Monthly Archives: March 2023

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 21

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

– Xindir Harshek Doxel of the First Flame

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You could see that?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head.

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

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

“Can you hide from them?”

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

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

“We have our roles then,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mellina met my gaze and nodded in response.

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

Which meant I was free.

Except, Yarrin was able to see through the smoke.

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

And the medics knew where the bodies were laying.

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

So I held back.

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

And I was right.

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

But it was a beast.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t a great place to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And kept howling.

I snapped back into conscious thought processing there.

It wasn’t speaking a language I knew.

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

I listened to its howl.

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

It wasn’t enraged.

I let my fight or flight response go.

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

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

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

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

Then I bowed to the Reaving Beast.

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

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

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

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

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

May I scent you? I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t jump on me and kill me.

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

This is the path back home, I said.

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

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

It will again, I said. 

I couldn’t fix that for him.

But I could make it better.

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

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

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

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

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 20

“If you’ve ever wondered at the Empire’s callousness in the face of the various institutional cruelties enshrined in so many of its functions, it is important to remember that each horrible practice is not an intrinsic part of our reality. They are, one and all, choices. Choices which were made before you were born, choices which are still being made today, and choices which will persist on and on until and unless someone chooses otherwise.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

I’d been right that Kelthas could summon armor, but that had been easy to guess. What I’d missed was that the armor his magic called to him was Tantarian Battle Scourger Mail.

“Glad he blew up the flag,” the soldier I had in a headlock said.

“Couldn’t have blown us up with his girlfriend here with us,” a soldier I’d lightly stabbed said.

“You’ve never seen these Elites really fight have you?” a third soldier said. “Surprised he didn’t blow us all up on principal.

Which was not the most encouraging thing to hear at that moment.

“We done?” I asked, not letting the soldier I had grappled move just yet.

“Yeah, you’re good kid. Congrats on passing this round,” their sergeant said.

That dropped the odds they were going to keep attacking me enough that I let go of the guy I was holding and handed the weapons back to the soldiers I’d taken them from. The few that I’d injured shuffled off the field and were replaced with fresh bodies as I walked back to the stands and rejoined the rest of my small team.

By the time I got there another match was already underway and the crowd’s attention was focused on that. Kelthas had reverted to his unarmored form, and was following the once-again-visible Mellina and Yarrin.

“That seemed easy,” I said after we sat down.

“It wouldn’t have been if they kept shooting at us,” Kelthas said. “I need a good amount of time to charge up that attack, and my armor only protects me.”

“Our skills aligned well for the task,” Mellina said. “Even with orders to eliminate Yarrin, they weren’t setup with the engagement or the tools needed to deal with us.”

“You can see what happens when they are,” Yarrin said gesturing our attention back to the arena. 

The team who followed us had tried to replicate my maneuver. Like me they’d avoided a fair portion of the initial gunfire. Also like me they hadn’t avoided it all. That was where the similarities ended. Of the three, two were down and trying to crawl to cover while the third was struggling forward and his hands and knees, building up a swirl of fire in his hands.

One of the soldiers hopped easily out of their trench and booted the poor fool in the head. The fire sputtered out and the applicant dropped to the ground like a dishrag.

It was an ignominious end to their trial, but given that the soldiers could have simply shot them again there was as least a spark of mercy present.

“Will you be in danger in the second trial too?” I asked Yarrin, the rest of the trial candidates holding no interest for me.

“The second trial should be more fair,” he said. “The Reaving Beasts they call are fairly random and not exactly interested in bribes.”

“Couldn’t they sic bigger ones on you though?” I asked.

“Yeah, but they can only make the rifts so large or they run the risk of something really dangerous coming through,” Yarrin said.

“Wait, they summon the Reaving Beasts here?” I asked. From what I knew, that wasn’t possible, but from the certainty in Yarrin’s eyes I was pretty sure that what I knew was fundamentally wrong.

“Well, yes. Where did you think they got the monsters from?” Yarrin asked.

