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Excerpt for Echo Volume 4: The Last Edge of Darkness by , available in its entirety at Smashwords








Echo, Volume 4: The Last Edge of Darkness


By



Kent Wayne


Copyright 2018, Kent Wayne (Pen Name)




Contents



Intro

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Chapter 77

Chapter 78

Chapter 79

Chapter 80

Chapter 81

Chapter 82

Chapter 83

Chapter 84

Chapter 85

Chapter 86

Chapter 87

Chapter 88

Chapter 89

Chapter 90

Chapter 91

Chapter 92

Chapter 93

Chapter 94

Epilogue

Afterword



The Story So Far…



Twelve hundred years ago, humanity left Earth and settled its near facsimile: a planet called Echo. Since then, governments and corporations have merged into the ruling authority known as the Regime. Military and police have merged into the Department of Enforcement. The Regime has waged a centuries-long war against the rebel network known as the Dissident Movement.

Society’s elite reside on Ascension: a moon-based metropolis reknowned for its physics-defying architecture. These structures would be unable to stand without the aid of a gravity manipulation engine known as the Gravity Artifice.

Due to genetic surgery, Ascensioners’ skin is alabaster-white. A longevity serum (Afterlife) extends their lifespan by hundreds of years. Consequently, Ascensioners don’t experience a natural death; as they age, their bodies stiffen and fossilize, then break into pieces. This process is known as approaching shatter.

On Echo, citizens live in vast cityscapes that cover half the planet. Crime and poverty plague the scapes. These megalopolises are bordered by large tracts of abandoned territory: the Wastes. The Wastes are filled with predators and scavengers—they symbolize humanity’s return to its savage roots.

Within the Department of Enforcement, there exists an elite division of soldier-police: Crusaders. Crusaders are fitted with a cybernetic rig known as a linkup. The rig attaches to an operator’s spine and greatly increases his or her combat potential. Crusaders employ two pistols at the same time, and maneuver acrobatically throughout the battlefield.

In Echo Volume 1, Crusader Kishchan Atriya gets into a street fight and cripples a member of the Jury (a fanatical branch of Echo’s predominant religion: the Orthodoxy). He suffers a serious knife wound during the fight. Verus—his mentor and hand-to-hand combat instructor—heals his wound using a magic force she calls kaia. She tells Atriya that she learned this ability in Mandala City. Mandala City is a Dissident stronghold that has eluded the Regime for hundreds of years.

The altercation is not without consequence. Atriya is faced with a choice: volunteer for a Specter (undercover operative) mission into Cityscape 4—a dangerous hotbed of Dissident activity—or serve as a soldier under the man he has crippled, who will surely seek to kill him. If he accepts the mission into 4, he will be granted a slot in the upcoming Wraith Selection (the Regime employs three cybernetically enhanced soldiers known as Wraiths. Each one is capable of planet-wide devastation).

Before he can decide if he wants to accept, he is assigned to a raid team. During the briefing, he realizes the officers in charge are actually Jury, and that they intend to kill him during the assault.

Volume 2 covers the raid, which quickly degenerates into an all-out war. Atriya saves the lives of his fellow assaulters, using his linkup to enhance—or “boost”—himself three times in less than a day. Crusaders require a full day of rest between each boost, or they risk brain damage. As a result of the back-to-back boosts, Atriya suffers wounds to his nervous system. He is told by onsite Jury officers (who decide not to kill him; they’re grateful for his heroism) that they will delay his execution for as long as they can—a few weeks at the most.

Volume 2 ends with Atriya, now badly injured, accepting the mission into Cityscape 4.

Volume 3 details a dual journey: Atriya’s and Verus’s.

Atriya undergoes brutal surgery to heal his brain, then deploys into Citycape 4. He is tasked with finding a high value target named Kali. During the course of his mission, he fights in hand-to-hand tournaments to pay for his room and board.

Meanwhile, Verus treks across the Parch—the largest desert on Echo—in order to get to Mandala City. Along the way, she arrives at the Kokoro Oasis and encounters an old lover—Gantry—who studied psionics (the employment of kaia) with her in Mandala City. Gantry is now working for the Order: a fanatical group of Dissident rebels.

She discovers that Gantry has clogged the Oasis in order to create an overflow of kaia. He’s used this energy to build a network of psychic siphons. These siphons leech the life from Kokoro’s residents and feed it directly to Gantry. His construct has fouled the water within the Oasis, and consequently, it can no longer serve as a waystation for convoys. This will catastrophically impact Dissident logistics.

Verus finds this unacceptable.

She kills Gantry in a magical duel, but nearly dies in the process. Kokoro’s caretaker—an elderly woman named Persephone—saves her life. But in order for Verus to rid herself of Gantry’s vampiric enchantments (as well as clean the Oasis so that Dissident convoys can continue crossing the Parch), she needs more kaia.

In a bid for more kaia, she dives into Echo’s subterranean waterways and locates the being known as Kriya, a powerful serpent-spirit who is the physical and psychic embodiment of Echo. Kriya heals Verus, charges her with energy, then transports her back to the planet’s surface. Verus cleans the Oasis and continues her journey.

Meanwhile, Kali finds out that Atriya is a spy. She corners him in an air cab and shoots him with his revolver. Acting on pure instinct, he taps his kaia and projects a force field which deflects the bullet. He loses control of the force field and the cab flips over. He manages to get away from Kali, but is now stranded in the Wastes.

He’s attacked by Waste-dwellers, and calls for an Exo-suit (a ten-foot tall fighting mech) to be dropped nearby. He makes it to the suit and engages in a vicious battle against dozens of Enhanciles (cybernetically enhanced Dissidents that vary wildly in appearance and capability). His suit is damaged, and he’s forced to eject.

While he’s fighting, Verus gains access to the Semiotic Arsenal (an astral storehouse of psychic weaponry) and employs one of its most powerful weapons: a blaze avatar. She projects her consciousness through the avatar, materializing as a body made of “living lightning.” Atriya suffers mortal injuries, but Verus saves him with the avatar’s powers; she uses the avatar to heal his wounds, then teleports him to safety.

During the battle, Atriya boosts ten times, damaging his brain once again. He is now barely able to walk.

He is invited to Ascension for a formal dinner, where he will be publicly recognized for his valor in battle. Instead of sticking to his planned speech, he loudly condemns the assembled guests, all of whom are culled from Ascension’s elite.

The Regent and the Wraiths are in attendance. Although Apex (the lead Wraith) is deeply amused by Atriya’s outburst, the Regent is not. Atriya is escorted to the Regent’s quarters, certain he is about to be tortured and executed.

