“It’s not entirely inaccurate to say that life is little more than a string of connections between people. They define our position in society and act as guidelines and boundary ropes on who we can be and what we can do.
We may dislike some of our connections. We may even do our very best to sever them, either by cutting distasteful people out of our life, or removing them from life in general, but even should we be successful, the connection which once existed remains.
A hated enemy may lie moldering in an unmarked grave, or a jealous ex-love may have been bundled off to held the war effort in some far away land from which they shall never return, but still their influence on our life will always remain. We are who we are because of how we hated them, or the compromises we made until we were too fed up to deal with their spitefulness any longer. Like scars, they remain carved into the persona we’ve created, and though their influence will fade with time, it never truly vanishes.
If you can accept that, then consider the same is true for the connections which we cherish. Though they may be lost to us, or so far away that all hope of seeing them again seems impossible, the connection we share with them will always be a part of us. If hate can carve a valley into our soul, then surely love leaves marks even deeper still.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame in an unsent letter to the Empress Eternal.
So I was a Mom. Eighteen years old, unwed, technically unemployed, and now I had a daughter to take care of.
Being a Mom hadn’t been a problem before I came to the Academy. It hadn’t really been a part of my agenda at all. But that was how my life was going.
To be fair of course, my daughter was pretty easy to care for. Narla was, in point of fact, older than me (not an especially common trait for daughters as far as I was aware), and was more capable of take care of herself than I was (not a terribly high bar to clear given the generally wretched job I’d done of take care of myself).
Also, her status as my daughter was possibly somewhat arguable at the moment. There was almost certainly a lot of paperwork we would have to file, and potentially the blessing of some higher authority to obtain. I felt no small measure of regret that someone might try to argue those points with Narla, mostly because I wouldn’t be around to watch what happened to them. I mean, I’d cheated her out of one brawl by ending it via an impromptu beheading, I couldn’t really begrudge her a chance to have her fun too, it just would have been nice to see it. (My housemates might possibly be a bad influence on me. Or I was on them. Or I could blame Doxle. Yeah. That seemed like a safe bet.)
“You want to go back, don’t you?” Yarrin asked. We weren’t running to where Vena and Hemaphora were, but that was only because running people attract attention and ambushes and we’d had quite enough of both already.
“No. I’m good,” I said. “I just hope she’ll be okay.”
“You know she’s going to be okay,” Mellina said. “You’re just hoping she doesn’t have too much fun without us.”
“I’m still wearing about a half gallon of the last bit of fun we have, so I’m hoping she’s not going to have any fun at all,” I said.
“Wow, you really do sound like a Mom,” Ilyan said.
So I hit him.
I wasn’t try to break anything, I just couldn’t say ‘I’m not a Mom’ given that it hadn’t even been ten minutes since I’d official become one.
Yarrin held up a hand to stop any further conversation, which I assumed meant another ambush was ahead of us.
That turned out to be partially true. The ‘ambush’ in question was a class of the Common Cadets rushing from one late night class to another. Their scents were a thundercloud of anxiety and excitement, with a tinge around the edges of the hints of an exhaustion which shouldn’t have been present in their first few days of classwork.
They streamed past us, careful not to make eye contact or say anything which might attract our attention.
“Were they afraid of us?” I asked once the last one had vanished around a corner.
“They’re afraid of all the Elite Cadets,” Idrina said. She sounded bored by that, but her scent held a surprising amount of anger.
“We’re not held accountable for the same things they are,” Mellina said. “And they don’t get the same benefit of the doubt as an Elite.”
Given that Idrina had been put on trial and thrown into a death battle over an issue they really couldn’t prove she was responsible for, I wasn’t entirely clear on which doubts we were being given any benefits on, but it was all too easy to imagine how much worse the Academy might be treating people who lacked their own Imperial Advisor to speak for them and/or weren’t the Heads of one of the Great Houses.
That wasn’t something I could fix or even influence much. Yet. It did further my belief that burning the Academy to the ground would be a net positive, especially if that was followed by burning the Great Houses down too. For the moment however, I had something more important to work on.
“Are they still where they were?” I asked, trusting Yarrin to know that ‘they’ referred to Vena and Hemaphora.
“Same building,” he said. “They had moved around a bit though.”
“Good, that says they’re still awake.” I was going to ask them for a favor, waking them up to do so was probably not a winning strategy I felt.
“So are the ones who are with them, I think,” Yarrin said.
“These are the people who are hidden from your senses?” Idrina asked.
“I’m not sure they’re people, but, yes.” Yarrin didn’t seem overly bothered that we were approaching what might be a building full of monsters, so I decided to roll with it and not worry either.
