11-D – Max

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This is real, thought Max.

It had to be.  Anything else was too good to be true.

Her body ached all over.  Stabbing pains from the top of her skull to her toes, and burning lines across her skin, where her wounds had been stitched back together.  When she’d moved to get in bed, she could feel the bones and muscles shifting inside her, and the pain tripled.

Soft, nostalgic swing music drifted out of her front door, blared on speakers inside the dark hallway.  “Sway on the blue, skip on the sea, dance on the waves with me.

Max jerked awake in bed.  She pushed herself upright, sweeping aside her covers and sitting at the edge, hands flat on her scarred thighs.  The movement sent screaming pain into her back and ribs, but she did it anyway.  Now, she had no chance of falling asleep.

The music washed away the exhaustion, pushing it to the fringes of her consciousness.  In an instant, sleep could rush forward and overwhelm her.  But for now, she had no choice but to face the world.

An instant later, the overhead light flicked on, a warm, orange glow from the ceiling lamp.  It illuminated her smooth hardwood floors and bright yellow walls.  A large stuffed whale named Clement sat in the corner, the perfect size to be hugged, and a handful of yellow shirts and pants sat folded in a cabinet, all identical, next to a tall painting of a happy golden retriever, staring at Max with excitement.

It looked like a strange, tacky hotel room.

A nurse opened the door and stepped in, wearing a traditional white dress with an apron and cap.  Max didn’t know any of their names.

No lock on the door.  Why bother?  The facility had far more effective methods of managing its subjects.

As usual, the nurse said nothing.  She’d come here hundreds of times without speaking a single word.  Sometimes, Max wondered if she had a deep voice, like an opera singer, or if she was mute.

The nurse reached for the metal device at her neck.  A clicker, like the kind you used to train dogs.

She pressed the button.  Click.  Then she whistled a pair of notes.

In response, Max stood up, the overwhelming compulsion taking hold of her again.  She didn’t bother trying to fight it.  It was pointless, in this place.

Max made her bed, smoothing out her sheets with a light, precise touch, sweeping off bits of dust with her fingers.  She stripped off her shirt and pants and underwear from yesterday.  Then she walked across the room, naked, and stuffed her clothes in a laundry bag by the door.

She avoided looking down at her body, at everything that had been done to it.  One glance would be enough to provoke a wave of disgust and horror.

The nurse stared at her, bored, as Max pulled on a fresh pair of yellow pants and a shirt, and stood at attention by the door.

Another nurse pushed a metal cart down the hallway, sliding small metal pill boxes into every door slot.  She passed by Max’s room, and handed a pillbox to her nurse.

The nurse gave it to Max, then pointed at the clock hanging on the wall.  8:01 am.

The compulsion took hold of Max again, and she walked back to her bed, opening the case and setting it on her bedside table.

In two smooth motions, she picked up the tiny metal straw and snorted the line of blue powder inside.  Then she picked up the empty pillbox and showed it off to the nurse.

The people who worked here called it Nudge Powder.  As far as Max could guess, it reinforced the commands they’d already given her, extending the effects as long as she kept taking it.

Then, back to the door.  Standing at attention again.

The nurse did two clicks, and another whistled note.  Follow.  She strode off, and Max followed, every step sending pain arching up her legs.

When no one was looking, the subject across from her held his door slot open and peeked through, his eyes glinting at Max.

Then he winked at her.

What?  That wasn’t supposed to happen.  The commands should have locked him in place.  Maybe she’d imagined it.

The nurse opened a door, and led Max out of the residential building, into the soft morning sunlight.

Max squinted, gazing forward.  The sun rose ahead of her, burning into her eyes, but she couldn’t turn her head away.

Silence gripped the complex.  Nobody else walked around outside, except for the two of them, and no sound came from the smooth wooden buildings and dark windows all around them.

Just Max and her nurse, striding down a stone path through a field of buttercups.  Packed together, the yellow petals made a thick, floral stench, choking her nostrils.

This is all so detailed.  The smells, the pains, the chilly air.  The sunlight, reflecting off dew droplets, making sparkling points of light.  What kind of dream would have this?

But at the same time, this all felt like a dream.  Like everything had already been preordained, and she was just watching herself as a puppet.

A cloud passed across the sun, turning everything flat and grey.  A breeze blew through the flowers, making a soft, piercing whistle.  Even the wind sounds wrong here.

The nurse led her up a stone staircase, and over a bridge spanning a river.  Beneath the bridge, the river became a rushing waterfall, pouring into the massive pit at the center of the island, thousands of feet deep and hundreds of feet wide.

A pitch-black pool sat at the bottom, and despite all the crashing water, none of it made a sound.  The river, the waterfall, the pool at the bottom, all dead silent, an oppressive stillness that engulfed it in a cloud.

Everything about it felt wrong.  Max wanted to sprint away from this watery void, to run and run and run and not look back, to leave this island and never get within a thousand miles of it.

But she couldn’t control her body.  So she kept walking.

The nurse led Max into a smaller building at the top of the hill, and through another hallway, to a series of rooms with white noise machines placed outside.  She took her into the one at the end of the hall, opening the door for her.

Inside, sunlight shone through pairs of thin curtains, illuminating a slender Nekean woman on a couch chair.  She looked up at Max, giving her a wan smile.  A therapist?

Another clicker from the nurse, and a trio of notes.  Another command.  Stay in this room until further instructions.  No violence.  Obey future orders.  And another clicker signal after that.  Speech is allowed, but only with full honesty.

Then the nurse left, closing the door behind her.

Max sat down on the opposite couch chair.  What else could she do?  Standing exhausted her.

The therapist woman poured her a cup of warm tea and handed her a stuffed whale to hold onto.  “His name is Clement,” she said.  Behind her, a floating pen scribbled on a notepad.  Max took the tea, and set the plushie next to her.

Neither of them said anything for a few seconds.  Finally, Max spoke through cracked lips.  “Are you here to help me get better?”

“No.”  The therapist shook her head, regretful.  “Do you recognize me?”

Max squinted at her sharp, angular features, her black hair and light brown skin.  “I’m not sure,” she said.  In this place, her memories all blurred together in a messy stew.

The therapist raised an eyebrow at that, but didn’t pursue the subject further.  “Your dreams,” she said.  “The new ones.  Tell me about them.”

“Really?” Max said.  “I’m sure you’d find them silly.”

“I doubt it,” the therapist said.  “Go on.”

“I dreamt that I built an army,” said Max, smiling.  “A movement against some of the strongest beings in the world.  And we made it with line cooks and janitors and tired factory workers.  The common foundation.”

“How?” said the therapist.

“The odds were against us.  The enemy had more money, more power, more raw intellect.  And many of my allies tried to control me, seeing me as some fool they could puppet.  But we did it anyway.”

The therapist scribbled in her notepad, staring at Max.

“So much fighting.”  Max closed her eyes.  “I stained my hands with blood, again and again.”  She sipped her tea, letting the mug warm up her shaking hands.  “But it was alright.  Because that meant someone else could stay clean.  I could be the villain, if it meant my friends could rise above me and make something beautiful out of it.”

The therapist poured Max another cup of tea.

“And the plan,” said Max.  “My plan.  We were so close,” she whispered.  “We stood on the precipice of the final battle, a single masterstroke to turn the tables in our favor.”  She sighed.  “And then I woke up here.  Same as always.”  She chuckled.  “All this over a stupid letter.”

“A letter?” said the therapist.  “Why don’t you start from the beginning?  Tell me about the letter.”

“I don’t want to,” said Max.  “But I don’t have a choice, do I?”

The therapist shook her head.

Max leaned back, sipped her tea, and began.

________________________________________

Max was late.

But that was alright.  She was fast.

Max held her bike in one hand, leaning off the side of the tram as it climbed up the slopes of Mount Elwar.  It passed by bakeries and flower shops and shoemakers, moving from Midtown into the taller buildings of Hightown.  Men and women bustled about in dresses and wide-brimmed hats, riding bicycles and horse-drawn carriages.

The wind blew over her, flapping her dress.  One of the chrysanthemums braided through her blonde hair got loose, and drifted away in the breeze.  She reached out to catch it, and almost let go of her bike.

An updraft caught the red petals, and they glided away towards the ocean, like some strange, floral bird.  Max watched it shrink in the horizon.

When she looked forward again, the tram had reached the elevation she needed.  Two blocks above Garden Street.  The car rumbled up the metal tracks, and she tensed her legs, aiming at an empty patch of cobblestone with no pedestrians.

“Hey!” shouted the tram conductor.  “Don’t!  It’s not safe!”

Max leapt off.  And for a moment, it felt like she was flying.  She laughed, midair, vaulting her legs over the bicycle as men and women stared at her, dumbfounded.

Then, the wheels slammed onto the ground, and Max shot forward.  She pumped her legs on the pedals, accelerating until her flowery hair streamed behind her and her thighs burned.

Max zipped through a day market, past strolling couples and housewives and food carts.  A farmer yelped in front of her, carrying a massive crate full of fruit.  She jerked the bike to the side, wove around him, and leaned over, grabbing a peach and tossing a handful of coins in its place.  All without slowing down.

“Sorry!” she shouted, stuffing the peach into her mouth.  She needed to eat more fruit in her life.  Her favorite food was bacon, which couldn’t be good for her long-term health.

Max shot across a bustling street, leaning left, then right to drive around carriages.  One of the horses neighed and whinnied at her as she biked in front of it.  Her leg muscles ached, but she didn’t slow down.  I’m late, I’m late, I’m late.

It wasn’t her fault.  The courier assigned to this package got a flat tire on her bike, and Max had to pick up the slack with no time to spare.  For every late minute, her boss would dock a pound from her already-tiny payment.  And even a broom closet in Lowtown came with some pretty steep rent.

And, on top of all that, Max just felt bad when she delivered a late package.  She loved when she dropped off something important, right on time or early, and saw their faces light up.  Max would smile at them and chirp “have a splendid day!”, and she would always get a solid tip.  Even from the initially hostile ones.  Being pretty helped with that, of course.  Most of the bicycle girls in her company didn’t have her clear skin or high cheekbones.

The best ones were late-night cake delivery on the weekends.  Hungry, drunk college students who would cheer and hug her when she arrived, then ooh and ah when she opened the box, like they were seeing the Great Scholars themselves reborn.  Then they would tip her like they were millionaires, despite being broke.

The research building high up at the top of Darius Street enjoyed late-night cakes too, though they always asked for it at a side entrance, not the giant oak doors out front.

Abroad, Elmidde had a reputation for rudeness, but the haters were all wrong.  The average folk of this city were breathtaking.

Whoever needed this envelope, Max wanted them to be happy.

Though she had to admit, she loved the thrill, too.  When she darted the bicycle around people and dumpsters, down stairways and through quiet alleys, it felt like a musical instrument in her hands.  She could lose herself in the motion, forget everything else and treat it as an exciting game.

And forgetting was important.  When she got home, all the mundane cruelties of her life crashed over her, impossible to ignore.  Filling out basic assistance forms, scrubbing her bathroom, washing dirty clothes for hours and still getting flea bites afterwards.

And the dishes.  So many dishes.  The moment she finished them, she would blink, and her kitchen sink would be overflowing with them again.

Sometimes, she would interview for office jobs, ones that paid many times better than her current gig.  In between mind-numbing explanations of their filing system, her would-be bosses slung the worst possible question at her: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Doing dishes, she would think.  Bleeding out of my ears.  What a stupid, terrifying question to ask a nineteen-year-old.

“That’s life, idiot,” said her current boss, Jonathan, when she brought it up to him.  “The magic drains out bit by bit, your skin wrinkles, and eventually, you get tuberculosis and die.”

“Well,” she’d mumbled.  “I guess I’ll find my own magic.”

Easier said than done.  Parading around the city with flowers in her hair could only do so much.

Max snapped herself back to reality, and a car slammed into her.

In an instant, the bike vanished beneath her, and she flew forward, arms and legs flailing in the air, the half-eaten peach knocked out of her mouth.  Tires screeched off to her side, and she slammed onto the cobblestone, skidding forward on her dress.

Max groaned, her head turned to the side.  Her palms and shins burned, scraped up on the ground, and her body ached all over.  Onlookers stared at her and approached, horrified.  Her bike slumped against a lamppost, bent up and mangled beyond repair.  There’ll be consequences for that.

A woman jumped out of the vehicle that hit her, one of those fancy new automobile machines that rich folk showed off these days.  She ran towards Max, lifting her lace gown to free her legs.  “Scholars, are you alright?”

Max blinked, and leapt up.  She’d strapped the envelope to her back, not her bicycle.  Maybe there’s still time.

She sprinted forward, taking off down the side street.  Blood trickled out of her scraped hands, and she wiped them on her dress.  Max had a few aches, and her skin stung, but other than that, she felt fine.  So she doubled her pace, pumping her arms and clenching her teeth.

After five minutes of running, she arrived at the address, an expensive office building, complete with smooth marble floors and a water wall trickling behind the front desk.

Scholars.  This client was rich.

“Good afternoon,” said the secretary at the desk.  “Would you care to sign in and give the name of who you are here to – “

Max sprinted past her, taking the stairs four at a time.  Room 709.  On the seventh floor, she jogged down the hallway and shoved open the ninth door, staggering in, gasping for air.

This office looked even gaudier than the lobby, boasting floor-to-ceiling windows, gold filigree at the edges of furniture, and a chandelier in place of normal lights.

One glance at the clock told her the time.  Half an hour late.

Another secretary sat at the desk, and an older businessman stood next to her, scowling.  Max bowed to both of them, extending the envelope, and spoke in a single breath.  “So sorry I’m late sir please excuse my transgression!”

The man looked at her for a second, then tapped the desk.  Max set down the envelope there, taking care not to stain it with the blood from her palms, then backed up.

She gave him her sweetest smile.  “Have a pleasant day, sir!  Sorry again.”

The man leaned over his desk, scribbled a note, and handed it to his secretary.  “Enjoy the job hunt,” he said.

Max froze.  What?  “Ex – excuse me, sir?” she said.

“Enjoy the job hunt.”  He motioned to his secretary, and she picked up the note, walking to the door.

Did he just fire me?  Could he do that?  Had he written a letter to Jonathan, her boss at Swiftfoot Couriers?

Max’s stomach dropped.  A cold, prickling sensation spread over her skin, like she’d just been dunked in ice water.  He can’t do that.

“Please,” said Max.  “I need this job.  I picked up a late order from another courier, and got hit by a car on Tempest and Buxren.  I had to run the rest of the way.”  She held up her scraped palms as evidence.  “I did everything I could.  Please, sir.”

He raised an eyebrow, looking her up and down.  “You got hit by a car?  And then you ran here all the way from Tempest and Buxren?”  The man raised a hand, and the secretary stopped by the door.

Yes, yes.  He’ll understand, he has to.  “Yes, sir,” she said.  “That’s what happened.  It broadsided me.  Knocked me right off my bike.”

The man folded his arms, glancing at her leg muscles.   “You’re pretty strong, aren’t you?  Pretty healthy.”

Scholars, I hope he’s not hitting on me.  “Um, yes, sir.”

“And you are very pretty.”

Max squeezed her eyes shut.  “Yes,” she muttered.

The man leaned over and wrote another letter, then handed it to his secretary.  Am I not fired?  Was this canceling his previous order?

“You are not special,” he said, sitting back down at his desk.  “But this envelope was.  In this nation, you must earn your fare.  If you don’t do your job, you are not entitled to anything.”

His secretary opened the door, and he looked away from her, reading from some manila folder.

The world fell out from under Max again.  A vacuum opened inside her chest, a hollow space growing and growing, swelling up to fill her whole body.

“That’s all?” she spat out, unable to help herself.  “You destroyed my career, and that’s all you have to say to me?”

He glanced up at her with confusion.  “Destroyed?  You live in a thriving metropolis, at the forefront of the industrial era.”  He snorted.  “If you can’t find another job, then I’m not the problem.”  He went back to his reading.

Max stared at him, clenching her fists, taking short, sharp breaths.  A wave of dizziness washed over her.

“Tell Jonathan I said hello,” he said.

________________________________________

Max lay in bed and scratched off lottery tickets.

She knew it made no sense.  Max was more likely to be eaten by a lantern whale in the desert, than to win the lottery.

But Max didn’t buy them for the reward.  She bought them for the hope.  When she scratched that slip of paper, there was a chance, however slim, that everything might turn around, that the winds of fate would lift her into the comfortable lifestyle of her fantasies.

She scratched off the numbers.  Nothing.

Max sagged back on the bed.  She reached into her box of takeout bacon, pulled out a strip, and stuffed it into her face, savoring the salt and grease and crunch.  She couldn’t afford splurge food right now, but fuck it, this might be her last nice moment for a while.  Delayed gratification only made sense when you had a future.

She reached again into the takeout box.  Empty.  Max sighed, and flipped over in bed, staring around her dimly lit room.

The listing had called it a studio, but that was generous.  Max’s apartment could barely fit her bed, a pile of clothes on the floor, and a closet stuffed with clutter.  Dust and crumbs covered the floor, and an empty can of lentils sat in the corner, next to her bag of toiletries.

This was my career high, thought Max.  And now, she’d be unable to afford even this rent.

She closed her eyes.  The sounds of a party across the street drifted into her window.  Guitar music and cheering and drunken laughter.  That made her feel even worse.

Maybe I should get a cat, she thought.  Or a dog, maybe.  Dogs were more outgoing.

They can keep you company while you beg for quarters on main street.  Her landlord already hated her, glaring at her every time she asked him to fix the heat, like she was some spoiled diva asking for a crown.  And she’d had several late months of rent already.

No, no, don’t think about that.  She had to take her mind off that, do something else.  But she felt too wired to go to sleep, after the events less than a week ago, even though her scrapes and bruises had already healed, for the most part.  And she’d already used all her scratcher tickets.

Max glanced over at her mail, a pile of letters next to the foot of the bed that she’d been avoiding for a month.

It wasn’t ideal, but maybe it could distract her for a minute or two.

Max crawled out of bed, with the covers still wrapped around her, and grabbed the pile.  She slumped back on her mattress and started reading.

Late bills, insurance offers, marketing pamphlets, and junk addressed to old tenants of the building.  All dull, frustrating, or scary.  Not good distractions.

And then, at the bottom, a silver envelope, shining in the dim light, made of some strange material that didn’t feel like paper, and didn’t rip, no matter how hard Max pulled at it.  She read the address.

Ms. Maxine Clive
21 Calfren Street, Apt. 9
Elmidde, 604-C

Who on earth would be sending her mail like this?

Max opened it, peeling back the adhesive and looking at the letter within, written in an elaborate filigree cursive.

Dear Ms. Clive,

I am delighted to inform you that our admissions committee has offered you a place in this year’s class at Paragon Academy.  Please accept my congratulations for this momentous achievement.  Our admissions committee evaluated tens of thousands of candidates, and only accepted those with the greatest potential.

As you have been living with Humdrums for the past nineteen years, this may come as a surprise to you.  You may see yourself as ordinary, simple, an unemployed ex-courier with no friends, no future.  But deep down, you’ve always known.  Something was missing from your life, something deep and important and profound that you could never articulate.

You were incomplete, because you didn’t know the truth.  You are a projector, like the Great Scholars of old and the Conclave of the Wise, blessed with the ability to wield your soul as the ultimate tool.  An entire world exists beneath the surface of your existence, filled with endless possibility.

You, Maxine Clive, hold limitless potential.  If you want to go on with your current life, simply throw away this letter, and you will forget all in a matter of weeks.

But if you want to strive.  If you want to become an Exemplar, please report to 16 Elwar Boulevard on 9/2 at 8 am for your screening and pre-orientation.

The door is open.  We await you.

Sincerely,
Nicholas Tau
Headmaster

Max choked, dropping the letter.  What?  That was impossible.  Were they talking about magic?  If this was a scam, how did they know so much about her?  And why use such a strange story?

This was a dull world, an agonizing world of dishes and fleas and high rent.  This letter was too good to be true, too strange and outlandish, like the bedtime stories she’d heard as a child.  Logically, like, a lottery ticket, the odds of this being real were absurd.  Beyond absurd.

But Max wanted to believe it anyway.  She wanted to hope.

9/2 was just a week from now.  Elwar Boulevard was on the far side of town.

Max looked down at her apartment, the dirt, the crumbs, the pile of bills, the space where her bike used to sit.

It was the easiest decision she’d made in her life.

________________________________________

Max stowed the letter under a floorboard.  Other notes in the envelope had warned her that people outside the secret world couldn’t know the truth.  Humdrums, they were called.  People without magical abilities.

So, just in case, she kept it there, in a place her landlord wouldn’t find it, if he ever came snooping around.

Then, she went to 16 Elwar Boulevard, on 9/2, on a morning at the very end of summer.  It led to an abandoned community center in Lowtown, some building that had closed down half a decade ago without any new tenants.

Max rang the doorbell.  Nothing.  She knocked on the door, rapping the peeling paint with her knuckles.  “Hello?”

Silence.

Max grabbed the handle and turned it.  The door was unlocked.  It creaked when she pushed it open, and she stepped in.

The community center was empty.  A thin layer of dust covered the floor, and a corkboard hung from the wall with flyers tacked on.  This doesn’t feel like a magic school.  Though, to be fair, they probably wouldn’t have it out in the open.

She stepped into the main room, an auditorium of sorts.  Dim afternoon light filtered in through the windows, casting soft shadows on the empty hardwood floor.

Two pieces of furniture sat in the room: a wicker chair, and a wooden desk.  They had been cleaned, free of dust, unlike the rest of the space.  A card with a note sat on the desk, next to a bell.  The same ink and cursive as the letter.

Max pulled out the chair and sat down.

Sit

“Hello?” she said, again.  Still nothing.

She pressed the button on the bell, ringing it.

The sound echoed around the room, a soft, clear peal bouncing off the walls.

Don’t move.”  A cold, genderless voice rang out from around Max, vibrating out from the walls and desk and floor, all at the same time.  “Don’t say anything.

A thick, soft force wrapped around Max’s thoughts, and tightened.  It felt like someone was pouring sugary, lukewarm tea down her throat, choking her with its sweetness.

An overwhelming urge seized hold of Max, and she froze, forcing her lips shut.  She couldn’t move, or talk, no matter how hard she tried.  She didn’t feel like either of those things, no matter how much she wanted to.  A strand of hair fell over her forehead, itching, but she couldn’t reach up to brush it aside.

A thrill seized hold of her.  The letter is real, magic is real.  But this didn’t feel right.

Max shivered, despite the heat.

The voice continued.  “Follow these instructions without deviating.  Do not share these instructions with anyone, or divert from your path for any purpose.  Nod if you understand.

A wave of dread washed over Max.  Please, let this be a step of admission.  Let this be something deep, and profound, and the beginning of a thrilling adventure.

