“No,” said Zeridee-und’h as they headed back into the ambassadorial residence.

“No,” she said again while Alden looked at the cellphone worriedly. Still no reply from Mehdi.

“NO,” the Artonan insisted, as they stood in the room with the video monitors. Alden was checking first them and then the phone screen. He started to peel one of his oranges just to put a little of his nervous energy somewhere.

His eyes landed on a stack of something that looked like laminated beige paper. A chunky marker with a brush tip was lying on top. “You were making signs before I got here?”

The first line of text on the top sign was in Spanish, the second in Chinese. He only knew what they were because she’d begun writing the third line in English before stopping halfway:



“That’s a good idea. We can tape them up on the doors before we leave.”

“I will tape them on the doors before I leave,” Zeridee said. “As soon as you are no longer in fear for your friends, you will get in your flyer and head to the planetary evacuation site!”

Alden assumed she was only all right with him waiting around on the phone because the infogear couldn’t come with him or wouldn’t work if he took it in the escape vehicle. And she was trying hard—probably too hard—to be comforting.

Oranges. Dry human clothes. All the tea.

He’d only drunk one black tea with sugar right after getting dressed, guzzling it for politeness’s sake. He hoped she wasn’t upset about that.


“Do two people fit in the flyer?” he asked.

“Not comfortably.”

So that’s a yes.

“Why don’t you come see it?” She was speaking in a coaxing tone even as her hand took up the brush marker and started rapidly finishing the sign in small block letters. “It’s very nice.”

“I will,” said Alden, digging his thumb into the orange peel. “Believe me. As soon as you’re ready to leave, too, I will be in that flyer. And we’ll fly away from this ocean-adjacent neighborhood. I’m seriously looking forward to it. By the way, why is the ocean acting insane? People on the bridge were saying it was chaos, but it’s obviously not that. It’s not corrupting anything.”

Zeridee-und’h rolled one eye at him while the other was fixed on the sign.

“Some ————— has given a human a —————. It’s spilled,” she said in Artonan.

“I didn’t understand all of those words,” Alden said. “Something about sinking? What’s a—?”

“Someone who has such limited common sense that they should have died of their own errors by now has given an Avowed a Sinker Sender.” She paused. “Unless one of my people brought it themselves and chose to crash it into the cube. But I doubt that. It would be such an expensive and foolish means of attack for a wizard to use that the institution which confirmed the wholeness of their education would revoke their diplomas and apologize to all of the Triplanets upon hearing of it.”

Apparently, wizards could be expelled from school long after they’d graduated if they were embarrassingly stupid. Alden filed that away for consideration in some more relaxed moment.

“Sinker Sender?”

“I would call it that in your language. A device designed to safely submerge objects in liquid environments and transport them. Useful for shipping, stealth, protection, research…many things.”

“So someone crashed a Sinker Sender into Matadero. And it’s powerful enough to eat bridges and flood islands?”

Did that mean the Matadero facility had been destroyed? Or sunk?

“The devices are allowed on this planet, but only because most of them are not this strong. They become more powerful with age and proper care. The idea that someone would give one this old to an Avowed is ridiculous. It must have been created a thousand years before we even found your species! It should’ve been placed under trained guardianship on a planet where its services are actually needed.”

She punctuated her words with a particularly aggressive brushstroke, then started making another sign.

“The device still does magic even if it’s broken?”

“It would be improper to call this doing magic,” she said. “The Sinker Sender was obviously old enough that every part of it had begun to resound with the function of the whole. The particles ejected into the water upon its destruction are therefore creating effects similar to the purposes to which they have been turned for the entirety of their existence.”

She stared grimly at him. Still with just one eye. “The spill will be cleaned. Or it will degrade enough that it poses no threat to other lands. It may cause a great deal of damage before then.”


“Large quantities of water will be pulled onto the islands in some locations as the contamination impacts things near shore and attempts to envelope them. The power of whatever motes of the Sinker are causing a particular effect will be rapidly expended, but additional motes of contamination will be spread by the flood waters.”

Pulling even more water on shore.

“Plopstar is blowing up the ocean around The Span.”

“Her use of large quantities of magic in a contaminated area should help to disrupt—you are distracting me from the matter at hand on purpose!”

“I’m not!”

