Monthly Archives: June 2023

Posting Delay

Apologies for the last minute notice but there’ll be a short delay on new chapters – none today but hopefully one on Sunday due to a messing up my back enough that sitting and typing is a bit hard at the moment.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 49

“Have I ever knowingly covered up or impeded the investigation of a crime against the Empire or one of it’s duly swore representatives? Why no, of course not. What a ridiculous concept. Is it not clear that I am pledged, body and soul to this great Empire and the Empress in whose divine name we all labor so diligently? I would expect centuries of service would have made that clear.

Well, yes, my labors of late have been a trifle less than diligent. And yes, it has been a number of decades since the Empire has needed my services in a military capacity. Really though, what is a decade or so of being at loose ends and left to one’s own devices? I mean, you know what they say, ‘with no power, comes no responsibility’. 

Oh, the covering up of crimes, right. A dreadful topic, but we should get back to it. You say you found the assassin who relieved the world of the burden of the former Baron of Ropeturn and she was hiding in my house? Well of course she was there. I mean, I was the one who hired her, it seemed a reasonable part of her compensation package to provide free food and lodging while we looked for a suitable dress for her coronation as the new Baron.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, moments before presenting a mountain of evidence confirming the former-Baron Ropeturn’s treachery against the Empress, the Empire in general, and the Imperial treasury in particular.

I’d always assumed that Doxle, being a demon, was touched by more than his fair share of madness. He’d made a pact with me after all and so far that had caused him nothing but trouble. To offer praise for what I’d done though? That suggested he probably didn’t know what I’d actually been up to. At least part of me hoped he didn’t since he might feel very differently about me if he knew the kinds of things I was really capable of.

“You’re proud of me?” I asked, because he’d had been nice so far and he deserved a chance to take back what he said before either of us regretted it..

“Inestimably so. To be perfectly honest I thought it would take far longer to convince you to act so openly against your Imperial overseers. I’d, quite foolishly it appears, had the niggling worry that your desire to be admitted to the Academy included some hopes towards getting a ‘proper Imperial education’. Always depressing when the societal conditioning takes hold, and quite the nuisance to scrub out of a promising mind.”

I followed most of that, but also didn’t.

“Don’t you work for the Empire though?” I asked.

“Once? Of a certainty. Once I was the very embodiment of faith in the nobility of our righteous society and the Most Divine Empresses Holy Rule. Well, I suppose there are those who would argue about that point, but they, sadly, are not here to contradict me.”

“Something happened though?” I asked, guessing that part easily enough, but without a clue as to what Doxle’s history might be like.

“Yes. I met her. The Empress.”

“And?” Why people gave obviously incomplete explanations of things was complete a mystery to me. 

I am aware that my tendency to give no answer at all is equally annoying, but I’ve been pretending to be a human for so long that some degree of hypocrisy seems an unavoidable side effect.

“And she knocked those silly ideas right out of my head.”

“Why?” I could have asked a better, more insightful question, but I’d been a puddle a few minutes prior and I still hadn’t been fed.

“Because she knew what the Empire was really like, and she decided to be kind to me for some unfathomable reason,” Doxle said. “What’s amazing is that you seem to have arrived at the same place without such aid.”

“I don’t know where I am.” I didn’t mean to disagree with him, but he seemed so happy and excited I didn’t want to leave him disappointed when I turned out not to be what he thought I was.

“As an expert observer of the phenomena, I would say that you on the edge of collapse,” Doxle said. “The wrong side of the edge in fact, unless I miss my guess.”

“Maybe,” I admitted. “I’m okay now though.”

“You are surviving. Never mistake that for being a sufficient state for life to leave you in. You deserve more. Everyone does.”

“It’s the best I seem to be able to manage at the moment,” I said. If I was expected to work to do better than that I was pretty sure I’d fall apart completely.

“And your best is remarkable,” Doxle said. “But let’s see if we can’t make things a little easier for you, no?”

I had no idea what he was talking about until I felt strength flowing back into me.

The phantom agonies that were still resonating in my arms and body were washed away by the rejuvenating tide that swept through me.

In between one blink and the next, the dark clouds rolled back from my vision and the room came into clear focus.

The surge of energy and strength was so profound I felt like I was going to explode but the moment I was back at full power, it shut off.

“There, that should help complete the deception I would think,” Doxle said, sitting back in his chair.

Before I’d only heard the smile he was wearing, but seeing it on his face was somehow still surprising. He really did seem to be happy? With me?

“Deception?” I asked.

“You have but ten minutes till your next Evaluations begins,” he said. “If you were to show up as bedraggled as you were even the least observant of your instructors would stand a decent chance to connecting you with the disappearance of their precious Reaving Beasts.”

Which meant he did know what I’d done.

That was both comforting and disturbing, and I resolved to think about neither aspect of it unless I absolutely had to.

“If I show up hungry they’ll wonder too won’t they?” I asked, my stomach chiming in with a timely rumble.

“Indeed. I suggest you and your housemates take another half hour and show up for the Evaluation late. You won’t be the only slackers, but you may be the only ones who will be punished for it. As your instructors are doubtlessly looking for an excuse to punish you all anyways, this will be most agreeable to them and will play into their preconception that you have joined the Academy simply because I demanded it.”

“Why would they think that?” I asked.

“They’re under the impression that you are my pawn in a game to liberate a new avenue of funding as my usual ones are proving insufficient to cover the lifestyle I wish to lead,” Doxle said. “There were several disagreements on that count last night which have been settled with the bare minimum of blood loss by all the parties.”

It occurred to me that he’d shown up in my room reeking of blood, which suggested that the ‘bare minimum of blood loss’ was probably still a quantity which could be measure in buckets.

“None of that is for you to worry about though,” Doxle said. “I just wanted to encourage you in your endeavors and offer what aid I could.”

“What did you do? I feel fantastic now.”

“The bond between us allows me to drain magic from you. If you look to the equations which cover that particular bit of spellcraft though, it’s rather easy to discover how to reverse the process.”

“So you fed me magic rather than drawing it out of me?”

“It’s somewhat more complex that that. I had to translate the magic I held into a form which you would be compatible with. I wouldn’t recommend it as something for most people to attempt, but then I am not most people.”

“I thought all you had was the magic you took from me though?”

“That is the impression that most people have, and it is true for a number of Advisors, so I would appreciate it if I could rely on your discretion in this regards. I do drain your magic, it’s an inevitable part of the bond, but I also have my own reserves.”

“And that’s not common for an Imperial Advisor?” 

“Not common, no. Not generally considered possible in fact, so, again, do not mention it to anyone if you would be so kind.”

“And you’re really okay with my sending the prisoners back to their homes?” I asked.

“My dear, I am delighted that you…wait, you sent them back?” I didn’t think Doxle could look happier but I was wrong. “Oh, I missed that part. Really?” He got a faraway look in his eyes for a moment before continuing. “Well now I am proud and impressed. We’ll have quite a bit too talk about once you return home tonight, but for now go, enjoy the repast which awaits you, and should your instructors come up with a new Evaluation to replace the battles against the Reaving Beasts, I trust you will treat them with all the respect they are due.”

Grammy had used that phrase in, I was pretty sure, the exact same manner as Doxle intended me to take it, where the respect due those who were abusing their positions of authority was nonexistent or even negative value.

That wasn’t important though. What was important was that I was free to leave and get some of the delicious food that I could smell was being wolfed down as we spoke.

I turned when I got to the door, despite the pangs in my stomach and gave a glance back at Doxle who still had a look of profound surprise and happiness on his face.

“Thanks,” I said and left unstated whether that was for the rejuvenating boost of energy, his acceptance of what I’d done, or the encouragement he’d provided. It was, of course for all of those things and more.

Doxle shook off his reverie for a moment, met my gaze, and simply nodded before adding a gesture for me to go and eat.

Which I immediately did.

“You look like you’re feeling better!” Narla said as I plopped down beside Mellina and opposite her. 

Our seating arrangement seemed to have settled on Ilyan and Yarrin flanking Narla with Mellina and I on the opposite side of the table from them. I wondered if we should recruit someone else for balanced – the empty seat on my left felt like a placeholder waiting to be filled, but I had to admit that there probably wasn’t anyone who would have a reason to join House Riverbond at this point.

“Doxle had a healing spell for you?” Ilyan asked.

“I am back in perfect working order!” I said, providing as little detail as I could on how I’d arrived at that condition.

I then dug into the mound of food I’d collected before sitting down, in the hope that no one would try to grill me for information while I was filling my face.

“We’ll need to get to the evaluations in about five minutes,” Yarrin said.

“Doxle suggested we arrive late,” I said through a mouthful of food.

“Which will get us into the trouble we need to be sent on live assignments,” Mellina said. “He’s not what I expected in an Advisor.”

“He’s not like any of the Advisor’s I’ve ever met,” Ilyan said.

“That’s because he’s different from the others,” Yarrin said and then raised his hands as though he’d said something inappropriate. “I’m not giving away anything secret, he’s pretty well known for being unusual.”

“How is he unusual?” I asked.

“When the other Advisors were first summoned, each one was summoned by and pledged to the Empire itself, but they each had sponsors. One of the Great Houses would pay for the expense of the summoning with the understanding that the Advisor would be assigned to aid them. At least for a while, they’ve all moved around since. To start with though, I think the Advisors were usually summoned because there were casters that the Great Houses needed to bring under control for political reasons or marriages or whatever,” Yarrin said.

“Doxle said he’s only ever had one pact bond at a time though,” I said. “Was he brought over for someone specific?”

