This is real, thought Max.

It had to be. Anything else was too good to be true.

Her body ached all over. Stabbing pains from the top of her skull to her toes, and burning lines across her skin, where her wounds had been stitched back together. When she’d moved to get in bed, she could feel the bones and muscles shifting inside her, and the pain tripled.

Soft, nostalgic swing music drifted out of her front door, blared on speakers inside the dark hallway. “Sway on the blue, skip on the sea, dance on the waves with me.

Max jerked awake in bed. She pushed herself upright, sweeping aside her covers and sitting at the edge, hands flat on her scarred thighs. The movement sent screaming pain into her back and ribs, but she did it anyway. Now, she had no chance of falling asleep.

The music washed away the exhaustion, pushing it to the fringes of her consciousness. In an instant, sleep could rush forward and overwhelm her. But for now, she had no choice but to face the world.

An instant later, the overhead light flicked on, a warm, orange glow from the ceiling lamp. It illuminated her smooth hardwood floors and bright yellow walls. A large stuffed whale named Clement sat in the corner, the perfect size to be hugged, and a handful of yellow shirts and pants sat folded in a cabinet, all identical, next to a tall painting of a happy golden retriever, staring at Max with excitement.

It looked like a strange, tacky hotel room.

A nurse opened the door and stepped in, wearing a traditional white dress with an apron and cap. Max didn’t know any of their names.

No lock on the door. Why bother? The facility had far more effective methods of managing its subjects.

As usual, the nurse said nothing. She’d come here hundreds of times without speaking a single word. Sometimes, Max wondered if she had a deep voice, like an opera singer, or if she was mute.

The nurse reached for the metal device at her neck. A clicker, like the kind you used to train dogs.

She pressed the button. Click. Then she whistled a pair of notes.

In response, Max stood up, the overwhelming compulsion taking hold of her again. She didn’t bother trying to fight it. It was pointless, in this place.

Max made her bed, smoothing out her sheets with a light, precise touch, sweeping off bits of dust with her fingers. She stripped off her shirt and pants and underwear from yesterday. Then she walked across the room, naked, and stuffed her clothes in a laundry bag by the door.

She avoided looking down at her body, at everything that had been done to it. One glance would be enough to provoke a wave of disgust and horror.

The nurse stared at her, bored, as Max pulled on a fresh pair of yellow pants and a shirt, and stood at attention by the door.

Another nurse pushed a metal cart down the hallway, sliding small metal pill boxes into every door slot. She passed by Max’s room, and handed a pillbox to her nurse.

The nurse gave it to Max, then pointed at the clock hanging on the wall. 8:01 am.

The compulsion took hold of Max again, and she walked back to her bed, opening the case and setting it on her bedside table.

In two smooth motions, she picked up the tiny metal straw and snorted the line of blue powder inside. Then she picked up the empty pillbox and showed it off to the nurse.

The people who worked here called it Nudge Powder. As far as Max could guess, it reinforced the commands they’d already given her, extending the effects as long as she kept taking it.

Then, back to the door. Standing at attention again.

The nurse did two clicks, and another whistled note. Follow. She strode off, and Max followed, every step sending pain arching up her legs.

When no one was looking, the subject across from her held his door slot open and peeked through, his eyes glinting at Max.

Then he winked at her.

What? That wasn’t supposed to happen. The commands should have locked him in place. Maybe she’d imagined it.

The nurse opened a door, and led Max out of the residential building, into the soft morning sunlight.

Max squinted, gazing forward. The sun rose ahead of her, burning into her eyes, but she couldn’t turn her head away.

Silence gripped the complex. Nobody else walked around outside, except for the two of them, and no sound came from the smooth wooden buildings and dark windows all around them.

Just Max and her nurse, striding down a stone path through a field of buttercups. Packed together, the yellow petals made a thick, floral stench, choking her nostrils.

This is all so detailed. The smells, the pains, the chilly air. The sunlight, reflecting off dew droplets, making sparkling points of light. What kind of dream would have this?

But at the same time, this all felt like a dream. Like everything had already been preordained, and she was just watching herself as a puppet.

A cloud passed across the sun, turning everything flat and grey. A breeze blew through the flowers, making a soft, piercing whistle. Even the wind sounds wrong here.

The nurse led her up a stone staircase, and over a bridge spanning a river. Beneath the bridge, the river became a rushing waterfall, pouring into the massive pit at the center of the island, thousands of feet deep and hundreds of feet wide.

A pitch-black pool sat at the bottom, and despite all the crashing water, none of it made a sound. The river, the waterfall, the pool at the bottom, all dead silent, an oppressive stillness that engulfed it in a cloud.

Everything about it felt wrong. Max wanted to sprint away from this watery void, to run and run and run and not look back, to leave this island and never get within a thousand miles of it.

But she couldn’t control her body. So she kept walking.

The nurse led Max into a smaller building at the top of the hill, and through another hallway, to a series of rooms with white noise machines placed outside. She took her into the one at the end of the hall, opening the door for her.

Inside, sunlight shone through pairs of thin curtains, illuminating a slender Nekean woman on a couch chair. She looked up at Max, giving her a wan smile. A therapist?

Another clicker from the nurse, and a trio of notes. Another command. Stay in this room until further instructions. No violence. Obey future orders. And another clicker signal after that. Speech is allowed, but only with full honesty.

Then the nurse left, closing the door behind her.

Max sat down on the opposite couch chair. What else could she do? Standing exhausted her.

The therapist woman poured her a cup of warm tea and handed her a stuffed whale to hold onto. “His name is Clement,” she said. Behind her, a floating pen scribbled on a notepad. Max took the tea, and set the plushie next to her.

Neither of them said anything for a few seconds. Finally, Max spoke through cracked lips. “Are you here to help me get better?”

“No.” The therapist shook her head, regretful. “Do you recognize me?”

Max squinted at her sharp, angular features, her black hair and light brown skin. “I’m not sure,” she said. In this place, her memories all blurred together in a messy stew.

The therapist raised an eyebrow at that, but didn’t pursue the subject further. “Your dreams,” she said. “The new ones. Tell me about them.”

“Really?” Max said. “I’m sure you’d find them silly.”

“I doubt it,” the therapist said. “Go on.”

“I dreamt that I built an army,” said Max, smiling. “A movement against some of the strongest beings in the world. And we made it with line cooks and janitors and tired factory workers. The common foundation.”

“How?” said the therapist.

“The odds were against us. The enemy had more money, more power, more raw intellect. And many of my allies tried to control me, seeing me as some fool they could puppet. But we did it anyway.”

The therapist scribbled in her notepad, staring at Max.

“So much fighting.” Max closed her eyes. “I stained my hands with blood, again and again.” She sipped her tea, letting the mug warm up her shaking hands. “But it was alright. Because that meant someone else could stay clean. I could be the villain, if it meant my friends could rise above me and make something beautiful out of it.”

The therapist poured Max another cup of tea.

“And the plan,” said Max. “My plan. We were so close,” she whispered. “We stood on the precipice of the final battle, a single masterstroke to turn the tables in our favor.” She sighed. “And then I woke up here. Same as always.” She chuckled. “All this over a stupid letter.”

“A letter?” said the therapist. “Why don’t you start from the beginning? Tell me about the letter.”

“I don’t want to,” said Max. “But I don’t have a choice, do I?”

The therapist shook her head.

Max leaned back, sipped her tea, and began.


Max was late.

But that was alright. She was fast.

Max held her bike in one hand, leaning off the side of the tram as it climbed up the slopes of Mount Elwar. It passed by bakeries and flower shops and shoemakers, moving from Midtown into the taller buildings of Hightown. Men and women bustled about in dresses and wide-brimmed hats, riding bicycles and horse-drawn carriages.

The wind blew over her, flapping her dress. One of the chrysanthemums braided through her blonde hair got loose, and drifted away in the breeze. She reached out to catch it, and almost let go of her bike.

An updraft caught the red petals, and they glided away towards the ocean, like some strange, floral bird. Max watched it shrink in the horizon.

When she looked forward again, the tram had reached the elevation she needed. Two blocks above Garden Street. The car rumbled up the metal tracks, and she tensed her legs, aiming at an empty patch of cobblestone with no pedestrians.

“Hey!” shouted the tram conductor. “Don’t! It’s not safe!”

Max leapt off. And for a moment, it felt like she was flying. She laughed, midair, vaulting her legs over the bicycle as men and women stared at her, dumbfounded.

Then, the wheels slammed onto the ground, and Max shot forward. She pumped her legs on the pedals, accelerating until her flowery hair streamed behind her and her thighs burned.

Max zipped through a day market, past strolling couples and housewives and food carts. A farmer yelped in front of her, carrying a massive crate full of fruit. She jerked the bike to the side, wove around him, and leaned over, grabbing a peach and tossing a handful of coins in its place. All without slowing down.