The Regent doesn’t kill him. Instead, he informs Atriya that when he was younger, he studied at Mandala, and is adept with psionics. He also reveals that he founded the Dissident movement, and that to this day, funds and equips rebel factions so he can perpetuate a never-ending war between the Regime and the Dissidents. The reason behind this, he explains, is to “gift” the populace with enough adversity to make their lives meaningful.

Atriya is horrified. He openly swears that he’ll kill the Regent.

The Regent arranges for him to live in a hospital, forever brain-damaged, unable to perform the simplest tasks without the greatest of effort. The Regent informs Atriya that if he wishes to commit suicide, he will have ready access to a loaded revolver.

Meanwhile, Verus arrives at Mandala City.

Atriya becomes plagued by nightmares, each one more horrifying than the last. As the weeks pass, he becomes suicidal. Right before he shoots himself, Verus materializes in his room and teleports him away to Mandala City.



*Author’s Note: When I initially published Echo 3, telepathic communication was denoted by italics. When I revised Echo 3, I marked all telepathic communication with brackets in addition to italics. I did this to differentiate telepathy from other instances where I used italics (such as internal thoughts), as well as for aesthetic purposes, and the speculative theory that telepathy is richer than words. Brackets provide information that is not essential to the main point. I felt that the exact words, while able to convey the point, would be nonessential given the theoretical richness of mind-to-mind communication. So that’s another reason why I used brackets.

In Volume 4, telepathic communication is denoted by italics and brackets, just as it is in the revised version of Volume 3.

Also—due to some of my creative play with white space and fonts, I’ve had a hell of a time formatting this thing. I managed to get the end of chapter 47 looking okay on tablet, and somewhat passable on phone and eReader. It’s comprised of a single sentence which is supposed to look like an inverted triangle, but the conversion wasn’t quite as clean as I wanted it to be. If you are reading this on any eReader format other than Kindle, it appears as a “descending staircase” rather than an inverted triangle. Apologies if that draws you out of the story, but I think you’ll get the gist of what I was trying to say.



“…the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; and where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”



—Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
















Prologue



The Regent woke up in bed, grasping at the fading remnants of a pleasant dream.

Above his desk, a string of holographic text was blinking steadily, alerting him to the presence of an unread message. As he approached his console and opened the missive, a white dwarf cluster crested the horizon, spilling sterile light in through his window.

Dissident activity was on the rise. General Slade, in charge of the 75th Enforcer Division, was requesting a wakeup for Apex.

The Regent approved the wakeup and shut off the holo. He walked to the other end of his room, opened a narrow door, and entered a bare closet devoid of fixtures.

He shut the door and took a seat.



He started the ritual with a series of deep, rhythmic breaths.

He began to feel like he was shrinking inward—like he could see the inside of his shoulder if he turned his head, or the hollow of his throat if he happened to look up. Background noises hushed and stilled, and he became increasingly able to pinpoint his thoughts. Not just the obvious ones, but the ephemeral notions and hidden urges, as well as the bare wisps of half-formed concepts.

He shut his eyes, constructing his personal haven around his intent. A twisting sensation ran through his guts, and he felt his psyche turn inside out.



When he opened his eyes, he was standing atop a level desert. The uniform terrain was interrupted by a single object: an ornate table. It was simple in structure—a flat surface with four legs—but the wood was rich, dark, and limned with curls of golden filigree. On top of the table was an alabaster cobra, coiled into a neat spiral inside a wire-mesh cage.

He undid the latch and opened the door.

The cobra lunged, sinking its fangs deep into his palm. He gritted his teeth, biting back a string of curses. Purple-black energy crackled through the serpent, feeding his loci with purified kaia. When he was fully primed, the cobra withdrew from his hand and wound itself back into a neat spiral. The Regent locked the cage and steeled his mind.

The next part was agonizing…but also necessary.

The table, the cage, and the cobra shimmered apart into a blurry haze, then swam together into a seven-foot tall, vertical rectangle. Depth and shadow pooled across it, imbuing its surface with form and texture. After a minute, it resolved into a plain white door. The cracks around it began to glow, leaking tines of radiance past the jamb.

This was power of the highest caliber. The cobra had just been an appetizer.

The Regent drank in the energy as it spilled and gushed. No one else could endure this grace (maybe Dake or Lazarus could, but they were idiots; they’d burdened their psyches with countless obligations), and for that reason and that reason alone, no one could challenge him.

The light began to pulse, filling his ears with a melodic hum. It built and intensified, threatening to steal his single-minded focus. The door cracked open, and dazzling brilliance poured from the gap. He had a vague idea of what lay beyond: colors without names, nerve-shredding wonders, words that could slaughter just through their utterance…

The gap widened. He was at the very limits of what he could take, but he couldn’t disengage—not yet. He had to absorb as much as he could before


his


grip


started


to loosen


but

he

still

clamped

DOWN, telling the story of himself to himself, repeating it over and over to ensure it was true. Once it had become a brutish mantra, a wave of darkness eclipsed his vision.



He stumbled to the bathroom, turned on the faucet with a shaking hand, and splashed his face with icy water. The chill bit deep into his fevered skin, tormenting him with the knowledge that for all his power, he was still a human.

Whenever he summoned the astral doorway, the force behind it threatened to unravel him. He would become the equivalent of a cornered animal—full of fear and blind with rage. This savage reaction was what kept him intact; without it, he would be completely at the mercy of what lay beyond.

As his body calmed, a familiar sentiment echoed through his mind:

God damn that door.






PART I: A RESTLESS SLUMBER















1



Atriya materialized on the edge of a cliff.

Hundreds of feet below, the streets of Mandala shone and glimmered. Pillars and tresses dotted the architecture, gracing it with beauty, rhythm, and a sense of balance. On the city’s border—the one farthest from him—lay a thick ring of verdant forest. Somewhere nearby, a lively waterfall splashed and hissed.

He looked up at the sky. It seemed fragile, somehow…like it had been crinkled and balled, or—

He clutched his stomach and vomited forcefully. Verus gripped his elbow and helped him to his feet.

“Easy, Atriya. First teleport’s always the hardest.”

He wiped his lips with a trembling hand. “Teleport? How is that even possible?”

“Questions later. Right now, you need to rest.”

A shuddering sigh escaped his lips.

Rest—that sounded good.



The following weeks were a blurry haze. On the rare occasion that he wasn’t sleeping, he lay in bed and studied his room. Wooden cabinets, hardwood floor, and a sloped ceiling with a crystal chandelier.

