“What?” I said. “What?”
The shopkeeper stepped out of the room and closed the door behind him, but left it ajar just a crack. Not locking it. This wasn’t an ambush.
I projected into the bills in my wallet, floating them out and hovering them midair as weapons. “Maxine Clive?”
Maxine Clive smiled at me with Leo’s body. “‘Max’ is fine.”
“What in the fuck are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you,” she said. “I figured you would come here sooner or later, given your interest in this shop. When my man told me you were coming to this neighborhood, I got here as fast as I could.”
“And why,” I said. “Are you in my friend’s body?”
“Well,” she said. “If anyone finds us out, or one of your mother’s birds spots us, then – “ She gestured at her body. Leo’s body. “You were just meeting up with an old friend from last year. Illegal, as per Ousting rules. But not committing treason.” She gestured to the other chair across from her. “Please, sit.”
“Why am I committing treason?” I floated the paper closer to Maxine Clive. “It’s not treason if I give you fifty paper cuts on your carotid artery, is it?”
Maxine Clive took a sip from a tea mug. “No,” she said. “Killing me would be perfectly legal. Encouraged, even.” She picked up a bowl of crushed bacon bits and spooned them into her mouth like cereal. “But you could have reported Leo.” She spoke with a full mouth. “And he tells me you spared him. Gave him your allowance, even.”
I placed some of the bills against Clive’s exposed neck, ready to slice. She didn’t react, continuing to eat her bacon bits.
“Leo,” I said. “Didn’t kill any of my classmates.” My shoulders shook. “He didn’t Nudge innocent people to start terrorist attacks. He didn’t blow up my favorite cafe and shoot up everyone inside. He didn’t free Lyna Wethers and sic her on civilians.” Eliya’s face flashed into my mind. “And he didn’t take my best friends’ eye.”
When I closed my eyes, I could still see Honeypot’s smirking face. After everything, it still looked gorgeous.
I sliced a bill across Clive’s cheek, drawing a thin stream of blood.
“Yeah,” she said. “I deserve that. And far more. I did all those things.” She set down her bowl of bacon, staring me in the eye. “I had allies who helped, who pushed me. But I chose to approve those projects.”
“Then why,” I hissed. “Do you deserve to live?” If I kill her, then Leo will be stuck in her body. That wouldn’t be ideal, but a target this big was probably worth it.
“Because I’m not the only one you’re angry at, am I?” said Clive. “We freed Lyna Wethers, but Paragon Academy created her. We sold your friend, Anabelle Gage, a defective body, but Paragon refuses to mass-produce chassis, dooming people like her to an early grave.”
“Don’t talk about Ana,” I said. “You killed her.”
“And,” said Clive. “Your mother Ousted you. Kicked you out of her family and replaced you.”
“I wasn’t worthy, then,” I said. I was a drunk, duplicitous wretch with no empathy. “I am now.”
Maxine Clive raised an eyebrow. “Is she kind to you now, then? She hasn’t mistreated you, now that you’re back?”
My mother’s business card is in my wallet. She’d given me the Ebbridge family armor to train with. And she’d told me how proud she was of me, multiple times now. She’s nicer to me than ever before.
And she’d installed a Whisper vocation on my Pith. An excruciating thing, that dissolved my entire sense of self and left me writhing on the floor in agony. She threatened to use it again. If I spoke out of turn more, or did something else that earned her wrath.
I pressed the slips of paper against Maxine Clive’s neck. But I didn’t slice.
“Here’s how it’s going to go, Wes,” said Clive. “Can I call you Wes? Do you prefer Nell? Or Lady Ebbridge.”
I said nothing, still clenching my teeth.
“Here’s how it’s going to go.” She leaned forward. “I’m going to tell you who I am. And when I’m done, you’re not just going to spare me. You’re going to join me.”
She thinks she’s going to change my mind. The thought made me even angrier. But still, I didn’t slice.
Maxine Clive told me a story, with a dozen blades pressed to her neck. She told me of her youth, as a bicycle courier, when she received a false acceptance letter to Paragon. She told me of Buttercup Lodge, the place where she claimed Paragon had mutilated and hijacked her, destroying countless lives as they developed the first fabricated bodies.