She dropped her marker. “The situation here will not affect you once you leave in your flyer. It is being handled as well as it might by many competent people. You will be very far from here, waiting in the gathering area for a mass teleport. Just in case this incident is followed by others that lead to dire consequences.”

So in case the System is panicking for the right reasons and this is the first in a string of masterminded attacks that will overwhelm Earth.

“Where does the flyer take me?”

“It’s a secret location.”

“Is it the Sahara or the Amazon? Antarctica maybe? That one would be a little closer.”

Zeridee said nothing.

“If it’s for evacuation during planet meltdown situations, does it still use the System? Or is there some giant version of one of those teleport rooms like the Quaternary had on her ship? Fire, blood, dirt, driftwood. Very uncanny. I’m extremely grateful the option exists, but I have it on good authority that getting blasted to Artona I that way almost killed me. And I’m usually an excellent teleportation traveler.”

“Maybe I’ve been overly soothing to you.” Zeridee leaned toward him. “Alden Ryeh-b’t, even though this neighborhood has protectors at the moment, it is not completely safe. You should go.”

He knew. There were alerts flashing on his interface telling him the Punta de la Luna neighborhood should be evacuated immediately. And he didn’t want to stay here when the safety of an aerial vehicle was available.

But he also didn’t feel right about leaving Zeridee alone to deal with a bunch of stressed-out superhumans. Her connection to the ambassador might make people listen to her, but she wasn’t a wizard herself. Avowed were well aware that they occupied a higher social rung than the ordinary class of Artonans on the Triplanets, and Alden doubted everyone cared to engage with the complexities and balances of that relationship in good faith on a night like tonight.

He had already met one asshole who wanted to use rank as a battering ram. Admittedly, it was in the reverse of the usual direction, which he hadn’t been expecting. But Marks was one side of the coin, and on the other side of it, Alden was sure there was a different idiot who would try to commandeer the house from Zeridee because they were “the Avowed boss.”

She seemed to care a lot about the people who lived around here. She might stay, trying to talk someone stubborn out of endangering themselves, until it was too late and then…

Wait. Am I behaving like I think I’m her boss, too? That’s not how I mean it.

“You don’t have to come with me on the flyer if you don’t want to,” he said quickly.

She looked very pleased. “Good! I’ll show you to—”

“No. Let me explain. I know it’s not completely safe. But…if it’s safe enough for you to stay here for just a little while longer, then can’t I do that, too? I can help you do whatever it is you want to. Some of it will go faster with two people. I can totally make signs or run up and down the street checking your neighbors’ houses like that speedster is doing down by the water. I can help you convince people this place isn’t a good hiding spot.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“I’m betting an escape flyer moves fast,” he continued. “You said I was scheduled to be one of the very first to arrive for the possible planetary evac, so even if we stop thinking about the disaster that’s actually happening around us and start thinking about the slim possibility that Earth falls to chaos…I’ll be fine. Right? I can afford to stay here until you’re ready to leave. I can help you and still have plenty of time to get to wherever the flyer is taking me. And if you wanted to come with me, you could.”

He thought he was doing an awesome job of not puking while he talked about Earth turning into a corrupted wasteland unable to sustain life.

Wait. Can she come with me?

“Your boss didn’t tell you that you weren’t…allowed to use the flyer with me or something, did he?”

Alden didn’t really know her well enough to read her face, but if she were Kibby instead of a grown woman, he would suspect that she was thinking of fibbing about something.

“This is serious to me,” he said in Artonan. “Lying about things that are serious is mean-mean.”

Zeridee’s jaw went slack, and her brows drew together until her forehead wrinkled. “Did you just call me mean-mean?!”

“No. I said it would be mean-mean of you to lie right now when I am trying to make important decisions.”

He wasn’t sure why Zeridee-und’h stared at him for such a long time after he said that. Finally, she shoved the infogear cellphone back into its containment safes and chose her reply.

“The Ambassador would not object to me leaving Anesidora. And even at the planetary evacuation site, if all goes badly, nobody would object to me joining the first wave of evacuees. But you should leave sooner than me. Sooner than almost everyone. Not to be safe, but to be as safe as possible.”

“Why?” Alden asked. “I promise I’m not that wonderful.”

“You have an obligation! You must consider your true —————!”

“My what?”

Zeridee took a deep breath. “I don’t know if you can fully understand the ———— of this, but…your death might weigh on the minds of Hn’tyon Alis-art’h and Hn’tyon Evul-art’h!”

