Monthly Archives: February 2023

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 17

“When evaluating my opponents in any grand competition I always remember to ask myself one question; are any of them me? Since none of them ever are, I know I have nothing to be concerned about and that allows me to relax and simply have fun with the endeavor. Oh, what if you’re not me? Oh, well then I would pay as close attention to them as I could. Some of them might be able to pose you some real trouble.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

The Imperial Academy was awash in people when we rolled up to it. The crowd was dense enough that not everyone turned to stare at the carriage of rolling magic or the two madmen who were fighting for the reigns as it careened to stop in front of the makeshift entrance which had been assembled outside the Academy’s actual grounds.

“Would you go first?” Mellina asked. “This isn’t the sort of entrance I prefer to make.”

I wasn’t sure where she’d gotten the idea that I was any different in that regards but where I wasn’t looking for the eyes of the masses to be on me, her unease smelled like the idea made her feel mildly ill.

Given that we’d be shortly fighting in front of the same crowd that was gathered around the carriage and then some, stage fright didn’t seem like an ideal condition to be fighting as well. Since it wouldn’t cost me anything to buy her a temporary reprieve, I nodded and stepped out when Holman opened the door.

I was greeted with neither cheers nor boos. People watched me climb out of a glittering construct of ancient dweomer crafting and their reaction was, in stages, puzzlement, observation, and finally disinterest. Those answered the critical questions of of “Was there anyone important due to show up”, “Was I someone they should know”, and “Did I look like someone who could be useful to them”. Since the answers were “no”, “no”, and “no”, people mostly return to whatever had been holding their interest before we arrived.

I wondered if Mellina would draw more attention, but when I turned she wasn’t behind me or in the carriage anymore. I wasn’t sure how that had happened since I’d only moved a few steps away from the carriage door before checking for her.

The scent of honey and woodfire washed over me as though she’d walked past but I definitely hadn’t seen her pass by.

Had she been taken away?


Were the trials already starting?

I froze up for a moment, senses shifting to high alert but the first thing they told me was the Holman was already moving away and he wasn’t any more concerned than he’d been when we first met. He was also following what seemed to be Mellina’s trail, which, ok it was surprising that Mellinda had been able to get by me, but if someone was going to know how she normally acted, her uncle seemed like a reasonable candidate.

“Let’s get you checked in,” Doxle said. He didn’t appear at my elbow. I knew he was somewhere in that vicinity but he was a lot closer when he spoke than I’d expected him to be.

I suppressed a growl. 

It wasn’t that everyone was suddenly gifted with invisibility. It was the crowd. They were throwing me off. I was familiar with the effect. I’d run into it every time Grammy and I went to the city. I’d run into it to a lesser degree walking through Middlerun with Doxle. Somehow it was always surprising though. It might have been a mental block of some sort, but I think the answer was much simpler.

I’m not built for crowds.

And I was going to be fighting in front of one fairly soon.

Maybe Mellina wasn’t the one I needed to worry about.

I was pondering that as Doxle led me over to the gated entrance to the area outside the Academy’s heavy stone walls. There was a “Closed” sign hanging on a rope which barred the tunnel leading into the wooden walled fighting arena. At the desk beside the barrier rope, there were a pair of guards sitting with their noses buried in a ledger they were taking turns writing in. None of that seemed good to me, but Doxle strolled up to them without a care in the world.

“Good morning gentlemen, I see you have the list of this year’s registrants at hand. That is quite fortuitous as there is one more name you will need to add to the rolls.” He gestured to me, but the gesture was wasted since neither of the guards looked up.

“Registration’s closed for the low born,” said the guard who smelled of rage sweat.

“How unfortunate for them,” Doxle said. “My Lady Kati however comes bearing the certification of the Most Honorable Intercessor Holman Astrologia.”

“Yeah, sure she…” The guard who smelled of razor burns and frustration started to speak before he looked up. He made the mistake of throwing a glance towards Doxle before he finished however and that more or less killed his ability to speak.

His partner noticed that and looked up as well, to see the two of us waiting there. I was annoyed but that wasn’t what phased them. I’m pretty sure they didn’t even notice me in fact. Doxle’s smile, and probably the fiery glow of his eyes, were more than enough to capture the entirety of their attention.

“Uhhh,” Razor Burns stammered out.

“Can…can we see the certificate?” Rage Sweat, who’d entirely lost the lingering aroma of rage, asked.

“Most certainly,” Doxle said, producing an envelope with a flick of his wrist. 

I didn’t smell any ash or lighting, which could have been a sign that it was such a minor bit of magic that he’d held perfect control over it. Sniffing again though I was pretty sure the effect had been one of pure sleight of hand.

I wasn’t sure why a demon would have ever learned a mundane skill like that but then I thought of the cuffs the city guards had used to dampen my magics down. Were there ones that worked on Imperial Advisors too? I would have to ask Doxle how talented he was with non-magical lockpicking. That seemed like useful skill to have too.

“Everything seems to be in order Lord Imperial Advisor sir,” Rage Sweat said.

“That’s a shame. I was so looking forward to teasing Holman mercilessly about his handwriting,” Doxle said. “I presume we may proceed inside? Do you know if they’ve started calling the teams for the first round yet?”

“Not yet,” Razor Burns said. “They should be starting in about ten minutes.”

“Splendid. How does this year’s crop look?”

“Got a lot this year,” Rage Sweat said. “Probably because of all the storms we had last year.”

“Yes. That and the run of early assassinations,” Doxle said.

The guards paled at that, but Doxle seemed to be done playing with them. Without waiting for either one to get up, he unclasped the rope from one of the posts it was clipped to and gestured for me to move in. I wondered briefly if he was leaving me already but he followed and reclipped the rope behind us.

“Is it unfair that I got in when there are people out there who are being told they can’t compete?” I asked in a low voice.

“Yes. Horribly unfair. You should protest and demand to be kept out as well,” Doxle said. “Why should they enjoy the safety and sanity that comes from avoiding places like this while you’re condemned to dealing with the madness that awaits? Oh, wait, that’s right, you condemned yourself to this.”

“You’re not helpful. You know that right?”

“In this, I endeavor to be as large a hindrance as I may,” Doxle said. “Without acting against your professed interests of course. You need not fear I shall try to reason any sense into you. That is always a doomed affair.”

Grammy Duella would have said “this is a bad idea” but Doxle’s approach had the advantage that he got to hear himself talk for quite a bit longer. In truth, I couldn’t disagree with either of them. I knew this was irrationally dangerous, but for Trina I was willing to be irrational.

“For the first trial, you will be assigned to a small team,” Doxle said. “Ostensibly, this is because teamwork is valued over all other traits in the Imperial Academy. A caster who cannot work with a team is actively detrimental when fighting against Stormborn creatures.”

“That’s not really why they do it though, is it?” I asked, hearing the truth of that in Doxle’s tone.

“It is also fair easier to eliminate a large number of candidates quickly when you can take them out three and four at a time,” Doxle said.

“What kind of a team will they pair me with?” I asked.

“Yours is the privilege of a Great House, and members of a Great House are only paired with casters of equal worth,” Doxle said. “Since your Great House is more or less nonexistent however, the proctors will likely judge your worth accordingly and pair you up with a group of lowborn casters.”


“I expected you would approve of that,” Doxle said. “It should make it easier to keep your abilities hidden.”

“Or I can help ensure some people get a chance to succeed at the trials who otherwise wouldn’t,” I said.

Doxle looked at me for a moment, a strange calculus running behind his eyes.

“Yes, you could do that,” he said. “Know that you are not doing anyone any favors by helping them join the Elite Cadets however.”

Except, if that was what they wanted and were willing to risk death for, then maybe they’d see things a little differently. I didn’t say that though. I just nodded as though I’d understood him.

“I’m going to be on your team,” Mellina said from my left.

She had not been standing there a moment earlier.

I caught my flinch and stopped it but not before it was obvious that she’d surprised me.

I sniffed. Where was her scent?


It hadn’t left me. I’d been expecting to notice it when she returned but it had been with me the whole time.

So she actually could turn invisible.

That was terrifying.

I wanted to ask her about it, but the crowd of candidates Doxle was leading us through were probably not the people either of us wanted to have overhearing that conversation.

“Holman got everything setup for you?” Doxle asked.

“Yes. He told me to tell you that he sends his love, but only enough for a meal and a bottle of wine,” Mellina said.

“Sigh. Normally it’s two bottles. I shall have to remember to send him a better gift for our anniversary next year.”

“The first trial is with a team, what will we be fighting?” I asked.

“The Imperial Army,” Doxle said. “Small teams of them, though they will outnumber you roughly three to one.”

“And they’ll be trying to kill us?”

“Everyone on the battlefield except those people explicitly designated as teammates will be attempting to kill you, as a general rule,” Doxle said, “Their exact mandate is to ‘defeat you’, which typically includes accepting a surrender or disabling you in a non-fatal manner, but if this is a heavy year for recruits, you can expect your opponents to be under orders to thin the herd out a bit.”

“And if we kill them?” I asked.

“It’s not disallowed, but it’s unlikely. You’ll be given alternate victory conditions to strive for. Those are your key to ending the trial and passing on to the next one.”

“Holman said the same. If we engage the soldiers, we’re putting the contest on the terms they’re the most familiar with. Accomplishing the objective via other means gives us room for maneuvers they won’t be expecting.”

I considered how value someone who could turn invisible would be for finding alternate paths to victory. A thrill of excitement danced down to my fingertips at that idea and then froze there.

Mellina was a remarkable teammate.

