Category Archives: Clockwork Souls

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 99

“You can spend so long believing that you will never get what you truly want that when it’s finally handed to you it can be almost impossible to believe you are worthy of it.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, in the first prayers he spoke in over three hundred years.

I was in trouble. Worse, I was in trouble with the most powerful magic wielder in the world. The good news was that while I’d been worried before about whether the High Council would be able to kill me, I wasn’t worried about that at all with the Empress Eternal. There’s no sense worrying about something that’s absolutely certain you see.

“It was so nice of the Speakers to give us the privacy of the High Council hall,” the Empress said.

That she said it while gazing directly at the half dozen Speakers who remained in the hall sent a message which even the understandably overwhelmed Great House Speakers were able to interpret correctly. In something like two to two and a half seconds, all of the people with official positions had vacated the Council’s chambers, leaving only my housemates and a few others to watch as the Empress inflicted her punishment on me.

Why would she punish me you might ask?

I had literally bet the existence of the world on what was little more than a hunch and the power of positive thinking – and I am not especially talented at either.

Oh, and I’d done that without letting her or any other person who was in a position to stop me know. So their only warning that the world was about to fall completely to pieces had come as magic which had been immobile for centuries suddenly began to shift and drop onto the material realm.

Lastly, even though the world had survived, it was irrevocably altered and I’d put power into the hands of people who were definitely going to misuse it. Not everyone, or even most people (I hoped), but when you give something to ‘everyone’, well, everyone includes people who aren’t going to use it for things you don’t approve of.

People have called the Empress Eternal ‘heartless’ for sacrificing those who were closest to her to the spell of Eternal Ice. They were drastically wrong about that but given that she hadn’t experienced acute heart failure the moment she perceived what I’d done could be taken as evidence that her detractors claims were literally true.

“Empress, can we speak on Kati’s behalf?” Ilyan asked.

“Yeah. If there’s blame to go around, we were all working on this,” Narla said.

“No,” I said, meeting the Empress’s curious gaze. “I’m not protecting them here, but they didn’t have anything to do with what you’re really angry about here.”

“Am I angry?” the Empress asked. I couldn’t tell anything from her scent, but despite the glee in her eyes it was impossible to imagine she wasn’t furious with me.

“You would have every right to be,” I said.

“We did help her though,” Yarrin said. “So we do share a measure of whatever blame is due to her.”

“No! They didn’t know!” I said. “They still don’t know what I did. Not really.”

“That’s not entirely true,” Idrina said, stepping up beside me. My heart dropped into my feet at the gesture. It was so brave, and so loving, and so terribly terribly stupid. Idrina, of all people, did not need to get splashed with the blame for my actions. “The others weren’t privy to her plans. I was. I could have stopped her last night. I chose not to.”

“No! She didn’t know,” I lied, knowing the Empress would see right through me (she could probably do that literally as well). “Not really. Not the worst that could happen.”

“But you did?” the Empress asked and I felt like a fly which had landed on a web which the spider was continuing to spin. Whatever I answered would be another strand binding ,e ever tighter to the doom that awaited me.

“I spoke with two of the Transcendent Realms,” I said. “They were pretty clear on what they wanted, and it wasn’t exactly hard to see where that could go wrong.”

I switched back to honesty because if I was going to be hung by a damning set of words, they should at least be my own.

“And you chose to go ahead with it anyways? Why?” the Empress asked.

It was the best question she could have asked, and the hardest one to answer, mostly because there were so many reasons for doing what I’d done and being sure which had really motivated me was something I’d refused to let myself consider up until now.

“Because I hate the Empire,” I said, starting with what was absolutely the worst reason of all. “Not the people – or not all of them anyways – and not you. I hate what its become. You sacrificed yourself and endured centuries under the weight of the Worlds Beyond for something that should be so much better than what the Great Houses have made this place to be.”

Ilyan and Narla both had pained looks on their faces. Like I was making the biggest possible mess of things and that I should just shut up before the Empress got really creative with how I was going to suffer for my hubris.

“I could say I did it for my sister. To claim vengeance for what the Great Houses did to her,” I said, plowing on clumsily towards the truth rather than falling silent and accepting my fate. “She wouldn’t want that though. In fact, she’s a large part of why we’re all still here. She didn’t want to see people destroyed, she wanted to see them lifted up.”

Trina hadn’t been entirely happy with what I’d done but she hadn’t been terribly surprised either, which was how she’d happened to have an entire army of ghosts available when they were desperately needed. 

In the worst case, where I managed to get my corporal form obliterated, I at least could look forward to spending more time with her, though she’d promised to come visit once we had the immediate catastrophe dealt with even if I happened to be alive still.

“There were a lot of other reasons too,” I continued before the Empress grew tired and passed her final judgment on me. “The Transcendent Realms collapsing had to happen someday, and I knew I could offer a unique solution to the problem with my connection to two diametrically opposed realms.  And three hundred years is just too much to ask of you, or Doxle, or anyone. You all deserve a break and someone should have been working to help you a long time ago. Not to mention the fact that the Great Houses could have figured out what I did at any time and talked the realms into merging for only their benefit, giving them absolute power with no oversight whatsoever.”

“And were any of those reasons the truth of why you did what you did?” the Empress asked.

“Yes,” I said but my earnestness faded, “and no. I thought of all those things, but if I dig down deep, I think I risked the world for one reason above all others. I risked it for myself.”

Which was the worst reason to risk a world full of people, but I’d never claimed to be a good person. No saints here. I was just me.

“And what did you get out of it?” the Empress asked.

“I guess that remains to be seen,” I said. “I think what I hoped for was a home. Was somewhere that I belonged to be, rather than a world that I felt like I snuck into and whose nature was anathema to my own.”

“So you would have us all live in a world of your design then?” the Empress asked and I really hated that I couldn’t understand her at all via scent.

“No! No, that would be so much worse,” I said. “I wanted it to be a world designed by everyone and not just the few people in charge of the most powerful groups in the world.”

“Do you think that’s what you’ve gained?” the Empress asked.

“I don’t think anything is settled there. I don’t think it can be until you decide what my punishment is going to be.”

“Not just hers. What all of our punishment is going to be,” Mellina said, with a disturbingly unconcerned look on her face.

“Why, I thought that would be obvious,” the Empress said and gestured to my hand.

I was puzzled at first. Did she plan to chop them off? I’d just grow new ones if so, but maybe that hadn’t occurred to her?

Then I noticed what I was holding.

The Imperial Crown.

“Oh! Oh no! I’m sorry!” I said and tried to hand it back before it came alive and bit me or something.

The Empress, evil meanie that she is, chuckled at me.

“Are you under the misapprehension that I want that vile thing back?” she asked, all sweetness and light.

I stopped.

Not paused.

Not wondered.

I stopped.

And I wasn’t the only one.

Everyone in the room froze as the Empress’s words sank in.

Everyone except Mellina who gently guided my arm back to my side, Imperial crown still clutched in my hand.

“Don’t…don’t you need it back?” I asked, dumbfounded by where the Empress’s refusal might lead.

“I’ve worn that for the last three hundred years,” she said. “In what circle of Hell would I need to be entombed to be sentenced to bear it for even a day longer?”

“But…the Empire needs you?” I had no idea if any part of that was true.

And the Empress laughed again.

It wasn’t a little laugh.

Or a subtle one.

It shook her, from belly to brow.

There were tears in her eyes. I hoped they were tears of joy, though madness was seeming a lot more likely.

“You thought I was going to be angry with you?” she asked. “For doing what I’d most hoped to be able to do since before I even put that horrible thing on my head? If there wasn’t a woman I’d spent the last fifteen generations pining for waiting back in my former palace, I would marry you on the spot you beautiful, wonderful, delicious creature you. You have freed me, you freed her, you freed Doxle and all of our closest friends.”

She spun in a circle and motes of light showered the room.

“But you’ve done so much more than that. The Empire, my Empire is free now. My people are as unfrozen from the shackles of the centuries as surely as I am. You’ve given them the chance to forge their own world. For better or worse. It’s all on them now. I would never have had the courage to do that.”

“A lie if I ever heard one,” Doxle said, reappearing in a flash along with a group of people who looked suspiciously like the ones I’d seen frozen into ice statues in the Empress’s chamber. “You were attempting to do that exact thing before you were so rudely interrupted.”

“Perhaps, but she succeeded where I failed,” Mysella, the former Empress?, said.

“We could always adopt her,” a woman who grabbed Mysella’s hand and refused to let go said.

“Uh, uh, nope. She’s mine and you can’t have her,” Grammy said, sliding between us defensively.

“I suppose that’s not really our choice at this point,” Mysella said. “After all, one does not give orders to the Empress.”

I looked around, for who she was referring to, my denial impulses going into overdrive in a futile attempt to save me from a fate worse than death. Sadly those impulses were not up to the job.

“Oh. Oh no. No, no, no, no, no, NO!” I said.

I wasn’t sure if I still had my magic. Given what I’d been through, there was a very serious possibility that I’d burned out my ability to manipulate the power within me forever. In that instant though, I simply did not have time for that.

Faster than even Doxle could follow, I burst from the top of the Council Hall in the form of a Clockwork Dragon and made for the open sky.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 98

“The fun thing about picking up the pieces is that what appears to be wreck and ruin is so often the seeds of a far more fascinating project.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame standing amidst the ruins of the Imperial Academy following the Descent of Magic.

The Empire fell. 

Just as I’d planned.

Or hoped. ‘Plan’ was far more generous than my ramshackle ideas deserved given how little I knew and how much I’d been taking on pure faith and dreams.

In the end though, the Empire crumbled.

Which wasn’t surprising. There really wasn’t any way it could continue on as it was. Not with the changes we’d wrought on it. In our defense, and largely thanks to the Empress’s Last Guardians and their allies, the fall was a slow one though.

Empress Mysella took control of the chaos that erupted the moment I…there’s no nice wording for ‘exploded’ I suppose. I mean, I didn’t cover the room in a shower of gore or anything. From their perspective I put the Imperial Crown on and light blasted from my eyes, mouth, fingers and toes. 

Then I glowed somewhat brighter than the sun.

And then I exploded.

The blast wave was purely aetheric and only covered about an twentieth of the Empire. It was the result of my tapping into both my home realm and the Clockwork Cosmos. 

All of the subsequent explosions came from other people. From those who formed the bridge for the other realms to settle into an orbit of the material world. 

And there were a lot of them. We blanketed the Empire a dozen times over and more. Explosions of light and magic scouring the sky clear of every cloud and outshining the sun itself.

Even with all the thousands of souls who pitched in though, we wouldn’t have had enough understood how the magic they were connected to could co-exist with the world around them. How together the two, or three, or a dozen, could become something far greater than the sum of their parts.

We were lucky there too. As it turned out, we didn’t needed to fix all of the realms on our own. Just enough of them that the more distant planes could learn from the constellation of worlds that built up and overlapped and interleaved themselves with our own.

Crashing into each other and then crumbling to Oblivion wasn’t any more thrilling a prospect for the Transcendent Realms than it was for us I guess. 

I know. A reasonable reaction. I was shocked too.

The evolution of the realms beyond was a process that took from the moment we started it, out to the far end of eternity, but to those we’d left behind, it was over in the space of a few harrowing minutes.

A harrowing minute which somehow we emerged from apparently intact? 

I had no words to explain that.

It was simply put a miracle. No other possible explanation was available.

A miracle forged by those who loved us enough that even death hadn’t parted them from our hearts. 

Trina was my guide and shield, but she was not the only one who stood by my side in that liminal space between all worlds.

I had no name for the others – because we had never used names – not with how continually we changed and flowed. I didn’t need a name for them though. I knew my cousins. I knew my siblings. I knew my parents. I knew everyone who’d been pulled through the rift with me that fateful day. Everyone who’d died in a foreign and terrifying world while I alone had survived.

They hadn’t left me either and no matter how much I’d changed, we would always be family.

