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Ana

“My name,” I said. “Is Grace Acworth.”

Down the street, the group of mobsters leaned in, crowding around the radio at the center of their table. I could pick out their faces. Eda Fortescue. Arthur Radley. Avice Drayton. And many more. Tunnel Vision’s lieutenants.

I spoke into the microphone, my voice transmitting to them in their building fifty meters away. From this abandoned house, I had a good view of them through my pair of binoculars, squinting at their meeting through a dusty window.

Our meeting, technically. I’d called this gathering of Elmidde’s underworld, on this empty street in North Island. One of the mob’s safehouses.

I let go of the talk button on my radio. “Say the word, Ana,” said Left-Hira.

I looked up from my binoculars. Right-Hira crouched next to me in the dark room, aiming his pitch-black sniper rifle out of a broken window. Left-Hira sat next to her, peering through a spotter scope. Ready to open fire on my subordinates at a moment’s notice.

At least half of the mobsters had ABDs, and with our resources stretched thin, we only had a handful of Voidsteel bullets. But Hira could still cause a lot of misery with that weapon.

Left-Hira held up a watch, showing the exact time. 3:08 in the morning. And fourteen seconds.

My stomach twinged. Soon. It’s happening soon.

Then I spoke again. “I am the Pyre Witch, “ I said, in my high, brighter voice. Still not used to this body.

Murmurs of interest from around the table. They all knew, of course. Some of them had been told years ago, and others had found out after my radio broadcast on Verity. But Grace had never talked about it openly like this. Me sharing it like this could be a sign of trust, or a new chapter in our relationship.

None of them looked suspicious, though. None of them seemed to catch on about their new leadership.

I thought it’d be harder to impersonate Grace. But with the codes and the notes Hira had stolen, I just had to adopt her personality. The cold, righteous fury. The desperation, and the vicious determination. All of it came to me like breathing. The high-level decisions I’d been making would seem odd, but these were odd times, and Acworth was known for unconventional gambits, that seemed confusing or unknowable at first.

To top it off, many of Grace’s most competent lieutenants had been killed in the Battle of Paragon. The ones left were less competent dregs. And Clementine hadn’t warned them.

The masquerade wouldn’t last long, but I didn’t need it to.

“Paragon Academy has dealt us a great blow,” I said. “With their victory in the skies. As a result, we’ve instituted a great many changes. And I’m sure you have questions.”

Nods around the table. Just a single, dim bulb lit the mobster’s room, but I picked out a few irritated glares, or clenched jaws.

“You have undergone memory wipes on many critical aspects of this organization. Passwords, locations, methods operations. Revenue branches have been shut down. Protection fees. Prostitution. Drug running. And sales of defective bodies.”

“Ma’am,” said Eda Fortescue. “Not to question your decisions, but all of those were vital for our income. We can’t sustain ourselves without them. My portfolio has tanked in value.”

I saw the frustrated look spread across the woman’s face, and closed my eyes. I felt Fortescue grip my wrist in Clementine’s dining room, preventing me from leaving. Hey. Isn’t Ana a girl’s name? She’d pricked a bulging vein on my chest with a cheese knife, after I’d stripped in front of her. Stay still, please.

Other mobsters chimed in, agreeing with her, their voices tight, irritated at their losses of money, their inability to pay the down payments on their yachts and beach houses. If it had been any other mob leader, they would have been screaming. But Elmidde’s criminal underworld had learned to fear Tunnel Vision, and her unpredictable nature. A fact that had helped me set up this meeting.

“Enough,” I said. “We spent the bulk of our resources on the Paragon assault. We need these changes. To protect us.” From what I’d heard, Commonplace had employed a similar stripping-down of their operations, to hide from Paragon.

But Commonplace didn’t have rich mobsters to please.

Left-Hira tapped her watch again. 3:11.

My stomach clenched. It’s late. I needed to keep holding their attention.

So I continued, going off-script. “I told you my true identity for a single, critical reason.” I took a deep, slow inhale. “You’re not like Commonplace, who wanted to reshape this country. Or the Shenti, who wanted revenge.” My voice turned cold. “All of you care about money.”

Arthur Radley spoke up, cautious. “Ma’am, I’m not sure that’s an entirely fair – “

“When I took over the Principality’s mob,” I said. “You survived by staying obedient. By following my lead and not making trouble. But you never believed in any of it.”

“That’s not true, ma’am,” said Eda Fortescue. “We care more than anyone about the mission, the – “

“You hijacked people,” I said. “Got them to kill innocents, commit suicide. You murdered and stole the body of a student. You allied with genocidal tyrants who almost conquered the Eight Oceans. Then, you lied about our connection to them.” I clenched my binoculars. “You did terrible things.”

Avice Drayton raised her voice. “You did all that stuff, too. You ordered us to do it.”

“Yes,” I said. “And I thought I had a good reason. You just did it for money.” I sighed. “But in the end, it doesn’t matter. Because we failed. We’ve all done the unforgivable, no matter our reasons.”

This time, the mobsters didn’t have a comeback. They just sat there, unsure of what to say.

I closed my eyes, thinking of everything I’d done over the last year. Shooting that boy. Killing so many mobsters, so many Green Hands, and forcing them to kill each other. Making that broadcast with Christea Ronaveda, stirring up the country against the Shenti.

“I don’t like the person I’ve become,” I said, truthfully. “I loathe it. So, perhaps I’ll be someone else for a while. Another person, a better person.” Strive to be an Exemplar. Write the next page. “And I once hoped that you could change, too. No matter what you’ve done.“

More noises of confusion and frustration from the mobsters. A few of them stood up from their chairs, suspicious. “Why the fuck are we here?” muttered one of them.

“But we don’t get the world we dream of,” I said. “All we have is this imperfect, rotting universe, and we have to make compromises.”

Left-Hira tapped me on the shoulder, and pointed. I glanced up into the night sky, and the two crescent moons. Something moved in the distance. Human shapes, flying through the darkness.

Human shapes with wings.

“What I’m saying, is,” I continued. “You all deserve second chances. But I’m not giving them to you. So I came here to apologize.” My voice tightened. “And to say farewell.”

Everyone in the room started shouting at once. I turned off the radio, silencing their voices.

The winged humans dove straight down on the building from above, pressing their arms to their sides. Grenades floated out of their belts and curved through the air, smashing through the windows of the room.

A flash of light and a peal of thunder rang out from inside the room, then darkness. Stun grenades. Other explosives shot out of the flying humans, blowing out chunks of the roof. The figures shot down into the building, punching holes in the top.

Gunfire and shouting broke out inside the building. Flashes of blue and green lightning. Bursts of fire. Even from down the street, the din made my ears hurt. A low boom rang out, making our building shake.

Guardians. A few minutes late, but they’d still shown up.

“Alright,” I said. “Time to go.” I stood up in the dark room, and stuffed my binoculars into my backpack. Hira floated the radio equipment and her sniper rifle into a duffel bag, filled with laundry to stop the metal objects from clanking against each other.

It only took us a few more seconds to pack up. I glanced at the street, making sure nobody was looking at us. Right-Hira slung the duffel bag over his shoulders, and Left-Hira projected around the room, pulling in the dust and oil of our fingerprints from the floor, the door handles, and the windows. Leaving no trace.

We left the house on the ground floor, the opposite side from the fighting, leaving a building between us and the Guardians. The two of us had dressed in dark, shabby plainclothes. If anyone saw us, they’d think we were just more homeless people, fleeing from the loud noises.

Two alleyways and one street away, we arrived at the shore of North Island, and a boat waiting for us, bobbing up and down, tied to a half-broken pier, hidden from view by a ruined building.

We stepped onto it. Then Right-Hira untied it, and we sailed off, away from the dying remnants of the Principality’s mob. Hira projected into the outside of the engine, stopping its vibrations and muffling its sound.

Our boat slid across the dark waters of Meteor Bay, painted a navy blue to blend in. As North Island and the rest of Elmidde shrunk in the distance, I looked behind us with my binoculars, scanning the starless sky.

No movement. My former subordinates were keeping the Guardians busy. They weren’t pursuing us. A greenish-silver glint caught my eye from a window, then vanished. Is that something? It was too far away to see.

“Well,” said Left-Hira. “I’d say that went well. Though I still think the whole idea is whale.”

