“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.
“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.