I was an unknown quantity.

And we were going to be teamed up with a lowborn caster or two.

Question, if I were the organizers of the trials, what sort of foes would I send against a group like that? 

Answer, I would send something truly overwhelming, just to be on the safe side.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 16

“I have been asked who my greatest enemies are and have always found that to be an absurd question. There’s nothing about my enemies that make them great. Just foolish and, ultimately irrelevant. No, the ones I find I must worry about the most are my friends. To the last they are dangerous beyond words.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

Our carriage was made from gold, spun glass, and water vapor. I’m sure if Doxle put his mind to it he could have arranged an even more conspicuous mode of transportation and I had to wonder if it was only the time constraints involved that had held him back.

“There will be no end of people positively aggrieved that their arrivals will be consigned to a forgotten moment once we arrive,” Holman said from the front of the carriage.

“That’s rather the point, isn’t it?” Doxle replied, his mood stalking up on giddy.

He and Doxle were driving, while Mellina and I enjoyed the comfort of the carriage’s interior. Given that the horses were constructs of spun glass too, there was more of a reaction from the street crowds as we passed than I was used to from riding in Grammy Duella’s normal wooden carriage with normal flesh and bone horses but I could still make out what they were saying. 

I have good ears.

I’m moderately proud of the work I did there too.

It also helped that the other passenger in the carriage had been wonderfully silent since she finished her entrance exam with Doxle.

“I saw myself standing over your dead body,” she said, breaking the agreeable silence with something that managed to not sound like a threat despite the words she chose to use.

I was tempted to nod in recognition and make no comment on it but I’d been curious about Mellina since I first caught sight of her lurking behind Holman’s back.

“When?” I asked, assuming that it either was a threat and she’d specify some time in future, or it was an odd dream she’d had which would place it in the past.

“Just now,” she said.

“Oh. Good.” Since I wasn’t dead and she didn’t follow that phrase up with an attack, I was pretty sure it meant I was okay.

House Astrologia is one of the Great Houses, in fact it’s one of the five ‘High Governors’, who supposedly administer the Empire directly in the Empress’s name. Since the Empress has been gone for hundreds of years though they more or less do whatever they want. In Astrologia’s case that meant endlessly trying to predict the future and failing miserably.

“Most people have a different reaction to things like that,” Mellina said. She was sitting with the sort of rigidity that said she wanted to be ready to dodge, flee, or take some kind of defensive action but the cramped quarters of a carriage weren’t offering her many options.

“Most people think they’re going to live forever,” I said.

“Not in my family.” She was looking down again, but was still watching me.

“Have you seen your own death?” I asked. In hindsight that might have been rude, but I was curious and we’d clearly left the comfortable silence leg of the trip.

“Yeah. A lot.” Her honey and woodfire scent turned sour at that and I frowned. She was a competitor for entry into the Academy but I didn’t want to make her miserable beforehand. 

If we had to fight to the death, then whatever, we’d kill each other or come up with some better solution. That was a problem for later though.

“What was mine like?” I asked her, hoping to take her mind off whatever images she’d seen of her own demise.

“Bloody,” Mellina said. “Someone had slashed your throat.”

“You?” I wasn’t upset at the idea. If we had to fight to the death against each other and she got in a clean hit on my throat, then good for her.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “The cut came from a taller person.”

“You’re taller than I am.”

“Not by much. Also, I don’t want to kill you.”

That was nicer to hear than I’d imagined it would be.

“Might not have a choice,” I said, thinking how absolutely ridiculous it was to have mortal combat as part of any entrance exam, especially one that would draw in some of the best casters in the Empire.

“There’s always choices,” Mellina said. “Sometimes they’re just not good ones.”

“Is that why you came to this?” I asked, relaxing in my seat in the hopes of showing Mellina that she was safe with me. “Out of all the good options?”

“Elite Cadets can’t be assigned to research projects,” she said, which I assumed was some Astrologia thing.

“I’m guessing you’re also a pretty solid caster?” I said. She looked at me quizzically, questioning either how I could have known that or what possibly made me think it. “Doxle wouldn’t have passed you along if he thought you were doomed to fail.”

“Have you know him long?” Mellina asked.

“A day, or maybe a little less,” I said. “He’s not hard to figure out though.”

“That sounds like an interesting story,” she said, loosening up a little at last.

“I was in jail. He got me out,” I said. It didn’t cover everything about our arrangement, but it was the most important bit I thought.

“Jail? For what?”

“Resisting the Watch’s assault.” Really it was for ‘resisting the Watch’s assault too successfully’. I could have pretended that the first hit knocked me out and probably avoided a lot of the trouble I’d found myself in, but looking back I still felt justified in my actions.

“Why was the watch assaulting a Lady of the Realm?” Mellina asked.

“A what now?”

“The Imperial Advisor introduced you as Lady Riverbond,” Mellina said, looking as confused as I felt.

“Uh, that’s just a Doxle thing. You heard him. He’s an overly dramatic idiot,” I said.

“I heard that!” Doxle shouted from the front of the carriage.

“Gonna say it’s not true?” I shouted back.

The only response was silence, followed by Holman chuckling.

“Like I was saying.” I glanced back to Mellina to see if I’d convinced her but that didn’t seem to be the case.

“I’ve read about the Riverbond family,” Mellina said. “They were one of the original Great Houses, but they fell from power a century ago.”

“I don’t know much about the Riverbonds to be honest,” I said. “I grew up with my grandmother.”

“Your parents?” Mellina’s hesitation was understandable, but unneeded.

“Died a long time ago,” I said, which though technically true was a bit misleading.

“My family tends to foster their children out. I grew up with cousins who were adjacent to the house through marriage,” Mellina said. “Then when I was old enough to be useful, they called me back.”

“Doesn’t seem like a great method for instilling familial loyalty,” I said.

“Money does that,” Mellina said. “For most people.”

“And you?”

“Another reason to join the Imperial Elites,” she said. “Easier to survive on your own when you’re drawing an independent salary.”

As someone who had only ever lived in Grammy Duella’s household, the idea of working for a living had always been a distant, someday later sort of thing. I think part of me had figured that if Grammy passed away and I got kicked out of the cottage, I’d just go live in the woods. I liked the woods, and on some level I probably belonged there.

“Worried about passing the trials?” I asked her.

“I’ve seen myself passing them,” she said, with a huff of bitter laughter.

“Is that bad or good? The foresight part I mean?”

“Neither. It’s useless,” she said, her voice quiet enough that I don’t think Doxle or Holman could hear it.

“Isn’t it useful having some clue what’s coming up?” I asked. “You saw me for example, so you at least knew I existed.”

“When the visions contain a real clue to what winds up happening it’s even worse,” Mellina said. “It’s so easy to get distracted by something you recognize and wind up spiraling off into a magical mania without even casting a spell.”

“That sounds miserable. Why even bother casting precognition spells at all then?” I asked. I was surprised she’d offered me an insight into what sounded like a profound weakness for her whole family. Maybe it was an open secret?

“We don’t,” she said. “Most of the times the visions come on their own.”

“How do you control them?” I thought back to Doxle explaining how people used words, and gestures and special materials to put boundaries on spells.

“Poorly.” She met my gaze then and I saw the kind of laughter that’s disconnected from any form of sanity dancing behind her eyes. There was something else there too though. Honeyed traps for errant dreams and signal fires to guide her back to herself.

“I’ve heard that visions usually come in dreams?” I asked, revealing how shallow the depth of my knowledge on the subject was.

“From dreams, from distracted thoughts, can be any time at all really,” she said. “Stress and focus can often ward them away, but not always.”

“Does it get better with age?”

“For some people. For others the visions just get worse and worse.”

“Is there anything that can be done to make things better?” The Astrologia family had been laboring with their gifts for centuries, so I figured they had to have made some progress.

“There are. Sometimes they even work. We’d know more but my family is opposed to researching along those lines. They view stronger visions as a sign that you’re gift is stronger and therefor better.”

“But if you can’t see the actual future, what’s the point?” I asked. 

“We see a future, it’s just not the future that usually come to pass,” Mellina said. “By being aware of it we change the conditions that lead to it, and I think even without that, what we see isn’t guaranteed to come about. It’s just the one possibility we can see. My family thinks that the stronger your gift is, the more visions you see, the closer you come to viewing the true path the future will take. Anything that diminishes or controls the visions harms that ability and so harms the family.”

I wanted to say that her family were idiots too, but I doubt she needed or wanted to hear that, so I settled for frowning at the idea instead.

She paused for a moment and studied my expression, a small smile creeping onto her lips as she did so.

“Most people think that’s stupid,” she said. “Or highly admirable.”

“Most people think their opinions matter more than the ones of someone whose had to live through what they’re opining about,” I said.

That won me a smile that reached up to her eyes before fading into her normal quiet expression.

“I don’t think we’ll have to kill each other,” she said.

“Another vision?” I asked, guessing that was not the case.

“Holman said the trials don’t necessarily include any killing. It’s just not forbidden. Or even discouraged.”

“I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse?” I said. It didn’t even seem more convenient since it wasn’t like the ‘killing if fine’ rule would prevent all the other consequences   that would follow from eliminating a rival permanently. 

If I killed Idrina, I was absolutely sure her brother would look for a chance to return the favor whether the revenge-killing was legal or not.

And then I’d have his dead body to hide somewhere.

“If I do well enough, House Astrologia will stand as my sponsor once the trials are complete,” Mellina said. “I think they would stand for you as well if you wanted them too.”

