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Author: zamakhtar

Zamil Akhtar is an indie speculative fiction author based in Dubai, UAE, where he lives with his wife and pet rabbit. Of Pakistani-heritage, he grew up in the Middle East and moved to Western Massachusetts when he was thirteen, and his varied upbringing colors his fiction. He has a BBA in Marketing from the University of Massachusetts and an MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University. His loves are horror movies, HBO dramas, and video games.


That day, blood drenched the sky. At first, the cloud seemed like a strange thing in the distance, just a blotch of red drawn onto heaven’s canvas by an angel. As it approached, the screams from within shook my ironed heart. The unholy blood cloud drifted down from the northeast, over us, and toward the desert depths.

Herakon said he witnessed arms and legs and heads poking out of it. The priest, Yohan, swore he saw a giant human eye open in its folds. My tactician, Markos, was adamant that tentacles, bubbling with yet more eyes, grabbed at the sparrows passing by. But all I beheld was blood, coursing through the bulbous cloud as if through veins in a wrestler’s arm.

Thankfully, it did not rain upon us. An Abyad tribesman we’d captured said that a few years ago, a blood cloud had floated to an oasis oft frequented by desert travelers, where it then wept. Was the parched desert soil grateful for a drink of blood instead of water? According to the Abyad, mere hours after that blood rain, skulls with living eyes sprouted out of the ground. Such a place was cursed for all time, he said, until the “Great Terror remakes us all in fire.”

The Zelthuriyan Desert was cursed. Cursed with false faith. Cursed by the Fallen Angels themselves. But their tricks would not terrify me. I, the Opener, prophesied by the apostles in Angelsong, would not flee. No — I came to break and conquer, and no fright for lesser souls would turn me from my path.

And so on the very day the Apostle Benth was born, in the month of the angel Dumah — the Silent Destroyer — we arrived at the mountains of Zelthuriya. They were red, as if baked from blood-soaked clay, and steep and towering, stronger than any wall. The Latians believe that a tribe of Fallen Angels called the Efreet molded this cavernous city for them, so they could worship their demoness amid the safety of rock.

Today, we would prove that nothing is safe from divine light. That men of true faith can level even mountains. Our host, seventy thousand strong, would not be deterred, not by blood clouds nor desert heat nor a wall a league tall, chiseled by demons made of smokeless flame.

To face our seventy thousand, the saint-king cowering behind the mountain sent one: a young man, cool-eyed and fair-haired. A look more common to the icelands than this dismal desert.

He came alone, wearing a robe of chafed, carded wool grayer than a rat. He was barefoot, his soles unscorched by the fiery sand. His beard was light brown, his build wiry, and his stare without fear.

Whereas I was covered in chain and plate and helmeted like a true commander of legions.

The magus stood straight-backed, prayer stones in his hand. A light breeze whipped up the sand between us.

“Peace, Basil the Breaker,” he said in perfect Crucian. “That’s what they call you, isn’t it?” His voice rang like iron, yet flowed like honey.

“It is.”

“Why? What did you break?”

“A lot of walls. A few hearts, too.”

“But you’ve never broken a mountain.”

“I will if you don’t surrender,” I said, getting to the heart of the matter. “Spare your people a butchering. Should you defy us, we won’t leave a single soul alive in this wasteland. We’ve come a long way and are hungry to offer our lives and yours in service to the Archangel.”

“Then you will all die in the shadow of these hallowed mountains.”

I expected obstinance. But with age, I’d grown less willing to delight in it. If only they knew that they were destined to lose, we could all spare each other the suffering.

“I’ve just journeyed from Qandbajar, seat of your saint-king, who fled like a rat does from fire. History will say that we were merciful — soon as the city guard flung open the gates, we spared them and the common folk and even your shrines. Qandbajar will be all the better under my rule. The same conditions I gladly give to Zelthuriya.”

“You see yourself as a merciful man.” He clacked his prayer stones, which were on a string.

Was he scoffing at my words? “It is not my own mercy, but the Archangel’s. We are not here to eradicate you or your faith. We will spare your holy city and the tombs of your saints and the rights and lives of residents and pilgrims. But only if you surrender.”

“Zelthuriya does not have a door. You’re welcome to send your legions through the passage. It is always open. Always providing a welcome to the weary.”

“A welcome of iron, no doubt. Your passage fits — at most — ten men across. Surely the remnants of your saint-king’s army will be lying in wait. You could defend it against a million men.”

“And knowing this, you still came?” The magus spread out his hands. The faintest smile formed on his face. “Why?”

“Because I can surround your mountains from all sides. You aren’t growing any crops in there. How long before you all have to suckle on bone? Two, maybe three moons?”

“We won’t starve, Imperator Basil. You have a host of seventy thousand — I have a tribe of jinn who will fling lightning at you. Who will ensure we are fed and fine. All I need do is command them.”

“If you’re as mighty as you claim, where were you when I drowned the saint-king’s host in the Vogras?”

“I was here, fulfilling my duty. You’re not the only danger this city needs protection from. Speaking of — do take care whilst you’re camping in the desert. The Abyad tribes are given to feuding with each other. Poisoning water wells and hoarding desert game. Though they are a hospitable folk, they might not see you as guests. I give you one moon, and that’s without considering what the jinn will do.”

I snickered. “The Fallen Angels cannot be allowed to poison the hearts and minds of men. I, the Opener, will see them ended. By whatever power I can call upon.”

If only I could sense some emotion from him. Though from his twitching mustache, he did seem to be chewing on my words.

“Tell me,” he said, “did you see the blood cloud drift southward?”

“I saw it.”

“And did you take it as an ill-omen, or as a portent of victory?”

“More than a portent of our victory — it was a sign for you. The god who has kept you safe, the otherworldly powers that have aided you…” I pointed to the sky. “There is something more watching.”

The magus bit his dry bottom lip. “You speak of the Uncreated.”

“Indeed. I do.”

He sighed, long and sharp, the first real crack in his placidity. “When I was a child in the icelands, I beheld things that even now I struggle to put into words. The people there do not veil their gods with virtues and holiness. They worship them raw, for the power and the plainness of their signs.”

“Then heed me. To save ourselves, we must all dwell beneath the same tent. I am offering you shelter.”

“The tribes who lived near the Red River worshipped the Uncreated.” He kept prattling on, ignoring my generous offer. “I learned long ago to be afraid of it. Of what it could manifest into our world. Not by design, but merely by dwelling on its bizarre form.”

“Then you know why I am doing what I am doing. Zelthuriya stands against my mission to spread the faith that will save us all to the ends of the earth. I must clear all obstinance from my path.”

“As I recall, it says in Angelsong that the Uncreated appointed the Archangel and the Twelve Holies to rule this plane, before uncreating itself. Even it preferred lesser angels to be the sole objects of worship.”

A stronger gust sent sand whispering across my plate. I dusted it off. The magus let it cover his eyebrows and hair.

I didn’t want to discuss theology. I’d the patience for one final appeal, and hoped to make it a good one. “You Latians indulge in all manner of blood magic and demon binding. You sully your hearts daily with arcane teachings brought down as trials by the angel Marot. Do you think there is no cost to power? It is no wonder blood clouds find a home here. But I can save you from that. And only I can save this world from its creator. It is what I was chosen to do. I do not delight in death, but I will destroy all in my way — even mountains filled with jinn.”

The magus clasped his hands. I feared he was conjuring magic, so I stepped back.

“Be at ease.” He let out a resigned sigh. “It seems our conversation proved as fruitless as tilling the sand. Do your worst, Imperator Basil the Breaker. I await you in the Shrine of Saint Chisti. Oh, and I hope you and your legionaries won’t get lost on the way. Those narrow passages do go on and on.”

I could only smile at his determination. “One way or another, I will bring low your godless mountain.”


I returned to our camp, which we’d set upon a coarse bed of shrubs and watering holes that stretched for miles. My men were busy preparing for the siege. Hunting parties led by all the Abyad tribesmen we’d hired roamed the scrub for desert deer. Legionaries dug trenches around the perimeter, then filled them with spikes, so we’d suffer no raid at our flanks or back. The camp prefects surveyed the land for water, and ordered new wells dug where appropriate.

The truth was, if the Zelthuriyans did not surrender, we’d struggle to survive a siege as much as they. The desert was not bountiful by nature, and seventy thousand mouths could not guzzle sand. Worst of all — few of us were used to the rageful heat of the day, or the sudden shift to a bitter, biting cold come moonrise. Surviving the desert took special skills and an even more peculiar constitution, which us folk from fairer lands lacked.

We’d no shortage of zeal, though. The unshakable truth which we each stood upon. After a decade of succession wars in which I defeated three Saturni pretenders, none but I had finally united the lands of the Ethosians. And we’d united for one purpose: to push east to the waterfall at the edge of the earth, and to open all hearts we’d cross to the faith, as portended in Angelsong.

I walked into my tent and poured ice water into a silver cup. My throat had swallowed enough sand during my short conversation with the magus, and even more disappointment. He did not sound like a man willing to relent, unlike the guards manning Qandbajar’s circle wall. Some men are bought with gold, others with fear, and yet more with common sense. What the magus’ currency was, I could not say. If it was as my own — if it was faith itself that had hired him, then we were in for a long siege.

