The world’s gone mad, thought Samuel.
So why was everyone still pretending?
Kaplen had killed himself. The Silver Flask was a pile of rubble. Eliya had lost her eye, and her father, Professor Brin, had lost his legs. Elmidde was tearing itself apart.
And despite all that, Paragon students still plodded along, eyes to the dirt like nothing had changed. To them, they just had to ace tests, suck up to professors, and get into exclusive clubs. Then, the world would realign itself.
How can they do it? How could people just get out of their beds and care about schoolwork, while their classmates died around them, while the ground crumbled under their feet?
And Lorne Daventry was the worst of them, smug and cold through it all, as if death and cruelty were normal.
Sand blasted over Samuel, scraping his exposed skin under his combat armor, scratching his eyes.
Blinded, Samuel projected into the puddles around him. He sucked in a breath and drew the water around him, a sheath protecting him on all sides. It doused the sand, protecting him.
Then a piece of rebar slammed into his solar plexus. It knocked the wind out of him, flinging him to the bottom of the hill. Samuel rolled on the wet grass, water splashing around him, and pushed himself up, stomach aching.
Through the rain, Lorne Daventry and Matilla Geffray stood at the top of the hill, guarding their flag. Lorne stared down at him, eyes flat. Matilla smirked.
Two on one was hard enough. With these two, it was near-impossible. Eliya and Leizu had fought well, despite Eliya’s injuries, managing to take out the other two members of Golem Squad. But they’d lost their armbands in the attempt.
And Tasia hadn’t even shown up to the squad battle. She’d vanished this morning, and they hadn’t been able to find her in her dorm, or the library, or the rain-soaked pavilion. Over the last few months, she’d missed strategy meetings and exams too, refusing to explain why.
How bad are her grades now? By sheer virtue of failing attendance. Almost as bad as mine.
Samuel squinted through the rain. Lorne and Matilla didn’t move. They just stood at the top of the hill, water running down their combat armor.
Waiting for him.
“I feel bad for you!” shouted Lorne. He projected into the hill, making it vibrate with his voice. “I mean, being saddled with an alcoholic moron of a fiance is hard enough. But finding out she’s a traitor.” He chuckled. “Well, I can imagine.”
She’s not a traitor. Nell, with her radio broadcast, had struck a massive blow to Commonplace – and to the Broadcast King. Though, to be honest, Samuel had no idea why she was working with an Ilaquan heiress, a Shenti terrorist, and a violent body thief.
“It’s a miracle,” shouted Lorne. “That you haven’t tried to join Kaplen already!”
He’s stalling. Samuel needed to get the flag or take both of them out in the next ninety seconds, or Chimera Squad would lose. Strategies ran through Samuel’s head, methods of snatching the flag.
“It doesn’t matter!” shouted Lorne. “What kind of stunt she pulled on Verity.” With your old assistant. Ernest Chapman. The awkward grey-haired boy who’d tailed Lorne wherever he went. Now that was something Samuel hadn’t expected. “It’s only a matter of time until we find her and the other freaks.”
A frontal assault wouldn’t work. Even with his Vocation banned in squad battles, Lorne had far more raw power than Samuel, and that was without Matilla’s blinding sandstorms.
“Don’t feel bad, though,” said Lorne. “If your grades keep slipping, your parents will catch on and find someone to Oust you.” He grinned. “Then you can rejoin your lady love. Well, half a lady.”
Samuel clenched his teeth until they ached. A wave of heat rushed over his body, even as the cold rain soaked his clothes.
He howled at the pair, a scream cutting through the storm.
And as he screamed, he attacked. A chain burst out of the hill behind the two members of Golem Squad, reaching towards the flag to snatch it.
Lorne and Matilla turned in unison, moving to counter. Matilla jerked her hand up, and the heavy flagpole shot into the sky, out of reach. Lorne slashed his arm forward, and a sheet of metal slammed into Samuel’s chain, batting it aside like it was light as a string. He pushed Samuel’s Pith out, green lightning crackling around his hands.
At the same time, Samuel tore up the ground in front of him. He pulled out the water, drying the dirt, and exploded it in front of him, making a thick cloud of silt. A classic smokescreen.
Footsteps rang out from Golem’s left. At the same time, his outline charged them from the right. A simple audio distraction, combined with a desperate attack.
Of course, Lorne and Matilla knew about those tactics. And Lorne had studied some light eye-Joining, so he could see through some of the silt.
So in an instant, Lorne spotted his silhouette. Matilla harassed with a storm of sand, and Lorne shot a volley of rebar straight into it.
The silhouette tore apart, falling to bits.
Samuel had taken off his combat armor, animating it with metal strings on the inside, imitating his gait. Through the rain and dirt and sand, it looked exactly like him.
At the same time, the real Samuel dropped from the sky. He swung a pair of metal chains, slamming Lorne and Matilla on their unprotected necks.
Both of them doubled over, gasping for air, and the chains looped back around, ripping off their armbands. Chimera Squad had won the match.
Samuel didn’t stop. He landed on the grass, knocking Matilla aside with a chain. The girl rolled down the hill, and Samuel stepped forward.
The chain wrapped around Lorne’s ankle and yanked him off his feet. Lorne slammed onto his back, still coughing and wheezing, rain pouring down on him.
Samuel clenched his fist, and a chain thudded into Lorne’s chest, knocking the air out of him. Paragon’s combat armor worked great against bullets and shrapnel, but could only do so much against blunt force.
