Chapter One Hundred Eleven: The Battle for Prospit

Next to a giant glowing lotus, Cruz stood in a stone chamber deep within the Frog Temple, watching Tami and Anna share an intimate moment.

"You helped me appreciate the present moment enough to pick one and stick with it," Anna confessed, giving Tami's hand a gentle squeeze. "Adam's sister was right. You've got moxie."

"Nice," murmured Cruz, enjoying himself in the peanut gallery. "What a quotable quote." He instinctively reached behind his ear for a joint, but there was no joint. He was done with cannabis. And even if he wasn't done with cannabis, which he definitely was, he didn't have a way to light his joint.

His hypothetical joint. He did not actually have a joint. Right?

Cruz checked his pockets.

Anna kissed Tami on the cheek.

From one of his back pockets, Cruz produced a rumpled joint. "How about that?"

Leaving Tami flushed and flustered, Anna walked swiftly past Cruz and hopped into the glowing lotus flower, which promptly closed its petals around her and shrank down to nothing, vanishing without a sound.

A dormant computer panel embedded within the empty lotus pedestal came humming to life, displaying a digital second-by-second countdown of four hundred thirteen million years.

"And you really suck at goodbyes," said Tami, touching her cheek.

"Um." Cruz stared at the empty space where Anna and the lotus had just been. "Is she just…chilling in there?" Watching the digital countdown flip to 412,999,999 years, 164 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds made Cruz feel dizzy and weak-kneed. "Did she go back home? I'd love to go back home."

"You think she ever tells me her plans?" Tami shook her head. "I think she makes most of it up as she goes along. It's remarkable she hasn't broken reality yet."

Cruz ran his hands across the uneven stone surface of the chamber walls. "To be fair, I'm still reeling a bit from watching a funky slime machine pop our baby selves into existence. You know?"

"Yes, I remember it like it was ten minutes ago," muttered Tami. "Because it was ten minutes ago."

"My abuelita was born barely a minute before me." Cruz placed the rumpled joint behind his ear for safekeeping. "She isn't even my abuelita. She's my mom. And Anna's my sister."

"Okay," Tami started to say, but Cruz kept on going.

"It hasn't sunk in for you yet?" A giggle burst from deep within Cruz's throat. "Genetically speaking, Adam is your brother."

"Yeah, no." Tami took a deep breath. "My brain has been fried enough for today, okay? If we can go the rest of our lives without ever again referencing that fucky asswards ectobiological time-loop bullshit we just pulled, then maybe, just maybe, I'll manage to die happy."

"Fine." Cruz shrugged. "If you don't like timey-wimey hijinks, I'm sure you'll enjoy dating a time traveler."

Tami's cheeks turned angry red.

Cruz rolled his eyes. "Was I supposed to magically not notice Anna kissing you? I remember it like it was a minute ago."

Tami glared daggers at Cruz, but turned away without a word and made for the stone stairs.

"Aw, hey, Tam, c'mon." Cruz hurried after Tami, reaching the stairs first and speaking quickly to hold her attention. "Look, I know you're mad at me for dumping you, and you have every right to be. We had a fun thing going, and I ruined it. I got scared and existential and I have no idea what I'm doing. I'm sorry. You're one of my best friends. That means more to me than anything. Maybe romance wasn't a great idea, all things considered."

Tami stopped descending the stairs and glared at Cruz again, but this time the glare softened a bit.

"Are we…okay?" probed Cruz.

Tami shrugged. "We're both hot. And lonely. The world ended, and we both survived. I guess it never needed to be more than that."

"I guess not," agreed Cruz. "Parts of it were fun, though."

"Sure, maybe there's casual sex in our future, but for now? Let's see if we survive." Tami resumed walking down the stairs. "Anna told us to go to Prospit. Couldn't you teleport us there?"

"I mean, I guess I could, but…" Cruz winced, following Tami downstairs. "It's scary. Like, even though I rematerialize every time, I never really know for sure it'll happen until it happens. Adding another person into the mix wouldn't be a good idea."

"Sounds like a mental block to me," remarked Tami. "You should keep practicing."

"Are you volunteering to be my test subject?"

"Fuck no." Tami sniffed. "Practice on Adam first. Better yet, practice on Gino. As many times as you want."

Arriving at the bottom of the stairs, Tami and Cruz found themselves in a deeper chamber with two side-by-side circular stone transportalizer platforms, one purple and the other violet, embedded into the center of the floor.

"I haven't heard from Gino in a while." Cruz frowned at the pair of stone transportalizers. "Hope he's doing okay. Have you heard from him?"

Tami scowled. "Why the everlasting fuck would I be talking to that walking pile of shit?"

"I mean, I get why you hate his guts, but doesn't it get tiring?" asked Cruz. "You dumped him more than a year ago."

"So what? They're my grudges. I'll hold onto them as long as I want."

"While falling in love with the person he cheated on you with," observed Cruz. "How's that for irony?"

Murder gleamed in Tami's eyes. "I am not falling in love with her."

"Sure, that was a purely casual platonic kiss," retorted Cruz.

"Nope. Not having this conversation, and certainly not with you." Tami walked up to the twin transportalizers in the center of the chamber. "Shall we?"

Before Cruz could reply, Tami stepped onto the golden portal to Prospit and vanished in a flash of light.

Cruz followed, holding his breath as the transportalizer broke him down into molecules and atoms. There was no need to hold his breath, of course, since the very air in his lungs was also taken apart, but it comforted Cruz to pretend otherwise as he was reassembled.

Releasing his breath, Cruz looked around the interior of what appeared to be a small shrine. Daylight shone weakly into the room through open rough-hewn windows, illuminating eight colorful frescoes decorating the shrine's interior walls. Each fresco depicted a giant robed frog performing various divine tasks: bringing light into a vast darkness, belching stars into existence, shaping planets with webbed hands and arranging them into solar systems, seeding oceans and barren wastelands with fish and forests, and more.

Cruz frowned at a more abstract fresco showing rays of light emanating from where a giant frog touched the top of a humanoid creature's head. Was the frog offering the gift of sentience? Or a scalp massage?

An explosion in the near distance dislodged a layer of dust from the stone ceiling, wrenching Cruz's attention away from the frescos. He walked over to where Tami stood by the nearest window, and together they watched Prospit burn.

Columns of smoke, dark and massive, roiled from unseen fires into the sky, where Skaia shined weak and diffused behind a thickening veil of soot and ash. As Cruz and Tami watched, several troop transports pierced through the clouds, landing in the cleared streets to deploy groups of Dersite soldiers and commandos.

Cruz struggled to process what he saw. "What the fuck is going on?"

"An invasion." Tami rolled her eyes. "For me, it was the invasion which gave it away."

A searing missile of blinding white light roared suddenly down from the dark sky, slamming into an unfortunate part of the city not too far away. Tremors shuddered underfoot. When the shockwave arrived a split-second later, several nearby windows shattered.

Cruz instinctively ducked behind the window, earning an amused glance from Tami.

"If that kind of firepower hits us, do you really think ducking is going to matter?" she asked, watching a squad of Dersite soldiers approaching the frog shrine from outside.

"I don't understand." Cruz picked himself up from the floor. "This shouldn't be happening! Isn't it, like, against the rules or something? For Derse or Prospit to attack each other directly like this?"

The nearby Dersite dropships landed less than a hundred yards away from the frog shrine. More than a dozen heavily armed soldiers emerged from the back of each aircraft. While the sergeants quickly organized their subordinates into squads and fireteams, the dropships departed, flying rapidly away and vanishing into the chaotic display of lights and explosions churning across the sky.

"Against the rules?" Tami sniffed, watching with dissatisfaction as a group of the newly-landed Dersite soldiers began making their way straight towards the frog shrine. "Whose rules? I don't see anyone here to enforce any rules."

"What the fuck do we do?" Cruz touched the rumpled joint behind his ear, tempted to smoke it. Anything to take the edge off his panic. "I don't know how to fight."

"How did you survive your planet's underlings?" asked Tami, retrieving a compound bow from her sylladex and stepping back from the window, closely watching the approaching Dersite soldiers, who had not yet spotted her.

"I just got stoned with them and they chilled out," replied Cruz. "I never needed to fight them."

