Clockwork Souls – Chapter 50

“You would think with a life as long as mine has been, there would be a fair chance that my great works would all be behind me. Surely the challenges of today must seem so small when weighed against all those which have come before. After so long, isn’t it time to gracefully rest and let the world just carry on?

I must confess there are days when that would be delightful, and days when the night’s before are just a touch too tiring and the world can go and do as it will.

The truth though is that our greatest works always lie before us. Whatever we’ve done has only served to create the world as it is. Our greatest challenge, no matter where or when we stand, is to create the world that will be. Even a small act, one kindness, one connection when placed atop a thousand earlier ones can have the weight to change everything.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

We arrived at the next evaluation twenty minutes late, and I was so eager to hear how the instructors were going to tear us down. I’d been given free rein by my Advisor to cause havoc, and with the recharge he’d given me, all the misery from freeing the prisons had faded away leaving me with only the cheery warmth of knowing they were safe and sound and that the Academy was going to be frothing and/or terrified by their disappearance.

Laughing in their faces was definitely not going to win me any points.

But I was so very ready to do it anyways.

And then, no one noticed us at all. Because why should I get to have any fun?

Late arrival? Who cares? Not the instructors that was sure.

They were all clustered together arguing with some people I’d never seen before.

People in full Imperial armor.

“They think the Reaving Beasts are still in the Academy,” Yarrin said, since we (and all the rest of the cadets) were all watching the distant discussion intently. “Or some of them do. The Knights are arguing that if one or more escaped into the city there’s going to be hell to pay.”

The Evaluations had been scheduled to take place on one of the Academy’s tourney fields. They weren’t terribly different from the temporary arena where we’d run through the Trials to be admitted, just smaller by about two-thirds, probably because each class of cadets was less than a third the size of the applicant pool. 

The instructors and the Imperial Knights had removed themselves to the far end of the field. Behind them, a set of iron gates stood open leading to a tunnel of darkness which had to adjoin some part of the prison-stables the people I’d freed had been held in.

“I bet that monster went and set them free,” a raging idiot with a death wish said from about ten feet behind me.

I didn’t have to turn around.

Nelphas Lightstone was definitely talking about me.

He didn’t know I’d been the one to release the prisoners.

If he had he wouldn’t be mouthing off like that.

In fact, if he knew how I’d set them free, and had two gray cells to rub together, he’d be running for the Empire’s nearest border before getting on my bad side.

I mean, would Doxle even object to me thrashing the narcissistic jerk to within an inch of his life? I could be nice and leave one of his bones unbroken even. That would show restraint right?

“He’s walking over here,” Mellina said. “Try not to kill him.”

As it turned out though, I wasn’t the one she needed to warn.

“Come on, confession is good for the soul,” Nelphas said. “Which one of you deviants was the one who…” That was as far as he got before his words cut off with a strangled choke.

Since I’d been planning tripping him and then crushing his throat with my boots and had yet to do either of those things I turned to see who’d beaten me to the punch.


She was a lot faster than her size would lead someone to expect. Also a lot less merciful than someone, in this case Nelphas, had counted on.

“Hi there cuz!” she said in a cheery tone.

Nelphas responded with a gurgle and a desperate scramble against the hand Narla had clasped around his throat.

“Do you know my father specifically told me that I should always do whatever you told me to because, and I am quoting here, ‘he’s the Lightstone you will never be’.”

Nelphas continued punching and scratching at Narla’s hand, adding in flailing kicks with his legs which were otherwise hanging uselessly below him as Narla hoisted him a good foot or two off the ground.

“Now that I’m not a Lightstone at all, do you think I should do everyone a favor by showing them what you’re like on the inside?” She was still speaking in a cheerful tone but the clawed hand she held up made it pretty clear how literal she was about showing everyone what was inside Nelphas Lightstone.

Nelphas, for all that he lacked Narla’s physical might, did overshadow her in terms of social power however, which translated into a half dozen of the lackeys he’d been performing for drawing their weapons and calling forth the beginning of their attack spells.

Part of me wanted so see the six or so of them try to take Narla on. I was reasonably sure it would go terrifyingly poorly for them, and likely spiral out of control into a general melee among the assembled First Year Cadets.

Part of me remembered Grammy though and her lessons about how raging crowds created more opportunities for hurting the innocent than the guilty.

