Monthly Archives: September 2023

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 75

“I don’t know why people think I am inept at schemes and plans. I assure you that I am among the most brilliant of tacticians, my stunning intellect rivaled only by…umm…no…the name will come to me. If I could just stop spinning.  Yes, there is it, or, hmm, perhaps not. What was I saying? Oh right. No one…yes, no one rivals me. I always have my enemies right where they want me and can catch myself at unawares at the exact moment of my choosing.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, blind drunk, hanging suspended from a noose around one foot, covered in tar and cotton candy, with various profanities strategically painted across his naked body, approximately thirty seconds from single handedly the defeating the garrison at Breaktide.

Fighting. I’d been doing so much of it that as I watched Idrina vanish from my room I had to wonder if that was what we’d been doing? 

Had I won? She was gone, but that didn’t feel like a win. If it wasn’t a win though what was the alternative?

Was I supposed to run after her and drag her back to my room?

That couldn’t be the right thing to do, despite how tempting it was.

Maybe I was supposed to check in with the others? With Ilyan? Of all of us, he’d be the one most likely to understand what was going on. 

“Hi, why did your sister run away from me? She doesn’t hate me does she?” I was going to say literally none of that to him, ever. The questions were stupid, I didn’t need the answers, and they weren’t important.

What mattered was that someone at House Ironbriar had mad their move, and they’d been nice and predictable about it.

I knew I should go downstairs and talk with the others about it. I’d somehow wound up as the ‘leader’, and they might want to talk about continuing with our plans. I could provide my input and make sure that people like Narla and Ilyan got to make contributions that would be taken seriously.

Instead I collapsed onto my bed.

I wasn’t going to sleep. There was no worry of that happening since I was far too wound up. Sagging into the mattress though? That sounded like it was exactly my speed.

A flood of problems stormed into my mind as I lay there, each one demanding that I get up and deal with them.

The charges needed an answer, an official one in fact, since we were going to play this as one House against another, where Ironbriar clearly wanted to consider this an individual matter so they could prosecute me in their courts and inflict whatever punishment they deemed fit.

Also, the Clockworking process was something that we needed to understand more fully in order to be sure that when we shut it down, it would stay shut down.

That was going to mean another trip to the Clockwork Cosmos. Or, more likely, several trips. Those were probably going to be my job as well, since I was demonstrably able to survive there.

Grammy was out there as well. No relation to the Clockwork Cosmos. Or at least none that I knew of? Then again I hadn’t known that she’d apparently erased an entire Great House on her own, so there were clearly some things I did not know about the woman who’d raised me and was largely responsible for everything human that was in me. 

The woman I was going to need to tell, after more than a decade, that I wasn’t who I’d been claiming to be, and that her granddaughter was long dead.

Why had I ever thought impersonating Trina was a good idea?

Had it ever really been for her? 

That was what I had told myself over the years. That I’d pretended to be my sister because it would spare Grammy the pain of the loss that I’d felt. There was more to it than that though. By taking Trina’s place, I’d gotten a family and someone to care for me and watch over me and teach me the things I needed to know.

I could have stayed as a little wolf pup. That wasn’t my true form any more than Trina’s was, but it had grown comfortable after I’d worn it for a few years with her. Grammy wouldn’t have set me adrift on my own even as a pup. I would have been fed and cared for. I might have been allowed to stay in the house. Grammy might even have turned to me for support – puppies can be very cuddly, and I could have stayed like that for as long as Grammy needed me, or would put up with me.

I didn’t have to lie to her. Not for either one of us.

I couldn’t take back that I had though and with how far out my secret had gotten, I had to tell her the truth. She was going to hear about it and it had to come from me. 

So I could get out of bed and do that.

And if I was going to get out of bed, I could run after Idrina.

If she needed to fight me, we could fight. If she needed to leave, I could free her from whatever shackles of obligation she felt kept her chained to the house. Or to me. I knew nothing I did would put a smile on her face. She was too practiced at controlling her emotions for that. It wasn’t her lips that I needed to see happy though, it was her heart. 

No, I wasn’t about to ask myself ‘why her’? Yes, I knew there were a lot of people, even several in the house, who weren’t smiling for one reason or another. So why didn’t I want to go help them? I mean I did, but why did helping Idrina seem so important? Because she’d just been here? Because for as desperately as she worked to be the perfect daughter of her house, she was the biggest misfit of us all? Because I was…?

I might have completed that though. Or I might not have finished any of them. I couldn’t really tell because while I was completely incapable of finding sleep, sleep had no problems finding me.

From the thoughts that were spiralling around in my head it would have been reasonable to expect that my dreams would have been some mishmash of Idrina and my grandmother chasing me down for murdering random Ironbriars. Or the Clockwork Cosmos putting me on trial for the crimes I haven’t had a chance to commit against House Ironbriar. Basically a melange of all my worries whirled together and amplified by anxiety and the weird brain chemistry of sleep.

As it turned out though, my dreams weren’t of anything that I’d fallen asleep thinking about. 

Instead I dreamed of darkness.

It wasn’t the darkness of night, or of sightlessness though. It was the rich, weighty darkness of the depths.

I’d swum from this darkness. It was familiar and I knew I’d risen up from it. 

What can rise can fall again though.

Except, I couldn’t remember falling. 

I clung to the memories of my life in the waking world as though they had the power to buoy me up the surface of the unfathomably vast ocean which surrounded me.

I wasn’t meant for the surface of course. Playing on the ocean’s edge was only supposed to be an occasional thing. What had I become that I spent so long there?

Ten years? Had I breathed air for ten years? My dream rejected that. I couldn’t have walked on the surface of a world for ten years? No one could be apart from flow for that long? No one could hold onto anything across all those days upon days.

The surface wasn’t where I belonged. I was meant to be down in the flow, where my body could melt away and the entire ocean would support me, rather than having to stand on my own, rigid feet, constantly fighting against the gravity of my life.

Except the ocean wasn’t supporting me. It was drawing me ever lower, towards something which loomed beyond the borders of the world through presence alone.

I’d sunk and been wrapped up in bathypelagic gloom. I was beyond the cares of the surface and deeper than the reach of the brightest light, and in my dream that felt like coming home.

Because I wasn’t alone.

I’d felt the great alien powers which flowed around me before, but this time they weren’t so alien or threatening.

With currents as broad as a continent, they swept away the lies of form I’d been clinging to. My body, my identity, my name? I didn’t need those. They weren’t me. They were limits I’d accepted on what should have been an endlessly flowing spirit.

The storm of thoughts which had assailed me?

I could be free of all that.

I could let it all blow away somewhere far above, up on the surface which was so far away. Up in the light I could no longer see.

In the falling currents of the bathypelagic, I could feel my dream washing away the reality of what I’d been and what I was. Though they were so much bigger than I, so much more than I could comprehend, I felt the unseen ones calling me back to the endless, changing flow that was my true birthright.

They did not love me. They did not know me at all. But still they offered to make me whole once more. To forgive my wayward wanderings and welcome me back to the boundless seas where I would never have to endure anything again. Where I could simply be, and be anything I wished.

I don’t think they expected me to refuse them.

I don’t know that I expected to refuse them.

What they offered was endless peace. Freedom from everything and the power to be anything I wished.  Ten years hadn’t been enough to make me forget what that felt like, and I would spend a lifetime or more before part of me stopped yearning for it.

But a lifetime is what I’d earned for myself.

In the ocean, I could exist, but I wouldn’t be myself. I would be whatever nebulous, formless thing the forces around me inclined me to be. If I was pushed downwards, I would flow downwards. If I those around me wanted me to be smaller, I would shrink.

And that wasn’t me.

Not anymore.

No light illuminates the depths. No light but that which those sunk down bring with them.

I did not fight the unseen ones.

I did not rebuff them.

I did not hurl defiance at the fate they offered me.

They were not my enemy. They did not mean me harm.

They were powerful and vast and inimical to what I had become, what I chose to be, but they were not something I needed to fight.

They were a part of one of my worlds, and a part of me, but only a part. I could touch their world, as they could touch me, but we would never be joined together into one thing, not again.

Stretching out my hand – because I had a hand again – I touched them, showing things so vast as to burst beyond the definitions of any words I could hold them with, that I was not as they remembered me. That I was not what I’d known myself to be.

My birthright remained as mine. I hadn’t lost what I was. I was still a part of their world.

But I was also part of another. 

My nameless changing self, child and innocent that it had been, had changed beyond the boundaries of a boundless changing people. My human self? Well that was still a work in progress, as all human selves are, but I was proud of what I’d built and that pride lit the seas around me, shining like a star to guide me home.

And it was good to have a guide to follow back.

Shining a light right above the Abyssopelagic is a wonderful method of attracting an intriguing class of predators from beyond the limits of reason and sanity.

As my dream faded, I forgot those predators, dreams being wonderful at denying things like that entry into the waking world, but I recalled the conversation I’d had with the unseen ones.

They hadn’t abandoned me and that set some interesting gears turning in my brain.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 74

“My greatest work? The hardest endeavor I have ever undertaken? Why I assure you it is a simple matter to name. No spell I have cast, or duel I have fought comes close to earning that title. The grand tests of my youth? The ones I studied and practice for until my fingers were raw and my eyes bled? Child’s play. The burdens of my position as First among the Empress’s Advisors? As light as a feather. Staying married for three whole weeks to my own doppleganger? While we tried at every moment to destroy each other? Including the acid pool we pushed each other into during the reception without giving away that we were anything but madly in love with ourselves? Like unto a vacation of bliss.