Tami frowned at Cruz. "How is that sustainable? Do you have a magical weed vault which never goes empty?"

"No, fucking Jack Noir showed up and murdered me before I ran out," said Cruz. "I was only there for a few days."

Tami nocked an arrow, glancing over at the entrance doors to make sure they were locked. "Did you even get a chance to meet your consorts?"

"They tried to kill me." Cruz ran a quick mental inventory of what he kept in his sylladex, wishing he possessed a weapon which could help him, but he already knew he didn't keep anything like that. No guns, no blades. Nothing useful. "They were fighting a civil war. I died before I could find out more."

"Well, unless you want to die again, teleport us to Adam's dream tower." Tami slowly drew back her bowstring, taking aim at a Dersite sergeant giving orders to the other soldiers. "Preferably before our friends outside break the door down."

"But Adam isn't here anymore."

"Less talking," shushed Tami. "More teleporting."

The Dersite soldiers outside were less than fifty feet away, but they still had not yet spotted Cruz or Tami inside the frog shrine. One of them called out movement and several Dersites took aim in the indicated direction, opening fire at a Prospitian civilian who had broken cover to scramble across a nearby street.

"Fucking hell." Cruz watched the unlucky Prospitian stumble and fall. "Gimme a sec."

"Really?" Tami loosed an arrow at the leading Dersite soldier, who cried out and fell as the arrow pierced through one of his thighs. "One second?" She ducked before the Dersites returned fire, avoiding the angry barrage of energy bolts which nearly demolished the window frame. "That's seven seconds. Are you waiting to grow old first?"

Cruz breathed in deeply and closed his eyes, doing his best to ignore the shooting. And Tami's barbs. After a few moments, his mind went quiet.

Someone kicked at the shrine's entrance doors from outside, but the doors held firm.

"Cruz? Old buddy, old pal?" prodded Tami, nocking another arrow. "Now would be a really good time."

Ignoring Tami, Cruz took another deep breath. He knew where he was and where he wanted to be, but transforming one into the other required effort. It was an unfinished puzzle in his mind whose pieces needed to be rearranged into their proper alignment. Throwing Tami into the mix meant he now needed to solve two puzzles at the same time, and it required more focus.

The frog shrine's entrance doors exploded suddenly inward, destroyed by small breaching charges planted from outside. Heat warmed Cruz's face, and he winced prematurely, waiting to be struck by debris, but none came. His physical form unraveled into existential mist, floating for an infinite moment as an intangible collection of disembodied thoughts, emotions, and memories held together only by the gentle grip of his own desire to remain held together. How fragile it seemed. What would happen, Cruz wondered, if he allowed his mind to wander? If, even for an instant, he stopped focusing on holding himself together, would all the fragments and facets of his mind disperse and never reunite?

Cruz shuddered, opening his eyes to a view of what appeared to be Adam Tarrant's bedroom. It had the same layout as Adam's bedroom, the same furniture, and the same items, but everything existed in various shades of red. This was the bedroom of Adam's dream self, tucked away within the top of one of the Golden Moon's four massive dream towers.

"That was fucking weird." Tami stared at her hands, opening and closing them, touching various parts of her face and body to make sure she was actually solid. "That didn't feel like a transportalizer at all." Satisfied that her physical form would continue to hold itself together, she relaxed a bit and looked around at her new surroundings. "You did it, though. Good job. I'm proud of you."

"Thanks." Cruz took several more deep breaths to calm down. "See what I mean, though? It's scary."

Tami nodded. "Transportalizers feel like getting pulled into a whirlpool, but this? No whirlpool. No magnetism. No force pulling us to the destination. Which made it feel like there was no guarantee of reaching the destination."

Cruz frowned at Dream Adam's empty bed. "So. You shushed me when I tried to tell you, but Adam's dream self isn't here anymore. He fucked off to the Battlefield a while ago, remember? I haven't seen him since."

"Right. All that feels like a lifetime ago." Tami sat on the edge of Dream Adam's bed. "Why the fuck would Anna tell us to look for Adam here if he's gone?"

"She probably didn't know." Cruz looked out the nearest window, staring up at Prospit looming high above. Normally, even all the way from the Golden Moon without the aid of a telescope or binoculars, Cruz would have been able make out broad details like the layout of Prospit's streets, but today the surface of Prospit lay obscured beneath a hazy veil of smoke, soot, and ash which grew more opaque with each passing minute. "She never spent much time here."

"Fair enough," conceded Tami. "Why not teleport Adam here?"

Cruz blinked. "Just like that?"

"Are you the Sage of Space or aren't you?"

"I have no idea where he is!" protested Cruz. "I can't teleport people I can't see."

"Go and get him, then. I'll wait right here and keep the room warm."

Muttering under his breath, Cruz sat at Adam's desk and closed his eyes. Once again, he settled into the stillness at the core of his mind and knew exactly where he was, but he did not know where he should go. Well, perhaps that was not entirely true. He wanted to go to Adam, but where was Adam?

As Cruz focused on Adam as a destination, he once again slipped away into the unsettling disembodied experience of teleportation. Tami and the red dream bedroom dissolved around him into nothingness. He waited to rematerialize, but nothing happened. He frowned.

Did he really frown? Cruz had no form. No face. No body. No muscles to frown with. And yet, still he frowned. Was it just the idea of a frown? Or the memory of frowning?

Why hadn't Cruz rematerialized yet? Surely he should have arrived at a destination by now.

Then, much to his horror, Cruz felt himself beginning to fragment.

His own desire to reach Adam had generated a momentum which was pulling half of Cruz's essence one way, and half the other way. Shocked, Cruz realized that he could sense the minds of two different Adams, and he was being pulled towards both at the same time. One of the Adams felt like a choppy ocean, churning with agitation and simmering with irritation; the other was a tranquil sea on a windless day, calm enough for Cruz to see his own reflection in the water.

The instant Cruz chose the more peaceful Adam, he materialized inside an olive drab tent.

Sighing with profound relief upon the realization that he had not lost half of himself, Cruz peered through the crack between the tent's entrance flaps, and he saw Prospitian soldiers walking down the open path of space between two adjacent sections of tents. He quickly closed the tent flap and backed away before any of the Prospitians could notice him, satisfied that he had not been seen.

Cruz looked down at the bedroll where Dream Adam, fast asleep in his bright yellow Prospitian pajamas, lay curled around a bunched-up quilt. "No wonder you're the one who felt so chill." He crouched down and picked up his friend, slinging Adam effortlessly over his shoulder. "You're asleep."

Dream Adam did not wake up. He was about as heavy as a pillow.

"Okay." Taking another deep breath, Cruz closed his eyes and held tightly onto Dream Adam, focusing on returning to Tami as he rearranged space once again. This time, he rematerialized without incident and found himself standing back in Dream Adam's bedroom.

Tami remained hunched over one of the windowsills, watching the clouds of smoke thicken over Prospit high in the sky above. "Did you stop for coffee on the way?"

"I almost got ripped in half." Cruz deposited Dream Adam onto his maroon quilted bed. "There wasn't any time to think. I had to choose between Adam and his dream self and I couldn't figure out which was which."

Tami looked away from her window and saw that Adam was sound asleep. "You didn't wake him up?"

"Adam would freak out if I teleported him while he was awake." Cruz jostled Adam's shoulders, but to no effect. "Every time we watch Star Trek, he gets existential over whether the transporter actually transports a person or if it just destroys a person and creates an exact copy in another location. That copy might have your memories, but is it still really you?"

"Okay, Aristotle." Tami rolled her eyes again. "Wake him up."

Cruz leaned down and spoke softly into Adam's ears, "Hey, time to wake up." He jostled Adam's shoulder again. "C'mon, buddy." He tapped the center of Adam's forehead several times. "Anyone home?"

"Oh, let me." Tami seized Adam's shoulders and shook him vigorously, screaming "WAKE UP! WAKE THE FUCK UP!" directly into his ear.

Adam's eyelids twitched, but he remained stubbornly asleep.

"There!" Tami pointed. "You see? His eyelids moved. He had to have heard that. ADAM! WAKE UP, YOU SLEEPY FUCK!"

Again, Adam's eyelids fluttered, but still he slept.

