Monthly Archives: April 2023

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 33

“Sometimes I wonder why I even bother. Then I remember that if I don’t bother with things, things will most decidedly come and bother with me.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxel of the First Flame

For setting off on a stealthy heist, we attracted a worrisome amount of attention. Narla stood head and shoulders over most of our fellow Cadetlings, and Ilyan seemed to know at least half the people we walked past as we headed towards the dorms.

“Yeah, nice form in your fight too!” he said with a wave to a blonde haired kid who seemed to be organizing a squad of Greyfall cadets. “Catch ya tomorrow.”

We took about four more steps before a red haired girl from Greendell punched him on the shoulder and said, “You beat me by four whole points you jerk.”

“Can’t let you win all the time Gennie,” Ilyan said, hamming up how much the punch had hurt.

“Let me win? Oh, I am so gonna get you next time,” she said, her smile betraying the odd lack of murderous instinct most of the people who greeted Ilyan seemed to have.

The easy camaraderie he shared with a decent chunk of the incoming cadets was simple to understand. Where Idrina was iron and sweat, he was cozy cotton and aromatic tea. Oh, and nearly as deadly as she was.

From what I could tell, he hadn’t been holding back in his last trial any more than she had, and had only lasted as long as she did because the Decent Cadet had limited himself to fighting in Ilyan’s preferred style. Granted Ilyan’s preferred style didn’t leave much room for invoking other techniques or magics, but Idrina didn’t need room. She made room.

Despite being second best to his sister though, he’d still placed in the Top 10 of the incoming students, and with all of the support he clearly had I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why he’d asked to be sponsored by House Riverbond.

The obvious solution to that would be to ask him, but it wasn’t like I could kick him out if I didn’t like his answer.

Also, it was somewhat nice being invisible in his and Narla’s shadows.

Not that people couldn’t see me. I was walking in the front because I was still expecting a lethal attack to come at any moment, and even someone foolish enough to try that couldn’t be foolish enough to think that I wouldn’t repeat my performance from the arena on them if they targeted someone else besides me.

The other Cadets moved out of my path, but no faster than they would have for any other traffic that was trying to pass. I would have mistaken that for indifference to the brutal murderer in their midst except for the razor cuts of panic which stabbed through most of the cadets when they recognized who I was. 

Most didn’t let their unease show but even the ones who suppressed their reactions the best didn’t make any particular effort to share pleasantries. They wanted me gone and I wanted to be gone, so silence suited us all.

Narla did not believe in silence any more than Ilyan did though.

The half of the cadets that he didn’t know? Those ones were all best friends with her.

“You won me ten crowns Narla! I love you!” a beefy and newly minted Astrologian cadet said.

“Only ten?” Narla said. “Who was betting against me?”

“Hah, like anyone wanted to bet against you?” Beefy boy said. “We were betting how many hits you’d need to win!”

“Oh now that’s what I want to hear!” Narla said and flexed for beefy boy, a gesture he returned before they parted company.

I cast a glance at Mellina to see if this looked anything other than completely mad to her. She replied with a small shrug reminding me that while she knew more about the Great Houses than I did, we were both well outside our familiar domains here.

Yarrin might have been able to comment on the reaction our two arena stars were getting but he was staring absently forward. His jaw wasn’t set and his shoulders were lose but his eyes were not tracking anything that was in front of us.

“Over here,” he said and directed us to a side passage between two buildings which led off the expansive quad we’d been walking through. 

Ilyan and Narla waved to a few of their friends/admirers and joined the rest of us as we marched into the shadows.

“Can you work with this Mellina?” Yarrin asked, stopping as we reached the midpoint of the small alley.

“Yes. This is perfect,” she said and turned to the rest of us. “I can get us to one of the unused dorms unnoticed, but it will be a lot easier if we’re quiet and avoid attention as best we can without relying on my magic. Also, don’t swallow the shadows. I can’t promise you’ll be safe if they get inside you.”

Since no bad idea ever started with a warning like that, I nodded for her to continue.

“Sorry if this feels weird,” she said before closing her eyes and inhaling deeply.

I was expecting a fatal attack to come next – it would have been the perfect time for an assassin to strike – but what we got instead was Mellina breathing out slowly and the shadows around us dripping down to the ground like cold oil. What the shadows left behind was not of our world, and wasn’t something any of us probably should have been looking at for too long.

I looked anyways, because, well, I’m me, but after a moment of staring into the other world I caught the scent of discomfort. Whatever was there, it didn’t want to be gazed upon.  So I stopped. I was curious, not rude. Grammy had taught me better than that.

Also the shadows which had run down to the ground were crawling up my legs.

And they felt as much like cold oil as they looked.

Around and around, they wrapped me up and I felt their magic smothering my own. We weren’t where we were supposed to be anymore. We were where they lived.

Without a word, Mellina waved us forward and Narla and Yarrin started to follow her.

I wanted to do the same but pushing through the shadows was distinctly uncomfortable. They weren’t hurting me, but I was pretty certain they were going to.

To my side, Ilyan was struggling against his too. Where I was trying to figure out which form would let me slip free of the shackles the shadows were trying to bind me with, he was straining to break free of them by sheer force.

I know I didn’t look terribly good, but I felt I kept the panic I was feeling off my face better than he did. I’m sure Mellina would back me up on that. We hadn’t known each other long, but she would lie for me I think.

Yarrin came back for Ilyan and calmed him down with a wordless touch on Ilyan’s shoulders. With gentle touches, he guided Ilyan’s hands down from the fighting posture Ilyan had taken when the shadows started flowing up us. 

Yarrin then gestured for Ilyan to exhale and relax. 

Ilyan nodded and followed Yarrin’s lead, his whole body untensing for a moment before Yarrin took his hand and led him forward for a few example steps.

I turned from Ilyan’s victories over the shadows to find Mellina close by and ready to help me. She threw a glance toward Ilyan, questioning if I understood what he’d done.

Breathing and relaxing, I tried to take a step forward.

And the shadows bound me tighter.

I let my dismay show and Mellina waved her hand before tapping me on the center of the chest and the middle of my forehead. She then repeated the gesture Yarrin had used for ‘relax’.

Which made sense.

Shadows weren’t a physical thing, so why would relaxing our bodies matter to them?

And they weren’t hurting anyone else.

I knew that. Believing it however was not as easy.

If I could understand what they were doing, I knew that would make things easier.

And I could find that out by devouring one of them and breaking their magic down.

Which, of course, was exactly what Mellina had said not to do.

And she knew her own magic.

I looked into her eyes again.

She wasn’t trying to kill me.

This was her magic and she wasn’t trying to kill me.

Whatever was in the realm beyond the shadows, or whoever this power was drawn from may not have been overly friendly, but the power was flowing through Mellina.

I let a long breath out and shoved a bunch of highly reasonable fears aside. 

And I could walk forward at last.

The shadows were still binding me into the form I was in, and only that form, and that stability was uncomfortable but as we walked I started to understand it.

The shadows were limiting me, and they had to. They had to bind us to the world we knew because without that the flow of magic which kept us hidden would have swept us into the realm where Mellina’s magic came from. Walking on the shores of that realm was safe enough, but out in the depths of it lurked all sorts of things we didn’t want to meet.

Our trip to the abandoned dorm took only a few minutes, Yarrin had chosen our starting point well, but it still it felt like hours to get there. 

It also appeared to be a wasted effort at first glance.

Mellina had led us to a blank section of wall beside one of the other dorm buildings and then through a perfectly disguised rotating door to a secret area beyond it.

A secret area which was full of dead and withered plant life as well as a shattered door leading into a darkened, and overgrown interior.

The shadows dropped away from us and Mellina gestured to the broken door in the frame.

“We’re here,” she said. “Hopefully.”

“Not bad, not bad,” Ilyan said. “It needs some work, but it’ll clean up nice.”

“Gives us a room over our heads even for tonight I guess?” Narla said.

“We don’t want to take away any of the plants from here,” Yarrin said. “Or clean up at all.”

“We’re going to live with it like that?” Narla asked, which I wanted the answer to as well.

“This isn’t where we’re going to live,” Mellina said.

“But you just…” Ilyan started to say but Yarrin put a hand on his forearm and cut him off.

“This is our ‘doorway’,” he said. “The trick is we need to get through the door. Not the broken one you see there. The real one.”

“Oh! This is all an illusion,” Narla said.

“Not quite,” Yarrin said. “What you see now is all real. What’s an illusion is that you’re not seeing where the door really is.”

“The real door is a portal, but it’s hidden here somewhere,” Mellina said.

I liked that idea. People not being able to find where I was sleeping seemed infinitely preferable to waking up with a poison dagger in my heart.

“I heard about these,” Ilyan said. “They’re impossible to find, aren’t they?”

“Found it!” Yarrin said, pointing towards…I wasn’t sure what he was pointing towards.

I wasn’t sure because there was a compulsion spell making me look away from the direction Yarrin was pointing. 

I sank my teeth into the spell and prepared to tear it to shreds but stopped myself before I damaged it.

“We don’t want to reveal this place to anyone else, do we?” I said.

“It would be safer if only we knew where it was,” Mellina said.

“Let me just do this,” Yarrin said and drew a sign in silver light on the air. In the light of the sign, the ‘Look Away’ compulsion faded and marble door with tiny glyphs carved into the image of a roaring water dragon on it stood where the broken door has a moment earlier.

“Look through my sigil,” Yarrin said. “Focus on the door for five seconds. Four. Three. Two. One.” When he hit zero the silver tracing shattered but the new door remained.

“We’ll be able to see this door for a year and a day now,” he said. “If we survive till next year, we can either move or I can cast the spell again.”

“This door looks a lot nicer than the other one,” Narla said. “I don’t just mean the carvings either. Someone cleaned this. Recently. Like it’s still damp.”

As she said that the door creaked open to reveal Sea Cotton, the mist woman from Doxle’s house waiting for us.

“Come on in,” she said. “Your rooms are almost ready, and dinner is on the table.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 32

“The best method of ensuring that you are always far busier than you would ever prefer to be is to attempt to expend as little effort as you possibly can. A life dedicated to idleness and ease inevitably comes to ruin beneath a mountain of tasks no mortal can ever hope to accomplish. It is worth noting however that a life dedicated to productivity and hard work comes to the same end, hence why I shall ever fight for what I believe in, and do my very best to do nothing at all.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame on his third day of mucking the Imperial Stables

Idrina had all but killed me. She wanted to take another shot at it and she wasn’t hiding that fact. The reptilian survival center I’d built into my brain was screaming at the idea that I was within eyesight of her, much less weapon deployment range. So why, in all the ten thousand hells, was my bedraggled heart beating quicker at her claim that I was a worthy opponent?

Worthy opponents were people she wasn’t going to hold back against.

That was terrible.

I’d seen how she’d fought the Decent Cadet. I couldn’t fight like he could. If she didn’t hold back about 80% of her strength and speed I’d be rebuilding body parts for weeks after our next clash.

