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Grace Acworth’s friend was stabbing someone.
A young woman, with a bag of spilt groceries next to her under the streetlamp. Blood trickled out of the side of her stomach where the blade had punctured her.
The carpenter’s boy, Edric, held the hilt of the dagger, his eyes wide with shock.
Neither of them were moving, both frozen in place by some unknown force. Edric’s arm shook, as tears ran down his face.
Waves washed against the side of the boardwalk, but other than that, the dark cobble street was silent.
Edric was the son of an old carpenter who did repair work on Paragon. Since they were Humdrums, their memories were modified after every job, but they were paid handsomely in return.
Due to the Whisper vocations on them, Edric and his father often got confused while they worked on campus. Other students and Grey Coats would keep their distance, but Grace would strike up conversations, take her lunch break with them. To her surprise, the pair would actually remember a lot.
A dark red streak ran down the woman’s pant leg, making a small pool beneath her shoe. How long have they been standing there?
And the dagger. It had all sorts of markings up and down the hilt, and a Voidsteel blade. He wouldn’t own something like that.
“Edric?” said Grace, her voice unsteady.
Edric’s eyes turned to look at her, the rest of his body still frozen. Someone’s hijacking him.
She projected around his Pith, Nudging him. “I release you from all – “
“Stop.” A boy’s voice rang out behind her.
Grace spun around. A black-haired boy strode towards her from the far sidewalk, gazing at her with big, innocent blue eyes and an easy smile under a straw boater hat. He spun a kitchen knife between his fingers.
Lord Tybalt Keswick. Her student boss at Paragon. A rising young Epistocrat.
“One moment,” he said. He pried Edric’s fingers from the engraved dagger and pulled it out of the woman. Then, he replaced it with the kitchen knife, which fit neatly into the hole already made. “There we go.”
Grace’s gagged, and she stepped back, feeling dizzy. He stabbed the woman. No, he gave his dagger to Edric, then Nudged him to stab the woman.
“So, Grace.” The blood floated off the dagger’s green blade, sailing into the harbor. The blade slid back into the sheath with some hidden mechanism, and Tybalt put back into his coat. “What brings you to this part of town?”
“I – “ she stuttered. “You wanted me to pick up a package from a storage unit.” She pointed down the street. “Sir.”
Grace’s stomach ached. Why? Why would Tybalt do this? He was so sweet in Paragon, so considerate. Of all the students to be a Grey Coat assistant for, she’d felt like she lucked out.
Tybalt snapped his fingers. “Right. So silly of me, I forgot. I was actually going here to pick that up myself. That’s when those two Humdrums tried to mug me.” He jabbed a thumb at the pair behind him.
Does he expect me to believe that? “The woman – she has groceries,” said Grace. “And she mugged you?”
“That was part of the act,” Tybalt said. “She asks for help, gets you to come close, then both of them turn on you.” He shrugged. “Well, they picked the wrong target.” He turned to them. “Piss yourselves.”
Edric closed his eyes. A dark spot appeared on his pants.
“That’s – that’s my friend,” said Grace. “This is mental hijacking, this is murder.”
Tybalt rolled his eyes. “It’s self-defense. Don’t be dramatic.”
“You’re a good person,” said Grace, her voice unsteady. “I – I know you want to do the right thing. Let’s get these people to a hospital and talk to Professor Oakes, or Headmaster Tau, or – “
The woman collapsed onto her back, unconscious. Edric held the knife steady, still frozen.
Grace was frozen too. What am I supposed to do? She wasn’t a match for Tybalt in combat. He was the best fighter in their year. And as a first-year Grey Coat, her projection was subpar at best. She didn’t even know what her Vocation was.
And even if she was strong enough, she wasn’t sure if she could fight him. Everything felt distant, blurry, like she was viewing her own life through hazy water.
“This is difficult for you,” said Tybalt, his voice soft and comforting. “I understand. Let me help.”
A cool spring breeze blew across the water, and one of the streetlamps flickered. What?
“My family has enough clout to get just about anyone an admission to Paragon. With a full scholarship.”
“You’re hard-working, you’re great in class, you’re loyal. You’ve got a great shot already. But I can fast-track you. Get you a guaranteed admission, right away, without you having to pay a dime or go into debt.” He smiled at her, as the bleeding woman coughed. “You can forge the stars in your image. And we can call an ambulance for this mugger.”
“If I – “ If I keep quiet about all this. Tybalt could memory-wipe his victims, but not her. Given the nature of this crime, there would probably be a Paragon investigation, and people might ask her questions.
She would have to lie for him.
“If I – “
“Yes,” said Tybalt. “That would be a necessary step.”
Grace stared at Edric’s wide, bloodshot eyes, his cheeks stained with dried tears.
“And Edric,” she said. “He’d go to prison.”
Tybalt shrugged. “The guy did try to mug me.”
Liar. “And if I’m not interested in that?”
Tybalt’s face fell. “That would be unfortunate.” His voice turned sympathetic. “We would not be able to continue our working relationship, and my family would have to inform Paragon of your character.”
They’ll use their connections to smear me. And being half-Shenti would make things even harder. Grace would never get a Grey Coat job again. She would never get into Paragon. And she’d go back to being a functional Humdrum – she might even get her memories of projection classes wiped.
That girl is still bleeding. If she waited too long, the damage could be significant. But if Tybalt wasn’t held accountable, who else might he hurt?
Tybalt drew the Voidsteel dagger from his coat, and the blade shot out of the carved hilt, bright green and as long as his forearm.
“This is Reverie. A Nekean Tanto knife gifted to my ancestor by a war priest, after the enlightenment of the Neke Islands. He told my ancestor a story along with it.” He leaned forward. “It’s called The Ant and the Beetle.”
Tybalt spun her a parable, of ants and beetles in a forest, where selfless ants built a boat of their corpses to save the colony during a flood, and a selfish beetle survived off the backs of their sacrifice. Throughout, Grace glanced at the unconscious woman.
“The story has been passed through my family, along with the knife. The idea being that, when the floods come, our family will stick together and float.” He shook his head. “But here’s my theory.” His voice got quiet. “There are no ants. You can pretend, you can be tricked, but deep down, everyone is a beetle. Survival takes priority over everything.”
Spoken like a true beetle.
“So,” he said. “Tell me. Which are you? Ant or beetle? What is your future going to be?”
Grace stared into Edric’s eyes. He stared back, pleading. The waves washed against the pier. Tybalt sheathed Reverie, then unsheathed it, moonlight reflecting off the green blade.
Grace made a decision.
The couple walked out of the emergency room, eyes red from crying. Grace leaned against a wall next to the exit, watching them out of the corner of her eye.
The victim, their daughter Priscilla, was alive and recovering. But the hospital bills had been enough to put them in debt. They could lose their house.
And Edric had been sentenced to life in prison. When the police found him with the bloody knife in his hand, his fate was sealed. His lawyer took a plea deal to keep him from a potential death penalty, and it didn’t go to trial.
Grace didn’t even get to visit him. Such an act would cast too much suspicion on her, bring questions that would lead back to Tybalt.
Paragon had carried out an investigation, but Grace was shocked at how small it had been. She’d only been interviewed once. And after just a week, the investigators seemed to lose interest in the case. Maybe they were investigating it in secret, but Grace somehow doubted it.
It was like Paragon’s internal police didn’t even care. Not when someone like Tybalt was involved.
And the victims remembered nothing.
The couple walked across the parking lot to their automobile. They sat in the front seats, slumped over, staring forward with dull eyes. All the tears had been drained out of them.
Tybalt had held up his end of the bargain. Grace had a full scholarship to Paragon next year, as a student, not a Grey Coat. She had a prestigious, comfortable future as a Guardian ahead of her, an entire life opening up like a vast blooming flower.
But she was disgusting. Repulsive. All she wanted to do was go somewhere private and hurt herself.
Tybalt held your future in his hands. There was nothing you could do. If she had reported him, what would have happened? If she had fought him with the element of surprise, could she have won? If, if, if.
The rage bubbled up inside her Pith, turning her blood into a frothing storm.
For Priscilla, the incident would be a scar, haunting her for the rest of her life. And for Edric, his neighbors, his friends, and his family would see him as a deranged murderer for the rest of his life.
As he decayed in prison in the coming decades, Edric might start to believe them.
Something shattered nearby, a deafening sound yanking her back to reality.
Grace looked around. All the car windows in the parking lot had been broken. On the first two floors of the hospital, glass walls collapsed into piles of shards. A water glass shattered in a nurse’s hand, falling to the floor as she screamed.
Men and women shouted, or murmured expressions of confusion and shock. All Humdrums. They’d probably attribute it to some freak accident.
Had Grace been projecting into the glass around her? She hadn’t been paying attention to her Pith.
She looked down at her hand.
When she squinted, she could see a bolt of purple lightning, flickering around the edges of her palm.
Grace was in hell.
She didn’t believe in an afterlife – this was no mystical experience. And the Shenti had no hell in The 99 Precepts, but managed to make a good impression of it anyways.
After sacrificing themselves to save their squadmates, her and Florence had been sent to a Redemption Camp. The Immaculate Vanguard, the Shenti’s most skilled Joiner, had cut off Florence’s hands with a Voidsteel sword.
