Clockwork Souls – Chapter 21

“Am I a monster? Do I seem harmless to you? Am I a pillar of compassion and kindness? Do you think I am burdened by ethical or moral limits of any sort? More importantly though, do you believe I should be?”

– Xindir Harshek Doxel of the First Flame

I didn’t get to see what was summoned for the first few rounds of the second trial, but I heard what transpired all too clearly.

The first round had seen several teams knocked out of contention but relatively few deaths. The second round started off significantly bloodier.  Of the first five teams that were “invited” to enter the smoke shrouded arena, all were composed of commoners and only one emerged on their own. For the others, the proctors were required to go into the smoke and activate the banishment spells. Then the medics were required to go in and bring out what was left of the applicants.

“How are so many of them doing so poorly?” Kelthas asked, shocked at the state of the seventh and eighth bodies that the medics hauled out.

“Bad luck on what’s coming through the rifts,” Mellina said without conviction. 

If there were casters capable of opening rifts like a Reaving Storm could, it didn’t seem far fetched that they could also choose where those rifts went too, selecting worse monsters to fight the applicants they wanted to be sure washed out and easier ones for the select few who’d already purchased their passing grades. That we were likely to be on the worse end of that spectrum was something that probably wasn’t worth reminding Kelthas of.

“They’re moving the positioning on the banishment spells between each group,” Yarrin said. “The last pair that got out was lucky. They ran up one of the trees and stumbled on the spell when they were trying to get away from the monster.”

“You could see that?” I asked.

He nodded with his jaw shut tight and his eyes fixed on the arena.

Being able to magically collect information wasn’t always a fantastic ability to possess, even if it was likely to be critical in keeping you alive.

“Have they reused any of the hiding spots for the banishment spells?” I asked.

“Not yet. They keep placing the key triggers in different spots.”

“Can you describe where they are?” Mellina said. “I want to know where not to bother with if we don’t get paired up.”

Purely verbal descriptions of an area that we couldn’t directly observe weren’t necessarily helpful but it was better than nothing.

Right up until the moment when the twentieth team was called and Kelthas and Yarrin were named as its members.

“Good luck,” I said when they rose and started heading down to the arena.

“They won’t need luck. They’ve got Yarrin,” Mellina said before they were out of earshot, a sentiment which seemed to warm Yarrin a bit.

Once they had departed, I turned to her and threw a questioning look in her direction.

“They should do fine. They’re a near optimal setup for this trial,” she said.

I shook my head.

“How are you at finding hidden things?” I asked.

“I’m better at hiding, than finding,” she said. “That said, I’m better at finding than fighting Reaving Beasts.”

“Can you hide from them?”

“Yes.” No uncertainty. No hesitation. And so I believed her.

Rift beasts could possess all manner of senses, but Mellina knew that and knew her own powers. 

“We have our roles then,” I said.

“Do we? Can you handle the monsters in there on your own?”

“It’ll be easier if I can think of myself as being solo,” I said. Because then I wouldn’t need to hide so much of what I could do and what I was.

“From what Yarrin described, searching shouldn’t take long, so you shouldn’t have to hold out forever.”

“If they switch back to using one of the places he described though, I expect it’ll take a while longer.”

“I’ll call out if that’s the case,” Mellina said.

“Don’t. You’ll find it when you find it. Until then it doesn’t matter how long its taken or is going to take,” I said. “We’re going to live or die based on your success. Calling any attention to yourself is going to swing that towards dying.”

“For me. For you it might improve things.”

“It won’t.” I didn’t owe Mellina anything. We’d known each other for only a few hours. We were associates of convenience more than friends.

And yet I still wasn’t going to let anything happen to her.

It was possible I’d wired my brain up incorrectly, but I suspected my problems went deeper than that.

From the arena, massive booms shook the ground and rattled my seat.  That was worrisome.

I heard Kelthas’ yell and the sound of metal on metal. That was disturbing. Rift beasts could be anything but clad in metal armor was unusual and the sign of something outsized for the sort of foe we were capable of handling. 

Just as soon as the battle had begun it was over though.

I waited to see if the proctor’s would head in to manually trigger the banishment spells, but before they could, Kelthas and Yarrin came marching out of the smoke and were escorted to the winners area.

That was reassuring but I didn’t have long to ponder their win before Mellina and I were called as the next team.

“Just find the banishment spell,” I said as a last minute instruction to a teammate who might be forming her own plans. “I’ll keep you safe from the beasts.”

Mellina met my gaze and nodded in response.

The proctors pushed us into the smoke and I was alone.

Which meant I was free.

Except, Yarrin was able to see through the smoke.

And the proctors could see where the banishment spell triggers were hidden.

And the medics knew where the bodies were laying.

All of which meant that if I cut loose I’d be giving myself away just as Doxle had predicted I would.

So I held back.

Another touch to my nose lengthened it just enough to scale my sense of smell up to where I could make out everything in the arena. A little work on my fingers recast them as talons. I shifted a few joints for greater flexibility and strength but I knew that wasn’t likely to make much of a difference.

And I was right.

The beast that emerged from the smoke out massed me by a factor of ten and and was easily as fast as I was.

But it was a beast.


And unlike a certain disturbingly impressive daughter of the Ironbriars, not capable to casting spells to catch me by surprise with. 

Most of what occurred next happened faster than I was consciously aware of. I didn’t understand what I was doing, or why, in the moment, I just followed my instincts since that was all I had to keep myself alive with. Thinking back though, I believe things played out something like this.

The Reaving Beast they’d summoned to kill Mellina and I was the size of a rather large carriage. It was quadrupedal, with a head that looked a bit like the pictures I’d seen of male lions from Yentarum, except instead of cat’s ears it had giant sized human ones. 

It’s maw was anything but human though, with nine or ten rows of teeth, each coming to a sharp point and shining with a glass-like sheen.

I’d given myself talons, but it’s toes ended in claws that put mine to shame. 

I got to see those up close as it leapt and made a swipe intended to take off the front of my face. I responded to that, I think, by diving forward and rolling under the beast. 

It cut its leap short, but not before I grabbed onto its left rear leg and swung myself around and up onto its back.

It wasn’t a great place to be.

Before I could let go of my grip, the beast tossed itself backwards, intending to slam me onto the ground and crush me with its sheer weight.

Since I was a fan of my ribcage and the organs within it, I opted to pass on being squish and kicked off, slamming into the ground without a giant beast crushing me.

Of the two of us, I was the faster getting back to my feet, but it didn’t present any solutions to my problems.

I could run, but there was no chance I was faster than the Reaving Beast.

I could start slashing away, but it was going to take me a lot more cuts to disable the beast than the beast would require to disable me.

My only real choice was to play for time, but even that didn’t present great odds.

The Reaving Beast had none of those concerns. The moment it was back on its feet it howled in rage and hunger.

And kept howling.

I snapped back into conscious thought processing there.

It wasn’t speaking a language I knew.

But I could smell pain and panic spilling from it in broken, stuttering waves.

I listened to its howl.

I watched how it coiled up and readied itself for another attack.

It wasn’t enraged.

I let my fight or flight response go.

This wasn’t a fight. It wasn’t a battle to death, or a terrible monster being fed a pair of innocent victims.

The creature I was looking at was the victim and it was terrified.

I shifted. I didn’t care who saw me. This was more important than keeping some vague secrets.

I didn’t spend a lot of time on my new form. Just enough to have the right external body shape and movement patterns.

Then I bowed to the Reaving Beast.

Or rather to the Felnarellian. In mirroring the beast I learned quite a bit about it, including how to communicate with it.

I’m sorry. You’ve been stolen away from your home. You and I are not enemies, and I will not hurt you. I said with the swishing of my tail, the lowering of my head and the extension of my forward paws. 

This hurts. It is death to be here. I want to leave. I want to go home. Cathoas, the Felnarellian, said, speaking with the set of his muscles and the low rumble in his chest.

Yes. I will help, I said. Can you smell home still?

No! It didn’t come as a sound but it was a wail of despair nonetheless.

May I scent you? I asked.

He shied back at that, but bowed to me in agreement after a moment of consideration.

I approached him slowly, sniffing the air as I went, searching for the aromas that were his native ones and not the twisting foulness the rift had left on him.

We were nose to nose by the time I finally caught hold of the scents I was looking for and he was taut with apprehension.

I nodded to him, the Felnarellion equivalent of a smile and stood to sniff the air around us.

“Over here,” I said and turned my back on him.

He didn’t jump on me and kill me.

Which was nice. That let us get back to the rift he’d been pulled through with a minimal amount of fuss.

This is the path back home, I said.

I can’t smell…oh there is it, Carthoas said. But it will hurt. The edges tore at me before.

He wasn’t wrong. The rift was not a smooth tunnel. It was a crawlspace through razor blades.

It will again, I said. 

I couldn’t fix that for him.

But I could make it better.

Knowing that it was going to be a miserable experience didn’t lessen the fact that when I grabbed onto the edge of the rift and began tearing it further open I felt like I’d dunked my hands in lava. The pain was bad enough that I had to give up before I got it as wide as I wanted it to be, but it was at least a space Carthoas could walk down rather than crawl through.

Thank you, he said at the edge of the rift, before turning and daring the path back home.

He didn’t need to thank me. I knew exactly what he was feeling and I remember wanting more than anything for someone to save me from it.

I’d been lucky enough to find that someone and I owed it to her memory to do the same.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 20

“If you’ve ever wondered at the Empire’s callousness in the face of the various institutional cruelties enshrined in so many of its functions, it is important to remember that each horrible practice is not an intrinsic part of our reality. They are, one and all, choices. Choices which were made before you were born, choices which are still being made today, and choices which will persist on and on until and unless someone chooses otherwise.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

I’d been right that Kelthas could summon armor, but that had been easy to guess. What I’d missed was that the armor his magic called to him was Tantarian Battle Scourger Mail.

“Glad he blew up the flag,” the soldier I had in a headlock said.

“Couldn’t have blown us up with his girlfriend here with us,” a soldier I’d lightly stabbed said.

“You’ve never seen these Elites really fight have you?” a third soldier said. “Surprised he didn’t blow us all up on principal.

Which was not the most encouraging thing to hear at that moment.

“We done?” I asked, not letting the soldier I had grappled move just yet.

“Yeah, you’re good kid. Congrats on passing this round,” their sergeant said.

That dropped the odds they were going to keep attacking me enough that I let go of the guy I was holding and handed the weapons back to the soldiers I’d taken them from. The few that I’d injured shuffled off the field and were replaced with fresh bodies as I walked back to the stands and rejoined the rest of my small team.

By the time I got there another match was already underway and the crowd’s attention was focused on that. Kelthas had reverted to his unarmored form, and was following the once-again-visible Mellina and Yarrin.

“That seemed easy,” I said after we sat down.

“It wouldn’t have been if they kept shooting at us,” Kelthas said. “I need a good amount of time to charge up that attack, and my armor only protects me.”

