14-F – The Wingtrooper

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Han Yong killed a man and felt nothing.

A decade ago, he’d killed his first, a Principian soldier charging at their sandbags.  The soldier had pulled the pin on his grenade, ready to toss it in and kill Han’s companions.  Han had fired his rifle, and the man’s chest had exploded.

Back then, he’d felt a potent brew of emotions.  Grief, horror, shock at how easy it had been, even when he thought he was a Humdrum.  He’d felt relief, too, that his comrades would be safe from the grenade.

Scariest of all, Han had felt pride.  In his skills, in the nation of Shenten, for honing him into an efficient weapon.

He’d killed more after that, on the field.  And many more, once his projection skills had emerged and he’d received wingtrooper training, with the sacred arts of Joining to hone his Pith into a proper shape for its body.  But through it all, he’d felt something, every time.

And he maintained a respect for the dead.  No matter who they were.  There had been rituals, practices and words from The 99 Precepts he’d used to make sense of his duty as a soldier.

All lost now, all dragged into the meaningless void that was the Spirit Block.  The sea remains.

Han Yong killed a man, and felt nothing.  He descended from the starless night sky, clad in his camouflage wingsuit and flanked by the three others of his squad.

Below, a weathered palace stretched out of the snow, complete with sharp towers, balconies, and withered gardens, covered in snow and peeling red paint.  An enemy lookout on one of its ruined towers spotted something.  A flicker of dark movement in the sky.  Something out of the ordinary.

Before the man could inhale and scream, Han Yong jabbed his hands forward.  A pair of blades shot out of sheathes by his ribs, shaped like long, narrow leaves with no hilt.  Troops called them ‘commando blades’, though Han was no commando.

The blade blew through the lookout’s eye and out the back of his skull.  Han Yong lost control of half the blade for a moment as the man’s Pith pushed out his own, by virtue of Rashi’s Second Law.  Then he grabbed it, and yanked it out the back of the man’s skull in a fraction of a second.

The lookout died in an instant.  And Han Yong couldn’t bring himself to care.

Han Yong projected into the man’s clothes, stopping him from falling and making noise.  As he did, he noted how sloppy the lookout’s clothes felt.  A Shenti soldier’s uniform, but old, covered in holes, loose threads.  The back of his shirt wasn’t tucked in, and Warlord Qian had added some pointless gold embroidery and a few ribbons, a ridiculous attempt to make it unique.

Wrong, all wrong.  All chaos and ego.  No discipline.  It reminded Han of his own warlord, Lai Zan, who didn’t even comb her hair some days.

Han Yong set the corpse down gently, and used his infrared vision to scope for other enemies in the vicinity.  No heat signatures in the tower, or in the snowy grounds around the walls of the palace.  A skilled Joiner could hide their body heat, but there wouldn’t be any here.

Humdrums, all of them.  No projectors.  Most warlords didn’t care about the letter of the Yokusei Pact, but Joiners were tough to teach, and tougher to control.  No real training, either.  These people were glorified security guards dressed up as soldiers.  Maybe they’d have one or two Voidsteel bullets among them, but Han Yong doubted it.

Even a normal Joiner would have wiped the floor with these people.  A Commando could do it drunk, with a pinky finger, and their feet tied together.  Han Yong’s wingtroopers weren’t that special, but this would still be easy for them.

The four of them landed on the roof of the broken palace, silent.  Han Yong scanned the wider area around them, flitting between modes of his enhanced vision.

The Infinite Peak extended above them.  The tallest mountain in the Eight Oceans, miles high, covered with snow, crevasses, and treacherous ice.  A massive waterfall tumbled over a cliff, pouring into a short river to the ocean below.  Behind Han, the icy waves washed against the coastline, picked up by his enhanced hearing.

As usual, dark red clouds surrounded the top quarter of the mountain, obscuring the peak itself from view.  An unnatural fog, that never changed color and never moved, no matter the winds.

No enemies below.  And no snipers further up the mountain.  Makes sense.  People found the Infinite Peak terrifying, and all sorts of superstitions had risen around it.

The superstitions were ridiculous, and irrational.  The fear wasn’t.

Empress Ushi had built this summer palace at the foot of the mountain, and had died two days after finishing it.  With such terrible luck affixed to the place, no one had lived here for years.

Then, centuries later, Grand Marshall Cao Hui, the Black Tortoise, had set up a research outpost, and had sent prisoners and exiles here.  The exiles managed much of the operations.  The prisoners, with rock-bottom economic scores, would be affixed with supplies, warm clothes, and sensors.

Then, they’d be sent up the mountain in pairs, to the red clouds swallowing the peak.  Their task was simple: Pick a leaf from one of the legendary trees at the top, and return it to the bottom.

None of them ever made it.  Just like the trained mountaineers who’d gone up before them.  No one ever came back from the Infinite Peak.

So, for Warlord Qian, it made a perfect hiding place for his supplies.  When everyone thought the mountain was cursed, they’d be less likely to raid the area.  And after the Spirit Block, no one cared about long-term research anymore.  Warlord Qian just used bullets for his executions, not mountains.

Han Yong dragged himself back to reality.  Why am I getting so distracted?  Every mission deserved his full attention.  Carelessness led to stupid, embarrassing deaths delivered by amateurs.

Han knew this, rationally.  But he couldn’t bring himself to care.

Clear,” said Tian Shui, in a whisper just loud enough for his enhanced ears to pick up.

The rest of his squad chimed in.  “Clear, clear.

Clear,” whispered Han.  The only enemies in the area were below them.  Enemies they could see and deal with easily.  The mountain was dead.  Still.  The only sounds Han could hear were the waves in the distance, and the breathing of the sleeping thugs beneath him.  No wildlife, even.

Han gave a hand signal, and in unison, the wingtroopers jumped through a hole in the roof.

They descended through the palace’s main room, over a hundred meters tall.  Han activated his zero dash vocation, making his body near-weightless.

They aimed their S-4 Reapers, modified heavy rifles, and fired, taking out the lights.  The suppressed gunshots sounded like thunder to Han’s enhanced ears.  The room turned pitch-black, impossible to see for non-Joiners.  Darkness swallowed the beautiful wall paintings and towering sculptures of the room 

By the time their targets realized what was happening, most of them were dead already.  Four wingtroopers, firing several times a second, using projection to load in new clips to their reapers and fire without pause.  Scoring shots to the center mass, one after the other, never missing.

Men and women ran about below, in various states of uniforms and undress, clambering out of sleeping bags and reaching for weapons, shouting with confusion.  Hundreds of them.

And hundreds died.  In the darkness, most of them couldn’t even run for cover, or make their way into the side rooms.  The Reapers didn’t even produce muzzle flashes, leaving Han and his companions invisible.

By the time Han’s boots touched the dusty floor, everyone in the hall had died already.

Han whispered another order, and the other three wingtroopers fanned out into the side hallways and staircases of the broken palace, hunting down the handful of remnants left in the building.  With their thermal vision, the enemies had nowhere to hide.  Han stayed in the room, holding down the center of the building in case anything unexpected happened.

He sighed, and glanced around the massive hall with his night vision eyes.  It would have looked beautiful, in the light, with its carvings and paintings and massive wall hangings, some of which, miraculously, hadn’t been scavenged.  It would have looked even more beautiful when it was built, hundreds of years ago.  Craftsmen, architects, and artists all coming together for a shared vision of beauty and majesty.

In today’s Shenten, it was just another warehouse.  Warlord Qian’s thugs had stashed piles and piles of crates here.  A glance at the labels told Han the contents.  Non-perishable food, ammunition, medical supplies.  And lots of it.  Nothing supernatural, to match the haunted atmosphere of the Infinite Peak.

But Warlord Lai, Han’s boss, didn’t need anything mystical.  She just needed the basics.  Since the Black Tortoise had announced his return, life had been hard for the average warlord.

Lai put on a face of strength, dismissing this new Cao Hui as a fraud in all her propaganda.  She’d maybe fooled a few of her cronies, but Han Yong could see the desperation in her eyes, hear the quickness in her voice.

Thanks to her Joining, Lai Zan didn’t look a day over twenty.  But for a moment, Han had seen the years, leaking out through her face.

Han Yong’s squad was the strongest group she had, and in just a few weeks, Cao Hui had already gathered three other warlords under his banner.  He had commandos, factories, and all the most critical locations.  The former Great Library, the Emperor’s Tomb, and Huangdi Academy itself.

Warlord Lai had doubled Han’s salary, and reminded him that her kindness was keeping his hometown, Quanzou, safe and fed.

Han had nodded, but couldn’t bring himself to care.  If Han stopped killing for Warlord Lai, maybe she’d massacre the village.  But maybe she’d just throw a temper tantrum and go on as before.  Maybe none of it mattered.

A decade ago, Han had needed funds, and to protect the vulnerable people of his hometown after the Spirit Block.

But now?  Everyone he knew from home had died, or moved away.  His high school ex had even joined the Droll Corsairs, the crazy bitch.

No, Han wasn’t killing for anyone.  He wasn’t even killing for money.

He was killing because of inertia.  Because this was all he knew.  And he didn’t care enough to alter his path.

Han looked down at the piles of corpses on the floor, still warm, bleeding onto a marble floor built for epic feasts.  “I’m sorry,” he murmured.  “Please forgive me.

His three subordinates returned, nodding to him.  All done.  No survivors.  Han made another series of signals, and Tian Shui floated herself back up through the hole, onto the roof of the building as a lookout.

The rest of them started going over the boxes, confirming their contents.  Han nodded.  “Radio the supply ship.  We should be clear for picku – ”

The low thuds of artillery rang out in the distance.

Incoming fire!” whispered Tian Shui on the roof.  Even with her whispering, Han could hear the urgency in her voice.

Then the roof exploded.  Tian Shui crashed onto the floor next to them, bruised.


“Move!” shouted Han Yong.

The four of them darted for cover, moving into the side rooms built with the strongest foundations.  But the artillery fire kept coming, smashing down into the building and ripping through the upper floors.

The ceiling of the side room cracked.  How?  How were they getting bombarded?  They’d scanned the area and found nothing.  Giant gun formations weren’t easy to hide.

Han kicked down a wall and led his squad outside, into the snow and ice.  Thick clouds had passed over the moon.  A blizzard will start soon.  But not soon enough to help them escape.

The sounds of artillery sounded deafening in his ears.  Armor-piercing in addition to anti-personnel.  Which meant the enemy knew they were fighting enemy Joiners, not just a bunch of fragile Humdrums.

Han sprinted around the side of the building and peeked his head out, sweeping his vision around to look for the source of the shells.

His enhanced vision shifted and adjusted, making out the dark objects flying through the night, tiny at this distance.

He spotted them, plotted their arc out in his head.  Then his throat clenched.  The enemy was firing artillery from the other side of the mountain.  Even enhanced vision couldn’t see through that much rock and ice.

A trap.  Someone knew they were coming.

A shell shot straight at him, aiming right for his hiding place.  Han projected into his uniform and yanked himself back, out of the way.  The shell smashed into the snow, and he felt the blast wave shake his body, a pressure that would rip apart the organs of a normal human.

Han clenched his rifle.  This is bad.  The enemy was shooting blind, and still knew exactly where to fire.  Someone’s acting as a spotter from another angle.  Their Joining was strong, but it wouldn’t last long against sustained, repeated artillery hits, especially if the enemy used Voidsteel.

And the enemy had ambushed experienced wingtroopers.  Which meant they had talent.  Warlord Qian shouldn’t have this many resources.  He’d hired the Droll Corsairs once, but years ago, when he had actual money in the bank.

He glanced back at the palace, already half-demolished.  Many of the supply crates had been blown up, the food and medical supplies turned to ashes.  Fires burned around other crates of ammunition, and they blew up in quick succession like hot kernels of popcorn.

They’re not here for the supplies, then.  Which meant it probably wasn’t Warlord Qian.  Who the fuck is attacking us?

With so little information, a battle plan would be difficult.

Major,” whispered Xuan Heng.  “Orders?

More shots impacted the palace, and cracks spiderwebbed throughout the wall above them.

“We need to move,” said Han, stating the obvious.

Where?” hissed Tian Shui.

The shots were coming from the North, so they had a few options for proper cover and distance.  

Han glanced up at the dark mountain, and the red clouds swallowing the top of it.  Going up the Infinite Peak meant certain death, and sent chills over his skin.  Not there.  He glanced behind him, at the coastline and the ocean.

There.  “We go down to the water,” whispered Han.  “Then we go south along the coast to get us some distance from those bastards.”  With their enhanced vision, distance from the artillery could let them dodge shots far in advance.

Nods all around.  “It is as you say,” said Tian.

“Then, we circle back and find out whoever’s messing with us.  And show them what Joiners do at close range.”  It could be a trap, but Warlord Lai didn’t like full retreats.

The four wingtroopers moved, darting down the icy slope towards the water, splitting and leaping in a zigzag pattern, making harder targets for the artillery.  They activated their Zero Dashes again, making their bodies light as leaves.

Their Vocations helped with their long-term health, nothing flashy on the battlefield.  But the rest of their training worked just fine.

Despite this, the enemy’s fire kept predicting their movements, forcing them to watch the skies at all times, dodging strikes before they impacted.

It’s so dark.  Which meant the enemy’s spotter was a Joiner, too, with infrared vision or something similar.

The shells blew up around them, flashes of white light in the darkness, kicking up showers of snow and dirt.  A tree exploded, its splintered trunk catching fire.

A few of them hit close to Han, tearing his uniform and making his bones shake.  Each impact sent screaming pain throughout his nerves.  He felt every inch of his flesh, his skin, his veins, as the blast waves and shrapnel smashed into them.

Red lightning flickered around him, and a headache swelled in the back of his skull, as Han strained his Pith to hold his body together.  He exhaled, forcing himself to stay relaxed, to not panic.  He danced and wove around the artillery fire, flowing like water around a rock.

With pain, and bruises, the four wingtroopers moved onto the frigid ocean, leaping over waves and sprinting on the surface of the water.  They circled around, moving southward along the coast.

Then, as they passed under a short cliff, a chunk of snow broke off from a nearby cornice and shot towards them.  With his enhanced vision, Han could see what was beneath the snow.  Grey metal.  An explosive, the size of a man’s torso.

All four of them scattered.  They pushed off the water and yanked themselves away with their uniforms, moving in opposite directions.

But not fast enough.

The bomb exploded in the middle of their group, and a bright orange fireball engulfed them, batting them aside like kites in the wind.  A powerful blast, stronger than any of the artillery.  Red lightning flickered around them, as their durability Joining fought to hold their bodies together and not get blown to vaporized pieces.

Han felt like he’d been dropped into a vat of magma, then pummeled with sledgehammers.

They splashed into the ocean, too dazed to harden the surface beneath them.  Waves washed over them, splashing Han’s face and filling his open mouth with saltwater.

Han blinked and sputtered, treading water.  His eyes flitted around him, looking for the enemy.

A massive chunk of rock and snow had been torn from the cliffside.  A giant bomb.  One that could have demolished the whole summer palace on its own.  And a perfect trap, that the enemy had hidden from Han’s enhanced eyes.

But it was a conventional explosive.  Enough to rip holes in a bunker, but conventional, nonetheless.  Voidsteel shrapnel would have killed his team.  So either the enemy is poor, or they want us alive.

The wingtroopers leapt out of the dark water and landed on the surface, taking up fighting stances.  Their S-4 Reapers and their commando blades had been ripped apart, and all of them had lost most of their energy.  They caught their breaths, dripping wet, wisps of red lightning flickering over their skin, their wings in tatters.

But their bodies had been Joined to their minds, moving in perfect harmony.  They could still fight.

Han couldn’t see the enemy.  No matter where he looked, he only saw ice and snow and water.  No heat signatures.  Nothing.

Then, a chunk of ice moved by the coast.  A single hand, raising, then waving hello.  A second ago, it had looked identical to the ground.  Perfect camouflage.

Then Han looked closer, and saw.  Was allowed to see.

A figure crouched by the shore, wearing light, flowing clothes.  A thin layer of paint swirled on the figure’s skin and garments, letting it blend into its surroundings.  An S-4 Reaper had been buried in a snowdrift, with just a millimeter of the barrel sticking out and aiming at Han’s team.  In place of boots, the figure walked with bare feet.

And on its face, a white mask of a snarling dragon.

Han Yong had studied the Lion’s Blood vocation, which kept his body temperature warm no matter how cold it got outside.  But still, he felt ice flow through his body.

A Commando.  They’d been fighting a Shenti Commando.

Han Yong put his hands up and knelt on the surface of the water.  Surrendering.  His squadmates did the same.

Even with their weapons, even with full energy, they wouldn’t have stood a chance.

A perfect trap.  Using the artillery to lead them here, then blowing them up and cornering them.  Beating the bushes, then disarming and exhausting them.

And now, the lone Commando just stood there, silent behind their mask.  Saying nothing.

Han Yong breathed out, exhausted.  “Well?” he mumbled, too soft for a normal person to hear.  “You’ve got us?  What do you want?”

The Commando still said nothing.  Their uniform looked perfect.  Even without the camouflage paint, it had no wrinkles, no rips or tears or poor design choices born of meaningless ego.

Han Yong thought he’d be more scared.  Thought he’d fight harder, resist and kick and scream when he faced death.

But he just stood there, in the darkness, catching his breath on the icy water.  Waiting for the relief to come.

A man’s voice echoed from above, deep and focused.   “When I was a child, I used to walk in my sleep.”

I know that voice.  He’d listened to it a thousand times before, on radio broadcasts and in speeches.  Hearing it now brought back a wave of nostalgia.  Han’s throat tightened, and his heartbeat thumped in his ears.

“A dangerous habit.  I could fall, get myself hurt.  So my mother would guide me back to bed, gently, taking care not to wake me, and scold me in the morning.  I apologized, and meant it.”

Han heard footsteps from above, bootheels crunching on the snow.  Slow, and inexorable.  Han’s breath quickened, and he took a step back on the water.

“But a few nights later, my unconscious mind pulled me out of bed again.  My mother guided me back, and repeated the same lesson.  Again and again.  But it never worked.”  The man laughed above.  “Then, my father came home from a trip abroad.  The first night he found me sleepwalking, he guided me to the stove, turned it on, and pressed my finger to a hot frying pan.”

Han’s squadmates stepped back with him, staring up at the short cliff above them, transfixed.  Tian Shui looked terrified.  Xuan Heng looked amazed.  And Qiu Chun looked like both at the same time.

“I woke up in agony,” the man said.  “And for weeks, I had nightmares.  But I never sleepwalked again.”

Han saw the man’s breath before everything else.  Slow, careful exhales, that fogged up the icy air in front of him.  Moonlight shone down on the clouds, making them appear to glow.

Then, the speaker walked up to the edge of the cliff, revealing himself.  A tall, dark-haired man in his early thirties.  Lean muscles bulged under his dark red military uniform.  A simple coat, with only a tiny black star on his collar that signified his rank.

And his eyes.  Deep amber eyes filled with determination, capable of great warmth and great violence at the same time.

Cao Hui.  The Black Tortoise.  The Grand Marshall of the Shenti Empire, who’d nearly conquered Eight Oceans with the sheer force of his industry and tactics.  A deadly Joiner, known for his raw strength and perfect timing in the ring.

And a resurrected ghost, brought back from exile and shame.  Who’d outmaneuvered Han’s team with breathtaking ease.

Cao Hui looked down on them.  “Han Yong.  Tian Shui.  Xuan Heng.  Qiu Chun.  You are sleepwalking through this world.  And I have come to wake you.”

Han stuttered, at a loss for words.  What do you say to a legend pointing a gun at you?

“The warlord known as Lai Zan is dead,” he said.

He killed the boss.  Han thought he’d feel angrier, or hurt.  But he just felt a growing admiration for the Black Tortoise.  He beat us, and took out our employer in a single night.

“H – how?” stuttered Han.

“I explained my vision for the future of Shenten to her,” Cao Hui said.  “She was not interested in helping her nation.”  He nodded his head to Han.  “Your hometown is under my protection, now.”

“Thank you,” Han forced out.

“You have acted as common thugs.”  A hint of contempt slipped into Cao Hui’s voice.  Just that flicker was enough to make Han take another step back.  “But Shenten needs talent.”  He jumped off the edge of the cliff and landed on the surface of the water.  “That’s why I set this trap for you.”  He stepped forward, and his eyes shone with the moonlight.  “Our nation is returning.”

He wants us to work for him.

“Why should we follow your orders?” said Tian Shui.  “If what you say is true, then we’re no longer bound to anyone.”

“Yes,” said Cao Hui.  “You are free to go.”  He made a gesture, and the Shenti commando lowered their weapon and sat down.  “You can join the Droll Corsairs, or retire to an island somewhere.  You can run and wither, as your nation drowns.  And then you can die, with a hollow legacy, wondering if there was anything you could have done to save it.”

Save Shenten?  An absurd idea, even for the Black Tortoise.  “There’s nothing,” said Han, speaking up through his fear.  “This place was already a mess.  And now, the Principality is coming, thanks to that inciter, Anabelle Gage.  Their navy is a thousand times stronger than ours.  Their army is larger.  Their industry.”  It hurt to say, but it was true.  “You can make them hurt for it.  But you will lose.”  With his commandos and pride and mountain artillery, he would still lose.

Cao Hui was a giant.  But the world ground up giants all the same.

“You’re right,” Cao Hui said.  “We can’t beat the Principality.”

The sea remains.

“Conventionally,” said Cao Hui.  The Black Tortoise leaned in, and Han saw the electricity in his stare.  Cao Hui softened his voice.  “If there was a chance,” he said.  “To ensure our survival against the demons at our borders.  To forge a better world for humanity.  That would be worth dying for, wouldn’t it?”

Yes, he thought.  But he kept it to himself.  Emotions were bubbling up inside his chest.  Things he hadn’t felt for more than a decade.

“How?” said Xuan Heng.

Cao Hui’s smile lit up the dark ocean.  “I’ve discovered a young man,” he said.  “Who can see through the Spirit Block.”

Silence.  An icy breeze blew over the dark ocean.

Impossible.  Beyond impossible.  No one could see through the Spirit Block.  Cao Hui himself had been one of the strongest Praxis Specialists in the world, and the Spirit Block had snapped him like old bamboo.

But the others in his squad leaned forward, transfixed.  Cao Hui was not known to be a liar.

“We just need to slow the Principality down,” he said.  “Buy ourselves time and space to crack open this boy’s gifts.  And convince the milkface Epistocrats that Shenten is more trouble than it’s worth, if we can.”

“And how do we do that?” said Tian Shui, skeptical again.

Cao Hui pointed past the cliff, through a jagged valley ripped out of the rock by the Commando’s bomb.  Han followed the path of his finger.

The Black Tortoise was pointing at the mountain.  At the Infinite Peak, choked by crimson clouds.

“Red is a lucky color,” Cao Hui said.  “The same color as our flag, our money – “  He thumped his chest.  “The very souls of our Joiners.”

Han froze, gripped by fear again.  But not of Cao Hui.  Of the mountain, and the snow, and the cursed clouds that had swallowed up so many before him.  What does the Black Tortoise want from this frozen grave?  How could it possibly help Shenten?

“There were Great Scholar ruins,” said Cao Hui.  “On this very ground.  Empress Ushi tore them down to build her summer palace, but the records inside hinted at something else.  Something much larger.”  He pointed again.  “Near the top of the peak.”

“Larger?” mumbled Han.  He didn’t like where this was going.

“A power.  Sealed away,” said Cao Hui.  “That can unleash hell.”

In the far distance, the peak stretched out of the earth, a jagged tumor of rock and ice and snow.  The largest, tallest mountain in the world, and the most unnatural.

“Warlord Qian learned of this power, many years ago from an archaeologist.  But he gave up on this mountain, and its secrets.”  Cao Hui clenched his teeth.  “Cowardice.”  He strode forward across the water, and gripped Han Yong’s shoulders, looking into his eyes.  “He could not face the darkness.  But we can.”

And Han Yong realized.  He wants me to climb that peak.  Retrieve that power for him, whatever it was.  A suicide mission.  Or worse.

“No one, sir – “  Already calling him ‘sir’.  “No one’s ever come back from there, sir.”

“Yes,” Cao Hui said.  “Joiners of your training have never attempted the climb before, but it is as you say.  I ask for your lives.  Nothing lesser.”

Silence again.  Tian Shui clenched her fists.

“But – “  He gripped Han’s shoulders tighter.  “Your deaths will ensure our victory.”

He made a gesture with his hand, and the Commando stood up, striding forward.  they pulled off their white dragon mask, letting their black hair cascade around them.  Her black hair.

A tall, slender woman stood before him on the water, with bright red lips and high cheekbones.  A flawless woman, who’d sailed ahead of him in his Joining classes at Huangdi Academy.  Who’d sailed ahead of everyone at Huangdi.

The Immaculate Vanguard.  The strongest Joiner in the world.  And the best soldier Han had ever fought alongside.

Her bright green eyes stared at him with burning focus.  “If you don’t do this,” she said.  “I will.”

Han knew the Vanguard.  He even knew her old name, before she’d taken on her title.  She wouldn’t lie to me.

And without her talents, Shenten had no chance of survival.  None.  If the Vanguard died on that mountain, their hope would die with her.

“We can save Shenten,” said Cao Hui.  “No more scrabbling for food and roofs and clean water.  We can bring our people into a golden age.  Streets filled with cars.  Television.  Skyscrapers touching the clouds.  A united, victorious nation.”  His voice turned cold.  “But to reach it, we must unleash hell.”

The Immaculate Vanguard clasped Han’s forearm, and he clasped hers.  The politicians and generals will play their games.  But as soldiers, they could understand each other.  The Vanguard knew the depth of the Black Tortoise’s request.

Han Yong had forgotten what this felt like.  To be a part of something, to feel like he was risking his life for something.  Not the petty ego of a despot, but a nation.  A people.

It had been over a decade since he’d read a line from The 99 Precepts, felt the glorious pattern it made in his thoughts, the insights that formed the foundations of his soul, gave his thoughts meaning.

If Han went up that peak, someone else might read those words again.  The snowy garden of his childhood could bloom again, out of this rotting carcass of a nation.

Superstition and red clouds wouldn’t stop him.  He was a wingtrooper.  A Joiner of body and mind.  Honed by some of the finest training in the Eight Oceans.

This is what I’ve been waiting for.

“Can I trust you and your squad, Han?” said Cao Hui.  “Is Shenten worthy of your talents?”

To answer, Han Yong pressed his right fist against his left palm.  A salute.

Cao Hui and his Vanguard saluted back.

________________________________________

They climbed the mountain in silence.

Normal mountaineers would have to coordinate ropes, unstable ladders over crevasses, bottled oxygen to ward off delirium and exhaustion.  But the wingtroopers’ Joining let them bypass all that.  They jumped over canyons with their zero dashes, clambered up icy cliffs in seconds with their bare hands.

With the Ox’s Breath vocation, they didn’t have troubles with the thin air, either.  They weren’t even winded.

They had begun their ascent after recharging their Piths, several hours later in the darkness.  The fewer people saw them, the better.  And there was no time to waste.  Cao Hui had pressed them forward, and they’d agreed.  Why had they all agreed?

They jumped over the mountain’s lone river, tumbling over a cliff in a giant waterfall towards the ocean.  Snowflakes swirled through the air around them, slow and peaceful, the beginnings of a much stronger blizzard.

And even with their Joining, even with the ease they navigated the mountain, Han Yong felt the peak’s overwhelming size, with every step.  Every handhold and jump.  A giant larger than any Joiner.  Larger than a Commando, or the Immaculate Vanguard.  Or even Cao Hui himself.

Han wore enhanced camouflage provided by the commandos.  A thin layer of paint over his military uniform, that could be adjusted to the landscape around him, making him near-invisible, though it wasn’t his expertise.  And with their Joining and snow projection, their movements made no sound.

The Commando could have gone in their place.  The silent, masked individual who’d wrecked their whole team.  But Commandos were irreplaceable.  Wingtroopers were not.

Han and his soldiers all knew this.  Just as they knew their odds of returning.  And what strategy could they plan, from the tiny information they knew of the threat on the peak?  Nothing.  They could only climb, and steel themselves.  There was nothing more to say.

As they climbed, the snow grew thicker around them.  The winds blew faster, and the temperature dropped.

Han glanced back, as he clambered up an icy cliff.  Even with his enhanced vision, he could no longer make out the half-ruined palace, or the coastline below them.  Thick clouds hid the ground from view, leaving only the mountains around them.  The world outside grew fainter, as the blizzard sealed them in, dimming the moonlight overhead.

But this storm and the darkness helped them, too.  Whatever thing sat in that red cloud.  Whatever force, or person, or creature was killing people as they ascended, it might have a harder time spotting their ascent.

Han Yong felt hopeful, for an hour or two.

And then, they started breaking.

Han and his soldiers had learned internal atlases, and memory-bursted maps of the area, combined with training that gave them an exceptional sense of direction.

And for the first time in his career, Han got lost.  He jumped over a crevasse, landed on the other side, and lost track of where they were.  A few whispered words confirmed that the other members of his squad had suffered the same effects, despite their Praxis vocations.

So they paused for a moment, and dug through their memories, made exceptional with vocations and raw practice.  Backtracking their progress and comparing it to their maps of the area.

And Han felt gaps in his recent memory.  The others had blackouts too, random chunks of their short-term memory wiped from their minds.

Next, they tried estimating their speed, and using the internal clocks in their Piths, accurate to the microsecond.

Han thought it was 0421.  Tian thought it was 0250.  Xuan thought it was 0143.  And Qiu thought it was 0513.

Their clocks had broken, too, as had their intuitive sense of time.  It had been hours, at least.  But maybe it had been longer than that.

Whisper effects.  They’d been told to expect some.  In a normal mission, these setbacks would push them to retreat, to regroup, coordinate with whisper-sec, and make better sense of the enemy.  Going forward heightened their risk of mental hijacking, and crushing defeat.

But this was not a normal mission.

With their navigation broken, Han and the others relied on a much simpler method.  Go up.

And after minutes, or hours, or days, they reached the edge of the red fog, a thick cloud that wrapped around the top quarter of the mountain, blocking the view from even the best Joiners and the most advanced telescopes.

Up close, it looked even stranger.  The fog seemed to form shapes before them.  Triangles.  Countless triangles, and smaller triangles inside those triangles, or branching out of the vertices.  An endless pattern of pattern of patterns.

Han stared at them for a moment, transfixed.  Is this another hallucination?  Another Whisper effect?

Tian put a hand on his shoulder, shaking him back to reality.  And together, they fished the rest of the gear out of their backpacks.  Gas masks, and full-body hazard suits.

Their Iron Liver vocation suite let them resist poison, and their Immunity vocation suite let them shrug off bioweapons.  But they took no chances.  The strongest prisoners and mountaineers had made it to this point.  But once they stepped into the red cloud, none of them had come out.

And then they stood there, all geared up, gripping their Reaper rifles, blending into the terrain around them.  No one said a word or moved, waiting for Han’s order.

A silver oracle snake wound back and forth in the dark sky, slow and distant.  And Han shivered.  An overwhelming terror seized him, stronger than anything he’d felt before.  Run down the mountain, his instincts told him.  Never come within a hundred kilometers of this place.

But Cao Hui’s voice echoed in his head, too.  We can save Shenten.  But we must unleash hell.  The Principality’s ships were sailing towards this continent, and nothing on the ground could stop them.

Han had a duty to his country.  His determination, too, felt stronger than any that came before it.

He hefted his rifle, took a deep breath of rubber-smelling air, and strode into the fog.

The red fog surrounded him, thick, impossible to see through, even with his heightened senses.  It swallowed him like quicksand, muffling the noise from the outside world and isolating him.

Han took another step over the snow.  And another.  It felt like he was walking through a river of flowing mud.  Only, he couldn’t be sure which way the river flowed.

He’d been trained to deal with Whisper Vocations, as best as one could.  And the Principality had no shortage of hijackers on the battlefield.  But Han hadn’t felt anything like this before.  It felt like reality and a dream at the same time, a strange consciousness which he drifted through, clutching his sanity like a drowning man to driftwood.

And most of his anti-Whisper training boiled down to two things in a fight: Keep your distance.  Kill them fast.  Without those tenets, all bets were off.

Then, the fog grew thinner around him, something he could see through, and he crouched behind a chunk of ice, glancing back.

The cloud gets thicker on the outside.  A barrier, of sorts.  Inside, visibility looked bad, but far from impossible, with enhanced vision.

Tian, Xuan, and Qiu emerged from the barrier, confused looks in their eyes, like they’d all shown up to the wrong house for a party.  They crouched beside Han and looked around them, watching for enemies.  And their eyes widened.

The highest peak in the world, one of the coldest spots in the Eight Oceans, was a jungle.  Trees, ferns, moss and vines and overgrown weeds grew out of the ice.  Like a swampy island, ripped out of the sea and dropped on top of the peak.  Snow covered the greenery, frozen, but still growing.  How is it all still growing?

The foliage grew dense ahead of them, impossible to see through even with enhanced vision.  And the fog didn’t help, either.

Han tightened his grip on his rifle.  This is bad.  They would have to go through the jungle to get to the top of the peak, and presumably, the Great Scholar ruins Cao Hui had told them of.  But with this visibility, a talented enemy could ambush them with ease.

