Pillars Of Life

Chapter 9: Assorted Stories

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12

Over the next year, Mitilda and I both had many experiences worth recounting. Selections are below.

A story from Mitilda (#1):

Zerik flew down to the cell. "Mitilda. Your parents have been arrested."

"What? No! What for? And how'd you find out my name?"

"They were arrested for not turning you in for practicing magic, of course. And they told me your name."

"Wait, you don't understand! They never had a chance to turn me in. I kept it secret from them." She doubted she could fool him with this, but she might as well try.

"Don't be silly, growing to your level of power without your parents finding out would be borderline impossible. Besides, they already confessed."

"Drat... Well, it's not like they were ever going to help overthrow you anyway."

"Indeed. So, want to talk to them before I execute them?"

"Of course." She stepped onto the platform with him.

"Remember," Zerik said as they flew up the shaft, "if you run away and force me to kill all the witnesses again, I will give you a very painful death."

"I just don't get why you Voren care so much about keeping it all a secret. Wouldn't it be nice if you didn't have to hide your powers?"

"We do it to maintain our facade of benevolence. If everyone knew how powerful we were, they'd know just how much easier we could make their lives if we felt like it."

Mitilda didn't know what a facade was, but was able to infer it from the context. "Well your facade of benevolence is already a joke, so who cares?"

"Honestly, I think it's stupid too. But the Voren master will kill me if I let word get out."

They reached the top of the shaft, and Zerik led her to a dungeon with several cells in it. Most were empty, but her parents were in one, and a lone old woman in another.

"Your daughter has requested to speak to you before I kill you," Zerik said. "I'll give you some privacy now." He walked out of the room.

"We're so sorry it came to this..." Father said. "We should have tried harder to talk you out of magic..."

"You're wrong!" Mitilda said immediately. "It's better to be caught and executed than live an entire lifetime in submission. I'm sorry I got you arrested too, but blame the king. All of this is his fault."

"Anger isn't going to help any of us," Mother said. "And it's your fault too anyway. You're the one who got us all arrested."

Mitilda began to yell. "Well I said sorry, okay? But maybe you should blame the actual enemy here instead of the other victim!"

"I blame myself," Father said. "I should've told you and Jaydin the government was lying about magic existing. You would've believed me. I could've saved us all..."

"You would've doomed us all to a life of eternal subjugation! I'd rather die on my feet. And hope isn't lost. I have magic, and you wouldn't believe how much stronger it's gotten since all this happened. I'm going to find a way to break out of here."

"Even if you do," Mother said, "you can never overthrow the government. There never was any hope. And your Father is right. We should've lied to you to protect you."

Mitilda's fists clenched. Seeing her parents get arrested because of her mistake was one thing, but seeing them learn exactly the wrong lesson from it was even worse. They were truly slaves of the Voren now. She thought this must have been how guards were made: once people were broken like this, they would realize that following the government's every order was simply 'the smart thing' to do, even if that meant being cruel to the citizens. It was disgusting.

"We're done here," Mitilda said. She couldn't bear to talk to them anymore. But one last thing. She telekinetically undid the lock on both filled cells.

"Thank you," the lone woman said, getting out of her cell. "It feels good to be out, even just out here."

"You're welcome." Mitilda looked at her parents and noticed they hadn't come out yet. "What are you doing? Come out already!"

"There's no point," Mother said. "We can't escape."

Mitilda's arms began to vibrate with fury. "Damn you Zerik!" She opened the door out of the dungeon and found him standing just outside. She punched him. "Fight me!"

Two palace guards rushed to interfere. Mitilda and Zerik exchanged a few more punches, and then she had to run back into the dungeon to avoid being grabbed by the guards. "You're a coward Zerik!"

"Is that the king's name?" one of the guards said as they chased her.

Zerik didn't answer. "When you catch her, bring her back to my room."

The guards entered the dungeon and noticed what she had done. "Sire! Both cells in here are open!"

"Well fix that then!" the other guard said. "I'll catch the girl!"

Excellent. Just one guard coming after her. Mitilda wondered if she could actually kill this guard if she used her magic cleverly. She wouldn't even have to get killed by Zerik; she could kill this one then pretend to be exhausted from running out of mana and let them take her. One way or another, it was time for a fight.

She settled on fire as her strategy. She didn't think she could conjure enough of it to do much damage directly, so she pulled the blanket out of the old woman's cell and lit that on fire, then telekinesed it over his head.

The guard pulled it off immediately, but as soon as he threw it down she pulled it back over his head. She shot some more fire at another corner to help it spread.

The guard threw it off again and began to pummel her. She took the punches for a minute while she shot more fire at the blanket, and when it was completely in flames, she threw it back over the guard's head and telekinetically tied the ends into a knot.

The other guard had arrived now, and he had his sword drawn. Mitilda shot more fire at the blanket, desperate to burn the first guard to death before the other one killed her. He began to scream in pain as his skin lit on fire. She was satisfied that he was going to die.

The new guard swung his sword at her, which she survived by conjuring a small piece of rock in between her forearm and the blade. Time to surrender. She collapsed, breathing hard artificially, and said, "No... mana..."

"Wait!" Zerik said, coming into the dungeon. "Don't kill her. I said I wanted her brought back to my room, remember?"

"But sire! She's clearly dangerous. She killed that guard unarmed!"

"She had mana. When people use too much magic at once, they run out of this energy and then they can't do it anymore for a while. I'll be sure to have her executed before she recovers enough to be dangerous again."

Mitilda was holding in a laugh despite her pain. Her first kill! And in such an unlikely sitatuation! She made the guard carry her to Zerik's room.

"That was well done," Zerik said when they were alone. "I didn't think you'd be able to kill a guard so easily already. And no doubt doing so made you even more powerful."

"I'm telling you, I'll escape and overthrow you someday."