“I thought this is what they usually did with the Beasts they captured when they were cleaning up the Reaving Storms,” I said.

“They don’t capture the monster that are brought over by Reaving Storms,” Mellina said. “They kill those.”

“Not all the time,” Kelthas said. “There’s a circus that comes through my town every summer with all kinds of Reaving Beasts in cages.”

“Those aren’t real Reaving Beasts,” Mellina said. “Those are creatures from outside the Empire or regular creatures with things glued onto them. Real Reaving Beasts are too dangerous to keep around. They’re closer to living spells than natural creatures and they breed Reaving Storms just by existing if they’re kept around too long.”

She was wrong but not about what people familiar with Reaving Beasts probably understood or expected to be true.

“I thought magic that broke the Soul Kindled Wards was forbidden?” I said, glancing between Mellina and Yarrin since they seemed to know more about what was coming than Kelthas or I.

“There’s forbidden and then there’s Forbidden,” Yarrin said. “If we pass these trials we’ll probably learn more than a few ‘forbidden’ spells.”

“That makes sense,” Kelthas said.”We’d need to understand the spells that can cause problems if we’re supposed to stop the people who are casting them.”

Mellina and Yarrin shared a glance. That was absolutely not the reason we would be learning forbidden spells. Kelthas didn’t seem ready to process that though so I stayed silent.

That might have been one of the times when silence was a mistake.

The remainder of the first round continued but I missed most of the other matches, being absorbed in thoughts of what the Great Houses willingly invoking Reaving Storms might mean. I didn’t like where any of those thoughts led me, but I couldn’t ignore them either.

My attention was pulled away from the dark tides swirling inside me by someone I should have been paying more attention for. 

Idrina Ironbriar and her brother were in one of the last groups to be put through the first Trial. The two people they were with strolled onto the field, laughing like it was a drunken outing rather than a deadly contest. Idrina’s brother on the other hand walked calmly, taking it seriously but without any hint of nerves slowing the flow of his gait. 

As for Idrina? There was no mirth in her. She marched out to their assigned spot, unafraid and unexcited. I looked for any sign that she might be concerned about the Trial but all I saw in her was poise and focus.

I glanced over at the Imperial Regulars. ‘Random chance’ had put them between the applicants and the flag, which was surprising. Ironbriar was definitely powerful enough to buy an easy placement for Idrina and the others. 

The question was would she have let them? I couldn’t claim to know her at all, but I still knew the answer was ‘no’.

The whistle sounded and the match was done before its echo faded.

The rest of the applicants didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the matches but what I’d witnessed left a cold pit where my stomach had previously been.

“She was holding back,” I said to no one. Or maybe to my past self? It didn’t matter, I couldn’t speak across time, and it changed neither the outcome of the battle I’d had with her or the trial she’d just completed.

She hadn’t called a spear this time.

She’d called six of them.

In the blink of an eye she’d lunged past the Regulars, reached the flag, sliced through its pole, and slashed it to pieces with a barrage of spears leaving the remnants of it fluttering in the wind.

She hadn’t been that fast when we fought.

And she hadn’t summoned such an overwhelming offense either.

And from how she was leaving the field, I was convinced that she’d been holding back for the Trial too.

Our next fight was not going to be fun.

“She’s an unusual one,” Mellina said, curiosity flickering in her eyes. “The Ironbriar’s aren’t known for fighting their own battles anymore.”

“She seemed quite ready for this battle,” Kelthas said.

“I wonder if that was why the two others with her were so unconcerned?” I asked, not expecting an answer.

“Probably. It’s a common complaint about this test,” Yarrin said. “Some people get through just because they have a strong team.”

“And other fail because their team is weak,” Mellina said. “We’ve seen both today.”

“They’ll start correcting for that with the next test, right?” Kelthas said.

“Yeah, we’ll be split into pairs for that one,” Yarrin said.

“What will the objectives be? Beyond survival I mean,” I asked.

