Banishing Shadows

Life is fundamentally about incongruity. That is what distinguishes the living from the non-living: unpredictability, mutation, humor. Ugliness and madness are virtues to be extolled for exemplifying that which is most alive, the true nonconformist. True noncomformists inspire discomfort through their asymmetry discharged in laughter. Laughter is the quintessential expression of the path of wisdom. Especially loud, lengthy laughter at inappropriate times.

Followers of the great sage Wastoraskalix, students of the School of the Wisdom of Untimely Humor, erroneously called Laughers by other Anakarix, are widely ridiculed - just as they intend. Not only ridiculed, but also shunned, because the Laughers tend to do what is least expected. They are unpredictable, rude, downright offensive even, and they laugh in the faces of those who get flustered by their antics.

Which is precisely what was happening to Shadowfang.

Starting even before the battle with Goshi something had been making the refugees and soldiers uneasy. Nightmares were increasing in frequency. People sleeping in their tents awoke in the dark screaming, and the SDF continued receiving reports of missing individuals. The idea of looking for a lone missing person in a crowd of 100 million on the eve of the most important battle ever fought was ludicrous. It didn't end with missing persons, though. The nightmares grew worse.

On the first night of the fight the soldiers wept and prayed to the First Minds because every time they closed their eyes they were haunted by visions of their own death. For some that death came on the battlefield, but others never made it through the night. Bodies were found eviscerated in bunkers, spread over 20 meters of tunnel, and bleeding out under their blankets. Some died of lacerations, others from high-powered bullets, others were crushed. There were no patterns except that no one described the killer the same way. Rumors began to spread that the camps had been infiltrated by dozens or hundreds of Goshi assassins.

The panic was the worst part. Among the refugees intense distrust and even violence flared up. The stress of the war compounded by the fear of shadows made people go mad. With every soldier tied up on the front lines, all anyone could do was pray that riots did not break out.

Disdaining participation in the conflict with Goshi, and offering only hearty chuckles for explanations, the Laughers followed the stories of Shadowfang with interest. Through means no one had time to understand the Laughers tracked this silent disturber of the peace. They tracked him, and they pulled his tail.

Up in the forested mountains around Stardown just before dawn, while the whole world flamed furiously with war, a merry game was being played. The Laughers danced, acrobatically around the most imposing Jevumm ever seen, tugging and tweaking his tails, his whiskers, his ears. A flurry of claws and a terrifying roar followed each such taunt. With terrible elegance the cat sliced through lizard scales spraying blood into the air, but the Laughers only giggled louder each time. The wounded party would scamper up a tree out of reach as others took his place. Perched in the branches of the tree his wounds would begin to close of their own accord.

There are nearly 300 students in the School of the Wisdom of Untimely Humor. Every single one of them pinched and prodded and ridiculed Shadowfang mercilessly throughout the night driving him farther and farther into a berserk fury. The roaring of the tiger was drowned out by incessant, maddening, crazy-making laughter. And as Shadowfang grew wearier, the sun was rising and the Laughers were only beginning to wake up.

That is when Boristakan, the Ridiculer, twice ranked Philosopher Degenerate, winner of forty-three debates, the first disciple of Samaranthine the Grotesque, and master of the esoteric art of Qibui dropped into the clearing. Shadowfang wheeled, and recognizing him as the leader hunched in preparation for a leap. Boristakan clacked his lizard tongue against the roof of his mouth in a mocking noise and bobbed his head like a bird. In one breath the Jevumm crossed the intervening space, flying through the air, but Kufu's howl of rage became a whimper of despair.

In Boristakan's hands purple flames sprung to life, doing a merry dance that was reflected in his eyes. Too late to change his direction, Kufu bowled into the chortling Anakarix, feeling indescribable pain as the fire singed his face and neck. Then the whole School was upon him, fists alight with fire, scourging the fur from his body. He twisted and heaved. With Gogajin strength he threw his assailants aside. With Biomade dexterity he sprung through gaps and tried to escape. With Zipsum speed he burst free of that throng and fled squealing across the horizon with his tail on fire.

The members of the School of the Wisdom of Untimely Humor collected themselves. They climbed to the tops of the trees to heal their wounds and greet the rising sun. And they laughed, and laughed, and laughed.


I'm falling. Falling towards the massive Oni. The stench is everywhere, and I can feel my flesh writhing beneath its influence. Una's power fights its influence, but only just.

It's different this time.

Black tentacles pulse from the bodies of a hundred twisted, bloated, cancerous Goshi soldiers, drawing... something out of them. I devour their minds. Their psychic potential gutters out like a candle in a hurricane, and my mind expands. Power rushes through me, and the hunger that's been my companion ever since I first used this power is sated. For the moment.

It feels different. Channels of power. Before, I'd had all this power in me but no way to use it. Now...

My mind expands. First Minds, but it expands. The walls come down, and I can feel them all. So many minds. So very many minds. This Goshi soldier, that Goshi soldier, Ichirou, Kiyoshi, Moses, the half-Cheldrun child within Zippora, Aimi, this refugee, that refugee, Biomades, Allskins, Mechified, on and on and on, a flood of sensation both familiar and utterly alien that defies description.

I lose myself in the flood. I is no longer a relevant term. Over a thousand minds are united in this body, and for one glorious moment, I am.

... I come back to awareness. I'm not sure how much time has passed, but I know that I am Rei, and the sense of individual identity seems like a loss. They're still there, the minds of a thousand others, but I'm filtering the sensations more... efficiently.

I'm still falling. The entire experience took but a few seconds.

The Oni is dead. Cut down by Kiyoshi, Una, Moses, and High Dive. It's exploded into slime, and raining down on the battlefield. We're two hundred meters up.

Kiyoshi is falling.
Moses is falling.

Normally, I'd reach for Kiyoshi, but it feels different this time.
I feel... powerful.

I reach out with my mind, and Moses, weighing half a ton as he does, floats to the ground as gently as a feather.

I put him on the foremost tank in the column.

Shuddering and filled with power, I descend. And below me, Kiyoshi, Una, and High Dive slice their way through an entire Goshi division like the gods they are.

Starbreeze Canyon

Bullets rained from the sky without ceasing.

A more reflective person might have marveled that there was enough lead in the world to make that much ammunition, but it never occurred to Matthew. Matthew was too busy keeping his soldiers alive to ask abstract questions. Ducking from bunker to bunker he cheered the troops in person. He showed green recruits how to aim their rifles. He helped technicians fix a machine gun that was jammed. He made promises he had no idea how to keep, like - "we'll get out of this alive!" and "just a few more hours and they'll back off." No one believed him for a minute, not even himself, but it still felt like he had to say it.

He'd been given charge of the smallest force of soldiers. Small. Heh. Just over half a million infantry and a dozen pieces of artillery were assigned to the defense of Starbreeze Canyon. Even though he tried, he couldn't possibly cheer on that many soldiers face to face. So he used his radio. Frequently news reached him too late for anything to be done about it. His inexperience in military engagements showed through at times. He regretted accepting the commission, but no one else had stepped forward and General Daitokuji seemed to trust him. Embarrassingly, his soldiers seemed to trust him too. Perhaps they knew how unfit he was for leadership, but given the circumstances...

Our only choice is trust in times like these.

His only victory had been when the eyeless Zipsum started sabotaging the artillery. He saw one speeding by. He saw its bloody eye sockets. It's just like Ben Hamor, he thought. He remembered that battle. He remembered being inspired by Moses then. More importantly he realized what they were and the kind of threat they posed. So he unhesitatingly had everyone direct their fire at the Zipsum until they stopped coming. "Even when they fall down, keep shooting until they are bloody smears, or they'll get back up." When reports came through that both General Sousauryuko's artillery and General Daitokuji's artillery had been decimated by the Zipsum attacks there were plenty of congratulations heaped on his shoulders, but it was short lived.

Goshi's army came by the millions. 120 divisions, he was told fell on his position. It hardly mattered what the number was. It was effectively infinite. The artillery fired every shell they had to fire and when nothing was left they started firing shrapnel and stones. The bunkers collapsed under armored onslaught like so much cardboard. The soldiers Matthew had been rallying that morning were dead by evening. Still the enemy pressed on.

Matthew rallied the survivors around his command center in the rearmost bunkers on this front. They fought hard, Karia bless them. His own arm gave out mechanical squeals of protest from constantly throwing grenades. They fought like the fate of the world depended on them, even while Matthew desperately hoped it did not.

Tanks were soon rolling over their position, the 53rd Armored Division "The Steel Pigs". Climbing out of foxholes demolition specialists got under the tanks and attached charges. It was a sight of rare beauty to watch a tank liftoff like a hippopotamus trying to catch the moon. But there would never be enough charges to take care of all the tanks. A nearby whistle and a thunderous crack told Matthew that another bunker had collapsed, likely killing all the soldiers inside.

