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Academy One

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ACADEMY ONE

ACADEMY ONE

Copyright © 2016 by Ezra Oleson

Falchion Press

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author / publisher.

AUTHOR’S NOTE

While writing this section, I’ve debated as to what exactly I want to put here. A joke? A blank spot that just says [insert Author’s Note here]? An honest-to-God Author’s Note? None of the aforementioned solutions appealed to me. Instead, I’d like to thank you. You’re the reader. You’re one of many – a consumer of written media. And in citing American consumerism, thank you for putting a buck in my hat. Aside from making money off my writing, it’s a deeply therapeutic exercise. The relationship between a writer and their readers is symbiotic. We help each other survive. A writer without an audience goes insane within moments – the same is true of a reader without a book, I’ve learned.

Writing is an escape. It’s a promise. It’s another world in which I can lose myself. I want to thank you for supporting this dream, and after you’re done reading The Tower, I might have other things cooking. It’s a process that never stops. For now, though, you should give Cole Lee some company. God knows he needs it.

PART ONE THE BLUE

I WAKING HOUR

        As I struggled to keep my eyes open, I noted the miniscule bolts of blue light that danced before me, sparking and pulsing before blinking out, one after the other. The throbbing pain was still present – it made movement nearly impossible. It was so bad that I couldn’t move a limb without flares of agony shooting up every nerve. I stared, bleary-eyed, at the masked guards who proceeded to push my hospital bed down the hall. I watched the fluorescent strip lighting go by. One for each second. One for each time the bed’s wheels bumped over the uneven linoleum. I turned my head to examine the white walls, which were periodically marked with black lettering that I couldn’t easily make out.

        I attempted to recall the past week’s events. Only blurs made their way past the hard dark wall that separated me from the rest of my memories. It was nothing like amnesia – I knew everything about myself. It was the fine details that refused to become clear. I had been taken from my home in San Jose. It was the dead of night when they shoved me in their van, and it was midday when they woke me up again and rolled me through the cold, windy courtyard and into this strange building. Hours after I’d arrived, they had pushed me into a chamber and filled it with metallic gas, igniting the stuff with a weird kind of electricity. All of this was clear to me. But none of it made an ounce of sense. Maybe it’d make sense when the pain went away.

“You’re cringing like a bitch,” one of the guards remarked, stopping the hospital bed’s progress down the hall. Oh no. He picked a syringe off his belt and passed it to his right hand. “We don’t normally do this, but I don’t want you to die from the pain just yet.”

My breath hitched as he found a vein on my upper arm and pushed the needle in, and I recoiled as the agony was replaced by the possibly more unpleasant waves of prickly nothing that spread across my body. It felt like my entire body had fallen asleep. Then, just as he removed the syringe, everything went back to normal. I could see clearly. Think clearly. Feel clearly.

The guard resumed our passage and jerked the bed forward. If my wrists hadn’t been strapped down, I would have sat up. “That should feel better,” the guard muttered. “I thought you’d be speaking more. You know, given how much you fought back when we picked you up.”

I made a pathetic attempt at making sounds. I guess when you’re forced to be silent for days on end, talking can be difficult. But I finally pushed out something that sounded like a bark or perhaps the noise a cat makes when you step on its tail. I shaped it into a word, almost unknowingly, and it revealed my one true desire.

“Water,” I croaked.

The guard shook his head, but he didn’t even bother to look down at me. “Not for a few more hours. Your body’s still in shock from the hyacite.”

“Hyacite?” I asked, and I realized that I hadn’t pronounced the word correctly at all. I also realized that the guard probably didn’t care. He definitely fit the evil henchman image. Green jumpsuit, grenades on his belt, foggy face mask. The whole shabang.

The man took a moment to reply. “… Remus Luna will explain when you get to the Academy itself. Don’t worry.”

        After another minute or so of bed-aided travel, we arrived at a set of blast doors that the guard opened with his key card. I made a mental note of where he put it, although I admitted to myself that I’d probably never get the chance to steal it. I quickly, mentally, sent my blessings to my parents and friends back home. At this point, they should know something’s wrong. They’d come find me. Hopefully.

The guard finally unstrapped me from the bed and gave me a cursory glance before landing a heavy kick. I tried to roll to the side before the bed skittered down the hall, but it struck a pile of a rubble and tossed me into the air anyways. I watched the man leave between the double doors. I rubbed my wrists and clawed my way to the doors, hoping to push them open, but they were locked tight. I collapsed to the linoleum and glanced back down the hall at the upturned hospital bed. I ignored the new bruise on my elbow and as I stood, I noticed that the guard had dropped something in his rush to leave. A stun gun, still in its holster, lay near the blast doors. I snatched it up, stuffed it in my front pocket, and made my way further down the hall. The floor was cluttered with about six or seven hospital beds, one of which had been reduced to a pile of scrap. I pushed past the debris and nearly fainted when the pain returned in all its glory. My vision clouded and I pushed back the headache. Lots of time passed. The lights went out. I struggled for breath.

Finally. I heard a voice that dragged me through the murky sludge of my mind and I saw the light. Thank God. “Hey. You awake?”

I blinked. Still in the hallway. “I hope.”

“Good,” muttered the girl who sat before me. She pushed her braid over one shoulder and looked behind herself before leaning in. “We need to move. I’ve heard of guards coming back in here and kicking the hospital beds at sleeping subjects.”

“Really?”

She snickered. “Of course not. But it gets cold at night and I’d hate for you to stay here alone. I tracked you by the noise you were making – you sounded like a dying kitten.”

“Thanks,” I managed, and I stood up when the pain had receded to a mere dull ache. I studied her. Her skin was brown, pockmarked with acne, and her eyes were sharp and coppery under the fluorescent lights. Her features were aquiline and militant – I got the feeling that if I failed to comply, she’d shove me into line.

The girl stuck out a hand. “I’m Kate Avila, ambassador of the Academy.”

I shook it. “Cole Lee-Jager. Ambassador of, uh, San Jose.”

Kate shrugged. “San Jose isn’t bad. They dragged me up from Idaho. You do know where we are, right? Or did you fight so much that they completely knocked you out?”

I winced. “I fought a bit, yeah.”

“We’re under Chicago,” Kate explained. “They took you through a courtyard, down the elevator, and through those giant doors. Nobody’s found a way to crack them yet.”

It finally dawned on me that something was seriously, majorly wrong. “What the fuck is going on?”

Kate laughed and dragged me, by the elbow, further down the hall. “Listen. I’ve been around. Dude named Remus kidnaps people like us, stuffs us down here, and infuses us with this gas that either kills us or mutates us. He’s technically homicidal, and Cam says he’s finding a way to take him out. We really need someone who can control fire, and those guys are in short supply.”

“Why?”

“Cameron has a plan. You’ll get to meet him soon,” Kate conceded.

I fumed, but I complied as she led me through a winding series of halls. “I- I need to get home. How do we escape?”

“I already explained that. We don’t… Not  yet, at least. But, like I said, he’s got a plan.”

– - -

        I was acquainted with the Academy quickly, and with little to no mental preparation. I wasn’t expecting the scores upon scores of teens milling through the halls, nor was I expecting the weird metallic odor that permeated the place. It reminded me of my time in the gas chamber. I pushed the thought from my mind and instead focused on tracking how exactly the Academy worked. You’d think that with hundreds of teens stuffed into a labyrinth, some fights would occur. But everyone just did their thing, for the most part. I say for the most part because while Kate was leading me to my bunk room, I caught sight of a particularly sly boy pickpocketing people in the cafeteria. So the Academy isn’t all sweet smiles and rose petals.

        Kate gestured for me to knock on the frosted glass door, and I did, but it opened almost immediately and caught me by surprise. The guy who stood in the doorway was, to say the least, quite a character. His hair was wavy and dark, framing a round face that didn’t quite match his tall, willowy build. The boy wore a silver-studded leather jacket and expressive lapel pins that would probably make my grandmother weep. He leaned against the wall, crossed his arms, and sized me up.

“Cole, this is Cameron,” Kate began. “Cam, Cole.”

I shook his hand. “Pleasure to meet you.” The guy was out of my league by far. I didn’t know what to say.

“Welcome to the Academy,” Cameron said with a faint smile. His accent was a bizarre mix between English and German, though both were faint enough that he still sounded that he’d been pulled straight from Los Angeles. “Besides the emotional trauma that’s probably followed you in here, I hope you’re having a good day.”

“Thanks.”

Cameron waved me into the bunk room. “Hey Kate, thanks for bringing him here. I thought I’d have to track him down.”

“No problem, Cam,” Kate called, and she strolled down the hall without so much as a goodbye. Cameron shut the door behind me and I began to feel like maybe I was involved in some crazy assassination plot. But he just sat down on a bunk, crossed his legs, and tilted his head at me like some brooding puppy. The guy had to be at least seventeen.

“Hey,” I murmured, absently scanning the room. It was barren, depressing, but at least it was spartan.

Cam cleared his throat. “Sorry. If you need to cry, there’s tissue paper in the bathroom down the way.”

I glared at him pointedly. “I expect you to explain everything.”

Cameron shrugged shamelessly and sighed. “Okay, so I’ve been here for a while. Best I can figure is that Remus is either using the Academy to find someone or build an army. He doesn’t seem to mind when people die, so the army option seems more probable.”

“No, I mean…” I struggled for words. “From the top.”

Cam looked up. “So up there is Chicago, Illinois. We’re under the Freeman Building, in a labyrinthine area called the Academy, which is like a massive basement that’s been dug beneath all the city’s sewers. I think we’re dug into bedrock, because a while ago someone tried to dig their way out and made it about three feet before giving up. We did find a crypt back behind the gymnasium, which is fucked up, but it is what it is.”

My stomach flipped. “You found corpses?”

Cameron nodded. “Yeah, I know. But some of us have tried to make light of the situation. Which is, you know, why there are still people living here. But that’s not why I need to talk to you.”

“Why do you need to talk to me?” I asked.

“I keep an index,” Cameron explained, holding up a small, black notebook that he’d been holding in his pocket. “I keep a record of all the people who show up in the Academy. So I’ll just need your name, age, hometown, and how much it hurt when they gave you the gas.”

“… Okay.”

“Go on.”

“I’m Cole Lee,” I said, giving him time to write it down. “I’m fifteen, and I’m from San Jose, California. The pain was a good ten out of ten.”

He glanced up. “Seriously? Like, complete with the aches… And did you black out?”

“Uh, yeah. Does it not normally hurt that much?”

“No, it’s just…” Cameron pursed his lips. “A ten means you were close to death.”

I nodded. “Sounds about right. And it still aches,” I said, tapping my left waist

“Oh, shit,” Cam swore, dropping the notebook. He stood and grabbed me by the collar, dragging me out of the bunk room and into the bathroom across the hall. “You need to shower. They gave you a high dose. And, for the record, most people who get high doses and don’t rinse off end up dying within the week.”

“What the fuck, man?” I hissed, searching for a shower stall. “I’m going to rip that Remus guy a new one.” My veins pulsed with rage, and Cameron just shook his head and left me alone.

        I stripped down and stepped under a cascade of icy cold water. The temperature didn’t even bother me. I was obsessed with scrubbing that gas from my skin. A few things went through my train of thought, including something along the lines of Why me?  When I was thoroughly convinced that the streaks of blue going down the drain indicated that I was clean, I grabbed a clean towel from a nearby shelf and dried off, my teeth clattering from the cold. If I wasn’t in pain, I might as well be freezing to death, right?

        I sat on a toilet seat, wrapped in my towel, and pondered which of my sins had caused me to find this cruel fate. I’d had no idea that Hell was below Chicago, or, for that matter, so goddamn frigid. After a while, Cam peeked in through the doorway. I gave him the thumbs-up and he left me alone. When I was no longer shaking, I dressed again and made my way back to the bunk room. Cameron directed me to an empty bunk, which was complete with a military green sleeping bag and a bundle of “one size fits all” clothes. Everything was too big for me, but I didn’t really care. My first priority was getting some sleep. Preferably lots of it.

        I dressed in a pair of beige slacks, a white undershirt, and some nice wool socks to ward away  the cold.  I receded within the sleeping bag and within moments, sleep had claimed me.

II SPITFIRE

        Someone had the nerve to slap my cheek to wake me up from my nap, and they announced with a perky smile that it was dinner time. It took all my willpower to keep myself from detaching their head from their shoulders, but they finally backed away, and I rubbed my eyes. When my vision was cleared, I stared my assailant down. What I wasn’t expecting was the twig-like, impish boy who stared back at me. His hair was curly and dark, a mop that hung over his eyes, which were deep and brown and oddly captivating. It was hard to stay mad at him.

I even ended up saying “Sorry,” which I think confused both of us equally.

“Kate sent me to get you for dinner,” the boy murmured, his smile fading. In a few seconds, however, it had returned. It’s like his face didn’t know whether to be apologetic or gleeful. “You’re the new guy, right?”

“Cole Lee,” I said, shaking his hand.

He thought I was going for a high five. Oh well. “I’m Lucas Aines. If you can’t pronounce my last name, just call me Albuquerque.”

“Absolutely,” I replied, and I followed him back around the Academy to the admittedly large cafeteria. It was a sickeningly familiar expanse of long tables, strip lighting, and cheap food. I sat between Kate and Cameron, and neither of them let me take the seat on the end. That one was occupied by a dark-haired boy who insisted on sitting across from a tall girl in twin braids. Kate introduced them as Shinji and Isabella respectively. I didn’t feel up for talking, but Lucas had a way of compelling me to.

“Cole – the new guy – drools in his sleep,” Lucas announced earnestly, refusing to meet my stare. His eyes lit up with a weird spark of mirth that I felt an insatiable urge to stamp out.

I fumed. “That’s not true.”

He glanced at me and lifted an eyebrow. “Okay, but you _were _ sleeping. Not like you’d actually know.”

“Can you back off?” I asked, making a fragile attempt to cool my temper. The kid was just messing around. I was just feeding into it. But, as he leered, it went over the top, and I felt my palms grow ever hotter.

        I realized, much too late, that it wasn’t a normal type of heat. The air above my hands dried out and my palms began to glow a radiant red, pulsing and darkening the plastic-coated table. Lucas leaned back when he noticed what I was doing, and I almost panicked. This was what they meant by powers. This was why I was here. Already, my dose of hyacite was kicking in. The word stuck in my brain as I frantically tried to will the flames away. At last, they receded, and I wrapped my fingers around my glass of ice water. The entire table was silent. This was it.

Cameron sighed. “First off, Lucas, you need to give the guy a break. Secondly, Cole, I need to speak with you at length after dinner.”

I cast a sheepish glance to Kate, but she just shrugged. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I was dressing it up to be. But then again, Lucas seemed thoroughly spooked. The first chance he got, he stood up and left. I didn’t even get a chance to meet Isabella or Shinji. After everybody else had cleared out, Cameron and Kate leaned in and began to mutter to me as if we were a part of some covert ops deal.

“That was fire, right?” Kate asked furtively, waggling her eyebrows in such a ridiculous way that I wanted to tell her that it was making her hard to take seriously. I could handle one jokester at a time. And even then, barely one.

Cameron nodded solemnly. “And on your first day. Cole, we’ve got to get a good read on you.”

“A good read?” I asked, pretending that I had some air of confidence. It shattered when Cameron drew out a long, razor-sharp knife and scratched intricate designs into the plastic table.

He sat next to me and pointed to the designs. One of them was clearly a gas chamber (I swore the aches started to come back just then), one was a rotor-like spinner thing, and the final diagram depicted something like a person radiating fire. “This is the chamber within which you received your dose of hyacite vapor,” Cam explained, pointing at the gas room. “It’s infused within you now. There’s no getting rid of that. Actually… Kate, show him what you can do.”

“No problem.” Kate held up her hands, palms up, and I watched as the air shimmered, folded, and eventually produced a pencil sharpener. Mesmerized, I grabbed for the floating office aide, but my hand passed right through it. “I can generate holograms,” Kate noted, “By bending light and a few other things nobody here fully understands.”

She clapped her hands shut and the sharpener disappeared. Cameron went on. “Sometimes it’s direct stuff like that. Other times, it might be aural, like the ability to deflect radiation or generate sunlight. I suspect that your powers relate to generative flame… Are you getting any of this?”

I nodded slowly. I was understanding most of it. The flames that had sprung up earlier still haunted me. “Anyways,” Cameron explained, pointing to the spinner thing, “There’s an old tester in the basement that Shinji got working a while ago. We could use it to get a reading on what you can do – if we can get Crow to comply.”

“Crow?” I asked. It sounded like he was referring to a person. Which probably wasn’t good, with a name like that.

Cam sighed and began doodling with his knife. “She’s this asocial raven who lurks in the shadows of the Academy and only ever comes out if someone offers her blood, or maybe Pop Tarts. Melodrama. She’s the only one who can read the tester’s command panel.”

“What’s it like?” I prayed that I wasn’t getting annoying with the questions. But, then again, who cares?

“The tester looks like the drawing. You know, big spinning arms that revolve around you and scan your aura. When it’s done, we’ll know your hyacite frequency. And then—”

I paused, tried to apologize for cutting him off, but he made me finish. “What about the person with the glowy things?”

Cam glanced at Kate. “I’m getting to that. So, as I said, we’ll get a reading on your frequency. Crow will do the fine tuning – she’ll factor out the usual stuff, so we can get the hyacite stuff alone. Then we can see if you’re a Firebrand or not …” His excited tone was replaced by uncertainty, and Kate’s face was a mask of confusion.

“Firebrand?” Kate asked, and she got the message from Cameron’s ashen expression. It was a mix of a cry for help and something like, Shouldn’t have said that .

Cameron took in a deep breath and composed himself. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll find Crow and we can run a test on you. Is that okay?”

I nodded. Why not? It was one more step toward finding out what I was becoming, and maybe a step toward getting my way out of here. I took a brief moment to  wonder about my parents.  I’d been reckless in the past, but I wasn’t the running away type. I hoped, possibly in vain, that they’d be searching for me. It’s probably been days. What really scared me, deep down, is that I had no idea of knowing. I had no view of the sunrise or sunset for reference. All I had was a schedule policed by teenagers and my idiot internal clock. Before I knew it, I was following Cameron back to the bunk room, Kate whispered a goodbye, and the Academy went quiet. Silent except for a rumble that I suspected was coming from the heating units.

I settled in my bunk and savored the warmth as it poured from the vent above my head. At least someone up there cared enough to keep us from dying of hypothermia. As I was finally drifting to sleep, I thought I caught the shape of someone looming near the doorway. My eyes snapped open, and they adjusted to the darkness. There was someone there. And their eyes were glowing.

“Please don’t kill me,” I whispered, but the person drew closer until our noses were almost touching.

“There’s something wrong with you,” she replied quietly, slowly, in an oddly thick Irish accent. Her breath was bad as well, but that was honestly the least of my worries.

I took in a breath through my mouth. “What?”

The girl glanced at Cameron and then back at me. “The outlander’s mood is tense. You know who I am. Find me at the thirteenth.” At that, she left the room, and I had no choice other than to fall asleep and hope for the best.

– - -

I woke to the gritty sound of an adult male voice speaking in a relaxed tone over a PA system. I sat up and listened.

“… New arrivals are getting settled in. Within the next week, we’ll be running a complete scan over the Academy. Now’s a good time to hide your contraband.” He laughed. “This is Remus Luna, otherwise known as your king, signing off for the morning. Stay tuned for another, more detailed announcement this evening.” The audio cut out, and I heard Cameron audibly groan in his bunk.

“Drunk on money,” Cameron hissed, shaking his head as if he was simultaneously shaking away the drowsiness. I noticed that he looked slightly different – his features were sharper, his eyes darker, and the shadows of the room seemed more pronounced near him. Suddenly he looked like he could kill me with a glance if he wanted to. “Hey, Cole. That was Remus Luna, the stuck-up asshole who runs this place. If we’re lucky, we’ll get a chance to knock him off his throne.”

“So, is he…?”

Cam cleared his throat and straightened out his tank top. “If the United States is medieval Europe, Remus is an impending Black Plague. I think he’s pretty close to getting physically ill with power.”

I shook my head. “I need something explained.”

“Yes?”

“Why?”

“Why what?” he asked, clearly puzzled.

I frowned. “Why am I here?”

Cameron shrugged and broke eye contact. “We’re working on that.”

“We?”

Cam gestured expansively. “Uh, Kate, Shinji, and myself. A few others. Kate’s taken a special interest in you, and given your firepower at the dinner table last night, I’m inclined to incorporate you into our group as well.” I chewed on that. He looked about eighteen, but his vocabulary indicated that he was around eighty. There was this knowing look in his eyes that told me that he knew more than he was letting on. Yet I felt secure when I was near him. All that security fell apart when Lucas opened the door without knocking, trotted near me, and sat beside me on my own bunk. The nerve.

“Hey, Lucas,” Cam called half-heartedly. “Just getting Cole situated.”

Lucas nodded. “Yeah. I want to apologize.”

I looked up at him. “Yes?” Okay, maybe I was being harsh, but I felt like he owed me.

“I’m sorry for setting you off,” Lucas went on, “But it’s really cool that you’ve got fire abilities. Those are rare.”

“Of course.” I still didn’t grasp the whole powers part of all this. I would’ve assumed that fire-related powers would be common. Apparently not. Kate’s holographic abilities didn’t seem to impress anybody. I was, naturally, scared shitless when sheets of opaque shadow began to fall from Cameron’s shoulders, collecting on the floor like black mist. I scooted away. “Uh, you okay?”

Cameron looked up, surprised, then down at his feet, which were at this point completely covered in the liquid darkness. The shadows shut off like a faucet. “Sorry. My mind was wandering.”

“I mean, you can control shadows?” I asked. It seemed like a fair question. Cameron tilted his head, this time quizzically.

He hummed. “I can control shadows.”

The way he answered it made it sound like there was more to hear, but I didn’t ask. Lucas distracted me by holding out his palm and summoning an object in much the same way that Kate did at dinner. Except this time, he created a cupcake, and it was actually tangible. I know it was tangible because, after a moment’s pause, he made eye contact and took a bite out of the pastry, leaving pink frosting on his chin. There was something unique about Lucas. A tension that lay in his shoulders and chest, as if he was perpetually preparing to spring forward at a moment’s notice. His smile was wide, genuine, mirthful. His hair was curly and wavy all in different parts, often forming shiny black spirals that would fall in front of his eyes.

Cameron, on the other hand, seemed considering more reserved than yesterday. He was contemplative, quiet, and he appeared to be frustrated. It didn’t make sense. Nobody had spoken to him this morning since I’d awoken, but I managed to catch his gaze as it rested on my upper arm. I followed it and I noticed the wisps of black smoke that curled up from my skin and collected on the ceiling.

“We need to get that test done,” Cameron intoned, this time firmly enough that I got the notion that whether I liked it or not, this guy was in charge. We skipped out on breakfast and I followed Cameron deep into the Academy, through twisting corridors that led far below ground, down so many flights of stairs that I swore the warmth of the sun had completely left me. The fluorescent light grew cold and forbidding, and if we saw anybody in these abandoned halls it was by pure chance. The dormitories were empty. The floors were cracked and unkempt. Occasionally, as we got closer, I glimpsed what had to have been scorch marks on the walls, which were at this point bare concrete. The humming life of the Academy was long gone.

        I noticed a symbol scratched on the walls, the floor, the doors – a circle in a weird sort of cross, opposite a triangle. It was omnipresent. I could only assume that it was the mark of this Crow that Cameron had spoken of. I didn’t know what to expect. How bad could she be? Either she had fled to these old halls to get away from everybody else, or the residents of the Academy had fled these halls to escape her. And, when Cameron knocked on an old metal blast door at the end of the last hallway, I knew what had happened. I saw it in the ancient eyes of the imperial girl who stood before us, chin upturned, an unimaginable power emanating from her very frame. This was Crow.

“This had better be good,” she murmured, seeming quite amused that we had sought her out. I felt Lucas shrink back beside me, but Cameron maintained his stance and set his jaw.

“I need to run another test,” Cam began. “I—”

Crow nodded. “You found your guy.” She stuck out her hand; I shook it. “My name is Sadie Vies. People call me Crow.”

“I’m Cole Lee,” I replied. I glanced past her and into the bunkroom. Several bunks had been removed to make space for a big apparatus that I assumed to be the testing platform. Sadie led us inside and instructed me to stand in the center of the red square. Easy enough. I raised my arms at her request, and two mechanical arms extended on either side of me. They began to spin, causing the air to smell of ozone, and they finally came to a stop some thirty seconds later. Sadie, her face twisted in confusion, shut the machine off and stepped away from the console.

“Your aura disrupted the circuitry,” Crow said. She didn’t seem a bit disturbed and the puzzled expression disappeared from her face. Weird. “Come back later. I’ll sort this all out.”

        She very politely forced us from the room and shut the door as we left. I heard the machine start up again inside – an oppressive clicking sound that was backed by a continuous drone. Cameron seemed marginally upset as he led me back up through the Academy’s annals. We finally hit the last flight of stairs and Cameron let out a mighty sigh. He sounded like a pierced tire.

“Abilities vary,” Cam began, “But we all have one thing in common: energy shields.”

“Explain.” I’d gone through some weird shit in the last few days, or hours, but I stuck to my assumption that at some point, I’d return to the sane world and I would have a chance to leave this all behind. So I accepted that perhaps I possessed the ability to generate an alleged energy shield. I accepted that maybe I’d never leave this place alive.

        I suspected that Cameron saw something in my eyes, because he smiled a tight smile and went on to explain the shields, and stuff began to make more sense. Not much, but enough to count. Once in the Academy’s airy gymnasium, he taught me to channel the shield intentionally. Cameron stood in the center of the gym and kept his feet together, raising his hands to the ceiling. After a moment of meditation, luminous green light mixed with his shadowy aura and spread out from his fingertips, forming a gaseous dome around him. At his request, I tossed a basketball to him and it promptly bounced off the dome with an almost comical crackling sound.

He let the shield dissolve. “It can stop a lot more than basketballs. I did a light shield because the strong ones are really draining.”

“I get it.” To be perfectly honest, I was really nervous about making a shield. But he made me step into the center of the gym, assume that ridiculous yoga pose, and focus on the power of the stars.

Cameron walked slow circles as I practiced. “The stars are gateways – this universe doesn’t naturally create light. Stars are holes in the fabric of everything, leaking radiance, and you must channel this radiance through your hyacite infusion. Focus on the stars. Listen to them.”

I stayed quiet for a while but I finally let my thoughts flow. “I thought it was a science thing. Not this religious bullshit.” I mentally chided myself. I reminded myself that my mom was probably praying to Saint Mary to bring me home.

“Science and spirituality are one and the same,” Cam went on, and I couldn’t tell if he was ignoring me or if it was just part of his speech. “We explain what we can touch and we dream about what we can’t. I’ve heard legends about the worlds beyond the stars. I’ve met travelers who’ve seen things we can’t comprehend. It’s time for you to accept your fate. This hyacite will either make or break you.”

        I shut him out and focused on the shield. I imagined the white light of the stars breaking into Earth’s atmosphere, mixing with the buttery light of the sun… Then I hit a wall. I willed the light to push past the concrete walls of the Academy and travel further down, and I felt it light up my veins. I felt it. I felt a surge of energy and I pushed it out through my fingertips, though I didn’t end up making a shield. Strings of puttering red flames shot from my hands, petering out in midair. Holy shit.

“Dude!” I shouted, unconsciously trailing even more flames from my forearms. I didn’t care. “Did you see that?”

Cameron glanced up from a book he’d found on a bench. “Did you do it?”

I scowled. “I made fire.”

“Yeah, your arms are on fire,” he replied. “Do the shield again.”

“I didn’t make a shield.”

“What?”

I paused. “I shot flames from my hands. But I didn’t make a shield.”

“Oh…” Cameron set the book down and crossed his legs. “You know, it’s supposed to be a lot easier to make a shield than to channel your powers directly. You went overboard.”

“Is that a good thing?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Depends on how you think of it. The good news is that if you were able to generate flames, you can almost certainly generate a shield with a little less effort. Try to channel the energy and transform it into a shield before it escapes you.”

        I learned that most of the process is just picturing it in your head. On the fourth try, I finally managed to make a bubble of white fire that traced around me in miniscule lines like chicken wire. When Cameron tossed me the basketball, it collided with the shield and melted, dripping down the surface of the dome. I was half-horrified and half-thrilled. I didn’t bother preventing the monstrous grin that spread across my face when I watched the basketball collapse into a pile of steaming muck. This is me now. Alpha basketball destroyer.

III A FIREBORN RISES

“Melting plastic is pretty toxic,” Cam called, rising to his feet. He seemed a little impressed. “Might wanna move away from that ball.”

“Thanks.” The last vestiges of my shield faded and turned to smoke.

“Try doing the fire thing again, ‘kay? We can do the shield again later.”

        This time, it was as if making the shield had set the bar higher. It was a lot harder to just let the energy flow. I had to push it. My fingertips began to tingle, though, and the air twisted and suddenly it popped with little candle flames right over my outstretched hands. Good enough. When I realized how exhausting it all was, the flames went out and I tried to hold myself upright. Whoa.

“You did good,” Cameron assured me, and he helped me from collapsing. “You’ve done more than I can expect from any novice. We’ve gotta get you in touch with the Fireborns here at the Academy. Abilities relating to light aren’t all that rare, and since the powers tend to be elemental, people have created a few clans.”

I cleared the fog from my mind and focused instead on the path ahead of me. “How many Fireborns are there?”

“About a dozen.” Cam paused. “They’re led by Sapphire. She terrifies most of us and the ones whom she doesn’t scare are probably lying. We thought she was a Firebrand when she first showed up, but she’s… Something else.”

I didn’t ask him to explain. The plan had been for me to meet the Fireborns, but I literally passed out halfway back to my dorm so Cameron had to carry me the rest of the way. In short: Sapphire met me; I didn’t meet her. When I finally woke up, my internal clock was kicking me in the jewels and I’d missed lunch by about thirty seconds. I knew that because Lucas informed me that he was ready to leave for the deli, except he’d decided to stay behind when he saw my eyes flutter open like the dainty princess I am. Seriously, fuck that guy. Everything about him reminded me of Zed, the weird kid whom I’d gotten a major crush on in the ninth grade. The only problem was that he was a boy. And that shit doesn’t fly with most of the people I know. Or knew.

“Wanna come with?” Lucas asked, gesturing to the door. “Can you even walk?”

I creaked to my feet like an old man. “I can walk. What’s for lunch?”

Lucas shrugged and took a few slow steps toward the door, as if to make it clear that he wasn’t going to provide a shoulder I could lean on. “I dunno. I haven’t been there yet.”

I groaned and followed him through the winding halls of the Academy. It wasn’t uncommon to see people levitating sandwiches while engaging in fistfights and bruising their knuckles on energy shields. I saw other people materialize creamer for their coffee or use little bursts of wind to turn the pages of their books. When we were nearing the cafeteria, I caught a glimpse of a tiny girl swinging at a steel door, and her fists actually dented the metal. She looked perfectly intact, too. Jesus.

“Deli sandwiches and tortilla soup, Cinderella,” Lucas called. He directed me toward the lunch line and I panicked a little bit.

“How much does it cost?”

He snickered. “The cost is the suffering we go through to survive here. Otherwise, it’s all free.”

The jitters subsided. “That’s fair.”

        There were no lunch ladies. No lunch gentlemen, either. Just a delicatessen-style array of chilled sandwiches, soups, a salad or two, and some milk cartons. I picked up a sandwich and a little bowl of tortilla soup, which I popped into the microwave and prayed that nobody had weaponized the thing. Needless to say, the food was utter heaven after what I guessed were several days of impending emaciation. Lucas watched me intently and quietly. It seemed out of character for him. Then again, I didn’t know what to expect.

“What’s your favorite color?” Lucas asked after several minutes of silence. Nobody else in the café seemed intent on speaking.

Um. I considered his question. “I like red.”

He nodded knowingly. “Revolution.”