The end of the chain punched Lorne’s stomach. Another pair of chains swung at his arms and legs, targeting his joints, hitting him again and again.
Lorne gagged, too disoriented to fight back. What was it he did to Cyclops Squad? Samuel kept up the assault, wrapped a chain around Lorne’s ankles, and pulled up. The boy hung upside down in the air, swinging from side to side as the chains thudded into his armor.
One of the chains pulled off Daventry’s helmet. Samuel swung his fist into Lorne’s nose.
Something crunched beneath his knuckles, and pain flared up in his fingers. It hurt, like he’d just punched a concrete wall.
Samuel pulled his fist back again, and someone put a hand on his shoulder.
“Samuel,” said Eliya, her voice steady.
Samuel blinked. The outside world popped back into existence. The rain, the grey clouds, the rest of Chimera and Golem Squads watching.
He exhaled, and dropped Lorne on the ground. The chains went limp.
Naruhiko and Deon, the other Golems, picked up Lorne, carrying him away. They both glared at Samuel, ready to start a fight, but Matilla shook her head. Not worth it.
We won. Against the best squad in the academy, with one member down. A remarkable feat, even though Chimera’s rankings were still in the middle.
“He deserves it,” said Leizu, walking up beside him. “But you need to conserve your strength.”
Samuel leaned over, taking deep, ragged breaths. “Conserve my strength?” he said. “We don’t have classes today. We were going to study in the common room.”
“Yeah,” said Leizu. “Some grey coat gave this to me while I was on bleachers.” She held up a new list of patrol shifts.
NORTH ISLAND | 1000-1600 | SAMUEL PAKHEM [Chimera], ELIYA BRIN [Chimera], LEIZU YAO [Chimera] and NELL EBBRIDGE [Chimera]
10 AM. That was less than an hour from now, on the far side of the city.
“And,” said Eliya. “Tasia’s still missing.” He called her ‘Tasia’. Not ‘bookworm’ or ‘the imposter’.
“Split up,” said Samuel. “We’ll re-check the dorms and the library and the banquet hall. All the usual spots. Meet at the top of the cable car in twenty.” If Chimera Squad was going up against Commonplace, they needed everyone.
The other two nodded. “I’ll take the dorms and library,” said Leizu. She took off at a blazing sprint, crossing the wooden bridge to the main island and vanishing into the rain. Not a Joiner, Eliya jogged after her at a normal pace.
Tasia might be doing research in the upper levels of the library. She might be in bed, or eating a late breakfast in the banquet hall.
But Samuel had an idea. He knew where to look first.
Samuel projected into his combat suit, floating through the rain.
He pulled himself over a wooden bridge, around the edge of Alabaster Hall, past the lit common room to the far end of the floating island.
A grassy ledge jutted out at the back, about the size of a large bed. Its position hid it from sight, unable to be seen from Alabaster’s windows, and the dormitory’s wall angled out, shielding it from most of the rain.
Tasia sat at the end, eating from a package of garlic bread. She stared out into the grey sky, her legs hanging over the edge. Rain soaked into her blue school uniform, and her black hair stuck to her neck, a wet, tangled mess.
Samuel touched down on the grass. She didn’t even look at him.
“How did you find me?” she said.
“I asked around.” Samuel sat down beside her. “For places that you and Kaplen and Ern – and Anabelle Gage used to spend time in. One boy in Alabaster said that the three of you used to walk around the edge of the building. I just checked it out on a guess.”
Tasia didn’t reply. Thunder boomed in the distance.
“We missed you at the squad battle,” said Samuel.
“Sorry,” she said. “Did you lose?”
“We won, actually, but it was…” Samuel flexed the fingers on his right hand, the knuckles peeling, still aching after he’d punched Lorne. “It was difficult.”
“Admiral Ebbridge talked to me this morning,” said Tasia. “Threw my breakfast in the trash. Reminded me how fragile my position is. I don’t need another lecture about how entitled I am.”
“That’s not why I’m here,” said Samuel. “Chimera Squad has been called into action.” He pointed at Mount Elwar below, obscured by the rain and clouds. “The city’s tearing itself apart. The people need us.” He looked at her. “And we need you.”
“Do you remember our first night?” she said. “When we patrolled together.”
“You would have given anything to get rid of me, to fight alongside a different student.”
Samuel nodded again, reluctant. And now I’m begging her to join. It had been a strange year.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know you. I didn’t trust you.”
“That’s not it,” said Tasia. “What is it they say about college? First year hope – “
“ – last year rope,” finished Samuel. But that wasn’t always true. “What were you hoping for?” He’d asked her before, but she’d never given him a straight answer.
Tasia stuffed a piece of garlic bread in her mouth and chewed. She stretched her hand out, and raindrops splattered on her palm. “My big sister is dying. She came down with pneumatoma a few years back.”
Pith cancer. You could call yourself lucky if it crippled you. For many, it was a slow, excruciating death sentence. And in the past few decades, it had gone from a rare phenomenon to something with tens of thousands of cases.
“I used my Vocation,” she said, “to cut the tumor out. And it worked. But in the process, I aged her over a century.”
Null particles. So that’s why she wanted to research them.
Tasia held up her shining blue-gold library card, flipping it between her fingers.
Lady Nell Ebbridge
Level 4 Access
“I thought that with a high-level card, I could study the secrets of the Great Scholars, fix what I’d done.”
