it, she could drag the game out longer, hold onto a small chance of winning.

But to be honest, that seemed long, and difficult. And she wanted to see the look on Rowyna’s face.

Florence reached her hand out and moved her lancer forward, swan diving into the ambush.

A beautiful light seemed to spread across Rowyna’s face, starting in her eyes, spreading to her cheeks, and bursting out around her mouth.  She laughed, unable to contain it, not a cruel or taunting gesture, but a joyous one.

“Yes!” she crowed.  “Yes!”  She moved her Chameleon Spy, setting off a chain reaction around the board.  And she smiled.

I made her smile.  Rowyna hadn’t smiled in weeks.

“I forfeit,” said Florence.  “Not gonna come back from that one.”

Rowyna was almost bouncing up and down, but hadn’t forgotten her manners.  “Good game.”

“Good game,” said Florence.

“Interesting,” said Grace, lying back on a blue couch in the common room.

“Interesting?” said Rowyna.

Grace gave them a thin smile.  “I think Florence let you win.”

Rowyna shook her head, still high off the victory.  “Whaleshit.  Why would she do that?”

Grace raised an eyebrow at Florence.  Florence felt her face grow warm, blood rushing to her cheeks.  Damn that perceptive Grace, she thought.

“Another?” said Florence.  “Let me reclaim my honor?”

Rowyna leaned back and flipped open a book.  “I have to get back to studying.”

“It’s winter break, Row,” said Florence, indignant.  “This is the one vacation the admins give us so we don’t murder our professors or drop dead.  Humdrum schmucks get summer and holidays, we get one week.”

Rowyna indicated her head to the Jao Lu set.  “I got my rest.”  She’d played a single game.

Florence refilled Rowyna’s cider mug.  “Isaac panics when you say ‘A-Minus’, and Grace doesn’t even know her Vocation is.”  She stuffed a handful of popcorn into her mouth.  “And they’re not studying.  We don’t even have homework, what are you reading?”

Rowyna held up her book, thicker than her biceps.

Naval Strategy of the Early Industrial Period, Volume 3

It looked so boring, Florence almost gagged.

“It’s not for class.  I assigned myself extra reading.“

Florence whistled.  “Look at you, Tegudar the General.  You’re going to make all of us feel very inadequate one day.”

Rowyna shrugged.

“Look, you already know naval strats better than most of our professors, but none of that’s going to matter if you don’t let yourself relax every now and then.”  She batted her lashes at Rowyna.

“I guess,” Rowyna sighed.

“Yes!” said Florence, setting up another game.  “You won’t regret this.”

“Actually,” said Grace, sitting up.  “I just remembered something.  The textbook I borrowed from you yesterday, I think I left it in Professor Thorne’s lecture hall.  Sorry.”

“Ugh,” said Florence.  “That’s a level two book.  If they find out I lost it, they’ll put a hold on my library card.”  Paragon Academy took its security very seriously.  She floated her jacket onto her back.  “I’ll go get it.”

“It’s on the other side of campus,” said Grace.  “Long walk.  You shouldn’t go alone.”

“I can go,” said Isaac.  “Nothing else to do anyway.”

He’s not getting it.  Grace shot him a look.

His eyes widened.  There it is.  “On second thought,” he said.  “It’s very warm here.  Think I’ll stay.”

“Sure,” said Rowyna.  “Could use a walk.”  They strode to the front door and stepped out into the snow, crossing a bridge from their dormitory to the main islands.

In Paragon Academy, the atmosphere controls made snow act weird.  The air stayed at room temperature on campus, and the deceleration field dampened high winds, so you couldn’t feel the real effects of a blizzard, and all the snow melted into slush.

The effect turned the grassy pavilion into a cold pile of mud, filled with icy puddles, lit by dim orange lamps around the edge.

“Why are we here?” said Rowyna.  “Thorne’s lecture hall is east.”

“Thought this could be the scenic route.”

They stepped onto a dry patch on higher ground, where the dirt was still solid beneath their feet.  Before Florence could come up with a witty retort, Rowyna stepped forward, glaring at her.

“Be honest,” she said.  “Do you like me?”

Florence blinked at her.  “What?”

“I’m bad at picking up signals,” Rowyna said.  “But sometimes, when I see the way you looking at me – I don’t know.  And if this is some sort of prank, or joke, I do not have the time.

“You seem testy about this.”

“People don’t like me,” she snapped.  “Grace respects me, Isaac envies me, and a few classmates in our year fear me, or lust after me, but none of them like me.  When I become an admiral, that won’t change either.”

When?  “Getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we?”

“It’s not a boast, it’s a fact.  I’m determined and my family has resources.  I will forge the stars in my image, and strive to become an Exemplar.  But I’m also probably going to die alone, and I’ve grown to accept that.”

“Epistocrats have arranged marriages,” said Florence.  “I’m sure your family will set you up with a nice young man.”

“I won’t like him, and he definitely won’t like me.”  She pursed her lips.  “Being locked in the same house for years is not going to change that.  But you’re dodging the question.  Do you like me, and if so, why?”  She said the last word with disgust and confusion, like she’d just heard about someone who liked the taste of sawdust.

“Look down,” said Florence.

A layer of snow coated the ground around them, a white circle ten meters wide, surrounded by the mud and slush.

Rowyna’s eyes widened.  “How – “

“My Vocation,” Florence said.  “With nitrogen gas projection, I can make force fields, blow things around, mess with sound, and….cool the air.”  She flopped on her back, making an indent in the fresh powder and spreading her arms.

Rowyna looked confused.  “What are you doing?”

“Oh.”  Florence stopped.  “I forgot, you’re from the South.  You’ve never spent time around snow before.  Check this out:”  She fanned her arms and legs back and forth, making a shape in the fresh snow.

Rowyna snorted.  “You look like an idiot.”

“It’s called a snow falcon!”  Florence ran her fingers through the cool snow.  “Try it!”

“But what’s the point?” Rowyna said.  “Is it some sort of game?  Do I get something from doing it?”

“It looks neat,” said Florence.  “And it’s fun.”

Still confused, Rowyna lay down on the snow and copied Florence’s movements, making her own snow falcon.  She exhaled, her breath fogging in the chill air.  “This is nice, I guess,” she said.  “Snow is nice.”

They stared at the crescent moons overhead.

“That’s a good question, what you said earlier,” Florence said.  “Why would anyone like you?  Maybe it’s because you’re courageous.  You speak up to the professors and disagree when no one else will.  Or because you set absurd, high standards for yourself and then meet them.  Or because even though you’re cold and blunt with everyone, you actually care about them.”

“I don’t care about all of them.”

Florence gazed at her, snow falling on her face.  “Remember when you found out Tamar Belson and his clique were cheating on the midterms?  All on your own, when they were fucking up the grading curve for the rest of us and even the professors had no idea.  And then you exposed them in front of the entire class.  That was incredible.”  She clasping Rowyna’s hand, the girl’s palm warm against her’s.

“Most people hated me for that.  I don’t think I should expect anyone to – “

Florence kissed her.

The snowflakes on Rowyna were cold, but her cheek was warm.

Rowyna kissed her back.

“I like you, Row,” said Florence.  “And if you start second-guessing why, I’m going to pinch you.”

“I think I like you too.”

________________________________________

“You kissed her in the snow?” said Grace, grinning.

“I’m nothing if not a romantic,” said Florence, resting her head on Rowyna’s lap, holding her hand.  She used her Vocation, blowing a pile of rocks through the cold tent and forming animal shapes with them.

“You know,” said Isaac.  “I never asked you what your parents thought of all that.”

Rowyna shrugged.  “My parents are practical.  As long as they secure a strong marriage alliance with a good family, they couldn’t care less who I see with the rest of my time.”

“And Paragon?” said Grace.

“They don’t know, obviously, and I see no reason to change that.”  If they found out, there could be problems with their careers.

Florence clenched her fist and squeezed her rocks together with her Vocation, compressing the air into a hyper-dense sphere.  The rocks broke into pebbles, and green lightning crackled around her.

“Careful,” said Isaac, glancing at her projection.  “We’re surrounded by Humdrums.”

“What else am I supposed to do to pass the time?” she said, shivering.  They were in command of this brigade, but there was nothing to do right now but wait.  “Row said I couldn’t heat myself with projection.”

“We could be fighting the enemy at a moment’s notice,” said Rowyna.  “We need you at full strength.”

Florence pulled her knees to her chest under her blanket.  Damn these Shenten mountains.  Why couldn’t Paragon have given them an assignment in the southern theater?  The Shenti would still be shooting at them, but at least it’d be warm.  “It’s not conserving energy if my asscheeks freeze off,” she grumbled.

“The food isn’t helping either,” said Isaac, staring at Florence’s bowl of cold porridge.  Almost empty, thanks to their rationing.

“Maybe the Shenti can spare a dumpling or two,” said Florence.  “Want to head over to their lines and ask?”  She floated the porridge up to her face and prodded it with her fingers.  “Two more bowls of this glop, and I’ll chop off my arm and spit-roast it with onions.”

“We don’t have onions,” said Isaac.

“Then I’ll just pan-fry it,” said Florence.  “I’ll get the skin all crispy, you guys’ll love it.”

Rowyna clasped a palm over Florence’s mouth, playful, stroking her blonde hair with the other hand.  “That’s enough.  We’ll break through to our supply lines soon enough.  Until then, let’s be grateful we’re not eating snow and stay strong.”

Florence nodded.  Rowyna always knew what to say.

“And,” said Rowyna.  “I prepared for this.”  She pulled a thermos out of a bag and unscrewed it.

An incredible, familiar scent wafted off of it.  The smell of apples and cinnamon and nutmeg, of hot comfort and allspice and Opal Hall’s common room.

Paragon’s Mulled Cider.  Florence had no idea how Rowyna had dragged it across half of Shenten through mud and ice and artillery, but somehow, the genius bitch had managed it.

And now, at the edge of the world, stuck in a mountain pass between two Shenti divisions, they were getting a taste of home.

“Oh, Scholars,” said Isaac.

“Oh, Scholars,” breathed Grace, her mouth hanging half-open.

Florence kissed Rowyna.  “Thank you,” she said.  “Thank you.”

Everyone drank.  Isaac took little sips, as if each one would be his last.  Grace swallowed her portion in two gulps.  And Florence held onto her mug, savoring the warmth in her palms and breathing in the smell.

Florence went back to crushing rocks with her air projection, green lightning flickering around her.

“Florence,” said Isaac.  He looked past her.

A man stood at the door of their command tent.  Rory Yarwell, the vice chief engineer for the tanks.

And a Humdrum.  Staring at Florence’s projection.

She let the rocks drop, staring back at him.  Shit.

“I – I’m sorry, sir,” he said.  “I should have knocked.  Sir, that was – that was incr – “

“Stop,” said Rowyna.  “Don’t move or speak or make noise unless I say so.”

Yarwell froze.  She’s Nudging him.

“You do the wipe, Florence,” said Rowyna.  “That was your projection he saw.”

“None of us can do a precision job,” said Grace, hunching over.  “If we screw up the block wipe, he might lose a week, or a month’s worth of memories.”  She made eye contact with the shaking Yarwell.  “He’s a good soldier, he didn’t do anything wrong.”

“If we don’t,” said Rowyna.  “He could tell everyone.”

Most of the Principality’s Guardians were completely separate from the Humdrum military.  They fought battles miles and miles away from any ordinary soldier.  But their unit was integrated for this mission, which made secrecy bloody difficult.

The wind blew outside, knocking the tent flaps back and forth.  Florence stood up, stepping behind Yarwell and zipping it shut.

Yarwell stared at her, making shapes with his mouth, trying to speak but unable to.

“Speak honestly,” said Isaac, Nudging out part of a command.  “Why did you come into our tent?”

Little paranoid, aren’t we?  He probably thought Yarwell was a spy or something.

“New forecast,” Yarwell said.  “There’s a blizzard headed straight for us tonight.  A big one.  Winds forty to sixty.”

Fuck, that’ll be a pain.

“And something else.”

“Go on,” said Rowyna.

“Scouts caught a new group of Shenti arriving at the enemy’s camp.”

“How many?”

“Just four, sir,” he said.  “But they were dressed funny.  Light clothes, bare feet on the snow, like they didn’t care about the cold.  And they were wearing masks.  All of them.  Shaped like animals.”

Silence.

The blood drained out of Rowyna’s face.  “Leave this tent in fifteen seconds,” she said.  “Then tell the men to prepare for battle.”

Florence placed a hand on the man’s forehead, completing the wipe.  A few seconds later, Yarwell stepped out.

“What the fuck was that?” said Isaac, foot tapping.  “What do bare feet and animal masks mean?  Is there some briefing I missed?”

Rowyna put down her cider mug, standing up.  “I hope you’ve been practicing,” she said.  “We’re about to get hit by Shenti Commandos.”

________________________________________

Even in a war this brutal, there were rules.

As projectors, both the Guardians and commandos were bound by the Treaty of Silence, the agreement that kept their world safe and hidden.  The battle had to be at night.  There couldn’t be too many Humdrum witnesses present, so that they could be mind-wiped at the end of the fight.  Intelligence teams from both sides would agree on an ordinary explanation of the situation.

And projectors could only fight if other projectors were present.  If Florence and the rest of Revenant Squad weren’t here, the commandos would have to find another battlefield.

Our presence may have killed these soldiers.  A sobering thought.  But secrecy was critical, to prevent another, larger war with the Humdrums.

