Monthly Archives: May 2023

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 41

“Rest is a balm for the soul. A peaceful evening with no cares or worries is the closest the poor benighted souls in this crude realm may ever hope to come to heaven while we still draw breath. It is perhaps due to a deep awareness of our own unworthiness that we deny ourselves such transcendent luxury so very often.

Or we could just be stupid. There is, after all, a great deal of evidence to to suggest none of us have two functioning brain cells to rub together.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, to Glenmorda Tinbellus Enika of the Reaper’s Mercy as the Ironbriar’s chalet on Lake Winterscar burned to the ground around them.

Getting back to our dorm was time consuming, but not particularly difficult thanks to Mellina’s spells. That was both good (since I did not have the energy left to deal with anything else difficult) and bad (because it gave me plenty of time to reflect on what an idiot I’d been). Mostly though I just replayed the conversation with the ‘Last Guards’ over in my head.

“They were working with dead bodies from the Cadet Trials?” Ula asked, pausing my recounting of what I’d seen.

I hadn’t explained why I’d breeched the walls of the Research Quarter or what I’d been focused on finding, but that wasn’t what the Last Guards were looking for so no one seemed to mind.

“I don’t know if they were all from the Trials, or if all the ones from the Trials were there, just that the guy Narla fought against was. The other bodies could have been anyone, I wasn’t paying much attention to them,” I said.

“Yeah, they must have been pretty gross,” Ernek said completely missing the point that I simply hadn’t cared about them.

It was callous, or heartless, or something like that, but it was also the truth and lying to myself just wasn’t worth the effort it would take. All that had mattered was finding Trina, even if she wasn’t Trina, even if it was all a lie, and even if I was completely mistaken. 

“The bodies of the fallen are supposed to be returned to their family. They’d only be able to keep them for research if their family was compensated,” Xandir said.

“Who would sell their children like that though?” Ula asked. “And who would buy them?”

“Any family who was poor enough to need the money to survive,” Vena said.

“And any house who stood to profit from the uses they could put a corpse to,” Hemaphora said.

“Not any House,” Ernek said, struggling to reject as much of the idea as he could.

“Of course not,” Yarrin said. “Some of them are too poor as well.”

No one liked that answer, but no one argued Yarrin wasn’t right either.

“Silver threads aren’t a good sign,” Xandir said. “Not if they’re for what I think they are.”

“Spirit binding conduits?” Mellina asked.

Xandir nodded with an uncharacteristically grim set to his expression.

“What do those do?” Ilyan asked.

“There are realms where spirits are far more numerous than here,” Xandir said. “With the right spells you and materials, you can siphon the spirits away from their home and bind them to a device and force them to empower it.”

“Wait, so they’re trying to empower corpses? To be, what, bombs?” Narla asked.

“That’s what would normally happen,” Xandir said. “Beings from the non-material planes don’t tend to enjoy or do well when bonded to physical matter. Explosions are one of the cleaner results.”

“What are the unclean ones?” Ernek asked.

“You’ve seen them,” Xandir said. “If the spirit can’t destroy the matter that’s trapping it, it becomes a Reaving Beast.”

“That’s what usually happens,” Yarrin said and I braced for his words to pull me into the conversation, but he was kinder than that. “You’re thinking the researchers have found a method of preventing that? Or do you think they’ve found a means of controlling a Reaving Beast?”

“Either one of those sounds terrible,” Xandir said. “As an explosive, the bodies could destroy a building pretty easily but the damage a focused Reaving Beast could inflict is significantly worse.”

“Is it?” Mellina asked and waved a hand to explain further without interruptions.. “Against the unprepared, Reaving Beasts can do tremendous damage, though they’re usually aided by the Reaving Storm that summons them. Our second trial placed us against Reaving Beasts though and if we can stand against them, the House Guards of any Great House should have little trouble dispatching them.”

Because killing Reaving Beasts was the only thinkable course of action.

I didn’t fault Mellina for advancing that argument. She wasn’t wrong that Reaving Beasts could do enough damage that an encounter with one was often kill or be killed. 

Often is not always though, and my experience with the second trial was one I clung to as proof that there were more options than murder if you had the will and the ability to look for them.

“Stand against one Reaving Beast? Certainly. Stand against an even number of them? Possibly. Stand against every corpse that one House could find or make though?” Xandir said. “If someone learns how to make stable, controllable Reaving Beasts, I’m not sure there’s any other Houses that could stand against them.”

“That would give the one who discovers it a terrible weapon, but it’s one that would be their own undoing,” Mellina said. “As you say, no other House could stand against them. Which means all of the other Houses would.”

Xandir offered her a shrug of agreement. “There is that.”

“Which means it’s not the sort of thing House Lightstone would have been planning to demonstrate at the Trials,” Ula said.

“Also, likely true,” Xandir conceded. “Perhaps they’re only working on highly realistic puppets for a Great House’s stage plays. It would be far from the weirdest things a Great House has gotten up to.”

More or less everyone shrugged in agreement with that.

We’d talked for a bit longer, with me providing as detailed a description as I could the strange courtyard I’d wound up in and the things I’d tried when I was trying to rip through the metal flooring there. Mellina recounted what she’d seen too, but our accounts were pretty similar and it wasn’t too long before we ran out of useful things to say.

“The Researchers and some number of agents of the Great Houses will be looking for you still,” Ula said. “With the magic we worked, there’s no trail left for them to follow and the details of what happened and what you looked like have been heavily obscured. That’s the good news.”

“The bad news is that the agents aren’t idiots,” Xandir said. “They’ll be looking for anyone with the capability of doing what you did and they won’t need to find any real evidence to follow up on you via rather painful methods.”

“Tomorrow, they’ll be hitting you with your first Evaluations. Placing well in them can lead to comfort and security. You can do as you wish, but my suggestion is that you fail a few.”

It was that last bit from Ula that kept playing over and over in my mind as we walked back to Doxle’s house.

I’d placed so well in the Trials, was anyone going to believe it if I let someone walk all over me tomorrow? Wouldn’t that make it obvious that I was trying to hide something?

Did it matter?

Doxle had warned me that the Great Houses wouldn’t stop hunting me once they knew what I could do. It hadn’t been the reason I’d agreed to his bargain, but I had bound myself to him and that was supposed to afford me some protection. 

Which the Great Houses would know.

So they wouldn’t come after me.

They’d come for my housemates.

That was a cycle of violence I would not come out on top of. My housemates were too few and too weak to defend themselves if I provoked an all out war on House Riverbond.

They shouldn’t have been too weak. I’d managed to acquire a terrifyingly strong collection of…could I call them friends? Probably not. I hadn’t know them that long and they didn’t know me at all. It didn’t matter though. I wasn’t going to let anyone hurt them, even if it meant going up against weapons that had killed someone in Tantarian Mail.

“Why did you all follow me?” I asked, breaking the silence because thinking was not something I was doing tonight, and I apparently abandoned all of my sense and was curious to see why they’d chosen to do the same.

“You heard something we didn’t and it looked important,” Ilyan said.

I had not, in fact, heard anything, I’d smelled Trina’s scent, but he was close enough that I didn’t correct him.

“Following me put you in a lot of danger,” I said, as though that would refute Ilyan’s argument.

“Why?” Narla asked, as though that refuted mine.

“I did not make many fans among the senior cadets. They’re going to see revenge sooner or later,” I said. “And now they’re not the only ones.”

“Are you under the impression that they don’t want to kill me too?” Narla asked. 

I had been.

Because…just because.

“You weren’t as messy as I was.” It sounded incredibly weak to my ears as I said it.

“You didn’t look over the edge of the platform,” Narla said. “I just got less on me.”

I tried to find a response to that but there really wasn’t one. 

And they still weren’t explaining why they’d endangered themselves for me. I turned to Mellina since she’d been the one to endanger herself the most (the others at least being sensible enough not to storm the Research Quarter with me).

“You’re not responsible for what we do,” she said. “If we get hurt, that’s on us.”

“I just don’t understand why you’d risk getting hurt at all?” I said.

“I was curious,” Narla said. “Anything that was important enough to drag you away from that meal was something I wanted to know about.”

“Fighting alone sucks too,” Ilyan said. “And, if someone takes you out, I’m guessing they’ll come after us next, so I’d rather fight them all together.”

Those…well they weren’t the worst reasons I could imagine. I assumed if I freaked out too much or just annoyed them in general they’d stop tagging along, which would probably have been a wise move on my part, but a selfish, horrible part of me didn’t mind having them around as backup.

“You didn’t find what you were looking for, did you?” Yarrin asked, an unvoiced apology wrapped around his words.

“No,” I said.

“Can you tell us about it?” Narla asked.