Max hoped.  As her stomach dropped, and the fear swelled in her chest, she hoped.

And she nodded.

________________________________________

Max walked down the pier, following the whispered instructions.  On the way here, she’d tried breaking free of its compulsion.

Stop walking for one second, she told herself, as she strode down the sloped street through Lowtown.  Just for one second, don’t take a step.

But it never worked.  No matter how hard she tried, no matter what willpower she pulled from the depths of her soul, the force soaked deep into her skull, inexorable, invincible.

It was important to go here, to do this exact chain of events.  Max had to obey.

On the long wooden pier, Max joined a line of men and women.  All young and fit – her age or a few years older.  A thick layer of morning fog surrounded the group, cutting them off from the rest of the city.

They all stood, silent, unmoving, waiting to get on a large black ferry ship at the far end.  It looked boring, identical to hundreds of other cheap ocean liners, huge steam exhaust pipes sticking out of the top.  The only notable trait was the lack of windows, and a flat sheet of metal where the name of the ship would usually be painted.

A chill breeze blew across the pier, making Max shiver.  The line moved forward ahead of her, person by person.  The boy in front of her stepped forward, and she stepped with him, in perfect lockstep.

No one else came by.  A thick grey fog closed in from the ocean, swallowing half the pier, and half of the ship they were all boarding.  And no one spoke.

Max stood like this for an hour, stepping forward every now and then, as the sun rose before her, dim behind the clouds.  The dread grew and grew in her stomach.

Half an hour again, water dripped off the pants of the boy ahead of her.  He pissed himself.  The orders didn’t give room for bathroom breaks.

Finally, she walked up a gangplank, past a bored-looking man leaning against the side, who clicked a metal counter as she approached.  He wore a white sailor’s outfit, but nothing that resembled any country’s uniform.  Who are these people?

Max stepped next to him, and he opened a metal pillbox, filled with a line of blue powder.  He held it up to her, and she leaned down, snorting it.  As per the instructions.

The sailor waved her forward, and she stepped onto the ship.

With that, the hellish voyage began.  She and the others slept in cramped bunks, dozens fitted into a single tiny room, the ship overflowing with people.

During the day, she lay in her bed.  Fleas infested the fabric of her hammock, and before long, her ankles and armpits were covered in itchy red bites.  And she couldn’t even lift her hand to scratch them.

She and the other prisoners received bathroom breaks several times a day, along with hard sticks of protein and glasses of water.  When they took bathroom breaks, they were given lines of blue powder to snort too, which produced a pleasant buzz in the back of her mind, like she’d just downed a shot of whiskey.  Other than that, she had no idea what it did.

The soldiers that corralled the prisoners didn’t speak a word to them.  And the prisoners stayed silent, too, still bound by their initial commands.

So they just lay there, like corpses.  The room had no windows, lit only by a single grey bulb overhead.  Neither did the bathroom, or the hallway between the room and the bathroom.  Max went the entire voyage without seeing a glimmer of sunlight, turning the entire voyage into a strange, surreal affair, neither night nor day.

It felt like Max was in a dream, drifting through the world, puppeteered by unseen masters.  Nothing feels real anymore.  The dread and horror gripped her heart, but over time, they melted into a stew of apathy and exhaustion.

Some time into the voyage, a girl on the hammock above her got sick, some coughing disease that covered her skin in red patches.

The sailors took one look at her, and made some hand motions, making her stand up and leave the room.  The girl stumbled forward, weak, and followed the guards out, her dark brown hair coated with sweat.

Later, when the others were asleep, Max overheard her first conversation with the sailors outside the door.

“What if the others in this room get sick?” said one guard.

“It’s not airborne, and even if they all catch it, it’ll just get a few dozen at most,” said another.  “Those are manageable numbers.”

But no one else got sick.  And Max never saw that girl again.

Time was a swirling ocean of currents.  Max had no idea how long it had been.  But after several days or weeks, the boat stopped bobbing in quite the same way.  We must have stopped.

A sailor came into the room and clapped his hands three times.  Max climbed out of her hammock and down to the ground, along with all the rest of the prisoners.  Another motion from the sailor, and they strode out into the hallway, joining another huge line on the ship, snaking through the dark metal corridors.

After an hour of shuffling forward, Max stepped around a corner and out into the blinding sunlight.  It glared in her face, making her eyes burn as she walked down the gangplank.  She could squint, but the orders stopped her from covering her eyes.

When her vision cleared, she gazed up at their destination.  An island.  Small, barely more than a few miles wide.  Dark, rocky cliffs towered above Max at the front.

Men and women filed up a staircase carved into the stone, still silent.  The only sound was the wind, and the crash of the waves against the island’s shores.

As Max walked up the staircase, a sharp, floral scent filled her nose, growing stronger until it became overwhelming.

When Max reached the top, she saw where it came from.  Fields and fields of buttercups, a bright, yellow carpet covering the entire island from end to end.

On a postcard, it might have been picturesque, but here, it looked unsettling.  A flat, dense thicket of flowers that didn’t look natural, that flooded your senses and drowned out everything else.

You could hide a body in those flowers, thought Max, and they’d still cover up the stench.

Wooden buildings had been scattered through the buttercups, with stone paths connecting them.  The architecture felt comforting to look at, full of rounded corners, smooth surfaces, and open spaces with large windows.  It reminded Max of photos she’d seen of luxury spas.

The men and women split into separate lines, filing towards different buildings throughout the complex.  A sailor led Max and a hundred others to the left, and they walked towards a building on the far end of the island.

As they approached it, they passed a chest-high fence on their right, blocking a massive pit at the center of the island.  Max could only move her eyes, unable to turn her head, but even at this angle, she got a sense of its incredible size.

The pit stretched at least a hundred feet down, deeper than anything similar she’d seen.  A waterfall rushed over the edge, crashing into the pool at the bottom, but like the prisoners, it made no sound.  A normal waterfall sounded like a symphony of white noise.  But this one had been stifled.  Leashed.

This island isn’t natural.  It felt like a frayed cable, completely still, wound tight, but on the verge of snapping.  The pit was a gaping wound cut in the heart of the world, leading to a place no human should travel to.

I need to get away from this place.

And with that, Max’s stay at Buttercup Lodge began.

From that moment forward, the world turned into monotonous chaos.

She slept in a warm room with no windows and a whale plush named Clement in the corner.  In the morning, she woke up, snorted a line of blue powder, brushed her teeth in her marble sink, took a shower in the sparkling clean bathroom at the end of the hall, and changed into a clean set of yellow pajamas.  But sometimes she would be woken up in the afternoon, or the middle of the night.  The scientists kept her schedule random, switching around events, adding or removing things for no visible reason.

Then, a nurse would form a line with her and the other prisoners, and send them on a jog through the buttercups, running a loop around the edge of the island.  None of them said a word to her, giving orders through whistled notes and clicks on a metal device.

As part of their route, they ran around the edge of the pit.  A short wooden fence kept them from falling, but Max still felt a chill every time they passed by it.

From this angle, Max got a better look at the bottom of the pit, and the silent pool with the waterfall rushing into it.  It looked deep, far deeper than sea level, but Max could still make out a wide, short cave at the bottom, with a platform next to the edge of the water.  On some days, she saw a line of prisoners standing there, or a pair of scientists in white lab coats.

Once or twice, one of them would step out of the running line and stop, indicating that they had some injury or illness.  A nurse would take them by the shoulders, guiding them aside with a soft hand, towards the stone staircase near the center of the island, descending underground into the island.

Max didn’t know for sure, but she was fairly certain they led down to the pit.  To the bottom.

As they walked into the darkness, their expressions were blank, but Max could see tears running down their cheeks.

Even the patterns of day and night were strange here.  Sometimes, the night would last for weeks, the sun never coming up.  Or a day would last ten times as long, the sun taking its sweet time dragging itself across the sky.  Sometimes, noon would turn into midnight in five minutes, then back again, the sun replaced by the moon, or vice versa.  Time itself became an element of chaos, impossible to track.

None of the nurses talked within earshot, and none of the prisoners talked either.  So, though  Max saw dozens of people every day, she never exchanged a single word.  She became familiar with noises – the creak of hardwood under her feet, the breeze through the flowers, the waves crashing against the shores in the distance.  But no human sounds – not even cries of pain or anger, or grunts of effort.

The stench of buttercups was impossible to escape.  When she walked outside, while she showered, when she ate boiled eggs in the mess hall for every meal, and when she lay on her feather bed, unable to even toss and turn.  It made her nauseous, even after she had weeks to get used to it.

Every few days, one of the nurses would take her to a cramped, quiet room with padded yellow walls, like the kind used to practice music.  They would sit her on a wicker chair in the middle, leave, and turn off the lights.

And then, they peeled apart her mind.

In a given session, any number of random things could happen to her.  The world would spin around her, and the dark walls would melt into a soup of blacks and greys, swirling around her in endless patterns.  Waves of disgust would crash into her, and her flesh would turn into a sea of sprouting mushrooms, a tapestry of mycelium and writhing stalks.  She would tear into it with her fingernails, ripping out bits of her skin, making scabs up and down her legs.  Overwhelming despair and apathy would seep into her brain, and she would lie back on the chair, unable to summon the energy to move, praying for death.  Intense chills would run over her skin, like she’d been dunked in ice water in the coldest glacier in Shenten.

In many of the sessions, Max didn’t even know what they were doing to her.  She just sat in the chair, and waited, feeling nothing.

One day, in the mess hall, she dug into her boiled egg, and couldn’t taste it.  Two days later, the effect still lingered.  Then two weeks later.  Then more.  How many of these effects are permanent?

On one of the worst days, Max received a piece of paper from the nurse, with a message written on it:

Speak your name, and you may leave

The moment she finished those words, she opened her mouth to say her name.

And she couldn’t remember it.

She paced in the room for hours, tearing her hair out, hyperventilating, digging deep into the corners of her memory.  But it still eluded her.

After an eternity, a nurse came to guide her back to her room.  But the girl still couldn’t remember her name.  She knew where she came from, knew she’d been a bicycle courier, that she’d loved to braid flowers in her hair and deliver cakes to college students.

But the girl couldn’t speak her name.  When she brushed her teeth, she couldn’t recognize the stranger in the mirror, the young blonde with dark circles under her eyes.

So the girl went about her routine.  Watching the nurses guide prisoners up the hill, to a circular building in the distance, or down the stairs towards the pit.  Watching them disappear, one by one.  Jogging through the flowers with the rising sun.  Staring at the ceiling of her bedroom, or Clement the giant whale plush in the corner.

The seasons didn’t change the weather.  The nights stayed chill, and the days hot.  On some days, the fog wrapped the island in a grey prison.  On others, the sun beat down on the buttercups, soaking the girl in sweat.  The waves washed against the island.  Ships came, then they left.  New prisoners arrived, and were sent upstairs or down.

The girl had no calendar.  No scratches on the wall.  Maybe she’d been here for months.  Or years.  Maybe she’d lived on this island her whole life, and the old world was just a dream, another parasite they’d planted in her skull.

One night, for the first time in an eternity, the girl heard a voice.

Hey.  Hey.  Can you hear me?”  A man’s whisper, coming from outside her door, at some distance.  “Nod if you can hear me.  That’s a joke, I know you can’t move.

What?  None of the nurses ever spoke to her.  And the commands kept the prisoners from talking.

Another hallucination.  Like the experiments from earlier.  Some remnant left over after the scientists gave her multiple lobotomies with their strange magic.

The girl relaxed in her bed, staring at the dark ceiling.  I’ll need to get used to these.

Then, the metal slot on her door poked open.

Hi,” whispered the boy across from her.  He’d unbent two of his metal clothes hangers to form a long stick that he could push through her door.

The girl’s heart wrenched, and her throat tightened.  She would have jumped out of bed and shouted, if she were capable of movement.

But she could only look at him out of the corner of her eye, unable to turn her head.  Two orange eyes gazed at her from the room across the hall.  The boy moved his head, and the eyes were replaced by a mouth, curled in a mischievous smile.

I know you can’t talk back,” whispered the mouth.  “But that’s okay, because I love the sound of my own voice.”  He spoke with an accent of some sort, though the girl couldn’t piece together its origin.  “The nurses don’t bother checking in, since they’ve got all our minds melted into soup.

How, the girl shouted in her head.  How can you move?  Of all the unimaginable things that happened on this island, this seemed truly impossible.  Maybe I’m still dreaming.

I bet you don’t think I’m real,” said the young man, as if reading her mind.  “But that’s fine too.  I just wanted someone else to talk to.

Someone else?  Had he been talking to other people this whole time?

Buttercup Lodge,” he whispered.  “That’s the name of this place.  They’re doing some fascinating things here.”  His eyes glimmered.  “Fascinating.

The girl felt sick.  That’s the word you’re using?  After everything that had happened here?

They are playing our souls like lyres,” he said.  “And for now, their chords are harsh and clumsy.  But they are learning.”  His voice grew even softer.  “When they’ve mastered us, what sublime melodies shall they play?  And who is listening?

He’s mad, the girl thought.  Completely mad.

I read your file,” he said.  “You’re not a musician.  But you don’t dance to the tune of others either.  And you’ve survived this long.”  He smirked.  “Don’t tell anyone,” he hissed.  “But I think you’re going places.  I can’t wait to see the fun you’ll make.

After that, the girl would hear the boy’s ramblings almost every night, sometimes minutes, sometimes for hours on end.  He would speak on all manner of subjects – psychology, religion, philosophy, the Great Scholars.  Sometimes he would throw in strange words like “Praxis” or “Synapse”.

In her exhausted state, none of them made any sense to her.  And the girl couldn’t ask questions, so every lecture only made him more confusing.  The orders allowed her and the other prisoners basic freedom of movement with their mouths – probably so they didn’t choke.  She could spit, and move her tongue and lips, but was forbidden from talking, or sharing any kind of message.

As she listened to him over the nights, the girl got cleaning duty assigned to her.  Sweeping or mopping – simple tasks that didn’t require any language from the nurses.  Using prisoners cost less than shipping actual workers to a secret island.

The work carried her all over the island, except two places: Upstairs, to the top of the hill, and downstairs, towards the pit.

But still, as the girl swept the paved path, she got a clear glimpse of the waterfall and pool during the day.

On the third day of her sweeping, the girl saw a pair of prisoners at the edge.  A young man and a woman, Ilaquan or Nekean, maybe, from their brown skin.  Both of them wore diving helmets over their heads, connected to long air tubes stretching back into the cave.

A scientist in a yellow lab coat took notes behind them, then blew on a whistle.

In response, the man and woman stepped forward, climbing into a cage hanging over the black water, suspended by a chain and mechanism above.

Another whistle, and the chain lowered.  The pair sunk into the pool, vanishing with the cage.

They didn’t come up.  And the girl kept sweeping.  What else was she going to do?

The gaps in her memory broadened.  What else had her captors stuffed into her mind, all without her knowing?

Then, they gave her the worst experiment yet.

One day, when the girl went to the padded testing room, someone else was already there.

A boy, around her age, sitting on a couch chair in the center of the room.  Sweat coated his blonde hair, but other than that, he looked like a shriveled prune.  His skin had turned dry and flaky.  His lips cracked all over, and his eyes fluttered open and shut, exhausted.  Dehydration.  Or some sort of illness.

Another chair sat across from him, and a full pitcher of water sat on the table, next to a pair of glasses.  The instructions directed her to sit down.

And as the boy writhed and groaned across from her, they made her pour a glass of water, and drink it.  Right in front of him.

Then again, half an hour later.

And again.  And again.  And again.  As the boy wasted away in front of her, wheezing, desperate for water, but unable to reach out and grab it.

Tears ran down the girl’s face, and she hyperventilated, unable to show any other reactions.  She screamed in her mind, pushing back against the commands, willing her hands and arms to move, to fill the second glass with water.  To help the boy staring at her, begging her with his eyes.  The horror and rage built inside her until she felt ready to pop like a balloon.

But still, she followed the orders.  Every step.

She poured another glass for herself, and drank it.  I’m sorry, she thought.  I’m so, so sorry.

After another few hours, the man lay back against his chair, and stopped breathing.  And a nurse came in, to take her back to her room.

As the girl walked down the hallway, a scientist in a yellow lab coat stepped out of a side room, holding a notebook.  An observer for the test.  The man who’d orchestrated this, who’d killed a boy in front of her and forced her to watch.

He stretched his arms above him, and yawned.

Right in front of her.  He didn’t care.  To him, they were all just meat puppets, the girl included.

He walked towards another door.  And as he did, he passed by the girl, at the perfect angle, the perfect height.

The girl moved her lips, her tongue, her throat, the only parts of her body she could control here.  She pulled up a thick globule of saliva.

And she spat in his face.

The drool splattered onto the man’s cheek, and he staggered to the side, clutching it like a gunshot wound.

And the girl heard her first words from the employees at Buttercup Lodge.

“Fuck!” he yelled.  “Bitch.”  He wiped off the spittle with the sleeve of his coat, frantic, like it was poison.  “Upstairs!” he barked.  “Send her upstairs!”

They took her upstairs.

A nurse guided her out of the building and through the buttercups, using a clicker and whistle to direct her.  They guided the girl up a long staircase and over a bridge, overlooking the waterfall streaming below into the pit.  Towards the wooden building at the top of the hill, the highest point on the island.

It looked identical to every other wooden building in Buttercup Lodge: symmetrical, open, soaked in sunlight and painted with bright, inviting colors.

But of all the buildings in the complex, this was the only one the girl hadn’t been inside.

The nurse directed her into a large, pristine bathroom.  There, she stripped, and showered with antibacterial soap, scrubbing it into every inch of her skin.  When she got out, her old yellow uniform had been replaced with a hospital gown she had to drape over herself.

Then, they put her on a hospital bed, stuck an iv into her arm, and wheeled her through dark hallways as the girl’s stomachache grew, a swelling panic in her chest ready to explode and crash over her whole body.

They took her to a yellow room with bright lights and no windows, filled to the brim with masked doctors and instruments.  With a few more clicks and whistles, they moved her to a huge, flat metal table in the center of the room, wider and longer than the biggest bed she’d ever seen.

One of the doctors pulled off her mask, revealing a slender Nekean woman with a regretful expression.

Please, the girl begged with her eyes.  Don’t do this.  Please.

“Thank you,” she said.  “For this ultimate sacrifice.  A thousand generations of humanity salute your courage.”

Please.  Don’t hurt me.  Please.  The girl’s breaths grew frantic, and tears pooled at the edges of her eyes.

“Enough,” said another doctor.  “Don’t talk to them.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.  The woman squeezed the girl’s hand.  Icy liquid flowed into her veins through the IV, and the world turned dizzy, far away.

The girl dreamed of flying.

In her mind, she grew giant bird’s wings in place of her arms, spreading them on the metal cot she’d been draped over.  She soared out of the surgery room and into the evening sky, as the sun set over the horizon.

The girl flapped her wings and soared away from the island, away from the buildings and the waterfall and the pit and all of Buttercup Lodge.  Her muscles ached all over, but still, she flapped, getting further and further away until the island shrunk in the distance, and all she saw was open water.

Evening turned into night, and the two moons shone over the ocean, hanging in the dark, starless expanse.  The moons faded away, turning the heavens a pitch black.

Then, in their place, color exploded across the sky, a bright, multicolored pattern glowing blue and green.  The darkness choked it on all sides, threatening to swallow it, and the girl flew straight up, higher and higher, reaching up to grab the light even as it flickered out.

She reached, reached, reached.

The girl snapped back to consciousness, and felt pure agony.

Nothing in her life came close to this.  Every inch of her body burned, and ached, and felt like it had been stabbed all over.  From the tips of her toes to the crown of her head, everything was broken, on fire, getting drilled into.  Her skull, her feet, her arms, her stomach, her chest, her legs, her eyes, everything.

She would have screamed, but she couldn’t.

She would have passed out, but something prevented it.  The pain overwhelmed her thoughts, crushing all else in her mind, but some unknown force tethered her to consciousness.

And then, she saw what they’d done to her.  The girl’s vision gazed down from above the metal table, a bird’s eye view of the operation.

And her body had been chopped to pieces.

Her head had been sliced off.  Her skull and nose had been broken into dozens of pieces and laid out in a neat circle around her brain.  Her arms had been chopped off at the joints, her hands and fingers too.  Her legs and feet and toes had been broken apart too, along with her ribs and chest.

All over, her skin had been peeled off, and had been laid beneath all the muscle and bone.  Individual organs like her heart and stomach and kidneys had been pulled out too.

And my eyes.  Her eyeballs had been scooped out of her skull, and hung from a transparent pouch from the ceiling of the operating room.  That’s how I can see all this.

Somehow, the girl was still alive.

And she could feel all of her body.  Threads of pale lightning connected every split body part, from the smallest scrap of her skin to her eyeballs hanging above.  The threads all coalesced around her brain, the single focal point for all the lightning.

And the doctors were everywhere, poking and prodding at her organs, squinting through microscopes and talking amongst themselves.  They floated pieces of thread and fabric and wood between their hands.

One of them picked up a diamond in a pair of tongs and held it into a stream of grey lightning.  It crackled around the gemstone, and the pain tripled.

The girl’s perspective went wonky, layering over itself, seeing from countless different angles at once.

When he removed it, the diamond had transformed, becoming a third eyeball.  The scientists examined it, then snipped it off with a pair of green scissors.

One of the doctors looked at her eyes, high above them.

A single thought cut through the pain.  They want me to feel this.  To see this.  They’d deliberately woken her up for this.

The doctors murmured amongst themselves, impressed and surprised with something about the results.

When they knocked her out again, the girl thought she would die.

And she welcomed it.

But they put her back together.  The girl didn’t know what twisted methods they used, or why, but they put her back together.

When she woke up, the pain was excruciating, but her body had been fused back together.  Stitches and bruises covered her from head to toe, and she bled onto her bedsheets, turning them damp and sticky beneath her.

But she was alive.  She was whole.  For the first time, someone had gone upstairs, and come back.

Recovery was its own agony.  She lay in bed for days and days, bleeding, shivering, unable to writhe in pain or scream.  A nurse massaged some white ointment onto her stitches, and forced her to take a suite of pills that made her stomach ache, along with the blue powder that extended her commands.  Unable to move, she had to use a bedpan and catheter in her room, yet another humiliation.

Through the endless horrors, the girl drifted in and out of reality, and things got even stranger.

On some days, the girl was missing half a thumb on her left hand, which had gone missing after the surgery.  On other days, she was missing a pinky on her right hand instead.

The missing finger switched places every day, and the days with the pinky missing started diverging from the days with the thumb.

After a week of this, the girl realized.  They’re two separate realities.  She only switched between them when she fell asleep.  Which meant one of them was real, and another one was a dream.  Even though both of them felt utterly real.  What did they do to my brain?  Or maybe this wasn’t intentional.  Maybe this was just a side effect of the ten thousand other ways they’d peeled apart her mind like an onion.

