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Azrael was the hero of the piece. Either that or he was a tragically misguided villain. Somebody has to be the hero. It may as well be him. He was one of the elite. An Academy student in his graduation year. And he was due his final field trip. Every university offers field trips, only the Academy's seldom involved visits to crumbling monuments or tiresome cultural exchanges. Students were sent out on quests. To save missing pyronettes. To slay wrathful Ăźbersaurs. To tackle disruptive cultists. And such assignments counted towards Azrael's final grade. Pyronettes? Ăœbersaurs? Disruptive cultists? There's no need to bother with those at the moment but let's get a few things straight about the school house itself. Zarathustra be praised that Psytopia had one of those...

The Academy was shrouded in mystery, especially to those on the outside looking in. Perched atop a precarious cliff-top. Shaped like a gnawed apple core. Clutching at the sky as if a gangly collection of jagged teeth. Surrounded by a moat of ethereal flame. Sitting majestically amid the open plains of one of the central plates of the Psytopia Arpeggio. Right in the middle of the Golden Plateau. It took up the majority of the plate, in fact. But more about plates later. The Academy complex appeared not unlike a cross between a football half sunken in the mud and a wizened snail's shell; spires jutting out chaotically as if needles from a pincushion. Psytopia Adagio 1

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A bit random-looking if I have to be honest. All in all it was a wonder of modern engineering… Or ancient engineering; I’m not quite sure which. Nobody went in, nobody came out. Barring field trips of course. It was a self contained city, flanked by flame, cased in metal, domed in stormy clouds. It was the embodiment of justice in a world struggling to keep itself together. Order against anarchy. Order against chaos. Order against… all those other disorderly things. People looked up to it. People felt protected by it. People even feared it. But nobody knew where it had come from. Who had created it. Who ran it. Or if they did they were keeping quiet. So people simply assumed. Even the pupils were in the dark. And since they tied their world view up in fanciful dichotomies, they'd probably stay there. Some said the Academy's creation was an act of Zarathustra himself. That it was raised out of the very ground by his omnipotent will. Zarathustra. The one who understood everything mere mortals did not. Zarathustra was the unfathomable. The unintelligible. The unknowable. Students were taught plainly and simply that of things which you can’t know you should remain silent and that you shouldn’t shout too loudly about things you think you know either, just in case you’ve got it wrong. If you really think you know, you’re better off knuckling down and teaching. And that way if you’re wrong, somebody will point it out; because students haven’t quite learned that they don’t know anything yet, so tend to ask troublesomely good questions. Zarathustra was the great knower. The sound of silence. The all-powerful overseer of the wide, wild world who watched in shadows. All the valiant soldiers of the Academy could do was fight that good fight of theirs and hope to gain his almighty favour. Others said that Zarathustra was a myth created to scare people into obedience. Well everyone has the luxury of being half right, don’t they? Psytopia Adagio 1

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That’s at least as right as being wrong. The Academy’s swordstrils were guardians. Pillars of truth and virtue in a world of arcane magics and fantastical beasts. They were warriors of good who lived their lives to fight evil, yadda yadda yadda. To order things. To structure things. To make things make sense. Knights in jazzy medieval-come-cyberpunk clothing who travelled the plates dispensing justice with the kind of ruthless and often heavy-handed efficiency in which Disney churns out blockbusters. (Author’s note: There isn't a Disneyland on Psytopia... yet.) The cosmopolitan plateaus of Psytopia were their backyard. Their stage. Their dance floor. Their battleground. Azrael fiddled with his sword. The Crimson Harvest. All Academy students named their weapons. Anal perhaps, but there was a certain sense to the tradition. Each sword was unique. Crafted for the individual style of the player. A representation of their personality. Extensions of their limbs. An Academy student's sword would stay with them until the day they died, whether that be in glorious conflict rescuing some distressed damsel or slaying some gargantuan, fire-breathing beastie from some hastily conjured hell. Or whether it be lying prostrate with the instrument plunged into the ground before them at a grand twenty thousand rounds old. As their stories of heroism and conquest were absorbed by the clustered, sword-savvy children gathered to learn the art before the ethereal clouds of the Third Heaven took their elder to rest. Because the Third Heaven was the only place where a swordstril didn’t need to be armed.

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Academy dictums couldn't be broken. They were the teachings by which swordstrils lived their lives. The closest thing they had to scripture. But at some point back there I mentioned Azrael's sword...

A long, thin, neat, straight blade designed for precision. It's all about technique. Mechanics. Watching the pace and rhythm of the dance and mixing things your way. Neatly laying out every reverb and high-hat just where you want. Setting everything out the way it’s meant to be. A nice, solid, unwavering rock on which the player’s style could be built. The perfect instrument. The blade itself was made of a translucent red metal. If you held it up to the light you could see right through it. It didn't bend; it didn't falter. It didn't do things in half measures. It appeared either clear or oblique depending on what you held it in front of. Its outlook changed but not its nature. Not its commitment to the path, whatever path it may choose. Forever clear yet forever oblique. The handle was crafted in a curved, polished swirl of silver. Like the tail of a treble clef. And on its end sat a sunken red jewel which gleamed like a devil's eyeball. Still yet colourful. Swirling yet unmoving. Static yet alive. A hidden passion weighed down by that solid centre. A channelled passion. Always kept squarely in check. Azrael was thinking about Mikado- his girl. Psytopia Adagio 1

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He loved his girl. And love is such a deep thing, isn’t it? Cuts smoother than the cruellest blade. Have to be careful of it because it can slice you to pieces the closer you get. Mikado was a doctor at the medical section of the complex. A Medician. A clever girl; cleverer than him. A child genius of sorts in her time, now also in her early twenties and growing seemingly brighter with each passing round. 'Round'... I mean day... kind of... I'll come to that later. They wouldn’t consider themselves ‘twenty-somethings’ either. I won’t irritate you with Psytopian systems of time measurement just yet; you have that to look forward to, or skip. Ah, Mikado; she was clever and that's what he loved about herclever, sensible, pure. OK, so she was also a just-right 5'10, stunningly gorgeous with waterfall perfect jet black hair, eyes as honest as those of a newborn calf and lips tinged with a certain dancing, glistening shimmer which made Azrael feel like he was a toddler again and the world was fresh and new… Slender and stylish; legs that stretched further than any blade and a classic fashion sense which hinted towards the technooriental dress of the day and yet remained timeless. But of course, he loved her for her mind. She was sensitive, focused, principled, calm; she cooled him down and made his problems part like scattered leaves in a gale with nothing but a gaze. She was like mood music. Like ambient trance or some other laid back mumbo-jumbo. He was cool already simply by being around her. Actually, when he sat down and thought about it, he loved everything about her. Not just her mind… And once the quest was over and he graduated, they would sculpt the betrothment deed and he would touch her for the first time as tradition dictated. Azrael and Mikado were both big on their tradition. Psytopia Adagio 1

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So since the undergraduate student got to lead the mission, since the undergraduate student got to pick one of his comrades, since it was advisable for the undergraduate to appoint somebody with a medical background, since the undergraduate in question was blade over hilt in love with Mikado and since the two were as inseparable as sword and sheath, she was the first name on his short-list. It was a pretty short short-list; a short-list of one. So he got to take his world with him on his trek across the plates. Last time Azrael left the Academy complex he was in his first fresher year and that was simply a practice trip. A bit of fun. He didn't go further than the edge of the plateau. Now that the Academy was finally fully staffed and attended, freshers were taken along on real grading quests. Lucky freshers; toughen them up early! This time every action scored Azrael points towards his final grade. This time he was going to be traversing the plates for real, and in that endeavour there was only one person he needed by his side, holding his hand, keeping him warm in the face of chilling adversity. He would walk the plates any time for his Mikado‌ FFS these two were boring.

You see, Psytopia wasn't your everyday spherical world. Instead it was made up of a series of flat plateaus not unlike tectonic plates. These were clearly visible and ran into each other here, there and everywhere. Like a gigantic piano where the keys spread not only left to right but back and forth and in every other conceivable direction, only with many of said keys missing‌ Think of it as a tub of water, the surface of which was littered with triangular pieces of foam. They drifted aimlessly, sometimes repelling each other, sometimes sticking to one another, sometimes getting so jampacked that they could hardly move at all. This was how Psytopia worked. Psytopia Adagio 1

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The chunks of foam were the plates, the water ethereal flame. And each plate housed vastly different environments. Some were open plains (like the Golden Plateau), some were savannah, some were wooded, others tropical, desert, tundra; you name it. And where one plate ended and another began, those changes took effect abruptly. Of course, there were more things to environments than temperature, topography, etc... But let's take things as life gives them; bit by bit and hap-hazard. It's the only way to learn. Back to Azrael. The undergraduate got to choose one companion but not the other. Yes, they got three. A trinity.

-A party for an Academy quest must consist of*1 Pre-grad who will lead, and whose performance will be reflected in his/her final grade. *1 Elective of the pre-grad's choice, who must be registered at the Academy in some capacity and who will not be graded. *1 Fresher who will be assigned to the pre-grad, and whose performance will be taken into account when applying for courses next term. *Any hangers-on who may be picked up during the quest, as is often the case with quests. These hangers-on must not be in the current employ of the Academy and can be appointed and dismissed from the party at any time by the pre-grad. Appointment and treatment of non-Academy personnel will be considered when the Assembly of Tutors debate the pre-grad's final grade. So Azrael had chosen Mikado as his elective. Hardly front page news. He had decided even before he had been given the assignment brief. Speaking of which‌

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*Travel to the Emerald Plateau. Route and method of travel are up to the pre-grad. Bear in mind you will be graded on these decisions. *Locate the Anarchist clansman known as Valhalla and send him to the Third Heaven. Tactics are up to the pre-grad. Bear in mind that you will be graded on this issue. *Return to the Academy. Bear in mind that points will be lost if there are casualties in your party or if the quest is not completed successfully. It was a simple quest. Some of Azrael's friends had to battle Ăźbersaurs on the Jade Plateau or locate obscure artefacts which may or may not have actually existed. His was easy; snatch and grab. He had seen the freezes of Valhalla.

Swiftly assembled models made out of twisted 'tye'; a fiddly substance left over from sword smelting and not unlike wire. Used to portray both pictures and words, they were the universal language of Psytopia. Tye twisters had to be trained from an early age. When the mind is young it's able to understand the association between words, concepts and their counterpart shapes with greater clarity. Only pure minds can truly comprehend these associations, but any mind can appreciate them. Like how only skilled artists can paint a picture but even the doziest scrawler can tell what the painting is of. They acted like pointers; triggering in the observer relevant thoughts, words and memories emanating from their own life experiences. There were even inter-plateau tye-twisting competitions and winners were venerated like award-winning authors are by us. So Azrael had seen the freezes. Valhalla seemed like a challenge. He liked a challenge. All good Academy students liked a challenge. Psytopia Adagio 1

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And in facing this challenge he had been assigned Remedy. A typical fresher. Outward-going, fun-loving; not a care in the world. Oh, how the cheerful fall. It was Azrael's job to take her out into the wide, wild world for the first time. To expose her to some of life's harsher realities. Alright, so Remedy was an orphan of the Karakuru massacre like the rest of them. She hadn't had it easy and yes, from what Azrael heard she was an accomplished swordstril. She had been through the same knuckle-busting, nail-tearing, bone-aching training he had suffered... sorry- enjoyed three years ago or roundabouts. She had had bruises on bruises like him but whereas those obtained in a closed environment heal fast, those sustained in the real world would best be described as battle scars. Life scars. No more cotton wool; no more fun. Both Remedy and Mikado would have told Azrael to lighten up but the world out there often had the opposite effect. Light and dark; opposites. Absolutes. Absolutes don't exist in the real world, or so Azrael had heard. He had explored the Golden Plateau and that was harsh enough. The others had never even been out of the Academy’s coned dome since Zarathustra-knows-when. When it came to the plateaus, Azrael was a fresher himself. They were all being thrust dizzily onto the dance floor, learning the hard way. Psytopia Adagio 1

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If you want to talk opposites, you wouldn't be going far wrong by talking about Azrael and Remedy. If you looked up the word in the dictionary, you'd find pictures of the two of them staring at each other from adjacent pages. Azrael with his fruit-basket red-yellow dreads, furrowed brow and cold chain-mail vest. Remedy with her jutting ginger hair, sparkle-spangled grin and flame-patterned slacks. If you compared the chemical compositions of chalk and cheese on an atomic level, squinting through the microscope, you might well find miniature Azraels and miniature Remedys waving up at you from inside the respective particles and chromosomes of the substances involved. If you took a piece of rope, tied it to a pillar on one side of the spectrum, ran all the way to the other end and wrapped it around the pillar there, you'd find on closer inspection that these pillars were labelled 'Azrael' and 'Remedy' respectively. If you... Oh, you get the picture.

= Brooding, dutiful, responsible, serious, intensely moral.

= Bubbly, talkative, loud, playful and a little wild at heart. But in being such polar opposites they were also very much alike in one important way. Their work. Because opposites work together in this world. And the world of Psytopia was no different. It's not that opposites always attract. If Azrael was the last man on the plates and Remedy the last woman... they'd likely just fight over who had the better sword. Because fighting was what they did best and what brought them together. Fighting was the great equaliser. If you know your fighting you'll know that styles make fighters and personality makes styles. Psytopia Adagio 1

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So in a nutshell‌

Considered, subtle, great technician Wait for the moment; seize the moment. Construction paves the way to deconstruction. Defence is the best form of attack until an alternative opportunity arises. Craft that opportunity. Strike hard, strike true. Strict, angular, bang on target, right on the button. Tip-top professional accuracy.

Wild, stylish, lavish movements distributed at speed. Feel the flow. Roll with the flow. Strike while the iron is hot. Confuse your opponent with mad flurries and unorthodox offence. But try not to confuse yourself. Strike fast, strike often. Swirl, twirl, cut across the guard, straight through the target. Swish-slash energetic artistry. Needless to say, both approaches generally work. You mould your world to your own specifications and your world moulds you. We all know at heart whatâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s right for us- what fits. The worst you can do is allow circumstance to constrain you... Don't let tradition constrain you... This was >kind of< the reason Remedy spent so much time with the other blitzblades at Pyrotech. Wait a minute... 'Blitzblades'? 'Pyrotech'? We'll be inundated with characters named Aslan, Groosalag, Aaragorn and Taun-We in no time... so before it all gets very confusing let's clear a few things up.

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The Academy's equivalent of a student bar and home from home for the freshers. A nightclub. Actually it was a day club, mainly because there was no such thing as night on the golden plate... Psytopia's plates moved, you see.

And they didn't move uniformly. Add that some suns moved with the plates and that there was a virtual stew of suns up there each travelling in their own apparently random direction... and it's even more complicated. Think of a great big continent of ice being gradually broken up by the greenhouse effect. It was a miracle the plates didn't end up smashing into each other or perhaps that was just part of the great design. Chance and determination- where does one end and the other begin? Actually there were magnetic force-fields between the plates which caused them to bump each other lightly and drift apart. Like dodgems, no eardrum-splitting, body-jarring slams.

A club. Tier three, first floor, just past the fresher's dorms. Thatâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s a very Earth-like set of directions. Psytopians wouldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t understand. They would rather have directed you in triangles. It any case, pyrotech was just past the fresher's dorms for a reason; less distance to stagger. So what was so attractive about pyrotech? They played Cagen techno. They served pyrojuice. It was fun. It was just like the old days. The days nobody remembered. The days before the Fall. Before industrial society shot itself in the head and humanity crumbled back into an era of swords, sorcery and agricultureâ&#x20AC;Ś which wasn't necessarily a bad thing. No self-respecting fairytale setting would be complete without a mysterious past, ancient civilisations, forgotten technologies, long-lost wisdom and so on and so forth. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Without a mysterious past you can’t have a mysterious future and without a mysterious future we’d have a predictable present. How boring would life be without a fair dollop of mystery on our plate? Or across our plates. How boring would or own Earth be if our history was clear-cut and comprehensible? We’d know where we’d been and where we’re going. The word ‘adventure’ would be left to rot in eternal disuse. Wouldn’t you just slit your wrists and die? In any case, ancient or modern, some things don't die and you can bet whenever there's a cataclysmic change in the social order it's going to be the underground that survives... Plays the proverbial phoenix from the ashes. But you may be wondering about the pyrojuice... Remedy and Mojo glugged the stuff back as if there was no tomorrow. Since they were residents of a place where the sun doesn’t move, they were kind of right. “A tangy old round, siz.” Remedy failed miserably at pointing her friend out with a finger. Mojo pointed back and barely missed Remedy’s face. “A tangy old round.” Yes, they did have binge drinkers in Psytopia, worse luck. The blitzers lurched and swaggered a little, eyes rolling at the speed of Catherine wheels as the hot rush of pyro swept through their limp bodies. Like a pebble sending cool, progressive ripples through a silent pond. They felt a little bit... Queasy…

A drug. And a legal one. Incidentally it wasn't so legal in the old days, but remember nobody remembers the old days. Only a wacky cultist would proclaim such a thing. Neat pyro came as triangular sheets which sat snugly in the palm of the hand. It looked like wet cling film and it shimmered. If you held it to the light you could see an ethereal flame emblem, appearing like a hologram. Surrounded by intricate lines, dots and arrows. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Because that was where pyro came from; diluted ethereal flame. Ethereal flame was the stuff that underpinned the Psytopian Archipelago or Arpeggio or whatever you want to call it. Think of ethereal flame as see-through scaffolding holding the plates roughly in place, give or take a drift and a slide. And pyro wasn’t always used as a drug; it was because of those other, practical uses that it wasn’t banned. Burn pyro and it melts rapidly into orange-blue goo. It buzzes through the bloodstream and swirls cells around somehow, like a typhoon in the brain. But a nice relaxing typhoon... is that a paradox? Aren't paradoxes nice? It goes all fiery and makes your blood itch... but a good itch. A lively one. Then it dies down and you feel like crap. Rumour had it that if you knew the right people, you could score a sheet of devil juice at pyrotech too, but that was illegal. As we’ve already established, the Academy and its students were the embodiment of everything good and proper, so tipping a sheet of the black stuff just wouldn’t do. Go to a less scrupulous plate where people are less… civilised. The Academy's influence stretched pretty far though and besides, anybody willing to put their life on the line for a mindmuddling trip to the edge of the Third Heaven all for a cup of shadows would have to have been a couple of broadswords short of an armoury. “You’se dandy, blitz belle.” Remedy clashed glasses with Mojo as if they were trading parries. The blitzblades spoke funny. ‘You’se’= you/your, ‘dandy’= enjoyable, ‘tangy’= difficult. You’ll work it out and even if you don’t you aren’t missing much.

A group of young swordstresses. A class. A clique. Of free spirited young women with fancy toys. Those toys happened to be swords. Double swords. They were a clique of free-spirited young double swordstresses. There were five of them; Mojo, Halo, Esuna, Elegy and Remedy.

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The irresponsible one. 100%, no holds barred party girl. The one who always had to be carried home. She had an audacious attitude and a high-octane fighting style... Both of which made her her own worst enemy. She and Remedy would spar at a frenetic pace and drink at just the same speed, hanging on to whatever solid objects their bleary eyes could find, watching each other’s arms perform strange loops and coils as if rubber rapiers caught in whirlwinds. The others couldn't work out whether they were more at risk drinking or fighting.

The introverted one. She kept herself to herself and always gave the impression she’d rather be alone. But as with most quiet people, there was a lot more happening in her head than she let on. Call her a nihilist if you want. It doesn’t matter; she’s a nihilist. And she’s hardly likely to react; reserved to the point of withdrawal, or blatant disinterest, or simply only half there. But a hidden heroine with a hidden courage. She’d probably do something earth-shattering one day. Just out of the blue. It's always the quiet ones you've got to watch.

The curious one. Always asking why. She was perpetually filled with wonder. Like a kid always nagging; 'why’s fire hot', 'why’s the sky big?' The answers kind of depend on what plate you live on. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Lucky swordstrils seldom had kids. Whirling blades disagree with their brittle little heads. She was content observing; there's just so much to observe. Observing and understanding though; not the same things. She and Halo would inevitably be left in the corner cuddling their drinks, Esuna inquiring about the meaning of life, Halo saying next to nothing at all... Which is probably the most accurate answer.

The imaginative one. She invented things. She also tended to invent herself a great deal of worry. Couldn't just look up at the sun and bathe in its glory; she had to know how it worked. Though that also depended on what plate you lived on. While the rest of the class delighted in the twinkly wonder of sword swipes, she studied the mechanics of the art. How every hoop and weave, loop and parry knitted together. She would have been great for Azrael if he didn't already have a girl... and if his girl wasn't so slickly, sickly perfect for him. Still, she could always dream...

The fun-loving one and unofficial leader of the group. Unofficial because Remedy liked to go with the flow. She certainly didn’t consider herself to be any kind of leader. For the record she had no idea who should be leader as long as it wasn’t her. Elegy? She was the sensible choice. Esuna? She was an empowering choice. Halo? She was a cynical choice. Mojo? She was the emotional choice. But Remedy could be persuasive simply by being wide-eyed and up-front, apparently even about things she wasn’t inclined to believe herself. Call it honesty or naïvety or simply a lack of responsibility, but Remedy loved life and she certainly didn’t want to tie it down by being in control of it… much less anybody else’s. Psytopia Adagio 1

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There were six students in each class, six style schools and three grades of three terms each. That meant there were one hundred and eight swordstrils in the Academy, undertaking nine terms of training. Well, actually there were one hundred and seven, since the blitzblade’s class was one short. Don’t blame me; blame Corona. Remedy and Corona were said to have been the best prospects to enter the Academy for many rounds, but don’t say that aloud because the less said about Corona the better. The first student in Academy history to be excommed. The rest of the blitzers weren’t bad apples per se, and their tutor kept them in check… or as much as she wanted to... Which may have been why Corona happened, but you can’t be an artist without mixing some paint, or something like that. When it came to ‘her of whom we don’t speak’… let's just say the Catch Clique preferred their braeburns sweety-clean rather than bitter and beset with swifty multiplying maggots. Azrael didn’t much appreciate the blitzblades. He didn’t very much appreciate freshers at all. Remedy would be a third wheel on this assignment… So she’d better learn to grow up fast. But this was the group’s last round on the town before they all split off for their field missions. One last round to dress stylish, speak funny and live for the moment together... Before heading off in different directions to get themselves killed. But at least they’d have fun doing it.

Catch. AKA Cagen techno. It wasn't really techno; it was technical; that’s what I mean. Based on some old skool, blood-bleaching, dream-weaving alchemy which, you’ll be totally unshocked to know, nobody understood any more. It was legal, just frowned upon. Because if you give students an inch, they take an inch, and if Psytopia Adagio 1

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you give them a mile they take a mile, and we’re all screwed if students have a whole mile to play in. Students were well behaved in Psytopia. So wherever it came from, they may as well have an inch of Cagen culture because if you don’t even give them an inch, they might start wondering why. But catch wasn't really music. Music was pretty much redundant in Psytopia. The semi-mythological ether-dancers remembered it, but they were long gone, if they’d ever existed at all. Catch came from somewhere between then and now. Psytopians couldn't even hear music any more. They were so tone deaf they couldn't tell a tune from an explosion. Then again, they tended to be more in touch with the rhythms of motion than we are. Psytopian ears had evolved in such a way that they were only capable of recognising isolated sounds. No tune, no differentiation, no progression. Yes, they could hear for miles and miles if they trained hard, but good hearing doesn’t equal understanding, even jinned on juice. Jin-tipping in catch bars was a past-time of the decadent youth which 'grown ups' had trouble comprehending. Of course, freshers loved it on principle first and preference second. "We’s dandy, siz-blitz." Mojo's offset gaze testified otherwise. As did Elegy having to hold them from swaying into a heap. Remedy hiccuped. "Yis tang, candy kitz." Editor’s note: don’t feel bad, Remy’s slang will be annoying people other than you in no time. But the blitzblades were cool. Cool for freshers, at least. It wasn’t that they were necessarily popular, just cool. They didn’t pick fights, criticise or tongue-cut (to use a blitzblade term) so nobody cut them. Sure, they lived on the edge a little more than most swordstrils, but were sensible enough to moderate their behaviour when the time was right. Lesson time? Moderate. Gradings to prepare for? Moderate. Possibly the last time you'll see your closest buddies before you all ride off into the valley of the shadow of death? Be decadent. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Out in the hall, Azrael tapped his sword hilt and shook his head. Desperately trying to block that thudding catch from permanently paralysing his skeletal structure. The beat, the twang. It was like somebody shooting jug-tugs in his skull to a fluctuating rhythm with neither structure nor purpose. Just the anarchic, tuneless culling of jug-tugs… Thank Zarathustra catch was sensed rather than heard. Which didn’t save it from being utterly senseless. Pyro was a curious thing. Messes with one's inner maths. Psytopians actually had strong senses, mainly because they thought in triangles. So every brain function involved seeing both sides of the story and the end result. Things like psyaudio vibes are a little too anarchic for a Psytopian brain to decipher unless it's clogged full of cellswinging drugs to dumb it down. ‘Freshers.’ Why make life complicated when it’s simplicity is it’s strength? Swordstrils benefited from razor-fine tutoring on every aspect of how to live life. But then there was he True Truth. The bigger picture. The theory of everything...Totality. But only wasters would be cack-handedly deviant enough to believe in things like that.

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= Cack-handed deviant? That’s a bit harsh.

= Real world, real responsibilities. Halo and Esuna innocently sipped their drinks. Friends or not, some blitzers gave the others a bad name. Elegy, more together than the rest, tried to yank the more wavy ones back to reality;“Who’d you get Remedy?” “Aw; the trip?” Remedy stopped to accommodate the unwelcome dawning of that wide, wild world; “I got Azrael, siz.” “Oh.” “You’se tuney on Azrael, hey?” Mojo thought aloud. Elegy was ‘tuney’ on Azrael. Tall, chiselled, talented…the coffee-cream skin, the sapphire-silk eyes, the toned arms and tough torso…but of course, she wanted him for his mind… "Uw, Ele moy belle..." Mojo stroked her chest to make sure she was really there; too much juice can make you uncertain. Remedy snatched her hands away and sneaked a wink. “I’ll swish in a dandy word or three.” “S’OK…” Elegy watched him outside, sliding up and down the corridor perfecting underhand stab techniques. He could give her the underhand stab technique any time... "Well, know what they say, siz; plenty more plates on the map. So who’d you get?” "Nakatomi." "He's no squip, you'll be OK. Bit of a hackjaw, though." Hackjaw= an untalented, brutish fighter- generally also a derogatory term denoting low IQ. "I'd rather have Azrael." Elegy supposed sometimes they're taken and it isn't meant to be. "Mojo got Esperanza." "Esperanza?" Elegy attempted to conceal a giggle. "No wonder she's on the slice big time; he's a total stump." Mojo was laid out across a table, sipping from an empty glass. Psytopia Adagio 1

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“Esperanza’s not the swishiest sword this side of Anarch land... and buglier than the jugliar." Bugly=ugly. Jugly=Nickname for a jug-tug; a windpipe-grabbing parasite. Jugliar=The sum total of all jug-tugs, used as we might say the word ‘humanity’, only less complimentary. “So, another sheet?” A nice, fiery dash of consolation. Mojo, spread eagle across Halo's unwelcoming lap like a dying whale on a mudflat, Azrael, side-stepping, strafing, delivering flawless swipes and slashes, as if a vicious army of bloodthirsty Anarchists were being cut down one by one in his wake... “Better pass.” And lo, proof that even breeze belles can walk straight lines, because whatever your style, it’s good to be prepared.

The round had passed. The freezes on the archways of the grand entrance hall said so. It was time for the assessment to begin. For the fresher’s worlds to grow a little wider. They were all due to set off at different times. One party after another. Otherwise it would be like the start of a marathon and any halfintelligent Anarchists would fizz-bomb the lot of them the moment they stepped off the plateau. Chaos rains! Mojo had gone already. Remedy had wished her luck. She was going to need it. One eye went one way, one the other; a spoony destitute dumped slap-bang in downtown Jinsville.

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For her sins, Remedy was left with nothing but a lingering (and slightly disorientating) headache. But that was OK. She was used to it by now. After a round trudging through the Golden Plateau she'd have walked it off. Azrael and Mikado had been waiting by the wall of etchings. It held records of every student who had ever stepped outside the Academy complex, lazered into stone. A squat pyronette with a grubby hoodie and boiler suit stood at the far corner, melting names into the wall with a burning thumb. Remedy stopped to see her own scorched into place before she met the others.

Of course, this wasn't inscribed in English but in 3-D freeze. If I wrote in freeze it wouldn't be a book, it’d be a sculpture. Even if I wrote it in 2-D freeze, it would be very confusing and I don't think blitzblade slang is twistable in tye. Furthermore, the numbers weren’t quite numbers at all. Psytopians didn’t count in numbers but in shades of colour. And they derived colours from different durations and velocities of sword swipes. Apparently pyronettes understood numbers; that was why they did all the construction, because if Psytopians did it their world would be a lovely, pretty, vivid picture… which fell apart at the slightest provocation. It was also for that reason that the pyronettes made the swords. But I’m not going to write this book how Psytopians think. It would resemble a post-impressionistic prism splashed with pastel hues, buzzing in a vat of vibro-flame. I don’t count in colour and can’t draw sounds so I’ll leave the pyronettes to do the sculpting. Remedy got caught for a moment staring into the pyronette's spacious... face-hole, then moved on. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Remedy hadn't seen many of these. They generally kept themselves to themselves. Pyronettes were the closest things Psytopia had to magicians or mages and normally short because they were normally young. When they got old they got lanky, just as we get wrinkly. They wore loose clothing, gloves and hoods and tried to cover every inch of their bodies. Because they didn't have bodies in the traditional sense. They were basically made of space. Ethereal flame. Which is hard to explain. How can they be made out of space yet maintain physical existence? Well, it's like this. They had skin. That was the only physical thing they had. Transparent, pierceable, stretchable skin just like the rest of us. It's just that underneath that skin was void. Blue-black void. With miniature planets, moons and asteroids. Their bodies were like microcosms of the universal macrocosm. This was probably a clue that there were planets, moons and asteroids up there somewhere. Either that or perhaps in Psytopia the big things were small and the small things big. Perhaps big planets, moons and asteroids really were contained (or confined) inside the heads of very small creatures. In any case, there was a huge amount of distance inside their skin; probably light years; possibly whole swirling galaxies. They covered up so people didn't get freaked by them. Yes, they often got freaked. Wouldn't you? No eyes, ears, noses, mouths; just skin and space. And pyronettes had a talent for controlling elements. Especially fire. If a pyronette was to do his job naked you would see a surge of flame pass from his 'heart', through his body and into a finger to be released through a pore or into some receptacle. Although pyronettes were far too shy to work naked. Plus, they tended to pass through solid objects if they let their minds wander; clothing helped ground them. This particular pyronette was employed by the Academy to burn names in the wall using a wire welder; a pen which drew sculpture rather than pictures. A simple job but somebody relatively artistic had to do it. Pyronettes performed a lot of manual labour, poor little things... And by 'manual labour' I often mean art. Psytopia Adagio 1

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But their sword-sculpting skills were shrouded in mystery. Some said they began to design them for specific orphans before the orphans in question had even been born and become orphans, let alone became applicants for prep school. Some said they started the moment the kids' embryonic bodies first began to take shape. Because if you’re really good at maths, you can probably work the rest of their lives out after that. Particularly nutty people insisted orphans were made to fit blades, not the other way round. But before I wander off into wild and essentially groundless conjecture… what have we learnt about pyronettes? *They tended to have menial jobs (probably a confidence thing). *There weren't many of them around any more. *They were all male. Perhaps that's why there weren't many around any more. Nobody had any idea where they came from or what they knew, as they didn’t speak. Perhaps they knew the secrets of the universe or how to cheat death or fashion gold out of stone but perhaps none of that really matters anyway and even if they knew, it was probably better they didn't mention it. Oh, and they were very, very good at maths. Some might say obsessed. "Ready?" "Ready." Remedy gave Azrael the broadest smile she could muster. She was blessed with a broad smile even when feeling kooky. This would be a long, testing round. They held wrists. It's an Academy thing. You hold somebody's wrist like you hold a sword. It’s a sign of comradeship. Mikado removed her hand from her boyfriend's shoulder. "Mikado." "Remedy." They held wrists too. "First time out of the complex?" "Check." Remedy was feeling a tad apprehensive about that. I said apprehensive, not worried. Remedy wasn't the kind to worry; she took whatever came her way and generally managed to smirk at it. Psytopia Adagio 1

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"Me too." "Really?" "Uh-huh. Medicians don't get field trips. We usually work until we graduate." "And it takes an extra three terms." Azrael pitched in. "That brain juice of yours must be shin speccy, hey? Takes a lil' extra ripenin' time." "Um... yeah." Azrael tightened the strap of his blade to distract himself from his increasing list of duties. He didn't know he'd have to teach his charges the Psytopian language too... Perhaps that was part of the assessment, so it would be best to take it in his stride. Before setting out on any quest it's advisable to check your inventory. To remind yourself of your purpose. And to properly introduce your party members. So for easy reference...

The leader of the group. Pre-grad. -His lookRed and yellow dreads. Shortish; to the cheek. With miniature striped blades woven into the hair made of flexi-metri which felt like rigid cloth. About six feet two, give or take; well built in the upper body (must be all that training) but nimble enough on his feet. Good, correct posture and an attitude to match. -His getupChain-mail vest. Grey khaki-style combat trousers with chain-mail vents down one side and a spiked black pad on the other. Grading strings around one ankle; all the hues, you know. Blocky boots with metal toecaps and more vents. Spiked forearm pad around one arm, black PVC glove on the other hand. Spin-chain weapon; a tight wristlet and chain strapped to runners with a spiked weight on the end. Rolling the wrist caused the chain to whip round on the runners, like having a set of keys on a string and spinning them like a lasso.... except it hurt more if he hit people with it. Psytopia Adagio 1

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A couple of knuckle-dusters. A triangular ring given to him by Mikado, containing ethereal flame which always burns. A symbol of undying love. Ahhhh... That strange metri key on a string around his neck. He woke up one round after being knocked unconscious and found himself wearing it. Must’ve been a pretty vivid dream to make an object manifest, but he didn’t like to talk about it. Maybe he had at some stage; Psytopians believed that speaking about something you’ve done in a dream makes it real, though he couldn't quite recall... A couple of gold and silver earrings from the plateaus of the same names; travel mementos. A small, twisted knife called Reckless Abandon. And of course, his sword; the Crimson Harvest.

Azrael's girlfriend, medical student and all round super intelligent, super beautiful, super gifted, sweet, innocent type. -Her lookSlender but curvy. Long hair as black as treacle and as smooth as rain. Big brown eyes you'd expect to see in an anime movie. Icy blue lipstick and eye liner. They didn’t have catwalks or Mensa in Psytopia, so Mikado didn’t have a many options as she’d have in our world; she’d just have to make do with anxiously side-stepping the advances of rabid brain filchers and hope for the best. -Her getupFigure-hugging dress from shoulder to knee; white with columns of some ancient language printed down the front and back in black (it was a retro trend). Red strips around the collar and down the sides. Made out of a material which would best be described as waterproof canvas meets felt. White heeled shoes with gold buttons and pop-out needles at the front. Spiked chain-mail forearm pad on one arm and a collection of coloured rings. These contained chemicals which could be used as balms to help her recover from the black-outs, red-outs and blue-outs often associated with medicative practices. A triangular bethrothment ring just like Azrael's. Ahhhh... She had gold ear rings shaped like gliding birds. Psytopia Adagio 1

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She also carried a book of healing majick. Please note that such 'books' were not read. They contained something more like a laptop screen which displayed freezes in 3-D projection like some kind of augmented reality gizmo. These freezes created a translucent cross section of the body of the injured party, allowing the medician to guide their hand through it and thus focus the healing process. You thought medical students in Psytopia used plasters and bandages? ‘Healing’ was based on medicative trances called ‘ambiances’; it was a complicated process combining the psychological reading skills of a fortune teller, the tact of a councillor and the luck of a gambler playing a slot machine. It worked through stimulating the tiny organisms which tugged at Psytopian genes… But I’m only describing one girl here not an entire science, so I'll leave it at that. Graduates could achieve these mental states without the aid of a tome, but Mikado wasn't quite there yet. In case healing the swordstrils didn’t work, she also carried a curved dagger in a calf pouch. Although she’d much rather leave the beastie slaying to her boyfriend.

Fresher. She might prove more trouble than she's worth unless she cuts down on the pyrojuice. -Her lookShe had a snazzy style and could be a little boyish both in mind and manner. Thin ginger hair with blue highlights which jutted out this way and that just to annoy her. Nah. Nothing much annoyed Remedy. Beady tangerine-coloured iris, purple/orange eye shade and matching nail paint. A gold tooth; she lost one in training. She’d invite you to study her opponent’s wounds in comparison, but floors don’t bruise easily. -Her getupShort black top sporting a red flame design attached to flared sleeves via big gold ringlets. Black cargos with the same flame motifs, probably an inch too loose at the waist; the patented catch clique slouch would have to be enough to keep them hanging on her hips. She carried the components for fuzz-jacks in her many pockets. Psytopia Adagio 1

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One of Elegy's inventions; think Molotov cocktails but easier to cart around. Description pending for another day. Big DM-style boots, black and flamey. Chain-link necklace displaying the Psytopia insignia (a curve, a dot, two horizontal lines). Just so people would know where to carry her home if she got so juice-jinned she fell off the map. Earring miniatures of her beloved swords. A three-joint metal claw ornament on one finger and a larger ‘kiticlaw’ on the other hand. These were like mega knuckledusters, complete with protruding knives which the fighter could imagine as extensions of fingers. Remedy's had blades shaped like arrows which she retracted up her arm when not in use, offering some much-needed beef to her scant defence. And let's not forget her swords; the Holy Judgement and the Blessed Angel.

A light, thin, curvaceous blade used for speed. It's all about the pace. Bangin’ pace. The kind of tempo you lose yourself in. The blade itself was made of super-tough, super-zippy blueish metri, and if you swished it hard enough you could hear it reverberate in your very soul. It was so wafer thin it could hardly be seen when in action; it turned into a crazy blur, appearing to glow with delight the faster it moved- spinning towards another heaven. It had three little frilly notches at the end which made it cut smoother. The handle was long and covered with strapping which began green and slowly became blue. On the end of the hilt was the symbol of a musical note... whatever that was… Her tutor said she’d had to stage an investigation into why the sword-smith had placed that symbol there, because the Academy didn’t like random symbols. Random symbols tend to denote cults, which are... very unpretty things. If Anarchists were in their midst making swords… Well, Remedy imagined if that was the case there may have been a few deliberately sub-standard swords kicking around and that just wouldn’t do, although of course the Holy Judgement passed inspection as it kicked arse. Psytopia Adagio 1

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By the time people started asking questions, the sword-smith had vanished, probably home to the Violet Plateau where he’d lost himself amid the other faceless pyronettes.

A flat, wide blade used for swift defence and counter. It's all about backing it up; clinging to that bass line while the rest of you runs wild. The blade itself was like a cake flipper except longer and more... weapon-like. It was as wide at the end as at the hilt. It bent a little but didn't give in; strong willed and harder and faster than it should’ve been. It cut to a point at the last moment rather than tapering, which made its tip not unlike that of a Stanley knife. A sharp, unexpected break sparking an unpredictable pang. The handle was moulded to fit the wielder’s fist and even had finger-holes amid the strapping like a glove; the hands also protected by metal arches patterned like butterfly wings. It wasn't the kind of blade you could drop in a hurry, even if you were undisciplined enough to drop swords in the heat of battle. All set? Then it's time to venture out into that wide, wild world. It’ll be a grand old quest, and as for the students? They were likely to return a combination of these… *Older *Wiser *Battered *Bruised *Successes *Failures * Very tired *Dead. Not that Psytopians used such negative terminology as ‘dead’, but I do, so I will. In any case, grading points were at stake. And as any Academy student worth their sword’s weight in precious metris will tell you, grades are far more important than life, death or pretty much everything else in between. Because swordstrils had three-pointed, one-track minds… Psytopia Adagio 1

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They had barely travelled ten yards beyond the Academy's flame moat before Mikado realised how strange it was walking on uneven ground. Not like the Academy’s lavish floors… It was a refreshing change at first, until the prospect of blisters kicked in and she wished she wasn’t wearing heels. She would have gone back and changed but remember:

The Golden Plateau was a bright, pleasant place. The plains. The space. The wilderness. Remedy put her hand in front of her face as she walked and stretched fingers and toes. Her eyes had not yet become accustomed to distance. Or to sobriety. Somebody was going to have to learn the hard way. You know when you live in a city and you don't get out much then you take a holiday in the country, you sit on a mountain looking up at the stars and... So much space. Remedy and Mikado had spent their whole lives in a single building so this was all very new. New, fresh, eye opening… and a tad on the scary side. Arms outstretched and spinning. You could do that out here and only be constrained by the inevitable onset of dizziness. Of course, they had balconies and outdoor gardens and roofs in the Academy complex, but walking on natural ground? It was quite a buzz.

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Azrael strode on towards a mushroom-shaped shack curtained with steam a shade or two on. Shades… Rounds… I’ll get to them later. "It's weird, isn't it?" The girls were lagging behind. "How-so? Why-so? What-so?" Remedy walked with her arms wrapped around her sword sheaths as if somebody had her in a full nelson, hands finishing up in her back pockets, kicking pebbles as she went. "Weird how things seem so different on the outside." "Yeah, pretty speccy siz. I’s feelin’ kinda... bare, hey?" "Free?" "Easy breezy." "That's good?" "Tis dandy. How's yourself?" "I’m...breezy." Mikado giggled. Remedy had such a funny way about her. She swaggered and let her shoulders slouch. Posture says a lot. Remedy wasn't afraid of who she was. Growing up in such a regulated environment, such attitudes were a breath of fresh air.

And talking of posture... "So, Miki." Remedy nudged her, pointed at Azrael and crumpled her voice into a whisper. He was striding ahead anyway- way, way ahead. "You and Az. How long have you been hooked?" MIKADO: "Two or three terms, give or take." REMEDY: "Give or take?" MIKADO: (Smiles broadly) "It’ll be two thousand rounds in nine rounds time." REMEDY: (Wry smirk) "Knew you'd have it spiked 'zactly.” Psytopia Adagio 1

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MIKADO: (Displays her pyro ring) “We’ll be betrothed when we get back to the Academy.” REMEDY: “Nice. You match.” MIKADO: “He asked me when he passed on to pregrad level. It was quite a celebration.” REMEDY: “You give him those earrings too, and the key ‘round his neck?” MIKADO: “No, just the rings.” REMEDY: “Well, you'se sweet, you'se two." MIKADO: "You think?" REMEDY: "Sweet candy sapphire..." Mikado smiled as she watched him walk. Smooth and businesslike. Always with his head fixed forward. Having everything spread out before him; everything to hand. MIKADO: “We compliment each other.” REMEDY: “I’ll bet.” MIKADO: “He looks out for me, you know? I can always tell what he’s thinking.” REMEDY: “You reckon? What’s he chompin’ now?” MIKADO: “He’s thinking if there’s something dangerous in that hut over there he’ll deal with it before it gets to me.” REMEDY: “That’s… sweet.” Remedy hadn’t thought about the possibility of the party being attacked en-route to the Emerald Plateau. Gifted swordstress though she was she hadn't yet developed a tactical mind. Plus if there was some gnarly squib lurking in that hut, she wanted to be the one plugging it. But since he was so far in front she'd just have to hang back and be tactless. REMEDY: "So, errr... what's he like?" MIKADO: "Like?" REMEDY: "You know- how's he jam'? Spug city. Playin' dream gene tangerine, you know?" MIKADO: (Blushes, thanks Zarathustra for blue makeup) "Oh. I..." REMEDY: (Screwing up the other side of her mouth) "Oh. Yeeks- I get it." MIKADO: "It's just that..." Psytopia Adagio 1

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REMEDY: "Aw no siz- ‘tis cool. Traditionalist. No haz. Solid, you know? Not enough commitment in this world, hey?" Remedy exonerated herself with a nod. Azrael was easy to work out; storyboard. So was Mikado, and they really did match. Elegy wouldn't stand a chance. REMEDY: "Well that makes it all the sweeter; sweet candy coco. You stick with him, Miki. You'll be in that Third Heaven right here in the First.” MIKADO: "Yeah, I'll do that. So… how about you?” REMEDY: (Sheepish) “How about moy?” MIKADO: “Anybody waiting for you back at the Academy?” REMEDY: (Embarrassed) “Oh no- always the match maker, moy.” MIKADO: “Nobody in your class?” REMEDY: (Dismissive) “I’s in a class of sisters, siz.” MIKADO: “What about your grade?” REMEDY: (Abrasive) “I’s eeer… never really thought about it- young, see?” MIKADO: “Not all that…” REMEDY: (Clearly avoiding the question now) “Hey, I’s gonna catch up with your clove siz; he might have sprung us some beasties.” Mikado shook her head as Remedy bounded off across the golden pebbles. They’d only been walking a matter of shades but she was getting to like Remedy and her characterful ways. And friends in need tend to be friends indeed. Somewhere along this treacherous path they were all going to be needing friends. The shack was the residence of a parahack called Obadiah. He was a root farmer who had before that been a soldier and before that who knows what. He had largely forgotten anything before that. Mainly the stuff he’d rather not think about.

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The parahack had migrated from the Cyan Plateau in the wake of some tragedy or other. Parahack had good noses and could sense quality root where other races could not. But the stuff was drying up in the area and Obadiah had packed to leave. Azrael had already heard the story three times before the girls arrived. In true parahack fashion, Obadiah hadn't decided where to go yet. That's the thing about parahack; tough, battle hardened, honourable but indecisive. Couldn't make their minds up unless something really got them rattled. Then it was peddle to the metri. Parahack were restless. Some would say stupid. Those some would end up in a ditch somewhere. So seeing as Azrael was an adventurer and since parahack respected adventurers, Obadiah had dug him up some of the remaining root.

The staple diet of the Golden Plateau. There weren't any plants on the golden plate; not above ground at least. But underground it was a different story. Root was the organic heating system of Psytopia. It was everywhere, just a few inches beneath the surface. It was like potato, but one big, huge, massive potato as opposed to individual plants. In essence it was the soil itself. It was the reason the ground was warm on the Golden Plateau... that and the sun. Underground and up in the air tended to work in tandem. Sky, plates, underground; another Psytopian trilogy. So all you did was take a knife, slice the topsoil open and grab the stuff- it was like cutting up the carcass of an animal. Just there, piping hot and ready to eat. The trick for root farmers was to locate the good stuff- the real delicacies. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Anybody can live off McDonalds and grow slow and ill and feel icky, but every now and again you want some well-prepared food with some real taste. Well, that was what Obadiah did; he found the good stuff. Only he'd over-farmed this area and he'd have to wait for it to grow back. That’s the thing about parahack; greedy. He served the root with various beakers of paste. Soctan (Green, creamy. Tasted like a cross between pasta and chicken) Grutan (White, chunky. A cross between icing sugar and papaya) Buctan (Black, glutinous. A cross between aniseed and cinnamon) Cutan (Yellow, thick. A cross between curry powder and hot dogs) However it sounds, it was good root. But Azrael, gentleman as he was, waited for the others before tucking in. They sat at stoop stools and laced their root with the desired paste. And they tucked in. "So dune…” Remedy spoke as she munched. “You’se been a soldier before this?" Azrael nudged Remedy, almost making her spurt cutan sauce over the well-raked sand floor. He didn't want to hear that story again, and it probably wasn't best to call a parahack 'dune'. Remedy wasn't speciesist or anything, it was just that she'd never seen one before...

You could roughly describe parahack as 'dragon-men' or 'lizardmen' in that they appeared to be upright-walking reptiles. They were big, butch and scaly but more than just large geckos. They were orange skinned (or scaled), their armored plates glowed different colours in close contact with metris and the positions of their organs were based on similar magnetism. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Pass by one with a sword and not only will they know it, but their scales will shimmer letting you know they’re aware you’re armed. And as I mentioned, parahack organs moved around quite a bit. Stab one in the liver and it might not be the liver at all. If you’re really crafty and/or sadistic and you’ve got yourself into a fight with a parahack, you might want to try pushing them into a heavy metal door or wall to shift their organs in a particular direction before striking them all at once. You’d have to be both very strong and very clued-up for that though, as even parahack had trouble deciphering the movement of their own anatomies, let alone Psytopians. Perhaps a pyronette could do it… if pyronettes were strong enough to push parahack into doors or walls… Parahack wore Psytopian clothes these days; modified to fit. Like the pyronettes, there weren’t many left, although if you believed the spook stories you'd counter that there probably weren't a huge amount in the first place. Rumour had it that they began life as genetic freaks sometime after the Fall and survived against the principle of natural selection because they were too stubborn to keel over and die. They liked food and fighting (and sleeping both before and after) but never picked a fight unless they felt threatened. They were strict herbivores who loved a bit of bloodshed. Complex? Not really. They were actually quite simple creatures who did what they felt and didn't have the capacity to see beyond tomorrow. Not many Psytopian species bothered thinking far beyond tomorrow, even if they lived on plates where there was any such thing. Most weren't capable of it, which was good because it meant they ended up actually doing what they wished now rather than faffing about. (Although more often than not a parahack’s preferred course of action was to dither, snack and sleep). They just shut up and got on with it, didn't think about the big picture and as such they made great soldiers. They’d fight with large metal sticks laced with prongs and big, big swords which Psytopians probably couldn't even carry. And they were afraid of the dark. But Remedy had asked a question. Fighting on the brain, that girl… She’d asked about what he had been doing before he became a root farmer. So here goes. Psytopia Adagio 1

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OBADIAH: (Gruffly; parahack liked tales but not details) "Fight war." REMEDY: "Who’d ya fight?" OBADIAH: "Anarchy." REMEDY: "Anarchs? You jammed with the Academy." OBADIAH: "Jam?" Obadiah's eyes changed in shape from sphere to oval. A sign of confusion. When parahack get confused, (which is often) they get angry (which is also often). Azrael chipped in before they were demonstrating battles rather than talking about them. AZRAEL: "She means you fought alongside swordstrils; against the Anarchists." OBADIAH: "Fought." AZRAEL: “That’s… admirable.” REMEDY: "You wanna jam... I mean you wanna fight some more?" AZRAEL: (Roll of the eyes) "Remedy..." REMEDY: “Not against moy, kitz; with us.” AZRAEL: “Rem…” REMEDY: "Come on. This dune's a flexer but he tags way cool root, right?” (To OBADIAH) “You'se lookin' all packed up there big brother and I'm thinkin' you don't have no place to trip to, so whaddaya say?" Azrael covered his face and fell onto Mikado's shoulder. Freshers… Remedy smirked, wide-eyed like a child at a pleasure beach, staring at the candy floss. Obadiah took a moment to process what she’d said. OBADIAH: "Fight?" REMEDY: "Fight with us, yeah. Jam with us, with us, trip the fight fantastic... Or in case... (Her expression drops when she notices his sword) ...You'se probably a bit of a brick with that tool, but we’s off ta’ z Anarchs ourselves so why not make our team an even four?” Psytopia Adagio 1

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blaze your meaty layer


Even fours. People who think in triangles don’t like even fours. And would it be all that even with a big, ambling brute in their party? Swordplay is an art form you know, not manual labour. OBADIAH: (With conviction) "Fight." (AZRAEL gazes at MIKADO with pained kitten's eyes and holds her wrist) MIKADO: (Squeezes his wrist back) "We're meant to pick people up en-route aren’t we? You get graded on it." AZRAEL: "Yeah. I get graded on who I pick, not the fresher." MIKADO: "Well it's her pick so no risk." AZRAEL: "I guess." MIKADO: (Kisses AZRAEL’S temple) "Trust me." AZRAEL: "I do." Whether any of them should trust a battle hungry parahack was another matter entirely.

Typical parahack. Ex farmer, Ex soldier, Ex man without a plan. -His lookHe was reptilian. He looked like a reptile. He was scaly. He was yellowish-brown… at the moment. He was about eight foot tall. His eyes changed shape. His scales changed colour. Yep, he's a reptile alright.

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-His getupCopper-coloured armour… actually it was juralith hide, with so many buckles it could probably repel sword swipes on its own. He didn't really kill a juralith (way too fast for him), he was given it as payment for root by a wanderer a while back. It was made for a parahack; designed to sense where his organs were, moving around to protect them of its own accord. (It used magnetic sensors based on pre-Fall technology) And aside from that, his clothes were random patterns stitched together, because Psytopian sizes didn’t fit parahack. He didn’t have shoes. He wore a bandana-style headband which kept his heart cool... Yes, his heart. It was the only parahack organ that didn't move. It stayed firmly in his (actually rather brittle) skull. He couldn’t wear armour there; metal made his heart go woozy if it was too close, and nano-heavy juralith skin made it fluster. Juraliths probably weren’t altogether natural creatures, but then what was? Obadiah had chequered strapping here and there and big, protective gauntlets. The heart and hands were seen as the most sacred extremities in parahack psychology since they were considered the implements of fighting. The only organ they regarded higher was the nose, which did most of their sensing. I think I mentioned before that parahack weren't the sharpest tools in the box; they found Academy swordstry difficult to comprehend and preferred to hit and hope. Obadiah carried a set of six pronged metal rods on his back for throwing and a huge sword, the blade of which was six inches wide and three inches thick. It was five feet long, ended in a flat edge and must’ve weighed a ton. They stood at the edge of the plateau, confronted by the haze of the fuzz-field. These fields repelled other plates and they'd have to pass through to reach the next little triangular world on the map. Remedy second-guessed herself when she noticed the lizardman shuddering with trepidation as he stood before the blurry fabric of the plateau wall. Perhaps not the most promising pick-up in the wide, wild world. “What do you see?” Azrael would take any advice he could get. Here’s some; parahack smell first, see second. "Dark." Obadiah trembled some more and looked like a petrified little pyronette in a huge, tough parahack suit. No wonder he’d been sitting there on the golden plate, dithering. Psytopia Adagio 1

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"Looks bright n' bubbly through there to me." Remedy touched the barrier. It looked like a static TV screen. It felt like moving jelly. And it was cold. "Remedy; remember your lessons.” Azrael guided her wrist out of the field. “The light of the next plateau always appears opposite from the other side." In other words the observer got a photo negative of the environment beyond. "Yeeps, then it's gonna be pretty shady noir in there, huh?" Hence the parahack's shuddering. They saw flat dusty ground, still sky and bushes here and there. And everything was bone white. The plate was moving too, as if it was being dragged by a huge truck which nobody could see, scraping its load parallel to the edge of the Golden Plateau. And in case you're wondering, there were no trucks in Psytopia. Remedy placed a hand on a sword hilt and prepared herself. It was one small step for her, but it seemed like a new dimension entirely. A plate which appeared light from outside was going to be dark… just so she got it straight… If she didn't like it she could always take a step back. "We’ve been taught this is easy; let’s try." Azrael placed his hand through the shimmering static sheet. It was like plunging a palm into a sink of cold water, sending asubtle ripple through his blood. Chilly but not altogether uncomfortable. He put his foot in, then his head. He looked around, half in, half out. He took hold of Mikado's wrist and led her through behind him. What they were taught was true; this was very easy.

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The Black Plateau was indeed black. It was so black you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. It was so black you didn't know if your eyes were open or if they had been gouged out by chattering bonesnaps. Except you'd know by the searing pain... so hopefully we won’t meet any bonesnaps. But there are scarier things than bonesnaps. For example, the human mind. Obadiah wasn't human but he had a mind so bear with me. Because parahack were afraid of the dark. Big, ambling, hard as nails, tough as iron, built like tanks... And afraid of the dark. If any one species possessed all the genes required to make super troopers… Well, then by this time there wouldn’t be any other species. So here they were in the pitch black. And I mean the pitch black. The four of them. Azrael. He hadn't been here before and he was lost. Mikado. She hadn't been here before and she was lost as well. Remedy. She hadn't been here before. No bonus grading points for guessing how lost she was. Obadiah. He had been here before and he was scared shitless. This does not bode well.

A point to note; the plateaus consisted of both land and space. They were more like leaning towers or pyramids than plates, jockeying for position. But the boffins had christened them 'plates' in the old days. When Psytopians knew less about gravity and magnetism. You know, like when on Earth people believed the sun was no more than a particularly mighty stone’s throw away or that it was Psytopia Adagio 1

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the eye of God or something along those lines. But in Psytopia ye olde intelligentsia were half right. Most plateaus had their own suns, they were little bigger than lakes and not all that far away. Others borrowed light from neighbouring plates and were comparably dim, and on some plates artificial light was used. On others there was no light at all. There were suns which passed from one edge of the plate to the other swiftly, causing rapid changes from day to night and others which moved from one plateau to another, being passed over as if in an eternal game of keepy-uppy. Because sometime or other the plate they belonged to ceased to be and the sun had nowhere to go but bumble around in the dark… or the blinding light; whatever. And unlike the suns we know, there was no circling or orbiting involved, because Psytopia itself was the only body which emitted any kind of gravitational field... But that’s all about ethereal flame and other mystical stuff and I’m not going to complicate what's really quite a simple story by theorising about that. Perhaps ‘light bulbs’ would be a better description than ‘suns’. The Golden plate's sun was attached like a balloon to the end of an invisible piece of string. This meant it was always day time. Who knows why its sun acted this way? Perhaps it was afraid of the dark too. But there was no sun on the Black Plateau, which was probably how it got its name. I suppose you've realised that the plates were pretty strange. We’ll try and steer clear of those with their own rules regarding space, sound, time... Their own laws of physics… Because if you want to avoid a mind-fuck you’re sometimes better off left in the dark. The Academy party was very much left in the dark. Luckily, Azrael was Mr. Responsible. Not literally because Psytopians didn't have second names, but if they did he would be called Azrael Responsible... possibly. But surname or not, he'd been responsible enough to bring tapers.