Alden blinked at her, too confused to respond.

Zeridee was staring at him with both eyes now. Her hands were clenched at her sides. “Their lives are filled with difficulties you cannot imagine. No doubt they take great comfort from the idea of you here, living a life of peace and happiness on your motherworld. Images of you may ————— through them at this very moment, giving them strength of purpose and the will to move forward through their trials.”

“Excuse me, but that doesn’t sound likely at all!” Alden protested. “I think you might have misunderstood some things—”

“For you to die so young and so soon after they have have ———- their affection in you—”

“Why are we talking so seriously about me dying now?”

“I am sure the commendation you have earned for your actions is not a ————— political move by the Quaternary!”

“Who said it was?!”

Zeridee shook a finger at him. “They obviously feel true respect and liking for you. Evul-art’h sent you a gift! Such an unexpected ———-. I would never have imagined a ————— for a —————. You must not cause either of them to grieve.”

Alden was about to tell her that Evul-art’h was just mailing stuff for her little brother, since Stuart wasn’t allowed to communicate with Avowed without supervision.

If Alden died, Evul would probably shrug and think, Meh…Baby Stu has a cuter Alden anyway. I always thought the sweaty one was a weird choice.

But Zeridee was suddenly reaching for his apocalypse suitcase, muttering to herself, “Where is the human boy’s medical kit?”

“Why do you need to know that?” he asked.

“You need to relax more so that you can calmly engage your brain and understand what I’m telling you!”

Oh my god, she’s gonna tranq me so that she can stuff me in the flyer and ensure that there is a 0.0% chance of an art’h family member feeling even a single twinge of sadness.

I can’t believe I was worried I was being too bossy. She is fully willing to boss me right off the planet.

Alden looked around for a way to convince her that he didn’t need to be protected this zealously and spotted motion on one of the monitors. A young woman was heading up the front walk.


“Zeridee, someone’s coming to the house again.”

She stopped rummaging in the drugs and looked up. Her expression turned alarmed. “That’s Becky! But she should already be gone! I saw her heading toward the train right after the sirens…just a moment, I…”

Alden watched her hurry away. He took his medical kit and stuffed it into his messenger bag instead of the suitcase. Preserving the bag and contents around the kit should do the trick.

Next, he grasped the brush marker, finished the last sign the assistant had been making, and picked up a tape roll that was waiting beside the stack. He grabbed the mini safe even though he couldn’t open it; for all he knew, you could still hear the phone ring from inside the thing. Then he headed toward the entryway.

Zeridee had let the visitor inside this time, since the rain had picked up. Becky looked like she was in her twenties. She had on platform boots, and she was carrying a Meister tool that was shaped like a giant fishhook.

“People were talking so much about chaos, Zeridee! And that’s never happened before! So I tried to call you and ask about it, but I couldn’t get through,” she said. “A man who’d been summoned once was saying maybe going to Kitama Tower wouldn’t be safe if there was going to be chaos instead of just sea anomalies. And he was talking about how maybe the TC and the embassy building would be better, but how is anybody going to get down to F now? And I thought of this place because of all the times I’ve been here for the Ambassador’s parties. Can I stay with you guys?”

“No!” said Zeridee, shaking her head. “I am very sorry for all of this. At this time, our residence isn’t protected. But do not worry! As the Contract says, the risk of any chaos exposure is low. The chance of an amount dangerous to Avowed is far lower than that. Keep following all evacuation orders. Kitama Tower will be very safe, and I believe many Shapers of Water are being summoned…”

To Alden’s relief, Becky took it completely in stride and seemed to believe the assistant. No arguing or shouting this time. She asked Zeridee if the party was still on for next week, then bounded off.

Zeridee-und’h leaned out the door, trying to watch her all the way to the end of the lane. The sirens had been shut off finally, but the sound of an emergency vehicle’s speaker came from down below on the boardwalk, telling everyone that personal possessions needed to be left behind if they weren’t necessities.

“You know that woman from the ambassador’s parties?” The tape made a ripping sound as Alden pulled some of it off the roll. He positioned the sign at eye level on the interior of the glass door. “Does he throw a lot of them?”

Zeridee was still squinting after Becky. “All the ambassadors organize a lot of parties. Even the ones who do not plan to at the beginning of their terms end up hosting many after they have attended a few here and seen the state of things.”