"One would think it would be better strategy to make me think you had given up. Anyway, let's go back to the cell and you can tell Hobart what happened."

She made Zerik force her down the shaft, as usual.

A story from Jaydin (#1):

One day Alistair and I were deemed ready to go hunt some medium-strength edge guardians. David was the one flying us to the destination pillar.

"So are you going to tell us what to expect?" I asked. "Like what are these edge guardians like?"

"You want me to spoil the surprise?"

"Yeah," I said. Alistair sighed.

"Okay, fine. It's kind of like a giant spider. Its main attack is to stab with its legs."

"I hope you ain't afraid of spiders," Alistair said. Luckily I wasn't.

"I actually used to be," David said. "Back when I was around your power level, I couldn't even look at these things. Katherine was always hard on me about how I needed to overcome it, but I never did. So one day she brought one to the hideout when all the other Sentinels were gone and made me fight it."

"That's horrible!" I could imagine how angry I'd be if Mitilda had ever done anything like that to me.

"It worked though. After I killed it, I wasn't afraid of spiders anymore. Cruel, but effective."

"Still, that's not okay. You can't just do that to a person."

"I think you can," Alistair said. "It's just like a parent withholding something from their child to teach them strength."

"This is different," I said. "Not giving a little kid a treat is one thing, but this was downright cruelty."

"Agree or disagree," David said, "but do realize she means well."

"I'm going to have a talk with her when we get back."

We arrived at the destination pillar. I could see as we approached it that it was covered almost entirely in trees, with holes carved out that the cities were in. We touched down at the edge.

"Time to go find yourselves a guardian," David said. "Good luck. I'll follow from above and intervene if you need help, though I'm sure you won't." Alistair and I went in search of one of the edge guardians.

"So Jaydin, you scared?" Alistair asked me immediately.

"Stop. Courage isn't my strongpoint, but that doesn't give you the right to harass me about it."

"Well I'm so sorry! You're such a great person for helping us fight the guards when our transport got boarded and for going to my pillar to inform my loved ones when I couldn't, you totally deserve my respect!"

My fists clenched. "I'm so sorry, I didn't realize you were perfect in every way yourself!" I wanted to continue with "I had forgotten about that time you <insert something really bad>", but I couldn't actually think of anything bad he had done.

He capitalized on this. "Oh yeah? What have I done that was wrong? I risked my life starting an uprising on my home pillar, and when I succeeded I went immediately to another pillar to liberate more innocents. Ever since then I've been doing my best to serve the cause!"

I was glad, for by shifting the subject to good things instead of bad things he gave me a way to fight back. "Don't forget about that time I risked capture to spread knowledge of magic on my home pillar! I'm a rebel too! Now stop with the personal insults and let's go find us a monster!"

Alistair backed off for the time being. Before long, we heard what I assumed what the monsters' battle cry, similar to how the wolf had its howl. This one sounded like a hiss.

I tensed, scanning the forest around us and preparing my - wait. I hadn't asked which energy it was most vulnerable to. Drat. Neon it was.

I heard it running toward us and spun to face it. It was fast. Faster than the wolf. I kept charging the neon while Alistair started to charge a blast of lightning... oh no. Darkness damage and light damage would probably cancel out. "Alistair stop!" I said as I threw my neon orb at it, but he didn't; he fired his bolt of lightning at it.

We didn't deal any visible damage, and the thing kept running toward us and stabbed Alistair with one of its long legs. He backstepped but it got him anyway. He swung his sword as he screamed in pain, and managed to cut off one of the legs.

I stepped even farther back behind Alistair, hoping it would continue to focus its attack on him. I hit it with the sand blast. This worked pretty well, as it missed its next few stabs at Alistair. He chopped off another leg, and since he was still shooting lightning at it with his other hand, I got the idea to telekinetically pick up this leg and stab the creature's neck with it instead of more energy attacks.

It gave a howl of pain. Alistair took another stab from one of its remaining legs, and I picked up the first one he had cut off to stab it with that too. Soon after we brought it down.

Alistair gave me a dirty look as he clutched his wounds. "You're welcome for me tanking all the hits for you."

"It came from your side! You were in front naturally!"

"Don't think I didn't notice how you backstepped after the first hit I took! You went out of your way to make sure it was all on me instead of being evenly divided! If I had done the same, we might have lost!"

My arms were vibrating, but no words came to mind. He was right. He was a better person than me in every way except that he was being so mean about it.

David flew down to us. "Looks like you guys got it! Nice job."

"Jaydin made sure I took all the hits," Alistair said.

"Well let's take care of that." David had brought some bandages with us as well as some of that blood-replenishing elixir Alistair had used to save my life when we first met. I had learned how this stuff was made: it was a mixture of blood and water steeped with a leaf from a special plant, kind of like tea.

David hadn't responded to Alistair's blaming of me, so he had to continue: "Note to self: never expect anything heroic out of Jaydin."

"Note to self:" I responded immediately, "never expect any understanding or kind words from Alistair."

"Guys," David said, "do you have to?"

"Yes," Alistair said. "At this rate if we were to fight the Voren Jaydin would turn tail and sacrifice the rest of us so he could get away."

"That's not true!" I said. "Letting you take the hits isn't the same as fleeing from the fight!"

"Well then, Alistair," David said, "it's a good thing we got time. We don't have to fight the Voren for many more years, probably decades. Jaydin has time to practice his courage, and these training fights are the perfect way to do it. Besides, he was willing to risk himself to go rescue his sister. That was pretty brave, if misguided."

"He wouldn't have done it for anyone else. It was only because she was important to him personally."

"Still brave. And just because he let you take the hits during a fight doesn't make him a traitor to the cause."

"That was literally the most cowardly he could have been without risking consequences from you or the others."

"Just stop, Alistair," I said. "We can fight another when you're healed and this time I promise to be in front, if that'll make you happy."

"It would, if only you had a motive for doing it other than restoring your own reputation."