"You take a turn." Tami stepped back, clearing her throat and retrieving some water from her sylladex. "I haven't shouted like that in a while. We should take turns."

Cruz picked up a pillow and whacked Adam in the face with it. "C'mon, bro. Wake up."

"Why're you using your inside voice?" Tami paused to gulp down some water. "Let him have it! Scream!"

"ARRRHGH!" roared Cruz.

"What are you, a pirate?" Tami took another swig of water. "Don't pirate at me. Pirate at him."

"ARRR-ghg—hg-" Mid-scream, Cruz broke down into a fit of coughing. "Can I have some of that water?"

Tami passed over the water bottle and climbed onto the bed, grabbing Adam by the upper arms and heaving him up and down, smacking him against the quilts and mattress. "WAKE UP!" She released Adam, drew back her hand, and slapped him across the face.

Adam's mouth twitched and his eyelids cracked open for a moment before closing again.

"Oh, no you don't!" Tami slapped Dream Adam again. "WAKE UP! WAKE THE FUCK UP!"

Adam's eyes finally opened all the way.

"Took you long enough," grunted Tami, hopping off the bed and shaking out her hand.

"What the shit?" Adam lifted his head, massaging one side of his face. "How am I back on Prospit? And why does my face feel tenderized?"

"Don't worry about it," replied Tami. "We need to leave right now."

"Sorry for the rude wakeup." Cruz grabbed Adam under the shoulders and hauled him out of bed, pulling him weightlessly towards the nearest window. "Things have gone a bit crazy and we could use your help."

"Um." Adam swallowed, looking through the window for the first time at the chaos unfolding in the sky above. "Why is Prospit on fire?"

"Let's go!" exclaimed Tami, jumping through the window and flying off. Cruz and Adam both followed, soaring into the lunar sky towards Prospit in the distance.

"Okay, seriously, what the fuck happened?" asked Adam, bewildered by the sight of Prospit in flames. "Why is Prospit dressed in an apocalypse costume?"

"Derse happened," replied Cruz. "They're bombing the fuck out of everything and landing strike forces all over the city."

"Is the White Queen okay?" asked Adam, squinting as his hair kept getting in his eyes.

Tami rolled her eyes. "Yeah, she's gone to the spa for a massage while her home burns down."

"If she isn't dead yet, she will be soon if we don't hurry up," added Cruz. "We need your firepower."

The distant red hull lights of a Dersite naval battlegroup came slowly into view as Tami, Cruz, and Adam flew deeper into the sky-space between Prospit and the Golden Moon. The battlegroup consisted of seven ships; two battleships surrounded by five smaller destroyers. In unison, both battleships fired from their starboard batteries a blistering barrage of torpedoes into the dark clouds obscuring the sky over the Garden District of Prospit. Flashes of intense orange light flared up from underneath the thick veil of smoke as the torpedoes detonated.

"Where the fuck is the Home Fleet? There should be a lot more Prospitian firepower in the area," observed Adam. "How could any of these Dersite ships have gotten all the way here without showing up on radar? Don't tell me every fucking radar on Prospit decided to stop working."

"Anyone else smell a rat?" surmised Tami, slowing to a halt as more Dersite battleships came into view.

Another salvo of torpedoes whooshed over Tami, Cruz, and Adam from behind, arcing forward towards the nearby septet of Dersite ships. The impact was quick and spectacular. Ellipsoidal energy shields shimmered in a sparkling display of lights around both of the larger battleships, absorbing the initial impacts. But then, as the last torpedoes struck, one of the battleships' energy shields flickered and failed, leaving the heavy Dersite vessel exposed to further attack.

Cruz looked back towards the Golden Moon, barely spotting the faint glow of blue hull lights in the distant dark.

"Holy fucking fuck!" raved Adam as the unshielded battleship exploded in a fiery display while the other battleship's shield sputtered out. "Where did that come from?!"

The five smaller Dersite destroyers aligned themselves in a new defensive formation, unleashing their own volley of energy torpedoes at the new attackers. The missiles of bright white light streaked across the void towards the distant group of hull lights and detonated, causing the targeted vessels' energy shields to flare up.

"Must be elements of the Prospitian Home Fleet," observed Cruz, trying to make out more details of the distant ships. "Maybe they're regrouping?"

"And we're caught in the crossfire. If those battlegroups launch fighters at each other, we'll get shredded," said Tami. "Enough fucking around, Cruz. Teleport us to the Golden Keep."

"Teleport?" squeaked Adam. "Did you say teleport?"

"All three of us?" Cruz shook his head. "Do you think I'm Chief O'Brien in the fucking transporter room? Do you think I can just "set quantity to three" and hit the teleport button in my mind?"

"This is a joke, right?" Adam gulped. "Right? Cruz? Buddy? Have you at least tested it? A few hundred times? Before using it on me?"

With only a small, brief flash of light to serve as a warning, the distant Prospitian warships opened fire once again, launching a third barrage of half a dozen energy torpedoes towards the Dersite naval formation orbiting over Prospit's Garden District. This time, one of the torpedoes passed close enough for Tami, Adam, and Cruz to smell ozone and feel some of the residual heat.

"Okay, fine. I'll try. But I won't put us in the Golden Keep," insisted Cruz. "The Dersites could be storming it as we speak. Would you want to rematerialize in someone's line of fire?"

"Just get us as close as you can," said Tami. "And make it snappy."

Four of the six torpedoes ripped through the unshielded hull of the second Dersite battleship, causing it to list severely. Small conflagrations appeared at random points all across the hull for a moment before the entire battleship disappeared in a sudden blinding explosion of fire and molten metal debris.

"Fucking hell." Cruz closed his eyes. "This is not a healthy way to learn." Breathing deeply, settling into the calm stillness at his core, he added, "It's your fault if some of your atoms get misplaced. Or if you reappear with your hands on backwards. Your fault."

"Well fuck, dude, don't say that," muttered Adam, clenching his hands into fists, releasing them, and shaking the body horror vibes out of his arms. "If you scramble me up, I'll steal that joint from behind your ear and smoke it without you."

"Okay. You? Shush," Tami said to Adam, glancing nervously at her own hands before turning to Cruz. "You? TELEPORT."

"I'm trying." Cruz took another breath, his frown deepening as he tried to connect with both Tami and Adam at the same time while accounting for his own shifting math. "It's like trying to solve three puzzles simultaneously while all the pieces are constantly moving around. When two are nearly solved, the third falls apart and I have to start over."

"Take my hand." Tami grabbed one of Cruz's hands, motioning for Adam to do the same. "You too."

Adam reluctantly took Cruz's other hand, closing his eyes and steeling himself for teleportation. "I better still be me on the other side of this. If I get destroyed and-"

"-and replaced by a copy with your memories, you'll flip every table in existence and tell us you told us so," Tami finished for Adam. "We get it. Now take my fucking hand."

Muttering under his breath, Adam joined hands with Tami, completing the circle.

"We're part of you now." Tami squeezed Cruz's hand. "Teleport us as if you were teleporting yourself."

"How about that?" Cruz could feel the shifting math of his position in space merging with Tami and Adam's math into a single, simpler, overarching equation. Just as he realized the equation was already solved, Cruz rearranged space, and the three friends reappeared on a deserted, pulverized street in what had once been a beautiful Prospitian neighborhood.

Acrid air filled Cruz's nose, mouth, and lungs, and he coughed loudly. Dense clouds of smoke choked the sky, completely blocking out the light of Skaia, illuminated with a hellish red glow from thousands of fires burning across the city underneath. Looking around, Cruz realized a salvo of torpedoes must have shredded this neighborhood from orbit earlier; at least half of the rowhomes on this block were half-destroyed, with several houses still on fire.

Screams could be heard in the near distance, along with the subdued roaring hiss of thousands of energy rifles being discharged all at once.

Wrinkling her nose, Tami let go of Adam and Cruz's hands, quickly checking to make sure her own hands and feet all faced the right way.

Adam released the breath he had been holding, releasing his grip on Cruz's other hand. "That felt all kinds of weird. Zero stars out of five. Would not recommend to a friend."

Cruz frowned at Adam. "Getting you here intact without losing any of your atoms along the way doesn't even get me one star?"

"That's fair." Adam nodded. "One star out of a hundred. Still would not recommend."

