When Henry grew up, he wanted to be a witch.
He wouldn’t admit it out loud. The boys at school would laugh at him, his teachers would be confused, and his father would want to prescribe something for it. The people of Stonebrook thought witches were monsters. The parents at Henry’s school had even gossiped about Henry’s big sister Sarah, whispering that she’d become one after going to university in the Floating City.
But that was exactly the appeal.
Witches were dangerous. Witches were feared. People wouldn’t mess with them. They’d just leave them alone.
The problem was, witches weren’t real, either.
They were stories, made up to frighten children like Henry or superstitious adults like his homeroom teacher. It was a silly fantasy.
Carter shoved Henry back, onto the grass. The impact knocked the wind out of him, and he gasped for breath.
Next to him, the Stonebrook River trickled past, ten feet below at the bottom of a short drop. Its water was a dark, murky brown, filled with sewage runoff from the town.
“Empty the freak’s bag,” said Carter.
Sebastian turned over Henry’s backpack, shaking out its contents onto the grass. A stack of science textbooks from the library. Henry’s three-year-old math sketchbook.
And a plush of a yellow platypus hippo, as long as Henry’s forearm. Mango.
Henry’s stomach clenched. No, no, no. He shouldn’t have brought him to school. The stuffed animal just made him feel safer. A small piece of home to carry into the frightening world of class. On lunch breaks, he could hug the platypus hippo and calm himself down.
Carter snickered, picking up Mango by a leg like he was a piece of trash. “Scholars, you’re such a baby. Are you pissing your diapers now?” He turned to the boy and the girl next to him, his henchmen. “He’s pissing his diapers.”
Henry started to push himself upright, and Carter held out a hand, preventing him from standing.
“It’s not – “ Henry bit his lip. “It’s not mine.” Henry knew his words were stupid the moment he finished saying them. Why else would Mango be in his backpack?
“It’s not yours?” Carter raised an eyebrow. “Then you won’t mind if I – “
He threw Mango into the river.
Henry reached out his hand, stretching as far as he could to grab him, but it was too late. The platypus hippo sank into the brown water, vanishing beneath the surface.
“I – “ Henry choked on his words. He felt short of breath, dizzy. Blood rushed in his ears.
Carter kicked the rest of Henry’s books over the edge, along with his backpack. They splashed into the water one after another.
Tears welled up at the edge of Henry’s vision, and he forced his eyes shut. Don’t cry, it’ll make things even worse.
Why is he doing this to me? Henry hadn’t done anything wrong. Why had Carter picked him? So many of their parents were off fighting the Shenti. The radio ads had implored those at home to ‘join hands for their nation’.
“Now,” said Carter. “Apologize, Henry.”
“W – what?” said Henry.
“For dragging us out here and attacking us.” An indignant expression spread over Carter’s face. His voice took on a horrified tone. “I mean, you tried to push me into the river. I could have drowned. Sebastian and Jenny had to pull you off me. It’s no wonder your backpack got lost in the scuffle.”
Henry felt his face grow hot. Leave me alone. Leave me alone. Please, scholars, leave me alone.
Henry couldn’t fight back. Carter was almost a foot taller than him and had a knife at his belt, along with two henchmen who wouldn’t care about a fair fight.
And even if he won, Carter’s mother ran the school board. She was friends with the mayor, the police chief, half the city council. She’d raised more money for the war effort than anyone else in the town.
If he laid a finger on Carter, Henry’s life in Stonebrook would be over.
The kids closed in around Henry, fencing him in at the edge of the drop. The hot tears trickled down his cheeks, and he stared at the ground.
“I’m sorry,” said Henry.
Carter placed a finger under Henry’s chin and turned it upwards, meeting his gaze. “Thank you,” he said. He extended his hand, his expression softening.
Henry took it, and Carter pulled him to his feet.
Halfway up, Carter let go and shoved him.
Henry fell backwards off the edge of the cliff, his arms flailing. His gut wrenched, and the wind whipped in his ears.
When he landed on his back, it felt like he’d hit a trampoline. The surface beneath him bent and curved, then bounced him back up a short distance.
Henry looked down. The surface of the river was repelling him, somehow, supporting his weight. A film of clear water had been stretched over the filth, keeping him clean.
He touched the water, and it felt like some sort of translucent skin.
Henry looked up, blinking through the tears to clear his vision.
An older girl stood on the far side of the river, directly across from Carter. Her dark turquoise hair blew in the wind, a ragged orange dress flapping around her ankles.
She gave the bullies a dismissive glance, then snapped her fingers.
All three of them shot forward, dragged by their clothes, and dropped into the river. The hardened water split beneath them, and they splashed in head-first.
Carter emerged downriver, his face covered in brown filth. He screamed something incoherent at Henry, spitting water out of his mouth and paddling to stay afloat. The current carried him and the other two away, towards the ocean. The sounds of their yelling faded into the distance.
Henry looked up. Sarah beamed at him from above, waving.
“Want to go home?”
The shapes of men and women emerged from the beach, leaping and twirling around each other, all made of sand. Moonlight reflected off their bodies and clothes, casting them in a pale glow. Some of the dancers exploded into clouds, swirling and reforming into other bodies, all flowing in perfect harmony.
They were utterly captivating.
“You’re a witch,” breathed Henry. “A real witch.”
Sarah laughed, smiling at him next to the fire. “Are you frightened?” She lowered her finger, and the figures dissolved into piles of sand.
Henry shook his head, his eyes wide. It wasn’t scary, it was incredible. His big sister could do magic. All the things he’d read about in the old books, all the things he’d heard from Sarah’s bedtime stories were true.
“I learned magic in Neke. But it’s based on the principles of science, off the knowledge of the Great Scholars. When I control the sand, I focus on its chemical properties, its composition and its interactions, and how it behaves as a granular material. After that, all I have to do is extend my mind into it.”