When we returned to the hideout after that, I still intended to have some words with Katherine. "Katherine. David told me the story of you forcing his phobia on him."

"You mean the story of me making him a better person? He's welcome." David chuckled.

"I'd like to see your reaction if anyone ever did that to you."

"So would I. Unfortunately I don't have any phobias to show you with. Wonder why that is? I confronted mine."

"Just because you were brave doesn't mean you can force that on people who aren't ready. That's cruelty. No wonder you're garbage at cold magic." I said this without any experience to back it up.

"I'm actually not bad at it most days, because it's also based on prudence. But that's beside the point. You aren't going to convince me to regret what I did, especially since David himself now thinks I was right."

"Whatever. But you're heartless. And it hurts the cause, because it makes you worse at cold magic, which makes you worth less in the final battle. So if you wouldn't let me risk the cause to do something personal, stop being a hypocrite."

Katherine kept a neutral tone and expression. "It's filtered by one's own ideology, so it didn't weaken my cold magic; it boosted my heat magic. Besides, don't you think moral perfection is a little much to ask, especially from someone as flawed as you?"

My fists clenched, but Yildirim said, "Enough, you two. All of us are flawed, and we cannot blame each other for the physical effects of our flaws. To diffuse this argument and to unite us in virtue, let us all fast tonight."

"What?" I said. "But how does that help?"

"It is an act of willpower. It will make us all better people, strengthen our light magic, and you and Katherine will re-earn each other's respect."

Drat... I didn't want to do this, but everyone else did, so if I was the only one who ate dinner I would be validating Katherine's last argument. So we all went to sleep hungry. I wanted to hate Yildirim for forcing this on me, but I knew he was right. It did re-earn Katherine a little bit of my respect.

A story from Mitilda (#2):

Zerik came down to the cell one day. "I've decided I might as well tell you about telepathy."

Mitilda's hopes shot upward. Was there a way she could contact Gabriel and Nayomi if she got powerful enough? "How do we do it?" she asked immediately.

"You need to designate a secret to create a channel, and you have to have everyone in the world who knows it present and consenting."

Her hopes shot downward. So much for contacting Gabriel and Nayomi... "Okay, so why are you telling us? You want a channel with us?"

"Yes. It's for your benefit, really. This way you'll be able to contact me if you want to play zo or just talk sometime, or if your food or water barrel runs out, instead of having to wait for me to come check. Our secret can just be that you two are still alive. So there, now we can communicate."

Mitilda started to get an idea. "Is there any way to uncreate a channel?"

"No. Once you tell someone a secret, and they consent to the creation of the channel, it's there to stay."

Excellent. That meant she could use it to prevent Zerik from sleeping tonight. "So Hobart," she said. "You gonna help me telepathically the next time I go to play zo with him?"

"I'm afraid that's impractical," Zerik said. "Telepathy takes an enormous amount of mana, so you can't have lengthy conversations with it. It's only good for communicating something short but important."

"Too bad. I could use some help against you." She refused to take a handicap on principle, because she saw it as lame and bad for learning.

"Indeed. Well, goodbye for now. I'm not up for playing, I just wanted to tell you about this." He began to fly back up the shaft.

"Wait!" Mitilda called after him. "I have a question." Zerik came back down.

"You said you made up the idea of the animals being conscious. But if that's the case, how come you can program them but not random objects?"

"Truth be told, you can program random objects. You just need to give them a seed first."

"A seed?"

"The only things that can be programmed are seeds. Animals already have them, so they're already programmable. But creating a seed is very difficult. The Sentinels didn't seem to even know it was possible."

"Were none of them powerful enough?"

"I suppose there's also a bit of a trick to it," Zerik said. "You have to give up some of your power to spark it. Anyway, I'll be going now." He flew back up the shaft.

"We should have a telepathy channel for just the two of us," Mitilda said immediately to Hobart. "What should our secret be?"

"I ain't sure. It has to be something only the two of us know."

Mitilda searched her memories, but couldn't think of anything suitable. She didn't think they had ever shared a secret before the night everything changed, and anything after that Jaydin would also know about. "I can't think of anything."

"I have an idea," Hobart said. "We don't have to already have a secret. We can make one."

"Okay, but it has to be important to us, so..."

"It might work if I tell ye the reason why I don't use my first name anymore."

Mitilda had completely forgotten about that mystery. "Ooh! Why's that?"

"Because when I was small, I was like ye. A rebel. I even maked a friend outside of my family I practiced magic with. But when she getted discovered and taked away, I gived up on rebellion and becomed a broken husk like ye's parents. I wanted to forget my past. So I stopped using my name."

"So the Voren ruined you too... but you recovered."

"Ye inspired me."

"And you inspired Jaydin... we have this advantage over the forces of evil. When one of us falls, another rises. There will always be rebels. There will always be hope. Even if the Voren kill us and the Greywoods, someone else will take up the fight later."

"When ye says it like that, I can almost believe ye. Our cause might never die. But I just don't see how any group of rebels is ever gonna get powerful enough to challenge Zerik."

"I don't either. But we have to have faith. Anyway, let's try your secret."

They found that Hobart was able to send her a test message, and she could receive it, but she couldn't send one back. "Of course," Hobart said. "The secret only works for me because it's only important to me. Ye needs to think of another one."

"And I've got an idea already. I'm in here because I chose to be."

"What now?"

"When the guards were escorting me from the city I got caught in to the king for judgement, I had the chance to escape. But I figured I still couldn't get back inside our hometown without coming up with something clever, so I chose instead to go see the king and have a chance of assassinating him with my magic."

Hobart thought for a minute. "That was very selfless of ye. Ye sacrificed yeself to have a chance of defeating the enemy at big."

"Well, it was only a chance of saving myself I had. I'll send you a test message now."

"Yep. I getted it."

