Clockwork Souls – Chapter 6

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

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not as such,” Doxle said.

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

Doxle shook his head and sighed at that though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not,” I agreed.

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

“I’m not going to fail,” I said.

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

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

Trina wasn’t being held in the Academy.

I knew exactly where she was.

I knew how deep under the earth she was.

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

But I had to know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman was a far greater one though.

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

Doxle threw a resigned smile in my direction.

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

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