Clockwork Souls – Chapter 22

“It is neither uncommon nor unhealthy to yearn for the approval of others and to be concerned about their approbation. We are social creatures and it is in our bonds where much of our strength lies. Those who are close to us can provide more strength and wisdom than any one person could hold within themselves. 

Sadly this same coin bears another face, on which is written our greatest weakness and most deadly vulnerability and every time we let another person understand who we are, the coin is flipped.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxel of the Fire Flame

I wasn’t sure returning to my human form would matter, but I did it anyways. Thankfully, going back was the work of only a moment; my body knew that form without a need for me to consciously shape myself into it. For better or worse, it was who I had become and who a part of me would always be.

I expected some debate on that subject however. Too many people had seen me become something else. The question of how they could know that I was who I claimed to be followed naturally from that and was a particularly perilous one. For me. For them. And for people who I absolutely would not allow to be harmed.

The whistle sounded the end of the trial as I finished pouring myself back into myself. Apart from moving the extra mass away, the most challenging part of the transformation was ensuring my clothes and the new armor I was wearing wound up distributed properly around the outside of my body, rather than folded into it as I’d done when transforming.

Typically the organs would have been the trickiest bit. Circulatory systems are just the worst to get connected properly, but since I’d needed only the outer shell of a Felnarellian I’d been able to keep my innards intact. Most of the work I’d done in transforming had been modifications to my limbs, spine, and face, with a bit of general muscle bulk thrown in on top of it to complete the look and let my body hang correctly..

Getting rid of the bulk was the simplest bit. Human muscles were built to size up and down. Granted I’d oversized them well beyond what a human could ever become, but the right pathways were there for them to shrink away. 

Next up in complexity were my limbs. I hurried through that since no one was likely to notice if I left an arm a half inch longer it had been. 

My face I took a bit of extra time with, covering it with my arm as though I was wiping away sweat. Getting all the angles and proportions right was something I couldn’t have managed if I hadn’t had more than a decade of practice at it already. I didn’t need the extra tactile sense of what was happening to my nose and chin from touching them with my arm but it didn’t hurt either. 

I thought I was finishing up when I heard Mellina call out my name and smelled the proctors getting close but that was when I noticed I’d put my hands on backwards.

Not a brilliant move, I admit. Sometimes hurrying the simple things is a terrible idea. I made a show of folding my arms in front of me and then throwing them open as Mellina appeared through the fog. From a distance it might have approached a natural gesture but the important thing was my hands wound up in the correct direction on my wrists.

“Sorry, there were traps around the pit where they placed the trigger so it took me a bit of extra time to reach it,” Mellina said. “How bad was the beast?”

“I’m glad you needed the extra time,” I said which earned me a puzzled look.

The proctors arrived before she could ask me to explain and we both allowed them to escort us out of the fog and over to the winners area for those who’d be moving on to the final Trial. I wanted to give Mellina the details of what had happened but we were surrounded by the other winners before we could get a second alone.

I’m not overly fond of crowds, especially unnecessary ones. The proctors had us squished into a tiny corner of the seats despite the increasingly obviously reality that there wouldn’t be enough winners to come close to filling the space. Knowing that there were many of the ‘favored nobles’ still to go though it was easy to guess who the extra space was being reserved for. 

“Fantastic work you two!” Kelthas said, pulling me out of my scowl of thoughts, as he and Yarrin pushed past a few people to get to us.

“Were you able to watch what happened?” I asked, looking to Yarrin  and dreading but already knowing the answer.

“Most of it,” Yarrin said. “I saw you fighting the Reaving Beast until Mellina got to the banishing spell. You and it were really going at it so I’m sure I missed some of your moves but it was impressive anyways. It looked like you were trying to ride it when the banishment spells went off?”

I had not been fighting Cathoas or trying to ride him. He’d already returned to his home plane by the time the spells triggered. 

Was Yarrin lying to protect me? If so questioning him with all the other winner’s ears around wouldn’t help that effort at all so I shrugged and said, “Things happened pretty fast,” which at least had the virtue of being technically true.

“Did you have any problem with your beast?” Mellina asked Kelthas.

“A little,” Kelthas said. “It laughed off my attacks and tried to chew on me for a bit but when I wasn’t crunchy enough for it, it turned and went looking for Yarrin.”

“Your ‘a bit’ was long enough,” Yarrin said. “They didn’t hide the traps on ours all that well, but I did need some time to get by them.”

Which meant we’d gotten lucky in how we’d been split up. If the teams had been Kelthas and I, neither of us could have found the banishment spells all that fast, and a team of Yarrin and Mellina wouldn’t have had anyone to keep the beast away long enough for the other to trigger the spell.

That might have been luck, but I had a suspicion growing in my mind and it bore the mark of Doxle’s claws on it.