Night falling was a welcome advantage for the defenders. Though the fighting never ceased, it nevertheless became harder for the foe to pick out targets. Matthew had his teams clearing rubble filled tunnels and putting them to good use, changing positions to confuse the enemy, desperately striving to hold their toenails on that last inch of ground, to keep Goshi out of the canyon. That was the mission. Keep them out. As long as possible. If Goshi got into Starbreeze Canyon they could cut off the retreat of the main Stardown Defense Force. It would mean a rout and that would mean artillery bombarding the refugees sooner rather than later.

A division of infantry charged his position. Many of them were cut down by the machine guns, but soon enough they were forcing their way into the bunker. Muzzle flashes illumined the fight like thousands of strobe lights. Matthew buried his fist in an armored rib cage, blades twisting out of spring loaded compartments in his forearm. He didn't watch his opponent die, he moved to the next. He felt a sting in his neck as a bullet grazed him. The head of a man he'd met this morning exploded in gore behind him. That man had children in the refugee camps.

Who can say how long he waged that fight? It seemed as if they would never cease pouring into the bunkers. Matthew lost the use of his left arm from some explosion, but he was killing well enough with only the right. Everywhere he turned there were more of them, and every time he turned there were fewer of his own men fighting with him. In the smoke and blood he began to wonder if he was killing the same men over and over, so indistinguishable were they. A tracer round flashed past his nostrils just as he crushed the throat of another invader and in the light he saw the man for what he was. An Eyeless. Around him the dead were standing up and rejoining the fight.

Finally a voice called him out of his shock. "Retreat!" it said, "We must retreat commander, to the Canyon..."

Matthew knew he was right. He scrambled for the radio, drilling an Eyeless in his way. He screamed the retreat into the receiver like a frightened child and followed his men out of the bunker into the night.

Flares were being launched into the air to light up the sky so the artillery could continue their bombardment. The battlefield was a sea of writhing dead, and from their grasp a handful a terrified and wounded veterans sprinted toward the canyon. Matthew watched his troops, this bedragled and shit-scared group of survivors flee carelessly ahead of him. He watched in sorrow and empathy as they wailed and pissed themselves, firing blindly behind them to discourage pursuit. Then he watched with awe and pride as they came to their senses and remembered to follow a path that would avoid the mines they had placed. He called after them encouragingly, not sure where he found the strength inside himself, as they formed up in ranks at the canyon entrance. They remembered their duty. They remembered what was at stake, and Matthew remembered too. They must try, somehow, to find the strength...

As Matthew screamed these words of courage to the troops and allowed the fragile spark of hope to glow in his chest he was interrupted by the looks of shock on their faces. They pointed back to the battlefield, and he turned to look.

In the center of the field something enormous had risen. Rough hewn, like it had wrenched itself out of the stony ground, it easily spanned two hundred meters and stretched half that height toward the stars. It walked on six armored legs and swept the earth before it with enormous pincers. Where it went the ground trembled and all life was corrupted and died. Tumors spread along the surface of Karia herself and the spark of hope was extinguished.

Weeping, Matthew sent word to General Daitokuji that Starbreeze Canyon was lost.

Elder Moon Goes To War

The dome of the Grand Chantry Council Chambers glistened in the sunlight. Within, the council deliberated Elder Moon's proposal.

"Her plan would constitute a violation of our oath to defend the forests! How can we protect this old growth if we are decimated by a foolish quest?" Elder Suburi of the Choir of the Flora spewed his words with vehemence.

"I assiduously disagree, with Elder Suburi," the voice of Elder Mandrake of the Choir of the Earth came from the opposite side of the chamber. "Defending the forests by his definition means endlessly tending this garden and avoiding any conflict. I say Elder Moon has finally hit upon the right idea here. The Cheldrun are a grave threat to the survival of all Karians. If there is a war to be fought against them, I say we fight!"

Elder Jethro registered his agreement, "My daughter is very likely in the midst of that war, I cannot abide those who would tell me to sit back and do nothing."

Elders Haku and Mora of the Choirs of Fire and Fauna respectively snorted in disgust. "You call the work of our people, the labor of uncovering the lore of the Dusk Sages, the sacred duty of our guardians, our oath to the forests and everything that has mattered to every Prill for the past two centuries nothing?! You have contracted the same madness as Elder Moon here," they gestured to Moon who had remained kneeling in the center of the chamber, head bowed this entire time.

Before she could respond Elder Suburi was upon her chastising her with harsh language that raised her hackles. "It is indeed a madness that has afflicted our sister Moon. Everyone witnessed her decline, and her irrational behavior at the death of Mokuzai. Flaunting our customs, after many weeks since Mokuzai was reunited with the forest, she continues to wear her mourning gown and to ignore her responsibilities as an Elder. Were it not for the respect she is owed for her years of service, the Choir of the Sky would long ago have stripped her of her tails and sent her into retirement. She is past all usefulness as a leader, and now she comes in here with this proposal that would destroy our peace..."

Elder Moon gave Elder Suburi a look that caused him to stop short, sputtering and unable to speak. Slowly she rose to her feet, and in a voice like gravel she said, "There is no peace." Her words echoed around the chamber, and no one dared break the silence that followed.

Elder Moon looked around at her peers, eyes brimming with tears, and began to sing. It was a song all of them knew. A song about young lovers. A song written by a great Prill composer so many centuries ago that he was more myth than history. A song which every Prill agreed defined them, and defined love. A true song.

In the song a pair of fosterlings fall in love. They love each other with such a passion that even when they are subsequently fostered out to separate choirs they cannot think of anything else. They sing for one another across the distance, a sad song of loneliness. The two grow up and though their love for one another never wanes they discover different talents in themselves. They end up committing to separate choirs. The young man is gifted with a talent for Dusk Sage lore and he commits himself to uncovering a secret never imagined by any choir. Unfortunately an envious rival kills him before he ever finds what he was seeking. The young woman, stricken by her loss defies the conventions of her people. She abandons her choir and journeys to the place where the young man lived. While the guardians of tradition try to prevent her she takes up his work. Both choirs, offended by her disregard for custom, trap her in her den without food. Ignoring her hunger she works day and night on the lore her lover left behind and just before she starves to death, she succeeds. She comes out of the den and confronts her opponents. She has composed a new song. As she dies she sings it to them. It is the song of love.

Silence reigned for several minutes after Elder Moon finished singing.

Then, tears streaming down her face, she said, "Mokuzai never solved the Riddle of Peace. I mean to finish his work for him."

Elder Suburi, his face flushed, fell to his knees, "And we will follow you until you have."

Episode 36: The Foe from Beyond the Stars

I see light flashing through my closed green green greengreengreen... ...and this is what I remember, before it all goes backwards.

The day is bright and clear, and we can all see the Varan getting larger and larger, trailing smoke and flames that blot out the sun, a huge burning hulk falling out of the sky. People shout that Una is falling too. Kiyoshi runs forward to help people out of the forward bunker. I run after him when I get my feet moving again - they're rooted there while I gape up at the Varan like an idiot. Its like a moon crash-landing on a city. It boggles the mind, is bigger than words. As it falls, it pushes air out of the way and there is a sound like a tornado coming closer.

Then it lands. Before I can even think about it, a steel dome erupts out of my back, extending up and around Kiyoshi and me. The sounds of the crash, and a wave of heat, crash around us, and then we're inside a vast steel bell, ringing and ringing as tons of burning slag hit it...and then the heat bombs start going off...

I realize that we'll have to dig out, or else we'll be buried under the burning wreckage of an airship the size of a few city blocks. I hope...I hope Una is alive.

Kiyoshi and I don't talk about it.

We hear the sounds of artillery above us, and then the rumbling of tanks from a distance, shaking the walls of the tunnel I'm digging to get us out. I hope I'm going the right way. If not...we'll come up in the middle of what sounds like a tromping mob of Goshi soldiers. Not talking about Una makes me think about her. I can't believe she brought down an airship. Well, no, I can, now that I think of it. And now we have the only airship that we know of. Vorax 1, Varan 0. Game point.

I dig up carefully, listening, having Kiyoshi listen because I miss a lot of things. Then we come up and look - we can see the edge of an army that covers everything to the horizon. In the other direction, we see our own bunkers. We make a break for it.

Everyone thought we were dead - and we will be unless we do something about those soldiers.

As they come in, I block off a passage with some soldiers behind me. We've set up some barriers to hide behind, but I'm bulletproof, and all they brought to this fight were bullets. That was a bad move.

Things turn against us until Rei...I panic for a second, thinking that she's going to become an Oni, that someone's killed her. I am Rei-Oni, the One Who Listens to My Kyo-Tee-Shee Too Damn Much. But no. The tentacles are hundreds of meters of fire, and she incinerates (a new word I learned) the entire forward force of Goshi's soldiers, leaving behind glass - how did the glass get there? Oh, right, the heat - and piles of ashes.

