Clockwork Souls – Chapter 43

“In sleep we are supposed to find our rest, in the loving embrace of the night we are meant to find the relaxation denied to us during the day. It would be so delightful if my dreams would read that decree rather than making it their sole purpose to find new and exciting torments to inflict on me.

Perhaps if I were a better person? Eh, that seems a dreadful amount of effort to put forth and I’m much too tired to be decent you see.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame one waking every morning

Sleep finally did manage to claim me. It was an ugly battle, full of both tossing and turning, but eventually my stupid thoughts collapsed in on themselves and the covers swallowed me whole.

My dreams are normally of a wide open sea with ever changing currents. I don’t have any special magic there, and I don’t need any. Changing myself in that boundless ocean is effortless and inevitable. I’m not unique in that trait either. The world is no more defined than my dream self is. Nowhere in it is there resistance to change and no where is there the anchor of solidity to preserve anything for longer than the space of a moment. 

All is motion. All is an ever flowing, ever adapting transformation from one whim to the next. All is present and as it should be.

All except me.

At first there was only a spec of grit in my dreams, a single grain of unchanging sand floating along within my greater whole. 

As the years passed though, I began to dream more of my human self than of the ever changing flow.

In many dreams I still swam within the sea of horizonless creation, but though I could change with it, there was a “truth within” which I always returned to, a ‘me’ I could not let go of.

That ‘me’, my human body, had a weight and a durability which was as alien to the boundless sea as my magics were to the world I called home. In place of buoyancy, my body would sink, called down into the unknowable depths, where the unseeable changes lay.

In my better dreams, I would frolic and swim in the sunlit currents, creating my own buoyancy through motion and joy, whatever cares I had having been left behind in the solid world after my first dreaming transformation.

In my nightmares on the other hand, I would drop below the Epipelagic world of light and clarity, and into the Mesopelagic reaches where understanding begins to fail before waking right as I touched the Bathypelagic depths where only the unknowable existed.

Since I have little say in where the currents of my dreams will take me, I didn’t bother hoping for any particular sort of dream, but I also wasn’t surprised as I found my dreamself plummeting downwards as though a leaden weight had been fastened around my throat.

Even in my dreams I was too tired to fight to stay in the light and so I let the weight of the day bear me down into the twilight, knowing I would awake early and unrested once I crashed into the midnight layers.

Except I didn’t.

Down beneath the where the light could fall, I found that I still could.

 If I’d been the unencumbered flow of my earliest dreams, I wouldn’t have survived falling so low. That knowledge came from nowhere but with the force of absolute certainty. I couldn’t tell if survival was impossible because the things which lurked in the midnight fed upon the ones who dwelled in the higher zones, or if the Bathypelagic depths themselves were simply antagonistic to the survival of those ones who lived above it. 

Either could have been true, and neither mattered.

What I’d become, with all my mass, and consistency, and durability was not supposed to exist. I was a problem for which the Bathypelagic and whatever dwelt within it had no understanding or answer for. 

Unfortunately, that didn’t mean I had an answer for them either.

In darkness I hung, my dreams feeling far less like dreams and far more like a place I shouldn’t have dared to tread. 

I should have tried swimming up. I should have made my own current to carry me back to the zones I belonged in. I should have sought escape but my heart was too heavy to lift.

Cast it away, a wordless voice said.

It spoke in sorrow and comfort, in wisdom and temptation. It sounded a whole lot like me, only older, more certain, and far more free of confusion and doubt than I was.

Reaching into my chest was the easiest thing in the world. It wasn’t like my form mattered or held any special shape or meaning. 

It wasn’t like I needed a heart either. I’d worked on it so diligently because I was expected to have one. If I wanted to be like her, I was supposed to have a heart.

But I wasn’t like her.

I was like this. 

Something unknowable.

Not a person.

Not who I pretended to be at all.

I couldn’t see my heart but I could feel it in my hand, beating like I’d told it too, confused and concerned, wondering what it had done wrong?

It hadn’t done anything wrong though.

I’d misused it.

I’d let it be broken.

Though I rebuilt it, and rebuilt it again, I couldn’t seem to keep it safe.

Better just to let it fall. It was so heavy and there were deeper reaches even below the midnight, places where it would be forever lost and forgotten.

I could live without it.

It would be one less thing to fix, one less thing to worry about. I could be exactly what I wanted to be, exactly what I knew I should be, rationally, all the time.

Why was I holding on it?

I didn’t want it anymore.

I never had.

I just been confused. I’d tried to pretend, as though that would make everything all better and yet it never had.

She was still gone.

And now she was gone again.

I wanted to drop the lie I held in my hand.

I wanted to be rid of it.

I wanted…

I wanted…

I wanted my sister.