Despite the circumstances, Alden couldn’t help cracking a smile. “Are you saying we suck so much at partying they feel like we need help?”

Instead of answering, she said, “I try to know every Avowed who lives in this area. If they do not mind knowing me. Some do.”

“It must be important for an ambassadorial assistant to do that kind of thing.”

“It is a privilege,” she said.

He smoothed the wrinkles from his tape and looked out at the rain.

She pulled her head back in and examined his work with a critical eye.

“I know how to tape signs,” said Alden. “I’ll go put up all of these others. I’m sure you’ve got like twenty jobs to finish before you can leave this place. I can handle this one. I can tell people the house isn’t safe just like you do if I run into anybody while I’m taping.”

And if they get nasty about me being here, I’ll say it’s because I’m an S-rank who can walk on air or something. That’ll move them along without the whole throwing dishes and “Why do you get a private jet?!” thing that we had to go through with Marks.

“That group of four earlier looked like they were hard to deal with,” he said. “Some people will be convinced faster by a human. Some will be convinced faster by the ambassador’s assistant. With both of us working on it, we’ve got better odds.”

She sighed. “The people who are familiar with this place are not unreasonable to assume it is open to them. Or that it is secure. Ambassador Bash-nor has, on festive occasions, allowed Avowed to test their powers against the house.”

Alden pictured a party reaching the extra-sloppy stage and an Artonan, who looked like Joe for some reason, shouting, “Hit it with all you’ve got! My enchantments can take your puny human magics! I designed that skill!”

“Of course such things leave an impression in the memory,” said Zeridee. “And shortly after the disaster alerts came, the flyers left with the other residents of this house and a couple of Avowed who lived nearby aboard. That was visually noteworthy. I don’t know exactly what humans thought they were, but the obvious assumption is that they are some kind of escape vehicle. The four that were here a few minutes ago saw them and wanted to know about them.”

Probably asking why the Artonans needed spaceplanes if everything was really all right on Anesidora. Kind of hard to explain that they’re just getting a jump on a completely different scale of evacuation on the off chance that everything goes to hell everywhere.

“Now you—” said Zeridee.

“Please let me stay as long as you do,” said Alden. “I’m already out of the worst of the danger, and I would be ashamed of myself if I left you.”

He also had the feeling that Zeridee-und’h would leave in a more reasonable amount of time if he was around, instead of searching the entire area for stragglers long after she should’ve departed.

She shut the door, dulling the sound of the speaker and the patter of the rain. “Would you really feel shame?”

He felt his eyebrows lift. “I’m sure I would.”

According to a guy who would know, I have a problem with that particular emotion.

“I understand then,” said Zeridee. “I wouldn’t want you to carry a feeling like that with you over such a small matter. Go put up the signs. Don’t forget the back gates.”


Alden ran down the sidewalk, in too much of a hurry to appreciate the fact that his skill was active and the concrete beneath his sandals qualified as ground.

His poncho was back in action so that he didn’t get wet. He’d spread it out and frozen it in its extra-dorky mushroom shape, so that he could move his arms beneath it. His messenger bag was connected to it by a piece of tape so that they counted as a single object.

In his back pocket, the infogear phone had a message on it that made him want to have a lengthy conversation with whichever one of his classmates had sent it: [OK].

Would it have killed Mehdi to write a full sentence? What do two letters mean? We’re all okay. Glad you’re okay. I’m okay but everyone else fell off the bridge. We have been teleported to Oklahoma!?

He blamed Mehdi for the pitiful message fifty percent of the time and Lexi the other fifty percent. He was confident the rest of them would have had the decency to type at least half a dozen words.

Unless they’ve joined up with Marsha’s group. I think that’s pretty likely, and I have no idea what she would’ve typed.Stolen content alert: this content belongs on Royal Road. Report any occurrences.

He visually checked the windows and doors of all the houses he passed automatically. The tablet in his left hand chimed, and Zeridee’s voice came from it: “Did you get Gudrun back to her owner?”


The train station had been closed and barricaded about ten minutes ago. Alden had been doing his final lap of the zone Zeridee had assigned him when he’d run into a guy in a tuxedo who was coming back to the neighborhood on foot. He’d been out at an event when the sirens went off, and he’d walked for over an hour to get here. Of course there wasn’t a single public transport option headed this way, and he wanted to save his Great Dane.