“Our skills aligned well for the task,” Mellina said. “Even with orders to eliminate Yarrin, they weren’t setup with the engagement or the tools needed to deal with us.”

“You can see what happens when they are,” Yarrin said gesturing our attention back to the arena. 

The team who followed us had tried to replicate my maneuver. Like me they’d avoided a fair portion of the initial gunfire. Also like me they hadn’t avoided it all. That was where the similarities ended. Of the three, two were down and trying to crawl to cover while the third was struggling forward and his hands and knees, building up a swirl of fire in his hands.

One of the soldiers hopped easily out of their trench and booted the poor fool in the head. The fire sputtered out and the applicant dropped to the ground like a dishrag.

It was an ignominious end to their trial, but given that the soldiers could have simply shot them again there was as least a spark of mercy present.

“Will you be in danger in the second trial too?” I asked Yarrin, the rest of the trial candidates holding no interest for me.

“The second trial should be more fair,” he said. “The Reaving Beasts they call are fairly random and not exactly interested in bribes.”

“Couldn’t they sic bigger ones on you though?” I asked.

“Yeah, but they can only make the rifts so large or they run the risk of something really dangerous coming through,” Yarrin said.

“Wait, they summon the Reaving Beasts here?” I asked. From what I knew, that wasn’t possible, but from the certainty in Yarrin’s eyes I was pretty sure that what I knew was fundamentally wrong.

“Well, yes. Where did you think they got the monsters from?” Yarrin asked.

“I thought this is what they usually did with the Beasts they captured when they were cleaning up the Reaving Storms,” I said.

“They don’t capture the monster that are brought over by Reaving Storms,” Mellina said. “They kill those.”

“Not all the time,” Kelthas said. “There’s a circus that comes through my town every summer with all kinds of Reaving Beasts in cages.”

“Those aren’t real Reaving Beasts,” Mellina said. “Those are creatures from outside the Empire or regular creatures with things glued onto them. Real Reaving Beasts are too dangerous to keep around. They’re closer to living spells than natural creatures and they breed Reaving Storms just by existing if they’re kept around too long.”

She was wrong but not about what people familiar with Reaving Beasts probably understood or expected to be true.

“I thought magic that broke the Soul Kindled Wards was forbidden?” I said, glancing between Mellina and Yarrin since they seemed to know more about what was coming than Kelthas or I.

“There’s forbidden and then there’s Forbidden,” Yarrin said. “If we pass these trials we’ll probably learn more than a few ‘forbidden’ spells.”

“That makes sense,” Kelthas said.”We’d need to understand the spells that can cause problems if we’re supposed to stop the people who are casting them.”

Mellina and Yarrin shared a glance. That was absolutely not the reason we would be learning forbidden spells. Kelthas didn’t seem ready to process that though so I stayed silent.

That might have been one of the times when silence was a mistake.

The remainder of the first round continued but I missed most of the other matches, being absorbed in thoughts of what the Great Houses willingly invoking Reaving Storms might mean. I didn’t like where any of those thoughts led me, but I couldn’t ignore them either.

My attention was pulled away from the dark tides swirling inside me by someone I should have been paying more attention for. 

Idrina Ironbriar and her brother were in one of the last groups to be put through the first Trial. The two people they were with strolled onto the field, laughing like it was a drunken outing rather than a deadly contest. Idrina’s brother on the other hand walked calmly, taking it seriously but without any hint of nerves slowing the flow of his gait. 

As for Idrina? There was no mirth in her. She marched out to their assigned spot, unafraid and unexcited. I looked for any sign that she might be concerned about the Trial but all I saw in her was poise and focus.

I glanced over at the Imperial Regulars. ‘Random chance’ had put them between the applicants and the flag, which was surprising. Ironbriar was definitely powerful enough to buy an easy placement for Idrina and the others. 

The question was would she have let them? I couldn’t claim to know her at all, but I still knew the answer was ‘no’.

The whistle sounded and the match was done before its echo faded.

The rest of the applicants didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the matches but what I’d witnessed left a cold pit where my stomach had previously been.

“She was holding back,” I said to no one. Or maybe to my past self? It didn’t matter, I couldn’t speak across time, and it changed neither the outcome of the battle I’d had with her or the trial she’d just completed.

She hadn’t called a spear this time.

She’d called six of them.

In the blink of an eye she’d lunged past the Regulars, reached the flag, sliced through its pole, and slashed it to pieces with a barrage of spears leaving the remnants of it fluttering in the wind.

She hadn’t been that fast when we fought.

And she hadn’t summoned such an overwhelming offense either.

And from how she was leaving the field, I was convinced that she’d been holding back for the Trial too.

Our next fight was not going to be fun.

“She’s an unusual one,” Mellina said, curiosity flickering in her eyes. “The Ironbriar’s aren’t known for fighting their own battles anymore.”

“She seemed quite ready for this battle,” Kelthas said.

“I wonder if that was why the two others with her were so unconcerned?” I asked, not expecting an answer.

“Probably. It’s a common complaint about this test,” Yarrin said. “Some people get through just because they have a strong team.”

“And other fail because their team is weak,” Mellina said. “We’ve seen both today.”

“They’ll start correcting for that with the next test, right?” Kelthas said.

“Yeah, we’ll be split into pairs for that one,” Yarrin said.

“What will the objectives be? Beyond survival I mean,” I asked.

“They change things up from year to year, but the general theme is banishing the monsters,” Mellina said.

“And if we haven’t been taught how to do that yet?” I asked, trying to decide if I needed to murder Doxle for sending me into this without giving me a clue how to pass it.

“Oh they always have banishing spells setup in the arena before you go in,” Kelthas said. “And they’ll tell you how to work them. You just need to manage it without the monster eating you.”

“People sometimes try to kill the monster too,” Mellina said. “Occasionally it even works.”

“Will they let us pick our partners?” I asked, trying to decide if I should be the one to go with Yarrin, or if one of the others would be a better fit for him.

“Officially no,” Yarrin said.

“Which means the weak and wealthy candidates will be paired with people who are strong enough to win the trial all on their own,” Mellina said.

“How does that help them?” Kelthas asked. “If they can’t handle this trial, won’t they just wash out in the third round instead of the first or second?”

Mellina didn’t laugh in his face, but the smile she wore bore a similar intent.

“They’re not taking these trials,” Yarrin said. “Not really. They’ll go through them all but they’re here for the prestige and the authority that comes with the position. They’re allowed through with only the pretense of being tested because it’s their money that funds Academy.”

“Or because their parents are friends with someone on the Academy’s board,” Mellina said. “Most things like this aren’t a case of direct bribery. If it was, common people could save up and manage it too.”

“But they’d be a liability to whatever force they were assigned to?” Kelthas asked, the idea of gross incompetence being common place among the elites of the world apparently too painful of a concept for him to swallow.

The first round of the Trials ended and the next began without any great fanfare. If your team passed the trial you were still in the arena. If not, you were limping away, in the infirmary, or being prepared for burial. 

To be fair though, the dead numbered far fewer than I’d expected among the number of failures. The Regulars had to have been taking some care with their attacks to leave as many alive as they did, though even careful shots were sometimes fatal, no matter then intention behind them.

The second round of Trials began with one of the proctors venturing into the center of the arena and casting a spell. It took him almost ten minutes to complete it and he spent the entire time reciting verses from a language native to some other world. He drew sigils in the dirt as well but his words erased them over and over again.

I could feel the power of the spell building and I could smell the hundred different scents it evoked. The proctor wasn’t casting the spell alone. He was merely acting as its focal point.

When the crafting was finally completed a dark cloud bubbled up from where the caster was standing. It rose until it filled the area to a depth of at least ten feet and from the scents I was picking up from it carried the magics from a dozen different realms.

Then I smelled the worst odor I’d ever encountered.

The first one I’d ever smelled in this world.

I fought back a wretch, and willed myself to see through the fog, trying to find the rift that I knew was open. But eyes don’t work like that.

Or at least mine didn’t.

“They’re hiding the activation points for the banishing spells,” Yarrin said. “I can help with this one.”

“How?” Kelthas asked.

“I can see where they all are,” Yarrin said.

“You should go with Kelthas if you can,” Mellina said. “Tantarian Mail dulls the senses, doesn’t it?”

“A little bit,” Kelthas said. “Will you two be okay?”

“Depends on what they summon for us,” I said. I could have tried to be reassuring, but we all would have known it was a lie.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 19

“The key to a successful team? Don’t have me on it. Or anyone like me. Or really anyone at all. Yes. That is definitely it. The key to a successful team is to limit its membership. If there’s anyone else on the team beside yourself, then I’m afraid at the most critical moment of your grand enterprise, someone will reveal themselves to be a turncoat, someone else will crumble under the pressure and, for the rest, general panic and mayhem will ensue. The only hope of avoiding a complete catastrophe is to do it all yourself.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, three sheets to the wind with a liver in full mutiny against the abuse it had suffered.

It wasn’t just the smell of blood that drenched the arena. All the myriad aromas of death were present. 

But that didn’t make sense.

We’d only just been allowed in and from how the crowd was moving, no one was plucking random bodies out of it to be slaughtered indiscriminately.

But the scents were fresh.

The arena, and I was being charitable calling it that, wasn’t a permanent structure. The beams of the walls had been cut no more than a week ago, and the joins between them were made for easy disassembly. It hadn’t been the site of countless battles before this. 

I racked my brain to think of why it smelled like an abattoir and was still struggling to figure it out when we exited from behind the stands to see the fighting pit. It wasn’t as large as I’d imagined it to be. Maybe a hundred feet long by fifty feet wide and filled with rocks and trees and a surprising amount of ground clutter.

Basically inconvenient for me to the greatest extent that it could be.

Larger and I’d have been able to play Hide and Shred. Smaller and I could have skipped straight to the “Shred” part of that equation. A flat and open arena would have meant no obstacles to closing the distance with our attackers. The broken and cluttered terrain meant a charge or any other effort to close to melee range would be delayed significantly. If they offered us our choice of weapons like Doxle had I could select a ranged option, but since I hadn’t trained with them I had to imagine my performance would be substandard at best.

“That’s not a good sign, is it?” Yarrin said, pointing back into the arena as we climbed the stairs up to the fourth row of the stands.

I glanced where he was pointing and noticed at last where the smell of death was coming from.

The many splashes of blood which were splattered over the arena at chaotic intervals.

“Looks like some of the late applicants survived though,” Kelthas said, nodding towards the opposite side of the arena and a group of young people who were standing slightly apart from the crowds which were still filing in.

“Late applicants?” I asked, noticing the haunted, yet grimly determined expressions the odd group all wore.

“A lot of people can’t afford the application fee,” Mellina said. “They have the option of showing up here and being ‘processed’ before the trials begin.”

“And the processing has an unreasonably high mortality rate?” I asked, not needing to guess much on that point.