And that was why I couldn’t let it go.

I wasn’t holding my heart. I was holding the last piece of her I had.

You will never rise bearing that weight, the wordless voice said.

“Then I will make of this my home,” I said, finding the anger within me to refuse the despair I’d let wrap around what was most precious to me. My spoken words sent ripples out into eternity, casting a declaration down before every unknown thing around me. 

That was what woke me.

I was in my bed.

Right where I’d gone to sleep.

Except for the small but important part where my room was flooded with a two feet of water and I could feel myself sliding back into my human skin from being something else. Something I could not begin to describe.

It was stupid but I put my hand on my chest and felt the beating of my heart. Right there in my chest. Right where it was supposed to be.

I heard a knocking at my door and I searched for the words to say ‘hang on there’s a few hundred gallons of water in here,” but as I struggled to find them, the water drained away, receding like a wave being drawn back into the ocean.

“Mistress Kati, breakfast is ready if you would care to start the day with a repast?” Pastries asked from the other side of the door.

“Thank you,” I said. “I’ll be right there.”

By the time I swung my feet off the bed and placed them one the floor, the carpet and I were both bone dry.

A new suit of chain armor waited for me, but I opted to skip that. The armor I’d worn yesterday was nice and had protected me from a few hits but, if I had to fight any more death matches today, I was done being subtle as I’d been yesterday about my dislike of the whole concept.

While I skipped the armor, I did opt for more than a bathrobe for this meal though. Doxle had a ridiculously well stocked wardrobe of women’s clothing – probably from wife number two hundred or something – and it wasn’t too hard to find a tunic top, leather vest, pants and boots in addition to a fresh set of small clothes which fit me well enough. 

Attired like a real person, I followed the once-again-delightful scent of breakfast down to the dining room where my housemates had, quite properly, not waited for me before tucking into the buffet of offerings before us.

“Hey! She’s up,” Ilyan said, drawing everyone’s attention to my arrival. “Try the Creamy Rollind Eggs, they’re amazing!”

He was not wrong about that.

Nor was Mellina wrong about the Redling Juice, or Narla about the Lemon Poppy Seed bread.

“So, do we know what we’re doing today?” I asked between bites.

“Evaluations,” Doxle said, strolling into the room without looking up from the book he was perusing.

“What will they be evaluating?” Narla asked.

“In theory? What your aptitudes are to determine which training programs beyond the basic squad leadership ones you’ll be given,” Doxle said. “In practice? How entertaining it is to torture you. The training assignments are either purchased or inflicted on the Cadets.”

“We don’t have the capital to purchase any of the good training programs, do we?” Yarrin asked.

“That rather depends what you mean by ‘good’,” Doxle said. “The Imperial Academy prides itself on producing the best Cadets the Imperial Academy produces. The Elite Cadets, of which you are now counted among the ranks of, are given a Final Examination at the end of their tenure which determines the ranking they will be assigned. That examination is fair and accurate only because, and to the extent that, the Houses rely on it to set a market value for the Cadets in question. If they pay for an A ranked caster, they require A rank performance out of them.”

“Isn’t it in the Academy’s best interest to produce as many high rank cadets as possible?” Narla asked.

“You would think so, but, alas, scarcity is what creates real value,” Doxle said. “As only the Academy can provide an Imperial Ranking, over time they have found it more profitable to simply focus on weeding out those candidate who aren’t willing to work for, and pay for, a high rank on their own. Attempting to create more high ranked candidates would cheapen the appeal you see.”

“So why would anyone purchase training from them if their courses suck?” I asked.

“The ‘good’ courses Master Yarrin asked about are the ones which either provide an opportunity to liaison with the other elites, or, in rare cases, actually do have something of value to teach,” Doxle said.

“And the others?” Mellina asked.

“Those are the ones which are focused on weeding out as many Cadets as possible,” Doxle said.

“Will they offer any courses which involve field work?” Yarrin asked.

“Field work?” Narla asked.

“He means fighting against Reaving Storms and Beasts,” Mellina said.

That was, in theory, what the Imperial Elites were for, but as first years it didn’t seem likely they’d risk letting us anywhere near one.

And, of course, I was wrong. 

“Those are one of the most successful avenues for thinning the cadet ranks, so, yes, of course they will,” Doxle said. “First year cadets cannot, officially, be assigned to one of those programs, you’re much too young and untrained, a danger to yourself and others, little more than tragedies waiting to happen at the most inopportune of time, and so on and so forth.”

“But we can get into one if we ask?” Yarrin said.

“Yes. Requesting entry into a live fire course before you’re required to partake in them is considered a sign of such foolishness that the only viable punishment is to grant the request.”

“I think we should do it,” Yarrin said. “It’s the only thing that’s going to keep us alive.”

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