“Sorry!” she shouted, stuffing the peach into her mouth. She needed to eat more fruit in her life. Her favorite food was bacon, which couldn’t be good for her long-term health.

Max shot across a bustling street, leaning left, then right to drive around carriages. One of the horses neighed and whinnied at her as she biked in front of it. Her leg muscles ached, but she didn’t slow down. I’m late, I’m late, I’m late.

It wasn’t her fault. The courier assigned to this package got a flat tire on her bike, and Max had to pick up the slack with no time to spare. For every late minute, her boss would dock a pound from her already-tiny payment. And even a broom closet in Lowtown came with some pretty steep rent.

And, on top of all that, Max just felt bad when she delivered a late package. She loved when she dropped off something important, right on time or early, and saw their faces light up. Max would smile at them and chirp “have a splendid day!”, and she would always get a solid tip. Even from the initially hostile ones. Being pretty helped with that, of course. Most of the bicycle girls in her company didn’t have her clear skin or high cheekbones.

The best ones were late-night cake delivery on the weekends. Hungry, drunk college students who would cheer and hug her when she arrived, then ooh and ah when she opened the box, like they were seeing the Great Scholars themselves reborn. Then they would tip her like they were millionaires, despite being broke.

The research building high up at the top of Darius Street enjoyed late-night cakes too, though they always asked for it at a side entrance, not the giant oak doors out front.

Abroad, Elmidde had a reputation for rudeness, but the haters were all wrong. The average folk of this city were breathtaking.

Whoever needed this envelope, Max wanted them to be happy.

Though she had to admit, she loved the thrill, too. When she darted the bicycle around people and dumpsters, down stairways and through quiet alleys, it felt like a musical instrument in her hands. She could lose herself in the motion, forget everything else and treat it as an exciting game.

And forgetting was important. When she got home, all the mundane cruelties of her life crashed over her, impossible to ignore. Filling out basic assistance forms, scrubbing her bathroom, washing dirty clothes for hours and still getting flea bites afterwards.

And the dishes. So many dishes. The moment she finished them, she would blink, and her kitchen sink would be overflowing with them again.

Sometimes, she would interview for office jobs, ones that paid many times better than her current gig. In between mind-numbing explanations of their filing system, her would-be bosses slung the worst possible question at her: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Doing dishes, she would think. Bleeding out of my ears. What a stupid, terrifying question to ask a nineteen-year-old.

“That’s life, idiot,” said her current boss, Jonathan, when she brought it up to him. “The magic drains out bit by bit, your skin wrinkles, and eventually, you get tuberculosis and die.”

“Well,” she’d mumbled. “I guess I’ll find my own magic.”

Easier said than done. Parading around the city with flowers in her hair could only do so much.

Max snapped herself back to reality, and a car slammed into her.

In an instant, the bike vanished beneath her, and she flew forward, arms and legs flailing in the air, the half-eaten peach knocked out of her mouth. Tires screeched off to her side, and she slammed onto the cobblestone, skidding forward on her dress.

Max groaned, her head turned to the side. Her palms and shins burned, scraped up on the ground, and her body ached all over. Onlookers stared at her and approached, horrified. Her bike slumped against a lamppost, bent up and mangled beyond repair. There’ll be consequences for that.

A woman jumped out of the vehicle that hit her, one of those fancy new automobile machines that rich folk showed off these days. She ran towards Max, lifting her lace gown to free her legs. “Scholars, are you alright?”

Max blinked, and leapt up. She’d strapped the envelope to her back, not her bicycle. Maybe there’s still time.

She sprinted forward, taking off down the side street. Blood trickled out of her scraped hands, and she wiped them on her dress. Max had a few aches, and her skin stung, but other than that, she felt fine. So she doubled her pace, pumping her arms and clenching her teeth.

After five minutes of running, she arrived at the address, an expensive office building, complete with smooth marble floors and a water wall trickling behind the front desk.

Scholars. This client was rich.

“Good afternoon,” said the secretary at the desk. “Would you care to sign in and give the name of who you are here to – “

Max sprinted past her, taking the stairs four at a time. Room 709. On the seventh floor, she jogged down the hallway and shoved open the ninth door, staggering in, gasping for air.

This office looked even gaudier than the lobby, boasting floor-to-ceiling windows, gold filigree at the edges of furniture, and a chandelier in place of normal lights.

One glance at the clock told her the time. Half an hour late.

Another secretary sat at the desk, and an older businessman stood next to her, scowling. Max bowed to both of them, extending the envelope, and spoke in a single breath. “So sorry I’m late sir please excuse my transgression!”

The man looked at her for a second, then tapped the desk. Max set down the envelope there, taking care not to stain it with the blood from her palms, then backed up.

She gave him her sweetest smile. “Have a pleasant day, sir! Sorry again.”

The man leaned over his desk, scribbled a note, and handed it to his secretary. “Enjoy the job hunt,” he said.

Max froze. What? “Ex – excuse me, sir?” she said.

“Enjoy the job hunt.” He motioned to his secretary, and she picked up the note, walking to the door.

Did he just fire me? Could he do that? Had he written a letter to Jonathan, her boss at Swiftfoot Couriers?

Max’s stomach dropped. A cold, prickling sensation spread over her skin, like she’d just been dunked in ice water. He can’t do that.

“Please,” said Max. “I need this job. I picked up a late order from another courier, and got hit by a car on Tempest and Buxren. I had to run the rest of the way.” She held up her scraped palms as evidence. “I did everything I could. Please, sir.”

He raised an eyebrow, looking her up and down. “You got hit by a car? And then you ran here all the way from Tempest and Buxren?” The man raised a hand, and the secretary stopped by the door.

Yes, yes. He’ll understand, he has to. “Yes, sir,” she said. “That’s what happened. It broadsided me. Knocked me right off my bike.”

The man folded his arms, glancing at her leg muscles. “You’re pretty strong, aren’t you? Pretty healthy.”

Scholars, I hope he’s not hitting on me. “Um, yes, sir.”

“And you are very pretty.”

Max squeezed her eyes shut. “Yes,” she muttered.

The man leaned over and wrote another letter, then handed it to his secretary. Am I not fired? Was this canceling his previous order?

“You are not special,” he said, sitting back down at his desk. “But this envelope was. In this nation, you must earn your fare. If you don’t do your job, you are not entitled to anything.”

His secretary opened the door, and he looked away from her, reading from some manila folder.

The world fell out from under Max again. A vacuum opened inside her chest, a hollow space growing and growing, swelling up to fill her whole body.

“That’s all?” she spat out, unable to help herself. “You destroyed my career, and that’s all you have to say to me?”

He glanced up at her with confusion. “Destroyed? You live in a thriving metropolis, at the forefront of the industrial era.” He snorted. “If you can’t find another job, then I’m not the problem.” He went back to his reading.

Max stared at him, clenching her fists, taking short, sharp breaths. A wave of dizziness washed over her.

“Tell Jonathan I said hello,” he said.


Max lay in bed and scratched off lottery tickets.

She knew it made no sense. Max was more likely to be eaten by a lantern whale in the desert, than to win the lottery.

But Max didn’t buy them for the reward. She bought them for the hope. When she scratched that slip of paper, there was a chance, however slim, that everything might turn around, that the winds of fate would lift her into the comfortable lifestyle of her fantasies.

She scratched off the numbers. Nothing.

Max sagged back on the bed. She reached into her box of takeout bacon, pulled out a strip, and stuffed it into her face, savoring the salt and grease and crunch. She couldn’t afford splurge food right now, but fuck it, this might be her last nice moment for a while. Delayed gratification only made sense when you had a future.

She reached again into the takeout box. Empty. Max sighed, and flipped over in bed, staring around her dimly lit room.

The listing had called it a studio, but that was generous. Max’s apartment could barely fit her bed, a pile of clothes on the floor, and a closet stuffed with clutter. Dust and crumbs covered the floor, and an empty can of lentils sat in the corner, next to her bag of toiletries.

This was my career high, thought Max. And now, she’d be unable to afford even this rent.

She closed her eyes. The sounds of a party across the street drifted into her window. Guitar music and cheering and drunken laughter. That made her feel even worse.

Maybe I should get a cat, she thought. Or a dog, maybe. Dogs were more outgoing.

They can keep you company while you beg for quarters on main street. Her landlord already hated her, glaring at her every time she asked him to fix the heat, like she was some spoiled diva asking for a crown. And she’d had several late months of rent already.

No, no, don’t think about that. She had to take her mind off that, do something else. But she felt too wired to go to sleep, after the events less than a week ago, even though her scrapes and bruises had already healed, for the most part. And she’d already used all her scratcher tickets.