Henry scooped up a handful of sand, watching it run through his fingers. “Is it hard?”
“Very,” she said. “But once you know it, you can do a lot more than move sand. You can uncover the secrets of the universe. You can strive to become an Exemplar.” The fire lit one half of her face orange, the other half white from the moonlight. “A witch can do anything she sets her mind to.”
“Like throw bullies into a river?”
“Yes.” She lounged back on the sand. “And a delayed memory wipe, so Carter doesn’t go crying to his mommy. He and the other losers in this town are what we call Humdrums. Not a scrap of magic in their souls or their character.” She pointed towards the ocean. “Out there, there are whole societies of witches that make them look like nothing. They’re small, so they hurt people to feel big.”
That made Henry remember Mango. He closed his eyes and imagined the stuffed platypus hippo washing out to the ocean, soaked in sewage, ripping at the seams, bits of trash stuck in his mouth and behind his ears. He imagined the matrix fish nibbling at his fur, whisper algae growing inside the tears as he sunk to the bottom of the sea.
Henry started crying again.
No, no, no. Crying was weak, pathetic, especially if you did it in front of someone else.
Stand up straight, boy. His father’s voice echoed in his ears. It’s just a stupid trinket. His back stung, an old memory.
“What’s wrong?” said Sarah.
Henry pulled his knees to his chest. “Mango,” he half-muttered. Sarah knew who that was – he’d had the stuffed animal since he was five.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I searched all afternoon, but I couldn’t find him anywhere.” Sarah wrapped her arms around Henry. “We’ll get you a new Mango, how about that?”
Henry shook his head. It wouldn’t be the same. And that wasn’t the worst of it. Henry knew what was going to happen.
Sarah was going to leave again. Just like before. And Henry would be left with his father and Carter. The magic would vanish from his life, and it would all be grey and empty again.
“Am I a Humdrum?” he asked, staring at the flame. “Am I boring and unremarkable?”
He would have given anything to be a part of the magical world, go on adventures and discover the secrets of the universe. The normal world was full of war, and bullies, and frightening news about the Shenti.
But a part of him knew, deep down, that he wasn’t special enough. That he would work on his father’s vegetable farm for the rest of his life, forever the town fool of Stonebrook.
“I don’t know for sure.” Sarah looked Henry in the eye. “But you are anything but boring and unremarkable.”
“Promise me,” Henry said. “You won’t wipe my memory. Even if I’m a Humdrum, you’ll let me remember this.”
The waves washed up against the beach. The fire crackled next to them, sparks fizzling on the sand.
“I promise,” Sarah said.
Henry wiped his tears away. “Can you tell me a story?” he asked. Now that he knew they were true, they were all a thousand times more exciting.
Sarah smiled. “Your favorite?”
Sarah spoke in a hushed tone. “Our story begins four centuries ago, over vast oceans and through terrible storms, so far south it had never been measured on any map.”
Henry had heard the tale a thousand times, but good stories were like old friends. The more you knew them, the more beautiful they became.
As Sarah spoke, Henry stared at the sand, and thought back to what he’d read in his books. It was finely granulated silicon dioxide in the form of quartz or calcium carbonate, most likely. A crystalline material in a framework of tetrahedra, with shared oxygen atoms and chirality. Weighing roughly sixty unified atomic mass units.
Chemical information trickled through his mind on one track. The other track listened to Sarah, intent.
“One woman, one of the greatest witches in history, discovered a mysterious land in a windswept desert, filled with exotic treasures and tyrannical kings.”
Henry reached for the sand, and thought back to the dancing sculptures that her sister had made. They were beautiful, those sculptures.
“She fought a war against impossible odds. To protect the innocent, to bring the fire of civilization into the darkness. This is the story of -”
Henry pointed a shaking finger forward. Sarah paused, looking at him.
A single grain of sand floated in the air before Henry, hovering right in front of his nose.
Sarah grinned. “This is the story,” she continued, “of Tasia the Explorer.”
“Take me with you.” Henry gazed up at his sister on the edge of the boat, his eyes imploring. “If you won’t stay, take me with you.”
The sun set over the edge of the ocean, casting the water in an orange glow. The boat sat at the edge of the beach, waves washing around its splintering hull.
Sarah’s hands gripped the railing, and she closed her eyes. “I can’t,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“We’ve gone over this, Henry,” Sarah’s voice was pained. “Because – “
“Because you’d die, little boy.” A hoarse voice rang out from the other side of the ship, and a clean-shaven man stepped behind her. He was dressed like the explorers Henry had seen in newspaper photos, sporting beige khakis and a safari hat.
“I’ve trained,” said Henry. “Sarah’s taught me for years.” And they’d discovered his Vocation, both Whisper and Praxis, an ability that let him push aside other Piths and drain their energy at the same time. Their father had quieted down in pure fear of their abilities.
The man rolled his eyes, puffing on a cigarette. “What are you, twelve?”
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s how many minutes you’d last.”
“Go easy on him, Gamel,” said Sarah. “He’s just scared.”
“This is a dangerous expedition,” Gamel croaked. “You shouldn’t even be here. Your sister shouldn’t have told you anything about us.”
A dozen other men and women milled about on the ship. Sarah’s friends from overseas. A few of them glared at Henry.
“I know you’re going far away, outside the Principality,” said Henry. Like Tasia the Explorer. “To learn why the stars disappeared with the Great Scholars.” He took a deep breath. “But I still don’t understand why you have to go.”
“Remember what I told you,” said Sarah, “about uncovering the secrets of the world? This is that opportunity, and if I don’t go with them, I may never get another chance. Paragon doesn’t see me as a real projector. They’ll never let me in their library. I can’t be afraid of the horizon.”
The waves washed over Henry’s shoes, soaking his socks. This is the same place where she showed me projection. Where she’d taught him everything he knew.
“This is more important than anything else I’ve done in my life.” Sarah pointed to the sky. “Look.”