The guy wasn’t athletic, and he was trusting enough to give an oddly-dressed teenager the code to his boardwalk cottage.

Alden and the Great Dane were fast. Job complete.

And she was such a friendly dog. She was so excited to go for a late night run with a stranger.

She had almost pulled Alden off of his feet when she saw her person, and the man in the tux had gotten so choked up that Alden had started to get a lump in his own throat. And now he was realizing other pets could be left behind in the houses around him, and…

He was trying not to think about it.

“I’ve secured everything in the house that could cause harm if it were damaged or stolen,” said Zeridee. “Only two more people have stopped by since you left. They both read the sign on the front door and departed.”

She had linked her eye rings to his Artonan-made tablet somehow. She’d been assigning him jobs ever since. As soon as she’d decided he was allowed to assist, she’d been determined not to waste that assistance. She’d even sent him out to deliver messages and request updates from police and other Avowed who were officially doing System-assigned tasks in Punta de la Luna.

Unexpectedly, his movement trait seemed to legitimize him. Possibly it made him look like a more capable person than he actually was because only a couple of people asked what he thought he was doing hanging around.

Honestly, though, my legs are getting tired. They’d already run the obstacle course and the bridge in the past several hours. The last thing he’d had on his mind in either case was saving up strength for even more sprinting.

Having a disaster happen after gym…

He’d thought of it a few times. A lot of his classmates were probably running on fumes as far as powers went. Muscles, skills, and spells that had been used to the limit would have recovered some over dinner, but none of them would be back at their peak. It was really, really lucky that Maricel had missed the second race.

At the top of the hill, he turned and looked out over the neighborhood. It was so quiet now. The houses were dark. A small figure down near the water with the red System halo that meant they weren’t to be interfered with was holding some kind of gleaming staff aloft.

An Adjuster with a spell impression that requires a tool maybe?

Instructor Klein was probably wearing a similar halo right now. It was only a guess, but Alden thought he might have been called somewhere to hasten the evacuation of children and teens who hadn’t been selected yet. That seemed to have been a big priority for the System right from the beginning, and according to a snippet of conversation he’d overheard between one of the police officers and a red halo, a lot of people had been put on child escort duty.

As Alden had already seen, some Avowed weren’t happy with the thought of approving a teleport that would take their kids out of their sight, even if it was to what he suspected was an actual chaos-resistant shelter rather than a place that was merely safe from the water.

The cellphone in his back pocket suddenly bee-beeped perkily, and he grabbed it so fast he almost tossed it. He looked down through the wet poncho at the screen.

[Alden, this is Haoyu. Borrowed a phone from someone. I got teleported to a safe spot a little while ago, so don’t worry about me. Kon teleported out, too. Somewhere different. The others were all fine and heading toward midtown when I left. Maricel flew us over a break in the bridge just a couple of minutes after you disappeared. Don’t know if you’ve seen the news. She got fourteen other people over before she said she didn’t know for sure when she was going to fatigue and decided to stop and let the professionals handle it so that she didn’t accidentally drop anybody.

Marsha traumatized a couple of girls from Franklin High. She told them she could fly, then yanked them across by throwing her spear, grabbing them, and then summoning herself toward it. They were all fine, but there was a lot of screaming.

Everyone agreed there would have been even more screaming if they’d known how bad she is at guessing when she’s about to run her talents dry.

There were a lot of people helping out on the Apex side of the bridge, so I think everyone’s getting off.

Nobody has heard from the people we left behind at the mall or the ones who went home early.

Keep the teeth safe or Lexi will kill you.

I haven’t heard from Lute. Not too worried about him for the obvious reasons.

Message me when you get the chance. I’ll borrow another piece of infogear when I can to check.

Take care of yourself. I might have been rude to you on the bus. Sorry. I’ll only cook food you can eat next week to make up for it.]

Alden’s spirits lifted in an instant.

Now that, he thought, is a properly written text message.

He read through it again, relieved that escaping from the bridge seemed to have gone as well for the people on the bus as he had hoped it would…even if you couldn’t exactly call a run that involved a bridge almost sinking, a car getting sliced to bits, Konstantin smashing himself in the face with a vehicle, and everybody flying the last few meters to safety on a cracked granite countertop that Maricel had stolen a perfect outcome.

His eyes caught on the last line.

You don’t have to feel bad about that, Haoyu. Of all of us, you’re probably having the hardest night.

