“There are plots and schemes and machinations around us all of the time. Many of them are dire and dreadful, but the truth is many of them are doomed to failure too. For all that people are terrible and filled with malice and greed, they are also, quite dependably, monumentally stupid.
It is possible to foil a dozen horrible plots before breakfast through with the following tried and true plan; do nothing and allow them to self-destruct, all on their own, under the weight of the plethora of staggeringly obvious things the perpetrators will have failed to account for.
Oh, certainly sometimes there are conspiracies which are well thought out. Amusingly at least half of those also self implode, generally due to the fact that if someone is selfish enough to work towards a wicked aim, they are more likely than not to be selfish and wicked enough to be uninterested in sharing the revenue from said conspiracy with any of their compatriots.
What of the remainder? The ones where neither incompetence, nor greed, can successfully undermine them alone? Well, the perpetrators of those plots are the what we like to refer to ‘the people in power’. Foiling their plots is somewhat more difficult, though also vastly more fulfilling.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, speaking to Duke Rudello Grayfall shortly before the latter’s arrest and conviction on charges of Sedition and High Treason.
When a dead girl says she has to tell you something so you can prevent other people from getting deaded too, it pays to listen to her. I didn’t have any practical experience to back that up, I was pretty certain it was a good rule to live by nonetheless.
So I shut up and let Trina talk.
“Something’s going to kill us?” Ilyan asked.
I didn’t jump out of my skin at that. I mean, I am capable of jumping out of my skin. I think. I’ve never tried it but the phrase always seemed like an interesting challenge.
I reacted calmly and rationally.
“Please don’t kill him,” Vena said.
“It would be such a terrible waste of blood,” Hemaphora said.
That was not an unreasonable request, so I sheathed my claws, turned my teeth back from fangs, and relaxed my muscles back down into their usual bulk and configuration.
“You didn’t know we were still here? Did you?” Mellina asked.
When I built my body, I was trying to mimic Trina’s, so including autonomic functions like blushing was both an attempt to better pass as her and an artistic challenge. From how my face heated up, I felt I was owed an award of some kind for the work I’d done.
“I can hear you, but I can’t see any of you,” I said, this time with actual calm in my voice.
“You haven’t left the room you were in,” Mellina said. “But your eyes do look a little odd?”
“That’s part of the spell,” Yarrin said. “It’s so she can see her sister.”
“Shouldn’t her ears look weird too then?” Ilyan asked.
It wasn’t the worst question but it also wasn’t the question I wanted an answer to.
“Can you all hear Trina?” I asked.
“She is your sister?” Idrina asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“We can hear her as clearly as you do then I believe,” she said.
“Good. So they’re going to die?” I asked, hoping to make space for Trina to answer again.
“I’m afraid it’s worse than that,” Trina said. She had a small, amused smile on her face, I think at the blush I was still wearing. Her smile faded as she continued speaking though. “You saw what happened to the two knights? That effect was powered by the two souls you rescued. Two souls which hadn’t been allowed to die. That’s what they wish to do to you.”
There were about a thousand questions that jumped to mind about that, but I kept them to myself, more than happy to listen to Trina’s voice over my own.
“They also powered the weapons and armor on the Cadets during the trials, didn’t they?” Mellina asked.
“Yes. That was a field test for the units to see how the magics performed in the hands of less skilled casters,” Trina said.
“How do you know this?” Idrina asked.
“I’ve been dead for ten years now, but I haven’t been gone for any of them,” Trina said.
“Because of Kati?” Yarrin asked.
“Partially. She made what could have been an excruciating situation much easier. It was how I died that allowed me to do what I’ve done for the last decade though.”
“You’ve been acting as a spy?” Mellina asked.
“A liaison,” Trina said. “As you’ve seen, there are people in the living world who tamper with the dead. Just so are there people who would see them punished for the crimes they commit. People both of the living world and beyond.”
“So you can do this kind of thing with them too?” Ilyan asked.
“Speak freely like this?” Trina laughed. “Not on my best day. Or theirs. Without my sister to act as a conduit, none of this would be possible. Since it is though, you all are our best chance to stop any more ghosts from being bound into the Clockwork Realm. Unfortunately, for your sakes, that also means you will be the absolute highest of priority targets to be eliminated, or even better, eliminated and bound into the Clockwork Realm to serve as puppets to cover up the failing parts of this scheme.”
“I don’t suppose there’s any chance that the people who are responsible for all this are somehow only aware of me?” I asked.
“Not from the whispers I’ve been hearing,” Trina said. “Don’t get me wrong, you’re their primary target, but these aren’t people who are big on showing restraint.”
A chill gripped me heart.
“Grammy! What about her? Is she in danger too?” I asked, rising to my feet.
“Grammy’s okay,” Trina said. “I checked on her just a few minutes ago.”