‘No’ would have been the easiest answer. Explaining what I was doing would lead to explaining what I was and despite how emotionally punch drunk I felt, I was not ready for that.

But I was tired of pushing people away as much as I was tired of everything else.

I hadn’t found my sister, and none of the people with me would ever be her, but they didn’t have to be.

“I lost someone very dear to me a long time ago,” I said. “I think she’s here, except I can’t find her. I keep losing the trail.”

“You were looking for her before today?” Mellina asked.

“I was. It’s why I entered the Trials,” I said. “I fought against coming here but once I found out she was here I started fighting to get in.”

“Was she your sister?” Mellina asked, her face a shade paler than it had been.

“Yeah. She was,” I said and then my sluggish brain meats caught up and asked the critical question I’d missed a moment earlier. “You already knew that didn’t you?” There hadn’t been any bit of surprise in her scent when she’d asked the question.

“My visions contain all sorts of things that will never happen, can’t happen, or are simply metaphors for things which might happen,” Mellina said. “I’ve seen all of us together before today but never in specific detail. Yarrin’s taken the form of an owl, and a looking glass. Narla’s been a tempest and a marble statue. I don’t see things clearly, but I’ve seen you and your twin in exact and perfect detail meeting right here.”

In front of us, the doorway to Doxle’s house loomed large.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 40

“I applaud your foresight. The magic dampening nets are an excellent addition to the spiked pit trap. Oh and the spikes are poisoned too? Brilliant, simply brilliant. If I could offer a note for future improvements though, perhaps it would have been useful to spring for sanctified silver barbs on the spikes? Oh, I know sanctity enchantments and poisons don’t tend to play nicely with each other, but a good craftsman can make it work if you’re willing to pay the surcharge on their efforts.

How am I still talking? Well, yes, that was going to be my other note. It’s more of a procedural improvement though. Very simple really. No cost involved. All it requires is that you determine whether your trap is, in fact, capable of doing harm to the person you trigger it against before committing yourself to an aggressive stance and actually triggering it. Failing to do that, well, let’s just say ill considered choices often come with disagreeable consequences.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle, impaled in twelve places, poisoned, and on fire, at the bottom of an exquisitely engineered pit trap.

Bleeding sucks. It’s marginally better when it’s planned and done in a controlled manner, but it is never a good time when someone approaches you with a glass sword and the expectation that some of the fluids you generally keep inside yourself will instead be used to decorate the floor.

“How many of us need to bleed?” I asked, stepping forward before any of the rest could take another poorly considered action on my part.

“All of us,” Ula said.


“The circle needs to know who it’s cleansing,” Xandir said. That surprised me. I’d expected Vena or Hemaphora to be the ones who knew how the blood-magic circle worked.

To his credit though, Xandir not only was familiar with the ritual but also had his sleeve rolled up already and was clearly not hesitating to take him turn getting sliced open.

“Don’t worry, I’ve seen this kind of thing before,” Ilyan said. “It’s no worse than a typical training bout with my sister.”

His sister who had hit me with a fatal heart strike about ten seconds into our first encounter.

I don’t like bleeding.

I don’t like people bleeding for me even more though.

“No. Just me,” I said. “I’ll cover the others.”

Ula looked like she wanted to argue, or explain why that was impossible, so I did something I really hadn’t wanted to.

I turned into her.

“We’ll do you first,” I said and offered a perfectly sculpted arm for her to slice open.

Changing your body wasn’t hard for a form shifter, or not for some of them anyways. The weaker ones tended to go slower with it and experienced a lot more pain as bits and pieces shifted around into their configuration. That was one of the reasons most form shifters couldn’t take on completely inhuman shapes. Even if the eventual shape was a viable one, transforming from a human to a fish involved moving through several intermediary stages which couldn’t breathe, or move, or think, and that tended to break their concentration which in turn would leave them rather mangled.

The other major limit on form shifting was the level of fine control the shifter could manage. Turning a finger into a talon was pretty easy. Turning it into the same exact talon each time was considerably more difficult. Even a really talented form shifter would have been hard pressed to match Ula’s appearance merely by virtue of all of the proportions they would have needed to get exactly right. Revealing that I didn’t have a problem with that was tipping my hand to something I’d rather people not be too aware of but under the circumstances I couldn’t see any other method for getting them to believe I could do what was needed.

So I showed Ula and the rest was a mirror image of the Perfect Statue Girl. What they couldn’t see, and what the cleansing ritual would give away, was that the transformation was far more than skin deep.

“I…How…Wait, will this work?” Ula asked, turning to where Vena and Hemaphora had already started tracing patterns on the gold ring which defined the edge of the casting circle.

“That’s odd,” Vena said.

“We don’t know,” Hemaphora said.

“But we would certainly like to find out,” they said together.

“Are you sure about this?” Ula asked, holding her glass sword well away from my arm.

“Yeah, are you sure?” Narla asked, stepping up behind me with a bare arm held forward.

I pushed her offered limb gently back.

“Yes. No one else pays for what I did tonight,” I said. Trina would kill me if I let that happen again. Or I’d want her too. Given that she was already dead and was likely just a figment of my imagination, it was probably the same thing.

Except for the part where I knew that she wasn’t.

I really wished I was just going mad. It would have been so much easier to deal with that. Instead, I got to bleed.

To her credit, Ula was neither squeamish nor cruel. She grasped my hand, pulled me forward to stand within the circle, looked me in the eyes to make sure I wasn’t resisting and then sliced a two inch cut along the outside of my arm.

Three drops of blood fell to the ground and from them an image in red light rose to take the shape of Ula which moved to stand at the edge of the circle.

“That’s you Ula,” Vena said without looking at the blood-ghost.

“But can she do the rest?” Hemaphora asked.

I changed to Mellina next.

And then Narla.

And then Ilyan.

And Yarrin.

I didn’t take the transformations as far as I could have. I keep the whole of my mind my own. I had no interest in copying any secrets they held. All the circle needed was their blood, which I could have provided without copying their entire bodies, but explaining that would have been even harder than explaining how I could copy them to the point where our blood was the same.

“You don’t have to do me,” Ernek said.

I frowned and shifted to his form next.

It was a good one for power, but I liked my own body a lot better. It wasn’t as strong day-to-day as Ernek’s or Narla’s, or even Ilyan’s, had been but it was mine and it was comfortable.

“The same is true for…” Xandir started to say but stopped and back away when he found himself looking at himself.

His form was weird though.

I copied his outward appearance as easily as the rest but his blood? It thrashed and bucked and cast the smell of lightning out of all of my pores.

I shook my head, closed my eyes and hammered the burning surge in my veins down long enough for Ula to cut the required three drops from me and then happily shifted back to my own form with shiver.

My mouth was left tasting like ash after the flame torrent as my blood shifted back to the far more comfortable temperature my body was supposed to be at.

“Our blood is not necessary,” Hemaphora said.

“The ritual is ours,” Vena said.

“It already knows us.”

I was glad to hear that. Shifting into other people wasn’t entirely pleasant, and I had to wonder if it was even possible given the twin’s lack of any scent. 

Xandir wasn’t human, or at least wasn’t fully human, a fact he probably wasn’t thrilled that I knew about. What the twins were though was something I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be thrilled to know about. 

“What’s next?” Mellina asked.

“Step into the circle,” Vena said.

This was the moment when the inevitable betrayal would occur. A magical shackle disempowering us via the blood link, the circle turning into a prison cell to hold us while they ran off and alerted House Whoever to our presence, or maybe just a simple death spell, any of those seemed possible.

But none of them were twitchy enough to be planning to do us harm. Even the twins, who I couldn’t get much of a read on at all, gave me the sense that if they wanted to hurt me, they’d make sure to do it personally and I would see it coming from a long distance off (and be unable to escape it anyways). 

It was possible that my intuition was off of course. I’d sort of lost it there for a little while and was demonstrably not in the best frame of mind, but I had two assets to fall back on.

Mellina and Yarrin.

Ilyan and Narla were good people too, but Mellina was used to out scheming seers and Yarrin’s magics were strong enough that he was able to work out what I was. If the Last Guards had malevolent plans for us, I felt like one of us would have seen them coming.

For a change, a welcome, startling, and relief filled change, I turned out to be right about that.

It was terrible.

I kept waiting and waiting and there was no betrayal.

Vena and Hemaphora joined us in the circle and began chanting in unison. After a few repetitions, Ula joined them, then Xandir and Ernek, and then they gestured for us to join as well.

It was a simple pattern of “Cleansed today, Gone far astray, No one has passed this way” repeated three times for each of us.

By the time we finished our blood-ghost images had been drawn into the gold ring at the edge of the casting circle and we were in a different room.

