Flett Grayle was invincible.

Dressed in the jet-black uniform of a Freeglade Lancer, he blasted over the Deepwoods canopy, his sleek glistercraft skimming the tops of the leadwood stands beneath. His orders came straight from the top, and he would not fail to carry them out. A band of savage renegades from the east were poised to pounce on a small village to the southwest of Great Glade. Pirates Academic, they called themselves.

As always, they surely intended to abduct loyal citizens of the Empire, shoving them aboard those ridiculous outdated stone-powered sky ships of theirs, and whisk them away to their settlement at the tip of the Edge, where their captives would be sheltered from the magnificent changes transforming the world. If they were able, they would also collect banned barkscrolls slated for confiscation, hoarding it in their library of dangerous knowledge.

But not if Flett had anything to say about it.

The village came into view, and so did a swarm of sky ships. The Pirates Academic were circling it, roaring and chanting in triumph, and clusters of mobgnomes stood in the clearing below, huddling in fear.

"Surrender, revolutionaries!" bellowed Flett, and the captain of the closest ship turned away from the helm to face him, snarling. Swivel-catapults fired blazing ironwood logs in his direction, but he dodged them all and took aim with his glistergun one-handed, steering his vessel with the other.

The pulse of energy from his weapon slammed right into the flight burners of the first sky ship, smashing them to pieces and knocking the stone pilot off the platform. The flight-rock strained in its cradle, and then zoomed upwards into open sky, pulling the sky ship with it. The pirate captain's curses were lost to the wind. But even now, the other ships were zeroing in on him. He gave a cocky smile, raised his glistergun a second time, and…

The sunlight streamed across his face, cutting across his action-packed dream.

Flett Grayle yawned and rose from his bed, crossing over to the window and looking out over the Ambristown district of Great Glade through bleary eyes. The air was already filled with streams of early-morning glistership traffic, and phalanxes of soldiers paraded through the cobbled streets. He then rubbed his eyes and glanced in the mirror, gazing at the reflection of a young fourthling with light blue eyes, a round face, and a long ponytail.

After dressing, he strode into the sitting room of his condominium. How liberating it was to finally have a place of his own, free from his dependence on his parents. Especially now, during all the exciting changes happening in Great Glade. Glorious Leader Vartolius Xax had now ruled over the Deepwoods for sixty-two years. What a time to be alive!

He crossed the room to his refrigerator, opening the door and flooding the room with the red light from the glister that drove the cooling machine. Extracting a jar of hyleberry jam and two slices of barley-bread, he made himself a sandwich, then walked over to his armchair and flopped down into it. Taking a huge bite of his sandwich, he reached for the remote control, turning on the glistervision sitting on a small table in front of him.

The screen burst into life, revealing the smiling cloddertrog anchorman of the Great Glade News Network.

"Good morning, loyal citizens. I'm Glud Trumbclutt, reporting from the Free Glades, and this is GGNN."

The news fanfare boomed out of the speakers, while the seal of the Empire, emblazoned with Glorious Leader Vartolius Xax's face, danced across the screen. Soon, Trumbclutt reappeared.

"The unpatriotic protests in the Farrow Ridges are continuing into their third day," said Trumbclutt. "Paranoid fearmongers in the region are resiliently spouting pseudoscientific theories that the so-called 'Blight', spreading through a secluded section of the Eastern Woods, will destroy the entire Deepwoods and put an end to life on the Edge. A few of these traitors to the Empire are taking their claims a step further, suggesting that Glorious Leader Vartolius Xax is responsible for the infection.

"Naturally, an army of enforcers from the City of Night is being dispatched to the region to put an end to this nonsense. But it is believed that a mild level of seditious unrest has spread throughout the entire Deepwoods. We now go to political analyst Trellit Quilp for an expert opinion on the situation. Trellit?"

A swarthy fourthling appeared in place of Trumbclutt.

"Well, Glud, there's some bitter irony here," said Quilp. "The spread of these naysayers is the real infection here, not the Blight. Riverrise experts assure the Glorious Leader that the Blight has no potential even to spread as far as Great Glade, let alone across the whole Deepwoods. On the other hand, these sorts of contrary opinions have an alarming amount of potential to derail the Glorious Leader's campaign of progress."

Those hypocrites in the Western Woods! Flett pounded the arm of his chair in anger. With any luck, their punishment would be swift.

"Nicely worded, Trellit," laughed Trumbclutt bitterly as he reappeared. "But in the abundance of caution, the Empire is still working to investigate the Blight. Glorious Leader Vartolius Xax has released a statement confirming that the affliction of trees in the Eastern Woods is a result of wayward experiments in Omniphrax."

I knew it! Flett thought fiercely.

"Furthermore, the Glorious Leader has hinted that he will shortly be implementing a radical new institution that will shape the entire framework of his government to prioritize the dismantling of the rebel settlements of the east, as well as harness the power of the sky to purify the Edge. This new institution is to be called the "Phraxguardians of Riverrise", but nothing else has been disclosed about it at this time.

"Thank you for watching GGNN—the only way to stay informed about our ever-changing Edgeworld," said Trumbclutt. "We urge you once again to express your loyalty to the Empire by enlisting in the Great Glade Military. By taking initiative before next year's draft enters effect, you will distinguish yourself in the eyes of your superiors, and fantastic rewards await those who pledge every fiber of their being in the name of the Glorious Leader."

Flett turned off his glistervision, flung his half-eaten sandwich aside, sprang to his feet, and began to pace back and forth in the sitting room, his mind racing with wild ideas. The transition to a better Edgeworld was far from over. The Glorious Leader clearly needed all the help he could get, as his impending draft made clear. But he, Flett Grayle, wasn't going to wait for Vartolius Xax to come knocking on his door. No, he was going to come to him, and pledge his services early.

And he was going to do it today.