Henry gazed upwards. A long, flat serpent swam through the air, far above the boat, covered with silver scales and triangular markings. It had to be fifty feet long, at least, though the distance made it hard to tell.
An Oracle Snake. They were said to be omens, a sign that something historic was going to happen soon.
That scared Henry even more.
“How long will you be gone?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
She was leaving him all alone again. And this time, she might not come back. Sarah and her lessons were the only things keeping him afloat the past few years. His progress would stagnate, and he’d be trapped on this miserable farm for the rest of his life, in this miserable corner of nowhere in the Principality.
Sarah reached down, clasping Henry’s hand. “I promise,” she said. “I will – “
“Don’t,” Henry said. “Don’t promise. Don’t make plans for when you get back.” In the comic books he read, that always guaranteed a terrible fate. “Just come back,” he said.
Sarah smiled at him. “Love you.”
When the boat receded in the distance, Henry was already crying again. Nobody could see, thank the Scholars.
The sun set over the rippling water, and Sarah’s ship sailed towards it, through the orange glow, towards a dense cluster of clouds hanging over the ocean.
Henry whispered a silent prayer to Sarah. I hope you find nothing. I hope you come home empty-handed and safe, and that nothing comes of this. Then he wouldn’t have to cry again.
It was a selfish prayer, one he’d never admit to Sarah out loud. But he made it anyway. Even though it was probably futile.
The Oracle Snake flew above them, following the ship’s path, coiling back and forth and reflecting the evening sun off its glistening scales. A sign that the world was about to change in some great and terrible way.
As it shrunk into the distance, and evening turned into night, Henry knew there would be many more tears to come.
Two years later, Henry finally saw something.
The morning sun hid behind clouds, shining flat grey light over the vegetable farm. Henry slouched over behind the stall, rubbing his tired eyes. Not one of the beat-up cars speeding down the road had bought any of his father’s crops today.
The ugly truth was, produce from other islands cost half as much and didn’t taste like sawdust. The Agricultural Islands were producing more and more of the country’s food supply every day. The only people who shopped here did so out of pity. The farm had no future.
Henry glanced to the side. Something was coming towards them, on the uneven dirt road. Not a car, a wheelchair.
It moved slow, its old metal wheels creaking. Its rider was only pushing with one hand, the rest of their limbs hanging limp beneath them. Their clothes were baggy, rough, and covered in dirt.
When it pulled up to the stall, Henry recognized the woman, beneath her matted turquoise hair.
Ice water ran through Henry’s veins. It had only been two years, but she looked a decade older, and giant purple bags hung under her eyes, like she hadn’t slept during any of it.
Forget that. She was back. Sarah was back. Henry sprinted over, throwing his arms around her. She hugged him back with one of her hands.
“Thank you,” said Henry. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” He broke off the hug, excitement slipping into his voice. “How was it? Did you find what you were looking for?”
Sarah stared at him, her eyes tired.
“Do you want me to get you anything?” said Henry. “Tea? Crackers? If it’s too cold we can put a fire on inside.”
Sarah held up a piece of paper with a note scribbled on it.
She pointed to her ears, then her legs and her other arm, all hanging limp.
A wave of nausea washed over Henry. “What happened?” he whispered.
Sarah pointed to her ears again.
Henry grabbed her notebook and scribbled on a blank page, holding it in his sister’s face.
Sarah wheeled past him, heading for the farmhouse.
In the next several months, Henry came to realize many things. His sister was deaf, and paralyzed on three of her limbs. Her projection was a fraction of what it used to be – barely strong enough to push her wheelchair around and carry out basic tasks with one hand.
Even worse, there were vast gaps in her memory. She didn’t remember anything about her trip, or her companions, or even how she’d gotten back to Stonebrook. Other bits had gone missing too.
After consulting dozens of pneumatology books and doing scans on Sarah’s mind, Henry discovered the cause.
The books called it pneumatoma. A malignant growth of the Pith, like cancer without any cells. A condition where faulty replication caused soul particles to multiply without stopping, crowding out and taking over the rest of a person’s mind.
The disease had been rare, until around half a century. Today, tens of thousands got diagnosed a year. It had cropped up at random all over the Eight Oceans striking men and women, young and old, rich and poor alike. No one knew the origin.
And there was no cure. Type I, the most common, just destroyed specific parts of the soul, like motor functions, memory, and the systems used for projection.
Type II, Sarah’s type, didn’t stop. It would keep growing until she died.
Sarah had eight years at most. And six months at least.
So Henry kept reading. He divided his time between working on the farm, caring for Sarah, and obsessively reading every pneumatology book he could get his hands on. The Great Libraries were off-limits, but there were other means of getting knowledge.
Sleep was rare, but that was to be expected. He had a job to do.
A thousand dead ends. A thousand frustrations. And while Henry studied, Sarah grew worse.
He didn’t reach a breakthrough until late winter, during a cool snowy night.
Sarah sat with him on the beach, under a layer of blankets next to a crackling fire. Above them, the snowflakes flew aside mid-air, keeping their patch of sand dry.
Henry flipped through the book, memory-stitching its contents into Sarah’s Pith. She couldn’t hear him, so this was the next best thing to reading it out loud.
“Every soul particle contains bits of information,” Henry recited directly into Sarah’s mind. “These are created by the patterns of smaller fundamental particles, which bond with each other and store tremendous potential energy.”
Henry was reminded of his childhood, when Sarah had read stories to him in this exact spot.
But Sarah was struggling with the concepts, basic concepts she’d once taught to him. She tried some nights, knowing that she had to exercise her Pith. But most of the time she just nodded along, pretending to understand, confused out of her mind.
Sarah scribbled something in her notebook.
Can we go home
Henry sighed, and nodded. He flicked his wrist, and the harness around Sarah pulled upwards, lifting her into her wheelchair. Another snap of his fingers, and a wave of sand dropped over the fire, snuffing it out.