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Big candles the size of swords. Made from melted, rotten root. They inflated when they were opened and oxygen got inside them, then they burnt top-down with a luminous green glow. He passed them around. Aaah, light; albeit only tiny pockets of it. From what they could see (IE the ground, some spiky-shaped bushes and nothing much else) this place wasn’t all that different from the Golden Plateau. But perhaps they were merely clutching the thin straws of familiarity too tight. Remedy's eyes widened at the sight of naked flame. It danced at her; excited something dark within her soul. That's too much pyrojuice for you. Knock-on effects... Mikado was shocked by the darkness. It was like having a great big bed cover draped over her head. A bed cover big enough to mask the entire plateau. Her first instinct was to cling to Azrael's arm, which was fine since his first instinct was to cling to her whilst attempting to appear as manly as possible. Remedy didn't have anybody to cling to but her swords. "Moy ain’t spyin’ much, siz." "I'll lead." Azrael took the initiative. That was worth a point on his appraisal at least. He negotiated around a particularly prickly-looking vine bush with the aid of his taper and could swear he saw a shadow scuttle by ten feet beyond them. A shadow in the shadows. It could well have been his mind playing tricks. "Did you see that?" "What?" Mikado tugged harder on his arm. "Remedy?" "Zip but zip." "Obadiah?" Psytopia Adagio 1

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The parahack endeavoured to say even less than usual. Noise attracts them; tunes them in to your frequency like flies to corpses. They can home in; read the magnetic waves carried by your voice. They can home in and take you. "There; again." Azrael definitely saw something in the gloom this time. In the silence. It was eerie. It was dead still. No visible shapes beyond the vague, flickering spheres provided by the tapers. Highlighting their faces like ghosts. Not a sound but the slight scrunch of near-surface plants underfoot and the creepy ripple of the bushes in the light breeze. And their amplified breathing, giving them away. They’d spent their lives under the maternal gaze of the sun. Having it taken away was strange and frightening. It was as if the world had been deleted from existence, they the only things left behind. For Obadiah it was worse. He had grown up with sunlight too but remembered the dark. It was forever etched on his mind. We fear the dark because of what it might contain. Because we never know what’s lurking around the corner. Obadiah knew what was lurking around the corner and that was a far more disturbing prospect than the darkness. He smelt them. They were the dark. He should have stayed on the Golden Plateau and found more quality root fields, but parahack were equally restless and lazy and that’s an incompatible combination. "There! There! Remy, you see it?" A glow; two of them. Spheres. Bouncing as they moved from right to left. "I spysies that." Remedy drew a sword. Psytopia Adagio 1

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The Holy Judgement. Always first choice. Azrael drew his too. "What was that?" Mikado had seen them as well. Two of them, and two more, and two more, and... Bobbing up and down, moving this way and that at pace. To the left, to the right, both near and far but growing closer. They were being surrounded. By eyes. Florescent green, oval-shaped, staring, blinking eyes. Almost mimicking their tapers. "They hear us." Obadiah's grouchy tone was as rough as the most gnarly root left behind after a rush on a grub meadow. The rubbery creak of armour as he shivered didn't help matters. He couldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t see them, but his nose knew just where they were. Bearing down on their position. Azrael had to think fast. This was important. Man management in hostile situations. Big points at stake.

He needed to choose the best course of action. Cautious action. The most cautious action, given the circumstances? Hiding behind a prickly vine bush to decide a workable strategy. "This way." He let his taper guide him. "The bush over there." Lo and behold, the others followed; he was starting to get the hang of this leadership thing already. Remedy and Mikado ducked beneath the gloomy foliage. Nobody had to tell Obadiah twice to hasily conceal his bulky frame from the eyes with a regrettable rustle and wheeze. Psytopia Adagio 1

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"All right, put your tapers out." Obadiah scrunched up his already scrunchy reptilian face. He was the last to cut off the oxygen supply. Now it was utterly black...apart from the eyes. Circling vaguely now but circling nonetheless. "What are they, Az?" Mikado clenched her teeth and whispered, the prickles of the bush scratching against the plastic material of her dress and making her feel uncomfortable. The warmth of Azraelâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s body sat next to her making her feel comparably safe. "I don't know." Remedy looked to Obadiah; a big, quaking, quivering shape. It wasn't often she was lost for words. It wasn't often she hung around in grim shadows. The parahack simply growled and twitched with a nervousness unbefitting of his brutish physique. There was a pitter-patter of misshapen feet, searching. "What are they?" Azrael held the Crimson Harvest in one hand, his girlfriend in the other. When surrounded by a darkness you don't understand and which may very well wish to consume you, it's a great comfort to hold on to the two most important things in your life. And if one was the implement with which you could defend the other... "Fiends." Obadiah rolled his tongue in an unfamiliar way; like a ventriloquists' projection. It was a trick he learned during those terrifying rounds in the darkness when he was a child. It made the eyes scatter in different directions, confused. Remedy watched the bumbling blobs. "How'd you know these spooks Obi?" "Killed us." Obadiah's fractured words sent the fiends into further bewilderment. "The parahack? They killed the parahack? On your way to the Golden Plateau?" At least Azrael remembered his history lessons.

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The parahack had appeared on the golden plate only recently. There weren’t many of them; a small band. Most were wounded and they sought refuge on the Psytopian's home plate. They said they had fled a nano plague, and having had a lost and chequered history themselves, the Psytopians took pity and helped out. "They move with the dark. Change." "Change how?" Remedy was sizing one up. It was close. She didn't know anything about it; its style, ts shape, its nature. But she knew its eyes and eyes don't lie. Fearsome eyes, globulous eyes, hungry eyes. Obadiah steadied her hand. "Made of the dark." MIKADO: (Whispering, holding AZRAEL’S wrist tightly) "Made of it?" OBADIAH: “Of dark.” MIKADO: "I've heard stories of such creatures. In the tyebrary.” AZRAEL: “They’re made of darkness?” MIKADO: “Darkness given form. All of what we see- our surroundings, the blackness. It’s them, and when they hunger that hunger gives them structure. Physical structure." AZRAEL: "We're swimming in them." MIKADO: “That would make them… pretty tricky.” REMEDY: “Never met a squib I couldn’t z, siz.” Remedy held a blade aloft to her ear. If she couldn’t see her opponents she’d just have to ad lib. Hear, feel, watch the eyes and assume. An Academy swordstress doesn’t need all her faculties to defend herself. “Remedy.” Azrael held her wrist, thinking strategy. Creatures whose form was dictated by greed... their need to be. Creatures who assumed a corporeal nature to capture those who relied on it before disintegrating back into the shadows. But even if a creature's true nature is shadow, if it had to become physical to feed... Psytopia Adagio 1

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Remedy held Azrael’s wrist in return. Psytopians could tell a lot from the way somebody held their wrist. It was a well-nurtured form of communication, like the way you shake somebody's hand. On this occasion Azrael meant hit the shadow-thing; he'd have her back. So she hit it. A swift, sharp, perfectly executed overhand-curl, backhandedcoil combination. An opening loop. So fluid that even in bright light nobody could have separated the techniques from one another. All the others saw was a pair of eyes slump into the thorn bush with a loud crumple. Remedy’s face lit up. Not that you’d be able to see it. Before we go on...

It took an Academy student the equivalent of around twelve years to learn the sword arts; you'll have to make do with these few measly paragraphs. After this I promise you can grab a blade, go out there and do it all yourself. Just don’t blame me if it all goes awry because remember kids: Books don’t kill people; people kill people. Just don’t kill people, alright? But killing squibs is pretty much OK. -The main principles of sword fighting are these-

*The sword is an extension of your arm. *The more you feel the flow, the more comfortable you'll be. *The better you know the sphere, the better a swordstril you are. *The more your style reflects your personality, the freer it will be. *A free style is an adaptable style. *An adaptable style is a winning style. Psytopia Adagio 1

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*A chaotic style? Probably not so much. *Know your limits and extend them. *There is no such thing as perfection. *If you know how to swish a blade… you know how to live a life!

Hold your sword vertically above your head. Bring it down to the floor in front of you. Do the same behind you. Rotate 360 degrees. This is your sphere. You are constantly aware of this space. You are not 'you' anymore- you are everything contained in this area. It’s like a huge psychological bubble, and if the floor wasn’t there it’d extend underfoot too. Everything a swordstril does is based around this sphere. In fact, the traditional symbol of Psytopia itself was based on this notion, among other things. The arch is the roof of your sphere, the dot your head, the lines the ground and the root beneath.

On the whole, Academy sword fighting is an expressive discipline. Flowery but also deadly. Yielding but also strict. Progressively jazzy but also conservatively structured. The feel and flow of sword fighting changes with the environment, with the obstacles placed in its path and with the mindset of the exponent. And styles are lived by the exponent. Students are encouraged to portray their personalities in their play. It’s not only warfare… it's therapy.

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A fighter's style is an outward representation of their character. Brutal, swirling, calculative, defensive- put out what you put in. Everybody has a school. Everybody has a vibe.

AKA ‘schools’. If you really want to categorise, there are six basic vibes.

Baby steps. If you’re still practising scrawl by the time you reach fresher grade you’re in the wrong job. Try cheerleading. (Not that they had cheerleaders in Psytopia…) Squeeze zits, giggle over porno mags, smoke cigarettes conspicuously behind the bike sheds, mimic what the big boys do and scrawl your way through puberty. Scrawl is for sheep who have yet to learn that the happiest woolballs graze aside from the herd; pick their place in the sun. By-the-book jingles you can see and feel and evade a mile off. All swordstrils continue practising scrawl for its defensive aspect, but defence is basic. Stay a child forever and die a child. Either that or find a real vibe for yourself and grow up. Techniques- Dabs, Swipes, Swings, Slashes, Blocks, Chops, Covers, Montages.

For those who plan it all in advance. Set out their strategy like a market stall. Lay it down; the ties, the binds, the traps. Flat-foot your opponent and put them down. Put them down… and put them out of play. Techniques- Droops, Clashes, Crosses, Ties, Bucklers, Splinters, Snares, Reverbs. Psytopia Adagio 1

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The school of hard knocks. Exert a load of energy belting out whatever comes to mind and trust that the primordial fury of your movement carries you along. This philosophy is often derided by Academy members since it's seen that it doesn’t require a great deal of skill or intelligence, though the better brutes channel their anger. Louder and lewder, losing themselves, taking others with them. Brutes can de dangerous. They’re waders, but that doesn’t mean they’re ineffective. Low IQ, high perspiration. Get struck flush by a brute and it's all over... Techniques- Clumps, Thumps, Charges, Lunges, Whacks, Blasts, Hacks, Epitaphs.

Absorb and attack. Feel the mood of the play before taking hold of it. Think before you apply your technique. Good counter fighters can mirror an opponent's technique without a second thought. They’re masters of the dance. Of mind games. A counter fighter hides a lot of things but unleashes them with intelligence and skill. Their arsenals may not be great but they know their techniques like the backs of their hands and they often know their opponents better than they know themselves. Techniques- Pangs, Plunges, Parries, Crops, Cuts, Tangs, Stings, Mirrors.

Pixel-perfect swordplay. Every movement has a subtle purpose. Slick, stylish, minimal. The way of the master craftsman. Pick your shots and apply well-drilled techniques. Techy fighters can train on a single swish for hours, over and over. They’re perfectionists who know perfection is impossible. They know their moves so well they practice them in their sleep. Not that Psytopians sleep in the traditional sense, but still... Techniques- Jabs, Slices, Hooks, Uppers, Strokes, Swerves, Swishes, Serenades. Psytopia Adagio 1

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For those with a lot of passion. Expressive and often very high-octane. It looks crazy and random. It isn't; it's instinctive. It's all about being open and feeling your flow; low on control but high on creativity, and like a vicious ballet to watch. A balance somewhere between decadence, danger and artistic beauty… or no balance at all? Techniques- Curls, Coils, Swoops, Scoops, Hoops, Loops, Swirls, Twirls, Pirouettes. Most were schooled in a primary style and picked a backup during pre-grad terms. Know yourself, then your core, then your fall-back. And no one vibe is ‘better’ than any other (with the possible exception of everything being marginally better than scrawl), although highly elitist practitioners of any school may well attempt to convince you otherwise.

There’s a sacred triangle of übertek for each discipline.

Don’t even contemplate an übertek yet. There’s no way you’re ready. But in any case, know your vibe. Or somebody else’s will z ya. As you may already have noticed, Remedy's vibe was based very much in the breezy. Azrael opted more for the counter approach but sojourned into tech territory too. Then again, it isn't good to pigeon-hole because swordstrils were like snowflakes. Each was unique.

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But however good a swordstril you are, drop an opponent into a prickly thorn bush with his friends hanging around and pretty soon you'll have a real fight on your hands. And that was what Remedy had just done. Because when you fall into a prickly thorn bush after having your (not quite visible) chest slashed, whether you're made of flesh, bone or shadow, you're going to cry out. And Black Plateau fields tended to shriek. Not glass-shattering shrieks. More like toothless-pensioner-meets-puking-cat shrieks. Whatever it was, it was loud. Loud enough to attract the others to the writhing creature, which in turn was distracting enough to allow Azrael and co to make off in the direction of the next plate. They felt their way uneasily past the bushes in total darkness. Aware of the eyes behind them gathering around their fallen comrade. Hopping frantically up and down like florescent beans shaken in a see-through jar. Working out which way the swordstrils had gone. "That won't freeze them yeeps long." Remedy was lagging behind. "No." Azrael made sure he held Mikado's arm and shoulder tightly. He didn't like to feel her tremble. He didn't like to feel her scared. Remedy was the only one who looked back. Back at the eyes. Back at the chaotic clusters of radioactive tennis balls flying one after another into the net. Staring at their fallen friend and apparently as petrified as Azrael's party themselves. "If we carry on in this direction we'll get to the end of the plate in a few slivers." The pre-grad kept his arm around Mikado and hoped the others were following his voice. Good sensory awareness was something Academy students were taught from the beginning. How to decipher the direction of sound in the shadows. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Just for the record. The principles of Psytopian time-keeping were quite peculiar. They thought in triangles; we know that already. But they didn't think in minutes, hours and so on and so forth. A Shade. The precise duration allotted for Academy training sessions. (Roughly two hours) A Rise. Three shades; enough time to practice offence, defence and special tactics. (Roughly six hours) A Round. Three rises; the amount of time it takes before a swordstril needs to refuel. (Roughly eighteen hours) For argument's sake, let's call a ‘round’ a day. Colloquial terms such as ‘clicks’ (bearably calculable moments of time which can be either long or short) were far less regimented and open to interpretation. Only Anarchists measured time in clicks. There were various terms for sub-measures of time, but let's just use the convenient ones. So generally when talking about time in Psytopia, it’ll be rounds, rises and shades. Or if you want to be less specific, slivers. The only other way to measure time was to be in touch with the magnetism of the earth. (Yeah, come on; you know you’ve felt it too…) You see, it's hard to keep track of time when: a.) Not all the plates had day and night. b.) Day and night were not necessarily uniform. c.) Some plates had strange time fluctuations. d.) On other plates time ran backwards, sideways or in a circle. e.) On one or two plates, time didn’t exist at all. So Psytopians used processions of threes to measure time. The act of sword fighting could be broken down to three necessary motions; draw, strike, sheath. So the smallest measurement of time in Psytopia was the shortest imaginable period in which it would take to perform these three; that’s a ‘tick’, and thankfully for our human brains, that equalled about a second. That’s right; swordstrils were speedy buggers. Progress the idea of a tick in multiples of three six times and Psytopia Adagio 1

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you’ll come to a measure of roughly thirteen-and-a-half Earth minutes, which Psytopians called a ‘sliver’. Three slivers were a slice, three slices a shade, three shades a rise, three rises a round. If you're not confused yet, you're a better mathematician than me, but carry on multiplying numbers by three six times and you’ll reach a ‘term’. A term was roughly fifteen Earth months, so we’ll call it a year. There were no seasons in Psytopia, so all time measurements were done using simple maths. Psytopians generally died of old age shortly before their thirtyfourth birthday, and yes, that’s another rough multiplication of three, and no, they didn’t celebrate birthdays in Psytopia. But unsurprisingly it still took nine months to have a baby. So you see how strange it is to think in triangles? Well, to Psytopians it was normal. I’m sure they’d be utterly baffled by our time keeping. Months and years not having uniform length… No wonder humans are so messed up. And swordstrils thought of those three sounds; draw, strike, sheath- when calculating time. Only pyronettes counted. What’s the point in counting numbers? You’re practically counting nothing. By counting in sounds, Psytopians remained grounded in the real world. Although being so regimented meant they could only ever hear one sound at once, in their heads or anywhere else. Otherwise time itself would fall apart. Somewhere in history, people felt time progress polyphonically. Polytemporal. Look mum; I found a new word! Somewhere in history, people saw time in colours. Or maybe they just heard in colour. How wonderful would that be? To be able to hear music. Back in the days before the Academy, people had spoken of time in terms of colours. But since this is even more confusing than thinking of time in sword swipes, we’ll pretend those people never existed as thankfully they seem to be extinct. Psytopian time allowed some flex, since when they were doing something they liked, their heart beat (BPM) would rise. Therefore swordstrils were likely to be able to deliver more shots in the space of a beat. Beats per moment. Of course, only Anarchists measured time in heart beat and ‘moments’… but I digress. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Of course, some swordstrils didn’t play by the rules. Those are the ones you’ve got to watch; they’d go way over their beats per sliver ratio and burn themselves out. Students had pace drilled into them in everything they did from an early age, they almost always managed their plays correctly unless something went horribly wrong. Even if something set them off-key they'd compensate, and they recalculated their energies so intuitively they didn’t even know they were doing it. And Psytopians measured distance by time, which in turn they measured in sound and echo; that continual mental draw, strike, sheath going on in the backs of their heads. Other species had different ways of looking at things. After all, Academy time had only been officially introduced to the plates nine terms ago. Somebody in Psytopia really needed to invent a clock. That’d make the last couple of pages of guff pretty redundant. So Azrael's posse would be calculating as they ran blind. There could be pitfalls, cliff tops, rivers and gorges in their path and they could die either way. By calculating, there was a scant chance in hell they might end up on the next plateau alive. (And by the way, in Psytopia there was no such thing as hell, merely levels of Heavens). They sheathed their swords and ran. Azrael taking the lead. Mikado tagging along with her platform heels slipping a little. The sacrifices we make for style. Obadiah ambled behind, making sure he kept on as straight a line as he could manage. Making sure he kept the stern, tinny smell of the Academy blades in his nostrils. Making sure he concentrated on the escaping rather than his constricting phobia of the dark. Making sure he avoided stepping on anything irritable. Remedy walked backwards, gripping the swords strapped to her back. She had nimble hands and feet. She could whip out a blade and cut one of those creatures down before it could even sense she was there. Draw, strike, sheath. Psytopia Adagio 1

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And she could run in total silence too. The Academy promoted stealth. Stealth is good- stealth is clever. And besides, sometimes running and hiding is the wisest course of action.

But still Remedy lagged behind, keen to draw those blades. Unlike Azrael, she was no scholar, but that didn't make her less of a bladeplay addict. Methinks she liked to fight too much. Methinks such an attitude could well get her killed. Then again... She turned and launched into a bold sprint after the others. Even the most tactless minds know when they’re outnumbered. Confident as she was, she didn't want to be left alone in the nothingness. They’d been on the move for a sliver or so before they dared relight their tapers. They’d somehow managed to stay together; keep up the same speed. Yes, the Academy teaches how to jog too. How to pace.

Pace was all very regimented. Get the steps into your head so it's automatic. Count every pace without actually counting. It was like stride patterns for athletes, only every student was taught the same pattern. Psytopia Adagio 1

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That meant they knew how far they'd run without looking, which is handy in a group. Again, pace was centred on sword aesthetics rather than numerics; the beats per moment calculated during a group pacing session were based on step. Step cycles are a completely different lesson but basically it was a measure of play dynamics. A little like steps in dance. Swordstrils set a pace of a certain step, be it one (walking), two (jogging), three (running). This got them all to the same place at the same time. They could actually sprint at breakneck speed in the dark an inch away from each other and not collide… so long as they didn’t trip over something. Mikado and Obadiah had no idea about pace, but good swordsmen marshal troops. Hold the crowd together. Keep the team in tact. More points in the bag for Azrael. "We's gotta be near the edge of the plate by now." Remedy's hands were growing jittery. Aching to play with those blades. Aching for a fight. "Under a sliver." Azrael’s unconscious psyche was busily feeling out the progression of their steps. The plates all being equal triangles, he was well aware of where they were. So they broke their pace down to a stroll. Mikado winced. Azrael rubbed her heel. Because the real world gives you blisters. Among other ailments. “I spies nieto.” Remedy circled the group. As she said, she could see nothing. "Obadiah?"

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"I smell them.â&#x20AC;? The parahack plucked his mammoth sword from his side. There was something there. Shadows skulking in shadows. Azrael saw them first. It was for situations like this that he had spent round after round honing his vision. The tiny neon spheres, dotted here and there, growing brighter. Growing in number. They were coming at them from every direction. "Hack." Remedy cursed as she drew her swords. "They've surrounded us." Azrael began thinking tactics. A million plays scrolling through his brain.

*Charge them. Stupid. *Run. Where? *Sacrifice one party member and sprint. Irresponsible. *Stand ground and wait for an opening. Right up his street. "Miki- stay behind me." She nodded, held his shoulder and did as he suggested. Azrael unsheathed the Crimson Harvest. Time for all that training to bear some fruit. The three fighters formed a triangle. Back to back with Mikado in the middle. Azrael, Remedy and Obadiah ready for action. And the eyes drew closer. They could almost see the creature's forms in the darkness. Fluctuating forms. Dazy, wavy, shifty-morphy forms. No fixed forms at all.

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Looking at them was like staring drunkly at a friend through a curved bottle. Suddenly no longer your friend. They blurred and warped, dripped darkness, slid and stomped, their limbs uneven. The group took up their stances.

Every school has appropriate stances. Every stance has an appropriate application. Every swordstril belongs to an appropriate school. Stance mirrors attitude. School mirrors personality. Swordplay itself mirrors the wide, wild world in which we live. Our influence on it and its influence on us. Aaaah, how very romantic; weâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;re all microcosms of the universal macrocosm.

HOLD- Double-handed sword grip, arms bent ninety degrees at the elbow, sword placed directly in front; vertical. STAND- Left leg slightly forward, left hand slightly forward, knees slightly bent. VISION- Eyes squinting, searching for targets in the dark. APPROACH- Focus on them in turn; takedowns one by one. ATTITUDE- Compact, solid, sound defence; giving nothing away; cards close to chest. Azrael worked with a solid technical base and reacted to what came his way. Like a boulder in a stream causing the water to run around it.

HOLD- Right handed blade; (Holy Judgement) arm above head, elbow forty five degrees, wrist bent, sword ninety degree horizontal above head. Left hand blade; (Blessed Angel) arm ninety degree angle in front of face, blade vertical. Psytopia Adagio 1

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STAND- Back leg (left) at forty five degrees, bent at kneeseventy percent weight. Front leg (right) facing forward, bent slightly- thirty percent weight. Hold switches in accordance with stand. VISION- Straight forward; wide-eyed. APPROACH- See the big picture; become a part of the picture. ATTITUDE- Open, free flowing, swirling offence; totally unpredictable. (Some might say chaotic) Remedy was a proponent of the ‘snap stance’ methodology and altered her hold and stand dramatically throughout the play. It wisped at speed like water around a boulder in a stream.

Not interested in stance in the slightest. Wade in, whack them, hurt them. Perhaps take shots sometimes but make sure they take more shots than you; the kind of thing you see from big men in a pub... Except if big men in pubs carried such humongous swords they’d be drunk and deadly and I for one would make sure I was never seen dead in a pub.

She stood nervously behind Azrael and just hoped the baneful eyes would go away. They didn't go away. In fact they were almost in striking distance. Remedy licked her lips. "Let's see how these squibs jam."

Academy Grouping Azrael (pre-grad), Remedy (assigned fresher) & Obadiah (pick-up) with Mikado (elective) Psytopia Adagio 1

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Fiends of the Black Plateau (Identities & quantities N/A)

The Black Plateau. A clear plain less than a sliver from the ethereal flame fuzz-field.

Spoiling for a fight as always, Remedy was the first to act. Leaping at the first sign of a target. Cutting down two advancing shadow creatures with an overhand hoop (think a wild boxing hook, but with a sword attached to the striking fist). Or don’t; I mean it’s up to you- thankfully you don’t need to know how to flash a blade to read a book; what a civilised culture. She assumed there were two of them. There were two sets of eyes at least. And she felt the Holy Judgement slice its way through two of something. Let’s assume she’d plugged another pair of squibs. REMEDY: Overhand hoop HIT! FIEND A: Shoulder. OUT OF PLAY HIT! FIEND B: Midsection. OUT OF PLAY In reality it was like fighting a huge, pulsating sea of tar garnished here and there with glistening green wine gums... only just that tiny fraction more perilous. They had had to drop their tapers, which sizzled on the hard soil and offered them nothing more than a faint glow. Only Mikado held on to hers; a handy back-light, but lets face it; it also helped them see her. It was lucky Academy students were heavily drilled in anticipating offence.

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Mikado shuddered and kept herself huddled up behind her boyfriend. Wincing as he waited for a disfigured black claw to sweep blindly towards him before slicing his opponent’s arm at the wrist. He followed up with a robotic elbow raise and a throat-slitting swerve. Robotic but perfect. FIEND C: Wild swipe (shadow claws) COUNTERED! AZRAEL: Cross-body pang HIT! FIEND C: Wrist (severed) AZRAEL: Cross-face swerve HIT! Throat. OUT OF PLAY Mikado tugged Azrael’s waist. He altered his stance a touch, keeping her directly behind him. He and Obadiah stood their ground. Remedy was a far less predictable stable mate. She lurched forward out of the triangle. A soaring overhead swoop with the right and a 360 degree backward swirl with the left. Then another swoop, low this time. She had to duck as she span, flowing with the velocity of the blades. She hurled herself into a somersault hop on a diagonal axis, the first blade rolling with her head and the other with her knees. She extended her arms and span sideways two half turns and backwards one, her swords twirling with her in far-reaching sweeps. The artistry would have been more awe-inspiring if it wasn’t so dark. Keep tally and weep, hackjaws; keep tally and weep.

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REMEDY: Blitz Break Chain Overhand swoop (HJ) HIT! FIEND D: Forearm. Back peddles Reverse swirl (BA) HIT! FIEND E; Midsection. OUT OF PLAY Low swoop (HJ) HIT! FIEND F; Foot. Stumbles Backhand twirl (BA) HIT! FIEND G; Chest. OUT OF PLAY Remedy snapped into a new stance and smirked to herself. The eyes dropped like coins thrown into a moonlit well. After the frenzied motion, her sudden stillness pleased her. No point spiking the jazz in the track if you can’t stop to watch how the darkness falls away. Azrael simply shook his head. Remedy’s absence from the triangle forcing him to take down two shapes in quick succession. Economy, caution and formation. "Freshers..." AZRAEL: Straight slice HIT! FIEND H; Stomach. OUT OF PLAY AZRAEL: Upward stroke HIT! FIEND I; Chest/head. OUT OF PLAY Obadiah knew nothing of tactics, caution, economy… whatever. He just hit anything that moved close enough. Desperation; that's what the dark was all about. Flailing in the dark, hacking at it and scaring it away. OBADIAH: Desperate whack (mega sword) HIT! FIEND L: Head. OUT OF PLAY (Not that he was being graded) Remedy snapped stance again. Legs close together, almost straight. One fist up to her face, blade vertical. The other straight down, blade scraping the ground.

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Colourful fighters often snapped stance. It made them even more slippery. They could change the scope of attack and defence techniques open to them in a flash. Tech-counter fighters like Azrael had tight, infallible technique. Breezy players like Remedy would use the word 'rigid'. But let’s try to avoid politics at this stage… Everybody likes fireworks, right? But nobody stops to work out trajectory, hue, pace etc. That would be tedious. Leave such drudgery to the pyronettes. It’s rapid-fire foot movement; confuses the opponent.

But back to the track. Remedy made herself small, tucked one sword in to her chest, held the other at ninety degrees at her side and span in a clockwise coil with a high-speed slash. She span out in the opposite direction and skewered another with a blind underarm stab. (Though technically everything is blind in the dark). REMEDY: Small package coil HIT! FIEND J; Beheaded. OUT OF PLAY REMEDY: Backward whirl HIT! FIEND K; Through stomach. OUT OF PLAY But while she performed the fancy stuff, Azrael coolly dispatched opponents in succession. Carefully adding to the body count. Without ever risking his own (or his girlfriend’s) skin. Like any trained swordstril should. Part of his mind felt the movement of the blade. Part of his mind felt the movement of his opponents. Part of his mind planned ahead. Part of it weighed up possibilities. Psytopia Adagio 1

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And the whole thing sat down in a metaphorical board meeting inside his skull and decided rationally the best course of action. Academy students were trained to section their brains into portions. Portions which could even work independently if necessary... but we won't go into Psytopian physiology here. Suffice to say, the mind controls the body and if you can train your mind, the body follows. You can reconstruct your own psychology for any occasion. That’s how the mirage of control becomes set in stone. You can fool your own brain continually- so continually that the ruse becomes reality. Suffice to say, Remedy hadn't perfected the technique. Of course, there’s a debate over nature verses nurture. The debate still raged even within the highly regulated halls of the Academy. Whichever side you take, Azrael's strategy was working. He was gradually making a hole in the enemy line.

He took out another pair with deft cross-body slashes. And he tried as best he could to ignore the overly aggressive lunges of Obadiah behind him. Sword fighting is an art. The parahack even suffered a minor cut to the cheek and that is bad play in anyone’s book. It was as if these fiends were able to separate their limbs at will. Separate and serrate. Obadiah’s wound flashed luminous green for a moment as if a slit was being made in a contaminated sewage pipe before gushing a more grotty white. Clearly Azrael was the only one who had taken an Academy module on defence.

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"Almost made a gap." Azrael chopped another two down with a rising upper (his blade held as if he was stabbing with a knife but the motion reversed) and a slickly linked swerve. No show-boating; let them come to you. Pure, perfect pragmatism. AZRAEL: Rising upper HIT! FIEND O; Through jaw. OUT OF PLAY AZRAEL: Cross-body swerve HIT! FIEND P; Chest. OUT OF PLAY He carried on forging that gap. That escape route. For the record, he already knew what Remedy was realising... "These gangly squibs are multiplying." "Splitting." Obadiah was as timely with his information as ever. Remedy squinted; they were splitting. Each time a pair of eyes fell, they broke into two, formed new couplets and moved apart. They would be less outnumbered if they didn't hit them. REMEDY: Underarm scoop MISS! FIEND Q REMEDY: Backstroke hoop MISS! FIEND R Remedy wasn’t concentrating. As she grew accustomed to the dark, she saw that the fiends were transmuting too. Changing shape all the time, as swiftly as she changed stance. If only she’d noticed earlier… or paid heed to the Academy Dictum about knowing your enemy… The eyes were baring down on her end of the triangle. She saw what she’d done; made her mole hill into a mountain. A mountain she was ill-equipped to climb. But there was something she’d always wanted to try… To go for the money shot. To blaze a blitzy trail over the darklands. Yeah, Azrael had almost broken through their ranks… But a parting sparkle sounded all fine and spangly to her. Psytopia Adagio 1

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She drew the fiends in with a hand, a wink and a grin. She pulled her arms in; one sword facing up, one down. She placed them out as if on a crucifix. She lifted a leg, knee to the chest, grit her teeth and launched it.

The coup de grais. The holy grail of the blitz bible. The golden fleece of breezy übertek. The cherry on top of the whipped cream on top of the icing on top of the cake. The million dollar play. If you can pull off the Devil's Pirouette you're not going with the flow anymore, you are the flow... And you're in swordplay nirvana. She stamped her hovering leg into the ground and lurched into a wild twirl. Overhand over roundhouse over backhand over roundhouse... Into a total blur with no direction but direction itself. (And if you can work out what that means you're a true master)

And that’s about as mathematical as breezers got. 0 RPM. She cast herself into a crazy spiral. 25 RPM. She forgot herself in an insane whirlwind. 50 RPM. Span in and out of herself like a mad spinning top. 100 RPM. The landscape cut apart as if by random sword slits in the fabric of nature. 200 RPM. Opening the wide, wild world up like diced meat. 400 RPM. In between those slits she lost herself. 800 RPM. And for a moment she felt it…

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Then she twisted on her ankle, buckled embarrassingly and tumbled into an aching heap. "HACK!" She spat what was probably dust. Only Azrael's hand dragging her to her feet saved her from being gored by a huge claw-come-sabre, forged fleetingly in the dark. Right in the nick of time. He tugged her into awareness. The world was back... or she was back… It was unclear which presumption was more accurate. Who knows how many she'd taken out during that ill-fated flurry. REMEDY: Devil's Pirouette (attempted) HIT! FIENDS Q, R, S, T, & U; Unclear strike points. OUT OF PLAY MISS! FIENDS V, W & X

…and feels decidedly squiggly. Because that’s often what happens when you spin too fast. When you reach that magical 800RPM and the world around you ceases to exist. If you can keep it going, congratulations- you’re enlightened. If not… it's train wreck time. Her feet felt heavy. Too heavy. The weight of world, that was it. Her thoughts wondering… off-key, out of place. She felt a hollow drip and drain through her blood vessels and inside her heart. Because the trip tires you out emotionally too. It's good while it lasts- you feel you can do anything, but after... Well, you’re left nursing an almighty hangover. Psytopia Adagio 1

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The next thing she knew they were running in the direction of the next plate. Her rhythm was messed up; her step, pace and heart beat. Don’t try an übertek unless you’re absolutely ready Remedy. She would do well to remember that in the next play. But you probably know enough about Remedy by now to know that when she’s balancing out style and substance… those two don’t seem so balanced at first glance.

Attacks- 19. Economic. Hits- 19. Accurate. Misses- 0. Straight out-of-play hits- 19. Decisive. Injuries sustained- None. Sound defence. Play awareness- Pixel perfect. Control of party- Could be improved. Bonus for protection of elective. A Prefect in the making.

Attacks- 34. Heavy offence. Hits- 20. Wild. Misses- 14. Clumsy. Straight out-of-play hits- 16. Hard-hitting but needs improvement. Injuries sustained- bumps and bruises (due to novice use of an expert technique) Play awareness- Sloppy. Team play- Poor. Bonus for artistry but needs to be more responsible.

Elective; A non-combatant. therefore exempt from analysis at this stage. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Pick-up; Exempt from analysis.

*Azrael is finely trained but must make more effort to focus his party. *Remedy has great talent but tends to bite off more than she can chew. *It remains to be seen whether Mikado was the best choice of elective baring in mind her lack of combat experience. Could this be an emotional choice and therefore a detracting comment on the pre-grad's ability to select an appropriate party? *Obadiah is a solid acquisition but has little appreciation of the play. * Time will tell. The Assembly and Tutors will bear these points in mind whilst assessing the remainder of the field trip. The eyes were in pursuit. The vicious throng. Speeding after them in droves. Rolling through the night like a swarm of bees. They were faster than the students. They could change their shape at will after all. Why wouldn't they choose the most aerodynamic? So it was fortunate Azrael’s party had got a head start.

Totality is what you achieve when you pull off an übertek. There are three levels of übertek in each sword style. Yes, they form a triangle; fancy that! And they're learnt in succession. In breeze, it’s the Shudderwave, Angel’s and Devil’s Pirouettes. All are übertek but the Devil’s Pirouette is the holy grail. Every school has three übertek, one of which is the ultimate embodiment of the style. Psytopia Adagio 1

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With me so far? Übertek require the swordstril to generate impressive speeds. And great speed requires great energy. Where do you think that energy’s coming from Remedy? That’s right- your heart. Beats per moment, revolutions per moment… same thing. Not just physical speed; it could well be mental. Go too fast and you might just slip into the trip. What Remedy referred to with wide-eyed wonder as ‘Totality’. Probably because she hadn’t received the official lesson about the trip yet. About the down side... The big kid who offered us our first cigarette never told us we’d get cancer, did he? Just that smoking was cool. And the coolest thing about the trip is that when you hit it, you’re gone; drifting between Heavens. You attain a certain lightness of being in the trip. Some say it's even possible to disappear. A new kind of control over your sphere. Of its size, its shape, even of the laws of nature within it. Like your own private plateau where all the rules can be broken. Because it's all about magnetism; every force within that sphere under your whim; gravity, space, even time. Freshers said the world becomes a singularity when you enter the totality. Tutors told them it was a myth. Perpetuated by wayward students looking for an excuse to perform hap-hazard techniques. But tutors also told students if they practised hard, they might get to feel it, because everybody needs something fantastical to believe in whether it exists or not... Or because the tutors sought to conceal the true truth... Or just because its dangerous or something. So you can be a swot or a conspiracy theorist. Or you can do what the pre-grads do and dip into the trip when you need to. Whether even accomplished swordstrils truly saw the big picture remains to be seen, but Remedy liked to get ahead of herself. This may have been why she often landed flat on her face. "I see the edge." Mikado had keen eyesight even if she had clumsy footwear. "Where?" Obadiah was desperate, looking back feverishly. He could see nothing but darkness. There should have been something. Psytopia Adagio 1

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The Cyan Plateau. He knew it well. Home. The edge of the plateau was translucent; why couldn't he see his home? Remedy had at last sheathed her swords but she still took up the rear, running backwards. Glancing now and again the way she was headed. As if it mattered where she looked in the dark. But then againâ&#x20AC;Ś "I spies it!" "WHERE?" Obadiah almost screamed; not becoming of a parahack. The eyes seemed to be stabbing at Remedy's face. She could feel them; the swish of their shapes in motion. And at last Obadiah could see it too; the haze. Nothing more than a shimmering wall of static fuzz and beyond it... darkness. Darkness, but the faint shape of swirling dunes. Observed in negative against the fuzz-field. Home... Azrael leapt at the static sheet and passed through as if it was crinkling paper or shattering ice. Mikado went next, the couple still hand in hand. Their colour reversed as they landed in the sand on the other side; Azrael's skin pale green, his hair purple and blue. And Mikado's dress; white calligraphy on black. "Obadiah!" Remedy pressed him on. He wasn't grumbling. With one final dive he escaped the darkness. Remedy turned and ran normally for once; no need to protect the back end of the group. The eyes were upon her; claws reaching. Almost prodding her. Slashing, swishing. Shadows of shadows climbing on her back.

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She closed her eyes and leapt. She leapt into nothing. Into darkness. There was no sound but a vague crumple before her outstretched palms hit the warm blue sand, throwing her into a forward roll and finally a soothing halt. It wasn't dark anymore; in fact it was very light. Refreshingly so. Here they were, sitting in plush cyan-coloured sand with the sun beating down on them. It made their eyes water and their pulses ease. Remedy joined the others in looking back at the eyes. In negative; in light. She winced then styled it out. Swordstrils don't wince.

They were ugly. Disfigured. More to the point, they were oily. But oily white from their new point of view. They were creatures of light dotted with orange pin-prick eyes. They dripped white shadow. It seeped from their hanging maws. It fell from their twisted limbs. It dripped and re-attached itself to their undulating forms at their feet as if they were standing in pools of quicksand made out of their own white gore. Their bodies appeared to have the consistency of hot fudge. Their claws uneven, ragged, constantly sharpening and rotating. Their shoulders hunched, their toes curled. Their limbs jutting and unsymmetrical. Like a cross between Christmas trees and razor blades. Their teeth... Like a draw full of knives splattered with treacle and jammed anarchically into a megaphone... Well, letâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s just cut to the chase and say they looked pretty awful.

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"That's what we were running from?" Mikado tugged Azrael's wrist tighter. Thankfully the fiends didn't appear to be able to get through the fuzz-field. Instead they clawed frantically at the static. Causing it to ripple and spark like an electric shower curtain. Either way, Azrael's party were safe. Some species were like that; they belonged in one plateau and couldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t exist in the others. Because darkness can't live in light. That would be far too strange, even for Psytopia.

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The Cyan Plateau was the home plate of the parahack. A realm of motionless light blue dunes and the odd wizened roottree peeking out from deep underground. Silent. Too silent. It was warm on the cyan plate. Just the kind of temperature cold blooded creatures like Obadiah enjoyed. The big, ambling parahack sucked the scents of home through his nostrils. Something didn’t smell quite right… Azrael's party set up camp in a spiral sand ridge. The pre-grad plugged the pegs into the ground with a block gun (a dainty metal wand which acted like a miniature harpoon) and Mikado lit the pyro. Academy students could set up camp anywhere. As long as they didn’t offend any short-tempered beasties.

Swordstrils had to sleep rough in the field. Rest rough, anyway; Psytopians didn’t sleep like we do. But thanks to a mixture of old skool technology and new skool inventiveness, even sitting in the sand could be luxurious. Step One- Plug pegs into the ground in a perfect circle around the party. Step Two- Dig out a small hole in the middle of the circle. (Scooping with a blade was the best way) Step Three- Place a sheet of pyro in the hole and light. Remedy sulked as Mikado lit the pyro; there were so many better uses for that stuff. Step Four- Sit back and relax. Because the pegs shimmered when in close contact with the translucent flames, and when they shimmered, shards of light emerged, coloured like rainbows. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Not unlike the enigmatic hues seen in puddles of petrol. They shot up to form a cone-shaped 'tent' around the party. A tent of light rather than canvas. It was based on magnetism somehow... But nobody understood magnetism anymore or if they did they weren’t telling. This 'tent' not only regulated the temperature inside but created a heat-haze around them, similar to the rim of a plateau. To those on the outside Azrael's party was almost invisible. So there they sat, chewing on root. Not the kind of root Obadiah cooked; raw stuff. The lizard-man blew grumpily out of his nostrils at the idea. And swordstrils called parahack savages… He sneakily tried to roast it on the pyro when the rest weren't looking but was given the evil eye. The Academy taught strategy first, nutrition second. Just as Obadiah thought. Savages. Azrael & Mikado. Hunched up next to each other, arms intertwined like the roots of gnarled trees. Feel the love. Altogether now; ‘aaaahhh…’ Remedy. Cross-legged, balancing a sword on an open palm. Fidgeting like a kid. Too much energy, that one; her own personal doomsday lurking fatefully on the horizon. Obadiah. On his knees. Parahack had big, padded, comfortable knees. Biting his tongue as he chomped painfully on the raw root, imagining that the tongue probably tasted better. Food and rest. Just what they needed. Re-charge their batteries and take stock. It was nice; not being hunted for a moment.

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Psytopians didn’t sleep. Alright so they did, but they slept more like fish than humans. Portions of their brains switched off while others remained active; different aspects taking turns. In fact the only time every portion of a Psytopian brain was awake was during swordplay. I’m not even going to attempt to explain why at this juncture; I could write another whole book on Psytopian sleep, and even more so on Psytopian dreams, even though technically they couldn’t dream, at least not to their knowledge… I’m trying to avoid writing that book so I’ll stop there. But portions of brains took breaks. Perhaps there were tinsy-tiny devices in their blood streams which regulated their bodies and really liked to cause trouble. Or perhaps they just had well developed minds, because let’s be honest, it’d be handy not to have to waste all that time sleeping. And it is called ‘Psytopia’ after all, so one way or another these people probably had good brains. In any case, sleep wasn’t good for an Academy swordstril. Left them open to attack. That's a practical reason to avoid it. So was the fact that Psytopians were wary of dreams. Because we’re all wary of the unfamiliar. Regulated minds don’t like losing control. And since the distinction between day and night differed depending on the plate, it would be quite difficult to decide whether they should have been awake or asleep anyway. So Psytopians cut all this nonsense by simply not sleeping. They rested though, and let their thoughts settle. As often as they were able. Well, Psytopians don’t know what they’re missing. Parahack slept all the time. When they weren’t eating, farming or fighting. So Obadiah began dozing as soon as he’d finished his root. The pyro flickered. Danced. Little hippy, trippy heat-haze sniggering on the fringes of Remedy’s field of vision. Pirouetting in the wind. Psytopia Adagio 1

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She watched it intently. It danced for her. More so than it danced for the others. Because she and the totality recognised each other, or something like that. Her eyelids began to droop. Dance flames, dance. The totality contained within the flames tugging at her heart as if it was a cruise ship hidden above the murky waters of reality and she its clinging anchor, drifting in the depths. Stretching for that wide, wonderful, limitless sky above the constricting waves. A hand reaching into the furnace… “Remedy!” “Hey?” Azrael was calling her. In fact he’d possibly been talking for some time. AZRAEL: “Back there. We got out but it wasn’t pretty.” REMEDY: (Still transfixed on the flame) “Oh… d’ya reckon?” AZRAEL: “We’ve got to keep it together.” REMEDY: (Beginning to pull her eyes away) “But siz, we was tuney.” AZRAEL: “We were not ‘tuney’, we were all over the place.” REMEDY: (Shrugs at AZRAEL) “It was mint, moy kitz- mint.” AZRAEL: “It was not mint.” (AZRAEL takes a breath and calms himself down) AZRAEL: “We need to keep it together. Work as a team. Pragmatise.” REMEDY: (Wondering if ‘pragmatise’ was really a word) “You bring the marble, I’ll bring the glitz.” AZRAEL: “You’ll work as part of an effective and cohesive unit.” REMEDY: (Sulks) “Aw.” Well, wide and wild had been fun while it lasted. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Mikado placed a hand on Azrael's head. He was getting frustrated. Students shouldn't get frustrated. He wouldn't score well... but then again, leaders must ensure discipline. Double-edged sword, this wide, wild gig. Double-edged sword… But Remedy wasn't the kind who could be disciplined easily. It’s a known medicative fact that too much pyrojuice hampers the mind’s ability to regulate, and pragmatise, if that’s a word. REMEDY: do. And AZRAEL: without REMEDY: AZRAEL:

"You seez me breeze, siz; y’all of you you seez it makes sense.” “You’re gifted, but that’s nothing control.” “We's been taught to feel the flow." "To feel it, not be consumed by it."

Azrael was on his feet now. Bad sign. Remedy was up too, leaving that hypnotising flicker behind. Swordstrils didn’t argue, but they were known to bump up the heat of a debate if necessary. REMEDY: "But the flow’s the key, bro. The secret." AZRAEL: "There are no secrets, Remedy. There are just a lot of things you've yet to learn." REMEDY: "No, siz. There’s secrets. The sweet coco-mocha topping on the rust-sour dish. The fuzz n’ sparkle. (Whisper) What they don't want you to know." AZRAEL: (Shaking his head despairingly) "You're talking nonsense. We know everything we need to get by in this world and when you're a pre-grad like me you'll understand that." REMEDY: "Not everything." They stood facing each other. Standing is the correct posture for debate. No raised voices, no breaking of respectful stance. Psytopians had a civilised structure to disagreements, otherwise they'd get anarchic. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Azrael held her wrist. “I know everything’s big and new to you now and it seems there must be something greater stitching it all together, but it’s only us who do that, and the Academy gives us the tools.” The mysterious ornamental key around Azrael’s neck glowed red instead of the usual copper. It had been glowing a different colour on every plate. Remedy eyed it intently. She’d have sworn it was trying to tell him something. Then again, Remedy would have chosen to see intelligence in brussel sprouts and life on the Moon if she had her say. Let’s just take her opinions with a pinch of salt, shall we? AZRAEL: “I’m on my final assessment, Remedy. I've attended all the lectures, passed all the practicals. This is the last test. Once it's done I’m a post grad and I can start teaching." REMEDY: "But there’ll still be that tinsy tansy, c’est, c’est noir, dandy lickle secret." Remedy wasn't budging on this one. Obadiah wasn't budging either. They could 'debate' all they wanted. He'd take the time to sleep. AZRAEL: “I just hope you’ll trust me. I was a fresher too, remember?” REMEDY: “And didn’t ya see the gaps in the track?” AZRAEL: “I saw the… gaps in the track. But I learnt they were really only gaps in my own understanding and you will too.” REMEDY: “But when you feel your drum thumpin’ and your…” AZRAEL: “You’ll learn control. Then you’ll grasp the inner workings of the play and everything you’ve been taught will make sense.” REMEDY: “There’s tuneage out there that nobody’s got laid down." AZRAEL: "It's about order Remedy, not 'tuneage’..." REMEDY: "Tuneage." AZRAEL: "Order." Psytopia Adagio 1

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REMEDY: AZRAEL: REMEDY: AZRAEL:

"Tuneage." “Order.” ”Tuneage.” “Order.”

Mikado stood between them. "OK, well you say order, you say... tuneage... It's probably a bit of both." Ironic that the only non-combatant among them understood the big picture so well. Like all minor disagreements in the Academy it all came down to a simple clashing of styles.

Remedy returned to the fire with a sigh. She liked the music of the moment. The poetry of nature; the soundtrack of life. There’s just no space to move when you fill in those gaps. REMEDY: (Dejected) “There’s a rhythm you jive with… I’m telling you’se I feel dancin’ in moy coco.” (AZRAEL and MIKADO sit down next to her, MIKADO taking her wrist) MIKADO: “Remy, don’t you think maybe drinking that stuff…” REMEDY: “But pyro melts the haze...” AZRAEL: (Taking her other wrist) “It's not my place to make your decisions but I think you’d be a really outstanding swordstril if you cut back a little.” REMEDY: “You have to let go sometimes, but you’se gotta know when.” AZRAEL: “You have a great skill. A fire about you. But when you ‘let go’ you break up.” MIKADO: “Like back there on the Black Plateau.” REMEDY: “I was wildfire there siz. It didn’t take me, I moved with the flow.” Psytopia Adagio 1

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AZRAEL: “You buckled.” REMEDY: “But burn bright, burn out. Go wildfire, go dust. Go blazey, go breezy." AZRAEL: "Go blazey, knock yourself out of play." Azrael was only looking out for her. He had a responsibility. Not to mention a point. But the Breeze style has issues with orthodoxy.

Oh-oh; the ‘O’ word. Everybody feels the bite of orthodoxy somewhere along the line. Everybody falls victim to an extent. Get a job, get a mortgage, get a family, and slap-bang, somewhere in there orthodoxy has grabbed hold. Everybody shaves off fragments of themselves to fit into society’s pigeon-holes. Even if you find that hole a snug fit… you might be right but then again it might be orthodoxy telling you so. Orthodoxy is neither right or wrong, it just is, and that’s probably it’s most attractive quality. Opposed to fanciful stuff, which isn’t. But to call an Academy student orthodox is the worst insult you can deliver, and to feel yourself becoming so is the most souldestroying experience, because it means you aren’t really in control, you’re living by the numbers. Orthodoxy is bad news. Take religion. Religion is deep, emotional, meaningful. A highly personal, highly spiritual experience. Then orthodoxy comes along and fucks it up. Puts rules and regulations on it. Depersonalises it. Chains it like a rabid dog. Breaks its spirit and limits its passion. So everybody follows orthodox religion. The Church. The Scriptures. Thinking-by-numbers. That's why religion is so messed up. Take music. Take literature. Same deal. Your religion/music/literature/life in general might be a little bit unconventional, a little bit different, a little bit ‘weird’. But at least it's yours. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Because surveys say that 75% of lemmings think 99.9% of lemmings may well be wrong as they plummet from cliffs, but you know what; they do it anyway. Or at least people say that’s what lemmings do, and if 99.9% of people think it, it’s probably true. Or somebody’s done a top class propaganda job, and if the shoe fits and everyone’s wearing them, you may as get a pair. Because footwear choices are important when dropping off cliffs. And of course surveys say there’s no such thing as 'normal'. Abraham Lincoln said you can't please all the people all the time. At least assassination proved him right. Because everyone is different. Religion. Music. Literature. Shoes. Whatever. The same goes for swordplay... Whoa, that was a quite a 'note' on orthodoxy… But in any case, everybody has their chains to bear. It was just that Remedy was intending to go through life without acquiring any chains at all. Let's see if the wide, wild world proves her right or wrong… Azrael wasn't orthodox. His style was strict, but not orthodox; far from it. Orthodox is predictable, limited and flairless. Azrael was none of these. Remedy knew this. So she held her tongue as the ‘O’ word swirled around on it, screaming to be set free. Orthodoxy screams to be set free; is that contradictory or ironic? In any case, Remedy conceded the debate with a squeeze of Azrael’s wrist. She respected Azrael. She wished she could perform techniques with his accuracy. She wished she could choose the right move at the right time. That she’d wait sometimes and emerge from plays unscathed. Even in sparring, she was always the one with bruises on bruises... At least she looked good getting them. But she was sure there was something more to this swordplay gig. She’d just have to relax and do better in their next play, then she’d know what she was talking about. Psytopia Adagio 1

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To bear in mind:

And

Not to mention...

The issues ironed out, Remy went back to watching the fire and Azrael to cuddling his girl. Obadiah slept through the whole thing... but he was having dreams. Nasty dreams. Emotional, physical, prophetic; he couldn't put his big scaly finger on which...

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He woke with a start. The pyro sheet had almost burnt out. It had been a sliver or so, that was all. And home was feeling less comfortable with every passing moment. Azrael and Mikado were watching the translucent flames ebbing away. Thinking they should be getting on. Remedy was watching the flames too. Looking for answers. Their flickering motion seemed almost mathematical. Mathematical in an utterly anti-mathematical sense, which was perhaps the most mathematical sense imaginable. Remedy didn’t often imagine anything mathematical; she hardly knew what numbers were. All she knew was that people tied existence down with boring numbers and narrowed its fervour. But all good mathematics is explosive. Never seen any combustible numbers? That’s because people add up in orthodox. Calculate in southpaw and you might discover something new… or you might bag yourself an earlier-than-expected trip to the Third Heaven. Obadiah wasn't watching anything but his own pulse racing. His bulbous veins jerking uncontrollably. The colours of his scales changing in full-bodied blushes. What had happened to his common Sense?

Obadiah had forgotten that all parahack were connected on an instinctive level here; at home on the Cyan Plateau. Their very pulses tied into the gradual wash of the sands. Out on the Black Plateau there was nothing but fear. On the Golden Plateau, nothing but calm. But here he could sense them. Others. Only he couldn’t; that was the problem. Psytopia Adagio 1

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That was the curious scent he had smelt from the moment he had first set foot back on the dunes. The smell of loneliness. "Obadiah, what's up?" Mikado was always the first to feel that something was wrong. "I sense." "He whats?" Remedy shook her head clear, the flames still dancing in her brain. "Sense." Mikado had done all the wider reading. Medical students and libraries. They go together like toddlers and rattles, hearths and marshmallows, sword and sheath... Of course, since Psytopians 'wrote' in tye, libraries looked more like sculpture exhibitions. In any case, Mikado had spent as much time in tyebraries as in silent medicative contemplation. MIKADO: “Sense is a parahack ability. An instinct." REMEDY: (Bright eyed) "Like flow?" MIKADO: "Not quite, but you get the idea." Azrael stood and dusted off his chain-mail patched trousers. Sense. Instinct. Did nobody appreciate good, firm matters of fact? AZRAEL: "What do you sense?" OBADIAH: "One." AZRAEL: "One what?" OBADIAH: "Parahack. Here." (OBADIAH points across a ridge and almost stomps on the pyro fire) REMEDY: "Hey, watch it bod." AZRAEL: "I can’t see anything. What are you pointing at?" Azrael looked the big, scaled beast in the eye. Took his ample wrist. Stamped out the pyro for him. The haze around them stuttered, faltered and died to Remedy’s dismay. Psytopia Adagio 1

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OBADIAH: "There.” AZRAEL: "Miki. You see it?” MIKADO: (Gazing) “Parahack can sense through objects. Smells drift.” AZRAEL: “I think I see something.” Azrael climbed a small dune. There was something over the ridge. A building. And the sand was different over there too. A few paces up the edge of the ridge and they all saw them. The beginnings of patterns raked into the desert floor. Bold, strange, archaic patterns. Loops and lines and dots and what appeared to be screaming faces locked in the timelessness of the sand. The moment Obadiah saw them he burst into motion. Trudging purposefully through the pale blue desert, one sunken foot after the other. "Hey." Azrael called after him. "HEY!" Control your party Azrael. They should be following you. NOTE TO SELF: Opponents= easy. Colleagues= an unbearable chore. They caught up with Obadiah at the ramshackle building he had dreamt about. It was old and haggard. Constructed out of dead, twisted root-trees. Surrounded by intricate sand patterns which seemed to move… You know, how you're sure something shifts in your blind spot. Like you're sure something moves the moment you turn away from it. Like eyes in a painting in a haunted house. When you turn back to look, you can't be sure... The patterns were complicated designs made of simple shapes. Shapes amid the faces etched in the sand. Stuck. In fixed shrieks and horrendous contortions. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Obadiah avoided stepping on the faces and instead picked his way through the simpler lines and dots. Mikado advised the others to do the same. She had studied enough of parahack custom to hasten a guess at what they were. Luckily for you, the narrator knows more about parahack custom than anyone... basically because he made it all up.

When parahack died they became dust. That's what they believed. The body didn't matter. That could simply rot. It could rot like left-over rootâ&#x20AC;Ś as if any hungry parahack could imagine such a thing. But the spirit; each individual's 'helping' of the sense... That became infused in the sand like a portrait. The soul painted itself on the landscape. Its final act. It painted itself on the spot where it was born. Then it faded away in the wind and become one with the dunes of the Cyan Plateau. It becomes egoless; isn't that the best way to be? It's a nice, green, romantic notion and the portraits really did appear. Noble and serene... So you can imagine why Obadiah was so concerned. These portraits were frozen in screams and they werenâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t fading anywhere. Obadiah knew what this shack was; a fever house. Where the diseased locked themselves away from the rest during the plague. He didn't care. The fever was gone, or at least it was no longer catching. He had heard that from the travellers, and more to the point, he felt it with his para-sense. The only reason he hadn't returned home was his fear of the dark. He had never expected to find the faces of the dead still here, caught between existence and non-existence. Unable to pass. Psytopia Adagio 1

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That was the ultimate nightmare for the parahack. No form, no ability to act or fight... but no release; just echoes. He rapped on the creaking door frame with a mammoth knuckle. There was someone in there; he felt it, and he wanted answers. He got them. Not quite the kind of answers he would have liked, but he got them nonetheless. He barged into the shack to find nothing but splintered root. Splintered root and sand-covered furniture not unlike his own. And the smell... The smell of rot. The smell of the dark. Obadiah drew his sword and the others followed suit. He lowered it and the others did the same. Because this was no unlikely daytime ambush by the fiends of the night. A broken slate; the centrepiece of a parahack home which served as kitchen table and bed. A broken slate, some gore-stained sheets and a wizened old man. A wizened old parahack. A wizened old parahack with flaking scales. A wizened old parahack with flaking scales and crumbly teeth. A wizened old parahack with flaking scales, crumbly teeth and a putrid smell. A wizened old parahack with flaking scales, crumbly teeth, putrid smell and wafer-thin limbs. A wizened old parahack with flaking scales, crumbly teeth, putrid smell, wafer-thin limbs and dark, oily appendages jutting this way and that, wavering in the slight wind which crept through gaps in the walls. A wizened old parahack with flaking scales... Wait a minute; dark, oily appendages? Obadiah went for his sword again. The others mimicked his action. He lowered it. The others concurred. Psytopia Adagio 1

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He had seen old parahack before. His family were full of them. Most had to be left behind; the elderly the first to fall at the hands of the disease. But this one was different. A horrendous sight. His scales had grown dull and colourless with age; the life sucked out of them. His face had gotten saggy and dry. His body had sprouted extra pulsating arms and legs which seemed to be taking him over. Shadowy growths. Like the dark fiends... Now that was as strange as it was scary. This wasn't the disease... this was something worse. Obadiah tossed his sword away and knelt by the decrepit figure's side. He pressed his forehead up against the old man's. Thankfully, parahack had alternatives to vocal conversation. That's probably why they were so uncommunicative.