Goshi stops the push. Maybe they're starting to re-think things.

Una and Rei end up in the infirmary again. I wish Zipporah would rest, but I know that's not going to happen. Una mentions having been shot by tanks twice so far today. It's the kind of thing we don't blink at much, but others in the infirmary just stare. Its still weird to be stared at like that.

As the second surge is coming, it comes through the lines, there are Zipsum attacking our artillery. I can't believe it. They are still going to try to kill us. And HighDive...I dunno. We're arguing, and then the bombardment of our bunker starts.

I'm wiping grime off myself and getting ready to fight again when a young Mechified says something over the din of artillery as he passes us with a crate of fresh rounds. About how it's good that there are people like us, that it gives him hope. He looks familiar, but we've all got so much more to think about...

Shortly afterwards there's a bang, and a crate bounces past us trailing smoke. Cog! Cog? Could it have been?...Rei summons a wall of burning darkness, and the army halts in front of it. They try to march through and soon realize that they just burn when they do, so some try to go around. We just shower them with bullets through the barrier, and focus our defense on the flanks. They pile up and get confused, the march stopping at the front but it takes a long time to get orders all the way back. They're packed in, milling around, taking cover...and then the order comes to show Goshi my little surprise. Charges in the bunkers and tunnels beneath the burned glass that Goshi's lines are marching over just that moment go off, exploding and tearing through their soldiers and tanks with waves of glass and stone and dirt. Then we all come up, charging when the wall falls, and tear into them. Rei rips up the brains of the tank operators. The fight goes on, once its won. Goshi retreats again, but not far enough.

A Zipsum messenger comes to the command center. He reports - the High King of the Gogajin - Grim! - is charging the center of Goshi's army with a Gogajin army. He calls on all brave hearts to join the battle, and to meet him in the middle.

Finally, some sensible damn Karians.

I push. I feel it tipping. We need to go now. We have the Sennin. Una destroyed the Varan, the only thing keeping us grounded and pinned down. We need to go now! I call for command to pack the Sennin as full of tough bastards as they can. We pack into the ship. As we're getting ready, I see Zipporah restocking the supplies of the Sennin's infirmary...and my heart stops. I take a deep breath, walk into the infirmary, and close the door.

It's not for me, or for you, but for the one who's coming soon now. I know, I know you would. Yes, I'll see you soon...I lie. I guess she knows, but she doesn't say much more after that. What do you say, standing in an infirmary that still has blood stains from our friends, still smells like burned flesh; outside you can hear soldiers climbing aboard and joking to calm themselves down, getting quiet when Varissa joins them, purring in a scary way.

You say...goodbye for now.

Aimi flies us out to the center of the Goshi line - just outside the barrier-dome. We come in hot, skimming over the army, dodging bursts of deadly smoke and shrapnel. Una has another gift - she closes her eyes, and the entire army of the Gogajin begins shining. I also see, from the blue light, small, darting figures moving through the opposite side of the Goshi army - Zipsum! Ha! It worked! They bloody listened! It's a miracle that's on par with Rei destroying a whole town. Una, Sloan, HighDive, Varissa - the Karians all seem to be glowing, fierce, larger than life.

We have to jump out because we can't land. I want to make a good first impression, so I jump out a little early, try to time it right, and shatter the wall of one of the compounds, shaking it so that it splinters apart, killing whoever is inside, cracking the ground, collapsing tunnels beneath. I let the ground shake until the others start landing in a far courtyard. We are Heroes of Karia, and we are coming for you.

We take the courtyard easily. The Hei-Shi try to ambush us, but they're as useless as the bullets were. You're running out of ways to stop us. We go down, following Kiyoshi, to the control center for the whole army - there are four dead bodies - one of them is Rain. Yes, miss Executor, you were wrong the whole time, and now you'll never get the chance to be wrong again. Everything is cut up, and I think of Nero and his knives. Then the room starts coming apart, and we have to get out of there fast. We come up, and almost bump into someone who seems familiar for the second I have to think. He's dressed like a scientist, and has these eyes...he says:

"Ah, good, you're all here. That will save having to hunt you down."

Get in line, whoever you are.

Everything goes insane. I grab him, and I'm on fire, and burning him, but not enough. Una is shouting for me to get out of the way. Kiyoshi attacks, and slams us through wall after wall as he cuts into the Scientist. I can barely hold on. He unravels me, my Kata taking some of it, some of it I can shrug off, but not enough for another one. Kiyoshi attacks again. I squirm out of the way of the unraveling. Again. Then he catches me, and I feel myself coming apart like I'm an uncoiling spring. There's more shouting, then a huge explosion and a rush of wind escaping the chamber, which might be part of the dream I'm having...

I see light flashing through my closed green green greengreengreen... ...and this is what I remember, before it all goes backwards...

Episode 35: The Legendary HighDive Bludgeon

There's a bang like a hammer on a huge sheet of metal, rolling through the streets, throwing up dust and blowing out the gas lanterns set along the road like a racing strip - and she's gone. Seeing other people watch her, I realize that I'm just used to this sort of thing. And they don't even know about the smoked finger collection...or her iron pot. How long has she had that?

After a while, Susauryoku says that now she's either done it or is...dead. I don't think she's dead. Kyoshi walks off to find out, and so do I and some others. Its incredible how cold it is - cold as when I was outside the Seninn, blown out the hole in the Wandering Star. Kyoshi just goes in, though, and not long after he's got HighDive...and she looks dead. She's so small...and missing a hand - most of her forearm. I barely warm her up - she's frozen solid. I think of Mokuzai then push it away.

Una brings her back. I'm surprised by how scared I get when she might be dead. I feel like I talked her into going in there. It all seemed to make sense. But if she's dead, then I was wrong, and maybe we're wrong about everything. Maybe we still are. But...

I don't know if she understands...but we're doing it. Bit by bit. Freedom. Balance. I don't know who Una has to forgive, or how Kyoshi needs to be just, and Rei still seems to be looking for a purpose...that isn't just being a tool of her Kyo-tee-shee that is.

The city holds a celebration for HighDive. She gorges on candy - how did she find any!? - and gives random speeches from the tops of buildings. She challenges all kinds of people to fights and races and high-dive competitions. She displays her set of fingers and demands Susauryoku's finger to add to the chain. Or maybe an ear. His choice, but she prefers the finger.

We rub her belly and the old man makes a hasty retreat.

The next few weeks go by real fast. The army is coming and its far more than any of us can count. And more refugees. The ones from Geneva Prime arrive, and they are still being fed by Karia. We dig tunnels and make preparations. I try to stay busy because a lot is going on - lots of hurrying around and meetings and looking at maps. I'm not even sure what we're looking at - moving colored shapes around and pointing.

I get to see Zipporah a lot. We go fishing some afternoons, but there aren't really any fish. She could sing some up, but that's not very fun. We also find some old buildings submerged in the huge lake up here. The buildings look different from the ones in Stardown - there is corroded metal and bits of glass in the mirk. Zip's a lot less interested in it than I am, so we leave it alone down there.

I tell people the army that's coming won't kill us all so that I can believe it.

When the first...the vanguard, they call it...gets here, there are already millions of them. We're told that they'll go for Crystal Fork to set up a command, and that we need to fight them there, make them pay, and then crush the town to rubble. Those are all things I've gotten good at doing, so I'm in - all of us are.

I've never fought tanks before. I just didn't know much about the military until these few weeks when suddenly they want me to help fight it ten to one. Its tough, but then suddenly Rei...does something. She's really frightening. She rises into the air and the sun is blotted out by some kind of huge shadow. And then the ground starts shaking and all of the buildings - all of them - tear themselves loose from their foundations. They just float there, as if they're waiting.

And then she tears the town apart. Before she's done, she crushes thousands, tens of thousands, of soldiers and tanks and rubble into a huge ball and hurls them past the horizon, crashing out toward Goshi's endless army.

She's found her purpose, maybe. I'm glad she's on our side. (I think she's on our side.)

We're interrupted to learn that Goshi is heat-bombing the refugees. I catch myself. I had started thinking that we were fighting an army, a bunch of normal, reasonable people. No. We are fighting monsters. We have always been fighting monsters, whether they are eyeless or they look like chief executives.

I used to think I could make them pay enough to convince them to stop. Now I know better. You don't send an army of 80 million halfway across the continent because its good for business.

Well then. We'll stop you the hard way - one at a time. Kyoshi goes off to chase the Varan away - they're not here to fight, just bomb helpless refugees.

At the same time, there is a mass offensive against the northeast pass, held by Susauryoku and a small force of the army we've patched together. Rei and I go there, and Una joins us. They're throwing up huge metal bridges over the river that we'd hoped would slow them down. No such luck. They swarm across, not even caring about the thousands who are being torn apart crossing the river. More just come to replace them.

How did they get talked into this? What do they think they're here for?

