Yam 11

2.04

The creature had four little legs, but its fur was so fluffy and so dense that when it stood on the rear pair, you could barely see its paws. 

It had a tail just long enough to poke out of its oval cloud of fluff and wag when he spoke to it. 

“You are an abomination,” Yam whispered softly. 

The little tail twitched. 

“You disgust me.”

The tail moved faster, causing the beast’s round little belly to quake. 

“You make me believe in genocide.”

The beast’s entire body wiggled, and its forelimbs pawed excitedly at the air. 

“You are a crime against nature. Seeing you makes me hope there is no life after death so I won’t have to endure the sight of you in the the next life.”

That proved too much and the little creature dove at him. But rather than move in a baby blue blur of hidden claws and dripping fangs it made a waddling dash that only terminated when it tripped over Yam’s crossed legs. With a barely audible chirp, it hauled itself upright using the fabric of his wrap until it could lick at the corner of his jaw and rub its head against his face while whimpering for attention. 

“This,” Yam rasped, eyes fixed blankly on the distance, “is my hell.”

The creature let out a concerned squeak and redoubled its efforts to get his attention.

“This is my hell and—” Yam’s voice hitched, “a-and there aren’t even demon beasts to torture me.”

~~~

He regained his composure. Eventually. In the meantime, he scooped up the distressed little creature and held it in his arms. He was disgusted to find that he ended up petting it and was even more disgusted when he couldn’t make himself stop. It was too soft.

He insulted it a few more times, but no matter what he said it never turned savage or tried to leave him. Finally, he set the abomination back on the floor of his cavern, the one under his dormitory, and tried to think rationally. 

There was no point lingering over all the terrifying, lethal, and magnificently cruel beasts he had left behind. His heart already hurt too much. 

Instead, he needed to marshal his wits and decide what to do next. Could he sell it? 

Maybe, but he would need to learn what it was first. 

Yam looked over to see it sniffing around the cavern. A fat oval of light blue fur, the occasional purple spot, and big round eyes. If it would not shame his mother, he would have given it away for free. Maybe even have paid someone to take it from him. 

He stood up and stalked away, disgusted at the very thought. The creature let out a distressed cry, one that was muted and airy. It sprinted at him, which in this instance meant it made a slow and waddling gallop, so it could throw itself at his shins. 

It felt like being hit with a goose-down pillow. 

Yam slowly counted his breaths and waited until the creature had calmed down. It didn’t seem to like being alone. 

He grit his teeth. Of course it didn’t.

If he was going to sell it (and by all the gods he had his pride and he was going to sell it) then he needed to do research so he could figure out a starting price. 

Going to a shop would be too risky. Anyone trading in exotic beasts was likely to have a relationship with the Tooth and Claw. Which meant the most logical place to look would be in a library. But Yam knew that, if he was in a position of influence, he would monitor what was searched for in the libraries as closely as possible.

On the surface his answer was clear. He needed to return to the Understacks. 

While exercising, Coach Combs had said that it was a place where backup copies, reference texts, and miscellaneous materials for the other libraries were stored. The only students who ever went to the Understacks were those heavily invested in research or history. Coach Combs, who was still doing his own research when he wasn’t teaching courses, personally loved the Understacks. He claimed that, if you knew the tricks, it was the best places in the entire school for literature reviews. 

As he thought, Yam sat down by his pack and took out a small tool. It looked like a simple hand mirror: polished metal covered in a disk of glass. It was no larger than the palm of his hand. With some mental effort, he could cause small illusory lights to take shape in the glass. With some practice, he would be able to make those lines float out of the tool and weave themselves into minor illusions. Primarily it would allow him to add texture or colors to pre-existing items, provided they were no larger than a loaf of bread. But as his control grew the cant would become one of the foundations for true illusion magic.

He absently willed lines and shapes to form in the training tool and tried to be reasonable. Yam did not want to return to the Understacks until he could show the bookkeeper his initiative and value as an employee.

A job there could be incredibly important for his plans. 

In large part because his parents were unlikely to send him any more money, and the only way to keep up with the demands of Istima was to convert gold into energy so he could keep practicing. Beyond that, Yam absolutely needed to learn magic from all of the courts if he was to become Aehp the Eclectic Beast Lord. Provided he earned access, the Understacks would either let him directly access the knowledge needed or, at the very least, show him which tombs and materials he needed to steal.

That was why he had sacrificed some of his cash reserves for this training tool. After going through the books loaned to him by the bookkeeper he had realized that the glowing lines of light the ghost used were the illusionary interface of some sort of bibliomatic magic. 

Yam had to pause for a moment. Just the phrase ‘bibliomatic magic’ was enough to make him salivate. Imagine the knowledge he could find…

But that wasn’t the issue at hand!

He did not want to return to the bookkeeper, or the understacks, without having mastered this tool. He would learn everything from the books he had been loaned and would show insight as well as initiative by recognizing the illusion magic then taking it on himself to learn it. 

Yam would only return when it was a guarantee that he would be hired.

So, what were his options? He didn’t think he had enough to pay for discrete information gathering. He also didn’t want to just walk up and down the main streets of the city screaming to the sky that he needed information on an exotic creature he had ’come across mysteriously’.

With a glare, he turned back to the source of all his troubles just in time to see the abomination tilt its head back and, with difficulty, swallow a rough-edged stone that looked too large to plausibly go down its throat. Despite that, the rock disappeared with a few bird-like motions. 

Yam’s mouth fell open. 

The creature’s brows furrowed. It came onto its hind feet and pressed both paws against the pale fur of its belly. It looked up at Yam. That tiny little stump of a tail twitched weakly as it began to whimper, paws still pressed to its stomach.

~~~

“Move or die!” He bellowed as he ran. Though, in reality, it ended up coming out as more of a wheeze. 

He crashed through the front doors of the Understacks and didn’t bother trying to talk to whoever was manning the desk. He dipped to the side where there were several chairs were set against the wall. Still sprinting he leaped, planted a foot on one of the chairs, and threw himself into the air. While he was in flight, he pulled his legs up above the level of the small wooden gate next to the entrance desk.

Yam fixed his eyes on a point across the room and twisted space savagely. There was a moment of blurring colors, and then his feet hit the floor at the opposite end of the room. 

He stumbled but kept running, slipping across the smooth floor as he took corners and navigated himself deeper into the Understacks.

The young Len came upon a door and used one hand to hammer at it, the other clutching the little creature to his chest desperately “Bookkeeper! Bookkeeper!”

A chill in the air was all the warning Yam got before the bookkeeper flickered into existence several long strides from him.

“What is—”

“Please!” Yam held the creature in front of him, both arms extended.” I don’t know what it is but I think it needs help!”