A form of telepathic communication. I say 'telepathic' but you had to press your head against another's to 'speak' to them this way so it was only very local telepathy. Only parahack could do it. It was basically blood talking to blood. Bleeding is a bit like breathing; well, this was like breath being shared through blood, and that blood carried messages. Communication can be quite strange in Psytopia... Just wait until you read about tag-grass and tap... But I’m getting ahead of myself. The pulse was a parahack’s bloodstream’s way of expressing emotions. Words were merely poor representations of emotions to parahack, and psychological toughness generally involved keeping such things pure and therefore unsaid. You’re starting to see why Obadiah didn’t talk much now, aren’t Psytopia Adagio 1

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you? But anyway, when you share the pulse, you can't hide anything, which made it impossible for parahack to lie. Then again, telling lies and hiding true feelings are different kettles of buzzmaws. In any case, parahack blood was thick stuff and it contained lots of clever things which we don’t possess in ours, so let's just let their haemoglobin chat and be done with it. This is what Obadiah learnt whilst pulsing with the old man. His name was Isaiah. He was dying. He was dying of 'the curse'. They carried on communicating via the pulse. I’ll translate. In a fashion. I can’t pulse you from here... because this is a book, not my forehead, because you’d look pretty stupid pressing a book to your temple, because I’m not a huge, scaly parahack and because (I assume) neither are you.

Q: What’s the curse? A: Many parahack have died of the curse. In fact, Isaiah (that’s me) is the only one left. Back in the days of the nano-plague, half of us fled through the Black Plateau to the golden plate and the rest migrated to the Lime Plateau. (Obadiah knew this, but old men do like to tell stories everyone’s heard before so his blood’s just going to have to go with the flow) They came back once they felt the disease had burnt itself out, but then the curse...

Q: WHAT'S THE F!*£$?G CURSE? A: Rumour has it that the curse had been cast on the emigrants by a rogue parahack called Zephaniah.

Q: Who's Zephaniah? A: Zephaniah was once a good, honest reptile like the rest of us. Then he went crazy.

Q: How so? Psytopia Adagio 1

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A: It started when his family were killed by a band of swordstrils on some trip. There had been a senseless argument about whether bructan or bretan paste was better on the dry, raw root they insisted on eating. If they’d just swallowed their pride and let our brother prepare it… needless to say, they went home to be re-taught. But Zephaniah was so impressed by the their techniques that he decided to devote his life to studying swordplay. He moved to a shack on the edge of the plate and practised like a hermit.

Q: Then what happened? A: Some say he became far too accomplished a fighter. Q How can you be too accomplished? A: Well, nobody knows, but swordplay went to his head.

Q: To his head? A: That’s where you keep your heart, isn’t it?

Of course. Sorry… Anyway, he went crazy. He marched into the central parahack settlement and started babbling on about 'the noise.'

Q: The noise? A: Remember he was insane by this time.

Ah... He grew frustrated and went away. Nobody heard much from him, but the travellers brought back stories.

Q: What kind of stories? A: There's a place called the Grey Plateau.

Q: What's that? A: It's a mysterious place. A place so full that to enter you have to push something else out.

Q: How does that work? A: Nobody knows. Oh. That’s handy. There's a myth.

Q: What kind of myth? That there is a place on the Grey Plateau with a certain power. A place which over the ages has become full of people’s evil deeds. Anyone wishing to enter must be willing to Psytopia Adagio 1

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allow the repercussions of these deeds to pass to them, making the place less full. It is a greedy place; it demands those who enter must sacrifice something important to them.

Q: What does all that mean? A: I’m a parahack, not a philosopher.

Q: What happened to Zephaniah? A: He valued his family, people and home above anything else.

Of course. And like the rest of us, he feared the dark.

Well... Obadiah tried not to admit it. You can't lie now, can you? Not when you’re communicating blood to blood.

Q: So what happened? A: The dark. A single being of the dark got through the plateau rim. To his home. For him to enter that place, the plates allowed one of them to enter this place. That was the sacrifice.

That's impossible. Yeah well, Psytopia’s a crazy place and crazy shit happens from time to time.

Yeah, but... It was a hook in the blood; that’s what they said. Rippling across the roots of the plates.

Q: Well OK… so… what did the fiend do? A: It got through and attacked us. It swamped us while we slept. It infected us.

That's... horrible... One by one it latched on to us in our sleep. It ate our bodies while we dreamed; anchored us to the Second Heaven.

Q: The portraits? Those of us who’ve died are stuck between the dreams and the dunes. Locked in eternal agony. Locked in eternal dark. At this point Obadiah stood up and clenched his fists. His spines shuddered. His eyes turned a crystal white. His scales dimmed to an ominous black. Psytopia Adagio 1

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"What do I do to free them?" It was perhaps the longest sentence he had ever uttered. Isaiah coughed what was perhaps his last cough, his shadowy limbs stifling his throat. Gradually washing his crippled body away… ISAIAH: "Zephaniah... If he ceases to be... if his blood ceases to pulse..." OBADIAH: "It’s his dream they’re stuck in." ISAIAH: “If the nightmare he has made ends…” OBADIAH: “They move on from the dream.” Isaiah didn't have any life left. Look down at the floor of the shack, in the splinter-covered sand. A perfect picture of his face; being drawn by an invisible hand. In horrible contortions... On close inspection, steam could quite well have been pouring out of Obadiah's flappy ears. "Zephaniah..." He grasped the hilt of his sword. He couldn't save his people. They were gone, but... Mikado offered him a supportive tug of the wrist. He pulled away and added his other hand to the hilt of his sword. "Grey Plateau..." "It is on our way..." Azrael’s comment received a glare which could cook raw root all on its own. Obadiah crashed through the shack's rickety door. Stomping off in the direction of the Saffron Plateau. He couldn't save his people, but if he could release their souls... Let’s face it, that wouldn’t be bad going.

Obadiah didn't care for Academy dictums, but he had priorities. "That bod's pretty boiled." Remedy stated the obvious. The others followed his tracks. The pick-up leading the mission… Azrael's tutor would have to have words. Psytopia Adagio 1

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The first thing they heard was crying. A child crying. Needless to say the lowly sobbing detracted somewhat from the picturesque savannah of the Saffron Plateau. A downer on everybody’s lovely day. Obadiah didn't care much for crying. He simply marched on into the distance. Places to go. Reptiles to kill. Mikado was concerned. More about Azrael’s grading points than Obadiah’s homicidal tendencies, but Academy folk have their own priorities. "Do you think we should catch up; try to talk some sense into him?” Sense hadn’t done the job thus far… “He’s vexin’ hizself. I say no-no.” “Az?” “We’ll keep an eye. From a distance.” Azrael wasn’t forgetting…

The pre-grad frowned. "He's bound to get tired or hungry soon. We'll catch up then." He could plod off all he wanted. In the meantime, there was that crying to investigate.

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The three of them gazed around the saffron plate. The scorched earth. The small, orchid-like shrubs poking out of the topsoil. The hazy kaleidoscopic yellow-blue air which surrounded them as if they were standing in the epicentre of a toxic tornado. And the sobbing... It seemed to be coming from all directions. As if it was blaring through speakers mounted on the Saffron Plateau's cluttered cacti trees. It was confusing, even for the well-honed senses of the swordstrils. For Mikado the sound was a disorientating muddle. Like her head was full of wobbly jelly. The pitch. The tone. The way it tunnelled in through her ear, jiggled around in her brain and sunk into her heart. She felt as if she was swimming in a bubbling cauldron filled with some kind of slow-boiling audio stew. Swirling around, going all soft. As if her feet had been replaced by fuzzy tumbleweed. If it wasn't so unusual she would have liked it. You and I would call it music. Remember, Psytopians couldn't hear music, only isolated sounds. No rhythm. Students could appreciate vibe; they couldn't hear it, but they could feel it- the result of much meticulous sword training. Some had control and not vibe, some vibe, not control; well, you canâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t have everything or thereâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d be nothing left for anyone else. So even though Azrael and Remedy couldn't hear it, and though they probably couldn't understand it, they could bear it. That didn't mean they could necessarily locate it. Remedy walked in circles. It was the best way to make sure her ears didn't miss where the sobs were coming from. And it was more fun than concentrating hard, anyway. Leave that to the brick-laying ranks of the orthodox. Psytopia Adagio 1

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"We'll split up." Azrael took charge. Remedy nodded. "Check." "Um... check." Nodding hurt Mikado's pounding skull. Her boyfriend gave her a supportive hug. "You OK?" "Once I get this noise out of my head." Half of her liked it, half of her detested it. The detesting half was winning. He held her wrist. "We'll find out what it is and deal with it." "Remy; you go Side, I'll go Edge and Miki goes Tip." Remedy was off already with a cheerful thumbs-up, a hop, skip and jump. Places to go, squibs to z? Mikado took a little more persuading before she let go of Azrael’s wrist.

Side, edge and tip were compass points, for want of a better term. (P.S. There were no compasses in Psytopia) Think about it; if the world was flat or thereabouts, how would a compass work? Psytopians determined direction via triangles. They saw the world with translucent prisms superimposed over it like cross-hairs, although of course they didn’t actually see them because they weren’t there. They used other senses to form mental pictures of triangles in their heads- it was a way of portioning the world up. Us human beings like to measure things in lines. And we like to observe as if looking at TV screens. ‘Me’ and ‘the world’. Psytopians were probably more open-minded… Although their minds were also comparably caged. They'd think of one point of view, the other point of view and the end result. This was probably why arguments were less common to them than they are to us. As long as both people were arguing about the same thing, disagreements were nothing more than a matter of different surfaces of the same triangle. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Thinking in triangles meant there were no overlaps in Psytopian thought, which could in itself be a doubled-edged sword. That’s OK. Psytopians liked most kinds of swords. And it also meant that giving directions in Psytopia involved talking Side, Edge and Tip. We observe things in order but try to digest everything at once. Psytopians observed the whole vista but only contemplated one thing at a time. The eureka point here is that humans and Psytopians are just as flawed as each other. In any case, in terms of ideology; (ours against theirs) it’s progression verses totality. Do you move across the board and see what happens or keep one prime target in mind? On the whole, Psytopians played space invaders. We play chess. Chess is quite a highbrow game, isn’t it? But personally I’ve always found space invaders more fun. And if you plan everything in life, you’ll eventually find yourself in an inescapable check-mate. Because there’s somebody else planning the opposite. If you just trust your reactions and deal with life; wave after wave of bleeping green aliens… Well, you might just end up hitting the mother ship. Some would say Psytopian brains were more evolved, or perhaps less. Others would say they were simply more confusing. Perhaps it's better to say that they were just different. So Remedy went side; not a worry in the wide, wild world, bouncing all the way. Azrael went edge, worrying about Mikado and trying to keep her in sight. Mikado went tip, worrying about her head, one eye on Azrael as she went. Pretty soon they were all searching alone amongst the bumpy little hills of the saffron plate. Azrael went edge. He only really went edge for two reasons. One- If he had gone side he would have been further away from Mikado sooner. He knew he'd have to lose sight of her for a time but let's not take too many chances. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Two- If Mikado had gone edge or side, any vicious beasties lurking around would meet her first, but this way they’d have tto have got through Obadiah before they got to her. Alright, so leaders aren’t meant to make pick-ups into pawns… Perhaps Azrael should have invented chess. And of course, with Azrael and Remedy Edge and Side, if those shape-shifting fiends broke through the fuzz-field and followed them it’d be the sworsdstrils on the receiving end first, so tactics.

He leapt on tiptoes every time he reached the top of one of those little shrubby mounds. And she looked back and waved a dainty wave. Clinging on to her head with the other hand. …I’m already getting bored of saying ‘aaaaah.’ The mounds were tiny. No taller than him. But there were many. Many, many, many, many… And if you have mound upon mound… When he finally lost sight of her, he sighed and pressed on. His mind calculating where she'd be without him even being aware of it. Calculating in triangles and sub-triangles and sub-sub triangles.

You can calculate all you want; at standard one-step pace it would take a slice to walk from the base of a plate to the tip. Forty minutes walking time, give or take. But Psytopian ears could hear that far with ease. Because remember they picked out isolated individual sounds, so there was no meshing effect. Or I dunno... perhaps Psytopian damsels just screamed loud. Psytopia Adagio 1

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But for Zarathustra’s sake let’s leave the maths on the back burner and press on. Azrael pressed on. Shrubs, haze, mounds and worrying about Mikado. But not much else. Remedy went side. Also shrubs, haze and mounds. Not so big on the worry though. Not her style. A stressful life was not one worth living. Pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Every cloud has a silver lining. The glass is always half full. Except for a few minor points: *Rainbows were mythical in Psytopia and generally only existed in the world of dreams. *Psytopians didn’t trade in gold or silver, they did swapsies. *If the glass was half full of pyro and was anywhere near Remy, it wouldn't be half full for long.

So it was shrubs, haze and mounds for our beloved belle blaze. Until she heard something. Something whizzing… soaring… plummeting. Right at her. She fixed her keen tangerine orange/plum purple rimmed eyes to the sky, and there it was. Tiny as it descended. Tiny and formless. Nothing more than a pin-point.

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Hurtling like a cannonball. Like an arrow. Like a bouncing bomb. Like a bolt from the blue. Form began to seize it. Bent. Hooked. Ah-ha; un lickle pressie. She smiled. The Psytopian equivalent of opening up a pop-up proclaiming you've got mail. Dropping like a penny from a skyscraper. Let’s call it a penny from Heaven. She took a step back. Watched the small, scissor-shaped packet thud into the tender topsoil before her. Watched it come to a sudden halt. Tag.

They didn't have computers in Psytopia. They didn't have phones. They didn't have live TV, newspapers, radio. How much richer their lives must have been! But they did have tag-grass and this is how it worked. Tag-grass grew on the Pastel Plateau. It was imported in. The really good stuff even imported itself. But nobody cared where it came from, just what it did. *The composer (sender) meditates, imprinting their message on to the grass as it still lives. It’s exported in wallets of chalky pastel plate soil which naturally absorbs thought. Just try living there; you won’t know it; it’ll empty your brain. But think fast when you meditate, and visualise. Because the receiver is going to have to untangle those pictures to get what you mean. Of course, if you’re blessed with a very visual mind and you’re sending a message to someone who thinks just like you, you can ramble on all you want. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Either way, when smoking grass, you donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t necessarily see things clearly. So at least something about this process is familiar to us on Earthâ&#x20AC;Ś *The composer plucks the grass from the soil, thereby killing it. The last thought pattern (memory cluster/vibe/jingle, whatever you want to call it) implanted on the grass is the one it absorbs. *The composer places the grass in a snap-pack and retreats to a safe distance. *The pack flicks out a leg in the same way as DVD drives open, and proceeds to catapult itself ludicrously high like a rocketpropelled spring. Higher than the roof of a plateau and out into the ether. *The pack 'knows' who it's intended for and lands right next to them, wherever they may be. *The audience (recipient) opens the pack, flicks the Zip inside (for 'zip', read 'lighter') and smokes the grass like a cigarette. (Although it's smoked 'bare'; they didn't have Rizzla in Psytopia) *The memory of the sender is 'displayed' to the audience in the form of a Technicolor, 3-D, 360 degree panoramic hallucinative experience with all the sights, sounds and smells! Oh, and don't smoke anybody else's grass. It'll make you ill and give you an identity crisis to boot. No passing the spliff here. -Other irrelevant tag facts*Tag-grass used propulsion technology from lost ages and was popular among students. Students were the only people too busy/lazy/caned to actually go and meet people. *You wouldn't catch tutors smoking tag-grass, however good an idea it was. Psytopia Adagio 1

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*Tag-grass was the lightest thing in Psytopia! *And no, it would not work if you were to stand on a snap-pack and try to propel yourself to the other side of the Arpeggio in a matter of moments. It would break. You would look stupid. Don't do that, K? So Remedy smoked the tag-grass. THE MESSAGE WAS FROM MOJO. TO REMEDY IT WAS AS IF SHE WAS STANDING BEFORE HER. SHE WAS HAPPY (MOJO WAS ALWAYS HAPPY) SHE WAS ESPECIALLY HAPPY BECAUSE IT WAS CLEAR THAT SHE WAS A BETTER FIGHTER THAN HER GROUP LEADER ESPERANZA (OR SO SHE THOUGHT ANYWAY: TAG GRASS ONLY HOLDS THE OPINION OF THE SENDER) THEY WERE OFF TO THE WHITE PLATEAU TO STUDY AN ANCIENT NECROPOLI COMPLEX AND BRING BACK SAMPLES FOR THE TUTORS. WHAT A WASTE OF BLITZY, BLAZEY TALENT. ARCHAEOLOGY WAS MIND-NUMBINGLY BORING SO SHE DRANK A LOT OF PYRO EN-ROUTE TO KEEP JIVIN'. Such was the beauty of tag-grass that Remedy felt the effects of said pyro as she smoked. MOJO MISSED HANGING WITH THE BLITZBLADES ETC. And she used terminology like 'moy kitz' and 'moy drum' as you’d expect. Thankfully Remedy was in with the lingo, or else taking a trip into Mojo's head might have made her feel more riled than an übersaur with a broken trap-tooth. THERE WERE THESE STRANGE SKINNY CREATURES WITH TORN CLOTHING AND SACKS OVER THEIR FACES WHOSE EYES APPEARED TO BLEED. THEY HELD TWO BLADES IN ONE HAND AS THEY SURROUNDED HER. MOJO’S GROUP HAD DEALT WITH THEM AFTER QUIBBLING OVER STRATEGY. WATCH OUT FOR THE CLOTH-HEADS REMY... And with that she was awake. She spat out the end of the grass before it burnt through. Another avoidable injury was exactly what she didn’t need. She missed Mojo though… Mojo was fun. Psytopia Adagio 1

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But cloth-heads... what were they? She was sure to find out in due course. And she'd compose her reply. As soon as she found who was doing all that brain-tickling crying. Mikado went tip. Remedy was too late, because Mikado had found her. The kid. The one doing the crying. It hurt Mikado to approach her, such was the severity of the headache. The world quite literally in a spin. Sometimes youâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ve got to reach over a steaming bath and turn off the tap before it gets any hotter. Before it scalds you. So there she was, tucked in between two mounds, weeping. A little girl. A frightened little girl. A frightened little blue girl... Psytopian tradition dictated that you should introduce yourself first if you mean no harm. Ask questions later. Mikado shuddered as she moved a hand away from her ear and offered it to the crying girl. "Mikado." She looked up.

Those big gleaming eyes swirling.. The stars at night, The cusp of a wave, Windows in the fabric of Heaven.. Mikado lost touch with herself for a moment. As if her legs were an inch off the ground. As if her head was lost in the clouds. As if sheâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d had an unexpected tumble had involuntarily dislodged all sense of gravity.

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She shook her head. What a weird experience. The world appeared to be taking shape again. She felt as if she’d just stepped out of a house of funny mirrors. The girl's sobbing was dissipating. Thank Zarathustra. She rubbed her eyes with long, thick gloves and measured Mikado with her gaze which made Mikado feel funny. Spoony? Mikado felt this girl knew everything there was to know about her with that one brief glance. As if she could read her like a sprig of tye. She looked right through her as if the real Mikado was standing a pace or so behind. Right through her stomach, making Miki clasp it for a moment as she felt a sudden pang. The girl gingerly touched her wrist as Mikado bend down next to her, then tightened her grip. She had gone from suspicion to dependency in one squeeze. "Melodi". Her voice clutched something in Mikado's chest. Something deep. It clutched something in every sinew of her body. It clutched something in every microbe that made up the Saffron Plateau and gently shook it... "My name is Melodi." And in between words it let go. “Alright…” Mikado took a step back. It was as if time and space itself paused every time the blue girl uttered a syllable. Like chill-out music, but in stops and starts. If anything, Mikado felt worse when Melodi wasn’t speaking. And she clutched her wrist hard. It was a warming clutch; a child's hold. And a parent's touch; a contradiction. Actually Mikado couldn’t decide if her hold was hard or soft.

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A little girl surely no more than 5,500-odd rounds old. Equivalent to about ten Earth years, for those without calculators. She was sitting crying on the Saffron Plateau. Everything else about her was a mystery, especially that strange effect her speech had. Academy students would be wise to steer clear of things they didn't understand.

-Her lookShe had blue skin. Ocean blue. Silver-blue. Shimmering; the colour rippling beneath the surface. She appeared sorrowful. Petrified by the world around her and brittle. Perhaps that was why Mikado, so brittle herself, was the one who found her. Her blood-red lips shrugged as if she was a moping teenager grounded by her parents. Her eyebrows thin, almost stuck-on and adorned with trinkets, the eyes themselves... Swirling.. Not like normal human eyes. They were like a Cadburys milk chocolate whirl. A cross between half a yin-yang symbol, a squashed tadpole, an egg yoke and a Nike tick. The pupil curved, rimmed with blue then yellow then white. Mesmerising... Taking hold... Her pupil wasn't a dot, it was a spiral. I’ve allowed myself to become distracted by the eyes, haven’t I? By their coiling, tractor-beam quality…

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-Her getupShe wore a red patchwork dress to the knee made up of pieces of a thick, hide-like material cut into diamond shapes and decorated with tassels. She wore long black and white chequered gloves all the way up to her shoulders. They were tight-fitting and made of something resembling wet plastic. Her footwear made her seem a little taller than she actually was. (Which for a ten-or-so-year-old was probably a good thing) They could loosely be described as platform trainers; black and white cheques with bright red laces and what appeared to be wires running through the inside of the elevated sole. She wore bracelets and trinkets which probably weighed more than she did, incorporating not only triangles but geometric shapes Mikado had never seen, even in the tyebrary. And on her forehead sat the familiar Psytopian symbol of a curve, a dot and two lines in gold. It appeared to be made of old, crusted metri and could well have been welded to her skull. And every ornament had dots, lines, arrows and spirals etched into them in minute detail. All very Aztechy, not that they had Aztecs in Psytopia. Although to be fair, these days neither do we. Her hair was thick, shaggy, braided and green. It contained so many microscopic beads it was hard to tell where the hair ended and the trinkets began, all drenched in glitter. A brooding slouch completed the look. Needless to say, Melodi wasn't like anything any of Azrael's party had ever seen before. But at the same time she was just a little girl. "What's the matter?" Mikado was always the carer. That was her nature. You could believe sheâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d been genetically engineered a medicianâ&#x20AC;Ś If genetic engineering was a plausible enterprise in an agricultural world such as this. In any case, she was always good with patients. And with children. "They're after me.. " Melodi began to sob. Mikado laid a hand on her shoulder to re-assure her. Her head was going all wobbly again, but a nice wobbly... A slight, reverberating, warming wobbly... Psytopia Adagio 1

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"Who are after you?"

"Things. Things without faces." "Without faces? You mean covered faces. Like hoods? Like pyronettes?"

"No. The covers aren’t worn, they’re.. "

"You don't know what they are?" Melodi stuck out her bottom lip and shook her head apologetically. Mikado took her wrist. "Then we'll work it out. We'll protect you from... whatever they are."

"We?" "I'm part of a pre-grad Academy party. You've heard of the Academy, right?" More forlorn head-shaking. Everybody had heard of the Academy. "Well, this is our job; to protect people, you know?”

"It is?" "Yeah." Mikado smiled her best smile, which, for the record, was a very persuasive one.

"And you'll protect me?" "Of course."

Melodi had reason to be wary. After all, as long as she could remember she had been running from one thing or another. It was quite possible she didn’t know why she was running herself, or even that the running was older than the she doing it. Or that she’d become such an outcast that she’d forgotten. Life for her had been like that of a rat in a maze. Curious scientists prodding it to test this or that theory. Nobody had ever wanted to protect her before... A novel concept, but there was something in Mikado's look. In her eyes; like unspoilt fields of snow. Like clean slates. And eyes can't lie. But Mikado's bold, compassionate gaze wasn't going to defend her from the perils of the Psytopian plates all on its lonesome. Psytopia Adagio 1

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MELODI: (Wary) "You and…” MIKADO: "My boyfriend Azrael." MELODI: (Suspicious) "Azrael?" MIKADO: "He's a swordsman. A good one too. He's on his final assessment.” MELODI: (Curious) “Assessment…” MIKADO: “At the Academy. He can be a bit uptight about his fighting, but... he's disciplined, and moral with it. And I love him for it, you know?" MELODI: (Sceptical) "Oh..." Love; what was that? Some sort of big deal? Some sort of guiding force that steers you without you knowing it's steering you, no doubt. That sounded frightening… and useless at the same time. Like underwater currents to a fish. Like a breezy wind to a gull. Like the soundtrack of life. It played in her, but she had never thought to pick it out from the jumble. She had never really had time. And she’d certainly never believed in namby-pamby romantic gobbledygook like that. As if she had the occasion… As if she had the inclination… MIKADO: "And Remedy. She's a fresher; another sword fighter. She can be a little too enthusiastic, but her skill with a blade is scary. I mean scary in a good way." MELODI: (Disinterested) "Oh." MIKADO: "And Obadiah. If we ever catch up with him. He's a parahack. He's such a typical parahack- just like how the freezes say. Bold, noble, hungry… and perhaps a tad lazy.” MELODI: (Dismissive) “Warrior types…” MIKADO: “Well actually, I've felt a bit left out all the way. I've been missing somebody who's on my level. Who I don't have to talk swords and strategy with." Psytopia Adagio 1

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Mikado thought about it. She loved Azrael. She liked Remedy. She respected Obadiah. But in combat she felt like a third wheel, or a fourth... If there were two third wheels, perhaps she wouldn't feel so guilty. Perhaps it would balance the cart. And besides, there was something about Melodi. Something special. It wasnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t just the helplessness. It wasn't just the mystery. It wasn't even the dozy lullaby effect of her voice. That splintered, brain-jiggling, talking-into-an-electric-fan aftersound... She was special somehow. Important. And besides, she was a little girl in distress.

So after a brief discussion and much affectionate wrist-holding, Azrael decided taking Melodi along with them was the right thing to do. She was a strange enigma. She said nothing to Azrael. Just hooked her lip and sulked. She said nothing much to Mikado. Just held her wrist and sulked. She didnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t say much to Remedy either, save to ask her if she heard colours too. When the blitzblade shrugged and replied with some unintelligible vocal mess, she just turned her head and sulked. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Yes, she was a mystery. But there was one thing that was certain. And as with most things he’d been taught over the rounds, Azrael had it down to a tee. Be careful, but always, always, always do the right thing. You can't leave distraught children to fend for themselves in the wide, wild world. He’d be docked points for that. And besides, Mikado was intrigued. And she just so happened to be the one who had Azrael's ear. She could persuade him to jump off a cliff into a bonesnap's nest if she wanted to. Um... she didn't want to. But she did want him to help her take care of Melodi... And perhaps somewhere along the line she'd reveal her secrets. For now, she was keeping herself to herself. Single ticket to sulk city. Second class will do. Every seat’s shit anyway. She wasn’t at all convinced that this band of colourful strangers could protect her, and besides she remembered some things. That everybody talks with clouded eyes and tainted lips. That everybody’s after something. Ten turning teenager? They’d show their true faces in good time. Melodi could feel that familiar feeling of being stabbed in the back, or the front, or wherever. Somebody was going to; it was simply a matter of time. I hate to say it of a vulnerable little girl… but what a cynical bitch. Next task on the list; find Obadiah. Imagine Obadiah and Melodi in conversation... Broody adolescent and solemn parahack. The sweet sound of silence. So off they went, headed tip. In the direction of the Violet Plateau. Azrael led, holding Mikado's hand. Hopefully he wouldn't have to let her go again. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Melodi followed with Remedy taking up the rear, periodically walking forwards then backwards, amusing the blue girl no end. The two of them laughed together every time Remedy walked orthodox. Just to labour a point she’d already made. That orthodox is boring. Remedy could still see ghostly shapes here and there; an effect of the tag-grass. Take a kid and a spoon-headed blitzblade and you’ll get giggles. Obadiah's mood would soon make them all feel decidedly worse... But not after something altogether more unsettling. Because in the very centre of the Saffron Plateau lay a clearing. A spherical ditch the size of a small crater where no cacti trees or shrubbery grew. A naturally occurring phenomena, but the perfect place for an ambush. And an ambush was exactly what Azrael and company received. "Do you hear that?" Remedy’s audio awareness was stationed on perpetual red alert. That or she was always looking out for a fight. One monophonic sound at a time, like an old skool video game. Able to process a series of beeps but incapable of over lapping and playing something deeper. She heard in single-layered sound, like ring tones downloaded to a very basic mobile phone. But she did hear very well. The first part of the body to fully form in the womb is the ear. That fact was no different in Psytopia. "Hear what?" Mikado, as usual, was the least in tune. Medicians trained in silence, you see? Remedy stopped. The others followed suit, standing in the middle of the clearing. "I thought I heard something." Mikado tugged her boyfriend's arm. "Azrael?" "Perhaps..." The students closed their eyes and concentrated. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Melodi held Mikado's wrist and tried to make herself look even smaller. Subtle noises were never a good thing. Nothing had ever jumped out of the background to offer her a warm bed and a hearty meal. Subtle noises were habitually out to snatch her. All Azrael could hear was breathing. Heartbeats. Mikado's and Remedy's alongside his own. One frantic with worry, the other itching for action. The musty haze of the saffron plate hung heavily around them, changing colour sporadically. As if part of some murky light show taking place at the bottom of a bowl of thick soup. Azrael and Remedy knew what was coming and where it was coming from before the others. But would that help? The sweet silence suddenly became a raucous din. Shattered like a china plate nudged carelessly off a dining table. Broken awkwardly like a speeding footballer's leg crumpled under a brutal two-footed tackle. Torn asunder like a rush hour train carriage at the whim of a suicide bomberâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s dying shriek. Silence to storm in one brief moment. Peace to panoramic chaos. To whooping. Muffled, rabid, wailing, screeching whooping. The kind of whooping people make when they tumble onto hot coals. When they drop a cup of steaming coffee over their bare arm. When they step on a protruding nail in the woodwork. Only far, far less human. They leapt from behind the mounds around the sunken clearing. They leapt like howling banshees bursting forth from open graves. They leapt from all directions with a squawking battle cry. Humanoids. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Lanky, scrawny humanoids with ragged brown clothes like torn trash bags full of sawdust, held together with gold rings here and there, pierced through their bodies. They wore tight brown canvas sacks over their heads, though perhaps ‘wear’ wasn’t quite the word. It would be more accurate to say that the canvas was their skin. Patched in hapless zigzags like a pair of tramps' trousers. Their eyes were like squashed strawberries. A grotesque red poking through the taut material of their faces. Bleeding eyes> Bleeding messily down their faces. No noses or ears, no hair or teeth. It was possible they had mouths under the grimy material since it appeared wet above their chins, or that under the sacks was nothing but slimy flesh and bone. And their big, lumpy hands on elongated arms...almost skeletal. They wielded what would best be described as double-sided scythes; twisted metal handles with bent and broken blades at either end, missing random chunks and hooked like shattered crescents. Their appearance was as grisly as it was unannounced and their intentions as sinister as their arrival was sudden. There could have been an army of them, hurling themselves down into the clearing with one thing on their vicious, drone-like minds. Azrael and Remedy had already drawn their swords and assumed their stances. "That'd be the cloth-heads, then."

Academy Grouping Azrael (pre-grad), Remedy (assigned fresher) with Mikado (elective) and Melodi (pick-up) Psytopia Adagio 1

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Rag-tags (Identities & quantities N/A)

A clearing on the Saffron Plateau.

As expected, Azrael thought ahead. The play progressing in his mind before it happened. Every possible scenario. During the last little scuffle, he had allowed his comrades to neglect Academy dictum 22.

He was determined not to let his standards slip further. "Remedy; I'll look after Mikado, you look after Melodi." "Check." Mikado squeezed Azrael hand. Melodi certainly wasn't trusting enough to squeeze Remy's hand. She was likely to die with these people here and now. It wasn't as if she was ever going to become attached to them. It wasn't as if they were ever going to become friends. Remedy squeezed only her swords. "And Remedy..." "Yeah?" "Keep it together." "Aw... check." She took a precautionary backward step. Much as she wanted to charge the screeching rag-tags head on all by herself, she would have to be patient. She would have to sacrifice flamboyance for practicality. Pragmatise. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Her fingers itched, her toes tingled. The Devils' Pirouette. One day she would pull it off… She bit her lip; she’d would have to play it by the book. The cloth-heads were almost on them. All bloody eyes dribbling and torn clothing whipping anarchically in the wind. No class, style or chivalry; mob mentality. Call it what you like, but there are only two ways to deal with an oncoming rabble.

Dance with them. Run rings. Bob and weave. Always stay afloat, even when you lose yourself.

Defend, defend, defend. Thank Zarathustra Azrael was the boss. He and Remedy began defensive manoeuvres simultaneously. The moment the rag-tags touched the edges of their spheres. Their blades beginning to cut through the heavy, muggy air of the saffron plate; knives, butter, blades, heads. It was going to be swift, it was going to be deadly, and both Melodi and Mikado were going to be utterly baffled by the pace. By the tumultuous blaze of sound and fury. By the beautiful blur of movement… Remedy preferred to live faster than mere blurring pace. RAG-TAG 1: Wild scythe lunge PARRIED! AZRAEL: Inverted crook-hand block RAG-TAG 2: Wild double-handed scythe slash COUNTERED! AZRAEL: Two-point underarm swerve HIT! RAG-TAG 2: Through ribcage. OUT OF PLAY HIT! RAG-TAG 1: Face. OUT OF PLAY The fresher still itched. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Heart looping the loop like a jumping bean in a washing machine. Swords eager to break away and blaze. The temptation to push out of the centre of the clearing like an invisible water jet on her back. Melodi edged closer to Mikado. As if being the flattened filling in the protective sandwich wasn't close enough. The blue girl grit her teeth. Perhaps these people were capable of defending her after all. RAG-TAG 3; Wild overhand scythe lunge PARRIED! REMEDY: Horizontal cover (HJ) SHOCK HORROR! Remedy lets an opponent attack first!!! REMEDY: Angled uppercut curl (BA) HIT! RAG-TAG 3: Perfectly central through chest to neck OUT OF PLAY She could make playing by the rules look artistic if she wanted... Melodi began to look at Remedy with a little more respect. She was both child-like in her naïvety and self assured in combat. The modern woman... such an enigma. RAG-TAGS 4 & 5: Simultaneous bowling scythe lunges PARRIED! AZRAEL: Cross-body sweeping crop AZRAEL: Swooping 360-degree tornado swish HIT! RAG-TAG 4: Up through chin. OUT OF PLAY HIT! RAG-TAG 5: Down through temple. OUT OF PLAY HIT! RAG-TAG 6: From shoulder to hip. OUT OF PLAY And playing by the rules doesn’t mean you can’t take calculated risks. Remedy offered an appreciative nod. The cloth-heads were coming thick and fast. No time to show-boat. REMEDY: Side-swipe swoop (BA) HIT! RAG-TAG 7: Top of head. OUT OF PLAY RAG-TAG 8: Uppercut scythe swipe PARRIED! REMEDY: 360 spin into backhand cover (BA) RAG-TAG 7: (Lunge is redirected into...) Unintentional plunge HIT! RAG-TAG 8: Stomach. OUT OF PLAY Psytopia Adagio 1

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Playing counter can be fun too. REMEDY: Back-bend hoop (HJ) (Arching over backwards as you turn whilst stabbing the blade over the back of your head) HIT! RAG-TAG 7: Solar plexus (if cloth-heads have such things) OUT OF PLAY For the record, the rag-tags were very easy to slice up. But that didn’t mean Remedy couldn’t be proud of herself. They seemed to be made mostly of cloth. They bled black-red goo and disintegrated when they fell, leaving only gore-stained rags. "Uwww..." Mikado tried to avoid said gore. Not easy when it's being splashed around in front of your face. She could probably grow to appreciate swordplay if it wasn’t so… you know; violent. She grimaced and felt a tug at her hand. Melodi, her eyes gloopy. Watery and sorrowful. Her mouth all droopy and trembling. Wobbling like a vibrating plate of trifle sitting on the seat of a speeding motorbike. Mikado pressed the girl's head to her shoulder, held wrists tight. They’d huddle up and wait for the grotesque din of death to pass them by. Neither of them could defend themselves alone against the fiends of the wide, wild world. But if they could look after each other… RAG-TAG 9: Inside-out scythe swing PARRIED! AZRAEL: Upward diagonal block AZRAEL: SPEED MIRROR

Mirrors were the übertek of the counter school. And unlike Remedy, Azrael knew how to deliver them right. Speed Mirror involved returning a technique like-for-like. Tossing a curveball, if you will. Because the opponent still has that technique in mind as an Psytopia Adagio 1

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offensive measure, he, she or it is bemused to find it returned as something which needs to be defended against. Throws them off their guard… and lets you step right through it. AZRAEL: Inside-out sword swing HIT! RAG-TAG 9: Jaw. Staggers… RAG-TAG 10: Outside-in scythe lunge PARRIED! AZRAEL: Vertical cover RAG-TAG 9 regains its senses AZRAEL: PSY MIRROR

Psy Mirror was übertek number two in the counter school’s holy trilogy, and overall a very, very difficult technique. You see, in the counter philosophy, defence is the best offence. Counter fighters fight with the brain, and sometimes the mind. (Whereas breezers would proclaim that they fight with the heart) Minds clearly desire totalities less than hearts, since minds like having stuff to work out. Counter übertek only flick the Trip-switch for a fraction of a second, and that’s all a counter fighter needs. It's all about velocity. Reaching a speed where the laws of nature become yours to manipulate within your sphere. You know, like when Superman sped around the Earth and turned back time. Like when you’ve hacked into a computer game world and can change the code. Like when you get so into something that you forget who it is who’s getting into it. You expand as a person. Forget your body; you’re also your immediate surroundings. You can step into the sky, walk on air... Somersault, flip, dive, spin, manipulating gravity all the way. Until you muck it up. And believe me, you will muck it up. Or you can do something simple yet very, very effective. Like read somebody’s mind. Psy Mirror involved pre-empting a technique and throwing it before your opponent could. Copying a move before the enemy has even thought of it! Robbing an opponent’s thought before he/she/it realises they’ve had it not only confuses them no end, but adds their Psytopia Adagio 1

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psychological momentum to the force of your own blow. And since the mind controls the body, oh yes that's possible. A flawless sword swipe is forty percent trajectory, sixty percent psychology. Needless to say, Psy Mirror was confusing and confused fighters tend to lose pretty quick. In this case, Rag-Tag 9 was just about to think of performing a back-handed scythe lunge. AZRAEL: Back-handed sword lunge HIT! RAG-TAG 9: Cheek to temple. OUT OF PLAY The cloth-heads were still coming. Azrael and Remedy were still holding their positions. Melodi and Mikado were still huddled together wishing it would all go away. The swordstrils were slicing them down left, right and centre; side, edge and tip. The mounds of bloodied rags building corpse after blooddrenched corpse. Dotted here and there like the far more earthy mounds of the Saffron Plateau. Nobody ever said swordplay wasnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t cruel. But Remedy was starting to understand that it could be calm. RAG-TAGS 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 & 20 Clustered overhead/sideways scythe swipes PARRIED! AZRAEL/REMEDY: Synchronised clockwise/anticlockwise halfmoon covers AZRAEL: Cross-body backhand sting HIT! RAG-TAG 15: Chest. OUT OF PLAY REMEDY: 180 degree reverse floor scoop (HJ/BA) HIT! RAG-TAGS 16 & 17: Legs (severed). OUT OF PLAY Quite a team. As they swamped them more and more, the shrieking things began to realise what they were protecting. Began to see openings. These were brutes, but speedy brutes.

Brick slitters as opposed to brick kickers, if you get catch clique. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Rugged craftsmen rather than simple labourers. They knew nothing of art but they did posses a touch of intelligence… maybe just a touch between them. And that's why they’d started going for the helpless ones. RAG-TAG 18: Roundhouse swipe (directed at Melodi) COUNTERED! REMEDY: Improvised side-winding loop (HJ) (An offensive move used as a parry; makes the hands sting!) REMEDY: (On the back foot) Rising vinecutter hoop (BA) HIT! RAG-TAG 18: Throat. OUT OF PLAY

The act of holding the blade horizontally while a verticallydirected technique is used. In other words, whenever the grip is incorrect, it's called a 'vinecutter'. Accomplished swordstrils should never use the incorrect grip. (Unless they’re being dangerously experimental) And if they’re being dangerously experimental… They’re probably not as accomplished as they think.

Remedy chopped down another pair of cloth-heads. "We're in some serious fuzz here, Az. These bods ain't too scrappy." "Just focus." Azrael knew his sphere well and he wasn't budging. He calmly dispatched an oncoming foe as it went to sneak a scythe past him and into his shivering girlfriend's spleen. "Yek! Gekky scraggletags…” She stuck her tongue out for a moment then swiftly pulled it back as she just barely snuck in a sword to slash another in two. Gunky rag-tag innards in the face. Remedy hadn’t quite settled into her step cycle. The team leader felt it was time for a miniature pep talk. Action and encouragement at once equalled points in the bag... Psytopia Adagio 1

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“Remember the pitch panel hall back at the Academy?” He raised his voice over the ongoing clashes of blades and screeches of cloth-heads; if Remedy latched on to it she couldn’t hear the rest anyway. "Check. But what's that got to do with…" She was being pushed to the limit keeping track of where the next scythe was coming from. She hardly had time and space to think of a defence, execute it and launch an attack of her own before the hordes of rag-tags got too much for her, much less to reminisce about the old times. Though when she did think about it...

A training room at the Academy. There were many such halls in the Academy, as you’d expect. This one was designed to test reflex. It was a low-roofed, pyramid-domed room. Like being in a tent. (The shape was meant to symbolise your sphere) The walls were made of triangular panels, each about a hand's breadth across, and the swordstril stood in the centre as the panels jerked out at them randomly. Swordstrils had to knock them back with their weapon; easy at first, but it got faster and faster. Then different panels snap up simultaneously; assaulted from all directions, no space to move. Standing your ground in a closed space, relying on short, sharp defensive movements as opposed to the wide-arcing aerial onslaught favoured by the blitzblades. So now she saw exactly what Azrael was getting at. "Oh. I bow." (IE 'I'm sorry') She loosened her shoulders. It was just like snapping panels. All she had to do was imagine she was back in that room... RAG-TAGS 21 & 22: Charging scythe swipes PARRIED! REMEDY: Double-handed inside-out block (HJ/BA) REMEDY: Double cross-face loop combination (HJ/BA) HIT! RAG-TAGS 21 & 22: Faces. OUT OF PLAY Azrael smiled to himself; one eye on slicing, one on coaching. Psytopia Adagio 1

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She was getting the hang of playing counter. He was getting the hang of keeping his party under control. Reassuring as these notions were, it seemed like the word ‘retreat’ wasn’t in a rag-tag’s vocabulary. RAG-TAG 24: Leaping scythe lunge (Directed at Mikado) COUNTERED! AZRAEL: Hook-hand parry AZRAEL: Simple arrow tang A tang is a rounded movement resulting in a straight strike. The curl achieves pace, the strike delivers decisive targeting. HIT! RAG-TAG 24: Through heart (presuming rag-tags have them) OUT OF PLAY

They’d better mop this melee up fast, because the rag-tags were growing craftier as their numbers decreased. Like all drones, they shared one mind. The more there were to share it, the less intelligent they were. One single surviving rag-tag wasn't ever going to be fit to join Mensa, but you get the point; it really was mob mentality. It was possible that the mind controlling these drones wasn’t here on the saffron plate at all. It was even possible they were automated, because it must be pretty handy for generals to command soldiers who don’t think… Who just do. Easier to manage than pesky people with even peskier brains. Anyway… Two of them had lunged sideways to open up one side of Remedy's sphere and exploit it. To attack Melodi. Her swords were tied up; too far away having made a double block and strike. For a single moment, Melodi was defenceless, and savage opponents only need a moment. So Remedy had to work on instinct, which suited her just fine. Instinct was the central tenet of the breezy swordplay school; faster than thought and, obviously, easier. But as unpredictable as tossing a razor into an electric fan and just as dangerous too. Remedy dropped sideways to one knee, pulling her blades back Psytopia Adagio 1

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into a defensive position as a scythe bore down on her. You can't change time... Not unless you visit one of the freakier plateaus or master a few sneaky übertek. You can’t change time, but you can certainly get in its way. Remedy’s eyes shut automatically as she felt that slitting, ripping, wrenching feeling. As she felt cold, then hot, then somewhat absent. As she felt herself torn and open and streaming. As she felt the chill of the scythe slicing her shoulder and dropping her to her knees. RAG-TAG 25: Downward scythe swipe (Directed at Melodi) COUNTERED... or was that a HIT? REMEDY: Shoulder She felt the scorched earth of the Saffron Plateau thumping as she hit it. Topsoil disturbed, doused with a jeering splash of her own blood. Blood on earth and teeth on earth and sphere cut from its mental moorings as her awareness floundered momentarily in dust. But she didn't let go of her swords.

And despite the pang, and despite the pain, and despite the heat and cold and frightening absenteeism, those swords were back up there in front of her face before she knew it. Finding herself covering more brutal swipes above her head. The blue girl yelped more out of surprise that she was still in one piece than anything else. The pain she’d expected had never come. Remedy flicked her blood-stained hair back and crunched her molars. She rose slowly to her feet. Tightened the grip on her swords. Alright; now she was going to get serious. She dripped from the shoulder. Not a life-threatening wound, but a wound nonetheless. Psytopia Adagio 1

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She stared at the oncoming cloth-heads with a vicious streak in her eye. Whether they shared a mind or not, even the mob seemed to hesitate for a moment.

She felt light-footed. She felt her heart pound in her chest. And you know what; she felt focused. Time to take these squibs down!

I’ve shown you how plays pan out, and that’s the formula I’m going to stick to because us human beings tend to like things simple. But swordstrils, being drilled over and over and over on such things, see a lot more detail. When I say ‘see’ but I don’t specifically mean seeing with one’s eyes; there’s a lot more to the swordstril art than appearances. So as a one off, I’m going to illustrate how swordstrils perceived blade plays, and I warn you right now this is going to seem complicated, overstated and obscure. Yeah well, I think if you asked anybody who’s an expert on anything to explain that thing, your answer would be complicated, overstated and obscure. And you’d probably want to punch them, but you can’t do that with swordstrils. Why do you think? Because they have fucking swords. Every swordstril’s first experience of reading stabulature is confusing; it's like day one in a country where they don't speak your language, so don’t try this at home. This was how Psytopian minds divided the contents of their spheres in battle. Drive. Instrument. Target. -In Remedy's casePsytopia Adagio 1

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Protect the blue girl. Her swords. Rag-tags. Yes, that’s right; of course it’s triangular, and this is how swordplay felt to her… Silence… As the needle hits the vinyl… Scrunch and fuzz and expectant pause. Everything blanketed in shade. Time to lay that track. The noises of the wide, wild world. Dispersing as they mingled with her heartbeat. Hardened meringue melted with hot coffee. Into just one simple note. Multi-tonal. The edge of her sphere tinged in glitter. Rag-tags. Airborne, slow swooping, fractured beats. Hi-hats on the verge of her sphere. The instruments. The Holy Judgement. The Blessed Angel. Twin styluses to mould her world into tune. Hi-hats descending on her sphere. Cutting into the track exactly where she intended them. Keep that sprite behind you; draw them in. Psychic? Magnetic? Who knows? Hit the hi-hats.

It's alright; stabulature has no discernible impact on the plot. Unless music is life to you, in which case it means everything. If you know about hi-hats, beats, grooves and so on it’s probably quite straightforward; just replace serenades with blades and there you go, though of course I’m talking physical hi-hats, beats, grooves, build and breaks, because as we all know by now, Psytopians heard in monophonics. Swordstrils were so well versed that they read the stabulature as they watched fights. Like a painter observing somebody else’s masterpiece; seeing the sketch, the paint, the canvas. Seeing through it, that’s what I’m saying; how it’s made. Psytopia Adagio 1

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But not only seeing; feeling, tasting. Because Psytopians didn’t hear the track. Synaesthesia was rife in Psytopia; just another thing messed up by the Fall… So to them observing a fight was like sitting in a VIP box watching blade ballet. They didn’t read stabulature, just as artists don’t lick paintings. But they certainly felt stabulature. Rushing through them like wildfire. So swordstrils rarely got hurt in fights. Because they played their chords right.

STABULATURE SHEET 1: REMEDY (FRESHER) Vs. RAG-TAGS 25-32. Ad-lib style, tempo 25-400BPM, Instrument/s; Holy Judgement, Blessed Angel

Do you see what Remedy was doing there? Probably not. Well, we can’t all make music, but we can all hear it. Those non-Psytopians among us at least. Remedy did things differently. Psytopia Adagio 1

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She didn’t think, she just acted. Cheesy jingles don’t wash with a scythe at your throat. Got to bring something fresh to the mix. Hi-hats= combatants Beats= strikes Groove= stance Breaks= blocks Build= rhythm (heartbeat or player-specific measure) Hoops= footwork Snare= effect imparted upon opponent Bass-line= objective

Stabulature’s easy when you know how to read it. But easy to ignore if you don’t. So let’s just ignore it, shall we? Leave the swordstrils in their own, anal little world. Because the fight was over and our fiery blitz belle was well and truly burned out. But always professional, she still managed to sweep another couple of cloth-heads aside… Before realising she was standing in a dreary clearing littered with nothing more than gunk-caked topsoil, mounds of crumpled rag and the remainder of her party… All casting accusing glares. REMEDY: Downward swoop (BA) HIT! RAG-TAG 31: Back. It’s OUT OF PLAY already… REMEDY: Backhand loop HIT! RAG-TAG 32: Back of head. It’s motionless on the floor, Remy… The sin of syncopation; hitting notes which aren't there. Her head dropped. Her shoulder was sore. She felt so, so heavy. So, so tired. Here’s a note for any would-be blitz blazers out there: Just a friendly tip. If you’ve already sent a squib to the Third Heaven… You don’t have to whack it anymore!!! Oh, and PS- don’t ever ask any blitzer about stabulature. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Asking Remedy would only provide you with a wide eyed ‘huh?’… And a gutful of slang. That’s right; all Remedy did there happened sub-consciously. Counters and techies laid tracks, blitzers just danced. I suppose you don’t get many entertainment hot spots without a bit of both. In any case, I’m certainly not going to be drawing tables every time Remedy gets into a fight so rest assured you probably won’t have to see one again. Thank Zarathustra. At least Melodi and Mikado seemed OK. Exchanging grips of the wrist. At least Mikado and Azrael seemed OK. Exchanging pecks on the cheek. Remedy looked at the ground. This strategy lark was weighty on the noggin. Suddenly her arm felt even heavier. Melodi was tugging it. "Oh. You dandy lil’ sprite?" The blue girl nodded, as sullen as ever. Perhaps she had never learnt how to appreciate people and what they did for her. Perhaps nobody had ever done anything for her before. This was as good a time as any to try. "Thank.. you." Her voice woke Remedy up. A little blue alarm clock ringing in her brain. The tinkle. The twang. Reeling her system right back into motion. It was like a magic hangover pill. "Er... Um... That's cool." Remedy lost for words; wonders will never cease. Suddenly she didn't feel so bad. She’d protected the pick-up after all. Psytopia Adagio 1

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"Look, Az; I bow, OK? What we did there… worked.” Hadn’t stopped her getting cut though. “You did well.” Azrael was impressed. REMEDY: “I did?” AZRAEL: “You protected Melodi.” REMEDY: “Yeah… I did.” MIKADO: “And you should let me have a look at that shoulder.” (REMEDY was mesmerised by the sight of her own blood dashed over fallen rags) AZRAEL: “You were in danger of losing touch at the end, but at least you’re getting there.” REMEDY: “I am?” AZRAEL: “People react strangely to getting hit sometimes. To seeing their own blood.” REMEDY: (Still mesmerised) “Do… they?” AZRAEL: “You don’t have to use techniques you haven’t been taught to make an impression.” REMEDY: “But I…” AZRAEL: “Got hit, I know. It's just mortality; it's fine.”(AZRAEL holds her wrist) AZRAEL: “After all, we all have it.” MIKADO: “But you should let me have a look at your… oh.” Mikado jumped as she examined Remedy’s wound… or lack of. It had closed up, as if by magic. Torn arm-warmer, blood splatter, fiery buzzing under the skin but no more than a patchy scar. As if she’d been touched by an angel. “Noir…” Further investigation was halted by Melodi with a sheepish tug of the arms. Eager to pull them out of the ditch before she was asked any uneasy questions. “Shin noir…”

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Attacks- 17. Economic. Hits- 17. Accurate. Misses- 0. Straight out-of-play hits- 15. Decisive. Injuries sustained- None. Sound defence. Play awareness- Pixel perfect. Control of party- Objectives set and realised. Bonus for protection of elective. The Principal will be keeping an eye on him.

Attacks- 31. Fair. Hits- 27. Good. Misses- 4. A vast improvement. Straight out-of-play hits- 23. Decisive Injuries sustained- Gash to the shoulder. (in the line of duty) Play awareness- good. Team play- good. Bonus for protection of pick-up. learning quickly, but still has a lot to learn.

Elective; A non-combatant and therefore exempt from analysis.

Pick-up; Exempt from analysis.

*Azrael's grip on his party is improving. *However, why wasnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t his other pick-up available for the play? *remedy is growing more responsible but still fights with the exuberance of a child. She needs to find a Psytopia Adagio 1

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compromise between the two. So with that done, on to the search for Obadiah. Luckily, big, ambling parahack are difficult to lose. They found him sitting down, back against a spiky cacti-tree, dozing. That's where hefty protective scales come in handy. "Obi?" Remedy tried to wake him. He growled and kept his eyes firmly shut. "Obadiah?" The growl became more pronounced. He pretended to be asleep. Perhaps the growling was giving him away. "You’se a bit boiled there Obi." Remedy scratched her head. She’d skipped class here and there, but was sure she hadn’t missed a module on lizard care… Azrael tried his luck. "Come on Obadiah; we have places to go, remember? Sitting around moping isn't going to solve anything, is it?" "No..." The reptilian giant at last offered them a bitter gaze. Was that ‘No- I agree’ or ‘no- I’m not budging’? "And it's best if we travel in a group, right?" Tactically put Azrael; who in their right mind is going to argue with that? Protect both your girl and your comrades; that was Azrael's dictum; number one. The rest paled in comparison. Speaking of comrades... Obadiah stirred. Furrowed his already multi-crinkled crevasse-like brow. "Who this?" The blue girl; small and slight. Couldn't be too snazzy in a fight. Holding Mikado's hand, who in turn held Azrael's. The three of them weren't looking all that tough. But the girl... The excessive jewellery. Psytopia Adagio 1

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The strange cyan skin like the comforting dunes of home. The upturned bottom lip. The grim yet shy expression. The thick, gem-encrusted hair... The eyes. Yeah, yeah we know; there was something about those eyes. Drew him in. Made him wince. Touched something deep and faint within him somewhere and made his heart flinch in time to a beat which he wasn't sure was there or not. All very ambiguous... "Oh." Mikado snapped him out of it. "Obadiah-Melodi. MelodiObadiah." She ventured sheepishly to indicate to the pair of them that they should hold wrists as a matter of common courtesy. Both nervously declined. Methinks these two loners might not be getting onâ&#x20AC;Ś Obadiah had other things on his mind. He rose and began picking cacti spikes out of his spine. "Grey Plateau." And he was off. Azrael rolled his eyes. Some people are simply born bloody-minded and that's just what you get. And some reptiles are just as bad. 'Pick-ups...'

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The Violet Plateau was a stark contrast to the wild savannah they had left behind. It was a calm, tranquil and welcoming place. It was night time. For the moment, at least. Nights on the Violet Plateau lasted no more than a sliver. That’s under fifteen minutes to you and me. Then it was day… then night… You just had to get used to it. Either way the sky was always light mauve, deep purple or something in between. The atmosphere was always homely. And the air always refreshingly cool. If you worked out a mathematical formulae for the perfect plate, would this be it? The entire plateau was covered by a network of buildings. Buildings designed and positioned with such skill and conscience that they blended with the natural landscape. Slotted in like jigsaw pieces. And nature paid nurture back by garnishing the complex with life. Purple ferns, vines and creepers. It was possible to gaze upon the Violet Plateau and see no buildings at all. Even though they were everywhere. Such was the intelligence of their design. The buildings were hiding. A huge game of inanimate hide and seek. They hid behind great, rustling spice trees with triangular, plumcoloured leaves. Amid huge, neat prickle bushes which wound in and out of the contours of low-rise structures like threads through clothing.

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It was as if nature had a mind (and an architectural appreciation) of its own. This was no surprise since nature did have a mind of its own in Psytopia. An enlightened mind, in fact. Enlightened enough to know that it's often better to sit back and live as and where one is than to push and strive and do anything but give off good vibes.