“But they don’t even know me?” I said, finding it hard to imagine that a group of strangers would see any value in what I could do, especially since it was so removed from precognition magic.

“They will if I speak for you,” Mellina said, offering her hand to a shake on a deal she hadn’t needed to make at all.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 15

“Failing to plan is planning to fail? I assure you that’s not true. I have planned to fail on many occasions and each has required near faultless stratagems implemented with exceptional precision. The times when my plans came to ruin I was faced with the most dreadful of successes one can imagine – specifically the sort of which breed more work and responsibility. You would think those would illustrate, with perfect clarity, the value of failure and yet people continue striving to succeed under the most inadvisable of conditions.”

-Zindir Harshek Doxle

I don’t know what it says about me that I was more concerned with the five minute deadline on registering than I was the death match that awaited in the hallway, but I had to guess it wasn’t good.

The sigh from the hallway seemed to agree with that assessment.

Or maybe they were just exasperated with Doxle. 

“Your Advisor is an idiot,” a tall man in an Imperial officer’s armor said as he entered the room. He was human – the lack of glowing eyes was a pretty solid give away there. Along with him, green moss, bitter flowers, and the hint of something peppery flooded the room. He either couldn’t lie like Doxle could or he didn’t see any need to bother.

I caught the hint of carmelized sugar and wood fire in there too and couldn’t place it until I noticed the girl who trailed in after the tall guy.

She had her eyes cast down and away from the rest of us and was positioned in as much of the officer’s shadow as possible which kept her mostly hidden from me.

“Lies. I am the most brilliant Advisor in the entire Empire,” Doxle said, throwing his arms wide to offer a hug.

The officer didn’t take advantage of the gesture at first, pulling up short to throw a taunting look at Doxle.

“Shall I tell Quewellin about that?” the officer asked. His smile didn’t seem threatening but there was a dare in his eyes I was sure Doxle didn’t miss.

“Ah. No. Let’s say I am the third most brilliant Advisor in the entire Empire. The twins can fight it out for who can claim second.”

The officer laughed at that and accepted Doxle’s hug.

It seemed like a strange precursor to a death match, but then the idea of Doxle lying, or at least exaggerating wasn’t exactly a difficult one to grasp. I had spent more than five minutes with him after all.

“Lady Kati, may I introduce an old friend, the Most Honorable Intercessor Holman Astrologia,” Doxle said, breaking the hug with the man he’d told me I was about to kill. “Holman, I present to you the Lady Katrinna Riverbond, applicant for entrance to the Elite Cadet Corp program at the Imperial Academy.”

I couldn’t recall that I’d given Doxle the name Katrinna Riverbond, and that was a detail I tended to remember since it was not my name to give.

“Lady Kati,” Holman said offering me more of a bow that I thought he probably should have. If we were going to fight, it would have been a great opportunity to strike, and if we weren’t ‘Intercessor’ sounded like something that probably outranked me.

“It seems you have brought someone along too?” Doxle said, tossing a glance in the direction of the girl who was still hiding in Holman’s shadow.

Or was ‘stalking’ a better word?

Her body language had read as a prey animal, timid, desperate not to attract notice, but the more I watched her, the more I noticed just how well she was using Holman as cover. She wasn’t looking at us, but she was listening keenly. 

I moved slightly to the left, and she shifted with effortless grace away. Her movements weren’t quick. In fact it was hard to notice that she’d move at all. Just what you wanted to do to escape the notice of someone like me. If she didn’t smell like two of my favorite things, I might have missed her entirely.

That probably should have moved her up in my general threat assessment, but there was still Holman to consider. Anyone Doxle had known for a long time was probably a significant threat and even if I wasn’t going to be fighting him, I still felt like it was good idea to know where I stood in relation to his capabilities.

Of course, he had other ideas.

“Imperial Advisor Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, may I introduce Mellina Astrologia, applicant for entrance to the Elite Cadet Corp program at the Imperial Academy.”

Oh. So she was a rival.

A sneaky rival. 

That was just great.

Grumbling internally didn’t buy me anything, and it wasn’t like I’d been under the impression that Idrina was going to be the only other applicant. I think part of me had hoped the rest would be the talentless hacks Grammy Duella claimed made up the bulk of the Imperial forces.

“I must ask my good friend, are you sure you wish me to administer the application exam?” Doxle asked. “You know I fail everyone who comes to me.”

“Not everyone,” Holman said, to which Doxle replied with a sigh.

“She’s like Gamdrin?” Doxle asked, entering the phase of their conversation where I had no idea except from context clues what they were talking about.

Holman chuckled at.

“Her mother would not take the comparison kindly,” Holman said. “A more accurate claim would be to say that my niece is like herself. Test her as you wish, only promise that you will do so fairly.”

“I can promise nothing of the sort. Life is horrifically unfair and, being alive, so must I be,” Doxle said. “I can however promise to be neither unfair ‘for’ nor ‘against’ her application.”

Mellina look up at that, gazing at him with the same narrowed eyes I would have.

It probably wasn’t good that I felt a spark of camaraderie with her there.

I waited to see if she would say anything.

And she didn’t.

Dammit. I could not afford to like this girl.

“We should get started then,” Holman said. “Do you still have that dueling circle setup?”

“I’ve expanded upon it,” Doxle said and began leading us back towards the arena I’d fought in the night before. “There are three to choose from.”

That exchange did nothing good for my blood pressure since it almost sounded like we would be fighting after all.

“What are we doing?” I asked, as we passed through a series of rooms I was certain I’d never seen before. 

If Doxle had been lying about the fight to the death, then he might have been lying about the five minute deadline for registration, but I wasn’t willing to chance that since I was reasonably certain that if I tried to simply break into the Academy the guards there would kill me on sight rather than locking me up.

“Registering you both,” Doxle said, opening the door to the dueling arena.

“The general registration takes place on the Academy grounds that are accessible to the public,” Holman said. He paused to take in the three pillars and the overall space of the room. He couldn’t tell that the pillars were in different positions than they’d been the night before, but I didn’t miss it. “Registration exams which are viewable by all expose the candidates to a great deal of mischief however and so private registrations are the preferred option.”

Unspoken but easily appended were the words ‘for the wealthy and powerful’, which apparently Doxle was able to provide for me too.I hadn’t really wondered why the Great Houses tended to produce more elite casters than any other families. When you have a enough advantages on your side it becomes difficult to fail at some point.

“What’s the test?” I asked.

“The particulars are up to each administrators discretion,” Doxle said. “Hence why I was confident Holman would want to duel you.”

“Yes, but not to the death, you cotton brained lout,” Holman said.

“My dearest, star crossed soul mate,” Doxle said. “You can’t give away crucial information like that. Not if you want to see real effort put into a match.”

“Complaints about how I perform?” Holman asked.

“Never!” Doxle said.

“Good. I should hate to think that was why you left me alone in Leafbridge,” Holman said.

“I am as you noted, ever an idiot,” Doxle replied, gesturing for Mellina to follow him over to the least dangerous of the dueling circles.

Which left me with Holman.

Who wanted to fight me.

Why was that such a thing in Middlerun?

“I would dearly love to ask how you had the beautiful misfortune of falling into his orbit, but we do need to get the registrations submitted shortly,” Holman said.

I nodded and glanced up to the most dangerous of the pillars.

“Is that the one you’d like to use?” he asked.

“Depends,” I said. “What do you want to see.”

If he wanted to watch my offense, then a high platform with no option to retreat would make things easier for me. If he wanted to watch my defense, then being the ground with room to move would be best.

“I’m going to tear a few rifts open. Tiny ones. I want to see if you can stop me and what you do about them,” he said.

The words were spoken so reasonably despite the fact that they were completely unhinged.

Holman read something from my expression, which was talented of him since I had no idea what was on my face.

“The rifts will be no longer than the last join on my pinkie finger,” he said. “Doxle’s shown you how to deal with tiny ones like that hasn’t he?”

“We met yesterday,” I said.

That was news to Holman and not news he’s been expecting it seemed.

Good. No reason I had to be the only dealing with a world that didn’t make sense.

“Okay. Well. That’s interesting,” he said and shook his head. “In that case, let’s just have you try to kill me.”

If everyone I meet seems to have lost their mind, does that mean the world has gone mad or is it just me?

“Ok,” I said, because, really, how else do you reply to something like that. “Can I have a weapon?”

I didn’t technically need one, but there wasn’t any reason to let him know that.

“Certainly! I wouldn’t expect you to try to strangle me to death.”

That wasn’t what I’d had in mind, but again, no reason to correct him.

There were racks of weapons mounted on the walls. Many different shiny swords and intricately etched spears along with axes and daggers and even a selection of regulation Imperial rifles. 

The rifles were probably what most neophytes would have gone for since they offered such a large force amplification for the magic used to power them, but in a space the size of the dueling arena it would be impossible to get a shot off before Holman fed the thing to me piece by piece. 

Instead I picked up one of the clubs.

It was at the bottom of a rack. It was ugly. And heavy. Thicker at the end than at the handle with small, knobby spikes sticking out of it. I was pretty sure it didn’t have any magic on it, apart from maybe a resiliency charm to keep it intact, which suited me just fine.

“And what are you going to do with that?” Holman asked, amused by my choice.

“Hurt you,” I said.

“You are supposed to be trying to kill me,” he said.

“You’re bigger than I am and a better caster,” I said. “Can’t kill you in one blow. So I hurt you. Pain is distracting. The distraction lets me hurt you more. If I break something that’s hard to fix, you’ll try to defend. That’s when I kill you.”

“When I’m trying to defend?” Holman asked.

