We’re fucked, I thought.

But that was a fine starting point. We’d been fucked before, and none of us were dead yet.

Of course, we’d never gone up against a full team of Guardians. And the enemy knew our Vocations. And we had no Voidsteel. And I had a hangover.

But we were fine. “I know what I’m doing,” I muttered under my breath. “I know what I’m doing.”

I floated my new briefcase towards me, flipping it open and shooting paper out in every direction. Then I checked the objects I’d flattened. All secure.

While I was at it, I took the white crane mask out of the briefcase, the one Samuel had given me, and I put it on. The enemies already knew my identity, but it seemed like a nice touch.

Mark!” shouted Ana with illusions.

The first step was simple: Buy time, learn the enemy. Figure out who we had to target, and if the rest of her plan would even work. Jun, on his way back, had jerry-rigged a telescope out of spare parts, so he and Right-Hira could spy on the alleyway from a distance, without exposing themselves to the police. And Hira could wield his Vocation here too, using his Left body.

Cardamom coughed from the pale gas, his green fur standing on end. I crawled towards him, but before I could reach him, the cat clambered onto a chair and leapt out one of the broken windows, yowling.

My stomach jerked. No. He was going to get hurt.

I closed my eyes. Shouts rang out from the outside, but so far, not a single gunshot. He must have gotten out. Lucky green furball.

His human owners would have a harder time escaping.

I reached upstairs, feeling around Hira’s bedroom. Where did I leave my gas masks?

“Here’s the situation,” said Hira, his voice soft. “They’ve got cops holding a perimeter on all sides. Pistols and rifles. Voidsteel bullets, maybe. Keeping their distance.”

Makes sense. At close range, Ana’s Vocation could turn enemies in seconds, making them useless, or hazards. She was forcing them to make this a long-range battle.

More gas grenades shot through the window, spewing white smoke.

“Six projectors,” said Hira. “Oakes, Olwen, a squad of students led by some ginger with a blue scarf. Basic body armor. Students don’t have ABDs. They – “ Hira stopped for a second. “ہمیں کرنا ہو گا.” His eyes widened in confusion. “آخر کیا بات ہے؟?”

He’s speaking Ilaquan. Hira relied on his Praxis Vocation to speak Common and other languages. Was something wrong there?

“مجھے دس ہزار بھڑکتے نیزوں سے بھاڑ میں جاؤ,” Hira said. Purple lightning crackled around his palms, then fizzled out, suppressed.

This is Adam Lynde’s Phoenix Squad,” said Ana, as Hira clamped down with more bowls on the new gas grenades. “One of them has a long-range Whisper Vocation that can suppress the effects of skill-stitching while he concentrates.

They brought him in to counter us. Without his stitching, Hira couldn’t talk to us at all, much less use his skills. And Adam Lynde had been sabotaged by Ana before, at Lorne’s request during a squad battle. Thanks to her, he was at risk of getting Ousted this summer, just like me.

Penny Oakes’ Vocation makes gaseous chemicals, and she can control their movement. Lady Olwen’s Vocation is Whisper, not relevant for this fight – she’s just extra muscle. Lynde himself can harden concrete in seconds. Number two in his squad can stretch his Pith into a large area without losing energy – it’s good for scanning, it’ll let them track our movements.

That one would make it harder for Ana to fool people. Another direct counter to us. My stomach sank.

The last one creates a large number of frozen projectiles and –

Hundreds of icicles blasted through the windows, shattering what was left of the glass and slamming into the wall, shattering or sinking into the wood. They formed a storm of ice, like a dozen machine guns were shooting at us from the outside, all loaded with tiny shards.

Hira flipped the coffee table over, using it as a shield. The frozen bullets weren’t going fast enough to penetrate walls, but they were ripping through the cabinets in the kitchen, shattering Ana’s mug, tearing splinters off the table. They whistled as they shot through the air, a sharp, piercing noise that made my ears ache.

A few more minutes of this, and we’ll have no cover left. And if we stood up, the icicles would puncture our flesh like a hundred nail guns.

