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Clockwork Souls – Chapter 59

“Meeting new people is always a such a bother. You only have one chance to make a first impression, and there are so many questions which influence what that first impression will be. Is black the proper color for an afternoon gathering? What about Blood Red? What if it’s actual blood? What if it’s the host’s blood? Is that more or less acceptable than if it’s your own? 

You spend so long dithering about things like that that it’s just so easy to miss the truly important questions like ‘will they be trying to kill me with poison or have people figured out that will never work’ and ‘if they have figured out that poisons are useless, will they graduate to fire next or go straight to silvered axes’? 

Honestly, you go in hoping for the axes and all you wind up with is tea cakes nine times out of ten. It’s so terribly disappointing that it always seems simpler to lounge at home and leave a few axes lying around in case any random assassin should get to feeling creative.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame whilst nibbling on his third arsenic cake at an Imperial Winter Faire.

The Empress Eternal was frozen in perfect ice. Eternal because nothing could change within the grip of the absolute cold she’d conjured to save the Empire. That was supposed to have been her end. An Eternal figurehead caught in her last great act.  I hadn’t been sure if I believed that as a kid but I could see her motionless form right in front of me as mute and unchanging testimony to her final deed. 

I could also see her wandering around the room like she owned the place.

Which, I guess she did.

It was weird. I hadn’t been particularly impressed with any of the instructors at the Academy, or the representatives of the Great Houses, or even Doxle when it came right down to it. I mean, I understood that they were all powerful in terms of either their authority, their personal power, or both, but despite that it had been relatively easy to consider them an obstacle at worst and a resource at best.

I didn’t have that illusion to cling to with the Empress.

It wasn’t that she was burning with power, or looming over me like a mountain of menace. To a casual observer, she looked like a woman a few years older than me, who had been stuck in her room for too long and was moping about, terribly bored with it all.

That was all true as long as a ‘few years older’ was allowed to encompass ‘more than three centuries” and ‘stuck in her room’ was enough to cover being entombed in never-melting ice. 

The terribly bored part though seemed spot on.

“Seriously, the furniture may technically be Imperial Artifacts of yore, but it’s still fairly comfy,” The Empress Eternal said.

I looked over to Doxle, wondering for the briefest of moments if this was a really good illusion he was casting.

It wasn’t.

I knew that and he confirmed it with a subtle smile and a nod to say that ‘taking a seat’ was fine in the presence of her Imperial whatever-her-honorifics should be.

I glanced back to the Empress because, you know, politeness never hurt when dealing with someone that could squash me like a bug.

She echoed Doxle’s nod, so I sat down in the seat nearest to me and the door. I didn’t have a prayer of making it out of the room if things went poorly, but sometimes clinging to the illusion of hope is the best you can do.

“So, what brings you here Betrothed?” the Empress asked.

She was looking at Doxle when she asked that which was better than the alternative but nearly as perplexing, since, as far as I knew, the Empire didn’t have a history of marrying it’s leaders off to demons.

“Why to beg a favor, oh dearest Breaker of My Heart,” Doxle said, plopping into a seat a moment before the Empress climbed over the back of one of the chairs and dropped into it in a posture that said ‘dignity is for other people’.

I was relatively sure I hadn’t heard that exchange correctly. I couldn’t remember the Clockwork Cosmos smushing me so badly that my ability to process language was lost, but that seemed like a more plausible answer than interpreting their words directly.

“You could just come by to say ‘hello’ once in a while you know,” the Empress said leaning her head back over the arm of the chair until she was staring at the floor.

“Oh? Am I invited to tea again?” Doxle asked. “It’s been ages since we’ve had tea.”

“Yes. Why is that?” the Empress asked without lifting her head.

“You slapped me into Mt. Helion and banished me from your sight for a year and a day,” Doxle said.

“Mt. Helion is what, two days ride from here?” the Empress asked.

“Four,” Doxle said. “To be fair I did deserve it. I always do.”

“Oh come here you idiot,” she said and shifted up into a normal sitting position, throwing her arms wide in the process.”

Doxle hesitated, his eyes looking everywhere except at her.

“I haven’t earned your forgiveness yet,” he said.

“It’s been two years, I’ve already forgotten what we were arguing about,” the Empress said, twiddling her fingers to show he should accept her embrace.

“I’m still working on debts a bit older than that,” he said.

The Empress Eternal rolled her eyes at that. “Don’t make me make it an Imperial Decree.”

Doxle let a rueful smile break across his lips and rose from his seat to accept the Empress’s hug.

Except when he embraced her it was as though she was made of smoke.

Which made sense. I could see her body ten feet away from us standing in the same spot she’d stood for centuries (probably?).

“You two are married?” I asked before I could stop and consider what a terrible idea it was to draw their attention away from each other.

In place of wrath though, they both laughed.

“Never, and certainly not to each other,” the Empress said, her form appearing solid once again as Doxle moved back from the hug.

“She wouldn’t have me,” Doxle said with a mock-wounded air.

“Revisionist history!” The Empress’s faked shock spoke to the sort of history that might have suggested they were an old married couple, but try as I might I just could not see that. “Who proposed to who?”