Either way, her sanity crumbled more and more by the day.

After weeks of recovery, in the world with the missing thumb, the Nekean woman visited the girl’s bedside.  She pulled a clicker out of her pocket, and did a peculiar combination of clicks and whistles, one that the girl had never heard before.

In an instant, the girl could move her arms and legs, her fingers and toes, everything.  Nothing compelled her to stand, or walk, or stay still or silent or anythingSome kind of override command.

The girl moved her hands and fingers, staring at them, marveling.  Every move and twitch felt foreign, like she’d never done it before.  Why would they release me like this?

The Nekean woman smiled at her.  “Come, please.”  She opened the door.  “I want to show you something.”

No commands compelled her.  The girl chose every move.  But if she didn’t do what they said, they’d put her mind in a cage again.  Just go along with it.

The girl sat upright in her bed, every move sending stabbing pain throughout her body.  She pushed herself to a standing position and stumbled after the Nekean woman, half-limping.  The girl hadn’t walked of her own volition for months, maybe years, and was still recovering from the strange operation they’d put her through.

It took willpower to force one foot in front of another, to keep herself from throwing up or falling over.  Look forward.  Breathe.  Keep walking.  Look forward.  Breathe.  Keep walking.

The Nekean woman led the girl out of the dorm building through the buttercups, then up the stairs, over the bridge and past the waterfall.  Towards the building where she’d been cut apart.

As they walked, Max looked around, able to move her head and body for the first time.  She looked back, over the buildings of the complex, the endless fields of buttercups.

For the first time since she’d arrived, Max saw the ocean, visible from the top of this hill, crashing against the shores of this island, extending into the horizon.

Far to the side, beyond one of the dorm buildings, Max spotted a narrow path through a thicket of bushes, leading down towards a short dock that she could barely make out, hidden by trees and the rocks of a cove.  A secret escape route for the scientists.

None of the prisoners who came upstairs ever came back, so Max had to be the first one to see this.  Not that she’d ever get to use it.

“Don’t worry,” said the woman.  “We’re not doing surgery anymore.”  She walked through the front door and led the girl down a different corridor, down a set of stairs to what looked like the building’s basement.

The lights got dimmer as they stepped down the stairs.  The sounds of footsteps faded in the distance, until the space was nearly silent.

The woman opened the door, to reveal a massive, narrow chamber, several stories tall, extending at least a hundred feet into the distance, lit by dim yellow lanterns hanging from the ceiling.

Bodies filled the room.  Rows and rows of bodies, naked, hanging with hooks under their armpits, like pieces of meat or coats in a closet.  They covered the metal walls in layers, hundreds and hundreds of them filling up the room.

The girl squinted.  Not just any bodies.

Hers.

Every single body looked identical to her.  Sweeping blonde hair.  Pale skin.  A narrow face with high cheekbones.  Bright blue eyes.  Even the big moles were the same.  One on her lower jaw, another on her right arm.  Some of the bodies looked like mannequins instead of humans, made from fabric and wood and some sort of artificial hair, with sapphires or lapis lazulis in place of eyes.  But those looked like her too.

Women walked around the room, hanging more bodies on the walls, floating them up, peeling off fabric and examining gemstones.  They, too, looked the same as her.

One older woman looked different than the rest.  She pressed a palm on one of the mannequins’ foreheads.  Blue lightning crackled around her, transforming the fabric into skin, the gemstones into eyes.  The old woman went limp, her eyes dead, and the naked body on the wall pushed itself off, then threw a robe over itself.

The girl doubled over, her stomach ache tripling.  She wanted to vomit, or collapse, or punch the Nekean woman until her knuckles bled.  What did they do, what did they do, what did they do?  Why had they cloned her so many times?  Why did everyone look like her?

“Your name is Maxine Clive,” the Nekean woman said.  “And you’ve changed the world forever.  Thank you.”

Max.  My name is Max.  The memory clicked into place, a perfect puzzle piece to fit the gaps in her mind.

A nurse stepped in behind Max, and gave her another series of clicks and whistles.  Max’s arms snapped back to her side, and her back straightened, making her stand at attention.  Her fingers, her face, almost every muscle in her body was bound again.

The commands are back.  The Nekean Woman had given her a temporary override signal, just a pause from their control, not a true release.

They sent Max back to her room, to recover and wallow in her pain.  Eventually, the IV went away.  The nurse stopped coming by to feed her pills and dab ointment on her wounds.  The stitches came out, one by one, replaced with dark red scabs.  The young man across the hall, who’d been silent this whole time, didn’t go back to talking at night.  Maybe they took him away.

And after weeks and weeks, they ordered her back to her normal routine.  On the first morning back to usual, Max looked in the mirror, and saw her new face.

A half-human thing stared back at her, tears welling up at the edges of its eyes.  Its face had been sliced up and stitched back together, and none of the pieces quite fit.  Her jawline was jagged, with the right side bulging out more than the left.  Her nose jutted out over the ridge, crooked.  One of her cheekbones looked like it had caved in, and her lower teeth stuck out in a massive underbite, like a bulldog’s.  Her forehead bulged at the top, then sloped down towards her nose like an overhanging cliff.

Beneath those twisted features, Max could recognize her old face, the one she loved, the one now etched into a thousand clones.  But that made it even worse.  The face was hers.  But it felt wrong.  Everything about it felt so wrong.

If Max had control of her body, she might have bashed her head against the marble sink, or tied her sheets into a rope around her neck.  Please, just let me die.  Please.

Two months later, the authorities granted her wish.

Over that period, the doctors examined her several times, took blood samples and measurements, tested her heartbeat and her ears and her temperature.  But at some point, they’d learned all they were going to.

So one morning, instead of a nurse, a man in a yellow lab coat stepped into her room.  The scientist she’d spat on.  One of the ones she’d seen in the cave at the bottom of the silent waterfall.  Who’d ordered prisoners to walk into the cage at the end, to dunk themselves into the black pool.

And Max knew.  He’s here to take me downstairs.  To release her from the pain.

Every prisoner who went down those stairs hadn’t come back.  Whatever horrifying things the doctors were doing to them, it had to end in death.

The boats were for guards and nurses and doctors.  For someone like Max, the pool was the only way to leave Buttercup Lodge.

The thought of walking into that pit made Max’s blood freeze.  But at the end of it, she would still be dead.

The doctor looked down on her, bored, and used a whistle and clicker signal to force her up.

Thank you, she whispered in her head.  Thank you.

He led her out of the room, into the hallway, walking in front of her without looking back.  He knew the commands would force her to follow.

As she walked down the hallway, something grabbed her waist.  A hand, stretching out of the door across from her, squeezing through the metal slot to clench the back of her shirt.

They’d commanded Max not to resist others.  So she stopped, flitting her eyes to the corner of her vision.

Him. The young man who’d whispered to her at night, who’d told her the name ‘Buttercup Lodge’ and countless other nonsensical things.  Who’d managed to free himself and move around, despite everything.

He whispered, so quiet she could barely hear him when her ears strained.  Using his mouth and throat, he made a series of whistles and clicks.  The override command.

And Max was free.

Her arms and legs were no longer bound.  None of the orders compelled her anymore.

The man smiled at her, and let go.  “See you, Maxine Clive.”

Max walked faster, catching up to the doctor ahead of her, keeping her footsteps quiet so he wouldn’t hear.  This entire time, he hadn’t bothered to turn around and check on her.

She put her arms back to her sides and made her footsteps uniform, mimicking her normal, controlled movements.  Wait for the right moment.  Don’t let them know you’re free.  After all, this was just a pause.  One more whistle, and she’d be in their control again.

The pair of them stepped out of the dorm room, into the open.  The sun set in the distance, casting orange light over the fields of buttercups.

The man led her towards the stone staircase.  Towards the pit.

Slowly, while no one was looking, Max wriggled the fingers on her right hand, then her left, noting the missing thumb.  I hope this is the real world.

Inch by inch, Max clenched her hand into a fist.

________________________________________

“So in your dreams, you’re missing a thumb on your left hand,” said the therapist.  “And the man across from you whistled something that freed you.  And you dreamed of me, too, as a doctor involved in the surgery.”

Max looked down at her right hand, at the missing pinky.  Or this is the dream, and the other world is real.  Everything up to the operation, when they’d cut her apart – that was real.

But after that?  The world had split in two.  And nothing was clear anymore.  Her memories went fuzzy at the worst possible moments.

“Have other people at Buttercup Lodge developed this condition?” asked Max.  “This elaborate dream world.”  She hugged Clement the stuffed whale, leaning back.

“Please,” the therapist said.  “Let’s stay on topic.”  She wouldn’t tolerate questions.  “Tell me what else happened in your dreams.”

“I dreamed that I found out your boss,” said Max.

“Oh?”

“Paragon Academy.  A school for people who wield magic, to become tools of the government.”

If that was true, the therapist didn’t betray anything on her face.

“I dreamed that this wasn’t some distant branch of the government, some rotten grapes in the bunch, but part of a plot at the very core.”  That first acceptance letter was fake, but Paragon had sent it.  “That all this – “  Max gestured around her.  “Was on purpose.  You chose this.”

“In your dream, I’m working for this ‘Paragon Academy’,” the therapist said.  “Let’s not confuse your imagination with reality.”

Too late.

“I dreamed,” said Max, leaning forward.  “That you fiddled with the wrong things, and woke up something more intelligent and cruel than you ever could have imagined.”  She lowered her voice to just above a whisper.  “I fled.  And I watched the void swallow all of you.”  Max clenched a fist.  “I dreamed that I made a tumor, in the heart of a vicious empire.  My enemies couldn’t carve it out without destroying themselves in the process.  I swam through a river of blood and filled it with my tears, and when I crawled out, the people followed.”  She closed her eyes.  “I befriended a witch, a king, and a soldier.  I made a symbol, the green circle, that my enemies grew to fear.  And I had a plan.”  Her plan, though her allies had helped with some of the details.

“Your plan, yes,” said the therapist.  “Tell me about that.”

Max nodded.  The last few nights had been stressful, but pleasant dreams.  “I arranged to fight a Praxis Specialist named Copycat, with a narrow thought-stitching Vocation.  I trained my mind for months to master my thoughts, to achieve sublime focus for short bursts of time and only think of a single thing.  I got in the perfect position, and gave off just the right hints for the enemy to put together.  I used obscured vision to swap me and the Pyre Witch with doubles, which the enemy put a tracer on.”  Another misdirection.  “Finally, we used our Shenti allies to attack a legitimate target: the Agricultural Islands.”

“And it worked?”

Max nodded.  “Our enemy thought little of us.  They believed that we were willing to cause a famine and kill millions of poor Humdrums to achieve our goals.  We played on their fears, their loathing.  And we got them to leave the city.”

The therapist scribbled notes in her book, raising an eyebrow.

“We replaced a girl in Paragon Academy, named Matilla Geffray, putting an imposter in her place.  Before she got her subconscious key and security questions, we exposed a section of thermal shielding on the cable car station, allowed a man named Pictogram to read lips using his infrared vision and Praxis Vocation.  That, and a trick swap with some baseball bats, allowed us to impersonate her.  We replaced her with a Conduit.  Do you know what a conduit does?“

The therapist shook her head.  “Why would I possibly know the words of your dreams, Maxine?”

“Right.  Sorry.”  Max cleared her throat.  “A conduit is when two souls bond close to each other, and merge, partially.  They form a link, that can stretch any distance.  With it, they can share thoughts, project…and transfer souls through.  This means, if you control a conduit, you can use it to transport large numbers of Piths, like a highway of souls.”  Her eyes lit up.  “And Paragon Academy has a vault where they keep spare bodies.  One break-in, and we could transfer in a small army of projectors.”

“This is a very elaborate dream, Maxine,” said the therapist.

Max laughed.  “I know.  Ridiculous, isn’t it?“  The more she thought about it, the less real it seemed.  “That’s where my dream left off last night.  The enemies had left the city, but all their best treasures were still there.  And we’d reached critical mass with senior generals in the military, radio stations, and popular support.”

“But they’re going to come back, right?” said the therapist.  “When all your enemies return to the city, what’ll you do then?”

Max smiled.  “The enemy built god-slaying weapons to deal with Scholar-ranked projectors overseas.”  Long-range missiles, tipped with Voidsteel, that they’d been ready to fire at the Agricultural Islands in a heartbeat.  “But they are Scholar-ranked,” she said.  “What did they think would happen?”

The therapist sighed, massaging her forehead.  “And after all this?  After you win?  What then?”

“We establish a temporary state.  We purge the counter-revolutionary elements that support Paragon, and risk toppling our new system.  And once we ensure stability, we consider reinstituting some form of centralized democracy.”

“That’s all?” the therapist said.

Max shrugged.  “It’s just a silly dream.”  None of it felt real.  If it did, would she have made the same choices, taken the same risks?  “It’s not my job to build something perfect.  I’m not anyone special.”  She stared at her feet.  “I was just some idiot, in the right place at the right time, who chose to spit in the face of God.”  She smiled.  “And when enough people do that, even God must take notice.”

“That’s all our time for today.  We’ll continue tomorrow.”  The therapist stood up, showing nothing on her face.

She rang a bell, and a nurse came in with a clicker, using it to force Max to stand, walk towards the door.  Max clung to Clement the whale, but the nurse clicked again, forcing her to give it up.

“And I’m sorry, Maxine,” said the therapist.

Max stopped by the door, unable to turn around.

“This is the real world.  No matter how painful it gets.  One day, I hope you accept that.”

The nurse led Max out of the building.  They walked through the buttercups as evening turned into night, back down the stairs and into the same dorm building.  The same yellow room.  The same bed that she’d slept in for years and years.  The same mind-numbing routine that had broken her sanity enough to think up such odd realities.

Max lay down under her covers.  She closed her eyes.

Let me dream again, she prayed.  Let me dream.

________________________________________

Max woke up, and she was young again.

In this world – the world where she’d escaped Buttercup Lodge – her left thumb was normally missing, and her stitched, misshapen body had aged for decades.

But that body had been sent overseas, to the Agricultural Islands with another’s Pith as part of their diversion strategy. So, for this operation, she’d taken a new one.

Max’s eyes fluttered open, in a Midtown safehouse, in a drab, grey bedroom that reminded her of cheap hotels.  Soft, nostalgic swing music drifted from downstairs, played on a gramophone.  “Sway on the blue, skip on the sea, dance on the waves with me.

She threw off the covers, staggered to the bathroom in her pajamas, and splashed water on her cheeks from the sink.

And that’s when she saw her face.

The original Maxine Clive.  A vintage original model, bought straight from Eminent Forms.  Nineteen years old and perfect, before Paragon Academy had cut her up, stitched her back together, and saddled her with decades of burdens.  Skin untouched by scars, bones shaped in perfect, elegant lines, bright blue eyes without the dark circles, or the wrinkles.

Max had seen her face so many times.  In magazines, on advertisements, as an accessory for Epistocrats to show off their wealth.

But still, seeing it in the mirror felt strange.  A tug in her stomach, a tingle in her fingers.  A simple, easy alignment, a warm comfort at breathing in this shell.  Is this what they tortured us for?  The rush of youth, of beauty and strength and health.

She’d kept her original body for so long, even though it horrified her, even though it weighed her down and looked terrifying and forced her to conceal her face in public.  Because it was still hers.

And because she didn’t want to wear their invention, the creation of the people who’d butchered her and so many others.

But now, the plan demanded it.  And fuck it, none of this was real anyway, right?

Dance on the waves, dance on the waves, dance on the waves with me.

Someone knocked at the door.

“Come in.”

Pictogram stepped into the safehouse, an anti-tank rifle slung across his back.  “Ma’am.  It’s time.”

“I told you,” she sighed.  “‘Max’ is fine.”

“Breakfast?  I think someone prepared some bacon downstairs.”

Max shook her head.  “Not hungry.”

And she didn’t want to find out.  Maybe it was just her old body that couldn’t taste.  But what if her Pith had been permanently scarred?  What if Max would never taste anything for the rest of her life?  Max couldn’t handle a disappointment like that.

She got ready.  She threw on her dark green longcoat, from her time in the Corsairs.  Worn, but strong.  Her belt, with a holstered pistol and flare gun at her waist, with a letter in her coat pocket.  Then, a dab of green paint in circles on the backs of her hands.  With no tattoos, it would have to do.

Then, because she had some extra time, she pulled a handful of buttercups from a vase in the room, and braided them into her golden hair.

Max strode out the front door.  The late afternoon sun glared down at her, making her squint.

Then, she turned to Pictogram.  “Go to the first rendezvous without me.”

“It’s not safe, ma’am.  The streets are swarming.”

“They are.”  Max smiled, leaning back and letting the warm sunlight wash over her.  “But there are more of us.  I’ll be fine.”

“It is as you say.”  He ran off into the distance.

Max unchained her bike from the streetlamp out front.  It had been a while since she’d ridden one of these things, but she still had the basics down.  In a few seconds, she was pedaling up the mountain.

With all the riots going on, the city had shut the trams down, so she had to go up quite a distance.  But even without Joining, this body was more than up to the task.  This would be little more than a warm-up for it.

They called it a “combat chassis”.  What a cold, nasty word.  It was a miracle, the godlike form of man turned from thread into flesh, powered by lightning, tempered with the blood of the ordinary, then stolen from them.  A medical wonder, kept for those who got sick the least.

All the cruelty of this nation.  All the possibility.  Right here, inside her fingertips.  Her feet and leg muscles, as they pumped on the pedals.  Her heart, racing faster and faster.

Maxine Clive ascended, through the empty streets.  All the cars had vanished, with most of the pedestrians.  The ones who weren’t protesting were holed up in their houses.  A silver oracle snake flew out of the setting sun, slithering through the clouds above.

As she biked up the cobblestone, she passed the campus of Elmidde University, where she used to deliver cakes.  A crowd of citizens had gathered there, pushing back against a wall of police on one side, and loyalists with improvised weapons on the other.  A loyalist pulled out a pistol, and a citizen threw a rock at him.  It hit him in the temple, and he went down.

Max passed the old hat store, still open after all these years.  The windows had been boarded up, and the lights were off inside.  Two buildings down the street were burning, but the fire department hadn’t shown up.

The day market near Garden Street had vanished.  In its place, a group in masks sprinted through, carrying baseball bats and knives, chasing after a lone, defenseless Green Hands.

But still, Max kept going.  Up, up the slopes of Mount Elwar.  Past protests and police and Guardians sent to suppress the people.  None of them paid the generic girl on the bicycle any mind.

When Max ascended the last part of Darius Street, it had emptied.  Normally, it would be filled with Guardians and cars and people and armed guards at the edges, but today, Max was the only one here.  The trees at the top of Mount Elwar closed in around her, muffling the gunshots and shouting in the distance.

The cable car building towered over her, surrounded by white marble columns.  The Principality’s flag had been painted across the front wall: a white fist clutching a scroll on a dark blue field.

In her youth, she’d delivered dozens of cakes and other foods here, in a bicycle just like this.  Unaware of the hidden strings bending the universe around this place.

The giant doors creaked, and swung open before her.

Inside, corpses covered the floor.

Dozens and dozens of them.  Guardians in combat armor.  And Humdrum soldiers, their blue uniforms stained red with blood.  They covered the painted path on the ground, slumped over in corners, or lay on the metal catwalks above, limbs drooping off the edge.

A group of Green Hands stood over them, carrying rifles and shotguns and knives, green circles tattooed on the backs of their hands.

None of them spoke to Max.  They led her through the station, towards the platform where people boarded.  As Max stepped over the guards’ corpses, she stared down at them.  The Humdrums.  The ordinary men and women they’d killed to achieve their goals.

How dare you step over them? A voice said in her head.  How dare you walk past their sacrifice?  How many such atrocities had she let herself ignore?  The innocents hijacked by Lyna Wethers, the Honeypot.  The common folk hurt in their Nudge attacks, or their bombs.  All the other questionable schemes Grace had used to raise funds.

I accepted so much help to make this revolution possible.  From many she found distasteful.  The Broadcast King, an Ilaquan oligarch, who looked down on innocents as pawns, who wanted to puppeteer her after their victory.  Pictogram, an emissary of a cruel, vengeful warlord from Shenten.

And Grace, a crackling maelstrom of desperate rage and brilliance.  Maybe her only real friend in all of this.

She had no choice.  Paragon Academy was too strong, and she’d needed powerful allies.

But we’re forging our new nation in blood.  Of course, nearly every nation began that way.  But it left a bitter taste in her mouth.

Because this was Max’s plan.  Her gambit, her leadership that had brought them to this point.

Whatever happened next, it would be her fault.

Max strode to the platform, as the cable car descended to it.  The door swung open, and a red-haired girl, flanked by two dozen mobsters, all wearing the youthful bodies stored in Paragon Academy’s body vault.

A black-haired girl sat at the back, her blue Paragon uniform covered in blood.  Matilla Geffray, first-year student.  Or, to be more accurate, Cybil Mayns, the Conduit they’d used to impersonate Matilla Geffray.

Step one worked, then.  Cybil, their imposter had broken into the body vault and transferred the souls of their strike team into the chassis there, including Grace.  Now, Commonplace held the cable car station, and Paragon didn’t have a clue.

Someone carried a chassis to the red-haired girl, and she transferred her soul through, purple lightning flickering around her.  Grace’s normal body, complete with thin combat armor underneath her suit jacket and skirt.

Grace ran forward, and the two of them hugged.  It felt like an eternity since Max had been hugged.

When they broke off, Grace extended a semi-automatic shotgun to her, pitch black and sleek, one of the latest Ilaquan models.

Max took it.  Together, they stepped into the cable car, and ascended into the sky.

Max and Grace stood at the front of the box, away from the other Green Hands and mobsters.  With the transparent walls, Max could see the city shrinking beneath them.  The slums of the outer islands.  Bartolet Naval Base, which Commonplace had already taken, with a pair of zeppelins filled with their troops.  The squat buildings of Lowtown and Midtown, many of them burning, squeezed together like livestock cages.

And Hightown, decadent and massive, despite its tiny population.  Mansions and towers and breathtaking gardens.  Filled with Epistocrats, hiding away from the people, unaware that their nation was being captured right above their heads.

To the west, the sun set over the Principality’s mainland, bathing the city in an orange glow, throwing blue and pink light onto the clouds above and reflecting off the ocean waves.  Evening.  Right on schedule.

But more than that, Max felt grateful for the sunset.  For this glimpse of a magnificent city, a wondrous people.

They didn’t need to strive to be Exemplars.  They were already perfect, in a way Max could never be.  Do them proud.

“I hope,” said Max.  “That we don’t have to kill too many.”

Grace nodded, though she didn’t care as much as Max did.

“And when we’re done here,” said Max.  “I hope I get to stay.”  She stared down at the city.  This feels so real, so real.