“Oh,” the ghost blinked, “my.” 

~~~ 

“And what is her name?”

“Abomination.”

The bookkeeper chuckled, drifting in an invisible breeze as they stood in a small and cluttered office. “She is quite fearsome, I’m sure.”

“No. Just hideous.”

If anything, that made the bookkeeper’s smile widen, “For someone who claims to hate this creature so much, you seemed quite distraught.”

Yam opened his mouth, paused, and frowned. It was an animal. And it might have been sick. Somethings just were.

Plus, he had fond memories of the caravan’s animals back from when he was younger and sickly. Before he had been old enough to take the mammalian path and get a body that was more hearty, he couldn’t always go out to play with the other children. But he had rarely been too ill to bring a handful of grass to the horses, to brush the hounds, or use a string and feather to play with one of the cats. 

But this wasn’t a cat that kept mice from their stores or a horse that carried them town to town.

“I don’t understand how something like that could ever survive in the real world,” Yam muttered, turning his head to glare at a stack of books, ”It doesn’t belong in Istima and it’s an affront to nature.”

“Ahh, yes, of course,” The bookkeeper nodded.“That makes total sense and doesn’t seem at all like a disproportionate reaction. Certainly not towards a creature you just went through extreme inconvenience for.”

There was nothing to say to that. So the young Len settled for a sullen silence. 

“Why didn’t you go to the Spring Court?” asked the bookkeeper.

Yam dropped his eyes and worried at the arms of his chair. “I panicked. And I had already been thinking of coming here to learn what it was.”

“You don’t know what it is?” The ghost lifted an eyebrow, causing a small distortion and translucence to move through his face. 

Yam shrugged, keeping his eyes down, “Its cage was on the ground in an alley.”

“So you picked up a completely unknown creature on the streets of Istima?”

The young Len’s mind went blank. Had he just showed his potential employer how impulsive and short-sighted he was?

His heartbeat suddenly went into overdrive. Before he could think of a response the bookkeepers started laughing. 

“What? Why are you laughing?”

The ghost sighed and grinned at him even as Yam’s eyes narrowed and his fists started to clench. 

“You are a kind young man,” the bookkeeper finally said. Which did not answer his question at all. Luckily, the old ghost kept talking before Yam could say anything inadvisable. ”You named it Abomination?”
He shrugged, still scowling.
“Did you name it before looking in its cage?”

“No. It‘s an unnaturally weak and repulsive creature. Also—” Yam paused, his voice dropping to more of a mumble, “I was hoping to find something else.”

“Oh?”

“A wizard should have a suitably fearsome familiar.”
“Ahhh,” the bookkeep managed to keep the corners of his mouth from turning upwards. ”I’m beginning to see the whole picture now. It is horrifically cute, isn’t it? Not exactly the sort of fel and fearsome familiar a young man daydreams about, right?” 

The young man in question scowled, glancing at the tiny sleeping creature. He forced himself to look away from its adorably boneless sprawl and focused on breathing slowly through his nose. Anything to keep his metaphorical and literal bile from rising.

“I’m glad you were willing to look past its appearance and help,” the bookkeeper said. ”But, tell me little one, how have you progressed through the books I loaned you?”

“I finished them some time ago.”

Rather than turning around, the ancient ghost simply flickered and was suddenly reclined on a nearby desk. He didn’t say anything but there was a question on his face. 

Yam took the small training device into his hand and willed illusory lines into being that were as close to what he had seen the ghost’s spell produce as he was capable of. “I am grateful for your generosity and still wish to work here,” he said, struggling to switch to a more formal and respectful address now that they were discussing business. ”But I thought that actions would speak louder than words.”

The bookkeeper lifted his there-again-gone-again eyes to Yam and stared like it was the first time he had ever really seen him. 

“You are a very strange young man, who reads very quickly.”

“Thank you, sir. You are an oddly kind older being who uses insulting descriptors as affectionate nicknames.”

Once again the bookkeeper laughed, and once again Yam was puzzled.

How could no one in Istima of all places, have been schooled in the rules of formal discourse? 

You demonstrated a virtue, like honesty, and then you didn’t laugh. It wasn’t that hard.

“Young sir,” said the bookkeeper, ”I think I like you. Let’s attend to the matter at hand and then we can move onto the question of employment.”

Some of his tension may have shown because the ghost winked, “Don’t be anxious. For some inexplicable reason, I suspect your odds of getting a position here will be good.” Then he turned to the little baby blue bundle sleeping in the chair next to Yam. 

“This creature,” said the bookkeeper, ”is called a Qupee and is from another continent. They have recently become a very fashionable luxury pet, though not one you see very often.”

“Why is that? I’m certain that some other people would find it quite cute.”

“Well, other people certainly do. I don’t know all of the reasons but, aside from the cost of shipping, I’ve read that locals from that region of the world kill these creatures on sight. The papers speculate that they are regional vermin associated with bad luck in the native folklore.” 

“Ahh,” Yam said, silently agreeing with the foreigners, and trying to think of a polite way of asking how much he should sell the beast off for, “and what makes them worth the high cost of  shipping?”

The bookkeeper flickered over to his desk and rested his hand on several books stacked there. “I imagine it’s because they are adorable, rare, and don’t grow much beyond what you see. Also, aside from serving as a status symbol, they are incredibly affectionate and bonded to their owners.”

“Can they bond with more than one person?” Yam asked, surprised to find that his hand had started petting the sleeping Abomination without him being aware of it. 

“Interesting question. They are quite stupid from what I understand. Remarkably so. They will trust anyone that gives them food. However, they will also unerringly return to their first and strongest bond. Or, more accurately, they will try and usually be hit by a carriage in the attempt.”

It took Yam several moments before the full implication of those words hit him, “Does that mean that she can’t go to a new owner?”

“Correct!” the bookkeeper beamed. ”They have very little resale value once they have fixated on a caregiver. Though they can be cared for by other members of the household for some stretch of time before attempting escape.”

With a wave of his transparent hands, the bookkeeper sent four small books floating over to Yam. 

“Look on the bright side young man, I’m sure she will make you quite popular. And,” he added, his eyes twinkling, “they can eat almost anything. Though I would be cautious if I were you. Despite their life not being endangered by most foods, or minerals in our case, it can still be uncomfortable for them to process. And, to put it plainly, the effect on their stomachs can be pungent.”

Yam looked down at the books. All were brightly colored with titles that had been made with such a fanciful, curling script that they were nearly illegible. Even so, he froze when his eyes found the third book. It was titled ‘How to love and raise your Qupee: A Flourishing of the Fluff’. The book was covered in bright pink leather.

And pink dyed fur. 

And a crust of garishly cut glass. 

To his side, Abomination the Qupee’s stomach let out an ominous rumbling. 

“Good luck,” The bookkeeper smiled, “They hate being left alone, so I’m certain that your classmates will come to love her. I know that I’m certainly impressed by a young man barely starting classes who is still willing to make such a selfless commitment. It speaks well of your character and reliability.”

“Yes,” Yam’s left eye began to twitch, as he looked at his potential new employer, “of course I am going to take accountability, sir. What else could I do?”

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Interlude: Miller #1, A Bird’s Bird


Here is the first of a series of interludes involving a new character named Miller. It’s a different tone compared to the other chapters. Leave a comment if you liked it, or what you think did or didn’t work. Or about anything to do with the story really. It’s incredibly helpful, especially at this early stage where we can read every comment.

This world is going to get pretty big, and we have plenty of places where we could make side stories and secondary characters. Let us know what catches your curiosity, either here or at our Patreon, and it might just get its own arc.

~~~

Atlan Jonson Miller walked into the headquarters of the Istima Eyrie and could barely breathe. 

A bird, a real-life bird, walked past him with a contract describing a target. Someone abusing magic who didn’t know their days had just been numbered. 

A bird, a real-life bird, nodded tersely to her partner before moving towards the door. Their faces were weather-beaten, grim-jawed, and they carried enough supplies to travel for a month as they hunted. 

And a bird, a real-life bird, even if they were only a sparrow apprenticed to a more senior bird, pushed themselves off a wall and gave him a lazy salute. 

“Morning, Miller.”

He stared. This was one of the hard-bitten, paramilitary men of the streets he had spent so long reading about. He just barely managed to nod his head. 

The boy sighed and mumbled something under his breath. 

“Can you get to the changing room by yourself today?”

“… I forgot where it is,” Miller whispered, flushing faintly and motioning around him. “It’s just so much. You know, being here…”

He was not quite dragged to the changing room and not exactly shoved onto the bench in front of his locker. The sparrow turned and was about to walk away, like he did every day, when Miller found the courage to speak. 