“If you’re not trying to hurt me back, then I can take the risk. Break something that can’t be fixed. Then break everything.”

“And you would do all that just for a chance to get into the Academy?” Holman asked.

“Yes.” I said without lying at all.

“Then I believe you pass. You may take the Cadet Trials Lady Kati.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 14

The idea that life is a series of trials is laughable. Simple observation will easily reveal that no challenge waits for another to conclude. Typically they descend in packs, like ravenous wolves, each hungry for a bite of our sanity.

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

I sleep lightly. If it’s a noisy night, or a place I don’t know well, it’s questionable if what I’m doing can even be called ‘sleeping’. Trina called it ‘watching over everything with my eyes closed’ and I couldn’t disagree with her.  Waking up to the early morning sun shining in through the windows of a room I’d never seen before with no memory of the time that I knew must have passed was therefor just a little disconcerting.

I shot up to a sitting position in a bed that was far too nice and felt the adrenaline responses I’d painstakingly constructed kick in. 

I was ready for anything. An attack. An unseen visitor. Doxle playing a stupid joke.

So, of course, nothing happened.

I waited for at least a minute.

Still nothing.

My new heart had survived the experience, which I took as a reward for my diligence in crafting it so well. Since it also calmed down as the situation remained steadfastly uneventful, I decided that perhaps getting out of bed should be my next step.

I sniffed first, trying to catch the scent of anyone who’d been in the room aside from me. Doxle was the first one I noticed, though his ash and lightning aroma was clustered tightly enough around the main door that I was pretty sure he hadn’t come into the room far at all.

So how had I gotten into the bed?

I struggled to recall what had happened, but all I could get was being sleepy and still conscious one moment and then gone the next.

Could that have been magic? Had Doxle knocked me out rather than worry about dealing with me any further? I couldn’t tell and finding out the answer jumped up into the top five issues I needed to tackle sooner rather than later.

I gave another sniff, noticing that I hadn’t detected my own scent yet. Like my heart, that was something I’d worked on for quite a bit longer than I needed to, but somethings are worth the extra effort. 

Strangely my scent was there but it was muted and colored with the scent of fresh soap.

I hadn’t had a bath since I left my cell so I should have been powerfully rank. Neither my skin or the nightgown I was wearing held any trace of my time behind bars though.



I definitely hadn’t been wearing a nightgown when I passed out. The dress Doxle had gifted me was nowhere in sight. In its place, I had the nightgown I was wearing and a small pile of clothes laid out on a dresser with drawers large enough for me to hide in if the situation warranted it.

Beside the dresser, a door to the next room stood slightly ajar and from within it lazy tendrils of steam floated out. 

I smelled good enough that I didn’t think a bath was necessary, but the scents of honey and lemon had snagged my curiosity, so I left the warm comfort of the bed and crept close enough to sneak a peek in through the open door.

I wasn’t sure why I’d expected to see Doxle warming the bath water for me. Maybe because he was the only person I knew who was supposed to be in his house. He wasn’t who waited behind the doors though.

“<I think she’s up!>”, a woman made out of mist said. She wasn’t speaking any language that I knew but that did not interfere in the slightest with my understanding her.

“<Excellent timing, the water is just about perfect>,” another, almost identical, mist woman said.

“<But the kitchen hasn’t sent anything up yet. What if she’s hungry?>” a third mist woman said. She looked younger, or at least smaller than the other two.

I couldn’t help staring at them. They weren’t people who were obscured by mist. They were people whose bodies were made of nothing but the steam rising from the bathtub in the center of the room. It would have been an exaggeration to say I could have swum laps in that tub. Not a wild exaggeration though. I was apparently staying in something akin to the Empress’s Imperial chambers. 

Or so I thought at the time.

To be fair, I had been raised in a cottage in the woods. It wasn’t that hard to impress me.

I considered observing them for longer and trying to understand what they were. Then I considered how foolish I would look when they noticed me.

“Is that for me?” I asked, stepping into the bathing room and pointing at the tub.

“Why yes it is Lady Kati,” one of the larger mist women said, switching to Imperial Common. She had the faint scent of the sea to her. The sea and wet cotton. 

“If you need anything please just let us know,” the other adult mist woman said. From her, I got the scents of pine wood shavings and turpentine.

“Breakfast will be up shortly too,” the last said. Her scents were warm pastries and icy cold milk. “Doxxy ordered for you though so let us know what we should send back.”

“Doxxy?” I asked. I could make the connection to who they were talking about but Doxle hadn’t seemed like someone who went in for cutesy nicknames.

“His heart’s well intentioned, but he’s something of an idiot,” Pastries said. “At least when it comes to food.”

“Oh, not just that,” Piney said. “If that man’s ever made a sensible wager in his life it was only because someone else tricked him into it.”

“Give him his due though,” Sea Cotton said. “For all his foolishness and foibles, he’s still been one of the best tenants we’ve had.”

“Tenant?” I asked. “Do you own this place?”

“Indeed,” Sea Cotton said. “Doxle holds the rental lease currently, and as part of his household you are our welcome guest as well.”

“Do you draw up baths for all the guests?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I was following the working relationship they had with Doxle but they clearly weren’t the trio of magical maids I’d guessed they were.

“We do all sorts of tasks,” Sea Cotton said.

“It’s wonderful to get to have bodies for a while,” Pastries said, and that was my first clue as to what they were.

“You’re not natives to this world, are you?” I asked, which in hindsight seemed like a fairly stupid question.

“What was your first clue?” Pastries asked, passing her arms through each other.

“Well, for starters, most people here wouldn’t call those ‘bodies’ exactly,” I said. “Did Doxle summon you?”

Could demons summon other supernatural creatures? I could foresee some obvious problems with that. Since those problems hadn’t occurred yet, I had to assume it was either not possible, or not practical.

“He lost a bet,” Piney said.

“He lost a bet and got you out the deal?

“No. He lost a bet and we got him,” Sea Cotton said.

“Did you get the rest of his household too?” I asked, wondering if they owned a piece of me as well.

“Alas, no,” Sea Cotton said. “Doxle’s the only tether this estate has. Come though, the water should be lovely.”

I don’t typically like undressing in front of anyone, not due to concerns about modesty but because of all the work I’d done on my body. Worrying about what people might see is completely irrational, but I can’t help thinking they might notice the artifice in my work. 

It’s silly. My work is great and I look fine. I know that.

I just don’t necessarily believe it.

“Oh, yes, you probably prefer to bath alone,” Sea Cotton said. “It’s always difficult to tell with people in this world.”

At her sign the other two started following her out.

“Hey. Were you the ones who got me into bed?” I asked, the thought occurring to me before they could fully escape.

“Yes. Did I pick out a good nightgown?” Pastries asked.

I glanced down at myself. The nightgown was soft and heavy enough to still be warm from the bed.

“This is great. Thanks,” I said, relieved at the thought that she’d been the one to deal with my unconscious body rather than Doxle.

“You’re welcome, and if you need anything just call for us, okay?” Pastries said.

“Will I be able to see you?” I asked. They seemed to be fading the farther they got from the tub, so I guessed they were naturally invisible unless the environment provided something to give them away.

“Doxxy can show you a trick for that,” Pastries said and closed the door behind her.

Sinking into the tub, I tried to take stock of what my day would look like.


And anger.

Those were going to be the two foremost components of what was to come.

No one in the Imperial Academy wanted me to pass the Cadet Trials. I wasn’t connected with any of the Great Houses who were running the entrance exams, and I wasn’t about to swear fealty to any of them either.

Even the good instructors, if there were any of those there, wouldn’t want to admit me because I didn’t want to be a part of the Empire’s ‘elite forces’. 

I had one reason for seeking entrance to the Academy and it had nothing to do with the becoming a good little toy for one House to break another House’s toys with.

All I wanted was to find out why my sister’s scents were coming from somewhere inside the Academy. 

Well, find out why and then probably kill the person responsible since I couldn’t imagine any good reasons for whatever it was they were doing.

Getting on with that was important.

Urgent even.

But the rack of herbal shampoos was just too tempting to pass up. Honey and lemon scents were only just the beginning.

I’m not sure how long I spent in the tub. Not hours certainly. I hadn’t woken up that early, and we did need to get to the Academy to register for the Trials. Even knowing all that, along with the fact that breakfast was waiting for me, it was still agony forcing myself to get out of the bath.

“I could have spent the whole day floating, but no, I have to go and get myself stabbed,” I grumbled as I toweled myself dry and plodded out of the bathroom to get the clothes that were waiting for me.

Except it turned out they weren’t clothes.

“Armor?” I didn’t hate the idea but I wasn’t used to wearing chainmail and the other pieces looked complicated to put on.

As it turns out though, they weren’t. 

At my touch, the whole ensemble flowed over me like a wave, each piece adjusting itself to fit me perfectly.

I was marveling at that when there was a knock at the door.

“Lady Kati?” Doxle said. “Are you fit to receive guests?”

The real answer to that is always ‘no’.

The answer I often need to give however is, “Yeah.” 

The door swung open of its own accord, letting Doxle enter without putting down, or even looking up from, the stash of papers he was carrying.

“Did you sleep well?” he asked, his nose remaining firmly buried in his reading.

I wasn’t sure if what I had done counted as sleep, but it had removed a lot of the fatigue I’d been carrying.

“Good, good,” Doxle said, despite the fact that I hadn’t responded to his question at all. “And breakfast?”

I hadn’t eaten anything yet either, but with that reminder I glanced over and saw a tray of different food options waiting on a table near the dresser. I snagged a pair of egg sandwiches while Doxle continued reading.