“There’s nothing I can do, Max,” said Grace.  “To convince you that this is the real world, and not the dream.”  She smiled, a rare expression on her face.  “But still, I’m proud of you.  You did what three determined Praxis Specialists couldn’t.  You brought this country together.”

The two of them turned their gazes above, to the upper station of the cable car, and the floating islands of Paragon Academy.  The banquet hall.  The dorms.  The grassy pavilion.  The wooden bridges connecting them.

And the Great Library, a fortified cone with a tower on top.  Impregnable.  Time to test that.

Max pulled her letter out of her pocket, reading the contents.

“What is that?” said Grace.  Her eyes widened.  “And that symbol on the letter, is that – “

“Paragon drew them on all their fake invitations,” said Max.  “It inspired me.”

Max showed her.

Dear Ms. Clive,

I am delighted to inform you that our admissions committee has offered you a place in this year’s class at Paragon Academy.  Please accept my congratulations for this momentous achievement.  Our admissions committee evaluated tens of thousands of candidates, and only accepted those with the greatest potential.

As you have been living with Humdrums for the past nineteen years, this may come as a surprise to you.  You may see yourself as ordinary, simple, an unemployed ex-courier with no friends, no future.  But deep down, you’ve always known.  Something was missing from your life, something deep and important and profound that you could never articulate.

You were incomplete, because you didn’t know the truth.  You are a projector, like the Great Scholars of old and the Conclave of the Wise, blessed with the ability to wield your soul as the ultimate tool.  An entire world exists beneath the surface of your existence, filled with endless possibility.

You, Maxine Clive, hold limitless potential.  If you want to go on with your current life, simply throw away this letter, and you will forget all in a matter of weeks.

But if you want to strive.  If you want to become an Exemplar, please report to 16 Elwar Boulevard on 9/2 at 8 am for your screening and pre-orientation.

The door is open.  We await you.

Sincerely,
Nicholas Tau
Headmaster

Her original fake acceptance letter.  The one stored under her floorboards.  Unchanged.  Still good as new.

After all this time, all this planning, Max had never set foot inside Paragon Academy.  Not once.

“They invited me,” said Max.  “So let’s pay them a visit.”

She flipped the letter shut.

A green circle, decades-old, was printed on the back.

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11-C The Breadbasket

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Wes

“Starve out the country?” I said.  “What are you talking about?”

“The Agricultural Islands,” said Ana.  “My home.  It’s the most fertile and farm-dense land in the nation.  It produces the vast majority of the Principality’s food supply.”

“And,” said my mother.  “While it has defenses, they will be like tissue paper to the Pyre Witch and an entire Shenti fleet.”  She paced back and forth on the concrete runway.

Don’t count out paper.  It was fragile, but had a mean edge.

“And it’s summer,” said Ana.  “The dry season.”

“The winds will be high,” said my mother.  “Firefighters and planes with retardant can be taken out.  With well-placed firebombs and palefire, Commonplace and the Shenti can create a firestorm.  I made many such attacks during the Shenti War.”

Jun got a heavy look in his eyes when she mentioned that.  They’re using our tricks against us.  The enemy had a cruel sense of irony.

“The islands are dense,” said Ana, slouching over.  Her voice was flat, half-dead.  “They could burn them all down in a manner of days.”

“Hours,” said my mother.  “If they hit the right spots.  Which they will.”

“Could the Black Tortoise be involved?” muttered General Benthey.  “He did love unconventional tactics.”

“Unlikely,” my mother said.  “The man has been a mental wreck since the Spirit Block.  All our sources indicate he’s busy smoking himself to death in a ruined bunker somewhere.  If he’s not dead already, or replaced by some poser in his chassis.  More likely, it’s one of the warlords whose fleets have gone missing.  Luo Cai.  Or Gao Mei.”

“Do we know they’re targeting the islands?” said General Benthey, puffing on his cigarette.  “This is all just guesswork, right now.”

“We know,” my mother said.  “We got a sliver of the Humdrum’s thoughts.  And those warlords wouldn’t pick a fight with us for no reason.  Every time a Shenti ship has crossed a single yard over our borders, we’ve eradicated it, and their fleets are far weaker than ours.”  She folded her hands behind her back.  “They’re hiding from us on purpose.  And the firebombs are even further proof.  They’re going to burn down our nation’s breadbasket.”

Nobody spoke for a moment.  The waves washed up against the shores of Bartolet Naval Base.  I bounced my leg up and down.  With my hands cuffed behind my back, I tapped my fingers against each other, an escalating pattern of nervous fidgeting.

Burn it down?  No, that couldn’t be right.  Was this the attack, then?  Commonplace’s final assault, their ultimate gambit to take over this country and destroy Paragon.

This has been a pretty rough week.

My leg bounced faster.

“And what happens then?” I asked.  “When the Agricultural Islands burn down?”

“Over the next year, supply lines collapse,” said my mother.  “The greatest economic crash in this nation’s history will occur, but no one will care about the numbers.  Because they’ll all be starving to death.”

“The poor will die first,” said Hira.

My mother nodded.  “After the grocery stores empty, and the fish run out, and the bread lines stretch for miles, the legally available food will run out.  They will eat rats.  Then tree bark.  Then wallpaper, and household pets, and dirt.  And each other.”


I pushed down a wave of nausea.  No.  The Shenti War had been bad, but this was apocalyptic.  We had systems in place, safeguards.  The world couldn’t end that easily.

“The violence will not be too bad,” said my mother.  “Savagery is a luxury, for people with the strength to stand.  Most will die in their homes, with bulging ribs and swollen bellies, holding the hands of their loved ones.  Others will wither on the streets, begging for scraps, or stumbling to train stations in the hopes of traveling to a city with more food.”

“Um, Rowyna,” said Penny Oakes, biting her lip.  “This is the worst-case scenario, right?  I mean, there have been countless famines before, throughout history.”

“No,” said my mother.  “I’m describing one of the better outcomes.  Countless millions dead, even more malnourished, unable to move, requiring huge investments in medical care, overflowing hospitals.  The famines of the old world came from disease, odd weather, poor seeds.  Not projectors.”

No.  “But – “ I said.  “We live in a global economy.  We can just buy more food, from Ilaqua and Neke and other islands, right?”

“We’ll lose more than eighty percent of our supply,” said my mother.  “Ships cannot perform miracles.  Even if we spend every coin in our coffers, put ourselves in crippling debt, and commandeer every vessel in the nation, we won’t get enough for everyone.  Not in time.  Before the Spirit Block, the Black Tortoise held the greatest logistical mind in history, and I doubt even he could save us.”

“She’s right,” said General Benthey, tossing his cigarette on the runway and stamping it out.  “It’s an absurd problem, and our industry’s not up to the task.”

“Food will become more expensive than Voidsteel,” said my mother.  “Epistocrats will flee, and hoard supplies, because they are intelligent, and they know that such a crisis is never temporary.  And that no amount of charity will satisfy the Humdrum mob.”

“None of our Vocations are designed for a problem like this,” said Penny Oakes.  “Even the strongest ones.”

My fingers stopped tapping, slippery with sweat.  “And then?”

“Then, Commonplace gets their revolution.  Or the Shenti finish us off.  Without food, the Principality will die.  The manner of death is just a formality.  Maybe Tunnel Vision doesn’t even care about the details, past that point.”

“I don’t think so,” said Ana.  “Maxine Clive has a plan.”

“Fool,” my mother said.  “You think that Humdrum puppet has made a single decision for that group?  This is the plot of The Pyre Witch.  A Praxis specialist.”

“I’m not sure.”  Ana shook her head.  “It didn’t seem that way when I met her.  I think Maxine Clive has a plan.”

“There has to be something,” said Penny Oakes.  “Something we can do.”

“Wait,” said Ana, leaning forward.  “What about the Lavender Book?”

My mother, General Benthey, and Penny Oakes glared at her in unison, like she’d just suggested a puppy genocide.  Sebastian Oakes folded his arms, cocking his head to the side.

“You have Vocations in there, right?” she said.  “Overwhelming power.  Forbidden techniques.  If there was ever a time to crack it open, it would be now.”

Big mistake, Ana.  Guardians got real testy about their books.

It is not your place, cutthroat,” hissed Penny Oakes.  “Isaac got greedy and tried to buy you as a hired gun.  That doesn’t entitle you to a library card, or to discuss such matters.”

“You have no idea what lies inside that book,” said my mother.  “Do not make this worse for yourselves.”

“Does it matter?”  The words slipped out of my mouth.  “You’re not going to let us Oust the golden boy, are you?  Not after we helped your biggest enemies escape.”

“That remains to be seen,” she said.

I clamped my lips together.  Shut the fuck up, Wes.  If there was still a chance for us to fulfill her offer, then every word I said was another chance to screw up my odds.

“Fine,” said Ana.  “But what’s the next move, then?  The Pyre Witch and Maxine Clive and the mob and Steel Violet and the Shenti and all of Commonplace?  How are we going to stop them?”

My mother turned a withering look onto Ana.  I felt bad for her.  She’ll get used to that look, if she ever becomes the next Lady Ebbridge.

We?” said my mother.  She stepped forward and placed her index finger on Ana’s forehead.  Blue electricity snapped where their skin touched.  “I can only have one tracer active at a time,” she said.  “I need it for the conflict ahead.  You’re not worth it.”

They’re going to the Agricultural Islands.  Of course they were, they had no other option.  This would be the greatest battle in a decade.  Maybe the single greatest battle in the Principality’s history.  It was a miracle that we’d found out about it this early, but it would still be a deadly conflict.

Then I realized.  This is our best chance to show our worth.  To fight our way into a pardon.  We couldn’t miss this.

I leaned forward, raising my voice.  “Please,” I said.  “Let us join you.  We can fight, we can help.  We’ve built up a lot of combat experience in the last year.”

“I saw you on the field,” said Penny Oakes.  “Brave, but I wouldn’t call that experienced.”

“How’s that stomach feeling?” said Left-Hira.  “Still sore from the bullet?”

“Hira’s a bit coarse,” I said.  “But he makes a good point.  We do have experience.”

“In street fights,” said my mother.  “Back-alley brawls and underhanded duels in close quarters.  Not in a war.  Do you even know what a base of fire is?  Or an ash can?”

I shook my head.

“What about ASW?  Or WB?”

You’ve made your point.  Get on with it.

A soldier grabbed me and pulled me to my feet.  Others did the same for Ana, Hira, and Jun.

“As of this moment,” said my mother.  “‘Queen Sulphur’ is disbanded.”  She stared at me.  “Go home.  If you’re still alive when we get back, and the world hasn’t ended, we can discuss your position with our criminal justice system, and my family.”

My family.  Not ‘our’.

The soldiers pushed us forward, leading us towards another transport boat.  Ana looked down at herself, at her bulging grey veins.  At her cracked, unmoving fingers and shaking hands.

Then she looked at me, not with determination or focus or purpose, but fear.  Simple, pure wide-eyed terror.

And at that moment, I knew.

It didn’t matter what happened if the Guardians returned.  Even if they won, by the time they fought a massive battle, sorted out the aftermath, and decided which of us was worthy, it wouldn’t matter.

Because Ana would be dead by then.

________________________________________

Queen Sulphur sat under an umbrella, drank soda, and watched the world end.

I’d wanted a drink, a fruity cocktail or at least a glass of wine, but Right-Hira had glared at me from over the cafe menu.  “No exceptions,” he said.

“Fine,” I had muttered, and ordered a Jwala’s Orange Soda alongside Jun’s.  With Ana’s taste buds still broken, she drank a mug of pitch-black tea, with a small mountain of leaves sitting at the bottom.  She sipped faster and faster, until her hands shook and her eyes darted around like fireflies.

The wonders of caffeine.  Or maybe that was just the decay.  Ana looked even worse than a day ago.  Her entire skin had turned greyer – not just the bulging veins.  Her breaths looked slow, pained, and her eyelids drooped.

Jun folded his hands on the table, trying and failing to look calm.  Right-Hira leaned back on his chair, puffing cherry-scented smoke out of his purple hookah and chugging one lemonade after another, cans piling up on the table in front of him.  His female body was out.

Waves lapped against the side of the waterside cafe.  From the empty patio area, we had a great view of both the ocean and Mount Elwar.

To my left, the city burned.  Gunshots rang out in the far distance, from rubber bullets or real ones, with clouds of smoke from fires or riot police.

As it turned out, mass arrests of Green Hands didn’t pacify the public, but the exact opposite.  The riots had exploded across Elmidde with new ferocity, and law enforcement had responded by flooding the streets with cops.

According to the radio news, someone had tried to assassinate a pro-Paragon member of Parliament, too.  Enoch Trembath, some old ex-Guardian with a bushy mustache.  His son had sat next to me in Physics 110, and had helped explain some of the more thorny concepts when I zoned out.

A sweet boy.  He didn’t deserve this.

Loyalists on the street had replied with fervor, and in the ensuing chaos, Parliament had been taken to Paragon for security.  A few hours later, someone set fire to the House of Ministers.  The blaze had been extinguished, but it had confirmed everyone’s fears.

Was this part of Commonplace’s plan?  Had this all been some elaborate ruse to escalate the conflict?  I couldn’t keep track of this cat and mouse nonsense anymore.

But one way or another, chaos ruled the streets.

In the opposite direction, Elmidde’s fleet sailed away across the horizon.  My mother’s flagship, the Rhona, accompanied by the rest of its carrier group and a pair of submarines.  And a majority of Paragon’s Scholar-Ranked Guardians.

Sailing towards the Agricultural Islands.  To save millions.  After hearing the basics, Jun had done some math on the back of a napkin, and guessed that they’d arrive after the Shenti fleet.  It’s going to be close.

A single carrier, the Larcher, was left back with a battleship to defend the city.  But who else got left behind?

“Hira,” I said.  “Did you find out what I asked?”

“Yup,” he said.  “Just stitched some lieutenant colonel with my Left body.  As far as I can tell, both Chimera and Golem Squads have been assigned to the Rhona.  Lorne Daventry’s been studying some special eye-Joining for the operation.

My friends are going to battle.  Samuel was going to the battle.  Eliya and Leizu were going to the battle.  Even Lorne and his thugs were going to the Agricultural Islands with my mother, to make history or die trying.

Everyone but us.  We’d missed the boat.  We’d been fired.  It was like getting Ousted all over again.  Now, we had no employer, no real allies, and nowhere to sleep other than the basement of a ruined shack with Cardamom in the corner.

“And during our chat with the generals,” said Hira.  “I found out where they got the intel for our raid just now.  A mobster whose death they faked, kidnapped when Isaac Brin and your mother went on their mission after The Pyre Witch.”

When they went into the sewers and got Brin paralyzed.

“They went on that mission because of us,” said Ana, her voice soft.  Because of her tip to Brin.

“Well,” I said.  “Fuck.”

Silent nods all around.

“What do you think?” asked Ana.  “About the islands.”

“Paragon’s all sorts of fucked-up,” said Hira.  “But causing a mass famine?  That’s fucking disgusting.  Like I said, the poor people will die first.”

Jun nodded in agreement.

“Tunnel Vision needs to go down,” I said.  “Along with the rest of her cronies.  This isn’t about the heart of our society anymore.  It’s about survival.”

Ana looked away from me at those last few sentences.  Does she believe me?  Did I believe myself?

“If I may ask,” said Jun.  “How much time do you think you have, Ana?”

“I’ve seen other cases like mine,” said Ana.  Her voice was hoarse, half an octave lower than before.  Did the decay get to her throat, too?  “Other people scammed by Sapphire Industrial and Tunnel Vision’s mob.  Judging by their timelines and markers, I should have died two weeks ago.”

“I am a war criminal,” said Jun.  “You can do more to help people than I ever have.  With your permission, we could transfer your Pith into my chassis.“

“No,” said Ana.  “I won’t swap bodies with you.  I won’t have anyone sacrificed for me.”

“Then we find some Green Hands murderer or a mobster squidfucker, and take their body,” said Hira.  “Ernest Chapman is dead.  They removed the tracer on you.  And for once, the Guardians are out of Elmidde.  You’ll never have a better shot.”

Ana shrunk away at this, slouching over further and staring at her tea mug.

Of all the times to get righteous.  “Come on,” I said.  “You can’t honestly tell me that some random serial killer needs to live more than you do.  You deserve to see tomorrow.”

“None of us are going to see tomorrow,” said Ana.  “My parents.  My home.  They’re going to burn, and this country will wither.”  She gazed out over the sea, at the fleet shrinking in the distance.  “The water is rising.  The sea remains.”  She sighed.  “I’m sorry for putting you all in this situation.”

“You saved my life, you idiot,” I said.  “Don’t apologize.  To my surprise, I actually enjoy living.”

“Not then,” said Ana.  “If I was brave enough, I would have sent you away back in Helmfirth, when I had Lorne’s tracer on me.  I could have killed Clive, Kahlin, and Pictogram all at once.”  She indicated her head to Hira.  “As you said, they could have sent those Voidsteel missiles at the town, just like last time.  But Tunnel Vision was right.  I’m a beetle, not an ant.  When the flood comes, I don’t become part of the raft.”

“Fuck that,” growled Hira.

“What?”

“You’re the rock of this group,” he said.  “You’re supposed to push us forward with terrifying determination, not wallow in self-loathing.  I’m the only one here allowed to have a death wish.”  He jabbed a finger in Ana’s face.  “Stop trashing your own life, and help us find a way out, like we always, always have.  Your parents live in the Agricultural Islands.  They’re counting on you.”

And that Ousting pardon’s not impossible now.  Improbable, but still within reach, if I squinted.

I made eye contact with Ana for a second.  Neither of us had brought it up yet.

“To have any chance,” said Ana.  “Of moving forward.  We’d need to get to the Agricultural Islands, and fast.  It’d be easiest to smuggle ourselves onto the ships, but they’re gone, already.”

Hira laughed.  “That’s all we need?  A quick ticket to the islands?”  He stood up, finishing his lemonade.  “That’s easy.”  His hookah folded up inside his bag, and he grabbed Jun.  “Come on, Kuang.  We’ve got somewhere to be.”

“Wait,” said Jun, his voice getting soft.  “What if we’re going about this the wrong way?”

“What?” I said.

“How shall I put this?”  Jun ran his fingers through his grey hair and closed his eyes.  “Sometimes, terminally ill patients keep chasing after expensive treatment, even when the odds are absurd and it means putting themselves through agony.”

“Jun?” said Ana, her voice getting small.

“You’ve been through so much already, Ana,” he said.  “If you won’t take my body, then maybe it’s time to let go.  Focus on a more tranquil passing.”

Ana looked up, back at Jun.  And for a moment, I forgot all the decay and only saw her eyes.

“If I pass,” she said.  “I promise you this.  It will not be tranquil.”

She nodded at Right-Hira.  The Ilaquan left.  Jun followed close behind, giving Ana a concerned look as he walked back to the street.

For a long while, neither I nor Ana talked.  We sat at the table, listening to the waves and the faint piano music from inside the cafe, with the sounds of gunshots and explosions much further in the distance.  A waiter came over and refilled Ana’s tea.  I bought another Jwala’s orange soda.

Both of us knew the big unspoken question, but neither of us was willing to say it.

Who gets the pardon?  Who would become Lady Ebbridge, and who would get banished with the rest of Queen Sulphur?

I can’t handle this anymore.  “If we wait,” I said.  “It’ll just get worse.”

“Should we wait for Hira and Jun?” Ana stared at her tea leaves.

“Hira’s in two prison bodies,” I said.  “And doesn’t give a shit.  Jun wants to leave to find his father.  And – “  I held up a finger.  “My dearest mother didn’t talk to either of them.  She talked to us.”

“Alright,” said Ana.  “It’s your name.  Your body.  You have a right to them, you should return to your family.”

“But if you don’t get a new body,” I said.  “You’ll die.”

“You have a fitness double,” said Ana.  “You can smuggle it to me.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “You’d trust me with that?”

“Yeah,” she said.  “I would.”

“I would try,” I said.  “I would do everything in my power.  But there’s no guarantee that I’d be able to succeed in time.”  I leaned forward.  “And if you get banished, you’ll never be a Guardian.”

Both of us glanced up at Paragon, floating high above Mount Elwar, shrouded in a layer of clouds.

“You’ve wanted to be a hero, more than I ever did.”  I thought of the last year.  “And you acted like it.”

“I shot a lot of people,” said Ana.  “Hurt a lot more.”

“But you’re fighting for the people, for the nation,” I said.  “I just wanted to go home.”  Samuel’s voice flashed through my mind.  Eliya’s smile.  Leizu’s bad jokes.  “I just wanted to see my friends again.  So go.”  I stared at her.  “Be a butterfly.  Spread your wings and flutter into the sky.  Have fun with your friends.”

“Most caterpillars die in the cocoon,” said Ana.

Real upbeat, Ana.  Though, in her defense, she was dying at the moment.

“And you’re my friend,” said Ana.

Despite everything, a warm feeling spread through my veins.  I smiled.

“Jun is my friend.  Even Hira’s my friend, though she scares me sometimes.”  Ana closed her eyes.  “And Tasia’s my friend, too.  Was.”

If she wants that seat, she’ll have to Oust one of her best friends.  Or let me Oust her.  I couldn’t forgive Tasia for what she’d done, but I could understand Ana’s dilemma.

“If I drink that cider, up in Paragon,” said Ana.  “I’ll be doing it alone.”

 “It’s your life,” I said.  “You can build something new.  But only if you’re alive.  You’ve come so far, fought so hard.  You can’t throw all that away.”

“I told you about Tasia’s research,” said Ana.  “If she’s Ousted, then her sister – “

“If the bitch has done her job right,” I said.  And I’m sure she has.  “She’ll have hidden backups of the most important books she’s read, and all the critical passages.  She’ll be able to continue, just not in the same capacity.  And she won’t be hunted like a criminal if she’s Ousted.  Not like us.”  I took half a breath.  “And I don’t even – “

I stopped myself, and pictured myself back in my old body.  The name, the friends, my bed and Paragon’s food all sounded wonderful.  But the chassis?  I’d always been indifferent to that.  It served as a tool, a collection of muscles and bones and nerves that could house my Pith and interact with the world.

Back at Paragon, people had showered praise onto my body, a fashionable Phoebe Asquith with silky black hair, a heart-shaped face, and sharp green eyes.  They’d remarked on my impeccable taste and fashion sense in choosing it.

But I hadn’t selected that body.  My mother had, when I was young and she’d decided my birth body wasn’t up to scratch.  They weren’t praising me, they were praising her.  I had nothing to do with it.

For that reason, it had always felt like an ill-fitting suit, or a tight, painful dress pressing on my ribs, restricting my breath.

On the day of my Ousting, swapping with a boy had been a terrifying prospect.  Now, it just seemed ordinary.  Easy.