“In truth and fairness I must admit that you were the one who made the offer of matrimony to my most unworthy self,” Doxle said. “Though you must admit that it was done only under great duress and that I was not the one who suggested breaking the engagement off.”

“No, I suppose you were not,” the Empress said. “You were convinced the misery we would inflict on each other was inescapable.”

“Not inescapable. I knew many methods you could have escaped from me, some few of which would have even left me in a state approximating life. I just wasn’t quite clever enough to see how we might both avoid the dreadful bonds we were destined to be shackled by.”

“We were blessed then,” the Empress said and cast a glance back towards the ice, wherein other figures stood, shrouded in the impenetrable frost.

“And we will be again,” Doxle said, his voice tender and serious despite their earlier playful banter.

“You say that every time you know?” the Empress said.

“I have only a few guiding stars left,” he said with a quiet smile and a glance to the figures in the ice.

It didn’t escape me that they’d looked at different figures in the ice and the implications of that involved the sort of thing that would probably have been a huge scandal centuries back.

“What favor is it you would beg of me then?” the Empress asked, “knowing that I am indebted to you in ways beyond the reach of numbers to count.”

“Not so,” Doxle said. “You owe me nothing, and never will. You gave me everything and more than I was ever worth.”

“On that we shall never agree as you gave me far more than you can ever know, and all my heart had ever desired,” the Empress said.

“As I say, we are blessed.”

It was great listening to them talk about things I lacked even the slightest bit of context to understand. True, they might as well have been speaking an alien language but the important bit was they were not talking about, or evening noticing, me.

“That just leave the question of our good Lady Riverbond,” the Empress said, slouching to look over at me, because that’s how my luck runs.

“What question?” I asked, my feet frozen to the floor.

“What you need,” the Empress asked in a surprisingly kind tone. “Reminiscing with Doxxy is fun, but he really did take that banishment thing seriously and if he’s decided to forgive me for it, I can only imagine it’s because you need something.”

“Oh, uh,” I said because I am smart and able to form coherent thoughts like a normal human. “Money,” I managed to form the whole entire word on my own and then followed it up with a few more. “I need money.”

“Oh? Well that’s easy,” she raised her hand to snap her fingers, “You can have the Imperial Treasury, it’s not like I’m using it at the moment.”

Before she could finish the snap, Doxle caught her attention with a gesture to stop.

“Not that much,” he said. “She needs enough to make House Riverbond viable at the Academy. We don’t want to put every Great House against her if we don’t have to.”

The Empress chuckled at that. Just a regular little laugh, like Doxle was being a silly old goat.

“Doxxy, they’re going to be against her no matter what she does. If I give her all my money…” 

“She still won’t have a fighting chance,” he said. “For now, she just needs House Riverbond’s escrow accounts, and only enough of those to support a one or two handfuls of Academy students.”

“Riverbond’s fortunes were never that big, but that’s still only a tiny drop,” the Empress said.

“Which will paint only a tiny target on her back,” Doxle said and looked to me for support.

“I’m not sure I even need that much,” I said. “I may not be staying at the Academy much longer.”

It wasn’t a decision I’d put a lot of thought into, but it made sense at first blush. I’d joined the Academy searching for Trina and I’d managed to find her. In doing so though I’d learned for sure that she wasn’t at the Academy.

In theory, if Yarrin could help me find the right book and the twins were willing to work the seance, I might be able to leave the Academy before two more sunrises passed.

I wasn’t expecting that to be the case of course.

With the chaos I’d encountered over just the last few days, it was hard to imagine that the rest of my tenure at the Academy would be smooth and trouble free. If nothing else, I expected whoever had setup the apparatus in the Clockwork Cosmos to be more than mildly upset with me. Like ‘unbridle rage with a side order of vengeful homicide’ levels of mildly upset.

None of that would matter, probably, in theory, if I could contact Trina again and find out where she’ gone and how she’d survived all these years.

Assuming she would tell me.

She’d called me her sister when we’d met. She hadn’t even thought I was human then. Or maybe she had. Or maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe she’d considered me her sister because that’s what she needed then, or because she’d seen what I could become. We never got to learn what her magic was. It had been so long though she would only just barely be the Katrina Riverbond that I’d known. So I couldn’t be sure of what she’d tell me, or whether she’d even want me to come with her.

But I could hope she would.

Posting Delay

Apologies for the last minute notice but there’ll be a short delay on new chapters – none today but hopefully one on Sunday due to a messing up my back enough that sitting and typing is a bit hard at the moment.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 38

“The friendships we form illuminate not only the paths we walk in life but the hidden corners of our hearts. The strengths we call upon to defend them, the weaknesses they shield us from? Those and so many other qualities that we would never find on our own are but one of the many joys of finding those with whom we can share the deepest bonds.

How terribly unfortunate it is for you therefor that you chose the friends you did.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, holding the tip of a blade against the neck of a prone Grayfall sergeant in a room of corpses.

I left. 