I sat on my unfolded stool and took the water into my mouth. I let it settle on my dry throat, crunched the ice with my teeth, and swallowed. The ice we’d brought would not last the length of the siege, so it was an enjoyment I ought to savor.

An iron-clad legionary poked his head in. “Legate Tomas to see you, Lord Imperator.”

I nodded. “Let him come.”

Tomas strode in, still wearing his regal robes, spun of wool from his lavish estate on the breezy seaside of Deimos. The fur accenting the collar of his silver and rose shirt seemed suffocating, as did that turquoise bauble around his neck. From how sweat-soaked he was, and from his pungency, he obviously had not acclimated to the desert.

“How did it go?” he asked.

“The Zelthuriyans will stay in their caves and resist.”

“No surprise. And have you given thought to my proposal?”

His proposal. I wanted to spit on his silver sandals. To simply march past Zelthuriya, into the eastern lands, and down unto the peninsula of Kashan — wherein it was said they worship blood gods even stranger than those of the Yunan icelands — was a cowardly tactic.

We’d already spent a year conquering Himyar and Labash. Though taking Himyar was a bloody struggle, the Labashites surrendered quickly, and their Negus even accepted the Archangel into his heart.

“We did not come for the wealth of the east,” I said. “We came for their hearts and souls.”

“But with their wealth — and ever more hearts and souls — we can return to Zelthuriya stronger. I hear the Kashanese have tamed mighty mammoths for use in war.”

“We are already strong. And Kashan will be no walk through a pleasure garden. They say wormrot plagues the land. Better to wait that out before marching through its jungles. At least a year.”

“A year in this heat. Watching the mountains and waiting for the Zelthuriyans to surrender. When it is said that many don’t even need to eat or drink. That their faith nourishes them.”

“I am committed to this course, Legate. Best you and the others expend every resource to ensure this siege a triumph.”

From Tomas’ ugly scowl, it was obvious he did not appreciate my resolve. He rarely did. During the succession wars, he was oft counted among one faction or another opposing mine. Except for that rainy summer — now twelve moons ago — when we briefly aligned to snuff out the Brine Lord of Dycondi. But even after that victory, Tomas rushed to align against me, until I was the only power left to align with.

Still, I added him to my stable of allies. You can never have enough. I’d witnessed others inflict vengeance for reasons both petty and noble, and so knew well the folly of punitive retribution — though some exceptions had to be made for terrible men. Ultimately, I’d triumphed by being a unifier. I called to the foundation we all stood upon, the Ethos faith, and made it the unshakable pillar upon which I hoisted my Eight-Legged Banner. And in doing so, I did not discriminate between enemies and allies. An endless war only ended the day all surrendered to crown me.

And then we pushed east. Men that for decades had slaughtered each other now together slaughtered the infidel. But even with unbelievers, I preferred to make common cause. It would not be faith that united us — yet — but a baser calling: safety in body and wealth. I would keep the people of Qandbajar safe, something their saint-king failed to do, and thus win their loyalty before our faith won their hearts.

“Tomas.” I snapped my fingers. “Where is my son?”

“Doran is helping build the trenchworks.”

“Getting his hands sandy, is he?”

“As you well know, the boy — or rather man, given how broad his shoulders have become — leads by example. Rather like his father.”

I beamed, despite Tomas’ obvious ingratiation. His tongue was oft honeyed. Whenever it wasn’t — like a few minutes ago — you knew he was expressing his true yearnings and fears.

“I would spend an hour in prayer,” I said. “After, I’ll take questions from all and hear any concerns. We will do this siege right, as we did when saving Kostany from the Saturni and their pompous pyromancers.”

That was a hard-won siege. Kostany’s walls might not be mountains, but they were the next best thing: high, thick, and worst of all, deep. The imperator who’d built them a hundred years ago was said to have drawn the designs himself, though he’d no background in engineering or wall works. Rather, the specifications came to him in a divine dream, in which the angel Malak promised him pillars as sturdy as his own. Those walls had kept Kostany safe from khagans and raiders. But they could not keep it safe from me, which further proved my chosen purpose.

“I don’t doubt your earnestness.” Given the softness of Tomas’ tone, he was ready to relent. While an ambitious man, he no longer let ambition outstrip practicality. Opposing me was simply bad for his health, and the health of his house and children, and he knew it well. Especially after I’d slain two of his sons in battle. He’d known it now for over a decade, and so had everyone in my assembly of prefects, legates, and priests. That was the only way to rule: show those with ambition their highest seat was just beneath yours, and to even attempt to rise would guarantee ruin.

“But you do doubt something,” I said. “What would it take to ease your heart?”

“I’m afraid after sighting that blood cloud, nothing can ease my heart save my featherbed in Deimos.”

“You’re not the only one shaken by such nasty omens. The east is darkened by sorceries. Beguiled by demons. We must be ready for worse. Our holy fire will chase all rats out of their roosts. We must armor our hearts with faith as we do our bodies with iron.”

“You are wise, Lord Imperator. But the Abyad translator…” Tomas shuddered, his jaw stuck in fear or hesitation.

“What did he say?”

“He said the blood cloud comes from a land deep in the Endless Waste. A cursed crack in the earth called the God Sea. He said those born beneath such clouds are blessed with the power to write with blood. And he said there are tribes of these bloodwriters nearby, in the Vogras, and that they will not leave us alone for attacking this unholy city.”

“The Vogras… that’s a few days’ ride. No matter. We’ll root out those who failed Marot’s trial.”

“And if we come against blood magic? What equal do we have?”

“‘Before faith, all darkness flees.So it is written in Angelsong.”

“I have found darkness to be unmoving. It is the light that comes and goes.”

He was anxious. No Crucian army had ever gone this deep into Latian lands, so we all ought to be wary.

“I know we are each uneasy to be far from our hearths and harvests. But I unified Crucis and the Ethos with this very purpose. To fulfill prophecy. Nowhere in Angelsong is it written that such things are easy. No, it will be a greater trial of faith than any before or after.”

Tomas nodded in his slow, thoughtful way. “Even the priests lack such reassuring words. I have always found it difficult to have faith, especially when faced with such bottomless suffering. But today, I will count myself among the faithful. I’ll do my utmost to reassure the legions.”

“Thank you, Tomas. Your service is ever appreciated.”

At that, he left me to my prayers. I knelt, closed my eyes, and pictured the Archangel in my heart, as I’d done since I was a boy. My faith was the only thing that had not changed, not since the day my father first took me to the chapel. It was still the faith of that innocent heart, and carried with it the same childish hopes.

And yet, now when I pictured the Archangel, his wings vast across the clouds, his many eyes watching the world from every possible angle, there was something else. Something dark in heaven above. Something that no light could illuminate. And it was vast, as if encompassing a thousand thousand leagues. Worse, it was growing. Growing and encroaching. Soon, it would cover everything, and no longer could we avert our gaze.

We’d have to face it.


That night, someone shook my shoulders till I woke from a dreamless sleep.

“Lord Imperator, the blood cloud has returned.” My son’s ever-deepening voice.

“Doran.” I sat up in my pallet and reached for my water jug, hoping to ease my nighttime dryness. But as soon as I sipped, I spat it out.

That was not water. Too metallic and viscous. And judging by the stain on my blanket, too red.

“Father, we must flee.” He was six and ten years, but the fear in his cheeks made him seem no older than ten. His dark curls dropped onto his bulging shoulders, hardened from laboring like any man in my army.

“Flee? From what?”

“The cloud. The cloud of blood and screams. Don’t you hear it, Father?”

I stilled and focused on the rustling breeze. Behind it lay something else… wails. Shrieks. As if an entire city were boiling alive. Men, women, and children, bathing in their own enflamed blood and innards. And it came from above.

I stood and grabbed my spatha, as if it could protect me from a cloud. Still, I felt safer strapping it to my belt. With my son at my side, I went through the tent flap and stepped onto the sand of the Zelthuriyan Desert.

The sky was a bulbous, bubbling red. It covered all corners, as if an evil god had unrolled a blood-soaked carpet above us. Now I saw those arms and legs, dipping in and out of the cloud, as if those suffering within yearned for escape, only to be pulled inside by whatever demons stirred that cauldron.

I swallowed, tasting the blood I’d sipped earlier. “That magus must’ve directed it back here. He means to chase us away. It is but a vain trick.”

“Father, this is no trick. All the water in the wells has turned red. Every morsel of food is bursting with rotten, black blood.”

“This is the evil we came to destroy, Doran. If I run from it, then how can I call myself the Opener?”

“How will we eat or drink? Would you have us sup upon something so vile?”

“There is worse in this world, my son. I have beheld such. I see it even in my prayers. There is a darkness vast, one that was not created, but rather is threaded into the fabric of everything.”

My handsome son scrunched his eyes and shook his head. How black his hair was, and yet it curled, unlike mine or his mother’s. Neither were we a family so broadly built as him, with such staunch chins and wavy brows.

“What would you have us do, Father?”

“Tell the men to stand upon the faith. This cloud will pass, as all do. Our zeal will outlast it. Then, we will commence our siege and put an end to such sorceries and demonic tricks for all time. Anyone — and I mean anyone — who runs will be hunted down, and shall taste their own blood in their throats. I will cut their necks slow, and I’ll proclaim their dishonor in every corner of Holy Crucis, such that even their own mothers will curse their names.”

