Clockwork Souls – Chapter 72

“It is one of the great challenges of life to slay one’s own inner demons. The things we fear, the things which drive us into rage, the things which lead us to despair, they all prove remarkably resilient to the slings and arrows we can bring against them.

‘I will not be afraid of him’ we say, and yet even years later our knees still turn to jello when a voice is raised and our spirit shrinks as though the fear we overcame long ago can choose to rise from its grave whenever it pleases.

I have no secret weapons to fight such battles, except perhaps for one. It is possible, in some cases at least, that our demons are not what we need to fight.

The fear which steals away our strength? It is not our enemy. It is our guardian from a time when we were too weak to stand against the peril which inspires it. It cannot be slain, because there will always be things which we are too weak to stand against. In place of the sword then our only weapon may be an embrace.

Accept that we are weak, accept that there are things which hurt us, and that those things are sometimes ourselves. In acceptance, I have never found a balm against those woes, the fear remains, the anger burns, but beside them there is understanding. They are not the whole of the world, and not the part I must choose to listen to.

My demons do their work guarding me with the small tools they have, it is up to me to listen to what they have to say and choose what tools I will take up.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxel of the First Flame in an unsent letter to the Empress Eternal.

I thought I was alone in possessing what should have been incredibly forbidden knowledge about opening the sort of rifts Reaving Storms caused. Or if not alone that it at least wasn’t common knowledge. As it turned out I was correct about the “not common knowledge” part, but I’d failed to account for how weird my housemates were.

“The Great Houses,” Yarrin said. “They create unnatural storms all the time.”

“For the hunts,” Idrina said.

“And less savory purposes,” Mellina said.

I couldn’t see them but I knew none of them were wearing particularly pleased expressions.

“I thought, based on the how often they bang on about being the only ones who can protect the Empire from the storms, that they were supposed to be in charge of shutting down the Reaving Storms,” I said. “Isn’t that the whole point of the Soul Kindled Wards on the city?”

“That is why the wards exist,” Trina said. “And there are natural Reaving Storms which occur. Storms which are as dangerous as we were always told. Just not for the reason the Great Houses cite.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “No wait, I don’t want to.”

“What’s there to guess about?” Mellina asked. “They do it for power, and the natural storms offer that power to everyone, or at least everyone who can avoid getting killed.”

“Storms are where the materials to make and sustain their enchanted equipment comes from,” Yarrin said. 

“Also how troublesome enemies can be disposed of,” Mellina said.

“Or the offspring of enemies you bear a grudge against but are too cowardly to target directly,” Trina said.

“Who.” It was only technically a question. In actuality it was a promise, a contract which would finish off at least one of the Great Houses in the exact same manner Grammy had ended Dryfall. All it needed was a name affixed to it.

“If I tell you, you’re going to destroy yourself trying to get revenge for me, aren’t you?” Trina asked. 

“Not at all,” I said. “I’m going to destroy them trying to get revenge for me. Revenge won’t do you any good at all, right?”

“Neither will my sister losing her life,” Trina said.

“I’m not particularly easy to kill,” I said. The others had missed the ridiculous levels of damage I’d endured in the Clockwork Cosmos, but I suspect Trina had seen a good portion of it.

“The one’s responsible for the storm that killed me could manage it,” she said. “Also, if I could beg an indulgence, ripping them limb from limb might be satisfying in the moment, but it won’t stop the damage they’re doing.”

I grumbled. Trina was a better person than I was. I’d known that since she first took me in. Also a smarter one. My first instinct being to bite my problems was, I felt, not entirely unreasonable. Hers tended to be just a bit wiser though.

“From a purely personal standpoint too, if you kill them, they’ll only suffer for a brief while. Take apart their power and destroy their position though and they will suffer for the rest of their miserable little lives, which I would like to watch.”

Trina was smarter than me. I’d never mistaken that for being more merciful though. Which, I suppose, proved that she was a rightful decedent of Grammy’s bloodline. 

“That leaves room for us to help with the process,” Mellina said, reminding me that she bore a striking resemblance to Trina in terms of both intelligence and mercilessness.

I pictured seeing Mellina standing beside Trina and decided I did not like that image at all though.

“You can’t,” I said. “I know you are all in danger, but this can’t be your fight.”

“And why is that?” Idrina asked. There was danger in her tone, and probably no good answer I could give, so I went with the truth.

“I’m not supposed to be in this world,” I said, throwing my stupid reservations to the winds. What did it matter? They probably knew what I was already anyways. “This isn’t my home, so if I die here, it’s okay. The world won’t have lost anything it needed. That’s not true for any of you. You’re all supposed to be here. This is where you belong.”

“Is your sister standing in front of you?” Idrina asked.

It wasn’t the response I’d been expecting, and as I struggled to figure out why she wanted to know Idrina answered for me.

“Yeah, we’re about an arm’s length apart,” she said.

“Thank you,” Idrina replied and I heard heard her swing a hand through that space. “As I expected.”