She told me of her miraculous escape, more far-fetched than any fiction I’d read. She spoke of her time in the Droll Corsairs, and her mutiny on the desert continent of Kiterjede that led to the formation of Commonplace.
When she finished, I found myself sweating, cold, my shoulders tense. A strange, absurd tale, full of shocking details and profound horror. A story that damned Paragon, and countless others.
If she’s telling the truth. But Commonplace couldn’t be trusted. And Maxine Clive had every reason to lie to me now.
“It’s crazy,” I said. “Why should I believe a word of it?”
“Your mother,” said Clive. “If she thought it was necessary, do you think she wouldn’t cut a woman into pieces? Do you think she wouldn’t kidnap innocents and hijack their minds?”
My breath caught in my throat. “No!” I said, half a shout. “No. She has lines she won’t cross. She can be an ass, but she’s not a monster. Not like that.”
Clive went back to eating her bacon bits. “Then why hasn’t she told you?”
“Told me what?”
“Your friends. Ana and Hira.” She leaned forward, swallowing a mouthful. “They’re alive.”
The world dropped away from me. My body grew distant, hollow. I staggered back, leaning against the door of the storage room.
What? It was whaleshit, it had to be. She’s manipulating you. She knew how much I cared about the other members of Queen Sulphur. She was leveraging my grief for her own ends.
“I’m not sure,” said Clive. “But your friends are almost definitely alive. And your mother almost definitely knows, too.”
“Why?” I hissed. “Lie to me, and I’ll paper cut your eyeballs.”
Maxine Clive sighed, a weary look passing over her face. “Since the Paragon attack, Grace hasn’t reached out to my emergency channels. And she’s acted strange, off her usual patterns and routines, even the ones she’d use after a great defeat.”
I snorted. “That’s your evidence?”
“Someone defeated her,” said Clive. “And Ana was chasing after her. Not Guardians. Queen Sulphur were the last ones seen pursuing Tunnel Vision, before they vanished.” She hunched over. “And Grace just turned most of her lieutenants into Paragon.”
“She laid a trap for them with Guardians and got dozens of her best people killed or arrested. Grace would never have made such a move.” Clive shook her head. “Your friends are alive. My friend is dead.”
I took deep, rapid breaths, sweat coating my armpits. No. She’s lying. She has to be.
“Though,” said Clive. “I’m not about to confirm that anytime soon. If your friend killed Grace, she needs to face consequences. And in the meantime, we can’t afford to approach her. Commonplace is in a fragile state at the moment. Even the smallest slip-up could cost us most of our resources.”
And yet you’re approaching me. She was confident that this gamble would pay off.
“Let’s assume any of this is true,” I said through clenched teeth. “That this isn’t just a lie to butter me up.”
“I am trying to butter you up,” said Clive. “But it’s all true.”
“Even if it was true,” I said. “You honestly think I would join you? Leave my life? My family? Abandon all of my friends?”
“No,” said Maxine Clive. “I want you to help your friends. Help the people of this country, like you helped Leo. But in a much bigger way than a few bills floated through a window.” Her eyes glinted. “I want an inside voice on the Shenti invasion.”
“Why?” I snorted. “So you can give tips to your best friend, Cao Hui?”
“The Shenti have cut off contact,” said Clive. “And I thought I was funded by a warlord,” said Clive. “If I’d known the Black Tortoise was involved, I never would have worked with them.”
“So you say.”
“He’s a monster,” said Clive. “If I was born in Shenten, I’d be fighting him right now, not Paragon.”
“We’re going to fight him,” I said. “Paragon Academy. The people you hate so much. Who you want me to spy on.”
Clive laughed, a bitter, tired sound. “Yeah. Funny how the world works, isn’t it? This will be the biggest war in a decade. And the last time the Principality fought Cao Hui, the world changed forever.” She leaned forward. “So, I need to know what’s going on there.”
“What?” I said. “You don’t already have fifty spies in our military?”
“You people killed them all,” said Clive, a mournful look spreading across Leo’s face. “We spent most of them trying to pull off our revolution. Most of the rest have disappeared. Our intelligence network has been shot to shit, like most of our resources.”
