Sushi Fireball

1. A 20% increase is kind of a big deal

The fireball exploded with white-hot fury, every feature of it antithetical to life: corona blinding, sound wave deafening, residual smoke asphyxiating, core temperature sufficient to liquefy bone. The second its detonation lasted was a full second of terrestrial supernova, a blazing reminder of the frailty of life in macrocosm.

Yue stayed curled on the stretcher, cozily asleep. Beside her, Quan's anguished scream dwindled to heavy panting.

Eol stretched out her throwing arm and wiped sweat from her brow, retinas safe behind shaded lenses, staring at the last remaining traces of her Fireball: acrid fumes rapidly dissipating into nothingness, ephemeral gray smoke-snakes lost to wind and atmosphere. Just beyond the blast, the trio's opponents brazenly stood -- well, mostly stood -- out in the open, one of them slumped in a wheelchair held by the second, which meant the woman holding the torn paper was probably their Shaper. Eol ducked back down behind the rock her Triad was using as last-resort cover.

"Strange Inversion," she told Quan. Her hushed tone was a mix of curiosity and fear. "Source traveled underground. They're good. Not sure if better.”

"I hope not," he replied, trying so hard to keep his teeth unclenched he ended up fidgeting with his shaded glasses instead. "So is th-that why th-they were d-d-d... rooting around in the g-g-ground earlier?"

Kill or be killed, Eol thought. The phrase had been repeated endlessly during training. They couldn't waste more time.

"Need more Source. Twenty -- no, twenty-five percent," she said, tilting her head side to side as she estimated the amount she'd need. She glanced at Quan. "Two trips?"

"No," said Quan, "I can d-do it in one," and closed his eyes, shutting out both Eol and the surrounding wasteland. He took three deep breaths. The first was a failed attempt to calm himself, the second only slightly more successful, and the third started his dive.

It always felt like a dive. The sensation of being submerged in warm water started at his scalp and spread rapidly down to his toes, a liquid blanket of sensory deprivation simultaneously comforting and alien. Eol was always impressed at his subtlety: even a trained Spanner would have been hard-pressed to find any difference in his posture, especially with his eyes obscured by the shades; only after careful observation would they notice his slowed heartbeat, stagnant breathing, relaxed shoulders -- behind the glasses, he blinked --

-- and reopened his eyes in the Scape amidst a sea of teal and cyan, beams of coruscating orange-magenta light descending all around, Source clusters scattering from his sudden appearance. Yue floated before him, kicking lazily to stay level beneath the waves she dreamed to life.

Yue's hands moved slowly but methodically through the waterlike Scapefluid. Let me guess -- Eol needs more. 20%?

25, he signed back, wishing the Scapefluid concealed the tremor in his hands like regular water would. Yue's eyes widened.

She says they're good, he went on, swallowing hard. Doesn't know if they're better than us yet.

Yue only saw the first half of his message. She was already spinning around, net in hand, searching for new Source to catch. The signal breed traveled in schools, and Quan's entry had disturbed them. Good. She liked the challenge.

She swam with an athleticism totally unlike her clumsiness on land, lanky form slicing through the Scape with practiced ease. Every full-body flutter kick was a ripple of pure propulsion, every stroke of the arm a stroke of fluid genius. She had the net loosely gripped in one hand, subtly adjusting it with each motion so it never impeded her, even seemed like it was contributing to her speed. It took a few seconds to catch up to the nearest school, by which time she had already shifted into a two-handed grip on the net so it unfurled neatly under her as an open, distended ovoid, a holey reaper's shadow. Two kicks more, and the slowest members of the school were held back forever.

Barely slowed, she swam to another school, opening the net at the exact angle necessary to prevent the first batch from escaping while ensnaring her new targets. She took care to get a variety of sizes, to give Quan as many as possible to choose from. Some were barely larger than her thumb, others stretched as long and thin as her arm. They glimmered iridescent silver and amaranth-saffron and colors she had no words for.

Quan had seen her do it a thousand times before, but he always took the time to admire her grace. She had been one of the best Sourcers during training, heads and shoulders above the others in ways more than one. Part of him felt invincible watching her capturing Source by the netful, but another part felt helpless. All he could do was watch.

Yue was back over to him in another few swift kicks, net teeming, but not swollen. Quan always wondered if she purposefully caught less to spare his feelings. Without a sign, she positioned the net's opening a few inches away from his outstretched hands and released a long one, a wriggling beam of semisolid moonlight. He caught the beam -- for a second, he was afraid he'd missed it, but she’d made it easy for him -- and weighed it, felt the amount of Source it contained. It was less dense than he liked. Not enough, but close. He clutched it tight with one hand, thankful at how the thrum of energy it sparked eased his tremor.

More, he signed with the other hand while surveying the sizes of the other Source. There. He pointed at the one he wanted, fatter but much shorter, a dollop of buoyant quicksilver. Yue nodded, shifted the net into her left hand, and corralled the chosen one with her right until it was near the opening. A slight relaxation of her left let it free for a second before it was in Quan's; another second told him he had judged accurately, if ambitiously. It would be the most Source he'd ever brought back. But this was war. Kill or be killed.

Two trips? signed Yue, and got a jerk of the head to the side in response. Quan was already kicking to the surface. She released the net and the Source inside scattered, dispersing into a chaotic shoal of glittering scales.

As Yue watched Quan clumsily surface inside her mind-sea, a sea of memories clumsily surfaced inside her mind: the boredom of basic training, the shocked faces of her older peers as she stayed Scapeside long after they'd woken back into the Solid, the disappointment on Assignment Day when she'd heard Quan's name alongside her own --

No. She bit back her resentment before it could take root. We live or die out here together. When one of us doubts, we all doubt. And doubt will kill us all... To distract herself, Yue started enlarging her net, initiating preparations for the next stage. Kill or be killed.

Quan moved through Yue's sea Scape like a sloth moving through honey, every kick coming slower than the last. The Source in his hands squirmed mightily, desperate to remain Scapeside, hostile to his touch -- the long one thrashing, whipping head and tail into his body, fangs flashing furiously for flesh, while the smooth spherical Source was surprisingly slippery. He was afraid to clutch it too tightly, lest it pop free, but dared not let go. Yue had already begun the next phase, and there was no way he was going to interrupt her.

He broke the surface under a swirling haze of soft magenta, palms burning, treading Sourcefluid. Almost there. But the closer he got to bringing the Source into the Solid, the more it resisted. The long one had already grown razor-sharp fins as a defense mechanism. He could feel them ripping into him as it flailed in his tight grip, carving a searing lattice of agony across his thigh and forearm.

The round one was expanding to try and break free. Though the Source it contained stayed constant, it spread itself thinner and thinner, straining his fingers until his one-handed grip couldn't contain it -- he bent his arm awkwardly against the current to half-pin it against his torso -- it slipped out from under him and darted downward, but he somehow managed to barely catch it between his knees while adjusting the long one so its thrashing pushed the round one up against his groin, buying him just enough time to work his free hand back into position and grab the round one's tail, keeping him in the struggle.

The Source was worse than deadweight; it was livingweight, actively resisting every tortured contortion of his body, fighting to remain Scapeside at all cost -- at hiscost. He thought he could feel the round one forming quills now, pinpricks of Source spearing into his abdomen, aiming at organs, targeted counterpoints to the random, frenzied lacerations of the other. And its temperature was all wrong -- burning cold and freezing hot at the same time, as though the Source could choose to be all temperatures but tolerable, even if those choices contradicted.

The pressure was too much. It came from all directions, not just in his mind but in his body, and not just against his skin but also against his bones and ligaments, his muscles and organs, his fingernails and skull, oppressive in how everywhereit was. There was no way he could hang on any longer. He exhaled --

-- and felt his burden lighten, shift. Eol had made contact in the Solid. Her presence was part analgesic, part ambrosia; the sudden release of pressure caused his knees to buckle Solidside, where he was just conscious enough to hear Eol's grunt as she caught him before he faceplanted in the dirt. He tensed as she laid him supine on the ground behind the rock, suppressing a moan. That was just the appetizer. The hard part was yet to come.

Eol's Sourcesteel knife had been in her hand long before Quan surfaced, and she had to sheathe it to catch him as he dropped. Her eyes widened -- it was indeed the most Source he had ever brought back, more than she'd ever seen of the signal breed. He was covered in sweat but otherwise looked unharmed.

Her eyes shifted to the pointy, pinkish-orange sphere pressed against his chest and the long, blue-gray oblong in his left hand. As she gingerly took the oblong one from Quan's hand and transferred it to a waiting cloth on the ground, she noticed his empty palm quivering harder than she'd ever seen. This prompted a blink and a swallow, but nothing more. It was her turn now. Her knife flashed under the sun as she drew it once more, ready to Shape the Source. She felt its warmth, its energy, its texture beneath her callused fingers. One steady breath was sufficient to focus her.