And now, Florence had given up on reality. After saving Grace’s life from another prisoner, the former Guardian was now encrypting most of her memories every night, curled up on the concrete floor of the women’s quarters.
Grace knew the vocation herself, and the Null Venom only blocked her from external projection, not fiddling with her own Pith.
But she didn’t use it. She couldn’t.
Florence was losing so much in those memory wipes, so much she deemed ‘non-critical’. Horrors, yes. But horrors that Grace couldn’t look away from.
“Society’s treacherous sloth must be purged!” Grace chanted with the other prisoners, reciting the most famous line from the Black Tortoise’s speeches. A propaganda session pulled from the pages of The 99 Precepts. Or, at least, one man’s interpretation.
“This is your redemption!” shouted the soldier.
The moment Grace first heard that slogan screamed in her face, she knew: This wasn’t just the one camp. This wasn’t one of a handful, for the most extreme prisoners, or as an experiment.
This was happening all over the country. To millions and millions of people, most of them Shenti citizens, Humdrums. The old, the disabled, political dissidents, anyone with an ‘economic score’ low enough to be deemed a burden on society. An unimaginable number of people were being exterminated through labor.
Florence didn’t want to think about that – she didn’t want to imagine the scope of the horror. And other prisoners escaped into their imagination. In the morning, they recounted dreams of lavish dim sum meals, reuniting with their families, going out on the town to drink and dance.
But Grace could never avert her eyes. Could never escape from reality.
The exhaustion, the sleep deprivation that made the whole world blurry. The blaring horn that woke them every morning, and the cold concrete of the women’s dorm that served as their only mattress. The frostbite she would get on her feet after trudging to the tread factory, turning her toes swollen and crusting. The blackish-brown color her clothes took on, after being worn over and over without being washed.
And the stench. Body odor and stale urine and dried blood. Even after months in the camp, it made Grace’s stomach churn.
And the hunger, of course. The hunger was stronger than everything.
Back in Paragon, food had just been a necessity. Grace had never understood all the fuss about it – the mad rush for scones at breakfast, the huge banquets, the obsession with the academy’s famous mulled cider.
It was all just fuel. Nothing special.
Now, she understood. Food was on her mind as she woke up aching, as she fit together tank treads with shaking arms, as she shivered on the concrete and tried to fall asleep. First, the pangs in her stomach, the ache that grew larger and larger every minute. Then the sheer exhaustion, as her arms became heavy and her thoughts became consumed.
Sometimes, Grace would eat her bowl of rice all at once, to experience a moment of full, satiated bliss. Other times, she would divide it up over, one clump every hour, so it would last longer.
When she did that, other women in the dorm would try to take it from her, some begging, others with threats or violence.
Wan Guo, a farmer from the south of Shenten, was the first, and her death prompted Florence to begin encrypting her own memory. But she wasn’t the last. Other prisoners were competition, not allies. If one of them succeeded, that meant more suffering and death for the others.
To the victims of this camp, the guards were a fact of the world, an inhuman, unchangeable presence who could not be fought. Grace was the one taking their food from them. And Florence, since she was the only one who Grace shared her rice with.
The first time Grace killed someone in self-defense, she became a sobbing wreck for weeks. But after the second, and the third, it started to seem ordinary. The other prisoners had been reduced to locusts. They would eat each other if the guards permitted it.
Before long, Grace simply got used to seeing the unmoving women every morning in her dorm, the ones who drank wine, went to sleep the night before and never woke up. Guards would drag the body away, and a new woman would come to take their place.
As time passed, Grace saw less and less actual Shenti soldiers. Most of the people who enforced the rules were prisoners themselves – just the higher-level ones with an economic score of five or higher, whose good performance could earn them true freedom from the cmap.
Those guards were the cruelest of all. When you were this low in life, sometimes the only comfort was knowing someone else was worse.
And they always made sure to remind her. “What was your profession, locust?” they would shout at her during discipline sessions.
“Teacher,” muttered Grace, the Humdrum-friendly response the Shenti interrogators had assigned her, to conceal the truth of her projection.
“Serving a corrupt nation,” the guard said, sneering. “Forcing the propaganda of imperialists onto the youth, indoctrinating them against the state. Spawning another generation of locusts just as worthless as you.” She gestured to the other prisoners standing on the grass. “Show her what she deserves.”
In unison, the other prisoners grabbed clods of mud from the damp ground and threw them at her. Grace closed her eyes, flinching. They hit the side of her cheek, her chest, her legs and her arms, staining her clothes brown, dirty water trickling down her skin. They screamed at her, that she was trash, that she was complicit in murder and torture and treacherous sloth and that she was nothing, nothing before this camp and The 99 Precepts and the Black Tortoise’s mercy.
Florence couldn’t throw anything, but she screamed too. There would be more beatings if she didn’t.
When it was Florence’s turn to be humiliated, Grace would do the same. Even with Florence’s mind-wipes, they were both becoming fluent in the language of the Black Tortoise.
Life blurred into a perverse routine. Avoiding beatings, trudging to the factory, eating scraps, stepping over the bodies on your way out the door.
And at first, it was thoughts of freedom that sustained Grace. In Florence’s state, she wasn’t in any shape to provide support.
This is temporary, Grace told herself. You’ll find a way to escape, or the Principality will liberate this camp. All the guards would be punished. Cao Hui would be brought to justice.
But nothing came up. The Null Venom injected into her veins prevented her from external projection. Internal projection was unaffected, but she knew almost no Joining, and Grace’s Praxis Vocation still eluded her.
She thought of messing with the Null Venom schedule. But the men injecting her were thorough, never late, always injecting a large dose with a wide overlap. The watchtowers had no blind spots, and the fence was electric. A prisoner had tried slipping through it at night, and the Shenti left his smoking body on the live wire for a week as a reminder.
Most Humdrum POW escapes happened with tunnels, but no one had the energy or tools for that.
She attacked the problem from every conceivable angle. But nothing clicked.
And the Principality’s liberating army never came. Just the horn, every morning, jolting her back to reality.
Day by day, Grace’s future began to fade. And without that, what goal was there to strive towards?
Prisoners with higher economic scores still dreamed of climbing out, but at levels one and two, there were no such delusions. They had been abandoned by society, as repulsive, worthless things to be ignored at best.
What are you living for? What was the purpose of their continued existence? To fuel the Shenti’s war machine? To help build tanks and factories and train tracks that would help the monsters conquer the Eight Oceans? To turn the entire world into camps like these.
What was the point?
Grace didn’t have an answer.
So, instead of sleeping, she spent many nights outside the front door of the dorm, shivering.
After the first few times she did this, a Shenti woman began to join her on the front steps, leaning back against the wall of the dorm, her breath turning to fog ahead of her. At first, Grace thought she was trying to befriend her, as some sort of long con to steal Grace’s food.
Or perhaps she was an agent, sent by the Shenti to earn her trust and secure her loyalty.
But the woman said nothing. She just sat there, staring into space. Most of the time, there wasn’t even eye contact.
Grace and the woman just sat there, two insomniacs passing in the night.
Until one night, Grace spoke up.
Maybe she was curious. Maybe she was just desperate for connection.
“Why do some of them drink wine?” Grace asked.
The woman turned to her, mouth half-open, a look of surprise on her face.
“The people in our dorm. I don’t pay much attention to them, but sometimes, I see them drinking wine before they fall asleep. What’s the purpose?”
The woman laughed, a hoarse, weak sound that turned into a wet cough. “You’ve been here for months, round eye, and you still don’t know about the Choice of Rice and Wine?”
Half round eye. Grace’s father was Shenti. “No, why would I know that?”
“I sit behind you on the cognitive tests so I can read over your shoulder,” said the woman. “I know how smart you are. How is it not obvious?” She cocked her head to the side. “Or maybe you just don’t want to see it.”
“Fine,” said Grace. “What is the Choice of Rice and Wine?”
“The guards are hungry too,” said the woman. “Not as hungry as us, but they’re not exactly getting a feast either. When they can, they’ll steal our food.”
“Yes, obviously,” said Grace. Her infrequent bowls of rice had been snatched by the guards before.
“But sometimes, we can trade our food to the guards for other things. A ration of rice wine, in this case.”
Grace raised an eyebrow. “But we need the rice to survive. The wine is a pointless luxury.”
The woman chuckled. “The wine isn’t about survival, dummy. It’s about giving yourself one pleasant night before it all goes away.”
“It’s about accepting your fate, that the struggle is too much.”
Grace slouched over. “That’s the most bleak thing I’ve ever heard.”
The woman shrugged. “Humans aren’t built to last in a place like this. It’s only the selfish monsters like me who last more than a few months.”
“If you’re so clever, how did you end up here?”
She sighed. “I tried. On the day Cao Hui’s thugs chopped the emperor’s head off, I knew I had to get out. I was unemployed, living through part-time jobs and the occasional violation for drunk and disorderly. The Black Tortoise doesn’t like my type.”
“Drunk and disorderly?”
“There aren’t a lot of public bathrooms in Ri Chu City.”
“So why didn’t you leave Shenten?” said Grace.
“Do you know how hard it is to get a visa for another country? When you’re dirt-poor with an economic score in the pits, nobody wants to give you a free ticket to their country. Nobody wants to give you anything.”
“Sorry.” Grace pulled her knees to her chest to warm herself. That could have been me. If she’d reported Tybalt and gotten expelled, had all knowledge of projection wiped from her head.