Far harder than any of those, so taxing that even with all these centuries of innumerable attempts I can claim no victory at it, is the dread task of resting both when and where I am supposed to.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame attempting and failing to talk an Imperial Nurse into  allowing him to leave his hospital room before his physicians would allow it.

I was wanted for murder. That wasn’t terribly surprising. I was far more shocked that I was wanted for being myself. Out of everything that had happened to me over the last few days, that was left me feeling the most disconnected from reality.

It wasn’t that I didn’t believe my housemates…my friends. I’d been really careful in fixing up the olfactory center in my brain and my nasal cavity. I could smell the honesty of their appreciation and the lack of, what would have been entirely sensible, fear on their part.

They knew who I was, who I wasn’t, what I was (mostly) (somewhat) (a little), and what I wasn’t, and they still wanted to be around me. None of them even wanted to kill me. I mean Narla and Idrina were still eager to fight me, but there was a disturbing lack of malice or homicidal undertones to their desire.

A normal girl wouldn’t have found that so shocking. If Trina had lived and taken her rightful place…well if that had happened she definitely wouldn’t have been where I was. My sister, even when she was a little girl, had been far too wise to get herself embroiled in the ridiculousness that was the politics and machinations of the Great Houses. 

I wasn’t that wise – demonstrably – but had I been the girl I’d been claiming to be, I probably wouldn’t have had such a hard time believing what my senses were telling me about my friends. If I’d been the girl I’d claimed to be though, I wouldn’t have spent the last decade convincing myself that anyone who learned my secret would work to see me destroyed instantly.

To be fair to my younger self, and my present self for that matter, I hadn’t been entirely wrong. The group of weirdos I’d gathered into my house – or taken hostage in Idrina’s case – were not particularly representative of what the ‘average Imperial citizen’ was like. No one in their right mind, for example, hitched their fate to a last heir of Great House which had been all but destroyed. I absolutely lacked the power to keep them safe, the prestige to assure them a position in high society, and the wealth to allow them to live as equals to the siblings and cousins they’d left behind.

And none of them cared. Each of them seemed to prefer that in fact. They’d walked away from lives that other people routinely killed and died to attain, and not a one of them was looking back.

So, on reflection, I felt like I should forgive myself for feeling a bit adrift from the world. Too much had changed, both in my circumstances and in me, to not require some time to process it all. 

As I floated in the tub that Pastries had filled for me, I let my body absorb the warmth and the heavenly fragrances both while my mind slowly, oh so very slowly, began to untangle itself.

The future was terrifying. I couldn’t deny that. I more-or-less couldn’t even face it.

And that was okay.

The future wasn’t here. It would come in it’s own time and I would face it then whether or not I gave it space in my thoughts while I was floating and drifting.

I would adjust to people accepting me too.


I’d have to become someone new for that to be true, and I wasn’t ready to be anyone but who I was at the moment, and that was okay too. 

I didn’t need to be my future self. Her time was still to come. All I needed to do was hold the image of who she was, who I wanted her to be, in my mind and use it as a guiding star to chart my course.

I’d fail at that too of course. Because that’s how life works. We try. We fail. We try something new. Maybe we learn something. Maybe we refuse to learn. With each step though, we build up some parts of who we are and cast aside others. 

I bobbed along, letting my mind wander through fields of thought like that, hoping that if I gave it the freedom to go where it needed to and the quiet to let it say what it needed to, I’d be able to clear away at least some of the thoughts I’d been shoving off to ‘think about later’.

That didn’t work either of course. The mind, or at least my mind, isn’t like a filing cabinet you can move stuff into and out of at will. The things I’d pushed off I either wasn’t ready to deal with yet, or had forgotten, or had been changed enough by my experienced since I pushed them away that they’d resurface as something else entirely.

I’m not sure how long I rested like that. Not as long as I needed, or as long as I would have liked, but probably longer than I should have. It was at least long enough though that when there was a knock on the door I didn’t leap out of the bath in Dire Wolf form.

“I’m still alive,” I said, loud enough to carry through the nice solid wood in between me and whoever was interrupting my bath.

It was probably Doxle. He seemed to have a talent for interrupting, and I hadn’t heard from him since we’d gotten back home. 

I braced myself and marshaled all of the entirely reasonable explanations I was going to need to give for the entirely unreasonable things I’d done and, more importantly, intended to do in the near future.

“I am glad to hear that,” Idrina said through the door.

That got me up quickly.

I wasn’t worried about her attacking me in the bath. I knew her better than that by this point. What I was worried about, I definitely could not say.

“Is anything wrong?” I asked, drying my hair as quickly as I could.

“The charges against you have been delivered,” Idrina said.

I breathed a sigh of relief. We’d been expecting that, and the speed with which they’d been drawn up said that House Ironbriar, or at least one of the members of it’s internal council had been enraged and foolish enough to act against me without spending the time to get the back of their other Great Houses.

“That’s excellent,” I said, and then remembered the other important element we’d been counting on. “Do the charges mention you or your brother?”

I slipped into my clothes in a blink, morphing myself as needed to slither into them without impediment, before opening the door so that we could talk face to face.

Idrina was waiting for me a tactically sound distance back, standing with her hands folded comfortably at her waist.

“No mention is made in the charges which were presented of either Ilyan or myself,” she said. Her gaze was focused at an indeterminate point behind me somewhere, and her scent was all but screaming ‘conflicted’.

“That’s good news too, isn’t it?” I said, confused over what could be bothering her. “I thought you and Mellina said that if they didn’t mention you two in the charges officially it would be because they planned to focus solely on me.”

The idea, as they’d explained it, had been that in my role as the Head of House Riverbond, any charges against me would fundamentally sweep up any other wrong doing of those “under my auspices”. It was expected that if one of my subordinates was guilty of some wrongdoing, that the bill would be sent to me and I would be free to inflict whatever punishment I chose to on the unlucky fool who’d cost me whatever resources were required to pay off the charges once the case was settled.

“With no charges made against us, Ilyan and I are free to return to our House without fear of official censure.” Idrina should have looked happy about that. 

Or not. She didn’t really do ‘happy’ from what I’d seen. But she should have smelled happy about it. Instead, she smelled more conflicted than ever.

“Is that what you want?” I asked.

“As your hostages, we are more valuable,” she said, and even I was able to catch that she’d dodged the question.

“That’s not true,” I said, objecting to a very specific part of what she’d said. “You’re value doesn’t depend on me or anyone else. You’re valuable no matter where you are or why you’re there. Ilyan too.”

“I owe…”

I didn’t let her get that thought out at all.

“You owe no one,” I said. “Or, wait, no, you owe yourself, and that’s it.”

She glared at me.

Which was good.

And she smelled annoyed.

Also good.

A short while ago I would have been afraid to aggravate her like that. Just like she’d punched the stupid out of my face though, I decided she needed me to punch it out of her emotions.

“You need us to stay,” she said, the slightest hint of anger peeking through her words.

“Nope. I want you to stay. But that doesn’t mean you should.”

She blinked and fought to control what looked like a variety of emotions from showing on her face.

“If you stay, I want it to be because it’s what’s right for you,” I said. “I want you to stay because you are frankly amazing, and you’ve shown me things no one else could. I want you to stay because I don’t want to be your enemy. I was afraid of your strength before, but strong enemies aren’t something to run from.”

“You would embrace me then? Because of my strength?” she asked, her scent firmly back in the realm of deep confusion.

“I respect your strength. I admire the work you’ve done to develop it. But that’s only the smallest part of what makes you amazing,” I said.

“And if I could never pledge my strength to you cause?” she asked. “If I vowed never to fight with you?”

“I would want you not the slightest bit less,” I said. “Make the vow right now, and I’ll be glad to prove it to you.”

“You think I wouldn’t keep it? That you could suborn me as you’ve suborned my brother?” she said and I couldn’t tell which answer she was hoping I’d make.

“Idrina, on my life and power, I would never ask you to break a vow, or ever believe I could change your heart. I’ve seen you. I know you. I can only imagine how much pain that would cause you and even that is terrible.”

That made her angry.

Which was weird.

She hid it completely on her face and in her body but buried deep down some quality rage was burning hotter than the sun.

Without another word, she gave a formal nod, spun on her heel and marched out of my room, leaving me perplexed where I’d gone wrong and why she was so mad at me.

Or was I was the one she was mad at at all?

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 73

“It’s challenging to rise from bed each day, greet the morning light with even a modicum of awareness, and not observe a hundred and one different reasons why the world should be allowed, or even encouraged, to burn right down to the ground.

My preferred solution to this problem is simply not to rise until it’s the next day. Apocalypse’s are so much work to engineer after all and sleeping in winds up being so much more agreeable to both myself and others.

On those days when I am forced to rise and confront the teeth grindingly horrible stupidity of the world around me, I am forced to fall back on the next strongest bulwark against invoking armageddon – namely that, for as full of malice and cruelty as the world may be, there are people in it who deserve better, some few of whom I may or may not harbor the smallest possible bits of appreciation for and whom I am loathe to see any further misery inflicted on.