Then it is Una's turn - things are coming to a head, and I think we're all...changing. Becoming something more. She calls down an army of Tee-Shee from the mountains all around. They swarm down on the Goshi soldiers.

I remember the cavern of the "purple Vorax", the terrible visions there, the torture of the Tee-Shee, the collected agony of all life on Karia. I know what they're feeling. Then the order comes to cross the river and to strike now, to kill and rout them and chase them down. There are screams that you can hear even across the river. The tanks go wild and out of control. The battle becomes a slaughter.

I stop paying attention for a while. My face is warm and wet.

I wonder if the Cheldrun will ever have to feel what they've done to other Cheldrun?

There is a story I don't really understand about Zipporah sinking some boats, or their crew or something. Having to do with "nerve gas", whatever that is. When Rei says it, her eyes light up. She thinks I don't notice her looking at me but I do.

That night, the Zipsum come with "tidings of woe from the manyest of the Karians." Its...typical Zipsum. I think they breed so fast so that you can't exterminate them all at once, because everyone has to want to. Even Una. They're just unstoppable, like termites that are impossible to catch or hold still and are armed with poisoned knives and arrows. They are here to kill us, apparently.

After that we try to talk to them a couple times. Why do I keep forgetting and letting HighDive talk to people we don't want to fight? Only Una speaks Zipsum, I think, and maybe Rei, among us. Una tries because HighDive and Rei are hopeless at this kind of thing, and even Una comes back so upset she squaks and molts all over the place.

I get sort of desperate and angry. Just give them the damn fruit. They don't think with anything higher than their waistline anyway. Maybe that'll turn them on Goshi. I get flashbacks of the Riverswift tribe "trial" and I want to smash something.

Somewhere I get the impression that HighDive's tribe has been...wiped out? Or captured or something. She doesn't seem bothered.

I have no idea.

To top it off, the Laughing school of the Anakarix wander into our camp to help by not being helpful. Maybe the lizards and squirrels will fight each other, and save us fighting them off or being laughed at. That would be something to see. I hear the Anakarix can fight, but I don't think it'll happen at night either way.

Maybe they'll help Jin-Kalys with the math, I dunno.

Not long after, I get my chance to smash things. It shouldn't, but it feels good. Not so much after, but during...yeah. I see Hurricane, I see Katashi Blade, I see Rain on every one of their faces. I smash and smash and smash. Their bullets bounce off me. Their bayonets dull and snap off. A horrified look from Zip lets me know that I'm covered in dirt and gore.

One by one. If that's how we have to do it. One by one.

Episode 34: The Place Where Stars Fall

It's not enough to want to change. It's not enough to regret the things gone by. Not really. Not after looking at the world through the mask of the Dusk Sage. There's never enough time for anything. Nothing ever seems to live out its real potential. Potential is invariably cut short. Snuffed out. Murdered.

By people like me.

As the Sennin lifts off from the clearing where Inari's grandmother once stood, with the tribute to the Vorax glowing down below us, it occurs to me for the first time just how alien the existence of a Dusk Sage must be. I look down at the mask in my hands. That's how it saw the universe. Every waking second, it could see what is, what was, what could be, what must not.

The sacrifice of the Vorax. An entire species put to the flame for one last chance to strike back at Malice. At the Cheldrun. Is there anything left of them within Karaku-Oni, I wonder? When we finally extinguish him, will we be destroying the last testament of the Vorax?


The potential existence of everything in the room with me is frighteningly short. The Sennin is not likely to last beyond another few months. Neither am I. I can't tell if that's what will be, what could be, or what is.

I take off the Dusk Sage mask and toss it lightly onto my bed.

Stardown. The place where stars fall. The person who named that place must have been a prophet.

We go.



It stretches on for miles around the lake. Used to be a resort town, back before all this. Now it's a refugee camp.

Our arrival does not go unnoticed: there is a crowd there at the docks to meet us. Aimi is happy to be back in civilization. I'm not so sure. There's something about the Grand Chantry that's weirdly appealing, even for all that it lacks force and energy.

Here we are. Stardown.

Eventually, we're shown to a restaurant where we can get something to eat, and there's a humanoid lizard thing there. Una says that he's called an Anakarix. Ama-chan says that he'd have all sorts of tasty mana inside of him, and would I let her out for a second, please?

I think about it.

No. That's a bad idea.

I become lost in my thoughts for a time.


After dinner, we receive a tour. It's mostly dull, and as we walk, my thoughts wander again. It's easy to lose myself in a crowd like this. To become everyone around me. It's hard to concentrate with this many people, but I do. I find myself looking over the landscape with an eye for defensibility. That rise would make a serviceable firing position in a pinch. The buildings behind us would be good places to position snipers. That pass to the north would make...

The world dissolves into fractals.

Numbers. Lines. Points. Connections. Equations in the shape of Una smile at High Dive's antics. Equations in the shape of Kiyoshi look stern. Equations in the shape of Moses look horrified. I look upon my surroundings, and I see potential. Not how a Dusk Sage would see it, but how a strategist would see it. I see a line of dominoes rolling down towards us from the north, and another from above, intersecting with the northern line at multifaceted points.

I see a great hand reaching out of the sky.

I see millions of people calling my name. Calling Moses's name. Kiyoshi's. Una's. High Dive's.

Our victims.

I see all of Stardown drenched in the blood of Goshi soldiers, and I see millions dead at our feet.

I grin.

"Rei?" Una asks.

I look up.

I can't tell what she's thinking. She tells me that High Dive has agreed to... something. Something dangerous. Something about an inertial dampener in the center of the city? But when is anything High Dive does not dangerous?

We walk to the front of the street that leads to the main laboratory in Stardown, and as we walk, my grin doesn't fade, even as the conflicting horror at what I intend rises up in my heart to war with my delight.

Goshi is coming. I know what I have to do.

An Unfair Advantage

Arrow saw the flying hunk of concrete a second too late.

It smashed into him before he could disLocate, knocking him to the ground and crumbling into rubble over him. He spit blood and teeth into the dirt and disappeared.

He reappeared on the top of a Goshi barracks in order to get a better vantage point. It proved to be a bad move as the Sennin came rolling by at a steep arc, .50 caliber bullets ricocheting off her hull. The wind she displaced nearly blew him from the roof and white tendrils of dust popped up all around him where stray bullets and shrapnel hit the building. He rolled against a retaining wall for cover and tried to catch his breath.

Fuck. Fuck. Motherfuck. He cursed about the pain in his ribs, he cursed about several near scrapes. He cursed the obscene contradicting orders coming through the network.

"All units forward march," they said. Surely they didn't mean the Hei Shi, that would be idiotic.

"No, 10 divisions stay back to guard the camp. The rest forward march. Hei Shi engage the Gogajin force." That made no sense either. The Hei Shi are not trained for large scale military engagements. Ask them to assassinate some generals or something, but a vague "engage" order was asinine.

Nevertheless, Arrow knew better than to disobey an order. As long as he had a disLocator embedded in his spine Goshi command could send him wherever they wanted whenever they wanted. It wouldn't take long for them to realize that he was in the wrong place and then they'd bring him in for "discipline". So he clenched his fist and disLocated to the sky over the mob of Gogajin, picked a target and disLocated again.

He appeared on the Gogajin's back, psychic knife buried in the kidney. It mattered not. These fuckers were unstoppable. The Gogajin grabbed his arm, shattering the bones with her grip, and threw him like a wet rag under the hooves of another Gogajin in animal form, charging the machine gun emplacements. Arrow twisted so the hooves only dealt him a glancing blow, but they still knocked the wind right out of him.

Before he could move another brute was on top of him. He shoved his knife under the bastard's chin and blood came running out, but as fast as he drew life and energy out of his assailant it seemed to come right back. They were invincible, literally, invincible. All around him his fellow Hei Shi, and Goshi soldiers were having as little success as Arrow. The Gogajin grabbed his throat and crushed his windpipe before he disLocated again.

This time to the infirmary. Dizzy, stumbling and unable to breathe, he didn't even register his surroundings. Lights flashed. He heard shouts. He could tell the infirmary was busy, probably swamped with sudden injuries. His throat was bad, he knew. If he didn't get air soon...

He grabbed the nearest doctor, some girl in a white coat. She just fell over, arrows protruding from her back. Arrow sobbed, collapsing to his knees. Vision swimming he could feel the darkness reaching out to claim him.

A voice pulled him back from the abyss for a moment. A small voice. He turned to see a blood-drenched Zipsum standing in front of him. The Zipsum was not alone, they were all over the infirmary.

"I am Cuts-Through-Bone, and Karia has made me invincible!"

Arrow said nothing as the knives plunged through his skull.

Training an Army

"Let's make one thing perfectly clear," I say, looking out over the assembled officers. There's at least a hundred of them in this group, waiting to for us to finish. Ichirou has already said his piece, and it's typical Allskin rhetoric about fighting and dying with honour.

He should know better.