All this, she thought, over some dumb asshole who chose the name ‘Black Tortoise’.  Some mad dictator with dreams of global conquest, who’d named himself after a turtle.

Florence adjusted her grip on the rifle, aiming out at the pitch-black snowstorm.  The brigade’s trucks, tanks, and non-flammable supplies were arranged in a semicircle with a rock wall against their backs.  In front, hasty trenches had been dug in the snow to serve as a second source of cover.

Every headlight, flashlight, and lamp they had was directed outwards into the storm, casting orange and yellow light onto the blowing white snow.  Even with that, it was almost impossible for ordinary eyes to see more than a few yards ahead.

“Hold!” shouted Lieutenant Mayfield, their second-in-command.

In a normal battle, Rowyna or Florence or one of the other Guardians would be giving the orders.  But since the commandos didn’t know their faces, they had disguised themselves as common soldiers.  If the enemies didn’t know who they were, they wouldn’t get sniped right away.

A soldier next to Florence shivered, her hands shaking on the barrel of her rifle.  Florence’s joining-enhanced ears could pick up her faint voice.  “Scholars,” she whispered.  “Scholars watch over me.

Something dark moved in the distance, then vanished.  Florence squinted.  Another shape moved through the blizzard, closer this time.

Florence projected into the nearest car horns and pushed them twice, the speakers blaring over the howling wind.  A signal.  They’re here.

Fwip.  And a muffled crack.  The sound of a silenced gunshot.

A car’s headlight shattered, going dark.  Fwip, fwip, fwip.  They came from all sides, breaking a lightbulb each time.  Fwip, fwip, fwip.  The suppressors weren’t as quiet as the movies, but it was still impossible to tell where the sounds were coming from.  No muzzle flash, either.

One by one, the lights went dark.  The ring of orange and yellow turned pitch-black.

Fuck,” muttered the woman next to Florence.  “Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Fwip, fwip, fwip.  Men and women dropped around Florence, each shot clean through the head.

“Lieutenant!” another shouted, panic slipping into his voice.  “Orders!”

Rowyna honked a horn three times, the second signal.  Grace projected into one of the many flares scattered around the edge of the camp, and lit it, igniting the gasoline they’d poured around it.

A ring of fire exploded around the trucks, lighting up the blizzard with roaring flames.  The snow nearby evaporated into hissing steam, a brief flash of warmth on Florence’s face.

The first ring ignited a second, creating two walls of fire between them and the commandos.  The soldiers cheered.  “Burn, you eastern dogs!” screamed the woman, her wide eyes lit in flickering orange.

The commandos would be fireproof, with reactions too fast to get caught in the blast.  But the heat would screw with their infrared vision, forcing them to go through and get close to shoot them.

The flames crackled.  No one came through the wall of fire.  The shouting and cheering died down.

“Where the fuck are they!” one soldier shouted.  But they could guess.

Florence felt four objects move through the air, coming down from the sky.  Area-wide scanning took great energy, and air projection was exceptionally rare, but thanks to her Physical Vocation, Florence could do both.  Grace’s prediction was right.

Above!” she whispered, using her air Vocation to speak to the others.  “Above!

Fwip, Fwip, Fwip, Fwip.  The commandos shot from midair, hitting headshot after headshot.

Through the air, Florence felt four figures land inside the ring.  Got you.

She used the full power of her Vocation, taking control of the nitrogen in the air around the targets.  Not too hard.  If she strained her Pith, the green lightning would give her away.

Around the targets, the wind shifted direction, blowing all the snow away from them.

And for the first time, she saw them.

Two men, two women, standing on car roofs and tanks.  Wearing thin white camouflage, swinging heavy rifles like they were light as twigs.  Each wore a pale mask depicting a different animal on it, turning their expressions feral, unreadable.

The nearest soldiers turned towards them, aiming shotguns and SMGs.

They died first.  The commandos moved in a blur, their aim snapping to one, then the next.  The targets leapt from car to car, trying to jump to the blizzard, but Florence moved her wind, keeping the air clear around them.

Then they aimed at the soldier next to her.

Next phase.  Florence projected down, below an inch of snow, into the steel armor they’d stripped from the tanks.  She yanked them upright, forming barriers between them and the commandos.  It had to be protecting both her and the soldiers next to her, or they’d know which one was a projector.

The rest of Revenant Squad followed in her lead, lifting diagonal metal walls.  Isaac projected into most of them, making them lighter, easier to move.

The car horn sounded twice again, from Rowyna’s projection.  Now.

Revenant Squad attacked.

A storm of frag grenades flew at the commandos from every direction, forming a sphere closing in.  All looked identical, but a third of them were coated with Voidsteel.  Rowyna’s projection.

The commandos leapt, shooting for the part of the sphere with no Voidsteel.  Pieces of the car beneath them ripped off, forming shields.  The grenades closest to them exploded, but none of them fell, or slowed.

As they dodged the grenades, Isaac shot a volley of darts at them, dropping the mass to accelerate them, then increasing it a moment before impact.  They punched through the metal shields, and slammed all four of them, crashing them into the rock wall with a dull boom.

Florence felt one of the figures slow, its arm going limp.  Another one clutched its side, staggering.  Voidsteel darts.  Two of them had hit.

At the same time, Florence turned up her Vocation, blocking the flow of air in front of the commandos’ noses and mouths.  It’d take a while, but even master Joiners needed oxygen eventually.  She buffeted the commandos with wind, gusts strong enough to snap a man’s neck.

And Grace?  Grace they held back, as a trump card.

Then, all four enemies started moving again.

The commandos’ guns started firing again, made faint by the howling winds.  They went faster this time, aiming for everyone who wasn’t covered by one of the improvised shields.

Bodies dropped around Florence, one after the other, men and women all shot through the head.

More grenades from Rowyna.  More darts from Isaac.  But this time, their enemies were wise to them.  They dodged or blocked all the Voidsteel, and the rest just bounced off their skin.

Bullets burst out of crates, streaming towards the commandos and into their weapons.  Their guns could be modified to fit different calibers, so they’d never run out.  Until we’re all dead.

One of the Commandos broke off from the main group and leapt to Isaac in a single bound.

She grabbed his metal barrier, layered steel plates eight inches thick, and ripped it apart like a cobweb.

Brin lightened it, shot it at her, and made it heavy, with enough force to break a building in half.  

The Shenti bitch flowed around it, like water.

It didn’t even graze her.

In the same smooth motion, her palm lashed out, pushing his solar plexus.

Isaac Brin slammed into the rock wall.  Something cracked, and he went limp.

Something exploded on the far side of the ring, making Florence’s ears ring.  A box of explosives.  Lieutenant Mayfield crawled out of the dust cloud, leaving a trail of blood behind him.  He collapsed onto the snow, unmoving.

The air grew colder.  The winds of the blizzard whipped faster, too intense for even Florence to control.

And Florence realized they were all going to die.

Rowyna’s birds weren’t working in this storm.  Isaac was down.  Florence’s suffocation was too slow.  Grace had talent, but without knowing her Vocation, lacked a strong focus.

Think, think, think.  There had to be some way out of this, some way to escape this blizzard back into the light.

Then, the commando ripped through Rowyna’s shield.

On instinct, Florence blew her shield forward, forcing all four commandos to dodge for a split second.

In that instant, she made eye contact with Rowyna.  Spoke with the wind.

See you round, Row.

Rowyna’s eyes widened.  The commando leveled a pistol at her head.

And Florence exploded.  Instead of down or to the side, she forced the wind upwards at hundreds of miles per hour in four columns.

The four commandos shot into the air.  Their overwhelming strength was useless with nothing to push against.

Florence created an updraft beneath her, unfurled her wingsuit, and shot up after them, green lightning crackling around her.  She blew the four commandos together, trapping them in a sphere of nitrogen, and whipped the air faster and faster, ripping their guns in pieces.

Then, the same woman who’d hit Isaac braced her feet against another commando, and pushed off, punching her fist through the barrier of air.   It’s not enough.  They were still too strong.

Before Florence could react, the woman’s hand darted towards her throat.

When it was inches away, a blast of white flame filled Florence’s vision, knocking the commando back in the sphere.

Palefire.  The air bubble turned into a glowing fireball, consuming all the oxygen in seconds, then funneling in more.  Florence’s face burned from the heat.

Grace Acworth flew up beside Florence.  “You’ll never make it on your own!” she shouted.

Florence understood.  The fire wouldn’t kill the commandos, but it would slow them down enough for Florence to get them away from the battlefield.

Together, they soared up the side of the mountain, a bright white globe surrounded by green and purple lightning.  A multicolored lantern in the middle of a blizzard.

As they climbed towards the peak, Florence glanced down.  Her winds had cleared the blizzard for a moment, revealing the ring of fire and the camp below.

Dark blue dots covered the snow.  Bodies.  It looked like the commandos had slaughtered almost the whole brigade.

Then they went over the peak, and the headache became overwhelming.  It felt like someone was jamming a dentist’s drill into her brain.  Florence could almost feel her skull cracking at the edges.  Her vision blurred, and she writhed in the air as she flew.

Florence screamed, tears running down her face.  But she kept going, shooting the burning sphere down the far side of the mountain and off a cliff, wind whipping in her ears.  The sheer acceleration made her dizzy, but her Joining vocations kept her from passing out.

Grace was silent, her face contorted in agony from the strain on her Pith.

They shot through the blizzard, past trees and rocks and snow, as the fire’s heat burned Florence’s face.  Fuck.  Fuck, fuck, fuck.  Just a little further.  If she went a little further, it would be enough.

Her skin started to smoke.  The screeching headache multiplied again, overwhelming the rest of her thoughts.

The world blurred out of focus, and she blinked.

When she opened her eyes, the ground was right in front of her.

Florence jerked herself up, blowing with the wind.  Too slow.  The sphere slammed into the ground, bursting apart, and Florence crashed into a snowdrift.  Something snapped in her leg.

After a few seconds, the headache faded, replaced by a sharp, stabbing pain in her thigh.  She projected into the snow above her, digging herself out.

Florence limped forward, the dark blizzard howling around her.  The fire had gone out, making it hard to see more than a few yards in front of her.

Grace stumbled out of the storm and fell to her knees, coughing.  In front of her, three of the commandos became visible, lying on their backs.  Breathing, but barely moving otherwise.  They must have spent all their energy protecting their bodies from the fire.

Where’s the fourth?

Grace pushed herself upright, and a hand punched through her blue armor, exploding out of her stomach.

The fourth commando stood behind her, and yanked out her arm, stained red up to her elbow.  Grace collapsed, blood spilling out of her mouth.

The Shenti’s mask had come off, and her uniform had been reduced to burnt rags, but her face and body were untouched.  In an instant, Florence recognized her.  The long black hair.  The deep red lips and pale skin and flawless beauty.

The Immaculate Vanguard.  The strongest Joiner in all of Shenten – in all the Eight Oceans.  The woman who stood at the right hand of The Black Tortoise.

Florence blew a gust at her.  The Immaculate Vanguard sidestepped it with ease, darting forward and drawing a red Voidsteel hook sword.

The blade moved in a blur.

And Florence’s hands fell off.

Her arms exploded with pain, and she dropped onto her back, spurting blood onto the snow.

But through the agony, through the fear, Florence felt a sense of peace.  Of satisfaction.

She and Grace would be executed, or worse.  Most of their unit had been wiped out in a matter of minutes.

But now, the rest stood a chance of escaping.  Isaac could get a new body.  Rowyna could live the rest of her life.  The best parts of Florence and Grace would live on in their memories.

As the world faded away, and the Vanguard approached, Florence knew she’d made the right choice.

________________________________________

In the coming years, Florence would come to question that decision.

By the time the Shenti got them into new bodies with Null Venom, and dragged them to the interrogation room, both Florence and Grace had wiped all critical memories.  On the faint chance that they ever got back, the information would be easy to re-learn, and now they were useless as sources to the enemy. Florence’s new body was mousy, short, older – vastly different than the chassis she knew. Joining would be near-impossible, but that didn’t matter now.

And the Shenti hated Whisper projection, so there was almost no risk of being hijacked, thank the Scholars.

The Shenti could try and force them to share their Vocations, but writing the codices would take years.

Florence said as much during their first conversation, and pretty quick, the interrogators realized she was telling the truth.

Florence and Grace were feeling pretty clever with themselves.

Then the interrogators sent them to a redemption camp.

They were blindfolded and driven up in trucks, on bumpy, winding roads that made Florence nauseous.  The prisoners were cuffed to each other, and the truck never stopped, so after the first few hours of agony, Florence pissed herself.  The stench and the chill from her damp pants lingered with her on the splintering wooden bench.  That was the first humiliation.

After an eternity, the truck pulled to a stop.  The prisoners were herded out, and someone pulled the blindfolds off.

Florence squinted, the grey morning light stinging her eyes.  Her vision cleared, and she got the first glimpse of her new home.

A vast tundra spread out before her, every inch covered in yellow grass or snow.  A tall barbed-wire fence stretched across it as far as the eye could see, and in the middle, a simple wooden gate had been built.  Where the fuck are we?

No insignia.  No dramatic words scrawled on the entrance.  If it weren’t for the red and gold flags and the Shenti soldiers, she could have mistaken it for some country farm.

Florence had no coat, and in this new body, no access to the tiny handful of Joining vocations she knew.  The cold bit into her skin, making her shiver.  Her hands hung limp and grey from her wrists.  The Immaculate Vanguard’s Voidsteel blade had sliced through her Pith, so even in a new body, they would crumble into dust within a week or two.