“It sounded like he was making a Formal Accusation against my honor,” I said, reaching up to place a restraining touch against Narla’s outstretched arm. “We are required to hear the charges he proposes before issuing a Official Challenge.”

Narla looked at me and raised an eyebrow in disbelief.

I nodded calmly in return and she shrugged before lowering him back to the ground.

“Well then?” I prompted him, not waiting until he’d finished choking a few lungfuls of air through his rapidly bruising throat. “Did you have a Formal Accusation to make against House Riverbond? And if so shall we set the terms of the Trial here and now?”

“There will be no Accusations and no Trials,” Jalaren, the proctor from the Trials said as he strode through our two groups. “Cadets are allowed neither to give nor claim offense. Now break apart and be silent or I will assign you all to the city sewer detail.”

And with that he was gone, continuing his rapid walk to join the other instructors.

Since I was looking for the active mission detail and not the one where my enhanced sense of smell would be a horrible curse, I shrugged and turned my back on Nelphas.

It was a perfect opening.

He really should have tried to hit me, or stab me, or blow me up with some kind of spell.

Well, I mean not if he wanted to live past the next minute, but as a general thing based on what he knew of me, attacking then would have been a really great move.

Except for Narla I guess.

If he’d tried to shoot me with a spell she would have introduced the front of his face to the rear of his skull.

So, points to Nelphas I guess, he was not stupid enough to try for a cheap shot when there was someone demonstrably willing to murder him and eagerly looking for an excuse to do so.

“I’m going to kill you,” he said instead of attacking, wounded pride requiring some form of salve.

“Oh cousin my cousin, we both know you were going to try to kill me no matter I did, now, hopefully, you’ll make a decent attempt at it rather than being such an incredible disappointment.” Narla’s tone didn’t change at all and as far as I could tell from her body language and scent, she really did hope Nelphas would do his best when he tried to kill her and she really wasn’t worried about him succeeding at all.

I took a quick moment to sniff the air again.

Narla was fully human. At least as far as I could tell. 

That confidence though? I was something everyone here was afraid of and I couldn’t begin to match Narla’s level of courage.

“Not hard to see why the boys are falling for her, is it?” Mellina whispered to me, as our two groups parted.

I gave another quick sniff in Ilyan and Yarrin’s direction. 

Yeah. They were not exactly uninterested. Of course the whole area was basically a giant hormone cloud with all the young humans who were milling about but theirs had the tinge of purpose to it.

“Think they’re aware of that yet?” I whispered back.

“They’ll figure it out,” Mellina whispered. “Eventually. Probably.”

Yarrin flashed us both a frown, reminding us that while we were speaking too quietly for any of the other Cadets to hear us, his magics let him pick up on what we were saying just fine.

Shouting from the far end of the field distracted us all before we had to address that though.

It wasn’t only the Cadets who were getting into brawls worthy of drunken street rats!

One of the instructors was on his back.

Knocked out cold!

And standing over him?

Oh, hi Holman!

Two of the other instructors weren’t exactly holding him back, but had placed themselves partially in front of him with their hands raised in a placating gesture while Jalaren stood to the side, his head bowed as he pinched the bridge of his nose in something like resignation.

I glanced at Yarrin with probably five times too much delight in my eyes.

“They started talking about who was responsible,” he said. “Bolbrek, the guy who’s laying down there, was apparently the one who had Idrina arrested.”

If I’d seen him or had a functional nose when he and Idrina came into the ruins of the prison I might have been able to guess that but Bolbrek had the same bland old instructor-guy look as the others so maybe not even then.

“Let me guess, he wants to prosecute her immediately for the escape so that they can compel her to tell them where the prisoners went?” I said, trying to think of the most horrible option I could come up with.

“Sort of,” Yarrin said. “He was demanding a Trial by Combat,” he said.

“Cool! She will love that!” Ilyan said, looking far more cheerful than a loving brother should have. On the other hand, this was Idrina we were talking about and he was probably completely correct about her enjoying a little battle for her life and honor.

“A Trial by Combat with the Imperial Knights,” Yarrin said.

The fully trained, fully armed and armored Knights.

“She’ll still be into it,” Ilyan said, though with a touch less second-hand joy and a touch more concern. 