“The late application exam is supposed to be more challenging but it’s not supposed to be more dangerous than the rest of the trials,” Kelthas said.

“That’s the official story,” Mellina said. “In practice it varies year to year. This year we have a bumper crop of applicants, so…”

So the numbers need to be thinned.

It didn’t make sense to me. How did the Empire benefit from killing off any caster? Non-fatal tests to determine aptitude would leave them with so many people who could contribute to all the easier yet still vital tasks required to maintain the Empire’s basic existence, like recasting the Soul Kindled Wards that protected us from the Reaving Storms. Those broke far too often and the excuse was always the same, ‘there are only so many Imperial casters to go around and they are stretched very thin.”

We took our seats in time to see the first group of applicants take the field. 

“That’s Nelphas Lightstone’s group,” Yarrin said. “They’re guaranteed to make it in.”

Because High Lightstone was the strongest of the Great Houses and could afford to purchase safety for their scions? Greyfall wasn’t a weak house either though and somehow Yarrin didn’t rate that expenditure.

When the opposing forces from the Imperial Regular Army took the field there was only the barest pretension that the trial was meant to be anything like an actual fight.

The starting positions were assigned ‘randomly’ the proctor explained, and the objective was simple; destroy the enemy’s flag.

For the battle the flag of Zamashash, the Empire’s age old enemy to the east, was flown from a ten foot tall pole in the center of the arena. Lightstone’s forces were deployed twenty feet from the flag while the Regulars were stationed fifty feet back at the edge of the arena.

A whistle was blown and the Regulars charged forward. No run, however valiant, could have prevented Nelphas from casting a bolt of corrosive poison he tossed at the flag, which proceeded to melt it, pole and all, into a runny sludge.

The whole “fight” took five seconds, if that, and yet the crowd still erupted in cheers when Nelphas called out “Ever the Empire’s Enemies Fall!”

With their victory secured, Nelphas and his team were ushered to the quarter of the arena which had been kept empty when the crowd was brought in.

“That’s not much space for winners,” Yarrin said.

I met his gaze and nodded. It was possible the proctors would reuse space as it was cleared, or they might intend to eliminate two thirds of us in the first trial. Of those two possibilities, I knew which one I felt safer placing money on.

The next five groups were also scions of the Great Houses and while the positioning of the teams and the new flags did change somewhat, the overall positioning remained largely the same. The applicants had a clear advantage over the Regulars, and what advantages the Regulars did possess they never pressed into service.

“Darrowwood,” the proctor called out, bringing the next team forward.

“I don’t know them,” Yarrin said.

Because they weren’t associated with one of the Great Houses.

Which was also why the random placement of the flag wasn’t quite so favorable towards them. Instead of it being closer to the applicants than the Regulars, ‘purely random chance’ had placed the flag at the far end of the arena with the Regulars between it and the team of doomed young people..

When the whistle blew, the Regulars didn’t charge. They didn’t have to. They simply took up their regulation Imperial rifles from where the guns had been laying on the ground and commenced firing immediately.

Darrowwood’s team had three members in it before the whistle blew. That dropped to one before the whistle’s echo faded. The two kids Darrowwood had brought with him were down, not dead yet but grievously injured. 

Darrowwood made a valiant stand in front of them conjuring sheets of ice to act as cover as he turned and dragged his two teammates behind one of the rock outcroppings they’re been positioned near. The move would have protected them from further fire, except in the time it took him to drag them to safety, two of the Regulars crossed the distance to the ice wall, scaled it and shot him from the top.

The three were still alive when the medical crew gurneyed them off the field, but I had to wonder how much attention they were going to receive.

“The medics will stabilize them and pass the bill onto their families or sponsors,” Yarrin said without my needing to ask.

“That’s not going to be easy for them to pay back,” Kelthas said, looking more grave than he had when the victories look like they would all be easy ones.

“If they shoot me, don’t waste time trying to save me,” Yarrin said. “Just keep yourselves alive, and burn that stupid flag.”

“They’re not going to shoot you,” Kelthas said. “They’re going to shoot me.”

“I’m pretty sure they’ll have orders contrary to that,” Yarrin said. “Or at least to shoot me first.”

“Good,” I said. “Let’s use that.”

“No!” Kelthas said. “We’re not letting them shoot Yarrin so we can win.”

“Of course not,” I said. Why would anyone think that? Yarrin was flimsy. “If they have orders to shoot him though, that makes them predictable.”

“I’m confused,” Kelthas said.

“I’m not,” Mellina said. “We can definitely use their focus on Yarrin. I’ll handle him. Can you two take care of the flag?”

“I can take care of the soldiers,” I said.

“Fighting them is a bad idea,” Kelthas said. “They’re used to battle.”

I wasn’t, but they weren’t using magic so the number of tricks they could pull was manageable.

“You’ll need an opening to get to the flag,” I said. “I’ll make one for you. Destroy it quick though. They’re using basic tactics. We don’t want to give them time to switch to something complex.”

The next team up was noble led and the Regulars gave them more of a challenge than the others. Two of the four sustained disabling but non-life threatening injuries, while the other two lost a little blood but pulled through to win despite the ‘heroic effort’ required.

The following team was low born and five strong. They were good casters, managing to jam or shatter the Regular’s rifles and force the soldiers into melee where they held their own for almost a minute.

The soldiers superior coordination and stamina paid off though and as the team of applicants was forced back to the edge of the arena, their leader offered their surrender.

Surrendering disqualified them from progressing but the soldiers weren’t forced to carve them up, so in a sense it was a victory for everyone.

“Greyfall” one of the proctor’s called and we were up.

Despite Yarrin being affiliated with one of the theoretically most powerful Great Houses, the random placement for our positions came up in line with what the low born applicants had been given.

“Find cover before the whistle blows,” I said. It should have been safe to assume that’s what people would do, but after watching all the teams before us I’d come to the conclusion that safe assumptions were anything but.

We were eighty feet away from the flag with the Regulars only thirty feet from us when we got to our starting position. 

I gave the area another scan, taking in the shallow trench that was just behind us, the mid-height tree stump to our left and the shrubs on our right. The Regulars were standing in another small trench, slightly deeper than the one we could fall back to. The ground sloped up towards them so they enjoyed a small height advantage but it wasn’t going to matter.

The whistle blew and several things happened in the same instant.

Shots rang out, as they always did, so no surprise there.

The ricochet sound however was new. I didn’t waste time turning to see what had happened, but I had a strong guess that Kelthas’ magic allowed him to summon armor like Idrina could summon weapons. He’d jumped in front of Yarrin as a shield and would likely be able to protect the smaller boy until the Regulars swarmed us and flanked around him.

Except the Regulars weren’t going to do that.

There was no point swarming forward to take out the target they’d been paid to kill when he wasn’t there anymore. I knew that because Mellina understood me, and I knew what she could do.

Also, the Regulars lost interest in shooting at Yarrin becuase there was a person running at them on all fours, her body stretching out exactly as human bodies are not supposed to.

It didn’t take them long to choose me as their target but Imperial rifles don’t have the fastest rate of fire and their accuracy against targets running in a fast zigzag pattern wasn’t the best.

Some of them still hit me, but it wasn’t like they or anyone else could tell that for sure.

All they saw was something that had left humanity behind twenty feet ago, was focused only on them, and wasn’t stopping.

They didn’t panic, or at least they didn’t break ranks. They did however fail to switch to their melee weapons fast enough.

That was fine with me. I was more than happy to draw a sword from the nearest one and a knife from his neighbor.

I didn’t stab anything vital, in part because I’d seen them gracefully accept the last groups surrender, and in part because they served as better meat shield alive than dead.

I was wondering how long that particular equation would remain true when a dull explosion came from a spot fifty feet away.

I dragged the soldier I had in a headlock back but stopped stabbing at the others as we all looked to confirm that, yes, Kelthas had used the window of opportunity I’d bought him to blow up the flag.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 18

“In my role as an Advisor, people have asked if it is it not the duty of an adult to provide boundaries and structure to the younglings who are placed in their care. Generally they are red-faced and screaming and phrase the question somewhat less coherently than that, but the overall philosophical point is common no matter the rage they’ve been provoked to. In response I have been uncharacteristically consistent in my answer.


Younglings must be free to explore the boundaries of their world.

Even if they occasionally fall over the edge.

That is the joy of being young and the terror of adulthood.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

I’d expected the staging ground for the Arena of Trials to contain the best and brightest of this year’s casters, and in that I was badly mistaken.

It didn’t contain the best and brightest.

It contained all of them.

The gifted, and the clueless. The confident and the weeping. All in a fairly narrow band of ages from probably just a little too young to properly enroll, to old enough that they should have applied last year.

In theory that meant the entire mob were adults, but any honest observer would have seen nothing but a sea of children being massed together for a slaughter.

Or at least that was my initial impression.

It turned out things were dire but not quite as bad as I’d first imagined.

Of the several hundred applicants assembled more than three quarters were not applying for the Elite Cadet program. Instead they were taking the tests for admittance to the “Common Tier” and, as a result, those wise souls were not going to be facing a trial of mortal combat as part of their entrance exam. They were also more or less guaranteed to remain lower valued soldiers in the Imperial forces for the entirety of their career. To my mind that was the vastly smarter choice and, had I a chance of passing the tests involved, one I would have jumped at. Doxle was right though. I lacked both the education and magical aptitude to gain entrance to the Academy through that route.

Mellina and I were ushered over to the side of the mob that was being processed for the Elite Cadet trials, with Doxle trailing helpfully behind us. I’d expected Holman to rejoin him for Mellina’s sake but he had apparently drawn the short straw for shepherding both of us.

“I don’t think we’ll get to pick our teams, but if we remain close together the proctors may take the easy option and group us accordingly,” Mellina said, moving close but not touching me. “If you want that, that is?”

“Yes,” I said, because I’d be an idiot to let someone who could turn invisible wind up another team. Also, she wasn’t horrible. And she smelled nice. “We should look for anyone else who seems competent but doesn’t have a team.”

As ‘brilliant plans’ went it was neither brilliant nor much of a plan, but Mellina nodded and began casting her gaze around. Since she was slightly taller than I was, she could, in theory, see farther. In practice there were enough people who towered over each of us that our options were pretty limited.

Scent however doesn’t differentiate by height.

I reached up to scratch the side of my nose to cover a few adjustments I needed to make to it and then breathed in slow and deep.

It was a good thing I’d been to cities with Grammy reasonably often when I was growing up. The scent of a few hundred young adults hit me like a sledgehammer of stink. I’d run through choking gasses in a necromantic swap that didn’t smell as bad as the only barely enclosed area I was in, but I’d known that would be the case.

Fighting to keep Pastries’ wonderful breakfast down in my stomach where it belonged, I tried to sort through the ‘aromas’ clouding the air.

Lots of fear, lots of hope, and lots of false bravado. None of that was a surprise. The scent of a calm breath however?