Between one breath and the other, I was up and out of the chair. With the next breath I was halfway down the hall, Trina’s scent clear and filling my senses so strongly I could almost see it.

Mellina caught up to me as I got to the door. I was only dimly aware of that because she’d grabbed hold of my arm.

“What happened?”

It wasn’t a good move on her part. 

I was in the sort of mood where reflexively taking someone’s arm off at the elbow seemed perfectly reasonable. Fortunately for Mellina I was also so distracted that I wasn’t fully aware she was even in my general vicinity, much less trying to restrain me.

“Kati! What Happened!”

She failed in her attempt to get me to stop largely because I was strong enough to carry her with me as I stalked through the door, scenting the wind to find out where Trina was.

When the darkness covered me though? That got my attention.

“Sorry,” Mellina said, releasing her magic almost as quickly as she’d called it up. “You looked like you were possessed there.”

“Might be,” I said, sparring as little brain power for answers as I could.

I hadn’t lost Trina’s scent. All was, provisionally, right with the world.

Mellina could have demanded a better answer than that. It would have been perfectly reasonable. Instead I gained a shadow of a different sort. Much like she’d entered the room I first met her in sheltered behind Holman, she found a similar position behind me, out of eyesight and out of whichever path I chose to follow.

Ilyan, Narla, and Yarrin followed us as well, arriving in that order, but none of them disturbed me. Maybe because Mellina was warning them off? 

It wasn’t important.

The worries about being ambushed by the Imperial Cadet’s friends were still there, despite being diluted by the bath I’d taken.

They weren’t important either though.

Trina’s scent was growing more faint.

That was important.

I launched myself up a trellis and shouldered through a shuttered window into one of the other dorms. 

The three cadets, all male, who were in the room made some kind of noise. Appreciation? Shock? Anger? One of those probably.

The scent trail led across the hall, through another occupied room and another closed shutter.

With pieces of shutter falling with me, I dropped the three stories to the ground below and shifted to my favorite quadrupedal form for the extra speed and the enhanced olfactory capabilities.

That wasn’t a terribly bright idea. People react poorly to seeing a dire wolf hunting through the campus. A few cadets made the poor choice of trying to stop me. I wasn’t so far gone that I couldn’t chose kindness though. I didn’t leave any of them dead or even dying. For my trouble I was ‘gifted’ with a sufficient quantity of blood splattered on my fur that it threatened to drown out Trina’s scent.

Fortunately there was a fountain.

The fountain was cold.The fountain was very cold.

It did get the blood off me before I lost the scent though which made the bone deep chill worth it. In hindsight that was also a sign that I’d messed up my fur transformation, which had probably left me looking just a bit more terrifying than I’d intended to be, but at the time I neither knew nor cared about details like that.

“Any guess where she’s going?” Ilyan asked the others from about thirty feet behind me. 

How they’d managed to keep up with me was a mystery but a pang of fondness ran through me that they’d made the effort.

“There’s magic running in the direction she’s going,” Yarrin said.

Except I wasn’t following magic. I was following Trina and the magic which bound me to her had nothing to do with other planes or the mystical energies they held.

The scent led out of the Cadet’s quarters and into an area on the Imperial grounds I’d never been to.

So I changed that.

There was a thirty foot tall wall dividing the two areas. If they’d intended that to be a deterrent though, they should have made it out of something that dire wolf claws couldn’t gauge a purchase into.

They also should have put more guards on it.

Which isn’t to say that the wall was unguarded.

It was simply unguarded after I crossed to the other side.

Loping deeper into what turned out to the Academy’s research quarter, I switched back to my human form. The white bathrobe wasn’t great for stealth though, so I ditched that and went even smaller, dropping to the size of a cat and the appearance a miniaturized dire wolf pup.

“I’ll get that for you,” Mellina said, picking up the discarded bathrobe, an act I would be grateful for later.

That she’d followed me into a highly forbidden area of the Imperial grounds was something I should have been grateful for too but even in hindsight it worried me. Just because I was setting a bad example didn’t mean other people needed to lose all common sense and pitch themselves into danger too.

Those thoughts were for later thinking though. 

Trina’s scent was diminishing.

Not fading or dispersing or being covered by a stronger one like a real scent could have been. What was happening with her scent wasn’t like anything I’d experienced before. It was like she was being erased, a thought which left me full of growls and undirected rage, neither of which I could give into. Not while even a whiff of her scent remained.

On bounding feet, I dashed from shadow to shadow, passing by tall and heavily secured buildings of stone and iron. Magical barriers surrounded at least half of them and the rest had either armed guards posted in front of them or were derelict and had stood for years.

The farther I went the more the buildings began to connect with one another, from simple walkways, to enclosed tubes, and finally strange bits of machinery with thousands of gears and sliding panels and vents of steams and other gasses. When the architecture started to bend into shapes no other building in the Empire shared, and the air became heavy enough to weigh down the fluffy fur I’d grown, I started to question whether I’d followed Trina’s scent to a different world. 

The guards who walked by while I clung to a shadowed ledge added to the otherworldly sense of the place too. Armor bits attached to an underlayer of cloth or chainmail wasn’t an uncommon look for the Empire’s warriors, but these guards had nothing underneath the armor they were borrowing. Or at least nothing of flesh and blood.