“There was a Tier 4 Quiet Teleportation effect in the ritual too?” Yarrin asked.

“Only a Tier 3,” Hemaphora said. “We can’t handle a Tier 4 yet.”

“You are very close to it then,” Yarrin said. “I’ve seen a bunch of hidden teleportation spells in use and that was easily as hard to notice as a Tier 4 would have been.”

The twins smiled at that and for a moment they looked everyday young girls. Then they turned to stare at each other wordlessly with wide eyes and, well, no, that still looked normal somehow?

I still couldn’t smell a thing off them, but prolonged contact was diminishing the creepiness of that.

“Where are we?” Mellina asked.

On the surface the room we’d traveled too looked similar to the one we left. There was the same gold ring on the floor, the same pillars in a circle outside the ring and the same disused air to the place. Where the first room had lit torches though and the scent of eight very different bits of blood, the new room smelled of sea salt and hemp ropes and was dark except for a fading glow coming from the gold ring as the last vestiges of the cleansing ritual wound down.

“We’re beneath House Farsail’s old dorm,” Ula said.

“Will it be a problem getting us out without people seeing us?” Narla asked.

“It shouldn’t be,” Mellina said.

“It won’t. The dorm’s been empty since last year,” Ula said. “The Farsail cadets are dorming with Greendell now.”

That sounded like a whole heap of drama that I did not need to be a part of, so I asked no questions about it.

“If you would stay for a bit, we would like to hear about what you saw in the Research Quarter sooner than later,” Xandir said.

“Why?” I asked. Going back to Doxle’s house and dropping into my bed was unbearably tempting, but if I could discharge the debt I owed the Last Guards tonight I was willing to fight off the temptation for a bit.

“There’s a project that’s been going on for over a decade now,” Ula said. “It’s received a lot of funding from House Lightstone and several people who have tried to look into it have gone missing.”

“Today they were supposed to be demoing the results on their research, but nothing we saw at the Trials would account for the expenditures they’ve made,” Xandir said.

“They had weapons that destroyed Tantarian Mail,” Yarrin said.

“We saw,” Vena said.

“Except we didn’t,” Hemaphora added.

“Didn’t see what?” I asked.

“The weapons,” they said together and Hemaphora added. “They weren’t blades. There was something twisted in them.”

“Even if the weapons were able to slay their targets in a single hit, that wouldn’t recoup the money that Lightstone has dumped into this project,” Ula said. “Lightstone wants something more than that. Something that will give them the final edge over the other houses.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 39

“Upset? My dear compatriot, why would you imagine I would be in any manner discommoded by our recent dealings? The corpses? Well, yes, I agree they make a daring and perhaps questionable choice for decor, but really what am I known for if not my questionable decisions. But you aren’t here to discuss my aesthetic sense. We have negotiations to attend to, perhaps over a nice cup of tea?”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame speaking to Malbrin Grayfall, Middlerun Commerce Chief for House Grayfall

I grew up in a forest. Despite Grammy’s best efforts, there’s a lot I don’t know. Who, what, or even why someone might be the ‘Empresses Last Guard’ was firmly on that list and, from glancing around at the rest of the housemate’s I could see I was far from alone.

“The who?” Ilyan asked, having apparently the smallest barrier of social anxiety of any of us to overcome.

“The Empresses Last Guard?” the slim boy said, questioning not who they were but how we might have misheard Perfect Statue Girl, since clearly everyone must know exactly what they were talking about.

Five faces full of blank stares argued otherwise.

“We took down the Madness Stag at Fort Bertrand,” Perfect Statue Girl said.

I was familiar with neither a Madness Stag (though from context it was probably a Reaving Beast) nor Fort Bertrand (though again context suggested it was one of the border forts at the edge of the Empire). That looked to be about all that any of the others knew too.

“We saved Yellow Basin from being bought out by House Lightstone?” the slim boy said.

I was going to guess that Yellow Basin was a town, since it seemed like a weird name for a person, but it was possible that it was one of the mercantile companies instead. Fortunately Narla was familiar with that one.

“Oh yeah, I heard there was some deal that fell through there,” she said. “Wasn’t that because the mines got flooded though?”

“Yeah! That’s how we saved the town!” one of the other Last Guards said. I hadn’t been paying too much attention to him because Perfect Statue Girl and Slim Boy were sort of hard to ignore but once he got my attention I was left wondering how I hadn’t registered him as more of a threat.

Narla is large. Tall. Heavy. Wide. She had ‘big’ covered all the observable dimensions. Muscle Boy didn’t quite measure up to her, but he made a good enough try at it that in another other company I might have tagged him as Mountain Lad or something similar. 

He smelled too friendly though.

And his expression was so open and cheerful that I felt a physical revulsion to it. Like just looking at him was going to give me a candy induced stomachache.

“Wasn’t mining what they did there though?” Narla asked.

“Not anymore!” Muscle Boy said. “Now they can do other things.”

I glanced up at Mellina who met my gaze with a look which said we were in perfect agreement on exactly the sort of idiots we’d stumbled across.

Perfect Statue Girl seemed to be aware of that too however.

“Yellow Basin was trying to transition away from mining because they’d dug out all the good ore and only had shadow ores left to mine, which is incredibly dangerous and tends to invite around four times as many Reaving Storm as normal to an area,” she explained. “Thanks to the flooding, they have acres of land where Marsh Feylings are growing naturally.”

“House Grayfall used to have fairly solid control over that market,” Yarrin said and gave them a small nod, “Nicely done.”

“So now that you know who we are, will you let us help you?” Slim Boy said.

“We don’t,” Mellina said. When Slim Boy showed he wasn’t following her simple point, she elaborated. “We don’t know who you are. What are your names? Who are you sponsored by?”

“Ah, yes, I suppose that would allay some of your concerns,” Slim Boy said, and glanced to the others. “I am Xandir Greendell, sponsored by House Greendell.”

“Ula Zarn, sponsored by House Farsail,” Perfect Statue Girl said. I tried to remember if Farsail had spoken for anyone this year, but I was fairly sure they hadn’t.

“Ernek Bloombomb,” Muscle Boy said. “Sponsored by House Greendell too.”

“Vena and Hemaphora Nightshade,” the last two, twin girls about my size and maybe a couple of years younger, introduced themselves speaking in the sort of perfect unison that wasn’t existentially creepy at all. “Not sponsored.”

“Uh, what?” I was glad Narla had asked that since as a wolf pup I currently lacked the vocal cords to do so (I could have made some but, meh, I was tired). 

“We’re not cadets,” Vena (I think) said.

“We just like to help out.” Hemaphora said.

I’m a terrifying scary monster. There were several students who were going to be spending the night in the infirmary and a couple squads of guards who were probably going to be fine only because they had easy access to significant magical healing. I’m not supposed to feel shivers of fear dance down my spine but the idea of Vena and Hemaphora ‘helping’ left me wanting to bolt out of Mellina’s arms and find nearest den I could collapse onto myself.

Fortunately I was much too tired to follow any of my nonsense instincts like that and so I settled for snuggling closer to her. This was not my problem. I was just a tiny little wolf pup.

I tried repeating that a dozen times but I was too tired to even convince myself.

“And how can you help us?” Mellina asked.

“Thanks to the spells you wove, and her transformations,” Ula pointed at me, “no one knows who you are, but they will be able to follow you to where you go next. Come with us and we can take you to a cleansing circle where Vena and Hem can ground out your trail.”

“Yeah, then no one will know who did it!” Ernek said.

“You will,” Mellina said. 

I didn’t know if anyone else heard the undercurrent of ‘and that’s something I may have to fix’.

“No one who means you harm,” Ula said, apparently being bright enough to pick up on Mellina’s unvoiced threat.

“Why?” Mellina asked, and then, added, “Why help us? What you’re doing isn’t safe and the Houses will not be gentle if they discover you through us.”

“We each have our reasons,” Xandir said. “Your friend there beat us to something we’ve been working up plans to do for months now though and could save us a trip we’d really rather not make into the Research Quarter if she’s willing to share what she found in there.”

Mellina glanced down to check in with me, and I gave her a small nod. I had no problem with sharing info in exchange for the safety of my housemates. I hadn’t found what I wanted but I’d seen a bunch of things that were probably as unsavory as they appeared, any one of which might be what the Last Guards were looking for. 

They were offering a good deal but part of me wanted to send the others away and wait to see who would be stupid enough to try coming after me. I didn’t do that though because I knew I’d been lucky, well supported, and that striking from ambush had played to my strengths. Anyone who came hunting for me would be the ones doing ambushing while I tried to maintain the illusion that I was Katrina Riverbond, actual human girl, with no Mellina for cloaking spells or other support. That was a tall enough stack of disadvantages that I knew the inevitable fight would either end with me a discorporated pile of ashes or locked in a dungeon with magical suppression cuffs around my arms, legs, and throat again.