“Over here,” I said and took Mellina’s hand so we wouldn’t get separated in the crowd. I didn’t bother with Doxle since he seemed to be fairly adept at moving through crowds on his own.

The calm breaths turned out to belong to a sandy haired boy in a drab tunic and pants who was sitting down with a smaller boy in nicer clothes who was much less put together.

“It’s not too late to switch,” the sandy haired boy said, his eyes closed as he continued to breathe in and out slowly.

“If I don’t get in to the Elites, I don’t get to go home,” the smaller boy said. He was sitting facing the other boy, also with his eyes closed but while he was trying to mimic the slow and calm breathing the sandy haired boy was demonstrating, his efforts weren’t yielding the same results.

“If you die, they’ll send you home in a box,” I said, sitting down beside them.

Yes, I know that wasn’t the best thing I could have said. If I waited until I could think of the best thing to say though, I wouldn’t have said anything. 

Which is why I’m usually silent.

The smaller boy gave a rueful laugh at my intrusion. “That seems to be the plan.”

“Push that thinking away,” sandy haired boy said. “You’ve got to picture yourself winning if you’re going to make it.”

“It’s not easy,” the smaller boy said.

“Why?” I asked, wondering if he had some magical ineptitude which placed him below the other candidates around us.

“Because I know what’s waiting for us in the trials,” the smaller boy said.

“You saw the monster they captured for the second wave?” Mellina asked. She hadn’t been invisible but the two boys hadn’t noticed her until she spoke.

That was interesting information to have.

“The monsters aren’t the problem,” the smaller boy said. “Or, they are, but every class faces them. It’s the seniors who’ll be taking part in the third trial. They’re what I’m worried about.”

“What’s different about this class of seniors?” Mellina asked. 

“I know some of them,” the smaller boy said.

“Will they be watching for you?” I asked, remembering Doxle mentioning that the casualties of the trials tended to include the offspring of the Great Houses when another House was upset at them.

“I haven’t done anything to them, but, yeah, I think they will be,” the smaller boy said.

“To disqualify, maim, or kill?” I asked.

“With a candidate pool this large?” the smaller boy asked in return and I saw his point.

“Disqualification would work just as well as anything to cut down the number of applicants,” the sandy haired boy said.

“Yeah, it would,” the smaller boy said, nodding though he didn’t smell like he agreed with that sentiment at all.

“What about you?” I asked, turning to the sandy haired boy.

“I’m no one important,” he said. “My Dad is a tailor and my Mom owns a Tack shop in Mist River.”

“Why come here then?” I asked.

“I was saved by from a Reaving Storm by an Elite Guardsman when I was kid. I always wanted to follow in her footsteps after that. How about you?”

“I think someone I know is in the Imperial Academy. I want to see if I can find her,” I said, leaving out the part where Trina had been dead for more than decade.

“You should just ask one of the guards,” the smaller boy said. “It’d be a lot safer than this.”

“I know.” But asking a gate guard at the Academy ‘hello, have you seen my dead sister walking around in here?’ wasn’t going to get me the answers I needed.

The smaller boy stared at me for a moment and then nodded. I don’t know what he saw but it left him feeling charitable.

“If you have to go through with this, you should get away from me,” he said. “All of you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for your help,” that was directed to the sandy haired boy, “but if the wrong people see you with me, you’ll be in a lot more danger than if you’re just on your own.”

He wasn’t wrong. If we were linked with him, his enemies would become our enemies. I weighed the peril that would put us in and didn’t like the results.

“You should team up with us,” I said.

What I didn’t like was that alone, the small boy was going to die. It wasn’t my job to protect him, I just hated how the Trials were setup and wanted to break this especially awful part of them.

Also, he hadn’t freaked out when I sat down and started talking.

“Us?” the sandy haired boy asked.

“Mellina and I. You should join us too.”

“I don’t think we get to pick who we’re teamed with,” the sandy haired boy said.

“Then why are so many other groups of three and four already forming up?” Mellina asked, gesturing towards the crowd around with a nod.

The boys looked surprised and, to be fair, I hadn’t noticed it either. 

From the area near the entrance to the Arena a commotion kicked off but the upsurge of voices in the crowd made it impossible to hear what was being said. I looked around for Doxle, thinking he should be familiar with whatever the next steps were but, of course, he was nowhere in sight.

In fact no actual adults were. When the crowd started flowing in the direction of the arena I was able to guess the reason; the Trials were starting and it was time for the applicants to be led to their doom.

We were at one of the edges of the mob and progress into the arena was about as far from swift and orderly as it was possible to get but we stood anyways and began shambling forward like the mindless flesh automatons we were being treated as.

“I’m staying with you,” Mellina said and I caught a flicker of sincerity in the bare trace of honey and woodfire scent that I could make out.

I turned my head and nodded, adding in a probably unnecessary “Thanks.” She knew I was grateful for her presence. I think.

“Kelthas,” the sandy haired boy said, jostling close to make sure the crowd didn’t push us apart.

“Yarrin,” the smaller boy said. It was easier for him to stay with us since he took up less space. That would stay true until someone bigger decided they wanted his space at which point we’d lose sight of him in an instant. I cast another glance at Mellina and replied with a quick nod of understanding before taking up a position just behind Yarrin.

“Kati,” I said.

I wasn’t sure if Mellina’s idea would work, or if we’d be able to have a team size of four. The front of the line was maddeningly hard to see and more than once I was tempted to climb a particularly tall girl in front of me like a tree to get a better view. Fortunately for her sake, and my dignity, the crowd’s pace gradually picked up and before I went completely out of my mind the entrance gate was in sight.

A moment’s observation as we drew close to it revealed that teams were being assigned by the proctors who were directing the flow of applicants into the arena. There might have been more bored and disinterested people in the Empire, but if so the man and woman at the gate were giving them a solid run for the prize spot.

“Three, I need the next three,” one of the proctors said when it was our turn to at the front. I looked to see if the group behind us was a three or four person one but before I could do a headcount I felt an unseen hand nudge me forward.

So I walked forward.

When you’re working with an invisible partner, not drawing attention to their presence is more or less the best strategy at all times.

“Ranking member of your team?” the proctor asked. I was going to answer that, as weird as it would have felt, but Yarrin stepped forward. 

“Greyfall,” Yarrin said, placing him as a scion of one of the five most powerful Houses.

The proctor checked his list, snorted, and handed Yarrin a a brass coin from the pile of brass, silver, and gold on the desk between them. After waving Yarrin through, he gave a similar coin to Kelthas and me and passed us on too.

I was watching for it and still almost missed an unattended brass coin vanishing from the stack.

My smile of satisfaction faltered a moment later though when we entered the arena proper and I was able to smell all of the blood in the air.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 17

“When evaluating my opponents in any grand competition I always remember to ask myself one question; are any of them me? Since none of them ever are, I know I have nothing to be concerned about and that allows me to relax and simply have fun with the endeavor. Oh, what if you’re not me? Oh, well then I would pay as close attention to them as I could. Some of them might be able to pose you some real trouble.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

The Imperial Academy was awash in people when we rolled up to it. The crowd was dense enough that not everyone turned to stare at the carriage of rolling magic or the two madmen who were fighting for the reigns as it careened to stop in front of the makeshift entrance which had been assembled outside the Academy’s actual grounds.

“Would you go first?” Mellina asked. “This isn’t the sort of entrance I prefer to make.”

I wasn’t sure where she’d gotten the idea that I was any different in that regards but where I wasn’t looking for the eyes of the masses to be on me, her unease smelled like the idea made her feel mildly ill.

Given that we’d be shortly fighting in front of the same crowd that was gathered around the carriage and then some, stage fright didn’t seem like an ideal condition to be fighting as well. Since it wouldn’t cost me anything to buy her a temporary reprieve, I nodded and stepped out when Holman opened the door.

I was greeted with neither cheers nor boos. People watched me climb out of a glittering construct of ancient dweomer crafting and their reaction was, in stages, puzzlement, observation, and finally disinterest. Those answered the critical questions of of “Was there anyone important due to show up”, “Was I someone they should know”, and “Did I look like someone who could be useful to them”. Since the answers were “no”, “no”, and “no”, people mostly return to whatever had been holding their interest before we arrived.

I wondered if Mellina would draw more attention, but when I turned she wasn’t behind me or in the carriage anymore. I wasn’t sure how that had happened since I’d only moved a few steps away from the carriage door before checking for her.

The scent of honey and woodfire washed over me as though she’d walked past but I definitely hadn’t seen her pass by.

Had she been taken away?


Were the trials already starting?

I froze up for a moment, senses shifting to high alert but the first thing they told me was the Holman was already moving away and he wasn’t any more concerned than he’d been when we first met. He was also following what seemed to be Mellina’s trail, which, ok it was surprising that Mellinda had been able to get by me, but if someone was going to know how she normally acted, her uncle seemed like a reasonable candidate.

“Let’s get you checked in,” Doxle said. He didn’t appear at my elbow. I knew he was somewhere in that vicinity but he was a lot closer when he spoke than I’d expected him to be.

I suppressed a growl. 

It wasn’t that everyone was suddenly gifted with invisibility. It was the crowd. They were throwing me off. I was familiar with the effect. I’d run into it every time Grammy and I went to the city. I’d run into it to a lesser degree walking through Middlerun with Doxle. Somehow it was always surprising though. It might have been a mental block of some sort, but I think the answer was much simpler.

I’m not built for crowds.

And I was going to be fighting in front of one fairly soon.

Maybe Mellina wasn’t the one I needed to worry about.

I was pondering that as Doxle led me over to the gated entrance to the area outside the Academy’s heavy stone walls. There was a “Closed” sign hanging on a rope which barred the tunnel leading into the wooden walled fighting arena. At the desk beside the barrier rope, there were a pair of guards sitting with their noses buried in a ledger they were taking turns writing in. None of that seemed good to me, but Doxle strolled up to them without a care in the world.

“Good morning gentlemen, I see you have the list of this year’s registrants at hand. That is quite fortuitous as there is one more name you will need to add to the rolls.” He gestured to me, but the gesture was wasted since neither of the guards looked up.

“Registration’s closed for the low born,” said the guard who smelled of rage sweat.

“How unfortunate for them,” Doxle said. “My Lady Kati however comes bearing the certification of the Most Honorable Intercessor Holman Astrologia.”

“Yeah, sure she…” The guard who smelled of razor burns and frustration started to speak before he looked up. He made the mistake of throwing a glance towards Doxle before he finished however and that more or less killed his ability to speak.

His partner noticed that and looked up as well, to see the two of us waiting there. I was annoyed but that wasn’t what phased them. I’m pretty sure they didn’t even notice me in fact. Doxle’s smile, and probably the fiery glow of his eyes, were more than enough to capture the entirety of their attention.

“Uhhh,” Razor Burns stammered out.

