“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.”
“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.