It's OK; it's all meaningless numbers to me too. But this was what the pyronettes called their home town. Buildings of uniform smooth, speckled grey stone. Similar walkways separating them. Rounded walls and roofs, all of the same marble-smooth stone. Rounded-edged windows lined with stained glass of more purple hues than you could have imagined possible. And the whole place appeared somewhat futuristic. Having said that, 'futuristic' technology had gone the way of the dinosaurs in Psytopia. (Ironically the dinosaurs had come back, but that's a story for a different plateau). Perhaps 'advanced' or 'civilised' are better words than 'futuristic'. Or ‘mathematical’; that’s the best word yet. The walkways were lined with luminous indigo lights like elongated cats eyes, as were the pairs of steps leading to raised platforms and the pyramid-esque entrance arches of buildings. The plateau was entirely flat apart from those few stairs. No building reached more than three stories up. The fact that the trees were taller than the man-made structures testified to the notion that the whole thing was governed by an acceptance of nature rather than a dominance over it. Because everything was put together just so. The loving embrace of numbers. No two components of the landscape argued with each other. Call it geometry, maths, Feng Shui, common sense town planning or whatever you like. We don’t quite know how long this place has been here so we can’t really say what came first; the buildings or the trees. But we can safely say this: whoever had built it, there was little danger of it falling to rubble. Longevity. That’s why the pyronettes made it their home. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Melodi wandered freely with Mikado. She couldn’t sense any danger here. Azrael and Remedy walked behind, their grips on their sword hilts slight and relaxed. It was as if the whole plate was under some protective veil… and there was a reason for that.

There was a certain kind of atmosphere on the Violet Plateau. A certain kind of ease. Physical altercation was simply not possible here. That was due to the chemical make-up of the air. It made travellers comfortable. Happy to be alive. Absorbing those good vibes with every breath. It was an old technology, of course. The pyronettes respected such things. And when they could they resurrected them. In short, they were constructive types who lived in a peaceful place; two factors which made them so collected Don’t get me wrong here, pyronettes weren't affected by the atmosphere themselves. Pyronettes didn’t have the organs for such things. But living on a plateau where violence was impossible made up for their physical shortcomings. It's not like anybody could very well invade. Of course, the old technologies were gone now… But in certain places in Psytopia their effects still hung in the air. Ghosts. Dreams. Memories. DNA. Karma. These places tended to be ones on which to build homes or ones to avoid; solid yet spooky foundations. The swordstrils didn’t know any of this, of course. Call it mysticism or call it maths. It's much of a muchness. “Zephaniah”. The big, ambling parahack was less composed than the others. Parahack didn't breathe in the same way as Psytopians. They filtered what little oxygen they needed through their scales and shut the rest out. Noses are for sensing, and after all, we wouldn’t shove scented bath oils and warming cups of cocoa in our eyes, would we? Psytopia Adagio 1

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Remedy bounced joyously down a smooth marble path. Feeling far less flaky than the dour constrictions of order did. Less of a water-weighted sponge. She almost felt as if she was slipping into the trip. REMEDY: “Hey Obi, you feels the breeze in this pliz?” (OBADIAH shrugs his discomfort and picks up the pace. REMEDY jogs beside him) REMEDY: “Stop stompin’, siz; take a look around.” OBADIAH: (Growls) “Zephaniah…” REMEDY: “Oh, he can wait, bod- prack ain’t getting’ any more scaly.” (REMEDY stops, grimaces and catches up) REMEDY: “I mean I don’t mean you’se a prack, I mean…” AZRAEL: “Let him go Remedy.” (REMEDY let him go) REMEDY: “Aw. We could hang around here though. It’s so spangly…” MIKADO: “Too… spangly.” REMEDY: “Whatcha sayin’?” MIKADO: “This is the pyronette’s home plateau. Rumour has it they have a vibe siphoning system around here.” REMEDY: “A wha?” MIKADO: (Pointing at the swiftly circling sun) “All I know is what I’ve seen in the tyebrary, but the freezes say hyperactive suns like that are used to power old machines. Machines that make people feel better about themselves.” REMEDY: “But not enough to stop them wanting to triple z renegade pracks?” AZRAEL: “Obadiah doesn’t seem to be affected by the breeze here.” MIKADO: “Parahack anatomy is very different to ours.” REMEDY: “Well moy says this pliz has a breeze worth seizin’.” AZRAEL: “I think we’re better off trusting our own experiences than freezes; they’re useful guides but open to interpretation.” MIKADO: “You’re right. A lot of those freezes are much older than the Academy. The world's Psytopia Adagio 1

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changed since then.” AZRAEL: “And for all we know it could’ve been Anarchists who put them together. We should stick to knowledge we’ve been taught straight.” REMEDY: “Aw. Moy likes a bit of mystery.” (MELODI silently held REMEDY’S wrist) AZRAEL: “I say we should step carefully.” Remedy shrugged; he always said that. And if only Obadiah loosened up a little… There's just no playing with some people. How many retentive, broody or totally mute pick-ups would they end up with? Not to give anything away, but they'll end up with three. Mr. Retentive= Obadiah. Little Miss Broodacious= Melodi. And little Mister Mute= Mana. Azrael first set eyes on him as he was ushered out of a small, rounded doorway by lanky figures in sparkly purple cloaks. Little Mana; downcast, frustrated and just a tad ticked off. He kicked the stair before him and lost his clog, then his foot. Quickly replacing the shoe, he remembered where his foot was.

Pyronettes, remember? Short, hooded things made of space. Space and the odd plume of ethereal flame. Don't worry; we'll do catch-up. Under his spacious violet boiler suit and hoodie, Mana had no real physical form at all. If it wasn't for the brittle cling film cover which could loosely be labelled 'manufactured skin', he might have stopped existing altogether. Because pyronettes lived on the cusp of the Second Heaven. Their existence bordered on dreams. Psytopia Adagio 1

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But maths still makes sense in dreams, so they were safe. What’s the Third Heaven, you say? Don't ask such questions. Simply knowing the answer could cause you to leave your corporeal form behind forever. "You OK there?" Azrael approached the young pyronette, displaying the fact that his sword was firmly sheathed. Didn’t want to cause trouble and couldn’t if he’d wanted to. There weren't many pyronettes around anymore and those that were tended to humble themselves, so it was polite to be humble back.

Mana bashfully placed one mauve, root-crafted clog over the other. Shook his head. Pyronettes couldn't speak. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t communicate.

Pyronettes had been around for some time and still practiced a few of the old traditions, like ‘tap’; based on typing. Tapping on another pyronette's forehead as if it was a keyboard. Please note: I say 'keyboard', but this is a term used merely for familiarity’s sake. The 'keyboards' used here back in the day were more like a cross between flattened bagpipes and draughts boards than our own computer keyboards… but I digress. But pretend the ancient 'keyboards' were the standard PC type. Say you wanted to convey the word 'open' to a friend. You tap first near the top left side of their head, then a little further right, then near the top right, then lower, in the middle. As if their forehead is a keyboard and you're tapping 'O-P-E-N.' Of course, these ‘keyboards’ didn’t exist anymore. They hadn’t existed for many, many rounds, but tap remained the only form of communication. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Evidently, back in they day people were so dependent on the boards that they abandoned speech altogether, leaving their voice boxes redundant. And now look where they are. They can all touch-type to perfection; it's planted in their genes… but they can't talk. I've just given away the idea that the pyronettes evolved from ancients… Oh well; it wasn't a very well kept secret anyway. Let's keep it between you and me and not tell the Psytopians. The forehead was the most sensitive part of a pyronette's body, which is saying something. That means they could read tag better there. Yes, you can try tapping other areas of the body if you want. Tapping the hands when close-up was often considered quite erotic amongst pyronettes. There were no females anymore though, and since they were creatures of practicality rather than pleasure, homosexuality hadn't really caught on. It was also possible to tap from a distance by tapping on the floor; rather like trying to read an open book from the other side of a room. Possible for the eagle-eyed, but you may well get your wires crossed. Of course, being mildly psychic helped. Advanced practitioners of tap could read another pyronette’s letters before they placed their fingers by sensing the invisible motions of the space under their skin. The idea was that intention is mathematic first, elemental second and applied third. But kids like little Mana were far away from understanding anything like that. And remember, pyronette bodies were fragile; don’t tap too hard! You could imagine a pyronette without an index finger would be pretty screwed… But any piercing of the skin meant sudden death for them, so lose a finger and you lose it all. When trying to communicate with other races who didn't have the keyboard layout emblazoned on their brains though, all pyronettes were screwed. Perhaps this was why they kept themselves to themselves. There are virtues in silence, and besides…

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Azrael sat next to Mana on the wall; points for compassion. "Are you in some kind of trouble?" The little mite held his silk-gloved hands together and lowered his head. It wasn't as if he was going to give an answer, whether Azrael was here to help or not.

There was a lengthy silence until Mikado and Melodi appeared. The blue girl eyed Mana up curiously. He flinched. Felt something he didn't particularly like. Pyronettes liked to maintain control of their surroundings. They liked things nice and neat. That's what made them such good cleaners, craftsmen etc. Their kind of control wasn't like an Academy student's kind. It wasn't about spheres. It wasn't about sense. It was about numeric sequences. Mathematics. Pyronette minds weren't visual. It was all about formulae. Like organic computers. And they shied away from things they couldn't compute. Even baby pyronettes liked to maintain control. Even rebellious baby pyronettes. Even Mana. So he shuffled away from Melodi when she sat next to him. Melodi shuffled after him along the wall. Mana shuffled some more. Melodi followed suit. He would have frowned or yelped if he was able. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Mana shuffled away. Melodi mimicked. She looked at him as if she was a hungry cat and he a bird on a perch who may or may not have been dead and only needed prodding to find out. She made him feel decidedly uncomfortable. In any case, Azrael wasn't getting anything out of him. "Well, I wish he could tell me what's up." Mikado watched the two kids shuffle inch by inch down the wall. "They can't communicate with other races. I 'spose that's their handicap." Azrael's handicap was his psychological need to solve everybody's problems. Mikado stood by him and crossed her arms. Mana and Melodi were a comical duo, although it was clear who was in the driver’s seat. "Funny little guy. What must it be like to be so close to the Second Heaven and yet bound by that fragile shell?" AZRAEL: "Can’t imagine. I’ve spent my life training to be as tough and durable as I can. Don’t know how I’d cope with being… insubstantial." MIKADO: “Being brittle. Sometimes I know how he must feel.” AZRAEL: (Holding MIKADO’S wrists) “You do fine.” MIKADO: “I’ve got a tough, durable Academy pregrad to look after me, haven’t I?” AZRAEL: “Always.” The pair exchanged adoring glances. One of those moments when time stands still, looking into each other's eyes. Oh, feel the goo... One of those lovey-dovey moments, dutifully ruined by... "Who dat spark?" Remedy had caught them up. "Oh… um… I didn't catch his name." Azrael watched as Mana counted frantically on his fingers, having accepted Melodi was going to visually vivisect him hood to clog no matter how far he shuffled. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Remedy ran a finger around a sword hilt, producing a whining echo which told them all how bored she was, so see; no language needed. Two half-people, one hunched, one inquisitive, legs hanging way off the ground like inadequate fishing rods. Mana on the edge, conspicuously trying to look inconspicuous. Melodi’s strange egg yoke, Nike tick eyes examining his absent face; messing with his maths. “Where’s that ambly thrash merchant Obadiah?” “I don’t know. We should go look.” Azrael cringed. Grading points dropping like Newtonian apples.

“Nah; plod’ll be dandy.” Remedy giggled to herself. Melodi and Mana where a very awkward pair. “He'll just keep bang on marchin’. Track der killerhack… Track der killerhack…” Frankenstein parahack impressions followed. “If he wants to be part of the group, he’ll have to stick with it.” Azrael was going to have to lay down the law. “Remedy. You stay here with Melodi and… whatever his name is; we’ll go and find him.” “Check boss, I’s just gwan sit here and…” He’d already left. Jogging down a mauve walkway, leading Mikado by the wrist. Wow; perfection really was his passion. No more points out of the bag. And Remedy left alone minding the kids. Good decision? You can almost feel the pass mark slipping away. Oh, and he tried so hard, too...

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There really should have been an Academy Dictum about leaving minors in the hands of pyro pluggers. There probably was, but Remedy couldn’t think of it. Academy Dictum number 101? Perhaps she’d dream one up. Mana fidgeted. He was a mere hundred rounds old but seemed the same kind of age as Melodi. Pyronette children grew quickly. But I really couldn’t say for sure how old either of them were. Day was dawning. In a hurry. And it wouldn’t last long. Remedy thought she’d better introduce herself. She extended a hand towards Mana’s wrist, or thereabouts. “How’s you’se self, tizzlehood?” He almost shuffled himself off the wall. A tug on her cargos. “Remedy…” “Hey?” Shake head, reaffirm balance. “Oh. Melodi. What’s up blue belle?” ”Little Mana isn’t happy.” Remedy studied his blank space-face with a puzzled look. “How’d moy tell?” “I think he’s not too comfortable with me.” Mana was sitting all lost and forlorn on the wall. Absent head in his absent hands. Absent feet hanging off the edge. Counting on his fingers. A common pyronette coping mechanism. Remedy opted for diplomacy. “Well, you do have a… way about you…” ”I think he’s uncomfortable with you and me because he thinks we want to take him away.” “He does? How come? Hang a note Mel; how do you know this?” Psytopia Adagio 1

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She hadn’t noticed them having a tap talk. In fact, Remedy didn’t even know what tap was. Melodi interlocked her fingers, rocked on her heels and appeared sheepish. “I… have certain… gifts.” “You can read his mind, can’t you?” Melodi nodded solemnly. It really isn’t as useful a gift as you might think. For every wide-eyed, bushy tailed Mikado in love there’s a hell bent, blood-crazed Zephaniah to stumble into the head of. She saw the pictures in a person’s mind. Life is a grotesque gallery at the worst of times and a scenic paradise at the best. Though to Melodi it was a gallery of sound. What, you think she saw visually through those egg yoke, Nike tick... things? She only saw the vibrations of sound waves. Those anarchic musical undercurrents which provide the backbone to everything we perceive. They aren’t just present when we’re sword fighting, they’re present in every aspect of living life. But don’t worry, I’m not going to further damage Melodi’s mystique; not yet, anyway. Remedy wasn’t at all surprised at this revelation. “Figures… So why does this little cracklestick think we’re here ta’ noose him?” “Guilt ridden creatures, pyronettes.” ”They are? “ “History.” ”Oh.” Receiving lessons from minors now. Note to self Remedy; start reading the lecture hand-outs rather than re-sculpting the things into mini claymores… “They live humble lives. Set themselves menial tasks. Scarred an age ago by a history which nobody can remember.” “Back before the Fall, hey?” Remedy had been paying attention in class after all. She knew the odd smidge of knowledge seeped in somewhere… Psytopia Adagio 1

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“Yeah, lickle zizzle buckets like Mana here are always having to shovel the hack. Seems a pretty rusty deal to me.” Once again, Remedy lets slip that she wasn't much into cheer leading the status quo. “An Academy group are on the way to pick him up and bring him back for enrolment. Now that he’s of a ripe working age.” ”Squip! What a dud assignment. ‘Collect the sparkleplug’? What block-handed scruff brush picked that deal out of the hat?” “And he only wants to see the world…” “See the world, huh?” Remedy was thinking…you know- tactics. Gunpowder, treason and plot. “Well, I’m all for Academy Dictum number twenty six and all…”

“…But you can’t tag it straight-lace all the time, you know what I’m sayin’?” Silence would indicate a resounding ‘no’. Remedy bit her lip, hoping Azrael wasn’t x-locking onto the sound of her voice. A crafty plan taking form in her head.

“What’s say you’se and moy pitch an assignment of our own; cut our zizzlesqueak siz here out of his shackles?” ”You mean he can come with us?” “’Zackly siz; our lil’ secret.” How could Melodi refuse?

*Travel to the Violet Plateau. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Easy breezy; we’s already there! Bear in mind that since this mission is about as PC as a tapped phone in the UN secretary general’s office, nobody will be graded on this issue… *Persuade the chief pyronette you’re the pre-grad sent to collect the sparkleplug. Easy to tell how persuasive you’re being when you have a mind reader in your midst! Remember you’re a pre-grad. Keep the lingo in check. And behave. *Return to your official assignment brief with a new pick-up in tow. Bear in mind that dignity, cool and possibly limbs will be lost if Azrael finds out you’ve just hijacked somebody else’s (utterly boring) quest. So here they were, standing toe to absent toe in the hall of the pyro-king. All beetroot-purple domed walls tinted with twirling, twinkling space mosaics. Like standing in a planetarium. Dark in tone until the morning hit, then it all melted into glorious stained glass colour. In any case, to the mission! “Hey! I’m Remedy!” The hall of the pyro-king fell silent. No, no- my mistake; it was silent already. Remedy crinkled up her face. That greeting wasn’t exactly formal, was it? A tad too much jibe to the vibe. Melodi tugged her sleeve. “>He’s a little unsure of you but he says good morning<” Speaking through clenched teeth. Not much new there, then. Remedy with a cheeky thumbs-up at the lanky figure at the end of the hall. “>Now he says good afternoon<” ”Snazzy...” ”>Good evening<” ”OK…” Psytopia Adagio 1

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“>Good night…<” “Alright Mel that’s minty sapphire. >He’s the boss, right?<” The lanky figure in the rich purple robes at the end of the grand hall?? Didn’t they teach common sense at that accursed Academy? “Yes, um… Good… I mean, hello.” Remedy tensing her voice box. Thumbing through a dusty mental thesaurus. Translating every word into some recognisable dialect before she let them slip. Machina the pyro-king crossed his absent arms and remained expressionless. What else did you expect of a face full of space? “I’s from... um... I’m from the Academy and… what I mean to say is… let me introduce myself.” “>He says you’ve already done that, dumbskull.<” ”Oh. Ha-ha. I mean. Yes. Business. I’m… You see the thing is, I’m Remedy… as you know, and I’m a pre-grad.” Puff up the chest. Look official. Convincing? In flamy cargos and flamy top and flamy boots? A pinch too out there to be a flatbook senior? That’s OK; pyronettes liked flames. Hence their name… “>He says welcome. And he says who am I?<” ”>I don’t know. He’s a pyronette. They all look plain an’ samey to me, ‘cept he's taller than...<” “>Not him- me.<” ”>Oh, he wants to know who’s you… OK…< This is Melodi. She’s the fresher on this quest.” Melodi with a friendly army salute. “>Mel sweets, we don’t do that.<” ”>What?<” ”>That… saluting thing.<” ”>Oh…<” Psytopia Adagio 1

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”>Do the sword thing instead.<” ”>What's the sword thing?<” ”>Like I’s showed you outside. The Blessed Angel.<” ”>Oh? This?<” Holding Remedy’s precious sword by the blade, upside down. “>How do you get the tip of that thing to stick to your gloves?<” Melodi shrugged uncomfortably. “>Flip it kiti. Like I’s showed ya<” ”>I thought that was just in case…<” ”Flip it!” Uncomfortable smiles all round, sans Machina. “>With a please, perhaps…<” Melodi clumsily held the sword aloft. Performed a few frightfully tuneless swipes. Fell over. “Ah-ha.” Quick thinking Remedy; quick thinking… “Freshers.” Light thwack to the back of Melodi’s head. Standing in the background, Mana would have giggled if his anatomy had allowed him.

“>Ow! Hey!<” ”>Sorry siz, but what kind of hack-wristed squarelace would I be if I didn’t get all steamy over a muddle like that?<” “>He’s still not convinced<” ”>Well…< Melodi’s one of those crazy blitzbladers, you know?” ”>He doesn’t know.<” Melodi’s teeth grit so hard they crunched like overcooked root. ”>He doesn’t know? Somebody must have heard of us around here. It ain’t the Third Heaven kiticlaw, it’s only the Violet Plateau…<” ”>Remedy! He’s getting suspicious…<” ”Blitzblades… Not all there, you know? Ca-ca… Drugs…” Psytopia Adagio 1

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Remy performed twirling finger movements around her earlobes. Machina tightened his crossed arms. “They’re from an experimental school of sword fighting. I’ve told her to take it easy. But breeze might well be the future... not that a… traditionalist like me would endorse that kind of thing, but…” Remedy performed a series of tactful strafes and parries. Machina’s posture eased. Crafty smirk; he was buying it. “So… me and Melodi and our companions outside are here to collect this young pyronette and escort him safely back to the Golden Plateau.” “>It looks like he’s taking the bait<” “So… We’ll… um… be on our way?” Theatrical smiles, edgy pauses. “>He seems to be OK with it,<” ”>Let’s skip it before he starts seeing through us like we see through him.<” ”>OK; let’s get out of this place,<” One proud blitzblade, one broody blue girl and one liberated pyronette through the lilac-hued arch door later and the act could quite thankfully be dropped. Mana turned all gleeful leaps and loving embraces when Melodi told him he was free; he could stop that right away… “Alright, that’s it. We’ve saved you now stop this crap and leave me alone or I’ll start playing around in your head again.” Melodi shrugged off affection like a flak jacket shrugs off a bullet. If only she hadn’t given Remedy back her sword. The honeymoon would already have been over. Remedy crouched down with a finger to her lips and a palm to Mana’s membrane-soft hood. “Look fizzlejizzle, let’s get something candy clear right here. Don’t tell anybody anything.” Mana nodded profusely. Then back to the gleeful leaps and loving embraces. Remedy assumed she was safe. Mute pyros can’t lie. Good thing they can’t tell the truth either. One more pick-up in the mix.

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A young pyronette who just wanted to see the world. Or at least, to know its numbers. -His lookThink space. Think space in jelly. Think five feet of space in jelly. Think five feet of space in jelly in a hooded purple boiler suit. Five feet of space in jelly, a hooded purple boiler suit and clogs. When he produced flames you could see them flurry through any visible part of his body. When he didn’t… He was just five feet of space in jelly, hooded purple boiler suit and clogs. -His getupBoiler suit… clogs… Do I really need to repeat myself? He’d grow into the hood and gloves… in the end. Pyronettes only started growing when close to natural death. In any case the extra material would protect him on his adventure. The endless quest for data, data, data. Well, whatever turns you on…Don’t know where he got that adventurous streak from. Pyronettes weren’t exactly long haul travellers. Perhaps he got it from his parents. Thank Zarathustra he was an orphan then. He had something in common with the rest of the party after all. The only thing he took with him was his loopball. A curious spherical weapon; tennis ball sized, attached to the ankle via an elastic thread. He didn’t strap it on while he was walking though; that’d be mathematically stupid. Pyronette kids loved playing loopball, but they gave it up once they grew old enough to get a job instead. Until then, they could also use the equipment for self defence. The world’s a big, intimidating place for one so small and fragile. The ball was essentially made of flexiglass, which changed dramatically in size, structure and substance depending on how it was charged and struck… so loopball is a funny old game. It could sprout spines like a porcupine fish or glow with ethereal flame and so on. You could do many things with a loopball so long as you blessed it with an elemental charge. And every time you punted it, it’d whiz back just like a boomerang. Let's see if petrified little Mana will spring back to the violet plate just as swiftly. Psytopia Adagio 1

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So, to the explanations... “Hey siz. See ya tagged the ambler.” ”Ambler…” Obadiah was clearly still his talkative self. ”We’ve come to an agreement.” Azrael was better at herding his flock than the tutors thought. Actually most of the persuading had been done by Mikado. It takes two to start an argument and she wasn’t one for arguing. “I explained to him he’s much better off travelling in a group. Otherwise he might end up wandering the plates forever looking for this Zephaniah.” This was why Mikado was a medic. Knowledge of the mind and how it works. Plus handy sound bites like this:

“Zephaniah…” Stomp, stomp. Azrael; hold him back… “Well…” Remedy all smiles and sparkles. “We’ve picked up another… pick-up.” “The pyronette boy.” Azrael chewed his tongue. “Will he be any help?” ”Sure. He can do… loads of stuff.” ”Uh-huh…” Mana appeared more interested in prodding Obadiah’s colourshifting scales, causing the vexed reptile to shrug him off. REMEDY: “You’se two’s got on, didn’t ya?” AZRAEL: “As far as sign language can get you.” REMEDY: ”Mel says he talks tap.” AZRAEL: ”I don’t know tap.” REMEDY: ”Well, he’s harmless, hey?” AZRAEL: ”That’s what I’m worried about.” REMEDY: ”It was either have him tag or have him… go and pick shadow berries from gloom bushes on the Dark Plateau…” Psytopia Adagio 1

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Remedy, Mana and Melodi put on their best poker faces. Admittedly Melodi’s wasn’t entirely enthusiastic and Mana’s not entirely existent, but the mime sufficed. “Well, I suppose that’d be pretty dangerous for a little guy like this.” Azrael pondered his points.

Then again…

Back home in the Academy, these dictums made perfect sense… “I’m sure it’ll be OK.” Mikado; the sweet, soft voice of reason in an unreasonable world. “Yeah.” Azrael squeezed her wrist. “Of course it will.” He took Remedy aside for a moment. “Remy; you did a good thing taking this boy on, but let me decide in future, OK?” ”Check.” Remedy all nods and grins. So now there were three kids in the party. Chivalry is easy. Black and white and so straight-forward. But nothing in life is really straight-forward. Nothing in life is black and white.

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Three Psytopians, an ambly lizard, a blue girl and a bag of space walk through a fuzz-field… They don’t tell Psytopian, parahack and pyronette jokes in Psytopia. Oh well… The Jade Plateau was a rural, foresty affair, although not foresty in the usual sense. Because the trees here were coiling things. Springing out of the earth at obscure angels, lined with smooth black bark. Arcing for ten or twenty metres before plunging back into the topsoil. They flowered only in the centre, where luminous pods huddled together on winding branches knitted in and out of the trunk just as the trunk knitted in and out of the earth. The people of the Jade Plateau were Psytopians like the Academy crew, if a smidgen smaller. They built their homes beneath the shelter of these diptrunks. In the shade of the tentacled trees. And they built them out of pad.

A bouncy, stretchy substance which bore the texture of hardened sponge and a smell something in between that of mango and meths. They mined pad at the edge of the plateau where the land gave way to ethereal flame. The flames softened the earth and made mining possible. Slice chunks with prongjacks while it’s gooey and race it back home before it solidifies. Tough stuff… although no defence against an übersaur. Pad was essentially a non-nutritious cousin of root and was handy stuff to build with. Psytopia Adagio 1

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As long as you were quick of course. Slow and steady wasn’t winning any house building races around these parts. Neat, warm little pad homes were scattered across the plate. There was no real sense of a ‘town centre’. Why clog things up when you can have your own open space? It was likely the inhabitants of the jade plate were timid sorts who enjoyed their privacy. Cityscapes were a thing of the past; way too futuristic. But like I say, dinosaurs had come back... In sociology and palaeontology aside, the people of the Jade Plateau were Psytopians, and Psytopians (with the possible exception of Anarchists) were generally very welcoming people. The only problem was that there didn’t seem to be any of them around. “Where’s the tiz?” Remedy rested a foot up on an arching tree and brushed her damp, jutting ginger hair aside. It was hot on the Jade Plateau and she was beginning to feel her flames somewhat doused. She could see why these people built their homes in the shade. She frowned at her hulking black boots, similarly tinged with swirling fire motifs. Compared them against the swaying green-blue ferns… Her colours didn’t match. She looked like a badly cut out cut-out. Mikado scratched her head, forever the thinker. “Strange. I’ve heard they like to keep themselves to themselves on the Jade Plateau, but I expected some kind of life.” ”Worrying…” Azrael was beginning to see the potential for catastrophe on every corner. And on this occasion he’d hit the nail on the head. They set up camp between a couple of seemingly abandoned diptrunk homes. They ate buctan-smeared root which Obadiah wrenched from the fertile soil. And then they were left to their own devices for a time. To recharge those batteries. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Azrael- Hunched against a diptrunk, Mikado in his arms, playing with her hair. Mikado- Hunched against Azrael, grinning to herself. Mana- Watching the hazy glimmer of the rainbow tent walls, almost curious enough to prod them… but curious, not stupid. What if the rainbow had a razor’s edge? Melodi- Watching Mana; lost little boy. The ripple of the light pyramid surrounding them fluctuating with her every breath. Obadiah- Asleep. Remedy- Outside the camp (probably not the wisest place to be) composing tag. She plunged the Blessed Angel into the crunchy earth and planted a sprig of grass. The sword was her focus. The instrument with which she would channel her thought. The object of her meditation. Something familiar. A firm grounding. A solid cornerstone. Her anchor to the real world, if that’s what you choose to call it. She stood straight, rolled her shoulders and cracked her neck. She sat down cross-legged and gazed at the blade. Gazed through the blade. Focused beyond the world she knew. Composing tag wasn’t quite meditation. Not quite like a medicative ambiance. We’ll leave that contemplative stuff to the boffins. Remedy’s mind was too mischievous for things like that. But to compose tag you need a point of reference to avoid distraction. So she chose her sword. She was probably thinking about it anyway. New, inventive, instinctive ways of using it, most of them probably almost entirely unworkable.

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Concentrate, Remy. Transfer the highly smokable echo of your thoughts onto that quivering sprig of pale blue grass. Send your siz a lickle message. The only thing Remedy thought about as much as she thought about fighting was Mojo, and this was what she had to share. Mojo, moy drum, moy belle, moy candy sapphire gemini… You must be a few plateaus ahead of us kiti; hope you’se havin’ fun. I hope that chuggy brick kicker Esperanza ain’t holdin’ you back. I’s learnin’ stuff here, ya know? Dunno if I wanna learn stuff but maybe learnin’ stuff’s something I’s gotta learn to do. Azrael’s got a good drum, hey? But rules, rules, rules. Step too straight and ya steps are gonna cage ya. Picked up this girl called Melodi. She’s… special. And this spark called… Mana I think; that’s what Mel said. So I’s gotta protect the lickle jabs. Feelin’ a notch lost. I miss you. There, I said it… thought it… whatever I’m doing here. I miss the blades, see? Feelin’ the breeze any time we please. ‘You never know what ya got ‘till you lose it.’ That should be a dictum for sure methinks. Maybe I can catch up with you. You sees, you haunt me siz. Makes me think. But then again, thinkin’s the devil’s cocktail, huh? Anyways sister blitzer- jabs to shield, rules to follow. Be thinkin’ of you in between sword swipes moy dandy sprite. Breeze wit tu later. -Remedy Grass pulled, pouched, set and catapulted. Remedy felt an electric twitch. As if part of her had just been jettisoned away. Wanting the tag back so she could add to it, edit it, something. She’d much rather Mojo was just there in front of her. She could only imagine how much fun this field trip would be if the two had got paired together. A brief fidget of fingers as she watched the tag soar away. She was already waiting for her reply. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Melodi drummed her fingers. Mana counted on his. Shirking from her gaze. Melodi drummed harder, just to put him off. Pyronettes are amusing toys. Fun to play with when interminably bored. Mikado watched Azrael dotingly as he played with one of his favourite toys. His mind.

Psyplay was a little like mental shadow boxing. It was practice without actually having to practice. It was all about concentration. Just like tag-grass. Just like a medician’s ambiances. And you can psyplay wherever you wish.

Sit down, close your eyes and imagine an opponent identical to you in every way. Control both combatants at once. They use your moves, your style, your sword. It’s all imagination but if you imagine hard enough, imagination can be so real it hurts. It all depends on what you see as real and what you see as imagination. Perspective, that’s all. So here Azrael was, fighting himself in his head. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Swordplay is about exploiting an opponent’s weaknesses and capitalising on your strengths. How is this possible if the opponent is your twin? Defeat yourself in psyplay and either you’re a very good swordsman or a very bad thinker. Azrael wasn’t bad at either of the above, but he hadn’t managed to defeat himself yet; you’re either born with that kind of understanding of everything or… nah you have to be taught. That was why whenever he got a spare moment, he would psyplay. Once you’ve learnt the basics and practice them diligently, your only real teacher is yourself. And life of course. Life is an even tougher teacher than psyplay. Because they say life gives the test before the lesson. Mikado watched him with a subtle smile. She held his sword with both hands. It made her arms ache. She wasn’t built for that kind of thing. She studied the little red triangles glittering on the blade’s edge. Glimmering in the dying light of the camp walls as the pyro ebbed away. The little red triangles across the length of the blade, designed to slicken its cut. The little red triangles… Glittering, gleaming; coaxing her in. Making her feel uncomfortable. Azrael was so calm, so cool, so kind. And this blade so harsh and furious and destructive. He gave. It took. His opposite, yet as close to him as she was. The little red triangles… Psytopia Adagio 1

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She blinked heavily and sheathed the sword as quickly as her untrained hands would allow. She shook her head clear. She felt the blade pulse beneath the scabbard. She swore she felt it. No, of course not. Swords don’t pulse. Swords don’t have rhythm. Only the rhythm of the person who wields it. “Be careful of that Miki.” Azrael’s hand on her shoulder, surer than a grip on any sword handle. And therein the discomfort dribbles away. She handed him the Crimson Harvest, her hands and heart eased of its disruptive burden. “That sword’s important to you, isn’t it?” Azrael shrugged. “A little. Wouldn’t be a swordstril if I didn’t have a sword.” “Is it right for a sword to…” “What?” Mikado waved the question away. It was a silly question. Her imagination. She wrapped his hand around the hilt.

Can you hold your sword and your girlfriend’s wrist at the same time? Yes, but can you hold them both equally in your head? Was his love for Mikado what prevented him from defeating himself during psyplay? Would he have been the perfect swordsman if he didn’t always have her on his mind? Psytopia Adagio 1

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She felt bad for holding him back. Good that somebody so dedicated to his craft could put her first. She felt bad and she felt good, but mostly she felt good. What could be bad about that? “S’up kitz?” Remedy was back. She’d been gone? Azrael had fumbled a few more points. “Remedy- where were you?” ”Oh… Um... Just had to ‘pose some prose, ya know?” “Tag-grass.” “Eeeer… check?” ”We must stay together.” ”Azrael. Remedy. Listen.” Mikado on her feet, gripping Azrael’s wrist tightly. A slight, barely audible shudder in the wind. “What is it?” Remedy wandered, sniffing the air. “A breeze in the trees…” ”Stay together.” Azrael beckoned them back around the blackened hole which was once a fireplace. “Obi. Obi!” Big ambling parahack, teeth crunching, eyes drooping, organs shifting uncomfortably. Inconsiderately awoken from his luxurious slumber. “Why wake?” ”A noise, Obadiah.” A noise… Melodi rolled her eyes in dismay. Was that all they knew? She had been aware of it way before the rest of them, had seen it through its sound and knew precisely what it was… although of course she hadn’t thought to share it… wasn’t used to that. Mana shuddered behind the others, quaking in his clogs. Fingers twitching on the strings of his loopball, having hoped he’d never really have to use it. At least the blue girl was paying him less attention now. Of course she was curious, but… intense. Psytopia Adagio 1

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“Over there.” Mikado pointed. The thickening forest of diptrunk trees. “What is that?” Azrael felt the ground shake. Catching a fleeting glimpse of something familiar. Something familiar coming this way. Something familiar flying through the air. Something familiar tossed, hurled, thrown, rocket propelled in his party’s general direction. Something tossed, hurled, thrown, rocket propelled through the air and down with a stomach-turning bump through the violently splintering diptrunk headboard on which he and Mikado had been resting just moments ago. Something familiar… “Shinji?” Little brother of Azrael’s sparring partner and erstwhile swordstril wanabee. A pre-school kid who’d got himself booked on big brother’s field trip list after rounds of nagging. Kanji had assured Azrael he’d be fine out in the field with a kid and a fresher by his side. Azrael had commented that this made it two kids. Kanji had assured him Shinji would do the family proud and grow to be a proper swordstril next term. On current inspection, Azrael wasn’t certain he’d last that long.

Eager pre-school kid and part time squib pen cleaner. Also Kanji’s brother and prospective swordstril. -His lookPatchy green-brown hair styled in a fanned trihawk, decorated with random metallic staples. Brown eyes with pupils like upward facing triangles. Small in build, some five foot five, posture and attitude perhaps a tad slack. He’d taught himself most of what he knew so far as most pre-school classes involved nothing more than fitness training, stick work and theory. Unfortunately, Shinji was clear evidence of Mr. Miyagi’s assertion ‘no learn karate from book’. No learn swordplay from merely copying your brother. Psytopia Adagio 1

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-His getupSquib cleaner top; not unlike a heavy duty apron coloured like a potato sack with rivets. Tortoise shell cargo shorts embellished with emerald triangle ringlets. Big brown boots with transparent green tread complete with spongy leap-tweed. It was popular with the youth; made them jump higher when play-performing flashy techniques. Big black gloves used for handling fizz torches (unsightly pyropowered cleaning tools). Also good for keeping hold of his sword as he hadn’t been formerly taught dictum one.

A strange, bendy blade lined with disc-like razors from tip to hilt, used for adaptability. It’s all about ad-lib. The blade itself was made of a spongy black metri he’d found in the pen. And the razor-discs; (called ‘sprods’) a more familiar hard, grey chrome. You could take the tip and curl it right the way around to the handle, creating a noose, or let go and watch it twang back straight like a plastic ruler. It made rubbery wailing noises as it cut through the air, but the sprods themselves stuck to flesh with a scathing sting akin to the heavy duty thwack of a weighted whip. The handle was small, crunchable and not unlike a common kitchen scourer. A junk yard blade he’d constructed himself, and he was proud of it. Mikado immediately sat him up. Eased his breathing with an assured prod of a pressure point on his arm. Poor kid had been hurled through the air by some momentous force… The others were more interested in the increasingly flustered shuddering of the trees. MIKADO: “Shinji; where’s Kanji?” SHINJI: (Wheezing) ”T…too big… too strong…” MIKADO: “What’s too big? What’s too strong?” Psytopia Adagio 1

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”Yeeks!” Remedy felt the earth shake. You could hardly miss it. So forceful that root was being pushed to the surface. Better not mention that to the parahack… Too late; he felt the forthcoming storm already. Fighting, sleep or root? Looks like for now it’d have to be the former. “Thunder comes.” “No squip, siz- somebody’s really sizzlin’ this pliz.” Remedy drew her swords. Obadiah readied his own. Mana frantically strapped his loopball to his leg. Azrael waved Mikado back. “Miki. Tend to Shinji.” The forest rumbled as if it had a mind (and a temper) of its own. Azrael squeezed her wrist… then his sword.

Psytopian medicine was a far more advanced discipline than our own. (The use of the term ‘discipline’ itself denotes this) It wasn't based on physical healing. It was about dragging lost minds out of the depths. If you want, you could call it nautical psychology. You see, the mind controls the body. Ergo, by harnessing the healing power of the mind… So Academy medics were taught what was often termed ‘majick’ by awe-struck novices. It wasn’t really ‘magic’ at all. It was all about gene control. Switching things on and off and making patients believe they’re better. Because if your brain and your blood agree… then you’ve already patched yourself up. It’s science really. Isn’t everything? Lost knowledge which was useful enough to stick around. Most knowledge isn’t like that, see; we chop and change what we know, what we believe, what we perceive to suit the times. They say science never changes, but the gaps in our knowledge certainly do, so let’s just call it majick and stop thinking about it. It’s just snazzier than your average science. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Mikado took Shinji’s blood-caped hand. She flicked the lock of her well worn tome and set it down on the uneven ground. She took a breath and watched the spiralling shapes on the liquiscreen before her. That’s right; 'liquiscreen', since her book was more like a laptop than anything else. It displayed a myriad of swirling colours which meant nothing to me at all. This is probably why I’m a writer not a medician. Spinning with no direction, hope or plan; such is the desperate contents of a dying mind. It was her task to order it.

Rub the hands. Make them warm. A little finger stretching, wrist curling, thumb massaging… Then palm through the liquiscreen and map your way through your patient’s mind. The thing bore a consistency closer to water than that of your average LCD. Hence the term ‘liquiscreen’. Minds are curious things. Brains, too. But in a world of psyience, what’s the difference? Brains are the physical warehouses in which mental phenomena are transmitted to the mind. Physical and mental phenomena are essentially the same, but our interpretation of them is different simply because we’re interpreting them with different tools. Mental and physical are like two different swords. Different swords for different occasions. Ask a blitzblade. Remedy would tell you that although she could defeat an opponent with either blade, the Holy Judgement was going to do it with speed and the Blessed Angel with crafty counters. But was it the movement of the Holy Judgement or the Blessed Angel which allowed Remedy to slice up squibs? Neither; it was the movement of her mind. Mikado had learnt such principles at Medizmeinungsschule; medician school. Trust the tutors to give everything such fanciful names, all musty and regal. In any case, Shinji’s mind was there for all to see, mapped out on the liquiscreen. Psytopia Adagio 1

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In colours of course… just don’t ask me how it works. Rest assured it was something about magnetism in the blood stream. Blood is as curious as brains; it links the two. Perhaps there were little brains in blood, who knows? Either way, Shinji’s mind was a mess and organising it might just save his life. Although his injuries were physical, it was his mental acceptance of them making them mortal. He was still alive, so Mikado had a chance to change his mind.

It felt like frosted leaves. Sounded like a running stream. Smelt like bleach and rose water. Tasted like aniseed.

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Exits are through the hands, temple, toes. Her fingers stuck to Shinji’s mental wounds like superglue. Let’s knit them back together. Let’s fool his genes. There. Wasn’t so hard now, was it? “Yow…” Mikado crumpled into an exhausted ball the moment the liquiscreen tome slammed shut. Watching her fingers shedding black, gooey transi-smog like ghostly jellyfish. Following the stuff as it faded into the ether. Then the brain-blur. She was used to it. Round upon round of extensive training. The fact that she was used to it didn’t make her ready for it. She saw pain and blood and death and… urgh… Well come on now, you’ve taken all these fateful notions out of his head… They’ve got to go somewhere. Mikado had just messed with the law of cause and effect, and the head-fuck was the price. Mildly aware of a pat on the back from a healthy Shinji as he grabbed his sword to join the crew. “Thanks Miki; I owe you one.” ”That’s O…K…” Yeah- thanks for sharing your pain.

Mikado brought her training to the forefront of her mind. A mind now littered with the patchwork thoughts of another. Reaching mentally to keep her head afloat; fingers scratching at nothing but the choppy waves of what could’ve been. Drowning in the waterfall, her ankles tugged by the undead hands of those negative emotions as they sunk into the depths below- Shinji’s second self; the possibility no longer possible. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Reaching underwater in her mind. Crawling across the grassy floor in reality. Watched by Melodi as if she was a dying dog spluttering on a sidewalk. Was she supposed to… you know; help? Mikado reaching in her mind. Reaching with her hand and with one anxious gasp, breaking the surface. A spot of deep breathing and the world began to fall into place once more. Swordstrils had no idea how easy they had it. BOOM!

AZRAEL: “Whatever’s coming it doesn’t sound happy.” BOOM!

REMEDY: ”Positively steamin’…” BOOM!

OBADIAH: “Angry…” BOOM!

AZRAEL: “Kanji!” Azrael’s sparring partner stumbling through the trees to join them, carrying wounds but also keeping hold of his sword… so bonus points for that, at least. BOOM! KANJI: “Azrael, get back!” Rushing towards the party, the momentous din seeming to following him.

BOOM! MANA: “……..” Nervous as nerves would allow, which was pretty nervous given that he didn’t really have any.

BOOM! REMEDY: “You breeze with moy lil’ mite; we’ll plug any grasscuttin’ squib comin' our… oh.”

BOOM! Diptrees uprooted, root scattered like confetti in an air tunnel, suns blocked out by a shadow the size of a tower block; all gangly claws and jagged teeth.

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Is this creature… A. A Glowsupial B. A Bonesnap C. An Übersaur We’ll go with option C please, but that doesn’t mean we’ll like it.

Academy Grouping Azrael and Kanji (pre-grads), Remedy (Azrael’s assigned fresher), with Mikado (Azrael’s elective), Shinji (Kanji’s elective), Obadiah, Melodi and Mana (Azrael’s pick-ups) The Übersaur Just one… which is more than enough…

What was once a peaceful, lightly wooded area of the Jade Plateau… but a bit of a wasteland right now.

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Remedy and Shinji were at the front, ready to fight. Azrael in the middle, marshalling them back. Mana and Melodi at the rear, rooted to the spot. Hoping like many Earth-based mammals that if they didn’t move, perhaps the big lumbering reptile would never even realise they were there. And when I say ‘big lumbering reptile’, I don’t mean Obadiah. He was next to Azrael, drawing a javelin spike from his spine and waving the monster on. A monster far bigger and more lumbering than he. Though you can probably guess, it would be rude to not describe what an übersaur was.

A huge (and I mean huge), nasty, (and I mean nasty) angry (and I certainly mean angry) reptilian creature as big as four double decker buses piled on top of each other and far more efficient at getting you from A to B. A being the First Heaven and B being the Third. But we’ll get on to the Heavens later. It had transparent skin a little like Mana’s, but there the similarities ended. Under that skin could clearly be seen almost mechanical organs, half metal, half flesh. And under that, if you ever got close enough to whip out a magnifying glass, nanotechnology. Clearly a bi-product of a long-gone age where warfare was a much more brutal beast. Don’t expect to see an übersaur attempt the Devil’s Pirouette. It didn’t need to. Because it had teeth. Many, many teeth. It also had a big, buzzing, debilitating, decapitating traptooth. Not to mention a flip-top head, claws like mammoth hatchets and the ability to breathe instant-roasting napalm fire at will. All in all a pretty deadly adversary… Too late to switch to option A?

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“What the hack is that?” Remedy wasn’t sure whether to attack first or compose Mojo a farewell tag sprig. The thing was still in the distance. Not for long… “It’s an übersaur.” Shinji had been studying. Well, where did study ever get anyone? This kid was really aching for the life of a swordstril, wasn’t he? ”Übersaurus Maximus...” Mikado was back in sync with the real world. Gingerly grabbing Azrael’s wrist if only to stay upright. “…To give it its proper terminology.” ”It looks… angry.” And it wasn’t the only one. “Azrael! What are you doing here?” Kanji had joined the group.

Academy pre-grad, Azrael’s sparring buddy and head boy of the ground-handling class. -His lookShort black/green striped hair, styled in an intricate six-way spiral... hexhawk?? Twinkling here and there with scratchy glitter reminiscent of iron filings. Brown eyes with pupils like downward facing triangles. Average in build, some five foot ten, posture and attitude focused and prepared. He was an accomplished swordstril who (like all good ground handlers) was interested in how things happened as well as why. Like counter 'strils, grounders tended to be possessive about the contents of their sphere… -His getupSpongy black waistcoat top woven out of the same tough, bendable fabric as Shinji's sword. Welded at the shoulder to stern black chain-mail arm wraps with ringed elbow holes. Heavy-duty patchwork ghi trousers (also black) with thin lime lining and odd chain-mail scraps here and there, complete with coloured grading strings. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Big black boots with translucent green tread so thick you would expect to see it’s like on the wheels of a 4x4… to keep that alltoo important grounding irresistibly solid. Rolling corkscrew runner strapped to an arm from wrist to elbow; a coiling spiral track on which a gripping clamp on a chain spun at the user’s will like a flail-come-workshop-vice. Good in aiding aikido-style throws. And the skattersketch; that can stay in his back pocket for now… Let's not forget his sword, the Memento Mori.

A bold, winding, multi-spiked blade used for decisive blows. It’s all about angles. The sword was made of the toughest white metri imaginable, gilded with gold-plated grooves. Attached down its cutting edge were various misshapen ‘teeth’, some sharp, some curled, some curved, and all uneven. Stuck to the blade like huge hunks of broken glass. You could wedge it into things and cut in multiple directions with just one movement. It was hard-hitting and would strike you right where gravity made you vulnerable. The handle was curled like a walking stick, cuts in the cold metal aiding the user’s grip. There was a small white gem at the hilt weighted with a thick liquid which sloshed around in accordance with Kanji's movements, balancing his hand automatically as the shots struck. Scientifically contoured to keep not only his feet, but even his grip grounded.

BOOM! AZRAEL: “Kanji.” Wrist-hold greeting. Declined. Not the time. AZRAEL: “We’re on our way to the Emerald Plateau…”

BOOM! KANJI: ”Well good luck to you. I have my own assignment here.” AZRAEL: “We’ll help you out.”

BOOM! KANJI: ”You will not..” AZRAEL: ”But… Kanji?” Psytopia Adagio 1

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BOOM! KANJI: ”This is my assignment Azrael.” AZRAEL: ”You’re crazy.”

BOOM! KANJI: “And you’re meddling.” AZRAEL: ”I’m not… meddling, I’m…” Wrist-hold... Again declined.

BOOM! KANJI: ”If you help with my assignment, I fail.” AZRAEL: ”This… thing is your assignment?”

BOOM! KANJI: “That’s right. Defeat the übersaur on the Jade Plateau.” AZRAEL: “But… our help will… help you.”

BOOM! KANJI: “Your help will cost me points.” AZRAEL: ”What are you saying? We have to help. It’s just you and…”

BOOM! KANJI: ”You’ve meddled enough already. Your girlfriend shouldn’t have helped Shinji.” AZRAEL: ”And let him pass?”

BOOM! KANJI: ”Death is the way of the world, Azrael.” AZRAEL: ”Death? What about… What about your fresher?”

BOOM! KANJI: ”Passed. Third Heaven. Dead. The way of the world.” AZRAEL: ”But…”

BOOM! KANJI: ”We’re not in the pulse panel hall anymore You keep to your brief, I’ll keep to mine.”

BOOM! Azrael gripped the hilt of Kanji’s sword. AZRAEL: “But this creature is…” KANJI: ”I’m telling you not to help, Azrael.” AZRAEL: “But this thing will…” Psytopia Adagio 1

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KANJI: ”What kind of swordstril would I be if I didn’t fight my…” REMEDY: “Um… kitz; may I avert your ragey gaze to the hacking great chug stomper hulking overhead who’s about to…” Gaze down at those nice, raw, succulent Psytopian steaks. Take a deep, deep breath. Open big, multi-fanged mouthie wide. Feel flame flow through your transluscent body Mr. Saur, and…

The forest ablaze with the sound of burning. Not to mention the smell and the sight and the heat. Oh, and we can’t forget the devastation. One über-fortunate Academy party throwing themselves into the diptree thicket with singed soles and shattered confidence.

So clear minds it is then. At least they all kept hold of their swords. Academy students were taught that size rarely matters. And with that in mind, Remedy was first on her feet. “Let’s zak this plod peddler.” “What?” Shinji, not quite yet an Academy student, not quite brought up the same way. “You’se gwan be gnashin’ dirt, squiborama.” Little Remedy charging at the humongous beast, blades aspinning… oh, just let her fight.

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Five foot eight tall, Earth measurements. Über eager. Über out of her depth?

Fifty foot tall, Earth measurements. Über über. This didn’t seem to faze our intrepid belle blazette. Raised eyebrow, welcoming stance. Wry snigger. “Academy Dictum Number Thirty-Two. The bigger they are…” REMEDY: Overhand swoop HIT! UBERSAUR: Ankle. Not a scratch

Remedy rolled faster than she’d ever blitzed before. Under a diptrunk and down into a scorched clearing on the plateau floor. She liked fiery togs and all, but let’s not get too extreme. Azrael rolled his eyes and completed the quote. “…The tougher they tend to be.”

Yes, Azrael knew his dictums. Remedy could have been a little less enthusiastic sometimes. Kanji on his feet- trying to catch the thing while it was distracted. “Azrael; don’t help.” Psytopia Adagio 1

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UBERSAUR: Wild foot stomp MISS! Kanji steps aside and uses the creature’s momentum to accommodate his own attack KANJI: Downward droop (stab) HIT! UBERSAUR: Foot. A dab of blood but barely an acknowledgement Azrael squeezing Mikado’s wrist. She squeezing back. Wondering what he should do. Surely there was a dictum about friends in need… UBERSAUR: Hooking claw swipe MISS! KANJI ducks just barely out of shish-kebabing range KANJI: Backhanded snare HIT! UBERSAUR: Toe Getting angry. You won’t like a fifty foot giganotosaurus when it’s angry… Big, testy dino raises its massive hatchet-toed foot off the floor. Bye, bye sunlight, hello pain. OBADIAH: Javelin toss HIT! UBERSAUR: Ribcage. Spear embedded ten inches deep Übersaur flicks its head to one side. Nano-riddled brain visibly pulsating. Gibbering, dribbling lips splashing rancid froth over the cruelly scorched earth like drops of molten quicksilver. See the flames building in its belly?

The Academy party divided in a clustered precession of desperate leaps for cover. Azrael, Mikado and Melodi beneath a diptrunk. Obadiah, Shinji and Mana behind an abandoned pad home. On opposite ends of the burning scrub-land they’d thankfully just vacated.

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Melodi squeezed Mikado’s hand and looked more downcast than usual. She found security in helplessness. Perhaps they could weave the madness out of one another's lives. Perhaps they could die together and perhaps that would be best for everyone. Kanji scuttled thoughtfully aside. “Megasquib’s superplexed, siz.” Remedy sat rolled against a tree trunk, legs up, swords crossed in the topsoil. She dragged a fuzz-jack out of a breast pocket with her teeth.

Fuzz-jacks are a blitzblade's best friends. Alright, so pyro is actually a blitzblade’s best friend… Actually, swords are really a blitzblade’s best friends… Tell a lie, other blitzblades are a blitzblade’s best friends. But in any case, fuzz-jacks make the top four or five. To an unsuspecting observer, fuzz-jacks appeared to be strips of crumpled glass. That's a sound observation, as fuzz-jacks were sheets of crumpled glass. But they also happened to be a whole lot more. Brainchild of the kitipen’s own resident inventor Elegy, fuzz-jacks were deadly weapons. They were stored flat but when uncrumpled, they puffed like porcupine fish. Shove a strip of pyro inside, whack back the zip and it's burn baby burn. The explosion hits a moment before it sounds. So even if you miss, you’ll thrown them off guard. But take my advice; throw fast or sizzle like bacon. “What’s that?” Kanji tucked his sword lovingly into a bendable sheath strapped to his underarm. “Fireworks, bub. Con brio con fuoco, con moto con gusto.” Yes I know they don’t speak Portuguese in Psytopia… they don’t speak English either. I’m only translating, and in translation, Latin dialects reflected the language of anarchy, and that’s what she’s about to unleash.

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Remedy’s teeth zipped the fuzz-jack shut. Hubble bubble, time for trouble. Bowling arm back, twisted smirk, flashy one liner at the ready. “Dolce subito moy dust bud; dolce subito.” REMEDY: Overarm fuzz-jack toss

>Tink!< >Tonk!<

Explodes on impact. HIT! UBERSAUR: Cheek. Oooh- it didn’t like that

>Pop!< >Bang!<

(And that, for the record, is the after-sound) UBERSAUR: Wild stamp MISS! Didn’t quite know what it was aiming for UBERSAUR: Wild stamp MISS! Does it actually count as a miss if there’s no intended target? Remedy was transfixed on the electric shazam. She really needs to kick that habit, doesn’t she? Not a fire-storm; not quite. More like the lightening fuzz of a badly wired TV cable. You wanna see serious fire? Kanji just so happened to have a flicker or two up his sleeve. “Seems like someone’s packed some pyro.” Remedy’s face all guilty cringes, afraid Kanji would go and blab to his buddy.

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KANJI: “Don’t blame you really.” REMEDY: “Huh?” KANJI: (Reaching into his shin-pack, KANJI retrieves a series of what appear to be chunky ball bearings) “Used to down a strip or two myself way back when.” REMEDY: ”Glitzy! Seize that breeze! I just knew that chuggy branch hanger Azrael was jammin’ me sour with his ‘order, order, order’…” KANJI: (Taking REMEDY’S wrist) “Order is the key, young fresher.” REMEDY: (Disappointed) ”It is?” KANJI: ”You’ll learn that soon enough.” REMEDY: ”I will?” KANJI: “But until then… Well, there’s no harm in playing with old toys.”

Kanji’s skattersketch was a curious weapon; think of a cross between a cartoon bomb detonator and chicken wire. It worked like this: *Gather a handful of ‘skatchlings’ (IE the chunky ball bearings). Their magnetic charge begins to warm up as soon as a living hand makes contact. It’s smoke and mirrors, without the smoke. The mirrors in the skatchling reflect and multiply microscopic organisms. Be quick to set them or they’ll get heavy. So heavy they’ll probably crush your hand. *‘Draw’ a pattern of straight lines in a the air before you, throwing a skatchling every time your guiding hand alters direction. This will be your route of extermination once you detonate the charges. It’s a bit like one of those old etch-a-sketch gadgets popular in the 80's, but just a bit more dangerous. *The skatchlings will begin to hover as soon as their velocity runs out, the magnetic tension between them countering each other and causing them to ‘tread air’. Psytopia Adagio 1

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*Sew the skatchlings as desired and pretty soon you have a sizeable net of them connected via whirring fields of heavy magnetic tension which appear like hazy lengths of wire. Don’t walk into the wire. It’s like strolling into a big gust of wind. Unless you happen to have tree trunk legs, or thicker still, übersaur ones. * Flip the amp on the B-Box (a small magnetic frequencer cube retained by the sketcher) *Watch your mapped-out z-zone and whatever’s unfortunate enough to be in it brave fire and brimstone of Biblical proportions! Because flipping the amp reverses the magnetic charges against each other. The Big Crunch theory in full effect; little jacks, major kerfuffle.

SKATCH! By the übersaur's mammoth head, like a bothersome bumblebee. SKATCH! Beside the übersaur's craggy elbow, just waiting to be thwacked aside. SKATCH! Above the übersaur's swishing, slashing tail. Irritating bug… where is it??? SKATCH! Right in front of the beast, about to receive a much deserved claw swipe… SKATCH! Behind the übersaur's head, magnetics thumping like a rabbit punch. Lace the trails! Cover your ears and feel the blast of the B-Box! Ampocalypse now!