"The job of this army is not to die for the people of Stardown. If any of you have thoughts of dying honourably in the defense of millions, you're going to forget it, and forget it immediately." They give me strange looks at that, but I'm not done. "Your job is not to die for Stardown. Your job, and the job of all your men is to make the enemy die for Goshi. We are going to kill every single one of those bastards. We are going to hit our enemy from every conceivable direction, make his life a living hell, harass him at every turn, and not grant him a single inch of ground before he's paid for it with the blood of thousands. Thousands of Goshi soldiers. You, and the men you'll lead are not allowed to die until you are ordered to do so. Is that clear?"

"Yes, ma'am!" they shout. A good quarter of them have never led anything larger than a hunting party before, but NOW they're standing like soldiers.

Not that I would know anything about how to be a soldier. ... But I do know how to kill, and how to kill very effectively. Such gifts as I have, I share.

"I know that some of you are new to this. Well, we're going to show you how to lead a unit. Consider this your crash course in small unit tactics. You're either going to learn it and learn it well in the weeks before Goshi arrives, or you and your squad will all die. Your choice."

Silence. I have their full and undivided attention.

'Think of how much mana I could harvest from nine million deaths, Oneechan...' Amaterasu whispers.

I ignore her.

And so it begins. I won't be here for every session, but I do what I can. And Ichirou does what he can. All of those with some level of military experience do the same. And as the weeks pass, they will definitely improve. Not as much as I would like, but they will improve: the threat of impending death has a way of focusing the mind. At least a quarter of their planned training will happen when they're already in position on the forward defensive line: we can't actually afford to wait before deploying the army, but if we don't give them at least some training, they'll never be able to fight as a coordinated army.

As the assembled officers salute me, I almost giggle. How strange to be here, helping to command an army. I've always worked in the shadows before. A knife in the dark. A well placed blast of psychic energy removing a potential threat before it has time to fester. A scalpel, cutting cancerous growths out of society.

It all looks so very different from here.

Still, we've got our spies and assassins as well. If all goes well, they'll wreck havoc on Goshi before they arrive here. The goal of our army is to destroy theirs, but the goal of our assassinations and infiltrations is quite different: those operatives are to spread something far more powerful than guns or effective squad tactics; those operatives are to spread terror, and fear. To demoralize the enemy before he even reaches us.

... 128 field operatives.

It should be enough to make a decent showing. I have no illusions. Our chances are slim. But I aim to maximize them as much as possible. If I did anything less, I'd never be able to forgive myself.

I nod to Ichirou, and he to me, and the training begins.

Conversations with the Cold-Blooded

"No. Absolutely not. If I were to accept such a postulate, it would undermine the very foundational principles of nine-branch-formal logic." The lizard looks irritated again. I have that effect on him, and there's something vaguely satisfying about it.

"It still works," I say. "You just have to expand the parameters. It loses some of its predictive ability, but I think it will create a much more accurate representation of..."


It's dark, and I'm sitting around a table with a handful of Biomade. Operatives, all of them.
... Well, former operatives. The old networks are shot to hell these days, and hardly anyone knows anything, but we're as close to the heart of Stardown's military intelligence as anyone's going to get.

I wish there was someone else to do this sort of thing, but our list of candidates is a bit on the slim side. There's me, me, and ... me.

Three men, three women, and me.

"What do you have for me?" I ask.

Lightning - one of the women, pulls out a notepad. A notepad. Once, this would have been projected for all of us on a holo-screen, but now, notepads will have to do. "Unfortunately, most of our personnel have maintained their ties with Goshi, and many of those who have not remain loyal to the Oversight Council in Marina, which makes them Goshi's by default." I know all that, but I nod anyways. It's comfortingly silent in here: nobody in the room is foolish enough to allow their thoughts to leak. She goes on. "All told, we've located a hundred and twenty eight former operatives who are willing to participate in our new program.

A hundred and twenty eight. That's not great, but it's not bad, either. A hundred and twenty eight people in the right place at the right time might be all we need.

"You've explained what we expect of them?" A man off to my left asks.

Lightning nods. "They understand that they may not return alive."

And so it goes. A hundred and twenty eight operatives. 'Operative.' That's the civilized term for what we are.

Spies. Assassins. Thieves and murderers. I feel guilt again, but I quash it ruthlessly. I'm not going to feel guilty here. It's funny. The bulk of our work actually goes towards preventing assassination attempts on Moses, Kiyoshi, and Ichiro. I almost giggle at the thought that we've already stopped twelve such attempts before they managed to get off the ground. For a would-be world dominator, Goshi is surprisingly sloppy.

Well, no. That's not really true. That's what they want us to think. Wheels within wheels is the way of this world. Each enemy operative that we capture allows us a view into, not what Goshi is actually planning, but what Goshi wants us to believe that they are planning. Most of their assassins are fed deliberate misinformation for the event of their capture, though their handlers are careful enough to never let them know that, or even to suspect it. How much is bluff and how much isn't, well, that's the game.

"Rei, what about the Ikari report?" another of them asks.

My heart sinks. That happens a lot around these people. "Has it been confirmed?" I ask. If what's in that report is true, then a hell of a lot of innocent people are going to die. We could do something about it, but if we did, a hell of a lot more innocent people would die later.

Lightning nods. "It's been confirmed. ... Ikari has successfully broken the Executor code."

We all let out a breath that none of us had realized we were holding. ... suddenly, things are infinitely more complicated. We've already got three devices on the table designed to nullify the effects of microphones and transmitters in a localized area, and two more designed to block telepathic signals, but I add another one just to be on the safe side.

"So they're going to hit the tunnels," I murmur. "Sick bastards." It's an ingenious plan, really. Specifically designed to undermine morale and spread terror in our population: nerve gas canisters smuggled into the refugee tunnels by a team of Goshi operatives.

"We definitely shouldn't tell Moses," Lightning says. "He'll stop the operatives, and they'll know that we cracked the code, and there's no guarantee that we'll be able to crack whatever they come up with to replace it. Not in a short enough time to matter."

I feel sick to my stomach, but it doesn't show on my face. The others aren't quite as good at hiding their reactions. Still, I say what has to be said. "When this is over, I want Rain's head on a pike."

The others all nod their agreement.

I produce a folder marked 'Ikari,' and pull a handful of papers out of it.
The plans for Goshi's first major assault.

A million people are going to die to make an effective response possible.

Karia, but it had better be worth it...


Jin-Kalys's dewlap flares, and I try very hard not to grin. "A stochastic reading of the Nine Branches is altogether unnecessary. It already accounts for individual choice as a function of the polyvalent..."

He goes on, and I don't quite grasp the entirety of his argument, but I don't show him that. I understand him well enough to get the general sense of what he means. "If you'd accounted for individual choice, you would not be making predictions about the future," I say. "Every choice affects every other. Every action nudges the whole model towards a different outcome. Freedom, Jin-Kalys."

"I will not revise the nine-branches to cater to your personal desire for greater autonomy in the universe, Rei," Jin-Kalys says, and his gaze is oddly piercing. "I had thought that you of all people would take some comfort in knowing that there really are very view possible choices at this juncture, considering what you are about to allow to happen."

Shock. Surprise. Anger. Fear. "... I don't know what you mean," I say.

He looks at me, silently, unblinkingly.

I sink into myself. "... do you think Karia will forgive me?" I ask.

"No." His voice is full of a terrible sense of finality, and I feel that cold, creeping dread again.

'But you don't want to be forgiven, do you, Onee-chan?' Amaterasu whispers in my thoughts. 'You don't want to be forgiven at all. You want to pay for your sins. You want to earn your redemption. I'm right, aren't I? If you give me mana, I can show you how to do it...'

"... There's no other choice," I murmur.

He looks me directly in the eye, then, his unblinking lizard-eyes peering right into mine. "Do you believe that?" he asks.


When it Rains...

Black smoke billowed into the sky. The Behemoths continued their slow and steady march south, cutting and burning through the jungle like glaciers sliding over hot metal. The ground was scorched and smooth behind them, while copper towers spewed ash and smoke skyward. The noise was obnoxious, so Arrow scanned the mind of the Mechified sergeant in front of him who was busily shouting incomprehensible words.

Something in the sky.

Yes, Arrow thought he might have seen it too in the midst of all the charcoal clouds. He sent the message buzzing over the psychic network to his superiors. Not my business, he thought.

The reports arrived on Rain's desk before they were sent. Two or three scouts reported an unidentified flying object at high altitude, and scans from the Varan revealed it had to be an airship. Only one other airship it could possibly be, so she didn't waste any time double-checking the scout's reports. Her lieutenants stood around anxiously expecting some kind of attack order.

"Don't be idiots," she told them. "How many times do you have to have your asses handed to you before you learn to change tactics. If they want to look, let them look. It won't change their fate any. I mean for this to happen on a battlefield where lives are at stake. Make them choose between protecting the rebels, or coming after us. We have nothing to gain by inflicting stupid casualties on ourselves at this point."