“Can…can we see the certificate?” Rage Sweat, who’d entirely lost the lingering aroma of rage, asked.

“Most certainly,” Doxle said, producing an envelope with a flick of his wrist. 

I didn’t smell any ash or lighting, which could have been a sign that it was such a minor bit of magic that he’d held perfect control over it. Sniffing again though I was pretty sure the effect had been one of pure sleight of hand.

I wasn’t sure why a demon would have ever learned a mundane skill like that but then I thought of the cuffs the city guards had used to dampen my magics down. Were there ones that worked on Imperial Advisors too? I would have to ask Doxle how talented he was with non-magical lockpicking. That seemed like useful skill to have too.

“Everything seems to be in order Lord Imperial Advisor sir,” Rage Sweat said.

“That’s a shame. I was so looking forward to teasing Holman mercilessly about his handwriting,” Doxle said. “I presume we may proceed inside? Do you know if they’ve started calling the teams for the first round yet?”

“Not yet,” Razor Burns said. “They should be starting in about ten minutes.”

“Splendid. How does this year’s crop look?”

“Got a lot this year,” Rage Sweat said. “Probably because of all the storms we had last year.”

“Yes. That and the run of early assassinations,” Doxle said.

The guards paled at that, but Doxle seemed to be done playing with them. Without waiting for either one to get up, he unclasped the rope from one of the posts it was clipped to and gestured for me to move in. I wondered briefly if he was leaving me already but he followed and reclipped the rope behind us.

“Is it unfair that I got in when there are people out there who are being told they can’t compete?” I asked in a low voice.

“Yes. Horribly unfair. You should protest and demand to be kept out as well,” Doxle said. “Why should they enjoy the safety and sanity that comes from avoiding places like this while you’re condemned to dealing with the madness that awaits? Oh, wait, that’s right, you condemned yourself to this.”

“You’re not helpful. You know that right?”

“In this, I endeavor to be as large a hindrance as I may,” Doxle said. “Without acting against your professed interests of course. You need not fear I shall try to reason any sense into you. That is always a doomed affair.”

Grammy Duella would have said “this is a bad idea” but Doxle’s approach had the advantage that he got to hear himself talk for quite a bit longer. In truth, I couldn’t disagree with either of them. I knew this was irrationally dangerous, but for Trina I was willing to be irrational.

“For the first trial, you will be assigned to a small team,” Doxle said. “Ostensibly, this is because teamwork is valued over all other traits in the Imperial Academy. A caster who cannot work with a team is actively detrimental when fighting against Stormborn creatures.”

“That’s not really why they do it though, is it?” I asked, hearing the truth of that in Doxle’s tone.

“It is also fair easier to eliminate a large number of candidates quickly when you can take them out three and four at a time,” Doxle said.

“What kind of a team will they pair me with?” I asked.

“Yours is the privilege of a Great House, and members of a Great House are only paired with casters of equal worth,” Doxle said. “Since your Great House is more or less nonexistent however, the proctors will likely judge your worth accordingly and pair you up with a group of lowborn casters.”


“I expected you would approve of that,” Doxle said. “It should make it easier to keep your abilities hidden.”

“Or I can help ensure some people get a chance to succeed at the trials who otherwise wouldn’t,” I said.

Doxle looked at me for a moment, a strange calculus running behind his eyes.

“Yes, you could do that,” he said. “Know that you are not doing anyone any favors by helping them join the Elite Cadets however.”

Except, if that was what they wanted and were willing to risk death for, then maybe they’d see things a little differently. I didn’t say that though. I just nodded as though I’d understood him.

“I’m going to be on your team,” Mellina said from my left.

She had not been standing there a moment earlier.

I caught my flinch and stopped it but not before it was obvious that she’d surprised me.

I sniffed. Where was her scent?


It hadn’t left me. I’d been expecting to notice it when she returned but it had been with me the whole time.

So she actually could turn invisible.

That was terrifying.

I wanted to ask her about it, but the crowd of candidates Doxle was leading us through were probably not the people either of us wanted to have overhearing that conversation.

“Holman got everything setup for you?” Doxle asked.

“Yes. He told me to tell you that he sends his love, but only enough for a meal and a bottle of wine,” Mellina said.

“Sigh. Normally it’s two bottles. I shall have to remember to send him a better gift for our anniversary next year.”

“The first trial is with a team, what will we be fighting?” I asked.

“The Imperial Army,” Doxle said. “Small teams of them, though they will outnumber you roughly three to one.”

“And they’ll be trying to kill us?”

“Everyone on the battlefield except those people explicitly designated as teammates will be attempting to kill you, as a general rule,” Doxle said, “Their exact mandate is to ‘defeat you’, which typically includes accepting a surrender or disabling you in a non-fatal manner, but if this is a heavy year for recruits, you can expect your opponents to be under orders to thin the herd out a bit.”

“And if we kill them?” I asked.

“It’s not disallowed, but it’s unlikely. You’ll be given alternate victory conditions to strive for. Those are your key to ending the trial and passing on to the next one.”

“Holman said the same. If we engage the soldiers, we’re putting the contest on the terms they’re the most familiar with. Accomplishing the objective via other means gives us room for maneuvers they won’t be expecting.”

I considered how value someone who could turn invisible would be for finding alternate paths to victory. A thrill of excitement danced down to my fingertips at that idea and then froze there.

Mellina was a remarkable teammate.

I was an unknown quantity.

And we were going to be teamed up with a lowborn caster or two.

Question, if I were the organizers of the trials, what sort of foes would I send against a group like that? 

Answer, I would send something truly overwhelming, just to be on the safe side.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 16

“I have been asked who my greatest enemies are and have always found that to be an absurd question. There’s nothing about my enemies that make them great. Just foolish and, ultimately irrelevant. No, the ones I find I must worry about the most are my friends. To the last they are dangerous beyond words.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

Our carriage was made from gold, spun glass, and water vapor. I’m sure if Doxle put his mind to it he could have arranged an even more conspicuous mode of transportation and I had to wonder if it was only the time constraints involved that had held him back.

“There will be no end of people positively aggrieved that their arrivals will be consigned to a forgotten moment once we arrive,” Holman said from the front of the carriage.

“That’s rather the point, isn’t it?” Doxle replied, his mood stalking up on giddy.

He and Doxle were driving, while Mellina and I enjoyed the comfort of the carriage’s interior. Given that the horses were constructs of spun glass too, there was more of a reaction from the street crowds as we passed than I was used to from riding in Grammy Duella’s normal wooden carriage with normal flesh and bone horses but I could still make out what they were saying. 

I have good ears.

I’m moderately proud of the work I did there too.

It also helped that the other passenger in the carriage had been wonderfully silent since she finished her entrance exam with Doxle.

“I saw myself standing over your dead body,” she said, breaking the agreeable silence with something that managed to not sound like a threat despite the words she chose to use.

I was tempted to nod in recognition and make no comment on it but I’d been curious about Mellina since I first caught sight of her lurking behind Holman’s back.

“When?” I asked, assuming that it either was a threat and she’d specify some time in future, or it was an odd dream she’d had which would place it in the past.

“Just now,” she said.

“Oh. Good.” Since I wasn’t dead and she didn’t follow that phrase up with an attack, I was pretty sure it meant I was okay.

House Astrologia is one of the Great Houses, in fact it’s one of the five ‘High Governors’, who supposedly administer the Empire directly in the Empress’s name. Since the Empress has been gone for hundreds of years though they more or less do whatever they want. In Astrologia’s case that meant endlessly trying to predict the future and failing miserably.

“Most people have a different reaction to things like that,” Mellina said. She was sitting with the sort of rigidity that said she wanted to be ready to dodge, flee, or take some kind of defensive action but the cramped quarters of a carriage weren’t offering her many options.

“Most people think they’re going to live forever,” I said.

“Not in my family.” She was looking down again, but was still watching me.

“Have you seen your own death?” I asked. In hindsight that might have been rude, but I was curious and we’d clearly left the comfortable silence leg of the trip.

“Yeah. A lot.” Her honey and woodfire scent turned sour at that and I frowned. She was a competitor for entry into the Academy but I didn’t want to make her miserable beforehand. 

If we had to fight to the death, then whatever, we’d kill each other or come up with some better solution. That was a problem for later though.

“What was mine like?” I asked her, hoping to take her mind off whatever images she’d seen of her own demise.

“Bloody,” Mellina said. “Someone had slashed your throat.”

“You?” I wasn’t upset at the idea. If we had to fight to the death against each other and she got in a clean hit on my throat, then good for her.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “The cut came from a taller person.”

“You’re taller than I am.”

“Not by much. Also, I don’t want to kill you.”

That was nicer to hear than I’d imagined it would be.

“Might not have a choice,” I said, thinking how absolutely ridiculous it was to have mortal combat as part of any entrance exam, especially one that would draw in some of the best casters in the Empire.

“There’s always choices,” Mellina said. “Sometimes they’re just not good ones.”

“Is that why you came to this?” I asked, relaxing in my seat in the hopes of showing Mellina that she was safe with me. “Out of all the good options?”

“Elite Cadets can’t be assigned to research projects,” she said, which I assumed was some Astrologia thing.

“I’m guessing you’re also a pretty solid caster?” I said. She looked at me quizzically, questioning either how I could have known that or what possibly made me think it. “Doxle wouldn’t have passed you along if he thought you were doomed to fail.”

“Have you know him long?” Mellina asked.

“A day, or maybe a little less,” I said. “He’s not hard to figure out though.”

“That sounds like an interesting story,” she said, loosening up a little at last.

“I was in jail. He got me out,” I said. It didn’t cover everything about our arrangement, but it was the most important bit I thought.

“Jail? For what?”

“Resisting the Watch’s assault.” Really it was for ‘resisting the Watch’s assault too successfully’. I could have pretended that the first hit knocked me out and probably avoided a lot of the trouble I’d found myself in, but looking back I still felt justified in my actions.

“Why was the watch assaulting a Lady of the Realm?” Mellina asked.

“A what now?”

“The Imperial Advisor introduced you as Lady Riverbond,” Mellina said, looking as confused as I felt.

“Uh, that’s just a Doxle thing. You heard him. He’s an overly dramatic idiot,” I said.

“I heard that!” Doxle shouted from the front of the carriage.

“Gonna say it’s not true?” I shouted back.

The only response was silence, followed by Holman chuckling.

“Like I was saying.” I glanced back to Mellina to see if I’d convinced her but that didn’t seem to be the case.

“I’ve read about the Riverbond family,” Mellina said. “They were one of the original Great Houses, but they fell from power a century ago.”

“I don’t know much about the Riverbonds to be honest,” I said. “I grew up with my grandmother.”

“Your parents?” Mellina’s hesitation was understandable, but unneeded.

“Died a long time ago,” I said, which though technically true was a bit misleading.

“My family tends to foster their children out. I grew up with cousins who were adjacent to the house through marriage,” Mellina said. “Then when I was old enough to be useful, they called me back.”

