Category Archives: Clockwork Souls

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 64

“Those we lose are never as distant as we imagine.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame on returning from the venture of transformation to become an Imperial Advisor.

I’m good at noticing people sneaking up on me. I have senses that are far sharper than most animals. I kept the instincts from my early Dire Wolf form to stay sensitive to danger. I’m able to perceive magic directly if something seems off in my surroundings.

None of those had told me Yarrin had joined me before he spoke though.

He hadn’t used any special magic to do so. All he’d done was walk up quietly and sat down, leaning against the opposite wall. It hadn’t been his fault at all that I’d missed him. It had been my own.

“Yeah,” I said, mostly as an admission to myself that I’d fallen into a spiral of thoughts that wasn’t at all heathy for me to linger on, with a small bit of agreement to his assertion that I needed his help to talk with Trina again.

The little smile he gave me and the small shift in his scent said he’d picked up on all of that.

“You’ve had a long day. Are you up for making it a longer one?”

“I’m okay. It’s…there’s just been a lot to process today. Physically I’m in decent shape though,” I lied. I’d nearly ripped myself and my magic to shreds opening rifts to other worlds for the first time, I’d fought both against and for Idrina, and I’d tangled with both an angry clockwork monster and the cosmos it hailed from. My body was mobile largely because I desired it to be and my magic was willing to agree with that sentiment. 

I should have let myself rest, but I had more magic to drawn on, and more I needed to do.

“We can go now then if you want?” Yarrin asked, rising to his feet in the process. “The others are ready too.”

I stared at him for a moment, processing that.

Why were my housemates helping me with this?

I needed Yarrin according to Trina to help find the right book, and I needed the twins to perform the spell. I’d owe them all for that, and pay them back however I could. Apparently I had money now? Not that I expected they’d take gold coins for what I was asking. It seemed too directly mercenary somehow?

The others though? They didn’t have to be a part of this at all. 

Maybe they were just going to send us off?

Or maybe Narla and Ilyan wanted to safeguard Yarrin? That one checked out. I don’t think any of them knew the feelings they were developing for the others, but their subconscious awareness was already strong enough that they’d begun orbiting each other as a natural habit.

Mellina on the other hand? Curiosity maybe? I couldn’t really tell.

“Doxle said to ask the Archivist rather than simply stealing it,” I said, trusting Yarrin would hear the implied counterargument that we’d have to wait till the morning to do so.

“I know the Archivist he’s suggesting we speak to. She’ll be there now. In fact, it’s late enough that she may be the only one there.”

“We’ll need the twins too,” I said, not sure why I was coming up with excuses to put off confronting the biggest failure of my entire life.

“The twins? They’re here already,” he said, looking slightly puzzled at my statement.

“Vena and Hemaphora are here? Why?” There was no reason that should have snapped my disbelief. My entire life had been a shattering glass pain of what was real or unbelievable in the last few days. The idea that the two probably-not-human people I needed just happened to have already shown up on my doorstep was a step too far though.

Or a sign that I was trapped in a far more intricate scheme than I’d ever imagined.

Yarrin shared my disbelief for a moment. Or perhaps it was my confusion. It only took him a second to make sense of things though.

“Oh, okay, I suppose they would be helpful for something like this,” he said offering me his hand. “My mistake though. They’re not here, or at least not that I’m aware of. I had thought you meant Ilyan and his sister.”

I wish people would just start clubbing me in the head with tree trunks rather than saying things like that. It would be easier to understand and I could fix the damage to my brain with a lot less effort.

“Idrina? She’s here? What the hell is she doing here?” I got up. What else was I going to do? I clearly hadn’t come back to the world I’d known but rather some strange fun house version of it where nothing was allowed to make sense for longer than a minute at a time.

“She came to check on her brother. They both took some pretty hard hits from the clockwork knights,” he said. “Also, and I say this with the caveat that she is hard for me to read, I don’t think she’s too happy with her House at the moment.”

“Does she…” the idea was ridiculous, but since I had apparently become a resident in whacky world I asked anyways, “Does she want to stay with us?”

“She hasn’t said so yet. I think she might like that, but I can’t see if it’s something she’ll be able to ask for. It’s…she’s complicated to work out.”

I laughed at that. Not because it was true, though it was, but rather at the thought of Enika having a meltdown when her two star pupils defected over to Doxle’s house.

Not that they could really defect.

They had pact bonds the same as I did. So they were stuck with Enika whether they liked it or not.

Except she’d already let Ilyan join my House?

Which was weird, wasn’t it?

The tired mass of mush inside my skull threw a few pieces of itself back together and I caught a glimpse, or maybe just an imagination, of layers of political machinations unfolding with Enika and Doxle in a more complex relationship than the teasingly adversarial ex’s they claimed to be.

Happily that was not my problem, or my worry.

There was something freeing about knowing that the world wasn’t focused solely on me. There were so many problems floating around out there, knowing that at least a few of them would seek out someone else made it a lot easier to face the ones ahead of me.

“Thanks,” I said, setting off in the direction I presumed our main sitting room was.

“I haven’t done anything for you yet,” Yarrin said, falling into pace beside me.

“You know that’s not true.”

He smiled at that but the aroma of disagreement wafted over from him. We walked on without debating it further though until, by some miracle, we arrived at the sitting room I’d been trying to find.

Narla, Ilyan, Idrina, and Mellina were waiting for us, with Pastries embodied in barely visible whisps of water vapor serving a fresh tray of hor d’oeuvres to them.

“Hey, she’s back!” Ilyan said. He’d been laying down on one of the couches with Narla in a chair near his head and Idrina in one near his feet. “Where are we going next!”

I tipped my head to one side. I shouldn’t have wondered if he was being serious. This was Ilyan. If it was a terrible idea, of course he was being serious.

I bit back my initial answer of ‘the Library’. The hope which had spawned that was that Ilyan might find the library too boring to want to tag along with us to. Even before I spoke, I knew that was a foolish hope. 

Also, there was the matter of Idrina and how she would react to more rule breaking on my part. 

I wasn’t as terrified of her initiating another fight to death with me. In part because the secrets I’d been trying to protect were clearly not secrets to anyone important, like the Empress or the demon I was pact bonded to. More than that though, I was pretty sure she wasn’t interested in murdering me, like I thought she’d been.

Fighting me? Yes. Definitely. I could see the urge to hop into an enclosed space with me spark up behind her eyes as soon as she saw me, but for Idrina, fighting wasn’t about anger and rage. There was room for those emotions, and many others, in it, but she fought with her spears in the same manner that a poet writes with their favorite words. Both might say they wanted to kill you, but they were capable of expressing so much more than that too.

As oddly relaxing as a fight with her struck me as being in that moment though, I didn’t have enough left in me to speak her language properly, and to bring anything less to the contest would be an insult that I didn’t want to make.

Instead I held her gaze and nodded.

She was welcome here.

Whether it was only to visit her brother, or if she chose to stay, she was welcome.

I probably should have used words to convey that idea. Silent glances and subtle body language aren’t exactly the clearest modes of expression, but I thought she’d gotten the gist of my intent.

“Give her a chance to have some food,” Mellina said poking me in the arm to nudge me towards the open sofa which sat kitty corner with Ilyan’s couch and Idrina’s chair. 

Pastries produced another tray from, as far as I could tell, thin air, this one with a variety of meaty soups to choose from.

I was capable of eating them all.

I was capable of eating them all at once in fact.

I did not.

I probably should have. They were really good and having the extra protein and hydration and vitamins and minerals would have been delightful to have as easy fuel to rebuild my more dubiously reconstructed organs with.

But it would have looked gross.

And shown off how decidedly non-human I really was.

Which, again apparently, might not have been a surprise to anyone, but I…I just didn’t want them looking at me like something alien and weird.

So I ate the soup like a normal human girl of my age and general weight.

I mean, a girl my size could in theory have put away three of the soups if she was really hungry, so it wasn’t that unrealistic. 

And they weren’t staring at me as I ate which was what really mattered.

Instead they were talking about tomorrow.

No one knew what was scheduled to occur, but it seemed to be the common consensus at this point that schedules were a vague illusion at best. There was also a general consensus that the Imperial Academy was not what any of us had been led to believe it was. 

We danced around the subject of Idrina’s trial, mostly because Ilyan seemed borderline berserk over what had happened, specifically the danger Idrina had been in. He was cheerful enough about it, but I was reasonably certain if any of our classmates brought up the trial in the context of Idrina being in the wrong, or not having sufficiently proved herself in it, Ilyan would, without hesitation, murder the fool then and there.

Idrina didn’t look like she approved of that. I was reasonably certain she would want to be the one to murder said-fool instead, but despite the scowl she wore each time Ilyan spoke, there was a tenderness to her posture and a concern in her scent.

She loved her brother, and was endlessly exasperated with him, which, having met Ilyan for more than two minutes, I understood on a bone-deep level.

“So, are you done eating now our good Lady Riverbond?” Ilyan asked, adopting a flowery and formal tone and matching it to what was almost certainly the wrong form of address to help lighten the mood.

“I want to say no, but three bowls is probably enough,” I admitted, wiping the dregs of third bowl out with a final chunk of fresh bread.

Ilyan rose from his couch and stood tall and strong, only his scent betraying the lie in his posture.

“If you are done here, then where shall we go next?” he asked, his eyes, if not the rest of him, alight with a zeal for adventure.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 63

“We are never so powerless as we imagine ourselves to be. This can have dreadful and unforeseeable consequences though as each word we speak and each action we take sends ripples out into the great pond of the world and the effects of those ripples are ones which can easily pass beyond the farthest borders of our lives.

So are we to foreswear taking action, or speaking our hearts, out of fear of the disasters which can result? Perhaps. Long years of regret would certainly argue for that. As tempting as it is to listen to those regrets though, the truth is that silence and inaction cast their own ripples, and lead to their own disasters. 

So which is the correct path? I can’t say for you, I have certainly chosen both and been happy with neither. From where I stand now though? Even if it leads me to sorrow and hardship, I choose to claim my life as my own. I will be silent no longer. I will shy away from no more choices. I will build my future my these too fallible hands and when it falls down around me, I shall build it again, regardless of whether I have only a single hour left, or centuries untold. The time remaining to us does not matter, only what we do with it.”

– Her Eternal Majesty, Empress Mysella, Dread Tyrant and Undying Foundation of the Realm on the 50th anniversary of the Great Calamity to the first of her special agents.

The Empress knew about Trina. She knew that the real Katrina Riverbond wasn’t me. She knew Trina still existed. She knew what my sister had been doing all these years. 

Those thoughts hit me, over and over, like hammer blows in a hurricane. All the secrecy which I’d felt protected by was gone and I stood at a perilous portal to an uncertain future.

We’d made it down all the stairs, through a maze of buildings, and inside our home, and I was still reeling from the idea that Trina was really out there. That she had been out there this whole time. 

Meeting her in the Clockwork Cosmos should have convinced me of that, and it had, but somehow hearing that someone else knew she existed made my own experience even more real and undeniable than it had been.

“I need to steal a forbidden book,” I said to no one in particular. 

Doxle was walking right beside me, holding my arm, I think so I wouldn’t topple over. I wasn’t that unsteady on me feet but I also wasn’t paying all that much attention to where I was going, or other minor things, like how legs were supposed to work.

“Most forbidden books are in libraries,” he said. “While I shall never speak against theft, great or small, it may benefit you in this case to simply borrow it.”

“It’s forbidden though?” I was pretty sure he wasn’t being serious, but with he sounded so ernest it was hard to tell. “I’m pretty sure they don’t lend those out.”

“That largely depends on who you ask and how you phrase the request.”

“Do you know the librarian here at the Academy. Wait, were you married to them?” 

“That is of no importance,” he said, confirming my suspicion. “What matters is that the Archivist is a deeply curious woman. Explain why you wish to borrow whatever book it is you need and she will very likely allow you to at least study it within the library.”

That seemed terribly reasonable.

I squinted my eyes and searched for the joke or trap in his suggestion. Reasonable behavior was disallowed by Imperial decree or something wasn’t it?

To all appearances though, Doxle was being honest. 

Which he usually was I noticed. He could twist honest statements to make them work towards whatever end he wanted but despite being a demon he didn’t seem to lie much at all.