“What are you trying to say?” I asked.

“Everybody here has an escape plan,” he conceded. “Most of them suck. I hopped on Cameron’s metaphorical train after Ava fell off the metaphorical bandwagon. He thinks you’re our key to surviving all this. He says he has friends on the outside who need someone like you.”

I lifted an eyebrow and he got the message.

Lucas continued. “I know you’ve heard this a ton, but Cam needs a Firebrand who can help us escape. I guess the Firebrand has a few other jobs once we’re out, but hey. He doesn’t tell me anything.”

My heart began to race. I felt like I was in on something big. So much had changed in the last week (day?) and maybe I finally had a legitimate purpose. Echoes of my school life hit me again, but I tried to fend off the sadness. It wasn’t worth it. I put myself into the present.

“What’s a Firebrand?” I asked. I decided that getting down to the basics wasn’t a bad idea.

        I felt an unfathomable cold on the back of my neck, and I turned to see Cameron glide by us to find his seat on the other side of the café. The guy was straight up unnerving. He acted like a ghost and he looked like one too. Cam was pale in the face, sometimes even blue, although sometimes his skin was mottled darker brown in patches on his neck and arms. It was really beautiful in a unique sort of way, but I didn’t dare tell him that. He flipped up the collar on his leather jacket and laced his fingers together as he sat. All charisma.

“A Firebrand is a hero blessed by light from beyond,” Cameron exclaimed. “They will defend humanity in our darkest hour.”

I frowned. “That sounds fake, but okay. You think I’m a Firebrand?”

Cam shrugged. “I think you might be. It’s gonna be a lot to take in. Besides, time is short, so you might have to go with it even if you’re not our fabled hero.”

“Whose fabled hero?”

Kate pulled up a chair at the table too. What was it with people showing up to answer my questions? “The Guardians,” Kate replied. “Always needing people to save them.”

Cameron glared at her pointedly. “You need to stop that.”

She made a face and went on. “If the kid is going to help you out, you’ve got to fill in the details.”

“Whatever.” Cameron stared at the ceiling for a while. “It’s delicate. Um, anyways. The Guardians are a group of antisocials from outside the Academy. They want to get us out. The important part is that you don’t tell Crow any of this. I don’t exactly trust her.”

Lucas stifled a laugh. “Does anyone?”

“No pressure,” I murmured. “What do you need me to do?”

“I can be the moral police. Sapphire will probably help you harness the whole fire ability thing. I’ll ask her.” Cameron pursed his lips. “Say, maybe she won’t. Eh. I’ll find someone.”

“How?”

Cameron twirled a spoon between his fingers and considered my question. “I can contact the Guardians if I can get near the kitchen for an hour or so. It’s a gamble.”

“Why the kitchen?”

He knit his eyebrows and launched into a considerably more animated tangent about food waste. “You see, the kitcheneers dump their food waste and grease into a chute that leads down into – you guessed it! – a cavern below the Academy itself. Whenever I need to get to the Guardians, I shoot them a call and we correspond through that waste chute. It’s not elegant, but it’s all we can do.”

I raised my hand. “Couldn’t we just escape through there?”

Cameron’s eyebrows shot up and Kate burst into laughter. When she finally stopped cackling, Cam replied. “That’s actually not a bad idea at all. I mean, if you don’t mind dropping into twelve years’ worth of decomposing waste. But we could do it.”

I got second thoughts. But I recognized the look in his eyes – it was already destiny.

IV WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE

Crow confronted me the moment I left the café. She leaned in the doorway and laced her hands together. “I got the tester working.”

“Congratulations?” I winced. I promised myself I’d tone down the attitude, but she just shrugged and walked away. Easy enough.

        Before I could find a good reason to convince myself to follow her, something caught my eye: a sign scratched into a concrete pillar that pointed toward a hall marked “EVAL.” Could that be short for evaluation? Or was someone just really bad at spelling “evil”? I followed the arrow and made my way past a set of heavy steel doors – obviously reinforced against explosions. The alloy seemed to pull on me as if I were magnetic. I pushed down the hall and emerged into a big, round room filled with what looked like Space Age technology. It was all white steel, concrete, and glowing blue strips that pulsed and lined the walls. In the center of the room was a huge machine, gutted and charred. A girl Cameron’s age picked at it and unscrewed panel after panel, disassembling swaths of it as I watched from the mezzanine.

“What do you want?” she asked, not even looking up at me. Her voice was heavily accented – maybe Russian or Hungarian.

“I was curious about the EVAL sign.”

The girl set down her wrench and sized me up. “This machine is the AP-IL Evaluator, class two. Do you have any business here?”

I pointed at the Evaluator. “Why are you taking it apart?”

“It’s derelict.” She tilted her head. “I want its hyacite core. The Fireborns need a new one for our research.”

“I’ve heard of the Fireborns.”

She gestured for me to come over. “I’m Sapphire, leader of our clan. I saw you speaking to Cameron. You must be new.”

I descended the steps and joined her beside the dead machine. “I am. They think I’m the Firebrand.”

Sapphire paused. “Honestly? They think every Fireborn is the Firebrand. It’s not a fate to be chasing so eagerly.”

“Why?”

She gave me a long, meaningful look. Her eyes had seen a lot. “Actually, I do spy a spark.”

I shook my head. “I’m confused.”

“My meaning is that maybe Cameron isn’t completely insane. Maybe he’s right about you.”

“Should I get my hopes up?”

“Again, it’s not something to be really eager about.”

“Why?”

Sapphire sighed again. “Lots of responsibility. High mortality rate. Legend has it that the Firebrand will save the world from some great crisis. That’s what Cameron says.”

“So I’ve heard.” I tried to form my thoughts into something coherent. Was it something spiritual? Religious? Science-y? I mean, I’d just gotten magical powers from irradiated gas, so how far out could it be for me to be a celestial savior of humanity? It felt like a farce. A big joke.

She waited a few moments and then gave me this stare that made me feel insignificant and very much afraid. “It’s about time you start accepting that there are forces bigger than yourself controlling this world. Otherwise, you’ll stay ignorant. Like everybody else.”

“Excuse me?”

Sapphire, very much exasperated at this point, drew in a breath and proceeded to lace her fingers together. “I understand this is difficult. I know that you’re perfectly average and adherent to the roles in this society that they’ve set out for you. It’s comfortable. Easy. Smooth. But what if you learned that there’s an entire world out there? That your hyacite will allow you to explore it?”

“An entire world?” My mind spun. “I want to visit Siberia.”

“No, no,” she groaned, her composure completely gone. “Not fucking that. I’m talking about reality itself. There’s so much more out there. So much more than bureaucracies and space missions and gender roles and neuroscience.” Sapphire paused. “Do you believe in magic?”

I looked down at my palms. I recalled the fire that had recently danced there. “I guess.”

“You mean that you don’t have a choice.”

“Yes.”

She nodded as if to say, Now you’re getting it. “That’s what I mean. Your experience has been catalyzed. You’ve begun living at a level higher than the rest of humanity. A Firebrand exists at a level even higher than that. There are rats, cats, humans, and then there’s us. Above us, maybe gods? A mouse has no way of knowing what it’s like to be a human.”

My mind had imploded. I pushed back my internal screaming and focused on her words. “That’s wack.”

Sapphire smacked her forehead into the machine and gestured at me to leave. I obliged and set out to find Cameron. Maybe he’d have something useful to tell me. Until then, I mulled over what Sapphire had said. Instead of finding Cameron, Kate found me.

She looked beyond excited. “This is all a character study,” Kate exclaimed.

“What?”

Kate bounced on her heels. “The Academy.”

“I thought it was made to find the Firebrand.”

“No, like, the cover story. What are you going to tell the world when you kidnap hundreds of teenagers and lock them in a subterranean facility? Not that anyone knows about it yet, but you know.”

“Oh.”

“C’mon,” she said, grabbing me by the elbow. “Let’s get you training.”

She led me toward the gym. Naturally. “What are we gonna do this time?”

Kate grunted. “Cam taught you shields, right?”

“Right.”

She cackled and I knew something was up. “Let’s find you a date, then. The Spring Fling is next week, or sometime around then.”

“No-effing-way,” I retorted, breaking free. She turned to face me.

Kate shrugged. “To each their own. But we consider this an initiation.”

“What happens if I resist?”

Her mouth curved up into a mischievous smile. “I value consent.”

I caved. “I consent.”

She got serious. “You sure?”

I shrugged. “Find me a date.”

And so it began.

– - -

        Between then and lunch, Kate introduced me to a fair share of guys and gals, most of whom had dates already. Shinji and Isabella – from the other day – offered to let me tag along, but Kate explained the nature of it all and they set out to find me someone specific. I got nervous. They never let me hear a name, but I caught something like “Shaun Cena” between murmurs. I didn’t try to understand.

Kate finally presented me with a frosted glass door and looked tremendously pleased with herself. I quelled the shaking in my hands. “Here we gooooo.”

The door creaked open and I waved. The girl on the other side stood, backed with her friends, and she looked profoundly disappointed. Not that I’d admit it, but so was I. “That’s him?”

I sighed. “Cole Lee-Jager.”

She leaned to the side and whispered to her friends. “He’s new, right?”

        That perilously awkward situation was interrupted by an evil sort of laughter that echoed from down the hall. I almost turned to look, but it got abruptly louder and I lost all sense of reality when someone smacked into me and I bounced off the door’s frame, eventually finding myself on the ground in a pool of my own blood. Busted lip. Great.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry,” Lucas Aines gasped, struggling to turn me over. “Are you okay? I didn’t mean for that to happen.”

I touched my lip and my hand came away bloody. I steeled myself and made eye contact. “I’m expecting an apology.”

He backpedaled and nodded vigorously. “I can arrange that. I mean, I had something in mind. Do you still want to hear it?”

Just to humor him, I nodded and picked myself up. everybody else in the corridor seemed too stunned to make any sound. He went on. “I found you a date.”

“Who?” Here we go.

“It’s me!” Lucas exclaimed, making an ayyy sound and gesturing to himself. It fell flat.

I considered it. “You know, you just busted my lip and I asked for compensation. Going to the dance with you sounds like a favor.”

“Trust me.”

        I finally gave in. This was a horrible, horrible idea. After I agreed to go with Lucas, Kate made him apologize and the girls of that dorm asked him to clean my blood off the floor. I felt a little bad for the guy, but hopefully he’d prove more than an embarrassment at the dance. After all, it was just a dance. Nothing significant. If I could get past Kate’s initiation, then maybe it’d be smooth sailing from there. The world apparently had other ideas in mind for me.

V THIS COMING CRISIS

“No more messing around from here on out,” Cameron announced, pacing before us like an Army general. “Fireborn Clan, I expect the best from you. Cole Lee-Jager, newcomer, is joining your ranks, and today you will assist him in directed ballistics training. Sapphire, the light is green.”

She took his spot and gestured to a row of straw dummies on the opposite wall of the gymnasium. “Line up in groups of three or so. Many of you already know the basics. You will be teaching the newcomers how to form fireballs and, most importantly, discharge them. Focus on accuracy, not power. This is an intro course. Begin when I move up-range.”

One of the Fireborns – a tall boy named Tchaikovsky – taught me to set my hands on fire. It was easy, for the most part. Simpler than making a shield. When I got the flames rolling, he showed me how to roll my hands together and form the fire into a roiling ball. The tricky part was throwing it. If I tried to throw it as I would a baseball, the flames would collapse and wash over my fingers. He let me figure out that part on my own.

I realized that throwing a fireball was much like making a shield. Actually, I learned how to do it from the other Fireborns. They made their fireballs and encased them in little shells of woven flame. Those shells kept the fire together. Then, when the fireballs hit the targets, the shields would give way and the flame would erupt. Genius. Absolutely genius. I tried it a few times, and though it took all my attention, I managed it and even impressed Sapphire when she came to watch. I waited a few minutes for everybody else to get the hang of it. Then we progressed to hand-to-hand. This made me particularly nervous. I didn’t have much against throwing a punch, but I didn’t want to lose a tooth either.

“First off, no head shots,” Cameron announced. Great.

        I also realized that much of hand-to-hand combat is, as they taught it, less about punching and more about using your body weight to get your opponent on the ground as quickly as possible or with as much force as possible. My fantastic luck came into play almost immediately. Sapphire set me against Tchaikovsky. He was huge – twice my size at least. The guy decked me over and over again until I was covered in sweat and out of breath. My back ached. My arms were sore from trying to move mountains. He seemed more surprised with the fact that I just wouldn’t stop fighting. Damn right I wouldn’t.

        Something weird happened on my twenties attempt to bring down Goliath. I tried one of the more advanced maneuvers, which involved catching his jaw with my palm, setting my other hand on his left arm, and using my momentum to spin him while catching him in the shins. I’d failed at this many times before. But this time, something lit up. That sickness returned to my gut and my skin washed over in a cold sweat. Most importantly, my veins felt like they were burning. I felt like I was glowing. I kicked off the maneuver, turned, copped, and kicked again. I was like a bullet. Tchaikovsky tried to counter it, but I tripped him up and he fell to the ground before me.

“Sorry,” I mumbled. I felt great.

He laughed and picked himself up. “Sapphire, your ant beat the giant.”

I helped him up and waited for Sapphire to come over. She nodded lightly at me, smiled courteously at Tchaikovsky. “Practice. Next is swordfighting.”

I felt a hand on my shoulder and I turned to see Cameron. He seemed distressed. “I need to talk to you.”

        I followed him out of the gymnasium and into a nearby hall; one that was less frequented than the main channels. Quiet. What bothered me is that Cameron seemed overwhelmingly nervous. It wasn’t like him.

“Crow’s gotten her tester working,” Cam intoned.

Silence. “Is it time to try it out?”

Cameron nodded. “If you’re alright with that. It’s just… In my circles, the role of Firebrand is very sacred and almost untouchable. We haven’t seen one in centuries. I’ll do my best to protect you, but if you are the Firebrand, I need you to know what that means for you.”

“Yes?”

“Until this coming crisis is averted, your life as Cole Lee is effectively over.”

I chewed on that as we went down to meet Crow. The tunnels below the Academy seemed colder than usual. I reminded myself that we’d be whizzing by all this if we were going to escape through that chute in the kitchen. Why hadn’t people used it to escape yet, after all these years? There was something that nobody wanted to tell me. I got the sneaking feeling that I was about to find out.

Crow opened the door to her room and let us in without a word. Indeed, the machine hummed and clicked in its niche. She made me stand in the center like I had before, and the thing’s arms began to spin, tracing trails of light and dust around me. That ill feeling rose up again, but I tried to embrace it. My vision clouded. The air around me supercharged. The arms spun faster and faster, clanking and whirring around me, stirring up golden streams of light that were tugged from my palms like silk from a spider. When it all finally died down, I met Crow’s cold gaze. She stared at me, not breaking eye contact. Not once. Not as she unplugged the machine, wound up the wire, and demanded that I explain to her what I am.

“I’m Cole Lee,” I admitted, but that apparently wasn’t the answer she was looking for. Quicker than light, Crow leapt to the side and knocked Cameron against the concrete wall. I tried to use my newly-sown tricks to take her out, but she struck me on the temple and I fell forward like a marionette. My eyes failed me and I slipped into a deep, warm sleep.

– - -

        I woke somewhere else, but I knew that at least my altitude hadn’t changed. The air was still cold, musty, and filled with dust. Perhaps the most unpleasant thing about it all was my headache. And, of course, the fact that my hands were tied behind my back. Crow glared at me from across the room and I decided to give her the attention she needed.

“Firebrand,” she hissed. “This is your one chance to choose your fate.”

“What do you want from me?” My chest seized up.

Crow bounced a long knife on her knee and shook her head. “Join me or chase the Guardians. Live or die. There is a coming storm you can’t wait out.”

“Let me go.”

“Live or die,” she prodded. “This is your last chance.”

I pushed myself for a little boost of courage. “How many wishes do I get?”

Crow turned up her nose and stood up. “I don’t play games. Expose your throat so I can end this quickly.”

        Naturally, I refused, but my heart was pounding and that cold sweat was back and I was so not ready to die --

“Get back!” I screamed. The voice wasn’t mine, but the words kept coming from my lips. “You don’t know what you’re doing!”

Crow stepped back, half-confused and half-angry. “Resist and this will only be more painful.”

My spine cinched. That voice again. “Stand down.” I was scaring myself.

“You brought this upon yourself,” Crow called, her voice rising, and she plunged the knife into my throat. Only it didn’t connect. I rolled to the side and she ended up scratching the wall instead. Crow came around with the knife again and I set my hands on fire. Within moments, the rope melted away, and I tackled her, grabbing her face as she went down. Bad idea.

        I left marks – awful burns. Crow threw me away with an inhuman strength that sent me into the opposite wall. All I saw were stars. This is the end, I thought. Now I get to see what Hell looks like. Apparently the world had a few tricks left for me, though. As Crow approached, evidently half-blinded and badly burnt, I waited until the last possible moment and then I prepped a flame grenade and left it in my wake. While she struggled with finding me, I forced the steel door open and scrambled into the hall. Cameron – who had been trying to break in – caught me and hauled me away as if I were a wayward puppy.

He set me down at the top of the stairs and caught his breath. “Are you alright?”

“She tried to kill me,” I shrugged, trying to give the illusion that I hadn’t metaphorically shit my pants. “But I dodged a bullet there.”

“She has a gun?!” Cameron asked, his eyes widening.

“Oh, no,” I replied. “No. She has a knife. But I didn’t get cut.”

Cam let out a big breath and checked down the stairs again. “Here’s the thing, okay? You’re a Firebrand. That much is clear. She’s here, in the Academy, to kill you. Or to capture you. But we need to get you out. Right now, I’m initiating that plan to escape. Pray that the Guardians hear us.”

“Will do,” I said, and we took off to find Kate and Sapphire. Cameron had apparently included Lucas in his list of indisposables, a decision that I didn’t care for, but I kept my mouth shut as Cameron (nonchalantly) forced his way into the kitchen and made his way to the back room. Indeed, there was a grated panel on the floor, which was also conveniently bolted shut.

“Somebody doesn’t want us getting in,” Kate murmured. “Or out. Let me handle this.”

        We all stood back and Kate pointed at the panel and closed her eyes. Each bolt exploded in turn, throwing up dust and little shards of concrete. She kicked the grate aside and gestured at the well-greased concrete shaft that lay ahead of us.

“Any takers?” Kate asked. Silence. “Fine. I’ll go.”

        I was honestly more than impressed. Kate lowered herself into the hole until she was held up by only her fingertips. Then she let go and shot down into the darkness. After a few seconds, I heard a meaty slap and frustrated shouting. Kate gave a muffled all-clear and Sapphire went after her. Then Lucas. Then Cameron. Then it was only me in a kitchen back room, completely terrified, and I argued that I’d be better off with Crow as a mentor. I reminded myself of what it felt like to (almost) die, and I dropped down the chute and prayed to God that I’d land in the same pile of decomposing food that everyone else had. For better or for worse, that was the case.

        Curious about what it feels like to plummet into a decade’s worth of rotting food? Of course you are. First off, there’s a lot of grease and water and oil mixing around, and it’s suspiciously warm. I wasn’t expecting the bugs. They milled about it all, crawling and gnashing their little jaws with abandon. The various organic fluids seeped into my clothes. Bits of old bread clung to me. Old noodles and strips of meat had to be peeled off. Perhaps most troubling, you didn’t simply sink through it all. There was a pungent, wet crust to it all, but below that the waste seemed to harden. I was wading in food up to my ankles. It really speaks to the food waste crisis in the United States, honestly. I regrouped with my friends at the base of the mound.

        It would’ve been a time for celebration, but something set the pile on fire. Like, little blue flames licked up the side and suddenly something exploded. Gas? Grease? I had no clue of knowing. But suddenly the cavern was illuminated by a massive grease fire that was punctuated with occasional pops and percussive bangs. It didn’t sound unlike the marching band back home. I met up with Cameron, Kate, and Lucas, and it was then that we realized that Sapphire was gone.

“The fire can’t kill her,” Lucas said. This was the first time I’ve seen him this serious about something. “She’s got fire powers.”

Kate stepped forward and examined the flames. “What happened?”

“Maybe she has other plans,” Cameron denoted, turning away from the fire. “No sense in looking for her.”

        He was right. The room was triangular, for the most part. In the far corner was the mound – its highest point directly beneath the waste chute. The path sloped down to where we’d landed. If Sapphire was here, we’d know it. She simply disappeared. Kate clapped her hands together and produced a pulsing red light that stayed illuminated when she held it in her palm. It wasn’t the weirdest thing I’d seen, but I was used to light coming from light bulbs and not thin air. Cameron led us through the cavern carefully. The ground gave way sometimes, and I realized why. The mix of liquids from the mound had turned the ground black in parts. Those same streams had also probably weakened the stone and soil.

“We’re very far down,” Lucas noted. “I’m not sure how it’s safe to breathe right now, but we’re alive so I won’t question it.”

I figured. “There are air regulators and pumps in the Academy, right? They probably also affect the caves, since they’re connected through the shaft.”

Cameron grunted. “Not just the shaft. Every shower drain, every toilet, and every vent connects to some part of this cave system. There are walls, of course, and deodorizers so it doesn’t get nasty, but this entire area is safely pressurized.”

“Good science,” Kate called, “But where are we headed?”

Cam pointed at the impenetrable darkness ahead of us. “Sequery scans indicate that this tunnel opens up into a much larger space that you could apparently fit a 747 into. Very wide, not too tall. It’s there that I hope to contact the Guardians.”

“Sequery scans?” Lucas asked. “Is that the thing on your wrist?”

“Yes.” Cameron tapped a device on his wrist and a small crystal screen lit up. “I hijacked this from some old Academy guards, actually. I’ve been using it to tune into Guardian channels. Sequery is the practice of guarding in our native tongue.”

I decided to keep my taser a secret. It was still tucked under my waistband, and I was honestly surprised that it hadn’t been lost through all of my training. I could’ve used it on Crow. What was I thinking?

“How’s your taser treating you, Cole?” Kate asked.

“Did you just read my mind?”

She shrugged. “No. It would make sense, given the conversation, that you’d be thinking about your taser. So I asked about it.”

“It’s treating me well,” I replied. “We went to tea time last Tuesday and it paid for both of us.”

“Etiquette is important when choosing a good taser,” Lucas said helpfully.

Cameron groaned. “If I have to deal with this the entire time, I’m feeding you all to the wolves the moment we get to the surface.”

“Better wolves than crows, am I right?” I interjected, and Kate just cackled.

Then, of course, the cavern opened up, and it was nothing like what I expected.

VI A LIGHT IN THE DARK

The place was lit up with strip lighting from above and the cave floor had been smoothed out to make room for a few squat bunker-like buildings that hugged the ground. It felt very, very military.

Cam whistled. “This is new.”

The device on his wrist crackled with static and a voice came through. “Venator Cameron Green, we hear you loud and clear. To clarify: that installation you’re looking at is not new. It’s the surveillance station for the Academy. If I were you, I’d steer right clear and continue through the opposite passage.”

Cameron tapped his watch. “Is there activity?”

“Shifts of six and four switch out on three time slots. Right now, you’re clear.”

“Nobody’s there.”

“That’s right.”

“Cameron, out,” he mumbled, and swiped the red bar on the crystal screen. He turned to us. “That was Tania Pienaar, commander of the Thulic Guardians. Leader of our little team.”

I scowled. “Are you a Guardian?”

Cameron gave a wry smile and we continued down and around the surveillance base in silence. True, nobody seemed to be present. I heard the hum of machines and the buzzing of fluorescent lights. I almost missed it all when we exited the chamber. Of course, Lucas was the first to speak up.

“So, I’ve been thinking—”

Kate interrupted him, her tone sardonic. “Really?”

“Shut up.” He cleared his throat. “We didn’t bring any food or lights, and there’s an empty base back there…”

“Whose decision is it whether we go back or not?” I asked. “I’m on board.”

Cameron fumed. “Whatever. Be quick about it. If I hear an alarm, I’m leaving immediately.”

Lucas flashed a quick smile and tapped my shoulder. “C’mon.”

Kate sighed. “I’ll hang back and fly cover.”

        It was a little unsettling when, while Lucas and I were busy sneaking into a supply shed, I noticed a glowing red figure crouched on the roof of a nearby bunker. I squinted and made it out to be Kate. Lovely. I was expecting it to take a while but Lucas had snapped the lock before I even had the mind to ask how we were going to get in. The lock dropped into his hand and he stuffed it in his pocket.

“We don’t have gloves, so please don’t touch anything,” Lucas whispered, shouldering open the door. I made sure to avoid touching anything we weren’t taking.

        The supply room was long and squat, the walls lined with crates and duffel bags. Lucas focused on unzipping and loading a bag with everything we could feasibly need. I found a glass case packed with knives in the back. Then I tried something new: I lit my right hand on fire and pressed it to the glass until the glass turned white and gave way. A lot quieter than smashing it. I grabbed a few ridged knives and tossed them into my own smaller bag.

Lucas held up a plastic bag and grinned. “Just counted this. It’s about fifteen hundred dollars.”

“This is theft,” I noted. Not that I really cared. I justified that the people who run the Academy deserve it.

“Dude,” Lucas said, stuffing the money into the duffel bag. “We need it more than they do.”

“Yeah, that’s true.”

“Tell that to Remus Luna,” a gruff voice called from the door, and I turned to face an impossibly tall man in a green boiler suit. To make matters worse, he gripped an assault rifle and glared at us from behind a blacked-out visor. “Surrender the goods.”

“Hey, man,” Lucas pleaded, but he went quiet when we noticed a red blur flash behind the guard. Kate?

        The Academy guard stepped forward, raised the rifle, and set his stance. But before he could murder two escaped teenagers in cold blood, the air popped behind him and the man’s eyes rolled back into his head. He fell back, and Kate caught him and dragged his body to the side. She gestured for us to join Cameron by the cavern’s exit.

“More of them just showed up in the supply elevator,” Kate murmured. “We need to get out of here.”

“What even are your powers?” I asked.

She snickered. “Kinetics. Nothing you should worry about.”

“I’m worrying about it,” I huffed, and we finally reached Cameron. He looked as if an elephant had just taken a pungent shit on his grandmother. And, as I got a better look at his face, I concluded that I was the elephant in question. He managed to grab us all by the shoulders and we pushed past the compound and into the tunnels beyond.

“But I got snacks!” Lucas protested.

Cameron turned and glared at Lucas, causing him to back down. “Snack time will be carried out when I’m sure that we’re not being chased by bloodthirsty security guards.”

        The cave floor was gravelly and it took a lot of effort to keep from slipping as we ventured further into the tunnels. There were a lot of steep slopes – we just went deeper and deeper. And, when we hit a pocket punctuated by a tiny waterfall, I heard echoing screams from where we’d come. I glanced at Kate, but Lucas and Cam seemed oblivious.

“Did you hear that?” I asked.

“Screaming,” Kate noted. “From the tunnels behind us.”

Cameron started to say something, but a dozen or so squawking crows burst into the chamber and funneled out through the snaking crack in the ceiling. “That’s not good.”

I followed the path down past the waterfall. “She followed us.”

VII LITTLE ADEN Several weeks later in coastal Yemen

The girl had the mind of a woman who had died long ago in a collapsing warehouse; her body reduced to ashes by plastic explosives, her blood lost to bullets and hot metal. But her mind lived on. The young woman picked herself up out of the rubble and tried to get her bearings. Her mind was only gray. A scape of shimmering nothing, particles coming into and going out of focus regardless of how close they were to her. Space pulsed and rippled around her and she was its Master. But now things were hard, bright, and there was blood on her hands. The girl pulled in a deep, ragged breath and hugged her arms around her old tattered combat vest. The ID card had been badly burnt, but the muddled letters – EL S – were enough to trigger the first of the memories.

“My name is Valentine,” she whispered to herself, almost defiantly. The sun was harsh and cruel – it hung at zenith, and she grew confused when the graffiti around her was in neither of her native tongues. Between عدالة and اللعنة عليك, Valentine judged that she wasn’t in Idaho. Or, for that case, Arecibo.

        The ruins of an old warehouse law scattered around her, metal bars and piles of old scorched bricks stacked and half-buried in the surrounding buildings, some of which had collapsed. The area was deserted. Valentine began to explore – first out of curiosity, but it wasn’t after long that she realized that water and food were bare necessities. Eventually, though, after trekking wide avenues and curving paths through a dense (though silent) urban area, Valentine came across a modest clay home, the front lined with sheet metal, a small counter, and a great variety of colorful ads; most of which were in Arabic but some had English as well.

A young man lifted his head from the shadows within and rushed to the counter. He spoke in the local dialect, but Valentine’s mind translated it so easily that she barely noticed. “How may I help you? You look like you’re dying.”

“I need water.” She replied in perfect Arabic. The man paused before cracking a jug of water that sat in a heap in the back of the room.

“Are you from here?”

“No.”

He poured a plastic cup and handed it over. “Do you need directions?”

Valentine took a sip and felt the primal instincts melt away so she could focus on the issue at hand. “I don’t know where I am.”

The shopkeeper shook his head. “This is a ruined neighborhood near Little Aden. Nobody lives here anymore.”

“Little Aden?”

“Yemen.” He sighed. “You should wait for my mother to return. She can help you. I’m Yahir.”

“I’m Valentine,” she replied. “I’ve been asleep a very long time.”

Yahir laughed a bit. “How did you get here?”

Something clicked when he said that. She recalled the words of Cato Mallory – the only person in her fireteam with whom she’d entrusted with her secret. The big one. The one that said, “I’m not Elias, but rather Valentine.” And he’d respected it. “How did you get here?” Cato had asked, and Valentine traced back to when she’d realized that her only escape from home had been to fight. When she was sent to Yemen with Cato and the others, Valentine knew that something had changed. Something big was on the horizon. Then the bullets started to fly.

“The terrorists,” Valentine blurted in English. “The bombs.”

Yahir leaned back. “Kunt al’amrikiat?” But the words made no sense. This time around, the language didn’t flow. Valentine had to force the comprehension, but then Arabic was Arabic and English was English and she’d lost her magic.

“I’m sorry.”

The man seemed confused. “‘Ana la ‘urid al’amrikiiyn huna.” He waved her away.

Valentine shook her head and pushed away the memories. Suddenly, it was back. “I’m sorry. I’m very confused.”

“You’re American?” Yahir repeated.

Valentine nodded.

“An angel of the Lord come to test my resolve,” Yahir muttered. “Stay here until my mother returns. Either way, it is a long way home.”

Valentine let herself relax. “I have family there.”

Yahir gave her a sharp look. “My patience has worn thin. Are you a Guardian?”

“No?”

He gestured expansively at the ruins that surrounded his shop. “The Americans didn’t do this. After the bombs detonated, great glowing warriors arrived. I thought it was a good sign, you know? They called themselves the Sequen, and they marked us for death. Very few escaped.”

“I’m sorry,” Valentine said. “I haven’t heard of any such Guardians.”

        Yahir shrugged and disappeared into the back of his shop and pushed past a heavy curtain. Valentine reclined on the cobbled street in the scarce shade that the storefront supplied. She almost failed to notice that Yahir had actually set one of the jugs of water beside her, right in the doorway. Generous of him. Valentine was caught off guard when she saw her reflection in the shattered glass of an old window across the road. It didn’t resemble her much at all, except for the eyes.

        Her hair was dirty, true, and it cascaded down her shoulders, black and smooth. Her skin was dark and rich, though this time around her face wasn’t pockmarked with acne like it was before her death. Her jaw was softer. Breasts were evident under her vest, which was designed with the male form in mind. Valentine’s eyebrows arched even with her resting expression; intimidating and powerful. She cracked a smile.

“Elias is dead,” Valentine murmured, mostly to herself. Memories of her transition quickly followed as she examined her new body. It was muscled and she noted soon after that she stood several inches taller than Yahir, who had to have been six feet tall at least. Valentine’s fists resembled spades and her calves seemed bulky enough to propel her to a rooftop if she tried. Her body was exactly how she wanted it. It’s how she had always pictured it. It was her envy when she stared in the mirror. But what, exactly, had happened between the firefight in August of 1998 and now?