He pushed Sarah back up the beach, projecting into the sand so the wheelchair didn’t sink in.
The road back to their house was dark, lit only by faint moonlight. The tires on the wheelchair made crunching noises on the fresh snow. Aside from that, the night was dead silent.
Sarah wrote something in her notebook and held it up to Henry, brushing snowflakes off the paper.
What will you do when I’m gone?
“People live a long time with this disease,” Henry memory-stitched, touching her forehead to maintain the connection. “That won’t happen any time soon.”
Henry knew what she meant. As the tumor grew, it would eat her personality, her memories, everything that made her Sarah.
In two years, her consciousness might be alive, but would it be hers anymore?
Another note from Sarah:
Cut me out
Leave Stonebrook. World outside. Life to live.
“You need me. Dad needs me.”
I don’t want to die. But it’s too late.
The snow kept falling on them, melting on Henry’s coat and building up on his hair.
Cut me out. Pain will grow. Only get worse.
They’d reached the house. Henry floated her up the steps, taking her inside.
“Let’s talk in the morning.”
After he’d helped Sarah to bed, Henry pretended to go to sleep, turning off the lights and putting out the fire in the living room.
Then he threw his coat on, striding back out into the cold. Cut me out. It was a rubbish suggestion, but it gave him an idea.
The storm had grown more intense, now half a blizzard. The winds whipped the snow into his face, and he couldn’t see more than a dozen feet ahead.
Still, his projection worked fine. He cast his Pith around him, straining, scanning for other souls nearby.
After a minute of walking around the farmhouse, he found them: An ice hare, burrowing into the snow and munching on the potato plants below.
Henry projected into the show, picking up the pest and holding it in place in front of him.
A witch can do anything she sets her mind to.
Henry knelt and activated his Vocation. An orb of blue lightning crackled at the tip of his finger, shining like a lamp in the darkness. He reshaped it, making it into a thin scalpel.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. The wind swallowed his words.
Then he shoved it into the hare’s skull.
Henry’s blade phased through the bone, and he felt the soul particles slice beneath the edge, pushed aside in opposite directions. The animal’s mental energy was being drained too, but that was secondary. Henry focused on his studies, carving and cutting in specific locations.
After what felt like an eternity, Henry stood up, his work complete, and let go of the hare, dropping the snow.
The hare sat in front of him. Not running, not biting. Just breathing.
Henry snapped his fingers in its face. It flinched. Then, nothing.
He projected forward, feeling a second flickering cloud, separate from the rabbit’s core Pith. It puttered out, fading into null particles and dying.
Henry’s breath caught in his throat. It worked.
Using his Vocation, Henry had cut out the rabbit’s executive function center, like a surgeon amputating a limb.
What else could he cut?
Now, thought Henry. That might be something.
Eleven months and thirteen days later, Henry was ready.
Pith surgery was still new. He’d only practiced his Vocation on animals. And none of them had come down with Pneumatoma. And he would have liked to use the Synapse to enhance his projection, but the timing wasn’t right, and he didn’t want to wait.
Still, he’d sharpened his technique. The experiments had worked marvelously.
And he couldn’t afford to wait any longer.
A pneumatoma victim like Sarah could survive up to seven more years, but if the tumor grew further, the permanent wounds would get worse. The scars to Sarah’s memory, her cognition, her personality would be devastating.
If Henry wanted his sister back, he had to act now.
He’d explained the surgery countless times to his sister, trying to gauge her interest. Every time, it seemed to slip out of her thoughts, or make her confused. She never understood the procedure well enough to give informed consent.
Except once. Three days ago. She’d had a lucid moment, and launched into a spontaneous lecture about malignant Pneumatoma and its properties.
Then she’d grabbed his arm. “Save me,” she’d written. “I’m not afraid of the horizon.”
That was enough for Henry.
So he prepared, and seventy-six hours later, poured a powerful anaesthetic into his sister’s evening tea.
Their father was away selling vegetables. There’d be no interruptions.
Henry lay Sarah down on her bed backwards, so her head was at the foot, and set up the braces he’d prepared around her neck.
Henry ran over the additional Praxis Vocations he’d installed. Dual Attention. Hyper-Precision. Temporal Dilation. He was as ready as he’d ever be.
The wind blew outside, a high-pitched whistling noise. Sarah’s alarm clock ticked away.
He inhaled, exhaled, and began.
Two needles of blue lightning flickered on the tips of his fingers, and passed through Sarah’s skull.
Every movement was rehearsed, carried out in fractions of a second. He had to move fast – the more his Vocation touched Sarah’s Pith, the more energy it’d drain. If he took too long, he’d kill his sister in the process of saving her.
He began at the edges, in the furthest branches of the tumor. The needles turned into long strings, slicing around one branch, then another. With Dual Attention, he could do two at once.
It took him twelve point three eight seconds to finish this part So far, so good.
Now it was time to cut out the core tumor. His slicing threads became curved scalpels, able to slice faster.
The moment Henry began, he knew something was wrong. A wave of energy surged through his veins, many times stronger than before.
No, no, no. That was too fast. Far too fast. At this rate, he’d drain Sarah’s entire Pith within the next ten and a half seconds. My experiments weren’t like this.
But if he stopped without finishing, that could cause even more damage to her Pith. It could kill her. If the tumor was only partially severed, it could spread and become incurable.
Henry activated the Praxis vocation he’d studied, Temporal Dilation. The world froze around him. Snowflakes hovered in midair outside the window, appearing to fall a hundred and thirty-one times slower. His eyes were caught half-open, in the middle of a blink, and his lungs were exhaling so slow they might as well have been still.
Then he tripled his speed, and Sarah’s mind reacted.
The energy drain was accelerating, and in response, Sarah’s Pith was ripping itself to pieces. It burned away active Soul Particles, turning them into Null Particles, and was using the energy released to keep Sarah alive.
