Monthly Archives: March 2023

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 24

“Those who trade in power without conscience or compassion, who argue that because they can do something it is naive to suggest that it matters whether or not they should be able to do it, they are often the first to cry foul when someone reminds them that kindness is not weakness but rather a choice, one which their actions have placed them beyond the reach of.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

I think there was a moment of silence. I don’t know. My head went a little funny after Kelthas died. 

He was the armor bearer. 

He was the one I wasn’t supposed to need to worry about.

I hadn’t known him for more than…than what? Two minutes? Two hours? How long had we been taking this stupid exam?

He was supposed to be fine.

He was supposed to pass without a problem.

He was a shoe in for a spot with one of the Houses. One of the big houses. His power was great. Everyone wanted someone whose magic was literally ‘be indestructible’.

Except he wasn’t.

But he should have been.

Yarrin said he should have been.

No one was supposed to be able to break Tantarian Mail like that.

And he’d…

The black quadrant of the ring filled my mind.

It was a lie.

It was supposed to be safety.

It was supposed to be the end of the Trial.

I think laughed.

I think the people around me moved away.

He’d surrendered.

He’d given up his dream.

He’d done what they wanted.

I remember thinking that and I remember the world sort of dissolving.

Everything was solid. Everything stayed where it was. Nothing changed.

Nothing except me. 

“This trial is done,” the proctor said and people were carrying Kelthas away.


Kelthas was already gone.

They were carrying away the meat and bones and fluids he’d left behind.

The ones he’d spent a whole life building.

They weren’t him, he was something so much more than that, but they were still important. They were how we had known him.

“The trial is done,” the proctor said and I focused solely on him. Was he repeating himself because the crowd was yelling? Was everyone silent still? I don’t remember and I’m not sure I knew at the time either.

“For the next trial we call…”


They were not getting to choose anymore.

I leapt from my seat. The other applicants had waited for the transport disk to carry them over. I…waiting wasn’t an option.

“Me. I’m next.” I wasn’t asking or suggesting. I was giving the proctor a chance to leave.

“You were not called,” he said, searching the papers he was carrying. “Return to your seat.”

I didn’t reply to that. 

I wanted him to try to make me. I wanted him to lay one finger on me. I wanted him to order the other proctors to carry me away. I wanted him to give me an excuse. Any excuse.

“No, let her stay,” the Imperial Cadet said. “She’s clearly another mongrel that needs to be put down.”

“You are not scheduled to fight this one,” the proctor said.

“Then change the schedule. This one didn’t learn from the last example, so she gets to be the next one.”

I smiled.

It wasn’t happiness. Happiness doesn’t shrink your vision down. It doesn’t make the world seem oh so distant. It doesn’t hunger for hot blood to wash over lips and a death rattle to ring in ears.

The proctor vanished.

Or he walked off from the platform.

I don’t know. I didn’t care.

I wasn’t waiting for the whistle to begin either.

I wanted the Imperial Cadet to be ready.

He needed to know exactly what was happening to him.

Surprise. Panic. Despair. Begging. Those were all for later. He needed to think he was ready for what was to come.

A whistle blew anyways. Somewhere far away. Beyond the mountains, across the oceans, outside the circle of my world where it didn’t matter.

I sank into a crouch. I might have been breathing, but I probably wasn’t. I was waiting. I needed to see the look in his eyes. The one that said he was sure he was going to win.

“Paralyzed with fear are you?” he said and his expression shifted, but not to the right one “Here, let me make it easy for you.”

He put his blade down, thrusting it tip first into the platform and stepping forward so that it was out of easy reach. He threw his arms wide, inviting a strike.

I kept watching him. He wasn’t there yet.

After a moment of standing there with his arms out, irritation crossed his face. He looked like an idiot. That was a small delight but not the one I was looking for.

“I see, you’re just wasting time, hoping to win by running the clock out. Well we can’t have that.” He turned and picked up his sword again.

It was the perfect moment to strike.

I didn’t want the perfect moment though.

 He needed to understand that what was coming wasn’t cunning or trickery. He needed to understand that he wasn’t the predator he thought he was.

With his sword in hand, he turned back and began stalking towards me.

He expected me to dodge, or flee, or maybe even dash in with a lightning quick attack.

Instead I finally let myself look up and match his gaze.

“You should run,” I said. “If you run now, you might get away.”