He projected forward, to see if they could silence the foliage ahead of them, so they could push through without making noise.

And all the plants had Piths.

What?  Plants didn’t have Piths.  Only creatures with a brain were supposed to have those.  Are these conscious beings?  Were the trees themselves killing people?

But the Piths in these things felt different.  Simpler.  Each plant had only a handful of soul particles, with only the faintest activity.  If you stitched a whole forest of these together, they might have as many connections as a dog’s brain.

But they weren’t stitched together.  They appeared separate, with minds dumber than earthworms.  The trees aren’t the threat.  So what was?

Either way, they couldn’t project into these things.  So they’d have to make some noise.

Forward,” whispered Han.  “Don’t cut the foliage.

They moved forward, into the dense greenery.  The plants rustled as they pushed through them, but otherwise, didn’t seem to respond to their presence.  They’re not attacking us, at least.

Han glanced behind him.  The jungle trees already blocked his view of the fog barrier.  Another door closing behind them.

More time passed.  They pushed through ferns and bushes and thickets over the snow and ice, the red mist close around them.  They climbed up frozen cliffs covered with vines, past small glaciers with flowers sprouting out of the ice.

And it felt so much larger than the rest of the mountain.  Every landmark, every shift in the terrain felt like the end of a great journey.  And as he walked, the trees and leaves that had appeared chaotic at first were following a pattern.  Triangles within triangles, branching out and overlapping each other.  Just like the fog.

Han began to understand why they called it ‘infinite’.

Then, Qiu Chun tapped his shoulder.  Han turned, and the woman made movements with her mouth, speaking silently without even a whisper.  Visible with his enhanced vision behind her gas mask.  Han read her lips.

Someone’s watching us,” said Qiu.

Xuan nodded.

Han focused on his enhanced senses, pouring energy into them and stretching them to their limit.  He couldn’t sense any enemies around them, any targets.

But Qiu was right.  The instinct, the feeling of being watched felt unshakeable.  Another Whisper Vocation?  Or a warning?

Cao Hui had given them ample supplies of Voidsteel bullets and grenades, and their Joining let them rip tanks to shreds with their bare hands.  More firepower than had ever been brought up this mountain.

And yet, Han felt a nagging, growing sense that those tools wouldn’t be enough here.

We can still go back,” said Tian with her lips.  “We’ve collected useful intel already.  That can help others make expeditions here.  It’s not too late.

They all knew her implication, beneath the words.  If we stay here longer, we’re going to die.  Or worse.  And if they went down the other side of the mountain, they could flee the area before Cao Hui or his commando caught up.

Han shook his head.  “That’s not enough.”  The Principality’s armies were sailing across the ocean.  Cao Hui might not have many experienced Joiners to spare for expeditions.  “We need to retrieve the weapon.”  Whatever it was.

He turned forward again, and they kept going.  They climbed and they climbed, past trees growing out of cliffs and dark mycelium weaving through glittering ice.

More time passed, and a faint light glowed in the distance, a dim, pale globe shining through the red fog.  Three of their four internal atlases saw it as coming from the east.

That’s the sun.  Dawn had arrived.

With the new light, they made out a faint black outline in the distance.  The jungle foliage ended, making way for a sloped clearing high on the mountainside.

You seeing this?” mouthed Tian.

That’s it,” said Han, every muscle in his body wound up.

The object grew larger as they trudged through the snow and fog.  They pushed through a thicket of leaves, and it came into view.

It’s a ship.  A beached vessel, made of metal.  Han stretched his Pith far forward, and the hull repelled his soul.  Voidsteel.  Colored differently.

But it didn’t look like any ship he’d seen before, ancient or modern.  It didn’t even look human.  Its curves and angles looked sleek, elegant, geometric in all the ways that a normal boat was utilitarian.  Six metal legs stuck out of the sides, each as thick as a tree trunk, ending in a wide, metallic hoof.

A ship that can go on land.  That had parked itself on the side of a mountain.  The Great Scholar ruins.  A tomb worth a large fortune.

With those appendages, and its shape, it looked like some vast, alien insect, that had crawled out of a hive in the deepest pit of the universe.

And Han could feel a presence, too, radiating out from it.  A pressure, like an explosive’s blast wave, only constant, and slow, and inevitable.

They moved forward, against that current, over an empty field of ice.  Approaching the ship.

Those legs,” said Xuan, with his lips, silent.  “Technology?

Or projection,” said Han.

The ship grew as they approached it.  It’s massive.  The size of an aircraft carrier, at least.  How did it get up here?  If the Great Scholars here had been fleeing the water, they didn’t need to go this high.

Then, Han’s projection felt something, in the snow ahead of him.  An unfamiliar object, made of wood and Voidsteel.  He projected into it, lifting it in front of him.  Snow fell off of it, revealing its contours.

A musket.  Not a design he’d seen from history, but a musket, nonetheless.  A valuable insight into the Scholar’s technology.  If this is true, then they were less advanced than us.

Han felt something else below.  Structures of rocks and minerals, mixed with latticework structures of collagen and calcium phosphate.  All molded into a familiar shape.

There’s a skeleton below,” said Han.  “A human skeleton.  Partly fossilized.

He felt around with his Pith some more, a wide-area scan.  Not just one skeleton.  Hundreds of them, buried beneath the snow and ice and dirt, mixed with more muskets, daggers, and other preserved weapons.  The remains of a battle.  A battle from very, very long ago.

The bones, too, had been broken into pieces and fastened into triangle shapes.

Tian looked at him.  “They’re all headless.

Han felt around.  She’s right.  Among all the ancient skeletons nearby, none of them had a skull.  There weren’t even decapitated craniums, or bits of jaw scattered around the area.

It was like their heads had all vanished.  Not a typical way for people to die in battle.

But they’re inert.  No Piths in them, no sign of movement.  Not a threat, or their goal.  They had to keep moving.

Xue pointed ahead.  One of the lower doors on the ship had broken off.

Han nodded, and they jumped up, one at a time, entering the ship.

They walked through dense, curving hallways, aiming their rifles around them.  It was dark inside, with only the faintest red light creeping in through cracks and holes in the passageways.  So they switched to their night vision eyes.

The inside looked alien, too.  Nothing at all like a normal ship of this size.  It seemed artistic, almost, like every wall and floor had been shaped by some mad sculptor, rather than an engineer.

And the corridors had emptied, save for the dust and snow.  No debris, no clutter or weapons or supplies or skeletons.  This ship died a long, long time ago.

Stay together,” mouthed Han, with his lips.  “Watch each other’s backs.  Report any new Whisper symptoms.

He flipped on his mapping vocations, to sync with his internal atlas and help them keep track of their position.  But given his previous malfunctions, who knew how well that’d work?  Worst case, we can punch our way out.  If they hit the Voidsteel right, and they protected their bodies,  their Joining could still work on it.

For a normal mission, they’d comb a ship like this from the bottom up, making sure it had no surprises for them.

We’re going straight for the center,” said Han.  “No sweeps.  Let’s get this artifact and leave.”  

Nods all around.  The less time they spent here, the better.  They used their mapping programs and intuition as best they could, and moved towards the heart of the ship, turning up and left and right through the dark passageways.

They emerged in a massive chamber, pitch-black and shaped like an egg laid on its side.

Like the rest of the ship, it was empty.  But a door, of sorts, had been unhinged in the center of the room.  A storage locker, embedded in the floor.

Han gestured, and they all approached it.  Han grabbed the heavy door of the locker and lifted it off, easy with his strength.

As one, the four wingtroopers leaned forward and looked inside.

Two brown spheres sat at the bottom.  One the size of an orange, looking like a small coconut, and another one, much larger, the size of a bicycle.  They’d been made of a simple clay, or dried mud, looking like relics from a more primitive culture.

Elaborate patterns and symbols had been carved on the spheres, that Han couldn’t piece together.  It doesn’t look like the Great Scholars’ normal languages.  He couldn’t even make out clear pictograms, or any obvious images.

“Anyone recognize these?” said Xuan.  Shaking heads all around.

Han projected into it, and felt resistance.  Similar to the presence of another Pith, but static, frozen.  It’s not ordinary clay, and it’s not Voidsteel, either.  Some sort of projection was going on.  But with what soul?   Where’s the Pith?  Were these mind-spheres, perhaps, containing the souls of Great Scholars put in stasis?

Han projected one of his commando blades out of its sheath, and tapped the flat of the blade against the larger sphere.  It thumped, a hollow sound.  It’s not a mind-sphere, then.  Not a normal one, at least.  The clay acted as a shell, for something contained inside.

This is what Cao Hui wants.  Beyond a doubt.

Load them up,” said Han.  “Full containment.

They sealed the spheres in airtight bags, in case there was some sort of biohazard in there.  The strongest flexible material they had, in a thick layer surrounding each one.  They loaded the orange-sized sphere into Xuan Heng’s bag.  It was light, almost weightless.  Han projected around the larger one and floated it up next to him.

Time to go,” said Han.  They stepped towards the door where they’d entered.

And Han heard himself scream.

He bent his knees in a combat stance, feeling every millimeter of his body with a Joiner’s heightened awareness.  His mouth hadn’t opened.  His vocal cords hadn’t vibrated.  I didn’t make that noise.

But his scream was echoing around the room, emanating from the mist itself.  A second later, the screams of his squadmates joined them too, echoing from every direction, shattering the silence.  A mirror, imitating their voices.

The fog thumped around them, like a heartbeat.  Faint at first, indiscernible to normal ears.  But it went faster and faster, louder and louder.

Out,” whispered Han, speaking out loud.  “Now.

And then he heard footsteps.  His enhanced hearing picked up the sound of bare feet on metal.  Humans, moving through the distant hallways of the ship.  Slow, walking footsteps.  Getting closer and closer.

Dozens of them.  No, hundreds.  Far away still, but blocking their path towards the exit.  Sealing them in.

Enemies sealed off primary exit,” whispered Han, as the screams quieted around them.  “Go up.  Direct path, maximum speed.”  He made a series of hand signals.  In unison, Tian and Qiu jumped up, sailing a hundred feet into the air, and punched the ceiling of the chamber, their fists wrapped with metal gauntlets.

Voidsteel was stronger than normal metal, and uniquely messed with Piths.  But it wasn’t immune to the laws of physics.

A clang echoed through the room, and a hole tore open in the ceiling.  Tian and Qiu flew up and punched a hole in the ceiling above that, and the ceiling above that.

The footstep sounds didn’t speed up.  They kept walking towards the squad, slow and deliberate.  The fog’s thumping heartbeats grew louder, until it was like an impact, thudding in their ears.

Han and Xuan activated their zero dashes, and flew through the holes after their squadmates, out of the Great Scholars’ dead ship.

They landed on the roof.  The fog swirled around, thumping with its strange heartbeat.

Han couldn’t see far in these conditions, but he could hear.  More footsteps in the jungle below.  Walking towards the clearing, towards the ship.

Then he looked up, at the warped barrier above them.  A misshapen dome of thicker red fog, that they’d pushed through to get in here.  We get through that, and we’re good.  Getting down the rest of the mountain would be easy.

A hand signal, and they all bent their knees.  Red lightning flickered around their leg muscles, and they pushed off, leaping straight up in the air.  With their zero dashes, their bodies accelerated much faster, and projection into their uniforms helped them push through the air resistance.

Then, at the last second, Han barked an order, and they switched off their zero dashes, making their bodies heavier and boosting their momentum to punch through to the outside.

Han’s gun passed through the smoke in front of him.  Then Han slammed into the barrier, bouncing off with a thud.  The other wingtroopers bounced off too, once after the other, the red fog acting like a solid for them.

They fell back to the roof of the ship, flipping back on their zero dashes.  We’re locked in.  This was why nobody had come back from this cloud, even the ones with gas masks.

The footsteps grew closer from below, still walking, still patient, but moving towards the roof.  Inexorable.

Again,” said Han.  “Punch a hole first.

They bent their knees and jumped again.  This time, as they got close, they opened fire with their S-1 Reapers.  Normal rounds and Voidsteel.  Deafening gunshots rang in his ears.  They flung grenades ahead of them too.  The majority of their explosive ordinance.

The bullets went through the thick fog.  The Voidsteel grenades exploded inside the barrier, making swirling patterns in the fractal triangles on its surface.

Then, as they flew towards it, Han and Tian focused on their legs, gathering up all their strength in a flickering storm of red lightning.  Xuan drew a Voidsteel broadsword from the sheathe at his back, and slashed at the barrier dozens of times, his arm moving in a blur.  A second later, Han and Tian kicked it, their bootsoles lined with Voidsteel.  Strikes that would rip holes in concrete bunkers.

To no avail.  They bounced off the barrier again and fell back to the roof.  So physical force won’t be enough.  And neither would Voidsteel, though that did something, at least.

And then, Han’s mask broke.

He sensed the oxygen tube decay and break, along with the exterior of his air tank.  The emergency filters on his face were breaking down too.  Fraying at the edges.  Melting like a pat of butter in boiling acid.

Mask breaking down,” said Han.  Nods all around the group.  It was happening to everyone.  He projected into his gear to hold it together, but it kept breaking down.  Physical force wasn’t enough to keep it intact.

In unison, the four of them sucked in one last breath, and held it.  A more advanced Joiner could use their Piths to make their own oxygen, and sustain themselves forever without breathing.  They didn’t have that – they could last for a while on a single lungful, but sooner or later, they’d have to inhale, or pass out.

The footsteps grew closer.  The fog’s heartbeat grew louder.

Han understood, now, why the enemies were walking, not running.  Why their unseen pursuers didn’t seem eager to chase down the four intruders.

Because they don’t have to.  They could be as slow as they liked.  Because the wingtroopers, for all their training and Voidsteel and pride, could not escape.

Han squinted, and made out another faint shape in the fog, further up the slope.  Too far away to be the source of the footsteps, and too blurry to make out properly.  But the shape was massive.  A vast, inevitable thing, moving in the distance.

That scared him more than the rest put together.

The wingtroopers’ masks broke, completely, and fell off their faces.  They held their breaths, and aimed their Reapers at the torn hole in the roof, ready to fire at whatever crawled out of the ship.

Then Han lowered his rifle.

What?” mouthed Tian.  “What the fuck are you doing?”  The others looked just as confused.

It doesn’t matter what’s coming from the ship,” mouthed Han without letting out his breath.  “Even if we can kill them, we’ll still be stuck here with no exit and no functioning masks.  Eventually, we’ll have to breathe.”  And then they’d be lost.

Horror dawned on the others’ faces, as they processed his words, realizing the truth of them.

Then what the fuck are we supposed to do?” said Tian.  The heartbeat grew louder, a repeating thunderclap, again and again and again.  The footsteps kept walking through the ship, towards the top.

Our bodies didn’t go through the barrier,” said Han.  “But –

Our guns and bullets did,” said Tian.

Han nodded.  “Even the ones that weren’t Voidsteel.”  He stared up at the red dome sealing them in.  “Whatever this thing is, it can block Piths from leaving, but not ordinary matter.  We can’t escape – ”  He floated the sealed clay sphere next to him.  “But these can.”  Shenten’s future.

But there was a Pith-like substance around the edges,” said Qiu.  “It still might bounce off.

Only one way to find out.”  Han pulled the smaller clay sphere out of Xuan’s bag, fitting it in his palm.

Then he wound up his arm and lifted his leg like a pitcher, red lightning flickering around him.  He poured energy into his muscles.  His arm, and his shoulders, and his back and his leg.

Han’s entire body twisted, and he flung the sphere towards the outside of the red dome.  It shot forward and up with overwhelming force, at a speed that would blow through a suit of body armor.

The sphere zipped through the red barrier, slicing a hole in the dense fog, and sailing out into the clear mountain air.  A sliver of warm daylight shone in through the gap.

A fraction of a second later, the hole shut itself, the fog barrier flowing into the gap.  Hope that thing doesn’t break when it lands.

The wingtroopers all looked at each other, communicating with their widening eyes.  Now, Han understood why the presence here hadn’t touched these artifacts, or turned them into triangles.  The artifact repels it.

And if the artifact punches a hole in the barrier, then – 

Han floated the larger sphere in front of him, as wide as a man was tall and as light as a snowflake.  He projected into the sealed bag around it and shot it forward and up, at a diagonal angle towards the barrier.  This way, if his squad emerged and got knocked out, they’d fall outside the sphere, not back inside.

The sphere pushed through the barrier, and a much larger chunk got sliced away from the red fog, wide enough for the four of them to fit through.  For a fraction of a second, daylight flooded in again, before the dome sealed the hole again, faster than before.

Han kept projecting into the sphere, stretching his Pith as far as it could go, and pulled the artifact back into the dome.  It sliced through again, and the daylight appeared again.

But this time, the red fog closed the hole even faster.  This place is adapting to us.  Shifting its tactics, strengthening itself there.

Which means we only have a few more seconds.  Before their window of opportunity slammed shut.

Han gave another set of hand signals, and they bent their legs again, red lightning crackling around their thighs, zero dashes flickering on to drop their bodies’ masses to almost zero.

They jumped in unison, towards the floating artifact at blinding speeds.

Han pushed the artifact through the red barrier, one last time.  Slicing a hole to the outside.

As one, the four wingtroopers shot through the closing tunnel, reaching for the outside.

Han’s head and shoulders made it through the barrier.  Bright, midday light shone down from the sun.

Then the red fog snapped shut around them, squeezing in to fill the gap.  It felt like a massive claw, clenching Han on all sides, squeezing out the life from his flesh.

Han lost sight of the other three.  Red lightning crackled around him, and a headache stabbed into the back of his skull, as he poured energy into his muscles and skin and bones, keeping himself from getting crushed to a pulp.

Han brought the clay sphere towards him, pressing it down on the barrier to slice through it again, to give them more space.

This time, the red fog swirled around the point of contact, but didn’t budge from the sphere.  The artifact didn’t cut through the barrier anymore, repelled just like the humans.  It’s adapted.  The artifact wouldn’t help them anymore.

So as Han struggled and pushed to free his arms, to drag the rest of his body out of the choking fog, he projected into the sphere, and flung it away, down the slope of the mountain.

Even if they didn’t make it, the Shenti people would have a weapon unlike any other.  A tool to break their enemies, if they unlocked its secrets.

Then, Han focused everything on his Joining, freeing one arm and using it to drag himself forward.

It felt like doing a one-armed pushup with no Joining and a car on his back.  Han moved a millimeter, then two.  His chest ached, his lungs ready to burst.  One of his ribs snapped, as he freed his second arm, sending stabbing pain through his chest.  The headache grew, turning his skull into a balloon of agony, ready to pop at any second.

But he moved another millimeter.  Then another millimeter.  I’m making progress, I’m making progress.

His Pith’s energy dropped, though, the reserves running dry.  He dug into all the deepest parts of his will where he stored his desperation.  It’s not going to be enough.

So Han dropped all of his durability vocations, dropped his Ox’s Breath technique, and put everything into his arms, for a single, final shove.

Something snapped in his pelvis, and his leg, but his body shot out of the fog, soaring into the air and to the side.  I’m doing it, I’m doing it, I’m doing it.  A surge of triumph and delirious joy washed over him, overwhelming the screaming pain throughout his body.

Han dropped through the sky, his arms and legs limp, his body not responding.  He didn’t even project into his uniform, his Pith utterly out of energy.

He dropped onto a snowdrift outside the dome, at the edge of a cliff.  His body slid forward, crunching in the white powder, and he stared over the edge of the precipice, through a gap in the clouds below.

The mountain spread out before him.  The Infinite Peak, majestic and perfect.  Pale snow and icy glaciers and the massive waterfall near the bottom, pouring into the glittering ocean.  An entire world, away from the city, away from the madness of the oncoming war.  A quiet sliver of nature.  The tallest mountain in the world, and the most beautiful.

Han exhaled, and breathed out a cloud of red fog.

The crimson mist swirled, forming triangle patterns in the clear air.  My lungs.  With its endurance Joining flipped off, with all his efforts focused on brute force and his mind delirious, his body had acted on its own during that last push, desperate for oxygen.

And Han’s lungs had sucked in a single, deep breath of the mist.

Han looked down.  His pelvis, femur, and calf had been crushed, and were bleeding on the snow.  None of his squadmates had emerged from the hole, which meant they probably hadn’t made it, and had been smashed to jelly, or been forced back inside the dome, where they’d be trapped.

Tian Shui.  Xuan Heng.  Qiu Chun.  His comrades, his friends, who he’d trained and fought alongside for years.  The men and women he cared for more than anyone in the Eight Oceans.  And they were probably dead already.

His lungs inhaled and exhaled again, a slow, relaxed motion.

Han Yong felt great.





Author’s Note:

Hi all! I’ve got some bad news, unfortunately. After having seen doctors, at their advising, I am still taking a temporary break from typing, because of repetitive strain injuries on my tendons and nerves.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to make a speedy recovery and get back to writing. But until then, to avoid causing permanent damage, I’ll be typing very little in the coming weeks. I have somewhat of a backlog remaining, but so I don’t run out, I’ll be temporarily publishing chapters once every two weeks, like before, instead of the usual once a week. Patreon subscribers will still read one chapter ahead of everyone else. In this vein, Episode 15 (titled “The Jump”) will publish on April 26 for patrons.

I apologize for the inconvenience. And thanks for reading.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




If you’re enjoying the story, we’d love a vote on TopWebFiction! (Click the link, then “Boost” in the top right corner)

14-E Imposter Syndrome

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

Mercurial slid open the door, and I stepped into the room, my socks near-silent on the floor mats.  Tasia followed close behind, saying nothing.

The floor felt warm beneath my toes.  Heated.  Sunlight filtered into the room from the far wall, which was made entirely of glass.

The furniture was simple, minimalist.  The only pieces in the room were a low kotatsu table in the center of the floor, complete with a blanket and a heater, and a trio of pillows set around it on the floor.  Two for us, one for her.  A small black box and three shallow white bowls sat on the wooden table.

I projected into the black box, and felt Voidsteel lining inside the smooth wooden shell.  Someone wants to hide what’s inside.

And all of it had been cleaned to perfection.  I couldn’t find a single speck of dirt.  It reminded me of traditional Northern Nekean design, all clean geometries and careful shaping.

The colors, though, looked more Southern.  The mats and wall hangings had been painted pink and yellow and green, bright and vibrant and loud, forming elaborate patterns of flowers and spirals and stars.  Oil lamps shaped like teardrops sat around the edges of the room, unlit during the day.

It looked bright, but rustic.  Simple, but lively.

Tasia looked around, smiling, her eyes still wide.  Girl’s easy to impress.  Though that was probably better than the opposite.

A pool of water made up the other half of the room, stretching from the center to the glass wall on the far side.  Clear, still, without a ripple or a hint of disturbance.  Bright green lotus flowers floated on the surface in concentric circles, unmoving.  The late afternoon sunlight made them appear to glow.

A Nekean woman with dark green hair sat cross-legged on the surface of the pool, facing away from us.  She looked through the glass wall, at the view spread out beneath her.  From here, you could see the whole rest of the hot springs on the slope below, and the waters of Airavata Bay, with the boats traveling in and out, drawing lines across the turquoise expanse.

Like the pool, the woman didn’t move, still as a painting.  She didn’t talk, either, ignoring us or not noticing our entrance.

Izanami.  The Green Lotus.  It had to be.

To the side, a private hot tub sat outside the building at the other end of a jade glass door, steam rising off of the surface.  Trees surrounded it, hiding it from outside view.  So she likes to get luxurious.

Tasia and I sat down on the cushions by the low kotatsu table, because that seemed proper.  I was sure there was some tradition I was forgetting to follow properly.

The two of us waited a minute, respectful and quiet.  But Izanami didn’t say anything, or acknowledge our presence in any way.  Her back expanded and contracted a fraction of an inch, as she inhaled and exhaled.

So I coughed, speaking up.  “Izanami?”

Izanami yelped, startled.  The water broke beneath her, and she fell into the pool with a splash.  Soft waves lapped against the wooden floor, and the perfect circles of lotus flowers scattered in a hundred different directions.

The tranquil atmosphere vanished, as Izanami floundered in the water, swimming to the edge of the pool.  She grabbed the mat at the edge and clambered out onto the floor, dripping wet.  Her perfect green hair clumped, soaked through, and her clothes had been drenched.

I blinked.  “I – “

Izanami stood up, inhaled, and exhaled, making a gesture with her hands.  The water flowed out of her clothes and hair and the mats, drying them all in an instant and sliding back into the pool.  The ripples stopped.  The lotus flowers returned to their four perfect circles.

The room’s serenity returned, as fast as it had vanished.  Izanami lifted a finger and wiped a droplet of water from her light brown cheek, and she looked perfect and pretty again.  Three horizontal green lines had been tattooed across her forehead.  Three Liminals.  Though the woman looked to be in her late twenties, her Pith was far older.

When she dried off, I realized that she wasn’t wearing any traditional clothes.  Her blouse looked normal enough, but she matched them with a pair of green pajama pants, with light purple polka-dots.  She slid on a pair of fuzzy slippers, sat down on the pillow across from us, and floated another wooden box from beneath the table.

“Hi,” she said, her eyes twinkling.  “I am Izanami.  Care for a snack?”  Her voice sounded warm, welcoming, with a hint of excitement underneath, like she’d been waiting her whole life to meet us.

“Yes, please!” said Tasia.

“Sure,” I said, feeling less certain.

Izanami lifted the warm blanket of the kotatsu.  She floated out a plate of garlic bread, setting it in front of Tasia.  Then she floated cocoa powder and milk into the white bowl, mixing and heating them into hot chocolate.  For me, she floated a stream of autumn-colored liquid into my bowl.  Steam rose off of it, and I inhaled.  That smells like spiced cider.

The woman knew our favorite foods.  I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or creeped out.  She mixed another bowl of hot chocolate for herself, adding toasted marshmallows on top of hers and Tasia’s.  And through it all, she left the Voidsteel-lined black box on the table, untouched.

I didn’t touch my drink yet.  “You told your man to spy on us,” I said.  “Then you saved our lives, and brought us halfway across the world.  Why?”

Izanami sipped her hot cocoa, nibbling on one of the marshmallows.  “Because the world is ending,” she said.  “And I think you can help.”

The water is rising.

“We survived the first great drowning,” she said.  “Even if the Great Scholars’ civilization did not.  In large part because enough landmass remained to sustain agriculture and civilization.  But the water is rising again.  And we won’t endure a second cataclysm.  Humanity’s twilight is upon us.”

Tasia nodded, leaning forward and biting into her garlic bread, spilling crumbs onto the smooth wooden table.

“Some people choose to look away,” said Izanami.  “To hide in despair, or apathy, or ignorance.  But we don’t have that luxury.  You have seen things most humans could only dream of.  And I have dreamed of things.  Slithering, empty things, that swallow the stars.”

I gazed past her, at the turquoise surface of the bay, far below.

“We know this isn’t random,” she said.  “We know this won’t go away.  And we know the name of our enemy.”

Egress,” said Tasia.

My shoulders tensed, and I threw an illusion over Izanami to hide that reaction.  “Don’t blurt stuff out,” I said to Tasia with an auditory illusion.  “Don’t reveal what we know.

“You’re well-informed,” said Izanami.  “A conspiracy within Paragon Academy, that threatens our very existence.”

“So you know about Egress,” I said.  “And you want to protect yourself?”

Izanami shook her head.  “Mercurial told you about the new law.”

I nodded.

“Until greater techniques are developed, mass-produced bodies will age much faster than usual.  A different, but not dissimilar process to the one that happened to you over the last ten years.”

So there’s the catch.  Countless people who needed replacement bodies would get them.  But they would get grey hair, wrinkles, and weaken faster than their normal colleagues, unless they got lucky enough to win the expensive kind.

“Mercurial also took you to a celebration in the town of Kamishoto.  Tell me, what did you see?”

Tasia smiled.  “Dancers, and music, and an ice sculpture.  And food carts.  And Mercurial, wearing a mask.  Doesn’t his Vocation break some laws of projection?  I tried asking him about it a few times, but he just smiled at me.  Is that real Voidsteel?  Or is it something mimicking the effects, using a combination of Praxis and Joining vocations?  I’d love to talk to him and find out.”

“Mercurial’s abilities are, for the present, confidential.“  Izanami didn’t smile back.  “Did you see anything else in the town?”

I shrugged.  Tasia shook her head, confused.

“The sea,” she said.  “Kamishoto sits on the edge of the ocean, less than a foot above sea level.  The rest of the Neke Islands aren’t much better.  We sit lower than any other of the Four Domains.”  She finished her bowl of hot chocolate, and exhaled.  “The world is drowning.  But we will drown first.”

“That doesn’t answer my question,” I said.

“I have no allegiance to governments,” said Izanami.  “Or money.  Or myself.  I am an unimportant vessel.”  She gestured behind her, at the bathhouse on the slope below.  “Like Kokina To, I belong to the Nekean people.”

She wants the Lavender Book.  That had to be it.  She wanted that information, that power for herself.  She had no other reason to meet people this low on the food chain.  And the book’s contents were tied closely to the rising water.

“Let’s assume I believe you,” I said, taking a sip of spiced cider.  “What do we have to do with it?”

“You have the Lavender Book,” said Izanami.

I choked on my cider, coughing.  She said it up front.

“I would appreciate a copy,” she said.

“It’s useless,” I said.  “No one on the planet can read it.  Egress installed an unbreakable defense mechanism on the information itself.  It’s been cut out of reality.”

“Yes,” she said, nodding.  “Just like the Spirit Block.”

She came to the same conclusions as us.  And fast.  Maybe she knew it already.

“Have you considered that the effects blocking The 99 Precepts and the Lavender Book are not just similar, but the same?”

“It crossed my mind,” said Tasia.

“It’s impossible to know for certain,” said Izanami.  “But the Spirit Block took immense effort.”

“Yes,” said Tasia.  “Headmaster Tau was the greatest projector in the Eight Oceans.  And he had the benefit of the Synapse.”

“Yes.”  Izanami made herself another cup of hot chocolate.  “Official records do list him as the progenitor of the Spirit Block.  Official records, at least.”  She thinks someone else may have been involved.  “What would be easier?  Pulling off the impossible twice?  Or casting a wider net the first time?”

Tasia’s eyes widened.  “So you’re saying, if we want to read the Lavender Book – “

“Then we need to undo the Spirit Block,” Izanami said.  “Rewrite reality and let the Shenti’s philosophy back into the world.”

“But the Spirit Block is necessary,” I said.  “I hold no love for Paragon, but without their intervention, Cao Hui’s Empire would have rolled over the world and thrown us all in redemption camps.”

“Indeed.”  Izanami bowed her head, in the faintest of nods.  “We do not need to change all of it.  Given what I know, it may be possible for just a handful of people to see through the veil of altered reality.  Not enough to bring the Black Tortoise’s full strength back, but enough to uncover the truth of Egress, and stop them.”

Sounds too good to be true.  And Izanami probably wouldn’t hesitate to lie, if it meant achieving her goals.

“And you want us to work for you.”

“Work with me, indeed.  I am not important enough to have a group such as yours on my payroll.”

“So why should we work with you?” I said.  “Trust is hard to come by these days.  Why do you deserve ours?”

I didn’t feel quite as suspicious as Hira, but all this niceness worried me.  Something had to go wrong, sooner or later.

“Because,” said Izanami.  “I know where they’re keeping your friend, Jun Kuang.  And I can help you save him.”

Like Mercurial mentioned.  She could be lying again.  But she could be telling the truth, and that possibility felt even more dangerous.

“Please,” said Tasia, her voice urgent.  “Can you tell us now?  He might be getting tortured right now.  Every day that passes, Cao Hui may decide to execute him.”  Especially if he keeps up his pacifism.

Izanami shook her head.  “I don’t believe so.  The Shenti captured him for his talents, and the man is rather frail in his current body.”  Hira said the same thing.

“Boy,” I said.  “He’s just a boy.”  In an old man’s body.  As long as the Shenti didn’t swap him out, which was unlikely, but possible.  “And what if he refuses to use his talents?  What then?”  I clenched my fists.  “What’s to stop Cao Hui from killing him in a fit of rage?”

“My apologies.”  Izanami bowed her head, regretful.  “But even with my help, you cannot save him.  Not yet.  His prison is too well-protected.”

That narrows it down.  But not by much.  Shenten had no shortage of fortresses and bunkers, many of which weren’t known by the public.

“If I told you your friend’s location,” said Izanami.  “You would feel obligated to go there right now, with a very low chance of success, even if I provided you with forces of my own.”

“Then how would you save him?” I said.  “If we do everything you want?”  If this isn’t just some hollow promise.  Like Isaac Brin’s shitty salary.

“The Principality has the largest fleet in the Eight Oceans.  And the largest army.  They both exceed Shenten’s,” said Izanami.  “By a significant margin, even after Commonplace’s coup attempt.  As does their industrial reach.  It will take time, but they will push into the country, and draw off Shenti defenders.  That will present an opportunity for your friend’s rescue.”

“We don’t need an opportunity,” I said, willing myself to believe it.  “Hira and I have some experience with infiltration.  We can manage.”

“I do not wish to impugn your skills,” said Izanami.  “Which I cannot deny.  But if you go now, and you fail, then your friend has no chance of survival.”

My throat tightened.  She has a point.  We’d gotten our asses kicked plenty of times last year, too.  And I’d made my fair share of stubborn, thickheaded choices.