But still, I’d rather be home.  I’d rather make a name for my family.

“You don’t even what?” said Ana.  “What are you talking about?”

“It’s stupid,” I said.  “Never mind.”  I chuckled.  “If neither of us wants this name, then why are we fighting for it so hard?”

“I do want it,” said Ana.  “More than anything.”  She examined her greying, stiff fingers.  “When I first swapped into this body, everyone in my town saw Guardians with terror.  They thought people who used magic and jumped between bodies were freaks, at best.”  She smiled.  “But I just saw heroes who had freed themselves.  Who could assume any form they wanted, and use their power to save the world.”  Her voice turned hesitant, unsteady, and her smile faded.

“And what do you see now?” I asked.  After they hunted us down, used us, and left us to die.

Ana stared into her tea.  “I don’t know,” she said.  “I don’t know what I’ve been bleeding myself for.  But I know the Pyre Witch is evil.  And if I become a Guardian, I think I can still do some good.”

Still an idealist, then.  But she sounded so tired when she said those words.  Like spitting out all that hope was an agonizing effort.

“But I also know how much you want this.”

“Well,” I said.  “What the fuck are we supposed to do, then?”

Ana looked up at me, revealing the bags under her eyes.  “I don’t know.”

“We could do what I did for assignments,” I said. “Wait ‘til the last minute and panic.”

Ana didn’t respond, not even to chastise me.  Scholars, how tired is she?

“In the meantime,” I said.  “We could still take some Green Hands’ body.  Tie them up in a basement for a few days so you have a good chassis to fight in.  Like with Pirzanu and Brahmani in Kahlin’s penthouse.

“No,” said Ana.  “Even ignoring my morals, I know this body.  I’ve trained in this body.  When I took Brahmani’s body, I was stronger and out of breath less, but couldn’t aim my gun at all or coordinate.  I’m still strong enough to fight in this chassis.”

I hope you know what you’re doing, Anabelle Gage.

An hour later, Hira and Jun didn’t return, so we went back to our makeshift basement home to wait for them.

Another two hours, and we found ourselves sitting on my used mattress, leaning against the dusty wall on a pile of blankets.  Sweat drenched our clothes from the summer heat, but upstairs, there was no shade from the glaring sun, and someone could recognize our faces from the paper.

So we stayed down here, in our ruined, filthy pressure cooker.

At first, we’d tried to study, or practice our projection, but we’d exhausted ourselves in minutes.  Neither of us had the strength to be productive.

Then we’d listened to the radio, but the popular music stations had gone offline.  The news still worked, but spouted out a constant stream of horrible, depressing facts about the street violence.

Our favorite show, Verity, had gone offline.  Though in fairness, we had broken into the host’s mansion, threatened her, and forced her to deliver a nation-splitting manifesto.  And also smashed her chocolate fountain.

We were too tired to work, with nothing good to listen to.  So we just sat next to each other, quiet, petting Cardamom between us while the sounds of the riots drifted in from the distance.  Gunshots.  Pepper gas launchers.  Shouting.

I scratched Cardamom’s ears, and he purred.

Ana and I could have continued our conversation, resolved our issues about the pardon and Ousting and Tasia, and who deserved what.

But neither of us spoke.  Maybe we both knew it would lead to more dead ends, more frustration.

We just sat there, slumped over in the sweltering heat, petting our green cat.

Jun and Hira returned after another two hours of this.  Or maybe it was five, or ten.  Or thirty minutes.  The three bodies clomped down the stairs.  The old Shenti man, smiling and waving at us.  And the two young Ilaquans, staring at their feet, neither of them smiling.

“We’ve got it,” said Jun.  “A way to get to the Agricultural Islands.”

Ana jumped to her feet, alert in an instant.  “Fantastic.  What do you have?”

Jun beckoned us, and I pushed myself upright, groaning.  The two of us followed him back up the stairs, into the glaring sunlight.

He floated pairs of homemade binoculars into all of our hands, and pointed.  I peered into the lenses, following his direction.

I looked far away, past the edge of North Island and over the sparkling blue waters of Meteor Bay.

I gazed at Bartolet Naval Base.  My mother’s second home, where we’d gathered for the assault on Commonplace.  Almost all the ships had left already, sailing at full speed towards Ana’s hometown, but something else had taken their place

Two dark blue zeppelins sat on the runway, surrounded by a handful of soldiers and trucks.

“See those blimps?” said Jun.

“Yup,” I said.

“Hira did some digging with the local military staff and some sailors at a pub,” said Jun.  “They’re retrofitting the cargo zeppelins for battle.  Loading them with bombs, guns, that sort of thing.  In two days, they’re heading off to the Agricultural Islands.  And that’s – ”

“ – how we get there.  We stow away.”  I clapped Jun on the shoulder.

“Ow,” said Jun.  “My Pith is youthful, not my bones.”

“You did it Jun,” I said.  “You brilliant bastard.  It’s perfect.”

“But we’re no longer welcome in the naval base,” said Ana, pursing her lips.  “We’ll have to break in.”

“Well,” I said.  “It’s not like we have any experience with heists, right?  Or infiltration.”  And most of the Guardians have left already.  We’d have an easier time than usual.

I put down the binoculars and glanced around us.  A metal cooler sat on the doorstep, the kind that stored ice-cold beers or sodas.

I looked up.  A makeshift pickup truck had been built out of junk, much like Jun’s last car.  Dozens more coolers filled the back of the truck, stacked two high and tied down with ropes.  Are they having a picnic?

“How are we supposed to break into Bartolet?” said Ana, tapping her foot.  “It’s the biggest military base in the capital of the Principality.  That’s a near-impossible task.”

“Come on.”  Jun smiled at Ana.  “Where’s your sense of creativity and adventure?  Difficult, indeed, as you say, but impossible?”  He shook his head.  “Of course not.  Not for Queen Sulphur.”

I folded my arms.  “You have a plan then, Grandpa.”

Jun rolled his eyes at ‘grandpa’.  “Young people these days,” he grumbled.  “Such insolence.”  He looked at Ana.  “ I have part of a plan.  Hira and I got talking on the way to the store, and started bouncing ideas off each other.”

Right-Hira nodded, silent.  Odd of him to be so quiet.

“The Guardians are gone,” said Jun.  “So that’s already solved.”  He projected into the metal cooler on the doorstep, floating it into his hands and dragging it down the steps, into the basement.

“But they’ll have sonar, right?” said Ana.

“That’s right,” said Jun, slamming down the cooler.  “The Principian navy keeps active sonar all around Elmidde, but especially around the naval base.  It can be used to detect submarines, at the larger scale, or something as small as a human diver, if you know how to read the scopes.”

“Neke War Priests can stop sonar in water, right?” I said.

“It is as you say,” said Jun.  “But the Vocation is anything but simple.”

“And,” said Ana.  “The Rose Titan is gone.  We can’t ask her for help.”

“The trick,” said Jun.  “Is not hiding from their sonar, then, but disguising it.”  He wiped sweat out of his long, wispy beard.  “Making the operator think you’re one thing, when you’re another.”

“An illusion,” said Ana.

Jun nodded.  “It is as you say.”

“So,” I said.  “How are we disguising ourselves?”  Excitement slipped into my voice.  “Are you building a submarine out of scrap?  Or some armor shield to fit around us that modifies our shape?”  I pointed to the cooler.  “Those are the materials, right?  What’d you spend the last of our money on?”  Despite myself, the Shenti bastard’s elaborate contraptions were always fun to watch.

Jun leaned down and flipped the cooler on its side.  The top swung open, releasing a thick, salty odor.

A pile of dead fish splattered onto the floor.

Jun beamed at us.  “Shall we?”

________________________________________

Almost a day later, we were close to ready.

Jun’s plan sounded ridiculous on paper, but the more I thought about it, the more practical it seemed.  Hira helped us set everything up, and trained us in the basic techniques we’d need.  Ana, in particular, needed a lot of instruction to learn how to move in the water.  Otherwise, though, Hira remained quiet and withdrawn.

“Principality Naval bases maintain perimeter fences and watchtowers with no blind spots,” said Hira.  “Ana will have a hard time getting in range.  But with this method, you’ll have a solid chance of smuggling your way onto the blimps.”

“You’ll?”  Ana stood up in the basement, washing her fish-covered hands with soap and projected water.

“Fuck.”  Right-Hira looked away from us, like we’d just busted him for murder.

“Hira,” I said.  “What precisely the fuck are you talking about?”

Hira sighed with both bodies.  Right-Hira massaged his forehead.  “I’ve been thinking about it since we heard about the Agricultural Islands.”

Oh, dear.

“I like you guys.  Fuck, you’re my friends.”  Hira clenched his fists.  “You kept me safe from my father, and you watched my back without ever complaining about my smoking habit.  I’ll always be grateful for that.”  He looked at me, then Ana, then Jun.  “We’ve been on impossible missions before, deadly missions.  And they are so much fun.  But if you go into war, into a battle like that, I can’t join you.”

My stomach wrenched.  What the fuck?  “I thought you didn’t care if you lived or died?”

“Maybe my lung will sprout a tumor tomorrow,” said Hira.  “Maybe I’ll get hit by a stray bullet or run over by some nutty Green Hands.”  He looked up the stairs.  “But if I get on that zeppelin with you, I know I won’t make it to the end of the week.  Five minutes in, and it’ll get shot out of the sky.”

“They’re being retrofitted for combat,” said Ana.  “And they have non-flammable helium.”

“And I’m telling you it doesn’t matter,” said Hira.  “I’ve been skill-stitching soldiers, remember.  War zeppelins were relevant thirty years ago.  Now, they’re just slow, fat targets in the sky filled with explosives.  Most guns on a ship can shoot one down without blinking.”

“Then why is the Principality using them?” I said.

“They’re desperate,” said Hira.  “They’re throwing everything they have into battle.  And that should scare you shitless too.  This is the perfect opportunity to escape, and I’m not going to pass it by.  I stitched that General Benthey person while we were talking strategy.  Remember Helmfirth?  That city that got blown by the Voidsteel missiles?”  He gritted his teeth.  “Turns out, they have more of those.  And they might fire them at the Agricultural Islands if they think they’re losing the battle.  Wipe out the enemy without starting any fires.  With some collateral damage here and there.”

Silence, as everyone processed this.

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “Think you’re gonna survive that, dipshit?”

“Fuck,” said Ana.  Thinking of her parents.  “Fuck!  We need to make sure they don’t lose the battle, then.”

“Where will you go?” I said.

“The Floating City, in Neke,” said Hira.  “Like we discussed earlier.  There’ll be work there, and I can stay low to hide from my family.”

“The water is rising,” said Ana.  “You won’t be able to avoid it.  That city won’t float forever.”

“Not forever,” said Hira.  “Just long enough for a few drinks.  You should join me.”  His female body started stuffing clothes and ammunition into a duffel bag.

“We’ve fought your father,” said Ana, hands shaking.  “We’ve gone to battle on a foreign island against mortars and machine guns and a sniper with perfect aim.  We’ve beaten mobsters and projectors and terrorists and Guardians.  I’ve watched you go toe to toe with Lorne Daventry, and you almost beat him.  We’ve turned the tables while being hunted by Commonplace and Paragon, with an active tracer on one of us.  And now you want to quit?”  She stared at Hira, incredulous.

“Yes,” said Hira.  “This is far worse than any of those things.”

“If we don’t stop Tunnel Vision and Clive,” said Ana.  “Millions will die.  The Principality will descend into chaos, and the impact will ripple out over all Eight Oceans.  Nowhere will be spared, including Neke.”

“You’re right,” said Hira.  “But you’re mad if you think you can change that.  Clever tactics can only go so far.”

“Come on,” I said.  “Impossible battles are fun, aren’t they?  You said it yourself.”  Since when did you care about dying?

“You’ve never been in a real war,” said Hira.  “But I’ve stitched the thoughts of veterans.  And I’ve heard stories.”  He sat down, while his female body stuffed the shotgun into a bag.  “Artillery.  Flak cannons.  Bombing runs that level forests and rip holes in mountains.  Noise so loud you can’t hear your own screams.  You and Ana don’t have ABDs, so you’ll have to worry about shrapnel and bullets, too.  And that’s just the Humdrum side of things.”

“We’ve fought projectors,” said Ana.

“Not like this, we haven’t,” said Hira.  “That fight against the Pyre Witch?  When all we could do was cower?  Think of that as an appetizer.  The real meal is happening at the Agricultural Islands, and it’s far beyond any of us.  They will tear up the earth, burn the sky and the land, fill up the air with smoke and gas and attacks that break physics itself.  You wouldn’t make it ten minutes.  And neither would I.”

Ana clenched her teeth.  “Don’t count us out.”

“You’re determined,” said Hira, sliding his pitch-black sniper rifle into a golf bag.  “I admire that, even it makes no fucking sense to me.  Can any of us project away a massive fire?”

“No,” said Ana.

“How about Joining?  So our lungs can deal with the smoke?  Or so we can survive shock waves from bombs.”

“No,” said Ana through gritted teeth.

“There’s nothing fun about bleeding out in a ditch.  There’s a saying in the Harmonious Flock, death happens to other people.  Know what that means?”

“I can guess,” said Jun.

“People think about death, but most don’t really think about it.  Even when they envision horrible things like disease and war, they compartmentalize, see other people dying, but not them.  They imagine themselves as the heroic soldier storming the beach, the dogged survivor, not the poor fuck who gets shot in the first minute.  It’s a failure of empathy.  Death happens to other people.  Until it happens to you.  And it only needs to happen once.”

“But do you really care if you die?” I said.

“No,” he said.  “Death is why you shouldn’t go.  I’m worried about what’ll happen if I live.”

“Why?” said Jun.

“The Principality won’t make it in time,” said Hira, stuffing a bottle of pills into the bag with his rifle.  “If I survive, my father will drag my half-dead bodies from the wreckage and pump me full of Whisper vocations again.  Just like last time.”  He pulled the bags shut and slung them over his shoulders.  “Dying is fine.  But I’m not going to become his lab rat again.“

Fuck.  A part of me had always expected Hira to leave us, but not now, not here.  And maybe I wanted to believe he’d changed.

“If you want to say goodbye, now would be a good time.”

Jun ran forward and hugged Right-Hira.  “We will meet again.”  Hira hugged him back, closing his eyes.

I stepped forward and punched Right-Hira’s shoulder.  “You’re a selfish, drug-addled prick,” I said.

“Yup.”

“But you’re not a bad teacher, and you know how to have a good time.  I’m going to miss your stupid face.”

“Come on,” said Hira.  “Don’t get sappy on me, Ebbridge.”

Lund pe chadh,” I said.

Ana glared at both Hiras from the far end of the room.  “This is when we need you most.”  She didn’t approach either of them. “You can’t abandon us.  You can’t.”  Maybe she thought her cold stare would stop Hira, that her angry words and moral righteousness and appeals would change her friend’s mind.

But Hira just avoided her gaze.  “I’m sorry, Ana.  See you around.”

With two bodies, he walked back up the staircase, and disappeared into the light.

I sat down on the mattress, slumping onto my back.  “What the fuck?” I said.  “What the fuck?”

“It happened so fast,” said Jun.  He leaned against the wall, running his fingers through his grey beard.

I knew what Hira was.  The entire time, I’d known.  He was a selfish, battle-hardened mercenary, who’d almost killed us on the day we recruited him.  I shouldn’t be surprised.  Or hurt.

Too bad, idiot.  I’d gotten attached.  Once again, I’d let my feelings and impulses charge ahead, without thinking about how it could screw me over in the future.  Every day, I find new and exciting ways to define rock bottom.

On that night, the last night before our operation, before the zeppelins were scheduled to leave, I tossed and turned in my covers, fading in and out of sleep in fitful bursts.  I dreamt of swimming through a pitch-black ocean, up towards a beautiful multicolored light high above me, then woke up, locked out of a proper rest.  The warm summer night turned our basement into an oven.  Even Cardamom was sleeping outside, unable to bear the warmth.

Normally, I’d drink to put myself to sleep, but even after Hira left, something stopped me from staggering to the nearest liquor store.  A nagging itch.

As I drifted off to sleep again, a coughing sound echoed from upstairs.  Some random drunk.  Ignore it.

I squeezed my eyes shut, slumped back on my ratty mattress, and another sound rang out.  Someone retching upstairs.

Takonara.  If I dealt with the noise, maybe I’d catch more than half an hour of sleep.

I grabbed my briefcase full of paper and flattened weapons, in case, slid on my shoes, and tiptoed up the creaking stairs to the ground floor of the ruined building.

Then I gazed to the burnt steps where the front door of the house had been.

Ana knelt there, clutching her stomach, shivering despite the warmth, her grey hair illuminated by the pale moonlight.  She doubled over and vomited, heaving stale lentils and stomach acid onto the overgrown grass.  Then she slumped back against a broken wall, wiping her mouth.

She sniffled, and turned to me, her eyes red from crying.

I jogged over to her.  “Hey.  You alright?“

Ana retched again, forcing her eyes shut to stop the tears.  “Nerves.  I’m fine.”  Hira’s departure hit her harder than I thought.

I’d never comforted someone like this.  Back at Paragon, it had always been Samuel comforting me, making me feel better after a night of pained drinking, or when I got a bad grade on a paper.

So I copied what he did to me.  Minus the more intimate parts.  I kicked aside a pile of rubble, sat down next to Ana, and rubbed her shoulders.  “I’m here,” I said.  “I’m here.  Slow breaths.  Slow breaths.”

“I’m – “  Ana swallowed, forcing herself to breathe.  “I’m so scared,” she whispered.  “I don’t want to – ”  She stared at her withered, grey fingers.  “I don’t want to –

I don’t want to die.  She couldn’t bring herself to say it.

“Don’t worry,” I said.  “I won’t let you.”

I don’t want to die,” she said, with a great effort.  “I don’t want to die for nothing.

“And I won’t let you.  I promise.”

You’ve lied before,” she mumbled.

“You’re right,” I said.  “You don’t have to trust me.  But I’m going to do it anyway.”  And I meant it.  “Look where we were just a year ago.”  I indicated my head towards the basement, where Jun was sleeping.  “A slave in a redemption camp, on the verge of death.”  I looked down at myself.  “A drunk, selfish washout, spiraling out of control.”  Then I looked at Ana.  “A grey, withered maid, failing her dream three times in a row.”

Ana closed her eyes, nodding.

 “If we lose, we lose everything,” I said.  “But if we win, we get to write the next page.  We get to open the door and walk into the rest of our lives.”

After this,” she said.  “I don’t know.  I don’t know if I want to fight anymore.  I don’t know if I can do this.

“You don’t have to,” I said.  There are non-combat Guardians.  Though Ana didn’t seem like the scholarly type.  “Pour yourself a cup.  And drink some mulled cider.”

Ana leaned forward and hugged me.  I hugged her back.  Her body felt cold against mine.

The moon beat down on us, bright and piercing.  A warm summer breeze blew across the empty street.

From this distance, I could hear her panicked breaths, surging in and out of her lungs.

________________________________________

By mid-afternoon the next day, we finished our preparations.

“Do we have everything?” said Ana.

Jun and I nodded.

“Then it’s time.”

Queen Sulphur prepared for battle.

Ana unfolded her thin blue combat suit and slid it up her body, wearing only boxers underneath.  I caught a glance at her, and noted all the injuries she’d built up over the last months.  Bandages on patches of cracked skin.  Two stiff, grey fingers.  Three destroyed toes.  Bald patches on her scalp.  Bulging grey veins.  And untold damage on the inside, where nobody could see.

She pulled the blue material over her skin, covering up the decay.  A big mission like this might snap her like a twig.

But still, if she’d slowed down or tired since our first meeting, she wasn’t showing it.  She moved with strength, focus, throwing a dark shirt, pants, and a tight, ratty jacket over her combat suit.

She assembled her machine pistol with projection, checking the single Voidsteel bullet in the side magazine, then disassembled it in an instant, sliding the pieces into zippered pockets in her armor, by her ribs, at her waist, and by her outer thigh.  She shoved her cattle prod into a holster at her belt, and dropped the metal pillbox of Kraken’s Bone into another.

How could she possibly poison someone in a pitched battle like this?

Then I realized.  It’s for her.  If she got injured, and lost all chance of victory.

Finally, she added a pair of grenades, knockout gas and frag, both flattened by me and stuffed under her belt.

Then, she pulled out the painting Hira had drawn for her birthday.  The girl with red hair in the wheatfield.  A twenty-year-old Anabelle Gage, if she’d lived another life.

She gazed at it, while the rest of us got ready.

Jun stuffed metal gizmos and bits of scrap into his huge backpack, until it was bulging from every angle.  Basics like grenades, knockout injections, pepper gas, but also a few I didn’t recognize.  He didn’t bother with guns or knives.

I pulled on my favorite, most durable suit, since I lacked combat armor.  A lightweight, breathable blue linen with a flexible, two-button jacket and cuffed, slim-fit pants.

Then, I ripped open packets of letter paper and stuffed them into my brown fish leather briefcase, made watertight with Jun’s help.  In between the sheets, I added a variety of objects I’d flattened.  Syringes of Jun’s tranquilizer, grenades of all types, and a crowbar.

I placed a full bowl of food next to Cardamom in the corner of the basement, and scratched behind his ears.  “See you later.”

As a last touch, I pulled on my white crane mask, the one Samuel had gifted me for the masquerade so long ago.  I’m going to get back to you, I promised.  I’m going to earn everything we had and more.  We’ll play Jao Lu in the common room, and I’ll make you smile again, just like before.

An hour later, we stood at the eastern shore of North Island, in the scrapyard where Jun had assembled his first car.  The coolers sat next to us, pulled off the makeshift pickup trick.

Behind us, the sun sank into the mid-afternoon, casting long shadows in front of us.  Far ahead of us, across the water, I could make out Bartolet Naval Base, and the two zeppelins getting fueled up on the runways.  About to launch.

To my right, Mount Elwar extended far above us, smoke rising from almost every district in Lowtown and Midtown.  A few in Hightown, too, with clashes breaking out near mansions and the empty Parliament building.  That’s a lot of riots.

And above that, the floating islands of Paragon Academy.  The conical Great Library and the banquet hall and the classrooms and dormitories, connected with wooden bridges, tied to the mountain with only a pair of cable cars.  The end goal, for both me and Ana.

I stared at the lapping water ten feet below.  “There better not be any junk down there,” I said.  “Don’t want to jump in and get speared through the leg.”

“We’re fine,” said Jun, patting me on the shoulder.  “I checked.”

The water glimmered, crystal-clear, and I could see our reflections in the ripples.  The broken illusionist, the guilty bombmaker, and the spoiled exile.

Queen Sulphur, down two bodies and one member.  It seemed impossible that we’d managed to win a single fight, much less an entire pitched battle.

We made it this far, didn’t we?

Let’s start,” said Ana, with illusions.