Serves you right. After everything they did, it felt nice to see some small measure of justice.
“You don’t need to break in anywhere,” said Clive. “Just write letters, telling us what you see. Leaving things in dead drops. Maybe the occasional meeting, if we think we can swing it.” She spooned bacon into her mouth. “I’m not asking you to betray your friends. I’m asking you to recognize that an unhinged Epistocracy is not what this country needs.”
“Violence and terrorism aren’t what this country needs, either.”
“I agree,” said Clive. “We need democracy. True rule by the people, not the charade we had before. But now, it seems that Paragon is doing away with even the charade.” Her voice dropped, quiet. “Let me ask you this: If things get bad, truly bad, do you think your mother will protect you? Do you think Paragon will?”
A million thoughts swirled through my mind. If even a fraction of that Buttercup Lodge stuff is true, then Paragon – I couldn’t even imagine. And given what I knew about my mother, some fraction of it seemed plausible.
But they’re Commonplace. They were monsters, they’d committed so many atrocities against me and my friends. I couldn’t just ignore that and start working for them.
“No,” I said. “Fuck you.”
Clive bowed her head. “If you change your mind,” she said. “Go to a store like this, wherever you are. Give the clerk exactly four ten-pound bills when you buy something. And then we’ll get in touch, even if you’re in Shenten.”
I laughed at her. She spent so much of last year in control. And now, she didn’t even know basic facts.
“I’m not even going to Shenten,” I said. “You book-burners picked the wrong person to indoctrinate.”
Maxine Clive’s eyes lit up, as recognition spread across her face. “Your mother’s keeping you back, isn’t she?”
I said nothing.
“She’s trying to keep her heir safe. She thinks you’ll be a liability on the battlefield.”
“Fuck you,” I said. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Here’s some free advice,” Clive said. “Admiral Ebbridge respects strength. If she thinks you’re strong enough to benefit the family on the battlefield, then she’ll let you go to war.”
“Wow,” I said. “Astute. No wonder you got so far.”
“Winning single combat against a powerful foe should do it, probably.” She nodded to herself. “Paragon likes single combat.”
I lifted the paper from Maxine Clive’s neck, and floated it back into my wallet. “You’re a piece of shit,” I spat. “Good luck with the revolution.” I threw open the door and stalked out of the room, my fists clenched. Before I slammed it shut behind me, I glanced over my shoulder, looking back at Clive.
“Coconut Paradise,” I said. “How did you know that was my favorite brand? How much are you spying on me?” Clive had said her intelligence network had fallen apart, but she could be lying to me. I’d never seen that clerk behind the desk before, so maybe Clive controlled the entire shop. Or the owner, too.
Max reached behind her and tossed two bottles of Coconut Paradise at me. I caught them, staring at her.
“Of course it’s your favorite,” said Clive, eating her bacon bits. “It’s the best one.”
Lorne’s autumn party was perfect. And I hated it.
Daventry made a point of throwing spectacular gatherings, outdoing all the other students at Paragon. Even adults came to his parties, en masse, treated it like one of their own prestigious events.
At these parties, the conversation was lively, the live music beautiful, and the decorations breathtaking.
And, of course, the drinks never stopped flowing. And I wanted to stay sober.
So I stood in a circle of blabbering students, sipping a virgin cocktail that tasted like grape juice, and containing my irritation. My black dress squeezed in on my body, tight and painful. Girls wore them to show off their curves, but in practice, it was like glueing your legs together.
The young epistocrats chatted about the upcoming war. How easy it would be, that it’d be over in a month tops and people were overhyping how big it’d be.
Ignorant children. Even though some of them were in older classes than me.
I felt bubbling anger from other sources, too. Maxine Clive just thought that I would work for her? Just like that. Like some fake story about getting chopped up and a few revelations would be enough to change my mind. Would make me work for the people who took Eliya’s eye, who blew Samuel’s guts out of his stomach.
Absurd. Bloody absurd. And her arrogance made it worse.
I should report this immediately. The brass thought Maxine Clive had killed herself. But she was alive, and organizing in the shadows. Spilling this information would help my family, too.