While we cowered from the barrage, a single thought rang through my head. How the fuck did Paragon find out? Had someone talked? Was this because Ana told Professor Brin about the Pyre Witch?

More gas grenades flew in, and Hira was out of stuff to cover them with. The white gas ballooned out from a dozen clouds, washing over the room and making me feel dizzy.

I finished fishing out the flattened gas masks I’d hidden in Hira’s bedroom, pulling them out beneath his bed legs, then floating them down the stairs.

Then I shot them into each of our hands, and slid mine on. The dizzy sensation faded, and the gas coalesced around us, forming a dense cloud in the living room without spreading to the kitchen or upstairs.

Oakes’ Vocation. Keeping the knockout gas where it would hurt us the most. If we moved, it would follow us.

The icicles kept coming, thudding into Hira’s wallpaper, poking holes in the coffee table. One sliced my arm, leaving a burning streak of pain.

None of Hira’s booby traps went off. At Ana’s request, he’d turned them all off, so they wouldn’t get triggered by accident during the barrage.

And in the meantime, Hira floated a golf bag down from upstairs and pulled an anti-tank rifle from it, taking the place of his usual weapon. His fingers fumbled with the clip, and he grabbed the barrel, clumsy and confused. He relies on his stitched skills to shoot. With the enemy suppressing him, he wouldn’t be able to hit a drunk elephant.

A pair of grenades dropped onto the floor, and turquoise gas hissed out of them, a new color. It shot towards me, Ana, and Left-Hira, collecting around our heads.

Something sizzled, and a piece of Ana’s mask fell off. I touched the filter of my mask, and bits of metal crumbled away.

Takonara,” I muttered. This gas eats metals. Penny Oakes was using it to break our defenses.

In less than a minute, our masks would be gone. And we’d have to breathe it all in.

It’s time,” said Ana. She made a flashing red light in front of Hira, a nonverbal signal. “Wes?

I whipped the papers around me in the air, causing disturbances in the gas, making it difficult for Penny Oakes to sense our movements, since air projection was already so difficult. Then I nodded, crawled over, and grabbed her hand. The headache throbbed in my skull, made worse by the gas and the chaos. This will be unpleasant.

Do you trust me?” she said.

Scholars help me, I do.

I reached. She reached. Green and blue lightning crackled around us, hidden from outside view with layers of paper walls.

My Pith melted down and flowed through my arm, like a river of lava from a volcano. With one pair of eyes, I gazed at a desperate grey-haired boy, veins bulging on his neck. With another, I stared at an exhausted young man with freckles. I felt the warm stasis of one body, and lingering aches of another.

I blinked, gasped for breath, and clenched my fists. Ana’s fists. A successful body swap. Now I was in her chassis.

A chill sensation bit into my skin, and my stomach ached. The fingers on my right hand went numb, and my chest felt tight, short of breath. In an instant, I felt tired. Thick, heavy exhaustion stronger than any I’d felt in weeks, and a bitter chill on my skin from her anemia.

I’d been in Ana’s body before. The decay is getting worse. She was running out of time.

Next, I scanned the storm of icicles, feeling where they struck, the patterns and gaps in the assault.

There were a few spaces. Parts where the wall or the door blocked the barrage of ice. We lifted the table with projection and moved through those, walking towards the front exit. Out of the cloud of gas and towards the enemy.

Then Ana, wearing my body, staggered out of the door, raising her hands above her head. I floated pieces of paper around her, then let go of them, letting them drop to the ground.

That’s a solid body, I thought. Please don’t break it.

The Guardians and students turned their attention to her. A ball of white gas coalesced around her brown hair as she stumbled into the alleyway, ensuring she’d breathe in a knockout dose the moment her mask broke.

A tiny icicle hit her thigh – my thigh, and she staggered. Another pair hit her arm and her shoulder, drawing lines of blood. But nothing on her head and neck. Nothing that would put her in the hospital.

We guessed right. My mother had helped plan this attack. She despised me, but a part of her still clung to me. She wouldn’t want to kill the child she’d raised for nineteen years unless there was no way to avoid it.

And right now, it looked like Weston Ebbridge was surrendering.