"Where are we?" asked Tami. "Are we close?"

Cruz nodded. "We're in the Garden District. I used to take walks around here in my dreams when I was a kid. We're just off the Grand Boulevard, only a few blocks away from the Golden Keep." He led the way down the little street towards the sound of nearby combat. "The Garden District is full of cozy little tucked-away neighborhoods like this. They're really beautiful when they aren't on fire."

"Seems deserted," observed Tami, peering through several ground-floor windows and seeing no signs of life within. She and Adam followed Cruz around the next corner, straight into a fireteam of five surprised Dersite commandos.

The commandos stared at Tami, Cruz, and Adam for a moment. Then, almost hearing a pin drop, both groups flew into action – the commandos bringing their weapons to bear while Cruz flung himself to the ground and Tami retrieved her compound bow.

"Weapons free!" shouted the sergeant in charge of the commando fireteam, taking aim with his rifle.

Before they could open fire, all five commandos flew suddenly to one side, whisked off their feet by an invisible force and dashed against the stone front wall of the nearest house. Energy rifles clattering onto the cobblestone ground, each of the commandos crumpled onto the cobblestones and did not get back up.

By the time Tami nocked an arrow, it was all over. "Not bad," she remarked, putting away her bow.

The sounds of weapons discharge grew louder.

"We need to get above this mess." Tami began to levitate, rising several feet off the ground. "The streets are too dangerous."

"Not too high," cautioned Adam, rising into the air alongside Cruz. "Commandos are good shots. If they see us, they'll try to snipe us."

"We'll hug the rooftops," clarified Tami. "Let's go."

"Let's get a look at the area, first," suggested Cruz, ascending beyond the rooftops to see what was happening in the direction of the nearby sounds of combat. "Flying in blind is asking for trouble."

Less than half a mile away, the turrets and spires of the White Queen's citadel loomed over the surrounding rooftops. One of those turrets had already collapsed, and flames had engulfed three more. From the ramparts, Prospitian soldiers lobbed grenades and fired desperately through the crenellations at an unseen Dersite assault force massed below.

"Holy fuck, we're out of time," swore Tami. "They've surrounded-"

"Wait a sec," interrupted Adam, earning a frown from Tami. Unfazed, he pointed in the near-opposite direction away from the Golden Keep towards the action unfolding in the Grand Boulevard nearly a mile away. "What's going on over there?"

The Grand Boulevard, starting at the Golden Keep's shattered gates and stretching away into the distant skyline of downtown Prospit, had transformed from an idyllic promenade into a living hell. Not far from Cruz's observation point, a rearguard force of approximately fifty Dersite commandos had formed an impromptu defensive line from one side of the broad thoroughfare to the other, blocking a company of Prospitian royal marines from reinforcing the Golden Keep. The Prospitians advanced slowly, supported by sharpshooters and machine gun nests laying down suppressing fire from the windows and rooftops of buildings lining both sides of the Boulevard.

Whether pinned down in side alleys, hunkered behind the burnt-out husks of overturned vehicles, or huddled within makeshift artillery crater foxholes gouged into the cobblestone boulevard by the orbital bombardment; the Dersites clung bitterly to their position despite the withering storm of Prospitian firepower hell-bent on dislodging them.

"They're pinned like butterflies," remarked Cruz.

"Pinned like butterflies?" echoed Adam. "That's not a real colloquialism."

"Yeah it is," insisted Cruz. "You know, like butterflies pinned in one of those fucked up corkboard-and-glass butterfly corpse collections?"

"If we're declaring open season on new colloquialisms, two can play at this game." In a terrible southern accent which somehow shifted in dialect from silky Virginia to drawling Texas before ending up somewhere in the twangy Appalachians, Adam declared, "Them Dersites down there're hedged up tighter than a baby in a well-fed baby-eatin' cannibal's belly."

"Bruh." Cruz stared at Adam, justifiably bewildered. "What is it with you and dead babies?"

"You don't know the baby's dead," retorted Adam. "The cannibal could've swallowed it whole."

"How would the baby breathe in a cannibal's stomach?!" asked a visibly agitated Cruz.

"With great difficulty." Adam shrugged. "Did anyone ever say the baby would live for more than a few seconds?"

"Are either of you capable of taking this seriously?!" Tami floated over and placed herself between Adam and Cruz. "People are dying, and you're riffing about dead babies. It's not a good look."

"It's a defense mechanism, Tam." Cruz swallowed, holding down his most recent meal as he watched one of the Dersite commandos try to shoot back at the royal marines only to catch an energy projectile to the forehead. "This entire scenario, everything, everything about this is absurd. We can laugh or cry about it, so why not laugh?"

A blazing cluster of falling white streaks of light burst suddenly through the dense smoke clouds, arcing across the sky to strike an unfortunate neighborhood somewhere on the other side of the Golden Keep. The resulting swell of light, too bright to look at, was immediately followed by roaring thunder and a shockwave which shook the nearby rooftops and shattered nearby windows. After averting his eyes, Cruz looked back and saw a new column of smoke billowing into the sky.

"Dropships coming in," warned Adam, pointing at a trio of Dersite transports swooping down through the smoky clouds to make a hot landing in the middle of the Grand Boulevard. A large, heavily armored tank dangled from the underbelly of each dropship. "They're bringing armor."

The trio of dropships came to a halt and released their magnetic clamps, dropping the three tanks about ten feet to the cobblestones below. Meanwhile, the dropships' side hatches popped open, allowing three squads of Dersite commandos to emerge. The platoon of reinforcements jumped carefully down to the road and formed up behind the tanks.

"Armor and infantry support. Good for them," remarked Adam. "If those tanks take out the Prospitian machine gunners, it's game over. The commandos will be free to shoot back. The royal marines will have to retreat or die in droves trying to break through. Either way, they'll never reach the Golden Keep in time."

"Neither will we if we get bogged down out here," argued Tami. "The Queen needs us now. Let the royal marines do their part so we can do ours."

The three Dersite tanks, rumbling slowly down the Grand Boulevard, took careful aim with their main cannons and fired in unison. Three bright projectiles streaked over the commandos' heads and struck their targets, forever silencing three Prospitian machinegun nests. With the Prospitians' suppressing fire reduced, the beleaguered commandos hiding in cover found themselves able to break cover and shoot back at the royal marines without immediately dying.

As Prospitian royal marines began to fall, Adam muttered, "Fuck this," and took off, flying at breakneck speed towards the Grand Boulevard.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?!" howled Tami, throwing herself into rapid forward flight. "Adam!"

"Aw, hell." Cruz soared forward, struggling to catch up with Tami while also keeping Adam in sight. "Wait up!"

Adam rapidly closed the remaining distance to the Grand Boulevard and divebombed the trio of Dersite tanks. Twin jets of flame surged from both of his hands and intensified into a directed inferno, like a massive blowtorch, which consumed the three tanks and immolated several of the escorting commandos, scattering the rest.

The tanks ground to a halt and slagged to one side, their outer metal plating glowing cherry red from the intense heat. Hatches popped open from the tops of the three incinerated tanks, allowing several burning Dersites to scramble out of their metal ovens. Some collapsed outright and cooked on the charred cobblestones where they lay while others ran around like flailing torches.

A small group of Dersite commandos abandoned their posts on the front line and sprinted towards their burning comrades. Ripping off their jackets as they ran, the commandos reached the remaining handful of tank survivors and used their own uniforms to try and beat out the flames.

Cruz frowned at the fiery spectacle, wondering if Adam was being serious or trying to show off. Several commandos on the ground had already spotted Adam and were beginning to shoot at him. It was only a matter of time before-

Adam lurched suddenly, clutching his chest. His inferno sputtered away, and he began to fall from the sky.

"Idiot!" Tami screeched, furious beyond belief as she swooped underneath Adam and caught him before he hit the ground. "Dumbass shit-for-brains hormone-tsunami idiot motherfucker!" Without hesitating, Tami rocketed back the way she'd come, waving for Cruz to turn around. "Fuck off before you get shot too! How will I carry you both?!"

Flying serpentine all the way back to safety, Tami and Cruz quickly landed on the heavily damaged rooftop of a ten-story apartment building which had been grazed by the orbital bombardment.