“Wait, can I get your autograph?”

The sparrow, a particularly promising apprentice who looked to have serious potential based on the rumors (and his ‘confidential’ test scores), turned to him and frowned.

“Like paperwork? I thought I signed over all the evidence the diviners needed.”

“No. I mean, like, an autograph.”

“…Why?”

“You’re a bird.”

“…I’m an apprentice.”

“But an apprentice to the Birds,” Miller breathed, eyes shining.

The sparrow was silent for a long time. Miller considered laughing and playing it off. Decided not to laugh. Then changed his mind back. But no. There were birds here. He had to play it casual. Super casual. Hard-bitten bird casual. 

Finally, the boy spoke, “Is this an order from a specialist?”

The word ‘no’ had hardly taken shape on his lips before the younger man spun on his heel and stalked away. Not even wasting his breath with a refusal. 

Atlan Miller leaned back and shook his head. God, that was like, just such a laconic bird thing to do.

~~~ 

After changing, he forced himself to focus on work. He would die before he dishonored the uniform. Though technically, because he was on a divine and detect patrol today, he wasn’t wearing a ‘uniform’ per se. More of a plainclothes disguise. Still, he was on duty. 

On duty as a bird.

When he was on the job, he felt two inches taller. In uniform (sorta), he was stronger, tougher. His clothes even seemed to fit differently and he felt like he was seconds away from staring morosely out a window with his stubble just barely visible from under the shadow of a wide-brimmed hat. Just like the art panels in the publications.

He got to his desk and tried to keep his eyes down. The office itself was fairly normal. A big open room with lots of desks, lots of papers, and metal barred windows reinforced by magic. The distracting part was all the legends of the force sat around him. 

Staylen ‘Thumper’ had the Eyrie record for the longest continuous successful hunt of a corrupt mage. The man was given a target, took wing, and could not be shaken from the hunt. 

There was also Mason and his partner Elaine. They were specialists from divination and research like him. But they were elite. Putting them in a library or at a crime scene was like putting a shark in water. A shark that could summon other, bigger, hungrier sharks. Sharks that were birds. 

There was also McBallow. He actually hadn’t done too much, but he had won every pitcher chugging contest for the last three years. 

And those were just the birds who stayed local to handle Istima contracts. Which was, by far, the minority of their organization. All sorts of nomadic legends and unsung heroes stopped by as they followed leads, chased jobs, or came to track down clues in Istima’s libraries.  

“Excuse me, sir?” said a young messenger in a tone of voice that implied that this wasn’t the first time he had asked. 

“Yes?” Miller said, eyeing the boy up and down and wondering what sort of deductions the birds from a publication would have made from the tell-tale scuffing on his shoes or the strange cut on under his eye. 

“… Sir?”

Miller shook himself out of his train of thought, “I’m sorry. Say again?”

The boy’s eyes darted around. Not surprising considering the company. 

But maybe, just maybe, if one also considered his posture, then something about his message could be deduced by those eye movements. Was there any ink on his hands? Ink on the hands was always a sure sign of something. He had read that in a story about Grimm Noir. Stories about him were only given half a page every other week, and Miller had to import the magazine from two towns over. But Grimm Noir was one of his favorites. He was a bird’s bird. Noir would have known exactly what this punk wanted and exactly who his father was having an affair with just from looking at him.

“… Sir?”

He shook his head one last time and was about to reply when Al interrupted. Al didn’t have a nickname yet, but Miller had started internally referring to him as ‘The Watcher.’ He was a brand crow, just out of his apprenticeship. And he was always getting watch duty because of his ‘excessive’ use of force when questioning ‘innocent’ suspects.     

“Don’t worry,” Al said, ”I’ll get him there.”

The boy looked conflicted about handing off his message to someone else.

Al sighed and gestured to Miller, “He’s from the Night Court.”

“Oh,” the boy’s eyes widened in sudden comprehension, “Oh! Say no more.”

The messenger retreated at a pace that was slightly less than dignified and slightly more than a walk.

“You hear what he said?”

“No,” Miller said, wondering what incredible things a bird like Al was deducing just by looking at him. Did he have any ink stains on his hands? Should he have ink stains on his hands? ”I was, uh, thinking of a case.”           

“Whatever. They need a diviner at the tannery. The one by the—”

“The meat pie store where Delguna found the person trying to experiment with plague magic?”

“No, the one by the building that burned—”

“Where Fleet and Farrow tracked down the pyromancer-for-hire and clubbed him in the back of the head?”

“That’s in another city. The one wi—”

“From three years ago where the entire bar was mind magicked but—”

“The one by Washer’s fountain!” Al roared. 

“Yes sir!” Miller called, jumping to his feet and saluting crisply before sprinting for the door. 

He thought he heard the bird mutter something about only being a crow, but he couldn’t hear it over the sound of his own grinding teeth. He wouldn’t let the Eyrie down.

~~~ 

The scene of the crime was neither insidious nor foul. Which was a bummer. 

He stood at the back of a very mundane tannery. There were no grim shadows, no dour silhouettes. Just a very well-maintained alley where the wood of the building had reached out and eaten someone. The only thing marking it as the scene of a crime were two hands and the edges of an Autumn Court robe poking out of the wall. 

As he stood, staring at the surroundings with his best melancholy gaze, other diviners searched the scene for evidence. 

No. Scratch that. They were birds. They scoured the scene for evidence. 

Based on the mumbling and hand gestures it was clear that most of the diviners scouring the scene had studied magic from the Autumn Court. A few others used artificed tools they had designed themselves and whose secrets they jealously guarded. He even spotted another practitioner of the Night Court style who was staring at a paper with an optical illusion drawn in precise lines. 

He let himself grin. 

Back when he first started, he had also needed to slowly work himself up to the different mindsets that let him cast his spells. And oftentimes the mindsets lingered in a way that was distinctly un-bird like. 

But, in uniform (sorta), he could do anything. 

Somewhere in the back of his mind he opened up a little door and let himself not just remember, but completely believe a realization he had had about the foundational nature of magic and love. One that had hit him after doing a seven-hour guided psychedelic exploration. 

Nothing around him physically changed, but it felt like the entire world had jolted and shuddered as he recalled what an illusion time was. The way all things were one, the way he was all things, and the way magic was also him-the-all-things. 

For just a second the world became meaningless colors and shapes. Nothing but a swirling mixture of all-one-made-of-the-all-things. 

But dammit, he was a bird! So he spit on the street, all hard-bitten like, clenched his jaw, and ignored the diviner berating him for spitting on a crime scene. Grimacing, he reinforced his understanding of the world with magic, and threw forth his will. 

The real world, like a suspect getting swooped by a squad of special secret sparrows, gave way to him. As his spell twisted reality, forcing it to comply with how he willed the world to work, he saw the magic on the wall take shape like a diagram made of colors, maths, and music.

Explaining it was difficult. It was difficult to even remember the real world while immersing himself so deeply in the psychedelic revelation that magic was just another part of him-the-all-the-things. But this was his trademark spell, and even after leaving Istima for the eyrie, he had never stopped perfecting its casting. Plus, he was a bird now. And a spell like this was nothing to a bird.

So he stared deep at the all-things-but-also-him-who-was-also-magic-and-also- everything. After giving it a good melancholy glare, he slammed shut the door in his mind.

“Dammit, Hitch!“ he snarled as he spun to face his partner. 

Hitch (he couldn’t pronounce his real name and it didn’t sound very bird-like anyways) blinked at him. He was short, unusually stout for his people, and the fastest Aketsi in Istima. Maybe the faster caster period. 