Max glanced over at her mail, a pile of letters next to the foot of the bed that she’d been avoiding for a month.

It wasn’t ideal, but maybe it could distract her for a minute or two.

Max crawled out of bed, with the covers still wrapped around her, and grabbed the pile. She slumped back on her mattress and started reading.

Late bills, insurance offers, marketing pamphlets, and junk addressed to old tenants of the building. All dull, frustrating, or scary. Not good distractions.

And then, at the bottom, a silver envelope, shining in the dim light, made of some strange material that didn’t feel like paper, and didn’t rip, no matter how hard Max pulled at it. She read the address.

Ms. Maxine Clive
21 Calfren Street, Apt. 9
Elmidde, 604-C

Who on earth would be sending her mail like this?

Max opened it, peeling back the adhesive and looking at the letter within, written in an elaborate filigree cursive.

Dear Ms. Clive,

I am delighted to inform you that our admissions committee has offered you a place in this year’s class at Paragon Academy. Please accept my congratulations for this momentous achievement. Our admissions committee evaluated tens of thousands of candidates, and only accepted those with the greatest potential.

As you have been living with Humdrums for the past nineteen years, this may come as a surprise to you. You may see yourself as ordinary, simple, an unemployed ex-courier with no friends, no future. But deep down, you’ve always known. Something was missing from your life, something deep and important and profound that you could never articulate.

You were incomplete, because you didn’t know the truth. You are a projector, like the Great Scholars of old and the Conclave of the Wise, blessed with the ability to wield your soul as the ultimate tool. An entire world exists beneath the surface of your existence, filled with endless possibility.

You, Maxine Clive, hold limitless potential. If you want to go on with your current life, simply throw away this letter, and you will forget all in a matter of weeks.

But if you want to strive. If you want to become an Exemplar, please report to 16 Elwar Boulevard on 9/2 at 8 am for your screening and pre-orientation.

The door is open. We await you.

Nicholas Tau

Max choked, dropping the letter. What? That was impossible. Were they talking about magic? If this was a scam, how did they know so much about her? And why use such a strange story?

This was a dull world, an agonizing world of dishes and fleas and high rent. This letter was too good to be true, too strange and outlandish, like the bedtime stories she’d heard as a child. Logically, like, a lottery ticket, the odds of this being real were absurd. Beyond absurd.

But Max wanted to believe it anyway. She wanted to hope.

9/2 was just a week from now. Elwar Boulevard was on the far side of town.

Max looked down at her apartment, the dirt, the crumbs, the pile of bills, the space where her bike used to sit.

It was the easiest decision she’d made in her life.


Max stowed the letter under a floorboard. Other notes in the envelope had warned her that people outside the secret world couldn’t know the truth. Humdrums, they were called. People without magical abilities.

So, just in case, she kept it there, in a place her landlord wouldn’t find it, if he ever came snooping around.

Then, she went to 16 Elwar Boulevard, on 9/2, on a morning at the very end of summer. It led to an abandoned community center in Lowtown, some building that had closed down half a decade ago without any new tenants.

Max rang the doorbell. Nothing. She knocked on the door, rapping the peeling paint with her knuckles. “Hello?”


Max grabbed the handle and turned it. The door was unlocked. It creaked when she pushed it open, and she stepped in.

The community center was empty. A thin layer of dust covered the floor, and a corkboard hung from the wall with flyers tacked on. This doesn’t feel like a magic school. Though, to be fair, they probably wouldn’t have it out in the open.

She stepped into the main room, an auditorium of sorts. Dim afternoon light filtered in through the windows, casting soft shadows on the empty hardwood floor.

Two pieces of furniture sat in the room: a wicker chair, and a wooden desk. They had been cleaned, free of dust, unlike the rest of the space. A card with a note sat on the desk, next to a bell. The same ink and cursive as the letter.

Max pulled out the chair and sat down.


“Hello?” she said, again. Still nothing.

She pressed the button on the bell, ringing it.

The sound echoed around the room, a soft, clear peal bouncing off the walls.

Don’t move.” A cold, genderless voice rang out from around Max, vibrating out from the walls and desk and floor, all at the same time. “Don’t say anything.

A thick, soft force wrapped around Max’s thoughts, and tightened. It felt like someone was pouring sugary, lukewarm tea down her throat, choking her with its sweetness.

An overwhelming urge seized hold of Max, and she froze, forcing her lips shut. She couldn’t move, or talk, no matter how hard she tried. She didn’t feel like either of those things, no matter how much she wanted to. A strand of hair fell over her forehead, itching, but she couldn’t reach up to brush it aside.

A thrill seized hold of her. The letter is real, magic is real. But this didn’t feel right.

Max shivered, despite the heat.

The voice continued. “Follow these instructions without deviating. Do not share these instructions with anyone, or divert from your path for any purpose. Nod if you understand.

A wave of dread washed over Max. Please, let this be a step of admission. Let this be something deep, and profound, and the beginning of a thrilling adventure.

Max hoped. As her stomach dropped, and the fear swelled in her chest, she hoped.

And she nodded.


Max walked down the pier, following the whispered instructions. On the way here, she’d tried breaking free of its compulsion.

Stop walking for one second, she told herself, as she strode down the sloped street through Lowtown. Just for one second, don’t take a step.

But it never worked. No matter how hard she tried, no matter what willpower she pulled from the depths of her soul, the force soaked deep into her skull, inexorable, invincible.

It was important to go here, to do this exact chain of events. Max had to obey.

On the long wooden pier, Max joined a line of men and women. All young and fit – her age or a few years older. A thick layer of morning fog surrounded the group, cutting them off from the rest of the city.

They all stood, silent, unmoving, waiting to get on a large black ferry ship at the far end. It looked boring, identical to hundreds of other cheap ocean liners, huge steam exhaust pipes sticking out of the top. The only notable trait was the lack of windows, and a flat sheet of metal where the name of the ship would usually be painted.

A chill breeze blew across the pier, making Max shiver. The line moved forward ahead of her, person by person. The boy in front of her stepped forward, and she stepped with him, in perfect lockstep.

No one else came by. A thick grey fog closed in from the ocean, swallowing half the pier, and half of the ship they were all boarding. And no one spoke.

Max stood like this for an hour, stepping forward every now and then, as the sun rose before her, dim behind the clouds. The dread grew and grew in her stomach.

Half an hour again, water dripped off the pants of the boy ahead of her. He pissed himself. The orders didn’t give room for bathroom breaks.

Finally, she walked up a gangplank, past a bored-looking man leaning against the side, who clicked a metal counter as she approached. He wore a white sailor’s outfit, but nothing that resembled any country’s uniform. Who are these people?

Max stepped next to him, and he opened a metal pillbox, filled with a line of blue powder. He held it up to her, and she leaned down, snorting it. As per the instructions.

The sailor waved her forward, and she stepped onto the ship.

With that, the hellish voyage began. She and the others slept in cramped bunks, dozens fitted into a single tiny room, the ship overflowing with people.

During the day, she lay in her bed. Fleas infested the fabric of her hammock, and before long, her ankles and armpits were covered in itchy red bites. And she couldn’t even lift her hand to scratch them.

She and the other prisoners received bathroom breaks several times a day, along with hard sticks of protein and glasses of water. When they took bathroom breaks, they were given lines of blue powder to snort too, which produced a pleasant buzz in the back of her mind, like she’d just downed a shot of whiskey. Other than that, she had no idea what it did.

The soldiers that corralled the prisoners didn’t speak a word to them. And the prisoners stayed silent, too, still bound by their initial commands.

So they just lay there, like corpses. The room had no windows, lit only by a single grey bulb overhead. Neither did the bathroom, or the hallway between the room and the bathroom. Max went the entire voyage without seeing a glimmer of sunlight, turning the entire voyage into a strange, surreal affair, neither night nor day.

It felt like Max was in a dream, drifting through the world, puppeteered by unseen masters. Nothing feels real anymore. The dread and horror gripped her heart, but over time, they melted into a stew of apathy and exhaustion.

Some time into the voyage, a girl on the hammock above her got sick, some coughing disease that covered her skin in red patches.

The sailors took one look at her, and made some hand motions, making her stand up and leave the room. The girl stumbled forward, weak, and followed the guards out, her dark brown hair coated with sweat.

Later, when the others were asleep, Max overheard her first conversation with the sailors outside the door.

“What if the others in this room get sick?” said one guard.

“It’s not airborne, and even if they all catch it, it’ll just get a few dozen at most,” said another. “Those are manageable numbers.”

But no one else got sick. And Max never saw that girl again.

Time was a swirling ocean of currents. Max had no idea how long it had been. But after several days or weeks, the boat stopped bobbing in quite the same way. We must have stopped.