I all but whispered the words, but I knew the sound amplifying magics on the platform would carry them to his ears.

“I will never run from a mongrel…”

I came out of my crouch and began walking directly at him.

I think that was when he sensed the danger he was in because he shut up mid-sentence and brought his sword into a defensive posture.

“Now this is more…” he started to say but I punched him before he could finish.

I don’t have Idrina’s speed. I didn’t need her speed though. What I needed was enough force to put a fist sized dent an inch deep into the armor he was wearing.

That knocked him back to the center of the platform and I kept walking towards him at the same measured pace I had been.

“That’s enough of this,” he said and his sword did the same strange thing it had done when he fought Kelthas. This time it wasn’t alone though. The dent in his armor vanished as it seemed to reassemble itself from tiny pieces and reform into a subtly different configuration.

He didn’t waste time with banter after that.

With a long arcing leap he brought his blade down in a brilliant, blazing path at me.

Apparently he assumed I would sit there awestruck and watch it happen.

I did not.

Stepping into his jump, I let him pass over me so that I could grab his ankle.

He did not land well.

I lifted him up by the ankle and swung him in another arc making sure he did not land well again. It was a balm to my soul to hear bones breaking. I might have been content to continue on with that until the armor I was gripping was nothing more than a well mixed bag of stew but the Imperial Cadet had other ideas.

He hadn’t lost his grip on his sword despite my treatment of him and since I was focused on reducing him to a chunky beef stock, I wasn’t paying much attention to what he was doing.

So of course he stabbed me.

Normally being stabbed in the arm will damage muscle tissue and may break a bone. It wasn’t something I was familiar with from experience but I knew the structure and composition of my arms pretty well. They got used a lot so I’d take extra care with them. Enough that I knew a single stabbing strike was not supposed to sever my right arm about two inches above the elbow.

I had nerves to scream at me about the pain, but I wasn’t available for those sorts of messages at the moment which meant all I felt was annoyance.

The Imperial Cadet was able to get away while I picked up my fallen arm and reattached it. As I knit the two parts back together the Cadet got to his feet and I frowned. Cutting off my arm wasn’t completely out of bounds. Bodies are pretty squishy, but he’d cut through the nice new armor Doxle had given me too.

It was silly to complain about that given that he’d managed to cut through Tantarian Mail but I wasn’t in a particularly rational mood at that moment.

“Ah. A form shifter,” the Imperial Cadet said. “Probably thought that was going to save you.”

I hadn’t. What I could do with my body was helpful, but I hadn’t put any thought into how I was going to survive. That wasn’t what this was about. 

His armor and blade reconfigured themselves again, and it smelled terrible. 

And familiar?

Most of what I could smell was blood. My own, his, Kelthas’, so I wasn’t really parsing what I was experiencing well but something about his magic sent a shiver crawling over my skin.

The next time he struck, he stabbed me through the heart.

Which also took out my left lung.

Which was really annoying!

I had just rebuilt both of those!

His strike was a good one. Swift. Clean. No hesitation. I probably couldn’t have dodged it even if I’d cared to try. It did have one problem however. It left his right hand within arm’s reach of me.

So I tore it off.

He was less than happy about that.

Which was delightful.

I wanted to get up and follow him as he stumbled back, clutching the torn stump and howling in disbelief but the sword in my chest was a problem.

It shouldn’t have been

I like having a heart and lungs but I don’t need them exactly.

The sword was doing something else though. 

It was messing up my magic on a level I wasn’t used to.

I couldn’t tell what it felt like either. Usually magic has a smell to it and a texture if I’m touching it. This was embedded in me and it felt like nothing at all, while outside, my tactile experience of the world was wobbling and bending like an image would in a twisted mirror.

That made no sense at all to me either.

With my newly reattached right hand, I yanked the sword out of my chest and dropped it just as quickly. I hadn’t meant to but whatever weird effect it was generating my only-sort-of-functional right arm did not appreciate.

“You die for that,” the Imperial Cadet growled. “You die now.”

He extended his remaining hand and the sword flew back into it.

Because, sure, why not.

This time he came in with a crossbody slash, burying the sword through my collar bone and diagonally into my spine. It was less pleasant than I’m making it sound.

I’d had enough of him at that point though and so when I grabbed his arm in both my hands I not only stopped the blade from going any further, I shattered his elbow by reversing the direction it bent in.

