12-B The Ant and the Beetle

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Penny Oakes, the Obsidian Foil, and the Pyre Witch stared at each other from across the floating island.

Moonlight shone over them, reflecting off the Pyre Witch’s bowler hat, and Sebastian Oakes’ twin rapiers.  A cool summer breeze drifted through the dark grass, making swirls in the cloud of yellow chemicals floating above Penny Oakes.

That’s not the same stuff she used on us.   No knockout gas for the Pyre Witch.  No, this concoction would probably kill her with a single touch, or worse.

“Leave, students,” said Sebastian Oakes, keeping his eyes trained on his enemy.  “Please.”

“We’re not abandoning you, professor,” said Wes.  He stood up with the rest of us, shaking off the jitters from the Pyre Witch’s electricity.

“Yeah,” said Lorne, touching his blob of steel, and turning it back into a molten sphere.  “What the freak said.”  Even now, he finds the space to be cruel.

The other survivors gathered their senses and stood beside us.  Jun, Tasia, Samuel.  They held their weapons up.  A concussion grenade, metal wires, orbs of blue and purple lightning.

“Shut up, Lorne,” said Samuel.

“You won’t be able to help us,” said Penny Oakes.  She crouched, tensed up like a tiger about to pounce.  You’ll slow us down, she meant.  Tunnel Vision had lured Oakes and her husband in using students.  If she attacked us, she’d force the Guardians to defend us, rather than focusing on the fight.

We’d weigh them down.  We might even make them lose.

I exhaled, forcing myself to take slow, deep breaths, pushing down the panic swelling in my chest.

Then I threw an auditory illusion over the Guardians.  “It’s a trap,” I said.  “She tortured Deon to lure you two in here.  Whatever your mission is, you need to focus on that, not the Pyre Witch.  We also killed the Radio Man and sent out a signal to the fleet.

“I know, Ms. Gage,” said the Obsidian Foil.  “Please, let us do our jobs.”  They knew, and they chose to protect us anyway.  A true Guardian’s spirit.  Would Isaac Brin have ever done that for his students?  For us?  “We won’t let you butcher another student.”

“They were in the way,” said the Pyre Witch.  As if that justified it.

“So,” said the Obsidian Foil.  “Leave!  Go to the library!”  His voice boomed through the air, echoing into the night.

I touched his exposed wrist, and stretched my soul around his Pith.  I latched onto his auditory and visual processing centers, the areas I targeted with my Vocation.  Instead of pushing illusions onto his mind, I pulled information in with the technique I’d developed earlier, the subset of my illusions.

On top of my own senses, I saw with Sebastian Oakes’ eyes.  Heard with his ears.

It would strain my Pith to maintain this ability, take up most of my focus and keep me from participating in fights.  But the rest of our group could compensate.  And it was worth it.

I needed to see the outcome of this fight.  If we lost, the Pyre Witch might target us next.

Wes grabbed my hand, pulling me away.  Lorne ripped dirt from the ground and wrapped it around Deon’s burnt body, lifting it.  Then, we ran off the bridge, sprinting back the way we came.  Back towards the Great Library, and whatever Commonplace was planning there.  My shins ached again from the effort, and I started huffing, out of breath in an instant.

Good luck, Professor Oakes.  And Professor Oakes.

But they would need a lot more than luck, if they were to defeat The Pyre Witch.

We ran through the darkness, over islands and bridges lit up by pale moonlight, back towards the Great Library.  I wheezed for breath, and a chill, tingling numbness spread over my skin, despite the warmth of the summer night.  My stomachache doubled, this time cropping up in multiple places.

After a minute, we found an unconscious, breathing Green Hands.  Someone we could swap with Deon.

Lorne set his friend down, now a blackened skeleton, and pressed his hand against its charred skin.  Green and white lightning flickered around him, as he performed a forced transference between Deon and the Green Hands.

The lightning faded.  Deon’s Pith now lived in the Green Hands’ body, a tall man with blonde hair.

The man’s chest stopped moving.  He’s not breathing.

“No!” shouted Lorne.  “Fuck you!”  He slammed the ground with his fist, making the earth shake.