Cruz took a seat to regain his breath, staring in shock at the blood pouring from Adam's chest wounds. "This is your department, Tam."

"Oh, sure. My department." Tami rested Adam gently onto his back. "I'll just snap my fingers and presto. Insta-heal. Like it's nothing. Have you any idea how hard it is to hear the music of someone else's soul while they're bleeding out?"

"Are you the Muse of Life or aren't you?" asked Cruz. "Heal him."

Adam tried to interject, managing only an unsettlingly wet cough which sent blood dribbling down his chin and onto his yellow pajamas.

"Didn't quite catch that. I don't speak blood." Tami laid hands on Adam's wounds and closed her eyes, struggling to quiet her mind so that she could hear the music of Adam's life force and bring proper harmony to the areas of greatest discord. "This is not a healthy way to learn."

"I won't say I told you so," remarked Cruz.

"You won't say the thing you just said?" Soft green light glowed gently around Tami's hands, resonating with similar light which began to shine from Adam's leg and chest wounds. As the bleeding stopped, the green light swelled, growing intensely bright and forcing Cruz to look away.

Adam groaned as the green light subsided, sitting up. "Ow."

"Welcome back," said Cruz.

"Idiot." Tami grabbed Adam's hand and helped him back onto his feet. "I almost got shot because of you."

"Sorry." Adam cautiously touched his own unblemished chest and felt no pain. Not even an ache. "Thanks for saving me."

"Next time you think about doing something that stupid, warn us first," admonished Tami.

"Well, did it work?" Adam walked over to the edge of the rooftop and peered down at the Grand Boulevard below, watching Dersite commandos gradually abandoning their old line of defense as the Prospitian royal marines came close enough to start lobbing grenades. "Looks like it worked."

"Yeah, and while you were busy going towards the light, I had to waste precious time bringing you back." Tami rocketed off towards the Golden Keep, setting a grueling pace for Adam and Cruz to follow. "We might be too late. The Queen could be dead by now, for all we know."

Adam glared at Tami. "Look, I said I was sorry, alright? You're a good friend. Don't blame me for that."

"I'm just saying, you could've been a lot smarter about it," said Tami. "You made yourself into such an easy target. It was idiotic."

Adam rolled his eyes. "Fine. What would you have done?"

"You're telekinetic! Use your imagination!" exclaimed Tami. "Pick up the tanks and drop them upside down. Rip the treads off the wheels. Lodge something in the main cannons before they fire, or bend the main cannons out of shape."

"Oh sure," scoffed Adam. "I'll just bend metal and perform tank gymnastics. Easy."

"What's so impossible about bending metal?" Tami led her two friends on a wide arc around several huge columns of smoke billowing up from an entire city block of burning rowhomes. "Have you ever tried?"

"Toph could bend metal," interjected Cruz. "Took her a few tries, but she managed."

Adam stared at Cruz. "Is this the Avatar universe? Do I look like a fictional character to you?"

Shrieking down from orbit, another salvo of torpedoes tore suddenly through the smoky clouds not too far ahead, passing uncomfortably close overhead, forcing Adam, Tami, and Cruz to squint.

"Eyes!" screamed Tami, altering course and closing her eyes. "Cover your-"

The torpedoes detonated somewhere behind the three friends, drowning out the rest of Tami's advice. Even through firmly closed eyelids, Cruz's vision was nearly whited out by the intense light. A swell of wind and heat blasted into him from behind, causing him to flip head over heels while flying, but he quickly recovered. He opened his eyes to the sight of Tami beginning her gradual descent and followed suit, glancing briefly to his right to make sure Adam was still there.

Adam waved to Cruz. "I'm still here."

Tami descended into the airspace over the Golden Keep, followed closely by Adam and Cruz, and the dire situation faced by the White Queen became clear.

It took Cruz a moment to process the sight of dozens of Dersite commandos pouring through the Golden Keep's shattered front gates. Hundreds more waited their turn outside, shooting at the Prospitians still clinging to their increasingly precarious position on the ramparts. One squad had already hurried across the palace compound's lawns and gardens to attach breaching charges to the sealed entrance doors of the White Queen's citadel. The commandos stacked up behind their sergeant, who detonated the charges and blasted open the doors.

Cruz blinked when he saw an energy bolt whizz by Adam's head. Several Dersites on the ground had begun to shoot at him from the Golden Keep's front lawns, and many more were now looking up and taking aim with their rifles. Staring death in the face and thinking fast, Cruz grabbed Adam's hand and reached forward to seize Tami's leg, closing his eyes as the air around him was saturated with energy bolts.

"What the… …fuck…?" Tami's voice trailed away as she realized she no longer had legs or a body, and yet she still somehow felt Cruz's grip. The burning streets of Prospit were gone, replaced by an endless gray fog in all directions through which nothing could be perceived.

Cruz tuned Tami out, devoting all focus towards his desired destination until realizing that he had already arrived in a spacious chamber filled with full-spectrum lamps, flower beds, and azalea bushes.

"Oh fuck!" Adam recoiled from Cruz, moving around his hands and fingers as if to remind himself that he had not actually lost his body. "Fucking fuck, dude, some fucking warning, next time? Please and fuck you?"

Cruz frowned at Adam. "Couldn't quite make out what you just said, but it sounded like you were trying to thank me for saving your life?"

"Um." Tami, clutching her stomach, face contorted with pain, managed only a single step before collapsing face-first, and into the floor she declared in a muffled voice, "I'm gonna need a sec."

In a flash, Cruz was kneeling at Tami's side, rolling her onto her back and wincing at all the blood. "Tam?"

"Will you… calm down?" mumbled Tami, clasping tightly with both hands the wound in her stomach and closing her eyes. "Stop distracting me."

Cruz shook his head. "We need to disinfect-"

"She's working." Adam took Cruz by the arm and gently ushered him a few steps away from Tami. "Let her work."

Soft green light glowed from Tami's stomach wound, intensifying gradually and spreading across the rest of her body. Her muscles and skin knitted themselves back together until the bleeding stopped and it looked as if she had never been wounded at all. The emerald light of Life faded mostly away, but a faint shimmer lingered over Tami at the edges of sight, like a barely visible aura, and she sat up.

"Are you okay?" asked Cruz.

"Peachy." Tami stood and dusted herself off, looking around at the azaleas and apple trees. The windows offered a decidedly less appetizing view of the smoking ruins of the Garden District surrounding the Golden Keep. "What's all this?"

"I had to pick a place before we got shot and this was the first that came to mind," replied Cruz, heading for the exit. "We're at the top of the Golden Keep's tallest tower. You've never been up here?"

Tami shook her head. "Nope."

"It's the White Queen's arboretum. This is actually where I first met her when I was a kid." Cruz pointed to the largest azalea bush in the arboretum, which sported beautiful pink blossoms. "The Queen was pruning those azaleas, right over there, when I floated in through a window. Before even looking at me, she told me she'd been expecting me for a very long time." He slid open the exit door, stepping into the unlit stairwell beyond, where a stone transportalizer awaited, built into the floor next to the stairs which descended deeper into the citadel. "This will take us straight to the throne room. Or we could play it safe and take the stairs-"

"No time for that." Tami stepped onto the stone platform and immediately vanished.

After sharing a quick glance of exasperation, Cruz and Adam followed Tami through the transportalizer.

Upon rematerializing in a back corner of the White Queen's throne room, the first thing Cruz saw were dozens of wounded Prospitian royal marines lying strewn about the floor. Some groaned miserably while others stared silently at the vaulted ceiling, awaiting the arrival of medical attention or death. Whichever came first.

Giant golden cloth banners depicting the royal symbol of Prospit adorned the walls, hanging from the ceiling and stretching all the way to the floor. A pair of lightly wounded royal marines tore down one of these banners, and Cruz watched them set to work ripping the banner into strips for use as bandages. Two exhausted, overwhelmed medics moved among the wounded to determine which ones could be saved and which ones could not, administering bandages and antiseptic accordingly.

Near the marble throne, surrounded by thirteen members of the elite Home Guard, the White Queen conversed quietly with the White Guardian, poring over a three-dimensional holographic map of Prospit and the surrounding airspace.