One by one, we dragged the coolers to the edge and tipped them over, dumping mountains of dead trout into the water.  I wrinkled my nose, breathing through my mouth to avoid the stench.  Jun tossed a few baubles in, adding them to our underwater stash.

I strapped my briefcase to my back so I didn’t have to hold onto it.  Then, we fit on our scuba gear.  My diving mask, digging into my forehead, with a snorkel.  A pair of tight fins on my feet, squeezing my pinky toe and heels.  A pair of black gloves.  A heavy steel oxygen tank on my back, next to the briefcase, and a rubber regulator to go in my mouth, leaving a bitter taste on my tongue.  The only thing we avoided were wetsuits, since we could project the water out of our clothes with little effort.

And, as a final touch, earplugs, with waterproof tape to hold them in.

I breathed in through the regulator, forcing myself to be slow, patient, deliberate.  It all felt so bloody uncomfortable.  Cold and tight and awkward.  We’d only had a day to train.

But I could improvise.

Ready?” said Ana.

I probably forgot something.  I patted myself down, checking for anything missing.  But I found nothing.

I gave a thumbs up.  Ana didn’t even need to look at me to see the motion – she’d discovered a new feature of her Vocation, that let her piggyback on people’s senses as long as she was familiar enough with their Piths.  In our last battle, she’d used it to listen to through my ears at a short distance.

And right now, with practice and my permission, she could see through my eyes, too.

Jun nodded, and squeezed Ana’s good shoulder.  “You can do this.”

Three, two, one, go.

I stepped off the edge, and splashed into the water, cold rushing around me, soaking into my clothes.

I blinked, adjusting my diving goggles, and opened my eyes.  Ana and Jun floated next to me in the deep blue water.  They moved their arms and legs, swimming with their fins and getting their bearings.  Warm sunlight filtered through from above, casting them in a rippling glow.

Saltwater trickled into my mouth, and I bit down on the regulator, tightening my grip over it, swallowing the saltwater and coughing.  Remember what Jun and Hira said.  Slow, calm breaths.  Don’t breathe through your nose.  Stay relaxed.

I projected into my wet suit jacket, pushing out the water and tightening it over me, preventing it from slipping off or getting wrinkled.  After the summer heat, the cool ocean water felt refreshing on my skin, but it’d give me hypothermia if I left it there.

We spent maybe a minute like this, moving around, getting our bearings, making sure our equipment worked fine in the water.  I practiced moving up, down, and sideways with my fins, making sure my weight and buoyancy were right.  I was no expert, but it would be enough.

Then, we paused for a moment, and looked around at each other.  “Everyone good?” said Ana, speaking through illusions.  “Equipment good?

Thumbs up all around.  Despite Jun’s age, he moved just as fast as the rest of us in the water, giving off no sign of weakness or exhaustion.  Benefits of working out.  Strands of his wispy grey beard poked out of the bottom of his regulator mask, looking rather comical.

Formation,” said Ana.

The three of us swam close to each other, with Jun at the front and me and Ana to his sides and behind.  Breathe in, pause, breathe out.  Not through the nose, not through the nose.

Navigation,” said Ana.

A compass and waterproof map floated up in front of Jun, the trinkets he’d dropped down earlier, plus some metal contraption that would help point him in the right direction.  Jun nodded at Ana.

Shield,” she said.

I projected into the piles of dead fish beneath us.  Into the pieces of paper we’d stuffed inside each one, sealed and made waterproof thanks to Jun.  I pushed my soul into one of them, then a dozen, then a hundred.  I floated them upwards, into a layered sphere around us.

My paper control was weak, and I couldn’t multitask all that well.  To anyone who actually saw us, it would look fake, absurd, not natural swimming.

But to the sonar, we’d look exactly like a school of matrix fish.  Our disguise was complete.

Let’s go,” said Ana.

Jun swam forward, leading the way as the navigator.  Ana and I followed, flapping our fins back and forth, and I moved the sphere of dead fish with us.

How on earth did Jun come up with this plan?  If, a year ago, someone had told me that I’d be scuba diving with a giant clump of dead fish animated by an old Shenti bombmaker, I would have laughed.  This had to be one of the strangest things I’d done for this job.

Inhale.  Pause.  Exhale.  Inhale.  Pause.  Exhale.  Watch your depth and don’t swim up or down.  Match Jun’s speed.  It took most of my concentration just to move forward and do the basics without screwing up.  Every few seconds, I changed the shape of the fake-fish sphere, making sure it wasn’t static.

We swam forward, for what felt like an eternity, the fins digging into my feet, squeezing my toes.  That’s going to leave a blister.  The mouthpiece dug into my mouth, making it ache.

After an hour, or maybe just a few minutes, I started to hear soft pings in my ear, ringing through water from a far distance.  The active sonar.  Without the earplugs, it would be deafening.

Slow,” said Ana.  “Careful.”  If we made too much noise or I screwed up the formation, the Principality’s naval defenses would detect us.

Time became a blur.  My feet ached more and more.  The sonar pings got louder and louder, until the noise stabbed into my ears, overwhelming.

Finally, after an excruciating length of time, Jun looked at us and made a slicing motion with his hands.  Another signal.

We’re here,” said Ana.  I parted my fake school of fish in front of us and relaxed my Pith, letting them sink through the water.

We angled ourselves up, until my hands touched a rocky slope in the water.  I pushed myself forward, and my head burst out of the surface.

I gagged and spat out the regulator, coughing.  The water washed over me, and I crawled forward, off the rocks and onto a grassy shore.

Then I collapsed, water dripping off my clothes, and spat, wiping water off my face, taking deep breaths through my nose.  Scholars, it feels so good to breathe through my nose.

After a few seconds, I projected the rest of the water out of my clothes and hair.  The three of us crawled away from the water, pulling off our scuba gear and drying ourselves.

Then I glanced up.  We’d emerged on the northeastern side of the island, on the opposite end as Bartolet Naval Base.  A thick forest extended before us, with no one in sight.

I lay on the grass for a moment, bathing in the warm sun as Ana assembled her machine pistol, wheezing and shivering.  She looked more winded than Jun.

Jun reached into his backpack and pulled out a set of gas masks and helmets.  He tossed one of each to me, and I strapped them on, taking the briefcase off my back.

Let’s go,” said Ana.

We moved forward through the trees, quiet.  Past a short distance, the treeline stopped short of the perimeter fence, with a flat, open region between the base and the forest.

First, we placed a pair of devices towards the north part of the forest, and set the timers on them.  Then we went to the south, at a spot between two watchtowers with machine guns.  And we waited.

Ana checked her internal clock.  “Five,” she said.  “Four.  Three.  Two.  One.

Voices and footsteps echoed from the north, playing from a hidden speaker Jun had planted in a bush.  It wouldn’t be enough for alarm, but it would distract the guards and give us a short window.

Jun jabbed his fingers forward, and a dozen wire cutters shot out of his backpack.  They dug into the chain-link fence, slicing a hole in seconds.

We charged.  Jun darted through the fence, then I sprinted through.  We raced towards a dark corner between two of the barracks, a piece of cover hidden from the watchtowers.

Something hit the ground behind me, and I turned.

Ana had tripped on the fence.  One of the bits of metal had caught on her shoe.  As she yanked it out, freeing her foot, the fence shook, making an audible sound.

Alerting the guards.  Oh, scholars.

My stomach dropped.  I snapped open my briefcase and shot paper out, ready to make visual barriers or attack.  I looked up at the guard towers for our targets, then stopped.

The watchtowers were empty.  Not a single guard in either of them.  What?

I pulled the paper back into my briefcase, and the three of us ran for cover, ducking in between the barracks.

“Where are the guards?” I whispered.  “Where is everyone?”

Ana clenched her teeth.  Jun shrugged.

On a hunch, I leaned forward, peering into one of the barracks’ windows.

Then I staggered back, hyperventilating.

What?  What is it?” said Ana.

“See for yourself.”

The three of us walked forward and looked into the window together.

Fuck,” breathed Ana.

Bodies littered the floor.  Principality soldiers, bleeding from stab wounds or covered with burns.

Everyone inside was dead.

I stared up at the sky.  A silver oracle snake slithered through the red clouds, winding out of the setting sun towards the city, and Paragon Academy.

Maxine Clive has a plan, I thought.

She has a plan.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




11-B The Breadbasket

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

TV here, I said with the tracer.  Come now.

I repeated the telegraph code message again and again.  Rowyna Ebbridge had placed the tracer on me himself, and I’d already pulled this trick once.  If the other teams weren’t swamped, they could be here in minutes.

The rest of Queen Sulphur stayed behind cover with me.  Right-Hira poked out of a building’s window and aimed his sniper rifle up at the building.

The wind blew through the rain-soaked street, flapping Tunnel Vision’s suit jacket and skirt around her as she bent her knees into a fighting stance.  Penny Oakes, the Obsidian Foil, and the Symphony Knight all stared up at her from the ground floor.

In the distance, ocean waves crashed against the shores of North Island.

“And here, I thought you were too smart to show your face,” said Penny Oakes, floating a cloud of green vapor beside her.  “Lucky for us, I’m wrong sometimes.”

“You’re never wrong, honey,” said Sebastian Oakes.  “Come, traitor!” he boomed, his voice ringing around the street.  “You have betrayed your oath, your comrades, and your nation.  You have butchered the souls of innocents on your road to power.”  He raised his obsidian swords above him, bending his knees.  “You have forsaken your humanity, witch!  But you can at least have the honor of meeting us in battle, before you face justice for your crimes.”

The Symphony Knight said nothing.  She just stared at the Pyre Witch, impassive, her metal armor reflecting the flat morning light.  If anyone can beat that monster, it’s her.

They’re stalling.  The Guardians knew I had a tracer on me, and that I’d used it to signal before.  Tunnel Vision might not know about it.  With our radios destroyed, she might still think we were cut off from our allies.

If she planned to hit us one by one, that wouldn’t work now.

The Pyre Witch was strong, but against the Symphony Knight, Headmaster Tau, and numerous Scholar-Ranked Guardians, she didn’t stand a chance.

Tunnel Vision said nothing, and slashed her hands forward.  A tidal wave of palefire exploded from her fingers, a white flash of light shooting down the side of the building and onto the street, stretching end to end, impossible to dodge.

The Symphony Knight lifted her palms, and three clear notes rang out, a simple chord forming a shockwave through the air, a low boom making the ground shake.  The sheer force of the blast knocked back the wall of flame, keeping it away from the three Guardians.  It tore open burnt wooden walls on the Commonplace building, made cracks spread throughout the pavement, and flipped over a van on the side of the street.

Loose bits of flame shot off, setting other houses and storefronts on fire.  One of them landed on the floor next to me, and Wes smothered it with his coat.

Tunnel Vision launched another fireblast, followed by two more in quick succession.  The Symphony Knight knocked them all back, ripping apart columns on the Commonplace building and tossing limp corpses like ragdolls.

For a few seconds, this stalemate held, between the fire and the musical shockwaves.  The Symphony Knight still isn’t fighting at full power.  Why?  Was using her full strength too much of a strain?  Was she luring Tunnel Vision into a false sense of confidence?

Or was she just weaker than the papers said?

The palefire, too, had been stronger in the stadium, when the Pyre Witch had burnt Professor Stoughton’s water-hydra in an instant.  And that time was in a rainstorm.  Here, the flame fizzled out in places, had gaps and weak points and moved slower than before.  Is Tunnel Vision holding back too?

Penny Oakes drew her hands around her, and a great wind whipped down the street, as she moved the deadly, invisible gas she’d used on the Green Hands.

The palefire grew even weaker above the trio, sputtering out even without the Symphony Knight’s shockwaves.

It hit me.  The nerve gas isn’t flammable.  Palefire, no matter how hot and deadly it was, still needed oxygen.  Penny Oakes had bunched up her deadly gas above her group, pushing out the normal air, forming a shield strong enough to block out the flames.

Right-Hira’s building collapsed, and he ran down the street to join his female body, taking cover with the two of us.

I didn’t even bother raising my machine pistol.  Tunnel Vision stood far out of my range, and there was no way I could nail her with my Voidsteel bullet at this range.

Now that Penny Oakes was on defense, the Symphony Knight clenched her fists, charging up a double shockwave.  She released it, shooting it up at the building, making the air vibrate.

Tunnel Vision leapt off the roof, dodging the blast.  It washed over the top floor of the building, which exploded, raining rubble down on the street.

As Tunnel Vision flew forward, she clenched her fists, forming a swirling sphere of palefire around her, obscuring her from vision.

The sphere split from one into a dozen, each flying off in a different direction.  Eleven decoys and one real target.

As the Symphony Knight charged up a second blast, a horizontal curtain of palefire flooded the sky, blotting out the grey clouds with bright white.  My eyes burned, and I recoiled.

As I did, a hundred lightning bolts shot out of the curtain, blasting over the trio.

Electricity hummed through the air.  Dozens of bolts crashed into Sebastian Oakes, running up and down his body.  He shuddered, arms shaking, eyes wide.  Then he sank back into his fighting stance, his combat suit covered in scorch marks.  Joining.  Stronger than any I’d seen before.  Enough to keep his body intact through that much lightning.

The Symphony Knight held her palms to the sky, and the lightning bolts curved around her like raindrops on an umbrella, ripping out chunks of the cobblestones around her.  A few of them hit her, but they dispersed over her heavy armor, leaving only burns.

Penny Oakes, on the other hand, took all the bolts with no joining.  She twitched, collapsing on the ground.

As she fell, a green laser sliced through the smoke, cutting across the pavement towards her head.

Penny Oakes projected into her combat suit, jerking herself away.

So, instead of slicing her skull in half, the laser burned through her neck and chopped her head off.

The Obsidian Foil roared, and sprung forward.  The laser cut across his face, but only left a sizzling burn.  He grabbed onto his wife’s severed head and swung it around by the ponytail, flinging her down the street.

Gas blew around the head, slowing its fall, weaving it in a zig-zag to dodge lightning bolts as it spurted blood into the air.  It dropped on top of an unconscious Green Hands.  Green lightning flickered.  A second later, the Green Hands leapt to his feet and flew away from another blast of palefire.  Penny Oakes, transferred.

The fire clipped the Green Hands’ torso and legs, covering it in wrinkled burns, and Penny Oakes zipped into a house, swapping to a third body with a burst of green electricity.

The laser shot out of one of the fire-spheres, exposing which one was the real Pyre Witch.  Shockwaves from the Symphony Knight blasted around it, one after the other, faster and faster, sealing off avenues of escape.  The Obsidian Foil sprung up, shooting towards the sphere with his swords.

The Pyre Witch dodged to the side, twisting in the air to avoid his slashes, weaving around the shockwaves and down the wall of the building.

One of the shockwaves clipped her, knocking her inside.  She crashed through a wooden wall, landing on the first floor where I could still see her.

In unison, the Obsidian Foil and the Symphony Knight jumped forward, following her into the building.  As they did, a blast of palefire shot around them, burning out the last two wooden supports on the front end of the structure.

The building rumbled, and collapsed on the two Guardians.

The ceiling dropped on their heads, making them vanish in an instant.  The ground shook.  Columns broke, walls snapped into pieces, floors dropped onto each other.

“Back!” Left-Hira shouted.  We scrabbled back, away from the abandoned office building, as it fell apart like a giant house of cards and tipped to the side, towards a row of houses across the street.  A deafening crash rang in my ears, drowning out the sound of my frantic breathing.

A tsunami of grey dust washed down the street, blowing in the broken windows of our building, blocking our vision and making my eyes sting.

The dust cleared, and I leaned out the window, gazing forward.

The Commonplace building had become a mountain of rubble at the end of the street, concrete and wood and sawdust, with bits of metal rebar sticking out of the pile.  It had collapsed onto a trio of houses across the street, crushing them under its weight.

A long silence extended over the wreckage.  No gunshots.  No shouting.  No projector battles.

Then, a muffled roar echoed from the debris.  The Pyre Witch exploded from the top of the hill with a shower of concrete and metal, her skirt and jacket and gas mask stained grey.  She flipped backwards, landing on a broken chunk of wall.

A second later, The Obsidian Foil exploded behind her, making no noise.  He spun himself like a buzz saw, the same trick he’d used on the lightning mobster before.  A whirling slash to cut her into dozens of pieces.

Tunnel Vision bent one of her knees, sinking down and forward in a martial arts stance.  One of the sabers sliced her across the back, drawing a spurt of blood, and she leapt forward to the other side of the mountain, spinning around midair to face Sebastian Oakes as she made space between them.

Oakes moved faster, closing the distance between them with a single bound.  The two landed on another piece of rubble, and danced around each other in a blur.

Oakes lashed out with his swords, slicing up and down, left and right, staying close and preventing his enemy from escaping, relying on his overwhelming strength and speed to keep her on the defensive.

Tunnel Vision held twin fireballs in her hands, and blasted them out in shotgun bursts whenever Oakes swung, forcing him to dodge in the middle of his strikes.  It seemed even the Obsidian Foil himself wasn’t a good enough Joiner to endure sustained palefire.  The bursts of fire expanded into waves behind Oakes, crashing towards him from every angle, slowing him down even further.

Professor Oakes’ obsidian swords could cut through steel and concrete.  So, instead of blocking the swords, the Pyre Witch shot cinder blocks at Oakes’ arms and shoulders mid-swing, knocking aside his attacks.

Tunnel Vision was holding her own.  But she wasn’t a Joiner.  And in just a few seconds, Oakes’ dominance in close quarters became clear.

She knocked aside five sword strikes, and he swung at her with another dozen.  She blasted waves of fire at him, and he contorted himself through the openings, the patches filled with non-flammable nerve gases.  She dodged a fencing jab, and the other sword would come around to graze her thigh, or her ribs, or her scalp, drawing red lines across her skin.

The Obsidian Foil slashed at Tunnel Vision’s head, and she dodged a hair too slow.  The black gas mask broke in two, split down the middle.

The nerve gas is still all around her.  One inhale, and she’d be toast.

Sebastian Oakes pressed the attack, knowing she had to hold her breath.  Tunnel Vision leapt back, shooting bursts of palefire, flying off the pile of rubble and onto the street, closer to us, though still out of my range.

With the mask off, the sharp angles of her face became visible, beneath her bowler hat and her light brown hair.  The pale skin, the clenched jaw, the eyes filled with muffled rage.

You killed Kaplen.  You gave me this body.  It had been indirect, but she had set all those events in motion.  She was the real puppet master.

I glanced down, at my bulging grey veins, my decayed fingers and toes.  I thought of my hair, withered, falling out in tufts.

Kaplen’s voice echoed in my head.  Where’s Lyna?  Where’s Lyna?

The rage swelled in my stomach.  My grey hands shook, tightening on the grip of my machine pistol.  My face grew hot.

But I didn’t move from cover.  Thirty feet of sprinting, and Tunnel Vision would be in range of my illusions.  And at this distance, I had a chance of hitting her with a Voidsteel bullet.  But I stayed.  And I didn’t fire.  Neither did Hira.

Patience.  My blue combat suit wouldn’t protect me from palefire.  At this point, I still couldn’t affect the fight much.  If I wanted revenge, I had to do this right.

One of the gas masks tore off a dead Green Hands and snapped onto Tunnel Vision’s face.  She took a gasping breath.

Wait,” I said with illusions.  “She’s too strong.

Then Tunnel Vision glanced at me, making eye contact.  She raised her pinky, gathering a fireball behind her to shoot at me.

Wes charged in, papers streaming out of his briefcase, forming a layered barrier to block her vision.

Wait!” I shouted into his Pith.  “Wait!

As I stretched myself around his soul, I felt something click.  I’d used my illusions on him so many times now, and his Pith felt more familiar to me than just about any other I’d used my Vocation on.

I modified his sense of hearing to talk to him, just like usual.

But this time, I could hear an extra layer of sounds.  A boy’s breathing, muffled through a gas mask.  And the same explosions and gunshots as usual, but doubled up, on a slight delay.  Heard through a second pair of ears.

I can listen through Wes’ ears.  I’d modified the outputs of his auditory centers so many times, that now my Pith was listening to the inputs, too.

“Sorry, Ana,” he muttered to himself.  “But I’m not going to let you die today.”

Wes sprinted across the street, creating more paper barriers, drawing attention to himself.  Other storms of paper shot forward, darting at Tunnel Vision from all angles.

While the mob boss fought Sebastian Oakes, she shot bursts of palefire around her, incinerating Wes’ attacks with ease.  His storms of paper crumbled into ashes.

Wes un-flattened a frag grenade and projected it forward, dropping it on Tunnel Vision’s head.  A loose brick batted it forward, knocking it behind Sebastian Oakes, where it exploded, knocking him forward.

“Get the fuck back, Wes!” shouted Left-Hira, her voice muffled through her gas mask.  Her arm jerked out, blocking the door, stopping me from chasing after him.  “Damn fool.”

Both Hiras punched the air, and smoke bombs shot forward, going off around Wes.  Giving him cover.

Then, the street exploded, a wave of dust and rubble, mixed with a white-hot blast of palefire.  Wes heard a roar, deafening in his ears.  The shock wave knocked me and both Hiras back.  We slammed onto the floor, my ears ringing.  My injured shoulder sent stabs of pain through my body.

The room spun around me.  Behind me, Hira’s bodies sat still, their chests rising and falling.  Unconscious or stunned.  A high-pitched ringing echoed through Wes’ ears.

The moment I got my bearings, I staggered to my feet, running forward, squinting into the new dust cloud.  Wes.  Where was Wes?  He would have been near the center of the explosion.

“Ana!” his voice rang out ahead of me.

“Wes!” I shouted, casting my Pith around me to sense him.

The cloud dispersed.  Wes was positioned on the close end of the pile of rubble where the Commonplace building used to stand.  His legs and half of his torso had been buried in the concrete and metal, holding him down.

Maxine Clive knelt behind him, wearing a gas mask, her blonde hair covered in soot.  She held a Voidsteel knife to his throat.

Fuck.  My throat clenched, and my hands shook.

“Well,” said Wes.  “This is a bit of a pickle.”

That was her body, no mistaking it.  The misshapen bones and bulging scars and weary eyes.  But that could be anyone’s Pith driving it.

At the far end of the debris, the Symphony Knight floated out from the wreckage, without a scratch on her.  Her armor gleamed, still pristine, even after being buried under a building.

The Symphony Knight touched down in the center of the street, and held one palm at Maxine Clive.  She aimed the other at Tunnel Vision, watching both targets.

The Obsidian Foil stood a few dozen yards away from Tunnel Vision, his cheek and neck covered in burns.  He’d lost one of his swords, and held the other one out in a sideways fencing stance, leveling it at the Pyre Witch.  Penny Oakes was nowhere to be seen.