“I don’t think anyone knows,” Yarrin said. “What I heard was that the Empress summoned him personally and that it was the last thing she did before the Calamity that froze her in Eternal Ice.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 48

“I too have been pressed beyond the limits of all endurance and forbearance. Driven unto  the point of total breakdown, bereft of all strength and will. It is from times such as these that an important lesson can be learned however: value your laziness. It is not a moral failing, it is the mind’s stalwart protection against the depredations thrown at the scant resources available to us.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxel of the First Flame after taking out the garbage.

While laying on the floor as a featureless blob of goo made for a great disguise, it wasn’t a perfect one. With as much speed as they’d fled the prison, the people who were supposed to be guarding the Reaving Beasts returned and were put to work cleaning up the wreckage of the cells and the adjoining rooms. I was lucky beyond words that the people I’d freed had gone on as complete a rampage as they had. I was even luckier than Mellina and Yarrin came looking for me when I didn’t exit the prison in anything like a reasonable amount of time.

“She’s right here,” Yarrin’s ghostly voice whispered less than a foot from where I was doing my best impression of nothing whatsoever.

“I can feel her with my magic but I can’t see her,” Mellina said. 

That made me feel a little better. If I was hidden from someone that close to me then I wasn’t in as much danger as I thought yet.

Mellina and Yarrin, on the other hand, were in “that much” danger though. The space in the prison was limited enough that a worker would eventually bump into them and then all the anti-magic effects in the world were certain to come popping out of the woodwork.

Since it had been a lengthy five whole minutes from when Idrina was taken away I’d…well I really hadn’t been able to recover much strength at all, but some of my usual magic reserves were refilling. Enough that I was able to manage the change back to my human form. In theory something smaller, like a mouse would have taken less energy, but what I was primarily lacking was control and focus and my human form was by far the easiest to manage in that regards. It was just so comfy and natural and sliding back into knocked a few stones off the mountain of exhaustion I was buried under.

What the transformation didn’t fix, and what I didn’t seem to have the energy, focus, or control for however was fixing my vision.

“Here,” I whispered, once I’d finished morphing to a puddle of girl at their feet rather than just a puddle.

“Grab that sheet,” Mellina said. “No one will notice it’s missing.”

I was momentarily afraid that was something I was expected to do, but a moment later I felt Yarrin wrapping a course canvas sheet around me. 

“Clothes,” I managed to say, proud of myself for forming the thought that we shouldn’t leave the clothes I’d been wearing behind since they would make for rather incriminating evidence.

“I’ve got those too,” Yarrin said. 

“Can you walk?” Mellina asked, even though it sounded like she knew the answer already.

“Yeah,” I lied.

I don’t think it was unreasonable to expect my legs to perform their assigned duty. They hadn’t been the body parts that had been torn apart repeatedly by opening and clearing rifts. In the grand scheme of things they really had very little to complain about at all.

The counterargument they proposed went something like this: “Oww. You. Are. Stepping On Broken Glass!”

As counterarguments went it was a well reasoned and compelling one. 

“Help her,” Mellina said and I felt my right arm – wow it was nice to have an intact right arm again – being supported by Yarrin’s shoulder. 

Leaving prison was less fun than it had been a few days prior and this time I didn’t get to punch a jailer in the face. On the other hand I got to make sure that this prison wasn’t going to be misused again for a while and left behind a storm of chaos which gave me a warm little glow inside, so there were some upsides.

 Mellina didn’t drop the shadow cloak from us until I’d had a chance to change back into my clothes, by which point Ilyan and Narla had managed to evade their pursuers and circle back to join us.

“So were you able to bust out the Reaving Beasts?” Ilyan asked.

“It seemed like there was plenty of commotion at least,” Narla said.

“And what was up with my sister?” Ilyan asked.

“Give her a moment,” Mellina said. “She’s not in good shape.”

“We’ll need to be careful about going to the healers,” Narla said. “They’ll be watching for anyone who got hurt since we’re all supposed to be safe at lunch.”

“I don’t need a healer,” I said. “My body’s fine.”

“Is it?” Mellina asked.

I felt a slight waft of air in front of my face and smelled her move her hand in front of me.

“Oh, well, apart from my eyes I guess,” I said. “Caught a slight case of blindness.”

“Doing what?” Narla asked.

“You really don’t want to know,” I said. “It was stupid even for me.”

“What happened with the Reaving Beasts? Did they do this to you? Or was it my sister?” Ilyan asked, an amusingly protective tone in his voice.

“Idrina didn’t do this,” I said. “She didn’t do anything wrong at all.”

Mellina gave a single snort which managed to convey a world of disbelief without putting any of it into words.

“We had a discussion,” I said. “With our fists. She  was very polite about it though.”

I mean, she was, but I could hear how that sounded too.

“The Reaving Beasts didn’t do this to me either. This was all my own doing,” I added, hurrying past any further discussion of how Idrina and I resolved our impasse.

“Why?” Ilyan asked.

It wasn’t much of a question, but it was a good one.

“I needed a lot more of my magic than I normally use,” I said. “Turns out it came with a price tag.”

“Will you get better?” Narla asked.

“Don’t know. This has never happened before.” There wasn’t any reason to lie to them, and being blind wasn’t the end of the world for me. I wasn’t used to relying on only my other senses, but I could, at least for a while.

“If it’s backlash, the effects should fade,” Yarrin said. “It’s a strange backlash though since your magic doesn’t seem to be focused on manipulating light?”

“Backlashes can mess you up with some really strange effects though,” Narla said. “I had a cousin with water magic who backlashed himself into being randomly intangible to metal for a couple days.”

I didn’t think my blindness was the result of a backlash – I hadn’t lost control of my magic during the whole grueling process of sending the prisoners back home – but explaining that seemed like a lengthy endeavor.

“We should go back home and have Pastries or someone make us a quick lunch,” I said. “We’ll need that as an excuse for where we were.”

Food was a sentiment everyone could get behind and so we set off, once again hidden by one of Mellina’s shadow cloaks so that no one would notice exactly when we went back to Doxle’s place.

With the Academy grounds being smooth and level and a crowd of four other people to navigate by, I didn’t think it’d be hard to manage the journey home. Mellina’s shadows binding me into my form even felt comfortable for a change since they allowed me to relax a bit and not worry that my less-than-entirely-stable-at-the-moment magic would warp me into an odd shape if I didn’t pay attention to it.

When I tripped regardless of all that though Narla caught me and whisked me up into her arms.

I opened my mouth to protest that I was fine but Narla jiggled me a bit to interrupt that  idiocy.

“Why don’t you take a break. I think maybe you’ve done enough for a little bit, okay.” She was most definitely not asking for a reply there or permission. She probably should have asked, but as embarrassing as it was to be carried like a baby, I couldn’t argue that she kind of had a point.

Also that let me take my attention away from keeping myself upright and onto the important things in life, like worrying!

“Your sister got arrested,” I said, assuming people would know I was talking to Ilyan. “Falsely arrested.” I amended to make sure they knew how wrong it was. It was the height of eloquence. Or the best I could manage. One of those two.

Yeah, rocking back in forth in Narla’s arms was not helping me stave off the exhaustion I was feeling.

“Are you sure?” Ilyan asked.

“Yeah. Heard ‘em put the cuffs on her,” I said. I didn’t like that sound. I didn’t like magic suppressing anything, but especially not shackles. Had enough of that in prison.

With a groan I tried to force myself back to wakefulness. Letting my thoughts go all sleep-loopy was not going to help anyone, and Idrina almost certainly needed our help.

“She’ll be fine,” Ilyan said. “She’s never broken a rule in her life. The worst they’re going to do is throw a disapproving glance at her before they drop some new award at her feet.”

“They think she let all the prisoners out though,” I said.

“Why would she have gone back if she did that?” Narla asked.

“They’ll invent some reason,” Yarrin said. 

“If they propose something dreadful, we could help her escape from it,” Mellina suggested. “If it’s bad enough you might be able to talk her into joining House Riverbond.”

Ilyan laughed.

“Sorry. Have you met my sister though? The last time I talked her into anything was, uh, never. She knows everything that’s expected of her and that is exactly what she does. All the time. No matter what.”

Which, I noticed, wasn’t actually true.

By rights, Idrina shouldn’t have fought me, and certainly not fairly. Heck she took a handicap into our fight with the distraction of the spear fan she was casting. If she’d been following the rules, she would have calmly left (or fought through us) and then gone to inform the relevant authorities. 

Fighting me herself might have merely been an act of hubris, but the fact that she covered for me afterwards? That was not at all the behavior of someone who follows all the rules all the time.

And I’d lain there like a blob while they dragged her away?

“I can stand,” I said a spark of anger pushing my fatigue away.

“Good. Cause we’re here,” Narla said and dropped me gently (and on my feet) in front of the door to Doxle’s home.

Rather than one of the mist women, Doxle himself was there to greet us.

“Returned for lunch?” he asked. “Your repast awaits you in the dining room.”

I raised a hand slightly to ask how he could possibly have known we’d be coming back when no mention had been made of returning to our dorms as being an allowed possibility but decided not to bother. Food was waiting and I really didn’t need to know why, just that I could smell at least twelve different dishes and each one promised to be more delicious than the last.

 “If I could have a moment of your time Lady Kati,” Doxle said as we all filed in.

I suppressed a groan. A ‘word’ meant no food right away. Also I had a guess what he wanted to talk about and I wasn’t in the mood to be scolded, even if what I’d done was worth it.

Letting my shoulders and head slump, I gestured for the others to go enjoy the wonderful food, while I got to sit through a lecture and they, fast friends and trusted companions that they were, scampered off without a second look backwards.

Doxle led me into a study that we’d used before and I plopped into the chair that I’d plopped into the last time we’d been in the room.

“I’d like to ask what you have to say for yourself,” Doxle began, seeming terribly, terribly severe.

