Clockwork Souls – Chapter 9

As a mentor figure, one of the prime things to keep in mind at all times is your charge’s welfare. 

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

My first thought after slamming into the polished stone floor of the sparring chamber was that I’d been correct.

The fall had broken me a lot more than the spear thrusts had.

Since there didn’t seem to be any more spear thrusts coming, I laid there for a while doing a reasonable impression of a puddle of shattered human being, and reviewed exactly where I had gone wrong.

Getting into the ring in the first place seemed was probably one of the many mistakes I’d made. There really hadn’t been any need for that. I’d just wanted to show off.

I could feel Grammy Duella shaking her head at me from a few hundred miles away.

That hurt worse than the fall had.

Underestimating Idrina? Yeah, that hadn’t been bright either. If I was going to pass the Cadet Trials, I needed to be more on guard, and demand a more even playing field when possible.

I kicked myself for missing the bit where she called for ‘no weapons except conjured ones’. That should have been a dead giveaway that she could conjure weapons and planned to do so immediately.

To be fair, I don’t think I could have been expected to guess that she would be so good at it that she could pull off the spell in the first instant of the fight without words or gestures. Part of why I hadn’t been too worried about whatever magic she possessed was that I’d assumed all casters needed time and freedom of movement to cast their spells and I’d planned to give her neither.

I heard voices from the top of the platform but my ears were as busted up as the rest of me so making out what they were saying was a bit beyond my capabilities. I gave a wordless, and mostly soundless grunt, and got to work on fixing that.

The damage to my torso needed work, but the broken bits in my head took higher priority. Grammy Duella would have laughed about the idea that I could fix the broken bits in my head and assured me they were fine as is, but people generally seemed to expect skulls to be solid.

My thoughts strayed onto partially formed jokes about being a blockhead, which got me working on fixing the various bits of brain trauma I’d suffered as my first step in the restoration process. I could have managed the repairs in an instant, but brains are tricky things and mine was one of my most artistic pieces so I wanted it to be just right.

“So will you be starting your year of service immediately, or do you need some time to put your affairs in order?” Enika asked as the voice floated closer.

“My dear former beloved, I am always in service and of service,” Doxle said. “In this particular instance however, I am gladdened to have earned the forgiveness for my offense against House Ironbriar.”

“A curious thing to be glad of as your champion failed to survive even the paltry sixty seconds required by the terms of battle,” Enika said. 

If my face had been functional, I would have been wearing an expression of either disgust or disbelief. 

She thought I’d died there? And she’d done nothing to prevent it? 

I wasn’t sure smacking an Imperial Advisor was a good idea.

No. Scratch that. I was absolutely certain it was a terrible idea. Fortunately I was too busted up to try it regardless.

I suppose it was a little unreasonable to think she or Doxle could have stopped things in time too. Idrina had gone from bouncing off the wall, to stabbing me through the chest, to kicking me off the pillar in around a second or so. I could tell that the Advisors had a lot of power at their disposal but that didn’t say anything about their reaction times.

That Enika wasn’t particularly regretful about Idrina apparently killing me seemed remarkably callous, but it wasn’t like I’d been raised to believe the Great Houses were the good and kind shepherds of the Empire that the official stories made them out to be.

“Yes, well, there are two small, yet relevant points you may be overlooking,” Doxle said as the floating disks drew himself and the others down to ground level.

“And those would be?” Enika asked, her boots clicking on the polished stone about fifteen feet away from me.

“Primarily, that the Ironbriar champion lost the duel,” Doxle said. I had my eyes closed still, mostly because I didn’t really want to see the state the fall had left me in, but I could still tell he was looking directly at Idrina.

I brought my nose back online as the final touch of fixing my skull and then got to work on the gaping hole in my chest.

“Lost?” Idrina asked, a trill of well suppressed anger rolling through the word.

“Oh, you’re performance was magnificent,” Doxle said. “A credit to your house, and doubtless enough to pass the Cadet Trials tomorrow.”

He waited a moment but she didn’t rise to take the bait he was dangling.

“There is only the small matter that you broke the terms of the battle before it was over,” Doxle said.

“How?” the brother asked. He was angry too, though a different shade of it than Idrina was. More protective of her honor I thought.

Breathing in slightly, I caught a whiff of musky protectiveness coming from him. 

That was interesting. A lot of siblings in the Great Houses are taught to view each other as rivals at best and eventual enemies in all other cases, with the only familial affection resting on the fact that they were enemies united by the rest of the world being the Great House’s enemies too.

“Do you recall the terms laid out for the battle?” Doxle asked.

“It was five minutes ago, so, yes, I do,” the brother said.

“What was my one condition then?” Doxle asked.

Idrina groaned, but the brother didn’t follow. “No weapons, spells only,” he said.

“That was her condition,” Doxle said.

“No spell casting outside the circle,” Idrina said.

A pungent spike of self recrimination flowed off her enough that I almost felt bad for the poor girl.

That wasn’t a hard emotion to overcome. All I had to do was focus on the work of knitting my heart back together.

It wasn’t a difficult task to be honest. Hearts are pretty simple organs. Blood goes in, blood goes out. Getting it to react when the rest of the body needs it to takes a bit of doing, but a lot of that is in the brain and spinal cord, which I’d already put back together.

The lungs on the other hand? Those are a pain to reconstruct even when they’re far less damaged than mine were. 

They are, again, a pretty simple organ but there are so many little alveoli, and if you want to do it right, you have to make each and every one, rather than just faking it with a single air bladder under the rib cage.

“You didn’t cast anything outside the circle though?” the brother said, the scent from him turning green with uncertainty.

“Didn’t she though?” Doxle asked and even I felt like slapping the smug, gloating smile off his face.

“Oh, pfff, that hardly counts,” Enika said.

“The terms of the battle don’t count? Is that truly a tack you wish to take?” Doxle asked, losing none of his delight.

“What? What did you cast?” the brother asked.

“A jumping spell,” Idrina said. “When I hit the wall. It was stupid. I didn’t need to, it was just reflex.”

I thought back to the flash of light when she’d bounded off the wall and back into the ring. It had proceeded my torso getting punctured by about a tenth of a second, so I hadn’t paid much attention to it, but Doxle was right. She’d cheated. Sort of.

It was still hard to count the fight as a win in my favor though.

“As I said, it was impressive. There will be few if any candidates at the Trials who can match that level of casting prowess,” Doxle said. “Casting prowess alone however does not assure a victory.”

“Yeah, but she still vanquished your champion in less than a minute,” the brother said.

I still didn’t think he held any particular animosity towards me, but defending his sister’s honor clearly outweighed any concerns about a random stranger’s demise. I could have been mad about that, but I didn’t feel like I had a reason to expect anything from him and, if I had a brother, I think I would want him to have the same priorities.

“That would be the other minor point which is worth consideration,” Doxle said.

He was gesturing towards me.

I still had my eyes closed.

And I couldn’t smell all that much from him, beyond ash and lightning, because he could lie through scent too.

So I had no actual method of knowing that he was directing their attention towards me.

But I knew.

I kind of hated that I understood his sense of the dramatic, and kind of hated even more that a part of me agreed with it, but despite that I couldn’t let a setup like that go unfulfilled so I opened my eyes, fast knit the bones in my legs together and rose to my feet.

My new dress had the small issue of a ghastly tear in the center of my chest and a matching one in the center of my back, but Idrina’s spear hadn’t done enough damage to compromise the modesty it provided. 

Otherwise I was in acceptable shape.

I rolled my shoulders to test that theory and found I’d missed a few spots in my Trapezius muscles. I fixed those as the Ironbriars froze into silence.

Seeing that, and smelling the sharp kick of wariness that gripped the twins, I offered them a blank stare and a small shrug is return. That brought them from scared to confused, which at least smelled slightly better.

Enika’s posture and scent hadn’t changed at all through any of this. Because she could lie the same as Doxle. I probably should have guessed that before, and should probably assume all the Advisors could too. It was annoying, but that was probably going to be a good summation for all of the Advisors if the two in the room were anything to judge them by.

As lessons went, ‘the Advisors are annoying lying jerks’ wasn’t much, but I suspected I would have to take what I could get. Doxle seemed to be many things, but the jury was still out on whether he was a decent teacher or not.

“How?” the brother asked, managing to avoid stammering the word too badly.

“Ah, a form shifter?” Enika said, surprise and delight tickling her words. “How clever of you.”

Clever of Doxle? I felt even more annoyed by that. I let it show on my face. Enika didn’t care.

“Do you think so?” Doxle asked. “I’ve always found it to be a challenging art, and, let us be boorishly honest here, why should I ever wish a form other than this one? Am I not the pinnacle of magnificence already?”

“Ugh. Children, come along, it is clearly time that we took our leave,” Enika said, and began leading the twins out.

“I don’t hear you disagreeing!” Doxle sang out as they departed.

Enika did not choose to dignify that with any sort of response at all, but Idrina did look back before they passed out the room.

It wasn’t much more than a glance where our gazes met, but that short window of connection held a promise. 

We were going to have another match.

I hadn’t won this one, and she’d lost it.

Next time, one of us would walk away the winner, and the other? Well I wasn’t sure the other would walk away at all.

She knew what I could do now.

And I knew I wasn’t unkillable.

My oldest, dimmest memories, the ones that surfaced only in hazy nightmares, held the proof of that.

I waited three breaths after they’d left the room before I turned to Doxle.

He was waiting patiently for me, the delighted smarm gone from his expression.

“You need to teach me how to kill her,” I said.

“By all means,” was his reply. “Let’s get started.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 8

In the heat of battle a person’s true soul is revealed…is exactly the sort of nonsense people espouse when they want other people to go and die for them. The only thing battle tends to reveal is the internal organs of the combatants.

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

I should have been more concerned about a fight to the death. By definition they’re a big deal for at least one of the combatants. I wasn’t going to be the one who was bleeding out at the end of the fight though, so it didn’t seem like the most important thing I needed to worry about.

Also there was the small fact that Doxle and Enika were clearly conspiring to make the fight happen and I don’t think either one of them intended to lose one of their pacted casters. I expected I’d fight one or both Enika’s Ironbriar charges and the moment I was about to strike a killing blow, Doxle would freeze me and they’d invent some reason to declare the fight resolved.

That had the downside that some of my competitors at the Cadet Trials would know what I was capable of, but Doxle had said he wanted to see me spar so he could offer suggestions on how I could pass the Trials. I had to hope the benefit of his wisdom would outweigh giving up the element of surprise.

Of course that all assumed I was going to win.

That, as it turned out, was not a good assumption.

“As the offended party, your charges may set the terms of battle,” Doxle said. “And my charge may choose to accept them or not.”

The sister twin stepped forward, not looking me in the eyes, or even acknowledging my existence at all.

“As the younger of the aggrieved party, I claim Right of Proving.”

I glanced at Doxle. If this was something I was supposed to know about, it was on him to explain it.

“Agreed,” he said, instead of being useful. “And your terms are?”

“Conclusion on submission or death. Fleeing the arena taken as forfeiture.” She was still staring directly forward, but I couldn’t smell any fear wafting from her.

That was the first sign that I hadn’t evaluated the situation properly, but I missed it because I am occasionally stupid.

“The prize should we win?” Doxle asked.

“Your insult is forgiven.”

“And if you win?”

“A year of service.”

Doxle’s laugh held no mirth. He was about to wax poetic and spend an hour haggling for better terms. 

“Fine,” I said, cutting him off. I wasn’t going to lose, so their terms didn’t matter. 

The slight smile that graced my opponent’s face was the second sign that I was making a mistake, and that one I did catch. Rather than convincing me to backtrack a bit on agreeing to the fight though it only left me puzzled. 

I knew the sister had stepped forward because she was a better fighter than her brother. She smelled of sweat and the oil of chainmail. Her shoulders were loose and charged with excitement instead of fear. Her brother on the other hand smelled of lavender, worked leather and underneath it all the suppressed whisps of dread I expected from someone facing a potentially deadly struggle.

“Weapons?” Doxle asked.

“Conjured only.”

“Spells?”

“Any thing she can cast is fine.”

“As the host, I will add the stipulation of no magic use outside the ring,” Doxle said. “This room was a frightful expense, I would hate for sloppy casting to ruin it.”

“You are the accused in this,” Enika said. “I don’t believe you have the right to claim the host’s privileges.”

“The term is acceptable,” the sister said.

She didn’t exactly sound as eager as I was to get this over with, but she seemed to agree with omitting as much of the needless babble as possible.

“Excellent,” Doxle said and paused. “Am I forgetting anything? I feel like I’m forgetting something?”

“They need to set a time limit,” Enika said.

“One minute,” the sister said. “If she can endure for one minute, I will forfeit.”