A sailor came into the room and clapped his hands three times. Max climbed out of her hammock and down to the ground, along with all the rest of the prisoners. Another motion from the sailor, and they strode out into the hallway, joining another huge line on the ship, snaking through the dark metal corridors.

After an hour of shuffling forward, Max stepped around a corner and out into the blinding sunlight. It glared in her face, making her eyes burn as she walked down the gangplank. She could squint, but the orders stopped her from covering her eyes.

When her vision cleared, she gazed up at their destination. An island. Small, barely more than a few miles wide. Dark, rocky cliffs towered above Max at the front.

Men and women filed up a staircase carved into the stone, still silent. The only sound was the wind, and the crash of the waves against the island’s shores.

As Max walked up the staircase, a sharp, floral scent filled her nose, growing stronger until it became overwhelming.

When Max reached the top, she saw where it came from. Fields and fields of buttercups, a bright, yellow carpet covering the entire island from end to end.

On a postcard, it might have been picturesque, but here, it looked unsettling. A flat, dense thicket of flowers that didn’t look natural, that flooded your senses and drowned out everything else.

You could hide a body in those flowers, thought Max, and they’d still cover up the stench.

Wooden buildings had been scattered through the buttercups, with stone paths connecting them. The architecture felt comforting to look at, full of rounded corners, smooth surfaces, and open spaces with large windows. It reminded Max of photos she’d seen of luxury spas.

The men and women split into separate lines, filing towards different buildings throughout the complex. A sailor led Max and a hundred others to the left, and they walked towards a building on the far end of the island.

As they approached it, they passed a chest-high fence on their right, blocking a massive pit at the center of the island. Max could only move her eyes, unable to turn her head, but even at this angle, she got a sense of its incredible size.

The pit stretched at least a hundred feet down, deeper than anything similar she’d seen. A waterfall rushed over the edge, crashing into the pool at the bottom, but like the prisoners, it made no sound. A normal waterfall sounded like a symphony of white noise. But this one had been stifled. Leashed.

This island isn’t natural. It felt like a frayed cable, completely still, wound tight, but on the verge of snapping. The pit was a gaping wound cut in the heart of the world, leading to a place no human should travel to.

I need to get away from this place.

And with that, Max’s stay at Buttercup Lodge began.

From that moment forward, the world turned into monotonous chaos.

She slept in a warm room with no windows and a whale plush named Clement in the corner. In the morning, she woke up, snorted a line of blue powder, brushed her teeth in her marble sink, took a shower in the sparkling clean bathroom at the end of the hall, and changed into a clean set of yellow pajamas. But sometimes she would be woken up in the afternoon, or the middle of the night. The scientists kept her schedule random, switching around events, adding or removing things for no visible reason.

Then, a nurse would form a line with her and the other prisoners, and send them on a jog through the buttercups, running a loop around the edge of the island. None of them said a word to her, giving orders through whistled notes and clicks on a metal device.

As part of their route, they ran around the edge of the pit. A short wooden fence kept them from falling, but Max still felt a chill every time they passed by it.

From this angle, Max got a better look at the bottom of the pit, and the silent pool with the waterfall rushing into it. It looked deep, far deeper than sea level, but Max could still make out a wide, short cave at the bottom, with a platform next to the edge of the water. On some days, she saw a line of prisoners standing there, or a pair of scientists in white lab coats.

Once or twice, one of them would step out of the running line and stop, indicating that they had some injury or illness. A nurse would take them by the shoulders, guiding them aside with a soft hand, towards the stone staircase near the center of the island, descending underground into the island.

Max didn’t know for sure, but she was fairly certain they led down to the pit. To the bottom.

As they walked into the darkness, their expressions were blank, but Max could see tears running down their cheeks.

Even the patterns of day and night were strange here. Sometimes, the night would last for weeks, the sun never coming up. Or a day would last ten times as long, the sun taking its sweet time dragging itself across the sky. Sometimes, noon would turn into midnight in five minutes, then back again, the sun replaced by the moon, or vice versa. Time itself became an element of chaos, impossible to track.

None of the nurses talked within earshot, and none of the prisoners talked either. So, though Max saw dozens of people every day, she never exchanged a single word. She became familiar with noises – the creak of hardwood under her feet, the breeze through the flowers, the waves crashing against the shores in the distance. But no human sounds – not even cries of pain or anger, or grunts of effort.

The stench of buttercups was impossible to escape. When she walked outside, while she showered, when she ate boiled eggs in the mess hall for every meal, and when she lay on her feather bed, unable to even toss and turn. It made her nauseous, even after she had weeks to get used to it.

Every few days, one of the nurses would take her to a cramped, quiet room with padded yellow walls, like the kind used to practice music. They would sit her on a wicker chair in the middle, leave, and turn off the lights.

And then, they peeled apart her mind.

In a given session, any number of random things could happen to her. The world would spin around her, and the dark walls would melt into a soup of blacks and greys, swirling around her in endless patterns. Waves of disgust would crash into her, and her flesh would turn into a sea of sprouting mushrooms, a tapestry of mycelium and writhing stalks. She would tear into it with her fingernails, ripping out bits of her skin, making scabs up and down her legs. Overwhelming despair and apathy would seep into her brain, and she would lie back on the chair, unable to summon the energy to move, praying for death. Intense chills would run over her skin, like she’d been dunked in ice water in the coldest glacier in Shenten.

In many of the sessions, Max didn’t even know what they were doing to her. She just sat in the chair, and waited, feeling nothing.

One day, in the mess hall, she dug into her boiled egg, and couldn’t taste it. Two days later, the effect still lingered. Then two weeks later. Then more. How many of these effects are permanent?

On one of the worst days, Max received a piece of paper from the nurse, with a message written on it:

Speak your name, and you may leave

The moment she finished those words, she opened her mouth to say her name.

And she couldn’t remember it.

She paced in the room for hours, tearing her hair out, hyperventilating, digging deep into the corners of her memory. But it still eluded her.

After an eternity, a nurse came to guide her back to her room. But the girl still couldn’t remember her name. She knew where she came from, knew she’d been a bicycle courier, that she’d loved to braid flowers in her hair and deliver cakes to college students.

But the girl couldn’t speak her name. When she brushed her teeth, she couldn’t recognize the stranger in the mirror, the young blonde with dark circles under her eyes.

So the girl went about her routine. Watching the nurses guide prisoners up the hill, to a circular building in the distance, or down the stairs towards the pit. Watching them disappear, one by one. Jogging through the flowers with the rising sun. Staring at the ceiling of her bedroom, or Clement the giant whale plush in the corner.

The seasons didn’t change the weather. The nights stayed chill, and the days hot. On some days, the fog wrapped the island in a grey prison. On others, the sun beat down on the buttercups, soaking the girl in sweat. The waves washed against the island. Ships came, then they left. New prisoners arrived, and were sent upstairs or down.

The girl had no calendar. No scratches on the wall. Maybe she’d been here for months. Or years. Maybe she’d lived on this island her whole life, and the old world was just a dream, another parasite they’d planted in her skull.

One night, for the first time in an eternity, the girl heard a voice.

Hey. Hey. Can you hear me?” A man’s whisper, coming from outside her door, at some distance. “Nod if you can hear me. That’s a joke, I know you can’t move.

What? None of the nurses ever spoke to her. And the commands kept the prisoners from talking.

Another hallucination. Like the experiments from earlier. Some remnant left over after the scientists gave her multiple lobotomies with their strange magic.

The girl relaxed in her bed, staring at the dark ceiling. I’ll need to get used to these.

Then, the metal slot on her door poked open.

Hi,” whispered the boy across from her. He’d unbent two of his metal clothes hangers to form a long stick that he could push through her door.

The girl’s heart wrenched, and her throat tightened. She would have jumped out of bed and shouted, if she were capable of movement.

But she could only look at him out of the corner of her eye, unable to turn her head. Two orange eyes gazed at her from the room across the hall. The boy moved his head, and the eyes were replaced by a mouth, curled in a mischievous smile.

I know you can’t talk back,” whispered the mouth. “But that’s okay, because I love the sound of my own voice.” He spoke with an accent of some sort, though the girl couldn’t piece together its origin. “The nurses don’t bother checking in, since they’ve got all our minds melted into soup.

How, the girl shouted in her head. How can you move? Of all the unimaginable things that happened on this island, this seemed truly impossible. Maybe I’m still dreaming.

I bet you don’t think I’m real,” said the young man, as if reading her mind. “But that’s fine too. I just wanted someone else to talk to.

Someone else? Had he been talking to other people this whole time?

Buttercup Lodge,” he whispered. “That’s the name of this place. They’re doing some fascinating things here.” His eyes glimmered. “Fascinating.

The girl felt sick. That’s the word you’re using? After everything that had happened here?