The woman shrugged. “At a certain point, people stop acting disappointed and just start ignoring you. It’s easier then. But by the time I found a good smuggler, the state decided I was worth more here.”
On impulse, Grace stuck out her hand. “I’m – I’m Grace.”
The woman looked at her with confusion, then shook the hand. “Right, I forgot you westerners did that. I’m Sun Bi, but you can just call me Sun.” She smiled, her dry lips cracking. “I spilled my guts. Your turn. What did you do on the outside, round eyes?”
“Well,” said Grace. “I was a wizard.”
Both of them laughed, their voices echoing over the dead tundra.
Through all the bitter chill, Grace felt a pulse of warmth.
After that, Grace and Sun had many conversations outside the dorm, huddling close for warmth, staring out at the moons, at the factory, at the watchtowers in the distance. Even in spring and summer, the cold was brutal, and their talks made them lose sleep.
But they didn’t stop. They both knew that this was their lifeline, the flimsy thread keeping them from drinking that wine.
Months after they’d started talking to each other, Sun ruined it all.
“What if I told you,” she said. “That I was planning an escape?”
Scholars, please, no. “I would ask you what the plan is,” said Grace.
Sun huddled closer, lowering her voice. “I’ve been developing it for over a year,” she said. “The guards have a shift change every night at a regular time. During that period, there’s a moment when nobody is looking at the wire.”
No, no, no.
“The tread factory is only a quarter mile from the perimeter. If we mess with the gas system and use a timed fuse, we can create a fire during the shift change, drawing all the nearby guards – including the ones at the watchtower. With the distraction, we can cut the wires on the electric fence and go.”
Grace slumped over, staring out over the tundra.
“Well, what do you think?”
Grace gathered up the energy to speak. “I thought of that plan,” she said. “Four months ago.”
“What?” said Sun. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because it won’t work,” said Grace. “In the event of an emergency, all perimeter guards are to stay at their posts, and increase their vigilance. And the wires on the electric fence are connected to an alarm system. If they get cut or the circuit gets broken, it sends off an alarm. You wouldn’t make it a mile.”
“We wouldn’t make it a mile,” said Sun “If you’ve thought about it this much, we can perfect this plan together. Get out together. You, me, and your handless friend over there.” She indicated her head to Florence back to the dorm.
A hole opened up inside Grace, growing and growing until it felt like her torso had been hollowed out. “I tried,” she said. “I tried. But it’s a dead end. All my escape plans were dead ends.“
Sun shook her head, eyes wide. “No, no. That’s not possible. I thought this through. A big enough explosion, and the guards will have to come running. And there’s no way of knowing if the electric fence has an alarm to it.”
“Please,” said Grace, her voice soft. “I don’t want to watch you die.”
“I’m going to die if I spend another year here,” said Sun. “I don’t know if it’ll be fever, or a guard, or hunger, but I can’t last much longer. Sooner or later, I’m going to choose wine instead of rice.”
“Then wait,” said Grace. “Wait just a little. We can come up with something else, it’ll just take time.”
“Can you guarantee when you’ll have something else? Or if you’ll even have anything at all?”
Grace forced her eyes shut. Please don’t do this. Please.
“Then I can’t wait.”
She’s in denial. Sun had placed all her hopes on this plan, and couldn’t imagine a world where it would fail. It would be impossible to convince her otherwise.
But Grace tried anyways. She tried for hours into the night. And the next night. And the next. Until the two of them stopped talking, and Grace went back to shivering on the concrete.
And Grace started to think, knees pulled up to her chest, staring at the far wall of the dorm.
If Grace reported on an escape attempt from another prisoner, she could boost her economic score, move up a few levels. If she was lucky, she could pull Florence up with her. She’d probably never get out, but she and Florence would have a lot less agony, a much higher chance of survival. They would have twice as much food, warm bedding. Maybe even an easier factory job, that wouldn’t tear their muscles and leave them shaking at the end of the day.
Just the thought was enough to make Grace’s mouth water.
And Sun would be killed if she tried to escape anyways. The outcome would be the same either way.
Grace drifted off to sleep, full of indecision. The horn jolted her awake a few hours later, screeching in her ears. Within a few minutes, she was marching in a line with the other prisoners to the factory, her swollen feet aching with every step on the dirt path.
“Guard,” she croaked. “Guard.”
One of the Shenti guards walked over to her. On the other side of the line, Sun glanced at her, eyes widening.
The guard scowled at her. “What?”
Grace and Sun made eye contact for a few seconds.
But Sun’s gaze wasn’t terrified, or angry, or vindictive. It was sympathetic. Understanding.
Sun turned away, walking back into the line.
“Well?” said the guard, gripping her rifle. “Fuck you want?”
Report Sun. Save yourself.
Grace snickered. Then chuckled. Then broke out in hoarse laughter, tears running down her face.
The guard punched her in the solar plexus. Grace doubled over, gasping for breath. She collapsed to her knees, wheezing. Scholars, that hurts.
“Back in line, locust,” the guard said.
Grace crawled back in line and pushed herself upright, taking slow, labored inhales and exhales.
Step by step, she staggered towards the rising sun.
A week later, Grace heard a loud explosion at the factory, and Sun went missing. A week and three days after that, the guards marched the prisoners down a different path in the morning, leading them to a hill with a tree stump in the middle.
The guards dragged Sun to the stump. Bruises and bloodstains covered her face, but she was still breathing, still lucid, eyes darting around. They looked into Grace’s for a split second.
There was no speech, no dramatic introduction. One guard forced Sun onto her knees, pushing her head forward over the edge of the stump.
Another guard drew a curved Voidsteel dao sword, and brought it down on Sun’s neck.
Blood spilled onto the frozen grass. “This is the symptom of society’s treacherous sloth!” shouted a guard. “A great failure of intellect. Do not try to leave.”
And then they went back to work, like nothing had happened.
Grace didn’t scream. Any strong reaction to the incident might be seen as collaboration. She pushed her emotions down all throughout the day.
Finally, late at night, she found herself on the concrete floor again, leaning against the wall, knees pulled to her chest, staring forward into space.
Next to her, Florence was erasing all the memories of the execution. She might even be erasing her memories of Sun.
And it all washed over Grace. Tears poured down her cheeks, and her face twitched. Her chest gasped, in quiet, violent sobs. She clenched her hands on her knees, her brittle fingernails digging into her skin. Her stomach ached, a part of her mind already drifting to her next meal. Even now, all my body wants to do is survive.
Sun could have saved her life if she’d given Grace’s name. The guards knew the two of them had talked, all they needed was an excuse. Grace and Florence would have been tortured, at least for some time, and Sun could have gotten a new chance at life.
The rational choice, the choice of survival, was to report Grace.
But Sun hadn’t. She’d let herself die.
Ants and Beetles.
Grace had to make her sacrifice count. Merely continuing to exist was insufficient.
In that moment, she decided: I am going to get Florence Tuft out of this prison. Even if it meant dying.
Everything coalesced around that goal, that one singular obsession.
Intention: Get Florence Out
Purple lightning crackled around her wrists. It spread to the rest of her body, becoming a cloud, growing brighter and brighter until it was an electrical storm, blurry through a film of tears.
The headache grew too, a stabbing pain that split her skull down the middle, but the rush was a thousand times stronger.
Grace let go, relaxing her Pith. The lightning vanished. The handful of prisoners who had woken up fell back asleep, no doubt convinced it was some hallucination.
Alignment. Perfect alignment. Everything made sense now, everything clicked. A slow process at first, then faster and faster.
Intention: Get Florence Out
It rang in her head, thrumming as if her soul was a tuning fork that had just been struck.
And her mind responded.
In an instant, her memory focused, spitting out a schedule of every guard’s rotation for the past year. Their names flashed through her mind, ones she had forgotten, or had only heard once in passing a few months ago. The tiniest details from years ago became clear, sharp.
Then, she surmised their weaknesses. Qiu Heng was a drunkard. Kang Hai was wracked by guilt, and showed great sympathy for the prisoners. Zhao Lin feared being reassigned to the front lines.
Han Shufen. Cui Fu. Li Ping. Tao Xue. Su Jing. All of them had vulnerabilities. Humans were the weak point in every security system.
But the insights didn’t stop there. From a single glance at a cable technician a month ago, Grace guessed where the power for the electric fence was generated, how much longer Florence would last before she made the choice of rice and wine, how to stay strong and functional through the coming winter.
Within a few seconds, her hunger faded into the background, along with the other aches and chills. The pain was still there, but it was like an adrenaline rush – the other thoughts were stronger, making it easier to concentrate.
And her Pith began to run through all her flawed escape plans, all the failed attempts she’d seen other prisoners make.
In the span of two minutes, she came up with three new ideas for how to break into the guards’ weapons locker. Grace had never fired a gun before, but that wouldn’t be a problem now.
The next day, when Grace ate her weekly bowl of rice, she couldn’t taste it.
Her sense of smell had been dampened too. On a hunch, she tried to think back to her childhood. What did her house look like? Did she have any pets? Who were her neighbors?
All a blur. And other memories of her earlier years were vanishing by the moment.
In that moment, Grace understood the truth of her Praxis Vocation. It was a True Praxis Vocation, as they called it, a technique that modified her entire Pith, not just a few tiny aspects of it.