“That’s…not possible. You…you can’t be doing that,” he said after screaming in a reasonably satisfying manner. We’d finally reached the begging phase.

To an extent he was right though. His sword was really messing me up. The horrifically fatal wound aside, whatever weird magic it was generating was shutting down my access to bits of my magic I actually needed.

And it was the sword doing it.

Not him. 

I couldn’t tell much about its magic, but that part was clear.

So I broke it.

And his armor went with it.

Even in the state I was in, that struck me as interesting.

Not interesting enough to spend any more time playing with him though. He was shaking and had lost the ability to form coherent sentences. 

We were done.

Raising my hand, I let my no longer impeded magic flood through it and grow my fingers in a beautiful set of talons.

Right before I could strike though, I froze.

Which wasn’t my idea.

“Mercy now will spare you from a rich harvest of troubles later,” Doxle said. He wasn’t anywhere close to me but I heard his voice like a gentle whisper from just behind me.

The scent of ashes and lightning wrapped around me like a comforting blanket.

It was almost a sweet moment.

But then I smelled oil and brass and another spell began to strangle me.

This one wasn’t Doxle’s but I recognized it anyways.

It was the same effect the mana suppression cuffs had held.

Looking down I saw seething hatred in the Imperial Cadet’s eyes.

“No magic to save you now,” he said, completing the last gesture of the power dampening spell.

He’d jammed the stump on his right arm into the pile of his fallen armor and it had reformed into an apparently working gauntlet. 

And he’d cast a spell on me with it.

And I was paralyzed by my Advisor.

“Forget I said anything. Do as you will,” Doxle said and the paralysis faded.

Before the Cadet could say or do anything else, I slammed my taloned hand into his chest.

Through skin.

Through ribs.

Through lungs.

And wrapped my hand around his heart.

He was gurgling in that moment but still alive so I shared one final piece of wisdom with him.

“You should have learned what surrender meant.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 23

“Anger is a misunderstood force. It is so easily equated with fire and destruction, but that is not its genesis, though it does burn, and it does destroy. The seed which anger blossoms from, wrongly in so very many cases, is the desire to protect ourselves from pain, and loss, and powerlessness. That anger fails to serve its intended purpose more times than not does not mean that it is wholly without merit however. Sometimes things should burn.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxel of the Fire Flame

I’m not sure why the dueling elite of the Empire had decided that falling out of bounds should lead to a fatal drop, but the fact that the platform for the third trial rose exactly as high as the one in Doxle’s dueling room left me wondering whether he an Enika had been conspiring to give Idrina and I a preview of the challenge we would have to face. 

A part of me hoped she understood the lesson Doxle had imparted about not being able to use boundaries outside the arena since in this case there weren’t any.

That part of me was foolish because if Idrina passed her trial we would certainly come to blows again, and after her performance in the first trial I was pretty sure our next fight was going to turn out worse for me than our first one.

‘If she passed’? I don’t know who I was kidding. I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that Idrina Ironbriar was going to pass the third trial, probably with the highest marks out of the incoming class. It was possible her brother wouldn’t make it, but even that seemed unlikely. He trained with her. She wouldn’t have bothered with that if he was hopeless and compared to her even a fairly impressive level of skill didn’t have much hope of keeping up.

“We’ll want to watch the fights carefully,” Mellina said. “The Cadets will be holding back against the people who’ve bribed themselves into a position in the Academy, but even then we might learn something.”

“Yeah. The Cadets like to show off,” Yarrin said. “They might miss, or pull back on the force behind a blow but we should be able to see some of their better moves if we wind up going later. Hopefully we won’t get called in first though.”

“Why? Do we really need to see what they can do if all we need to do is survive?” Kelthas asked.

Yarrin’s jaw took on a hard set but it was Mellina who answered the question.

“They like to make examples of the first few applicants,” she said. “They think it unsettles the rest.”

“They’re not wrong about that,” Yarrin said.

I didn’t want to ask which sibling he’d attended a trial to watch, not when it was exceedingly unlikely that the sibling in question was still alive.

“Oh, well I hope it is me then,” Kelthas said. “I can take a beating better than most of the folks here. It’s what I’m built for.”

Yarrin gave a pained expression at that and I smelled the certainty in his fear that Kelthas was wrong as well as the hope that it would never become an issue.