Blackened pieces of the ruined double entrance doors lay smoldering on the floor, exposing the throne room to the intense firefight unfolding in the grand entrance hall beyond. At the far end, more and more Dersite commandos fought their way in from outside. Already, they had captured at least a third of the hall, pressing forward inch by inch towards the throne room. All the while, increasingly outnumbered Prospitian royal marines shot at the invaders from behind the cover of overturned benches, tables, and collapsed pillars.

Tami noticed a frozen Adam staring in shock at a mortally wounded royal marine whose chest cavity had been torn open by a grenade blast. She hurried over and took Adam by the arm, steering him away from the wounded and pointing to the Dersite commandos swarming into the grand hall. "Go and kill them, would you?"

Adam took a deep breath, wiping his sweaty palms on his pants. "Only if you compose a symphony in my honor."

"I'll call it Ode to a Chode if you don't hurry up," threatened Tami, returning to the mortally wounded royal marine with the chest wound. Kneeling down, she laid hands on the dying Prospitian, who stared up at her with unfocused, disinterested eyes.

Fire crackled around Adam's clenched fists as he sprinted out of the throne room and charged into the grand entrance hall, howling, "LEEROOOY JENNKINS!" at the top of his lungs.

Cruz watched, openmouthed, as Adam blew past the overwhelmed royal marines and spewed fire towards the oncoming Dersites.

"Idiot thinks he's Prince Zuko," muttered Tami. "He could kill with a pebble or rupture arteries, but nope. He'd rather show off."

"It does seem… inefficient." Cruz tried to ignore his as he watched , feeling a bit queasy. "Plus, Leeroy Jenkins got his entire team killed, but he probably didn't consider that."

"You are late." The White Guardian's deep, resonant voice effortlessly cut through the din of battle. Turning his severe gaze onto Tami and Cruz, the Guardian looked none too pleased about Adam's foray into the grand hall. "And you are not all present. Where is the Seer of Time?"

"You know Anna," grunted Tami, doing her best to ignore the heart beating weakly between the fifth and sixth ribs in her patient's exposed chest cavity. "No one knows where she goes. Or when. She'll show up when it's time for you to be annoyed."

"That is unacceptable." Anger flashed in the White Guardian's dark eyes. "The Queen is in mortal danger. Have you a way to contact the Seer? I expected all four of you."

"Listen, buddy." As Tami concentrated, a gentle emerald glow shone from deep within the royal marine's chest wound, spreading slowly outwards. The royal marine's dull eyes brightened suddenly, widening in shock as the agony ebbed away. "If you don't want to thank us, why don't you just fuck off while we clean up your mess?"

Several of the Home Guards tightened their grips on their weapons.

"My dear friends." The White Queen looked up from her moving battle map to greet the new arrivals, interrupting before the Guardian had a chance to initiate with Tami an argument which likely would not have ended well for either party. "I thank you for aiding me in this time of great need."

The White Guardian bowed his head in deference, glowering with dissatisfaction, and returned his attention to the holographic battle map.

"Forgive the captain of my Home Guard for the absence of his manners. None of us are having an easy day." The White Queen radiated strength and confidence, and yet Cruz noticed a newfound weariness in her midnight-black eyes. "The three of you are more than enough to turn this tide."

"Uh-huh. Adam's taking care of it." Tami did not break eye contact with her patient, who had begun to weep upon realizing that he was no longer dying. "Cruz, I'm almost done with this one." The bright light pouring from the royal marine's chest had spread across the surface of his entire body, generating new tissues to fuse the wound back together. "Do some reverse triage. Find whoever is closest to dying so I know who to treat next."

"Definitely that one over there." Cruz pointed to an unconscious royal marine bleeding to death from an inner thigh wound. "Femoral artery. She's a goner."

Tami's first patient passed out from sheer exhaustion as she finished with him. "This probably uses their own body's energy, too," she observed, moving on. The healed royal marine, fast asleep, continued to shimmer faintly with the emerald glow of Life. After several minutes, all of those with mortal wounds had been healed and removed from the makeshift aid station, and Tami shifted her focus to assisting the medics with less severe wounds.

A messenger hurried suddenly into the throne room from the entrance hall, bleeding from a minor shoulder wound. "Your Grace." The Prospitian bowed briefly to her Queen before turning to the White Guardian. "Sir. The breach at the main gate is contained, but at great cost. The garrison lieutenant requests reinforcements and wishes to know if you have further orders."

"Everyone needs reinforcements," grunted the White Guardian. "Tell the garrison lieutenant he will hold his position to the last."

"Have any of you on the perimeter managed yet to establish radio contact with anyone outside the Keep?" asked the Queen.

"No, Your Grace," replied the messenger. "Coms are still down. Our fireteams cannot even radio each other."

"Help will come soon. You may return to your unit." With a slight nod, the White Queen dismissed the messenger, who quickly took her leave.

"Let me teleport you out of here," offered Cruz. "Just say the word."

The White Queen shook her head. "I do not abandon my people."

"Good for you," remarked Tami. "Doesn't stop you from manufacturing them for war, though."

"Tam." Cruz cleared his throat, made uneasy by the cold glares of the White Guardian and his Home Guards. "Not now."

"Alright, bitches!" crowed a sweaty and soot-stained Adam, emerging victorious from the grand hallway, where dozens of charred and mangled commandos' corpses lay strewn across the floor all the way back to the blown-open main entrance at the far end. Adam and the royal marines had not taken prisoners. "Great hall is secure. Don't all thank me at once."

With a tiny nod from the White Guardian, ten of the thirteen Home Guards spread out and took up positions near the throne room's entrance. Of those ten, the most senior in rank proceeded into the grand entrance hall and took command of the surviving royal marines, marching them outside to join the larger fight. As the great hall emptied, relative quiescence settled once more over the throne room, interrupted only by frequent floor-shuddering from the orbital bombardment tearing apart the city outside.

"Thank you, Adam," said the White Queen. "I am in your debt."

"Nah." Adam blushed. "Friends don't help friends out of obligation. And debts suck. I used to live in a debt-based economy, you know."

"We should go to the front gates," suggested Cruz. "Those friendlies on the Grand Boulevard should be here any moment. We'll be the anvil they crush the Dersites on."

The White Guardian shook his head, checking his timepiece impatiently. "The marines will take care of it. We are not going anywhere."

Before Cruz could argue, part of the wall behind him vanished in a sudden explosion of fire and masonry shards. Thrown off his feet, he landed on the other side of the throne room, skidding across the floor and smacking his head into the opposite wall.

Adam, furthest from the explosion and least affected, wasted no time in launching a searing wave of fire towards the newly created hole in the wall.

Tami stared at the large shard of stone lodged in her upper right arm.

Dazed and concussed, Cruz sat up with a groan and clutched his bleeding head, trying to pop his ears while a Home Guard hurried over to help. As the Prospitian helped Cruz back to his feet, he produced a small syringe from one of his pockets and, without warning, injected Cruz in the neck.

Wincing as she yanked the rock fragment out of her arm, Tami looked up just in time to see Cruz get injected. "Hey!" Before she could say anything else, she felt the gentle prick of a needle entering her own neck, followed by immediate grogginess.

Adam swore as he, too, was caught unawares and injected by a pair of Home Guards who'd quietly walked up behind him. The homemade inferno sputtered and died as he twisted around and smacked one of the Home Guards in the face, only to be punched in return, shoved to the floor, and restrained. Within seconds, Adam's movements grew weak and sluggish, and he stopped fighting back.

"What is the meaning of this?!" The White Queen struggled against three Home Guards who'd seized her. "You dare lay hands on your queen?!"

"Havin' a bad day?" leered a familiar raspy voice from the smoky corridor on the other side of the jagged hole in the wall. "Good. I'm gonna make it worse."

Jack Noir emerged from the smoke, splattered with someone else's blood, and strolled into the throne room. A wickedly sharp hunting knife gleamed in his blood-soaked right hand. At least a dozen Dersite commandos followed him in, quietly fanning out across the throne room, executing any remaining wounded Prospitians along the way before aiming their rifles at the Prospitian Home Guards.

Why wasn't anyone shooting? Alarm surged through Cruz's mind, but his body would not respond. He was not quite paralyzed, but felt rather like he was moving either in slow motion or through thick molasses. Helplessly, he watched the scene unfold.