It wasn’t a clean upgrade to her intellect. It didn’t give her perfect plans. It was focus. Obsession. When Grace held a specific goal in her mind, her Pith adjusted at a rapid pace, sharpening itself to solve the problem at the cost of everything else. Sections deemed unnecessary for the goal were written over, replaced.
The Shenti could control her body. They could inject her with Null Venom, starve her, and work her to the breaking point. Her skin was covered in frostburn. She was shivering, frail, swollen from the hunger.
But her mind?
Her mind was burning.
It had taken two more years to escape the camp.
Two more years of agony, of mastering her Praxis Vocation. In the process, she’d even forgotten her name a few times, needing Florence to remind her of it.
Florence had survived. To Grace’s surprise, she’d made it out too.
And now, nobody cared.
There were noises of sympathy, of course, medals for surviving capture by the enemy, newspapers with their faces on page five.
But when Grace went into the details of the camps, everyone seemed to change the subject, or forget. And when she pressed the issue, they would dismiss her, accuse her of embellishing her story, diagnose her with false memories.
Florence barely talked about it at all – she just wanted to forget. And the Epistocrats believed Grace even less. Being half-Shenti didn’t help with that.
Everyone was happy that the two of them were home, but nobody seemed to care about what they’d been through, what was still happening to Humdrums all over Shenten. Nobody believed her.
Grace coped by training, making herself strong, so that nobody could force her into a cage ever again. She mastered Palefire, a technique she’d barely understood before the redemption camp.
Then, she’d gotten herself a job in foreign intelligence. With her Praxis Vocation, finding patterns in the data became as easy as breathing.
And now she had proof.
Grace pressed the button. Clockwork filigree mechanisms spun and whirred before her, bringing the elevator down the shaft to her.
Level Five. This was the highest level in the Great Library, where the Conclave of the Wise met to rule the country.
And above it, Headmaster Tau’s personal study.
While she waited, she glanced around the room. This level of the Great Library was nothing like the ones beneath, full of effects that seemed impossible based on what she knew of projection.
The entire room was shaped like a sphere, and gravity itself had warped around it. The ceiling was the walls was the floor. Jade glass bookshelves covered every inch, each book sealed in its own separate compartment. A miniature crystal sun floated in the center, shining warm, natural light over everything.
Hooded figures stood around the sphere, clad in dark blue robes, their faces obscured, watching her. The Librarians. The real librarians, not the Guardians who watched the entrance or the clerks who helped fetch books at the lower levels. Silent watchers who protected the most dangerous codices in exchange for their freedom, wielding unknown powers.
Paragon took their book security very seriously. Most of the damn academy was based around restricting people’s access to information.
The elevator arrived, a tall birdcage made of blue filigree metal, covered in spinning gears and cables. Due to the warped gravity of the sphere, it rose up from the floor, even though it was technically coming from above. I’m standing upside-down, thought Grace.
The door swung open, and Grace stepped in. It swung shut, and the elevator descended into the floor, whirring and clicking.
The world went dark around Grace for a few seconds.
Then the elevator emerged, right-side up, noon sunlight glaring in Grace’s face.
Grace gaped at her surroundings. That doesn’t seem possible.
The elevator was rising through the open air.
The entire top level of the Great Library was invisible from the inside. Grace gazed down on the floating air islands of Paragon, and, thousands of feet below, Mount Elwar and the ocean, all lit by the warm sun. When she glanced up, there was no cable supporting the elevator, nothing other than the spinning mechanisms on the cage itself.
After a few minutes, the elevator rose into a hole on the side of a platform, that appeared to be floating midair. And Grace Acworth entered the headmaster’s study.
In comparison to the surreal wonders of Level Five, Nicholas Tau’s office was quite humble. The only notable object was the globe, a vast metal sphere five times wider than she was tall, engraved with all the continents of the world, hanging from the ceiling high above, complete with a pair of tiny moons.
Natural sunlight shone in through countless windows, illuminating a handful of bookshelves behind the desk, including the Lavender Book itself. Those can’t be normal. There were no windows on the outside of the Great Library, or the tower at the top. The same effect as the elevator shaft, probably.
The most remarkable thing in the whole building, of course, was the bearded man in front of her, wearing a bathrobe, bare feet resting on the smooth wooden desk, sipping tea and reading a book. A gramophone played a smooth piano song, and he nodded along with the rhythm.
“What are you reading?” said Grace.
Headmaster Tau beamed at her, taking his feet off the desk. “Shellfish Secrets: A Hundred Different Recipes for Crab,” he said. “Riveting.”
“The Shenti are winning,” said Grace. “And you’re reading a cookbook.”
Tau chuckled. “You know, most people would have just feigned interest.”
Grace shrugged, and slid her dark blue and purple business card across the desk. An introduction, of sorts.
Captain Grace Acworth
Foreign Intelligence | Paragon Academy
31 – 1621 – 8273
“My apologies,” said Tau. “I may not look it, but I’m rather old, and we have a different sense of pace than you saplings.” He indicated his hand. “Please, sit.”
Grace sat down on a couch chair.
“You seem quite intent, young lady,” Tau said. “So I’ll try not to fuss around. What do you have for me today?”
Grace showed him her evidence. Pages and pages of it.
“So, in summary,” she said. “The Shenti are operating over five thousand redemption camps, some in captured territories, but most within Shenten itself. As per Cao Hui’s system, those with the worst economic scores are sent to locations where they are exterminated through labor.” She took a deep breath. “Between two and nine thousand are killed every day in these camps, mostly through starvation and disease.”
Tau exhaled, a mournful look on his face. “This is excellent work, Grace, thank you. It is a great horror you have uncovered.”
A horror that would have been uncovered a year ago if people listened to me.
“You’ve had to endure great suffering. Especially given your parentage.“
Grace grimaced. “I’m as native to the Principality as any.”
“Of course,” said Tau. “But your father was from Shenten, no? And the growing instability was one of the reasons he left. Do you have any family at risk of being sent to one of these camps?”
“No,” said Grace. “But why should that matter?”
“A horror,” muttered Tau. “A horror. But, forgive me – ” He folded his hands on the desk. “The population of these camps are almost entirely composed of Humdrums, yes?”
“Yes,” she said. “Florence and I were the only projectors in there that we know of.”
“And the perpetrators are Humdrums, yes?”
Grace didn’t like where this was going.
“Cao Hui, the Black Tortoise, is a Praxis Specialist,” she said, “and he runs the whole country, but yes, everyone else involved is a Humdrum.”
A tired, pained expression passed across Tau’s middle-aged face, and he closed his eyes. “The Treaty of Silence is… rather strict. Our own world must be kept separate from the Humdrums, for their safety and our own. Every civilization, back to the Great Scholars, has understood this. Acting against the camps would threaten to expose us. There is a natural balance, that should not be upset.”
“But we’re not separate,” said Grace. “The Conclave of the Wise – the council that rules this entire country – is made up of Epistocrats. Guardians insert themselves in the military. Projectors run all the major newspapers.”
“A necessary step,” said Tau. “A few centuries ago, all it took was an invisible school and a memory wipe every now and then. But today, the Humdrums have radio, television, mass media. Secrecy is a fragile thing in these times. We need all that to conceal ourselves.”
“And the war?”
“We can fight Shenti projectors, as you and your comrades have bravely done, but it must be kept secret, hidden. Through all the atrocities of this war, the Treaty of Silence is the one aspect all sides have agreed on. If anyone were to break it, entire societies would collapse. Our way of life depends on this.”
“But we can help them,” said Grace. “They’re humans, just like us.”
“If we solved one problem for them, they’d expect us to fix everything,” Tau said. “And do not imagine they’d be grateful for your help. The thoughts of a Humdrum are close-minded and stubborn and prideful all at once. If they found out people like you existed, many would try to burn you at the stake. They’d try to burn all of us.”
The world is already burning. “But even if we can’t act, what about our Humdrum military? We could bomb the rail lines leading in, or disrupt their communications, or – “
Tau sighed. “As you’ve described, we’re losing the war. A year ago, we had landed on the beaches of Shenten. Today, we’re a thousand miles west of that, and we’re losing islands by the week. We can focus on helping the Humdrums when we’re not on the verge of destruction. Then, we’ll do everything we can.”
They’ll all be dead by then. Grace clenched her fists. The anger bubbled up again inside her chest, the same sensation she’d felt in the women’s dorm so many nights.
“I know how much pain you’re in,” said Tau, his voice calm. “And right now, it may seem as though the whole world is against you. But if peace were easy, we’d never have to fight for it. By maintaining balance, we – and the Treaty of Silence – are protecting the lives of countless millions of Humdrums.”
Tybalt Keswick’s face flashed through Grace’s memory, lips parted in an easygoing smile as he forced Edric to stab Priscilla.
What are you protecting, Headmaster? thought Grace.
Grace had tasked her Praxis Vocation with gathering evidence of these camps. Overwhelming evidence. But she’d never imagined that she would need to convince people beyond that.
The truth was enough, wasn’t it? Once people knew of the cruelties happening in the camps, they would act, right?
“Life is so complicated these days,” sighed Tau. “I must confess, I wax nostalgic for the days of my childhood. The world was so much simpler back then.”
The world was never simple, said Grace in her head. You just thought it was.