Her first careful incision was near the right end, knife cutting most of the way through the body. Entry point made, she then inserted her knife on the far left side orthogonal to the first cut, blade parallel to the ground and pointing toward the Source's center to slice horizontally through it, guided by the bonelike frame felt at the tip of her knife. Within seconds, she'd neatly bisected it top from bottom. She peeled off the top half and started apportioning it into handheld sizes.

As her right hand meticulously molded each portion into Shape, her left worked by rote: unclasp first pouch on belt, grab sticky Source inside, ball up. Put blue-gray Source on top, adjust. Right hand unclasp second pouch, grab brush, apply final "special sauce" Source. Inspect. Final adjustment. Core done, add remainder...

It was, of course, a second Fireball. Other Shapers liked to think Eol made up for her lack of imagination with force. This was far from the truth. Every bit of Source Quan brought back was a different kaleidoscope of potential, rippling with unique contours, sparking new sensations at her fingertips. This piece felt sharp and electric, but pleasantly so, a warm buzz of life welcoming her touch; the next was slimy and burned unnaturally cold. She welcomed the sensations. For their Triad, the Source was always pleasant Solidside, bountiful Scapeside, roughest in transition.

As she worked, Eol would occasionally peek out at the enemy Triad through narrowed eyes. Their foreign garb and inconveniently long hair looked strange to her, but she assumed they had also been drafted, and were feeling just as perishable as she was. Still, she made sure to keep one hand on the Lure on her belt every time she exposed herself to danger. Don't let them kill you so you can kill them. That was the way of war.

What are they doing over there?

2. Nigiri with tuna

"What in the Endless Darkness are they doing over there?" yelled Evīn, brushing the hair out of face and blinking her stinging eyes. Failsafe One had diverted the bare minimum of the fireball's energy back into the Night. If it had drained even a fraction less, she'd be a pile of ash by now. She could still taste burning in the air.

"Making sushi," answered Ènja, sotto voce. "Looks like nigiri with tuna." Evīn barely caught the words over the ringing in her ears. "Their Stars appears weak --"

"Let me see that," snapped Evīn, snatching Bronté's Charmed spyglass from Ènja's hands. Peering through the lens confirmed Ènja's assessment. She saw their Sun working diligently, putting hand-sized filets of blue-gray Dreamstuff-fish on Dreamstuff-sticky rice, applying a brush of dark Dreamstuff-sauce, and meticulously inspecting the resulting nigiri. Her movements were graceful to the point of automatic, suggesting a deep and subtle muscle memory, a weight of mastery only achieved through years of repetition. Their unusually muscular Moon had, of course, Entered the Night, but what was strange was their Stars, who also appeared to be passed out on the ground -- perhaps in the Night as well. Evīn's mind began racing with possibilities.

“The feeble one is their Stars,” said Enja. “I saw him bring back two large bundles of Dreamstuff a second ago. He collapsed immediately after, likely due to the strain."

"Impossible," scoffed Evīn, looking at the two bundles Ènja indicated. Their Sun was authoring one of them, a long, blue-gray tuna-looking thing. "Our most adept Stars could hardly bring back half as much. Not that you would know what to do with it."

Ènja frowned, but otherwise ignored the jab. "Perhaps the Zenese have strengths in other areas."

"Strengths in other areas," Evīn repeated in a mocking tone, rolling her eyes. "You have no idea what you're talking about. Too many hours wasted slobbering in the arena, not nearly enough practicing Sun craft, which was your responsibility. Lucky for you -- lucky for all of us they're weak. As soon as Bronté finds them, they're finished."

"Perhaps you should go check on zem," said Ènja, instinctively fidgeting with the heavy brass ring keeping her braid together. The hairpiece had been her mother's. Its weight comforted and anchored her, which she needed badly now. Evīn was underestimating the opponent, a classic omen preceding defeat. Ènja had triumphed over many a stronger foe in the arena after that same omen.

To her surprised relief, Evīn obeyed, even obeyed wordlessly -- it really was war. Ènja watched her stride to the back of Bronté's wheelchair and use the ropes dangling from the back to tie herself against it with a loose knot. Evīn's focus was palpable: as she raised her arms, palms facing the ground, Ènja gave her a tight nod, but Evīn didn't see. She thrust her arms forward, body instantly slumping into the back of the chair, supported by the ropes --

And Entered the Night. Evīn materialized in Bronté's familiar sunlit room, stuffed ceiling-high with shimmering papers, loose sheaves stacked in unstable configurations, pouring out of shelves, even stuck to the ceiling. Seemingly every sheet was crammed edge-to-edge with charts, maps, diagrams, illustrations, formulae. Sprawled prone across a nest of decadent pillows, Bronté was fully engrossed in zeir calculations, twirling two glowing styluses in each hand, with another behind each ear and a seventh between zeir teeth. As the four in hand scrawled elaborate patterns in myriad colors across a spread of pages, Evīn cleared her throat.

No response.

A second cough, louder.

"Oh, I'm fowwy, I didn't heaw you come in. Enja'f gift is by fe dooah," said Bronté, pointing with zeir forehead, still working with feverish ambidextrous abandon. Evīn grabbed the indicated pages and tucked them in her robes. "I'f awmoft got it now -- fe fignatchuhw comef fwom one of fwee pwaefef, gifen ouw pwiuh weaferpf. Yoi -- fap'f a mountain town, many fkilled metawfmiff, which would ekfpwain fe effecf you defcwibed -- " ze pointed at an illegible scribble on a map near zeir shoulder without looking, then moved zeir finger a few inches to a different, larger symbol on the same sheet " -- Odei, coaftal fity, known for ipf confumuh diftwictf, firewukf fowf, and fufi -- "

"Odei," Evīn interjected. "I just saw their Sun making sushi. Nigiri with tuna."

"Odei!" Bronté's grin was contorted by the stylus in zeir mouth, but zeir excitement shone through nonetheless. "Nigiwi wif tuna, you fay, now fat nawowf it down fignificantwy -- wikewy a coaftohw wegion fouf of Foneio juncfion, fough fere'f ftill a fwight ambiguity in the fignatchuhw -- fink I need one more fample to be fuhwtain -- by fe way, feir Fun haf defifed an ingenioufmechanifm, quite aftonifing -- "

"We don't have time for that!" Evīn protested, as Bronté deftly traded the svelte lilac-chartreuse stylus in zeir right hand for the much broader-tipped maroon-ochre one tucked behind zeir left ear while using zeir tongue to spin the one in the mouth end-to-end for seemingly no reason at all. "Their firstattack already blew through Failsafe One like it was nothing, and now they're preparing something stronger. There's no way I can hold out a second time, and we both know Ènja's worthl -- "

Without warning, Bronté looked up, silencing Evīn instantly. All twirling stopped. The styluses froze in their dance across the pages.

Zeir eyes pierced into Evīn's, precluding thought, precluding motion. Night and Day and night and day alike were suspended in that gaze.

And, equally suddenly, Bronté returned to work as though Evīn had said nothing, styluses tracing rainbow blurs on the papers, scratching formulae along the margins of former margins, birthing smaller margins still. Evīn, chided, closed her eyes and tried to calm down.

They might not know how close Failsafe One was to failure. And if they do, we still have Ènja... But she's so lazy, so unreliable... And even in the best-case scenario, even if she didn't make a mistake, the power of their attack is tantamount to mutually assured destruction! Oh Gods... Gods, this humble servant of yours prays for the safety of her brother, her mother, her father, her grandfather. Please let them survive this war. She prays on her courage, on her honor, on her pride, on her --

"I've got it!" Bronté exclaimed, startling Evīn from her prayer. Ze held all seven styluses in the air in a triumphant victory pose, four in one hand, three in the other. "I've got the exact coahwdinates now. My initiaw seawch cwiteria were too nawohw, too myopic... That's why none of the math was wehwking. See, I'd nevew considewed wocations past the coastwine, undahwatohw --"

"Underwater?!" shouted Evīn, reeling. "But how is that -- "

"Math checks out," interrupted Bronté with a shrug, sweeping the tip of one stylus along the spread of calculations in front of zem while tapping the butt end of three more against zeir temple. "And the nigiwi with tuna confiwms it. Gweat wuhwk fwom you and Ènja, by the way, absowutewy fabuwous wuhwk." Ze was already preparing for the next phase of their invasion, brushing the pages in front of zem into a careless heap while pulling more from a nearby stack. As ze reorganized, zeir styluses shifted from wildly polychromatic to a concentrated teal-cyan palette with splashes of orange and magenta.

