I wasn’t afraid of losing my mind. I done that before. I knew how to get it back.
I also wasn’t afraid of the Great Houses. That was stupid. I definitely should have been afraid of them. Unfortunately Grammy Duella had made keeping them at bay look a lot easier than it really is.
Most of all though, I wasn’t afraid of Doxle.
Entering into a pact with him was a terrible idea. I wasn’t even sure if it was possible for me. If it turned out that it was, being bound by someone else’s will would be anathema to the entire essence of my being. If he pushed me, or tried to paralyze me when I was sufficiently interested in not being held back, he would learn just how deep my Hollowing was and exactly how much control I had over my magic and that wasn’t going to be good for anyone at all.
In short, I had every reason to, politely, decline his offer, thank him for the meal and head out before the Great House’s hunters picked up my trail.
“You said if I try for the Cadet Trial, I’ll have to use enough magic to pass it that I’ll give myself away.” I watched his eyes narrow. This wasn’t where he’d expected the conversation to go. “Will that matter if I’m pact bonded to you?”
Doxle drew in a slow, considering breath and his gaze went distant for a moment before he answered on the exhale.
“Yes, it will,” he said at last. “If you show off the sort of magical prowess you did with the guards, you will capture a great deal of attention. I cannot promise to shield you from all of it, as I said, but with a pact bond in place between us they cannot force you to take another one.”
“Could they force me to break the one I have with you? Or force you to break it?” I suspected the Great Houses either wouldn’t, or maybe even couldn’t, outright kill Doxle. He struck me as the sort of person who wouldn’t still be here if dying in response to be murdered was an available outcome.
I marked his chuckle at my question as a tally in the column confirming that.
“That is not a concern,” he said. “As an Imperial Advisor, I enjoy certain privileges including the right to choose what pacts I form. The only voice I must answer to is the Empress Eternal’s.”
Which meant he had no actual oversight since the Empress Eternal had gained her ‘eternalness’ by being frozen in similarly eternal ice.
That should have been terrifying. The idea of something like Doxle operating with no constraints on what he was allowed to do was a recipe for death and armageddon. In place of terror though, I felt a small surge of joy.
“Pact me then,” I said and held out my hand.
I had no idea if we needed to hold hands, or if he was going to slap a tattoo or a brand on me and I didn’t care.
Trina’s scent was gone, but it had left before too, only to waft back in as I was losing hope of ever being able to follow it. I’d walked around the land bound sides the city twice tracking it. I knew it had to be coming from the Academy.
So I needed to get in there.
Doxle was the key to that lock.
Which meant I needed him.
It was as simple as that. If there were repercussions to deal with later, then later is when I’d deal with them.
“Are you sure?” There was a gravity in Doxle’s voice it had lacked up till now.
“Let’s do this,” I said. I wasn’t feeling especially patient, which I think sent the wrong message to him.
“Why?” He kept his hands folded, and made no move towards me, but his eyes were burning darker than they had been at any time up till now.
“I need to get into the Academy.” I left it for him to decide if that meant into the building or accepted as a student.
“And for that you’d accept a lifetime of shackles on your powers?” He looked like he was about to wax poetic on how terrible a burden being pacted to him truly was.
I cut him off.
“Yes.” My magic didn’t matter. Bearing up under a thousand tons of shackles and finding my sister was better than being free in a world without her. It was as simple as that.
“Are you sure? I can promise you this will not make your life easier.” There had been a distant anger in him. Not directed at me I didn’t think. Maybe at himself? Or maybe at our whole world? It had ebbed away though, and I smelled the ashes of sorrow rising from him.
“Yeah,” I said, allowing some of the weight in his voice to be reflected in mine.
“You may come to hate me, most people do, but that won’t free you from this bond. You may struggle and perfect your casting till you are certain there is nothing more you can learn, and that won’t win your releases from the pact we make. You may shatter and crumble and be reduced to nothing by the strains this life, a life with me, will place on you and still I will be there, still joined to you, still feeding on your magic.”
His eyes grew brighter with every word he spoke while the shadows in the room darkened into a pitch of blackest night that should have been impossible with sunlight still streaming in through the windows.
Except there was no sunlight.
We sat alone. Nothing beyond the wood table between us remaining of where we’d been.
Doxle’s sharp features were gone too. To my eyes he still looked the same, but I was seeing him with something more than just my eyes. He was shadows and fire and power and something more.
Around us the scent of lightning crackled and built. We stood in the moment before the thunderstorm, when the sky has coiled itself up and drunk in the power of the land.
“Are you sure?” Doxle said and his voice held only the echo of otherworldly power. The great inhuman thing he had become, the nightmare made of shadows, that otherness, it was present at a remove, standing behind and around us as a witness. The Doxle who asked the final time asked as a timeless man grown weary from the years which could not touch him or wear him down.
“I am sure,” I said, and meant it.