None of the animals did this. In one way, it was good, because Sarah wasn’t dying as fast.
The problem was, she was losing particles by the billions.
His sister’s Pith, effectively, was aging about five years every second.
Henry heard his heartbeat, turned into a slow, echoing drum by the time dilation. He felt the sweat under his armpits, the clothes sticking to his skin.
Faster, faster. Blue, purple, and green electricity crackled around him and Sarah, both their Piths straining at their maximum. Two small storms lighting up the dim bedroom. At this speed, Henry could see the individual bolts of lightning stream out from his skin.
A young woman’s voice screamed in Henry’s ear. Sarah. It shrieked incoherent jumbles of syllables.
Sarah’s mouth was closed. It’s coming from her mind. It grew louder, drilling into his head, drowning out all other noise.
Other voices joined it. Men and women. Screaming in Common and Ilaquan and Shenti and languages Henry couldn’t recognize, an overwhelming din of noise filling his mind.
Cut, cut, cut.
Henry made the final slice, cutting off the tumor. He soaked his Pith into the separated growth, forcing it out of her brain.
The lightning vanished. The room fell silent, the voices vanishing. His time dilation flicked off, and the snow started falling again.
A shockwave rippled out from Sarah’s head. It crashed into Henry, knocking him on his back. The alarm clock crashed into the wall, ringing on and off.
An orb of green lightning floated above the bed. It swirled and shrunk, turning a dark shade of grey.
And then, it was gone.
Henry coughed, wiping his mouth as his head throbbed.
The shockwave had shattered the windows in the bedroom, knocked over a bookshelf, and wrecked everything smaller than a person. It looked like someone had broken into the house.
A chill wind blew through the room, making Henry’s damp clothes feel like ice.
Sarah hadn’t gotten up from the bed.
Henry scrabbled forward and held a finger to the side of her neck. He felt a faint thumping in the vein. A pulse. She was alive, with no physical injuries, as far as he could tell.
Before he let himself exhale, he reached out with his Pith, feeling around her mind.
Sarah’s mind was almost all grey now. The tumor was gone, but Null Particles were everywhere, choking every part of her soul.
The unaffected parts were faint, sparse. The parts of her Pith inside her hypothalamus and brainstem, mainly. Enough to keep her breathing, but not much else.
Sarah was in a vegetative state. With an effective mind of a hundred-and-fifty-year-old. It would be a miracle if she lived another seven years. Two or one was more likely.
And it was all Henry’s fault.
The Stonebrook river crashed beneath Henry, swelling up from the storm.
Raindrops soaked into Henry’s clothes, dripping off his hair and making him shiver. He sat down on the ledge, gazing into the swirling rapids beneath him. In the dark, they looked like an abstract painting, a captivating maelstrom of water and rock.
One quick push, and he would be in the water.
His body would wash into the sea and be devoured by all the animals there. He’d decay and peel apart, just like Mango, his dumb stuffed platypus hippo.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
A chill wind blew across the grass, and he drew his knees to his chest, shaking. The icy feeling seeped into his bones.
Not good enough, not good enough, not good enough. He’d made the situation worse than ever. The tumor was out, but her life expectancy was cut in half, and her mind was far worse than it would have been.
Sarah had trusted him, and he’d failed.
Henry slung the backpack off his shoulders, unzipped it, and overturned it above the river. Books dropped out of it, splashing into the rapids one by one. Pneumatology textbooks, neurology journals, accounts by surgeons and Guardians and Neke War Priests.
The last book slid out of his bag, falling towards the rushing water.
Henry projected into it, stopping it inches above the surface. Water dripped off its soaked pages.
It was called The Doorway. The one illegal book he’d procured to study for the operation. It had been stolen from Level 2 of the Principality’s Great Library and sold through black market vendors in the Shenti city of Dangong, which he’d had to travel to on his own.
It wasn’t a traditional science textbook. It mixed Pneumatology with excerpts of history from the Great Scholars, what little could be pieced together from the drowned ruins.
It was the most helpful text he’d read by far. But there were gaps in it. Pages that had been torn from it and restricted to the higher levels. High-level Vocations it referred to, but didn’t contain.
It still hadn’t been enough. He’d still failed.
So why was he giving up?
There were more books in the Great Library. Vocation codices and ancient tomes he could read if he joined Paragon Academy, got himself to the highest level.
Null Particles were an even more impossible problem than Pneumatoma. Would-be immortals had been trying to destroy them for centuries, in the hopes of stopping their Piths’ inevitable decay.
But research had stalled in the past few decades. It had fallen out of popularity, dismissed as an impractical pipe dream. And it had been on the verge of several breakthroughs.
If he could just stall Sarah’s aging, he could buy himself time to crack the bigger problems, remove the Null Particles and restore her mind.
Epistocrats had a practice called Ousting, where they exiled and replaced children and young adults that didn’t live up to their family’s standards of intelligence. If Henry did that, he could get access to higher levels in time.
It would be difficult, complicated. And he’d have to take another person’s body, name, life, for as long as it took. The mere thought of that felt wrong.
Disgust bubbled up inside Henry’s stomach. What if you fail again? He would have hurt more people, destroyed more lives in his hubris. All for nothing.
Would Henry be a monster for continuing his project? Or a fool?
But there was no other way to undo his mistake. Nothing he could think of.
A witch can do anything she sets her mind to. That wasn’t always true, but it could be.
The boy stood up in the rain and darkness. Thunder roared in the distance.
Henry didn’t cry.
Someone had written in Tasia’s notebook.
The words matched her handwriting and the color of her pen. It looked like she’d scribbled inane baking recipes in the margins of her tactics notes.
But Tasia hadn’t written any of them.
When she’d first noticed them, they’d reminded her of Kaplen, which sent her into a spiral of despair and self-loathing for the rest of the afternoon. The stupidest things set her off these days.