That reunion had been joyful, but even in a timeless realm, all things must eventually pass, and my life in the material world wasn’t yet done.

Returning to that life was an interesting experience.

I didn’t shapeshift a new body for myself. I didn’t need to (which was good or none of the other people who channeled the planes would have been able to manage it). Instead I precipitated back into the world, like rain falling from some ethereal plane to fill up the body that I hadn’t really lost in the first place.

It was good that the experience was a brief one because while it wasn’t painful it was as deeply disconcerting as dying and being born in the same instant could be. 

The spear tip at my throat, on the other hand? That was somehow strangely comforting.

“You can break my heart again, as often as you need,” I said, gently pushing the spear down till it pointed towards the center of my chest, “but I’ll still keep loving you.”

It sounded better in my head than when I said it, but it had the impact I was looking for so I can’t say I regret a word of it.

The spear clattered to the floor before dissipating in a puff of light. 

“It’s you,” a disbelieving Idrina said.

“Never doubted it for a moment,” Doxle said, wiping a finger across one eye.

Grammy didn’t say a word, she just shuffled over to me and wrapped me in a nice warm hug.

“What’s happening?” the Speaker for House Greendell asked.

“Magic is descending,” I said.

“Tell them what that means,” the Empress said, her voice drunk with delight.

“Magic is coming to the world.” I wasn’t being terribly helpful, but I wasn’t feeling particularly generous with information where the Great Houses were concerned.

Then I saw the Empress’s point.

I could gloat!

“We already have magic,” House Astrologia said.

“You’ve borrowed sips of magic up till now,” I said. “Tiny motes of power which you’ve lorded over those you’ve believed beneath you. You’ve ripped holes in the world to steal even more, all the while thinking yourselves ‘Great’. But that was fine. The commoners could never throw off their yoke! And the creatures from the worlds beyond could never reach you! You were safe and secure and untouchable.” I took a moment to smirk. “You’re about to discover how that has changed.”

A page burst through the doors, which I was pretty certain was the Empress’s handiwork given the perfect timing of the moment.

“My Lords!” he called out struggling to catch his breath. “The city! It’s… it’s gone!”

It wasn’t actually gone.

It had simply changed.

We were one of the first points of the convergence and so the townspeople were the first to feel the touch of the other worlds washing over them.

Everyone in the room had technically experience the same thing, but the Clockwork Cosmos and my home realm were giving me a measure of breathing room to recover in, so the area immediately around me – in other words, the High Council’s hall – stood as an oasis in the sea of change.

The Speakers surged out of the chamber to witness what had occurred, which drew them each past the Empress.

It was such a subtle thing to watch her work.

One by one they passed her by, and with hands deft enough to weave a net that bound a million realms, hands I point out which were no longer burdened by the weight of those worlds, she gently brushed them as they passed and lifted away their citizenship.

A minor, trivial little thing.

Hardly worth of notice.

Except for the part where, in our new world, it was citizenship in the Empire, or more specifically a connection to the land, which opened one up to the realms which were bound to the material world. Which they now lacked.

None of them felt her touch and none of them grasped the implications of their loss.

And none of them would until the first of them tried to cast a spell.

And learned that they, alone in the Empire, held no more magic.

I wasn’t gloating though.

I had plenty of time for that later.

I had a more important message to convey.

“You know what this means, don’t you?” I asked Doxle.

“I do indeed,” he said. “I could sense when the pact bond faded. You are now as free of me, as we are of them.” He nodded towards the departing Speakers who would never trouble us again, for a variety of reasons.

That, however, was not what I was referring to.

And not something I’d been paying any attention to.

But once he mentioned it, it would have been easy enough to feel if the bond was gone.

Except it wasn’t.

Or rather, there was still a bond there.

Just not a Pact Bond.

I gave it a tug.

Playing around with new and unknown magic effects wasn’t terribly wise? I mean I’d done far more foolish things already, so why not?

“Did…did you just call me?” Doxle asked.

“Oh. Is that what that does?” I asked, evil ideas already forming in my mind.

“Whatever all this is,” Enika said waving her hands at the two of us, “you know that’s not what she was referring to.”

Doxle looked at her, completely baffled for a change.

“Is he always this obtuse?” Enika asked the Empress.

“You were the one who married him,” the Empress said.

“That was annulled,” Enika said. “It never happened.”

“Not to interrupt on this most momentous of days, but what, pray tell, are you referring to?” Doxle asked.

“She’s free,” Enika said, pointing to the Empress. “Which means the rest of them are too. So, don’t you have somewhere else to be?”

“Oh. Why, yes.” and he vanished. Instantly. Faster than any invocation could have been cast.

“Predictable,” Enika sighed and added, “Shouldn’t you be there too?”

“I have an Empire to hold together, for a little bit longer,” the Empress said. “Also, I’m talking with her as we speak.”

Because if there was one thing the Empress of the most magically empowered land in the world could do, it was multi-task.

That turned out to be rather crucial as tidal wave of chaos that I’d unleashed crashed over every city, town, village, and hamlet on the continent.

With the Transcendent Realms evolving into a natural coexistence with the material world, every citizen of the Empire gained access to magic beyond the wildest dreams of the most powerful casters of the Great Houses.

That was not an entirely good thing.

Some people did not handle their new abilities well.

Some people used their new abilities to object to how those who’d been in power had treated them. Those objections were rather crimson colored and tended to splash around a much larger area than they needed to.

Some tried to found new kingdoms within the Empire.

Some believed it was the end of the world and talked the gullible and easily swayed around them into believing it too.

Some were just miserable people and giving them more power simply made them more miserable.

Some were too scared of losing what they had, and so refused to accept that the world could change. Those unhappy souls fought with a deadly small mindedness to prevent the world they knew from becoming something strange and unrecognizable.

For as horrible as all that was though, it was far from the only way things went.

Yes, there was chaos everywhere, but a staggering number of people just dealt with it. 

In the face of the whole world falling apart, the vast majority people simply started putting it back together.

In families, in small groups, even alone when they needed to, people learned to navigate a world where all the rules had changed, and together they started to build something brand new.

I, of course, did not quite escape the consequence of my actions.

I hadn’t thought I would. I had a lot of optimism, but even I wasn’t delusional enough to think I’d get away from the reckoning that was coming.

I had hoped I’d at least make it out of the High Council chamber but, alas, that was not to be.

“We need to speak,” Empress Mysella said, and I knew that conversation wasn’t going to be pleasant small talk.

Clockwork Soul – Chapter 97

“From the earth we were formed. While we walk upon its surface we imagine divisions between us which all fall away when we return to the earth’s embrace. Let us learn from those who have fallen here today, and work together to create a future where those who follow need not await the peace of the next life to know the prosperity equality can bring.”

– Words etched into the cornerstone of the Imperial Palace and attributed to a speech given at the founding of the Empire (apocryphal)

I held the Empire in the palm of my hands and its weight was unbelievable. 

That should have been a metaphorical statement but as I placed the Imperial crown on my head, it become staggeringly literal.

The Empress’s crown was magical but that didn’t matter. All of the enchantments which preserved its luster and all of the precoded effects built into it were little more than window dressing compared to the real value it held. Sure, I could have teleported anywhere in the Empire in the blink of an eye while wearing the crown, and cast a perfected Geas on any citizen, but I had no interest in claiming a sovereign’s right.

I wanted power.

Specifically, I wanted an access point to the power which held the Transcendent Realms in stasis. The Empress’s spell was a monumental thing, far too complex for me to even imagine taking apart. Fortunately, that wasn’t my job. As the realms changed and shifted, they were going to take care of demolishing it all on their own. What I had to do was make sure that they didn’t demolished the material world as well.

That was a lot to ask of anyone but I did have a couple of special cards to play.

The moment the crown touched my head and the bridge to the spell binding the Empire and the Transcendent Realms formed I was blasted across the cosmos.

That didn’t come as a surprise though.

I knew what I was plugging myself into, and I knew that it was impossibly far beyond my limits. I also knew someone whose limits it wasn’t beyond. Or two someones to be specific.

I couldn’t see the High Council chamber anymore – largely because I’d more or less exploded and so was a little short on anything resembling a body part – but that had the benefit of allowing me to focus on calling out for help.

The Clockwork Cosmos answered but not before my oldest ally appeared.

Without the constraints of a body, I felt the swirling force of the Dwellers in the Depths enwrap me without crushing me to goo. Together we swam and changed and though I was so small as to be an unnoticeable mote before them, still I felt them harmonizing with me.

In the ever shifting dream that we both shared and were I felt something new though, something I’d only barely dared to hope for.

They’d changed.

Not just the eternally transformation of shape and substance, but a far deeper evolution of their core essence.

And with them, the realm I hailed from, the origin of my being, was becoming something new.

We – where the realm ended and I began was a question without a realistic answer by that point – had been incapable of ever building on ourselves. We could be anything, changed endlessly, never the same from one moment to the next, and so we had always been perfectly free.

But we’d never been able to become more than we were.

Never been able to become someone.

To choose who we were.

Because everything had been transitory. No moment could ever constrain us, but so to could we never hold onto a moment, or return to what we’d once been with a greater understanding of it or ourselves.

That was true, wasn’t it?


I, small, infinitesimal spec that I was, had become something more, step-by-step, moment-by-moment as each piled on top of the other into days, and weeks, and years.

The Clockwork Cosmos understood.

The smaller cogs of seconds turning to drive larger cogs of minutes, and hours, and on, moving into the future one click at a time.

We, the Clockwork Cosmos and I, had followed a preset pattern, marching forwards within a strict set of rules. One turn of the smallest cog, and the simplest of days, pushing us the greater of our life to the next step, over and over without deviation as we met the expectation of those who surrounded us.

That was true, wasn’t it?


I, the tiniest of cogs, turned of my own volition and according to my own desires, and though it often hurt, I did not shatter and twist into what those around me would have me be.

Through me, the two realms had found a point of connection and a hint towards what they could become.

And then I’d taught them how to create rifts of their own since I was far too small a current or a cog to allow them to commune on a meaningful scale.

Had the two realms proven to be anathema to each other? Had their contact been one of mutual annihilation? That would have been an absolutely reasonable concern. I couldn’t even swear in the moment I’d come to that mutual obliteration was off the table.

But I had faith.

I knew the two Transcendent Realms could become something more, because I’d touched them both and found myself in both and I knew I could stand before them as proof as what was possible.

In me, I believed, I hoped, I prayed, they could find the path forward which would free themselves and everyone else. I could be the template they needed for what could come next.

I was small and insignificant but the idea of me could be so much bigger.

Or at least that had been my plan.

What I’d failed to account for was that it might work well beyond my wildest dreams.

See, I’d thought with the two realms growing beyond their initial constraints, they’d be able to take over the role of the Eternal Ice spell and reshape themselves (thanks to my home realm) into a stable and adaptable structure (thanks to the Clockwork Cosmos) which could support the other Transcendent Realms, thereby freeing the Empress and those who’d cast the spell with her, thereby upending three centuries of the Great Houses growing unchecked like a cancer across the Empire. 

That the people of the Empire would also gain a local fighting force of next generation Clockwork Warriors powered seemed like enough to ensure that the madness I’d witnessed would at least change into a new form of madness, with the outside possibility that maybe we’d get it right this time.

I know, hopelessly optimistic on that last point, but I had some amazing people around me, so I thought it was at least worth leaving the door open for a miracle like that to occur.

What I’d failed to consider was that my home realm and the Clockwork Cosmos didn’t have any reason to stop with talking to each other once they knew how to open rifts to another realm.

It had been a monumental act of hubris to think I could talk to not one but two Infinities and have an impact on them. When the next realm reached out to me though, I saw the true scale of my foolishness.

The first was a realm of steel and stability, a close neighbor of the Clockwork Cosmos. It touched me through the steel I felt in the most unbending part of my spirit.

How do I become like they are?

No words were spoken to ask the question, and I had no ears to hear it with even if there had been, but I understood it all the same.

The problem was, I had no idea how to answer.

I’d never worn armor as a part of who I was.