“Lead on,” Mellina said after a quick glance towards the others.

Shadows wrapped us up and I’d sufficiently exhausted my ability to care that their grip felt almost comforting.

Except Vena and Hemaphora were wrapped in the same shadows and could still see me. 

I shivered and forced myself to look over at them.

They weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary at all. They were just normal girls. 

Hemaphora turned her head to glance at me and smiled with her eyes widening just a bit.

I looked away.

They were not normal.

They smelled…


They didn’t.

That’s what was throwing me off.

They didn’t have a scent.

At all.

Not like Doxle’s ability to hide or alter his scent.

They just didn’t have one.

Vena giggled. If she’d meant it to be menacing I probably would have taken off right then and there, even if it meant being reduced to ash by somebody else. Instead she just sounded amused, which wasn’t exactly a relief but at least didn’t escalate things.

Ula led the group of us through the Cadet’s quarters, weaving through abandoned buildings and empty garden areas until we reached a courtyard with stairs which wound down into the ground. Following people into dark holes didn’t rank high on the list of ‘Sensible Actions to Ensure One’s Long Term Survival’, but I’d left sensible behind the day I hadn’t fought to stay with Grammy. 

That the rest of my housemates followed us down into the dark sent a fresh pang of worry through my heart, which apparently wasn’t so tired that it couldn’t still torture me with anxiety.

Why had I fixed the stupid thing again? What the reason was I was sure it wasn’t a good one.

Self-recriminations aside though, we reach the bottom of the stairs and Xandir called forth a half dozen tongues of flame to light the room which waited for us.

It was large than I’d expected, with a ring of columns outside a simple band of gold which had been inlaid into the floor. The golden ring was wide enough that the ten of us could have stood inside it without touching each other unless we stretched out our arms to do so.

“Your friend may want to change back,” Xandir said. “The cleansing magics tend to disrupt active spells, and I gather that being forced through a transformation isn’t particularly pleasant.”

For a regular form shifter I was sure that was true. What he, nor any of the others (except maybe Yarrin?), knew was that I wasn’t under the effects of a transformation spell. I’d changed into a wolf pup with my magic, but I didn’t need magic to maintain the shape. I was a wolf pup as much as I’d been a human girl.

Well, maybe not quite as much. I’d spent so long in my human form that it felt different, more natural, than any other form I took. It was probably just a psychological thing, but it made me hate the idea of transforming back a little less than I would have.

I grumbled anyways, which some of them apparently thought was cute, and wiggled a bit to show Mellina she could put me down.

“You’ll need this,” she said and handed me the bathrobe she’d been carrying for me this whole time.

With bathrobe in mouth (how else was I supposed to carry it), I trotted behind one of the pillars, and switched back to being the daughter of House Riverbond who everyone expected me to be, morphing into the robe so I could skip putting it on separately and being cold for even a moment.

“Oh wow, she’s tiny,” Ernek said when I walked back around to their side of the pillar, which won him a scowl from me.

I was not tiny. I was somewhat smaller than other girls my age because I chose to be.

“Might want to remember that she can turn into a dire wolf pretty much in the blink of an eye,” Xandir said.

“Oh, yeah, right,” Ernek said with a sheepish laugh.

“We should do this sooner than later, right?” I said, ignoring them both and focusing on Ula.

“Yes. This next part isn’t terribly pleasant though, so if you need time to prepare, we can make sure you have it,” Ula said.

Because tonight hadn’t been unpleasant enough.

I sighed and looked to my housemates.

“We’re ready,” Yarrin said. “What do you need us to do?”

Ula drew a sword of glass from thin air.

“Bleed,” she said.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 38

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

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

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

I left. 

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

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

“What happened?”

It wasn’t a good move on her part. 

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

“Kati! What Happened!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t important.

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

They weren’t important either though.

Trina’s scent was growing more faint.

That was important.

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately there was a fountain.

The fountain was cold.The fountain was very cold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I changed that.

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

They also should have put more guards on it.

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

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

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

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

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

Those thoughts were for later thinking though. 

Trina’s scent was diminishing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not when her scent led deeper into the lab.

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

Also not Trina’s. Also not comforting.

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

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

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

So I jumped from the window.

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

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

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

Nothing in the circles I couldn’t see.

Nothing to the circles themselves. 

I started clawing at the ground.

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

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

I got bigger, but that didn’t help.

I flooded magic into my claws.

Which also didn’t help.

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

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


Not again.

This place was different.

The scent hadn’t lead onwards from here.

This spot was special.

And empty.

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

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

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

I was done. 

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

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

Which was where the older Cadets found us.

Just not the older Cadets I was expecting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?” Yarrin asked.

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

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 37

“It is always refreshing to have a calm and reasonable conversation with someone who holds a fundamentally different opinion on the issues which stand between you.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame to the newly runebound ghost of Olthas Lightstone

I should have been afraid of Mellina. I wasn’t, but a part of me was still in awe of the idea that she’d managed to outplay a family of future-seeing seers, even if it had cost her a significant amount of physical pain to do so.

“What had your family wanted of you?” Yarrin asked.

“Marriage, among other things,” Mellina said.

“Let me guess, he was around sixty, smelled like a sewer on his best day, and had been interested in you for the last ten years?” Ilyan said.

“Probably not,” Mellina said. “They hadn’t  selected a spouse for me yet. They wanted to see what my destinies looked like once I completed training as a cadet.”

“Destinies?” Narla asked. “I thought Astrologia didn’t really use foresight spells and people just laughed at them because they used to long ago?”

“They don’t use future viewing magics how most people imagine they do,” Mellina said. “It’s true that efforts to predict the specific shape of the future were finally abandoned more than a century ago, and it was mostly a fringe research subject by then anyways.”

“But they were using those magics against you anyways?” I asked. For all that Mellina seemed open and confident in the small group we were in, I recalled how careful she’d been when we first met, and how quiet she’d been in our interactions with people outside her immediate circle. That sort of behavior could be the result of natural inclinations, but knowing the Great Houses, I suspected it was a response to the kind of trauma only family can inflict.

“I’m not special because of that,” Mellina said. “Your Houses are a collection of families under a broad umbrella of close relations. House Astrologia isn’t concerned about that. It’s broken up into ‘Project Teams’.”

“What sort of projects do they work on?” Narla asked, frowning in entirely well founded suspicion.

“Each team has a different focus,” Mellina said. “In the end though they all have the same goal; acquire or create a caster who can undo the effects of the Great Disjunction.”

“That’s what Astrologia calls the calamity that killed the Empress?” Yarrin asked.

“So they’re trying to save the Empire?” Ilyan asked, his disbelief well warranted.

“No. If Astrologia can complete its Grand Design, there won’t be an Empire anymore. There’ll be a Holy Protectorate under the Divine Aegis of the New Divinites.”

I could hear each of the capital letters in the words she spoke, and caught the echo of a dozen generations of Astrologians who’d pursued their family’s decidedly unholy agenda.

“So they were going to have you marry a god?” Narla asked. I didn’t blame her for being confused, since there were still a lot of missing pieces to Mellina’s story.

“More like give birth to one,” Mellina said. “Or really, give birth to a better caster than I am, who’d then spawn a better caster and so on until, however many generations down the line it took, one of them turned out to be powerful enough to control the broken planes and make a claim to godhood they could successfully back up.”

“It was more than just a bad marriage that you wanted to get away from though?” I said, certain enough not to make it a question, but curious if she’d chose to explain what else her family had in store for her.

“Being part of a ‘Project Team’ means living under a very specific set of restrictions,” Mellina said. “The Team Leader’s visions of the future are more revealing if the lives of the members of the team are shaped to illuminate the possibilities the leader needs to see. There are bindings each team member is expected to accept to help ensure that.”

“Bindings that do what exactly?” I asked, thinking of the ones I’d allowed Doxle to inflict on me.

“The early ones are simple monitoring constraints,” Mellina said. “You can’t lie, or hold any secrets from the Project Team, but you’re still mostly free to act as you wish. That freedom vanishes in stages with each promotion as punishment and then direct control constraints are ‘gifted’ to the Team members who excel at the tasks assigned to them.”

“And if you don’t excel?” Yarrin asked.

“Then you only get the punishment constraints,” Mellina said.

“I’m glad you got out of that,” Narla said. “My family is awful but yours sound like slavers.”

“They see it as an honor and a blessing,” Mellina said.

“On a scale of ‘Won’t Send You Birthday Presents’ to ‘Will Send You Assassins’, how annoyed at you are they going to be for you leaving?” Ilyan asked.