As the days passed, his periods of wakefulness gradually lengthened. He didn’t need to eat, and he didn’t need to relieve himself. For some reason, neither fact struck him as odd.

After a few months (this was a rough guesstimate; during his convalescence, his grasp of time had become increasingly fuzzy), the door opened and he found himself staring at a petite, primly dressed woman.

“Hello. My name is Enthimy Nilena—Chief Logistician and Interim Headmaster.”

He looked her up and down. “Where’s Verus?”

“Busy. A lot has happened since—”

“How long was I out?”

“Out? I’m not sure what you mean by—”

He made an impatient twirling gesture beside his cheek, as if to say get on with it. “How long have I been here?”

“Four months.”

He suddenly came to grips with the fact that he hadn’t had to eat, piss, or shit. “I haven’t gone to the bathroom. How did I—”

“You most certainly have.” She nodded at a door on his left. “It’s right there. If you hadn’t used it, we definitely would have noticed.”

“What about food? I haven’t eaten, either.”

“Really?” She raised an eyebrow. “We’ve brought you five meals a day. Sometimes, it seemed like you couldn’t get enough.”

“I…” He shook his head. “It feels like I’m waking from a dream, or…”

“Not a bad one, I hope.”

A flicker of doubt. “I’m not sure yet.”

Enthimy chuckled. “At least you’re honest. Would you like a tour of the city?”

“Now?”

“You’d rather do it later?”

“No, but—” He looked down. He was dressed in boxers. “I need some clothes.”

“They’re in your dresser.” She headed for the door. “I’ll be outside.”

He picked out black trousers and a blue long-sleeve. In the bottom drawer, he found a pair of leathery shoes and slipped them on. His next move was pure instinct: he began patting his body, checking his torso for weapons and gear. A moment later, his hands froze above his ribcage.

You’re not a Crusader—not anymore.



As they walked, Enthimy talked.

“Mandala City is dependent on structure. Everything you see—architecture, food, clothing—is designed with harmony in mind. We—”

He tried to pay attention, but he quickly lost interest. There was too much to look at: gardens, houses, people…and the sky still looked strange; it was unnaturally jagged.

“What’s wrong with it?” He pointed at a cloud.

Enthimy, who was in the middle of speaking, gave him an irritated look. “What?” She followed his finger with her gaze. “Oh. It’s not real—it’s crystal.”

“Crystal?” Atriya wrinkled his brow.

“We’re underground,” she explained. “You’re looking at a refraction.” When he continued looking puzzled, she said, “The ceiling is made from dikirlian crystal. It channels light from the surface and replicates the sky.” She pronounced the word Die-curl-ee-an. “The crystals fuel our psionic clockwork. They gather energy from the surface, as well as from the core of Echo.”

“Psionic clockw—”

She nodded brusquely. “A complex network of psychic structures. Without it, Mandala couldn’t function. Or survive, for that matter.”

His mouth opened and closed. It did so again. “I…I saw forests and lakes. Were they always here, or—”

“The Seer,” she said. “She brings them with us.”

“The Seer?”

“Mandala’s primary headmaster. Without Her, our machines would fail and our crops would rot. The Regime would—”

He held up a hand. “The forests and lakes. Were they always here?”

“I was just getting to that,” she huffed. “When Mandala was built, the Seer ensured it was adjacent to nature.”

Atriya closed his eyes and rubbed his brow. “But…how did…”

“When She teleports the city, She also transports the surrounding wilderness.”

He searched her face with a disbelieving stare. “She teleports the entire city?”

She nodded. “It’s how we stay hidden.”

“Can she teleport us anywhere, or…”

She shook her head. “There are one hundred and eight sites that can host Mandala. Other locations lack the crystal.”

Atriya’s head was swimming. “The ceiling. How does it know how to—”

“The Seer synergizes her kaia with the dikirlian meshwork, instructing it to refract the sky as it appears on the surface. She also controls the ceiling’s height; if not for Her, we’d be crawling around on our hands and knees.”

“So she can redirect sunlight, teleport the city, and she can also manipulate space and matter?”

“Yes.” Her reply was matter-of-fact. “It’s what she spends most of her energy on.”

“You’re talking about magic, right?”

She shrugged. “That’s one way to put it.”

“Can you teach me how to use it?”

She cocked an eyebrow. “What are you doing now, that you were unable to do before you arrived?”

He gave her a puzzled look. “What am I doing now that I was unable to do before I…” He looked down at his legs and his eyes widened. “I’m walking!” He looked back up at her. “I’m walking!”

Enthimy smiled. “That you are. Some of our coincidence techs used their kaia to—”

“You said that I did it.”

“They undid the blockage within your causal structure, allowing your body to heal itself. So in a sense, yes—you did it.”

“That wasn’t what I meant by ‘can you teach me how to use it.’ I meant can I consciously—”

“I know what you meant, Atriya. What you’re asking takes a lot of time and a lot of practice. Above all, it requires structure.”

He studied the ground, his eyes ticking back and forth as he struggled to process everything she’d said. “Is there anything else that I need to see?”

“Are you hungry?”

He met her gaze. “Starving.”

She smiled. “Then let’s get you fed.”



2



Enthimy and Atriya approached a vast, domed building surrounded by a ring of vegetation. They stopped a few yards back from its archway entrance.

The Crusader had never liked plants (vegetation in the scapes was ragged, tough and ugly), but the stuff in front of him caught his interest; it was wonderfully alien and stunningly beautiful.

He pointed at an intricate cluster of colorful stalks. “What are those?”

“What?” Enthimy glanced disinterestedly at them. “Oh. Flowers.”

Those are flowers?” Atriya leaned forward and cupped his knees with his hands, staring intently at them. Without exception, flowers in the scapes were dull and shriveled. Their petals—wilted sections of gray-hued nubs—were almost indistinguishable from their actual stems. These, however, were the exact opposite; some were perky and bright, while others shone with subtle gradations.

Something pricked the back of his neck. He instinctively slapped it and looked at his palm. Lying in its center was a yellow-black insect, twitching and jerking as the last of its life fled from its body.

“What the hell?” he muttered.

“It’s called a bee.” Enthimy closed her eyes and muttered something low and guttural. The pain in his neck dwindled and vanished.