Outside, the Guardians had split into two groups, blocking the street from both sides. Ana couldn’t get both in range of her Vocation at the same time.

The left group contained the two real Guardians, Lady Olwen and Penny Oakes, along with the Hira-suppressor and icicle-shooter members of Phoenix Squad. The right group included Adam Lynde himself, the concrete projector, and the one with the stretched Pith, who could sense everything in the vicinity to see through Ana’s illusions.

Ana moved towards the left group of enemies, but before she got within range, she collapsed, falling onto her belly. Her mask broke beneath her, exposing her nose and mouth to the melon-sized ball of knockout gas floating around her head.

Her chest rose and fell, and her arms and legs went limp, as if she had breathed in the gas and had fallen unconscious.

With luck, Penny Oakes wouldn’t notice that Ana was wide awake, holding her breath, making tiny exhales to send disturbances through the gas.

And the Guardians thought Ana was me. They’d still keep their distance, but they wouldn’t focus on that. They were expecting illusions from the grey-haired skeleton, not the brown-haired alcoholic.

Adam Lynde floated a sphere of liquid concrete across the alleyway, and dumped it on Ana. It splashed around her arms and legs and back, soaking everything except her chest and head. My chest, my head.

She would be able to breathe, but not much else.

Through a hole in the coffee table, I spotted green lightning flickering on the right side of the alley, around Lynde’s fingers.

The thick sludge of the concrete began to harden, starting from the outside around her hands and feet and working in towards the center of her body.

Thanks to Ana’s illusions, we could see the process happening in real-time, seeing through the thick white gas to the action outside. Ana’s Vocation had better range on me and Hira, so she could share her perceptions with us.

I felt my gas mask break down further, and sucked in one last breath as the metal pieces of the filter crumbled.

The concrete kept hardening, spreading around Ana’s body.

Now it gets complicated.

Then, Jun’s car slammed into the police barricade, sending up a deafening clang. It exploded, and in a fraction of a second, the entire alleyway filled up with hot steam.

A steam explosion. A worthy distraction, for a split second, just weak enough to avoid maiming anyone. Every head turned in that direction, and the projectors shielded themselves from the blast.

At the same time, I made paper explode from the second floor, shot it towards the cops and Guardians, and cut every piece of exposed skin I could find. A second layer of distractions.

And, at the same time as that, Ana dragged herself forward, projecting into her clothes – my clothes – and the concrete to pull herself a few yards towards her enemy.

The concrete scraped on the cobblestone, but made no vibrations. No sound. Most of it hadn’t hardened yet, and poured down her back in a thick grey sludge.

She got within range of a few soldiers, and two students: The Whisper specialist boy – the one suppressing Hira, and the icicle-shooter-girl. Both had body armor, but neither of them had ABDs.

Ana made an illusion of two Hira bodies leaping out of the house, two blurs that would be just slow enough to get seen by the students. That’s the real attack, our enemies would think. The steam and paper were distractions for this.

The illusory Hiras launched illusory projectiles from beneath their clothes, dark brown spheres the size of grapes, with a tiny bit of red material at the end. Micro-bombs. Like the ones used by Shenti commandos, or my mother with her birds. One would be enough to blow off an arm, or destroy a person’s brain.

The fake micro-bombs shot forward at rapid speeds, appearing to blow up the soldiers around Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl. The trick wouldn’t fool the stretched-Pith student, who could see through Ana’s illusions, but for a few seconds, it would work just fine on these two.

The barrage of fake explosives turned to the students. There was no point trying to push them away, since Hira’s Pith would be inside them already, and the icicles were for attack, not defense.

But, as Guardians-in-training, Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl had absurd reflexes.

So they dodged them all, bobbing and weaving and ducking like Nekean moon dancers, projecting into their combat suits to enhance their movement.

And in half a second, their dodging brought them next to Lady Olwyn, Penny Oakes, and a Humdrum soldier, all of whom were invisible to Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl.

The soldier, controlled by illusions, swung the butt of his rifle into Whisper Boy’s face, bashing in his nose. The act broke his concentration, freeing Hira’s skill-stitching for an instant.