I reached out towards Deon’s Pith.  Even though he’d been swapped into a healthy body, his Pith had become no more than a few wisps of lightning in his skull.  He sustained too much permanent damage to his brain.  We had taken too long.

We couldn’t do anything for him now.

“Deon,” said Lorne.  “Please.”

“Lorne,” said Wes.  “I’m so sorry.  We need to – “

Lorne stood up, clenching his teeth, fists shaking.  “Fuck you,” he snapped.  “Let’s keep moving.”

On the way back to the Great Library, we passed the unconscious bodies of our squadmates.  Eliya, covered in burns but breathing, her blue eyepatch turned black with scorch marks.  Leizu, unscathed, but unconscious, exhausted from the Joining she’d done to keep the rest of us alive.

And Naruhiko, slumped over in the library’s tall atrium, red and white burns crisscrossing up and down his skin.

As we passed each of them, we dragged them to safer locations, away from the main paths and the fires, then covered them with light dustings of rubble.  Enough to camouflage them and their breathing without blocking their source of oxygen.  In the darkness, hiding them was easy.

If we won the battle, we could excavate them.  They would be safe until then.

I watched through one set of eyes, as we ran through the hallway into the 0th level of the library, then over the rubble of the broken ceiling mural and towards the staircases to the 1st level, high above.  I huffed and wheezed, my legs, shoulder, stomach all aching.

At the same time, I watched through a second pair of eyes: The Obsidian Foil’s.  I strained through a headache and flickers of blue lightning to hold onto the effect, to maintain my view of his and Penny Oakes’ battle.

The three kept staring each other down.  They’re both buying time.  The guardians wanted time for our reinforcements to arrive, the ones we’d signaled on Jun’s radio.  And Tunnel Vision wanted time for her Praxis Vocation to get to work, optimizing her mind for this one battle.

Every now and then, the Obsidian’s Foil’s vision turned black-and-white, with a blob of white in the shape of Tunnel Vision standing in front of him.  Thermal sight.  An advanced Joining technique, that would help him see in the dark.

Lorne pushed open the door to Level 1.  As we ran in, both the Pyre Witch and the Guardians glanced down, over the edge of the floating island into the city.  Sebastian Oakes’ enhanced eyes made out precise details far down Mount Elwar, illuminated by flickering street lamps.

A line of tanks and military trucks sped up the slopes of Hightown, painted with the blue flag of the Principality.  Local troops.  They shot past protests and police cars, headed straight for the cable car station.  They’re going to retake it.  Cut off Commonplace’s escape.

High above them, in the sky, half a dozen fighter planes shot through the darkness, passing down the northern coast of the Principality towards Elmidde.  More soldiers.  Commonplace might be dominating within the walls of Paragon Academy, but the city, the country would be much harder to take.

Smoke rose off the fighter planes in the distance, and they veered off, plummeting towards the ground.  They crashed into the city, one by one, sending up orange plumes of flame.

Then, the tanks at the front of the line exploded, blocking the rest of the group from advancing.  The other vehicles scattered, but they also exploded, one after the other.

And then, the Obsidian Foil saw them.

A swarm of planes soared over Elmidde, flying from the direction of Bartolet Military Base.  Commonplace launched their air power.  Fighters strafed over the trucks and unleashed machine-gun fire, forcing soldiers to scatter.  Dive bombers dropped their ordinance on tanks, turning them into red and yellow fireballs on the streets of Hightown, setting manicured gardens on fire.

The Obsidian Foil squinted, and I saw the faces of Commonplace’s pilots.  A few faces I didn’t recognize, piloting the slower, clumsier planes.  Humdrums, probably.

And a series of attractive Ilaquan men and women, decked out in purple flight suits.  Even beneath their flight caps and goggles and oxygen masks, I could guess their identities.

Steel Violet.  Wes’ favorite I-Pop band.  Ex-Kuttas.  The Broadcast King’s mercenaries.  They must have skill-stitched some pilots.

And now, they were overwhelming the Principality’s military.

Scholars,” whispered Penny Oakes.