I didn’t understand the realm that was pouring itself into me.

I can change and I can grow but as an endless expanse of steel tried to merge with me to discover how it could change to something even greater, I found my essence swelling and tearing and diluting until steel seemed like the only thing that I was, could be, or ever had been.

I fought it.

I struggled to remember who I was.

Who I’d chosen to be.

Who I wanted to become.

An avalanche of steel crashed onto me though, burying all of that.

And beyond the avalanche,out beyond the horizon of my imagination, I saw realm after realm after realm waiting to learn the secret I held.

The secret which was the only thing which would keep them from tearing themselves, each other, and the material world apart into a cloud of fundamental particles.

A secret I wasn’t going to be able to share with them because I wasn’t going to survive the realm of steel.

I’d doomed the world, and all I had left to hang onto was a kiss given to me by a woman who’d broken my heart before I fell in love with her.

“Don’t give up,” she’d said.

“Never.” I repeated, shouldering for the barest of instants the weight of steel that was crushing me out of existence.

It was one moment – absolutely nothing when placed against the eternities which surrounded me.

But it was enough.

“Looks like you could use a hand there?” Kelthas said, clad in a pristine version of the armor I’d watched him die in.

“Wha? Who? How?” I was the soul of eloquence there if I do say so myself.

“Let me take that for you first,” he said and with one hand, lifted the realm of steel off my soul.

Because of course he could.

It was the realm he understood.

And which understood him.

He shared the same connection with the realm his armor came from as I shared with the one where my transformation magics originated.

“Kelthas? How are you here?”

“Did you think I’d left?” he asked. “You know ghosts can stay around – I’ve talked to your sister. Did you think I didn’t have unfinished business after what they did to you?”

“What they did to me!? They killed you!”

“Well, yeah, that’s sort of required to become a ghost I guess,” he said. “I just felt bad that I’d left you all like that.”

“I….you…are you kidding? I killed a guy for what he did to you. Straight up ripped him to pieces! How is that not the wrong that kept you from finding rest?”

“Oh, I saw that. It was awesome!” Kelthas said. “Honestly, I could have gone to my rest right there if I’d wanted to. You avenged me just perfectly.”

“You’re not mad about that? Or disgusted?”

“No, not at all. I…I just wished you hadn’t had to do it,” he said, “because I could see how much it hurt you. I should have been there to protect you all. That was my whole job. It’s what my magic was for.”

“I can’t believe I’m about to argue with a ghost on what the purpose of his life was, but believe me when I say that even in the short time we knew each other, I don’t think any of us would have asked you to give your life for ours. You were our friend, and losing you sucked.”

“Yeah. Losing you all wasn’t great either,” he said. “On the upside though, I met some pretty incredible new friends here, and they helped me see that as long as we had a connection, I hadn’t really lost you at all.”

“And who might those new friends be?” I asked, unable to believe what I suspected to be true.

“Why the most incredible sister in this life or the next,” Trina said. “Oh, no, wait, that’s you.”

I screamed. Not in fear. Joy can do that to a person too.

My big sister was with me in what was still an impossible hour and with her was an army of the dead whose end stretched back into the mists of time.

Those who’d come before us had never really left and now, where I’d fallen hopelessly short, they stood beside us to ward off the end of the world and welcome in a new one.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 96

“I don’t have a lot of experience in this world, and I’m not especially wise. I’ve spent my whole life watching people and trying to understand why they do what they do. I thought there were deep secrets to their behavior that I would need to learn to mimic in order to blend in with them.

Turns out though, people aren’t that complex.

We think we do what we do for a lot of reasons, but, mostly, what it comes down to choosing to value something and then protecting it.

For the longest time, I thought that what I valued was my own life above all else. It wasn’t until I understood the family I had that I saw there was something I valued a whole lot more.”

– Kati Riverbond, in a note to her housemates which was never sent.

No one reacted all that much to my request for the Empress’s crown. There had been too many other shocks to their system for a simple thing like that to raise many alarms in any one.

Anyone except Doxle.

He turned to me, eyes narrowed in suspicion, and was about to ask the kind of questions he really didn’t want the answers to before the Empress held out a hand to bid him to silence.

“You have a suitable army assembled to have made that request as a threat,” she said, and I saw exactly what everyone else was seeing. 

As coups went, it wasn’t the best one ever planned but it was one that at least half of the Great Houses might have tried. Lure the Empress out of her castle (after overcoming the obvious problem that it was impossible for her to leave it), surround her with as many assassins as you could get your hands on and then start making demands. Perfect plan. Nothing could wrong with it.

Well nothing aside from the sheer havoc Doxle and Enika could wreck. Or the fact that all of the other House Speakers present would immediately side with the Empress. Or, and it was important not to overlook this, the fact that the Empress herself was in command of enough raw magic to reduce the planet we were standing on to an ever expanding cloud of dust.

So, like I said, half the Great House, at a minimum would have tried it.

House Riverbond however was not one of them, and, this was something for which the Empress won my undying love and admiration, the Empress knew it.

“You are trying render us aid though?” She understood that I wanted to help her, and I couldn’t fault her for not understanding how.

“I am,” I said. “To be clear, I do not need your title, your office, or any aspect of your life. All I need is the physical symbol of your position.”

Doxle’s eyes were alight with opposition to the conversation going any further, but the Empress’s gesture held him silent – not physically or magically, he simply respected her and she understood the limits of his reasonability.

“As a symbol, it’s purpose it somewhat diminished should another bear it,” the Empress said. “To what end would you make us of it?”

“You’re planning to recast the freezing spell, aren’t you?” I asked and she smiled.

“The thought had crossed our mind,” she said. “The two realms which have shifted are only a small corner of the Transcendent Realms. Even now the others who bear the Eternal Ice maintain the greater spell. We were very lucky that the shifting realms did not trigger a greater cascade, and we thank you for this brief reprieve from our duty, even though it comes with the certainty that it must end before another hour passes.”

“Realms?” Doxle said. “There was only supposed to be one realm which changed, and it was supposed to be rigid enough that there was no danger of its collapse?”

“Your calculations were off my dear Advisor,” the Empress said. “Though not by much. To your credit, it was only a small part of one other realm, and a naturally changing one at that, which escaped the limits imposed by the Eternal Ice. Likely due to your protege.”

“That’s not possible,” Doxle said, his voice flat. “You know my work. I did not make a mistake. There should only have been one realm which shifted. I would never have risked forcing you to carry two of them at once.”

“And yet…,” she waved her hand and a trail of tiny gears formed in the air stretching and shrinking dynamically as she pushed and spun them.

It was finally Doxle’s turn to look surprised.

And worried.

Or terrified. That might have been what terrified looked like on Doxle.

“You’re both correct,” I said, knowing that what I was going to say next wasn’t going to reduce the chance that Doxle would have an heart attack but they deserved the truth.

Now that it was too late to do anything about it.

“And how might that be?” Doxle said, the frost in his tone indicating that he was genuinely upset with me.

For which I couldn’t blame him.

“Your calculations were not wrong,” I said. “And the Empress is correct that two realms have shifted. What won’t be clear yet is the change to the Clockwork Cosmos is will not remain limited to that realm. Or to mine.”

“Explain,” Doxle said, his hands trembling for the first time in centuries.

“The Clockwork Cosmos was going to destroy itself to accommodate us. It was willing to do that because it absolutely loathed the idea that its nature allowed people like Ironbriar to control what it was,” I said. “It was willing to annihilate it’s core essence and because nothing more than a dead world for the dead. It was careful not to express that because it understood how we would perceive that.”

“And you were able to see past its deception how?” the Empress asked.

“I became it,” I said. “What you see me do is more than a transformation of shape. When I become something, or someone, I change fragments of my essence to match the form I’m taking. I know what the Clockwork Cosmos was thinking because I thought its thoughts while I was within it. Then, once I was back to myself, the me you see here and now, I confirmed what I’d learned by asking  it directly.”

“And how did you manage that?” the Empress asked.

“Your instructors showed me how to tear a rift between the realms,” I said. “It takes a lot of effort, and is remarkably unpleasant, but even one the size of a thread is another allow conversation with something like the Clockwork Cosmos.”

“And what did you tell the Clockwork Cosmos?” Doxle asked.

“That there was another way,” I said, confessing to a crime against the world itself. “I asked if it truly wanted to change, and whether it would accept my help in doing so.”

“Oh, I see,” the Empress said the delight of understanding lighting her eyes. “You gave it access to your magic.”

“Mine wouldn’t have been anywhere near enough,” I said. “Alone, we’re far too limited. To change a cosmos, you need another cosmos. So I introduced it to one.”

“How?” Doxle said, already knowing the answer and desperately not wanted to believe it was true.

“I spoke with the Dwellers Below from my home realm, I asked if they desired to become something more than they ever could be alone, and, when they agreed, I taught them what I knew,”

“Quite clever,” the Empress said. “And yes, you are correct. We are all doomed.”

“You don’t believe that,” Doxle said. “You’re too happy to believe that.”

“There’s still the Eternal Ice,” I said. “It worked before, and I know that’s a comforting thought, but it won’t work again.”

“People didn’t believe it would work the first time either,” the Empress said.

“I know. And I know you’re a good enough caster to tailor it to the changes in the realms, but last time they were crashing downwards all unaware. They were far happier to caught by the Ice than they were with falling to oblivion. This is different. They’re not falling. Not yet. They’re changing, or trying to learn how. If you freeze them again, they’ll work to become something that can melt free, or flow around, or pass through.  They need someone to guide them though. Otherwise they’re going to fall before they can understand what else is possible.”

“We dare not grant you the crown then,” the Empress said. “That is a task which must fall on us. We cannot ask anyone else to bear it.”

“You can,” I said. “You have to. Letting that much magic flow through you will destroy you, even if you can show the realms the path to the future.”

“Then I shall be destroyed. After all this time do you think I would do less for my Empire?”

“Of course not,” I said. “What I’m asking is that you think of what the Empire will need from you tomorrow. The sun is going rise on a new world, whatever happens next. There are people who will want to share that world with you, and an Empire full of people who will look to you for guidance and the stability that you alone can offer.”

I probably wasn’t allowed to take her hands in mine. Touching the Empress was likely a capital offense against the demands of etiquette. I didn’t really care though. Not with what lay ahead of me.

“I can do this for you,” I said. “For everyone.” I could help but cast a glance over at Idrina, and the rest of my housemates, and Grammy. “You didn’t ask for this. You would never have risked everyone like this. It was stupid and irresponsible and…”

“And the only hope that things will truly change,” the Empress said, offering me a sad smile, and the crown from her head.

“Thank you,” I said, feeling the weight of the world bound in a circlet of ornamented iron.

“Are you sure of this?” Grammy asked.

“We can find another way,” Idrina said.

“There’s time,” Doxle said. “All I need is an hour and a chalkboard. No. A half hour.”

“Don’t lie to her,” Enika said. “Tell her the truth. You know what the other way is already.”

“I could take her place,” Doxle said, dejection coloring his words because the admission meant there was no chance I would go for it.

“Hey,” I said. “You deserve to see tomorrow too.”

His face hardened in exactly the manner of someone forcing back tears. But he couldn’t have been crying for me. I think.

“We are leaving the our fate, no, the fate of our entire world in the hands of an inhuman child?” Lightstone said. “Forget what she said. If the Eternal Ice can be renewed, then recast the spell. It is the Empress’s duty to save us, not this lying changeling. I demand…”

I never got to hear what his demands where.

The snap of Enika’s fingers ricocheted off ceiling of the Council Chamber and in its wake, snow fell within the hall.

Lightstone had gotten his wish.

Behind the Head Speaker’s podium a block of Eternal Ice stood. It wasn’t so broad or cosmically all encompassing as the Empress’s version of the spell, but it was every bit as permanent from what I could smell. I wondered if Lightstone would dream, or if he was trapped forever in that moment of outrage and terror.