"Alright! Now we've got a working channel Zerik doesn't know about. We should get back to pushing our mana reserves or we're never going to get out of here."

That night, she remembered to use telepathy to stop Zerik from sleeping. Before long, though, she ran out of mana - telepathy took a ton - so it wasn't as successful as she had hoped.

A story from Jaydin (#2):

One night, I was visiting the Greywoods on our home pillar. We had taken Rebeka's tunnel outside of the village so we didn't have to worry about making too much noise or light or anything. I was practicing telekineting five objects at once separately.

"So I've had a thought," I said, wanting to distract myself with a conversation just to increase the difficulty. "When we start our war for freedom, we're going to need new telepathy secrets, or the Voren can listen to our communications."

"Indeed," said Yildirim, the one who had flown me here. "But that is not somthing we need to think about for a while."

My five objects had been displaced slightly, but I managed to prevent any of them from hitting the floor. "Yildirim. You were a Sentinel back in the day. Surely you had a telepathy channel with the other Sentinels."

"Not all of them. Only with a few that were my friends. We never thought we would need a global network. That is one thing we will do differently if we manage to take back this world."

"Beatrice," Nayomi said, "you're making great progress for someone who didn't have any magic experience at all until a few months ago." I looked at Beatrice, and saw that she was levitating a small blade of grass. I remembered when I had been that weak at magic.

"I got nothing else to do with my time. I'm a prisoner at the Sentinel hideout."

"You are not," Yildirim said. "You can go outside the hideout at any time, you simply cannot go back to being a guard. As we have said before, you have not done anything to prove your loyalty, and would likely be rewarded by the Voren for turning us in. Besides, if you go back now, how exactly would you get back into your life as a guard without turning us in? You would need to explain why you went missing for a few months."

"I guess you're right. I guess you ruined my life permanently."

"Can you even complain?" Gabriel said. "You're a guard. You've no doubt ruined other people's lives. Serves you right."

"I was forced into this! Don't pretend you wouldn't do the same if they made you a guard!"

"If they made me a guard," Gabriel said, "I'd do what Alistair did! And if I couldn't get enough other guards to join me, I'd secretly inform citizens about magic and tell them everything I knew about it. I could connect different families of rebellious citizens so we could all share experience and learn faster. I'd find a way to start a rebellion, eventually. But you didn't do that, did you?"

"Gabriel," Nayomi said, "let's be honest. Even you wouldn't be trying to overthrow the government if it weren't for Mitilda's influence and Hobart's sacrifice. You were turned revolutionary by someone else, as was I and everyone else here. She probably never had that influence."

"Don't tell me what I would and wouldn't have done!" Gabriel said. "Maybe you were turned rebel by them, but I would've come to it on my own. It was just a matter of time."

"Isn't that beside the point, Gabriel?" I said. "The rest of us certainly wouldn't have, and you don't insult us like that."

"Not risking your life to fight oppression is one thing, but Beatrice would've had to be a model citizen already to have been selected to be a guard. I'm just saying, being a Sentinel is the only way she can atone for her sins. She has no right to complain when we force her into it."

"Enough of your garbage!" Beatrice said. "Just shut up and we'll leave it at that."

"So Jaydin," Gabriel said, "want to spar? Pretty soon it'll be too dangerous. I want to try before we get to that point."

It was dangerous to directly spar at high levels of power, because it was too easy to accidentally kill each other. When the experienced Sentinels 'sparred', they did so by remotely controlling token bodies from a safe distance. Of course, this messed up the distance resonation and didn't give you the feeling of flying, so they also played air tag somtimes (which was somewhat of a misnomer as the objective was to tag the opponent with an object, not with oneself). Us new recruits were getting close to that level.

"I feel like we're already at that point," I said. "I've seen the fireballs you can create."

"I can't make anything lethal super easily, and Yildirim can just make some of that stuff that heals burns."

"I say no," I said.

Yildirim spoke up. "It will give you a card to play against Alistair and Katherine when they call you a coward."

"... Okay. I'll do it."

"How about a team match?" Nayomi said. "Me and Jaydin versus Gabriel and our mother."

"I'll join," Sarah said. "It will be my first experience actually fighting with magic." Harold wasn't here because he was currently away on a Hobart mission after being inspired by his wife's courage to go on one first. The four of us took some distance from each other, and did a countdown.

We had three different ideas of how to start. I started by charging some neon to throw at them, Gabriel started by charging a fireball, Sarah started trying to conjure some sharp rocks as projectiles, and Nayomi started with the sand blast.

The sand blast caught Sarah and Gabriel off guard. They closed their eyes in time, but I took advantage of the opening to throw my orb of neon at Gabriel. It dissipated when it touched his solid matter, but gave him a nasty darkness burn.

When Gabriel opened his eyes, he threw the fireball at me and then switched his attention to casting some light magic on his neon burn. I dodged the fireball. Then Sarah finished conjuring her sharp rocks and tried to use them like a storm of little knives. Knowing I couldn't telekinet them, I tried to make wind to counter the movement, but it didn't work. Both me and Nayomi were received several bruises and cuts from the rocks. At least once they hit us she lost her telekinetic hold on them and couldn't easily pick them back up once they were near us and not her.

Nayomi, meanwhile, had been making some sky, and was now ready to throw it. She targeted Sarah. To give her an opening, I picked up some of the rocks and threw them back at her, hoping to distract Sarah.

It worked. She dodged the skyball at first, but then tried to telekinet the rocks while they were still in my grasp. She ended up taking both cuts and bruises and a nasty cold burn.

Gabriel's next fireball hit me, setting my shirt on fire. I gave a cry of pain and doused it immediately. Anticipating the flurry of rocks again, I casted a wall of intense darkness in front of both me and Nayomi so they couldn't tell where we were standing.