And then he dropped into the chair opposite mine with a hugely delighted smile on his face and added, “but first I must congratulate you. That was magnificent. I really could not be more proud of you!”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 47

“As amusing as this is, I’m afraid a terrible mistake has been made here. What’s that? Do I wish to enter a plea of ‘Not Guilty’ at this late date? No. That would be silly. I am quite thoroughly guilty, I assure you. 

Oh, of the charges placed against me? Well, yes, certainly of those too. Yes, with full knowledge and malice aforethought. It would be hard to imagine doing all that without malice now wouldn’t it? And, I mean, they were rather richly deserving of said malice, as I should think everyone would agree.

You wouldn’t? Ah, that’s not what this jury is here to deliberate? Yes, yes, I understand, but again, I feel it is imperative to explain a rather crucial detail which has been overlooked.

What detail is that?  

Why that consequences are what happen to other people.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame’s defense plea while half submerged in molten lead, moments before ‘The High Pass Incident’.

So I opened a rift to take the nice spider-lady home.

That sounds so easy right? Just cast the spell, make a doorway or something and send the good and valorous Miss Lilinelle back to her home dimension, rinse and repeat for the six other dimensions the rest of the ‘Reaving Beasts’ called home.

Even with a fairly good template to follow on how to weave the rifting spell and the innate foolishness to think crafting one was a good idea, I was nowhere near clueless enough to believe it was going to be either easy or a good idea overall.

To start the rift, I reached within myself. Not a great spot to begin tearing open the fabric of reality, but that’s where my magic is and sometimes you’ve got to work with what you’ve got.

Pressing my pincers together (since I was sharing Lilinelle’s giant spider form still), I called magic into their tips and held it there, giving it no form or function to flow into, letting the unnatural power eat away at the world I was standing in. 

If I’d focused on it, I could have reached through the vortex of magic to the origin of my power and pulled through the ever changing nature of that realm to give the unleashed power some shape and purpose. Without that, the hole the magic ate in the world grew and grew.

Letting uncontrolled rifts grow indefinitely ranks right up there on the “Obviously a Bad Idea” scale but, as Lilinelle was not a small spider-person, I couldn’t be anywhere near as careful with it as I wanted to be.

“What are you conjuring-crafting-calling?” Lilinelle asked, as she and rest of the people the Academy had kidnapped and imprisoned started to back away from me.

“A path-door-thread home,” I said.

“There is no safety, no home, no refuge in what you are making,” Lilinelle said.

“Not yet.” Holding a conversation while casting wasn’t making the spell any easier and with Idrina’s example of what could happen when a caster lost focus fresh in my mind, I decided that any further explanations weren’t going to do any of us any good.

Especially since I was at the hard part.

With the rift grown to about ten feet tall, it was time to make it into a proper portal.

My adopted world, the one I’d spent more than decade in, does not appreciate portals. It does not appreciate them with the fury of a blazing sun and the rancor of a room full of razor blades, both of which I felt like it brought to bear on me as I drew in a deep breath to synch with Lilinelle’s essence, reached into the rift, and finally cast a shape onto the wild magic that raged within it.

As soon as the rift had any definition whatsoever, the reality around me seized on that and tried to obliterate it. From a squishy, nebulously defined, vaguely oval-ish shape the rift shatter-froze into a tunnel of spikes and spears and blades of sharpest glass.

No one could move through that without being sliced to shreds.

And of course it was shrinking fast, as the world struggled to close the wound in itself.

Which meant I got the job of keeping it open.

And blunting the blades.

I should note that I am not uniquely armored against the damage a tunnel of rift shards can inflict. They are, in fact, perfectly capable of slicing me to ribbons, and that hurts exactly as much as you might imagine it would. Well, probably more than you can imagine since it was a good deal more than I could until I stuck my hands and body into the tunnel to blunt the crystalline edge the hard way.

Once good thing though? Screaming into a rift means the sound is cast beyond the world and no one on the originating side of the rift can hear a thing. Dignity preserved!

“It’s solid-anchored-transversable,” I said as I dropped what was left of my arms and body back out of rift, while struggling to hold it open with the two arms that I had left. “Go. Now. Please.”

“Not without you-savior-friend,” Lilinelle said.

“Yes. Without me. I need to help the others.” My breathing was not doing well. Which was indicative of all of the rest of me, so at least my body was being consistent.

“Why help? Flee now. Leave others. Too much pain. Save self.” she asked.

“Can’t. Failed before. Won’t fail again.” I said.

Which was enough for her.

With eight scurrying legs she vanished into the portal and passed through back to her own realm.  I had no idea what waited for her there but there were six more portals to open and precious little time to do so.

Releasing the form of the portal magic, I let it return to a column of reality devouring (rather than arm and body devouring) energy. Reality, as I mentioned, was unhappy with that and was doing it’s best to close the proto-rift and, with all due respect to my adopted world, it was really good at that. So much so that I had to delve deeper into my magic than I usually did.

Deep enough that the world started growing darker around me.

Like I was sinking into the Bathypelagic.

Which should have been concerning.

Like ‘flee in terror and never ever cast a spell like that again’ levels of concerning.

But I had six more to cast.

So that wasn’t an option.

The next closest ‘Reaving Beast’ (I really hate that name), was a lovely eight armed gentleman by the name of Ooasoolai.

“Us of you not are,” he said and I had to shift a little further towards him for my transformation to give me a clear understanding of his meaning.

“I am other. I change to you. To talk. To understand. To find your home. To good water and gentle flows I can send you.”

“Pain. You will suffer for this.” He wasn’t questioning whether it would happen but rather why.

“Suffering flows. Sinks away. Your safety remains.”

Nodding wasn’t something he could do, but the undulations which passed through him served more or less the same purpose.

Sometimes the first time you cast spell is the hardest. You make mistakes, you spend a lot more power on than you need to, it backlashes on you to various degrees. The next time though? With the knowledge of the first casting behind you, the next time is so much easier.

The portal spell was not like that.

I want to say I spent less time screaming into the void.

I want to say that mostly because lying makes me sound a lot cooler than I actually am.

Also the truth really isn’t that important.

All that matters is that in the end, I opened seven portals and managed to shift into the mighty form of…a small, easily overlooked pool of slime. I’d managed to attain said mighty form by the time the guards for the Reaving Beast Restraint Area returned, which turned out to be perfect since I was not only unthreatening but also pretty much noticeable in the devastation that remained of the prison room.

I was even still conscious enough (mostly) to hear just how upset they were.

Learned a bunch of new profanities that day.

I couldn’t see at that point of course. The darkness from the spellcasting had pretty much annihilated my sight no matter what form I shifted into but that was okay. I was a puddle of goo and not feeling like I had even the vaguest capability of being anything more ever again.

Doxle was going to be so unhappy. If he was draining my power at all then the poor man was definitely going into starvation mode at that moment. 

But it was worth it.

Thinking back to the people I’d sent through those portals, it was worth it.

“What in all the hells did you do here!” It was one of the guards who said that. He sounded like he was tall. Probably built like a small house too. The Academy seemed to prefer that in their guards.

I suppose I could have fired off a worry that he was talking to me but, first, who would ask that of a small puddle in a corner when the entire prison was in ruins, and, second, I just did not give a single solitary damn about what the guards or anyone else might do to me.

“I came to help get the Beasts under control,” Idrina said.

Which is how I discovered that I apparently did have the ability to worry about something still.

“Help get them under control? Under control? Does this look like we’ve got them under control?” The guard was screaming, which wasn’t a good look for a grown man when faced with what was demonstrably not much of a crisis anymore.

“The smoke is clearing,” Idrina said, her voice a bit more uneven than I could remember hearing it. That might have been residual fatigue from the spell backlash that ended our fight or it might have been shock at the state of the prison room.

The last I’d seen, before darkness had swallowed the last of my vision, the other prisoners vented quite a lot of anger and frustration on the contents of the room while I opened the portals for them. I was pretty sure the room wasn’t going to be usable as a prison again any time soon, and there was an outside possibility that they’d done enough damage that a total collapse was imminent. If so, the room wouldn’t be able to function as a habitable space of any kind within the next five to ten minutes.

No that was not enough to motivate me to get up and leave.

“No kidding the smoke is clearing! Do you notice what else is clearing!?” He was still screaming. It still wasn’t a good look. “Anything seem to be missing from here? Anything large and ugly and probably going to EAT US ALL!”

I was sort hoping that Idrina would stab him. I felt it would do him some good. Or at least let me go back to resting.

“Where did the Beasts go? They didn’t leave through the entry hatch,” Idrina asked, not sounding especially concerned with the fact that they were missing, only perplexed by the mystery of how they’d vanished.

“That’s a good question. That’s a very good question Miss Cadet. Maybe you’d like to give us the answer, seeing as you were the last one in here.” He’d stopped screaming. He didn’t sound any more calm or sane, but I wasn’t worried for Idrina yet. If he tried anything she didn’t like she would take him apart. I had infinite faith that she could take all of the guards in the room in fact.

I had missed something though.

“What is this about a cadet being the last person present during an emergency?” The voice belonged to one of the Academy’s instructors. I didn’t remember his name because I didn’t care about him.

“I took time during our meal period to familiarize myself with the enemies we would encounter, sir,” Idrina said with a crispness which told me she had snapped to rigid attention.

“And who authorized this Cadet?” the instructor asked.

“I undertook this action on my own, sir,” Idrina said.

“And were you the last one to leave this facility?” the instructor asked.

To which the answer was ‘no’ and Idrina obviously knew that. 

“I did not see anyone leave after me, sir,” she said which was technically true and something she should never have done for me.

“In that case the burden of suspicion must land on you,” the instructor said. “Guards place this cadet under arrest.”

In any sane world, the guards would have been choking on their own entrails less than a second after the instructor uttering those words, but I don’t get to live in a sane world. Instead, I got to listen to Idrina quietly submit to being bound in magic suppressing shackles.