I nodded. Almost every lieutenant and middle-manager in the Principality’s mob had been arrested or killed in a single night. When Paragon captured the survivors from the battle, the memory wipes would ensure that they couldn’t spill critical details about me and Hira.

The operation had gone off without a hitch. I’m not a mob boss anymore. I was just Anabelle Gage, with a submarine, some money, a few legitimate businesses, and a very strained intelligence network. Which was still more than I’d ever dreamed of a year ago.

But still, that twinge in my stomach didn’t go away.

Anabelle Gage wasn’t enough, anymore.

I fished the radio out of Hira’s laundry bag and started it up again, tuning it to a specific channel. My subordinate stood on the other end, connecting me to a payphone. They probably wouldn’t be able to trace this, but, just in case, I was doing it on a boat, not in our safehouse.

“Don’t fuck this up,” said Left-Hira. “Or they’ll hunt us down and kill us.”

I nodded. “Do it,” I said, into the radio.

Acknowledged.

On the other end of the radio, my subordinate shoved a few coins into the payphone and dialed the number. The phone rang for a few seconds. The boat bobbed up and down on the moonlit water, as Hira drove it across the bay, and the islands of Paragon Academy floated high above us, lit up with multicolored lights once again.

Then someone picked up the phone, and a man’s weary voice rang out from the radio. “Isaac Brin. What is it?

I stopped breathing for a moment. It worked. Brin had given me his business card a while back. Luckily, his number hadn’t changed, even with a demotion. And he still answered phone calls twenty-four-seven.

Or he wasn’t sleeping. He just said ‘Isaac Brin’. Not ‘Major’, not even ‘Professor’. His illegal mercenary program had gotten him punished a great deal.

Hello?” said Brin. “Who is this?

I took a slow, deep breath. “This is Anabelle Gage,” I said. “Calling from Grace Acworth’s body.”

Silence. The waves lapped up against the boat, and a chill autumn breeze blew across the water.

I’m sorry,” he said. “Please repeat that.

“I’m Anabelle Gage,” I said. “Your former employee. I killed Grace Acworth, and took her body for myself.” I gave him my verbal password, one of the old ones I’d used to confirm my identity with him.

Another long silence, as he processed this. I don’t blame him.

If you’re really Anabelle Gage,” he said. “You’ll forgive my skepticism. You could have tortured the passwords out of Miss Gage, used your Praxis Vocation to mimic her patterns of speaking.

She almost succeeded at that. “Yeah,” I said. “I wouldn’t believe me either.”

And even at her greatest heights,” said Brin. “Anabelle Gage was never capable of taking you on.

Thanks for the vote of confidence, teacher. Though he was right, mostly.

“The other battles exhausted her,” I said. Then I explained what had happened inside the submarine, inside Akhara’s Gate. Everything, minus the bits where I saw Grace’s memories and admitted how right she’d been, on so many points. “It’s a ridiculous story,” I said. “But it’s true.”

Hm,” said Isaac Brin, thinking.

“That’s why Paragon’s intelligence department got an anonymous tip yesterday,” I said. “Informing them about a meeting of high-level mobsters. They’re being arrested as we speak.”

I got fired from counterintelligence,” said Brin. “But I heard about that.

“Would the real Grace Acworth do something like that?” I said. “Give up almost all of her people, reduce her power that much?”

Probably not,” said Brin, sighing. “Unless she thought it could get Paragon off her back. Get us to pursue a different target.

Fuck. I wasn’t getting through to him.

You want to prove your identity?” he said. “Show us your Whisper Vocation. Set up an in-person meeting with us and show that you’re capable of making illusions. Grace Acworth could never mimic that fully, and you never wrote a Vocation Codex for her to read.

“You know I can’t do that,” I said. “A meeting with public enemy number one? Even if they confirmed my ID, they’d arrest me at best.” At worst, they’d put a Voidsteel bullet through my skull from a thousand yards away. I had no delusions about me and Hira’s fighting ability. Not against top-level Guardians.

The Black Tortoise is public enemy number one,” said Brin. “But. I understand. This means we’re at an impasse.” His remorse sounded genuine. “I’m sorry. I’ll relate this information to my superiors, and you might not be our priority anymore. But I can’t promise we’ll stop hunting you.

“Yeah.” I slouched over on the boat, massaging my temples. “Yeah.”

Even if you did kill my old friend.” His voice sounded regretful at that. Even if it’s just a name. That name attacked our nation. It butchered our students, murdered our parliament.

No, a conspiracy within Paragon did that. Given Isaac’s demotion, I could guess that he wasn’t in on it. But I couldn’t know for sure.

There have to be consequences.

I closed my eyes, seeing Kaplen’s cherubic face, his bright smile. “I understand.”

And even if they believed it was you,” he said, his voice crackling. “You never got a pardon. There’s still a warrant out for your arrest. Rogue projectors are seen as a threat.

“I know,” I said. “I know.” I stared up at the bright lights of Paragon Academy, cold and piercing in the night sky.

You knew it would end this way, Miss Gage,” he said. He called me ‘Miss Gage’. He believed me, even if his superiors might not. “So why did you make this call? That can’t have been your only reason.

“You taught me my Nudging defense,” I said. Part of it, anyway. “The foundation of my skills. You used me, treated me like a cheap investment, but still.”

I’m sorry,” he said, like it meant anything.

“You didn’t finish me off on that boat,” I said. “And you made me a mercenary. A Grey Coat. ‘This is your chance’, you said. ‘A poor chance, but your last one.’”

Yes.

“I called you to let you know,” I said. “You gave me a life. And I’m not going to waste it.”

Stay safe, Ana,” he said. “For both our sakes, I hope we never see each other again.

“Till next time, Isaac Brin.” I turned off the radio. On the other end, my subordinate would hang up the call, set up a timed memory wipe as a contingency, and leave, on the off chance they’d traced his payphone in that short time. But I doubted it.

Hira’s boat slid into a cloud of dark fog. And for a moment, Paragon Academy seemed to vanish.

________________________________________

I slumped down on the couch, letting out a slow, ragged exhale. Every inch of my body felt exhausted.

“Stop looking so glum, bitch,” said Right-Hira, wearing a bright yellow dress. “The operation worked. And that Guardian bastard actually believed you.”

I rolled over on the couch to face him. He sat on the far side of the coffee table on a cushioned chair, puffing on his purple hookah. Grey morning light shone through the sliding door, illuminating the cloud of smoke around him. Still morning. I hadn’t slept much after the operation. I still wore my stealthy plainclothes from last night, instead of pajamas.

Cardamom jumped on my couch and curled up next to me, purring. “Sure,” I said, petting him. “I guess.”

The chair next to Right-Hira was empty. Tasia had jumped on a ferry to visit her sister. An urgent trip, after a year of being Nell Ebbridge and being forced to cut off contact with her old life.

The girl had seen something in Paragon, something that disturbed her. And she’d promised to talk about it, and her research, as soon as she got back.

I hadn’t objected to this. It made perfect sense.

But until she got back, we couldn’t leave.

I picked up a fresh newspaper on the coffee table and unfolded it, reading the headlines.

PARLIAMENT DECLARES WAR ON SHENTEN

Parliament had made it official, but the newly rebuilt Conclave of the Wise had made the real decision, and would be overseeing the day-to-day operations of the war.

A hybrid government, they called it. The loyalists loved it. Commonplace, less so, but the political organization had been vanquished, with almost all its Green Hands. Riot police were more than sufficient for its civilian supporters, and their various sources of news.

We’re running out of time.

“Ana,” said Left-Hira.

I jumped, startled out of my thoughts, and looked up from the newspaper. “Yes?”

Left-Hira strode out from the hallway, dragging a cart full of wooden crates behind her and wearing a grease-stained mechanic’s uniform.

I sat up, rubbing my eyes. “What are those?”

She projected into one of the crates and pulled the top off, showing off the contents.

Fireworks. Rows and rows of fireworks, orange and purple and all sorts of colors, shaped like rockets and sea animals and various other shapes.

“I skill-stitched a few experts,” said Right-Hira. “Modded them out. Figured that without Jun here, we gotta make our own explosives, right?”

“I guess,” I said. Doesn’t the mob have its own weapons caches?

“I found this empty cove to the south. Only accessible from the sea, no hiking trails nearby, nobody.” She grinned. “Wanna test this shit out?” Her eyes gleamed.

I sighed. “This isn’t about preparation, is it? You’re just playing around with fireworks.”