– - -

        Yahir’s mother – a frail old woman named Amina – ignored both her son and Valentine when she entered the shop. She set up an old recliner, kicked back, adjusted her hijab, and sipped from a cup of water before scolding her son for forcing a young girl to sit outside in the blistering heat. Yahir, now cowering, retreated to fetch groceries from a nearby market in Little Aden. Amina focused her laser glare on Valentine. The soldier had rarely been in the presence of such a commanding figure.

“Tell me your name,” Amina said in slightly accented English.

“I’m Valentine Avila.”

Amina nodded. “An American warrior. You were killed in the blast at the Mausoleum many years ago.”

“How do you know this?”

“I was there.” A slow smile spread on the old woman’s face. “I lead the militia group – mothers against an American occupation. We would have killed you if you’d not killed yourself. Your friends escaped.”

“I thought the warehouse was a base for—”

Amina cut her off. “… Terrorists, yes. Your country has a hatred for people like me. It would only grow worse after your death. For now, though, we have peace.”

“What happened?” Valentine asked. She found all this rather hard to cope with.

The old woman gave a mighty sigh. “A murderer killed many Americans in the name of Islam. America fought back, and now invaders riddle the countries north of here. I’ve learned that clinging to the sea is a sure way to glimpse the horizon and thus grant yourself peace. Now, I have a question.”

“Yes?”

Amina crossed her arms. “You’re no man.”

Valentine hesitated, but allowed herself a nod. “I’m a woman.”

“A man entered the fire and a woman emerged,” Amina intoned. “I admire your strength. Despite our differences, you’ve earned my respect. But you must still prove yourself.”

“How will I do that?”

Amina smiled again and Yahir poked his head around the corner from the other room. Valentine swore she felt the temperature drop at least a dozen degrees before the woman finally spoke. “Get yourself to America. Then we’ll talk.”

VIII THE GUARDIANS Several weeks earlier below Chicago, IL

By the sounds we were picking up, I concluded that Crow had followed us, found the bunker cave, and subsequently massacred everybody there. Every so often, wayward and confused crows flew past us and squawked at us urgently. I hoped they weren’t spies for Crow herself, but Cameron didn’t seem very worried. We just pushed on and every so often he’d use the computer on his wrist to take sequery scans.

“Tania’s sending me some garbled messages about freaky black birds bumping into the bottoms of manhole covers in suburban Chicago,” he muttered. “I think we’re close.”

“Sounds about right,” Kate sighed. “Can we have our snacks now?”

Cameron ran another scan just to be safe. “Be quick.”

Lucas rummaged through his bag and doled out Nutribrain pumpkin nut bars to each of us. I read the label. “These are from Halloween last year.”

“I could find something newer—” Lucas began, and he offered to take it back.

“It’s okay.” I couldn’t figure him out. Lucas seemed to swing between crazy and kind, sometimes hilarious and other times nurturing and patient. My musings were interrupted by a shrill scream that echoed around the tunnel and made my blood run cold.

        A dark shape exploded from the crack in the wall behind us and Cameron was knocked against a wall. He struggled to tear the shape free, but it was just a shifting mass of darkness, intangible but somehow able to hurt him. Kate slapped the thing viciously and it fell to the floor and Crow emerged from her cocoon of shadow. Of course. She then proceeded to lunge at me, and, taking the only natural course of action, I bathed her in fireballs.

The fight was over before it had even begun. Crow writhed in agony, flashed toward a crack in the wall, and vanished with a puff of smoke. “She’s gone,” I breathed.

Cameron rubbed his jaw and scowled. “You scared her off.”

I shuddered. “What was with the shadows?”

“It’s her element,” Cameron said, and continued through the tunnel with barely a pause. “No more snack breaks.”

        I wanted to see inside his mind. What happened there? What had he seen? He seemed almost uncomfortably familiar with Crow, and I saw him arch to direct most of the force of her lunge to the ground. Even though she caught him by surprise, I noticed that he’d been anticipating her attack.

“How long have you known Crow?” I asked him.

Cam’s head jerked around and he gave me a long, critical stare. “Since I entered the Academy.”

“Seriously.” I pushed. I didn’t know what would happen.

He took a long pause and finally let out a breath he’d been holding. “Cole.”

“Oh boy,” I heard Lucas murmur. I ignored him. “Yeah?”

“Cole, I…” Cameron glanced at the ground. “I can’t rush you into all of this. The fact is, we’re relying on the feeble assumption that you’re the Firebrand. We’re putting all our hope in you. But for now, just for now, I need you to accept that Crow – Sadie, whatever – is a magical entity and she is very dangerous to all of us.”

I decided to cut to the chase. “How can I prove that I’m the Firebrand?”

Cameron allowed a slow smile to spread on his lips. “Easy.”

“What?”

“Tell me what’s going to happen in ten minutes. Or twelve. I’ve read the legends – I know the scope of your blur .”

I threw up my hands. “I didn’t get a word of that.”

“See the future.”

“That’s a far cry from fireballs,” I admitted.

“The Firebrand is a fast learner,” he pushed.

I shrugged. “I’ll work on that later.”

“I—” Cam stopped and checked his wrist computer. The glowing panel pulsed and dinged urgently. He looked up at us. “We’ve gotta crawl a half mile within about three minutes if we’re going to catch the nearest Guardian rig.” Nobody moved. “That means fast.”

        And we moved fast. We scaled walls of stone and slid down watery (slimy?) slopes, squeezed through ridiculously skinny cracks, and eventually reached a gloomy precipice that led to the Great Unknown. A thick, black fog seethed in the depths below and I took a few cautious steps backward just to be safe. Cameron, of course, leapt right in, and Kate and Lucas were quick to follow. Their unwavering faith in our spooky friend didn’t make any sense to me, but just as I was readying myself to follow, a tendril of the darkness reached out and pulled me in. Then I screamed.

It didn’t last long, fortunately. Or unfortunately. Barely a second later, I was buried up to my knees in a pungent, airy mound. Lucas called out. “Guano!”

I plugged my nose. “You mean bat shit?”

Kate burst out laughing from the murky darkness to my left. She took in a death breath and I assumed that she immediately regretted it. “Uh, we need a light.”

Lucas snapped his fingers and a ghostly light sprung up in the palm of his hand. “Bingo.”

“How long have you been able to do that?” Cameron asked sharply.

Lucas whistled. “Shush. Hey, Cole. You good?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “I’m just, you know, buried in a foot or so of bat shit.”

“That stuff saved you from a broken leg,” Kate interjected.

“That what saved me from a broken leg?” I challenged.

Kate snickered. “That guano.”

“You can use all the fancy words you want,” I called, “But the fact is that we’ve plunged into a decade’s worth of rotten trash and a pile of ancient bat shit and none of you seem fazed in the least. I need answers.”

Cameron’s watch interrupted me with a shrill beep. He silenced it. “One minute, one quarter mile. Rendezvous by me.”

We did. The chase continued. It was kind of exhilarating, and I was thankful that most of the chambers we had to run through were tall enough so I didn’t have to duck. Cameron wasn’t that lucky. I could almost feel the clock ticking, and before I knew it, we reached a wide room and Cameron skidded to a halt. His watch made a dull thwock sound that I assumed indicated that we’d reached our destination. Cam let out a long sigh.

“Well, this is the place.” He surveyed the darkness around us and Lucas’ light brightened a bit so it would illuminate the space.

“This place looks man-made,” Kate noted. “Is it?”

Cameron stayed silent. His watch began to beep urgently, the individual tones growing more and more rapid until we decided to step back a bit in case something happened to drop from the shadowy shaft above. When it became a continuous drone, a colossal, bulbous vehicle slammed into the center of the room and extended its landing gear a few seconds after it hit the ground. Its lights flicked on and the side door slid open. It looked like a Toyota Prius that had been retrofitted with various parts from a hovercraft.

A tall, elegant woman stepped out of the vehicle and dusted off her red leather jacket as if she was preparing for a battle. “Ah, it’s good to see you.”

Cameron gestured at the thing she’d arrived in. “What is this?”

The Guardian turned and shrugged. “Atlas calls it the Viaton 800. He worked on it with Carter Redrist in the years that you’ve been gone.”

“Are you sure it didn’t just bottom out?” Cameron asked. “Never mind. Atlas and Carter are working together on something for once? I’ve missed a lot.”

“Certainly. Are these the Firebrands?”

Cam gestured to Kate, Lucas, and I in turn. “Intelligent, annoying, and our potential Firebrand, in that order.”

“Rude,” Lucas murmured. “Why don’t I get to be the Firebrand?”

I nudged him lightly. “But you get to go to a dance with one, right?”

Kate laughed and Lucas refused to look me in the eye after that. We filed into the Viaton 800 and held onto the rails inside, since there were no seats. Another Guardian piloted the thing, which was fitted with four turbines on each corner that roared like jet engines when the vehicle turned on. Definitely not a hybrid. We bore upward and broke the surface several seconds later, surfacing right in the middle of a construction site. Bewildered workers stared at us from below as the Guardians wheeled the hovercraft around and took us over Lake Michigan.

Thankfully, (somehow) the craft was insulated from the world outside, so I didn’t have to worry about suffocating. The engines were too loud for conversation, but I made a variety of faces at Lucas and eventually admitted to myself that I was messing with him. There was no way around it. And, when he was frustrated like this, it was a billion times more rewarding than just sitting and waiting to drop out of the sky like guano from a bat.

The Guardians took us to an office building that they called “Chicago rike ^ [1] ^ .” I tried to hold in my lunch as we exited the hovercraft on the building’s roof, and I was formally introduced to a terrifying woman named Tania Pienaar, “master of these lands.”

IX COVE ON THE DEEP

Utonagan. The word was emblazoned on every banner, every flag, every corner as we descended level by level through the building until we reached the armory. Tania and Cameron led us there as if we were fugitives or gods – I couldn’t tell which. Then, without precedent, I was shoved into a square concrete room and green laser lights buzzed up as a sort of barred door. I knew better than to touch them. It was some weird sci-fi shit, but I’d gotten used to this. Kate and Lucas got a similar treatment in the cells to my left and right.

Cameron snapped to get our attention as the other Guardians vacated the room. “You’re not in trouble. The Guardians are very paranoid… They’re just cleansing you.”

“Cleansing?!” Lucas shouted from the cell to my left. “Say that to my face, you greasy rat!”

Cam just left the room and locked the heavy steel door on his way out. I waited. And waited. Finally, after about five minutes, little nozzles in the ceiling extended downward and began to spray out a fine mist. It didn’t have a smell or anything, but I shied away from it. The stuff settled on my skin and after a few moments the nozzles retreated back into the ceiling. The door unlocked and Tania Pienaar stepped through. She set her hands on her hips and looked at each of us in turn.

“If you are to work with the Guardians, you must sign the Writ of Chagakell,” she intoned, and she held herself with the cold composure of a queen. It felt like an insult to ignore her.

Kate had other ideas. “What did you do us?”

Tania glanced toward her. “You were all given a dose of non-lethal SPS. It nullifies the effects of most harmful spells and curses. Any other questions?”

“What’s a Guardian?” I asked.

She nodded as if she was expecting me to ask her that. As if I’m predictable. “A Guardian is a defender of truth and a preserver of life. A Guardian serves under the Vanguard to uphold human civilization. We are both the question,” she said, making eye contact, “And the answer. We are tied to no creed but our own. The world, to us, is objective, and innocent until charged guilty. Humanity and her sister species are our only priority. Peace is the goal. Love is the why.”

“Beautifully put,” Cameron interjected, emerging from the door behind her. “I didn’t want to interrupt your monologue.”

“Yet here you are,” Tania sighed. “You believe the boy here is the Firebrand? Looks more like a Stormcaller to me.”

Cameron’s voice dropped to a murmur. “I think he’s the grandson of Mark Jay.”

Tania nodded thoughtfully and turned back to me. “Do you know what you’ve gotten yourself into? It’s a commitment for sure.”

“I’m sorry,” I retorted, “I didn’t know getting kidnapped into the Academy was my choice.”

Cameron laughed and Tania stepped on his foot. “My error. You can speak to the Wardens when we get Crow in the sack. Now, though, the capture and elimination of Sadie Vios is our primary objective.”

        The laser gates fizzled out and a huge screen on the other side of the room lit up, displaying a world map and a ton of blinking red dots. Tania tapped one dot in the Midwest United States and the others disappeared. The map zoomed in to show a 3D view of our general area – urban Chicago and the waterfront. A single tower lit up red near the water, and the display also highlighted a curious underground facility and a connecting mesh of caverns.

She gestured to the facility. “That’s the Academy. You traversed the caves and surfaced at Port 6 several miles away, and we flew… Here.” Tania pointed to an office building labeled “Utonagan Heights.”

“Show them Crow’s signature,” Cameron offered.

Tania clicked a button on her remote and the map lagged a moment before highlighting at least a million little dots all over the Chicago area. “This is why we’re concerned.”

“Yeah?” I asked.

“Ideally, when we highlight a person, we get a scan of that individual.” Tania rebooted the map. “But when we attempt to get Crow’s scan, it highlights every human being in the area, and several signatures that shouldn’t exist. She’s managed to bypass every local Guardian sensor we’ve set up over the years, which totals at about sixty thousand.”

“That’s not good.”

“We think she’s planning something,” Cameron said. “Okay. Context. In our community, and some people call it the ‘Hidden World,’ social circles are a lot more traditional. Word gets around pretty quickly. We avoid the Internet and cell lines because it’s like sending up a beacon to any primordials – it’s like saying ‘Hey, come eat me!’ Sadie Vios – you know her as Crow – is a pretty notorious bounty hunter from the nation of Kaide. To give you an idea of how—”

Tania cut him off. “I know this story well. Forgive me. Kaide was a colossal trade route between the Hidden in Europe and the island country of Thule. However, about fifty years ago, Kaide simply disappeared. We visited the country – which was small, mind you – and everything was simply gone. Every city wiped clean off the countryside. Sadie Vios is the only survivor, and she’s proud of it. Some believe that she caused the event that erased Kaide from western Europe. Either way, the Netherlands have claimed the land and have neglected to make any official comment on the topic. They do, however, have a bounty out for Crow.”

“Crow has killed kings and beggars alike without a speck of remorse,” Cameron went on. “She may have destroyed an opulent Hidden country and scored a wealth of gold from it all. Now, she’s after the Guardians, and we believe that someone very powerful is paying her quite a sum for our heads. She rarely shows her face. Her presence at the Academy was unprecedented.”

“A bit of a wake-up call,” Tania clarified.

“And why do you need me?” I asked.

Tania bowed her head. “We founded the Academy Program in 1999. We began accepting humans to receive the hyacite serum in 2001. Prior alchemical studies have proven that hyacite is a fantastic catalyst for awakening underlying magical abilities – this spurred the hope that we could find a Firebrand by infusing them with the serum, which would spark their powers and prove their eligibility.

“Many years earlier, in 1945, World War II had just ended. We’d been warned about that crisis by an ancient text known as the Red Tome. Every major crisis has been foretold by the Tome. After the second World War ended, the text gave us a warning – something big would be happening right after the turn of the century. A Firebrand led us through both World Wars and worked with us to restore peace. But that one is dead now, so we realized that we’d need to find a Firebrand to save the world from an impending unrest. The Academy was our answer.” Tania took a breath. “Crow, we believe, is the first sign of this crisis. Your admittance is timely.”

I steeled myself for the challenge. “I’ll get training?”

“Naturally,” Tania replied, “But we must be quick. Cameron’s reported that you have already completed shielding and materializing – to great effect.”

“That’s true.”

“Perfect.” She folded her hands and bounced on her heels anxiously. “Next is blur .”

“What’s blur ?” I asked. “Cameron said it was something like seeing the future…?”

Tania barked out a quick laugh. “Close. It allows you to capture several possible results that may stem from a decision that you’re on the cusp of making. It takes incredible focus. Firebrands are known to go mad from picking stemmed results from their _blur _ palette.”

“That sounds dicey,” I admitted. “How do I get started?”

“Let’s start the tutorials after we get situated,” Kate suggested. “What can I do?”

Tania considered her and ran a brief scan on her wrist computer. “Ah… You appear to be a Beholder. I mean, you’re inhabited by the archetype of one. I suspect you lost a loved one when you were young. Perhaps a grandparent.”

“… My mother died when I was born,” Kate said carefully. “How do you know?”

The Guardian hummed thoughtfully. “The ways of the Wardens are not to be guessed at. If you are the host to an archetype – and we can test – then you will undergo conditioning and a repeated hyacite treatment. Perhaps we can awaken that archetype and bring forth the powers of your ancestor to you.”

“None of that made sense. But we’ll see.”

“We will.” Tania pointed at Lucas. “What are you?”

He turned up his nose and glanced at Kate and I as if to say, Is she real right now ? “I’m great. How ‘bout you?”

Tania shook her head. “Give me a moment.” She cued for her watch to take a reading. “Huh. Creator-class archetype in full force. This bezel-mined hyacite is more powerful than I was anticipating.”

“What?”

Cameron chimed in. “She means that you, Lucas, are a lot more powerful than you should be.”

Lucas shrugged, unimpressed. “I knew that.”

“Are we here to become Guardians?” Kate asked, and Tania stifled a laugh.

Another Guardian pushed through the door and poked his head in. “There’s a seminar for the Academy escapees in five.”

“Thank you, Dodds,” Tania intoned, and she turned to Kate. “The answer to your question is no. So, how about that Writ of Chagakell?”

PART TWO
THE OTHERWORLD

X ZHALO

I opted out of the seminar and instead headed to the barracks, which is where the Guardians had ordered Kate, Lucas, and I to camp out. The place was more like a broom closet turned bunkhouse. On my way to the canteen, however, I saw a door that had been left open, revealing a wide, dark room with one wall lined with huge computer screens… like a surveillance system. Each screen flickered with a weird logo right above a title card that read “Otherworld Liberation Company.”

Someone whispered in my ear. “This door was meant to be locked and shut.”

I turned. Maybe the lighting was messing me up, but the person standing there looked to be about twenty years old, even though he stood well above seven feet tall. His eyebrows arched like he was pissed at me, though he pressed his lips together in an expression of vague concern. His skin was pale blue, in sharp contrast to his glowing orange eyes. I didn’t know what to say.

The blue man extended his hand. “Sorry to startle you. My name is Junior.”

“Cole. Pleasure to meet you.” I paused. “Your name’s Junior?”

He folded his arms. “Junior Eos Kalkon. I am one of several ambassadors from the Unified Force of New Ishtar. I assume you’re a Guardian?”

“Uh, no.” I backed away from the surveillance room. “Just staying here for a bit.”

Junior rested his hand on the knife at his waist. “You’re no Guardian?”

“He’s not trespassing,” Tania called from behind the blue guy.

“Thanks,” I replied.

Junior shrugged and stepped aside. “Just staying cautious. Humans can be…”

Tania laughed. “I know. You’re not offending anyone when you say that.”

“Um…” I paused. “Not to offend you, but if you’re not a human…”

“I’m vohican,” Junior explained. “I’ve been called here from my home in Illicebra to aid in a study regarding an entity that the Guardians believe originated on my world.”

Tania snapped her fingers. “Cole, that’s why you’re here as well.”

“Good to hear.” I leaned on the wall beside me. “Anything else I should know?”

“The Otherworld Liberation Company is posing a threat to the Parisian rikes,” Tania explained. “We’ll send you and the other Acadians there.”

“That’s what you call us?”

“Atlas coined it when the program began,” she replied. “It’s easier than hyacitians or whatever the others proposed. Have you been briefed on the OLC?”

“No?” I made a mental note of the surveillance room and what had been flashing on the screens.

Junior Eos cleared his throat and spun his thumbs. “I think I’m needed at the bezel mine.”

“No problem. I’m just getting ready for the briefing this evening.” Tania turned to me. “Would you be fine with a quick trip to Europe at three tomorrow?”

Jesus. “Already?”

Tania gestured for me to look inside the surveillance room. The screens had changed. All of them combined to make up one big video feed that depicted a silent firefight taking place on a cobbled boulevard. Rain fell in sheets and it was dark enough that it might be midnight. Something in the distance caught my eye. A massive, triangular tower faded into the darkness as its golden lights shut off, section after section. The Eiffel.

“That’s not good,” I murmured.

“A group of militants in Paris started attacking local law enforcement stations earlier this week. We’ve responded but we haven’t been able to discover who’s controlling them.” She shook her head. “They have the same signatures as Crow.”

“You think they’ve got the same boss?” I asked.

Tania gave a bitter laugh. “We think Crow is their boss.”

“But she’s so young—”

“Don’t ever assume anything about your enemy,” Tania warned. “We’ve fought time-travelling, bodybuilding toddlers who ended up being billions of years old and housefly marsupials well into their second Space Age. Demigods only get worse from there.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” Her words echoed in my skull and I tried to force myself to focus on the issue at hand. But really, what had they gotten me into?

Tania shrugged. “There’s a briefing coming up soon, and I want you there because you didn’t attend the seminar.”

My cheeks flushed. “Sure.”

Tania’s mood faded and she allowed a small smirk. “This is important. Come with me.”

        She led me back past the barracks and into a theater-ish room that was taller than it was wide. A huge canvas had been hung from the ceiling over the stage and a projector lit up the place with an old laptop screensaver. A few dozen people were seated near the front, but for the most part the room was empty. I spied Cameron having an intense conversation with another Guardian at stage left. I would’ve joined him if Tania hadn’t decided to seat me with a ton of other Acadians I didn’t know.

        Someone messed with the laptop near the projector and the screensaver flicked away to reveal a browser tab containing some questionable content. The Guardian switched over to a PowerPoint presentation and cleared his throat to get our attention, as if that was enough to reach an entire auditorium full of people. More people trickled in until the place was mostly full. The lights dimmed. The Tech Guy finally got his moment.

“Greetings, Guardians and Acadians,” he began. “A decade and a half of hard work is finally about to pay off. I know how anxious many of you are right now, but if we handle it all right, this will be nothing more than a speed bump in our collective careers. We’ve got some UNI representatives here tonight, as well as the Firebrand himself, and I want us to give them all a hand for making it here.”

The auditorium erupted into applause that lasted a good fifteen seconds or so before it finally died down. Tech Guy went on. “As you all know, there’s been some strife at our Paris rikes. We haven’t lost any Guardians, but the Vanguard believe that this signals the initiation of the events foretold by the Red Tome. You know, the events that the Firebrand will help us through.”

The PowerPoint presentation flicked to a new slide that showed a few mugshots of the ever-elegant Crow. “This is Sadie Vios of Kaide. Professional bounty hunter. She has no digital or legal trail so it’s almost impossible to track her. Buuut there’s one thing that’s concerning about this profile. Any ideas?”

An Acadian on the other side of the room raised their hand. Tech Guy pointed in their direction. “Who’s her boss?”

Tech Guy snapped his fingers triumphantly. “Good, good. There’s that. But if you’ll look up here-” He pointed to an infobox at the top of the slide, “You might notice that she allegedly leads an organization by the name of HOC. There are two problems with this.”

“Crow has been tied to the Otherworld Liberation Company – we’ll explore that later – and why would a bounty hunter be the head of a militia? Also, if she’s connected to the OLC, then why would she reveal that she’s in charge of something called HOC? Just a few of the inconsistencies we’re dealing with. The objective of the Guardians deployed in Paris is to solve this riddle.” Tech Guy took a few steps back. “Do all the Acadians in the room have mentors?”

There was a resounding chorus of “yeah” and the guy on stage nodded to himself. “Okay, bring it back. We’ve still got a few things to cover.” He flipped to the next slide, which featured the Otherworld Liberation Company and its weird logo. “OLC. What can you all tell me about Otherworld?”

Someone nearby raised their hand and Tech Guy pointed to them. “They’re a private military, right? And they’re based in France.”

Tech Guy nodded. “Right. Who can tell me where they’re from?” Silence. He went on. “They were started by a few deserters from the US Navy, some Daesh extremists, and a few unknowns from Northern Europe. Now, they’ve got three leaders. It’s like a hydra. You cut one head and a few more pop up. Their American leader is Ed Scott. The Daesh leader is Amjad El-Hashem. But we don’t know who the third leader is. The thing is, each of these branches has a slightly different insignia, and the attackers in Paris are using a logo we haven’t seen before.”

“A chance to get a shot at the third leader…” I murmured, and the person next to me suggested that I say it louder. I did.

Tech Guy pointed to me. “Exactly. This kid just said what the Vanguard are thinking – if we gather intel on the OLC soldiers in Paris, we can get a shot at the third leader. Who’s up for it?”

The auditorium erupted into a mix of applause and hooting. I already had an idea of who the third leader was, and I got the feeling that the Vanguard knew too.

– - -

        I lay on my back and stared at the old, rickety fan that pushed the stuffy summer air out the window. Lucas snored in the bunk below me. Cameron was curled up on the floor in the fetal position, a sheathed sword clutched to his chest. I didn’t move. I allowed myself to breathe, but only barely. I felt like something was searching for me. Waiting outside. Lurking. I was mostly surprised that it was so warm out, given that Chicago is known for its lake winds. About halfway through the night, the fan sputtered out and died. It got cold enough by midnight that I forced myself to get up and slide the window shut. Then, of course, I caught a glimpse of what I was dreading. I backed down and tried to steady my breathing.

        Dozens of dark-clothed people crouched on rooftops nearby, staring at the window, holding either guns or knives – I couldn’t tell which. They stayed silent and completely still. I didn’t dare look out the window again. Instead, I woke Cameron. He shook his head and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

“What is it?” he whispered. “What’s wrong?”

I gestured toward the window. He took one quick look and let out a quick laugh. I let myself relax. “Aren’t you worried?”

“Oh, yeah. Wake Lucas. I’ll get Tania on the line.” Cam paused. “They can probably sense heat signatures. Don’t move unless I tell you to.”

“Right.” I slapped Lucas on the cheek and he punched the air in front of his face before coming to his senses. I gave him the gist of the situation while Cam rubbed the hilt of his knife with his thumb. Apparently the blade was a radio as well?

Lucas bit his lip and stared at the window. “What do we do?”

I took a deep breath. Goddamn. “Cam’s talking to Tania… I think. We’ll wait for orders.”

“I know how to use a knife,” Lucas said helpfully, pushing past me. I stopped him and he sat back down. “What?”

“We can’t move a lot.”

“Oh…” He considered it. “I get it.”

“They might sense us,” Cameron murmured, not even bothering to look up at us. “Okay. Okay. Tania’s extending the auxiliary palisade cannons on each cardinal. Until we’ve eliminated the nearest threats, I want you to keep your heads down.”

        I did the exact opposite of that. The Guardian complex – a rike, they called it – resembled a penitentiary. There was a central building surrounded by barbed wire fences and automated watchtowers. From these towers emerged huge railguns that trained red lasers on the assassins that dotted the rooftops. Most of them escaped in time, but a few lucky ones were caught by the cannons and vaporized by the slugs. It wasn’t unlike a fireworks show. When the laser fire died down, I watched ranks of Guardians march out of the gates to the facility, and it was one of the most terrifying things I’d ever seen. The Guardians held themselves like gods, glowing gold and decked out in armor that looked like it belonged in a museum. As I watched the battle from above, I noticed that each Guardian had a very different style of fighting. Some used conventional weapons, others used swords and warhammers, and a select few vanished into the shadows and decapitated assassins with their hands. Cameron tapped me on the shoulder.

“Atlas wants you two in the hangar,” he intoned. “We’re going to Paris.”

Lucas and I joined up with Kate and Cameron in the hall, and we took a cargo elevator down into the lower levels. A man stood next to a shuttle (that looked nicer than the Viaton 800), and he nearly dwarfed the vehicle. He was decked out in a suit of armor that elevated him a good foot above everyone else in the room. It was bulbous, metal-plated, and painted a rusty shade of military green. A colossal minigun was clamped onto his back, and the ammunition belt clanked every time he took a step. The man removed his helmet and cleaned the miniscule visor on a cloth sash that hung around his waist.

“This is Atlas,” Cameron said. “Atlas, these are my Acadians. Cole, Kate, and Lucas.”

The man looked up. His skin was terra-cotta, his face angular, like it had been carved from stone. Atlas’ eyes were bright though; a silvery kind of gray. “Acadians. A pleasure to meet you.”

I gestured to the armor. “That’s, uh…”

Atlas gave a proud smile. “Mark I, Galvon-class dynamo armor. I got it a few years ago on one of my trips to Kichaar.”

Cameron nodded. “One of the only models they made for humans. Or, you know, very small rephaim.”

Atlas laughed. “These are the heroes bound for Paris, yes? Good luck fighting Otherworld. They nearly tore me a new one back in Gaza.”

“You went to Gaza?” Cameron asked, his good mood fading. “How bad has it gotten?”

“Amjad is bombing the eastern rikes to smithereens. Some of the Vanguard are itching to plot counterattacks on a larger scale – as if this were a war.”

“Is it?”

Atlas shook his head and looked at the ceiling. “Word has it that depending on how the Paris encounter goes, the Initiator is considering contacting the Domains.”

Cameron let out a bitter laugh and unlatched the shuttle door. “Everybody, get in. And, uh, Atlas. Are you coming as well?”

He boarded the shuttle and poked his armored head out the hatch. “It’ll carry the weight, I’m sure.”

        We followed him in and the sliding door sealed shut. Atlas spouted a few factoids before the turbines kicked in. The shuttle was a Sroc Model 900 – sturdier and more powerful than any other Guardian shuttle, mostly because it was manufactured by the Gugamus Company. Atlas promised that their work was always sound. It had apparently helped the mysterious nation of Galvon survive more than a few wars. He refused to comment when I asked about the rephaim, or the dynamo armor, or the Gugamus Company. Cameron basically confirmed that they’re intelligent nonhumans, but nobody told me anything after that.

“Holy cocks,” Cameron exclaimed. “Atlas, is there any fuel in this thing’s tank…? Or is it malfunctioning? Oh, wait. Never mind. There we go.” The engines outside began to roar and we lifted up a few feet.

        The big steel hangar doors slid open and once they’d cleared the opening, we pulled out and over the Chicago sprawl. The sky was light blue, but wispy white clouds hung in a ring around the lake’s edge. I was finally alone with my thoughts, and the worst of them rose to the surface. My parents, back at home. What would they think? There was only one thing to do now that could help them forgive me.

I tapped Cameron’s shoulder and he glanced back. “Yeah?”

“Do you have a phone that does long distance calls?” I asked.

His expression softened. He dug around in his bag with one hand while piloting the shuttle with the other. Cam handed me a massive, clunky radio phone. “Hit 1 before putting in the number. And don’t hold it too close to your brain. This thing isn’t exactly new technology.”

        I held onto the phone and stumbled my way into the cargo bay of the shuttle. It wasn’t much quieter than the main cabin, but it protected me from the best of the turbines’ roars once the door was latched shut. I hesitated before putting in my mom’s number. Would she tell me to come home? Would she even answer? Do I want to go home?

It rung three times before she picked up. “Hello, this is Imogen Lee-Jaeger at Tripline Security.”

“Uh, hi. It’s Cole.” Fuck. I fucked up.

I heard her gasp. “Cole! Where are you? We’ve been looking everywhere. Your dad’s been… Oh, God. At least you’re alive.”

“I’m flying above Chicago,” I replied, my voice shaky. Don’t cry, I thought. Please don’t cry.

Her voice turned steely. “Give me context. I tracked down the Academy Program in Chicago. Are you… in a plane?”

We hit a spot of turbulence. “I’m with the Guardians… They’re a militia and they rescued me from the Academy. I’m… not coming home for a while.”

“Why? What’s happened?”

I kneaded my forehead. What’s happening? She’d understand it just as much as I do. “There’s a war coming and they think I’m the only one who can prevent it. So we’re going to Paris.”

“Oh, no you won’t—” She hissed, but the call ended and I stared at the tiny screen in confusion. Cameron slid open the door to the cargo bay. “What did you do?” I asked.