I went about the camp shouting, “Steel your faith! These are but the guiles of the Fallen. Do not fear, for we have the angels at our backs!”

To the credit of my men, none fled. Many held hands with their brothers and hymned the holy verses of Angelsong, all while staring defiantly at the sky, as if their words could send that blood cloud on its way. But I knew it would be a harder trial than that.

I sighted Tomas on the back of a camel. The Abyad translator sat at the front as the camel raised its long neck. The beast was laden with wooden cases and fabric rolls.

“Where are you going, Legate?” I asked, my face level with his silver shoes.

“Lord Imperator, you must give the command to flee. We ought to make for Qandbajar and return here only once this cloud has passed.”

I sighed with disappointment. “If this is all it takes to make us flee, they’ll do this again when we return. The magus is playing his trick, and we must outlast it.”

“This is not a trick,” the Abyad translator said in his crooked lilt. He was a young man with a swirl-shaped scar beneath one eye, whom we’d employed because he spoke many languages of both west and east. “The magi are as much at the mercy of these things as us. Even the jinn flee in the face of such evil. My people tell a story — strange things that live within the God Sea are stirred every seven hundred or so years. This cloud was born from the God Sea itself, and so we are right to fear what it may bring.”

I drew my sword and brandished it at his kidney, the tip jutting into his tapestried robe. “I fear only the angels. And they fear nothing. You will cease inspiring cowardice, or I will water the sand with your innards.”

“Go ahead. I’d rather die than live through what’s about to happen here.”

“And what’s about to happen?” I asked. “All it’s doing is floating. Maybe it’ll rain some, but so what? We are each soldiers. Do you think we have not bathed in blood, our own and others? Do you think we haven’t suffered a symphony of screams? We have brought more screams to this earth than any cloud.”

“You’ve let your arrogance blind you.” The Abyad tugged one end of his jade turban. “Doubtless, this blood cloud is here to punish you. It is an ill-fate that sees me trapped in your orbit.”

“Get down off that camel,” I ordered. “The cloud is a fright, for true. But I’m far more terrifying. Don’t make me prove it.”

“Your blade will give me one death. I say that’s better than the many-fold deaths up there.”

I wound my arm to stab the camel through the neck before they could flee. But then the sky flashed, as if lightning had erupted across the blood cloud.

We all looked up.

The cloud billowed. It breathed. Its breadth extended for miles, and as the screams loudened, a haze drifted downward at speed.

“It’s coming!” Tomas shouted. “Archangel save us!”

Most of my legionaries stood in their irons, facing the descending blood cloud with prayers on their tongues. But for some, the sight of those oily, eyeball-filled tentacles slithering within it was too much. They ran, scattering across the sands, as if that would save them.

As for me, I’d been warned about these terrors. About what the Uncreated could conjure from its perch outside of time and creation. I’d even seen them in my prayers, of all places. I stared straight as red fog immersed us, thickening until it was as suffocating as smoke.

And for a moment, the screams and prayers ceased. Everything was silent.

Everything was still. I stood alone in a bloody haze, my lower half obscured by its thickness. A sudden chill breezed onto my bones, and as I shuddered, the stench of molten copper and ungodly rot assaulted my nose.

“So this is it,” I said. “Not such a terror. Let it pass. By the Archangel, let it pass.”

And then it began to thin, and we found ourselves somewhere else.

Lightblade | Chapter 2

Despite the cold, I woke up sweating. My soggy underarm itched. My throat ached, and I swallowed painfully. I pulled my blanket over me, but it wasn’t much more than a papery sheet, so I still shivered from the chill winds whispering through the wall cracks.

My room — if you could call it that — was barely bigger than me. A stiff mattress, a wooden chest for clothes, and a flaky cardboard box filled with knick-knacks: the sum of my existence.

Before I awoke, something had bothered me: a question. I tapped my forehead as if that would reveal it.

What drove me over the edge?

Why did I decide to kill Emperor-Raja Sanga Surapsani? I hated him like everyone else, but a gulf existed between hate and murder. How wide that gulf was, I didn’t know.

I’d had my dream stone modified from a companionship program to a lightblade training program. I couldn’t quite finger the memory that pushed me over the edge and made me take such a crazy, irreversible step. Haze suffocated my recollection of the past few weeks.

Could the bootleg modification have scrambled my memories? Damaged dream stones could cause memory loss, but if so, what other memories was I missing?

I pondered it as I shivered. The light of ever-dusk peeking through my window painted spindly shadows on the walls. So long as I lived here, I was better off dead. I was a slave building weapons for a cruel king. I was a cog in an evil machine. As I’d lived serving an evil bastard, why not die doing good?

I felt so certain about my hatred. But hatred alone wasn’t enough reason to assassinate someone. What had changed? Why couldn’t I remember?

It was almost time for work, so I pulled the dream stone from my chest slot. Its inner light throbbed, then weakened from a strong orange to a bleak tangerine. Being stoneless, even for a moment, disconnected me from the sun’s spectrum. The world turned gray. The air itself lost its shimmer.

I reached into the cardboard box for my machinist stone: a dull green crystal. I pushed it into the slot in front of my heart. An electric jolt jittered my bones.

The air tinted green. Just what I was used to.

Got up to wash. Left my room and walked down the cold hall to the bathroom. A fellow worker was facing a mirror and shaving with a rusted blade. We weren’t allowed to keep beards, but I’d shaven yesterday and could get away with stubble roughening my cheeks.

“Jyosh,” the worker said with a smile. His name was Rahal. “Dream anything good?”

That was all anyone talked about. Well, life was either spent working or dreaming, and talking about what commands we’d inputted into the fabricators wasn’t exactly a more interesting topic.

“The usual.” I doused my face with brownish sink water. It stung slightly.

“Oh? You’re up early, though. Had a fight with the wife? What was her name again?”

The wife, whom I’d deleted to make space for the lightblade training program, was always agreeable… too agreeable. Dream companions, as far as I knew, were programmed that way.

I rubbed my barely alive brown eyes, then stared at myself in the mirror. My face seemed longer and more skull-like than last time. We’d been getting less food to eat than usual. “Zau… Prisaya.”

“Oh yeahhh. My mother’s name was Prisaya. Not liking the image. Say no more.” Rahal snorted water up and out of his nose.

He’d been at camp a few weeks, whereas I’d been here over a decade. He was older, though, and so his hair had grayed more than mine, especially at the front. I wondered whether men in their twenties elsewhere had gray hair; but really, I was too ignorant of the outside world to know. Perhaps they had blue hair.

Rahal also had a bit of upper ear missing, like a dog that had survived a fight. He’d never told me what happened, but it gave his face character, as did the pockmarks beneath his round eyes.

“I was searching this underwater shipwreck for the fifth time,” he said. “Saw a golden mermaid — didn’t know my dream stone had one in its memory. Weird, eh? But when I tried to follow her, there was some kind of… error, and I woke up. Couldn’t go back to sleep.”

I stuck my wet fingers beneath my eyes and tried to rub the tiredness away. “Mermaids? Really?” I’d seen bears dancing on sharks in my dream stone, but that was because it’d been modified. “Why would an error manifest that way?”

Manifest. Look at you using a thousand emiril word. Hah!”

I’d gotten a highborn education until I was twelve, so I knew a few expensive words, though I probably didn’t use them right. Most here at camp never had a formal education, but Rahal seemed a bit sharper than the average laborer.

I disrobed and used a bucket and pail to wash myself. No soap today — there hadn’t been any for three months. Whatever factories produced soap in Maniza had probably been converted to making weapons. Same reason we barely had food to eat. What was happening in the outside world… was Emperor Sanga going to war?

Rahal buttoned on his uniform: a sleeveless navy shirt and loose navy pants. He brushed his shoulders and buttoned his collar, obviously trying to look somewhat decent. A few days ago, I’d been like him, content enough to go through the motions of daily life. As content as one could be in hell. Living for my dreams, living for something false. Though for Rahal and the others, perhaps dreams were more real than the waking world.

“You’re tired, eh?” Rahal said.

When had I not been tired? Must’ve been years ago. “I suppose.”

“When’s your next day off?”

I held up all ten fingers.

“Lucky you. Mine isn’t for a month.” Rahal grinned; he had a much fuller set of teeth than the average laborer. “Next time, we should request the same day off. Would be fun to have a beer or two.”

That did seem nice. But as nice as it seemed, warning sirens sounded in my mind as if a light cannon strike was imminent.

“I’d enjoy that,” I said. “Beer is good. Perhaps we will. Certainly we will.”

Best to remain polite. I made a mental note to avoid having the same day off as Rahal. I could never be certain of someone’s intentions here. I’d learned that early on. There was a thing shrewd people did: have a few beers, get someone tipsy or drunk, and then watch the words flow. If a single word was a shadow of treason, you could be rewarded for reporting it. Rewarded with emirils, better living conditions, or — most cherished of all — a ticket out of the camp, back into society. Whatever that looked like, now.

I didn’t know Rahal’s heart, so I just nodded and smiled and pretended to appreciate his camaraderie. Perhaps it was genuine. Perhaps it wasn’t. Best to assume the worst of everyone if you wanted to survive.


Breakfast was curry. Or more accurately, a tasteless, brown goop with burnt pepper and a rather acidic mystery spice. Cleaning fluid, perhaps?