A moment later, Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl collided with the two adult Guardians, bumping into Lady Olwyn and Penny Oakes. Their body armors scraped up against each other, and the steam was pushed away, clearing the alleyway.

In that instant, Hira fired.

He squeezed the trigger twice in rapid succession. The anti-tank rifle thudded into his shoulder with a pair of dull booms, loud enough to make my ears ache. He aimed into the wall of pale gas from the very back of the room, holding his breath and lying on his stomach.

He was out of Ana’s range, unable to see through the gas. But on the outside, his other body had a sightline to the alleyway through Jun’s telescope. He always knew the position of his bodies, relative to one another, which meant he could aim with one body and fire with another.

The student’s body armor could stop a pistol, or even an ordinary rifle bullet, but not an anti-tank weapon. However, Lady Olwyn and Penny Oakes, the proper, full-time Guardians, had autonomous bullet defenses – that could stop any bullet, as long as it wasn’t Voidsteel.

But, an ABD had limits. It hovered a foot or so around a person, slowing and deflecting bullets that came within its field.

So if you put a gun to someone’s forehead and fired, the bullet would go through the ABD. There wouldn’t be enough space to slow it down or deflect it.

Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl? Their bodies were full of Pith, and they had no bullet defenses. Rashi’s Second Law meant an ABD couldn’t deflect a bullet inside a person’s body. If you acted as a human shield for someone, at close enough range, you could disable their ABD.

So when the fifty-caliber steel rounds blew through the students’ chests, they punched through the Guardians too.

Two bullets. Four targets. All executed with perfect timing thanks to Ana’s illusions.

Penny Oakes, Lady Olwen, Whisper Boy, and Icicle Girl all collapsed, bleeding from their chests, coughing.

They would all get fresh bodies in time, and suffer no permanent damage to their Piths, but they were disabled for the fight. The enemies would have to spend resources to evacuate them and save their lives.

Hira turned the anti-tank rifle, aiming at Adam Lynde and the stretch-projector. Before he could fire, Lynde lifted a wall of concrete between him and the window, and hardened it, barely visible through the gas. Green lightning crackled around him.

The stretch-projector knows exactly what happened. We no longer had the element of surprise.

And then, Ana’s illusions vanished.

The alleyway became invisible again, cloaked by Oakes’ wall of white gas. She’s asleep. For real this time. During the commotion, she must have inhaled the knockout gas.

She’s going to get caught.

My lungs burned, a building pressure in my chest from holding my breath in Ana’s body. This wasn’t part of the plan. Outside, the girl was exposed. And now, the Guardians would know she wasn’t me – they might shoot to kill.

Hira stared at me, and his eyes flitted to the staircase. I knew what he was thinking. On the second floor, we could get gas masks and equipment, escape before the enemy reinforcements sealed the trap.

Maybe the Ebbridge family was sealed off to me forever, now. But maybe not.

And to rescue Ana, we’d have to venture out into the open, through the gunshots.

Strive to become an Exemplar. If it weren’t for Ana, I’d be a hollowed-out, depressed thrall of Lyna Wethers. Or dead, a dozen times over. I owed her, for more things than one.

I didn’t have to be here. I had a choice.

But the answer was pretty obvious.

I spent my last breath on a shout. “Help Ana!”

In the chaos and smoke, Left-Hira and I scrabbled forward towards Ana, reaching our Piths forward into her clothes and the concrete blocks around her limbs.

Together, we pulled, yanking Ana back towards the front door, towards safety. Green and purple lightning crackled around us, and a headache exploded in my skull. My pieces of paper drifted to the ground, as I put all my concentration and effort into this one task.

In response, figures moved through the smoke, charging towards the unconscious Ana as she scraped across the ground. Humdrum cops, or the two remaining projectors. The footsteps grew louder and louder.

Too fast. They’d reach us before we could escape, and they had functioning gas masks. In our state, they’d crush us.

We pulled Ana over the doorstep, my lungs screaming, and Hira clapped his hands together, slamming the door shut. Something clicked in the wall.

A cop burst through the door, bashing it down with his shoulder.

Then, electricity ran through his body, reducing him to a pile of twitches.