Cameron held up his hands in a mock surrender. “There were OLC operatives on the ground listening to your call. I couldn’t risk another attack. How’d it go, by the way?”

I took in a deep breath and tried not to be mad at him. “Really fucking bad. Didn’t you consider that I have family? This is all so impossible! How are you going to explain it to them?”

He was quiet for a few seconds. “Cole.”

“What?”

“Cole, there’s a world bigger than yourself.”

“Fuck you.”

“Okay, but do you get what I mean?” He sighed. “Your family will be worried, yes, but when it’s all over, they’ll understand.”

“I don’t want to go to Paris.”

Cameron looked at the floor. “I don’t have the authority to let you stay back.”

“So you’re saying that neither of us have a choice.”

“I’m sorry, Cole.”

“I know.”

He looked up at me and pointed to a long bundle of fabric that lay in the corner of the cargo bay. “You might want to grab that. It’s for you. You were supposed to get it in Paris but you might as well have it now.”

I leaned down and picked up the bundle, handing the phone back to Cam. “What is it?”

“It’s Zhalo. The blade of the Firebrand. Every Firebrand has wielded it throughout the years, and now it’s your turn.”

I let the cloth fall away and I balanced the silver sword in my hand. Dark ink had been etched into old Mayan patterns all down the blade’s length. “It’s beautiful.”

XI LUCIFEROUS Several days later in Idaho, USA

Valentine Avila stared deep into Amina’s eyes and she saw a great depth that taught her what she must do to escape Yemen. She glanced at Yahir, who disappeared into the next room, and suddenly Valentine felt weightless. The world faded around her and she rose through the ceiling, disassembling into a thousand tiny shards. Amina waved goodbye. Valentine floated up into the sky and vanished without a trace. Her re-entry into the world wasn’t so graceful.

She tumbled out of the sky and smacked into the wet grass and when she sat up, her entire left side was covered in mud and turf. Valentine picked herself up and surveyed the land around her. Rolling green hills, unnaturally vibrant, spread in every direction, the fields punctuated by trees. Brown mountains cropped up on the horizon. The air was heavy with moisture but it was oddly sweet. Valentine couldn’t place it. Besides all that, though, she felt at home. At least up until the grumpy golfers mounted over a hill and began to shout at her.

“What are you doing?” one of them shouted, waving his club. “You’re trespassing!”

“I didn’t plan on landing my ass here,” Valentine retorted. “Give me some time to get out of this grassy green pit.”

“I see you’ve got a attitude to match your ugly face!” the man shot back, but they let her pass without any further insults.

Valentine took to the top of the hill and looked out over her city. It was bigger than she remembered, yes, but it was still familiar. She headed out of the golf course and walked back to her family home. Camas Street. Squat suburban houses, flat sidewalks, a straight, unmarked road. Not much had changed. Valentine made her way back to her house and found that it had been replaced by a parking lot – right in front of a set of tennis courts. She scowled and knocked on the door of the nearest house.

A grizzled old man opened the door just enough to see the face of the disturber. “What do you want?”

“Uh, my house was in that lot next to you, where the parking lot is.” She paused. “How recently was the house torn down?”

The man shook his head. “Miss, that lot’s been there as long as I’ve lived her, since ‘88. I’m afraid you’re at the wrong spot.”

“No, my house was at 4513…”

He threw his hands up. “Sorry. There’s nothing there, never was.” He shut the door and Valentine just glared at the empty parking lot.

        But something was off. A young girl sat at a picnic table near the tennis courts – she had the same build as Valentine, though the teenager was much more willowy. Her hair was in a single braid down her back and she appeared to be reading out of a red book. When Valentine drew nearer, the girl beckoned her forward. Her face was deathly familiar.

Valentine stopped and sat at the table. “Do I know you?”

The girl gave a quizzical smile. “Elias was an awful liar.”

“Who are you?” Valentine asked. She knit her eyebrows and the girl just shrugged.

“Technically, I’m you,” she explained. “But right now, that’s not important. You were sent by Amina, right?”

“Yes.” Valentine paused. “What’s happening?”

“Again, not important. If Amina sent you, you need to help out a few of my friends on the other side of the Atlantic. I’m sorry you had to take a detour back here, to Boise, but…” The girl shrugged again. “This is the only place I could contact you. I don’t have the same freedom of voice that you do.”

“I need your name.”

The girl hung her head in mock protest. “Okay, but don’t freak out.”

“I won’t.”

“I’m Katherine,” the girl said, but Valentine’s jaw dropped and Kate disappeared on the breeze so she wouldn’t agitate her mother further. Valentine sat, frozen in shock, and she noticed that the man from earlier had been watching her from his window. She forced herself to move, and she tried to remember the look in Amina’s eyes. The other side of the Atlantic…

Valentine searched for answers. The colors of her mind, the binary in her footsteps, the code in the sunlight that fell around her. She pulled out what she sought, and maybe it was wishful thinking, but a single word bounced out of the fog. Paris.

“Kate,” Valentine whispered, attempting to pull herself out of Boise and into Paris. “You know Amina. I need some help.”

        The help never came, but Valentine managed it again. She drifted up above the grid of the suburbs and vanished into the clouds. This time, it was much more sublime. She caught a view of the hills and the mountains and the mesas and clattering vistas that poured down into washes of dust and brush. She remembered why she’d helped her mother choose this place as a new home after moving from Puerto Rico. It was dry, cold, and everything that Arecibo wasn’t. Valentine still longed to visit her old home, but she knew that the house had disappeared for a reason. Something beyond her scope of comprehension. The world was far bigger than her. She had to trust that.

        That’s what Amina and Yahir had taught her. Then Valentine tumbled out of the sky and into the center of a firefight in the City of Love, and suddenly the ghostly Eiffel Tower wasn’t so beautiful anymore.

XII CITY OF LOVE Several days earlier over the Atlantic Ocean

“Man, what the hell is that?” Lucas asked, staring at Zhalo as I took my seat in the main cabin. “I want one.”

I got defensive. “It’s for the Firebrand. Really sacred.”

Lucas frowned. “I feel like I’m gonna end up being the lame sidekick.”

Kate laughed and ran her finger through the condensation on the porthole. “Luke. You already are.”

“Shit.” He paused. “Okay. How do I get to be the Firebrand?”

Cameron leaned back from the pilot’s seat. “Wait a century or so until humanity finds something new to screw with.”

“Are you telling me that Firebrands are only good for patching up the mistakes that the rest of humanity makes?” I asked.

Cam shrugged. “Pretty much. Lucas, you’ll get to do some cool stuff too, probably. After all, it sounds like you’ve got a Creator archetype.”

“Oh, I know,” he replied. “But turning invisible isn’t the same thing as shooting fireballs.”

My patience ran out. “Can you give it a rest?”

Lucas folded his hands on his lap and gave me a wide-eyed stare that reminded me of how my preschool teacher used to look at me when I misbehaved. “Cole, I’ve got a few words for you.”

“Shoot.”

“You gotta stop acting like you have a stick up your ass. Learn to chill.”

I lit my index finger on fire and waved it in front of his eyes. “I forgot to chill once Mister Crazy Scientist decided that I’d be better off with radioactive gas in my veins.”

Cameron hunched over and very visibly checked out of the conversation.

“Feeling a little queasy, Cameron?” Kate called.

“Just finding a landing zone,” Cameron replied. He tapped the windshield. “It’s hot down there.”

I thought he was referencing the weather – it was rainy, cloudy, and probably freezing – but the cracks of gunshots were clear even at this height. Cameron punched a gear and the engines made an awful grinding sound, but the turbines kicked up again and the shuttle dropped into the center of a courtyard near rows of sloping streets and boarded-up restaurants. A crowd of Guardians jogged out of the shadows and helped us get out of the Sroc 900.

One of the Guardians shouldered my bag and directed us toward a café that was lit by candlelight. “Nous avons rassemblé ici.” She patted me on the back and went to help Kate and Lucas. I surveyed the café. Rows of sleeping bags had been set up against the far wall and reinforced crates of food were set out on the tables that hadn’t been smashed to bits. Guardian banners in French colors had been hung up from chandeliers.

Cameron leaned on the doorway. “Settle in. We’ll only deploy the Acadians if the Otherworld troops advance. Got that?”

The French Guardian nodded. “Yeah, we got it.” She gestured at me. “Que ferons-nous avec lui?”

Cam crossed his arms. “Le même.”

“What about a mem?” I asked.

“We’re speaking French for a reason,” Cameron explained. “I’ll tell you what you need to know.”

I caught the hint of a smile at the edge of his mouth. “Seriously.”

He caved. “Okay, she just asked what we’ll be doing with you, and I clarified that you’re no different than the others. Hang tight.”

“Is she fluent in English?”

“Castellan?” Cameron shook his head. “No, she’s not.” The rattle of gunfire started up again and it seemed closer this time. “It might be time for you to see what a battlefield looks like.”

I was numb to the idea. “Now?”

Atlas clattered into the café and lifted his minigun on one shoulder. “Hey, what’s the hangup?”

“Cole isn’t sure about fighting Otherworld.”

The armored warrior pursed his lips and pointed outside. “The troops with the new insignia are just around the corner. Castellan’s taking the shuttle down to Florence.”

I unsheathed Zhalo and stepped out and into the street. Cameron had no choice but to follow me. As if on cue, a bullet zinged past me and bounced off something that appeared and vanished almost too quickly for me to catch it. But I knew what it was: the flaming shield that I had learned to summon back in the Academy. Apparently it was an instinctive thing now? More confident now, I started down the street, wielding Zhalo in front of me, crossed by my chest in a guarding stance.

        I caught a glimpse of the OLC soldiers. They crouched behind blockades and poked their guns out at us. My shield caught every bullet and I mustered up the courage to go forward. Cameron set his hand on my shoulder. It was too loud to hear what he was saying, so I pushed forward.

        The rest was history. I purposely avoided killing the OLC soldiers. I knocked them out with blasts of hot air and the Guardian medics swept up after me. It did, at one point, melt into a sort of dance. I deflected their bullets, pushed aside the rain and turned it to steam, and hit them with blasts of air that didn’t sound unlike someone emptying their lungs into a tuba. The gunfire died down, the Guardians forced a surrender, and that little scuffle came to a halt. I sat down on the flagstones near the fountain at the center of the roundabout and I noticed that the rain had started to evaporate around me. Apparently I hadn’t cooled off from the battle. Atlas approached me and popped open his helmet.

“I didn’t realize you’re a pacifist,” he remarked. The raindrops made his armor shiny and slick.

I rocked back and forth. “I don’t think anyone deserves death.”

“Even people who fired on civilians and murdered a Guardian?” Atlas sighed. “A few months in a war will set your priorities straight.”

I felt something in my chest that was reminiscent of heartburn. “Don’t underestimate me.”

He gave me a sideways glance. “Cole. You’re a fresh Acadian without any real training. Without sounding condescending, it is worth it to listen to your elders.”

“I believe respect is earned.”

Atlas nodded slowly and began to walk away, but he looked over his shoulder before sealing his helmet again. “Then, Firebrand, I hope to earn your respect in the coming months.”

Cameron slipped past the fountain and sat next to me. “Do you know who Atlas is?”

“Yes?”

“He’s the Governing Commander of the Northern European Guardian chapter. Either you’ve impressed him or pissed him off.” Cameron shook his head. “Jesus. We’ll have to see if he orders me to have you terminated.”

“So I messed up.” That heartburn feel came back again. I knew that I finally cooled down again when the rain started soaking my hair and my clothes.

Cam laced his fingers together and lifted his eyebrows at me. “We’ll have to see.” He turned away, and his curly black hair suddenly seemed really long and unruly. “I’ll deal with it later. Also, uh, Lucas is feeling a little down. It might help for the mighty Firebrand to give him a pep talk.”

“Do people actually think that highly of me?” I asked. The idea seemed ridiculous.

“Yes, they do.” Cameron paused. “Lucas especially.” He didn’t wait for my reply. I mulled over that until the rainfall got heavy enough that I headed back indoors. I found Lucas on a soggy mat near the café’s counter. He stared at the ceiling until I sat near his head and caught his attention.

“We’re doomed,” Lucas murmured. “Doomed.”

I leaned back. “Why?”

“How did you even survive that firefight? They wouldn’t let me leave.”

“Shields.”

Lucas knit his eyebrows. “Shields?”

“Shields,” I replied.

“Okay.”

“What’s bothering you?”

He crossed his arms on his chest and let out a long breath. “I can’t figure you out.”

“What?” I asked. I let him talk.

“You seem so confident. I don’t know how you do it.”

“Really?” That seemed impossible. Uncertainty was the only emotion I understood after leaving the Academy.

“Can I have some?”

“Some what?”

“Confidence.”

Then I got an idea. I tapped his shoulder and left the café through the back door while all the Guardians talked near the fountain. Lucas stumbled after me and I told him to stay put when we reached the alley. I scanned the nearby roads for any onlookers, and then I returned to him. He was shivering – from either the cold or from sheer terror. I walked up to him until I was close enough that our noses were nearly touching, and then I clapped my hands as loudly as I could. Lucas sprang back and vanished from sight.

“Luke?”

His voice quavered from a little further down the alley. “Why’d you do that? You’re a dick.”

“You weren’t lying about the invisibility thing,” I mused. “Do you know how to turn it off?”

“I can, but I don’t want to.”

“Why?”

He coughed. “I don’t trust you.”

“I was just testing,” I defended myself. He didn’t seem convinced. Lucas flickered back into sight at the other end of the alley.

        I felt something weird, though, and I noticed that Lucas felt it too. It was like a sickly weight on the air. Something the rain couldn’t wash away. I felt my lungs tense up and I gestured for Lucas to come back to the café.

“You feel it too,” Lucas murmured, glancing up at the sky. “Is that you?”

“No.”

The miasma got thicker, and the back door to the café swung shut all on its own. Each end of the alley got fogged up with a heavy black mist and I sparked a fire in my right palm. When the fog began to glow, I regretted that I hadn’t brought Zhalo with me. Then a face formed and I recognized her instantly.

“Crow,” I hissed.

The face in the fog sneered at me. “Cole. You know you’re in over your head. This is your only chance to surrender.” I noticed the peering heads of her assassins who dotted the roofs above. They were enjoying this.

I didn’t know what to say, but I voiced my thoughts. “The Guardians will crush you.”

“They can’t,” Crow went on. “You know this. You know that nobody in their right mind would challenge them. Only an impossible army could overcome the Guardians and claim your light. I am leading that army. Paris is barely the beginning.”

“Say it in person if you want me to believe you,” I challenged. Lucas tapped my shoulder, and I turned around to face him.

Behind him, I saw Crow herself. The fog dissipated and she held out her hand, and a long hunting knife slipped out of her sleeve and into her palm. “I’d best bathe you in your own idiocy. Creator, get out of my way.”

Lucas refused, so Crow flung her knife at him. It curved through the air and, faster than light, Lucas snapped it out of the air and held it up above his head. “If you want him, you’ll have to get through—”

        One of Crow’s assassins dropped from a balcony above and landed on Lucas, and she grappled with him on the flagstones. Crow took her chance and leapt toward me, extending yet another blade that was aimed straight for my throat. I ducked, caught her ankle with my foot, and reached for Zhalo. But the sword wasn’t there. God. I formed a fist instead and slammed it on her skull, but she wasn’t there. In my confusion, she’d rolled aside. I barely managed to dodge a jab at my thigh. But with her on the ground, I had an advantage, and I saw only one path for me to take: I kicked at her face. The kick connected but she didn’t seem fazed. Crow kicked back and rolled to her feet at the other end of the alley. I picked up the knife that Lucas had dropped. It felt distinctly wrong.

“Give up, Crow,” I commanded. Naturally, she just laughed at me, so I slashed at the assassin at my feet and she yelped and disappeared into the streets near the fountain. “I’m not messing around.”

Crow threw up her hands in mock surrender. “I’ve got the entire House of Crows behind me, Firebrand. What are you going to do?”

I gestured behind her. “Nah. There’s just a few Guardians and a lot of guns.” It was true. I wasn’t counting on it, but the Guardians had heard the commotion and had patiently gathered behind Crow, waiting for a cue. Crow looked back over her shoulder, confused, and Cameron lunged at her. She disappeared in a column of smoke and the assassins above us dropped from the sky and the scene devolved into utter chaos.

Atlas let loose with his minigun, pinning assassins to the brick walls with bean bags instead of bullets. Lucas picked up a few of the bags and began hurling them at knife-bearing soldiers. Tania let out a shrill battle cry and flicked her wrists, and twin electric shock daggers dropped into her palms. She switched them on and blue bolts of energy buzzed and cracked along the sharp steel blades. Those were weapons that I definitely didn’t want to hit by. I clapped my hands together and my palms came away flickering with red tongues of fire. I lost myself in the alleyway battle and I’m sure that at least a dozen of Crow’s soldiers escaped the scene with third-degree burns. It felt good. It felt like all my frustrations, all my insecurities, all my shortcomings had left me. Then, when the fight died down, I found a bloodied note in an envelope at my feet. It had fallen from the pocket of a dead OLC soldier.

I picked it up and scrutinized the spidery handwriting. It was either written really hastily or the person writing it just didn’t care about what they were doing. Most of it was illegible, but some parts were sanctioned off in all capital letters.

Orders to Captain L. Székely …

Seize the Firebrand – anything else is of less concern than his capture. I want him alive. HE IS THE ONLY THREAT; ALKOU WANTS HIS HEAD. The Guardians will be dealt with by Medve – do not concern yourself with them. The Paris attacks are diversions – remember this. THE REAL FIGHT WILL OCCUR AT LAKE BAIKAL; this is by design.

If you fail to capture the Firebrand, order your legion to enact Operation Altai. Do not lose hope. Sumus dilectos Kaide. Alkou is counting on us.

Best regards,
Premier Sadie Vios

When I looked up from the letter, I noticed that the bulk of the Guardians were staring at me. They were worried. “These are orders from Crow.”

Cameron snatched them up and scowled as he ran over the words. “She just gave away all her plans on a flimsy piece of paper and didn’t even try to encrypt it. Uh… Are we missing something?”

Kate scratched her head. “Maybe we’re being tricked?”

“No,” Tania called, stepping out of the crowd. “I know about Sadie Vios.”

I nodded slowly. “Go on.”

“I know this may be sad, but…” Tania paused and glanced at the orders. “Despite her ingenuity, Sadie is still prone to relying on antiquated methods of doing things and often fails to realize that there are more efficient ways of getting the same things done. Ergo, she was likely hoping that her captain would escape the battle alive and return the orders as a sort of proof of purchase.”

“Just how advanced are the OLC soldiers?”

“These aren’t necessarily Otherworld,” Kate noted. “Crow did say that she had the House of Crows behind her.”

“Egotistical,” I muttered. “Uh, okay. What do we do with this information?”

Atlas looked up from his wrist computer and let a smile spread on his lips. “Say no more. I’ve located Lake Baikal, which was mentioned in the letter. It’s the world’s deepest lake, and it’s in Siberia. Northern Asia.”

“Wonderful,” Cameron said, and he handed me the note. “I don’t know much we can do now. The leaders of the Parisian rikes are in charge here.”

I raised my hand. “What’s a rike?”

“The Guardians of Humanity guard humans, right? That’s our job. Each of our chapters are in charge of a region, and rikes are outposts dotted all over the place. The Parisian leaders are in charge of regional Guardian operations here,” Cameron explained.

“I get it. So we hang tight until we get orders.”

“Crow’s not done here,” Atlas assured us. “We won’t be missing much by remaining here.”

I fluttered the orders I’d picked up from the dead captain. “It’s written here that the Paris attacks are diversions.”

Tania tilted her head. “Oh.”

“Civilians are dying,” Lucas noted. “Do we just leave them to Crow?”

Kate shook her head. “Crow’s not here. She disappeared in a…” She shivered and her eyes flashed red for an instant. “A pulsobeo. I’m sorry… I don’t know where that came from. What’s a pulsobeo?”

Atlas grew distant. “Odd. A pulsobeo is an ancient manner of travel used by a lot of Hidden criminals.”

“You have the Beholder archetype,” Tania explained. “We reviewed this earlier. You will slowly absorb the Beholder’s knowledge until you fully assume the role.”

She seemed bewildered, but the discussion was interrupted by the roar of a passenger jet flying overhead. When it passed over the alley, I saw ropes of flame tearing off its wings. Moments later, I heard a colossal explosion nearby. The Guardians all moved in that direction and I followed. That deep feeling of dread only grew worse.

XIII PEREGRINE

The downed jet met its end in the phallic pool on the other side of the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. Smoke rose in towers and the rain had stopped, though the clouds were still dark and heavy. We tore through the streets and we reached the grassy expanse near the Seine – much of it was strewn with plane wreckage. Local police were already on it. Tania and Atlas cordoned off an area and Cameron led us and the other Guardians to a few statues near the pool. I caught my breath.

        The Eiffel had gone dark. Paris police marched around with their dark uniforms and assault rifles. They kept a wary eye on the Guardians, but I found it impossible that the Guardians could just march in here without talking to someone first. Besides the crackling fires in the fallen plane, the city was silent. For once, all the gunfire had died down. This plane crash was big. I didn’t try to guess if there was anyone on board, but by the looks on the faces of Tania and Atlas, it was a big loss.

“These were members of the Peregrine Legion, coming to help,” Atlas shouted, gesturing to the downed plane. “Honor them. It’s believed that OLC took them down when they entered the city airspace.”

Behind him, Tania defenestrated a box of snacks, which split its side and spilled dozens of packets of pretzels all over the turf beside the worst of the wreck. Cameron tapped my shoulder and pulled me aside.

“I know how tough this is. Do you still have Zhalo?”

“No…” I replied, but as I checked my belt, I noticed that the blade was there in its sheath. “Actually, yeah. I do. Why?”

Cameron rubbed his hands together. “There are a few legends about how the First Firebrand got that sword.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Thousands of years,” Cameron sighed. “Like they tend to be. The first records are Incan, from South America.”

“Go on.”

“The stories say that wherever the Firebrand walked, ponds and oceans would dry up so he wouldn’t have to get his feet wet. Typically, among demigods like him, it was honorary to take everything from those who would refuse their word. Anyways, there was a particular pond who wouldn’t dry up for the Firebrand because it thought that he was just an upstart. So he bullied the pond until a pale hand extended from the lake, gave the him Zhalo, and then the Firebrand evaporated the pond for refusing to obey his rule.”

“The First Firebrand sounds like an asshole,” I remarked. Cameron laughed.

“He was. Other people say that Zhalo was forged by a legendary warrior in Greece, but European myths tend to have a little less dazzle to them. Does the myth about Zhalo sound familiar?”

I got Excalibur vibes from the pond thing. “It sounds like the Lady in the Lake.”

“Excalibur and Zhalo are kinblades,” Cameron explained, “Meaning they’re connected in power. They’re both iterations of the Firebrand’s signature weapon.”

“You mean…” I looked down at the sword. “This was Excalibur at one point?”

Cam nodded. I’d taken in so many crazy things that the idea didn’t even faze me. Like, I would’ve had the same reaction if Cameron told me that my entire destiny was to fight off an army of space spiders and then die immediately afterward.

Cameron shrugged. “The Hidden world is crazy that way. Everything’s connected. And—”

        He was cut off by a colossal explosion within the plane. I ducked behind the statue, but I saw enough to notice the bodies that were thrown away from the jet or torn by the shrapnel. Between the buzzing in my ears and the clanking of falling bits of metal, all I could hear were gunshots and frenzied shouts from the surviving Guardians. Cameron set Zhalo in my hands and disappeared into the smoke.

        My first strike was an accident. An OLC soldier jumped up at me through the dust and I forced the blade forward at him, and it grazed off his ribs but left a gaping hole there nonetheless. He stopped, looked down at his midriff, and disappeared in a storm of amber sparks, like those that would shoot up from a bonfire.

I made a sound that I couldn’t even sort out, tears breaking on my face. Every sense of reason left me. A man just died by my hand. I tossed Zhalo away and curled up on the turf. I prayed that it would all end. That the chaos around me would dissolve like a dream. But it didn’t. No matter how hard I clutched my ears, the shouts and gunfire remained. Despite the noise and the blood, something happened inside my head. Something weird. Something alien. Zhalo began to speak to me.

Get the fuck up , Zhalo whispered. I knew it was the sword because immediately after, it said, Use me to take out that OLC general. Nobody else has noticed him yet.

        I clambered around in the dark and gripped Zhalo around the hilt. It buzzed once and I looked up at the battlefield. There, beyond the smoke, away from the jet stood a man dressed in formal military wear. He drew a magnum from his belt and aimed it directly at me. Oh no.

Zhalo grumbled again. Rely on your instincts. It’s the only way you’ll make it out of here .

        I rolled to the side to avoid the bullet that punched into the soil to my immediate left. Then I came to my feet, charged up a fireball in my left hand, and hurled it at the general. He tried to dodge it, but the whirling ball of flames tracked him and struck him on the shoulder. The blaze erupted around him and he started to scream in agony, despite the rain. I slashed his arm with Zhalo and the blade did the honors. The general erupted into sparks like the soldier before him. I was numb.

Don’t be so blue , the blade chided me. You’ve got to get used to killing if this is going to be your choice career .

“Am I dreaming?” I asked, and Zhalo reminded me that it’s possible to think to the sword instead of speaking aloud.

No, you’re not. You’re my master now and I think it’s high time you get some grade-A assistance from everyone’s favorite talking sword . The sword paused. You know, you are a bit of a softie. This might take a while .

Thanks,  I replied.

Another voice – slightly muffled – spoke from the blade as well. Nakir, you can go fuck yourself. This kid has a battle to fight .

        The first voice, Nakir, and the muffled one started to argue, and I took Nakir’s advice. I joined the fight and dispatched any OLC guys I could find. They’d converged on the jet from every direction. It was clearly a trap. I didn’t know how many Guardians survived, but I could tell from the golden flashes that burst every so often in the smoke that at least a few remained. Enemy soldier after soldier dissipated into clouds of whirling sparks until the gunfire died down and all I could hear were crackling flames and heavy, wheezing breaths. I sat down in the muddy grass and tried to fall asleep. But my eyes stayed open and all I could think about was Lucas’ mangled body, perforated with bits of scorched metal.

The daydream nightmares melted away when Lucas sat down before me and waited for me to focus on him. It didn’t take long. “Kate is gone. A few of the French Guardians didn’t survive either. I’m sorry.”

“Kate’s gone,” I echoed. “No.”

“I’m sorry.”

I didn’t say anything for a while after that. The remaining Guardians held a vigil by the Eiffel and we returned to the café for the night. Lucas put his cot next to mine and he knocked out the moment his head hit the canvas. I dreamed of two tiny boys, both dressed in rags, one with coal black skin and the other was snow white. Their eyes glowed gold and blue, switching between the colors intermittently. They stared at me for hours. I finally asked their names.

“I am Nakir,” one answered. The other said, “Munkar.” Then, in perfect unison, they both intoned, “We are Zhalo.”

“I’m Cole,” I replied.

Nakir rolled his eyes and broke the surreal image they’d been giving off. “Yeah, we know. That’s why we’re here.”

“No need to be a hardass about it,” Munkar mumbled. “Cole, we understand you’re going through hard times. Kate’s dead, apparently. Lucas has seen too much for someone his age and it’s taking a toll on him. The world is falling apart. And only one person can save it.”

Nakir interjected. “Cole, not to surprise you or anything, but that person is you. The last few Firebrands did their jobs well. I’m not counting on you to get cold feet about this saving-the-world business.”

I shook my head and surveyed the graying outlines of this weird dream world. “Whatever. Where are we?”

Munkar pointed behind me – space seemed to curl around a single glowing point. Behind the twins, the world turned dark on the horizon. “We’re inside Zhalo.”

I pushed aside the confusion. “So the point behind me is the tip of the blade.”

“Right,” Nakir crowed, clapping his hands. “Brilliant. I love how you can ignore your emotions and just focus on analyzing things. It’s so rare with humans nowadays. You’re all so emotionally-obsessed.”

“Thanks?”

“It’s not a compliment,” Munkar said helpfully. “So, you’ve killed a man. A few, actually. You’re on the right track. Soon, you’ll become numb to it. Some people even enjoy it.”

“I don’t really want that,” I admitted.

“Then how to do you expect to save the world?”

They both stared at me intently. “I don’t.”

“Firebrands are always such downers,” Nakir sighed. “Munkar, should we tell him?”

Munkar shrugged. “Amina didn’t seem to mind the idea. Shoot.”

Nakir looked at me again. “Cole. Someone scary will show up when you wake. You need to vouch for her. She’ll be a little weird, but the stars have plans for her and you alike.”

“Okay,” I replied. Nakir and Munkar high-fived each other and with that smack, I sat up so fast that I’m sure I gave myself whiplash. Lucas leapt back and raised his knife.

I shook my head and looked at him. “What?”

“That was the fastest I’ve ever seen anyone wake up,” he said. “God. You have a bad dream or something?”

“Kind of.”

Lucas gave me a wry smile, despite the mood that haunted the place. “Kind of isn’t a good answer.”

“It was some weird shit,” I admitted.

“Let me guess,” he said, “You were talking to someone.”

“Do I talk in my sleep?”

“You did this morning.”

“Fuck.”

“It was…” Lucas paused. “It was a little weird. I couldn’t make out what you were saying.”

Good , Nakir murmured, and I heard Munkar snicker. For whatever reason, Munkar’s voice was always muffled. Nakir’s was the clear as day.

“Yeah,” I said. “Weird.”

Several sharp cracks rang out from the front door, and a militant woman stood there, arms crossed, dressed up in US military attire. Atlas (now clad in simple jeans and a flannel) greeted her. The rest of us looked on, too tired to do anything. “Guardian post 117. Atlas Handel speaking. We didn’t request a consultation with an Army jarhead.”

The woman cracked a smile. She looked oddly familiar. “I appreciate the praise. I was sent here by… Well, I’m not quite sure. My daughter said that she had friends in need of help in Paris. I was directed here.”

“Your daughter?” Atlas asked, lifting an eyebrow. “We might know her name.”

“Katherine Avila.”

The place went silent and the woman just nodded. “I know, strange things have been happening around me as well. Can I be of assistance?”

Atlas coughed. “Um, well… One of our operatives, Kate Avila, died in the line of battle last night. We held a vigil by the Eiffel. When did she contact you?”

She looked confused. “Hours ago. Would it be too much trouble for me to relay my story? It might help clear all this up.”

– - -

Valentine sat at the center of a large circle of Guardians and she looked at each of us in turn before beginning. I studied her. Like Kate, she had high cheekbones, dark skin, and smooth black hair tied in a braid over one shoulder. Her eyes were deep and thoughtful, but also critical in a startling way. Like she was reading all of us. I felt exposed.

“I fought for the United States in Yemen years ago, and I was killed by a blast. Yesterday, I was brought back and I met a friendly local woman named Amina, who told me that I’m a Beholder. I still don’t know what it means, but she taught me the art of quick travel, which I used to reach my family home in Idaho. There, well…” Valentine stared at the floor. “My daughter came to me and told me to come here, to Paris. I think she could only speak to me there because we both have a connection to home. But…”

“I’m sorry,” I murmured.

Valentine looked up at me and her eyes flashed red for just a moment. “Cole. Kate thinks highly of you.”

“Excuse me?”

I noticed, in my peripheral, the Guardians tensing up as if they saw Valentine as a threat. She ignored them. “I’m still getting used to this role as Beholder. I feel like an encyclopedia has been dropped into my brain.”

The tension broke when Atlas let out a bellowing laugh. “My, my. That’s a very apt way of putting it, my Hidden friend. I knew Kate’s bond sister would show her face at some point after her arrival.”

“Do I belong here? I know the Guardians to be…” Valentine searched for the word. “The Guardians can be chancy.”

Cameron and Tania exchanged looks. He spoke up. “Our PR officer isn’t present, so unfortunately we can’t make an appeal.”