And my stupid lips were joining in my heart’s conspiracy, curling up into a friendly smile which Idrina absolutely did not return.

“Let’s see what exercises they put us through tomorrow,” I said. It was a promise. If the Cadets were setup to fight each other – and there was zero chance the instructors weren’t going to inflict that on us at the first opportunity – I was promising that we’d have another deadly little dance.

And I was looking forward to it.

I had no excuse for that. It was completely irrational. I had no reason to want to fight her again. I had been dreading that exact eventuality. I was still dreading it.


Nope. I was not following that line of thought. 

“You okay with me taking in your brother?” I asked, desperately casting about for anything that would steer the conversation somewhere, anywhere, else.

Idrina’s blank expression flickered through a brief moment of puzzlement before returning to neutral.

“He did that to himself,” she said.

“Any idea why?” I asked. That might have been an insensitive question, Mellina, Yarrin, and Narla all apparently had less than favorable relationships with their families, and from what I’d seen in Doxle’s house, the Ironbriars were kinda big on House loyalty.

“He had never been one to do his duty,” she said.

There was anger in her words and longing in her scent, and for once in my life I managed to stop myself before I said anything really stupid.

The awkward pause that my silence left in the conversation was broken by Proctor Jalaren rapping on the podium atop the small stage in front of us and the Imperial Elites who’d appeared at the head out of each column of Cadetlings coming to attention.

Idrina straightened up and took on a statue-like solemnity, while I followed Narla’s example and turned to face forward, standing somewhat less causally than I had been.

“People will offer you congratulations on passing the Trials and taking your new roles as Imperial Cadets,” Jalaren said, his voice no longer magically amplified but still loud enough to carry to the back ranks of the cadets. “They are mistaken. They do not know that your trials have only just begun. By this time next year, half of you will no longer be Cadets. Some will have had the sense to purchase a more comfortable position, and the wisdom to be content with being able to claim that you ‘attended the Imperial Academy’. Others will too broken to function as viable soldiers. The other half will be no more worthy than the rest. Those who proceed into your second year will bear the scars of your training and the knowledge of exactly the sort of suffering you can endure.”

As welcoming speeches went, it really wasn’t.

I wondered if Jalaren was overselling how bad training would be so that the proto-Cadets would be braced for and able to weather a somewhat gentler reality. After the bloodbath the Trials had been though my suspicions ran more towards the idea that he was underselling what we had to look forward to. That could explain why all of the third year cadets seemed to be irrationally aggressive.

“If this is not what you thought you were signing up for, I say to you leave now. I say this knowing that you will not. ‘I’m different, I can take it’. Each of you believes that and each of you are wrong.”

Well, he had me pegged there at least. 

Not that I was interested in enduring years of misery and suffering just for the privilege of being used as one of the Empire’s very special attack dogs. I just needed to get inside the Academy and have the time I needed to search it thoroughly. 

If I could pick up Trina’s scent again? If I could follow it back to its source? I…I honestly had no idea what would happen then. I’d certainly be willing to drop out of the Academy, but the fact that she was here, or had been here, was so impossible that I couldn’t imagine what the future beyond discovering the answers I was looking for could be.

I drew in a long, searching breath and found her scent only in my memories. It was here, just not on the winds that blew in the setting sunlight.

“Why will we do this to you?” Jalaren asked, and shockingly all of the mini-Cadets understood that it wasn’t a question they were expected to answer. “We will hurt you and break you and even possibly kill you because what emerges from this Academy as an Elite will be required to face far worse than that.”

Again, fantastic sales pitch. Definitely a job I was all in on signing up for.

Also he was lying.

The Imperial Elites had a mythic reputation, but according to Grammy Duella that dated back to a time when the Empress still ruled, and the Empire was beset by foes who only champion level troops could engage with. The original Imperial Elites could slay an army alone and in the squads they worked in, could withstand the oldest of dragons and the most terrible of summoned Fiends.

No one bothered messing with the Empire like that anymore though. At least not within the Empire’s boundaries because no one wanted the headaches of dealing with Reaving Storms (and everyone was afraid that if the Empire fell, those storms would roll across the rest of the world too).

The Empire had holdings outside its centuries old borders, but those were defended by the Imperial Foreign Legions, aka the expendable and largely non-magical troops drawn from the common masses who were paid handsomely for however brief a time they managed to survive.

I knew Grammy’s view of the Empire came with a heaping helping of biases – there were reasons she lived in a cottage in the middle of the forest and they weren’t ones that involved either love or tolerance for what the Empire had become. Even trying to correct for those though, I felt she was probably more right than not. If the Imperial Elites were able to live up to their mythology, the Cadets wouldn’t have been so eager to murder the weakest of the applicants. 

There was nothing disciplined or admirable about the pack of killers the Academy had assembled to represent the output of their instruction. Nothing worthy at all about them in fact, unless you were a Great House lord looking for people who would happily kill to advance your interests.

A stupid smile crept back onto my face. 

I was better than them.

Well, me and Narla. 

Idrina had said so.

I scowled the smile away. I could not afford to let myself buy into that line of thinking. It didn’t matter if I was better than them. No one would care about that if they knew what I really was. They would simply kill me, without hesitation or regret.

“Your suffering will begin tomorrow,” Jalaren said. “For tonight, you will find your place in the dormitory of the Great House which spoke for you. Your senior Cadets have arranged welcome dinners for you all. I suggest you enjoy your repast, make what allies you can, and sleep the last peaceful and sound sleep you will enjoy for the next three years. Cadets dismissed.”

We had no training, and no organization, so that of course signaled ‘The Great Milling About and Going Nowhere in Confusion’ as a mass of clueless students tried to figure out where to go and who to follow.

Over the disordered din of the crowd, amplified voices began to call out the names of the various Great Houses which had been present to speak for the Cadets. Lightstone was first, probably because the House’s ego could have filled the entire assembly area we were in. Greyfall, Ironbriar, Greendell, Astrologia and the others were heard from next, in some cases repeatedly as the Senior Cadets came to collect their new fledglings.

House Riverbond didn’t have any Senior Cadets though.

Nor did House Riverbond have a dormitory, at least not as far as I knew.

Somehow Yarrin, Mellina, and Ilyan made it through the crowds to meet up with Narla and I though.

“Inspiring speech,” Narla said. “Are we supposed to sneak out with our tails between our legs now, or just sometime before dawn do you think?”

“I doubt they’re going to let us sleep until dawn,” Yarrin said. “Especially not this year.”

Because this year they had a whole bunch of extra Cadets that they needed to get rid of still.

“Have we worked out where we’re sleeping at all?” Mellina said.

“The ground’s nice and flat here,” Ilyan said gesturing to the rapidly emptying field around us. 

The few proto-Cadets who were nearby gave derisive laughs at that before scurrying off to their new Houses sheltering arms. 

“I feel like House Riverbond should be able to do a whole lot better for you all than just this,” I said gesturing to the lonely desolation around us. 

“Pfff! You didn’t ask for any of us, and we all know you didn’t have time to prepare for this,” Narla said.

“Yeah, if I wanted to make someone feel bad, I would have signed up with Ironbriar,” Ilyan said.

“We can do better than this field too,” Mellina said.

“Does Astrologia have a few rooms they’d rent us?” I asked. Holman had seemed to be on good terms with her, and she’d originally offered to have her House speak for me, so it seemed like that bridge might not be entirely burnt away.

“Oh, umm, no I don’t think so,” Mellina said. “They’re probably fairly cross with me at the moment.”

“You had something else in mind, didn’t you?” Yarrin asked. 

“We have a diverse and useful set of skills,” she said. “We don’t have to be given a dormitory if we can simply take one.”

“Fight one of the other Houses for their dorm?” Ilyan said. “Count me in!”

“Me too!” Narla said.

I sighed. I’d thought I was going to be the unhinged one in any group I wound up in. Instead I had not one but two House mates who were vying for that position. 

That they immediately exchanged a fist bump and a nod of approval with each other told me it was even worse than that though. They weren’t vying for anything, they were quite willing to share the position and inspire each other to go even further.

“Not to spoil your fun,” Yarrin said, “but I think there are dorm rooms which aren’t being used at all.”

“There are, but they’re locked up tight and warded against intrusion,” Mellina said.

“The wards won’t be problem,” Yarrin said. “Not if they can still be opened.”

“And the locks won’t be either,” Narla said, slamming her left fist into her right palm.

“Repurposing” some rooms from the Academy was a terrible idea and there was no chance at all that we’d get away with it. Someone was going to ask where we’d spent the night and whatever answer we gave the truth would be discovered, probably in short order.

And I simply didn’t care.

“Let’s go steal ourselves a dorm then.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 31

“There are but few constants in this life, and of them all it is the ineptitude of those in positions of authority which is the most comforting. True, most people find that reality annoying, and it is often a justified reason for mass homicide, but in its oh so dependable consistency one can find the latitude to get so very much accomplished.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxel of the First Flame

So, I wound up with Idrina’s brother in my fledgling House. That was a fact that I was absolutely certain would cause me no trouble whatsoever. None at all. Idrina, for example, wasn’t going to take that as another insult against Ironbriar and break my poor twice battered heart again. House Ironbriar itself wasn’t going to join Lightstone and Greyfall in taking umbrage at their children who I’d collected under the banner of a House that I didn’t actually have a legitimate claim to represent. Everything would be fine. Completely fine.

I clung to that belief as the Trials wrapped up and Jalaren directed that the winning applicants, or perhaps the ‘surviving’ ones was a better term, were to line up up inside the Academy for our first orientation speech.

I wasn’t clear why we would need more than one orientation speech, but at this point the Imperial Academy working under a set of counterproductive and arbitrary rules failed to come as much of a surprise.

“I believe congratulations are in order,” Doxle said. “To all of you. You have taken the first steps on the path to true wisdom!”

That sounded complimentary, and the others seemed to take it in that light, but it wasn’t. Wisdom doesn’t come from making good decisions, it comes from suffering the consequences of poor ones.

“Are they going to let you into the Academy?” I asked, wondering if he would be tailing along after me from here on out.

“Lady Riverbond, there are precious few places in the Empire which anyone can me from, and the Imperial Academy is most certainly not one of them.”

I didn’t frown quite as hard as I could have. Having Doxle shadowing my every move was going to complicate the real work I wanted to do inside the Academy, but he wasn’t hiding his scent and so I had a strong guess as to what his next words would be.

“That said, there are also a great many places which I have little interest in visiting at present, and the Imperial Academy is most decidedly on that list as well.”

“Are you still responsible for my actions if you’re not around to stop them?” I asked. It was in no sense a hypothetical question, and I had no illusions that Doxle would mistake it for one. 

“Even more so than when we are together,” he said and offered no further edicts or reminders to be on my best behavior. Oddly that was more effective in convincing me to make sure I wasn’t caught doing the misdeeds I had in mind than any of the alternatives would have been.

“When will I see you again then?” I asked, the broken gears in my brain spinning in calculation of how much I could get done in whatever time I have available.