A second and third cop ran over the doorstep, onto Hira’s rug. A pair of pressure plates sank, and two concussion grenades dropped on their heads. They exploded with an ear-splitting crack, and the two cops fell over, clutching their heads.

Hira’s booby traps. The stretch-projector could sense them, but the cops couldn’t.

And the cops were wearing gas masks. We weren’t. And with Oakes out of the picture, the turquoise metal-destroying gas had dispersed, leaving the filters intact.

So we took the cops’ masks. Or at least, we tried.

We stretched our Piths towards the chin straps. Someone else’s Pith was already inside, blocking us from projecting into them. The stretch-projector. The one who could project into a huge volume, even if weakly.

So we pushed, brute-forcing the stretch-projector’s Pith out. Green and purple lightning flickered around us, the headache grew, pressing the edges of my skull with a burning sensation.

But the stretch-projector pushed back, keeping us out, holding his position. Green lightning flickered from through the smoke.

No masks for us. Which meant no breath. My lungs screamed for air, a void opening in my chest.

While we reeled, our chests burning, the students attacked.

Only two enemy projectors remained – Adam Lynde, the concrete projector, and the stretch-projector. They burst through the wall, wood splinters raining down around them. None of the booby traps activated for them. The stretch-projector could sense them all, and dodge or disable every single one.

Hira turned the anti-tank rifle towards the pair. As he aimed down the scope, Adam Lynde shot concrete at the gun. The grey sludge blocked the sights, sliding down the barrel, sinking into the mechanisms. Lynde clenched his fist, and it hardened.

Hira tossed the rifle aside, and it thudded onto the floor. At the same time, he rolled to his left, and his pitch-black trench shotgun floated into his hands.

In response, Adam Lynde shot a dozen concrete blocks forward, each the size of a melon. They floated in front of the shotgun barrel, moving as it moved.

Hira fired, and the concrete exploded. Another block took its place, as the Ilaquan dove behind the kitchen counter, bobbing and weaving. How is he doing all that in one breath?

The stretch-projector came a second later, floating orbs of water around him. I shot a storm of paper at him from all sides, and the orbs stretched, forming thin walls of water to cover his skin.

Another counter to our projection. Between the armor and the water barriers, my paper was all but useless. I assembled it into barriers in front of the enemy’s eyes, blocking their vision.

And while Lynde was focused on blocking the shotgun, turning his back to me for an instant, I separated two pieces of paper, unflattening a grenade behind the small of his back. It exploded, throwing Lynde forward with a splash of red.

Adam Lynde dropped, bleeding from his back and arms. The concrete blocks dropped with him.

As the stretch-projector turned to look at the noise, Hira threw his shotgun forward. It spun through the air, stopped next to the student, and pumped four rounds into the boy’s kneecap.

The body armor stopped the first shot. The second one blew holes in it. The third and fourth ones reduced the knee to a red mush.

I projected forward, ripped off the boy’s mask, held it to my face, and gasped, sucking in a desperate breath. My chest rose and fell, as I wheezed and coughed, securing the straps around my head and chin. My throat burned, and my shoulders shook. Ana’s shoulders. Her lungs are decaying too.

Hira did the same, and both of us fell to our knees in the white gas, hyperventilating, my head spinning, and my chest aching.

Then, gunshots rang from the outside, and bullets shot through the smoke.

We flattened ourselves to the ground, taking cover as my ears rang. Humdrum police. They couldn’t see us, but I had no ABD, and Ana wasn’t wearing her blue combat suit. Now that the Guardians were out of the line of fire, the cops could shoot up the house as much as they wanted.

I crawled over to Ana and fit a gas mask over her face, bullets whizzing over my head.

Hira crawled next to me and projected into the concrete, making cracks spiderweb out all over. Purple lightning flickered around him, and the concrete broke into pieces, freeing Ana’s limbs.

At the same time, I pulled a trio of flattened concussion grenades from my briefcase, floated them out the windows, and let them pop back to three dimensions.

They exploded among the cops, making my ears ache even more.