Valentine gave an easy laugh. “If you insist. So, what are we doing here?”

I raised my hand. “We’re defending Paris from a private military called OLC.”

She looked suddenly confused. Like she knew the name. “OLC. Otherworld?”

“Yeah, why?”

“We need to get out of Paris,” Valentine went on. “I… Kate has memories of Chicago. I see it in ruins.”

Tania and Cameron exchanged glances again. “The Academy,” Tania said softly. “Is OLC planning an attack there?”

“No.” Valentine Avila asked for one of the Guardians’ small radio screens and coded into an American news network. When the static cleared up, we watched the chaos unfold.

        True, Chicago was in ruins. Fires blazed across the cityscape and great towers of smoke stretched up into the night, but one thing caught my attention. A massive barge sat on the water’s edge and hurled odd flaming missiles into the city, which struck towers and took chunks out of the high-rises. I heard sirens. Explosions. Then the video feed cut and I realized that the news helicopter had been brought down by something else as well. Valentine turned off the screen.

Tania switched on her radio and waited to see if anyone was listening. “Eiffel Rike 056 to Chicago Rike 007, do you read me? This is Tania Pienaar, requesting entry.”

It took a moment, but then she was patched in. A gravelly voice answered. “Tania. This is Chicago Rike 007. The city’s getting torn apart. OLC has been blocking our outward calls. Assistance would be—” I heard something that sounded like a bloodied cough. “—Much appreciated.”

“We’ll be there as soon as possible,” Tania replied, but the call had already ended. She slammed her hand on the table. “Valentine, thank you for arriving. I want you with Cameron, Cole, Lucas, and I. The rest of you – make sure Paris doesn’t go to Hell.”

XIV BANKASH  50K

Tania took the shuttle down behind a huge wall of concrete near one of the old Guardian bases, which had been reduced to a pile of steel and rubble. The wall was there, Cameron informed me, to block attacks like those from the lake. I doubted it would block those jet-sized missiles, but he assured me that the Guardians are known for their resilience. We stocked up in an abandoned supply closet and started toward the barge.

“Surprise strike mission,” Cam quipped, calling over his shoulder as we traced through the abandoned city blocks. “Sorry for the scene change. Our mission right now is to board that barge and sink it. Or, you know, get it to stop obliterating Chicago. Anybody afraid of water?”

We didn’t have time to reply. As we rounded a corner, an OLC straggler fired off a few shots in our direction, but Tania loosed a bolt and he jolted back, melting into streaks of smoke as he fell. Now, the city was mostly quiet, save for distant gunfire and crackling fires. Every ten minutes or so, though, there would be a colossal crash and I knew that it was the missiles we’d seen back in Paris. None of them struck near us.

The quiet allowed for some much-needed conversation. Valentine did the honors. “I have a theory about OLC and their leaders.”

“Yes?” Tania asked, only half-listening. She used her watch to scan for… Threats? Doughnut shops? I had no way of knowing.

“Otherworld Liberation Company was founded by Amjad El-Hashem and Edward B. Scott in 1987 as a private military built as a way for mercenaries to connect and profit off each other …” Valentine faltered. It sounded like she was reading from an encyclopedia. “In 2003, when the Guardians got some press and Bin Laden got on the United States’ most wanted list, OLC went underground… And dug roots in Thule… Tania, does any of this sound off?”

“Sounds correct to me,” Tania offered. “So OLC didn’t begin as a Hidden organization?”

“No, but …” Valentine slowed again. “There’s a city in Thule. Bardagoff is the name. OLC is, or was, based there. They met Sadie Vios, and … Integrated with her House of Crows.”

Cameron stopped. “Crow was in the Academy since 2000, when the whole project was founded. How did she meet with OLC leaders in northern Europe when we have evidence that she was here?”

“Valentine, how much of what you’re saying do you understand?” Tania asked.

“None of it,” she admitted.

Tania shook her head and powered down her watch. “The woman’s elusive. Hidden operatives aren’t unknown to use shades or gemini to mask their whereabouts. It’s possible that Crow broke Academy security by making it appear as if she were there when in fact it was a shade. Cameron, do you have access to scans that go back that far?”

“Not on me, no.”

Tania turned to me and began to walk backward, which didn’t seem like a great idea, given all the rubble that littered the street. “Cole. You can use blur , right?”

“I can try,” I replied.

“I’ll need you to figure it out before we reach the barge. Blur  readings can map out signatures better than our scanners can, and, well …” She cracked a grim smile. “All of our scanners are destroyed or buried.”

“I get it,” I said. I hesitated, but I felt a familiar rush in my chest, and all I had to do was tug my mind back … “I’ll do what I can.” At that, my mind switched into blur , like someone else forced the switch. Munkar’s whispers gave it away.

        I thought it was going to be a mental thing, but it was almost purely visual. The world turned gray, but opportunities lit up vibrant emerald and azure. Shafts of light fell through the air and highlighted steps I could take, things I could pick up, and most jarringly, enemies crouching behind distant walls. They glimmered violet and their guns were deep black. Time slowed when one of the soldiers leapt out, raised his gun at us, and glittering amber bullets tore through the air directly toward my throat. It all happened in an instant. Faster than the bullets, Lucas dodged in front of me, flickered silver, and caught them before they could strike my skull. Time went back to normal and he hit the concrete to my right with a roll.

Tania’s silenced machine gun silenced the soldier and I bent down to check on Lucas. He grinned and opened his palm to reveal two smoking bullets and two red burns on his hand. “I’m alright. Are you?”

“Yes.” I helped him up. “Thank you.”

Lucas leaned down and dropped the bullets into my pocket. I stood stock still. “It’s the least I could do,” he offered.

I waited a moment and glanced at Cameron, whose brows were knit as he stared down the block. I asked, “What’s the most you could do?”

Cam groaned. “Hey lovebirds, we’ve got a barge to sink.”

“Chill,” I told him. But I was a little giddy inside.

        We continued toward the waterfront and Tania explained how with a mysterious substance known as FSM, we could simply make a boat on the spot. Lucas was, of course, extremely curious about FSM, so Valentine did the explaining.

“It’s, uh…” Valentine stumbled over her words a bit before beginning. “FSM is a replication of dark matter… But it’s tangible. It’s primordium that we can control. The Guardians commissioned it back in 1608 by Lillian DuChovny. We can use it to create almost any material, and it will revert to its natural state when we’re done with it.”

Tania opened her handbag and presented a handful of silvery cubes. She punched a code into her watch and the cubes melted into the shape of a rubber duck with a puff of steam that didn’t smell unlike aerosol. “Voilà.”

Valentine nodded slowly. “Uh, yes. That appears to match the records, which were taken in, uh, 1610. I think. My predecessor didn’t put much work into the illustrations, to be absolutely honest.”

Cameron hummed thoughtfully. “How strong is your archetype? You seem to have full access to the Red Tome.”

“Could you use language that I’ll readily understand?” Valentine requested, and Cam nodded hastily.

“How easy is it for you to fetch the information you need?” he asked.

Valentine rolled her eyes. “The info pops up automatically. Like I’ve known it my whole life. The hard part is translating from the language my predecessor inscribed it in.”

Cameron and Tania exchanged shocked looks again and I started to resent it. Like they could communicate without talking. We moved on without comment and soon the waterfront was in sight. The barge was a lot bigger than it’d seemed from Paris. A huge cannon sat on the front deck, the muzzle still red and smoking from firing its last weird rocket. The OLC logo was emblazoned in orange on the side of the vessel. A swarm of crows and other assorted harbingers of death had gathered near the cannon, unfazed by the blasts.

“She’s got all of Odin’s keepers at her back,” Cameron gaped. He turned to us. “Who’s ready to fight some crows?”

He didn’t even get the last word out before one of the black devils dove at his face and drew blood. Cam shouted after it and the bird just laughed at him, crying back in a raucous voice. “Bite me, sequer scum!”

Valentine actually laughed. “If all we’ll be fighting are birds, we may as well just board the barge right now.”

        Tania just shook her head and tossed a handful of the silvery cubes into the water, and they ballooned up to form a shiny little motorboat. The Guardian climbed in without much incident and drew her bronze crossbow, whose tip smoked a bit like the cannon on the water. We followed. Cameron took a short break from cursing at his avian assailant, which circled above and continued to hurl insults down at us. Valentine kicked the boat into gear and we jerked over the waves, getting ever closer to the barge.

“Won’t it blow us out of the water?” Lucas asked.

Cameron tapped a small flask on his belt. “Nah. I’m a Guardian of the Wolf – we’ve got a few tricks up our sleeves.” I didn’t catch what exactly he did, but when he waved his hands in the air and tendrils of smoke spread from his fingertips, the world beyond the boat melted together like watercolors. I told a wild guess and assumed that he’d rendered us invisible.

I pointed at the barge, and now I could see its name clearly, which was printed in red and black on the side. “The Vesuvius. How much firepower does OLC have at its disposal?”

“Enough to bring down a trash heap like this,” Tania grumbled, slapping the side of the boat. She steered our dinghy toward the barge and soon it was more like a looming wall of steel and concrete than a warship. When the cannon fired, it was less earsplitting and more like it made my insides turn to jelly. The water around us ceased to roll and instead bounded up and down like we were floating on top of a massive, vomit-inducing trampoline.

        Tania stood up and fired off a bolt from her crossbow. A deadly-looking hook buried itself into the metal hull of the barge and drilled itself in all on its own. She tightened the rope, jumped, and began to climb the boat’s edge. When Tania reached a small balcony and a maintenance door on the side, she let down a rope and gestured for us to follow. Then she disappeared inside.

        Valentine grabbed the rope and jumped up, but she shot up into the air about halfway through her arc like a gust of air had pushed her up toward the balcony. She grappled the rail and hoisted herself up after Tania. Cameron followed, but instead of swinging on the rope, he used his knife to cut into the steel like it was butter. Chunks of metal fell away and for the first time in my life, I was actually terrified of Guardian technology. He sheathed his knife, rolled over the railing, and waved down to Lucas and I.

“After you,” he offered, standing back on the rocking dinghy. I shouldered my pack and made sure that Zhalo was on my waist.

I bowed. “No, go ahead.”

Learn to accept an act of kindness,  Munkar chided me. I shook my head, grabbed the rope, and immediately realized how out of shape I was. I relied on my feet more than I’d like to admit. Lucas followed after me and when we reached the balcony, I saw that only Cameron had bothered to wait for us.

“Did you grab my pack of FSM?” Cameron asked.

I scowled. “What?”

“The invisibility stuff I poured in the boat. Did you pick up my flask?”

“No.”

Cam shook his head. “Oh well. I’ll have to grab it on the way out.”

Lucas cackled and headed inside. “Yeah, right.”

“Do we even know where we’re headed?” I asked.

Cam shrugged. “Well, yes. The fusion cores for the cannon is where we’re headed. It’s clearly a Bankash 50K, which is the same type of gun we use on siege missions. Good armament, built by the rephaite company Gugamus. Each Bankash is controlled by a fusion core deep below the deck. All we have to do is destroy or deactivate that and escape in the ten seconds that it gives us before it detonates all its shells.”

“Ten seconds?” My blood went cold and Cameron just laughed.

“Hey, man. Don’t get cold feet now. It always works out.” He paused. “ Besides , you’re a Firebrand, right? Fire wouldn’t do much to you anyways.”

I had my doubts. Tania sniffed out the path to the core and I couldn’t help but notice that the halls were suspiciously absent of Crow’s OLC lackeys. Maybe it didn’t need a crew? Despite the fact that nobody had cared to tell me about the rephaim or the Gugamus Company, I recognized that something was off. If Gugamus was a supplier of the Guardians, and OLC was getting supplies from Gugamus…

        As they tend to, an OLC guard strolled out of an intersecting hall and immediately reached for the gun on his belt upon seeing us. I tried to vaporize him, but Tania lunged forward, deflected my fireball, and nabbed the man’s gun. Cameron held him up against the wall, shutting his windpipe. I didn’t think he was trying to kill him, or else he’d be dead already.

“Who pilots this ship?” Tania growled. The man took a deep breath when Cameron released him.

The guard held his throat for a moment before answering. “General Luthor Sivaan-- Don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me.”

Cameron rolled his eyes. “Tania, prepare a stasis belt.”

        Tania nodded and picked a band of metal from her pack – it turned from black to violet depending on how the light hit it. She wound it around the man’s wrist and depressed a button. When she did, he started to glow a vibrant blue and went stock still. Only his eyes kept moving, and he stared at me unceasingly until he disappeared in a flash of blue.

“That man just recruited himself for the Guardians,” Tania explained. “He didn’t die.”

Lucas lifted an eyebrow. “That didn’t sound like he was volunteering to join you.”

“Faith, Lucas,” Cameron sighed, moving further down the hall. “Have faith.”

        We didn’t ask any more questions. Every time the cannon fired off a shot, the entire barge lurched a little, throwing off my balance. I tumbled into Lucas more than a few times and he never seemed to mind. My left side got very familiar with the way a steel wall tends to scuff things up a bit. I collected more than a few bruises.

– - -

        The wide pathway that led to the core of the Bankash 50K was a different story – guards stood around, rotated shifts, told stupid jokes, and generally crowded the place. There was no way to make it through undetected.

Cameron crouched down and ushered us behind a corner. “I’ll get the ones in the hall. When the others come looking, I want you to incinerate them.”

“Will do,” I replied, and it all started faster than I wanted it to. Cameron knocked out the guards who watched the hall, and I heard a few shouts when their friends noticed the men collapse.

        Two of them rushed in and I hit them with twin fireballs. Both of the OLC men broke into clouds of sparks. But nobody else came through. I was positive that there had been more than four guards in the core room. My heart raced. This wasn’t in the plan. Then I felt an unfamiliar hand on my shoulder, and I whipped around and shot out my foot, which caught the person’s ankle and dropped them to the ground. I loosed a blast of flame from my right hand, but the fire just washed over a bluish shield and when that dissolved I saw who lay underneath.

Lucas stood up and shook his head. “Sorry. I’m gonna go in there.” He vanished from sight and I was left speechless.

Hop to it , Munkar whispered, and I heard Nakir’s encouraging hums in the background. You were supposed to figure this out on your own, but Zhalo can turn into a dagger if you ask it to. Ask us to. But don’t expect us to comply .

“Turn into a dagger,” I murmured to the blade, and it felt surreal when the thing actually shrunk into the form of a gilded knife. It vibrated lightly and I took it into the room after Lucas. For some reason, Cam and Tania didn’t follow. The scene inside the room was silent but terrible.

        Valentine – a red blur, rather – dashed around from guard to guard, snapping their necks so quickly that the air around her crackled and hissed in the crimson light. Lucas was still invisible, but I noticed a guard getting quietly strangled by an unseen assassin in the corner and I knew who it was. I’d avoided looking at the core itself but now it demanded my attention. The thing was a mishmash of woven steel and ribbed cords, all of which curled around a glowing blue sphere that didn’t look unlike a pulsing heart. When all the guards were down, Tania and Cameron slipped into the room and began to fiddle around with the control panel. I kept watch.

“Ten seconds, right?” Lucas asked, fizzling back into sight next to me. I acted like he hadn’t startled me.

Tania nodded. “Affirmative. Just follow us.”

Cameron waved me over. “Cole, I need you to overheat the sphere in the middle until it turns red.”

“Will there be any other warning sign that it’s about to blow up?” I asked. The globe rolled and hummed cheerily and I tried not to think about the firepower that lay within that cannon.

Cameron rolled his eyes and stepped back toward the door. “It might beep. Are you ready?”

        I quelled my nerves and set a constant stream of flames on the sphere. Lucas, Valentine, and Tania moved nearer to Cam and watched me anxiously. I tried to stop shaking but it was hopeless. I shuddered and watched the sphere, turn purple, pink, rose… Until it glowed blood red and a terrible blaring alarm started to sound.

        I couldn’t hear Cameron’s shouts, but I watched his mouth open and we followed him down the corridor, trying to keep myself from tripping on my own feet. I started the countdown in my own head. Ten, nine, eight … Then we rocketed off the balcony, tumbled into the dinghy, and I grabbed Lucas’ hand. He’d landed in the water. But Tania… She did something to the substance in the bottom of the boat and the air twisted around us, just as the Vesuvius detonated, throwing white flames after us. I watched the cannon explode like a tornado of fire, curling up in a pitch black mushroom cloud above the lake. I realized why the world was swimming around us – Tania had activated an energy shield. Thank God for that.

“Another Bankash gone to dust,” Cameron sighed. “We need to get out of here before that barge starts to sink.” Lucas rubbed his ankle and pushed back the denim. I caught sight of a bleeding cut but his expression told me to stay silent. Tania took us back to the shoreline… But something was wrong.

– - -

The boat was gone. I stood on the waves, and the sky glowed an awful orange. Chicago was in ruins. I felt the oppressive weight of the barge behind me, but all my attention was pulled to the silhouette who stood on the concrete wall before me. In one hand, they held a pistol. The other was raised in the air, as if saluting the sun. I felt a breeze and the person’s dark cloak caught on the wind and rippled back. Their hood fell back as well and I saw the ghostly face of Sadie Vios.

“You’ve awakened a terrible power,” she intoned, dropping her hand. “You’ve bitten off more than you can chew.”

“I’ve done nothing,” I challenged. The waves undulated under my feet and I fought to stay balanced.

Crow shook her head. “Firebrand. You have a great light that threatens to throw everything out of order. Otherworld, the Crows, and myself are here to make it all right. I can’t hold you like this for long, but… Soon you will have a chance to surrender.”

“Never.”

The vision began to shimmer away and she reached down her hand. The one with the gun. “Remember my words.”

XV LONG LIVE THE KING

“The city’s crawling with OLC and Crow’s soldiers,” Tania huffed, pulling me over the railing. “After the Vesuvius blew, it looks like they pulled in an entire division to wipe us out.”

“Fucking wonderful,” I growled, and I realized that it was the first time I’d spoken since the cannon exploded. The meeting with Crow really bothered me, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that no time at all had passed in real life during my trance. I decided not to talk about it.

        My attention was seized, however, by a massive neon sign at the top of one of the towers on the water’s edge. FREEMAN INC, it said. But right beneath that was the Guardians’ logo. The Academy. I pointed at the tower.

“What’s that?”

Cameron paused. “That’s the Academy.”

“We’re going there,” I replied, and I guess they had no choice but to follow me. It wasn’t as frigid as it was earlier, but the pavement leading to the tower was scorched and cracked in parts and I saw a fair share of oddly bent street signs. Not a soul. Not a running car. Just burnt metal and distant gunfire. Everything seemed quieter after the Vesuvius went down.

        The doors to the tower were shattered, the steel frames forced open by an old Safeway shopping cart. I did, however, catch sight of the iron gates that led to the courtyard that led to the blast doors that led to the Academy’s innards. Hmmm.

“We’re not going that way,” Lucas pleaded, but I ignored him and headed that way instead. He still tried to reason. “There’s nothing for us there.”

“Survivors,” I coughed. I hadn’t noticed the smoke in my lungs. But still, a chill went through my nerves.

“You really think so?” Cameron asked.

        I pushed open the gates. All the plants along the pathway were dead. Twisted hospital beds lay at each side of the blast doors, which were… Open. Revealing the inside of an elevator that didn’t look particularly familiar. I stepped inside and the others followed. There were five buttons – one for the “A” level, one for the courtyard, a few for other floors that didn’t mean much to me, and a final button which had been gouged out quite badly. I assumed it led to the Academy. When I pressed the last button, the elevator doors didn’t close, but the old box choked its way underground for several minutes until it ground to a painful halt. I saw my fair share of blood streaks on the walls on the way down.

“Welcome to the Academy.” Cameron pulled the emergency release on the opposite doors and they fell open, revealing a dark hall and several glimmering, broken hospital beds. A fluorescent light flickered at the end of the corridor. I recognized my bed immediately – the one the guard had pushed me over in. The one Kate had rescued me from. And I spotted the place on the floor at which the guard had dropped his stun gun, which was still packed in my pocket. Right next to Zhalo.

        I remembered the hall being longer. The stark walls were scorched in swathes, and though I didn’t see any bodies, the place smelled of death. Nobody seemed excited to follow me into the Academy, but I felt, deep down, that something there was waiting for me. Something I’d missed during my time here. The answer to my riddle came as a distant, blood-curdling scream that echoed through the halls and hit me like a truck.

“We need to turn back,” Cameron insisted. “This place could be full of hyacite mutants.”

“The fuck are those?” Lucas asked, already backing out. “I’m not for it.”

Valentine seemed nervous as well, but at least she was composed. Tania looked unbothered. Cameron went on. “We saw several when the Guardians first experimented with the mineral back in South Africa. It’s possible that those trapped here have been… changed as well.”

“I’m beginning to doubt the morality of my allies,” Valentine murmured, and Cameron and Tania stayed silent. Despite the risks, I pushed further. Nakir and Munkar stayed quiet as well, but the urge to explore didn’t go away.

        Some of the lights were still lit. I saw streaks of blood and burn marks, and I tried to imagine what had happened here in my absence. Or what Crow’s basement looked like now. I bet that it was still perfectly intact. The second time I heard the screams, they came from right inside the auditorium doors.

“There have to be survivors,” I whispered. Almost unconsciously, I pushed open the doors and stepped into pure blackness. Whoever was yelling earlier decided to stay quiet. It made me way more nervous than I’d like to admit. But I walked toward the stage, set my hands on the grainy wood, and I heard heavy breaths right in front of me.

“Hello,” I said.

A hoarse voice answered back. I recognized it instantly. “Remus is close,” she said. Sapphire clawed her way toward me and spoke again. “You need to leave. You need to escape! The fires won’t go away!” The started to scream again and she fell back with a heavy thunk on the wooden floor of the stage. “She said I’d be taken away! She lied!”

“Calm down!” I shouted, but she wouldn’t stop. Not after a while.

Finally, she quieted. “Cole. Firebrand. Can you stop the fires? I know he’s hiding where Crow once slept. I’m sure of it.”

“In the basement?” I asked.

Sapphire waited a bit before replying. “Yes.”

“I’ll find him.”

“It was never meant to be this way,” Sapphire whispered. “I’m sorry.”

I didn’t know what she was talking about. “You did as much as you could.”

“Mother told me it would all be better…” Sapphire started to sob and I headed back the way I’d come. The others were waiting for me there.

“I heard what she said,” Tania noted. “Remus Luna is below us. Are you sure you want to do this?”

Sapphire’s voice echoed in my head. “I don’t have a choice.”

– - -

        The trek to Crow’s old haunt was a lot less dark when I realized that I could ignite my hand like a torch to light the way. Like I’d predicted, the way down was almost devoid of blood spatters and burn marks. It was colder than before, though. And the air was thinner. Perhaps the air pumps had been shut off. Finally, though, we arrived at Crow’s old doorstep, and instead of screaming, all I heard were groans of pain. Cameron set his hand on my shoulder before I opened the door. I did it anyway.

        I had to light my hand up a bit brighter to catch the entire scene, but it wasn’t pretty. An emaciated, glowing man sat in a pool of blood at the base of Crow’s hyacite scanner. He let out slow, wheezing breaths occasionally but didn’t seem to notice when we walked in. I hadn’t seen his face before, but I knew who he was. I knew his reputation. Remus Luna, director of the Academy Program. My blood ran hot until I reminded myself that this monster worked with the Guardians.

I turned back to Tania. “You hired him.”

For the first time, I saw fear in her eyes. She lost her military composure. “It was the work of the Vanguard as a whole.”

“Cole,” Cameron said, clearly on edge. “Don’t do this.”

“My Academy,” Remus grunted, and he lifted his head up to look at us. His eyes glowed blue, but he was delirious with agony. “All a mistake. Fuel for the Guardians’ treachery.”

“What?” I asked. Sounded like a lead to me.

Remus spoke again, more slowly this time. I had no idea that any human being could look so weak and pathetic. “She came to me… Offered me life. A new beginning as a general… of a great army. I declined, and she… she brought all this. She said my city would die with me.”

“Yeah?”

“I was wrong to deny her,” Remus went on. “But now the angels of judgement have come for me.”

I thought it was just spiritual nonsense until Zhalo vibrated at my waist and I remembered that Nakir and Munkar are the angels of judgement. It was my duty to get rid of Remus Luna before Crow comes back for him. I unsheathed the sword and dropped the blade into the man’s neck. Blood welled up around the wound and he stopped choking after a few moments. I felt the warmth spread around my boots and we all stood in silence until I knew that he was dead. I cleaned Zhalo off on a bloodied rag and sheathed it again.

Valentine spoke up. “I found documents in his brain in the moments before he died. The Otherworld Liberation Company headquarters is under Lake Baikal in Siberia. Crow gave him knowledge that would enable him to become a general for the House of Crows further down the road, assuming he survived.”

“Good thing he died,” Lucas said, but he sounded dubious.

PART THREE THE REGIME

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XVI FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE

“This is the second mention of Lake Baikal we’ve gotten from Crow,” I remarked. “We have to go there.”

“Hey, no offense,” Lucas started, “But that’s fucking crazy. OLC is big.”

Tania lifted an eyebrow. “Language, Luke. I think Cole’s right. This may be our best chance at disabling Otherworld.”

I gave him a smug look and Cameron even seemed to consider it. “Tania. Do we have access to a gate that might lead to a Russian rike?”

“Yes…” The Guardian ran through a list of items on her watch. “I have just enough FSM to initiate a transfer gate, but we won’t have much left over when we get there.”

“Do you have any spare coin?” Cameron asked.

Tania nodded. “I’ll buy more FSM from a register.”

“You have an internal economy?” Valentine asked.

“We do,” Cameron shrugged, “But it’s a Guardian-only affair.”

Valentine held up a small, blue plastic card with the Guardian logo on it. “I found this in Paris.”

Cam knit his brow. “I have to confiscate that. We’re a little strict with currency.” He took the card and examined something on the back. “This belongs to Delia Kors. She’ll be happy to have it back.”

        Tania pulled out her pack of FSM and unclipped a flask-like device from her belt, and she poured what was left of her FSM into the tube. She twisted a sparker-like thing on one end, and the FSM inside glowed a vibrant amber. Tania set the tube on the ground and the amber glow extended to form a shimmering gateway in the air.

“This should take us to the nearest Siberian rike,” Tania sighed. “Are we all ready?”

        She took our silence as an affirmative and stepped through the portal. I followed, and the sensation was intimately uncomfortable, like wading through liquid algae in the middle of a stormcloud. Electricity arced through the (oddly) dry clouds around me and I struggled to move. The algae got the consistency of fudge after a few seconds and I wondered if I’d ever escape. Finally, though, the air opened up around me and swallowed me whole and suddenly I was laying face-down in several inches of snow.

“It’s cold,” I noted, and Lucas just started laughing beside me. He helped me sit up and soon, the snow started to soak through my jeans.

“You need snow gear,” a Guardian remarked, his voice deep and distinctly Russian. “You will not survive an hour. Come inside.”

        The area was desolate but weirdly familiar. The blizzard wasn’t terribly severe, but it limited my visibility to a few hundred yards so all I could see were old concrete ruins and drifts of heavy snow. A red jeep sat half-buried in one of the drifts, and I couldn’t tell if it was painted red or if it was just really, really rusty. The Guardian escorted us inside, and I noticed that Tania was absent. Just Valentine, Cam, Lucas, and I. Maybe she went to talk to the leaders of the rike.

Upon entering the rike, I felt something weird. That same taste of death from the Academy. The light around me turned red and everything disappeared into my peripheral. Instead of a warm lobby, I was standing in the center of a ruined city square. Toppled houses lay around a shattered fountain and the scorched remains of a beheaded bronze statue stood in the middle of it all. And again, I saw Crow. But this time she crouched in the ruins, doubled down as if she was crying.

“You did this,” Crow shouted, rising to face me. “You killed my people! All of this gone, because of you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I replied. How does a person escape a vision?

She stalked toward me and drew her knife. “You wiped Kaide off the map, and for what? I thought I could trust you. It’s just us now. We’re all that’s left.”

I stepped back and unsheathed Zhalo. “Stay back.”

“Firebrand,” Crow said, her voice growing soft. She stopped and let her arm down. “You can fix this.”

“How?”

She gestured to the ruined city around us. “Pledge your allegiance to me. We can rebuild. You can be our nation’s steward. Like how crows are the callers of death… We could be a House of Crows. We could avenge our people.”

My blood ran cold. I decided to play the part. “But I did all of this.”

Sadie cracked a sour smile. “But you didn’t do it alone. If you could eliminate those peacekeepers of yours… The Guardians. Kill them all and come back to me here. Maybe then I’ll pardon you.”

“Okay.”

“Noncommittal. Just like Pienaar. She fought like you, but in the end… She agreed to send you to Siberia and she stayed behind to join my army. How long will you hesitate? How long until you finally follow your heart?”

        The vision ended when I let it all out and screamed at her, like I broke a spell. But that also meant that I started screaming out of nowhere in the middle of a pub, and nobody took kindly to that. Cameron glanced at me and Lucas and Valentine both jumped out of their seats. The barkeep behind the counter just pushed a shot glass my way and mumbled something about how “this’ll help calm you down.”

I took a sip. “Sorry. I, uh… Saw some shit.”

Lucas jerked his head toward me. “A vision? Like, did Crow show up?”

“Yes.”

Cameron gave me a cautious look. “Tania said she’s been getting those as well.”

The bad news came back to haunt me. “Sadie said that she recruited Tania for the Crows.” I realized that the bad news seemed to be the stuff that nobody ever wanted to hear. The severity of it all dawned on me then.

The bartender whistled. “I don’t know why Vanguard haven’t pulled a meeting yet, if it is this bad.”

Cameron crumpled up an old tin can in one hand and flattened it on the counter when he was done converting it into a ball of foil. “We need to shut down Crow’s operations at Lake Baikal as quickly as possible. I would convene the Vanguard to evaluate our options, but if they have Tania, we don’t have enough time for that. She is immensely powerful.”

“Lake Baikaaaaal,” the bartender mused, pouring himself a glass of some urine-colored substance. “It is close. Good thing you landed in Tyrka and not Turka, or OLC would have torn you apart. Easy mistake to make. It is just east of here.”

I looked at the floor. “We’re practically behind enemy lines.”

“Yes. But we will hold fast.”

“I’ve heard that their main base is at Yalga, no?” Cameron asked.

The bartender laughed and set his glass on the counter. “Chancellor Volo of the Asian Division has very detailed scans of the area. If you intend on invading, visit her.”

“Chancellor Volo…” Cam murmured. “Never heard of her.”

“You’re from Europe,” the bartender said. “None of you have.”

– - -

        I guess we were fortunate that Chancellor Volo happened to be on-site when we needed her, but it felt more like a curse than a blessing. She was unlike anything I’d ever seen – four feet tall with beady eyes and a long, reptilian snout, Maadg’o Volo was apparently a hobgoblin. I quickly learned that her people were one of many “Hidden” nations who had to live in the underground to escape eradication at the hands of humanity. For some reason, she’d chosen to help the Guardians, but how she ascended to the rank of chancellor was beyond me.

The hobgoblin used her slim claws to arrange a stack of paper on her desk before acknowledging our arrival. “Colleagues. Cameron Green. Is a pleasure to meet you.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you too, Chancellor Volo,” he replied. “We’re here for scans on the Lake Baikal region. Specifically OLC bases and armories.”

“I have scans, yes, but I cannot let them go without probable use.” She eyed me cautiously before focusing on Cameron.

“This could be our chance to end a war before it’s begun,” I pleaded. Cameron gave me a dirty look for interrupting him but he had to realize that this was my deal now. If you’re going to rely on a Firebrand for everything, then he might as well call the shots. “We’ll be looking to blow up Crow’s base before she can do any damage.”

“Crow, as in Sadie Vios,” Chancellor Volo murmured in her gravelly voice. She dug through more files. “Yes. Scans of her as well, before they replicated.”

That reminded me of the scans in Chicago. “Replicated?”

The Chancellor gave a bitter laugh. “She stole Guardian jamming tech ages ago. Now, it is impossible to track her. It is like an arms race.”