But I hadn’t said anything yet. Not to my mother, or Lord Olwen, Isaac Brin’s replacement in counterintelligence. Not even to my friends in Chimera Squad.
And the longer I waited, the more guilty I looked. But still, I hadn’t done it.
And that bit of advice she’d given me. Winning a duel to impress my mother. It actually sounded like a good idea, which pissed me off even more. Assuming I could win. I did beat Tasia, but the girl had been sleep-deprived, exhausted, and maybe throwing the match.
But this was my best shot at getting a duel like that. So for now, I could focus on that, and procrastinate my decision about Clive, the way I used to procrastinate my homework.
“Please excuse me.” I shuffled out of the circle and moved through the crowd, awkward in my dress.
I found Lorne Daventry at the other end of the ballroom, talking to a trio of girls under a glowing lantern, a view of Elmidde spread out behind him through a fifty-foot window.
“We’re going to miss you, Lorne,” one of the girls said, pouting.
Lorne shook his head. The girls smiled, but he didn’t. “I’m performing my duty for my country. And I’ll have the best bloody soldiers in the Eight Oceans defending me.” He gestured around him. “This is a sending-off party, for all the brave souls going to Shenten.”
“Wish we could go with you,” breathed another girl.
“Sure,” he said. “Give me your business cards, and I’ll have you both sent to the front lines in no time.”
The girl blinked. “Oh. Um, no thanks.”
Lorne Daventry repulsed me, on so many levels. But to make this work, I needed his cooperation.
“Lord Daventry,” I said, putting on my best court lady impression. “A moment of your time, please.” Acting prim and proper made me want to douse my face in a vat of acid. If I stay, this will be my life. For a long, long time.
“Lady Ebbridge,” he said. “Come here to complain? Wish you could be charging off to an early grave?” The girls walked away, joining another conversation.
“No,” I said. “I – “
“Or perhaps, deep down, you’re simply relieved that you don’t have to put your life on the line. Perhaps you just want to stay home, sit on your ass, and drink.”
“No,” I said, keeping my voice steady. “I came here to challenge you to a duel.”
Lorne raised an eyebrow, surprised.
“Single combat,” I said. “Ousting rules. We can have a referee watching.”
Lorne snorted. “You think you can beat me?”
“No,” I said. “But I intend to try my best. And if I’m strong enough to beat you, then I’m strong enough to go to Shenten, I’d say.”
Lorne looked at me with a new light in his eyes. “Alright,” he said. “I accept. But we’ll use Paragon’s training gear. No fancy family armor – you won’t have that in the field.”
“And I’ll use my Vocation.” His molten beam of metal. That had massacred Green Hands during the attack, so deadly that Paragon had banned in squad battles.
“I accept those terms,” I said. This could be a huge mistake.
“And if you want to beat my Vocation,” said Lorne, biting his lip. “You’ll need better movement. Paper walls and slicing at my face won’t cut it. And your offense is strong, but lacks variation. You’ll need something that can puncture metal. Thick metal. All while I’m adapting to you.”
What? “Why are you giving me pointers?” Is this a trap? But they sounded like good pointers. “Why are you helping me?”
“If you go to war,” said Lorne. “You’ll be my ally. There’ll be lives depending on you. Good soldiers.” He stepped close to me, glaring in my face. “If you want to join us, you’d better be spectacular.” Then he walked off, headed towards the bar. “We’ll do it tomorrow.” He glanced back at me. “Don’t half-ass it. Or I’ll burn your limbs off.”
“Hey!” I called out to him as he left. “Did you do this for Kaplen, too? This advice.”
He paused for a moment. “Yes.” His voice was soft, hard to hear across the cocktail party. “Not everyone’s built for hell.”
Is that a bad thing?
Lorne left, joining another conversation.
I moved in the opposite direction, stumbling towards the exit in my tight dress.
Samuel stepped up to me, handsome in a grey three-piece suit. “Why are you leaving?” Concern slipped into his voice. “Are you not having fun?”
Damn you, Maxine Clive. Why is this working?
“I’ll see you later,” I said. “I’ve got prep work to do.”
I showed up to the fight early. And Lorne had already arrived.
