Clockwork Souls – Chapter 23

“Anger is a misunderstood force. It is so easily equated with fire and destruction, but that is not its genesis, though it does burn, and it does destroy. The seed which anger blossoms from, wrongly in so very many cases, is the desire to protect ourselves from pain, and loss, and powerlessness. That anger fails to serve its intended purpose more times than not does not mean that it is wholly without merit however. Sometimes things should burn.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxel of the Fire Flame

I’m not sure why the dueling elite of the Empire had decided that falling out of bounds should lead to a fatal drop, but the fact that the platform for the third trial rose exactly as high as the one in Doxle’s dueling room left me wondering whether he an Enika had been conspiring to give Idrina and I a preview of the challenge we would have to face. 

A part of me hoped she understood the lesson Doxle had imparted about not being able to use boundaries outside the arena since in this case there weren’t any.

That part of me was foolish because if Idrina passed her trial we would certainly come to blows again, and after her performance in the first trial I was pretty sure our next fight was going to turn out worse for me than our first one.

‘If she passed’? I don’t know who I was kidding. I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that Idrina Ironbriar was going to pass the third trial, probably with the highest marks out of the incoming class. It was possible her brother wouldn’t make it, but even that seemed unlikely. He trained with her. She wouldn’t have bothered with that if he was hopeless and compared to her even a fairly impressive level of skill didn’t have much hope of keeping up.

“We’ll want to watch the fights carefully,” Mellina said. “The Cadets will be holding back against the people who’ve bribed themselves into a position in the Academy, but even then we might learn something.”

“Yeah. The Cadets like to show off,” Yarrin said. “They might miss, or pull back on the force behind a blow but we should be able to see some of their better moves if we wind up going later. Hopefully we won’t get called in first though.”

“Why? Do we really need to see what they can do if all we need to do is survive?” Kelthas asked.

Yarrin’s jaw took on a hard set but it was Mellina who answered the question.

“They like to make examples of the first few applicants,” she said. “They think it unsettles the rest.”

“They’re not wrong about that,” Yarrin said.

I didn’t want to ask which sibling he’d attended a trial to watch, not when it was exceedingly unlikely that the sibling in question was still alive.

“Oh, well I hope it is me then,” Kelthas said. “I can take a beating better than most of the folks here. It’s what I’m built for.”

Yarrin gave a pained expression at that and I smelled the certainty in his fear that Kelthas was wrong as well as the hope that it would never become an issue.

I couldn’t argue with that, even with all the candidates who’d been eliminated  there were still close to a hundred applicants left. Random chance said we were likely to be somewhere in the middle of the pack.

But random chance was not what controlled our fate.

The first applicant called forth was Nelphas Lightstone. 

“Seems unfair to start with the setting the bar so high,” he said, a ring on his hand flaring as it amplified his voice. It was unnecessary. The arena was already enspelled to amplify whatever was said within it.

His opponent, the first Cadet to take the field floated on a small disk dispatched from the larger one where the other Cadets were waiting. 

“Yeah, yeah, let’s see what you got hot stuff,” the silver haired Cadet said, rolling his shoulders as he walked to the center of the arena without a care in the world.

“Get ready for a show that’ll blow you away then,” Nelphas said and that’s exactly what it was.

The whistle to begin sounded and the arena filled was more flashy dramatics than a midsummer’s parade. Nelphas opened by summoning a bow of light that threw explosive star bolts at the Cader, who in turn parried them with a sword wreathed in silver fire. 

The poison blast Nelphas had used in the first round appeared next only to be frozen in mid-air by the Cadet.

The Cadet sent undulating dragons composed of silver flame at Nelphas but Nelphas dodged away from them with a wholly unnecessary sumersault which took him into the blue quadrant.

The rest of the battle proceeded just like that. The Cadet would attack with a big showy spell that only ever succeeded in moving Nelphas from the blue to the red quadrants and back again. Nelphas would respond with an even more dramatic attack with was so unfocused as to pack no more punch than a light breeze. I had almost zero experience with watching caster duels and it was still blindingly obvious that they were only playing with each other. They both seemed intent on running the clock out and filling each second with as much spectacle as possible.

The crowd, both the applicants and those who’s managed to score seating in floating guests boxes, loved every bit of it. There were cheers, gasps of breath and even a chant of Nelphas’ name as the three minutes drew to a close.

When the final whistle sounded, the two ‘combatants’ met in the center of the ring and shook hands.

“The match is ended. Are there any who will speak for this applicant?” the lead proctor asked.

“House Lightstone speaks for this applicant,” a tall and almost skeletally thin gentleman in one of the bigger guests boxes said.

A cheer went up as though the outcome had been in slightest bit of doubt. Nelphas drank it in as though he’d proven himself a Hero of the Empire with his exhibition match. A disk was dispatched from the Lightstone’s guest box to take him off the platform but the Cadet waved it away and insisted that Nelphas take another disk back to the Cadet’s box, an honor Nephlas seemed to be only too happy to receive. 