“I am sure,” I said, to Grammy, to Idrina, to the Empress, and to Doxle. “If we got to this point, I knew this is what I would need to do, and I know it’s worth it.”

Idrina squeezed my hand.

“I’m not saying goodbye. I’m not going to give up on this life. Not easily,” I said.

Idrina, pulled me in close and kissed me without an instant’s hesitation.

“Don’t give up at all,” she said.

“Never!” I agreed, and placed the Imperial Crown on my head.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 95

“That my people should survive was, simply put, impossible. There was no path which led to their salvation, no hope of victory, no chance that the cataclysm which descended on us could be endured. Annihilation would come. The end of all we knew and everyone we held dear. Nothing else was possible.

For three hundred years, I have shouldered an impossible burden against a hopeless tomorrow.

I froze myself and all around me in a moment of eternity so that we would not, could not, change, knowing even as I expended the whole of my life in the casting that it was a vane effort.

Tomorrow cannot be withheld forever and change will always come.

We do not speak of it, but Doxle once came to me with those words. It was not despair which drove him, but the love we share as partners in the terrible crime of rejecting the world as it is. He gave voice to the futility of what I’d done, the doubts which gnawed at the unyielding ice around my heart.

Better the whole world burn than I and our loved ones suffer eternally, especially since the ice must one day thaw and our efforts to hold our world safe fail at last.

My answer then was the same as it was to the others who approached with the same plea; I will not give up Today no matter how bleak Tomorrow may appear to be.

As greeted the dawn this morning though, I could feel it.

The change of the day.

My Tomorrow had come at last.

I just don’t know yet whether to hope that yours has too.”

– Her Eternal Majesty, Empress Mysella, Dread Tyrant and Undying Foundation of the Realm in a letter left in the hands of the ice statue of her beloved on the final day of the Empire.

The Empress Eternal smelled of both hope and despair. Projections aren’t supposed to smell of anything. Which was fine. Because she wasn’t a projection.

I think more or less everyone in the room understand that something was deeply wrong with her presence among us. From the rising scent of panic, it seemed that an ever-increasing number of them were putting the pieces together and grasping exactly how bad that was.

One silver lining though – the Speaker for House Lightstone had fallen silent and was staring open mouthed at the Empress.

“Who is that?” I heard one of the junior Speakers say. Because of course people had forgotten what the long “dead” Empress looked like.

His answer was a dagger at his throat and a whispered “Do. No. Speak.” from his senior companion, because there were also people who knew exactly what she looked like.

“Time is not our ally, Speakers,” the Empress said. “We would hear this dispute and see it settled before the sun passes it’s zenith.”

“Why?” Lightstone asked, the scent of existential despair rising from him sharp as smoke from a bonfire.

“You would question your Empress when charged instead to answer?” the Empress said, malicious delight bouncing off each syllable.

“You cannot be here,” Lightstone said. “If you are here, we are undone.”

“What are you saying?” Ironbriar asked, the only one among the Great Houses who seemed ignorant of the doom the Empress’s presence presaged.

“More questions?” the Empress said. “May we assume then the High Council has presented its evidence and offered its advice to the Imperial Throne? We are willing to decide the matter of the War between the Houses on the fact as we understand them if so.”

“What? No! No, I have evidence! There are rules and protocols. The matter still has to be voted on by a quorum of Speakers before its settled.”

“Point of order,” Doxle said. “The High Council’s vote determines what information will be presented to the Senior Grand Magistrate. It is usually considered the final verdict, but ultimate judgment and disciplinary power resides in the hands of the Senior Grand Magistrate as they are the ones who speak with the Voice of the Empire.”

“So you can just announce the verdict then?” Ironbriar said, turning to speaker for House Lightstone.

“No. There’s no point,” Lightstone said.

“My apologies but did the Speaker for House Ironbriar just suggest that someone else in this room holds more authority than our Empress?” Enika asked. “That’s technically a treasonous act, is it not?”

“Shut up,” Lightstone said. “We don’t have time for this. We don’t have time for anything. She’s doomed us all.”

“Has she?” Grammy asked. “Maybe if you ask her nicely she’ll go seal herself back up in ice for another three centuries.”

She and the Empress shared a secret smile and I was abruptly left wondering what exactly an “Imperial Terminus” did and for how many years Grammy had acted as the Empress’s agent.

Lightstone shot a look at Grammy that was so filled with hated I was pretty sure he would have killed her on the spot if he had the power.

Narla threw her hand in front of Grammy, catching something invisible in response to Yarrin’s quick poke, because it seemed Lightstone did have the ability to kill with a glance.

Not Narla though.

Her magic crushed whatever ugly invisible thing Lightstone has cast forth into a small glob of purple goo that she whipped onto the floor.

Lightstone could have tried again of course, except for the knife that Mellina was holding to his throat.

I wasn’t sure when she’d disappeared, but she had Lightstone’s full attention as she dragged the tip of her blade a couple of inches towards the center of his neck, leaving a thin blood trail behind as she did.

“It would be advisable to remain calm,” Mellina said. “I assure you, this day will be much worse if you do not.”

“Do you know, we have long imagined what our return to the Council’s chambers might be like? This is proving to be everything we hoped for and more. Now if someone would only call for an assassin or two,” the Empress said.

The timing was too perfect. I snapped my fingers, and from the rafters, one hundred and twenty assassins descended. One hundred and twenty assassins who were lacking Loyalty Brands. One hundred and twenty assassins who were, as of this morning, official members of House Riverbond.

“You called M’Lady?” Genevieve, the oldest and presumably most deadly of the assassins asked as she landed beside me clad in a special sort of armor.

“The Empress requested your services. If you wish to provide them, I will see you compensated properly, as a gift from House Riverbond to the Imperial Throne.”

Even Grammy was struck silent at that.

For moment.

But she was the first one to bust out laughing.

House Ironbriar on the other hand had been struck so silent that I had to wonder if he’d ever regain the ability to speak.

He recognized the armor we’d given to the assassins.

And the weapons.

The Clockwork arms.

Or more precisely, the next generation of Clockwork arms.

We delayed long enough for my friends plan to work!

“It doesn’t matter,” Lightstone said. “Kill me now, or let me die later. None of us will see the next dawn rise.”

“I thought it was House Astrologia who still dabbled in precognition?” Doxle said.

“What is going on? Why are we doomed?” the Speaker for House Kilnfire asked.

“She died for us,” Lightstone said. “And in her death she held the Transcendent Realms in stasis so that we might prosper from them. That she is here, now, means that the Realms are no longer bound. They will crash against each other in a cataclysm of annihilation. Nothing and no one will survive!”

“I don’t understand? Why? Why would she do that?” Kilnfire asked.

“Perhaps three centuries was long enough to endure dealing with you ungrateful lot?” Doxle suggested.

“That would suppose that anything the Speaker of House Lightstone was correct,” the Empress said. “For those we have not formally greeted to our service yet,” she nodded at Kilnfire and a few others, “We did not die, nor did we adopt our previous state so that the Houses could prosper for the Transcendent Realms. That was the result of a betrayal by all of the Houses here. We must confess there is a great temptation to make use of House Riverbond’s gift to extract a measure of vengeance for that, but sadly none present can be held accountable for the actions of their long dead ancestors.”

“They’re guilty of plenty of other insults to you and your Empire, Your Majesty,” Genevieve the Assassin said.

“As we well know,” the Empress said. “And as we shall bear in mind in decreeing the terms to end the current War between the Houses.”

It was nice to hear that she hadn’t forgotten about us, but I was beginning to feel my magic changing and growing stronger. That was not a comforting sign. There was really only one reason for my magic to rise and it suggested that the discussion I’d had in my dreams had been more convincing than I’d dared hope or fear.

That the Empress was present was proof that I’d convinced the dwellers in the Bathypelagic Zone to speak at least a few words with the Clockwork Cosmos. 

Part of me had hoped that those would be the only two realms drawn into my mad plan.

Part of me had embraced the true depths of the madness though and yearned to see things pushed further.

That was part which seemed to be getting its wish.

“Why talk of the War now?” Lightstone asked, slumping in defeat almost enough to impale himself on Mellina’s dagger. “There will be no war. If Riverbond wants peace, let it have whatever peace it desires. Frolic in our ruin, and imagine anything will change what is to come.”

“You acknowledge your defeat then?” the Empress asked.

“What? No!” Ironbriar said. “We can…we still have…”

Lightstone laid a hand on his shoulder.

“We have nothing,” Lightstone said. “You see the armor Riverbond’s troops are clad in. You know they had suborned our control of the Clockwork realm. No force we have in this city could stand against them, so cheers, they have claimed victory, and in so doing have destroyed the whole of this world.”

“A point of clarity,” I said, following Doxle’s lead. “We do not control the Clockwork Cosmos at all. We have merely entered into a freely agreed upon partnership with both it and the ghost of those who were slain by artificially generated Reaving Storms.”

“That is a rather large partnership,” the Empress said, looking what I thought was at least mildly impressed.

“We have almost one hundred thousand armory nodes,” I said.

“And to whom have these arms been deployed?” the Empress asked.

“Um, I think everyone? Or at least everyone that your Last Guardians had contacts with. I think we got all of the cities in the Empire and most of the towns too,” I said, revealing at last how we planned to win the war.

“That’s impossible,” Ironbriar said.

“Messaging spells are cheap. Call home and find out,” I said. “Oh, except for the part where no one is probably there anymore. They’re still alive mind you, but as the families of the Great Houses were among the few we did not distribute Clockwork arms to, I’m afraid you’ll find they’ve been rather painlessly removed from power. Most of them. I imagine there were a few grudges there.”

Ironbriar was huffing in disbelief so quickly I suspected he was about to pass out from hyperventilation but he surprised me.

“So…so we are to lose our position…and you’ve destroyed our world? And we’re supposed to…supposed to go quietly? Accept this asinine outcome? Oh I think I not! I think not indeed!” He had worked himself up into a violent enough fit that he didn’t need a voice spell to project to the room. “She’s killed us you say? That dead thing that’s pretending to be our Empress? That we’ve never needed! Who’s unwanted and always has been! If we are to die then, she can die first!”

Leaping over the half wall the Council sat behind to rush at someone had not worked for the previous Speaker who’d tried it but Ironbriar was made of sterner stuff. His family was renowned as the Warrior-Elites of the Empire. With murder in his eyes and a sword summoned to his hand, he was more than capable of killing….hmm, well, maybe Ilyan?

Before he got close enough for any of the myriad people around the Empress to dispose of him for her though, he was frozen in his tracks mid stride.

In turns, part of him swelled up like a balloon while other parts compressed inwards as though he had sunk to great depths of the ocean. It would have been gruesomely comical if not for the wretched sounds which accompanied it.

“Let me have this!” Enika said, in curt, clipped syllables.

“My apologies,” Doxle said and gave her a small bow.

Ironbriar stopped exploding and imploded altogether.

It looked neither enjoyable, nor survivable, but it did have the advantage of leaving the corpse in the form of a small crimson marble instead of splatter across the length and breadth of the chamber.

“We suppose that will form House Ironbriar’s testimony,” the Empress said. “Would any other Houses like to speak.”

The wisdom of silence graced the Council Chamber and the Empress gave a satisfied nod.

“We declare the war between our Houses resolved. All who stood against House Riverbond will have their treasuries ceased and distributed according to House Riverbond’s directives. Any who would contest this verdict may speak now and may expect an answer from the Imperial Legions…though perhaps we may contract that responsibility out ot House Riverbond’s allies instead.”

“We shall be happy to donate our services Your Majesty”, Genevieve said.

“Excellent. Then with that we are concluded,” the Empress said.

“Pardon me Your Majesty, but not quite yet,” I said, dreading what was to come next.

“You would ask for more?” The Empress seemed puzzled mostly because this was as far as we’d discussed things with her. What was left was all my own insanity.

“Yes,” I said. “I need your crown.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 94

“Unexpected guests are the most entertaining kind, I always find. When one is able to anticipate the arrival of a party of guests it’s all too easy to arrange to be elsewhere when they arrive, or, far, far worse, be prepared to entertain them.