The White Guardian stepped forward to face Jack Noir, hand resting on the hilt of his longsword. "This is not what we agreed."

Jack's knife twitched. "You wanted a regime change. You're about to get one."

Tasting bitter betrayal, the Queen calmed and grew very still, gazing pure ice at the White Guardian.

"Prospit was to be left unspoiled." The White Guardian's grip on the hilt of his sword tightened ever so slightly. "On that, I was very clear."

"I agreed to destroy the White King's army on the Battlefield of Skaia." Jack's malicious leer soured into a scowl. "Did I ever agree not to make any pitstops along the way?"

"Who will help you depose your own Queen?" asked the Guardian, furtively slipping his non-sword hand into his belt pouch. "You need me. Otherwise we would not even be having this conver—" Snapping suddenly into motion, the White Guardian produced from his belt pouch a cooked grenade and hurled it into the air over the commandos' heads, leaping towards Jack while drawing his longsword.

Jack threw his knife and dove to one side to dodge the grenade, and Cruz barely had time to close his eyes before the grenade detonated, dulling all sound and filling his ears with ringing. He opened his eyes to the sight of Jack Noir's head rolling across the floor while the rest of the Dersite Archagent's corpse lay twitching in a widening pool of its own blood.

The Home Guards opened fire on the surviving Dersite commandos, who died where they stood.

Before sheathing his longsword, the White Guardian made sure to wipe the bloodied blade clean on Jack's clothes. He then noticed the black hunting knife lodged in his shoulder. Grunting with what sounded like begrudging respect, the Guardian winced as he grabbed the hilt of Jack's knife and yanked it free, ignoring the blood which now seeped from his shoulder wound.

Throughout the chaos, White Queen's frozen gaze had not strayed from the Guardian. She had not even blinked. When she spoke, her voice was deadly quiet. "Traitor."

"By your definition, perhaps." The White Guardian calmly turned to face the Queen, holding Jack's knife lazily in his left hand. "I disobeyed protocol, you know. Curiosity got the better of me. It was nearly seven hundred years ago. I went to the Golden Moon and ascended the Knight's tower during an Eclipse. High enough to see the visions in Skaia's clouds. Visions of what you have known your entire-"

"Prospit burning." The White Queen continued to stare relentlessly at the Guardian, ignoring the Home Guards who held her. "That is what you saw, no? How must it feel to know that it burns not by my hand, but by yours?"

The White Guardian's jaw tightened. "Skaia designed Prospit, designed you, to lose. Correct?" With a tiny gesture, he signaled his guards to bring Cruz, Tami, and Adam over to where he stood. "If we defeat Derse on the Battlefield, then there is no longer any game for these Humans to win. That is what all of this is, correct? What we all are? A game, rigged against beloved Prospit, which you and these Humans stubbornly continue to play? You are leading us down a path to ruin."

Cruz mumbled, struggling to form coherent words as two Home Guards dragged him over to the Queen's marble throne and forced him to his knees. Looking weakly to the left, he saw Tami and Adam being treated the same way.

"Skaia showed me other visions." The White Guardian walked slowly towards the White Queen with Jack Noir's knife in hand. "I saw the shattered crown of your husband the King. The White Keep in ruins, surrounded by fields of corpses. Skaia's light giving way to darkness. I saw the Outer Gods-"

"This incipisphere must fulfill its purpose," insisted the White Queen, cutting off the Guardian. "Stop this madness while you can still turn back."

"Tam," Cruz murmured quietly, unsure if Tami was still conscious. "Tam?"

"I'm still here," breathed Tami, cracking her eyelids open. "Can you teleport? I can't-"

One of the Home Guards holding Tami smacked her across the back of her head. "Quiet."

"Do you truly believe the Humans' lives are more valuable than our own?" The White Guardian turned away from the Queen. "If Skaia requires Prospit's destruction to fulfill its purpose, then it is not a purpose worth fulfilling." He approached Adam, holding up Jack's knife. "You betray all of us when you choose these Humans over your own people. Today, we break the game."

Cruz went numb as he watched the White Guardian slit Adam's throat. Time seemed to stand still.

"What have you done?!" The White Queen quickly lost all composure and resumed her fight to be free, forcing all three of the Home Guards restraining her to combine their strength. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!"

Eyes bulging, Adam crumpled to the floor, released by the Home Guards who had held him. Blood poured through his fingers as he clutched his slashed throat. Did he think he might avoid death if he pressed hard enough?

"Oh fuck!" Tami strained against the grip of the Home Guards restraining her. "Cruz! Get us out of here!"

Cruz closed his eyes and tried to focus on… What was it again? Where did he want to go? His head throbbed. Why was it so difficult to focus on anything?

Tami's shouting suddenly intensified into a piercing scream of agony.

Cruz opened his eyes just in time to see Tami spit blood into the White Guardian's face. Tears streaming from her eyes, she looked at Cruz one last time before coughing blood and succumbing to convulsions.

The White Guardian yanked Jack's knife out of Tami's heart. With a nod, he signaled the two Home Guards holding Tami to drop her.

Cruz stared in shock at the corpse of his best friend. Tami's green eyes remained open, gazing lifelessly up at the ceiling high above. And Adam, somehow, remained stubbornly alive, still trying in vain to hold his throat closed, but his movements grew weaker with each passing second.

The White Guardian approached Cruz next, pulling a small cloth out from underneath his armor and using it to wipe Tami's blood off his face. He stowed the cloth and looked dispassionately at Cruz for a brief moment before circling around behind him.

Cruz turned his head away from his dead and dying friends and watched the White Queen stomp with all of her strength onto one of her captors' ankles, breaking it. She ripped her right arm away from the stunned Home Guard, who fell to the floor, and throat-punched the other guard holding her left arm.

Without hesitation, the Queen grabbed her black cord necklace and pulled it out from underneath her clothing, revealing a simple gold ring inlaid with eight pearls of bright white light. Without hesitating, she tore the ring off of the necklace cord and placed it upon the ring finger of her right hand.

As he watched the Queen vanish in a sudden blaze of light, Cruz felt a sudden sharp pressure at the back of his neck as Jack Noir's blade entered his brain.

Saturday morning sunshine warmed the back of Cruz Arevalo's neck.

Kneeling on an orange foam pad to preserve his knees, Cruz used a hand cultivator to loosen a small section of topsoil in his grandmother's garden. Birdsong chirruped from nearby forsythia bushes while a gentle April breeze sighed through the seemingly endless pines surrounding the Arevalo homestead.

What a lovely day. Even more beautiful than Cruz remembered.

"Huh?" Cruz frowned at the strange thought which had just passed through his mind.

"I said your report card came in the mail," said Chela Arevalo.

Cruz glanced over his shoulder at his grandmother, who was busy pruning an azalea bush at the edge of the vegetable garden.

"Well?" Chela adjusted her wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun out of her eyes, fixing her grandson with a stern look. "Have you nothing to say for yourself?"

Cruz shrugged and looked away, returning his attention to loosening the topsoil.

"What I don't understand is…" Chela took a moment to smell her azaleas before continuing. "You have a beautiful mind, mijito."

Cruz scoffed.

"Yes, you do. I see it. Your friends see it." Chela walked across her vegetable garden and stood next to Cruz. "If only you applied yourself, perhaps you would see it too."

"Apply myself? At school?" Cruz rolled his eyes. "School isn't designed to educate. School is where you're supposed to memorize and regurgitate useless information for standardized tests which determine how much funding the school will get for teaching next year's students to take more standardized tests. None of my classes teach about why insurance companies are exploitative; why health care in the United States is for-profit instead of a universal right; why the wealthy are allowed to live by their own set of rules; why credit scores were introduced in the 1980s to make your life suck and force you to incur debt; if anything, I should fail my teachers. They do nothing to prepare students for life in the real world."

Chela, listening patiently to Cruz's tirade without allowing it to disrupt her enjoyment of the beautiful morning, reached into one of her pockets and pulled out a packet of rhubarb seeds, handing them to her grandson. "Was all of it useless information?"

"Fine." Cruz dropped his hand cultivator and picked up a garden rake. "Music class was kind of fun. Reading, writing, and basic math were useful. But what am I doing with it now? Who in their right mind would ever read Tom Sawyer unless their English teacher threatened to fail them for refusing? And when was the last time you ever used quadratic formula? Back in the 1800s when you were in school?"