Izanami bowed her head, her voice pained.  “I’m sorry.  But I cannot tell you Jun Kuang’s location until the war has progressed.  I believe that is his best chance at survival.  And I believe that Queen Sulphur is a valuable asset for civilization.  We should not lose you.”

And it forces us under your thumb.  She sounded so certain, so pained, so genuinely concerned for us and Jun.  So certain that I almost believed her.  A new body.  All this money, all this power, and I’m still depending on others.

If we got Hira up here, we could just make Izanami think of the details, then pull them from her head.  But Hira wasn’t allowed up here.  Starting to understand why.  And with her in two prison bodies, sneaking her in range would be tough.  I hadn’t seen any obvious defenses in the hot springs, which felt scarier, if anything.  Not even proper Whisper-sec, to verify our identities and autonomy.  It means they’re well-hidden.

“Alright,” I said.  “Let’s say I go along with this.  Why us?”  Going off of Mercurial, Izanami had plenty of deadly agents at her beck and call.  “We’re not anything special.”

Izanami shook her head, with a graceful smile.  “I respectfully disagree.  With only a year in the field, your group has shown tremendous talent for subterfuge.  Your work under Isaac Brin.  Your successful escape from Guardians, and your operations against Commonplace.”

I looked away on that last one, though my illusions hid my movement.  I helped Paragon demolish them.  A repulsive act.

“I believe you are undervalued,” said Izanami.  “You’ve altered the course of history several times in the Principality, all while you’ve had to juggle assistant responsibilities, schoolwork, a decaying body, and each other.”  She looked straight at me.  “And you emerged successful, and on the right side.  Despite your mistakes.  Despite everything.  I admire you.”

The words made my heart swell.  She’s flattering you.  But flattery still worked, even when you recognized it.  

“We were successful butchers,” I said.  “For the very people we’re both fighting now.”  I’d shot people, used illusions to make people shoot their friends.  I’d destroyed a revolution, sicced half the country on Shenti citizens with a single speech, and helped start a war.

I’d be insane to feel good about myself.

I glanced at Tasia, and thought about what she’d said on top of the submarine.  Are we doomed to work for monsters our whole lives?  Chasing around the ocean from one complicit act to another, stubborn and manipulated and hollow.

“You have the location of our friend, and you’re not giving it to us,” I said.  “That’s not quite a hostage, but it’s not the act of a friend, either.  So I’ll ask you again.  Why should we trust you?

I didn’t expect her to reveal much on the surface, but her answer might let some information slip.  And Izanami would have been suspicious if I didn’t act this way.

And ultimately, this was different from Isaac Brin.  I wasn’t bleeding out on a boat.  If I wanted to, I could say fuck off in a heartbeat, and leave.

“Because of the big picture,” said Izanami.  She stood up and walked to the other side of the room, onto the surface of the pool, sliding off her slippers.  Her bare feet didn’t even make ripples.

I gazed where she gazed.  Out at the waters of Airavata Bay.  And beyond, towards the edge of the ocean.

“The water is rising,” said Izanami.  “And no one else cares.  No one else with power.  People imagine it’s someone else’s problem, or focus on their own interests, or pretend they’re immune.”

Death happens to other people.  An Ilaquan saying that Hira had passed to us once.  And even if people saw their own death, they didn’t imagine it could happen to their civilization.  They didn’t think that the status quo could shatter like a glass under heat.  Though maybe some in the Principality thought differently, after seeing a conflict almost rip the country apart.

“I don’t want immediate political goals, like Maxine Clive,” said Izanami, gazing out of the jade glass wall.  “Or revenge, like Grace Acworth, or the Shenti.”

She turned back to us, folding her hands behind her.  The sunlight caught her from behind, turning her into a silhouette.

And even in her polka-dot pajamas, the woman looked regal for a moment.  Invincible.

“I intend to save humanity,” she said.

Tasia leaned forward.

“And I share many of your ambitions, Tasia,” said Izanami.  “Null Particles can be defeated.  The Great Scholars’ secrets can be unlocked.  You have committed great offenses against your sister, but she can be saved.”

Trying to pull Tasia into orbit.  The girl had less experience with subterfuge, so it just might work on her.  And she knows so much about her.  The woman had to be a Praxis Specialist of some sort.

“Follow the wrong path, and you will be forgotten,” said Izanami.  “But follow the right path, and you can be renowned as the hero who led our civilization out of a barbaric age.  Just like your namesake.  You can become an Exemplar, and keep the souls of your loved ones safe.”  My mind flashed to Kaplen.

Tasia moved her hands into her lap, and hunched her shoulders, making herself small.  Then her chin moved down and up, in the faintest nod.

“Moreover, I am not Isaac Brin,” said Izanami.  “You are not beholden to me.  I will give you information and allies, and you can pursue leads on the enemy at your own pace.  Most of my agents are tied up here and in Ilaqua, or on other leads.  But when the time comes, I will provide help to rescue your friend.”  She smiled.  “Jun Kuang is also a valuable asset.”

“Even if he doesn’t make bombs anymore?” I said.


“Then Jun Kuang is still a valuable asset.”  She leaned forward, reaching under the blanket.  “As a gesture of good faith, I have three gifts for you.  First:”  She handed me an envelope, and I peeled it open.

Money papers.  Detailing a freshly opened account at Jogalekar Bank, a Nekean bank with branches all over the Eight Oceans.

Tasia looked over my shoulder, reading them.  Then her eyes widened.  I followed her gaze, and gaped.

Total Value: £1,000,000

“I used Principian pounds, since it’s still the most popular international currency,” said Izanami.  “The account is yours.  No strings attached.”

After assimilating Tunnel Vision’s mob, we had about twice this sum in the bank, if I recalled correctly.  But still, she was giving this to us.  For free.

Just a few months ago, I’d been scrabbling for tiny fractions of this sum.  And she’s just throwing it away.  It meant the woman was rich.  Unimaginably rich.

I squinted at Izanami, suspicion rising in my gut.  “Seriously?” I said.  “Even if we don’t work for you, you want to give away a million pounds?”

“We have similar goals,” said Izanami.  “Even if you choose a different path, it benefits us all if you have the resources you need.”

Next, she extended her palm to the right and floated over a wooden box from a closet.  She spread her fingers, and the sides of the box came off, stacking in a neat pile on the matted floor.

Inside, a black metal contraption drifted into Izanami’s palm.  It looked like a typewriter, but thicker, longer, with a line of feeding tape instead of a roller for paper.  Several wheels with numbers sat on the top, reminding me of a bike lock.

“This,” said Izanami.  “Is a Paradox Machine.  The Shenti keep them on their submarines and ships, and wire them with explosives to make sure they’re never captured.  The Principality would pay tens of millions for one of these.”

“A code machine,” breathed Tasia, leaning her head to examine it from every angle.

Izanami nodded.  “You can use it to decrypt long-range Shenti communications.  No matter where you go in this war, it should help keep you and your submarine safe.  From the Shenti, at least.”

Another valuable treasure.  Given for free.  Izanami had almost definitely made copies of this, but if we got caught by the Principality, then the decision could have dire consequences.

“And the third gift?” I said.

“Before that,” she said.  “An explanation.  My first bit of information for you.  My sources indicate that the Black Tortoise has been studying the Spirit Block in Shenten’s former Great Library.”

“Former?” said Tasia.

Izanami nodded.  “When Cao Hui first came to power, he had most of the books moved to another location.  He believed that the old, traditional library was too hard to defend in a modern war.  But it’s still remote enough, so he’s been using it to crack open the Spirit Block.  Or, trying, at least.”

“That’s all you know?” I said.  “And you want us to break in.”

“It’s a potential lead,” said Izanami.  “One of many.  If you don’t like what you find, or don’t wish to work with me afterwards, then we can go our separate ways with respect.  And afterwards, you can give me a copy of your Lavender Book.”  She spread a map of Shenten across the table, pointing.  “It’s in the southernmost peak of the Yachi Mountains, near the coast.”  She looked at me, her eyes twinkling.  “It’s also the home of a rare species of butterfly.  The Black Sulphur.”

“Like the Queen Sulphur?” said Tasia.

“A distant cousin.  They’ve achieved greater success by blending into the darkness.  Achieving stealth at night so they can eat in peace.  A good example to follow.”

“I don’t understand,” said Tasia.  “Is the intel the gift?”

Izanami shook her head, pointing at the map again.  “Shenti naval defenses are very much outclassed by the Principality’s, but they still patrol the waters of the continent.  While they do, your submarine cannot approach the library safely.  I know projectors who can nullify sonar, but all of them are occupied for the moment.”

Great.  Out of our league again.  Forced to conform to someone else’s schedule.  It sounds plausible.  But Tunnel Vision didn’t have many agents in Shenten, so it was hard to confirm one way or the other.

“Fear not,” said Izanami.  “The Principality will attack in a few days, and in approximately a week, I expect the defenses there to open up, as the Black Tortoise responds.”  She folded her hands on the table.  “But I recommend waiting at least a few days before setting out in your submersible.”

“I’d like to confirm this information for myself,” I said.  My handful of remaining mob connections might have something to back up this data.

“Of course,” said Izanami.

“Where are we going to wait?” said Tasia.

“The sub, probably,” I said.  More cramped bunk bed living.  But we would be safe, there, barring anything weird from the crew.

Izanami beamed at us, and handed me a slip of hardened paper.

Kokina To
Spa Coupon
One Weekend with Suite and Amenities
Bearer and up to 3 Guests

I blinked, confused for a moment.  This wasn’t quite what I expected.

Tasia looked at the coupon, then looked at me.  “Please?”  She clasped my hand, her eyes wide like a puppy’s.  “Please please please?”

The sub is safer,” I said with illusions.  “We don’t know Izanami.  She could have ulterior motives for having us stay a few days.

“I don’t want to eat the same three meals and sleep in a tiny bunk bed and hit my head on the same pipe another fifty times.”

You’re going to be doing it as soon as we leave,” I said.  “I don’t like it either, but we’re gonna be spending a lot of time in that sub.

“Exactly,” said Tasia.  “Which is why we need to get as many good times in as possible.”

The bathhouse is open to the public.  And if Izanami had a nasty Whisper Vocation we hadn’t noticed, a few extra days probably wouldn’t make much of a difference.

I nodded, and Tasia’s freckly face lit up.  “Hira won’t be pleased about this.”

________________________________________

“God damn it,” growled Right-Hira.  “Why is this so comfortable?”

He’d draped himself half-naked on a massage table.  A Nekean projector stood above him, kneading his back with spheres of warm water.

Such a mundane use for a projector.  The Yokusei Pact didn’t limit projectors if they weren’t trained in combat, or anything with sufficient power.  Maybe that’s what this is.  It could be a case of illegal projection, but most countries avoided that at a large scale.  Like Paragon, the other three domains knew that fewer projectors were easier to control.  Less likely to cause chaos and destruction to derail their societies.  Even Tunnel Vision’s mob had limited its projectors.

For ancient projector societies, elitism was about self-preservation.  Survival.

“Apologies,” said the masseuse.  “Would you like me to stop?”

“Fuck you,” said Right-Hira.  “Keep going.”

I treaded the warm water of a hot spring around me, watching the proceedings through a thin veil of steam.  A useful new skill to practice, in case my water projection ran out of energy.  The last time that happened, I’d almost drowned while going after Lyna Wethers.

But bathing here also felt relaxing.  I could soak in the minerals and the heat, and gaze out over the spectacular view.  The rest of the bathhouse on the slope below us.  The snowy mountain peak high above.  And the blue-green waters of Airavata Bay.

Far to the north, Principian warships were steaming towards Shenten.  The largest war in a decade was about to begin.  In less than seven days, I would dive in head-first.

But here, now, the water was warm and the world was quiet.  I could breathe, for a moment, and enjoy life.

“What’s the matter?” said Tasia to Right-Hira.  She sat next to him in a lounge chair, getting a mani-pedi in Wes’ body with a face mask draped over her.  Her finger lifted, and a chicken skewer floated off of a plate next to her, and into her mouth.  “It’s all free.”  Left-Hira had gone off to the bathroom.

“You’re all letting your guards down,” said Hira.  “That Izanami bitch is probably listening in to this conversation, finishing her psych profiles on us.  Or they’re hijacking us over time, and they’re going to trap us here forever.”

“You’re being awfully loud about it,” said Tasia, nibbling on a skewer.

“Subterfuge would be pointless,” said Hira.  “She already knows I know.  There’s always something shitty under the surface of nice things like this.  She’s probably grinding kittens into sausages under the mountain or something.  Where none of us are looking.”

Tasia recoiled.  “That’s a horrible image.  Why would you say that?  And why do you dislike Nekeans so much?”

Hira snorted.  “Read a history book.  During the Shenti War, every free nation joined forces and fought the Black Tortoise’s invasion.  But the Neke stayed out of it.  They sacrificed nothing, and got to reap all the rewards.  And now, they’re trying to steal from Ilaqua, too.”

“You know Ana’s a quarter Nekean, right?”

“She wasn’t born there,” said Hira.  “It’s different.”

The masseuse finished his massage and walked away.  Tasia’s pedicure person did the same a few seconds later.

Right-Hira lay on the massage table, content.  “But I can manage,” he said.  “Because I know how to make this vacation bearable.”

Uh oh.

He pointed, and Tasia and I glanced down the slope, squinting.

Left-Hira darted between bushes at the bottom of the mountain, near the locker room where we’d stored all our stuff.  She ran from cover to cover, staying hidden from the staff members nearby.  When she got close enough, she stood up and walked down the stone steps to the shower rooms.  She wore a stolen staff uniform and a medallion, disguising herself as a bath attendant.

“Hira,” I said, deflating in the hot pool.  “Please don’t tell me you’re taking your weapons back.”

“Weapons?”  Right-Hira looked at me like I’d gone mad.  “No, I’m taking my fucking hookah back.  The staff uniform gets me through the door, and pretending to take a shower gets me the rest of the way.  I’m going to grab it right from under their noses.  And then, I’m going to smoke it as much as I goddamn please.”

Left-Hira picked the lock, then walked through the door, casual, and shut it behind her.

“Hira,” said Tasia.  “Have you ever considered that you maybe smoke too much?”

“That’s what my father said,” said Right-Hira.  He grabbed one of Tasia’s chicken skewers and shoved it down his throat.  “I used to smoke only a few times a year.  Special occasions.  Then my father ran this whole anti-smoking health campaign for Ilaqua.  Big expensive government marketing, arguing that smoking causes premature aging and cancer.”

Tasia looked confused.  “But…smoking does cause premature aging and cancer.  And you can’t even swap bodies.”

“Now,” said Hira.  “Almost no one in Ilaqua smokes.  And my father bragged about his success to me.”  He shrugged.  “So I said fuck you, and started doing it all the time.”

“You took up an entire smoking habit,” said Tasia.  “just to anger your father?”

“Yeah,” said Right-Hira.  “Fuck him.”

“Sometimes, people confuse me,” said Tasia.

“I hate any bastard that thinks they can control people and tell them what to do,” said Right-Hira.  “My father’s a piece of shit when he does it, and so is this ‘Izanami’ you met.”  He gestured down the mountain.  “And now, I’m about to slip through her pathetic security in three, two – “

Something shattered below.  Left-Hira burst through a window on the third floor of the entrance building, her hair wet.

She projected into the white towel wrapped around her, her only clothes, and lowered herself, rolling on the grass below.  A mud mask sat on her face, and cucumbers on her eyes, part of some makeshift disguise.  Water dripped from her soaked hair.

Left-Hira swallowed the cucumbers, blinked, and sprinted up the slope, clutching her miniature purple hookah in her fist.  A pair of security guards burst out of a door behind her and sprinted after her.

“Alright,” said Right-Hira.  “That was a bit harder than I expected.”

“Hira,” I said.  “What did you do?”  Neither of the guards carried weapons, so it didn’t look too serious, at least.

“Some mild property damage,” said Right-Hira, concentrating on the chase, providing a vantage point for his other body.  “No one got hurt.”  He grimaced.  “God damn it.”

Left-Hira ran through a restaurant below, knocking over tables full of food and vases full of perfectly arranged flowers.  The guards leapt over the obstacles, undeterred, and kept sprinting after her.

The guests at the restaurant recoiled from Left-Hira’s antics, their faces a mixture of surprise and horror.  A Nekean woman averted her gaze, mortified.  A pretty Ilaquan man glared at her with disapproval.  And the two guards kept chasing her, sprinting fast enough to get closer and closer.

As the guards drew close, stretching their hands to her, Left-Hira changed course, darting to the side.  As one of them reached out his hand to grab her, she jumped, projecting herself up and forward with her towel.

She did a front flip midair, for flourish more than anything, and landed on the roof of one of the slanted wooden elevators as it pulled itself up through the hot springs.  In seconds, she rose out of the guard’s reach.

The guards still raced after her, splitting up in different paths.  One of them sprinted up staircases, through the pedestrian route up the mountain.  The other one jumped off a bridge, and appeared to swim up one of the waterfalls.  A water projector.  It looked a bit ridiculous.

“Hira,” said Tasia.  “I’m trying to have a vacation before all of us dive into a war zone.”

“So am I,” said Right-Hira.

Left-Hira jumped off the elevator, and climbed up a set of pipes and some hanging vines on a wall beside us.  The guards kept sprinting after her, getting closer.

Then, Left-Hira sprinted past our group, her wet hair streaming behind her.

“You,” said Tasia.  “Have a very strange idea of – “

While neither of the guards could see, Left-Hira flicked her wrist to the side, and tossed Tasia her hookah.

Tasia caught it, stunned.  She blinked, staring at it, unsure of what to do.  Left-Hira sprinted away, a diversion.

The guards came into view, and I threw a visual illusion over them, making it seem like Hira still held the hookah.

Then, because I felt nice, I made it look like Left-Hira was running in the opposite direction, up a different path through the hot springs.

The guards ran in the wrong direction, and the real Left-Hira jumped down a waterfall, then disappeared in a cloud of hot steam from a pool.  A successful escape.

Below, men and women stood up from their ruined meals, among the knocked-over tables and shattered vases.  They looked irritated.

Right-Hira leaned over and plucked the hookah from Tasia’s hands.  “Is anyone looking?”

Tasia stuttered, her thoughts still muddled.

I glanced around.  “Don’t think so.”

Right-Hira unfolded the hookah, lit it, and started puffing on it, letting out a relaxed breath.  “Ah,” he said.  “Better.”

“I like this place,” said Tasia.  “If they find you smoking, they’re going to kick us out.  I don’t want a lifetime ban.”

“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” said Hira.  “I’ve been lifetime banned from three separate fast food chains.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “Both your bodies?”

Hira nodded.  “And calm your tits, Tasia.  I’m sure that pajama woman will cut us special treatment now that we’re helping her save the world.”  He exhaled, breathing out a cloud of cherry-scented smoke.  “And besides, I wore a mud mask, so they didn’t see my face.  I’m not going to get caught.”

Mercurial bowed to Right-Hira from behind his chair.  I jumped.  Where did he come from?

He extended a slip of paper to Hira.  “Your bill,” he said.  “For the damages.”

Right-Hira snatched it and looked over it, furious.  “Lund pe chadh,” he growled.  Then he crumpled it into a ball and tossed it to me.  I caught it, unfolded it, and read it.  A manageable number, especially with the small fortune Izanami had just added to our own.  I nodded at Hira.

“And,” Mercurial said, regretful.  “I must ask for you to stop smoking if you want your party to remain on the premises.”

Right-Hira glanced at Tasia, who pleaded at him with her eyes.

He sighed, let out one last puff, and handed the hookah back to Mercurial.  Mercurial, in response, handed him a box filled with sealed packets.  “In the interim,” he said.  “We can provide guests with these nicotine patches.”

Right-Hira projected into a dozen of them, ripped them open in unison, and slapped them all over his skin, leaning back on the chair.

Tasia rushed over to Hira and hugged him.  “Thanks,” she said.

“Don’t mention it,” said Right-Hira.

“I knew you had it in you,” said Tasia.

“No, I mean, literally don’t mention it again.”

Tasia broke off from Hira, and smiled.  “It’s going to be a great weekend.”

________________________________________

Near the end of the weekend, Izanami and Mercurial gave us more details on our target, including blueprints of the former Great Library, a map of the city nearby, and an overview of what the local defenses might look like.  Plus, a few other details, which made the mission seem far more terrifying than I’d first thought.

“It ought to be pared down a bit,” said Mercurial.  “Since they moved a lot of the books.  But it’s still a Great Library.”

I nodded.  Maxine Clive and Grace Acworth had planned for years just to get into Paragon’s library, and they’d barely managed that.

“Normally,” said Mercurial.  “This location wouldn’t be notable.  But recently, the Black Tortoise injected a bunch of money into it, and shipped over some of his few pneumatologists.”

“Great,” said Right-Hira, still covered in nicotine patches.  “So we might find nothing there.”

“There are many leads,” said Mercurial.  “You’re just exploring one of them.”

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” I grumbled.  “Why didn’t she give us this briefing at the start of the weekend?”

“Maybe she wanted us to have a proper vacation,” said Tasia.

Mercurial nodded, smiling.  Hira’s right.  We couldn’t trust these people.

“Izanami would also like to request that I join you on this journey.”

Hira scowled with both bodies.

“I will not supersede your authority, or order you around.  Queen Sulphur has the prerogative.”

He doesn’t say he’ll follow our orders, either.  A free agent, then.  Powerful, but someone who could also throw a wrench into our plans.  And Izanami didn’t give us her business card.  Which meant she didn’t trust us fully.  Not yet.

“And if we finish the mission and decide we don’t work well together?” I said.

“Then we can go our separate ways,” said Mercurial.  “Though we would still like a copy of the Lavender Book.”  If things go bad, he’ll grab all our books and run.

He’s powerful,” I said to the group, with illusions.  “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this, but he’ll probably be a valuable asset.”  And we couldn’t do everything on our own.  Without the Rose Titan, we would have died on Attlelan Island.  Without Chimera Squad at Paragon, we would have gotten shot a hundred times.  Without Mercurial, our first Vice-Captain would have suffocated me.

Hira grumbled, and we debated the issue in private.  After mulling it over for another few hours, Hira agreed to bring Mercurial along, a new light glimmering in her eyes.

We took Mercurial’s boat out to the submarine, floating us for a rendezvous at night, a distance out from the entrance of Airavata Bay.  Away from any civilian ships or Nekean naval defenses that might spot us.

Mercurial jumped onto the surface of the sub, and climbed down the ladder into the ship, following us.  Cardamom padded up next to him and rubbed his leg.

Vice-Captain Byfield, the new woman in charge, approached me, her hands folded behind her back.  “Your orders, ma’am?”

I handed her Izanami’s folded-up map, with the course corrections.  We’re not ready.  But it was time anyway.

“Alright,” I said.  “Take us into Shenten.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




If you’re enjoying the story, we’d love a vote on TopWebFiction! (Click the link, then “Boost” in the top right corner)

14-D Imposter Syndrome

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

The Voidsteel man bowed to me.  “Anabelle Gage,” he said, in a light Nekean accent.  “A pleasure to meet you.”

I blinked at him, kneeling on the metal floor of the submarine, my lungs pumping, catching my breath after the Vice-Captain’s suffocating trap.  A headache throbbed in the back of my skull, and I massaged my temples, coughing.

The red lights stopped flashing overhead.  The alarm went silent.

The Nekean man extended a hand to me, made of flowing, liquid Voidsteel.  No, it can’t be Voidsteel.  It had to be something else.  A mundane metal colored green, or some other compound I didn’t know about.  Voidsteel projection is impossible.

I took his hand, cold and smooth against my skin.  He pulled me up, and I stretched my Pith forward, to throw an illusion on him and disguise my position.

My soul bounced off of his skull.  His Pith didn’t feel like the normal tree of connections occupying a body.  It felt like a blob, in the shape of a man.  Foreign.  Blocking me out.

That’s really Voidsteel.  Which meant I couldn’t use illusions on him.

I leaned against the wall, taking sharp, rapid breaths as the air cleared.  And I glanced at Hira’s trench shotgun, lying on the floor next to the Vice-Captain’s corpse.  But the gun didn’t help him against this person.  And would Voidsteel bullets even work on a person made of Voidsteel?

No, unless some backup came, I was at this man’s mercy.

He just saved your life.  And he hadn’t reported me to Paragon.  But that didn’t make him a friend.

“Please forgive me,” said the Voidsteel man.  “For the violent introduction, and for breaking into your submarine.  But I had to ensure your safety.”  He glanced down at the corpse by my feet.  “I’m sure you knew this, but your Vice-Captain, Wil Glenham, was conspiring with four other crew members to steal this vessel and sell it to the Droll Corsairs.”  He indicated his head to two other corpses down the hall.  “Two others tried to stop him, not realizing he had a gun.”

Four other conspirators?  I’d known about Glenham, but not the rest.  And the Droll Corsairs made sense.  The private military company would pay good money for a ship like this, and wouldn’t ask too many questions about where it came from.

Obvious.  So obvious.  I’d missed it.  And Hira had missed it, despite her assurances.  We need to do better.  Or we wouldn’t last a week in Shenten.

“Are you alright?” said the metal man.

I nodded, the headache fading with every breath I took.  “You were following me,” I wheezed.  “Since I became Tunnel Vision, you’ve been following me.”  I’d noticed something was amiss – a glint of metal in the distance, but I hadn’t actually spotted him, or caught him.  I’m so fucking new at this.

The metal man nodded.  “Another transgression I must apologize for.  I wished to approach you, but needed to ensure your identity and character first.  When I discovered this plot against you, I wished to assemble proof, and approach you with it.  But I was forced to move my schedule up.  The Pyre Witch has not been friendly to us in the past.  But you are not Grace Acworth.”

They know a lot about me.  And they’d noticed the Vice-Captain’s betrayal, when Hira and Tasia and I had all missed it.  “Why didn’t she like you?”

“We shared similar goals,” he said.  “But we found her methods crude.  And for her part, she saw us as weak.”

I stared at his flat metal eyes.  “And who is ‘we’?”

He bowed again to me, placing his hand on the chest of his green tunic.  “You may call me Mercurial.  I’m a representative of Izanami, the Green Lotus.”

Who?  “I’ve never heard of an ‘Izanami’ before.”

“By intention,” Mercurial said.  “She prefers to keep her activities quiet.”

But that name.  And his accent.  “She’s Nekean?”  I said.

He nodded.  “Izanami is an independent benefactor, seeking to ensure the future for the Neke Islands.”

“I’m half a world away,” I said.  “What could the Neke Islands possibly have to do with me?”

Mercurial held up his palm, and it swirled, images getting etched onto its liquid surface.

Triangles.  Triangles within triangles, branching off in three directions and getting smaller and smaller in an infinite fractal.  Akhara’s Triangle.  It reminded me of that army of Oracle Snakes, floating in the dark sky over the ocean.

The hallway felt colder.

“If we don’t defeat the enemy,” said Mercurial.  “The future drowns.  For everyone in the Eight Oceans.”

He knows something.  About the snakes, or the Egress conspiracy, or ‘Broken Gods’.  “What do you know?” I said.

“Not much,” he said.  “But she knows more.  Maybe enough to unlock that purple book of yours.”

My throat clenched.  He knows about the Lavender Book.

“And,” he said.  “She knows how to save your friend.  Jun Kuang.”

My breath quickened again, though the air had cleared, now.  “You want something from us.”  The Lavender Book, or our Vocations, or something.

“I do not ask for your allegiance,” said Mercurial.  “Or your money.  Or even the book itself, wherever you have hidden it.”

So he doesn’t know everything.  Or he knew, and was pretending not to.

Footsteps rang from the staircase.  Hira and Tasia emerged and rushed down the hall.  Hira aimed his sniper rifle and a pistol at Mercurial with his bodies, and Tasia held crackling orbs of blue-purple lightning in her fists.  Both ready to fight.

Mercurial bowed to both of them.  “Tasia Holcot.  Hira Kahlin.  If I had to guess, that glorious display of fireworks outside was your doing.”

Left-Hira stuck a hand in her pocket.  Then she shot Mercurial in the leg, the gunshot deafening in the tight metal corridor.  I flinched.

The bullet bounced off his liquid metal skin.  He ignored it.  “A pleasure to meet you both.”

“The fuck?” said Left-Hira.  “Ana, did you hire another crazy misfit?”

Tasia leaned forward, her eyes wide.  “Is he made of Voidsteel?”  She looked at his eyes.  “Are you a robot, sir?”

“Can I shoot him?” said Right-Hira.  “Will grenades work, at least?”

I exchanged basic passwords with the two of them.  “He saved my life,” I said, indicating my head to the bodies.  “We’ve got some talking to do.”

________________________________________

Mercurial explained everything again.  After a few minutes of talking, Hira lowered her guns.

“We can’t trust him,” Right-Hira said.  “Mysterious types always have some nasty shit up their sleeve.  We don’t know this ‘Izanami’’s Vocation.  A few hits with the right Whisper specialist, and we’ll all be puppets.”

“I assure you,” said Mercurial.  “My superior is not a Whisper specialist.”

“Can you tell us her Vocation?” said Left-Hira.  “Assuming she’s not a Humdrum, of course.”

Mercurial closed his metal eyes.  “I am not at liberty to disclose that.”

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “That’s what I thought.  He saved your life to get in your pants, Ana.  He’s trying to warm us up to his boss.”

“Maybe,” said Tasia.  “But that’s not always bad.”

“Nekeans are slippery,” said Hira, glaring at Mercurial.  “They’ll act polite and sweet while they ram a knife into your ass.”

But we don’t have any leads,” I said with auditory illusions.  I’d almost jumped into a death portal to get one.

Tasia nodded.

If we go into Shenten right now, we don’t even know where we’d land.  We have no idea where to start.  And no way to resupply.

“You were the one who pushed us to leave sooner,” said Left-Hira.

Because of the war.  Because there’s a faint chance that we’ll discover at least a clue while we’re there.  But the odds aren’t high.”  This Izanami woman had found us backed into a corner.  “And this man says his boss can help us.”

“And,” Mercurial added.  “The Neke Islands are to the east.  Much closer to Shenten than the Principality.  We can refuel your submarine as many times as you need.”

That solves that problem.  If we stayed friends with this Izanami woman, and gave her what she wanted.  And not everyone had malicious intent.

And risk is inevitable in this profession.  If we declined all meetings with new people because they might be Whisper Specialists, we wouldn’t get much done.  And they have leads for us.  Scrabbling for hints on our own would be more dangerous, not less.

I extended my hand to shake.  “Let’s do it.  I would love to meet Izanami.”

Mercurial smiled.  Cardamom padded down the hallway, out of a side room, and walked up to us, purring.  He rubbed the metal man’s leg, bumping it with his furry green head.  Mercurial pet him with part of his coat, not touching the cat with his skin.

“Fine.”  Hira scowled.  “But you can’t travel with us.  Give us a location to go, but you don’t get to go in our sub.”

Tasia nodded in agreement, biting her lip and avoiding eye contact.

He nodded.  “Of course.  I believe I have removed all your betrayers, so you should be safe here, now, with the rest of your crew.”

“And Izanami,” said Left-Hira.  “Can you tell us anything else about her?  Anything to make us trust you.”

“It is best if she tells you herself,” said Mercurial.

Hira glared at him with both bodies, even more suspicious.  She didn’t ask any more questions.

“Go to Kamishoto,” he said.  “In the north of Neke.  I will find you in the town center.”

Then he slung the Vice-Captain’s corpse and the other bodies over his shoulder.  He left, striding out of the submarine with a casual step.

The three of us stood there for a moment, processing what had just happened.

Then Hira growled, and holstered her weapons.  Tasia floated a bucket over from the storage room and started projecting the blood into it.  Cleaning the floors.

“Thanks for coming so fast,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Tasia.  “The fireworks were nice.”

“The fuck were you doing in the sub alone?” said Right-Hira.

“Last-minute checks,” I said.  “I got stressed.”  I didn’t mention my plan to throw myself into Akhara’s Gate, to a potential early grave.

Hira squinted at me, but she didn’t put her hands in her pockets, or question me further.

Tasia finished cleaning up.  “We should all get some sleep.”

Away from the rest of the crew,” I said.  “With watches.”

“Busy day tomorrow,” said Tasia.

I nodded.  The first of many.

________________________________________

I slept in one of the upper rooms, beside Tasia and Hira in sleeping bags.

Hira had assured me that she’d explained the situation to the other crew members and checked them again with her Vocation, and that no one else wanted to backstab us.  Mercurial had said much the same.

But she’d been wrong before.  And the metal man couldn’t be trusted yet.  So we decided to play it safe.  We also decided to postpone making backup copies of the Lavender Book, a process that Tasia had confirmed was possible.  We didn’t have many places to hide them, and didn’t need the crew running off with one.

The floor felt hard and cramped beneath my sleeping bag.  I missed the bed in Grace’s summer safehouse.  And the warmth.  And the painting Hira had made for my birthday, which had depicted an adult, red-haired version of me.  Cardamom curled up on a pillow next to us, but it still didn’t feel like home.

Still, despite all this, the sheer exhaustion drove me to sleep after an hour of tossing and turning.

At dawn the next morning, we woke up and ate a breakfast of eggs and toast with the crew.  A quiet, uncomfortable meal, after five of them had tried to kill all of us.  But I got to know all of their names, and their positions on the ship.  A lot of them seemed shaken after the betrayal too.  The Vice-Captain had been planning to kill them, too.