The Elixir of Life. The font of eternal youth. Surely, Tasia knew how difficult that problem was, the absurd complexity of the knot she was trying to untie. For all her twitchy awkwardness, the girl had a lot of confidence in her abilities.
“But,” she said. “A dead end. So many dead ends. And the things that weren’t dead ends…” She trailed off, wrapping her arms around her chest. “Nobody wanted to help me. No one took me seriously.” She chuckled. “But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. If this nation cared about medicine, they’d be mass-producing chassis and giving them out to the poor.”
She sounds like a Commonplace agitator.
She smiled. “But Kaplen cared. And so did Ernest. He believed in me. In my work, even if he didn’t always understand it.” She closed her eyes. “Was she lying about that too?”
Ernest wasn’t Ernest. The grey coat boy was Anabelle Gage, a body thief, a girl, a mercenary, living right under their noses.
“What did she want?” said Tasia. “Was she trying to use Lorne? Was she going to break into Paragon’s chassis vault?” She shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t matter. I don’t expect I’ll ever see her again.” She turned her head, looking at Samuel for the first time. “So please. Let me be.”
“I understand,” said Samuel. “I can’t imagine how much pain you’re in right now. But we still have a job to do.”
“You think that’s going to change anything?” said Tasia. “The tide is coming in, and you’re digging a trench with a spoon. In the end, the Shenti have it right. The sea remains. Eventually, it’ll rise up and drown this barbaric age. And in a few centuries, maybe the survivors can have their own delusions of grandeur, just like us.”
Both of them stared over the edge, gazing down at the stormy ocean far beneath, a swirling pot of chaos, extending to infinity over the horizon.
Samuel leaned to the side and hugged Tasia. She hugged him back. He couldn’t help but smell her lavender perfume, feel the heat of her body against his.
“Nell is a mercenary too,” said Samuel. “To be honest, I thought she’d collapse after her Ousting, that she’d have a dozen breakdowns and drink herself into the ground.” His old fiance had plenty of cleverness and warmth, but stable wasn’t a word that applied to her. “I never expected this, that she’d become some hired killer.” Should I be impressed, or horrified?
“I’m sorry,” said Tasia.
“Look at me,” Samuel said, chuckling. He pointed to his tangled hair, the dark circles under his eyes. “My grades have tanked too. I’m not happy either. At this rate, maybe I never will be. I’m nowhere near being an Exemplar.” He stood up. “But I still have a duty to this nation, a responsibility to our people. Even if I fall, even if I can’t forge the stars, I can still help the people around me. If I keep fighting for one more day, then I can preserve a tiny sliver of this world. And then, maybe that can help me get better, too.”
“Write the next page,” said Tasia.
What? Samuel decided not to pry – time was already short enough.
He extended his hand to Tasia. “Would your sister want to give up?”
“In a few years,” she said, “Sarah’s not going to want anything.”
“That wasn’t the question. Would your sister want you to give up?”
Tasia squeezed her eyes shut. She swallowed her last piece of garlic bread and squeezed the paper box into a ball.
Then she stood up.
Her weary expression stayed. Her face sagged, and she took slow, heavy breaths, water dripping off her clothes. Tasia still looked exhausted, down to the last soul particle.
“Alright,” she said. “Where are we fighting?”
The van turned a corner, screeching, and drove straight past the riots.
Burning cars zipped by the vehicle, mobs of Humdrums beating each other, screaming crowds filling the streets. The van splashed through a puddle, and the vehicle jerked beneath Samuel.
Samuel looked at Professor Oakes, at the driver’s seat of the van. “Why are we driving past?” he said. “This is North Island. Is there a bigger riot somewhere else?”
Oakes leaned forward, too tall and broad for the van’s seat. “We are not, dear boy,” he boomed, his voice low. “That’s the only riot in the area.”
What. “We’re on patrol duty. What are we doing here, if not dealing with the riots?”
“All in good time,” said Oakes, driving past another street fight. “All in good time.”
The van sped past a police barricade. Through the rain, a Guardian stood on top of a police car, surveying the road, and Samuel squinted to make out his features.
Tall. Broad shoulders with huge muscles and a thick brown beard. With two thin black rapiers slung across his back. Sebastian Oakes? Samuel glanced at the front seat. But Sebastian Oakes was sitting in the car with them.
There’s an imposter on the streets. But then why had the real Oakes ignored him?
No, not an imposter. A double. Another Guardian, or a student, wearing one of his chassis. Paragon was pretending that their top-level Guardians were out on the streets. When really, they were driving to some other, more important mission.
Something’s happening. Something big.
Tasia leaned back against the wall of the van, closing her eyes. Samuel squeezed her shoulder under her light combat armor. “You can do this,” he said.
“Whoever we’re fighting,” said Leizu. “You’re strong. You’ll break their bones and grind them into the dirt.” She punched Tasia’s arm.
Tasia’s eyes fluttered open, and she smiled at both of them.
Under Samuel’s combat suit, his shirt sleeve tightened, pressing on his arm out of sight. It pressed in rapid patterns of long and short. Telegraph code. Someone was sending him a signal.
Eliya glared at him with her one eye, and scratched her arm in an identical place to the sleeve-squeeze. The message repeated, faster this time, and Samuel translated it in his head.
“She’s our teammate,” said Eliya. “She’s desperate. And she’s not the monster we thought she was.” She paused. “But if you so much as caress her face, I will rip your spleen out, blend it, and drink it like a smoothie.”