“You know which book I want, don’t you?” I asked, guessing mostly from how calm and incurious he was being.

“You wish to contact the previous Lady Riverbond,” he said. “There are, in fact, several forbidden tomes in the archives which contain the details on various methods to achieve that. If you ask the Archivist, she will insure you are given one of the ones with few curses on it.”

“How did you know…” I wasn’t sure how to even finish the question.

“I believe you were instructed to ‘ask your sister’?” he said, pausing us outside one of the living rooms I hadn’t been in yet. “I know some small details of your history, and could hazard guesses as to slightly more. That you are the second in your generation to bear the title of ‘Lady Riverbond’ took no great intuition though, not with the various members of the Riverbond family I’ve known over the years.”

“You knew…,” I wanted to say ‘my family’, but that was a complicated subject and one that I felt less comfortable than ever in laying claim to, “…the House before it fell?” 

“Not the whole of it, just some of the better and worse members,” he said. “Overall it was a very typical Great House before it’s fortunes turned. Your adopted father had the right idea in moving what remained of the family away from the capital and outside the realm of political influence. It wasn’t enough of course – the victorious Great Houses enjoy tying up loose ends more than in healthy or reasonable – but it was still likely the best he could have done.”

“If they wanted to finish off the Riverbonds, why did they stop there? Shouldn’t they have come after me too?” I asked. I’d always known that the death’s of Trina’s parents had been due to unnatural causes. Grammy hadn’t spoke much about it but she had disappeared for a couple of weeks after their funeral and when she’d come back she’d been strangely grim for a while. She hadn’t smelled of blood though. That was definitely not a memory I had excised in order to keep Trina from noticing any change in my behavior afterwards. I’d just been playing hide and seek for a while for reasons completely unrelated to letting a bloodscent dissipate. 

“They did,” Doxle said. “Why do you think you lost your sister?”

I turned and rooted myself to the floor.

“I’m sorry. What?”

“Your sister, the previous Katrina Riverbond, was lost in a Reaving Storm, was she not?” Doxle asked.

“No..she…I…how did you know?” He wasn’t supposed to have figured that out. No one was.

Except the Empress knew.

Had Trina told her?

Had Doxle talked to Trina too? Did he know about me before he ever met me?

“Curiosity,” he said. “After we forged our pact, I saw first hand what your Hollowing looks like. You aren’t just a remarkable caster, you are someone quite unique. Since House Riverbond wasn’t notable for producing powerful casters, I started investigating how someone of your skill and talent had been missed for so long.”

“But how did you know about Trina? Did you talk to her?”

“Alas, I did not have that privilege,” Doxle said. “Most of the departed do not linger in any realm close enough to ours for even the most truly dreadful of forbidden rituals to contact them. I should quite enjoy an opportunity to converse with her shade if she lingers still, but I imagine her time on this plane will be greatly limited and by rights, you should be granted as much time with her as the spellcasting can provide.”

“How did you know she was gone then?” I asked. I’d spent many years making certain no one knew of her demise, so it was hard to suppress the spark of anger at all of that effort having gone to nought the moment someone glanced in my direction.

“I asked your Grandmother,” Doxle said.


He didn’t say that.

Grammy was the reason I’d taken Trina’s form.

Grammy couldn’t know that her last grand daughter had died years ago.

Grammy couldn’t know that I’d failed them both.

Doxle was lying.

He didn’t smell like he was lying.

He didn’t look like he was lying.

But he was lying.

There was nothing else that could be true.

He had to be lying.

I turned to confront him, and found myself in a dark and unused hallway.

I’d been running.


I couldn’t remember the last few seconds? Minutes? Hours? Probably not hours. Probably minutes. I couldn’t remember them well, but I think I’d run away.

That was embarrassing. I’m not supposed to fall apart like that. I’m supposed to be inhumanly tough. Because I wasn’t a human. I was supposed to be brave, because nothing could hurt me. I was supposed to be…

I had no idea anymore.

For a long time I’d thought I was supposed to be a replacement for Trina. For Grammy’s sake. So she wouldn’t have to bear the grief of knowing her grand daughter was lost to her just as her children had been.

I slumped down against the wall and felt the memories of the most awful day I’d ever had crash over me, just as they’d done ten thousand times before.

It had been a bright and sunny day. I remembered that so clearly. The beauty of the day had stuck with me, and left me mildly hateful of clear weather since it was a lie about how nice the day would be.

Trina had wanted to play in the woods, and Grammy was willing to trust her so long as she brought me with her. A young girl in the woods might be in peril from many things, but a young girl and a full sized Dire Wolf who loved her had far fewer things to fear.

Trina had already given me the first part of her name by then – Kati being her mangled version of what was left over from ‘Katrina’ once she’d taken her part of the name from it. It didn’t really make sense. I worked that out a few years later, but it sounded good to her ears and I was happy to have anything that linked us together. I’d thought that link would keep us both safe. That as long as we were bonded together as the sisters she claimed we were, I could protect her with my teeth and fangs, and she could keep me safe and sheltered from the people who’d pulled me and mine into this world and then cut the rest of my family down.

Trina had upheld her part of that bargain, but I’d failed in mine.

The Reaving Storm, when it hit, had come on suddenly. From cloudless sky, a storm had rent through the bright blue dome and sent down a screaming wind which tore the ground open.

We’d been apart then. A dozen yard, which was eleven too many.

I’d leapt towards her as the ground split and she fell into the chasm which tore open at her feet.

I was faster than the wind but I wasn’t fast enough. I should have been faster. I should have been able to save her. To catch her before she fell. I should have been enough, but I wasn’t.

Instead she plummeted into the earth and I’d followed. 

The chasm had been deep.

And it had been sharp.

I’d known to abandon hope well before I reached the bottom. Well before I found her body. Well before I saw the cost of my failure. I knew to abandon hope, but hope is cruel and lingers far past when its been lost.

Down in the darkness, as the earth rumbled and crashed, as monsters emerged to scour the world, I saw the end of my world and I felt the unbearable weight of what I’d lost.

And then I heard Grammy calling.

And I knew I would lose her too.

I didn’t have a heart – not one that I needed – but anyone who did? It would have shattered and failed if presented with as much pain as I was feeling. I knew that with all the conviction of someone who was sure her experience was the same as everyone else’s in all things. 

That was when I gave up the life I’d had. Let go of the wolf I’d been pretending to be, and began a different game of pretend.

The world was not going to miss one mostly-civilized Dire Wolf cub. It would spin on just fine without the creature I’d been mistaken for. Without Trina though? Why even have a world without her? That was why it wasn’t a Dire Wolf who’d climbed back out of the pit we’d both fallen into.

I’d seen myself then,  reflected in Grammy’s eyes, when I crawled out of the Reaving Storm wrought crevasse. I’d looked terrible. The devastation of grief twisted my features even though I had changed them utterly from what they’d been.

Grammy and the others thought I was grieving the Dire Wolf cub who’d gone in to rescue me, and in a bizarre sense I was, so I let them continue to believe that.

That was the first time I’d turned to silence to hide from questions I couldn’t or didn’t want to answer. It was far from the last.

When the storm had passed, the crevasse had sealed itself back up, entombing Trina a hundred yards deep under the earth.

 Or so I’d thought.

If the person I’d encountered truly was her (and I knew she was, even if I’d wanted to deny it, I couldn’t, not with her scent being so true), then I’d failed her again.

Even with the earth crushed back together, I could have dug down. If she was out there, anywhere, I could have found her. Should have found her.

I’d seen the ruin the fall had made of her body. I’d felt hope slice my heart in two, and I’d done the only thing I could think of. 

I’d given up.

I wasn’t sure she could ever forgive me for that.

I wasn’t sure I could ever forgive me for that.

I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to.

“You’ll probably want to talk to her about that,” Yarrin said as he quietly sat down opposite me. “And to talk to her, you’re going to need me, right?”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 62

“They say doing what’s right isn’t easy. That it’s hard to stick to your ideals when the world is oh so very complicated. There are so many compromises that we must make, so many evils we must overlook, but the reality is that those are all excuses.

In each moment, we have the choice to do the right thing. Regardless of what we’ve done before, regardless of what it might cost us, because our prior choices only inform who we are they don’t constrain who we can be, and the costs we can imagine are as often based on our fears as they are reality.

Doing what’s right isn’t easy, but that’s true for one reason only. Until we understand ourselves, and understand the world we are a part of, our understanding of what’s right will be only a guess, and understanding ourselves and our world is the journey of a lifetime.”

– Her Eternal Majesty, Empress Mysella, Dread Tyrant and Undying Foundation of the Realm in the speech which inspired the Great Houses to collaborate on ending her reign.

The funny thing about head trauma is that it can make you hear things that certainly could not be true. Okay, that’s a grossly inaccurate characterization of head trauma, not to mention the fact that I don’t really need my brain (Doxle smirked when I thought that, for which I will being enacting my revenge at some point), but I was really coming up without any better explanations for what the Empress Eternal had said.

“I thought you didn’t want anything to change?” I said, more than a little concerned that my little joke about tearing down all of the Great Houses had offended her? Except she didn’t look offended at all. And she didn’t sound offended. 

Delighted. If I had to place an emotional content for her words and her general demeanor, I would have had to go with “delighted”, except for the part where that made no sense.

“I have never said that. I want a great many things, almost all of which require change on a scale which would terrify any sensible being. What I do not want however is to sacrifice everything that is and everything I desire on an ill-considered stunt to assuage my former betrothed’s lingering sense of guilt at not preventing a Calamity which was in no way his fault.”

I glanced over to Doxle at that to catch his reaction, but he didn’t make any, his lips bearing only the slightest trace of a rueful smile before he spoke.

“Guilt or innocence weighs so much less than what we might still do for our benighted realm and, far more importantly, those we love,” he said. I’d expected him to offer a flippant remark. The sincerity in his eyes felt like something I wasn’t supposed to see. Doxle wasn’t the sentimental or maudlin sort. I hadn’t known him long, admittedly, but I’d thought I’d understood him. 

He was too old, and too removed to be touched by the world. Everything that happened was something he’d seen before and all the little trials and tribulations which worried us petty mortals so much were nothing more than passing amusements for him. 

It made sense that he’d either courted, seduced, or fought a blood feud with everyone vaguely of his social class – or even all of the above – because life was simply boring for him. 

What could be important after all that time after all?

The Empress? But she was so cold and remote, even less of a mortal being than he was.

Except she wasn’t.

She was his friend.

Probably his oldest friend.

And then there was the man in the ice. The one his eyes kept seeking out even though every glance looked like it hit him like a jagged knife through the heart.

Doxle was a demon. Demon’s didn’t hold tender places in their hearts. Demons didn’t walk under the weight of unbearable sorrow and hide it from all around them. Demons didn’t love. And Doxle was a demon.

Wasn’t he?

“They are trapped in a frozen moment, unchanging, uncaring, unknowing,” the Empress said, her words clearly a reminder which she’d spoken countless times before. “We’re the only ones for whom the grindstone of time turns and we’re the only ones who carry its weight.”

“It is a most unequal division though, you must agree,” Doxle said, his mask of charm and good humor still firmly in place.

“Of course,” the Empress said, ignoring his seeming and speaking with a compassion which refused to be blinded by the illusions Doxle so carefully wove. “You shoulder far more of it than you must, I skip from day to night like a stone on a pond, time passing me by in the blinks I never take, while you carry on across every weary second.”

“Some are not so weary,” he said and nodded at me.

Which…that made no sense at all.

“If we destroy the Great Houses though, won’t that be the end of the empire?” I asked.

“I should hope so,” the Empress said, brightening at the idea. “I worked rather hard to achieve the end of our wretched creation three centuries ago, and I can’t say that the conditions which drove me to that extreme have improved, or even remained at their previously intolerable state. We have less need of the Empire with every year, and more reason to see it end.”

“How did it get like this?” I asked. “If you’ve been here, working to improve, or even end it, or whatever for three hundred years, why isn’t it better?”

“That’s largely my fault,” Doxle said.

“How?” I asked, boggled at the idea that he was undermining the Empress’s work given how well they seemed to be getting along.

“He’s unwilling to make certain sacrifices which I have long since resigned myself to,” the Empress said.