“Does that mean I’d fight him afterwards?” I asked. 

I was sure there were official rules, they were all speaking with too much formality for this to be entirely spontaneous.

“You’re safe from that unless you have cause to claim counter-offense,” the brother said.

His tone was milder than his sisters. Whatever anger Doxle had provoked in the twin had rolled off his back I guessed. Or he thought his sister was about to kill me and didn’t see a reason to make the tiny remainder of my life any more miserable.

I nodded at him. He would probably be an enemy later, but for the moment there wasn’t any real animosity between us.

“Are these terms acceptable?” the sister asked.

She hadn’t been so quick to forgive or forget, but her anger was wrapped up in bands of steel. She wasn’t going to kill me out of malice. It would be an act of duty and honor with no personal investment. I would still be dead of course, so the difference was largely irrelevant to me, but I supposed it helped her sleep at night.

“Yeah,” I said, which seemed to annoy her. I didn’t get that at first. I’d said yes to what she wanted. People were usually happy about that. 

Then I considered how I’d said yes. 

I hadn’t made any effort to hide the fact that I wasn’t concerned about the fight.

Or from her point of view, that I wasn’t taking the fight seriously.

Oh! Or that I wasn’t taking her seriously.

On reflection I could see where that might annoy her.

“We can begin whenever you wish to,” I said, not knowing any of the proper words but taking a stab at the right tone anyways.

“No magic outside the ring,” Doxle reminded us.

I wasn’t sure how people were normally supposed to get to a sparring ring that was forty feet off the floor. Climb the pillar? I shook my head. Doxle definitely had a more dignified option. I’d known him for less than half a day and I was already perfectly certain about that.

“If you would all follow me,” he said, confirming my suspicion by leading us to a series of disks in the floor. 

Machinery began to twist and whir somewhere beneath us and one-by-one, Doxle’s first and mine last, the disks lifted gracefully into the air. Doxle, Enika, and the brother were flown to an opera viewing box which detached from the wall and hovered at what seemed like a safe distance from the top of the highest platform.

The sister and I were deposited on opposite sides of the ring, just outside a richly decorated band of silver which described a slightly smaller circle inside the platform’s edge. I recognized a few of the etchings in the silver from the ones on my jail cell’s door. These weren’t invisible but I guessed they served a similar function of limiting stray magic from splashing out of bounds.

“Wait,” I said, before stepping into the ring.

The sister’s eyes flashed with irritation as her jawline went hard.

“What?” she asked, probably assuming I was finally coming to my senses and intent on begging for some reprieve.

“What’s your name?” I asked. I didn’t have any specific need for it, but telling people I ‘fought some girl from Ironbriar’ later on seemed like it would a bit disrespectful.

“Idrina,” she said and waited.

I nodded to indicate I’d heard her reply, and she understood.

We didn’t need to talk further.

There was nothing else to say. 

As though we’d rehearsed it, we both stepped over the line into the arena and settled into a fighting stance.

She wasn’t going to drag this out. Not when she’d only demanded I survive for a minute. I wasn’t sure if her initial delay was because we were supposed to wait for Doxle or Enika to signal an official start to the fight, but the next instant she launched herself at me and the battle was begun.

I don’t really know what happened next. I can piece some of it together from the scattered memories I do have, but I know I missed at least a few steps in the dance we waltzed through.

The important thing though is that I did not win.

What I recall is that Idrina crossed the space between us in a single leap. The pillar wasn’t exactly a spacious field, but at a bit under twenty feet wide there was plenty of time to see her coming. What I didn’t see coming was the spear that materialized in her hand.

I’d seen casters work their magic before. There were any number of common uses for spellcasting, but most of those casters were not working with ‘High Magic’. The ‘Low Magic’ of the commoners comes from the world around us. It takes time to gather and shape and tends to produce fairly subtle effects if that’s all that’s required.

There was nothing subtle about the spear that appeared in Idrina’s hand though, and she’d managed to cast the spell to summon it without speaking any words or performing any gestures.

I’m sure that took me by surprise largely because it ruined my plans. I’d thought to grapple her the moment she came within arms reach and bend her limbs in directions that would encourage her not to move anywhere I didn’t want her too. It was difficult to execute that plan however when my left arm was fine one moment and a shattered noodle the next.

The headbutt I hit her with was nothing more than a wild reflex and I was unfairly lucky that it connected as well as I could have ever hoped. 

The impact sent her reeling back all of a half step, which was far less of a reaction than I should have gotten from such a clean hit, but still enough that I was able to fall backwards to dodge her next spear thrust and then nail her cleanly in the chest with a solid kick.

I held back a little on the force of the kick. I wanted her away from me to buy myself some recovery time. I didn’t want to put my foot through her torso.

In terms of distance, the kick worked wonderfully. I hit her at enough of a rising angle to knock her completely off her feet and into the air.

We’d gotten turned around at some point – I might have missed an exchange, which would explain the stomach wound I also had to deal with. The net result though was that when I kicked her backwards by fifteen feet or so I launched her completely out of the ring rather than simply over to the far side of it.

That should have been the end of the fight. I wasn’t happy at the idea of what a forty foot drop would do to her, but she had stabbed me at least twice.

I really should have known better than that though.

Twisting in mid-air, Idrina landed feet first on the wall and burst off it in a flash of golden light. She threw her spear ahead of herself and I was too surprised to dodge which gained me a length of metal protruding out of both sides of the center of my chest.

The obviously fatal wound didn’t stop me from swinging at her as she landed, but I was a bit too damaged at that point to make anything effective of the attack.

Bodies are difficult things. Broken bodies even more so.

I almost thought things were getting better when Idrina ripped the spear out of me but then it was my turn to be kicked from the platform and all I could think as I fell was that the forty foot drop was going to leave me a whole lot more broken than the spear had.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 7

Relationships come to us through the accident of our birth, and, sometimes, the accidents of our judgment. 

– Glenmorda Tinbellus Enika of the Reaper’s Mercy

Part of me wanted to leap at the intruders in Doxle’s house and take them down before they had a chance to blink. That part was very stupid.

Enika moved with the graceful, self-assurance of a predator pacing around an unfortunate prey which had lost every means of escape. The two people behind her didn’t move at all. 

Both of those facts bothered me. 

Doxle, on the other hand, didn’t seem to care. That seemed odd given the effort he’d made apparently to avoid this meeting, but the slump of his shoulders suggested that he wasn’t so much unconcerned as resigned to his fate.

“Ex-wife? As though that’s a mark of any distinction.” Enika’s laugh was filled with the honey that surrounded her. “I share that status with how many now? Have you lost track yet?”

“I will have you know I remember those seven years with remarkable fondness,” Doxle said, looking to me as though I had some stake in choosing which of them was correct.

“We were only married for three.” Enika didn’t seem either concerned or surprised at the mistake.

“I am of course adding in the years I dreamed of winning your heart and the ones I spent pining away after I lost it,” Doxle said without missing a beat.

“Oh my dear sweet one, you never had my heart.”

“I suppose if I had, we would not be parted as we are now.”

Enika laughed with what sounded like genuine amusement.

“And yet we are,” Enika said, with a complete absence of regret.

“And yet you are here,” Doxle said.

“Are you going to pretend you don’t know why?” she asked, and the urge to attack first leapt down my spine.

It was still a stupid urge.

“I can venture only guesses and you know how ill founded my imagination can be,” Doxle said. 

“My presence does not elicit specific remembrances?”

“Seven years worth of remembrances,” Doxle said. “And more beyond that of course.”

“Allow me to assist your recall then,” Enika said, taking a step closer to Doxle.

It was the best chance I was going to have to strike, and that was still the worst idea I could have had. 

“Winter Faire, there was a crystal chain, the corpse of a raven, and a child, who was how old?” 

“It was a crow,” Doxle said before brightening his tone. “And of course I remember that evening. You cut a stunning figure in that blue and gold dress with the high neckline.”

“See, your memory isn’t so fallible as you believe. Which means I’m sure you recall our arrangement.”

“You desire a soiree? Now?” Doxle asked.

“Of course not my dear one,” Enika said. “I desire a soiree in three days time. One that you will host and make the talk of the season.”

Doxle drew in a long slow breath and I could feel the tension in him rising, as though he was poised to flee at any second. He released his breath though and mastered the impulse, which I wasn’t certain I was grateful for.

“Three days is precious little time,” Doxle said.

“You’ve done with less,” Enika said. “Our wedding if I recall, but then you are well versed in those.”

“You must admit, they are delightful affairs.”

“Indeed, and you will make the soiree three days hence their equal or superior. As was agreed.” 

“Am I allowed to review the guest list?” Doxle asked.

Enika thought for a moment and shook her head.

“No. I don’t think you will require that.”

“With but three scant days?”

“Consider it a kindness. I had intended to give you only two but some of the guests will not have arrived by then.”

Doxle frowned, but there wasn’t any anger flickering behind his eyes. If anything, he looked like he was already plotting the logistics of the event.

“Theme then? Or the occasion which warrants the gathering?” he asked, his gaze going distant as he mulled the idea over. “Not a funerary observance?”

Enika blew out a puff of breath.

“As though I would waste you on a funeral?” She shook her head and looked appalled at the idea. “No, this is to be a celebration.”

“In that case will there be one guest of honor or two?” Doxle asked casting a glance at the two people standing behind Enika.

They weren’t frozen like statues. They were both breathing and their eyes were tracking the back and forth of the conversation, but each of them stood at what I imagined was perfect attention and kept stock still.

It occurred to me that if they were pacted casters, Enika might have paralyzed them both, but their eyes were relaxed where their bodies weren’t. 

“Two,” Enika said with a smile. “Which suggests you already know two of the entries on the guest list and it’s been less than a minute since you started preparing.”

“You do know that you’re asking a lot,” Doxle said.

“As did you,” Enika said.

There was clearly a story there. History between them. So far though none of it included me though so I let me attention wander over to the two people Enika had in her wake while they bantered back and forth.

“And this is Lady Kati?” Enika said, turning her gaze on me, though she continued speaking to Doxle. “However did she have the misfortune to make your acquaintance?”

I wasn’t sure ‘I found her in a stinking jail cell’ was going to be an answer that would do me any favors, but it was what it was. 

“Oh, this is more than an acquaintance,” Doxle said. “She is my latest charge.”

“You’ve formed another pact bond?” Enika asked. “Wait, that was you earlier? I thought Xarxes had run one of his quarries to ground?”

“He did stumble on us shortly after the bond was forged, though I don’t believe he had been searching for Lady Kati prior to our meeting.”

“Tell me, was he mad? Did he rage and froth?”

“Oh of course not. Xarxes can be civil. At times.”

“With you? You were going easy on him, weren’t you?”

“I did feel some sympathy for the poor fool. He landed in Ironbriar of all places.”

I knew the two people following Enika weren’t statues because of how they stiffened at that particular remark. Neither of them managed to rise to presenting the level of threat Enika did but it wasn’t hard to smell that neither of them were happy.

“You have always had the most unwise of tongues,” Enika said, marveling at Doxle as she did so. “And so unkind, to torment my charges like that. Now I shall have to find some suitable target for the aggressions you’ve raised in them.”

“I of course offer myself,” Doxle said. “Though I have only one body to give, I shall gladly sacrifice it to make amends for disparaging the Great and Noble House of Ironbriar, stewards of the Empire’s might and protectors of us all.”

“As though that body is your first or will be your last,” Enika chided him. “You would need someone like your charge to stand in your place for the offering to matter.”

“While I would never shelter one of my own unduly, calling her to the battlefield even for a simple sparring sessions is a touch premature as this is only the first day of our engagement,” Doxle said.

“I’ll do it,” I said, taking a half step forward. It was still a bad idea, but a sparring session sounded a lot more controlled than chancing a surprise attack and hoping to escape in the ensuing chaos.

Apparently that hadn’t been the response anyone in the room was expecting though.

For a solid five seconds I had four people staring at me and not saying a word.

“I’ll do it. I’ll fight. What shouldn’t we break in here?” I repeated, in case they were unclear on what I was signing up for.

That didn’t seem to help them, though Doxle rallied quickly.

“You truly do not need to do this,” he said.

“I know.” I nodded, hoping body language might get the idea through the everyone if my words continued failing.

The room that we were in was something like a family room. Hallways led off into darkened corners of the house and the stairs suggested there was an upstairs as well.

The furniture that decorated the room looked more than nice, it looked expensive. Ornate carving were visible on all of the woodwork and the fabric on the couches was stitched with the kind of needlework that only someone with a fantastic eye for detail and a tremendous amount of time could create.

I breathed in and confirmed that, unlike the alley outside the now closed door, everything in the room smelled clean and fresh. 

In short, it was not the sort of place where blood should probably be spilled.