I felt a twinge of regret. “We could’ve commandeered that Bankash in Chicago.”

Cameron’s eyes widened. “Cole, I think you’re on to something. I need to talk to Atlas. We could pull in a Bankash siege engine from Gugamus to aid in our attack on Baikal. Volo, do the scans indicate any notable military installations on the lake?”

“We caught sight of a heavily-armed barge being deployed last week,” Volo said helpfully. “It is called the Kilimanjaro.”

“Wanna bet it’s another Vesuvius?” Lucas asked.

“Hey, I don’t want to be that guy,” I said, “But I don’t want to blow up another barge.”

Cam rocked on his heels. “We won’t need to go inside. If my memory serves right, this rike has a colossal armory and several missile launchers I ordered myself.” He looked up at Volo as if awaiting her confirmation.

But she didn’t offer any support. “We transferred all that to Sapporo a few months ago. However, we do have charges you could set in the barge’s hull.”

Valentine laughed mirthlessly. “So, another chance at certain death. I assume we need to eliminate the Kilimanjaro before we can get close to the Yalga base, right?”

“Right,” Cameron replied.

“Let’s hop to it.” Lucas left and I followed him mostly on a whim. Instead of heading outside, though, he grabbed me by my collar and we disappeared into a side room. An office, if you will, despite the fact that it was only occupied by a barren desk and a whole lot of dust.

He half-sat on the desk and have me a sideways glare. “We can’t do this.”

“Why?” I asked. “The barge thing?”

“We almost died last time,” Lucas went on. “Tania didn’t tell you, but I saw what happened. We were supposed to be a lot further away when the Vesuvius blew. It was just by dumb luck that she sprang that shield before the shrapnel hit us. Doing it again would be a death wish.”

I shook my head. “What do you want to do, then? If blowing up the power core won’t work.”

He allowed a slow smile. “We hijack it.”

“Then we could use it against Crow herself…” Genius. “I love it.”

I noticed Cameron leaning in the doorway. “It could be a true test of our powers. We are in OLC territory, though, so we’ll have to plan with extreme prejudice.”

“I can stand guard. I’ve already pulled up an article on the barge’s inner passageways.” Valentine flipped through her Red Tome, and the crimson book cast a flickering glow on the walls of the otherwise dark room. “The bridge is concealed under a three-foot-thick glass window at the very top of the barge. We could slip in there, take out the crew, and force a lockdown.”

“I’ll ask Volo what the barge’s armament looks like,” Cam suggested. “We don’t know if it’s another Bankash 50K.”

Volo called from the next room over. “It is a Kestrel 15K, also manufactured by Gugamus. Crows are either very good thieves or Gugamus is not as trustworthy as we thought.”

“Let’s hope they stole it,” Cameron sighed. “Kestrels are massive machine guns and the 5K versions are usually used by high-ranking rephaim. The 15K isn’t as big as a Bankash, clearly, but it’s still something to look out for.”

“Well, I’m just gonna assume that this’ll all mean something to me when we’re out there on the barge,” I said. “When do we begin?”

– - -

        This barge was like a carbon copy of the Vesuvius, except for the fact that it said “Kilimanjaro” on the side and it was fitted with a colossal minigun. Megagun? Whatever. Another key difference was that this one was clearly swarming with OLC soldiers, all of whom milled around on the deck and their collective breaths puffed clouds of steam into the frigid morning air. The bruised waters of Baikal looked like slush and it was a mystery to me how the Kilimanjaro even moved. As we watched it, the vessel did its rounds around a small part of the lake, and I suspected that it was guarding a cluster of military-looking buildings on the opposite edge. Yalga.

        The OLC presence wasn’t masked at all here. The logo flew up on great banners and it was even spray-painted onto the sides of some of the bunkers. I inspected the site with my binoculars (courtesy of Dollar Tree) and tried to pick out which role I wanted to take. Or rather, which one seemed to be the least deadly. Cameron wanted to hijack the Kestrel 15K and use it to mow down the village OLC soldiers. Valentine had already claimed her role as “guardian of the rail.” Lucas seemed partial to sweeping the halls while under his veil of invisibility. I realized that the only job that hadn’t been taken yet was “Eagle One.” Basically, I’d have to bore through three feet of reinforced polymer and wipe out the entire bridge crew before they got a chance to kill me. Glamorous, I know.

Lucas set his binoculars on one of the sandbags behind which we hid. “How are we gonna get on the barge? Swim?”

“We have access to a people-cannon,” Cameron replied, and I marvelled at his ability to maintain a straight face while saying that. “It can launch us onto the barge from a distance.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Valentine hissed.

Cam shook his head. “Unfortunately, no. But… we can deploy shields to nullify the worst of the shock upon landing. Are we all ready to go?”

“I need more of a briefing on your… people cannons,” Lucas pushed. He laced his fingers together. “Are these like the ones in circuses? And how safe is the launch phase? Will I need to shed my fuel cells?”

“Dude.”

“Sorry.”

I piped in. “Sounds cool to me.”

“I thought we agreed on a thoughtful rebellion,” Lucas chided me.

“When?”

He scowled. “Like, five minutes ago. That nonverbal conversation was about rebelling against Cam, right?”

I shook my head. “I think I was just looking at you.”

“I’m honored,” he said, “But we should talk this stuff out next time.”

“Time to go,” Valentine coughed. The bartender and a few other buff Russian Guardians wheeled out a device that looked disturbingly similar to the things advertised in carnivals. It was at least twelve feet tall, though, and it was painted in baby blue and blood red stripes. The words ROYAL CARNIVALE were penned out in violet calligraphy on the side.

The bartender clapped to get our attention. “Cameron Green called for the Royal Carnivale, no? Here is a list of cautions: the launch will feel strange, but you must – must! – be alert for a quick landing. Scarves and cell phones will most likely be lost. Also secure your swords, since I see that we are stuck in the fifth century.” He coughed. “I think that is all.”

“Can we avoid sword-bashing?” I asked. “I don’t know how to use a gun.”

“I will bash swords until Atlas Handel learns to craft a decent flintlock.”

“That’s enough of that,” Cameron cut us off.

        When I looked back from the barge, I caught a glimpse of Lucas’ head just before he disappeared below the Carnivale’s rim. The bartender stepped on a pedal and the cannon fired with a puff of steam. I didn’t even see Lucas shoot into the air. He was just gone. It took me a moment to focus the binoculars on the barge, but I watched him stumble into a hasty landing on the main deck. A few dozen crewmen freaked out just as Lucas disappeared from sight.

The bartender aimed the cannon to match the barge’s progress across the lake and he gestured for me to climb in. “You next.”

        I didn’t have much of a say in the matter. I secured Zhalo and hoisted myself up and over the cannon’s rim. I decided against probing the bottom of the bell and I just waited for the Guardian to hit the pedal. He gave me about ten second’s grace and then I was off. I felt like hurling, and eventually I had to focus on my trajectory instead of the location of my stomach. I followed Cameron’s advice and I formed a flaming shield below my feet to buffer my fall. I landed on my feet as well, but I quickly realized that I didn’t need Lucas’ invisibility. I’d landed on the very top of the main cabin. People inside probably heard me, but I focused instead on boring through the skylight.

        I watched the people mill about below me. Apparently they hadn’t heard anything when I landed. The crewmen wore standard OLC attire – navy blue suits with white trim, and I could tell the captain by her outfit, which was way more elaborate than anything else I’d seen. She wore a long dress coat which was maroon and bone white, spotted with gold beads and rubies on each cuff. She wore a tilted fedora to match her coat. I began to wonder if she ranked higher than a captain. Maybe a general for the House of Crows? I made her lapel pin out to be a silver House of Crows insignia, rather than the usual OLC one. It hadn’t occurred to me that the groups were working so closely together.

Cam’s voice crackled through the mic in my ear. “There are a few big names on that barge right now. Volo’s scans revealed the entire staffing list just as you landed. The man in black is Chashkiy Mkartos… He’s a, uh, bounty hunter from my homeland. The woman in the red coat is Cecilia di Pasqua. Please don’t mess with her.”

“I see Cecilia,” I replied. “She’s on the bridge.”

I heard him swear under his breath, but he didn’t say anything else. I continued to melt the glass and I just hoped that Cecilia would go somewhere else so I wouldn’t have to deal with her. The sensation of glass melting around my hand was… Interesting, to say the least. It’s like sticking your hand into fudge, except the fudge is as hot as the surface of the sun and though the heat is muted, it still hurts a little. One thing about being the Firebrand is that heat doesn’t do much damage at all. I’m not inclined to wade in lava or anything, but sticking my hand in an open flame or grabbing a handful of coals doesn’t feel much different from when a limb falls asleep. It’s that same sort of white noise feeling. Except this time, the cold embrace of death is a lot warmer.

Three feet of hot glass is a lot more than you’d think. You can’t just warm up your hand a bit and stick it in. I quickly realized that there’s a rhythm to it. You’ve got to bore a Cole-sized hole and sort of shovel it out so it doesn’t drip down onto the heads of the OLC soldiers below. It was tempting, though. Really tempting.

It was all sunshine and rainbows until Cecilia di Pasqua looked up and bored right back into my soul with eyes that looked like they could freeze Hell solid. I got pretty close to running away until I realized that there’s not much a person can do when their adversary is above their head and on the other side of a foot of viscous glass. So I did what any sane person would do – I shattered the remaining glass, turned myself into a column of flame, and whipped around coils of fire without prejudice. In seconds, the cabin was empty.

… Except for Cecilia di Pasqua. She stood up straight, drew a dagger from her belt, and pointed it right at me. “You have nerve, coming here. I’ve heard about the destruction you sow, and I knew it would be by my hand that you meet your demise.”

“I love the flowery words and all that,” I said, “But sometimes I wonder if you guys can just kill people without all the flashy monologues.”

“We are Hidden! We never go out without flair,” she howled and brought the knife down on me like a sickle. I could just barely dodge her attack.

        I wasn’t sure if I grabbed Zhalo or if it flew into my hands on its own accord, but I tried to knock her down when she recovered from her lunge. The blade just skipped off her back and left a few marks in the fabric, and it even tore out a few golden buttons. Cecilia roared, feinted an attack, and spun at me with her arm extended, and I deflected the attack with Zhalo’s flat edge. I could almost feel Nakir’s excitement – he and Munkar seemed to thrive off violence.

        Cecilia di Pasqua didn’t do much talking during the actual duel. Despite the fact that I hadn’t trained with swords at all, I found myself to be decent at least with blocking her swings. I’d manage a lunge here and there, but it was mostly a matter of trying not to get stabbed. Which I guess I’m good at, growing up in San Jose. In San Jose, it’s knives. In San Francisco, it’s bakeries. There’s no place to hide.

        Cecilia got a good hit in and dragged her knife down my thigh, which mangled denim with blood and it generally felt pretty awful. The adrenaline blocked a lot of the pain, but it still stung and ached like nothing I’d ever felt before. There was no being nonchalant about this. I let out a horrible yell, mostly against my will, and I drove Zhalo down without really aiming. It skated down her leg and stuck in her foot, which also elicited a (well-deserved) scream, and we were bonded in agony, if only for a few seconds. Cecilia dropped her stance, twisted Zhalo out of my hands, and set her own knife on the ground.

“For now, we are even. Our blood is mixed. I’ll face you at the edge of the infinite freeze.” She crossed her chest and disappeared in a shimmering fold of air.

I picked Zhalo up and Cameron spoke in my ear again. “You survived. Bravo. Hey, uh, now that you’ve wiped out the bridge crew, I’ll be showing up pretty soon so we can take control of the Kilimanjaro and claim Lake Baikal for the Guardians.”

“So I shouldn’t incinerate you?” I asked.

“That’s exactly what I mean,” he said, and the line went quiet. Sure enough, Cameron showed up through the steel doors at the far end of the room and made a beeline for the command consoles.

“Do you have a medical kit or something?” I asked him. “Cecilia di Pasqua kinda tore my leg open.” Maybe it was an understatement. My parents always told me that we had a hereditary high pain tolerance. But Cameron took one look at me and all the blood drained from his face. Just like how all the blood was draining from my leg.

He ordered me to sit down and he started off by picking all the denim from my wound. “She got you, all right. Did I ever tell you about her?”

“You told me not to mess with her.” I paused. “Which I did.”

Cameron went on. “Cecilia’s one of the generals for the House of Crows. She would’ve made it onto the OLC director’s panel, but Eddy Scott doesn’t like competition.”

“That’s probably a big position.”

“You don’t even fucking know,” Cam mused. He shook his head incredulously. “Crow’s pulled in a lot of big names from the Hidden world for her armies. We’re at the heart of the OLC operations, at least, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we met more of her generals.”

My burning question finally got its chance to shine. “What’s the distinction between the Crows and OLC?”

Cameron whistled. “Oh, man. So, as far as we’ve figured, Sadie started the House of Crows as a way for her to claim lost land in her old nation of Kaide. Then, not too recently, she joined up with the Otherworld Liberation Company because they both serve the same entity. The House of Crows is like a side-army now.”

“Who controls OLC and Sadie?” I asked.

“We actually don’t know yet,” Cameron admitted. He doused my leg in hydrogen peroxide and toweled it off. It burned. “I’m guessing that whoever it is, they’ll be pretty powerless once OLC is wiped out.”

“And that’s why we’re here,” I concluded. The cold depths of Baikal finally began to mean something to me.

XVII A RISING TIDE

“Well,” I began, “At least we’ve got a barge.”

Lucas twiddled his thumbs beside me and eyed my leg wound. “And you got a cut. Who did that?”

“Cecilia di Pasqua. Big head in the House of Crows.”

“I’ll fight her,” he hissed.

Cam called from the command console. “No, you won’t. She’s probably several hundred feet below us right now, busy healing. I’m not sure how Cole survived that fight.”

Valentine tapped the sequery scanner she’d gotten from the Paris Guardians. “The oxygen levels in here are low. I think your fire – which killed the others – also weakened her.” She switched off the scanner and continued to gaze out the bay windows.

        I don’t know what Cameron had done to my leg, but the pain was just a dull ache now, and the wound had sealed itself right before he applied the bandages. Either the Guardians had some sort of crazy healing powers or it was a benefit of being the Firebrand. I bet that within a few minutes I’d be able to walk again. Lucas kept me grounded by leaning on my shoulder and staring into the middle distance like he was the last person on Earth.

“The Kestrel 15K is controlled by a separate console just below the bridge. Is anybody up for blowing up some OLC camps?” Cameron asked.

        I looked out the front window just in time to see the Kestrel gun swivel on its base and point directly at us. Cameron seemed to realize what was happening as well, since he leapt back and knocked us all to the floor just as the megagun fired a few massive rounds through the supposedly reinforced glass. It was absolutely deafening, and between the shattered glass and the smoke, it was impossible to sense anything. I knew what I had to do. I made my way back through the main doors and hit the hall that led to the Kestrel’s control room. I had to take out the person who was controlling the gun before he killed my friends.

        I guess I was lucky that I was able to walk. I cloaked my arms in flames and pushed into the Kestrel command room. A single OLC soldier stood at the board and held a joystick in one hand. I assumed that controlled the cannons. I rushed up behind him and put him in a headlock, which is pretty hard to do with someone who’s taller than you, but I managed. The soldier let out an awful scream, but I willed my fire to get hotter and soon he dissipated into sparks like the others. The Kestrel stopped firing. I prayed that everyone was okay.

        The pain in my leg was too much to walk up a flight of stairs and frankly I’m not sure how I made it down there in the first place, but I waited for someone to show up. With my luck, I’d have to control the death-machine-that-was-named-after-a-bird. What even is a kestrel? Why would you name a gun after a bird? If you’re going to do that, at least spruce it up a little, like the Hawkmoon or the Eagle’s Breath. The developers at Gugamus clearly don’t know the meaning of creativity.

“Hey, sport,” Cameron wheezed, leaning on the doorway. “I’ve got good news and I’ve got really, really bad news.”

“Shoot.”

“The good news is that I used some FSM to seal the breach that the Kestrel made in the windshield, so the heaters will keep working. The bad news is that… Well, the blast killed Valentine.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry.”

My first response was grief but then I was reminded of something. “No, I think she’s okay.”

“I saw her die.”

“Naw, man.” I jogged my memory. I’d heard something about the connection between Kate and Valentine. “If one dies, the other comes back to life. Valentine came back when Kate died. That means Kate is out there right now.”

He stood up straight. “Oh… The Beholder archetype. I completely forgot about that.”

“That’s definitely a thing,” I said. My veil of confidence seemed to work, and Cameron got a little less shaky. “So… Wanna see if that Kestrel still works?”

– - -

        The targeting system was a little screen that was about as wide as my hand and I figured that it was attached to the Kestrel’s muzzle somewhere, though it was hard to tell. I steered it away from the bridge and Cameron helped me zoom in on bases across the lake. The Kestrel’s heat-sensitive targeting system was leagues better than its visual one, but I let Cameron take the reigns when the gun actually started firing. There’s a point where you don’t want to kill people, even if they deserve it.

We’re getting close , Nakir murmured. I could feel his excitement .

I had to ask. Close to Crow?

Munkar hissed back at me. Close to the sealing of your fate. Crow is a mere pawn .

Don’t tell me shit like that . I glanced up at Cameron. Sometimes I worry that my silent conversations aren’t so silent. Because, you know, I’ve spoken out loud before when I meant to talk to Zhalo.

Nakir hummed. We think it’s something you should be aware of .

I appreciate it , I said. Thought? Whatever. But I’m busy .

        I’ve noticed that thinking to someone instead of talking to someone is a lot like the distinction between talking and texting. I have no way of knowing whether or not I’ve been heard, and it’s a lot like yelling into the abyss and hoping it yells back. It’s even more confusing when there are multiple voices, and with Nakir and Munkar, who sound almost identical, I just have to guess based on their tones. They’ve grown to become imaginary friends that nobody really talks about.

Busy cowering from power, more like. Embrace the magic of combat! Life is short,  Nakir chided me. You need to learn to be warlike. Pilot that Kestrel gun .

I don’t need a devil whispering in my ear,  I retorted.

We’re actually angels , Munkar replied. I know that humans like to mix around anything they don’t understand but I’m not here for it. Devils… Ugh, nasty brutes. Wait until you meet Shax .

I sighed audibly. I really don’t need anything else to stress out about right now .

Cameron called from the Kestrel’s control panel and I heard the muffled beats of the cannon firing. “Could you tell your sword to be quiet? The static is killing my concentration.”

“You can hear them?”

“It’s like listening to a conversation from another room. I know they’re talking but the concepts are blank.”

Nakir and Munkar had gone quiet. They got the memo. I snuck up behind Cam and looked through the Kestrel’s viewfinder. I saw a pixelated shoreline littered with pixelated ruins of shattered camps.

He went on. “They won’t come on to the beaches to ward us off. If we’re going to do a raid, it needs to be today, before they can rebuild. If this center of command is like the others we’ve found, each camp has a cellar housing a fraction of a legion. It’s likely that they have farms in the reaches south of here. I can call the Peregrine Legion to assist us… The Guardians are spread thin.”

“How many Guardians are there?”

“Several hundred,” Cameron replied. “We’re strong alone, but we’re scattered and potent in all the wrong places. The Legion is a good ally in that they have strength in numbers. Sometimes it comes down to blood.”

“Where will we fight, then?”

He sighed. “You’re aware that there’s a fortress concealed below the lake, no? A legion can’t raid a fortress. You and I are similar – we’re very powerful alone. Potent. Crow fears people like us. She’s like us, too. We’re a dying breed.”

His meaning dawned on me. “War is honorless.”

“It’s mass-marketed,” he nodded. “Modern warfare is about numbers and killing without prejudice. Ever since the firelock was invented, and man could kill from a distance, we lost feeling. The battle on the lake will be emotionless. The battle within the fortress will be like ancient times.”

“Should I feel good about that?”

He shrugged. “I’ve fought many battles within this world and without. I’ve fought in battles of wit, of sword, and of gun. You’re still young. Whether you like it or not, you are an instrument of war. I feel like there’s no choice to it.”

“I get it.” Ugh. No place to feel. No time.

“I’m sorry,” Cameron sighed. “Maybe we can propose an armistice.”

A truce. “It’s possible?”

“Possible, not likely. This war’s a bit more dire than what we’re used to. It’s a game of cat and mouse – we’ve figured that Crow wants to wipe out the Guardians to prepare for an attack on humanity later on that we could prevent. As fitting with the prophecy, we know that OLC and Sadie are both commanded by a greater force, but we don’t know what. If we can destroy her armies, then we might be strong enough to resist what’s coming.”

“So this won’t end any time soon,” I said.

He shrugged again. “It might. Besides our lofty goal of disabling the House of Crows and Otherworld, the raid on Baikal should also help us gather information on our foes. We’ll hold a conference when it’s all over.”

Lucas stumbled down the stairs and into the Kestrel control room. “I’ve been watching the soldiers on the beach. They brought out an honest-to-God white flag.”

Cameron stood up and powered down the gun. “Time to parley.”

– - -

        A small company of Guardians had been called down from various Russian rikes to meet with us and the Crows. We met on a cold, gravelly beach near the ruins of an Otherworld camp. The Guardians gleamed in their armor, which was embellished in gold and bronze but laced with Kevlar and polymer – a weird mix of modern and classic. The Crows and OLC soldiers stood behind a general, and they wore the dark fatigues of modern fighters. The general, who I did not recognize, had a similar way of dressing to Cecilia di Pasqua, though he wore a navy blue overcoat and his shoulders were padded so much that they might touch the sky. His face was carved, like Atlas’, and his brow was set when he regarded us. He seemed to recognize me.

A Guardian leader, a hardy Russian woman named Kat, spoke to them in English. “You’ve taken unprovoked, unforgivably violent action against the Guardians, and thus against humanity as a people. Might I know your name?”

The general stepped forward. “General Oros Hail. Your accomplices have bombed our beach.”

“We agree that it was well-deserved,” Kat went on. “You wish to surrender your commander and your base?”

The people bearing the white flag seemed to have second thoughts about leaving their cave. Oros answered her. “We wish for you to surrender your Firebrand. You can end the bloodshed here and now.”

I knew how lucrative the offer seemed – unnecessary blood could be spared if they just handed me over. But I also knew that it was impossible; they needed me for a coming war. But if they handed me over, would Crow’s master be appeased? Or would they go on with their conquest and, with me dead, face no resistance? The choice seemed impossible. We needed a strategist. And he was the one I least expected.

I noticed Lucas whispering to Cameron behind the crowd of Guardians and I joined them. His voice was low, but he allowed me to hear. “… We need to keep Cole but make the raid on Baikal quick. We can’t surrender to someone we don’t understand.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, half-sarcastically. “Don’t let me go.”

Cam barked out a mirthless laugh. “It’s not even an argument. We’re talking it out to give our buddy Oros Hail some false hope.”

Lucas seemed taken aback. “Okay.”

“I mean…” Cameron faltered. “It’s not bad to talk strategy. I appreciate your input.”

“Good to know.” Lucas stared anxiously at the OLC soldiers. “How do we make them leave?”

Cam’s mood lifted. “Easy.” Within moments, the OLC soldiers retreated back underground, and though there was tension on the air, I was relieved. I didn’t understand what he’d done, but I just accepted it as fact. Simple magic.

The Guardian Kat confronted Cameron with a brazen look on her face. “Vohican mind games have no place on a battlefield.”

“I outrank you,” Cameron replied, and I’d never seen him so outwardly hostile. But he was sure of himself. “You know it as well as I – there’s no chance that we sell the Firebrand like a slave. I don’t believe in wasted time.”

She spat. “You’ll outlive this boy like you’ve outlived the rest. Why do you bother?”

“Leave me,” he commanded, and she did. I didn’t ask what she was talking about. I didn’t care.

XVIII TELESTO & THE EYE OF THE BEAST Millennia ago in ancient Siberia

Godfrey knew it as well as everyone else – Lobson-Khan was no beast to be tussled with. Like in every classic legend he’d learned as a child, the beast had terrorized his village for ages, and it often came up from the lake to scare children or to consume livestock. Godfrey was a boy, but the strongest in his line, given his age, and his father found it fitting that he would be the first in ages to confront the beast. He’d seen it in his dreams – its dark gliding shape on the water, its colossal fins like Chinese war machines.

In his youth, Godfrey’s father had told him what it meant to be the Firebrand. A great burden, but a great honor. The slaying of Lobson-Khan would be the first of many victories, and he would rise to free humanity from some great oppressor. He was nervous but also excited; the two often went hand in hand.

Godfrey faced the lake, sword in hand, and he wore furs only because the night was thin and cold. He was large for his age, and strong, and though he knew not what Lobson-Khan looked like, he had faith that his father’s trust was not misplaced. He waited long hours until the sun kissed the horizon with her red glow and the choppy waves fell still. There was a ripple, then, and a distant tear on the water’s surface. A great fin broke the waves, like he’d imagined. Lobson-Khan was here.

“Face me,” Godfrey commanded, and the beast broke the water, teeth gnashing. It didn’t speak at first, but Godfrey was astounded by its girth. It was almost as agile on land as it was in the water. Godfrey retreated to the trees, but Lobson-Khan tore through the growth with its great claws.

        A thousand amber eyes glowed like lamps, and its fins were colored bright red and green, and they flashed in the early sunlight. Godfrey’s shouts and exertions were muffled by the ripping of trees and slapping of limbs. He drew dark blood with his sword, whose name was Telesto, and the blade did its magic, just like Godfrey was promised. When he held the blade against Lobson-Khan’s flesh for more than a second, it released a burst of power and the scales disintegrated around it. Godfrey heard only the roars of the beast and the urgent voices of the gods of judgement, who lived inside Telesto and had sworn to serve him. The boy didn’t know that the blade would one day be called Zhalo, or that the blood he spilled would never fade from the blade, but he knew that victory was close.

        He grappled with Lobson-Khan and the day wore on, and though nobody from his village came to watch, the birds were thick in the trees and martens peered through the underbrush. Lobson-Khan was a monster – beasts were meant to be small, and they were meant to serve man. Godfrey knew this. He existed as a steward of mankind, and the death of Lobson-Khan was expected to be by his hands. It came quickly.

When the monster finally lay still, Godfrey planted Telesto in its throat and waited until the blade pulsed no more. “You fought well.”

        As the ages wore on, the land shaped itself around the bones of Lobson-Khan, and its skull became a great stone in the lake, and its ribs became stone arches within which seals could play and fish could build their homes. Clouds passed, villages rose and fell, and Lobson-Khan’s children lived humble lives, taught to be small by the slayer of their ancestor. Centuries later, a warlord forged in the same darkness as Lobson-Khan would clear the land for his armies, and their camps would rise and fall. Godfrey’s successor, many generations later, would bear his blade and, with his gifted eye, pick out the bones of the beast in the water.

XIX NOT GONNA LIE

I pointed at a huge, worn-down rock that poked from the surf and protected a small stand of trees from the choppy waves. “That looks like a giant fish head.”

Lucas squinted his eyes. “It does, a little bit. There’s an OLC flag stuck in the dirt at the top.” He was pretty when his hair was messed up, and I didn’t tell him that it was tousled for fear of him fixing it. The pale sunlight, filtered by heavy clouds, seemed to leach the light from his skin, and I knew that he was tired. I missed the rich brown and faint blush on his cheeks, but I knew that it would all be over soon. He stayed quiet for a little while but pulled me aside, like he’d gotten used to doing. I sat on a twisted, half-petrified root and listened to him.

“You need to kill Crow” was all he said. It was simple and true. Cameron had, without saying it, taught me that war is about messages. Lucas knew this too. I had to kill Crow. The Firebrand slaying one who had sworn to slay him. It would prove my will. Sort of like, “nobody fuck with this guy.” Even though people would. They always do.

        I need to kill Crow. Each hovel the Guardian investigated was either crowded with OLC men or ended up being a dead end. None of them led to the fortress below the lake, and though the soldiers didn’t resist us with violence, none of them cared to speak. I did some research on the lake using a sequery scanner that a Guardian let me use so I could play Microsoft Solitaire or something. For the record, I didn’t use it to play Solitaire. I’m not sixty.

        Lake Baikal is ridiculously deep, and ridiculously old, and it’s so deep and so old because it was formed at the intersection of two tectonic plates. Which means that the lakebed is close to the Earth’s mantle, kind of. There’s no way to fit a fortress down there. The pressure would be incredible. The heat or the cold – a mix of both – would be unbearable. Everything about the base seemed impossible, and I wondered if we’d all been deceived. Cameron dashed my fears.

“People in the Hidden world go by different rules than commoners,” Cameron explained tiredly, and he could’ve tacked on a like you  at the end of that sentence. It didn’t matter. His point was made. Hidden people work in mysterious ways, blah blah. I still didn’t want to be trapped under several hundred feet of icy water, surrounded by murderous warriors compelled by a common dark force. I’d been warned that the role of Firebrand isn’t glamorous. Spoiler alert: it’s not.

– - -

I’m pretty sure I found the entrance to the Baikal base by accident. It was a small, round doorway, unmarked and well-worn, hidden by a clutch of ancient trees near the rock that looked like a fish’s head. It was unguarded as well, but the lock was allegedly impossible to crack. I half-expected them to call Atlas to blow the thing open. But a quick scan, administered by the Guardian Kat, revealed that the door opened up into a passageway that led deep underground, into a honeycomb of rooms that lit up on her scanner with bursts of warmth. It was occupied, whether it looked like it or not.

“It’s like a wolves’ den,” Lucas noted, mostly to himself. He spoke up. “How are we going to fight our way in?”

“I think they’re counting on that,” I said.

Cameron hummed. “It would be different if we were ordinary. Like I said earlier, we have more of a chance at simply invading. We can’t hope to trap them inside, since they clearly have no need to leave. OLC has the technology necessary to run farms and create air underground. They probably harvest the water from the lake.”

“NGL,” Lucas said, “I don’t know how I feel about dying under a hundred feet of rubble.”

“NGL?” Kat asked. “Is this another OLC? Another terrorist group obsessed with acronyms?”

He frowned and then laughed. “No, it stands for not gonna lie . As in, I’m being honest.”

“I expect no less of you.”

“Thanks?”

Then, as if I had the gift of prophecy, Atlas Handel pushed his way through the crowd and regarded the small, round door. He was a giant among men, even without his dynamo armor. “I’ve seen this design.” He said no more and stood quietly, as if challenging the door to a staring contest.

Finally, someone asked for him to clarify. “Where?”

“Distinctly Gugamus,” he explained. “It’s been used for bunkers throughout Galvon. I’m concerned that OLC is stealing rephaite technology.”

“Maybe Gugamus is selling to OLC,” I suggested.

Atlas laughed, certain of himself. “No. Rephaim hold themselves to a code of honor that would punish them beyond death if they were to break it. Gugamus has sworn in an alliance to the Guardians. No price could lure them away from us.”

I was still doubtful, but I trusted his judgement. We all stood back as he pulled an unlikely weight of explosives from his bag and dug them into the soil and stone around the vault door. When we were away, he blew it out of the ground, and I’m sure that bits of metal fell around us even at the distance we were at. Nobody emerged from the hole. It was dark and smoke poured from it like water from a skyward waterfall. Nobody seemed eager to enter.

“Rewards are the usual,” Atlas said finally. “A Vanguard commendation, some pillaged gold, possibly an estate. And the person who brings Crow’s signet ring-” he looked at me, “-Will receive the blessing of our Mantle. Those who would like to raid the vault can proceed.” Nobody went forward. “We’re Guardians. C’mon, a bit of smoke won’t hurt us.”

        I checked that Zhalo was on my belt and I stepped over the charred dirt and into the smoothed concrete pathway. People behind me gasped – big surprise – but Atlas was right. The smoke didn’t sting at all. It was like breathing in air. Maybe it’s a Firebrand thing. Cameron and Lucas followed close behind.

“Guardians work in groups of three,” Cameron explained. “It’s customary. They’ll send in another trio after us.”