He’d talked to one of the grounds managers, and got an Ousting arena set up on the grassy lawn where Paragon normally held squad battles. Thanks to Commonplace’s massacre, that schedule had been poked full of holes, leaving us with space for our bout.
But this Ousting arena looked different. The ones I’d used before were made with wood, a simple circular platform raised maybe five feet off the ground.
This one looked sleek, modern. It had been built from jade glass, translucent with a tinge of green, and much stronger under pressure. The rising sun shone down on it, making it glimmer.
And its diameter was three times that of the old one. Lots more space to run. That might have meant something against Tasia, but Lorne would just blast my arms off, even from the far side of the ring.
If Maxine Clive gets me killed, I’m going to hunt her down as a ghost and paper cut her tongue.
No stands had been set up for an audience, besides the normal ones for squad battles, far away. But both Golem and Chimera Squads had still shown up to watch, standing around the edges of the platform on the grass. Samuel gave me a concerned look. Leizu gave me a thumbs up. And Eliya just glared at Lorne with her lone eye.
I’d told my mother about this, and invited her, but she hadn’t seemed interested. If she hears news of my victory, it might still work.
The gear locker sat near the edge of the floating island, filled with all sorts of goods for squad battles, and Paragon’s official training armor. Lorne had already selected one, and matched it with a gas mask attachment to his helmet, with a spare hooked onto the belt at his waist. So much for chemical weapons.
I approached the locker and picked out my own set. A thin, flexible material for my pants and arms, a lightweight helmet, and a thicker, rigid vest for my vital organs, strengthened with synthetic ceramic plates on the pouches inside. That weird old material that neither of us could project into, strong enough to stop bullets.
The Obsidian Foil’s stuff was better. When Sebastian Oakes had strengthened armor with his Physical Vocation, before his death. And my family armor is better.
But this would do. As I slid on the vest and buckled it, I adjusted a flattened object inside one of the pouches, making sure it didn’t pop back into three dimensions.
A backup plan. One I hoped I wouldn’t have to use. I’d thought of it last night, in a fit of pacing around my dark room. But now that the sun had risen, now that everyone was watching, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to follow through.
I picked up my singed briefcase, walked back, and climbed onto the jade glass platform. Lorne did the same.
Berthel, the janitor, climbed up on a step stool that rose above the arena. Our referee, assembled at the last minute.
He cleared his throat and went over the rules. Same as Ousting. The first one to touch the ground lost. No full lethal, but both me and Lorne had replacement bodies on hand, lying on the grass behind our squadmates. So anything that wasn’t a brain-destroying headshot or Voidsteel was permitted. As long as the other combatant could transfer into a replacement body, which would also be counted as a loss.
“Bet you’re used to these arenas, Ebbridge,” said Lorne. “How many times has that body changed hands now? Ten? Fifteen? But I’m sure that alcohol dependency feels like home again.”
“I may be a drunk,” I said. “But when we leave here today, I’ll still have friends who love me.”
“First combatant,” said Berthel to Lorne. “Are you aware of the rules and ready to comm – “
“Yes,” snapped Lorne through clenched teeth, his eyes cold behind his gas mask.
“Second combatant,” said Berthel to me. “Are you aware of the rules and ready to commence?”
I bent my legs and unclasped my briefcase. “Let’s do this.”
“Begin!” he shouted.
I flipped open my briefcase, and shot a storm of papers out at Lorne. Small sheets, cut into narrow triangles for aerodynamics. A thousand paper airplanes, with sharpened wings.
They surrounded Lorne in a second. Then they attacked in unison, from every angle.
A barrel exploded behind Lorne, and a sheath of water wrapped around his body, blocking out the paper. He left a space for his gas mask, so he could breathe.
Had to expect that. People had grown far better at blocking my basic attacks. But now, he thinks I’m focused on paper.
I threw explosives at him, flattened with my Vocation and squeezed between sheets of paper. Souvenirs from the school armsmaster. My Vocation reduced their mass, but the extra weight still slowed them down, making them arrive a hair slower than the normal paper.
They looked identical to my previous attacks. But Lorne wasn’t fooled. One glance, and he blew another crate behind him, shooting a giant pile of metal chains at himself.