“Stay still.” She made a quick gesture with her right index finger, and Atriya felt a galvanic tingle run from his head to his toes. She opened her eyes. “The first spell healed you. The second will protect you from stings or bites.” She let out a grudging sigh. “Insects help to maintain our ecosystem; they pollinate the plants and aerate the soil.” Her mouth twisted into a bitter grimace. “I’m trying to find a way to wipe them all out.”

“I don’t know…” Atriya’s gaze drifted back to the flowers “If they serve a purpose, I don’t see a problem with the occasional—”

Nonsense,” she snapped. “They sting and they bite if given half a—”

“But you can fix that with magic, so what’s wrong with—”

“Because it’s not right!” she snarled. “We’re not meant to live with VERMIN!”

He was taken aback. “Sorry—I meant no offense.”

She took a breath and smoothed the front of her shirt. “It’s fine. I’ve been working on this problem for quite some time now. I might have become a little…invested in it.”

As they walked through the archway, he caught Enthimy looking at him—quick, furtive glances from the corners of her eyes. He made a mental note to keep his guard up around her.

But future events would wipe this from his memory.



According to Enthimy, the domed building was called “the Pabulum.” It served as Mandala City’s official mess hall.

Hazy light filtered in through its semi-opaque ceiling, coating the floor in a pleasant glow. Between the ceiling and the deck was a second floor: a ring of frosted glass that ran along the expansive curvature of the soft-sheened wall. Atop the ring were handfuls of diners, all seated at glass tables. They were being served by well-dressed waiters. The ground-floor diners were serving themselves from a steaming row of bins.

The Crusader took a reflexive step toward the bins.

“Atriya!” Enthimy’s voice stopped him in his tracks. “That is not where we eat!” She clopped toward him and nodded at a spiral staircase, a few meters off to his left.

He followed her up the winding steps. When they both crested the uppermost one, she glanced back at him from over her shoulder.

“See? This is much better.”

Atriya bit back a surly reply. As they took their seats at an empty table, he saw that everything was made from frosted glass: surfaces, chairs, utensils.

“We added the second floor a couple of weeks ago.” Enthimy beamed at him. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Stunning,” he grunted.

“I know!” she exclaimed, blind to his annoyance. “Isn’t it just?”

A waiter walked over and nodded primly at Enthimy. “Greetings, Headmaster.” Then at Atriya. “Sir.”

She flapped a hand at him. “Your best dish. Go.”

The waiter bowed and walked away.

“Mandala’s residents have been dining on game.” Enthimy scoffed, as if to say, ridiculous, isn’t it? “So I directed our workers to cultivate livestock. Right now, we only serve it on the second floor, but eventually, I plan to make it available for all of Mandala. Hunting game isn’t just crass—it’s barbaric.”

“I see.” He glanced past her, trying to spot the waiter. If he didn’t eat soon, he was going to join the ground-floor diners. To hell with Enthimy and her—

There he is. The waiter shuffled to their table, balancing a platter on an upturned hand. He laid it down, served them both a bowl of soup, and walked away without meeting their eyes.

Atriya grasped his bowl and turned it up to his mouth, slurping down his soup in a matter of seconds. Enthimy picked at hers with peckish spoonfuls.

A few minutes later, the waiter returned with pepper-crusted beef. Each slice was ringed with buttery, steaming vegetables. Atriya snapped it up like a starving dog.

Enthimy frowned at her plate, then at the waiter. “This is rare. Send it back.”

“Yes, Interim Headmaster.” He picked up her dish and headed for the kitchen.

She tracked him with her gaze, her lips tightening into a prudish frown. “They’re supposed to cook it until it’s well-done, but the chefs keep insisting that it ruins the flavor. What good is flavor, though, if people get sick?”

Atriya paused, a forkful of beef dangling from his mouth. “I’m sorry—what did you say?” It came out as: I’m forry—whaf id you fay?

She forced a smile. “The meat should be cooked until it’s well-done. Otherwise, we risk infection.”

Atriya burped. “Yeah, but that would ruin the flavor.”

Her eyes turned cold. “I happen to like the taste of char, but that’s besides the point—we shouldn’t have to worry about ingesting parasites.”

The waiter returned with Enthimy’s meat. After examining it thoroughly, she granted him permission to leave and began sawing apart her food. “A lot of the Seekers here—”

“ ‘Seekers?’ ”

She swallowed a bite. The line of her throat pushed in and out. “It’s what we call ourselves. We seek the ultimate truth; we seek to merge with the Presence and—”

“The Presence?”

Enthimy nodded. “The source of all phenomena—the eternal light that fights the dark. It’s gone by many names.”

He almost laughed. The eternal light that fights the dark?

“I was about to say that most of our Seekers have become sloppy and lax. That’s why I decided to modernize the Pabulum—so they’d be forced to eat like civilized folk.”

“So you think saddling them with etiquette will—”

She gave him a stern look. “Atriya—we’re encouraging them to live a principled life.”

“And if your encouragement doesn’t take?”

“We’ll simply encourage them a little harder.”

Atriya snorted. “How hard will you encourage them if they don’t want to—”

“It’s for their own good.” She continued eating, refusing to meet the Crusader’s gaze.

He decided to switch subjects. “The Presence…you said there were other names for it?”

“There are, but that one’s my favorite. The Presence…it’s heavenly, don’t you think?” Her eyes glazed over with dreamy worship.

Sounds as good as any other, he thought. “It’s very pretty,” he agreed.

“It is,” she affirmed. “The Seer wrote us a letter instructing us to use it. She rarely communicates, so the fact that she did so at all…it means the name is important. She’s Illumined, Atriya; if She ever graces you with Her holy words, you’d do well to—”

“ ‘Illumined?’ ”

Enthimy pushed her leftovers off to the side. “The pinnacle of consciousness. Before you attain it, you have to first be Immersed, and then Deepened.”

“Immersed?”

“Where you become viscerally aware of the nature of reality.”

“And Deepening?”

“An amplified version of being Immersed.”

“I see,” Atriya said. “So how does a Seeker become Immersed and Deepened?”

“Psionics,” Enthimy replied. “Certain tasks as well, but psionics first and foremost. We use a variety of techniques to complement our psi-work: breath-work, mantras, mandalas…there are countless ways to elevate the mind.”

“What tasks, specifically?”

“City upkeep, for the most part.”

“Aside from the Seer, is there anyone else who’s Illumi—”

No!” Enthimy snapped. “She is the only one!” She closed her eyes and exhaled forcefully. “As far as Immersed and Deepened, Dake—”

At the mention of that name, memories blossomed in Atriya’s mind: saving Verus in a desert oasis, overriding the laws of physics, a golden shield that had leapt from his belly…

All of them involving a man named Dake.