Saving the world for myself? Why, no, that would be ridiculous. I clearly do not deserve a better world.

For many reasons.

No, it is simply not something I can lay claim to.

But that doesn’t mean I have to accept the world as it is. 

Not when I can make it better for them.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame lecturing a very confused assassin who thought his quarry was a simple farmer who’d been caught unaware in a tavern at dusk.

I was setting myself up for a battle. No holds barred. Knockdown and knockout. Winner take all. On one side there was me. On the other side there was, basically, everyone else.

You’d think that would have given me a clue that I wasn’t thinking clearly.

You would be wrong if so.

You would also think I must have had some profound and well considered reason for setting myself against Mellina, Idrina, Yarrin, and even Ilyan, any one of whom could probably beat me one-on-one (maybe not Ilyan, at least not without time to seduce a whole army of followers). It would be entirely reasonable to take my opposition to them as proof that I had rock solid ground to support my arguments with.

You would be wrong there too.

Looking from one of them to the next, I couldn’t have offered any rational explanation why I was so opposed to them being part of the “tear a Great House to pieces party” I’d burned into my dance card.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want their help. Taking on a Great House was far more than I could possibly handle on my own.

It wasn’t that I didn’t trust them either. I’d told them enough about me that they could basically erase me from society, and possibly existence, if they put their minds to it, and yet I knew they wouldn’t.

And I knew they were capable. I had no idea how I’d ended up with a group of housemates who were all so exceptionally talented. I certainly hadn’t applied any kind of rigorous screening process to the strays I collected. Really, I hadn’t even collected them. They’d sort of collected me.

So I wasn’t responsible for what was going to happen to them if they followed me down a path that couldn’t possibly lead anywhere good even if it was the only even marginally sane course of action there was.

That should have been enough for my conscience right?

No one would blame me when they got hurt, and permanently disabled, and killed.

It wouldn’t be my fault.


Except I’d already lived for a decade knowing that something horrible had been my fault even though no one had ever blamed me for it. 

I knew I could lie myself out of any consequences for my actions and never face the anger and disgust that I deserved to endure. 

So that was it then, right?

Everything was great. 

I had all the bases covered. No matter what happened, I didn’t need to worry.

Yep, definitely, except not a word of that was true, and I’d been willing to fight till I was exhausted to convince the people around me of that fact.

But then Trina had asked her question and knocked all the ground out from under me.

“Why can’t I just run away too?” I asked, trying to compute something that was innumerable.

“Yeah,” Trina said. “You’re afraid of what’s going to happen to your friends here? I’m not going to argue you’re wrong, and I don’t think they will either. They know as well as you do the kinds of things the Great Houses will do to stop you, or against you if you succeed. Grammy had a reason for retreating to the forest and living in a fortress of her own making after what she did, and I don’t think either one of us imagine we could match her at her prime. So why don’t you all go somewhere safer.”

It looked like Idrina had an answer for that but she held her lips shut and focused on me, I guess more interested in the wrong answer I was going to give than the right one she held.

Not that I had even a wrong answer available.

I could have babbled off the first thing that came to my mind, but I hadn’t missed the lessons Grammy had taught me. She’d never expressed her philosophy in words but she’d lived it so clearly that I couldn’t help but hear and understand it.

‘If you don’t know an answer, wait to speak until you understand the question and yourself.”

So I did.

A breath in. My eyes closed.

Why was it that I couldn’t run away?

Or could I?

I tried to imagine fleeing to some foreign shore. 

I could take them all with me. House Riverbond had the funds to pay for a journey anywhere in the world and the means to live comfortably once we got there. The Great Houses wouldn’t be happy to have a threat lingering on their periphery but their ability to project force into the Stoneling lands or other distant countries was limited enough that we’d make short work of any assassins they sent after us.

It wouldn’t be a bad life either. There were plenty of places outside the Empire which could use our help. Peoples the Empire had little contact with and ones it had entirely too much contact with.

So why not leave and go help them?

Why fight a doomed battle?

I opened my eyes and glanced at Trina.

Was I doing this for her?

Was this revenge on the Great Houses for taking her from me? Had I known, on some level, that their were responsible this whole time?

No. I hadn’t. I didn’t hate them for Trina’s death. Or I hadn’t. That was rapidly changing the more I thought about it, but it wasn’t the central reason why I couldn’t leave this behind.

“If I run, no one is ever going to fix this,” I said.

“Are you sure this can be fixed?” Trina asked. “Are you even sure you know what needs to be fixed at this point? Or how to fix it?”

“No. I’m not,” I said. “What the Great Houses are doing? How they treat people and how many people still support them? Maybe that’s a sign that there isn’t anything left to salvage. Maybe there’s no point to any of this and nothing will ever get better no matter what we do.”

No one interrupted me even though I let a silent moment pass to allow them to.

“Maybe that’s true, but it doesn’t matter,” I said. “Unless I try I’ll never know, and if I don’t try I’ll always have to wonder if there wasn’t something I could have done to make things better. I’ll always wonder if I couldn’t have been better.”

I paused again and again they let me continue.

“I couldn’t save you. I’ve spent ten years crushed by that. Even a decade of guilt over not being enough is better than what I would have felt if I hadn’t even tried though,” I said. “I think if I hadn’t done anything, my heart would have died that day too and, even if it sucks, I’d rather have a wounded heart than a one that had crumbled to unfeeling ash.”

Mellina put her hand on my left shoulder. I hadn’t noticed her approaching but my instincts were strangely accepting of her.

“Do you see now why this needs to be all of us?” she asked.

And I did.

Curse them all, I did.

“You deserve better than this,” I said, playing the last gambit I could think of because it was true for all of them. Narla too, and she needed to hear it as well, but I only had my audience at hand to work with.

“So does everyone,” Ilyan said, stepping in close as well, with Yarrin at his side.

“We’re as afraid as you are,” Yarrin said. “But we’re in this together with you.”

I may have flapped my jaw a few times trying to find a coherent response to that.

“Why me though?” I finally asked, hating how it sounded as the words escaped from my lips.

“Because you inspired them,” Idrina said.

“How?” I wasn’t inspirational. I wasn’t even real. Not like they were.

I saw a dangerous flash shoot across Idrina’s expression as those thoughts crossed my mind, and I reconsidered them in light of her previous demonstration.

Maybe I was a little bit real.

Maybe I was more like them than I’d understood.

“You got into an arena with her, and then got back up afterwards,” Ilyan said, gesturing towards his sister. “So don’t try to pretend you’re not brave.”

“You avenged Kelthas,” Yarrin said. “So we’ve seen your compassion too.”

“I ripped that guy apart though! How was that compassionate?” I could still feel his heart like a warm squishy blob in my hand if I thought about it.

“You cared enough about a common born boy to bring his killer to immediate and irrevocably justice,” Mellina said. “And you saved who knows how many other applicants from meeting the same fate.”

“And you are loyal and true,” Idrina said, almost sounding as though she was embarrassed to give that particular compliment. “Otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to summon your sister to speak with us.”

Ilyan glance over at his sister with a surprised expression and a scent of amazement that I couldn’t make out either.

“I know what you think you’re not,” Trina said. “If I’d been around, I’d have spent the last ten years convincing you how much more ‘what you are’ matters than what you’re not, but we lost that time. I can’t make it up to you or make any demands of you. It wouldn’t be fair because there’s nothing I can give you in return. All I can do is ask that you not miss spending the next ten years with people who will show you what I couldn’t.”

I glanced around from one of my friends to the next. 

They all had small smiles and were waiting for Trina’s words to sink into my thick thick skull. 

Well, almost all of them. Vena and Hemaphora were watching from the sidelines but nodded in agreement with Trina when I glanced over at them. Idrina however was looking away.

She didn’t smell angry or appalled at the idea. If anything she smelled nervous, which really didn’t make any sense.

It was possible that I’d miswired something in my brain. Connecting neural pathways had taken a fair bit of practice, and learning to use them was an ongoing process. 

Which pretty much defined all of the rest of me.

I had friends. Or so it seemed.

That was new.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with them.

Protecting them wasn’t it though. At least not how I’d gotten fixated on what I could have done to protect Trina.

They had as much stake in making our world a better place as I did, and I needed to respect that, and respect them by asking for their help when I needed it not trying to go it all alone.

“In that case,” I said giving them the best smile my weary face could manage. “Which Great House are we going to take down first?”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 72

“It is one of the great challenges of life to slay one’s own inner demons. The things we fear, the things which drive us into rage, the things which lead us to despair, they all prove remarkably resilient to the slings and arrows we can bring against them.

‘I will not be afraid of him’ we say, and yet even years later our knees still turn to jello when a voice is raised and our spirit shrinks as though the fear we overcame long ago can choose to rise from its grave whenever it pleases.

I have no secret weapons to fight such battles, except perhaps for one. It is possible, in some cases at least, that our demons are not what we need to fight.

The fear which steals away our strength? It is not our enemy. It is our guardian from a time when we were too weak to stand against the peril which inspires it. It cannot be slain, because there will always be things which we are too weak to stand against. In place of the sword then our only weapon may be an embrace.