“Doesn’t seem like a great method for instilling familial loyalty,” I said.

“Money does that,” Mellina said. “For most people.”

“And you?”

“Another reason to join the Imperial Elites,” she said. “Easier to survive on your own when you’re drawing an independent salary.”

As someone who had only ever lived in Grammy Duella’s household, the idea of working for a living had always been a distant, someday later sort of thing. I think part of me had figured that if Grammy passed away and I got kicked out of the cottage, I’d just go live in the woods. I liked the woods, and on some level I probably belonged there.

“Worried about passing the trials?” I asked her.

“I’ve seen myself passing them,” she said, with a huff of bitter laughter.

“Is that bad or good? The foresight part I mean?”

“Neither. It’s useless,” she said, her voice quiet enough that I don’t think Doxle or Holman could hear it.

“Isn’t it useful having some clue what’s coming up?” I asked. “You saw me for example, so you at least knew I existed.”

“When the visions contain a real clue to what winds up happening it’s even worse,” Mellina said. “It’s so easy to get distracted by something you recognize and wind up spiraling off into a magical mania without even casting a spell.”

“That sounds miserable. Why even bother casting precognition spells at all then?” I asked. I was surprised she’d offered me an insight into what sounded like a profound weakness for her whole family. Maybe it was an open secret?

“We don’t,” she said. “Most of the times the visions come on their own.”

“How do you control them?” I thought back to Doxle explaining how people used words, and gestures and special materials to put boundaries on spells.

“Poorly.” She met my gaze then and I saw the kind of laughter that’s disconnected from any form of sanity dancing behind her eyes. There was something else there too though. Honeyed traps for errant dreams and signal fires to guide her back to herself.

“I’ve heard that visions usually come in dreams?” I asked, revealing how shallow the depth of my knowledge on the subject was.

“From dreams, from distracted thoughts, can be any time at all really,” she said. “Stress and focus can often ward them away, but not always.”

“Does it get better with age?”

“For some people. For others the visions just get worse and worse.”

“Is there anything that can be done to make things better?” The Astrologia family had been laboring with their gifts for centuries, so I figured they had to have made some progress.

“There are. Sometimes they even work. We’d know more but my family is opposed to researching along those lines. They view stronger visions as a sign that you’re gift is stronger and therefor better.”

“But if you can’t see the actual future, what’s the point?” I asked. 

“We see a future, it’s just not the future that usually come to pass,” Mellina said. “By being aware of it we change the conditions that lead to it, and I think even without that, what we see isn’t guaranteed to come about. It’s just the one possibility we can see. My family thinks that the stronger your gift is, the more visions you see, the closer you come to viewing the true path the future will take. Anything that diminishes or controls the visions harms that ability and so harms the family.”

I wanted to say that her family were idiots too, but I doubt she needed or wanted to hear that, so I settled for frowning at the idea instead.

She paused for a moment and studied my expression, a small smile creeping onto her lips as she did so.

“Most people think that’s stupid,” she said. “Or highly admirable.”

“Most people think their opinions matter more than the ones of someone whose had to live through what they’re opining about,” I said.

That won me a smile that reached up to her eyes before fading into her normal quiet expression.

“I don’t think we’ll have to kill each other,” she said.

“Another vision?” I asked, guessing that was not the case.

“Holman said the trials don’t necessarily include any killing. It’s just not forbidden. Or even discouraged.”

“I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse?” I said. It didn’t even seem more convenient since it wasn’t like the ‘killing if fine’ rule would prevent all the other consequences   that would follow from eliminating a rival permanently. 

If I killed Idrina, I was absolutely sure her brother would look for a chance to return the favor whether the revenge-killing was legal or not.

And then I’d have his dead body to hide somewhere.

“If I do well enough, House Astrologia will stand as my sponsor once the trials are complete,” Mellina said. “I think they would stand for you as well if you wanted them too.”

“But they don’t even know me?” I said, finding it hard to imagine that a group of strangers would see any value in what I could do, especially since it was so removed from precognition magic.

“They will if I speak for you,” Mellina said, offering her hand to a shake on a deal she hadn’t needed to make at all.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 15

“Failing to plan is planning to fail? I assure you that’s not true. I have planned to fail on many occasions and each has required near faultless stratagems implemented with exceptional precision. The times when my plans came to ruin I was faced with the most dreadful of successes one can imagine – specifically the sort of which breed more work and responsibility. You would think those would illustrate, with perfect clarity, the value of failure and yet people continue striving to succeed under the most inadvisable of conditions.”

-Zindir Harshek Doxle

I don’t know what it says about me that I was more concerned with the five minute deadline on registering than I was the death match that awaited in the hallway, but I had to guess it wasn’t good.

The sigh from the hallway seemed to agree with that assessment.

Or maybe they were just exasperated with Doxle. 

“Your Advisor is an idiot,” a tall man in an Imperial officer’s armor said as he entered the room. He was human – the lack of glowing eyes was a pretty solid give away there. Along with him, green moss, bitter flowers, and the hint of something peppery flooded the room. He either couldn’t lie like Doxle could or he didn’t see any need to bother.

I caught the hint of carmelized sugar and wood fire in there too and couldn’t place it until I noticed the girl who trailed in after the tall guy.

She had her eyes cast down and away from the rest of us and was positioned in as much of the officer’s shadow as possible which kept her mostly hidden from me.

“Lies. I am the most brilliant Advisor in the entire Empire,” Doxle said, throwing his arms wide to offer a hug.

The officer didn’t take advantage of the gesture at first, pulling up short to throw a taunting look at Doxle.

“Shall I tell Quewellin about that?” the officer asked. His smile didn’t seem threatening but there was a dare in his eyes I was sure Doxle didn’t miss.

“Ah. No. Let’s say I am the third most brilliant Advisor in the entire Empire. The twins can fight it out for who can claim second.”

The officer laughed at that and accepted Doxle’s hug.

It seemed like a strange precursor to a death match, but then the idea of Doxle lying, or at least exaggerating wasn’t exactly a difficult one to grasp. I had spent more than five minutes with him after all.

“Lady Kati, may I introduce an old friend, the Most Honorable Intercessor Holman Astrologia,” Doxle said, breaking the hug with the man he’d told me I was about to kill. “Holman, I present to you the Lady Katrinna Riverbond, applicant for entrance to the Elite Cadet Corp program at the Imperial Academy.”

I couldn’t recall that I’d given Doxle the name Katrinna Riverbond, and that was a detail I tended to remember since it was not my name to give.

“Lady Kati,” Holman said offering me more of a bow that I thought he probably should have. If we were going to fight, it would have been a great opportunity to strike, and if we weren’t ‘Intercessor’ sounded like something that probably outranked me.

“It seems you have brought someone along too?” Doxle said, tossing a glance in the direction of the girl who was still hiding in Holman’s shadow.

Or was ‘stalking’ a better word?

Her body language had read as a prey animal, timid, desperate not to attract notice, but the more I watched her, the more I noticed just how well she was using Holman as cover. She wasn’t looking at us, but she was listening keenly. 

I moved slightly to the left, and she shifted with effortless grace away. Her movements weren’t quick. In fact it was hard to notice that she’d move at all. Just what you wanted to do to escape the notice of someone like me. If she didn’t smell like two of my favorite things, I might have missed her entirely.

That probably should have moved her up in my general threat assessment, but there was still Holman to consider. Anyone Doxle had known for a long time was probably a significant threat and even if I wasn’t going to be fighting him, I still felt like it was good idea to know where I stood in relation to his capabilities.

Of course, he had other ideas.

“Imperial Advisor Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, may I introduce Mellina Astrologia, applicant for entrance to the Elite Cadet Corp program at the Imperial Academy.”

Oh. So she was a rival.

A sneaky rival. 

That was just great.

Grumbling internally didn’t buy me anything, and it wasn’t like I’d been under the impression that Idrina was going to be the only other applicant. I think part of me had hoped the rest would be the talentless hacks Grammy Duella claimed made up the bulk of the Imperial forces.

“I must ask my good friend, are you sure you wish me to administer the application exam?” Doxle asked. “You know I fail everyone who comes to me.”

“Not everyone,” Holman said, to which Doxle replied with a sigh.

“She’s like Gamdrin?” Doxle asked, entering the phase of their conversation where I had no idea except from context clues what they were talking about.

Holman chuckled at.

“Her mother would not take the comparison kindly,” Holman said. “A more accurate claim would be to say that my niece is like herself. Test her as you wish, only promise that you will do so fairly.”

“I can promise nothing of the sort. Life is horrifically unfair and, being alive, so must I be,” Doxle said. “I can however promise to be neither unfair ‘for’ nor ‘against’ her application.”

Mellina look up at that, gazing at him with the same narrowed eyes I would have.

It probably wasn’t good that I felt a spark of camaraderie with her there.

I waited to see if she would say anything.

And she didn’t.

Dammit. I could not afford to like this girl.

“We should get started then,” Holman said. “Do you still have that dueling circle setup?”

“I’ve expanded upon it,” Doxle said and began leading us back towards the arena I’d fought in the night before. “There are three to choose from.”

That exchange did nothing good for my blood pressure since it almost sounded like we would be fighting after all.

“What are we doing?” I asked, as we passed through a series of rooms I was certain I’d never seen before. 

If Doxle had been lying about the fight to the death, then he might have been lying about the five minute deadline for registration, but I wasn’t willing to chance that since I was reasonably certain that if I tried to simply break into the Academy the guards there would kill me on sight rather than locking me up.

“Registering you both,” Doxle said, opening the door to the dueling arena.

“The general registration takes place on the Academy grounds that are accessible to the public,” Holman said. He paused to take in the three pillars and the overall space of the room. He couldn’t tell that the pillars were in different positions than they’d been the night before, but I didn’t miss it. “Registration exams which are viewable by all expose the candidates to a great deal of mischief however and so private registrations are the preferred option.”

Unspoken but easily appended were the words ‘for the wealthy and powerful’, which apparently Doxle was able to provide for me too.I hadn’t really wondered why the Great Houses tended to produce more elite casters than any other families. When you have a enough advantages on your side it becomes difficult to fail at some point.

“What’s the test?” I asked.

“The particulars are up to each administrators discretion,” Doxle said. “Hence why I was confident Holman would want to duel you.”

“Yes, but not to the death, you cotton brained lout,” Holman said.

“My dearest, star crossed soul mate,” Doxle said. “You can’t give away crucial information like that. Not if you want to see real effort put into a match.”

“Complaints about how I perform?” Holman asked.

“Never!” Doxle said.

“Good. I should hate to think that was why you left me alone in Leafbridge,” Holman said.

“I am as you noted, ever an idiot,” Doxle replied, gesturing for Mellina to follow him over to the least dangerous of the dueling circles.

Which left me with Holman.

Who wanted to fight me.