“A kinder world,” he said, a faraway look in his eyes. “A kinder world.” He stood up and squeezed her hands.
Grace stepped back. “Thank you for your time, sir.”
“But still, I’m glad that we have young idealists like you to defend this nation.”
Grace bowed to him. You might end up regretting that.
“We’re almost there,” said Penny Oakes.
Grace swung her pick into the ice above her and pulled herself onto the ledge. Snowflakes drifted all around them, a light storm passing through the mountains.
Isaac pulled himself up after her, and Florence floated close behind, lifting herself on a gust of wind. Revenant Squad was using both projection and ordinary methods to climb the mountain, in order to preserve their strength for the mission.
Penny Oakes unfolded the map from her bag, floating it in front of her. “We’re still going the right way, yes?”
Grace glanced over her shoulder, and nodded. “My intel says the training grounds should be on the other side of the mountain. The storm will give us some cover.”
Shenti training grounds. Commandos were difficult to fight, but if you killed them before they finished their training, not so much. And a place to teach Joiners wouldn’t have any Humdrums present, so the Treaty of Silence would remain intact.
It was a perfect target for Paragon. And a perfect excuse to bring Revenant Squad back together, with the exception of Rowyna, who was busy leading half the fleet now. Penny Oakes served as her temporary replacement.
“At last,” said Florence, wiping snow off her face with one of her stumps. “We can get shot instead of freezing to death. Have I mentioned that I hate winter?”
“Nineteen times in the last week,” said Isaac, leaning against the rock wall. “I counted.”
“Now I know why the Shenti are so gruff,” she said. “If I spent all my time this cold, I’d probably want to punch something too.”
“How’re you gonna punch something, Florence?” said Grace, indicating to the woman’s stumps.
“I’m a Guardian,” said Florence, grinning. “It’s our job to be creative.”
Grace’s intention still rang clear, her Vocation operating at full capacity. She glanced up at the ridge near the peak of the mountain, snow falling all around her.
“Thank you,” she blurted out.
A look of confusion spread across Isaac and Florence’s faces. “What?” Florence said.
“After we’d escaped from that camp, Florence, I was unconscious,” said Grace. “You could have abandoned me. Vastly increased your chances. But you carried me through that wasteland.”
“I don’t remember that,” said Florence. “I’m sorry. What’s this about?”
Grace smiled at the two of them. “Of all the vicious, ignorant people I could have had as squadmates, I had you guys. I’m grateful, I guess.”
“I dunno,” said Florence. “We’ve got some issues. I’m pretty sure half my brain is melted cheese at this point.”
“And still,” said Grace. “I’m grateful.” She went back to climbing.
A few seconds later, they clambered over the ridge, to the edge of a cliff. Far beneath them, through the storm, they could make out the details of the structures below.
A grassy, flat tundra. A factory puffing out black smoke. And an electric fence, stretching as far as the eye could see, dotted with watchtowers and floodlights.
“Huh?” said Penny Oakes. “This looks too big for a Joiner’s training grounds, and that looks like a factory there on the left. Captain Acworth, are you sure your intel is accurate?”
“I’m sorry,” said Grace.
“No,” said Florence. “No.” Her eyes widened. She understood in an instant. “You can’t – you can’t – “
Isaac crouched down at the edge of the cliff. “This is the camp, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Grace. “This is Jiachong, the twenty-third redemption camp constructed by Cao Hui’s government.” The place where I forged my Vocation.
“And the training grounds?” said Isaac.
She pointed at a second location on the map. “That’s not a Shenti brigade, as written. The real training grounds are at those coordinates. You can go there if you want.” She put her hands on Florence and Isaac’s shoulders. “Or you can join me.”
“What’s going on?” said Penny Oakes.
“You’ll be breaking the Treaty of Silence,” said Isaac. “Attacking Humdrums. You’ll overturn thousands of years of secrecy in an instant.” His chest rose and fell at a rapid pace.
Tybalt’s face flashed through Grace’s memory, followed by Edric, the carpenter’s boy, and Priscilla, the young woman who’d been stabbed.
“And if you do this,” said Florence, stepping close, speaking under her breath. “You won’t just face the Shenti. Paragon will hunt you down.”
“Those are Humdrums down there?” said Oakes. “No projectors? Then if you engage, the sentence is a full memory wipe at best. And death at worst. I won’t fight you here, but I will report you.”
“I know what you went through,” said Florence.
“I’m not sure you do anymore,” said Grace.
“And – and I know enough about revenge,” she said, her eyes glistening with tears. “It won’t make you feel whole again. All it does is add more misery to the world.”
“I know,” said Grace. “I’m not doing it for me.” She hugged Florence and Isaac, pulling them close at the edge of the cliff, as snow fell around them.
Revenant Squad. Look at us. All broken in their own way, all straining under the weight of the world they fought in.
“I love you,” she said. “Please. Remember this.”
She let go of them, and jumped off the cliff.
On the snowy tundra, a group of prisoners trudged forward, directed by the guards, forming rows and columns around a hill. Many dorm’s worth, hundreds and hundreds. Snowflakes drifted around them, the air still and silent, the sun covered up by clouds. High in the sky, a silver oracle snake wound back and forth, tranquil and distant.
A surreal moment of peace, amidst the daily violence that was the norm in Jiachong. They all knew what was coming. They’d been to this hill before. But most just looked grateful for the chance to rest, to not be walking or working or scrabbling for food.
So there was no surprise when a guard dragged a limping prisoner to the tree stump.
“This locust attempted to steal food from the storehouse!” the guard cried. “His treacherous sloth rots from within. He lacks the discipline, the intellect, the moral spine to be a patriot!”
“No!” The prisoner yelled, his voice hoarse. They hadn’t beaten him into silence, and these were his last words. He was going to make them count. “I campaigned for the Black Tortoise, for Cao Hui! I fought for his vision, to restore our nation’s beauty, to save us from the monsters at our gates. Were it not for my injury, I would have joined the front lines.”
“Silence!” A guard kicked the prisoner’s face.
The prisoner spat up blood, and kept going. “And now that Cao Hui no longer has use for me, I am sent here to die.” He looked at the guards around him, at the prisoners. “Is this what you wanted? Is this what we wanted? What was the point?” he wheezed. “What was the point?”
The other prisoners just stared at him, apathetic, exhausted. Snowflakes collected on their withering hair, their slow, labored breaths fogging the air in front of them.
The guards ignored him too. How many times had they heard rants from locusts, cries of regret and despair? The accusations, the questions meant nothing to them. They knew their role in this society, and were filling it. That was all.
The guard next to the stump drew his broadsword, lifting it above his head.
The prisoner screamed, his voice cracking, a raw, animal noise. Raging at his life cut short, at his complicity, at how powerless he was.
Grace screamed with him, and lit the world on fire.
A flash of pale light lit up the sky, washing over the executioner. He dropped to the ground, limp, his skin charred and white.
The Voidsteel sword fell out of his hand, spinning through the air.
Grace’s hand reached out of the storm, and grabbed it.
Time stood still. The guards stared at her, in disbelief.
Then Grace screamed again, and set them all on fire. Nineteen precise blasts of palefire shot out around her, crashing down on nineteen guards from above.
They were dead before they hit the ground. The fire vaporized the flakes in the air, turning the snow into steaming puddles.
Two of the perimeter watchtowers turned to her and opened fire with their machine guns. The rounds bounced off her autonomous bullet defense, deflected with ease.
Grace flicked her fingers, and a pair of fireballs slammed into the towers, blowing them up with a dull boom.
Then, she projected into her body armor, and unfurled her wingsuit, shooting into the air.
The difficult step was disabling the lines of communication. She flew all over the camp, breaking all the radios from the inside, knocking out the signal before any guards could alert their superiors.
Then came the simple part. She slaughtered the guards. She stabbed them with knives, turned their own guns on them, pulled the pins on the grenades at their belts.
But mostly, she burned them, flying through the snowy air and raining down waves of pale flame. An angel of fire and rage.
The guards were Humdrums. Men and women from another world. None of them had been outfitted with Voidsteel. Why would they need it, in a remote camp with the Treaty of Silence intact?
Killing them was easy. Easier than every battle she’d fought, even the ones in training. Unless they shot her point blank, her Autonomous Bullet Defense would deflect everything they had.
And once Grace destroyed the trucks, broke the mechanism on the gates, the fence the guards had built now served to lock them in. Some of them tried to claw their way out, only to be shocked and burnt on the electric wire.
Meanwhile, despite the boiling anger in her veins, Grace took pains to control her flame, making sure that the tundra didn’t burn, that there were no lasting fires that could spread to the dorms or cause collateral damage to the prisoners.
No collateral damage. That was important. Some of the guards tried to take hostages of the prisoners, or execute them, but she just jammed their guns, or pulled the knives right out of their hands.
One guard dropped his weapon before she could burn him, falling to his knees on the snow. “Mercy!” he sobbed. “Mercy, mercy. Please.” Unique among the guards, he wasn’t Shenti, looking to be somewhere from the Principality.
Grace landed on the ground in front of him, still holding the broadsword from earlier. Dried blood coated its green metal. They’ve done many executions with this.
“My name is Corporal John Enright. I was a prisoner too,” said the guard, shaking. “And I was a soldier in the Principality before I was sent here. I’m not one of those eastern dogs.” He ripped his shirt, showing lines of scars up and down his chest. “They would have killed me if I didn’t join in. I was just trying to survive.” He closed his eyes. “I was just trying to survive.”