Then, we left the Principality.

The submarine dove into the waters of the cove, deep enough to pass under the rock formations surrounding this hidden outcrop where it had been parked.  It drove southeast for a while, underwater in the Eloane Ocean, getting out of range of any patrolling Principian ships that might spot us.  The Principality had the largest, strongest navy in the Eight Oceans, dwarfing even Neke’s.  We weren’t about to take any chances.

The electrical engine whirred, and I sat on a chair in the CIC with Tasia, watching the crew turn knobs and talk to each other.

Some of them still looked shaken after hearing about their five co-workers that had almost murdered them, but most of them took it in stride.  They must be used to that sort of thing.  When working on a secret submarine for mobsters.  Vice-Captain Glenham had already been replaced with a new man.

Then, after a few hours, we surfaced, turned straight east, and started chugging along with our diesel engine.  Eventually, we’d make our way to Shenten, towards the northeast.  But for now, we were making a pit stop in the Neke Islands for some gas and information.

The daily routine on the sub took some getting used to.  Here, we had no personal space.  We slept together in a tiny space, squeezed past each other in the narrow, squat hallways, and ate together in the mess, which involved a lot of repetitive meals.  Eggs and toast and sausage.  Cabbage and trout and cherry pie.  A solid selection, but a far step below mulled cider and the dizzying array of takeout options in Elmidde.

I got used to the chugging sound of the diesel engine, and stopped getting lost in all the twisting hallways, though I still recoiled from the buttons and levers on the walls, terrified that I would touch something and mess up the ship.

But still, I felt gratitude with every groggy morning, every lap I jogged through the metal passageways.  This is better than a sleeping pod.  And far better than a mattress in Clementine’s basement.  It would do.

After a few days, Tasia and I realized that we could be most comfortable on top of the submarine, sitting on the roof while the ship chugged along on the surface.  The metal hull flattened at the top, with railings around the edge.

With some blankets and pillows, it made for a solid spot.  No low ceilings, no tight corners.  Just us, the ocean, and the sky.  Hira smoked her purple hookah, since she couldn’t do it inside.  I practiced my projection, working it out like a muscle.  And Tasia read her books, continuing her research.

The sub’s propeller churned up the water behind us, leaving a white line in our wake.  The sun shone down on us, bright and warm during the day, burning our skin.  I gazed up at the sky, scanning for the presence of Oracle Snakes.  If we saw even one, I’d order the sub to dive.

But the sky looked empty, clear.  Not even a cloud in sight.

Our new Vice-Captain avoided major trade and patrol routes, so we didn’t see any other ships on our path.  Just the endless horizon, in every direction.  In this part of the ocean, the sun turned the water a bright, clear blue.  Tropical, almost.

The ocean had drowned the Great Scholars, and might drown us.  It contained profound terrors – storm krakens, and Broken Gods, beings strong enough to butcher storm krakens.

But here, it looked beautiful.  An endless expanse, full of possibility.

“A name,” said Tasia, her voice carrying over the rumble of the engines.

“What?” I said, glancing up from the chunks of metal I was floating.

“We never settled on a new name for the sub.”

“No,” said Right-Hira.  He leaned back against a railing, puffing on his hookah.  “We got distracted by the murder attempt and the man made of Voidsteel.”

“I’m not sure I like ‘The Elder Kraken’,” said Tasia.  “We’re not pirates, and we’re not mobsters.”

I bit my lip.  “Agreed.”  But I didn’t have any other ideas.

Hira shrugged.  “Don’t look at me.  Elmidde’s underworld called me ‘zappyhands’ for my whole first year as a mercenary, and my own skills aren’t much better.”

We all thought about this for a moment.

“Well,” said Tasia.  “Keep it in the back of your heads.  It’s a good ship, and it’s ours, now.  It should have a proper name.”

“Damn good ship,” said Hira.

I nodded, and went back to my practice.

Hours later, Hira got bored and started water-skiing in the back, with projection and a cable clumsily tied to a railing, her bare feet skimming across the surface of the ocean.  With the sub’s diesel engine at max speed, she could pick up just enough velocity to pull it off.  Cardamom sat at the back of the sub, his head bobbing up and down as he watched her bounce on the waves.

Lund pe chadh!” she shouted.  She couldn’t speak Common right now.  Her Praxis Vocation ran out if she used it too many times on one person.  Halfway through the week, I suggested that Hira not spend all her uses on us and the crew, to preserve it for emergencies.

Hira had agreed, and had let the hours pass without copying anyone’s skills.  No extra languages, no fancy gun tricks.  She didn’t even know how to tie her shoelaces.

But she does know how to water-ski.  She’d had a very peculiar childhood.

Tasia and I sat on the other side of the sub, at the front, gazing out at the bow cutting the water.  The sun set behind us, in the west, casting warm orange light over the ocean.

“I’ve been thinking,” said Tasia.  “About what you told me about Paragon.”

I raised an eyebrow, as I threw a Basic Sleep attempt at her Pith.  She deflected it with ease.

“The creation of Honeypot.  Restricting the supply of bodies and letting thousands die.  What Maxine Clive said about that place, ‘Buttercup Lodge’, which is probably true.  Plus, all the other stuff we don’t even know about.”

I leaned forward, wrapped in a blanket, and squeezed Tasia’s hand.  “You shouldn’t feel bad about being a student there.  You were helping your sister.  Working for a greater cause.”  I just wanted to save myself.  And I’d been a true believer in a way that Tasia never had.

“That’s not it,” said Tasia, pulling her knees to her chest.  “What about this Izanami woman?  I screwed up last time when I joined Paragon to help my sister.  What if we’re screwing up again?  What if Izanami is just as bad as Paragon?  Or worse?”

“We’re not committing to join her,” I said.  “We’re just checking her out.  If she’s bad, we don’t have to do shit for her.”  Assuming she doesn’t just hijack us.

“But what if it’s not obvious?” said Tasia.  “Paragon wasn’t obvious, not at first.  Or we’d never have fought to get in so hard.”

She has a point.  I shrugged.  “We face dangerous enemies.”  And I almost died to just the Vice-Captain.  “And we’re in over our heads.  We need allies.  Powerful allies.”

“But that’s the thing,” said Tasia.  “What if everyone in power is just inevitably evil?  What if we’re just doomed to chase around the oceans, doing people’s dirty work over and over again.”  She slouched over, her eyes flat.  Now that look, I’m used to seeing on Wes’ face.  “And then Sarah never gets cured.  Just like Kaplen.”

I stood up and moved my pillow next to her.  Then I sat down and hugged her.  She hugged me back.

“During my Pith surgery on Sarah,” whispered Tasia.  “I heard voices.  Not her voice.  Men and women, in all sorts of languages.”

“Hallucinations, maybe,” I murmured.

“Maybe,” she said. “Or maybe I tapped into something.”  She shook her head.  “This world is so much bigger than me.  Than any of us.”

I hugged her tighter.  “You’re one of the kindest people I know.  Normal people would have given up long before you did.  But you still care.  You’re still trying to save your sister.”  And you haven’t killed anyone.  Unlike me.  “I know you’ll do the right thing.”

“I don’t want to lose you, too,” said Tasia.

I broke off from her, and stood up.  Hira water-skied in the distance, jumping up and down on the sub’s wake.  “Come on,” I said.  “That’s enough studying, right?  How does Jao Lu in the mess sound?”

Tasia nodded, exhaling.

“You stashed some garlic bread in your locker, didn’t you?”

Cardamom batted at Hira’s water-skiing cable with his paw, playing with it like a toy.  The knot shook, then unspooled from the railing, breaking Hira off from the sub.

Left-Hira shouted something in Ilaquan, then slapped into the water face-first.  She shrunk in the distance, as the sub sped away from her.

“Though we should probably deal with that first.”

________________________________________

Kamishoto.  Our rendezvous with Mercurial.  Not the Floating City, but a much smaller town on the northern coast of the Neke Islands, closer to Shenten, though there was still plenty of ocean between there and here.

A huge military submarine would draw unwanted questions, no matter where it showed up.  And Nekean naval defenses were legendary, according to our new, less murderous Vice-Captain.  So we surfaced a distance off the northern shore, in the middle of the night.  Tasia and Hira and I had climbed down the edge of the sub, in plainclothes with hidden armor and weapons.  Then we did a water walk the rest of the way.

We arrived at the coast as the sun rose, by an empty stretch of road.  We caught our breath, sat down for a few minutes, and started walking into town.

A car drove up behind us on the road, and stopped next to us.  My throat clenched, and I projected into Reverie, its blade hidden and sheathed in a pocket of my coat.

A Nekean man stuck his head out of the window.  “Hello!”  He spoke that one word of Common in a heavy accent.  “Anata wa nekīn o hanashimasu ka?”  It sounded like Northern Nekean.

Left-Hira stuck her hands in her pockets, copying his skills.  She cleared her throat.  “Hai!  Kono hareta asa wa dōdesu ka?”

The two of them carried on a conversation.  Then the man beckoned to us and opened the passenger door.  Hira climbed in, and Tasia and I followed.

“What did you talk about?” I muttered to Right-Hira, crammed into the back seat with me.

“He asked if we were headed into town for the celebration.  I said yes.  I don’t like walking.”

I relaxed my Pith, letting it slide out of my dagger hilt.  Not everyone’s an enemy.

In the man’s puttering automobile, it only took us a few minutes to get to Kamishoto.  He parked on the side of a street, near some wooden houses with sliding doors.

Then we got out, and he led us into the town.  “He’s not going to lock his car?” I said.  “What if someone steals it?”

Right-Hira shrugged.  We followed the man through the winding streets of the town, filled with trees and quiet houses and bridges over narrow streams.  Towards the center, where we’d meet Mercurial.  Given how conspicuous the Voidsteel man looked, it was probably good to rendezvous somewhere with lots of distractions.

The sounds of music and shouting echoed from ahead of us.  Drums and strings and flutes, striking up a merry, upbeat tune.

Then we turned a corner, and saw the celebration.

A crowd had gathered around the fountain in the center of the square, and had broken out into spontaneous dance.

The fountain’s water streamed out of one end, becoming a stream cutting through the town square and running down to the ocean, just a hundred feet away.  A saltwater fountain.

A pair of water projectors had built a thirty-foot ice sculpture in the middle of it, in the shape of a man I didn’t recognize.  They floated around it in a circle, constantly melting and rebuilding it.  In a few seconds, the man became an elderly woman.  Then a girl my age.  Then a boy.  A model of everlasting change.  A group of women musicians played music on a raised wooden stage, bobbing their heads in sync.

Wreaths of flowers hung from nearby buildings, in Nekean green, as well as orange and yellow and pink, forming elaborate shapes and patterns.  Beneath them, men and women hawked goods in food stalls.  Flatbread and samosas and takoyaki and cold noodles.

Tasia gazed around the square, her eyes wide with amazement.  I stared with her.  This isn’t even the Floating City.  Not even one of the bigger cities.  Is this some religious festival?  I wasn’t familiar with Nekean traditions.

“Excuse me.”  Tasia tapped a woman on the shoulder as she passed by.  “Is this a holiday?”

The woman glanced at her, then pointed to her ears.  Doesn’t speak Common.  Despite her heritage, my mother hadn’t taught me any Nekean or Shenti.  This could be a problem in Shenten, too.  At least we had Hira.

A man stepped up behind us, wearing a green ceremonial mask, with a pair of gloves and a scarf.  Odd clothes for this weather.

“Have you read the news lately?” he said, his voice muffled behind the mask.  Mercurial.  Hiding his metal body behind his clothes.

“We’ve been on a sealed-off submarine,” said Right-Hira.  “The fuck do you think?”

“Our National Congress just signed a law,” he said.  He pointed at the stage with the music-playing women, and I took a closer look.

All of the women had the same face.  Dark hair.  Light brown skin.  Almond eyes, and narrow jaws.  A dozen identical twins in their early twenties, playing in harmony.

“Fabricated bodies,” I said.  “They look expensive.”

“They’re free,” he said.  “Those were all terminal cancer patients.  Until they weren’t.”

“Whaleshit,” said Hira.  “There’s got to be a catch somewhere.”

“Your congress signed a law?” I said.

“A group called the Free Body Movement has been protesting for years,” said Mercurial.  “But the government finally caved to their demands.”

The Free Body Movement.  I hadn’t heard of that before.  Maybe it’s a Nekean equivalent of Commonplace.

“The new law sets price controls for all chassis, requires a medical need, and introduces a lottery system for the time being.”  He gestured at the stage.  “Now, anyone can get a new body, as long as they would die without one.  No matter how rich or poor.  Cosmetic needs, for the present, are taking a backburner.”

Tasia stared up at the stage with wonder.  “That’s incredible,” she breathed, buying a platter of takoyaki from a vendor.

“I’m sure all the rich fucks have ways to cut the line,” said Hira.

“But the supply would still run low, right?” I said.  They must be on the verge of running out.  “There’s no shortage of terminal cancer patients, mortal injuries and the like.”

“That’s the other part of the law,” said Mercurial, speaking over the loud folk music.  “The elite projectors who make bodies.  They’re required to share their knowledge with the public.  The government is opening university departments around the islands to teach this art.”

“Mass-production,” said Tasia, making it sound like a birthday present.

Mercurial nodded.  “It will take time to implement.  There are significant barriers involved, and some downsides that Izanami can speak to you about.  And in the interim, many will still die.”  He beckoned his arms to the square and stepped forward.  “But soon, Neke will produce more fabricated bodies than the other three Domains combined.”

“And that’ll drive down the prices,” said Tasia.  “Everyone will have to follow in your stead, in the long term.”

“And this ‘Free Body Movement’ did this,” I said.  I kept my face passive, hiding the thrills running under my skin.  This is incredible.

“Well,” said Mercurial.  “You did, sort of.  By accident.”

“What?”

“The country’s been moving in this direction for the last decade, with strong popular support.”

“But,” I said.

“But many traditionalist projectors had other interests.”

“Did they hijack the congress?”  Like our Parliament.

“Of course not,” he said, taken aback at the mere suggestion.  “Our congress simply relied on specific sources for campaign funds.”  He gestured at me with a gloved hand.  “But when they saw the chaos of the Principality over the last year, Izanami argued to them that the status quo could not be maintained.”

This Izanami has a lot of government influence, then.  A useful bit of information.

“So they passed this law,” said Mercurial.  “To help ensure that a violent civil war did not come close to breaking out.  To make their citizens happy.”

Commonplace takes credit for that, not me.  Mercurial was flattering me.  I’d spent the entirety of last year fighting efforts like that, indirectly.  And now, the group’s remnants had all but vanished, so it didn’t matter, anyways.

“Your people protested for something,” said Tasia, incredulous.  “And their representatives just gave it to them?”

“Yes,” he said.

“No riot cops, no pepper gas, no mental hijacking?  They just…listened.”

Mercurial cocked his head at her, confused.  “Why wouldn’t they?”

Sounds nice.  Paragon Academy and Egress had made such change near-impossible in the Principality.  Ants, not beetles.  I wondered what Grace had thought of Neke and its government.

Months ago, when we’d first become fugitives from Paragon, Jun had suggested going to the Floating City.  And I’d shot him down.  What a stupid decision.

Mercurial spun around to face us.  The music swelled, and a burst of confetti exploded over him, in sync with the ice sculptors and the drums.  Through a slit in his mask, I saw his Voidsteel mouth curl up in a smile.

“Welcome to Neke,” he said.  “If you still wish to meet Izanami, I can take you to my boat.  The journey should be short and comfortable, and you can contact your submarine first, if you wish to give them a later rendezvous.”

“Cute town,” said Right-Hira.  “Must have been a bitch, getting us to arrive on the same day as this celebration.”  She looked at Tasia and me.  “I’ve seen enough.  We don’t need another string-pulling puppetmaster looking over our shoulders.”  She doesn’t trust the Neke.

Tasia bobbed her head to the music, Wes’ eyes – her eyes sparkling.  “I say we meet her.  If she’s behind any of this, then she’s worth our time.”

I’m the deciding vote.  Though we didn’t have an official democracy for Queen Sulphur.

I looked around at the musicians who’d escaped cancer, the happy citizens who got an actual voice in their nation.  The joy, the ease that I hadn’t seen on the streets of the Principality for years.

If my mother had emigrated to Neke instead of the Principality, and I’d been born ten years later, then maybe things could have gone differently.  Maybe I wouldn’t have turned out this way.

And this ‘Green Lotus’ woman had helped with this?

I nodded to Mercurial.  “Show us to your boat,” I said.  “Let’s go meet Izanami.”

________________________________________

The boat ride was uneventful.  Comfortable, like Mercurial said.  His boat wasn’t a luxury yacht or anything, but it had couches and pretzels, more than enough to keep us entertained.

We drove out from a dock in Kamishoto, and puttered over the water for an hour or two.  South, down the coast of the Neke Islands, where the weather got warmer.

None of us talked strategy much.  We didn’t want to discuss anything sensitive within earshot of our host.  Mercurial kept himself busy with driving the boat, and didn’t seem all that conversational.

Normally, of the three of us, Hira would be the one to initiate new conversations, but she spent the trip fuming, pacing back and forth belowdecks.  Tasia touched up her eyeliner, and gave me a remedial crash course on everything I’d forgotten about it over the last decade.  It still felt strange to see makeup on Wes’ freckled face.

We drove through a bank of fog, and around the backside of a mountainous island, green with thick jungle trees growing up the slopes.  “We’re getting close!” said Mercurial, calling to us from above.  “If you wish to see the view, you may observe from the starboard deck.”

Tasia clambered up the stairs, and I followed after her.  “So,” said Tasia, excitement slipping into her voice.  “Is it a secret lair?  A hidden fortress with illusions?  An underwater temple?”  She leaned against a railing, squinting at the green water ahead of us.

Mercurial didn’t answer.  He just smiled, a faint expression that was difficult to pick out of his metallic face.

The boat passed around a rocky outcropping, and we saw the view.

A bay, filled with bright turquoise water, glowing under the light of the sun under clear skies.  Countless rocky islands dotted the center and edges, large and small, made of a yellow stone covered with thick jungle vegetation on top, hanging down cliff faces.  They formed pathways and smaller coves throughout, making the bay a labyrinth.

Narrow outcroppings of grey rock stuck out from the surface, forming natural sculptures that looked like surreal modern art, casting odd shadows on the water.  Submerged cave entrances extended into the cliff faces, winding down into the rock below the water, filled with curved stalagmites and stalactites.

A wooden village floated near the edge of the bay.  Men and women sat on tall platforms, sorting fresh fish into crates from motorboats.  A few other passenger boats passed by, filled with men and women.  Ferries, by the look of them, heading in and out of the bay.

Other than that, I saw no one in the bay.  No loud noises.  Just a tranquil calm.

Tasia gazed at the vista, her eyes wide.  “I’ve seen this place in books before.  This is Airavata Bay.”

He nodded.  “A wonder of nature.  The Nekean government limits tourism to the area, to preserve its beauty.  But our destination is ahead.”

The boat cut through the waters of the bay, traveling to the far side, then turning around islands and natural rock sculptures, navigating us through the maze-like structures.  We passed more fishing villages, including one balancing on top of a pair of narrow islands, with rope bridges and pulley systems hanging above the water between them.

We saw more boats, headed in the same direction as us, including one full of foreigners.  Tourists.

Then, we sailed around an island, and saw another marvel.

A mountain extended out of the turquoise waters of the bay, taller than the rest of the islands and green with vegetation.  A complex of buildings sat on the steep rocky slopes.  Bamboo, with slanted thatched roofs and sliding doors, in the northern Nekean style.  Tiered waterfalls cascaded beneath wooden bridges, above carved stone staircases and networks of pipes.

Narrow trees grew up all around the buildings, casting circles of shade on the tiled, winding pathways.  A trio of wooden lifts moved on diagonal metal rails, carrying goods and people up and down the slopes.

And, of course, large pools of water dotted the complex, steam rising off their surface.  In the distance, I could see tiny men and women bathing in them.

It looked like a magical hideaway.  Something I’d read about in a fairy tale from my childhood.

“This is a hot spring,” I said.  “A Nekean hot spring.”

“Onsens, we call them,” said Mercurial.  “Or Garm Jharanas.  Though it’s really more of a public bathhouse, due to our lighter rules.”

“And this one is famous, isn’t it?” said Tasia.

Mercurial nodded.  “Kokina To.  It would fill up with people, except strict limits are placed on how many people can enter the bathhouse, and the bay, at a time.”

Our boat pulled up to a dock at the bottom of the mountain, next to a handful of ferries.  Mercurial put his mask and gloves back on, adding a staff outfit and a thin medallion around his neck.

Then he led us down the gangplank, leaving the boat keys on a couch, and showed us to an entrance hall where a short line of people waited to get in.

I saw all sorts of people in the line.  Nekean, mostly, but foreigners, too, from Ilaqua and Shenten and the Principality, and some other ethnicities I couldn’t place.  Rich and poor, with fur coats and moth-bitten rags alike.

“What’s the entry fee?” I said.  This place doesn’t look cheap to maintain.

“None,” said Mercurial, as he led us through a side door.  “We receive all necessary funds from the Nekean Government and anonymous donations.  To enter, there is a free lottery.  If one wins, they can bring themselves and up to three guests.”

“And rich fucks buy up all the tickets, I’m sure,” said Hira.  “‘Fair’ systems have a way of bending themselves over.”

“How many people enter the lottery each year?” said Tasia, as we stepped into an empty locker room with mats on the floor.

“About three-quarters of the country,” said Mercurial.  Then he beckoned to the lockers.  “I must ask you to deposit your weapons and bathe before entering the main complex.”

“You gonna check us to make sure our balls are clean?” said Right-Hira.

“Cleaning yourself is customary for locations such as this,” said Mercurial.  “It signifies respect, and helps keep the space hygienic.”

“Is giving up your guns traditional too?” said Left-Hira, her grip tightening on her trench shotgun.

“Come on,  Hira,” I said.  “We’ve come this far.”  I switched to illusions.  “And if Izanami is this powerful, having a gun won’t change much.”  If things went bad, our strongest weapons were projection, anyways.

Tasia didn’t have any weapons on her, but I gave Mercurial my broken-down machine pistol, a stun grenade at my belt, and a few spare clips, along with Reverie, my extendable Voidsteel dagger.  Hira grumbled, then gave up her shotgun and sniper rifle.

Mercurial stashed them all in a handful of lockers, then turned back to Hira, extending a hand.  “Your other weapons as well, if you please.”

Hira growled, and both of her bodies reached into the folds of her clothes, pulling out hidden pistols, micro-explosives, and knives.  Mercurial put them in lockers, and didn’t even bother locking them.  “No one will touch these.  They can be returned to you at the end of your stay.

Then, we washed ourselves in individual showers, with diagrams of smiling people in five languages on the walls, indicating which places we should scrub with an uncomfortable level of detail.

When we finished, Mercurial gave us new, clean clothes to wear.  Soft green pants and tunics, with sandals that fit my feet perfectly.

Then he stepped up to Left-Hira, folding his hands in front of him with a regretful expression.  “I’m afraid I must ask you to wait in the public hot springs, rather than attending the meeting.”

“Fuck you,” said Left-Hira.  She floated her trench shotgun out of her locker and into her hands, still wrapped in a towel and dripping wet.  “I scrub my asshole for five hours and now you want me out?”

“Your Praxis Vocation involves the reading of minds,” said Mercurial.  “Izanami simply wishes to be cautious, and preserve her privacy.”

Left-Hira cocked her shotgun, even though we all knew it wouldn’t work on the metal man.  Behind Mercurial, Right-Hira hid a grenade behind his back, which had a faint chance of doing some damage.  Probably not, though.

“And what if I insist on coming?” she said.

“Then,” said Mercurial, unfazed.  “I’m afraid I will have to request that you leave.”

“Hira,” said Tasia, her voice scolding.  “Don’t be impolite.”

Hira,” I said, with illusions.  “Please don’t get us all killed.

Left-Hira gripped her shotgun for another few seconds.  Then she sighed, deflating, and floated it back into the locker, then slammed it shut.  “Fine,” she growled.  “Do you have a bar here, at least?”

“We do not,” said Mercurial.  “And I must also ask you to leave your smoking implement in your locker, for the health of other guests.”

“It’s called a hookah, you bhenchod,” grumbled Right-Hira, folding it up and floating it into the locker with his weapons.  “Uptight fucking Nekeans.”

“The minerals of the hot spring have many regenerative properties,” said Mercurial.  “They may help you relax.”  So he’s capable of passive aggression, at least.  He opened another door for us, polite as always.  “Right this way.”  He led us up a stone staircase, and into the heart of the bathhouse.

We ascended a winding path, passing tiny restaurants with sizzling meat where the chefs grilled and boiled and sliced food on counters in front of guests.  Men and women bathed in steaming-hot pools, or lounged on soft chairs by the water, reading books, all wearing bathrobes, some variation on our spa clothes, or nothing.  The foreigners seemed to wear more clothes than the native Nekeans.  A few of them went into buildings with sliding doors that looked like bedrooms, some of them staying overnight.

We passed over a wooden bridge beside a waterfall, cool mist spraying in my face, and Mercurial turned back to the Hiras, at the foot of another stone staircase.  “I’m afraid I must ask you to part, now, for a brief period.”  He handed Left-Hira a pamphlet.  “This guide should tell you all you need about the activities available to you during your wait.”

Left-Hira snatched the booklet out of his metal hands and scanned through it, leaning on a wooden railing.

“It also includes all rules that we ask guests to follow during their stay.  Many traditions have been bent, or broken to accommodate foreigners, and as a result of our access to projection.  But we still have guidelines.”  Mercurial turned back to the staircase, facing away from Hira.  “Respecting staff members, proper hygiene.  Not littering.”

While he looked away, Hira let the pamphlet slip out of her fingers, dropping it into the waterfall.  Then she turned and stalked off, her two bodies headed in separate directions.

Mercurial guided us up the staircase, and through another winding path, down a row of trees.  After another few minutes, we arrived at the highest building in the complex.

I glanced back, and saw the whole rest of the baths, spread out on the slope of the mountain beneath us, waterfalls and bridges and hot springs.  And beneath them, the blue-green waters of Airavata Bay, dotted with green islands and rock formations.

Mercurial opened a sliding door and beckoned us into an entrance room.  Tasia and I stepped out of our sandals, and changed into pairs of socks provided to us.  Then we walked into a hall, on the matted floor.

Mercurial approached the door, then paused.  “Are you ready to meet her?”

No, I thought.  For all this cozy atmosphere, if Izanami was a proper Whisper Specialist, we’d all be in trouble.  Or if she thought we were better off dead than alive.  So many things could go wrong.

But this woman helped us, too.  And allegedly, she’d helped the people of this country, too.  Let’s see what she has to offer.

I nodded, and Mercurial slid open the door.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




If you’re enjoying the story, we’d love a vote on TopWebFiction! (Click the link, then “Boost” in the top right corner)

14-C Imposter Syndrome

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Nell

“What?”  I said.  “What?

The shopkeeper stepped out of the room and closed the door behind him, but left it ajar just a crack.  Not locking it.  This wasn’t an ambush.

I projected into the bills in my wallet, floating them out and hovering them midair as weapons.  “Maxine Clive?

Maxine Clive smiled at me with Leo’s body.  “‘Max’ is fine.”

“What in the fuck are you doing here?”

“Waiting for you,” she said.  “I figured you would come here sooner or later, given your interest in this shop.  When my man told me you were coming to this neighborhood, I got here as fast as I could.”

“And why,” I said.  “Are you in my friend’s body?”

“Well,” she said.  “If anyone finds us out, or one of your mother’s birds spots us, then – “  She gestured at her body.  Leo’s body.  “You were just meeting up with an old friend from last year.  Illegal, as per Ousting rules.  But not committing treason.”  She gestured to the other chair across from her.  “Please, sit.”

“Why am I committing treason?”  I floated the paper closer to Maxine Clive.  “It’s not treason if I give you fifty paper cuts on your carotid artery, is it?”

Maxine Clive took a sip from a tea mug.  “No,” she said.  “Killing me would be perfectly legal.  Encouraged, even.”  She picked up a bowl of crushed bacon bits and spooned them into her mouth like cereal.  “But you could have reported Leo.”  She spoke with a full mouth.  “And he tells me you spared him.  Gave him your allowance, even.”

I placed some of the bills against Clive’s exposed neck, ready to slice.  She didn’t react, continuing to eat her bacon bits.

“Leo,” I said.  “Didn’t kill any of my classmates.”  My shoulders shook.  “He didn’t Nudge innocent people to start terrorist attacks.  He didn’t blow up my favorite cafe and shoot up everyone inside.  He didn’t free Lyna Wethers and sic her on civilians.”  Eliya’s face flashed into my mind.  “And he didn’t take my best friends’ eye.”

When I closed my eyes, I could still see Honeypot’s smirking face.  After everything, it still looked gorgeous.

I sliced a bill across Clive’s cheek, drawing a thin stream of blood.

“Yeah,” she said.  “I deserve that.  And far more.  I did all those things.”  She set down her bowl of bacon, staring me in the eye.  “I had allies who helped, who pushed me.  But I chose to approve those projects.”

“Then why,” I hissed.  “Do you deserve to live?”  If I kill her, then Leo will be stuck in her body.  That wouldn’t be ideal, but a target this big was probably worth it.

“Because I’m not the only one you’re angry at, am I?” said Clive.  “We freed Lyna Wethers, but Paragon Academy created her.  We sold your friend, Anabelle Gage, a defective body, but Paragon refuses to mass-produce chassis, dooming people like her to an early grave.”

“Don’t talk about Ana,” I said.  “You killed her.

“And,” said Clive.  “Your mother Ousted you.  Kicked you out of her family and replaced you.”

“I wasn’t worthy, then,” I said.  I was a drunk, duplicitous wretch with no empathy.  “I am now.”

Maxine Clive raised an eyebrow.  “Is she kind to you now, then?  She hasn’t mistreated you, now that you’re back?”

My mother’s business card is in my wallet.  She’d given me the Ebbridge family armor to train with.  And she’d told me how proud she was of me, multiple times now.  She’s nicer to me than ever before.

And she’d installed a Whisper vocation on my Pith.  An excruciating thing, that dissolved my entire sense of self and left me writhing on the floor in agony.  She threatened to use it again.  If I spoke out of turn more, or did something else that earned her wrath.

I pressed the slips of paper against Maxine Clive’s neck.  But I didn’t slice.

“Here’s how it’s going to go, Wes,” said Clive.  “Can I call you Wes?  Do you prefer Nell?  Or Lady Ebbridge.”

I said nothing, still clenching my teeth.

“Here’s how it’s going to go.”  She leaned forward.  “I’m going to tell you who I am.  And when I’m done, you’re not just going to spare me.  You’re going to join me.”

She thinks she’s going to change my mind.  The thought made me even angrier.  But still, I didn’t slice.

Maxine Clive told me a story, with a dozen blades pressed to her neck.  She told me of her youth, as a bicycle courier, when she received a false acceptance letter to Paragon.  She told me of Buttercup Lodge, the place where she claimed Paragon had mutilated and hijacked her, destroying countless lives as they developed the first fabricated bodies.

She told me of her miraculous escape, more far-fetched than any fiction I’d read.  She spoke of her time in the Droll Corsairs, and her mutiny on the desert continent of Kiterjede that led to the formation of Commonplace.

When she finished, I found myself sweating, cold, my shoulders tense.  A strange, absurd tale, full of shocking details and profound horror.  A story that damned Paragon, and countless others.

If she’s telling the truth.  But Commonplace couldn’t be trusted.  And Maxine Clive had every reason to lie to me now.

“It’s crazy,” I said.  “Why should I believe a word of it?”

“Your mother,” said Clive.  “If she thought it was necessary, do you think she wouldn’t cut a woman into pieces?  Do you think she wouldn’t kidnap innocents and hijack their minds?”

My breath caught in my throat.  “No!”  I said, half a shout.  “No.  She has lines she won’t cross.  She can be an ass, but she’s not a monster.  Not like that.”

Clive went back to eating her bacon bits.  “Then why hasn’t she told you?”

“Told me what?”

“Your friends.  Ana and Hira.”  She leaned forward, swallowing a mouthful.  “They’re alive.”

The world dropped away from me.  My body grew distant, hollow.  I staggered back, leaning against the door of the storage room.

What?  It was whaleshit, it had to be.  She’s manipulating you.  She knew how much I cared about the other members of Queen Sulphur.  She was leveraging my grief for her own ends.

“I’m not sure,” said Clive.  “But your friends are almost definitely alive.  And your mother almost definitely knows, too.”

Why?”  I hissed.  “Lie to me, and I’ll paper cut your eyeballs.”

Maxine Clive sighed, a weary look passing over her face.  “Since the Paragon attack, Grace hasn’t reached out to my emergency channels.  And she’s acted strange, off her usual patterns and routines, even the ones she’d use after a great defeat.”

I snorted.  “That’s your evidence?”

Someone defeated her,” said Clive.  “And Ana was chasing after her.  Not Guardians.  Queen Sulphur were the last ones seen pursuing Tunnel Vision, before they vanished.”  She hunched over.  “And Grace just turned most of her lieutenants into Paragon.”

“What?”