“With the guilty outcome severing her bond with Advisor Enika and replacing it with one to an Advisor of House Lightstone,” Yarrin said.

“What? Why would they do that?” I asked, growing more tired of, but less surprised by, the nonsensical policies of the Academy.

“They can’t,” Ilyan said. “You can’t force an Advisor to break their bonds.”

“You don’t have to,” Mellina said. “Not if they kill her first and bring her back quickly enough.”

“Wait, that’s not possible is it?” I asked, feeling reasonably sure Doxle would have mentioned if it was.

“It’s a theory which has never been successfully tested,” Mellina said. “Usually the pact makers can’t be brought before the bond with their original Advisor dissolves.”

“Then why try?” I asked before the obvious answer smacked me in the face. “Oh. Because they need a scapegoat.”

“But they need to know where the Reaving Beasts are too right?” Ilyan asked, sounding more worried than ever.

“No,” I said with a sigh. “They don’t. The prisoners aren’t causing any trouble they can see. It’s possible they even know that there’s no danger to the city or the Academy. They just need to put on a good show of ‘doing everything they can’.”

“Will she let us rescue her?” Mellina asked.

“From a fight?” Ilyan asked. “Only if we kill her first.”

“Holman’s demanding that they bring the matter before the High Council,” Yarrin said. “It sounds like the lead Knight, Reldin, isn’t in favor of that though. He’s saying the Imperial Academy has full authority over disciplining its Cadets. They…uh, they own us?”

“Pretty sure that’s not how it works,” Narla said. “Pretty sure that’s not how any of this works.”

“Pretty sure the guys in all the armor can make it work however they want,” Ilyan said.
“Reldin mentioned something about how Idrina would be an ideal candidate alive or dead and they should consider this an opportunity? I don’t get what they’re saying at all there?” Yarrin said, turning to us to see if anyone else had a clue.

Unfortunately I did and I felt the wonderful lunch I’d had threatening to make a return trip just thinking about it.

“Remember the dead bodies I saw with the magic thread going through them?” I asked.

“They want her for that?” Ilyan’s horror at the idea was more or less the same as mine.

“They had better hope not,” was all that I could say. The picture of Idrina’s neck slashed open with magic thread stitching it closed passed through my mind and evoked a response strong enough that I had to fight against transforming into something really awful to prevent that from ever happening. 

I had no idea if I could handle a squad of Imperial Knights. I had no idea if they were going to be stupid enough to push me into trying it either though.

“Instructor Jalaren suggested they ask Idrina if she’s willing to stand trial or wants her House to intervene,” Yarrin said. “And people are agreeing with that. Or. Wait. Not Holman.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Holman’s not an idiot. Why is no one asking Enika? Isn’t she supposedly responsible for Idrina’s behavior?”

“She was called away this morning and won’t be back till tomorrow,” Ilyan said. “She sent a message off to Idrina and me last night. Told us ‘not to do anything she would disapprove of’’.”

“I thought you broke away from Ironbriar?” Narla asked.

“Oh, yeah, they all hate me now,” Ilyan said. “But that doesn’t mean anything for a pact with an Advisor.”

“Couldn’t she have stopped you though?” Narla asked.

“Yeah, sure,” Ilyan said and paused for a moment. “Huh, wonder why she didn’t?”

“Holman’s leaving,” Yarrin said, interrupting Ilyan’s ruminations. “The others overruled him. They’re going to ask Idrina whether she wants a Trial by Combat or one before the High Council.”

I already knew what her answer was going to be. Ilyan already knew what her answer was going to be. Anyone who’d spent two minutes with the beautiful basket case knew what her answer was going to be. 

The more I thought about it though, the more I found myself sliding over to her point of view.

A trial before the High Council would cost Ironbriar all sorts of political capital (assuming Grammy’s descriptions of most trial results being effectively purchased was accurate). Even if the cost was low, that would tarnish what had to be a sterling reputation that she’d built up by being such an overachiever. Every time her name was brought up, there’d be the specter of being caught at something and failing to protect her House from the consequences.

In what I had to imagine would be the first time in her life, Idrina would be a liability to her House (however small and inconsequential that liability might be).

Trial by Combat though would allow her to completely clear her name. 