Miller made sure to hold his grimace, his hard-boiled grimace, until his partner responded. 

“What,” Hitch said at a glacial pace, “is the problem.”

“How can I solve a crime like this!”

“Is the magic,” his partner drawled, “obscured?”

“Damn you and damn the magic! He doesn’t even have ink on his fingers! I’m a diviner not a miracle worker!”

It took several seconds for his partner to nod his head before he replied, “But what about the magic?”

Miller huffed and waved his hand, “What about it? His life was eaten by Autumn Court magic. Real generic. Then a Night Court shoved him in a wall. Same disposal guy who did the bodies under the cobbler’s store on Rue. But how are we supposed to figure out the crime without a body to analyze! What if he had chalk markings on his robe? Or very distinctive mud in his boots?”

Over several long seconds, Hitch scratched his chin and nodded, “You can,” he finally said, “learn a lot from mud.”

“So much!”

He was just about to slam his fist into his palm (all tough like) when he was interrupted by Jercash. The whipcord-thin Raven led a small unit of elite trackers. It was hard to find out his story since he was here following a lead from another eyrie, but Miller was still starstruck. 

The man was of average height, had a perpetual frown, a beaten up wide-brimmed hat, and eyes that never stopped scanning for threats. Jercash, he was the real deal. 

Miller made a mental note to send a letter to the city where the raven was from and find out his story. The man all but radiated hard-bitten, hard-boiled, hard-ness. 

“Is there a problem with the scene?” Jercash asked.

Something happened. It was hard to say what. 

With his senses having just been thrown wide open and his head still a little foggy from switching out of his spell, he was briefly overwhelmed by the presence (magical and otherwise) of Jercash. 

For just a second the world broke into disjointed colors, and he felt insidiously connected to everything that ever was or would be. 

With a surge of will, the diviner pushed the lingering magic away from himself and went through some breathing exercises. When he finally felt more grounded, he looked up at Hitch.

“What did I miss?”

“Not,” his partner breathed, “much.”

“You explained it for me?”

“Yes.”

“Thanks, partner.”

Hitch waved his thanks away, arm drifting through the air with the slow-motion swoop of a falling feather. 

They stayed at the scene long enough to watch Jercash gather his unit and disappear into the streets. Hitch dutifully informed him of every single word that the foreign raven had said. Though he wasn’t able to describe his tone, body language, or level of grittiness to Miller’s preference. Still, with every word, he felt more and more himself. More individual and less part of an ever-flowing sky river of magic and love. Which was good. 

He had to report what he had sensed to the diviner in charge and apologize for spitting on another crime scene. After that, the other Night Court mage he had seen reached into the wall and pulled the body out.

There were no interesting chalk marks on his robe. No distinctive mud on his shoes and no ink on his hands that Miller could use to deduce the man’s life. Still, he tried to help out when Hitch nodded to the Night Court sparrow, a relatively new addition named Rawlins, and raised his eyebrows significantly.

“The world is a word on the lips of turtle,” said the sparrow, who was staring at her own elbow with mingled disgust and avarice.

Miller considered giving Hitch a gruff clap on the shoulder. Maybe a terse nod. Better yet, a laconic nod. But Miller wasn’t really sure what traits made a nod laconic. Was it in the chin? Did one grimace? If so, how much? In the end, he was forced to just nod regularly and stand next to the sparrow so that both of them faced the now normal wall. 

When he had been new he had also had trouble bouncing back from his spells. That was the cost of Night Court Magic. The ‘rules’ that governed their abilities were far looser than the other courts, and the spectrum of magics available to them was dizzying. But to make the world change to your will, you had to utterly believe in what you were trying to make happen. There couldn’t be a single doubt left in you.

But, the sort of things a Night Court mage had to believe in, to know was true all the way to their bones, were fundamentally at odds with the way day-to-day life worked. How solid were objects? How solid was time? And just how likely was it that a demon would pop out of the (maybe solid?) air in front of your face?

Especially when you were new, there was always some spillover when one engaged in bouts of selective insanity. 

The others would try to help, they’d look out for Rawlin’s until she found her way back, but there were some things that an artificer was just not equipped to handle. 

Miller took a deep breath, feeling all the little doorways he had drilled into his own mind, and loosened his grip on ‘real’ just a little.

 “What does the turtle rest its feet on?” he asked. 

“Turtles,” the girl whispered, eyes going wide, “turtles all the way down.”

“To the bottom floor of a lobby?”

“The basement floor of a lobby in the sky.”

“The body is the lobby of the soul.”

“And the soul is the sacrament of the silent soliloquy.”

“Exactly,” nodded Miller. ”Now ask the secretary of the basement of the sky, which is the lobby of the body, what they want you to do.”

 “Who is The Secretary?”

“Their name is Ms. Rawlins. What do they want you to do?”

“Please take a number,” Rawlins said dreamily, “and be patient while we process your request.”

“Hmmm, what number?”

“Seventy-two.”

“That’s a good number.”

“Better than thirty-two,” the sparrow said, a brief smile flashing across her face as both of the mages shared a laugh.  

He thought he heard one of the other birds at the scene mutter something about ‘Umbral freaks’, but that was fine. If the Night Court had taught him one thing, it was magic. If it had taught him two things, it was magic and a sommelier’s appreciation for psychedelic compounds. But it had also taught him that everything was a matter of perspective. And it was awfully hard-bitten and bird-like to have that kind of perspective if you hadn’t had the exposure to classic Night Court humor that he had.

Miller clapped the young sparrow on the back and moved towards his partner. The kid would be fine. 