I scarfed it down, then left the mess hall and went outside.

The walk from my dorm to the factory provided respite. Best part of my day, to stare at the distant mountains and dream that I might one day climb them. That I might one day be free. I looked up at the sky, which was always the color of a swollen bruise. In the Duskland, the sun loomed at the horizon eternally, always filling the sky with red.

And yet, with a machinist stone in my chest, I could absorb green — and only green — waves from the sun’s spectrum. The air appeared to have a green tint.

I was only supposed to know how to conduct green. But because of the dream training last night, I sort of knew how to conduct red as well. Still, the machinist stone in the slot near my heart couldn’t absorb red. I’d need to get my hands on a combat stone to absorb and conduct red light. I’d also need a sword hilt. Only then could I create a lightblade in the real world.

From the outside, the factory was an ugly, metal rectangle. First thing you saw walking through the double doors was the golden statue of Emperor Sanga Surapsani sitting on his throne and waving.

You had to bow for at least ten seconds. And when you bowed, you had to get low: your back had to be at a right angle or less. Some asshole from the camp police stood in the corner and measured the angle of your back with his left hand, using his fingers. And he’d count on his right hand, tapping his finger creases, to make sure you’d bowed for at least ten seconds.

To be safe, I always bowed for fifteen seconds. I was young enough that I could bend my back so that my head was almost at my knees. Just to be safe. I’d seen them whip workers for failing to bow long or low enough.

After bowing to the statue, us workers assembled in an empty room for the usual prework speech from the manager. He wore the same uniform as us, save for a red gem sewn into his collar to signify rank.

“Remember why we’re here,” he said. “We’re all tainted. Impure. It is only by the deepest mercy that His Holiness has given us a chance to work. A chance to redeem ourselves.”

That was the lure: redemption. Perhaps one day you’d be allowed to leave camp and go home, back to your family, back to society. But I had no family, and society… I hardly knew what that was anymore.

To end the prework pep talk, we all chanted the mantra, “Open heart, clear mind, strong flow!”

When my shift started, I did all the usual motions. First, I ensured the gain medium crystal in the fabricator was in good order; I’d changed it last week, so the green crystal was still hard-edged and mostly translucent. After polishing it and putting it back in the bottom compartment of the fabricator, I stood and gazed at the sun, which gazed back from the east-facing glass wall. I closed my eyes and inhaled, pulling green waves into the crystal near my heart. I cycled the light through me. I pushed the light into my hand.

For whatever reason, green powered and spoke to machines. And as a machinist, I was meant to command machines. Here at the factory, it was my job to command the fabricator to create whatever was on the blueprint.

I stuck my finger in the fabricator’s user port and pushed green light into the machine. It hummed as the sunsink within spun, as if the rhythm of my light and its spin were in concert.

A command terminal appeared in my mind’s eye.

I began the usual cycle to check for errors and ensure the machine was in good enough order to begin fabrication.

Blueprint > Test

Speed > Normal

Begin > Yes

The conveyor belt began moving. The clinks and clanks and grmmm sounded normal enough.

Was there a more boring job in the world? I often wondered how people in Karsha or Majapahit or Zerastra or Demak or any other country earned a living. Was it as dull and hollow and pointless as this?

Blueprint > BombardJX88543 > MuzzleSwell

Speed > 0.1

Queue > 1

Begin > Yes

I often fantasized about a machine that could queue more than one item at a time; it would make my job so much easier. Having to reinput these commands every… single… time was agony. The fact that there was a command to queue more than one meant it was possible, but I also had to operate the machine at its slowest speed because it wasn’t in good shape and needed a careful hand. If I damaged the machine… well, I was worth less than it, so they’d behead me.

I opened my eyes as the fabricator did its thing. Metal came into the conveyor, a mold pressed down on the metal, and there it was: the mouth of a light cannon. Gleaming like a newborn.

Around me in the room, workers made the other parts of the cannon. Gears grinded, smoke belched, and conveyors hissed. The new guy behind me — I think his name was Kirat — was whistling, and it was pleasant enough amid all the cacophony. He fabricated cannon knobs, which conductors would grip to move their light into the cannon. Across the room, I eyed Parvin, who wore an eye patch, owned a deck of cards, and could hold his beer. He made reinforcement rings, which kept cannons from exploding as light beams passed through them.

Afterward, these and other parts would be assembled by hand because the machine that used to do it had caught fire a few days ago. The Big Beast, we called that machine — not the most creative name, but it was fitting. The thing loomed five times larger than my fabricator; only the best conductors could operate it, given its complicated and sensitive commands. Now it remained empty — almost ghostly — right next to my machine.

I inspected the muzzle swell I’d fabricated. Looked exactly like the hundreds I’d made these past few weeks. I carried it into the back room where we stockpiled the parts. It was the first part anyone had made today, so the room was bare. I took a breath and enjoyed a brief respite.

I looked out the window; someone stood on the dirt field in the distance, facing our building. Just a shadow against the red sun. I could swear he was staring at me, but I couldn’t quite make out his face at this distance.

Cold nails slid down my spine. I shuddered and returned to my station.

I stuck my finger in the fabricator port, closed my eyes, inhaled more green light from the red sun, pushed it into the machine, and wrote the fabrication commands. Again, and again, and again, until it was lunch time.

I was expecting the same machine-cleaner-spiced curry from morning, but it was actually worse. Mulch, we called this bread. Biting down too hard had once shattered a front tooth. I stuck my tongue in the hole in my front set and winced from the memory. Since then, I’d learned to dip it into my water cup before biting, though that made my water nasty. Still, a worker must eat, and my water tasted weird anyway.

I was the first in the mess hall. Ironic, but I felt self-conscious eating alone. As if ghosts sat in the empty corners around me and watched me chew.

Better than eating with others. As often as you could, you avoided conversation between shifts, especially with those you didn’t know well. I didn’t know anyone well, not anymore. You never knew who was undercover camp police, or who was willing to report you for saying something you never said. A month ago, someone claimed that the man who’d lived next door to me in the dorm had said something untoward about Sanga Surapsani’s wife during his lunch break. Supposedly, he’d said he wanted to “land his levship in her port,” whatever that meant.

Two other workers corroborated the story. That was why you especially avoided eating in threes or fours, so you wouldn’t have two or three witnesses against you. Eating in sixes and sevens was safest because larger conspiracies were harder to form.

The executioner beheaded the man in the dirt field outside the camp, just for a few words which he probably never even said. The police rewarded those who reported him with days off, privileges to visit the nearby town, and, of course, emirils.

“Praise Sanga!”

I looked up to see the gray hairs poking out of Rahal’s nose. He clanked his plate of mulch across from mine and took a seat.

“Praise Sanga,” I mimicked.

We said nothing for five minutes. Maybe he knew it wasn’t worth conversing in the lunch hall. The camp police have good ears.

I enjoyed eating with others in silence. A comfortable, peaceful silence. As alone as we all were in this hell, we were alone together.

“You going to finish that?” Rahal pointed at my mulch. It’d been a minute since I’d touched it.

I pushed the plate toward him. “Enjoy it, by Sanga’s grace.”

“By Sanga’s grace.” He chewed quickly and tap-tapped his foot nervously.

After burping, he said, “Tired?”

That wasn’t a question worth answering truthfully. I shook my head.

From behind Rahal’s messy head, I noticed someone sitting across the room. He was staring at me. He had small eyes, ball-like cheeks, and a flat nose. A familiar face, though I couldn’t quite remember where or when I’d seen it.

Rahal turned to see what I was looking at, then turned back to me. “You make muzzle swells, right? What’d you make before that?”

Unwise to remember the past. Could be seen as dissent, aching for what was gone. Aside from your love for the Emperor, it was better to be reborn each day.

“I don’t remember. I make whatever His Holiness desires.” I peered over Rahal’s shoulder; the man was still staring at me, unblinking.

“What you looking at?” Rahal turned to look behind again while I rubbed my aching eyes.

The staring man was gone when I looked again. How’d he taken off so fast? Could he be camp police? Why would they be watching me? Was it because they’d found out about my illegally-modded dream stone?

“N-Nothing,” I said.

“Isn’t it strange how we’re all making weapons, suddenly? What do you think is going on?”

Oh dear. This was a trap, wasn’t it? I stood. Camp police watching me, Rahal trying to get my opinion on something I had no right to have an opinion on — it was all too much and too obvious. I’d been a prisoner too long to fall for that. Disappointing to see Rahal laying such an obvious trap, but I couldn’t blame him. We all sought ways to survive, even if it meant sacrificing each other. The camp police had succeeded in destroying any sense of solidarity.

“Praise Sanga. I should get back to work.” And so I did.


For the rest of the day, I inhaled and cycled green light into the machine and input the same commands again and again. By the fourteen-hour mark, I was frayed. My body ached. It started as a dull throb from the deepest part of my bones, and it got sharper by the hour.

I’d cycled too much light. The pain made it harder to continue cycling it through my veins, and thus to operate the machine. Our managers knew the limits of us underfed, overworked machinists. But they didn’t care. Instead of giving us relief, they’d declare some bogus charge and schedule a beheading. There were always plenty more to take the place of a worn-out worker.

