“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.