Samuel projected into Eliya’s sleeve, sending a message back. “I haven’t,” he said. “And we haven’t, you know, done anything else.”
“It’s called sex, you repressed beefcake.” Eliya scowled at him. “And no, you’ve done something far worse. You’ve opened up to her. You talk about your feelings.” Eliya’s face screwed up with disgust, as if that was the most profane, horrifying thing imaginable.
Now who’s repressed? thought Samuel. “Tasia’s been through a lot,” he said, glancing at her out of the corner of his eye. “It’s not her fault that Nell got Ousted.”
“Remind me,” said Eliya. “Who hit Nell in the throat, blasted sand in her eyes, and knocked her out of the ring? Who destroyed our friend? Your fiance.”
“Ousting is Paragon’s fault,” said Samuel. “And Admiral Ebbridge’s, too.”
Samuel reminded himself not to blame Eliya. She’d been on edge since her father got implicated with the mercenaries. Professor Brin hadn’t been sentenced yet, or even thrown in prison, but the man would face demotions, at the very least.
“I know what you’re going through,” signalled Samuel. “But – “
Samuel’s stomach clenched. A wave of fear washed over him, and he shivered with the intensity. The walls of the van closed in on him, and Tasia’s tired stare became cold, calculating.
A wave of loneliness exploded on top of the fear, a longing that he had forgotten for months. Nell. The original Nell. Playing Jao Lu with her and hugging her and –
Tears trickled out of Samuel’s eyes and he wiped them away. Leizu and Tasia gave him odd looks, and he blinked, regaining his senses.
“Scholars,” said Samuel. “Ask me before you use your Vocation on me.”
Eliya’s Whisper Vocation involved forced, one-sided thought-stitching, forcing others to relive her past experiences for short bursts. Normally, she used it to induce panic attacks, a mental stun grenade, of sorts. She had already mastered it enough to start writing her codex for it.
“You look surprised,” messaged Eliya in telegraph code. “Imagine feeling that every day.”
Samuel clenched his fists. “Nell’s not coming back.”
Eliya’s eyes widened, and she recoiled. “Fuck you.”
“I hate to think about it. It makes me feel awful. But it doesn’t matter what trick she pulled with Verity, or whether she can pull off the impossible feat of out-testing Tasia.” The van bumped again, and Samuel stared at the damp floor. “To get a shot at her name again, she’ll have to win her mother’s approval. And she’ll never, ever do that.”
“Why the fuck not?”
“You don’t know Admiral Ebbridge. I do,” said Samuel. “You haven’t had to eat breakfast with her every week. The woman is a hero, but she hates her children even more than she hates herself.” It felt like a corkscrew twisting through his gut, but that didn’t make it any less true. “The sooner we all cope with that, and find a bright spot in this nightmare, the better our odds of survival.”
The van screeched to a halt. Tasia had fallen asleep, her head lolling to the side.
As Eliya glared at him, Samuel shook Tasia’s shoulder, a gentle wake-up. “We’re here,” he murmured.
Professor Oakes listened to a radio with a pair of headphones. “Understood!” he said. He turned the steering wheel, and the car drove in a different direction, bumping down the cobble street.
“What’s happening?” Samuel asked.
“A short detour!” shouted Oakes. “On the way to our destination! Some brave souls need our help, and we are the closest.”
Brave souls? “Who?”
The window rolled down, and a newspaper shot in the van, drying itself. Samuel picked it off the floor and read the front page.
Paragon Mercenary Group Attacks Radio Host
Four photographs sat beneath the headline. Anabelle Gage. #516125871-R (née Nell Ebbridge), Hira Kahlin, Jun Kuang.
“What is it?” said Tasia.
Samuel swallowed. “We’re going to rescue Nell. And Anabelle Gage.”
“This bitch,” muttered Eliya, massaging her eyepatch. “She chops off my hands, and now I’m supposed to save her ass.”
“Technically,” said Leizu. “Samuel chopped off your hands.”
“Wow,” said Eliya. “I feel so much better, thanks.”
“Look at it this way,” said Leizu. “If you save her, she owes you double.”
“Commonplace and the mob assail them in a building ahead,” said Oakes. “Many Humdrums, and at least one mob projector. Our primary target is a Shenti man known as Pictogram. Though he has no bulletproof skin or improved defenses, his aim is perfect. If possible, avoid him.” The van screeched, turning another corner. “Ready?” he said.
“Can I say no?” said Eliya.
“Hold on,” he said.
The top of the van ripped open, and Samuel’s combat suit jerked him up, pulling him into the air. Wind whipped past his face, and rain splattered his helmet. Gunshots rang out around them, as the others flew up with him. His stomach dropped, and his legs wobbled beneath, searching for purchase.
Oakes, the Obsidian Foil, soared above them, drawing his two titular swords and flipping onto the roof. Projecting into everyone’s armor. Chimera Squad shot forward, smashing through a window halfway up the building.
Samuel landed on a bed, breaking it beneath him and kicking up a cloud of dust. His eyes flickered around, taking in his surroundings. An abandoned apartment building. No civilians. No collateral damage.
Eliya landed next to the door, and it swung open in front of them.
Commonplace soldiers filled the hallway. Green Hands, jogging into the stairwell with rifles and shotguns. They froze, staring at the squad.
“Shield!” barked Samuel. One of Nell’s old tactics.