They are playing our souls like lyres,” he said. “And for now, their chords are harsh and clumsy. But they are learning.” His voice grew even softer. “When they’ve mastered us, what sublime melodies shall they play? And who is listening?

He’s mad, the girl thought. Completely mad.

I read your file,” he said. “You’re not a musician. But you don’t dance to the tune of others either. And you’ve survived this long.” He smirked. “Don’t tell anyone,” he hissed. “But I think you’re going places. I can’t wait to see the fun you’ll make.

After that, the girl would hear the boy’s ramblings almost every night, sometimes minutes, sometimes for hours on end. He would speak on all manner of subjects – psychology, religion, philosophy, the Great Scholars. Sometimes he would throw in strange words like “Praxis” or “Synapse”.

In her exhausted state, none of them made any sense to her. And the girl couldn’t ask questions, so every lecture only made him more confusing. The orders allowed her and the other prisoners basic freedom of movement with their mouths – probably so they didn’t choke. She could spit, and move her tongue and lips, but was forbidden from talking, or sharing any kind of message.

As she listened to him over the nights, the girl got cleaning duty assigned to her. Sweeping or mopping – simple tasks that didn’t require any language from the nurses. Using prisoners cost less than shipping actual workers to a secret island.

The work carried her all over the island, except two places: Upstairs, to the top of the hill, and downstairs, towards the pit.

But still, as the girl swept the paved path, she got a clear glimpse of the waterfall and pool during the day.

On the third day of her sweeping, the girl saw a pair of prisoners at the edge. A young man and a woman, Ilaquan or Nekean, maybe, from their brown skin. Both of them wore diving helmets over their heads, connected to long air tubes stretching back into the cave.

A scientist in a yellow lab coat took notes behind them, then blew on a whistle.

In response, the man and woman stepped forward, climbing into a cage hanging over the black water, suspended by a chain and mechanism above.

Another whistle, and the chain lowered. The pair sunk into the pool, vanishing with the cage.

They didn’t come up. And the girl kept sweeping. What else was she going to do?

The gaps in her memory broadened. What else had her captors stuffed into her mind, all without her knowing?

Then, they gave her the worst experiment yet.

One day, when the girl went to the padded testing room, someone else was already there.

A boy, around her age, sitting on a couch chair in the center of the room. Sweat coated his blonde hair, but other than that, he looked like a shriveled prune. His skin had turned dry and flaky. His lips cracked all over, and his eyes fluttered open and shut, exhausted. Dehydration. Or some sort of illness.

Another chair sat across from him, and a full pitcher of water sat on the table, next to a pair of glasses. The instructions directed her to sit down.

And as the boy writhed and groaned across from her, they made her pour a glass of water, and drink it. Right in front of him.

Then again, half an hour later.

And again. And again. And again. As the boy wasted away in front of her, wheezing, desperate for water, but unable to reach out and grab it.

Tears ran down the girl’s face, and she hyperventilated, unable to show any other reactions. She screamed in her mind, pushing back against the commands, willing her hands and arms to move, to fill the second glass with water. To help the boy staring at her, begging her with his eyes. The horror and rage built inside her until she felt ready to pop like a balloon.

But still, she followed the orders. Every step.

She poured another glass for herself, and drank it. I’m sorry, she thought. I’m so, so sorry.

After another few hours, the man lay back against his chair, and stopped breathing. And a nurse came in, to take her back to her room.

As the girl walked down the hallway, a scientist in a yellow lab coat stepped out of a side room, holding a notebook. An observer for the test. The man who’d orchestrated this, who’d killed a boy in front of her and forced her to watch.

He stretched his arms above him, and yawned.

Right in front of her. He didn’t care. To him, they were all just meat puppets, the girl included.

He walked towards another door. And as he did, he passed by the girl, at the perfect angle, the perfect height.

The girl moved her lips, her tongue, her throat, the only parts of her body she could control here. She pulled up a thick globule of saliva.

And she spat in his face.

The drool splattered onto the man’s cheek, and he staggered to the side, clutching it like a gunshot wound.

And the girl heard her first words from the employees at Buttercup Lodge.

“Fuck!” he yelled. “Bitch.” He wiped off the spittle with the sleeve of his coat, frantic, like it was poison. “Upstairs!” he barked. “Send her upstairs!”

They took her upstairs.

A nurse guided her out of the building and through the buttercups, using a clicker and whistle to direct her. They guided the girl up a long staircase and over a bridge, overlooking the waterfall streaming below into the pit. Towards the wooden building at the top of the hill, the highest point on the island.

It looked identical to every other wooden building in Buttercup Lodge: symmetrical, open, soaked in sunlight and painted with bright, inviting colors.

But of all the buildings in the complex, this was the only one the girl hadn’t been inside.

The nurse directed her into a large, pristine bathroom. There, she stripped, and showered with antibacterial soap, scrubbing it into every inch of her skin. When she got out, her old yellow uniform had been replaced with a hospital gown she had to drape over herself.

Then, they put her on a hospital bed, stuck an iv into her arm, and wheeled her through dark hallways as the girl’s stomachache grew, a swelling panic in her chest ready to explode and crash over her whole body.

They took her to a yellow room with bright lights and no windows, filled to the brim with masked doctors and instruments. With a few more clicks and whistles, they moved her to a huge, flat metal table in the center of the room, wider and longer than the biggest bed she’d ever seen.

One of the doctors pulled off her mask, revealing a slender Nekean woman with a regretful expression.

Please, the girl begged with her eyes. Don’t do this. Please.

“Thank you,” she said. “For this ultimate sacrifice. A thousand generations of humanity salute your courage.”

Please. Don’t hurt me. Please. The girl’s breaths grew frantic, and tears pooled at the edges of her eyes.

“Enough,” said another doctor. “Don’t talk to them.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. The woman squeezed the girl’s hand. Icy liquid flowed into her veins through the IV, and the world turned dizzy, far away.

The girl dreamed of flying.

In her mind, she grew giant bird’s wings in place of her arms, spreading them on the metal cot she’d been draped over. She soared out of the surgery room and into the evening sky, as the sun set over the horizon.

The girl flapped her wings and soared away from the island, away from the buildings and the waterfall and the pit and all of Buttercup Lodge. Her muscles ached all over, but still, she flapped, getting further and further away until the island shrunk in the distance, and all she saw was open water.

Evening turned into night, and the two moons shone over the ocean, hanging in the dark, starless expanse. The moons faded away, turning the heavens a pitch black.

Then, in their place, color exploded across the sky, a bright, multicolored pattern glowing blue and green. The darkness choked it on all sides, threatening to swallow it, and the girl flew straight up, higher and higher, reaching up to grab the light even as it flickered out.

She reached, reached, reached.

The girl snapped back to consciousness, and felt pure agony.

Nothing in her life came close to this. Every inch of her body burned, and ached, and felt like it had been stabbed all over. From the tips of her toes to the crown of her head, everything was broken, on fire, getting drilled into. Her skull, her feet, her arms, her stomach, her chest, her legs, her eyes, everything.

She would have screamed, but she couldn’t.

She would have passed out, but something prevented it. The pain overwhelmed her thoughts, crushing all else in her mind, but some unknown force tethered her to consciousness.

And then, she saw what they’d done to her. The girl’s vision gazed down from above the metal table, a bird’s eye view of the operation.

And her body had been chopped to pieces.

Her head had been sliced off. Her skull and nose had been broken into dozens of pieces and laid out in a neat circle around her brain. Her arms had been chopped off at the joints, her hands and fingers too. Her legs and feet and toes had been broken apart too, along with her ribs and chest.

All over, her skin had been peeled off, and had been laid beneath all the muscle and bone. Individual organs like her heart and stomach and kidneys had been pulled out too.

And my eyes. Her eyeballs had been scooped out of her skull, and hung from a transparent pouch from the ceiling of the operating room. That’s how I can see all this.

Somehow, the girl was still alive.

And she could feel all of her body. Threads of pale lightning connected every split body part, from the smallest scrap of her skin to her eyeballs hanging above. The threads all coalesced around her brain, the single focal point for all the lightning.

And the doctors were everywhere, poking and prodding at her organs, squinting through microscopes and talking amongst themselves. They floated pieces of thread and fabric and wood between their hands.

One of them picked up a diamond in a pair of tongs and held it into a stream of grey lightning. It crackled around the gemstone, and the pain tripled.

The girl’s perspective went wonky, layering over itself, seeing from countless different angles at once.

When he removed it, the diamond had transformed, becoming a third eyeball. The scientists examined it, then snipped it off with a pair of green scissors.

One of the doctors looked at her eyes, high above them.

A single thought cut through the pain. They want me to feel this. To see this. They’d deliberately woken her up for this.