“They change things up from year to year, but the general theme is banishing the monsters,” Mellina said.

“And if we haven’t been taught how to do that yet?” I asked, trying to decide if I needed to murder Doxle for sending me into this without giving me a clue how to pass it.

“Oh they always have banishing spells setup in the arena before you go in,” Kelthas said. “And they’ll tell you how to work them. You just need to manage it without the monster eating you.”

“People sometimes try to kill the monster too,” Mellina said. “Occasionally it even works.”

“Will they let us pick our partners?” I asked, trying to decide if I should be the one to go with Yarrin, or if one of the others would be a better fit for him.

“Officially no,” Yarrin said.

“Which means the weak and wealthy candidates will be paired with people who are strong enough to win the trial all on their own,” Mellina said.

“How does that help them?” Kelthas asked. “If they can’t handle this trial, won’t they just wash out in the third round instead of the first or second?”

Mellina didn’t laugh in his face, but the smile she wore bore a similar intent.

“They’re not taking these trials,” Yarrin said. “Not really. They’ll go through them all but they’re here for the prestige and the authority that comes with the position. They’re allowed through with only the pretense of being tested because it’s their money that funds Academy.”

“Or because their parents are friends with someone on the Academy’s board,” Mellina said. “Most things like this aren’t a case of direct bribery. If it was, common people could save up and manage it too.”

“But they’d be a liability to whatever force they were assigned to?” Kelthas asked, the idea of gross incompetence being common place among the elites of the world apparently too painful of a concept for him to swallow.

The first round of the Trials ended and the next began without any great fanfare. If your team passed the trial you were still in the arena. If not, you were limping away, in the infirmary, or being prepared for burial. 

To be fair though, the dead numbered far fewer than I’d expected among the number of failures. The Regulars had to have been taking some care with their attacks to leave as many alive as they did, though even careful shots were sometimes fatal, no matter then intention behind them.

The second round of Trials began with one of the proctors venturing into the center of the arena and casting a spell. It took him almost ten minutes to complete it and he spent the entire time reciting verses from a language native to some other world. He drew sigils in the dirt as well but his words erased them over and over again.

I could feel the power of the spell building and I could smell the hundred different scents it evoked. The proctor wasn’t casting the spell alone. He was merely acting as its focal point.

When the crafting was finally completed a dark cloud bubbled up from where the caster was standing. It rose until it filled the area to a depth of at least ten feet and from the scents I was picking up from it carried the magics from a dozen different realms.

Then I smelled the worst odor I’d ever encountered.

The first one I’d ever smelled in this world.

I fought back a wretch, and willed myself to see through the fog, trying to find the rift that I knew was open. But eyes don’t work like that.

Or at least mine didn’t.

“They’re hiding the activation points for the banishing spells,” Yarrin said. “I can help with this one.”

“How?” Kelthas asked.

“I can see where they all are,” Yarrin said.

“You should go with Kelthas if you can,” Mellina said. “Tantarian Mail dulls the senses, doesn’t it?”

“A little bit,” Kelthas said. “Will you two be okay?”

“Depends on what they summon for us,” I said. I could have tried to be reassuring, but we all would have known it was a lie.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 19

“The key to a successful team? Don’t have me on it. Or anyone like me. Or really anyone at all. Yes. That is definitely it. The key to a successful team is to limit its membership. If there’s anyone else on the team beside yourself, then I’m afraid at the most critical moment of your grand enterprise, someone will reveal themselves to be a turncoat, someone else will crumble under the pressure and, for the rest, general panic and mayhem will ensue. The only hope of avoiding a complete catastrophe is to do it all yourself.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, three sheets to the wind with a liver in full mutiny against the abuse it had suffered.

It wasn’t just the smell of blood that drenched the arena. All the myriad aromas of death were present. 

But that didn’t make sense.

We’d only just been allowed in and from how the crowd was moving, no one was plucking random bodies out of it to be slaughtered indiscriminately.