Unless Doxle employed a magical cleaning staff, in which case I supposed blood and viscera removal might be a standard part of their job.

“An unexpected delight then! How wonderful,” Enika said and turned to Doxle. “You still have the dueling ring setup do you not?”

I had no idea where a dueling ring might fit in the the house given the size of the buildings we’d walked past but Doxle surprised me.

“I had two more installed in fact,” he said and offered Enika his arm.

He led her down one of the hallways that I was pretty sure should have dropped us back out into the alley, except of course it didn’t.

With no better idea of what to do, I tried to fall in beside him, but the hallway was too narrow for three and the other two people had the same idea.

I could have insisted on sticking close to Doxle but the idea putting of two hostile people behind me, even if they did seem to be roughly the same age as me, was one I instinctively shied away from.

They were confused by that choice too and took a moment to stare at me. I guess they expected me to try to push past them but when I held my position they got the point and marched forward together, taking a position behind Enika and Doxle.

With them between me and Enika, I was able to pick up more details from their scents, starting with the fact that they were siblings. Twins I was pretty sure. The girl was taller than me, and her brother was taller than her. Both moved with a precision that came from more than their familial connection though. They’d trained. A lot.

A glimpse of the callouses on their hands confirmed that. There were scars there too which said either they’d been thrown into real combat or whoever trained them had stopped holding back at some point.

I knew House Ironbriar by reputation. Grammy said they’d been the source of the Empire’s elite troops for centuries. Once upon a time that had been because the scions of House Ironbriar had been trained from birth for their roles. People seemed to think that was a good thing, but the real Ironbriar families had figured out that it worked out a lot better for them if they simply bought or ‘adopted’ people who were promising fighters in order to fill their ranks.

With these two though, I could believe the old ‘trained since birth’ regime might have held true.

Doxle led us down three flights of stairs, which should have put us well underground, and then out through a rooftop garden, and up another two flights of stairs to an open air courtyard with perfectly manicured grass and two columns of stone, each twenty feet in diameter.

I did not understand Doxle’s house at all.

“So you see we have our choice of venues,” Doxle said. “From safest,” he gestured at a stone circle at ground level, “to dangerous”, he gestured at the nearer column which rose ten feet in the air, “to deadly”, which was of course the last column at twenty feet tall. 

“Which would you choose?” Enika asked the brother and sister pair.

“Deadly,” the sister said.

“Deadly,” the brother said.

That was a shame. I didn’t want to kill either one of them.

The blood scent that rose from the two said they didn’t feel the same though.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 6

A part of every Advisor’s duties to their pacted casters is to instruct them in the fine details required to survive in a world devoid of any interest in their well being. Running away therefor is an educational act of great value and should be viewed by all as a selfless teaching exercise rather than any blight on one’s own courage or valor.

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

Leaving the Golden at a full sprint was apparently too undignified for Doxle to consider, despite the urgency that was hammering behind his eyes so hard his glowing irises were visibly flickering.

“Was your stay agreeable, Sir Advisor?” Bemond, the waiter who’d seated us asked as Doxle led us over to the reception desk.

“Delightful,” Doxle said. “Will there be any issue placing the charge for our meal on the Ironbriar’s account?”

The smelled like mischief – Xarxes hadn’t said anything about picking up the tab for our meal – but I wasn’t about to complain. For all I knew Xarxes and Doxle had a standing agreement relating to meetings over lunch, and Xarxes had been the one to interrupt us.

“Not at all sir. I directed the Ironbriar’s Advisor to your table because he explained that he was meeting with you in response to an Imperial summons.” Bemond had the quizzical look that said he was curious if Xarxes story had been even vaguely true. He clearly wasn’t interested in opposing an Imperial Advisor regardless of the veracity of their claims, but curiosity is a difficult beast to tame.

“Yes. If any other Imperial Advisors should check in, can you pass along the message that my event here is over and done. I’ll likely see them next at a soiree I plan to host on Sunfall Eve at my villa in White Ridges.” Despite the anxiety he’d shown me early, Doxle’s voice was all relaxation and ease.

It wasn’t until we were outside and marching south, away from the Academy, that I saw the tension was still plainly written on his face.

“Why are we running away?” I asked, concerned that we were moving in more or less the exact opposite direction from where I might find more information on Trina.

“We’re not running,” Doxle said. “We’re walking briskly.”

“We’re running,” I said, walking briskly beside him. “Who is Enika?”

Doxle and Xarxes hadn’t talked for long and it was at the mention that Enika was in the city that Doxle had started to panic.

“Another Imperial Advisor,” Doxle carefully understated, scanning the street and the rooftops as we fled as fast as we could without drawing attention to ourselves.

It was a sunny late summer afternoon. The sun warmed stones had chased away the morning mists and the southeasterly breeze carried the scent of fresh water in from Sirens Lake. It was as delightful a time for a stroll as a city like Middlerun generally saw, so plenty of people were out, with pedestrians and construct drawn carriages crowding the roads. 

Ahead of us a huge crowd had gathered, cheering on some street performers. Doxle maneuvered us across the street to the less trafficked side of the road where only a few dozen people were walking. From Doxle’s nerves, it seemed like any, or possibly all of them, might be threats though.

They weren’t threats. I knew that. If I hadn’t known that, I wouldn’t have let Doxle lead me down a cobblestone sidewalk away from where I wanted to be. I wasn’t sure why he was unable to tell that though.

I sniffed, trying to pick out scents of aggression or malice. I found plenty of them, but they were distant and mixed into the overall melange of the city from many different sources. If I tried I could trace a few of them back, but in a city it wasn’t exactly challenging to find someone who was angry or violent. The trick, which I had to admit I hadn’t figured out, was finding the people who were angry with you before they found you.

“Do they have wings?” I asked. Doxle was scanning the rooftops and sky as though whoever he was looking for did, but I didn’t think an attack by winged demons was likely. Grammy would have warned me if that sort of thing was common in Middlerun.

“Not as such,” Doxle said.

“Then you should watch the crowds more closely. Three people have moved past you within stabbing range since we turned onto this street.” It was a what I was watching for, but that was mostly because I considered stabbing my primary response if someone tried to attack either of us.

Doxle shook his head and sighed at that though.

“Physical violence is not my concern on this occasion,” he said.

“Lead with that next time you make us run away,” I said, unsure how I felt about his reassurance. 

“We’re not…we are returning to one of my secondary residences. You are in need a bath and new clothes, and I am in need of finer spirits than the Golden has to offer.”

Both of those were true, but neither was the reason we were running away. My nose was stuffed with a variety of noxious scents and at least a few pleasing ones and I could still smell the bit of lightning that were leaking through Doxle’s self-control. I couldn’t tell where he wanted to be except that it was ‘not here’.

“When’re the Cadet Trials?” I asked. If violence wasn’t what my demon was concerned about then I couldn’t help him, and if I couldn’t help him then I had my own things I wanted to worry about.

“Tomorrow,” Doxle said and turned us down an alley that was painted in pale shadows. The lovely warm stone aroma faded before the eternal dampness and its attendant mold the alley seemed to be cultivating.

Despite the less pleasant environment, with our course winding along side roads and alleys that paralleled one of the main roads running towards the river, Doxle relaxed a hair or two.

“I want to enter the Trials,” I said, in case it wasn’t clear from the conversation we’d had when we formed the pact. There were a ton of other questions I wanted to ask too but getting into the Academy had to take priority.

“So I gathered,” Doxle said. “My advice would be to pick a different life path, but I am aware that for whatever reason that does not seem to be an option for you.”

“It’s not,” I agreed.

“In that case, I suppose I should ask what you intend to do should you fail to be admitted?” He was walking at a calmer pace. We were still running away, but our run was more of a stroll. Good for blending in. Good enough that I wasn’t sure why we didn’t continue on the main road again. Using the alleys was adding a lot of extra time to our trip. Time when I could have been in a bath. Or practicing.

“I’m not going to fail,” I said.

“Which means you have no plan for when you do.” He clucked his tongue and shook his head. “You are aware that failure can mean death are you not?”

“I’m not going to die,” I said. If I died and Trina was being held in the Academy there wouldn’t be anyone to rescue her. 

Trina wasn’t being held in the Academy.

I knew exactly where she was.

I knew how deep under the earth she was.

The only possibilities that lead to her being held in the Academy were horrible ones and I didn’t want any of them to be true.

But I had to know.

“I agree,” Doxle said. “You’re quite forbidden from dying. As your pacted Advisor, you may consider than an official order and requirement. No dying. It’s simply not allowed.”

As far as I knew, the Cadet Trials for the Imperial Academy were serious affairs. Doxle’s comment about applicants dying during the trials wasn’t an exaggeration or even unusual. I wasn’t sure why he thought a simple admonishment would be enough to determine my performance, but as long as he wasn’t planning to prevent me from taking part it didn’t really matter.

“Once you’ve bathed and eaten again, I would see you spar for a few rounds,” Doxle said, turning us down onto an alley that even in the afternoon’s daylight looked questionable, “There’s too little time for proper training but I may be able to identify some improvements that will raise your chances of success.”

I wasn’t sure who he had in mind that I would fight. Possibly him? Was that an option? It seemed like a bad idea to allow pacted casters to assault their demons, but given that he could drain away my magic and paralyze me I suppose the opportunities for real mayhem were limited.

“You have a house here?” I asked as a strong and not particularly agreeable odor engulfed us.

We’d wandered into a dead end alley that we could only walk down by stepping on planks that rested atop a waist deep pile of trash.

“A secondary residence. Or perhaps tertiary,” he said, tracing his finger over the solid wood wall which flanked us to the left.

The first glyph he traced did nothing. No glowing light trail. No secret door creaking open. No rising scent of ash and lighting.

I was the most disappointed by the last bit. The lack of ash and lightning meant that we were able to enjoy the full bouquet of the alley and, as alleyways full of trash went, this one was not one of the more appealing ones.

“Is it broken?” I asked and for a change it was his turn to remain silent.

The second glyph also failed to glow, but the third started behaving more like I’d expected. The glowing trail of light Doxle left behind as he scribed it was the orange-red of a dry twig a moment after being tossed on the fire. The scent of ash and lightning was so mild that it could have been no more than a half forgotten memory. The important thing though was the door that opened up on the second floor of the building.

Doxle turned to offer his hand as assistance in climbing up into the room beyond the door. I stared at it for a second before understanding what I was meant to do with it. When the idea finally clicked, I had to suppress a laugh.

He thought I needed help climbing? Should I be insulted? Or was it funny? Both maybe?

To his credit, he did have a great deal of height on me, so it was a polite offer to make. To demonstrate how unnecessary it was though, I waved his hand away and in one motion did a standing jump that let me grasp the bottom edge of the doorway and lift myself cleanly inside.

I took a step and turned to see if he would join me. I don’t know if I triggered a competitive reflex in him or he refused to do anything as undignified as jumping. Instead he merely flexed his feet slightly and floated up in gentle arc to land inside the door.

Behind me, someone descended stairs across the room I had only barely noticed. I whirled to see who it was, but not before catching a glimpse of Doxle’s face twist into an expression of despair and resignation.

“And here he is, right on time,” a woman with a voice like honey and razors said. From around, her the scent of chipped obsidian and grave dust reached out and threatened to knock me to my knees. I coughed and Doxle drew me an inch closer to himself.

The grave dust woman lead two other people downstairs. Their scents were hidden before hers and for a moment I couldn’t make out anything about them beyond the fact that they were additional threats. 

The woman was a far greater one though.

“Who?” I asked, fighting for a clear breath to get the word out without it being a growl.

Doxle threw a resigned smile in my direction.

“Lady Kati, may I present my ex-wife Glenmorda Tinbellus Enika of the Reaper’s Mercy.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 5

I wasn’t afraid of losing my mind. I done that before. I knew how to get it back.

I also wasn’t afraid of the Great Houses. That was stupid. I definitely should have been afraid of them. Unfortunately Grammy Duella had made keeping them at bay look a lot easier than it really is.

Most of all though, I wasn’t afraid of Doxle.

Entering into a pact with him was a terrible idea. I wasn’t even sure if it was possible for me. If it turned out that it was, being bound by someone else’s will would be anathema to the entire essence of my being. If he pushed me, or tried to paralyze me when I was sufficiently interested in not being held back, he would learn just how deep my Hollowing was and exactly how much control I had over my magic and that wasn’t going to be good for anyone at all.

In short, I had every reason to, politely, decline his offer, thank him for the meal and head out before the Great House’s hunters picked up my trail.

“You said if I try for the Cadet Trial, I’ll have to use enough magic to pass it that I’ll give myself away.” I watched his eyes narrow. This wasn’t where he’d expected the conversation to go. “Will that matter if I’m pact bonded to you?”