The doctors murmured amongst themselves, impressed and surprised with something about the results.

When they knocked her out again, the girl thought she would die.

And she welcomed it.

But they put her back together. The girl didn’t know what twisted methods they used, or why, but they put her back together.

When she woke up, the pain was excruciating, but her body had been fused back together. Stitches and bruises covered her from head to toe, and she bled onto her bedsheets, turning them damp and sticky beneath her.

But she was alive. She was whole. For the first time, someone had gone upstairs, and come back.

Recovery was its own agony. She lay in bed for days and days, bleeding, shivering, unable to writhe in pain or scream. A nurse massaged some white ointment onto her stitches, and forced her to take a suite of pills that made her stomach ache, along with the blue powder that extended her commands. Unable to move, she had to use a bedpan and catheter in her room, yet another humiliation.

Through the endless horrors, the girl drifted in and out of reality, and things got even stranger.

On some days, the girl was missing half a thumb on her left hand, which had gone missing after the surgery. On other days, she was missing a pinky on her right hand instead.

The missing finger switched places every day, and the days with the pinky missing started diverging from the days with the thumb.

After a week of this, the girl realized. They’re two separate realities. She only switched between them when she fell asleep. Which meant one of them was real, and another one was a dream. Even though both of them felt utterly real. What did they do to my brain? Or maybe this wasn’t intentional. Maybe this was just a side effect of the ten thousand other ways they’d peeled apart her mind like an onion.

Either way, her sanity crumbled more and more by the day.

After weeks of recovery, in the world with the missing thumb, the Nekean woman visited the girl’s bedside. She pulled a clicker out of her pocket, and did a peculiar combination of clicks and whistles, one that the girl had never heard before.

In an instant, the girl could move her arms and legs, her fingers and toes, everything. Nothing compelled her to stand, or walk, or stay still or silent or anything. Some kind of override command.

The girl moved her hands and fingers, staring at them, marveling. Every move and twitch felt foreign, like she’d never done it before. Why would they release me like this?

The Nekean woman smiled at her. “Come, please.” She opened the door. “I want to show you something.”

No commands compelled her. The girl chose every move. But if she didn’t do what they said, they’d put her mind in a cage again. Just go along with it.

The girl sat upright in her bed, every move sending stabbing pain throughout her body. She pushed herself to a standing position and stumbled after the Nekean woman, half-limping. The girl hadn’t walked of her own volition for months, maybe years, and was still recovering from the strange operation they’d put her through.

It took willpower to force one foot in front of another, to keep herself from throwing up or falling over. Look forward. Breathe. Keep walking. Look forward. Breathe. Keep walking.

The Nekean woman led the girl out of the dorm building through the buttercups, then up the stairs, over the bridge and past the waterfall. Towards the building where she’d been cut apart.

As they walked, Max looked around, able to move her head and body for the first time. She looked back, over the buildings of the complex, the endless fields of buttercups.

For the first time since she’d arrived, Max saw the ocean, visible from the top of this hill, crashing against the shores of this island, extending into the horizon.

Far to the side, beyond one of the dorm buildings, Max spotted a narrow path through a thicket of bushes, leading down towards a short dock that she could barely make out, hidden by trees and the rocks of a cove. A secret escape route for the scientists.

None of the prisoners who came upstairs ever came back, so Max had to be the first one to see this. Not that she’d ever get to use it.

“Don’t worry,” said the woman. “We’re not doing surgery anymore.” She walked through the front door and led the girl down a different corridor, down a set of stairs to what looked like the building’s basement.

The lights got dimmer as they stepped down the stairs. The sounds of footsteps faded in the distance, until the space was nearly silent.

The woman opened the door, to reveal a massive, narrow chamber, several stories tall, extending at least a hundred feet into the distance, lit by dim yellow lanterns hanging from the ceiling.

Bodies filled the room. Rows and rows of bodies, naked, hanging with hooks under their armpits, like pieces of meat or coats in a closet. They covered the metal walls in layers, hundreds and hundreds of them filling up the room.

The girl squinted. Not just any bodies.


Every single body looked identical to her. Sweeping blonde hair. Pale skin. A narrow face with high cheekbones. Bright blue eyes. Even the big moles were the same. One on her lower jaw, another on her right arm. Some of the bodies looked like mannequins instead of humans, made from fabric and wood and some sort of artificial hair, with sapphires or lapis lazulis in place of eyes. But those looked like her too.

Women walked around the room, hanging more bodies on the walls, floating them up, peeling off fabric and examining gemstones. They, too, looked the same as her.

One older woman looked different than the rest. She pressed a palm on one of the mannequins’ foreheads. Blue lightning crackled around her, transforming the fabric into skin, the gemstones into eyes. The old woman went limp, her eyes dead, and the naked body on the wall pushed itself off, then threw a robe over itself.

The girl doubled over, her stomach ache tripling. She wanted to vomit, or collapse, or punch the Nekean woman until her knuckles bled. What did they do, what did they do, what did they do? Why had they cloned her so many times? Why did everyone look like her?

“Your name is Maxine Clive,” the Nekean woman said. “And you’ve changed the world forever. Thank you.”

Max. My name is Max. The memory clicked into place, a perfect puzzle piece to fit the gaps in her mind.

A nurse stepped in behind Max, and gave her another series of clicks and whistles. Max’s arms snapped back to her side, and her back straightened, making her stand at attention. Her fingers, her face, almost every muscle in her body was bound again.

The commands are back. The Nekean Woman had given her a temporary override signal, just a pause from their control, not a true release.

They sent Max back to her room, to recover and wallow in her pain. Eventually, the IV went away. The nurse stopped coming by to feed her pills and dab ointment on her wounds. The stitches came out, one by one, replaced with dark red scabs. The young man across the hall, who’d been silent this whole time, didn’t go back to talking at night. Maybe they took him away.

And after weeks and weeks, they ordered her back to her normal routine. On the first morning back to usual, Max looked in the mirror, and saw her new face.

A half-human thing stared back at her, tears welling up at the edges of its eyes. Its face had been sliced up and stitched back together, and none of the pieces quite fit. Her jawline was jagged, with the right side bulging out more than the left. Her nose jutted out over the ridge, crooked. One of her cheekbones looked like it had caved in, and her lower teeth stuck out in a massive underbite, like a bulldog’s. Her forehead bulged at the top, then sloped down towards her nose like an overhanging cliff.

Beneath those twisted features, Max could recognize her old face, the one she loved, the one now etched into a thousand clones. But that made it even worse. The face was hers. But it felt wrong. Everything about it felt so wrong.

If Max had control of her body, she might have bashed her head against the marble sink, or tied her sheets into a rope around her neck. Please, just let me die. Please.

Two months later, the authorities granted her wish.

Over that period, the doctors examined her several times, took blood samples and measurements, tested her heartbeat and her ears and her temperature. But at some point, they’d learned all they were going to.

So one morning, instead of a nurse, a man in a yellow lab coat stepped into her room. The scientist she’d spat on. One of the ones she’d seen in the cave at the bottom of the silent waterfall. Who’d ordered prisoners to walk into the cage at the end, to dunk themselves into the black pool.

And Max knew. He’s here to take me downstairs. To release her from the pain.

Every prisoner who went down those stairs hadn’t come back. Whatever horrifying things the doctors were doing to them, it had to end in death.

The boats were for guards and nurses and doctors. For someone like Max, the pool was the only way to leave Buttercup Lodge.

The thought of walking into that pit made Max’s blood freeze. But at the end of it, she would still be dead.

The doctor looked down on her, bored, and used a whistle and clicker signal to force her up.

Thank you, she whispered in her head. Thank you.

He led her out of the room, into the hallway, walking in front of her without looking back. He knew the commands would force her to follow.

As she walked down the hallway, something grabbed her waist. A hand, stretching out of the door across from her, squeezing through the metal slot to clench the back of her shirt.

They’d commanded Max not to resist others. So she stopped, flitting her eyes to the corner of her vision.

Him. The young man who’d whispered to her at night, who’d told her the name ‘Buttercup Lodge’ and countless other nonsensical things. Who’d managed to free himself and move around, despite everything.

He whispered, so quiet she could barely hear him when her ears strained. Using his mouth and throat, he made a series of whistles and clicks. The override command.

And Max was free.

Her arms and legs were no longer bound. None of the orders compelled her anymore.

The man smiled at her, and let go. “See you, Maxine Clive.”

Max walked faster, catching up to the doctor ahead of her, keeping her footsteps quiet so he wouldn’t hear. This entire time, he hadn’t bothered to turn around and check on her.

She put her arms back to her sides and made her footsteps uniform, mimicking her normal, controlled movements. Wait for the right moment. Don’t let them know you’re free. After all, this was just a pause. One more whistle, and she’d be in their control again.