But the scents were fresh.

The arena, and I was being charitable calling it that, wasn’t a permanent structure. The beams of the walls had been cut no more than a week ago, and the joins between them were made for easy disassembly. It hadn’t been the site of countless battles before this. 

I racked my brain to think of why it smelled like an abattoir and was still struggling to figure it out when we exited from behind the stands to see the fighting pit. It wasn’t as large as I’d imagined it to be. Maybe a hundred feet long by fifty feet wide and filled with rocks and trees and a surprising amount of ground clutter.

Basically inconvenient for me to the greatest extent that it could be.

Larger and I’d have been able to play Hide and Shred. Smaller and I could have skipped straight to the “Shred” part of that equation. A flat and open arena would have meant no obstacles to closing the distance with our attackers. The broken and cluttered terrain meant a charge or any other effort to close to melee range would be delayed significantly. If they offered us our choice of weapons like Doxle had I could select a ranged option, but since I hadn’t trained with them I had to imagine my performance would be substandard at best.

“That’s not a good sign, is it?” Yarrin said, pointing back into the arena as we climbed the stairs up to the fourth row of the stands.

I glanced where he was pointing and noticed at last where the smell of death was coming from.

The many splashes of blood which were splattered over the arena at chaotic intervals.

“Looks like some of the late applicants survived though,” Kelthas said, nodding towards the opposite side of the arena and a group of young people who were standing slightly apart from the crowds which were still filing in.

“Late applicants?” I asked, noticing the haunted, yet grimly determined expressions the odd group all wore.

“A lot of people can’t afford the application fee,” Mellina said. “They have the option of showing up here and being ‘processed’ before the trials begin.”

“And the processing has an unreasonably high mortality rate?” I asked, not needing to guess much on that point.

“The late application exam is supposed to be more challenging but it’s not supposed to be more dangerous than the rest of the trials,” Kelthas said.

“That’s the official story,” Mellina said. “In practice it varies year to year. This year we have a bumper crop of applicants, so…”

So the numbers need to be thinned.

It didn’t make sense to me. How did the Empire benefit from killing off any caster? Non-fatal tests to determine aptitude would leave them with so many people who could contribute to all the easier yet still vital tasks required to maintain the Empire’s basic existence, like recasting the Soul Kindled Wards that protected us from the Reaving Storms. Those broke far too often and the excuse was always the same, ‘there are only so many Imperial casters to go around and they are stretched very thin.”

We took our seats in time to see the first group of applicants take the field. 

“That’s Nelphas Lightstone’s group,” Yarrin said. “They’re guaranteed to make it in.”

Because High Lightstone was the strongest of the Great Houses and could afford to purchase safety for their scions? Greyfall wasn’t a weak house either though and somehow Yarrin didn’t rate that expenditure.

When the opposing forces from the Imperial Regular Army took the field there was only the barest pretension that the trial was meant to be anything like an actual fight.

The starting positions were assigned ‘randomly’ the proctor explained, and the objective was simple; destroy the enemy’s flag.

For the battle the flag of Zamashash, the Empire’s age old enemy to the east, was flown from a ten foot tall pole in the center of the arena. Lightstone’s forces were deployed twenty feet from the flag while the Regulars were stationed fifty feet back at the edge of the arena.

A whistle was blown and the Regulars charged forward. No run, however valiant, could have prevented Nelphas from casting a bolt of corrosive poison he tossed at the flag, which proceeded to melt it, pole and all, into a runny sludge.

The whole “fight” took five seconds, if that, and yet the crowd still erupted in cheers when Nelphas called out “Ever the Empire’s Enemies Fall!”

With their victory secured, Nelphas and his team were ushered to the quarter of the arena which had been kept empty when the crowd was brought in.

“That’s not much space for winners,” Yarrin said.

I met his gaze and nodded. It was possible the proctors would reuse space as it was cleared, or they might intend to eliminate two thirds of us in the first trial. Of those two possibilities, I knew which one I felt safer placing money on.