A bulky Shenti man climbed up a ladder to a raised platform by the gate.  Another barked out an order, and the soldiers stood at attention.  All eyes turned to him.

Time to find out what this is all about.  Dissidents and those deemed mentally defective had fewer rights under Cao Hui’s regime, but they’d heard nothing about mass imprisonment.

“Society’s treacherous sloth must be purged!” he cried in Shenti.  “This is your redemption.  You have committed a grave offense against the state.  You are as locusts, leeching off the hard-earned goods of the people.  For this, your privileges have been curbed.  The privilege of unbound feet.  The privilege of reproduction.  The privilege of food.”

No one spoke back.  The men and women beside Florence stared up with dead eyes.

“Prove you are not a locust, and you shall earn these privileges back.  Prove your intellect, and your diligence, and you will ascend into the light, to live amongst your betters in this enlightened nation.“

Then, he smiled.

“One way or another, you will get the fate you deserve.”

And that was it.  Florence and Grace were no longer Guardians, or soldiers of the Principality, or even humans.  They were locusts, though it took them some time to realize it.

“When I get a weapon,” Florence muttered to Grace.  “The first thing I’m going to do is slaughter that eastern dog.”

But the first person they killed wasn’t a guard.  It was another prisoner.  An innocent woman.

First, Florence had to learn the meaning of hunger.

It wasn’t the ache from when she skipped meals at Paragon, or the pangs from when she got sick.  It wasn’t even the intense, stabbing pain she’d felt after a month of rationing in the field.

No, true hunger was a whole identity.  After a certain point, you became unrecognizable to yourself.  You stopped caring about things and started sleepwalking through your new life, and your determination seeped out through your belly.

The camp allotted two meals a day to its prisoners.  Rice in the morning, soybeans at night.  Cold, unflavored, filling only a fraction of a bowl.  Sometimes, on good days, they caught rats or snakes in the camp, and could cook them in a fire.  The guards didn’t mind if they ate those, since they fertilized their farms with human waste and pests were common.

But mostly, they just starved.

Florence’s abdomen swelled up, becoming bloated.  Her periods stopped.  Her skin turned dry and flaky, cracking at the edges, making every movement painful.  The sweaty parts of her body took on a rotting stench, made worse by the fact that they rarely got to change clothes.

And the hunger made everything harder to bear.

Every day, she and Grace would force themselves out of the women’s dorm, covered in aches and pains from the unheated concrete floor they slept on.  A guard would order the prisoners into a line, and they would trudge to a factory inside the camp, shuffling through the snow and wet grass.  In the smoke-filled building, a Shenti woman with a cigarette screamed instructions at them, putting them to work at various parts of an assembly line.  With her hands chopped off and no projection, Florence could only pick up boxes and operate foot pedal machines.

The pieces got assembled at another factory, so it took Florence a day or two to figure out what she and Grace were making.  Tank treads.  They were making tanks for the Shenti military.

At first, she’d thought of performing silent resistance, half-assing her work to weaken the Shenti war machine.  But at the end of each week, the man or woman who did the most work received an extra bowl of rice.

Florence held off, for the first few months.  And then, it became too tempting to resist.  She loathed herself for it, whispered a thousand words of disgust as she shivered herself to sleep.  You should be escaping, she told herself.  Or dead.  Better than this shame.

But she still went for it.  Florence made tank treads with desperate fervor.  All for the hope of earning that one extra bowl.

But with no projection, and no hands, it was almost impossible.  Everything was almost impossible.  Grace had to open doors for her, spoon food into her mouth, even help her go to the bathroom in the pit dug next to the dorm.  It humiliated her, made her cry at night, when everyone else was asleep.  Pathetic.  They’d made her so pathetic.

But still, Florence was grateful.  Without her squadmate, she would have died in under a month.  Grace nearly broke herself to keep her squadmate alive.

Then, the tests.  Every month, they took a variation on the Civil Examination, the same one every Shenti citizen was required to take.  Pattern recognition.  Spatial reasoning.  ‘Which shape does not belong?’  Short term memory.  Mathematics and logic.  Memorizing passages from The Ninety-Nine Precepts, and Cao Hui’s speeches.

There was even a verbal variant that Florence could take without having to write anything.  Even for a lowly prisoner such as her, they took the time to give her exam after exam, making her speak the answers out loud.

At first, Florence and Grace aced them.  Next to the material at Paragon, it was nothing.

And then, they got harder.  And harder.  The first few times, Florence thought they were ramping up the difficulty, but that wasn’t it.

The tests weren’t getting smarter.  The two of them were getting dumber.

Paragon liked to talk about the noble supremacy of the Pith over the body, but with her body breaking down, her mind was weak, useless.  With no joining, and Null Venom regularly injected, she was no better than a Humdrum.  And she didn’t even have ideas for an escape plan.

The one thing she improved on was her knowledge of Caoism.  She’d studied it from intelligence briefings, but she understood the system now on a deeper level.

In the redemption camp, the prisoners were organized with ‘Economic Scores’ of zero through seven.  The rest of the Shenti meritocracy consisted of scores eight through ninety-nine, signifying how much value they added to society.  A critical scientist or CEO might have one in the mid-eighties.  A foot soldier might be in the thirties.

And an intellectual cripple would come here.  Within the camp, dissidents and prisoners of war were near the bottom, with a base economic score of two.  Florence and Grace were even lower – a score of one.

At zero, you weren’t worth the price of feeding.  A one, at least, could perform manual labor.  At two, you got a dorm with a coal fire to warm you at night.  At three, you got twice as much food.  At four, you got bedding.  At five, less painful jobs at the factory.

And at eight, you got to leave.  You were a human again.

Every week, they would read stories of men and women who had redeemed themselves, becoming productive, intelligent, high-scoring members of society.  Society’s treacherous sloth must be purged.

But Florence hadn’t seen anyone gain more than a point or two.  Her and Grace’s cognitive test scores should have helped, but this far down, it still wasn’t enough.

After a while, the days blended together.  Florence forgot how long she’d been in this camp, began to forget life outside.  In the first weeks, she’d imagined eating at the Paragon dining room, drinking mulled cider in the warm common room with Rowyna, escaping this horrible nightmare.

But now?  Now, she didn’t imagine anything.

Pain had a way of narrowing your thoughts.  When you were in constant agony, it was almost impossible to imagine a world without eternal misery.  Comfort and peace seemed foreign, absurd.

Yes, she thought.  Pain could give you tunnel vision.

One day, a Shenti Joiner visited the camp, the first other projector they’d seen in ages.  He smiled at them and had them escorted to a heated room on the far side of the camp, where he revealed an entire platter of roast duck.

Grace helped Florence devour them, so fast the bones cut into the inside of her cheek, sauce dribbling down their chins.  They both knew this was going to be a one-time thing.

Then, the man offered moist towels to clean themselves, and bowed to them.  “I have never faced you directly,” he said.  “But as I’ve heard, you were formidable opponents, who served your nation well and always upheld your duty.”

Here comes the whaleshit.  Florence could bear it from Humdrum guards, but hearing it from someone on her level was somehow worse.

“Others may disagree with me, but I hold you both in high respect.  As soldiers, as projectors, we can give each other that courtesy.  We inhabit a world the Humdrums cannot even dream of, and – ”

“Get to the point, you smirking gutter rat,” said Florence, her voice hoarse.  She knew it was a bad idea, but she couldn’t take any more of this posturing.  “You want my Vocation codex, right?  And hers, I assume.  You want us to write them for you.”

It made sense.  Null Venom wasn’t cheap, why else would they have kept injecting them with it?

“And in return, you’ll take us out of here, and give us a warm house and a puppy and a mountain of stupid fucking waterfowl to stuff down?”

“A Principian,” he said.  “Lecturing me on food.  Don’t you eat sheep stomachs?”

Grace shot her a look, as if to say shut up.

“When this is over,” Florence said, smiling.  “We’ll be sitting where you’re sitting.  In your living rooms and restaurants and ugly government buildings.  And we’ll be eating your duck.”

He kept smiling at them.  But at the end of the meeting, the soldiers took her to a different truck than Grace, blindfolding her again.  She thought they were taking her to be executed, until they dragged her to a surgical table.

When she woke up, the headache was agony.  The duck man sat at the foot of her bed, still smiling, and explained how a Joiner had modified her body, making it impossible for her Pith to leave.  The Shenti didn’t believe in artificial chassis, or in transferring bodies.

I was an experiment.  Now, the Shenti could lock anyone inside their body.

Decades ago, Semer Bekyn, a pneumatologist from a small village, had created the first fabricated bodies.  A true miracle of modern science.  And now, the eastern dogs could wipe that all out.  They could trap a soul for an eternity, to satisfy their sick religion.

The man patted her cheek.  “Thank you,” he said.  “For the work your body has done for Shenten.”

Then they sent her back to the camp.  Alive, still injected with Null Venom, now trapped inside this body for the rest of her life.  They’re still waiting for us to break.

That was the last time she talked back to the Shenti.

One winter, a nasty case of kesou fever swept through the camp.  Grace spent a week curled under a blanket, shaking and retching as Florence tended to her and gave her a 

portion of her food.  Without Joining or other projection, there was nothing else to be done.  

Florence’s body seemed to have natural immunity, but the others didn’t.  In the Principality, kesou fever was easily treated with medical care.  Here, over a dozen died in her dorm, with dozens more unable to work.  So the guards cut their rations again.

One of the prisoners in the women’s dorm, they didn’t know her name, begged for extra rice for her brother, who had been given an economic score of zero.  Florence refused.  Grace was still recovering, and she needed regular meals to avoid a secondary infection.

The prisoner bowed her head, polite, murmuring that she understood.

Then, three hours later, she tried to kill her.

Florence was eating with Grace, sitting on the grass on the side of their dorm.  Grace fed herself a few grains, then Florence, as they stared out at the view.

On the north side, there weren’t as many factories and dorms dotting the tundra.  You could see all the way to the electric fence, and beyond to the rolling hills and mountains of Shenten.

In this light, it almost looked beautiful.

To her right, bare feet made a soft thumping noise on the grass.  She spun to look.  The woman from before rushed towards them, a rock clutched in her bony hand.  Her eyes were wide, bloodshot.  She wants our food.

Remembering her close-quarters training, Florence jerked forward and side kicked the woman in her solar plexus, using her momentum against her.

The prisoner dropped back.  Her head slammed against the wooden wall of the dorm with a thud, and she fell unconscious.

Florence dragged her back into the dorms and gave her the blanket she’d scavenged.  It was the least she could do.

Then, the woman didn’t get better.  When she woke up, she was weak and delirious, dry heaving, too weak to even get off the floor.  After a few days, her condition worsened, and she was designated a zero herself.  Two nights later, a pair of guards dragged her corpse out of the dormitory.

Florence asked around.  The woman’s name was Wan Guo, a farmer who’d been sent here for protesting Cao Hui’s regime.  And I killed her.

Despite the exhaustion, despite the hunger and dizziness, Florence stayed awake for three straight nights.

And she realized, that if she’d gone back, if she’d known Wan Guo’s name, that she was an innocent woman, Florence would have done the same thing.  The other prisoners were just like her – they weren’t companions, they were competition.

After losing her hands, after being trapped in this body and enduring starvation, beatings, excruciating nonstop work, that was the point when Florence finally understood.  Locusts.  We are locusts.

That was the first time she wiped her memory.

The technique was a Praxis vocation, not Whisper.  Null Venom only blocked external projection, so she could still use this one.  It was called Memory Encryption.  It let you scramble memories within your Pith, so they could only be accessed with a key.  The technique was easy, but uncommon, mostly used for spycraft.

First, Florence encrypted the memory of her killing Wan Guo.  Grace remembered that, and could tell Florence if necessary.

Then she looked back through her recent memories, and encrypted them too.  She kept everything critical – the things could help her and Grace survive or escape – how to work the factory, memorized passages from The Ninety-Nine Precepts, and the snippets she overheard from guards.

But she dumped the rest.  The long nights she’d spent awake, hungry and shivering.  The excruciating days of work, that turned into nights as her muscles shook from the exertion.  When she fell behind quotas, and the guards decided to punish her.

And when the camp faded away, Rowyna’s face became clear in her mind.  Her sharp eyes, her triumphant smile, her warm, steady hands holding Florence’s.

Grace never encrypted her memories.  She knew the vocation too, but she held onto every day like it was the most important experience of her life.

Every night, Florence curled up on the concrete floor, running through the day’s events and sealing away most of it.  And Grace sat across from her, leaning against the wall, staring forward.

To other prisoners, her expression might look cold, blank, like all emotion had been drained out of her face.  But Florence knew better.

Grace was angry.  That was rage bubbling beneath her flat, obsessive stare.

And every night, Grace sat in the same position, stared at the same point, and got angrier.  

With the memory wipes, and the hunger, Florence was even more adrift in time.  Every day felt like a lifetime, and yet they all blurred together.  Every night she died, and was reborn in the morning.  Every day, she endured the same agony, and yet it felt fresh every time.  What manner of atrocities have I forgotten?

And so, she wasn’t sure how long it had been when Grace approached her one night, pulling her out of the pitch-black dorm to look over the camp.  At this hour, no guards were walking about.  No prisoners.  Only grass and snow and darkness.

An icy wind blew across the tundra, making Florence shake.  Her breath turned to thick fog.

“Why are we here?” she mumbled, her voice weak.  Through the holes in her shirt, she could see her ribs, sticking out of her chest like black keys on a piano.