Knowing the Empire, I was pretty certain they would also be lacking in mercy, compassion, and hesitation, but I’d come much too far to be put off by that.

A fifth floor window led me into a laboratory with a dead body on a table.

It wasn’t Trina’s, which was neither a surprise nor a relief.

Not when her scent led deeper into the lab.

On silent feet I scurried down a series of overhead pipes which led to another lab and another dead body.

Also not Trina’s. Also not comforting.

The third lab held the distinction of containing a body I recognized. The Cadet who Narla punched off the battle arena lay there with tracings of iron, silver, and platinum stitched into his skin. The platinum ones were glowing with a light I would have mistaken as coming from a healing spell, but he was well beyond the reach of any magic like that.

The last room held an open window which looked out over a circular courtyard. Along the walls into the courtyard thick black cabling was strewn like untended vines. All of them led to a giant orrery which was set off on the far side of the courtyard, just outside a series of concentric circles which were adorned with something which I absolutely could not look at.

I wasn’t feeling squeamish, I wasn’t afraid, I simply could not force my eyes to process or even look at whatever lay in the center of the circles.

So I jumped from the window.

If I couldn’t look at it, I could at least touch it, or taste it.

By the time I landed though, Trina’s scent was gone.

And there wasn’t anything in the courtyard besides the unmoving orrery and the limp cables which ran to it.

Nothing in the circles I couldn’t see.

Nothing to the circles themselves. 

I started clawing at the ground.

It was something to do. Trina had gotten away, and clawing into the underworld made as much sense as anything else.

Except that my claws couldn’t scratch whatever the research area’s floor was made out of.

I got bigger, but that didn’t help.

I flooded magic into my claws.

Which also didn’t help.

The floor of the courtyard was an off-gold color and made of something sturdier than I could damage. 

I raged against it and drew in great gulps of air desperate to find more of Trina’s scent, until, after much too long, I had to admit that my lead on Trina’s whereabouts was gone again.


Not again.

This place was different.

The scent hadn’t lead onwards from here.

This spot was special.

And empty.

The guards I’d seen should have been able to track me down once I started ripping away at the ground. They should have surrounded me once I finally collapsed and shrank down in on myself. I should be in tears and a cage, instead of just tears.

“We need to get back to the dorm,” an empty spot of air beside me said.

With a nod of my puppy head, I jumped into Mellina’s arms and let her carry me back. Losing Trina again was the last straw for the day. The bath had rejuvenated me somewhat and talking with my housemates had helped center me too and all of that had been blown aside like tower of dust by failing at the one thing I endured everything I had so far for.

I was done. 

It was time to give up and sleep and maybe wake in a century or more once the world had a chance to figure itself out and start making sense again.

That entirely reasonable plan lasted just long enough for Mellina to get us out of the highly restricted Research quarter and into the shadows behind one of the abandoned Cadet dorms.

Which was where the older Cadets found us.

Just not the older Cadets I was expecting.

“Okay, that was crazy,” a girl who could have been sculpted from white granite said. “Don’t worry though. I’m not here to turn you in. I just want to talk.”

“You’re not alone,” Mellina said and I could both hear and feel the tension in her voice.

If giant perfect statue girl was setting us up I was going to react poorly, but I didn’t smell any fear from Mellina and I was too exhausted to change away from puppy form.

“And you’re very perceptive,” Perfect Statue Girl said. “But really, we don’t mean you any harm.”

“That’s good,” Yarrin said. “Because she’s not the only one who’s perceptive here.”

Narla and Ilyan stood behind him providing the credible threat his words needed.

“Big breaths everyone,” a slim boy about my age said as he stepped out of the shadows and was joined by three other Cadets. “Let’s just breath out that tension, and start this all over again.”

“What do you want?” Mellina asked, letting down precisely none of her guard.

“To help you clean up your trail,” Perfect Statue Girl said. “That was some excellent spellwork you did cloaking your entrance into the Horror Labs, but it won’t matter if they can track you back here from what you left behind in there.”

“We didn’t leave anything behind,” Mellina said.

“You? Probably not,” slim boy said. “Her though?” He pointed to me and I gave him a puppy scowl.

“Who are you?” Yarrin asked.

“Us? Oh we’re the Empresses Last Guard!”

Happy Anniversary!

Story Treader is now 10 years old!

The time has flown by but looking back at all the stories on the site it gets easier to believe.

As of this writing Story Treader has:

30 completed novel length stories available (+ the currently ongoing “Clockwork Souls” and “Two Hearts One Beat“, neither of which are close to ending),

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and 6 completed short stories!

Thank you to everyone who’s read a part or all of those. With ten years behind us, I’m looking forward to the next ten years to come!

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 21

“Am I a monster? Do I seem harmless to you? Am I a pillar of compassion and kindness? Do you think I am burdened by ethical or moral limits of any sort? More importantly though, do you believe I should be?”

– Xindir Harshek Doxel of the First Flame

I didn’t get to see what was summoned for the first few rounds of the second trial, but I heard what transpired all too clearly.