Of course, she still did all her work. If she let the festering memories paralyze her, she’d fall behind in her Null Particle research. Or worse, her grades would drop, and Admiral Ebbridge would find someone else to replace her.
But the mysterious recipes had stuck in her head, stupid though they were.
So when Tasia was done with the day’s work, she curled up in her dorm room and ran the recipes through the only decryption vocation she’d installed in her mind – Pirate-AB. The algorithms were near-impossible to learn.
The Praxis vocation spat out a mangled hash of characters, plus a request for a key:
The name of your favorite drowned animal
Tasia felt a pit in her stomach. She put down her lunch of boiled tofu skins. How do they know?
Tasia inputted the word “Mango” and crawled into bed for a nap. When she woke up, the system spat out a message into her consciousness:
I CAN HELP YOU
COME ALONE OR WE’LL ALL DIE
The pit in Tasia’s stomach grew, like a sinkhole opening up in her abdomen.
In addition to the time three days from now, the language was very specific. Not “you’ll die” or “I’ll die” or even “we’ll both die”.
We’ll all die.
It could be a trap. Paragon students were targets, particularly from Commonplace and the Mob.
But how did they know about her stuffed animal? Any person could run a background check, but only Sarah knew the name of her platypus hippo.
Whoever sent Tasia this message either knew Sarah well, or had a mountain of resources available to them.
Should I send this to Admiral Ebbridge?
The rules were clear. Anything remotely suspicious like this needed to be reported. And if she went in alone, she could get killed or worse.
But if she told Professor Brin in counterintelligence or her adopted mother, this opportunity could vanish forever.
And it was an opportunity, no mistake. If the messenger knew this much about Tasia, then they had to know what she wanted. That she’d been getting four hours of sleep a night for months, reading Pneumatology texts at three in the morning.
They might even know how stumped Tasia was.
She’d known it’d be difficult going in, but the problem of Null Particles was bigger than Tasia could have imagined. In fact, as some of the high-level history texts suggested, Null Particles might have even been involved with the drowning of the Great Scholars, and the vanishing of the stars.
And every moment Tasia wasn’t moving forward, she felt worse.
The name, the body, the life she was inhabiting didn’t belong to her. ‘Tasia’ felt right. And inhabiting a woman’s body was less uncomfortable than she expected.
But still, every time someone called her “Nell” or she looked in the mirror, she was reminded that she was a thief.
Tasia didn’t belong in Paragon Academy, no matter how pretty it was or how many books there were to read. She belonged out in the world, in a body that was truly hers, searching for the truth with Sarah.
Not cooped up inside this pressure cooker of a school, listening to students giggle at her behind her back. Kaplen had been one of the few bright spots, a person who made Tasia feel welcome.
But she couldn’t save him.
Images flashed through her mind. Kaplen lying on his bed, fixing Tasia with a dead stare, asking her to leave. Where’s Lyna? Then seeing him again hours later, covered in vomit and blood, his mouth hanging open. And the thick stench that filled his room, like rotten eggs and maggoty beef.
No, no, don’t think of that. She’d get stuck on a loop, reliving the worst parts over and over. She had to think of something else.
Come alone, or we’ll all die.
She couldn’t risk losing everything. There was too much riding on this position, on her high-level library card. If the messenger had information, Tasia could find out after they were arrested.
A chill wind blew across the bridge to the Great Library, shaking Tasia out of her thoughts. She speed-walked forward, avoiding eye contact with students she passed. In the distance, a war zeppelin patrolled the air around Elmidde.
Layers of snow buried the grass on the Grand Pavilion. Tasia trudged through, projecting the water out of her socks so her feet wouldn’t get cold.
Halfway across, she found Ernest Chapman. He was sitting on a bench at the corner of the lawn, wedged between the banquet hall and one of the class buildings.
Tasia walked up and hugged him. When she broke off, her chest tightened.
Ernest was injured. Two of his fingers were turned a sickening grey, bent back and stiff. And there were tiny cuts on the backs of his wrist, along with bruises on his collarbone and scratches on his scalp beneath his ragged grey hair. He’d moved his clothes to cover most of them, but Tasia could still see.
“You’re hurt,” Tasia said, examining his hand.
Ernest avoided eye contact with her. “My body’s still throwing up curveballs. I had a seizure the other day while I was walking.”
“It’s decaying more, isn’t it?”
The Ebbridge family is still in debt. And Tasia’s body double was owned by Admiral Ebbridge, who wouldn’t approve of her new daughter gifting it to a lowly Grey Coat.
“Lorne ordered me to cut off contact with you,” said Ernest, staring at the ground. “We can’t be seen together.”
“Chimera Squad doesn’t like me fraternizing with the enemy either,” said Tasia. Especially not Eliya. “But I don’t care.” She clasped Ernest’s good hand. “We need to protect each other.”
“You can afford to anger your squad,” muttered Ernest. “I can’t. One word from Lorne and I’m gone.” He clenched his fists. “I just dumped rotten sandwich meat onto a person’s bed. And last week, I set fire to a whole squad’s homework assignment.” He closed his eyes. “They failed it. I saw one of them cry after class.”
If he doesn’t comply, Lorne will fire him.
“You always have a choice,” said Tasia. Please don’t leave me.
“You don’t understand,” said Ernest. “You’re the prodigy. You get better grades than everyone I know, even Lorne, and you’re not even spending most of your time on classwork.”
“I had a good teacher.”
“Your position at Paragon is secure. You’re not at risk of getting expelled.”
“I Ousted someone,” said Tasia. “Just last summer. I haven’t even been here a year. My position is anything but secure. If I screw up, the admiral will find someone else.”
“Then why did you put yourself at her mercy? You could have applied through the entrance exam. You could have become a normal student.” Ernest closed his eyes. How long has he wanted to ask me this? “Why did you need to Oust someone, Tasia? Why did you have to take someone’s body?”