"Now, as I was saying," ze continued, "theiw Sun designed a mechanism I must simpwy descwibe as ingenious, totawy unwike anything I've wed about, and thewefow totally unwike anything in the Sywän Wibwawy. The Zenese's Sun technowogy is centuwies ahead of ours, centuwies-- " the seventh stylus went back in the mouth " -- whipf, by the way, if anofer reafon you fouwd ftop bwaming Ènja fo mupf, none of ouw Funf wouwd ftand a champf in fe Endwef Darkneff againpft one of feirf. Ip'f fimpwy aftonifing ftuff. Fee, from fe fampoh you bwought, I waf aboh to detewmine fat fe Dweamftuff they ufed funcfioned not af fe pwimawy enehwgy fohwf of feiw Hekf but more af a fort of twiggered beacon-- "

"Underwater?" Evīn repeated, still trying to process the implications of what Bronté said paragraphs ago as ze made zeir signature Portal Charm with one hand while drawing up who knows what with the other.

"Oh, yef, I won't be aboh to fahwoh you, obfioufwy, but I'w be neawby, don't wowy. And fefe Hekfef I'm making are fpefificawy defigned fow undehwatohw ufe."

Evīn looked at the Hexes, unconvinced. She barely knew how to swim.

3. Coherency

Eol's awareness stayed on a hair trigger, hand never far from the Lure on her belt. As she Shaped her Fireball, her eyes repeatedly flicked back to their opposition. Their Spanner came back Solidside with a stack of paper and gave it to their Shaper, who proceeded to look at it while writing on a different paper. Eol had seen dozens of Shaping teams during training, but this one felt weak and slow to her. What kind of aggressive Shape required writing?

Still, best not to underestimate the opponent. Now that they'd started preparing something, she stopped sculpting her precious Fireball and cut out a decent-sized chunk of Source from the pinkish-orange blob with two clean strokes of the knife, priming her Lure Sashimi. The Shape would hold for at least as long as it would take for her to finish her Fireball -- and shortly thereafter, their opposition.

Eol never stopped marveling at what people could do with Source. It was potential energy in its purest form, an infinite number of paints in the Scape ready to be painted on the empty canvas of the Solid. Zenese Shapers, boundless in their creativity, painted their wildest dreams on that canvas, harnessing Source to reverse the flow of gravity in an area, carve out mountains in a week, or stay longer at the brothel (in ways more than two). But the potential was still just barely being tapped. New breakthroughs happened all the time.

One such breakthrough had revealed the slight coherency of Source: Shaped properly, it would attract itself. The invention of Lures quickly followed. They were protective Shapes, designed to be thrown. By exploiting coherency, the Lure would attract incoming hostile energy toward itself and (hopefully) away from the intended target. But because they kept all the danger Solidside, they entailed much more risk than a traditional Inverter technique. Consequently, most Shapers saw Lures as a novelty, a stepping stone to further research. Eol saw them as her Triad’s only chance to survive the war.

Eol paused to look at Quan. He seemed to sense her gaze, eyelids fluttering half-open under his shaded glasses. He managed a weak smile, then closed his eyes again, jaw clenching and unclenching, injured palms shaking violently. He was trying so hard to relax, which of course meant he wasn't relaxed at all. She grasped for reassuring words.

She had told him once, in all sincerity, that his limitations had been a blessing in disguise for her. They forced her to think creatively and explore neglected aspects of Shaping to problem-solve, deepening her skill. The fireball, her proudest creation, would have been impossible without his unique Spanning style. He had smiled graciously in response, but Eol had seen through the veneer. The intended compliment had hurt him, reminded him of his shortcomings. Despite Eol and Yue’s insistence to the contrary, Quan continued to think they harbored resentment about how the committee had lumped the three of them together. Eol didn’t know if he was right.

The reassuring words died in her throat. Eol only managed a terse "Here," as she handed Quan the pearl-sized sphere of Source containing the receptor for the signal breed. His hand closed around it, squeezed, and the shaking dwindled to a slight tremor. "Ready?"

He nodded, sucking in a silent breath, the start of his dive.

Eol was all alone. She turned over her Fireball Nigiri one last time, inspecting it from all angles. It had come together beautifully. The weight felt light and flexible in her hand. The Source's various chaotic energies had aligned, harmonizing into a smooth, creamy texture that smelled like umami ocean waves. She peeked out from behind the rock -- no reaction.

Kill or be killed. Looks like the Pyrinians chose the second option.

Her throwing motion was impeccable: feet set, knee up, elbow back, stride forward -- release.

4. Hair tie insufficiencies

Bronté tore the Portal Charm with an extravagant smile, closing zeir eyes and leaning back comfortably on zeir pillow fort as ze did so. Evīn clung to a nearby shelf, knuckles white, toes curling.

In Bronté's room, light always streamed in through a single window behind zem, a perennially soft, yellow-orange glow perfect for reading by. As soon as the Portal Charm activated, the light began to change, first in intensity, then in color. It became bright, then harsh, then nearly blinding; just when it became unbearable, the light vanished altogether, plunging the room into a horrible darkness that lasted long enough for Evīn to start wondering if she really had gone blind.

These fears abated when a wild array of bizarre colors poured back in through the Dreamstuff glass: lilac-chartreuse and maroon-ochre and other colors Evīn had no words for, striated and hypnotic; she wanted to turn away or close her eyes but couldn't so tightened her grip on the shelf as a nonsensical compromise; the lights began flashing, rotating, coming in from impossible angles, crackling and vibrating and flickering, blending in inexplicable ways; they reached a frenetic zenith, then started -- thank the Gods-- mellowing out, changes slowing and slowing until they finally resolved into a mild orange-magenta.

"We'we hewe," Bronté announced the same way ze always did, smile wider than before.

Evīn shook her head, trying to reorient her vision and swallow her vertigo with minimal success. Of all of Bronté's Portal's, this one had been most nauseating by far.

"Don't fowget the spehws."

"Eternal Darkness," Evīn cursed under her breath, knowing she would've forgotten them without Bronté's reminder. She folded the spells into a rough square and tucked them into her red waist sash, hoping they'd survive the journey.

"They should twiggew automaticwy, via pwayehw. You won't need to think much -- I made them dummy-pwoof, even a chiuhwd couwd use them. I hope the swimming Chawm wuhkws, the one swimming manual I've wed wacked iwustwations, and I was obviouswy unabuhw to pwactice the technique mysewf -- oh, and thewe's one Hex I'm especiawy pwoud of, it expwoits the fwuwid dynamics of the puhticuwuhw kind of undehwatohw tewain theiw Moon designed to pwoduce an expwosion, which shouwd mitigate the minuhw vuwnewabiwity of the Containment Hex -- I tinkuhwed with that one and the web's wate of depwoyment is much impwoved but fohw some weason wapid osciwatowy motion in a concentwated awea wasting wongew than -- "

Evīn wasn't paying attention, which was their usual coping mechanism when Bronté launched into one of zeir many self-indulgent rants, but she heard the word underwater loud and clear. She had somehow forgotten that important detail among the whirl of flashing lights.

"How will I know where to dive?" Evīn demanded in the middle of Bronté's convoluted explanation of how the counter-Charm Hex was a clever fusion of a modern Lyosīan Hex and an ancient Umùrian one, which resulted in a striking red color.

"The Pohtohw enshuhwed the showtest possibuhw distance between us whiwe not depositing my woom undehwatohw. Just swim stwaight out fwom the doouhw. Wook back once in a whiuhw -- the imaginawy wine between you and the doouhw shouwd be perpendicuwehw to the coastwine." Sensing Evīn's apprehension, Bronté added, "don't wowy, I specificwy adapted the spehws for undehwatohw use, wemembehw? Pwus, theiw Moon has been cuwtivating this pwace for yeauhws, so it's pwobabwy vewy amenabuhw to human wife. Who knows, it might be nicehw down thehwe than it is in hewe!" Bronté's open-mouth smile could've been printed on a travel brochure.

"Ugh," groaned Evīn, feeling whatever the opposite of reassured was. Still, she turned to the door behind her, opened it -- 

-- and gasped.

A Moon's private space within the Night is always personal: designed brick by page by grain of sand, every detail tied to some meaningful memory, lived experience, practical need, soaring aspiration. Bronté's room was part idyllic childhood home, part Syrän Library, part ideal living space, and a whole lot more Evīn knew she would never understand. Despite its apparent messiness, there was no doubt that Bronté understood where every bit of knowledge was located in that room, what every marking on every scrap of paper meant, the turning radii of every whorl on the wooden door. Stepping into a Moon's space in the Night was an intimate experience. It was less like stepping into their home, more like invading the deepest inner workings of their mind.

That was one of the many reasons the Moon-Star-Sun connection was so rare. Compatibility depended on more than just similar minds. It also depended on a willingness to work through the differences.

During their meteoric rise through the Duskseeker tournament, Evīn had seen plenty of Syrän Moons' Night spaces, knew how different they could be: one in the middle of the Grand Kzōqhian Bazaar, another during the Week of Light's after-hours festivities, another on a sand dune in the great Jubaī desert under a new moon. Still, she had not been prepared for this.