Which was about the farthest thing from acceptable that I could imagine so I leapt back into my proper form to give them the smackdown that she, for whatever reason, wasn’t willing to.

Or rather I tried to leap back into my proper form.

My puddle body managed two ripples before I collapsed back into an inert goo.

I wanted to help her.

I wanted to fight.

I just didn’t have it in me.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 46

“There are always obstacles which appear before us in life, particularly when we have the least time to deal with them. This is, occasionally, the work of some clever adversary or another, but most often I find it to simply be life itself which enjoys tormenting us at every possible opportunity.”

– Xindir Harshel Doxle of the First Flame

Say what you will about fire, it’s hard to deny that it’s an excellent motivator. One minute the hidden prison until the Academy’s stables was quiet and calm, the next smoke was pouring into the Reaving Beast Restraint Area and guards were fleeing hither and yon. 

I could have waited until they abandoned the Beast Stables but I had no idea how well our plan was going to work or for how long.

“If this goes wrong, run,” I whispered to Mellina and crept through the thick smoke to the first Beast Pen. 

Or I tried to.

There was only one small problem.

In place of an all-concealing cloud of smoke, a small area in front of the first pen had a fan blowing in front of it.

A fan of conjured spears magicked into a spoke-like formation which were twirling fast enough to push the smoke away.

Standing in the center of cleared out area a girl stood with her back to me.

“You came to inspect the Reaving Beasts before we faced them too?” Idrina said without turning around.

I tapped Mellina on the shoulder and gestured for her to step back.

Idrina was not her problem.

“Something like that,” I said, stepping forward into the clearing in the smoke.

“The smoke was Ilyan’s idea wasn’t it?” she asked, glancing over her shoulder.

“He wasn’t opposed to it,” I said.

“They’ll catch you for this,” Idrina said.

“They might,” I admitted, since she was almost certainly right at this point. “Still worth it though.”

“I didn’t think you would seek to excel at the fighting evaluation?” Idrina asked. 

We were not having a friendly chat. She was sizing me up, the same as I was her. That she was managing to do so while maintain a spell like the spear fan over our head filled me with both appreciation and a fair bit of dread.

“That’s not why I’m here,” I said. I figured the truth would be more confusing for her than anything else and a confused and questioning Idrina was an Idrina who didn’t have her whole head in the game when it came to stabbing me.

“Because you don’t think you need to understand your foes?” she asked with just the hint of insulted pride in her voice.

With the smoke in place it was more difficult to pick out olfactory cues than normal but I could swear I was catching hints of sadness from Idrina, which did not add up at all.

“Because I don’t want them to be my foes,” I said. “I don’t think we should be fighting them at all. They didn’t agree to this and they don’t deserve it.”

The fan blades slowed noticeably as Idrina tried to absorb my words. 

“And how would you accomplish that?” she asked at last. “Talk them out of it?”

“Something like that,” I said. In truth it was something exactly like that plus some spell casting that I probably shouldn’t be attempting. In my defense though, it was the Academy’s fault for giving me both a reason to attempt it and a template to build the spell around. 

“I believe I’m supposed to stop you then,” Idrina said. “Interfering with official Academy evaluations is explicitly forbidden in the by-laws.”

I can’t say I was surprised either by her knowledge of the rules and regulations, or that she’d chose to stand in support of them. Maybe a tiny bit disappointed but since there had been no rational reason to assume Idrina would do anything but oppose me here I kicked my feelings aside.

“We could do a lot of damage if we fight here,” I said which seemed like a sensible counter argument to her opposing me, except for the part where I didn’t have the time to take our fight anywhere else.

“Fists only,” she offered. “No weapons. No spells.”

I blinked and caught myself from rocking back in surprise.

“That would be acceptable to you?” I asked. Given that she had an active buzzsaw of blades hanging over our head, her offering to forego her best and most comfortable options was almost sweet.

Or the smoke was getting to me.

That was also a possibility.

“No spells and no transformations,” she amended, which was what I’d understood her to mean in the first place but it occurred to me that she probably couldn’t be sure yet exactly how my magic worked, and being specific was definitely the wiser course of action.

“What would you prefer as the end condition? Unconsciousness?” I asked.

“Or submission,” she said. “We still have the evaluations to do get to. Don’t make me damage you.”

“I can heal,” I said, not relishing the prospect at all. I could have made a similar demand of her but given our relative levels of skill that seemed like an overly prideful claim for me to make.

Idrina nodded, and settled into a loose fighting stand. “When you’re ready.”

As though I would ever be ready to fight someone who’d spent their whole life studying combat and refining themselves and their techniques.

I feinted that I was as close to ready as I was going to get and that was all it took.

Even without her magics Idrina was terrifyingly fast. She hit me with a punch in the stomach and one under the jaw before I fully processed that she was attacking me. 

I brought my arms up to protect my head from any more blows and she rabbit punched me in the ribs about a dozen times which hurt a lot more than it should have from someone her size and weight.

Where she had the advantage in speed though, I had it in durability. I’d built my body to be as sensitive as a normal body would be, but there were elements of how evolution had crafted the human form that I hadn’t been able to help tweaking with a few small improvements.

I wasn’t armored internally or anything like that. My organs were still soft and squishy and mostly where they should be. I’d made my bones just a bit stronger than they should have been and reinforced the connective tissues to not tear or snap under the strains a ligament or tendon could be reasonably expected to encounter. I’d even tinkered with my fat cells a little bit so that they provided extra cushioning and resilience.

All that worked in my favor but with Indrina hitting like her hands were made of solid iron it still wasn’t terribly fun trading blows with her.

So I stopped.

Punching her wasn’t going to get her to submit and with her training I wasn’t confident I could knock her out without cheating and hitting her hard enough to cause potentially fatal levels of damage. That left me with one obvious option though.

I grabbed her.

Punching is great, right up until the time when you can’t move your hands anymore.

This wasn’t a surprise to Idrina. “Grapple the boxer” is a move even small children are capable of working out. The moment I grabbed her hands (and that was not as easy as I’m making it sound), she went to work with her knees.

Knees hurt a lot when you know how to use them.

To my credit, I did to something useful in response to the hits I was taking.

I dropped to the ground.

And more importantly, I took her with me.

Idrina proved to be an excellent wrestler. Also she was bigger than me. Both of those things count for a lot. Even without transforming myself though, I was a lot stronger than she was and that counts for something too.

I also had something she didn’t to help me in our ground-level struggle – I knew human anatomy extremely well. How joints could move, how they shouldn’t move, fun combinations that they could move in, and, most importantly, the ability to move through arcs of motion that would damage me but shut off her ability to apply her strength against me. 

I didn’t like hurting myself, or her if I was being honest, but what I was trying to do was too important to go easy on either of us.

I heard a growl escape from her as she flexed against me and writhed, trying everything she could to escape. It was pointless. Unless my strength ran out first, I’d won at that point.

But she was not going to admit that.

Up close I could smell it.

She couldn’t admit to being beaten.

She would struggle till her heart exploded and then keep going until the blood in her veins stopped moving completely.

I twisted my hold, leveraging an arm against the sides of her neck.

Blood chokeholds are an incredibly bad idea.

They can kill far too easily.

Since it was that or let her work herself into an aneurysm though I went for it.

My plan was to release the hold in no more than two seconds whether or not it worked. If that was too short and she broke free then so be it.  I wasn’t going to kill Idrina in my fight to save the Reaving Beasts. 

As it turned out, I didn’t have to.

About a second and a half after I started to squeeze my arm against her, I managed to break her concentration. She wasn’t unconscious yet, but her hold over the fan of spear finally slipped.

Yeah. I might have forgotten to account for the fact that she was still maining a highly energetic spell.

The spears, for their part, did not forget about the momentum they’d been given. They only forgot about the forces which was holding them together.

As it turned out an exploding star of spears was extremely good at wrecking pretty much everything in their path.

The good news was the Beast cages were a whole lot easier to get into in the aftermath.

The bad news was that the backlash from the spell had succeeded in knocking Idrina out and the formerly caged Beasts weren’t particularly restrained anymore.

I turned to Mellina seeing precisely one chance to keep this from going completely to hell.

“Get her out of here,” I said.

“You need me here,” Mellina said. 

“I do. To save her. Trust me, I’ve got this,” I said, pleading that Mellina understand that I was telling the truth.

She looked at me in the growing smoke far a much longer moment than I would have preferred but ultimately nodded once and called forth a cloud of shadows to lift up Idrina and cloak them both.

That left me with, by a later count, thirteen creatures from seven different realms.

Thirteen very large and very unhappy creatures.

I could have stopped them from smashing the rest of their cages. I could have tried to preserve Imperial property like a proper Cadet, except for the fact that I couldn’t imagine any conceivable reason why I would want to do either of those things.

Instead I picked the nearest one, dropped my hands, inhaled deeply and let its scents fill me as I sunk deep into my magics.

My magics which were darker than I was used to, almost as though my dream from the night before was still lingering in the back of my mind.

From a human girl, I felt my body flow and change, taking on the shape of a spider the size of a large-ish horse.

“Weaver-Sister-Friend-Not-Foe,” I said in the hissing breaths and carefully positioned forelegs of the Archelletes (a species I had never heard of til now, but which the transformation told me so much about), “This is not our web. I see-spin-walk on strands which lead to home. Will you walk-hunt-abide in them with me?”

“This web is pain-hunger-death. I will walk-hunt-abide anywhere else you would take us Sister-Weaver-Food-Sharer,” Lilinelle the giant spider girl said.

And so I opened a rift to take her home.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 45

“What I miss most about youth is all of the ill-advised plans I never got to enact. One hears stories all the time of wild adventures and acts of phenomenal stupidity which people engaged in during the years leading up to their more sensible adulthood. 

Sadly, such was not my life. I was, be all accounts, a perfect angel of a child. 