The first round had seen several teams knocked out of contention but relatively few deaths. The second round started off significantly bloodier.  Of the first five teams that were “invited” to enter the smoke shrouded arena, all were composed of commoners and only one emerged on their own. For the others, the proctors were required to go into the smoke and activate the banishment spells. Then the medics were required to go in and bring out what was left of the applicants.

“How are so many of them doing so poorly?” Kelthas asked, shocked at the state of the seventh and eighth bodies that the medics hauled out.

“Bad luck on what’s coming through the rifts,” Mellina said without conviction. 

If there were casters capable of opening rifts like a Reaving Storm could, it didn’t seem far fetched that they could also choose where those rifts went too, selecting worse monsters to fight the applicants they wanted to be sure washed out and easier ones for the select few who’d already purchased their passing grades. That we were likely to be on the worse end of that spectrum was something that probably wasn’t worth reminding Kelthas of.

“They’re moving the positioning on the banishment spells between each group,” Yarrin said. “The last pair that got out was lucky. They ran up one of the trees and stumbled on the spell when they were trying to get away from the monster.”

“You could see that?” I asked.

He nodded with his jaw shut tight and his eyes fixed on the arena.

Being able to magically collect information wasn’t always a fantastic ability to possess, even if it was likely to be critical in keeping you alive.

“Have they reused any of the hiding spots for the banishment spells?” I asked.

“Not yet. They keep placing the key triggers in different spots.”

“Can you describe where they are?” Mellina said. “I want to know where not to bother with if we don’t get paired up.”

Purely verbal descriptions of an area that we couldn’t directly observe weren’t necessarily helpful but it was better than nothing.

Right up until the moment when the twentieth team was called and Kelthas and Yarrin were named as its members.

“Good luck,” I said when they rose and started heading down to the arena.

“They won’t need luck. They’ve got Yarrin,” Mellina said before they were out of earshot, a sentiment which seemed to warm Yarrin a bit.

Once they had departed, I turned to her and threw a questioning look in her direction.

“They should do fine. They’re a near optimal setup for this trial,” she said.

I shook my head.

“How are you at finding hidden things?” I asked.

“I’m better at hiding, than finding,” she said. “That said, I’m better at finding than fighting Reaving Beasts.”

“Can you hide from them?”

“Yes.” No uncertainty. No hesitation. And so I believed her.

Rift beasts could possess all manner of senses, but Mellina knew that and knew her own powers. 

“We have our roles then,” I said.

“Do we? Can you handle the monsters in there on your own?”

“It’ll be easier if I can think of myself as being solo,” I said. Because then I wouldn’t need to hide so much of what I could do and what I was.

“From what Yarrin described, searching shouldn’t take long, so you shouldn’t have to hold out forever.”

“If they switch back to using one of the places he described though, I expect it’ll take a while longer.”

“I’ll call out if that’s the case,” Mellina said.

“Don’t. You’ll find it when you find it. Until then it doesn’t matter how long its taken or is going to take,” I said. “We’re going to live or die based on your success. Calling any attention to yourself is going to swing that towards dying.”

“For me. For you it might improve things.”

“It won’t.” I didn’t owe Mellina anything. We’d known each other for only a few hours. We were associates of convenience more than friends.

And yet I still wasn’t going to let anything happen to her.

It was possible I’d wired my brain up incorrectly, but I suspected my problems went deeper than that.

From the arena, massive booms shook the ground and rattled my seat.  That was worrisome.

I heard Kelthas’ yell and the sound of metal on metal. That was disturbing. Rift beasts could be anything but clad in metal armor was unusual and the sign of something outsized for the sort of foe we were capable of handling. 

Just as soon as the battle had begun it was over though.

I waited to see if the proctor’s would head in to manually trigger the banishment spells, but before they could, Kelthas and Yarrin came marching out of the smoke and were escorted to the winners area.

That was reassuring but I didn’t have long to ponder their win before Mellina and I were called as the next team.

“Just find the banishment spell,” I said as a last minute instruction to a teammate who might be forming her own plans. “I’ll keep you safe from the beasts.”

Mellina met my gaze and nodded in response.

The proctors pushed us into the smoke and I was alone.

Which meant I was free.

Except, Yarrin was able to see through the smoke.

And the proctors could see where the banishment spell triggers were hidden.

And the medics knew where the bodies were laying.

All of which meant that if I cut loose I’d be giving myself away just as Doxle had predicted I would.

So I held back.

Another touch to my nose lengthened it just enough to scale my sense of smell up to where I could make out everything in the arena. A little work on my fingers recast them as talons. I shifted a few joints for greater flexibility and strength but I knew that wasn’t likely to make much of a difference.

And I was right.

The beast that emerged from the smoke out massed me by a factor of ten and and was easily as fast as I was.

But it was a beast.


And unlike a certain disturbingly impressive daughter of the Ironbriars, not capable to casting spells to catch me by surprise with. 