The view beyond the doorway transcended beautiful. A warm, pink-magenta light tinged with tender orange suffused the air, as though the entire sky were permanently alight with the best colors of sunset. Below, teal and cyan waves rolled gently in consistent, calming waves. To her right, in the distance, rose a tall striped tower on a cliffside -- not menacing, more reassuring, as though it had solemnly sworn to protect Evīn from all harm. For Evīn, who had never seen a body of water larger than the main fountain at the Lyosīan Acropolis, the scene was literally breathtaking.

"Do... do you see this?" Evīn asked Bronté, eyes watery against the ocean breeze, knees weak.

"Hm?" Bronté spared the view a glance from her stack of pages, then went right back to work. "Oh, the ofean? Yeah, I've feen pictuhwf befowe. In bookf." Ze shrugged.

The underwhelming reaction killed the magic of the scene enough to unparalyze Evīn, who stepped out onto the fine white sand between her and shoreline, surprised to find it uncomfortably hot -- a strange discomfort in what was otherwise paradise. So she began walking faster, then jogging toward the waves.

As soon as her feet kissed the ocean, she understood. The warm, inviting water was the perfect antidote to the sizzling sand, making the ocean's presence all the sweeter -- not just welcome but necessary, the only place it even made sense to be.

“Well,” Evīn said out loud. “Whichever Moon made this place must really love the water.”

Chuckling at her own sarcastic remark, she checked Bronté's spells one last time and waded in.

A generous observer might say she started to swim. It was more half-thrashing, half-trying-not-to-drown. The strokes did not come easy to her. Fortunately, the waves did, buoying her along, ushering her inexorably to her destination. The water was perfectly clear -- she could see all the way to the bottom, where rainbow shoals of fishlike Dreamstuff darted among clusters of kelp and coral. It was a completely different world.

Gradually, she fought the water less and began to catch its rhythm, submit to its will. Every movement she resisted made the journey easier. She suddenly realized she had felt no inclination to breathe for a long time and stopped fighting to keep her face above water, instead submerging it fully into its soothing warmth. Soon, she was floating along, barely moving, letting the increasingly stronger current wash her out to nowhere, enraptured by the Dreamstuff below.

After a few tranquil minutes, she raised her head to check her distance from Bronté when an anomaly appeared in her field of view. It was a dark splotch of cerulean on the surface of the water, disrupting the predictable movement of the tide. Evīn's learned calmness evaporated. The cerulean appeared to be roiling, turbulence churning up discolored bits of white froth in an otherwise peaceful ocean.

Did they see us arrive? Were they prepared all along? What kind of trap is this? I need Bronté...

As panic set in, she started kicking, twisting, paddling in reverse, doing whatever she could to avoid that dark spot, but her unskilled movements meant nothing to the will of the waves. They bore her relentlessly along, directly toward the aberration.

Getting closer, Evīn realized the splotch was moving circularly, spinning at high velocity, drawing in all the nearby water and sucking it downward like a fountain drain. She struggled even harder against the tide -- kicking and thrashing and accomplishing little -- until she remembered her destination. Then the intentionality of the Moon's design became clear: the water would carry her to the whirlpool on its surface, which would then pull her down to exactly where she needed to be.

Of course they didn't see us. They're far from the coast, and underwater... The hardest part of this war is the part where I have to learn to do nothing at all, thought Evīn as the vortex took her.

She had no time to process the dizzying exhilaration of entering the whirlpool, the confounding blur of limbs and hair -- oh, Gods, she should have tied her hair -- within seconds of being pulled under, she spotted the enemy: Two of them, gangly, muscular Moon and shorter, stringy Stars, working hard below, catching Dreamstuff-fish in a huge net. And luckily, still oblivious to her presence.

Within seconds, the whirlpool had spun Evīn down to the perfect striking position, just above them vertically and a fair distance from them horizontally. She turned to kick free -- and couldn't. The force was much higher than expected, and in a blink she was level with them, then dragged below them, sinking helplessly into the menacing depths. She kicked as hard as she could, putting everything into escaping, felt her arm clear the whirlpool's grasp up to her elbow. That made things worse; the rotational force differential between the part of her body inside the whirlpool and outside was debilitating, she felt like her arm would snap from her body; Gods, I wish I took those swimming lessons more seriously -- "I'm never going to use this again," my camel's asshole -- Gods, please, if you deign to let this meager servant of yours survive, let her learn the importance of --

Bronté's first Charm activated, glowing parchment shredding itself in the stack tucked under Evīn's sash. Evīn felt the commensurate surge of knowledge immediately. She suddenly understood the inefficiencies in her kicking technique so thoroughly that they sank to the level of subconscious, so she couldn't even describe the improvement in the two easy kicks that freed her from the whirlpool.

Outside it, she marveled at the efficacy of Bronté's swimming Charm. Her body barely moved, yet she could modulate her position with the subtle grace of a gliding hawk. But before she could fully appreciate her temporary skills, another unwelcome surprise: she'd gotten turned around -- her adversaries were behind her now, and in the seconds it took to spin back and awkwardly sweep away the hair in front of her eyes she saw them looking at her. The clarity of the water revealed their shock even across a moderate distance. It was an ugly expression, some mixture of terror, violation, and disgust.

The muscular one was swimming toward Evīn with alarming speed, her powerful, decisive strokes cutting through the water like sunrays cutting through noonday terraces, putting whatever swimming technique Bronté had read about to shame. The gap closed at superhuman speed. Evīn scrambled to clear out the hair continually drifting in front of her face and reached for the bundle of spells Bronté had written, only to find an unusable wet muck there, a thoroughly drenched glob of what used to be paper. 

"Specifically adapted for underwater use," huh? Adapted, my camel's asshole. Damn you, Bronté. May your Sun in the Endless Darkness be dim.

The strong one was almost on her now -- would have already been, if they hadn't been slowed down by their enormous fishing net, at least five times as big as they were. It contained a mottled array of Dreamstuff fish fully spanning and beyond the color spectrum, a dazzling prismatic spray only rivaled by Bronté's ever-changing styluses.

Damn you, Evīn, think! she thought, as though commanding herself to do it would make it easier. But there was nothing. She was in a foreign environment, facing foreign enemies much stronger than she was, blinded by her own hair. She had no clever tactic, no slick maneuver, no ace up the sleeve. She could only prepare for death.

Gods, this insufficient servant of yours prays for the continued health and safety of her family --

All the spells tore at once.

The protective Ward blossomed around her, a transparent sphere of negating energy that extended just beyond arm's reach. At the same time, she felt her head clear, focus sharpen. Five bolts of dart-shaped scarlet energy flew from one Hex, aimed at the oncomer's limbs and head. Another Hex in the form of three dozen eyeball-sized spheres that greedily drank in the surrounding light shot out from another torn page, glooming strands growing out from each, connecting to each other in a dark web. But what drew most of the attention was the thunderous cracking BOOM that sounded from somewhere between her and the enemy, causing a major disturbance in the water. From the epicenter of this sound, all the Dreamstuff -- fish shoals, botanical wonders, the water itself -- exploded away from Evīn at violent speed. In less than a second, her opponent was struck by a brutal underwater wave that slammed into her with the force of a stone wall. In the Day it would have killed her; here in the Night it rotated her angle of approach by two hundred and five degrees. It was also likely extremely painful.

In one moment, she was swimming straight toward Evīn, eyes burning. In the next, she careened wildly backwards, tumbling heels overhead at ridiculous speed amidst a blizzard of rainbow Dreamstuff viscera. The fishing net was lost, its former inhabitants scattering like pigeons in the town square when the children charged.

In her freshly lucid state of mind, Evīn could only think one thing: what about the second one?

5. The second one was not the charm

The second fireball exploded with all the gusto of a wet fart at a government committee meeting, every feature of it sickly and pathetic: corona like a dying candle, sound wave a feeble wheeze, residual smoke dismissable as eye floaters, core temperature frostier than the glare of a disapproving parent. As soon as it fizzled out, Eol should have ducked back behind the rock, but she didn't, opting to instead stare in helpless, slackjawed disbelief.

What could I have possibly done wrong? I've made that Fireball at least a thousand times... This was my biggest, sure, but only by a little over twenty percent. That's not a big deal -- okay, it's kind of a big deal for Quan, but still, there's no way the Shape would break down at that kind of minor increase. We're working with such small amounts to begin with... And it can't be the other ingredients, the Source rice and special sauce will still be good for at least another month, and besides, the last one had no issues... It must have been some unbelievably fast Spanning work by their side, to remove that much energy that quickly... Still, though, I would've expected to see some kind of effect. It's almost as if they removed the Source before the detonation even --

She was tugged out of her reverie by Quan tugging on her pant leg. She heard him force out a huge breath, signaling his return into the Solid, then another shallow one, prompting her to duck back down behind the rock.