They weren't stupid enough to throw the rocks at us while they couldn't see us, so this bought us some respite. Nayomi knew the perfect way to take advantage of this. She conjured another skyball and sent it over my wall of darkness so they wouldn't see it. Gabriel pierced the wall with a beam of light, but while Sarah was throwing the rocks at us the Skyball hit her again, inflicting another nasty cold burn. Sarah cried in pain and yielded. After that, so did Gabriel.

"Well fought," Yildirim said. "You all have a lot to learn, but you are making progress. Gabriel? May I speak with you in private?"

"Uh... sure." They withdrew a distance and began to confer.

"Jaydin," Nayomi said immediately thereafter. "I have something to talk to you about in private too."

"Of course." We withdrew a distance as well, and she said, "I have an apology to make."

"An apology? What?"

"Once, when you were griping about not being able to go see the outside world, I told you that we would never be able to and it was better to take our minds off it. I told you wrong."

"Oh yeah... that feels like so long ago. Well, you believed it, and you didn't do any harm. You owe no apology."

"Hm... I guess you're right. Thanks."

"And I'm still in your debt for that potato..." I said with a smile.

After we got back to the hideout that night, Gabriel contacted us over the telepathy channel. "Guys, the king found us. I don't know how, but it's over for us. We're sorry."

No. "Wait!" I said back. "There's got to be a way! Can you all run in different directions or surrender or something?" No response.

I looked around at the other Sentinels. Their faces showed they had received the news as well. "This can't be..." Rebeka said.

"Damn it!" I said for the first time in my life. "Not again!"

Yildirim spoke. "Jaydin, let us go outside. Take your platform. I bet that you can fly now."

He was right. If I had just lost more friends, I needed to take advantage of the one good thing about it: the change should help increase my magic. Yildirim and I went outside, and sure enough, I managed to hover on my platform above the water.

"I'm doing it... I'm flying at last. I swear, I'll use this newfound power to avenge Mitilda, Hobart, Gabriel, Nayomi, and Sarah and Harold. I'll kill the Voren!"

"Excellent," Yildirim said, suddenly smiling. "I suppose it's time to tell you that the Greywoods are fine."

I immediately fell into the water. I couldn't swim naturally, but I could telekinet the water below me, so I managed to get back onto my platform and just float on the water. "Say what?" I said as I tried to dry my eyes.

Yildirim laughed. "It was all a lie. My secret conference with Gabriel was to tell him my plan. I told the other Sentinels before we left. The Greywoods pretended to have been caught so that you would have the fuel to fly for the first time, and the others were just playing along. And it worked. Congratulations. I expect that you can do it normally now."

I couldn't decide if I was extremely offended or thankful. This was like what Katherine had done to David, only I had been placed in a state of grief instead of fear. Was that any different? I wasn't sure. But sure enough, I was able to fly again the next morning - the boost from having my first flight took the place of the boost from thinking I had lost the Greywoods.

A story from Mitilda (#3):

"Hey Zerik," Mitilda said over the telepathy channel one day. "Would you mind taking me and Hobart outside? I wanna get some fresh air."

Zerik agreed, and flew them out through the shaft in his room. As before, they flew high enough that being seen from the ground wasn't an issue before heading outside the city walls.

"So how come you decided to come this time, Hobart?" Zerik asked. "I thought you were determined to never interact with me."

"I figure if she's coming anyways it don't make things any more fun for ye. I ain't gonna play zo with ye or nothin'."

"Ah, of course. It was too much to hope you finally had a change of heart. But before long you will, I'm sure."

They touched down on the ground outside the city. This wasn't the first time Mitilda had made Zerik take her outside, but each time she did it reminded her what a horrible experience it was in retrospect to spend an entire day indoors. The constant darkness had made her feel lethargic and somewhat depressed. Seeing the sun again and feeling the natural wind was invigorating.

"So why don't you tell me some stories?" Zerik said. "Someone like you must have some good ones."

"Well, there was this one time I got really mad at a guard - who I nicknamed Nemesis - and I left a message for him in the dirt. It resulted in my brother becoming a true rebel instead of a submissive coward."

"That sounds like an interesting story. Want to tell me the full version?"

She did. Of course she left out any mention of the Greywoods, instead modifying the story so that Jaydin took her back home.

"The forces of good are amazing in that way," Zerik said. "When you take one of them away, it inspires others. The forces of evil are the opposite - when you punish a bad person, the others get scared."

To Mitilda's surprise, Hobart spoke. "Ye ought join the forces of good, Zerik. I think there's already a shard of good in ye."

Zerik seemed genuinely interested. "Really? I... guess I'm flattered. I shouldn't be. I won't accept your offer. Being evil is too easy. But I can feel the pull of conscience."

"You say that but it isn't true," Mitilda said. "You're a monster, Zerik, and Hobart is wrong. You've murdered innocents, imprisoned others, and oppressed thousands for your own selfish reasons."

"Mitilda..." Hobart said. "If he joins the forces of good, that'd be the greatest victory we could ever imagine. Don't turn him away."

"He turned himself away. He'll never repent now."

"Do you ever wonder why we do this?" Zerik asked. "Why we oppress the innocent instead of just pursuing our own pleasure in solitude? It's an act of self-defense."

"Self-defense?!?" Mitilda said. "What the heck are you talking about?"

"If we didn't oppress the innocent and outlaw magic, eventually good people would become powerful enough to be a threat to us, and they would hunt us down to get our power so they could use it for more good."

Zerik had previously mentioned to them how you got a fraction of someone's magic when you killed them. Mitilda and Hobart were silent for a minute, taking in the realization.

"But we would still forgive ye if ye turned to good," Hobart said eventually. "Ye could help us take down the rest of the Voren."

"I know, but like I said, being evil is too easy. I'm sorry."

"Liar," Mitilda said. "You're not sorry for anything. You're an irredeemable monster."

Zerik sighed. "How about I tell you a story? Jaydin might still be alive."

Mitilda's anger turned immediately to hope. "Please, go on."