“Tomorrow night I should think,” he said. “Though circumstances could easily change between now and then.”

Since he was going to be able to take my magic no matter where he was, I wasn’t sure what could change that would lead to him find me sooner, but from how he seemed to get on with people I could easily imagine his return being delayed a while.

“Send me an invite if you get married again,” I said as our spectator box touched down and my House started filing out.

“I assure you should I find a suitable spouse, well, honestly I’ll probably be divorced by the time you hear of it, but if there are invitations you will mostly likely receive one,” he said.

That was a joke. Or at least he meant it as a joke. Part of me wondered how often it had been the truth though. Part of me wondered what had broken a demon to make him be like that. And part of me had absolutely zero interest in finding out.

I waved a thanks to Doxle and set out to follow the others who were marching into the Academy with the much reduced crowd of applicants.

Or I guess we were fledgling Cadets now. That thought did not do wonders for my beleaguered insides.

Doxle gave me a small bow of his head and turned, vanishing halfway through the twist of his body.

“They’re going to line us up according to our scores,” Mellina said when I caught up to her. “Where should we meet up afterwards?”

“Where will they let us meet up?” I asked.

“Each House has it’s own dorm,” Yarrin said.

“All of them? Even the ones who weren’t speaking for anyone here?” I asked.

“No, just the sponsors, they…” and that was when the problem I’d noticed a moment earlier hit the rest of the people I’d spoken for.

“We don’t have a dorm, do we?” Mellina said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “To be honest, until Doxle spoke for me, I had no idea that was a thing the Riverbond family could do.”

“Maybe there’s an empty one?” Narla said.

“No worries,” Ilyan said. “We can just sleep under the stars if we need to. I had to do that for training a bunch of times.”

He had a point. It wouldn’t be the end of the world to spend a night outside. A courtyard in the Academy had to be more comfortable than a jail cell with magic dampeners clasped on your arms, legs, and throat. Looking at Mellina and Yarrin though I wasn’t so sure how well they’d do with a night of exposure to the elements. Narla might have a problem too, but her magic smelled like it was strongly biased towards the physical, much like Ilyan’s was, so low temperatures and exposure probably wouldn’t be an issue for her, though if it came to that I intended to ask to be certain.

“That’s a problem for after orientation,” I said. “We’ll work something out so that no one freezes or starves.”

I didn’t want to have to kick one of the other Houses out of their dorm rooms, but I was willing to keep all our options on the table for now.

The crowd funneled down into a single file line, which let one of the proctor’s (not Jalaren, he seemed to be entirely absent) sort us by checking our names against a list which reflected the points we earned from fighting in the proper quadrants.

“Riverbond? Row 1, position 2,” the proctor said and waved me through the checkpoint.

Narla followed me, having received ‘Row 1, position 1’ as her assignment. That placed us at the far left edge of a roughly square arrangement of new Cadets, most of whom were standing on disc on the group which bore their row and position number and facing forward towards the slightly raised stage in front of us.

It didn’t occur to me what our positions meant until I was standing on my assigned disc and I saw how the other people who had filled in were grouped. Yarrin was on the farther side of the formation, in the rightmost row and the furthest back position. Mellina was notably closer being in the second row from the left and midway down it. The other new Cadets were filling in the spots between us based on how well they’d done. That I was in the second highest spot, behind only Narla finally clicked and became terribly real when Idrina took the space directly behind me.

The rules for the scoring came back to me in a rush, fractured neurons knitting furiously back together and reminding me that ‘defeating’ the Cadet we were facing gave us the maximum possible point value.

“Congratulations on your victory. You fought well,” Indrina said. Her voice was flat and unemotional but her scent suggested she was being sincere?

I turned to try to read her expression because her tone and scent were too at odds for me to make sense of.

Catching her gaze did nothing to help that though. She wasn’t like the Lightstone rep, where he’d been surrounded by rigid walls of anger which the steel in his will prevented from ever being unleashed. From Idrina, I didn’t smell any rage, or at least not any directed at me. 

“You fought much better than I did,” I said, stating what was clearly the plain truth.

“I did not defeat my foe,” she said. 

“You also didn’t lose control,” I said. “And my surviving that was as much luck as power or skill.”

“He missed your heart, didn’t he?” she asked. “I wondered if he’d come close with the cut through your collarbone.”

“That was bad,” I said. “But the sword he was fighting with was a problem all on its own. He did something to it I’ve never seen before. Transformed it, but he didn’t look like he was using magic. Or at least not his own.”

“Are you sure?” she asked, tilting her head slightly and focusing on me completely.

“Yes. The sword had its own magic. I can’t tell you what kind of magic it was or what it was capable of doing, but I am sure it was external to him.”

“They give the Cadets new enchantments to test sometimes, but I’ve never heard of one being used in a Trial before, or one that has its own Hollowing. I thought the only tools they gave the Cadets for the Trials were standard mana amplifiers.”

I hadn’t known there was a thing called a ‘mana amplifier’, standard or no, but I kept that to myself.

“If I can find another one, I can examine it closer and with a clearer mind,” I said. “I don’t believe my wounds threw off my perceptions that much, but it would be good to rule that out.”

“Are you wounds healed already?” Idrina asked.

“Mostly,” I said. “The major damage is okay now, but there’s a lot of minor injuries that I need to work on still.”

I wasn’t sure why I was admitting weakness to someone who was responsible for a decent portion of it and was demonstrably capable of inflicting far worse on me. I had to chalk it up to my brain not being fully rewired yet.

Also Idrina wasn’t conjuring spears at the moment, and that made her seem a thousand times easier to talk to than she’d been the last time we’d been within melee range of each other.

“We should spar then,” she said.

Because that was definitely something that wouldn’t leave me bleeding out on the ground with multiple fatal puncture wounds to deal with.

“That depends, are you going to break my heart again?” I asked.

“Would it matter if I did?” There was no animosity in the question from what I could tell, just genuine curiosity.

“It’s not terribly pleasant,” I said.

“What we do isn’t meant to be pleasant,” she said.

“I’m aware,” I said and gestured to the drying blood stains I was wearing over pretty much all of the clothes I’d been given.

“We should spare so that we can improve,” Idrina said. “If we hold back, we won’t learn as much.”

“Do you want me to improve though?” I asked.

“You are a Cadet now,” she said as though that explained everything.

“After today I don’t have a particularly high opinion of Imperial Cadets,” I said. “Present company excepted.”

I don’t know why she was an exception. As far as I could tell she was just as bloodthirsty as the rest of them. 

Except, in her it wasn’t really bloodthirst.

I drew in a long breath through my nose and tasted a world of determination from Idrina but not a single whiff of sadism.

“They don’t matter,” she said. “They’re not worth measuring anything against. Most of them.”

“Who is then?” I asked.

“Only a few people,” Idrina said. “Two of whom are starting in this line in front of me.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 30

“Our victories can bring us comfort, while also planting the seeds for future defeats. Should we fear victory then? No, of course not. That would be stupid. Making ourselves small and terrified, and losing because we’re too afraid to win is a living death. Striving to win, knowing that it will bring even greater challenges? It’s the Fool’s Path, but with the world we live in, is there anyone wiser than fool who embraces what they are?”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle

I don’t know why it came as such a surprise to me that the Cadet I’d brutally murdered would have a younger sister. Great Houses had a lot of kids. It made it easier to sell a few off to other Houses or swap in a spare when one or more of them got killed. 

It should have been reassuring too that Narla was looking at me with a happy and hopeful expression. Announcing that I’d killed her brother was clearly not the beginning of a blood vendetta’s declaration.

On the other hand, she’d hit someone hard enough that with one punch she caved in an armored chest and had sufficient force remaining to launch the rest of the corpse a good thirty feet off the platform.

I was hard to kill, and somewhat stupidly aware of that fact. There were extremes of force however that I would have a hard time tolerating and staying away from Narla Lightstone seemed like an incredibly wise course of action if I wanted to make sure I never wound up getting turned into a bag of jelly.

“Sure. Why the hell not,” I said, fully taking leave of my senses.

Jalaren scowled at me and waited.

“I don’t think that’s formal enough to count,” Mellina said.

“House Riverbond will speak for the applicant,” I said, feeling honestly bad for the nonsense Jalaren apparently had to put up with on a continual basis.

Jalaren shook his head and sighed. It wasn’t hard to see why. I was making a hash of his carefully controlled (and probably bought and paid for) trial process.

“House Lightstone speaks for the applicant,” the Lightstone rep repeated. “She is ours by Right of Birth Investiture.”

What that was supposed to mean, I had no idea, but Doxle bristled at the words and started to get up. Before he could contest them however, Enika spoke up from the Ironbriar box.

“You will want to withdraw that claim Synoda,” she said. “Or have you forgotten the responses the Scion of a House is allowed to make to an attempt to assert ownership over them?”

“Oh! What can I do?” Narla asked. From her posture she was unconcerned and undiminished by whatever stratagem her House rep was trying to pull on her.

“You can declare War on your house,” Enika said.

“Don’t be absurd. She can’t declare war on us. She’s ours,” Synoda Lightstone said.

“I’m afraid she’s correct,” Doxle said. “The second paragraph of the Right of Birth Investiture is quite clear on the remedies the offspring is provided. Should she force you to sue for peace, she may name any price up to half the wealth of the Great House as her prize.”

“She will not declare war on us,” Synoda said.

“Like hell I won’t!” Narla said. “Like I said, I’m not interested gramps. Leave it at that or I will War all up and over your face.”

“And who would support you?” Synoda asked. “You cannot stand against your whole House by yourself.”

“She won’t be alone,” I said, standing up too because if everyone else was getting to be all dramatic I didn’t see why I should miss out.

I honestly didn’t expect Mellina and Yarrin to stand with me as well, and I absolutely did not expect about half the applicants to rise from their seats too.

You’d think that sort of moment would feel amazing, and you’d be right, but I was also keenly aware that things were escalating a lot quicker than I had any hope of keeping a handle on, and part of me was dearly hoping they’d escalate even further, which was absolutely a bad sign.

“Take this path and you will be cast out,” Synoda said, entirely unphased by the small army that had risen to have Narla’s back.

“Yeah, I know, that’s fine,” Narla said. She probably didn’t need to add in the dismissive shrug, but the stifled rage it induced in Synoda I’m sure made it was worth it.

“House Lightstone withdraws its offer. Narla Lightstone is dead to us and will be stripped of position and title, to no longer enjoy the shelter and protection of our house,” Synoda said. As threats went it wasn’t even slightly subtle.

I wasn’t sure if he actually possessed the authority to disown her, but it seemed pretty likely that whoever did would back up his words.

“The applicant has an offer still standing,” Jalaren said, struggling to drag the proceedings back to the sham of formality they’d worn in other years I imagined. “Does she accept.”

“Hell yeah, I mean, yes, I accept Riverbond’s offer,” Narla said and started walking towards the edge of the platform nearest us.