Accept that we are weak, accept that there are things which hurt us, and that those things are sometimes ourselves. In acceptance, I have never found a balm against those woes, the fear remains, the anger burns, but beside them there is understanding. They are not the whole of the world, and not the part I must choose to listen to.

My demons do their work guarding me with the small tools they have, it is up to me to listen to what they have to say and choose what tools I will take up.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxel of the First Flame in an unsent letter to the Empress Eternal.

I thought I was alone in possessing what should have been incredibly forbidden knowledge about opening the sort of rifts Reaving Storms caused. Or if not alone that it at least wasn’t common knowledge. As it turned out I was correct about the “not common knowledge” part, but I’d failed to account for how weird my housemates were.

“The Great Houses,” Yarrin said. “They create unnatural storms all the time.”

“For the hunts,” Idrina said.

“And less savory purposes,” Mellina said.

I couldn’t see them but I knew none of them were wearing particularly pleased expressions.

“I thought, based on the how often they bang on about being the only ones who can protect the Empire from the storms, that they were supposed to be in charge of shutting down the Reaving Storms,” I said. “Isn’t that the whole point of the Soul Kindled Wards on the city?”

“That is why the wards exist,” Trina said. “And there are natural Reaving Storms which occur. Storms which are as dangerous as we were always told. Just not for the reason the Great Houses cite.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “No wait, I don’t want to.”

“What’s there to guess about?” Mellina asked. “They do it for power, and the natural storms offer that power to everyone, or at least everyone who can avoid getting killed.”

“Storms are where the materials to make and sustain their enchanted equipment comes from,” Yarrin said. 

“Also how troublesome enemies can be disposed of,” Mellina said.

“Or the offspring of enemies you bear a grudge against but are too cowardly to target directly,” Trina said.

“Who.” It was only technically a question. In actuality it was a promise, a contract which would finish off at least one of the Great Houses in the exact same manner Grammy had ended Dryfall. All it needed was a name affixed to it.

“If I tell you, you’re going to destroy yourself trying to get revenge for me, aren’t you?” Trina asked. 

“Not at all,” I said. “I’m going to destroy them trying to get revenge for me. Revenge won’t do you any good at all, right?”

“Neither will my sister losing her life,” Trina said.

“I’m not particularly easy to kill,” I said. The others had missed the ridiculous levels of damage I’d endured in the Clockwork Cosmos, but I suspect Trina had seen a good portion of it.

“The one’s responsible for the storm that killed me could manage it,” she said. “Also, if I could beg an indulgence, ripping them limb from limb might be satisfying in the moment, but it won’t stop the damage they’re doing.”

I grumbled. Trina was a better person than I was. I’d known that since she first took me in. Also a smarter one. My first instinct being to bite my problems was, I felt, not entirely unreasonable. Hers tended to be just a bit wiser though.

“From a purely personal standpoint too, if you kill them, they’ll only suffer for a brief while. Take apart their power and destroy their position though and they will suffer for the rest of their miserable little lives, which I would like to watch.”

Trina was smarter than me. I’d never mistaken that for being more merciful though. Which, I suppose, proved that she was a rightful decedent of Grammy’s bloodline. 

“That leaves room for us to help with the process,” Mellina said, reminding me that she bore a striking resemblance to Trina in terms of both intelligence and mercilessness.

I pictured seeing Mellina standing beside Trina and decided I did not like that image at all though.

“You can’t,” I said. “I know you are all in danger, but this can’t be your fight.”

“And why is that?” Idrina asked. There was danger in her tone, and probably no good answer I could give, so I went with the truth.

“I’m not supposed to be in this world,” I said, throwing my stupid reservations to the winds. What did it matter? They probably knew what I was already anyways. “This isn’t my home, so if I die here, it’s okay. The world won’t have lost anything it needed. That’s not true for any of you. You’re all supposed to be here. This is where you belong.”

“Is your sister standing in front of you?” Idrina asked.

It wasn’t the response I’d been expecting, and as I struggled to figure out why she wanted to know Idrina answered for me.

“Yeah, we’re about an arm’s length apart,” she said.

“Thank you,” Idrina replied and I heard heard her swing a hand through that space. “As I expected.”

Then she hit me right in the face.

I’m not talking a light slap either.

She just full on decked me.

“What the?” I said, knitting my shattered nose and jaw back together.

“Apparently you are of this world,” Idrina said with absolutely zero remorse in her voice.

Violence is really not a great language. There’s all kinds of problems with letting your fists do the talking for you, and it’s not at all acceptable to hit people to make a point. You can can cause serious injury and/or severe psychological trauma. If it had been anyone else I would have been having some words with her, but as I picked myself up I met her gaze and understood what she was saying.

It wasn’t okay that she’d hit me because I had less worth, or wasn’t a person, or any idiocy like that. I understood what she was saying because as much as it looked like she’d hurt me, we both knew that a hit like that was no more serious than tousling my hair given who and what I was. As for my mental state, again, she seemed to know my limits there. Emotional stuff, like with Trina, took me apart. Silly physical things though? Well, she’d already speared me through the heart and I didn’t feel any particular lasting trauma over that. A little bop on the nose? Maybe if she’d used one of her spears I’d have been mad, but we both knew she hadn’t intended to hurt me, just to provide some undeniable proof that I was wrong about the claims I was making. I wasn’t a native to the material realm, but it had seeped into me. I had become something other than I’d been by living the life I had. Something new, and this world was as much my home as anywhere was.

Trina looked like she got that too, though she could have just been shaking her head at what an idiot I was being.

“Uh, why can I see you all again?” I asked, catching what had changed right away.

“She disrupted the spell,” Yarrin said, a pained wince in his voice.

“No she didn’t,” I said. “Trina’s still here, I can see her just fine.”

“You…you can?” Yarrin asked.

“That’s not how it’s supposed to go,” Vena said.

“The spell is broken,” Hemaphora said. “At least, we think it is?”

“Kati, can you still hear me?” Trina said, and from their expressions I could tell everyone else heard that too.

“Uh, yeah, she hit me in the face, not the ears,” I said, as confused as the rest of them. The thing was though, we were confused about different things. I couldn’t tell why they thought the spell was broken when I could clearly still feel it wrapped around me.

“It’s her eyes,” Idrina said, stepping in close to look deep into them.

I blinked. My eyes felt fine. Enspelled still, but fine.

“Huh, yeah, that’s not what they looked like before,” Trina said. “Kati, did you eat the spell that was on you?”

“Did I what?”

“You didn’t want the spell to drop right?”

“Yeah. I don’t want you to go.” That seemed pretty simple to guess. Her point about me eating the spell left me picking at the idea though.

Which almost immediately showed me that she was right.

“Oh,” I said when I saw what I’d done. That probably wasn’t good?

“What happened?” Ilyan asked.

“She’s absorbed the spell entirely,” Yarrin said. “She can see both worlds at once now.”

“And is acting as an open conduit between them,” Idrina said, shifting into a more guarded stance.

“We’ll need to help her close the spell down,” Mellina said. “This place has too many ghosts for it to be safe to walk around like that.”

“Not yet!” I stepped back. Unnecessarily. They weren’t about to tackle me and rip the magic away or anything.

“Not yet,” Trina said. “But soon. It’s not safe for either of us to keep this channel open for too long.”

“Not safe why?” I asked, willing to kill and/or eat whatever I needed to in order to draw these fleeing moments out as long as possible.

“There are creatures on my side who look for openings into the material world, and I’d rather not encounter any of them. Certainly not in the numbers that would be drawn to a living rift between the worlds.”

I wanted to object that I could protect her, but Idrina had apparently slapped the stupid out of me for the moment. I had no idea what kind of trouble would find Trina if I held her here for too long. Conversely, now that I was able to study the spell that I’d absorbed more closely, I felt like I had a somewhat decent chance of replicating it on my own. And a really good chance if I had Vena and Hemaphora’s help.

“We should make this quick then,” I said. “I need to know who murdered you, and who’s behind turning people into Clockwork Souls.”

“We all do,” Mellina said. “Unless you still think we’re not a part of this.”

“I…” Okay, so Idrina hadn’t smacked all the stupid out of me. “I know why I need to do this.”

“Do you?” Trina asked.

“What do you mean?” I couldn’t begin to follow the point she was making.

“You’re thinking that everyone else in this room doesn’t need to be a part of this, because you’re the one who’s stirred up the hornet’s nest,” Trina said, stalking around to stand beside Idrina. “You think they can just run away and be safe somewhere. That the risks they take are so much greater than yours, and that they shouldn’t trust you since you’ve only just met. Does that about sum things up?”

It did. She really must have been watching me all these years to know me that well I decided. 

I nodded, not trusting my voice.

“Why can’t you run away with them then?” Trina asked. “You know how much power and influence the Great Houses have. Any of of the people here can tell you about the kind of magics they possess which could easily end even you. Why can’t you all do the sensible thing and focus on surviving?”

I hadn’t actually asked myself that question.

And from the looks on everyone’s faces, I really needed to.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 71

“There are plots and schemes and machinations around us all of the time. Many of them are dire and dreadful, but the truth is many of them are doomed to failure too. For all that people are terrible and filled with malice and greed, they are also, quite dependably, monumentally stupid.

It is possible to foil a dozen horrible plots before breakfast through with the following tried and true plan; do nothing and allow them to self-destruct, all on their own, under the weight of the plethora of staggeringly obvious things the perpetrators will have failed to account for.