In fact, beating an Imperial Knight in full regalia would add a fair amount of luster to her name. Not only would she be cleared of any charges, she’d have the unwritten title of ‘the cadet who beat the Empire’s best’.

And, from what I’d seen, she probably could.

If I’d been in her place, I probably would have made a different decision, in part because to win a Trial by Combat with an Imperial Knight would have required revealing far more of what I was than would allow me to retain the privilege of not being hunted on sight. 

Also House Riverbond couldn’t really be hurt by anything I did. All of the real members of it were well beyond any pain this world could throw at them.

“You have to stop her!” Holman had chosen to exit the Tourney area through the mass of cadets who were waiting for the next Evaluations to start. He’d chosen to exit right through my group in fact. “Call Doxle, tell him I need him, here, now. This is madness.”

“He’s back at his house,” I said. “You can find him there.”

“No, I can’t,” Holman said. “He changed the misdirection spell on the door after my last visit. He always does that. He thinks its funny. Or mysterious. Or…” lacking words, Holman settled for an incoherent growl.

“I can take you there then?” I offered but wondered if I really should.

First, I had no idea what Doxle could do to change things since he wasn’t Idrina’s Advisor. Second, while I could see Holman was panicking over the thought of Idrina fighting for her life, I didn’t think his panic was warranted.

I’d only fought her twice. The length of my association with Idrina Ironbriar fit between less than a handful of sunrises and sunset, but even with only that, I believed in her.

Or believed in her fighting prowess at least. 

She could handle an Imperial Knight.

Especially if her life and/or freedom was on the line.

If I was completely honest with myself, the thought of seeing her fight with absolutely no restraints was kind of thrilling.

And that was a terrible reason for not to do what Holman was asking.

Plus, again being honest with myself, I had a much better card to play to keep her from taking part in this idiocy.

“There’s no time,” Holman said. “They’re going to ask her as soon as they have the tourney field setup. They’re going to ask her as they take her to her Trial. She’s not going to have any choice at all!”

Maybe I was primed to be angry at the Academy.

Maybe the rage which had driven Grammy to cut off contact with her Imperial peers was coloring my impression of things.

Maybe I’d had too many shocks in too little time, from being beaten and jailed because I didn’t dare reveal what I was, to the maddening suggestion that Trina was here, to Kelthas’ death, to everything else the Imperial Academy was. 

Maybe all that was true, and maybe responding with anger and rage wasn’t a healthy method of handling things, but the image of the Academy doing it’s best to kill yet another student – no, not just any student – Idrina – who was clearly the best student here – relit the embers in my heart that exhaustion and despair had threatened to snuff out forever.

“We don’t need Doxle,” I said placing my hand on Holman’s arm and squeezing. I didn’t hurt him, I simply made it clear that I was serious when I said that. Which was enough to hurt him, but I didn’t break him is the important thing. “Where’s she being held now?”

“They repaired one of the cells they say she destroyed,” Holman said. “But what can you…”

I didn’t bother letting him finish.

He was right. We didn’t have time.

Mellina, understood what I was asking for when I nodded to her, and in the middle of Holman’s question, shadows swallowed us and we were off.

“I left Narla and the boys behind,” Mellina said as we ran back towards the prison-stables.

“Good. They’ve done enough and if people see them back there they may not notice that we’re missing,” I said. Yarrin was small but with Darla and Ilyan there, Mellina and I were easy to overlook, or to assume we hidden behind someone.

“You’ll need to be careful what you tell her,” Mellina said. “And what you promise.”

Because while I could endanger myself as much as I wanted, it was challenging to do so without also putting my housemates in peril, and that was not something I could allow. Idrina could handle a fight to death, I had boundless faith in that. My housemates though? Not as much. Narla would have the best chance, but for as powerful as she was, I suspected an Imperial Knight would have the answer for dealing with the kind of things she could do since her abilities weren’t exactly subtle.

“I will be,” I said. “I owe you far too much to let anything happen to you. Any of you.”

“That’s not exactly what I was thinking,” Mellina said, but by then we’d arrived at the shaft down to the prison.

Which was guarded.

I mimed breaking his neck, not because that was my actual plan but as a short hand for combat in general. Mellina rolled her eyes at that, shook her head and simply walked past him.

It wasn’t that he stepped aside that surprised me, it was that she was able to open the lid to the shaft down and he paid her exactly zero attention.