“Alright,” said the Pyre Witch.  “That should be long enough.”

She began her first attack.

She shot straight into the air, projecting into her combat suit, putting distance between her and the Obsidian Foil and his blades.  At the same time, pieces of jade glass and canvas assembled on her face, forming a gas mask for Penny Oakes’ attacks.

Tunnel Vision’s fingers jabbed down, and threads of palefire shot out, becoming a flash of white flame, lighting up the dark island.

Penny Oakes moved to counter.  The yellow cloud of gas dispersed, forming a sphere around Tunnel Vision.  When the fire reached the sphere, it sputtered out and dispersed, choked of oxygen, just like their last fight.

This gas is non-flammable too.  And resistant to the absurd heat of palefire.

Less than a second later, Tunnel Vision shot bolts of lightning out of her hands, a storm of electricity, just like last time, to break through the chemical shield and electrocute Oakes.

But Penny Oakes had fought The Pyre Witch before.  She had prepared.  She drew another orb of chemicals around her, a dark purple gas that obscured her features from even the Obsidian Foil’s enhanced eyes, reflecting the light of the moons and stifled flames.

The bolts of lightning crashed over the sphere, and dispersed, harmless.  Penny Oakes did her homework.  None of the bolts shot at Sebastian Oakes, who had proven himself immune to them.

We ran through Level 1 of the library, just as tall as Level 0, but more narrow, with just a single metal staircase at the center, leading up to the security checkpoint at the ceiling guarding the second level.  I barely had enough headspace to glance at the scenery.

I leaned on my knees, my thighs burning from the effort, and Jun placed a hand on my shoulder.  “You can do this,” he said.  “Just a little farther.”  For the library or this year?

I nodded at him, and kept going, pushing through the pain and dizziness.

Next, Tunnel Vision raised her index fingers, and summoned the green lasers from before, the ones that she’d used to decapitate Penny Oakes.  They shot towards her again, slicing through the sphere of purple gas.

Hidden from view, Penny Oakes cried out in pain.

The Obsidian Foil fanned his hands out, and shot a series of white disks out of his backpack.  They flew in front of the green lasers, blocking them.  The white light reflected the energy, dispersing it in all directions, and the disks didn’t burn from the heat.

He strengthened them with his Vocation.  Just like his swords, and Paragon’s body armor.

Tunnel Vision flew around the purple orb, lasering it from different angles, but the Obsidian Foil moved the disks with her, defending his wife.  A few of the lasers struck his armor, but did nothing.  His strengthening Vocation in action.

“How are the professors doing?” Wes asked me, in the library.

“They’re blocking her,” I wheezed, climbing up a flight of spiral stairs.  “All her attacks.”

We burst through into Level 2, a shorter, more narrow floor lit only by dim blue lanterns.  On the far side of the room, a group of bookshelves had been knocked over, and squads of Green Hands used the piles of books as cover.

They aimed machine guns and long-range flamethrowers at us.  Their squad leader barked an order at them, and they all fired.

Lorne spread his molten metal into a wide, flat shield, and we all squeezed behind it, as bullets zipped around us, and flames licked the edges.  Wes shot a storm of paper over the top, above the fire.  The gunfire lessened, and shouts rang from across the room, as his slips of paper sliced up and distracted the enemy.

Then, Lorne pushed his shield forward, and the rest of us advanced behind him.  The others can handle this.  I needed to focus on my connection to the Obsidian Foil.

When we got close, Samuel jabbed his fingers forward.  His metal strings whistled through the air, and in unison, dozens of enemies screamed in pain.

Samuel nodded.  Lorne lowered his shield.  The Green Hands lay on the floor, writhing, spurting blood from their hands.  Their thumbs and index fingers had all been chopped off.

“I’m sorry,” said Samuel.

We moved on, towards the third level.  This is only a rear guard.  A paltry force, scouts.  One of them had a radio on him, flipped on.  The rest of Commonplace knows we’re here, now.

The real enemies would be waiting for us, ready.  They might even know our Vocations.

We ascended another spiral staircase, towards the third level.