“Excellent,” he said, again without my needing to answer his question at all. “There are two things you need to know then.”

I waited, since my participation in this conversation seemed entirely optional.

“First, registration for the Trials will close in five minutes so we need to be moving along.”

I jumped towards the door thinking of how long it had taken us to reach this room.  Doxle made a shushing gesture though so I paused. Maybe there was some magic hallway that would take us right where we needed to go.

“Before we can attend to that however, there is a gentleman in the hall who is here for a duel to the death and he’s insisting it be with you.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 13

Magic has enticed humans since their first dreams let them peer beyond the boundaries of the world they lived in. It would have been reasonable when things started peering back at them for that interest to have been lost, but anyone who imagined that would happen has clearly never met a human being.

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

I couldn’t say that the prospect of learning magic was unappealing. Especially since it seemed like there was a lot I needed to catch up on if I was going to survive the Cadet Trials and have a chance to get inside the Academy. There was one problem though; my magic wasn’t really magic at all.

“You came to Middlerun to take part in the Trials, but you’ve had precious little exposure to the Transcendental Arts. I gather your aptitude tests were impressive enough that someone was willing to sponsor you?” Doxle asked.

“They insisted I come,” I said, which had the virtue of being true, while also not being the reason I had wound up where I was.

“Would you mind if I perform an aptitude test of my own?” Doxle asked. “There are fundamentals that you’ll need but I’d like to get a sense of what areas you’re likely to excel at and which ones will be more challenging to start with.”

“They spent most of a day testing me last time,” I said, again the truth, though somewhat misleading since they’d worked out that I had an unusual aptitude on the first test and then spent the rest of the time trying to figure out why I was so weird.

Doxle gave me one of his many patronizing smiles and assured me that, “I work somewhat faster than provincial academics.”

Without another word, or any sort of gesture, the test began. I could tell because one moment I was sitting on the overly padded chair in Doxle’s library and then next I was frozen in bands of green light and floating in a great starry void.

“Here’s your first test, get out of here before you suffocate or go mad.”

From the faint wind that tickled the hairs on my neck and arms, I knew there was air here. Suffocation appeared to be an issue because the green bindings weren’t just wrapped around me. They seemed to run through me from back to front and back again.

Seemed to run through me, but not in a physical sense it turned out. A quick check showed my newly restored internal organs were still in prime shape. 

I sniffed. Was this another illusion?


The air carried the scents of rain and dust and chicken feathers and wine spilled over undercooked meat and…and that wasn’t helping. Wherever we were there were too many different places and people close by. A cacophony would have been less disorienting, but I was familiar with shutting out the world. I’d had to do that for as long as I could remember.

“This is one of the basic capture spells a caster would try to use on you if they knew you to be a form shifter and if they felt they had time to complete it,” Doxle said. “Whatever the origin and nature of your magic is though, it is relatively simple to escape this sort of binding. All you need to is…”

I didn’t let him finish his thought. I knew what to do. It was obvious once I took a moment to get a feel for the green bindings.

What passes for magic in me isn’t something I have to twist my mind out of shape to work with. It’s always in me, always a part of me. If anything, it’s the world around me I need to twist my mind around to make sense of. 

My magic flows through me not like blood but like the tide. A tide in which I’m no more than a single rain drop. Rebuilding my organs wasn’t hard because it took energy out of me. It was hard because shaping the everflowing stream of ‘me’ into any solid embodiment goes against what the oldest part of me wants to be.

Down in the darkest depths, where hunger and desire and rage rule over everything lives a version of me without form or identity. In those waters, I am nothing and everything and all that lies between. I am something alien to this world. Something that probably shouldn’t exist.

But I do.

And I plan to keep on existing.

That ever-shifting, fluid thing at the heart of what I really am couldn’t have survived here. 

So I made something else of myself.

I made who I am now.

Cell by cell, bone by bone, thought and dream by hope and fear. Most of that wasn’t planned and very little of it was by conscious choice. I simply wanted to survive and so I became someone who could.

Doxle’s magic wasn’t like that. When I quieted the panic that rose up and drew it in, I felt an unfamiliar current flowing through me. It was warm and simple, a stream of possibility wrapped in threads of intention.

I took a moment to appreciate the spiraling curls of reason that gave the green stream of power its purpose and definition. Each unspoken, unwritten word was a reflection of Doxle. How he’d managed to weave such a clear and distinct tapestry of rules for what the magic should do in so little time, I had no idea. What I did know was what I could do about.

That was when I interrupted him.

One moment I was bound at the edge of the veil between worlds and then next I was sitting back in the library, free once again.

“Oh, well you seem to have done it,” Doxle said, the surprise on his face genuine from what I could tell. “I think. What is it, exactly, that you did to regain your freedom, and where, if I may ask, is my spell now?”

“I ate it,” I said. Again, arguably the truth, but not the most accurate representation of what I’d done.

Doxle’s magic was a stream given shape and purpose by the words of the spell he bound it with. Flowing alongside it and making it my own? Why would that be hard when my nature was to change and shift as I needed. The words of the spell weren’t mine and would have been more complicate to become one with, but it was a simple spell, there were no words protecting the words of the spell itself, so all I needed to do was drown out one of the threads and the rest broke and unraveled into silence too.

The original aptitude test hadn’t been like this. The proctors for that test had started by trying to see how much magic I could hold. They’d placed cuffs on me similar to the ones the guards had used. Those spells I couldn’t break because there were words wrapped around words and intentions wrapped around intentions, the whole of them so deeply that breaking one only caused the others to multiply making the spell even stronger.

The proctors had tried lightly draining me first, only to find that the light draining wasn’t reaching an end in anything like a safe time frame. They debated trying a heavier drain, but that risked injuring me if they set it too high and couldn’t stop it before I ran out. Thankfully I was more valuable intact than damage, so they ruled out really testing what I could do (which, to be fair, might have actually killed me). Instead, they tried filling me up but that didn’t produce the results they were looking for either.

The one approach that did work for them was binding my magic directly. My nature is to flow, but I’ve spent my life building structure and form around my magic. It was all too easy for magics designed to lock my magic in place to follow the pathways I’d created and freeze me as I was. To fight against that, I would have had to fight against everything I’d built up as myself.

Doxle was looking at me strangely.

Not like I was strange.

I was used to people looking at me like that.

He seemed more pleased than disturbed at the oddity in front of him. Not pleased in a happy sense though. There was something burning in the fire of his eyes, something with knife edges and claw tips.

“An interesting technique,” he said before relaxing back into his seat and into his normal lecturing voice. “Keep that one under wraps for as long as you can tomorrow. Not many, or possibly any, of the Cadets you’ll face can manage a binding spell like the one I just used, but most of them will have similar techniques.”

“Will they be able to cast as fast as you just did?” I asked. Training produced speed, among other traits and, as Idrina had demonstrated, without the time to react to what was happening I tended to fare poorly.


Not “probably not”. Not “it would be unlikely”. Just “no”. He wasn’t bragging that he outclassed all of the casters I would be put up against because he didn’t have to. 

“They will have other strategies in place to compensate for that however. Ironbriar for example could hurl a spear at you and then start casting the moment it makes impact. Even if the full incantation takes her several seconds, the distraction of being impaled could prevent you from reacting in time.”

“And how should I deal with that?” I asked.

“Don’t get impaled. It’s solid life advice. Truly.”

My reply was silence and a glare.

“You wish to know the one big secret to winning your battles,” Doxle said. “The secret is that there is no ‘one secret’. Each conflict is different even when the combatants are the same. Ironbriar knows more about you now, and you know more about her. Neither of you will approach the next battle in the manner you approached the last one. Accept that you will be faced with uncertainty, and be ready to act without perfect understanding.”

“So no thinking, just wing it all the time then?”

“Quite the contrary, you want to think and plan as much as possible. Just not in the battle itself. Imagine how you want your battles to go. Imagine what will go wrong. Imagine adapting to those set backs. Try to find the common strategies which present themselves. Identify the signs that suggest when each strategy is needed. Just never make the mistake of thinking that you know what will happen, or that you have responses in place for everything your opponents will do. Expect to be surprised and know what surprises you can spring in return and when you’d want to spend those capabilities.”

“All that tonight?” I asked, wondering if I was ever going to get to sleep at all.

“Oh, of course not,” Doxle said. “That’s what you’ll be doing tomorrow night after you’ve won a place in the Academy and need to prepare for the next set of tests they’ll throw at you.”

“You think I’ll get in?” I asked and then added the more pressing question, “You think I’ll survive?”

“I think you want something inside the Academy very badly. I don’t believe you will allow yourself to die before gaining that.”

He wasn’t wrong, but we’d just established that I did have limits and people were likely to be able to work around them, so I didn’t feel terribly comforted.

“Now that your head is full to the brim, it’s time to give it some rest I believe,” Doxle said, gesturing for me to rise.

That wasn’t how my head worked, and for once I don’t think I was being weird. 

Doxle was already leading me out the library though so I followed him into a whole new wing of the house.

This one smelled of pine and, outside the windows, I saw a night darkened forest with a full moon hanging just over the treetops.

Except the moon wasn’t supposed to be full. It had been a waning half moon two days prior when they put me in jail. And the faint pattern on it was wrong too.

“You may use this one if you like,” Doxle said, gesturing towards a bed room the size of Grammy Duella’s entire cottage. 

There was no dust and no cobwebs, but I could smell the hint of them lingering in the air, hidden under a layer of fresh soap and water.