“—is supposedly Deepened. And Verus is allegedly Immersed.” She wrinkled her nose, as if she’d just mentioned something abhorrent.

“How do you know?” Atriya asked. “Is there any way to—”

She shook her head. “When you meet the Seer, you’ll just know. As far as Dake and Verus…the Seer told us in the letter that Verus was Immersed, and that Dake was Deepened.” She looked him in the eye. “But I suspect he tricked the Seer into vouching for his Deepening.

“Why would he do that?”

“So She would appoint him Auxiliary Headmaster. He may be powerful, but his ways are…” Her upper lip curled in disgust.

Sore spot, he noted.

“Can we finish the tour?” Atriya asked.

“Absolutely.” Enthimy scooted back and rose to her feet.

As they walked down the stairs, Atriya studied the ground-floor diners. They were availing themselves of gravy-laden meats, fire-roasted vegetables, and large hunks of fragrant bread. His stomach grumbled.

Enthimy threw him a disapproving look and tsk tsk-ed under her breath. He disconnectedly thought fuck off, and resolved to come back later.

He was still hungry, and that food looked amazing.



As they wended through the city, she talked his ear off about the “magical architecture.” Atriya zoned out as she blithered on.

He nearly ran into her when she stopped abruptly in front of a small fountain. She proceeded to fill his ears with trifling details; apparently, this exquisite masterpiece had been designed and crafted by a psionic artisan. After listening to her jabber for a seeming eternity, he decided to try and pull an evasive maneuver; if he could ask her a question that knocked her off-topic, maybe he could preserve the remnants of his sanity.

“As Chief Logistician, what do you do?” he asked.

She stared adoringly at an intricate curl of water. “If we didn’t emphasize order and discipline, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy marvels like these.” She fixed Atriya with a somber stare. “Structure, Atriya—structure is everything.”

He waited patiently.

She cocked her head. “I’m sorry—what did you say?”

“What do you do?” he repeated. Structure, my ass.

She cleared her throat. “I manage supplies and infrastructure. Clothing, provisions, aesthetics…we have limited space, so we have to ensure that all our resources are apportioned wisely.”

“I see. Structure.” It took conscious effort, but he kept his voice free of sarcasm.

A solemn nod. “Yes—it’s especially important after a citywide teleport.”

“How often does that happen?”

“Every seven years.”

He looked north, toward a mist-wreathed waterfall buttressed by a moss-covered cliff—the same one he’d materialized on when he’d first arrived. Atop the cliff stood a wide building, framed by a sloped roof and squared-off walls.

A Japanese monastery.

“What’s that?” He pointed at it.

Enthimy turned, saw what he was pointing at, and muttered something vehement under her breath. He didn’t catch all of it, but he caught enough.

“What?” he asked sharply. “What did you say?”

She gave him a bright, false smile. “Nothing.”

“No—did you say, ‘that’s where Dake lives?’ ”

“You’ll learn more when you’re—”

“Answer the question, Enthimy.”

She sighed through her nose. “Yes. That’s where Dake lives.” Then she glowered at him. “He’s a dark being, Atriya. Stay away from him.”

He kept his expression deliberately blank. “What about Verus? I’d like to—”

She shook her head. “She’s fallen in with Dake. Leave her be.”

He made himself nod, thinking: Not a chance.

Relief blossomed across her face. “Thank you for understanding. As I was about to say: you’ll learn more when you’re ready.”

The last time he’d heard that—thank you for understanding—had been close to a year ago, when he’d visited Ascension. According to his escort—a resident named George—Atriya wouldn’t be allowed to eat with the other guests; they would see his presence as a “breach of etiquette.” George had fumbled through an explanation that wasn’t quite an apology, and Atriya had thrown him a smirk that conveyed the sentiment: You’re full of shit. And I know that YOU know.

He now felt the urge to express that same damn smirk. This time, however, he kept the urge in check.

“Not a problem.”

Her eyes turned grateful. “Trust me; it’ll all become clear later on.”

He bit back a sarcastic retort.

“I’m sure it will.”



“There’s a dangerous object near the falls. After Dake took charge of the Fantasticality Engine, it manifested the very next day.”

“What is it?” Atriya asked. They started heading north.

“You’ll see.”

As they got closer to the bluffs, Atriya was able to make out a plain, boxy-looking shack. Due to a heavy layer of fog and vapor, it hadn’t been visible from further back. Once they reached it, she opened the door and stepped inside.

The room was dim, wet, and unnaturally hot. The floor was twenty feet long by twenty feet wide. A metallic egg was floating in the air, equidistant from all four walls. It was three feet high, and two feet across at its widest point. Reflective glare pooled along its curves.

Enthimy extended her left hand and a swirl of emerald light—like a DNA helix, only with five strands instead of two—materialized above it and illuminated their surroundings.

“Keep looking,” she instructed. “It’s not always visible, but maybe today it’ll—there! Look!”

A holographic readout appeared above the egg. It was comprised of eight glowing characters; they were two inches high, and infused with a vibrant range of blues and greens. Some looked alien and some looked familiar. Atriya matched their changes with his internal clock and realized—

“It’s a countdown,” Enthimy said.

“To what?” He kept staring. Flickering shadows danced across his face.

“I’m not sure.”

He turned to her. “The Fantasticality Engine…what is that, exactly?”

“A psionic forge. Look at the readout. I want you to see what happens next.”

He fell silent, observing the symbols as they ticked and flashed. They were abruptly replaced by a pair of letters:

S I.

A second later, they formed back into eight ticking characters.

“ ‘S I?’ ” His brow wrinkled. “What does that mean?”

“No one knows.” Her eyes met his, and what he saw chilled him to the core; her expression was the same one worn by rabid fanatics. Suddenly—


—a wave of memories assaulted his mind. Cathedrals and dungeons. White robes and blood-stained swords. Enthimy shifted and morphed, contorting into a hunched, insectile creature. She reached toward him with a spiny forepaw, a dull chitter arising from her mandibles. He stumbled back, about to scream—


—but then everything normalized. Enthimy was giving him a puzzled look.

“Is something wrong?”

“Yeah—I mean no! Just, uh…just some bad memories. From my Crusader days.”

What the HELL was that?

She turned back to the egg. “So what do you think it is?”

He cleared his throat and scratched his cheek. “ ‘S I’….Slave Intelligence, maybe?”

“Fitting,” Enthimy hissed. “A psionic artifact controlled by a mechanized protocol. Dake and the Regime are working together—mark my words.”