She could tell that her lieutenants disagreed, but were equally relieved not to be the one tasked with going after the Sennin. Let them disagree. They know that I'm the only one here with enough brains to get this thing done. There were times when Rain wished she had Katashi Blade's facility for making people give unquestioning obedience, but what she couldn't accomplish with force of personality, she managed by obsessive planning. Every man and woman in her chain of command owed Rain a debt, or feared her with good cause. So even if the obedience came with questions, it came all the same.

She ordered the Varan to follow the Sennin so she'd have an idea of what her enemy knew about her army, but it wasn't long before word was sent back that the Sennin had been lost.

"They have a good pilot," was the lame excuse.

Whatever. Knowledge wouldn't win them the war. Not by a long shot.

For example, she knew that at best she'd be facing a force of 10 million or so untrained and poorly equipped rebels. An enormous army by any standard, but at her disposal she had the combined forces of the former Yogensha League, every militia and conscripted force Goshi had been able to assemble during their months of political dominance, and a great many more divisions hastily recruited, but well armed. Dragging along behind her like some bloated centipede she had over 56 million infantry. In two separate columns coming from Thalosh and Galata she could rely on another 23 million. She had enough vehicles to make a necklace for the planet, including almost 1/2 a million tanks, and a silly amount of artillery besides. Still fighting for her, she counted 114 Mecha, among them the best pilots surviving from Washi San Academy.

Even she felt like this was overkill. As conservative as she could be, as much as she liked to rig the odds in her favor... it was unreasonable to imagine any result but a massacre. In fact, some part of her dimly held out hope that the rebels would see her army arrayed before them and realize the futility of their position. Kiyoshi and Moses at least claimed to be reasonable people, and Daitokuji Ichirou had an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. Surely, they would be willing to give their lives rather than inflict certain death on countless refugees. Only lunatics would push this thing to its ultimate conclusion.

The other part of Rain, with a bit of sadness, told her that she was indeed dealing with lunatics.

Which is why she was not even content relying on her obscenely large army. Her deal with the Shadowfang had gone rather well. So far they had fed him three members of the Biomade Oversight Council in return for his cooperation. It was an exorbitant price to pay for the somewhat dicey prospect that he would succeed, but Rain considered it a worthwhile investment, even with the risk, whenever she imagined the potential chaos he could cause.

And while Shadowfang was a risky investment, she was growing more and more satisfied with herself for taking Drives-Like-Oni up on his suggestion to capture the Many Kicks Tribe. While it had incited the rest of the Zipsum tribes against Goshi, they were more of an annoyance than a real concern and since their aggression wasn't very discriminating, it was likely to cause just as much of a problem to the Rebels as to her. No, the rewards of having these captives were going to be substantial, if fleeting... the oxymoron made her giggle inwardly.

Giggle. That's odd. Rain had never been one to indulge in laughter much, but then she had never been one to bleed from the tear ducts as she had been doing from time to time lately. She'd been careful to limit her exposure to White Rock, but she could read the signs, and they made her more convicted to finish this business post-haste.

Wiping the drop of crimson from her cheek she looked up in time to see her newest adviser entering the tent. Toshiyaki Onyx, was his name. A member of the Biomade Oversight council who agreed to serve her rather than remain a prisoner. He'd been the source of a number of brilliant suggestions, and he had Rain's gift for keeping people off-balance. There was something about his eyes that set people on edge, and Rain liked the discomfort she sensed in her lieutenants whenever Onyx was around. Still, there was something about him that she didn't trust.

"Have you been working with Whiterock again, Onyx?" she asked, tossing the soiled tissue in the trash. He nodded, and she went on, "make sure you're thoroughly cleansed before coming to see me next time. That stuff is poison. You should stay away from it yourself."

"Of course, executor. I've only come to tell you that our experiments with the Zipsum have been very promising. You should get the results you're after."

"Good. Now let me attend to the annoying supply chain issues." The dismissal in her voice was firm and he immediately departed. As Onyx left she remembered why she didn't trust him. Toshiyaki Onyx had been one of the Biomade Oversight Council members that she fed to Shadowfang. No sooner had she realized this than she promptly forgot it again.

And They Shall Come From East and West, North and South

What started out as a trickle soon became a deluge. Refugees were arriving by the hundreds and thousands, and then suddenly by the hundreds of thousands. They came in bearing all their worldly possession on their backs, or dragging it behind them on sleds. A few were lucky enough to have wheeled vehicles that had somehow survived the rugged overland journey. They were tired and frightened, but miraculously healthy and well-fed. As they came, the bounty of Karia came with them. Every morning the ground itself would burst in an explosion of fruit and nutrition, which would be quickly gathered up by suddenly animated carts and wagons. No one knew how long the food would keep coming, but so long as it did...

The first refugees from Geneva Prime arrived 40 days after they set out. They came with songs of victory on their tongues. In high spirits, they rejoiced to find the Heroes of Karia Vitalus already here ahead of them, and shouted their confidence that the Stardown Defense Force would win the day against any odds. Among all the refugees the citizens of Geneva Prime were received like journalists straight from the scene of a disaster. Everyone questioned them about the details of the fall of Goshi Tower and the death of Katashi Blade. From the Epicenter of the catastrophe the people of Geneva Prime reported their version of the events, and for once the most outlandish versions of the tale were not far from the truth.

Most refugees came in through the northern passes and were counted as they came, then funneled into one of the major refugee camps built around Stardown. Some refugees began accumulating on the eastern shore of the Stardown Lake and it took days for all of the small boats in the city to serve as ferries, taking them across the crystalline waters into the increasingly crowded and smelly hills outside the city.

When the camps held 10 million refugees they were lively. When the camps held 20 million refugees they approached capacity. When the camps held 50 million they were overcrowded and the planners began to worry about disease, and sanitation became virtually impossible. But the refugees didn't stop coming until they numbered close to 100 million. They lived 3 families to a shack, or on tops of roofs, in caves and trees. They built rafts and lashed them together and lived on the lake. They went up into the mountains and lived above the tree line, or across the lake and crowded all around its shores. The caves built under the hills by order of the SDF generals were reserved for children and caretakers - the future of the Cheldrun if things went poorly. The valley of Stardown became one solid sea of people.

Throughout the exodus Ichirou and Sousauryuko adamantly maintained a final line of defense beyond which no refugee was allowed to cross. Trenches were dug and staked. Razor wire was laid, and mines as well. A killing field for Goshi's army if the SDF was forced to fall back that far. The battle would not begin here, though. The battle would begin at the other end of the pass, hopefully Goshi would give up long before it came to a final stand.

The refugees happily worked. All those who were able bodied had a task, whether it was building more shelters, digging latrines, attending to the sick, or training under the Silver Phoenix Clan generals. No one was idle. No one was allowed to be. Many also joined the SDF though Ichirou preferred to keep the fighting force efficient rather than overcrowded with untrained cannon fodder. Limited by the amount of armaments in their possession only so many soldiers were useful. That number came to approximately 9 million. The largest fighting force anyone among the refugees had ever heard of since the days of the galactic empire. And still many times smaller than the reports arriving of the Goshi Army.

Frustrated with relying on Zipsum reconnaissance Ichirou turned to the Heroes of Karia Vitalus and asked them to go and learn more for him. So they climbed into the Sennin and flew Northwest, toward black clouds on the horizon.


You brought me here.

Yes, you. I'm talking to you. Click at me all you want.

You brought me here, and you got me to bring everyone else where too. And now, for what?

All just some kind of trick, so we'd all be here to get, what, eaten? Burned? Killed all at once?

I'd be perfect for that, wouldn't I. Stupid. Yeah, I know. Easy to get me to do something. Just grab my nose and lead me around like I'm on rails.


I thought, if I could just do this, then it would be my part, and I could have some peace. I went all over the world, looking for how to make them free. I found the fire, and it - you! - spoke to me. Sent me back to Goshi, back to their new tower. I knew he wouldn't listen. I knew it! But I went up there anyway. And then...and then the Mecha, and then Julian and Trencher...but I - you! - brought down a hail of gems from the sky, from the damn sky, and metal-eating moths, and they - my people - are being fed in the wilderness while they travel by magic jungle plants, and...and all that, all that, for nothing? For a trick?

But peace got ground up by Suraisu-Oni, didn't he. Just like that, peace is dead. So no peace for me. No peace for anyone. Mokuzai gone and...and Jin says it doesn't add up anymore. We don't add up anymore.

And now Goshi is coming. They are coming for us. We've chosen our ground. You've chosen our ground. There are...there are more of them than I'd ever thought. More of us, but most of us aren't fighters at all.

So now everyone else makes plans, and I stay up talking to a clicking lump embedded in my shoulder. Deeper than that, now. Its me and I'm it.