"What?" she whispered, unable to bring herself to tell him about what had just transpired.

"Yue," he breathed, voice full of panic. "Yue. They g-got to her."

"What?" Eol repeated, pointing to Yue, who was still lying on the cloth stretcher, perfectly safe.

"No, not here.” Quan shook his head frantically. “Scapeside..."

"What?" Eol repeated again. Was this a panic attack? Was Quan's mind breaking down under all the pressure? She wasn't surprised this moment had come, all the warning signs had been there...

"Scapeside... Th-they're there. Attacked her... Some k-k-k... some underwater wave, I b-barely managed to g-get out -- "

"'They're there?’ Where?"

"In Yue's Scape..."

Eol jerked her head sideways, near-imperceptibly. "Impossible."

"D-don't know how... But I saw her. Shortish woman, white robes, red sash, long hair..."

Eol's mind was reeling. If it was true -- if Sourcers could travel to each other's Scapes --

"Eol," murmured Quan, hushed and quavering. Tears were falling from behind the shaded glasses. She felt him tighten his grip on her pant leg -- he hadn't let go. "Are we g-going to d-d-d... to d-d-d... to survive?"

Eol looked at him, his face pale and sweaty and tearstained. His unkempt mop of blonde hair -- cropped short after enlistment -- grew quickly, requiring frequent shaves. He was overdue for one now. Her eyes moved from his shaking body to Yue's much larger one, motionless beside him. Her hands balled into fists.

Eol loved them both, loved them like family. How could she not, after all they'd been through together? Yue and Eol had become friends as soon as they'd met in the same draft class all those years ago, bonding over physical training and sushi binges. They had taken Quan in not long after, protecting him from being picked on during mealtime. It took a long time for him to open up, but he did eventually. Now she knew so much about him: his birthday, his flair for sleight of hand, his favorite kind of sushi. He was the younger brother she never had. She would not let him die.

"Yes," she promised, looking in his eyes. And then she started thinking.

Yue, and hence their Source supply, was cut off. That was bad. Devastating, even. Without Source, her capabilities as a Shaper were severely limited. It was nearly impossible to re-Shape the preexisting Source sticky rice and special sauce into something capable of doing damage, and the only Source she had on-hand was her Lure Sashimi...

A plan started forming in Eol's mind, coming together the way a perfect nigiri roll seemed to assemble itself between her father's hands. If she could somehow bait the opponent into an attack, she could use her Lure to gain control over the opponent's Source, eliminating the need for Quan to supply her with any. But it was a huge risk that required their rivals to launch an attack, which they seemed perfectly content to not do. She would have to bait one out.

Kill or be killed...

Her heartbeat quickened as she finalized the plan, not sure which option she was taking. She moved closer to Quan to deliver his final instructions. If the plan failed and they killed her, which was likely, she would at least spare him from witnessing.

"Return Scapeside. Protect Yue."

"What are you g-going to d-d-do?"


Quan stared. His lips moved, forming one shape, then another, but no sound came out. Gradually, his face began to harden. Eol's determination cut through his disbelief and terror like her knife cut through soft fish. In a few seconds, he nodded, blinked away the tears, and inhaled.

She nodded back, but he was already under.

6. The third one was not the charm either

The Zenese soldier charged from behind the rock with a battlecry that chilled Ènja's blood. The enemy looked powerful and muscular, eyes hidden behind dark lenses, hair short in the traditional Zenese military style: ugly, but functional. As she charged, she drew a wicked silver knife from her belt in one smooth motion. Ènja wondered if she'd be sushi next.

No. They're desperate. Why else would someone capable of doing immense damage from range run into melee? They must be cut off from the Night. That means we're winning. And if their Stars has communicated the situation fully to both Moon and Sun, they won't expect us to have access to Dreamstuff either, which means now is the perfect time.

Ènja closed her eyes and tore Failsafe Two.

The fireball exploded with red-hot fury, every feature of it dangerous to life: corona bright, sound wave thunderous, residual smoke stifling, core temperature sufficient to inflict severe burns of the third degree. It erupted in a wide arc around Ènja and her team, up from the glyphs she'd carved into the ground at the start of battle.

The Hex called Failsafe Two was engineered around Bronté's genius, as well as to compensate for Ènja's poor Dreamstuff-authoring skills. Most Suns reveled in the limitless potential of authoring, performing miracles with it: multi-month mega Charms constructing ziggurats starting from the top, ice sculptures in the middle of the blazing-hot Jubaī during midsummer, or staying longer at the Week of Light (in ways more than two). But while they worked their miracles, Ènja found studying Sun science stodgy and stale. She much preferred training to fight in the arena, collecting the prize money after she won a fight in the arena, or -- best of all -- fighting in the arena. Dreamstuff represented an abandonment of the Gods-given glory of the most thrilling part of the human experience as far as she was concerned.

Years ago, when they were planning for their first duel, Bronté proposed a solution that enabled Ènja to keep fighting in the arena while the other Suns slaved away over musty textbooks. If Evīn could bring a sample of the enemy's authored Dreamstuff back into the Night, Bronté could study exactly how their foes had manipulated it, create a high- (occasionally even better-) quality imitation, and send it to Ènja through Evīn, whereupon Ènja could simply copy it, creating Failsafe Two.

One of the downsides of Failsafe Two was that it required getting hit, but their original plan required that anyway. As a first failsafe, Evīn could divert some of the Dreamstuff fueling the enemy attack back into the Night, draining some of its severity. Another of Bronté's Wards could freeze a larger portion of its Dreamstuff fuel in the Day, storing it in carved glyphs for Failsafe Two. Then, if Bronté and Evīn failed to overpower the enemy in a timely fashion, Ènja could trigger Failsafe Two in the Day as a last resort. Since this attack would be a copy of their enemy's, the frozen fuel would function as the perfect power source.

Moons ruled the Night. Suns ruled the Day. But because theirs was a written system, they could cheat Bronté's genius into the Day as well. It felt unfair -- doubly so because Failsafe Two forced the opponent to defend against their ownattack, which was often surprising enough to win a duel outright against an ignorant opponent.

This particular opponent did not appear to be an ignoramus. As the fireball detonated, Ènja saw the Zenese reach into her belt and fling a thin filet of orange-pink fish high into the air, slightly behind her; as she did so, the billowing blaze chasedthe sashimi, flying up to the same altitude, and upon finding the filet, transformed -- the pinnacle of the pyre, already angular, kept its contour constant as the conflagration's chaotic core condensed, then distended downward, long and lurid; midway down, a flash flared off the flames, forming a fin of fire; then two more off the side; a split trapezoid spread from the bottom; its luster was changing too, from smoking and smoldering to smooth and shiny. It was beginning, impossibly, to look like a

giant red fish--

"Ènja!" Ènja's ears were still ringing from the blast, but Evīn's voice shook her from the mellifluous metamorphosis just in time for Evīn to witness it in all its inexplicable, highly distracting beauty. "What in the Endless Night is that?"

"Herring," Ènja answered, toying with the ring on her braid as the flame-fish finished the first fraction of its flight and fell. The Zenese soldier leaped into the air to catch the thing in a spectacular display of one-handed athletic prowess, tucked it under her armpit, and was running back to the safety of the rock within seconds.

"Whatever," dismissed Evīn. "They've been gutted. Their Moon and Stars are out, so long as Bronté maintains the Containment Hex." She hesitated. "Their Stars Exited the Night -- I thought he'd escaped for a second, but the idiot came right back into the web. But he didn't get hit by the main Hex, and I'm concerned about what he might have done when he came here -- "

"Evīn," Ènja warned, her ally's name sour on her tongue, "She's going to make more sushi."

Evīn, incensed at being interrupted, prepared to launch into a tirade -- but stopped. She looked at Ènja, then at the runner, then at the giant red fish the runner was carrying. The pieces clicked into place in Evīn's mind: Failsafe One was down. Failsafe Two was down. Bronté was occupied, and it would take a long time to re-Enter the Night, swim back to the coastline, and explain the situation. It was just Evīn and Ènja. So it was really just Evīn.

"Gods," whispered Evīn, recalling the devastation the first nigiri had wrought. Her whisper quickly transformed into a scream. "GET THEM!"

Ènja had already taken off in the dead sprint she needed to run to stay alive, arms pumping furiously. The giant fish weighed down her target; Ènja was gaining. Behind her, she heard Evīn following, Bronté's wheelchair rattling on the wasteland rocks. The Zenese turned once to check how fast the gap was closing, didn't like what she saw, and reacted by plunging the knife into the fish as she ran, slitting it along its thin side and cutting out a small handheld chunk, which she hurriedly tucked into one of the pouches on her waist.