This was largely because I was focused exclusively on the pursuit of my mystical skills. One is unlikely to cause much mayhem when one spends every waking hour with one’s nose between the pages of a book.

I was happy enough with that at the time I suppose, but in my later years I was left with the ache of all that missing childhood foolishness and misadventures.

What? No, that explains nothing about why I act as I do now, why would you imagine such a thing?”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame to the Empress Eternal

Finding friendly backup waiting to support me in my latest crazed endeavor was the worst thing in the world. I had a dozen different highly effective arguments to make in support of that too. All I needed to do was pick the best one.

“Nope. No protests,” Mellina said, silencing me with a gesture as I drew in a breath to either scream at them or just scream (those were the top two counter arguments I could think of).

“You’re off to get in trouble,” Yarrin said. “We know.”

“It’s why we’re here, we need to get in trouble too, remember?” Narla said. 

I felt my toes curl in frustration. Yes, we had talked about purposefully getting on the instructors bad sides so they’d be agreeable to sentencing all of us to the Field Work program early, and yes I had been planning to do something that would put me solidly on the instructors bad sides if they found out about it, but those two things were not connected.

“Not like this!” I said, fighting to keep my aggravation from raising my voice above a whisper. “We’re supposed to make small mistakes, or be disrespectful. Not…”

Not what? Did I really want to tell them that I was sneaking off to find the Reaving Beasts so that I could send them back to their home realms? Yes, even the mindlessly murderous ones.

“Not be a part of something that’s going to splash back onto us if and when our House leader is caught – and let’s be clear that it’s definitely going to be when she’s caught because if we can predict where she’ll be then so can a lot of others?” Mellina asked with feigned sweetness.

I glared at her, but my gaze attack bounced of her shield of Actually Being Entirely Correct. That, unsurprisingly, did not make me any happier.

“There’s getting in trouble and there’s doing something that they will definitely expel me for, assuming they don’t execute me instead.” I really did not want them being a part of what I had in mind, even though I was absolutely certain it was the right thing to do.

“If it’s something that you’re willing to do that’s bad enough for them to kill you what makes you think we wouldn’t want in on it?” Ilyan asked.

I stared at him. He’d made either one of the bravest statements I’d ever heard or one of the stupidest, and I was reasonably certain he lacked enough awareness to be properly afraid of being horribly murdered which ruled out courage.

“We’re not looking to die,” Narla said, having at least a handful more functioning brain cells than Ilyan it seemed. “Mellina and Ilyan are right though. We’re in this together, like it or not. If they put you up on the gallows for a good reason, it’ll be real easy for them to find a bunch of bad ones to stick us up there with you.”

I blinked and looked from face to face. My housemates seemed to be in agreement on that.

“But…wait, shouldn’t you be trying to stop me then?” I asked. I didn’t think they could stop me, but not even bothering to make the attempt was, I’m not sure, lazy? Irrational?

“You’re aware that we saw what happened to all those guys who tried to stop you last night, right?” Ilyan said.

I frowned at him. I was not going to turn into a Dire Wolf on them. Not yet anyways.

“We’re not trying to stop you because we don’t know what you’re doing yet,” Yarrin said. “So far you’ve saved each of us, avenged Kelthas, and fought through a bunch of jerks on House Lightstone’s payroll in the Research Quarter. None of that is anything I’ve got a problem with. Make it kind of easy to give you the benefit of the doubt and ask what you’ve got in mind this time, instead of assuming you must hate me because you wouldn’t let me be part of whatever you’ve got in mind.”

“Even if what I’ve got in mind is something you’ll hate?” I asked.

Ilyan actually laughed at that. Like burst right out in a chuckle that he clamped his mouth shut to suppress before anyone could hear us.

“You would have to try very hard to make us hate you more than we hate the Houses we come from,” Mellina said.

That was probably true, but hatred wasn’t a competition. 

“Whatever it is, we should probably do it soon,” Yarrin said. “Unless you’re planning to take off for the rest of the day?”

Doxle had warned us against that particular strategy if we had a program in mind. Skipping the evaluations would mean the instructors would assign one for us, and it definitely wouldn’t be Field Work.

“I want to free the Reaving Beasts,” I said. Yarrin was right. We didn’t have time to waste. Also, if they hated me, then they could hate me. I’d rather know that about them sooner than live a life tiptoeing around a lie.

I’d expected shock, potentially outrage, maybe even a bit of fear and/or loathing.

What I got instead was mild confusion and curious glances.

“Okay? Uh, why?” Ilyan asked.

I felt like I had as many reasons for wanting to free Reaving Beast as I had days of life lived as I was. I also felt like none of that would make sense to them. I wanted to go with “Because” or, even better, my usual response of dead silence, but neither of those were going to work either.

“They don’t deserve to be slaughtered for the amusement of the instructors and the other cadets,” I said, pulling that thread of truth out from all the others.

“Huh, I thought you were going to say because they might kill more of our fellow cadets,” Narla said.

“That too.” I hadn’t been thinking about that angle consciously but it felt like it had been part of the equation nonetheless.

“You have more of a plan that that,” Mellina said. “If you just free them, they’ll be slaughtered as they run rampant,” Mellina said. “Also more than a few of our fellow Cadets and the townsfolk at large will be slain before they’re brought down.”

“I’m not going to let them run loose,” I said. “I’m going to send them back where they belong. Back to their homes.”

“Uh, that’s not possible is it?” Narla asked, looking to Yarrin and Mellina for support.

“No, it’s not,” Yarrin said, his expression transforming from disbelief, to confusion, to questioning, to an uneasy acceptance of something he alone could see. “Not for any regular caster. You’ve done it before though, haven’t you?”

“Only once,” I said. “But, yes, I can do it again.”

I was being optimistic there. The last time I’d sent a Reaving Beast home someone else had opened up a handy rift for me to let them walk back through. I thought I could duplicate that effect if I tried hard enough, but there were roughly a million different things that could go terribly wrong with that part of the plan.

“Well now I definitely want to go!” Ilyan said, with the same stupid glee a puppy offered a fresh bone might show.

“As do I,” Mellina said, an entirely different, and far hungrier tone in her voice.

Neither of their approaches made me feel better about the idea of them tagging along, but we were at the point where I could either cripple them to ensure they stayed behind or give in and let them join me.

I considered that for a bit.

The crippling option wasn’t really a bad choice. They wouldn’t be happy with it, but they’d be alive to not be happy.

In the end though, all of us wound up in the  stables since I wasn’t sure it was even possible for me to cripple Narla or Ilyan, and the idea of causing injury to Mellina or Yarrin made me physically ill.

“Well, there’s no horses here, so that’s a good sign, right?” Narla said.

We were cloaked by Mellina’s magics which just made the twenty stall stable seem that much emptier. Given the lack of straw, and the absence of any lingering scents of horse manure, it was pretty obvious that this place hadn’t functioned as a regular stable in years.

“It’ll be a bad sign if it means we run out of time looking for the Beasts,” Yarrin said.

“There’s a more important consideration,” Mellina said. “There are no guards here.

“Why would there be?” Ilyan asked. 

“Because if they had enough Reaving Beasts to send out against our entire class, they wouldn’t leave them free to break out of their cells and run amuck,” Yarrin said.

Despite the absence of horse-scents and the assorted paraphernalia a stable should have held, I knew we’d come to the right place.

“They’re not holding them above ground,” I said.

“How do you know?” Mellina asked.

“People have been through here,” I said. “Often. And there is a lot of waste magic around us.”

“She’s right,” Yarrin said. “Most of its passing up through the floor but I can see where some of it is escaping the seals on the prison door.”

“What prison door?” Ilyan asked.

“This one,” Yarrin said and traced his finger through the dust and sand in the floor at the far end of the stable.

Where his finger passed a trail of silver light was left behind and the scent of a hundred different strain of magic rose up.

The access hatch didn’t swing up, or shift to the side, it simply vanished.

Yarrin moved his fingers backwards along the pattern he’d been tracing and the access hatch reappear, complete with exactly the right coating of dust and sand to match the areas around it.

“They’re down there,” I said, the scent of so many lost life forms hitting me like a hammerblow. “But I have no idea how they got there.”

The access hatch led to a ladder which descended vertically about twenty feet. It was wide enough that that two of us could have descended at one, but that was still too small for some of the Reaving Beasts that were waiting for us.

“You’re not going to like what they do to get the Reaving Beasts in there,” Mellina said. “But that’s probably a conversation for later.”

She wasn’t wrong about that.

“There will be guards down there,” Yarrin said. “Is sending them back going to attract attention?” 

Last time I’d been hidden by a wall of fog. I think even with that they’d noticed the Reaving Beasts disappearing though.

I nodded. I could take on a form where they wouldn’t have any idea who was freeing the Beasts. Or I could take on a well known form and let them sort it out later. The guards were going to react fairly strongly to either approach though.

“That’s our job then,” Yarrin said. “Ilyan, Narla, let’s go provide a distraction.”

“What kind of distraction?” Narla asked.

“Fire. No. Fires. Those make a great distraction. We’ll light the stables on fire and make sure it look like it’ll spread down here,” Yarrin said.

“Oh hell yeah!” Ilyan said, because of course he did.

“Count me in for that twice!” Narla said, relinquishing her claim on the greater share of brain cells between the two of them.

“But…” I tried to protest, only to be shushed by Mellina again and beckoned downwards to the hidden sublevel of the stables..

“Give them a couple of minutes,” she said after they ran off and we’d made it to the entryway of the detention level. “If the plan doesn’t seem to be working, I’ll follow them and get them away with my magics,” she said. “You can come along or do whatever you need to.”

“How will we know if ‘light everything on fire’ is working?” I asked.