When I began to feel as if my veins were on fire, I took an unauthorized break. Stared at the vacant Big Beast as if a ghost were standing there, operating it. Char and soot covered the arms that fit together the cannon parts. The conductor must’ve overflowed it, causing a fire, which happened either from carelessness or inexperience.

My manager walked by, so I cut my unauthorized break short and stuck my finger in my fabricator’s user port. Did what I needed to do for the remainder of the day. By the end, my veins had gone numb, and what was once burning now felt cold and dead. I pinched myself and couldn’t feel it. My breaths weighed as much as lead.

I wanted nothing more than to sleep and dream. The one respite we workers had. I still couldn’t understand why I’d modded my companionship program into a lightblade training program. The memory just wasn’t there. Instead, a blank spot in my brain detached my present from my past.

It all felt… off. I wasn’t a violent person. Far from it. So what could have motivated me to do that? And why had I forgotten?

I pondered these questions as I took in the air on the walk to the dorm. Not the freshest air — it tasted like belched machine oil — but it was fresher than the air in the factory. Mountains sprawled in the distance, snow dotting the tips like the powdered sugar on the pastries my mother used to make. My heart endured a thorn prick every time I thought of her, of home.

Up in the sky, that was where home was. In the floating city of Harska, seat of Emperor-Raja Sanga Surapsani himself. I’d seen his father speak at a rally when I was a boy. Such memories were a painful reminder of my fall. My exile and imprisonment here. It wasn’t me who committed the crime, nor my mother or father or sister, and yet we all paid for what he did…

A bell rang. Each chime lingered, tingling my spine, until the next chime, the space between each exactly two seconds. Death Bell, we called it, because it only rang for executions. And it was mandatory to attend executions. Missing one meant the next bell would ring for you.

Luckily, I was less than a minute’s walk from the execution ground, which was just a dirt field outside the police’s lodging. A chill wind blew through, so I rubbed my hands together as I joined the crowd of workers, who sprang out of the factory and dorm and mess hall and streamed together. Despite the crowd, the silence was solemn. A tension choked the air and stuck in our throats. Who would it be this time?

I took a seat on a stack of bricks behind the main body of workers. The dirt field stank of waste, and it wafted in the breeze. Soon it’d smell of waste and blood.

A week — I think — had passed since the last execution; there was a time when I thought of them as a much-needed break if they rang the bell during my shift. That was how difficult it had become to care about others.

A camp policeman marched some guy I slightly recognized to our front, then pushed him onto his knees.

“State your crimes,” the policeman said, “and thank His Holiness for giving you an opportunity to serve.”

The poor fellow muttered his crimes. Something to do with smuggling.

I didn’t want to listen or watch. I didn’t want to remember another despairing face in this place full of ghosts. But I had to at least pretend to watch; in actuality, I crossed my eyes into a blur. I sang a song in my head so I wouldn’t have to hear the condemned man’s final words.

The fire surged.

Room to room.

Red, yellow, orange, leaping.

Playful, free. An ecstasy of burning.

Amma used to hum this song about our ancestors to make me sleep. They were rounded up, put in a lacquer house, and set alight. According to the legend, the fire couldn’t touch them. After stepping outside, their clothes having turned to soot but not a burn on their skin, they defeated their enemies and helped create Maniza, this nation. It hurt to remember that we were a founding family of this country, of which I was now a slave. Because of what he did…

Most of all, the song reminded me of Amma, and that remembrance always pricked my heart. Sometimes even stabbed it.


The call cut through my thoughts. Who’d said it? I relaxed my eyes; my vision unblurred. I focused on the executioner; he held a lightblade, zealously red with flickering shadows around it.

“We’re waiting for you, Jyosh,” he said.

Waiting… for me? Why?

What did they want with me?

Everyone turned and stared at me. My limbs shook as a poisonous fear swamped my bones.

“Jyosh, come here.”

The camp executioner was not a man you disobeyed. I got up, walked through the dirt, and went to him. The condemned man remained on his knees; he’d pissed his pants, and I could smell how dehydrated he was.

The executioner, who wore the same sleeveless button-down shirt as the rest of us, brandished his lightblade in my direction. So monstrously red and full — far better than anything I’d managed to create in the dream. Zauri’s image flashed in my mind, as if she were holding it, as if I were still on the beach with the bears dancing on sharks and headless pot-bellied men flying on turtle shells amid other bizarre glitches.

“Jyosh,” the executioner said. He was so… old: white hair, no muscle in his bony forearms, cheekbones that jutted out. The only truly old man in the camp. And yet, his lightblade radiated heat and death.

“Did you forget?” he asked.

“Forget what?”

“Your duty. You swore an oath, in front of every man here, that you’d kill the next ten traitors who betrayed the Emperor. This wretch,” he waved his lightblade in the direction of the condemned man, “is only number two. Wavering so soon, Jyosh?”


The executioner softened his grip on his sword hilt; the lightblade fizzled and disappeared. He handed the warm metal hilt to me.

He glared at me. His toothy smile chilled my spine. His chuckle rattled my bones. What did he want? What did he expect me to do with this sword hilt?

“I know you can’t make one, Jyosh. And I know killing is hard. But we all must do our duty to the Emperor.”

Everyone was watching me. Even the clouds and the mountains. Even the ghosts.

The executioner put his hand over mine. He made me squeeze the hilt, just as Zauri had. The sun loomed on the horizon, a rageful crimson. He inhaled its red light, cycled it through his veins, and flowed it into my hand. As Zauri had taught me, I cycled the red light into the hilt. A hot beam of death erupted off the blade.

“Whoah!” The executioner looked upon me with wide, astonished eyes. “You’re getting better, I see.”

I gulped and nodded. Turned out I was missing more memories than I realized. When, and why, would I ever have agreed to be co-executioner of ten men?

This wasn’t the time to wonder. With his hand on mine, together creating the lightblade, the executioner and I lined the beam above the kneeling man’s neck. The poor fellow had finished muttering and crying and now waited. Waited with eyes closed and a placid face, as if he’d already digested his death. I, too, believed that I’d die in this camp, but you don’t truly feel death until you gaze into it. Perhaps if we waited another minute, he’d be crying again. For now, he was calm as a monk. Still, the stench of his piss almost had me gagging.

The lightblade fell onto the man’s neck. I wasn’t sure if I’d swung it, or if the executioner had. It happened so fast. To the fiery beam, flesh is as thin as air. There wasn’t even a noise as it cut through. Or perhaps I was too horrified to have heard it.

The man’s head rolled to our feet, eyes wide open. Blood bubbled and spurted off his neck, as the lightblade hadn’t cauterized much of the wound. The stench of lightblade-burnt flesh reminded me of burning molasses. The headless body remained kneeling until the executioner kicked it into a lying position.

Hearing the body thwack against the ground, that was when it all came back to me: this wasn’t even my first execution.

I remembered him. The first person I killed. The man whose blood I’d washed off my hands before I fell asleep yesterday. I remembered Vir.

Vir. He’d operated the machine next to mine. The Big Beast. The machine that put the cannon parts together. We’d take unauthorized breaks together and just talk to each other. Talk about our lives before this hell, about our dream companions, about our hopes if we ever got back to society. Vir: he had small eyes, ball-like cheeks, and a flat nose.

I hadn’t been on shift when his conduction overflowed and burned the Big Beast. But I was watching from outside. I watched when the police seized him for damaging the most important machine in the camp.

A memory reemerged from a deep, dark sea: I was sitting in a smoky room with a camp policeman. My mouth ran endlessly. I told him about Vir’s treasonous words, how Vir had insulted Emperor Sanga Surapsani, and how he’d planned to destroy not just that machine, but other machines, too.

And I remembered coming to work early that morning, thirty minutes before the manager’s speech. I did something to the gain medium crystal on Vir’s machine. I sabotaged the Big Beast. I’d caused the accident that led to my friend’s execution.

And then, after they seized him, after I fabricated his treason, just to prove my devotion, I swore an oath that I would execute him with my own hand. And the next nine men who’d dare defy the Emperor, as if making a mistake or being unable to conduct or smuggling cigars was an unforgivable sin and not flaws we all suffered from.

And in return, the camp police promised to give me what I’d always dreamed of: freedom.

But… why?

Why would I agree to do such a thing?

What kind of monster was I?

Lightblade | Chapter 1

While washing blood off my hands that day, I looked in the bathroom mirror and realized I’d never decided to walk this path. I’d been forced upon it, first by my brother twelve years ago, and then by the Emperor each day I continued to breathe. My breaths only fanned the flames consuming us all. No matter how bitter my remorse, I couldn’t choose an upright life, and so in that moment, I abandoned hope and embraced pain.

Because pain, I’d been told, makes you strong.

To begin, I got a black-market modification on my dream crystal. Had to go beneath the bridge and trust this guy who said he also gave “perfectly legal haircuts.” Took an hour for him to finish the mod, which he did while asleep. That way, his consciousness could perfectly direct the creative energy flowing into the crystal. He changed it physically; he cut new edges and lines upon and within the crystal; he erased older, frayed ones. I prayed the camp police wouldn’t spot the difference.

Oh, and I handed him a pocket full of shiny emirils, six months of my salary. Earned from hard, bitter, soul-crushing labor.

It was the moment of truth. If he messed it up, fair chance I’d enter an unwaking dream and spend eternity reliving my worst memories. Or perhaps my soul would become trapped in its own tiny world, an island barely big enough to stand on; I’d be a god there, at least. Or maybe I’d boil in a new kind of hell.