“Let’s talk somewhere private,” she said.
Tasia sipped tea from her mug.
“This is a Shenti bakery,” she said. “It lost a lot of business after the war, so it’s not very popular these days. We won’t run into any Paragon students here.”
Ernest hunched over at the other end, staring at the bakery’s shelves of sweet buns, pastries, and sponge cakes with longing in his eyes.
“Leizu’s Shenti,” said Ernest.
“And she gets her comfort food from the other side of Gestalt Island,” said Tasia. “You asked me why I Ousted my predecessor, yes?”
“Are you sure you want to know? Even if it’s uncomfortable?” Even if it makes you hate me?
Ernest nodded again.
Tasia explained everything. From Carter and the bullies, to her sister’s voyage, to Pneumatoma and her ‘cure’. Every detail except the message she’d just received. It was exhausting, but liberating to share it all, like the relief you felt after a long run.
“That’s why I Ousted her,” Tasia said. “Nell.” She smoothed her skirt with her palms. No, not my skirt. “And I’ll only keep this body for as long as I have to.” She sighed. “It’s hard. Night after night, I get these dreams, of falling through a black void, reaching for a light that…” She trailed off.
Ernest got a heavy look on his face. “The person you Ousted. The former Nell Ebbridge, do you think that – “
The front door swung open.
“Ah,” a girl’s voice said. “The thickheaded bully and the imposter.”
Eliya Brin strode into the bar, her platinum blonde hair flowing around her. Light streamed in through the windows behind her, silhouetting her in her ice blue dress. A white eyepatch covered her right eye, still elegant after her injury.
“I figured you were going to meet him.” She stood over the two of them. “But not in this dump.“
“You followed me?” Tasia said.
“But I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me, coming from you, Henry.”
Tasia choked, staring at the floor and shrinking away from Eliya. She knows my birth name? Had Eliya ran a background check on her?
Breathe. Don’t show weakness. Tasia froze her expression, speaking in a patient, calm voice. “How can I help you?”
“You can’t talk with the Grey Freak,” said Eliya. “He threw rotten meat onto Helena Knight’s bed. He almost made Centaur Squad fail Tactics.”
“That’s Lorne’s fault, not his,” said Tasia.
“And Lorne’s probably using him to mine information out of you.” Eliya stared at Tasia. “He bullied me. And you’re friends with him. It’s insulting.” She didn’t even look at Ernest.
“Ernest is my friend,” said Tasia.
“He’s a henchman. And, despite his giant head, he’s barely smart enough to be a grey coat. The more time you spend with him, the more everyone else will reject you.”
Tasia slouched over, sinking further into her seat.
“You care about Chimera Squad? Prove it. If you don’t cut each other off, I’ll tell Lorne you two are meeting.”
Ernest could lose his position. Get kicked out of Paragon for good.
Ernest shrunk back further. “N – no,” he stuttered.
“Excuse me?” She turned her one-eyed glare towards him.
“No, I won’t stop seeing her.”
Eliya will do it. The girl didn’t make empty threats.
In the long term, Ernest could make other friends, find other people who accepted him. But if he got expelled, he’d be on a blacklist forever.
“He doesn’t mean it,” blurted out Tasia. “We can stop seeing each other. Please, Eliya. We’ll stop.“ She implored Eliya with her eyes.
“Apologize, then,” said Eliya.
“You knew how the squad felt about this, and you did it anyway.”
Carter’s face flashed through Tasia’s mind, and she heard the Stonebrook river rushing beneath her.
Leave us alone, thought Tasia. Please, just leave us alone.
Only, there was no Sarah to save her this time. The bully was an experienced projector, not a petty Humdrum.
“Apologize,” said Eliya.
She wanted obedience from Tasia, just like Carter. Just like her father and Admiral Ebbridge.
At the end of the day, this world wasn’t that different from the world of the Humdrums.
Tasia stood up, and looked Eliya in the eye.
“If you tell anyone about this,” she said. “I’ll throw every single squad battle with your team. I’ll rip off my armband, sabotage our efforts, and we’ll lose all of them.”
“You’re bluffing,” hissed Eliya. “We’ll drop in the standings. Your tactics grade will tank.”
“Um,” said Tasia. “I’m getting near-perfect scores in all my classes. I can afford to do bad in one of them.” She took a deep breath. “Can you?”
“We’re not conspiring together,” Tasia said. “We’re just friends.”
Eliya’s eyes darted back and forth between Tasia and Ernest. Finally, she turned around and strode out the door.
On impulse, Tasia hugged Ernest, pulling him close. Ernest hugged her back.
“You should have bent to her,” she said. “You should have just agreed with her and cut me off.”
“Yes,” said Ernest. “But I didn’t.”
“Let’s set a regular meeting time,” she murmured. “Somewhere they won’t look for us.” She leaned in. “I’m going to teach you everything there is to know about being a witch.”
Three days later, when she returned to her dorm, a bright green plush was sitting on her bed. A platypus hippo, with a note next to it.
Write the next page
Let’s make her proud
Tasia hugged the hippo close to her. Thank you, Ernest.
He’d taken a risk for her. He’d put his future at Paragon on the line for the sake of their friendship.
Tasia could take a risk too.
She checked her internal clock. 9:51. Good, it wasn’t too late.
She had a meeting to get to.
Tasia strode down the dark ramp. At high tide, Wulsi Pier sat several feet underwater, thanks to the recent sea level rise.
Empty buildings and faded signs dotted the boardwalk. Fifty years ago, it had been a popular tourist spot. Restaurants, food stalls, and novelty shops had been packed onto its wooden slats.
All empty now. All silent, save for the sound of waves lapping against the shore. Tasia couldn’t see anyone nearby, and had done a quick sweep of the area for witnesses.
As expected, she couldn’t find a soul. Nobody visited this part of town anymore. Downtown had become Lowtown.