“So we’re not completely alone,” Lucas sighed.

I knew what he was thinking. “Why is everyone so reluctant?”

Cam laughed. “There’s no paycheck.”

I lost myself to laughter as well, and the smoke filled my lungs and after a while it grew uncomfortable. The laughter was more a product of hysteria and horror than actual humor, I later realized. There’s nothing funny about killing without even the most meager pay. Killing itself, I think, is a burden. But I’ve heard that some men and women derive pleasure from ending the life of another. It’s unknown to me. I’ve taken it as a necessity. If Lucas is to live, this man must die. Et cetera.

I stopped in the hall and the laughter died in my throat. Cam and Lucas crowded around me to look at what I saw. Or rather, what I didn’t see. The floor dropped off and gave way to an impossible blackness that stretched so far that even with my hands lit, the light didn’t penetrate. I inched forward and dangled my foot off the  edge… But instead I lurched forward and tumbled into the dark. Except it wasn’t a drop. The floor was still there, looking like a chasm, and I’d rolled into it like an idiot. I stood up on the floor that looked like an abyss. The floor which swallowed light. Lucas snickered.

“It’s safe,” I said weakly, and we continued. Nakir and Munkar exchanged quiet comments, though I didn’t pay attention. The sprawling rooms that Kat had described were not showing themselves.

        The hall stretched on for a while, and after the likes of the Academy and the caves below that, I’d come to dread tunnels. Instead of musk or the weary scent of death, the labyrinth that led to the base beneath Lake Baikal smelled only of smoke and burnt metal. The smell of blood makes a lot more sense when you realize how much iron the human body contains.

I liked when Zhalo was sheathed. I don’t know why I liked when Nakir and Munkar were content, but they nestled in the sword like brothers, and I think that’s when they slept. If angels could even sleep. Later, I’d meet Israfel, Oblis, and even Shax, but it was never a question I thought to ask. Do angels sleep? The tunnels wore on, still devoid of little rooms or soldiers, and Lucas even thought to run his hands along the walls to check for further illusions. It was clever, and I hadn’t thought of it. As an illusionist himself, maybe it suited him. The invisible boy would find invisible things. The boy on fire would deal in blood. Okay.

My broken little family shaped itself into something lopsided and weird, but comfortable, in my head as we walked. Cameron; the thoughtful – if stressed – father, who knew everything about war and history and medicine. Valentine and Kate; the slingshot sisters with sisterly attitudes and powers divine. Lucas… My mind stopped there. I’d heard a noise further down the corridor. Thankfully it didn’t split. The hall, I mean. Not the noise, but it would be welcome if the sound were to go away.

Which it didn’t. In fact, the rumbling noise seemed to grow louder as we walked, and in the distance there was an incandescent glow, and it all fit into place in my mind in one quick moment. A generator. Lights. Life.

Cameron sighed a little laugh behind me, and I saw that he was reading off his sequery scanner. “We’re really far down. Seems odd that they’d only start living here.”

“Yes, but you know why,” a familiar voice said from behind us, and I unsheathed Zhalo and spun to face her. Cameron and Lucas had heard her this time as well. She went on, either invisible or simply everywhere. “Sacred blood was spilled here. Even the flesh of the Earth tears open for us to nest in it.”

Cameron gave a quick retort. “The Earth is unfeeling. You’re nothing but a parasite.”

I heard her laugh echo around us. I was nervous that the soldiers would discover us, but it seemed like Crow already had. “And if that’s so, we will feast. And if it’s not, we will feast. Kaide will live forever! Who are you to stop us?”

The soldiers stamped up to meet us, and I heard their voices before I could see them. “The Firebrand is here!”

        Yes he fucking is. I incinerated the first few who came to greet us. I pushed further, one hand lit in flame, the other gripping Zhalo. Nakir and Munkar howled, and they didn’t speak directly to me, but they liked that I spilled the first blood. Metaphorically. No actual blood was spilled. Judging by the voices of the men further down the hall, they were excited rather than fearful.

Nakir gave a low hum. Let them come .

        They did, and Lucas and Cam gave me a wide berth to fight. I took each man easily, since the hall was barely wide enough for two to grapple comfortably. Maybe it was by design. I realized, perhaps a little too late, that I had some skill with fighting with my hands, and I threw down grown men with ease. Zhalo wasn’t even a necessity. I got them out of my hair and plunged them into a painless end. It was more than Cameron could say – he slew them like beasts, a quick jab with his silver sword to the heart or to the throat. They dropped and spun to the ground like paper fans.

        The descent now was gradual; less harsh than the initial slope. OLC guards were common, Crows less so. I still felt like we were being watched. Like an army lay inside the fortress, waiting for us. I felt like Crow hid in the walls to keep an eye on us. It all began, though, when the corridor widened until it was fit for giants, and we stood before a set of glittering bronze gates. Two people in the House of Crows’ formal wear guarded it with pikes.

“Welcome to Skye,” one guard said, stepping forward. “Lady Vios has been waiting for you.”

XX SMOKE AND GLASS

I was taken aback. “I love clichés like that too, but has she really?”

The guard looked embarrassed. “I… I don’t know. We were just ordered to let you through without trouble.”

“And will you?” Cameron asked, his voice tapering like a teacher’s.

“I won’t disobey any orders from General di Pasqua,” she went on. “Perhaps we can escort you.”

I stepped back and murmured into Lucas’ ear. “I thought we were supposed to raid it.”

“She said di Pasqua ,” Lucas hissed. “Isn’t she, like, your nemesis now?”

        I didn’t have time to answer. I had too many nemeses to deal with. The guard and her partner led us through the gates, and the tunnel opened up into something like a city that had been carved into the walls of a cavern. It was all smooth, gray stone, and much of it was edged in glistening gold or bronze. OLC soldiers and Crows alike marched along gently curving pathways, their footsteps generating a soft but omnipresent beat. Great stalactites stretched down and formed massive etched pillars, into which rooms had been carved. The bridge we walked didn’t have any railings, and just by looking over the edge, I realized that falling off would result in a watery death. Frigid lake water flowed from somewhere behind us, rushing down far below. The entire cavern converged on a single point at the end of the bridge, and even the high ceiling bowed down from the smoky murk and bent to meet the gates ahead of us.

        I recognized Cecilia di Pasqua standing at the far end, though the man who stood next to her was unfamiliar. As we got closer, I realized that he was wearing a mask – it was off-white like an eggshell, and the eye holes seemed to absorb all the light around him. Cecilia fixed me with an iron glare and I felt my extremities go cold. They both meant business. I wasn’t sure if I did yet. The majesty of the underground fortress was only accentuated by the duo.

The masked man stepped forward and shook my hand. “Edward Scott, co-president of the Otherworld Liberation Company. You’re Commander Cole Lee, no? A big name with the Guardians.”

“I’m not a commander…” I faltered.

He nodded, flaunting his fake mask smile. “Very well. And you are… Oh, Lucas Addington—”

“Aines,” he corrected him. “Pleasure to meet you, Mister Scott.”

“Lucas Aines.” Edward moved on to Cameron. “Ah, the fabled Cameron Green. How I’d love to put a stake through your heart.” For once, the grin on the mask seemed real.

Cameron gave a sweet smile back. “I thought we were being diplomatic.”

Cecilia intervened. “We are. You’re here to plead with our Lady Vios and it’s simply my job to introduce you to the Labyrinth. Remember, any defiance on your part will authorize me to kill you immediately.”

“That doesn’t make you special,” I retorted. “I’m not hard to kill.”

She looked down at me as if I were a child. “For most, you’re very difficult to kill. I think I’ll find more ease in it.” Cecilia gestured at the smallish door in the corner of the room. “This is the Labyrinth. It should test your worth, and if you make it out, both Otherworld and the Crows will have a fine idea of what you’re made of.”

“Mostly water and carbon,” I said, trying to lighten the mood, but they weren’t having any of it. Cecilia gave a cue and Edward Scott ushered us through the door to the Labyrinth with a rough hand. All I saw was his bone-white mask grinning at us as the door shut.

Cameron coughed and his sequery scanner lit up the dark. “They should’ve confiscated this. Anyways. I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.”

“Bad news,” Lucas piped in before Cam could even finish.

“Okay. The bad news is that there’s a mile or two of twisting tunnels between us and Crow.” He paused. “The good news is that I can generally plot out a course, assuming they don’t shift walls on us. The weird thing is…” He trailed off.

This pausing went on for an agonizingly long time. Finally, I had to ask. “What?”

“The weird thing is… That room behind us shouldn’t exist. It’s not showing up on any scans. According to my scanner, we just disappeared off the face of the Earth for a few minutes.”

Lucas tapped his foot. “So maybe they have jammers.”

“I think…” Cameron dialed a friend’s number. “I think they’re using stolen Guardian technology.” His call connected. “Hey, Atlas. You probably noticed it as well, but there’s a huge bridged area right behind us that isn’t showing up on the scans. Any idea as to what that is?”

I heard a muffled voice on the other end of the line. “Maybe jammers.” Lucas pumped his fist. “It’s possible they’re replicating an Indeset-like haven environment for their command. Can you scan for a port?”

Cameron turned and scoured the doorway for something. “It’s too dark to… I’ll light up my scanner and report back if I find anything.” The call ended and Cameron shined a light up and down the wall.

“Indeset is the safe haven of the Guardians. It exists out of space and time,” he explained.

I was caught off guard. “You can do that?”

“Yes. Do you want to know the specifics, or…?” I didn’t reply. “Okay. I’m suspecting that Skye – that’s what they called it – is the Indeset of the House of Crows. It’s a shame we didn’t take control on the bridge.”

“I could burn through—” I began to suggest, but I was cut off by a loud aha!  from Cam.

He lifted his hand and I saw a dark cylinder that had been fixed with cords that hung back and connected to the doorway. “It _is _ Guardian technology! I can get this door open.”

Lucas gestured down the hall. “We could just take the Labyrinth and get to Crow that way.”

I disagreed. “They probably have traps and things like that. I think it’s best if we do what they’re not expecting.”

“It’s possible that they’re expecting the attack we’re about to start,” Cam remarked, without even looking up. A rod popped from one end of the cylinder, Cam twisted it, and the entire rig began to hum ever so slightly. Finally, the door shimmered and disappeared. Cameron cut the cord with his knife and gestured out at the bridge that twisted through the center of Skye. Bingo.

Lucas shook his head. “Easy as that? How do we get to Crow?”

        We ventured out onto the platform that received the bridge. Guards continued to walk the pathways at the edge of the chamber and on each pillar, but nobody surveyed the bridge itself. From this point, I was able to fully appreciate the architecture. The bridge was curved and multi-layered, stretching down like something organic. Behind us, there was a collection of doors and two staircases that led up to a mezzanine. A glittering bone chandelier hung in the center of this little lobby. It was, of course, deserted. All the doors were unmarked but one, cast in brushed steel, emblazoned with the OLC logo. The logo itself was also surrounded by rays of light. Fancy.

I pointed at it. “I think that’s the way to go.”

        I quickly learned that everything OLC-related was accented in silver or steel instead of brass or bronze. Where the Crows used knives and bows, the OLC guards tended to wear fatigues outfitted with pistols and rifles. The paths leading through the annals of Skye were probably more confusing than their Labyrinth itself. Cameron held his sword in one hand and kept a tight grip on something else – something he’d pried from the door to the Labyrinth. It was a thin glowing strip of some unfamiliar metal. I’d never really noticed Lucas’ knife, but he held onto his like he’d die if he dropped it. The tension was high. Then I realized why.

– - -

        I felt the cold steel slide under my skin before I noticed anything was off, really. It hit right when Lucas stopped walking. When I fell to the floor, Cam heard me drop, and his scream made it all real. My wound was cold but my blood was hot. It felt strange but not terrible. I wasn’t really in a place to think. Lucas stepped over me, lunged with his knife, and someone collapsed beside me. Dead eyes stared into mine. I tried to look away.

        Lucas flew back and landed on his spine, and he didn’t stand back up. Cameron fought a quick fight behind me, but I knew when he dropped as well. They’d faced someone immensely powerful. That much was clear. I lay on my side, now, trying to hold back the blood that continued to flow from my back. Two boots dropped in front of my face, both coated in crimson. Our assailant leaned down.

“That was too easy.” I couldn’t talk. They went on. “The Labyrinth would’ve given you a higher chance of survival. There’s nobody to fight in there. Why did you escape?” The person lifted their right foot and pressed down on my ribcage. The voice was tinged with fury. “Why did you kill yourself? Your friends? I hate a lot of things, but I hate stupidity the most. And Cole, oh… I hate you more than anyone else I’ve met in my life. You should be honored.”

They pushed down harder and I found it hard to breathe. “You’ll bleed out soon. We’ll toss you down into the chasm and it’ll all be over. Well… Maybe not. Crow wants your head. I’ll have to bring you to her. Can you last that long?” They pushed down again and I felt a rib crack. “Can you live long enough for her to kill you, like she’s been waiting so long to do?”

– - -

I woke up at the foot of Crow’s throne. The gilded onyx rose up over me, etched in gold, and the woman who sat there looked like a queen of ages forgotten. She was more made up now, eyes marked in kohl, her dark hair braided over one shoulder. Her robes flowed down and stopped just short of my face. I couldn’t feel my legs at all, but the wound in my back ached dully. I couldn’t rise to face her.

A voice resounded from behind me. “The Firebrand is awake.”

I noticed Tania standing at Crow’s right side. Our eyes met and she quickly fixed her steely glare at the air above me. Sadie Vios just nodded curtly. “I know. Tania. Lift him up to face me.”

        She did. I tried to prevent it, but a painful groan escaped my lips, punctuated by a few drops of blood. I didn’t understand why Crow wanted to talk. There was nothing left for her to do to me.

“This is an awakening,” is all she said at first. Her tone was cold, harsh. She knew she was in control and she was enjoying it. “My informant told me that you would submit easily. I didn’t believe her at first.”

I grit my teeth. “I’ll never submit.”

She held up a hand, angled it at my forehead, and drew it back. I felt a pressure in my brain. “You will do what I say. The Guardians are already gone.”

“No,” I shook my head. “They know where Skye is. They’ll find me.”

Someone stepped up behind Tania and I and pressed something cold and wet to my spine. I jerked away, but the pain went away almost immediately as the cloth soaked the cut. Crow nodded when the medic walked away. “We can heal you, and in more ways than this. The Guardians founded the Academy and sent countless children to their deaths. Why are you so loyal to them?”

Lucas. I didn’t say it, but she knew. I could see it in her eyes. “They didn’t kill civilians in Paris and Chicago like you did.”

Her formal mask fell away and Crow just shrugged carelessly. “This is the nature of war, Cole. It’s not so sinful to destroy adults as it is to doom children. At least, at our core, the House of Crows has a sense of human worth.”

“You can’t pick and choose who you save,” I spat. I began to feel woozy from the substance the medic had given me.

“He’s unsteady, Lady,” Tania Pienaar murmured behind me.

Crow waved us away. “Let him heal. We’ll begin conditioning tomorrow. Escort the Guardian and his apprentice to the cells near the chasm.”

I didn’t have time to ask. My vision faded, slowly and peacefully this time, and someone tossed me over their shoulder. I fell asleep to the lull of their footsteps.

XXI LOVE THY ENEMY

I spent my waking hours silent, still, listening for Zhalo. Nakir and Munkar’s voices were strangely absent. Even though I knew that the Otherworld guards had tossed the sword away in some back corner, it was still weird being without it. They must’ve pumped me full of some powerful painkillers, because I couldn’t feel a thing around my back or, for that matter, my legs. It was then that I had to come to terms with the fact that they’d probably never work again. I tried to force them to move with pure power of will and all I got was a tingling feeling from my knees up.

My room was a small cell, though the ceiling was way higher than the walls were wide. I lay on a cot, my torso secured with bandages, and Tania Pienaar sat on a folding chair near the door. She jerked her head up when she saw me looking at her.

“You’re awake.” She drew her knife slowly. “I was sent to speak with you, since I’m a former Guardian sympathizer.”

I snorted. “At least you’re honest about it.”

She scowled, and looked like she wanted to say something, but stopped. “As much as I disagree with your motives, I have been charged with ensuring that you’re comfortable. Perhaps they wanted you to see a familiar face.”

        I didn’t know what to say to that. After paralyzing me, possibly killing my friends, and cutting me off from the outside world, I didn’t understand their hospitality in the slightest. Tania just crossed her legs, sat back, and stared at the ceiling. This went on for hours until I grew restless.

“Tania,” I said.

She lifted her head. “Yes?”

“How do you feel about Cameron?”

Tania waited a bit before answering. “I don’t.”

Not the answer I was expecting. “Why?”

She launched into the words and her frame changed entirely. Suddenly she was fluid, hands flying, face twisting to match each impossibly powerful emotion. I struggled to keep up.

“I’ve learned, over the decades, to fight emotions. It’s useful to be able to shut down bad feelings. To stop a thought before it becomes too powerful. This is why the Guardians are so formidable- they can disconnect from anything so they can connect with something else. My Lady wanted me for this ability. She knows I can - and have already - overcome my past and serve as her general.”

Tania stopped and her eyes got misty. She set her hands on her lap. “Cameron was like a brother. He helped to teach me that even the most honest people can be deluded by an evil voice. He is too far gone. My Lady was the only one who could rescue me from him.” She sighed. “Now, she’s rescued you as well.”

“I suppose I should be grateful,” I joked, but she actually nodded. “Why do you think the Guardians are evil if you… Served as their leader for so long?”

Tania gave me a sharp look. “I was deluded as he is. I greenlit the Academy… Have you looked at the havoc we wreaked? Hundreds of children’s’ lives ruined. But maybe it was worth it. We found you.” This wasn’t the strong, determined commander I knew. She’d been brainwashed, turned into a servant of Crow’s.

“Crow doesn’t kill her enemies,” I said suddenly. “She recruits them. OLC is a huge fucking amoeba.”

She shook her head. “I serve my Lady of my own accord. Here, I can be truly free. Tracts of land in Thule, golden estates in Skye…”

I was getting continually more freaked out.

Tania’s trance was broken when the heavy steel door slammed open and Cecilia di Pasqua stormed in. She pointed a gloved finger at me. “The director of the labor division wishes to speak with you. The request is effective immediately.”

I pointed at my legs. “I can’t walk.”

A small smile tugged at the edge of her mouth. “What goes around comes around, young hero.” She turned back and shouted down the hall. “Fetch me a wheelchair!”

Cecilia turned to me. “Director Damos will evaluate whether or not you’re suited for labor in Skye. You can work off your sentence.”

“What’s my sentence?” I’ll admit that I didn’t really want to hear her reply.

“You’ll be here for life unless my Lady says otherwise.”

I got that dead feeling again. I didn’t let Cecilia di Pasqua push me down the corridor. Instead, I opted for my own arms, and she walked ahead of me, checking back every so often to make sure that I wouldn’t attempt a great escape or something. It was tempting, though. OLC guards were relatively uncommon down here in the prison wing. Almost all the cells were empty. Those that were occupied seemed to hold corpses, judging by the smell. As we went deeper into the complex, the barred walls rusted and the stone floor buckled and cracked. Skulls wrapped in dried skin stared up at me, empty sockets and slack jaws begging for rescue. Skeletal hands gripped the bars, frozen in time, their dried-out flesh holding them in place. Cecilia ignored it all. I found it hard to breathe.

        The set of doors that stood before us was etched bronze, but it had turned brown and green after ages of neglect. Cecilia knocked on the door three times in quick succession. Very polite. It was better than the intrusion that I’d gotten earlier. The doors swung open to reveal a colossal beast clad in an apron and dirty beige robes. His skin was bone white with an upturned, slitted nose, and small crimson eyes stared down at me. The guy’s arms and legs were incredibly bulky and muscled, and he bared his conical teeth upon seeing me.

“The boy is crippled,” the beast rumbled, waving me off. “Is he intelligent?”

Cecilia rushed to my defense. “He served the Guardians. It’s no doubt that they have entrusted him with valuable information.”

Director Damos gave me a second look. “Is this true?”

I shuddered. “Yes.”

“I will not interrogate you, but… Perhaps our strategic division can use your knowledge to coordinate attacks. We intend to eliminate the barge which your people stole shortly before you entered Skye.”

“I’ve used that cannon,” I blurted. It was mostly a lie. But anything was better than staying still a cold cell for all eternity. “The Kestrel gun.”

Damos made an expression that resembled a wry smile. “My people built that weapon. Your colleagues have bought much of that hardware. If you are who I think you are, I know that you also destroyed a Bankash cannon. Your cohorts deploy Gugamus dynamo armor. Your commanders use Spaarus sidearms. I know your army to its roots.”

“You’re a rephaite?” I asked, in awe. “You’re from…” I wracked my mind for the word. A planet. “You’re from Kichaar.”

Cecilia sighed behind me and Damos gave a slow affirmation.

He went on. “I am Damos Irus, and I was once a captain of a legion in the States of Galvon. Now, I serve my Lady Crow. She’s shown me the richness and wealth of Earth and I, like my loyal brothers, will join her in its reawakening.” His tone was hard and blank, but he was clearly very invested in the idea. He trusted Crow one hundred percent. I noticed that a single word had been scrawled and carved into the stone around his doorway: KAIDE.

        I saw a familiar glimmer on a desk in the far corner of the room and all the breath escaped from my lungs. The smooth blade, the beaten hilt, the black leather grip. In that moment, Zhalo seemed to recognize me too.

Nakir groaned, as if just waking up. It took you fucking long enough! Come over here and get us. That musclebound freak show is trying to extract us .

Munkar murmured assent. Find an excuse for him to let you past. Then you can use us to cut his ugly head off!

I can’t walk , I reminded them. I’ll find a way .

        It was agonizing to be so close to them, yet so far. Damos Irus was like a mountain range, and the cold presence of Cecilia behind me made me feel impossibly small. It was that little glow on the desk that made me want to live. Maybe Zhalo could give me the strength to continue. The reality of my disability hadn’t set in yet. I was still trying to find ways to deny it. But without my friends, so unable to fight, it destroyed me to watch Zhalo’s glimmer fade as Damos shut the door on us. The last of my allies, gone. Nakir and Munkar went quiet again.

I took a chance and turned to Cecilia, who had started to push me down the hall. “My sword was back there. It belongs to the Firebrand.”

She didn’t skip a beat. “Prisoners can’t have weapons.”

“Do you really think I’ll be able to do anything with it?”

“It’s like a security blanket to you?” Cecilia asked, shaking her head. “Don’t forget your place here.”

I stared into her eyes and a sudden warmth rose up in my chest. The heat was dizzying, but I channeled it through my gaze and her eyes glowed gold too when she met mine. I tried again. “I need my sword.”

Cecilia nodded slightly, expression blank. “You need your sword.”

We turned around and the door opened again. Damos Irus leaned on the doorway and scowled at us. “What is it?”

Cecilia di Pasqua pointed at Zhalo in the back of the room. “I need that weapon.”

“But…” Damos hesitated. “That is pivotal in my studies.”

She bared her teeth back at him and he took a few heavy steps back and sheathed the blade. Damos handed her the sword and we left without another word. Cecilia never seemed to shake off her daze. It seemed like she just ignored the thing with Zhalo. We passed my room and she tossed it on my cot, but otherwise it was never mentioned or questioned. Like I’d… controlled her thoughts.

She was considerably more terse now as we went the other way, where the halls were more well-kept. “We have a roster of strategists known as the Altai Council. Perhaps they’ll want to work with you. Damos definitely thinks so.”

        I kept that in mind as we made our way up and out of the prison wing. Making it up the steep ramps that led to the upper levels was tough, but Cecilia helped push me along. It was all grudging, though. At one point we traveled along one of the halls that cut into the main bridge chasm in the center of Skye, and the view was breathtaking. Gold-traced marble pillars lined the pathway, and OLC guards saluted their general as Cecilia passed. I got a better view of the chasm itself from here – the bridge’s supports stretched down to the cave floor, which was mostly dominated by a rushing stream of black water. Old white crosses and headstones poked from the rapids and I realized that it was a graveyard down there. That’s what you get for building a bridge without railings.

        We rolled right into an Altai Council meeting when we took a left turn and cut into a large, round room. About twenty people in OLC formal wear turned to face us as we entered.

“Firebrand” was the only word uttered. A man in a slick dark suit stood up at the head of the table. He had a heavy black beard and striking silver eyes that bored into me. His hand rested on a revolver at his waist.

A woman beside him cleared her throat. “Amjad. He’s here to work with us.”

He looked down at her and slowly took his seat. “He wants to kill us all. I have no patience for murderers.”

The masked man – Edward Scott – shook his head and laughed. “We’re not here to be hypocritical, man. The least we could do is treat him as a peer.”

“You are going to sympathize with him?” Amjad asked.

“It’s called being diplomatic,” Cecilia interrupted them. She led me to the table and sat beside me. “Cole has valuable information about the Guardians’ tactics.”

I had one question. “Where’s Crow?”

Edward laughed again. “She doesn’t want to be anywhere near you.”

        Everyone at the table gave a little laugh, and then they all went quiet again. Finally, the woman beside Amjad set a stack of papers on the table and booted up a projector that was pointed at the wall at the far end of the room. It lit up with the Windows XP booting screen.

“I’m Representative Myers,” she began. “This is our sixty-fifth sectional crisis meeting. Goodman, do you have the minutes from the last meeting?” A man across from her nodded. “Okay, good. The topic we’ll be focusing on today is, of course, the seizure of the Kilimanjaro striker barge. We should also talk about the strategic advantages granted to us by the capture of the Firebrand.”

I wanted to say I’m right here  but I suppressed the urge. The various committee members brainstormed ideas to wipe out the Guardians on the barge and I tried to ignore their words. I caught wind pretty quickly that they all held a deep hatred for Cameron, and they voiced their opinions on how he should die. Most sounded extremely painful. Most wanted to seize the barge back. A few wanted to detonate C4 charges and sink it. Chemical weapons were mentioned more than once.

Myers slapped the table. “Attention. I’ve heard a few ideas on how to take back the lake. Our options so far are to bomb the barge, use a blue bomb to kill the Guardians, raid the barge with infantry, release pressure from Skye to sink it from below, or use a localized EMP to disable it and hack the control console from here.”

“So basically,” Edward summarized, “We can either kill people or not kill people.”

Amjad spoke up. “We’ve lost five of these barges to the Guardians so far. It would be best to destroy it.”

Cecilia squirmed. “The Kestrel gun is very valuable. We could dispose of the barge but preserve the weaponry.”

“The Guardians haven’t found the arsenal yet,” one OLC strategist noted, setting a single index finger on the table. “I vote for the blue bomb proposal.”

        Another representative started to speak, but they were interrupted by the echoing crack of gunfire from just outside the windows that lined the wall. I wheeled myself over and pressed my face to the glass. Far above on the main bridge, a trio of Guardians busted through the door and onto the bridge. They loosed a hail of bullets but were quickly overtaken by armored soldiers. One of the OLC soldiers, clad in a suit of dynamo armor, swung a huge pole and knocked two of the three Guardians down into the river at the bottom of the chasm. The third grappled with the guards for a moment, but she expired when they pushed a blade through her chest. It was over in seconds.

Cecilia breathed onto the glass and stepped back to face me. “I imagine they sang songs of their victories up on the lake.”

“Don’t antagonize him,” Myers chided her, taking her seat at the table. She spoke to the entire room this time. “Judging by your input and what we have at our disposal, I think it would be best to wipe out the Guardians using a blue bomb, seize the Kestrel gun and the arsenal, and then sink the Kilimanjaro.”

Edward shook his masked head slowly and set both hands on the table. “I love the idea, but we can’t eat our cake and keep it. Those dogs are fast.”

A slow smile spread on Amjad’s face. “We haven’t shown them the true power of Otherworld.”

        His last word was punctuated by the sharp opening of a door, and Crow glided into the room, clad in something royal but somehow more humble. She wore a comfortable black robe held together by deep violet belts, her waist lined with swinging daggers. She hunched over the end of the table opposite of me and gave me a brief, paralyzing look before resuming a conversation she must’ve been listening in on. I noticed that Crow looked a lot older, somehow. Her hair had been pulled back and her ancient eyes bored into mine. They’d seen a thousand years of war, none of which I wanted any part of. And yet …

“I like your plan, General Myers,” Crow began, “But… We’ll need a diversion if we want to take what we want given the time available. I can direct the Crows to a nearby Guardian camp – where most of them are stationed – and begin a wipe so OLC can safely seize the gun.”

Myers nodded. “Good. Cecilia… Are there any high-value targets aboard the barge?”

Cecilia di Pasqua checked a wrist computer that looked suspiciously similar to a sequery scanner. “Ah, Atlas Handel is in the Tyrka rike with Volo and the others. My Lady, you _were _ talking about Tyrka, no?”

“Yes,” Crow affirmed. “The Firebrand is our bargaining chip. Volo can be theirs. Without her, Asia might as well be ours.”

“What about the Acadian?” Myers asked.

Crow looked up at the general. “Lucas Aines.” She turned to me. “He came here with you, right?”

I tried to stop it, but I couldn’t halt the hot tears from rolling down my face. “You killed him.”

Edward snickered behind his mask. “And this is the young man the world is relying on?”

“Keep a basic sense of honor, Scott,” Crow breathed. “I haven’t heard of the boy since… Oh, never mind that. Representative Goodman?”

The man across from Myers sat straight at attention. “My Lady.”

“Bring me a report of the dead and the dying. If the Guardian general and the Acadian are still alive, bring them to my chamber.”

“Yes, my Lady,” he stammered, and rushed out into the hall. A desperate hope began to burn inside me.

        I’d gotten so caught up in my own injury; it’d given me an excuse to avoid thinking about Cameron and Lucas. But it sounded like they might be alive. Again, I’d taken a blade to the spine, so they might think I’m dead. Crow went on with finalizing the meeting.

“Myers and di Pasqua, organize a blue bomb and a skeleton crew that can wash out the armory and the Kestrel aboard the Kilimanjaro. I’ll contact Pienaar and Sebastian about raiding Tyrka.” She turned to me again. “You, Firebrand, help me mastermind ways to kill your ex-colleagues.”

XXII THE RULES OF WAR

The next few days were a mishmash of working on my upper body, training myself to be ambidextrous, and meeting with Crow to plot the deaths of my friends. I didn’t get to see or even hear from Lucas and Cam, but nobody confirmed that they were dead. I opted to be hopeful. In the meantime, I spoke with Tania in my cell and tried to get her to reminisce about being a Guardian. I learned a lot about her.

She was born in the early 1700s in a kingdom in northern Africa and learned to fight and defy leadership – to protect her people from an “oligarchy of thugs.” After leading a group of traders to the Americas and around the Pacific for a few decades, her astonishing story was discovered by the Guardians and they sought her out to recruit. She joined them, became functionally immortal, and began to protect the seas from the world’s worst. Only recently, I learned, Tania grew uncomfortable with that life of constantly moving around and took a more alluring offer – the promise of security, wealth, and a throne in the “rising nation of Kaide.” It almost sounded religious.

It was more than disheartening to see such a powerful ruler reduced to a pawn in Crow’s army. She’d always just take her seat by the door, get that dreamy look in her eyes, and tell me about how beautiful Kaide was before it was destroyed by… Someone called Hawk. The way Tania described Hawk, it could’ve been anyone from Crow to Winnie the Pooh. The only words she used to describe them were “terrible, brave, and dark. Hawk merely said ‘ It is done ,’ and Kaide was gone.” Throughout Tania’s monologue I tried to keep my hands from shaking.

It occurred to me that Tania had probably visited Kaide in her days as a rogue on the waves. Cameron told me that Kaide had been destroyed in the 1960’s which, in Guardian terms, is super recent. Each conversation was interrupted by one of Crow’s henchmen coming to fetch me for some new attack they were planning.

– - -

I rolled in the door and I found Crow in her seat, overlooking a map of the entire Baikal area. She looked up at me, expressionless. “Over here. Today’s the day we take the Kilimanjaro.”