“Yeah,” said Hira. “But it’ll be fun. And this way, you get to feel like it’s all part of the master plan or whatever.”

“Can’t,” I said. “I’m working.” I picked up another newspaper from the coffee table. A Nekean publication, translated to Common, since local sources weren’t reliable anymore.

BLACK TORTOISE CLAIMS THE PYRE WITCH IS INNOCENT

I gaped, and skimmed through the article. After revealing Christea Ronaveda’s recording about Parliament, Cao Hui had dropped another news bombshell, in preparation for the real ones he’d be dropping in a few months.

The woman known as the Pyre Witch was an enemy, the quote said. But our conflict was a tragic misunderstanding. And the woman known as Tunnel Vision was a friend. A tragic hero, fighting against the Principality’s imperial reach.

He continued, spinning a story of Grace Acworth’s noble struggle against the Principality, most of it true. Though he left out the part where she set his redemption camps on fire. Grace might have accepted your help. But she didn’t trust you. She might not have even known that the Black Tortoise had returned.

“Why do this?” I muttered. “What does he gain from massaging my reputation?”

“The Pyre Witch’s reputation,” said Right-Hira, glancing over my shoulder. “Maybe he thinks she’s still alive, and is trying to curry her favor.”

“He cut off contact with us.”

Hira shrugged. “Then it’s probably just more propaganda. Trying to demoralize the Principality, trying to rile up the world and his people against the invasion.” She slammed the lid back on the crate. “This is good. If the Shenti like Tunnel Vision, that makes things a lot easier for us. You can keep that disguise, and maybe that’ll open a door or two.”

I nodded.

She patted me on the shoulder. “Cheer up, Ana. You’re popular, now.” She dragged the cart full of fireworks into the hallway. “Now let’s go blow up the sky.”

I sighed, and picked up my to-do list from the table and held it up to her. “There’s a ton of work to prep for our trip to Shenten. We haven’t even tested the submarine properly.” My breath quickened. “And the crew – “

“The crew is fine,” said Hira. “They won’t betray us. Even if they found out our identities, they care more about stable paychecks than whoever their boss is. And they’ve been working around the clock. By the time Tasia gets back, we’ll have a sea creature that can fuck up battleships. Just calm the fuck down, and we can – ”

“We can’t make mistakes!” I blurted out. “Or Jun dies.”

Hira fell silent.

“I got us into this mess,” I said. “I got us to break into Ronaveda’s home. I made that radio broadcast and incited the whole country against the Shenti.”

“Yeah,” said Right-Hira. “But you’re doing the right thing now. You can’t waste time wallowing in your guilt.”

“And,” I said. “I helped Wes back into Paragon. Got him mixed up in this Egress conspiracy madness.”

“You did do that,” said Right-Hira, puffing on his hookah.

“And we failed to protect Jun,” I said. “He’s probably in a frozen cave somewhere, getting tortured by the Black Tortoise.”

“Yeah,” said Hira. “But the Shenti don’t like body-swapping, so they can’t torture Jun too much, or he’ll die.”

“The Shenti didn’t like Grace, either,” I said. “We don’t know shit.”

I projected into the bookshelf at the edge of the living room, and floated the Lavender Book into my hand, flipping it open. “And we still can’t read any of this.”

Tasia had tried her hardest. She’d tried translating it into different languages, including mathematical ones. She’d tried to use one of us to store individual bits of information, then have Hira stitch from them. She’d made copies of the pages, and individual letters, then tried to read them far away from the original book. Everything she could think of.

But nothing worked. Nothing cracked open the secrets inside. The Shenti had already tried those gimmicks for The 99 Precepts, and they hadn’t worked then, either.

I flipped to the page with the drawing of the oracle snake, and the dead storm krakens laid out like Akhara’s Triangle. “None of this makes sense,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“And I’m not sure how this ‘Egress’ conspiracy works,” I said. “But I’m guessing that we’re running out of time.” I tapped the pages. “We need a lead to make sense of this. And we need a lead to figure out Jun’s location, because we have no idea where he is.”

“Yeah,” muttered Hira.

“Fucking around with fireworks won’t get us a lead,” I said.

“Neither will sleep deprivation, dumbass,” said Left-Hira. “Remember last year? Around your birthday, when you worked yourself to death? And you turned into a bitter, desperate fuckwit with no morals. Though you kind of did that year-round.”

“That was different,” I said.

“Yes,” said Left-Hira. “Now, you’re a bitter, desperate fuckwit with a functioning moral compass.”

The truth was, I didn’t have the overwhelming workload of last year. I didn’t have Paragon schoolwork. No essays or tests or pop quizzes to study for. And I wasn’t Lorne’s Grey Coat, so I didn’t have to run errands for him. Tunnel Vision’s people ran errands for me, and I didn’t have to stress about prices at the grocery store.

And I wasn’t a mercenary, anymore. I didn’t have missions every week to prep for.

But I still worked myself like before. I still had sleepless nights.

Because you don’t deserve a break. I didn’t deserve rest. Every night, I closed my eyes and saw my old face, bathed in purple sunlight, vomiting blood at my feet. I saw the mob on Gestalt Island, burning down Shenti homes and businesses after my speech. I saw the bodies, filling the halls of Paragon Academy.

Blood rushed in my ears, and I stared at my feet. We’ve committed great sins, the two of us. It would take a lifetime to atone for them.

“I have to fix this,” I said. “Even if it means breaking myself.”

“You,” said Hira, “need to stop giving too many fucks. Or the fucks you give are going to give back and fuck you.”

“What?”

“You should blow up some fireworks with me.”

I stood up and walked out onto the porch, staring out at the grey skies, and the endless dark waters of the Eloane Ocean before us. Our path forward. And our enemy.

“Every minute we spend here is a minute lost,” I said. “The day, the second Tasia gets back from her trip, we need to leave for Shenten.” I frowned. “I can’t waste time with fireworks. Even if it’s fun.”

Hira walked outside with both her bodies, Cardamom perched on her shoulder. She leaned against the railing, and sighed. “Alright,” she said. “Want to look at the sub?”

________________________________________

The motorboat cut through the fog, sliding across the waters of the ocean.

“We parked the submarine in one of Tunnel Vision’s hidden spots,” said Hira. “That random passers-by wouldn’t just stumble on, that wasn’t near any settled places or footpaths or military bases. And that random boats won’t pass by.”

“But not too far from Elmidde,” I said. Cardamom poked his head out of my backpack, nuzzling the back of my neck.

The waves crashed against a cluster of jagged rocks ahead, deadly obstacles in our path, half-obscured by the fog. Cardamom dove back into the bag, hiding.

“Yeah,” said Left-Hira. “So it’s not that easy to get to.”

Both Hiras lifted their hands, projecting into the boat, and steered it through the rapids, holding it and pulling it so the waves wouldn’t dash it against the rocks.

I clutched the side of the boat, flinching at every sudden turn, cold saltwater spraying into my face.

“Listen,” said Hira, as she twisted and turned the tiny ship through the watery labyrinth. “I’ve already taken some looks at the submarine. I’ve had chats with the crew, and we’ve got everything under control.”

When Hira says ‘under control’, that usually means ‘on fire’. “I don’t know,” I said, rocking back and forth as the boat bumped on the waves. “Let me see it, first.”

“As you wish, princess.” Left-Hira indicated her hand forward, and we passed out of the fog.

The grey clouds vanished, and the sun shone down, warm. I gaped, staring at the view before me.

A small, rocky island sat in the middle of the ocean, bathed in warm sunlight. And the submarine floated next to it.

A massive, pitch-black tube of metal, smooth and elegant and curved. It looks different than at night. In the day, with its bulbous, protruding bow, it seemed more like a grand ocean mammal than a vehicle. A mechanical whale, with a conning tower and a metal fin in place of a blowhole, and a pair of torpedo tubes instead of a mouth.

It had first belonged to the Radio Man, a mobster. Then Grace Acworth had stolen it from him.

And now, it belongs to me. To us.

“Gorgeous, isn’t she?” said Hira.

Something swelled in my chest. “It’s beautiful,” I breathed.

A blonde man walked on top of the sub, carrying a toolbox. He waved at us, smiling.

“Vice-Captain Glenham,” said Hira. “He’s in charge of the day-to-day shit on the sub.”

I gazed over the submarine, watching the sunlight swallowed by its black paint. “What is it called?”