You are First Mind artifact. And the First Minds are the Enemy. So maybe you're the Enemy. Maybe you were made by a Resister, and maybe not. But I know I'm not the Enemy. And even if you were made by them, you're a tool. Maybe you've used me up to now, but I can use you too.

I can use you too. You're me now, you're part of me, and I'm part of you.

You brought me here, but I'll decide how this ends. How I end.

He closes his eyes, and grits his teeth together, begins to shake, hands clenching with the soft scrape of metal on metal, joints straining against themselves with a whine and the slow release of excess pressure through valves that save the powered joints from tearing themselves apart. Sudddenly he can see, and feel, the threads that the Machine God has woven through his body, how it has reached into his mind slowly, how it has made new connections, bound what was severed from before he was born, made him more whole. It has followed lines of...something he cannot quite see through his body, into every part. It is part of him and he is part of it. It is part of him but not all of him. Zipporah wakes up in alarm to a sudden stream of hammering clicks and the room filling with crackling heat radiating from Moses's shoulder. She calls up the water vapor in the air to rain on him, but it dances and evaporates immediately when it touches him. She watches in alarm as the clicking reaches a crescendo and then suddenly something slips, the sound changes, smooths, evens, quiets. Moses opens his eyes, but for a moment doesn't see her at all.

I. Decide.


For a while I'm at the army meetings with Ichirou and Kyoshi and Rei. They seem to think I should be there, and its where the tent Zip and I are staying in is. But soon its pretty clear that I'm not really helping much. Rei is talking about digging chevrons in the ground to channel infantry and force-multipliers and bulwarks and I don't even know what. She's some kind of genius or something. Maybe its all the minds she ate.

So pretty soon I just wander around the city for a while. People sort of collect around me, and I talk to them, and they tell me about Stardown and ask about where we've been and what we've done. They ask about Zipporah, and we try to explain about Prill. I know there are some of them, maybe a lot, that think...that think we're unnatural. No one says anything where they think we can hear but...Zip has those big ears. They're nice, you know, but they are big. Foxy. I say I don't care but I do.

There are too many people here. Its too open. I get headaches every day sometime in the afternoon now, ever since Eris...well, ever since she blew my brains out of my head so they had to grow back. And that scar.

Its so crowded, so I get to thinking. I ask some surveyors about the area. What's the bedrock like? How deep is the soil? How deep is the lake? How is it fed? Seepage? That kind of thing. I talk to as many people as I can - Jin-Kalys, the lizard - er - Anakarix even follows us around. He talks about...I think its math, but I'm not sure...and talks to Zipporah a lot. He seems really happy to have another Karian around to talk to besides Sloan and the scary Jevumm we haven't really seen since...well, the incident with HighDive.

She sure does enjoy being a hero.

I'm sort of done with it, so when I get the chance, I start digging tunnels. Its tiring work because, to get them done faster, I call on my Kata to grow almost as large as I can when I put everything into it. This doesn't last, so I have to rest after, but while I'm like that I get a lot of work done. I burn through a good bit of Blackrock, but when all those people from Geneva Prime start arriving, we'll have all the Blackrock we'd ever want.

It takes a long time, but I find a lot of Mechified who are good at this kind of stuff to come and shore up the tunnels where they need to, to brace and to reinforce. They get into digging themselves - it turns out, there are loads of them with similar upgrades to what I've got. I dunno...thousands. They're not large enough for all these people, but its all we have time for. And when the heat bombs start falling, they're better than tents.

There's now a big network of tunnels, a few meters across, with some larger rooms cut out and air vents cut down to them and that kind of thing. Some drainage for, you know, waste and stuff like that. They're dry because I cut them into the hills, so they're above the lake and don't get any of the seepage from that. Some people are already living up there because there just aren't places to live that have anything like walls or a roof anymore. The city keeps bursting over and over again. Some arrive and have thought things through, but others...haven't.

A few of the Mechified said that there's enough room in those tunnels for maybe a million people. More if they're just crammed in there for shelter when the fighting starts.

A lot of refugees keep coming, and a lot of them won't be fighting even if they wanted to. I had hoped...well, I had hoped that things would be better, but they aren't, so you make do. I can do enough work, while I'm here and its a bit quiet, to make up for not having enough time to do things right.

And then, all of a sudden, everything goes straight to shit.

Guerrilla Tactics

Cuts-Through-Bone chewed Mazu leaf to help him hold still. Crouched under a fern he lay trying to take shallow breaths and not rustle the bush. The vanguard of the Goshi army was approaching and they must have no warning of the attack or it would fail. So he chewed and chewed and felt his limbs go tingly and relax.

Cuts-Through-Bone was of the Cloudclimber Tribe, but he was just as angry as the messenger from the Many Kicks Tribe had been, when he described what Goshi had done. The anger had been bubbling near the surface for a long time now for most Wild Zipsum. It was bound to explode, and explode it had.

There had never been such a massive or coordinated Zipsum offensive. Whole tribes had mobilized, disappeared into the jungle and reassembled as fighting units in the path of the Goshi army marching toward Stardown. Attacks were made daily on the supply train, on the scouting parties, on the vanguard itself. Out of the jungle thousands of Zipsum would materialize, poisoned blades on fists, and launch an assault that at most would last a minute or two. Afterward the jungle floor would be littered with corpses, vehicles would be sabotaged, and food supplies poisoned.

It gave Cuts-Through-Bone deep heart joy whenever a unit of Zipsum archers would launch volleys into the air, shift, run to a different location, and begin launching volleys anew from the opposite direction. Watching the Children of Steel run in panic from little shafts of wood made him laugh and laugh, and sometimes pee a little.

But he was no archer. He went in with the knives, flashing fast. They could not blink or hesitate because their bone and wood armor would disintegrate in one blow from a Mechified arm, or a stinging bullet. Sometimes his unit would rush into the fray and his knife would shatter on the first impact and he would run around screaming until his sense came back and he leapt up into the canopy. If the Cheldrun deployed blue-smoke he knew to run upwind or he would be dead. Many of his litter-mates were dead because they didn't run soon enough.

The noise and smell of the Cheldrun was unmistakable and could be detected for many kilometers. They marched in huge numbers. More than ever before. More than even the Zipsum, and the Zipsum are the manyiest of the Karians. They tried to avoid the Jungle, but too much Jungle was in the way to be avoided entirely. Instead, they rolled their machines over the wood. Huge metal behemoths belching black smoke and scaring the poor Jevumm hunters away. These machined left a charred trail of death across the jungle several kilometers wide, and through this channel the army marched.

There would be no question of the Zipsum defeating this army, though Cuts-Through-Bone boasted every time he went out that he killed the most powerful Cheldrun General during the fighting. Even in his agitated, drug-altered state, he knew that it was like attacking a mountain - fun for a while and you can graffiti your name with your knife, but nothing will come of it. Nevertheless, when you bury a knife in an unprotected thigh, or scratch the tip of your blade along a lily-white cheek and you know that it will swell up and ooze puss for days before they die... it is hard not to be very satisfied with yourself.

In a Gogajin War Camp

Up a steep slope covered in scree, a hundred meters above the camp of the united clans, Grim sat alone between a pair of enormous standing stones. The stones were new. Monoliths erected just this afternoon, but likely to stand for millennia. Grim had determined that the clans would build these monuments at each place they camped, to mark their passage. He told the clans that it would be to display their glory to the world, so none of the other races would ever forget the season that the Gogajin marched united. In his heart, he also considered the possibility that it might be the only memorial left of his people's passing, if this offensive was a failure.

Below him the rowdy, merry sounds of a Gogajin gathering roared and tumbled about the landscape. With every clan represented, the racket could be deafening at times. On the other hand, even the Jevumm were leaving these travelers unmolested.

Someone scrabbled over the scree and came limping into view, a dark silhouette, illumined only by moonlight. By her pained gait he knew her for Keena, a clan-leader, a matriarch, and a wise one at that.

"You should be in the festivities, or in someone's bed, Keena."

With a grunt she sat down beside him. "I could say the same to you Grim, don't be an ass."

He smiled, showing his big flat teeth, and elbowed her in the ribs, a bit harder than he'd intended. "Well if you've come up here to chew on my balls, I've had enough today. A man can only take so much leadership and decision making. Then he has to sit quiet and drink mead until he pisses honey."

"The day you learn to piss honey is the day you might get me to chew on your balls. Till then, just pass me the flagon."

He gave her the mead and they sat in silence for a long time. To his surprise it felt better to sit silently with her beside him, than it did to sit alone.

"Keena," he started, "I've listened and I've listened to the advice of these Children of Steel. Ishikawa Tetsuro tells me things that are hardly to be believed. He tells me that the armies of Goshi will not only teleport and fall out of the sky, but they will roll across the land in metal fortresses. He tells me they will launch bombs that turn stone to liquid and people to ash. He tells me they will have things called cannons and artillery. None of this frightens me."

Keena just drank her mead and watched the encampment below.