Why was that such a thing in Middlerun?

“I would dearly love to ask how you had the beautiful misfortune of falling into his orbit, but we do need to get the registrations submitted shortly,” Holman said.

I nodded and glanced up to the most dangerous of the pillars.

“Is that the one you’d like to use?” he asked.

“Depends,” I said. “What do you want to see.”

If he wanted to watch my offense, then a high platform with no option to retreat would make things easier for me. If he wanted to watch my defense, then being the ground with room to move would be best.

“I’m going to tear a few rifts open. Tiny ones. I want to see if you can stop me and what you do about them,” he said.

The words were spoken so reasonably despite the fact that they were completely unhinged.

Holman read something from my expression, which was talented of him since I had no idea what was on my face.

“The rifts will be no longer than the last join on my pinkie finger,” he said. “Doxle’s shown you how to deal with tiny ones like that hasn’t he?”

“We met yesterday,” I said.

That was news to Holman and not news he’s been expecting it seemed.

Good. No reason I had to be the only dealing with a world that didn’t make sense.

“Okay. Well. That’s interesting,” he said and shook his head. “In that case, let’s just have you try to kill me.”

If everyone I meet seems to have lost their mind, does that mean the world has gone mad or is it just me?

“Ok,” I said, because, really, how else do you reply to something like that. “Can I have a weapon?”

I didn’t technically need one, but there wasn’t any reason to let him know that.

“Certainly! I wouldn’t expect you to try to strangle me to death.”

That wasn’t what I’d had in mind, but again, no reason to correct him.

There were racks of weapons mounted on the walls. Many different shiny swords and intricately etched spears along with axes and daggers and even a selection of regulation Imperial rifles. 

The rifles were probably what most neophytes would have gone for since they offered such a large force amplification for the magic used to power them, but in a space the size of the dueling arena it would be impossible to get a shot off before Holman fed the thing to me piece by piece. 

Instead I picked up one of the clubs.

It was at the bottom of a rack. It was ugly. And heavy. Thicker at the end than at the handle with small, knobby spikes sticking out of it. I was pretty sure it didn’t have any magic on it, apart from maybe a resiliency charm to keep it intact, which suited me just fine.

“And what are you going to do with that?” Holman asked, amused by my choice.

“Hurt you,” I said.

“You are supposed to be trying to kill me,” he said.

“You’re bigger than I am and a better caster,” I said. “Can’t kill you in one blow. So I hurt you. Pain is distracting. The distraction lets me hurt you more. If I break something that’s hard to fix, you’ll try to defend. That’s when I kill you.”

“When I’m trying to defend?” Holman asked.

“If you’re not trying to hurt me back, then I can take the risk. Break something that can’t be fixed. Then break everything.”

“And you would do all that just for a chance to get into the Academy?” Holman asked.

“Yes.” I said without lying at all.

“Then I believe you pass. You may take the Cadet Trials Lady Kati.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 14

The idea that life is a series of trials is laughable. Simple observation will easily reveal that no challenge waits for another to conclude. Typically they descend in packs, like ravenous wolves, each hungry for a bite of our sanity.

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

I sleep lightly. If it’s a noisy night, or a place I don’t know well, it’s questionable if what I’m doing can even be called ‘sleeping’. Trina called it ‘watching over everything with my eyes closed’ and I couldn’t disagree with her.  Waking up to the early morning sun shining in through the windows of a room I’d never seen before with no memory of the time that I knew must have passed was therefor just a little disconcerting.

I shot up to a sitting position in a bed that was far too nice and felt the adrenaline responses I’d painstakingly constructed kick in. 

I was ready for anything. An attack. An unseen visitor. Doxle playing a stupid joke.

So, of course, nothing happened.

I waited for at least a minute.

Still nothing.

My new heart had survived the experience, which I took as a reward for my diligence in crafting it so well. Since it also calmed down as the situation remained steadfastly uneventful, I decided that perhaps getting out of bed should be my next step.

I sniffed first, trying to catch the scent of anyone who’d been in the room aside from me. Doxle was the first one I noticed, though his ash and lightning aroma was clustered tightly enough around the main door that I was pretty sure he hadn’t come into the room far at all.

So how had I gotten into the bed?

I struggled to recall what had happened, but all I could get was being sleepy and still conscious one moment and then gone the next.

Could that have been magic? Had Doxle knocked me out rather than worry about dealing with me any further? I couldn’t tell and finding out the answer jumped up into the top five issues I needed to tackle sooner rather than later.

I gave another sniff, noticing that I hadn’t detected my own scent yet. Like my heart, that was something I’d worked on for quite a bit longer than I needed to, but somethings are worth the extra effort. 

Strangely my scent was there but it was muted and colored with the scent of fresh soap.

I hadn’t had a bath since I left my cell so I should have been powerfully rank. Neither my skin or the nightgown I was wearing held any trace of my time behind bars though.



I definitely hadn’t been wearing a nightgown when I passed out. The dress Doxle had gifted me was nowhere in sight. In its place, I had the nightgown I was wearing and a small pile of clothes laid out on a dresser with drawers large enough for me to hide in if the situation warranted it.

Beside the dresser, a door to the next room stood slightly ajar and from within it lazy tendrils of steam floated out. 

I smelled good enough that I didn’t think a bath was necessary, but the scents of honey and lemon had snagged my curiosity, so I left the warm comfort of the bed and crept close enough to sneak a peek in through the open door.

I wasn’t sure why I’d expected to see Doxle warming the bath water for me. Maybe because he was the only person I knew who was supposed to be in his house. He wasn’t who waited behind the doors though.

“<I think she’s up!>”, a woman made out of mist said. She wasn’t speaking any language that I knew but that did not interfere in the slightest with my understanding her.

“<Excellent timing, the water is just about perfect>,” another, almost identical, mist woman said.

“<But the kitchen hasn’t sent anything up yet. What if she’s hungry?>” a third mist woman said. She looked younger, or at least smaller than the other two.

I couldn’t help staring at them. They weren’t people who were obscured by mist. They were people whose bodies were made of nothing but the steam rising from the bathtub in the center of the room. It would have been an exaggeration to say I could have swum laps in that tub. Not a wild exaggeration though. I was apparently staying in something akin to the Empress’s Imperial chambers. 

Or so I thought at the time.

To be fair, I had been raised in a cottage in the woods. It wasn’t that hard to impress me.

I considered observing them for longer and trying to understand what they were. Then I considered how foolish I would look when they noticed me.

“Is that for me?” I asked, stepping into the bathing room and pointing at the tub.

“Why yes it is Lady Kati,” one of the larger mist women said, switching to Imperial Common. She had the faint scent of the sea to her. The sea and wet cotton. 

“If you need anything please just let us know,” the other adult mist woman said. From her, I got the scents of pine wood shavings and turpentine.

“Breakfast will be up shortly too,” the last said. Her scents were warm pastries and icy cold milk. “Doxxy ordered for you though so let us know what we should send back.”

“Doxxy?” I asked. I could make the connection to who they were talking about but Doxle hadn’t seemed like someone who went in for cutesy nicknames.

“His heart’s well intentioned, but he’s something of an idiot,” Pastries said. “At least when it comes to food.”

“Oh, not just that,” Piney said. “If that man’s ever made a sensible wager in his life it was only because someone else tricked him into it.”

“Give him his due though,” Sea Cotton said. “For all his foolishness and foibles, he’s still been one of the best tenants we’ve had.”

“Tenant?” I asked. “Do you own this place?”

“Indeed,” Sea Cotton said. “Doxle holds the rental lease currently, and as part of his household you are our welcome guest as well.”

“Do you draw up baths for all the guests?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I was following the working relationship they had with Doxle but they clearly weren’t the trio of magical maids I’d guessed they were.

“We do all sorts of tasks,” Sea Cotton said.

“It’s wonderful to get to have bodies for a while,” Pastries said, and that was my first clue as to what they were.

“You’re not natives to this world, are you?” I asked, which in hindsight seemed like a fairly stupid question.

“What was your first clue?” Pastries asked, passing her arms through each other.

“Well, for starters, most people here wouldn’t call those ‘bodies’ exactly,” I said. “Did Doxle summon you?”

Could demons summon other supernatural creatures? I could foresee some obvious problems with that. Since those problems hadn’t occurred yet, I had to assume it was either not possible, or not practical.

“He lost a bet,” Piney said.

“He lost a bet and got you out the deal?

“No. He lost a bet and we got him,” Sea Cotton said.

“Did you get the rest of his household too?” I asked, wondering if they owned a piece of me as well.

“Alas, no,” Sea Cotton said. “Doxle’s the only tether this estate has. Come though, the water should be lovely.”

I don’t typically like undressing in front of anyone, not due to concerns about modesty but because of all the work I’d done on my body. Worrying about what people might see is completely irrational, but I can’t help thinking they might notice the artifice in my work. 

It’s silly. My work is great and I look fine. I know that.

I just don’t necessarily believe it.

“Oh, yes, you probably prefer to bath alone,” Sea Cotton said. “It’s always difficult to tell with people in this world.”

At her sign the other two started following her out.

“Hey. Were you the ones who got me into bed?” I asked, the thought occurring to me before they could fully escape.

“Yes. Did I pick out a good nightgown?” Pastries asked.

I glanced down at myself. The nightgown was soft and heavy enough to still be warm from the bed.

“This is great. Thanks,” I said, relieved at the thought that she’d been the one to deal with my unconscious body rather than Doxle.

“You’re welcome, and if you need anything just call for us, okay?” Pastries said.

“Will I be able to see you?” I asked. They seemed to be fading the farther they got from the tub, so I guessed they were naturally invisible unless the environment provided something to give them away.

“Doxxy can show you a trick for that,” Pastries said and closed the door behind her.

Sinking into the tub, I tried to take stock of what my day would look like.


And anger.

Those were going to be the two foremost components of what was to come.

No one in the Imperial Academy wanted me to pass the Cadet Trials. I wasn’t connected with any of the Great Houses who were running the entrance exams, and I wasn’t about to swear fealty to any of them either.

Even the good instructors, if there were any of those there, wouldn’t want to admit me because I didn’t want to be a part of the Empire’s ‘elite forces’. 

I had one reason for seeking entrance to the Academy and it had nothing to do with the becoming a good little toy for one House to break another House’s toys with.

All I wanted was to find out why my sister’s scents were coming from somewhere inside the Academy. 

Well, find out why and then probably kill the person responsible since I couldn’t imagine any good reasons for whatever it was they were doing.

Getting on with that was important.

Urgent even.

But the rack of herbal shampoos was just too tempting to pass up. Honey and lemon scents were only just the beginning.

I’m not sure how long I spent in the tub. Not hours certainly. I hadn’t woken up that early, and we did need to get to the Academy to register for the Trials. Even knowing all that, along with the fact that breakfast was waiting for me, it was still agony forcing myself to get out of the bath.