And a few islands over, the Guardians went on the offensive.

Penny Oakes’ yellow nerve gas closed in around Tunnel Vision, pressing towards her mouth, her bare skin.  It stopped an inch away, pushed back by an invisible barrier.  A cushion of air.  Tunnel Vision could do air projection, so with some effort, she could keep the deadly chemical from touching her.

Then, the Obsidian Foil bent his knees, and leapt at her, still blocking the lasers with his white disks, unfolding a wingsuit below his arms.  In one bound, he jumped up half a dozen stories to Tunnel Vision’s level.

In his left hand, a black rapier moved in a blur, slashing at the Pyre Witch’s throat through the cloud of nerve gas.  I watched the motion through his eyes, every detail magnified, precise, enhanced by his Joined eyes.

Tunnel Vision projected into her suit and jerked back, a short, sharp motion, just enough to keep the tip from grazing her skin.

But in the same motion, he stabbed towards her leg with the rapier in his right hand.  She jerked it out of the way, but not fast enough.  The blade sliced her calf through her combat suit, drawing a bloody red line down the black material.

Tunnel Vision flew backwards and down, away from the islands, not bothering to counterattack with Palefire.  The Obsidian Foil flew after her, slashing, jabbing, moving his swords in a blur, forming elaborate patterns of feints and strikes.

Through his eyes, I watched him soar through the air, darting up, down, and sideways like a hyperactive dragonfly.  Every few seconds, his vision would switch to his monochrome thermal sight, and he would flit his eyes around him, watching for an ambush in the darkness.

As I ran, I had to stare at the ground ahead of me, to make sure I didn’t fall over or throw up.

Purple lightning crackled around Tunnel Vision, lighting up the night sky, making flashes of brightness inside the yellow cloud of gas.  Every few seconds, she burst out of the sphere of chemicals and jabbed her palms forward, shooting off a burst of palefire, making a cloud of smoke in the darkness.

But every time, the gas moved in response, shifting around her to stifle the flames before they could spread.

Lightning bolts and green lasers shot from all angles, too, pounding the Obsidian Foil, since he’d blocked them from hitting his wife.  They burned through his enhanced armor, slicing charred lines through the dark blue material.

But the Obsidian Foil didn’t slow down.  Didn’t lose limbs, or writhe, or even bleed.  He screamed, the sound echoing through his ears, ringing in his skull.  But he didn’t slow down.

His skin is too strong.  An impressive Joiner, especially for the Principality.

And no green lightning flickered over his skin, which meant these maneuvers weren’t straining him.  He has more raw power than the Pyre Witch, too.

Penny Oakes leapt off the edge, unfolded her wingsuit, and started flying, too.

Now, it was a game of maneuvering.  Tunnel Vision, darting to stay out of reach of Professor Oakes’ blades, towards Penny Oakes so she could hit her with a close- range attack, or get an angle where the white disks couldn’t block her lasers.  Penny Oakes, maintaining her defensive purple gas to deflect the lightning, and the offensive yellow gas to choke the palefire, staying close enough to wield her chemicals, but far enough to stay safe from Tunnel Vision.

And her husband, Sebastian Oakes, defending Penny from the lasers with a dozen white disks, while enduring her lightning and attacking Tunnel Vision at the same time.

A complex dance, three projectors soaring through the moonlit sky.  Two mosquitos versus a firefly.  Bursts of white flame, clouds of purple electricity.  Clusters of green lasers and storms of ordinary lightning bolts.  Clouds of hot smoke expanded everywhere, surrounding the battle.

Below Paragon, Tunnel Vision flew up beneath one of the floating islands, cloaked in the shadows beneath the rocks.  Professor Oakes followed her up, and slashed at Tunnel Vision’s thigh, drawing up another line of blood.

Another slash, and a piece of her black suit jacket fluttered down.

The Obsidian Foil tripled his slashes, unleashing a barrage of strikes, faster than before, green lightning flickering around his wrists.  She’s pinned against the rock.  She couldn’t escape downwards without going through him.