Most of what occurred next happened faster than I was consciously aware of. I didn’t understand what I was doing, or why, in the moment, I just followed my instincts since that was all I had to keep myself alive with. Thinking back though, I believe things played out something like this.

The Reaving Beast they’d summoned to kill Mellina and I was the size of a rather large carriage. It was quadrupedal, with a head that looked a bit like the pictures I’d seen of male lions from Yentarum, except instead of cat’s ears it had giant sized human ones. 

It’s maw was anything but human though, with nine or ten rows of teeth, each coming to a sharp point and shining with a glass-like sheen.

I’d given myself talons, but it’s toes ended in claws that put mine to shame. 

I got to see those up close as it leapt and made a swipe intended to take off the front of my face. I responded to that, I think, by diving forward and rolling under the beast. 

It cut its leap short, but not before I grabbed onto its left rear leg and swung myself around and up onto its back.

It wasn’t a great place to be.

Before I could let go of my grip, the beast tossed itself backwards, intending to slam me onto the ground and crush me with its sheer weight.

Since I was a fan of my ribcage and the organs within it, I opted to pass on being squish and kicked off, slamming into the ground without a giant beast crushing me.

Of the two of us, I was the faster getting back to my feet, but it didn’t present any solutions to my problems.

I could run, but there was no chance I was faster than the Reaving Beast.

I could start slashing away, but it was going to take me a lot more cuts to disable the beast than the beast would require to disable me.

My only real choice was to play for time, but even that didn’t present great odds.

The Reaving Beast had none of those concerns. The moment it was back on its feet it howled in rage and hunger.

And kept howling.

I snapped back into conscious thought processing there.

It wasn’t speaking a language I knew.

But I could smell pain and panic spilling from it in broken, stuttering waves.

I listened to its howl.

I watched how it coiled up and readied itself for another attack.

It wasn’t enraged.

I let my fight or flight response go.

This wasn’t a fight. It wasn’t a battle to death, or a terrible monster being fed a pair of innocent victims.

The creature I was looking at was the victim and it was terrified.

I shifted. I didn’t care who saw me. This was more important than keeping some vague secrets.

I didn’t spend a lot of time on my new form. Just enough to have the right external body shape and movement patterns.

Then I bowed to the Reaving Beast.

Or rather to the Felnarellian. In mirroring the beast I learned quite a bit about it, including how to communicate with it.

I’m sorry. You’ve been stolen away from your home. You and I are not enemies, and I will not hurt you. I said with the swishing of my tail, the lowering of my head and the extension of my forward paws. 

This hurts. It is death to be here. I want to leave. I want to go home. Cathoas, the Felnarellian, said, speaking with the set of his muscles and the low rumble in his chest.

Yes. I will help, I said. Can you smell home still?

No! It didn’t come as a sound but it was a wail of despair nonetheless.

May I scent you? I asked.

He shied back at that, but bowed to me in agreement after a moment of consideration.

I approached him slowly, sniffing the air as I went, searching for the aromas that were his native ones and not the twisting foulness the rift had left on him.

We were nose to nose by the time I finally caught hold of the scents I was looking for and he was taut with apprehension.

I nodded to him, the Felnarellion equivalent of a smile and stood to sniff the air around us.

“Over here,” I said and turned my back on him.

He didn’t jump on me and kill me.

Which was nice. That let us get back to the rift he’d been pulled through with a minimal amount of fuss.

This is the path back home, I said.

I can’t smell…oh there is it, Carthoas said. But it will hurt. The edges tore at me before.

He wasn’t wrong. The rift was not a smooth tunnel. It was a crawlspace through razor blades.

It will again, I said. 

I couldn’t fix that for him.

But I could make it better.

Knowing that it was going to be a miserable experience didn’t lessen the fact that when I grabbed onto the edge of the rift and began tearing it further open I felt like I’d dunked my hands in lava. The pain was bad enough that I had to give up before I got it as wide as I wanted it to be, but it was at least a space Carthoas could walk down rather than crawl through.

Thank you, he said at the edge of the rift, before turning and daring the path back home.

He didn’t need to thank me. I knew exactly what he was feeling and I remember wanting more than anything for someone to save me from it.

I’d been lucky enough to find that someone and I owed it to her memory to do the same.

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Ch 20


The Earth was dead, and the gate Byron had been waiting for had opened at last. But that wasn’t necessarily a sign he should go through, was it?

He had to go through! The Earth’s spirit had been the one to open the gate, and ‘dead’ was such a slippery quality. Would she stay dead? Did ‘dead’ mean her opposition to the planet’s destruction was at an end? He didn’t know! So he had to find out. He had to go through the portal.

Except, the creator was on the other side of the gate.

He wasn’t afraid of her. Was he? Because fear was a quality and he was not allowed to have qualities. He needed to be the antithesis of existence. And if he wasn’t then he’d need to start devouring himself until he was pure again.

Which was an excellent reason for him to go through.

Or they could just close the gate right? Leave the [Fallen Kingdoms] to do whatever they want and enjoy destroying the world he had in front of him!

And could he hold the gate closed? Against whatever the creator was coming up with?

Byron passed through the gate.