A few feet before she reached the rock, Ènja was certain she would catch up in time. That was until the Zenese, sensing the same, suddenly turned around and threw the fish with the missing piece directly at Ènja's head. Ènja ran right into it. She still half-expected it to be formed of fire, but it fwapped her in the face with the all force of a fatty flying fish. Her neck snapped back and she lost her footing but pinwheeled her arms, barely keeping balance. She shifted her weight forward again --

-- straight into the soldier's boot, who had taken advantage of the temporary stumble to land a crushing kick to Ènja's abdomen. Her breath rushed out in a nauseating wheeze as her assailant followed up with a big left hook --

-- which was where the enemy made her first and second mistake. The windup to the hook was too long. That made it predictable, and Ènja ducked under it with ease. Her smile came involuntarily. She loved this interplay, this dance between attacker and defender. It made her feel like she was back in the arena, which meant she was starting to feel the exact opposite of what her opponent wanted her to be feeling: alive.

The second mistake was not using the knife. Missing the hook had put the enemy off-balance, and Ènja seized on the opportunity to perform a low sweep with her left leg, a classic arena move, while lunging for the knife in the enemy's right hand with her left. The enemy lurched her hand back, but Ènja was able to grab the wrist while connecting with the sweep, sending her enemy airborne. She relished in her opponent's helpless cry as her bodyweight fell under Ènja's control, then applied a sudden, sharp twist to her adversary's wrist, sending the knife flying.

The opponent was tougher than expected. She adapted to the shifting momentum with aplomb, letting Ènja's body weight support her, pivoting around the contact between their hands to swing her leg around in a flying roundhouse to Ènja's neck. Ènja raised her free arm as a last-resort block, but the kick still connected, smashing into her bicep and collarbone in a blow that would've no doubt emptied Evīn's tear ducts. Ènja barely felt the blow through the adrenaline surging in her body. She could feel the skill in the enemy's resistance. That excited her.

The power of the roundhouse enabled the Zenese to free her wrist, regain her footing. They were on even ground now -- a fair fight. Ènja half-expected her opponent to go for the Dreamstuff on her belt pouches, which would have been cheating, but was pleasantly surprised to see the enemy raise her hands instead, adopting a traditional Zenese fighting pose. Ènja's smile broadened.

They clashed with the energy of two sandstorms, whirling, spinning, jumping, punch and dodge and counterpunch and kick, a blur of limbs and joints struggling for the upper hand. Ènja took a jab to the face, followed by a knee to the solar plexus. She could feel the injuries adding up. She was used to dominating in the arena, but this was a trained soldier. This was the big leagues.

The oncoming assault was relentless. Ènja was spending all her time defending -- an unsustainable strategy, but she couldn't find a window to attack through her assailant's incessant maelstrom. Breathless and sore, Ènja felt her body flagging. She suddenly realized she was in pain. The duel was going the wrong way, she needed something to turn the tide -- she went in for a feint which the opponent didn't bite on, a second which the opponent didn't bite on either, a third with the same result, a fourth --

The enemy flinched on the fourth. It was the slimmest of openings, but Ènja seized on it the way a man dying of thirst in the Jubaī seizes on the last drop in a waterskin, snapping her head down and to the side, whipping the heavy brass ring at the base of her braid directly into the opponent's face. The angle of attack caught her opponent off-guard. Her mother's hairpiece made contact with a satisfying metallic smack and shattered the Zenese's shaded lenses, along with other, more important things. The opponent crumpled, face covered in a spray of blood and dark glass. Ènja knew she'd won. She even heard the distant cry of the arena's cheering crowd, which for some reason sounded like Evīn's nasally --


"T-teen zoo hoo zee woehoo wee th-th-that-ta!"

Oh, right -- there were two more. She assumed Bronté and Evīn had been able to trap them both in the Night, but evidently not. Evidence in question being the Zenese Stars -- the scrawny one -- currently holding a rock over Evīn's head with shaking hands.

"I thought he was still in the Night," Evīn whimpered nasally. She was lying prone, ankle tied to Bronté's wheelchair with the rope attached to the back. A red gash on her forehead suggested she had fallen and couldn't get up. "He tied my ankle without my noticing. I didn't hear or see him Exit back into the Day, and I have no idea how he escaped Bronté's Containment Hex -- "

"B-bean zoo! Chen moo! F-f-foonk-k-kaa wodee yoyo!"

"Bean zoo yo-yo yourself," muttered Ènja as she lunged at the scrawny one with abandon. Evīn's safety meant nothing to her, but Bronté needed Evīn to pull zem out of the Night eventually. Scrawny didn't follow through on his threat; his eyes widened in abject dread as he dropped the rock behind him and flung his arms in front of his face in a move reminiscent of a baby playing peekaboo. Ènja was on him in a second, deftly pinning his arms behind his back with one hand while putting him in a headlock with the other.

"She's making more sushi!" Evīn cried out, pointing feebly. Ènja looked up to see the Zenese she thought she had just taken out sitting up, face a mosaic of red and dark brown, one hand holding a bundle of Dreamstuff sticky rice and the other hand carefully brushing dark sauce onto the red fish on top.

Endless Darkness, it just can't be easy,thought Ènja. "Put the Dreamstuff down! Put it down right now or I'll kill him!"

It was worthless, of course. The Zenese had no idea what Ènja was saying; she threw the nigiri with all her might.

The red herring struck Ènja in the face with all the force of a perfectly-made sushi roll, every feature of it impressive to true sushi aficionados: fish cut perfectly, rice shaped with immaculate precision, umami odor tantalizing, temperature slightly warm from Eol's touch. It splat against Ènja's cheek and then the ground with two unappetizing moist slaps.

Thank the Gods,she thought as she choked the scrawny one unconscious,

Bronté still has the Night under control. Gods know us two bozos would have --

"Thank the Gods," breathed Evīn, "Bronté still has the Night under control."

"Pull zem out," Ènja ordered, and was again shocked to see Evīn obey wordlessly, Entering into the Night once more.

If someone had asked me this morning, "Which will occur more often today: Evīn doing what you say without complaining, or you getting hit in the face by airborne fish?" I would have picked the fish, mused Ènja. And I would have almost been right.

A few minutes later, she had all four of them tied up (Evīn was already done for her) around the rock, hands and feet bound by her team's three waist sashes.

She heard Evīn and Bronté Exiting the Night by a stiffening in Bronte's body, a stretching of atrophying muscles and crackling of stiff joints. It was normal for Moons to be physically weak -- they spent all day in the Night dreaming, after all -- but Bronté was an outlier to an outlier to an outlier, oversized head bobbing on a needle neck, more bone than skin and muscle put together.

"Gweat googwy Gods, what do we have hewe?" asked Bronté in a chipper voice, surveying the three enemy soldiers caked in dust and dried blood.

"Why am I still tied to this chair?" asked Evīn in an irate voice, tugging at the tight knot around her ankle.

"After you took out their Moon, their Sun charged in," Ènja explained, pointing at the sushi maker. "I thought it was desperation at first, but she had a trick up her belt. It was a spell I've never seen before. It took the Dreamstuff in Failsafe Two and changed its shape."

"Fascinating," nodded Bronté, stroking zeir chin. "Tew me mowe."

"This knot feels like it's been tightened," Evīn remarked.

"It turned the fireball into a fish," Ènja continued. Bronté pulled out a paper from one of the wheelchair's side pockets and started writing diligently. "I've never seen anything like it before, it was incredible. Their Sun authors by making sushi, so -- "

" -- theiw spehw weauwthowed Dweamstuff in the Day," Bronté finished, picking up zeir pace of writing. "Mowe than that, it actuwawy convewtedthe enewgy of Faiwsafe Two into wuhwkabuhw matewiaw fohw them. Astonishing. And so quickwy, too..."

"Well," sighed Ènja. "Now what?"

A pause. Bronté's styluses made scratching noises on the papers.

"Untie me," Evīn pleaded, voice cloying.

"Don't know," said Bronté finally, not looking up. Ze blinked, then licked zeir lips. "I've, ehwm, I've detewmined that the othehw Moons in ouhw scout gwoup awe missing."

"Missing," Ènja repeated, the word dry in her throat.

"I couwdn't find them in the Night," Bronté confirmed, sheepish. They both knew what that meant. 

Scritch-scratch went the styluses.

"Hmm," went Ènja.

"Untie me!" went Evīn.

They were deep in hostile territory with no supplies. What was supposed to be a stealthy reconnaissance mission had blown up into a full Dreamstuff battle, and though the three of them had won it, their overall mission was lost.

"Wiw you kiw them?" asked Bronté, sotto voce.

Ènja didn't know. Despite her many arena wins, she had never come close to killing anyone before. But this was war. If she didn't kill them, they would surely kill her...

"It wouwd be an awfuw shame," Bronté murmured, even quieter. "Thewe's so much they couwd teach us... Ouw two cultuwes couwd have wehwned so muchfwom each othew if not for this damned waw."

