11-B The Breadbasket

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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.”

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