“Is that what you think?” He asked the question without any judgment; he was genuinely curious.

She looked thoughtful. “It would make sense, wouldn’t it? They win over Dake, he corrupts the Engine with subservience tech…” She examined his face, her eyes bright and assessing. “Why? What do you think?”

“I’m not sure,” he said hesitantly. “I’d have to do some research.”

She studied the Crusader for a long moment. Then she perked up.

“Tomorrow morning, come to my class. I’ll teach you everything you need to know.”



3



Atriya lay in bed, contemplating the bizarre moment when Enthimy had turned into…

He didn’t know what she’d turned into.

Was it a vision? A daydream? He couldn’t decide. He was still grappling with the idea that telepathy, reincarnation, and teleportation were real phenomena. Until recently, he’d viewed them all as purely fictional.

He’d become a Crusader to push his limits. Now, it seemed, pushing his limits meant learning to use magic.

Enthimy’s class, he thought. That’s where I’ll start.

His eyes slid closed.

Tomorrow.



He awoke inside a whirlwind of color—ill-defined lines that blurred and jigged. The world unfocused, refocused…then a warning lurch ran through his gut.

I’m going to…I’m going to…

Threads of colors spewed from his mouth. He wiped his lips with his hand and flinched in surprise; his arm had become a wireframe outline. He looked down and saw his wire-woven torso being encased in smooth, flawless shine.

What the hell?

He reached slowly toward the wall of wind. When he made contact, blue-green veins spread out from his fingertips. He jerked them back but it was purely reflexive; he hadn’t experienced any actual pain.

The Crusader willed himself forward. As his head phased through, he felt pleasant buzzing throughout his scalp. It flattened his thoughts, inducing the same state of mind that accompanied utter engrossment; he could think clearly, but without the use of words. A second later, he was standing in the middle of a forest clearing. Everything around him was tinged red, blurring at the edges like a low-fi holo.

[Who is that?]

The question came from a hunched shape, fifty yards ahead, crouched beneath a night-darkened tree. It looked more or less human, but its three companions resembled large, six-foot long insects.

There was a prone body lying by their feet. Instead of exposed tissue or leaking organs, the corpse’s wounds appeared as long slices of exposed wireframe. Each gash spat and hissed, ejecting fitful torrents of winking sparks.

That’s how our injuries look, Atriya realized. Maybe not physically…but on the level that matters.

The thing that had questioned him rose to its feet. It was clearly male, around eight feet tall, and dressed in regal armor and a flowing cape. His apparel, hair, and skin (what little was visible) were pallid white. His face was covered by a mask that—aside from a pair of down-angled cuts that served as its eyepieces—was smooth and featureless.

[WHO ARE YOU?]

The words manifested as a visual distortion: transparent tentacles spilled from the giant’s mask and undulated toward Atriya. When they tried to encircle him, he stepped back and slapped them away.

[Get away from me!]

That’s what he meant to say, but nothing came out. Instead, his unexpressed speech materialized as a silvery glissade that slid down his neck, split in two, then flowed down his biceps. When the streams reached his wrists, they formed into chains of letters that wrapped his forearms. Each character blinked in rapid time, transforming from glyphs to logograms to archaic sigils.

More tentacles were crawling toward him, but he had to turn away; his wrists had brightened into glaring supernovas. The light was burrowing through his eyes and into his brain…

And then it dimmed. A heat-shimmer tentacle wrapped his waist and started to squeeze. He flailed wildly at it. In the midst of his frenzy he saw that the letters around his forearms had formed into metallic sheaths—weaponized vambraces. Blades protruded from their edges and angled forward, extending nearly a foot past his knuckles. They sliced through the tentacles with consummate ease.

On the other side of the clearing, the pale giant extended his fingers. Ivory streams poured from their tips, infecting the earth and sky with frosty white.

As the Crusader cut himself free, the achromatic hue looped behind him, coating the ground in icy gloss. The glazed turf erupted with hands. Four seized his ankles and held him fast.

The giant turned to his minions: [Retrieve him.] They were still hunched over the wireframe corpse, casting doubtful looks at the pinioned Crusader.

[What is he?] one of them asked.

The giant answered with a solid backhand, knocking his insectile follower into the woods. It smashed through a trunk and kept going, causing a line of trees to shiver and shake. A moment later it galloped out of the forest, squealing and sniveling like a beaten dog.

[GO!] the giant commanded.

Two looked like ants, while the third resembled an enormous spider. Moonlight twinkled off their carapaces as they flitted toward Atriya, their limbs clicking and churning in stop-motion tics.

The Crusader bent down and slashed through the hands holding his ankles. When they fell away, he glimpsed yellow-toothed mouths in the center of their palms.

One of the ants lunged. The Crusader slipped left, running his wrist-blade across its belly. It let out a horrendous squeal—like a cross between screeching metal and a mewling baby—and tumbled sideways, its limbs curled up in a roach-leg tangle.

The second one snapped at his shins. Atriya jumped up and over, scissoring his blades neatly through its neck. Its hard-shelled skull plopped wetly to the ground.

The spider-thing reared up on its hind legs, ejecting strands of webbing from the middle of its thorax. As the Crusader fell to the earth, bladed gossamer whirred past his cheeks.

Atriya rolled to his feet and rushed his foe. The spider skittered back, projecting razor-edged streamers as fast as it could. The Crusader slashed through the webbing in forceful strokes, marking the air with flashes of light. He closed the last few yards by driving hard with his legs and torqueing his hips, causing him to rise and spin like a rotored top. At the apex of his jump, he lashed out with a strong side-kick and connected with an eye, marring its lens with a network of breaks. He hit the ground and pushed off again—this time into a leaping dive—and lopped off a multi-jointed leg with a backhanded swing. A horrendous cry arose from his enemy; the arachnid’s voice was unmistakably feminine.

He took a moment to assess. The first ant-creature was lying on its back, feet curled over its leaking belly. The second one was lying in two distinct pieces: its torso was upright, frozen in place, while its severed head rocked back and forth on its domed crown. The spider-thing was retreating in disconcerting skips, a pair of spiny legs covering its damaged eye. Bleach-white color had engulfed the clearing, but there was a single place it hadn’t yet reached: a dark patch of forest behind the giant.

There’s your exit. Atriya knew it with bone-deep certainty.