A moment of wicked anticipation. Skatchlings shaking, ‘saur swatting. Kanji and Remedy jamming their eyes shut, covering their ears, tensing their muscles…

Fire and brimstone, din and colour, and every shade of ear drum assaulting calamity in between! A maelstrom of flame! Psytopia Adagio 1

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KANJI: Skattersketch flame trail MULTIPLE HIT! UBERSAUR: Entire body Burnt, bruised, blackened and very, very pissed off… “That rocks!” Remedy chapped her hands with glee, eyes bright and gleamy. If this was ‘order’, perhaps it wasn’t all bad. Perhaps she could even get used to it. “You flow, bro.” She punched Kanji’s shoulder… and it hurt. Swordstrils weren’t taught to punch. Why thump when you can swish? Kanji almost smirked at his work, but it wasn’t over yet. Remedy remained bright and gleamful. “Ooooh- such terrible toys… Makes me wanna be a pre-grad, if only a tinse.” Because pre-grads know actions have consequences, such as:

Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to fight fire with fire. Icy steel. That was a workable alternative. Trust Azrael to place the pragmatic neatly into the mix. UBSERSAUR: Aimless claw swat MISS! Azrael ducks, guiding a giant nail aside with his sword AZRAEL: PSY MIRROR Clever. Very clever. Remember, Psy Mirror turns the psychological force of your opponent’s intended attack against them by using the move before they can unleash it themselves. Sucking the momentum of their intention into your offence. Not that it was particularly comforting for Azrael to slip into such a densely limited mind… But it was only for a moment. The point is that übersaurs hit hard. So siphon their intention and you hit hard too! Technical appreciation aside… Psytopia Adagio 1

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AZRAEL: (PSY MIRROR) Wild sword swipe HIT! UBERSAUR: Torso (as it bends to strike) The thing back-peddled madly and almost toppled. Chest sporting a savage gash which bled fire over the scorched earth like a miniature volcano. Azrael sprinting back towards Mikado; hit and run. Someone’s gonna pay…

Melodi and Mikado separated by the billowing flame. Hard to see the fire-storms coming. The creature’s organs not so visible under the burnt black flesh. Not so predictable. The fire bursts spluttering now, what with the gaping wound. Not so straight, not so easy to dodge. “MIKI!” Azrael popping up to make a run for her. There you are…

The flames bitty as they spewed from the monster’s maw. Like water poured out of a kettle with holes in it. Much of it liquid petrol unable to ignite. The beast’s anger causing it to speed into attack after attack without pausing to re-charge. Our pre-grad on the back foot. A reverse evasive roll under an already occupied diptrunk. “Azrael. I said leave my mission alone.” Kanji sitting by him, plucking pieces of übersaur flesh from his sword’s many cluttered spikes. “You’se two's panged that dozer good.” Remedy her usual cheerful self even with the world burning around her. She clanged swords with Kanji. Holy Judgement to Memento Mori. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Their blades shuddered. Fuzzed. All the way up from hands to heads. Time stood still. Their eyes glazed. Ears twanged. Swords stuck together for a moment. Academy students shouldn’t clang swords; it's… anarchic. AZRAEL: “Kanji. Remedy. We need to work together. Attack it from all sides. It’s big but it’s not that clever.” KANJI: ”Will you let me plan my mission, Azrael?” REMEDY: “Yeeps kitz; cool it…” AZRAEL: “Look, my girlfriend’s over there; on her own. That thing’ll…” KANJI: ”That thing is my pass mark. As my friend…” REMEDY: “Like I’s said before, there’s a hacking great…” AZRAEL: ”We don’t have time for this.” KANJI: ”And I don’t have space for you in my…”

“Aaah, hack!” Remedy and Azrael together behind a diptrunk now. Separated from Kanji with a wistful wave of flame. Azrael couldn’t understand what had gotten into his friend.

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“Look Az, this squibtub’s bubblin’ somethin’ singey. We gotta axe this jive before we all get fried.” ”Right.” Azrael agrees with Remedy! Wonders will never cease. Do you feel the sudden chill as Hell freezes over? Do you hear the aviated oinks as pigs fly? Alright, since there were no such things as either Hell or pigs to Psytopians, let’s cut the phraseology and get back to the trip. “So pitch me boss. What we gonna do?” OBADIAH: Close-quarter javelin stab HIT! UBERSAUR: Embedded in its heel. Growls and slobbers Eyes go see-through then back to tar-black. For a moment there, the smaller reptile of the two could even see the nerve-ends. He almost spied the nanos tugging on its genes. Figuratively speaking. OBADIAH: Double-handed sword whack HIT! UBERSAUR: Sizeable gash across the lower shin Psytopia Adagio 1

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Sweet candy sapphire indeed. That parahack’s got some passion in him; practice for Zephaniah. Mana lagged behind, tapping his loopball with a nervous foot. Now… how did he use it again? OBADIAH: Double-handed downward sword hack HIT! UBERSAUR: Ankle. Now it’s mad UBERSAUR: Underarm palm swipe HIT! OBADIAH: Pint-size reptile sent flying two hundred yards across the Jade Plateau Now that’s what throwing the javelin is all about. Obadiah landed in a clumsy heap. A clumsy heap which used to be somebody’s lovingly padpadded home. Ruined by a wholly different cold-blooded combatant than all the rest. Head up, neck unsure, body,,, no. Collapse back into that heap, Obi; minus spikes, minus sword, minus consciousness. Go to sleep; after all, you like it so much… Mikado watched from the other side of the play zone, eager to sneak over and help. SHINJI: Whip-wrist slash (From behind the ear upward, his bendable sword looping like a fishing reel) HIT! UBERSAUR: Shin. Aggravating a wound and testing the beastie’s patience UBERSAUR: Sideways claw scratch HIT! SHINJI: Tears his chain-mail armour right off his chest But the kid somehow manages to stay in the picture “…” Actions speak louder than words. Mana thought he’d better help. Despite the maths not being in his favour.

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Press mini ethereal tennis ball to the temple. Psycho-charge. Don’t worry, empiricists; it’s all completely mathematic. Then again, perhaps numbers are the substance of the soul… Ethereal flame roaring through Mana’s night-sky body like a raging comet. Flickers sneaking through pores in his forehead into the nanos lining the loopball. Cute mini snow-plough tabs snap out of the soles of his clogs with a press of a hidden button. Let’s see how bright this spark can burn.

Loopball was a mathematical game of kick n’ catch played by pyronette children. It’s a fun way to learn your times tables… and far more advanced numerical principles. But we don’t need to know about that, only how to use one as a weapon. For this trick, Mana chose:

The ball sprouted ethereal silver spikes which span like helicopter blades. It doesn’t really matter how you kick a loopball. The direction is only one small facet of the overall formulae. Psytopia Adagio 1

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It's easy when your head is full of numbers. Ball fuel was measured in ‘ethereal flickers’ which worked in the same way as burning calories. Applied flickers were known as ‘ethereal licks’. The maths doesn’t matter to numerical cripples like you and I, but as Mana read it…

Sparks fly as clog strikes loopball. Ethereal spikes hatch. Elastic stretches. Eager pyronette hops on one spacey foot, watching his handiwork… MANA: Drop-punt HIT! UBERSAUR: Shoulder. (100 licks of ethereal pain inflicted) That isn’t much to an übersaur. Not much at all UBERSAUR: Limp-wristed backhand swat HIT! MANA: The disappointed spark hurled fifty yards into a patch of diptrunk berries (Something sharper may have pierced his skin) So much for mathematics. Personally I worry about the children. Melodi had wandered as Mikado searched for the chance to tend to Obadiah. Bad move blue girl; bad move indeed. Psytopia Adagio 1

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UBERSAUR: Downward claw swipe MISS! MELODI: Evaded I say ‘evaded’, but she did little more than flopped to the floor. She couldn’t have done much else, open and vulnerable in a scorched, empty clearing. The blue girl backed up against a contorted cluster of burnt diptrunks. Yow! Still hot! Her eyes hearing its petrol breath. Drip, drip, drip, like molten quicksilver. Sounds forming a most fearsome (and accurate) picture of the beast in her petrified head. Whimper, whimper, tears chiming like cymbals as they fell. The übersaur studying her at close range. Curious, indeed. Curious and could well be enticingly tasty… Only one way to find out. Übersaur jaw to the dusty ground. Open mouthie wide. Very wide. Remember; flip-top head. Übersaurs could open their mouths to obscene extents, just in case they got peckish. When they opened their mouths, they fully opened their heads. Put it this way; if they so pleased, übersaurs could open their mouths/heads to ninety degree angles in relation to their jaws. One big, spacious basketball court of teeth.

Whimper, whimper. The übersaur jaw scratching through the blackened soil.

Whimper, whimper. Wider and wider as it goes, consuming everything in its path.

Whimper, whimper.

Blacking out every sound in trembling little Melodi’s world.

Whimper, whimper.

Petrol breath, ever closer.

Whimper, whimper.

Napalm heat. Deep in the belly but so close she could feel its sickly sizzle. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Whimper, whimper. The blue girl’s metri ornaments clanging lightly against blackened bark.

Whimper, whimper.

Tears drop like sticks on glockenspiels.

Whimper, whimper.

Terrifying trap-tooth hanging right over her head. She whimpered and wished it would go away.

Actually, ‘trapteeth’ is grammatically incorrect since übersaurs only had one. It was located on the right hand side of their top row of teeth, though when the flip-top was sufficiently flipped, you wouldn’t know top from bottom. The trapteeth were actually one huge tooth filled with lots of little ones. Lined on the inside with many rotating mini-gnashers. These tinsy-teeth were more like the teeth of a chainsaw than the teeth of a human being and span at a ferocious rate, not unlike tank tracks. Woe betide anyone or anything that got in their way. Sliced, diced and ready for the sushi stall. Melodi was so scared her blue skin began to turn mauve. Her trinkets began to shake with noisy tinkles. Her tears pitter-pattered so fast that when they hit the floor they sounded like a piano sonata. Whimper, whimper. The creak of jaws. The smell of petrol. The blackening of the sun. Close your eyes, silence the shapes and embrace desperation. MELODI: Totally aimless, weak-wristed punch HIT! UBERSAUR: Nose Add this to the freezes if you ever get back to the tyebrary, Mikado because somebody might well find it useful somewhere down the line: Übersaurs hate being struck on the nose. Much like sharks. Ooooh- scary… until I hit you here… Psytopia Adagio 1

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Big, nasty übersaur rears up on its hind legs. All dribbling quicksilver and twitching hatchet fingers. Hey- there’s the sun again. And here is the payback.

Azrael swept in to make the save. Hooking Melodi under his arm like a sack of root. Bundling her into a thicket of brambly young diptrees. She scowled; hadn’t she wanted to be saved after all? Mikado clasped the blue girl’s wrist and tended to her minor scratches with a well-tempered touch. With practice she'd be able to calm wounds shut without the tome. Well she must have been getting good because Melodi's were shut before she even got to them. Now if she could do the same with the scowl, they'd all be happy... Azrael was back on his feet. Crimson Harvest locked in his grasp. Back up at the creature. With a gulp. UBERSAUR: Backward claw swipe MISS! Azrael hops above it AZRAEL: Leaping downward crop HIT! UBERSAUR: Arm, mid swipe. Barely cuts the skin but draws the thing’s attention REMEDY: Blitz Break Chain (attacking from behind): Reverse roundhouse loop (HJ) HIT! UBERSAUR: Calf. Winces Diving curl (BA) HIT! UBERSAUR: Calf. Cut opens up Backhand twirl (HJ) HIT! UBERSAUR: Calf. Make that two SHINJI & KANJI: Dual synchronised turn-around clashes (where the 'saur had focused its balance; the opposite leg) HIT! UBERSAUR: Ankle. Confused Psytopia Adagio 1

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HIT! UBERSAUR: Calf. Now it matches the other But you know what you can all do?

All the way around this time. A two hundred and seventy degree descent into the flaming depths of Hell! Azrael may have implied that the übersaur was stupid but he didn’t ever say it wasn’t dangerous. Academy swordstrils scatter like dominos in all directions, heels blackened like burnt-down matchsticks as they went. Leaving just ninety degrees in which stood… Ah; gaunt, fragile, helpless little Mana. The boy with fire in his belly. Care for some more?

And this time… no escape. “Mana!” Mikado on the other side of the newly scorched clearing. The only sprig of thicket left. Eyes shocked then sorrowful; the defenceless pyronette engulfed by the all-pervading flame. A triangle around the lumbering übersaur. A triangle held apart by the roaring circle of dancing fire. A triangle of sullen Academy students, empty in head and heart like children having lost their favourite teddies. All their meticulous battle plans reduced to rack and ruin with a single, brutal cavalcade of red cloud and burning petrol. Azrael edge, Remedy side, Mikado tip. From every angle it looked the same. Roasted Pick-ups? Nil poi.

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That is, until the flame plumes cleared. “Mana?” Mikado did a double-take. Because Mana was still standing. Illusion? Mirage? Wishful thinking? Or could it be that the brittle little pyronette wasn’t quite so brittle after all? Stood in the path of the beast. Feet together, head down, boiler suit hardly baring a singe, demeanour hardly baring a fluster. Loopball in hand, glowing with such tangy orange fury it could have exploded then and there. Just hold on one tick my flame-bucking, loop-surfing, sidewinding etherjack.

Because absorb was exactly what the loopball had done, and now just look at it. Charged with more calories than a Big Mac meal with king-size fries and a large chocolate shake followed by an NYPD Christmas do at Dunkin’ Donuts, and ready to burn. Oh, in case you’re wondering, pyronettes happened to be insusceptible to the ravages of fire. In fact, they liked bathing in flame almost as much as they liked crunching numbers. Melodi squeezed Mikado’s hand and smirked to herself. But only to herself. ‘Not just a pretty blank face…’ Broody just ain’t broody anymore if you can’t stifle a smile.

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MANA: Overhead flip kick (Not unlike a football bicycle kick) HIT! UBERSAUR: Nose. (4,200 licks of ethereal pain inflicted) Using its own energy against it; frying its nanos like pop corn

STOMP!

STOMP!

STOMP! The Jade Plateau almost dislodged at the hinges. “Aw, sour coco….” Remedy’s expression dropped from one of pride to sorrow. Mana cowering in the path of the beast. Somebody was gonna have to rescue that little mite before he became a star chart. REMEDY: Spiral hoop (BA) MISS! That’s alright, she was only buying Mana time Stomping stops Mana leaps to safety. “That was impressive, sparky, but I can fight too you know.” Melodi shrugged her shoulders. “I’m just choosing not to.” UBERSAUR: Manic claw swipe. MISS! Shinji Manic claw swipe. MISS! Kanji Manic claw swipe. MISS! Azrael Manic claw swipe. MISS! Remedy The übersaur had clearly never heard of…

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UBERSAUR: Backhanded swipe MISS! Kanji dodges AZRAEL: Sidetsep pang (A rolling cut taking advantage of a stretch in the skin left by opponent’s striking limb) HIT! UBERSAUR Chest. Cringes; old wound Kanji; low stance, eager eyes. Looking for his moment. “I can handle this Azrael.” Did I mention swordstrils were often very stubborn? Melodi pulled the space boy back behind blackened branches. She was impressed by confidence, not suicide. “They’ve got it covered, Mana.” Meanwhile Mikado knelt by the injured Obadiah as if he was a fallen racehorse and she a jettisoned jockey. She motioned towards the other pick-ups to stay out of sight. To keep quiet and stay safe. Azrael’s grading points were at stake, not to mention their lives. Plus, she had work to do. Laptop reaching, pain chasing… Not easy with a patient whose organs moved around… Put on the breaks at the temporal lobe, drop anchor, duck that sizeable hunger membrane; la-la-la, not listening to those negative emotions… What’s that over there… oh yes, the waterfall. Meanwhile... UBERSAUR: Furious double armed claw hack MISS! Azrael This was Kanji’s cue. Right place, right time. Now sip from the Holy Grail of the ground handling sword school. And live forever? You wish.

Each sword school had its own Holy Grail. The tip top übertek. Psytopia Adagio 1

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For counter fighters, it was Shadow Mirror. For breezers it was the Devil’s Pirouette. For ground handlers it was the Skattershock Reverb. It used magnetism. Like chi. It’s all about one-pointed concentration, and it’s impossible without the perfect grounding. You see, the root of all ground handling techniques was how you stand. Hence the term. Kanji’s techniques often seemed to generate more power than appeared possible. They looked conservative but carried a hidden tang. That’s because Kanji was an accomplished ground handler. It only took a moment for an accomplished grounder to find a substantial stance and from then on, the pace, direction and power of a technique was carried through the body from the legs up to the point of impact. There were similarities between ground handling and counter philosophies… But that’s the beauty of swordplay; the overlaps. In any case, the Skattershock Reverb involved picking a central opening and channelling every last inch of the swordstril's energy into one single strike. A strike which was carried though the squib’s body on the cusp of a wave to the point of explosion. And the point of explosion is whatever bone you choose. So watch out for a spine chilling snap. KANJI: Skattershock Reverb HIT! UBERSAUR: Midsection INFLICTS: Right leg. Broken

Because he only needed one moment of breakneck velocity to do this…

CRACK! Claws up unhappy übersaurs. UBERSAUR: Overhead claw swipe MISS! Kanji. Ubersaur drops embarrassingly to one knee midattack

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Kanji slumped to the floor. Rolled beneath a blackened diptrunk. Held his head. That’d be the downside of ‘channelling every last inch of your energy’. SHINJI: Over-enthusiastic leaping cross-face slash COUNTERED! Only half way through before…

Cavalcade of flame! One charred pre-school kid’s post-mortem later… “Remy; now!” Azrael picked his moment. A dire moment, but a moment nonetheless. “Pucker up ya big gangly squib!” This was the ‘strategy’ they’d agreed huddled under a trunk. Either Azrael had loosened a screw somewhere back there or he’d suddenly attained breezetastic enlightenment. Either way it was a pleasure… to be asked to go for…

She raised her lead leg and dropped like a tumbling tree into a manic twirl. Whirling on her heels like a crazy tsunami. Backhand over backstroke over roundhouse over overhand… Into an insane maelstrom with no rhythm but the rhythm of existence itself. (And if you can hear that rhythm, you’re enlightened already) Oh yeah- take this formulae to the pyronette’s high council; 'speed equals power.' She lost herself. Like a mad spinning top. She lost herself, and for a moment she felt it: Psytopia Adagio 1

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0 RPM. She cast herself into a roaring current. 25 RPM. She forgot herself in the frantic thunderstorm. 50 RPM. Like a loopy, scoopy, swoopy, hoopy hurricane. 100 RPM. The world speeding as if she was dead still and it a spinning top. 200 RPM. Glazing her eyes and fazing her brain in and out of consciousness. 400 RPM. In between the gaps in the stitches her form fluctuated. 800 RPM. And for a moment she entered…

But only for a moment… The next thing she knew she was flat on her back. Knee having twisted strangely somewhere, bowling her over. Arms by her sides but blades still in her grip. “Muddledy blunt.” Flat on her back. Sun blocked out, big stomping überfoot… “Muddledy blunt…” REMEDY: Devil's Pirouette (attempted) HIT! UBERSAUR: Shin x2, leg, stomach, chest, stomach, arm MISS! Various other targets

…and really needs to get out of the way. UBERSAUR: Big stomping uberfoot…. COUNTERED! Azrael had seized the opportunity to leap unnoticed onto the beastie’s back Psytopia Adagio 1

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AZRAEL: Double-handed plunge HIT! UBERSAUR: Through nose. (Nose bone shifts up into brain) OUT OF PLAY Yuck, you could even see the gooey contents of it’s skull spurt. A disadvantage of having translucent flesh. Splatter, screech, creak, groan… SLAM! A visible shock-wave pulses through the entire plateau. Diptrunks rocking. Scorched earth rippling. Undergrowth rattling. As the creature fell like a very big stone dropped into a very big body of water. Deep breaths all around. Remedy especially. “Is there space for that squib in the Third Heaven?” Somebody’s assessment is over.

Attacks- 9. Economic. Hits- 9. Accurate. Misses- 0. Straight out-of-play hits- 0. Expected, given opponent. Injuries sustained- None. Sound defence. Play awareness- Pixel perfect. Control of party- High. Bonuses for protection of pick-up Another for using a comrade’s skills to his advantage. Big, fat gold star taken away due to inept decision making; This was not his play and he shouldn't have become involved in it.

Attacks- 13. Sound. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Hits- 13. Accurate. Misses- 0. Straight out-of-play hits- 0. Expected, given opponent. Injuries sustained- None. Sound defence. Play awareness- Good. Control of party- Abysmal. Fresher and Elective Entered the Third Heaven during this Play. Bonus for successful use of an expert technique. All points deducted due to failure to complete the mission himself. Big Fat Red ‘x’ Mark

Attacks- 4. Didn’t get much chance.... Entered the Third Heaven due to fatal claw slash Kanji’s assigned Fresher could have had a promising future… But now there’s little point even giving him a score.

Attacks- 28. Heavy offence. Hits- 22. pretty good. Misses- 6. whilst using an extravagant move. Straight out-of-play hits- 0. Expected, given opponent. Injuries- bumps and bruises (due to novice use of expert technique) Play awareness- improving Team play: sound Bonus for protection of pick-up Beginning to look like an accomplished swordstril.

Ambiances attempted: 2. Necessary. Successful: 2. No slip-ups Awareness of mental states: Good. Hardly got lost at all. Bonus for Healing comrade with non-Psytopian psycho-physiology. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Elective, therefore exempt from analysis. Entered the Third Heaven during the play. Could also have gone on to become a promising swordstril.

, &

Pick-ups- Exempt from analysis.

*Azrael is showing signs of greatness regarding his play abilities, however, his decision making is becoming erratic, which is a great worry. *Remedy is sobering up somewhat and is showing signs of a maturity which was not evident earlier in the field mission; she just needs to evolve it. *The choice of Mikado as elective is looking far more assured. She was highly valuable during this play and used wisely. *Obadiah is often brash but a credit to the group; an appropriate pick-up. *Melodi is an enigmatic pick-up. Help or hindrance? *Mana’s performance was good but let’s not let the party get too big… The Academy will bear these points in mind whilst assessing the remainder of azrael’s field trip.

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The Assembly of Tutors have decided thus. Although the mission given to Kanji’s party was technically a success, it was an integral part of the remit that he complete it himself. A third party... (technically a second party; did I mention Psytopians couldn’t count?) ((And that they really, really liked threes?)) A third party aided him in his task and completed the mission for him. Therefore the Assembly has no choice but to fail Kanji on his assessment.

Should Kanji re-apply for assessment he must drop 3 terms to begin pre-grad training anew. Although his blade skills and play awareness are indubitable, fatal flaws in the field, however small, are termed ‘fatal flaws’ for a reason. Your play occurs in your sphere. That makes it your business. And therefore not your best mate's.

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All Academy dictums are made to be simple, are made to make sense, and are made to be followed to the letter. Success and failure must be measured in black and white.

“This is your fault, Azrael.” Kanji standing head down, body hunched, sword limp in his grip. Staring down at his fallen, barbecued brother. Staring down at his world slashed to bits. “Kanji, no…” Azrael sheathed his sword, shook his head, searched his dictums. They were black and white alright; how could he have done something wrong? How could doing everything right produce such dismal consequences? “Az?” Mikado squeezed his wrist. Nodding towards Shinji. Both giving support and asking advice. “Miki. Yeah; help him.” Perhaps he could still make the consequences work out as they were supposed to. “Shinji…” Kanji muttering, the rest of Azrael’s party keeping themselves sensibly to themselves. “Kanji, it’s alright.” Azrael went to take his wrist. Kanji slapped it aside. A sure sign of disrespect in Psytopian culture. “It’s not alright…” The tears evident now. “But Kanji; Miki can help him.” Mikado flipped her liquiscreen open, not so convinced. Psytopia Adagio 1

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“Miki?” All blank liquiscreen and drab expression. No mind, no medicine. “Az. There’s… there’s nothing to…” Kanji’s tears; trickle, trickle on the blackened earth. Trickle, trickle on his brother’s blackened carcass. Trickle, trickle, unbefitting of a man of the sword. Trickle, trickle; life and limb and life and death and black and white no longer as clear-cut as they had previously seemed. ”Dead.” “Kanji, don’t use that word.” Azrael took his wrist, forcefully this time. The word ‘dead’ was rarely used in Psytopia. ‘Dead’ has very nihilistic connotations, and nihilism was viewed with almost as much antipathy as Anarchism. “Dead, Azrael. My brother is dead.” “No Kanji. He’s passed. To the Third Heaven.” An unexpected funeral... probably an appropriate place to talk about the Heavens.

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There were three Heavens in Psytopia. Perhaps they were greedy. Then again, they didn’t believe in Hell, so there we are. The First Heaven was this world. I don’t mean Earth, I mean Psytopia. Earth didn’t exist. Not to Psytopians, at least. The Second Heaven was a transcendental place which could roughly be compared to the dream world, but the Second Heaven wasn’t much to do with death. Disembodied consciousnesses inhabited the Second, which was said to be reachable through rare gateways called z-trails which transported the consciousness to this intermediate realm. In fact, the Second Heaven ‘overwrote’ the First like a sheet of carbon paper… Or perhaps the other way round. Who knows? Who’s going to test it? Being in the Second Heaven was being out of sync, or simply asleep. People who were hypnotised, in comas or drugged up were also said to slip into the Second. The Second Heaven was the world of imagination, which was actually seen as a more elevated plain than the physical one we’re used to; elevated, but not necessarily desirable. Psytopians were perfectionists and wouldn’t settle for chaos. Nobody really speculated about what the Third Heaven was like because you’d have to cast your body aside altogether to get there. Nutty pyro-sipping freshers may well have protested that the trip was the Third Heaven... Well if they knew what passing was like, they wouldn’t be here to talk about it, would they? So why talk, think or worry about death at all? On the whole, Psytopians took it on the chin. They let people pass with a smile. Unless they were using words like… ”Dead, Azrael.” Kanji grabbed his former friend’s chain-mail collar now.... and note I said 'former'. His eyes all neon green, his teeth all clenched, his heart bereft with sorrow. Things swordstrils weren’t trained to deal with, and therefore things they didn’t deal with well. Psytopia Adagio 1

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“He’s dead. Dead to me. Dead to the Academy. Dead to this world.” Remedy began to step forward to intervene but was held back by the ever-hypnotic Melodi. She stood with swords crossed like scissors under her arms. Perhaps some things needed to be said. AZRAEL: ”No Kanji. That isn’t the way. The Third Heaven, remember? Nobody is ever lost.” KANJI: ”Dead. That’s the word, Azrael. That’s the word. Surely you’ve been out here long enough to see it, and to say it.” AZRAEL: ”You’re wrong Kanji. You’re… hurt.” KANJI: ”Hurt?” Kanji laughed to himself. The kind of demented laugh you only find in the bellies of James Bond villains… No; before you ask, they didn’t have James Bond in Psytopia. And pyrojuice both shakes and stirs in tandem. KANJI: “We’ve never been taught hurt.” AZRAEL: ”We’ve been taught everything we need. Academy dictum number…” KANJI: ”The Academy is not the way of the world. Death is the way of the world.” AZRAEL: “How can you say that?” Azrael eased his grip. Let him go. In sadness and despair. So maybe people can be lost after all. KANJI: ”Open your eyes Azrael. Death lies before you. Even in doing the right thing you do wrong.” AZRAEL: ”It’ll be alright Kanji. We’ll work things out. Speak with the tutors. I’ll take the blame. And Shinji will...” KANJI: ”Go the way the world takes you. Learn what I’ve learnt. Perhaps that’s the purpose after all.” AZRAEL: ”And you? I mean, I’ll see you back at the Academy, right?” Psytopia Adagio 1

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Ah, Azrael. Still so innocent. Still so bound to his ideas of how the world is supposed to be. Does that make him a good student or a bad one? Kanji bowed his head and took Azrael’s wrist. He rolled his brother’s blade in his hand. Stabbed it into the ground where he had fallen as swordstril tradition dictates. As a pre-school kid he didn’t need a swordstril cremation, but he’d be remembered as one. KANJI: “Mine isn’t the Academy’s world, Azrael. It can’t teach me anything new. But the world out here…” AZRAEL: “The world is only meaningful when directed by the dictums.” KANJI: (Looking down at his fallen brother) “Directed by the dictums… There’d be no sense in a world like that.” AZRAEL: “The dictums are the sense in the world. We live our lives by them.” KANJI: “And look where our lives lead. To death.” Kanji sheathed his sword, nodded to Mikado, Remedy and the others. Even to the übersaur’s sunken corpse. The world appeared so different now. So out of place. “This world is full of answers Azrael. I intend to find them.” One last squeeze of the wrist. For support this time, not blame. Blame resides only in the eye of the beholder. “Good luck. Perhaps things will add up more favourably for you than they have for me.” And with that he was gone, leaving only fallen super-reptiles, roasted body parts and speechless friends in his wake. Leaving the world behind, or perhaps finally embracing it as he should. As I say, such things tend to reside only in the eye of the beholder. Psytopia Adagio 1

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“Kanji…” Loss. Azrael had never experienced it before. This was what came of being such a good swordsman. “Let him go. Give him space and he’ll come back to you.” Mikado took his wrist, then his arm, then his waist. Always the voice of reason. That twinkling, tinkling waterfall that balances the mind and makes everything make sense again. If pens, pads and the written word existed in Psytopia and Azrael had all three at his fingertips, he would have added this to the list of reasons why he loved her. Because she just made sense. It was getting to be a pretty long list. In sharp comparison to a similar list he could have started composing about his feelings towards the wide, wild world.

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Imagine the world is made of glass. Now break it. Because that was the nature of the Glass Plateau. The whole place tended to shatter. Around these parts, everything was monochrome. Blacks, whites and every conceivable shade of grey in between. And I include the Academy students in that observation. If you’re going to walk the plates, you’re going to have to play by their rules. Around these parts, everything was like crazy paving. Everything scarred with nasty, random shatters. Riddled with age upon endless age of crack upon meandering crack. And I mean everything. I’m talking about the stumbly stone floor. I’m talking about the ragged, leafless trees. I’m talking about the bounding, insect-like creatures. I’m even talking about the sky itself. Aside from the Academy party, that is; shattered, no, monochrome, yes. Remedy’s flares and Melodi’s skin had never looked so plain. Still in one piece though; thank Zarathustra for that. Just give it time; enough time for a shatter-storm.

Shatter-storms weren’t quite as simple as thunderstorms. Thunder cracks occur within the very specific bolt radius of thunder clouds, and they’re quite particular about the kind of devastation they leave. Shatter-storms didn’t adhere to any such conventions. Because shatter-storms cracked everything. They may well have been cracks in time itself. Psytopia Adagio 1

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They erupted in the atomic structure of any and every object within the Glass Plateau- storms coming from the inside. Anything could go crack, smash, shatter, and at any time. No wonder the place was such a mess. Wisping cracks etched onto the fractured stone floor. Wisping cracks etched into the wizened old trees. Wisping cracks etched onto the dreary grey sky. All in all, it wasn’t a very comforting place to be. Which is why long ago, a Psytopian traveller built a series of storm bunkers.

Nobody had hung around long enough here to properly study shatter-storms, and who could blame them? But somebody had hung around long enough to build bunkers. The Psytopians claimed he was a founding member of the peaceful Karakuru tribe. The Anarchists claimed he was an Anarchist. Factions tend to claim whatever suits them best. It didn’t matter what he was, it only mattered what he did. He dug little holes in the ground and floored, walled and roofed them with juttersnap teeth; the only substance on the plateau immune to the almighty cracks. They were dotted around the plate. Safe havens between which other intrepid travellers could run, fingers crossed and hearts in mouths, hoping to sneak through the breaths of the shatters. Through the pauses in the rhythms of the dance. As I say, nobody had had the time, inclination or pig-headed stupidity to study shatter-storms. If they did, they’d find they were the product of inanosanity. Atomic automatons having gone crazy in the coco. Probably an after-effect of the Fall. But I’m not going to go into that because Azrael and co had neither the time, the inclination or the pig-headed stupidity to hang around. “What’s the diz with this pliz?” Remedy; as accurate a rendition of Psytopian language as ever. “The Glass Plateau. Not the most stable of plates.” And Mikado; once again, the most avid reader of the tourist brochures. Psytopia Adagio 1

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The party studied the curious cracks. Cracks in the coarse, uneven floor. Cracks in the strange, semi-dismembered trees. Cracks in the air itself so thick, harsh and random that walking around the plateau was like staring into a frozen lake riddled with icy splinters. Azrael raised a hand; touched a crack in the air. Hard, cold, sharp and firm at first like a well crafted sword. But with pressure his hand passed right through it. A crack in the air doesn’t make it thicker, but it does push the whole thing awkwardly out of rhythm, and this eerie place made the Academy party feel decidedly ill at ease.

There was a danger lurking around these parts. The danger of losing everything you hold dear. In a simple, sudden shatter. Azrael for one didn’t want to stand around and think about it. “I’ve heard of this place too.” He whispered, unsure of himself. Unsure if one false move would trigger a devastating storm. But he knew better than that. If one false move was what triggered shatter-storms, he simply wouldn’t make a false move. The problem was that as far as legends went, shatter-storms were caused by nothing at all; they were random beats- the stuff of nightmares to accomplished swordstrils like himself. Remedy may have found such concepts cool and trendy and fine and dandy, but to be fair to Remedy, she had a long way to go. Random beats are double-edged swords; they hit you when you least expect them. Thank Zarathustra such things were confined to nightmares, but standing here in the creepy stillness of the Glass Plateau, Azrael wasn’t so sure.

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“Azrael.” Mikado’s hand on his wrist. Everything suddenly back into perspective. “We need to find the storm bunkers.” “There..” Melodi’s speech seemed more pronounced than normal. Reverberating in and out of time or space or whatever it did. Piercing the party’s senses with more venom. Almost as if it was shaking the Glass Plateau. “Silence.” Obadiah stared at the off-grey child as if she was a spludge louse in his grutan paste pot. He had a point, and only one word to convey it. They were all standing on thin ice. Parahack revered nature and appreciated that a noise annoys it. Because you really don’t want to get under nature’s skin. She’s a far more foreboding squib than an übersaur. Yes that's right; the parahack were a superstitious bunch. Mana pointed out the shape Melodi had spotted, thus inviting her most ferocious scowl yet. “You kids spy good.” Remedy swishing a sheathed sword as if it was a yo-yo. Leading the party with a grin and a hop, on a wing and a prayer. Azrael wasn’t convinced, but Mikado felt an ambient calm emanating from the direction in which Melodi pointed. “I think we should follow.” Tug of the wrist and he followed. The party stepped gingerly through the precession of cracks. They assumed prudence would save them. Bang a plastic ruler on a table as hard as you like. It reads ‘shatter-proof’. We’ll see about that. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Melodi watched the juttersnaps, in between scowls, sighs and scathing stares in Mana’s direction. They were bulbous creatures with teeth bigger than the rest of their heads; bigger than the rest of their bodies in fact. Teeth on legs, although one would find it difficult to see the legs for the teeth. Bouncing (IE biting) up and down in the distance, playing atop a weather-beaten storm bunker, seemingly staring at her. Or through her. Whatever. Animals were generally intimidated by our broody blue baebe. She’d stamp and pulp the fluffy dears as soon as pet them. Funny that the juttersnaps chose to scuttle out of the stonework now though; they generally only came out during storms. They were the only creatures in tune enough with their surroundings to survive them, slipping through the shatters. Teeth that repelled noisy trackteria. That’s a fancy word for ‘shatters’ by the way. Call them what you want, they’ll still pang ya. “Thiz pliz ain’t so shaky.” Remedy’s swords balanced on her shoulders like weighing scales; without a care in the world. “It pays to be cautious Remedy.” Azrael and caution; who’d have thought? “What do them freezes say about squibs in this joint?” Remedy was already thinking about her next fight. “Juttersnaps and droopdogs. I think that’s about it.” “Aw. Hardly a squib to slash at…” Well I wouldn’t sit down and mope about it too much, belle blaze. Because there’s bad weather on the horizon. Mana noticed it first. Actually, his mathematical mind had predicted it the moment he’d stepped onto the plate. That’s the thing about pyronette psychology. Everything is so stringently numerical; proceeds just so. It’s all about motion, alignment and mostly it’s magnetism. But if I tried to explain it all here, this would end up being some kind of pseudo-scientific journal, and when it comes to science I’ve got as short an attention span as Remedy would have for daytime soaps, cookery or knitting, so work it out yourself. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Well, not everybody perceives reality as we do so let’s take a look through our pick-ups eyes: Obadiah’s: Constructed a picture of the world based on smell. His eyes were pretty hazy. Mana’s: Constructed a picture of the world based on maths. He didn’t have eyes at all. Melodi’s: Constructed a picture of the world based on Zarathustra only knows what. Her eyes were strange and I can only guess what they really did. A shame Mana was one of those who’d witness a murder taking place and look the other way. Not because he wouldn’t care, mind… Because he hoped if he didn’t engage it at all it would go away. So that was his approach to the forthcoming catastrophe.

“Huh?” Mikado thought she noticed a twig move as she passed a broken old tree. Examined it with that keen medician’s eye. A broken old tree. And I mean broken. So broken branches jutted out here and there, snapped in two. Hanging in space, suspended like snapped bones picked up on x-rays. Torn dramatically out of line. “What’s wrong?” Azrael held her wrist a little tighter. “No. Nothing.” She stroked the twig. She could have sworn it had been intact a moment ago. But she couldn’t be certain. Who knows what goes on in the corner of your eye? Who knows what spooks loiter those blind spots, whatever way you turn? Psytopia Adagio 1

24


Melodi scoffed to herself. She’d felt the rumblings long ago. She’d even noted the vacant frown in Mana’s absent face cavity. The space between stars deeper than usual. She’d noticed it and made a couple of pitiful attempts to attract the attention of the others. She could have alerted them more forcefully of course, but hey; let's not dramatise death. Much more amusing was to watch Mana pitter-patter across the plate as if walking over a frozen pond. She’d content herself with giggling at him as mischief ensued.

“OK. Now I swear something moved.” Azrael stepped in front of Mikado. Feet planted firmly on the ground. Eyes jerking this way and that, digesting his surroundings. The party cluttered to a halt behind him. A row of falling skittles hitting the bowling hall wall. “What'sit? Where'sit?” Remedy’s eyes lit up the brightest grey monochrome allowed. Everything as still as a chill in a graveyard. An ice sheet about to cave in to environmental pressure and sneak off away from the pack. Nothing moved, except in the minds of mathematicians. Tick, tick, tick, tick…

CRACK! A boulder by Azrael’s foot split in two. Falling apart like a sliced melon. Cut with an invisible blade.

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“Yeeps!” Remedy snatched a sword from her shoulder then sheepishly sheathed it. When it's sword first, self second you’ve got to start asking questions about obsessions… Swords or no swords, you can’t fight nature siz; you can only… “RUN!” Azrael with the soundest advice of the day.

CRACK! The trunk of a nearby tree.

CRACK! The path behind them.

CRACK! A big, bold gash scratched across the length of the sky. ‘Run’ was looking like a promising strategy. Destination: Your closest friendly neighbourhood storm bunker. Distance: Little more than a tick and a tock. Duration: Well, let's hope they get there while they still can.

CRACK! Azrael first. The quickest route. A to B. Across the scarred, uneven landscape like a mountain hare pursued by a hungry bird of prey.

CRACK! Mikado second. Dragged on by the arm into an uneasy sprint. Heels almost buckling with every step.

CRACK! Mana third. Hoodie rippling, carried by fear more any kind of strategic deliberation.

CRACK! Obadiah fourth. Big, scaly feet as likely to crush the earth as the shatter-storm, making up more ground than he appeared to with those mammoth steps.

CRACK! Remedy fifth. Lagging behind to coax Melodi along. Feet aching to go, arms desperate gestures, heart eager beats.

CRACK! Melodi last. Arms folded, head down, step by precious step. She’ll get there when she gets there if she gets there at all. Psytopia Adagio 1

26


CRACK! CRACK!

CRACK!

Remedy wasn’t taking any chances. Picking the sulky little girl up around the waist and following the others through the swiftly shattering stones as quickly as her legs could take her.

CRACK! CRACK!

CRACK!

Crack after crack, everywhere. The trees. The skies. The pebbles. The ground beneath their feet.

CRACK! CRACK!

CRACK!

Like sitting on an iceberg as the Titanic sails nonchalantly at you on collision course. Like stepping between planks in a loft, almost tumbling through. Like standing in a lift as an army of huge men with weighty sacks squeeze in and it groans.

CRACK! CRACK!

CRACK!

Every height and every depth and every direction now; every way they looked. The cracks becoming so contorted they conjoined. Just a momentous noise; as if the world was made out of frozen glass waiting to…

CRACK! CRACK!

CRACK!

CRASH! Through the hatch and into the storm bunker. Azrael and Mikado tumbled in as one. Mana rolling in, careful not to pierce his skin on something. Obadiah; big flying reptile! The others quick to dive aside. Remedy and Melodi, one bitter, one relieved. I’ll let you guess which was which.

CRACK! CRACK!

CRACK!

...after endless crack! in the shattered wilderness. Azrael checked his girlfriend’s face, limbs and torso. Searching for injuries. He relaxed only when he found none. Then he checked himself. Mana curled up and rocked to and fro, counting on his fingers. Covering his face with his hoodie, hoping it would all go away. Vicious sounds translating into fractured numbers in his mind. A million calculations per second; equations which didn’t make sense. Psytopia Adagio 1

27


Obadiah sat up straight and flexed his arms and legs. Held his sword close to his chest. As if the cracking vista outside was some ferocious predator out to claim him. He didn’t trust the rough hide of the bunker one inch. Remedy squinted heavily. Trying to see through the cloudy glaze of the walls. Watching the juttersnaps outside scuttle around like motorised kangaroos, their teeth appearing to reflect the random breaks as if mirrors redirecting sunlight. The blitzer maintained a childlike curiosity… when she wasn’t dicing people up. Only Melodi remained unphased by this theatrical shebang. She’d been here, seen it, done it, got the dour, shattered t-shirt. Nothing was new to her. Especially not anarchy. “I suppose we have to wait, right?” “I think that’s best.” Azrael wasn’t aware he had to explain the painfully obvious. Command wasn’t as glamorous a thing as his tutors made out. “Lame.” Melodi rolled her eyes. Don’t ask me to picture the rolling of Nike tick, egg yoke eyes. “I don’t like this place.” “Ditto.” Remedy’s broad smirk testified otherwise. It broadened with every random crack. The poetry of chaos. Dictumise that, prof. Your rules ain’t getting’ you nowhere out here… Azrael went to take the mumbling Melodi's wrist. “It’ll pass.” She shirked away. “I don’t touch anything crimson.” ”What do you mean?” CRACK! “Oooh; that one was close!” Remedy clapped with delight. The bunker shuddering under the weight of lovely blissful, senseless pandemonium. “Close.” Obadiah concurred, less impressed. Psytopia Adagio 1

28


Remedy offered him a supportive nudge which hurt her elbow. “S’alright bod, those dandy-fine scales’ll save ya.” “He won’t be saved.” Melodi crossed her arms and shifted aside. To right by the entrance where even the space in front of her face shattered and cracked. Mana tugged his hood further over his head. He felt like a camper in a small tent in the middle of a flash flood. His idea of adventure had been somewhat more glamorous and somehow less perilous. But as long as Melodi stayed on the opposite side of the bunker everything was alright in the world. “Even the sky can’t be saved…” Remedy inched closer to the grey girl in the face of the storm then thought better of it. “How tough is this bunker, Miki?” ”Let’s hope it's tough enough.”

Some swordstrils said fear was the biggest squib in the pen. There’s a Zen proverb about a great general who collects antique cups. He’s fought hundreds of battles, killed many men and faced death on a daily basis, and nothing’s ever frightened him. Then one day he’s at home polishing a cup and it begins to slip through his fingers. His life flashes before his eyes. So he smashes every last one of them and conquers his fear. Because as with most things in this world, fear is all in the mind. Just unfortunate shatter-storms brew on the inside. Remedy had conquered her fear; sat next to Melodi by the hatch. Conquered her fear… indulged her curiosity… whatever. Sat next to her with a meek shudder, so close to the shatters they cast shadows on her face. The two of them shared a worrying willingness to play with fire. Psytopia Adagio 1

29


REMEDY: “Careful lil’ missy. We’s pretty close to the crackle here.” MELODI: (Sulking, head propped up with a palm) “It’s such a noisy world.” REMEDY: “Yeah. Sound of chaos…” MELODI: ”Not chaos…” Melodi’s words seemed to strike in between the shatters. It was the first time Remedy had noticed this and it woke her from her hypnotised gaze. Realising the off-blue girl was stretching a hand through the hatch into the splintering wilderness. Somebody had a death wish. REMEDY: (Taking Melodi’s wrist) “Careful! Watch fingers siz!” MELODI: (Pulling her arm away) ”You don’t need to tell me to be careful.” REMEDY: “Them shatters be deadly, kiti.” MELODI: “They’re fine.” REMEDY: “I don’t wanna have to tug you out of the haz-zone again coco pie.” MELODI: “You don’t know were the ‘haz’ is...” A meeting of gazes. Rotten grey tangerine to yin-yang coil. Something causing Remedy to screw up her face and think. One thing was for sure; this kid was more than meets the eye. She could see deeper into Melodi without the colour. Like the effect of those eyes had been reversed somehow. As if she couldn’t hide behind them the way she was used to. Perhaps that was why she’d been so irritable since they arrived. It was as if the formerly blue girl was telling her something she wasn’t telling her. The stitches between the note; the words between the lines. Made her feel a little dizzy. But Remedy wasn’t the world’s biggest thinker so that’s as far as she chased the mystery.

Psytopia Adagio 1

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“It’s stopping.” Mikado; probably the brightest Psytopian here. “Yeah. You’re right; it’s wearing off.” Azrael on his feet, looking through the glazed ceiling, thankful the bunker was immune to cracking. The world outside was a less pretty picture. Remedy out first; her inner delight at wanton carnage beckoning her into the middle of the bomb site. And oh, was the demolition a sight to behold… Next were Azrael and Mikado, leading each other into the freshly battered world. Then Obadiah, pushing that petrified pyronette aside as he clung to his mammoth leg; nothing to be frightened of but fear itself. Melodi shook her head at Mana like a school yard bully having mugged him for lunch money; it’d be a bad move to tell teacher. Juttersnaps scuttled like crabs under rocks around her feet. Not quite intrigued enough to leave themselves vulnerable to wandering droopdogs. But not quite sure if they should stay. There was a heat-haze in the air. Like dew, perhaps. Hanging here and there. Mists of kinetic energy left behind around the newest shatters. Trees which had once been more together were splintered in two and three and four. Stones which had once been whole had now been reduced to bits and pieces. The sky appeared even more of a broken marble mosaic than it had before. And peace and quiet reigned as if the great celestial pause button had been pressed. AZRAEL: “How long do you think we’ve got until the next storm?” MIKADO: (Shrugs shoulders) “They seem to be… random.” MELODI: (Dismissive, brushing past them) ”They say nothing is ever random.” MIKADO: (Following her) “Well, if it’s not random…” MELODI: “Ask the Pyronette.” Psytopia Adagio 1

231


REMEDY: “Mana?” (Unsurprisingly, MANA didn’t answer) OBADIAH: “Storm come soon.” Obadiah picked up the pace. Stomp, stomp, stomp; places to go, reptiles to kill. That was good enough for Remedy. “Yeah moy’s with scalesquib. I says this pliz’ll get shifty before we knows it. Quicker we’s get there, quicker we’s be spared.” She pointed a blade towards the next storm bunker. Around a shattered stone ridge amid a row of ruined bushes. A shattered stream forked near about. Even the water ran in unpredictable directions between cracks. Azrael nodded. “That’s a sound plan.” He found himself examining the old key around his neck. Funny; he didn’t often think about it. It appeared less grey when he looked at it… and his attention was only broken by the pull of Mikado’s hand.

Though he didn’t remember where he’d got it, part of Azrael felt connected to that key; a shadow in the dark. So it’d be unfair of me to sit outside time and fill in gaps. But the key drew his attention because it was the only thing that changed colour around here. It went from white to grey to black as the storm approached and reversed when it passed, almost like it was connected to them. Azrael knew he found it in his grasp when waking from a dream, but he was too rational a thinker to really believe it’d come from a different world. A different state of mind, perhaps? Kanji has stepped in after he received a blow to the head when defending himself against a drowsy blubbernaut in the squib pen… tricky brain-snagging beasties, are blubbernauts. But in any case, he’d taken a blow, sat down, had a drink. Or perhaps the other way round… it was all a bit hazy. Psytopian ideas about the dream world were different to ours; when you’re dreaming, are you the dream or the dreamer? The First and Second Heavens were formed of different substances, but if the ‘real world’ is just a cluster of atoms which takes shape when we apply our perception to them… Well, Azrael did believe in perception. Psytopia Adagio 1

232


At filtering out the stones in the road to ensure a clear track. Although dreams often have a funny knack of coming true. So Psytopians didn’t speak of dreams so as not to create collisions between Heavens. Wherever it came from, around here, the reflections on the metri of the key faded from light to dark, order to anarchy. Melodi had noticed too, and hadn’t looked best pleased. But did she ever?

Let’s leave mysteries mysterious; press on with matters at hand. Here they were, pressing on. They paced themselves. Azrael and Remedy dictated that. Remedy at the front this time, Azrael backing up the pack. In between, Melodi walked head down, arms folded. Mana hid in Obadiah’s shadow. It was only a matter of time before the inevitable CRACK! Mana sensed it first. Covered his head where he may or may not have had ears. Walked faster and bumped into the caster of the gargantuan shadow before him. Obadiah snarled and clenched his fists. Remedy waved them on, walking backwards. CRACK! A pebble. CRACK! A twig. CRACK! The surface of the water, suddenly cutting off into zig-zagging tributaries. Azrael and Mikado picked up the pace. Remedy standing at the hatch, ushering them in. Juttersnaps giggling at them with toothy grins. Perched atop the bunker like sparrows on a telephone wire, observing the chaos.

Psytopia Adagio 1

2 3


Obadiah in first, Mana second. Melodi step after disinterested step, pushing through the hatch like a tired cat through a flap. Remedy next, the cracks around her beginning to sound like a building about to buckle. Azrael and Mikado sprinting for dear life.

CRACK! The direction of the stream.

CRACK! A big, hulking boulder.

CRACK! The ground beneath their feet.

CRACK! Last one before the couple bundled into the bunker and safety. Remedy. Phew! Mikado. Phew! Obadiah. Phew! Mana. … Melodi. Whatever… Azrael. Ow! Because that last CRACK! hadn’t been a pebble, twig or boulder. It’d shattered the pre-grad’s shoulder like frosted glass. Mikado’s expression dropped. Two hands clasped around his wrist with a mournful pout. Melodi smirked in the background. Did I mention she could be a sadistic little thing when she wanted to be? You’ll see soon enough. Azrael wasn’t expecting that, was he?

Sit him up straight, open that tome, power up the liquiscreen. Rub of the hands, link of the fingers, supportive nod of the head. Mikado had to let his pain wash over her, so this one might be emotional, and you can’t be too emotional as a medician or it just wouldn’t work. At least Azrael was a silent patient; screaming at agony only makes it prod you harder… there was an Academy dictum in their somewhere, waiting to be written, but deep breath; let’s go. Psytopia Adagio 1

234


Frosted leaves, running stream, aniseed, bleach and rose water. Yeah, we know the drill. Knitty fingers pull Azrael back together. And everywhere... memories of him. Memories coming together as the rest of the world fell apart. Thoughts, feelings, intentions. Enough to throw a girl off track. Like stumbling across a lover’s diary. There’s him, there’s you… Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that… you’re not yet betrothed. That is you, isn’t it? Ow! Pang in the tummy. Somebody’s not paying attention to matters in hand. All knitted together and good as new. Note to self: don’t mix work and pleasure. A loving squeeze of the wrist was all she was aware of as she slammed the liquiscreen shut. That had been painful and wonderful in equal measure. Like sex with swords. Mikado turned her nose up at that thought. Psytopia Adagio 1

235


Black, gooey transi-smog ebbing from her fingertips. The cracks of the storm outside adding to her brain-ache. She felt disoriented; pain coupled uncomfortably with love. Medicianing is as uneasy on the heart as it is on the mind.

At least his arms were a safe place to sleep. “Woah; that was razor-close, kiticlaws.” Remedy on her knees, head to the wall. Watching the cracks scatter across the sky. Some people can even see silver linings in clouds of napalm. Obadiah sat next to the hatch, grumpier than normal. “Smell.” ”Smell? What smell?” “Dog.” Remedy’s attention was drawn to the bedraggled white blob in the corner. The skinny, malnourished, bearded mutt hunched over a dead juttersnap. Skinny, malnourished and hungry. Desperately clawing away what little meat lay below it's hapless prey's oversized teeth. “Oooh; is that a droopdog?” Remedy drew a sword. “Can I fight it?” “No.” That was almost in unison. “I’s japin’ ya, K?” Remedy replaced her blade. “That sorry thing ain’t worth a jive.” It glanced a wise nod and carried on eating. “Alright.” Azrael held court, stroking Mikado’s hair as did so, easing her back to wakefulness. “We’ve got to be careful. Those storms hit pretty quick.” “You don’t see it coming. Can’t escape breaks you can’t see.” Melodi; poster child for positive thought. Psytopia Adagio 1

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AZRAEL: “We need to move faster. Next time it could be more serious. Lucky we’ve got Miki here to fix us up.” REMEDY: ”What if next time it’s her?” AZRAEL: “Exactly. We’ve got to be careful. But for now I can’t see any other option than to run for it.” He examined his sword as Academy students do when looking for answers to the big questions. The perfectly crafted blade. The sheath lined with crystallised netherbeast bone marrow. Yes, Academy swords were pretty much indestructible around here too… shame about the swordstrils. Remedy was already stretching her legs in preparation. “We’s gotta be breezy. Bolt for broke.” “The storm’s ending.” Mikado’s medicative trip had amplified her awareness. AZRAEL: “Alright. Obadiah. You go first. You’re slowest. No offence.” OBADIAH: ”Hmmm...” AZRAEL: “Mana. Stick with him.” OBADIAH: ”Grrrrr…” AZRAEL: “Miki, I want you in the middle, OK?” MIKADO: (Drowsy) ”Okay…” MELODI: (Staring through the hatch) “I’m going last. The shatters feel homely.” AZRAEL: “Well, alright… Remedy, you cover Melodi.” REMEDY: “We go full-on tip, no messin’.” Melodi drew circles with a finger, dizzying the bounding juttersnaps outside. Causing them to collapse onto their teeth then their backs, then roll around helpless. Somewhere in the back of the bunker, a bedraggled white mongrel’s eyes lit up like jackpots. Dizzy juttersnaps? Meat on teeth on legs! So bunker A to bunker B was the game. Desperately simple. Simply desperate. Because swordstrils weren’t used to thinking in As to Bs. Psytopia Adagio 1

237


“Alright, let's go.” All of them out in order as planned, except Melodi, left alone with the droopdog. “Losers. I’m not going anywhere.” The mottled mutt cowered at the twist of her tongue.

“Thiz be muddledy fizz…” Remedy admired the crackwork. Almost poetic to a pyro-zizzed mind. The dead-still landscape broken every which way it could. With the grain, against the grain, over the top of the grain. In fact you couldn’t work out which way was with the grain and which wasn’t, so I won't even bother trying. Remember Remedy, we’re not on a sight seeing tour; it's A to B. Just try not to clash swords with juttersnap teeth en route. An almighty sprint. Obadiah then Mana, Azrael then Mikado, Remedy then… “Hey, where’s the dread head?” Points deducted for insanity; talking to oneself. Remedy took a step back and a step forward. Stopped. A to B, Remedy... A to B. “Can’t just lurch the kiti, can I?” Front foot; the others growing ever closer to B. Back foot; no sign of Melodi emerging from A. Front foot, back foot, in the middle... and a storm on the horizon. “Oh, hack.” Back foot it is. She never much respected the idea of preserving order anyway. Turn and sprint and hope Azrael didn’t see her. Back down the crazy-paved pathway, through the hatch, into the bunker heralded by a startled doggy growl. “Shut it fangz; you’se not the only furball with claws round here.” Psytopia Adagio 1

238


“Remedy.” “Melodi. You coming or what?” “I’ll stay here. You can leave me. I don’t want to hold you up. It’s OK. I’d get in the way. You’ll be better off. You’d do better if you left me.” Something about the plate made her more negative than normal. Perhaps it’d shattered her defences. That was a hell of a lot of defence to shatter. Remedy wasn’t standing for it. ”Don’t bowl me that dole, ya punchy squiz. Now come on.” Swing that dimmed spark onto your back in a patented Academy shoulder-bar carry. (Think of James Dean with a rifle) And high-tail it from A to B as if your life depended on it. Which, as chance would have it, it did. “Where’s Remedy?” Azrael’s play awareness; had to be worth a gold star at least. “Isn’t she behind you?” “No.” A glance back, feeling things starting to shatter. Mana in the corner of the bunker, counting. Obadiah hunched up, briefly catching up with his sleep. Mikado joined as always at the wrist. Azrael opened the hatch. Juttersnaps edging their toothy heads out of the bunker walls. “Perhaps she got held up.” Mikado’s tender palm to his chest. “Perhaps she’s mucking around.” Azrael’s hand to his sword.

Got to be. Academy dictums weren’t written by either fools or freshers and they really were shatter-proof. If people don’t like that… make them. Azrael out of the hatch by a hair’s breadth. Psytopia Adagio 1

239


CRACK! A hanging branch by his head, showering him in splinters. Back into the bunker, clenching his fists.

CRACK! “There she is.” Mikado pointing through the wall of the shelter; Remedy moving at pace, pushing her luck.

CRACK! Stones surrounding them.

CRACK! Boulders beneath.

CRACK! Jutting rips in the sky so close they almost deafened her.

CRACK! Like standing in a building earmarked for demolition as the foreman pushes the lever. Like swimming through a pond of piranha, wondering when you’re going to face the chomp. Like being threatened by drunken cowboys sipping straight whiskey, pointing pistols at your feet and telling you to dance. Like running through the valley of the shadow of death, wearing flamboyant flared trousers, big old boots and with two swords and a freaky-looking kid strapped to your back… Hoping the reaper wouldn’t spot you. I did mention that Remedy was pushing her luck...

CRACK! “Brickidy, blockedy… blunt…” Remy cursed through her teeth, the world shattering around her. Melodi just held on and sulked. Kids; can’t please them, can’t decapitate them.

CRACK! CRACK!

CRACK!

Reaching for that hatch. Azrael and Mikado holding it ready to open, waving her on.

CRACK! CRACK!

CRACK!

Shatters striking so close to her legs and arms and torso they almost slit her clothes open.

CRACK! CRACK!

CRACK!

Her swords tingling on her back. Straight across them. No, not the swords, not the swords! That couldn’t have been...

CRACK! CRACK!

CRACK!

Through the hatch. “ARRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH!” Psytopia Adagio 1

240


Melodi crumpled on the floor, tied up with sword straps. Dusting herself off. Azrael and Mikado close, eyes all big and wide with concern. Or was that anger… she could never quite tell. “ARRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH!” “Remedy?” Mikado’s soothing palm. “Moy swords?!?” “Your legs.” Did I mention Remedy had an unhealthy addiction? A couple, in fact. First her swords, then her pyro, then her… “ARRGHH! Moy legs! Both moy slender-splendour, glitzy coco… ARRRRGGGGHHHH!” “Remy, don’t talk. Not that much at least.” Mikado’s hand was already swimming around in the liquiscreen. “Oooh, it hurtz…” Teeth clenched, eyes shut; don't look down. “Remedy. Look at me, keep your head together; try not to worry.”