I couldn’t argue with that, even with all the candidates who’d been eliminated  there were still close to a hundred applicants left. Random chance said we were likely to be somewhere in the middle of the pack.

But random chance was not what controlled our fate.

The first applicant called forth was Nelphas Lightstone. 

“Seems unfair to start with the setting the bar so high,” he said, a ring on his hand flaring as it amplified his voice. It was unnecessary. The arena was already enspelled to amplify whatever was said within it.

His opponent, the first Cadet to take the field floated on a small disk dispatched from the larger one where the other Cadets were waiting. 

“Yeah, yeah, let’s see what you got hot stuff,” the silver haired Cadet said, rolling his shoulders as he walked to the center of the arena without a care in the world.

“Get ready for a show that’ll blow you away then,” Nelphas said and that’s exactly what it was.

The whistle to begin sounded and the arena filled was more flashy dramatics than a midsummer’s parade. Nelphas opened by summoning a bow of light that threw explosive star bolts at the Cader, who in turn parried them with a sword wreathed in silver fire. 

The poison blast Nelphas had used in the first round appeared next only to be frozen in mid-air by the Cadet.

The Cadet sent undulating dragons composed of silver flame at Nelphas but Nelphas dodged away from them with a wholly unnecessary sumersault which took him into the blue quadrant.

The rest of the battle proceeded just like that. The Cadet would attack with a big showy spell that only ever succeeded in moving Nelphas from the blue to the red quadrants and back again. Nelphas would respond with an even more dramatic attack with was so unfocused as to pack no more punch than a light breeze. I had almost zero experience with watching caster duels and it was still blindingly obvious that they were only playing with each other. They both seemed intent on running the clock out and filling each second with as much spectacle as possible.

The crowd, both the applicants and those who’s managed to score seating in floating guests boxes, loved every bit of it. There were cheers, gasps of breath and even a chant of Nelphas’ name as the three minutes drew to a close.

When the final whistle sounded, the two ‘combatants’ met in the center of the ring and shook hands.

“The match is ended. Are there any who will speak for this applicant?” the lead proctor asked.

“House Lightstone speaks for this applicant,” a tall and almost skeletally thin gentleman in one of the bigger guests boxes said.

A cheer went up as though the outcome had been in slightest bit of doubt. Nelphas drank it in as though he’d proven himself a Hero of the Empire with his exhibition match. A disk was dispatched from the Lightstone’s guest box to take him off the platform but the Cadet waved it away and insisted that Nelphas take another disk back to the Cadet’s box, an honor Nephlas seemed to be only too happy to receive. 

The next two people called were other nobles, and while they didn’t put on quite the same show that Nelphas did, the general flow of the ‘Trial’ was more or less the same. The silver haired Cadet seemed quite happy to allow his opponents to take their best shots at him and refrained time and again from delivering blows that would have knocked them out of the ring or into the black quadrant.

I should have been happy about that. After the brutality of the last two rounds, I should have been delighted at the return to something resembling civility.

“Next applicant, Kelthas Greenfield, report to the dueling circle,” the proctor called out.

My edges went wobbly and I smelled vomit as my breakfast made a bid to escape.

He couldn’t be going in. It was much too early.

But he was.

“At least he’ll be able to put on a better show than the last two,” Mellina said.

I expected Yarrin to say something in response but his gaze was locked straight ahead. I followed his sightline and saw what had captured his attention.

A new Cadet was being called in.

“Who’s that?” The Cadet was too far away for me to smell but my instincts were screaming about him anyways.

“I don’t know,” Yarrin said, no happier than I was.

Mellina looked between the two of us and caught the gravity of the situation like an infection.

“He did well enough in the first two rounds. He can run to the black quadrant and he’s still sure to get picked,” she said, willing that future to come to pass.

Neither Yarrin nor I challenged her.

It was possible.

It could happen.

“A peasant?” the Cadet said as he took his place in the center of arena, surprise and malice dripping from each word. The tabard he wore over his armor bore a variation on the Imperial logo, so I couldn’t tell if he was from one of Great Houses that despised the general populace more than the others, or if it was purely a personal issue “How disgusting. Someone will need to show you where you belong.”

“I belong right here,” Kelthas said. “And in three minutes, I’m going to belong over there.” He pointed towards the Cadet box where the former applicants were sharing congratulatory ribbing from their new Cadet companions.

