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When the morning hit, my future would be decided. I would either be the proud Epistocrat heir to the Typhoon of the South, or I would be only a step above the worst of the Humdrums, an Ousted wreck of a projector who could not forge a horseshoe, let alone the stars.


At least, that's what Paragon Academy would have you think.


No, even without my Ousting, I, alongside the rest of my family, would soon be only the lowest of Epistocrats. So long as the Broadcast King continued to reign over his media empire, our family would lose everything, would have it wrested from us by chains of debt. I could not topple him so long as my family is associated with me: I am ever the perfect heir, and none would believe it had not been agreed upon with my mother. They would be right about my mother's agreement, but wrong that it would involve such a base ploy. Instead, my mother had bargained upon my loyalty and strength to ensure our future.


Ousting was unique in that it meddles with the identities of those involved. When I was Ousted, I would assume the identity of my Ouster, be named after some alphanumeric code and entirely separate from the identity of Nell. It was the only way to save my family, and though the guilt of toying with my opponent in the Oust in such a manner gnawed at me, I would follow through nonetheless. But losing is difficult for me, and so during the middle of the night which preceded my duel, I placated my ego with victory.


We dueled on my family's estate, in the small ring where in less than a day, I would deceive my foe. Eliya Brin, my greatest friend and most trusted squad member, was pressing me hard, staggering me with waves of water to hide the needles of ice condensing at my back. I abandoned my meagre attempts at projecting into the ground beneath her feet- it served to keep her distracted, but the puppets of my Vocation had finished their prep work. I pushed my Pith into the strands of silk which had been woven throughout the lawn by the spiders of my swarm. They whipped through Eliya's shell of water, constricting her limbs into stillness as I hovered the last just inches from her throat. Eliya knew she needed to disrupt me, or the match is over. She used her Vocation.


My mind was suddenly caught in a flash of reminiscence, not pleasant as you might expect, but of a time when- I huddle in the corner of my estate, hyperventilating after my latest match. My father comes in, attempting to comfort me, but even as I calm, my paranoia forces me to project in search of nearby Pith. I feel my father: he is there as expected, but a set of his darts surround the room on all sides. Does his paranoia know no bounds!? My calm ceases. I try to run out, but my body is shaky and I- the memory ceased. I could still, however, see Eliya's father Isaac in my mind's eye, could still see the paranoia in the eyes of my mother's former squadmate which had driven Eliya to such depths.


I would deal with this later, but for now, I had no choice but to let it go. During this time, Eliya had launched herself at me with her water, her body employed as a living projectile which would easily knock me out as blue electrical currents coruscated around the crest of her head. Eliya knew that getting in range like this would be too tempting for me to refuse, and seemed to believe that her external projection couldn't be counteracted by me seizing control of her body. This was her all-or nothing ploy. I increased my Vocation's strength in exchange for a decrease in range, and sparks of blue and purple static momentarily flicker around my head as I seized Eliya's Pith in my Vocation, sighing in relief as I used the increased processing capacity to decide my next course of action.


No matter how I contorted her body, it wouldn't be removed from the floating current, but there was one play left to make, albeit one I would prefer didn't have to occur. I contorted Eliya's body so it was laying back, the current allowing the effort it believed futile. Then, I strained my Pith, the twinned lightnings truly crackling around me now, and the silk from before moved so quickly it almost seemed to be under the effect of the spatial Vocation I couldn't help but recall fighting during my first life. I threw off the momentary distraction, positioning the thread such that when Eliya approaches, it would hook under her chin and instantly saw through her current body's neck. It took a moment for the Brin heir to realize the implications, but as she did, my Vocation was forced to suppress an instinctual attempt at widened eyes, to keep the body from acting on a number of involuntary reactions my physiological knowledge couldn't help but identify as fear.