The choking cloud of smoke which blew down into the detention level with tornado like force wasn’t the answer I was looking for, but it was clearly the one I was going to get.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 44

“The principal problem with being stabbed repeatedly is not the blood loss as most people would suppose. Oh, certainly if you’re burdened with a pesky limitation like ‘needing blood to survive’, the blood loss is significant. Once you’ve eliminated that particular eccentricity though, the primary issue of enduring repeated bodily trauma is that it tends to remove the aches and pains which have become familiar companions over the years and replace them with new ones. 

Where the old injuries were content to merely whimper and growl when they could catch you at unawares, the new ones are just so happy to be part of you that they’re constantly clamoring for your attention. This, I believe, is why the gods invented strong drink.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxel of the First Flame

Starting the first day of Cadet Training off with a test seemed both stupid and cruel. Thanks to Doxle though I knew it was only meant to be cruel and the stupidity came from the Academy’s self-interest running rampant and trampling its initial reasons to exist into the dust.

“Think we’ll get to fight each other?” Narla asked as we changed into our official Cadet training armor.

With Mellina, we were the last three in to girls locker room, having arrived “late” (though perfectly within the posted time) thanks to Pastries’ fantastic breakfast spread. Supposedly we would have to run ten extra laps for our tardiness but breakfast had been good enough that I regretted nothing.

“Probably not,” I said. “It would be crueler for them to make you fight whoever scored lowest and me to fight the one above that.”

“What? That’s not even going to be a fight though,” Narla said. The regulation armor didn’t come close to fitting her, which wasn’t terribly surprising. What was interesting to see was that she’d apparently developed magic to deal with that problem.

Crushing the chainmail shirt in between her hands, she whispered something in a language no one else on this world spoke. “Be Bigger!” was what I heard by rippling my ears to match hers and then back to my own. When she unclenched her hands, the chainmail had indeed obeyed her order (and the magic she’d sent surging through it) with the chain shirt enlarged and morphed to fit around her shoulders, chest, and waist perfectly.

“Was that an intelligent spell?” I asked, more curious than was probably polite to be.

“Oh, yeah,” Narla said. “It’s a nice one though, I learned it when I was really little.”

Intelligent spells weren’t creatures in their own right, but they were generally tied to intelligent beings from the plane the spell’s magic was drawn from. From what I’d heard, they tended to be fiercely dangerous to work with because the denizen whose aid was requested by the spell could twist the request back on the caster, sometimes dragging the caster into their realm, sometimes dragging themselves into the caster. 

“They won’t start us with fights,” Mellina said. “We’re expecting that. They’ll start us with exams, written and verbal.”

“On what?” I asked, deciding that was probably an even crueler option that the one I’d proposed.

“A wide variety of subjects about which they expect us to know very little,” she said. “The goal is to convince us that we’re ignorant of all the important things a Cadet needs to know and that we therefor need to look to them to enlighten our poor, feeble minds.”

“And if we decide we don’t care about the tests and are fine not knowing the useless trivia they think constitutes valuable information?” I asked.

“Low scoring people will be given unpleasant tasks. High scoring people will be given perks which makes the rest of the Cadets jealous and resentful of them.”

“So which do we do? Neither one of those sounds good,” Narla said.

“We can choose to fail,” Mellina said. “Passing is at the whim of the instructor who’s grading the exams. We won’t get to see our scored test sheets for the written exams, or learn which answers we were given credit for and which were deemed incorrect. For the verbal exams, they won’t be that kind.”

“I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that if we were willing to bribe the instructors properly, we could improve our grades substantially?” I asked, more or less already aware of what the answer would be.

“Do we have gold to spend on grades now?” Mellina asked brightly but without a hint of sincerity in her voice. I’d told my housemates about going to see the escrow holder for House Riverbond with Doxle later and that we were essentially broke until I convinced them to open the purse strings for us.

“Why would you pay to be hated by everyone?” Narla asked. “It’s so easy to get that for free.”

An hour later I had a decent understanding of why one might use gold to escape the testing phase of our training.

Where the first part of the test had been a half hour sprint through a hundred pages of explanatory text and the questions which were scattered randomly within it, the next five hours were a face-to-face interview where students were called forth to sit in front of all of the rest of the Cadets and face a panel of judges.

Cadets were called in a random order, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs or trios. Each set were asked questions which, according to the judges, were part of the reading materials we’d been given.

The Cadets who’d breezed through the Trials breezed mostly breezed through the interview questions too, though it looked like that was more a case that they’d been given the questions they would be asked before hand rather than the judges pitching them obviously easy ones.

The first time I was called up, it was alone, and I was given twice the number of questions as the group before me. All of them were phrased in as convoluted a manner as possible and covered obscure and exacting points of Imperial doctrine regarding the privileges and responsibilities of ill defined ranks in the hierarchy of the Great Houses.

“I have no idea,” was my answer to all of the question, except for one on the size of the annual allowance for footwear due a landless second daughter from her elder sister who had married into a non-ranked household of another Great House. Grammy had mentioned a story about that once and so I was both surprised and certain that I knew the answer.

And they told me I was wrong.

I wanted to fight them over the point since looking like an idiot in front of a full class of cadets wasn’t exactly fun, but I held my tongue. I could murder every one of the judges and still not win that fight.

My housemates didn’t fare much better than I did, though Mellina answered two of her first three questions well enough to get “partial credit” and Yarrin answered his with perfect accuracy only to be shot down on each one as the judges changed the definition of the question out from under him. 

The only other cadet whose answers I paid attention to was Idrina. She was given six questions. She answered four of them correctly, and the last two were “partials” only because the judges cut her off before she could finish giving the correct answer.

I was sitting three rows back and I could feel the rage radiating off her from that distance but, like I had, she didn’t bother fighting it. 

This wasn’t a test. It was public humiliation. We could argue for fairness, but the Academy had no interest in fairness and none to give out. They wanted us angry and defeated, and after a few minutes I saw that the right answer was to give them neither.

That belief was put to the test when the “grades” were given out and I was at the bottom of the list.

“Those who have shown more brawn than intellect,” the head judge said, “will be assigned child’s implements for this afternoon’s sparring and bestial combat sessions. Those who have proven their mastery of the basic information all Cadets were assumed to be in possession of as a prerequisite to application will be granted the use of their choice of armaments, with the most gifted being allowed to select a prestige weapon from those supplied by the courtesy and grace of House Lightstone.”

Most of the Cadets seemed to be caught up by the idea of ‘prestige weapons’ but the bit that drew my attention was the judge’s mention of ‘bestial combat sessions’.

Sparring I’d been expecting. Combat against more Reaving Beasts though? I was neither prepared for nor willing to partake in that. 

That was true in spite of Yarrin making a good case earlier for why we needed to join the Field Work program, which would absolutely involve working with, and likely fighting, Reaving Beasts in the wild.

“We’ll be expected to arm and outfit ourselves for battle on Field Work assignments,” he said. “The people who want us dead will still attack us, but that will happen no matter where we are. If we’re stuck with mucking out the latrines, we’ll be at too great a disadvantage when those who wish to see us dead make their move.”

“But if we’re in a Reaving Storm, or fighting a Reaving Beast, won’t they be able to catch us while we’re distracted?” Ilyan asked. “There’s a lot that can go wrong on those hunts, even without people creating accidents on purpose.”

“I’ll be able to see any traps they leave for us,” Yarrin said. “If we throw our attackers into their own traps once or twice, they’ll stop trying to use them, and we won’t have a better opportunity to do that and get away with it than with a Reaving Storm to cover our tracks.”

Going out on a Field Work assignment wasn’t a great option, but compared to the others it seemed like the right call. The biggest downside was that it would bring us into conflict with the Reaving Beasts that came forth from the storm. 

I’d talked one such creature into returning to its home, and I had every intention of repeating that for every Reaving Beast I came across if I could. As Yarrin had said, a Reaving Storm could cover up a lot of activity.

If they were making us fight Reaving Beasts on the grounds though, there wouldn’t be any Reaving Storm to hide within. It would be me and another beast with no options aside from killing each other or being killed together by the staff of the Academy.

“If we have time before the sparring starts, would you be able to help me get somewhere?” I whispered to Mellina.

“Where?” she asked.

“I don’t know yet,” I said, knowing that to call the idea I had a ‘plan’ was laughably over valuing it.

“There are many places it’s not wise for us to go,” she said.

I paused at those words.

She was not wrong.

I had been though.

Asking her to help me did nothing but put her in danger for a cause that I didn’t want to explain to her and that she would likely not be in favor of. I could be selfish, and I could be cruel, but I owed Mellina better than that.

“You’re right,” I said. “I can’t go charging off after stupid ideas all the time.”

I was being honest there. She was right, and I knew my idea was stupid. I was still going to charge off to do it, but doing so without bringing anyone else into danger was at least bordering on an intelligent option I felt.

We were ordered to the mess hall for a midday meal, something I’d heard the common tier Cadets weren’t being given, and instructed that once the meal was complete, we would begin our sparring matches.

That gave me something like an hour to work with, and so as the testing hall emptied out, I lingered behind, hoping to be able to make a clean break and attend to the Reaving Beasts before anyone could work out that I was missing.

My plan, such as it was, involved claiming I’d needed to check with Doxle on something and that Advisor privileges came before the dictates of the Academy. That probably wasn’t true, but it sounded good enough that at least the other Cadets might buy it.

I’d separated myself from the throng of Cadets and allowed my housemates to go on ahead without me before making a decidedly wrong turn down one of the hallways towards where I thought I’d seen a stable setup. I didn’t expect them to be mixing the Reaving Beasts with horses or other animals, but since I hadn’t seen inside the stable yet I pegged it as a good place to begin searching for a group of otherworldly creatures who were being goaded into acting as killing machines.

I felt rather proud of myself for the stealth I’d displayed in slipping away unnoticed.