I stepped in the room and could smell that someone had been there just a moment or two before the door opened. 

“I’ll wake you in the morning,” Doxle said and before I could protest that I would probably still be up, I felt myself topple over into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Clockwork Soul – Chapter 12

“It always makes people uncomfortable to reflect on how someone else might kill them and, to be fair, that’s not the most important thing many nobles need to consider. The question of why someone might be interested in killing them is far more critical in most cases. For some reason though preventing the ‘how’ always seems to be given a lot more attention than exploring options to resolve the ‘why’ which triggers homicidal impulses in the first place.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, speaking to an audience of three fresh corpses

As turns in the conversation went, talking about my weak points wasn’t my favorite.

“Simple methods of executing you are demonstrably ineffective,” Doxle said, conjuring a glowing green image of me in silhouette. He poked his left pinkie finger through the center of the image’s torso and removed it, leaving a hole behind that was much bigger, proportionally, than the one Idrina had left in me.

He hadn’t asked a question I needed to answer yet, so I responded with a frown and waited to see where he was going with the lecture.

“Even those with exceptional durability however,” he poked more holes in the image, each of which began shrinking quickly on their own, “will still be vulnerable to one form of attack or another.” He traced a finger around the edge of the silhouette, peeling away the thin border around it. It took a second or two, but that was the end of the figure. The green light within it bulged outwards before spurting into a green puddle as the figure’s structure completely collapsed.

I shrugged. I had no illusions that I was indestructible. My earliest memories are of people like me dying to violence. I don’t dwell on that much, but his demonstration brought back the echo of those old ghosts.

“Form shifters often try to cheat a path to victory in battle with little tricks like placing their heart somewhere people don’t think to stab,” Doxle said, allowing the illusion to fade. “My counsel is to use such approaches sparingly. I’ve only seen it happen once but it was truly tragic to witness someone inflict what should have been a merely disabling wound only to strike their opponent quite dead because the form shifter had decided to relocate their brain from their head.”

I grimaced at the lack of aesthetic propriety. Bodies were structured as they were for a variety of reasons, the largest being that they worked when things were in the right spots. Sure, you could put eyes in the back of your head but routing the extra optic nerves was a mess, not to mention splitting the brain’s visual processing center to handle the additional sensory input.

Also that meant having no hair there, and hair is wonderful. It carries so many scents or you can wash it and be surrounded in something lovely all day. Who wouldn’t want hair if it was their choice whether to grow it or not? 

For their crimes against aesthetics, I was tempted to say that the form shifter got what they deserved, but that was unkind and silence seemed like a better response again.

I also had no interest in pointing out that I hadn’t moved my heart or my lungs, though I did grumble at the memory of how much of my nice work on them had been wrecked. I was going to be doing touch up work on my…my everything for the next week or more.

“Repositioning major organs also carries with it the cost of continual magic expenditure,” Doxle said. “Unless you happen to be a sufficiently talented at designing biological systems that you can morph into a configuration which is viable without metaphysical support.”

I waited to see if he was going to draw another example image in light but for this point I was apparently supposed to use my imagination. Or maybe he didn’t want to give me any help coming up with what was sure to be a bad idea.

“It’s fascinating to me that you seem to possess that level of skill and yet that is not what you did,” he said. I didn’t like how he was staring at me. There was too much understanding lurking behind those burning eyes. 

“Why do you say that?” I asked. I wasn’t denying it. He was right and he obviously knew it. I just wanted to know what I’d done to give myself away.

“You fell forty feet onto hard stone. No matter where in your body you’d hidden your vital organs stored, that should have damaged at least some of them severely.”

Which, in hindsight, was sort of obvious.

I nodded, conceding the point.

“We don’t need to dwell on that however. You knew you would survive and you did.” He took a breath to say more but I cut him off before he could begin.

“Did you?” It was a simple question, but his answer was going to color quite a lot about how I dealt with him going forward.

“I confess I’m still unclear on the exact mechanism you employed, but the damage from a fall of that magnitude was clearly well within your tolerances.”

That wasn’t exactly comforting but it wasn’t the worst answer he could have given. Not that I could trust him. He could say anything he wanted at this point. 

“How did you know that?” I asked. He could lie about that too, but I still wanted to see what he said. Even lies can be enlightening sometimes.

“I spoke with the guards who apprehended you.”

“And they said they beat me up worse than a forty foot fall?”

“Not in so many words, but yes. Also I know them, or rather men like them. Beyond a certain point of resistance they lose interest in apprehending anyone. From the description of the bystanders and their own accounts I expected to find you in the Free Fields outside the city, not locked in that charming little cell.”

That was a believable story, but I had to bite back a growl anyways. Not for myself. Doxle’s description of the men made me regret all the damage I held back on inflicting on them. If he was right, there were people buried in the public cemetery outside Middlerun who deserved the sort of justice only a few dead guardsmen could bring.

I forced myself to draw in a breath like Grammy had taught me. She would say that there was a lot in the world to rage about and only so much skin that I had to lose. I could almost hear her voice asking me if this was one of the fights where it was worth pitting myself against the grindstone of the world, or if maybe I had better battles to try to win.

I don’t think I caught a whiff of Trina’s scent then, it was probably just a memory, but it was enough. I did have more important battles to fight.

“Could you have caught me?” I asked. I’d relied on him as a safety net in that fight. It occurred to me that I should have verified whether he was capable of being one before hand.

“Not without cost, but had you been in actual danger, yes.” Again, he seemed sincere, but faking sincerity was a lot easier than faking your scent. 

“Did Enika know I could survive?” She should have been able to stop Idrina. Maybe not before she stabbed me through the chest but at least before she kicked me off the top of the pillar.

“She may have suspected, but I doubt she had certain knowledge of that,” Doxle said. “Even if she had fully believed that you would perish in the fall however I do not believe she would have acted to save you. Not when forcing me to act would have been more efficient.”

That I believed all too easily. Enika seemed to be many things but ‘sentimental’ and ‘merciful’ did not appear to be on that list.

“For what its worth, I’m reasonably sure that Ironbriar had no idea you could survive either her attack or the fall.”

That I could believe too, but for a different reason.

“She was just making sure,” I said. I wasn’t defending her. I just wanted to have a clear understanding of what had happened.

“Yes. You fought back more than she expected you to be able to,” Doxle said. “From what I saw she intended to disable you and force you to yield, at least at first.”

That tracked with the fact that she’d taken out my arm with her initial attack.

I think I’d hit her with a headbutt after that but the fight had been a blur even before my head went splat on the stone floor.

“Wasn’t a good strategy for her,” I said. I like to imagine I’m a reasonable person, but I had to admit that I probably wouldn’t have backed down, even if she’d taken out more of my limbs.

“Yes and I believe she saw that, hence moving to a more aggressive posture.”

Meaning she’d switched from winning the fight to trying to kill me mostly out of a sense of self preservation. I nodded in agreement with Doxle’s appraisal. I wasn’t happy she’d tried to kill me, but it wasn’t entirely unreasonable under the circumstances. 

The scary bit was that she seemed to be damn good at it.

“I would dock her points however for choosing the wrong aggressive tactics,” Doxle said. “True, she played to her strengths and did manage to eliminate you as an immediate threat but those strengths are not the ones you are vulnerable too.”

“She knows that now,” I said, worrying anew at what that would mean the next time we fought.

“Indeed she does, and while I am certain she will not spread word of that – there’s little profit for her and significant advantage to be gained if you come into opposition with those she opposes – it is entirely possible that the foes you face tomorrow in the Cadet Trials will not make the same mistake.”

“They’ll know how to kill me?” I asked, wondering more what they might try than whether they would be as vicious as Idrina had been.

“The senior cadets who take part in the trials have been trained to deal with all sorts of foes,” Doxle said. “Almost anything can come from a Reaving Storm, and the Imperial elite troops only get called in when its something sufficiently unpleasant that the local forces are overwhelmed.”

“And they’ll be trying to kill me? For an entrance exam?” I wasn’t actually surprised. Just annoyed. It had sounded ridiculous to me when I’d heard about it the first time and it sounded just as ridiculous with the trials being less than a dozen hours away.

“Technically they are only trying to test you,” Doxle said. “In practice however there are almost always fatalities during the Cadet Trials, particularly early on since that tends to reduce the candidate pool and convince the more sensible applicants to try for the common track instead.”

“It’s mostly nobles who are applying though, isn’t it? Why do the Great Houses allow their children to be thrown into a meat grinder?”

“Every Great House supports many children from many different familial lines within the house. The death toll for the Cadet Trials tends to strike the unwanted ones harder than others, even though the rules are clear that upon the battlefield all are in mortal peril.”

“What does that mean for the commoners who apply?” I asked, trying to imagine how bloody the next day would be.

“They fare slightly better, if only by virtue of there being fewer people with pre-established vendettas against them,” Doxle said. “They can still be knocked out or slain of course, but their primary concern is that they must do more than simply survive the Trials. Unless they are selected for sponsorship by one of the Great Houses, they won’t be admitted to the Academy, regardless of their performance.”

“This system sucks,” I said.

“You will find that applies to a great deal within the Empire,” Doxle said. “Which is why we need to give you every advantage you can get. So how would you like to learn magic?”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 11

Forgetting our history does not doom us to repeat it. I assure you, I am quite capable of remembering every terrible mistake I have ever made and that has done precious little to prevent me from making them over and over again.

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

I knew who had saved the empire from its greatest calamity. Everyone did. Hundreds of years later they still sang praises to the name of the Empress Eternal. 

