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.

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