The next five groups were also scions of the Great Houses and while the positioning of the teams and the new flags did change somewhat, the overall positioning remained largely the same. The applicants had a clear advantage over the Regulars, and what advantages the Regulars did possess they never pressed into service.

“Darrowwood,” the proctor called out, bringing the next team forward.

“I don’t know them,” Yarrin said.

Because they weren’t associated with one of the Great Houses.

Which was also why the random placement of the flag wasn’t quite so favorable towards them. Instead of it being closer to the applicants than the Regulars, ‘purely random chance’ had placed the flag at the far end of the arena with the Regulars between it and the team of doomed young people..

When the whistle blew, the Regulars didn’t charge. They didn’t have to. They simply took up their regulation Imperial rifles from where the guns had been laying on the ground and commenced firing immediately.

Darrowwood’s team had three members in it before the whistle blew. That dropped to one before the whistle’s echo faded. The two kids Darrowwood had brought with him were down, not dead yet but grievously injured. 

Darrowwood made a valiant stand in front of them conjuring sheets of ice to act as cover as he turned and dragged his two teammates behind one of the rock outcroppings they’re been positioned near. The move would have protected them from further fire, except in the time it took him to drag them to safety, two of the Regulars crossed the distance to the ice wall, scaled it and shot him from the top.

The three were still alive when the medical crew gurneyed them off the field, but I had to wonder how much attention they were going to receive.

“The medics will stabilize them and pass the bill onto their families or sponsors,” Yarrin said without my needing to ask.

“That’s not going to be easy for them to pay back,” Kelthas said, looking more grave than he had when the victories look like they would all be easy ones.

“If they shoot me, don’t waste time trying to save me,” Yarrin said. “Just keep yourselves alive, and burn that stupid flag.”

“They’re not going to shoot you,” Kelthas said. “They’re going to shoot me.”

“I’m pretty sure they’ll have orders contrary to that,” Yarrin said. “Or at least to shoot me first.”

“Good,” I said. “Let’s use that.”

“No!” Kelthas said. “We’re not letting them shoot Yarrin so we can win.”

“Of course not,” I said. Why would anyone think that? Yarrin was flimsy. “If they have orders to shoot him though, that makes them predictable.”

“I’m confused,” Kelthas said.

“I’m not,” Mellina said. “We can definitely use their focus on Yarrin. I’ll handle him. Can you two take care of the flag?”

“I can take care of the soldiers,” I said.

“Fighting them is a bad idea,” Kelthas said. “They’re used to battle.”

I wasn’t, but they weren’t using magic so the number of tricks they could pull was manageable.

“You’ll need an opening to get to the flag,” I said. “I’ll make one for you. Destroy it quick though. They’re using basic tactics. We don’t want to give them time to switch to something complex.”

The next team up was noble led and the Regulars gave them more of a challenge than the others. Two of the four sustained disabling but non-life threatening injuries, while the other two lost a little blood but pulled through to win despite the ‘heroic effort’ required.

The following team was low born and five strong. They were good casters, managing to jam or shatter the Regular’s rifles and force the soldiers into melee where they held their own for almost a minute.

The soldiers superior coordination and stamina paid off though and as the team of applicants was forced back to the edge of the arena, their leader offered their surrender.

Surrendering disqualified them from progressing but the soldiers weren’t forced to carve them up, so in a sense it was a victory for everyone.

“Greyfall” one of the proctor’s called and we were up.

Despite Yarrin being affiliated with one of the theoretically most powerful Great Houses, the random placement for our positions came up in line with what the low born applicants had been given.

“Find cover before the whistle blows,” I said. It should have been safe to assume that’s what people would do, but after watching all the teams before us I’d come to the conclusion that safe assumptions were anything but.

We were eighty feet away from the flag with the Regulars only thirty feet from us when we got to our starting position. 