“No. You won’t be,” the Cadet said and my nose caught an alien smell that I knew had to be coming from him.

I drew in a deeper breath and almost missed the whistle blowing to start the match. There were too many scents still to isolate anything about the Cadet aside from a few whiffs of a sour-bitter acid that felt like it was melting my nose when I focused on it too much.

The clash of steel on steel brought my awareness back to the scene before me and, surprisingly, it looked like Kelthas was doing well.

Rather than racing towards the black quadrant, Kelthas had leapt towards the center, meeting the Imperial Cadets first thrust with a solid shield block that knocked the Cadet back two paces into the black quadrant.

Kelthas waited for the Cadet to step forward again, avoiding stepping any closer to the black quadrant and allowing the Cadet the chance to change his stance and fix his grip.

Then they were fighting again, blow after blow of steel crashing against steel but to little avail. Kelthas’ armor was justifiably renowned for its durability and, for a duel where he only needed to survive for a short period of time, it was one of the best possible options to have.

“Oh. Yes. I see,” the Imperial Cadet said, informing no one of anything, just flapping his lips to hear himself speak.

He adopted a new posture and I saw a weird effect pass though the blade of his sword. It swelled slightly and shifted bits and pieces of it around, though it happened so fast I was only able to construct that impression well after the fact.

His next blow struck at Kelthas’ left knee and a shower of sparks erupted. Worse, Kelthas dropped to one in response to the hit.

I could smell blood but looking at the arena, there hadn’t been much spilled. I tried to cling to that as a hopeful sign. I really tried.

Kelthas rose to his feet in time to parry the next blow, but the move cost him his sword as the Imperial Cadet’s blade cut right through it.

Throwing away the blade, Kelthas staggered back and tried to summon a fresh one to his hand. He wasn’t Indrina Ironbriar though. He still needed to speak the words and perform the hand gestures and the Imperial Cadet did not give him time.

With a double handed overhead chop, the Imperial Cadet shattered the Tantarian Mail from Kelthas’ right hand’s armor and broke the arm at the same time.

Kelthas tried to draw a dagger with his left hand but the Imperial Cadet kicked him and sent him flying to the side to land in a heap on the border between the blue quadrant and the black.

On shaky legs Kelthas stood again and for a moment I thought he was going to end the fight by taking the one step he needed to take into the black quadrant.

Instead he raised his left hand and began gathering the spell force for the bolt he’d used in our first trial together.

It was a desperate plot and a stupid one. The Imperial Cadet was on him before he was half finished and slammed Kelthas with another blow had shattered the mail from Keltha’s left hand too and broke that arm too.

“That’s not possible,” Yarrin said. “You can’t break Tantarian Mail like that. It’s not possible.”

And yet, as we watched, it happen again and again. Kelthas tried to step over into the black quadrant but the Imperial Cadet blocked his movement, forcing him back with a series of blows which blew away huge chucks of the Tantarian Mail from Kelthas’ chest, back and thighs.

With a final blow he shattered Kelthas’ helmet and let Kelthas fall to the ground.

Broken and bleeding, Kelthas  crawled the three feet to the black quadrant before saying, “Okay, it’s over. I surrender.”

The Imperial Cadet cocked his head at that.

“I wasn’t taught the meaning of surrender,” he said.

And then his blade fell on Kelthas’ neck.

I could have survived the blow.

But Kelthas couldn’t.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 22

“It is neither uncommon nor unhealthy to yearn for the approval of others and to be concerned about their approbation. We are social creatures and it is in our bonds where much of our strength lies. Those who are close to us can provide more strength and wisdom than any one person could hold within themselves. 

Sadly this same coin bears another face, on which is written our greatest weakness and most deadly vulnerability and every time we let another person understand who we are, the coin is flipped.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxel of the Fire Flame

I wasn’t sure returning to my human form would matter, but I did it anyways. Thankfully, going back was the work of only a moment; my body knew that form without a need for me to consciously shape myself into it. For better or worse, it was who I had become and who a part of me would always be.

I expected some debate on that subject however. Too many people had seen me become something else. The question of how they could know that I was who I claimed to be followed naturally from that and was a particularly perilous one. For me. For them. And for people who I absolutely would not allow to be harmed.