I recalled the first day of planning – it had grown to be a pretty big mission. Much of the House of Crows would raid the local Guardian hideouts with the intent of wiping them out, and OLC would bring in a few choppers to bomb and capture the Kilimanjaro. Sadie and I would stay in a submarine beneath Baikal so we could survey the attacks from below. I wasn’t thrilled with being in a sub for the better part of two days, but given everything else that had happened, this was pretty tame. It was only going to be so long until Crow realized that none of my “intel” had actually helped her kill any Guardians. But I had no doubt in my mind that the Battle at Baikal would yield casualties on both sides.

“You and I will take the Cloudy Passat submersible below the waves to keep an eye on the naval proceedings,” Crow explained, detailing it all on the chalkboard behind her. “Myers and Scott will take two Chinooks over the barge – one with the bombs, the other with the troops. When they deploy, my Crows will storm the Guardian rikes from five fronts. We’ve decided to leave all radio channels open so the external Guardians can hear the massacre as it unfolds.”

“Isn’t that a little excessive?”

She gave me a harsh look. “We don’t fight to kill. We fight to win. If we want to discourage them, we must first terrify them.”

I didn’t let it get to me and I instead pointed at a yellowish blip near the entrance to Skye. “What’s that?”

“The skull and skeleton of a beast that dwelled in the lake ages ago. We’ve set up a stock of dormant plastic explosives in case we need to seal off the tunnels leading here.” Crow paused. “I find it unlikely that the Guardians will attack that point again. They’ve found our air vents.”

“Why don’t they gas us out?”

Crow let out a humorless laugh. “Because we’re smarter than they are. We have multilayer fusion filters installed in every crevice. That way, the gas goes right back at them.”

That piqued my curiosity. “Did you get those from Gugamus Manufacturing?”

She bristled. “Yes.”

“What else did you get from them?”

Crow sat up straight and shook her head slowly. “You aren’t permitted to know any of this. You’re worth nothing.”

I didn’t have any right to be confident, but for some reason that fire ignited behind my eyes again. “No, I’m not.”

“Do you want to lose your arms as well?” Sadie growled. “I know you tricked Pienaar into giving you your sword back. I can see every and anything that happens in Skye. Your defiance will cost you every comfort I’ve bestowed on you.”

That light in my head turned red. “Then fucking do it. Cut my arms off. Take it all away. Prove that you’re not a coward like the rest of them.” It was dangerous. I knew it when the silver in her irises went white and she dragged her knife across the map, ripping it in two.

She spoke through grit teeth. “You will serve me.”

        Suddenly, everything blurred out and the world split around me. On my right, Crow lunged at me and slit my throat. I felt the warmth spread down my neck. On my left, I obeyed her. I glanced up and I watched another scene play out before me on loop – I reached for the knife and cut her arm. Right in front of me, I saw only a silent staredown. Maybe I meant to, maybe I didn’t, but I chose the path on my left. Time went back to normal and I sat back in my wheelchair.

“I will serve you.” It sounded like a surrender.

Crow nodded shortly. “Good.” She paused. “We’ve spoken enough here. Go back to your chamber. I’ll send Prosti to fetch you when it’s time to board the Cloudy Passat.”

        She didn’t leave any room for messing around. Crow stood up, grabbed her knife, and waited for me to wheel myself into the hall. The door shut behind me. I took a moment to breathe. I remembered when time seemed to stop around me, and I got to peer into the possible paths I could’ve taken. That had to have been blur. The weird Firebrand superpower everyone was talking about.

        The only reason I didn’t use my powers to burn my way out of Skye was the sheer fact that there wasn’t much I could do in a wheelchair. It was mostly a matter of waiting for the Guardians to rescue me, if it got to that point. I rolled my way down to my prison block and hoisted myself up and into my cot. It was crazy. No more guards worried about escorting me around, and they didn’t even lock my door anymore. But, like always, Tania sat in my room, staring into middle space. But something was different this time. She stood up as I entered, peeked out into the hall, and then ducked back in.

She spoke in a low voice, so quiet than I had to lean her way to hear it. “It’s time we start being honest with each other.”

“What?” I whispered.

Tania walked over to my side of the room and knelt next to me. “There are things I have not been saying. We must be quick. Crow will be listening.”

“Okay, go on, I’m listening.”

“There is a cache full of emergency exosuits in the workshop of Damos Irus, just down the hall. If you can use your magic on him, perhaps he will help fit the suit to you. Then—”

“I’ll be able to walk,” I realized. “Why are you helping me?”

Tania’s expression went blank. “Did you really think I was committed to Crow? I got close to her because I knew that we could do more damage from the inside.”

It all hit me like a truck. “You planned all this? You convinced Crow that you were one of them and then…”

“I was promoted to general and I asked that they let you through peacefully so we could use you as a bargaining piece. She let me become your caretaker so I could enact this plan right before their big battle.”

“So are Cameron and Lucas alive?”

Tania nodded. “After we get your legs fitted into that exosuit, we will meet with them on the bridge and escape the way you came in.”

I couldn’t control the grin that spread on my face. “I’m game.”

        Tania helped me into my wheelchair and we made our way down to the workshop of Damos Irus. This time, the skulls in the prison cells almost seemed to be smiling at me. I wished I could save them too. When Damos opened the door, it was a small matter of putting him under my spell. His eyes glazed over and he took my measurements and found me an exosuit from a huge closet in the back. He hooked up a few suction clamps to my hips, pulled a small switch on the surface right above my outer thigh, and I felt the suit go rigid.

        The exosuit looked more like a pair of snow pants with a thin, rigid exoskeleton beneath the waterproof fabric than an actual armored suit. I stood up out of the chair and tried to balance myself. My legs were limp, but the pants supported me and helped me get my bearings.

“Not that it will come up, but…” Damos sighed. “That exosuit can launch you into your jumps if you so choose. The setting can be toggled with a blue switch on the left leg. They can also be calibrated to propel you underwater. Is that all for you today? I have tea if you—”

“No, we’re good,” I said hastily. I secured Zhalo at my waist and glanced at Tania. She gave a quick nod and I bade Damos goodbye.

He waved as we left. “I suppose I’ll just take care of this wheelchair for you…”

– - -

        Tania knew the place by heart. Now that she’d lost her helpless mask, she was all business. We took quick turns to get to the bridge in the center of Skye. She let me know that by now, the messenger that Crow sent for me would’ve already discovered my absence. For some reason, the halls were mostly empty of guards, which seemed to work in our favor. I took a wild guess and figured that they’d all headed off to the surface for the big fight. When we finally got to the atrium that led to the bridge, I saw two very familiar silhouettes braced against the lamplight beyond.

I’d never been happier to see any two people in my life.

XXIII NO SENSE IN WORRYING

Lucas turned around to face us, sprinted straight at me, and wrapped me up in a huge bear hug before I could dodge him. We tipped backward and rolled to the stone floor. “You’re alive!” he shouted.

Any annoyance I would’ve felt for him turned to pure adoration and I pressed my face to his, and I got that hand-shivering sort of warmth in my chest. Lucas rolled to the side and mussed up my hair. I laughed. “I was so worried about you.”

Lucas tossed his hair, which he’d converted from a mini-afro to a ton of mini-braids since I’d last seen him. “You too. But Crow was really nice to us for some reason.”

“If you count lacerations as nice,” Cameron scoffed. The entire place rumbled and the lights flickered a bit. “You two lovebirds need to get up. Atlas just detonated his charges on the Kilimanjaro. No telling what those shockwaves will do to Skye.”

I scrambled to my feet and Lucas helped me up. I didn’t have time to ponder us two . T he four of us made our way across the bridge. It was tough and more than a little terrifying when the bombs went off in the lake far above us. Streams of water pushed through the cracks in the gold-plated ceiling and chunks of stone fell amidst clouds of dust. I was thankful that the bridge didn’t collapse before we got to the other side. I held open the doors as the others passed through, and we pushed to the surface at a dead run.

I tried to remind myself that the tremors weren’t actually the entire place coming down, but again they may have been. There were no guards at the golden gates to stop us, so we stormed ahead and reached the surface within a matter of minutes. Tania set to unlocking the vault door and Cameron monitored the area using his sequery scanner. I suddenly remembered the rock that stood just outside – the skull that Crow had filled with explosives.

“Tania,” I said, tensing up.

“There’s no sense in worrying, Cole,” Tania replied. “Crow has no way of knowing that we are leaving from this exit.”

“But the bombs might go off if they sense that nobody has been authorized to open this door.”

Cameron paused. “That’s true. But do we have a choice?”

“… No.”

        He cracked the vault door open and I got to bask in the crisp morning sunlight for a few moments before the gunfire on the lake jarred me back to reality. Just like the strategists had ordered, I saw two massive Chinook helicopters hovering above the barge. The Kilimanjaro itself was already half-beneath the waves, hot flames streaming out of the crack in the windshield of the command room. It gave me a little satisfaction to notice that OLC hadn’t been able to snatch up the Kestrel gun like they wanted – it threw sparks as it disappeared beneath the waves.

Cameron admired the chaos from a distance. He set his hands on his hips. “I think we’re winning.”

“I hope,” I said. Nakir and Munkar hummed thoughtfully as well. They finally seemed content. But I knew of the battle that lay ahead. “Have the Crows attacked the rike yet? Back in Tyrka.”

Cam seemed confused. “No…? How much do you know about their plans?”

“Almost everything, I think.” I reviewed their plot in my head once and once more. “You should tell the other Guardians that the House of Crows is planning on raiding the rikes all around the lake. If they haven’t already.”

“This is going to be an honest-to-God battle,” Lucas mused.

        We made our way around the lake’s edge to a small outpost that was comprised of a few tents and a smoking mortar. Nobody in sight. Before I could scour the camp, the air folded, shimmered, and produced a colossal set of bronze gates that stood between two marble columns, each topped with an amber lantern. The gates swung open to reveal an eerily familiar bridge and the one person I wasn’t in the mood to see. Sadie Vios stepped through the gateway and surveyed the lake around us before finally focusing on Cameron, Tania, Lucas, and I.

The gates blinked out behind her and she stood alone, decked out in her formal military wear. Crow took a small bow. “I should have killed you when I had the chance, Firebrand.” She didn’t seem upset at all.

I unsheathed Zhalo. “If it makes you feel any better, that decision wasn’t in your power to make.”

I noticed a flicker of doubt cross her face but then she was all composed again. “If I can’t have you, then I need you dead.”

“Then have me dead,” I replied, and Tania, Lucas, and Cameron fanned out behind me. A mortar shell went off in the air above the Kilimanjaro and a few of the shells exploded beneath the waves, rocking the shoreline.

I think it was Munkar who pulled it all into perspective. His mumblings turned into shouts over his bloodthirsty brother, but Munkar’s little speech is what dulled Zhalo’s blade so much that I doubted it could cut butter. I swung at Crow and my blade bounced off hers harmlessly, and Zhalo grew heavy in my hands. Almost too heavy to even lift up off the ground. At first, I thought Munkar was trying to kill me.

Let him fight!  Nakir screamed in my head, attempting to wrest control of the sword. I watched the blade morph from sharp to dull, light to heavy. You’re going to get him killed!

Munkar disagreed, calm but severe. You don’t know a thing about giving in to peace .

At last, though, Crow pushed her blade against mine, slid it down to the hilt, and flung Zhalo up and into the underbrush. She held the tip of her sword to my throat and I took a few cautious steps back. “You’re mine, now.”

        I knew that light in her eyes. I’d seen it in Damos’ and Myers’ and in the eyes of everyone at the strategists’ table. It was empty, cruel, and unforgiving. I think, even though I didn’t know its name, I understood the force that commanded all the armies of Skye. All the soldiers of OLC and the House of Crows. Something impossibly dark, but not anything invincible. A great puppetmaster loomed above Sadie Vios, commanding her every move, and I was determined to sever its link to her. Even without Zhalo, I knew that I could fight her.

“I’ll save you,” I shouted, and braced myself for the blade that came for my throat.

        I caught the blade in my fist and ignited my right hand, melting the sword so Crow had to drop it at the hilt. I kicked some dirt over the mangled weapon and waited for her to catch her breath.

Sadie shook her head. “I’m smarter than your tricks. If you—”

“Then why can’t you see that they’re not tricks?” I asked, backpedaling. “Honestly. What kind of bribe inspired you to do all this?”

“Kaide,” Sadie replied, her voice shaky. “If you call my nation a bribe again, I’ll gut you like a fish.”

I shuddered. “Is all this worth rebuilding a dead country? Killing innocents in Paris and Chicago? Slaughtering Guardians to defend a fortress they can’t crack? Who are you trying to impress?”

Sadie Vios held out her hand and a dagger formed itself in her palm out of nothing. “Nothing your mind can understand. There are greater forces at work than you can comprehend. It’ll be easier if you surrender here.”

I held my palms out. “I won’t fight you.”

“Why?” She spat. “Because you’re an idiot?”

“Because I know you’re good at heart.”

I think that’s what did it. It probably would’ve been easier to grab Zhalo and decapitate her, but I didn’t like the idea of her master simply losing a leader. I liked the idea of having her on my side. I knew I could do it. My magic had worked on Damos Irus, at least, and I’d used blur with Crow in the planning room. But cutting her ties to her superior wouldn’t be deception. “You know nothing about giving in to peace,” Munkar had told me. Maybe not.

Crow released the dagger and it fell by her feet, and she set her hands on her belt. I watched that silvery light in her eyes go gold, and for once her brow wasn’t knit. She looked mostly contemplative. I didn’t want to ruin her moment. The battlefield went silent and time seemed to slow around us, like a more direct version of blur . Like Crow was choosing her own path. Then everything went back to normal.

XXIV COLLAPSE

“Amjad El-Hashem and Edward Scott are in a tent near Tyrka, planning the murder of Chancellor Volo,” was all Sadie said. She tore off her House of Crows lapel pin and flung it to the ground, then unclipped a familiar-looking pack from her waist and emptied a few silvery cubes into her hand.

Cameron tilted his head. “Is that FSM?”

“Yes,” Sadie replied. “If we want to cut down Otherworld before they do any more damage, we’ll need a boat to reach the other end of the lake.” She tossed her FSM to the waves and it formed a modest dinghy.

        Cameron, Lucas, and Tania seemed mostly mystified but didn’t say much as Sadie and I waved to the OLC troops as if to say “It’s alright, nothing to see here.” She didn’t seem really thrilled to be here, but I feel like engaging in combat helped her stay distracted from an ultimately more disturbing realization: maybe her master didn’t want the best for her. I was still in shock that I’d been able to pull her to our side, and I held hope that it wasn’t all an act so she could kill me when my guard was down. Maybe she’d been considering this for a while. The death threats certainly didn’t indicate that.

        Standing on dead legs felt weird. I couldn’t feel anything below my knees at best so it was all faith-based. Given all that, it took a while to get used to standing in the dinghy. All my learning was for naught, I realized, when Sadie drove the boat up on the gravelly shore and flung me into the grit. Lucas, Cam, and Tania stepped off all gracefully and Sadie helped me up. The act of kindness was really unprecedented. Of course, she paid right up for it when Amjad El-Hashem stumbled through the underbrush with an incredibly confused look on his face.

“Why have you brought the prisoners here?!” Amjad cried. “Skye is perfectly safe. I order you to return them there immediately.”

Sadie held up her hand and a revolver folded out of the air at will. She picked it from its stasis and pointed the muzzle at Amjad. “They aren’t prisoners.”

Amjad’s expression went from animated confusion to a terrifying calm. “You know how Otherworld punishes traitors,” he warned, reaching for a gun at his waist.

        He didn’t even get to finish. Sadie pulled the trigger and the OLC leader twisted back into the sand, streaks of blood painting the air and then the ground. She gestured up at the slope and led us through the thickets to a small clearing that boasted a small camp centered around an outcrop of jagged black rock. A few OLC lackeys had apparently heard the shot, but they seemed less concerned and more impressed that their Lady Crow had shown up to save the day. A few eyed me closely but mostly hung back as Sadie made her way to her next target.

        Sadie disappeared into the largest tent and a few words were exchanged before the next shot went off. She emerged, blank-faced, a revolver in one hand and Edward Scott’s bloodied, grinning mask in the other. She gave me a short nod and sat down, cross-legged, in the sand as dozens of OLC guards looked on.

Cameron looked them all in the eyes and murmured one word under his breath, as menacingly as possible. “Leave.” They all fled in an instant. Cam turned to Sadie. “So, you’re with us now?”

She glanced at the tent. “Two blood sacrifices aren’t enough for you?”

“You know it’s more than that.”

Sadie nodded and her revolver fizzled away. “It can be. I pledge my allegiance not to the Guardians but to myself. I’ll work with the Firebrand to defeat he who gave me orders.”

“Are you dropping any names?” I asked.

“I need time to think,” she replied. “I’ve had no time to think in a long while. I’ve been filled with nothing but anger and that, believe me, is exhausting. Considering very little of it was my own.”

– - -

        Chancellor Volo, Atlas Handel, and the Russian bartender received us warmly back at the Tyrka rike. They served up syrniki – which was like a fried breakfast sandwich covered in honey – and some spiced tea. Despite the fact that a brutal snowstorm had kicked up outside, it could all almost be considered cozy. The eight of us huddled around a small firepit and tried to ignore the rattling of the flimsy aluminum door.

        But as the day wore on and the icy Baikal winds battered the rike into oblivion, I noticed a sort of red flickering in the corner of the room. As I drew closer, I recognized the shape of a person, hunched over, pulsing with crimson light. I knew exactly who she was.

“Kate,” I whispered. She looked up and pushed her hair from her eyes, which hung loose – it was normally bound in a braid.

Kate’s red glow subsided a bit. “Cole.” Her face softened into a smile. “I’m proud of you.”

I felt the world darken around me, as if we were being pulled from the rike itself and into Kate’s own little world. “I’m sorry you died.” The Paris plane wreck played through my head again.

“Well, I’m here now,” she shrugged. “Valentine says she’s glad you listened to Munkar.”

I recalled the brief duel with Crow. Zhalo buzzed on my waist. “Where is she now?”

Kate tapped her forehead. “She’s giving me company. Dying definitely isn’t fun—” she gave a light laugh, “But I saw a lot. Crow has the information you need to make it through the hard part.”

“The hard part?”

“You do know that Crow was being commanded by a higher being, right?”

“Yes.” I got chills. Nakir and Munkar stayed quiet. I think they’d made peace with one another.

Kate went on. “She can give us information about her commander. With Edward Scott and Amjad El-Hashem dead, OLC will turn against itself. We don’t need to worry about them. For now, focus on resting up. I caught word that Atlas wants to hold a Vanguard meeting at Indeset.”

Cameron leaned over my shoulder and broke the spell. “But first, to Paris. A lot of people from the Hidden world want your signature, Cole.”

“News travels fast,” I muttered. and they both laughed.

“But…” Cameron sat next to me and sighed. “Well, okay. It’s not very common, but sometimes a Guardian will choose a single person to protect. I need your permission first, though.”

The word escaped my mouth before I could even think about it. “Yes.”

He nodded, staring into middle space. “There’s no contract to it other than the one in your mind. I’ll prevent you from dying but I probably won’t fetch you a coffee.”

“Probably won’t? What if I ask nicely?”

Cam laughed. “Okay, maybe then.”

Atlas loomed behind us, brandishing a notebook and a pen. He crouched down and gestured to the doorway. “I know the weather’s shitty, but it’s best that we head to Paris now rather than later. Otherworld and the House of Crows have started to fight over Skye and I want to avoid the crossfire.”

        We did. Someone (Atlas, probably) had parked his Sroc Model 900 shuttle out back, which was shielded from the wind and ice by a colossal, glittering net of wire. The entire tarmac was lit by foglights. When the shuttle powered on, the twin turbines spewed a bitter gout of flame, rendering all the snow and ice near it to steam. People shouted nothing I could understand, and we filed into the shuttle one by one. I gripped a bar for balance, the door slammed shut, and we jerked up and out of Tyrka. Atlas brought us above the cloud layer in a matter of seconds, probably to avoid the collection of ice on the wings. I was ready to vomit. The entire experience was honestly worse than being fired from the Royal Carnivale people-cannon.

        Then we were out of Siberia, just like that. I got a little worried when I watched Sadie depress a button on what looked like a bomb detonator, but nothing happened. I asked her what it was, and she told me that she was shutting down all the gateways into and out of Skye. Maybe it’d help calm the civil war that had broken out between OLC and the Crows. But again, maybe not.

        A single memory ran through my head on repeat: Sadie letting her dagger fall, the look in her eyes as she renounced her faith. I don’t know what it means to be the Firebrand, exactly, but I think I saw a bit of it in her in that moment. The ride back to Paris was mostly smooth. It got darker the further west we went, though, and I realized that we were beating the sun at its own game. Early morning in Russia was nighttime for France. When we finally arrived, the moon was high. I thought I caught the glint of dawn on the horizon.

        The turbines died down and I slid open the shuttle door. I’d never been so thankful to be on (relatively) familiar ground. We’d landed in a courtyard near the café we stayed in when OLC had just started attacking Paris – it was weird to be back at the beginning of it all. Kate stayed quiet, sniffling into a tissue, and I realized that she was tearing up not because she was sad but because she was sick. I kept her company and helped prepare refreshments that the local Parisians brought in. It was a dry night, and though the flagstones were wet from yesterday’s rain, the sky was clear and starry.

        We set out big tables, bowls of fruit, basins of water and juice, and a few arriving Guardians popped champagne bottles before everyone had even showed up. It took me a while to realize that we were setting up a party – it was weird after such a bitter, short war. Lucas insisted on linking arms with me, and Kate stayed near the firebowls that someone set up near the café doors. Atlas let the local kids finger-paint his dynamo armor, and though he seemed exhausted, everyone around him was laughing.

        Trios of Guardians showed up through jump gates, shuttles, and a few arrived by taxi. I was amazed by the sheer number of them. Dozens milling about, speaking tens of languages, all decked out in a dizzying array of armor and cloth. It was only then that I got a perspective on the Guardians I knew. Lucas tugged on my arm and pointed at Tania, Atlas, and even Kat from Baikal. I’d seen countless other faces in Chicago, around Tyrka, though unfortunately the bartender wasn’t present.

Cameron seemed to light up, slipping past people, disappearing and then reappearing again, flashing smiles and clinking glasses with maybe ten people a minute. He suddenly seemed less dark, more like a rogue – that one guy who’s friends with everyone and nobody at once. Cool. That’s the word for it. I watched him weave through the crowd until he finally took a seat at one of the glass tables near the coffee shop.

Tania and Atlas made peace. They commanded the place like twin emperors, shoulders squared, flashing polite smiles, mostly keeping a cap on things. They retreated to the edge of the crowd with a few other people who looked and acted like them. The generals of the Guardians. I noticed, after a while, that Sadie had taken a spot near Kate and the firebowls. Kate gave off a red glow, encapsulating them in her bubble of light. Crow probably needed the solace.

Lucas pulled on my sleeve like a little kid. “Someone brought hot chocolate.”

“My mouth’s still burning from the honey tea,” I admitted. Every little taste from my snack in Siberia was still on my tongue. The spices still burned my lips, but that all stopped pretty quick when he pressed his lips to mine and I got lost in a blur that wasn’t blur .

He drew back and covered his mouth. “Sorry.”

I actually found it hard to make words, but I managed one at the very least. “Thanks.” Don’t say thanks, idiot .

“I’m not good at taking signals—”

“Seriously,” I said, and I felt laughter well up in my chest. “Don’t apologize.”

        He didn’t. I was just confused; it seemed to come out of nowhere.

XXV MEMENTO MORI

“My House of Crows was born Hidden,” Sadie Vios went on, her voice hoarse. “They won’t fade as easily as OLC. We must—”

Kate cut her off, and I held back. I expected Crow to explode on her, but she didn’t. “You need to rest.”

Sadie glanced at me. “The Beholder knows my Crows better than I, apparently.”

“I know that even demigods need sleep,” Kate said sharply. She sat cross-legged on a Persian rug within the café, draped in saffron robes, and she came to look more like some sorceress each day.

Sadie set her jaw and stared at the far wall. “I will resume my work tomorrow.”

“Good.”

I rocked back and forth and formed my question in my mind. It basically amounted to “Why do you hate me?”

“I don’t hate you,” Sadie Vios amended without pause. “I hate the idea of you. An upstart hero raised to undo everything I have built over the years.”

“Are you talking about Kaide?”

She gave me a quick, cautious look. “I might.”

“Who gave orders to OLC and the Crows?” I asked.

“The Emperor.” Sadie doubled back. “How much do you know about Kaide?”

“Almost nothing. Are you giving up on it, now that you’ve let go of the House of Crows?”

She thought for a long while before replying. Finally, she let her shoulders drop. “No. I was foolish to let my army fall into the hands of someone who had only ill intentions for me. I’ve been… used. Perhaps I can build something new, but I will still hold hope for my nation.”

“Do you trust the Guardians with that?”

“I’ve already made it clear that I’m not one with the Guardians.”

I chewed on that for a bit. I felt a little smug that she’d chosen me and only me, but I also got the feeling that she’d be completely fine with disappearing and leaving all this behind her. Kaide was her chief concern. There was no guarantee that she’d stick around for this crisis with the Guardians and her Emperor. Who I still knew nothing about. It gave me chills.

As if she’d read my mind, Sadie said “I assume you want to hear about the Emperor.”

Kate answered for me. “Yes.”

“He would kill me for telling you anything beyond his title, but…” She shook her head. “It’s your right to know these three simple things at least. Firstly, one of your Guardians is very familiar with him. A good person to ask. Secondly, his armies dwarf yours beyond measure. Finally, once he realizes that he’s lost both the Crows and OLC, he will attack in full force and claim all that we have prepared for him. There’s little we can do now but wait.”

“What do you mean, prepared for him ?” I asked.

Sadie scowled. “Well, when he hired my Crows and OLC, he sent us to weaken the most powerful and beloved spots on Earth. Paris, for one, is considered home away from home for many Americans. Gaza sits at the heart of the crisis that lies between Europe and Asia, so he reignited many battles there. Amjad, Edward, and I sparked those fires which the Emperor will carry out.”

Cameron tapped my shoulder, and waves of cold shade drifted off him and onto me. “Hey, one of our Guardians set up a transfer gate to your house so you can rest a bit before we go to Indeset for the Guardian convention. You game?”

“Uh, sure.” The thought of seeing my parents after all this time was paralyzing. Heh. Paralyzing. I traced the rigid supports that lined my exosuit. “When do we leave?”

“As soon as possible.”

Crow waved me off. “Pleasure speaking with you.”

“See you on the other side,” Kate quipped, and I noticed that she wore that sly smile of hers. Of course.

– - -

        Cameron didn’t follow me through the gate, and I regretted that I didn’t get to say my goodbyes to anyone other than Kate and Crow. I held off for a few moments, but I finally pushed myself and took that one, million-mile step. San Jose was still trapped in the deep night; not a soul stirred. But when I tried to open my door, I found that it was unlocked. I surveyed my neighborhood for a second. Wide, drifting roads, single-story suburban homes, and yellowed lawns. Golden hills rose up in the distance, set against a smoggy black sky. Home.

        I stepped over the threshold and I was a little surprised to see my dad on the couch, a book in hand, legs crossed on the coffee table. I stopped in my tracks.

“You’re home late,” he said, and it took me a moment to realize that he was joking. Unlike basically everybody else on this entire coast, he had a thick New York accent, and even though I’d known him since I was born, it was still a little hard to parse.

I sat next to him. “I’m sorry.”

He shook his head and gave me a gleaming smile. “Cole. We got a letter yesterday; it explained _almost _ everything. We know it’s not your fault, and you’re crazy if you think we’re gonna pin all this on you.”

“Did you miss me?”

“Of course! Your mom’s been a mess for the last month, but what you’ve gone through isn’t so alien to us that we called the FBI or anything. I mean, God knows who controls the Hidden world.”

“How much do you know?”

“Like I said, we got a letter.”

I didn’t push. “I missed you.”

He grabbed me around the shoulder and I set my head on his chest. My dad just hummed and stared out the window. “‘Scuse my language, but I’m real goddamn glad you’re back.”

“Happy to be home,” I replied, and it took a lot of willpower to keep myself from letting the hot tears roll down my face. But in the end I allowed myself to cry anyway.

EPILOGUE THE COST OF EVERYTHING

        I stared out my window at the winding road outside, bathed in lamplight, dotted with sleek cars colored like easter eggs. The moon hung low in the sky, cloudless, punctuated by millions of tiny glittering stars. I was used to the smog, but the clear skies were welcome. The last time I’d looked out this window, I was greeted by a black van and a trio of men in boiler suits, all bearing the Academy’s logo. I remembered the vehicle’s every curve. They’d left the headlights turned off. The engine had purred, nearly silent. And then they were in the house, armed with batons and tranquilizers, their fists upon me—

I sat up straight and caught my breath. A cold sheen of sweat covered my forehead and I wiped it off on my covers. “Nakir,” I whispered, reaching out to grip the sheathed sword that sat on my nightstand. “Munkar.”

The angels stirred and Nakir answered me. Cole. Night terrors?  

“Yes,” I replied. I tugged my curtains shut. “I don’t know if I can sleep here anymore.”

You haven’t slept a wink since you entered the Academy. The mind needs its rest. If I were you, I’d use blur and just choose the path where you end up sleeping , Munkar suggested.

I cracked a smile. “Because that’s totally what blur  is for.”

Nakir jumped in. One sheep, two sheep, three sheep, four sheep times two sheep is eight sheep, eight sheep times five sheep is a lot of sheep  …

“I get it,” I whispered. “I’ll try the blur  thing.” I pulled back out of this time stream and only two possibilities floated before me – one, where I stayed awake and counted sheep with Zhalo; and two, where I conked out and dreamed of Starbucks baristas spelling my name wrong. I opted for the second option and I drifted to sleep in that moment. Nakir and Munkar continued to murmur for a few minutes but soon they gave in as well. There’s my answer – apparently angels do  sleep.

In my dream, I was taller. Stronger. And more of an asshole. My dream self took pride in it. I slipped out of an alleyway and tugged a wide-brimmed hat over my eyes. “It’s best that we conclude this now rather than later,” I started.

It took me a moment to evaluate who I was talking to, but a young woman spun to face me and her face was incredibly familiar. I just couldn’t place it. “Hawk,” she hissed.

“It’s difficult for me to complete my contracts, given that the duchess isn’t yet dead,” I told her, leaning on the wall. Her face blanched with dread. My dream self seemed to be encouraged by her fear.

“There have been complications,” she explained fervently, “Erwin is—”

I shook my head. “I know you’re smarter than that. More professional than that. It is my duty to bring about change – to dissolve roadblocks in the world’s paths of commerce – and your incompetence with the duchess of Sif is making my work impossible. I need Amber Ackerman dead by tomorrow, or I’ll be forced to dissolve you as well.”

The woman let her shoulders drop. “It… Will be done.”

“Good,” I replied. “That’s good. I’ll meet you here again this time tomorrow, and we can flee to Waycrest when the news about the duchess begins to roll in. Remember, you chose this line of work. It’s perfect for you.” She nodded imperceptibly.

“Yes, it’s good for me,” she amended, and I bowed and headed out into the crowds of shoppers beyond the alley. My chest grew warm and my throat burned with anger foreign to me. My dream self hated this woman. He would soon kill her. And her nation. This much was made clear to me.

        The name of my dream self was Hawk.

***

[1]  A rike is a small Guardian outpost. There are usually up to five in each major city worldwide. Rikes are grouped by councils.


Academy One

Heroes aren't born. Cole Lee, the world's next Firebrand, learns this very quickly as he rises up to battle a private army of zealots, uncovers his inheritance as the next in an ancient line of warriors, and grapples with the enigmatic but well-meaning Guardians. An alliance of legions is looming, led by the mysterious Crow, and many believe Cole to be the most qualified to stop her.

  • Author: Ezra Jason
  • Published: 2016-10-21 22:50:11
  • Words: 53703
Academy One Academy One