He resisted the urge to check the phone’s emergency updates. The highlight had been the same thing since he arrived here. The Nilama family neighborhood down in F, where Lexi and Kon had grown up, was still flooding.

He put the phone back in his pocket and took one last look at the tiled roofs and the picturesque lane. He could feel Zeridee-und’h behind him.

North side of the house.

It was comforting to have that sense of his entruster. Useful, too. No way to get turned around on unfamiliar streets when he always knew which direction the ambassador’s residence was in.

He headed up the terraced garden path to the verandah. After he closed and locked the door, he pressed the tape on the back of the sign down one more time.

Hope you’re still here in the morning, he thought.

He found Zeridee in a room he hadn’t seen yet. “No wonder so many people want to get inside this place.”

The ambassador had a large bar in the residence. And those bottles lining the gleaming shelves behind Zeridee were definitely not full of mocktail ingredients.

The assistant poured a little vial of something down the sink, then she pressed a button beside it, and blue flames shot up from the drain.

“That’s an interesting garbage disposal,” said Alden.

“If someone does break in, there are some substances in here that should not be consumed without the supervision of a knowledgeable person. I’m almost done pouring them out or packing them away.”

I bet there are. And is that some kind of a mechanical bull in the back? How strong would you have to make one of those things for Avowed to find it challenging?

“Would you like a drink before we go?” Zeridee asked. “We have mixers, tea, and wevvi. You could take a jar of cherries for the trip?”

“No, I’m good.” He leaned over the bar toward her. “Zeridee…you seem to still have access to a lot of information about what’s going on even with the Ambassador gone?”

She didn’t seem to be using the System for communication much, but she’d said some things that implied she wasn’t on the same “Leave Me Alone While I’m Busy Hunting Down Your Planet’s Enemies” list that almost everyone else was on. For example, she hadn’t said she couldn’t use System resources to find his friends, only that she couldn’t justify it.

And since she could link up to some Artonan-made tech through non-System means, she was probably getting info that way too.

“I do,” she answered.


“Communications with Matadero are being handled through telepathic relay right now. Information about the precise situation there is not instantly available to me. But I still have news. What do you want to know?”

“I don’t want you to get in trouble for telling me anything. I know that the demon fight is always this completely secret thing with the people there on lockdown, and now that there’s been an attack it’s probably even more—”

She started to unscrew the cap from another vial. “Just ask. I will tell you if I can. I may request that you put the spying device away first.”

“Fair enough. One of my roommate’s parents is there. His dad. Are the Avowed there…is there any way to know if a particular person is all right?”

She paused and looked up at him. “You are worried about the present safety of the Avowed on Matadero?” she asked in a mildly surprised voice.

“Of course. Ever since the System warned that there was an attack—”

“I see.” She reached around a bottle of tonic water and produced the cellphone’s prison. Alden stuffed it inside. “I don’t know every detail. I can’t tell you who attacked or why. But I will tell you what I do know.”






The waves of Earth’s largest ocean clawed at the towering mirrored walls of Matadero. The water crashed against the facility and retreated in a rhythm that had existed since the day work on the structure had been completed.

Partially submerged, with no physical anchors to the seafloor below, the cube had not moved from its position in more than seventy years.

Within it, Avowed fought a being that didn’t belong in their world.

A fist collided with the shiny, red two-meter long protrusion that served as one of the thing’s many legs. A crack sounded, like stone rupturing. The demon didn’t appear to notice as the appendage fell away from its body.

Sometimes it would react to an attack. Sometimes not. The men and women fighting it were under the impression that it had favorite parts.

The ones who waited on the sidelines for their turn on the attack didn’t let down their guard. It was impossible to in this place, at this moment. Even before the demon had appeared, there was something wrong with reality here. Even when it disappeared, the wrongness would remain for a time.

They understood it in different ways, to different degrees, but they all knew it was there. A tension, a sickness, an unwanted gaze.

A touch you couldn’t flinch away from.

“I don’t really feel anything when I’m around chaos,” Melanie Carisson had said at one point during their weeks spent in preparation. “I just keep having this dream that I’m trying to write my name on something important, but no matter how fast I write, the ink fades from the paper before I can finish the last letter.”

Now, a blade of her wind cut through the width of the arena like a knife. The other fighters all ducked or leaped to avoid it with practiced timing. The sharpened wind hadn’t been aimed at the demon’s body but at the area above it.