Strangely, no one jeered her this time or suggested that the disc wouldn’t be able to hold her weight. Shocking to see that the Cadets did in fact possess some rudimentary survival instincts.

I knew Doxle could not have been expecting this outcome, but the fact that he’d rented a spectator’s box will room for all of us and more left me wondering about that.

“Thanks for speaking for me,” Narla said when she got to the box.

I could have said something like ‘sorry about killing your brother’, except I really wasn’t, so I nodded to her instead. 

Yeah, I probably could and should have said something insightful or clever or cool but I’m not that good with words. 

 “Think we can spar later?” she asked.

It sounded an awful lot like ‘I just killed a guy with one hit can I try hitting you next’, but Narla seemed so ernest about it my response left my mouth before my brain had any input on it.

“Yeah. I’d like that,” my mouth said with zero help from any higher functions whatsoever.

So, I was going to die.

But the smile that lit up Narla’s face was really a sight to behold.

I’d said the right thing?

That didn’t seem likely, but…

I turned my attention back to the arena where the next match was getting underway. They had to bring in a new Cadet on account of the corpse shaped hole in the schedule the last one had left.

The one that arrived on the platform was heralded by the other Cadet’s loudly proclaiming his strength and that he should ‘kill that little puke’, meaning presumably the applicant.

For about half the flight from the box to the arena, the Cadet played up the cheer, but by the time he stepped onto the platform he was looking much more subdued.

His opponent wasn’t anyone terrifying or impressive. He was a commoner who I’d seen shift his hands into claws and scratch lightning from the air. The shapeshifting part had caught my attention because of its similarity to what I could do and lightning was intriguing because, well, lightning. It’s just bright and cool to see.

Their fight wasn’t a slaughter. Not on either side. The Cadet wasn’t exactly holding back but he also wasn’t going for cheapshots or low blows. Which may have simply been from a sense of self preservation. Two Cadets had died already. Overextending themselves for flashy effect or to sneak a kill in might have served the Cadets well in earlier years but I don’t think anyone was all that eager to become Corpse’d Cadet #3.

In the end, the applicant managed to score a few points by fighting in the colored quadrants and the Cadet managed to keep those points to a minimum by forcing the applicant into unfavorable spots more often than not. It wasn’t the best performance in the trial but it was far from the worst and House Greendell and Astrologia both offered to speak for the applicant with the applicant choosing Greendell.

For all the action and demonstrated peril, the battle felt relatively calm, as did the next several which followed it.

About fifteen fights later there was a moment that looked like it was going to turn bad – the applicant was knocked to the edge of the platform and she only barely caught the edge. All the Cadet would have needed to do was step on her fingers and she would have plummeted to a painful impact (though possibly a survivable one, given her magics). Instead the Cadet took a step back which gave Jalaren the moment to speak and declare the fight over by virtue of forfeiture. 

Either falling off the platform wasn’t a serious enough failing to remove the applicant from consideration, or my poaching a few of the applicants had left the Great Houses hungry to snatch up what they could get before I made any other offers. 

In this case it was Astrologia whose offer was accepted and the Trial continued.

It wasn’t until and dozen fights, as we were getting reasonably close to the end of the applicants that someone else I recognized was called to the arena, though I didn’t notice that till I saw him step off the transport disc.

“Ilyan Ironbriar” turned out to be the name of Idrina’s brother.

He drew the same Cadet that she had and from the looks of it had been expecting that, offering the Cadet a cheerful little salute, which the Cadet returned as a small head bow.

Their fight grabbed my attention from the first exchange.

Like with Idrina, neither fighter was holding back and neither one was throwing anything except killing blows or attacks meant to open the other up for a killing blow.

And yet neither had any interest in harming the other.

Okay, maybe no interest in killing the other. From the hits that they had to let get past their guard, they were kicking and pummeling the hell out of one another with zero remorse shown. 

What they were not doing though was using any obvious, external magic. The speed they moved at and the forced behind their blows was clearly magically enhanced, but from the demonstration they were putting on, it seemed like both of them had exceptionally strong body enhancement magics, to the extent where any other abilities would have been a lesser option to choose against the other.

After all the bloodshed, more violence shouldn’t have been at all appealing, but the dance the two bodies in the arena spun through was undeniably beautiful. To me at least. Each move was so aware of the balance and speed and force involved. Nothing they did was impossible or relied purely on magic to jerk their limbs around. It was a sublime blend of natural motions and magical augmentation, showing what the human form was capable of when it could be pushed to its utmost limits. 

Where the individual hits were too quick to follow, the overall pattern read as cleanly as a book, the dialog between the two fighters one of respect and even a subtle teasing back and forth.

It took me till nearly the end of the fight to really understand the conversation between the two of them though. They were having fun. Standing on the edge of overwhelming catastrophe, the two idiots were all but bursting out in laughter with one another. 

I’d been concerned about fighting Idrina again, but watching her brother tangle with the ‘Decent Cadet’ (as I’d started to call him in my head), gave me a visceral understanding of what a bad idea it was to mess with their House in general.

Where Idrina was frankly terrifying though, Ilyan somehow wasn’t. He fought with the same steely-eyed focus as she did, but something was missing from him, or maybe missing from her.

It would not be healthy for me to hang around either one in an attempt to discover what that quality was, and I knew that. 


Of course.

When it came time for the Houses to speak for Ilyan.

Of course he had to make things difficult.

Because why would my day ever, under any circumstances, get simpler?

“Hey, before you ask if anyone wants to speak for me,” he said, “can we check with Riverbond? Cause I kinda want to join them.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 29

“Strange bedfellows are the very best bedfellows.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxel of the First Flame

Mellina boarded a disc to float over to our box amid the thunderous whispering of applicants in the stands but none of them were able to see the exhaustion I saw in her eyes. When she stumbled getting into our spectator’s box, it didn’t come as a surprise so helping her transition from falling to sitting beside me wasn’t terribly hard. I placed her between Doxle and myself with the thought that we could shield her from any other stupidity the Cadets or the House representatives might try but the wink she gave me as she settled in suggested that wasn’t something I needed to be concerned about.

“I’m not part of the Chirurgeon Corp, but I believe those burns will need to be looked at,” Doxle said.

“Yeah. I hadn’t planned on those,” Mellina said.

“Plans are never all inclusive,” Doxle said. “Those which attempt to be exist merely to summon the most unlikely of misfortunes.”

“I thought Advisors were supposed to tell us how we could avoid repeating our mistakes,” Mellina said, gritting her teeth as a wave of pain swept through her.

“Oh, I can easily do that,” Doxle said. “Don’t apply for the Imperial Academy again. In fact, don’t apply for any sort of program where entrance is gated by a death battle.”

“This is his idea of being helpful,” I said.

“Not at all,” Doxle said. “My idea of being helpful looks like this.” He raised a hand over the Mellina’s should as though he was going to slap it.

“May I?” he asked.

When she nodded he did, in fact, slap her shoulder.

I came within half a second of ‘slapping’ him with a bared handful of claws except I noticed Mellina’s reaction wasn’t one of surprised pain. She sighed in relief in fact.

And her shoulder and arm were fine. No burns, no scars, no sign she’d been injured at all.

“Apologies for the dramatics,” Doxle said. “The magic I used is dangerous to place within you for too long.”

I was ready to nod and accept that as a reasonable explanation for all of three seconds  before an obvious question raised itself in my mind.

“I thought you drew your power from mine?” I said.

“I do drain power from you, yes,” Doxle said. 

“Are you saying my power is dangerous to other people?”

“Were you under the impression that it’s not? If so there are the remains of a Cadet in a several different buckets which could serve as a rather illuminating example of the perils of underestimating what you can do.”

“That’s different,” I said. “He deserved that.”

“No. He deserved far worse. What you did to him isn’t the example however. It’s that you were capable of doing that to him after the damage he inflicted,” Doxle said. “You said your magic had difficulty dealing with the wounds he inflicted. I believe that surviving those wounds was likely meant to be impossible and that the designers of the blade he wielded are going to be most interested in you in the days ahead.”

“Days? Not weeks or months?”

“Oh, they won’t have long to examine you,” Doxle said. “Their new development proved to be a failure and that is going to bring some rather ugly penalties against them from the people they had convinced the project was ready.”

I shrugged. If more people were coming after me then I’d deal with them. It wasn’t like I would have a choice in that, though I might have a choice in how I tried to make sure that they wouldn’t come after me more than once.

I didn’t spend much timing thinking about that. There were more important things to deal with.

“How are you doing?” I asked, trying to catch Mellina’s gaze.

“That really worked. My shoulder feels fantastic now,” she said, rotating her arm as though testing for any remaining twinges of burn pain.

“Not what I meant,” I said. “How are you doing?”

She could have said ‘fine’. It’s what I probably would have done. Mellina however was less of an idiot than I am.

“Oh. I’m terrified,” she said. “My family let me take apply to the Academy because they thought it would make me a more valuable contributor to whichever project they assigned me too. Breaking away from them was not something any of them would have foreseen.”

“I thought prophecy magic doesn’t actually work?” I said, not sure why House Astrologia would be investing any trust in precognition after centuries of disappointments.

“It’s more complicated than that,” Mellina said. “I’m not supposed to go into much detail, so I’ll explain later when there are fewer ears around.

I glanced over at Doxle, wondering if she was concerned with revealing House secrets to an Advisor.

“She means the Cadets and the other Houses,” he said. “I am quite painfully conversant in the limitations and opportunities casters face when dealing with temporal viewing magics, in part because I’ve lost count of how many of the members of House Astrologia I’ve taught over the last few centuries.”

He fell silent which told me he was lying by omission, though I couldn’t tell what it was he was omitting.

I puzzled away at that, and at anything I could offer to Mellina but I came up with nothing on either front. It would have been nice to blame that on my scrambled brains, but if I was being honest with myself, neither guessing hidden motivations nor providing comfort for very real and well founded worries were skills I was particularly talented at.

The next match finished up with both fighters winded but intact. Or maybe it was two matches after Mellinas, I’d lost track of time and what was going on while we’d been talking and since I hadn’t smelled any blood nothing bad enough had happened to drag my attention into the present moment.

I was waiting for one particular name to be called but it took over twenty four matches before Yarrin was brought in to the arena. Of those twenty four, two were obviously thrown by the Cadets to allow the wealthy applicants to get into the Academy with a minimum of fuss. Another half dozen seemed like the Cadets were pulling their punches though they put on a better show for it. The rest were honest matches, with eight of the applicants being forced to step into the black quadrant and failing to receive sponsorship, where another four stepped into the black and had one of the Great Houses speak for them anyways, probably due to how they did on the other trials. The remaining four fought what I thought were good battles. It clearly wasn’t easy for them to hang on and none of them were particularly flashy about it but they all managed to survive without major injuries and racked up enough points for spending time in the blue or red quadrants that multiple Houses bid on them. 

And then it was Yarrin’s turn.