“She laid a trap for them with Guardians and got dozens of her best people killed or arrested.  Grace would never have made such a move.”  Clive shook her head.  “Your friends are alive.  My friend is dead.”

I took deep, rapid breaths, sweat coating my armpits.  No.  She’s lying.  She has to be.

“Though,” said Clive.  “I’m not about to confirm that anytime soon.  If your friend killed Grace, she needs to face consequences.  And in the meantime, we can’t afford to approach her.  Commonplace is in a fragile state at the moment.  Even the smallest slip-up could cost us most of our resources.”

And yet you’re approaching me.  She was confident that this gamble would pay off.

“Let’s assume any of this is true,” I said through clenched teeth.  “That this isn’t just a lie to butter me up.”

“I am trying to butter you up,” said Clive.  “But it’s all true.”

“Even if it was true,” I said.  “You honestly think I would join you?  Leave my life?  My family?  Abandon all of my friends?”

“No,” said Maxine Clive.  “I want you to help your friends.  Help the people of this country, like you helped Leo.  But in a much bigger way than a few bills floated through a window.”  Her eyes glinted.  “I want an inside voice on the Shenti invasion.”

“Why?” I snorted.  “So you can give tips to your best friend, Cao Hui?”

“The Shenti have cut off contact,” said Clive.  “And I thought I was funded by a warlord,” said Clive.  “If I’d known the Black Tortoise was involved, I never would have worked with them.”

“So you say.”

“He’s a monster,” said Clive.  “If I was born in Shenten, I’d be fighting him right now, not Paragon.”

We’re going to fight him,” I said.  “Paragon Academy.  The people you hate so much.  Who you want me to spy on.”

Clive laughed, a bitter, tired sound.  “Yeah.  Funny how the world works, isn’t it?  This will be the biggest war in a decade.  And the last time the Principality fought Cao Hui, the world changed forever.”  She leaned forward.  “So, I need to know what’s going on there.”

“What?” I said.  “You don’t already have fifty spies in our military?”

“You people killed them all,” said Clive, a mournful look spreading across Leo’s face.  “We spent most of them trying to pull off our revolution.  Most of the rest have disappeared.  Our intelligence network has been shot to shit, like most of our resources.”

Serves you right.  After everything they did, it felt nice to see some small measure of justice.

“You don’t need to break in anywhere,” said Clive.  “Just write letters, telling us what you see.  Leaving things in dead drops.  Maybe the occasional meeting, if we think we can swing it.”  She spooned bacon into her mouth.  “I’m not asking you to betray your friends.  I’m asking you to recognize that an unhinged Epistocracy is not what this country needs.”

“Violence and terrorism aren’t what this country needs, either.”

“I agree,” said Clive.  “We need democracy.  True rule by the people, not the charade we had before.  But now, it seems that Paragon is doing away with even the charade.”  Her voice dropped, quiet.  “Let me ask you this: If things get bad, truly bad, do you think your mother will protect you?  Do you think Paragon will?”

A million thoughts swirled through my mind.  If even a fraction of that Buttercup Lodge stuff is true, then Paragon – I couldn’t even imagine.  And given what I knew about my mother, some fraction of it seemed plausible.

But they’re Commonplace.  They were monsters, they’d committed so many atrocities against me and my friends.  I couldn’t just ignore that and start working for them.

“No,” I said.  “Fuck you.”

Clive bowed her head.  “If you change your mind,” she said.  “Go to a store like this, wherever you are.  Give the clerk exactly four ten-pound bills when you buy something.  And then we’ll get in touch, even if you’re in Shenten.”

I laughed at her.  She spent so much of last year in control.  And now, she didn’t even know basic facts.

“I’m not even going to Shenten,” I said.  “You book-burners picked the wrong person to indoctrinate.”

Maxine Clive’s eyes lit up, as recognition spread across her face.  “Your mother’s keeping you back, isn’t she?”

I said nothing.

“She’s trying to keep her heir safe.  She thinks you’ll be a liability on the battlefield.”

“Fuck you,” I said.  “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Here’s some free advice,” Clive said.  “Admiral Ebbridge respects strength.  If she thinks you’re strong enough to benefit the family on the battlefield, then she’ll let you go to war.”

“Wow,” I said.  “Astute.  No wonder you got so far.”

“Winning single combat against a powerful foe should do it, probably.”  She nodded to herself.  “Paragon likes single combat.”

I lifted the paper from Maxine Clive’s neck, and floated it back into my wallet.  “You’re a piece of shit,” I spat.  “Good luck with the revolution.”  I threw open the door and stalked out of the room, my fists clenched.  Before I slammed it shut behind me, I glanced over my shoulder, looking back at Clive.

“Mm?”

“Coconut Paradise,” I said.  “How did you know that was my favorite brand?  How much are you spying on me?”  Clive had said her intelligence network had fallen apart, but she could be lying to me.  I’d never seen that clerk behind the desk before, so maybe Clive controlled the entire shop.  Or the owner, too.

Max reached behind her and tossed two bottles of Coconut Paradise at me.  I caught them, staring at her.

“Of course it’s your favorite,” said Clive, eating her bacon bits.  “It’s the best one.”

________________________________________

Lorne’s autumn party was perfect.  And I hated it.

Daventry made a point of throwing spectacular gatherings, outdoing all the other students at Paragon.  Even adults came to his parties, en masse, treated it like one of their own prestigious events.

At these parties, the conversation was lively, the live music beautiful, and the decorations breathtaking.

And, of course, the drinks never stopped flowing.  And I wanted to stay sober.

So I stood in a circle of blabbering students, sipping a virgin cocktail that tasted like grape juice, and containing my irritation.  My black dress squeezed in on my body, tight and painful.  Girls wore them to show off their curves, but in practice, it was like glueing your legs together.

The young epistocrats chatted about the upcoming war.  How easy it would be, that it’d be over in a month tops and people were overhyping how big it’d be.

Ignorant children.  Even though some of them were in older classes than me.

I felt bubbling anger from other sources, too.  Maxine Clive just thought that I would work for her?  Just like that.  Like some fake story about getting chopped up and a few revelations would be enough to change my mind.  Would make me work for the people who took Eliya’s eye, who blew Samuel’s guts out of his stomach.

Absurd.  Bloody absurd.  And her arrogance made it worse.

I should report this immediately.  The brass thought Maxine Clive had killed herself.  But she was alive, and organizing in the shadows.  Spilling this information would help my family, too.

But I hadn’t said anything yet.  Not to my mother, or Lord Olwen, Isaac Brin’s replacement in counterintelligence.  Not even to my friends in Chimera Squad.

And the longer I waited, the more guilty I looked.  But still, I hadn’t done it.

And that bit of advice she’d given me.  Winning a duel to impress my mother.  It actually sounded like a good idea, which pissed me off even more.  Assuming I could win.  I did beat Tasia, but the girl had been sleep-deprived, exhausted, and maybe throwing the match.

But this was my best shot at getting a duel like that.  So for now, I could focus on that, and procrastinate my decision about Clive, the way I used to procrastinate my homework.

“Please excuse me.”  I shuffled out of the circle and moved through the crowd, awkward in my dress.

I found Lorne Daventry at the other end of the ballroom, talking to a trio of girls under a glowing lantern, a view of Elmidde spread out behind him through a fifty-foot window.

“We’re going to miss you, Lorne,” one of the girls said, pouting.

Lorne shook his head.  The girls smiled, but he didn’t.  “I’m performing my duty for my country.  And I’ll have the best bloody soldiers in the Eight Oceans defending me.”  He gestured around him.  “This is a sending-off party, for all the brave souls going to Shenten.”

“Wish we could go with you,” breathed another girl.

“Sure,” he said.  “Give me your business cards, and I’ll have you both sent to the front lines in no time.”

The girl blinked.  “Oh.  Um, no thanks.”

Lorne Daventry repulsed me, on so many levels.  But to make this work, I needed his cooperation.

“Lord Daventry,” I said, putting on my best court lady impression.  “A moment of your time, please.”  Acting prim and proper made me want to douse my face in a vat of acid.  If I stay, this will be my life.  For a long, long time.

“Lady Ebbridge,” he said.  “Come here to complain?  Wish you could be charging off to an early grave?”  The girls walked away, joining another conversation.

“No,” I said.  “I – “

“Or perhaps, deep down, you’re simply relieved that you don’t have to put your life on the line.  Perhaps you just want to stay home, sit on your ass, and drink.”

“No,” I said, keeping my voice steady.  “I came here to challenge you to a duel.”

Lorne raised an eyebrow, surprised.

“Single combat,” I said.  “Ousting rules.  We can have a referee watching.”

Lorne snorted.  “You think you can beat me?”

“No,” I said.  “But I intend to try my best.  And if I’m strong enough to beat you, then I’m strong enough to go to Shenten, I’d say.”

Lorne looked at me with a new light in his eyes.  “Alright,” he said.  “I accept.  But we’ll use Paragon’s training gear.  No fancy family armor – you won’t have that in the field.”

I nodded.

“And I’ll use my Vocation.”  His molten beam of metal.  That had massacred Green Hands during the attack, so deadly that Paragon had banned in squad battles.

“I accept those terms,” I said.  This could be a huge mistake.

“And if you want to beat my Vocation,” said Lorne, biting his lip.  “You’ll need better movement.  Paper walls and slicing at my face won’t cut it.  And your offense is strong, but lacks variation.  You’ll need something that can puncture metal.  Thick metal.  All while I’m adapting to you.”

What?  “Why are you giving me pointers?”  Is this a trap?  But they sounded like good pointers.  “Why are you helping me?”

“If you go to war,” said Lorne.  “You’ll be my ally.  There’ll be lives depending on you.  Good soldiers.”  He stepped close to me, glaring in my face.  “If you want to join us, you’d better be spectacular.”  Then he walked off, headed towards the bar.  “We’ll do it tomorrow.”  He glanced back at me.  “Don’t half-ass it.  Or I’ll burn your limbs off.”

“Hey!”  I called out to him as he left.  “Did you do this for Kaplen, too?  This advice.”

He paused for a moment.  “Yes.”  His voice was soft, hard to hear across the cocktail party.  “Not everyone’s built for hell.”

Is that a bad thing?

Lorne left, joining another conversation.

I moved in the opposite direction, stumbling towards the exit in my tight dress.

Samuel stepped up to me, handsome in a grey three-piece suit.  “Why are you leaving?”  Concern slipped into his voice.  “Are you not having fun?”

Damn you, Maxine Clive.  Why is this working?

“I’ll see you later,” I said.  “I’ve got prep work to do.”

________________________________________

I showed up to the fight early.  And Lorne had already arrived.

He’d talked to one of the grounds managers, and got an Ousting arena set up on the grassy lawn where Paragon normally held squad battles.  Thanks to Commonplace’s massacre, that schedule had been poked full of holes, leaving us with space for our bout.

But this Ousting arena looked different.  The ones I’d used before were made with wood, a simple circular platform raised maybe five feet off the ground.

This one looked sleek, modern.  It had been built from jade glass, translucent with a tinge of green, and much stronger under pressure.  The rising sun shone down on it, making it glimmer.

And its diameter was three times that of the old one.  Lots more space to run.  That might have meant something against Tasia, but Lorne would just blast my arms off, even from the far side of the ring.

If Maxine Clive gets me killed, I’m going to hunt her down as a ghost and paper cut her tongue.

No stands had been set up for an audience, besides the normal ones for squad battles, far away.  But both Golem and Chimera Squads had still shown up to watch, standing around the edges of the platform on the grass.  Samuel gave me a concerned look.  Leizu gave me a thumbs up.  And Eliya just glared at Lorne with her lone eye.

I’d told my mother about this, and invited her, but she hadn’t seemed interested.  If she hears news of my victory, it might still work.

The gear locker sat near the edge of the floating island, filled with all sorts of goods for squad battles, and Paragon’s official training armor.  Lorne had already selected one, and matched it with a gas mask attachment to his helmet, with a spare hooked onto the belt at his waist.  So much for chemical weapons.

I approached the locker and picked out my own set.  A thin, flexible material for my pants and arms, a lightweight helmet, and a thicker, rigid vest for my vital organs, strengthened with synthetic ceramic plates on the pouches inside.  That weird old material that neither of us could project into, strong enough to stop bullets.

The Obsidian Foil’s stuff was better.  When Sebastian Oakes had strengthened armor with his Physical Vocation, before his death.  And my family armor is better.

But this would do.  As I slid on the vest and buckled it, I adjusted a flattened object inside one of the pouches, making sure it didn’t pop back into three dimensions.

A backup plan.  One I hoped I wouldn’t have to use.  I’d thought of it last night, in a fit of pacing around my dark room.  But now that the sun had risen, now that everyone was watching, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to follow through.

I picked up my singed briefcase, walked back, and climbed onto the jade glass platform.  Lorne did the same.

Berthel, the janitor, climbed up on a step stool that rose above the arena.  Our referee, assembled at the last minute.

He cleared his throat and went over the rules.  Same as Ousting.  The first one to touch the ground lost.  No full lethal, but both me and Lorne had replacement bodies on hand, lying on the grass behind our squadmates.  So anything that wasn’t a brain-destroying headshot or Voidsteel was permitted.  As long as the other combatant could transfer into a replacement body, which would also be counted as a loss.

“Bet you’re used to these arenas, Ebbridge,” said Lorne.  “How many times has that body changed hands now?  Ten?  Fifteen?  But I’m sure that alcohol dependency feels like home again.”

“I may be a drunk,” I said.  “But when we leave here today, I’ll still have friends who love me.”

“First combatant,” said Berthel to Lorne.  “Are you aware of the rules and ready to comm – “

“Yes,” snapped Lorne through clenched teeth, his eyes cold behind his gas mask.

“Second combatant,” said Berthel to me.  “Are you aware of the rules and ready to commence?”

I bent my legs and unclasped my briefcase.  “Let’s do this.”

“Begin!” he shouted.

I flipped open my briefcase, and shot a storm of papers out at Lorne.  Small sheets, cut into narrow triangles for aerodynamics.  A thousand paper airplanes, with sharpened wings.

They surrounded Lorne in a second.  Then they attacked in unison, from every angle.

A barrel exploded behind Lorne, and a sheath of water wrapped around his body, blocking out the paper.  He left a space for his gas mask, so he could breathe.

Had to expect that.  People had grown far better at blocking my basic attacks.  But now, he thinks I’m focused on paper.

I threw explosives at him, flattened with my Vocation and squeezed between sheets of paper.  Souvenirs from the school armsmaster.  My Vocation reduced their mass, but the extra weight still slowed them down, making them arrive a hair slower than the normal paper.

They looked identical to my previous attacks.  But Lorne wasn’t fooled.  One glance, and he blew another crate behind him, shooting a giant pile of metal chains at himself.

He stretched his palm behind him and touched the steel.  It melted, with a bright orange flash.  The liquid metal wrapped over him, forming a dome, then cooled back to a solid.

I unflattened a pair of grenades on the outside, detonating them.  Lorne’s dome clanged, but didn’t buckle.  No point in using my gas grenades, either.  Not with his mask on.

For a moment, both of us stood there, a standoff.  Lorne was stuck in his dome.  If he opened it up to look at me, I would attack with explosives.  He could feel around with his Pith, but wide-area scans drained lots of energy, and I could fly further away.

But at the same time, I didn’t have the ordinance to blow through his dome.  You’ll need something that can puncture metal.  Thick metal.  Lorne’s advice was right.

And I couldn’t play a game of attrition.  He has far more raw strength than you.  I’d exhaust myself long before he did.

Then, a beam of metal shot at me from behind.  An orange light flickered at the corner of my vision, and on instinct, I projected into my armor, pulling myself up.  So, instead of my neck, the beam of liquid steel smashed into my spine, knocking me forward.

Heat exploded across my back, and I felt sections of my armor tear off.  I flipped forward, the wind knocked out of me, spinning around to face the source.

Lorne floated behind me, hovering in the air.  He got out of his dome.  He shot another beam at me, and I pulled myself to the side, unfurling my wingsuit.  The wind caught me, and I lifted into the air.

Below me, Lorne floated up to his metal dome and touched it with his palm, melting it again.  He shot more narrow beams at me, fast and burning-hot.  I darted left and right, making them only clip the edges of my suit.  Every time they grazed my thin leg armor, or my arm, stinging pain spread across my skin, and I flinched.

As he gathered the metal into a sphere, I saw a hole, cut in the bottom of the stadium under his metal dome.  That was his trick.  He’d used his metal to cut a hole in the arena without making noise.  Then, while I was distracted, he’d flown up behind me when I thought he was still trapped.

Then Lorne unfurled his wings, and we took to the skies.  We soared around each other, and I surrounded Lorne with a sphere of paper and flattened bombs, ready to attack at a moment’s notice.  He formed a smaller sphere of molten metal around himself, protecting himself from my attacks, with a windshield of jade glass on the front that he could see out of.

He shot an orange beam at me, and I flattened my arms to my sides, pulling myself down to dodge it.  At the same time, I floated sheets of paper in front of Lorne’s windshield, blocking his vision.

Lorne responded with a blade of molten metal, sliding it back and forth across his glass visor, a windshield wiper to keep me from blocking it.  He’d studied some light eye-Joining, too, which would make blocking him even harder.

He shot another beam at me, and I stretched out one arm, flattening the other to make me spin around.  As I did, he shot another beam at me.  I dodged that one, too, but only partway, and it ripped off a chunk of the ceramic on my chest armor and tore my wing, searing the side of my belly.

His flying speed’s making it tough to block his vision.  And his rapid, unpredictable movements made it near-impossible to surround him.  I could envelop myself in paper walls, but that would block my own vision, too, and if he knew my general location, he could cut through with his metal beams.

My one reprieve was his limited ammunition.  Whenever he ran low on metal for his attacks, he had to fly back to the ground and retrieve the raw material, giving me time to hover, think, and catch my breath.

Alright, he’s strong.  Stronger than me.  He had experience with long flights, and I had none.

The tear in my suit expanded, ripping my entire left wing in two.  Green lightning began to flicker around my arms, from the sheer effort of keeping myself afloat.  And that won’t help, either.  One wing, and running out of energy.

But I didn’t want to use my secret weapon.  My squad would find it immoral, and it definitely counted as cheating.  I need a genuine win.

Lorne gathered his metal again, and shot straight at me, reforming the molten sphere around himself.  This time, I flew further away, projecting into my left arm to compensate for my broken wing, as a headache started throbbing in the back of my skull.

He fired another beam at me, and I darted around a ruined tower, using it as cover.  He won’t blow up Paragon, will he?  For a second, he passed out of sight, on the far side of the dusty grey stone.

Then, Lorne’s sphere curved around the bottom of the tower and shot up at me from below.  Dust coated the jade glass windshield, but I could see his helmet below.

A decoy.  A classic trick.  Lorne wasn’t in the dome, he was going to attack from somewhere else.  My eyes flitted left and right, and I moved my head to the side, glancing above me, the opposite direction of the decoy.

Clear skies.  No sign of an ambush, above, below, or to the sides of the bombed-out tower.  Where is he?

Then, the brick wall of the tower exploded.

A thick, orange beam blasted out from inside the building, and slammed into my torso.  I jerked myself up and to the side, dodging in a storm of green electricity.

Too late.  Molten metal dripped from my armor.  Chunks of synthetic ceramic dropped off.  Fire spread over my wingsuit, turning it to crumbling ashes.

And the headache tripled, as Lorne darted towards me, readying another beam.  I can’t fly anymore.  I had to land, or I’d run out of energy.

So, I flew back towards the jade glass platform, where I could touch down without forfeiting the match.

Lorne fired a thick, heavy beam at me.  Powerful, but less accurate.  I darted to the side, dodging it with ease.  That one won’t track me that well.

Then he kept firing it, ignoring me.

And I saw his real target.

Lorne Daventry blasted the ousting platform itself.  His molten metal smashed into the floor, the support beams, everything, ripping the arena into blackened shreds.  Then burning the shreds into ashes, tearing them apart into millions of tiny pieces.

In seconds, the arena turned into a pile of black and grey dust.  A second later, Lorne projected into the remains, blowing them away on the wind, scattering them into the air above Elmidde.

Now, I had nothing to stand on.  Nothing to regain my energy.

I had to keep flying.  Even if it broke me.

And then, Lorne attacked me again.  With half a dozen smaller beams, this time.  Faster, harder to dodge, that moved as I moved.

I zipped left and right, up and down and diagonal and backwards to dodge them, the headache exploding inside my skull, green lightning swirling around me.  He knows I’m tired.

My dodges got slower.  Every inch of my soul felt exhausted, sluggish.

And then, one of the metal beams curved midair, and slammed me in the chest from above.  Heat washed over my body again, and I dropped out of the sky.  I projected into my armor, pushing myself to the side and upwards, slowing my fall.

But Lorne’s beam grew even stronger.  Resisting it felt like trying to swim up a waterfall.

My back slammed into something hard, and the beam stopped.  I glanced around, and saw grass.

I touched the ground.  The battle had ended.

I lost.

And I wasn’t going to war.

“Winner!” shouted Berthel.  “Lorne Daventry!”

I collapsed onto my back, too tired to even move.

Lorne hovered above me, staring down.  He stretched his hand forward, projecting into my armor, and ripped off my vest, then the thinner armor underneath.  He flicked a finger to the side, and muddy water splashed over me from a puddle, coating my face.  I spat, blinking.

“Hey, asshole!” Eliya shouted.  “The battle’s over!”  Leizu held her back, as she started at Lorne with a murderous glare.

“Leave her alone,” said Samuel.  “You’ll get written up for this.”

“You’re not going to Shenten,” said Lorne, his first words of the entire match.  “All that talk, and this is what you amount to.  How did you ever survive Commonplace?”  He splashed me with mud again, then clenched his fist.  The mud wrapped around my ankles and yanked them up, hanging me upside down.

Fuck you, Daventry.  I should have expected this from him.

“Maybe they felt bad,” said Lorne.  “For the girl living like a peasant boy.  Or your freak friends from Queen Sulphur.”  He shook me around, but I didn’t respond, my arms hanging limp as the blood rushed to my forehead.

Rage bubbled up inside my gut.  He insulted Ana.  Insulted Hira and Jun.  The people who’d helped save his precious school, and he just pissed on them, with no respect.  No honor.  And now, the friends I have left are leaving me.  Maybe forever.

“Come on,” said Lorne.  “You gonna procrastinate your revenge, too?  You gonna get drunk and cry?”

I let out a ragged yell, and activated my backup plan.  I clenched my fingers into a claw, stretching my Pith into Lorne’s armor.  Specifically, the pouch to his lower left side, filled with a synthetic ceramic plate that neither of us could project into.

My Pith stretched, ripping the pouch on the inside.  And letting the flattened explosive squeezed there pop back into three dimensions.

A low boom rang out over the grass.  I felt a thudding impact, and a spray of blood splattered on my face, blinding me.  The mud let go of my ankles, dropping me to the dirt.  I saw Lorne’s outline thump to the ground too, my vision blurred.

I wiped the blood and dirt off my face, starting forward.  As my vision cleared, I saw what I’d done to Lorne.

The boy lay on his back, staining the grass with red.  His armor vest had been blown up from the inside out, and lay in tatters around him.

Lorne’s pelvis and intestines had been turned to a pulpy mass of flesh.  The lower half of his guts had been torn up and blended by the explosive.

Oh, scholars.  My stomach wrenched, and I felt sick.

He screamed, his body shaking from the sheer agony.  Everyone else around the lawn fell silent.  Chimera Squad.  Naruhiko.  Berthel on his step stool.  All staring at Lorne, and me, with a combination of surprise and horror on their faces.

A lethal blow, if he didn’t have his replacement body on hand.  But illegal, because of how I’d got there.

Then Naruhiko moved, sprinting forward with Lorne’s replacement body floating next to him.  He ripped Lorne’s gas mask off and placed the chassis’ hand on his forehead.  Green lightning flickered around Daventry, as he transferred his Pith into the healthy body.

And as Lorne transferred and bled out, he looked at me.  And he grinned, his eyes wild.

“Not bad, Ebbridge.”  He spat out a globule of blood.  “Not bad.”

His eyes closed in his old body, and opened up in the new one.  Then he jumped up, shaking his limbs, clearing away the memory of the pain.

My ears rang from the blast, a faint, piercing sound in the distance.  I sat on the dirt, staring into space.  What the fuck did I just do?

Then Lorne walked up next to me, and stretched his hand down.  “Well fought,” he said.  “Didn’t think you had what it takes.”

I didn’t take his hand.  Did he get me angry on purpose?  Was he pushing me to see what I could do?

Lorne retracted his hand and walked away, silent.  The rest of Chimera Squad jogged over to me.  “What the fuck?” said Eliya.  “How did you do that?”  She extended her hand to me, and I grabbed it, pulling myself up.

“Jittterbird cheated,” said Leizu.  She saw with her enhanced eyes.  “She flattened a bomb before the match and put it in Lorne’s armor.  Sabotage.”

“Which is against Ousting rules,” said Samuel, a concerned look on his face.  “Berthel would have disqualified you.  But now you did it outside the match, this might be seen as assault, depending on – “

“She’s fine,” said Eliya.  “Lorne’s not going to press anything.  He was smiling at her.  And she acted in self-defense, anyway.”  Her eye glinted.  “How did you know Lorne wouldn’t find out your plan.”

“The training armor uses synthetic ceramic plates,” I said, groaning.  “A weird type, that projectors like us aren’t used to.  So when Lorne put on the armor, he wouldn’t project into the pouches.  He wouldn’t notice the sabotage.”  I glanced at the burns on my skin.  Nothing too bad.

“But Lorne got here first,” said Eliya.  “How did you know which vest to sabotage?”

“Yeah,” I said.  I projected into my own vest, floated it far away, and tore one of the pouches.  Another boom rang across the lawn, and the armor exploded.  Everyone flinched.  “I sabotaged all of them.  Snuck in this morning and used projection to take the hinges off the locker.”  It wasn’t proper military gear, or offensive weapons, so the training stuff hadn’t been locked down all that tight.

“Brilliant.”  Eliya nodded.  “Nasty, but brilliant.”

Leizu clenched her fists.  “You know why assholes cheat and maim people?  Because it’s easy.”

“Please,” said Samuel.  He clasped my hand.  “Don’t make a habit of this.”

Then, my mother strode onto the field.  She stretched her hand out, floating the other flattened explosives out of the other armor vests in the locker, pressed between sheets of paper.  They detonated above her head, one at a time, making her golden hair shake from the impacts, shining with the light of the rising sun.

She clapped, staring straight at me.

I rubbed my eyes.  “You were watching the whole time?”

She nodded.  “I wanted to see how you’d act when backed into a corner.”  She nodded.  “And Lord Daventry was right.  You carried yourself well in the battle.  Better than you did the entire last year.  You’re capable of creativity.  Focus.  Raw aggression.  Though you’ll need to learn an Autonomous Bullet Defense.”

Leizu sighed next to me.  I stepped forward, a thrill running through my body.  “And?”

“Pack your gear,” my mother said.  “You’re going to Shenten.”

That night, I gave myself a bubble bath, lying in a tub filled with coconut-scented foam.  And I wondered whether I was happy.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




If you’re enjoying the story, we’d love a vote on TopWebFiction! (Click the link, then “Boost” in the top right corner)

14-B Imposter Syndrome

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Nell

I didn’t want to fly.

For years, I’d dreamed about this day.  Soaring through the heavens with my wingsuit, free and unbound.  Watching Harpy’s plane had motivated me last year as a mercenary, when I’d been using the name ‘Wes’.

And now, I stood at the top of North Tower in Paragon, overlooking the grassy floating island where we held squad battles.  A flexible wooden platform extended out of a doorway, hanging over the clouds like a diving board.  And a strong, lightweight fabric had been strung between the arms and legs of Paragon’s practice armor.  My wings.

Everything fit perfectly.  The armor, my helmet, the wingsuit and my goggles.  All of it light and easy and simple.

I was ready to jump.

But I didn’t want to.

“You’ve trained for this,” said Professor Tuft, scowling.  “Stop fucking around and jump.  The invasion’s in just a few months, and you need to fly for that.”

Tuft hovered in the air, wind blowing through her short brown hair.  The noon sun shone down on her.  She wore goggles in place of her usual librarian’s glasses, and her wingsuit instead of her usual outfit, which resembled an elderly librarian’s.

The suit covered up her scabs and injuries, but I could still see the dark circles under her eyes.  Her pallid skin and the weary expression on her face.  Still recovering from her bout with Tunnel Vision.  With her prison body, she couldn’t transfer to a fresh chassis, and had to rely on her weak Joining to heal her.  A slow, agonizing process.

“I have to change my bandages in an hour,” said Tuft.  “Haven’t got all day.  Come on, you’ve trained for this.”

True.  In the last few weeks, I’d practiced the basics of maneuvering in a vertical chamber filled with Tuft’s projected wind.  And I’d jumped off loads of shorter platforms to drill the muscle memory into my Pith.

“And I’ll be tailing you,” said Tuft.  “If you get out of control, or close to hitting anything, I’ll take over.  And I’m much faster than you.”  

“My armor’s got Voidsteel in it,” I said, feeling material I couldn’t project into, in the narrow pouches all over my suit.  “You won’t be able to project into it.”

“That’s not Voidsteel,” she said.  “It’s an old synthetic ceramic.  We don’t use that material anymore, so most younger people can’t project into it.  But I can.”  She pointed to the grassy pavilion ahead of us.  “You just have to fly down there.  Straight shot.  And you did fine in basic training.  You’ll be a good flier.”

But the fear wasn’t holding me back, either.  I’d trained and practiced and studied for this.  Even though the boring, painful parts of the lessons.  I’d used the techniques I’d perfected with Hira to maintain my attention, keep my mind active and learning.  I knew I wouldn’t crash.

But I’d dreamed of this for so long.  What if it’s disappointing?  What if it didn’t live up to my expectations?

Memories rushed through my mind.  Samuel’s kiss.  Getting my mother’s business card – the symbol of her approval.  And that Whisper Vocation she’d put on me, the one that dissolved my whole sense of self.

Ana and Hira’s faces flashed through my head.  Dead.  Both dead.  I clenched my teeth, taking a sharp, rapid breath.

Cheering rang out in the distance.  I glanced down at the grassy island below.  A boy and two girls stood on the edge, waving at me and making noise.  Samuel, Leizu, and Eliya.  Chimera Squad.  My friends, and my fiance.  They’d finished their first flights over the last few minutes.  I was the last in line.

Nell!  Nell!  Nell!”  They cheered my name, pumping their arms in unison.  “Nell!  Nell!  Nell!

I glanced down at myself.  Paragon’s practice armor covered my body, hiding most of its contours, but I could still feel everything.  Could still hear that name, that had been locked away for a year.

It all felt so strange.  Familiar, but strange.  Like coming home, only to realize your bedroom had vanished.

I squinted, making out Samuel’s elegant, chiseled face.  Beautiful, comforting.  But strange, too, in its own way.  Uncomfortable.

Nothing is turning out the way I expected.  And what if nothing ever went back to normal?  What if everything would always feel off-color, like an itch in my mind that couldn’t scratch, like I was watching myself through a pane of foggy glass?

I sighed.  You have a beautiful fiance, wonderful friends, and money.  I had nothing to complain about.  Stop complaining, jump off the platform, and just have fun.  My throat clenched.

“Hey.”  Harpy softened her voice.  “Look at me, Nell.”

I looked at her.

“Ignore them,” she said.  “Don’t focus on me, either.  Don’t think about the drop, or what it means, or anything larger.  Look at the big picture too much, and you’re gonna tie your brain in knots.”  She jabbed an arm stump in my face.  “Shut your brain the fuck up.  Right now it’s just you, your suit, and the air.  That’s it.”

Alright.  I nodded, and let my thoughts go blank.  I pushed away the discomfort, the questions, the endless background noise in my mind.

And I stepped off the edge.

My stomach dropped, and I fell through the sky head-first, my arms and legs flattened to my sides so my wings didn’t open.  Wind rushed in my ears, deafening, but the suit kept me warm as I accelerated downwards.

The grassy island floated in front of me, with only the open sky and Mount Elwar below.  I’m not about to hit anything.  So I closed my eyes for a moment, and let myself free fall.

Harpy’s voice rang in my ears, carried on the projected wind.  “Nell, you’re falling too far, you’ll undershoot the island.  You need to fan out your arms and legs.

“Open your wings!” Leizu shouted at me.  “Open your wings!”

I’m fine,” I whispered, knowing Harpy would carry it to her ears.  “I know what I’m doing.

My eyes snapped open, as I undershot the grassy island where my friends stood.  I projected into my training helmet, made of a metal I could project into, unlike the ceramic of the suit.

I pulled my helmet up, making my body flat, horizontal.  The islands of Paragon shrunk above me as I fell.  I’m about to pass outside the deceleration field.

Then I spread my limbs, opening the wings of my suit.  The wind caught me like a sail, and I shot forward through the sky.

I flew.  The suit accelerated me forward, and I darted under the grassy island, wind whipping past my goggles.  My arms wobbled, and I projected into the outside of my suit, stabilizing myself.

Left to its own devices, the wingsuit was just a glider.  It could move me forward, but I’d lose altitude, and couldn’t fly up.

So I projected into the rest of the suit.  The parts of it that weren’t the old ceramic plating.  And I pushed.  I accelerated myself forward, adding thrust to my glider.