"So shortly after Jaydin escaped, a rebellion on a neighboring pillar was successful - sort of. They didn't fight the Voren who was their queen, but she fled and requested military aid from me instead of crushing the rebellion herself - as you know, we're not supposed to let the people find out the truth about us unless absolutely necessary."

"Is that where a bunch of your guards went?" Mitilda asked.

"Yes. That was also the reason for the decreased rations - I was storing food for my army along the way."

Mitilda gasped as everything clicked into place. "... so how does Jaydin fit into this?"

"Well, as I led my army to the edge, where I had prepared some wooden transports to get them across the ocean without showing them my power, I met Jaydin and a bunch of the rebels on the edge of this pillar. They climbed down the edge, onto their own wooden transport, and started to row back to their pillar. We pursued them, and after I used my magic to give us an inconspicuous speed boost, we caught them and killed them - all of them except Jaydin, who surrendered. When we made it to the liberated pillar, I assigned one soldier to guard Jaydin as a prisoner while I took the rest of my army up the edge to reconquer it. When I got back, I found both Jaydin and the guard missing. I never found them."

"If only there was a way to establish a telepathy channel with him..." Mitilda said. "Thanks for telling me. You've given me a new wave of hope. Even if Hobart and I never escape, I swear, someday the revolution will succeed."

A story from Jaydin (#3):

"Would someone please play zo with me?" David said one day.

"Gosh," Katherine said, "David you are such a whiner."

"Well sorry for preferring a game of intellect to waiting around for my mana to recharge doing nothing. Hey Jaydin, will you play zo with me when you finish draining your mana?"

"Sure, I guess." I was currently losing to Alistair at air tag. Just then I felt the warning that my mana would be out any second, so I put myself down. "Mana warning..." I said. "Looks like we're done."

"Alright," Alistair said, "that's a 12-7 victory for me. Guess I'm just that much better at this than you."

"Would you -" I started, intending to call him out for bragging when it was clearly just because he had more raw power than me, but then my mana ran out and I collapsed in weakness.

"Finally, an opponent," David said. "Jaydin what are you waiting for? You promised to play me."

I rolled my eyes, unable to speak as I struggled for breath.

David began to determine a random start position. In a minute, I was recovered enough to play with him.

Soon Elijah and Rebeka and Yildirim came down, finished with their 2v1 sparring match, which Yildirim had won. They came to watch the game. "Mind if I comment?" Elijah asked.

We both shook our heads, so he started immediately with "Jaydin should move that zei up-right so he threatens to capture the zoi."

"Drat," David said.

I took the move. With that, I actually managed to win the game, which I hadn't done against David without a handicap in all the time I had been here.

"I've got another philosophical discussion to start," Elijah said when we were done. "If you guys will hear it."

"Is it another completely meaningless one," David asked, "like that one you started once about the origin of the world?"

"No philosophy discussion is meaningless. Anyway, the question is: what do you think happens to people who die?"

To my surprise, Beatrice was the first one to speak. "We never see them again, so it's pretty natural to assume they stop existing."

"But how can that be?" Elijah said. "The person themself wasn't destroyed. People are really just their souls. Our bodies aren't us, they're just an instrument we have. That's like saying a warrior dies when you break their weapon."

"Who says you exist independently of your body?" Beatrice said. "It seems kinda convenient then that you've had that it your entire life."

"I don't remember ever existing without a body, but I also know there was a period of time where I existed with a body that I don't remember."

"Okay, so what do you think happens to people who die?"

"I have no idea. But it has some implications for morality. Like, what if the soul goes on to another world or to some sort of after-life when its body dies? Is death even necessarily a punishment, then? Maybe the afterlife is better than this life! Or, what if, by purging the Voren from this world, we're just cursing another world with their presence?"

"Well what else do you want us to do?" Katherine said. "It's not like capturing and containing the Voren is an option."

"Of course we're doing the right thing, but you gotta wonder, ya know?"

"Well," I said, "at least if they go on to another world they presumably won't have their magic."

Yildirim was looking down, and now looked up. "Thank you, Elijah. You have given me hope again. Maybe I will get to see Katuri one day and explain to her what happened." It gave me some hope too.

I went outside the hideout later that day, and found Rebeka playing music on her wooden flute.

"That's beautiful," I said.

"Yeah. I play this when I get depressed about how long it's already been and how much longer it'll probably be before we're ready to take on the Voren."

"How long have you been here?"

"Eight years."

"Gosh... I can't imagine what that would be like. And Yildirim's been here for decades... Tell me we're close compared to where we were when you joined."

"I don't think so. We're still outnumbered even with all the Greywoods and counting Beatrice, and Yildirim is the only one that's a match for a Voren on his own. I've never fought them so I'm not really equipped to judge, but I think Yildirim expects us to wait at least another decade. Our power just grows so slowly when life is stagnant like this..."

"Drat! I can't wait that long..."

"You can. I thought the same when I was new, but you'll be surprised what you're able to put up with."

I sighed and said nothing. I didn't really believe Rebeka. Surely I would be driven to do something stupid eventually if I had to wait another decade.

"But if I may ask," Rebeka continued, "why does it hurt you so much? It's a good life the way we have it. We've got freedom, plenty of food and leisure, and friends."

"When you say it like that... I don't know. I just... want to fight them! They took my sister and my parents and they oppress thousands! The point of life isn't to stay safe. It's to make the world a better place."

"You've gotten stronger," Rebeka said. "I think you really mean what you say. I'd trust you to stand with us and fight the Voren."

"Thanks. That means a lot. So... that flute thing... could you teach me to play it?"

"Of course."

David came out after a while and heard me playing it. "The forces of good are lucky music exists," he said when I finished. "It's our only way to keep our emotions fueled when we have no events to fuel them. Rebeka, want to go for a flight to lift our spirits?" I was surprised at the change in David's temperament. I wouldn't have guessed he was the same man who was whining for a zo opponent and making jokes earlier.