He stretched his palm behind him and touched the steel. It melted, with a bright orange flash. The liquid metal wrapped over him, forming a dome, then cooled back to a solid.
I unflattened a pair of grenades on the outside, detonating them. Lorne’s dome clanged, but didn’t buckle. No point in using my gas grenades, either. Not with his mask on.
For a moment, both of us stood there, a standoff. Lorne was stuck in his dome. If he opened it up to look at me, I would attack with explosives. He could feel around with his Pith, but wide-area scans drained lots of energy, and I could fly further away.
But at the same time, I didn’t have the ordinance to blow through his dome. You’ll need something that can puncture metal. Thick metal. Lorne’s advice was right.
And I couldn’t play a game of attrition. He has far more raw strength than you. I’d exhaust myself long before he did.
Then, a beam of metal shot at me from behind. An orange light flickered at the corner of my vision, and on instinct, I projected into my armor, pulling myself up. So, instead of my neck, the beam of liquid steel smashed into my spine, knocking me forward.
Heat exploded across my back, and I felt sections of my armor tear off. I flipped forward, the wind knocked out of me, spinning around to face the source.
Lorne floated behind me, hovering in the air. He got out of his dome. He shot another beam at me, and I pulled myself to the side, unfurling my wingsuit. The wind caught me, and I lifted into the air.
Below me, Lorne floated up to his metal dome and touched it with his palm, melting it again. He shot more narrow beams at me, fast and burning-hot. I darted left and right, making them only clip the edges of my suit. Every time they grazed my thin leg armor, or my arm, stinging pain spread across my skin, and I flinched.
As he gathered the metal into a sphere, I saw a hole, cut in the bottom of the stadium under his metal dome. That was his trick. He’d used his metal to cut a hole in the arena without making noise. Then, while I was distracted, he’d flown up behind me when I thought he was still trapped.
Then Lorne unfurled his wings, and we took to the skies. We soared around each other, and I surrounded Lorne with a sphere of paper and flattened bombs, ready to attack at a moment’s notice. He formed a smaller sphere of molten metal around himself, protecting himself from my attacks, with a windshield of jade glass on the front that he could see out of.
He shot an orange beam at me, and I flattened my arms to my sides, pulling myself down to dodge it. At the same time, I floated sheets of paper in front of Lorne’s windshield, blocking his vision.
Lorne responded with a blade of molten metal, sliding it back and forth across his glass visor, a windshield wiper to keep me from blocking it. He’d studied some light eye-Joining, too, which would make blocking him even harder.
He shot another beam at me, and I stretched out one arm, flattening the other to make me spin around. As I did, he shot another beam at me. I dodged that one, too, but only partway, and it ripped off a chunk of the ceramic on my chest armor and tore my wing, searing the side of my belly.
His flying speed’s making it tough to block his vision. And his rapid, unpredictable movements made it near-impossible to surround him. I could envelop myself in paper walls, but that would block my own vision, too, and if he knew my general location, he could cut through with his metal beams.
My one reprieve was his limited ammunition. Whenever he ran low on metal for his attacks, he had to fly back to the ground and retrieve the raw material, giving me time to hover, think, and catch my breath.
Alright, he’s strong. Stronger than me. He had experience with long flights, and I had none.
The tear in my suit expanded, ripping my entire left wing in two. Green lightning began to flicker around my arms, from the sheer effort of keeping myself afloat. And that won’t help, either. One wing, and running out of energy.
But I didn’t want to use my secret weapon. My squad would find it immoral, and it definitely counted as cheating. I need a genuine win.
Lorne gathered his metal again, and shot straight at me, reforming the molten sphere around himself. This time, I flew further away, projecting into my left arm to compensate for my broken wing, as a headache started throbbing in the back of my skull.
He fired another beam at me, and I darted around a ruined tower, using it as cover. He won’t blow up Paragon, will he? For a second, he passed out of sight, on the far side of the dusty grey stone.
Then, Lorne’s sphere curved around the bottom of the tower and shot up at me from below. Dust coated the jade glass windshield, but I could see his helmet below.
A decoy. A classic trick. Lorne wasn’t in the dome, he was going to attack from somewhere else. My eyes flitted left and right, and I moved my head to the side, glancing above me, the opposite direction of the decoy.
