“The friendships we form illuminate not only the paths we walk in life but the hidden corners of our hearts. The strengths we call upon to defend them, the weaknesses they shield us from? Those and so many other qualities that we would never find on our own are but one of the many joys of finding those with whom we can share the deepest bonds.
How terribly unfortunate it is for you therefor that you chose the friends you did.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, holding the tip of a blade against the neck of a prone Grayfall sergeant in a room of corpses.
Between one breath and the other, I was up and out of the chair. With the next breath I was halfway down the hall, Trina’s scent clear and filling my senses so strongly I could almost see it.
Mellina caught up to me as I got to the door. I was only dimly aware of that because she’d grabbed hold of my arm.
It wasn’t a good move on her part.
I was in the sort of mood where reflexively taking someone’s arm off at the elbow seemed perfectly reasonable. Fortunately for Mellina I was also so distracted that I wasn’t fully aware she was even in my general vicinity, much less trying to restrain me.
“Kati! What Happened!”
She failed in her attempt to get me to stop largely because I was strong enough to carry her with me as I stalked through the door, scenting the wind to find out where Trina was.
When the darkness covered me though? That got my attention.
“Sorry,” Mellina said, releasing her magic almost as quickly as she’d called it up. “You looked like you were possessed there.”
“Might be,” I said, sparring as little brain power for answers as I could.
I hadn’t lost Trina’s scent. All was, provisionally, right with the world.
Mellina could have demanded a better answer than that. It would have been perfectly reasonable. Instead I gained a shadow of a different sort. Much like she’d entered the room I first met her in sheltered behind Holman, she found a similar position behind me, out of eyesight and out of whichever path I chose to follow.
Ilyan, Narla, and Yarrin followed us as well, arriving in that order, but none of them disturbed me. Maybe because Mellina was warning them off?
It wasn’t important.
The worries about being ambushed by the Imperial Cadet’s friends were still there, despite being diluted by the bath I’d taken.
They weren’t important either though.
Trina’s scent was growing more faint.
That was important.
I launched myself up a trellis and shouldered through a shuttered window into one of the other dorms.
The three cadets, all male, who were in the room made some kind of noise. Appreciation? Shock? Anger? One of those probably.
The scent trail led across the hall, through another occupied room and another closed shutter.
With pieces of shutter falling with me, I dropped the three stories to the ground below and shifted to my favorite quadrupedal form for the extra speed and the enhanced olfactory capabilities.
That wasn’t a terribly bright idea. People react poorly to seeing a dire wolf hunting through the campus. A few cadets made the poor choice of trying to stop me. I wasn’t so far gone that I couldn’t chose kindness though. I didn’t leave any of them dead or even dying. For my trouble I was ‘gifted’ with a sufficient quantity of blood splattered on my fur that it threatened to drown out Trina’s scent.
Fortunately there was a fountain.
The fountain was cold.The fountain was very cold.
It did get the blood off me before I lost the scent though which made the bone deep chill worth it. In hindsight that was also a sign that I’d messed up my fur transformation, which had probably left me looking just a bit more terrifying than I’d intended to be, but at the time I neither knew nor cared about details like that.
“Any guess where she’s going?” Ilyan asked the others from about thirty feet behind me.
How they’d managed to keep up with me was a mystery but a pang of fondness ran through me that they’d made the effort.
“There’s magic running in the direction she’s going,” Yarrin said.
Except I wasn’t following magic. I was following Trina and the magic which bound me to her had nothing to do with other planes or the mystical energies they held.
The scent led out of the Cadet’s quarters and into an area on the Imperial grounds I’d never been to.
So I changed that.
There was a thirty foot tall wall dividing the two areas. If they’d intended that to be a deterrent though, they should have made it out of something that dire wolf claws couldn’t gauge a purchase into.
They also should have put more guards on it.
Which isn’t to say that the wall was unguarded.
It was simply unguarded after I crossed to the other side.
Loping deeper into what turned out to the Academy’s research quarter, I switched back to my human form. The white bathrobe wasn’t great for stealth though, so I ditched that and went even smaller, dropping to the size of a cat and the appearance a miniaturized dire wolf pup.
“I’ll get that for you,” Mellina said, picking up the discarded bathrobe, an act I would be grateful for later.
That she’d followed me into a highly forbidden area of the Imperial grounds was something I should have been grateful for too but even in hindsight it worried me. Just because I was setting a bad example didn’t mean other people needed to lose all common sense and pitch themselves into danger too.
Those thoughts were for later thinking though.
Trina’s scent was diminishing.
Not fading or dispersing or being covered by a stronger one like a real scent could have been. What was happening with her scent wasn’t like anything I’d experienced before. It was like she was being erased, a thought which left me full of growls and undirected rage, neither of which I could give into. Not while even a whiff of her scent remained.
On bounding feet, I dashed from shadow to shadow, passing by tall and heavily secured buildings of stone and iron. Magical barriers surrounded at least half of them and the rest had either armed guards posted in front of them or were derelict and had stood for years.