The unexpected however allows us to greet people with the artifice stripped away. Well, most of the artifice. Okay, a small and relatively insignificant portion of the artifice we routinely cloak ourselves in out of a deep and externally inflicted sense of self-loathing which we refusing to interrogate or even fully acknowledge as doing so would require a commitment to further self-discovery and work of the base traumas from which our myriad of character flaws arise.

All That.

But, still, unexpected guests are just so much easier to deal with.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame explaining to the Empress Eternal why he was disinclined to host a gala for his 200th birthday party.

Grammy always had a certain magic about her. The fact that the High Council’s response to her arrival was terrified silence was one form of it. The other was the still glowing rapier that she wore on her hip.

It was interesting that with magic locked down in the room, she was apparently still quite capable of powering the spells on the ancient blade.

On the other hand though, the Lightstone speaker had used a voice projection spell after the magic suppression kicked in. I’d almost missed that, but the implications of it were wonderful.

A blanket ‘no magic’ field would be more costly to maintain but also far harder to disrupt. If they’d left wholes in it for things like voice spells and Artifact-class weapons though? I suppressed the evil cackle that rose within me content in the knowledge that I could work with that.

Also, Grammy was here. 

That was terrifying for a wide variety of reasons.

But I wasn’t thinking about those.

And I definitely did not want to slink behind Narla before I was caught in all the lies I’d told for what amounted to my entire life.

The noble regalia proved helpful there. Hiding, or even moving, with that much fabric on was not a trivial endeavor.

“I will challenge your right to speak before this Council,” the less-than-wise Speaker for House Farsail said. “Who is this woman?”

I watched the Speaker for House Greendell try to shut Farsail up before he could utter what were likely to be his last words, but some reactions come just a little bit too late.

“Oh wonderful! A challenge! I haven’t enjoyed one of those in years,” Grammy said. “I call for resolution here and now. Name your Champion.”

“My what?” Farsail said, looking to the other Speakers who were either as perplexed as he was or grimacing at what was to come.

“You do not wish to name a Champion for the challenge?” Grammy asked, delight glazing each word.

“What are you talking about?” Farsail asked.

“You offered her a challenge, Dame Eveningstar has accepted,” the Lightstone speaker said, his voice weary with disappointment. “Name a Champion or elect to stand for the challenge yourself.”

“I’m not going to name anything. What idiocy is this that someone can walk in here and demand a challenge.”

“Someone has not studied their Dueling Codes,” Grammy said.

“Dueling?” Farsail sputtered, and then…oh so incredibly foolishly…drew a (currently) perfectly mundane sword from his hip in a panic.

“We shall begin when this handkerchief reaches the floor,” Grammy said, brandishing one of the good table napkins from home.

“What? No. This is insane.”

Grammy’s chuckle was one I’d never heard before.

And never wanted to hear directed at me.

Farsail turned Lightstone for confirmation that this was really happening only to find the leader of the High Council glaring its reality at him.

Grammy was watching the Lightstone speaker too and at his nod, dropped the handkerchief. 

With a yell, Farsail jumped over the quarter high wall between them and raced down the aisle leading to Grammy with a sword over his head that could have split her frail old bones from shoulder to hip as easily as cutting straw.

He was younger than her, stronger than her, and, to all appearances, faster than her.

I should have felt compelled to act.

The mere thought of anyone hurting my Grammy gave me a pool of rage to draw on that could reignite a dying star.

Null-magic field or no, I could have been at her side and blocked that blow with ease.

I stayed right where I was like a good girl though.

Grammy did not need my help.

Grammy did not want my help.

The other guy could have used it though.

One moment he was running at a hunched old lady, the next she stepped forward, no inhumanely fast or anything, merely in absolutely perfect time step a hairs breath outside Farsail’s swing and then make two simple stroke of her own, one a rising slice on his right side and the other a descending strike on his left.

The advantage to not stepping in to help Grammy was the none of the blood got on my nice new regalia.

“You’ll want to get him out to the healers,” Grammy said. “Those can be reattached if they work on it a bit.”

From my vantage point it wasn’t easy to see but I was pretty certain Farsail was currently missing all four of his limbs. 

“You are unexpectedly merciful today,” Lightstone said, gesturing to a pair of pages to remove the (also mercifully) unconscious Farsail and his missing pieces to where someone could assist him in recovering his bout of idiocy.

“We had surprisingly good weather on the trip,” Grammy said. “Now, as to my original statement, my granddaughter is no Pretender and has standing to speak before this Council – or would anyone else like to contest that?”

“Is this truly Duella Eveningstar?” the Speaker for House Astrologia asked.

“Dame Duella Eveningstar, or would you challenge my identity as well?” Grammy asked, her eyes alight with hope.

“Not for a moment Dame Eveningstar,” Astrologia said. “I never thought to hope that I might see you duel in person. I’d thought you’d retired as Imperial Terminus decades ago?”

“It is not the Imperial Terminus who speaks to us today,” Lightstone said.

“It is not,” Grammy said with a nod, the hope for another duel fading from her eyes. “I am, as the Speaker for Astrologia said, retired from my former position. I speak today only under a name known to the Council and sworn to the Empire.”

“But do you know for whom you speak?” Ironbriar asked, waving a folder with some sort of evidence as though it would damn me to the deepest of hells.

Which it probably would.

His question could only come from knowing a very specific thing about me.

Something Grammy absolutely should never hear.

And something I was powerless to prevent becoming common knowledge.

They couldn’t prove what I was though.

Not really.

I could change myself into such a perfect replica of a human being that they could pull me apart cell by cell and not being able to spot a single difference.


Or they could chop me to pieces and when I reformed, there would be all the proof they needed. 

I swore, which brought a triumphant little laugh from Ironbriar and…and an eyeroll from Grammy?


“An interesting claim to make that I could raise my granddaughter and yet not recognize her when she stands no more than a dozen feet away from me,” Grammy said.

“Could you specify who it is you believe to be your granddaughter then?” Ironbriar asked.

“You will have to pardon these old ears of mine,” Grammy said. “I thought I just heard the stupidest question I’ve ever been asked uttered by a member of the High Council.”

“Come now Duella, we both know that’s not the stupidest thing they’ve ever said. Honestly it’s in the Top 20 at best,” Doxle said, favoring me with a grin that told me everything I needed to know about who’d arranged for Grammy to be here.

“Oh don’t you even get me started,” Grammy said. “You know it took me all of five whole seconds to realize you were behind all this nonsense. I hadn’t even opened the letter. Just from the stamp! That’s all it took!”

“You wound me,” Doxle said.

“I believe Enika has dibs on that,” Grammy said.

“Ah…” Doxle reconsidered objecting to that which left me wondering exactly how many people knew about whatever the heck it was those two had going on. “I merely protest my innocence and lay the credit for these proceedings to you esteemable grand daughter.”

“It seems like most people you know would protest the idea of you being innocent,” Grammy said. “As for the Lady Riverbond, she and I will be having words once this is all sorted out.”


I could just die now.

That would be fine.

The Council wouldn’t even need to kill me.

I could just spontaneously die.

I liked that idea.

Idrina took my hand again and I remembered that I did indeed have a reason or five or ten or whatever to keep living.

I offered Grammy a smile of acceptance. I was doomed but I would at least meet it head on. She offered me a kindly smile in return which could have meant anything from “good going kid” to “I’ll make it painless”. 

“So you claim that the woman who stands before us, dressed in the misappropriated robes of House Riverbond’s highest office is Katrina Riverbond? What if I tell you that I have proof here that she is not who she claims to be. That she is not even what she claims to be. That thing is no member of House Riverbond. It’s not even human!” Ironbriar was alight with conviction and triumph.

“My granddaughter is exactly and what she claims to be,” Grammy said.

“That is not Katrina Riverbond! I can prove it! I can prove it!” Ironbriar said.

“Of course she’s not,” Grammy said. “My Katrina died many years back. This is my granddaughter Kati Riverbond who stands before you told, and to her has passed the name of House Riverbond. She should not be the Head of House of course, but as people who have unfortunately remained nameless until now ensured that no other members of her House survived until this day, that makes her the one and only Heir to the House, and perforce both Head of House and House Speaker until such time as she chooses to name an heir and/or a representative.”

All eyes were on me. 

Which was fine. I do great with the attention of the crowds solely focused on me. Not uncomfortable in the slightest.  Idrina gave my hand a squeeze of reassurance. In front of everyone.

I was going to marry that woman.

“I’m…what?” It was Lightstone who managed to break the prolonged moment of stunned silence.

“Do I need to use smaller words?” Grammy asked. “She’s Head of House Riverbond. That’s all there is to it.”

“But…but she…it can’t be,” Ironbriar said.

“Refer to me as a thing one more time and I will declare a personal vendetta in addition to the war which Riverbond has declared against your House,” I said.

Hey, if Grammy could de-limb someone in the High Council chamber, I felt like I could afford to at least suggest the sort of violence I was willing to personally inflict on these privilege-poisoned fools.

“Yes. The matter of War. Let us settle it then, shall we?” Lightstone said, steering the focus into the area of maximum peril for us.

I tried not to panic.

Grammy’s arrival had slowed things down, but without access to my magic I had no idea if we’d bought enough time or not. 

We couldn’t have things end too soon.

We’d had to wait to begin our big movements until the Great Houses were committed but if discussions were finished before we were ready, they would spoil everything by…well by simply killing us. 

Oh our plans would continue on without us and destroy them too, but I was rather attached to seeing what would come next.

“It is the opinion of this Council…” Lightstone began rushing to seal our fates before anything else could go awry.

“Yes. Let us hear the opinion of the Council. We would consider it and all other arguments before giving our Final Judgment,” the Empress Eternal said as the magic suppression field shattered around us.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 93

“Trials are such lovely things. Always wonderful to hear a wide variety of people condemn your choices for reasons which have nothing whatsoever to do with why the choices were made and everything to do with their personal or political disdain for you.

Not that I’m against trials. In theory of course, it should be possible to hold fair one. Not even all that difficult really. A system of courts which could review an individual judge or single juries verdict would serve to dilute power to a degree where justice was at least nominally a viable outcome. The High Council of course could never abide such an idea though. It would strike against the entire point of their existence. 

It would be much like fitting a collar on a rhinoceros, in that attempting to bind power which is used to being accountable to no one and having to suffer no oversight is an endeavor fraught with nothing but peril. Far easier to turn the beast away from it’s target via more subtle means and allow it to think the idea its own so it an be satisfied with the outcome you desire.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame responding to a letter from the Empress Eternal after the High Council ordered the execution of Baron Blackfield, also known as the People’s Saint.

To say that the proceedings of my trial, or hearing, or whatever they were choosing to call it, got underway without any further drama would be the most humorous mischaracterization possible. Our arrival produced the sort of chaos usually only seen during natural disasters, which in a sense we sort of were.

Apparently, half the relevant House Speakers hadn’t shown up and half of the ones who had were in the middle of packing to leave after receiving assurances from House Ironbriar’s Speaker that the Hearing wasn’t going to be needed and that the title of House Riverbond had been declared forfeit. “Declared by who” the Ironbriar speaker had neglected to specify and since he wasn’t the sort of person that lesser speakers were wise to question no one had pushed for further details.

Until we showed up.

I saw “we” not in the royal sense, but in the “I had a small army with me” sense, even if that wasn’t immediately apparent by the size of my entourage as we entered the High Council’s chambers. The presence of two Imperial Advisors did give a reasonable warning that any further direct assaults would end poorly for them though. 

That didn’t stop the various Houses from trying indirect assassination techniques, at least not if the ever increasing count Doxle was mumbling to himself meant what I thought it meant.

“House Riverbond calls the House Council to session,” I said, my voice booming out above the cacophony of the assembly thanks to a quick enchantment Doxle tossed on me.

