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"Before we can stand against the Bookburners, we must steal their fire. Tomorrow we attack the Merchants. Then we show the Bookburners the full might of the Serpent's Hand."

A series of cheers broke out, accompanied by raised fists. Only Mamba and Adrian remained silent, but even the mute telepath nodded in agreement. As the celebration died down, Garter continued.

"We don’t have much longer to prepare. The time we're on now was bought with the blood of our brethren, and those who came before us."

He paused, raising his tattooed arm into the air.

"What we do now is for those who come after us."


It didn't take long before the crowd had rearranged themselves into teams. Viper and Garter sat a table, poring over diagrams and gesturing wildly.

"There has to be an access point around there." Garter gestured towards a dim hologram with one hand, the other stroking his stubbled chin. His intense glare met Viper's, burning with a passion Adrian had only seen before in the eyes of the most fervently fanatic Coalition operatives.

Viper shook her head, clutching her mask tight. Her voice was flat and composed, exposing only a hint of anxiety. "Max, you know the Merchants. They're never that straightforward."

"What would you have me do then? Send Boa's team through the back?"

Viper studied the hologram before pointing towards a small area near the back. "What do they keep there?"

Garter shrugged with exaggerated expression. "Hell if I know. These are blueprints, not a step-by-step guide for invading our local MC&D storehouse."

"Told you we should've gotten the Dr. Wondertainment's Super Shady Storehouse Storming Set™," Viper grumbled.

"Please no. Her memetic branding is painfully purple."

Adrian looked looked away, his gaze falling on a circle of mages taking shots of a crimson liquid. It took him a moment to remember that rubedo distillations were popular amongst wealthy collectors; no doubt theirs were produced at much higher concentrations, as a sort of alchemical moonshine meant to boost their EVE.

Ross.

Mamba caught his attention. He was standing near the back of the room beside a strange pair of individuals Adrian had never seen before.

The first was a slender teen with emo scene hair veiling their eyes, dressed in ripped jeans and an oversized paraband T-shirt. The other was a short girl with round glasses clothed head to toe in pastel colors who twirled a finger through her color-changing ponytail. Asp and Rattles, Mamba introduced.

"She’s Rattles because she easily spooks," the former added, grinning.

"Oh, please," Rattles replied in a sharp Scottish accent, rolling her eyes. "And they call you Asp because you're such an ass to deal with."

Asp huffed. "Says who?"

Can the two of you argue about the origins of your monikers after Eurtec is free? Mamba interjected.

Asp shrugged as Rattles nodded sheepishly.

Now then, he turned to address Adrian. The three of you will be our eyes. Ross, this is where your experience with the Coalition is going to prove useful.

"Sure, if it doesn't get him killed," Rattles mumbled, her voice dripping with venomous cynicism.

Adrian frowned. “We're going to scout out the storehouse?//

Mamba nodded. Asp will let you know the details once you're in.

"And how are we getting in?"

"You mean how are you getting in?" Rattles interrupted. "I'm walking in through the front door," she waved a black and gold flyer in Adrian's face with a title scrawled across the top in gold lettering: Backdoor Soho: A Century of Prosperity. Sponsored by Marshall, Carter, and Dark, Ltd.

The Merchants are hosting an auction to accompany the exhibition, Mamba explained.

"All hail Madame Rattlesnake, billionaire heiress to kiss my ass," Asp mocked.

"Oh, please. You’re just jealous you have to take the backdoor with him."

Asp snorted. "As if!" they draped an arm over Adrian's shoulder. "We're getting along great, aren't we?"

"I…don't even know you," he replied, gently pushing Asp's arm away.

Rattles isn't wrong, Mamba interjected. //Though his past is behind him, I'm not certain the Library will grant him safe passage, //

Adrian's frowned. "The Library? We're going through the Wanderer's Library?"

"The one and only," Asp nodded, pushing their hand through a bookshelf as though it were a projection.

Mamba gestured for Adrian to follow Asp. They know their way around.

Ross reluctantly held his hand up to the shelf only to be met with the hard resistance of weathered book spines.

“He can’t even get inside,” Rattles rolled her eyes.

"That's what she said!" Asp stuck their head back out through the bookshelf before disappearing again.

"Have fun getting your membership revoked, you immature asshole!" she called in after them.

Pardon their shenanigans, Mamba shook his head. But please, try again. With intent. You aren't pushing a bookshelf; you're opening a door.

Adrian nodded before pressing himself against the shelf with considerable force, causing his injured shoulder to tighten.

I didn't mean literally. Try opening a door in your mind, Ross.

Adrian nodded and closed his eyes before stepping onto nothing.


Back at the Academy library, A teenage Adrian could often be found waiting patiently beside the fireplace, dripping wet, while Jaiden studied silently below the overcast light of a colossal window. Even if she couldn't keep her mouth shut anywhere else, she was quiet enough there to hear the gentle pattering of raindrops.

"See how the raindrops slide down the glass?" she used to ask, her face pressed against the window. "It's like the world is washing itself clean."

Adrian half expected to find himself there again — that the doors would open into that familiar, grand hallway where the windows would blind him and his boots would squeak on the marble floor. Instead, he stood in the


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