"Bronté," Ènja began slowly, a strategy for survival taking root in her mind. "You speak Zenese, right?"

"No," Bronté confessed, hanging zeir head, "sadwy, the exotic Zenese tongue is not among my many tawents. I can wead and wite it with some fwuency, howevew. Which was quite the chawenge, given the fwankwy shamefuhw paucity of Zenese documents avaiwabuhw at the Wibwawy. I had to teach mysewf fwom awchaic poetwy and pways smugguhwed in fwom Owd Kyaebow -- why? What did you want me to say?"

"UNTIE ME!" demanded Evīn, whose struggling had unhelpfully worked the knot even tighter. Her foot was turning white from blood loss.

7. Kill or be killed

Eol woke with a splitting headache. Or perhaps it was a faceache. Her last memory had been throwing a desperately cobbled-together Fireball Nigiri at the enemy, not knowing if she was committing a six-way murder-suicide or lobbing a lame lump of sushi-shaped Source at someone's face, though she strongly suspected the latter. Her second-to-last memory had been a metal ring flying out of nowhere, hitting her in the head...

She heard a soft crinkling sound right in front of her nose. She groaned. One eye was swollen shut and the other hurt to open. She could smell her own dried blood coating her grimy face. Was her entire body broken, or just the parts that hurt the most?

The crinkling repeated, more insistent. She groaned again, then strained to crack open the one eye that could, a monumental effort that sent bolts of pain spiking down her spine and cheekbones.

Someone was waving a piece of paper in front of her. Her vision swam. It reminded her of the first time she'd opened her eyes underwater, when her father was teaching her how to swim. Her father...

Her vision began to clear. She spotted the word PREDICAMENTE -- written the old way -- on the paper. It was coming back to her now. 

Yes, sir. Small band of Pyrinian scouts detected crossing the wasteland. Intercept. Capture ideal, lethal force if necessary.

Outside of their commander's earshot, Quan had questioned the last bit. How will we capture them if we can only throw fireballs?

Well, Yue had responded, sounds like lethal force will be necessary for us.

Oh, shit, Quan and Yue, Quan and Yue, where are they, where are they, wherearetheywherearetheywherearethey --

She widened her eye, wincing as the pain surged in. Turning, she spotted them: Quan on her left, Yue on his. He was between them, safe. She saw him breathing, but not Yue. That meant Yue was Scapeside. Or --

No, she wouldn't let herself think that now. She turned the other way, where she saw a Pyrinian squatting down, nearly eye-to-eye with her. It was the one whose long braid had hit Eol in the face with the metal ring. Braid was holding up the piece of paper and pointing to it.

Eol groaned again and looked past her mail, to the other two Pyrinians. One was frail to the point of skeletal, curled up on a comfortable-looking leather wheelchair, staring intently back at her. Behind the chair, another long-haired Pyrinian was lying on the stony ground, blood on her brow, rapidly muttering what Eol assumed to be curses in a low, nasal rasp.

The paper slid in front of her face once more. Eol made an aggressive noise, coming from deep in her chest. But there was nothing left to look at. The wasteland was as barren as it ever was. So Eol finally relented.

Oh dearest opponente, whoze sushi-makinge skillze are trulie worthie ofe sublime praise, ande who iz undoubtedlie unparallelede undere the sun, like a paire ofe magnificente squigglie linez,

Ye appeare to be ine a predicamente ofe the higheste ordere, az equivalente to the thyme whene the almightie emperore Wunsei waz besiegede at the gates of Olde Kyaebol fore a yeare ande a daie bye the fearsome Doa Nent ande Kaft Crasey. We humbleste Pyrinianze have bestede ye! Ande, though we respectfullie rejoice in oure victorie in a mannere ande to a degreeie whiche ye hopefullie do note finde inappropriate ore upsettinge, we finde ourselveze at ane impasse. Fore we are stucke, you see, stucke! Oh, tragedie is we! We have wone this meagere sortie, yet loste the largere battle. Oure trio'ze wretchede and miserable comradez have beene bestede bye youre moste esteemede and inimitable compatriotese (maye theye live longe ande prosperouse livez). Thise inauspiciouse occurrence hase lefte use in ane dreadfule pozitione: strandede in a hostile wastelande.

Ande so ite appearze the sixe of use are in neede of eache otherze helpe. If ye three bolde ande impeccable heroeze woulde deigne to kindlie guide use frome thise strange yete wonderouse lande, we woulde be eternallie gratefule, ande we woulde not slaye ye where ye laie, though ite woulde of course be entirelie withine bothe oure prerogative ande the ruleze governinge faire engagemente to do soe.

Furthermore, ife youe woulde permite suche a smalle ande insignificante creature suche as myselfe to be soe bolde, Ie ame ofe the moste modeste opinione thate oure two civilizationze have a greate deale to learne frome one anothere, ande woulde gladlie trade oure scante knowledge in exchange fore youre trulie awe-inspiringe secretse.

Live ande lete live, mightie warriore! Whate saye youe? Youe maye indicate youre agreemente to thise moste vaine ande dim-wittede ofe proposalze bye raizinge youre heade, loweringe it againe, ande repeatinge thate processe betweene three ande eighte timeze.

Eol didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. She had just finished reading a combination of a death threat and nodding instructions written in the style of a centuries-old soliloquy referencing a historical event she had never heard of.

She needed to assess the situation, come up with a plan. They had taken her belt, glasses, knife; she had nothing on her but her uniform, torn in multiple places. Her hands and feet were bound with strong knots. Her Triad was in even worse condition. Think, Eol, think!

Her mind was racing through an empty wasteland. She was exhausted. Her resources were exhausted. She had no allies to lean on. She felt bile accumulating at the back of her throat.

Looking up at her captors, she saw Braid looking at her with a stony expression, Wheelchair with an eager smile on her -- or his? -- face, and Nasal spitting vitriol in the dirt.

She turned to Quan and Yue, still unconscious. No help there. She would have to make the decision on her own. One choice for three lives. Math didn't quite check out.

Kill or be killed...

Eol swallowed down the bile, raised her head, lowered it again, and repeated that process between three and eight times.

END (for now)

Story Notes

1. Alien physics

There was a point where I thought I'd have to title the story "Sushi Fireballs" instead of "Sushi Fireball", but then I realized there's only one sushi fireball in the story: the very first one Eol throws. All the other fireballs fizzle or fail or aren't sushi.

Sucked for Eol, but let me get away with a better title. "Sushi Fireball" just rolls off the tongue so much better than "Sushi Fireballs", y'know?

I wrote this story because I wanted to build a story around an original magic system with strict rules (a so-called "hard" magic system), like Mistborn's Allomancy, Hunter X Hunter's Nen, Ars Magicka's hermeticism, or The Runelords' endowments. These magic systems inspired me, they were well-made, and exploring them was my favorite part of the stories, so I wanted to make a story that did nothing butexplore a cool magic system.

A good hard magic system is really just different physics. Or maybe universal gravitation, light refraction, and quantum tunneling are all magic. Whatever. When I started thinking about magic as physics, I started thinking of magic in terms of energy, because of something my electrical engineer friend once told me: the only thing preventing us from having a working Iron Man suit is the Arc Reactor. Our fitted armor, actuators, rotors, and even beam weapons are all actually really good, but they're limited by the problem of energy transfer and storage. In other words, good energy manipulation is like magic.

I wanted to see how far I could push this "energy manipulation = magic" idea, so I decided my system could only achieve real-world effects energy transfer could solve. This meant mind reading, invisibility, and teleportation were out, but fireballs, lightning bolts, and flight were in. (And who knows, I could probably justify mind reading, invisibility, and teleportation later.)

Even though it was based on energy transfer, I still wanted the system to feel like magic and not like physics. To achieve this, I took inspiration from Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life", which is about (spoiler alert) aliens who don't perceive time linearly. They see all aspects of their time at once, and the entire story is spent exploring the consequences of that perception through their language.

My favorite passage in the story comes when the scientists are trying to talk about physics with the aliens. (It's a pretty sexy passage). Humans started the field of physics with Newtonian mechanics, which expresses things in terms of position and velocity -- simple for humans to understand, because we can see where something is and how fast it's going. From this, we derived Lagrangian mechanics, which expresses things in terms of kinetic and potential energy -- harder to understand, because we can't see how much potential energy something has.

Something that arose from Lagrangian mechanics was the stationary action

principle (often poorly named as the "principle of least action"). Here's one interesting thing this principle says: whenever light travels between two points, it takes the fastest path between them. But that's weird. Framed that way, it seems like the light somehow knewwhat the fastest path was going to be before it even took it, which doesn't make any sense --

-- unless you're an alien who doesn't perceive time linearly, in which case it makes perfect sense. Of course the light knew the fastest path ahead of time, there isno "ahead of time".

That'sthe part that doesn't make any sense!