“The Radio Man’s family called it The Elder Kraken. Grace called it ‘the submarine’.”

“And you?”

“I thought we could wait for Tasia, come up with something fun.” Hira’s motorboat pulled up next to the submarine, and we climbed up onto the deck.

Vice-Captain Glenham offered me a hand and pulled me up, smiling. “Madame Gage,” he said. “A pleasure to meet you face-to-face.”

My throat clenched, and I threw an auditory illusion onto Hira. “Madame Gage?

“Oh, right,” said Right-Hira, floating herself on top of the submarine. “Forgot to mention. The Vice-Captain knows about us.”

“How?” I clenched my teeth.

Left-Hira shrugged. “I was hanging around the sub a lot. He put two and two together.” Right-Hira patted me on the shoulder. “We talked, I stuck my hands in my pockets, and we’re all fine. Glen here doesn’t care about Tunnel Vision’s cause, or avenging her. He just wants to get paid, isn’t that right?”

Vice-Captain Glenham bowed, not breaking his smile. “I look forward to our business relationship.” Then he straightened himself. “Now, what can I do for you?”

Tunnel Vision here wants a tour of the submarine. Wants to see if everything’s ready for our field trip.”

“Certainly,” the Vice-Captain said. He walked to the hatch on the top. “Follow me.”

Right-Hira slid down the ladder, into the sub, and I climbed down after him. The last time I came here, I was breaking in. Hiding from the crew, thinking up ways I could defeat Grace.

The Vice-Captain led us through a narrow metal hallway, the walls and ceiling covered with metal pipes, levers, and wires. Not a lot of wasted space. This ship would be our home for the next few months, at least, and Cardamom’s, if we took him. Big downgrade from the summer house. But my comfort wasn’t important.

“Everything does something,” said the Vice-Captain. “So please avoid touching any of the wheels or levers.”

He led us past watertight doors, down staircases and through the claustrophobic hallways I’d seen before. We passed men and women, dressed up in plainclothes and carrying wrenches or screwdrivers. They paid us no mind, shouting orders to each other, pulling levers and running tests on the complex machinery in the walls.

And then, the Vice-Captain showed us places I hadn’t snuck through before. The CIC, the combat information center, filled with screens and chairs, and dials, where the captain could coordinate action and receive critical intelligence. The dorms, with the tiny bunk beds where we and the crew would sleep. Hira and Tasia and I didn’t get our own room.

And the engine room, where a diesel mechanism thumped in my ears, keeping the lights on.

“This motor is really loud!” I shouted over the engine noises. “How stealthy is this thing?”

“Ah,” said the Vice-Captain, with a knowing smile. “We run on an electric motor when we submerge! If we used the diesel engine underwater, the sub would fill up with toxic fumes!”

“Which would kill us,” said Right-Hira.

“Rest assured,” said the Vice-Captain. “When it comes to stealth, the Elder Kraken can hide with the best of them. It even matches up to some of the latest Nekean models.”

I stepped out of the engine room, closing the door to muffle the noise. “And if we do get spotted?”

“The makers of this sub wanted an emergency getaway,” said the Vice-Captain. “Or a hidden command center. They weren’t preparing for open war.” He pointed to a rack with two torpedos sitting on it, secured. “We’ve got four of those, and a heavy machine gun up top, for point defense. But if you go up against a battleship, or worse, a carrier, I can’t vouch for our chances.” He smiled. “But we’re more than capable of fleeing one of those monstrosities.”

“See, Tunnel Vision?” said Hira. “We’re fine. Calm your tits.”

“And projectors?” I said. “What happens if a Joiner gets close and starts tearing holes in our hull?”

The Vice-Captain pointed up. “The heavy machine gun has a belt of Voidsteel ammo. Past that, it’s up to folks like you to keep the boat safe.”

“I barely know how to swim,” I said. Hira was giving me lessons, but like many things, I was not a natural.

“This is modern warfare, Madame,” he said. “Projectors are critical for success.”

He led us to a large storage room near the bottom of the vessel, filled with lockers, and piles of crates stacked at the back.

“So,” I said. “Long-distance journeys. How often will we need to resupply our food and water? And where would we refuel? The Principality isn’t just going to let us use their refueling ships.”

“Excellent questions, madame,” said the Vice-Captain. “I see you are possessed with a keen mind. With rationing, our food and water supplies can last for months. For fuel, previous owners used a vessel disguised as a civilian ship. It could fill up with diesel at an ordinary location, sail out here, and fill the tank up.”

“And if we go overseas?”

“In Ilaqua or Neke, the same tactic could be used,” he said. “Assuming we could maintain a low profile. The Neke’s naval defenses are known to be exhaustive.”

“And in Shenten?”

The Vice-Captain’s smile cracked. “We have enough fuel to get us there.”

“And to get back?”

“We will need to find another method. I can’t vouch for the safety of Shenten’s ports.”

And it’ll get worse when the war starts. Shenten was filled with inlets and lakes and deep rivers. Having a submarine could be helpful there. But we might not even be able to take it back. And we and the crew would be stranded on a war-torn, icy hellscape.

“We’ll figure something out,” said Hira. “You’re an illusionist. All it takes is one refueling ship full of Humdrums, and we’re golden.”

“We’re going into war,” I said. “This isn’t a back-alley gunfight. We’re not trained for this.”

“You weren’t trained for back-alley gunfights, either,” said Left-Hira.

“You left us,” I said. “Before Paragon. Because the prospect of a real battle terrified you.”

“The prospect of father capturing my legless ass terrified me,” said Hira. “And that was before we got the stealth sub. You’ve been improving your pistol aim. Tasia’s been reading up on the enemy’s Joining techniques. And I’ve been putting all the rest together.“ She looked me in the eye. “We can do this.

And what about Jun’s location?” I threw an auditory illusion over Hira, speaking to her without the Vice-Captain hearing. “What about the Lavender Book?

Hira didn’t have a retort for that. Not out loud, at least.

“On the whole,” said the Vice-Captain, smiling, ignoring our argument. “It’s a spectacular vessel, if I may say so. With these specs, and these capabilities, it was likely one of the former Tunnel Vision’s most expensive possessions. If you weren’t using it, you could sell it for a solid fortune.”

“Thanks, Glen,” said Hira.

“There’s one more room,” said the Vice-Captain. “A room you’ve been to, I think.”

He led us through a hallway, and showed us an empty metal room.

Then, Right-Hira pulled open a wall panel, spun a series of number wheels, and pressed a button. The numbers whirred, and a hidden closet door opened up on the far wall.

Revealing the portal to Akhara’s Gate. A glowing hole cut in the back of the wall, bordered by flickering lightning. Before, it had been tied to Grace’s Pith. The lightning had been purple, and the doorway led to a frozen lake, and a metal factory inside.

But Grace was long-dead. The electricity had turned pale, its light dimmed. And rather than a world, the portal opened up to a white void. Blank and empty.

“I haven’t fucked with this,” said Hira. “Not after I read Tunnel Vision’s notes.”

I stared into the emptiness. “What did they say?”

“It doesn’t say where she got it. But it took her years to step in and bind it to her Pith. And she still didn’t understand half of its powers. The bitch seemed to respect it, in her way.”

“Why?”

“Because,” said Left-Hira. “According to her notes, the gate kills about ninety-five percent of the people who try to open it for the first time. They walk in and never walk out.”

Shit. “That’s a problem,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Hira. “Bet you wanted to use it as your special secret lair.”

“No, I mean we left something in there,” I said. “Something important.”

Left-Hira indicated her head to the Vice-Captain. “Give us a minute.”

He bowed his head and stepped out. The door swung shut behind him.

“We got the Lavender Book,” Left-Hira hissed. “We got your machine pistol. We even got her knife, and your old body for your funeral thing.”

“I saw another book,” I said. “It was near the top of the factory, in her office.”

“Only two books in an office,” said Right-Hira, musing. “Then it was – “

“Her Vocation Codex,” I said. “For her Praxis Vocation. Or maybe something else. I can’t be certain, but it looked rougher than a Paragon book. And what else would be valuable enough to keep there?”

Fuck,” muttered Right-Hira. “Why the fuck didn’t you tell me back then?”

“I didn’t put two and two together,” I said. “And it probably fell in the lake, anyways. We couldn’t have found it before the world collapsed.” I shrugged. “It probably got destroyed with the avalanches and everything.”