Eliya stretched her hand forward, and the Green Hands closest to them froze, stunned with her Vocation. Leizu shot a metal cable from her waist and yanked him back, into the doorway, putting him in a headlock. A human shield.
The gunmen hesitated for a second, not wanting to shoot their comrade. That was all it took.
Two of Samuel’s wires shot out, forming countless tiny loops, guided with precision and speed using his Physical Vocation. A harsh whistling sound rang through the air as the wires flew through the air.
He clenched his fist, pulling the loops shut.
Thirty-two right thumbs sliced off tattooed hands, spurting blood. The Commonplace thugs cried out in pain, doubling over, losing their grip on weapons, distracted.
Tasia charged forward. Orbs of blue and purple lightning flickered around her fists – her Vocation. She blazed through the line of Green Hands, swinging the orbs through their chests and heads, draining their Piths’ energy.
Within a few seconds, all of them lay on the ground, unconscious. A man in the stairwell fired a shotgun at Tasia, and she fell back, groaning.
Eliya stunned him. Leizu leapt forward and squeezed his hands, breaking the bones in his hands. Tasia stood up, massaging her chest. Her light combat armor had stopped the bullets, but it would leave a bruise.
They ran to the stairwell, and Leizu held up a hand, gesturing above them. With her enhanced senses, she could find threats before the rest of them. “More right above us,” she whispered, pointing at the ceiling. “Voidsteel bullets. Waiting to ambush us.”
“Trapdoor,” whispered Samuel. Another trick the original Nell had devised.
Chimera Squad ran down the hallway, end to end. They projected above them, targeting the ceiling, ripping through planks of wood, tearing through concrete and metal, breaking key structural pieces. They kept it from vibrating, making the whole process silent, invisible.
Tasia put her two orbs together, forming a single, larger one. They stood at the stairwell.
Then, Leizu leapt up and slammed the ceiling with her palm.
The entire floor above them split, tearing from end to end. Dust and splintered wood filled the air, and forty Green Hands fell in unison.
As they fell, Tasia threw her orb forward. It shot through them midair, wide enough to pass through every one of them.
They dropped to the floor, unconscious.
So many Green Hands. Commonplace wanted these mercenaries bad.
They ran up the stairwell, and the next floor was empty. Not a single soul in the hallway.
Leizu stepped forward and sniffed the air. “Close your eyes!” she shouted.
Samuel snapped his eyes shut, a moment too late. An intense burning sensation exploded in his pupils, then his nose and throat. It felt like liquid magma being poured over his face.
He gasped, his throat closing up, making it difficult to breathe. The sharp scent of chilis filled his nostrils. Pepper gas. The invisible kind.
We’re dealing with a projector. He knelt, his face on fire.
Samuel stretched his Pith up, straining to scan the area. He felt two Piths on the floor above, and an overwhelming itching sensation spread over his body, like every inch of his skin had broken out in hives. Two projectors.
He scratched his exposed wrist. If he could have, he would have ripped his skin off with his fingernails.
Samuel’s suit tightened around him, lifting him. In his distraction, he’d stopped projecting into his own outfit. Eliya and Tasia did the same, their armor immobilizing them.
His helmet ripped off, and his suit flung him down the stairwell. He dropped two flights and slammed into the stairs, rolling to disperse the momentum.
Samuel groaned. His body ached in a dozen places. Water washed the pepper spray out of his eyes, bringing the burning down, and making his blurry vision clear. The itchiness vanished. Must be from a Whisper Vocation.
Beside him, Eliya and Tasia staggered up. Eliya limped, coughing up blood, and Tasia wobbled back and forth, dizzy.
Leizu stood next to them, unblemished. Not even a single bruise. She glanced down at the rest of Chimera Squad. “You alright? Nothing serious?”
Samuel nodded, pushing himself to a standing position.
Leizu gazed up the stairwell. Red lightning crackled around her left arm. Her Joining Vocation.
Samuel’s eyes widened, and he grabbed Eliya and Tasia, pulling them down the stairs to the lower levels. Leizu crouched, red lightning building, and snapped up, leaping out of sight.
The rest of Chimera squad crouched under a door frame, gripping it to brace themselves.
A low boom rang out high above them, and the building shook. The glass windows at the end of the hall shattered, and dust rained down on their heads.
The aches faded, and Samuel ran back up the stairs. Tasia followed after him, with a limping Eliya.
They passed Green Hands, lying on the stairs or the hallway, covered in bullet holes and bruises.
Near the top floor, a massive hole had been blown in the side of the building, taking out a chunk of the wall spanning several floors. The two enemy projectors – the pepper gas one and the itchiness one – had vanished. Leizu stood in their place, near the top of the steps. She leaned on a railing, out of breath.
“Scholars,” said Eliya. “Thank fuck you’re on our squad.”
They emerged onto the roof, back into the rainstorm. Lightning flashed in the grey sky, followed by the roar of thunder.
The roof was empty, save for a group of five individuals, crouching behind a large pipe and keeping their heads down.
A boy with a grey beanie, clutching a machine pistol in a shaking hand, rain soaking into her ratty coat and blue combat suit. No, not a boy – someone wearing a boy’s chassis, covering up her withered hair. Anabelle Gage. With her knelt a girl and a boy, Ilaquan, holding a shotgun and a sniper rifle, respectively, eyes flitting over Chimera. Hira Kahlin, with some other southerner. An old Shenti man with a long, wispy beard. Jun Kuang.