I considered simply leaping into the arena the moment he arrived on the platform. Jalaren would probably object. The Cadet Yarrin had to fight would definitely object. Whether I would care about those objections was a question I didn’t have the answer to.

If it meant not having to watch someone else I knew die, then I was pretty sure the answer was ‘no, I did not care if anyone else’s precious sensibilities were bruised’. I held back though, partly out of the misplaced belief that if something went wrong I’d be ready for it this time and partly because of a feeling I couldn’t articulate that Yarrin deserved a chance to stand on his own.

That his opponent was the same Cadet who’d faced Idrina should have trashed both of the reasons I stayed in my seat. I was definitely not fast enough to stop him from killing Yarrin from where I was and Yarrin had shown nothing like a skill or spell on par with Idrina.

A whistle blew to start the match and I flinched from the shower of blood I expected to see.

Instead of blood though, there was the clang of steel. Yarrin had blocked the Cadet’s first swing. And his second. And riposted against the third.

But something wasn’t right.

Or maybe it wasn’t wrong?

The Cadet wasn’t moving like he had against Idrina. He was still pushing Yarrin harder than Yarrin could keep up with, but his blows were easily less than half the speed they’d been when he fought Idrina.

And he was telegraphing them more.

It wasn’t obvious, and it didn’t look like he meant to throw the match. Any of the strikes he made would have seriously injured Yarrin if Yarrin’s desperate defenses were a fraction of a second slower. 

As it was, the Cadet backed Yarrin into the blue quadrant where physical combat earned Yarrin nothing and then steadily into the black with Yarrin only managing to ward off the blows the Cadet threw by continually yielding ground and dodging towards the black quadrant at every opportunity.

The moment Yarrin stepped foot into the black, the Cadet put up his sword and stepped back. He’d beaten Yarrin cleanly and quickly and used no flashy blasts of magic, and no exceptional feats of speed or strength. At the same time though he hadn’t damaged Yarrin outside of a few light cuts on the arms and legs from the times when Yarrin had only been mostly fast enough to block a complicated series of blows.

“This match has ended in forfeit,” Proctor Jalaren said. “Are there any who will speak for this applicant in spite of their failure.”

It was the same language he’d used for the other applicants who’d reached the black. This time however only silence was the response. I saw Yarrin’s shoulders slump at that and it didn’t look like relief.

“House Riverbond will speak for this applicant,” I said and added, “If he wishes us too.”

People had forgotten I existed I think, or maybe hadn’t recognized that I’d fought with Yarrin in the first challenge and weren’t expecting me to speak up for him after I’d let other black quadrant applicants be dismissed without a word.

“We have a conditional offer,” Jalaren said with a not subtle shake of his head. “Will the applicant accept?”

“The applicant gratefully accepts and formally pledges himself to House Riverbond,” Yarrin said.

“Oh, that’s interesting,” Mellina said, with an expression of being lost in thought.

“Should I not have done that?” I whispered.

Doxle chuckled in response.

“Probably not but it is delightful that you did,” he said.

“It’s going to lead to even more trouble isn’t it?”

“Of course,” Doxle said. “Everything that’s truly worth doing does.”

“Should I ask if we have the money for me to do it again?”

“Of course not,” Doxle said. “Money is as much of a problem as you allow the rules to tell you that it is.”

Yarrin arrived at our spectator’s box before I could press the matter further and the first thing he did was offer me a formal bow.

“I apologize for presuming that pledging to your House would be acceptable,” he said, taking the seat on the other side of me from Mellina when I gestured to it.

“No apology needed. We’re not much of a House at the moment though,” I said.

“You don’t seem to be likely to kill me for being an embarrassment. That’s more of a House than I had when I entered the arena,” Yarrin said, and I understood a lot more about him.

I nodded and said nothing. I thought about killing some of his immediate family, but that seemed like it would be counterproductive.

My thoughts had been running towards homicide more than I was used to, and that didn’t change with the next applicant.

It wasn’t anything about her though. She was amazing. Easily half again my height and probably four times my mass, but it was the sheer confidence she radiated as she stepped off her hover disc that caught my attention the most. 

What turned my thoughts back to homicide was, predictably, her opponent.

“I can’t believe the disc could float all that,” he said, and the crowd laughed with him.

Seriously, I would be doing the world a favor to just jump into one end of the Cadet box and not stop tearing bodies apart till I reached the other end.

Narla however didn’t seem to care. I’d caught her name when Jalaren called it out and dismissed her at first because she was yet another Lightstone. 

The Cadet produced twin columns of fire from his hands and forged them into sharply curved sabers.

“Looks like we’re going to have roast pig tonight,” he said just before the whistle blew.

Narla extended one arm and waved her fingers in a ‘come on over here’ gesture, which the Cadet was eager to do anyways.

He charged raising his fire sabers high for what would have been a pair of slashes to her throat.

And she punched him.

No wind up. No particular effort involved. Just a step forward and a good solid punch.

The Cadet’s body flew off to the platform and if the punch hadn’t crushed all of the organs in his chest, I was pretty sure from the crunch at the end of his fall there wasn’t a lot of functional parts of him left.

Having just taken a fall like that I did feel a small bit of sympathy for him, but avoiding that fate would have been so simple. Idiot.

Narla stepped back and bowed to Jalaren before turning to the House Representatives.

“Well, that match is ended,” Jalaren said, clearly surprised at how brief it had been. “Will anyone speak for this applicant?”

“House Lightstone will speak for her,” her House rep said.

She waited a moment before turning in a direction that was suspiciously close to facing me.

“Sorry Gramps, I’m not interested,” she said. “Riverbond killed my brother. I want to be in her House!”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 28

“Some days everything goes according to plan and no one behaves in an entirely unreasonable manner. I tell myself that. I invest my faith in that. I bend my will to shaping the cosmos for that to be a Thing Which Is True. There is, I am coming to believe, no greater or more powerful magic I could ever shape than to make that belief into reality for at least one damn day and despite the centuries which have shown me otherwise, I will persist in my belief till the stars themselves are ground down to dust if that is what it takes.”

-Xindir Harshek Doxel of the First Flame

The screams which wrenched my eyes opened started at most a few seconds after Jalaren called for the match to begin. That seemed  remarkably fast given that the Cadets seemed to like to play with their victims. The first scream was one of simple fright, the kind any sort of jump scare might provoke. The quiet that followed was replaced by more screams only a heartbeat later.  It took me about that long to work out that it wasn’t Mellina who was screaming.

My innards were a mess still and for a moment I was left wondering if I’d scrambled the visual feed from my eyes or perhaps my brain as a whole. 

In the arena, Mellina was sitting down in the blue quadrant. Her legs were folded beneath her and her arms were outstretched in a highly dramatic and, I suspected, wholly unnecessary pose. At first glance she looked like she was concentrating fiercely, but the tremor that ran through her body wasn’t one of dire exertion.

She was laughing.

She was laughing and doing an excellent job of hiding it. The crowds seemed to fooled, with the applicants, cadets, and even most of the spectators buying her performance.

Of course said performance was helped by the Cadet who was flailing viciously at enemies that were either invisible or purely figments of his imagination. Since he wasn’t dead, or even bleeding, I assumed Mellina’s magics were messing with his senses somehow, and I gained a new appreciation of how horrifying illusions could be.

I’d ripped a Cadet into multiple pieces, but the poor fool who’d been so eager to face Mellina looked like he would have preferred it if I’d jumped into the ring instead.

Not that she was totally safe it turned out.

In a desperate bid to defeat some horror only he could see, the Cadet flung a curtain of burning tar out with a wave of his hand. By luck more than anything else, he’d picked a direction that was facing Mellina and she went from pretending to be concentrating to dodging as fast as she could.

To her credit, Mellina was pretty fast. She almost avoided the whole stream of fiery tar. Sadly ‘almost’ still meant that a fair bit splashed on her and I had to fight to stay in my seat as I watched enough fall on her arm and shoulder to give her a nasty burn.

My reward for keeping a cool head was getting to watch what the Cadet did. The moment his tar hit Mellina, he seemed to snap out of whatever spell she had on him.

Emphasis on ‘seemed too’. 

In a blink, he went from desperately thrashing at the air, to regaining his compose and focusing on his quarry.

The sound amplification spell made sure we all heard the various profanities he hurled at Mellina and the Cadet’s cheered him on as he began to stalk towards her, raising walls of burning tar on either side of her.

Or rather where he apparently thought she was. As the walls went up, we saw that the space he hemmed in was entirely empty. The real Mellina had been forced to flee from his attack into the basic green quadrant, but the Cadet was moving and throwing his attacks as though she were standing a few feet to the left in the red quadrant.

I’m not sure if he even saw it as the red quadrant though since Mellina wouldn’t have had any reason to position herself there given that her ‘attacks’ were all magical in nature.

He got about halfway into the red quadrant before he reached out, grasped empty air and mimed throwing someone to the ground.

“Beg for your life,” he said. “Beg for it and maybe I’ll let you be one of my slaves.”

I probably shouldn’t have gotten out of my seat at that point, and this time Doxle was nearby enough to do something about it. In this case he didn’t paralyze me though. He simply laid a hand on my should and said, “Watch.”

I don’t know if he could see the illusions Mellina was casting – he probably could – but he was right. If I’d jumped into the arena and disemboweled the Cadet like I’d planned to, the poor boy would have had cause to thank me.

Instead, he seemed to hear an answer to his demand that he didn’t like and struck out with another stream of burning tar, enough to drown and immolate his imaginary adversary. If Mellina had been there she would have died in agony and I would have had to make good on my threat, and then probably die after jumping into the Cadet’s box and taking out as many more of them as I could manage in an effort to purge some of the madness that had clearly gripped the world when I wasn’t looking.

Instead, he turned away and raised his hands in victory, waving his hands to drink in the cheering of a crowd which simply wasn’t there. 

His waving froze and his body shuddered as Mellina got back to her feet. 

She was in pain and she wasn’t laughing anymore.

With deliberate slowness, the Cadet began to turn back to the spot where he’d ‘’killed’ Mellina. I couldn’t see his face but every muscle in his body was rippling with the terror that was running through him.

He turned and ran and, for a moment, I thought Mellina was going to force him to run off the platform and fall to a potentially messy demise.

She wasn’t that kind though.

Before he could reach the edge of the arena, she cast something in front of him that was even more horrifying than whatever was chasing him.

I didn’t want to have a clear view of his trousers gaining a sudden pool on their front, but it was difficult to look away from the spectacle he was making.

With another, still more shrill scream, he collapsed and started scrambling backwards. Burning tar flew in front of him, to both sides of him, and (somewhat disastrously from his point of view) above him.

Casters are not always, or even often, immune to the effects they summon, anymore so than someone who lits a fire with a match is immune from the blaze they create.

The Cadet’s screams as he was covered in his own burning tar were no worse than his earlier ones had been, but they weren’t going to stop when the illusion ended, which was nice.

Or maybe nice isn’t the right word.

I wasn’t feeling terribly nice. 

I probably still needed to fix my brain. 