The pair of them stepped out of the dorm room, into the open. The sun set in the distance, casting orange light over the fields of buttercups.

The man led her towards the stone staircase. Towards the pit.

Slowly, while no one was looking, Max wriggled the fingers on her right hand, then her left, noting the missing thumb. I hope this is the real world.

Inch by inch, Max clenched her hand into a fist.


“So in your dreams, you’re missing a thumb on your left hand,” said the therapist. “And the man across from you whistled something that freed you. And you dreamed of me, too, as a doctor involved in the surgery.”

Max looked down at her right hand, at the missing pinky. Or this is the dream, and the other world is real. Everything up to the operation, when they’d cut her apart – that was real.

But after that? The world had split in two. And nothing was clear anymore. Her memories went fuzzy at the worst possible moments.

“Have other people at Buttercup Lodge developed this condition?” asked Max. “This elaborate dream world.” She hugged Clement the stuffed whale, leaning back.

“Please,” the therapist said. “Let’s stay on topic.” She wouldn’t tolerate questions. “Tell me what else happened in your dreams.”

“I dreamed that I found out your boss,” said Max.


“Paragon Academy. A school for people who wield magic, to become tools of the government.”

If that was true, the therapist didn’t betray anything on her face.

“I dreamed that this wasn’t some distant branch of the government, some rotten grapes in the bunch, but part of a plot at the very core.” That first acceptance letter was fake, but Paragon had sent it. “That all this – “ Max gestured around her. “Was on purpose. You chose this.”

“In your dream, I’m working for this ‘Paragon Academy’,” the therapist said. “Let’s not confuse your imagination with reality.”

Too late.

“I dreamed,” said Max, leaning forward. “That you fiddled with the wrong things, and woke up something more intelligent and cruel than you ever could have imagined.” She lowered her voice to just above a whisper. “I fled. And I watched the void swallow all of you.” Max clenched a fist. “I dreamed that I made a tumor, in the heart of a vicious empire. My enemies couldn’t carve it out without destroying themselves in the process. I swam through a river of blood and filled it with my tears, and when I crawled out, the people followed.” She closed her eyes. “I befriended a witch, a king, and a soldier. I made a symbol, the green circle, that my enemies grew to fear. And I had a plan.Her plan, though her allies had helped with some of the details.

“Your plan, yes,” said the therapist. “Tell me about that.”

Max nodded. The last few nights had been stressful, but pleasant dreams. “I arranged to fight a Praxis Specialist named Copycat, with a narrow thought-stitching Vocation. I trained my mind for months to master my thoughts, to achieve sublime focus for short bursts of time and only think of a single thing. I got in the perfect position, and gave off just the right hints for the enemy to put together. I used obscured vision to swap me and the Pyre Witch with doubles, which the enemy put a tracer on.” Another misdirection. “Finally, we used our Shenti allies to attack a legitimate target: the Agricultural Islands.”

“And it worked?”

Max nodded. “Our enemy thought little of us. They believed that we were willing to cause a famine and kill millions of poor Humdrums to achieve our goals. We played on their fears, their loathing. And we got them to leave the city.”

The therapist scribbled notes in her book, raising an eyebrow.

“We replaced a girl in Paragon Academy, named Matilla Geffray, putting an imposter in her place. Before she got her subconscious key and security questions, we exposed a section of thermal shielding on the cable car station, allowed a man named Pictogram to read lips using his infrared vision and Praxis Vocation. That, and a trick swap with some baseball bats, allowed us to impersonate her. We replaced her with a Conduit. Do you know what a conduit does?“

The therapist shook her head. “Why would I possibly know the words of your dreams, Maxine?”

“Right. Sorry.” Max cleared her throat. “A conduit is when two souls bond close to each other, and merge, partially. They form a link, that can stretch any distance. With it, they can share thoughts, project…and transfer souls through. This means, if you control a conduit, you can use it to transport large numbers of Piths, like a highway of souls.” Her eyes lit up. “And Paragon Academy has a vault where they keep spare bodies. One break-in, and we could transfer in a small army of projectors.”

“This is a very elaborate dream, Maxine,” said the therapist.

Max laughed. “I know. Ridiculous, isn’t it?“ The more she thought about it, the less real it seemed. “That’s where my dream left off last night. The enemies had left the city, but all their best treasures were still there. And we’d reached critical mass with senior generals in the military, radio stations, and popular support.”

“But they’re going to come back, right?” said the therapist. “When all your enemies return to the city, what’ll you do then?”

Max smiled. “The enemy built god-slaying weapons to deal with Scholar-ranked projectors overseas.” Long-range missiles, tipped with Voidsteel, that they’d been ready to fire at the Agricultural Islands in a heartbeat. “But they are Scholar-ranked,” she said. “What did they think would happen?”

The therapist sighed, massaging her forehead. “And after all this? After you win? What then?”

“We establish a temporary state. We purge the counter-revolutionary elements that support Paragon, and risk toppling our new system. And once we ensure stability, we consider reinstituting some form of centralized democracy.”

“That’s all?” the therapist said.

Max shrugged. “It’s just a silly dream.” None of it felt real. If it did, would she have made the same choices, taken the same risks? “It’s not my job to build something perfect. I’m not anyone special.” She stared at her feet. “I was just some idiot, in the right place at the right time, who chose to spit in the face of God.” She smiled. “And when enough people do that, even God must take notice.”

“That’s all our time for today. We’ll continue tomorrow.” The therapist stood up, showing nothing on her face.

She rang a bell, and a nurse came in with a clicker, using it to force Max to stand, walk towards the door. Max clung to Clement the whale, but the nurse clicked again, forcing her to give it up.

“And I’m sorry, Maxine,” said the therapist.

Max stopped by the door, unable to turn around.

“This is the real world. No matter how painful it gets. One day, I hope you accept that.”

The nurse led Max out of the building. They walked through the buttercups as evening turned into night, back down the stairs and into the same dorm building. The same yellow room. The same bed that she’d slept in for years and years. The same mind-numbing routine that had broken her sanity enough to think up such odd realities.

Max lay down under her covers. She closed her eyes.

Let me dream again, she prayed. Let me dream.


Max woke up, and she was young again.

In this world – the world where she’d escaped Buttercup Lodge – her left thumb was normally missing, and her stitched, misshapen body had aged for decades.

But that body had been sent overseas, to the Agricultural Islands with another’s Pith as part of their diversion strategy. So, for this operation, she’d taken a new one.

Max’s eyes fluttered open, in a Midtown safehouse, in a drab, grey bedroom that reminded her of cheap hotels. Soft, nostalgic swing music drifted from downstairs, played on a gramophone. “Sway on the blue, skip on the sea, dance on the waves with me.

She threw off the covers, staggered to the bathroom in her pajamas, and splashed water on her cheeks from the sink.

And that’s when she saw her face.

The original Maxine Clive. A vintage original model, bought straight from Eminent Forms. Nineteen years old and perfect, before Paragon Academy had cut her up, stitched her back together, and saddled her with decades of burdens. Skin untouched by scars, bones shaped in perfect, elegant lines, bright blue eyes without the dark circles, or the wrinkles.

Max had seen her face so many times. In magazines, on advertisements, as an accessory for Epistocrats to show off their wealth.

But still, seeing it in the mirror felt strange. A tug in her stomach, a tingle in her fingers. A simple, easy alignment, a warm comfort at breathing in this shell. Is this what they tortured us for? The rush of youth, of beauty and strength and health.

She’d kept her original body for so long, even though it horrified her, even though it weighed her down and looked terrifying and forced her to conceal her face in public. Because it was still hers.

And because she didn’t want to wear their invention, the creation of the people who’d butchered her and so many others.

But now, the plan demanded it. And fuck it, none of this was real anyway, right?

Dance on the waves, dance on the waves, dance on the waves with me.

Someone knocked at the door.

“Come in.”

Pictogram stepped into the safehouse, an anti-tank rifle slung across his back. “Ma’am. It’s time.”

“I told you,” she sighed. “‘Max’ is fine.”

“Breakfast? I think someone prepared some bacon downstairs.”

Max shook her head. “Not hungry.”

And she didn’t want to find out. Maybe it was just her old body that couldn’t taste. But what if her Pith had been permanently scarred? What if Max would never taste anything for the rest of her life? Max couldn’t handle a disappointment like that.

She got ready. She threw on her dark green longcoat, from her time in the Corsairs. Worn, but strong. Her belt, with a holstered pistol and flare gun at her waist, with a letter in her coat pocket. Then, a dab of green paint in circles on the backs of her hands. With no tattoos, it would have to do.

Then, because she had some extra time, she pulled a handful of buttercups from a vase in the room, and braided them into her golden hair.

Max strode out the front door. The late afternoon sun glared down at her, making her squint.