Mellina laughed at that, which broke some of the tension that had been building up in the room.

“Somewhere around ‘Happy to Finally Have Me Out of Their Visions’, I think,” she said. “Some of them might keep in touch, but my immediate Project Team probably won’t speak to me again for the rest of my life, unless I seek them out. That’s when they’d send the assassins.”

She’d adopted a joking tone, but her scent said she was being entirely serious.

Which meant I had a new sister it seemed.

Possibly two of them and two brothers too from the look of things.

I wondered if Grammy would object to adding a few extra rooms to the cottage, or if she’d tell me to build my own. Probably the latter. The old lady who lived in a house in the forest that supported a tiny staff and one replacement grand daughter was not, as it turned out, terribly fond of people. Shocking, I know.

Though, now that I thought of it, Doxle had mentioned something that suggested he knew her already.

I wasn’t sure why that was worrisome, but on recalling it I couldn’t imagine anything good coming from that fact.

“On the upside, that means you’re now free to marry whoever you want, right?” Narla said.

“Which would be no one,” Mellina said.

“Haven’t found the right person yet, or they’re already taken?” Ilyan asked.

“Neither,” Mellina said. “I don’t feel like that about people. I know that makes me weird, but I don’t need someone in my life romantically. I never have.”

“That’s not what makes you weird,” Ilyan said. “Half my extended family hate the relationships they’re in but none of them will ever admit it. You being honest about what you don’t want is something people should give you an award for.”

“I think the award is ‘she won’t get stuck in a miserable, loveless marriage’,” Narla said.

Ilyan pointed a finger at her and nodded his head in agreement. “That’s a good reward.”

“So what is she weird for?” Yarrin asked, an relaxed mischief playing in his eyes.

“Huh?” Ilyan said, not expecting the teasing from Yarrin of all people.

“You said my romantic preferences or the lack thereof weren’t what made me weird,” Mellina said, joining in on Yarrin’s mischief. “That implies something else does.”

“Oh, yeah,” Ilyan said, as though the answer was too obvious to need explanation. “This.” He gestured too all of us. “That we’re all here and not doing what everybody expected of us. No one’s going to understand that, and I’m perfectly happy that they won’t.”

“Does that no one include your sister?” I asked. For no reason at all. Just idle curiosity really.

“Yeah. Maybe. Probably,” Ilyan said. “She’s not going to know what to do with me next time we run into each other,” he paused as a thought occurred to him. “I’m kinda hoping she doesn’t stab me in the heart like she did you, but I’m not sure I’d lay money on it.”

“Why would she…wait, she stabbed Kati in the heart?” Mellina asked.

“Only once,” I said.

“Yeah, and kicked her off a platform like the ones we were fighting on today,” Ilyan said.

“Onto something soft?” Yarrin asked.

“Sure. Granite’s pretty soft, right?” Ilyan said turning to me. From his smile, it was apparently my turn to be drawn into the teasing.

“It wasn’t as bad as it sounds,” I thoroughly and completely lied. “We were fighting a duel over an insult to House Ironbriar’s honor, I think?”

“You think you were fighting a duel?” Mellina said.

“Or you think it was about Ironbriar’s honor?” Narla asked.

“The honor thing,” I said. “Doxle had provoked them I guess?”

“And he didn’t fight the duel why exactly?” Mellina asked.

“It wouldn’t have been fair?” I said, not quite recalling why it had fallen to me to get stabbed. The truth was he and Enika had wanted to see how I and Idrina fought, and the duel had been a convenient pretext to arrange that. We’d all understood that going into it so the rationalization for it hadn’t really stuck with me.

“Well, you survived, so good job there I guess,” Narla said.

“She didn’t just survive. She won,” Ilyan said.

“And Idrina survived too?” Yarrin asked.

“I won on a technicality,” I said. “Idrina set foot outside of the ring by mistake.”

“And then she stabbed you through the heart?” Mellina asked.

“Yeah. Just once though,” I said, as though that made it a perfectly reasonable and minor event.

“You are really good at form shifting aren’t you?” Ilyan asked.

I glanced at Yarrin who had apparently been able to see that I was doing more than simple form shaping, but his expression was clear of any sign of the fact that he knew already the answer to the question.

“It’s the strongest part of my magics,” I said, which was mostly truthful. It was certainly the aspect of the magics available to me which I’d practiced the most and I was more than willing to put myself up against the best form shifters in the Empire if anyone wanted to challenge me on that.

“I’m glad,” Mellina said. “I’d seen a few futures where you won your arena duel but there were far too many to be sure they would be the ones that came to pass and it looked a lot worse for you when I saw it for real.”

“His weapon was weird,” I said. “It did something to my magics. It wasn’t a suppression effect but it felt similar to it. It was like when it hit my my magics got all twisted up.”

“I saw a few of the Cadets had weapons like that,” Narla said.

“Armor too,” Yarrin said. “And you’re not wrong about them twisting magic. I don’t know how they manage it, but those swords are casters in their own right.”

“Casters? But they’re not people?” Ilyan said. “They’re just tools.”

“No, Yarrin’s right. When I was fighting, the gear was casting its own spells on me,” I said. 

“I don’t think that’s possible,” Mellina said. “Objects can be enchanted with magic, but it has to flow through a caster to be set into a material. A magic sword can only express the spell that’s been worked in it, the casting is long since finished at this point.”

“Materials can absorb magic or be warped by it if they’re exposed for long enough though,” Yarrin said.

“That’s still a resting effect,” Mellina said. “Dynamically moving magic requires a sentient mind to form the bridge between the two worlds.”

“Maybe someone was casting through the swords from far away?” Ilyan asked.

“I don’t know how they could, but I guess that could work,” Mellina said.

“Doxle said it was House Lightstone who were trying out the new weapons,” I said and glanced over to Narla.

“Could be,” she said with a shrug. “Lightstone does a lot of experimenting and some of it’s pretty messed up. Swords that scramble your magic sound like the kind of thing they’d pay a ton of gold for, even if they needed a second caster powering it at a distance.”

The conversation moved onto something about the feasibility of having a distant caster channel their magic working through a conduit someone else controlled, but I stopped listening then.

Over the delicious aromas of the food that had been laid out, stronger than the current of wary curiosity which gripped my new housemates, I caught one breath’s worth of a scent I’d been yearning to find for days.

Trina, my first sister, was here.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 36

“When one enters a negotiation, one should always keep in mind what one hopes to gain, and what one cannot afford to lose. It is perhaps useful at the present moment to draw your attention to how very little I have and how uniformly consistent I have proven myself to be when it comes to losing even that. Reflect on that before another word passes your lips and we may all wind up spending a far more enjoyable evening than your previous utterances suggested as the course of action you preferred.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle, punctured by three magical knives and gripping Layton Greyfall by the throat.

People wonder about the afterlife, but there is a heaven and I was soaking in it. To say that the mist women knew their stuff when it came to setting up a bath was a criminal understatement. I would have suggested violence against anyone who disparaged their work, but floating in the tub, wrapped in perfect warmth and an array of aromas which could only be described as transcendentally soothing, everything just melted away. My anger, my strength, the whole terrible day, and week, and month that had led me here.

I could have let myself literally melt, but while a blob floating in the water has no back to have back pains in, it was the feeling of my body absorbing the comfort and releasing the pain it held which brought me the true relief that I was feeling.

Floating there forever seemed like a fine idea until my watery paradise was lost, not due to any change in the bath, but due to me. 

My stomach grumbled. Loudly.

All the other pains I’d been carrying had pushed my hunger to the distant background but as the agonies of the day fell away my ever practical belly informed me that sustaining myself by consuming real food was tremendously easier than subsisting on raw magic.

And also much, much tastier.

The dining room wasn’t close to my bedroom but I’d fixed up my nose and the spiced meats which had been laid out were aromatic enough to call me even given the distance involved.

I reluctantly got out of the tub, toweled off, and tossed on one of the bathrobes that Pastries had left for me. It was too big, but was my own fault. It was sized for a normal woman of my age and I was not that. I could have grown up into a tall and imposing woman like Narla if I’d wanted to, or even a regular sized one like Idrina. I hadn’t wanted to leave behind too much of the form I’d modeled myself on though, and Grammy Duella was short, so I’d only changed my height a little bit over time. I told myself that less height and weight meant more mobility with the musculature I had, but given that I could shift to far more mobile forms with a thought I knew I was mostly fooling myself.

Whether I was too short for it or not though, the bathrobe was still soft and warm and that was enough for me. I followed the scent of the food as much with my stomach as with my nose. It led me down stairs again, though not to the foyer I’d come into but some other room, like the house was made of puzzle blocks and fitted them together in whatever odd order it felt like at any given moment.

