“It always makes people uncomfortable to reflect on how someone else might kill them and, to be fair, that’s not the most important thing many nobles need to consider. The question of why someone might be interested in killing them is far more critical in most cases. For some reason though preventing the ‘how’ always seems to be given a lot more attention than exploring options to resolve the ‘why’ which triggers homicidal impulses in the first place.”– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, speaking to an audience of three fresh corpses
As turns in the conversation went, talking about my weak points wasn’t my favorite.
“Simple methods of executing you are demonstrably ineffective,” Doxle said, conjuring a glowing green image of me in silhouette. He poked his left pinkie finger through the center of the image’s torso and removed it, leaving a hole behind that was much bigger, proportionally, than the one Idrina had left in me.
He hadn’t asked a question I needed to answer yet, so I responded with a frown and waited to see where he was going with the lecture.
“Even those with exceptional durability however,” he poked more holes in the image, each of which began shrinking quickly on their own, “will still be vulnerable to one form of attack or another.” He traced a finger around the edge of the silhouette, peeling away the thin border around it. It took a second or two, but that was the end of the figure. The green light within it bulged outwards before spurting into a green puddle as the figure’s structure completely collapsed.
I shrugged. I had no illusions that I was indestructible. My earliest memories are of people like me dying to violence. I don’t dwell on that much, but his demonstration brought back the echo of those old ghosts.
“Form shifters often try to cheat a path to victory in battle with little tricks like placing their heart somewhere people don’t think to stab,” Doxle said, allowing the illusion to fade. “My counsel is to use such approaches sparingly. I’ve only seen it happen once but it was truly tragic to witness someone inflict what should have been a merely disabling wound only to strike their opponent quite dead because the form shifter had decided to relocate their brain from their head.”
I grimaced at the lack of aesthetic propriety. Bodies were structured as they were for a variety of reasons, the largest being that they worked when things were in the right spots. Sure, you could put eyes in the back of your head but routing the extra optic nerves was a mess, not to mention splitting the brain’s visual processing center to handle the additional sensory input.
Also that meant having no hair there, and hair is wonderful. It carries so many scents or you can wash it and be surrounded in something lovely all day. Who wouldn’t want hair if it was their choice whether to grow it or not?
For their crimes against aesthetics, I was tempted to say that the form shifter got what they deserved, but that was unkind and silence seemed like a better response again.
I also had no interest in pointing out that I hadn’t moved my heart or my lungs, though I did grumble at the memory of how much of my nice work on them had been wrecked. I was going to be doing touch up work on my…my everything for the next week or more.
“Repositioning major organs also carries with it the cost of continual magic expenditure,” Doxle said. “Unless you happen to be a sufficiently talented at designing biological systems that you can morph into a configuration which is viable without metaphysical support.”
I waited to see if he was going to draw another example image in light but for this point I was apparently supposed to use my imagination. Or maybe he didn’t want to give me any help coming up with what was sure to be a bad idea.
“It’s fascinating to me that you seem to possess that level of skill and yet that is not what you did,” he said. I didn’t like how he was staring at me. There was too much understanding lurking behind those burning eyes.
“Why do you say that?” I asked. I wasn’t denying it. He was right and he obviously knew it. I just wanted to know what I’d done to give myself away.
“You fell forty feet onto hard stone. No matter where in your body you’d hidden your vital organs stored, that should have damaged at least some of them severely.”
Which, in hindsight, was sort of obvious.
I nodded, conceding the point.
“We don’t need to dwell on that however. You knew you would survive and you did.” He took a breath to say more but I cut him off before he could begin.
“Did you?” It was a simple question, but his answer was going to color quite a lot about how I dealt with him going forward.
“I confess I’m still unclear on the exact mechanism you employed, but the damage from a fall of that magnitude was clearly well within your tolerances.”
That wasn’t exactly comforting but it wasn’t the worst answer he could have given. Not that I could trust him. He could say anything he wanted at this point.
“How did you know that?” I asked. He could lie about that too, but I still wanted to see what he said. Even lies can be enlightening sometimes.
“I spoke with the guards who apprehended you.”
“And they said they beat me up worse than a forty foot fall?”
“Not in so many words, but yes. Also I know them, or rather men like them. Beyond a certain point of resistance they lose interest in apprehending anyone. From the description of the bystanders and their own accounts I expected to find you in the Free Fields outside the city, not locked in that charming little cell.”
That was a believable story, but I had to bite back a growl anyways. Not for myself. Doxle’s description of the men made me regret all the damage I held back on inflicting on them. If he was right, there were people buried in the public cemetery outside Middlerun who deserved the sort of justice only a few dead guardsmen could bring.