And Nell, wearing a boy’s body, brown-haired and freckled and lanky.
She looked at Samuel, and the two made eye contact. Her eyes widened, and her grip tightened on the brown briefcase by her side.
Neither of them spoke, or gave away much with their expressions. But Samuel felt a warm swelling in his chest. I’m glad you’re alive. But he didn’t say that out loud.
Gunshots rang out in the distance. Samuel glanced up at the neighboring buildings, where the noise came from.
Next to the apartment, a ruined tower stretched above them, an abandoned construction project filled with half-finished rooms.
A dark figure flew through the rain, leaping from floor to floor. A dozen rifles floated around him, shooting one after the other. Pictogram.
Another figure chased after him, taller and larger, swinging two razor-thin swords, slicing through concrete and wood like they were made of air. The Obsidian Foil. Professor Oakes, darting behind cover, floating chunks of concrete around him to block gunshots.
For a few seconds, they danced back and forth. Oakes, trying to get close. Pictogram, swirling his rifles around him, shooting in patterns and keeping his distance.
Pictogram leapt down a floor, using the ceiling as cover, and Oakes sliced through it, dropping down on the Shenti sniper with a wave of rubble.
The swords moved in a blur, and the rifles sliced in half.
At the same time, something cut into Samuel’s leg. He winced, stinging pain arcing over his skin. A line of warm blood trickled down his pants.
As he glanced down, a piece of paper slid into his pocket, unseen by everyone except him.
Samuel looked back up. Nell was watching him, out of the corner of her eye. Sending me a message. A secret one. Why?
It would have to wait. He couldn’t read it in front of everyone else.
In the building above them, Pictogram ran back, with his rifles destroyed, shooting a handful of pistols to cover his retreat. A dozen Green Hands burst out of a door behind him, covering his retreat with shotguns. Four mobsters stepped up next to them, their hands swirling with fire and lightning and icicles.
Oakes flashed forward, his swords whipping through the air. A few gunshots went off, but none of them hit him. Before Samuel could blink, Oakes had passed through them all, dancing on the tips of his toes.
Blood spurted out of the enemies, and sixteen heads fell off their bodies. They hadn’t even touched him.
But in that handful of seconds, Pictogram had vanished into the stairwell.
“Come out and fight!” Oakes bellowed into the rain. “Coward!” He charged into the building, going out of sight.
More gunshots rang out, more shouts and the crackle of electricity. Samuel and the others watched for several minutes, no one speaking. The rain poured down around them, making it even harder to see the neighboring building. Samuel’s eyes flickered around, scanning for movement. Chimera Squad stood at the ready, prepared to fight, or flee sniper fire at a moment’s notice.
Oakes leapt back onto the roof, jumping from the ground to the top. He landed in a crouch and slung his swords on his back, projecting the blood out of them. “A man should face his enemy when he fights,” he grumbled. “Only a spineless worm uses such tactics.” He glanced at us. “Chimeras. Queen Sulphur. Are you alright?”
“I broke a few teeth,” said Eliya. She pointed to the still-dizzy Tasia. “And bookworm here’s still wobbling a bit, but she’ll be alright. Leizu, of course, hasn’t broken a single bone.”
“I drink a lot of milk,” said Leizu.
Anabelle Gage nodded. “We’re, um, we’re okay too.”
Professor Oakes walked towards Queen Sulphur, towering over them. “If it were up to me, brave soldiers, you’d all be given medals, and pardons, and a big, proper feast with crispy pork and mango!” His face fell. “But I am under the command of Paragon Academy, which finds you guilty of the following crimes, which I am required to list: Operating as illegal projectors, assaulting officers of the law, assaulting Guardians, resisting arrest, assault with a deadly weapon, murder, breaking and entering, and catfish poaching.”
“Catfish poaching?” said Gage.
“One time,” said Hira. “It was a bull market.”
“I’m here to take you all to a location. I can’t tell you where, but I’ll say this: it’s not a prison. Ousting law will be ignored, temporarily, for this transport.” He glanced at Chimera Squad, then Queen Sulphur. “Will you come peacefully?”
Say yes. Please say yes. If Queen Sulphur resisted arrest, it didn’t matter how skilled they’d become. The Obsidian Foil was Scholar-ranked. He would cut them apart in seconds, without even needing to draw his rapiers.
The mercenaries muttered amongst themselves for a few seconds. Then Gage nodded.
They floated themselves from the building to another building, then a different street. Oakes loaded them into a different van, larger, with no windows and a single light in the back. The door slammed shut, and they drove off, rain pattering on the metal roof.
Samuel looked at the members of Queen Sulphur, their weapons taken away, hands cuffed in front of them. Voidsteel locks, but not Voidsteel cuffs – a cheaper design, that would only take seconds to break. A mere formality from Oakes.
Hira Kahlin, the Ilaquan, stuffed her hands into the pockets of her orange blouse, and waggled her eyebrows at him. Jun Kuang, the Shenti bombmaker, flashed him a shy smile.
Anabelle Gage gave Samuel a nervous look out of the corner of her eye, shivering and hunched over, grey veins bulging in her wrists. She had been his first real enemy in the field. A frightening one, though he’d kept his cool throughout, even as she’d tricked him into chopping off Eliya’s hands, as she blew out his knee with a shotgun.
Feels like a century ago. Though it had happened less than a year before.
And Nell. The girl in the boy’s body, clutching his briefcase, avoiding his gaze, water dripping from her brown hair and her suit. I’ve failed you in so many ways. But he’d tried to cope, to deal with the loss and move on with the rest of his life.