The crow in charge of Rawlins gave him a laconic nod (though Miller still couldn’t figure out how he pulled it off. Maybe it was the shoulders?) and then it was time for patrol. 

~~~

The street was bustling with happy shoppers. Washer’s Fountain was full of people industriously going about their laundry, and he even heard children laughing. 

Suspicious. Very suspicious. 

As they walked at Hitch’s sedated and endlessly deliberate Aketsi pace, the diviner slowly cracked the door in his mind and let a wisp of magic reinforce his will. Even with all of his experience, it was still difficult to remember his individuality while he cast the spell. But no matter what, from the moment he had started as a sparrow, he had always been able to remember that he was a bird; even when he forgot who he was, and what a ‘he’ was. 

So they meandered around Istima, and he looked for dark magic and miscreant mages to manhandle. 

Most people in this part of town didn’t recognize them. Which was ideal. They kept their identification tucked away and trusted that few criminals would bother to learn the face of a diviner.

Miller’s mission, his ongoing case, his never-ending investigation, his grim and gritty gambit to garnish the gallows with gratuitous gaggles of groveling ne’er-do-wells, was to move through the streets looking for indicators of dark magic. Most other specialists on divine and detect patrols worked alone so that they could wander unseen through more parts of town and filter information back to the crows that made the actual contact with dark mages. Or to teams of crows working under a raven. 

But, shortly after being put on this contract, he had been lucky enough to be assigned a partner. Which was a relief. Miller absolutely idolized his old raven. He had known everything about him: his shoe size, his favorite food, his favorite diner, and who his favorite waitress was at his favorite diner down the street from his favorite gentleman’s club. 

Being without his unit had been tough on him.

In fact, Miller’s old raven had been so insistent that he become independent that he had refused to give him advice after his promotion. Never spoke to him once or bumped into him in the hallways in the months since he was reassigned. Even when Miller made newspaper collages to celebrate his old unit’s successes and left them at their raven’s ‘confidential’ home address, he had been completely ignored. 

Because, the meticulously unspoken message had said, a real bird of the streets could only learn from the streets. 

And Miller was going to become a real bird if it killed him. 

“Why,” Hitch suddenly asked, “did you pour ink on your hand?”

Miller all but jumped out of his boots.

“How did you know I poured the ink?”

Hitch’s face slowly shifted into a frown. His hand glided up from his side to point at Miller’s own, which was completely black from the ring finger to the outside edge of his hand. 

“There’s a lot. A lot of ink.”

Before he could respond someone cried out from inside a nearby alley. The duo peeked their heads around the corner and saw a young man in the distinctive oil-stained clothes of a Summer Court Artificer being assailed by several other members of the Estival Court. 

Immediately, a smaller girl on lookout duty yelled that they had company. Angry glares, snarls, and twitching hands turned towards them. 

He and Hitch pulled their identification from under their shirts and activated the enchantment that showed they were genuine bird’s badges and that the talisman belonged to them. 

Suddenly, the attackers’ faces went white, and Miller’s detection spell picked up on several items with a telltale glow of magic that were hurriedly shoved into pockets and packs.

“Help!” the boy inside the circle of attackers cried.        

Miller glanced at his partner. They shared a meaningful look before turning back to the ally and crossing their arms. 

Hands twitched but none of the enchanted items reappeared. So, after several moments, the gang went back to their mugging/robbery/intellectual property theft under Miller’s watchful gaze. Unfortunately, no one used or misused magic. Just mundane battery and hurtful language. And they were birds, not the police. So they kept their distance from the entirely mundane crime.

Within two minutes he and Hitch were back to ambling the streets and looking for illicit spells. 

“Maybe,” Miller said, picking back up on their previous conversation, ”I just smeared my hand while writing a report?”

“Smeared between your fingers?”

“… maybe.”

“And the back of your hand?”

“You don’t know how many reports I write.”

The diviner received a stony, dare he say it, laconic, look from his partner. 

“I could have knocked over an ink well!”

Hitch scratched at his face, “But did you?”

“No,” Miller sighed, “I didn’t.”

He shook his head, just about to say that he should have known better than trying to fool a bird when something caught his attention. 

His magic senses, both the mundane ones and his detection spell, both picked up on a surge of power. He snapped his head around just in time to see a bone-thin teenager jump down an alley in long gravity-defying leaps. 

“Thief!” someone called.

Pages of illustrated birds flashed through Miller’s head. Endless descriptions of foot chases, horse chases, carriage chases, and even a few aerial chases pushed themselves to the front of his mind. This was just like the stories in the newspaper serials, this, was his moment to be a real bird. 

He didn’t hesitate a single second to sprint after the scrawny boy, a trail of residual gravitic magic guiding him like ribbons floating through the air. 

He followed the magic through one alley after another. Around sharp turns, and under a pile of discarded timber that looked solid at first glance. Finally, after several minutes of running, he came upon his thief. 

The boy was clearly a teenager and a scrawny one at that. Probably an Istima drop-out who couldn’t maintain his scholarship. But the three men around him were adults. Large, muscular adults. 

“Stop what you’re doing!” Miller shouted. Though it may have come out as more of a pant than he wanted. Diviners weren’t used to running. 

One of the men frowned. With a twist of his hand, he unstoppered a wine bladder. A stream of water floated out and started circling his hand. “Or what?”

Miller wanted nothing more than to put his hands on his knees and pant. Instead, he forced himself to stand up straight. 

“Are you threatening me?”

The two other men crossed their arms, and spell circles came to life in front of them. 

“Maybe we are.”

A savage smirk came to Miller’s face. It was just like in the publications.

He flipped his identification out from under his shirt and activated its enchantment. 

“I don’t think you want to do that, pal.”

He could all but see the illustration in his head. This is what being a bird was supposed to be like. It made him feel two inches taller. Like there was actual magic flowing through his body. He could imagine the feel of his sleeves going tight around strong arms and could all but see the sharp line of a bird’s jaw cutting across the cover of a magazine. 

“Holy shit!” the elementalist cried, pointing at him “What’s happening to his—”

Miller shook his head and frowned, an inexplicable ringing having suddenly come to his ears, “No distractions! You’re coming with me.”

One of the Autumn Court mages had started retching and looked to be wiping something off his mouth. Though Miller didn’t recall seeing him bend over to vomit. Weird. 

“What the fuck are you doing to your face? Are you taller? That’s—”

Miller found himself standing a step closer than he remembered being. Also, maybe while he was blinking (or something?), the scrawny teenager had disappeared.

“Are we going to do this the easy way or the hard way?”

The elementalist snapped his finger, and the water that had fallen to the ground (when had that happened?) rose to circle his fists again. 

“Fuck you, you featherfucking freak! I’m not going to the cages!”

Maybe it was the acoustics of where he stood, but for just a second Miller heard something from behind him that none of the others reacted to. It wasn’t very loud, not much more than a slightly raised voice. Still, he recognized it. 

With a shark’s grin, he raised his fists into a pugilist’s stance. 

“You sure about that, pal!” he said, raising his voice until it echoed down the alley. “You really want to get rough with a bird?”

The vomiting Vernal mage spat one last time and resummoned his spell circle. One that, to Miller’s magically enhanced vision, was clearly designed for evil ends. 

“What are you going to do? Shapeshift into an elementalist? You can’t do shit.”

Miller blinked. Shapeshifting? He couldn’t shapeshift. And how did they know he was Night Court?

Before he could respond, the noise he had heard rounded the corner behind him. 

“Ahhhhhhhhhhh,” Hitch (sort of) yelled, as he halted the fastest sprint an Aketsi could manage without knocking their various extra knees together. 

Miller didn’t give his opponents time to speak. He just straightened up, put his hands into his pockets, and grinned. 

“Get ‘em, partner.”

“… again?” Hitch sighed, tugging his talisman out of his shirt. 

“Come on! That was as straight a line as you can get!”

Seeing the bird turn his head, the water elementalist raised their arm. But no one, absolutely no one in Istima, was faster on the draw than Hitch. 

At the speed of thought, the entire alley filled with a typhoon’s worth of lashing wind, cutting tendrils of air, and sand flying so fast it could scour your skin clear off. 

And, of course, the air filled with one other thing; Hitch. 

In a blur, his partner was launched like a statue in a hurricane. A cocoon of wind formed around him that was so thick it blurred his outline with its power. The compact Aketsi barreled through all three men in a set of strafing passes so fast Miller almost couldn’t follow it with his naked eyes.

It barely took three seconds.

Casual and all bird-like, Miller sauntered over to the downed men. Hitch’s feet were just coming to the ground, his face twisting into a glacial scowl.

“Fastest hand in all of Istima,” the diviner smirked.

“Miller,” Hitch growled, crossing his arms at the pace of seaweed drifting in the water.  

“What?”

One of the crow’s victims tried to say something and pull themselves off the ground. But the Aketsi shifted his foot just enough that it was resting on the man’s crotch. The suspect went real silent, real fast. 

“You,” Hitch said, the second set of legs folded under his robe shifting in agitation, “are a diviner.”

“I’m a bird.”

“Diviners,” his partner glared, “are supposed to observe and detect.”

The illustrations in his mind’s eyes faltered, and he suddenly felt like he was shrinking. No longer was Miller a heroic pursuer of evil; just a pretender trying to stand with a straight back, so he didn’t disgrace his (sort of) uniform.

“Specialists are birds too,” he muttered, swearing he could see the fabric of his clothes loosen and sag around suddenly narrow shoulders.

For some reason, as Miller felt himself deflating, Hitch averted his eyes and breathed carefully out of his mouth. 

“Plus,” he added, taking advantage of the silence, “our hawk is going to be pleased.”

“He, literally, never is.”

“Ha! Right about that,” Miller laughed, clapping his partner on the shoulder. 

Rather than reply, Hitch just shook his head and started cajoling the three mages up to their feet. With efficient motions, he hobbled their legs and looked for contraband. Though his hand never strayed too far from a small pouch of pacification potions.

“Streets toughs,” his partner grimaced. “You should have left them to the Vultures.”

“Vultures,” he scoffed. “What kind of bird would let someone misuse magic right in front of them?”

Hitch tightened a knot more aggressively than was strictly necessary and mumbled something under his breath about a diviner who did his actual job.

But Miller didn’t pay him any mind. Today he had done his uniform proud. And tomorrow he would wake up early to read the newest Grimm Noir story before getting paid to go to a real-life eyrie full of the most hard-bitten, street-tough, heroic people in the world. 

Just like in the publications.

Life was good.

Last Chapter                                                                                                     Next Chapter

Yam 10