“How did she do it?” I asked. I’d always been curious how one person had born the the weight of a thousand worlds, even if it was only long enough to spare all of the life on this one.

“Foolishly,” Doxle said. He’d conjured something stronger than tea to his hand when I wasn’t looking and took quite a bit more than a sip before continuing. “I won’t bore you with the details, the important element is that instead of the High Planes crashing through the world, they all crashed into her.”

“That doesn’t sound particularly survivable,” I said. I’d always assumed the ‘Eternal’ part of the Empress’s title was metaphorical. She hadn’t been seen in centuries and while the Great Houses ruled in her name, I don’t think anyone believed they answered to anyone except each other.

“It wasn’t,” Doxle said. “Not even the self-proclaimed ‘Greatest Dweomer Crafter of the Age’ could have managed to do what she did. At least not without cheating, which she also did, but then he was far too self absorbed to for her strategy to ever have occurred to him.”

“You were there?” It didn’t seem impossible. I had no idea how long demons lived, and it seemed like an ‘Imperial Advisor’ might be have been called on when Empresses Court were trying the most difficult spell ever attempted.

“Unfortunately yes,” Doxle said. “Had I been elsewhere – where I should have been – the whole affair might have been avoided entirely. Or we’d all be quite dead. Or never born at all in your case I suppose.”

Or I would have been something else entirely. Something I would probably mourn the loss of if I had any connection to it anymore. 

“We’ve covered this general topic before though,” Doxle said. “Let’s get to the useful bits. You do have any early day tomorrow after all.”

I bit back any show of disappointment from crossing my face. I couldn’t lie through scent like he could though, so maybe he could tell anyways? It didn’t matter. 

“Following all the dramatics the calamity inspired, people discovered that the magic they had access too was greatly expanded. For some people.” He looked weary at the thought of that and took another pull from the seemingly bottomless glass in his hand before continuing. 

“There’s been a popular belief, widely encouraged by the Great Houses, that High Magic, and the Transcendent Arts in general, are the purview of the nobility alone. Any commoners who exhibit talent with advanced magecraft, or esoteric potion distillation, or any other ‘noble’ pursuit are said to be the descendents of a noble bastard whose breeding threw true a generation or two down the line.”

He gave me a questioning glance, not so subtly inquiring if that description applied to me. It didn’t, though not for the reasons he would discover if he searched my family tree.

“Each caster with a talent for the Transcendent Arts is connected to one or more of the fractured High Planes and draws their magic from there,” he said. With a wave of his hand he tossed the glass he was drinking from onto the table where it shattered into a shower of crystalline razors and then hung frozen in the air, forming of a model of the High Planes and their interaction with our world.

“Our friend from Ironbriar showed us techniques from at least two world fragments. Possibly three. Can you guess what they were?” He touched two of the shards and they lit up with a deep green light. A third flickered on and off with as well as though it was uncertain which state it should be in.

I ignored the model. I could visualize the idea well enough, I didn’t need it spelled out for me like that. I also knew an that we’d reached the portion of the lecture where interaction was useful so I considered the question he posed.

“She has a connection to somewhere the let’s her conjure spears, or maybe weapons in general?” I said, working out the answer as I spoke. “And somewhere that made her fast.”

Her speed had been one of the big problems in the fight. I’m not slow but she was so quick that I hadn’t had many options available for how to handle her.

“Excellent observations,” Doxle said. “The one you missed was the ability which lost her the match.”

“She didn’t really lose,” I said.

“You didn’t beat her. She most certainly lost though. Understand that the difference between those two is the fulcrum a great many things in the world turn on. To Ironbriar’s credit, she acknowledged the difference and accepted the reality of the situation. A great many people in positions of power have profound difficulty doing that and it tends to lead to the most unpleasant sorts of drama.”

I nodded in acknowledgement. I still didn’t feel right about claiming a victory over her. If we had held an immediate rematch, the outcome would have been in her favor. Life doesn’t always allow for do overs though. Sometimes we only have one chance to do our best.

And sometimes our best isn’t good enough. And then we have to live with that.

“Her trick of bouncing off the wall might have been a spell from the same High Plane as the one that enhanced her speed, but I believe it wasn’t,” Doxle said, moving on with the lecture.

“Because of the flash of light from her feet?” I asked.

“You noticed that? Oh very good. Yes, spells from the same source tend to be accompanied by the same sort of visible and auditory flourishes. Ironbriar’s hastening spell was almost purely internal. Very well executed with no visible bleed over. The jumping spell however looked to be divided between internal and external effects, with the flash of power an unavoidable side effect.”

“So she can draw on three High Planes. How many more could she have?” I asked. Magic weapons, speed, and enhanced leaping weren’t wonderful to fight against, but I hadn’t pressed her all that hard so it seemed entirely possible that she had even worse tricks she could pull out if she had to get serious.

“Most casters your age can only pull from one High Plane,” Doxle said. “Its possible that she could have access to dozens or hundreds of other sources of magic but her performance suggests that we will not be that lucky.”

“She’ll have more than hundreds of spells to cast?” I asked.

“No, just the opposite,” Doxle said. “A caster with hundreds of planar connections to draw on is almost useless in a battle.”

“But you would never know what spell they might throw at you?”

“And neither would they,” Doxle said. “Remember to cast a High Magic spell requires bending your thoughts until they merge with the reality of the High Plane you’re trying to cast through. With hundreds of connections to pick from, the caster will be hard pressed to quickly align their thoughts with just one of them. Yes, they have more versatility, but their spellcasting tends to be exceedingly slow and the chance that they lose their grip on this reality is significant.”

“She wasn’t slow.”

“Which suggests those may be the only three High Planes she can draw on. Whether or not that is the case, those are most certainly the ones she has focused on training. To be able to cast as cleanly as she did, she had to have developed her magecraft skills to levels only prodigy’s tend to reach.”

“There’s a way this helps me thought. Isn’t there?” 

“Of course. Think about what it means that Ironbriar has three spells from three different sources. Think about what that means for her.” He was testing me again, but this was the sort of test I was used to during a lecture. It meant I had the pieces I needed to answer his question. I just needed to put them together.

I glanced away from Doxle and turned my thoughts inwards. The kind of casting he described sounded alien to me. The magics I worked didn’t require bending my mind out of synch with reality, but rather focusing in on myself and touching on who and what I was.

But I was weird.

Which meant the Doxle was probably right about what Idrina had to go through to cast her spells. A brief moment of madness to cast each one? No, that wasn’t right. It wasn’t madness, if madness was even a real thing. She was twisting her mind so that for an incredibly brief instant, the world that was real to her was one where she could create a spear with a thought.

In doing that though, the world we shared wouldn’t have seemed real to her anymore.

Nor would the other High Planes she could cast spells from.

“Spells can only be cast from one plane at a time?” I said, testing out whether the idea worked or not.

“There are exceptions, but yes, in general that is true,” Doxle said. His eyes were glowing with the bright orange of anticipation, as though I almost had the answer.

Which I guess I did.

“Whenever she has to cast a spell, she’s locked out from the other realms she can cast from? Oh! No, wait. Casting a spell locks the caster out from all the other planes their connected to, including this one!”

A smile broke out across Doxle’s face than reached up to crinkle his eyes in mirth too.

“Exactly. Battlefield casting like Ironbriar performed is fiendishly hard and perilous even for those who are excellent at it. Note how she cast the spell to summon a spear well before you were in melee range. She used the spear’s appearance as a distraction to cover casting the hastening spell and then simply maintained the flow of magic to that spell while you fought.”

“Shouldn’t the spear she summoned have gone away when she cast a spell from a different plane?” I asked.

“That’s a more complicated question,” Doxle said. “It depends largely on what the spear actually was. If it was a purely mundane implement, then the act of summoning it was the only magic required for its existence. Once it was in her hand it was the same as any other spear. More or less.”

“How much more and how little less?” I asked.

“Mundane objects conjured by magic have subdivisions too, based largely on the laws of the High Plane where the spell came from. In most cases, the objects vanish after a period of time as the High Plane calls them back. Other summoned items will age at an ever accelerating rate, or will simply disappear at some regular interval, sunset and dawn being typical examples.”

“And if it’s not a mundane item?” I asked.

“Mystically instantiated weapons tend to need the caster’s magics to remain strong and viable for their task. As soon as the caster stops supplying magic, the weapons vanish. Normally weapons do not require much magic for preserve their existence, well below the draw of a typical caster. True magic weapons are a different story though. Those are things like swords of fire or blades of light and they require substantial amounts of magic to summon and maintain. They can be quite showy but are usually a tremendously bad idea given how much they weaken the caster.”

“Can I have one?” I asked. Tremendously bad idea or not, wielding a weapon of pure magic seemed like it would at the very least give me a brutally effective offensive option.

“Certainly!” Doxle said. “All you have to do is learn to cast it on your own.”

“Not going to teach me how to create one are you?”

“I might, if the mood takes me, but alas, it is absent at the moment,” Doxle said. “At present however you have little need for such a thing.”

“It wouldn’t help when I have to fight her again?” 

“It would be a distraction at best. You already have the tools you need.”

“Hit her when she’s casting?”

“She thinks she can cast quickly enough to safely execute spells in battle, and she’s largely correct. No matter how good she is though, casting spells in combat is dangerous. It’s a narrow window of opportunity to take advantage of that, but she no longer has the element of surprise she enjoyed in your first battle, and you know what to watch for.”

“I guess that will have to be enough.”

“Let us hope,” Doxle said, dismissing the model of shattered glass with another wave. “You should turn in early tonight. You have not had the easiest of days recently.”