Normally a lesser House like Riverbond wouldn’t be the one to call the High Council to do anything. By proper protocol, I would have my “sponsor House” make the call for me. Since I did not, in fact, have another House sponsoring me, and was at least technically at war with most of the Houses present, I was free to ignore protocol and make whatever demands I wished.

And the other Houses were free to ignore me and continue on with their somewhat insulting scheming. I mean I was right there. With ears which were admittedly just a bit more sensitive than standard human ears could be. But still. At least find a private room or something.

Apart from being generally miffed at the House Speakers for failing to acknowledge me properly, I wasn’t too unhappy with the general chaos. The longer it took for them to come to order, the more time our plans had to come to fruition.

If Ironbriar had been smart, they would have called the Council into a Hearing immediately, and issued a verdict after whatever required and perfunctory statements would make the whole thing legal.

Not that we would have let things be that simple.

We’d been over the sorts of stratagems I could employ, and the ones Doxle and Enika could try in order to drag the proceedings out. Sadly, there weren’t many and the none of the options we had were good ones.

Of them all though, allowing the chaos to proceed for as long as possible was at least an entertaining one. I put on a show of growing ever more annoyed with the Speakers around me, which didn’t take much acting on my part, in an attempt to keep Ironbriar, Lightstone, and Grayfall from noticing that I was secretly hoping it would continue until it was far too late, one way or the other, for the Hearing to make much of a difference.

Surprisingly, it worked.

Not forever, but there was a good half hour where the Speakers seemed content to spiral off into whatever weird side arguments struck them as important. Thirty minutes wasn’t a lot of time, nowhere near as much as I wanted, but watching them completely overlook how serious of a threat we posed was oddly reassuring.

Or perhaps it was worrying.

I’d had to make it clear that we were enough of a threat for them to take seriously so that they would respond to our war declaration with anything other than contempt and unconcerned dismissal. Beyond that though, I hadn’t tried convincing them to take me anymore seriously than the child they mistook me for being. If I was counting on their underestimation of what I could do though, I would be a complete idiot to underestimate them in turn.

“Is Ironbriar building a coalition against us?” I whispered to Doxle. Unlike the other House Speakers, I didn’t move my mouth, lips, or tongue to form the sounds, and I pitched it outside the normal range of human hearing.

“They already have one,” Doxle whispered back, with similar inaudible quality. “They’re trying to convince the other Houses to order their own Advisors to attend in sufficient force to act as a check against Enika and myself.”

“Can they do that? I thought you only answered to the Empress?” I had developed an unintentional amount of pride concerning “my” Imperial Advisor. Doxle could take any other Advisor in a fair or unfair fight. I knew that. I was less certain if that was true for three, four, or several dozen other Advisors though. 

“Oh we do, but we also enjoy the trinkets the Great Houses shower us with,” Doxle whispered. “The Speakers think they can order their Advisors, but it’s really more of a request with the threat of unemployment backing it up.”

“Will it be a problem if they get enough to come?”

“Not if our plans work out,” Doxle said. “And if they don’t? Well we don’t really need to worry about that do we?”

Of course we didn’t. If our plans didn’t work, we would likely all be dead, and the dead get to worry about other things, if my sister was any indication of what typically awaited us beyond the veil.

“They’re doing something else too, aren’t they?” I wasn’t convinced the Great Houses were wholly unaware of what we were doing.

Mostly unaware, sure. 

Entirely unaware of certain critical elements? Absolutely. 

I could be sure of both of those because if they knew the full scope of what we were doing they would have been waiting for us with a guilty verdict the moment we walked in the door, and if they knew what I was doing, they would have killed us all of the spot. I’m difficult to kill, but I’ve seen my people die, and I know the Great Houses have the magic to get it done if they’re willing to expend sufficient force and personnel on the issue.

And what I was doing would have justified losing every member of the Imperial military at home and abroad.

That they weren’t going to that extreme was a profoundly good sign, but it didn’t mean they weren’t still dangerous. 

That was confirmed a moment later when the magic suppression field slammed down over the room.

I felt like I was back in the jail cell.

I hated it.

I wanted to rip someone’s throat out.

Idrina, proving that she was a lot more aware than people give her credit for, must have sensed that because she put her hand over mine which quieted the growl which had been growing in my chest.

We’d considered that they might lock down the Council chamber. It hadn’t seemed all that likely because it meant they were just as vulnerable as we were, but we’d at least considered the possibility. That didn’t seem to be true for most of the other Speakers who immediately began lodging protests like “what is the meaning of this” (it means someone is aware that we’ve made a staggering number of assassins vanish and they’re justifiably, worried about what that means) and “what do you think your doing” (typically addressed to someone who was not, in fact, doing anything).

“Don’t worry,” Narla said. “They’re going to have to come through me to get you.”

I stepped in front of her before she could do the same to me.

Without her magic, Narla was still the most physically imposing presence in the room. She was also, however, quite human and a sword thrust to the heart would still kill her dead. With my magic locked down, there were things that could kill me with ease, but a normal sword was not one of them.

“No dying for me,” I said. “You’re more than a meatshield. I need you to live. All of you.”

I’d never been crushed to death before. I wasn’t sure that was what Narla was doing, in fact I suspected it was meant to be a hug (not terribly appropriate for someone dressed like I was), but dang that girl was strong even without her magic.

“This Council will come to order,” the Speaker for Lightstone called out, using a similar voice projection spell to the one Doxle had cast on me.

Mine was better though. Lightstone sounded like a nasally drip.

Or maybe that was just how he normally sounded?


Not that it mattered. The other speakers listened to his call to order. Being the most powerful of the Great Houses came with some perks.

The other speakers did more than just shut up though. Like the good little sheep they were, each one filed over to their assigned seats, and donned their official Hoods of Office. In theory those signified that the Speakers were acting as the “incorruptible voice of their House” rather than as the eminently and easily corruptible individuals they so clearly were.

I closed my eyes and reach for my magic.

They couldn’t take it from me.

It was a part of me.

In a very real sense, my magic was who I was.

Those were all true statements and compelling arguments. Sadly the Great Houses had studied magic for long enough that just because my magic was still inside me did not mean I could bring its effects into this world.

They had made one mistake though.

Well, no, that’s not correct.

They’d made many, many mistakes.

In this particular case though, they’d made one specific to shutting me away from my power. In the jail, I’d been locked down by a similar spell, but there they’d been able to focus it onto me with the shackles I’d been bound in. The spell which was suppressing magic in the room was much stronger in terms of raw power but the High Council chamber was a far larger area to splash it over.

Also, I’d learned a few tricks since someone tried this on me last.

“The High Council calls before it the claimant seeking to be recognized as the heir to House Riverbond to put such claims to rest,” Ironbriar’s Speaker said.

“No,” I still had Doxle’s voice enhancement spell so while I spoke softly my refusal carried to every member present. “This hearing is not about my claim to House Riverbond. You are here to answer for the charges laid against you, for which war has been declared between our houses.”

We knew they would try to undermine my legitimacy. It was a good tactic and one which had some chance of success, though Doxle felt he had an equal chance of success at arguing against based on the “discussions” he’d already had on the subject.

Those would be the discussions which had left him reeking of blood that was not his own as a point of reference.

“The Pretender does not possess standing to speak before this Council until the matter is decided,” Lightstone’s speaker said.

Which unfortunately meant that my entourage would not be allowed to speak either. That was a dangerous move on Lightstone’s part since Doxle and Enika could claim separate standing as Advisors, but doing so would mean they wouldn’t be allowed to fight on our side if a Trial by Combat was called and one of the other Advisors was chosen as Ironbriar’s Champion.

I nodded to Doxle to go ahead anyways.

If it came to it, I’d put myself against an Imperial Advisor. That would suck but it’d be a lot better than sacrificing one of my friends to them.

Before Doxle could step forward to speak however, another voice rang out throughout the chamber.

“She has standing, and is no pretender. Or would you challenge my right to speak?” Grammy said.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 92

“People worry often about what awaits them at the end of their road. Which is silly. We reach the end of our roads all the time. Over and over. For every journey that we take, we will eventually reach it’s end. It’s tempting to imagine that there is one great ‘Last Journey’ that we take, but little reason to believe that’s true, unless we imagine that our flesh is the sum total of our existence.

Should we concede that there is more to us than the meat construct which serves as our first and most useful tool for experiencing the world, we are forced to conclude that laying down our bodies, merely sets us on a new journey, as like crossing the great sea to lands those we leave behind will see only when they too follow us.

If I must entertain one fantasy, I’m afraid the belief that we end at our bodies’ cessation is simply too childish to give credence too. Instead I’ll choose to imagine that we are at least granted a measure of rest before whatever new nonsense we must deal with falls upon us.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame at the memorial service for his fifth husband.

Dawn is a miserable idea and should be banned. I came to that conclusion as I struggled to get dress in “the proper regalia for a Head of House”. 

I hadn’t slept well, but that wasn’t a surprise to anyone. I was on trial for not just my life but the lives of everyone in my House. 

Mellina probably knew me better than that, but didn’t make any comments while she helped me into the multi-layer device which served as the House Riverbond ceremonial robes.

“We’re still the only ones on the High Council’s docket today, aren’t we?” I asked, not bothering to hide my unhappiness at that prospect.

“We are. When we actually show up though, they’ll probably delay the proceedings for an hour or two.”

“They really expect the assassins to stop us after all of the ones we’ve taken from them already?” I asked. That the Great Houses would be that stubborn and stupid wasn’t surprising in the sense of being out of character with their previously established modes of behavior. I still couldn’t fathom how a system built on such willful idiocy had managed to survive as long as it had.

Except I knew the answer to that question too.

The Great Houses were cruel and stupid because they didn’t believe they were dealing with anything more than a particularly annoying insect. To them, we were a foolish little group of children who couldn’t really threaten them beyond possibly creating some unfortunate precedents if we were allowed to continue existing.

“They’ve stopped sending assassins,” Mellina said. “Instead they’ve got a platoon of soldiers from House Pathmaker waiting to ‘escort’ us to the High Council chamber.”

“A platoon?” I said, impressed that they’d managed to understand the danger we posed at least to that extent. “And House Pathmaker is…”

“A ‘neutral house’,” Mellina said. “Who just so happens to be one of Lightstone’s biggest financial supporters.”

“So completely and obviously unbiased, which will guarantee us both safe passage and fair handling at the trial.”

“That is the official line, yes.”

“And we’ve lodged an objection to this already?” I asked.

“Of course not,” Mellina said. “We’ve made no formal reply at all. That will come roughly a minute before we’re ready to leave.”

“Narla will deliver it, or Idrina?”

“Both. Enika said, she’d put in a word too.”

That sounded like overkill, but then overkill was likely what we needed to get the point across, and dissuade House Pathmaker from sending another platoon or three to ‘help’ us (assuming they had that sort of manpower readily available).

“Is there anything else that will delay the formal hearing from beginning?” I asked, wondering if we could arrange a trial-by-combat or something equally foolish that might buy is a bit more time.

“I imagine that once we arrive, the High Council will want to move onto deliberations as quickly as possible,” Mellina said, pinning the last bit of my robes in place. “The general consensus is that this is an annoying embarrassment, and should be concluded as soon as possible before any of the other lesser Houses start getting ideas.”

Amusingly, we didn’t want that either. Destabilizing the Empire but leaving the existing power structure mostly in place would lead to nothing more than the most power hungry of the current ‘elites’ snapping up even more control than they already had. A revolt by the ‘Lesser Houses’ would bring about change, but it would be bought with rivers of blood and still be predominantly beneficial to those who already held power. 

I sighed, and slumped in my robes.

I was bone weary despite having ‘turned in early’.

“Idrina kept watch in your room last night?” Mellina asked, not accusing or necessarily digging for much beyond confirmation.

“She did.” It didn’t make sense to lie about that. Everyone probably saw her leave shortly after Seafoam called that my bath was ready.

“I’m glad,” Mellina said, without specifying what, exactly, she was glad of, or what she thought had happened between us.