Seeing her again just twisted the knife. And she slipped a message into my pocket.
Nell glared at Tasia, dissecting her old body’s inhabitant with her eyes. Tasia stared at her feet.
The van bumped, going over an uneven road. The old bombmaker spoke up. “I’m Jun Kuang,” he said. “You probably know that already, if you read the news.” He smiled at them. “I know the circumstances are weird, but, uh, thanks for saving us! Let’s do our best to keep the people here safe. It’s nice to meet you all!” He extended his hand out to Eliya, to shake.
Eliya didn’t shake his hand. No one replied, and an uncomfortable silence descended over the van, as the raindrops stopped overhead.
The van drove over a bump, then up some sort of ramp at an angle. Where are we going? The vehicle stopped, and the entire thing bobbed up and down. We’re on a boat, Samuel realized.
“So,” said Jun. “Does anyone know any good jokes?”
Leizu coughed. “What do you call someone who never wins at Shenti board games?” She waved her hands. “A Jao-Loser!”
Then Jun guffawed, doubling over with laughter. When nobody joined him, he trailed off into a nervous chuckle.
“I have one,” said Eliya. “What’s shriveled, ugly, and blew out my eye, chopped off my hands, and shot my favorite teacher in the pancreas?” She looked at Kuang, Gage, and Kahlin in order with her single eye.
Jun stroked his beard. “I don’t get it.”
“Easy, Eliya,” said Leizu.
“That was a pretty shallow dig,” said Hira. “But I’m not surprised.” She leaned back, closing her eyes. “Since you have no depth perception.”
Eliya stood up, lunging at her, and Leizu held her back with a hand. “I’d make you piss yourself,” she said. “But it could be a long ride, and I don’t want the van to smell.”
“Sorry for my temper, your ladyship,” said Hira. “I’m half on my period, and the other half hasn’t smoked for five hours. Makes it hard to cope with your loyalist death mobs. Or tolerate whaleshit attacking my friends.”
Two bodies? thought Samuel. That can’t be possible.
“Adam Lynde was my friend,” said Eliya. “And you blew off his leg with a shotgun.”
“Yeah,” said Hira. “Really missing my hookah.”
“Fuck you,” hissed Eliya. “And fuck your hookah. I hope you get lung cancer and die.”
“Me too!” snapped Hira.
One more hour in here, and we’ll all murder each other. Or worse, Leizu might make a second joke.
“Don’t worry,” said Leizu, to the bombmaker. One Shenti speaking to another. “Paragon isn’t going to abandon its citizens.” Its Shenti citizens. She smiled, though her eyes looked less certain.
Nell – the real Nell – opened her mouth to say something, holding up a hand.
Before she could speak, the boat jerked, coming to a stop. The back doors flew open, letting in flat grey light. Oakes stood on the deck of the ship, and motioned to them. “This way, chaps.”
He led Queen Sulphur and Chimera Squad out of the van, onto the back of a coast guard ship. They walked down a ramp, and Samuel recognized his surroundings in an instant.
Bartolet Naval Base. Concrete landing strips crisscrossed the ground ahead of them. Battleships, destroyers, and fueling ships stretched down the shore of the island, into the distance. A pair of zeppelins sat at the far end of the runway.
A massive grey aircraft carrier towered over the rest. The CNS Rhona. Admiral Ebbridge’s flagship. Sailors and mechanics ran in and out. Trucks drove around the airfield, carrying crates of equipment, and soldiers jogged in regimented lines over the damp asphalt. The moisture from the rain hung in the air, like another storm was about to start.
Samuel glanced behind him. The ships blocked his view of Elmidde and the mainland, but the capitol, and Mount Elwar stood only a few kilometers to the west.
Ahead, a dense forest covered the far half of the island, past the end of the naval base. It reminded Samuel of the forest near the top of Mount Elwar, surrounding Elmidde’s cable car station. A piece of untouched nature, surrounded by grey industry.
Oakes indicated his head, and the Chimeras all jogged forward, making a line behind the professor. Queen Sulphur followed their lead, despite their lack of military training.
Every few seconds, Samuel glanced back, making sure the mercs weren’t running away somewhere. It made for an odd sight, the five of them running with their hands cuffed.
As they ran through the base, others ran alongside them Men and women decked out in the latest combat armor, wearing the blue cloaks of Guardians.
Professor Tuft – Harpy – leading Ralph Corbiere and Cyclops Squad. Lady Olwen, accompanied by Sphinx Squad and a pair of Guardians Samuel didn’t recognize.
And across the grass, to Samuel’s left, on a different runway, a boy with pitch-black hair led a squad of other students to the same location. Lorne Daventry. With Deon, Naruhiko, and Matilla Geffray. Wearing an identical body, but without the broken nose Samuel had given him.
To Samuel’s right, the Symphony Knight, Lorne’s mother, sat on top of a crate and strapped on a suit of heavy plate mail. She tightened her arm guard, clenching her teeth.
Professor Oakes guided the Chimeras and Sulphurs into a domed building, through a wide set of double doors. As they passed the entrance, a woman checked their subconscious passwords and security questions, her voice whispering the questions. Then she posed a series of riddles to Queen Sulphur, one by one, and shined a flashlight into their pupils as they answered. Some bizarre identity check.