I sat on my sweat-stinking mattress, clutched the fire-colored crystal in my trembling hands, and told myself that whatever waited, it couldn’t be worse than living in this coffin these past twelve years. I had six days left to live, and had to make them count.

I pushed the dream crystal into the empty slot in my chest. It snapped into place; it twinkled and sent a jolt through my bones and muscles, shocking me. So far, so good. I lay on my mattress, stared out my tiny window at the crimson sun, closed my eyes, and thought of the beach from a childhood memory — how the sand had warmed my calves as the waves of the sky lake kissed my toes. I heard the laughter of my sister and brother in the soulful breeze, and I turned to see them throwing seashells at each other…

That breeze took my soul. Carried it like a feather to the realm of the dream stone.

I washed up on a sandy shore. The surrounding palm trees grew human hands instead of branches, all clutching emeralds. A seagull sang a catchy song about the letters of the alphabet. Well, something had gone wrong, and this wrongness got me lucid quick.

I got up, brushed diamond dust off my puffy pants, and walked across the sand. A tribe of pale-skinned men without heads tossed spears at the sea turtles crawling to the shore. Then they ripped off the turtle shells, stood on them, and rode them into the sky.

So skyboards were turtle shells. Tree branches were human hands. Fruits were emeralds. Unsound dream logic, to say the least.

Did I just waste six months of soul-charring labor on this? I’d been to this island thousands of times, but it’d never been so bizarre. Too many glitches. But that didn’t matter so long as I got the one thing I’d asked for.

At the island’s center, past the palm groves, sat a log cabin. Another glitch: three dancing bears floated above its door. Worse, they were dancing upon flying sharks, and these sharks sang together in an epic symphony: a song only appropriate for a world-ending battle.

Now normally, a woman would be waiting for me inside on a feather mattress, and she’d be in her underwear, obviously. That was the purpose of the dream stone. They gave each of us prisoners one to make us happy, pliable, and better builders of Emperor Sanga Surapsani’s war machines.

But all kinds of dream stones existed. Literally anything imaginable could be contained in the more expensive ones that were illegal in the camp. And since one hour of sleep was one day here in the dream, I could accomplish anything if I put my mind to it.

I opened the door. A woman stood against the wall. Because she was only a mod, she still had my old companionship program’s pleasant almond-shaped eyes and proud nose. The only difference: this woman’s hair was wavy and blue instead of straight and brown. Also, her rigid posture made her look two inches taller. She wore an untucked white button-down shirt beneath her lapis blazer and flexible, velvety black pants, which seemed comfortable enough for fighting.

Most importantly, she was clutching a sword hilt in her hands. A beam of straight-edged electric fire shot off that sword hilt: a lightblade.

Her eyes widened upon seeing me. “You’re here to train?”

I cleared my throat and nodded. “Yeah, I am. So can you teach me to make one of those?”

“Of course.” She nodded back rapidly. Her lightblade sparked as she retracted the beam. Now she held a beamless sword hilt. “I’m lightblade training program zero-four… or was it three? No — zero-four-six-eight.” She scratched her chin and winced. “I think?”

Well, those numbers meant nothing to me. Still, struggling to remember her designation was hardly a good sign. Could I really rely on her to teach me, especially when I had so few breaths remaining in the real world? “I’m Jyosh. Wonderful hair, by the way.”

“Oh, t-thanks.” She tugged on a strand of her lush blue hair, as if surprised. “Here, have one of these.”

She tossed a piece of metal at me. I fumbled the catch and it dropped near my feet with a clank. I bent down and picked it up: a perfectly polished sword hilt.

I gripped it and held it aloft, like I’d always imagined doing, though there was no light beam projecting off it yet.

“All wrong.” The woman balled her hands into fists and stuck them against her hips. “Your stance is of immense importance. Beginners shouldn’t raise the hilt to eye level — you’re inviting your enemy to carve up your chest, where your heart and crystal are. And that’s how you die.” She pointed to the door. “Let’s take this outside.”

Well, this was delightfully different. It seemed she did have the knowledge to train me. Expectation welled up in my chest. I smiled to hide my nerves.

We left the cabin and walked some distance into a clearing amid the palm groves, away from the dancing bears and the weird song the sharks were singing.

“So, what’s your name?” I asked.

“I gave you my designation. But if you feel more comfortable with a name, call me… Zauri. Any other questions before we get started?”

“What year were you programmed? And where?”

“I was programmed in the floatland of Salkofy in Karsha, in the year twelve-seven-forty-one.”

So nineteen years ago — outdated by Karshan standards. But all she had to do was teach me to make a lightblade, which was a timeless thing. Still, a new program would’ve had better training features. I needed everything to go my way if I were to succeed.

Zauri came to my side. My hairs tingled upon sensing an unfamiliar, yet melancholic blue shimmer around her body. It flickered for a moment and disappeared. Was her frequency leaking?

“I’m setting the sun to create only red light.” Zauri opened her left palm; a terminal window appeared and floated above it. She tapped on the terminal a few times.

The sun turned from yellow to red, casting the sky and the island and even her in a dismal, ruddy glow.

I tried not to act surprised; I never knew that a program could change the settings of my dream. I always thought only I could.

“Given your age, I’m sure you already know that red light is used for combat,” Zauri said. “Here in the dream, we can amplify any wavelength of the sun we want — to make training easier. But eventually, you’re going to have to learn to inhale red light in the real world, where it’ll be weaker.”

True, I wouldn’t have the luxury of these beginner settings in the real world. It was nice of her to do all this thinking on my behalf. But how much could I trust her knowledge? “You a military program, by any chance?”

Hair got in her face when she shook her head. “I was scripted for children.”

Of course. Even the children in Karsha could form lightblades. That was why that country was so powerful. Meanwhile, all I got as a dumb five-year-old was a toy lightblade.

I sighed at a memory of me banging my toy lightblade against a tree. I’d imagined that poor cedar to be one of the Emperor’s enemies. How perilous that I’d now become what I’d once fantasized about fighting.

Zauri put her hand on mine. She didn’t feel like my old companionship program anymore; they were nothing alike in mannerisms or speech patterns. She even smelled different: no tangy perfume — which was my companionship program’s default smell setting — just a sour sweat, as if she’d come off a machinist shift. Strange, since we’d barely exerted ourselves so far.

She repositioned my fingers on the hilt. “It’s a basic thing, but you want your fingers looser, less tense. Wrap your thumb around the side.”

I did as she instructed. “Like this?”

“Yes, good. Now, inhale the light. If, for whatever reason, you can’t inhale enough red light, I can hold your hand and flow mine into you.”

“I’ve never inhaled red light. Plenty of green, though. Let me try on my own first.”

I stared up at the crimson sun. To see it so high in the sky instead of at the horizon, and even redder than the ever-dusk, was… ominous. If I were awake, I might think the world was ending.

I focused on the sun’s glow and inhaled. Red light flowed into the crystal in my chest. The light pulsed through my veins, accumulating in my hand. I pushed the light into the sword hilt, and then opened my eyes.

A faint red beam protruded from the hilt where a metal blade would be. But it bulged unevenly — not the right shape. I closed my eyes and inhaled more red light. I cycled it into my beating heart, through my veins, and pushed it into the hilt. It spattered like a leaking pipe off the end instead of creating a blade. I pushed even more in; it refused to straighten.

This bleeding, uneven beam certainly couldn’t cut.

“Allow me to help you.” Zauri put her hand around my wrist. Red light from her hand flowed into mine; her light was so uniform, so pure, so purposed.

I pushed it into the hilt.

A red beam about the size of my arm erupted, shimmering, shadows whirling around it.

I’d done it… sort of. I was holding a lightblade.

But when Zauri lifted her hand, it flickered, faded, and disappeared. I inhaled more of the sun’s red light, cycled it through me as quickly as I could, and pushed it into the sword hilt.

It got hot. Sparks fizzled off the end. I willed it to solidify and straighten, but it was like trying to move a numb arm. It seemed I couldn’t create a straight beam on my own. Dammit! I gritted my teeth and let out a frustrated grunt.

“It’s a start.” Zauri gave me a tepid smile.

That wasn’t how my companionship program would smile. It was still strange to look at someone who had her face, but not her soul. Although, I wasn’t sure if either of them had souls.

“Where did I mess up?”

“You didn’t mess up. You’re just inexperienced.”

“When you held my hand, you must’ve felt how I cycled the red light. Do I have any talent for it?”

She bit her lip in obvious apprehension.

“I’m no child. You need not protect my ego. I’m twenty-four years old — if I remember how to count. I’ve lived my entire adult life in a prison, scorching my soul seven days a week with green light. Green light used to power machines. I know it’s worn out my veins, nearly made me a husk. I’ve seen how the camp police dispose of those who can no longer conduct light.”

I’d never told my miseries to my companionship program. Probably because I knew how she’d respond: with fake concern. Maybe even a hug and a kiss. And I didn’t want to be comforted, to be told it would be okay. I was here to bathe in my pain, not pretend it didn’t exist.

“I know you’re not a child. The truth is, I think you can make a lightblade, but that’s not saying much.”