“By which she means, I am disinclined to allow her to sacrifice herself in order to preserve those within the Great Houses whom she deems worthy,” Doxle said. “A better world cannot be…no, more accurate to say a better world will not be built on the sacrifice of one who has endured as much as she has to see it come to pass.”

“And on this, we have disagreed for centuries now,” the Empress said. “Though, I am not so passionately wed to my own destruction as he is to my preservation.”

“I…I don’t understand. Why would improving the Empire require you to be destroyed? There’s got to be room to make things better without going to that extreme right?”

“There are, and that is why I would be of service to you,” the Empress said. “My authority was built on the acceptance of it by the Great Houses, and the wealth, and arcane might which the Imperial Throne possessed. The Calamity marked the end of the first pillar of my rule and severely curtailed the second. As for the third, I possess a wellspring of power beyond what any mortal or god could hope to attain and yet each mote of it is circumscribed, held in rigidly in place lest they all crash down upon our world. I am the most powerful caster to ever live, or who ever could live, and I can work no magic at all.”

“Really?” I asked, pointing to her clearly magicked projection.

“Well, all rules are meant to be broken,” she said with a shrug. “At least a little bit.”

“It’s this room, isn’t it?” I asked, as I started to feel the shape of the magic which surrounded us. “We’re not…this isn’t within the Empire is it?”

The Empress’s eyes sparkled at that  as a broad smile spread across her face.

“It is not,” she said, sounding almost gleeful. “What you see, apart from the ice and those frozen within, is a projection.”

We were not in a projection. That was ridiculous. I could feel the solidly real chair underneath me. I could smell its definitely real aroma. And the carpets. And the walls of books. And the winds that blew in through the open window and the clear…

It was not sky that was outside the room.

It was not sky.

It was not.

It was.

I think I screamed for a bit at that point.

Not for long.

A couple of years maybe?

I was quiet too.

It wasn’t anymore than a muffled little whimper.

The nearest mountains crumbled from the pressure of the sound waves, but mountains aren’t that big. I mean they’re just little bumps on the surface of the…

Doxle helped me get back up into the chair, and I saw that the Empress had sat up and was regarding me with a puzzled expression.

“You…hmm, most people can’t see through that,” she said. “How are you feeling now?”

“One second,” I said. “Gotta put all that in the Forget-At-Once bin.”

I didn’t have a Forget-At-Once bin, but that did not stop me from slicing those memories off and casting them into what was either the dark recesses of my own mind or the deepest pits of oblivion.

“Okay. I’m better. Wow. That was a mistake.” I had learned my lesson though. I was never, ever going to so much as glance out the windows in the Empress’s room.

I was firm in that resolve as I glanced up, to just peak out the window again and had to blink. There weren’t any windows. There couldn’t ever have been. The entire room was filled with bookcases. Very real, very solid bookcases. There wasn’t any room for the windows which I definitely did not remember looking out and which I was absolutely not clawing away at in my mind to see again.

Yes. I know I was being stupid. I knew then that I was being stupid. I am occasionally very stupid. 

“You are far wiser than you believe,” the Empress said. “And intriguingly more adept.”

“I have a few advantages when it comes to manipulating magic,” I said, most of which boiled down to the fact that I was practicing my spellcasting at every moment of every day.

“Your advantages don’t make you what you are,” the Empress said before turning to Doxle. “Are you sure I can’t give her the Imperial treasury?”

“It would be magnificently disruptive, but I believe neither of you would enjoy the ultimate outcome of that particular brand of chaos,” he said.

The Empress sighed. 

“I am fortunate you chose to take the role of Advisor.”

“The fortune was all mine,” Doxle said.

“Not all,” the Empress said and cast a meaningful glance at me that I couldn’t decipher.

It was tempting to be silent and let them have their moment.

So I did.

What? I had a lot to think about. Or not-think about if we count whatever was outside the Empress’s windows.

“If I might make a suggestion,” the Empress said, maybe after a bit more banter with Doxle.

“To me?” I asked once I worked out that she was looking in my direction.

“In their greed the Great Houses have violated not only Imperial law, but natural law as well. You’ve encountered one of the fraying threads of the world’s tapestry they’ve torn loose already. Pull on that and all sorts of interesting things may unravel.”

I could have asked for her to speak a bit more plainly, but in this case I didn’t need her too.

“The Clockwork Cosmos, that’s not something they should be messing with is it?” I asked, already certain of the answer.

“They are courting disaster like the power-mad fools they are, and disaster is most receptive to their advances,” the Empress said. “My recommendation is to make sure the disaster befalls those most deserving of it, and spares those whom the Great Houses would have bear the suffering in their place.”

“I like the sound of that, but I could use some more concrete ideas on how to go about making it happen,” I said, hoping I wasn’t sounding too ungrateful.

“For that I would recommend that you speak to your sister,” the Empress said. “She’s been working on that problem for quite a while now.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 61

“It’s not so difficult to hire talented staff. Generally if you create a position which is amenable to work they wish to do, those with motivation and capability will find you. Occasionally they will even be aware of what they are doing and it can be helpful for your long term planning to see how long it takes each candidate to discern that they are now employed.”

– Her Eternal Majesty, Empress Mysella, Dread Tyrant and Undying Foundation of the Realm talking to a sunbeam while tidying up her room for impending visitors.

I wasn’t sure when Empress Eternal had started playing me. Probably well before I entered the room. I also don’t know why I thought I any insights that occurred to me would be ones which someone who’d been stuck in their room for centuries with nothing to do but think about their limitations and how to escape them would have missed.

I glanced over to Doxle to see whose side he was on but, from how he was smiling and glancing back and forth between the Empress and I, the answer was obviously ‘his own’.

Which left me with the most powerful person in the Empire, and possibly the world, having expectations for me.

I stared at her.

Not the best response, admittedly, but dead silence had served me well in many other situations before.

Of course this time ‘subvocal growling and growing subtly larger’ wasn’t exactly a viable option.

Also, the Empress had waited two years for Doxle to come back over what sounded like a minor tiff. I was not going to win a contest of ‘who could be silently patient the longest’.

“Do we even need the Riverbond escrow funds?” I asked, turning to Doxle. He hadn’t exactly betrayed me, but I was curious how much he’d deceived me so far.

“Access to them? Yes, most certainly,” he said. “You need a sufficient war chest to draw on for the other houses to take you seriously.”

“I could provide her with one for a most comprehensive war if your thoughts are tending in that direction Doxxy,” the Empress said. She was still slumped over the edge of the chair she was sitting in, but there were more gears turning in her head than the whole of the Clockwork Cosmos.

“Ah, no,” Doxle said, raising a hand to put a stop to that idea. “The purpose of a good war chest is to preclude the need to go to war. As our good Lady Riverbond stands today, the Great Houses will see only weakness to be exploited. Or they’ll destroy her in order to head off any future headaches she might cause them.”

“They would certainly try, but I believe they would encounter certain difficulties in doing so,” the Empress said, giving me a look that said she was all too aware of the sorts of things I’d been up to lately.

That probably wasn’t a good thing.

I hadn’t exactly been behaving as a model citizen of the Empire.

If she intended to hold some of that over my head…

I relaxed. She didn’t need to hold anything over my head. I was at the heart of her power. She could do anything she wanted and there was literally no one who would or even could object to it. 

And if she let me go? As far as I could tell, she was in the process of recruiting me to an army of operatives she had working throughout the Empire. To imagine that her influence ended at the door to her room was mistake even I wasn’t foolish enough to make.

“I would prefer Lady Riverbond be able to enjoy the occasional moments and peace and happiness,” Doxle said. “Constantly dodging social pitfalls and magically gifted assassins does get ever so tiresome.”

“So you say, but I’m afraid I’ve quite forgotten,” the Empress said.

“Being believed to be dead does have its advantages,” Doxle said.

“They think you’re dead? Like actually dead? Not just stuck in the ice over there?” I asked.

“Most of them. My subjects are among the most gifted schemers and connivers in the world. Many have stooped as low as it is possible to go and then setup mining operations so as outdo all who came before them. Sadly, that does not always translate into even a modicum of basic intelligence or honest curiosity.”

“I thought it was your great grandfather who eradicated the last strains of honesty from his court,” Doxle said. “Don’t tell me new mutations of it have popped up?”

“He thinks he’s adorable,” the Empress said to me. “I trust you know better already?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Am I meant to actually be listening to him most of the time?” 

Doxle looked stricken, which drew a giggle from the Empress.

“You’re right,” she said, addressing the comment to Doxle, “I do like her.”

“I’m guessing that means I got the job?” I said. My real guess was that if I didn’t start making clear and definite statements the two of them would be dancing around from topic to topic and needling each other for the rest of the night and well into tomorrow.

“Job?” the Empress asked, her amusement undiminished.

“That’s what this is, isn’t it? I work for you, and you give me enough of the Riverbond treasury that the other Great House stay reasonably wary of coming after me.”

The Empress laughed and I returned to my state of continuing confusion.

“That’s not at all what we are doing Lady Riverbond,” she said and produced a feather quill from thin air along with a stone disk the size of my palm.

Quills from regular birds don’t tend to leave much a gouge in solid stone. The Empress did not seem bothered by that however as she scrapped a glyph so deeply into the disk that it broke through the other side. In the empty spaces the glyph had made in the stone, gold flowed, gleaming bright as though it was being poured from a forge.

It was the worked of a moment to finish the glyph, another to inspect it, and a third for her to blow on it and toss it to me.

“You need do nothing for me to claim the fortune which is rightfully yours,” the Empress said. “Present that to any Imperial Exchequer and you will be able to draw on the funds accrued from the Riverbond’s first estate. Your wider holdings will remain sealed until you or your duly authorized representative,” she glanced over to Doxle for that, “request that they be released.”

I looked at the stone disk in my hand.  The gold was still glowing like it was molten hot but it felt cool to the touch. Also it smelled like me. Which was weird and disconcerting. Especially since I didn’t really have any claim over the Riverbond fortune.

“There is something I should explain.” It was possible that the disk was a test, but that wasn’t why I felt compelled to tell the truth. Surprisingly the compulsion wasn’t mystically driven either. The Empress was certainly capable of enthralling me with her arcane might, but she’d chosen to use the far more powerful magic of ‘basic decency’ which I apparently had next to no resistance to.

“Yes, yes, you’re adopted,” the Empress said. “You might be surprised how often the heir to a Great House arrives at their position through adoption. In some rare cases like yours, the family even has a choice in the matter.”

“I’m…” Wait, was I adopted? 

Grammy didn’t know who, or what, I really was. She’d always seen me as nothing more than her grand daughter, who I’d done an excellent job of copying.

An excellent job right from the first day.

Completely undetectable.

As little more than a small child myself.

But Grammy had named me as Katrina Riverbond. “This girl is the only heir the Riverbond’s have left.” But that hadn’t really been me had it? She’d been naming Katrina. It was my sister who was the heir to House Riverbond. Or had been before she’d been killed in a Reaving Storm. That nobody was aware of that last bit didn’t mean I was actually the heir.

A liar couldn’t be heir.

“I assure you, nothing you have done disqualifies you as the rightful heir of your House,” the Empress said, probably reading my mind. Or just familiar enough with the sort of facial expressions I was making that she didn’t need to waste magic on figuring them out.

“But I’m not…” 

Human. I wasn’t human. I’d spent my entire lifetime here pretending that wasn’t true. Because people would kill me for it. Because it would leave Grammy all alone. Because I didn’t want it to be true.

I blinked.


“You’re not quite what you appear to be?” the Empress asked, both unconcerned and unimpressed. “My that is a shocking secret for a True Protean to be harboring.”

I was too busy processing the idea that on some level I really wanted to be a part of this world to catch the significance of what the Empress had said. Fortunately Doxle didn’t miss it.

“I was wondering if you were going to notice that.” His smile was just as typically self satisfied as always but there seemed to be some hidden delight behind it.

“You do recall that I was the third best caster of our Age don’t you?” the Empress asked with a raised eyebrow.

“It’s only been three hundred years, are you ready to admit that so soon?” Doxle asked, placing a hand over his heart in mock surprise.

“Shut up,” she said. “If you start gloating now, I’ll have her spread the first volume of your poetry to all corners of the Empire.”