“Maybe,” said Hira. “Or it’s floating in the void there, somewhere. Waiting for someone to open Akhara’s Gate and take it again.”

Grace’s Praxis Vocation. The ability to focus around a single goal, perfecting one’s mind for it and nothing else. A power that had let her stay five steps ahead of Paragon Academy for the majority of last year. But it also likely drove her to atrocities. To view people as disposable objects for her quest.

A terrifying power. One that destroyed both you and your enemies.

But it didn’t matter, if it was sitting in Akhara’s Gate, with only a five-percent chance of survival if we tried to open it.

“Is there any way to boost our odds?” I said. “Did Grace’s notes mention what made people succeed and fail at their efforts?”

Right-Hira shook his head. “I considered throwing all the nastiest enemies we could find in here, too, until one of them got lucky and opened it. But the five-percent success rate was from highly-trained projectors. With the intense desire to take control of the gate. I don’t think we’ll get results with prisoners.”

I glared at him. “And we’re not treating prisoners that way.”

“Sure,” said Hira. “Whatever.”

“But,” I said. “It could be the key to unlocking the Lavender Book. To saving Jun.” I stared into the blank portal. “We need some sort of clue. Grace’s Praxis Vocation could give that to us.”

“Assuming one of us could learn it,” said Hira. “And that it wouldn’t turn our brains into soup.”

“But you say that going in is a ninety-five percent fatality rate,” I said.

“For me? For you? Make that ninety-nine percent.”

I nodded. “Then we don’t need to take that risk right now.”

Left-Hira exhaled with relief. Then she gestured around her, at the walls of the submarine. “Well?” she said. “Do you feel calmer now? This ship is incredible. I’d have killed to have stolen one of these when I ran away from home.”

“Yeah,” I said. “We’re all set. Except if we fight a skilled Joiner, we’ll lose. And if we fight a battleship, we’ll lose. And even if we avoid both of those things, we’ll still run out of fuel before we can get back to the Principality.”

Hira sighed. “You’re never fuckin’ calm, are you?”

I’ll calm down when this world stops being a death trap. “This is good work, Hira,” I said. “You did good.”

Hira smiled at that.

Someone knocked on the door. “Madame!” The Vice-Captain shouted. “Message for you, over the encrypted telegram!”

Left-Hira opened the door and snatched it out of his hands, reading it.

“What is it?” Did Paragon find us out? Were there Guardians on their way here?

She smiled, and looked up at me. “Tasia’s back.”

________________________________________

Hira stayed on the sub, saying she had a few more things to wrap up. One of her bodies helped me navigate back out through the rocks, and I sped back to the safehouse, seeing another boat already parked on the beach.

I burst through the front door. A freckled boy sat on the couch, reading a book. Cardamom lay on his shoulders, batting around his light brown hair.

Not a boy. And not Wes, either. Tasia. Still had to get used to that. Tasia carried her body differently, to be sure. She sipped tea from a porcelain mug, dainty and precise in a way Wes never would have done. Her eyes looked bright, eager as she flipped through her book, rather than frustrated.

And I caught a hint of black liner on the edges of her eyes. Wes never wore makeup, either.

“Tasia?” I said.

Tasia half-jumped out of the couch. “Scholars!” She still sounds like Wes. “Didn’t hear you come in.” She put Cardamom down on her purple suitcase and ran to me. We hugged each other, a long, comforting embrace.

We broke off, and I sat down on a couch chair across from her. “How was your trip?”

A smile spread across Tasia’s face, lighting it up. “Sarah’s alive.”

Yes.Sarah made it. Tasia had excised the tumor in her Pith, but at the cost of aging her sister by decades, crippling her mind with Null Particles and putting her on the verge of death. But she’s still clinging to the world.

“I still have time,” breathed Tasia. “Not much. But more than I’d thought.” She closed her eyes. “People still die of Pith cancer. People still die of normal cancer.” She shook her head. “This is a barbaric age.”

On that, we can agree. “And your father?” I said. He hadn’t been kind to Tasia or her sister, especially after finding out they were projectors.

“He’s furious at me.” She pet Cardamom’s long green fur, closing her eyes. “For messing up her Pith. And he has every right to be.” She smiled. “But he’s taking care of her. He’s keeping her active, working her mind. He’s probably the only reason she’s still alive.”

My parents would be furious at me too. For stealing their money, for my speech about the Shenti. But I hope they’re taking care of each other. That the money I’d sent had gotten to them.

“I gave them the money,” said Tasia. “And after a lot of yelling, he agreed to move with her to a new location. A safer location.”

“Where?” Not a lot of safe places these days.

Tasia shrugged. “I encrypted the memory. If we ever get captured, I can delete it in less than a second. She’s gone on an important mission, and there might still be enemies after her. She can’t be anywhere obvious.”

“And did you find anything?” I said. “Anything that could help our mission.”

Tasia floated a notebook out of her suitcase, flipping it open. “This is Sarah’s notebook. A member of her expedition gave this to me. I hid it before I got Ousted, but parts of it were written in code.” She floated a second notebook, filled with scribbling in Tasia’s handwriting. “I found the cipher in Sarah’s room.”

“And?”

Tasia sighed. “She went searching for the Buried City. A Great Scholar ruin in the deserts of Ilaqua that mostly exists in myth. She was trying to find out why they died out. Why they drowned.”

Which relates to the Lavender Book. And the oracle snakes. And those strange fractal patterns, Akhara’s Triangle.

“I don’t think she ever found it,” Tasia said. “But she did stumble on a few key insights.” She flipped to the middle of the notebook. “The Great Scholars succeeded at defeating Null Particles. In discovering immortality and limitless Praxis vocations.”

“And then they drowned,” I said.

“Yes,” said Tasia. “But not until nine centuries later. The two might not even be related.” She stared at the Lavender Book, sitting on the shelf. “Something happened in those nine hundred years, that set them on the path to calamity.”

“More questions,” I muttered. And not many answers.

“And Sarah found an insight for my work,” Tasia said. “It’s impossible to destroy a Null Particle. That’s why they keep building up in the Piths of old people.”

What? “But you just said the Great Scholars defeated Null Particles. How did they manage that, without destroying them?”

“I don’t know,” said Tasia. “But, it seems that, in her own way, Sarah was working towards the same goal as me.” She stared at the notebook. “She was helping save herself, even though she didn’t know it.” Her hands shook. “But – she was barely breathing. Her eyes were open, but she wasn’t looking at anything, and – and – “

I sat down on the couch next to her, and gave her another hug, squeezing her shoulders. “It was an accident,” I said. “You were trying to cure her.”

“I lost Kaplen,” she muttered. “And now, I’m going to lose my sister, too.”

“Tasia,” I said. “In class, you breezed through concepts that took me weeks. If anyone can solve Null Particles, it’ll be you. You’ll make it better.” Is this a good way to comfort people?

Tasia nodded, holding back tears.

“Can I ask you something?” I said.

“Sure.” She rubbed her eyes.

“After it happened – after Sarah turned out like – that, and you blamed yourself. How did you survive? How did you keep the guilt from crushing you?”

Tasia looked at me. “Are you alright?”

“I have trouble sleeping,” I said. “When I do, I have these nightmares, where I fight a demonic clone of myself. There are bright spots, but – “ I sighed. “I think, at some point in the last few years, I forgot how to relax.”

“I destroyed my old identity,” said Tasia. “I killed my old name, and chose a new one: Ebbridge. And then, Tasia. My old self? He was a monster. Horrifying. Guilty. I couldn’t be that person anymore. I had to be someone else.” She stared down at her body, uncomfortable. “That’s how I survived. For all the good it did me.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” I said. “Did you want a new chassis, rather than the one you were born with? We’re not loaded with cash, but we’ve got more than enough to buy something.” I sensed discomfort from Tasia in her body. Maybe the same mind-body dissonance that I felt for the last ten years.

Tasia shook her head. “Tasia Ebbridge wasn’t all that admirable either. She bowed down to a cruel mother who expected the world of her every day. She let her grades slip as she spent all her time on research. She fought on the side of immoral people.” She hunched over, making herself small. “And she couldn’t save her friend, Kaplen, from one of the worst fates imaginable.”

I squeezed her shoulder again. “You did your best. And you still got your notes out.”

Tasia glanced at another notebook in her luggage, filled with bits of information copied from the Great Library, then hidden in Lowtown, with a timed-delay memory encryption about their location, that would make her forget its hiding spot if Admiral Ebbridge tried any scanning.