Then I pulled, turning the suit vertical again and soaring up, up, up.  I flew above the floating island, watching my friends gape at me from the grass below.  Then I flattened myself and shot forward again.

Flying felt natural.  More natural than most of the things I’d done the past few weeks.

The assignment was just to fly straight and land.  No one else had gone past that.  I’d already overstepped by flying under the island and going back up.

But I felt like doing more.  So I stayed in the air.  I circled over the grassy island.  I did loops, vertical, one after the other.  I flattened my arms, let myself fall, then stopped myself at the last minute, soaring back into the sky.  Green lightning crackled around me, and my temples ached.  But I kept projecting, kept doing spins and spirals and flips.  My raw projection’s grown over the last year.

For a moment, it felt like I had left my body.  Like I’d was just a Pith, a free spirit soaring through the air.

Chimera Squad kept cheering, impressed by my antics.  Finally, my Pith grew too tired to keep me afloat, and I landed on the lawn, jogging and slowing myself to a stop.

Samuel and Eliya and Leizu ran up to me as I caught my breath, their faces lit up.  Samuel approached me, at an intimate distance, and kissed me.  I kissed back.  He’s beautiful, stop overthinking it.

Leizu rapped my shoulder with the back of her knuckles.  “Not bad, Jitterbird.  Not bad.”

Eliya snorted.  “Showoff.”  But she still looked impressed.

“You’ve got to be more careful,” murmured Samuel.  “Reckless behavior could get you hurt.”

Eliya elbowed him.

“But that was some nice flying,” he said, smiling.

“If you say so, squad leader,” I said.  Still getting used to that.  At my recommendation, Samuel had taken my place as the head of Chimera Squad, even after I’d returned.  I’d been gone for a year, and didn’t feel comfortable being in charge for a while.

Samuel still didn’t want the job.  But I’d asked.  So for now, at least, Samuel would lead us.

And I could fly, free of the burdens of leadership.

“You’re using too much energy.”  A boy’s familiar voice rang out from across the grass.

We turned to look at the source.  A pretty boy with pitch-black hair approached us, staring at us with cold blue eyes.  Lorne Daventry, accompanied by a tense-jawed Nekean boy.  Naruhiko.

What are they doing here?  Maybe they were up next for flight training.

“What?” I said.

“Those fancy flips feel nice and everything, but they’re worthless in battle.  They’ll just slow you down, waste your energy with all the altitude gains.  Just makes you free pickings for the eastern dogs.”

Leizu bristled at that phrase, but didn’t say anything.

“You wouldn’t last sixty seconds against a normal Shenti Joiner,” said Lorne.  “Much less one of their commandos.”

Stay calm.  Hit back, and don’t show vulnerability.  That’s how my mother would handle this.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I don’t have much battle experience.  But at least my squadmate wasn’t a mole.”

Lorne snarled.  Matilla Geffray, his first-year squadmate from last year, had been Commonplace’s inside agent here, enabling the Pyre Witch and her goons to break into the academy.

Lorne’s other squadmate, Deon, had died in the battle.

“How many people lost their lives here?” I said.  “On the dirt we’re standing on.  How many of our friends and classmates?”  I sighed.  “We fought side by side, Lorne.  This prep school bullying routine is getting old.”

“I remember.”  Lorne clenched his fists.  “I just got back from my best friend’s funeral, moron.  And I remember a lot from the last few months.  Like when my mother had the Pyre Witch in her sights, before your girlfriend, Anabelle Gage, betrayed us and used an illusion to save the enemy.”  His eyes bored holes into me.  “Do you remember why she did that, Lady Ebbridge?”

I avoided his vicious stare.  Samuel stepped in front of me, a human shield from Lorne’s words.

“Because you got captured by the enemy.  Because, for all your chaotic strategies and last-minute saves, you got in the way when it mattered.”

“Shut it, Lorne,” said Eliya, glaring at him with her one eye.  “Go polish your knob with bleach, and leave the rest of us normal people alone.”

My friend is dead,” said Lorne.  “Because of your failure.”

I squeezed my eyes shut.  Shut up, shut up, shut up.

“But I shouldn’t be so harsh on you,” he said.  “You can probably relate to me, considering what happened to your real squadmates.”

Ana and Hira and Jun.  Dead, or captured by a genocidal monster.

“She saved this country, you ignorant pus sprite,” said Eliya.  “None of us would be standing here if she hadn’t warned us about the Paragon attack.”

I opened my eyes, and Lorne spread his arms, gesturing around him, at the broken towers, the ash-stained walls, the piles of rubble.  Most of the debris had been cleaned up in the last few weeks, but some remained, lit up by the noon sun.

“Does it look like she saved the country?” said Lorne.

“She did more than you, rich boy,” said Leizu.

“Finish your business and leave,” said Samuel.  “Why are you here?”

“For you, Chimera Squad,”  Lorne said.  “I wanted to be the one to tell you.  You might want to step up the pace with your wingsuit training.”

“Stop being vague,” said Leizu.  “Just spit it out.”

“The invasion’s starting in a week,” said Lorne.  He looked straight at Leizu.  “Chimera Squad’s going to war with your best friends.”

What?  “Whaleshit,” I said.  “The Shenten invasion isn’t starting until the end of the winter.”

“Yeah,” said Leizu.  “Daksha the Butcher was the last one who tried a winter invasion there.  Very long time ago.”

“What happened?” I said.

“As I recall, he fell into a lake of ice water,” said Leizu.  “I guess you could say he froze under pressure.”

No one laughed.  Eliya patted her on the shoulder.

“Why did they move up the invasion date?” said Samuel.  “They must have had a reason.”

Lorne laughed.  “You think I’d tell you?”

“So soon,” I murmured.  “The last-minute prep’s gonna be a nightmare.”

“Oh,” said Lorne, laughing.  “I forgot to mention.  The real Chimera Squad’s joining the invasion.  You get to stay home and fatten yourself on tea cakes.”

The world dropped away from me, becoming blurry, distant.

“You’re not included, Nell,” said Lorne.  “We’re going to war without you.”

________________________________________

I knocked on the door to my mother’s office, floating a mirror next to me to make sure my hair looked proper.

Eliya had helped me with my makeup, and selected a trim blue dress for me.  Tight across the chest, but it looked elegant.  The outfit of a well-mannered court lady.

As I knocked, my mind drifted to Lorne’s news.  We’re going to war without you.  I was going to be separated from my friends again.  I’d worked so hard to get back to them, and now, they were leaving again.

And this time, it might be for good.  I can’t protect them from an ocean away.

Taking them away was just cruel.  But Admiral Ebbridge might be able to do something.

“Come in,” her voice called out from inside.

I opened the door.  Admiral Ebbridge sat at her desk, writing on a pair of typewriters with projection.  She still wore her blonde Maxine Clive chassis, even after the events at Paragon.  It looked like she was writing in a pair of books, with an ink that I couldn’t project into, obscuring the words.  Her Vocation codex.  That Afzal Kahlin had coveted so dearly.

When she saw me, her face lit up.  Has she ever reacted like that before?  Seeing enthusiasm in her eyes still felt strange.

“Ah, Nell,” she said, pausing her typing.  “Have a seat.”

I sat down, making sure to sit up straight and maintain proper posture.

“I read your latest chemistry exam.  Excellent work.  I shall have to up your allowance.”  She folded her hands on her desk.  “But that is not why you came, I think.”

Don’t beat around the bush.  My mother liked directness.

“My squad is going to war,” I said.  “But I’m not.”  I paused, taking a breath.  “Did you have something to do with this?”

“Perceptive,” my mother said.  “You figured it out quick.”

My throat clenched.  Stay calm, don’t yell at her.  If I talked back, she might use that ego-dissolving Vocation again, and I would have no chance of joining my squad.

“Why?” I said.  “You said it yourself.  The war is a chance to reclaim our family’s glory.  To build a magnificent legacy.”

“True,” said my mother.  “And you’ve done marvelous work so far, my daughter.”  Her voice hardened.  “But still.  You are not ready for war.  You don’t even know how to make an Autonomous Bullet Defense.”

“What of my performance over the last year?” I said, keeping my voice steady.  “I have more experience in the field than most of the students in my year.”  Except for Lorne, who’d started fighting at a young age, and Leizu, who’d been a Shenti wingtrooper before defecting here.

“True,” my mother said.  “They’re not ready for war, either.  Even weakened, the eastern dogs have a talent for butchery.  I would never say it publicly, but a single commando could match half a dozen of our Guardians, at least.  And many of our younger graduates have no experience fighting Joiners.”

“You’ve beat commandos, haven’t you?” I said.  During the last Shenti war, when she’d fought alongside Isaac Brin, Harpy, and the Pyre Witch.

“No,” my mother said.  “We lost.  I barely escaped.  If I face one again, I can’t speak to my odds.”  She scowled, staring down at a map of Shenten on her desk.  “Normally, I wouldn’t push students into this, but Commonplace killed a great deal of Guardians.  And their coup attempt in the military took out a substantial chunk of our army and navy talent, once we finished our vetting process.  We need every projector we can to fill our ranks.”

“But not me.”

“Yes,” she said.  “I’m sparing the first-year students, and you.  I wished to save Samuel Pakhem as well, due to the importance of our marriage alliance with his family.  But his parents would not allow it.”  She sighed.  “I will have to keep him away from the worst fighting.  We cannot afford to lose your pairing with him.”

“And what of our legacy?” I said.  “What of opportunity?”

My mother smiled.  “We have a far larger crop of first-years this fall, to make up for our losses.  You will help teach the new generation of projectors.”

What?  “I am to be a….teaching assistant?”

“Many of our professors will be overseas, fighting.  And there will be many students.    The task shall be difficult, especially for your temperament.  But it is important, nonetheless.”

“Is that even legal?” I said.  “Training that many projectors at once.”

“Yes,” she said.  “But only because we lost so many.  You’re referring to the Yokusei Pact, yes?”

I nodded.  That’s what they call it, isn’t it?

“The pact limits the numbers of trained projectors for any individual nation.  All the great nations have maintained it, even during the Shenti War.  Breaking it would mean chaos, an arms race of world-shattering power.”

“Because projectors are dangerous.”

She nodded.  “It is critical to ensure that there aren’t too many of us.  Isaac Brin broke this, when he hired his mercenaries.”

Queen Sulphur.  Us.

“A stunning transgression,” she said.  “Were it not for his esteemed record, he may have been memory-wiped and exiled, or put to death.”  She leaned forward. “But this new crop of students exists to fill in for our losses.  It will not put us over the limit.”

“But,” I said.  “This war.  It won’t be that deadly, will it?”  I stared down at the map.  “The Shenti aren’t an empire anymore.  After the Spirit Block, they’ve collapsed into infighting and poverty.  Until the Black Tortoise came back, they were a bunch of disparate warlords squabbling amongst themselves.”

“All true,” said my mother.  “But in the last decade, our spies and informants in Shenten have dried up, one by one.  Other than the basics, we know little of what’s going on there.  And are you familiar with Cao Hui’s Vocation?”

“He’s a Praxis Specialist, right?” I said.  “Something to do with economics.”

“A more accurate term would be logistics,” my mother said.  “Nowadays, wars are not won in singular, epic battles.  They’re not won through brilliant strategy, or mighty projectors.  They’re won by industry.  The nation that pumps out the most tanks, planes, ships, and oil to power them will win.”

“And that’s where Cao Hui comes in.”

She nodded.  “When he orchestrated his coup against the Emperor, some divisions of the Shenten army still used crossbows.  But by the time he started invading his neighbors, no Domain in the Eight Oceans could match his war machine.”  She rested her elbows on the desk and massaged her temples, a rare show of vulnerability.  “Only a fool would underestimate such an enemy.”

I bowed my head.  “I apologize.”

“You asked questions in good faith,” my mother said.  “Never apologize for that.  And as I said, your task is important.  You will have opportunities to distinguish yourself, help make a name for this family.  With you safe, reducing the risk of our alliance with the Pakhems being shattered.”

“While staying home.”  Away from my friends.

“Study,” my mother said.  “Train.  Grow stronger.”  A dark look passed over her face.  “You’ll get your taste of war soon enough.”

I nodded.  The rational argument didn’t work.  So I only had one tactic left.

“Commonplace butchered my classmates,” I said.  “And the Shenti funded them.  The people that I care about most in the world are going to fight them.  I’ve grown up with them, studied with them, drank with them.  I’ve shared secrets and confessions and pain with them.  When I was at my lowest, they dragged me back to the light, saw potential in me when no one else would.”  I looked my mother in the eye.  “Let me repay the favor.  Please.”

“You are young,” my mother said.  “So I will accept this, for now.”  She stared at me, unblinking.  “But your emotions have no place in this decision.”

I kept my face passive.  At the same time, I clenched my fists under the desk, at an angle where my mother couldn’t see it.  The frustration built under my skin, ready to burst forth like a popped balloon.

She has a point.  In a few places.  And it wasn’t like I could challenge her authority.

But I couldn’t abandon my friends.  I couldn’t watch them sail away on a battleship, and sit at home playing teacher, waiting for terrible news to come about Leizu, or Eliya.  Or Samuel.

I stood up and bowed.  “I understand, mother.”

Time to look for alternatives.

________________________________________

Headmaster Tau ate lunch in the tents where the Banquet Hall used to be.  Humdrum construction workers moved around the edges of the space, rebuilding the structure.  You’d think that all the food would be filled with sawdust and bits of concrete, but projectors were special, I suppose.

Various Paragon teachers sipped on bowls of fish soup around the administrator’s table.  I noticed Harpy, Professor Derrington, and Professor Olwen.  None of them spoke, too tired to strike up a conversation.

The headmaster sat at the end of the table, twirling his spoon to make patterns in his soup.  He stared at it with a vacant look in his eyes.  Splashes of tomato stained his black beard and the front of his beige suit, from where he’d spilled it on himself.  A bit of crab had fallen in his shoulder-length hair, and nobody had pointed it out.

Nicholas Tau still looked middle-aged, on the surface, but if you watched for more than a second, you could see the depth of his age.

“Headmaster?” I said.  “Do you have a minute?”

Tau didn’t look up, still stirring his fish soup.

“Excuse me, Headmaster?”  I raised my voice a hair.  “Headmaster?”

Professor Derrington tapped Tau on the shoulder.  “Nicholas,” she murmured.  “A student’s here.”

Tau blinked, and dropped his spoon.  It splashed into his soup, and he glanced up at me.  Recognition spread across his face.  “Afternoon, miss.”  He smiled at me.  “What can I do for you?”

“I understand you’re busy,” I said.  “But could I ask for a few minutes of your time?  Alone, if possible.”  Headmaster Tau didn’t have office hours, and some of the higher-level professors bristled at someone that much lower on the hierarchy asking for their time.  “I understand that’s a serious request.”

Tau beamed at me.  “Of course!  I always have time for my students.”  He stood up, and the bit of crab fell out of his hair.  “Want to talk in my office?”

A few minutes later, Tau was guiding me through the half-broken Great Library, past more construction workers and up temporary ladders in places where the staircases had broken.  He flashed his Level Five library card at one of the security checkpoints, but even with his authority, it still took us forever to get through the Whisper-Sec and ID confirmations.  Not taking any chances after last time.

As Tau climbed up the ladders ahead of me, my throat clenched for a few moments when his grip loosened and it looked like he could fall.

Pith aging is a true nightmare.  Maybe that was why he’d accepted my request, and had walked off in the middle of lunch.

“This is a lot of ladders,” I said.

Tau laughed, and nodded.  “My body double keeps my chassis fit, so it’s not so much of a problem for me.  Besides – “  He gestured around Level Four, where glowing, unbound pages swirled through the air, arranging themselves in geometric shapes.  “What a view, right?”

We climbed up into Level Five, the sphere with warped gravity that Commonplace had invaded.  Where Parliament died.  And I’d been too slow to save them.

Before, the mysterious Librarians had defended the high-level books here, like they did in the other Great Libraries.  But the Pyre Witch had incinerated them all.

Now, ranks of Humdrum soldiers and Guardians stood here, ready to slaughter anyone who came through unauthorized.  Headmaster Tau gave his passwords, and we walked around the sphere, the floor becoming the wall, then the ceiling as we traveled to the far end, upside-down.

Tau pressed a button, and clockwork mechanisms spun.  An elevator rose out of the floor, shaped like a blue filigree cage.  The door swung open, and we stepped in.

I’ve never seen Headmaster Tau’s study before.  Even Maxine Clive hadn’t gotten this far.

The door shut itself, and the elevator descended into the floor, gears whirring.  The world went dark around us for a few seconds, and it became impossible to distinguish up from down.

Then we emerged, into the sunlight.  And I stared, frozen to the spot.

Because the elevator was floating in the open air.  The blue cage flew straight up, giving us a spectacular view of the islands of Paragon Academy, and the sloped city of Elmidde far below.  No cable pulling it.  No wind or projection or obvious magnetism.  Just the spinning gears, untethered, propelling us into the sky.

Below us, I saw the conical levels of the Great Library, with the temporary patches from where the Pyre Witch had blown holes in the wall.  We must be in the tower.  Which meant it was invisible from the inside.

Permanent projection.  Like the floating pages in Level Four of the Great Library.

That shouldn’t be possible.  But here we were.

The elevator rose through a platform that seemed to be floating in the air, just like us.

We passed through the darkness again, and emerged in Headmaster Tau’s study.

And in contrast to the elevator, it looked quite simple.  A desk sat in the middle of the room, with some cushioned chairs and a folded blanket.  A set of bookshelves sat behind it, illuminated by the warm noon light from the many windows on the walls.

No, not windows.  There were no windows in the Great Library.  Some of the walls must be invisible from the inside.  Just like the rest of the tower.

I glanced up.  Sunlight glinted off a giant metal sphere above me, hanging from the tall ceiling.  The Eight Oceans and the continents of the world had been engraved on its surface, and a pair of tiny moons had been hung near the edges of the room, attached to their own steel mechanisms.  A globe.

Headmaster Tau lifted a finger, and a record spun on a gramophone, playing soft classical music.  He strode forward, sat down behind his desk, and slumped back in the chair, closing his eyes.  His head lolled to the side, and his chest rose and fell, slow and steady.

Did he just fall asleep?  I knew his Pith was old, but I hadn’t expected it to be this bad.  He didn’t even say anything to me.

“Um, Headmaster?” I said.  “Headmaster?”

No response.  At least he isn’t snoring.

I coughed, clearing my throat.  “Headmaster Tau?”  I raised my volume just a hair, shifting back and forth on my feet, fingers tapping against my pant leg.

Still nothing.  His face looked peaceful, like a great burden had just been lifted from his shoulders.

I inhaled, taking a deep breath.  Let’s hope this doesn’t make him pissy.  “Headmaster Tau!”  I shouted.

Headmaster Tau’s eyes snapped open, and his gaze darted around the room, taking in his surroundings.

Then, he sighed.  “Please excuse me.”  He gestured to the chair across from him, and I sat down.  “So, what did you want to talk about?”

I explained my situation to him.  “I love my friends,” I said.  “They’ve kept me going when no one else would.  And now, they’re going to war without me.  My mother wants me to stay home for my safety, and I understand, but – “  I looked Tau in the eye.  “What about my squad’s safety?  What about them?”

The Headmaster nodded, folding his hands together with a thoughtful expression.

“And I wanted to ask for your advice.”  So you can use your clout to get me back with my squad.  But I couldn’t say that up-front.  “You’ve lived through so much, and I know you’ve gathered untold wisdom.”

“Would that the Conclave of the Wise cared for my wisdom as you do.”  Tau massaged his tired eyes.  “If they’d asked for my opinion, I would have told them to stay home.  Don’t pursue this mad war.  Don’t get innocents killed.”

“But they didn’t listen to you.”

Tau gave me a wan smile.  “I’m not Headmaster Tau, anymore,” he said.  “I’m just a senile old man with dreams of peace.  Sometimes, I feel as if forces are moving about in Paragon that I cannot sense.”  His shoulders sagged.  “I can no longer see into this academy’s heart.  It’s darkened to my gaze.”

I leaned forward.  “But you made the Spirit Block,” I said.  “You still don’t think war is necessary?  After all the students they killed?  After Parliament?”

Tau gazed out through one of the transparent walls with a regretful look in his eyes.  “Our own citizens did this,” he said.  “The Black Tortoise just helped.  If we’d built a better world for them, then maybe none of this would have happened.”

I stared at my feet.  He has a point.  The Shenti had funded Commonplace, but the movement had some legitimate concerns, mixed in with all the terrorism.

“I saw Isaac growing marigolds behind the stands in the pavilion, today.”  Tau’s face lit up.  “He’s starting a flower garden, I think.”

“That’s nice,” I said.  But what does this have to do with anything?

“We should be building gardens,” he said.  “Not warships.”  He brushed a bit of soup from the edge of his mouth.  “Or seafood restaurants.  The crab in this city isn’t what it used to be.”  His voice quickened.  “I think overfishing in southeastern quadrants of the Eloane Ocean has changed the composition of the ecosystem.  As a result, there are fewer crabs, and they tend to be blander.  Less of a salty bite to them, you know.  Nekean crabs have much richer flavor, but that’s because their government puts strict limits on the fishing trade to ensure a more stable environment.  I think if we shifted national policy, then – “

He continued his strange tangent about the Principality’s shellfish industry, a faraway look in his eyes.  I sat there, half-listening.  Be polite.  Don’t interrupt him.

Tau paused for a moment, to take a breath.

“Headmaster?” I said.  “We were talking about the war?”  This used to be the smartest man in the Eight Oceans.

“Ah, yes,” he said, his mind drifting back to reality.

“A decade ago,” I said.  “The Black Tortoise almost conquered all Eight Oceans.  Only the Spirit Block stopped him.  With his Praxis Vocation, Shenten could turn into an unstoppable force again.”  Like my mother said.

Tau shrugged.  “I don’t know.  But I am sure of one thing: No matter how desperate we are for projectors, none of our students belong in a war.  You included.”

“Why?” I said.  “We’re of age.  We’re not children.”  The Principality recruited Humdrum soldiers as young as eighteen.  Though Tau probably didn’t approve of that, either.

“War breaks something in you,” said Tau.  “And when you’re young, that something is the foundation of your soul.  The roots from which the rest of your life will grow.  Break when you’re older, and you can regrow yourself.”  He got a heavy look in his eyes.  “Break when you’re young, and you’ll have those scars forever.”

I sighed.  He’s not going to get me to the front lines.  His pacifism reminded me of Jun, with a much younger body and a much older mind.  He needs my help, too.

“So I can’t give you special treatment,” said Tau.  “Even if I know how you feel.”

“I understand,” I said.  “But in that case, could you get the rest of Chimera Squad to stay back?  Then I wouldn’t have to worry about their fortunes in the war.  And I’m sure we could use the help back here.”

Tau put a hand on my shoulder.  “I will do what I can.”

“Thank you.”  That’s the best I can hope for, now.

“But this academy respects power and intelligence,” he said.  “Mine, I’m afraid, are decaying at quite a rate.  Please.  Don’t be too disappointed if I fail.”  He leaned back in his chair, a soft exhale escaping his lips.

Should have expected that.  Tau’s influence wasn’t what it had been, either.

I stood up and bowed to him, even though it wasn’t custom.  A show of gratitude.

When I straightened myself, Headmaster Tau had already fallen asleep again.  If I’d seen what he’s seen, maybe I’d be tired too.

But he’s not wearing a coat.  And clouds had passed over the sun, turning the weather more chill.

Before I left, I picked up the blanket from his desk and draped it over him.

In his dreams, Nicholas Tau smiled.

________________________________________

I shot a slip of paper at Leizu.  She tensed her legs and leapt over it, flipping forwards.

As she jumped, I fired another dozen sheets at her, closing in from behind her.  She can’t maneuver as well when she’s airborne.  Her Joining was her fastest tool, and she needed something to push off for that.

But Leizu knew that too.  She projected into her clothes, dragging herself onto the grassy hill of the pavilion.  Then she darted left and right, contorting her body to avoid my attacks.

Not one bit of paper touched her.  But I kept going, launching feints and counters and surprise attacks all at once.

If I touched her with paper, I won.  If she lasted another ten minutes, she won.  A game of tag.  And practice, at the same time.

Leizu bent her legs and leapt five stories into the air, high above any of my paper.  She flipped in the air and laughed, showing off.

As she twirled, I ripped my sheets of paper, splitting each one into a dozen scraps.  Smaller, faster, and covering a wider area.  Then, before she hit the ground, I came at her from every angle, a sphere enclosing her on all sides, with no hole large enough for her to fit through.

Red lightning crackled around her fist, and something moved there, so fast I could barely see the blur.  A cone of force blasted out, knocking aside half my sphere with a dull boom and clearing a path for her to escape.

“Oh,” said Leizu, her tone light.  “Is that your best, Jitterbird?”

“Yes,” I said.  “I’m very weak.  Please lower your guard some more.”

Leizu didn’t fall for it, and we kept up our game.  Her Joining gave her body strength, agility, and speed, but it had blind spots, too.  Weaknesses.  And this is good practice for fighting Joiners.  There would be a lot of them in Shenten.

“Hey,” said Eliya.  “Your move.”

My attention flitted back to the Jao Lu board on the picnic blanket in front of us, and the clock ticking down for my turn.

I was multitasking today.  For training.  And for fun.  Flipping back and forth helped keep my attention, so I didn’t get too bored from any one task.

“Ambush,” I said.  “You just fell into my ambush.”  I squinted at the hexagons on the board, and moved my dancing painter forward.  “No, wait, I’m a turn too early.  Shit.”  Shouldn’t have said that out loud.

Eliya moved her blue charlatan back, avoiding the ambush I’d just told her about.  She sipped a mug of mulled cider, a thin smile playing across her lips.

Normally, with my Jao Lu obsession, I’d crush her, but with my attention divided, we were having an even game, for once.

Samuel sat on the picnic blanket next to me, studying a book written in Shenti.  Preparing himself for the war.

While I stared at the board and moved, he leaned over and planted a kiss on my cheek.  I jumped, surprised.  “What?  What was that for?”

He smiled at me.  “Nothing.  Just wanted to kiss my fiance.”  He ran his fingers through my long black hair.  “Your hair is so pretty.”

“Oh, right.”  I smiled at him.  So sweet.  And his face still looked perfect, beautiful.  Attraction wasn’t the issue.  So why does it still feel so strange?  Maybe I was still getting used to this life.

Eliya rolled her one eye, the other behind a blue eyepatch.  “Gross.”

“My red-hot boyfriend?” I said.  “Or the fact that you’re still losing?”

“Both,” she said, pressing the button on the clock.  “Your move.”

I sipped the mulled cider.  It tasted better than last time.  Less sickly sweet, more balanced.  And I let my shoulders relax.

This is nice.  This was what I’d fought for.  Getting to spend time with my friends, with Samuel.  Being home.

My stomach twinged, and my shoulders tensed again.  Everything felt heavier, more exhausting, like I’d sunk chest-deep into a river of mud.

I relaxed my Pith, letting the pieces of paper attacking Leizu drift to the grass of the pavilion.  Leizu darted sideways, keeping a safe distance.

“Everything alright?” said Samuel.

“I’m thirsty,” I said, taking a sip of mulled cider.  I could use a drink.  A real drink.

Samuel stared at me.  “Be strong.  You can do this.”

I pushed the thought of liquor away from my mind, and it crept back at the edges.  You can’t ruin things now.  No matter how lost I felt, I couldn’t lose all my progress.

But how long would that last, if my friends went away, into snow and blood and violence?  If I had to weather all of this alone?

“It’s fucked up,” I said.  “That all of you are going to the invasion, but not me.”

“We could train you some more,” said Samuel.  “Get you an ABD.  Try to convince your mother that you’re strong enough.”

I shook my head.  “Doubt it’d change her mind.  I just get to be a fancier Grey Coat, trying to teach projection to a thousand smarmy first-years at once.”

“You were a first-year pretty recently,” said Samuel.

“Yes,” I said.  “So I know what I’m talking about.  First-years are idiots.”

“Trust me,” said Leizu.  “You’re the lucky one.  A real war will break your spine.  Leave you sobbing on a pile of corpses.”

And she knows that better than most.  Even after the war, Shenten had been fighting with itself constantly.  Leizu had served as a wingtrooper for one of the many warlords there.

“Yeah,” I said.  “And you guys have to go into that hell without me.”  I sighed, leaning back on the picnic blanket.  “I should stop whining.  I have a fortunate life, wonderful friends, a beautiful fiance.”  I squeezed Samuel’s arm.

And I don’t know what else to try.  Now that my mother hadn’t budged, and Tau probably couldn’t do anything, I’d arrived at a dead end.

“I feel fortunate too,” said Samuel, giving me a sad smile.  “You’re going to be spared the worst horrors of war.  I don’t have to worry for your life.”  But you are going to worry for my liver.

I sat up and glanced around the pavilion, at the other students.  Studying, practicing projection, throwing a ball around.

Just a few weeks ago, this lawn had been filled up with body bags.  Endless rows of Green Hands and Guardians and students.

I imagined Samuel and Eliya and Leizu joining those lines of corpses, and felt sick.

“Stay safe, alright?” I said.  “If any of you die, I’m going to hunt you down in the afterlife and give you a paper cut.”

“I promise,” said Samuel.  Eliya and Leizu nodded agreement.

As Leizu nodded, I brought a tiny slip of paper up behind her and scratched her behind her ear.  She jerked, ducking down and darting to the side, but it had already grazed her.

“Got you.”

Leizu snatched the paper out of the air, crumpling it up in her fist.  For a moment, her muscles tensed, and it looked like she was about to get mad.

Then, she grinned at me.  “Well struck.  Another round?”

I nodded, reset the clock, and shot a volley of paper at her.

________________________________________

After another two rounds, Samuel and Eliya had classes, so we all went our separate ways.  After all that, the uneasy feeling stayed, a discomfort at the back of my throat.

So I went to Midtown, to my favorite store: Impeccable Bath Goods.  They offered all sorts of products, but their finest offers were bubble baths.  Glass bottles of liquids that you could drop into your tub, to elevate your bathing experience to a whole new level.

I’d missed them during my stint as a mercenary last year, so I used them all the time, now.  And I’d ran out yesterday.

I pushed open the door and strode in.  At three in the afternoon, the store had emptied, so I had it all to myself.

My eyes passed over the shelves, looking for Coconut Paradise, my favorite brand, made by the owner of the store himself, rather than bought and shipped in.

The shelves marked ‘Coconut Paradise’ were all empty.  I sighed.  Should have got here sooner.

“Hey,” the clerk said, behind the counter.  “Looking for Coconut Paradise?”

I glanced at him and nodded.

“Sorry, we’re out of stock.  Resupply in a week or two.”

“Alright.  Thanks anyway.”  I turned to leave.  Nothing’s going right for me today.

“But,” said the clerk.  “If that’s your favorite, I can show you our experimental supply.”

“Experimental bubble baths?”

He nodded.  “Stuff we’re still mixing in the back, and aren’t ready to show to the public yet.  Crazy stuff, that moisturizes your skin and keeps the water warm and smells great.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “Alright,” I said.  “You’ve piqued my interest.  Show me.”

The clerk opened a door behind the counter, and I followed him into the back of the store.  We went through a hallway, and past an office, before the clerk pushed open a door to a storage room.  “Right this way.”

I stepped up to the room, and froze.

A middle-aged man with brown hair and a thick neck sat in the center of the room.  Leo.  The bar owner who’d taken me in after my Ousting.  Who’d become a secret member of Commonplace.

“Leo?” I said.  The fuck is he doing here?  “I thought I said we’d never see each other again.”

“Leo isn’t here,” said Leo.  “He’s lending his body for the time being, so we can talk.”

“Lending?”  I clenched my fists.  “To who?”

Not-Leo sighed.  “I’m sorry to approach you like this, but I can’t be seen with my normal face.”  He chuckled.  “And to be honest, I didn’t want to remind you of your mother.”

Then, it came to me.  The identity of the woman inhabiting Leo’s body.  The only option that made sense.

I staggered back, reaching my Pith for paper around the room.  “You’re – “

“How’s it going, Wes?” said Maxine Clive.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




If you’re enjoying the story, we’d love a vote on TopWebFiction! (Click the link, then “Boost” in the top right corner)

14-A Imposter Syndrome

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

“My name,” I said.  “Is Grace Acworth.”

Down the street, the group of mobsters leaned in, crowding around the radio at the center of their table.  I could pick out their faces.  Eda Fortescue.  Arthur Radley.  Avice Drayton.  And many more.  Tunnel Vision’s lieutenants.

I spoke into the microphone, my voice transmitting to them in their building fifty meters away.  From this abandoned house, I had a good view of them through my pair of binoculars, squinting at their meeting through a dusty window.

Our meeting, technically.  I’d called this gathering of Elmidde’s underworld, on this empty street in North Island.  One of the mob’s safehouses.

I let go of the talk button on my radio.  “Say the word, Ana,” said Left-Hira.

I looked up from my binoculars.  Right-Hira crouched next to me in the dark room, aiming his pitch-black sniper rifle out of a broken window.  Left-Hira sat next to her, peering through a spotter scope.  Ready to open fire on my subordinates at a moment’s notice.

At least half of the mobsters had ABDs, and with our resources stretched thin, we only had a handful of Voidsteel bullets.  But Hira could still cause a lot of misery with that weapon.