“You wouldn’t,” Doxle said. “You couldn’t. That was all destroyed two hundred years ago. I spent a decade making sure of that.”

“Did you now?” the Empress asked and with a wave of her hand she was holding a messy folio with assorted papers sticking out it.

“You didn’t!”

“Of course I did. They’re so adorable. I couldn’t bear that they be lost to the ravages of time.”

“May I have them back?”

“Absolutely not,” the Empress said and with another wave the folio was gone. Doxle looked pained or possibly mortified by this turn of events but he bravely closed his mouth and withheld any further speech which might degrade his cause further.

I was pretty sure Doxle’s silence proved I had the single wisest mentor in the entire Empire, and, learning from his example, I followed suit and kept my mouth shut too.

“So, as I was saying, as you are the Heir to House Riverbond,” again, no magic was involved, but I very clearly heard the Imperial Proclamation hiding in the Empress’s words this time, “you need do nothing for me to earn what it already rightfully yours. That said, you are not mistaken that I wish to enter into a employment relationship with you.”

“What do you want to employ me to do?” I asked, thinking of the many, many horrible things she could probably talk me into doing without much trouble.

“Nothing,” she said. “I do not wish to employ you at all. I am but a ghost you see and ghosts cannot interfere with the living.” She was absolutely not a ghost. Her projection wasn’t solid, but any one of my sense could have told me that she was as alive as I was. Possibly more so.

“So I’d be employed by no one then?” I asked.

“You will be employed towards whatever ends you choose,” the Empress said. “You will in turn employ me for aid in accomplishing those tasks which you believe will make my Empire a better place for all of those who live within it.”

“So I can just do anything and you’ll help me out?” I asked, knowing that no relationship with someone as power as her could be that simple.

“You can do anything,” the Empress said. “I will help, with what limited means I can, any endeavors which you can convince me will make my people’s lives better.”

“We could probably start by getting rid of the Great Houses,” I said, intending the comment to be a flippant joke to lighten the mood.

“Yes, that seems like an excellent task to begin with,” the Empress said. “When will you be ready to get started on it?”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 60

“What they don’t tell you about being the absolute ruler of the most powerful Empire in the world is how little you will want the job after the first ten to twelve minutes. I was fortunate though, I figured out how to lay down my burden after only a decade of carrying the weight of an entire nation on my back. It was going to be so simple. One little ritual and everyone would be invested with the sort of personal power even the highest lords of the Great Houses would envy. Then, with the populace so empowered, their need for an Empress would evaporate and I would be free to live and love as I chose.

It was a brilliant plan and it would have improved everyone’s lives incalculably, which, of course, is why those already in power decided it couldn’t be allowed to come to fruition.”

– Her Eternal Majesty, Empress Mysella, Dread Tyrant and Undying Foundation of the Realm lecturing a stuffed animal Doxle gave her on the 237th anniversary of the Great Calamity.

I wasn’t supposed to feel bad for the Empress. She was, as she’d said, the absolute ruler of (arguably) the most powerful nation in the world, and, more importantly, possessed of so much arcane power my mind literally could not even try to fathom it. I’d tried to get a handle of just what it was I was sensing and some part of my psyche – the little used self-preservation instincts I’m going to guess – simply said ‘no’ in much the same tone they’d use if I not only tried to win a staring contest with the sun, but strapped magnifying glasses to my eyes first.

Despite all that though, I could hear the weight of the years in her voice. She was tired, and lonely, and well past the point where hope should have ended, but she was still hanging on. The look in her eyes wasn’t unfamiliar.

“How did they stop you though?” I asked, struggling to understand how someone who’d been able to endure what she had for over three hundred years and held so much power could have been undone by anything as trivial as the efforts of a few mortals.

In theory, I should have tried to steer the conversation back to the escrow funds for House Riverbond and beaten as hasty a retreat as possible, but the Empress and Doxle had fallen into banter and reminiscing so easily and she was so far removed from what I’d expected her to be that I found I wanted to know more. 

“They used the usual method – treachery,” the Empress said. “No one in the Great Houses had the stomach to oppose me openly, so they worked through proxies to disrupt the spell and got this for their efforts.” She gestured to the garden of frost behind her and the people frozen into the giant frozen crystal block which dominated the area.

“The Great Houses were the ones who encased you in ice?” I asked, absolutely certain that couldn’t be the case. I couldn’t begin to comprehend her, but I knew that even if every caster in the Empire focused on the same spell the Empress could blow it away with the smallest puff of her breath.

“No, no, she did that to herself,” Doxle said, audibly charmed by the idea. “It was really quite clever in fact.”

“Clever? You screamed yourself hoarse when you first saw my work! It’s only been three hundred years, has your view changed so much?” the Empress asked.

“That…I hadn’t lost my composure for the work you did,” Doxle said. “It was for them.”

“Them?” I asked. It shouldn’t have been getting easier to talk to them. Here, at the site of the Great Calamity, neither one of them were hiding who they were and that left me roughly as important as one of the specs of dust I’d carried in. Normally I would had have had the sense to just shut up and turn into something invisible. Like a dust mite. Or a bacteria. Their being at ease though was bleeding into me. 

“Our secret loves,” the Empress said, “I’ve had the benefit of their company this whole time where poor Doxxy has been entirely deprived his first husband’s warm embrace.”

I sniffed the air to see if she was drunk. Obviously she wasn’t. I’m pretty sure ghostly phantoms can’t get drunk, though with the amount of power she was carrying, the Empress might have been able to change that little bit of reality. 

“Neither his embrace nor hers have likely been all too warm, unless you’ve made progress in the last few years?” Doxle asked. He wasn’t hopeful, but it didn’t sound like he’d given up completely either.

“I cannot progress,” the Empress said gesturing to her unaging, and apparently illusory, form. “Nor can we risk even the slightest bit of change, so do not offer to take my place again.”

“You wanted to take her place? Is that even possible?” I asked Doxle.

“No,” the Empress said at the same moment that Doxle said, “Yes.”

“It is possible in theory,” Doxle said. “In practice however there are certain risks.”

“In practice, the world would most likely be annihilated if I let the ice thaw in the slightest,” the Empress said.

“The world will eventually be annihilated anyways,” Doxle said.

“Yes, but not before we get them back,” the Empress said.

“You know, I’ve spent centuries talk to all sorts of people,” Doxle said. “Why are you still so much better at it than me?”

“I’m not terribly good at conversation” the Empress said. “My thoughts fly all over the place. You merely started off so very bad at it.”

“I was considered very well spoken for a theoretician,” Doxle said with mock offense. “I even managed to speak to you didn’t I?”

“I literally had to kick you to get four words out of you the first time we met.”

“Well you were very intimidating,” Doxle said.

“I was nine years old!”

“And I was only eight.”

“I suppose I did have my crown by then. Blasted thing.”

“I offered to melt it down for you that first time didn’t I?”

“And I asked if you could melt down the responsibilities which came with it.”

“If only I knew then what I know now,” Doxle said, conjuring a drink into his hand which he offered to the Empress.

I thought it would fall right through her since she was made of smoke and mist but it held fast in her grip. Doxle’s magics were fairly ridiculous I decided, though I had to concede that he’d had rather a long time to work out spells which could interact with the Empress.

“If we knew then what we know now, this world would not be here,” she said.

Doxle offered her a silent toast with his glass and a nod of agreement. I’d been lost by most of the rest of what they’d been talking about but that bit made sense. If the spell the Empress had been channeling hadn’t been messed up, the after effects centuries down the line would have left the world unrecognizable from the one we lived in.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Guilty maybe? At one point, not existing in the world had seemed like a wonderful thing. Right after Trina had…I don’t know if ‘died’ is still the right thing to call it. Right after I’d lost her, I’d felt like the entire world was one big ball of suffering and that it was worth it to do anything to leave and get back to where I was supposed to be. I was motivated enough at that point that I might have been able to figure out how to open a rift if I’d really let myself work at it. There was only one problem with that.

If I left then Grammy really would have been all alone and that would have broken me too.

So I stayed. At first ‘for her’, but over time living the life I’d assumed began to feel comfortable. I couldn’t be miserable all the time, I’m just not built for that, and living with Grammy was good. It filled me up. Little by little, I became someone I liked being.

But all that came at the cost of a world that could have been so much better, and I wasn’t willing to trade everything I was for that.

Maybe that was selfish of me but reflecting on it, I was fine with that too. I wasn’t going to waste time regretting who I was, not when I was still figuring out who I could be.

“Can I ask a question?” It was a stupid thing to say, since it was, in fact, a question in and of itself, and I’d already asked several questions, but I was not at all sure where the boundaries for my participation in the conversation were.

“Ask as many as you want,” the Empress said. “One of us will probably answer some of them.”

“You said you can’t change yourself or this situation, so why not change the Empire instead?” 

Doxle started to speak but the Empress’s laughter cut him off.

“Look around,” she said. “We’re standing in the greatest monument the world has ever seen to the folly and hubris of attempting to change the Empire. I’ve spent the last three centuries living with the answer to the question ‘why don’t I change the Empire’.”

I looked over at the block of ice. 

I looked at the Empress and then at Doxle.

“No you haven’t?” I said, puzzled over her assertion more than I’d been over anything she’d said so far.

“Oh? Do tell me why then,” the Empress said, not moving from her boneless slump on the chair. She had the air of someone who’d heard everything I might possibly say next and had passed beyond the ability to being upset by any of it.

“This isn’t the answer to a question,” I said, gesturing at her, at the room, and everything. “This is the question.”

The Empress slid into a proper sitting position and took on an expression of mild amusement.

“Are you going to suggest that vengeance is the answer?” she asked. “That seems to be a popular choice, moreso when the people I could have theoretically taken vengeance against were still alive. It loses it’s sting a bit when there’s a dozen or more generations between then and now.”

“What? No? I don’t have answers for you,” I said. “That’s my point.”

“I’m afraid you’ve left me a bit behind,” Doxle said, which had to be a lie, though I only smelled sincerity from him. Of course he could lie with his scent as easily as I could breathe so I couldn’t be sure at all.

“Where we are now. This present moment? The ‘present’ in general. It’s always a question,” I said. “What we see and know and can predict? That’s all a statement of what is. Answers are the domain of what can be, or what should be, or what must not be. We find them in the act of living, and from them we see a new present emerge, which holds its own questions – at the very least ‘what comes next?’”

The Empress smiled at that, which was a relief. She wasn’t going to squish me for speaking out of turn. Probably.

“And what question do you see here then?” the Empress asked.

“Lots of them,” I said. “I think the biggest one though is ‘given what you can’t do, what’s left that you can do’?”

“And if the answer is ‘nothing’, the Great Houses won?”

“Then I’d say you need to keep asking question, because that answer is definitely wrong.”

“Is it?” the Empress asked and she was much too happy with were the conversation was going.

“You’re doing something now,” I said. “If you can interact with people like this, you can still learn about how the world is and then act upon it.”

“How can I act when I’m not really here?” the Empress asked and waved her arm through her seat’s arm rest.

“Just like this!” I said. “All you would need is someone you could talk to. Someone who would be willing to be honest with you and would be willing to act in your place.”

“Perhaps, but what would this person gain for their service?” the Empress asked, her eyes gleaming with delight.

“You’re over three hundred years old,” I said. “Even apart from the galaxy sized well of arcane power you’re holding, you’ve got centuries of knowledge to draw on, including the actual history of how we got here. Anyone who wanted to fix what was wrong with the Empire would need all of that.”

“Yes, I suppose you would,” the Empress said, the delight in her words sounding exactly like a trap closing right over me.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 58

“The best choice when someone demands that you to explain yourself is not to.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame providing legal council to his third husband.

There were a thousand question people wanted to ask me. That was understandable. They’d all missed out on most of the interesting stuff I’d done on the other side of the rift at the heart of the Clockwork Monster. 

From their perspective, I’d been compressed and then dragged into a copper colored crystal only to emerge…hmm, I wasn’t sure how long I’d been in the Clockwork Cosmos exactly. It couldn’t have been too long. They were all still standing around. So maybe fifteen minutes tops? If that was true though it meant time didn’t move at the same speed in the two worlds. It couldn’t have because I was sure I’d spent at least an hour sobbing onto Trina’s shoulder.

And that hadn’t been anywhere near enough.