I forced myself to draw in a breath like Grammy had taught me. She would say that there was a lot in the world to rage about and only so much skin that I had to lose. I could almost hear her voice asking me if this was one of the fights where it was worth pitting myself against the grindstone of the world, or if maybe I had better battles to try to win.
I don’t think I caught a whiff of Trina’s scent then, it was probably just a memory, but it was enough. I did have more important battles to fight.
“Could you have caught me?” I asked. I’d relied on him as a safety net in that fight. It occurred to me that I should have verified whether he was capable of being one before hand.
“Not without cost, but had you been in actual danger, yes.” Again, he seemed sincere, but faking sincerity was a lot easier than faking your scent.
“Did Enika know I could survive?” She should have been able to stop Idrina. Maybe not before she stabbed me through the chest but at least before she kicked me off the top of the pillar.
“She may have suspected, but I doubt she had certain knowledge of that,” Doxle said. “Even if she had fully believed that you would perish in the fall however I do not believe she would have acted to save you. Not when forcing me to act would have been more efficient.”
That I believed all too easily. Enika seemed to be many things but ‘sentimental’ and ‘merciful’ did not appear to be on that list.
“For what its worth, I’m reasonably sure that Ironbriar had no idea you could survive either her attack or the fall.”
That I could believe too, but for a different reason.
“She was just making sure,” I said. I wasn’t defending her. I just wanted to have a clear understanding of what had happened.
“Yes. You fought back more than she expected you to be able to,” Doxle said. “From what I saw she intended to disable you and force you to yield, at least at first.”
That tracked with the fact that she’d taken out my arm with her initial attack.
I think I’d hit her with a headbutt after that but the fight had been a blur even before my head went splat on the stone floor.
“Wasn’t a good strategy for her,” I said. I like to imagine I’m a reasonable person, but I had to admit that I probably wouldn’t have backed down, even if she’d taken out more of my limbs.
“Yes and I believe she saw that, hence moving to a more aggressive posture.”
Meaning she’d switched from winning the fight to trying to kill me mostly out of a sense of self preservation. I nodded in agreement with Doxle’s appraisal. I wasn’t happy she’d tried to kill me, but it wasn’t entirely unreasonable under the circumstances.
The scary bit was that she seemed to be damn good at it.
“I would dock her points however for choosing the wrong aggressive tactics,” Doxle said. “True, she played to her strengths and did manage to eliminate you as an immediate threat but those strengths are not the ones you are vulnerable too.”
“She knows that now,” I said, worrying anew at what that would mean the next time we fought.
“Indeed she does, and while I am certain she will not spread word of that – there’s little profit for her and significant advantage to be gained if you come into opposition with those she opposes – it is entirely possible that the foes you face tomorrow in the Cadet Trials will not make the same mistake.”
“They’ll know how to kill me?” I asked, wondering more what they might try than whether they would be as vicious as Idrina had been.
“The senior cadets who take part in the trials have been trained to deal with all sorts of foes,” Doxle said. “Almost anything can come from a Reaving Storm, and the Imperial elite troops only get called in when its something sufficiently unpleasant that the local forces are overwhelmed.”
“And they’ll be trying to kill me? For an entrance exam?” I wasn’t actually surprised. Just annoyed. It had sounded ridiculous to me when I’d heard about it the first time and it sounded just as ridiculous with the trials being less than a dozen hours away.
“Technically they are only trying to test you,” Doxle said. “In practice however there are almost always fatalities during the Cadet Trials, particularly early on since that tends to reduce the candidate pool and convince the more sensible applicants to try for the common track instead.”
“It’s mostly nobles who are applying though, isn’t it? Why do the Great Houses allow their children to be thrown into a meat grinder?”
“Every Great House supports many children from many different familial lines within the house. The death toll for the Cadet Trials tends to strike the unwanted ones harder than others, even though the rules are clear that upon the battlefield all are in mortal peril.”
“What does that mean for the commoners who apply?” I asked, trying to imagine how bloody the next day would be.
“They fare slightly better, if only by virtue of there being fewer people with pre-established vendettas against them,” Doxle said. “They can still be knocked out or slain of course, but their primary concern is that they must do more than simply survive the Trials. Unless they are selected for sponsorship by one of the Great Houses, they won’t be admitted to the Academy, regardless of their performance.”
“This system sucks,” I said.
“You will find that applies to a great deal within the Empire,” Doxle said. “Which is why we need to give you every advantage you can get. So how would you like to learn magic?”