Left-Hira held up a watch, showing the exact time.  3:08 in the morning.  And fourteen seconds.

My stomach twinged.  Soon.  It’s happening soon.

Then I spoke again.  “I am the Pyre Witch, “ I said, in my high, brighter voice.  Still not used to this body.

Murmurs of interest from around the table.  They all knew, of course.  Some of them had been told years ago, and others had found out after my radio broadcast on Verity.  But Grace had never talked about it openly like this.  Me sharing it like this could be a sign of trust, or a new chapter in our relationship.

None of them looked suspicious, though.  None of them seemed to catch on about their new leadership.

I thought it’d be harder to impersonate Grace.  But with the codes and the notes Hira had stolen, I just had to adopt her personality.  The cold, righteous fury.  The desperation, and the vicious determination.  All of it came to me like breathing.  The high-level decisions I’d been making would seem odd, but these were odd times, and Acworth was known for unconventional gambits, that seemed confusing or unknowable at first.

To top it off, many of Grace’s most competent lieutenants had been killed in the Battle of Paragon.  The ones left were less competent dregs.  And Clementine hadn’t warned them.

The masquerade wouldn’t last long, but I didn’t need it to.

“Paragon Academy has dealt us a great blow,” I said.  “With their victory in the skies.  As a result, we’ve instituted a great many changes.  And I’m sure you have questions.”

Nods around the table.  Just a single, dim bulb lit the mobster’s room, but I picked out a few irritated glares, or clenched jaws.

“You have undergone memory wipes on many critical aspects of this organization.  Passwords, locations, methods operations.  Revenue branches have been shut down.  Protection fees.  Prostitution.  Drug running.  And sales of defective bodies.”

“Ma’am,” said Eda Fortescue.  “Not to question your decisions, but all of those were vital for our income.  We can’t sustain ourselves without them.  My portfolio has tanked in value.”

I saw the frustrated look spread across the woman’s face, and closed my eyes.  I felt Fortescue grip my wrist in Clementine’s dining room, preventing me from leaving.  Hey.  Isn’t Ana a girl’s name?  She’d pricked a bulging vein on my chest with a cheese knife, after I’d stripped in front of her.  Stay still, please.

Other mobsters chimed in, agreeing with her, their voices tight, irritated at their losses of money, their inability to pay the down payments on their yachts and beach houses.  If it had been any other mob leader, they would have been screaming.  But Elmidde’s criminal underworld had learned to fear Tunnel Vision, and her unpredictable nature.  A fact that had helped me set up this meeting.

“Enough,” I said.  “We spent the bulk of our resources on the Paragon assault.  We need these changes.  To protect us.”  From what I’d heard, Commonplace had employed a similar stripping-down of their operations, to hide from Paragon.

But Commonplace didn’t have rich mobsters to please.

Left-Hira tapped her watch again.  3:11.

My stomach clenched.  It’s late.  I needed to keep holding their attention.

So I continued, going off-script.  “I told you my true identity for a single, critical reason.”  I took a deep, slow inhale.  “You’re not like Commonplace, who wanted to reshape this country.  Or the Shenti, who wanted revenge.”  My voice turned cold.  “All of you care about money.”

Arthur Radley spoke up, cautious.  “Ma’am, I’m not sure that’s an entirely fair – “

“When I took over the Principality’s mob,” I said.  “You survived by staying obedient.  By following my lead and not making trouble.  But you never believed in any of it.”

“That’s not true, ma’am,” said Eda Fortescue.  “We care more than anyone about the mission, the – “

“You hijacked people,” I said.  “Got them to kill innocents, commit suicide.  You murdered and stole the body of a student.  You allied with genocidal tyrants who almost conquered the Eight Oceans.  Then, you lied about our connection to them.”  I clenched my binoculars.  “You did terrible things.”

Avice Drayton raised her voice.  “You did all that stuff, too.  You ordered us to do it.”

“Yes,” I said.  “And I thought I had a good reason.  You just did it for money.”  I sighed.  “But in the end, it doesn’t matter.  Because we failed.  We’ve all done the unforgivable, no matter our reasons.”

This time, the mobsters didn’t have a comeback.  They just sat there, unsure of what to say.

I closed my eyes, thinking of everything I’d done over the last year.  Shooting that boy.  Killing so many mobsters, so many Green Hands, and forcing them to kill each other.  Making that broadcast with Christea Ronaveda, stirring up the country against the Shenti.

“I don’t like the person I’ve become,” I said, truthfully.  “I loathe it.  So, perhaps I’ll be someone else for a while.  Another person, a better person.”  Strive to be an Exemplar.  Write the next page.  “And I once hoped that you could change, too.  No matter what you’ve done.“

More noises of confusion and frustration from the mobsters.  A few of them stood up from their chairs, suspicious.  “Why the fuck are we here?” muttered one of them.

“But we don’t get the world we dream of,” I said.  “All we have is this imperfect, rotting universe, and we have to make compromises.”

Left-Hira tapped me on the shoulder, and pointed.  I glanced up into the night sky, and the two crescent moons.  Something moved in the distance.  Human shapes, flying through the darkness.

Human shapes with wings.

“What I’m saying, is,” I continued.  “You all deserve second chances.  But I’m not giving them to you.  So I came here to apologize.”  My voice tightened.  “And to say farewell.”

Everyone in the room started shouting at once.  I turned off the radio, silencing their voices.

The winged humans dove straight down on the building from above, pressing their arms to their sides.  Grenades floated out of their belts and curved through the air, smashing through the windows of the room.

A flash of light and a peal of thunder rang out from inside the room, then darkness.  Stun grenades.  Other explosives shot out of the flying humans, blowing out chunks of the roof.  The figures shot down into the building, punching holes in the top.

Gunfire and shouting broke out inside the building.  Flashes of blue and green lightning.  Bursts of fire.  Even from down the street, the din made my ears hurt.  A low boom rang out, making our building shake.

Guardians.  A few minutes late, but they’d still shown up.

“Alright,” I said.  “Time to go.”  I stood up in the dark room, and stuffed my binoculars into my backpack.  Hira floated the radio equipment and her sniper rifle into a duffel bag, filled with laundry to stop the metal objects from clanking against each other.

It only took us a few more seconds to pack up.  I glanced at the street, making sure nobody was looking at us.  Right-Hira slung the duffel bag over his shoulders, and Left-Hira projected around the room, pulling in the dust and oil of our fingerprints from the floor, the door handles, and the windows.  Leaving no trace.

We left the house on the ground floor, the opposite side from the fighting, leaving a building between us and the Guardians.  The two of us had dressed in dark, shabby plainclothes.  If anyone saw us, they’d think we were just more homeless people, fleeing from the loud noises.

Two alleyways and one street away, we arrived at the shore of North Island, and a boat waiting for us, bobbing up and down, tied to a half-broken pier, hidden from view by a ruined building.

We stepped onto it.  Then Right-Hira untied it, and we sailed off, away from the dying remnants of the Principality’s mob.  Hira projected into the outside of the engine, stopping its vibrations and muffling its sound.

Our boat slid across the dark waters of Meteor Bay, painted a navy blue to blend in.  As North Island and the rest of Elmidde shrunk in the distance, I looked behind us with my binoculars, scanning the starless sky.

No movement.  My former subordinates were keeping the Guardians busy.  They weren’t pursuing us.  A greenish-silver glint caught my eye from a window, then vanished.  Is that something?  It was too far away to see.

“Well,” said Left-Hira.  “I’d say that went well.  Though I still think the whole idea is whale.”

I nodded.  Almost every lieutenant and middle-manager in the Principality’s mob had been arrested or killed in a single night.  When Paragon captured the survivors from the battle, the memory wipes would ensure that they couldn’t spill critical details about me and Hira.

The operation had gone off without a hitch.  I’m not a mob boss anymore.  I was just Anabelle Gage, with a submarine, some money, a few legitimate businesses, and a very strained intelligence network.  Which was still more than I’d ever dreamed of a year ago.

But still, that twinge in my stomach didn’t go away.

Anabelle Gage wasn’t enough, anymore.

I fished the radio out of Hira’s laundry bag and started it up again, tuning it to a specific channel.  My subordinate stood on the other end, connecting me to a payphone.  They probably wouldn’t be able to trace this, but, just in case, I was doing it on a boat, not in our safehouse.

“Don’t fuck this up,” said Left-Hira.  “Or they’ll hunt us down and kill us.”

I nodded.  “Do it,” I said, into the radio.

Acknowledged.

On the other end of the radio, my subordinate shoved a few coins into the payphone and dialed the number.  The phone rang for a few seconds.  The boat bobbed up and down on the moonlit water, as Hira drove it across the bay, and the islands of Paragon Academy floated high above us, lit up with multicolored lights once again.

Then someone picked up the phone, and a man’s weary voice rang out from the radio.  “Isaac Brin.  What is it?

I stopped breathing for a moment.  It worked.  Brin had given me his business card a while back.  Luckily, his number hadn’t changed, even with a demotion.  And he still answered phone calls twenty-four-seven.

Or he wasn’t sleeping.  He just said ‘Isaac Brin’.  Not ‘Major’, not even ‘Professor’.  His illegal mercenary program had gotten him punished a great deal.

Hello?” said Brin.  “Who is this?

I took a slow, deep breath.  “This is Anabelle Gage,” I said.  “Calling from Grace Acworth’s body.”

Silence.  The waves lapped up against the boat, and a chill autumn breeze blew across the water.

I’m sorry,” he said.  “Please repeat that.

“I’m Anabelle Gage,” I said.  “Your former employee.  I killed Grace Acworth, and took her body for myself.”  I gave him my verbal password, one of the old ones I’d used to confirm my identity with him.

Another long silence, as he processed this.  I don’t blame him.

If you’re really Anabelle Gage,” he said.  “You’ll forgive my skepticism.  You could have tortured the passwords out of Miss Gage, used your Praxis Vocation to mimic her patterns of speaking.

She almost succeeded at that.  “Yeah,” I said.  “I wouldn’t believe me either.”

And even at her greatest heights,” said Brin.  “Anabelle Gage was never capable of taking you on.

Thanks for the vote of confidence, teacher.  Though he was right, mostly.

“The other battles exhausted her,” I said.  Then I explained what had happened inside the submarine, inside Akhara’s Gate.  Everything, minus the bits where I saw Grace’s memories and admitted how right she’d been, on so many points.  “It’s a ridiculous story,” I said.  “But it’s true.”

Hm,” said Isaac Brin, thinking.

“That’s why Paragon’s intelligence department got an anonymous tip yesterday,” I said.  “Informing them about a meeting of high-level mobsters.  They’re being arrested as we speak.”

I got fired from counterintelligence,” said Brin.  “But I heard about that.

“Would the real Grace Acworth do something like that?” I said.  “Give up almost all of her people, reduce her power that much?”

Probably not,” said Brin, sighing.  “Unless she thought it could get Paragon off her back.  Get us to pursue a different target.

Fuck.  I wasn’t getting through to him.

You want to prove your identity?” he said.  “Show us your Whisper Vocation.  Set up an in-person meeting with us and show that you’re capable of making illusions.  Grace Acworth could never mimic that fully, and you never wrote a Vocation Codex for her to read.

“You know I can’t do that,” I said.  “A meeting with public enemy number one?  Even if they confirmed my ID, they’d arrest me at best.”  At worst, they’d put a Voidsteel bullet through my skull from a thousand yards away.  I had no delusions about me and Hira’s fighting ability.  Not against top-level Guardians.

The Black Tortoise is public enemy number one,” said Brin.  “But.  I understand.  This means we’re at an impasse.”  His remorse sounded genuine.  “I’m sorry.  I’ll relate this information to my superiors, and you might not be our priority anymore.  But I can’t promise we’ll stop hunting you.

“Yeah.”  I slouched over on the boat, massaging my temples.  “Yeah.”

Even if you did kill my old friend.”  His voice sounded regretful at that.  Even if it’s just a name.  That name attacked our nation.  It butchered our students, murdered our parliament.

No, a conspiracy within Paragon did that.  Given Isaac’s demotion, I could guess that he wasn’t in on it.  But I couldn’t know for sure.

There have to be consequences.

I closed my eyes, seeing Kaplen’s cherubic face, his bright smile.  “I understand.”

And even if they believed it was you,” he said, his voice crackling.  “You never got a pardon.  There’s still a warrant out for your arrest.  Rogue projectors are seen as a threat.

“I know,” I said.  “I know.”  I stared up at the bright lights of Paragon Academy, cold and piercing in the night sky.

You knew it would end this way, Miss Gage,” he said.  He called me ‘Miss Gage’.  He believed me, even if his superiors might not.  “So why did you make this call?  That can’t have been your only reason.

“You taught me my Nudging defense,” I said.  Part of it, anyway.  “The foundation of my skills.  You used me, treated me like a cheap investment, but still.”

I’m sorry,” he said, like it meant anything.

“You didn’t finish me off on that boat,” I said.  “And you made me a mercenary.  A Grey Coat.  ‘This is your chance’, you said.  ‘A poor chance, but your last one.’”

Yes.

“I called you to let you know,” I said.  “You gave me a life.  And I’m not going to waste it.”

Stay safe, Ana,” he said.  “For both our sakes, I hope we never see each other again.

“Till next time, Isaac Brin.”  I turned off the radio.  On the other end, my subordinate would hang up the call, set up a timed memory wipe as a contingency, and leave, on the off chance they’d traced his payphone in that short time.  But I doubted it.

Hira’s boat slid into a cloud of dark fog.  And for a moment, Paragon Academy seemed to vanish.

________________________________________

I slumped down on the couch, letting out a slow, ragged exhale.  Every inch of my body felt exhausted.

“Stop looking so glum, bitch,” said Right-Hira, wearing a bright yellow dress.  “The operation worked.  And that Guardian bastard actually believed you.”

I rolled over on the couch to face him.  He sat on the far side of the coffee table on a cushioned chair, puffing on his purple hookah.  Grey morning light shone through the sliding door, illuminating the cloud of smoke around him.  Still morning.  I hadn’t slept much after the operation.  I still wore my stealthy plainclothes from last night, instead of pajamas.

Cardamom jumped on my couch and curled up next to me, purring.  “Sure,” I said, petting him.  “I guess.”

The chair next to Right-Hira was empty.  Tasia had jumped on a ferry to visit her sister.  An urgent trip, after a year of being Nell Ebbridge and being forced to cut off contact with her old life.

The girl had seen something in Paragon, something that disturbed her.  And she’d promised to talk about it, and her research, as soon as she got back.

I hadn’t objected to this.  It made perfect sense.

But until she got back, we couldn’t leave.

I picked up a fresh newspaper on the coffee table and unfolded it, reading the headlines.

PARLIAMENT DECLARES WAR ON SHENTEN

Parliament had made it official, but the newly rebuilt Conclave of the Wise had made the real decision, and would be overseeing the day-to-day operations of the war.

A hybrid government, they called it.  The loyalists loved it.  Commonplace, less so, but the political organization had been vanquished, with almost all its Green Hands.  Riot police were more than sufficient for its civilian supporters, and their various sources of news.

We’re running out of time.

“Ana,” said Left-Hira.

I jumped, startled out of my thoughts, and looked up from the newspaper.  “Yes?”

Left-Hira strode out from the hallway, dragging a cart full of wooden crates behind her and wearing a grease-stained mechanic’s uniform.

I sat up, rubbing my eyes.  “What are those?”

She projected into one of the crates and pulled the top off, showing off the contents.

Fireworks.  Rows and rows of fireworks, orange and purple and all sorts of colors, shaped like rockets and sea animals and various other shapes.

“I skill-stitched a few experts,” said Right-Hira.  “Modded them out.  Figured that without Jun here, we gotta make our own explosives, right?”

“I guess,” I said.  Doesn’t the mob have its own weapons caches?

“I found this empty cove to the south.  Only accessible from the sea, no hiking trails nearby, nobody.”  She grinned.  “Wanna test this shit out?”  Her eyes gleamed.

I sighed.  “This isn’t about preparation, is it?  You’re just playing around with fireworks.”

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “But it’ll be fun.  And this way, you get to feel like it’s all part of the master plan or whatever.”

“Can’t,” I said.  “I’m working.”  I picked up another newspaper from the coffee table.  A Nekean publication, translated to Common, since local sources weren’t reliable anymore.

BLACK TORTOISE CLAIMS THE PYRE WITCH IS INNOCENT

I gaped, and skimmed through the article.  After revealing Christea Ronaveda’s recording about Parliament, Cao Hui had dropped another news bombshell, in preparation for the real ones he’d be dropping in a few months.

The woman known as the Pyre Witch was an enemy, the quote said.  But our conflict was a tragic misunderstanding.  And the woman known as Tunnel Vision was a friend.  A tragic hero, fighting against the Principality’s imperial reach.

He continued, spinning a story of Grace Acworth’s noble struggle against the Principality, most of it true.  Though he left out the part where she set his redemption camps on fire.  Grace might have accepted your help.  But she didn’t trust you.  She might not have even known that the Black Tortoise had returned.

“Why do this?” I muttered.  “What does he gain from massaging my reputation?”

“The Pyre Witch’s reputation,” said Right-Hira, glancing over my shoulder.  “Maybe he thinks she’s still alive, and is trying to curry her favor.”

“He cut off contact with us.”

Hira shrugged.  “Then it’s probably just more propaganda.  Trying to demoralize the Principality, trying to rile up the world and his people against the invasion.”  She slammed the lid back on the crate.  “This is good.  If the Shenti like Tunnel Vision, that makes things a lot easier for us.  You can keep that disguise, and maybe that’ll open a door or two.”

I nodded.

She patted me on the shoulder.  “Cheer up, Ana.  You’re popular, now.”  She dragged the cart full of fireworks into the hallway.  “Now let’s go blow up the sky.”

I sighed, and picked up my to-do list from the table and held it up to her.  “There’s a ton of work to prep for our trip to Shenten.  We haven’t even tested the submarine properly.”  My breath quickened.  “And the crew – “

“The crew is fine,” said Hira.  “They won’t betray us.  Even if they found out our identities, they care more about stable paychecks than whoever their boss is.  And they’ve been working around the clock.  By the time Tasia gets back, we’ll have a sea creature that can fuck up battleships.  Just calm the fuck down, and we can – ”

“We can’t make mistakes!” I blurted out.  “Or Jun dies.”

Hira fell silent.

“I got us into this mess,” I said.  “I got us to break into Ronaveda’s home.  I made that radio broadcast and incited the whole country against the Shenti.”

“Yeah,” said Right-Hira.  “But you’re doing the right thing now.  You can’t waste time wallowing in your guilt.”

“And,” I said.  “I helped Wes back into Paragon.  Got him mixed up in this Egress conspiracy madness.”

“You did do that,” said Right-Hira, puffing on his hookah.

“And we failed to protect Jun,” I said.  “He’s probably in a frozen cave somewhere, getting tortured by the Black Tortoise.”

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “But the Shenti don’t like body-swapping, so they can’t torture Jun too much, or he’ll die.”

“The Shenti didn’t like Grace, either,” I said.  “We don’t know shit.”

I projected into the bookshelf at the edge of the living room, and floated the Lavender Book into my hand, flipping it open.  “And we still can’t read any of this.”

Tasia had tried her hardest.  She’d tried translating it into different languages, including mathematical ones.  She’d tried to use one of us to store individual bits of information, then have Hira stitch from them.  She’d made copies of the pages, and individual letters, then tried to read them far away from the original book.  Everything she could think of.

But nothing worked.  Nothing cracked open the secrets inside.  The Shenti had already tried those gimmicks for The 99 Precepts, and they hadn’t worked then, either.

I flipped to the page with the drawing of the oracle snake, and the dead storm krakens laid out like Akhara’s Triangle.  “None of this makes sense,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“And I’m not sure how this ‘Egress’ conspiracy works,” I said.  “But I’m guessing that we’re running out of time.”  I tapped the pages.  “We need a lead to make sense of this.  And we need a lead to figure out Jun’s location, because we have no idea where he is.”

“Yeah,” muttered Hira.

“Fucking around with fireworks won’t get us a lead,” I said.

“Neither will sleep deprivation, dumbass,” said Left-Hira.  “Remember last year?  Around your birthday, when you worked yourself to death?  And you turned into a bitter, desperate fuckwit with no morals.  Though you kind of did that year-round.”

“That was different,” I said.

“Yes,” said Left-Hira.  “Now, you’re a bitter, desperate fuckwit with a functioning moral compass.”

The truth was, I didn’t have the overwhelming workload of last year.  I didn’t have Paragon schoolwork.  No essays or tests or pop quizzes to study for.  And I wasn’t Lorne’s Grey Coat, so I didn’t have to run errands for him.  Tunnel Vision’s people ran errands for me, and I didn’t have to stress about prices at the grocery store.

And I wasn’t a mercenary, anymore.  I didn’t have missions every week to prep for.

But I still worked myself like before.  I still had sleepless nights.

Because you don’t deserve a break.  I didn’t deserve rest.  Every night, I closed my eyes and saw my old face, bathed in purple sunlight, vomiting blood at my feet.  I saw the mob on Gestalt Island, burning down Shenti homes and businesses after my speech.  I saw the bodies, filling the halls of Paragon Academy.

Blood rushed in my ears, and I stared at my feet.  We’ve committed great sins, the two of us.  It would take a lifetime to atone for them.

“I have to fix this,” I said.  “Even if it means breaking myself.”

“You,” said Hira, “need to stop giving too many fucks.  Or the fucks you give are going to give back and fuck you.”

“What?”

“You should blow up some fireworks with me.”

I stood up and walked out onto the porch, staring out at the grey skies, and the endless dark waters of the Eloane Ocean before us.  Our path forward.  And our enemy.

“Every minute we spend here is a minute lost,” I said.  “The day, the second Tasia gets back from her trip, we need to leave for Shenten.”  I frowned.  “I can’t waste time with fireworks.  Even if it’s fun.”

Hira walked outside with both her bodies, Cardamom perched on her shoulder.  She leaned against the railing, and sighed.  “Alright,” she said.  “Want to look at the sub?”

________________________________________

The motorboat cut through the fog, sliding across the waters of the ocean.

“We parked the submarine in one of Tunnel Vision’s hidden spots,” said Hira.  “That random passers-by wouldn’t just stumble on, that wasn’t near any settled places or footpaths or military bases.  And that random boats won’t pass by.”

“But not too far from Elmidde,” I said.  Cardamom poked his head out of my backpack, nuzzling the back of my neck.

The waves crashed against a cluster of jagged rocks ahead, deadly obstacles in our path, half-obscured by the fog.  Cardamom dove back into the bag, hiding.

“Yeah,” said Left-Hira.  “So it’s not that easy to get to.”

Both Hiras lifted their hands, projecting into the boat, and steered it through the rapids, holding it and pulling it so the waves wouldn’t dash it against the rocks.

I clutched the side of the boat, flinching at every sudden turn, cold saltwater spraying into my face.

“Listen,” said Hira, as she twisted and turned the tiny ship through the watery labyrinth.  “I’ve already taken some looks at the submarine.  I’ve had chats with the crew, and we’ve got everything under control.”

When Hira says ‘under control’, that usually means ‘on fire’.  “I don’t know,” I said, rocking back and forth as the boat bumped on the waves.  “Let me see it, first.”

“As you wish, princess.”  Left-Hira indicated her hand forward, and we passed out of the fog.

The grey clouds vanished, and the sun shone down, warm.  I gaped, staring at the view before me.

A small, rocky island sat in the middle of the ocean, bathed in warm sunlight.  And the submarine floated next to it.

A massive, pitch-black tube of metal, smooth and elegant and curved.  It looks different than at night.  In the day, with its bulbous, protruding bow, it seemed more like a grand ocean mammal than a vehicle.  A mechanical whale, with a conning tower and a metal fin in place of a blowhole, and a pair of torpedo tubes instead of a mouth.

It had first belonged to the Radio Man, a mobster.  Then Grace Acworth had stolen it from him.

And now, it belongs to me.  To us.

“Gorgeous, isn’t she?” said Hira.

Something swelled in my chest.  “It’s beautiful,” I breathed.

A blonde man walked on top of the sub, carrying a toolbox.  He waved at us, smiling.

“Vice-Captain Glenham,” said Hira.  “He’s in charge of the day-to-day shit on the sub.”

I gazed over the submarine, watching the sunlight swallowed by its black paint.  “What is it called?”

“The Radio Man’s family called it The Elder Kraken.  Grace called it ‘the submarine’.”

“And you?”

“I thought we could wait for Tasia, come up with something fun.”  Hira’s motorboat pulled up next to the submarine, and we climbed up onto the deck.

Vice-Captain Glenham offered me a hand and pulled me up, smiling.  “Madame Gage,” he said.  “A pleasure to meet you face-to-face.”

My throat clenched, and I threw an auditory illusion onto Hira.  “Madame Gage?

“Oh, right,” said Right-Hira, floating herself on top of the submarine.  “Forgot to mention.  The Vice-Captain knows about us.”

“How?”  I clenched my teeth.

Left-Hira shrugged.  “I was hanging around the sub a lot.  He put two and two together.”  Right-Hira patted me on the shoulder.  “We talked, I stuck my hands in my pockets, and we’re all fine.  Glen here doesn’t care about Tunnel Vision’s cause, or avenging her.  He just wants to get paid, isn’t that right?”

Vice-Captain Glenham bowed, not breaking his smile.  “I look forward to our business relationship.”  Then he straightened himself.  “Now, what can I do for you?”

Tunnel Vision here wants a tour of the submarine.  Wants to see if everything’s ready for our field trip.”

“Certainly,” the Vice-Captain said.  He walked to the hatch on the top.  “Follow me.”

Right-Hira slid down the ladder, into the sub, and I climbed down after him.  The last time I came here, I was breaking in.  Hiding from the crew, thinking up ways I could defeat Grace.

The Vice-Captain led us through a narrow metal hallway, the walls and ceiling covered with metal pipes, levers, and wires.  Not a lot of wasted space.  This ship would be our home for the next few months, at least, and Cardamom’s, if we took him.  Big downgrade from the summer house.  But my comfort wasn’t important.

“Everything does something,” said the Vice-Captain.  “So please avoid touching any of the wheels or levers.”

He led us past watertight doors, down staircases and through the claustrophobic hallways I’d seen before.  We passed men and women, dressed up in plainclothes and carrying wrenches or screwdrivers.  They paid us no mind, shouting orders to each other, pulling levers and running tests on the complex machinery in the walls.

And then, the Vice-Captain showed us places I hadn’t snuck through before.  The CIC, the combat information center, filled with screens and chairs, and dials, where the captain could coordinate action and receive critical intelligence.  The dorms, with the tiny bunk beds where we and the crew would sleep.  Hira and Tasia and I didn’t get our own room.

And the engine room, where a diesel mechanism thumped in my ears, keeping the lights on.

“This motor is really loud!” I shouted over the engine noises.  “How stealthy is this thing?”

“Ah,” said the Vice-Captain, with a knowing smile.  “We run on an electric motor when we submerge!  If we used the diesel engine underwater, the sub would fill up with toxic fumes!”

“Which would kill us,” said Right-Hira.

“Rest assured,” said the Vice-Captain.  “When it comes to stealth, the Elder Kraken can hide with the best of them.  It even matches up to some of the latest Nekean models.”

I stepped out of the engine room, closing the door to muffle the noise.  “And if we do get spotted?”

“The makers of this sub wanted an emergency getaway,” said the Vice-Captain.  “Or a hidden command center.  They weren’t preparing for open war.”  He pointed to a rack with two torpedos sitting on it, secured.  “We’ve got four of those, and a heavy machine gun up top, for point defense.  But if you go up against a battleship, or worse, a carrier, I can’t vouch for our chances.”  He smiled.  “But we’re more than capable of fleeing one of those monstrosities.”

“See, Tunnel Vision?” said Hira.  “We’re fine.  Calm your tits.”

“And projectors?” I said.  “What happens if a Joiner gets close and starts tearing holes in our hull?”

The Vice-Captain pointed up.  “The heavy machine gun has a belt of Voidsteel ammo.  Past that, it’s up to folks like you to keep the boat safe.”

“I barely know how to swim,” I said.  Hira was giving me lessons, but like many things, I was not a natural.

“This is modern warfare, Madame,” he said.  “Projectors are critical for success.”

He led us to a large storage room near the bottom of the vessel, filled with lockers, and piles of crates stacked at the back.

“So,” I said.  “Long-distance journeys.  How often will we need to resupply our food and water?  And where would we refuel?  The Principality isn’t just going to let us use their refueling ships.”

“Excellent questions, madame,” said the Vice-Captain.  “I see you are possessed with a keen mind.  With rationing, our food and water supplies can last for months.  For fuel, previous owners used a vessel disguised as a civilian ship.  It could fill up with diesel at an ordinary location, sail out here, and fill the tank up.”

“And if we go overseas?”

“In Ilaqua or Neke, the same tactic could be used,” he said.  “Assuming we could maintain a low profile.  The Neke’s naval defenses are known to be exhaustive.”

“And in Shenten?”

The Vice-Captain’s smile cracked.  “We have enough fuel to get us there.”

“And to get back?”

“We will need to find another method.  I can’t vouch for the safety of Shenten’s ports.”

And it’ll get worse when the war starts.  Shenten was filled with inlets and lakes and deep rivers.  Having a submarine could be helpful there.  But we might not even be able to take it back.  And we and the crew would be stranded on a war-torn, icy hellscape.

“We’ll figure something out,” said Hira.  “You’re an illusionist.  All it takes is one refueling ship full of Humdrums, and we’re golden.”

“We’re going into war,” I said.  “This isn’t a back-alley gunfight.  We’re not trained for this.”

“You weren’t trained for back-alley gunfights, either,” said Left-Hira.

“You left us,” I said.  “Before Paragon.  Because the prospect of a real battle terrified you.”

“The prospect of father capturing my legless ass terrified me,” said Hira.  “And that was before we got the stealth sub.  You’ve been improving your pistol aim.  Tasia’s been reading up on the enemy’s Joining techniques.  And I’ve been putting all the rest together.“  She looked me in the eye.  “We can do this.

And what about Jun’s location?”  I threw an auditory illusion over Hira, speaking to her without the Vice-Captain hearing.  “What about the Lavender Book?

Hira didn’t have a retort for that.  Not out loud, at least.

“On the whole,” said the Vice-Captain, smiling, ignoring our argument.  “It’s a spectacular vessel, if I may say so.  With these specs, and these capabilities, it was likely one of the former Tunnel Vision’s most expensive possessions.  If you weren’t using it, you could sell it for a solid fortune.”

“Thanks, Glen,” said Hira.

“There’s one more room,” said the Vice-Captain.  “A room you’ve been to, I think.”

He led us through a hallway, and showed us an empty metal room.

Then, Right-Hira pulled open a wall panel, spun a series of number wheels, and pressed a button.  The numbers whirred, and a hidden closet door opened up on the far wall.

Revealing the portal to Akhara’s Gate.  A glowing hole cut in the back of the wall, bordered by flickering lightning.  Before, it had been tied to Grace’s Pith.  The lightning had been purple, and the doorway led to a frozen lake, and a metal factory inside.

But Grace was long-dead.  The electricity had turned pale, its light dimmed.  And rather than a world, the portal opened up to a white void.  Blank and empty.

“I haven’t fucked with this,” said Hira.  “Not after I read Tunnel Vision’s notes.”

I stared into the emptiness.  “What did they say?”

“It doesn’t say where she got it.  But it took her years to step in and bind it to her Pith.  And she still didn’t understand half of its powers.  The bitch seemed to respect it, in her way.”

“Why?”

“Because,” said Left-Hira.  “According to her notes, the gate kills about ninety-five percent of the people who try to open it for the first time. They walk in and never walk out.”

Shit.  “That’s a problem,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “Bet you wanted to use it as your special secret lair.”

“No, I mean we left something in there,” I said.  “Something important.”

Left-Hira indicated her head to the Vice-Captain.  “Give us a minute.”

He bowed his head and stepped out.  The door swung shut behind him.

“We got the Lavender Book,” Left-Hira hissed.  “We got your machine pistol.  We even got her knife, and your old body for your funeral thing.”

“I saw another book,” I said.  “It was near the top of the factory, in her office.”

“Only two books in an office,” said Right-Hira, musing.  “Then it was – “

“Her Vocation Codex,” I said.  “For her Praxis Vocation.  Or maybe something else.  I can’t be certain, but it looked rougher than a Paragon book.  And what else would be valuable enough to keep there?”

Fuck,” muttered Right-Hira.  “Why the fuck didn’t you tell me back then?”

“I didn’t put two and two together,” I said.  “And it probably fell in the lake, anyways.  We couldn’t have found it before the world collapsed.”  I shrugged.  “It probably got destroyed with the avalanches and everything.”

“Maybe,” said Hira.  “Or it’s floating in the void there, somewhere.  Waiting for someone to open Akhara’s Gate and take it again.”

Grace’s Praxis Vocation.  The ability to focus around a single goal, perfecting one’s mind for it and nothing else.  A power that had let her stay five steps ahead of Paragon Academy for the majority of last year.  But it also likely drove her to atrocities.  To view people as disposable objects for her quest.

A terrifying power.  One that destroyed both you and your enemies.

But it didn’t matter, if it was sitting in Akhara’s Gate, with only a five-percent chance of survival if we tried to open it.