The sheer impossibility of seeing her again would have convinced me I’d hallucinated the whole thing except for one small detail – the shredded clothing I wore still carried her scent and there was no way I could have hallucinated that.

The thing was though that none of the people around me knew any of that, and as far as I was concerned it could stay like that for each and every one of them who did not share a roof with me. 

Well, each and every one, with one exception.

“I understand you would dearly like answers to a variety of questions,” Doxle said. “Questions which are no doubt of vital importance given the rather shocking events of the day.”

“So you agree that she must be properly debriefed then?” Instructor Malton asked, stepping up to the take place of ‘overly self-important authority figure’ which Sir Ulgro was wisely in the process of fleeing from.

“Oh, of course, of course,” Doxle said. “I shall be delighted to share the full outcome of her debriefing once it’s completed.”

“We do not have time to wait on this,” Malton said.

“Then I shall be swift and punctual in producing the sort of quality results I am renowned for,” Doxle said and turned to me and I saw Jalaren sigh and drop head into his palm. “Lady Riverbond please provide a succinct and yet comprehensive answer to all questions which the Academy staff might pose to you.”

For a second I thought he intended for me to make an answer to that request – which most definitely was not going to happen. He didn’t wait for me though, instead smoothly continuing on as he turned to face Malton and the rest of the Academy staff who were present.

“She says, in summary, ‘no comment’. Shall I provide a full transcript?” Doxle asked with a cheerful tilt of his head.

“That will be enough Imperial Advisor,” Jalaren said, and added in a still audible mutter, “The last thing we need is to give you a chance to start hurling actual curses you reprobate.”

Everyone pretended not to hear that last part, but I had to confess I was rather curious to know what kind of curses Doxle knew. It seemed like a handy thing for dealing with Imperial authority figures if Jalaren’s reaction was anything to go by.

“Excellent! Then Lady Riverbond and I have some business to attend to before the close of day,” Doxle said and took me by the shoulders.

My housemates looked a bit crestfallen at that. I could smell the eagerness they each had to find out what had happened and how I’d apparently murdered the Clockwork Monster from the inside.

I mean killing things if you can get inside them isn’t usually terribly difficult, but I could see why they’d be curious about the details. I suspected my answers were not going to slake their curiosity though. If anything, learning about Hanalee and Roldo’s plight raised a lot more questions than it answered, and if I dared to tell them about Trina they were going to question literally everything they knew about me, starting with my sanity and probably ending with their own.

I’d expected Doxle to lead me back to the house where they’d get the chance to catch up with us and pepper me with at least a few questions before Doxle dragged me wherever it was he was taking me. As usual though, I was wrong.

Outside of the Testing Arena, Doxle led me up a series of unfamiliar corridors and stairs which seemed to climb higher than any of the buildings in the Academy rose.

“Where are we going?” I asked after we passed the thirteenth floor and were still climbing.

“It’s a surprise!” Doxle said with a brighter than usual glint of mischief in his flaming eyes, “though I did mention it to you earlier.”

I would say that I wracked my brains to remember what he was talking about, but we’d climbed an awful lot of stairs and I’d literally been through the meat grinder – several meat grinders in fact – so my available brainpower was pretty much sitting at “stuffed hamster” levels.

“It gonna take us long to get there?” I asked instead of trying to remember or guess. All I really cared about was getting a few quiet moments to touch up the various organs in my everywhere, or at least the ones which I’d more or less fudged in putting myself back together after the hundredth time I got squished to jelly in the gears of the Clockwork Cosmos.

“Compared to teleportation, yes, an eternity,” Doxle said. “Compared to horseback? No. We’ll be there in a blink compared to horseback.”

“If those are both options, why aren’t we teleporting?” I asked as we hit the landing on Floor 15. 

“We have neither the time for teleportation, nor the magic to waste on horses,” Doxle said, looking no more fatigue as we reached the Floor 16 landing than he had when we started.

I parsed what he said and it sounded exactly backwards but I knew it would give him too satisfaction if I asked him to explain it, so I kept climbing in silence and worked it out on my own.

From what I’d learned about rifts, I had to imagine that setting up a long range teleportation effect would require all sorts of precise calculations and preparation on both ends to avoid the sort of accidents which involved leaving parts of oneself strewn across a far wider area than parts are intended to be strewn across. 

Conversely, horses took relatively little preparation, but if we needed them to cover a vast distance and back in the space of a single night (I was presuming he intended to have me back in time for tomorrow’s Academic Idiocy) then we would need to enchant them to the point where they grew wings and glowed in order for them to be fast enough. Since that was just a wee bit outside my wheelhouse, I had to assume that Doxle found the prospect more taxing than whatever travel method he had in mind.

“We have only a few flights more to go. Ten perhaps I think? Or was it twenty? Apologies, I lose count all the time and I can never remember all the factors in how it’s calculated,” he said as though I had even a tiny chance of following what he was talking about.

I replied with silence. I didn’t need to know how many more flights it was. My human girl body was better at dealing with fatigue toxins than it really should have been and in the semi-unrefined state it was in, I was moving more by magic than actual muscle effort (which I took as a personal failing, even though I had plenty of magic left to work with – accepting a sloppy shapeshift lead to sloppiness with all my magic and that offended my deepest artistic sensibilities).

“The Imperial Knights weren’t entirely wrong,” Doxle said. “At least not in terms of being concerned over what you went through. About everything else they were, as is tragically usual these days, as determinedly wrong as it is possible for them to be.”

“Why?” I asked and clarified the question in the tiny hope that it would yield the answer I was looking for, “why are they like that? Why did they want to duel Idrina to the death? Why is everyone here so focused on being as horrible as they possibly can be?”

Doxle laughed as we reached the next landing.

“Ask that of a dozen people and you will find thirteen true and contradictory answers,” he said. “Is it because corruption and government by overwhelming self interest has crept through the Empire in the centuries since the Great Calamity? Or is it that the Empire was always corrupt and driven by small minded tyrants guided by nothing more than the lust for wealth and ever more power? Perhaps it’s that those who crave power are the ones who most seek it out and over time have managed to erode all of the oversights and safeguards placed on their abilities to abuse that power? Or were those safeguards ever in place at all? Was there ever a time when those with power sought to create something greater than an edifice to themselves or is the view that the past was somehow a better time simply a matter of clinging to the memories of when we were ignorant of the evils we do to one another?”

He danced up the last few steps to the next landing and paused beside a door there. We’d passed several doors already, most landings had them, but this one was different than the rest. It looked identical to them but something beyond it set every nerve on my skin alight with anticipation.

“The truth, as I prefer to believe it to be, is in all of those things, the more contradictory, the better,” Doxle said. “And I know, as an answer to your question, that was essentially useless, so I shall offer a simpler option; they are frightened little rabbits, aware that they don’t deserve the power they hold, and desperate to keep their grip on it despite that.”

His simple answer wasn’t terribly helpful either, but I could appreciate that he wasn’t pretending the Knights or the Instructors were as noble or important as they insisted we believe them to be.

“Is this our floor?” I asked and looked up to see how many more flights there were to go.

That was a horrible, terrible mistakes and I immediately wished I hadn’t.

What was above us wasn’t more stairs. Or it wasn’t only more stairs. Each flight further up rose into infinity above us. Infinities piled on top of infinities. Light from an endless, bottomless, limitless number of realities all crashing into my eyes at once.  The images burned brighter than the sun, and closing my eyes did nothing to diminish the stabbing glare which seemed intent on obliterating thought as easily as it had sight.

“Are you well?” Doxle asked.

“Just fine,” I said through gritted teeth.

I felt him put the back of his hand on my forehead.

“I suspect you might like the use of your eyes back?” he said and placed two cool fingertips over my eyelids.

The scorching pain, and the exact details of what I’d seen, faded away as he removed his hand, leaving me able to see once more.

“Apologies,” he said. “What’s above us isn’t something you should be able to perceive.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Everything,” he said, which was exactly as useful as silence would have been.”In answer to your earlier question however, yes, we are here.”

“And where exactly is here?” I asked, waiting for him to open the door.

“We’ve come to speak with the holder of the Riverbond family’s escrow,” Doxle said.

“They’re someone terrifying aren’t they?” I asked. It was an unnecessary question given the magic I could smell leaking out past the sealed doorway.

“Oh, she will be delighted to hear that,” Doxle said and opened the door.

Beyond it lay an observatory which was covered in ice.

Frozen along the walls were shelves of books, and on desks pushed to the outer ring of the room sat all manner of different candles caught mid-flicker and yet still aflame even though the ice had covered them whole.

None of that held my attention though. What I latched onto almost instantly were the twelve figures arrayed within the most ornately drawn magical confinement circle I’d ever heard of.

They stood as statues, their bodies converted from flesh and blood to a deep blue ice within the paler blue of the frozen crystals they were trapped within. 

All of them except one.

She was as frozen as the rest, but unlike them, she retained the appearance of flesh and blood.

And she was alive.

I don’t know why the scent of her made me want to flee the room, the city, and possibly the nation and the world itself, but I took solace in the fact that she couldn’t hurt me if the ice continued to hold her.

“You look like you’ve had an exciting day,” the woman in the ice said from about two feet behind me. “Take a seat. Relax. Your Empress commands it.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 57

“We are born without a thought in our heads. From there we venture forth, discovering wonders as grand as our own toes and as simple as the infinite majesty of creation and all the worlds within it. Though we strive ever on, learning from all of the experiences which befall us, we nevertheless will fall short of a complete understanding of the world around us and our place with in it. This should be a cause for celebration and rejoicing though, for what is adventure if not venturing into the unknown and what are we without adventure?”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame at the funeral for Xalea Greensdale, his first Pact Bond

It wasn’t that I was facing my mirror image that froze me in place. It wasn’t that the girl in front of me had a trio of friends with her and all of them were radiating a light from which the Clockwork Cosmos recoiled. It wasn’t even the heartbreakingly familiar twist of her smile. It was how she smelled.

Despite the oil and gas and ground metal stench that filled the air of the Clockwork Cosmos, her scent came through with the blinding clarity of a lightning bolt.

“Trina?” I wasn’t able to do more than whisper the word and the crashing and turning of the world of gears and pistons swallowed it up as it tumbled from my lips.

But she heard it.

She heard me.

Except that wasn’t possible

Trina was dead.

She was gone and she’d been gone for my whole life and she was never coming back because she couldn’t come back because if she could come back then why hadn’t she come back already and she hadn’t come back because I’d failed.

I’d failed and I’d failed and I’d failed. Everything I’d tried had failed, and I shouldn’t be here, and if I wasn’t here then she wouldn’t be…

“Hey,” my sister said. “We’re gonna be okay.”

And that undid me.

I was newborn in a world where I was an anathema.

I was orphaned, parents and family torn apart in front of my eyes.

I was hiding, pretending to be a small little fuzzy thing I’d caught only the tiniest glimpse of. I didn’t have a right to wear its shape, and holding onto just one form was so, so hard. My skin was suffocating me, and my innards had no idea what to be.

I had no idea what to be.

I wanted to change, to lash out, to melt, to go home, to join my family.

I don’t remember being picked up by Trina’s father, but I can recall the gentle kindness he showed to a lost and terrified wolf pup.

I don’t remember being carried back to the Riverbond estate, but I can recall the smells from the kitchen and how they hit my nose, the one thing I’d gotten right, like the blessing of all the angels on high.

I don’t remember the space in the kennel that had been cleared for me, but I do remember my sister finding me.

“I want that one,” she’d said.

“But that’s not a normal puppy honey. That one’s a wild beast who’s going to need a lot of training,” he’d said.

“She’s mine,” she’s said. “I’m her big sister!”

And then she was. It had been strange being picked up by someone not terrible larger than me. I’d fought against it. I’d tried to scratch her. I’d tried to bite her. Not because I knew what I was doing but because I had claws and teeth and I didn’t know what else to do with them.

“Hey,” she’d said. “We’re gonna be okay.”

And she’d been right.

I’m not sure how long I clung to her then, and I definitely had no idea how long I clung to her in the Clockwork Cosmos. Probably too long, but I couldn’t help myself.

She wasn’t the same.

Her body wasn’t entirely solid, and it wasn’t flesh and blood, but it was hers and that was all that mattered.