Chela's warm gaze grew a bit frostier.

"Abuelita, you taught me how to grow food from the ground." Cruz used his garden rake to create a dozen parallel shallow furrows in the topsoil. "I think it's the most useful thing I've ever learned. It took people millions of years to figure out how to do this. You know one thing schools and prisons have in common? They both love throwing money at Aramark Corporation. Why grow your own food or support local farms when you can enjoy cheap Aramark cafeteria slop?"

"Become an activist. Dedicate yourself to overhauling the education system. But first, before you do that, graduate from high school." Chela took out another packet of rhubarb seeds and opened it, planting a line of seeds along the first of Cruz's furrows. "I will not be here forever. Soon you will have to learn to fend for yourself. When you grow up, will you try to pay your bills with weed smoke, hot takes, and impassioned manifestos? You are getting your high school diploma. This is non-negotiable."

"So." Cruz put down the garden rake and started planting rhubarb seeds in the final furrow he'd created. "What's the punishment? Are you going to stop my friends from coming over tonight?"

"You are going to repeat your final year of high school while your closest friends graduate." Chela brushed soil back into the first furrow, burying the row of seeds she'd just planted. "You've already punished yourself."

Cruz frowned, noticing for the first time how his grandmother's eyes were entirely white.

"Good." Chela smiled. "You're waking up. And you have a visitor."

"Hello, Cruz," said an unfamiliar voice from behind.

Whirling around, Cruz found himself looking at Cass Galavis, who stood next to Chela's patch of strawberry plants, watching honeybees pollinate the little white strawberry flowers. "Cass? Since when do you have a buzz cut? How are you even here?" Cruz almost didn't recognize Cass with the vast majority of her hair gone, but he knew only one person with violet eyes. "Am I dead?"

Cass looked away from the honeybees, locking eyes with Cruz. "Do you feel dead?"

Cruz did not answer.

"This is for you." Cass Galavis produced a single captchalogue card from within her black-and-violet Sylph robes. "Nice to finally meet you in person." Pressing the card into one of Cruz's hands, she looked directly into his eyes and said, "Wake up."

Cruz's eyes snapped open, gasping as new air flooded suddenly into his lungs for what felt like the first time.

The blazing orange light filling his vision faded gradually away, leaving Cruz suspended in almost total darkness.

School was a distant memory. His teachers and classmates were all dead. He was one of the last living Humans in existence, and thank goodness, because that meant he would not have to repeat his senior year of high school. Cruz started remembering a bit more, and his breath seized in his throat. Both hands flew immediately to the back of his neck and head, searching for a gaping knife wound. He felt no pain and frowned, withdrawing his hands and seeing that they were completely unblemished.

No blood.

Shouldn't there be blood?

The silence was broken suddenly by the voice of the White Queen: "Your wound is healed."

"Fuck." Startled, Cruz released his breath and looked down, where he saw the White Queen sitting patiently cross-legged next to a small transportalizer pad upon one of four floating slabs of gently glowing stone.

Arranged around a shared central point like four perpendicular spokes of a wheel, each stone slab glowed a different color and bore a unique symbol. The slab upon which the White Queen sat glowed red and was etched with the wave symbol of the Force Aspect. An empty cyan slab, emblazoned with the gear symbol of Time, floated opposite Cruz's own slab, which shined orange and was marked with the galaxy symbol of Space.

Upon the final slab, which shimmered with green light and bore the seedling symbol of Life, lay the corpse of Tami Abramov's dream self. Horrendous amounts of blood stained her Prospit pajamas, particularly around her heart. None of her wounds had healed.

"Tam?" Cruz flew down to Tami's corpse and pressed two fingers to her neck, feeling for a pulse even though he already knew there was no point. "Oh, Tam."

"You will see her again." The White Queen rose to her feet and stretched, standing confidently on Adam's quest slab. "Tamara must still be alive in the Land of Crystals and Silence, otherwise her dream self would have reawakened alongside you. Take heart, Cruz. Your story has not ended."

Cruz clutched his stomach and vomited over the edge of Tami's quest slab into the darkness below. Only now, illuminated by the light of the quest slabs, did he notice the monk-like orange robes he now wore. A white galaxy pattern had been stitched into the front and back of his new Sage of Space robes, which smelled of citrus and fresh laundry. "Was I really dead?"

"That depends on your definition of dead."

Cruz spat out the last vestiges of puke and floated over to Adam's quest slab, where the Queen stood. "What about-"

"Adam lives on in his other body. You will see him again, too." The White Queen embraced Cruz, and a single tear escaped from one of her eyes. "I am so very sorry."

Cruz frowned. "Sorry?"

"What the Guardian did to you was as unforgivable as my failure to uncover his treason," said the Queen. "He has paid for it with his life and will trouble us no more."

"It wasn't your fault." Cruz hugged the White Queen back. "I'm still here. You're still here. Did we win?"

"We barely survived an invasion. Do not mistake it for a victory," cautioned the Queen, releasing Cruz and smoothing out a ruffle in his Sage robes. "I am needed at the Golden Keep. And you are needed on your planet. Your consorts are on the brink of destroying each other. You have neglected them."

"My consorts?" Cruz shook his head. "Fuck that. They tried to kill me."

"If they try again, I am sure they will fail again." A faint smile glimmered in the White Queen's eyes. "My husband will require aid to survive what is to come. Go home. Make contact with your consorts. Find a way to bring them into the fold. Then, when the time comes, claim your place with me on the Battlefield."

With that, the White Queen turned and walked onto the transportalizer pad, vanishing in a flash of light. A few seconds later, the transportalizer also disappeared, leaving Cruz all by himself.

"Not one much for goodbyes," muttered Cruz, taking one last look at Tami, whose final scream echoed in his mind. His palms grew cold, sweaty, and he found himself struggling for a full breath. "That's enough for now." He turned away from Tami's dead body and closed his eyes. "You're okay."

More than anything else, Cruz wanted to go back home, even if only just for a little while.

This time, the experience of teleportation was so seamless and effortless, Cruz did not even notice it taking place. When he opened his eyes, he was surprised to find himself standing in his bedroom. A black quilt, patterned with white and yellow peace symbols, remained in a heap at the foot of his bed. His dusty laptop sat open on his desk; right where he'd left it a month ago.

The legendary Lolita Lebrón, superimposed over the flag of Puerto Rico, stared sternly at Cruz from one of the two posters on the wall behind his bed. In the other poster, an irritated Diogenes the Cynic relaxed on the ground while Alexander the Great blocked his sunlight.

Cruz looked through his bedroom windows at the hilly, undulating grasslands stretching to every horizon. For a moment he felt as though he were back on Earth, but the illusion was quickly shattered by the hundreds of pastel rainbow aurorae in flux across a brilliant bluish-purple sky. No such sky existed back home. The Land of Light and Smoke was beautiful in its own way, but it was not Earth.

What Cruz would have given to see proper pine trees again.

Cruz yawned loudly, stretching his arms and legs. Despite his exhaustion, there was no way he would be able to fall asleep right now. Not after everything that had just happened. But perhaps he was not too traumatized to enjoy a bowl of ramen noodles? Or a blunt?

"Nah." Cruz exited his bedroom and walking down the upstairs hall to the staircase. "Let's do both."

Cruz frowned while descending the stairs to the first floor because he could hear the sound of someone rummaging around in the kitchen. His heart skipped a beat as he wondered if the Dersites had sent another assassin. Quietly, he entered the kitchen and saw the pantry door wide open.

In the pantry with his back turned, munching on the contents of an opened box of stale Honey Nut Cheerios, stood an intruder wearing an orange fez, an ornate azure mintan, and dark violet trousers stained with blood and mud. From neck to coccyx down the intruder's back, several dozen short orange spines protruded through carefully tailored openings in the mintan and trousers, along with a scaly basil-green tail adorned with snugly-fitted rings of alternating silver and jade.

"What the fuck?!" exclaimed Cruz. "Who the fuck are you?!"

Startled, the reptilian intruder hissed loudly and dropped the Cheerios, spinning around and hurling a knife through the air towards Cruz's chest.