“Obviously it’s not saying much. I’m sure even an eight-year-old in Karsha can make a lightblade. But what I want to know is — can I make a lightblade that can kill?”

“Any lightblade can kill. It’s the skill of the user versus that of the opponent that determines whether it will kill. So that I can form a lesson plan, I’ll need to know — who are you trying to kill?”

I could tell her, couldn’t I? She was a program existing only in my dream, so why not? The prison camp guards never seized our dream stones for inspection, so the chance they’d learn about my intentions from Zauri was practically zero. Perhaps she could even help me plan the whole thing.

“I’m going to kill the Emperor. I’m going to kill His Holiness Raja Sanga Surapsani.”

Her eyebrows climbed into her forehead. “Oh… isn’t he the son of the Raja of Maniza, or is my memory outdated?”

“The bastard is the Emperor, now. Has been for the past fifteen years.”

Emperor… weird, I’ve never heard such a lofty title used for the Manizan Rajas. Anyway…” She darted her fire-colored eyes around in hesitation. “You want my opinion on your chances?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Like any head of state, he’ll be surrounded by bodyguards and decoys. And they’ll be the most powerful your country has to offer. I’d guess a small army of highly trained combat conductors would only stand a small chance of killing him. You’ll barely have any chance at all.”

I knew that much. Still, it ached my heart to hear it. “Look, it’s not about actually killing him. Even if I did succeed, his son would just take his place. It’s more about sending a message. That he can’t do what he’s doing to us and just expect us to take it. Someone has to hit back.” I gritted my teeth. “I just want him to feel fear. If he feels fear, then I’ve killed something inside him, the way he killed the light inside of me. Then I’ve won a small victory — my first and final. Sure, they’ll behead me for it — or worse — but I died a long time ago anyway.”

Zauri scratched her head, her expression awash with disbelief. “So, if I’m understanding this right, all you basically want is to attempt to take his life with a lightblade. You accept that you’re most likely going to fail, but you hope it might, at the very least, terrify him. I… think we can manage that. But getting your lightblade stable will take weeks of training. How long do you usually sleep?”

“Four hours. The standard.”

“So it means we have four days in this session. I’m going to make it count.” Determination shone in her eyes. She grinned. “Sound good?”


After a few hours of failing to project a lightblade off the sword hilt, I almost regretted deleting my companionship program. Inhaling and circuiting red light, when your veins have only tasted green for twelve years, was exhausting. It was as if your blood had turned to oil. I wanted to lie down and give up. But someone had to send Emperor Sanga a message he would never forget.

I hoped I had enough time. I wished I had a deeper dream stone with more than one layer. I’d heard that in Karsha’s black markets, they sold illegal dream stones with ten layers, each layer taking you deeper into the dream and exponentially increasing the time you could spend there. And if you were wired with others in a conduit, you could all live entire lifetimes together, in a single night. But I’d also heard of terribly glitched dream stones that take you to strange, indescribable places where reality has different rules. Where things fall up, where the sun freezes, where clocks run backward. Most who awakened from such dreams, which sometimes lasted billions of years, couldn’t readjust to society. My father once told me that a man who reemerged from the deepest of dream layers even claimed he found the Originator living there.

“You’re so stuck in your thoughts,” Zauri said. I’d forgotten she was standing next to me.

“Guess I need a break. Hope you don’t mind.”

Zauri gave me a weak shrug. “You’re the boss.”

“Care to join?”

Another shrug. “Sure.”

We went to the beach and sat on the sand. Waves whispered toward our toes. The horizon had no end. The world of the dream stone seemed so vast.

“I should tell you something,” I said. Seemed the right time for an awkward truth. “You’re a bootleg program.”

Zauri raised an eyebrow. Hers looked a bit snakier than my companionship program’s. “So that’s why this environment seems so odd. It’s like I wasn’t born to be here.”

“I couldn’t afford to buy a new dream stone. And even if I did buy one, it’s illegal, so I’d be executed if found out. Instead, I had someone copy a lightblade training program onto the only dream stone I owned. Umm, the thing is…” My head itched. “Thing is, that dream stone had a companionship program on it. Aside from your blue hair — and maybe your eyebrows — you look exactly like her.”


“But you don’t behave like her. It’s just weird for me, that’s all. I guess to save time, the modder kept your appearance mostly the same. I kind of wish he hadn’t. It’s distracting.”

“I understand. Thanks for explaining.”

“You’re really different, though. It’s odd. You feel almost like a real person.”

“Of course I do. My script is as large as yours.”

Was that a joke? I couldn’t help but chuckle nervously.

“It’s true,” Zauri said. “I’m guessing the companionship program you had me replace was much smaller by comparison. The inexpensive programs tend to have their memory and bandwidth artificially limited. Dream stones are quite cheap to produce, so to create demand for the premium tier ones, they make the cheaper ones worse on purpose.” She bit her lip. “I have no idea why I know all this, but it feels like the truth to me.”

Well, that made sense. Of course the camp minders would give us the cheapest dream stones possible. That was why the woman in my companionship program, whom I called Prisaya, felt like a program and not a person.

“So, then, how big is your script, exactly?”

“Like I said. As big as yours.”

“Does that mean… you’re alive?”

A wave surged into my thighs, leaving them cold.

“Am I alive?” Zauri shook her head. “I don’t think so. I’m a program.”

This was all a little too confusing. “Aha. So seeming alive must be part of your script, then. Now that I think about it, it took me a few weeks to exhaust my companionship program’s script. For a while, I felt like she was a real, breathing human being. But slowly, I saw her… repeat things. What I believed to be as endless as that ocean suddenly seemed nothing more than a puddle.” I nodded with understanding. “But in any case, I deleted her to make room for you. So I can learn to make a lightblade. And hopefully die better than I lived.”

Zauri’s chuckle endeared. It was almost soundless — mostly a concert of stifled breaths. “Well, I wasn’t programmed for philosophy or metaphysics. I attained a basic education, equal to a low Karshan noble. I was taught to train children how to form their first lightblades, and a few other useful basics. I’m afraid, if you weren’t shortly intending to embark on a suicide mission, you’d eventually outgrow my usefulness.”

“When you say ‘attained’ and ‘taught,’ you mean ‘programmed,’ right?”

She paused for a moment, obviously stuck in thought. Then she nodded.

“Do you have memories from before I came here?”

“They’re not memories like yours. It’s more of a… sense of self, and a knowing of who I am and my purpose. If I were like a newborn babe, I’d be useless to you, right? I merely exist to help you with whatever capacities I have.”

Oh. Well, now she was talking like a program, and that made me less unsettled but more… alone.

The seawater had wet her pants, and now they clung to her thighs. Such familiar thighs. My companionship program’s thighs.

“I should tell you that I don’t have genitalia.”

I snapped back to attention. “Why would you — why would you mention that?” My cheeks heated up.

“No need to be embarrassed. Just wanted to make that clear. I might look like your companionship program, but key things are… missing.”

“G-Good. Good. They give us those companionship programs so that we feel comfortable enough not to fight back. I’m done being comfortable while roasting in hell. I’m here to train, nothing else.”

“Let’s go train, then. Progress might inspire you. Throw off that melancholy.” Zauri stood, dusted sand off her thighs, and held out her hand. “Shall we get back to work?”

I guess it would take time to adjust to her. And speaking of adjustment — why the hell had the modder turned her hair blue? Not that I didn’t love it.

I grabbed her hand. She pulled me up as if I were made of air.

“I think you’re ready for a basic technique. Might help you form the lightblade.”

“Sorry for being so slow.”

“Don’t apologize. Helping you isn’t just my job, it’s my whole purpose. In that spirit, here’s what you’re doing wrong. You’re treating red light the same as you treat green light, but they’re totally different. Red light has a lower frequency and longer wavelength. It’s low energy. The distance between the crests and troughs on its waves is vaster. You have to be more patient when cycling it.”

I pinched my chin, frustrated. “You’re getting rather jargony. Listen, I might be twenty-four, but I have the education of a twelve-year-old. A twelve-year-old who skipped class to smoke cigars with his dumb friends. So spell it out in a way a braindead fool could understand.”

Zauri bit her lip as if pained by my words. “Sorry.” Considering her tone, it sounded as genuine an apology as I’d ever heard. “I think… I could show you? I can hold your hand, and you can feel and copy how I let the light flow through me.”

Sounded swell. I took her hand. There was this buzzing vibration that flowed from her into me. Or maybe I was just nervous.

I clutched my sword hilt with my other hand, closed my eyes, and focused on her frequency. Her inner light showed how she inhaled the red waves: as calm as a mountain breeze. She let it circuit through her heart in harmony; it pulsed and flitted as it went from her veins into mine. I did my best to slow down. I matched my breathing to hers. But when I pushed the red light, it lost cohesion and turned messy, like hair getting caught in a brush.

Only sputters and sparks appeared on my sword hilt.

“Keep trying,” she said in the softest voice. “It just takes practice. I swear.”

I hadn’t felt so mothered since I was twelve. How comforting to have a teacher. To have someone making you better.

After ten minutes of standing on the sand, holding her hand, and cycling the sun’s bloody light through me, I got into the rhythm of things. My heartbeat slowed, and a breeze streamed through the dreamscape, cooling my angst. More red light reached my hand. When I pushed it into the hilt, a light the size of my fist grew off the end.