A hallway, an observatory, and a trip through a room decorated as an underground hot spring grotto led me, finally, to the dining room.

I was the last one to show up.

I was also the only one who wasn’t dressed in a cadet’s uniform.


I probably should have checked for that in my room before I left.

Not particularly caring, I plopped down in the open seat between Mellina and Ilyan. The table had room for twelve but with only five place settings out, it was pretty obvious which chair had been left for me. Narla sat opposite Ilyan which put Yarrin beside her and opposite me.

“Try the Cressnut Salad,” Ilyan said, pointing to one of the three dishes in the center of the table which were in front of me. “It’s better than my Nan makes.”

As far as I could tell he hadn’t noticed or thought to care about my attire, which was oddly refreshing. Mellina meanwhile wore a tiny smile that suggested she found it amusing, and Narla and Yarrin were too busy fork-fighting over a candied yam to show any reaction.

“Did Doxle want to talk about anything important?” Mellina asked, leaving the question open ended enough that I could have avoided answering it without resorting to pure silence.

“He wanted to apologize,” I said. “I guess people are going to be upset that I’m part of House Riverbond?”

“Well, sure,” Narla said. “Riverbond was supposed to be one of the dead Houses. Whoever their senior house was, they’re going to be worried about losing control of all the Riverbond money they’ve been ‘managing’.”

“Riverbond was part of House Lightstone’s coalition when it was active,” Yarrin said. “I’m guessing they don’t talk about the House’s they’ve absorbed though?”

“They don’t talk and I never listened,” Narla said. “I wasn’t what you would call one of their favored daughters.”

“Why?” Ilyan asked. “You’re amazing!”

“I’m strong,” Narla said. “But not how my family, or I guess my ex-family now, wants people to be strong. Also, I don’t exactly look like a ‘Lightstone Princess’, do I?”

Ilyan and Yarrin were both silent for a moment, glanced at each other, and, like they’d been practicing it, said in unison, “Yes, you do!?”

Narla tipped her head to the side and looked annoyed at that.

“Don’t lie. I don’t need it,” she said. “I know who I am. I know what I’ve got and what I don’t.”

“But no, you’re…” Yarrin managed to say, before Mellina cut him off.

“Okay with who she is, like we should all be?” Mellina said. 

It was hard to argue with that, so neither Ilyan nor Yarrin tried, and Narla seemed happy with that outcome. Or at least she smelled satisfied with it and I think it was a nod of thanks she gave Mellina.

“Is that why you left them?” I asked, still puzzled how I’d wound up with not one but four new members of House Riverbond.

“Oh, no, not really. I was used to that,” Narla said. “I mean I’ve wanted to leave my family since I was five I think.”

“It’s not easy though is it?” Mellina asked, solidifying my impression that being part of House Riverbond had been none of their first choices.

“Somedays? Somedays it seemed like it would be, but I could never make that leap,” Narla said.

“Because where would you leap to?” Ilyan said.

“Especially since they’d come looking for you,” Yarrin said.

“You two get it,” Narla said. “It’s supposed to be such a privilege to be part of the one of the Great Houses, and, I can see why. There’s no chance you’ll starve, you’ll always have clothes, a lot of things people worry about won’t be a problem for you. Your House will do everything for you that they need to so they can look good. Which means there’s always the thought that ‘if I leave I’ll have it so much worse’, and I probably would have. What was I going to do at eight years old the first time they sent me to the dungeons to ‘starve the fat off me’?”

I knew I’d heard that correctly, but I very much wanted to believe I hadn’t. It was that or water the seed of another killing rampage and I’d just started feeling better from the last one.

“I think I want to hurt your parents,” Ilyan said.

“You’d be part of a big group there,” Narla said. “They weren’t the only reasons I wanted to leave Lightstone though. The rest of my family was just as terrible.”

“Your brother too I imagine?” Mellina asked.

“He was the worst of them,” Narla said. “I came here today because I knew he’d be one of the Senior Cadets for the third trial. He promised me if I ever called attention to myself and the fact that I was a part of House Lightstone that he would kill me himself for ‘dishonoring our house by claiming that anyone of their breeding could produce a deviant like me’.”

“You wanted him to try that in front of witnesses?” Mellina asked.

“No, I wanted to kill him for all the other things he did to me, and if he faced me in the arena I thought I wouldn’t get in trouble for it,” Narla said.

“House Lightstone sounded like they still wanted you after you won your match though?” I asked.

“Sure. I’m not good enough to be a proper daughter of House Lightstone but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t be a useful tool for them. Put me in some armor so no one can see me, and trundle me out to a Reaving Storm and they can claim that they sent a mighty House Lightstone warrior to deal with it, and if I don’t survive then they haven’t lost anything of value.”

She was too far away for me to hug, and I wasn’t sure if she’d even want one, or need the comfort for horrors that had faded to being a part of the background noise of her life.

“They said those exact words, didn’t they?” Mellina asked. Her voice was mild but her scent had the frozen scent of a killing frost.

“They stuck with me,” Narla said. “But I got over it.” She hadn’t. I could smell the pain the memories brought back to her. “And today I got to see a sight that almost made up for all of that.”

“Your grandfather’s face when told him to shut up and go to hell?” Ilyan asked.

“Oh, yeah, that too,” Narla said. “Today was really good day but that wasn’t the high point.”

“You were happy when I killed your brother,” I said. It wasn’t a question, but I was still somewhat surprised, though less so than I’d originally been.

“You are an angel. I cannot tell you how many time I prayed for someone to do what you did. I cried myself to sleep hoping that someone like you would find me,” Narla said. “It didn’t look easy or fun for you, and I’m sorry for that. I wish our fights had been reverse so you could have avoided getting stabbed so much, but I don’t think I could have done what you did.”

“You wouldn’t have gotten stabbed,” I said. “Even if he meant to kill you, I saw how you fight and how he did. He wasn’t fast enough to dodge the punch you threw, or tough enough to survive it.”

Narla wiped away a couple of tears and said, “Thank you. For everything.”

“We all owe you,” Mellina said, placing a hand on my shoulder in support of Narla’s point.

“I literally owe you my life,” Yarrin said.

“Me too,” Ilyan said.

“Wait, how?” I asked. “I get that Yarrin’s family had lethal plans for him, though I’m not clear on why, but I thought Ironbriar loved you?”

“They did,” Ilyan said. “Or at least who they thought I was. I’m not that guy though.”

“And they were going to kill you for that?” Yarrin asked.

“Not directly,” Ilyan said. “Ironbriar’s doesn’t need to stab the family members they hate in the back. They just send them out under-equipped, on impossible missions, and let the Reaving Beasts stab them in the front.”

“How about you?” Narla asked, nodding towards Mellina. “You were friends with Kati before this right? How come you both didn’t go into House Astrologia?”

“Was it because you lost control of your magic during the fight?” Yarrin asked.

“I didn’t,” Mellina said.

“But you flooded the stadium with it?” Ilyan said. “After you got burned.”

“Yeah, that part wasn’t fun,” Mellina said. “But it was the only thing that would convince them to let me go.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 35

“The greatest comfort we have is each other. That is complicated by the fact that what we most often need comfort from is each other.”

-Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame.

A thousand bitter arguments rose to my lips in response to Doxle saying we needed to talk. He’d had his chance to chastise me over what happened at the arena. I wasn’t going to listen to any criticism after I’d finally started putting myself back together.

Except waiting to criticize me in private was much better than doing so in public.

That did nothing to cool my temper, but it did help me keep my jaw locked closed before I could say anything regrettable.

“Fine,” I said and walked forward to make it look like it was my decision as much as his.

The others were left, understandably, a little uncertain by this but I heard them follow along after me into the bright and clean foyer of Doxle’s house after a moment anyways.

“There’s a bath waiting for you Lady Kati,” Sea Cotton said, gesturing up the curving stairs which ran the length of the foyer and back as it rose to the second floor.

I glanced over at Doxle demanding that he explain what the priorities were here. Was I going to get in trouble right away, or was I going to have to stew in the bath and my own feelings for a while first.

“She’ll be along for that shortly,” Doxle said. “Anyone else who wishes to bathe before dinner is welcome to though.”

Narla and Ilyan gave themselves a few quick sniffs and seemed noncommittal about the idea, but Yarrin and Mellina were already following Sea Cotton so they joined her.

“They’ll get settled in and you can all have dine together,” Doxle said, gesturing towards the door to a study which was adjoined the foyer.

I followed him in, selecting my angry rebuttals to whatever complaints he tried to lodge against me.

“You seem ready to scream at me,” he said. “By all means, please do so.”