The giant extended his right hand. Spindling crimson spilled from his fingers, enveloping his servants in red-black haze. The first ant-creature’s severed head floated up and fused onto its neck. As the spider regenerated its missing leg, its face was surrounded by miasmic shine. After it faded, Atriya saw that the eye he’d kicked was now smooth and unmarred. The second ant-thing rolled over, its wounded stomach as good as new.

Fuck it.

The Crusader sprinted for the exit. The giant snapped his right hand down and out to the side, causing a double-edged sword—around six feet in length—to blink out from his clenched fist.

As Atriya tore across the clearing, luminous dots appeared around his body. Glowing rays grew between them, connecting together into a framework of nodes. In the midst of his charge, the dots and lines resolved into radiant armor—Elven grace infused with a touch of steam-punk.

The giant swung. The Crusader crossed his arms and blocked the sword, sliding his mind-forged blades down the shaft of the weapon. He drove forward in an explosive push, shoving the giant back, then followed up with a wild pair of chops.

The giant rooted his weight, carving furrows into the earth with his booted heels. As the Crusader pressed his attack, he glimpsed his reflection off his opponent’s sword. Above Atriya’s armor—an intricate mess of alien circuitry—his head appeared as a smooth, silver-coated oval.

Time decelerated, and both men experienced a profound state of disassociation.

[I know you.] they thought simultaneously.

Atriya dashed around the giant. He arrowed toward the un-whitened tree line.

[GET HIM BEFORE—]

Too late—he’d already made it.



4



There was no more forest, just a tangled mess of shifting, changing shadows. Suddenly Atriya was—


What the hell?


—on a sloped mountain, staring up at a smog-fouled sky. Shimmering serpents coiled and gyred beneath the clouds, leaving red-and-black contrails in their wake. He looked left—up the side of a rocky incline—and found himself staring at a bubbling red peak.

He was standing on a volcano.

An electronic-sounding VMMMMMMM came from behind him. He spun around; just in time to see his pursuers emerge from a gleaming, vertical rip.

The Crusader sprinted down the slope. Lifeless white chased his heels and spilled across the ground, filling nooks and crannies with pale sterility. A dozen yards ahead, the earth rippled with a horde of flesh-sheened bulges. As they popped open, alabaster arms erupted from their centers.

Great, he thought, reversing direction and running up the slope. Disembodied hands, flying serpents…what’s next? The volcano’s lava-speckled mouth grew large in his vision.

It was the only thing that hadn’t turned white.

He gritted his teeth. That’s a hell of an exit.

One of the serpents surged toward him. He fell onto his stomach as it swooped by, scraping its scimitar teeth against the back of his armor. Breathtaking pressure compressed his torso. From the corner of his vision, he saw showers of sparks spewing out from the contact. As soon as the pressure let off, he stumbled to his feet and ran for the peak. His toe caught on its lip, and he leapt into the air with a strong, powerful lunge. Glowing magma sped toward him, and then he was engulfed in—


the sky?

He plunged through a cloud and cleared it a moment later. There was nothing below—just a vast stretch of sunlit atmosphere.

A hundred feet down, another portal blazed into existence. His pursuers, now equipped with membraned wings, emerged from its center.

What now? There’s nothing I can—

His back began shaking and clinking. He tried to turn and see what it was, but—

FOOMP.

Atriya hunched forward, ducking away from a loud, violent flap. The Crusader glanced over his shoulder and saw that robotic wings had emerged from his shoulder blades; they were threaded with the same circuitry that comprised his armor. He felt viscerally connected to them—like they were an additional set of arms or legs.

Atriya flapped once, twice, and was instantly aware of the aerial ecology: a complicated mix of thermals and downdrafts, of shears and eddies. He shelled his wings around his sides, and screamed past his pursuers in a corkscrew dive.

Catch me if you can.

The thought was accompanied by instinctive delight. The unfiltered sun, the halcyon sky, the intrinsic thrill of unchecked velocity…

He couldn’t help it; his lips peeled back in a mile-wide grin.

The Crusader expanded his wings, punching them out to their full span. The effect was immediate: he shot upward, soaring high on an invisible thermal. As he burst through a cloud he scanned for an exit, swearing in frustration when he couldn’t see a—

Ah—the sun. He shaded his eyes with the flat of his hand. But how do I—

His wings tucked back. A blast of purple energy—it looked like lustrous, violet yarn—surged off their tips, hurling him forward like he’d been launched from a slingshot. Dazzling light flooded his vision.

At that moment, he realized that as long as he could move, he could will himself to an exit.

Then everything went—


—diamonds. A rain of diamonds was hitting the earth.

The sky was purple. The clouds were emblazoned with rich, violent orange. He looked hundreds of feet over the edge of a cliff, and stared dumbly at a red-lined fissure.

Jupiter, he thought dazedly. I’m on Jupiter. Another piece of knowledge that he couldn’t verify, yet was somehow sure of.

His pursuers emerged from a portal on his left. Without stopping to consider the why or the how, the Crusader made a scooping motion with both arms. A scatter of diamonds flew toward him, plastering his body in gemstone armor.

The giant leveled his sword and projected a brilliant white ray at the Crusader’s chest. It refracted off the front of his jeweled breastplate, painting the air with dancing hues.

[Rush him!] the giant ordered. [Rush him before—]

I can WILL myself to an exit.

There was a sound like cracking glass. Black lines ran across Atriya, dividing his being into a grid of thimble-sized squares. They started folding and stacking, leaving nothing behind but empty air. The insects charged him, and then—


—he was in a bright, pastel farmland. He was able to move left and right, but not forward or backward.

A child’s giggle rang through the air, shaking his mind with the force of a bomb. He clapped his hands over his ears, trying in vain to block out the noise.

When his pursuers materialized (he dimly noted that the edges of their bodies were crayon-rough), he grasped his hair with both hands. He pulled as hard as he could, and this time he did go forward—

that can’t happen; forward is an impossible direction here

—and peeled himself right off the page, right into—


—his bed. He sat up and gasped, his body damp with pooling sweat.

A creak sounded from the settling walls, eliciting a yelp from the bewildered Crusader. He scrambled up and assumed a fighting stance.

After nearly a minute he lowered his hands, feeling like a complete and utter moron.

Atriya hopped in the shower, toweled off, then slid onto a narrow patch of bed that hadn’t been soaked in cooling perspiration.

He stared at the ceiling and tried to fall asleep.

Eventually, night became day.



5



Atriya’s view on psionics was flavored by personal experience. Two instances, specifically: when he’d deflected a bullet through the use of a force field, and when Verus had used kaia to heal a cut in his side. Enthimy’s classes were a far cry from what he expected. Or wanted.