I gave the area another scan, taking in the shallow trench that was just behind us, the mid-height tree stump to our left and the shrubs on our right. The Regulars were standing in another small trench, slightly deeper than the one we could fall back to. The ground sloped up towards them so they enjoyed a small height advantage but it wasn’t going to matter.

The whistle blew and several things happened in the same instant.

Shots rang out, as they always did, so no surprise there.

The ricochet sound however was new. I didn’t waste time turning to see what had happened, but I had a strong guess that Kelthas’ magic allowed him to summon armor like Idrina could summon weapons. He’d jumped in front of Yarrin as a shield and would likely be able to protect the smaller boy until the Regulars swarmed us and flanked around him.

Except the Regulars weren’t going to do that.

There was no point swarming forward to take out the target they’d been paid to kill when he wasn’t there anymore. I knew that because Mellina understood me, and I knew what she could do.

Also, the Regulars lost interest in shooting at Yarrin becuase there was a person running at them on all fours, her body stretching out exactly as human bodies are not supposed to.

It didn’t take them long to choose me as their target but Imperial rifles don’t have the fastest rate of fire and their accuracy against targets running in a fast zigzag pattern wasn’t the best.

Some of them still hit me, but it wasn’t like they or anyone else could tell that for sure.

All they saw was something that had left humanity behind twenty feet ago, was focused only on them, and wasn’t stopping.

They didn’t panic, or at least they didn’t break ranks. They did however fail to switch to their melee weapons fast enough.

That was fine with me. I was more than happy to draw a sword from the nearest one and a knife from his neighbor.

I didn’t stab anything vital, in part because I’d seen them gracefully accept the last groups surrender, and in part because they served as better meat shield alive than dead.

I was wondering how long that particular equation would remain true when a dull explosion came from a spot fifty feet away.

I dragged the soldier I had in a headlock back but stopped stabbing at the others as we all looked to confirm that, yes, Kelthas had used the window of opportunity I’d bought him to blow up the flag.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 18

“In my role as an Advisor, people have asked if it is it not the duty of an adult to provide boundaries and structure to the younglings who are placed in their care. Generally they are red-faced and screaming and phrase the question somewhat less coherently than that, but the overall philosophical point is common no matter the rage they’ve been provoked to. In response I have been uncharacteristically consistent in my answer.


Younglings must be free to explore the boundaries of their world.

Even if they occasionally fall over the edge.

That is the joy of being young and the terror of adulthood.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

I’d expected the staging ground for the Arena of Trials to contain the best and brightest of this year’s casters, and in that I was badly mistaken.

It didn’t contain the best and brightest.

It contained all of them.

The gifted, and the clueless. The confident and the weeping. All in a fairly narrow band of ages from probably just a little too young to properly enroll, to old enough that they should have applied last year.

In theory that meant the entire mob were adults, but any honest observer would have seen nothing but a sea of children being massed together for a slaughter.

Or at least that was my initial impression.

It turned out things were dire but not quite as bad as I’d first imagined.

Of the several hundred applicants assembled more than three quarters were not applying for the Elite Cadet program. Instead they were taking the tests for admittance to the “Common Tier” and, as a result, those wise souls were not going to be facing a trial of mortal combat as part of their entrance exam. They were also more or less guaranteed to remain lower valued soldiers in the Imperial forces for the entirety of their career. To my mind that was the vastly smarter choice and, had I a chance of passing the tests involved, one I would have jumped at. Doxle was right though. I lacked both the education and magical aptitude to gain entrance to the Academy through that route.

Mellina and I were ushered over to the side of the mob that was being processed for the Elite Cadet trials, with Doxle trailing helpfully behind us. I’d expected Holman to rejoin him for Mellina’s sake but he had apparently drawn the short straw for shepherding both of us.

“I don’t think we’ll get to pick our teams, but if we remain close together the proctors may take the easy option and group us accordingly,” Mellina said, moving close but not touching me. “If you want that, that is?”