“How?” I finally asked once I’d cried out an ocean or two of tears.

“That’s a long story,” Trina said. “And we don’t have a lot of light left.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“No! You’ve got nothing to be sorry about,” she said. “But we should leave here while there’s still time.”

“Right, right!” I said, wiping the last tears from my eyes. “I tried to open a rift though. It’s too tough here.”

“It’s because you’re trying to bring  the dead back to life,” Trina said. “You should be able to get yourself across no problem.”

“The dead?” I asked, completely forgetting for a moment about the two soul prison gems I was carrying.

“We can take them off your hands and get them to a better place than this,” Trina said because turning to address the clockwork sky and adding “No offense!”

None taken, the Clockwork Cosmos said as it pressed in on the ever diminishing light Trina and her friends were radiating.

“I don’t…” I started to say and struggled to decide how to finish. There were innumerable things I didn’t understand and an endless number of questions I needed to ask. After a moment though I collected my thoughts and found only one that really mattered, “Can I go with you?”

She hugged me.

Dammit. That wasn’t playing fair and it wasn’t the answer I wanted.

“We can talk again,” she said. “Your friend Yarrin can find a book in Academy’s restricted section on performing seances and the twins have the right magic to make it happen.”

“But…” I started, again unsure of how to continue.

“I know,” she said, and touched her forehead to mine. “It’s not fair. It never has been. But I am so, so proud of you.”

I didn’t break down.

I was exceptionally proud of that.

I didn’t break down and I handed Hanalee and Roldo’s soul prisons over to her. She took them and placed them in a pouch she was wearing. It was almost easier to wonder where she’d found clothes in the afterlife than it was to process anything else, but even that thought was pushed away so that I could just drink in her presence for the few precious moments we had.

“You’ll be able to get back now. You’ll be safe,” she said.

It helped that she didn’t let go of my arms. She didn’t want to leave either. I needed to know that.

Sadly, I also knew that she needed to leave. She was growing dimmer by the moment. I had no idea what that meant specifically, the general idea that her protections against the grinding gears around us was diminishing was pretty easy to work out.

“What about you?” I asked. She was supposed to have been safe with me, the idea of parting from her when she might still be in danger was soul searingly intolerable.

“As soon as you’re back, we’ll leave too,” she said.

“You can go first,” I said.

“No! I left you feeling terrible for the last ten years!” she said. “I can at least make sure you get back safe and sound this time, and then we can talk for real later.”

“I…I don’t want to leave you,” I said.

“You didn’t,” she said. “You’ve given me so much more than you can know. But, for now, go! Please! Be safe!”

I hesitated. 

Did I want safety?

Given where I was standing that did not seem like a concern that I’d affixed a high degree of value to.

Was my sister important to me?

No. That was the wrong question.

Did her wishes matter? Did I still respect her for who she was?

Phrased like that, it wasn’t hard to free my soul from the block of ice it had frozen into.

“I will come right back and hunt you down if you don’t answer the seance,” I said.

“I know you will. Just like you know I’ll be there.”

“I love you.”

“Ten years and we’ve never really been apart you know,” she said and pulled me in for another hug. “And we never really will be.”

I blinked at her, not understanding her words but hearing and feeling the truth in them anyways.

“Now go! And no more losing body parts in here!” she said.

“No promises,” I said with a shrug and turned around to find a spot at the edge of the radiant globe we were standing in.

Tearing a rift back to the material realm was just as easy as she’d suggested it would be. I made it look harder than I had to as I dragged myself out of it though, mostly because I didn’t know what kind of audience was waiting for me and I didn’t want people to be entirely aware of how much I’d worked out about making and closing rifts to otherworlds.

Also, collapsing into a (not literally) boneless heap on the ground and responding to the first fourteen questions asked of me with an inarticulate moaning turned out to be about as much as I had the physical and mental energy to manage.

“Well, see now, I told you the matter wasn’t anything to raise a fuss over,” Doxle said.

He arrived sometime after question thirteen and had been, I think, checking me over for signs of life.

“She has, apparently, survived a trip into another world. That is well worth ‘a fuss’,” someone Imperial-Knight-ish sounding said.

“She also shut down whatever the hell that thing was that you unleashed on all of us.” That was Ilyan. He didn’t sound happy. I found that pleasing both because it meant he’d recovered from the hit he’d taken and because being angry at the Imperial Knights seemed like a really good idea to me.

“She is able to hear you,” I said, reconstructing my jaw and tongue into their proper shapes in order to do so.

Even an ‘easy’ passage back through a rift was a bit ‘bone crunchy’ it turned out.

Rolling over onto my side, I glanced around in the direction I could smell Yarrin’s scent coming from. He wasn’t there. Just like Mellina wasn’t there, despite her scent coming from the same location.

That filled me with a strange sort of relief. It couldn’t have been a good thing that they were hiding out, but given that they weren’t visible it meant that it was less likely anyone would be able to mess with them before I got Yarrin to find the forbidden book I needed him to look up.

“Perhaps ‘she’ would care to explain what ‘she’ did then?” the Imperial Knight asked.


That was not the answer I was supposed to give.

“What do you mean no? You refuse me?” The Imperial Knight was able to parse a two letter answer. Good for him.

“Yes,” I said, seeing if he could manage three letters.

He started sputtering and began to reach for me, some form of coercion or other mayhem clearly in mind.

“You will want to consider that action carefully,” Doxle said with the sort of deceptively disinterested weariness which promises peril untold to those who fail to heed the warning offered.

To his credit, the Imperial Knight was able to process that in time and paused his hands a good several feet from me.

“It seems to me that this has been a rather eventful first day of Imperial training,” Doxle said. “Jalaren, did you have more classes planned, or have there been enough lessons taught today?”

“As all of my students have fled, well almost all, it appears I have very little to say on the matter. Perhaps Sir Ulgro disagrees though?”

The Imperial Knight who’d been reaching for me straightened back up and turned to face Jalaren. “The trial we came here for has been concluded. As acting squad commander, I can say our work here is done and we will be departing forthwith.”

He looked like he wanted to add more to that – probably a jibe about how he’d be investigating me further or something like that. I wasn’t under an illusion that a few words from Doxle had resolved the matter. Sir Ulgro was apparently smart enough to know when to retreat which meant he was also smart enough to come after me from a more oblique angle than a head on charge through an Imperial Advisor. 

That added him to the list of secret enemies I had, which seemed to be growing at an impressive pace given that I’d only been in Middlerun for a few days so far.

In hindsight, I probably should have tried to make even more enemies, after all it wasn’t like I was going to leave even one brick standing on top of another once I was done with the place.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 56

“The solution to one problem, in my experience, is often the precipitating factor in the next one’s origin. No matter how clever a trick you devise, there is always some angle to it which will catch you unawares. It’s enough to convince one to never bother with trickery or problem solving at all but that would be unconscionable! Better to be cast out with the trash than to forfeit our place as the architects of our own fate!”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, face down drunk in a nameless alley and lecturing a rat which happened by.

I was going through a lot, literally a lot since an entire universe seemed to be doing its best to crush me into dust, so I wasn’t sure I’d heard Hanalee correctly.

“You died four years ago? How did you wind up here? Is this where your magic comes from?” It wasn’t easy finding moments when I could take a form that had both a mouth and lungs to be able to form those words, but Hana seemed to be able to follow me nonetheless.

“No, I hadn’t found out what my magic was yet,” Hanalee said, her voice still filling the cosmos to its farthest extents.

“Me either,” the first voice said.

“I thought souls went somewhere else after they died. Somewhere beyond the Transcendent planes?” 

That seemed to be the common wisdom on why even the strongest healers couldn’t raise the dead, though I suspected asking Doxle for clarification would probably be a good idea, assuming I survived the Clockwork Cosmos trying to squish me.

“We were elsewhere,” Hanalee said. “They did something that pulled us back to here, and then they locked us in these crystals.”

“They pulled you out of heaven!?” I hadn’t even bothered much with any of the religious practices in the Empire. Grammy said they were all parasites and tyrants and I hadn’t seen a lot to convince me otherwise, but I was reasonably sure that most of them consider a soul’s final destination to be sacrosanct and beyond the reach of anything mortals could meddle with.

“We weren’t in heaven,” the first voice said. “And we weren’t in hell either. We were,” he stammered for a bit. “Elsewhere.”

That was both theologically profound and something I absolutely didn’t have time to worry about.

“Who are ‘they’, and what did they do you when they got you here?” I asked.

I needed their answers, their dialog to help me stay focused on who I was, but, much though I wanted to, I really couldn’t wait any longer.

Before anyone could answer, I started to change again.

This time I wasn’t running away though.

I wasn’t even trying to survive.

What I was attempting was much harder than that.

Letting my flesh turn to metal and my mind sink down into the click-clack-click of the machinery around me, I tried to fit in.

It is difficult at first.

To hold rigid and not change.

To be one small, undifferentiated piece of a whole so vast I couldn’t even be said to exist within it.

I yearned to change

I yearned to become something, anything else.

This was not who I am.

This was not what I am.


It was not.

But it was what I must be.

In that moment.

I hated it.

I hated it more than anything.

This was a terrible plan.

I wasn’t supposed be there.

I couldn’t help them.

I couldn’t help myself.

I was being infected by the world.

I was.

I was.

I was turning.

I ticked.

I was turned.

I turned others.

It was what I did.

It was what I was.

I shattered.

I was weak.

I was not what was needed.

I shattered again and was reformed.

I smiled!

I changed!

Perfection was not attained.

I was not metal.

I was weak! Gloriously, deliciously weak!

I shattered again and again, stasis refused over and over because I was not what was needed!

“Can you still hear us?” Hanalee asked.

“I can,” I said, opening eyes that were lenses of glass ringed in copper. 

I was turned and I turned others, and in turning I heard a voice I could finally understand.

Intruder, it said.

Yes, I replied.

Destroyer? it asked.

Repair, I replied.

Perfection? it asked. 

No. I can’t restore make things perfect. Perfection is anathema. I am anathema to you.

Destruction? it asked.

No. Repair. Intruder removal.


With the other intruders.

You are one.

They are two. Hidden. Encysted in gems. Changing you.

Cannot see that.

I can.

And I could! In assuming a form that connected me to the Clockwork Cosmos, I’d been able to bridge the gap between us so that the whole world around me looked different.

On one level I was still aware that the entire cosmos was filled with nothing but machinery. Where the gears allowed passage though, I could see, peering through what should have been solid physical structures as though they were as transparent as air.

In the center of the sphere I was standing in the rift back home lay. The sphere was so vast that the rift was more distant than the moon, but if I dropped my current transformation, if I stopped acknowledging the Clockwork Cosmos’s laws, I knew it would be easily within reach. 

Opposite the rift, at the end of a long hallway, a tall column with various embedded jewels lay.

I glanced back and forth between the Dimensional Rift and the Central Control Mechanism and tried to puzzle out how I could be standing on the inner surface of a sphere when I looked at one of them and at the end of a long corridor when I looked at the other. I felt a tug in my mind as I tried to work it out and saw that understanding did lay within my grasp. I simply had too many memories showing me what real things looked like in my human universe for me to give myself over to the Clockwork Cosmos enough to grasp the deeper parts of its essence.

Fortunately I didn’t need to. Not to save Hanalee and her companion. All I needed to do was walk down the corridor and pry their gems loose from the central mechanism they were tied into.

Unfortunately, someone didn’t seem inclined to allow that.

“Sorry!” Hanalee said as machinery began to tear itself loose from the walls and ceiling, reconfiguring into a thousand fatal tools for the world to hurl against me.

“This is us,” the first voice said. “We’re doing this. But we don’t want to.”

I faded back into the machinery, my thoughts overwhelmed with the demands of purpose. Fight. I turned so that we could fight.

Fight the intruder.

Who was me.

I shattered again and came back to myself once more.

As I did the assault resumed.

“Can you stop? For just a moment?” I asked, relying on natural dodging and shapeshifting to buy enough time to hear the answer.

So of course it turned out to be one I didn’t want to hear.

“No. We can’t. We bound by more than the crystals,” Hanalee said. “They put something into us. Like rules that we have to follow.”

“What happens if you break them?” I asked, still hoping there was going to be a peaceful way to resolve this.