Is this it?  Had they really found a counter to every tactic that the Pyre Witch could use?  It made sense, on some level.  Sebastian Oakes was one of the stronger Scholar-Ranked Guardians at Paragon.  One of the few projectors who could hope to match her.

This still doesn’t feel right.  It was too easy.  And the Guardians had to know that too.  Both of them had a hesitancy about them, Penny Oakes keeping an extra distance.  They weren’t underestimating her.

And Tunnel Vision spoke.  Her lips moved, and the rock above her vibrated, making a deafening whisper, hissing through the night air and the clouds of hot smoke towards Sebastian Oakes’ enhanced ears.

Such a perfect couple,” she said.  “Fighting in perfect unison.

The Obsidian Foil slashed at her skull, and she bent over, dodging it.  He stabbed at her arm, and she rolled to the side through a puff of hot smoke, making it only graze her skin.  Another cut, another line of blood.

But you’re just as hollow as the rest of this place.

The Guardians ignored her mind games, and kept pressing the attack.  In between a pair of slashes, the Obsidian Foil lashed his foot out again in a roundhouse kick, aiming for Tunnel Vision’s shin just like last time.

A chunk of rock broke off of the island and slammed into Oakes’ leg, deflecting his kick and breaking into pieces.  The Pyre Witch darted to the side, making more space for herself.

When I broke Lyna Wethers out of prison, that monster told me everything,” she hissed.  “How Penny, of the Alden family, begged Wethers to use her Whisper Vocation on a marriage prospect.  To make him fall in love with her, instead of Wethers.

Chunks of rock from the island blasted through the yellow smoke around her, making a hole.  A rope of palefire shot out, and the Guardians dodged it.  It exploded, sending up more clouds of grey smoke in its wake, joining the rest of the dark smoke from the battle.

Sebastian felt nothing for Penny.  And she made Wethers drill into his soul to change that.  To make it her own.

In the library, we ran through the second level, and I stared at my feet, at the hardwood floors, wobbling from my extra set of eyes, as blue lightning flickered around me and the headache stabbed into the back of my skull.  My legs burned, and I shivered, sweat soaking into my combat suit.

And when it was done, Penny Oakes begged Lyna Wethers to erase her memory of the act.  To cover up her failure, her shame.

For a fraction of a second, the two Guardians paused in their attack.

Love is just another tool that this place uses to control you.

Sebastian Oakes tightened his grip on his rapiers.  “Do you believe in anything, witch?”

Before she could answer, he whipped his left sword towards her throat, already bleeding from a shallow cut.

Blood exploded out of the Pyre Witch’s wound.  It wrapped around the rapier’s dark blade, catching it mid-swing.  The Obsidian Foil yanked the blade back, but the projected blood held on tight, refusing to let go.

Tunnel Vision smiled.

The Obsidian Foil flitted his eyes behind him.

Something zipped out of a cloud of hot smoke, a tiny blur of movement so fast even Oakes’ enhanced vision could barely see it.

Oakes’ vision shook, and his armor thudded with multiple impacts.  Dozens of loud cracks rang out in the distance.  Supersonic bullets.  Too fast to dodge, or block.

They struck the same places in his armor multiple times, one after the other, sending chunks flying off.  Anti-tank rounds.  Designed to punch through four-inch steel plating.

The Obsidian Foil moved aside, but the impacts still tore through his enhanced combat suit, puncturing it in his stomach, his arm, and his leg.

Sebastian Oakes groaned, and through his eyes, I saw blood pouring from the bullet holes.  Voidsteel rounds.  Capable of tearing through an ABD and Joined skin.  He zig-zagged through the air in a fast, random pattern, making himself harder to hit.

The cloud of hot smoke dispersed, revealing a muscular Shenti man wearing a wingsuit and combat fatigues, surrounded by dozens of floating rifles.

Pictogram.  Tunnel Vision had used the clouds of smoke from her battle to hide him.  The heat from the smoke and fire had disrupted the Obsidian Foil’s thermal sight, and she’d forced aggression out of him, distracting him further.