“Yes,” I said, because I’d be an idiot to let someone who could turn invisible wind up another team. Also, she wasn’t horrible. And she smelled nice. “We should look for anyone else who seems competent but doesn’t have a team.”

As ‘brilliant plans’ went it was neither brilliant nor much of a plan, but Mellina nodded and began casting her gaze around. Since she was slightly taller than I was, she could, in theory, see farther. In practice there were enough people who towered over each of us that our options were pretty limited.

Scent however doesn’t differentiate by height.

I reached up to scratch the side of my nose to cover a few adjustments I needed to make to it and then breathed in slow and deep.

It was a good thing I’d been to cities with Grammy reasonably often when I was growing up. The scent of a few hundred young adults hit me like a sledgehammer of stink. I’d run through choking gasses in a necromantic swap that didn’t smell as bad as the only barely enclosed area I was in, but I’d known that would be the case.

Fighting to keep Pastries’ wonderful breakfast down in my stomach where it belonged, I tried to sort through the ‘aromas’ clouding the air.

Lots of fear, lots of hope, and lots of false bravado. None of that was a surprise. The scent of a calm breath however?

“Over here,” I said and took Mellina’s hand so we wouldn’t get separated in the crowd. I didn’t bother with Doxle since he seemed to be fairly adept at moving through crowds on his own.

The calm breaths turned out to belong to a sandy haired boy in a drab tunic and pants who was sitting down with a smaller boy in nicer clothes who was much less put together.

“It’s not too late to switch,” the sandy haired boy said, his eyes closed as he continued to breathe in and out slowly.

“If I don’t get in to the Elites, I don’t get to go home,” the smaller boy said. He was sitting facing the other boy, also with his eyes closed but while he was trying to mimic the slow and calm breathing the sandy haired boy was demonstrating, his efforts weren’t yielding the same results.

“If you die, they’ll send you home in a box,” I said, sitting down beside them.

Yes, I know that wasn’t the best thing I could have said. If I waited until I could think of the best thing to say though, I wouldn’t have said anything. 

Which is why I’m usually silent.

The smaller boy gave a rueful laugh at my intrusion. “That seems to be the plan.”

“Push that thinking away,” sandy haired boy said. “You’ve got to picture yourself winning if you’re going to make it.”

“It’s not easy,” the smaller boy said.

“Why?” I asked, wondering if he had some magical ineptitude which placed him below the other candidates around us.

“Because I know what’s waiting for us in the trials,” the smaller boy said.

“You saw the monster they captured for the second wave?” Mellina asked. She hadn’t been invisible but the two boys hadn’t noticed her until she spoke.

That was interesting information to have.

“The monsters aren’t the problem,” the smaller boy said. “Or, they are, but every class faces them. It’s the seniors who’ll be taking part in the third trial. They’re what I’m worried about.”

“What’s different about this class of seniors?” Mellina asked. 

“I know some of them,” the smaller boy said.

“Will they be watching for you?” I asked, remembering Doxle mentioning that the casualties of the trials tended to include the offspring of the Great Houses when another House was upset at them.

“I haven’t done anything to them, but, yeah, I think they will be,” the smaller boy said.

“To disqualify, maim, or kill?” I asked.

“With a candidate pool this large?” the smaller boy asked in return and I saw his point.

“Disqualification would work just as well as anything to cut down the number of applicants,” the sandy haired boy said.

“Yeah, it would,” the smaller boy said, nodding though he didn’t smell like he agreed with that sentiment at all.

“What about you?” I asked, turning to the sandy haired boy.

“I’m no one important,” he said. “My Dad is a tailor and my Mom owns a Tack shop in Mist River.”

“Why come here then?” I asked.

“I was saved by from a Reaving Storm by an Elite Guardsman when I was kid. I always wanted to follow in her footsteps after that. How about you?”

“I think someone I know is in the Imperial Academy. I want to see if I can find her,” I said, leaving out the part where Trina had been dead for more than decade.