Grace pointed at the tiny pale lights in the distance – the watchtowers ringing the camp, and the electric fence stretched between them.  “We’re leaving in two weeks,” she said.  “I have a plan.”

Purple lightning flickered in her eyes, lighting up the darkness.

________________________________________

And then, Florence’s memories cut off.

The next coherent thing she could recall was waking up in a hospital bed, strapped to an IV in a military care center.  The table next to her overflowed with flowers, cards, and gift baskets.

Over the next few days, Florence became certain that this was a trick, some elaborate mind game from the Shenti to lull her into a false sense of security.  When she felt safe, the rug would get yanked out from under her, and she would go back to the redemption camp, to sink even deeper into despair.

Then Florence found a business card under a gift basket, dark blue and purple, covered in diamond patterns and blocky, simple lettering:

Captain Grace Acworth
Foreign Intelligence | Paragon Academy
31 – 1621 – 8273

Then, the phone calls began pouring in, along with the debriefings from counterintelligence.  And Florence had to cope with a possibility far stranger than psychological torture:

I’m free.  Somehow, in that frozen hell, Grace’s plan had worked.

Florence checked her records: The memories from that were encrypted, not wiped.  The escape is non-critical information.  And remembering it would be painful.

News came in, in secure manila envelopes to be viewed away from the Humdrum nurses.  Isaac, Rowyna, and Grace were all alive and healthy.  The war still raged on, and the Shenti’s industry was pushing the Principality back, inch by inch, conquering more of the Eight Oceans.  When she got out of the hospital, they would need her again, to fight the secret part of the war.

Inch by inch, Florence let herself relax.  She’d have lingering trauma from this, but had been spared from the worst of it.  All the most agonizing memories were encrypted in her Pith.

But what would happen next?  She had no idea.

Gradually, the null venom wore off and she regained her abilities.  I will kiss Rowyna again.  She would hug Grace, thank her a thousand times.  She would share a drink with Isaac.  She would fight by their side, and forge a host of new memories, ones she would never forget.

The nurses had been spoon-feeding her applesauce and yogurt and rice, but her appetite and strength were returning.

For her next meal, she had roast duck, fat, rare and crispy.  And she ate it with projection.

________________________________________

Florence Tuft, the Scholar of Air, the Harpy, was having a shit day.

That was hardly surprising.  Most of her days were shit.  But today had been even more mediocre and frustrating than usual.

First, her plane had broken down in the middle of a flight, some complex engine issue that would take days to diagnose, let alone solve.

Then she’d delivered a weak, half-baked tactics lecture, written at the last minute after a busy night.  And then none of her third-year students had corrected her errors.  Either they were too stupid to recognize the problems, or too scared of her to point them out.

Either way, she’d let them down as a teacher.

And, worst of all, the weekend had begun.  Among the projectors and pilots she commanded, she heard mountains of chit-chat about people’s plans – concerts, and parties, and romantic dinners.

Florence’s plan was to eat takeout and watch television.

It was not a good plan.

Her go-to Shenti restaurant was out of duck, and there were only a handful in all of Elmidde – Principality banks weren’t all that friendly to eastern foreigners looking to open new restaurants.  So she had to settle for a shitty joint in Midtown.  Their roast duck tasted like chalk coated in salt.

And nothing good was on TV right now, so she just flipped back and forth between the channels, waiting for something interesting to happen.

She sank back onto her fur couch, staring at the Hightown house she’d bought with her Guardian’s salary.  Big windows, huge rooms, designer furniture, a big kitchen island.  All the amenities you could dream of.  And empty, except for her.

Then she went through her mail, because there was nothing else to do.  Much of it consisted of arranged marriage feelers being sent out from Epistocrat families, to see if she’d like to marry this or that lord.  With her war history and position as the Scholar of Air, it was easy to imagine why, even if she wasn’t an epistocrat.  Projection potential had some element of genetic lineage, but no one knew how much.  And skilled projectors tended to produce skilled children, regardless of their parentage.

She projected into the offers, flung them into the trash, and noticed a glint of something at the back of the drawer, pulling it out.  A business card.  Purple and blue.

Captain Grace Acworth
Foreign Intelligence | Paragon Academy
31 – 1621 – 8273

It was the one she’d given her after they first escaped the redemption camp.  Something like a decade ago, when nobody knew what a redemption camp was.  For some reason, it was still among her stuff, buried beneath the clutter.

Florence floated it between her stumps and focused, creating a fire along its surface.  In a few seconds, the business card turned into a blackened crisp.  It, too, went in the trash.

The truth was, Florence didn’t lack social skills, but thanks to the war, Revenant Squad had been her only friends.  And after they broke up, it had been so hard to make new ones as an adult, especially when her jobs were so demanding.

And after Rowyna rejected me.  To saddle herself with some simpering fool who owned a newspaper company, just a few years before the newspaper went under.

As for romance, that was out of the question.  She was dead-average to the normal population, but a hag next to the other women at Paragon.  I’m repulsive.  A simple fact, obvious to anyone who looked.  And, thanks to some eastern dog a decade ago, she’d be stuck like this until she died.

And if she was found with another woman, there would be demotions, lost connections, angry bosses.  Her career wouldn’t tank, but it would take some serious steps back.  That sort of thing was allowed in Ilaqua and Neke, but she wasn’t about to move there any time soon.

So, she lived with the loneliness.  And every night, she did what she’d promised never to do again.

Once the duck sank to the bottom of her stomach, Florence sank back onto the couch, listened to the pouring rain, and ran through the memories of the day.

The broken engine?  Important.  The failed lecture?  Important, if she wanted to improve.  The paperwork and strategy meetings and training?  Important, important, important.  Since the Conclave of the Wise had been disbanded, the Humdrum-led Parliament insisted on mountains of red tape and documentation for everything.  Bloody bureaucrats.

Then, she encrypted the rest.  The mediocre conversations, the dull and frustrating hours of pointless whaleshit.  The moments where she could feel her brain fluid dripping out of her ears.  All gone in a few seconds.

After all these years, the keys to unlock them were still burned into her Pith, but she hadn’t decrypted a single one.

And unlike her time at the camp, these weren’t traumatic memories.  Just reminders of a lonely existence, pissed away a day at a time.

The phone rang, and she projected into it, lifting it to her ear.  In the middle of a rainstorm, Commonplace had incited more riots.  The police were struggling with the deluge, and were requesting for Paragon’s Guardians to assist them.

Florence changed out of her pajamas and glasses, sliding on her armored blue flight suit and goggles.

If she was lucky, she’d be able to forget all this by sunrise.

But she doubted it.

________________________________________

Isaac strode out of the waiting room, back into his office.

Florence leaned closer to Rowyna, talking in an undertone.  “So,” she muttered.  “Am I dreaming right now?  We’re going to try to kill Grace.”

“Not try,” said Rowyna, tying her blonde hair back in a tight bun.  “You’re not going to go hug her, are you?  She killed Professor Keswick, and who knows how many others.”

“Do you think I’m an idiot?”

“In this case?  Yes.”

“And it’s not that simple,” said Florence.  “Why would Grace try to bring down the Principality?  The Shenti must have hijacked her.  Brin said there’s evidence that they’re supporting Commonplace.”

“The eastern dogs hate Whisper projection.  Why use it now?”

“Desperation,” said Florence.  “Warlord Qian has hired the Droll Corsairs before, and that would be more than enough.  They’d just need to catch her with her guard down.”

“Grace Acworth, let her guard down?  Ridiculous.”

“You know, not everyone’s a cold, logical husk of careerism like you are.  Some people have these things called ‘feelings’, that cause them to make mistakes.  Grace wouldn’t do this without hijacking.  I know her.”

“Do you?” said Rowyna.  “Or did you wipe those memories too?”  Rowyna’s glare cut into her.  “You’re still doing it, aren’t you?”

Florence fell silent for a moment.  That was all the answer Rowyna needed.

“Pot, kettle, black,” said Florence.  “There’s enough fucked-up geniuses in Paragon to fill a dozen asylums.  If you took away their tea and scones and doilies, half of them would probably off themselves within a week.  And you’re no exception.”

“I don’t eat anything sweet,” said Rowyna.

“Right,” said Florence.  “That explains a lot, actually.”  Her voice got quieter.  “We could have stayed friends.  After Grace.  We could have looked out for each other, kept each other sane.  But instead – “

“Do you like me?” said Rowyna.  “Do you still like me?”

The first time she uttered those words, they had been uncertain, but with a softer undertone.  Now, they were an accusation.

“Do you want the polite answer?” said Florence.  “Or the honest one?”

“Don’t patronize me.”

“Of course I still like you, you stuck-up bird.”  Florence raised her voice.  “You’re red-hot and competent and distant and I have terrible taste.”

Rowyna glanced at her blonde Maxine Clive chassis in a mirror, making eye contact with herself.  “I don’t even have the same body as before.”

“Who gives a shit?” said Florence.  “Everyone in Paragon is beautiful, except me.  It’s you I was attracted to.  The explosive fucking brilliance in your Pith.”

Rowyna held her gaze.  “Do you remember the time we spent together, or did you erase that too?”

Florence had considered it.  A lot of those memories had been happy in the moment, but were tinged with pain now.

But it had also been her anchor during the agony of the camp, a dear friend to hold onto through the nightmare.  If she encrypted that, she wasn’t sure who she’d become.

“No,” said Florence.  “I didn’t erase them.”  And, if they survived tonight, she would decrypt the memories of her escape with Grace, so they’d know as much as possible about their enemy.  The process took too long to finish in the next few hours.

“And are you going to erase your memories after tonight?”

“No.”  Florence stared out a window on the far side of the room, into the pitch-black rain.  “But I wish I could.  I wish I could erase it all, and wake up with a fresh start.”  She grit her teeth.  “But I can’t.  My students need me.  My country needs me.”  And for the first time in years, it felt like Isaac and Rowyna needed her.  “But if I could, I’d get rid of it all.”

“Then why’d you keep the decryption keys?”

“What?”

“You told me, the first night we talked after the camp, that you’d kept the decryption keys.  You still have them, don’t you?”

“I taught a class last semester on psychological warfare.  Don’t try to shrink me.”

“So that’s a yes, then.”

Scholars damn her.  But Florence didn’t have an answer to her question.  She had made sure to keep all the decryption keys.

She’d told herself it was a contingency, in case some memories turned out to be important for a mission.  But was that true?

“Did it have to be this way?” said Florence.  With Grace, with Isaac, with her and Florence and everything that had decayed between them.  “Was all this inevitable?”

Rowyna slouched over.  She didn’t have an answer, either.

“I miss you, Row.”  The old you.  Not the admiral.

“I know,” she sighed.  “Me too.”

________________________________________

Revenant Squad leaned off the railing, dropping towards the city through the deceleration field.

The rain and darkness closed in around them, wind whipping in their ears as the lights of Elmidde grew larger below.  Halfway down, Florence unfurled her wingsuit, clipping the ends in place.

The others did the same, and in unison, they spread their arms and legs.  The wings went taut, and they soared forward down Mount Elwar, shooting from Hightown towards Midtown.  From here, Florence could see the line of the riot police and protestors clashing, smell the smoke from the fires that had been set off.

We stop Grace.  That’s how we help them all.

Florence projected into the air with her Vocation, making adjustments to steer herself towards the target house.  And as she flew, she kept thinking about Rowyna’s words.  Why didn’t she throw away the decryption keys?

Some part of her was still holding on.  The same part that knew something terrible had happened to Grace, and that she desperately needed help.

Maybe we can fix her, a part of her whispered.  Maybe Revenant Squad could be together again.  Maybe she could remember tonight, and all the nights to come.

The house came into view.  No witnesses nearby.  Isaac whispered instructions, his voice carried to their ears by Florence’s Vocation.

Thunder boomed, and Florence smashed through the top story window.  A dozen men and women on the couch stood up, eyes widening with terror, hands reaching for their pistols and shotguns.  One of them flipped back into a fighting stance, red lightning crackling around his fists.

And for a moment, Florence was a part of the storm.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




8-A – Isaac Brin

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Martin didn’t want to change.

After years of being bullied through middle school, he never would have guessed it, but he actually liked the person he’d become.  And though it was easier to gaze forward, and stress about the trials ahead, he was trying to be grateful for this moment in his life.

Martin’s marshmallow caught fire, snapping him back to reality.  He yanked his stick out of the flame, blowing on it until it went out.  Half of it was a perfect golden brown, but the other half had turned a blackened crisp.

Ophelia laughed.  “You were pondering.  You always get that cute distant look when your head’s in the sky.”

Martin sandwiched the half-burnt sweet in between two biscuits, then added a piece of dark chocolate and a handful of sliced strawberries.  He stuffed the entire sandwich into his mouth.  “Shtill amazing thish way.”

“Is it good, then?” his mother said.

To answer, Martin stuck four more marshmallows onto his stick and shoved it back into the fire, his mouth covered with bits of food.  Marshmallow shortcake was his favorite food of all time, and this batch didn’t disappoint.

Everyone around the fire cheered, and bit into theirs.  Now that the birthday boy had taken the first bite, they were free to stuff their faces.

“Have you thought about your decision?” said Martin’s father.

“Give him space,” said his mother.  “It’s his birthday.”

“He’s a man now,” said his father.  “It’s his responsibility, and the earlier he does it, the easier it’ll be.”