~~~~~~~~~
This is another extra long chapter. Just a little bellow 6,000 words. And that’s because:

  1. We’re doing some cool stuff with Cal and Yam structurally.
  2. I’m bad at writing short things.
  3. The Wandering Inn and John C. McCrae do like 12k on a slow day. To their audience 6k isn’t ‘extra long’, it’s ‘cute’.

But let us know what you think about the chapter and the chapter length. Also how you feel seeing these characters through a different lens. Even small bits of feedback are very useful to us while we decide where to take the story going forward.

~~~~~~~~~

 2.03

After his misadventure at the Tooth and Claw, Yam thought it best to keep a low profile. So, for the next week, he acted like a model student. His only irregularity being how little time he spent in his room. 

For whatever reason, happenstance had not yet conspired to bring him face-to-face with his roommate. There was a lengthy sheaf of papers that they were to go over and sign once they had met. A brief glance showed that it was many, many pages of rules that detailed, with painful precision, the exact punishments if one’s partner were to engage in dark magics, and the exact rewards one would receive if they provided proof of their partner participating in dark magic. 

Yam did not plan on shackle himself to some random student. Not unless he absolutely had to. He was certain that the administration would eventually notice that they had never turned in the forms, but he could honestly say it was just because he hadn’t seen his roommate. 

Admittedly, hiding in an underground cavern only accessible through passages that were camouflaged behind magically horrific lavatories might be frowned upon. But no one had explicitly told him not to, so he didn’t think about it too much. 

It was just safer to not have a partner around. 

That was part of what made the Vernal Court unique. None of the other courts’ foundational courses trained you on how to overcome other beings’ magic resistance. Moreover, they made a study of poison, violent injury, mental magics, and how to alter entire ecosystems. Everything they did was a breath away from dark magic, 

Some of the things they were forbidden were self-evidently wrong; like trying to steal someone’s good health and place it in another, altering the Collective to subvert another’s will, manufacturing plagues, or precipitating natural disasters through weather working. On the other hand, some of the ‘black magic’ seemed like it shouldn’t be such a big deal. For instance, inflicting magical incontinence on someone was ‘too close to lethal dysentery’ and therefore ‘illegal’. 

Though he thought it would be both hilarious and useful, he restrained himself from looking into those taboo topics. Especially since there was still a market full of rules that he very much did plan on transgressing. Aehp the Eclectic Beast Lord was more than a superb Spring Court Mage. There was no way Yam could grow into the identity if he didn’t break a few rules. 

Which meant that Yam spent most of the week hiding in his cave. The bright side being that he was beginning to believe that no one else knew of the cavern. 

He studied the texts given to him by the Bookkeeper and constantly trained his magic.

It was a cycle. Go to Blood Alley when he was losing focus. Come back and sleep. Then practice control or perception exercises until his magic reserves were tapped. Move onto honing his harmonic regeneration or read until his eyes hurt. Then straight back to perception and control drills for his osteomancy modules. 

He even picked his second discretionary module. The magical first aid course he really wanted required several pre-requisite courses, so Yam began one of them. It was called Assessing Injuries and it was delightful. They identified wounds and learned how to assess the difficulty of treating them through magical or mundane means. 

Even though much of it was rote memorization, and the lectures had to be extraordinarily repetitive since students entered the module unpredictably, the few times they touched on abrasions, lacerations, punctures, and avulsions he immediately saw how the material could impact the single healing spell he knew. Even something as small as washing a wound with clean water before sealing the skin made the magic far easier to execute. 

It was a frustrating and exciting time. On one hand, he was so ignorant that it was easy to find something new and important to learn. However, it was difficult to prioritize what he should actually focus on. Everything was fascinating and potentially useful.

Which made his slow progress even more frustrating. He was endlessly struggling with the basics. Though he wanted nothing so much as to learn how to check food for poison and fix dehydration, he spent hours struggling with fine control by keeping chunks of ice from melting and seeing how many forks he could levitate at once.

Which was why, a week after he had escaped the Tooth and Claw, he found himself unusually dispirited. Though that was, largely, because he was sitting in the gymnasium with his elbows on his knees and a towel draped over his head. 

The clothes were still uncomfortable, and he hated that after each lesson he had to use his good brush to fix his fur while he was still sweaty. Could one shampoo a brush? Did you take it to a dry cleaner if it developed a smell?

He recognized the light, squeaking sound of Coach Comb’s shoes, but didn’t look up. 

“Yam my boy! You ready to hit the floor?”

The slender Len clenched his fists, but there were people watching. So he whipped the towel off his head and hopped to his feet, eyes lowered deferentially. 

“Yes sir! Let the torment begin!”

His instructor was not yet old, though his heavily tanned skin had gained wrinkles early, and his hair had just crossed the threshold where it could be fairly described as ‘whispy’. Despite that, he had the vibrant smile of a young man. 

Coach Combs threw back his head and laughed. “Good! That’s what I like to hear!” 

The two of them went to the side of the gymnasium where a variety of tools, machines, and devices waited. 

Yam always came to the late classes, there were fewer people to see his struggles. It also meant he could go straight to his cavern and fall asleep afterward. The less time he was conscious after his shame the better. 

Because of the hour, Coach Combs was also able to give him more time and attention. It shamed Yam that he needed it, but he didn’t have it in him to tell the Coach to stop. 

They started with him leaning forward and pressing himself away from the wall with his arms. He still couldn’t do standard push-ups. They interspersed the wall presses with other activities and through it all Coach Combs rambled to him. 

The older man would discuss what the purpose of the exercise was, which muscles he should feel strain in, the signs of good versus superb form, and he would cajole Yam to push a bit harder; to match or beat his previous best. 

Then, after checking in on the other students, he would come back and talk about how an ancient group of mages thought certain muscle groups enhanced certain types of magic. How they would walk with grossly large shoulders or calves. Necks wider than the circle of their hands, and other parts of their body bound immobile so they didn’t exercise the ‘muscles of dark magic.’ 

As the hourglass ran down, the older man would discuss theories of what caused muscle adaptation. He mentioned how different exercises had been invented and would spend entire modules talking about how brilliant researchers had found clever ways to test the relationship between the body’s health and magical reserves. 

Yam didn’t listen to all of it. There wasn’t always space in his head for anything but ensuring that the battle between his shame and his rage was won by a rage hot enough to push him through the next set. What he did hear helped. It helped him drown out the voice in his head that said all of this was worthless and that his body just wasn’t made to get stronger. 

He caught Coach Combs repeating his favorite stories more than once, but never corrected the kind man. 

During that week, the two of them spent most of the time figuring out what imitations of true exercise he could accomplish. But trying to do a pull-up while standing on a platform that actually pushed upwards with enough force to cancel out most of his weight, and STILL only getting his chin to the bar twice made it hard not to feel like a failure. 

He finished his module and put the towel over his head again. 

A large hand rested on his shoulder. “You did well today.” 

“Thank you, sir” his voice came out monotone.

After a pause, the hand clapped him on the back once and withdrew. “You know, there is a way to make this into an advantage.”

“Sir?” He said more out of politeness towards an elder rather than genuine curiosity. 

“Yes. Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘practice makes perfect’?”

He nodded. 

“Well, when I was first starting my own research, I found someone who looked into it. And they discovered that it’s a lie.”

Yam frowned. He had heard master craftspeople, women and men who were wise and virtuous, insist that practice made perfect. 

When he raised his gaze, Coach Combs caught his eye and grinned. The man obviously knew how inflammatory what he had said was. And he was so obviously pleased that it had worked. 

“Practice makes permanent,” the older man grinned. “So, tell me, what do you think perfect practice makes?”

Yam didn’t actually have a chance to answer before the Coach stepped away. “Just like with magic, enough power lets you get away with doing things sloppily. And just like with magic, those bad habits become permanent and stunt your potential.”

“… thank you, sir.”

Coach Combs waved him off and started walking towards a cluster of students who were talking at a station rather than doing their exercises. 

“It’s my job. Remember to stretch, eat plenty of meat, and get a nice long sleep. Otherwise, you’ll waste all the hard work you’re doing.”