If people knew what I could do, they would be eminently justified in being terrified of me. It baffled me that there people who knew what Mellina was capable of who had also put her in a position where she cut ties with her House. Granted she seemed to merely be happy to free of them, but if they’d angered her? 

I was not going to anger her. For really any reason.

We proceeded down into the prison to find in the short time since I’d been gone, not a lot had been done with it. There were plenty of people taking notes, and cataloging items, but the general ‘clean up all the broken stuff’ effort hadn’t really begun in ernest yet.

Idrina was standing in the smallest of the cells, cuffed hands and neck which sent unpleasant chills down my spine. In place of a door, someone had scattered silver dust in an odd pattern on the ground and lit it ablaze forming a one inch high wall of flame which apparently kept her from leaving her ‘prison’.

I mimed brushing the dust with my foot and Mellina shook her head again.

“Give me a moment to extend this spell and we can talk to her without anyone noticing.”

Right. Never ever going to make Mellina mad.

I felt the shadows widen around us and caught a bit of the flow of the magic she was using. There was an echo of familiarity to it, not quite something I knew, but something like a second cousin to the magics I was used to working with.

I didn’t have time to think on that though since the moment Mellina’s spell embraced her, Idrina’s eyes shot open and focused directly on us.

Surprise passed instantly into confusion when she saw who had appeared before her.

“You’re here?” she asked.

“Yeah. Mellina’s magic is making it possible,” I said.

“You shouldn’t be,” Idrina said.

“I know. You shouldn’t be either,” I said, stepping forward but not over the line of burning silver dust.

“It’s my fault the Reaving Beasts escaped,” she said. “I deserve this.”

“It is very much not your fault, and you absolutely deserve better than this,” I said.

“I’m not going to speak of seeing you here,” she said. It was the answer to the obvious plea I would be making, assuming I was desperate to avoid the punishment she was signing up for.

“You should,” I said. “In fact I think you have to.”

“Why?” Idrina asked. “I haven’t said anything to them yet. You’re safe, they don’t know that you were here at all.”

“Because if you go to Trial, I’ll have to tell them the truth and it would look a lot better for you if you bring it up first and then I confirm it,” I said. It wasn’t safe or wise, but my Advisor wasn’t away for the day, and I knew at this point that he had my back.

“Why would you do that?” Idrina asked.

“Because they are going to kill you,” I said. “They are looking for someone to pin this on and that someone should be the person who’s actually responsible not the one who did her duty and has done nothing wrong in her life.”

“I killed you,” Idrina said, daring me to disagree.

“Which was your duty,” I said. “Also, I’m noticeably not dead.”

“It wasn’t duty,” she said. “It was fear. I reacted out of fear. That wasn’t how the duel was supposed to go.”

That was oddly comforting? But also not something I had the time to unpack just then.

“It doesn’t matter. You don’t deserve to die for this. I don’t either but between the two of us, if they’re going to take a shot at someone, I damn well want it to be me.”

“No,” Idrina said. “You’re not responsible for this.” She gestured to the devastation around us. “This was my carelessness. This was my mistake. Whatever you came here intending to do, I was the one who lost control and allowed this to happen.”

“Only because I choked you out,” I said.

“Weakness isn’t an excuse,” she said.

“You’re not weak!” I probably shouldn’t have screamed that, but Mellina’s spell seemed to hold through it. “You’re not weak and you have nothing to prove to anyone. You know if we went again, you would win. I know that too and I’ll admit it right here and now if you will just tell them the truth.”

A strange, sad smile crossed her lips as she met my eyes. 

“What I say won’t matter. I can either face this alone, or I can drag you down with me. If you think they are looking for someone to blame for this, believe me they will be just as happy to assign that blame to two as to one. Please, I know I don’t have the right to ask this, but please, believe in me. I will not fail in this Trial. I am strong enough to keep us both safe.”

I wanted to argue more, to make her see that she didn’t need to go it alone like that, but that was when the instructors arrived to take her away.

One thought on “Clockwork Souls – Chapter 50

  1. dreamfarer Post author

    Didn’t like that I’d had to skip Thursday, so voila here’s a Double Length chapter to make up for it (also it’s Chapter 50 and I wanted to get to the events herein : )


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