The farther I went the more the buildings began to connect with one another, from simple walkways, to enclosed tubes, and finally strange bits of machinery with thousands of gears and sliding panels and vents of steams and other gasses. When the architecture started to bend into shapes no other building in the Empire shared, and the air became heavy enough to weigh down the fluffy fur I’d grown, I started to question whether I’d followed Trina’s scent to a different world.
The guards who walked by while I clung to a shadowed ledge added to the otherworldly sense of the place too. Armor bits attached to an underlayer of cloth or chainmail wasn’t an uncommon look for the Empire’s warriors, but these guards had nothing underneath the armor they were borrowing. Or at least nothing of flesh and blood.
Knowing the Empire, I was pretty certain they would also be lacking in mercy, compassion, and hesitation, but I’d come much too far to be put off by that.
A fifth floor window led me into a laboratory with a dead body on a table.
It wasn’t Trina’s, which was neither a surprise nor a relief.
Not when her scent led deeper into the lab.
On silent feet I scurried down a series of overhead pipes which led to another lab and another dead body.
Also not Trina’s. Also not comforting.
The third lab held the distinction of containing a body I recognized. The Cadet who Narla punched off the battle arena lay there with tracings of iron, silver, and platinum stitched into his skin. The platinum ones were glowing with a light I would have mistaken as coming from a healing spell, but he was well beyond the reach of any magic like that.
The last room held an open window which looked out over a circular courtyard. Along the walls into the courtyard thick black cabling was strewn like untended vines. All of them led to a giant orrery which was set off on the far side of the courtyard, just outside a series of concentric circles which were adorned with something which I absolutely could not look at.
I wasn’t feeling squeamish, I wasn’t afraid, I simply could not force my eyes to process or even look at whatever lay in the center of the circles.
So I jumped from the window.
If I couldn’t look at it, I could at least touch it, or taste it.
By the time I landed though, Trina’s scent was gone.
And there wasn’t anything in the courtyard besides the unmoving orrery and the limp cables which ran to it.
Nothing in the circles I couldn’t see.
Nothing to the circles themselves.
I started clawing at the ground.
It was something to do. Trina had gotten away, and clawing into the underworld made as much sense as anything else.
Except that my claws couldn’t scratch whatever the research area’s floor was made out of.
I got bigger, but that didn’t help.
I flooded magic into my claws.
Which also didn’t help.
The floor of the courtyard was an off-gold color and made of something sturdier than I could damage.
I raged against it and drew in great gulps of air desperate to find more of Trina’s scent, until, after much too long, I had to admit that my lead on Trina’s whereabouts was gone again.
This place was different.
The scent hadn’t lead onwards from here.
This spot was special.
The guards I’d seen should have been able to track me down once I started ripping away at the ground. They should have surrounded me once I finally collapsed and shrank down in on myself. I should be in tears and a cage, instead of just tears.
“We need to get back to the dorm,” an empty spot of air beside me said.
With a nod of my puppy head, I jumped into Mellina’s arms and let her carry me back. Losing Trina again was the last straw for the day. The bath had rejuvenated me somewhat and talking with my housemates had helped center me too and all of that had been blown aside like tower of dust by failing at the one thing I endured everything I had so far for.
I was done.
It was time to give up and sleep and maybe wake in a century or more once the world had a chance to figure itself out and start making sense again.
That entirely reasonable plan lasted just long enough for Mellina to get us out of the highly restricted Research quarter and into the shadows behind one of the abandoned Cadet dorms.
Which was where the older Cadets found us.
Just not the older Cadets I was expecting.
“Okay, that was crazy,” a girl who could have been sculpted from white granite said. “Don’t worry though. I’m not here to turn you in. I just want to talk.”
“You’re not alone,” Mellina said and I could both hear and feel the tension in her voice.
If giant perfect statue girl was setting us up I was going to react poorly, but I didn’t smell any fear from Mellina and I was too exhausted to change away from puppy form.
“And you’re very perceptive,” Perfect Statue Girl said. “But really, we don’t mean you any harm.”
“That’s good,” Yarrin said. “Because she’s not the only one who’s perceptive here.”
Narla and Ilyan stood behind him providing the credible threat his words needed.
“Big breaths everyone,” a slim boy about my age said as he stepped out of the shadows and was joined by three other Cadets. “Let’s just breath out that tension, and start this all over again.”
“What do you want?” Mellina asked, letting down precisely none of her guard.
“To help you clean up your trail,” Perfect Statue Girl said. “That was some excellent spellwork you did cloaking your entrance into the Horror Labs, but it won’t matter if they can track you back here from what you left behind in there.”
“We didn’t leave anything behind,” Mellina said.
“You? Probably not,” slim boy said. “Her though?” He pointed to me and I gave him a puppy scowl.
“Who are you?” Yarrin asked.
“Us? Oh we’re the Empresses Last Guard!”