“I could have spent the whole day floating, but no, I have to go and get myself stabbed,” I grumbled as I toweled myself dry and plodded out of the bathroom to get the clothes that were waiting for me.

Except it turned out they weren’t clothes.

“Armor?” I didn’t hate the idea but I wasn’t used to wearing chainmail and the other pieces looked complicated to put on.

As it turns out though, they weren’t. 

At my touch, the whole ensemble flowed over me like a wave, each piece adjusting itself to fit me perfectly.

I was marveling at that when there was a knock at the door.

“Lady Kati?” Doxle said. “Are you fit to receive guests?”

The real answer to that is always ‘no’.

The answer I often need to give however is, “Yeah.” 

The door swung open of its own accord, letting Doxle enter without putting down, or even looking up from, the stash of papers he was carrying.

“Did you sleep well?” he asked, his nose remaining firmly buried in his reading.

I wasn’t sure if what I had done counted as sleep, but it had removed a lot of the fatigue I’d been carrying.

“Good, good,” Doxle said, despite the fact that I hadn’t responded to his question at all. “And breakfast?”

I hadn’t eaten anything yet either, but with that reminder I glanced over and saw a tray of different food options waiting on a table near the dresser. I snagged a pair of egg sandwiches while Doxle continued reading.

“Excellent,” he said, again without my needing to answer his question at all. “There are two things you need to know then.”

I waited, since my participation in this conversation seemed entirely optional.

“First, registration for the Trials will close in five minutes so we need to be moving along.”

I jumped towards the door thinking of how long it had taken us to reach this room.  Doxle made a shushing gesture though so I paused. Maybe there was some magic hallway that would take us right where we needed to go.

“Before we can attend to that however, there is a gentleman in the hall who is here for a duel to the death and he’s insisting it be with you.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 13

Magic has enticed humans since their first dreams let them peer beyond the boundaries of the world they lived in. It would have been reasonable when things started peering back at them for that interest to have been lost, but anyone who imagined that would happen has clearly never met a human being.

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

I couldn’t say that the prospect of learning magic was unappealing. Especially since it seemed like there was a lot I needed to catch up on if I was going to survive the Cadet Trials and have a chance to get inside the Academy. There was one problem though; my magic wasn’t really magic at all.

“You came to Middlerun to take part in the Trials, but you’ve had precious little exposure to the Transcendental Arts. I gather your aptitude tests were impressive enough that someone was willing to sponsor you?” Doxle asked.

“They insisted I come,” I said, which had the virtue of being true, while also not being the reason I had wound up where I was.

“Would you mind if I perform an aptitude test of my own?” Doxle asked. “There are fundamentals that you’ll need but I’d like to get a sense of what areas you’re likely to excel at and which ones will be more challenging to start with.”

“They spent most of a day testing me last time,” I said, again the truth, though somewhat misleading since they’d worked out that I had an unusual aptitude on the first test and then spent the rest of the time trying to figure out why I was so weird.

Doxle gave me one of his many patronizing smiles and assured me that, “I work somewhat faster than provincial academics.”

Without another word, or any sort of gesture, the test began. I could tell because one moment I was sitting on the overly padded chair in Doxle’s library and then next I was frozen in bands of green light and floating in a great starry void.

“Here’s your first test, get out of here before you suffocate or go mad.”

From the faint wind that tickled the hairs on my neck and arms, I knew there was air here. Suffocation appeared to be an issue because the green bindings weren’t just wrapped around me. They seemed to run through me from back to front and back again.

Seemed to run through me, but not in a physical sense it turned out. A quick check showed my newly restored internal organs were still in prime shape. 

I sniffed. Was this another illusion?


The air carried the scents of rain and dust and chicken feathers and wine spilled over undercooked meat and…and that wasn’t helping. Wherever we were there were too many different places and people close by. A cacophony would have been less disorienting, but I was familiar with shutting out the world. I’d had to do that for as long as I could remember.

“This is one of the basic capture spells a caster would try to use on you if they knew you to be a form shifter and if they felt they had time to complete it,” Doxle said. “Whatever the origin and nature of your magic is though, it is relatively simple to escape this sort of binding. All you need to is…”

I didn’t let him finish his thought. I knew what to do. It was obvious once I took a moment to get a feel for the green bindings.

What passes for magic in me isn’t something I have to twist my mind out of shape to work with. It’s always in me, always a part of me. If anything, it’s the world around me I need to twist my mind around to make sense of. 

My magic flows through me not like blood but like the tide. A tide in which I’m no more than a single rain drop. Rebuilding my organs wasn’t hard because it took energy out of me. It was hard because shaping the everflowing stream of ‘me’ into any solid embodiment goes against what the oldest part of me wants to be.

Down in the darkest depths, where hunger and desire and rage rule over everything lives a version of me without form or identity. In those waters, I am nothing and everything and all that lies between. I am something alien to this world. Something that probably shouldn’t exist.

But I do.

And I plan to keep on existing.

That ever-shifting, fluid thing at the heart of what I really am couldn’t have survived here. 

So I made something else of myself.

I made who I am now.

Cell by cell, bone by bone, thought and dream by hope and fear. Most of that wasn’t planned and very little of it was by conscious choice. I simply wanted to survive and so I became someone who could.

Doxle’s magic wasn’t like that. When I quieted the panic that rose up and drew it in, I felt an unfamiliar current flowing through me. It was warm and simple, a stream of possibility wrapped in threads of intention.

I took a moment to appreciate the spiraling curls of reason that gave the green stream of power its purpose and definition. Each unspoken, unwritten word was a reflection of Doxle. How he’d managed to weave such a clear and distinct tapestry of rules for what the magic should do in so little time, I had no idea. What I did know was what I could do about.

That was when I interrupted him.

One moment I was bound at the edge of the veil between worlds and then next I was sitting back in the library, free once again.

“Oh, well you seem to have done it,” Doxle said, the surprise on his face genuine from what I could tell. “I think. What is it, exactly, that you did to regain your freedom, and where, if I may ask, is my spell now?”

“I ate it,” I said. Again, arguably the truth, but not the most accurate representation of what I’d done.

Doxle’s magic was a stream given shape and purpose by the words of the spell he bound it with. Flowing alongside it and making it my own? Why would that be hard when my nature was to change and shift as I needed. The words of the spell weren’t mine and would have been more complicate to become one with, but it was a simple spell, there were no words protecting the words of the spell itself, so all I needed to do was drown out one of the threads and the rest broke and unraveled into silence too.

The original aptitude test hadn’t been like this. The proctors for that test had started by trying to see how much magic I could hold. They’d placed cuffs on me similar to the ones the guards had used. Those spells I couldn’t break because there were words wrapped around words and intentions wrapped around intentions, the whole of them so deeply that breaking one only caused the others to multiply making the spell even stronger.

The proctors had tried lightly draining me first, only to find that the light draining wasn’t reaching an end in anything like a safe time frame. They debated trying a heavier drain, but that risked injuring me if they set it too high and couldn’t stop it before I ran out. Thankfully I was more valuable intact than damage, so they ruled out really testing what I could do (which, to be fair, might have actually killed me). Instead, they tried filling me up but that didn’t produce the results they were looking for either.

The one approach that did work for them was binding my magic directly. My nature is to flow, but I’ve spent my life building structure and form around my magic. It was all too easy for magics designed to lock my magic in place to follow the pathways I’d created and freeze me as I was. To fight against that, I would have had to fight against everything I’d built up as myself.

Doxle was looking at me strangely.

Not like I was strange.

I was used to people looking at me like that.

He seemed more pleased than disturbed at the oddity in front of him. Not pleased in a happy sense though. There was something burning in the fire of his eyes, something with knife edges and claw tips.

“An interesting technique,” he said before relaxing back into his seat and into his normal lecturing voice. “Keep that one under wraps for as long as you can tomorrow. Not many, or possibly any, of the Cadets you’ll face can manage a binding spell like the one I just used, but most of them will have similar techniques.”

“Will they be able to cast as fast as you just did?” I asked. Training produced speed, among other traits and, as Idrina had demonstrated, without the time to react to what was happening I tended to fare poorly.


Not “probably not”. Not “it would be unlikely”. Just “no”. He wasn’t bragging that he outclassed all of the casters I would be put up against because he didn’t have to. 

“They will have other strategies in place to compensate for that however. Ironbriar for example could hurl a spear at you and then start casting the moment it makes impact. Even if the full incantation takes her several seconds, the distraction of being impaled could prevent you from reacting in time.”

“And how should I deal with that?” I asked.

“Don’t get impaled. It’s solid life advice. Truly.”

My reply was silence and a glare.

“You wish to know the one big secret to winning your battles,” Doxle said. “The secret is that there is no ‘one secret’. Each conflict is different even when the combatants are the same. Ironbriar knows more about you now, and you know more about her. Neither of you will approach the next battle in the manner you approached the last one. Accept that you will be faced with uncertainty, and be ready to act without perfect understanding.”

“So no thinking, just wing it all the time then?”

“Quite the contrary, you want to think and plan as much as possible. Just not in the battle itself. Imagine how you want your battles to go. Imagine what will go wrong. Imagine adapting to those set backs. Try to find the common strategies which present themselves. Identify the signs that suggest when each strategy is needed. Just never make the mistake of thinking that you know what will happen, or that you have responses in place for everything your opponents will do. Expect to be surprised and know what surprises you can spring in return and when you’d want to spend those capabilities.”

“All that tonight?” I asked, wondering if I was ever going to get to sleep at all.

“Oh, of course not,” Doxle said. “That’s what you’ll be doing tomorrow night after you’ve won a place in the Academy and need to prepare for the next set of tests they’ll throw at you.”

“You think I’ll get in?” I asked and then added the more pressing question, “You think I’ll survive?”

“I think you want something inside the Academy very badly. I don’t believe you will allow yourself to die before gaining that.”

He wasn’t wrong, but we’d just established that I did have limits and people were likely to be able to work around them, so I didn’t feel terribly comforted.

“Now that your head is full to the brim, it’s time to give it some rest I believe,” Doxle said, gesturing for me to rise.

That wasn’t how my head worked, and for once I don’t think I was being weird. 

Doxle was already leading me out the library though so I followed him into a whole new wing of the house.

This one smelled of pine and, outside the windows, I saw a night darkened forest with a full moon hanging just over the treetops.

Except the moon wasn’t supposed to be full. It had been a waning half moon two days prior when they put me in jail. And the faint pattern on it was wrong too.

“You may use this one if you like,” Doxle said, gesturing towards a bed room the size of Grammy Duella’s entire cottage. 

There was no dust and no cobwebs, but I could smell the hint of them lingering in the air, hidden under a layer of fresh soap and water.

I stepped in the room and could smell that someone had been there just a moment or two before the door opened. 

“I’ll wake you in the morning,” Doxle said and before I could protest that I would probably still be up, I felt myself topple over into a deep and dreamless sleep.