That wasn’t as confusing as the last one. Psytopia Adagio 1

241


Shake your head clear and keep it above water. Hmmm; perhaps Mikado was getting used to this. “Sorry.” Melodi would have been more so if she had been the one who’d just had her limb count halved. “Last time I spies ya, you'se weren't no shatter-storm sweetie.” Thank Zarathustra Remedy wasn’t one to bear grudges. And also thank Zarathustra that Academy sheaths were coated with ground netherbeast bone, because juttersnaps, as it happened, were descendants of netherbeasts. Genius. Azrael chewed his lip in thought; the fresher had made a point. “You’re not a shatter-storm, but you seem pretty resilient to them.” Remedy sat cross-legged, examining her blades… because obviously, they were the priority. Making sure they still worked. All swishes and smiles... oh yeah and the legs worked too. “Lucky you were strapped on moy back cos these hilts ain’t tinged with uberbone.” Another good point from Remedy. Are we on a plateau were everything is reversed? “You can put your arm out into the storm and you’re fine. How do you do that?” Azrael pressed the blue girl for information.

REMEDY: “Oh she’s a noir one, that spark; ‘haps she likes dancin’ with daggers.” Psytopia Adagio 1

242


MIKADO: “Perhaps she’s just lucky.” AZRAEL: “It's more than that.” (AZRAEL approaches. MELODI shirks away) REMEDY: “Hey, maybe she’s on the juttersnap tooth diet.” AZRAEL: “Melodi. Put your hand out into the shatter-storm.” MIKADO: (Taking AZRAEL’S wrist) “Az, she’ll get it broken.” AZRAEL: “I don’t think she will.” REMEDY: (Waving a leg) “And if she does, Miki can just thread it up.” MIKADO: “Remedy, the medician arts aren’t meant to be used to cover carelessness.” AZRAEL: “It’s not careless if you intend it.” REMEDY: (With a thumbs up) “Oh I’s feelin’ that vibe.” Melodi tried to keep herself to herself; not easy when you’re the point of discussion. Mikado took her hand. Diplomacy please. How else are you going to save witches from being burned? “Melodi. What can you tell us? Are you immune to the shatterstorms somehow?” “No less immune than him.” Melodi pointed sulky eyes at Mana. Trying to keep himself to himself too; not easy when you’re the point of discussion. Even less so when people can literally see right through you. “Why do you say that?” Melodi offered nothing but unhelpful shrugs. “That right glitterfingers? You shatter-proof too?” Come on Remedy, he’s not likely to answer, is he? Mana counted harder on his fingers, not liking what was coming at all. “Alright. We need to run a few tests.” Azrael took charge. “Melodi. The hatch, please.” An off-blue bottom lip turns up into a pronounced scowl. Threaten innocent girls with swords, huh? Psytopia Adagio 1

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Alright so you’re not doing it now, but you would, wouldn’t you? Melodi knew his kind… Hatch open. Hand out, wiggled about. There; immune. Satisfied? “Moy bluebelle’s unbattered by the shatter.” Remedy acted as if she’d won the lottery which, for the record, didn’t exist in Psytopia. All eyes on Mana. “Next mite please!” Counting, counting, counting…

CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! outside. So dangerous yet so predictable. As long as he kept on mathematising in his head... “Come on Mana, it’s OK.” Mikado held his wrist. Obadiah dozed in a corner. Let them sort it out. His vengeance could wait… a little… “Yeah put your hand out kid. It’s not gonna hurt now, is it sizzlehead?” Melodi nudged him in the gut just enough to make him wonder if she’d punctured his flesh. “Didn’t hurt me an inch. Won’t touch you either, sparky.” Well, anything was better than having to listen to her. Hatch open. Hand out, wiggled about. There; immune… with a little counting. Satisfied? “We have another storm rider!” Remedy hugged the pair in unison. Whispered in their ears. “You'se two’s much more alike than you think.” Shakespearean fools generally speak the truth by accident. Proves instinct’s always right or that thinking’s foolish? Time for Azrael to think strategy. Psytopia Adagio 1

2 4


“I estimate this is the last storm bunker before we hit the edge of the plate.”

This one’s so obvious I’m not even going to bother finishing it. AZRAEL: “We need juttersnap teeth. We’ll have to hunt some down.” REMEDY: “Hey. isn’t that like thumpin’ the walls that shield ya?” Biting the teeth that feed you. Now there’s a muddle. Obadiah opened an eye. They were still talking tactics, so he drifted back off to sleep. AZRAEL: shatter REMEDY: AZRAEL: are?” REMEDY: AZRAEL: REMEDY: AZRAEL: sort of MIKADO:

“They’re the only substance that doesn’t out there.” “Except Melodi and Mana.” “How big would you say juttersnap teeth “A hilt or three, give or take.” “Big enough though.” “Depends what for.” We’ll need quite a few. To make some veil or blanket.” “Cheeeck… but for?”

Desperate times... What was the most vital thing the party had to protect? It would be difficult to find agreement on that. Obadiah; Our food supplies. Mana; Our skins. Melodi; Nothing is worth protecting. Remedy; Do you really need to ask? REMEDY: “We’s gwan use a protective cape to cover our sword hilts so if we get jumped we's still able to jive; dandy plan!” Psytopia Adagio 1

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AZRAEL: “No… We’re going to use it to cover Mikado’s head.” REMEDY: “Mikado’s head?” AZRAEL: “It’s the most precious commodity we have.” REMEDY: (Smelling favouritism) “Cos you loves her for her mind, right?” AZRAEL: “Because Miki’s head is what fixed your legs.” REMEDY: “Oh. Yeah. Right. Check.” MIKADO: “Az, I don’t know if protecting me…” AZRAEL: “Protecting you protects us all.” REMEDY: “We’s gonna need a bucket of squibs to make a veil, siz.” AZRAEL: “And they only come out in shatterstorms. That’s why these two need to go out and get the teeth.” Mana defied the common sense notion that you can’t look more blank-faced than blank faced. “What makes you think I can talk to animals?” Melodi looked the other way. “I don’t intend you to talk to them…” “You want me to go into the storm, catch ickle ickies and pull out their teeth?” “With fangs like that, they aren’t that hard to spot.” Azrael’s flimsy pitch. “Slow, too; breezy pickings.” Remedy’s. ”And they seem to like you…” Mikado’s. “They don’t like me, they just don’t know I’m there.” “You could use that to your advantage.” Azrael’s wishful pitch. ”If you want, you could spot and Mana could snatch.” Mikado’s. “Go team!” Remedy’s. “But I don’t want to go ripping out ickle ickie’s teeth.” “Because you haven’t had any practice?” Azrael’s pitiful pitch. “Because you’se nervous?” Remedy’s. “Because you’ve got a moral conscience.” Mikado’s. “Because in case you haven’t noticed, they’re icky, OK?” “You don’t know that until you try.” “Uuurrrrgh.” Psytopia Adagio 1

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Melodi dragged Mana by the hood. Out into the shatter-storm. “I spot, you snatch, alright?” She trudged over to a collection of split rocks as the cracks chiselled shapes around her. If only people would leave her alone…

“It’s hard work, but someone’s gotta do it” (and kids, them someones are you) Assume the Juttstoposition™: The Perfect jutter jammin’ pose! (That’s back arched, legs bent, fingers twitchin’ like a wild west gunslinger; now you’re ready ta go herdin’!) Wait. Watch. Look. Listen. Look edge! There’s one! Dive! Dive! Dive! Yeeps; mouthful of broken pebbles and shatterdust! Lucky your snatcher ain’t got no mouth. Good spot, bad snatch. Can’t have it all your way pard’ner! Ooop; slap to the head. You got yourself a spunky lil’ spotter there. Come on sister, it’s only his first try. Wait. Watch. Look. Listen. Heads up! To the side! Dive! Dive! Dive! You ain’t quite got the hang of this yet, have ya kid? Good spot, bad snatch. Gonna be feelin’ another slap to tha' head! You know if ya thought less about drummin’ ya thumbs and more about makin’ them jutters dead, you’d have more of a chance, pard’ner! Wait. Watch. Look. Listen. Third time lucky? Jump tip, on my mark! Dve! Dive! Dive! Yeee-ha! Third time lucky… uh-uh, you gotta hold on, lil’ mite, not let the thing go as soon as it threatens to nip ya! Good spot, bad snatch. Slap! Yow! Think you two better do the musical chairs routine. Psytopia Adagio 1

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I said less drummin’, more runnin’, boy. Less ponderin’, more plunderin’! Less thumb tappin’ or you’ll be gittin’ more head slappin’!

Pyronettes weren’t immune to shatter-storms. Politicians aren’t immune to straight answers, they just put an awful lot of effort into avoiding them. Take your pard’ner by the hand… now change position! Wait. Watch. Look. Listen. Ok, there’s a jutter there, kid; ain’t ya gonna spot it? You see it lil’ miss, now Dive! Dive! Dive! I said dive, sweet pie! If you ain’t be divin’, them there jutters be thrivin’! That jutter just bit ya pinkie, little lady! And it looks more shocked than you do! D’oh, he got away! Bad spottin’, bad snatchin’. You two ain’t got a baked bean at a camp fire’s chance, have ya? Now git off mah jutter ranch!

“I’m not doing this.” Nursing her bite, grimacing. Only a scratch; not even enough to draw blood. Thank Zarathustra for that. Out of harm’s way, Remedy screwed up her bottom lip like a crinkle-cut crisp. She was supposed to be looking after the girl and felt a little responsible for that. Tinkle, tinkle little scar, how I wonder what you are… Psytopia Adagio 1

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I said a little responsible; the rest of her brain was still trying to work out why she was safe from shatter-storms.

CRACK! Oh yes, the shatter-storm. It was dissipating now. And that meant the juttersnaps were beginning to scuttle away. “I don’t know why I’m doing this anyway.” She wrapped her finger in a tassel torn from her dress as the others joined them out in the shattered sun. Shook her head at Mikado and her majick book. Uh-uh; she really didn’t want to go there… AZRAEL: “We’re not going to get our teeth, are we?” REMEDY: “Lickle mites tried, though…” AZRAEL: “We need our sword sheaths.” REMEDY: “I tag that boss. We need ‘em right where they are.” AZRAEL: “They’ve got to be protecting the most important thing.” REMEDY: “And that they are.” AZRAEL: “I mean they’ve got to be…” REMEDY: “Yur-huh! Check, check, check.” AZRAEL: (Taking her wrist) “Remedy, the most important thing is Miki’s head.” REMEDY: “Sayz you!” A brief pause. Four pairs of eyes and a spacious galactic vista digging at her like dirks. She sighed. And swung her arms limply in defeat. REMEDY: “OK, OK, I bow; you'se can have the sheaths.” AZRAEL: “Thank…” REMEDY: “But what if there are rag-tags?” AZRAEL: “Remedy…” REMEDY: ”Über squibs?” AZRAEL: ”Remedy…” REMEDY: “Hordes of rabid Anarchists high on swordstril blood?” Psytopia Adagio 1

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AZRAEL: (Firmly) “The sheaths.” REMEDY: “Hack…” Now Azrael had three sheaths. His and hers. Remedy cuddled the Holy Judgement and the Blessed Angel as if they were toddlers. So bare and fragile to this world… AZRAEL: “OK, here’s the plan. Once the storm hits, we shelter. Whatever happens we need Miki’s head in the game.” (AZRAEL and MIKADO exchange loving wrist locks. REMEDY pretends to be sick) AZRAEL: “We wrap the sheaths round her head and she’ll be safe. Melodi. You hold the majick tome. Close to your chest, alright?” (MELODI shrugs, which we’ll take as a nod) AZRAEL: “Then we run. If any of us break something, she’ll heal it. If her head goes, we all go.” REMEDY: “What if… aw, check.” Remedy’s beloved blades resigned to the bitter whim of chance. You can’t heal shattered swords, you know. Once it’s over, it’s over. The storm was almost on them, so let’s see how this plan works.

You’ll be pleased to know common sense prevailed. Unless you’re some kind of Anarchist. In which case what are you doing reading Academy material anyway? I suppose if you’re an Anarchist you can do whatever you like.

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That’s why it shines like a floodlight in a fog. Funny how people (and similarly, Psytopians) always try to find murkier ways round. Obadiah first, plodding away down the narrow path before him, shattered rocks and splintered branches crushed like brittle ice sculptures under his mammoth feet. Then it was Mikado; the most vital piece of the jigsaw. Azrael next, their prize asset packed between the hardest-hitting fighters in the party. Just in case Remedy’s unlikely band of rag-tags showed up. Mikado in her ridiculous sword sheath headdress and her notquite-fit-for-sprinting shoes. Azrael, dutiful as ever, watching her feet in case she fell.

Melodi next, swift of foot but unsure of step. That’s alright; it wasn’t as if the storm was going to catch her. She supposed she’d be read the riot act if she loosened her grip on that tome and let it smash into shatters. Especially if somebody broke their skull in the interim.

Mana’s turn to join the precession, worried as a little mouse Psytopia Adagio 1

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huddled under the sofa shivering at the sound of the Rentokill van pulling up in the driveway as he added up the distance to the fuzz-field, their pace, the impending maelstrom… He’d be sweating buckets if pyronettes had the glands for such things. Last was Remedy. Keep those swords close at hand sister blitzer, and make haste of it; luckily she was the swiftest of foot and surest of step of the lot of them, fingers crossed like duelling sabres.

CRACK! A stone beneath her foot.

CRACK! A twig breezing by her ear.

CRACK! A gust of wind kicked up by her gliding boot. All wrenched asunder in spectacular shatters. All the fun of the fair, and if fairs existed in Psytopia, Remedy would have been a fan. The speedier, more chaotic the ride the better. Just so long as the health of her tangy metri babies weren’t on the line.

CRACK! A withered tree trunk half in, half out of the fuzz-field. Slit in two as if fallen foul of a shadowy assassin. Obadiah turning on his meaty ankle in response. Almost bundling Mikado through into the next plateau with force enough to crush her. That would have been irony at it’s most sadistic, wouldn’t it? CRACK! Azrael had smiled to himself as his girlfriend escaped the plate. Not so gleeful as his wrist shattered, leaving his hand to hang like a dead man on a noose. Don’t take your eye off the ball; you ain’t out of Dodge just yet. CRACK! The edge of Mikado’s tome as Melodi strolled through the shattered boulders, exploding here and there like land-mines. A guilty frown crept across her face. Cover that book up, blue girl. The storm might not kill you, but other people might. CRACK! Psytopia Adagio 1

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Azrael and Mana through the fuzz-field. CRACK! Melodi next. CRACK! Now Remedy was alone, sprinting for the finish line.

CRACK! The fallen tree beside her.

CRACK! The rocky outcrop as she sped by.

CRACK! The path before her split across the middle, causing her to correct her step.

CRACK! And again, split the other way, forcing another readjustment.

CRACK! Yet again; the road ahead becoming increasingly less straight than it was meant to be. The clearest road is always the brightest?

CRACK! Path ahead again, shatters growing faster and faster.

CRACK! And again, like sprinting across an icy lake in big lead boots.

CRACK! Teeth grit so tight they could shatter of their own accord, the path a random nightmare; an accident waiting to happen.

CRACK! The very air before her face. A single, deadly crack in the fabric of the ether itself meandering towards her, playing chicken with the forces of nature. “Yeeeeek…” Remedy ducking as quickly as instinct would allow, under the guillotine crack, off flustered heels, through the fuzz-field. And not a moment too soon. The only damage was to the tread of her boots. Let’s not play chicken with nature again. Or we'll end up butchered into nuggets.

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It was shadowy on the Grey Plateau. Not shadowy because it was night-time; shadowy because it was full. That’s the problem with dark matter. It has a tendency to consume things. So welcome to the Grey Plateau. 99.9% dark, ugly, belching factory. 0.1% concrete walkway lined with whistling chimney pots; belching fire and smog. Nice plate… if you place no value on the functionality of your lungs.

Since they didn’t make postcards in Psytopia, and since if they did make postcards, nobody in their right mind would make one of this, you’re going to have to picture the place yourself. The Grey Plateau was a land of ugly cement slabs set out in squares across the floor. Ugly slabs with thick, ugly ridges. Ugly chimney pots lining the concrete walkway all around the plate. Poking their ugly heads out of the ground like half-buried cobras. Their ugly mouths belching fire, their ugly top-hats spewing smog. Just plain ugly. And the factory itself... The word ‘ugly’ didn’t even suffice. A big, dark, dreary, ugly grey monstrosity stretching everywhere you looked. So ugly it was lucky the groggy mist secluded it in shadows. Yes, an eyesore, and an earsore, and a lungsore. Makes you wonder who dreamed it up.

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As luck would have it, Academy students were trained from an early age to regulate their breathing, and to pluck and recycle oxygen from inhospitable atmospheres. Filtering took concentration though. With enough concentration, they could even breathe underwater. Although convincing your body you’re not drowning isn’t easy. With enough concentration, you can probably even create life, the universe and everything. But that would be a whole novel unto itself. Let’s stick with sucking in oxygen. You know; the necessary stuff.

Filtering was a process which all Academy students were advised to practice on a daily (or roundly) basis. It was as natural and regular as brushing your teeth. More natural in fact. Like breathing, which is essentially what it was, only more so. Incidentally, Psytopians didn’t brush their teeth. The food they ate did it for them. In fact, only cannibals tended to have bad teeth. That’s how you spot a cannibal. Easy, huh? But rest assured the swordstrils won’t turn to cannibalism. There’s no dictum that says ‘keep your friends close and your enemies so close the only way to be sure is to eat them.’ Filtering was done using a nose/mouthpiece not unlike an asthma inhaler, except that it was constructed in a pyramid of small triangles connected to a wall-mounted screen not unlike the charts of letters you find at the optician’s. These boxes were weighed by springs and opened by sucking through the inhaler. When you can open any box at will without the inhaler… Then you can probably siphon oxygen out of anything. So you know; the necessary skills. “I’s not too ‘pressed with this pliz.” The density of the air made Remedy feel like she was wading through treacle. With big boots on. While glugging down superglue. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Mana sat down and counted on his fingers. Melodi rolled her eyes. Pyronettes don’t need to breathe, silly. They’re not unlike spooks in that respect. Only Obadiah found the strength to shift himself through the heavy soot clouds. He was the strongest among them after all, plus he had an agenda. His lungs moved automatically towards his windpipe, expanding on contact. Anatomy can be a very tactful thing. So there he was, without a word, trudging in his usual sluggish posture towards what appeared to be some kind of door. Time to exorcise a few ghosts. Or in other words, to set some free. And to create one more. BANG! BANG! BANG! Meaty scaled fist against thick black concrete door. “OPEN! OPEN!” Places to go, reptiles to kill… Nobody’s home, muscle head. Either that or there are so many people home there’s no space for one of them to push through and answer the door. His fear of the dark seemed to have dissipated. Because anger burns like a roaring torch. “What is thiz pliz?” A coughing Remedy plonked herself down by Mana on the walkway ridge. Bring back napalm-belching übersaurs; all is forgiven. “I don’t know…” Mikado didn’t know; they’d clearly ventured further than the Academy tyebrarians.

You’ll be pleased to hear that unlike Mikado, my knowledge isn’t limited to that of the various complex sculptures of the tyebrary. But in any case if I told you, I wouldn’t have to kill you. Because if you knew, you’d be dead already. Psytopia Adagio 1

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People lived simply in Psytopia. Thank Zarathustra for that. And their lives were much richer for it. They knew nothing of manufacture, industry, commerce and every form of physical, political and ideological pollution which goes with it, and if they did they’d probably puke. Then they’d bulldoze it… If bulldozers weren’t the preserve of manufacture, industry and commerce in the first place. So why the factory? Ah-ha! The burning, smouldering, smoking, bubbling, putrid red smog-belching question. The factory was probably a left-over from a more industrial era. An era which time forgot. It hadn’t been so big when they built it; it had grown. Because it had nowhere to place its produce but into its own heaving belly. Chugging along as machinery does, churning out whatever it always churned out with nobody to stop by and say wait a minute, we don’t need that shit anymore. Food? Weaponry? Expensive sports cars? Super computers? Designer clothes? Who cares? Just sit back and suck in the fumes. The only difference between this factory and the rest was that nobody had pulled the plug. Nobody had dared. Because I’ll let you in on a secret which nobody else knows about. This dirty little hell-hole produced a special service. This was a vice extraction facility. Who knows what kind of Pandora’s box you’d be opening if you switched it off? “I can’t imagine what this is, but I don’t think I like it.” Mikado straightened her dress, flicked her heels and took in her new surroundings. Everything felt heavier than it should. Constrictingly so. “I’s feelin’ chuggy-muggy.” Remedy turned up her nose, hung her head and twiddled a sword hilt in her hand. External stimuli just about keeping her awake. Almost as if the weight of this place was sinking it into the Second Heaven. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Thank Zarathustra for the walkway. Built for travellers who (and who could blame them) didn't fancy sticking around. Like the rim of the jail square on a Monopoly board. Just visiting… we hope. So that was the route Azrael chose to travel. The long way round is an acceptable alternative when point A to point B is downright dangerous. So there we are; big, ugly black shape in the smog, belching out red mist which faded to grey and began to grip your skin, your blood, your soul if you day dreamed long enough to be hooked. And a kiosk sitting there by the blast doors, illuminated by a single bulb of light. “Let’s take a look at that.” Azrael leading Mikado by the hand as Obadiah’s endless thumps got him nowhere. “Az, shouldn’t we be getting…” ”It's alright Miki; just curious.” “You’se two go look, I’ll… maintain the rearguard.” Remedy wheezing like a hay fever sufferer at a flower show. She should have paid more attention in sinus regulation classes. She’d have kicked herself if she had the breath for it. Azrael examined the kiosk with a laboured squint. Battling through the mist. A frosted plastic box the size and shape of a coffin. It's alright, it wasn’t a coffin; they cremated the dead in Psytopia. He wiped the surface with a hand to reveal a figure in the box. Plump-faced, gangly-jawed, spiky-haired, dressed in gothic lace. Mouth hanging open mid-chuckle. A mannequin. Like the kind of thing you'd find at 50's fairgrounds or dilapidated piers; a wind-up dummy in a box. Open hand prompting passers-by to cross its palm with silver for a fortune or an unfunny joke. A timepiece, an echo, a fragment out of place. Well if you’re unsure of what path to choose and there’s nobody else around, you may as well ask the dummy. Psytopia Adagio 1

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“That’s an ugly… thing.” Mikado studied its bushy eyebrows and cherry-red cheeks. “It's like a fake person.” “And not a very good fake person at that.” ”Barter doll. Gives and takes. A jack in the box.” Melodi was feeling unusually informative. And surprise, surprise; the fog didn’t appear to affect her. There are advantages to being strange.

Dolls served unknown purposes in Psytopia. You may find a few here and there. They were generally seen as temporary vessels. To house consciousnesses which had lost their forms. You may see a few ghosts in Psytopia too. Ghosts were usually less threatening than dolls; because though they might jump out and say boo, ghosts can’t affect our world. Dolls were another matter entirely. Ghosts are people who’ve parted; that’s not so scary. Dolls house people who in some twisted way are still here. But doll arts were shrouded in mystery and it just wouldn’t do for me to talk about them here. The Assembly of Tutors would advise me to steer clear altogether. But remember, sometimes you may be seeing dolls and ghosts and you might not know it. So pay attention… “Well, whatever it is, perhaps it holds the key to the building.” “Key?” At last Obadiah ended his merciless knuckle-rapping of the door. If you can’t force your way in, think. “It’s just a theory; I mean there are no handles on the door. No windows. Nothing but this.” Azrael wiped more dust from the glass. Black as it settled but smearing a sickly red on his skin. Melodi trembled uneasily, backing away as Azrael wiped his stained hands on his clothing.

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Smothered on material the dust once again appeared black. “That thing’s really spooky. Eerie... frightening.” Melodi crossed her arms, looked away and sulked. “It's spiteful. I don’t like it.” “Look; there are hand prints.” Azrael had finished dusting off the kiosk. ”Or pads of some sort.” Mikado examined them more closely. The prints were stamped onto the glass a shoulder width apart. Clustered with tiny electrodes not unlike pores. “So you think we’re meant to put our palms here, and…” The dummy’s eyes appearing to stare at him with glee. “I don’t know if I want you to touch it Az.” Mikado pulled his arm back with a flustered pout. “I try.” Obadiah’s hands already on the pads, almost crushing the plastic like balsa. A jolt and a jump from all in attendance. The dummy’s eyes lighting up like strobe lights. Its head bobbing like a dingy on water. Its body shaking like a toolbox on the back seat as a rusty old car shudders over speed bumps. “Mmmm.” Obadiah winced a little. Mechanical judders and mechanical clicks; the doll’s mouth falling open and snapping shut. Eyebrows rising and falling like windscreen wipers. Scratchy computerised chortle stuttering out of a badly concealed microphone in its tongue, sounding like a poorly recorded keyboard chime. Rainbow bulbs around the rim of the kiosk; some functional, some blown; colours rolling around the dirty glass box like worker ants dabbed with luminous paint marching around a branch or gleaming shards falling from an electronic waterfall. Yeah well, this thing is a metaphor itself; or something scarier. Melodi hid her head in her hands and sat so close to Mana he felt his skin would burst. The Grey Plateau would become a lot more full of space then… Psytopia Adagio 1

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The ugly dummy jolted up and down in its box. Rubbed its ample belly with a bent and broken hand. ‘What will you feed me to make me less full?‘ ‘What will you feed me to make me less full?” “What does it mean?” Mikado spoke over the squeaky machine’s buzzing repetition of the phrase. Obadiah’s hands still pressed against the glass. “I want get in.” ’What will you feed me to make me less full?’ ‘What will you feed me to make me less full?’ “Let me in.” ”What will you feel me to make me less full?” “Perhaps it needs some kind of code.” Azrael bravely sporting his thinking cap. “Leave it alone, leave it alone, leave it alone…” Melodi spoke under her breath, clinging to Mana as if attached by an umbilical cord. “Let me in.” Obadiah’s teeth making an audible crunching sound. ‘What will you feed me to make me less full?‘ ‘What will you feed me to make me less full?’ “Jus’ go on and feed the jangly scratch Obi and shut it up.” Remedy couldn’t hear herself think, let alone breathe. ‘What will you feed me to make me less full?’ ‘What will you feed me to make me less full?’ “Maybe some kind of offering?” Mikado felt as if ts chattering face was staring right through her. Sure, it was only an object, but should objects feel so… menacing? Wherever she moved, its eyes seemed to be glaring straight at, and through her stomach. The doll was bloated. Bloated like the building before it. Too full. Like I say, that’s dark matter for you; not a light load. Psytopia Adagio 1

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AZRAEL: “Like Melodi said; maybe we barter?” DUMMY: ‘What will you feed me to make me less full? What will you feed me to make me less full?’ OBADIAH: “Let me in!” DUMMY: ‘What will you feed me to make me less full? What will you feed me… (etc) MELODI: “Leave it alone, leave it alone, leave it alone…” OBADIAH: “Zephaniah in here.” MELODI: “Leave it alone, leave it alone, leave it alone…” DUMMY: ‘What will you feed me to make me less full? OBADIAH: “I need to get to Zephaniah!” MELODI: “Leave it alone, leave it alone, leave it alone…” DUMMY: ‘What will you feed me to make me... OBADIAH: “I’d feed you anything to get to Zephaniah!” MELODI: (Sobbing) “Don’t feed it, don’t feed it…” DUMMY: ‘What will you... OBADIAH: “I’d give my life to get to Zephaniah!” DUMMY: ‘A fair barter.’ The dummy’s head dropped. Lights flicker off. Lifeless once more. “What happened?” “I don’t know.” Azrael and Mikado, holding wrists. Obadiah’s temperature simmering down. Melodi crying plum-purple tears in the corner. Purple tears soaking Mana’s clothes a curious green before fading back to their original hue. Curious in that purple and purple shouldn’t make green. Didn’t add up. He almost managed to sum up the courage to comfort her, but instead settled for shuffling aside. ‘Why can’t you people leave things alone…’ The blast doors clunking open just a tad. Barely enough for a particularly determined parahack to reorganise his organs and squeeze through into the darkness. “Obi! Come back!” Psytopia Adagio 1

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Not easy when big concrete blast doors slam shut in your face. Grading points, Azrael. Grading points slipping away. “We’ve got to go after him.” BANG! BANG! BANG! on the door. “Obi! Obi! Let us in!” A law of nature; concrete blast doors tend not to give way however much you pummel them; the evidence has already been supplied. Azrael suddenly as determined as his cold-blooded counterpart. Mikado grasped his wrist. “Az, This is freaking me out.” The dummy’s inanimate eyes still staring through her. But following Azrael wherever he moved, if that makes sense. Quick nod. Quick hold of the wrist. Quick supportive smile. Didn’t make things better. AZRAEL: “It’s OK. This thing’s designed to put people off. It’s a trick.” MIKADO: “A trick?” AZRAEL: “A scare tactic. It must be programmed to respond to certain words. Or maybe fear; it’s the most powerful weapon there is.” MIKADO: “But Obadiah wasn’t…” AZRAEL: “I don’t know how it works Miki but I know its not… haunted.” She’d never said it was. But come to think of it… She nervously stroked her midsection, took a deep breath. Medicians know how to filter, but when there’s so much crap... Psytopia Adagio 1

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AZRAEL: “Perhaps Zephaniah’s controlling it. Perhaps this doll reads Obadiah’s intentions.” MIKADO: ”I don’t feel it’s Zephaniah, Az. Something else. Its eyes…” AZRAEL: ”It’s a hoax, Miki. It’s only an object. We’ve just got to find the trigger.” MIKADO: ”Obi said he’d give his life…” AZRAEL: ”But it didn’t kill him, did it? He didn’t lose his life to get in.” MIKADO: ”No, but Azrael…” AZRAEL: ”A hoax. A trick. And an old one; we know better now. All I have to do is repeat what Obi said, then I can go in after him. I don’t have to give anything to get in there.” Azrael’s hand on a pad; dummy’s eyes lighting up like strobes. Judder, shudder; little jab. “Ow!” Like a pin-prick on Azrael’s fingertips. Lights flicker like luminous ants, electric waterfalls; whatever. Badly recorded computer chime chortle. Hand circling belly. ‘What will you feed me to make me less full?’ ‘What will you feed me to make me less full?” Remy comforting a sobbing Melodi; “Please, please leave it alone…” Mikado’s palm beating Azrael’s to the other pad, cutting him off. “Az… yow!” “Miki….” ’A fair barter.’ Lights off, eyes dead. Dummy shudders to a halt. Blast doors clunk open. Azrael’s smile as broad as a sword slit across the chest of an übersaur. “See? Two people’s hands on it and it malfunctions; it’ll let anyone in. It's just so old Obi had to shift the dust.” Mikado smiled back, sucking a pin-pricked finger. Wasn’t too harmful; perhaps fear really was all in her head.

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MIKADO: (Squeezes AZRAEL’S wrist) “OK. I see. I was being stupid.” AZRAEL: (Squeezing back) ”That’s alright. It’s a weird world.” MIKADO: ”Full of weird things.” AZRAEL: ”And weird things don’t work so well if you don’t believe in them.” MIKADO: ”That way they don’t seem so weird?” AZRAEL: “We’ll go after Obi. I’ll keep you close. Remy can look after the kids.” A sigh of relief; what was she doing not trusting him? Fearing for his safety; he being so precious to her. Azrael and Mikado, through the blast doors and into the darkness. As they dutifully clank shut. Which left Remedy to play the nanny. “Well kitz, since I’s boss now, how about I show yez some tangy swordstry and we have fun?” Melodi snivelling to herself like a baby having lost her rattle. ‘You should have left it alone…’ There wasn’t much space to move inside the factory complex. There was barely enough to shift oneself ever-so-slowly towards where one wanted to go. Not that one could see where one wanted to go and not that one could discern directions. But as long as one is holding on to the one one loves, one will find the way. So dense they’d almost reached a singularity, but as long as one or both of them survives this one, the two of them will be happy. “I can’t see anything.” Mikado’s words took so long to exit her mouth that Azrael’s reached her before she finished. “Where are we?” In actual fact, Azrael had spoken first. “I don’t know.” They were talking over each other now. Swimming in… something…

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Now, I don’t want to let cats out of bags here… (Although I’d try to avoid trapping felines in small plastic receptacles in the first place, as this doesn’t seem like a particularly humane idea, and knowing cats they’ll probably get their bitter revenge somehow) . But secrets aren’t worth having if there isn’t a danger somebody’s going to reveal them. So I’ll let you in on a few minor mysteries about Psytopia’s past. Back in times of yore, people were less chivalrous. Less orderly. Of course, the shift towards chivalry was largely the Academy’s work, or at least, the work of those who founded it. Before the ecological revolution there were vice extraction plants, and they sucked in all of society’s negative vibes like big, ugly vacuum cleaners. Then they melted them down using a steam-driven process not unlike fractional distillation, moulded the nasty, dirty leftovers into blocks of silty black cement and stacked and packed them ready for transportation to building sites in faraway corners of the wide, wild world. This factory wasn’t the only one of its kind, and there were also plenty of kinds; by that I mean plenty of kinds of vice-siphoning technologies, and wider and wilder stuff than that. Essentially this belching abomination produced thick, bad vibes. The sternest stuff you'd ever need to build out of. Dark matter; it’s in our very souls, clogging them up. Without it, oh how free we’d be. But spoiler alert; freedom wasn’t so easy to come by, times changed and vice extraction plants kept piling up block upon block upon block. When you think about it, vice extraction is a great idea. Like taking CO2 out of aerosols. Pull away people’s bad deeds and they don’t have to pay for them… well somebody will have to pay down the line. You can’t escape the repercussions of actions. You can’t destroy energy, you can only convert it. That goes for the psychic, karmic kind too. Bad vibes sitting in black blocks like fossils in limestone. Jurassic Park waiting to happen. Like asbestos in the architecture. Don’t tell the kids what their school’s made of and we’ll be OK. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Frankenstein's monster, you see? Don’t want to make it angry... Flick the switch and it might well turn. So you see what the fat cats with the fail-safe keys were afraid of. Why they just pretended it didn’t exist. You can tell if a nightmare is real; you can’t wake from it.

Or put a slightly different way…

Being non-conformist doesn’t mean you have to shy away from common sense. Or maybe catch culture was so non-conformist it said ‘sod you freaks, I’ll do what the rest do.’ But as far as the big guns who built this factory went… Steam roll the world first, ask questions later.

And…

“Az.” “Miki.” Pause. Catch up.

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It was like talking to somebody on the other side of the world, forgetting about the time lag. Wading through the sludge. Smog in an increasingly more solidified state, becoming matter. “I’ll squeeze your hand when I’m going to start speaking, OK? You do the same.” MIKADO: (Squeeze) “OK. That makes sense.” AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “It’s so dense in here even our words have slowed down.” MIKADO: (Squeeze) “Can you see?” AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “No. Nothing.” MIKADO: (Squeeze) “Are we swimming or floating?” AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “A bit of both? It feels like root paste... doesn’t taste as good though…” MIKADO: (Squeeze) “I’m trying to move. Are you trying to move?” AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “If we both try to move together, perhaps we’ll get somewhere.” MIKADO: (Squeeze) “How about up?” AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “That makes sense. If feels a little thinner up there.” MIKADO: (Squeeze) “What about Obi?” AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “He’s stronger but heavier. I think his scales do the syphoning somehow.” MIKADO: (Squeeze) “He’ll need to get to the surface too.. if there is one.” AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “Are you whispering?” MIKADO: (Squeeze) “Shouting.” AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “Me too. We should conserve our energy.”

Let’s call the thick, silty, oily substance they were swimming in sour grapes. There’s no real reason why. It’s just that if I feed you too many amalgamated words my spell check is going to explode. It was the puss-like substance sucked into the plant by an antenna on top, slowly being reconstituted into slabs. Kind of makes you diving into it look like a worst and worse idea. In any case, if you’re sinking in sludge, the only way is up. Even big, ambling parahack know that. Psytopia Adagio 1

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So here they were, Azrael and Mikado, swimming through silty, karmic muck. When something unexpected happened. Azrael saw a shape. This was strange because the muck was so tightly packed around him that he literally couldn’t see his own hand in front of his face, let alone Mikado’s. But he did see a figure. A female figure in white clothes. Long and glittery and buckled and strappy like a betrothment dress. Flowing robes draped scrappily across her torso like ribbons. A thick, red line of shadow across her eyes like a visor; pale red pupils almost bursting like splitting atoms. Red scarves, veils and shawls covering her hands, feet and facial features, red material billowing behind her like scraps of paper fixed to an electric fan. Were they scarves, veils and shawls or something else? Falling toward them from above, gliding down through the pulp. Azrael squeezed Mikado’s wrist. “What is that?” She squeezed back. “What’s what? I don’t see anything.” “She’s coming straight for us.” Evasive manoeuvres. Paddle the feet. Hardly going anywhere. MIKADO: us?” AZRAEL: MIKADO: AZRAEL: me.”

(Squeeze) “Who’s coming straight for (Squeeze) “She’s reaching for us.” (Squeeze) “Az, you’re scaring me.” (Squeeze) “She’s… she’s reaching for

Reaching with gangly arms and bleeding fingers. Bleeding; not scarves and veils and shawls. Staring; eyes punctured with billowing red ribbons. Billowing out of her eye sockets, behind her head and into the blind gunk behind. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Mikado squeezed harder. The ghoul’s mouth open. White and wide and stuffed with billowing red ribbons. Drifting down towards him; almost on top of him. Freaky pupils splitting into threes. Reaching at his head, his throat, his heart. Bloody ribbons enveloping her face, her murky voice reverberating through the dark. ‘ECOV ED RARBMEL EM ERPMES UOY UE…’ “Az? Az!” Mikado more desperate as she received no response. Tugging at his arm. Waking him up? AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “She’s gone.” MIKADO: (Squeeze) “Who’s gone? What did you see?” AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “I don’t know. A girl.” MIKADO: (Squeeze) “Where?” AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “She was falling down towards us, and she spoke to me.” MIKADO: (Squeeze) “What did she say?” AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “I don’t know. It was nonsense.” MIKADO: (Squeeze) “You imagined it. This stuff we’re swimming in; it’s creepy. Makes me feel...” AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “I know. It has some kind of psychological effect. I feel it too.” MIKADO: (Squeeze) “We seriously need to get out of here.”

It goes without saying that bad vibes carried some horrendous ingredients; generally fractured memories and intentions. I’m not sure which of those is the most terrifying. One haunts you, the other threatens you. In any case, leave bad vibes alone and they’ll knit themselves into the most horrific things. Psytopia Adagio 1

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I’m talking about bad vibes in your head as well as those confined to vice extraction facilities. Why did Azrael see this woman in white? I don’t know; I’m a narrator, not a psychiatrist. But I’ll say this... When fully submerged in karmic tripe, it’s likely it’ll mess with your head- after all, sour grapes are other people’s footprints. Who knows what kind of spooks awaited in the depths, searching for new vessels? The world works in vicious circles. We'd all do well to remember that. Meanwhile, some light-hearted entertainment. “So… The first thing to bear in mind about swordstry is the breeze.” Remedy dragged herself up with the aid of both swords, held like crutches; if she could teach breeze in a sleaze-fog, she really was a pioneer of her art. “And don’t let no block-fisted square-lace tell ya any different.”

Remedy’s play, Remedy’s way. Just don’t assume your graduation certificate is gonna be accepted anywhere within thirty plates of the Academy. Are we sitting comfortably? Well, I’ll begin regardless.

Gather thee, moy glitzy kitz kidz, and listen thee well. Every sword has an owner and preferably every owner has a sword. And you gotta hold on to it. This is why we have Academy Dictum Number One. Psytopia Adagio 1

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That’s one piece of kniz moy tends to agree with. Can’t cut coco without a coco-cutter, as I like to say. Them funky tizzles make us swordstrils swords and they make ‘em well in advance of training. Now I’d imagine if you’se two’s got swords somewhere, they’re built for ya, but we’ll just have to improvise.

Why, oh why is that number ninety eight? Got to be more important than that. Remedy didn’t understand tutors sometimes. So Mana, you take the Holy Judgement.

Looks uncomfortable. Staggers a bit. Sighs. Holds on.

HOLD- Both hands desperately gripping the handle. Blade vertical, no; diagonal… No… wavering. STAND- Staggering. VISION- Who can tell? Does he even see at all? APPROACH- Hold the sword, look marginally happy and hope she leaves him alone. ATTITUDE- Pretty much the same as ‘approach’. Psytopia Adagio 1

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That one’s built for pace, sparkleplug. Bangin’ pace. Yeah I know ya can flow supersonic when ya wanna. You sees the trippy zippiness of the metal? Swish it, siz; zzzzzz. Hear that? Zzzzzzzz. You swish it speedy enough and ya can’t even see it. And that symbol on the end? That’s a musical note, they say, whatever that is. Nobody knows why that’s there. See’s speccy. Mel; you take the Blessed Angel, angel. Oh, just take it sister blitzer and you’se be a kiticlaw in no time. Moy class is one short, see? Reckon a lickle blue girl like you could level them stats.

Puts it down. Receives the evil eye. Picks it up. Does she have to? “Come on siz, they says you knows a sword’s right for you the moment you touch it.” Well in that case, she could… “You knows a sword’s right…” Looks like she had to, then.

HOLD- Resting on the shoulder when she could get away with it. STAND- Souched, hand on hips when Remedy wasn’t looking. VISION- Are you kidding? Eyes like that ‘see’ everything. APPROACH- Wish, hope and curse a little, and perhaps she could warp the fabric of time and space and make it so she'd dived into the sour grape pulp like the others instead. ATTITUDE- Grin and bear it, minus the grinning. And she could swear the blade pointed at her like a magnet every time she looked away… Psytopia Adagio 1

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This one’s crafty, mini kiti. Counter. You know; back up the track. Although you don’t use it for counter, that’d be blocky. You use it so you can cling to things while the rest runs wild. It glows the faster you spin. Closer to the Fourth Heaven see? Knows where it’s gotta goes. Hands up, any questions? MELODI: I thought Psytopians say there are only three Heavens. MANA: (Nah, no questions) Well, yes and no and… well yes, but… Yeeps, this teachin’ jig’s sour on the coco, huh? It’ll be our lil’ secret, kitz. Hush n’ zip ‘cept you, an’ you… an’ me, never uttered or shared. >There’s another Heaven out there kiddyclaws.< >When ya spin trippy you spies it.< >But them tutors don’t like it ‘cos they don’t tag things they can’t hack, ya ‘stand me?< >Totality we says, and trust moy sizuz, it’s cool.<

AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “I keep seeing things.” MIKADO: (Squeeze) “Me too. Close your eyes.” AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “That doesn’t seem to help.” MIKADO: (Squeeze) “Then you know the things you’re seeing aren’t there.” AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “You’re right.” Mikado always had a way of turning ailments into medicine. Azrael saw flailing limbs, burning skulls, broken blades and various beasties he would have slain... If they’d been real. Someone else’s nightmares. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Mikado saw faceless figures she thought she should have recognised, trailing away from her in the dark like shrieking bathers with ankles trapped in boat propellers, dragged under. A gash ghostly around her waist. The twisted corpses of bloody babies seeping from her side. These could have been her own nightmares, and if they weren’t before they were now. All in all it’s a good thing Academy students didn’t sleep. But they certainly heard things. Azrael heard things cutting through Mikado’s voice like daggers. Making no sense at all. ‘IAP’ ‘SEDADUAS OTNIS ’ ‘UONODNABA EM ECOV’ ‘ECOV ED OSICERP UE’ ‘OTNEMOM ELEUQAD ORBMEL ERPMES UE’ ‘UOTAM EM ECOV!’ The faces in the gloop. In the gunge, in the grime, in his head. Skulls, ghouls, ghosties. Reaching, staring, blood stained little girls with triple pupils... Melodi? GHOST MELODI: ‘NESSALEG ENIELLA MUART MENIED NI HCIM TSAH UD!’ AZRAEL: “SHUT UP!” MIKADO: (Squeeze) “Az?” AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “I thought I saw Melodi this time, but pale and with bulbous eyes like...” MIKADO: (Squeeze) “It’s the lack of oxygen” AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “I can see something else.” MIKADO: (Squeeze) “It's not real.” AZRAEL: (Squeeze) “No. I can see… light.”

SPLASH! Through the surface, covered in sour-grape pulp. And breathing much better, I’ll have you know. Right up until…

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PARRIED! AZRAEL: Evasive cross-face cover Mega-sword hits foamy oil surface with a momentous ‘SPLOSH!’ Thankfully, treading water wasn’t much effort. This gloop was almost thick enough to stand in. “Miki, get as far away as you can.” Typical; surfacing right in the middle of the battle of the parahack.

Obadiah and friends Obadiah (pick-up), assisted (by choice or otherwise) by Azrael (pre-grad) and Mikado (elective) Zephaniah All on his lonesome but far more accustomed to the industrial sludge than the rest of them.

A factory load of muck with only six feet of breathing space between the surface and the corrugated factory roof.

Like I say, Zephaniah was far more used to the gunk than the others and this is why…

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A rather insane parahack. And ergo, Obadiah’s chosen nemesis. -His lookHe was reptilian. He looked like a reptile. He was scaly. He was once orange but his scales had turned a grimy white. Parched in random swirls by the karmic gunk. Not the greatest skin care in the world, I’ll have you know. But the gunk had also built up his muscles. So just imagine Obadiah on steroids. -His getupThick, craggy armour made of factory-grade grey concrete. If you looked closely enough you could see petrified faces on the surface; eaten-in by the terror in the goo. Desperately clinging to the identities the stuff had been sucked out of. But hit his armour hard enough and you’d probably break your hand. He wore a bandana over his head as scant protection for his skull; couldn’t wear factory grade concrete there because the stuff was crawling with nanos and it’d drive him mad… although it seems we’re already too late for that. He carried a set of bitterly sharp prongs, scimitars and hatchets… in his teeth. No, wait; those were his teeth, and they were decidedly dirtylooking. Remember what I said about cannibalism? This twisted prack’s been eating sour grapes; the bi-products of people. Soylent grey. He’s been living on fractured consciousnesses and that’s enough to confuse anybody. And if Obi knew he’d been consuming gloop without even garnishing it with grutan paste… Well, then he’d just have to die. There was space for one more dust portrait on the cyan dunes… OBADIAH: Double-handed hack HIT! ZEPHANIAH: Midsection. No damage ZEPHANIAH: Downward diagonal whack HIT! OBADIAH: Chest. Grimaces OBADIAH: Double-handed cross-face swipe HIT! ZEPHANIAH: Shoulder plate. No damage Psytopia Adagio 1

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ZEPHANIAH: Overhand bowling slash HIT! OBADIAH: Neck. Brushes it off They could go on like this round after round. In fact, they probably would. Taking it in turns to beat each other’s heads into sickly purée. Time to sound in the cavalry. “You’se two’s got that, hey?” Mana and Mel; away from the smelting pan but playing with fire. Lickle kitties sprawled, swords tossed here and there on the floor. Dictum number one?!? No Remedy; they didn’t get it. The fresher took a deep breath. Funny. When she was teaching swordplay (badly), filtering oxygen was easier. That was because she’d been drilled on correct breathing while learning flashier things. If she’d been told while she was doing it, she wouldn’t have bothered. So when instinct kicked in she was fine. Although structured breathing doesn’t stop a swordstril from hallucinating… “Hey? Who’s there?” ”Who’s where?” Melodi’s words were growing all the more hazy as she went. Her exhaustion causing her focus to slip. “That. That noise. Mojo?” ”Who’s Mojo?” Drowsy or not, Melodi didn’t sense anybody else here. Even Mana ventured a shrug. ”You squibs ain’t gonna get Mojo; oh no.” Remedy grabbing the blades back from her reluctant students. Not that either were complaining, but it raises the question… “Remedy, who are you talking to?”

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Less of the talking, more of the fighting. They were ethereal at first; ethereal flame, circling her like little blazing tornadoes. Circling the two of them, back to back. Though it was possible she wasn’t seeing things quite straight…

This is gonna be a tough one to call… Remedy It’s just Remedy, but she thinks Mojo’s there too, bless her. Plus Melodi (bemused pick-up) and Mana (ditto) The contents of Remedy’s mind Basically made up of beings constructed of flame, generally humanoid with fiery limbs, fiery faces and fiery swords. I’d hasten a guess that this stemmed from her pyro addiction. But like I say, I’m a narrator not a psychologist.

The narrow black-slabbed rim of the Grey Plateau, complete with chattering chimney tops, thick smog and oh look; hallucinations. So look around; you’ll see whatever you want (or fear) to see.

Remedy assumed what she believed to be a strong, subtle stance… Oh dear. Psytopia Adagio 1

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HOLD- Both blades: wrists bent, dragging on the floor. STAND- One leg slightly forward to prevent herself falling over. Yeah. No… She wasn’t sure which leg was which. VISION- Looking down, bedraggled hair over eyes, sweat pouring from forehead. APPROACH- See the big picture. Providing you can see anything at all. But what’s there to worry about; Mojo’s here! And you gangly squibs ain’t touching her! ATTITUDE- Unpredictable, some might say chaotic. Some things never change. Remedy smirked at the oncoming mob. Fiery faces, fiery bodies, fiery swords. And she and ‘Mojo’ in the middle of it. Smirking and grinning and holding her comrade’s wrist tight for moral support. Watching them fill the narrow walkway before her. Opponents in front, pick-ups behind; easy. Jerk that head up and stay awake. Don’t be ditzy, let’s get blitzy! REMEDY: Disjointed spiral swoop HIT! FIREFOLK A: Midsection. OUT OF PLAY Lucky she only needed to imagine she hit it because in reality the shot was horrendous IMAGINARY MOJO: Pincer-perfect ground rolling loop (From behind the heel to the forehead with a shimmy… oh you gotta love Mojo) HIT! FIREFOLK B: Kidney to shoulder. OUT OF PLAY Their blades cut right through the firefolk as if… Well, as if they weren’t there. Splitting them in two and causing them to dissipate like cigarette smoke in the wind. Now this was a spangly team! FIREFOLK C: Insubstantial sword lunge MISS! REMEDY (Here’s a wild prediction; they’ll miss every time) Psytopia Adagio 1

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IMAGINARY MOJO: Deft backwhip curl HIT! FIREFOLK C: In through jaw, out through face. OUT OF PLAY “You go, sister blitzer.” Melodi and Mana with their heads in their hands. Saying nothing. The unmistakable sound of the pouring of scorn. Back in the factory, the opponent wasn’t so imaginary. And surprisingly for a parahack, he knew his tactical swordplay. Alright, so he was a brute… But the Academy teaches brute for a reason, you know? ZEPHANIAH: Triple spinning clump (Treading gloop in a circle) HIT! OBADIAH: Elbow. Grabs it in pain PARRIED! AZRAEL: Hook-hand block HIT! OBADIAH: Ribcage. Creamy white parahack blood mixing with the gloopy gunge New blend? Souls of the coffee plant workers mixed in? Sip up and try not to have nightmares about it "Zephaniah..." It is usually considered necessary to part one's teeth whilst speaking. But give Obadiah the benefit of the doubt. Parahack had five pairs, so communication was no mean feat. Yes, this Zephaniah wasn’t your average big, ambling reptile. He was a bit of a special case. A bit of a rogue. A bit of a rebel. Obadiah knew a couple of rebels. Coldbloods who didn’t play by the rules. The kind that had passion. For things other than food and sleep. The kind who probably wished they were warm-blooded. Obadiah’s brother was one of those. His ex brother, of course. Good heart, bad brain. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Obadiah’s brother Nehemiah was an obnoxious type. How he managed to keep his band of wayward pirate types together Obi would never know. Big brother had always tried to steer him right, of course. To eat when he was hungry, sleep when he was tired and please don’t steal from Academy stores and give the stuff to Anarchists; it's… rude.

Most parahack tried not to open their mouths except to eat. Anything else was… you guessed it; rude. Nehemiah and his gang were loud mouths; insurgents. No wonder they’d been banished from the Cyan Plateau. Maybe Obadiah would forgive him one day. For the Anarchism, the obnoxiousness, the… general rudeness. Maybe little brother would see sense and bury the proverbial hatchet. If only parahack spoke about their families, perhaps they’d speak to each other too.

ZEPHANIAH: Nose/head grab SNATCH! OBADIAH: Stifled ZEPHANIAH: Underwater head drive HIT! Obadiah flailing for the surface Psytopia Adagio 1

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And again and again and… Let’s finish this. Sword aloft. One more dead reptile for the funeral pyre. ZEPHANIAH: Double-handed hack PARRIED! Azrael deflects a surefire guillotine blow AZRAEL: Backhand pang HIT! ZEPHANIAH: Across cheek Azrael sunk an inch in the stew. One mad parahack, all bitty teeth and eyes fizzing like anxious cross-hairs, bulging like bubbles in the goo. Coming at him through the gloop, both of them in slow motion. Just wade on in and get z’ed, prack daddy… ZEPHANIAH: Falling figure-eight swirl (Like drawing an 8 on it’s side in the air… with a great big mega-sword) PARRIED! AZRAEL: Horizontal overhead cover Now he wasn’t expecting this brute to shoot something

graceful…

“Swordplay useless.” Blood dribbling from Obadiah’s facial wound. Wiped aside and cast into the pool with a hiss and sizzle. Obi readied a javelin. Azrael drifted backwards, respecting Zepahniah's skill. “Where did you learn to fight like that?” ”No learn. Listen.” Oh no; not another metaphysician. “Do you know what you’ve done to your home? This curse ?” ”Curses. Curses and ethics.” Zephaniah licked gunk off the edge of his sword. Sculling towards him faster than a normal parahack can sprint. “I don’t believe in curses either Zephaniah, but I believe in doing what’s right.” “Right…” Was he a gecko or an echo? Azrael kept drifting backwards, buying Obadiah some time. Psytopia Adagio 1

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“The parahack are suffering. What did you do to them?” “Did nothing. Bartered. Light for dark. Fair trade.” “Well I don’t believe that anarchic nonsense either.” “Not have to believe… to die!” ZEPHANIAH: Reverse roundhouse swing HIT! But only slicing a dreadlock as Azrael tilted his head “Zephaniah. It's fear that’s damaged you and fear of you that’s making the parahack suffer. There’s nothing supernatural here.” “No fear… change.” “Change it back; what’s happened to the parahack isn’t right.” “Academy no tell me what right!” ZEPHANIAH:

Epitaphs are la crème de la crème de la Biblio Brutal. A masterful technique which involves channelling one single emotion, refining it to explosive proportions. There are three kinds of epitaphs, all involving the gratuitous infliction of pain; let’s call it an anger mismanagement technique. It's released it in a subatomic wave which pretty much bursts the fury membrane. It’s OK; it’ll grow back. You flex and strike not with your body, but with your shadow. With your second self... and with a huge audio big-bang. There’s actually a way to create a physical mushroom cloud with such tactics- Mien Requiem Epitaph; probably the most ferocious technique known to the Academy. The fact that it kills the swordstril puts most off from even attempting to learn it, but anyway... There was a big, all-pervading noise. Azrael covered up the best he could; he wasn’t expecting that. Then the world fell silent like watching a big action film on mute. Yeah, that’d probably be because his eardrums just got fucked. Psytopia Adagio 1

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ZEPHANIAH: Total Torment Epitaph HIT! AZRAEL: He won’t be hearing much for a little while MISS! OBADIAH: He'd closed his ears Still think parahack are stupid? Obadiah simply absorbed the sound wave and waited. Like a judge on a reality TV show; expectant pause... Now when they least expect it, it's time to give a contestant the chop. OBADIAH: Leaping double-handed lunge HIT! ZEPHANIAH.: Scalped. Way, way OUT OF PLAY A big, oozing parahack corpse sinks to the foot of the gunge vat. Just as sugar sinks to the bottom of the coffee cup. Somewhere less wet and more blue, faces began smiling in the sand. And our resident reptile’s heart eased; weights off both lizard's heads.

Attacks- 1. Letting his talking do the talking. Hits- 1. Accurate. Misses- 0. Straight out-of-play hits- 0. (Ousted by pick-up) Injuries sustained- None. Unless you count sliced dreadlocks. (The effects of Epitaphs are largely psychological) Play awareness- Good, although swordstrils can kill with expert techniques so if he hadn't been battling an undisciplined prack... Control of party- Reasonable. Obadiah was aided by Azrael's sound tactics. Bonus for protection of elective. Good to see a student winning by defending for once; however, given the volatile nature of the environment, things could have turned out very differently…

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Ambiances attempted: 0 Wisely stayed out of harm’s way. Exempt from analysis.

Pick-up and therefore exempt from analysis. Bonus point to Azrael for having picked up a combatant who is able to end plays for himself.

*when it comes to tactics, go to the top of the class. *But when it comes to picking unnecessary fights, slow down. Although his moral conscience is a healthy one, biting off other people’s conquests might leave him unable to chew over his own. “….” Obadiah offered Azrael a hand. “What?” His hearing hadn’t come back yet. And his body felt as if it was looping the loop. Sinking and falling; his head too. As if he’d lost sight of everything he knew and couldn’t place it back together. That’d be the torment at work. “...” Mikado now; dragging him up, treading gloop for the pair of them. “.r. .o. o.?” “Wh… what?” “A.r...l .r. .ou rea.y .o .c..mb o.t?” “Wh…” ”A.rael. Ar. .ou .ready .o .cl.mb out?” “I… I think so.” Psytopia Adagio 1

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It wasn’t easy to keep it together surrounded by nightmares. It isn’t easy to keep it together in the wide, wild world. That and nightmares are much the same thing. But at least Mikado had found another way out.