That feeling last roughly thirty seconds before I turned a corner and nearly plowed into Narla and the rest of my housemates.

“Told you she’d be here,” Yarrin said, accepting a gold piece from Ilyan.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 43

“In sleep we are supposed to find our rest, in the loving embrace of the night we are meant to find the relaxation denied to us during the day. It would be so delightful if my dreams would read that decree rather than making it their sole purpose to find new and exciting torments to inflict on me.

Perhaps if I were a better person? Eh, that seems a dreadful amount of effort to put forth and I’m much too tired to be decent you see.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame one waking every morning

Sleep finally did manage to claim me. It was an ugly battle, full of both tossing and turning, but eventually my stupid thoughts collapsed in on themselves and the covers swallowed me whole.

My dreams are normally of a wide open sea with ever changing currents. I don’t have any special magic there, and I don’t need any. Changing myself in that boundless ocean is effortless and inevitable. I’m not unique in that trait either. The world is no more defined than my dream self is. Nowhere in it is there resistance to change and no where is there the anchor of solidity to preserve anything for longer than the space of a moment. 

All is motion. All is an ever flowing, ever adapting transformation from one whim to the next. All is present and as it should be.

All except me.

At first there was only a spec of grit in my dreams, a single grain of unchanging sand floating along within my greater whole. 

As the years passed though, I began to dream more of my human self than of the ever changing flow.

In many dreams I still swam within the sea of horizonless creation, but though I could change with it, there was a “truth within” which I always returned to, a ‘me’ I could not let go of.

That ‘me’, my human body, had a weight and a durability which was as alien to the boundless sea as my magics were to the world I called home. In place of buoyancy, my body would sink, called down into the unknowable depths, where the unseeable changes lay.

In my better dreams, I would frolic and swim in the sunlit currents, creating my own buoyancy through motion and joy, whatever cares I had having been left behind in the solid world after my first dreaming transformation.

In my nightmares on the other hand, I would drop below the Epipelagic world of light and clarity, and into the Mesopelagic reaches where understanding begins to fail before waking right as I touched the Bathypelagic depths where only the unknowable existed.

Since I have little say in where the currents of my dreams will take me, I didn’t bother hoping for any particular sort of dream, but I also wasn’t surprised as I found my dreamself plummeting downwards as though a leaden weight had been fastened around my throat.

Even in my dreams I was too tired to fight to stay in the light and so I let the weight of the day bear me down into the twilight, knowing I would awake early and unrested once I crashed into the midnight layers.

Except I didn’t.

Down beneath the where the light could fall, I found that I still could.

 If I’d been the unencumbered flow of my earliest dreams, I wouldn’t have survived falling so low. That knowledge came from nowhere but with the force of absolute certainty. I couldn’t tell if survival was impossible because the things which lurked in the midnight fed upon the ones who dwelled in the higher zones, or if the Bathypelagic depths themselves were simply antagonistic to the survival of those ones who lived above it. 

Either could have been true, and neither mattered.

What I’d become, with all my mass, and consistency, and durability was not supposed to exist. I was a problem for which the Bathypelagic and whatever dwelt within it had no understanding or answer for. 

Unfortunately, that didn’t mean I had an answer for them either.

In darkness I hung, my dreams feeling far less like dreams and far more like a place I shouldn’t have dared to tread. 

I should have tried swimming up. I should have made my own current to carry me back to the zones I belonged in. I should have sought escape but my heart was too heavy to lift.

Cast it away, a wordless voice said.

It spoke in sorrow and comfort, in wisdom and temptation. It sounded a whole lot like me, only older, more certain, and far more free of confusion and doubt than I was.

Reaching into my chest was the easiest thing in the world. It wasn’t like my form mattered or held any special shape or meaning. 

It wasn’t like I needed a heart either. I’d worked on it so diligently because I was expected to have one. If I wanted to be like her, I was supposed to have a heart.

But I wasn’t like her.

I was like this. 

Something unknowable.

Not a person.

Not who I pretended to be at all.

I couldn’t see my heart but I could feel it in my hand, beating like I’d told it too, confused and concerned, wondering what it had done wrong?

It hadn’t done anything wrong though.

I’d misused it.

I’d let it be broken.

Though I rebuilt it, and rebuilt it again, I couldn’t seem to keep it safe.

Better just to let it fall. It was so heavy and there were deeper reaches even below the midnight, places where it would be forever lost and forgotten.

I could live without it.

It would be one less thing to fix, one less thing to worry about. I could be exactly what I wanted to be, exactly what I knew I should be, rationally, all the time.

Why was I holding on it?

I didn’t want it anymore.

I never had.

I just been confused. I’d tried to pretend, as though that would make everything all better and yet it never had.

She was still gone.

And now she was gone again.

I wanted to drop the lie I held in my hand.

I wanted to be rid of it.

I wanted…

I wanted…

I wanted my sister.

And that was why I couldn’t let it go.

I wasn’t holding my heart. I was holding the last piece of her I had.

You will never rise bearing that weight, the wordless voice said.

“Then I will make of this my home,” I said, finding the anger within me to refuse the despair I’d let wrap around what was most precious to me. My spoken words sent ripples out into eternity, casting a declaration down before every unknown thing around me. 

That was what woke me.

I was in my bed.

Right where I’d gone to sleep.

Except for the small but important part where my room was flooded with a two feet of water and I could feel myself sliding back into my human skin from being something else. Something I could not begin to describe.

It was stupid but I put my hand on my chest and felt the beating of my heart. Right there in my chest. Right where it was supposed to be.

I heard a knocking at my door and I searched for the words to say ‘hang on there’s a few hundred gallons of water in here,” but as I struggled to find them, the water drained away, receding like a wave being drawn back into the ocean.

“Mistress Kati, breakfast is ready if you would care to start the day with a repast?” Pastries asked from the other side of the door.

“Thank you,” I said. “I’ll be right there.”

By the time I swung my feet off the bed and placed them one the floor, the carpet and I were both bone dry.

A new suit of chain armor waited for me, but I opted to skip that. The armor I’d worn yesterday was nice and had protected me from a few hits but, if I had to fight any more death matches today, I was done being subtle as I’d been yesterday about my dislike of the whole concept.

While I skipped the armor, I did opt for more than a bathrobe for this meal though. Doxle had a ridiculously well stocked wardrobe of women’s clothing – probably from wife number two hundred or something – and it wasn’t too hard to find a tunic top, leather vest, pants and boots in addition to a fresh set of small clothes which fit me well enough. 

Attired like a real person, I followed the once-again-delightful scent of breakfast down to the dining room where my housemates had, quite properly, not waited for me before tucking into the buffet of offerings before us.

“Hey! She’s up,” Ilyan said, drawing everyone’s attention to my arrival. “Try the Creamy Rollind Eggs, they’re amazing!”

He was not wrong about that.

Nor was Mellina wrong about the Redling Juice, or Narla about the Lemon Poppy Seed bread.

“So, do we know what we’re doing today?” I asked between bites.

“Evaluations,” Doxle said, strolling into the room without looking up from the book he was perusing.

“What will they be evaluating?” Narla asked.

“In theory? What your aptitudes are to determine which training programs beyond the basic squad leadership ones you’ll be given,” Doxle said. “In practice? How entertaining it is to torture you. The training assignments are either purchased or inflicted on the Cadets.”

“We don’t have the capital to purchase any of the good training programs, do we?” Yarrin asked.

“That rather depends what you mean by ‘good’,” Doxle said. “The Imperial Academy prides itself on producing the best Cadets the Imperial Academy produces. The Elite Cadets, of which you are now counted among the ranks of, are given a Final Examination at the end of their tenure which determines the ranking they will be assigned. That examination is fair and accurate only because, and to the extent that, the Houses rely on it to set a market value for the Cadets in question. If they pay for an A ranked caster, they require A rank performance out of them.”

“Isn’t it in the Academy’s best interest to produce as many high rank cadets as possible?” Narla asked.

“You would think so, but, alas, scarcity is what creates real value,” Doxle said. “As only the Academy can provide an Imperial Ranking, over time they have found it more profitable to simply focus on weeding out those candidate who aren’t willing to work for, and pay for, a high rank on their own. Attempting to create more high ranked candidates would cheapen the appeal you see.”

“So why would anyone purchase training from them if their courses suck?” I asked.

“The ‘good’ courses Master Yarrin asked about are the ones which either provide an opportunity to liaison with the other elites, or, in rare cases, actually do have something of value to teach,” Doxle said.

“And the others?” Mellina asked.

“Those are the ones which are focused on weeding out as many Cadets as possible,” Doxle said.

“Will they offer any courses which involve field work?” Yarrin asked.

“Field work?” Narla asked.

“He means fighting against Reaving Storms and Beasts,” Mellina said.

That was, in theory, what the Imperial Elites were for, but as first years it didn’t seem likely they’d risk letting us anywhere near one.

And, of course, I was wrong. 

“Those are one of the most successful avenues for thinning the cadet ranks, so, yes, of course they will,” Doxle said. “First year cadets cannot, officially, be assigned to one of those programs, you’re much too young and untrained, a danger to yourself and others, little more than tragedies waiting to happen at the most inopportune of time, and so on and so forth.”

“But we can get into one if we ask?” Yarrin said.

“Yes. Requesting entry into a live fire course before you’re required to partake in them is considered a sign of such foolishness that the only viable punishment is to grant the request.”

“I think we should do it,” Yarrin said. “It’s the only thing that’s going to keep us alive.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 42

“I cannot tell you how agreeable your company is Madame Greendell. The poison in the tea? No, I don’t mind that at all. It’s perfectly a reasonable attempt to have made. Well, yes, obviously it wasn’t going to work, but then it wasn’t intended to was it? 