I aimed my machine pistol at Maxine Clive, clutching it with sweaty hands.  Don’t waste your time.  I could hit a human-sized target at this range, but here, I’d risk shooting Wes.  I didn’t have the aim to fire around a human shield.

This is bad, this is bad, this is bad.  We’d been cornered like this before, but we’d had access to my illusions, or Hira’s skills, or Jun’s contraptions.  But I was out of range.  And both Hira and Jun had been knocked out.

My stomachache grew.  An invisible weight sat on my shoulders, growing heavier by the second.

I circled the street, still aiming forward, moving closer to the Symphony Knight and Maxine Clive.  Just a few dozen more yards, and my illusions can – 

“That’s close enough, Blue Charlatan,” said Clive.

I stopped.  All our enemies were still out of my Vocataion’s range.  But at this distance, I had a much better shot at a different target.

I turned, aiming my machine pistol at Tunnel Vision.  I prepared to flip the switch in the mechanism, that would chamber the single Voidsteel bullet in the alternate clip.  One well-placed shot, and none of the Pyre Witch’s plans would matter.

“You fought well, witch,” boomed the Obsidian Foil.  “And I’m sure your companion has some interesting stories to tell.  However, you – “

“You’re stalling,” said Maxine Clive.  “Your allies heard the commotion, and they’re on their way.  Or you found some other way to signal them.”

Tunnel Vision nodded.  “We’re out of time, Max.”

“We,” said Maxine Clive.  “Are going to fly out of here.”

“You are going to prison, miscreant!” bellowed Sebastian Oakes.  “You will not escape your fate.”

Maxine Clive pressed the Voidsteel blade to Wes’ throat, drawing blood.  “Neither will he.  The Typhoon of the South’s daughter.  One slash, and there’s no vocation in the Eight Oceans that can save him.”

Thoughts rushed through my head, panicked strategies and split-second ideas of what I could do.  But all of them needed illusions to work, needed me to get close.

At this range?  On my own?  I was practically useless.

My hands shook.  Sweat collected under my armpits.  I took shallow, rapid breaths of the stale, filtered air in my gas mask.  A stench hung around me, a mixture of burnt pork and chemicals.  From burning bodies.

“Fear not, soldier,” said the Obsidian Foil to Wes.  “We will not abandon you to these demons.”  He clenched his sword, pointing it at Maxine Clive.  “Release him!”

I glanced at the corpses all over the street, both Green Hands and men from the army, burnt and shot and crushed under collapsed buildings.  How many soldiers have already been abandoned, sacrificed?  By our side and theirs.  Against those numbers, what chance did Wes have?

No chance, if you leave him to die, idiot.  I had to think of something.

The Symphony Knight cocked her head at Wes and Maxine Clive, her bright blue eyes gleaming like her armor.  She leaned forward, and an inquisitive look flashed across her face.  Then, she spoke, her voice flat and simple.

“You are not leaving.”

“You have twenty seconds!” shouted Sebastian Oakes.  “To release him.”

A particle of light floated in the Symphony Knight’s palm, a clear message: Twenty seconds, and I’ll attack with my full power.  Even if it meant cleaving through Wes.  And I’d read articles about her.  That route, at this range, Tunnel Vision and Clive had almost no chance of survival.

And Wes had none.

“W – wait!” I shouted.  “Wait.  You can’t just kill Wes.  There has to be some other way.”

Sebastian Oakes’ face screwed up in a pained expression, and he avoided eye contact with me.  But he said nothing.

“He’s your ally,” I said.  “You’re some of the best projectors in the world, help him!”

“He’s a criminal,” said the Symphony Knight.  “Not a student.”  They feel no duty to him.  Now that he was out of Paragon, they saw him as just another person.  A disposable mercenary.

They only see you as a cheap tool.  Maxine Clive’s old words whispered in my mind.  Quick to break, and quicker to throw away.

“I am a woman of my word,” called out Maxine Clive, looking at Oakes, then the Symphony Knight, then me.  “If we survive, and leave intact, Weston Ebbridge will go free, unharmed.  You can attack us.  Or you can save him.  But not both.”

“Ten seconds,” said the Obsidian Foil.

The grey clouds closed in above us, darkening the sky even further.  Ash rained down around us.

I looked at the Symphony Knight, at those large, blue eyes staring forward with cold, unblinking intent.  And I knew, right then.

She’ll kill Wes.  In a heartbeat.  And she’d sleep well tonight.  Isabelle Corbin, the Scholar of Music, the hero of a hundred battles and the composer of a hundred classic songs, had already done the moral calculation.  She’d made up her mind the moment she saw the hostage.

I’d seen that gaze before, at some of my lowest moments, sleep-deprived through endless missions.  When I’d shot men and women in cold blood, or forced them to kill their friends.

I’d look in the mirror afterwards, or a puddle, and saw blank, hollow eyes staring back at me.  And they terrified me.

Killing my best friend would be easy for her.

This is how they see all their citizens, isn’t it?

“Five seconds,” said the Obsidian Foil.  He knows they won’t surrender.  Why is he bothering?  Why wasn’t he doing something?

The tension in my chest reached a breaking point.  Tunnel Vision disgusted me, more than anything else in the world, enough to make my hands shake.  If we took her out with Maxine Clive, and I was part of the team, I could have a shot at that pardon.

Tasia’s face flickered into my mind.  You’d have to Oust her.  And I’d have to watch Wes die.  My ally, my brother, my competition, my enemy.  The boy who’d used me, saved me, fought alongside me and learned from me.

But you’d save the Principality.  I had a duty to this nation, to the people here, to keep them safe from the monsters within.  Even if I was a nobody.  Even if I was an insignificant mercenary, pointless next to the almighty Guardians around me.  Even if some parts of the Principality didn’t deserve to be saved.

I saw myself back at that picnic, the one we’d shared after my mission with Clementine.  I saw myself playing Jao Lu with Wes, lying back on the blanket and running my fingers through the grass, feeling my shoulders relax for the first time in so many months.  Watching as he offered me his share of the money, so I could have a real chance at life.

I imagined walking into Paragon Academy with Wes, side by side.  I imagined drinking the mulled cider there with him.  A fantasy.  But my mind latched onto it anyway.

I can’t let him die.  That wasn’t just an opinion, it was a fact.  An utter, inevitable truth.

In that instant, my Pith stretched out, and layered an audiovisual illusion on the Symphony Knight, the only person in range.  If she’s charging an attack, she won’t be stretching her Pith out to feel her surroundings.

I lit up my imagination, and replaced Tunnel Vision and Maxine Clive with illusory versions of themselves.  Then, I made them fly off to the left, pulled by their clothes at blinding speeds.

The Symphony Knight tracked the movement with her hand.  An instant later, something rushed out of her palm, a dazzling burst of green and purple light that exploded out in a cone, moving so fast I could barely make out the details.  A progression of chords rang throughout the air, a mixture of instruments I’d never heard before all combined in perfect harmony, an original musical piece beginning and ending in five seconds.  A sharp, upbeat melody of excitement and possibility, ringing throughout the square.

I remembered the song more than the attack, more than the light or the blast directed at my illusions.  I made the illusions dodge, flying out of sight.

And as the light faded, I saw its effects.  An entire row of buildings had been demolished in a straight line out from the Symphony Knight, sliced into pieces like a diced onion.  They crumbled to the ground with a boom.

And that’s still only a fraction of her power.  As I recalled, her Vocation wasn’t best suited to cities.

And at the same time, Maxine Clive made eye contact with me.  An acknowledgment.  A deal.  Let us leave, and the boy goes free.

She let go of Wes and sheathed the Voidsteel knife.

A half-second later, Left-Hira burst from the front door, aiming her pistol at Maxine Clive, purple lightning flickering around her hands.

At the same time, Penny Oakes dropped down from above Tunnel Vision, arms flattened to her sides.  A bright red gas shot out of a tank on her back and surrounded the Pyre Witch’s head.

It sizzled, and Tunnel Vision’s gas mask dissolved, breaking into a dozen pieces, once again leaving her exposed.

Tunnel Vision ducked down, reaching her palms up behind her and blasting a cone of palefire around Penny Oakes.  A white flash exploded across my vision, and Penny Oakes collapsed onto the rubble, blackened and burnt from head to toe.

Sebastian Oakes leapt forward with a burst of green lightning, a dozen times faster than before, a blur I could barely see.

He flung his obsidian sword like a javelin, right at Tunnel Vision’s chest.  It whistled through the air, as fast as a bullet.  She projected into her clothes and jerked herself backwards, her hair grazing the rubble behind her.

The sword sliced across the front of her jacket, cutting off a piece of fabric.

And as it did, Sebastian Oakes landed in front of Tunnel Vision, low to the ground, right in her blind spot.  He placed his palms on the rubble, pivoted, and whipped his leg around, roundhouse kicking the Pyre Witch’s lower leg.

A chunk of concrete shot at him mid-swing, slowing his strike.  But his combat boot still smashed into Tunnel Vision’s shin with a snap.  It kept going, cleaving through the entire leg with a spurt of blood and muscle, as the other leg leapt out of the way.

I released my illusions from the Symphony Knight, and she blinked, getting her bearings.

The Pyre Witch screamed, as her right foot dropped off her body and rolled on the ground, spurting blood onto the concrete.  A white flash lit up the entire hill of rubble, a massive burst of palefire filling my vision, a wave of heat making my face sting.

When it cleared, The Obsidian Foil flopped onto his belly, taking slow, ragged breaths, his armor burnt to rags.  He crawled over to his wife, pulling her burnt body towards another unconscious Green Hands to transfer her.

They were allowed to take bodies from enemies in the field.  I, of course, was not.

I looked up.  Tunnel Vision flew across the Eloane Ocean, dragging Maxine Clive next to her, already tiny in the distance.  Neither of them wore a wingsuit, but they still moved faster than any flying projector I’d seen, even Harpy, who controlled air itself.

None of the projectors followed, too exhausted to pursue.  The Symphony Knight stood as the one exception, but her power was in her Vocation, not speed or flight.  Strong as she was, she had no chance of catching up with them.

Silence descended over the street.  Dust and ash from the explosions settled on the rubble in a thin film.  The cries of pain faded, the soldiers and Green Hands either unconscious or dead.  Almost a dozen buildings had been ripped apart.  Endless bodies lay on the ground, their uniforms and green tattoos stained red.

A blackened chunk of concrete rolled off the hill, revealing Wes underneath, dust staining his brown hair.  He gasped for breath and coughed, pulling himself out from under the wreckage.  Behind me, on the street, Jun’s eyes fluttered, and he groaned, rubbing his head.

The Symphony Knight turned to me, calm.  “Do that again,” she said.  “And I will kill you.”

Two minutes later, Isaac Brin and Florence Tuft arrived, touching down with a small army of Guardians close behind.  But the enemy was already gone.

________________________________________

A soldier threw me to the tarmac, and I fell onto the concrete, my back aching.

I lay on the edge of the runway, staring up at the cloudy afternoon sky.  A pair of Voidsteel handcuffs bound my wrists behind me, pressed against the ground by my body weight.  The stench of my stale body odor filled my nostrils, mixing with the scent of mildew from my rain-soaked clothes.

I tensed my core and pressed with my arms, trying to pull myself to a sitting position.  My muscles burned, and after a few seconds, I collapsed, out of breath, unable to do it.

Scholars, how weak have I grown?  I couldn’t see the decay inside my body, but it must have accelerated over the last few weeks.

My clothes tightened around me and yanked my torso upright.  A force pulled my beanie off, exposing the bald spots in my grey hair.  I coughed, gazing around me.

Wes, both Hiras, and Jun sat beside me, laid out in a line.  We’d been taken back to Bartolet Naval Base, the ground still damp from the rain earlier today.  It had emptied.  No rushing Guardians and lines of soldiers and trucks.  All of the docked ships had left, except for the Rhona, Admiral Ebbridge’s flagship carrier, which towered to the side of us.  The pair of zeppelins still sat in the distance, unused.

The sun had risen and descended, shining from behind a veil of clouds.  And across the bay, behind the Rhona, smoke rose from parts of the city.  Eastern Lowtown.  Southern Midtown.  Gestalt Island.

Our Commonplace targets.  The other groups had met resistance too.

Admiral Ebbridge stepped in front of us, wearing her sleek blue family armor, flanked by General Benthey and Penny Oakes.  Each had a metal band wrapped around their upper arms, with a series of strips poking out of the side, pressing against their bare skin.

The strips pressed up and down, in a series of rapidfire movements, almost too fast for my eye to see.  Telegraph code.  They were using projection and touch to communicate with each other.  So we couldn’t listen in, and so I couldn’t trick them with my Vocation.  Scholars, why do they have to adapt so fast?

“I told you, Rowyna,” said Penny Oakes.  “We should have executed them, or thrown them in prison.  That gimmick with Verity was their peak.  And they’re dangerous.”  She’d already received a fresh body from Paragon’s chassis vault.

They’re talking out loud now.  Which meant they wanted us to hear.  Maybe this was even rehearsed.

“Maybe they’re working for Commonplace,” said General Benthey, lighting a cigarette with the tip of his finger.  “And this was an elaborate gambit to worm into our confidence, then strike.  They’ve done plenty to deserve execution.”

We gave everything for this country.  But the moment I chose to save Wes instead of the mission, we were dangerous enemies again.  Will they revoke their pardon offer after this?  Maybe neither of us would become Nell Ebbridge.  Maybe we’d both get banished from the country.

“Cut the whaleshit,” said Left-Hira.  “We can all see your real conversation is with the metal strips.  This is some stupid fucking stunt to intimidate us.  You know we’re not Commonplace, not after we tore them apart on Verity.”

Penny Oakes glared at Hira.  Still mad about that stomach shot.  “You tore them apart illegally.  And you just sabotaged our best hope at saving this country.  You helped the enemy.”

“We did our best,” said Jun.  “I’m sorry.”

General Benthey glared at him, irritated that he’d even spoken.  Not a fan of the Shenti.

Wes stared at his feet, silent.  He doesn’t want to make this any worse for himself.

An idea jumped to the front of my mind.  Brin can advocate for us.  He could vouch for Queen Sulphur’s character.

“Where’s the Scholar of Mass?” I said.  “Where’s Major Brin?”

Mister Brin is under watch in his home,” said Ebbridge.  “For the present, he is an attack dog, to be taken off his leash in battle, and dragged back to the kennel after.  He is not running counterintelligence, or anything else for that matter.”

My stomach ached.  Shit.  I should have expected that, after his secret mercenary operation got exposed.

“On the other hand,” said Ebbridge.  “He has a long and esteemed history of serving this country, a trustworthy record with the Silver Star Medal, a Naval Commendation, and the Cross of Kalthorn.”  She turned a withering glare on us.  “You are a different matter.”

“You primped up squidfuckers,” hissed Right-Hira.  “We enabled this whole operation, we signaled you when our radio blew out, and now you want to blame us for, what, stopping some crazy Guardian from murdering our friend?”

“The Symphony Knight was performing her duty to this nation.”  Ebbridge raised her voice.  “I will not have an Ilaquan hornet question her dedication.”

We saved your son, you ungrateful bhenchot,” said Left-Hira.  “Is this your way of saying thank you?”

She’s right.

“The operation failed,” said Penny Oakes.

A yawning hole opened up in my belly, like I was falling from a great height.  “What?”

“We caught hundreds of Green Hands and mobsters,” said Ebbridge.  “And seized thousands in weapons and assets.  But not the Broadcast King.  Not anyone important.”

“We missed the vast majority of their soldiers,” said the General, puffing from his cigarette.  “The majority of arrests were civilians, not true Green Hands.”

“We did what they wanted,” said Penny Oakes through clenched teeth.

“Or our intel was faulty,” said General Benthey.  “We suspected it might be a trap, but we assumed our raw strength was enough to push through.  Or we hit a stroke of bad luck and – “

We did what they wanted,” said Penny Oakes.  “They couldn’t have moved headquarters that fast, which means that most of Commonplace’s soldiers have cleared out of Elmidde.  And while we were focused on the operation, Christea Ronaveda disappeared, with her whole security detail.”  Was that Commonplace’s real goal?  If they were the ones who kidnapped her.

“We could have made up for it all,” said Ebbridge.  “If we caught their leaders.  We could have ended the war.”

“But you aided the enemy,” said Oakes.

Wes closed his eyes, slouching over, drawing his knees to his chest.

“So what?” said Hira.  “We should have just let your son die?

“He’s not my son,” said Admiral Ebbridge.  “Not at the moment.”

Sebastian Oakes stepped next to the trio, still wearing his burnt combat armor.  He brushed soot out of his hair, otherwise unscathed, and smiled at us.  “But the mission wasn’t a complete failure.”

Ebbridge furrowed her brow and glanced at us.  “In private, Major.  These ones don’t have security clearance.”

“Copycat knows,” Professor Oakes said, glancing at both Hiras.

“What?” said Penny.

“The Ilaquan was using his Praxis Vocation near the end of the fight.  He scraped my mind for a few seconds and guessed my strategy.  Am I right?”

Right-Hira nodded, reluctant.

Penny Oakes scowled.  “Then we should gag him and memory wipe him.  We can’t cut corners with Whisper-Sec, not now.”

“They enabled this attack, dear,” said Oakes.  “And they fought bravely to help defend our troops.  The enemy’s trap, most likely, was to blow our radio and pick us off before reinforcements could arrive.  Ms. Gage’s signal prevented that.”

Grumbles all around, but nobody denied this.

“They will not sell us out,” he said.  “And I want them to trust us, for reasons which will become clear in a minute.”

Penny crossed her arms, irritated.  General Benthey gave a slow nod.  “I’ll trust you, Major Oakes.”

Rowyna Ebbridge folded her hands behind her back.  “If this gets out, we’ll all burn.”  But she made no move to stop him.

Oakes leaned forward, his eyes sparkling, and pulled off his left combat boot.  What?

He pulled a loose thread from his shirt and projected into it.  It drifted through the air and wriggled into the side of his fish leather boot.

There’s a hole.  A tiny hole, so small I couldn’t see it.

Then Oakes did the same with his sock.  He pulled it off, demonstrating the minuscule hole in the side.  A sickening odor drifted into the air from his sweaty foot.

“Disgusting,” said Penny Oakes.  “Why did I marry you, again, Sebastian?”

Lyna Wethers.

“My winning personality,” said The Obsidian Foil.  “And my biceps.  Focus on my biceps.”  He held up his bare foot, showing off a patch of skin that had been altered with body paint, stained the same pitch black as his combat boot and sock.

Then I understood.  “When you kicked in Tunnel Vision’s shin,” I breathed.  “You – “

“Touched her skin with my skin,” he said.  “Don’t worry, honey, it didn’t mean anything.  And The Pyre Witch didn’t notice.  She couldn’t, not without enhanced eyesight.”  He grinned.  “Which allowed me to put a primitive tracer on her Pith.”

A warm feeling rushed through my veins, and I leaned forward.  Yes.  “But the range – “ I said.  “The tracer – “

“Will stop working after a hundred kilometers or so, yes,” said Oakes.  “And she was flying too fast for me to follow.  By the time reinforcements arrived, she stopped using projection, and stopped pinging the tracer.  But,” he smiled.  “I saw where she and Clive were headed for the first part of their journey.  Northeast.”

“Towards Shenten,” said Jun.

“Or a million other locations,” said Penny.  “Assuming that’s not another diversion.  It would take weeks and weeks to comb the areas with your tracer.  Longer, if the Pyre Witch moves from place to place.  And that’s assuming she never finds out about the tracer.”

“If I’m right,” said Oakes.  “We don’t need to comb anywhere.  Judging from his eyes, Copycat was using his Vocation on lots of people at the end of that fight.  Me, Penny, the Symphony Knight.  And Maxine Clive herself, while she was on the verge of escape.  A variable they didn’t think of, just like Ms. Gage’s tracer.”

“Alright,” said Hira.  “You’re perceptive, I’ll admit it.”

“So tell me, Copycat,” he said.  “Where do you think our enemies are going?”

“Good question,” said Right-Hira.  “Are you going to execute us?”

“Tell us what you know,” he said.  “And I’ll make sure they spare all of you.  So.  Where do you think the Pyre Witch is going?”

“I don’t know,” said Hira.  “My Vocation’s imperfect at best, and I only saw a few seconds.  I just got images.”

“And what did you see?  What was Maxine Clive thinking of?”

Hira took a slow, deep breath with both bodies.  “A fleet,” she said.  “A massive fleet.  Aircraft carriers and battleships and destroyers.  Sailing across the ocean.”

My skin prickled, a wave of cold spreading over it.

“Flags?” said Ebbridge.  “Were they flying any?  What about the crew?  Could you see them?”

“Memory isn’t a photograph,” said Hira.  “It’s a blurry painting from a drunkard.  No flags.  No crew that I could see.”

“What about the formation?” said Rowyna.  “What positions did the ships take?”

“One large carrier, at the center,” said Hira, furrowing her brow to remember.  “Four battleships, one for each side.  And maybe half a dozen destroyers in a ring around it all, with a single submarine far ahead.”

Oakes clenched his teeth.  The blood drained out of Admiral Ebbridge’s face, a new look for her.  “Shenti,” she said.  “That’s a Shenti fleet.  No one else uses that formation.”  Commonplace still getting help from their masters.

General Benthey closed his eyes.  “The warlord Luo Cai.  His fleet left Ri Chu City a few days ago.  Intelligence said he was shoring up defenses against Warlord Gao Mei’s advance on the northern coast of Shenten, using a large squadron of firebombers.  But his ships haven’t shown up there yet.  We assumed there was some sort of delay, but could they be – “

“What else did you see?” said Ebbridge, raising her voice with a hint of fear.

“Wheatfields,” said Hira.  “Endless wheatfields.  And a mountain shaped like a molar tooth.”

The world blurred around me, and my hands shook behind my back.  I felt dizzy.  No.  Please.

Paragon Academy was full of cold, heartless bastards like Rowyna Ebbridge, willing to sacrifice their children in a heartbeat.  And Maxine Clive had a point.  No matter how much we loved them, they would never love us back.

But Commonplace could not be forgiven.  Not for Kaplen, not for selling this defective body.

And not for their masterstroke, their real attack.  Not for this.

I knew that mountain.  I’d looked at it thousands and thousands of times.  A hidden Shenti fleet with firebombs.  Wheatfields. A mountain shaped like a molar tooth.  Enemies traveling northeast of Elmidde.

“Commonplace is going to burn down the Agricultural Islands,” I said.  The breadbasket of the Principality, that produced more than eighty percent of the nation’s food supply.  And where my parents lived.  Where I’d grown up.

Home.

“They’re going to starve out the country.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




11-A The Breadbasket

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Ana

“It’s a trap,” said Wes, muttering while his mother explained the Principality’s assault plan.

I thought for a moment.  “Yeah, it’s probably a trap.”

The Pyre Witch had been two steps ahead of us this whole time.  She might not have seen my Verity stunt coming, but an attack this large?  She had to know.