I opened my mouth with my best comeback ready. Except it wasn’t for that. 

Doxle collapsed into one of the stuff chairs and gave a tired wave directing me to my choice of the two sitting opposite it.

“I can’t sit in those. I’m a mess,” I said.

“They’re only chairs,” he said. “Rest. Today has cost you enough already.”

I stared at the chairs. I really was a mess. Hiding in a drain pipe after the ugly battle I’d fought had not left me in anything resembling a presentable state. Both chairs looked brand new and the moment I sat down they were going to be ruined.

Doxle noticed my hesitation, waited a moment, and then flicked his fingers towards the chair nearer him which was sucked into a warp in space and replaced by a much older and less puffy chair. It was clean but it showed the stains and repaired rips that only age and use could inflict.

I was going to make a mess of it, but he wasn’t wrong that I needed to sit.

“I won’t keep you long,” he said once I’d collapsed into the older chair. “But you are owed an apology and restitution.”

I tried to respond to that, but words were not…they weren’t a thing I had at that moment.

Angry screams? Sure. More tears? Probably, but I wasn’t going to burden anyone else with those. Coherent words though? I’d left those somewhere outside the magic door it seemed.

“It was not my intention to reveal your lineage or standing publicly, nor to place you in the position you now occupy,” Doxle said. “Should you be planning any revenge, please rest assured that your grandmother will doubtless hear about the outcome of today in short order and Duella will enact a far worse vengeance than anything you have the wherewithal to engineer.”

“Revenge?” I asked. The concept had been floating around in my consciousness since my match, but only in relation to what the senior cadets would do to me or anyone near me.

“The plan, such as it was, had been for Holman to convince House Astrologia to speak for you, and I would then be able to claim your debt to them in trade for one of the several hundred favors they still owe me.”

I could hear his word, and I could understand what they meant. Translating the fact that he was apologizing to me into whatever language my heart spoke though was proving to be fairly difficult. Mostly due to the staggeringly giant wall of disbelief which had hemmed in my thoughts.

“So this isn’t…” I started to say and cut myself off. Why would I want to bring up what I’d done? Any of what I’d done.

“No, it’s not where I’d planned to have you stay tonight,” Doxle said, missing my point deliberately. “I dispatched some couriers to arrange the proper grants of occupancy after the idiots from Lightstone and Greyfall objected to Riverbond’s claim.”

“Why…” I started and again cut myself off. “What happened to the original plan?”

It was a ridiculous question. I was wearing bits of what had happened to the original plan still.

“Lightstone decided to try out some of their new toys,” Doxle said. “Which I also owe you an apology for, and a new set of armor it seems.”

“Wait, no,” I shook my head. He was not making any sense and part of me felt a lot more comfortable with the idea of being in trouble rather than inhabiting whatever strange world it was that I’d stumbled into. “Why do you owe me anything? I…you didn’t have to do any of this. We could be starving out on the green tonight and you still wouldn’t owe me anything.”

“You entered our contract in good faith and I promised in return to teach you what you needed to know,” Doxle said. “Your side of the contract binds you into taking it seriously, but on my side no such binding exists. I am free to do whatever I please, including nothing for you.”

“Exactly!” I said.

“Which is why I owe you an apology and new armor,” Doxle said. “All I have to be worthy of the contract between is the choices I make. You are free to rage, and hate me, and say all the horrible things you can imagine. None of that would lessen your worth. When I fail you though, I allow myself to become someone the one person I have ever loved would turn away from, and even after all these years without them that is the one thing I cannot do.”

“So, you’re taking care of me for someone else?” I asked, not quite following what he was saying beyond the broad generalities of it.

“No. I am taking care of you for you, because it’s what I pledged against your freedom. To do less would make me less.”

“Oh,” I said. He wasn’t hiding his scent. The ash and lightning was shot through will an ancient longing and the pain of a wound which a blade of hope would never allow to mend.

“I would like to speak again later,” Doxle said. “I have some ideas which might help if you need to face one of those odd blades the Lightstone cadet was carrying and there are logistical considerations we’ll need to work through for your new household of fellow cadets. For now though, I’m sure you’d prefer to soak for a bit, change into some fresh clothes, and then enjoy the dinner which awaits you all.”

“I don’t think I have any fresh clothes,” I said.

“Your travel case awaits you in your room,” Doxle said. “It’s doubtless missing some of its contents, but it seemed to be fairly fully still. If you like I can arrange for a tailor to stop by tomorrow to replace or add to your wardrobe.”

“Oh,” I said, wondering how he’d managed to find my travel case. 

“I will likely be out for the rest of the evening,” Doxle said. “Certain parties need to hear a few choice words before their dried up little raisin brains concoct any foolish ideas. If you should have need of me however I’ll leave you with my calling card.”

“Calling card?” I asked.

“Yes,” he conjured a small rectangle of white paperboard and gold ink into his fingers. “Pitch this into a fire and I’ll arrive in a moment or two. Maybe three. It’s a somewhat tricky method of travel but I’m sure I can manage it still.”

“So, not for if I just feel like having a chat,” I said holding onto the card since I didn’t have anything like a clean pocket to put it into.

“For any reason,” he said. “I doubt I’ll enjoy very many of my engagements tonight. At the worst you’ll be giving me a reason to depart early. At best you might save someone’s life, though that is, I must admit, unlikely.”

So he was going somewhere, for me I had to assume, and homicide was on the table if he didn’t like the answers he received.

I finally grasped why he had no criticisms to level against me for my actions in the arena.

“Be careful,” I said as I got up. I wasn’t sure if Advisor’s could be the victims of a homicide and I definitely didn’t want to find out the answer first hand.

He replied with a wry smile and a wave but, tellingly, nothing like a firm commitment.

I could have worried about that but he was, at a minimum, hundreds of years old and had been playing the games the Great Houses got up to for centuries. 

So I trudged up the staircase to the second floor. The layout of this part of the house wasn’t at all familiar but I figured if I walked far enough I’m stumble into something that looked like my room. Instead of a room though, I stumbled into a patch of clear air that smelled of warm pastries and cold milk.

“I’m so sorry,” the unseen Pastries said, supporting me before I could fall over. “I was just coming to see if you were done with Doxxy.”

Behind her the door to my room stood open and I could smell the warm, soapy bath water awaiting me.

“My fault,” I said. “I didn’t see you.”

“Did Doxxy forgot to teach you the spell for that?” the empty air asked.

“It’s been a busy day,” I said and lumbered carefully towards the bath.

“You can leave those clothes out in the main room and I’ll…” she looked at the shredded armor and clothing I was wearing. “Burn them. I will probably burn them, unless you’ve developed a sentimental attachment to…” Closer to the bath, the mist was starting to give her a vague outline so I could see as she gestured to all of me.

“Burning sounds lovely,” I said. “The armor might be a problem there though.”

“Not if I try hard enough,” Pastries said. 

I waited until she closed the door and then stripped down by simply shifting my body directly out of the clothes leaving them in a rumpled pool on the ground as though I’d been disintegrated.

Climbing into the bath nearly knocked me out. 

I’d fixed up my muscles and bones but the experience of being chopped up had lingered inside me nonetheless. In the warm embrace of the water that started to flow away.

The scented shampoos and soaps helped too. As the blood diluted into the warm waters, the worst of the day diluted with it and I felt my fears and hurts and angers diminish too, just a little bit.

They were part of the past. I wasn’t particularly adept at letting go of that, nor did I necessarily want to be. I wanted to remember what had happened. I wanted to remember what I’d done. I wanted to remember a friend I’d only had for a few hours. My body would forget, the wounds would vanish out of sight, but I’d carry my experiences forward as elements that would define me. 

But not the only elements. Or the most important ones.

I had other days worth of experiences to blend them in with, and many more to come to help refine what those experiences would mean to me. 

Out beyond my rooms I heard distant voices reminding me that, though I was far from home and the little family I loved, I was also far from alone.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 34

“We all need a place of refuge in our lives. Somewhere we can go to feel secure, somewhere we can recover the strength the world seems intent on sapping away, somewhere we can arrange to our own tastes. It is for this reason that one should never have children.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

I had been through a day. My brain was literally still broken. That wasn’t an excuse for anything in my case. I only sort of use my brain.

And that is a line I can never utter aloud or Doxle will never let me hear the end of it.

The point is, when Sea Cotton opened the door and invited us in, I was not ready for it.

Mellina, blessed wonder that she is, was just as silent and still as I was.

Yarrin however, smiled, nodded, and walked in like it was exactly what he’d been expecting.

And that was good enough for Narla and Ilyan, who followed him right on in too.

“Lady Kati?” Sea Cotton asked.