“Then we are bound,” he said, relaxing as he exhaled.
His breath seemed to drive the shadows awa,y leaving us in the same booth and the same room in the Golden we’d been so far away from a moment earlier.
I stared around.
The world didn’t look any different?
I didn’t feel any different either?
I turned to ask Doxle what was up but shut my mouth when I saw another demon with features that could have marked him as Doxle’s brother cross the small room and pull a chair up to our booth.
“Well wasn’t that exciting!” the newcomer said. “And so much louder than you normally bother with you old fox.”
“Xarxes, always a pleasure,” Doxle said. “You got free of the well?”
“Oh, pff,” Xarxes said, waving his hand to swat Doxle’s words away. “That’s old news.”
“I am sadly out of the loop, it is true,” Doxle said. “I’m going to guess Lightstone?”
Xarxes sighed. “Ironbriar.”
Doxle winced. “Oh, my condolences. Don’t tell me they have you here as an evaluator?”
“What else?” Xarxes rolled his eyes.
“How many do they have you bound to so far?” Doxle asked, with what I thought was a trace of genuine concern in his voice.
“Only three,” Xarxes said. “Which of course is why I’m here. I am to find at least three more to bring into the fold on pain of disappointing Himself the Head of House.”
I could have asked what they were talking about, but I could smell the subtle traces of animosity between them and whatever feud they carried wasn’t anything I needed to be a part of.
I did recognize the names Lightstone and Ironbriar though. They were two of the Great Houses, with Lightstone being arguably the most powerful house and Ironbriar one of their chief supporters.
“Having any luck with the early scouting,” Doxle asked with the sort of guileless smile that I was certain had gotten punched in the face more than once.
Xarxes fixed me with his gaze.
“It appears not,” he said.
His tone was the sort of mild that hides frustration and malice, an impression which the rising scents of blood and steel seemed to confirm.
“Would you introduce us?” he asked, turning back to Xarxes.
“Hmm, no, I don’t think I will,” Doxle said, which from the spike of steel from Xarxes was definitely a violence worthy response.
But they didn’t come to blows.
It was puzzling.
Maybe they didn’t want to wreck the Golden?
“Really? How mysterious!” Xarxes said. He didn’t smell as pleased as he sounded but that didn’t seem to bother Doxle.
“Not especially so,” Doxle assured him. “And this is good news no? You won’t need to be concerned I will make off with any of your other hopefuls. So, see, you’ve garnered a win already!”
Xarxes let a short laugh escape his lips.
“Yes, that is your habit isn’t it?” Xarxes paused to regard Doxle critically. “I’ve always wondered why that is? Never more than one pact at a time, and often none at all? It boggles the mind.”
“In what possible manner does laziness strike you as something other than an essential aspect of my being?” Doxle asked.
“Laziness yes, but consistency?” Xarxes objected.
“I am a creature of perfect consistency,” Doxle proclaimed. “When have I ever done anything save what is easiest and the most in my own self interest? My track record is sterling, at least in that regard.”
“And no other,” Xarxes said. “But I will grant you that your vices are quite dependable. But still, only one? You must be miserable with so little power to draw on?”
“Misery is my lot in life,” Doxle said. “It’s why I am a creature of ease and comfort. What else could balance the scales?”
“Come now, you know Ironbriar would – well, no, I suppose they wouldn’t,” Xarxes said, deflating a bit.
“Nor would any of the rest,” Doxle said. “You’ve proven your worth well enough for any of them to take you on, but I? Alas I have also proven my worth, but that accounting falls solidly against my favor.”
“I suppose congratulations are in order then,” Xarxes said. “I imagine you’ll be vanishing off to some remote estate or rustic little cabin for the next few decades?”
“There are many open roads,” Doxle said. “Choosing is work though, and you know how I abhor that.”
“Only since your beloved was frozen,” Xarxes said which lead to surprising burst of ash from Doxle.
Whatever surge of emotion had shot through him was clamped down instantly though as the scent vanished as quickly as it appeared.
“Alas for my broken heart,” Doxle said. “I pray you never suffer such a loss.”
“As though I would be foolish enough to dally with a heart?” Xarxes said.
“Clearly, you are the wisest of us,” Doxle said.
“Perhaps I should heed that wisdom then,” Xarxes said. “It is telling me that the hunt for fresh talent will grow only more ernest as time passes and that with a quota to meet, I should be off.”
“It was a delight to see you once more,” Doxle said. “Give my regards to Enika when next you see her. I believe she is still working for Ironbriar, is she not?”
“Oh she is,” Xarxes said. “And I needn’t pass along your words. She’s in town as well. You can deliver your wishes personally!”
With that he rose, gave us an overly dramatic bow and glided out of the room, closing the door behind him.
Doxle maintained a calm and pleasant expression for precisely three second after the door close.
Then he reached across the table and took my hand.
“We need to leave. Right now.”