Tasia squinted in the faint moonlight. A man sat at the far end of the pier, his feet hanging off the edge. In his position, the water went up to his collarbone. He faced away from Tasia, gazing at the ocean.
Tasia strode onto the pier. Her internal clock struck two AM. Just in time.
She walked on top of the dark water, her footsteps rippling out.
The man stood up and turned to face her, his legs sloshing through the water. One of his arms was missing, just an empty sleeve hanging below his shoulder. His face was covered in scars, bruises, and yellow stubble, but Tasia still recognized him.
Gamel. The man who’d led the expedition, who’d taken her sister into the darkness.
“Long time no see, kid.” His voice was still hoarse. “You look a bit different. You’ve grown out your hair, haven’t you?”
Despite the freezing air, Tasia’s neck felt hot. “What happened to Sarah?” she muttered. “How are you still here?”
The man didn’t answer right away. Tasia felt around with her Pith.
Objects floated around the man, filled with his Pith. Invisible objects. They felt like long ropes.
Some of them floated above Tasia too, waiting to strike.
Tasia made a split-second decision.
In a quarter second, she summoned an orb around her fist and flung it at Gamel’s chest.
The man rolled forward, splashing through the water and dodging the projectile. As he did, she made a second orb and threw it at his back.
Gamel pushed off with his hands, rolling sideways, avoiding the second orb without even watching.
Something cold wrapped around Tasia’s ankles and yanked her up, smacking her face into the water. An invisible chain. It wrapped around her arms, pinning them to her sides.
And then she was in the air, upside down, and Gamel was holding an invisible knife to her throat. The edge touched her skin, drawing blood.
Tasia summoned her Vocation to push the man’s Pith out, but it wasn’t there. He was projecting into the ends of the chains, pulling them taut to hold her in place. The same trick the former Nell Ebbridge had almost beat her with.
“I survived,” he hissed. “Because I saw the writing on the wall. I ran, while your noble, perfect sister convinced the others to stay.” He spat. “If Sarah wasn’t so inspiring, maybe she’d be here with you.”
Tasia squeezed her eyes shut. It should have been you. “Coward,” she muttered.
The icy chains tightened, digging into the skin on her ankles. “Maybe,” he said. “But I’m alive. And that’s not why I’m here.“
“I – I won’t give you anything,” said Tasia. “I won’t let you use me against Paragon.”
“I don’t give a shit about Paragon,” said Gamel. “If you want to hug the bomb as the fuse burns down, that’s your business. But there are more important problems.”
“What do you know?”
He continued, ignoring her. “You’re too clever for your own good, bookworm. I know you’re researching how to remove Null Particles.”
“What are you talking about?” Don’t give him any information.
“I don’t care about your deflections,” he hissed. “The Great Scholars researched them too. At the height of their civilization. That’s what we found out.”
“And they failed,” said Tasia. “That’s why they all died.”
“No,” said Gamel. “Billions of people drowned, yes. But not because they failed. Because they succeeded. They discovered something that tore the world open, that let in eight oceans and wiped out the heavens.”
The water lapped around Gamel’s knees. Above Tasia, the two moons shone overhead, glaring into her eyes.
“You,” said Gamel, “need to stop. For all our sakes.”
Tasia shook her head. “No,” she said. Knowledge wasn’t the problem, it was the application. The abuse. She just had to get smarter. Work harder. “You’re lying.”
Gamel reached into his coat pocket and extended a beat-up book towards her, flipping it open.
The handwriting and more importantly, the phrasing, were unmistakable. Sarah wrote that.
Gamel glanced out at the dark, endless ocean. “Whatever killed the Great Scholars is alive,” he said. “And it’s watching us. The water is rising, and you’re endangering us all. If your sister was still herself, she’d say the same thing.”
“She is still herself,” Tasia forced out. “She’s just – forgotten.” And she can remember again. “She believed in exploring the unknown, not cowering away in fear of the horizon.”
“She believed in helping people,” Gamel said. “How many more lives do you have to destroy before you see that?”
Tasia’s stomach wrenched. He’s manipulating me. But a person could be manipulative and right at the same time.
“Anyone could be wearing that body,” she choked out, the blood building in her forehead. “How do I know you’re the real Gamel? How can I trust anything you say?”
“You’ll figure something out,” he said. “A witch can do anything she sets her mind to.”
A flat, silver Oracle Snake flew overhead, winding back and forth in the black sky.
Three years ago, another Oracle Snake flew above Sarah’s ship as it sailed away from Stonebrook.
Mango, the stuffed platypus hippo fell into the river, sinking, sinking, disappearing.
A grain of sand hovered before Henry, as Sarah recited a familiar tale. This is the story of Tasia the Explorer.
Henry stabbed a needle of lightning into Sarah’s skull, beginning the operation.
He threw a Pith-orb at the staggering Nell Ebbridge, a crackling piece of his soul, knocking her out and taking her place in the family. Henry’s world closed. Tasia’s world opened.
Kaplen Ingolf extended his hand towards her, beaming. Write the next page. Ernest Chapman did the same.
What had it all been for? What was the purpose of all those years, all the weight she’d carried?
It had to be for something.
The problem of Null Particles wasn’t impossible, or immoral. It had just gotten more complicated.
Gamel’s voice snapped her back to the present. “You’ve survived a great deal,” he said. “But the world’s a lot bigger than you are, bookworm.”
He doesn’t know everything. If he’d met Sarah, he could guess at her research subject. He’d probably written in her notebook while she was in some public place, tailing her and sending a secret message.
But Gamel couldn’t get into Paragon. He couldn’t get through security, or the deceleration field, even with light projection and invisibility.
With the right precautions, he’d have no way of spying on her. No way of knowing whether she’d stopped.
“Alright,” lied Tasia. “I’ll stop my research. If you give me Sarah’s notebook. I need to know what happened to my sister.”
She had so much work to do.