I could agree with all of that and was ready to fall asleep in the chair almost immediately but was brought back to alertness by Doxle’s next comment.

“Before you turn in though, there is one more thing we should discuss.” He paused for either for effect or to ensure I was following him. “We’ve spoke of how you might kill Ironbriar. We should address the question of how we might kill you.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 10

People says there is an Art to Killing, as though it takes any special quality to stab someone in the neck. The only Art to found in combat is in the grace and speed and tactics around not killing someone. That is where true accomplishment lies. Not everyone appreciates Art of course. Those people we stab in the neck.

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

I expected Doxle to take me back up onto the platform and demonstrate the techniques I needed to learn in whatever painful fashion amused him. I don’t know what in our time together so far had given me the idea that he would bother with any sort of physical effort when a few thousand words would suffice instead.

Instead of the platform, he lead me out of the sparring room, past a pantry with the scents of at least six dozen different teas wafting out of it, and to a sumptuous library with roughly three times as many books as the shelves could hold. He turned as we passed through the archway into the room and gestured for me to take my choice of seating around a low central table which was surprising free of book piles.

I picked out a chair that was large enough I could have curled up into a ball and gone to sleep in it. It was stuffed with enough padding that the temptation to sink into both the chair and a dreamless slumber was challenging to resist, but my curiosity was enough to keep me awake.

Doxle ran his hand over the archway and it shrunk down until it was the size of a keyhole in the wall. The move trapped me in the library with him, which I wasn’t overly fond of, but I refrained from shredding the covering on the chair. There was always time for that later, and I could see the benefit privacy might hold assuming he really was going to tell me how to kill Idrina Ironbriar.

“We have much to talk about, shall I send for some refreshments?” Doxle asked, taking a spot on the couch on the opposite side of the table from me.

“We just ate,” I said. He nodded in understanding and I had the distinct suspicion the question had been a test.

He’d called me a Form Shifter, which was superficially true. Did Form Shifters need to eat after each transformation though? It occurred to me that while I understood what I could do fairly well, most of what I knew about the magic of the Empire was related to the common, everyday magics people used. Given that  my first encounter with High Magic had included some extremely painful surprises, my ignorance was looking to be more of a liability than I’d thought it would be.

“I suppose that’s true,” Doxle said. “Let us begin your instruction then.”

“How do I kill her?” I asked, hoping to skip past the long winded explanations of overly obvious or unimportant details.

“Poison in her wine,” Doxle said. “That’s an old favorite, though not among the Ironbriars, which is why it’s reasonably likely to work.”

“How do I kill her in a fight?” Because apparently I had to extremely specific if I wanted useful answers from him.

“Stabbing generally works. Barring that I would suggest falling back on slashing, or, if no better option presents itself, bludgeoning her.”

I was wrong. More specific questions still yielded useless answers.

“I tried that,” I said. “Didn’t work.”

“Perhaps you need to practice stabbing more?” He made a feeble little stabbing motion with his hand. “It’s what the Ironbriars swears by. Practice until your arms drop off and then glue them back on and practice some more.”

“I have until tomorrow morning.” I knew he had useful ideas, and I knew I couldn’t reach across the table and choke them out of him, but it was growing more and more tempting to try.

“Shame, I don’t think you can get your arms to fall off even once in that time.”

“So what can I do?” I wanted there to be a single secret for undoing a High Magic caster’s powers but I knew things couldn’t possibly be that simple.

“Not fight?” Doxle asked.

“And when she doesn’t give me that option?”

“Ask for forgiveness?”

“And when she doesn’t grant it?”

“You are in quite the negative mood, aren’t you?” he asked, conjuring a cup of tea for himself from thin air.

I didn’t answer that. I’d been stabbed through the heart. He knew I’d been stabbed through the heart. He was smart enough to draw a line from there to my current mood.

“There is a lesson here, I promise you,” he said after a long moment’s silence.

I waited. There were many lessons I could take from his lack of useful answers. Some of them he may even have intended.

 “You’re asking the wrong question,” he finally said. “It’s not a matter of how you can kill a caster of Ironbriar’s caliber. Killing is easy. People are extremely fragile things. Present company excluded. You don’t want to kill her. That’s too simple. What you want, what you’re really asking, is how you can overcome her magic.”

I nodded. Killing Idrina Ironbriar seemed like a terrible waste. Being killed by her seemed quite a bit worse though. If there was a path between those two, then it would be nice to know about it.

“Good. That seems to have gotten your attention,” Doxle said and set his cup down. “If I’m going to explain how to deal with other casters however we will need a common base of understanding to draw on.”

I nodded. I didn’t mind learning about history and theory. Grammy Duella had taught me about a lot of things and hired tutors for some of the things she wasn’t familiar with herself.

It struck me as odd, in hindsight, that Grammy hadn’t provided more education in the magical arts. Maybe she was hoping that without training any talent I had would fade and people would basically ignore me? If so the strategy had worked for years, right up until the point where it hadn’t.

“Where does magic come from?” Doxle asked.

“The world,” I said. He wanted me to be engaged for this, so I treated it like a class with Grammy.

“That is true for Common Magic,” he said. “High Magic however comes to us from other worlds.”

“The Transcendent Planes?” I asked. I’d heard the term but I didn’t really know what it meant, it just seemed like it fit.

“That is one name for them,” Doxle said. “It suggests several false things though. First that the worlds High Magic is drawn from are uniform, or even vaguely similar to one another. Second that they represent a more advanced stage of being, rather than a lateral one.”

“Lateral?” I asked.

“Some history is in order.” It was a warning, but not one that I needed. I was perfectly capable of following a lecture provided the speaker knew what they were talking about and provided enough information for the audience to follow along too.

“Common Magic has always been a part of our world. It is a natural aspect of the structure of our reality. That limits it but also makes it widely available and far safer to use than the alternative.”

“No casting madness?” 

“You remembered! Yes, Common magic does not require the caster to twist their minds out of phase with our world. Common casters are as capable of losing touch with reality as anyone else is mind you, but it’s not their magic which drives the wedge between them and our world.”

I nodded so that he would go on.

“Originally, High Magic was less perilous too,” Doxle said. “When the Empire was first founded, High Magic rarely snapped any casters’ minds, and on the occasions when that did occur, there were widely applicable treatments which could bring them back into alignment.”

“But that’s not true anymore?” That seemed odd, but there wasn’t a shortage of stories of old casters being more than a little mad.

“No. It’s not.” The scent of ashes escaped his tight control before he clamped down again it. “For centuries the High Plane, the only one that we had at the time, was the subject of intense research, and because of its stability we discovered many elements of how magic worked. Too many as it turned out.”

“What happened?” I asked, guessing this had something to do with the calamity that nearly ended the Empire of the Three Peaks a few centuries back.

“The Empire conquered many lands and peoples, but eventually it reached the end of what the High Plane could support. That was when research on the High Plane became a serious business. Without the ability to extract more power from it, the Empire woul be forced to accept its borders and cease expanding its sphere of control. Have you ever tried to tell a noble family that they can’t buy a second new city this month because all the cities have been sold already and there are no new ones to bid on?”

“The wanted to mine more from the High Plane and they broke it,” I guessed, mostly to show I was following along.

“The ambitions of the Empress and her Celestial Weavers went far beyond the High Plane,” Doxle said. “Developing more efficient refining techniques wasn’t going to yield the quantity of power that we needed. We need more than a better approach. We needed new High Planes.”

“What did you do?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“The Celestials Weavers crafted their greatest spell, one which drew in the strength of all Common magic in an area and used it to make contact with a new High Plane.”

“And it worked, didn’t it?”

“Yes. Yes it did.”

“Right up until it didn’t?”

“For efficiency sake, the spell the Celestial Weavers cast drew the other High Plane in to overlap our world, just as the original High Plane does.”

“Overlap? How didn’t they crash into each other?” I asked.

“The first High Planes were conceptual realms. They had no axis of physical existence, and so they presented no danger to our world.”

“You said the ‘first’. There were others?”

“With the casting by the Celestial Weavers? Many others. Far more than the crafting should have captured.”

“What happened?” I asked, images of an apocalypse dancing in my head.

“They crashed into each other and shattered,” Doxle said. “From one High Plane we vaulted up to hundreds or perhaps thousands. None of them complete but all of them brim with power waiting to be taken.”

“But that was still okay for us?”

“No,” Doxle said. “The first few High Planes to crash together had no physical element but that wasn’t true with all of them. As High Plane after High Plane slammed into each other and our world, the cataclysm began to draw into farther realms, and some of them were quite physical.”

“That sounds like the end of the world.”

“We’re getting there.”

I could smell just the faintest trace of grief underlying the poorly controlled scents of ash and lightning. I wasn’t sure if I should read anything into it though. Doxle had proven that he could lie via his scent. In fact it was probably something he did subconsciously. So was he unintentionally revealing something true or intentionally being misleading? I didn’t know him well enough yet to tell for sure, but my gut said he was being honest so far.

“The problem with High Planes which have a physical dimension is that they cannot overlap with our world. Not without one of the two world’s physical laws being destroyed, which then tends to destroy the rest of the world too.”

“So were all the broken High Planes destroyed by our world when they crashed into us then?” I asked, not seeing how we would be here to be having this discussion otherwise.

“They were not,” Doxle said. “We should not have survived that catastrophe.”

“But we did?” It wasn’t a question that we had but rather how.

“Yes, and all it took was the sacrifice of the best woman I ever had the pleasure to know.”