Or the world.

I blinked and shook my head. I definitely needed to fix my brain if that’s where my thoughts were running.

Glancing back at the arena, I noticed that I might not be the only one whose brain wasn’t firing its neurons in anything resembling peaceful harmony.

Mellina’s eyes had rolled back and she was twitching in a manner that looked neither painless nor intentional.

That was the last sight of her I had before a curtain of deepest blue rose from the platform like a geyser and washed the world away into a sea of darkness.

It was not a friendly sea either. Things lurked in its depths and the island I stood on was not going to shield me from them. 

Not going to shield me from it.

It was rising.

Vast and terrible and unknowable.

It had slumbered for aeons out of mind and it was waking.

As it rose it brought with it the shattering of the world. The sky was going to crack, the ocean boil and the land drown as madness poured from the heavens.

Of everything wrong with that, the second worst part was that the calamity to come wasn’t going to bring death in its wake.

It wouldn’t let humanity die.

It would never grant a single human release.

What was the very worst part?

The worst part was that it knew my name. 

It knew who I was. 

It knew what I was.

And it was calling me home.

Welcoming me.

The whole world filled with screams and I was pretty sure mine were some of the loudest.

And then, as fast as the darkness had flooded over us, it receded.

In the arena, a weird rainbow of light danced over Mellina as she pounded his fists against the floor of the arena, clearly fighting to regain control of herself. With a scream of her own that was amplified by the arena loud enough to ring out across the city she smashed through the magics around her and the light she was gripped by swirled one more time before pouring back into her eyes and mouth.

That she collapsed after that was not surprising in the least. What I didn’t expect was Doxle’s reaction.

“Well now that’s a shame,” he said with a wistful sigh.

“What is?” 

“That she stopped so soon,” he said. “That was rather delicious. I suppose Holman would do something unpleasant if I asked her to do it again though. Ah well.”

That told me either his experience or his tastes were very different from mine. Comparing notes to work out which was true would lead to the sort of questions I had no interest at all in answering though so I kept silent.

“This match is ended. Are there any who will speak for this applicant?” Jalaren asked as Mellina picked herself up off the arena floor looking spent and bewildered.

That last bit hadn’t been a stunt. She’d legitimately lost control of her powers and been on the verge of magic-induced madness. Or maybe more than just the verge given how wobbly she looked.

“House Lightstone will speak for her,” their representative said. His box was floating nearby to Doxle’s so I could see that he was just as stone faced as he’d been before. His scent was different though. He was hungry for her power, and not in a nurturing sense. He wanted to hurt people and he was thrilled at the idea of how well she could do that.

“House Astrologia will speak for her as well.” Astrologia’s representative was farther off so her scent was more obscured but from her tone I had the sense that she assumed Mellina’s loyalties had already been bought and paid for since she was a scion of their family.

“House Greyfall speaks for her as well.” He was close by too, and had more or less the same scent as Lightstone did. Apparently almost defeating a Cadet made her valuable and turning into a psychic bomb accentuated that, even if it was possibly something she could only do once.

Unless the “only once” was the part they desired.

“House Riverbond speaks for her too!” I said, shouting to make sure I’d be heard.

I had no idea what Astrologia’s plans for her were, but I’d be damned before I let Lightstone and Greyfall be her only options.

Apparently proclaiming yourself the speaker for a Great House was a good method of attracting attention, maybe ever more so than tearing a Cadet into bloody chunks in a berserk frenzy.

The gazes I received from the people nearest us were anything but friendly, bu if they expected me to back down, they’d never met anyone Grammy Duella had raised.

“Multiple offers have been made,” Proctor Jalaren said. “Which will the applicant accept.”

The right answer was almost certainly Astrologia’s offer. No one would question it or get bent out of shape over a daughter of the House taking the House’s offer. Lightstone and Greyfall had probably only made their offers as an opening bid towards working with her years hence once her cadet training was finished. It was never too early to start recruiting talented staff after all, and House alliances through marriage were about the farthest thing from uncommon that there was.

“Riverbond,” Mellina said. “I will accept House Riverbond’s offer.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 27

“The world spins on. If we’re ready for it or not, the world keeps moving, ignoring the great moments in our lives as though they were entirely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. I used to feel a great deal of frustration, and rage, and finally despair over that. 

Certainly my trials and tribulations were deep and meaningful. Certainly my world falling apart meant that everyone’s world had fallen apart.

That, however, is rarely ever the case. The worse day one person has may be completely unremarkable to another and the best day in the life of a third. 

Which is comforting in its own strange manner. Our failures and triumphs, our pains or exaltations, from within the perspective of our lives, they may seem to eclipse the stars and drown out all reason, but the world spins ever on, and so long as we move with it we find that even the great moments are ones that take up only a part of our life rather than swallowing the whole of it.”

-Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, very drunk on the occasion of his 37th wedding

Idrina arrived at the dueling arena without any special fanfare. Her opponent on the other hand, drew a round of cheers (from the Cadets) and groans (from the applicants who seemed to know who he was). He was a blank to me, but the relaxed gait of his walk coupled with the quiet focus he showed in acknowledging and then sizing up Idrina spoke volumes.

For her part, Idrina looked calm and collected. At least to a cursory glance. The subtle shifts of her weight, her measured breaths, the focus in her gaze though? They all spoke to the enormous amount of energy she was holding back.

She wanted this fight.

Everyone else so far had been nervous and concerned, even Nelphas and the others for whom the outcome wasn’t even slightly in doubt. On some level they’d all known that battles were never predictable. The Cadet who’d been paid off to allow them an easy entrance could always have been paid off a little bit more to put them in the ground, or even just humiliate them a little in the process of letting them win.

That wasn’t a concern for Idrina. Not from the stance she took, or the set of her shoulders. We were too far away for me to read her expression but I knew there had to be a fire burning in her eyes. She was too good to not be ready for this. Too good to not have been planning, and training, and striving for this moment for years.

Proctor Jalaren called for the match to begin, and both of the combatants lived up to my expectations and beyond.

Idrina didn’t waste any time playing for points by keeping her distance like the other applicants had done. The same as she’d done in our fight, she flashed forward conjuring a spear as she moved.

Her opponent was ready for that, meeting her rush with a blade just like the one that had carved me up.

I think it may have been a sign of respect, rather than homicidal malice, that he didn’t hold back at all. With an upward arcing slash, he cut the spear in half and deflected it so that it passed to the left of his chest by an inch or so.

With his other hand he unleashed a spell which formed a glowing blue ram. It was perfectly positioned to crush Idrina’s chest and easily would have except for the part where she rolled away from its attack, evading it by a generous two hairs’ breadths.

That placed her directly in line to be split from head to sternum by the Cadet’s downward stroke, but again when the blow landed, she wasn’t there.

Her spears where though, pair of them shooting up from the ground, to catch the Cadet in both shoulders and knock him back a step. He’d been lucky they hit his pauldrons, and losing them in the exchange clearly saved him from losing the arms instead.

Two more spears followed as Idrina coiled up and launched herself at the Cadet before he could regain his balance. The first spear, she stabbed upwards towards the base of his throat. That one he blocked with the strange sword he was carrying but at the cost of exposing his right hand to the other spear in Idrina had conjured.

A hawk made of starlight deflected the second spear before it took the Cadet’s hand off at the wrist and he used the moment it hit Idrina’s spear to land a solid kick to her midsection.

With space open between then, Idrina extended her hand and three more spears flew at the Cadet, one targeting his head, the next the center of his chest, and the last one his left shin.

The Cadet slammed his hand against the blade he was carrying and a pulse of energy disintegrated the spears before they could reach him. That move seemed to cost him though and I saw the sword reconfigure itself, venting steam in the process.

I also noticed that Idrina had pushed him back enough that when she attacked, she was always in either the red or blue zones as was appropriate to the sort of attack she was launching.

So she wasn’t just fighting him. She was dancing across a fairly narrow space to earn the maximum points she could, which made everything she was doing at least ten times harder.

Both of the fighters accelerated at that point and I lost track of exactly what they were doing. From the bits I could make out, Idrina was avoiding all of the sword blows, despite the armor that she wore which should have been sufficient to turn aside most glancing hits.

Then again, a sword like that had blasted Tantarian mail apart and cleaved through the armor Doxle had given me like it wasn’t there, so avoiding hits entirely wasn’t necessarily a bad idea.

That kind of speed came with a horrible stamina cost though. Two minutes in I could see her measured breathing had become ragged and pained.

And that did not slow her down in the slightest.

It did however impact her aim though.

Or so I thought.

With each exchange, she left more and more spears behind. Most flew off into the air and vanished when she conjured them back, but the one’s she used for downward thrusts were left embedded to various depths in the arena and began to impeded her unbelievable dance for points.

The Cadet didn’t fail to notice that either, and pressed in through the thicket of spent spears to force her back into the battlefield where she would have to give up her dance or fall prey to his attacks at last.

This was apparently exactly what she’d been planning on.

With a quick dash to the blue section, she paused, took a breath, and exploded every spear in the dueling arena.

The Cadet got his blade up in front of him right as the spears went off but even the field of force he conjured couldn’t hold up to the pressure wave of the explosion. As his shield broke, the sword was ripped from his hand and went spinning over and off the arena while the Cadet was tossed back and landed a few feet from its edge.

Idrina flew at him in a golden burst of speed, a new spear outstretched to run the Cadet straight through the heart.

Without even rising, he met her charge by raising a hand which summoned a green glow in the shape of a bear. Before she could land her blow the bear slammed her with a massive paw knocking her sideways hard enough to pitch her over the edge too.

Idrina stopped herself with the spear she was carrying, coming to a rest just as the whistle blew for the round.

Cheers went up from the applicants (led by her brother) and at least a few of the Cadets. I couldn’t tell if she heard them though because for a moment she was still.

With how hard she’d fought I might have believe it was exhaustion but when she rose, she did so without betraying any sign of weakness. 

Something was bothering her though. I could see that in the flexing of her fingers and rigid set of her neck.

I would have thought it was because of something the Cadet did, but  her first action was to walk back to him and offer her hand to help him up.

He accepted it and said something to her I was too far away to hear. 

She said nothing in response, which drew a small shrug from him. 

They backed away from each other as Proctor Jalaren returned to the arena.

“This match is ended,” he said, “Are there any who will speak for this applicant.”

It didn’t seem like the right question to ask. ‘Is there anyone who wouldn’t speak for this applicant’ was a better question, even if the answer should have been ‘obviously no, we all want her’.

Despite that though, there was no immediate answer to Jalaren’s question. Two more heartbeats passed before a familiar voice finally spoke up.

“House Ironbriar will speak for this applicant,” Enika said breaking the unfathomable silence.

Part of me wanted to speak up too. 

I had no idea what I would say, but whatever was going on was…I stopped myself. Whatever was going on was not something I had to put my nose in. I could be rational about things. Sometimes.