Doxle drew in a slow, considering breath and his gaze went distant for a moment before he answered on the exhale.

“Yes, it will,” he said at last. “If you show off the sort of magical prowess you did with the guards, you will capture a great deal of attention. I cannot promise to shield you from all of it, as I said, but with a pact bond in place between us they cannot force you to take another one.”

“Could they force me to break the one I have with you? Or force you to break it?” I suspected the Great Houses either wouldn’t, or maybe even couldn’t, outright kill Doxle. He struck me as the sort of person who wouldn’t still be here if dying in response to be murdered was an available outcome.

I marked his chuckle at my question as a tally in the column confirming that.

“That is not a concern,” he said. “As an Imperial Advisor, I enjoy certain privileges including the right to choose what pacts I form. The only voice I must answer to is the Empress Eternal’s.”

Which meant he had no actual oversight since the Empress Eternal had gained her ‘eternalness’ by being frozen in similarly eternal ice. 

That should have been terrifying. The idea of something like Doxle operating with no constraints on what he was allowed to do was a recipe for death and armageddon. In place of terror though, I felt a small surge of joy.

“Pact me then,” I said and held out my hand.

I had no idea if we needed to hold hands, or if he was going to slap a tattoo or a brand on me and I didn’t care.

Trina’s scent was gone, but it had left before too, only to waft back in as I was losing hope of ever being able to follow it. I’d walked around the land bound sides the city twice tracking it. I knew it had to be coming from the Academy. 

So I needed to get in there. 

Doxle was the key to that lock.

Which meant I needed him. 

It was as simple as that. If there were repercussions to deal with later, then later is when I’d deal with them.

“Are you sure?” There was a gravity in Doxle’s voice it had lacked up till now.

“Let’s do this,” I said. I wasn’t feeling especially patient, which I think sent the wrong message to him.

“Why?” He kept his hands folded, and made no move towards me, but his eyes were burning darker than they had been at any time up till now.

“I need to get into the Academy.” I left it for him to decide if that meant into the building or accepted as a student.

“And for that you’d accept a lifetime of shackles on your powers?” He looked like he was about to wax poetic on how terrible a burden being pacted to him truly was. 

I cut him off.

“Yes.” My magic didn’t matter. Bearing up under a thousand tons of shackles and finding my sister was better than being free in a world without her. It was as simple as that.

“Are you sure? I can promise you this will not make your life easier.” There had been a distant anger in him. Not directed at me I didn’t think. Maybe at himself? Or maybe at our whole world? It had ebbed away though, and I smelled the ashes of sorrow rising from him.

“Yeah,” I said, allowing some of the weight in his voice to be reflected in mine.

“You may come to hate me, most people do, but that won’t free you from this bond. You may struggle and perfect your casting till you are certain there is nothing more you can learn, and that won’t win your releases from the pact we make. You may shatter and crumble and be reduced to nothing by the strains this life, a life with me, will place on you and still I will be there, still joined to you, still feeding on your magic.”

His eyes grew brighter with every word he spoke while the shadows in the room darkened into a pitch of blackest night that should have been impossible with sunlight still streaming in through the windows.

Except there was no sunlight.

Or windows.

We sat alone. Nothing beyond the wood table between us remaining of where we’d been.

Doxle’s sharp features were gone too. To my eyes he still looked the same, but I was seeing him with something more than just my eyes. He was shadows and fire and power and something more.

Around us the scent of lightning crackled and built. We stood in the moment before the thunderstorm, when the sky has coiled itself up and drunk in the power of the land.

“Are you sure?” Doxle said and his voice held only the echo of otherworldly power. The great inhuman thing he had become, the nightmare made of shadows, that otherness, it was present at a remove, standing behind and around us as a witness. The Doxle who asked the final time asked as a timeless man grown weary from the years which could not touch him or wear him down.

“I am sure,” I said, and meant it. 

“Then we are bound,” he said, relaxing as he exhaled.

His breath seemed to drive the shadows awa,y leaving us in the same booth and the same room in the Golden we’d been so far away from a moment earlier.

I stared around.

The world didn’t look any different?

I didn’t feel any different either?

I turned to ask Doxle what was up but shut my mouth when I saw another demon with features that could have marked him as Doxle’s brother cross the small room and pull a chair up to our booth.

“Well wasn’t that exciting!” the newcomer said. “And so much louder than you normally bother with you old fox.”

“Xarxes, always a pleasure,” Doxle said. “You got free of the well?”

“Oh, pff,” Xarxes said, waving his hand to swat Doxle’s words away. “That’s old news.”

“I am sadly out of the loop, it is true,” Doxle said. “I’m going to guess Lightstone?”

Xarxes sighed. “Ironbriar.”

Doxle winced. “Oh, my condolences. Don’t tell me they have you here as an evaluator?”

“What else?” Xarxes rolled his eyes.

“How many do they have you bound to so far?” Doxle asked, with what I thought was a trace of genuine concern in his voice.

“Only three,” Xarxes said. “Which of course is why I’m here. I am to find at least three more to bring into the fold on pain of disappointing Himself the Head of House.”

I could have asked what they were talking about, but I could smell the subtle traces of animosity between them and whatever feud they carried wasn’t anything I needed to be a part of. 

I did recognize the names Lightstone and Ironbriar though. They were two of the Great Houses, with Lightstone being arguably the most powerful house and Ironbriar one of their chief supporters.

“Having any luck with the early scouting,” Doxle asked with the sort of guileless smile that I was certain had gotten punched in the face more than once.

Xarxes fixed me with his gaze.

“It appears not,” he said.

His tone was the sort of mild that hides frustration and malice, an impression which the rising scents of blood and steel seemed to confirm. 

“Would you introduce us?” he asked, turning back to Xarxes.

“Hmm, no, I don’t think I will,” Doxle said, which from the spike of steel from Xarxes was definitely a violence worthy response.

But they didn’t come to blows.

It was puzzling.

Maybe they didn’t want to wreck the Golden?

“Really? How mysterious!” Xarxes said. He didn’t smell as pleased as he sounded but that didn’t seem to bother Doxle.

“Not especially so,” Doxle assured him. “And this is good news no? You won’t need to be concerned I will make off with any of your other hopefuls. So, see, you’ve garnered a win already!”

Xarxes let a short laugh escape his lips.

“Yes, that is your habit isn’t it?” Xarxes paused to regard Doxle critically. “I’ve always wondered why that is? Never more than one pact at a time, and often none at all? It boggles the mind.”

“In what possible manner does laziness strike you as something other than an essential aspect of my being?” Doxle asked.

“Laziness yes, but consistency?” Xarxes objected.

“I am a creature of perfect consistency,” Doxle proclaimed. “When have I ever done anything save what is easiest and the most in my own self interest? My track record is sterling, at least in that regard.”

“And no other,” Xarxes said. “But I will grant you that your vices are quite dependable. But still, only one? You must be miserable with so little power to draw on?”

“Misery is my lot in life,” Doxle said. “It’s why I am a creature of ease and comfort. What else could balance the scales?”

“Come now, you know Ironbriar would – well, no, I suppose they wouldn’t,” Xarxes said, deflating a bit.

“Nor would any of the rest,” Doxle said. “You’ve proven your worth well enough for any of them to take you on, but I? Alas I have also proven my worth, but that accounting falls solidly against my favor.”

“I suppose congratulations are in order then,” Xarxes said. “I imagine you’ll be vanishing off to some remote estate or rustic little cabin for the next few decades?”

“There are many open roads,” Doxle said. “Choosing is work though, and you know how I abhor that.”

“Only since your beloved was frozen,” Xarxes said which lead to surprising burst of ash from Doxle.

Whatever surge of emotion had shot through him was clamped down instantly though as the scent vanished as quickly as it appeared.

“Alas for my broken heart,” Doxle said. “I pray you never suffer such a loss.”

“As though I would be foolish enough to dally with a heart?” Xarxes said.

“Clearly, you are the wisest of us,” Doxle said.

“Perhaps I should heed that wisdom then,” Xarxes said. “It is telling me that the hunt for fresh talent will grow only more ernest as time passes and that with a quota to meet, I should be off.”

“It was a delight to see you once more,” Doxle said. “Give my regards to Enika when next you see her. I believe she is still working for Ironbriar, is she not?”

“Oh she is,” Xarxes said. “And I needn’t pass along your words. She’s in town as well. You can deliver your wishes personally!”

With that he rose, gave us an overly dramatic bow and glided out of the room, closing the door behind him.

Doxle maintained a calm and pleasant expression for precisely three second after the door close.

Then he reached across the table and took my hand.

“We need to leave. Right now.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 4

I disliked the idea of being hunted. I also had no doubt that Doxel’s appraisal of the Great Houses’ interest in me was anything but accurate. Grammy Duella had painted a very clear picture of how the Great Houses of the Empire tended to operate both through the stories she told and the fact that she lived in “some little cottage in the woods” as Doxle had put it.

He’d arranged for us to have a semi-private booth in one of the Golden’s smaller dining rooms. It was all velvet cushions and dark wood luxury but I’d already been wondering if he’d asked for it because he didn’t want to be seen with me or because he didn’t want me to be seen. Either or both might be true, but with the reminder that there were people who would prey on me as naturally as they drew breath I was feeling glad to be isolated. Glad and also worried that we were still too exposed.

Those emotions had an unhappy companion in the question of how much I should be concerned about Doxle himself. The obvious answers were ‘a lot’ and ‘flee while you still can’, but the counterargument that kept me in my seat was that he could have simply left me in the jail if he wanted me to suffer, or kept the manacles on and dragged me out if he wanted to steal my power, or drink my blood, or whatever horrible thing it was demons did to captive humans.

The kindness he’d shown me so far didn’t mean he wasn’t  going to take advantage of me somehow, but so far he’d been reasonably honest and, under my current circumstances, gambling that I could sniff out his secret agendas seemed to carry better odds than striking out on my own.

Of course, he still hadn’t made his offer yet.

“So you’ll protect me from the Great Houses?” I asked.

“Not precisely,” Doxle said. “Think of me more as a buckler in that context. I can deflect some problems, but associating with me is not a perfect Aegis from the attentions of the powerful and influential.” He continued after I stared at him for a moment and then raised an eyebrow. “More explanations are in order I see.”

I nodded once, not taking my eyes off him.

“You have a great deal of power, and a remarkable degree of control.” He swished his hand, banishing the light show he’d conjured. “The former makes you desirable to a number of the Great Houses, with only a bare handful of those possessing interests which are compatible with your long term health and viability. As for the control you’ve shown though? The only sort of control the Houses tend to recognize is their own. Any casters possessing significant power who are not under the yoke of someone are automatically viewed as a threat to everyone. The Empire tolerates many things, but wild cards are not typically one of them.”

Which told me what role Doxle would play in any arrangement we came to.

“You’ll be my yoke then.” It didn’t feel like I had to guess at that.

“A very special kind of yoke, yes,” Doxle said. “Imperial Advisors have many roles. The ‘guidance’ of talented casters is one of our primary ones though.”

“So instead of one of the Houses telling me what to do, you would, but that’s better for me because you’re not them?”

“I wish it were that simple,” Doxle said. “If I merely had to make my case against the greed and cruelty of the Great Houses, I could convince you in three words. What I am offering is more involved than that though.”

He paused waiting to see if I would ask any questions. I did not.

“Casters with access to large amount of magical energy are among the most likely to be overwhelmed and lose control of their spells. This can have obvious and immediate ramifications – the caster exploding being one people enjoy citing, though I’ve always found the ‘summoning a pillar of fire the size of a city block’ to be the more concerning possibility. It’s on the basis of those easily imagine concerns that the duties of an Imperial Advisor are often argued for but the reality is that much worse problems often afflict powerful and untrained casters. Recall what I said about how casting a spell involve transforming your mind? When a caster’s power exceeds their ability to manage it, their psyches can and often do develop deep fissures leading to such entertaining pastimes as berserk rages and possession by malevolent entities from the transcendent planes they are attuned to.”

“You can shield my mind from that?” I didn’t like the idea of someone being able to monitor my thoughts, but it turned out my worries were running in the wrong direction.

“Only indirectly,” Doxle said. “Your thoughts are sacrosanct from me and all other Imperial Advisors. What I can do is prevent you from being overwhelmed by your magic by siphoning it away. In fact if we enter a pact, I will always, on some level, be siphoning power from you. When they are summoned, Imperial Advisors are cut off from their home plane and fully instantiated in this one, one effect of which is that their Draw – the ability they possess to recharge their magic – is eliminated. By entering a pact with you I will be able to replenish the magic I expend with what I take from you.”

“Who controls how much you take?”