She had snuck out information from the Great Library. From the higher levels, even, despite Paragon’s restrictions. In normal times, they might have kept a closer eye on her before and after the Ousting, to make sure this sort of scenario didn’t happen.

But Admiral Ebbridge and Paragon had been reeling in the days after Commonplace’s attack. And so far, at least, they didn’t seem to have caught her.

When they Ousted her, the Ebbridge family had wiped her research, her classwork, and more out of her memory, deeming her unworthy of the knowledge. But now, Tasia could relearn it all.

And she read fast.

The preparation of it all surprised me the most. It took a great deal of planning to pull off a theft like that. Planning that started before the attack on Paragon.

Tasia thought she’d get Ousted. She’d seen it coming, way back in the spring.

“Sure,” said Tasia. “I got my notes.” She tossed the book aside. “But with all that research, all those sleepless nights, I still didn’t make any real progress on Null Particles.” She snorted. “I thought I was so smart.” She shook her head.

“Well,” I said. “Do you want to keep the name, then? Do you still want to go by Tasia?”

“I named myself after Tasia the Explorer,” she said. “An adventurer who discovered the continent of Ilaqua, in the far south. She was brave, and wise, and always looking for new knowledge to help people.” She nodded. “Someone worthy to look up to. I’ll keep the name. And I’ll keep the body for now, too.” She gazed out the glass sliding doors, into the rippling blue ocean. “I need to figure out where I belong. What I deserve.”

“And in the meantime,” I said. “You’ve got me and Hira.” I scratched Cardamom behind his ears. “And him, too.”

Tasia smiled at me, but her eyes looked tired.

“Are you sure you’re up for this?” I said. “Going into Shenten. Rescuing Jun in the middle of a war. Taking on a conspiracy that’s woven into Paragon. Into the whole world, maybe.”

“Don’t worry.” Tasia stood up. “I’ll fight with you. Even if I’m still unsure about myself.”

“Good,” I said. “Because we’re leaving tomorrow.”

________________________________________

We finished the preparations faster than I’d expected. Vice-Captain Glenham had thought of almost everything. The submarine was stocked and ready for a voyage. He’d even set aside a cat bed in the back of the dorms, so that Cardamom could join us.

Hira and Tasia and I had hidden the Lavender Book without the crew present. We switched out its distinctive purple cover with a simple red one, ripped from a copy of The 99 Precepts. Then, we stuffed it in a bookshelf in Tasia’s locker, next to a dozen others.

This way, if someone broke into the ship, they’d see it as an ordinary copy of the Shenti’s holy book, unreadable and boring. We couldn’t copy any of the words or encrypt them, so this was the best we could do.

I’m still not ready for a real war. None of us were.

But it was time to go. Jun’s waiting for us. And the Principality’s invasion would start soon. The moment they landed, conflict would explode around Shenten. And our jobs would get harder, or impossible.

On the night before we left, I walked through the sub, from the bottom up, making sure I hadn’t missed anything.

When I climbed out of the top hatch, I found Tasia and Hira, sitting on a pair of motorboats by the hull, bobbing up and down on the dark water of the cove.

Right-Hira sat in the first boat, filled with wooden crates and duffel bags, weighing it down. Left-Hira and Tasia sat on the other one, poring over a map under a projected orb of light.

I exhaled, enjoying the cool breeze on my skin. Enjoy it while it lasts. Near Elmidde, early autumn still had plenty of warm days. But Shenten would already be an ice block.

“What’re you guys doing?”

“You were right,” said Right-Hira. “Fireworks aren’t about practicality, they’re about blowing shit up. So me and Tasia are gonna go launch them all.”

“Not here, right?” I said. If Paragon finds our sub, we’re done for.

“Calm down, killjoy,” said Left-Hira. “We’re going to the far side of Meteor Bay.”

“I’ve never actually seen fireworks before.” Tasia’s eyes lit up. “My town banned them after a pyromania incident.”

“Aren’t those illegal here?” I said.

“Bitch,” said Left-Hira. “We’ve been doing nothing but illegal shit for the last year.”

“I mean, the coast guard might come after you. And we’re still wanted by half the Principality.”

“We’re rigging them on the shore with a delayed fuse,” said Left-Hira. “Then we’re going out on a boat for the best view. Even if the coast guard got there in five minutes, they wouldn’t catch us.”

“We’re going to watch it and eat garlic bread!” said Tasia, holding up a paper bag full of takeout. “Want to join us?”

“I dunno.” I bit my lip. “We’re leaving tomorrow at dawn. Might want to check some more things on the sub. I don’t want some beginner mistake getting us all killed.”

Hira sighed. “We checked everything. The Vice-Captain is finishing the final confirmations with the crew, but we don’t need to be there.” She held up a radio. “They can call us if anything comes up.”

“And,” said Tasia, holding up a thermos. “We’ve got mulled cider, too!”

That does sound nice. I wavered on the top of the sub, uncertain.

“Fuck it,” I muttered. I projected into my clothes and slid down the metal side of the submarine, then pushed off with my feet and lowered myself into the boat.

A few minutes later, Hira and Tasia finished prepping, and we sped off in the two boats. Right-Hira navigated us around the rocks and the fog, and we puttered north along the coastline, back towards Elmidde.

Before setting up the fireworks, Hira drove the boats towards the city, and parked them at an empty pier in Lowtown.

“Got some last-minute supplies to buy,” said Hira. “Some of the stores should still be open.”

“We’re on wanted posters,” I said. “We were on the front page of a newspaper.”

Left-Hira held up a pair of rain jackets, complete with hoods. “We’ll use your illusions when you get close. In case they recognize any of your faces.”

Your faces?” said Tasia.

“Unless you want some random squidfucker to steal our fireworks, then I need to stay with the boats.”

We threw on the ponchos, pulled up our hoods, and walked into town. After a few minutes, Tasia found a twenty-four-seven hardware store with the stuff Hira needed, and we walked in. No one else was in the store, so it was easy to throw on illusions over the lone store clerk, altering our faces and voices and making it look like we’d thrown off our hoods.

Tasia looked through her shopping list and picked the various pieces off the shelves. Pieces of metal, adhesive, and screws.

While she browsed through the store, I waited at the front desk, maintaining the illusion on the cashier. He listened to a radio broadcast, slouched over in his chair.

Welcome to Verity!” A man’s voice shouted from the speaker. “The only radio talk show that tells you nothing but the truth.

Christea Ronaveda’s show. But Ronaveda had vanished after the attack on Paragon, along with her boss, the Broadcast King. And this didn’t sound like her voice.

I am your new host, Arthur Faylare. And while I don’t have a Vocation that forces truth-telling, I promise you, I will offer nothing but my brutal honesty.” Arthur Faylare uncorked a bottle. “And that’s why we have the gin.

Wes’ father owns it now. The Principality had seized all of Oracle Media Group’s assets in the country, and some of the shows had been doled out to the Ebbridge family, helping to resurrect their dead newspaper. It won’t be the same without Ronaveda.

Let’s talk about the only thing anyone gives a shit about.” The radio host burped, finishing a glass. “The Shenti. Parliament’s declared war on the eastern dogs, and I say: took them long enough!

The store clerk perked up and leaned in, as the radio host got louder.

There are people,” Arthur Faylare said. “Who don’t want me to say this! Who would love to shut this program down, get me fired for speaking the truth. But fuck them, this is my job, so here goes: We never finished the job.

Oh, shit.

We turn on the Spirit Block, wipe out their religion and break their empire into pieces. And then, we just left them alone for a decade? The fuck were we thinking?

I think we were dealing with Commonplace,” said another man. Maybe a co-host. “Or the general fallout from the Treaty of Silence ending.

The Black Tortoise funded Commonplace!” shouted Arthur Faylare. “You heard that radio broadcast from the Blue Charlatan. We gave him ten free years, and now, he’s rebuilding his empire. And unless we rip out his heart, we’ll all be in redemption camps by the end of the decade. The eastern dogs will be in our streets, burning our houses. Hands that can crush diamonds will be around the throats of our sons! Our daughters!” His voice hardened. “If we want to survive, it’ll take all of us, working in tandem. One nation, one people, one light. I’ve invested half of my savings into war bonds. I urge any patriot to do the same.

Nausea swelled in my gut, and I doubled over, clutching the desk for support. I threw an illusion over the store clerk so he wouldn’t notice. The room felt warm, and sweat coated the back of my shirt.