“We’re alone for the next one?” I asked

“Yes, though our opposition won’t necessarily be,” Mellina said. “They sometimes send in multiple Cadets against the applicants, depending on the scenario they’re running.”

“But we don’t need to win this round right?” Kelthas asked.

“An applicant can still be admitted if they are defeated in the final round, based on their performance throughout the trials,” Yarrin said, his voice taking on the quality of someone reciting text he’d had drilled into him from the official rulebook time and again.

“Also based on how much a Great House thinks it can earn from the applicants brand of magic,” Mellina said. “You should be in good shape there. Everyone knows how good Tantarian Battle Scourger Mail is and almost everyone wants some in their House Guards.”

I wasn’t clear on how indebted we would wind up being to whatever Great House selected us, or how much agency we would have in approving our selection by the Great House which ultimately spoke for us. My guesses the those answers to those questions were “very” and “virtually none”, but that was something I could deal with if I survived the next trial. Mellina had said House Astrologia would speak for me on her word, but I wondered if that would still be true given what I’d revealed about myself already.

The rest of the second round of the Trials passed by in a blur. Yarrin was able to narrate some of the events, sparing us from spending the whole time staring at a wall of fog helplessly.

I’d shaped a few more cheats inside my nose to see if I could pick up any hint of my sister’s scent but the stink of the arena drowned out everything else. It wasn’t a useful endeavor but that was possibly true of the trials in general.

On the other hand, I’d at least made it past the second trial, which was more than many could claim. In all, only around half of the applicant who entered the fog managed to reach the banishing spells. Of the other half none emerged under their own power though maybe half of those were still sufficiently alive that they were brought to the medics tents.

I couldn’t see what happened to the other Reaving Beasts and part of me decided that was probably for the best. I was angry enough at the senselessness of the trial system, it was not going to do me any good to dwell on the fact that the Trials had a far greater body count than anyone was willing to acknowledge due to all the people from other worlds who were swept in, driven mad with pain, and then dispatched by the equally terrified applicants.

In the end, the survivors of the second round were called into the arena together. They cleared the fog away, revealing a dueling platform, similar to the ones Doxle had in his house except much wider. An array of discs, also familiar from Doxle’s house, were arranged in a ring around the dueling circle and the proctors didn’t waste any time shuffling us onto them.

“For your final Trial you will face a senior member of our Cadet Corp,” the oldest looking proctor said. “As you can see, your dueling circle has been divided into quadrants, blue, red, green, and black. You will begin in the green quadrant at the rim. Your opponent will hold the center. While you are in the green quadrant you may use any skills or spells you possess, but your time will only count towards survival. Survive for three minutes and you will have finished the trial. Finishing the trial does not mean you have passed it however.”

That was puzzling. What was the point calling the trial done if we hadn’t passed it? I was not alone in wondering that, though I opted not to wonder aloud as some of my fellow applicants did. The proctor took no notice of the muttering though and continued on.

“Should you move to the blue quadrant, you may only assault you opponent or defend from their attacks with magic. The use of martial weapons will result in disqualification. While you are in the blue quadrant, you will earn one point towards your magical rank ever three seconds. The reverse is true with the red quadrant and your martial rank. No spell casting at all in the red quadrant.”

Which left one obvious question and another that I was more interested in the answer to.

“Should you enter the black quadrant you will be declaring your surrender even should your entry into the black quadrant be forced by your opponent,” the proctor said, answering the obvious question at least. “You will retain any points you have accumulated if you end your match by entering the black quadrant.”

That was surprising until I considered the nobles who’d bought a pass into the Academy. The black quadrant was their ticket out of a brutal beating. All they needed to do was sprint through one of the other quadrants, and tap out in the black in order to finish with some points towards a rank they could probably buy up later.

“Leaving the arena will also result in disqualification and the loss of all accumulated points,” the proctor said. 

“What if we beat the Cadet?” Nelphas called out, his voice dripping with arrogance.

“By all means, we encourage you to try. Defeating your opponent will set you to sixty points towards both your magical and physical ranks and end the trial immediately in your favor.”

“Except for the part where you’ll be very dead for even making the attempt,” Mellina whispered to me.

I wouldn’t be, and I knew she and Kelthas would be okay but Yarrin’s fate was looking somewhat dire. His best bet might be to follow the rich nobles’ game plan and sprint to the black quadrant so that he would at least survive? Stepping out of the arena and forfeiting his chance would be even better at keeping him alive, but he seemed intent on going through with the trial so that wasn’t an option.

“Are there any questions?” the proctor asked, to which my answer was ‘yes, several dozen at least’, but before anyone could respond he turned his back with a “good, then let’s begin”.

The dueling arena rose into upwards and the discs we were on joined it. Dark storm clouds had gathered over the course of the trials and as we ascended to meet the final challenge before us, the boom of thunder growing ever closer shook the sky.

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