“What happens if you break gravity?” the first voice asked.

I sighed. Of course it was those sort of rules. The magical kind. The kind that Hana and her companion would destroy themselves on long before they managed to make one even budge a little.

Can you help? I asked, shifting into resonance with the Clockwork Cosmos again.

We see them now. Through you. But we cannot help, the Clockwork Cosmos said. Their laws are not ours. 

Which meant I simply had reach them on my own!

It wasn’t simple.

I took the sort of wounds which would have killed all of my housemates ten times over and when I the reached the Central Control Mechanism I burned the moment I touched it.

If it sounds like I was having a miserable time of things, then I’m failing to convey how much worse than that it really was.

The absolute worst part though? It wasn’t the Clockwork Cosmos trying to kill me. I could respect that. I was a poison inside it, my very existence a corrosive force that it simply couldn’t tolerate. 

No the worst part was the set of glyphs someone had inscribed on the gemstones which housed Hanalee and Roldo. The moment I touched then (with my burned and sliced hands), the damn things tried to eat me.

“That’s not us!” Roldo said.

“It’s why we’re stuck in here,” Hanalee said. “But what is it doing to you? You said you weren’t dead?”

“I’m not,” I said, grabbing onto a nearby spinning gear to help drag me away from the gemstones. It didn’t exactly work, but the force pulling me away did keep me from getting drawn in any further.

“These things can’t absorb humans though,” Roldo said. “They’d eat the handlers who’ve been coming in to check on us if they could.”

“Handlers?” I asked, trying to a.) keep my arms from being ripped off and b.) not lose my grip on the gear which was keeping me from being absorbed by Hanalee’s gem.

“Yeah. There are humans who come in here and do things with the Control Mechanism. They’ve been changing what we can do. What we have to do too. We’re not, I don’t know if we’re people still,” Hana said in a voice that was so much smaller than my own I barely recognized it as hers.

“You smell like people to me,” I said through gritted teeth, struggling fruitlessly to pull free of the gem. 

I considered morphing back to being a gear. The gems obviously weren’t absorbing their surroundings, so a gear would be safe from them. Or it would be if they didn’t already have a piece of me to tug on the rest with.

“We smell?” Roldo asked. “But we’re inside these things. There’s no air getting out at all.”

“I have a really good sense of smell,” I said and finally admitted to myself that my grip was simply not strong enough to pull me free.

It was however strong enough to tear a couple fingers off my hand.

In theory, I knew I wasn’t going to miss them. I grew them back before the pain really had time to register. What did worry me was the idea of leaving any bit of myself behind in a realm where I absolutely was not supposed to be.

“Okay. That sucked. It looks like I can’t touch those things,” I said and mentally kicked myself for missing the obvious answer. “If only I had some kind of tool that would let me pry them loose and maybe break them open so you could get free and not bother this nice cosmos with your whole icky existence thing.”

Will these help? The nice cosmos asked as a pair of long handled pliers landed in my outstretched hand.

I’m sorry we can never get along, you seem like a fantastic place, I said, hefting the wonderfully sturdy pliers to make sure they weren’t going to eat me too. I can at least do this for you though.

When dealing with weird magical artifacts, pliers, it turns out, are a really good idea. In place of ripping off body parts and a desperate scramble for freedom, it took me about twenty seconds of work with the pliers to have the two gems ripped off the Control Mechanism.

“I don’t want to leave anything here,” I said, trying to imagine the kind of damage an alien thing like the Control Mechanism could do if it ran amuck.

With the gems removed, it slowly powered down.

And then got devoured by the Clockwork Cosmos.

Which was great! Problem solved! 

Well, probably solved. 

Of course it did raise one tiny additional issue.

“Where did the rift go?” Hanalee asked.

Because, of course, it had closed completely. It looked the path home had been held open by the machine which I had just stripped of protections and allowed the realm we were standing into reduce to scrap. Not my best move, but given my limited options I was not going to beat myself up over it.

Not when I had a whole cosmos ready to do the work for me.

Apologies, the Clockwork Cosmos said as it resumed trying to erase me from existence.

No, no, I understand, I said, racing to get to the point where the rift had been. If I was going to have to tear open a new rift it seemed like the best spot would be where one had just been.

I still maintain that was a good theory, especially since I didn’t know that dimensions tend to ‘heal’ the wounds from rifts to be stronger than they’d been to prevent a repeat performance.

“We’re going to get dissolved!” Roldo said, and given the trouble I was having breaking a path back to our world I couldn’t say he was wrong.

“We might be able to help with that,” a new arrival said.

I turned to face our rescuers and found myself face-to-face with someone who was wearing almost my exact features.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 55

“Every so often one finds oneself in uncharted waters, be it on a battlefield in a conflict one never intended to become involved with or a social situation where all of the players and their standings are a mystery. The key thing to remember in such moments is that none of whatever dramatics are playing out are about them. They, whoever they are, don’t really matter. What matters is you.

Are two armies fighting over something incomprehensible? That’s clearly irrelevant since they should be fighting over you. Are people talking about things you have no idea about? Foolish lackwits, why are they wasting their time when what they should be discussing is you!

Absolutely no one will understand or appreciate the wisdom of this viewpoint on life, but that’s not your problem, it’s theirs, and one which you should at every opportunity encourage them correct.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame providing the keynote speech at the 132nd Commencement of the Imperial Diplomatic Corp.

It’s funny how otherworldly, screaming crystals at the heart of a monster aren’t the sort of thing people are inclined to run towards. In fact, as it turns out, exposing something which emitted that particular combination of stench and soul chilling wails was an excellent means of getting a large number of people to vacate the immediate area, the battle arena, and probably the Academy in general from what I could see.

I could respect the cadets having the sense to flee, but it seemed like the Imperial Knights should have been made of sterner stuff.

On the other hand, since we were getting an up close view of exactly what two of the Imperial Knights were made of, it was probably for the best that the others took off when they did. Given that they were bonded to the same sort of armor and weapon, I had to imagine that if they’d stayed all they would have been able to do was ‘be delicious’ as they fed more magic and gears to the thing in front of us.

With (nearly) everyone else fleeing, I made a desperate bid to reclaim my title as the ‘Single Most Foolish’ person on the field and started walking forward. Was my plan something only I could do? Probably not. Was I sure I could even do it in the first place? Mostly definitely not. Was I going to try anyways and hope for the best because I was sick of dealing with Imperial nonsense? Absolutely.

I took all of five steps forward, mind focused, heart set on my goal, before a hand grabbed my ankle.

“Where are you going?” Idrina did not sound well at all, croaking her words out at barely more than a whisper.

“To fix this,” I said. I didn’t add ‘or die trying’ because I wasn’t going to die. Not to something like this. There were a variety of other horrible fates which might await me, but death was not one of them.

“You can’t,” Idrina said. “It’s unlimited.”

I could see that she wanted to say more, but even those few words had cost her all the strength she had left.

“I know,” I reassured her very-likely unconscious form and resumed my march as the clockwork monster began rapidly reassembling itself from the damage Narla had inflicted.

As the monster regrew itself, it rebuilt the destroyed areas with plates of steel rather than anything like human tissue or muscle. 

Which meant I probably only had one shot at reaching the heart.

And it was not particularly interested in allowing a foreign body to jump inside its heart/

I chuckled as I broke into a run. In trying to kill me, the clockwork monster was behaving at least three times more rationally than the Imperials it was built from. In fact, if it wrecked the Academy, I might be willing to consider it a comrade rather than an adversary.

Except for how it was wailing.

A chorus of voices.

In soul shredding agony.

Whatever was happening to them, no matter who they were, was wrong and needed to stop.

I dodged a pseudopod of spinning gears and gristle, ducked a spray of flaming oil and tumbled over a dozen scything blades which erupted from the monster’s flesh.

All that left was a dive into the monster’s chest (not a phrase I wish to ever need to repeat) and the all too easy act of pouring myself into the copper colored crystal.

Real crystals aren’t known for being terribly porous or absorbent. Real crystals also don’t thrum with life or burn with an inexhaustible well of power. Each of those facts made the transition into whatever the copper colored crystal actually was distinctly unpleasant in their own unique manner.

Just touching the crystal was enough for me to feel it dragging me in. Passing through the solid outer layer though felt like I was being forced through a slowly shattering glass window. The living, beating hearts at the center of the crystal should have been left as dead long ago and it was from them that the horrible stench arose – life where life shouldn’t be, decay turned on decay. 

The power though was what almost dissolved me. It wasn’t my kind of power or even vaguely similar. If anything, the magic I felt crashing around me was antithetical to everything I was and there was just no end to it.

None of that was a surprise though.

In pouring myself into the crystal, I’d crossed a boundary between dimensions.

Those weren’t supposed to be stable enough to stay in any one place for long. Reaving Storms blew across the land, rather than sitting as unmoving portals to realms that could melt the world’s reality down, precisely because they were immeasurable and unpredictable things.

Or at least they were supposed to be. Within the confines of the crystal, someone had figured out how to change that though.

Instead of flying free (or closing up like they were supposed to), Inside the crystal the rift to another world writhed and burned and fought against a series of restraints that I could see but not even begin to understand..

What I could see though was that it wasn’t the rift which drove the unnatural magic from the realm beyond into my world. On its own the rift would have leaked magic, but it was so small that wouldn’t have been enough to save it from closing. There was something else that was casting the magic of the clockwork realm into my world, and I could feel that ‘something’s’ awareness take me in and swallow me whole.

“Wait, someone new is here?” the voice which spoke was functionally indistinguishable from a god. It came from everywhere around me and was loud enough to fill an entire universe.

“Yes! And she’s not bound!” It didn’t seem like the universe should be big enough to allow a second voice of that scale to exist, and yet the color of their words was so different from the first voice that it had to be someone else speaking.

“Is that possible?” the first asked.

“Well, she’s a hell of a lot bigger than us, so maybe?” the second said.

Bigger? I’d definitely heard that word but my mind refused to embrace it in any manner at all. To be fair though, in addition to the very concept of anything being bigger than the bodiless voices, there was a lot of other distractions I was struggling to deal with.

I thought there’d been more than enough gears jutting out of the clockwork monster, and I’d been correct. No monster, or anything else, needed as many gears as the monster had been riddled with. Given the universe that it was linked too though, I was at a loss to understand why it hadn’t been spewing forth even more.

Everywhere around me, machine components seethed. There were pistons and escaping gasses which drove the turning of gears, hammers and belts, and blades and spikes of all sizes and shapes, with everything appearing in every material imaginable and all of it stretching not just out to the horizon but endlessly off into space, beyond even the farthest stars

What should have been pure, predetermined perfection though was nothing but a cacophony of destruction and chaos. Gears failed to turn against one another and were twisted and shattered, only to form back into near shapes which, as often as not, still couldn’t fit their assigned place and were broken anew.

“I don’t think she can see us,” the first voice said.

“Maybe she’s newly dead?” the second said. “That would explain why she’s so huge.”

“I don’t think that can be it,” the first said. “We saw those two new ghosts get sucked into the maw a minute ago. They weren’t anywhere near as big as she is.”

“True,” the second said. “So the question is how do we get her attention?”

I looked around, trying to figure out what sort of colossuses the two voice might be, but only the endless turning and breaking vista of gears was visible.

I tried to move away from the right to get a better view and I shattered.

Which was bad.

Not painful.

Painful would have been reasonable. Instead what I felt was entirely unreasonable. 

I hadn’t tried to move. I’d tried to turn. But I wasn’t right. I didn’t fit. So I had to break. Then I could be put back together. Put back right. Not like I was. Like it had been decided I should be.

A lot more gears broke as that thought tried to imprint itself into my mind.

“Uh, what is she doing?” the first voice asked, fear creeping higher over each word.

“She’s, uh, she’s…I don’t know,” the second voice said. “It doesn’t look real though, or…”

“Or it’s a different real,” the first voice said.

I wasn’t quite sure what they were talking about but it wasn’t a big leap to guess that it had something to do with how I was shifting through the machinery that was trying to bury me and tearing every bit of it that I could get my hands on to pieces.

What? I didn’t like that dimension. I still don’t.

“She’s a…she’s a caster? Here? As a ghost?” the second voice said.

“I don’t think so,” the first voice said.