Martin smiled at both of them, turning his stick to cook the marshmallows evenly.  “To tell the truth, I’m not sure.  Mr. Thornton’s offer is quite generous, but…”

But it’s so far away.  Caseberde Pharmaceuticals’ stores were all over the Principality, but its headquarters was in Elmidde, on the opposite side of the country.  

One of the supervisors, Mr. Thornton, had offered Martin a job there that would pay at least three times what he could make in Herenport, with unimaginable opportunities if he climbed the corporate ladder high enough.  If he accepted it, he would get on a train in a month, leaving everything behind.

The alternative was obvious – it had been Martin’s life plan until two weeks ago.  Work at his father’s pharmacy, marry Ophelia, and raise a family.  Eventually, he’d inherit the pharmacy, and settle into a world of friends, fishing, and Friday drinks.

He couldn’t pick both – moving to Elmidde would necessitate loans, that Martin could only pay back with a heightened salary.  But after asking all the adults in his life, the consensus was overwhelming: Caseberede Pharmaceuticals was the financially safe choice, in the long term.

But he’d have to leave everything behind.  His parents, his friends, his neighborhood.  Ophelia.  The town he’d lived his entire life in would become a distant memory.

But the conventional wisdom was clear: Financial stability trumped everything else.  He could make new friends, find a new girlfriend, visit his family once a year.  Even if it hurt now, his future self would thank him later.

And yet, at the same time, the mere thought was terrifying.  He’d never worked anything more complicated than a drugstore counter.  He had no idea why Mr. Thornton had selected him for this assistant role, only that the offer was genuine.  He’d have to learn a hundred new skills in a stressful, lightning-fast environment.

And he’d have to do it alone.

Martin lay down on the bench, on Ophelia’s lap.  The fire is warm, the food is delicious, the company is magnificent.  Focus on that.  He finished cooking his marshmallows and made another chocolate-strawberry shortcake, stuffing it into his mouth.

His father popped open the cork on a bottle of red wine, pouring Martin a glass.  “I know you’re not quite twenty, but the cops aren’t exactly going to burst in and ID everyone.”

“Yes,” said Ophelia, grinning.  “This can be Martin’s first time drinking.”

Everyone laughed.  They all knew Martin had gone to parties with other teenagers before, but the adults in the room pretended not to notice.

They emptied the bottle in two minutes, passing it around.

“Someone want to grab more from the cellar?” said his father.  “It’s a special occasion.”

Martin pushed himself upright.  “I’ll get it.”

“Pick out whichever one you want,” his mother said.  “Even the one on the top shelf that cost more than our engagement rings.  Consider it a present.”

On instinct, Martin hugged his mother.  “Thank you.”

Then he strode off, away from the fire pit and back towards his house.  His hand hovered on the rear doorknob, and he glanced back at the festivities.

Ophelia laughed at one of his friends’ jokes.  His mother leaned on his father’s shoulder, closing her eyes.  The fire crackled, shooting sparks into the night sky, and the smell of pine trees hung in the air.

This could be the last birthday he had with them.  His friends would move on.  Ophelia would find someone else, or suffer the loneliness of a relationship sustained only by letters and the occasional phone call.

Martin tried to imagine a world without them.  And he couldn’t.

At that moment, standing on his back porch, Martin made his decision.  He didn’t need the money.  Financial stability was a distant second behind his loved ones.  I’m going to stay here.

He opened the door, and strode towards the basement.  He hadn’t the faintest what wine to pick, so he’d just grab a random one and hope it didn’t taste like vinegar.

When he stepped into the basement, it was empty.

What?  Martin had been here hours ago, and it had been filled with food and blankets, with a handful of wine bottles on a shelf somewhere.

Instead of a rug, a thick layer of dust covered the floor, lit by moonlight from the upper-floor window.  Martin flipped the light switch, but the bulb was dead.

“What the – “  He walked back up the stairs.  Something doesn’t feel right.

He strode towards the backyard, calling out.  “Guys?  Do you know where the wine is?  Someone took everything from the basement.”

He heard only silence.

He walked out the back door, and the fire pit was dead, snuffed out, and the ground had turned white.  Martin knelt, touching it.  Snow.  A thin layer of snow had fallen over the backyard.  It’s the middle of summer.  That wasn’t possible, shouldn’t be possible.

“Hello?” Martin yelled.  “Hello?”  His voice rang out through the woods, to no response.

Martin turned back, and froze.  He’d been in such a hurry before, he hadn’t noticed.

The entire house was empty.

Windows were shattered, furniture had vanished.  Vegetation grew up in cracks in the floorboards.  The front door hung open, its hinges covered in rust.  Dust was everywhere, coating the floors, the windowsills, the stairs.

The entire place looked like it had been abandoned for years.

An icy wind blew through the door, and Martin shivered.  What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck.  He’d been in this hallway minutes ago, and it had been fine.  This was his house, that he cooked and showered and slept in.  And in an instant, it had become a ruin.

“Guys?” he said, panic slipping into his voice.  “Selyne?  Ophelia?”  He jogged out of the front door, onto the street.  The other houses around him were abandoned too, or gone.

His entire neighborhood was a ghost town.

“Ophelia?” he yelled, running onto the sidewalk.  “Mom?  Dad?”  His stomach ached.  “Mom?”  He sprinted through the streets, shouting until his throat burned, feeling dizzier and dizzier by the minute.

No one answered.

Martin leaned against a darkened street lamp, wheezing.  Why is this happening?  Scholars, why me?

A voice called out in the distance, piercing the silence.  “Isaac?”

He jolted upright, shouting back.  “Hello?  Hello?”

“Isaac!”  A young woman’s voice.  “Isaac!”

Isaac?  Could other people be missing?

He ran towards the source of the noise, shouting back, winding through streets and alleyways.  The snow crunched beneath his boots.

Finally, he turned a corner, to see four people running towards him.  Three young women his age, and a middle-aged, handsome man, all decked out in some kind of armor.

As soon as they saw him, a look of relief spread across their faces.  The man knelt, speaking into a radio.  “Revenant Squad to seven-two.  We found him.”

One of them, a girl with short brown hair, ran up to him and hugged him.  “Isaac,” she breathed.  “Thank the Scholars, you’re alright.”

Martin pushed away from her.

“Oh,” she said.  “Sorry, sorry.  Should have asked before I hugged you.  How are you feeling?”

“Who are you?” said Martin.  “Where’s my family?  Where’s Ophelia?”  He leaned on his knees, catching his breath.  “And who the fuck is Isaac?”

The looks of relief melted away.

“Oh, Scholars,” another girl whispered.  “Did someone – did someone hijack him?”  She stepped forward.  “Do you know what your name is?  Where you are?  What year is it?”

What the fuck?  “501,” he said.

The three women nodded at him.  Who doesn’t know what year it is?

“This is Herenport, in the Principality.  And my name is Martin Clavell.”

The girl who’d hugged Martin started crying, turning away from him.

The one who’d been questioning him closed her eyes, taking deep breaths.  “What kind of monster would do this?” she said.  “Why?”

The armored man got a faraway look in his eyes and started muttering nonsensical jargon into the radio.

And the third young woman, the one who hadn’t said a word.  She just stared at him.

“That’s – that’s not the name of this town,” the second girl said, having difficulty speaking.  “This is Essne, and – it hasn’t been inhabited for over fifty years.”

“No,” said Martin.  “That’s ridiculous.  I live here, my family lives here.  I can give you dozens of names of the neighbors on my block, they just – “  Vanished.  He felt hot tears gathering at the edges of his eyes.   “No, no.  I was with my family, and my girlfriend Ophelia just ten minutes ago in my backyard.  Have you seen anyone nearby, a tall, skinny blonde man, a girl with curly dark hair, a woman with – “

“Your name is Isaac Brin,” the second girl said.  “You’re a nineteen-year-old student at Paragon Academy, and you were with us on a mission to investigate remnants of a criminal Whisper Specialist.  You were with us half an hour ago when you vanished.”

Whisper Specialist?  Paragon Academy?  None of those phrases made sense to him.

She turned to the man talking on the radio.  “Can you fix him?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“It’s a simple question.”

“It’s really not.”

Fix me?  Martin felt sick, dizzy.  Everything was moving so fast, and all of it was nonsensical.  And the wind was so cold.  It’s summer.  It’s summer.  It’s summer.

Martin would have given anything to be back by the fire with everyone, eating marshmallow shortcake and gulping wine.  To wake up from this horrible, freezing nightmare.

A stabbing stomachache hit him, and he knelt on the cold snow, doubling over.  “I want to go home,” he whispered.  “I want to go home, I want to go home.  I want to go home.”

He felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up, blinking away the blur of tears.  The silent girl of the trio stood over him.  “I’m Grace.  You don’t remember me, but we’ve been friends for years, and you’ve pulled me out of a lot of fires.”

“What?” said Martin.

She scribbled down a number on a card, handing it to him.  “They’re going to put you in a recovery hospital, but when you get access to a phone, if you ever want to talk, call me.”

Martin read the card:

Grace Acworth
31 – 1621 – 8273

Grace Acworth knelt on the snow beside Martin, and hugged him.  The air was cold around Martin, but she felt warm, like a raging fire.  “We’re going to find the people who did this,” she said.  “We’re going to find them.”

________________________________________

Isaac Brin read the card:

Grace Acworth
31 – 1621 – 8273

The ink had faded over time, but the writing was still legible.  Looking at it always brought back bad memories.

But still, a necessary reminder.

I am surrounded by enemies.  Competent enemies.  Almost too many to fathom, and yet it was his job to fathom them.

His leg bounced up and down in his chair, as his mind ran over the ones he knew.

In the Neke Islands, a terrorist cell run by an unknown woman was growing fast.  They’d eclipse Paragon’s intelligence apparatus within the year.

To the south, the Locus of the Harmonious Flock, nicknamed ‘the smartest woman in the world’, had assassinated and replaced fifty-seven of the most powerful people in Ilaqua.  And he had no idea why.

Though it wasn’t the biggest, the most urgent threat was Commonplace, and more importantly, its backers.  Tunnel Vision in the mob.  The Broadcast King’s media empire.  And though he couldn’t prove it, the Shenti too.  They spoke publicly with reasonable-sounding positions – disbanding the house of lords, justice for mental hijacking, redistribution of bodies.  Uniting the Common Foundation of the Principality.  But the group’s real aim was to overthrow the whole government.

And, the bastards had taken his daughter’s eye.

Isaac’s leg bounced faster, and his chest tightened.

Something banged, and he almost jumped out of his chair, shaking the vase of lilies on his desk.  Someone’s knocking at the door.

Probability, enemy is outside door: Low

Low wasn’t zero.

Brin checked the darts he’d hidden around his windowless office, hard to notice with a simple projection scan. Paragon’s security headquarters was one of the most secure places in the world, but it didn’t hurt to be careful.

Then he checked his three alarms: the obvious one, the backup, and the third one, three stories below.  All ready.

Finally, he confirmed that his panic seal was intact and ready to go.  It had been installed in his Pith by his right-hand woman, Sigrith, and if he felt himself being mentally hijacked, he could break the seal in an instant.  Only Sigrith could install that specific panic seal again, and with it broken, anyone in his department could look at his soul and know he was compromised.

Of course, the seal wouldn’t help him if the enemy moved fast.  But it was better than nothing.

Another knock.  Sarra had complained about his overthinking, the paranoia that had made him cancel a third of his social plans.  He’d even been late for their wedding.

But she hadn’t seen the reports he did.

Isaac opened the door.

A young man stood in the hallway, smiling at him.  It was Avery, one of the new hires.  Though everyone he knew looked in their twenties or thirties, the boy’s stylish green hair and violet eyes gave away his youth.

No weapons, Whisper Specialist, Gold-Ranked, Vocation induces temporary paralysis.  Probability, subject a direct threat: Low.

“Hi,” Avery said.

“Three-eight-one-nine-seven-thirteen pond caldera,” said Isaac, prompting the boy’s subconscious key.

“Eight-Nine-One Ultimatum,” Avery said, the correct response, dredged up from his subconscious.  Then, Brin wiped the last few seconds from the boy’s mind, preserving the key’s nature.

That was the basic level, one that every Paragon student knew.  Next, they exchanged messages with signatures from their private keys, then decrypted them with the public counterpart.  That vocation had only been developed a decade ago.  Mastering it was now one of the main qualifications for working in this department.  A rare skill, even at Paragon.

“You sent for me, sir?” Avery said.

Probability, subject an imposter in this body: Low.

“Yes,” Isaac said.  “Please, come in.”  He hated socializing, but still made a habit of getting to know everyone in the department.  If anyone was acting out of character, he’d notice right away.

Isaac sat down at his desk.  Avery sat down across from him.

“This isn’t anything formal,” said Isaac.  “I’m just trying to get to know all the new hires, and answer any questions you might have.  I know you got top grades at Paragon, but the environment here’s a lot different.”

“Of course,” said Avery, flashing Isaac a nervous, overcompensating smile.  “That’s great, because I have a few questions about efficiency.”

“Efficiency?” said Isaac.

“The security checks,” Avery said.  “The verifications, the ten thousand passwords and recording our location every hour.  I’m not saying they’re all useless it’s just…we do so many of them.  I’ve talked with the guys in accounting, and our budget is constantly stretched.”

Probability, trying to undermine security: Low.

“I’m not saying we cut all of it, but if we make some strategic choices, we can spend more money on recruiting agents, vocation research, that sort of thing.”

Isaac internally rolled his eyes.  Every time some young hotshot came in fresh out of Paragon, they thought they knew better than everyone and could fix the system with a snap of their fingers.