“I do,” Doxle said. “Part of the role is to take as much magic from you as is required to keep both you and those around us safe. That includes taking all of it should the need arise.”

“You can take away my magic completely?” The idea was more than horrifying. I wasn’t certain I could survive without my magic, and it wasn’t something I was eager to put to the test.

“Not completely, or forever,” Doxle said. “Through the pact bond, I can take the magic you have accumulated in your Hollowing. I cannot prevent you from drawing more in however.”

“But you could take that away too.”

“Yes, though likely not before you could attempt to use it for a spell.”

“Attempt?”

“Spells can be interrupted. Most spells. That tends to send the magic in them splattering everywhere, but a skilled Advisor can salvage a fair portion of it.”

“And I know you won’t do this because why?”

“Oh, you don’t,” Doxle said. “Not at all. Once the pact is formed, I could, completely at my own discretion, drain you of magic and apply the drain continuously. Some Advisors would lack the skill to do anything with that much magic, but I am not one of them.”

“That doesn’t inspire confidence.”

“Nor should it. This is not a pact you should enter into blindly. In fact if you had the choice, I would advise against entering into any arrangement even vaguely like this. Especially since draining magic is not all the pact allows for.”

“You could do more to me?”

“If we form a pact? Yes. As your Advisor, I am not allowed to inflict real injury on you, but I can force you to halt any action which I deem to be dangerous to yourself or other. Or which I simply find distasteful.”

“Force me to halt?”

“I can paralyze you, and yes, that is every bit as horrible as it sounds. I would be using our combined power to do so as well, so to break it you would need to break both of us.”

“That sounds worse than the Great Houses hunting me.” Far worse in fact. If I was hunted, I could flee to places and in ways they wouldn’t expect and might never be able to follow. Forming a pact with an Imperial Advisor sounded like a fate worse than death.

“It is,” Doxle said. “Or it’s not. For those who need an Advisor’s aid, the draining of their magic can be a life saving relief, and the ability to paralyze them can prevent them from taking actions they dearly wish not to take. With the control you have shown, I do not believe you are one of those people though. Which is why I would advise you not to form a pact with any Advisor.”

“Except you’re offering me one. Why?” I knew he wasn’t stupid, and he seemed to understand that I was following everything he was saying.

“I am – and it amuses to no end that this is true – the lesser of many evils in this circumstance.” He folded his hands on the table. “Word has gotten out about your performance at the gate. The Houses have their evaluators in the city at the moment for the Open Enrollment tomorrow at the Academy. When they don’t see you there, when they see no one there who can fight a squad of guards without permanently injuring any of them, they will set their hounds loose looking for you, and when they find you, they will bring you in and force a pact on you.”

“What if I go to the Open Enrollment Trials?” I asked. It was why I’d been sent to Middlerun, though not why I’d fought to get into the city.

“You’re not studied enough to pass the Common Trials, and if you take part in the Cadet Trials, either your power will be obvious to them or you’ll die hiding it.” He wasn’t saying that as a threat. If anything I thought he sounded sorrowful about it.

“So they would pact me to another Imperial Advisor. What makes you better than the rest?”

“Oh, I am much worse than many of them. I am a liar, a betrayer, and a failure. I serve so many masters I have lost count, and the one I love the most I am the least faithful to. My enemies are legion and my allies lost to time. In truth, making a pact with me will enmesh you in a web of problems that stretch back before the Cataclysm of Peaks.”

He offered me a tired smile and I responded by waiting silently for him to continue.

“I can offer you one thing though, something I don’t believe a forced pact would ever omit.” He sighed and looked at me so I could see his eyes clearly. “There is one other tool a pact can provide to an Imperial Advisor – we can punish behavior we wish to discourage.”

“Punish how? I thought you couldn’t hurt me?”

“Advisors cannot injure the ones they’re bonded to. Inflicting pain without physical injury though? There is no real limit to that. The manifestation differs from Advisor to Advisor. For most it’s a variation of simple searing agony, from something as mild as a minor stab wound up to the sensation that every cell in your body is burning in eternal flame, as the Advisor desires. Some choose stabbing cold, others needles, and so on.”

“What’s yours?”

“I don’t know. That is something I specifically exclude from the pacts I make. I can promise you very little, but I can forge into the magic that binds us together that I will never, can never hurt you with that binding. That you will know as a certainty.”

“But you’ll still be able to paralyze me?”

“That aspect of the pact cannot be omitted without the binding failing to count as a pact, and if we have no pact, then another one will be forced onto you.”

“Or I could run, and see if they can catch me.”

“Or you could run. I won’t tell you that escape is impossible. You are a creature of wonder and delight to me. I haven’t seen someone quite like you in centuries. Or perhaps ever. Who know what depths you hold? You might be able to do the impossible and escape from hunters who have decades of experience finding the cleverest of prey. You might even be able to retain your mind without any formal training. There are dangers before you, but not all dangers come to pass.”

He paused to allow me to interject even though he wasn’t done speaking.

I remained silent. 

“It is your choice. I cannot offer you unbiased advice in this. Only you can choose the life you wish to pursue.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 3

The jail guards tried to raise some kind of fuss, but I couldn’t pay that any attention. Her scent was on the wind again.

I started walking, trying to take in as much of it as I could, but it was maddeningly faint.

Which made sense.

My sister had been dead for seven years, and swallowed up by the earth for every one of them.

I don’t forget scents though.

Especially not hers.

I didn’t understand how her scent could be in a city we’d never traveled to before, but I knew what I had to do to find out.

Behind me, Doxle was keeping pace and, puzzlingly, keeping silent.

He’d dealt with the jail guards, I think, and then caught up to me but wasn’t asking any questions or making any observations. I’d know him a handful or minutes or so and already that seemed out of character. From how he’d acted in the cell, this was a demon who loved listening to himself talk.

I drew in some more breath and noticed that I couldn’t smell anything of ash or lightning. 

He was hiding his scent? Did he know what I was searching for?

Another breath and the thin threads of scent that I’d been following frayed into dust.

She wasn’t nearby. Not on this street, or even in this neighborhood. Probably in the city though. Probably still in the city in fact. The scent had the hint of a few bright, crisp notes left, as though it had traveled to find me, rather than lingering and turning sour as the stinks and vapors of city wrapped around it and dragged it into the general mush of sweating people and rotting food remnants.

I didn’t run after the last wisps of the scent. Not as a human, and not on all fours. Instinct drove me in that direction, but I knew it wouldn’t help. The scent wasn’t acting like a proper one should. It was her scent, I was sure of that, but I was also sure there was something unnatural about it too.

I finally stopped beside public laundry and let my shoulders slump in defeat. Trina hadn’t gone into the laundry, the scent was still too distant, and it vanished on its own, not giving way to the sharp sting of soap.

“Would you care for some food?” Doxle asked. “I can’t imagine they fed you particularly well for the last two days.”

For a moment, I’d forgotten he was there, so I turned to face him a little faster than I’d intended. It probably made me look like a frightened little hare. I’m not fond of being mistaken for a prey species, but I kept the growl of surprise from my voice.

“Food would be good,” I said. I’d been starving even before I got to the city gates, Being thrown in jail hadn’t improved that since my jailer hadn’t fed me poor quality food only because he’d saved on the effort and simply not fed me at all.

I considered going back to extract the vengeance I’d originally intended to, but stayed where I was. I had shown admirable restraint so far though and didn’t want to break my current streak.

“This way then,” Doxle said and began walking down the narrower street that crossed the one we’d been on.

Freed from the spell of Trina’s scent, I was able to take in Middlerun for the first time. 

That it smelled like something other than desperate and despairing humans made it infinitely more pleasant than the alternative I’d been ‘enjoying’ for the last couple of days, but as we walked the usual odors and aromas began to surface. The lye from the laundry blocked out a lot of them until we were a few streets away, but roasting spiced meats can cut through a lot of other scents, and the omnipresence of the smells of the varied dishes left me shaking with a hunger that I’d largely stuffed to the back of my mind while I was in chains.

I caught a whiff of ash and lightning a few times as we walked and noticed Doxle twitching his fingers in the air as we walked. Small trails of sparks in different hues followed about half of the movements he made, though they didn’t lead to any flashy magical effects from what I could see. He was mumbling something to himself too, but I don’t think he was speaking either the Imperial High Tongue or Low Speech. I decided it was probably some demon language, and that I’d have to deal with answering questions soon enough as it was.

That was fine. I had questions too, and getting me out of jail was worth at least a few honest answers. 

Until he was ready to ask about whatever he wanted to know, or make whatever offer he planned to, I was happy to spend the time geting my bearings.

Middlerun wasn’t a city I’d been too before. Grammy Duella wasn’t a fan of cities in general, and tended to stick with visits to Glenhaven and Winterbridge, both of which were well to the east of Middlerun if her geography lessons were accurate and my memories of the trip here had been muddled by all the blows to the head I’d taken. 

Neither Glenhaven, nor Winterbride had an Imperial Academy though. Middlerun did, and unless I missed my guess, the giant fortification on the hill on the northern edge of the city was the Academy, the garrison it supported, and Tower of the Divines which had roughly a thousand legends told about it.

I was supposed to go there, I’d had no interest in going there, but if Trina’s scent was strongest anywhere, it was to the north and that just couldn’t be a coincidence.

Doxle turned us from the side street onto one of the main roads through town, its broad stretch of cobblestones had been warmed by the midday sunlight that was able to shine down without being blocked by the tightly packed buildings we’d been walking past, making it seem a hundred times more inviting as a place to snatch a quick nap than any spot in my cell had. Of course the steady flow of traffic would make that challenging, the last two days had been miserable enough that I was more than half willing to try anyways.

“This should do nicely,” Doxle said, indicating the building to our left. All sorts of wonderful aromas wafted out of the door when a well dressed man and woman exited the main doors.

There was food in there.

And a lot of people.

The sign over the door read ‘The Golden’ in High Imperial. Like most of places that catered to the wealthy there was no pictography on the sign to indicate what the venue offered, which conveyed a very specific message to those who couldn’t read High Imperial without explicitly admitting to the establishment’s biases.

The food still smelled fantastic though.

Or maybe I was just ravenous from not eating.

An hour later I was less ravenous.

There were also six empty plates in front me of.

It occurred to me that while I was quite capable of eating more, stopping was prudent if I didn’t want to have deal with questions I had avoided answering for over a dozen years.

Seeing me pause, Doxle placed the tea cup he’d been sipping from back onto its saucer and leaned forward.

“I feel as though its impolite not to offer you a night’s rest as well but since time may be of the essence I hope it will not be too much of an imposition to resume our discussion now?”

“You were explaining what an Imperial Advisor was,” I said. He seemed surprised that I’d remembered that though he tried to hide it.

“Yes, though first there are some general points about magecraft I wish to make certain you’re aware of.”

I waited. Interrupting him seemed like a fantastic idea if I wanted the conversation to drag on for the next week. Not interrupting him, therefor, seemed like an even more fantastic idea.

“I will speak in broad strokes only,” he said. “Please be aware that nearly everything I am about to say is wrong, either in certain situations or for certain people. The study of the Transcendent Arts begins with broad truths though and the deeper one gets the more those truths give way to illusion.”

I hadn’t heard it phrased like that before, but the general idea of highly advanced magecraft being rife with uncertainty had been part of Grammy Duella’s curriculum. 

“At their basic level, all of the Transcendent Arts, magecraft, alchemy, divination, arcano-technology and the others all start with power. What distinguishes the Transcendent Arts from Sublunary magics is where the power comes from,” Doxle said and drew a glowing circle in the air.

“Sublunary magic is the sort of minor casting any living creature can manage,” he said filling the circle in with a swirl of green light. “Its power is derived from our world. There’s no need to call it, or store it because we are suffused by it at all times. The principal difficulty with it is that because it is part of our world, Sublunary magic is bound by many of its laws. Despite being available in abundance, it is only capable of small feats and promoting natural changes.”

He drew a thread of light from the green swirl and drew a pattern within the circle, but since it was green on green it was lost almost as soon as he drew it.

“The Transcendental Arts do not suffer this limitation however. They draw on power from beyond this world.” With a flick of his finger he torn a thin slash into the circle, which began to fill with purple light. 

“With magecraft we are able to create effects that are impossible according to the laws of this world.” He drew a thread of purple light from the slash and painted a symbol for eternity in the middle of glowing green circle. The symbol blazed there, neither mixing with the green light nor being diminished by it.

“Doing the impossible comes with many costs however.” He gestured to the circle where the slash of purple light was spreading deeper into it, until it touched the purple symbol of eternity and shattered the green circle entirely.

“Left unconstrained, Transcendental magic can not help but replace the laws of this world with the laws of the world it was drawn from,” Doxle said.

“Like the Reaving Storms,” I said.