As a result, the aliens founded theirphysics on

Lagrangianmechanics, and worked backwards from there to get to Newtonian mechanics. The aliens assumed the light was like them, while the humans assumed the light was like us. So even though they both lived in the same universe, with the same physical laws, the humans' and the aliens' descriptions of those laws were totally different, because those descriptions were filtered through each species' unique experience.

This was how I was going to prevent my magic system from becoming just physics. Even though the ruleset is the same, the games the two teams play and the language they use to describe it are totally different. I hoped that would keep it feeling mysterious and cool.

2. Trees are neat

I knew what kind of rules I wanted. Now I needed to actually design those rules. The inspiration for that process comes from the time I was on a run and was struck by the beauty of trees.

Trees are really something, aren't they? They're like a whole mini society. The roots draw up water into the trunk, which holds it for distribution by the branches, allowing leaves to grow, which take in sunlight, supporting everything below. Every part of the system needs and is needed by every other part of the system.

I started thinking about a magic system where mages needed to operate in teams to function, every mage needing and needed by every other mage. Roots drew up magical energy from a strange place, enabling the other team members to tap into it. Trunks stored that energy for use. Branches could move it around. Leaves could cast flashy, aggressive spells. And Barks could cast pragmatic, defensive spells.

I loved this idea. I especially loved the agony of how a powerful Root acted as an ocean of power they couldn't do anything with themselves. Equally interesting was if your team's Root was really weak but your Leaf was really strong, so your Leaf had to figure out how to achieve a big boom with a tiny amount of gunpowder. Or if your Root was really strong but your Branch was really weak, your team would have access to this incredible well of potential energy, but only be able to pull up one bucket at a time. I had the idea of a team of enemy mages sneakily impairing your team's Root, cutting off your energy supply, so you had to rely on whatever your had stored in your Trunk. Doubling down on this, I decided Roots had to be unconscious to access the energy, because (a) you can't see a tree's roots, (b) I was inspired by the Borges short story "The Circular Ruins", which prominently features a dreaming wizard-demiurge, and (c) I was drawn to the image of a mage totally zonked out as a fireball exploded around them.

Adding to this, I decided the Roots' magical mystery land would be a dreamworld personal to them, a subconscious landscape of whatever they found most important or meaningful. This way, I could explore character and setting by simply exploring whatever world the Root went to while asleep. Furthermore, if a single team's magic system was Rooted in personally significant, unique energy supplies, it made sense for each team's style of magic to also be unique. Everyone would be operating under the same ruleset, but playing totally different games.

Everything about Roots was inspirational. The problem came with the other team members. I couldn't figure out a way to make Trunks and Branches as exciting as Roots, and the division between Leaves and Barks seemed kind of arbitrary. The system was overwrought and needlessly complex. I needed to simplify.

3. The “human centipede” problem

The lightbulb went off when I literally saw a lightbulb go off. I realized the core of what I was talking about was a circuit, the simplest circuit imaginable: battery, lightbulb, wire. The battery was the energy source, the lightbulb used the energy source, and the wire connected the two.

At this point, I knew the common ruleset everyone would be operating under: Magic was simply energy, and you couldn't do anything with it except what you could do with energy. To harness this energy, your team needed to have exactly three members: a battery, who maintained their own magical dreamworld energy supply, a lightbulb, who could do whatever the hell they damn well wanted with the energy once they had it, and a wire, who facilitated energy transfer and communication between the two.

The general story structure springboarded from these basic rules. I knew I wanted a magical duel, because one of my favorite things in media is when two really smart people are trying to outsmart each other. I knew I wanted to explore different strengths and weaknesses in team compositions, because this would let me show off why these rules were cool. So I started designing Team A.

I wanted Team A to suffer from a "human centipede" problem: their front and back are fine, but their middle is horrible. (Sorry, that's a bad analogy. It was the first thing I thought of.) This is the Eol/Yue/Quan team. Eol and Yue creatively increase the voltage of their battery and the brightness of their bulb to help out their high-impedance wire.

If Team A had a really weak member, I wanted Team B to have a really strong member, someone who would totally take over the team and dominate the other two. I call this the "human centipede" problem: the front is fine, and you shouldn't think about the other two parts. (There we go, much better analogy.) Enter Bronté's team. Bronté's team is built around Bronté's skills alone, and Ènja and Evīn just run around doing whatever ze says while bickering among themselves. The battery is so powerful it doesn't even matter how weak the wire and bulb are.

4. Sushi fireballs

I was pretty satisfied with this framework. I just needed to hammer out the specifics. I knew the lightbulbs could do whatever the hell I wanted them to do, so long as it had to do with energy manipulation, but what exactly did I want them to do?

Team A's inspiration came from a documentary and a conversation. The documentary was Jiro Dreams of Sushi; the conversation was about how one of my friend's favorite activities was curation,the maintenance and organization of things to optimize experience. Curation struck a particular chord in this energy-based magic system: energy can't be created out of nothing; it had to be curated, moved around and manipulated cleverly. Watching Jiro make sushi, it occurred to me that his craft was curation at the highest level: every bit of sushi he touched was a perfectly curated bite, intentionally sculpted for the specific person who was going to eat it. The craftsmanship was poetic, and I wanted to give Team A's magic that same delicious umami flavor.

I also decided I wanted Team A to throw fireballs. Fireballs are the iconic magic spell. When I picture a wizard duel, I picture them throwing fireballs at each other. I knew I needed to have fireballs, and I was pleased at how the incendiary explosiveness of a fireball contrasts nicely against sushi's aquatic nature. This would enable me to explore a wide variety of environments with language. Plus, the trochee-dactyl "sushi fireball" just rolls off the tongue so nicely, y'know?

I loved the fireballs so much I decided to go all-in on the fireballs. What if Team A could onlyattack via fireballs? One theme in

Jiro Dreams of Sushiis the notion of endlessly repeating a seemingly simple task until deep mastery is achieved. Most people can't bear that kind of tedium, which is why most people will never perfect the craft of sushi-making like Jiro has. That was the kind of philosophy I tried to capture in Eol's character: someone whose entire life was spent perfecting the craft of making sushi, who connects with people via sushi, who solves all her problems by applying sushi.

And of course, I found the mental image of a powerful mage throwing an exploding sushi delightful. Not to mention the opportunity for fish puns.

5. Geoguessr copycat

With Team A's design done, I moved on to Team B. I knew I wanted something wildly different, something that would contrast Team A’s sushi fireballs and push the system in a totally new direction.

Fireballs are cool because they're so concretely visceral. No one can argue against the awesomeness of a massive explosion going off in front of their eyes. Just ask Michael Bay.

So if fireballs were concrete and visceral, what if Team B's plan of attack was the opposite of that? Rather than being tangible and destructive, Team B's attack would be abstract and clever, coming from an unexpected angle. I combined this with the supercharged battery idea from earlier. Instead of doing anything in the real world, Team B could invade your dreamworld, destroying your battery there. That's cool because Team B would be fighting in an entirely different environment. And since their battery was so strong, it wouldn't be a fair fight.

This idea of dreamworld invasion was fascinating, and it had an interesting consequence: it suggested the dreamworlds were not distinct from one another, and instead coexisted in a single massive place. To preserve the surprise factor of Team B's approach, I decided Team A wouldn't know this fact. Asymmetry leads to interesting dynamics.

Of course, to attack your dreamworld, Team B would have to find it first. I realized they were essentially playing Geoguessr: trying to pinpoint a specific location via environmental clues. How would they get those clues? Their wire could bring them. This was cool because it explored the other direction energy could travel in the system: from lightbulb to battery, rather than from battery to lightbulb. If your battery is your strong point, it's going to be the place where all your resources go.

I also decided I love superpowers where your power is you get to copy someone else's power. That's just fun. Plus, it would give me the excuse to put in even morefireballs. So I decided Team B's lightbulb would simply copy whatever Team A was doing. That made sense, because Team B's lightbulb was already supposed to be carried by their battery, and copying someone else's work is easier than making your own.

This copycat idea led me to the image of someone casting a spell by ripping up a piece of paper. If your spells were written down, you could copy them pretty easily, and the ripping was just a cool mental image. Even cooler: what if the paper ripped itself?

6. Mass-market appeal

One classical way of modeling storytelling is through the three pillars of plot, character, and setting. I felt pretty confident in my setting. I liked the dynamic interplay between asymmetric systems, I liked the imagery, and I liked the potential to tell more stories in this world. In fact, I decided the setting was so good I didn't really need to care about the other two pillars, so I tossed some random characters together without much thought, slapped together a basic plot that could explain why a duel was happening, and called it a day.

Overall, I like how it turned out. Plus, there's only a single s-word, so it landed in that sweet sweet PG-13 rating range, which means it can be marketed to the widest possible audience. Mmm, I do love me some family-friendly fun.