Idrina nodded in response to Enika’s offer, without any joy or excitement at the prospect. And why would she? Her admittance had been as guaranteed as Nelphas’ had been even though she’d worked a lot harder for it. Had there really been anything surprising here for her at all, or was this whole thing a tired, predictable pantomime? 

I don’t know what drew my thoughts down that line, possibly my brains were still scrambled from the beating I’d taken but, predictable admittance or no, I was surprised when Idrina didn’t float over to sit with the Cadets like the other successful applicants had. Instead she boarded a disc and was delivered to the box Enika was watching from.

“Are you fully healed up yet?” Doxle asked.

“No. That sword did some bad things to me.” Admitting that wasn’t something I would normally have done but I was reasonably certain Doxle already knew what condition I was in and was merely checking if he could trust the self-appraisals I gave him.

“You may want to hurry that along if you can,” he said. “One of your new friends is up next.”

The arena had my complete and undivided attention at that, because Doxle’s meaning was all too clear.

“Next applicant, Mellina Astrologia, report to the dueling circle.”

And just like that I was going to lose someone else.

I watched as the Cadet’s traded out and I could see that the newcomer was hungry for blood.

Apparently my threat hadn’t been clear enough?

Or after a few fights, they’d forgotten exactly what I’d done to the Imperial Cadet?

Which was hard to believe. 

I was still wearing rather a lot of his blood.

People can be stupid though.

Like me.

For thinking that I could trust the Cadets to behave reasonably.

I knew better than that.

This time though I wouldn’t let it go so far.

The gap to the arena was larger than it had been from the applicants platform, but I could still make it if I got enough of my body back in shape.

I closed my eyes as Mellina began floating over and started piecing the messed up bits of myself back into their proper shape. 

It wasn’t great work. If someone dissected me, they wouldn’t be fooled for more than a minute, but I wasn’t planning on being dissected. I just needed the circulatory system and muscles to be able to actually function to take some of the load off my magic.

I thought I’d be able to get everything done in time. 

I can work with amazing speed when I put my mind to it, and I had plenty of incentive to set a new record at it.

As it turned out though, I wasn’t fast enough to finish before the screaming started.

Happy Anniversary!

Story Treader is now 10 years old!

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

As of this writing Story Treader has:

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

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and 6 completed short stories!

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

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 26

“It is the decision of this review board that the Imperial Academy of Middlerun bears no fault in the untimely demise of Cadet Donswell [No House]. As he voluntarily entered the Applicant Third Trail testing arena, in the full knowledge that combats therein are placed under no restraints, our unanimous conclusion is that he willing accepted the risks entailed and bore the full liability for preserving his own well being. 

In answer to the claim that the match in question was not sanctioned and therefor his demise should be prosecuted as a murder, the review board finds that it was not at fault for admitting Cadet Riverbond into the arena. Cadet [No House] was provided the opportunity to refuse to engage in the proposed combat, and was granted a moments reprieve before the final blow was struck. As such, and in view of House Lightstone’s official disownment of the Cadet, the review board’s consensus is that Cadet [No House]’s demise, while regrettable, was both avoidable and of his own making and no further actions will be taken at this time.

On the matter of the sum paid to House Lightstone in the amount of a full Blood Restitution by the Academy, a review has shown that the funds were the repayment for services and considerations rendered by House Lightstone and the fact that the sum equals the value assigned to a third year Cadet’s life was mere coincidence and nothing more. No further comment will be made on the subject at this point.”

– the Imperial Academy Grand Review Board, in a missive clearing itself of any wrong doing

Doxle’s claim that I was a noblewoman had about the impact I expected it. The Greyfall representative almost choked in disbelief, the Greendell rep rolled her eyes and shook her head, Lightstone didn’t react visible at all, and the fourth representative maintained her rather pleasant silence.

“You have proof of this claim?” Lightstone asked. He was angry, probably livid in fact. He wasn’t good enough at hiding his scent to cover strong emotions but none of that passed his lips.

“Please,” Doxle said somehow adding three levels of unnecessary dramatics into a single word. “Need you really ask?”

“Yes. I must,” Lightstone said. He wasn’t interested in entertaining Doxle’s foolishness, which I was beginning to suspect simply encourage Doxle to play the fool even more deeply.

“Well, I suppose your request isn’t entirely unreasonable since this is, in factm a formal statement of intent on the part of House Riverbond, ,” Doxle said.

“And the first Riverbond’s made in, what, fifty years?” Greendell said.

“Forty seven years and three months,” Doxle said. “To be fair, I couldn’t recall the date either, but I made a visit to the Grand Cathedral in Palencia, or rather the Grand Cathedral’s Undercroft. Fascinating place. So much history there. So much we let ourselves forget about much too easily. I do recommend chatting up the dead once in a while though. They have fascinating stories to tell. Greed. Murder. Betrayal. The past was such a very bloody time to live in. We are truly blessed by our present civilized age.”

I had no idea what Doxle had found in specific to support the claim he was making or how serious he was about being able to speak to speak with the dead. From what I knew bringing back the dead to any degree wasn’t possible, but I’d been wrong about a lot of things that magic could or couldn’t do and ultimately all that mattered was whether he had something to back his claim up. Whether I was the heir to Riverbond or not being far less important than whether people would choose to believe that I was.

I didn’t say anything in support of Doxle, despite knowing what his claims were likely based on (in general terms), in part because there wasn’t anything I could say that wouldn’t obviously be in my own self-interest and in part because I wasn’t Riverbond’s actual heir.

“You need more proof than some conjured whispers,” Greyfall said.

“Of course,” Doxel said. “Which is why I also arranged for this.” He pulled a sealed scroll case from thin air.

Lightstone didn’t waste time. He reached for it and finally let a scowl break across his face when Doxle yanked it away.

“I believe the only one here who is required and allowed to pass judgment on this matter is you my dear friend Jalaren,” Doxle said, handing the scroll to the proctor, who took it with another sigh.

He’d only just broken the seal and begun to glance at it when he paused, rolled the scroll up and turned to the others.

“It’s the official house seal, with her name on it,” Jalaren said. “I am bound to honor this.”

“According to both rite and custom,” Doxle said. “If the others here would like to contest it though…”

“They can take the matter up at the next High Council session. For now we’re done,” Jalaren said. “We have many more trials to get through and we’ve wasted enough time on this one.”

A fresh wave of anger rolled off Lightstone, but Greyfall and Greendell seemed more curious with the verdict than anything else. The final one, the representative for House Astrologia I later learned, smelled vaguely satisfied. That was probably more worrisome than all the rest put together, but not something I could exactly act on. 

Despite the fact that one or more of them was probably going to try to have me killed, they turned and made no more outwards fuss about my passing the trial.

I wondered where I was supposed to go next. The Cadet box seemed somewhat fraught. For the Cadets. Several of them were still glaring at me as sound returned to the arena. If I had to go sit with them, I definitely wasn’t going to be receiving the sort of congratulations they’d showered Nelphas with. Unless I missed my guess one or more of them would try to sneak in some unsanctioned violence. I would probably throw them out of the floating box and the lucky ones would be injured enough to remain on the ground. If any came back, or if they all decided to get in on the violence then there were going to be a lot more corpses joining the Imperial Cadets, probably including my own.

Doxle, having more sense than most probably grant him credit for, apparently saw that too and directed me to walk with him. 

Feeling the weight of the Cadet’s glares though I held up a hand to get him to pause for a moment before turning back to the proctor.

“A word if I may?” I asked him. 

He looked at me warily, which marked him as also being fairly sensible, and nodded, probably hoping I was going to make some innocuous request or offer my thanks.

Instead I turned to face the Cadets.

“If anyone else dies, I’m taking this trial over again,” I said, trusting the amplification spells to ensure all of them could hear me.

It seemed only fair to warn them, though in hindsight I can see that I was offering them a clear opportunity to avenge their fallen comrade. Kill and applicant and then get to fight me. That wasn’t what I wanted and fortunately the ones with the most animosity toward me understood my words for the threat they were.

The crowds were silent for a moment after that, with the usual buzz of conversation resuming as Doxle and I stepped onto a disc to float back to the spectating box.

“Congratulations on passing the trials,” he said. “And with remarkably fewer enemies than I expected.”

“It didn’t look like Lightstone or Greyfall liked me too much,” I said. “And I’m pretty sure the Cadets want to kill me too.”

“Would you have wished to have them as allies?” Doxle asked.

“No,” I said.

Having someone like the Imperial Cadet as an ally would have been unpleasant to the point of provoking me to murder him when I wasn’t in a sanctioned death battle.The representatives for the Great Houses didn’t feel like people I cared to spend time with either. Thinking about what I knew of them, and what Doxle had said, I guessed that I had even more reason to dislike them than I’d thought.

“They killed House Riverbond, didn’t they?” 

“Not this generation personally, but yes, Lightstone and Greyfall were two of the three House who decided to end Riverbond’s tenure as a Great House.”

“Did they have a reason?”

“Oh, there’s always a reason. Usually several dozen reasons,” Doxle said. “The primary one, as always though, is that Riverbond had resources others desired and made the mistake of being too successful at opposing those whose wrath it wasn’t prepared to survive.”

“Did I just make that same mistake?”

“It’s always hard to tell,” Doxle said. “As you are my pacted apprentice however, I can assure you that you will not face the consequences of your actions today alone.”

“That doesn’t seem fair. I did what I did on my own. You even tried to stop me.”

“Did I? I don’t recall preventing you from taking any actions and as your Advisor any actions I don’t prevent can be assumed to be ones which meet with, at the very least, my tacit approval.”

“So it’s okay that I killed that guy?” I asked. I didn’t feel bad about what I’d done. I didn’t really feel anything about it in fact, which probably wasn’t a good sign. 

“At this moment, you would be best served if I was not evasive in my answers,” Doxle said as we reached the viewing box. “Which is why it pains me to answer your question with one of my own; okay in what sense? If you mean will you face legal jeopardy for your actions then no, none whatsoever. This is a lethal arena. None are held accountable for fatalities which occur within it. If you mean, in the eyes of your peers then the answer is more complicated. Some will likely cheer you for your actions. Some will despise you, some will be jealous, and some will fear you. How they react is largely a reflection of who they are and has little to nothing to do with you and your actions.”

“How about in your eyes?” I asked. It wasn’t actually important if he thought of me as a beast, I just wanted to know.

“I am not a good soul and not someone you should look to in order to mark a bearing on your moral compass.”

“I just want to know if you think I did the right thing there,” I said. That wasn’t going to tell me whether I had been right. I knew I’d been. It would tell me more about Doxle though.

“It was not what I would have done,” he said, closing his eyes and drawing in a slow breath. “You were far kinder and more merciful than I would have been had our places been reversed. It makes me think I chose well, and for that you have my gratitude.”

That hit me in the gut. It shouldn’t have but I hadn’t been expecting him to share what sounded and smelled like an honest confession.

I sat down in the box and felt a cacophony of emotions swirling my innards up almost as bad at the sword blows had.

Sword blows which I still needed to fully repair.