“You are familiar with those?” Doxle said.

“Intimately,” I said.

“My condolences,” he said, because there were no good experiences to be had with Reaving Storms. “And yes. The Reaving Storms are uncontrolled manifestations of the power of the other planes which have collided with this one. We draw magic from those planes, but that is not the only means by which their power leaks into this world.”

“But only when the Soul Kindled Wards fail,” I said. This was territory I probably shouldn’t have been well versed in but it was an understatement to say I had history in this particular area.

“The Soul Kindled Wards do serve to contain the power leakage of the other planes, and when they fail calamities do tend to occur,” Doxle said, meticulously not saying something else though I wasn’t sure what.

“Advisor’s don’t make the wards though. That’s the nobles’ jobs,” I said, trying to see why he was explaining all this and how it might be relevant to me.

“True. Our role is more specific,” Doxle said. “The natural leakage from the planes is only one means of unearthly power being drawn into this world. Each and every practitioner of the Transcendent Arts draws on that power too. For most, the amount they can call forth is trivial, and even the amount they can store up within themselves offers no danger to the world at large, even when it’s sufficient to destroy them utterly.”

“Some can draw in more though,” I said, seeing at last where this was leading.

“Some can draw in much more,” Doxle said. “For most of those, training begins at a very early age. For others, their potential ends at a very early age as the raw magic they contain discorporates them. Some few though survive without training and without destroying themselves. Whether it is luck, natural skill, or something about the nature of the plane they’re attuned too, they wind up possessing a fantastically deep Hollowing and the potential to be truly mighty casters.”

“Hollowings?” I asked.

“Its the term for the space within us where we hold the magic of the planes we are synched with.”

“And I’m one of these people with deep Hollowings?” I asked, suspecting that the truth was rather different, and hoping that wouldn’t be obvious or detectable.

“Oh you’re more than that,” Doxle said. “You have a fantastic Hollowing unless I miss my guess, but more importantly you have a natural, almost inborn capacity for wielding those magics.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked, feeling more exposed than I had in years.

“When we met, your face was a mass of bruises and your nose had been broken in two places,” Doxle said. “In the short time we’ve been together those wounds have vanished. In point of fact, they were mostly healed by the time we exited the jail.”

“I’ve always healed fast,” I said, understating the truth it by several orders of magnitude.

“A useful trait,” Doxel said. “Also evidence to suggest that you can use your magic on a subconscious level. That’s not common for form shifters, but its not unheard either. The speed and ease with which you manage it however is impressive.”

“So then I’m fine?” I asked, still not seeing exactly where he fit in.

“No,” Doxle said. “You have been fine, but you are unlikely to remain so for two specific reasons. First, drawing magic from another plane, any other plane, requires a transmutation of the mind. When we reach out from the reality we know into an unreal one, our minds transform to hold them both. Some call this ‘enlightenment’, but ‘madness’ is a much more accurate description. We build shapes with words, and gestures, and materials to force our minds to retain a shape that can exist in this world but any failures can break that connection, sometimes temporarily, other times not.”

“But that’s never been a problem for me,” I said.

“And with training, it may never need to be,” Doxle said. “It’s only when people are pushed beyond the limits of their skill that they tend to make grave mistakes in channeling their magic. Which leads us to the other reason you are likely to encounter difficulties going forward; if you could leave here and live a quiet life in some little cottage in the woods, you might never need your magics, but with power such as you possess, the Great Houses are going to take an interest in you, and their attentions will ensure that your life is the furthest thing from quiet that you can imagine.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 2

It’s fun to surprise people. It’s even more fun to surprise demons.

“Leave  us,” Doxle said, without turning to face my jailer. 

My jailer didn’t seem to be able to process those two words. I didn’t bother trying to keep the smile off my face. It’s not often I get to surprise someone by proxy.

“Begging your pardon, sir, but I don’t think I should do that,” my jailer said. “I don’t know what you have in mind, but you can’t trust that one. She’ll gut you quick if you get any closer. In fact you should probably move back a bit even now.”

Doxle rolled his eyes before visibly suppressing a sigh. 

“Your concern is appreciated,” he said, rising to his feet and turning to face my jailer. 

From the tension in his shoulders and the set of his elbows and fingers, he was holding back an impulse towards violence without a great deal of effort. The scent of lightning stirred in the air around him though, suggesting that if he decided that minor bit of restraint was no longer worth it, any indulgence in mayhem would be swift and dramatic.

“Well, you can’t be too careful. Not after she put six of our best in the infirmary,” my jailer said.

“Six in the infirmary and none in the morgue? Curious,” Doxle said. “Where do you think she might put you, if she was freed of those chains?”

He snapped his fingers and the manacles around my throat and hands dropped to the grey stone floor with a satisfyingly heavy thunk.

I started to chuckle.

I’m not sure it sounded properly human.

That was fine. After two days in a cell, cut off from almost everything I was, I wasn’t feeling properly human either.

Sinking down onto my haunches, I gathered strength for a killing pounce as I met my jailer’s horrified gaze.

I waited just a moment longer, savoring the widening of her eyes. Clear white terror invaded them, rippled up from the pit of his belly.

Ending this too quickly would have been a mistake. He needed to see what was coming, and from the trembling step he began to take backwards I was pretty sure he could.

I started to move but Doxle held a hand out. It wasn’t enough to stop me. He barely had two fingers interposed between me and my jailer. There wasn’t even a spike of ash or lightning to go with it. It was a signal that I should stop, and only that.

So I listened to it and paused, waiting motionless to see what would happen next.

I’d assumed Doxle was going to make a comment but the jailer’s scream cut that short. For a big guy, my jailer was not lacking in speed when it came to retreating. I heard him race down the hallway and slam shut the door on the far end. It sadly took several moments longer for the stench of his cologne to follow after him, returning the prison to its normal aroma of pathetic human misery.

“My apologies,” Doxle said, turning back to me. “That was not how an Imperial servant ought to present themself.”

“You left the chains on my legs,” I said.

“I did,” Doxle said, showing neither guilt nor an intention to change the situation.

“What do you want?” I asked. I was curious, but I suspected if I didn’t keep things simple we would be here for hours and with my neck no longer bound, gnawing a path to freedom was more viable than ever.

“You, I want you,” Doxle said. “Tell me, do you know what an Imperial Advisor is?”

“No.” Again, I could have lied but to what point? If he thought I was an uneducated idiot why would I care?

“I imagine you haven’t received formal training in the fundamentals of magecraft or Divine Matrices?” Doxle asked.

I didn’t bother replying to that, letting my silent stare be answer enough.

“If I may ask, under whose tutelage did you study the Transcendent Arts?” Doxle asked. “A family member? A retired neighbor perhaps?”

More silence was his only answer.

“You need not fear any repercussions for yourself or them,” Doxle said and turned away to pontificate for a bit. “When Imperial Council disbanded the public academies the natural result was to leave those outside the Great Houses without access to proper education in all manner of subjects, the Transcendent Arts most especially.”

I continued to stare at him. Usually people eventually decide to start making sense when I do that.

He turned back and started to speak again but stopped before another word escaped his lips. I saw his eyes narrow as he searched my face for something.

“You’re not afraid,” he said.

There wasn’t a need to answer that.

“You’ve never been trained? At all?” The idea seemed alien to him, as though he’d been asking where I’d learned to breathe and discovered I’d never managed to work out the mechanism of it.

In truth, learning to breath had been tricky, but I had managed that years ago and was, I felt, justifiably proud at how effortless it had become.

“Yet you sent an entire squad of the local guard to the chirurgeon’s care,” Doxle wasn’t speaking to me anymore. He was pacing and ruminating, with only the occasional glance in my direction as though seeking proof I hadn’t vanished like a trick of the light.

I followed his pacing with my eyes, but stayed coiled tight. He wasn’t going to hurt me. If he’d intended to, he would have done it already, or would build up to it in some dramatic fashion. The door, however, was still open.

I debated whether I could leap hard enough to rip my feet out of the manacles, or off if necessary, but choose to stay where I was.

If nothing else, I was still waiting for an answer to my question.

“I suppose that means she may, in fact, truly require my assistance,” Doxle said, no longer even pretending he was speaking to me. “What an astounding situation. So unlikely too. It’s been, what, a century? Two maybe? And no whispers of any grand machinations of the Court? Delicious.”

He turned back to me and noticed the bored expression I’d allowed to settle on my face.

“Lady Kati, please correct me, but is it fair to say that you have come to the workings of magic only recently?” he asked.

I nodded slowly, unsure where he was going but not yet out of patience.

“And to date, no one has shown you the theorems and instructed you in the geometries of spell casting?”

I nodded again. Some of that was slightly familiar. I’d never been instructed in magic, for a variety of reasons, but it was impossible not to pick up some idea of what it involved by listening to people talk about it.

“A grave disservice has been done to you,” Doxle said. “You asked what I want, and I must beg your indulgence. There is a groundwork of understanding I must lay before you before you will have a full comprehension of the arrangement which is formed between an Imperial Advisor and their ward.”

My patience frayed at that, but only a little. He’d let me scare away the jailer, and he’d removed three of my five manacles. That bought him my attention for a while longer.

Also, if he left it wasn’t like I had much else I could do in the cell.

“These however are not ideal circumstances in which to instruct a neophyte,” Doxle said and snapped his fingers again.

The manacles on my ankles fell away, leaving me completely free.

Or free of their constraint at least.

To get through the door, I would need to get by Doxle. I was quick, but I didn’t like my chances.

“Why?” I asked, meaning why had he freed me, though he chose to answer a different version of it.

“Had you been formally trained already, the bindings upon you would have presented no measure of duress. You would have been familiar with the pact I mean to offer you or free to pursue your own path to freedom,” Doxle said. “As it stands, I believe the only opportunity you might have had for freedom would have involved some rather dreadful sacrifices. Sacrifices which could have compelled you to form a pact even should accepting it be anathema to you.”

“So I can leave?” I asked. I’d understood his words, but clarity on that point seemed critical.

“Of course,” Doxle said. “You shouldn’t have been detained here in the first place.”

“And the trial?” I asked, wondering if I was going to be pursued by the city’s guards for the rest of my life.

“I am your trial,” Doxle said. “If I set you free, anyone who would contest that will need to challenge me on the subject.”

I smiled. Challenging Doxle would not go well for my jailer, or likely all of the jailers here.

I rose slowly and took a tentative step to leave the cell, but Doxle held up a hand.

Because of course it was too good to be true.

“There is one bit of mistreatment I can remedy,” Doxle said and pulled a green gown with silver piping from thin air. “They are supposed to provide prisoners with proper clothing, not leave them with nothing more than bloody rags.

I was still wearing the dress I’d been hauled into the prison in, though it had lost a sleeve, all the material below my knees, and been shredded across the midsection well before I arrived at the city gates. The blood on it was mostly not my own, but there was entirely too much regardless of the source.

With another wave, Doxle conjured a folding screen which divided the cell in half. I was on the wrong side of it to make a break for the door, but I saw the value in changing first. If there was pursuit after me, finding the girl in a green gown was going to be more challenging than finding one in a gown caked with mud and splattered with blood.

“I imagine you have designs against your jailer,” Doxle said. “I would suggest that you may wish to stay your hand for now.”

“Why?” I asked.

“He may prove useful to you soon,” Doxle said.

“How?”

“He is terrified of you,” Doxle said. “Such people are easily influenced, and can provide a form of testimony which is convincing when others are not.”

‘Easily influenced’ wasn’t a trait I’d considered my jailer to have, but I had to admit, it was easy to see when I considered his overall behavior.

I stepped out from behind the curtain, the new gown getting dirty already from my hair and unbathed body. I held onto the old gown too. I hadn’t meant for it to be destroyed and there had to be someone in the city who could restore it.

“I can go now?” I asked.

Doxle nodded but then held up his hand again.

“Perhaps I should lead,” he said. “If the staff sees you first, they may leap to unfortunate assumptions. Oh, and you may also want these.”

Another flick of his fingers and he handed me a pair of soft leather ankle boots. 

They didn’t match the gown, but their fit was as perfect as its had been and I found them pleasing. They had a heavy sole that would make stomping much more effective. After waiting a moment for me to put them on over my otherwise bare feet, Doxle led me out of the cell and to the door at the end of the hall.

“We’re leaving now,” he said to the trio of cowering jailers on the other side.

“Is she properly bound now sir?” my jailer asked.

“She is with me,” Doxle said.

“Okay,” my jailer said, his voice wavering between terrified and relieved.

The door opened to show the stairway leading up and three grown men plastering themselves to the wall.

Doxle made a small shooing motion since passing between them was impractical given the narrowness of the stairs and they all but fled up the stairs before us.