I think my expression may have suggested that I was not okay with this turn of events. I think the others might have noticed that too when Sea Cotton cocked her head to the side.

Why they weren’t more concerned about a woman made out of mist, who they did not know, inviting them into a place that magically hadn’t been there a moment earlier? That doors to people could be anywhere and that was ok was not processing for me.

Yes, Sea Cotton was, from our brief interaction, a kind and generous spirit. Sure, Doxle’s house had doors that were connected to things other than his actual walls. Dinner sounded lovely too. And if Sea Cotton was there, I’d probably even be able to have another bath, which would be fantastic. Because I was covered head to toe in blood.

I should not have run away.

That wasn’t a rational response to the situation.

If anything all it did was place me in more danger. My fellow Cadets, at least the senior ones, were proven killers. In a one-on-one tourney, it wasn’t entirely unreasonable to think I could defeat, or at least survive, any of them. After my performance in the arena though, the chance that they’d ambush me one by one was less than zero. If they found me, and I still reeked of blood so I wasn’t exactly hard to track, they would come as a mob. 

Would they bring someone who knew how to kill something like me? Probably?

And there could be doors anywhere.

Even in a blank wall.

I needed Yarrin. He knew how to find hidden doors.

Except if he was with me, they would definitely kill him too.

I am fantastically good at hiding when I choose to, and so I found a spot they wouldn’t track me. Huddled inside a rain water pipe that was only a half a foot in diameter wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it did give me a moment to breathe.

Breathe and reflect on what an idiot I was being.

My brain wasn’t broken. I’d fixed up the rest of the damage I’d taken a while ago. Sure there was more work I could do. I had some ideas for strengthening my collar bones for one thing, since taking swordstrike through them was not fun and they really should be able to do a better job than they’d done.

That wasn’t important though.

What was important was that my brain wasn’t broken. 

I was. 

There wasn’t a mob after me at the moment.

The senior Cadets were killers, but that didn’t mean that more than a few of them cared about the guy I’d killed.

The guy I’d killed.


That was probably what was going on.

Living with Grammy Duella, I’d heard all sorts of accounts of how horrible the Great Houses were. We lived in the woods though. It wasn’t like either of us got into many duels to the death with Great House scions. 

And by not many duels to the death, I meant none.

For me at least.

She never talked about it, but I had the sense Grammy had a more colorful life before retiring to the woods than she ever let on.

I wasn’t sad about killing the Imperial Cadet though.

He’d deserved it and I’d do it again, without hesitation.

In fact if I had a chance I’d do it sooner.

I could have made the leap into the arena while Kelthas was still fighting.

It had been obvious how that fight was going to go.

He couldn’t have won it.

He wasn’t a threat to the Imperial Cadet at all.

He’d been helpless at the end and no one had helped him.

I heard some familiar voices speaking in a low whisper as they walked past my hiding tube. They weren’t going to think to look for me here. No human body was even vaguely capable of fitting into a spot like this.

Their voices and steps faded away without a pause.

Except for one.

The last remaining was quiet and still, but their breathing was impossible to miss. For me. I caught their scent too, but in the form I’m glooped myself into I’d forgone a lot of human elements like a nose, so all I picked up was who was waiting for me.

“You can take your time,” Yarrin said. “I’ll bring the others back to the dorms in about fifteen minutes. If you’re not back in an hour or so, I’ll come and drop off dinner for you.”

And then he left.

I was not okay, but Kelthas had been his friend, or at least his acquaintance, longer and if I was this messed up by the death of someone I could barely claim to have known, it had to be harder for Yarrin. 

“How did you know I was in there?” I asked as I glooped out of the rain pipe and resumed the closest thing to a ‘real form’ I had.

“It’s my magic,” Yarrin said. “I can see things.”

“You could see me through a metal pipe?” I asked. It was magic, so anything was on the table, but there were a bunch of other possibilities too. None of which were important at the moment but it was easier talking about those than what was actually going on in my head.

“Yeah,” he said, and glanced away, as we started walking back to our new dorm.

Oh right. My clothes were a wreck since I’d dragged them up into the pipe with me. I wasn’t indecent or anything, but I did look like I’d gone three rounds with a patch of sentient swamp and lost every one of them.

“How did you recognize me?” I asked, wondering if it was the disheveled clothes and torn armor that had tipped him off.

“You’re sort of hard to miss,” he said. “I…,” he hesitated, wrestling with some decision I couldn’t begin to guess until he spoke at last. “I know what you are. In general terms. I have since you walked up to us before the Trials.”

I stopped walking.

That was more frightening than any horde of upperclassmen could ever have been.

So why wasn’t I afraid?

“What do you think I am?” I asked. I wasn’t going to try to deny anything. If he was able to track me into a rain water pipe, he would be able to see through any denials I could conceivably come up with in my current state. 

He looked around as though checking to be sure we were alone, which I was already pretty sure we were. One thing about freaking out like I had? All of my senses were cranked up to levels no human could possibly match.

At least without magic.

Which, given where I was, meant I was far less certain than I’d thought I was on reflection.

Yarrin didn’t suffer that limitation though. 

“I think you’re something other than human,” he said. “Or, maybe something not from this world would be more accurate. Except that’s not true either. You’re both from here and not from here. I’m not sure how that’s possible, but that seems to fit what I’m seeing the best. Unless my magic is as messed up from today as the rest of me feels.”

“You’re magic is fine,” I said. “I’ve been here a long time but this isn’t my world. I’m from some place else.”

“Well, I’m glad your here now,” he said. “Or, oh, is that okay? Is this where you want to be?”

“I killed a guy to get here, so signs seem to point to yes,” I said.

“No, I mean in this world?” Yarrin asked. “I’m glad you’re here for selfish reasons, but if you were dragged here unwillingly, I might be able to help you find out how to get back home.”

I shook my head.

“This is my home,” I said. “It’s complicated but I’m okay here. No need to feel bad.”

“Thanks,” he said.

“You’re the one who got me out of the pipe,” I said.

“You’re the one who made sure the Cadets didn’t kill me in the third trial,” he said.

“That…” that was exactly what I’d intended with my final remark before leaving the arena, but I didn’t want to claim credit for it. I’d still been half berserk then. And I’d already failed at that point. “That should have come sooner.”

“I didn’t see it coming either,” he said and there was no need to specify what ‘it’ was. “I can see so much, almost everything it feels like most of the time, but I’m not House Astrologia, I couldn’t see what that cadet was going to do to him. I thought…I thought they’d send him to medic tent and fail him out of the Trials.”

“He was supposed to be safe,” I said. “I thought his magic meant I didn’t have to worry about him.”

He hugged me. Like the too-young kid that he was, he hugged me, and we spent several minutes shedding tears for the boy who was supposed to be with us and who never would be and the people we never would be as a result.

“Thanks, I needed that,” Yarrin said, pulling away and drying his eyes. “The others are heading back. Did you want to wait for them.”

“No, but I should,” I said, “they didn’t have any better of a day than either of us did.”

“I don’t know,” Yarrin said. “Narla looked like she had a pretty easy time in the last trial.” He smiled in broad appreciation at the memory and mimed her single fight-winning punch.

“Oh yeah. That was amazing,” I said, his excitement for her performance proving to be more than a little infectious. “I was thinking I was going to have to jump back in the ring and then, just, damn, the sheer crunch of that hit.”

Again, I probably should have been horrified, someone had died there. It wasn’t Kelthas though. And I hadn’t done it. And it had been provoked. And…and none of that made it right. 

It wasn’t right, but neither was the alternative, and I wasn’t sure Narla had really had any better options.

As answers went, it needed work, but if I couldn’t acknowledge my own limitations and the ones of the people around me, I was going to tear myself and them apart. I needed work, but acknowledging that I’d run into my limits was an idea I could live with for the time being.

“Oh, you found her!” Ilyan said.

“Yeah, sorry folks, I…we should probably go have dinner,” I said, with my usual masterful eloquence.

“Sounds good to me!” Narla said, patting her ample stomach. “This doesn’t run on skipped meals.”

“Is that how your magic works?” Ilyan asked. “Food gives you strength?”

“Food gives everyone strength,” Yarrin said with a roll of his eyes.

“Yeah, but she’s amazing,” Ilyan said. “One hit! It only took her one hit!”

“That uh, that wasn’t my best punch even,” Narla said, blushing a little.

“WHAT!?” Ilyan, Yarrin, and I said in chorus.

I lost track of time on the trip back to the dorm, and didn’t even notice Mellina cloaking us in shadows again thanks to the rest of us badgering Narla for details of what she could do for the whole trip.

This time when the door opened, Sea Cotton wasn’t waiting for us. Doxle was. 

“Ah, good. You’re back. We need to talk.” he said.