“You should just ask one of the guards,” the smaller boy said. “It’d be a lot safer than this.”

“I know.” But asking a gate guard at the Academy ‘hello, have you seen my dead sister walking around in here?’ wasn’t going to get me the answers I needed.

The smaller boy stared at me for a moment and then nodded. I don’t know what he saw but it left him feeling charitable.

“If you have to go through with this, you should get away from me,” he said. “All of you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for your help,” that was directed to the sandy haired boy, “but if the wrong people see you with me, you’ll be in a lot more danger than if you’re just on your own.”

He wasn’t wrong. If we were linked with him, his enemies would become our enemies. I weighed the peril that would put us in and didn’t like the results.

“You should team up with us,” I said.

What I didn’t like was that alone, the small boy was going to die. It wasn’t my job to protect him, I just hated how the Trials were setup and wanted to break this especially awful part of them.

Also, he hadn’t freaked out when I sat down and started talking.

“Us?” the sandy haired boy asked.

“Mellina and I. You should join us too.”

“I don’t think we get to pick who we’re teamed with,” the sandy haired boy said.

“Then why are so many other groups of three and four already forming up?” Mellina asked, gesturing towards the crowd around with a nod.

The boys looked surprised and, to be fair, I hadn’t noticed it either. 

From the area near the entrance to the Arena a commotion kicked off but the upsurge of voices in the crowd made it impossible to hear what was being said. I looked around for Doxle, thinking he should be familiar with whatever the next steps were but, of course, he was nowhere in sight.

In fact no actual adults were. When the crowd started flowing in the direction of the arena I was able to guess the reason; the Trials were starting and it was time for the applicants to be led to their doom.

We were at one of the edges of the mob and progress into the arena was about as far from swift and orderly as it was possible to get but we stood anyways and began shambling forward like the mindless flesh automatons we were being treated as.

“I’m staying with you,” Mellina said and I caught a flicker of sincerity in the bare trace of honey and woodfire scent that I could make out.

I turned my head and nodded, adding in a probably unnecessary “Thanks.” She knew I was grateful for her presence. I think.

“Kelthas,” the sandy haired boy said, jostling close to make sure the crowd didn’t push us apart.

“Yarrin,” the smaller boy said. It was easier for him to stay with us since he took up less space. That would stay true until someone bigger decided they wanted his space at which point we’d lose sight of him in an instant. I cast another glance at Mellina and replied with a quick nod of understanding before taking up a position just behind Yarrin.

“Kati,” I said.

I wasn’t sure if Mellina’s idea would work, or if we’d be able to have a team size of four. The front of the line was maddeningly hard to see and more than once I was tempted to climb a particularly tall girl in front of me like a tree to get a better view. Fortunately for her sake, and my dignity, the crowd’s pace gradually picked up and before I went completely out of my mind the entrance gate was in sight.

A moment’s observation as we drew close to it revealed that teams were being assigned by the proctors who were directing the flow of applicants into the arena. There might have been more bored and disinterested people in the Empire, but if so the man and woman at the gate were giving them a solid run for the prize spot.

“Three, I need the next three,” one of the proctors said when it was our turn to at the front. I looked to see if the group behind us was a three or four person one but before I could do a headcount I felt an unseen hand nudge me forward.

So I walked forward.

When you’re working with an invisible partner, not drawing attention to their presence is more or less the best strategy at all times.

“Ranking member of your team?” the proctor asked. I was going to answer that, as weird as it would have felt, but Yarrin stepped forward. 

“Greyfall,” Yarrin said, placing him as a scion of one of the five most powerful Houses.

The proctor checked his list, snorted, and handed Yarrin a a brass coin from the pile of brass, silver, and gold on the desk between them. After waving Yarrin through, he gave a similar coin to Kelthas and me and passed us on too.

I was watching for it and still almost missed an unattended brass coin vanishing from the stack.

My smile of satisfaction faltered a moment later though when we entered the arena proper and I was able to smell all of the blood in the air.