I didn’t remember being taken through as many room as we wound up chasing the guards through, them proceeding us as if there was anything they could do to prevent my escape at this point, and Doxel casually walking forward as I followed.

When we stepped at last into the sunlight, I turned punched my jailer in the throat.

It was gentle.

I didn’t crush his windpipe.

Not completely.

And I didn’t tear his throat away slowly.

Which was what I’d been planning to do.

He went down choking and sputtering, but, crucially, not dying, which I felt showed a truly admirable level of restraint.

“She…she can’t do that!” one of the other jailers cried.

“Not if she’s properly bound! Not if you say no!” the third jailer objected.

Doxle turned only his head to glance over his shoulder at them.

“You are correct, but why would I say no to her?”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 1

My skin didn’t fit. Mostly because it was designed to hold me, not the giant mass of bruises I’d become. Normally that wouldn’t have been a problem, but the gilded manacles on my hands, neck, and feet were there so that it would be.

That was going to become someone else’s problem the moment anyone came within the reach of the chains my captors had foolishly attached to the manacles.

Assuming I didn’t gag to death before then.

I’d been able to smell the prison before they’d dragged me into the city. Being chained in one of its cells did not improve the experience. I’d been weighing the benefits of gnawing off various limbs in an effort to escape but, sadly, gnawing off your own neck presents certain challenges. That didn’t mean it was any less tempting though.

“The one you’re looking for is down here. Don’t know what good she’d do someone like you though. Feral little thing’ll try to bite your head off.” 

That was the voice of my redemption.

Also my jailer.

That he was speaking meant he was coming to see me. He’d done that three times so far, working up the nerve to get near my cell by pretending they had me completely under control.

To be fair, they did have me mostly under control. 

Mostly however left room for mayhem.

I heard his voice while he was still descending the stairs at the far end of the hallway. The prison was built from old stones, and they spoke back the sounds they heard well enough to give me a minute’s warning that he was plodding onto the floor of empty cells I’d been tossed into. Of the twelve cells, mine was the only one with a living occupant in it and yet they’d chosen to place me in the cell that was farthest from the stairs. As though the extra few seconds after I broke free might buy them time to escape.

I wasn’t sure what I’d done to warrant the special placement.

Maybe this was the only floor they had with the special manacles and chains?

Seemed a bit much. I’d only lightly maimed a few of them when they tried to stop me from entering the city.

“Feral? How intriguing. Has that been the chirugeon’s diagnosis?”

That was a new voice.

And a new scent.

The jailer wore enough cologne that the regular stench of the prison was drowned out within ten feet of him. 

It wasn’t an improvement.

The new scent was a far more subtle thing though.

Regretting it immediately, I pulled in a good lungful of air trying to identify the tiny hints I was picking up before they arrived.

Ash and lightning.

They were buried under the offal and piss and despair that had sunk into every crevasse of every stone, but the scents of ash and lighting were there and they were old and deep. Layers upon layers. Ashes from a match burned a moment ago atop the ashes of a hearth fire that had burned for years atop ashes from fires that had burned before the first human caught the first spark and made it their own.

And wound through it all, a current of lightning. 

I backed up in my cell.

My jailer was four times my size, he was armed, and he was mean. Given the slightest provocation, or even the barest chance, he would hurt me and find joy in the act.

He wasn’t a concern.

The new voice though?

I didn’t want to meet him.

Not unless I could spring on him from the right ambush spot.

“Here you go,” my jailer said, stopped before the sigil etched door to my cell.

Hiding wasn’t going to do me any good.

And I was glad I hadn’t gnawed any limbs off yet.

I considered the window, but it too high to reach with the chains in place and covered in bars bearing the even more sigils than the door. 

I guess the door was meant to be opened once in a while. The window was only there to let air and the occasional gusts of rain in. No need to allow for any possibility of passage there.

I heard the rattle of keys, and the jailer reciting an incantation under his breath. 

Sure. Try to keep that secret. It didn’t matter. I could smell the incantation wouldn’t work for me, even if I had the keys and was on the right side of the door. 

For the jailer though, it worked just fine.

Gears within the door spun in response to the spark the incantation sent through them, twirling other gears and retracting the bolts driven into the left side of the wall. The sigils on both sides of the door powered down too. 

Not that I could see their glow fade with the manacles in place.

What sense would there have been to advertise that the traps had been disarmed to someone inside the cell? 

With the locks and traps bypassed, the door swung open on its own, revealing my jailer standing beyond it.

He never came any closer than one pace into the room. 

The person with him had no such sense of self preservation though.

As he stepped into the room the scent of ash and lightning didn’t grow any stronger. 

That was odd.

Nothing else faded away, but his scent remained at a distance. 

Or diminished? 

Was he drawing himself inwards the closer he got?

Why?

Not to give himself away?

Not to frighten me?

That did not work if so. Someone who could lie through the scent was far more frightening than someone who was merely bound to old powers.

I coiled up too, preparing for a strike I was currently incapable of making.

Not the right move.

Don’t approach larger predators from a position of aggression if you have no backup.

I knew that.

I’m not great at doing things how I’m supposed to.

The new person seemed bad at that too though.

Or bad at noticing impending attacks.

Or he just didn’t care.

Which was probably the case. He wasn’t backing away like a sensible human or looming over me like a sensible predator. He was just watching me.

Okay, he was looming a bit.

He was tall though. He couldn’t help but loom a little. 

And he definitely wasn’t human, so the lack of backing away made sense too.

The eyes he focused on me could have been human, aside from the brightly burning red irises in them. His ears were similarly slightly askew too, longer and tapering to a sharper point than a human’s would have. 

Mostly though it was his bones that were wrong. Too thin, and too long. He looked like someone had taken a handsome man and carved away a bit here and a curve there in order to leave sharp edges everywhere. 

The horns and the fangs were sort of out of place too.

But they were small, so easy to overlook.

“Magister class manacles?” the stranger asked, glancing at the golden bindings I was fitted with.

“She was a devil and a half to put on the ground,” my jailer said. “Didn’t want to risk it with any of the weaker ones.”

“Those can’t be comfortable,” the stranger said.

He wasn’t wrong. The constant burning had been a solid addition to the “gnaw off a limb” side of my internal debate. 

“Deserves worse after what she did to our boys,” my jailer said.

He clearly had no idea what I was going to do to him, but that was fine. Some things are better as surprises.

“It seems like it may have been an even exchange,” the stranger said, kneeling down to eye my busted and broken everything. “Or were these delivered after the Magisters were in place.”

Of course the beating that had stuck had been after I’d been manacled. It was kind of a stupid question. 

Except the stranger didn’t know me, or what I could do. 

“Naw, she got those while she was still unbound,” the jailer lied. “Our boys aren’t goons. They know the laws.”

“Do they now? Even the one about injured and untried prisoners being afforded a visit from a chirurgeon to ensure they remain fit to stand trial?” the stranger asked.

“Oh. Sure. Yeah, we do that,” the jailer said. “There hasn’t been a trial set though. With the Spring Princepts Festival, they put those on hold for this week.”

The stranger closed his eyes and rubbed between the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. For a brief moment the scent of ash and lighting became stronger and I tensed.

It wasn’t directed at me though.

From how my jailer didn’t back away I could tell he was too nose blind to notice it. That seemed like a potentially fatal disability but not one I had to care about. Whatever the stranger might do to him would probably be at least as horrible as what I had planned.

“Do you mean to tell me that the Imperial Correction and Reformation Institutes official policy is to leave unconvicted prisoners without medical care and simply hope that they remain viable to properly prosecute after a minimum of seven days spent under a suppression field designed to contain a Magister class caster?” The stranger didn’t open his eyes, turn to look at my jailer, or rise from his kneeling position.

“Well, we’re not Imperial, so I can’t say,” my jailer stammered. “We just need to make sure they’re okay before the trial so that’s what we do.”

“Not Imperial?” the stranger sighed. “Of course. Imperial Corrections has contracted out the labor requirements for their Empress-appointed duties.”

“It’s all legal sir,” my jailer said, seeming to finally be aware that the stranger was dangerously unhappy with him.

“Oh, but of course it is,” the stranger said, opening his eyes and bending his lips into the sort of smile found on the edge of a knife. “Most anything can be if there is suitable profit in it for the right people.”

“Right,” my jailer agreed. The panicked sweat he’d been exuding subsided and was drowned under his cologne, indicating that he really wasn’t following the conversation well.

“Very well,” the stranger said. “I suppose there’s no need to fetch a chirurgeon at this point. A better diagnosis will be available from a proper specialist.”

“Your pardon, but I don’t think any other specialists will be making calls here,” my jailer said. “All the healer are off for the week too.”

The stranger laughed at that.

“You think with a festival in full swing, the healers get to take time off? That’s adorable. Tell me, what would you do you were to stumble into something painful during a night of debauchery? Say some inconsiderate person left a knife somewhere that you’d quite accidentally managed to trip into?”

“Well I’d go to the hospital then, wouldn’t I?” my jailer said.

“And who would be there?”

“The healers,” my jailer said, mystified by the question.

The stranger opened his mouth to say something but paused and closed it again. I don’t know people, but that seemed like the smartest choice he could have made. Some conversations do nothing but kill brain cells, and I suspected if it went on longer the stranger might get around to killing all of the jailer’s brain cells, possibly one by one.

“And we’re getting off topic,” the stranger said instead. “So foolish when we have such an interesting puzzle in front of us.”

He was looking directly at me when he said that. It did not make me feel overly comfortable.

“My apologies, I have been unbearably rude,” the stranger said. “Here I am speaking of you rather than to you. Must be something in the air.” He waved a hand in front of his nose as though that could possibly shoo away the jailer’s stench. “Proper introductions first I believe. I am Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, an Imperial Advisor. That is a terribly tiresome title though so you may call me Doxle if you prefer. May I ask how you desire to be addressed?”

I looked from him to the jailer and back. It didn’t seem like the stranger, Doxle, was mocking me. He apparently just liked words.

“Sure,” I said, perfectly aware that wasn’t the right answer to his question.

Where I’d expected to see irritation flash across the stranger’s face, the twitch of muscles near his eyes suggested mirth instead.

Huh.

“Thank you,” he said and with a wave of his hand and a short bow of his head added, “how do you desire to be addressed?”

“Kati,” I said.

It was my name. I could have lied, but that seemed pointless. If Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, Imperial Advisor couldn’t figure out my name then he wasn’t dangerous enough to bother misleading.

“Well then Lady Kati, would you perchance be interested in entering into an arrangement with me?”

Doxle’s eyes gleamed with a hungry, flickering light and the scent of ashes rose all around me. There was danger in his designs. There was danger in him. None of that was exactly surprising though. Not with what he was.

The question was, did I want to make a deal with the finely dressed devil who stood before me?

“Sure.”

Broken Horizons – Epilogue 8 (Finale)

Sometimes opportunity comes knocking at an unexpected hour. Other times, it’s family.

“Is that cookies I smell,” a familiar young [Tabbywile] said.

“I think what she means is, ‘Hi’ and ‘Mind if we bother you, those smell delicious’,” a similarly familiar [Metal Mechanoid] said.

“Rip! Matt!” Tessa said and pulled the two into a big hug.

“More like ‘cookie’ singular,” Lisa said, “My [Cooking] is skilling up very slowly.”

“You’ve got the aroma portion of it down,” Rip said. “I could smell them from a block away and it was wonderful!”

“Not that we came to raid your cookie jar,” Matt said. “We were just thinking of checking in and maybe getting a new party invite, if that’s okay?”

Rather than wasting time answering the question with words, Tessa tossed them both instant invites. She still didn’t have a game-like HUD to work with when she was in her quasi-human form, but she’d discovered that she didn’t need it for a variety of the common functions which mirrored the various game mechanisms she was used to. A little imagination and configuring her thoughts to simulate the echoey sound around the world’s key words was enough to handle most of them and some of the rest just required phrasing the request in C++.

“You’re more than welcome to help yourselves to the output of the my skill grinding attempts,” Lisa said. “I can’t promise quality but since I bought a literal ton of ingredients, I can definitely offer quantity.”

“Where ‘quantity’ is one cookie at a time,” Tessa said.

“Dibs!” Rip called.

They settled around the central island in the [Tea Shop’s] kitchen. There wasn’t really enough space for three people plus a cook, especially not with Matt’s larger-than-average metal body, but Lisa seemed to prefer the company to the space as she worked.

“How did things go with your families?” Tessa asked. She’d been sad to see the kids go, but had gone along with the responsible course of action because she’d known Rip and Matt would keep Rose and Jamal physically safe, and that the pair could leave any ugly situation they found themselves in or call for help that a wide variety of people would have been only too willing to provide.

“It was good,” Jamal said and added more softly, “Better than I thought it would be.”