Some, however, would rather opt for…

REMEDY: Side-winding twirl MISS! FIREFOLK D Oh, she meant to miss, squib! REMEDY: Turns into overhead 360 degree loop HIT! FIREFOLD D: Shoulder to shoulder HIT! FIREFOLK E: Spleen to spleen All OUT OF PLAY in gusts of scentless smoke IMAGINARY MOJO: Pretty much the same Oh that’s right; Remedy and Mojo kicked arse. Remy’s eyes watery for a moment. Grabs Mojo by the collar and plants a comradely kiss on her head. A comradely kiss that burnt like wildfire. A grin, mirrored. A grin for a grin. As their eyes reflected flames and their hearts reflected rhythm. As their paths crossed effortlessly on the dance floor. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Blitzblade and blitzblade. Swimming around in each other’s fiery gazes. Swords screaming ‘let me fly’ like savage banshees. A wild mind caving in on itself. Firefolk bearing down on them like the walls of a burning building; club lit up and ready to blow. Oxygen about as forthcoming as a refund on a half-eaten plaice at a chip shop; soggy batter, ketchup-splashed chips. All burning up as Remedy and ‘Mojo’ pivoted in almighty spirals. “So high on life I might just have to kill myself…” REMEDY:

Staggering across the walkway. Clattering chimney pots, clutching her skull, careering into that ugly fairground dummy. Broken glass and scratchy electronic giggles. How much could she bleed to make her less of a fool? So high she might die? Dreams can drag you so deep you lose sight of the real world. Melodi had decided it was time to step in. Headache, Remy? That’d be the bunraku.

It’s quite likely Melodi was the only practitioner of such arts out there in the wide, wild world. Which was a good thing, because it was crazy shit. The ancient-ish art of bunraku came from a colourful collection of possession techniques often known as ‘chord capture’, ‘bone tugging’ and by various other aliases. Without getting bogged down in the specifics, capture Psytopia Adagio 1

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techniques involved the manipulation of the minds (or souls; whatever) of other beings to such an extent that the practitioner (Ningyōzukai, tayū or shamisen, depending on your style) was able to utilise their own abilities and basically move them around like puppets on strings. The most amusing part of it was that all the while, the victims were aware what was happening yet were completely unable to stop it. Like Dr. Strangelove’s evil hand syndrome. I’m not going to tell you how Melodi did it right now because she wants to keep it a secret. And because I’m certainly not going to mess with her. Let's just say bunrakai could get people doing the silliest things. Like, for example, making them smack themselves in the head with their sword hilts; best alarm clocks in Psytopia. Because without bunraku, people do sillier things on their own. Advanced tayū could make whole plates of people dive off cliffs to certain deaths. Case in point; the mysterious fate of the OssiaOttava tribe, who practised way too much bunraku for their own good, accidentally convinced their children they were bloodcrazed demons and ended up committing mass suicide… Although now I’ve told you that it's no longer a mystery. So apologies to Melodi’s beloved ningyo dummy Doloroso, but I’m keeping her hidden in a pouch in her skirt for now. Perhaps our little blue belle will need her later.

Attacks- Does it matter if the firefolk never existed? Play awareness- THERE WAS NO PLAY! Team play: THERE WAS NO TEAM! Pick-up protection bonus rescinded – no danger We’ll spare Remedy detention in the squib pen, understanding this performance was fog-induced

SHE’S NOT REAL! The real Mojo is on her way to the White Plateau on her own assignment. The Assembly of tutors is not going to grade people who aren’t there. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Pick-ups… and completely baffled by this stage.

*Remedy still needs guidance. *Seriously… Well, all’s well that ends well, anyway. “You alright there Remy? Keeping the squibs at bay?” Azrael’s voice as he climbed down the factory wall, not a scratch on him. A fair amount of sickly goo, though. Keep your cool, kiticlaw. You’re not insane; you’re not insane… “Uh-huh. Dandy.” The bruise on her temple testified otherwise. Mikado now. “What happened to the dummy?” ”Urr… Didn’t like it’s face?” “Good call.” ”You sure you’re alright Remy?” Azrael; other people’s problems… ”Never better! You?” ”A little tipsy in fact.” Azrael pulled at his ear lobes. “Obadiah’s agreed to come with us. A little extra fire power.” “Fire? Where? Oh… check.” Remedy; addictions… Mikado squeezed Azrael’s weary, gunk-caped wrist. “We talked him into it.” “You mean you talked him into it.” “He’s exorcised his demons, he might as well help us with ours.” Psytopia Adagio 1

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“Who said we’s got demons?” ”Our assignment, Remy. He’ll help us with our assignment.” “Oh.” Remedy had some serious introspection to do. She grabbed Melodi by the scruff of the neck as the party continued down the walkway slabs. Not too hard, mind; just in case. “What the cluttery hack did ya do to me ya jeepy sprite?” “Woke you up. Brought you round.” Let the little blue girl go; she’s got a point. “Well… thanks.” Melodi nudging Mana in his absent chest. “See? Didn’t I tell you I could fight? I’ve just been choosing not to. So far…”

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Time is a curious thing. The way it speeds. The way it stalls. The way it bucks in the breeze. Time is a little like swordplay. Swishing around like waves in water and wind in willows. Dipping in the air. This way and that, this way and that. Time often changes in a flash. And just as often in gradual ticks and tocks. You never know which way the tide of time is going to turn… Until it rears up and drags you down. “It's so quiet here.” Mikado covered her mouth. It was as if nothing had moved for round upon round. As if nothing had changed. So quiet her voice echoed. So quiet it boomed. So quiet it hung like pieces of smashed spider web on every still stone and broken branch. It was quiet, still and translucent. “Miki?” Azrael held her wrist, her hand, her face. He studied her, the worry etched on his expression like a ghostly shroud. Feverishly examining her features as if he didn’t really believe she was there. “Azrael!” She held his face too. Face to face, the two of them. Face to face and desperate. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Feverish eyes scattering all over one another. Feverish fingers trembling across each other’s cheeks. Feverish minds anxiously calculating and recalculating what they saw. What they saw or what they didn’t? “Your skin…” ”Your eyes…” ”Your bones…” “Your skull…” Examining each other like spookily animated laboratory skeletons. Because that was what they appeared to be. That and scant layers of translucent flesh, hair and clothes. Lucky Academy students tended to wear so much metal or they’d be pretty much exposed.

“Az…” ”You look like a…” ”Skeleton…” “This be cacky-sour, kitz.” Crossed-armed Skelemedy not looking mightily impressed. Backed by big, bumbling Obadeleton. Little moody Meleton, covering her face. And Mana… looking exactly the same as normal.

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So here we are. A party of see-thru skeletons. Welcome to the Translucent Plateau. One giant x-ray machine. Time is a funny thing, you see, and it has funny effects. Time is a curious beast. A vermicious squib. It's never quite the same thing if you look at it from a different vantage point. When you’re happy and when you’re sad. When you’re at the pub and when you’re at work. When you’re with somebody you love and when you’re away, waiting for them to call. Not even the same animal, is it? Is it surprising that along the rolling folds of time, things get caught like dolphins in tuna nets? When stuck in nets, even the most gentle creatures lash out. Think what the nasty ones would do. Especially in a place like this, where will was substance and lack of substance was… less of a barrier. Azrael furrowed his brow. More furrowed than usual. Thank Zarathustra the others could hardly see it. Skeletons seldom possess brows. He held his hands in front of his face. He could still see Mikado, gazing right through them. Like looking through a big sheet of rice paper held up to the sun. And he didn’t need a full covering of skin for her to realise he was frowning. Psytopia Adagio 1

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MIKADO: “This is… worrying.” (REMEDY playfully examines the visible click of joints and shift of tendons in her arm) AZRAEL: “We all feel OK though, don’t we?” MIKADO: “Yes, but why are we…” REMEDY: ”Whys ain’t always wise, siz.” AZRAEL: “If we don’t ask why…” Mikado held Azrael’s skeletal hand, dissuading him from argument. It didn’t feel skeletal. A sigh of relief. It felt exactly as it should. “Whys be wispy, windy whirlpools.” Remeleton compared her arm to the Blessed Angel. Delighted at the fact that she could see through skin, sheath and sword. Dangling a boot as if over a paddling pond, every chunky toe bone visible, even through the meaty metal cap on the end. AZRAEL: “When we ask why, we remember our training and we find answers.” REMEDY: “Whys don’t teach you’se anything.” AZRAEL: “Except that you don’t know enough.” Melodi was the only one who’s skin seemed to show. Filling itself in and out as she breathed. Like the colours of a painter’s water pot, swirling clear to cloudy as paint was mixed in, then back again. So she took quick breaths to blend in. Remedy bit her lip. Or, at least, she bit space. Still hurt though. They weren’t quite laboratory skeletons here; flesh replaced with sandwich bags, that was all, but Azrael didn’t like it one bit. When Academy students didn’t like things, they asked why. Because there has to be an answer for everything. So they searched the dictums for answers. Because that’s always where they lie. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Answers aren’t always that transparent, but in any case, Azrael didn’t like feeling exposed. That comes from being a counter/tech swordstril with tricks up his sleeves. And also from being a living, breathing, worrying being. After all…

You can take those to mean whatever you want. What am I saying? Academy dictums can be ambiguous now? We really must be walking in the wide, wild world. “Alright.” Azrael had checked his motor functions, zeroed in on a few points on the landscape, performed some mental sword swipes. He was working fine; how he looked was less of a problem. Your average Academy student may be taught to be square, but not superficial.

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“So we may be see-through, but we’re still here.” All but Remedy concurred. “No fair. Moy blade don’t blush in the twilight.” Nobody would have been able to see a translucent Holy Judgement coming… her other sword was see-through, but... It was curious; Azrael’s sword was opaque as normal too, even when everything around them was not; solid as bone. There were clearly some things that brought the two of them together; OK, so there was one thing; swords. Don’t start them on how best to use them though. They were like boys in car showrooms or girls in shoe shops. Best to leave them to it. So Mikado wandered a little. There was something creepy about this place. I mean aside from the skeletal appearance of the protagonists, the hollow nature of the mounds and the still, musty chill of the air; I mean a silent beckoning of some kind, coaxing her forward… towards a shape in the distance. She felt fingers at her neck again. At her ankles. At her waist. Especially at her waist. No, her stomach. Hands above it, below it and through it. As if a tube had been placed in her belly button, exiting through her spine, hands pulling at both ends as if engaged in a tug of war, clutching and waving and looping and winding all the way through her body. As if serpents spiralling around each other, ivy spiralling around a tower, lyrics spiralling around an acoustic. And she could feel, taste and see every hand, but not through her eyes, causing her to wheeze and wince and shudder and panic and barely avoid vomiting. As if a laser was passing right through her. Although of course they didn’t have lasers in Psytopia, or serpents, cameras or acoustics. At least she didn’t have to worry about the metaphors.

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She just cradled her stomach for a moment. The churning hands inside coiling tighter and tighter. The lasers staring right through her like… She span around. Melodi. Conspicuously cutting off her glance. Sitting hunched against a stringy-looking tree. Knees to chest, arms round legs, head in hands. Hiding away. “Melodi.” Mikado moved towards her as the little bag of blue bones shyly shuffled away. “Melodi.” She raised her voice, still cradling her stomach. Shuffle, shuffle little mite. A little faster and you might just get away. “Melodi.” Nope, not quite away. MIKADO: (Pointing at her stomach) “What do you know about this?” MELODI: (Hiding her face) “Know about what?” MIKADO: (Pointing harder) “This.” MELODI: “I can’t see what you mean.” MIKADO: “You’re not looking.” MELODI: ”I can’t look.” MIKADO: “Why not?” MELODI: (Angry) “Well... ask your boyfriend.” There was a nervous silence. Let's hope Azrael didn’t hear that. What with the empty echo and all… It's OK, he’s still got his mind on his first love; swords. “What does that mean Melodi?” Standing there holding her stomach as if it wasn’t obvious. This girl was a medician and she still hadn’t worked out there was more to life than… life. Had she really not yet taken the hint?

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MELODI: “I just don’t like it.” MIKADO: “Don’t like what?” MELODI: “Looking at you.” MIKADO: “Why not?” MELODI: “I don’t want to look up.” MIKADO: “Look at me.” MELODI: ”I don’t like it.” MIKADO: ”Don’t like what?” MELODI: “It’s not right.” MIKADO: “What’s not right?” MELODI: (Beginning to sob) ”You’re not right. This place isn’t right…” MIKADO: “You mean the way I look here, right?” MELODI: “It's the way I look…” MIKADO: (Reaching out a bony hand) “It's OK. We both look the same.” MELODI: (Shuffling aside) “We’re not the same, not at all.” MIKADO: “Come on Melodi, show me your face.” Her stomach hurt less without Melodi staring through it. But that isn’t to say it didn’t still hurt. Little blue secrets were beginning to frustrate even her. I mean, aren’t you? MELODI: “You won’t like my face.” MIKADO: “I’ve seen a skull or two before.” MELODI: “It's something else.” MIKADO: “I felt burning in my stomach. You were staring. I need to know why.” MELODI: “It's not what you think…” MIKADO: “And you know what I think?” MELODI: “You won’t like how I look.” MIKADO: “Look at me Melodi.” MELODI: ”I don’t want to.” Psytopia Adagio 1

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MIKADO: “Look at me Melodi.” Alright, she had asked for it for the umpteenth time. But she’s not going to like it. Melodi raised her head, just to show why she didn’t want to. So she could be left in peace. Those eyes… Strange in the translucent twilight. Strange. Creepy. Frightening, in fact. Deep, they were. Deeper than usual. Deeper than an übersaur’s belly. Deeper than a shimmering sea. Deeper than a medicative ambiance. Deep, deep, deep, deep, deep. Strangely, creepily, frighteningly so. Those eyes; swirling.. Not like normal. The same darkness... The same edge... But now everything was a whirl. A cross between half a yin-yang symbol, a squashed tadpole, an egg yoke and a Nike tick. But no colour. No glitter, no glitz. No life. Mesmerising... Taking hold... Her pupils had become pits. Big, deep, dark, dreary pits. And the tractor beam quality… reeling her in… Fish on a hook, still on celluloid. Reel, reel, reel. Mikado stepped back. She felt as if she was standing on a precipice... or two. Looking down into the depths of those eyes, losing her sense of gravity, because if you gaze for too long into the abyss... And as she gazed deeper, she saw lights all the way down. Psytopia Adagio 1

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No, not lights. Forms. Humanoid forms. Tiny little humanoid forms all bright, white and transparent. All coiling and ghostly and flailing. Like echoes of the hands she felt grasping at her stomach. Grasping again now, tying her insides up. Flailing as if they were falling. Flailing as if they were dying. Pits of microscopic forms reaching out for mercy. Reaching out for freedom. Reaching out at the world they had lost. Reaching out of Melodi’s shadowy pupils. Like the frantic hands of a submerged medician reaching out of the raging red waterfall… “What…” Mikado recoiled. Held on to her stomach. Breaking eye contact as the hands let her go. The figures pulled back into their pits as Mikado fell to the floor. “Don’t look at me.” Melodi went back to covering her face; she had been warned. “You’re a weird one, Melodi.” MELODI: “Weird or not, don’t look at me.” MIKADO: “I’m not going to pretend I know what you are, but more and more…” MELODI: “You think I’m a nasty demon or something.” MIKADO: “No, that’s not what I think.” MELODI: “That’s what everybody thinks.” MIKADO: “I don’t think that.” MELODI: “So are you weird or am I?” MIKADO: “OK I’m sensitive, but I’m not interested in these games anymore.” MELODI: “If you’re too sensitive for your own good…” MIKADO: “What does that mean?” MELODI: “’You’re too sensitive for your own…’” MIKADO: “No, I mean ‘don’t look at me I see your future.’” Psytopia Adagio 1

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An even more nervous silence than before. This time it was decidedly uncomfortable. Stopped Melodi in her tracks. Made her shudder. Mikado had snapped the trap. Caught the snare. Topped the hi-hat. Caught the off-blue girl off guard and almost made her turn red. “Leave me alone.” Face buried in hands. The sympathy vote. “I don’t want to talk about it.” Methinks it’s a little late for that. “But you do talk, don’t you?” Let the grilling begin. Block it out and perhaps she’ll be swallowed up by a pit or two. “You talk twice sometimes, don’t you? Two sounds at once.” Melodi bit her fingers. Psytopians aren’t supposed to hear more than one sound at once, unless of course they’re very close to the Third Heaven. If Psytopians could see or hear or touch or smell all the things they couldn’t, their world would be a much busier place and they’d want to be left alone too. Perhaps Melodi should have known this was coming. Given that she might well see the future and all. “You do see the future, don’t you?” Melodi bit harder… a drip of rainbow-coloured blood, bright and full in the hollowness around them.

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She swiftly took a breath, swallowed the drip and wrapped a tassel around the finger. She crunched her knuckles instead. That was safer. Marginally. “What was that?” Mikado patted the knife in her shoe. Knives aren’t supposed to move unless you’re holding them. Melodi crunched her knuckles harder. “You’re sensitive too, aren’t you Melodi? Much more than me.” Our blue brood baroness shook her head violently. Wished she was somewhere else. Have you already forgotten...

“How come I can hear what you’re saying when you’re not?” Nose twitching… “How come I can hear it now more than I could before?” Teeth gnashing… “What’s wrong with your eyes?” “Shut up…” “What’s wrong with my stomach?” “Shut up…” “Is there something in it?” “No.” “Do you even know you see the future?” “I can’t.” “Are you aware you speak twice at once sometimes?” “I don’t.” “Am I the only one who hears it?” What part of ‘shut up’ did this girl not understand? Psytopia Adagio 1

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Whether Melodi knew the future or whether she knew she knew the future or not, there was nothing she could do about it. It wouldn’t be future then, would it? And if it wasn’t the future, she wouldn’t know it in the first place. Best to just shut up and… well, let's start with shutting up. Let’s shut Mikado up. Melodi reached into a pocket. Tentative fingers around her darling ningyo doll. She didn’t like to, but somebody needed their bones pinched… “Light!” Obadiah ambling onto the scene. Melodi took her hand out of her pocket; no need to reveal every card in her deck just yet. Obadiah; thank good luck for big, small-brained miracles. She would have hugged him for a timely intervention, but… nah. He pointed a bony finger to a vague light across the wastes. “What is that?” Melodi feigned wide-eyed interest. Not too wide, mind; don’t want everyone slipping down pits. “It’s a mound.” Mikado was less than impressed. Melodi hammed it up. “Yeah, but what a lovely mound...” “That isn’t a mound.” Azrael and Remedy had finished comparing weaponry. Given those comparing, the last sentence shouldn’t sound sexual at all, but it does. I have no excuses; blame me. “You’re right. Looks like a building.” Mikado leant an eye, giving Melodi a reprieve… for now. Melodi sniggered to herself. “And so pretty…” Remedy shrugged. “Moy ain’t spyin’ the speccy.” Azrael zeroed in. “It's sunken in the sand.” Psytopia Adagio 1

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“This squip is sand?” Remedy kicked a clump and coughed. It was like sticky rice covered in moth balls. “Not the spangly stuff you’re used to huh, Obi?” “Dirt.” Obadiah turned up his nose. Touché. “It’s a building toppled on one side in the sand.” Mikado rubbed her stomach. The pain had eased. But she’d discover Melodi’s secrets, even if it killed her. Skeleton seeks death; belatedly apply within. “Well why's we ponderin’ when we could be plunderin’?” Remedy was already on her way to check it out. Her jiggy hip bone swinging along as she marched out of the pack. Leaving the others for dust. Azrael shook his head. No wonder she slipped up trying advanced techniques; her vertical base was a shambles. He could see it so easily when he could see through her. Perhaps he should suggest to the Assembly that they relocated the training halls to the Translucent Plateau. “Rem…” He began to call her back. Mikado stopped him before the words escaped. Grabbed his hand. Psytopians generally held wrists. They didn’t grab hands unless something was afoot. Something difficult, intimate or simply unknown. Because I’m sure you’ve realised by now…

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Mikado held on for comfort and Azrael held back. A million others hands held too; to her stomach. Azrael’s palm yielded no answers, but at least she’d rather be holding that than the others’ Phantoms aren’t easy to fathom, and we’ll be seeing a lot more. If only medicians could map their own minds. Perhaps then she’d knit these ghostly wounds back together. Azrael had promised there were was no such thing as phantoms. What about little blue demons? Melodi passed with a curious expression. Half a scowl, half a sorry. I’ll leave you to work out which. Because I can’t see the future and even if I could, I’d be far too busy brooding over it to tell you; and because she’s a skeleton. They soon discovered it wasn’t a mound and it wasn’t a building. It's possible for both people having an argument to be wrong. But it was certainly sunken and it was certainly on its side and admittedly it had doors and walls. So for Azrael’s sake, let's call it a building.

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If I was to tell them what it really was, they’d freak. You don’t go around telling hard working, free roaming Tibetan nomads that there’s such a thing as a combine harvester. You don’t go around telling depressed teenagers that cutting themselves up provides a satisfying release. And you don’t go around telling ecologically friendly Psytopians that rather than walk the plates they could just ride hovering karma-propelled, triple-zeppelin-decked luxury cruise liners. And you certainly don’t tell them that such cruise liners were prone to crashing. They’d freak, they’d shiver, they’d try it out. Then they’d laugh, they’d shrug and they’d go back to what they were used to. Because they were probably better off before you introduced such an apparently sound but ultimately stupid idea anyway. Remedy had been examining the mammoth contraption for a few moments before the others arrived.

Exam’ine [-ekz-] vt. To tap, poke, whack repeatedly with a sword.

Thank Zarathustra Remedy hadn’t written a dictionary. And let's pray to an even higher power that she’ll never think to. “The door’s all wonky.” As if hitting it would help. “Is thiz pliz made for triangular people or what?” “It's sunken. Half the door's under the sand.” Azrael stated the obvious. Geometry clearly wasn’t Remedy’s strong point. Mana was examining the craft a little more carefully.

Examine […] N/A. Work out the maths! Psytopia Adagio 1

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Thank Zarathustra Mana hadn’t written a dictionary either. How many zeroes and ones can you compute? “It's so sunken in the… sand the whole thing’s tipped itself over.” Mikado’s common sense observation prevailed. “Reckon it's safe?” Remedy was already inside, jumping up and down like a child on a springy mattress, her feet slipping here and there when she stood still; that’d be the gravity at work and probably another lesson she’d missed. All the more reason to keep bouncing and learn. “Well, it hasn’t collapsed yet and the incline isn’t that bad.” Mikado led her boyfriend through the doorway. Like standing in the leaning tower of Pisa. Perhaps the view of Pisa would be better if it had translucent walls as well. “I don’t know if we should go inside...” After all, they’d had a recent bad experience of such things. “Moy foots be slippin.” Remedy pointed as if she’d spotted the rare lesser speckled redbacked juralith. Squeeze of Azrael’s wrist. At least they could breathe, and move in relative ease. Azrael lit a taper. “Let’s take a look around.”

Ah, the wonders of the era of steamed karma and hot air! Reminisce about the kind of lives your grandparents had before they were killed via proxy by the kind of lives they had… Psytopia Adagio 1

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A big, hulking hover-ship once propelled by huge balloons which have now wasted into dust. The Translucent Plateau was once a prosperous place. Then people started living convenient lives. The dust was enough to exterminate everything that once lived here. Choked slowly to death. Bad karma, you see? It’ll kill us all in the end. And I did say ‘kill’, as in ‘dead’. Sounds negative I know, but some things… Well, some things are best described that way. So sorry to you and your grades about entering foreboding structures. Third time lucky? Obadiah hesitated before entering the sunken cruiser. Big, ambling parahack feet aren’t all that versatile on gradients. Plus, it was dark in there. Oh, and also… the spooks. They weren’t all that easy to spot. This was a place where flesh disappeared, and as for bones… Those who didn’t posses such things were able to make themselves scarce. In fact, those spared of a paranoid disposition might well believe they weren’t there at all. But they were there, and soon Azrael’s party would know. Because here solid things became transparent and insubstantial things balanced that out. You’ve got to have a balance, after all. And spooks that can reach out and grab you are generally the most terrifying kind. Hiding behind rows of Japanese fusama style dividing screens, decorated with what appeared to be tubes of luminous liquid. Clustered along the scant stone balcony which ran around the hall like a serpent around a mouse. Peering through the ethereal flame pits which sat here and there in the floor like flower beds, flickering away. Making Remedy’s eyes glaze and wander and flutter and blink. So much so that she almost didn’t see them until too late. Until she was right in the line of fire. Until a gliding claw entered her sphere… Good thing somebody had his eye on the squibs. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Academy Grouping Azrael (pre-grad), Remedy (fresher) with Mikado (elective), Obadiah, Melodi and Mana (pick-ups) The Spooks They’re pretty much see-through… There could be hundreds…

Inside a sunken karma-propelled triple zeppelin hover cruiser on the Translucent Plateau… But don’t tell Azrael’s party that… They’d freak.

SPOOK 1: Slipframe swing MISS! Azrael shoves Remedy out of harm’s way, much to her initial annoyance AZRAEL: Two-point stab MISS! SPOOK 1: It passes straight through the thing… SPOOK 1: Slipframe slash HIT! AZRAEL: Nicks his ear. Ouch! Azrael was perplexed. He’d missed? If only he could read what I’m writing… Sometimes it's better not to try so hard. Psytopia Adagio 1

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What I’m calling spooks could be termed hungry ghosts. Hungry karma, in fact. They weren’t really dead people. They didn’t often use that word in Psytopia, remember? Even if I do. Remember the vibe extraction plant; recycling pieces of people. Well it had to suck the people in from somewhere. Maybe this lot had slipped under the antenna. Or maybe the plant had got so heavy it was dragging whole, dead plates into it’s maw. But of course these were only parts of people. They didn’t even need to be dead. Back when the karma machines worked, the whole point was that they weren’t; these vibes’ owners were living qualm free. But while the plant sucked in and belched out, these were selfanimated amalgamations of long dead peoples’ karma. Of what sticks behind when the rest passes on. Humanoid form is just another thing to cling to. Poor things. Desperate to be. Desperate to take it out on those who already were. Manufactured spooks. Not the undead; the never-having-lived. Beats built by machines. And not much more than that; no bones, you see? No innards or faces or hair; not even translucent ones. So I’ll use descriptions of their body parts for reference only. Pure will started to take rudimentary form around here. You could see souls. You always know they’re there, even scraps of them, but... So these spooks were just skin or jelly; take your pick. And on top of gelatine bodies, gelatine clothes. Baggy trousers and tunics decorated with arcane symbols from head to foot; translucent with intricate dots, lines and arrows. If only you could get close enough before they went wild with their slipframes to squint and appreciate the quasi-oriental design of their outfits, you’d be quite impressed. Why such lavish garments? Amalgamations of the ideas of dead people are complicated things; trapped ideas painting patterns all over them. Ideas thrown together like patchwork shoes, waiting to crumple. You’re probably starting to see why all this karmic energy stuff was a bad idea. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Slipframes were razor-sharp weapons. Like musical triangles… but square. And bigger too, by a good few feet. With taped hand-holds on each corner. I’m not making these sound too ferocious, am I? Perhaps the roll function will change your mind. When a slipframe was rolled just so, (like swishing a cable across the floor) multiple clone-squares were created which elongated the weapon like a large spring. Multiple razor swipes. They’d scare you if I was pressing one against your throat, OK? They were weapons possibly based on maths, magnetism, desires, delusions, who knows? In any case, hundreds of the things coming at you would be pretty scary, and pretty effective. Enough to send anyone on a one way trip through the heavens.

Now I know we’ve gone through all this before but I might have been a little misleading and given you a biased viewpoint. After all, nobody knows what the afterlife is because anybody with any opinions on the matter is still living, so how on Earth, in Hell or in Heaven would they know?

This world. The plates. The here and now.

The dream world. Your subconscious. Ideas and imagination.

A better place than all of that. A wonderful and far more real reality. I could explain it to you, but I’d be making it up. Because there’d be no ‘I’ in the Third Heaven to explain. How about this; if this story is the first Heaven and my idea of it is the second, the world you’re in reading it is the third. Psytopia Adagio 1

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These three worlds all had their plus and minus points. So all in all, life in Psytopia was pretty positive in whichever Heaven you happened to reside. The problems came when you started to pull and push things from one Heaven to another. Because imbalance often leads to a vast amount of mindless violence. AZRAEL: Over-shoulder crescent swish MISS! SPOOK 2: Straight through this one as well… SPOOK 2: Slipframe slash HIT! AZRAEL: That’s the other ear. Double ouch! Azrael didn’t tend to get annoyed easily; not very balanced. So minor frustrations aside, he thought he did a good job keeping himself together. But his tutor had certainly never taught him to miss. And getting cut pissed him off. AZRAEL: Underarm crescent swipe MISS! SPOOK 1: Like a knife through ghostly butter… REMEDY: Cautious overhead loop… MISS! SPOOK 2: Knives… butter… et tu Remedy? REMEDY: …spins into wild backhand coil HIT! SPOOK 2: Spleen to shoulder Slides in two like a Russian doll; collapses as if water OUT OF PLAY Aha! Remedy smirked. ‘Cos she'd meant that… The first shot, at least. The second was just icing; for effect. Who knew effect could be so… effective? But that wasn’t the only spook on the ghost ship, and the hordes were steadily drifting towards them like rubber dingies to waterfalls. With his sword in one hand and Mikado’s wrist in the other, Azrael realised his balance might be tested.

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Right at this moment, the fresher had the better batting average. Although he couldn’t quite figure out how. “Alright; form a triangle.” Mikado behind him; his soundtrack, his root, his raison d'ếtre. “Slippy yeeps ‘dese, neh?” Remedy nodded at Melodi and Mana to drop in behind her. Double soundtrack, double backbeat, double steps, double instruments, you see? Just the way she liked it. She wanted to lurch out there and jive… But of course, she had to protect the kids. Had to be… what’s the word? Responsible? “Many.” Obadiah took the last corner of the triangle. “No say, brute-juice.” Remedy’s swords were begging her grip to let them run wild. Three-way onslaught. Azrael: Balanced. Remedy: Eager. Obadiah? If it moves… why haven’t you hit it yet? “Let’s z these spokes.” The swordstrils clashed wrists. “Be careful.” Of the spooks Azrael, or of the green-eyed monster?

But you know what; I’m going to be kind here. I’m going to be balanced. I’m going to skip this scrap just a sliver of a shade. Because fighting may be life for swordstrils; maybe not for us. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Let’s just break it down. Remedy had a ball here, because spooks don’t belong in this world and maybe it was the juice tugging at the true truth and all that spoony bore, or maybe she was a key off track herself... So she hit stuff easy and Azrael didn’t, and that steamed his coco, whatever that means. You see, it’s easy when the boundaries are defined with lessons, conventions and dictums, but then something unusual comes along and you freak. The wide, wild world turns everything on its head and you’re just lost, scared and confused. It’s head? Now here’s the real killer... Not it’s head; yours. So as Remedy danced around, hit and miss*, Azrael felt what was probably the insubstantial weight of substantial numbers. Azrael (girlfriend protector): Headed for the decorative ethereal flame pits leading back to the front door (Side). Obadiah (perennial loner): Headed for the ornate wooden screens leading to a grand archway deep into the craft (Edge). Remedy (designated child minder): Headed up the crooked steps to an overhang balcony virtually dripping with spooks (Tip). A bit of a battle, though for Remedy the fight was against gravity. Sharp incline, see. Curse Zarathustra for the invention of gravity; not the most pragmatic. But are you really living life if it isn’t a boot slippin’, spook hackin’ challenge?

*Largely miss

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Limitation is a swordstril’s greatest enemy. Except perhaps the green eyed monster. REMEDY: One-footed 360 degree twirl HIT! SPOOK 17: Through chest. OUT OF PLAY REMEDY: One-footed 360 degree reverse leaping swirl HIT! SPOOK 18: From shoulder to hip. OUT OF PLAY She wasn’t even thinking about it anymore. Didn’t need to, nip chuggers! Looping gracefully across the balcony with the greatest of ease, like a calligraphy brush over a big, blank canvas. She didn’t think that it was the not thinking that made it work.

You know sometimes it's good to just go with the flow. There’s nothing more to life than that. Do what’s right but don’t think too much about it. Don't over-analyse; seeking information says more about you than about the information; don’t skew or complicate the world. It's essentially quite a simple place. Inventionality is the process by which one creates problems for oneself by insisting on making the world much more complicated than it actually is; by thinking in small boxes... or triangles. The votes are in. …the winner of this story’s biggest victim of inventionality award is… Azrael. Come on down and make a teary-eyed speech! Your prize is… Absolute uselessness in this particular battle. Because you can’t fight inventionality with inventionality. The spooks were 99% will, 1% representation. They only appeared here because they really, really wanted to. All intention, no substance. All do and no be. All try and no be. I’m not saying there’s something wrong with trying. It’s just that unliving things aren’t easy to kill. Because you can’t make something into what it already is, you can only respect it, accept it, dance with it. Dance them into the dust.

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SPOOK 23: Leaping slash SPOOK 24: Leaping swing SPOOK 25: Leaping slash SPOOK 26: Leaping swing COUNTERED!

Mana’s turn; his loopball sprouting springs across its surface. Pyro springs which whirled faster with each jolt. A bit like pinball. Every bounce doubles the blow. MANA: Dropkick blast HIT! SPOOK 26: Head. (8 licks of ethereal pain inflicted) OUT OF PLAY HIT! SPOOK 25: Head. (16 licks of ethereal pain inflicted) OUT OF PLAY HIT! SPOOK 24: Head. (32 licks of ethereal pain inflicted) OUT OF PLAY HIT! SPOOK 23: Head. (64 licks of ethereal pain inflicted) OUT OF PLAY Well struck, hot stuff… which was fortunate as he’d miscued. I think that’s the point; he’d been inventioning something else. Spring charge conjured up some devastating numbers. Although keeping the chain of scores going was like playing keepy-uppy on an escalator; a chain of a hundred spooks sprung together and the last one would end up very unalive indeed. Yeah, that’d be fun, but unfortunately spooks don’t keep. They’re dead already; dead but not. No hands bursting from graves, no comebacks, no sequels. So there’s an old saying… or should that be ‘tapping’?

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“Yeeps, sizzleclogs.” Remedy knew she'd seen potential in this kid. She sheepishly adjusted a sliding boot on the slippery slope. Let’s just stick to physical slippery slopes, not mental ones- if the mathsy mite outdid his surrogate whatever-she-was, all dandy on her coco. Melodi could tell he was giggling under that surreptitious lack of any kind of giggling mechanism… show-off. “OK mini kitz; we’re sloggin’ through ‘em!” Dizzy views diagonally down, broken railings dividing them from the drop, cohorts of gangly phantoms still whirling towards them, all wisping slipframes and globulous motion. Sure coming upstairs was such a great idea? Melodi sulked; she could’ve dealt with those spooks herself. Etherflare? They're already ether. Bunraku? She didn’t fancy getting into the heads of sub-souls. Obakeraku? These echoes liked thingies stuck between hells. Oh yes, Melodi knew some funky tricks, I’ll have you know, and she hated the undead; why did they have to be so difficult to kill? OBADIAH: Full-fledged mega swipe MISS! SPOOKS 35 & 36: Straight through SPOOK 35: Cross-face swing SPOOK 36: Overhead slash DOUBLE HIT! OBADIAH: Chest & shoulder A parahack smashes through an ornate divider screen. Vaporous red liquids seizing his body as his falling form shattered their prison to pieces. Because that’s what these screens held; memories; kind of like photo frames, but living memories, like you know how some people used to believe taking a photo trapped the soul? They weren’t wrong, it’s just that the technology hadn’t caught up with them yet. A feeling of hopelessness overcoming him like an angry mist. Because that’s what liquiscreens do; gradually build grudges as those memories remain trapped, unable to make more, new memories; to breed. So when they find a living person (or lizard; that’d do)… They grab a hold, and those lonely memories have become pretty hopeless in time, so it’s hopelessness they imbue. Psytopia Adagio 1

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He pulled his ample self together. Pushing the thickening spook juice aside like parting the arms of a bramble bush, feeling his lungs clog and his scales parch as the spectral mists took him. Just like what happened to Zepheniah? Because karma has a knack of balancing things up when you least expect it… Meanwhile, Azrael was faring no better, swamped with spooks. He hadn’t quite worked out what's probably pretty obvious to all of you reading this already. It isn’t a surprise he couldn’t find an answer. Because he was trying too hard. “Miki. Do you still have that blade of yours?” “It's just a little knife.” Blades weren’t the first things which came to Mikado’s mind. Because relationships are boring when you have everything in common. “Can you hold them off?” “But they’re everywhere… and I can’t…” “Try.” Azrael let go of her wrist. He looked away, fiddling with some back-up weaponry. Even standing so close, the absence of his hand and eye on her made Mikado’s heart drop. “I’ll try…” She tentatively drew her blade.

A short, curved blade designed to be used as a last resort. A small, blunt, feeble knife on which she had hoped she'd never have had to depend. She hadn’t thought to name it, or sharpen it, or polish it, or whatever the swordstrils did, just kept it in a pouch strapped to her calf, on Azrael’s insistence. It was hardly the perfect instrument, but it’d have to do.

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She covered her eyes with a hand and poked around randomly. She didn’t know any better. She hadn’t been taught bladeplay in med school. It’s called ‘a conflict of interests’. MIKADO: Blind stab MISS! SPOOK 43 or 44: So wide a miss I’m not sure which one she was aiming for, if any Azrael wiped the grime off the runners around his wrist. Uncoiled the fold-around chain. Jacked the pump-action spikes into position. He didn’t like the spinchain; artless, cumbersome… but he had a theory… which Mana might prove first, in reverse. SPOOK 51: Overhead swipe HIT! MANA: Scalp… Mana’s hands shot up to his hooded head for a moment. One hit for a brittle little pyronette and it was all over. Their skin split swifter than a sabre to a strawberry. Yes, he was dead. Goodbye cruel world; I hardly knew you. Gliding now... down a golden corridor of light… Actually more like a corridor of numbers. 2 3 5 7 11 13 17 19 23 29 31 37 41 43…

Oh, wake up tinsel toes.

Yes, so the spook’s shot passed right through him. The translucent assassin was just as surprised as you and me. Because spooks don’t do maths; can’t grasp the calculations. There’s no intention in maths; whatever dimension you’re in, it just works, and that made Mana pretty much invincible here. Psytopia Adagio 1

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SPOOK 52: Cross-face swipe HIT: No… passes through like a chill in the air SPOOK 51: Slipframe roll HIT! HIT! HIT! Or… just a whistle in the wind? SPOOK 51 implodes. OUT OF PLAY Time to return service. MANA: Neck grab, lift and hurl SNATCH! SPOOK 52: over the balcony and away! Oh, now this was fun. Not just invincible; he’d acquired superhuman strength! There was something about being the least see-through kid on Translucent Street that made Mana the toughest dog in the yard. I’m not sure if that’s Zen or quantum mechanics or just plain paradox at play, but paradoxes are great so let’s let it be. “Mel.” Melodi pouted; that wasn’t her full name… there was no rhythm to it. “You spies Mana over there? Lickle sprite’s doin’ dandy.” These squibs were so simple Remedy could fight and talk. Melodi said nothing; just sulking there on the balcony. Crunching herself as up as small as she could be. The ornate railing bent off its moorings, the slant of the scene making the fight look like Batman battling gormless goons. Mana could be pleased with his absent self if he wanted, but she just couldn’t relax around non-bes. She spied him and quietly despised him. You can’t very well say much while holding your breath. Her skin beginning to turn translucent lime as she held it. Better than being caught out. REMEDY: Backward leaping cross-face twirl (BA) HIT! SPOOK 64: Through ribcage. OUT OF PLAY REMEDY: Backward shuffling curl (HJ) HIT! SPOOK 65: Through shoulder. OUT OF PLAY “Mel.” Melodi pouted. She said her full name was so much more tuneful. You’d think Remedy would’ve realised by now that everything fits a melody. Psytopia Adagio 1

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“Give Obi a hand; brick kicker’s lacin’ it. Take some of these.” She handed the azure girl what looked like a triangular purse. Melodi snatched it before a spook did. Assuming they could. Gift horses... mouths. Not that they had horses in Psytopia. Not that they would necessarily have mouths or that you'd be able to look into them if they did. But in any case… Melodi was turning almost teal. Take a breath. Oops! Some of them might have seen you! Let's hope there’s something worthwhile in that pouch; sweets, root, pyro… better; fuzz-jacks.

*Pyro in a can; great for long-range battles. *Scattering clusters of the things off walls, around corners or down steps. *The moment of anticipation as they bounce a few paces before the molotov hits. *The chaos that ensues!

*A bit random? They were aspiring belle blazes’ all purpose get-out-of-jail card. Yeah, there were better uses for pyro but you know what? Remedy was enjoying life without it. Perhaps sipping the stuff had already loosened a few screws. Back across the cruiser, somebody else wished she’d never picked up a blade. “Az!” Mikado reaching desperately up towards him; the two separated by a fog of ghouls, surrounding her like hunting hounds around a frightened fox. Her fingers stretching so anxiously they almost dislocated. Psytopia Adagio 1

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On her knees. Tears down her cheeks. Hands covering her face. Blade stabbing randomly in the gloom. She needed him by her side. She needed him to hold her wrist. She needed him to shield her heart. Because her heart was so brittle to the wide, wild world. I’m not saying Mikado was naïve. She wasn’t naïve. She knew more than most how the wide, wild world worked. She had seen its pain and she wasn’t afraid if it. But that doesn’t mean Azrael was going to leave her in it. Squeeky-clean, white knight, do-gooding boyfriend cavalry en route. Spin-chain clanking into random, artless, aimless play. And sure enough, aimlessness was hitting nails on heads. AZRAEL: Wading spinchain whirl HIT! SPOOK 1, 4, 7… SPOOK 43: Looming slipframe swipe MIKADO: Blind stab MISS! “Azrael...” THE CAVALRY: Nearing spinchain whirl HIT! SPOOK 10, 13, 16... MIKADO: Blind stab MISS!

>Tink!< >Tonk!<

MELODI: Fuzz-jacks tossed off the balcony above SPOOKS 43 & 44: Blaze of glory! OUT OF PLAY

>Pop!< >Bang!<

A wave, a thumbs-up and a snigger as Melodi dashed by. Looks like the children were growing up into saviours. And lucky Azrael wasn’t the only hero in town… Though that didn’t mean he was happy about it…

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Before we see if Obadiah’s dead yet (spoiler; he’s not, and if he was, he might become a real spook), let’s recap where he was. In a big tarpaulin oval filled with air? Half right. A third right. Not really right at all. The balloons were gone, as were the people who used to be transported around by them… except for their bad karma. Here was Obadiah in the bowels of the ship; he’d been haunted and hounded and followed thus far, spooks on his tail. But plodding and slipping, ducking and weaving, he’d somehow ended up where the magic still kind of happened.

A strange place and that’s for sure. Come on, we’re on a translucent triple zeppelin karma-powered hover cruiser full of ghouls in a world which still considers swords to be the most advanced contraptions ever made. Of course it’s going to be strange. The engine of this thing worked like a giant air conditioning unit. A mood conditioning unit. It sucked up bad vibes and burned them as energy. And with no zeppelins to fill, the engine was sitting here producing hungry ghosts instead. If they weren’t burnt quickly, the vibes remembered their human forms and willed them back, so… a bit of a design flaw. That’s the problem with progression; with no long term strategy, you run out of steam with a whole track left to traverse, or you run out of track but you’re still belching steam. Maybe you’re better off just building the stuff you need as and when, because otherwise you might end up happily bolting together the architecture of chaos.

Floating in the air, thumping and plunging. Floating on scentless smoke. Floating amid a subtle cloud of bad mojo. Not quite solid, you see? Not quite there. Hungry ghosts in themselves. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Dotted around the walls, floors, ceiling. Not quite solid, not quite there; more hungry ghosts.

Hanging here and there, like nooses. I’m not going to work out how it worked, I’m just going to say that this air balloon brainwave may have started out as the pinnacle of sustainable, karma-drive transportation, but by this stage it’d just become another ghost farm; ghosts breeding ghosts. SPOOK 83: Cross-face swing MISS! Obadiah teeters, wobbles; nothing left to step back on Big, ambling parahack tumbles ungracefully through an ethereal flame bed, into the ghostly pumps and pistons of the machine. Instant death? Somewhere on the Cyan plate, a sand swirl had his face on it… But not quite… Lying on his scaly back, nursing a bruised lung, and by that I mean he was cradling his shoulder. Tapping his head to check if his heart was still beating. The spooks ganged up on the other side, tentative about following him through the flame. Like it’d actually burn them? Because even the engine of this thing was a hungry ghost. Siphoning the Academy parties’ bad vibes, I’ll bet. Every time one of the original spooks was felled, it bred another. Every fatal blow creating a fresh ghoul. Obadiah watched the spectres through the flame-wall as they backed away, petrified of their creator. If you’re an echo, hearing other echoes must be reassuring at first; a symphony into which you fit; but when an echo hears the sound on which it was based, it can’t really hide, can it? Proving there was a maker, exposing them as made. Inadequacy breeds frustration, frustration breeds anger, anger breeds ghosts, or whatever Yoda said. Psytopia Adagio 1

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The floating knitting machines around him, spluttering smog. The piston pumps, beating the smoke into humanoid shapes. The gas solidifying like dew forming on a windscreen. Baby spooks, sculpted out of hatred; echoes of echoes. Half bodies at first; legs with no torsos, arms with no chests, torsos with no heads. As ideas became matter. And lo and behold, Obadiah also had an idea which mattered. Hoe about he silence the echo; beat the maker.

Academy Grouping This is only an interlude; it's just Obadiah. The Engine Room It’s a room… Full of semi-living engine parts.

I’ve described it once, I’m not doing it again.

OBADIAH: Javelin toss MISS! PISTON 1: His attack was just evaded… by a piston… Since when did miscellaneous engine parts put up a fight? Translucent, you see; not quite there. Well, let's be wary of the parts that are quite there. The vague, malformed offspring of the beast.

SPOOK-LEGS 2: Random kick MISS! Obadiah steps calmly aside SPOOK-TORSO 2: Random head-butt MISS! Obadiah just steps over the thing Psytopia Adagio 1

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Shut your eyes, hit and hope.

OBADIAH: Anarchic double-handed mega-sword swipe HIT! PISTONS 1 & 2: Sliced down the middle. OUT OF PLAY Spook-legs 1 and 2 scuttle like toppled exercise bikes. And then <FUZZ!> in a plume of broken dreams, they were gone. The spooks on the other side of the flame-bed pacing as if expectant fathers outside the delivery room, anxious for news. Because Obadiah had placed mummy in the grave; no more spawning for you, my fiends.

However well he did, pick-ups are exempt, sorry Az. But donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t get into scraps with inanimate objects?

So thought Azrael as the important things in life seemed to be fading away; his swordplay and his partner. A wide world where Remedy of all people performed better than him was maybe a touch too wild. Still separated from Mikado, he stood his ground. Grit his teeth, bit his lip, searched his options.

*Charge them. Stupid. *Run. Where? *Wait for an opening. He was losing patience with this strategy. *Do something unexpected? Psytopia Adagio 1

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Let’s give that one a go. AZRAEL: PSY MIRROR! AZRAEL: Leaping swing HIT! SPOOK 90: Head. OUT OF PLAY Azrael wiped his sword with a glove. Dirty, nasty, random tactic... And a shame übertek fry the brain, or he’d string them together like a gang of submissives at a fetish party. But wait a minute; our righteous hero wouldn’t appreciate metaphors like that… Different sides of the cruiser, different ends of the spectrum, Remedy had no such worries, because Remedy was having fun. Standing on the gallery of the sunken cruiser, narrow gangway before her, steady gradient not deterring her one bit. There was a gaping hole in the walkway some thirty feet ahead; a gap of almost another thirty feet, give or take, and a band of spooks rapidly charging from the other side of the great divide. Oooh, tumble-toed lickle shards, caught in her cross-hairs. Swords, violence, mortal danger; what more could a girl want? And she was just one step off her ideal pace… anarchy! She took a moment to scan her surroundings; was Azrael watching? Nope, he was nowhere to be seen… then he was going to miss a killer show.

Scratch that, square-lace. Bounce on a foot. Pick up the pace. If moy’s goin’ out, moy’s goin’ out in style!

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Remedy breaking into a full-on sprint. Swords held behind her, almost like tail feathers. Stomp, stomp, stomp up the steadily steeper gangway. Picking up the pace. The spooks on the other side of the pit, thundering towards her. Slipframes whirling above their heads, almost like parasols. Plod, plod, plod down the increasingly slippery gangway. Matching her pace. Remedy spiking the jump; launching off the edge. Winding in the wind, heels over head. Flying through the air with the greatest of breeze. Stretching her waist as she flipped like a spinning pancake leaping from a pan, unfurling her swords like the sails of a windmill, sweeping through the ether like a miniature tornado in an upside-down world. The spooks having already thrown themselves chaotically over the edge; a cavalcade of malformed dreams. Two by two, almost like the hastily jettisoned cargo of some hellbound version of ark, emptied like an ashtray into the night. Dropping through the sky however fate chose to hurl them. Plummeting to earth with the grace of clods. Dead swallows in their final swoops. Slipframes glinting in their translucent grips. Hanging for a moment in Remedyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s cross-hairs. Until time caught up and knocked them down. REMEDY: Double mid-air reverse somersault swirl (HJ/BA) HIT! SPOOKS 93 & 94: Beheaded. OUT OF PLAY Remedy swivelled her body in a slick diagonal spin. Psytopia Adagio 1

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REMEDY: Mid-air ground-winding reverse roundhouse coil (HJ) HIT! SPOOK 95: Beheaded. OUT OF PLAY REMEDY: Mid-air cross-winding roundhouse coil (BA) HIT! SPOOK 96: Beheaded, OUT OF PLAY And >SLAM!< not only landing on her feet… Not only landing on her feet safely on the other side of the pit with space to spare… Not only landing on her feet safely on the other side of the pit with space to spare, facing where she had come from… She even had the time to watch the decapitated spook corpses fall and fade to mist. Ditch that dictionary now and demand a re-write. Because whatever it says on the subject it’s wrong; that was the definition of cool. Remedy smirked, chuckled; yes, she even chortled. But she’d forgotten one important thing. Oh, only the most influential thing in the universe, and maybe if Newton and his trees and apples and all those other historical spooks had held some kind of fleeting form here in Psytopia she’d have known more... About gravity. So within a moment she was dropping onto her backside as if she had sat on a bottomless chair, sliding embarrassingly down the gangway on her rear end with a repetitive ‘Yow! Yow! Yow!’. She wasn’t smirking now; she wasn’t chuckling and she certainly wasn’t chortling. She was just wondering if she’d been a tad… ambitious. Remedy pushed by the hand of gravity from whence she’d come. Swords still in her grasp (bless her), scratching the floor, almost like mud-guards. Slip, slip, slip down the increasingly slidey gangway, picking up the pace. Another set of spooks on the other side of the pit thundering towards her. Slipframes twirling over their heads, almost like halos. Clop, clop, clop up the steadily steeper gangway. Aw, fleet-footed mirages; did you have to really have to kind-of be there? Psytopia Adagio 1

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Remedy plugging her heels into the edge of the walkway as she skidded over the edge. Giving herself a boost almost like a swimmer off a diving platform. Whirling through the air, head over heels; tucking in her neck as she span like a bowling ball headed for the pins. Falling from the clouds like a downed fighter jet, poking her swords out to her sides like spikes on the pimped-up wheels of Boadicea's ride, dropping through the sky like a meteorite headed for Earth; as if a baby bird toppling from its nest. The spooks having already launched themselves anarchically over the precipice. Two by two, almost like the swiftly rejected shoes of some dissatisfied diva into the dejected face of a downtrodden aide. Climbing in aimless directions like planes without flight plans. Reaching for the stars as if riding the chariots of the plods. Hungry eagles in desperate swoops. Holding onto their slipframes like straw hats in the wind. Hanging for a moment before something had to give, and I think we all know what that was. That’s right; the bitter, double-blitzing blades of gravity. REMEDY: Double mid-air forward somersault swirl (BA/HJ) HIT! SPOOKS 97 & 98: Beheaded. OUT OF PLAY Remedy spins her body in a slick diagonal swivel. REMEDY: Mid-air cross-winding roundhouse coil (BA) HIT! SPOOK 99: Beheaded. OUT OF PLAY REMEDY: Mid-air ground-winding reverse roundhouse coil (HJ) HIT! SPOOK 100: Beheaded. OUT OF PLAY And >SLAM!< not only landing on her feet… Not only landing on her feet safely on the other side of the pit with space to spare… Not only landing on her feet safely on the other side of the pit with space to spare, facing where she’d come from… But look; decapitated banshee corpses fading and falling away. Rip that rulebook apart and draw up a new one. Because whatever it says on the subject, it's wrong; that was how to be cool. So she smirked, chuckled; chortled- why not? I’ll tell you; because you should’ve remembered after last time. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Even though it had bitten her once already; the remains of Newton and his trees and apples must be turning in the topsoil. Remember gravity? Her feet slipping suddenly on the steep gangway floor, >SPLAT< straight onto her face with yet another “yow!” You know what I said about being cool… At least she held on to her swords though; good girl. If she’d let go she may well have saved herself a couple of loosened teeth, this being why she sported a gold one after all. But come on now- teeth, swords; which would you choose? Remedy could think about it as she began slipping down the gangway on her face. The cruiser started to shake. Wall to wall, ceiling to floor. Just don’t ask me which is which. You know when you press a self destruct button… “Melodi?” Mikado held her dagger back for a moment. Until now, all she could see was spooks. Even Azrael’s shape was lost to her in the semi see-through gloop of their grasping hands. She half expected azure girl to reveal herself as their ring leader. But the mysterious mite had saved her, hadn’t she? Saved her, splatted some spectres, run out of fuzzjacks… And may as well huddle in a corner and pray for death now. Did I happen to mention Melodi was the cynical type? “Melodi.” Mikado took her wrist. Great, now we have two sitting ducks about to be sliced up in a spooky stew, unless... Melodi took a deep breath; gestured to Mikado to do the same. “Mel; I’m so glad it's you.” Did this girl want to get stewed? Melodi rolled her eyes so hard they almost popped into her brain like pool balls to pockets. I’m gesturing here… During one held breath, Remedy had picked herself up and plugged a few more spooks, Mana had begun to calculate that the ghoul’s numbers were finally going down, and Azrael had finally burst his was through the spooky ranks; finally realising he was better off trying to hit them, and just hit them. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Melodi pulling mumps faces, pointing to her mouth while Mikado stabbed fruitlessly in the dark... Hold your breath, Mikado! …let’s not mind the slipframe about to embed itself in Mikado’s skull. Hold your… and Mikado held her breath. SPOOKS 107 & 108: Overhead swings MISS! Lost sight of the target at the last moment Yeah, where is the target? The spooks circled around a roughly two-person space. That’s two huddled, relatively small persons. I didn’t say they were stupid, but if they can't put two relatively smalls together… OK, they were stupid. Mikado dropping her dagger, holding Melodi’s wrist tight. Great; now they could see the dagger- time to run the other way. A simple trick, leaving spooks swinging at a small, sharp implement like… well like dead-headed spooks. Leaving Azrael to burst through to save his girl just as she slipped away out of sight; now you see them, now you don’t. AZRAEL: Angry swipes HIT! SPOOKS 107 & 108: split in two, OUT OF PLAY And that means we’re all out of spooks! “Hey!” The cruiser was rumbling. And Mana, despite the lack of any kind of expression, appeared dejected. How many spooks had he managed to put away in that play; 8, 16, 32… he’d been scoring pickup points like piling rice on chessboards there.

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“Hack!” Remedy throwing herself down the last few stairs in a break-fall. Remembering she should’ve been keeping an eye on the novices “Where’s Obi?” Mana shrugged his shoulders, glum that the game was over. “Remy, we’ve got to get out of here.” Melodi and Mikado now; joining the crew. “Some fuzz has sizzed this pliz, huh?” And here stomps the saviour of the story... “We leave.” Obadiah, pushing past, headed for the door. Creak… >CRASH!< You mean the door that’s just collapsed? This cruiser was on a one way trip to the second Heaven. A trip which was long overdue. Sinking into the dust with the memories of it’s long gone crew. Fading into the ghostly nothing from which it had been ripped. “Miki, where’s Azrael?” Remedy had the party together, bar it’s leader. In his absence, the role seemed to have fallen to her. Heroine by default... Zarathustra help us… “Last time I saw him…” Creak… “Well he ain't in here, is he? Must've spied some other way...” Rumble… “Azrael wouldn’t have left...” “There.” Obadiah pointed at the stairs up to the boost platform. Stairs which were quickly becoming steeper as the cruiser fell through the surface of the plateau. “But it's uphill!” Remedy steadied herself. Be positive; inspire.. She was probably still the vice-leader at least…

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“We can make it!” Thanks Mikado, as walkways and railings fell away around them. The voice of half-full glasses. Melodi sighed; all they had to do was hold their breath… “OK. We’s gonna breeze it.” Remedy took a breath; still striking bullseyes on chance alone. “Ready…” but the others were already gone. What happened to leadership? Creeeeaaaaakkk… Rushing across the creaking floor… or should that be wall? Rushing up the creaking staircase… or should that be down? Rushing onto the creaking booster platform and off like boulders over a cliff. Azrael waving them on; back in the driver’s seat. The thirty foot drop now little more than ten. Each of them off and safe in the welcoming dust below. Remedy last; because that’s when leaders leave the sinking ship, so put that in your rulebook, chugdish.

CRASH! An almighty one, at that. Not almighty enough?

CRASH! Was that better? Actually, there wasn’t really a crash, more of a… not sure how to describe it; a dull fizzle? Because ghost ships aren’t as substantial as fear makes you believe. As an ornately furnished, triple zeppelin, karma siphoning, spook-brewing hover cruiser sunk into sand in an almighty heap.

Attacks- 41. Standard Hits- 14. Poor Misses- 25. Not a very impressive batting average… Psytopia Adagio 1

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Straight out-of-play hits- 14. OK given the opponents Injuries sustained- 11 shots; cuts and bruises Play awareness- Not what we’ve come to expect Control of party- abysmal Bonuses for his girlfriend surviving after he was unable to protect her… Bonus rescinded- the Academy doesn't rely on luck to get things done. Azrael needs to think carefully about his dictums.

Attacks- 66. Above average Hits- 62. Near perfect Misses- 4. Not bad at all Straight out-of-play hits- 62. Expected, given the opponents. Injuries sustained- 2 shots, resulting in cuts and bruises, plus various scratches and scrapes incurred through use of extravagant techniques. Play awareness- on the whole impressive Team play: Good Bonus for protection of pick-up. The tutors were worried about Remedy at first but she is beginning to show she is more than capable of performing outstanding plays when necessary. Let’s not tell her that as formless things, spooks are easier hit with will, not aim… so basically a lot of the time she was hitting them by missing...