~~~

 Yam left the gym disgruntled, feeling like everyone was staring at him, and wishing he had something to smash.

Which was all to say that he was in a better mood than usual. 

If he didn’t have something else on his schedule, he would have gone immediately to sleep. But, there was always more work to be done. So, he limbered up his bargaining face and made his way to The Wandering Len.

He made sure to greet his favorite hairy knuckled, fungus bloom of a barkeep and quickly found the reason he wasn’t ensconced in his cavern embracing blissful unconsciousness. 

Thomnas was just as thin, and his hat was just as ostentatious as he remembered. Maybe more so. Had he gotten a promotion? 

The Autumn Court student really was an excellent contact to have. He seemed competent, likely to succeed, and he was just horrible at holding his tongue once he had a few drinks in him. 

Nice person as well. 

Though Yam’s impression might have been impacted by the drinks. The young Len had intended to stay sober, but he had had a long day, and he was still new to alcohol.

“I can’t believe you picked the Spring Court,” Thomnas slurred. “I thought we had you for sure.”

“What’s wrong with the Spring Court?”

“Yam, what other court makes standard-issue uniforms meant to handle bloodstains? Not just requisition a few for medical students, but in the rules for every student. That’s creepy.”

“Nothing wrong with sturdy clothes.”

“I heard,” Thomnas leaned forwards, his impressive hat lurching to the side, ”that they’re always cutting themselves to practice fixing it. That they don’t understand pain afterward. That it twists their minds and surgery stops bothering them.”

Huh. That did seem far more controlled and predictable than Blood Alley. 

“I see why others would find that disquieting,” Yam said out loud, though most of his attention was focused on how to change his spell so it came from the self AND targeted the self. Which seemed a lot like using river water to dilute river water.

“It’s horrifying!” Thomnas cried. For some reason, he decided to raise his mug. Maybe he was used to doing that when yelling? 

Either way, Yam raised his own. 

“Horrifying!” he called, rapping their mugs together and taking a deep drink. 

“But why,” his friend whined, wiping his chin, “did you have to act like you wanted to join the Autumn Court?” 

“The Autumn Court has amazing things to offer.”

“The woman you bargained with was so angry that she misfiled a form. Twice. It was the talk of the building.”

“Well, she was not very good at—”

“Why did you make me think you wanted to learn from the Autumn Court?”

Yam sat and pondered for a moment; the drink made it a bit more difficult than usual. What was a truthful way of saying he still wanted to learn from the Autumn Court without saying he planned on stealing their secrets, ransacking their libraries, and laying waste to any man, woman, god, or institution that would bar his path?

“Familiars,” he said slowly, “are awesome.”

Thomnas stared at him. 

“It’s just part of the process,” the young Len shrugged. “If you’re being thorough, you gather counteroffers when bargaining.”

“Process?” Thomnas asked, cocking his head. “Like protocol?”

“Yes.”

“And you spent several hours in that poor woman’s office because…?”

“It was the minimum I could do.”

“According to protocol?”

“Yes. Three days would have been better. But,” Yam shrugged, “the timeline didn’t allow for a textbook negotiation.”

Thomnas scratched at his chin. “Huh. Well, fair enough then. Nothing you can do about protocol.”

The young autumn mage thought for a few more moments and nodded decisively before raising his mug into the air. “Protocol!” 

“Protocol!” Yam and several other Autumn Court mages cried back from around the tavern. 

After a long draft, Thomnas continued, “So, familiars, eh?”

“Yes. I need one as soon as possible.”

“They are extremely convenient. And I understand why you wanted to learn from us. None of the other familiar magics are as good.”

“How so?”, he said, putting his bargaining face back in place.

Heh, bargaining face back in place. It rhymed. 

“Well, let me tell you! Summer Court doesn’t have any actual familiars. They just make machines. Doesn’t look like a wizard’s companion should at all. And can you imagine the logistics of broken parts while traveling?” Thomnas shivered, “Mail routes, messenger pigeons, currency conversion; what a nightmare.”

“What about Winter?”

“I’m not sure if elementals just like to follow the powerful ones or if they actually have something like a real familiar bond. And don’t even get me started on the Night Court!”

“Oh?”

“I don’t know what they do or how they do it, but I don’t trust it! I have never heard of a single one of them requesting exotic pet forms from the school.”

“The scandal,” Yam said, voice flat. 

“I know! And their familiars don’t always keep the same body plan or level of sentience. How do you track that? Which of the forms do you use? What do you put down on apartment applications? 

“Is the Spring Court any more civilized?”

Thomnas snorted and waved his hand before taking another gulp and calling for a refill. “They have animal companions, not familiars. It doesn’t count.”

“Why is that?”

“They make mental-waiting-rooms and let animals opt-in for practice. That’s just a pet you talk with. Any real bonding-bond they made would be black magic.” 

“So, the Autumn Court has better ‘bonding-bonds.’ ”

If Thomnas noticed the joke, he didn’t show it. “Yes! Proper soul to soul connection; well defined, ordered, and honestly negotiated. Sympathetic magic is the only real way.”

“What sort of familiar do you want?”

Thomnas slouched and pushed his hat back into place, a dreamy look coming to his eyes, “Something that looks wizardly. Something that can fetch me ink wells or melt sealing wax onto my forms.”

Yam nodded. “Breathing fire would be superb.”

“Maybe some fairy-like thing that could magic away stains.”

“I’ve heard folk tales of fae that can slip into your foe’s nightmares.“

“Or!” Thomnas spoke over him, ”A phoenix. I bet  a quill made from their feathers would never run out of ink!”

“Just imagine the burning talons,” Yam whispered.

The two lapsed into a companionable silence as each courted radically different daydreams.

“Yam,” Thomas finally said, ”what do you want in your familiar?”

“I want everything. Maybe a swarm of familiars.” 

“Yeah, but what about your first?”

The young Len closed his eyes and let magnificent scenes of devastation and ruin drift through his mind. 

“I want something mighty and fearsome, but loving. Something with fur I can brush. Large enough for me to sleep against by the campfire. Enough strength to crush boulders. Tentacles that could creep unseen from the sewer grates so my foes fear to walk the streets. Venom that could melt stone, and a visage so horrifying that it will eat at the sanity of my competition before ever even setting its teeth to their innards.”