“We had some things to talk about,” I said, feeling oddly chatty. I didn’t like talking about myself. The more I said, the more people might see through the lie I was living. 

Except that wasn’t true anymore.

Mellina knew who and what I was. I didn’t have to lie to her.

But being silent wasn’t a lie, was it?


Of course it was. Or could be. 

In this case though, I think I just didn’t want to give a false impression both for Idrina’s sake and so that Mellina would know where we really stood.

“I know. I wasn’t sure either of you would be up for that,” she said and started guided me out the door. “I was afraid you might want to ‘wait till after everything was wrapped up’.”

“That had been what I’d been considering,” I admitted.

“It’s a tempting argument to make, but it can turn into an an endless excuse too.” She guided me down a couple of flights of steps I knew I hadn’t seen before and into a long hallway which seemed to lead to the front door.

“It might have,” I said. “But I think she was too brave to settle for ‘maybe someday’.”

“That makes two of you then.”

That wasn’t a compliment I could easily accept. I felt anything but brave as we walked down the hallway and I saw my housemates waiting for me.

So much was riding on the next few hours, and our plans still needed more time.

I could bite someone I supposed.

Except that might end the trial right then and there.

So I filed that idea away under ‘Counterproductive, but Potentially Satisfying’.

“Can I give the signal?” Ilyan asked as we drew close.

“Final checks first,” Mellina said.

“The Distribution network is ready to receive,” Ilyan said,

“Your sister sent word that they are not ready yet,” Yarrin said. “She wouldn’t say what was happening, just that they needed more time to get their end worked out.”

I was not surprised at all by that. Terrified that getting them more time was potentially an impossible task under the circumstances, but not surprised that we needed to.

“The last declaration of war on House Riverbond arrived this morning,” Enika said. “As expected the voting majority has declared against us, with the abstaining Houses as ones wholly under the thumb of Lightstone, Ironbriar, or Grayfall.”

“They really think that will make anyone believe the hearings were fair?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter what the public’s impression is, they had little to no voice in the matter, and all their information about it will come from the ones who are in power tomorrow,” Enika said.

“Oh, yes, on that note, The Empress bids me wish you afternoon and morrow, and invites you to tea at your earliest convenience,” Doxle said. 

“That is most kind of her,” Mellina said.

“No, no, ‘most kind’ would have been if she’d invited me,” Doxle said.

“However this turns out, you aren’t likely to be sober for the next fortnight,” Enika said.

“All the more reason I could use a cup or two of tea,” Doxle sad. “Always import to stay hydrated.”

“It sounds like we’re ready then,” I said, knowing that we were very definitely as far from ready as we could be.

Ilyan smiled and snapped his fingers, releasing a small pop of light which zipped out the door.

The screaming started about three seconds after that. It didn’t continue for long, but my imagination made those seconds last for hours. When silence finally fell once again, Doxle offered his arm to me.

“Since your primary guards are out chasing the rest of the troublemakers away, may I offer you my services in their stead?” he asked.

I took his arm, which was slightly easier given the platform shoes I was walking in and we marched out as a formal procession towards the High Council’s office.

The scene outside our door looked like something out of a war zone. Bodies – groaning and crying bodies I should note – were laying everything. Most were still completely intact, though a few had taken the sort of grievous-yet-non-life-threatening wounds which would require a fair amount of care from skilled healer. Given that they’d been sent here to make certain we were all brutally murdered, I wasn’t able to scrounge up much sympathy for them, though I did hope they received some care soon. If nothing else they were a bit challenging to walk through with the ceremonial robes in place.

“Think this was the Great Houses last effort to stop us?” I asked.

“Not at all,” Doxle said. “I’ve dispatched three, no, make that four assassins since we left the house.”

“Dispatched?” I asked.

“They’re still breathing, though they likely wish that wasn’t the case,” Doxle said. “I’m having them taken back to the infirmary. We can break the Loyalty Marks later, if they should have them.”

Given that he hadn’t left my side, I wasn’t clear what Doxle was doing to keep us safe, but I couldn’t argue with its effectiveness. The rest of the trip to the High Council was as uneventful as any mundane stroll down the road might be.

When we arrived at the door, the guards who were stationed there at first didn’t notice or recognize us. It wasn’t until we tried to walk in that they stepped together to bar our path.

“The High Council is in session today, visitors aren’t allowed,” one of them said.

“The High Council is in session for us,” I said. “Part now, or we will take your actions as an insult against House Riverbond.”

Whatever the guards had been expecting to hear, that wasn’t it.

Between my ceremonial robes and the fact that I was being escorted by an Imperial Advisor, the guards wisely did not ask for any confirmation of my words and shot back to their positions at full attention.

That was a wise enough action that I had to wonder if they were Imperial citizens or had been drafted from some other, more sensible land.

The guards at the door to the High Council’s chambers were similarly intelligent, or perhaps just better informed, and parted for us as we arrived, one of them stepping in to announce “Lady Riverbond of House Riverbond and those of her estate”.

Which was lovely.

Everything else about the day had my nerves on fire, but that moment was still a joy.

Silence shocked through the High Council’s chamber and everyone turned to look at us in disbelief. I waited patiently, knowing someone would say or do something stupid and the High Council did not disappoint.

“You said she’d be dead already?” one of the Councilors asked the head of House Ironbriar, more or less proving our case for us.

If only that was going to matter at all.

Clockwork Soul – Chapter 91

“People get up to all sorts of no good at night, or at least that’s the common belief. In truth the robberies in the dark pale before the ones committed in the broad light of day and the secret trysts under moonlight are generally far more innocent than the betrayals of trust and faith which happen in the open without the hint of a disguise.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame presenting the annulment papers for his fifth marriage.

I needed to go to bed. Given that I planned to commit what was potentially world-ending mischief as soon as got under the covers you might think that I was pleased to see Idrina waiting for me at my door. I mean, bedroom mischief with her hadn’t been exactly far from my thoughts despite the fact that we hadn’t talked much since we kissed, but, as is often the case with my life, things just weren’t that simple.

“You’re turning in early,” she said.

I had two general paths open to me in response to that. The easy one would have been to agree with her and pretend I was simply tired, or wanted to be well rested for the trial ahead of us. In other words, I could have lied. 

But I didn’t want to lie to her.

I knew I should. She would have been a lot safer if she was as far away from, and as ignorant as possible of, what I had in mind. 

Also, she wouldn’t try to stop me. 

Which would mean we wouldn’t have to fight about it.

I knew she liked fighting, but I don’t think either of us would have enjoyed that particular battle.

So I could have lied.

Or, I should have lied, maybe, but the reality was I couldn’t.

I didn’t want that to be who I was to her, or who she was to me.

“I’ve got an idea I want to try out,” I said, choosing the other path and, I don’t know, maybe dooming us all?

From how I said it, I was sure she knew that it was the ‘potentially catastrophic’ sort of idea but she didn’t move to bar my path. Instead, she opened the door to my room and stepped to the side to let me enter.

Without asking permission – for which I was deeply grateful, I definitely did not want to have a boss and minion relationship with her either – she followed me in and closed the door behind us. If that lead the others to think we were engaged in the sort of activities they shouldn’t interrupt, well, they wouldn’t be entirely wrong, just mostly so.

“A ritual?” Idrina asked, gazing around the room searching for spell casting components unless I missed my guess.

“Not exactly,” I said. “I really will be going to sleep.”

She tipped her head slightly, focused on me directly, and waited me for explain.

I drew in a breath and tried to find the right words so that I wouldn’t sounds completely mad. That was particularly challenging when the plan I had in mind was certifiably deranged.

“I’m not from this realm,” I said, starting at the beginning.

“You’ve mentioned that,” she agreed and continued waiting.

“When I came here I thought I was lost,” I said. “Surviving wasn’t a simple thing, and I don’t mean stuff like finding food. I mean my essential nature was anathema to this world. I was supposed to change, not once in a while either. Always. I was supposed to be something that isn’t supposed to be in this world.”

“Did it…you adapted?” she asked, aborting the question of ‘did it hurt’ which had too obvious an answer.

“I did. I fled into a single form. I started building an identity for myself like a shell to keep the world from tearing me to pieces. I wasn’t what I appeared to be, but it was able to act as a buffer between what the world wanted me to be and what I was.”

I’d never considered what I’d done in those particular words before, but as I spoke the ideas sort of came together on their own.

“What does changing now cost you?” Idrina asked, a scent of concern rising from her which her features didn’t betray.

“Oh, yeah, that’s the thing. I can change now without any problem,” I said and held up a clawed hand as an example. “Anything you’d like to see me become? I can do all sort of shapes without too much effort.”

“You don’t need to be anything for me but yourself,” she said and I felt my knees turn to jelly.

Did she know what that kind of statement meant to me? Was she flirting? I mean the bed was right there and…

Nope. Those thoughts would lead to all sorts of bad choices.

Still though.


“Oh, uh, thanks,” I managed to stammer out, probably without blushing as red as I possibly could.

A ghost of a smile flickered across Idrina’s face and she looked slightly away, which, yeah, that did things for me too.

“I, uh, I’m something different than I was now,” I said. “Still don’t entirely belong here, but that’s like an old argument the world and I have had and we mostly just leave it alone.”

Idrina’s scent grew more serious, though her expression didn’t change.

“You’re planning to reopen the debate then?” she said, not at all happy where that might lead from what her scent was saying.

Happily, that wasn’t my plan. At least not exactly.

“No, I only brought that up to say that while I’m different than I was, I’m also still connected to the realm I came from.”

“Via your magic.”

“Yeah, but for me it’s not quite what it’s like for other casters. Most of a you have a Hollowing, a space within you which resonates with one of the Transcendental realms. I don’t have that exactly. What’s inside me IS a piece of the realm I’m from, the realm that I am in some senses.”

It was a weird idea. I felt like a person, not a sentient fragment of another world. Maybe there wasn’t a distinction between “person” and “place” in this context either. Except that what I was connected to wasn’t exactly as limited as my housemates were.

“That would explain why you’re able to perform such diverse transformations,” Idrina said. “You don’t really need any part of the body you’re wearing do you?”

“That’s a complicated one to answer,” I said. “I am who you see in front of you now. I made myself this over the course of basically my whole life here, so being the me I am now shapes and defines me far more than any other form I might wear. I can repair myself from some pretty ridiculous levels of damage, but things like language and thought are a whole lot easier when I’ve got my brain and internal organs in roughly the right shape and composition.”

“So when I killed you…?”

“At the time, I really wanted to avoid that because I thought if anyone knew what I was they’d put a magical freeze on me and tear me apart permanently like they did with my family when I arrived,” I said. “Happily, you didn’t do that, and so I figured it was worth the risk to put myself back together where you could see.”

“That was a kindness,” Idrina said. “Though I don’t think I said so at the time.”

Given that I’d been convinced she was going to try to murder me again the next time she saw me, she had failed to convey her relief at not killing me pretty completely. It was going to be a long time before I could tease her about that though.

“That brings me to what I’m planning to do,” I said. “It’s something I think will either save us all, the Empress included, or it’s pretty much destroy the world, the Empire and everything else.”

“Oh,” Idrina said, and waited.

“I’m going to go to sleep,” I said. “Go to sleep and talk to the depths of the realm I come from.”

Idrina blinked. “And?”

“I still carry a part of my original realm with me,” I said. “In my dreams lately, I’ve gone back there, but it’s been more than a dream. It’s been like, I want to say reconnecting with them. Or, no, really it’s connecting for the first time. Ugh, this isn’t making sense is it. I need to explain what my home, my first home is like.”

To her credit Idrina was the soul of patience as I stumbled through finding the words to describe the flowing, aqueous nature of my home realm and the equally protean nature of my people as we swam in the sunlight reaches of the great flow.

“And the depths?” she asked.

“Below the layer my people are born to, there are other, deeper layers of my world. They are darker. More primal.”


“No. Dangerous yes. Even when I was fully adapted to my home realm, interacting with those from the depths was terrifying. They are vast, like living cosmoses unto themselves. Even their mere presence is crushing.”