“See?” An excited smile stretched across Zauri’s face. “You’re doing it!”

I imagined the blade: a long, slightly curved beam of deathly red. How glorious!

But when I pushed more red into the hilt, it was as if my hand choked. Sparks flew like birds taking off. One caught my hand and jolted me like lightning. I yelped from the shock and dropped the hilt.

“The hell!? There’s pain here?”

I never asked the modder to add pain to the dream stone. Puffy burns streaked across my palm, trailing from my pinky to my thumb.

Zauri took my sizzling hand. She closed her eyes and pulsed violet light into me. It soothed the burn. Lulled away the pain.

When she let go, my burn was gone. Good to know lightblade training programs could heal their students.

“There’s pain here, but it’s a lot less than what you would’ve experienced in the real world. That slip could’ve cost you your entire hand. In battle, it could’ve cost you your life.”

“I once fell off a mountain and it was like landing on a giant marshmallow. There’s not supposed to be pain here.”

“All lightblade training programs have pain. The modder must’ve added it. It’s necessary when training to feel pain, otherwise you won’t learn. Fighting is all about pain — how to avoid it, mostly. Get used to it.” She bit her lip again. Her nervous habit, I assumed. “Here’s the thing. You got the flow right. The light reached your hand red and whole, but your technique of pushing it into the hilt was… well, it was rushed. Once again, you were pushing it like it’s green light. A consistency of flow is needed with red.”

I sighed, annoyed with myself. There was much to learn. And even more to unlearn, it seemed. “All right. Can you do it, and I’ll hold your hand and feel how you pushed the light through?”

“Of course.”

She didn’t so much as push it through but rather gave it a gentle tap. And she timed her taps in a catchy rhythm so the light reached her hilt in even flows. Almost like she was pacing it to the beat of a sweet song.

“Gonna take a while for me to get that right,” I said. “When you’ve circuited light a certain way your entire life, it becomes mostly automatic. It’s hard to force myself to do it your way. And to be honest, I’m feeling a bit… burned out.”

Burned out was the perfect word. I’d been feeling burned out for the past year, but the camp police and the Surapsanis they answered to couldn’t care less about what any of us felt. In the dreamscape, I had respite from the real world, but by replacing my companionship program with a lightblade training program, I’d renounced that escape. I had to be as hard on myself as they’d been on me and the other prisoners.

“If you’re feeling burned out, take another break. It’s best to listen to what your body’s saying.”

I grunted and shook my head. “You’re too nice, you realize?”

“I’m supposed to be nice. I was created to train children… noble children, who wouldn’t have to use their lightblades in actual battles, just as a basic thing to know for the sake of their prestige. But if you want me to be less nice… I can try.”

Damn. This program showed more self-awareness than half the fools I knew in the waking world. Although I couldn’t blame my fellow prisoners; they were programmed by their fears, as I was. “Just do what you have to do so that I learn. We don’t have all that long.”

“Can I ask — when are you planning on executing your mission?”

“Sanga Surapsani will tour the factory I work at in six days. So six days, four hours of sleep each day, that’s — and I’m shitty at math — but I think that’s twenty-four dream days we have to train.”

“Is your factory so important that the Raja himself would visit?”

A good question. “It’s not important. I don’t know what would motivate him to visit us, of all places. But a camp warden said as much, and lying about the Raja would be suicidal, so I believe it.”

“It just really deviates from the norm. But if you believe it, I’ll believe it.”

I opened my left hand. The dreamscape control terminal appeared, floating above my palm. I tapped Order > Item > Cigar and hoped that the modder hadn’t removed cigars.

To my delight, a red-wrapped and sweet-smelling cigar materialized in the air in front of me, already lit. I grabbed it and took a puff.

Ah… like inhaling life itself. That spicy, black cardamom flavor — it so reminded me of home.

I continued tapping on the terminal. I flicked through the settings menu. Something made my eyes bulge — Sweat Setting: High. It was grayed out. I couldn’t change it. Why, of all things, was adjusting our sweatiness inaccessible? Was this the modder’s sly joke?

“Is it good?” Zauri asked.

I snapped my attention back to her and my cigar. “Definitely. You want one?”

“Yeah. Okay.”

I was expecting her to say no. Prisaya never smoked.

I ordered one and put it in Zauri’s hand. She took a long puff.

Then coughed it all out.

“Suppose my,” cough, “smoking technique is all wrong.” She grinned.

Wait… was that humor? Was she comparing her poor smoking technique with my poor lightblade technique?

Sharper wit than I was used to.

“You can make a lightblade, but you can’t smoke a cigar properly?”

“It’s not something I’ve ever tried before. What do you expect?”

What did I expect? Good question.

“I’m curious about something.” She stared into my eyes, as if probing my soul. “If you don’t want to explain, you don’t have to. But from what I’ve gleaned, your life is very difficult. It seems that you’re some kind of political prisoner, though you haven’t mentioned what you were accused of. Nowhere in the world are such prisoners treated kindly, so I can understand your desperation. But why resort to an assassination attempt, especially when it’s almost akin to suicide? Isn’t there something better you could do?”

I shook my head. Her understanding of me was so barebones. “Sure, I could just bear it. I’ve been a prisoner for twelve years, so what’s another twelve? You want to know what drove me over the edge? It all started when—”

Zauri flickered. For a moment, her face changed to one I didn’t recognize; only her blue hair remained the same. It was as if her form was now glitching, too.

Then my cigar flickered, turning into a soup of orange lines and bizarre, squiggly letters. The same happened to the palm trees. And the sky. Even the ground phased in and out of existence, replaced by lines and letters.

After a second, everything went back to normal.

“Did you see that?” I asked.

“See what?” She glanced around as if nothing happened.

“Everything got weird for a moment.”

Light-headedness overtook me. A shudder seized my soul. Now, it was as if my brain itself flickered. My mind went dark, and my sense of identity drained out of me. I couldn’t even recall my own name. “Ugh. I’m suddenly very confused.” I let the cigar fall out of my mouth. I stared at my hands. They were ghosting to white, as if I were disappearing. “What am I… even doing here?”

“What do you mean?”

The light of my mind switched back on. I regained my sense of self. I remembered who I was. But something was different.

“Wait a minute.” I scratched my scalp as if trying to dig at a memory. “What drove me over the edge? Why did I finally decide to try to kill the Emperor?” I pulled my hair just hard enough to feel a jolt of pain.

“You were just about to tell me.”

“I know. But because of all that flickering, I can’t remember. It’s like when you sometimes forget a name or a word, but I’ve forgotten an entire memory.”

I recounted the things I did remember. I hated Sanga Surapsani. He’d forced me to watch my own sister’s beheading. He’d seized me from my home on the sky island of Harska and exiled me to a labor camp on the surface. I hated him, but I wasn’t a violent person. So why did I suddenly decide to throw comfort to the wind and learn how to make a lightblade?

An image of me washing blood off my hands flickered in my mind. It was just before I’d entered this dream. Whose blood was that?

“Listen,” Zauri said. “It could be the mod. Bootleg, black-market modifications aren’t inspected for dangerous artifacts. Something might have affected your memories just now.”

I felt like a man standing in quicksand, unable to keep himself from sinking in self-doubt.

“I need to cut this dream short. I need to wake up. Suddenly, I don’t remember what made me want to attempt to take the life of a man impossible to kill, at the cost of my life. Without that memory, this is all wrong.”

Zauri took my hand. “I understand, Jyosh.” The first time she’d said my name. “If you’re missing recent memories because of this mod, you shouldn’t continue. It may only get worse. You can wake yourself up, right? Just open the terminal and do it. I’ll be here for you, if ever you decide to resume your training. Obviously, since I can’t go anywhere. But…” She smiled sweetly. It made my heart skip a beat. “It’s strange for me to say this, but I hope I never see you again. Because if you do decide to continue training with me, it means you’re set on this suicide mission. And I’d rather not see you die.”

“Really? You care whether I live or die?”

“Why would I ever want a student to die? I want them to learn and prosper. To use their skills to thrive. I want your success, not just in learning how to make a lightblade, but in everything in life.”

Hearing that and seeing her concern, it was like a second sun shone upon me. It had been a long time since I’d felt cared for. Not since my parents and my sister Chaya were executed. I mean, obviously the companionship program cared for me, but her caring was so… false. It was like, she cared about me without even knowing me. I could’ve been a serial murderer and she would’ve loved me unconditionally. I know we all want unconditional love, but conditional love is somehow… sweeter. It shows we have value.

“I can’t promise anything,” I said. “People die all the time where I’m from. When you’re no longer of use…” I mimed slicing my own neck. “That’s it. Maybe I know my veins will soon burnout permanently from overwork, like this cigar,” I crushed the dead butt with my foot, “and so I want to get ahead of it. Decide my own death. Yeah, maybe that’s it.”

I wasn’t certain if that was it, but it seemed to ring true. Anyhow, once I woke up, I hoped to remember what motivated me to do all this. It couldn’t be the execution of my family because that happened twelve years ago. Something else had happened recently, but I couldn’t remember what it was.

“All I can say is — good luck.” Zauri still had most of her cigar left. She took a puff, then offered it to me. I tasted her saliva with my final puff; weird, how intimate that felt.

I opened my left palm; the dream console appeared above it. I flicked through the commands and tapped Wake Up.