The next day he shuffled into the Meadow, a sloped clearing on the western edge of Mandala City. Students were sitting on log benches, evenly spaced along the grassy decline. They were facing towards a stone dais—roughly fifty yards long and twenty yards wide—built into the lower part of the clearing. Trees and columns lined the rear of the dais; it could have easily doubled as an outdoor theater. Twelve people—six men and six women—dressed in richly colored robes were standing before it, hands cupped before their waists.

Enthimy walked onstage and muttered a word, causing a flash of light to run across her lips. Her psi-augmented voice boomed loudly through the air:

“Seekers of Mandala. You honor me with your presence.” She extended her right hand, palm up. Swirling colors erupted from her fingers.

An appreciative murmur rippled through the students.

“Light-instantiation.” She made a fist and the colors vanished. “Over the course of these classes, you will learn sacred abilities—powers that are antithetical to the Regent’s existence. Keep in mind that your training has a purpose; you are all warriors who have chosen to serve the light.” She canvassed the audience with a steely gaze.

Then she smiled.

“Good. Let’s get started.”



They began with Shifting. According to Enthimy, if humans were able to Shift their senses—if they could sense the hidden wonder woven throughout reality—then all conflict would instantly cease.

Horseshit, Atriya thought. The Regent could Shift, yet he’d still seen fit to engineer a war.

After she ran them through a basic drill, she instructed the students to practice by themselves. If they needed assistance, a senior adept—one of the figures dressed in robes—would provide them with guidance.

Instead of participating, Atriya sat on his log and watched the others. Ten minutes later, a shadow drew across his face and eclipsed the sun. It was one of Enthimy’s cadre: a portly man in his mid-forties.

“Hello. I’m Mendax.” He offered his hand.

Atriya stood up and shook it. “Atriya.”

“Want some help?”

Atriya shrugged. “Sure.”

He sat back down and Mendax walked him through the drill: unfocus the gaze, soften the thoughts…

“Hey!” Atriya exclaimed. “Everything’s starting to…it’s starting to…”

His vision was flooded by rainbow haze. Arcs of color snaked and spindled, etching intricate twists across his sight.

He flexed his will, broke free of the Shift, and looked up at Mendax.

“Done. What’s next?”

The older Seeker was studying him intently; his eyes were ticking back and forth across Atriya’s face.

What?” Atriya demanded, irked by the scrutiny.

“Sorry.” Mendax gave him a bashful grin. “Nailing it on your first try is…well, it’s unusual, to say the least. Very impressive.”

Atriya relaxed. “I’ve done it before…only on accident, though. Probably makes it easier, right?”

Mendax shook his head. “Everyone experiences involuntary Shifts. Doing it on command is something entirely different. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were trained.”

“I’m not,” Atriya replied. Then his expression turned speculative. “You know the sunspots behind your eyelids? The ones that are always there? Just now they morphed into the…the…” he waved vaguely at the air, “the patterns.”

Mendax smiled and nodded knowingly. “Like you said: they’re always there. You simply weren’t aware of how to perceive their presence.”



6



The following morning, Mendax ran him through some basic terminology.

Instantiation was a catch-all word that roughly translated into “solidifying one’s consciousness.” It also referred to the act of summoning a psionic construct. De-instantiation was the act of detaching from one’s body, or letting a construct fade into nothingness. De-localizing had a similar meaning; it was the act of staying tethered to your body but loosening your attachment to it, typically for the purposes of mind-to-mind communication. Projecting and emoting referred to telepathic dialogue, and were used in place of verbs like say, speak, or talk. Communiqué described a telepathic message.

The next topic was psionic boundaries. “Mandala is protected by a psychic interference net,” Mendax said, “one that muffles our thoughts from external eavesdroppers. If you ever venture outside the city, be careful with your psyche—you never know who might be listening.”

“Do you ever make contact with people on the surface?” Atriya asked. “If there’s an interference net in place, then—”

“Our Scouts are stationed across the surface. Our techs will check on them to make sure they’re safe, but they have special training; city-to-surface comms require a delicate touch.”

The lesson continued. According to Mendax, the Mindscape—a disincarnate plane accessible to de-instantiated psyches—was home to a variety of entities that ranged from sly to dangerous. If you lost your way inside the Mindscape, Mendax warned, a headful of nightmares would be the least of your worries. The less fortunate would be psychically eviscerated, and spend the rest of their lives as drooling vegetables.

That’s it! Atriya thought excitedly. It wasn’t just a dream—it was a real place!

“It’s off limits,” Mendax concluded. “The Seer is the only one of us who could protect you from immaterial harm. But even so, conducting an astral rescue would be a waste of Her energy. Her kaia powers Mandala’s clockwork, and shouldn’t be squandered on careless wanderers.”

With this last bit of advice, class came to an end. Atriya thanked Mendax for his time, then got up and left.



Enthimy strode aggressively across the dais, her eyes blazing with fanatical light.

“Make no mistake, Seekers—we are warriors!”

Rows of students straightened on their logs. Atriya studied them from the corners of his eyes, trying not to laugh. Over the past three weeks, it had become painfully clear to him they were soft and untested.

Sheep. Prey.

Not that he was any better—during his time in Mandala, he’d become visibly pudgy. It wasn’t just his body, but his mind as well. He’d adopted a daily habit of sleeping in, and spent most of his afternoons wandering aimlessly through the city. Enthimy’s classes were a welcome distraction from the day-to-day torpor, but lately, he was beginning to find them repetitive and tiresome.

Enthimy finished her wince-inducing speech, then went over her lesson plan. Shifting, light-instantiation, de-localization…once again, she ran them through the basics.

When it was time to practice, the Crusader paired up with a Seeker named Skyfen. After they went through a couple of drills, Atriya brought up his most recent attempt to relieve himself of boredom.

“Last night, I broke free of my body. Thing was, I couldn’t leave Mandala or look above the falls.”

“The interference net doesn’t just scramble psychic communications,” Skyfen said, “it also puts limits on disembodied travel.” He cocked his head, puzzled. “Why would you try to leave Mandala? Aren’t you satisfied with what they’re teaching us?”

The Crusader made a dismissive noise. “I’ve used psionics in combat. I’m not interested in flashy parlor tricks.”

The Seeker’s eyes widened in shock, then narrowed in disapproval. “We’re not here to fight, Atriya.”

Atriya disguised a scoff by clearing his throat. “We can explore the Mindscape, but we’re forcibly prevented from observing the surface. Does that make any sense to you?”


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