Tasia finished her shopping and checked out. The two of us stepped out of the front door, and I leaned against the wall, panting.

“Hey,” said Tasia. “You alright?”

I threw on an illusion, making myself look less sick, less distressed. Then I nodded. “I’ve got some unfinished business in the city. Something I forgot to check before we leave.”

Tasia pouted. “So you won’t be able to watch the fireworks with us? No garlic bread and cider?”

I shook my head.

“Need any help? If it doesn’t take too long, we can finish it and do the fireworks after.”

“I’m good,” I stared down the dark Lowtown street, leading into the rest of Elmidde. “I can do it on my own.”

Tasia gave me a concerned look. “You sure?”

I put on a smile. “Yeah. See you back at the sub.”

“I’ll leave one of the boats for you. We’ll remove a part from the engine and hide it in the corner, so people can’t just drive off with it.” Then she hugged me. “Stay safe. Please.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Of course.”

Then we broke off, and went our separate ways.

I walked through the streets, keeping my hood on in case anyone recognized Tunnel Vision’s face. Now that the city had quieted down, the curfew had been lifted, and the soldiers stopped patrolling the streets of Lowtown. But on a weeknight, after 1 AM, the roads had still emptied. Not a car or a person in sight.

It took me a few minutes to walk around the lower edge of Lowtown, along the waterfront, and towards the bridge connecting Gestalt Island to the rest of Elmidde.

When I stepped off the bridge, everything looked different. The Shenti slums here had been withered and impoverished a year ago.

But tonight, they looked like a war zone.

Row houses and storefronts had been burned down, reduced to piles of blackened rubble and ashes. A piece of graffiti had been painted on a ruined wall, and I squinted to read it.

Rabid dogs get put down

As I walked through the street, I saw other bits of graffiti, calling the people here traitors, eastern dogs, tools of the Black Tortoise.

I turned a corner, to see an entire street filled with homeless people. Pushing metal carts filled with supplies. Sleeping on the sidewalk, covered in moth-ridden blankets, huddling close to each other for warmth.

Forced out when they lost their houses. And some of the homeless shelters might not want to take them.

I had no idea it was this bad. The news made it sound like the mob smashed two windows, fought some Shenti rioters, then left. And I’d seen Grace’s memory of defending this place, but only a sliver. And I thought that was the worst of it.

As I passed, a few of the awake men and women on the street held out bowls to me, pleading with their eyes. I didn’t have much in my wallet, but I gave them what I had.

And this isn’t just happening here. Shenti citizens across the Principality were getting attacked, watching their hard work and livelihoods burn in front of them.

In the Agricultural Islands too, I’m sure. Would it hurt my mother? She was only half-Shenti, but the other half was Nekean, and Principians couldn’t always tell the difference.

My stomach dropped. You did this. I’d riled up this mob as a cudgel against Commonplace, a makeshift tool for my revenge.

It had worked. That backlash had been a key element in putting down their revolution. A bomb, going off right in the center of Maxine Clive’s plan. And now, these ‘Egress’ people have everything they want. The Conclave of the Wise had returned. Despite everything, a large chunk of the population supported that, supported Paragon.

And my actions had rippled out. A butterfly’s wings starting a hurricane. And now we’re going to war.

I turned around, walking back to my boat, and someone put a hand on my shoulder. I jumped, spinning around, and saw one of the Shenti slum-dwellers standing behind me, staring at my face under my hood.

She recognizes me. I staggered back, preparing to throw illusions on her.

“Don’t worry,” she whispered, in a thick Shenti accent. “I won’t tell anyone.”

I held off my illusions, frozen in place.

Then, the woman clasped my hand. “But you saved my cousin’s bao shop.” Her eyes glinted in the moonlight, tearing up at the edges. “Thank you,” she mumbled. “Thank you.

She thinks I’m Grace. That I was the person who’d fought back against the horrors, not the one who started them.

I stared at her, avoiding eye contact. What do I say to that? I couldn’t tell her the truth. But I couldn’t accept her gratitude, either. I don’t deserve it.

The woman nodded at me, then let go of my hands and walked away. She lay down on an ash-stained mattress and pulled the covers over her.

Something crackled in the far distance.

I looked towards Meteor Bay, and saw a bright green firework explode in the sky, forming the shape of a flower. A blue and purple shower of sparks came after it, forming a pair of interlocking circles. Tasia and Hira got started.

From this distance, in the middle of Gestalt Island, I didn’t have the best view, but I could still make out the edges of the spectacle.

A few of the homeless Shenti stirred from the noise, and gazed up at the sky, watching with me.

Then, the fireworks quadrupled. A rainbow of colors, in the shape of hearts, ovals, faces. Fireworks exploding into other, smaller fireworks. Human figures, depictions of Darius the Philosopher, clutching a scroll and wreathed in blue.

And a deafening wave of sound. Far more than a normal summer festival. They’re launching them all at once. And waking up half the city in the process.

A beautiful sight. Hira and Tasia must be having fun. Sipping their mulled cider, munching on garlic bread.

I sat down on the sidewalk, breathed, and watched the fireworks.

An awful idea came to me.

________________________________________

I drove the boat out to the coast of the Principality, then tied it to a tree leaning near the coast, and did a water walk for the rest of the way. My eyes felt heavy, and when I was this exhausted, I didn’t trust myself to navigate through the rocks and fog without getting my boat smashed.

When I emerged from the fog, Tasia and Hira’s boat hadn’t been parked next to the sub. They’re still out. Tasia had bought a pretty large bag of garlic bread.

Good. If they were here, they might try to stop me.

I projected into my clothes and floated myself up the side of the sub, then pulled open the hatch and slid down the ladder.

The metal corridors of the submarine had emptied, though the diesel engine still chugged below us, filling the halls with noise. The rest of the crew must have gone to bed.

I walked down some steps and through a pair of doors, making my way to the empty room with the number wheels on the wall. Cardamom approached me, nuzzling my leg. I pet him, scratched behind his ears, and put him outside, then closed the door. Don’t need him to see this.

I spun the dials, pressed the button, and watched the hidden door open.

Akhara’s Gate crackled before me. A swirling, ragged portal, with pale lightning crackling around it. Opening up into the white void. A strange, twisted artifact that even Grace didn’t understand. That killed nineteen of every twenty that tried to shape it with their minds.

But Grace’s codex is inside. Or something powerful. If it hadn’t been shredded or liquidated in there. The key to her Praxis Vocation. Vocation Codexes often contained important information from the writer’s past, as well, so there might be other useful information, too.

And right now, it seemed like our best shot at unlocking the Lavender Book. At saving Wes and Jun.

I felt short of breath again. My shoulders felt heavy. You started this war. The Principality had already been a powderkeg, but I lit the fuse.

My life was disposable. With Hira’s codes and passwords, Tasia could easily take my place as Tunnel Vision. They could rescue Jun, pull Wes out of the strange conspiracy.

I pulled a pen and notebook from my bag, ripped out a page, and scribbled a note on it, then dropped it on the floor. Tasia and Hira would find it later. They would be heartbroken, but they would understand.

I’m sorry. I stepped forward, towards the portal.

A fist knocked on the metal door outside. “Hello? Anyone in here?”

Vice-Captain Glenham. If he was here, and not Tasia or Hira, then something had come up with the submarine. My expedition could wait.

I put an illusion on the man outside, erasing the open portal and my note on the floor. Then I opened the door.

“Miss Gage?” Vice-Captain Glenham said. “Sorry – Tunnel Vision. Ma’am.” A surprised tone crept into his voice. “Everything alright? Where are the other two? I thought you were all going out to watch fireworks.”

“They’re fine,” I said. “I just had some business in the city. Split up.”

“Oh.” He massaged his neck. “Then what are you doing back here?”

I’m going to jump in a magic door and bind it to my soul. Or, more likely, die in the attempt. But if I told him that, and didn’t follow through with it tonight, then he might tell Hira and Tasia. Which could cause complications.

“I, uh.” I blinked. “I wanted to check on a few things. Make sure everything’s good before we leave tomorrow.”

He nodded, his fingers tapping against his thigh. “That’s excellent timing, actually,” he said. “We found a problem in the storage area on the bottom deck. I think some books are missing that you wanted to include.”