Oh, certainly sometimes there are conspiracies which are well thought out. Amusingly at least half of those also self implode, generally due to the fact that if someone is selfish enough to work towards a wicked aim, they are more likely than not to be selfish and wicked enough to be uninterested in sharing the revenue from said conspiracy with any of their compatriots.

What of the remainder? The ones where neither incompetence, nor greed, can successfully undermine them alone? Well, the perpetrators of those plots are the what we like to refer to ‘the people in power’. Foiling their plots is somewhat more difficult, though also vastly more fulfilling.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, speaking to Duke Rudello Grayfall shortly before the latter’s arrest and conviction on charges of Sedition and High Treason.

When a dead girl says she has to tell you something so you can prevent other people from getting deaded too, it pays to listen to her. I didn’t have any practical experience to back that up, I was pretty certain it was a good rule to live by nonetheless.

So I shut up and let Trina talk.

“Something’s going to kill us?” Ilyan asked.

I didn’t jump out of my skin at that. I mean, I am capable of jumping out of my skin. I think. I’ve never tried it but the phrase always seemed like an interesting challenge.


I reacted calmly and rationally.

“Please don’t kill him,” Vena said.

“It would be such a terrible waste of blood,” Hemaphora said.

That was not an unreasonable request, so I sheathed my claws, turned my teeth back from fangs, and relaxed my muscles back down into their usual bulk and configuration.

“You didn’t know we were still here? Did you?” Mellina asked.

When I built my body, I was trying to mimic Trina’s, so including autonomic functions like blushing was both an attempt to better pass as her and an artistic challenge. From how my face heated up, I felt I was owed an award of some kind for the work I’d done.

“I can hear you, but I can’t see any of you,” I said, this time with actual calm in my voice.

“You haven’t left the room you were in,” Mellina said. “But your eyes do look a little odd?”

“That’s part of the spell,” Yarrin said. “It’s so she can see her sister.”

“Shouldn’t her ears look weird too then?” Ilyan asked.

It wasn’t the worst question but it also wasn’t the question I wanted an answer to.

“Can you all hear Trina?” I asked.

“She is your sister?” Idrina asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“We can hear her as clearly as you do then I believe,” she said.

“Good. So they’re going to die?” I asked, hoping to make space for Trina to answer again.

“I’m afraid it’s worse than that,” Trina said. She had a small, amused smile on her face, I think at the blush I was still wearing. Her smile faded as she continued speaking though. “You saw what happened to the two knights? That effect was powered by the two souls you rescued. Two souls which hadn’t been allowed to die. That’s what they wish to do to you.”

There were about a thousand questions that jumped to mind about that, but I kept them to myself, more than happy to listen to Trina’s voice over my own.

“They also powered the weapons and armor on the Cadets during the trials, didn’t they?” Mellina asked.

“Yes. That was a field test for the units to see how the magics performed in the hands of less skilled casters,” Trina said.

“How do you know this?” Idrina asked.

“I’ve been dead for ten years now, but I haven’t been gone for any of them,” Trina said.

“Because of Kati?” Yarrin asked.

“Partially. She made what could have been an excruciating situation much easier. It was how I died that allowed me to do what I’ve done for the last decade though.”

“You’ve been acting as a spy?” Mellina asked.

“A liaison,” Trina said. “As you’ve seen, there are people in the living world who tamper with the dead. Just so are there people who would see them punished for the crimes they commit. People both of the living world and beyond.”

“So you can do this kind of thing with them too?” Ilyan asked.

“Speak freely like this?” Trina laughed. “Not on my best day. Or theirs. Without my sister to act as a conduit, none of this would be possible. Since it is though, you all are our best chance to stop any more ghosts from being bound into the Clockwork Realm. Unfortunately, for your sakes, that also means you will be the absolute highest of priority targets to be eliminated, or even better, eliminated and bound into the Clockwork Realm to serve as puppets to cover up the failing parts of this scheme.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance that the people who are responsible for all this are somehow only aware of me?” I asked.

“Not from the whispers I’ve been hearing,” Trina said. “Don’t get me wrong, you’re their primary target, but these aren’t people who are big on showing restraint.”

A chill gripped me heart.

“Grammy! What about her? Is she in danger too?” I asked, rising to my feet.

“Grammy’s okay,” Trina said. “I checked on her just a few minutes ago.”

“Will they send people after her though?” I wanted to hop into a carriage and ride back home right away. Okay. No. I wanted to change into my fastest form and run there on my own. Trina held out a steading hand though and that’s all it took to root me in place.

“Grammy’s well protected,” she said. “Also, I think the Great Houses are still terrified of her.”

“What? Why?” I asked.

“You remember when my parents were killed?” Trina said. “Grammy went away for a little bit after that?”

“Yeah, I thought that was weird, but I was just a wolf pup at the time, so I couldn’t do much about it,” I said.

“I couldn’t either, and I thought the same thing,” Trina said. “I was able to find out what happened later though, well, after I died. Do you know where she went? House Dryleaf, and then on to the court of Baron Boath Lightstone.”

“Umm, isn’t House Dryleaf a dead house though?” Ilyan asked.

“It wasn’t before Grammy, Doxle, and a few other Imperial Advisor’s gave them a ‘visit’,” Trina said.

“As I recall Baron Boath was lost on an ocean voyage though?” Idrina said.

“Yes. No need to have a traditional open casket funeral when the deceased body has been claimed by the waves,” Trina said. “Or is not in a fit state for anyone with a pulse to look at. That was the report anyway. I didn’t get to see what was left of the body myself obviously.”

“Doxle did all that?” I asked.

“Grammy did all that. Doxle and the Imperial Advisors were there simply to sanction the affair and provide witness to the other Great Houses.”

“Your grandmother sounds awesome,” Ilyan said.

“She is,” Trina and I said at the same time.

I thought back to the years I’d spent with her, especially the ones where it had been just the two of us and the household staff. Had she given any sense of being the terrifying force of nature that Trina spoke of? Had she ever smelled like one?

No. No she hadn’t.

Was I sure she couldn’t hide her scent like Doxle could though?

No. No I was not.

In fact, as I picked through old memories, a lot of odd discrepancies started coming back to me. Grammy had always seemed restrained. Always. No one is ‘always’ anything. Not unless they are wearing a very specific kind of mask, one which they’ve chosen to embody fully and which has grown so comfortable than their core identity begins to blend with the illusion, even if they retain their more bestial self within for the moments when its needed.

Which is silly, of course. Who would do something like that?

A more disturbing thought occurred to me. After a decade of practice, I was reasonably good at noticing things like that about people. How good would I be when I reached Grammy’s age? And how likely was it that a little monster who’d been pretending to be wolf pup and had switched to pretending to be my grand daughter would be able to fool me?

The thought of running back home was not as urgent as it had been for some reason.

“If we’re going to fight back against this scheme of controlling people by binding them up as Clockwork Souls, we’ll need to know more about it,” Mellina said. “Who’s behind it, how they’re doing it, what weak points they might have.”

“Wait. Why are you fighting back against anything?” I asked. “I get…” I did not get it, so I tried a different approach. “This is dangerous. Truly dangerous. If I’d known…” If I’d known what I was doing, I would still have done all the same things. Or most of them.

“If you’d know we would be put in danger by your actions, you would have shielded us from harm? Spurned us and cast us away so that your enemies wouldn’t hurt us too?” Mellina asked.

“Exactly! None of you deserve to be in this boat. The last time a Great House was pissed off at my family, Trina’s parent’s died, and I don’t know if I can wipe out a Great House to avenge each of you. And I don’t want to have to avenge you at all!”

“That wasn’t the last time a Great House took someone from our family,” Trina said.

I turned to her, puzzled by who else they could have taken from us.

“You remember the Reaving Storm that I died in?” she said and a cold dread began to seep into my soul.

“No,” I said, not answering her question.

“It cracked the earth open and I tumbled in,” Trina said.

“No.” I said, not denying her account.

“It’s because I was killed within a Reaving Storm that my soul was able to linger on closer to the material world,” she said. “Three other realms where so nearby that when my spirit drifted free that I wound up too confused over which one was calling me, so I stayed close to this world.”

“Does that mean anyone who dies in the Reaving Storm becomes a ghost?” Ilyan asked.

“Not anyone,” Trina said. “Most Reaving Storms churn and swirl, the Transcendent Realms crashing about like sand in a shaking bowl. The spirits of people lost in natural storms may get jostled around a bit but the call of the Realm Beyond still reaches them. It’s when it’s just a few realms, and they’re held close to the material world that the call echoes too clearly from too many of them for a spirit to make out the path they should take. Those people wind up like me. If they’re lucky.”

“So what creates an unnatural storm?” I asked, hating that I already knew the answer. It wasn’t hard to figure out. 

The technique that I’d worked out for creating rifts and traveling between the realms, the one I’d used to get the zoo of Reaving Beasts home and to return home myself from the Clockwork Cosmos? At it’s heart it held the simple truth that what separated the material world from the other realms could be undone, and if that was true, then calling forth a storm was all too easy.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 70

“There are days when the most effective form of communication I can manage involves incoherent screams flung out to echo against an empty and unknowing sky. On other occasions, I find myself able to wax eloquent for hours upon end, dazzling my audience with the bot mots and timely anecdotes which spill effortlessly from my lips. 