“Do you know what a Berwick Scenario is?” said Isaac.

“Don’t think so, sir.”

“Not many do.”  Isaac’s leg started bouncing.  “A hundred and fifty-nine years ago, Paragon Academy had a lord in charge of internal security, but the system was old and withering, based on simple Humdrum concepts.  A Whisper Specialist used their Vocation to take control of Lord Osgood Berwick, the man who used to live in this office.”

“How?” said Avery.  “Berwick was a legendary fighter, wasn’t he?”

“His house’s location was exposed,” said Isaac.  “Even legendary fighters have to sleep.  Once they had Berwick, they used his body to take control of his right-hand man.  Then another.  It only took them a month to control the entire department.  Then another two months for the military, followed by the Conclave of the Wise.”

“How did they defeat the Whisper Specialist?” said Avery.

“They didn’t,” said Isaac.  “Whoever it was, they were very old.  Their Pith decayed.  We never even found out their name.”

“So that’s where Whisper-Sec comes in, right?”’

“That was when we got serious about it, yes.”  Isaac’s leg bounced faster.  “Due to a random mental check scheduled for tonight, you had to cancel a dinner date, yes?”

Avery glanced at the floor.  “Yes, sir.”

“You would rather we schedule them in advance, yes?  So that our members can have a social life.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Sure,” said Isaac.  “But let’s consider: What if I’ve been hijacked?”

Avery swallowed.  “Sorry, sir?”

“What if we try your plan, and I’ve been hijacked?  When you go on that date tonight, the person who’s controlling me snatches the girl’s body in advance and uses it to hijack you, too.  You invite your co-workers over for drinks the next day, get them too.  Before your next scheduled check, the person in charge of monitoring you has already been taken over.”

“I think I understand,” Avery said.

“Within the next year, the entire country will have been taken over.”  Isaac folded his hands on the desk.  “Now, would you like to guess how many times a Berwick Scenario has been attempted here since the first one?”

Avery shrugged.  “Whatever I think is probably wrong.”

“Eighty-nine,” said Isaac.  “And some of them got close.”

Avery swallowed.  “Do people like me frighten you, Professor Brin?”

Probability, subject attempting psychological probe: high.  But it could be benign.

“Yes,” said Isaac.  His stomach ached, tying itself in knots.  “But fear can be rational.  Humans evolved it so they wouldn’t get eaten, or die of disease.  It’s my job to be afraid.”

I am surrounded by enemies.

Isaac thought back the night he met Anabelle Gage, one of his mercenaries, with a powerful Whisper Vocation.  While he was hovering over her boat, there had been a moment where he had almost launched a second dart at her head.

Isaac had come this close to killing her.  Eliminating the risk.

Whisper Specialists did frighten him.

Does the entire department know how terrified I am?  What were they saying about him, around the cafeteria and in the break room?  Did they all think he was some paranoid, psychotic freak?  The other day, while he was walking past one of the cubicles, he’d overheard someone say his name and then snigger.  Were they all – 

Stop.  He was going into a spiral again.

“Sorry,” said Avery.  “That question was over the line, sir.”

“Yes, it was,” said Isaac.  “But you deserve to know how your superior will treat you.”  He sat up.  “Praxis and Whisper Specialists are some of the most powerful people in the world.  Power makes someone a risk.”

But that wasn’t the only reason Isaac was frightened of Whisper Specialists.  His fear wasn’t always driven by logic.

It wasn’t rational to lie awake in his bed for hours, sweating into his covers.  It wasn’t rational to hide in his room instead of meeting foreign diplomats, out of the fear that one of them could be a Droll Corsair in disguise.  But he did those things anyway.

He blinked, and his mind jumped back in time.  The taste of strawberries and chocolate in marshmallow shortcake.  The crackling fire pit in his backyard.  The sharp cinnamon scent of Olivia’s perfume.  The name Martin.

“Professor,” said Avery.  “Are you alright?”

Isaac realized how fast he was bouncing his leg, that his shoulders were tensed up like steel cables.

“Yes,” he said.  “Well, no, but – yes,” he stuttered.  “I can deal with it.”  That was more than he’d been planning to say.

“My older brother gets flashbacks too,” said Avery.  “Wakes up screaming, avoids gatherings of more than a few people.  On bad days, he just shakes in his covers.”

“I’m sorry,” Isaac said.  “The Shenti War?”

Avery nodded.  “He was with the north sector during the Olthorpe Landings.  The eastern dogs outnumbered him three to one.”

A brutal battle.  Before the Spirit Block, when the Shenti’s industry was still an unstoppable force.

“I don’t have any advice,” Avery said.  “I’m sure you know all the techniques already.  I just wanted to say – well – I understand.”

After a few uncomfortable seconds, Isaac spoke.  “Thanks,” he blurted out.  “Thank you.  If your brother needs anything, there are people I can recommend.  Books about trauma that go beyond the cliches to offer practical advice.”

“I think he’d like that.  Thank you, sir.”

“The world is drowning,” said Isaac.  “We need to look out for each other.”

The boy was forward, but kind.  Cocky, but willing to learn.  It would take time, but Avery would grow to be an excellent Guardian.  One who could offset the more callous agents in the department without being naive.

And he would climb the ranks faster than most.  The boy was easy to trust.

Trust.

The word rang through his head, like his entire skull was a plucked lyre string.  For a moment, everything thrummed in accordance with that word, a perfect, elegant alignment.

Isaac’s stomach jerked.

No.  Avery was loyal, honest, had been vetted by Isaac’s people.  He’d passed all of the crypto checks, and hadn’t given off any red flags during the conversation.

Isaac had no reason to be suspicious of him.  If anything, he should have been trusting him more, giving him his business card, or a similar gesture of faith.  This was an example of what his books called ‘hypervigilance’, a compensating method that could turn him into a shivering, paranoid shell.

Probability, you are making rationalizations to yourself: High.

On instinct, Brin put his Eyes of the Makara Praxis vocation into high gear, even though it would leave him exhausted and wired for the rest of the day.  As he did this, Isaac wondered if he was doing something silly and irrational, like an old woman putting five locks on her door.

A quick test would allay his fears.  The name in his fake memories, Martin, was only known by his old squadmates, Headmaster Tau, and a handful of others.  Avery wouldn’t know it.

“Are you alright, sir?” Avery said.

“It’s hard,” said Isaac.  “It’s hard.  You know sometimes, when I’m not paying attention, I still answer to ‘Sebastian’.”  A different fake name, one Isaac had made up on the spot.

Avery’s eyes flashed, a brief flicker of surprise.

He knows the name ‘Martin’.

Blood rushed in Isaac’s ears, and a wave of dizziness washed over him.  His chest tightened, and his palms tingled.

Then, Eyes of the Makara went crazy, firing all at the same time.

Probability, subject using active Whisper Vocat – 
Probability, subject modifying subcon – 
– High, Probability, subject 
Probability, subject aware of ongoing panic att – 
High, Probability, subject discovered potential blown co – 
High, High, High

Avery was using a Whisper vocation – an incredibly subtle one – to make Isaac trust him more.

Isaac’s heart pounded in his chest.  The temperature of the room seemed to drop.

He detonated his panic seal, pressing on it until he felt it snap.

“Listen,” said Isaac.  “I just wanted to say, thanks for coming in.  I really appr – “

As he spoke, Isaac projected into five separate darts in his desk, the walls, and the floor.  He used his Physical Vocation to reduce their mass, making them almost weightless, then shot them forward.  In midair, he flipped his Vocation, making them heavier.

“ – reciate it.”

The darts hit Avery, all but one striking him from behind.  The first four blew off his arms and legs in an explosion of gore.  The fifth punched through his lower trachea, tearing a red hole in his torso.

Avery fell to the floor, gasping for air, and Isaac rang every alarm at once, sending out a specific code.  None of them made any sound.

One second passed.

Two.  Three.  Four.

The far wall exploded into rubble.  A Voidsteel tranquilizer dart flew out of the smoke cloud, puncturing Isaac’s neck.

The dizzy sensation multiplied, and Isaac wobbled back and forth.  He knelt on the ground, lying on his back so he wouldn’t injure himself when he went out.

As the world grew blurry, Isaac slurred orders to the Guardians rushing into the room.  “Eight-Two-One.  Target…capable of subconscious control.  Full quarantine, Platinum security.  If someone intercepts the prisoner, kill him, don’t let him be freed.”

At the far end of the room, a Guardian knelt next to Avery with a mind-sphere, forcing his Pith into it and sealing it in a Voidsteel mesh bag.

Your systems are working, Isaac told himself.  You’re safe.

But his Praxis vocation – Eyes of the Makara – knew better.

Probability, threat part of a larger network, high.

Probability, network has already penetrated counterintelligence, unknown.

Isaac drifted away, swamped by visions of blue lightning and whispering demons.

________________________________________

It took two days before Isaac could walk free again.

His subordinates sat at him at a table and interrogated him for hours, injected him with a cocktail of drugs and performed every possible check on his Pith until his head spun.

An agonizing process, but necessary.  No matter how fine Isaac felt, he had no idea how compromised he was.

When they let him out, they debriefed him.  “We got lucky,” said Sigrith.  “We found the Whisper vocation he used in a codex on the fourth level of the Great Library, though we have no idea how Avery got access.”

“And?”

“It makes people trust you.  The effect is gradual and subconscious, but builds up over time.  But, if you catch on early enough, even a Humdrum can nullify it.”

Isaac pictured Avery in his mind.  A twinge of warm trust lingered at the edges of his consciousness, but fear and panic and loathing drowned it out, choking it until it vanished.  

“And,” said Sigrith.  “we can scan for it, when we know what to look for.”

Brin nodded.  Most Pith scans could only get a vague, general sense of the shape of someone’s soul, detecting massive changes or imposters, but if you knew which Vocation to look for, it sometimes got easier.

“You’ve been affected a little, as have John Salford and Baslilia in management, but that’s it.  We’ll monitor you for safety, but none of you are affected enough for restraining action.”

Thank the Scholars for Eyes of the Makara.  Without it, none of them would have caught it in time.  The cost he paid for it was dear, but it was still worth it.

And as far as he could tell, the department still knew nothing about Avery.  Who was he working for?  If he was hijacked himself, who was controlling him?

His people would interrogate him, but odds were, they’d never find out.

Hours later, he found himself lying in his bed, unable to fall asleep, running through the situation again and again.

We got lucky.  If he hadn’t engaged Eyes of the Makara, if he’d spent a little more time under the Whisper vocation, he could have lost everything.

No matter how hard he tried, his world was still so fragile.

I’m not going to fall asleep.  He’d ingested enough sleeping pills to knock out a small elephant, done every exercise he knew of, but still didn’t feel the least bit drowsy.

Persistent insomnia could be an early symptom of Pith cancer.

Probability, you have early-stage terminal Pneuomatoma: Low.  Low wasn’t zero.

Isaac grabbed a stack of reports from his bedside table.  If he wasn’t going to sleep, he could at least be productive.

He skimmed the first one, about Commonplace sympathizers in the military.  Support for terrorism and dangerous political organizations was a national security threat, especially in the military, and it was growing by the day.  Humdrums everywhere.  A terrifying problem, but not one he could do much about.  Trying to suppress it would only lend it strength.

The second one talked about the riots.  Even through the rainstorms, the Humdrums were smashing storefronts and attacking the police.  They’d screwed up the applications for their legal protest permits, but had gone out anyways.  Intelligence suspected incitement from Commonplace, and Brin was inclined to agree.

But again, not much he could do about it.

When Isaac read the third report, he froze.  It was statistics, a stack of pages from some nobody mathematician out west that had been left at the bottom of the pile.  His lieutenants didn’t think it was worth his time.

It concerned sea level readings, information from islands around the Eight Oceans.  Most oceanographers had given up trying to make sense of it at this point.  The water was rising, but the rate went up and down, going from big numbers to zero between months.

It was slow, slow enough for people to pretend it wasn’t happening, or that it was someone else’s problem.  After all, global ambient temperature was steady.  No glaciers were melting.   In a decade, the tides might go back down.

This mathematician had developed a model to predict further sea level rise.  Big deal, most people would say.  A new one of those comes out every week, and none of them hold up.

So Brin read it, checking the math and the data and the assumptions.

Then he read it again.  And again, scanning the tables and charts with more and more precision each time.

That was when he froze.

The numbers checked out.  No matter which way he framed it, this report was a better model of sea level change than any he’d read.

And the rate of sea level rise was growing.

Exponentially.

The increase looked flat now, as exponential graphs always did in the early stages.  But if you took a water lily in a pond and doubled it every day, it would cover a quarter of the pond on one day, and the entire pond just forty-eight hours later.

At this rate, in five years, everything below Hightown would be underwater.  In six, there wouldn’t be any land left.  The Eight Oceans would join together and become one flat expanse.  Civilization would vanish, piece by piece, like the stars in the sky.

Isaac let go of the metal bars on his bed.  He’d been gripping them tight enough to see red lines imprinted in his skin.

Eliya.  He’d lived part of a life already.  A difficult, often unhappy life, but life nonetheless.  But her future was filling up with water.  And I have no idea how to stop it.

The edges of his eyes felt wet, and he blinked to clear the tears.  Sometimes, it felt like he was the only one who saw the true horrors coming.  Everyone else went to work, partied with their friends, fell asleep at night without a care in the world.  Like nothing was wrong.

The world was drowning, but as long as people lived above the water, they could pretend they were safe.