Immediately, the water collapsed under my puppet, and even as the body was set down almost gingerly by the portion of Eliya's Pith embedded in the fluid, I held her body still. After ten seconds, another memory struck my mind, which even despite all the efforts of my expanded mind was recognized not as as Eliya's recollection of our last spar's ending, but myself admitting surrender to Nell. After processing the memory and reorienting myself with my identity, I stopped my Vocation in silent acknowledgement of her surrender. My mind felt scrunched up and tiny now, no longer augmenting itself with the Piths of others, but the fact of my victory during our conflict filled me with enough satisfaction that I could almost manage to ignore the discomfort. The two of us stayed silent for a moment, myself luxuriating in the victory as Eliya sunk deeper into the calm which came with an end to the conflict.


An albatross cawed above us, diving out of its circling glide. I didn't even need to look to know its destination: my mother's study, having been programmed by her Vocation into absolute obedience. As I scanned the sky for more of my mother's spies, Eliya moved to stand by my side. "You know you don't have to do this, Nell." Her voice is hard, but the concern is obvious regardless of tone. "Who cares if the Ebbridge family is broke? If you needed money, you could get plenty from the Pakhems after the marriage with Samuel goes through. They'd be glad to resurrect the Ebbridge name!"


I knew she was right, but to do that would be to throw my parents to the wolves. They're not perfect, but they don't deserve that. Particularly my mother- it had been father who accumulated the debt in the first place. I turned to face her, to confront her with the reality of what I was facing. "You know why I can't do that. I wouldn't abandon you if you needed me- I certainly won't do it to my parents! I get that you're afraid of losing me, but you have to trust that I know what I'm doing."


Eliya spat her words out, muttering, "That trust is why I'm worried." She paused before going on, but something seemed to harden her gaze. "Nell, you have a dangerous tendency towards sacrificing yourself when you're desperate. It gets you the win, but every time it also seems to get you closer to dead. Why isn't it alright for your mom to give up her future for yours, but it's somehow alright for you to gamble the course of your life on one of the most powerful Humdrums in the world being taken down by a Paragon first year!?"


I struggled to retort, but after her uncharacteristic outburst I could only manage a weak, "Really? You're encouraging me to marry Samuel? You, of all people?"


Eliya sputtered at the thought, waving her hands frantically as the gloomy atmosphere which had permeated the conversation suddenly lifted. Eliya is still spiraling at the thought of supporting Samuel, so I decided to give a bit and ease her concerns. "Look, if you want to help me out, feel free, but don't contact me directly. I don't want to get you mixed up in this." I provided, and Eliya relented, albeit somewhat mockingly, hugging me as she muttered in my ear, "I was going to do that regardless of what you wanted, but I suppose this makes it easier. Don't worry, I won't get Leizu involved." That's good. Our squad's Joiner would gladly help, but her immigration situation is shaky enough as is without getting her mixed up in this legal grey area.


Still, I am forced to expectantly raise my eyebrow, knowing she can't see it, but sure that she had anticipated it. She conceded the point. "No promises on Samuel, but if he does get involved, he won't know who he's helping, and it won't be him pulling the strings. Your clueless fourth squadmate and worst fiance ever will remain just as a oblivious as always. Fair?"


I conceded in kind. "I suppose it's fair enough. Thanks for the match. Will you be back here later?"


Laughing as she pulled away, Eliya seemed to stroll into a slowly rising sun, calling over her shoulder as dawn light streamed past her, "I'd rather not have to watch that disgrace of a fight, but if you're worried no-one will be there to appreciate the show, I'm sure Lorne will gloat endlessly about it."


I watched as Eliya disappeared into the horizon even as my eyes burn from the harsh light, taking in every last bit of what could be my last sight of my closest friend. After she was gone, the moment was over. The albatross soon returned, and it was making such a fuss that were it possible for birds to transfer their Piths, I was certain that this one would purchase and transfer to a Maxine Cline simply to tap its foot in impatience. My shoulders slumped, and I began the trek up to the estate proper, making the steady approach back to my mother.