It may come as some surprise therefor that it is more often the wordless screams to an uncaring cosmos which express my desires with the most depth and clarity.

The problem is not me, you see, it’s everyone else, as is so often true of life. Words land on people’s ears and are often twisted around or forgotten before they can leave an impression. Blood curdling cries of rage however reach out to a deeper part of the mind. People hear words, but they listen to to screams, because what they are truly paying attention to are the emotions around them.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame to Shaela Ironbriar moments before her speech as the first Head of House to ascend to rulership after the Great Calamity.

It started with blood. That wasn’t a surprise. Not with who I’d been sent to for help with the spell.

“We paint a circle,” Vena said.

“We scribe a limit and a focus,” Hemaphora said.

“To hold the power we share.” Vena.

“To make tangible the desire we bring.” Hemaphora.

“In blood it is written.” One of them.

“So that the life that is may call to the life that was.” The other.

“Blood of the lost.” I wasn’t sure anymore.

“Blood of the one who remains.” Both of them?

“We don’t have Trina’s blood though,” I said, worried the spell would fail before we even began to cast it. “We never got her body back.”

“Her blood is yours. And yours is hers. You are family.” The room around us had gone dark as the blackest night and the voices I was hearing weren’t really sounding like the two girls I’d come to for help anymore.

That really should have been scary.

It really should not have felt like I’d come home.

Around me, I could smell the scents of my housemates but they were so very distant. I knew they were in the room with me, and it wasn’t a large room, but from how dim their scents had grown I suspected I could shout at the top of my voice and they would have to strain to hear me.

Where they were distant though, a swirl of inhuman scents were close enough to caress me. They did not smell kind, and they did not smell merciful, and I rather liked that about them. There was no artifice in their scent, no concealment. They were what they were and, in their own way, they were beautiful.

I, on other hand, felt a lie sitting unvoiced in my chest like a block of stone. I was going to ruin everything. The spell would fail all because I clung to something that I knew wasn’t true no matter how much I desired and needed it to be.

I tried to push it out past my lips, but the lie had stuck within me for so long that I couldn’t dislodge it.

“What if my blood is wrong?” I asked. It wasn’t an admission, but it was the closest I could come to one.

“Your magic cannot alter that which is.”

I wasn’t sure how they knew that. I wasn’t sure it was even true.

“At least not this.” 

“It’s not my magic I’m worried about,” I said, which absolutely was true. I’d been able to shift my blood into close enough matches to each of my housemates to pass Vena and Hemaphora’s earlier ritual. I was pretty sure I could mimic anything else they needed, except for the small problem that I needed to be able to sense the blood I was trying to replicate and Trina’s had been swallowed up by the earth ten years ago.

If I’d been thinking about it at the time, rather than being blinded by howling grief and mad to prevent Grammy from suffering the same pain, I might have been able to form myself into a duplicate of Trina even down to the level of the inner workings of her cell. 

Well, I might have been able to if I had the skill with my magic then that I did after practicing it constantly for a decade. I had to be fair to younger-me though, she’d done the best she could with the skills she had and it had worked well enough to fool everyone.

Or at least I think it had fooled everyone? That was another thought I didn’t have time to process, so onto the pile of vague worries it went.

“Worry is natural.” I think that was Hemaphora who said that. Maybe.

“We fear that which we desire. We run from belief in that which we need, lest desire and need break us when they are unfulfilled.”

“From this too you can run.”

“You need not cast beyond the veil.”

“You need not speak to the one who remains.”

“You may hold tight to the safety of grief and remain lost.”

“You’re heart is your own.”

“We are merely here to guide one soul to another.”

I thought they’d gotten something backwards there. I wasn’t the one who’d been lost. And Trina hadn’t remained with me.


“It’s not my grief I’m afraid of holding onto,” I said. “That will stay to remind me of my love for my sister whether I choose it or not. It’s me. My blood. It’s not my sisters. It’s not Trina’s.”

I couldn’t say anymore. It would break me.

“I’m not her sister.” Better to break than to lose her again.

I guess I expected a gasp of surprise. 

Maybe whispers of disbelief?

Laughter though? 

That did not fit.

Not at all.

“Oh how delightful.”

“We thank you so very much!”

It wasn’t some kind of generalized mirth.

They were laughing at me.

Deep, belly laughs.

I scowled, a perfectly natural wave of anger rising up to blot out any shame which I might or might not have been feeling.

“Poor, sweet dear,” one of them said.

“How deep has your needless suffering been?”

“How long have you been lost in that mistake?”

I thought they were asking about how long I’ve been pretending to be Trina.

But of course they weren’t.

I was just an idiot.

“I think ever since I died,” Trina said.

The rest of the world fell away.

My housemates scent wasn’t merely distant, it was gone.

The darkness of the room had swallowed the whole world but that didn’t matter.

Even without the sun or the stars, there was still light before me and it was her.

“H-how?” I believe I mentioned I’m an idiot. We’d already done this and yet the brain I’d built was clearly defective and ready to run through the stages of disbelief all over.

“Very simply,” Vena said.

“Your blood has been calling to her since we began,” Hemaphora said.

“Also, your friend is very clever,” Vena said.

“This spell is a delight,” Hemaphora said.

“To speak to our family again will be wonderful.”

“We thank you.”

“B-but..” I didn’t know how to argue with that.

I didn’t know why I wanted to argue with it either.

“Have you really thought you weren’t my sister this whole time?” Trina asked, patting the non-existent ground in front of where she was sitting.

“No, I, well, I mean, I…” There’s a reason I often resort to silence as my answer in conversations. “I pretended to be you. And I’m not. I never could be.”

I sat down opposite Trina, hoping she wasn’t going to turn away from me in punishment for my transgressions.

“Yeah, I’m so sorry for that,” she said. “That wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t fair to you, and I should have been there.”

Literally none of those words made sense. Not one of them. 

Did the dead speak their own language? One where all the means were mirrored and backwards?

“I took your life though?” I said. “That was my idea. No one made me do it.”

That made her scowl at me.

Which meant I was going to punished.

Which was fine.

I deserved it.

I closed my eyes anyways though.

Which is why the feel of two hands gently holding the side of my face came as a stomach liquifying shock.

“You. Did. Not. Take. My. Life.” She said the words with clear and solid force. Not anger. Not at me at any rate. 

“You didn’t kill me,” she said again, softer this time. “It wasn’t my time, and my death did not need to happen, but you, of all people, YOU, are not to blame.”

“I was too slow,” I said. “I tried, but I was too slow. I was too far away. If I hadn’t been too far away I would have been fast enough. I could have…I was supposed to save you.”

“No. No, hush.” Her arms wrapped around me and I felt small as a puppy again. “We don’t always have the power to save the people we love. It hurts, because being separated like this sucks, but the pain isn’t because you didn’t do enough. It’s because we’re apart. You did everything you could, and so much more. You gave me a reason to go on after my parents were killed. You gave me joy so many time when I would have been swept away by sadness. And even after I passed? You’ve inspired me so many times. I am so proud that you called yourself my sister. That you took care of Grammy for me. That you became this amazing person who figured out how do this! A way for us to talk? I’ve looked for that for so long and you figured it out within, what, a half a day of being told it was possible.”

I opened my eyes to find myself looking at her shoulder as Trina continued to hug me.

“So please,” she continued. “Don’t say you’re not my sister.” And now she was crying. “And don’t ever, ever regret what you did for Grammy. I gave you my name. I’m the one who wanted to share it with you, don’t you remember? ‘Katrina’ was too big for me. I just wanted to be Trina and you, well, Kati sounded better than Ka I guess. But it was my idea. So, yes, you pretended to be me, but do you really think there’s anyone else I would have wanted to do that? Or that I wouldn’t have wanted you to be safe and cared for? You are Kati Riverbond. For as long as you want to be. And you’re my sister forever. No matter what you want. Understood!”

For just a moment, she was the Imperious Eight Year Old that she’d been on rare occasions, and I was glad beyond words for it.

“I’ve missed you,” I said. 

Yeah, I know, kinda obvious, but words aren’t really my thing.

“I’ve been with you, as much as I can,” she said.

“How?” I asked, pulling back a little so I could see her face. 

It wasn’t the face I was used to seeing her wear. It wasn’t even the one I’d imagined she’d grow into (also known as the one I’d shaped for myself). What it was though was undeniably hers. And I love it.

“You made it easy,” she said. “You always kept me close to your heart, and if there’s one thing that’s simple for an only-somewhat-departed soul to do, it’s look back on the parts of the living world where they still matter.”

I hiccupped at that.

She hadn’t left me. 

I’d already cried about that. It was stupid. But I cried about it again anyways.

Cried and cried until something she’d just said caught my attention.

“Wait, what do you mean ‘only-somewhat-departed’? What happened to you?” I asked.

“That’s why we had to talk,” she said. “I need to tell you why I died, so you can make sure it stops happening to other people, your friends in particular.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 69

“It’s not entirely inaccurate to say that life is little more than a string of connections between people. They define our position in society and act as guidelines and boundary ropes on who we can be and what we can do. 

We may dislike some of our connections. We may even do our very best to sever them, either by cutting distasteful people out of our life, or removing them from life in general, but even should we be successful, the connection which once existed remains.