Isaac’s chest tightened.  We need to stop this.  Maybe if they read this report, Parliament and Headmaster Tau would authorize use of the Lavender Book, the most exclusive, guarded book in the Great Library, among thousands of exclusive, guarded books.  He had no idea what Vocation Codices were inside, or if they even were actual codices.

But if earth-shattering power lay in those pages, that might be the only thing that could save the Principality.  If the water was entering the ocean from anywhere, it was coming from below the four-thousand-meter limit, from a depth no person had ever returned from.

All this, and the country’s already on the verge of collapse.

The phone rang.

Isaac twitched in his bed, fists clenching.  What kind of horrible news could be waiting on the other end?  I have no choice.  He had a job.

He picked up the phone.

“Dad?” a young woman said.

“Eliya?” he said.  They exchanged private key signatures.  Eliya was the only person in her year who had mastered that Praxis vocation.  “What are you doing up so late?”

“It’s six AM,” she said.  “This is when I wake up.”

Isaac checked his internal clock.  6:02 AM.  Scholars, she was right.  With no windows in his bedroom, he’d lost track of the time and stayed up through the whole night.

I have to go to work in an hour and a half.  The mere thought made his eyes ache more.

“And,” said Eliya.  “You weren’t picking up when I called last night.  Or yesterday.  Or the day before.”

Probability, Eliya an imposter: low.

Probability, Eliya hijacked, low.

I am surrounded by enemies, he thought.  No.  That was his daughter.  To be this paranoid about her was crossing a line.

But the Principality’s enemies would know that.  To them, Eliya was just another opening to exploit.

Isaac wanted to tell her everything, to let her know how terrified he was, that he’d just come out of interrogation for a potential mental hijacking.  How his cold, professional demeanor was little more than a flimsy mask covering his raw terror.

“Sorry,” he said.  “I was busy.”

“‘Busy’,” she said.  “You throw that word around a lot.  I know something happened to you.  If it’s outside my clearance, don’t tell me, but if it’s not – “ She stopped.  “I’m never going to earn your job this way.”

Tell her everything.  Eliya was mature enough to deal with the heavy stuff, and she had high enough security clearance.  A Commonplace bomb had blown out one of her eyes.  And at her young age, she was already writing her Vocation Codex.

But he knew his daughter.  She had his genes.  She made many calls like this, panicking about classwork or uniforms or fears of Pith damage after Anabelle Gage had injured one of her bodies.  More stress would not be good for her.

The water is rising.  He couldn’t protect her anymore.  Only she could.

“I learned a Praxis vocation,” said Isaac.  “Called Eyes of the Makara, developed in Ilaqua centuries ago and gifted to the Principality when we colonized it.  It’s been passed down to the men and women in my position.”

“What does it do?”

Probability, subject will share this information with others: Low.

“It makes me good at analyzing threats.  Very good.  Better than any other similar vocation.  Sometimes as probability guesses, sometimes as vague intuitions.  But as a side effect, it makes my Pith very focused on analyzing threats.  Can you guess what that means?”

Eliya said nothing, which meant yes.

“When I was serving under the old chief of counterintelligence, he offered to teach me this vocation.  When I accepted it, I gave up any hope of getting better.”  I knew I’d be scared for the rest of my life.  “Of dealing with the things that have haunted me since – “

“It’s alright, Dad,” said Eliya.  “I know what happened to you, you don’t have to explain it all over again.  But you have gotten better.  You’ve made Paragon and the Principality safer than they’ve ever been.  You’ve taken Whisper-Sec to a whole new level, to the point where other countries are adopting your systems.”

She still doesn’t understand.  “I know you admire my work,” Isaac said.  “But you need to know what you’re getting into.  I would not wish this vocation on my worst enemies, least of all my child.”  You will lose far more than an eye.

“But you wished it on yourself.”

“And I know you get stressed about your grades, and your homework, and your career, and – “

And I saw you have a panic attack when you were thirteen.  And I’m pretty sure the only reason I haven’t seen a second is because you’re hiding them from me.

“It helps you do your job,” said Eliya.  It wasn’t a question.

“Yes,” said Isaac, his voice tight.

“And you save lives.  You keep our country safe.”

“In many ways, yes.”

“Then one day, I want to learn it.”

Brin’s entire torso felt twice as heavy, dragging him down towards his bedsheets.  “It’ll be harder than any class you’ve ever taken, more stressful.  You’ll start at the very bottom of the department.  I won’t ever advance you through nepotism or my connections.”

“I know.”

“And it’s not a glamorous job.  Most of it is obsessive paperwork.”

“I know,” she said.

Isaac thought of all the mistakes he’d made as a parent.  Immersing himself in work instead of helping Sarra raise his daughter.  Keeping Eliya away from anything he thought remotely dangerous.  Failing to make time for his infant son.

But his biggest mistake had to be this: making himself a role model to his children.

“Why did you call me?” he said.

Probability, Eliya in psychological crisis: Medium.

“I haven’t talked to you in months,” she said.  “I just miss you.”

Isaac sighed.  “Miss you too.”

After a short, fitful hour of sleep, he dragged himself out of bed.  Long day ahead.  Last night, during the storm, he’d received the news that Professors Stoughton and Havstein, who had been in deep cover in Commonplace, had gone missing after attending a major meeting to spy on its leader.

On the way there, he checked one of his covert dead drops, projecting into a trash can to note the contents inside.

Queen Sulphur wanted to meet.

A part of Isaac hoped that the two things weren’t connected.

Probability, Anabelle Gage knows what happened to them: High.
Probability, Anabelle Gage will betray you: Unknown

But he was surrounded by enemies.  Why should he expect anything better?

________________________________________

Isaac met with Anabelle Gage.  At the end of the meeting, he stitched a few of her recent memories, too.

The news was worse than he could have imagined.  And it meant he needed to act.

First, he recruited the Lonely Hero, in her mansion.

“No,” said Admiral Ebbridge, two typewriters clicking next to her.

“We need you,” Isaac said.  “You can find Tunnel Vision with your Vocation.”

“I don’t have authorization to scan the city,” said Ebbridge.  “We should go through the proper channels, and unless you convince me otherwise, I’m going to report this.”  The birds on the walls glared down at him in unison, unblinking.

Probability, Admiral Ebbridge reports you for attempting illegal operation: Low

“I thought you’d say that,” he said.

“Then you shouldn’t have wasted my time.”

“Rowyna,” said Isaac.  “It’s Grace.  Tunnel Vision is Grace.”

The typewriters stopped.  The birds froze in place.  Admiral Ebbridge pushed her chair back, staring at the wall.  A chill wind blew through a crack in the tower’s window, rain pouring down outside.

“You trust the source?” she said.

“Yes,” he said.  To my surprise.  Though if Ebbridge knew the source was an illegal mercenary working with her Ousted child, she would definitely report him.  Black ops freelancers let him dodge many of Parliament’s transparency laws and red tape, but the came with serious risk if he ever got found out.

For the first time in decades, Isaac watched Admiral Ebbridge hunch over, leaning on her desk.  The blonde hair of her Maxine Clive designer body fell into her face.  “Did I ever tell you about my greatest fear?”

“We both know you haven’t.”

“Well,” she sighed.  “Now you know.”

Isaac had feared Grace’s return, especially after she’d murdered Professor Keswick, one of the kindest and most powerful projectors he’d known.

But still, it wasn’t his greatest fear.  He would never share that with anyone.

“I always knew she’d come back, but a part of me hoped – “  She shook her head.  “Silly, irrational.  What’s important is, we know now.  She has to be eliminated.  Instantly and from a distance.”

“Would you leave yourself open to an easy sniper shot?  Would any of us?”  Paragon had a new suite of secret weapons, too, for use in emergencies, but they wouldn’t work on a city.

Rowyna looked straight into his eyes.  “It’ll have to be you.”

“What?”

“You’re the one with the best shot of removing her.  Put enough kinetic energy on a dart, and it won’t matter how hot her palefire is, it’ll still split her skull like a watermelon.”

Admiral Ebbridge rapped her knuckle on her desk, and in unison, the birds on the walls jumped off, flying out of the window.  Other birds, animals with incredible eyesight, would be streaming out of other buildings in her estate, and a private aviary west of the city.

They would fly over the city, keeping hidden or blending in with pigeons.  Watching.  Gathering information.

“It’ll have to be you,” she said, again.

Isaac couldn’t even imagine that.  The mere thought sent him into deeper waves of panic, though still didn’t approach his greatest fear.

Probability, failure if you do not strike the killing blow: Very High

“We’ll see,” Isaac said.  “There’s someone else I have to recruit first.”

________________________________________

He recruited the Broken Coward in a storm of rain and violence.

They’d sent her to the worst of the riots, a paper wall trying to hold back a tsunami.  There were more powerful Guardians, and more eager ones, but none of them could keep down a crowd without murdering them all.

Freezing rain poured down on Diamond Street, dripping off pale street lamps and forming tiny rivers into gutters.  The night sky seemed to close in from above.

And still, the fires kept burning.

During the day, Diamond Street was a hub of commerce, a bustling thoroughfare circling the mountain throughout Midtown, full of restaurants, stores, and theatres.

Now, it was filled with rioters.  Some of them had thrown makeshift firebombs on parked cars, whose gas tanks were now fueling the blaze through the rain.  Others threw rocks, or smashed storefronts.

Most of the rioters were just holding up signs, chanting, but they formed a shield for the more violent ones.  Even in the dim light, Isaac could spot the green circles tattooed on their hands.

At his end of the street, a line of police held them back, thumping batons against their riot shields to make noise.

A woman floated above them, her brown bob and Guardian’s cloak billowing around her, resembling a mousy, middle-aged librarian.

Professor Florence Tuft.  The Broken Coward.  Known to most as Harpy.

Someone in the crowd threw a gasoline bomb at her, and she slapped it away with a gust of wind.  It splashed into a puddle, snuffed out.

“I appreciate the thought,” said Florence.  “But is now the best time to catch up?”  One of the guards tossed a pepper gas grenade over her head, into the crowd.  She raised an arm stump, and it hovered in midair, the gas forming a condensed wall on the street instead of spreading into the crowd.  “Hold, damn you!” she shouted.  “No gas!”

“We’re short on time,” Isaac said.  He explained everything.

Florence floated back behind the police and clapped her hands.

The road went silent.  The screaming of the protestors, the breaking glass and crackling fire, the sound of the pouring rain vanished in unison.  Air projection.  The pepper gas wall stayed in place, preventing the rioters from advancing.

“Rowyna’s scanning the city.”  Isaac glanced up at the sky.  “But you’re better than either of us at stealth, and you’re the only one who can counter Palefire.”

Probability, the Broken Coward will not want to fight her: Medium.

Florence had spent more time with Grace than anyone else in the Eight Oceans.  She knew how terrifying the woman was in battle.  But that wasn’t the reason the Coward was tempted to run away.

Isaac glanced at the stumps where Florence’s hands used to be.

Florence Tuft had forgotten a great many things, but the Witch forced her to remember all of them.

“Do you have a plan?” she said.

“First, we have to find her.”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “I don’t know.  She’ll be in a tight space.  I won’t be able to use my plane.”  She glanced out at the swirling mass of people, the burning cars, the looted storefronts.  “And I’m needed here.  Without me, the cops are going to escalate even more, and then we’ll never fix this.”

“For all we know, Grace is the one causing all these riots.”

She shook her head.  “They’re rioting because a family almost drowned in one of the floods, got pneumonia, and couldn’t afford a replacement body for anyone except the kid.”

Isaac felt sick to his stomach.  An avoidable tragedy.  And a sign that the Epistocrats and leaders of Paragon were failing at their noble duty.  Paragon Academy had a whole vault of combat chassis, and they didn’t need all of them.

“People die every day,” he said.  “They don’t riot every time.”

“Then talk to the Symphony Knight,” she said.  “Or Oakes.  Or Clarel.  Why me?”

Isaac lowered his voice.  “You do still remember what happened between you two, yes?”

Florence glanced at her feet.

Isaac stared down the mountain, at the chaotic, waterlogged mess of a city beneath him.   “And you don’t feel responsible at all?”

It was a low blow, but these were desperate times.

“When is it happening?” said Florence.

“Tonight.”

Florence nodded.

________________________________________

Florence was dodging the subject.

A tactics professor, an experienced soldier with countless kills, and she was avoiding the main problem.  The Broken Coward.  A cruel nickname, but accurate.

“So,” she said.  “How’ve the two of you been doing?  I just had to chew out these idiot students who thought they could throw their daddy’s name around to get their grades changed.  The spoiled Epistocrats are the worst, they know table manners better than tactics.  No offense, Rowyna.”

At the other end of Isaac’s debris-filled office, Rowyna tested the pieces of her family’s custom body armor, ignoring Florence.

“These little shits have never been in the military.  Couldn’t make a bed if I held a gun to their heads.”  She shrugged.  “They’re green, but they’re not book-burners.  They’ll turn into proper soldiers yet.”

Isaac strapped on an extra belt of darts, a flash grenade, and a row of flares.  As a Joiner, Florence could effectively see in the dark, but he and Rowyna couldn’t.

“Tuft,” said Ebbridge.  “No one cares.”

Florence rolled her eyes, leaning back in her chair.  “Just trying to lighten the mood, Lady Typhoon.  We could be here a while.  Who knows how long it’ll take your birds to find Tunnel Vision in this storm?”

“My birds can see through a blizzard on a moonless night,” Rowyna said, fitting together two pieces on her chest plate.  “They can handle a little water.  And I have thousands of them running a facial pattern match.”