There was some part of it there, unseen. Less an invisible limb for it to control and more a violent disturbance in the air that occasionally lashed out madly.

A cloud of something that looked like black sand burst into existence when the wind cleaved through that spot. A stench filled the air.

They had been warned not to think overmuch about what the demon’s body parts were or whether the things that happened when it was struck made sense. The effects of the chaos clashing with reality couldn’t be predicted by the likes of them.

Still. It was hard not to think of that strike as a small victory.

And then a gasp came from the Sway standing on one of the protective barriers above them.

The fighters didn’t hear her.

They didn’t hear Esh-erdi—who observed their battle from above—ask her a question. They didn’t hear her reply.

They did notice when the demon died.

It happened so fast that most of them weren’t able to see the cracks forming—in a gash on the entity’s back, in every battered or torn leg, in the mad roiling somethingness above it. They formed, widened, broke open. And from every break, more cracks spread.

Many of the Avowed had the impression that the demon simply fell apart instantly into a hundred pieces at a hundred seams they hadn’t known existed. And then it continued to crumble as Esh-erdi and Lind-otta dropped down among them. The two Artonans landed on the pile of fragmenting parts that had once moved like a semi-organized beast, and where their feet hit, the remains of the demon shattered like shards of glass. There was another puff of the black sand in the air.

The chaos still filled the area, but to those who had the attention to spare for it, its creeping presence seemed to have been suddenly muffled.

Esh-erdi said something.

Most of the Avowed looked startled. A few stared at him blankly.

He looked up toward the magical barrier where the non-combatants stood. Two more wizards, the Sway messenger, a group of Avowed who had not been chosen to participate in this particular fight when the demon had made its appearance, and a blonde woman wearing raspberry colored jeans and a turtleneck sweater.

“He says the Contract just informed us via Sway relay that a ship carrying a bomb and a powerful magic device is about to impact the first layer of shielding around Matadero,” Aulia Velra said. “Some of your translation earpieces seem to have given out in the chaos. <<I’ll be happy to repeat your words, Esh-erdi.>>”

“When?” someone demanded. “What should we—?”

<<Now.>> Lind-otta’s face was turned to the east.

<<Now?>> her partner asked.

<<Right now,>> she said.


At 12:27 AM, a boat carrying three teenagers, an unconscious man, and two corpses struck the shield around Matadero at a speed unmatchable by any other submarine currently in existence on Earth. The shield around the facility, detecting a powerful assault, repelled them violently.

A protective envelope around the vessel vanished in an instant. A Wrightmade bomb exploded. A magical artifact created at least a thousand years before the human species was discovered by wizards was blasted apart, and the contents of it, impacting the shield, triggered a second, more targeted repulsive response.

Propelled half by their own un-contained and undirected power and half by the pulse of magic from the shields, countless motes of the fluid substances that had powered the artifact raced through the water toward Anesidora.

The sirens were already wailing.

Another wave burst against a mirrored wall.

It stood firm.



“If the cube had fallen, you would not be standing here,” Zeridee-und’h said to Alden.

“Would I be unconscious in my flyer on the way to Antarctica?”

“Something like that,” she said shamelessly.

Alden smiled. “So Haoyu’s dad—”

She held up a hand. “I won’t promise that everyone at Matadero is unharmed. They have been in battle. And they will stay on site for a while rather than returning to help here right away. If other attacks come, or there is…more to deal with in the way of demons…it’s essential to have a strong force in place. But nobody was harmed by the attack of the Sinker Sender.

“And I’m confident that I would have heard if an Avowed had died fighting the demon. It would have been upsetting to the ones in charge at Matadero right now, and I believe they would have mentioned it when they reported on the situation to the ambassador.”

“Esh-erdi and Lind-odo?” Alden asked. He’d tried to remember the names from his conversation with Stuart.

Zeridee peered at him. “She…is from the otta family. Yes. Them.”

“Sorry. I only caught her name once.”


She looked super confused.

The assistant had been so on top of things since the moment Alden had stumbled out of the teleportation alcove and started dripping on the ambassador’s floors that it was fun to startle her. And since she was already convinced that very important knights would be stricken with grief if Alden died, there was no reason for him to act like he was completely out of the loop.