The gunfire paused. Now. We grabbed Ana under her arms. I projected into Ana’s torso, helping to lift her, and Hira did the same for her legs.

Together, we sprinted up the stairs to the second level, gasping for breath. We projected into the wooden floor beneath us, muffling our footsteps, and set Ana down.

The gunshots started up again, a deafening hail, but none of the bullets went to the second floor. They still think we’re downstairs.

I ripped open Hira’s cabinets, tossing aside shirts, beer cans, and bags of tobacco. “Where are the smelling salts?” I hissed, speaking with Ana’s voice.

Hira stuffed his hands into a hole in the mattress, pulled out a glass bottle with tufts of cotton, and tossed it to me. I unscrewed it, lifted Ana’s mask, and held it under her nose. The knockout gas was thin up here, so she could go without her mask a little.

Ana’s eyes shot open, and her lungs sucked in a deep breath. She coughed, spluttering, and I put the mask back over her. Her eyes darted around the room, taking in the new information. The gunshots downstairs. Hira grabbing a go bag from under the floorboards, stuffing Ana’s combat suit into it with his black sniper rifle and every other weapon in the room. Along with his purple hookah.

“We took out the projectors,” I said, leaning into her ear so my voice wasn’t drowned out by the gunshots. “But the cops are still shooting at us.”

She nodded, still confused, and pushed herself to a standing position. The girl wobbled back and forth, dizzy from the gas, and she grabbed my hand to keep herself from falling. “I’m okay,” she slurred in my voice, a surreal sound. “I’m okay,” she repeated with illusions.

You don’t look okay.

Thanks,” she said, her eyes unfocused. “For not leaving me out there.

I slapped her arm. My shoulder – her shoulder ached. “Don’t be ridiculous. Of course we got you.”

While Ana regained her senses, Hira walked over to a wall, clenched his fists, and slammed them together.

The plaster wall crumbled before him, spilling onto his bedroom floor, silent. Grey morning sunlight washed in, revealing a fire escape on the building next to us. Hira’s secret backdoor.

Hira leapt out, grabbing onto the fire escape on the building next to us. The metal didn’t clang, silenced by his projection.

A police officer stood on the level above him, wielding a shotgun. She aimed it at Hira, sticking the barrel through a hole in the metal grates, and pulled the trigger.

The gun clicked. Nothing. Jammed.

Hira jumped up and grabbed the metal grate above him with his bare hand. The cop fell over, twitching, as electricity ran through her body.

Hira clambered up the stairs and grabbed the rifle, pulling out the clip along with a single green bullet, wiggling it between his fingers. A Voidsteel round. That could come in handy.

Ana groaned, still half-asleep, and limped forward to the hole in the wall. Hira and I projected into her clothes, lifting her across the gap and onto the fire escape. She sagged over and grabbed the railing, pulling herself up the steps.

I followed her, and the three of us climbed up the fire escape, one flight at a time, towards the cloudy grey sky. Hira’s neighboring building stretched seven stories tall, filled with dingy apartments. Once we got to the top, we could leap from rooftop to rooftop and make our escape in a side alley.

In the street below, one of the cops pointed at us, shouting. Bullets whizzed around us, taking chunks out of the brick wall.

Then, as we climbed the fire escape, a wave of heat washed over us, and the top half melted.

In an instant, the cold metal turned into an orange magma, dripping down the walls and pouring over the stairs beneath, collecting in pools around us. I could feel the heat on my face, radiating from all around us.

There’s only one projector I know with a Vocation like that.

Lorne Daventry leaned over the edge of the rooftop, smiling down at us. The edge of his pinky finger touched the molten metal.

“Morning, Ernest.” He waved at us with his other hand. “You’ve been up to some mischief, haven’t you?”

A note from madwhitesnake

Hi all. Shorter chapter today. Just a fight scene, basically. For me, this is a lot easier to write and edit than someone’s continent-spanning backstory of moral struggle and identity loss.  But the chapter’s still important, of course. And this was the natural stopping place. If I combined this chapter with the next one, it’d be way too long.  As always, thanks for reading!

And as always, if you're enjoying the story, don't forget to leave us a rating!

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