“If she hasn’t changed bodies fifty times,” said Florence.

Probability, Tunnel Vision will have an unrecognizable face: Medium.

“Not necessarily,” Isaac said.  “Grace is posing as a competent, but simple mob boss.  She needs to attend meetings, play politics.  Those are a lot harder if you’re swapping faces all the time.  And an endless well of disposable bodies would leave a trail, draw attention.”

What’s more, Grace was capable of some light Joining.  She might not want to lose that by wearing an unfamiliar body.

“What about other Guardians?” said Rowyna.  “The Symphony Knight, or the Obsidian Foil, or Headmaster Tau.”

“Headmaster Tau,” said Florence.  “Can barely find his way to the toilet.  What makes you think he’ll be able to beat Grace?  She killed Professor Keswick.”

“Careful,” said Rowyna.  “Show some respect.”

“I only invited you two,” Isaac said.  They’d be on permanent record as visiting Isaac, but this was still the most secure place he could think of.  “You’re the only two I trust.”

Florence laughed.  “Why?  We’ve barely talked in years.  You don’t go to tea with us, you don’t call us outside of work, I don’t even think I have your business cards.  I have the Locus’s business card, but not yours.”

“Get over yourself,” said Rowyna, floating on the legs of her armor.  “We’re all busy.”

“No,” said Florence.  “Busy is an excuse for a week, a month, a season.  Not nine years.  What the fuck happened?”

We all know what happened.  The event could have brought them closer, forged their friendship into a lifelong bond.  But instead, it had broken them apart, like they’d committed murder, and being together only reminded them of their guilt.

I am surrounded by enemies.

Probability, Rowyna Ebbridge and Florence Tuft are enemies: low.

Those two weren’t enemies.  But they weren’t friends anymore, either.

Hours later, the birds got a hit.  The squad stood up, prepping their armored wingsuits, wearing cloaks on top so they could conceal their combat outfits.

Rowyna stood up, explaining.  “The memory Major Brin stitched to me from his contact included several faces from the recent Commonplace meeting, though the leader herself remained hidden.  My birds couldn’t find Tunnel Vision, but they got the others.”

“And?” Isaac said.

“They’re traveling into three common buildings.  Two of them have the blinds up, but they were careless in the third one.  I saw an entrance.  On the bottom floor.”

“A basement?” said Florence.  “Or – “

“Tunnels in the sewers,” said Rowyna.  “I think that’s where she’s hiding.”

“Fuck,” muttered Isaac.

“I think ‘shit’ is the word you’re looking for,” said Florence.  “Since we’ll be wading through it for hours.  How deep in the tunnels did you see?”

“Not far,” Rowyna said.  “Didn’t want to get spotted.  But I saw one of the targets go into a building, with no one else inside, and as far as I can tell, they haven’t gone into the tunnels or left.  If we move now, we can grab him and use him as a guide.”

Probability, that’s a trap: Low

Probability, there are traps in the tunnels: Very High

“And after?” said Florence.

“You take point, Tuft,” said Rowyna.  “Keep us hidden.  I can use my smallest birds to scout out ahead, and take out smaller targets.”  She looked at Isaac.  “And Brin lands the killshot.  If he has the spine for it.”

Isaac swallowed.  “I’ll do it.”

Florence shot him a concerned look.  “You sure?”

He shrugged, masking his creeping dread, and slotted on his final belt of darts.  “I have to.”

Probability, you will hesitate before killing blow: Medium.

Probability, hesitation will cause death: Very high

They strode out of Isaac’s office, towards the edge of Paragon where they could launch.

Eliya sat in the waiting room, her foot bouncing, fiddling with her eyepatch.  No, no, no.  Not now. When she saw him, she stood up, shoulders tight.

They exchanged keys.  “Dad,” she said.  “I need help.”

Probability, she is telling the truth: High.

“I’m working, Eliya.”

She took short, shallow breaths.  “Please.  It needs to be tonight, or I’ll fail my class for tomorrow.  I could get held back, or expelled, or – “

“I’m working,” he said.  “Later.”  He couldn’t say anything more, not for something this top-secret.  “Talk to your classmates, or your advisor.”

“Would I be doing this if they were available?  If I weren’t this desperate?”

It felt like she’d thrown boiling water in his face.  You’re a terrible father.  He did this sort of thing to her all the time.  And since Sarra had split with him and moved to the other side of the Principality, he was Eliya’s only available parent.

Any other day, he might have succumbed to the guilt and acted like an adult.  But this time, there actually was something urgent.

“Please,” she said.

“Take some deep breaths, Eliya,” he said.  “Go home.  I’ll see you later.”

He wished he had something better to say, some profound, concise bit of advice that could quell her panic, or steel her against the world’s cruelty.  The girl had potential.  Like his students.  Like many of his mercenaries.

Like Anabelle Gage, even though she didn’t trust him and he underpaid her to leverage her, an act that made his stomach twinge with guilt.  I’ll pay her enough in time.  She’d be able to afford a body.

Eliya’s expression curdled.  “You know, I did get panic attacks back in secondary school, especially during the last year, when I was terrified Paragon wouldn’t accept me.  When they got bad, I would wish, more than anything, that I could fly away from the classroom and go home.  It was the safest place my mind jumped to.”  She shook her head.  “But not anymore.  You took that from me.  Our house is empty now.”

Eliya stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

Isaac stood there for a moment, blinking.

Then he spoke.  “I forgot something.  Give me a minute.”

Before anyone could reply, he strode back to his office, locking the door behind him.

There was still dust on the marble floor from the fight with Avery, a piece of wood where the far wall had exploded.  Five holes sat around the room where he’d ripped darts from hidden sheathes.

He paced back and forth in the room.  Eliya hates you.  She blamed him for the divorce with Sarra, for being so distant.  And she’s not wrong.  He’d failed her, both here and earlier, when he couldn’t protect her from Commonplace’s bomb attack.

His breath quickened.  He clenched his hands, fingernails digging into his palms.

And at the same time, Eliya still wanted his job.  She’s going to be even lonelier than I am. His son could be worse, if he lived to see his teens.  With the exponentially rising water, he might not.

He ran to the phone at his desk and picked it up, dialing Sarra.

The phone rang.  And rang.  And rang.

Hello, you’ve reached Sarra Tevaris.  I’m not able to answer the phone right now, but call back later and I’ll do my best.

Isaac hung up, reached into his top drawer, and pulled out Grace’s business card, staring at it.

Grace Acworth
31 – 1621 – 8273

The future was collapsing, slowly but inevitably.

His chest ached.  His fingers felt numb.  Sweat collected underneath his armpits, and he wheezed, short of breath.

A panic attack.  He closed his eyes and placed his hand on his abdomen, forcing himself to take slow, deep breaths.

When he opened his eyes, he started counting objects he could see, touch, and hear in the room.  Desk, chair, wall, pen, lamp.  But nothing changed.  Stay present, don’t get lost in your thoughts.  He tensed his muscles one at time, then relaxed them.

His breath quickened again.  Scholars.  None of his calming exercises were working.  Gardening helped, in the long term, but couldn’t deal with panic like this.  And he couldn’t just sit this one out.  He had a mission.  There wasn’t much time.

Don’t do it.  You’re better than that.  Don’t do it.

Isaac made a split-second decision, and succumbed to the temptation, striding to the other side of the room.  His Pith stretched forward, unlocking his hidden refrigerator and swinging it open.

He removed a bowl of sliced strawberries and a bar of dark chocolate, placing them on top of a sweet biscuit sliced in half.  Then he removed a marshmallow and projected into it, heating it.  Within a few seconds, the inside was a gooey soup and the outside was a perfect golden brown.

Isaac bit into the marshmallow shortcake.  As the sweet flavors rushed over his palate, he felt his heartbeat slow, his breath relax.  When nothing else worked, this calmed him down like nothing else.

Isaac had talked to his parents – his real parents, and in truth, he’d never eaten marshmallow shortcake in his entire life.  At least, for the first nineteen years.

As he dug into the dessert, memories flickered through his mind.

Camping in the woods in the summer.  Making snow forts in the backyard and crushing everyone in snowball fights.  Asking Ophelia to slow dance at prom and tripping over a table leg.  Both of you laughing as she helps you back up.

And his nineteenth birthday party behind his house.  When he closed his eyes, he could almost feel the heat from the fire pit, hear his friends and family and Ophelia chatting around him.

For a moment, the warmth sank into his mind, and he let himself forget Eliya.  Forget Anabelle Gage, and Serra, and Avery, and Grace and the rising waves.

I want to go home, thought Martin.

But home wasn’t the fortified apartment he slept in now, or the squat house at the edge of downtown where he’d actually grown up.  It was that firepit, that backyard, that quiet suburban street, nineteen years of his life that vanished into thin air, that never actually happened.

That was Isaac’s greatest fear.  That he was happier in his fake memories than he would ever be again.

A part of him wondered: If he ever found the Whisper Specialist who did this to him, what would he do?

Would he slaughter them?

Or would he get down on his knees, and beg them to fix his Pith?

Isaac wasn’t sure.  That scared him more than anything else.

A knock on the door startled him out of his daze.

“Brin!”  Rowyna’s voice.  “Quit moping about, we’ve got a job to do.”

Another voice, softer.  “I don’t know what you’re dealing with, Isaac,” said Florence.  “But whatever it is, you’re stronger.  And we can face it together.”

Maybe.  But at the end of the day, there was only one way for Isaac to find out if this reality was worth living.

Isaac stood up, pocketing Grace’s business card, and strode to the exit.  In one second, it was unlocked.  In another, he was out in the hallway.

He left half of the shortcake on his desk, covered in crumbs.  Unfinished.

________________________________________

The trio stood on the bridge, ready to jump.

Raindrops pattered off the top of Isaac’s helmet.  To his left, the conical Great Library towered above them.  To his right, the lights of the banquet hall shone into the darkness.

He strode to the edge, gazing over the balcony.  Thick clouds blocked out the moonlight.  The lights of Elmidde below were blurry below, faint through the rainstorm, but visible enough for him to cross-reference with his internal atlas and get a sense of direction.

Then he reached for the clasp of his cloak and undid it, attaching it to the railing so it wouldn’t blow away.  No point in concealing their weapons now, and it would only get in the way.

The others mirrored him.  Florence swept her cloak off, revealing the thin, tight-fitting black combat suit underneath, strong enough to stop a bullet, but light and flexible enough to maneuver with.  The only tool she carried was a pistol at her waist, filled with Voidsteel rounds.  Her real weapon was her Vocation.

Rowyna folded her cloak in front of her, revealing her dark blue family armor beneath.  Even in the darkness, Isaac could admire its construction.  It looked more like modern art than military gear, made of countless triangles interlocking with one another, a modular design that could fit almost anyone who wore it, absorb any impact and hold countless weapons in its chambers.

Even modern armor strengthened by the Obsidian Foil couldn’t compete with the Ebbridge House’s mail.  It had been forged with an ancient Vocation from generations ago, whose codex was too difficult for anyone else to decipher.

Time to see how much heat it can withstand.

A lone hawk flew out of the rain, perching on Rowyna’s arm.  The armor unfolded from her wrist up, exposing her hand, and she touched its head with two fingers.

She nodded.  “Target still in location three!” she shouted through the rain.  “We should move now!”

Florence, in contrast, was squeezing her eyes shut, taking sharp, fast breaths.  She’s afraid.  Isaac couldn’t blame her.  His stomach ached, and his fingers tingled, but the sheer adrenaline was enough to force down the panic.

I can keep my cool in battle.  He just had to stay focused.

And if they failed, his dead man’s switches would kick in.  Everyone in Paragon would know the truth about Tunnel Vision.

Isaac stepped closer to the others and put his hands on their shoulders.  The trio formed a huddle beneath the freezing rain.

“Stick to the plan!” he yelled.  “Don’t underestimate her!  We don’t know which body she’s in, or what vocations she’s learned since we last saw her.”  He stared into Rowyna’s eyes.  Then Florence’s.  “She knows our vulnerabilities.  She knows the country’s vulnerabilities.”

And we still don’t know why she’s trying to topple it.  That was the great unspoken question between them, the one that worried him more than all the others.

“Don’t hesitate,” said Rowyna.

He nodded, putting on a face that he hoped was more determined than scared.  “And that country.  Millions and millions of people.  Paragon Academy.  Our families.  The world we love.  They’re all depending on us.”

“The nation, the people, the light,” said Rowyna.

“The nation, the people, the light,” said Florence.

The nation, the people, the light!” they chanted.  “The nation, the people, the light!

“We’re walking into the fire,” said Isaac.  “But I wouldn’t do it with anyone else.”   No matter what happened, no matter how distant they’d grown, Isaac would protect them, even if it meant dying.

The front of Rowyna’s helmet folded shut.  Isaac flipped his helmet down.  They climbed to the top of the wooden railing, balancing on it.  The dark ocean swirled far beneath them.

And in unison, Rowyna, Florence, and Isaac leaned forward off the edge, shooting through the one-way deceleration field around Paragon towards the lower slopes of Mount Elwar.  The orange and yellow lights of the city grew in their vision as they fell, becoming a glowing flame to their eyes.  A pyre, covering an entire mountain.

The Typhoon of the South, The Harpy, and The Scholar of Mass.  Revenant Squad.

The Lonely Hero, the Broken Coward, and the Frightened Watchdog.  Twisted, but twisted together. 

Probability, the Pyre Witch will burn you to death: High

Together, they descended into the fire.

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