“Earlier when you said Evul-art’h had sent me a gift…that wasn’t from her. I honestly don’t even know her. We’ve only said a few words to each other, and half of them were her musing on whether or not all humans perspire as much as I do. I’m friends with her brother—”

“Which brother?” Zeridee demanded. She had both eyes on him, and she’d left the button for the magic garbage disposal pressed. The blue flames were flickering higher.

“Stu-art’h,” said Alden. “You might not even know of him. He’s not a—”

“You’re friends?”

The emphasis she put on ‘friends’ made Alden pause.

“I’d say friends, but I guess other people might think it was more like penpals? We talk on his weekends. We both look forward to it. He sent me the gift you forwarded.”

My learning cushion.

Zeridee finally realized she was incinerating nothing and switched off the flames. She stared down into the sink after they’d faded, then said, “It’s time for us to go to the flyer now.”

“You’re not going to do those other vials and jars?”

She had a few lined up that he’d thought were for disposal.

“It’s fine if we leave these here. And your friend—your human roommate I mean, not…the Primary’s youngest child—I’m sorry I can’t completely confirm his father’s safety, but you can tell him what I said. I assume that is why you wanted to know?”

“Yes! Thank you. His mom and dad are both pretty important, so it’s possible he’s already gotten some info, but just in case, can I say you’re almost positive everyone on Matadero is fine? At the moment at least?”

She finally looked up and nodded. She slapped her hand on top of the safe to release the infogear from its confinement. “Meet me in the greenhouse after you send him your message. I will take your suitcase.”

As he took the cell phone, she added, “And put that back in the safe when you’re done with it. It won’t work in the flyer or at our destination.”

She left at a walk slightly faster than her usual businesslike pace, and Alden drafted his message.

[Haoyu, glad you’re safe. I’ve been with an Artonan ambassadorial assistant since I left you guys. She says that the facility at Matadero is unharmed by the attack, and that everyone there…]


Being able to send that felt good, he thought. I hope it gives Haoyu some relief.

He took the steps down into the house’s backyard, and headed for the giant greenhouse. The rain was slacking off. There weren’t so many drops pinging against his authority as he and his poncho made their way across the grass.

He found Zeridee in the greenhouse under something that looked like a zebra-striped banana plant, about to load his suitcase into a compartment on the bottom of a shiny silver egg. The flyer balanced on the pavement at a forty-five degree angle. It had a clear top that was open just wide enough for a person to squeeze under it, and there was puffy white foam in a chair-ish shape inside.

Nothing that looks like an engine to me. I’m guessing we’re all-in on the magic spacecraft here.

The escape flyer was definitely a one-seater, but it was spacious enough that it would just be uncomfortable for the two of them to manage, rather than impossible.

“I cleansed and dried your clothes before I packed them,” Zeridee said.

“You found time to do that with everything else going on?” Alden asked. “Thanks. That’s…”

“What is it?” she asked.

“Just a second…can I…?” He hurried over to take the suitcase. “When I was changing, I wasn’t even thinking about it. So much else was going on. I had an Opposite Stone in my pocket. From the Palace of Unbreaking.”

The jeans were on top, soft and dry. The pockets were empty.

“You should run back and check the laundry room,” she said. “I was in a hurry, so I may not have noticed the stone falling out. It’s by the kitchen.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll be quick!”

Finding the stone took him just a couple of minutes. It wasn’t in the laundry room, after all, but in the parlor where he’d undressed, lying on the floor. He grabbed it and dashed back through the house.

He was back outside and his foot had just hit the grass, when it happened.

It was the first time that Alden had ever felt anything like it. And still, he knew what it was.

Those ripples washing over him suddenly, so faint but so frightening…

He tensed.

He tensed.

The five senses he’d been born with dulled, and for an instant, he was less a being made of flesh and bone than he ever had been. He didn’t reach out with himself. He didn’t have to.

The feeling touched him as Kivb-ee’s first friendly pat once had.

And he just…understood.

Those ripples were caused by another authority that knew how to make the universe move. They were a scream without sound. They were proof of a person flailing and rocking the waters around them in warning, in need, in fear.


Alden’s body made itself known to him again as he ran.

He saw that one of the gates was open. He’d put a sign on it earlier—so much tape to make sure it held against the weather.

He felt the cold hardness of the Opposite Stone in his fist. He smelled the clean scent of rain.

He heard a man’s voice shouting.

His mouth still tasted like oranges.