Clear skies. No sign of an ambush, above, below, or to the sides of the bombed-out tower. Where is he?
Then, the brick wall of the tower exploded.
A thick, orange beam blasted out from inside the building, and slammed into my torso. I jerked myself up and to the side, dodging in a storm of green electricity.
Too late. Molten metal dripped from my armor. Chunks of synthetic ceramic dropped off. Fire spread over my wingsuit, turning it to crumbling ashes.
And the headache tripled, as Lorne darted towards me, readying another beam. I can’t fly anymore. I had to land, or I’d run out of energy.
So, I flew back towards the jade glass platform, where I could touch down without forfeiting the match.
Lorne fired a thick, heavy beam at me. Powerful, but less accurate. I darted to the side, dodging it with ease. That one won’t track me that well.
Then he kept firing it, ignoring me.
And I saw his real target.
Lorne Daventry blasted the ousting platform itself. His molten metal smashed into the floor, the support beams, everything, ripping the arena into blackened shreds. Then burning the shreds into ashes, tearing them apart into millions of tiny pieces.
In seconds, the arena turned into a pile of black and grey dust. A second later, Lorne projected into the remains, blowing them away on the wind, scattering them into the air above Elmidde.
Now, I had nothing to stand on. Nothing to regain my energy.
I had to keep flying. Even if it broke me.
And then, Lorne attacked me again. With half a dozen smaller beams, this time. Faster, harder to dodge, that moved as I moved.
I zipped left and right, up and down and diagonal and backwards to dodge them, the headache exploding inside my skull, green lightning swirling around me. He knows I’m tired.
My dodges got slower. Every inch of my soul felt exhausted, sluggish.
And then, one of the metal beams curved midair, and slammed me in the chest from above. Heat washed over my body again, and I dropped out of the sky. I projected into my armor, pushing myself to the side and upwards, slowing my fall.
But Lorne’s beam grew even stronger. Resisting it felt like trying to swim up a waterfall.
My back slammed into something hard, and the beam stopped. I glanced around, and saw grass.
I touched the ground. The battle had ended.
And I wasn’t going to war.
“Winner!” shouted Berthel. “Lorne Daventry!”
I collapsed onto my back, too tired to even move.
Lorne hovered above me, staring down. He stretched his hand forward, projecting into my armor, and ripped off my vest, then the thinner armor underneath. He flicked a finger to the side, and muddy water splashed over me from a puddle, coating my face. I spat, blinking.
“Hey, asshole!” Eliya shouted. “The battle’s over!” Leizu held her back, as she started at Lorne with a murderous glare.
“Leave her alone,” said Samuel. “You’ll get written up for this.”
“You’re not going to Shenten,” said Lorne, his first words of the entire match. “All that talk, and this is what you amount to. How did you ever survive Commonplace?” He splashed me with mud again, then clenched his fist. The mud wrapped around my ankles and yanked them up, hanging me upside down.
Fuck you, Daventry. I should have expected this from him.
“Maybe they felt bad,” said Lorne. “For the girl living like a peasant boy. Or your freak friends from Queen Sulphur.” He shook me around, but I didn’t respond, my arms hanging limp as the blood rushed to my forehead.
Rage bubbled up inside my gut. He insulted Ana. Insulted Hira and Jun. The people who’d helped save his precious school, and he just pissed on them, with no respect. No honor. And now, the friends I have left are leaving me. Maybe forever.
“Come on,” said Lorne. “You gonna procrastinate your revenge, too? You gonna get drunk and cry?”
I let out a ragged yell, and activated my backup plan. I clenched my fingers into a claw, stretching my Pith into Lorne’s armor. Specifically, the pouch to his lower left side, filled with a synthetic ceramic plate that neither of us could project into.
My Pith stretched, ripping the pouch on the inside. And letting the flattened explosive squeezed there pop back into three dimensions.
A low boom rang out over the grass. I felt a thudding impact, and a spray of blood splattered on my face, blinding me. The mud let go of my ankles, dropping me to the dirt. I saw Lorne’s outline thump to the ground too, my vision blurred.