“Will they send people after her though?” I wanted to hop into a carriage and ride back home right away. Okay. No. I wanted to change into my fastest form and run there on my own. Trina held out a steading hand though and that’s all it took to root me in place.
“Grammy’s well protected,” she said. “Also, I think the Great Houses are still terrified of her.”
“What? Why?” I asked.
“You remember when my parents were killed?” Trina said. “Grammy went away for a little bit after that?”
“Yeah, I thought that was weird, but I was just a wolf pup at the time, so I couldn’t do much about it,” I said.
“I couldn’t either, and I thought the same thing,” Trina said. “I was able to find out what happened later though, well, after I died. Do you know where she went? House Dryleaf, and then on to the court of Baron Boath Lightstone.”
“Umm, isn’t House Dryleaf a dead house though?” Ilyan asked.
“It wasn’t before Grammy, Doxle, and a few other Imperial Advisor’s gave them a ‘visit’,” Trina said.
“As I recall Baron Boath was lost on an ocean voyage though?” Idrina said.
“Yes. No need to have a traditional open casket funeral when the deceased body has been claimed by the waves,” Trina said. “Or is not in a fit state for anyone with a pulse to look at. That was the report anyway. I didn’t get to see what was left of the body myself obviously.”
“Doxle did all that?” I asked.
“Grammy did all that. Doxle and the Imperial Advisors were there simply to sanction the affair and provide witness to the other Great Houses.”
“Your grandmother sounds awesome,” Ilyan said.
“She is,” Trina and I said at the same time.
I thought back to the years I’d spent with her, especially the ones where it had been just the two of us and the household staff. Had she given any sense of being the terrifying force of nature that Trina spoke of? Had she ever smelled like one?
No. No she hadn’t.
Was I sure she couldn’t hide her scent like Doxle could though?
No. No I was not.
In fact, as I picked through old memories, a lot of odd discrepancies started coming back to me. Grammy had always seemed restrained. Always. No one is ‘always’ anything. Not unless they are wearing a very specific kind of mask, one which they’ve chosen to embody fully and which has grown so comfortable than their core identity begins to blend with the illusion, even if they retain their more bestial self within for the moments when its needed.
Which is silly, of course. Who would do something like that?
A more disturbing thought occurred to me. After a decade of practice, I was reasonably good at noticing things like that about people. How good would I be when I reached Grammy’s age? And how likely was it that a little monster who’d been pretending to be wolf pup and had switched to pretending to be my grand daughter would be able to fool me?
The thought of running back home was not as urgent as it had been for some reason.
“If we’re going to fight back against this scheme of controlling people by binding them up as Clockwork Souls, we’ll need to know more about it,” Mellina said. “Who’s behind it, how they’re doing it, what weak points they might have.”
“Wait. Why are you fighting back against anything?” I asked. “I get…” I did not get it, so I tried a different approach. “This is dangerous. Truly dangerous. If I’d known…” If I’d known what I was doing, I would still have done all the same things. Or most of them.
“If you’d know we would be put in danger by your actions, you would have shielded us from harm? Spurned us and cast us away so that your enemies wouldn’t hurt us too?” Mellina asked.
“Exactly! None of you deserve to be in this boat. The last time a Great House was pissed off at my family, Trina’s parent’s died, and I don’t know if I can wipe out a Great House to avenge each of you. And I don’t want to have to avenge you at all!”
“That wasn’t the last time a Great House took someone from our family,” Trina said.
I turned to her, puzzled by who else they could have taken from us.
“You remember the Reaving Storm that I died in?” she said and a cold dread began to seep into my soul.
“No,” I said, not answering her question.
“It cracked the earth open and I tumbled in,” Trina said.
“No.” I said, not denying her account.
“It’s because I was killed within a Reaving Storm that my soul was able to linger on closer to the material world,” she said. “Three other realms where so nearby that when my spirit drifted free that I wound up too confused over which one was calling me, so I stayed close to this world.”
“Does that mean anyone who dies in the Reaving Storm becomes a ghost?” Ilyan asked.
“Not anyone,” Trina said. “Most Reaving Storms churn and swirl, the Transcendent Realms crashing about like sand in a shaking bowl. The spirits of people lost in natural storms may get jostled around a bit but the call of the Realm Beyond still reaches them. It’s when it’s just a few realms, and they’re held close to the material world that the call echoes too clearly from too many of them for a spirit to make out the path they should take. Those people wind up like me. If they’re lucky.”
“So what creates an unnatural storm?” I asked, hating that I already knew the answer. It wasn’t hard to figure out.
The technique that I’d worked out for creating rifts and traveling between the realms, the one I’d used to get the zoo of Reaving Beasts home and to return home myself from the Clockwork Cosmos? At it’s heart it held the simple truth that what separated the material world from the other realms could be undone, and if that was true, then calling forth a storm was all too easy.