“And you want to dream of them?”

“I want to speak with them again.”


“Because I think they are what the Clockwork Cosmos is missing,” I said.

“I don’t follow,” Idrina said, her expression growing visibly confused.

“Part of our plan hinges on subverting the Clockwork Souls program,” I said, not telling her anything she didn’t already know.

“Yes. Your sister is working to free those who are trapped and replace them with the spirits who wish to aid our cause,” Idrina said, also not telling me anything I didn’t already know.

We were on the same page though, which was important for the rest of my idea to make sense.

“The Clockwork Cosmos is fighting us on that because it has no choice,” I said. “I’ve spoken to it and it doesn’t want to grind us to ribbons, it just doesn’t have a choice because it can’t change anything about itself. It’s a precise, unchanging existence of pure Order. Except for the part where it’s not.”

“Then it can change?”

“It’s trying to change all the time, but any move against it’s fixed existence causes it to shatter itself and there are severe limits on how much it can change like that.”

“But the depths from your realm…oh. I see.”

The urge to kiss the brilliant woman before me was nearly overpowering.

“If a few drops of my power can change the projection mechanism in Doxle’s house enough that the Empress can eat food for the first time in three hundred years, then what might an ocean of that power do for a realm that wants to grow beyond what it is today?”

“We would be able to empower far more than the few hundred Clockwork Soldiers that we had in mind,” Idrina said, as stunned by the idea as I’d been. “We could realize the Empress’s dream and give that power to thousands, or tens of thousands.”

“What I’m proposing is even more dangerous than that,” I said. “Of course, if I’m wrong, then, well, mixing two realms together would probably upset the rather careful balance the Empress has been carrying on her frozen shoulders for the last three centuries.”

“And if she loses hold of two realms, all of the rest will come tumbling down too, won’t they?” Idrina said, grasping exactly how bad this could go.

“There will be no warning, and no hope of stopping them,” I said. “All of the Transcendental Realms will crash into the material world. Magic of every conceivable variety will tear across the planet and rip all of it to shreds. No one will survive that, no matter how good a caster they are.”

“Doxle and the Empress will never allow this. Not after spending all this time keeping the Empire intact.”

“I know,” I said. “The question is, will you?”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 90

“There are rules to running an Empire. Obligations to those from whom your power derives. I made a terrible mistake though. I studied history. I saw where we’d started. I read the accounts of the Founders of the Empire. The public ones which were meant to inspire the masses. The private journals where they tried to excuse themselves for what they were doing. 

Some of it even worked. 

It’s hard not to see in those early generations, the spark of a belief that they were making a better world than the one they’d been given, using terrible tools towards ends they could only hope the future would justify.

Nor is it hard to see, step-by-step how that ‘better world’ was shaped and hedged in to be better for only the ‘right people’.

We can be better than that.  Those who hold power needn’t be blind to the costs the Empire pays for inequality. To the costs they themselves pay in paranoia and blood.

We can better and we will be. We can make the brighter world which still inspires people from the Founder’s vision. We have the plans in place and we will move on them. All we ask is will you move with us?”

– Her Eternal Majesty, Empress Mysella, Dread Tyrant and Undying Foundation of the Realm presenting her plans for the Unification of the Realms to the High Council.

You’d think a surprise visit by the Empress Eternal would leave everyone speechless – or you would if you’d forgotten that Doxle was in the room.

“You were able to join us! Delightful!” he said, and looking genuinely delighted.

Enika extricated herself from Doxle’s lap and moved to draw back a chair for the Empress, adding a polite bow and a simple “My Empress”.

The Empress Eternal smiled at that, though I thought more at catching two of her Advisors flirting or fighting or whatever they were doing.

My other housemates reacted more how I expected a normal citizen of the Empire would – aka dead silence and awe.

To be fair, Indrina’s normal state was to be pretty silent (was that what we shared in common?), and Mellina was pretty unflappable from what I’d seen, but on Narla, Yarrin, and most especially Ilyan the stunned silence spoke volumes.

“You’re torturing me Doxle,” the Empress said, nodding towards the food. “Equipping the projection array here with an olfactory sense when I can’t even nibble on your host’s delicious presentation? Is this payback for something which has escaped my remembering?”

“Indeed it is,” Doxle said.

“Oh really, and what have I don’t to offend you so greatly, my fifth favorite Advisor?”

Enika snerked at that, which, okay, fair, it was a little funny.

“Let’s call it payback for the incident in Grimfall,” Doxle said.

“I recall being rather generous that day.”

“Exquisitely so,” Doxle said with a nod.

“And for that I’ve earned the scent of delicious food but no chance to partake in it?”

“Am I really so cruel?” Doxle asked.

“Yes,” the Empress Eternal and Enika said in unison.

“I am wounded, terribly wounded,” Doxle said, placing the back of his hand on his forehead as though he might faint.

“You can be!” Enika said, brightening.

“At your pleasure, my lady,” Doxle said.

That they were still that disgusting as ex’s made me glad I hadn’t seen then them when they were courting or actually married.

“Before I draw my last breath though, perhaps I might suggest one of the sweetberry cream puffs?” Doxle said, proferring a plate to the Empress Eternal.

“And what, exactly, would I do with one of those?” the Empress asked.

It was a reasonable question. For all that she appeared to be as solid as the rest of us, her scent was one of pure perception magic. What we saw wasn’t a real body, but only an illusion. Enika had offered her the chair because, I was pretty sure, the Empress couldn’t have moved it if she wanted to.

“There are some who prefer to lick the frost top off first, but I feel a good bite through the center combines the flavors better,” Doxle said, holding the plate with the puffs steady before the Empress.

“What…?” the Empress asked, allowing a moment of less-than-regal confusion to cross her features.

“Trust me, they’re delightful,” Doxle said, his words drawing a suspicious gaze from Enika and puzzled look of hope from the Empress.

With her eyes locked on his, the Empress stretched forth a hand and lifted one of the puffs off the plate.

Which was all kinda of wrong, but the swirl of magic I smelled waft through the room fixed that problem up.

I was almost distracted enough by that to miss the Empress popping the puff in her mouth and showing an expression which suggested a level of delight heretofor unfathomed by mortal or immortal alike.

“How?” Enika asked, since the Empress was far too drunk on bliss to form coherent works for the moment.

“Not easily,” Doxle said.

“No. Seriously. How?” Enika said. “If you just doomed us all for the cream puff I will feed you to the twins myself.”

Doxle chuckled at that, but did lean back to put himself at least slightly out of Enika’s immediate reach.

“We have the good Lady Riverbond to thank as it turns out,” Doxle said.

“I’m adopting her,” the Empress said, pausing between bites for what I dearly hoped was a joke.

Enika regarded me with narrowed eyes and I could smell that she wasn’t merely staring at me. All sorts of subtle magics where flowing around me and without the context clues I had I would never have noticed them nor had any idea what their aim was.

From Enika’s continuing frown, I gather that she wasn’t able to make all that much sense of my magic even with close and sustained observation. That wasn’t as heartening as it should have been, but I could live with it.

“How?” Enika repeated, sounding only slightly mollified.

“Our pact bond allows me to draw on her magics,” Doxle said. “They are exceedingly protean. It took no more than three drops to alter the projection spell, the food, and the house into vessels capable of providing our dear friend with the repast she is currently enjoying.”

That got more or less everyone looking at me.

Which sucked.

I felt like a bug whose rock had just been lifted up.

“You took three drops from her Hollowing?” Enika asked.

“Oh no. Of course not,” Doxle said. “Just three drops of her free magic. They’d sort of sloshed free, so it’s perhaps not even accurate to say I took them.”

I understood what he was saying and it raised all sorts of questions in my mind.

I didn’t know Imperial Advisors could take away someone’s Hollowing, or their reserve of magic. I suspected there were significant limits to that since the Great Houses didn’t routinely depower casters who annoyed them. Still even a temporary loss of magic could be catastrophic for me given how much I used on a continual basis.

More important than that though, was the idea of what my magic might really be capable of. If a drop had been enough to enchant the whole of Doxle’s house, what might a cupful do? What could I change if I was willing to drain myself dry. Or what if I claimed even more…

I felt myself go stock still.

Breathing wasn’t strictly essential. Nor was circulating my blood. Even the neurons in my brain froze for a moment.

The idea that had hit me fell with the force of a comet making landfall.

I didn’t know if it was possible. 

I didn’t know if I wanted it to be possible.

I didn’t think I had any choice but to find out though.

Later though.

If anyone in the room found out what I had in mind they would absolutely stop me.

They would have to.

I was going to destroy the world.

But later.

The trial was fourteen hours away.

That was plenty of time to have dinner and then destroy the world.

“I’m still adopting her,” the Empress Eternal said.

“Can you adopt a Head of House?” I asked.

“This is the first time in three hundred years that I have tasted food,” the Empress said, visibly hungry in a way that went beyond anything food could satiate. Before she could turn into a proper cosmic terror though, she regained her composure and her regal demeanor. “And it looks to be that I shall not be shackled by such limitations any longer.”

“You don’t have to stop eating,” Doxle said. “It will take a fairly large meal to tax the spell enough to generate a sense of satiation.”

I saw the Empress’s eyes dart towards the plate of roast silverdeer but she pulled her attention back to the party assembled before her before anyone could blink.

“There are, sadly, more important duties which compel me at present,” she said, her formal tone probably armor against the screaming need I could see clawing behind her eyes.

“Yes, alas,” Doxle said. “You’ve come about the unsanctioned war I gather?”

“I believe it is wars, plural,” she said.

“The Imperial House does not interfere in intra-House affairs though?” Enika said.

“The Imperial House is the Final Arbiter of all intra-House disputes,” the Empress said. “It is a so power rarely employed though as to be theoretical at this point.”

“But not all of you power in that area is theoretical,” Mellina said.

“Yes, as we discussed, there are options available,” the Empress said, which happily turned everyone’s attention from me to Mellina.

Mellina had said that she had some unusual allies who she could attempt to contact, but I don’t think any of us guessed that the Empress might be one of them.

No. Scratch that. Doxle had known. I could tell from the vaguely amused tilt of his lips.

Enika hadn’t though.

That was going to be a dreadful weapon in the little war they were already waging with each other.

“So have you chosen to grace us with your kind regards and the options that can afford us?” Doxle asked, his tone far too mild given the strength of the hand he was playing.

“That depends,” the Empress said. “Mistress Riverbond,” she indicated Mellina – guess she was my sister now after all if she’d dropped Astrologia from her name, “and I had precious little time to speak, but her ideas were intriguing. I would hear more of them and judge for myself whether your overall strategy is sound enough to spend what will be the somewhat limited form of control I have available on.”

“I have a presentation,” Yarrin said, looking paler with each word he spoke.

“And I can present it,” Ilyan said, taking Yarrin’s hand to comfort the boy before he hyperventilated.

“We can explain the tactical details Your Majesty,” Narla said, nodding towards Idrina, “There’s not a lot of them though.”

“Good you kept things simple then,” the Empress said, once more fully in control of herself. “That’s a mark in your favor.”

“They came up with most of it on their own too, believe it or not,” Enika said.

“With some input from us,” Doxle said.

“Good. They listen to advice from people whose entire purpose is to provide it,” the Empress said.

I wasn’t sure how Mellina had gotten in to see the Empress, but I also wasn’t entirely surprised she had. She was talented and capable enough that she seemed like a prime recruit for the Empress’s hidden cadre of agents in the field.

What was more surprising was how the Empress seemed to be evaluating everyone in the room for taking on similar roles. 

As talk turned to the details of the plan we’d put together, I watched each one of my housemates be drawn into the conversation, even Yarrin who seemed ready to go nonverbal with fright at the start, opened up within minutes and was answering the Empress’s questions with ease.

And she became more casual as well, dropping the regal facade as excitement began to sparkle in her words and gestures. 

Looking them I started to believe we might have a real chance of pulling things off.

Unless of course I went and ruined everything.