"Yes..." Rebeka said. "It's been too long."

"Wait!" I said. "I want to come. I'm slow though, and I don't have a lot of mana..."

"You can ride with me," David said.

We flew upward toward the sky. "Jaydin," Rebeka said, "You've never looked down on the world from above the clouds, have you?"

"No. I'd definitely like to."

"Good. We're going to."

"So David," I started after a minute. "Did you or Elijah try magic first?"

"He did... technically. He's older, so the guards told him first. He of course kept it secret from me - he had to or I might not be able to feign surprise well enough when I came of age. I tried it the day I found out, but I've never been able to quite catch up in power, all because the Voren told him first. I've always been mad about that."

"I'm sorry," I said. "You're like a less lucky version of Mitilda... I told her the day they told me before I found out why my parents hadn't already, and she managed to feign surprise well enough."

"Less lucky than the girl who got captured and executed before the revolution even started?"

"Drat," I said, "why did I bring that up... I hope she at least got to cause the king some pain before they executed her."

"Well," David said, "she already got to contribute to the cause indirectly by inspiring you. Besides that, just keep thinking of the day we'll avenge her. And keep practicing your skills. Someday, even if it's years from now, you'll be able to face your former king in combat and make him pay."


We made it to the clouds. It was incredibly cold up here, and we were all casting heat magic on ourselves. I was also surprised that the clouds didn't really look like anything up close. The downward view, however, was spectacular.

"Say," I asked, "has anyone ever tried going farther up? Has anyone ever touched the sky?"

"Yildirim has," Rebeka said. "Not actually touched it - that would be stupid - but made it all the way up. He says he tried to snuff a hole in it and get through, but there was no apparent end and he had to turn back."

"Huh... so what about below? He ever tried to reach the bottom of the ocean?"

"Yep. Wall of earth and dangerous edge guardians that can breathe water."

David added, "And to the sides, the water goes on as far as the eye can see, along with dangerous storms once you leave the circle of pillars."

"I wonder if it's infinite... I guess we'd never know if it was. Well, thanks for taking me up here."

A story from Mitilda (#4):

Mitilda, Hobart and Zerik were talking over a game of Zo one day. "I just wish I could talk you two out of being good people," Zerik said. "I like you. You're fun. But you're a threat."

"Just stop," Mitilda said. "I don't want to hear your garbage any more."

Zerik sighed. "I guess I can't have my cake and eat it too. Even when one rules the world, there are still things to be desired. It's amazing how insatiable humans are."

Mitilda and Hobart agreed on a move. Hobart spoke. "Doesn't ye want to at least try being a good person? Does ye even know what it feels like?"

"I gave up my memories for immortality, but I'm sure I was a good person at some point in my life. I turned away from it, so I must have thought it wasn't worth the satisfaction."

"Would you just make a move," Mitilda said.

Zerik did. "What if I start a conversation about something less stale? Here's a question: what is the highest virtue?"

"... Courage," Mitilda said after a minute. She wanted to add something to support this, but nothing came to mind.

"See?" Hobart said. "Ye is so fascinated by the idea of morality that ye wants to talk about it all the time even though ye doesn't practice it."

"Well, I can't talk about this with anyone else, because no one else is a good person. I've talked about other philosophical questions with the other Voren - like what the cardinal emotions are - and we've had some very interesting discussions. But bad people aren't qualified to discuss this question. So Hobart, what's your answer?"

"I think they're all equal."

"Do you even know which ones there are?" Zerik asked.

Mitilda answered first again. "I'd say there are three: Courage, Kindness, and Justice. Kindness is about treating the innocent well, Justice is about treating scum like you poorly, and Courage is about treating yourself like the expendable instrument of the forces of good you are."

Zerik smiled. "I like that theory. You've always been a prodigy at light magic, right?"

"Yeah. How did you know?"

"It's because you're brave. Courage powers light magic."

Mitilda and Hobart exchanged an amazed look. "I bet Justice powers heat," Mitilda said. "G-"

She just barely stopped herself before she blew Gabriel's cover. She breathed hard for a minute. "That was close."

Zerik laughed. "Nice catch. Not that it really matters. Whoever your friend is, they'll be caught eventually."

"You're wrong. We'll overthrow you."

"Whatever. Make a move, please."

That night, Mitilda was ready to try flying up to the top of the shaft. She had been saving her mana to make sure it was full, and had even pre-conjured the small slab of rock to stand on. "Wish me luck," she said to Hobart as she got into position.

"I do. And if ye can't make it and doesn't have enough mana to get back down, I'll be ready to catch the platform."

Mitilda started to levitate. She made it up to the top of the shaft before running out of mana, and then managed to undo the lock. Time to -

A growling sound from up in Zerik's room. She froze for a moment to listen. Sounds of feet padding around. There was some kind of guard dog or something up there.

Of course... Zerik wouldn't make it that easy for them to escape and assassinate him at the same time. Time to go back down and think of another plan. She didn't have enough mana to make it all the way back down safely, so she just let herself fall, capping her speed with magic, until she got close to the ground and Hobart could start helping decelerate her.

"Couldn't undo the lock?" Hobart asked.

"No, I got the lock, but then I heard sounds. There's some sort of guard dog up there that will bark and wake him if we go through the door."

"Then we need a new escape plan," Hobart said.

Mitilda smiled. She really had influenced Hobart. He wasn't doomsaying anymore, as he would have been if this had happened a few months ago.

"And I've already got one," she said. "Just a slight modification. Instead of going through the door, we'll go through the rock by vanishing it with magic. We'll fly most of the way up the shaft and then tunnel through the wall to come up elsewhere in the palace."

"Sounds good. As soon as ye has ye's mana back, we should start making progress."