Then, she turned to Pictogram. “Go to the first rendezvous without me.”

“It’s not safe, ma’am. The streets are swarming.”

“They are.” Max smiled, leaning back and letting the warm sunlight wash over her. “But there are more of us. I’ll be fine.”

“It is as you say.” He ran off into the distance.

Max unchained her bike from the streetlamp out front. It had been a while since she’d ridden one of these things, but she still had the basics down. In a few seconds, she was pedaling up the mountain.

With all the riots going on, the city had shut the trams down, so she had to go up quite a distance. But even without Joining, this body was more than up to the task. This would be little more than a warm-up for it.

They called it a “combat chassis”. What a cold, nasty word. It was a miracle, the godlike form of man turned from thread into flesh, powered by lightning, tempered with the blood of the ordinary, then stolen from them. A medical wonder, kept for those who got sick the least.

All the cruelty of this nation. All the possibility. Right here, inside her fingertips. Her feet and leg muscles, as they pumped on the pedals. Her heart, racing faster and faster.

Maxine Clive ascended, through the empty streets. All the cars had vanished, with most of the pedestrians. The ones who weren’t protesting were holed up in their houses. A silver oracle snake flew out of the setting sun, slithering through the clouds above.

As she biked up the cobblestone, she passed the campus of Elmidde University, where she used to deliver cakes. A crowd of citizens had gathered there, pushing back against a wall of police on one side, and loyalists with improvised weapons on the other. A loyalist pulled out a pistol, and a citizen threw a rock at him. It hit him in the temple, and he went down.

Max passed the old hat store, still open after all these years. The windows had been boarded up, and the lights were off inside. Two buildings down the street were burning, but the fire department hadn’t shown up.

The day market near Garden Street had vanished. In its place, a group in masks sprinted through, carrying baseball bats and knives, chasing after a lone, defenseless Green Hands.

But still, Max kept going. Up, up the slopes of Mount Elwar. Past protests and police and Guardians sent to suppress the people. None of them paid the generic girl on the bicycle any mind.

When Max ascended the last part of Darius Street, it had emptied. Normally, it would be filled with Guardians and cars and people and armed guards at the edges, but today, Max was the only one here. The trees at the top of Mount Elwar closed in around her, muffling the gunshots and shouting in the distance.

The cable car building towered over her, surrounded by white marble columns. The Principality’s flag had been painted across the front wall: a white fist clutching a scroll on a dark blue field.

In her youth, she’d delivered dozens of cakes and other foods here, in a bicycle just like this. Unaware of the hidden strings bending the universe around this place.

The giant doors creaked, and swung open before her.

Inside, corpses covered the floor.

Dozens and dozens of them. Guardians in combat armor. And Humdrum soldiers, their blue uniforms stained red with blood. They covered the painted path on the ground, slumped over in corners, or lay on the metal catwalks above, limbs drooping off the edge.

A group of Green Hands stood over them, carrying rifles and shotguns and knives, green circles tattooed on the backs of their hands.

None of them spoke to Max. They led her through the station, towards the platform where people boarded. As Max stepped over the guards’ corpses, she stared down at them. The Humdrums. The ordinary men and women they’d killed to achieve their goals.

How dare you step over them? A voice said in her head. How dare you walk past their sacrifice? How many such atrocities had she let herself ignore? The innocents hijacked by Lyna Wethers, the Honeypot. The common folk hurt in their Nudge attacks, or their bombs. All the other questionable schemes Grace had used to raise funds.

I accepted so much help to make this revolution possible. From many she found distasteful. The Broadcast King, an Ilaquan oligarch, who looked down on innocents as pawns, who wanted to puppeteer her after their victory. Pictogram, an emissary of a cruel, vengeful warlord from Shenten.

And Grace, a crackling maelstrom of desperate rage and brilliance. Maybe her only real friend in all of this.

She had no choice. Paragon Academy was too strong, and she’d needed powerful allies.

But we’re forging our new nation in blood. Of course, nearly every nation began that way. But it left a bitter taste in her mouth.

Because this was Max’s plan. Her gambit, her leadership that had brought them to this point.

Whatever happened next, it would be her fault.

Max strode to the platform, as the cable car descended to it. The door swung open, and a red-haired girl, flanked by two dozen mobsters, all wearing the youthful bodies stored in Paragon Academy’s body vault.

A black-haired girl sat at the back, her blue Paragon uniform covered in blood. Matilla Geffray, first-year student. Or, to be more accurate, Cybil Mayns, the Conduit they’d used to impersonate Matilla Geffray.

Step one worked, then. Cybil, their imposter had broken into the body vault and transferred the souls of their strike team into the chassis there, including Grace. Now, Commonplace held the cable car station, and Paragon didn’t have a clue.

Someone carried a chassis to the red-haired girl, and she transferred her soul through, purple lightning flickering around her. Grace’s normal body, complete with thin combat armor underneath her suit jacket and skirt.

Grace ran forward, and the two of them hugged. It felt like an eternity since Max had been hugged.

When they broke off, Grace extended a semi-automatic shotgun to her, pitch black and sleek, one of the latest Ilaquan models.

Max took it. Together, they stepped into the cable car, and ascended into the sky.

Max and Grace stood at the front of the box, away from the other Green Hands and mobsters. With the transparent walls, Max could see the city shrinking beneath them. The slums of the outer islands. Bartolet Naval Base, which Commonplace had already taken, with a pair of zeppelins filled with their troops. The squat buildings of Lowtown and Midtown, many of them burning, squeezed together like livestock cages.

And Hightown, decadent and massive, despite its tiny population. Mansions and towers and breathtaking gardens. Filled with Epistocrats, hiding away from the people, unaware that their nation was being captured right above their heads.

To the west, the sun set over the Principality’s mainland, bathing the city in an orange glow, throwing blue and pink light onto the clouds above and reflecting off the ocean waves. Evening. Right on schedule.

But more than that, Max felt grateful for the sunset. For this glimpse of a magnificent city, a wondrous people.

They didn’t need to strive to be Exemplars. They were already perfect, in a way Max could never be. Do them proud.

“I hope,” said Max. “That we don’t have to kill too many.”

Grace nodded, though she didn’t care as much as Max did.

“And when we’re done here,” said Max. “I hope I get to stay.” She stared down at the city. This feels so real, so real.

“There’s nothing I can do, Max,” said Grace. “To convince you that this is the real world, and not the dream.” She smiled, a rare expression on her face. “But still, I’m proud of you. You did what three determined Praxis Specialists couldn’t. You brought this country together.”

The two of them turned their gazes above, to the upper station of the cable car, and the floating islands of Paragon Academy. The banquet hall. The dorms. The grassy pavilion. The wooden bridges connecting them.

And the Great Library, a fortified cone with a tower on top. Impregnable. Time to test that.

Max pulled her letter out of her pocket, reading the contents.

“What is that?” said Grace. Her eyes widened. “And that symbol on the letter, is that – “

“Paragon drew them on all their fake invitations,” said Max. “It inspired me.”

Max showed her.

Dear Ms. Clive,

I am delighted to inform you that our admissions committee has offered you a place in this year’s class at Paragon Academy. Please accept my congratulations for this momentous achievement. Our admissions committee evaluated tens of thousands of candidates, and only accepted those with the greatest potential.

As you have been living with Humdrums for the past nineteen years, this may come as a surprise to you. You may see yourself as ordinary, simple, an unemployed ex-courier with no friends, no future. But deep down, you’ve always known. Something was missing from your life, something deep and important and profound that you could never articulate.

You were incomplete, because you didn’t know the truth. You are a projector, like the Great Scholars of old and the Conclave of the Wise, blessed with the ability to wield your soul as the ultimate tool. An entire world exists beneath the surface of your existence, filled with endless possibility.

You, Maxine Clive, hold limitless potential. If you want to go on with your current life, simply throw away this letter, and you will forget all in a matter of weeks.

But if you want to strive. If you want to become an Exemplar, please report to 16 Elwar Boulevard on 9/2 at 8 am for your screening and pre-orientation.

The door is open. We await you.

Nicholas Tau

Her original fake acceptance letter. The one stored under her floorboards. Unchanged. Still good as new.

After all this time, all this planning, Max had never set foot inside Paragon Academy. Not once.

“They invited me,” said Max. “So let’s pay them a visit.”

She flipped the letter shut.

A green circle, decades-old, was printed on the back.

A note from madwhitesnake

Hi all! Here we go again, with a ridiculously long side POV. More than 14 thousand words! It was quite an effort to write and edit this monstrosity, so I hope it’s worth it. Your time is valuable.  That concludes Episode 11. Episode 12, the second-to-last Episode of the Volume, is called “The Ant and the Beetle”. Thanks for reading!

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