And she positioned herself on the bottom of an island.  Letting Pictogram line up his shots without being seen.  They’d even deliberately revealed his presence to the Guardians on some different part of Paragon, to make them think that the sniper was somewhere else, away from the fight.

The Obsidian Foil grunted with pain, blood dripping down the dark blue plates of his armor.  But none of the wounds looked fatal.

His eyes flitted to the side.

Penny Oakes dropped from the sky head-first.  Limp.  Half her skull had been blown to bits, leaving a grey and red pulp in place of the right side of her face.  Blood streamed into the air above her, as she fell through the dark air.

One look from his enhanced eyes, and I could tell that she was dead.  No Pith could survive that kind of an impact from a Voidsteel bullet.

A second later, the Obsidian Foil’s wife vanished into a dark cloud, dropping towards the burning city below.

Professor Oakes roared.  But as he did, the cloud of yellow fireproof nerve gas dispersed around the Pyre Witch.  With no Penny to project into the chemicals, Sebastian couldn’t keep it tightened.

With the Obsidian Foil’s chemical defenses down, Tunnel Vision jabbed her hands forward, and unleashed a flash of palefire.  Precise, too fast to dodge.  It enveloped Oakes in an instant, filling his vision with white fire.

Oakes howled.  His Joining didn’t seem to lighten the pain.  Or maybe that’s rage.

The flames licked his skin.  Oakes’ Joining kept him from burning, but green lightning flickered around him, showcasing his effort.  He’ll tire before she does.  Long before she did.

Which meant he only had one chance to win this fight.

The Obsidian Foil pressed his arms to his sides, and flew at Tunnel Vision.  A direct charge.  On his path, he darted up, down, and to the side at random, to throw off Pictogram’s aim.

Tunnel Vision maintained her jet of flame, and flew away from him, back up towards the Great Library.

Towards us.

The Obsidian Foil chased after her, dodging bullets from Pictogram by keeping an eye on his rifles.  They flew at blinding speeds, green and purple electricity crackling around them, palefire lighting up the night sky.

As they passed through a cloud, his right arm moved in a blur, and his black rapier shot forward, thrown at the speed of a bullet.

Tunnel Vision kicked it aside midair, and it sliced through her steel-soled boot, ripping out a splatter of blood.  But it didn’t hit the rest of her body.

The two of them shot through the air, weaving between dorm rooms, spires, the burnt wreckage of the banquet hall.  The Pyre Witch, fleeing her enemy and shooting flame in her wake.  And the Obsidian Foil, desperately trying to catch up as his Pith grew exhausted.

Finally, on the bridge leading to the Great Library, the Obsidian Foil’s Pith ran out of energy.  Joining his skin together through the palefire proved too strenuous.

He collapsed on the wooden boards, lying on his back.  And the fire burnt his skin, no longer enhanced.

In an instant, it turned to a blackened crisp.  Oakes writhed for a few seconds, then he went limp.

Demon.  I clenched my teeth, and my hands shook.  She’s a demon.  In minutes, she’d taken out a talented Guardian, and one of the strongest projectors at Paragon.  My professor.  The kindest teacher in this place.

His eyes fluttered, staring up at the two moons overhead.

And the Pyre Witch stepped above him.  She strode towards him and unleashed another hellish wave of white fire, turning his arms and legs into blackened skeletons.

As his vision blurred, she knelt, reached into his armor, and pulled out a thick hardcover tome, colored a light purple.  The only thing that hadn’t been burnt.

The Lavender Book.  My throat tightened.  Now, it all made sense.

That’s why Tunnel Vision had lured the couple in, torturing us with fire to use us as bait.  That’s what the Oakes’ secret mission had been, why they weren’t fighting with the other students or defending the library.

The Lavender Book, the all-powerful Vocation Codex, hadn’t been taken with the fleet.

It was here.  In Paragon Academy.

And now, the Pyre Witch had taken it.

Tunnel Vision gazed up towards the library.  Towards us.  Then she glanced back towards Pictogram, perched on a bridge behind her.

“Stay on perimeter watch,” she said.  “Whistle if you see something important.  I’m going to root out the students in the library.”