“Is there any way to boost our odds?” I said.  “Did Grace’s notes mention what made people succeed and fail at their efforts?”

Right-Hira shook his head.  “I considered throwing all the nastiest enemies we could find in here, too, until one of them got lucky and opened it.  But the five-percent success rate was from highly-trained projectors.  With the intense desire to take control of the gate.  I don’t think we’ll get results with prisoners.”

I glared at him.  “And we’re not treating prisoners that way.”

“Sure,” said Hira.  “Whatever.”

“But,” I said.  “It could be the key to unlocking the Lavender Book.  To saving Jun.”  I stared into the blank portal.  “We need some sort of clue.  Grace’s Praxis Vocation could give that to us.”

“Assuming one of us could learn it,” said Hira.  “And that it wouldn’t turn our brains into soup.”

“But you say that going in is a ninety-five percent fatality rate,” I said.

“For me?  For you?  Make that ninety-nine percent.”

I nodded.  “Then we don’t need to take that risk right now.”

Left-Hira exhaled with relief.  Then she gestured around her, at the walls of the submarine.  “Well?” she said.  “Do you feel calmer now?  This ship is incredible.  I’d have killed to have stolen one of these when I ran away from home.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “We’re all set.  Except if we fight a skilled Joiner, we’ll lose.  And if we fight a battleship, we’ll lose.  And even if we avoid both of those things, we’ll still run out of fuel before we can get back to the Principality.”

Hira sighed.  “You’re never fuckin’ calm, are you?”

I’ll calm down when this world stops being a death trap.  “This is good work, Hira,” I said.  “You did good.”

Hira smiled at that.

Someone knocked on the door.  “Madame!”  The Vice-Captain shouted.  “Message for you, over the encrypted telegram!”

Left-Hira opened the door and snatched it out of his hands, reading it.

“What is it?”  Did Paragon find us out?  Were there Guardians on their way here?

She smiled, and looked up at me.  “Tasia’s back.”

________________________________________

Hira stayed on the sub, saying she had a few more things to wrap up.  One of her bodies helped me navigate back out through the rocks, and I sped back to the safehouse, seeing another boat already parked on the beach.

I burst through the front door.  A freckled boy sat on the couch, reading a book.  Cardamom lay on his shoulders, batting around his light brown hair.

Not a boy.  And not Wes, either.  Tasia.  Still had to get used to that.  Tasia carried her body differently, to be sure.  She sipped tea from a porcelain mug, dainty and precise in a way Wes never would have done.  Her eyes looked bright, eager as she flipped through her book, rather than frustrated.

And I caught a hint of black liner on the edges of her eyes.  Wes never wore makeup, either.

“Tasia?” I said.

Tasia half-jumped out of the couch.  “Scholars!”  She still sounds like Wes.  “Didn’t hear you come in.”  She put Cardamom down on her purple suitcase and ran to me.  We hugged each other, a long, comforting embrace.

We broke off, and I sat down on a couch chair across from her.  “How was your trip?”

A smile spread across Tasia’s face, lighting it up.  “Sarah’s alive.”

Yes.”  Sarah made it.  Tasia had excised the tumor in her Pith, but at the cost of aging her sister by decades, crippling her mind with Null Particles and putting her on the verge of death.  But she’s still clinging to the world.

“I still have time,” breathed Tasia.  “Not much.  But more than I’d thought.”  She closed her eyes.  “People still die of Pith cancer.  People still die of normal cancer.”  She shook her head.  “This is a barbaric age.”

On that, we can agree.  “And your father?” I said.  He hadn’t been kind to Tasia or her sister, especially after finding out they were projectors.

“He’s furious at me.”  She pet Cardamom’s long green fur, closing her eyes.  “For messing up her Pith.  And he has every right to be.”  She smiled.  “But he’s taking care of her.  He’s keeping her active, working her mind.  He’s probably the only reason she’s still alive.”

My parents would be furious at me too.  For stealing their money, for my speech about the Shenti.  But I hope they’re taking care of each other.  That the money I’d sent had gotten to them.

“I gave them the money,” said Tasia.  “And after a lot of yelling, he agreed to move with her to a new location.  A safer location.”

“Where?”  Not a lot of safe places these days.

Tasia shrugged.  “I encrypted the memory.  If we ever get captured, I can delete it in less than a second.  She’s gone on an important mission, and there might still be enemies after her.  She can’t be anywhere obvious.”

“And did you find anything?” I said.  “Anything that could help our mission.”

Tasia floated a notebook out of her suitcase, flipping it open.  “This is Sarah’s notebook.  A member of her expedition gave this to me.  I hid it before I got Ousted, but parts of it were written in code.”  She floated a second notebook, filled with scribbling in Tasia’s handwriting.  “I found the cipher in Sarah’s room.”

“And?”

Tasia sighed.  “She went searching for the Buried City.  A Great Scholar ruin in the deserts of Ilaqua that mostly exists in myth.  She was trying to find out why they died out.  Why they drowned.”

Which relates to the Lavender Book.  And the oracle snakes.  And those strange fractal patterns, Akhara’s Triangle.

“I don’t think she ever found it,” Tasia said.  “But she did stumble on a few key insights.”  She flipped to the middle of the notebook.  “The Great Scholars succeeded at defeating Null Particles.  In discovering immortality and limitless Praxis vocations.”

“And then they drowned,” I said.

“Yes,” said Tasia.  “But not until nine centuries later.  The two might not even be related.”  She stared at the Lavender Book, sitting on the shelf.  “Something happened in those nine hundred years, that set them on the path to calamity.”

“More questions,” I muttered.  And not many answers.

“And Sarah found an insight for my work,” Tasia said.  “It’s impossible to destroy a Null Particle.  That’s why they keep building up in the Piths of old people.”

What?  “But you just said the Great Scholars defeated Null Particles.  How did they manage that, without destroying them?”

“I don’t know,” said Tasia.  “But, it seems that, in her own way, Sarah was working towards the same goal as me.”  She stared at the notebook.  “She was helping save herself, even though she didn’t know it.”  Her hands shook.  “But – she was barely breathing.  Her eyes were open, but she wasn’t looking at anything, and – and – “

I sat down on the couch next to her, and gave her another hug, squeezing her shoulders.  “It was an accident,” I said.  “You were trying to cure her.”

“I lost Kaplen,” she muttered.  “And now, I’m going to lose my sister, too.”

“Tasia,” I said.  “In class, you breezed through concepts that took me weeks.  If anyone can solve Null Particles, it’ll be you.  You’ll make it better.”  Is this a good way to comfort people?

Tasia nodded, holding back tears.

“Can I ask you something?” I said.

“Sure.”  She rubbed her eyes.

“After it happened – after Sarah turned out like – that, and you blamed yourself.  How did you survive?  How did you keep the guilt from crushing you?”

Tasia looked at me.  “Are you alright?”

“I have trouble sleeping,” I said.  “When I do, I have these nightmares, where I fight a demonic clone of myself.  There are bright spots, but – “  I sighed.  “I think, at some point in the last few years, I forgot how to relax.”

“I destroyed my old identity,” said Tasia.  “I killed my old name, and chose a new one: Ebbridge.  And then, Tasia.  My old self?  He was a monster.  Horrifying.  Guilty.  I couldn’t be that person anymore.  I had to be someone else.”  She stared down at her body, uncomfortable.  “That’s how I survived.  For all the good it did me.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” I said.  “Did you want a new chassis, rather than the one you were born with?  We’re not loaded with cash, but we’ve got more than enough to buy something.”  I sensed discomfort from Tasia in her body.  Maybe the same mind-body dissonance that I felt for the last ten years.

Tasia shook her head.  “Tasia Ebbridge wasn’t all that admirable either.  She bowed down to a cruel mother who expected the world of her every day.  She let her grades slip as she spent all her time on research.  She fought on the side of immoral people.”  She hunched over, making herself small.  “And she couldn’t save her friend, Kaplen, from one of the worst fates imaginable.”

I squeezed her shoulder again.  “You did your best.  And you still got your notes out.”

Tasia glanced at another notebook in her luggage, filled with bits of information copied from the Great Library, then hidden in Lowtown, with a timed-delay memory encryption about their location, that would make her forget its hiding spot if Admiral Ebbridge tried any scanning.

She had snuck out information from the Great Library.  From the higher levels, even, despite Paragon’s restrictions.  In normal times, they might have kept a closer eye on her before and after the Ousting, to make sure this sort of scenario didn’t happen.

But Admiral Ebbridge and Paragon had been reeling in the days after Commonplace’s attack.  And so far, at least, they didn’t seem to have caught her.

When they Ousted her, the Ebbridge family had wiped her research, her classwork, and more out of her memory, deeming her unworthy of the knowledge.  But now, Tasia could relearn it all.

And she read fast.

The preparation of it all surprised me the most.  It took a great deal of planning to pull off a theft like that.  Planning that started before the attack on Paragon.

Tasia thought she’d get Ousted.  She’d seen it coming, way back in the spring.

“Sure,” said Tasia.  “I got my notes.”  She tossed the book aside.  “But with all that research, all those sleepless nights, I still didn’t make any real progress on Null Particles.”  She snorted.  “I thought I was so smart.”  She shook her head.

“Well,” I said.  “Do you want to keep the name, then?  Do you still want to go by Tasia?”

“I named myself after Tasia the Explorer,” she said.  “An adventurer who discovered the continent of Ilaqua, in the far south.  She was brave, and wise, and always looking for new knowledge to help people.”  She nodded.  “Someone worthy to look up to.  I’ll keep the name.  And I’ll keep the body for now, too.”  She gazed out the glass sliding doors, into the rippling blue ocean.  “I need to figure out where I belong.  What I deserve.”

“And in the meantime,” I said.  “You’ve got me and Hira.”  I scratched Cardamom behind his ears.  “And him, too.”

Tasia smiled at me, but her eyes looked tired.

“Are you sure you’re up for this?” I said.  “Going into Shenten.  Rescuing Jun in the middle of a war.  Taking on a conspiracy that’s woven into Paragon.  Into the whole world, maybe.”

“Don’t worry.”  Tasia stood up.  “I’ll fight with you.  Even if I’m still unsure about myself.”

“Good,” I said.  “Because we’re leaving tomorrow.”

________________________________________

We finished the preparations faster than I’d expected.  Vice-Captain Glenham had thought of almost everything.   The submarine was stocked and ready for a voyage.  He’d even set aside a cat bed in the back of the dorms, so that Cardamom could join us.

Hira and Tasia and I had hidden the Lavender Book without the crew present.  We switched out its distinctive purple cover with a simple red one, ripped from a copy of The 99 Precepts.  Then, we stuffed it in a bookshelf in Tasia’s locker, next to a dozen others.

This way, if someone broke into the ship, they’d see it as an ordinary copy of the Shenti’s holy book, unreadable and boring.  We couldn’t copy any of the words or encrypt them, so this was the best we could do.

I’m still not ready for a real war.  None of us were.

But it was time to go.  Jun’s waiting for us.  And the Principality’s invasion would start soon.  The moment they landed, conflict would explode around Shenten.  And our jobs would get harder, or impossible.

On the night before we left, I walked through the sub, from the bottom up, making sure I hadn’t missed anything.

When I climbed out of the top hatch, I found Tasia and Hira, sitting on a pair of motorboats by the hull, bobbing up and down on the dark water of the cove.

Right-Hira sat in the first boat, filled with wooden crates and duffel bags, weighing it down.  Left-Hira and Tasia sat on the other one, poring over a map under a projected orb of light.

I exhaled, enjoying the cool breeze on my skin.  Enjoy it while it lasts.  Near Elmidde, early autumn still had plenty of warm days.  But Shenten would already be an ice block.

“What’re you guys doing?”

“You were right,” said Right-Hira.  “Fireworks aren’t about practicality, they’re about blowing shit up.  So me and Tasia are gonna go launch them all.”

“Not here, right?” I said.  If Paragon finds our sub, we’re done for.

“Calm down, killjoy,” said Left-Hira.  “We’re going to the far side of Meteor Bay.”

“I’ve never actually seen fireworks before.”  Tasia’s eyes lit up.  “My town banned them after a pyromania incident.”

“Aren’t those illegal here?” I said.

“Bitch,” said Left-Hira.  “We’ve been doing nothing but illegal shit for the last year.”

“I mean, the coast guard might come after you.  And we’re still wanted by half the Principality.”

“We’re rigging them on the shore with a delayed fuse,” said Left-Hira.  “Then we’re going out on a boat for the best view.  Even if the coast guard got there in five minutes, they wouldn’t catch us.”

“We’re going to watch it and eat garlic bread!” said Tasia, holding up a paper bag full of takeout.  “Want to join us?”

“I dunno.”  I bit my lip.  “We’re leaving tomorrow at dawn.  Might want to check some more things on the sub.  I don’t want some beginner mistake getting us all killed.”

Hira sighed.  “We checked everything.  The Vice-Captain is finishing the final confirmations with the crew, but we don’t need to be there.”  She held up a radio.  “They can call us if anything comes up.”

“And,” said Tasia, holding up a thermos.  “We’ve got mulled cider, too!”

That does sound nice.  I wavered on the top of the sub, uncertain.

“Fuck it,” I muttered.  I projected into my clothes and slid down the metal side of the submarine, then pushed off with my feet and lowered myself into the boat.

A few minutes later, Hira and Tasia finished prepping, and we sped off in the two boats.  Right-Hira navigated us around the rocks and the fog, and we puttered north along the coastline, back towards Elmidde.

Before setting up the fireworks, Hira drove the boats towards the city, and parked them at an empty pier in Lowtown.

“Got some last-minute supplies to buy,” said Hira.  “Some of the stores should still be open.”

“We’re on wanted posters,” I said.  “We were on the front page of a newspaper.”

Left-Hira held up a pair of rain jackets, complete with hoods.  “We’ll use your illusions when you get close.  In case they recognize any of your faces.”

Your faces?” said Tasia.

“Unless you want some random squidfucker to steal our fireworks, then I need to stay with the boats.”

We threw on the ponchos, pulled up our hoods, and walked into town.  After a few minutes, Tasia found a twenty-four-seven hardware store with the stuff Hira needed, and we walked in.  No one else was in the store, so it was easy to throw on illusions over the lone store clerk, altering our faces and voices and making it look like we’d thrown off our hoods.

Tasia looked through her shopping list and picked the various pieces off the shelves.  Pieces of metal, adhesive, and screws.

While she browsed through the store, I waited at the front desk, maintaining the illusion on the cashier.  He listened to a radio broadcast, slouched over in his chair.

Welcome to Verity!” A man’s voice shouted from the speaker.  “The only radio talk show that tells you nothing but the truth.

Christea Ronaveda’s show.  But Ronaveda had vanished after the attack on Paragon, along with her boss, the Broadcast King.  And this didn’t sound like her voice.

I am your new host, Arthur Faylare.  And while I don’t have a Vocation that forces truth-telling, I promise you, I will offer nothing but my brutal honesty.”  Arthur Faylare uncorked a bottle.  “And that’s why we have the gin.

Wes’ father owns it now.  The Principality had seized all of Oracle Media Group’s assets in the country, and some of the shows had been doled out to the Ebbridge family, helping to resurrect their dead newspaper.  It won’t be the same without Ronaveda.

Let’s talk about the only thing anyone gives a shit about.”  The radio host burped, finishing a glass.  “The Shenti.  Parliament’s declared war on the eastern dogs, and I say: took them long enough!

The store clerk perked up and leaned in, as the radio host got louder.

There are people,” Arthur Faylare said.  “Who don’t want me to say this!  Who would love to shut this program down, get me fired for speaking the truth.  But fuck them, this is my job, so here goes: We never finished the job.

Oh, shit.

We turn on the Spirit Block, wipe out their religion and break their empire into pieces.  And then, we just left them alone for a decade?  The fuck were we thinking?

I think we were dealing with Commonplace,” said another man.  Maybe a co-host.  “Or the general fallout from the Treaty of Silence ending.

The Black Tortoise funded Commonplace!” shouted Arthur Faylare.  “You heard that radio broadcast from the Blue Charlatan.  We gave him ten free years, and now, he’s rebuilding his empire.  And unless we rip out his heart, we’ll all be in redemption camps by the end of the decade.  The eastern dogs will be in our streets, burning our houses.  Hands that can crush diamonds will be around the throats of our sons!  Our daughters!”  His voice hardened.  “If we want to survive, it’ll take all of us, working in tandem.  One nation, one people, one light.  I’ve invested half of my savings into war bonds.  I urge any patriot to do the same.

Nausea swelled in my gut, and I doubled over, clutching the desk for support.  I threw an illusion over the store clerk so he wouldn’t notice.  The room felt warm, and sweat coated the back of my shirt.

Tasia finished her shopping and checked out.  The two of us stepped out of the front door, and I leaned against the wall, panting.

“Hey,” said Tasia.  “You alright?”

I threw on an illusion, making myself look less sick, less distressed.  Then I nodded.  “I’ve got some unfinished business in the city.  Something I forgot to check before we leave.”

Tasia pouted.  “So you won’t be able to watch the fireworks with us?  No garlic bread and cider?”

I shook my head.

“Need any help?  If it doesn’t take too long, we can finish it and do the fireworks after.”

“I’m good,” I stared down the dark Lowtown street, leading into the rest of Elmidde.  “I can do it on my own.”

Tasia gave me a concerned look.  “You sure?”

I put on a smile.  “Yeah.  See you back at the sub.”

“I’ll leave one of the boats for you.  We’ll remove a part from the engine and hide it in the corner, so people can’t just drive off with it.”  Then she hugged me.  “Stay safe.  Please.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Of course.”

Then we broke off, and went our separate ways.

I walked through the streets, keeping my hood on in case anyone recognized Tunnel Vision’s face.  Now that the city had quieted down, the curfew had been lifted, and the soldiers stopped patrolling the streets of Lowtown.  But on a weeknight, after 1 AM, the roads had still emptied.  Not a car or a person in sight.

It took me a few minutes to walk around the lower edge of Lowtown, along the waterfront, and towards the bridge connecting Gestalt Island to the rest of Elmidde.

When I stepped off the bridge, everything looked different.  The Shenti slums here had been withered and impoverished a year ago.

But tonight, they looked like a war zone.

Row houses and storefronts had been burned down, reduced to piles of blackened rubble and ashes.  A piece of graffiti had been painted on a ruined wall, and I squinted to read it.

Rabid dogs get put down

As I walked through the street, I saw other bits of graffiti, calling the people here traitors, eastern dogs, tools of the Black Tortoise.

I turned a corner, to see an entire street filled with homeless people.  Pushing metal carts filled with supplies.  Sleeping on the sidewalk, covered in moth-ridden blankets, huddling close to each other for warmth.

Forced out when they lost their houses.  And some of the homeless shelters might not want to take them.

I had no idea it was this bad.  The news made it sound like the mob smashed two windows, fought some Shenti rioters, then left.  And I’d seen Grace’s memory of defending this place, but only a sliver.  And I thought that was the worst of it.

As I passed, a few of the awake men and women on the street held out bowls to me, pleading with their eyes.  I didn’t have much in my wallet, but I gave them what I had.

And this isn’t just happening here.  Shenti citizens across the Principality were getting attacked, watching their hard work and livelihoods burn in front of them.

In the Agricultural Islands too, I’m sure.  Would it hurt my mother?  She was only half-Shenti, but the other half was Nekean, and Principians couldn’t always tell the difference.

My stomach dropped.  You did this.  I’d riled up this mob as a cudgel against Commonplace, a makeshift tool for my revenge.

It had worked.  That backlash had been a key element in putting down their revolution.  A bomb, going off right in the center of Maxine Clive’s plan.  And now, these ‘Egress’ people have everything they want.  The Conclave of the Wise had returned.  Despite everything, a large chunk of the population supported that, supported Paragon.

And my actions had rippled out.  A butterfly’s wings starting a hurricane.  And now we’re going to war.

I turned around, walking back to my boat, and someone put a hand on my shoulder.  I jumped, spinning around, and saw one of the Shenti slum-dwellers standing behind me, staring at my face under my hood.

She recognizes me.  I staggered back, preparing to throw illusions on her.

“Don’t worry,” she whispered, in a thick Shenti accent.  “I won’t tell anyone.”

I held off my illusions, frozen in place.

Then, the woman clasped my hand.  “But you saved my cousin’s bao shop.”  Her eyes glinted in the moonlight, tearing up at the edges.  “Thank you,” she mumbled.  “Thank you.

She thinks I’m Grace.  That I was the person who’d fought back against the horrors, not the one who started them.

I stared at her, avoiding eye contact.  What do I say to that?  I couldn’t tell her the truth.  But I couldn’t accept her gratitude, either.  I don’t deserve it.

The woman nodded at me, then let go of my hands and walked away.  She lay down on an ash-stained mattress and pulled the covers over her.

Something crackled in the far distance.

I looked towards Meteor Bay, and saw a bright green firework explode in the sky, forming the shape of a flower.  A blue and purple shower of sparks came after it, forming a pair of interlocking circles.  Tasia and Hira got started.

From this distance, in the middle of Gestalt Island, I didn’t have the best view, but I could still make out the edges of the spectacle.

A few of the homeless Shenti stirred from the noise, and gazed up at the sky, watching with me.

Then, the fireworks quadrupled.  A rainbow of colors, in the shape of hearts, ovals, faces.  Fireworks exploding into other, smaller fireworks.  Human figures, depictions of Darius the Philosopher, clutching a scroll and wreathed in blue.

And a deafening wave of sound.  Far more than a normal summer festival.  They’re launching them all at once.  And waking up half the city in the process.

A beautiful sight.  Hira and Tasia must be having fun.  Sipping their mulled cider, munching on garlic bread.

I sat down on the sidewalk, breathed, and watched the fireworks.

An awful idea came to me.

________________________________________

I drove the boat out to the coast of the Principality, then tied it to a tree leaning near the coast, and did a water walk for the rest of the way.  My eyes felt heavy, and when I was this exhausted, I didn’t trust myself to navigate through the rocks and fog without getting my boat smashed.

When I emerged from the fog, Tasia and Hira’s boat hadn’t been parked next to the sub.  They’re still out.  Tasia had bought a pretty large bag of garlic bread.

Good.  If they were here, they might try to stop me.

I projected into my clothes and floated myself up the side of the sub, then pulled open the hatch and slid down the ladder.

The metal corridors of the submarine had emptied, though the diesel engine still chugged below us, filling the halls with noise.  The rest of the crew must have gone to bed.

I walked down some steps and through a pair of doors, making my way to the empty room with the number wheels on the wall.  Cardamom approached me, nuzzling my leg.  I pet him, scratched behind his ears, and put him outside, then closed the door.  Don’t need him to see this.

I spun the dials, pressed the button, and watched the hidden door open.

Akhara’s Gate crackled before me.  A swirling, ragged portal, with pale lightning crackling around it.  Opening up into the white void.  A strange, twisted artifact that even Grace didn’t understand.  That killed nineteen of every twenty that tried to shape it with their minds.

But Grace’s codex is inside.  Or something powerful.  If it hadn’t been shredded or liquidated in there.  The key to her Praxis Vocation.  Vocation Codexes often contained important information from the writer’s past, as well, so there might be other useful information, too.

And right now, it seemed like our best shot at unlocking the Lavender Book.  At saving Wes and Jun.

I felt short of breath again.  My shoulders felt heavy.  You started this war.  The Principality had already been a powderkeg, but I lit the fuse.

My life was disposable.  With Hira’s codes and passwords, Tasia could easily take my place as Tunnel Vision.  They could rescue Jun, pull Wes out of the strange conspiracy.

I pulled a pen and notebook from my bag, ripped out a page, and scribbled a note on it, then dropped it on the floor.  Tasia and Hira would find it later.  They would be heartbroken, but they would understand.

I’m sorry.  I stepped forward, towards the portal.

A fist knocked on the metal door outside.  “Hello?  Anyone in here?”

Vice-Captain Glenham.  If he was here, and not Tasia or Hira, then something had come up with the submarine.  My expedition could wait.

I put an illusion on the man outside, erasing the open portal and my note on the floor.  Then I opened the door.

“Miss Gage?” Vice-Captain Glenham said.  “Sorry – Tunnel Vision.  Ma’am.”  A surprised tone crept into his voice.  “Everything alright?  Where are the other two?  I thought you were all going out to watch fireworks.”

“They’re fine,” I said.  “I just had some business in the city.  Split up.”

“Oh.”  He massaged his neck.  “Then what are you doing back here?”

I’m going to jump in a magic door and bind it to my soul.  Or, more likely, die in the attempt.  But if I told him that, and didn’t follow through with it tonight, then he might tell Hira and Tasia.  Which could cause complications.

“I, uh.”  I blinked.  “I wanted to check on a few things.  Make sure everything’s good before we leave tomorrow.”

He nodded, his fingers tapping against his thigh.  “That’s excellent timing, actually,” he said.  “We found a problem in the storage area on the bottom deck.  I think some books are missing that you wanted to include.”

My chest tightened.  Fuck.  The only important books were the Shenti-Common dictionary, the guides, and the Lavender Book itself.  The rest just served as cover.  Someone might have stolen the Lavender Book.

I shifted my illusion, hiding my distress.  “Let’s check it out,” I said, clenching my jaw.  “Now.”

“Of course,” he said.  “I’ll show you the bookshelf.”

I floated my goodbye note into my pocket, and he led me through the cramped metal hallways, past the CIC and dorms, and the chugging diesel engine room.  My breath quickened.  Did you just lose the most important book in the world?  I’d been careless, thinking our defenses were enough.

Vice-Captain Glenham pulled open the door to the storage room.  “There,” he pointed.  “At the end.”

I speed-walked forward, straining my gaze forward at the bookshelf as I approached it.

Then I saw.  The shelves were full.  The Lavender Book still sat there, wrapped in its red cover.  All the books were still there.

“Vice-Captain,” I said.  “Which books did you say were miss – “

Clang.  The door slammed shut behind me.

My skin turned to ice.  I sprinted back to the exit, stretching my Pith ahead of me to throw on illusions.

Something else clanged in the door, and footsteps rang out in the hallway, receding in the distance.  I reached the door, and felt the Vice-Captain’s Pith for a second, before he sprinted out of my range.

What the fuck?

I grabbed the handle and pulled, but the watertight door wouldn’t budge.  It’s not supposed to do that.  I projected into the lock.  The mechanism inside had been mangled.  I tried shifting a few of the pieces, but none of them moved.

Sabotage.  The Vice-Captain had trapped me in here.  I kept fiddling with the pieces, trying to unseal the door, but my metal projection still couldn’t apply much force, and I knew nothing about the inner workings of a machine like this.

I felt inside the lockers of the storage room, for the explosives and weapons and tools we’d stashed.  Nothing.  All of them had been emptied.

And then, something hissed behind me.  A slow, steady sound coming from somewhere in the room.

I turned around, and looked at the air duct in the corner of the room.  The grate covering the vent had been removed.

The sharp odor of diesel fuel filled my nostrils, like I was standing behind a car’s exhaust pipe.  A wave of dizziness rushed over me, and I wobbled back and forth, leaning on the wall for support.

The vice-captain is pumping engine fumes into this room.  And he’d locked me in.  A death trap.  But why?  He’d made it clear that he didn’t care about revenge for Grace.  That he just wanted money, a stable, safe paycheck.  He’s a mobster, not a Green Hands.

And then it hit me, so obvious it hurt.  The submarine.

Vice-Captain Glenham had talked at length about how much The Elder Kraken was worth.  That it was one of Grace’s more valuable possessions.  And at the same time, he’d talked about his concerns for taking it into open war.

He made a calculation.  Decided that it was less dangerous to betray his new bosses, steal their submarine, and pawn it off for a fat stack of cash.  Stabbing us in the back was more profitable, and less risky than diving head-first into Shenten.

My lungs sucked in another breath of pungent fumes, and a dull headache throbbed in the back of my skull.  My vision blurred at the edges.

But how did he set this trap for me?  He didn’t know I was going to come back to the sub alone.  And he’d looked surprised when he saw me by Akhara’s Gate.

It came to me again.  This trap isn’t for me.  It was for the rest of the crew.  The ones who wouldn’t want to go along with his plan.  He wanted to avoid fighting us.  In his ideal world, we would spend the night watching fireworks, and come back to find the submarine vanished.

But I’d shown up at a bad time.  A complication.  So Vice-Captain Glenham had sprung his trap on me, alone.

Another wave of dizziness came over me, and I took rapid, short breaths, my limbs growing heavy.  Hira, how the fuck did you miss this?  Hadn’t she read the crew’s minds with her Vocation?

But only for a few seconds.  What if Vice-Captain Glenham had come up with this idea after Hira checked him?

Stupid.  We were such stupid amateurs at this game.

The headache doubled, and my whole vision went blurry.  I slid down the wall, wheezing, my chest aching.

Stop whining and think.  The Vice-Captain wasn’t expecting a projector in his death trap.  He would have left gaps in his plan.

A red light flashed on the ceiling, and a siren shrieked in my ears.  An alarm.  Shaking the crew out of their bunk beds.

My throat clenched.  The crew.  That was my ticket out.  Vice-Captain Glenham was trying to funnel the crew out of the sub, so they wouldn’t find out his murder plans.

And because he knew my abilities.

I stretched my Pith above me, and felt a handful of Piths moving around.  The Vice-Captain’s out of my range.  But the rest of the crew wasn’t.

This is Tunnel Vision!” I shouted with auditory illusions, turning off the alarm in their ears.  “The Vice-Captain’s betrayed us!  I’ve been sealed in the storage room with poison gas!”  I gasped for breath.  “Help me!  Don’t trust the Vice-Captain!

I repeated the message to any souls in range.  From this position, I couldn’t tell which Piths were which.  Just have to hope that some of them are on my side.

The Piths above me moved faster, after I’d sent my message.  Not towards the exit hatch, but the stairway below.  Towards me.

They’ll still have trouble forcing this door open.  Given the thickness of the metal, they might have to blow it with explosives.  I kept fiddling with the door, but nothing moved an inch.  Jun could have done this in a heartbeat.  But I’d let him get captured.

The walls closed in on me.  Nausea bubbled up in my stomach, and my breaths grew desperate, sucking in less and less oxygen with every inhale.  Faster.  Please move faster.

Shouting rang out from the hallway, drowned out by the siren.  Then a pair of gunshots, deafening.  The crew doesn’t have guns.

My stomach sank.  The Vice-Captain must have smuggled some on.  Or stolen one of Hira’s.  Which meant he could slaughter the rest of the crew with impunity.

I stretched my Pith forward and felt others around me in the hallways.  But I couldn’t tell who was who, or what was going on, which meant I couldn’t help much.

The gunshots grew closer, louder.  I slid down the metal wall, my vision growing more blurry, and the cracks seemed to echo in the distance, like I was watching the world through a dark, foggy tunnel.  My lungs pumped, frantic, to no avail.

And then, the hissing sound stopped.  The room still stank of exhaust fumes, but the air duct went silent.  He stopped venting gas in here.  But why?

Another pair of gunshots rang out, just outside the door.  And then a clang.

A spear stabbed through the armored door, punching through the thick steel like it was made of soft cheese.

The spear looked metallic, green.  Voidsteel.  Stained red with blood.  The Vice-Captain didn’t have anything like that.

The gunshots stopped.  The sub went silent.  Even the rumbling of the diesel engine had quieted.

A pair of Voidsteel blades stabbed through the edges of the door, and sliced in a rotating motion, drawing an outline around the frame.  Cutting through the locking mechanism and the hinges.

The metal screeched.  The door tipped over, then slammed onto the floor with a bang.

The toxic engine fumes rushed out of the storage room, mixing with the normal air in the hallway.  I crawled to the hole, taking wheezing breaths with every pull.

But this time, the inhales satisfied my lungs.  Every gasp filled my body with a fresh jolt of life.

Someone saved me.  Hira, perhaps?  Tasia?  But neither of them used a Voidsteel weapon like that.

As I regained my breath, and my vision cleared, I glanced up.

Vice-Captain Glenham hung in the air, his head impaled on a long, narrow spear of blood-soaked Voidsteel.  The same one that punched through the door.  His arms hung limp at his side.  Hira’s black trench shotgun slipped out of his dangling fingers, clattering to the floor.

I stared at the spear, following it down to its base.  It wasn’t just tipped with Voidsteel.  The shaft was Voidsteel.  The entire weapon was a long, thin needle.

No, the spear was a finger.  Elongated and sharpened, extending from a hand made of a liquid green metal.  A hand made of Voidsteel.  Attached to an arm made of Voidsteel.

I blinked, my vision clearing, and saw the face of my savior.  A slender Nekean man.  No, what resembled a slender Nekean man, wearing a light green tunic.  A flowing mass of liquid Voidsteel, molded into the shape of a human and animated.

With one of its fingers stretched out, and stabbed through the roof of a man’s mouth.

The spear pulled out of Vice-Captain Glenham, shrinking back to a normal index finger.  The traitor’s corpse dropped to the floor, splattering blood onto the sub’s metal.

The man made of Voidsteel bowed to me, and smiled.  His mouth opened, and he spoke with a light Nekean accent.

“Anabelle Gage,” he said, his voice soft.  “A pleasure to meet you.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




If you’re enjoying the story, we’d love a vote on TopWebFiction! (Click the link, then “Boost” in the top right corner)