Closing my eyes I looked inside and saw that I was a mess.

Physically, emotionally, mentally. The last few days had just sucked.

Or make that the last few weeks.

Going home to Grammy and forgetting all of this was so incredibly tempting and for a moment, a long moment, all I could imagine was walking through our front door, heading into the main room and collapsing in a ball in front of the fireplace. It wouldn’t matter if there was a fire going or not. It wouldn’t even matter if Grammy had bread cooking for the stew. Just curling up on the floor and going to sleep with all of this behind me. Nothing would have been better that that.

Nothing except finding out about Trina.

I sniffed weakly, hoping to find some trace of her, some fresh boost to shore up my resolve, but there wasn’t anything on the wind aside from the blood that clung to me.

It didn’t matter.

I wasn’t giving up.

Keeping my eyes closed I got to work making myself a new heart only to be interrupted by the announcement of a new match. I’d been ignoring the last several as they called out names I was unfamiliar with. This one though? This one I had to see.

“Next applicant, Idrina Ironbriar, report to the dueling circle.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 25

“As an Advisor, our principal duty is providing the support our charges require. This can take many forms, from instruction in the use of their magics to acting as an emotional sounding board for the tribulations they are confronted with. When they make mistakes it is incumbent that we be there to provide corrections, and of course we should also recognize and celebrate the occasions where they manage to make the correct choices, should those ever occur.

Therefore, though it pains me to do so, in regards to my charges actions during the trials for admittance to the Imperial Academy, I am force to sternly offer the following admonition;

It is unseemly to wipe one’s hands on one’s own clothing after tearing the heart from an enemy. The extra laundering is simply wasteful when you have a perfectly viable corpse to use as a dishrag instead.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

I wasn’t supposed to kill the Imperial Cadet. It wasn’t supposed to be possible and I wasn’t supposed to do it even it was. There was no official rule to that effect. The trials were explicitly unrestricted combat exercises. But the Cadets weren’t supposed to die.

I think that’s why the arena was silent for a long moment after I let most of the Cadet fall to the platform once I felt I’d done enough damage to him. I’d heard that healing magics could repair amazing levels of injury, so I’d felt the need to be somewhat thorough before I stepped away. That didn’t seem to be what the crowds had been interested in seeing though.

Which was fine. I hadn’t been fighting for them.

I hadn’t even been fighting for Kelthas. If I wanted to claim that then I needed to answer the question of why I hadn’t jumped in sooner.

I could have saved him.

That thought bounced around in my head like acid, dissolving all the other thoughts it brushed up against.

“You’ll need to put that down,” someone said from beside me.

I turned with a growl but recognized that it wasn’t the Cadet come back from the dead. He was still properly inert. 

The proctor who’d dared get within claw range wasn’t him. 

Was I supposed to fight the proctor next?

He’d let Kelthas die too.

Except no. 

That meant he was no worse than I was.

“You can drop it,” he said and I squinted at him searching for what he could be referring too.

He glanced at my right hand and its rather meaty contents.

Which I suppose still technically belong to the corpse.

Or was it a prize I’d won through right of arms?

Right of arms with my right arm, I giggled at the idea and then scowled and threw the corpse back the heart it was missing. I didn’t want anything to do with that one and if he rose back up once his body parts were restored to him then all the better – I’d just get to take him apart again.

He didn’t get back up. He wasn’t going to get back up.

Which was good.

For him.

For me? I was tired. I felt exhaustion crushing me down that had nothing to do with the magic I’d spent, or the barely repaired state of my body. 

“This match is ended,” the proctor said. “Are there any who will speak for this applicant.”

The silence we’d been wrapped in exploded and I let the wave of angry voices wash over me.

I could smell blood and rage, but most of that was of my own doing. The distant crowds didn’t sound or smell properly enraged. Most of what I picked up in fact was fear.

The Cadets were trying to sound angry, protesting that the match should be declared in violation of some technicality or other. None of them leapt into the arena though. None of them even suggested that they should be allowed to pick up the challenge the Imperial Cadet had failed to complete.

There were calls from the patron boxes calling for a disqualification too. Several seemed to think that the guards would have a better time with me than the Imperial Cadet had.

I don’t know. Maybe they would have.

If they’d had weapons like his, it would have been unpleasant to discover how many I could stand against, and I was reasonably sure they’d be able to send at least that number plus one more.

The proctor sighed, and I almost laughed at that too. He smelled of long suffering aggravation and, surprisingly, it didn’t seem to be directed at me.

“Are there any who will speak for this applicant,” he repeated, enhancing his voice to ring out much louder than the bickering and bellowing Cadets and representatives of the Great Houses.

Silence returned once more.

Because they all wanted to see how alone I stood.

Because no one was going to speak for me. Not after the display I’d put on.

A crazed berserker girl who could tear apart one of the Academy’s best and brightest was valuable in the abstract but two concerns held them all back. 

First, there was the obvious question of whether they could control something like me and if it was worth it to even try. Anyone who spoke for me would be responsible for whatever mayhem I caused and I think everyone present was keenly aware that this was only the beginning of the mayhem I was going to be responsible for.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the Imperial Cadet wasn’t a random nobody. To have the weapon and armor he did he had to be the scion of one of the more important Houses. For a moment I wondered if he’d be a cousin or sibling of Idrina and part of the Ironbriars. They were renowned warriors and could plausibly have provided him with whatever the hell that sword was.

The only problem was if the Ironbriars had access to the gear the Cadet had wielded and he had been judged qualified to bear it, I couldn’t picture Idrina not be given similar gear too. 

Also there were the glares coming from the Lightstone box. Plenty of clear and undisguised malice there. Almost as though I’d killed one of their favored sons.

Which I clearly had. Brutally and right before their eyes.

So, they wanted to kill me.

And were the most powerful of the Great Houses.

Doxle had probably been right about mercy.

“House Riverbond will speak for her.” His voice was amplified enough that I didn’t recognize it was Doxle speaking at first.

He might have had something to say after that but if so it was drowned out by roughly everyone in the world speaking at once.

The proctor let that go on for a minute or so but finally calling “Silence!” when it became clear that the only other alternative for quieting people down was going to be violence.

“With the representative for House Riverbond approach the dueling arena,” the proctor said. “Any other representatives who wish to weigh in on the matter may approach as well.”

I expected to see a flood of people come pouring at me but only Doxle and four others boarded disks to float over to the dueling platform. The moment they were all together, the proctor raised his hand and the sound amplification spell was inverted. All the outside noise went away and I was pretty sure nothing that was said would be transmitted either.

The assembled representatives didn’t rush over to the center of the arena, but strolled casually as though they were old friends, whispering little whatevers as they approached.

Seeing who was representing House Riverbond, the proctor gave another sigh.

“I shouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “But what foolery are you up to now Zindir?”

“I am wounded Jalaren,” Doxle said. “I thought we were still on a first name basis?”

“We were until the opera,” Proctor Jalaren said. “Now I ask again Advisor Zindir, what is this nonsense about House Riverbond?”

“No nonsense I assure you,” Doxle said. “And please, you must be fair. The opera was not my fault.”

“Riverbond is a dead house,” a heavyset woman in the uniform of House Greendell said.

“Silent, not dead,” Doxle said, raising his forefinger to correct her.

“Only because no house has been declared dead in two centuries,” said a weasely little guy who wore the colors of House Greyfall.

“A policy which has served to blur the distinction between the truly departed,” Doxle glanced over at the mess I’d made of the Imperial Cadet, “and those Houses which have been sufficiently diminished so as to allow their lands and duties to be managed by their senior House instead of placed before the High Council where they can be redistributed according to need and ability to manage the properties and revenues.”

“Are you making the claim that House Riverbond seeks to return to its duties and claim its ancestral holdings?” the representative from Lightstone asked.

He was worrisome. I couldn’t smell almost anything off him. Just the hint of granite and brimstone. He wasn’t lying through scent like Doxle could but he was as cut off from the world as he could make himself.

“Nothing of the sort,” Doxle said. “House Riverbond will leave its holdings under their current management, and will not be exercising its voice in vote during the High Council.”

“Then in what sense can they speak for this…” Lightstone looked like he wanted to use an epithet but diplomacy wrestled whatever word he’d chosen off of his tongue. “This applicant?”

“In the same sense any may speak for an applicant,” Doxle said. “House Riverbond offers financial support, and it’s official backing to vouchsafe the applicants suitability as an elite in the Imperial forces.”

“Suitability? You claim that this…this thing,” the representative from Greyfall sputtered.

“Take care,” Doxle said. His tone was light and his posture was unthreatening but the Greyfall rep retreated from his animosity towards me pretty quickly anyways.

“You claim that this young woman is suitable for training after the spectacle that we witnessed?” Greyfall reframed his question.

“Demonstrably so, based on what we witnessed,” Doxle said.

“You feel the destruction of one of our cadets should qualify for her admission?” Lightstone asked.

“I feel it should qualify her for your highest sponsorship in fact, though out of delicacy for the cadets immediately family I understand that you will be rightly hesitant to provide her that distinction. Hence why House Riverbond, which always had a warm relationship with your family, will offer its support instead.”

“Our sponsorship? And why would we extend that honor?” Lightstone asked, sounding more curious than appalled at the idea.

“The Trials are meant to be as much a test of the Cadets as the applicants,” Doxle said. “A Cadet who would fall before someone without Academy training was obviously a failed specimen and unworthy of bearing your name. The Academy let both you and he down by not exposing his weakness sooner, and so any reprobation for his current state must lie with them. Had he graduated though and been given a role in your service, he would doubtless have failed you as he so clearly failed them. This applicant has therefor performed a vital service for you in preventing the dishonor of the Cadet’s incompetence from staining the honor of House Lightstone.”

The representative from House Greendell laughed at that.

“You are still the most slippery eel I have ever had the misfortune to known Doxle,” she said. “And I still for the life of me can’t make out how much of that donkey dung you actually believe.”

“Every word of it my dearest Lufina,” Doxle said. “And you know I am always true to my word.”

“You won one bet, that’s not always,” Lufina said.

“One bet and one wonderful night. Perhaps you would be willing to make a similar wager here?” Doxle said.

“You are a vile tempter,” she said, entirely without malice.

“Which means, I would hope, that you are tempted?” Doxle said, projecting an air of delighted expectation.

Lufina sighed.

“It is years too late for me to give into such temptations again.”

“Oh I don’t believe that to be true,” Doxle said. “Not at all.”

The proctor cleared his throat, bringing all eyes back to me.

“How will this matter stand then,” he said. “Will the other Houses speak against the claim of Riverbond?”

“I would have some proof that House Riverbond still exists and that our friend here,” Lightstone indicated Doxle though I was reasonably certain it was the sort of friendship that involved knives planted in unsuspecting backs, “is not laying claim to unattended authority.”

“Oh please. You know me. I despise wielding authority,” Doxle said. “And, as for the proof that House Riverbond still exists, the House Heir stands here before you.”