He’s a beetle. Like the old parable Tybalt had told her about the flood. Someone who only cared about self-preservation, who would commit all sorts of atrocities if it meant they could endure.
Grace set the broadsword on the grass next to him. Then she Nudged him. “Do to yourself,” she said. “What you did to the prisoners.”
A look of horror dawned on John Enright’s face, and he picked up the sword.
Mental hijacking was immoral and cruel. But in this case, she’d make an exception.
By the time she’d dealt with all the guards, many of the prisoners had coalesced around the tree stump, where she’d first stopped the execution. Most of them were hiding in their dorms, but a few had wandered out.
Grace descended near them and strode past the stump. The burnt body of the executioner had been covered with a thin layer of snow. As she passed, the prisoners stared at her.
Walking to the electric fence, Grace grabbed it. Demonstrating that the power was out. Then, she lifted her arms, projected into the fence posts, and ripped them out of the ground, tearing out a wide section of the perimeter wall.
“Listen closely!” Grace shouted, speaking in Shenti. “The guards store their food in the grey building to the northeast! They store weapons in the red building next to it!” She projected into her bag, shooting out a storm of pamphlets.
A few prisoners picked them up, reading through them.
“These include directions on how to travel through the mountains to the Principality’s lines! Do not linger!” Her voice softened. “The journey will be cold and difficult. Some of you will not survive. But in struggling, you may help ensure the freedom of others. And that’s all any of us can do.”
She repeated the speech in Common, Neke, and Ilaquan, for the foreigners in the camp, instructing them to spread the information and pamphlets to the ones in the dorms.
Then, she consulted the maps that her Vocation had seared into her memory. The next closest redemption camp was Luoyesong, thirty-two miles southeast of here. They had no idea she was coming.
The Shenti’s Joiners and commandos were far away from the homeland – fighting on the front lines around Ilaqua and all over the oceans. It would be a long time before they could move against her.
Intention: Free as many as possible
Her Vocation kept working, optimizing her Pith for the next camp, burning away all that was unnecessary.
The Treaty of Silence would burn too, as a side effect. But Grace could accept that collateral damage.
Grace flew into the snow, seeking her next pyre.
Basilisk, Lampago, and Ouroboros squads had been hunting Grace for four weeks.
The chase had spanned glaciers, through cave networks beneath mountains and across vast rivers. She’d liberated countless redemption camps already, fighting off Humdrums and Joiners along the way, making the occasional detour to resupply or help steer the new refugees in the right direction.
But her goal made her easy to track. At the next camp, Lianhua, they were waiting for her.
Even in the middle of a war, Paragon could spare three whole top-ranked squads to hunt down one of their own. Grace wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or repulsed.
Every time she found a path out, they cut her off. Every time she fought them, they came together, keeping her palefire at bay and wearing her out through the sheer force of their projection. They slept in shifts, allowing them to pursue her twenty-four hours a day. Her Vocation helped her function without sleep, but her body could only take so much. And on top of that, one of them had touched her with his hand, putting a tracer on her Pith. Now, every time she projected outside her body, it would send them her exact location.
And now, they’d cornered her here, some unnamed lake deep in the Yachi Mountains.
Cliffs surrounded her on all sides, steep faces extending from the shore to a dozen snowy peaks high above. Guardians in blue armor stood on ledges throughout them, encircling the whole lake. If she tried flying out, they’d intercept her.
The other two squads strode down the river, the only real entrance into the valley. And the only exit. In the winter, the lake had frozen over, so they didn’t even need a water walk to stride towards her.
Grace sat on a small rocky island in the middle. She hunched over, catching her breath, resting her hands on her knees.
Her armor was in tatters now, peeling, full of holes. It had broken off her body in most places, revealing her ash-stained clothes beneath. Her brown hair had grown tangled, greasy, singed at the tips. A patch of her scalp had burned, leaving a shriveled bald spot.
Bruises stretched up and down her arms. One of her ribs had broken, sending stabbing pain throughout her chest every time she moved. And a Guardian’s Voidsteel knife had grazed her neck, leaving a red scab across her trachea.
As the main group approached from the front, the other Guardians descended from the cliffs, closing in on all sides.
Grace exhaled, a slow, aching motion, her breath fogging up the air.
The main group stopped thirty feet away, and the tallest one flipped up his helmet.
Short black hair. Round, innocent blue eyes. And a warm, open smile that, when you squinted, turned into a smirk.
Professor Tybalt Keswick. Her old student boss, spry and rested, gazing at her across the frozen water.
“Normally,” he said. “They don’t send former connections after people like you. They get emotional, hesitate, don’t want to hurt their former friends.” He folded his armored hands behind him. “But when I asked, they made an exception.”
Grace just stared at him.
“This is the part where I ask you to surrender, one last time, so I can tell Headmaster Tau that I did everything I could.” Tybalt adopted a sympathetic look. “He’s heartbroken, by the way. Won’t even look me in the eye.”
“You don’t think I’ll come quiet?” said Grace, her voice hoarse.
Tybalt laughed. “You’re such an angry little creature. To be honest, I was surprised you didn’t try to kill me all those years ago, on the night with your Humdrum friend. I wish you had tried. The world would have stayed a lot simpler with you in a prison cell.”
“The world was never simple,” said Grace. “You just thought it was.”
Tybalt spun Reverie, the Nekean Tanto knife, between his fingers, the green blade shooting in and out of the hilt. “You know what you’ve done, haven’t you?”
“I saved people.” Thousands and thousands of them.
“Is that what you’re telling yourself now?” Tybalt’s voice took on a surprised tone. “You went mad. You burned every Humdrum in sight, soldiers and civilians. You created mountains of ashes. They’re calling you ‘The Pyre Witch’ now.”
Lies. Grace had expected a smear, an attempted cover-up, but nothing on this level. How many will they have to memory wipe to achieve this? Paragon Academy couldn’t admit that a traitor did a good thing, a moral thing, something they lacked the spine to do.
She had to be seen as the monster.
“And,” said Tybalt. “You attacked Humdrums. You shattered the barrier between our worlds. In retaliation for your little tantrum, the Shenti’s Immaculate Vanguard massacred an entire carrier group.”
A carrier group. Does that mean Rowyna –
“The Edwina,” he said. “May Vice Admiral Kerst have rest. Projectors are now fighting in the open. The Treaty of Silence is over. You exposed us to the Humdrums, and now they’re going to try and destroy us all. The world as we know it is going to burn.”
“Some things,” Grace said, sitting up with effort. “Deserve to burn.”
“This is your legacy, Grace Acworth,” Tybalt said. “This is how history will remember you.” His smirk widened. He knows the truth. And he was taking pleasure in the lie. This country will always protect people like him.
Grace’s calloused fingers dug into the skin of her leg. The rage was almost enough to make her scream.
“What’s the sentence?” said Grace. “Memory wipe or death?”
“If all your memories are wiped, and your personality flattened,” Tybalt said. “The Conclave has ruled that you may live. If you want to survive, there’s only one rational choice you can make.”
Ants and Beetles. It always came back to the ant and the beetle. Sacrifice and survival. Death and life. A selfish man like Tybalt, thinking everyone was just as empty.
But it was almost time.
When the Guardians arrived, they had stretched their Piths over the area, looking for traps, hidden allies. They would have noticed a sunken metal ship on the far end of the lake, but that was it.
And scanning an area was costly, took energy. They would have only done it once, preserving their strength for the fight, as per Paragon’s tactics guidebook.
And why bother with more? Their target was exhausted, cornered. They’d prepared for her palefire, bested it several times already. And the Guardians had chosen this battlefield, not her.
So, during the course of their conversation, they wouldn’t have noticed the pieces of the underwater boat breaking apart, reassembling themselves. The particles of cordite rising from the lake bed, packing into bullets behind Voidsteel rounds.
They didn’t know the details of her Praxis Vocation, that Grace had been to this place before. That every loss, every failed escape had been part of Grace’s plan. That her body was exhausted, but her Pith was not.
Intention: Kill enemies and escape
A dozen rifles finished assembling in the icy water, each loaded with a Voidsteel bullet.
They floated, one by one, beneath the ice, separating. Aiming at their targets.
“You know,” said Grace. “When I was looking through data in foreign intelligence, I had some curious insights about you and your family, Tybalt.”
Tybalt laughed. “Got any fun conspiracy theories?”
“About Buttercup Lodge,” said Grace. “And Egress.”
Tybalt stopped laughing. For a moment, a look of genuine surprise passed across his face.
“If your squadmates knew about that,” she said. “They’d probably kill you for me. But that’s a moot point.”
“Because none of you are leaving here alive.”
“I don’t think that – “ Tybalt moved in the middle of his sentence, his body shooting forward in a blur. He’d studied some Joining, and his reactions were enhanced. He would strike her in a fraction of a second, at a speed a Humdrum wouldn’t even see.
Grace moved faster.
Revenant Squad moved. Isaac Brin, Florence Tuft, Rowyna Ebbridge. The Scholar of Mass, the Scholar of Air, and the Typhoon of the South. Two of them now scholar-ranked. All sharper and improved since the last time she’d seen them.
Grace moved faster.