“She’s not a caster? Then how is she doing all that!” the second voice asked.

“No. I don’t think she’s a ghost,” the first voice said.

“Not a ghost, not going to be one either, not here, not today,” I said, growling the words out as I shifted through forms that were still capable of speech.

“YOU’RE ALIVE!?” the second voice was loud enough that it shook me into goo. That sounds worse than it was since I was in the process of shifting wildly to escape the grinding gears, but it was still more than a little disconcerting.

“Quieter, please?” I asked, pulling myself together and squirting through a rapidly closing gap in the gears.

“Seven Stars! She can hear us!” the second voice said.

“You are louder than a tornado,” I said. “How could I not?”

“We’re what? No, wait, that doesn’t matter. Can you free us?” the first voice asked.

“It’s why I’m here,” I said. “But I have no idea where you are. You sound like you are literally everywhere.”

“We’re trapped in two jewels in the central mechanism,” the second voice said.

“One of these bits of machinery is central to the others?” I asked. It made sense that one would be but I was staring at billions or maybe trillions of different pieces of machinery which were all in motion and all becoming more hostile to me by the second.

“Yeah, can’t you see it?” the first voice asked. “It’s the big glowing one in the center.”

I wanted to ask ‘the center of what’, but I knew they wouldn’t be able to answer, and I knew why.

We weren’t seeing the realm through the same eyes.

“How long have you been here?” I asked.

“Seventeen months, six days, four hours, and thirty six minutes,” the second one said, confirming what I suspected.

No one has that accurate a sense of how long they’ve been trapped somewhere. Not unless the realm they’re a part of is axiomatically one of precision and defined values.

“Can you keep talking,” I said. “I’m going to do something to help find you but I need to hear your voices to make sure I don’t get lost in the process.”

“Uh, what should we talk about?” the first one asked.

“Tell me about yourselves. Who are you? How did you get here?” I was legitimately curious to hear the answers to those questions, but far more importantly I needed an anchor for what I was going to do or I was likely to run face first into one of those ‘not dead but wish I was’ fates.

“My name’s Hanalee,” the second voice said. “And I died about four years ago in a Reaving Storm.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 54

“I once believed that if I was simply clever enough life would never be able to surprise me. 

‘If only I’d thought of that, I should have been the master of my destiny still’ was the refrain each time I found myself on the losing end of fate’s fortune. 

Conversely, and more embarrassing in hindsight, was the sheer smugness of having foreseen a distasteful eventuality and rectified the problem only succumb to the hubris of  ‘look, I am indeed first among the wise and intelligent, see my good fortune and bow to my brilliance, surely you lesser peons could enjoy the fruits of my glorious intellect as well if you merely chose to be something more than ignorant, thoughtless beasts!’

It is to my greatest good I suppose that life deigned to whisper the most fundamental of truths in my ears at a moment when they happened to be open and listening for such wisdom; we are all fools, every last one of us and we can no more grasp hold of all the futures which lie before us than we can capture the storm clouds which must blow across our heavens. 

Rejoice therefore, I say, and take great comfort in the fact that the seas of your life may always crash on unexpected shores full of mysteries you will be blessedly unprepared for.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, very drunk, on the 200th anniversary of the Great Calamity.

It was the smell that hit me first. There had been a seal on the helmet which had been keeping what was inside the armor separate from the outside world. Probably a spell of some kind to protect the wearer from gaseous or liquid attacks. Surprisingly even with the holes in the armor and the absence of an entire limb, the spell had held together. It was good work, and I wasn’t just focusing on that because I absolutely did not want to process the stench the erupted from the armor when I tore the helmet free.

Casden processed it though. Right into a disturbingly large puddle of whatever it was he’d had for lunch. Jalaren either had a sterner stomach or less of a sense of smell from being old, and merely turned a greenish hue as he backed away. Idrina, on the other hand, had a spear in her hand the instant the helmet came lose.

And I couldn’t blame her.

In addition to the stench of otherworldly decay, there was the far more worrisome view of what had happened to the former Imperial Knight on full display.

Where a human head should have been there was a mass of tissue, torn and distorted facial features, and gears. So many gears.

Most of the gears were still, jammed up against each other in an ill fitting, haphazard arrangement where their position served no purpose beside the destruction of what had once been a functional human face and brain.

The crowd of cadets were close enough to see how wrong Reldin’s corpse looked but only those of us inside the arena could see that some few of the gears were still turning and that Reldin’s eyes were neither closed nor sightless.

“It’s still alive!” Casden said, throwing his gauntlets to the ground. “It’s still alive!”

He threw his helmet away next and was working on one of the straps on his breastplate when a low moaning started to build from the center of Reldin’s corpse.

“That’s not a living thing,” I said. I had no idea how people couldn’t tell that. Humans needed to breath. It was not breathing. Humans had blood pumping under their skin. All the blood in Reldin’s corpse was gone (I shoved that little observation aside to freak out about later). Most importantly though, and despite all evidence to the contrary, people actually need their brains in a functional state and the thing before us had ground all its grey matter into lube for the gears which had erupted throughout it.



I was wrong.

It wasn’t for the gears which had erupted throughout it. It was for the gears which were continuing to erupt.

“We need to…” I’d wanted to say ‘get back’, but I’d been hopeless optimistic on how quickly the thing in Reldin’s former body was metastasizing.

Idrina didn’t punch me in the solar plexus. It felt like that, but her response to whatever the hell was happening with Reldin wasn’t random violence against me (or Jalaren) but rather to grab us both and dash us out of the arena in a golden blur.

On the plus side, that probably saved both our lives. The only negative was that even with my reinforced frame, it still kinda hurt.

Looking at Casden though, I had to admit that it probably hurt a lot less than what happened to him.

With a shiver, the previously immobile armor Reldin was encased in twitched left, then right, and then collapsed to ground. As it fell, a geyser of badly interconnected gears soaked in blood, oil and viscera spewed forth from the armor’s neck hole and rained down over the area I’d been standing in just a moment earlier. 

Despite being generally in favor of Reldin’s horrible demise, I couldn’t say that what we witnessed filled me with warm happy thoughts. He’d deserved to meet a horrible fate but not this horrible.

The same was probably true of Casden, and if I’d been on the ball I probably should have jumped in and saved him too, but, unfortunately, I just didn’t like him and I wasn’t quite clever enough to work out what was obviously going to happen next.

So, in a sense what happened was my fault, though I’m pretty sure in terms of responsibility I was somewhere around twelfth or thirteenth in the list, with Casden himself somewhere in the top three or so.

He’d managed to get the first strap on his breastplate undone just in time to look up and see the seething mass of whatever unholy, and now screaming, abomination of biotech Reldin had become lurch forward and swarm over him. 

I couldn’t smell the moment that Casden died, mostly because there was too much blood on the scene already and his wasn’t particularly distinct. That he died wasn’t terribly hard to miss though. When the gear monster tears through your armor and grinds you up into itself, it’s a fair guess that most people will not be surviving the experience.

Apart from the tragic, tragic loss of life of someone who I wasn’t going to miss from the world at all, Casden’s death was bad in a manner which actually was relevant to me. 

As the gear monster devoured him, Casden’s only partially removed armor initiated whatever magical protocol Reldin’s had and so we got to watch the same transformation take place, though this time without a helmet obscuring all of the unpleasant details.

The other Imperial Knights and the instructors were, justifiably, stunned by what they were witnessing. 

So they stood there. 


To be fair, I didn’t have any great ideas on what to do either, but the other cadets were able to appraise the situation and together formulate the proper tactical response.

They ran away screaming.

Okay, it wasn’t the height of bravery, but this had definitely not been covered in our non-existent coursework and it was most definitely not our problem to deal with.

“We have to stop that thing,” Idrina said, conjuring another spear to her hands.

I closed my eyes and groaned.

I did not have to help her.

It was objectively the stupidest possible thing I could do to help her.

The right answer was to grab her (and maybe Jalaren) and carry them to safety the same as she’d done for me.

Then we would be even and we could go our own separate ways, no debts between us, no need to acknowledge each other or this debacle at all.

“Got any ideas on how?” I asked. Because I am the biggest idiot in creation.

“There are two people trapped in there,” Yarrin said, forcing me to correct myself.

I was not, it seemed, the biggest idiot in creation.

That honor went to one of my housemates.

Or maybe they all held the trophy together.

“Why aren’t you running?” I shouldn’t have screamed that. It wasn’t fair to them, and, more importantly, it got the gear monster’s attention.

“Uh, why would we let you have all the fun?” Narla asked.

I wanted to respond to that. I really did. My mouth moved up and down and everything.

“It’s not going to stop growing,” Mellina said. “We stop it here, with you, or we lose the city.”

After everything I’d been through, losing the city didn’t seem entirely objectionable to me, but I had to admit that going home to Grammy with a dead city as the legacy of my time in the Academy probably wouldn’t be the easiest of things.

Also I was like thirteenth in line for fault that this was happening so there was some responsibility to clean up the mess I supposed.

“What do you mean there are two people trapped in there?” Idrina asked. “Are Reldin and Casden still alive?”

I couldn’t see how that would be possible, but it made sense that it had jumped out to her as the worse case scenario.

“Definitely not,” Yarrin said. “Their spirits got pulled out the moment they died. There’s other people in there. We have to free them.”

“Again, how?” I asked.

The gear monster, or monster I guess, didn’t seem keen on the answer to that question getting out, or at least that’s what I guessed from how they started blobbing towards us.

“We’ll hold them back,” Ilyan said. “You figure it out. Ready sis?”

Idrina didn’t even bother to nod – the twins knew each other too well to need even that.

Watching them fight together was something akin to a religious experience for me. I’d put a lot of effort into studying human movement and the grace and coordination they showed was nothing short of angelic. 

Ilyan wasn’t as fast or as strong as his sister. I could see that he hadn’t trained half as hard as she had. Fighting together with her though, he was so much better than when he’d been fighting alone that it was liking watching a new person move. From strike to block to dodge, trading places and reinforcing each other’s unguarded flanks there was a fluidity to their movements that shot an unexpected pang of homesickness through me. 

Idrina was tired though. She’d been through a hell of a fight and was still shaking off the effect of the silver fire. Her superhuman poise and prowess couldn’t last, so as much as I wanted to just sit back and watch the beautiful artistry on display I knew we had to help them in the next thirty seconds or so if we wanted to have any hope of walking away from the fight as anything other than monster food.

“There are two central mechanisms,” Yarrin said. “Or there were. They’re joining into one now. Those have two souls bound to them.”

“Where are they and can we break them?” I asked.

“They’re…No, I wanted to say they’re center mass, but they’re not. They’re on the other side of a dimensional boundary. This thing’s…it’s like a living Reaving Storm!”

“Uh, maybe we should run then,” Narla said.

“Is anything crossing the boundary?” I asked, hating my brain for the plan it was developing.

“Yeah. It’s sending the blood and bits of the two Knights over to the other side and returning some kind of oil, I think?” Yarrin said.

Idrina and Ilyan choose that moment to not dodge when they should have.

Or maybe they were blocking a strike at us?


Didn’t want to think about that.

The important thing was that they were both down.

“Mellina can you…” I didn’t have to finish asking before she cloaked us. “Thanks.”

“It can still sense us,” Yarrin said as the gear monster turned to stare directly at us.

“Oh can it?” Mellina said, an unexpectedly wicked delight filling her voice.

“I can break the mechanism,” I said, regretting every word as I spoke them. “I just need to not get torn to bits getting to the thing.”

“Allow me,” Mellina said and the shadows she’d raised around us gathered and began to pour into the gear monster. 

From how she was giggling, I wasn’t entirely sure Mellina was doing okay, but that was yet another worry I didn’t have time for.

The gear monster seemed to be in a similar boat of not being able to focus on Mellina, or the rest of us too, fortunately. The shadows which poured into it left it rigid and shaking. Like it was gripped in the worst nightmare ever.

“That’s my cue then,” Narla said and stepped forward to punch a hole straight through the gear monster’s center mass.

As Yarrin had said, there was no mechanism there, only a network of sturdy cable-veins carrying stuff I wasn’t going to think about into a diamond shaped copper colored crystal.

A copper colored crystal that was shrieking in agony.

Yeah, I couldn’t walk away from this one.