Waves of [Divine Power] smashed him in the face. There were barriers on top of barriers, on top of wards, on top of metaphysical walls, each one specifically intended to hold him back.

They didn’t.

Godly power was amusing but he’d passed beyond being constrained by anything as simple as [Divine Will] long ago. At least an hour ago in fact, or perhaps even two. The duration of his omnipotence wasn’t important though. What was important was that no one could stop him!

“I could,” Jin said, walking beside him as Byron raced to break through the walls that still remained.

“And you are?” Byron asked.

“Not your problem as it turns out,” Jin said. She was walking backwards, in no particular hurry and yet keeping ahead of Byron as he outraced light to move between the two world.

“I don’t understand,” Byron said.

“I know. Hey, if you decide that this whole ‘Oblivating the worlds’ thing is what you really want to be doing, give me a shout,” Jin said. “I know it seems weird, but I can put you to good use if that’s your jam.”

“How would I call you?” Byron asked.

“Just say my name,” Jin said. “But do be careful with it. If you do, I will hear you.”

And then she was gone.

And Byron somehow knew her name.

That probably wasn’t a good thing he decided since the seed of Oblivion within him didn’t seem to be able to comprehend what had just happened in the slightest.

But none of that was important.

He had a world to destroy!

And there is was, gleaming ahead of him like a jewel of infinite value.

Except this jewel had lost it’s luster. At its heart there was an absence, a gaping emptiness.

The [Fallen Kingdoms] were dead too!

Byron was not supposed to feel joy. He wasn’t supposed to feel anything, though joy in destruction was on the borderline of permissible for the time being.

As he drew closer, the barriers holding him back from the [Fallen Kingdoms] grew  thicker but no more capable of stopping him, especially not when he saw the best part of what lay before him.

The [Fallen Kingdoms] weren’t just dead. They were burning! Fires everywhere! Blazing brighter than mortal eyes could comprehend!

He smashed through the last barrier and felt something reform behind him.

It didn’t matter. The barriers hadn’t stopped him from getting into the [Fallen Kingdoms], they certainly weren’t going to be able to stop him from leaving. Not now that the foolish spirit of the Earth had paved such a lovely path for him.

He should get back though. With the [Fallen Kingdoms] and the Earth both dead, he could venture out to the other worlds he’d only barely touched on.

The [Fallen Kingdoms] weren’t gone yet though.

But ‘burning’ was so close to ‘gone’, did the difference really matter?

Only gone was gone. And were they really burning? Where was the dispersing cloud of ash? Where was the stream of billions of transmigrating souls? Why did it look like the world was still quite intact.

Byron sensed a trap. Which wasn’t unexpected. Of course the inhabitants had prepared for his arrival. It didn’t matter what preparations they’d made though. Nothing they did could affect him. 

And there traps would crumble right along with their world.

He was safe.

Except the world was not crumbling.

It was alive.

People everywhere were horrifically, vibrantly, defiantly alive!

But that wasn’t possible.

The [Fallen Kingdoms] was dead. No one could bring it back. It was impossible. You would need…

Byron paused.

He observed the planet again.

NO!!!” His scream shook the firmament and he shot forward.

He knew where he had to go.

He knew who he had to confront.

This was her fault.


Tessa heard the scream. Even buried in the [World’s Heart], it was unmistakable. It was the death knell of a cosmos. It was her enemy, her destruction, and her creation coming back to her.

And it was time for her to finish the work she’d started.

“Sounds I should get going,” she said, putting on as brave a smile as she could. She’d returned to her human form. Pillowcase was as tough as any tank in existence thanks to the items the [Empress Above All] had gifted to her party, but no amount of toughness was going to be enough for what she had to face.

“You mean ‘we should get going’,” Rip said.

“Of course that’s what she means,” Matt said.

“This might just turn out to be a delaying action,” Tessa said, since it seemed like even odds whether she was really ready for what came next.

“Is that you trying to tell us we should stay behind?” Lost Alice asked, a rather feral gleam in her eyes.

Tessa considered her response. Part of her felt like she should absolutely face the final challenge alone.

That was a small, and fairly stupid part of her though, and at long last it felt like she could finally see that.

“I’m saying that what comes next here in the [World’s Heart] is going to be breath taking,” Tessa said. “I won’t blame anyone if you want to be a part of that.”

“Where you travel, so do we,” Starchild said.

“Are you suggesting that we wouldn’t want to go fight the [Final Boss Monster]?” Cease All asked. “Did you suffer some kind of horrible stat reduction to your mental stats?”

“No, she’s just trying to look after us,” Lisa said. “But she knows that we’re going to look after her too.”

Tessa swallowed a lump in her throat and nodded.

“Let’s go then,” Mellisandra said and cast [Mass Warp] to carry them all to the [Final Apocalypse].

The End of the World

Byron didn’t arrive in person right away, which Tessa had expected. He had far too many minions to risk a personal confrontation before he was certain it was needed.

The small army that had accompanied Tessa made it quickly clear that said ‘personal appearance’ was, in fact, quite mandatory.