Then she hit me right in the face.

I’m not talking a light slap either.

She just full on decked me.

“What the?” I said, knitting my shattered nose and jaw back together.

“Apparently you are of this world,” Idrina said with absolutely zero remorse in her voice.

Violence is really not a great language. There’s all kinds of problems with letting your fists do the talking for you, and it’s not at all acceptable to hit people to make a point. You can can cause serious injury and/or severe psychological trauma. If it had been anyone else I would have been having some words with her, but as I picked myself up I met her gaze and understood what she was saying.

It wasn’t okay that she’d hit me because I had less worth, or wasn’t a person, or any idiocy like that. I understood what she was saying because as much as it looked like she’d hurt me, we both knew that a hit like that was no more serious than tousling my hair given who and what I was. As for my mental state, again, she seemed to know my limits there. Emotional stuff, like with Trina, took me apart. Silly physical things though? Well, she’d already speared me through the heart and I didn’t feel any particular lasting trauma over that. A little bop on the nose? Maybe if she’d used one of her spears I’d have been mad, but we both knew she hadn’t intended to hurt me, just to provide some undeniable proof that I was wrong about the claims I was making. I wasn’t a native to the material realm, but it had seeped into me. I had become something other than I’d been by living the life I had. Something new, and this world was as much my home as anywhere was.

Trina looked like she got that too, though she could have just been shaking her head at what an idiot I was being.

“Uh, why can I see you all again?” I asked, catching what had changed right away.

“She disrupted the spell,” Yarrin said, a pained wince in his voice.

“No she didn’t,” I said. “Trina’s still here, I can see her just fine.”

“You…you can?” Yarrin asked.

“That’s not how it’s supposed to go,” Vena said.

“The spell is broken,” Hemaphora said. “At least, we think it is?”

“Kati, can you still hear me?” Trina said, and from their expressions I could tell everyone else heard that too.

“Uh, yeah, she hit me in the face, not the ears,” I said, as confused as the rest of them. The thing was though, we were confused about different things. I couldn’t tell why they thought the spell was broken when I could clearly still feel it wrapped around me.

“It’s her eyes,” Idrina said, stepping in close to look deep into them.

I blinked. My eyes felt fine. Enspelled still, but fine.

“Huh, yeah, that’s not what they looked like before,” Trina said. “Kati, did you eat the spell that was on you?”

“Did I what?”

“You didn’t want the spell to drop right?”

“Yeah. I don’t want you to go.” That seemed pretty simple to guess. Her point about me eating the spell left me picking at the idea though.

Which almost immediately showed me that she was right.

“Oh,” I said when I saw what I’d done. That probably wasn’t good?

“What happened?” Ilyan asked.

“She’s absorbed the spell entirely,” Yarrin said. “She can see both worlds at once now.”

“And is acting as an open conduit between them,” Idrina said, shifting into a more guarded stance.

“We’ll need to help her close the spell down,” Mellina said. “This place has too many ghosts for it to be safe to walk around like that.”

“Not yet!” I stepped back. Unnecessarily. They weren’t about to tackle me and rip the magic away or anything.

“Not yet,” Trina said. “But soon. It’s not safe for either of us to keep this channel open for too long.”

“Not safe why?” I asked, willing to kill and/or eat whatever I needed to in order to draw these fleeing moments out as long as possible.

“There are creatures on my side who look for openings into the material world, and I’d rather not encounter any of them. Certainly not in the numbers that would be drawn to a living rift between the worlds.”

I wanted to object that I could protect her, but Idrina had apparently slapped the stupid out of me for the moment. I had no idea what kind of trouble would find Trina if I held her here for too long. Conversely, now that I was able to study the spell that I’d absorbed more closely, I felt like I had a somewhat decent chance of replicating it on my own. And a really good chance if I had Vena and Hemaphora’s help.

“We should make this quick then,” I said. “I need to know who murdered you, and who’s behind turning people into Clockwork Souls.”

“We all do,” Mellina said. “Unless you still think we’re not a part of this.”

“I…” Okay, so Idrina hadn’t smacked all the stupid out of me. “I know why I need to do this.”

“Do you?” Trina asked.

“What do you mean?” I couldn’t begin to follow the point she was making.

“You’re thinking that everyone else in this room doesn’t need to be a part of this, because you’re the one who’s stirred up the hornet’s nest,” Trina said, stalking around to stand beside Idrina. “You think they can just run away and be safe somewhere. That the risks they take are so much greater than yours, and that they shouldn’t trust you since you’ve only just met. Does that about sum things up?”

It did. She really must have been watching me all these years to know me that well I decided. 

I nodded, not trusting my voice.

“Why can’t you run away with them then?” Trina asked. “You know how much power and influence the Great Houses have. Any of of the people here can tell you about the kind of magics they possess which could easily end even you. Why can’t you all do the sensible thing and focus on surviving?”

I hadn’t actually asked myself that question.

And from the looks on everyone’s faces, I really needed to.

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