"Having clawed my way out of the mines in Geneva Prime I knew some of this. I even knew, which is far more terrifying than all their weapons, that the Children of Steel are as numerous as pebbles on a mountainside. Ishikawa Tetsuro tells me that their population on Karia numbers over 400 million. It is a number I cannot even conceive of. What would 400 million Gogajin colts look like? Don't answer: a disaster, I know. With all the gathered might of all the clans at our disposal we have maybe a quarter of a million. Maybe. Still this does not frighten me."

He let the silence return for a few minutes, searching for the words he was after.

"We're Gogajin. We'll make our impact felt regardless of the odds. I'm not worried about my people doing their part. I couldn't be prouder to walk and work and fight and die alongside these people... It's just... High King? Me? I'm strong and I'm relentless, but I'm not wise like you Keena. I'm not..."

She tried to interrupt him then. He was being a damn fool and she was going to tell him so, but he talked right over her.

"It's more than me feeling out of my depth. It's like this whole thing, is bigger than us. I remember, when we were escaping from the mines. There were some people who helped us. When I was around them I felt like they were the kind of people who could pull this off. The kind who could keep it all from going to shit. One of them was a Vorax, the last Vorax I ever saw. She healed me with her tears. With her tears! It's like she could weep away the pains of the whole world if she tried. They were all like that - gifted."

"Grim, you idiot..." Keena interjected, but he gave her a firm look, and with his grizzled face he had especially firm looks.

"No Keena. I know I sound crazy, or like I'm forgetting who I am, but I'm not. I am Grim, Fiochmahr Clan. I am the strongest, fastest, stubbornest fucking Gogajin in this camp. I will out run, out throw, out crush, out fight, out drink, or out fuck anyone who says otherwise. But I'm also no fool and when I look up in that sky I see a universe which doesn't care how much you can lift or how far you can throw it. There are things at stake here beyond our ken, and there are people out there who have the power to influence things for good or ill, but I am not one of those people. The best I can do is gather all of these donkey-sons and daughters together to throw our might at the hungry maw of the beast and pray that it makes a difference..."

There was a long pause then, while Grim took the flagon back and drained it without taking a breath.

Keena looked at him appreciatively and he seemed to give her permission to speak, so she started softly, "Ah Grim. Even if what you say is true, what would we be if we didn't play our part? Could any Gogajin look themself in the face ever again if we didn't fight to our very last breath for what we love? If there is to be a future, I want to know that we will walk into it with our pride and honor intact."

In the moonlight she could see the tears glisten on his face even though he made no sound. His voice rumbled like stone as he said, "Then let us hope that the ones who hold the keys to the future decide to make it open for us."

A Dead Little Girl

I leave Rei's tent and go find a place off to myself. I find one near the generators they have set up, and I run a cable out to a heavy metal table. Someone goes and gets me a chair. Its weird not doing things myself, even now. I sit down and feel a sigh slip out. Too much is happening. I can't think about it all. And if I made a mistake, bringing all those people here to die...

For what feels like the hundredth time today I wonder if Kyoshi would fly me to Marina. I know its gone way past that, but...I tried, and failed. Too heavy. Too much.

I shake my head, huff out another harsher sigh and lay the thing down in front of me. In the glare of the electric lights it looks like a big, wilted flower. I can see veins of some kind of metal through it. I look for a power source, and can't find one. It must run on psychic energy or something.

I spend some time looking at it closely, and then I separate out some leads from the cable and attach them to what seem like nodes in the webwork. When I switch the power on, the glove lights up. I can see channels of energy flowing through it. They're just fading into the air, becoming heat, because in this they don't do anything, but it lets me see where the web is broken, torn, thinned, stretched...I am about to ground myself and get to work before it hits me.

There's the red glow, there, and then its...healed. Looks good as new, the webs of energy still shining to my eyes. Now, seeing more of how it fits together, I can see how it might be modified. I couldn't tell you, or draw up a diagram or anything. I just...see. I hunch down and get to work, careful but quick.

When I'm done, I detach the leads after I cut the power.

I think I saw where they brought Aimi. Kyoshi is probably still talking to his brother.


She's there, and looks surprised to see me, then looks like the cocky nothing she usually gives everyone.

"Looking to sow your wild rice already, Moses? Why, your litter isn't even born yet." She gives me a look that would be alluring from anyone else. Her eyes are still like one-way glass.

"No. I've, uh, I've actually got a present."

"Listen. Moses. I'm taken. If I wanted to fuck a machine, I'm sure I could make that happen without all the smell and the talking. So if you've got flowers or candy or something, I'm really flattered, but -"

She shuts right up when I hold up the glove. Yeah, Aimi, it isn't that hard to figure out what you want.

"I've seen you playing around with weapons you find. Well, not playing. I know you're dangerous. But they just don't fit the bill, do they?" She just watches my hand. I know she's measuring for a leap. "Its good as new. Better than new, actually. I figured, you know, the stuff we end up fighting, its usually bad to get close. So now you can sort of discharge the energy you make from a distance. Not that far, maybe ten meters or so, and it won't do as much as it does otherwise, but..." She's breathing harder. I suddenly feel bad and disturbed all at once. I want her to listen, though, this once, so I toss her the glove. She snatches it out of the air with a flash and slides it over her arm in a motion that's almost too quick to see. She clenches her deadly little fist and out flashes the pink blade.

She looks up at me, almost unguarded, almost actually here. "I don't get it, Moses. What's the deal? You're not trying to seduce me - it must be the lack of a tail. I figured Rei would get this fixed and give it back to me. But you? It doesn't add up."

How to say it?

"When we met, a year ago, in the control room for the lift out of Goshi know, I've never been afraid of you. Don't get all offended. I know you're an assassin, but...after a cable-car load of tentacled eyeless, you weren't that scary. What scared me was...I was scared for the other people you might hurt, the other people you could get to. That we might have sacrificed so much just to be free, and you could ruin it all on a whim, or because it was your job. It was...I didn't understand how someone could be like that." Her eyes are glass again. "No! Listen, I'm not done."

I look at her until she stops pretending to be admiring her glove. "Listen. I...know what it be made for a purpose. One you sort of chose, maybe, but never really got to choose. One that got chosen for you, where you into bigger things that were happening around you. I know what that's like. And..." shit this is hard "and I know you've done terrible things. On a whim, as a job, whatever. But now I know a lot more about that too. Maybe this whole time, I had to go out into the world, and suffer, over and over again, until I turned into the person who could call down gems out of the sky, rust out a city of millions of people. All of the cities. Refugees, homeless, hungry, because of me."

"How many people did I kill, do you think? I...don't have the guts to even ask. You think you've killed that many, Aimi? I doubt it. You'd be one busy girl. And I did it all, and now, it looks it might have all been a mistake. I might have done just what the Enemy wanted. I can't even know if the things I've done...if they were right. I can't even know if they were right."

A long pause stretches out between us. Now she's looking at me, and I'm looking away.

"If...if we get through this...if we are going to survive...we can't know what will happen. Its too much. No one understands. Elder Moon doesn't understand. Jin-Kalys doesn't understand. We don't understand. Maybe Mokuzai would see it, but he's gone. Maybe peace is gone. But, " I look back at her "but I know, I know that if we don't trust, then we'll die. If we can't trust, we'll all die, one way or another. No trust, no hope. That's it." I feel myself trail off.

She smirks slowly and broadly. "Moses. Are you saying you trust me? Because I'm still a very bad girl." She clenches her little fist again and the blade leaps to life.

I don't move, and she wilts, just a little, thrown again. I don't know why I want her to see. I don't know if she can. Is she going to understand me, now? Is she going to forgive me? Hardly. I might as well ask the lamp-post outside for reassurance. She's a dead little girl. Maybe not dead, not yet. I guess we'll see, now.

"Maybe. Kyoshi does. Rei does." I pause. "And look. I don't think you can stop me, if it comes to it. And I don't sleep anymore. You seem to like Zip. Rei is family. You love Kyoshi. I don't know if anything can kill Baldr. HighDive can kill anything, and I think you know it after the fight today. And Una saved your life, so killing her would be...just really sick. I think you'd need a reason to kill Raoul. I wouldn't try Ichirou. far as Kyoshi knows, you spared Namie. So I told myself those things, and I decided to give you the glove back."

"And who knows? Maybe, I hope, I won't regret it."

I go out just as Kyoshi is going in. He looks alarmed, sees Aimi with her blade out, looks back at me, but I'm still walking. I'll let her tell him all about it.


I get lost looking for my own tent, and when I come in I wake Zipporah up. She rolls over to look at me from under the covers - I realize its cold outside and close the tent flap. The brazier inside starts re-heating the small space.

"Moses...are you going to sleep tonight?"

I stand there for a moment, take a deep breath and feel myself unwind. I give her my best sly smirk.

"Nope." And I don't leave the warmth of the tent after that.