The next two people called were other nobles, and while they didn’t put on quite the same show that Nelphas did, the general flow of the ‘Trial’ was more or less the same. The silver haired Cadet seemed quite happy to allow his opponents to take their best shots at him and refrained time and again from delivering blows that would have knocked them out of the ring or into the black quadrant.

I should have been happy about that. After the brutality of the last two rounds, I should have been delighted at the return to something resembling civility.

“Next applicant, Kelthas Greenfield, report to the dueling circle,” the proctor called out.

My edges went wobbly and I smelled vomit as my breakfast made a bid to escape.

He couldn’t be going in. It was much too early.

But he was.

“At least he’ll be able to put on a better show than the last two,” Mellina said.

I expected Yarrin to say something in response but his gaze was locked straight ahead. I followed his sightline and saw what had captured his attention.

A new Cadet was being called in.

“Who’s that?” The Cadet was too far away for me to smell but my instincts were screaming about him anyways.

“I don’t know,” Yarrin said, no happier than I was.

Mellina looked between the two of us and caught the gravity of the situation like an infection.

“He did well enough in the first two rounds. He can run to the black quadrant and he’s still sure to get picked,” she said, willing that future to come to pass.

Neither Yarrin nor I challenged her.

It was possible.

It could happen.

“A peasant?” the Cadet said as he took his place in the center of arena, surprise and malice dripping from each word. The tabard he wore over his armor bore a variation on the Imperial logo, so I couldn’t tell if he was from one of Great Houses that despised the general populace more than the others, or if it was purely a personal issue “How disgusting. Someone will need to show you where you belong.”

“I belong right here,” Kelthas said. “And in three minutes, I’m going to belong over there.” He pointed towards the Cadet box where the former applicants were sharing congratulatory ribbing from their new Cadet companions.

“No. You won’t be,” the Cadet said and my nose caught an alien smell that I knew had to be coming from him.

I drew in a deeper breath and almost missed the whistle blowing to start the match. There were too many scents still to isolate anything about the Cadet aside from a few whiffs of a sour-bitter acid that felt like it was melting my nose when I focused on it too much.

The clash of steel on steel brought my awareness back to the scene before me and, surprisingly, it looked like Kelthas was doing well.

Rather than racing towards the black quadrant, Kelthas had leapt towards the center, meeting the Imperial Cadets first thrust with a solid shield block that knocked the Cadet back two paces into the black quadrant.

Kelthas waited for the Cadet to step forward again, avoiding stepping any closer to the black quadrant and allowing the Cadet the chance to change his stance and fix his grip.

Then they were fighting again, blow after blow of steel crashing against steel but to little avail. Kelthas’ armor was justifiably renowned for its durability and, for a duel where he only needed to survive for a short period of time, it was one of the best possible options to have.

“Oh. Yes. I see,” the Imperial Cadet said, informing no one of anything, just flapping his lips to hear himself speak.

He adopted a new posture and I saw a weird effect pass though the blade of his sword. It swelled slightly and shifted bits and pieces of it around, though it happened so fast I was only able to construct that impression well after the fact.

His next blow struck at Kelthas’ left knee and a shower of sparks erupted. Worse, Kelthas dropped to one in response to the hit.

I could smell blood but looking at the arena, there hadn’t been much spilled. I tried to cling to that as a hopeful sign. I really tried.

Kelthas rose to his feet in time to parry the next blow, but the move cost him his sword as the Imperial Cadet’s blade cut right through it.

Throwing away the blade, Kelthas staggered back and tried to summon a fresh one to his hand. He wasn’t Indrina Ironbriar though. He still needed to speak the words and perform the hand gestures and the Imperial Cadet did not give him time.

With a double handed overhead chop, the Imperial Cadet shattered the Tantarian Mail from Kelthas’ right hand’s armor and broke the arm at the same time.

Kelthas tried to draw a dagger with his left hand but the Imperial Cadet kicked him and sent him flying to the side to land in a heap on the border between the blue quadrant and the black.

On shaky legs Kelthas stood again and for a moment I thought he was going to end the fight by taking the one step he needed to take into the black quadrant.

Instead he raised his left hand and began gathering the spell force for the bolt he’d used in our first trial together.

It was a desperate plot and a stupid one. The Imperial Cadet was on him before he was half finished and slammed Kelthas with another blow had shattered the mail from Keltha’s left hand too and broke that arm too.

“That’s not possible,” Yarrin said. “You can’t break Tantarian Mail like that. It’s not possible.”

And yet, as we watched, it happen again and again. Kelthas tried to step over into the black quadrant but the Imperial Cadet blocked his movement, forcing him back with a series of blows which blew away huge chucks of the Tantarian Mail from Kelthas’ chest, back and thighs.

With a final blow he shattered Kelthas’ helmet and let Kelthas fall to the ground.

Broken and bleeding, Kelthas  crawled the three feet to the black quadrant before saying, “Okay, it’s over. I surrender.”

The Imperial Cadet cocked his head at that.

“I wasn’t taught the meaning of surrender,” he said.

And then his blade fell on Kelthas’ neck.

I could have survived the blow.

But Kelthas couldn’t.

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