She washed palefire over the trio, melting their armor. Florence pushed back, funneling the oxygen away from them to starve the flames, but Grace was far stronger. Green lightning crackled all around Florence, betraying her effort, but Grace wasn’t even getting sparks.
Back during the war, Grace wouldn’t have dreamed of hurting her best friends. Even a year ago, she might have stayed her hand, moving to drive them off instead of killing them.
But her Vocation had kept working, writing over the unnecessary, focusing her thoughts, driving her towards her ultimate goal.
Now, she could slaughter them without blinking an eye.
The trap she’d set wasn’t perfect. Grace didn’t know about the attack until ten minutes ago. And advanced projectors had a new vocation these days, Voidsteel Sense, that let them detect Voidsteel at close range – the trick she’d used with Tybalt wouldn’t work.
So she’d hid in a separate, hidden room with countless other Piths around her. Revenant Squad wouldn’t know which one to hit. Isaac had shot his Voidsteel darts already. Rowyna’s birds had been burnt to death. And in these tight quarters, Florence had no plane, and couldn’t dodge around much.
In close quarters like these, the best strategy was the simplest one. Revenant Squad’s makeshift shields would protect them from Voidsteel bullets, so raw, overwhelming fire was the best method to break down their defenses.
Once they had no energy left, it didn’t really matter which way Grace killed them. Without their projection, they would be helpless And though Florence could push out her palefire for now, it was taking all her concentration, leaving her unable to attack.
By her estimation, Grace would win the battle of attrition in less than a minute.
So, Revenant Squad went on the attack. Rowyna shouted some inspirational speech from her blonde Maxine Clive chassis, another decadent symbol of wealth. Isaac tore bricks out of the walls, accelerating them and increasing their mass with his Vocation. He shot them at everyone, unable to make out faces through flames, but able to feel their Piths.
They slammed into the men and women around her, blowing through their skulls, turning their heads into showers of flesh and blood.
Grace stopped one of the bricks before it hit her and broke it up. Then, she dropped to the floor, acting as though she’d been hit in the head. Her Vocation added to the illusion, making her Pith appear to flicker out and disperse, like her brain had been turned to a pulp.
Playing possum like this wouldn’t buy her that much time, but it would help.
Grace projected into the concrete floor, making it vibrate with her voice. “Did you ever ask why I turned against this nation?” she said. “Did you ever wonder who you were defending?”
As she taunted them, she upped her attacks, ripping explosives from parts of the walls and detonating them near Revenant Squad, blasting through their defenses further, showering them with shrapnel on top of the fire.
“Of course not,” she said. “What should I expect from a band of broken fools, who stood by and watched while innocents died?”
The raw force was too much for Revenant Squad. Green and blue lightning crackled around them, evidence of the strain. Florence’s thin combat suit had begun to burn off in the heat, and the explosions had broken off pieces of Isaac’s armor.
Isaac shot darts and bricks at the ceiling, punching through the brick and concrete with dull booms, forming a hole back to the surface.
The projectiles tore through pipes, and the street above them had flooded, pouring a wave of water onto them from above. It met Grace’s palefire, turning into a vast cloud of hot steam, expanding in all directions, blocking all vision.
But they didn’t flee. Not yet. They thought the water would be enough to deal with her. Big mistake.
Huge volumes of water kept pouring out of the broken pipes above, crashing into the room from a dozen angles and flooding it. Grace jabbed her palm forward and blasted her palefire again. This time, Florence’s air projection snuffed almost all of it out, turning a cone of flame into faint wisps.
Now, Revenant could go on the attack.
Grace kept a sheathe of projected air around her, all she could manage with her limited air projection. It kept Florence from choking her out or ripping her apart with a vacuum. So instead, Florence shot her winds behind Grace, swinging her handless stumps to the sides and snapping the necks of the mobsters behind her.
Now, Grace was alone.
“Florence Tuft,” said Grace, making the water vibrate with her mocking voice. “Addicted to wiping away your pain. You have forgotten your moral compass. You are not worthy of your title.“ As she spoke, she started to freeze the pipes above her, in places her enemies wouldn’t see.
Isaac floated another wall of clutter behind him. Chair legs, bricks, chunks of stone and scraps of metal from the pipes.
He dropped their mass, shot them forward, then made them heavy again, shooting them all at Grace with the speed of a machine gun.
Grace clasped her palms together and pulled them apart in a circular motion. Purple lightning crackled around them, and a shield of electricity blossomed in front of her, forming the shape of a passion flower.
The projectiles hit the shield, and froze, inches in front of Grace’s face. A Deceleration Shield. A rare physical vocation based off the deceleration field surrounding Paragon.
A few chunks of stone shot at Grace from behind, above and below, but she could see their reflections in the streams of water around her. She projected into her black skirt, harness, and suit jacket, yanking herself left and right to dodge.
“Isaac Brin,” she said. “Trapped in an empty past. Whimpering in fear, terrified of the people you’re supposed to protect. Can you even get out of bed without a panic attack?”
At the same time, a dense flock of birds shot down from the sky, through the hole in the street above, splashing through streams of water. Rowyna’s Vocation. Hundreds of swiftlets, tiny and fast, each equipped with a small explosive designed to take out a single enemy. Each programmed to seek out Grace’s face and attack. The deceleration field wouldn’t stop them.
Grace slammed her fists together, activating Ninety-Nine Faces, another rare physical vocation. It used crude light projection, creating dozens and dozens of illusory copies of her head, floating around the room. At the same time, it bent the light around her body, making her invisible below the neck, allowing her to blend in with the fakes.
It wouldn’t fool the enemy projectors. But it would fool the birds.
The flock spread out in every direction through the flooded chamber, diving for the fake Tunnel Visions and exploding. Grace ripped off two pieces of metal from the pipes above, sharpening them into blades.
A few swiftlets dove at her real head, and Grace sliced them with her makeshift cleavers, chopping them before they got close.
“Kurayo Shrivatsa,” said Grace, to Rowyna. “You hollowed yourself out. You bled away your name and love for a newspaper company. How’s that working out for you?” She snorted. “You are not fit to rule a classroom, much less an army.”
Grace sliced the birds, dodged Brin’s projectiles, and maintained both a deceleration shield and her Ninety-Nine faces. All at the same time. And her Praxis Vocation was optimized for the plan right now, not for this fight.
All together, it was taxing. Purple lightning crackled around her body, showing the effort on her Pith, and her head ached.
And in the process, Grace slipped. Her control of parts of her wind sheathe dropped, for a fraction of a second.
In that instant, Florence grabbed control of Grace’s arms, yanked them out, and locked them in place with her air. Holding Grace.
Green lightning crackled around Florence. This is taking all her energy. But it was working. With her arms imprisoned, Grace couldn’t dodge anymore.
Isaac Brin pulled a Voidsteel dart from a wall, and shot it at her chest, jabbing his index finger forward.
As he did this, Grace lifted the two metal knives she’d made, clenched her teeth, and brought them down on her arms.
The heavy blades cleaved through flesh, and bone, chopping her arms off at the shoulders and freeing her torso.
Grace projected into her suit and leaned back, dodging the dart. It grazed her forehead, slicing her skin.
At the same time, she finished freezing the pipes above them. The streams of water stopped, and the air became clear.
Blood spurted from her twin stumps, and her enemies gaped at her.
In that instant, Grace exhaled, and a hundred streams of palefire blasted out from her mouth. They shot at Revenant Squad from a hundred different angles, fast enough to look like a flash of light.
Florence raised her stumps, blocking with a wall of air. But too little, too slow.
The fire washed over the trio from head to toe. Rowyna’s armor protected her. But the other two sizzled. When the smoke cleared, Isaac and Florence were covered in crusty black burns.
“Revenant Squad,” said Grace. “You will never become Exemplars. And I regret ever caring for you.”
As one, Revenant Squad shot into the air, back into the dark rainstorm on the streets of Lowtown. Another flock of birds flew down from the sky, helping to cover their escape.
And that was Grace’s plan. She stretched her Pith upwards, feeling the smoke to sense what her enemies were doing. Searing pain exploded in her shoulders where she’d cut herself, but her Praxis Vocation kept her thoughts sharp, prevented her from going into shock.
Pictogram, the Shenti’s attack dog, stood in the window of an adjacent apartment building, seeing through the steam with his joining-enhanced eyes, analyzing their movement with his visual recognition Vocation.
And in eight different rooms, from eight different angles, the Shenti man projected into eight anti-tank rifles, each loaded with a fifteen millimeter Voidsteel bullet.
Rowyna’s family armor stopped the bullets, the rounds making three large dents in the head and chest. Disappointing. It had been created through projection, but it seemed even Voidsteel wasn’t enough to penetrate.
Florence dodged. Pictogram had assembled the guns on short notice. The models weren’t as good as standard commando gear, so they still made a muzzle flash. With her Joining and reflexes, that gave her enough time to spin herself around with a gust of wind and a yank on her suit. Only one of the bullets grazed her leg.
She pushed Brin too, but slower.
A bullet tore through his armor, entering through his stomach and blowing out his back.
The lower half of his body went limp.
Pictogram pulled the bolt action on the rifles, preparing to fire again. Before he could, in a fraction of a second, hundreds of birds with explosives descended him. They smashed through windows and detonated themselves on the guns, turning them into piles of scrap.