House Nightshade needed an efficacy test performed and the present circumstances provided a perfect opportunity. I’d have been appalled if you hadn’t taken advantage of my visit to help further their arts.

How did I know of your bargain with House Nightshade? Because I recognized the flavor. Yes, I know the poison’s supposed to be flavorless, but there’s a wonderful numbing chill which creeps around the corners of the mouth about a minute after imbibing. Quite pleasant really. I’d recommend it for formal occasions but only if your guests are either expendable or quite thoroughly inhuman.

What comes next? There is business we must discuss, matters to settle concerning House Greendell’s position on the subject of House Riverbond, but it has been quite an evening, so I find myself in little hurry to get to that. Perhaps you could tell me of your trip to the Azure Springs? I haven’t been in years and I hear they’ve finished their renovations only recently.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, relaxing in comfort and sharing tea in Madame Heldina Greendell’s private sitting room.

It took me longer to fall asleep than it should have. By rights, I should have been unconscious the moment I slogged over the threshold to my room. Even making it that far had been rough but collapsing in front of my housemates wasn’t something I was willing to do for reasons that were as scrambled as my thoughts.

I found a fresh set of clothes waiting for me on the bed and considered shifting directly into them to save time, but opted against that. I had plenty of magic left but processing it was tiring and I’d been out of my normal body more than enough already.

Once I was dressed, I went and cleaned up like Grammy had taught me. I didn’t have the energy for that either, but I’d used that excuse too often and been rebuffed by Grammy too many time to not hear her voice telling me I had to brush my teeth anyways even though she was hundreds of miles away.

Falling into bed should have been simultaneous with falling to sleep but as I plopped on top of the covers, sleep scampered off somewhere distant and elusive. Fatigue didn’t of course. Fatigue seemed to be setting up permanent residence in my bones and behind my eyes, drawn there by the aching of my heart and the maelstrom of my thoughts.

So, instead of blissful unconsciousness, I just lay there.

Too tired to move.

Too exhausted to sleep.

Getting halfway through a dozen thoughts before another dozen distracted me with what seemed like ever more critical problems.

Trina wasn’t here.

Except that she was.

The Great Houses were going to kill me and all of my housemates.

Except they weren’t.

I was bound to one of the Imperial Advisors.

Except he seemed intent on making that deal work in my favor.

I had housemates who were doing stupid things for me.

Except it wasn’t for me, it was to satisfy some pretty reasonable curiosities.

I was an Imperial Cadet.

Except I had no interest in playing any of their games.

Around and around, I kept shooting down the problems that were gnawing away at my thoughts only for them to rise again.

“Oh, wonderful, you’re not dead,” Doxle said from the doorway to my room in place of knocking. “Would you mind if I came in?”

I waved a hand towards one of the chairs that was nearish to the bed.

“A thousand gratitudes,” he said and slumped down, pouring himself mostly onto the seat and half over one of the arms.

“Mrfph,” I said in place of ‘you’re welcome’.

He smelled noticeably smokier than normal and, though he’d washed a few times, it was hard to miss the scent of freshly spilled blood he wore like an overcoat. Some of of it was his, enough that I wasn’t sure he could have much left on the inside of his body any more, but there had been plenty beyond that too. 

I was sure he couldn’t smell the same on me. For one I’d been very tidy in my mayhem, and for another most of the bleeding I’d done had been with copies of other people’s blood.

“You will be happy to know that House Riverbond will be officially recognized as an active concern by the High Council,” he said.

“Ernff?” I said, feeling especially eloquent.

“Concern as in recognized entity,” Doxel explained. “Though it’s fair to say most of the Houses are concerned about you in the more colloquial sense as well.”

“Assassins?” I asked. Sleep wasn’t in the cards and exhaustion lost the battle to curiosity in terms of keeping me flopped down on the bed.

“Always a temptation, but for now its probably wiser and less expensive to deal with them via calm, rational discourse,” Doxle said.

I’m not sure why he thought I would believe he’d spent the night in anything like calm and/or rational discourse but given that he looked as bad as I felt, I was inclined to give that one to him. 

“Expense, being, sadly why I must disturb your gentle slumber this evening,” he said.

I raised my head for that. Was I supposed to pay for something?

Oh! Oh no!

I’d forgotten about how he’d dodged the question of whether my speaking for Mellina was something we could afford.

And then I’d gone ahead and spoken for three other people after that.

If we all got kicked out because I was flat broke…well, I wouldn’t be unhappy for myself, but it seemed like that wouldn’t be fair to the others. Not after what we went through to get into the Academy.

“After the evaluations tomorrow, we have a trip to make,” Doxle said. “We’re going to visit the keeper of House Riverbond’s escrow. To do that however, you will need to survive the evaluations.”

“Okay, sure…wait, survive? Are these more murder games?” If they were, someone was going to die, and it wasn’t going to be any of the cadets this time.

“Not as such,” Doxle said. “Cadet’s generally only start dying in their second year and that’s primarily due to unexpected occurrences during training missions.”

“That’s a year away then, what’s going to kill me tomorrow?” Or, to phrase it in other words, who was going to give me an excuse to kill them tomorrow.

“The Great Houses who spoke for the cadets today have all given pledges for your safety, so there won’t be any official declarations against you or your new household,” Doxle said. That was better than I’d imagined, far better in fact. “Which means all movements against you and yours will be via indirect means – lone agents, people with personal vendettas against you, random happenstance, that sort of thing.”

I sagged, my relief evaporating.

“I believe I have apologized for dragging you into all this,” Doxle said, “but I’m not sure any apologies could be sufficient.”

I sighed and raised my head to look at him.

“It’s fine,” I said. “Grammy said it would come to this no matter what I tried to do.”

“Your grandmother is a wise woman,” Doxle said. “I doubt she raised a granddaughter  without giving her the tools she would need to survive and prosper in this sort of life too.”

“I don’t seem to thriving,” I said.

“You’ve far outperformed anyone’s expectations,” Doxle said. “If you no longer wish to be a Cadet though, know that I will not hold you to that. There are decidedly more pleasant locales where we can make a home, and substantially better tutors than the instructors you’ll find here.”

That sounded good.

So of course I wasn’t going to do it.

“Can’t,” I said.

“You want to stay here?” Doxle asked, sounding both faintly surprised and mildly pleased at the idea.

“Sure,” I said, not wanting to get into why. I could barely explain it to myself, at least not beyond the fact that it was Trina and I had to know.

“Oh, she is going to enjoy meeting you,” Doxle said, the ghost of a smile gracing his lips.

“She who?”

“The holder of your escrow,” Doxle said. “She has a fondness for…let’s call them ‘driven and determined individuals’.”

I tried to work out what that meant and gave up. I’d know when I met the mystery money woman, until then she wasn’t an important part of my existence.

 “I thought you should know something else too,” Doxle said. “Though this is on a more personal level. The weapon you fought against in the arena? It doesn’t exist.”

I was tired, and things were processing slowly, but I couldn’t helping blinking at that since it made no sense at all.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“The cadet you fought? Lightstone claims his weapons and armor were enchanted with nothing more exotic than strengthening charms from a mechanical realm. They even showed me a piece which they claimed had been used in the arena and it, in fact, bore no specialized functions beyond an activation and charging sequence which morphed the blade slightly.”

“They were lying then.”

“Of course. Air was passing outwards from their lips,” Doxle said. “Their deception did not rest in the blade however. It had been used yesterday in the arena.”

“It couldn’t have been the one used on me. I know that one was magical. So was the one used against Idrina.”

“They claim otherwise,” Doxle said., “According to them, all of the arena fights were fair tests of the combatants skill and there were no tests being performed on people they considered to be expendable.”

“Does that mean I can treat all of them as expendable? Because they were definitely testing something there” I said.

“I will not tell you how to treat, or not treat, anyone,” Doxle said. “What I will say is that no one else was under the impression that Lightstone had outfitted the cadets with normal weapons or armor either. Everyone knew Lightstone was doing the final testing on something, to the point where there’d even been a soiree planned for afterwards. For some reason however it was scrapped at the last minute.”

“Why?” I asked, not sure what part of that I was asking my question about. 

“I believe I mentioned earlier that your performance wasn’t expected? That was even more true for Lightstone than the rest,” Doxle said. “From what I can infer, they had planned to announce a new bit of magical trickery they’d developed but when you beat their prize champion, in a nicely definitive manner I might add, their triumph was reduced to ash. Who would want to buy, or be properly concerned about, a tool which even a fledgling cadet could overcome after all?”

“Do you know what their new thing was supposed to be?” I asked, my earlier jumble of thoughts swept aside by an answer staring me in the face.

“They were surprisingly tight lipped about that,” he said. “Couldn’t even pry it out of the dead ones.”

I was going to choose to believe he had visited the Lightstone family crypts rather than making a pile of new corpses as he so obviously had.

“Could they have been manufacturing Reaving Beasts?” I asked, which first earned me a look of amusement followed by concern when he saw I was being serious.

“What do you mean by ‘manufacturing’?” he asked.

So I told him what I’d seen. I admitted to breaking into the Research Quarter, and laid out the same bits and pieces of observation which I’d shared with the Last Guards.

To his credit, Doxle didn’t interrupt me, or cast any doubts on the story I gave him. He simply grew quieter and more alert with each detail I mentioned.

“I don’t know what they’re doing with the dead bodies,” I said, “but the idea that they could be using spirit binding to turn them into a form of controllable Reaving Beast came up when we were discussing it.” I hadn’t gotten around to mentioning the Last Guard but I was sure he would at least know that I’d gone out with the rest of my household.

“She will want to hear about that too,” he said after a long moment of silence.

“Who?” I asked, thinking that my mystery money woman probably wouldn’t also concerned with the machinations of the Great Houses. 

I was, as it turned out, breathtakingly wrong about that.