It’s funny how deciding not to worry about something does absolutely nothing in terms of whether or not you actually worry about it. By the time we reached the house Yarrin was leading us to, my nerves were taut enough to play with a violin bow.
“Should we knock?” Ilyan asked as the door to what looked like a completely abandoned dormitory swung open all on its own.
“Apparently we already did,” Mellina said and stepped forward to lead us in.
I shuffled Yarrin behind me, along with the twins, and followed Mellina in. Yarrin was a great and powerful caster in his own right, but he was easily the worst fighter in our little group. I’d have preferred to have Narla as a guard at our backs but, even with their injuries, Idrina and Ilyan were likely to be enough.
Cobwebs and dust were the aesthetic the dorm was painted in. One of the stairways which rose up from the entrance hall was so choked with webs in fact that at least one human sized spider had to have been a resident at some point. I couldn’t smell anything to suggest that they were still lurking about but then a proper predator would set themselves up to prevent that.
Atop the other set of stairs, two shadows waited for us with the scant moonlit in the room reflecting off their eyes while leaving the rest of the faces shrouded in darkness.
“You’ve come to us…” Vena said.
“So soon?” Hemaphora said.
“Might you want…” Vena said.
“To speak with a ghost?” Hemaphora asked.
“You’re very well informed,” Mellina said, a note of appreciation in her voice.
“Perhaps we saw the future?” Vena said.
“Fate has brought us stranger tides than this,” Hemaphora said.
“Perhaps,” Mellina said. “But I’m going to guess your friend over there filled you in on at least a few of the details.”
I followed the line of her vision when she glanced away from them and saw that she was staring at nothing.
The nothing moved, revealing that it was very much a something.
At ten feet tall it was a great deal of something, as was the matte black halberd it carried.
“It’s not alone,” Yarrin whispered and I was pretty sure he didn’t mean there were only one or two others hidden around us.
The giant sketched a deep bow in Mellina’s direction, turned to Vena and Hemaphora as though asking permission from them, and then dropped through the floor.
It would have been a great prelude to an attack. There was a lot less we could have done to guard against an assault from underneath. That wasn’t its plan though. As far as I could tell, it was off duty or something because it left and didn’t show up again.
“If you know why we’re here, I’ll just ask, will you help with what we need?” I said. Given the look and feel of the dormitory, theatrics and grandstanding were probably supposed to be the order of the day, but I just wanted to talk to Trina.
“Of course,” Vena said.
“You’ve brought us such a wonderful gift after all!” Hemaphora said.
Before I could spend too long wondering what I had that they might want, I saw a mist of red droplets flowing away from me.
Blood of course.
What else would it be?
Not mine though, so, I tallied it in the win column.
Then I remembered whose blood it was.
“That belonged to kind of a jerk. I don’t know if that will mess up what you want to do with it?” I said.
“It’s the blood of justice done,” Vena said.
“It will do quite nicely for its intended purpose,” Hemaphora said.
I considered asking what that purpose was, but ultimately that was a big pile of ‘not my business’, so I settled for nodding in understanding.
“You know what we’d like to do, and, I presume, where we were,” Yarrin said. “Do you already know the spell I researched?”
“No,” Vena said.
“And that is the other gift we will take,” Hemaphora said.
“You’re not going to do anything bad with it, are you?” Ilyan asked.
“Not to you or yours,” Hemaphora said.
“Oh. Good.” And that was enough for him.
I was tempted to tease him about it, but it was definitely not the right time. Also he’d probably say something like ‘Well they looked nice so of course I trusted them.’
“Follow us,” Vena said.
“If you would be so kind,” Hemaphora added as they descended the stairs together and lead us to a door which in turn lead us down into the crypts.
I could have said ‘basement’ or ‘cellar’ but those would not have been the correct terms, not with all of the funerary vases which lined the walls (crypt may have been technically incorrect too but it conveyed the ‘there are dead people here’ idea better).
“Whatever the parameters of the spell, you will need to sit here if you wish to speak to the departed,” Vena said, gesturing to a simple red mat in the middle of a room whose most notable feature was the pile of coffins along both sides of the room.
“You will want to begin attuning to the one you wish to speak with,” Hemaphora said. “We will speak with Master Yarrin to learn the particulars of the spell to use, but a common element in all of them is that the medium must be able to forge the bridge to the departed and that is easiest done by someone who knew them well.”
And so I sat down, alone, in the middle of a room where everything smelled of ancient death and called Trina to mind, remembering with each breath the moments of life we’d shared together.