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A comforting warmth brushed the surface of Cerval’s body as the sun beat down on him. It did not penetrate deeper than his skin, however; his blood had already cooled and was pooling in his back. The overwhelming urge to scream at this unsettling sensation seized him, but it was too late. Daytime cut to night, then back to day, then again to night with increasing velocity. Bile surged up Cerval’s throat as his tissues liquefied and burst.

He grit his teeth against the Burn-induced hallucination and swallowed hard. Slowly, his guesthouse room came back into focus. The Preservist resumed pacing, determined to regain control of his senses. Each agitated step against the metal floor reverberated through him. He saw the sound waves ripple across his cramped quarters with its sparse furniture: a narrow cot, a table that held his belongings. Evening sunlight bled past the thick iron rods that barred the single window from thieves, while the smell of dinner cooking wafted through the cracks between the panes. Children shrieked and laughed outside as they scampered down the Outskirts’ twisting alleys.

But Cerval could not ignore the incessant itch across his chest. Though his neoprene hid the blooming stigma, the shape of it surfaced clear as day in his mind’s eye, triggering a wave of fury and shame. Snarling, he turned on his heel. As much as he wished he could tear his skin off and rid himself of the Sepsis in his body, the sharp memory of Arnsberg’s sensory deprivation tanks was enough to stop him. In those tanks, he’d lost even the concept of his physical body. On Burn, however, he could hear every whisper of the ether, even feel his mother’s heartbeat as if he were still in her womb. As loath as he was to admit it, the Burn was too precious to lose. It promised too much.

These promises lured the Preservist back to the table where he’d placed his Tarot cards next to a drawing of Markurant’s idol. Two Burn cusps lay nearby, one he’d just taken, one still unused. Cerval glared at the cards arranged in a pattern in front of him. The Abomination above the Creator. Two years ago, he’d watched as the silver-haired Raven of Montpellier drew the same combination. Cerval had thought himself victorious when the migratory bird agreed to teach him the Tarot as part of a deal. He’d let the Flock live—and even buy Burn from them—in exchange for knowledge of their esoteric arts. But when Cerval demanded to know what that specific pair of cards meant, the Raven only grinned, flashing a golden tooth. “Figure it out yourself,” he’d sneered. “You doctors are supposed to be smart.”

Cerval glanced at the charcoal drawing of the idol. Markurant. The real reason he had come to Justitian in the first place. Expecting a swift confirmation of his theory about the Pheromancer King’s rebirth, he’d quickly grown frustrated without any new leads for weeks. Famulancer Perret and the Anesthesiologist who helped her, Devant, had vanished without a trace into the sprawling maze of streets.

Sighing, Cerval swept up the two cards into the rest of the deck. He needed to try again. Immediately, he lurched as if he were falling upward, the room suddenly bathed in a burst of bright light. He took a deep breath, steadying himself, forcing himself back to reality. He focused on the Tarot cards. Shuffle, cut. Shuffle, cut. When the card on the top of the deck started twisting into mandalas, he stopped and drew it.

The Hermit. He placed it at the center of the Tarot spread, the origin point. Then he drew the Creator, which he placed next to the Hermit. The two cards swirled together, then broke apart, over and over in an endless dance. He had never seen this odd behavior before. As he leaned over the pair of cards, the blurring froze in the impression of a woman’s face.

Excited, Cerval seized the cards, one in each hand, lifting them up for a better look. But the features of the face were too vague. Identifying the woman would be impossible. Swearing, he threw the cards back onto the table. He was so fucking close! Drumming his fingers against the metal surface, he glared at the unused Burn cusp that sat within reach. A burst of hunger flooded him. The Preservist steeled himself against the urge, but then he remembered what would happen if he just gave up.

Markurant reborn. The people of Justitian under his sway. A massive spore field growing beneath the city.

Cerval grabbed the cusp and inhaled. The pungent smell of shit from the nearest Defiler Street filled his nose, and he could feel each separate fiber in his gloves against his skin. Looking down at the Hermit and Creator next to each other, the blurry impression sharpened into someone recognizable. She was the Judge who wandered the streets at night with her Scrapper friend.

Cerval stood up straighter, reeling. If the Hermit card merged with the Creator, which one is the Judge? Both? And if the Abomination above the Creator signaled Markurant’s return, what was her role in all this?

The Preservist knew beyond any doubt that the Hermit and Creator belonged to the arrangement, but the Tarot spread was still incomplete. He glanced at the rest of the card deck that sat facedown on the table. Black tendrils billowed like smoke from it. The impression of unlocked potential emanated from them. Answers he needed to questions that plagued him.

Adrenaline rushed through his veins. He was so close. He picked up the deck.

Shuffle, cut. Shuffle cut.

Everything screamed. Everything soared. Cerval’s hands trembled.

Shuffle, cut.

First, he drew the Heretic. He placed it next to the Creator. The black tendrils snapped into place between the two cards. Next was the Zealot, which he paired with the Heretic. He tapped the two cards with his fingertips, and they echoed back a rhythm. Perret, the echo said. Devant.

Cerval stared as truths clicked into place. Perret and Devant, linked to the Creator, which merged with the Hermit to form the Judge’s face. The Judge knew about Perret and Devant. Cerval had found her before and could find her again. He could do it that night.

Taking a steadying breath, he drew the last card. The Abomination again. He placed it above the Creator. The tendrils stretched, forming a bridge between the two. Obviously. But then they stretched between the Heretic and the Abomination, too. At last, the confirmation of all his suspicions. Though night had fallen outside, the room burst with a firework panoply of color. It accompanied the surge of triumph flooding Cerval, even as he felt spores take root in his lungs. He ignored them. He had to find the Judge so he could find Perret. Find Perret, and he could find Markurant.

Cerval’s gaze snapped to his right, where his sword leaned against the wall. It was a pit, its black steel sucking in all the warmth, light, and color of the higher self.

The Outskirts’ boisterous street markets were finally quiet. The Judge and her friend would be leaving soon to walk the Defiler Street.

The sword beckoned.