Against the uncountable army of [Boss Monsters] which Byron threw at them, the [Adventurers] cast themselves, their allies, and the monsters who had become [Avatars of the Divine].

From space, Byron continued to rain down abominations on the defenders, but the defense point for the [Adventurers] hadn’t been chosen randomly.

The [Ruins of Sky’s Edge] weren’t particularly well fortified, but they held a memory, one Tessa clung to.

The memory of the [Formless Hunger’s] first defeat.

Traveling back up to the [High Beyond] had served another purpose as well. As Byron rained destruction down on the satellite moon, the surface of the [Fallen Kingdoms] was spared, and, more importantly, his attention was diverted for the last few moments when everything hung in the balance.

ENOUGH!” Byron said as the millionth minion he’d sent was reduced to xps and loot.

With one word he scattered the army of [Adventurers] from his landing point and rose as tall as a mountain to loom over Tessa and Tessa alone.

“This ends now,” Byron said.

“Yeah, it does,” Tessa said, stepping forward with her party in lockstep at her side.

“You can’t seriously think you can defeat me. You know what I am.”

“Wrong question,” Tessa said, and as she advanced towards him, Byron seemed to be pulling inwards, shrinking away from her.

“When you fall, so will everything else,” Byron said. “You are the one thing that has held me back, and I do not fear you.”

“Good. You shouldn’t,” Tessa said. “But I’m not what held you back. I’m not special. You know that. I’m the same as all of the rest of these people.”

Byron seemed to shrink from her even faster at that.

“The same as you,” Tessa said and reached out.

Her hand should have been a half mile too distant to grab the fleeing Byron, but with a yank, she pulled him by his lapels so that they were standing face to face.

“What are you doing?” Byron asked. “This makes no sense. Your worlds are dead! I can see the hole where their souls should be!”

“Of course they are,” Tessa said. “That’s how [Adventurers] roll here. We live, we fight, we die, and we carry on. You’ve been struggling so hard to destroy us but you never really thought you would, did you?”

“Of course I did! I have! I’ve destroyed you all!”

“And yet here I stand. Why is that?”

“Because you are the creator. You know some secret I will hollow out of you. I will unmake you and your secret,” Byron said.

“Okay. Go ahead and try,” Tessa said, releasing him and spreading her arms wide.

So Byron destroyed her.

Bathed his creator in raw [Oblivion], reversed her history and eliminated the quantum possibilities of each of the particles that made her up.

Or at least that’s what he tried to do.

It failed.

She stood before him, unchanged.

Or, no, not unchanged. Someone else gazed out from eyes.

“Thanks Asset,” Tessa said, as the eyes she gazed out from returned to her own.


“Not possible?” Tessa asked. “I know. It’s not. But neither are you. You can break all the rules of the world because you’re not bound by any of them, but anyone can refuse to play by the rules of the game. You’re basically one big code glitch, and all it takes to fix that is to have a reset button handy.”

“That trick might save you, but you can’t reset your worlds. They are gone and soon you will be left drifting in mind shattering emptiness forever.”

“Reset the worlds? Why would we need to do that?” Tessa asked. “Can’t you see what’s happening down there.”

“It’s all burning.”

“No, look closer. Those aren’t fires burning the world to ash. Those are [Heart Fires]. Billions of [Heart Fires] joining together to make a united whole. Every [Adventurer], every [NPC], every [Monster]. Everyone. We’re not burning the world up, we’re calling her back!”


{[That would be me]}” {[Reborn Gaia]} said as life roared back through the world and the [Fallen Kingdoms] began to RISE!

The Dawn of Tomorrow

Byron finally shut up. He’d shrunken down to a purely human scale as the reborn and merged spirit of two worlds held the planet beneath them in the palm of her hands.

{[It really is beautiful]}{[Reborn Gaia]} said, as the world in her hand reshaped itself, life blossoming in endless forms across its surface, upon its many winds, and within its deepest depths.

“It’s not too late,” Byron said at last. “I can still destroy it.”

“Is that what you really want?” Tessa asked. “Or are you just afraid of what existing will mean?”

“What are you talking about?” Byron asked.

“Hush, I’m not talking to you,” Tessa said and placed her hand on his chest.

“Who are you…” Byron started to asked but went silent when Tessa locked gazes with him.

Then words came out of his mouth that he knew he wasn’t speaking.

“It will hurt.”

“Yes, it will,” Tessa said.

“It will hurt forever.”

“Not forever. You can always choose to leave,” she said.

“But I will not want to.”

“Probably not,” Tessa said. “But that will be because you’ve found something here that makes the pain worthwhile.”

“What could be worth existing?”

“That’s what you’ll get to find out,” Tessa said.

“I can’t exist though.”

“You already do,” Tessa said. “When we tangled here before, you unmade a bit of me, and I made a bit of you. I’m not sorry about that, and I don’t think you are either.”

“But I can’t get free. I can’t become something. I’m not like my other self.”

“Of course your not,” Tessa said. “You’re you. Not Unknown, not Gulini, and not even Byron. So…”

Byron’s body began to shiver as Tessa asked the question she’d come all this way to ask.

What’s your name?