My chest tightened. Fuck. The only important books were the Shenti-Common dictionary, the guides, and the Lavender Book itself. The rest just served as cover. Someone might have stolen the Lavender Book.

I shifted my illusion, hiding my distress. “Let’s check it out,” I said, clenching my jaw. “Now.”

“Of course,” he said. “I’ll show you the bookshelf.”

I floated my goodbye note into my pocket, and he led me through the cramped metal hallways, past the CIC and dorms, and the chugging diesel engine room. My breath quickened. Did you just lose the most important book in the world? I’d been careless, thinking our defenses were enough.

Vice-Captain Glenham pulled open the door to the storage room. “There,” he pointed. “At the end.”

I speed-walked forward, straining my gaze forward at the bookshelf as I approached it.

Then I saw. The shelves were full. The Lavender Book still sat there, wrapped in its red cover. All the books were still there.

“Vice-Captain,” I said. “Which books did you say were miss – “

Clang. The door slammed shut behind me.

My skin turned to ice. I sprinted back to the exit, stretching my Pith ahead of me to throw on illusions.

Something else clanged in the door, and footsteps rang out in the hallway, receding in the distance. I reached the door, and felt the Vice-Captain’s Pith for a second, before he sprinted out of my range.

What the fuck?

I grabbed the handle and pulled, but the watertight door wouldn’t budge. It’s not supposed to do that. I projected into the lock. The mechanism inside had been mangled. I tried shifting a few of the pieces, but none of them moved.

Sabotage. The Vice-Captain had trapped me in here. I kept fiddling with the pieces, trying to unseal the door, but my metal projection still couldn’t apply much force, and I knew nothing about the inner workings of a machine like this.

I felt inside the lockers of the storage room, for the explosives and weapons and tools we’d stashed. Nothing. All of them had been emptied.

And then, something hissed behind me. A slow, steady sound coming from somewhere in the room.

I turned around, and looked at the air duct in the corner of the room. The grate covering the vent had been removed.

The sharp odor of diesel fuel filled my nostrils, like I was standing behind a car’s exhaust pipe. A wave of dizziness rushed over me, and I wobbled back and forth, leaning on the wall for support.

The vice-captain is pumping engine fumes into this room. And he’d locked me in. A death trap. But why? He’d made it clear that he didn’t care about revenge for Grace. That he just wanted money, a stable, safe paycheck. He’s a mobster, not a Green Hands.

And then it hit me, so obvious it hurt. The submarine.

Vice-Captain Glenham had talked at length about how much The Elder Kraken was worth. That it was one of Grace’s more valuable possessions. And at the same time, he’d talked about his concerns for taking it into open war.

He made a calculation. Decided that it was less dangerous to betray his new bosses, steal their submarine, and pawn it off for a fat stack of cash. Stabbing us in the back was more profitable, and less risky than diving head-first into Shenten.

My lungs sucked in another breath of pungent fumes, and a dull headache throbbed in the back of my skull. My vision blurred at the edges.

But how did he set this trap for me? He didn’t know I was going to come back to the sub alone. And he’d looked surprised when he saw me by Akhara’s Gate.

It came to me again. This trap isn’t for me. It was for the rest of the crew. The ones who wouldn’t want to go along with his plan. He wanted to avoid fighting us. In his ideal world, we would spend the night watching fireworks, and come back to find the submarine vanished.

But I’d shown up at a bad time. A complication. So Vice-Captain Glenham had sprung his trap on me, alone.

Another wave of dizziness came over me, and I took rapid, short breaths, my limbs growing heavy. Hira, how the fuck did you miss this? Hadn’t she read the crew’s minds with her Vocation?

But only for a few seconds. What if Vice-Captain Glenham had come up with this idea after Hira checked him?

Stupid. We were such stupid amateurs at this game.

The headache doubled, and my whole vision went blurry. I slid down the wall, wheezing, my chest aching.

Stop whining and think. The Vice-Captain wasn’t expecting a projector in his death trap. He would have left gaps in his plan.

A red light flashed on the ceiling, and a siren shrieked in my ears. An alarm. Shaking the crew out of their bunk beds.

My throat clenched. The crew. That was my ticket out. Vice-Captain Glenham was trying to funnel the crew out of the sub, so they wouldn’t find out his murder plans.

And because he knew my abilities.

I stretched my Pith above me, and felt a handful of Piths moving around. The Vice-Captain’s out of my range. But the rest of the crew wasn’t.

This is Tunnel Vision!” I shouted with auditory illusions, turning off the alarm in their ears. “The Vice-Captain’s betrayed us! I’ve been sealed in the storage room with poison gas!” I gasped for breath. “Help me! Don’t trust the Vice-Captain!

I repeated the message to any souls in range. From this position, I couldn’t tell which Piths were which. Just have to hope that some of them are on my side.

The Piths above me moved faster, after I’d sent my message. Not towards the exit hatch, but the stairway below. Towards me.

They’ll still have trouble forcing this door open. Given the thickness of the metal, they might have to blow it with explosives. I kept fiddling with the door, but nothing moved an inch. Jun could have done this in a heartbeat. But I’d let him get captured.

The walls closed in on me. Nausea bubbled up in my stomach, and my breaths grew desperate, sucking in less and less oxygen with every inhale. Faster. Please move faster.

Shouting rang out from the hallway, drowned out by the siren. Then a pair of gunshots, deafening. The crew doesn’t have guns.

My stomach sank. The Vice-Captain must have smuggled some on. Or stolen one of Hira’s. Which meant he could slaughter the rest of the crew with impunity.

I stretched my Pith forward and felt others around me in the hallways. But I couldn’t tell who was who, or what was going on, which meant I couldn’t help much.

The gunshots grew closer, louder. I slid down the metal wall, my vision growing more blurry, and the cracks seemed to echo in the distance, like I was watching the world through a dark, foggy tunnel. My lungs pumped, frantic, to no avail.

And then, the hissing sound stopped. The room still stank of exhaust fumes, but the air duct went silent. He stopped venting gas in here. But why?

Another pair of gunshots rang out, just outside the door. And then a clang.

A spear stabbed through the armored door, punching through the thick steel like it was made of soft cheese.

The spear looked metallic, green. Voidsteel. Stained red with blood. The Vice-Captain didn’t have anything like that.

The gunshots stopped. The sub went silent. Even the rumbling of the diesel engine had quieted.

A pair of Voidsteel blades stabbed through the edges of the door, and sliced in a rotating motion, drawing an outline around the frame. Cutting through the locking mechanism and the hinges.

The metal screeched. The door tipped over, then slammed onto the floor with a bang.

The toxic engine fumes rushed out of the storage room, mixing with the normal air in the hallway. I crawled to the hole, taking wheezing breaths with every pull.

But this time, the inhales satisfied my lungs. Every gasp filled my body with a fresh jolt of life.

Someone saved me. Hira, perhaps? Tasia? But neither of them used a Voidsteel weapon like that.

As I regained my breath, and my vision cleared, I glanced up.

Vice-Captain Glenham hung in the air, his head impaled on a long, narrow spear of blood-soaked Voidsteel. The same one that punched through the door. His arms hung limp at his side. Hira’s black trench shotgun slipped out of his dangling fingers, clattering to the floor.

I stared at the spear, following it down to its base. It wasn’t just tipped with Voidsteel. The shaft was Voidsteel. The entire weapon was a long, thin needle.

No, the spear was a finger. Elongated and sharpened, extending from a hand made of a liquid green metal. A hand made of Voidsteel. Attached to an arm made of Voidsteel.

I blinked, my vision clearing, and saw the face of my savior. A slender Nekean man. No, what resembled a slender Nekean man, wearing a light green tunic. A flowing mass of liquid Voidsteel, molded into the shape of a human and animated.

With one of its fingers stretched out, and stabbed through the roof of a man’s mouth.

The spear pulled out of Vice-Captain Glenham, shrinking back to a normal index finger. The traitor’s corpse dropped to the floor, splattering blood onto the sub’s metal.

The man made of Voidsteel bowed to me, and smiled. His mouth opened, and he spoke with a light Nekean accent.

“Anabelle Gage,” he said, his voice soft. “A pleasure to meet you.”

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A note from madwhitesnake

Hi all! Today’s chapter isn’t anything super huge or fancy. Just setting up stuff, getting things into position, starting new arcs. But I think it’s solid, overall. A bit long, but solid.  And these chapters are almost caught up to the main site.  Thanks for reading!

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