“Are you going back there?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah. Someday. Not for now though,” Jamal said. “We need some time. Mom and me. Maybe for the holidays though?”

Reading microexpressions wasn’t a skill Tessa had ever developed, and detecting them on a [Metal Mechanoid] would have required truly astounding powers of observation. Even without that though, Tessa heard something different in Jamal’s words. Though they were filtered through a mechanical voice box, there was a peace in them, and hope for a future that maybe hadn’t seemed possible before?

“I’m glad that turned out well,” she said, turning to see if Rose had the same sort of news to report.

“Nothing good to report here,” Rip said. “But that’s not a surprise.”

Tessa’s heart clenched and she had to fight back the urge to smother Rose with hugs and supportive words.

“Still sucks, you deserve a hell of a lot better,” she said.

“Of course she does,” Lisa said and wrapped Rip in a hug from behind. “You are ridiculously brave and when your family figures that out they can fight me to the death for you.”

“Oh, uh,” Rose said, as Rip’s eyes grew glassy. “I don’t…you don’t have to…I mean…”

“I think we didn’t want to assume that you’d want to stick with us,” Matt said. “You don’t have to. I mean we’re basically adults in this world, and we’re all trained up now, so it’s okay if you don’t want to take care of us. We’ll be okay.”

“Hey,” Tessa said. “We take care of each other. As long as you still want to hang around with us that is? We have lead you into more than a few meat grinders so far after all.”

“Want to?” Rip said, “Of course we want to!”

“You know, it’s funny you gave them a choice there,” Lisa said, smiling playfully. “I wasn’t planning to. These two are mine now.”

“Ours,” Tessa corrected her. “Just like we’re theirs.”

A long moment of cozy warmth followed but was interrupted by a spark, and then a puff of flame and the acrid smell of burnt chocolate chip cookie.

“Ack! No!” Rip squeaked, breaking free from the layered hug in an attempt to rescue Lisa’s most recent attempt at crafting.

“Well, the good news is, it’s a full batch of twelve this time,” Tessa said, seeing the results Rip rescued from the mixing bowl.

“Twelve charcoal briquettes,” Lisa said, breaking one apart and checking to see if there was anything salvageable with in it.

“I’m sorry,” Rip said.

“Sorry? Why?” Lisa asked. “This is progress. Smelly progress, but still, I haven’t been able to make more than one of anything in any batch I’ve done so far. Sure these are junk, but they’re great junk! I’ve got a much better idea what to do next time now. Could you get me the flour and sugar buckets over there.”

“You’re doing another batch right now?” Matt asked.

“I’ve been making batches for the last three hours,” Lisa said.

“Where are all the cookies from those?” Matt asked.

“They went to a good home,” Tessa said and patted her belly, which was somehow capable of holding far more food than should have been geometrically possible.

Another knock sounded on the door.

“Monsters?” Jamal asked.

“Unlikely in town,” Lisa said, exchanging her mixing spoon for one of the nearby kitchen knives.

“Let me get it,” Tessa said and was inappropriately pleased to see that Matt and Rip were both taking up the best covering positions which were available from the limited options inside the [Tea House].

Calling a few of her higher level spells as a [Void Speaker] to mind, Tessa opened the door to find another pair of familiar faces waiting for her.

“Hi Tessa!” Lady Midnight said. “We heard that Rip and Matt had made it back and guessed we’d find you here.” 

Beside her stood her Earthling counterpart in a worn medical gown.

“We figured we’d let you all know that we were back too,” Claire said. “Though I suppose this is technically my first time to be standing here.”

“I thought you two were off helping cure all the diseases on Earth?” Lisa said.

“We did,” Lady Midnight said. 

“Or, rather, we did as much as we could,” Claire said. “They got an incredible number of therapies and outright cures developed and probably advanced Earth’s medical knowledge by a thousand years or more, but with the worlds drawing apart, the [Remove Disease] class of spells began to fade too, so there was less we could contribute.”

“It sounded like with the breakthroughs that were made though they have the tools to figure things out on their own from there,” Lady Midnight said.

“So the Earth is going to become a disease free zone?” Rip asked.

“Oh, I think it’s better than that,” Tessa said. “The level of advancement you’re talking about is near Singularity level tech.”

“That’s not necessarily better,” Lisa said.

“True. Medical tech that’s sufficiently advanced that we can’t foresee what society will look like after it’s developed is probably going to be put to all kinds of terrible uses.”

“Not all kinds,” Claire said. “Intrinsic in most of the high end body modifications that are going to be possible is the ‘out clause’ that anyone it’s applied to will definitely be able to [World Walk] to one of the worlds were the technique was derived from. If they don’t like what was done to them, there should generally be the tools to reverse the effect on the origination world.”

“Do you think that will happen a lot?” Rip asked.

“Probably not. The fact that you can’t inflict a lot of the unpleasant techniques on people long term, and that even some of the bioweapon options aren’t viable, should help dissuade people from bothering to try in the first place,” Claire said.

“Also, the Earth has several hundred million less people who were at the far end of the ‘abuse and misuse power’ spectrum,” Lady Midnight said. 

“You know, even with that, I can’t say I miss the place,” Rip said. “I like this place as home much better.”

“You haven’t even gotten to see a tiny fraction of it yet either,” Lisa said. “We powered through so much of it, you didn’t get to see any of the classic places that everyone’s been to.”

“Or the new places where no one’s been,” Tessa said. “We know there were unfinished dungeons and strange corners of the world when the [World Shift] happened. With the Fallen Kingdoms rising, there have to be countless more new areas to explore. Ones where no Beta Tester has ever tread before.”

“We may very well be too high level for most of them though,” Lisa said. “Uh, hopefully I guess. We never did figure out how to break the level cap after all.”

“Well, you five will be too high level,” Claire said. “Me though? I’m just a little level 1 newbie still.”

“Same here,” Lisa said. “Well, level 10 since Tessa power leveled me a bit so I could survive the crafting backlashes with less fuss, but I’m not going to be dungeon delving without Lost Alice any time soon.”

“We’re short of party members for that anyways aren’t we?” Jamal asked, pointing to the six of them in the room.

His question was answered by another knock on the door.

“Starchild and Pete?” Tessa guessed.

“Doubt it,” Claire said. “They’re off exploring other games, looking for other members of their ‘cluster’.”

Tessa opened the door warily to find that Claire was correct, but that her own wariness was unwarranted.

“Obby? I thought you were…” Tessa searched for words to wrap around the nebulous idea that floated in her mind but came up with nothing better than, “gone?”

Obby smile and brushed away Tessa’s confusion as though it was both eminently reasonable and entirely unimportant.

“We decided to stay,” Obby said. “Since my wife here is now a mighty level 1, I was thinking I would power level her up a bit and thought I’d check in with you folks if there’s anyone else who might need the xps too?”

“You’re timing is fantastic!” Tessa said. “We were just talking about that.”

She ushered them in to the central room where everyone had gathered, the kitchen being just a trifle too cozy to seat eight people at once.

“Were you thinking we’d do a grand tour of the world?” Rip said.

“Cause that sounds pretty awesome to us,” Matt said.

Tessa pictured them setting out like she had a dozen years ago, the whole world of [Broken Horizons] fresh and new before her.

Except it wouldn’t be quite the same. The perils they faced would be largely irrelevant in the face of their level capped might and the low level characters would be relegated to the position of children strapped into safety seats in the back of the car. Free to watch the safari but forbidden to interact with most of it.

There were methods of fixing that but they all seemed inherently artificial. A level sync could be broken at whim to deal with dangerous encounters where part of the joy of fighting together was knowing that you really had to depend on each other.

When everyone was invested and working together? That was where the real magic happened.

Tessa looked down at her hands.

The hands that had worked magic so many times.

The hands that had held the power of a god.

The hands that still held so much potential.

Did she want to use that potential to make a fleeting dream come true?

Of course. 

What else was her potential meant for?

[Sky’s Edge] had been rebuilt. It wasn’t the small village it had once been though. At its heart lay a shrine to those who’d been lost to the [Oblivion Remnants]. The [Shrine of the Lost] wasn’t a simple memorial though. It was a gateway, a rift into the edge of nothing and from which, occasionally, some of the Lost were able to reemerge. 

A few who came back were simple confused, their time spent in Oblivion having passed for them in less than a blink, while others spoke of wandering in their own dreamscapes, encountering nightmares and all sorts of strange visions. Some even spoke of falling through a starry abyss to other worlds, and so the search for the Lost was expanded to include all the realms the [World Walkers] could find. 

Little by little the damage that had been done was healing, though that took as many different forms as there were people in need of restoration.

The shrine was not why Tessa had brought her party to [Sky’s Edge] though. She’d chosen it as the start of their journey partially out of nostalgia and partly because, of all the places she could have attempted what she planned to try, [Sky’s Edge] felt the most appropriate.

“I didn’t think as much changed up here as down on the planet’s surface?” Claire said when she stepped out of the new [Teleportal] that had been constructed to facilitate travel between the [High Beyond] and the rest of the world.

“It hasn’t,” Tess said. “We missed a lot of it, but we’re not here because of what’s new in the [High Beyond]. We’re here for what will be new in us.”

“And that would be what?” Rip asked.

“Depends on whether this works or not,” Tessa said, holding her hands out towards the center of the square where she’d first encounter Lisa a lifetime ago.

She glanced over to see Lisa nod in agreement and support. They hadn’t told the others about Tessa’s idea yet, mostly because neither of them wanted to get anyone’s hopes up if it proved to be impractical.

Drawing in a deep breath, Tessa closed her eyes and grasped the power that lay dormant within herself.

She’d never formed her level 99 [Void Speaker] ability and it was there, quiet and waiting to be given meaning by the name she chose for it.

Beyond herself, impossible to contain or even fully perceive, the [Risen Kingdoms] loomed up and engulfed her. She was only a tiny mote against the endlessness of eternity, so many other lives as bright her own, so that her wishes vanished in the tide of their dreams and aspirations.

There was no shout she could have screamed that would have risen above the cacophony of so many lives, her voice alone was too small to even be noticed on the scale of the world. Even the gods themselves could barely speak loud enough for their wills to be made manifest across the whole of the realm. Tessa could have cast all the untapped power she carried into that maelstrom and been as lost as a raindrop falling into the ocean.

So she didn’t scream.

She whispered.

“[Infinite Creation Portal: Path to a New Beginning].”

>> Command unrecognized.

Tessa focused her mind’s eye down to a single image and a single desire.

She wanted to be with her friends and family.

She wanted to be a part of a world she’d always loved, even when it had broken her heart.

She wanted to play.

“[Infinite Creation Portal: Path to a New Beginning]”

>> System expansion detected.

>> Planetary level permission required.

The voice that spoke those words in Tessa’s mind could have leveled mountains with a syllable. The voice that answered them though was unexpectedly gentle and kind.

“Oh, I like this idea,” the [Risen Kingdoms] said. “Permission granted.

>> New Ability [Infinite Creation Portal: Path to a New Beginning] obtained!

>> New Permanent World Feature Generated: [Portal of New Beginnings].

>> Documentation request send to [God of Knowledge] for new power description and portal user help.

>> New Global Status Update generated and transmitted to all users.

>> [High Beyond] map updated.

>> New Title Awarded: Published Game Developer 

>> New Permissions Granted: Junior Debugger

>> New Interface Installed: Level 1 Troubleshooter

>> Threat Assessment raised to Tier 7!

Tessa reeled at the barrage of system messages, which scrolled across the new and not-at-all totally-overwhelming HUD that had appeared overlaying her previously fully human vision.

“Are you okay?” Lisa asked, one hand on Tessa’s back to help her stay on her feet. “It worked!”

In front of them an oval of swirling rainbow light, bound in a band of glowing gold hung an inch off the ground and stretched up six feet high.

“It’s beautiful,” Rip said.

“What does it do?” Matt asked.

“It lets us start over again,” Tessa said. “This is like making a new alt in the game. We won’t lose anything that we are now. We can go back to our current selves, just like we can split apart or recombine with the alts that we already have. What this will let us do is play around with the other people we want to try being.”

“And it will let us experience the world like we should have the first time,” Lisa said. “Everyone growing together.”

“It’ll be a lot slower to climb back to the level cap like this,” Tessa said.

“But we’ll see a lot more of the world in the process,” Lisa said.

“And we can learn to do the things we didn’t get to try on our last mad dash to the level cap,” Tessa said.

“This time it won’t be the fate of the world riding on what we do,” Lisa said.

“It’ll just be us, going wherever the promise of loot and fun takes us,” Tessa said.

It was what Tessa’s heart had yearned for since she’d read her first fairy tale and in the eyes of her new family, she saw the same yearning burning bright enough to light all of their days to come.