I wiped the blood and dirt off my face, starting forward. As my vision cleared, I saw what I’d done to Lorne.
The boy lay on his back, staining the grass with red. His armor vest had been blown up from the inside out, and lay in tatters around him.
Lorne’s pelvis and intestines had been turned to a pulpy mass of flesh. The lower half of his guts had been torn up and blended by the explosive.
Oh, scholars. My stomach wrenched, and I felt sick.
He screamed, his body shaking from the sheer agony. Everyone else around the lawn fell silent. Chimera Squad. Naruhiko. Berthel on his step stool. All staring at Lorne, and me, with a combination of surprise and horror on their faces.
A lethal blow, if he didn’t have his replacement body on hand. But illegal, because of how I’d got there.
Then Naruhiko moved, sprinting forward with Lorne’s replacement body floating next to him. He ripped Lorne’s gas mask off and placed the chassis’ hand on his forehead. Green lightning flickered around Daventry, as he transferred his Pith into the healthy body.
And as Lorne transferred and bled out, he looked at me. And he grinned, his eyes wild.
“Not bad, Ebbridge.” He spat out a globule of blood. “Not bad.”
His eyes closed in his old body, and opened up in the new one. Then he jumped up, shaking his limbs, clearing away the memory of the pain.
My ears rang from the blast, a faint, piercing sound in the distance. I sat on the dirt, staring into space. What the fuck did I just do?
Then Lorne walked up next to me, and stretched his hand down. “Well fought,” he said. “Didn’t think you had what it takes.”
I didn’t take his hand. Did he get me angry on purpose? Was he pushing me to see what I could do?
Lorne retracted his hand and walked away, silent. The rest of Chimera Squad jogged over to me. “What the fuck?” said Eliya. “How did you do that?” She extended her hand to me, and I grabbed it, pulling myself up.
“Jittterbird cheated,” said Leizu. She saw with her enhanced eyes. “She flattened a bomb before the match and put it in Lorne’s armor. Sabotage.”
“Which is against Ousting rules,” said Samuel, a concerned look on his face. “Berthel would have disqualified you. But now you did it outside the match, this might be seen as assault, depending on – “
“She’s fine,” said Eliya. “Lorne’s not going to press anything. He was smiling at her. And she acted in self-defense, anyway.” Her eye glinted. “How did you know Lorne wouldn’t find out your plan.”
“The training armor uses synthetic ceramic plates,” I said, groaning. “A weird type, that projectors like us aren’t used to. So when Lorne put on the armor, he wouldn’t project into the pouches. He wouldn’t notice the sabotage.” I glanced at the burns on my skin. Nothing too bad.
“But Lorne got here first,” said Eliya. “How did you know which vest to sabotage?”
“Yeah,” I said. I projected into my own vest, floated it far away, and tore one of the pouches. Another boom rang across the lawn, and the armor exploded. Everyone flinched. “I sabotaged all of them. Snuck in this morning and used projection to take the hinges off the locker.” It wasn’t proper military gear, or offensive weapons, so the training stuff hadn’t been locked down all that tight.
“Brilliant.” Eliya nodded. “Nasty, but brilliant.”
Leizu clenched her fists. “You know why assholes cheat and maim people? Because it’s easy.”
“Please,” said Samuel. He clasped my hand. “Don’t make a habit of this.”
Then, my mother strode onto the field. She stretched her hand out, floating the other flattened explosives out of the other armor vests in the locker, pressed between sheets of paper. They detonated above her head, one at a time, making her golden hair shake from the impacts, shining with the light of the rising sun.
She clapped, staring straight at me.
I rubbed my eyes. “You were watching the whole time?”
She nodded. “I wanted to see how you’d act when backed into a corner.” She nodded. “And Lord Daventry was right. You carried yourself well in the battle. Better than you did the entire last year. You’re capable of creativity. Focus. Raw aggression. Though you’ll need to learn an Autonomous Bullet Defense.”
Leizu sighed next to me. I stepped forward, a thrill running through my body. “And?”
“Pack your gear,” my mother said. “You’re going to Shenten.”
That night, I gave myself a bubble bath, lying in a tub filled with coconut-scented foam. And I wondered whether I was happy.