A hated enemy may lie moldering in an unmarked grave, or a jealous ex-love may have been bundled off to held the war effort in some far away land from which they shall never return, but still their influence on our life will always remain. We are who we are because of how we hated them, or the compromises we made until we were too fed up to deal with their spitefulness any longer. Like scars, they remain carved into the persona we’ve created, and though their influence will fade with time, it never truly vanishes.

If you can accept that, then consider the same is true for the connections which we cherish. Though they may be lost to us, or so far away that all hope of seeing them again seems impossible, the connection we share with them will always be a part of us. If hate can carve a valley into our soul, then surely love leaves marks even deeper still.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame in an unsent letter to the Empress Eternal.

So I was a Mom. Eighteen years old, unwed, technically unemployed, and now I had a daughter to take care of.

Being a Mom hadn’t been a problem before I came to the Academy. It hadn’t really been a part of my agenda at all. But that was how my life was going.

To be fair of course, my daughter was pretty easy to care for. Narla was, in point of fact, older than me (not an especially common trait for daughters as far as I was aware), and was more capable of take care of herself than I was (not a terribly high bar to clear given the generally wretched job I’d done of take care of myself).

Also, her status as my daughter was possibly somewhat arguable at the moment. There was almost certainly a lot of paperwork we would have to file, and potentially the blessing of some higher authority to obtain. I felt no small measure of regret that someone might try to argue those points with Narla, mostly because I wouldn’t be around to watch what happened to them. I mean, I’d cheated her out of one brawl by ending it via an impromptu beheading, I couldn’t really begrudge her a chance to have her fun too, it just would have been nice to see it. (My housemates might possibly be a bad influence on me. Or I was on them. Or I could blame Doxle. Yeah. That seemed like a safe bet.) 

“You want to go back, don’t you?” Yarrin asked. We weren’t running to where Vena and Hemaphora were, but that was only because running people attract attention and ambushes and we’d had quite enough of both already.

“No. I’m good,” I said. “I just hope she’ll be okay.”

“You know she’s going to be okay,” Mellina said. “You’re just hoping she doesn’t have too much fun without us.”

“I’m still wearing about a half gallon of the last bit of fun we have, so I’m hoping she’s not going to have any fun at all,” I said.

“Wow, you really do sound like a Mom,” Ilyan said.

So I hit him.

Not hard.

I wasn’t try to break anything, I just couldn’t say ‘I’m not a Mom’ given that it hadn’t even been ten minutes since I’d official become one.

Yarrin held up a hand to stop any further conversation, which I assumed meant another ambush was ahead of us.

That turned out to be partially true. The ‘ambush’ in question was a class of the Common Cadets rushing from one late night class to another. Their scents were a thundercloud of anxiety and excitement, with a tinge around the edges of the hints of an exhaustion which shouldn’t have been present in their first few days of classwork.

They streamed past us, careful not to make eye contact or say anything which might attract our attention.

“Were they afraid of us?” I asked once the last one had vanished around a corner.

“They’re afraid of all the Elite Cadets,” Idrina said. She sounded bored by that, but her scent held a surprising amount of anger.

“We’re not held accountable for the same things they are,” Mellina said. “And they don’t get the same benefit of the doubt as an Elite.”

Given that Idrina had been put on trial and thrown into a death battle over an issue they really couldn’t prove she was responsible for, I wasn’t entirely clear on which doubts we were being given any benefits on, but it was all too easy to imagine how much worse the Academy might be treating people who lacked their own Imperial Advisor to speak for them and/or weren’t the Heads of one of the Great Houses.

That wasn’t something I could fix or even influence much. Yet. It did further my belief that burning the Academy to the ground would be a net positive, especially if that was followed by burning the Great Houses down too. For the moment however, I had something more important to work on.

“Are they still where they were?” I asked, trusting Yarrin to know that ‘they’ referred to Vena and Hemaphora.

“Same building,” he said. “They had moved around a bit though.”

“Good, that says they’re still awake.” I was going to ask them for a favor, waking them up to do so was probably not a winning strategy I felt.

“So are the ones who are with them, I think,” Yarrin said.

“These are the people who are hidden from your senses?” Idrina asked.

“I’m not sure they’re people, but, yes.” Yarrin didn’t seem overly bothered that we were approaching what might be a building full of monsters, so I decided to roll with it and not worry either.

It’s funny how deciding not to worry about something does absolutely nothing in terms of whether or not you actually worry about it. By the time we reached the house Yarrin was leading us to, my nerves were taut enough to play with a violin bow.

“Should we knock?” Ilyan asked as the door to what looked like a completely abandoned dormitory swung open all on its own.

“Apparently we already did,” Mellina said and stepped forward to lead us in.

I shuffled Yarrin behind me, along with the twins, and followed Mellina in. Yarrin was a great and powerful caster in his own right, but he was easily the worst fighter in our little group. I’d have preferred to have Narla as a guard at our backs but, even with their injuries, Idrina and Ilyan were likely to be enough.

Cobwebs and dust were the aesthetic the dorm was painted in. One of the stairways which rose up from the entrance hall was so choked with webs in fact that at least one human sized spider had to have been a resident at some point. I couldn’t smell anything to suggest that they were still lurking about but then a proper predator would set themselves up to prevent that.

Atop the other set of stairs, two shadows waited for us with the scant moonlit in the room reflecting off their eyes while leaving the rest of the faces shrouded in darkness.

“You’ve come to us…” Vena said.

“So soon?” Hemaphora said.

“Might you want…” Vena said.

“To speak with a ghost?” Hemaphora asked.

“You’re very well informed,” Mellina said, a note of appreciation in her voice.

“Perhaps we saw the future?” Vena said.

“Fate has brought us stranger tides than this,” Hemaphora said.

“Perhaps,” Mellina said. “But I’m going to guess your friend over there filled you in on at least a few of the details.”

I followed the line of her vision when she glanced away from them and saw that she was staring at nothing.

The nothing moved, revealing that it was very much a something.

At ten feet tall it was a great deal of something, as was the matte black halberd it carried.

“It’s not alone,” Yarrin whispered and I was pretty sure he didn’t mean there were only one or two others hidden around us.

The giant sketched a deep bow in Mellina’s direction, turned to Vena and Hemaphora as though asking permission from them, and then dropped through the floor.

It would have been a great prelude to an attack. There was a lot less we could have done to guard against an assault from underneath. That wasn’t its plan though. As far as I could tell, it was off duty or something because it left and didn’t show up again.

“If you know why we’re here, I’ll just ask, will you help with what we need?” I said. Given the look and feel of the dormitory, theatrics and grandstanding were probably supposed to be the order of the day, but I just wanted to talk to Trina.

“Of course,” Vena said.

“You’ve brought us such a wonderful gift after all!” Hemaphora said.

Before I could spend too long wondering what I had that they might want, I saw a mist of red droplets flowing away from me.

Blood of course.

What else would it be?

Not mine though, so, I tallied it in the win column.

Then I remembered whose blood it was.

“That belonged to kind of a jerk. I don’t know if that will mess up what you want to do with it?” I said.

“It’s the blood of justice done,” Vena said.

“It will do quite nicely for its intended purpose,” Hemaphora said. 

I considered asking what that purpose was, but ultimately that was a big pile of ‘not my business’, so I settled for nodding in understanding.

“You know what we’d like to do, and, I presume, where we were,” Yarrin said. “Do you already know the spell I researched?”

“No,” Vena said.

“And that is the other gift we will take,” Hemaphora said. 

“You’re not going to do anything bad with it, are you?” Ilyan asked.

“Not to you or yours,” Hemaphora said.

“Oh. Good.” And that was enough for him.

I was tempted to tease him about it, but it was definitely not the right time. Also he’d probably say something like ‘Well they looked nice so of course I trusted them.’

“Follow us,” Vena said.

“If you would be so kind,” Hemaphora added as they descended the stairs together and lead us to a door which in turn lead us down into the crypts.

I could have said ‘basement’ or ‘cellar’ but those would not have been the correct terms, not with all of the funerary vases which lined the walls (crypt may have been technically incorrect too but it conveyed the ‘there are dead people here’ idea better).

“Whatever the parameters of the spell, you will need to sit here if you wish to speak to the departed,” Vena said, gesturing to a simple red mat in the middle of a room whose most notable feature was the pile of coffins along both sides of the room.

“You will want to begin attuning to the one you wish to speak with,” Hemaphora said. “We will speak with Master Yarrin to learn the particulars of the spell to use, but a common element in all of them is that the medium must be able to forge the bridge to the departed and that is easiest done by someone who knew them well.”

And so I sat down, alone, in the middle of a room where everything smelled of ancient death and called Trina to mind, remembering with each breath the moments of life we’d shared together.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 68

“People love to argue about guilt and innocence, taking an emotionally charged action and winnowing it down to just a single facet, a single dividing line to slice it between those who deserve to be punished, and those who are allowed to inflict punishment. 

Typically the answer can be determined before evidence is presented. In some cases that’s fair, with the whole constellation of factors which led to an action being definitively wrong. Some people simply have no moral boundaries and act with greed and malice aforethought after all. 

In other cases, generally where an offense has been made against those who hold power, the powerful will ensure that the powerless will receive a verdict designed to ensure that they remain so. 