The whistle sounded the end of the trial as I finished pouring myself back into myself. Apart from moving the extra mass away, the most challenging part of the transformation was ensuring my clothes and the new armor I was wearing wound up distributed properly around the outside of my body, rather than folded into it as I’d done when transforming.

Typically the organs would have been the trickiest bit. Circulatory systems are just the worst to get connected properly, but since I’d needed only the outer shell of a Felnarellian I’d been able to keep my innards intact. Most of the work I’d done in transforming had been modifications to my limbs, spine, and face, with a bit of general muscle bulk thrown in on top of it to complete the look and let my body hang correctly..

Getting rid of the bulk was the simplest bit. Human muscles were built to size up and down. Granted I’d oversized them well beyond what a human could ever become, but the right pathways were there for them to shrink away. 

Next up in complexity were my limbs. I hurried through that since no one was likely to notice if I left an arm a half inch longer it had been. 

My face I took a bit of extra time with, covering it with my arm as though I was wiping away sweat. Getting all the angles and proportions right was something I couldn’t have managed if I hadn’t had more than a decade of practice at it already. I didn’t need the extra tactile sense of what was happening to my nose and chin from touching them with my arm but it didn’t hurt either. 

I thought I was finishing up when I heard Mellina call out my name and smelled the proctors getting close but that was when I noticed I’d put my hands on backwards.

Not a brilliant move, I admit. Sometimes hurrying the simple things is a terrible idea. I made a show of folding my arms in front of me and then throwing them open as Mellina appeared through the fog. From a distance it might have approached a natural gesture but the important thing was my hands wound up in the correct direction on my wrists.

“Sorry, there were traps around the pit where they placed the trigger so it took me a bit of extra time to reach it,” Mellina said. “How bad was the beast?”

“I’m glad you needed the extra time,” I said which earned me a puzzled look.

The proctors arrived before she could ask me to explain and we both allowed them to escort us out of the fog and over to the winners area for those who’d be moving on to the final Trial. I wanted to give Mellina the details of what had happened but we were surrounded by the other winners before we could get a second alone.

I’m not overly fond of crowds, especially unnecessary ones. The proctors had us squished into a tiny corner of the seats despite the increasingly obviously reality that there wouldn’t be enough winners to come close to filling the space. Knowing that there were many of the ‘favored nobles’ still to go though it was easy to guess who the extra space was being reserved for. 

“Fantastic work you two!” Kelthas said, pulling me out of my scowl of thoughts, as he and Yarrin pushed past a few people to get to us.

“Were you able to watch what happened?” I asked, looking to Yarrin  and dreading but already knowing the answer.

“Most of it,” Yarrin said. “I saw you fighting the Reaving Beast until Mellina got to the banishing spell. You and it were really going at it so I’m sure I missed some of your moves but it was impressive anyways. It looked like you were trying to ride it when the banishment spells went off?”

I had not been fighting Cathoas or trying to ride him. He’d already returned to his home plane by the time the spells triggered. 

Was Yarrin lying to protect me? If so questioning him with all the other winner’s ears around wouldn’t help that effort at all so I shrugged and said, “Things happened pretty fast,” which at least had the virtue of being technically true.

“Did you have any problem with your beast?” Mellina asked Kelthas.

“A little,” Kelthas said. “It laughed off my attacks and tried to chew on me for a bit but when I wasn’t crunchy enough for it, it turned and went looking for Yarrin.”

“Your ‘a bit’ was long enough,” Yarrin said. “They didn’t hide the traps on ours all that well, but I did need some time to get by them.”

Which meant we’d gotten lucky in how we’d been split up. If the teams had been Kelthas and I, neither of us could have found the banishment spells all that fast, and a team of Yarrin and Mellina wouldn’t have had anyone to keep the beast away long enough for the other to trigger the spell.

That might have been luck, but I had a suspicion growing in my mind and it bore the mark of Doxle’s claws on it.

“We’re alone for the next one?” I asked

“Yes, though our opposition won’t necessarily be,” Mellina said. “They sometimes send in multiple Cadets against the applicants, depending on the scenario they’re running.”

“But we don’t need to win this round right?” Kelthas asked.

“An applicant can still be admitted if they are defeated in the final round, based on their performance throughout the trials,” Yarrin said, his voice taking on the quality of someone reciting text he’d had drilled into him from the official rulebook time and again.