A story from Jaydin (#4):

"You two are becoming much more skilled," Yildirim said after me and Alistair finished a sparring match one day. "I believe you are ready to fight the strongest edge guardians now."

"Sounds fun," Alistair said. "Where are they?"

"This pillar."

"What are they?" I asked.

"No wait," Alistair said, "don't spoil the surprise! We can handle it."

"These guardians are quite dangerous if you don't know what you are getting into," Yildirim said. "I believe I should spoil the surprise."

"Agh, fine."

"They are called dragons. They fly, are extremely strong and fast, and spit a harmful acid. A very harmful acid."

"Sounds like nothing we can't handle," Alistair said.

"Let us hope so. If you get the acid on you, the best immediate countermeasure is to cool it. I know of a better remedy from the days of the old Sentinels, but it takes time."

"We should bring the Greywoods," I said. I knew Gabriel in particular wouldn't want to be left out of our first time hunting the strongest edge guardians.

"Agreed." Yildirim contacted them telepathically. That night, we all gathered on the edge of the center pillar.

The edge of the pillar was flat grassland for quite a distance until some hills and then what was apparently called a mountain at the center. The dragons were roaming the edge, and saw us approaching. They even started to gather where we were headed to.

"They're ganging up on us?" Nayomi said.

"You're ganging up on them," David said with a smile. "Good luck." He and the other Sentinels let go of our platforms to give us control - they had been carrying us here so that we could make it in a reasonable time frame.

We each started conjuring our strongest plasma - neon for me, sky for Sarah and Nayomi and Harold, fire for Gabriel, lightning for Alistair. As we began to attack them, they attacked back immediately.

The wave of acid came fast. Most of us were quick enough to telekinet it away, but Harold got some on him. He retreated a bit, screaming in pain and cooling it as Yildirim had said.

The dragons displayed some actual tactics as we continued to shoot plasma at them. We had been able to mostly block the first volley of acid because they were all coming from the same direction, so they spread out, some of them weaving among us. It also made it impossible for us to focus our fire to take them out faster, since they were just moving and circling too fast.

I flew away a bit, trying to get them all in the same direction from me again. The dragons didn't mind me. Several others of us were stung by the acid while I shot neon from a safe distance. "Spread out!" I called to my friends. "Don't let them swarm us like that!"

They noticed what I was doing and followed my lead. Each of us ended up mostly tangling with just a single dragon, which made it easier to block the acid. I was doing pretty well against mine until I forgot that the acid spit wasn't their only attack, and flew too close to it. It clawed me.

It was every bit as painful as one would expect it to be. I looked in horror at the huge 3-clawed slash drawn across my chest as I flew away, cooling it just to try to ease the pain. I was barely even faster than the dragon, and flying this fast took all of my magic, preventing me from shooting neon at the same time. When it spit more acid at me, I had to stop flying away to deflect it, and barely managed to launch myself to the side in time to dodge its next claw attack.

Finally another opening to shoot some neon. I aimed for its head.

I got a good hit in before I needed to turn back to defense, burning its eyes with the intense darkness. After that it had a hard time hitting me. I was able to fit in more attacking soon, and eventually killed it before taking another hit.

Now I could fully focus on the pain of my wound. I flew away toward where Yildirim and the other full-fledged Sentinels were hovering to receive medical treatment.

"Not bad," David said as he began to bandage my wound. "Though it looks like we'll have to fix your clothes too when we have time."

When we were all finished fighting the dragons, we set down on the edge of the pillar to rest and treat our wounds. "Yildirim," Nayomi said while she applied his cure to her acid burns, "how do you know the edge guardians and other animals aren't conscious? You said the Voren made that up, but you can't know that for sure. And even if they did, that doesn't stop it from being true."

"Do you believe rocks are sentient?" Yildirim said.

"Rocks don't move and react to pain."

"That is true. There is no way to definitively prove it. We would never know the difference between a 'half-sentient' being like the Voren taught you and an unconscious animated thing."

"Actually," Elijah said, "I don't think that kind of 'half-sentient' being could even exist. It seems strange to think you can have a being which is an object of morality but not a subject - actions against it can be immoral but not actions it commits."

Nayomi thought on that for a minute. "That's a good point. But on the contrary, you can't program a rock with magic. You can only reprogram what's already animated. That seems to kind of prove that they are different from rocks."

That bothered me too now that she mentioned it. It made quite a bit of sense that you couldn't create consciousness, but could reprogram a "half-sentient" being like that.

"Couldn't it just be that human magic is limited?" Elijah said. "Or, the Voren already seem to know at least one thing about magic we don't - how to live forever. Maybe there is a way to program rocks and we just don't know it."

"Still," Nayomi said, "we can't be certain. We shouldn't be killing the edge guardians."

"You don't have to do it yourself," Katherine said, "but you don't have the power to stop the other trainees."

I spoke up. "I won't do it from now on either. Nayomi is right - we can't be sure, and it isn't essential to our growth in power."

"Very well," Yildirim said. "I -"

"Count me in," Rebeka said. "It's always bothered me, but I suppressed my doubts. Nayomi's argument was what I needed to justify my feelings."

"Okay," Katherine said, "but I think you're wrong, so I'm going to keep hunting edge guardians for meat. Are you going to try to stop me?"

"Rebeka," I asked. "Do you think it's possible the three of us could take her?"

"It does not matter, you idiots!" Yildirim said before either could answer, sounding genuinely angry for the first time in my memory. "If we start killing each other over this, the world is doomed regardless of who wins! Katherine, we will just stop hunting edge guardians. We cannot risk infighting."

Eat that, Katherine! It felt so good to have Yildirim take my side against her.

"Very well," Katherine said. "It seems you'll have your way. Before we drop it, I just want you to know I'm not angry at you for this."

"Thank you for understanding," Nayomi said, her reaction starkly contrasting with mine and putting me to shame. "I realize we're probably wrong, and I'm sorry for the trouble this causes all of us."