Elective and therefore exempt from analysis.

, &

Pick-ups- Exempt from analysis.

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*Where to start? * Azrael failed to adapt * Remedy did well but this isn’t a game *Mikado needs constant protection *Obadiah is solid but probably under-utilised *Melodi’s value is uncertain; can she be trusted? *Mana was cool there; even the tutors admit that. it only takes a moment to slip into the third heaven, and we place students in the path of spooks to underline that notion; they’re random, we’re not. The Academy will bear these points in mind whilst assessing the remainder of the field trip. Remedy would have baulked at that assessment. So you can nail all those spooks and still get criticised? Lucky they didn’t have horses in Psytopia or the tutors would be sitting on mighty high ones. Just waiting to be knocked off with a hoop and a swirl… “Alright.” Azrael furrowed his brow. Took Mikado’s wrist. He’d need her next to him. To salvage some pride? To save some dignity? To just bring a bit of order to that hit and hope mess. “That wasn’t good.” “That was spangly.” Remedy disagreed. This was why Azrael needed support; squeeze harder. “We have to be more cohesive.”

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“Well... check. I bow.” True to her word, Remedy bowed. But she had one more snarky comment. “It was fun though…” “Fun isn’t the be all and end all. Success is.” “Yeah, but…” She refrained from stating statistics. Blitzy, breezy landslide. “We need to think strategy.” “Before some gloopy squib tries to snip moy coco or during?” Azrael felt his headache coming back. “We need to work out how we’re going to…” “OK, brick it, gekk cake.” Azrael grabbed her by the still skeletal wrist. “Yow!” “We’ve got to be cohesive.”

REMEDY: (Head down, unenthused) “Gotta let fly sometimes; moy proved it, hey?” AZRAEL: (Squeezing harder) You’re taking too many chances.” REMEDY: (Uncomfortable) ”You’se cutting off the blood flow to moy fingies.” AZRAEL: “I’m getting a little agitated with your risk taking, Remedy.” REMEDY: ”I’m getting a little bruised by you'se wrist grippin', ya grotty squab.” AZRAEL: “You’re too reckless.” REMEDY: “You’se too square.” AZRAEL: “This is an addiction.” REMEDY: “This is an assault.” AZRAEL: “Risk taking is bad for you.” REMEDY: “Grippin’ moy wrist is bad for you.” AZRAEL: “You think?” REMEDY: ”Oh oi think. Oi think muchly.” Psytopia Adagio 1

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Azrael’s free hand motioned towards his sword. Remedy’s motioned towards one of her’s. You can’t draw a sword on a swordstril without them knowing. Once your finger calls for that blade, any student worth their weight can hear it a mile off. Remedy winced a little. So this was how it’d pan out, was it? He and her in the spooky shadows; bone-dicing seen in glorious x-ray vision. Not exactly diplomacy.

REMEDY: AZRAEL: REMEDY: AZRAEL: REMEDY: AZRAEL:

“What’s steamin’ your coco, brickcase?” “Don’t talk to me like that, fresher.” “Or what ya loopy hackjaw?” ”I am not a hackjaw.” “You think?” “I think.”

Their voices trailed away as Melodi wandered between translucent trees, doing her best to ignore them. She didn't want to be surrounded by the dead, who insisted on reeling her in. Or the living, who just argued, argued, argued. Was there no middle ground between the two? And yeah, she’d used the word ‘dead’ and she was proud of it. Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead. She used a lot of old fashioned words. Like ‘hell’ for example. You can find hells anywhere. Is hell a fiery place with imps and pitchforks? Is hell being stuck in this body, never once finding anyone to warm it by understanding you; anyone who can really hear you? Melodi didn’t know anything of imps, pitchforks, swordplay and dictums, but she knew about hell. Hell is other people. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Melodi gulped. She had already decided she didn’t like this place. Something felt… wrong. Something felt unbalanced. Something made her think something bad was about to happen. You may well point out that Melodi always thought something bad was about to happen. Somewhere, it probably was. And you may well consider that somehow she might have been to blame. Melodi wouldn’t care what you think. Which probably wouldn’t surprise you either. But the fact remained; she felt disjointed, and they weren’t even semi-skeletal anymore, so the disjointedness couldn’t be seen. Cracking under the surface... The Rust Plateau appeared reminiscent of a wild west movie set. Wind-torn pad huts, tumblesoot, fate-swirls and dust. Moody little blue girls don’t do dust. It just isn’t… clean enough. It just isn’t right. It just gets everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Disrupts the sanctity of the landscape. Plus, it sneaks into your boots. And your sinuses. It’s spook-stuff, and haven’t we had enough of that? She snished and sneezed. “Ah-choo!” A telling shudder. Telling her she should have stayed back on the Saffron Plateau, crying. Because no good ever came of anything in this world. Or perhaps she was simply jinxed. Why, oh why wouldn’t people take the hint and leave her alone? Psytopia Adagio 1

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Azrael wasn’t concerned about Melodi’s incessant snivelling. He’d gotten tired of it a few plates ago. Or perhaps the moment he’d first saw her. He wasn’t quite sure when. So he blocked it out and carried on. Holding Mikado’s wrist. Dragging her behind him. Eager to get this assignment over. To rest his head. To go back to being told what to say, think and do. Because life was so much simpler that way. He filtered the dust out of his airwaves without a second thought. Filtering was one of the most basic Academy arts. Everyone learnt it, straight off the bat. If you can’t breathe right you’re not going to be much use to anyone. Least of all yourself. Obadiah picked cottony black chunks out of the folds in his scales. It snowed here, you see. It snowed tumblesoot. By that I mean compacted dirt or ash or dust or whatever you wanted to call it. You could call it rust. Because essentially that was what it was. The nasty, bitty brown smog of a less environmental age. Brown dust which fluttered to earth like spiralling plane tree seeds or downed spitfires careering towards an almighty crash. The place was thick with the stuff. And it stuck to the lungs like cling film. There were wind swirls too. Obadiah smelt them everywhere. The ones nudging at his mammoth shoulders and thighs weren’t a worry. Hardly enough to register any change. But if you have an ear for destiny you may just spot gruff winds slowly mincing the world apart. Fate-swirls. Psytopia Adagio 1

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You probably don’t notice fate-swirls. They exist everywhere you go. Karma weaving its webs. Change in progress. The world in perpetual flux. Smaller spirals were little more than basic cause and effect in motion, but here and there, twisters spun across the landscape. Step into one of those and you’ll come out quite a different person, or at least a more fated version of yourself. Not as confusing as timeswirls though; less random. To a swirl, we’re just more karmic pollution to add to the list. Can you avoid your own karma? Let’s just see… Remedy laughed a little then held it in. Would anyone blame her for leaping off and playing in the breeze? Just avoid those fate-swirls, kiticlaw… Building a soot-man or a soot-girl or… a soot-kiti. That was what it would be! Bold eyes, flame-clad clothes, flared ankles and sleeves, double blades, sparkly slim-curvy figure... Ooh, she’d make a soot-Mojo! She frowned all of a sudden. Perhaps a fate-swirl had hit her. Couldn’t she just have the real thing? Tripping the fight fantastic again with her bestest, breeziest belle. Mana seemed to feel at ease in the spiral soot showers. Now there’s a first! Because everyone knows pyronettes don’t believe in fate. Just formulae. He hadn’t done too badly against those spooks earlier, had he? Perhaps he was starting to find his feet.

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The wide, wild world wasn’t such a bad place after all. And when unexpected things happened… it was a bonus! To think people tend to fear change as if it was some kind of curse.

The young pyronette was starting to enjoy his adventures. A world governed by numbers, systems, patterns and processes might be a pragmatic one… But isn’t it also mind numbingly boring? Psytopia didn’t fall apart when he stopped counting. So why worry? There comes a time in every young pyronette’s life when he realises the numbers keep counting even when you aren’t actively adding them up. If you let go a little, zeroes and ones won’t kill you. And two plus two still equals four. Stop number-crunching and have some fun. Before the sequence changes. Only Mikado felt something odd in the air. In between the swirls. A tingle not unlike a magnetic tug. Psytopia Adagio 1

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And a silence. As if the world around her, her friends and the soot falling between them was not the only world there was. As if she stood aside from it all. Like sitting lonely in a group at a bar, sober while everyone else drinks to their heart’s content and their liver’s disappointment. As if she was walking in the opposite direction. As if… trouble loomed. She smoothed her dress. Combed her hair behind an ear. Dusted off her heels. Perhaps the longer she continued on this quest, the more sensitive she got. Or the more paranoid. She didn’t know which. Is suspecting such things the first sign of paranoia? Or the last of being free from it? There seemed to be paranoia in the very air. And Melodi watching her. Forlornly this time. The bottomless pit sealed shut.

‘Warning: do not enter.’

Soot wisping slowly around her like a slow-moving tornado. Attracted to her, or perhaps repelled. Keeping its distance. Strange girl, that Melodi. The world appeared to treat her differently than the rest. Enough to make a person intrigued. Enough to make a person uncomfortable. Enough to make a person paranoid. Because paranoia isn’t paranoia if it's really happening, is it? “Come on; this way.” Mikado had let go of Azrael’s wrist. She made amends. A soot-swirl edged towards them. “You’re cold.” “You too.” At least couples can insulate each other. Psytopia Adagio 1

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“I’s just... trembly.” Remedy shook herself like a dog out of water, her hair spewing rusty grime. “Warm here.” Obadiah swatted soot from his face. Ah, precious parahack. Big and butch on the outside, but in reality all that matters to them is food, sleep and comfort. Azrael attempted to heat his girlfriend’s hand with a rub. And his own. “This place feels wrong somehow.” Now he was feeling it too. Is paranoia contagious? “I feel off-key.” Mikado concurred. “I love off-key!” Remedy grinned; the hyped-up hyena at an all-you-can-eat antelope buffet. “Off-key is confusing.” Azrael corrected her.

They were trudging; who knew where. “We need to be careful Az. We don’t know what’s out here.” Mikado gripped his wrist tighter. Felt his pulse stall. She sensed discomfort. Azrael plunged his sword into the dust. “We should set up camp.” That awarded him a faint smile. They’d be safe under the canopy of the camp walls. Safe from whatever beasties lurked out there, or in here. In her head. Psytopia Adagio 1

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She could rest her legs. He could rest his mind. They could forget the desperate moments on the cruiser. They could be safe in each other’s arms again. They could hide themselves away from the world and things could still make sense. Melodi shied away from the group. The fate-swirls appearing to see her and spin the other way. Like they knew something. Remedy sat aside too. Out on her own. On her own, though not really. All on her own but for a parcel from the blue. Yay; clap with delight, blitz belle. Tag time! THUMP! A package falling out of the snowy sky. No wonder Remedy hadn’t spotted it; everything shrouded in crimson hue. You have mail! “Oh… dandy candy.” She flicked the tag packet into her hands and grinned profusely. Hung back out of the crowd a little, made some unlikely excuse and nipped off the other way. She didn’t want to be rude, but…

Hey; she said she wasn’t trying to be rude! Can’t a girl get a little privacy around here? She sprawled out on a rusty dune and lit up with her lickle pressie. Her only link to the swordstril sisterhood. She could see them now in her memories. And in the mind-maps caught in the grass. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Her penny from Heaven. In glorious, hallucinogenic technicolor! OF COURSE, THE MESSAGE WAS FROM MOJO. WHO DID YOU THINK IT WAS FROM; GOD? THERE’S HER FACE, THE SMOOTH CURVE OF HER CHEEK… THE LUSH CURL OF HER LIPS… THE GLOSSY COIL OF HER HAIR… ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT, SHE HAD STUFF TO SAY. SHE WAS HAPPY, ESPECIALLY AFTER RECEIVING REMEDY’S TAG. And Remedy was happy that she was happy. There was a whole big pool of happy for them to swim in. MOJO MISSED HANGING WITH THE BLITZBLADES AND SO ON. Yeah, don’t we all, kiticlaw… MOJO FELT LOST TOO. LIKE SOMEBODY HAD REMOVED HER JINK AND JIVE. LIKE SOMEBODY HAD PINCHED HER TINK AND POP. LIKE SOMEBODY HAD LEFT HER BORED AND… SICK.. BECAUSE SOMEBODY HAD TAKEN HER REMEDY AWAY. Remedy’s heart bumped at this point. She looked around for a moment. Wondering if some gangly squib had poked a sword in her side. No assassins to be seen. No external ones anyway. But she was eager to get back to sucking up that grass… MOJO WAS GLAD REMEDY DIDN’T HAVE TO SPEND ALL HER TIME WITH THAT FLATFOOT AZRAEL AND WISHED HER PRE-GRAD ESPERANZA WOULD LET THEM TAKE PICK-UPS TOO. ESPERANZA WOULDN’T KNOW A SLICK SWORD SWIRL IF IT TOOK HIS HEAD OFF. SHE’D TRIED TO PREACH TO THE BLOCKWRIST, REMY. THE THIRD HEAVEN, THE SNAG IN THE TRACK, THE ECHO OF THE OCTET, THE TOTALITY- ALL THE SLICK STUFF THEIR TUTOR HAD TOLD THEM. BUT THIS BRICKER DIDN’T KNOW A THING. SHE’D HAVE TO INTRODUCE HIM TO THE DEVIL’S PIROUETTE… Remedy frowned; the tag was running out. Thumbing through letters from people you love, the wad of pages never thick enough. Psytopia Adagio 1

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She missed the blitzers so… MOJO REMINDED HER- THE TAG WAS RUNNING OUT! SHE FELT A SPACE IN HER HEART. AS IF A MINATURE PYRONETTE WAS HANGING AROUND IN THERE, STABBING HER INSIDES WITH A FIERY FINGER-DAGGER. SHE FELT IT WHEN SHE THOUGHT OF BEING BACK HOME, PLAYING AROUND AS THEY SIPPED PYRO TOGETHER. Remedy blew at the tag in an attempt to slow its burning. So she could savour the moment, you know? She felt close to Mojo when she smoked her tag; as if they were wrist to wrist. MOJO WISHED THEY WERE WRIST TO WRIST. SO THEY COULD BREEZE SMOOTH AND JIVE FREE. THEY SHOULD’VE BEEN WRIST TO WRIST. THEY SHOULD’VE BEEN HIP TO HIP. THEY SHOULD’VE BEEN… The grass burned out. Remedy’s heart rocked as if it was being pushed too hard on a playground swing. Mojo could be wild when she wanted to. She made Remedy’s drum beat faster and she’d probably end up with a big fat fail mark if she carried on down that wide, wild road. But try as she might, she didn’t seem to care about that. Oh, and to unbrick your coco:

A myth. Because kids have to have unachievable heights to aim for, or they’ll just stay rooted to the ground, and no blitzer who does that is really worth her weight, is she? As the story goes, the Octet were a set of ‘perfect’ swords representing the six basic schools, crafted either in the past or the future or somewhere in between and which fitted the hands of only the most special swordstrils. Way back then, or whenever it happens, or whatever, the reverberation of the swishing of these swords sung reality into being, and you could still hear the echo of them if you listened Psytopia Adagio 1

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really intently (by that the Breezer’s tutor Freia had meant by avoiding listening at all). It was said that if united, the swords would slice the minds of every living thing in Psytopia. Now that’s a killer technique. 'Dië Holy Consonance', they called it; the grazioso… and by ‘they’ I mean the kind of people who perpetuated fanciful tales to get overly excitable students to pay attention. The same ‘they’ who’d jazzed up the curriculum to accommodate gifted yet somewhat wayward students, because snags in tracks sharpen their edge. And the same ‘they’ who clearly had no idea about maths. There were six sword schools and an ‘Octet’ is eight, you idiots! Remedy let the tag smoulder on her lips. Let it hurt. She liked flames. You may have noticed that already… Her legs and feet were tangling this way and that. Tangling with nothing but each other. Hanging on to the hallucinations. Her smirk as broad and pleasing as a big, curved blade. She picked the ash out of her mouth and hunched over in the rusty snow. She missed Mojo, and the other girls of course. But she and Mojo were always so on-key. Always went the same way even if neither had any idea where they were going. Remedy scratched her head; a picture of Mojo forever nestled in her thoughts. Gazing back at her as if through a reflection in an icy stream. The eyes red and black, mischievous and deep. The slick black mesh vest, vinyl cargos and top zipped only halfway up so the curves popped just enough to give any man lucky enough to be paired with her a glimpse of the Second Heaven… Remedy stopped herself. Picked a snip of tag and prepared her reply. Friends are friends. She gulped. Aren't they?

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Mojo, moy loopy loco sweet kiti gemini… I miss you. There, I’s said it. You’se don’t need no catch clique colloquy to tag that. I need to hook your wrist kiticlaw. I need to feel your pulse. I need to know you’se close to me. Like one beat to the next. Like something in between them. I dunno. Like two beats at once. Does that make sense to you cos it makes no sense to me? I rest better when I think of you. I think of holding you while I rest. Don’t narc moy on that K? I knows that’s not laced dandy and all but that’s how it plays. It's like you shadow me with every sword swipe. You’se moy clove sister blitzer, and you haunt me. And I’s all fizzed that I adore being haunted by you. Neither of us care about dictums do we? Not in our drums and our cocos and our cores. So do they matter? I knows it don’t make sense but nonsense makes so much sense. And I knows it makes sense to you 'cos you make more sense to me than anything. It’s not common sense, but are we two so common? I’s be kickin' moy hilts till I can say it to your face. Now I’s sent this and you’se smoked it I’s be beatin' moy drum with a shivery fist and a slithery brow, dreamin' you'se here. Give me an answer to the question I haven’t asked when we’s squeezin' wrists an passin' pulses again. Breeze wit tu later. -Remedy She closed the tag parcel and set it to launch. She crumpled into a seated position. She clutched her hands and wrists tight to stop them trembling. But when her hands stopped her wrists shaking, her arms shook. When her shoulders stopped her arms shaking, her torso shook. When her head stopped her torso shaking, her legs shook. And nothing was going to stop her heart shaking in any case. She held her lips with her fingers. Lips and fingers quivering like jittery digits on shuddering piano keys, the notes she sought lost somewhere between the ivories. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Feeling the g-force as the package sling-shot itself into the ether and far away. Her eyes clutching at it as it soared through the sky. Oh, Zarathustra what had she done? Cradling her necklace in her teeth, kissing it as she mouthed some ancient prayer from way back when people did such things; probably making it up; who knew and did it matter? That had been the truest, fullest, most terrifying experience she had ever had. Had she just jettisoned her life? And before you ask the obvious…

There was no such thing as homosexuality in Psytopia. Now, you’re going to sit there and disagree. Of course there’s a such a thing, it's just that there were strict rules and backward thinking and people were scared and ostracised, so they kept quiet. I understand your thinking but that wasn’t the way it worked. You see, Psytopia was a place of practicality. Food, dictums, academies, medician arts, maths. Everything was directed towards the pragmatic. That’s how Psytopians thought; one thing at once. Their thoughts were generally a lot clearer than those us humans are used to, but still… bland? And those thought patterns followed straight lines. Triangles. You have a predicament, options and a goal. And what’s the point of sex? ‘Fun’ I hear you say? You’ve been thinking in circles. Probably spirals, in fact. Most human beings think in spirals. Bafflingly beautiful, aren’t they? Never know which way they're going but there’s a thrill in that. No wonder human beings get so confused; we’re not so boring. Circles are a whole lot more enlightened; stable but open things. But Psytopians thought in black and white, and even the grey areas dictated pragmatism, and what’s the goal of sex? Reproduction, of course. The furthering of the species. Homosexual sex doesn’t further the species. So what practical person is going to think of that? Psytopia Adagio 1

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There were reports of homosexuality in Anarchist encampments. Although there weren’t words for such things. Just as the ancient Inca didn’t have a word for a microwave oven, however useful they are. Microwave ovens didn’t exist back then. And homosexuality didn’t exist in Psytopia. So why was Remedy having these feelings for Mojo? I don’t know; maybe she’s special. Maybe she’s mad. Maybe she saw things other people didn’t. Maybe she better appreciated the spice of life. Maybe she was the first step towards a brave new world. She didn’t understand what it was, but she was starting to. And despite the longing, the yearning and the fright at what she had just shared, she liked it.

The same can be said for flashy fighting styles. Not entirely practical, are they? Makes you wonder where the kids learnt them. Makes you wonder why the kids said things like this:

Perhaps the wide, wild world was beginning to drive Remedy crazy… or perhaps the kids had a point. They’d been sitting around a flickering pyro fire for a sliver or so before the crones arrived. They weren’t all that obvious. Almost invisible, in fact. You might put a hand up at this point and complain about how unfair it is that Azrael’s party seemed to be habitually attacked by near-invisible opponents, and you’d have a point. Psytopia Adagio 1

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The fact is that the crones and the spooks weren’t all that different. In appearance at least. In substance… well, neither group had much in the way of that. But I digress. I said right at the start that every plate had its own rules, landscapes, even laws of physics. I was telling you the truth of course, but I wasn’t telling you the whole story. If I’d told you the whole story at the start it’d be over by now... And unfortunately for your bag or pocket, this book is turning out to be way too epic for that. It's true that every plate had its own rules, but that doesn’t mean certain plates didn’t carry similar characteristics. We’ve all heard of twin towns, right? And we’ve all heard of species evolving in similar ways on different land masses. Just put it this way; Psytopia wasn’t always the way it was. Because change is the only constant. And because people had done a really good job of fucking it up. Yep, people were paranoid and needed control… So they panicked and lost it all. Typical. The crones had other ideas. Don’t control, just kill. They approached along the floor. Shrouded in soot; the perfect camouflage. They wore dust jackets. I mean jackets made of dust, OK? And they slithered a bit. They appeared like vague little hillocks, slowly circling their targets. Slowly surrounding Azrael’s camp. You wouldn’t notice them, what with the swoosh of the spirals and the whirl of the grime. You wouldn’t notice them… unless you were particularly sensitive to the sound of cackling. Cackles in the wind. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Because crones couldn’t help but cackle. Like kids with life supplies of fizzy drinks can’t help but burp. And though they picked their steps so the cackles were generally swept away by the swirls… Crones weren’t as subtle as they’d like to be. “Whassat?” Remedy sat up straight. She'd been thinking, and it'd been hurting. Cackles in the wind were a more welcome distraction. “Sounds close.” Azrael drew his sword. “Close.” Obadiah woke with a start; mega-sword in hand. “I can’t hear anything.” Mikado squeezed Azrael’s wrist. He squeezed the hilt of his sword. Always caught between boy and blade… “Must be some sort of squiggledy fiend.” Remedy scanned the dust spirals. Azrael too. His eyes searching around the rainbow light-tent surrounding the camp. “How can they see us through the field?” Mikado took his other wrist. She’d have to accept equal standing next to a slab of metal… Azrael pointed towards the dust spirals, veering off course here and there as if there was something obstructing them. “The spirals are parting for them.” “Check.” Remedy drew her swords. “I don’t know if it's us they sense or...” Azrael gazed into the pyro fire. He’d never trusted that stuff. It flickered almost shyly as they came closer; almost still. That was what they were sensing. “But why’s they after pyro?” Remedy got ready to defend her favourite recreational drug. “The pyro doesn’t like them. It's like it's hiding.” Mikado offered an outlandish suggestion. Psytopia Adagio 1

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“Miki, pyro doesn’t hide.” “Holding its breath then.” On the other side of the camp, Melodi shivered. This Mikado girl was so clever she was almost spooky. Almost… Azrael could work out the assassin's silhouettes now. From the way the tumblesoot bucked around them. Like finger shadows on a screen. They were cloaked humanoids, invisible through the colourful lens of the camp wall. AZRAEL: “Pyro can’t hold its breath Miki.” MIKADO: ”It’s behaving oddly, then.” AZRAEL: “I dunno; ask the junkie.” REMEDY: “Hey!” OBADIAH: “Pyro dead, these made.” AZRAEL: “What does that mean?” MIKADO: “With the spooks I felt them around me; emotionally. Like in a medician’s trance; tortured psyches- splintered. But these things don’t feel like anything; they’re hollow.” AZRAEL: “Miki… even a master medician can’t heal a mind from this distance, and through a fuzzfield.” MIKADO: “But the absence is eerie; eerier than spooks. Maybe the pyro feels it too.” AZRAEL: “Miki, you’re sounding...” MIKADO: “Crazy; I know. But pyro doesn’t reflect, does it; it only reacts. You’ve seen how it flickers when you watch it.” REMEDY: “Hey Az; your kitidrum’s sharp, siz.” MIKADO: “Melodi can avoid ghosts by holding her breath; it’s like they hunt the life in things, but when there’s no flicker life to see...” OBADIAH: (Itching to fight now) “Or death.” AZRAEL: “This is ridiculous. There are no ghosts, just illusions.” All Academy students were taught quite categorically that there was no such thing as ghosts. Once you pass, you pass. Nothing hangs around to haunt this world. Psytopia Adagio 1

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The only haunting that goes on is the living haunting each other. Getting into each other’s heads. Confusing things. Azrael needed an end to all this confusion. To all this being told what he knew very well was wrong. He wasn’t mistaken at all. Ghosts are in people’s minds. Maybe his girlfriend had mended too many and needed some brain-bandaging herself. And ghosts, as he (eventually) demonstrated on the last plate, can be cast from the picture. Once you’ve wiped the misty surface clear you can see your true enemy and your true self.

Or if you aren’t as patient as all that, ask. But bear in mind you won’t always receive answers. “Moy dunno if they spies us back.” Remedy shrugged… and was thrown into an evasive backward roll as a humanoid figure burst out of the ground, through the camp wall and into her sphere. “Diablo!” Was its only word. It cackled it. Hence the fancy font. “Stop right there.” Azrael raised his sword to its neck. Her neck. Its neck. He couldn’t quite tell. “Diablo!” It pointed. At Mana, it seemed. Melodi kept a low profile, crouched behind his back. And we can guess why, can’t we? “Diablo!” Psytopia Adagio 1

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“What the sekky squip’s a diablo, ya gekky frop?” Remedy had almost rolled all the way back into the pyro fire. The calm flames rippling for her a moment before dying down. Well, she’ll just take that as encouragement. “What are you?” Azrael examined the crone with one eye. The other remained glued on the camp perimeter, where other shapes crawled into eyeshot. Let's take in what the first eye saw before we move on to its partner.

Crones were curious creatures. A little like witches. Mutter, mumble, cackle, grumble.... But unlike witches they weren’t quite real. And as we already know, they weren’t quite ghosts either. You’re either an echo or a reflection, that’s what I’m saying. Unless you’re alive, in which case you’re a target. First thing to realise is what Azrael’s party could see first hand. That these were crawly, straggly, ugly, weathered things. Their dusty cloaks unnervingly still in the breeze. Their craggy features extenuated in every direction by strange skulls. Pointy skulls; clearly visible, sneaking through the dead grey skin here and there. Dry eyes sunken in sockets. Curled fingernails black and blue. Teeth pushing through tongues, lips and cheeks. Tied up neck to foot in strings and ropes, buckles and corsets. Armed with rotten cleavers and swirl-spiked boots. And every one of them exactly the same. Crones, for the record, were merely projections. There was a real one somewhere; the hag. The others were fakes. Façades. Operated by one mind, probably from afar. But that doesn’t mean the couldn’t hurt people. They hurt people alright, and they liked it. OK, so the lead hag was the only one capable of discerning like from otherwise but still… The problem with things that aren’t quite alive is that they tend to sneak through barriers; go unseen or unacknowledged. Or just plain ignored, because if it isn’t even thinking for itself, first that’s creepy and second, who is it to judge? Psytopia Adagio 1

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So think of the crones as ventriloquist’s dummies. Hazy reconstructions; magnetically-propelled reflections. You can’t hold a mirror to a mirror and expect it to produce a substantial form, and confronted by halls of mirrors, we can’t really avoid looking at ourselves, can we? So they acted as a unit; always in each other’s view, and spewed off across their rusty world to do field work. Demon hunting. That’s just an example, but a relevant one. “Diablo! There were three or four of them in the camp by now, and space was becoming tight. Azrael and Obadiah were forced to back up. Mana and Melodi huddled in the background, shirking away from the accusing cleavers. Remedy on her feet and ready to roll. “You’se patchy yeeps better start switchin’ ya toes or you’se gonna get diced.” Azrael rolled his eyes. He was the field marshal around here. “Stop… right… there.” It didn’t seem like they understood what he was saying. “Diablo!” “Diablo!” They were all at it now. Dance with them or debate with them? Obadiah had a better idea; straightforward. After all, he was a parahack. OBADIAH: Double-handed sword swipe HIT! CRONE A: Crumples like balsa and disappears. OUT OF PLAY Well, that was easy. Insubstantial clearly wasn’t the toughest substance in the book. If only the spooks had been such a pushover. “Spangly.” Remedy saw more approaching from the other side of the camp. She span around, switched stance. Weight on the back, arms crossed. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Weight on the front, arms bent. Weight switching to and fro, arms outstretched. Tease the breeze kiticlaw, tease the breeze… “Diab…” REMEDY: Underhand coil… (BA) HIT! CRONE B: Crumples; disappears. OUT OF PLAY … into reverse roundhouse swirl (HJ) HIT! CRONE C: Crumples; disappears. OUT OF PLAY Azrael steadied her arm with a firm grip of the wrist. Had he ordered her to start fighting yet? REMEDY: “Hey siz, moy’s achin' ta' get stakin' here.” AZRAEL: “Hold back, Remedy.” REMEDY: “For what? You wanna suck dust- be my guest.” AZRAEL: “We don’t know what these things can do.” REMEDY: ”Well we already know they’s pretty dandy at crumplin', bud.” AZRAEL: “We don’t know what these things are, they may have tricks we don’t know about.”

REMEDY: (Taunting one with a bob of the head) “What? Like crumplin' in a whole new, chillin’ an’ tremblin’ way?” AZRAEL: (His hold on her wrist almost enough to bruise now) “Watch their movements; all the same. They’re some kind of automatons.” REMEDY: (Pulling her arm free) “Hey, hack it scratch; wirejacks are scaretales- kids’ cons..” And that’s right; in Psytopia robots were considered hearsay. How times change… “Look around you. There are demons everywhere.” Azrael made no attempt to hide that he was looking at Melodi. Psytopia Adagio 1

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The blue girl turned up her lip and hid behind Mana again, sheepish as she could appear. Sheepish… but hatching some devilish plot, bless her. “She’s no diablo, bud.” “Diab… “ REMEDY: Curling crescent hoop (BA) HIT! CRONE F: Crumples and disappears. OUT OF PLAY AZRAEL: REMEDY: AZRAEL: REMEDY: AZRAEL: REMEDY: AZRAEL:

“You need to hold back.” ”You’se need to loosen up.” “You need to think.” “You’se need to act.” “You need to start obeying orders.” “Or what?” “Or maybe you’ll get killed.”

Remedy turned away from the action. Oh-oh. Bad sign. Swordstrils didn’t turn tail on fights unless they found a bigger one elsewhere. And in the civilised world of the Academy, it was very rare that people found it necessary to use terms like… “Killed, huh? That’s a strong word.” And some might find it offensive. It basically insinuated that one’s behaviour was so offbeat that they aren’t going to pass to the next Heaven, and that… well that’s harsh. “It’s a strong warning.” Remedy wiped her mouth with a sleeve just to display how rebellious she felt. She spat in the face of warnings! “How strong’s strong?” Mikado tugged Azrael’s wrist. Come on now; neither time nor place. AZRAEL: “It's as strong as you can get without a blade in your neck.” MIKADO: (Holding AZRAEL’S wrist with both hands) “Azrael...” Psytopia Adagio 1

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She held his sword arm. And yet it still pulled away from her… After the results of the party’s last skirmish, Remedy wasn’t backing out of this disagreement. REMEDY: “…Let me get this candy sapphire suz. We's bein' zished by squibs and you wanna be cuttin’ moy down?” AZRAEL: “I don’t need to fight you Remedy.” REMEDY: ”Don’t need or don’t want?” Melodi screwed up her face. She knew this was going to happen. Could have said so though, couldn’t she? Meanwhile, a fight brewed within a fight. AZRAEL: “I’m not going to fight you Remedy.” REMEDY: “Not gonna fight the squibs either?” AZRAEL: “These things aren’t squibs…” REMEDY: “If it wants to pang me and I can z it, it’s a squib.” AZRAEL: “These are dupes; there’s no point ‘zing’ them.” REMEDY: “Moy blades got points, their blades got points; an’ those points be swingin’ so mine's be singin'.” AZRAEL: “Stay in step, Remedy.” REMEDY: “Moy step's just fine.” AZRAEL: “I call the steps.” REMEDY: “I make moy own.” AZRAEL: “That’s why you fall flat on your face.” REMEDY: (Eyeballing now) “I’d burn you up.” AZRAEL: ”You’d burn yourself out.” REMEDY: “Your rulebook ties you down.” AZRAEL: “My rulebook keeps me together.” REMEDY: “Then watcha doin' vexin’ a fresher?”

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Azrael clenched his fists. Grit his teeth. Held his words. Searched his dictums. Surely there was one about insubordination. Mikado stroked his wrist. Gentle as she could be. Sensitive as she could be. Diplomatic as she could be. But realistic as she could be. With nothing but a whisper in his ear. “Az… she has a point.” Azrael broke the hold of her wrist as if he was breaking an umbilical cord. Crunched his teeth as if he was munching pebbles. Sheathed his sword as if he was placing a gravestone. Who’s side was she on? A snarl was all he had to offer his appointed fresher. “I don’t need to argue with you.” And with that he was off. Kicking a plug-peg aside, breaking the camp wall, stomping off out of the equation. “Az… Az!” Mikado in hot pursuit. Good thing Obadiah was busy beating back the crones. The tutors would not be happy with this.

Academy Grouping That makes it just Remedy and the pick-ups Crones I’d say twenty or so of these, give or take Psytopia Adagio 1

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The Rust Plateau. Surrounded by wind-ravaged valleys and more dust mounds than you can shake a sword at.

Since he’s chosen not to participate, let's grade this from Azrael’s perspective. After all, he’d be tutoring freshers next term; better get some practice in. “Diab…” “Sizuz... eeer… stay in the triangle?” Remedy advised herself more so than the others. Yeah, she’d prove the plodtoes wrong; this team was hot. A little too hot for some tastes. Because Melodi had had enough already. Fighting was boring. It was just a game, built by big children in dull suits of metri, with all their inane dice rolling and button bashing and chess piece shifting hype, forever going round in triangles. It was a game the blue girl didn’t want to play anymore. She didn’t need some cocky kiddie-clogs to hold her wrist. Some ambly prack to keep her safe. Some hot-headed swordstress to take out the trash. Swordplay, thuggery and loopball, huh? Fun games. But let’s get serious. She held her breath. So she didn’t get caught out, of course. Time to tug me some bones! A spot of bunraku. Chord capture. Bone tugging. Jive wiring. Whatever you want to call it. It had had many names over time and then been forgotten. What a waste of names. Let's just clarify something. Psytopia Adagio 1

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She whipped an odd-looking doll from a pocket. Held it tightly in her cheque-gloved hands. Her beloved Doloroso; her pride and joy. She held it as her arms turned to flame from the elbows down… And trust me, bunraku gets even weirder than that.

Up until now, things in Psytopia have been somewhat… normal. 'No', you say. 'Psytopia is a strange, curious, freaky place which confused me from plate one and by now I’m pretty much just nodding my head and saying ‘O…K…’ whilst imagining patting the author on the back and mouthing to the nearest white-coat to hurry up and load the syringes. Well, alright; point taken. But bunraku raises the bizarre bar one extra notch. I can’t tell you much about bunraku. If I did, somebody would probably kill me. Possibly from afar, using a doll. To you, it would appear as if I’d killed myself. Miss Peacock with the mannequin in the conservatory... Even if I'm in the study. And there are higher forms of bunraku too... But I shouldn’t talk about bunraku. The first rule of bunraku is never talk about bunraku. Maybe never think about bunraku; by then the damage is done. And if you must talk about bunraku, make sure you do so in the most oblique way possible. Those who know about bunraku don’t like to give the game away, so sorry for my vagueness. You have to see my point of view; if I say too much I may just spontaneously combust… Although it actuality it may not have been so spontaneous... It may have been bunraku. Psytopia Adagio 1

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There were three types of players; Ningyozu, Tayu, Shamisen. Melodi was a Ningyozukai, which meant she generally had to physically connect to her doll to perform puppetry; remote and orchestral application was a bit of a head-ache. Bunraku involved astral possession, twisted hypnosis and mumbo jumbo to steal a victim’s faculties. Ningyozukai picked and pillaged. As if their victim’s whole being was laid out before them in sound waves or sheet music; which string are you gonna pluck? Tayu possessed groups of people at once so long as they were in earshot and a similar state of mind, while Shamisen could place more vague ideas in minds over long distances and time. Similar (Mel would say rip-off) tactics were used to control drones, clones or automatons. Hand-eye co-ordination became tricky though. You try blasting out different music from ten separate hi-fis and see if you can tell them apart. Melodi was no expert, but she certainly enjoyed her art.

All bunraku puppeteers wore tug-gloves. More often than not all the time. You tended to have to live it to be able to perform it. Melodi’s gloves were knitted to fit. You can’t wear somebody else’s gloves. You’d burn for that. Back in the day, bigger people wore tug-gloves. Bigger people with bigger beasts to boss around. Both bigger and more beastly than übersaurs. In any case, tug-gloves did just what you'd expect; they tugged. I’m talking about tugging minds. Tugging bones. Tugging chords. They were made from the skin of flamejigs, or so Melodi would say. If anyone asked her. And as Remedy asked her immediately after this fight, I might as well relay that conversation now so as to save time and confusion later, as by then we’ll have bigger issues to consider. So Melodi said her gloves were made from the skin of flamejigs. Now, nobody believed in flamejigs. Psytopia Adagio 1

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As legend would have it, they lived within the ethereal flame which underpinned the plates, and of course, that was impossible as ethereal flame fried anything it touched. You had to dilute the stuff over and over to produce pyro and even then everybody knows pyro burns brain cells anyway. Pyro was either the force behind life or the harbinger of death. Take your pick, take your pick; the two meet at the end of a Möbius strip. Unlike most people, Remedy liked to believe unbelievable things, because she was mad, stupid or wise? Take your pick, take your pick… People said it takes a shadow to sneak up on a flamejig. Melodi would react to that comment by dropping her head and looking guilty. But let's just say for argument’s sake that Melodi’s gloves were covered with the skin of flamejigs. Underneath the lining lay all kinds or arcane metals and magnets, but since flamejig skin drowned out the effects of gravimagmathics, nobody’s going to know that, so let’s move on. What I’ll say is that judging by the gloves, flamejigs came in black and white, their skin bore the consistency of PVC and puppeteers stitched them together to form cheques. Oh, and when placed in contact with a ningyo dummy, they burst into flames along with the puppeteer’s hands; nice party trick.

An eerie contraption and no mistake. I said ‘contraption’, didn’t I? This would denote that there was some kind of mechanics to it. Let’s pretend for a moment I didn’t use that word. The bunraku dummy; an eerie little dolly and no mistake. Melodi’s precious little Doloroso had a blank face save a patchwork triangular eye and a patchwork triangular mouth, and appeared reminiscent of a certain Edward Munch painting. Pretty scary, as dolls go. Aside from that it was like a stitched-up teddy bear; eyes, paws and mouth, because we can’t have teddy cry now, can we? I'd worry if Melodi ever had kids; she'd sew her baby's eyelids shut to stem the tears. Doloroso was indeed as much pride and joy as she had. And it also burst into flames when held just so with tug-gloves. Do you now appreciate my fear of spontaneous combustion? Psytopia Adagio 1

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Take out your patchwork dummy. Hold it in front of your heart with your tug-gloves.

Watch it all go up in ethereal flames, elbow to elbow.

Piano playing...

I did say ‘Rock n’ Fuckin’ Roll’ already, right? Now, obviously I’m talking about the victim’s death. Unless you really messed up on the chord capture… And I say ‘piano playing’ but of course there were no such things as pianos in Psytopia, and in bunraku it was performed in thin air and in all directions, as if the imaginary keyboard didn’t only stretch left to right but every which way. So here’s little Melodi, her arms missing at the elbows, replaced by raging ethereal flame. Yes, raging. She manipulated the fiery blob which was once dolly with fiery blobs which were once arms, moulding them into any shape she wished. And oh look; her victims moved as if they were the dolly. Because this was the purpose of bunraku; remote manipulation. It wasn’t Melodi possessing them, it was Doloroso. Melodi simply dictated dolly’s dance, like a sadistic conductor with a Devil’s pitchfork of a baton. Psytopia Adagio 1

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The victims’ motor functions stuck on strings until the puppeteer could hold their breath no longer, because creatures from other Heavens can’t catch you when you hold your breath. When the victims scooted back from dreamland into their bodies, they might well be dead. Let’s see how these manky crones like that! By now Remedy and the others had lowered their weapons. By now the crones were staggering inanely. By now they were done and dusted, ripped and rusted already. The manipulator’s piano playing; majestic in its application. The manipulated’s stop-start motion; eerie in its confusion. A dozen helpless crones with identical jerking motions as they circled aimlessly, but let's put them out of their misery shall we? MELODI: Crafts a finger into a flamy cleaver and plunges it into the flame-dummy’s heart HIT! CRONES (12 simultaneous remote blows) They spit grey blood from chest wounds for a moment… Then crumpled and disappeared. OUT OF PLAY Melodi smirked to herself. Mana would have stood there open mouthed if he’d had one. And if he hadn’t been utterly terrified. Instead he dropped to his knees and started counting on fingers. As if he was a scientific genius who’d based his entire thesis on an equation which he only now realised may have contained a fundamental flaw. She was messing with numbers and balances which didn’t… Well, which didn’t belong in this world… There goes mister superhero. Melodi was uncharacteristically delighted. So, can’t fight, huh? Yeah but wait a moment... Um… sweetie; your arms are on fire. She let out a breath and watched her limbs turn back to normal with a puff of smoke. As if throwing a towel on a chip pan fire. And not a singe to be seen. Psytopia Adagio 1

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“Trippy coco…” Remedy almost dropped her swords. Almost. “What was that?” An angry Azrael was back on the scene. Oh, he’d been watching alright. And whatever what he had been watching was, he knew it wasn’t kosher. “Bunraku.” Melodi cleared her throat. Which raised the obvious question in Remedy’s mind. ‘What? You want some, squab?'

The Assembly of Tutors have absolutely no idea what happened there… “That was loopy.” “That was wrong.” Azrael tried to snatch the dummy. Melodi swung it into her back pocket before he could reach it. Yeah, you just try and touch her there… “Give me the doll, Melodi.” Azrael wasn’t letting this go. He knew a banshee when he saw one... not that he’d really ever seen one until now.

Beings who’d slipped through the cracks between Heavens. Generally nasty, dirty wrong things. Hungry ghosts were banshees too. Yeah, he’d seen a banshee or two... or 108... He knew what he was talking about. She hadn’t used that… that voodoo on them had she? Stick together, huh? Well live together, die alone. And as luck would have it, Melodi was alone.

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REMEDY: “Hey, she just popped them squibs for us siz.” AZRAEL: “Do you know what she did?” REMEDY: “Do you?” AZRAEL: “Voodoo.” REMEDY: “What the hack’s voodoo?” AZRAEL: ”It's an Anarchist art.” REMEDY: “Well it's an art that gets moy twothumb salute, cutz.” AZRAEL: “I said it's an Anarchist art. You’re supporting Anarchism.” REMEDY: “And I said it gets moy two-thumb salute.” AZRAEL: ”Voodooists exorcise chi from the dead.” REMEDY: “And you just said dead.” AZRAEL: “I can demonstrate dead too...” MIKADO: (Dissuasive, holding his wrist) “Az…” AZRAEL: (Swatting MIKADO’S wrist aside) “This… girl is trouble.” REMEDY: “This girl is moy sparkly, dandy lickle sprite who just happened to cut down a whole pen of squibs in one swish.” Remedy stood between Azrael and Melodi. The blue girl hung her head, moped and trembled. She knew what was coming. If she used her Doloroso, perhaps she could change things… Azrael snatched it at an opportune moment. AZRAEL: “What is this thing?” REMEDY: “I dunno. It’s a jack that z’s squibs, that’s all I care about.” AZRAEL: “It’s trouble.” REMEDY: “It works.” AZRAEL: (Tossing the doll over his shoulder) “It’s trouble and it has to go. And so does she.” REMEDY: “Now sheath it a click, brick kicker…” AZRAEL: (Eyeballing REMEDY) “This… girl is a danger.” REMEDY: “Check suz; cos last time I looked you’se weren’t downin’ every squib in the park.” AZRAEL: “Doesn’t it occur to you that doing… whatever she just did might be a little strange?” Psytopia Adagio 1

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REMEDY: “A little sweet…” AZRAEL: “She eliminated all of them just like that.” REMEDY: “Good show…” AZRAEL: “Don’t you think the Academy would have picked up on techniques like that if they were… right?” REMEDY: “Right, huh?” Oh-oh. Debating absolutes; time to take cover. Melodi led Mana aside, head in hands. Obadiah wandered away, debates not his strong point. Mikado clung desperately to Azrael’s wrist. AZRAEL: “Yeah; right. If techniques like that were right, we’d all know them by now.” REMEDY: “Well maybe the Academy doesn’t have all the answers.” AZRAEL: “What?” The unthinkable yet somehow obvious had just been uttered. “Azrael…” This was getting unbearable. Mikado stood between them. Voice of reason, anyone? MIKADO: “It doesn’t matter what’s right and wrong, does it? It's in the past. Melodi used some technique we don’t know and it worked. It’s a wild, wide world after all…” AZRAEL: “Now you’re supporting Anarchism?” REMEDY: (Eyeballs AZRAEL back) “Who’s supporting Anarchism, ya gangly cagehead?” AZRAEL: “You’re the closest thing to an Anarchist I’ve ever seen without slipping my blade.” REMEDY: (Spreading her arms) “Slip me, siz.” MIKADO: (Pushing them apart) “For Zarathustra’s sake, stop.” The winds were spiralling around them. A fateswirl on collision course. Melodi tugged Mana’s sleeve.

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Head down, eyes closed, teeth clenched around a lip, headed for that bunraku dummy plonked unceremoniously on the floor. Perhaps she still had time… AZRAEL: “She needs this argument Miki.” MIKADO: (Holding his sword wrist) “Nobody needs arguments.” AZRAEL: “She’s trouble, Mikado. Just like that… diablo.” REMEDY: “Melodi is not a diablo.” AZRAEL: “She’s trouble.” REMEDY: “Me too, right?” AZRAEL: “If the sword fits the sheath...” REMEDY: “Better cut me down then, huh?” AZRAEL: (Drawing his sword) “Better.” MIKADO: (Stepping in front of him) “Az!” REMEDY: “The diablos are in your coco, siz. Moy ain't one and neither’s she.” AZRAEL: “The crones seem to disagree.” REMEDY: “You’se listening to squibs now over moy?” Azrael went for his sword. Remedy went for hers. “Will you two just stop it?” Mikado stood in the middle of them; the still in the storm. The winds continued to swirl. Melodi pushing her feet faster. Closer to that doll. If only that Azrael wasn’t so strong perhaps he couldn’t have thrown it so far. If only she’d said something… AZRAEL: “They say you can’t teach a cripple how to wield a blade.” REMEDY: “What’s that supposed to mean?” AZRAEL: “You can’t see straight when you’re fighting in a haze of pyro.” REMEDY: ”Oh there’s a dictum for that now is there? Last time I looked the Academy served pyro on-site.” AZRAEL: ”Fresher’s playground, Remedy. This is the real world.” REMEDY: “Moy bladeplay works fine n’ dandy in Psytopia Adagio 1

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your real world.” AZRAEL: “Fine doesn’t cut too sharp.” REMEDY: ”Gotta roast root to tang the taste.” AZRAEL: “Gotta keep your head together to keep it attached.” An exchange of glares. Azrael’s bold, purplish eyes. Remedy’s wildfire tangerine. Mirrors of their souls. Furrowed brows. Flustered breaths. Bad, bubbling blood. Azrael’s fingers squeezed the handle of his blade. The Crimson Harvest glowed a deeper red. Remedy’s fingers tapped the hilts of her blades. The Blessed Angel gleamed silver. The Holy Judgement glittered blue. Exchange of eyes. Exchange of blades? Azrael pointed his sword. “You’d do well to learn from your elders Remedy.” The fresher waved him on. “And this is you'se the teacher and moy the student again, is it?” “Remedy…” Mikado moved to hold her wrist instead. Perhaps she would have more luck. At least her touch eased the breezer’s grasp. Prompted her fingers off her hilts. Made the winds swirl a little slower. Azrael’s sword was tightly still in hand. A deeper red with every passing moment. “Azrael…” Mikado back to him now. Both hands, one wrist. Wrapped around the handle of his blade.

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Close to him, studying his eyes. Looking straight through her. The winds kicking up a storm. Azrael squeezed his sword. Mikado squeezed his hands. “Why are you being like this?” Oh, there were plenty of reasons.

AZRAEL: “You know she’s trouble as well as I do Miki.” MIKADO: “Remedy’s young Az, but her heart’s in the right…” AZRAEL: “Remedy’s a danger.” REMEDY: “You’se just spooked cos I blitz nice.” AZRAEL: “I’m spooked because you blitz Psytopia Adagio 1

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dangerously.” REMEDY: “You’se spooked cos you walk around with one eye shut.” AZRAEL: “And what’s that supposed to mean?” Azrael was having to raise his voice over the fate-swirl. Melodi and Mana pushing their feet through rusty tumbleweed. Little Doloroso’s patchy eyes and stitchy maw staring up at them. Take me, take me, take me… REMEDY: (Shrugs) “It’s a wide, wild world. Everything ain’t how you spies it.” AZRAEL: “Everything’s just how we’re told it is. Other people complicate that.” REMEDY: “We’s not told nearly enough.” AZRAEL: “Looks like somebody needs some more telling.” REMEDY: “Think you can trip it quick-step?” AZRAEL: “Think you can stay on your feet long enough to find out?” MIKADO: “Az, calm down.” Mikado’s slender hands around his. Mikado’s slight voice between his words. Mikado’s sensitive heart open to him, supporting him, guiding him… To a point… Melodi reached for Doloroso. Reached her little blue fingers that final inch... Until a fate-swirl whisked the dummy away. Now it was all over… Azrael’s grip on his sword was making his knuckles white. “She has to go Miki.” “No Az, she doesn’t.” “Step aside.” “You're making a mistake.” “Discipline is never a mistake.” “Then be disciplined.” Mikado stroked his face and stood in his way. The storm passing through him. Through her. And gone. Psytopia Adagio 1

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The calm. Right in the eye. The gap in the track. She held his wrists. His hands. His heart. Begged for the attention of his gaze with a tear. “Step aside, Mikado.” “Drop your sword Azrael.” She sandwiched herself between them. The intention in his very pulse. “Step aside.” “Drop your sword.” REMEDY: “Yeah, cool it, bricklace.” AZRAEL: “Oh I’m cool.” REMEDY: “Yeah, corpse-cool.” AZRAEL: “You’ve got no respect, fresher.” MIKADO: “Azrael...” REMEDY: ”Well you’se got no jive.” AZRAEL: “All we need is order; the rest gets in the way.” REMEDY: “The rest makes life worth living.” AZRAEL: “You’re in the way.” REMEDY: “Then clear a path, brick kick...” “Azrael…” Mikado went to kiss him; swirls lost in swirls. >SCRIPP!< A silent moment. In the eye of the storm. Eyes closed. Bodies pressed. Lips locked. A drop of blood. A dribble, in fact. Out of the pair’s locked mouths.

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A little dribble. It didn’t mean much. Nothing much, except the world. Except the world torn to shreds. Across the valley, a little blue girl felt a spine-tingling chill. Felt her body sigh. Felt her head spin. Felt her hopes dashed. Because you can’t stop fate, can you? Even if you can see the future. If you could have done something about it… Then it wouldn’t have been the future you’d have seen, it would’ve been fantasy. And Melodi didn’t see fantasies. If she could, she’d have chosen to live in one. Reality was a much more gruesome beast. An eye darting open. A terrified one. Shocked, but resigned. Mikado’s. Another doing the same. An angry one. No longer so confused. Free.

People get terrified by love. Why is that; it's such a wonderful thing. Psytopia Adagio 1

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But also so close to your heart, and something so close to your heart… well, it has the ability to chain it. Know your enemy and cut it down. That way, fear can touch you no longer. And nothing can get in the way of who you really are. Azrael pulled the blade back. Back out of his girlfriend’s stomach. Remedy may have been fooled. That Azrael was that plain, boring, predictable swordstril he’d always tried to be. The type that kind, sweet, innocent Mikado had spent term after term coaxing into being. The type Remedy could probably cut down given a little practice and half a chance. But she didn’t expect that did she? Plate after plate of frustration piling up. Banging away in his head. Fear. Of love. Of dependency. Of responsibility. Of comfort. Of being held back. That’s the most petrifying thing about pushing oneself as a swordstril; being held back. Girlfriend in one hand, sword in the other. You know what the best swordstrils do? They hold their swords with both hands. And now there was nothing holding Azrael back. Mikado held on to him for a moment. The dripping crimson tinkling ever-so slightly over the chain-mail. Music in the face of death. Echoes of reality on the edges of a dream. Holding him for a moment as her eyes glazed and her heart failed and her breath stopped. Melodi behind him, one final hang of the head. One final sorry. Because she had known the future. She had known how it was all going to change. But she didn’t know it well enough to say it and she couldn’t act fast enough to stop it. Not until change happened, and by the time change happens, it's too late. Psytopia Adagio 1

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One final look. One final cling. One final smile. Because she loved him anyway. Whatever kind of monster his confusion was about to spawn. A moment to contemplate how loving somebody is what really sets you free... And then she slipped back down the blade and into a crumbled heap on the windswept floor. The swirling breeze in Azrael’s hair again, but colder; bolder. Wide, wild and free. Wide, wild and wrong. Just as it was meant to be. “MIKI!” Remedy down at her side before her brain could register what had happened. Pins and needles. Rushes and flushes. Beats and breaks. As Obadiah stomped back towards the pack, weapons strewn. As Mana covered his face and tapped his fingers on his temple. As Melodi dropped her head and stood in shame. As Azrael backed away step by step, sword pulsing a living, bleeding red. Sneaking a sickly smile. Remedy by Mikado’s side, mopping her blood with a useless hand and an endless stream of tears. Slender, slight, sensitive little Mikado. Long hair as black as treacle and as scattered as dust. Big brown eyes so big and brown they just wouldn’t shut. Lifeless as a picture in a magazine. Icy blue lipstick tainted red. Did I mention she was gorgeous? Even in death. Figure-hugging white dress sprayed here and there with dashes of vermilion. Open hands and a missing high-heeled shoe. Lying there peaceful amid the parting swirls. A smile on her face and an acceptance in her heart. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Because she saw it now, just as she’d seen it in her dreams. But she saw so much more. And what reason did she have to fear it? The Third Heaven.

“W… what have you done?” Remedy with our starter for ten. Good question; let’s answer with a dictum. One which works this time.

Hmmm… Perhaps he could create his own catalogue of dictums. His would make sense. You think he should have killed Remedy instead? Remedy wasn’t the one who held the sharpest dagger there. Azrael had never had any argument with Remedy… Azrael had been having an argument with himself.

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Clearly Mikado hadn't heard:

And, while you’re at it, your front. “What have you done? What have you done?” Remedy rocking Mikado’s head like a baby in a cot. The blood staining her hands and clothes and stomach and sword sheaths. And that’s where Azrael left this scene. A sound defence from anything that got close enough to really hurt him. That would be his focus; good swordstrils only have one. He’d leave Remedy to pick up the pieces. Or to stumble, crumble and stagger back to the Academy in a mess; that would teach her the dangers of anarchy. So there you are; Azrael had proven himself right, and that was all that mattered, wasn’t it? You’d kind of think maybe something else had mattered a bit more, but like the struggling pre-grad’s logic, maybe it’d rusted.

So ‘why Azrael why’? Easy; because this made that fight so much simpler. Swords don't kill people; people with swords kill people. Although societies which allow unhinged people to have swords are also partially to blame… And ones which set stupid rules which play a sizeable part in unhinging them? To be fair, even those are only going to blame Azrael here. Psytopia Adagio 1

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The Assembly of Tutors have decided thus. Azrael has shocked and disappointed the tutors and Zarathustra himself. The Academy held Azrael in high regard as a prize student destined for great things, but the ideological conflict brewing inside him has destroyed not only his own future, but those of his party and most tragically of all, of the girl he professed to love. There are no words which can express the horrific result of this assignment. We can only use it as an example to future pre-grads of the dangers of the wide, wild world, (physical and psychological) and the destructive events interaction with it can produce.

Azrael is barred from re-taking his assessment at any time. From this point forward, he has been officially excommunicated. He has defiled all Academy rules and dictums, and will be treated as if an Anarchist. He may well believe he is following the wisdom of the tutors and Zarathustra himself, but his philosophy is now warped beyond comprehension and he shall be found and brought before the tutors as a criminal.

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All Academy dictums are made to be simple, but reflect situations in the wide, wild world. You must apply them with a clear head, or else even that which guides you may destroy you. Wisdom is a barbaric tool. Never attempt to control it.

Azrael made his way through the valley, a certain numbness awarding him space. The world was fresh and new. Isn’t it lovely to be forced to care no longer? To be free from having to hold together a heart? To be liberated from the eternal conflict of everything having to make sense? The others buzzing around frantically like worker bees. The blood, the tears, the questions, the desperation. And the blue girl’s head hanging as if an albatross around the neck, standing aside from the group. Azrael smirked at her as he passed. Not so special now, are you little diablo? No more tricks. Every story needs a hero. But heroes aren’t born just because stories need them. The wide, wild world doesn’t work like that, you see. Because in the wide, wild world, people change. And even heroes can do the most terrible things. Every story needs a villain. And heroes can become villains at the flick of a switch. Psytopia Adagio 1

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Psytopia: Crimson Harvest volume 1  

Psytopia is a strange world full of strange stuff; a place with a technological past and an agrilcultural present. And this light-hearted tr...

Psytopia: Crimson Harvest volume 1  

Psytopia is a strange world full of strange stuff; a place with a technological past and an agrilcultural present. And this light-hearted tr...

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