Samuel pushed in through a thick crowd of Guardians, all gathered around the outside of the room. In the process, Leizu and the bombmaker, Kuang, got a few hostile glares. A circular platform had been raised in the center of the room, a stage for important generals and officers to stand and give orders from.
Higher-level Guardians stood there, including General Benthey, Admiral Ebbridge, and the old man himself. Headmaster Tau, leaning against Lord Fabyan’s shoulder with a bemused expression frozen on his face. Professor Oakes leapt out of the crowd and landed on the platform, joining them. The Symphony Knight climbed up next to him, slow under the weight of her armor.
A narrow tower stretched out of the center of the platform, with a perch up top like a crow’s nest on a ship.
Samuel glanced back, as the doors swung shut behind them. We were the last to arrive.
Admiral Ebbridge floated to the top of the crow’s nest and snapped her fingers. The bustling noise in the room fell silent, and the domed ceiling lit up. Guardians at the edges of the room pressed their palms together, and different colors of paint shifted, sealed in by a narrow glass wall.
The paint morphed, forming a giant map of Elmidde and the area surrounding Mount Elwar. Midtown, Lowtown, and Hightown were marked with labels. Meteor Bay and the outer islands too, surrounded by deep blue water. Paragon Academy stood separate from the rest, a collection of multicolored shapes floating above Mount Elwar.
Nell moved around, shifting her head from side to side, trying to get a view of her mother. She stared up at her with eager eyes. She’s never going to welcome you back, thought Samuel. Best to realize that now and get it over with.
“Thanks to the recent broadcast on Verity,” shouted the admiral. “Public opinion has shifted! Only a hair, but it’s growing. Commonplace’s false image has shattered, and our most loyal supporters have rallied as one!”
Dozens of students and Guardians turned their heads, staring at the members of Queen Sulphur. The foreigners didn’t seem to mind, but Gage shrunk from the attention. Nell stood at attention, taking a dignified posture in her pimply male body, as if she’d never been Ousted.
“Early this morning,” said the Admiral. “Parliament traveled to Paragon for security, and conducted a vote in secret. With a narrow majority, they’ve authorized us to take broad military action against Commonplace and the mob.”
How about that? Some of the Humdrums had finally come around. They’d been tying up Guardians with red tape and bloated regulations for a decade. But when it counted, they knew, deep down, what every student at Paragon knew. We are the only thing that stands between them and chaos.
“Commonplace and the mob are diffuse groups,” said Ebbridge. “They hide in the shadows, operate through proxies and cells, move their bases of operations around and keep low-level soldiers in the dark. We have had difficulty pinpointing their leaders and critical points of failure.” A smile spread across her face. “Thanks to the work of Guardians around the country, we can now.”
Guardians around the country? That had to be a fake cover for the real source of the intel. How had Paragon found out so much about the enemy?
She clapped her hands, and red circles appeared on the map overhead, around at least a dozen places in Elmidde. The crowd murmured, staring up at the dome.
“We’re going to wipe out Commonplace,” she said. “We’re going to snuff out the Pyre Witch. And we’re going to do it today.”
Today? That was insane. Go on the attack while popular opinion was just starting to shift, while half the city was on fire? This had to be the worst possible time.
No, dummy, Nell’s voice said in the back of his head. It’s the perfect time. The enemy thinks we’re swamped, and they don’t know about the vote yet. Or that so many of their critical locations had been exposed.
The entire room broke out into applause. Samuel joined them, with the rest of Chimera Squad. Among Queen Sulphur, only Nell clapped.
“In one hour,” said Ebbridge. “We will hit these locations in unison. There will undoubtedly be heavy resistance. And if any of us finds one of the key figures in Commonplace, you are to radio the other teams, and keep them from escaping.“ Pictures appeared on the map, some precise, some little more than a sketch. “Their leader, a Humdrum wearing an aged Maxine Clive chassis. Or Grace Acworth, or Afzal Kahlin, or the enemy’s Shenti liaison, who goes by the moniker ‘Pictogram’.”
Jun Kuang, the bombmaker, raised a wrinkled hand, sticking out of the throng. “Excuse me. What about the street violence? And the mobs on Gestalt Island?” The Shenti slums.
Murmurs of discomfort drifted through the air. People stared at him, in confusion or irritation. Anabelle Gage stared at the ground, frozen in place like a statue.
“Gestalt Island is not our priority,” said Admiral Ebbridge. “Let’s move on.”
Admiral Ebbridge described the teams, and the locations they’d been assigned, along with details of how to reach their targets without being seen, and how to counter the most likely resistance.
Then, she finished. “The nation, the people, the light.”
The crowd applauded again, and split into groups. Chimera Squad walked to the far end of the room, where the Symphony Knight was gathering her team. Samuel hung at the back, away from their gazes.
He glanced over at Nell. She stood next to the platform, looking up.
She was talking with Admiral Ebbridge. How is that legal? Her left hand folded a piece of origami – a fidget, getting faster and faster. But the look in her eyes wasn’t fear, or discomfort, but excitement. Samuel caught the words “Kahlin” and “debt”. They’re talking about the money the Ebbridges owe to the Broadcast King.
While Chimera Squad looked away from him, Samuel pulled the bloody piece of paper from his pocket, and read Nell’s message out of the corner of his eye. It’s conjecture. A false hope. But was it possible now? Was it possible?
He read the paper again.
It was all my fault
But I’m fixing it, too
And I’m coming home
Samuel thought about it.
He didn’t smile.