“My mother is a swollen, vicious pimple,” said Wes.  “But she’s not dumb.  The last time she tried to surprise Tunnel Vision, Isaac Brin got paralyzed from the waist down.”  I had no idea where Paragon’s intel had come from.

“Maybe she knows,” I said.  “And she doesn’t care.”  Even if it was a trap, Tunnel Vision wasn’t invincible.  If she went up against the Symphony Knight, or the Obsidian Foil, or Headmaster Tau, she’d lose, even with a proper ambush.  Paragon’s deceleration field would make it hard to attack.  And if they tried, our Scholar-ranked Guardians could fly up and crush them in minutes.

The fight was an afterthought.  What mattered was public opinion.  That Parliament, and the citizens of the Principality, had risen up against Commonplace and made an all-out assault politically feasible.

Because of me.  Because I’d thrown a spark on the dry tinder of this country, and ignited a mob.

What’s my mother thinking?  As a half-Shenti, she’d experienced her home country’s atrocities, but also the cruelty she’d been given in the Principality.

I clenched my teeth, staring at my feet, where a handful of my grey hairs had fallen from beneath my beanie.  More baldness.  Were there mobs on the Agricultural Islands, too?  If I came home to my parents, would they even want to talk to me?

My chest tightened, and my breaths quickened.

“Ana.”  Wes put a hand on my shoulder.  “Don’t wallow in self-loathing.  Take responsibility for your choices.  Then write the next page.“

I raised an eyebrow.  “Are you throwing my own words back at me?”

He shrugged.  “You’re my friend, I guess,” he said.  “I want all my friends to succeed.”

Hira slapped my shoulder.  “Deep breaths, bitch.  We need you.”  Jun looked away from me.

I forced myself to take slow, calming breaths.  I can’t take back that radio speech.  Obsessing over it wouldn’t fix any of the collateral damage I’d done, or make me a better person.

Only action could do that.

Admiral Ebbridge finished the briefing.  She called Wes over, and the boy pushed through the crowd, towards the raised platform at the center of the domed room.  I glanced around, at the bustling Guardians, the soldiers.  The aircraft carrier and the blimps outside the windows in Bartolet Naval Base.

“Anabelle Gage,” said Rowyna Ebbridge.  “Over here.”

She stood at the edge of the circular platform, next to other generals and important Guardians.  And above Wes.

Wes nodded as she said something, then turned and walked back to the rest of Queen Sulphur.  As he passed me, he flashed me an odd look, both nervous and excited.

What did his mother say to him?  And what did she want with me?  Wes was certain that she’d planned the attacks on Hira’s house.  And she hated Wes, according to his many drunk and sober rants.  So why talk to us?

I walked to the edge of the platform, where Wes had been standing, and looked up at the admiral.  Even after the revelations about Commonplace’s leader, Rowyna Ebbridge still wore the blonde Maxine Clive body from before.  It looked surreal now, a profane animated doll with cold blue eyes and high cheekbones.

“Time is short,” said Rowyna.  “I will be brief.”  She stared down at me.  “You have committed grave offenses against the Principality, Paragon Academy, and its rule of law.  You have attacked Guardians.  You did so for profit, and so you could cheat our academic system to your benefit.  Your transgression will not be overlooked.”

I said nothing.  Don’t make her angrier.

“However, you have also helped our nation.  You have fought against our enemies on Attlelan Island, the Kesteven Building, and the streets.  Our assault today is thanks to your efforts to sway public opinion.”  A thin smile spread across her face.  “And though the outcome remains uncertain, various agencies have reopened almost a dozen investigations into Afzal Kahlin’s illegal activities.”

Wes must be pleased.  It was still a long shot, of course, but his family’s debt might actually get eliminated.  But now there are mobs in the streets.  Going after innocent Shenti people.  My mobs.

“So,” said Admiral Ebbridge.  “I, the admissions board of Paragon, and the judiciary committee of Parliament are extending an offer to you.  For now, you will continue to join Guardians in military operations against Commonplace.  You may retain your weapons and a temporary authorization for combat projection, and you will not be detained, though I will personally maintain a tracer Vocation on you.  You will also receive no pay.”  She leaned forward, placing her hand on my forehead to install the tracer.  “If you perform well, you will receive a significant opportunity.”

Oh, fuck.

“At the end of the summer, you may attempt to Oust the current Lady Ebbridge.  And take her place as the heiress to this family’s estate.”

An icy sensation rushed over my skin, and I stopped moving.  Tasia.  She wanted me to Oust Tasia.  “W – What?”  That’s Wes’ dream, not mine.  Why would I want to Oust Tasia?

“In the last month, the current Nell Ebbridge has shown herself to be less stable than previously thought.  You will need to best her in tests of academic skill, and defeat her in nonlethal single combat.”  Admiral Ebbridge knelt, lowering her voice.  “But if you succeed.  If you prove yourself worthy.  You will receive a new body, and a full pardon for all your crimes.”

I swallowed.  “And what happens to the rest of Queen Sulphur?”  The ones who didn’t get the sparkling new name.

“They will leave the country, never to return.  And you will not contact them.  They shall be remnants of your old life, that must be forgotten to forge the new.  Only one may hold this name.”

I’ll lose everything.  Not only would I have to Oust Tasia, I’d have to abandon my friends too.

“Whether you succeed or not is up to you.”  She stood up.  “Now go.”

I turned and walked through the crowd, my head spinning.  If I win, I could smuggle an extra body to Tasia, or maybe even Jun.  Ebbridge would be watching me the whole time, but I had my illusions.  It was possible.

And I would be a real Paragon student.  A hero of the people, loved, accepted.

“One more point,” said the Admiral.

I stopped, turning back to her.

“I’ve extended this offer to 516125871-R, as well,” she said.  Wes.  “May you strive to become an Exemplar.”

She strode away, back amongst the generals.

________________________________________

“Five minutes,” said Sebastian Oakes.

I peered over the edge of the damp concrete roof, shivering despite the summer heat.  Far below, an empty office building sat at the far end of the street.  It appeared empty, abandoned, identical to dozens of others on North Island, stretching seven stories tall with a small lake of water flooding the ground floor.  This part of the city sat near the ocean, and tended to flood after storms, much like the other squat islands around the edge of Elmidde.

Then I looked through my binoculars.  A man stood behind one of the windows, faint, barely visible.  It’s not empty.

The tip was good.  This was one of Commonplace’s bases.

Sebastian Oakes – the Obsidian Foil – lay on the edge of the roof next to me, with his wife, Penny Oakes.  The Symphony Knight herself knelt in the center of the roof, decked out in full plate armor, resting on the surface of a puddle with her eyes closed.  Even though she was Lorne’s mother, having her here made me feel a great deal safer.

Wes lay next to me, running a comb through his light brown hair, tapping his foot against the roof.  Both Hiras and Jun lay next to him.

Far below, a group of elite Humdrum soldiers knelt in an alleyway, out of sight.  The moment we moved in, they would surround the perimeter and block off escape routes.

And, behind me, most critically, the radio team, a man and a woman operating the dials and buttons on a long-range radio set, keeping us in touch with the other teams.

Oakes spoke up, lowering his deep voice.  “You know North Island, yes, Miss Kahlin?”

“Actually, it’s ‘Mister’,” said Right-Hira.  “Yes.”

“And when my wife assaulted your home, you were tipped off when we cleared out the Nekean night market close by, yes?”

Penny Oakes shot us a glare, in a fresh body after we shot her, with no visible injuries.

“Yeah,” said Hira, “that was pretty dumb on your part.”

Don’t make them angry,” I hissed with illusions.

Hira shrugged.  The Obsidian Foil clapped her on the shoulder.  “Have no fear.  Everyone survived, and you were just trying to defend yourselves.  My wife and I will put our feelings behind us.”  He smiled.  “You’re our comrades right now.”  Oddly warm, considering we just shot his wife in the stomach.

Penny Oakes nodded, reluctant.  “If we wanted you dead, then, well…”

She wouldn’t have bothered with knockout gas.

“We haven’t cleared anyone out this time,” said Professor Oakes.  “But as soon as the attack begins, our Humdrum soldiers will secure the civilians.”

“It won’t be enough,” said Wes, tossing the comb into his briefcase.  “The walls here aren’t thick enough to stop a bullet.  And they can’t exactly run out into the street.”  These were poor people, who couldn’t afford a replacement chassis.

“Surprise is our best weapon,” Penny Oakes said.  “If we lose it, our enemies could escape.”

My stomach clenched.  Haven’t we sacrificed enough people?  But I said nothing.

Jun piped up, sitting next to the Symphony Knight.  “If Pictogram’s there, he can see us anyway.”

“If Tunnel Vision shows up,” said Oakes.  “Keep the fight short.  Our intel source told us about her Praxis Vocation.  It modifies her mind over time, perfecting her for a single goal at the expense of everything else.  The longer the battle goes, the more time she’ll have to outsmart us.”

Oakes walked over to the radio team, whispering back and forth.  He nodded, and turned back to us.  “All other teams are ready.  Original go time confirmed.  Three more minutes.”

I made lingering eye contact with Wes, and thought of his mother’s offer.

If I don’t get a body, I could die.  But there were ways Wes could smuggle a spare body to me if he reclaimed his seat.

But I want to be a Guardian more than he ever did.  And as far as I knew, he’d never been happy with his family.

But it’s his body.  His name.  He had a fundamental right to those, more than anyone else, no matter what Epistocrat tradition said.  And he wasn’t some immoral stranger.  He was my friend.

But if you don’t get it, you’ll be banished from the Principality.  For the rest of my life.  Barring any illegal tricks, I would never become an accepted Guardian, never live in this city or fulfill any of my dreams.

And I’d never go home to my parents.  The Agricultural Islands would be out of reach forever.

Fuck.  I clenched the binoculars, squeezing my eyes shut.  This was exactly what Admiral Ebbridge wanted.  She wanted us to fight.  She and her posse of elites had decided that Queen Sulphur was useful, but dangerous.  So they’d developed this scheme to break us up, to turn me and Wes against each other with vicious competition.

Wes and I stared at each other, neither of us saying anything.  We had to be thinking the same thing.

Wes smiled at me, that dumb freckled grin I’d grown so used to over the last year.  It could be a tactic, of course.  A spark of warmth to disarm me in our contest.

But I doubted it.

Wes opened his mouth, his smile fading.  “Ana,” he said.

“It’s time,” said the Obsidian Foil.  “Take your positions.  Mister Kahlin, would you prefer to use your rifle up here, or join us on the ground?”

“Actually, it’s ‘Miss’,” said Left-Hira.  “I’ll keep one of my bodies up here.”  She hefted her trench shotgun, and her male body hefted a sniper rifle.

Gas masks floated out of a box, into each of our hands.  I pulled mine on and tightened the straps.  The stench of new rubber filled my nostrils.

“Make it tight enough to be painful.  No hair messing up the seal.  Don’t take it off,” said Penny Oakes, slipping on her mask.  “And don’t fall on your face or move it.  You’ll be dead before you can even think of a replacement body.”

Not that they’d give us one.

“With me, soldiers,” said Sebastian Oakes.  “First stage in ten, nine, eight – ”

The Symphony Knight stood up on the puddle, but didn’t step forward.  She folded her armored hands behind her, eyes closed.  In that posture, she looked like a cross, between a medieval knight and an ascetic monk.  How could a woman like that raise a boy like Lorne?

“ – Seven, six, five, four – ”

Penny Oakes clenched her fists and whipped them forward.  A dozen metal gas tanks lifted off the roof behind her, each as long as a train car.

“ – three, two, one, go.”

Penny Oakes vaulted off the edge of the roof, floating the sealed tanks behind her.  She landed in the middle of the street, and the tanks slammed in front of her, one by one.  Penny whipped her hand forward, and the metal tops on the tanks burst open, hissing.

The gas wasn’t visible, but through the binoculars, I could see the impact of its wind.  Loose newspapers blew on the street.  Ripples moved across puddles of water.

Penny Oakes sank into a fighting stance, made claws with her hands, and jabbed them upwards.

Hundreds of windows in the building shattered.  Men and women shouted inside, noises of surprise and confusion.

Then the shouts turned into screams.  One by one, they faded away.

“I forgot to ask,” said Wes.  “Will the Green Hands be unconscious inside?  Do we need to secure them?”

“They will not be unconscious,” said the Obsidian Foil, regret slipping into his voice.

Then the Scholar of Strength leapt off the rooftop.  Unlike his wife, he didn’t slow his fall, relying on his Joining to keep him intact.  Midair, he drew the pitch-black rapiers on his back, and slammed into the pavement with a thud.

As he sprinted forward to join his wife, men and women staggered out of the front door and crawled out of the windows.  They collapsed into piles of twitches, dropping their weapons, their skin turning a dark red shade as their movements grew stiff.

Then the highest window of the Commonplace building shattered, making no noise.  A mobster with a gas mask shot out.  Balls of lightning grew in his palms.

I blinked, and Sebastian Oakes leapt a dozen stories in an instant, appearing behind the mobster.  The Scholar of Strength spun in midair, slicing with his razor-thin swords.

Oakes dropped to the street, and the mobster split into three pieces, falling in a spray of blood.  The lighting shot off from his dead palms, crashing into the road with a low boom.  The ground shook.  When the smoke cleared, two blackened craters sat on the street where the bolts had hit.

Gunshots rang out, and bullets whizzed out of the lower windows.  Green Hands and mobsters aimed rifles and shotguns at Penny Oakes, all wearing gas masks.  They prepared for this.  At least some of them.

Penny Oakes clapped her hands together, and pulled the empty gas tanks in front of her, forming a wall.  Bullets bounced off the metal, unable to penetrate.

Sebastian Oakes landed, bent his knees, and shot himself into a window on the ground floor.  The swords moved in a blur, and two of the Green Hands collapsed, blood spurting from their arms.  He darted back and forth, dodging bullets by watching the thugs aim, weaving through enemies and swinging his weapons so fast I couldn’t see them.

Even with Voidsteel bullets and gas masks, the Green Hands didn’t stand a chance.

The Symphony Knight strode forward to the edge of the roof.  It’s time.  I stood up with Wes, Left-Hira, and Jun.

The Knight stepped off the roof, and we stepped with her.  My stomach dropped, and my combat suit tightened around me, slowing my fall.  The radio team fell with us, projected down by the Symphony Knight.

In unison, we touched the pavement and sprinted forward, splashing through puddles under the grey sky.  My decayed feet and chest ached, and I coughed as I ran.  The hard cobblestones made every step pound into my shins.

Ahead of us, a mobster aimed at Oakes from behind, catching him off-guard.  Penny Oakes jabbed her palm forward and blew gas at the gunman, slamming him into the wall.  Then she strode forward to join her husband, crumpling up the empty tanks into smaller, more mobile shields.

The two professors fought on the first floor, dancing around each other, slashing and blowing and ripping off gas masks, deflecting bullets and slicing through cover.  Bodies piled up around them, thugs and Green Hands, projectors and Humdrums.

The building had more enemies than I could have imagined, with rocket launchers, grenades, machine guns, and Voidsteel.  But the two of them weren’t even breaking a sweat.

On the far side of the street, a trio of cars flipped over.  They ripped apart, becoming thousands of metal shards, each as long as my arm.

Then they shot at us, an overwhelming rain of spears whistling through the air, wide enough to cover half the street.  Too fast to dodge.  Too much momentum to block with projection.  I flinched, falling back into a puddle, and an aborted scream wheezed out of my throat.

The Symphony Knight lifted an armored hand.  A shock wave pulsed out from her palm, a clear, loud musical note that made the ground shake.  It knocked away the volley, flinging bits of scrap metal into windows, embedding them in walls and doors.

A particle of light floated in front of her palm, glowing a bright green.

I glanced down.  The pavement had cracked beneath her feet, but she wasn’t even in a fighting stance.  Her other arm hung at her side, unused.

She’s barely even trying.  This was only a fraction of a fraction of The Symphony Knight’s real power.  No one here came even close.  With Headmaster Tau’s decline, she might be the strongest projector in the nation.

She cast her gaze around, scanning the area for the hidden projector who’d attacked us.  Maxine Clive and Tunnel Vision could be anywhere, and in anyone’s body.

Another wave of shards exploded out of the buildings, ten times more than the last one.  Not just from cars this time.  Pieces of stoves, radiators, pipes all flew out of the windows, ripped up and sharpened at the ends.

They fanned out, surrounding us in a dome, thousands and thousands of makeshift daggers.

Then, in unison, they stabbed at us.  A shockwave blew them back with a ringing note, and they changed positions in an instant, shooting at us again in a blistering storm.

More waves blew the shards back, and they sped up, moving in a blur, so fast I could barely see them, enough to cut apart hundreds of people in seconds, all stabbing and slashing at us.  The enemy’s fighting at their full strength.  Straining their Pith, wherever they were hiding.

The Symphony Knight blocked it all, holding up two palms with one particle of light apiece.  Each particle played a different note as it sent out precise shockwaves, dozens every second, blasting back the enemy’s assault from countless different angles.

And she wasn’t even straining.  Her flat, expressionless face betrayed nothing, not even the passion of battle.

The rest of us?  We just crouched next to her, staring in awe at her display of power, at the might of the Scholar of Music.  At this speed, that was all we could do.  The radio team cowered with us, clutching the radio set.

Then, the Symphony Knight pointed her palm down.  Another shock wave blasted out from it, and a hole exploded in the street, exposing the sewer tunnel beneath.

Four men and a woman flew back, batted by the shock wave like dry leaves in the wind.  They slammed against the wall of the tunnel, and drew their arms in.  The storm of metal pulled away from us, flying in front of them in a defensive barrier.

The Symphony Knight stepped forward, and jumped into the sewer.  More shock waves rippled out from her hands, crashing into the metal barrier.

She strode forward, fighting five projectors at once.

As she did so, a Green Hands leaned out of a window to our side, and shot a grenade launcher at us.

Left-Hira stepped forward and swung her arms in a backhanded slap.  The grenade flew back into the house, exploding with a dull boom and a cloud of dust.

At the same time, while she was distracted, another squad of Humdrums popped out of the opposite side of the street, and fired submachine guns at us.  The street rang out with cracks, the enemy getting off a burst before Wes jabbed his hands forward, jamming the mechanisms in their guns.

Wes’ briefcase flipped open, and reams of paper flew out, slicing the enemies all over their faces and tattooed hands.

I glanced to the side.  The radio team lay on the ground, bleeding from dozens of bullet holes.  My breath caught in my throat, and my stomach clenched.  No.  No ABD or armor meant that normal bullets would be lethal.  Jun stood next to them, unscathed.  Does he have a bullet defense?

A grenade rolled by the radio set.

I stretched my Pith forward to disarm the grenade, or at least knock it aside.  My soul bounced off.  Voidsteel.  I scrabbled back.  Not fast enough.

Jun swung his hands together.  The radio set and one of the bodies dropped on top of the grenade.

It blew up, splattering gore everywhere.  Jun flew back, his white hair covered with blood and flesh.  He slammed against the pavement, unconscious.

“Jun!” I shouted.  Muscles or no, an old man’s body is going to be fragile.

And now, the radio set was destroyed beyond recognition.

Dozens of new Commonplace thugs streamed out of buildings, or clambered out of the sewers, carrying pistols and rifles and baseball bats.  They shot at the Humdrum soldiers we’d brought with us, scattering our troops.  Two bullets hit me in the chest, bouncing off my blue combat suit with stinging impacts.

So many.  And so spread out.  Had they prepared for us?  We were right.  This was a trap.  A careful, deliberate one.

The army soldiers shot back, taking cover behind buildings and cars and dumpsters.  Hira grabbed my arm, dragging me into a building as bullets zipped around us.

I gripped my machine pistol, aiming it out the door.  Left-Hira leaned out, firing her shotgun.  Wes sat behind them, shooting paper down the street, cutting the enemy’s hands, blocking their vision.

A Green Hands burst through the door, holding a submachine gun.  I threw an illusion on him, shifting our positions and making us appear to run away.

As he aimed his weapon, I raised my machine pistol and fired a burst.  The weapon kicked back in my grip, and I clenched it, hands shaking.

The man’s eyes widened.  He collapsed, dropping the gun, blood soaking into his shirt.

Another kill.  I’d lost track of how many I’d already done.

But I needed to do more.  If this was a trap, the basics wouldn’t be enough.  We had to get aggressive, unexpected.  And we needed more space.

I sprinted through the building, using the walls as cover to move down the street and closer to the Green Hands.  It looked like it had been some sort of community center, before being abandoned, so the main room of the building stretched down almost the entire block.

A pair of mobsters ran down the street, bullets curving around their ABDs.  They whipped their hands forward, and dozens of fiery whips lashed out from their fingertips, setting our soldiers on fire.  They sent a storm of fireballs at the building where Right-Hira was sniping from, driving him off the roof.

But they didn’t see me.  They thought I was further down, next to Left-Hira.

I ran to the edge of the building, leaned out, and projected around their Piths, throwing up visual and auditory illusions.  I made it look like I was far out of range, making them feel secure in their senses.

A few seconds later, both of them were shooting fire at the Green Hands, instead of our allies.

As they did so, I glanced down, at the dead radio operators and the unconscious Jun.  We’d lost the people who ran our communications.  And the one person who could repair the broken set.

We were cut off from the other assault groups.

Is that a coincidence?

Or were they doing that on purpose?

My stomach wrenched, and the world seemed to move in slow motion.  I projected to Wes and Left-Hira.  “They took out our radio.  I think they’re trying to isolate us.  I think they’re planning somet –

A wave of white flames washed over the entire Commonplace building.  Even from this distance, I could feel the stinging heat on my face.  Palefire.

The entire front of the building was blackened.  Puddles had evaporated into steam, and a van on the side of the road burned, flames rising on the front of its hood.

Penny and Sebastian Oakes shot back towards us, out of the front door and back onto the street.  Bits of their hair and combat suits had been singed, and Penny Oakes had a wrinkled, red burn running down her neck.

A woman stepped out on the roof of the building, staring down at us from high above.  Her light brown hair was tied back in a thin, long ponytail beneath a bowler hat, and she wore a pitch-black skirt and a wrinkled suit jacket.  She held a carved Voidsteel dagger in her fist, and glared down at us as if we were the cruelest, most despicable beings on the planet.

Tunnel Vision.  The Pyre Witch.

The woman who’d destroyed Kaplen’s life.  Who’d sold me this disgusting, withering body that I was probably going to die in.

My stomachache doubled, and my hands shook.

The Symphony Knight floated up from the sewer, having won her battle.  She stared up at Tunnel Vision, cold, ready to fight.

Hira stuck her hands in her pockets.  I projected around my friends’ Piths, activating the tracer again.

TV here, I said in telegraph code.  Come now.

Tunnel Vision moved.

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