Pictogram indicated his head to the Lavender Book.  “You’re going to hold onto that?”

“Of course.  No safer place.”

Pictogram unfurled his wingsuit and leapt into the air, soaring towards a different part of Paragon.

Tunnel Vision stepped towards the library.  She’s coming for us.

Behind her, the Obsidian Foil spun around and stabbed his blackened arm towards her.  The burnt flesh and his hand broke off midair, turning his arm bone into a sharp, blackened spear.  Green lightning crackled around him.  One last desperate effort.

The Lavender Book didn’t motivate him.  It was people like us.  His students.

He wants to keep us safe.

Tunnel Vision jerked her leg up, and his bone only grazed her calf, slicing her skin.  She stabbed a clawed hand down at him, and a final burst of palefire washed over him.

The Obsidian Foil went limp.  His vision cut off, disconnected from my Vocation.  His Pith isn’t working anymore.  She’d confirmed the kill.

No,” I whispered.

Wes looked back at me.  “What happened?”

“She killed them,” I said, my hands shaking on the grip of my machine pistol.  “She has the Lavender Book.  And she’s coming for us.”

Lorne’s eyes widened.  “Move,” he said.  “She still needs to fly through the lower levels.  That means we still have time to – “

The building shook.  Cracks spiderwebbed out from the marble wall.  I gaped at them.  This is the second level.  Even the walls in lower areas were reinforced with projection.

The structure was supposed to be impregnable.  What horrific techniques has the Pyre Witch unearthed?

The wall crumbled, chunks of rubble spilling down the outside of the building.  As it did, a flash of white light rushed in towards us.  Palefire.

Lorne raised his shield of molten metal, but chunks of rubble slammed into it, breaking the thin, liquid barrier all over.  Palefire rushed through the gaps, and washed towards Lorne.

In an instant, he pulled the shield back into himself and cooled it, forming a rigid metal shell of armor around him, blocking out the fire.  His Vocation could control the temperature of metal, so he could keep himself cool with it.

In response, the fire rushed towards Wes.  Samuel and Tasia stepped in front of him, lifting metal plates and orbs of lightning, respectively.

The white flames ignored Tasia’s barrier, and rushed over Samuel’s, washing over his body.  Samuel dropped to the floor, and screamed, covered in flames.

Tasia threw a shield of lightning over him, and the fires stopped.  Burns covered his skin, but it hadn’t blackened.

The Pyre Witch strode over the moonlit rubble, her brown ponytail and black skirt stained with ash and blood.  She held one of Professor Oakes’ obsidian rapiers in her fist, clenching it with white knuckles.  A pile of library books burned next to her, casting her in flickering orange light against the night sky.

Sweat soaked the armpits of her suit jacket, and her chest rose and fell, out of breath.  That fight took a lot out of her.  She still stood a thousand miles out of our league.  But she didn’t crush us in an instant.  Which meant she was tired, at least for a moment.

Tunnel Vision found the breath for a single word, as she limped forward, blood trickling out of the cuts on her legs, over her thin body armor.

“Goodbye,” she said.

She raised her hand towards us.

A whistle rang through the cool air.  A sharp, piercing noise, it screeched in the distance, making my ears ache.

Pictogram’s signal.  Someone else had arrived.  Someone important.

Tunnel Vision leapt backwards out of the hole she’d made in the wall, unfurling her wingsuit.  She soared into the air towards the other islands of Paragon.  Away from us.

Everyone ran to the edge, staring at her, towards the dark ocean in the distance.  What was she responding to?  What did Pictogram see?  I squinted, straining my eyes to look into the darkness.

Nothing.  At least, nothing I could make out.  Just lapping water, moonlight, and dark clouds.

“Lorne,” I said.  “You’ve studied some Joining with your vision, right?  What do you – “

“A plane,” he said, his eyes widening.  “A navy blue plane, with white stripes, flying towards the city from the northeast.”

Crooked Talon,” said Wes.

Professor Florence Tuft’s plane.  The ultimate weapon of the Harpy herself, the Scholar of Air.

Reinforcements.  Paragon had sent back reinforcements.

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