“Also based on how much a Great House thinks it can earn from the applicants brand of magic,” Mellina said. “You should be in good shape there. Everyone knows how good Tantarian Battle Scourger Mail is and almost everyone wants some in their House Guards.”

I wasn’t clear on how indebted we would wind up being to whatever Great House selected us, or how much agency we would have in approving our selection by the Great House which ultimately spoke for us. My guesses the those answers to those questions were “very” and “virtually none”, but that was something I could deal with if I survived the next trial. Mellina had said House Astrologia would speak for me on her word, but I wondered if that would still be true given what I’d revealed about myself already.

The rest of the second round of the Trials passed by in a blur. Yarrin was able to narrate some of the events, sparing us from spending the whole time staring at a wall of fog helplessly.

I’d shaped a few more cheats inside my nose to see if I could pick up any hint of my sister’s scent but the stink of the arena drowned out everything else. It wasn’t a useful endeavor but that was possibly true of the trials in general.

On the other hand, I’d at least made it past the second trial, which was more than many could claim. In all, only around half of the applicant who entered the fog managed to reach the banishing spells. Of the other half none emerged under their own power though maybe half of those were still sufficiently alive that they were brought to the medics tents.

I couldn’t see what happened to the other Reaving Beasts and part of me decided that was probably for the best. I was angry enough at the senselessness of the trial system, it was not going to do me any good to dwell on the fact that the Trials had a far greater body count than anyone was willing to acknowledge due to all the people from other worlds who were swept in, driven mad with pain, and then dispatched by the equally terrified applicants.

In the end, the survivors of the second round were called into the arena together. They cleared the fog away, revealing a dueling platform, similar to the ones Doxle had in his house except much wider. An array of discs, also familiar from Doxle’s house, were arranged in a ring around the dueling circle and the proctors didn’t waste any time shuffling us onto them.

“For your final Trial you will face a senior member of our Cadet Corp,” the oldest looking proctor said. “As you can see, your dueling circle has been divided into quadrants, blue, red, green, and black. You will begin in the green quadrant at the rim. Your opponent will hold the center. While you are in the green quadrant you may use any skills or spells you possess, but your time will only count towards survival. Survive for three minutes and you will have finished the trial. Finishing the trial does not mean you have passed it however.”

That was puzzling. What was the point calling the trial done if we hadn’t passed it? I was not alone in wondering that, though I opted not to wonder aloud as some of my fellow applicants did. The proctor took no notice of the muttering though and continued on.

“Should you move to the blue quadrant, you may only assault you opponent or defend from their attacks with magic. The use of martial weapons will result in disqualification. While you are in the blue quadrant, you will earn one point towards your magical rank ever three seconds. The reverse is true with the red quadrant and your martial rank. No spell casting at all in the red quadrant.”

Which left one obvious question and another that I was more interested in the answer to.

“Should you enter the black quadrant you will be declaring your surrender even should your entry into the black quadrant be forced by your opponent,” the proctor said, answering the obvious question at least. “You will retain any points you have accumulated if you end your match by entering the black quadrant.”

That was surprising until I considered the nobles who’d bought a pass into the Academy. The black quadrant was their ticket out of a brutal beating. All they needed to do was sprint through one of the other quadrants, and tap out in the black in order to finish with some points towards a rank they could probably buy up later.

“Leaving the arena will also result in disqualification and the loss of all accumulated points,” the proctor said. 

“What if we beat the Cadet?” Nelphas called out, his voice dripping with arrogance.

“By all means, we encourage you to try. Defeating your opponent will set you to sixty points towards both your magical and physical ranks and end the trial immediately in your favor.”

“Except for the part where you’ll be very dead for even making the attempt,” Mellina whispered to me.

I wouldn’t be, and I knew she and Kelthas would be okay but Yarrin’s fate was looking somewhat dire. His best bet might be to follow the rich nobles’ game plan and sprint to the black quadrant so that he would at least survive? Stepping out of the arena and forfeiting his chance would be even better at keeping him alive, but he seemed intent on going through with the trial so that wasn’t an option.

“Are there any questions?” the proctor asked, to which my answer was ‘yes, several dozen at least’, but before anyone could respond he turned his back with a “good, then let’s begin”.

The dueling arena rose into upwards and the discs we were on joined it. Dark storm clouds had gathered over the course of the trials and as we ascended to meet the final challenge before us, the boom of thunder growing ever closer shook the sky.

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.