Where things become interesting is when someone with power offends another powerful faction. Do their reasons matter then? Is it possible to untangle who is deserving of punishment from those who should be allowed to deliver it when both parties are capable of thoroughly obscuring the truth? 

There answer there is a simple one; sometimes it’s not possible. The vital corollary to that however is that you must always try nonetheless.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame on presenting the corpse of Vorthos Greycloak to the Imperial High Council.

Some forms of combat are clean and bloodless. Ones which involve beheading, unsurprisingly, can not be counted among that number. The host of problems with that only occurred to me after I’d been covered in blood once again. That it wasn’t my blood was a welcome change but still felt like a mistake.

In fact, I knew I had made a mistake, and an apology was definitely in order.

“Please forgive me,” I said. “I did not mean to steal your kill like that.”

I was speaking to Idrina of course, since I had in fact been somewhat rude in overriding the attack she’d made on the miscreant who’d set her off.

“No forgiveness is required,” Idrina said. “He gave the first and fatal offense.”

“And the second and the third,” Ilyan said. He was smiling where his sister was not, which was probably not doing anything great for my mental health. A week ago, I’d never killed even one human being. Within the last two days my body count had been steadily rising and, disconcertingly, I couldn’t find it in myself to be upset over this one.

“Damn it!” Narla said. “They all ran off!”

I knew my housemates were not normal people. Normal people wouldn’t have joined someone like me in the first place. Narla’s look of disappointment at not getting to tear anyone’s head off herself though told me that I had probably been underestimating just how ‘not normal’ they were.

“We should leave before a real patrol shows up,” Yarrin said.

“That would be a mistake,” Idrina said. “We will need to answer for what was done here.”

“They’ll have less of a case against us if we’re not here when they find the body,” Mellina said.

“What is this ‘us’?” I asked. “There is no ‘us’ here. ‘Me’. They will try to bring a case against me. None of you had any choice in what just happened.”

“I must disagree,” Idrina said.

“You took the fall for me once already today,” I said. “It’s my turn now.”

“It doesn’t have to be either of your turns,” Mellina said.

“I’m afraid it kind of does,” Ilyan said. “The guys who ran off? They know how we are. At least Kati, Idrina and me.”

“Their testimony against the head of a House won’t be worth anything,” Mellina said. “They probably won’t even be allowed to testify.”

“I’m not worried about court proceedings,” I said, because I was slightly stupid in that regard. “House Ironbriar’s not going to overlook this, will they?” I looked to Idrina and Ilyan for the answer I already knew they would give me.

Except they didn’t.

“You were given offense. I was given offense. We acted within the bounds of honor. There should be no judgment passed against us,” Idrina said.

“Come on sis, you know there will be,” Ilyan said. “If they took what happened earlier as an excuse to kick Dad off the family council, you’ve got to see they’re not playing by the rules that they taught us.”

“We have only the word of a dead man that Father has been removed from his position,” Idrina said. “I would verify his claim directly before I assumed anything the dead fool uttered is true.”

“Is that something you can check?” Narla asked. “I mean, if it’s true, wouldn’t you be in danger if you marched in and asked your family directly?”

“We are not without allies of our own,” Idrina said. “Holman spoke for me, and he would speak you as well,” she nodded to Ilyan when she said that. “Though you have done nothing to besmirch our Houses honor.”

“I left them,” Ilyan said. “Trust me, they will not care whatever else I’ve done wrong. If our Aunts and Uncles can find a path to eliminate me, they will take it, whether it’s honorable or no.”

“If you return with me…” Idrina started to say but Ilyan gently cut her off.

“If I go back with you now, they’ll consider me a coward as well as a traitor. This isn’t the time for that, and…well, they aren’t the people I’d want to go back to.”

Idrina didn’t react to that. She didn’t flinch back, she didn’t frown, and she certainly didn’t cry. Only her scent carried the sharp sting of pain that followed Ilyan’s words.

Even without my olfactory abilities though, he sensed it too.

“They aren’t who I thought they were,” he said. “But you are. The only reason I’d go back there is for you, if you needed me, or just needed anyone in your corner.”

Idrina remained as impassive as ever to that but a melange of emotions too complex for me to unravel rolled off her in waves for a few moments.

“Neither of you need to return to your House,” I said. “In fact, I believe I should ask you to stay.”

“Why?” Mellina asked, her eyes narrows in suspicion.

“I’m not versed on all of the finer points of Imperial law, but when one of the Great Houses is considering declaring war on another, it is common to take hostages in preparation for the declaration and the negotiations which follow isn’t it?”

No one answered me for another long moment, but I could smell the surprise wafting off all of them.

That probably shouldn’t have made me smile.

A girl my age who was covered in blood and smiling is not, it turns out, the most comforting sight in the world.

“You…you’re going to declare war on House Ironbriar?” Mellina asked.

“House Riverbond plans to, yes,” I said.

The Empress had been onboard with my half baked idea to destroy the Great Houses. I wasn’t sure what sort of support I could expect if I tried to take down Ironbriar, but I was pretty certain anything she could do would be more than House Ironbriar would be counting on.

I expected a loud and sustained chorus of voices to follow my declaration telling me I’d lost my mind and that I couldn’t possibly do what I so obviously wanted to.

And of course I was mistaken again.

“Adopt me!” Narla said, her eyes so wide and hopeful I could have gone for a swim in them.

“There are official papers you’ll want to draw up to declare war,” Yarrin said, apparently as unconcerned as the rest with the still leaking corpse at my feet.

“You think this is a good idea?” I asked, unable to keep my astonishment from showing.

“It has merit,” Idrina…IDRINA of all people…said.

“You’re thinking that if you and your brother are held as hostages, House Ironbriar will have to negotiate in order to save face with the other Houses?” Mellina asked.

“That and Lady Riverbond has room to go on the offensive here,” Idrina said. “She can argue that not only did House Ironbriar offer insult to House Riverbond in the form of their Cadet’s actions, but that House Ironbriar has engaged in a pattern of such assaults and is waging an undeclared war against her House already.”

“What pattern?” Ilyan asked.

“Oh!” I said, catching Idrina’s line of thinking.

“Mine,” she said. “I’ve assaulted Lady Riverbond twice now, on one occasion causing grievous injury.”

“That doesn’t count,” I said. “That was a fair duel and you acted honorably within the confines of the battle.”

Yes, I was arguing that it was fine that she’d stabbed me in the heart and kicked me off a forty foot tall pillar to my death. No, that wasn’t terribly rational of me. Yes, I knew that. Most importantly though, shut up.

“You may still point to it in support of your claim,” Idrina said.

“I will not,” I said. “It would dishonor you.”

A particularly fragrant burst of frustration mixed with something else followed that.

“I do not need you to guard my honor,” Idrina said, frustration tinging into anger.

“Of course not,” I said, affronted at the very notion. “But neither can I in good conscience cast doubts or aspersions on it.”

Somehow when I was speaking to Idrina, it was very difficult not to fall into the same level of formality she used. I had Grammy to thank for giving me any ability to mimic that kind of speech, since otherwise I tended to talk like the house staff rather than the nobility which I was apparently claiming to be.

“One thing to consider though,” Yarrin said. “If we become embroiled in a legal proceeding between House Riverbond and House Ironbriar, we may not be able to speak with Vena and Hemaphora until we’re done, which will delay speaking to your sister.”

“Allow us to remain here then,” Idrina said. “Ilyan and I can stay and explain things to the   next patrol to show up. You don’t need to be here to present your case in person.”

“That’s a good idea with one significant problem,” Mellina said. “On the positive side, a patrol might be inclined to try to take us all in for arrest, and even though they lack to authority to arrest a Head of House, the lack may not prevent them.”

“Which means we’d need to kill a real patrol too.”

“Yes, but that’s not a significant problem,” Mellina said, which, again, not normal people my housemates. “No, the problem is with our hostages being the ones to enter House Riverbond’s grievances.”

“Ah, yeah, that would be hard to justify wouldn’t it?” Ilyan said.

“Not if we’re bond by honor,” Idrina said.

“Sorry sis, a hostage’s duty is to gain their freedom unless and until an agreement has been reached for their release,” Ilyan said. It sounded like he was quoting someone they both knew and from the look on Idrina’s face she remembered that lesson as well.

“That’s not a problem,” Narla said. “Oh, not you two. Ilyan’s right, we can’t have you two explain anything. Your House would just snatch you both back up, and then do whatever they wanted to you. We need an actual member of House Riverbond to do the talking.”

“I can stay here alone,” I said. “You all can go and find out what’s up with Vena and Hemaphora and I’ll join you once I’m tired of answering the Academy’s questions.”

“Nope,” Narla said. “Did you miss the part about you not being allowed to get arrested? The Academy can’t arrest a Head of House. So if they arrest you, that’s an argument that you’re not really the Head of House Riverbond.”

“Uh, I don’t think it actually works like that,” I said, feeling pretty certain at least Doxle would raise a few pointed objections on my behalf. “And, if I don’t stay, who’s going to? You said we need an actual member of House Riverbond to do the talking.”

“Yeah. Me,” Narla said.

“You’re a member of House Riverbond?” I asked.

“I will be once you adopt me,” she said with utter and complete seriousness.