14-F – The Wingtrooper

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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.

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