Others flew at him, targeting his face and gait. Pictogram knew almost no defensive Joining, couldn’t harden his skin. A single explosion on his forehead would be enough to kill him.
Pictogram detonated a series of smoke bombs, and leapt back into the building, shooting from a dozen pistols floating around him.
While he fled for his life, Revenant Squad soared into the air, shooting straight for Paragon Academy. They slowed down to a near-halt before reaching the edge of the first island, passing through the deceleration field.
More birds descended through the steam and rubble, gunning for Grace and the survivors of the attack. With a single breath, a wave of palefire turned them all to ash.
“Don’t pursue,” she said to Pictogram. Guardians would be on their way now, and they had to leave this hideout before they arrived. Their secrecy mattered far more than pursuing three targets, and Grace wasn’t prepared to take on the Symphony Knight, or the Obsidian Foil, or Headmaster Tau, senile old fool though he was.
As Grace slipped through the sewers with her mobsters, and transferred into a spare chassis, she thought about what had just happened. The Voidsteel bullet had hit Isaac in his spinal cord. The man was going to be paralyzed from the waist down. If he was lucky.
And so many of her allies had died, blown up by Rowyna, torn to pieces by Isaac, choked out by Florence.
Grace searched her mind for the pain, the guilt, the agony at knowing so many of her subordinates had died, so many broken.
She found nothing.
She looked for the happy memories she’d made with her squad, all the fun times they’d had together at Paragon.
Again, there was nothing. Only rage, determination.
Those memories were not necessary for her goal. In some ways, they were detrimental to it. For all she knew, they were some of the first things her Praxis Vocation had stripped from her.
A flicker of regret passed through her mind, a flare of nostalgia for what she’d lost, for what she would lose as she continued her mission. Victory would take a thousand sacrifices, starting in her own mind.
It hurt, knowing how much she’d burnt away. She stopped for a moment, resting on the side of a sewer tunnel and catching her breath. How many lives have I taken? Innocents hijacked by Lyna Wethers. Guardians and Humdrums, Shenti and Principian. And soon, if her plans succeeded, her friends in Revenant Squad.
Water dripped from a pipe behind her, splashing into the filth. She glanced at the water, at the woman staring back at her. Do I even recognize that face? She’d been in and out of so many bodies, altered so much of herself.
But before she could even finish the thought, the pain vanished, replaced with a renewed sense of purpose, a reminder of her Intention.
Grace picked herself up and kept moving forwards.
The next morning, Grace sent two messages. One for a friend, one for an enemy.
She sat at her desk, sheathing and unsheathing Reverie, her Tanto knife.
Through her window, she watched two figures enter Akhara’s Gate through the front door. A ginger woman in an Elizabeth Cranbrook body. Clementine Rawlyn. And a tall, muscular Shenti man with a sniper rifle slung over his shoulder. Pictogram.
Clementine gazed at her surroundings with wonder and fear, clutching the file in her hands until her knuckles turned white. This was the first time she’d been granted access to the Gate, and she had no idea how any of it worked.
A vast, circular factory rose before the woman, fumes rising from a dozen smokestacks. It stood on an island, in the middle of a frozen lake surrounded by cliffs and mountain peaks. An electric fence surrounded the base of the factory, dotted with guard towers and floodlights.
And the factory was changing. Metal arms and welding tools moved of their own volition, building towers and elevators and gears. At the same time, buzz saws sliced off huge portions of the building, tearing apart walls and doors and cables. They pushed the parts onto conveyor belts, dumping a steady stream of metal into holes in the ice of the lake.
Constant destruction, constant regrowth. An endless cycle.
Clementine walked across the concrete bridge, the only path over the lake and past the fence. As she approached, voices whispered around her, men and women, young and old, in Common, Shenti, and a dozen other languages.
“There are no ants. You can pretend, you can be tricked, but deep down, everyone is a beetle.”
“Sooner or later, I’m going to choose wine instead of rice.”
Clementine recoiled from the voices, but they kept going.
“If peace were easy, we’d never have to fight for it.”
“Do to yourself. What you did to the prisoners.”
“Please. Remember this.”
“The world was never simple. You just thought it was.”
The bridge circled around the building, forming a pathway towards the top. Clementine walked up with Pictogram, through metal chambers, cringing at every loud noise, every burst of sparks.
At last, the two arrived at the top, where Grace sat behind her desk. Clementine bowed before Grace, her eyes wide.
“Stop,” said Grace. “Don’t do that.”
Clementine straightened herself. “Ma’am. Where are we? I walked into a door in your submarine, and then – ” She gazed around. “I’ve never heard of projection like this. How is this even possible?”
“The projectors of this nation,” said Grace. “Have very narrow vision.” She left it at that. There was no need for Clementine to know more about Akhara’s Gate.
Clementine handed her the folder. “The operation was successful. We succeeded at breaking out the key asset.”
Luke Mayns. A researcher on pneumatology, and, more importantly, one of the few living Conduits in the world, a man whose thoughts had merged completely with that of another. Almost no one knew that second bit, which would prove invaluable to the plan, along with a certain Paragon student, the Principality’s experimental weapons supply, and Grace’s intimate knowledge of international shipping logistics.
“We also broke out the secondary asset,” Clementine said.
A sort of warm feeling spread throughout Grace’s body. “Thank you,” she said.
“But I wanted to deliver this in person, ma’am, because I have a request.”
“I would ask your leave to pursue a target. The girl who broke into civilian headquarters, killed Lyna Wethers, and helped with the assault on Attlelan Island to take our bombmaker.” She took a deep breath. “The Blue Charlatan. Anabelle Gage.”
“Denied,” said Grace. “The matter is too personal for you. But Gage is an irritation.” A small problem, like most of the Principality’s black ops mercenaries, but one that could grow. Thanks to her spying, the Guardians had discovered Grace’s identity as the Pyre Witch, and Revenant Squad had attacked her base in the sewers.
Even if they’d done no real damage in the long run, or found the real boss, it was accelerating things at a frustrating rate.
Pictogram drew a piece of photo paper from his bag. It shifted colors, developing into a photograph like paint dripping on a canvas. It revealed a picture of a young masculine chassis with ragged grey hair, a wide jaw, and a thick forehead, veins bulging in its neck. “That’s Anabelle Gage, yes?”
“My facial pattern matching found something when doing my rounds.” He leaned down and whispered in Grace’s ear.
Interesting. Having Pictogram around could be frustrating. A Shenti warlord had sent him to supervise her along with the money and weapons, which meant he was always full of questions and nitpicks. And if the public found out the Shenti were funding her and Commonplace, there would be huge backlash.
But still, the man had his uses. Case in point.
“Clementine,” said Grace. “Why is Gage working for Paragon?”
“She’s dreamed of being a Guardian,” said Clementine. “But most likely, she’s trying to buy herself a body. Her current chassis is decaying, and she needs a fresh one in order to survive.”
Grace handed Clementine a sealed envelope. On her desk, she began writing a group of letters with a few dozen projected pens. “This envelope contains instructions for transferring a foreign bank account, getting identity papers, buying a ferry ticket to the Glass Oasis, and giving it to the second asset.”
“Edric Gorney?” said Clementine. “Ma’am, if I may ask, why are we sending an asset away and giving him money?”
“He has no strategic value to the plan,” Grace said. “He’s a Humdrum carpenter who’s been in prison for most of his life.”
Clementine nodded, then looked confused. “Then, not to question your decisions, ma’am, but then why did you free him?”
I owe him. “He’s important,” Grace said.
She had let Tybalt destroy Edric’s life. It was her fault that he had spent his twenties and thirties in a cell. And now she was getting to fix it. He would live a comfortable life in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, with a small house on a quiet street. It wouldn’t give him back the years he’d lost, but it was a start.
Did Grace feel anything as she did this?
She didn’t smile. A twinge of happiness flickered at the edges of her mind, but nothing more.
Clementine left, and Grace handed a stack of letters to Pictogram. These were to be sent to members of parliament, along with various Guardians, journalists, and police officers, ensuring that the information would spread.
They were sealed in silver envelopes, the same color as admissions mail from Paragon. Given the circumstances, it seemed appropriate.
The target profited off lies and manipulation. She was unwilling to consider the bigger picture, the moral weight of her actions. All she cared about was her own survival. A beetle.
And she would be dealt with like a beetle.
Pictogram slid the silver envelopes into his bag, striding back towards the door, surrounded by a thousand hissing voices.
The letter read as thus, addressed to individual names:
‘Ernest Chapman’, a Grey Coat assistant at Paragon Academy, is an imposter, a girl with the mask of a boy. Her real name is Anabelle Gage, a three-time failed applicant who attempted a body theft from cargo ship 9187, crate serial 541256h, attacking and nearly killing two students in the process.
She currently acts as an illicit mercenary for Major Isaac Brin. A Whisper Specialist with the ability to make audiovisual illusions at a range of around 30 meters, she has used illegal projection for military purposes, working out of King’s Palace Sleepbox and Depot and 189 Emerald Street, a house on North Island. Her accomplices include the former Nell Ebbridge, an Ousted Epistocrat whose Vocation can hide objects, Copycat, an Ilaquan agent who can steal skills and passwords, and Jun Kuang, a Shenti terrorist.
She remains at large.
Now that was enough to make Grace smile.
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