Yam blinked his eyes and saw that Thomnas, and the customers sitting on either side of their table, had turned to stare at him. 

His friend pushed his hat back in place and belched. 

“Horrifying!” Thomnas shouted, lifting his mug into the air. 

“Horrifying!” The tables around them chorused, lifting their own drinks. 

~~~

Yam had stopped drinking shortly thereafter. As the (relatively) sober one, he made sure Thomnas got back to his lodgings. Along the way, he saw several other members of the most august Autumnal Court in similar states of inebriation. Some had removed the belts from their robes and tied them around their foreheads, others had a distinct green tint to their faces and held their hats queasily in front of themselves. Others scrawled graffiti across the walls in gorgeous cursive script, their grammar perfect even when writing lewd poems about the professors. He didn’t stop to check, but he thought that one of the drunken vandals had taken the time to compose his graffiti in iambic pentameter.  

“Yam. YAM!” His friend slurred. 

“Yes, Thomnas?”

“You know you’re like a brother to me right?”

“I heard you the last time.”

“Good. Then Yam…”

“Yes, Thomnas?”

“You gotta do it. If I recommended you, you gotta do it. Even if you’re not in the Autumn Court.”

“What do I gotta do, friend?”

“You gotta win.”

“Win what?”

“I can’t remember.”

“I can’t either.”

“That’s why we’re brothers.”

~~~

And that, somehow, was how he ended up back at the Tooth and Claw. 

Yam had decided that he needed to study. Immediately. Urgently and. Right. That. Moment. 

So he had made his way to the Day Court and his familiar foe, the uncanny bench.  He thought the bright light and inexplicable discomfort of the bench would help him sober up. 

All it did was make his sleep fitful enough that he was startled awake when a ring of students accidentally exploded a sack of wine they had been practicing on. 

Mostly sober, but hazy around the edges, Yam had leaped from the bench and found himself deciding that he had to do what Thomnas had said and win himself a familiar. 

Ticket in one hand, and slip of paper from his bet the previous week in the other, he made his way back to the Tooth and Claw to see how much he had won. 

Turned out it was just enough to get a very greasy breakfast. If he was smart he would have left with this gambling money, and done just that. Instead, he stayed to watch the beasts. Trying to keep himself hidden in the standing masses at the bottom tiers of the Tooth and Claw. 

He stayed there for a while. Enough time that weariness managed to steal away his clarity at the exact same pace that the alcohol surrendered it back to him. 

His eyes constantly tracked the guards, his mouth started to taste horrible, and the sounds of the crowd seemed to physically stab into his brain. 

Even when he was able to see around the much taller adults who crowded the ring, he was disgusted to see what was happening to the majestic creatures that fought. If he had any of them as his familiar he would lavish them with attention, and fresh cuts of meat, and hugs, and warm blankets, he thought.

The final straw came when he saw a particularly bowel-loosening monster enter the ring. It was large, with clumped fur that Yam’s experienced eyes and mage’s instincts said was not moving in the way mundane fur should. It squared off with a large insect creature. Horrid thing, fearsome and powerful but there was no warmth, no love in its eyes. Yam could not imagine stroking its shell by a campfire or being greeted happily by it when he returned home.  

It ended up being a non-issue when the first monster used a magnificent array of teeth hidden under the tentacles cascading from its face to tear into its bug foe. Yam felt bad, and shockingly bad too. His first thought was relief that the bug had been the one killed. True, insects seemed like more of a  utilitarian familiar than a true companion, but you shouldn’t judge a business by its booth. Especially not someone like him.

Then, when he saw how roughly they forced the hungry be-furred monster away from the body, a feeling started at the base of his feet and slowly filled the rest of him. A tingling wash that was not quite indignant, not exactly mournful, and was neither righteous nor shameful. He just knew that something was wrong.

Animals shouldn’t be treated like that.

Yam checked for any nearby guards and saw none. He began to move, wishing he could summon the familiar burning red anger or blinding orange waves of greed to cover the fear in his stomach. 

The young Len walked to the door he remembered using to enter the back rooms. The guards were glancing at an overseer, a thug with slightly nicer clothes and a well-lacquered club he had obviously not had to use recently. 

In his time watching for any guards who might recall his face, he had noticed this same pattern. Soon the overseer would give a signal and a large group of fresh guards would leave the bar and be replaced by those who had been working inside the labyrinth. Just like his first visit, there should be a brief window with no security watching the entrance.

~~~

“Didn’t expect to see you here,” a voice said from where there should be no voices. 

Yam spun around, “I can expla—” he stopped. That was not a guard. It was a human girl. A human girl who had somehow sneaked into the off-limits area of the fighting ring. 

He squinted at her and recognized a particularly strange human he had healed in Blood Alley. “Wait, it’s you! The one with the hands!”

The girl raised an eyebrow and smirked at him. “Guilty.” She glanced at her palms, making a joke of his words, but her eyes immediately snapped back to him with a hungry sort of wariness.

The girl was young, possibly of age with him. It was hard to tell with humans. They didn’t have much fur to check for grey and no scales that would show wearing. Just naked, constantly wrinkling skin. 

He remembered little of her and likely would not have even if had been completely sober. He did recall that she had made an effort to speak like a Len, which was more respect than most humans showed. But in the end, she had ruined the budding amicability by challenging his honor and forcing him to answer a question they had been making a friendly game around. 

Now, he looked closer. She was relatively small for a human and her hair was clean. But, rather than the slender limbs of a noble that lifted nothing heavier than a letter, she looked stringy. Her muscles were small but twitchy, and ready to propel her in any direction at any time. 

“What’re you doing here?” he said. ”Do you work at the arena?”

Even as he spoke, he summoned his magic and stretched the space between them so she would not be able to touch him. 

He did not like her. He did not like her superior humor, he did not like the sharpness in her eyes, and he did not like where she had chosen to approach him. 

And surely enough, he was proven right. In terse words, she demanded his ticket from him. Well, good luck to her. Though he was not particularly skilled in perceptive magics, he did not sense any awe-inspiring powers from her. And if she wanted to take his ticket by force, he would make inches into miles and see how long she was willing to run to get it. 

But, before they were able to exchange more than a few words, the girl’s head snapped to the side. Her entire body coiled in a way that Yam had only seen animals do. He followed her eyes and, seconds later, a sound reached him. 

“Who’s there?” said an approaching voice. “I know someone’s in here!”

In a flash, they darted behind some nearby equipment. Yam quickly reestablished a buffer of stretched space between them and tried to think. It was hard. Luck had gotten him out of these rooms the last time he had been here, and his thoughts were still slow from alcohol and weariness. 

Also, the human was talking to him while he was trying to think. So he let his mouth move of its own accord while he desperately tried to figure out how to solve this puzzle. 

“Alright,” she said, ”I’ve got an idea. The security in this place isn’t great. And operations like this can’t have dead ends, in case the owners need to get out in a hurry. We have a chance of getting out of here if you follow my lead.”

Yam paused. He should think like a Ken Seeker and disassemble the logic of this scenario. Fight fear with reason and use his brain. But his mind was cloudy and something in his bones trusted the feral competence of this girl. 

He let his magic go so he was able to lean close and hear her whispered plan, “Okay, what do I do?”

“This.”

She shoved him with both hands, and he careened right in front of a whipcord-thin man with cruel eyes. “Hey!” the guard shouted. “Who the hell are you? How’d you get down here?”

“I… uh, er, that is—”

“Shut up!” the man said, drawing a knife. “Now, you’re coming with—”

And just like that, the girl materialized out of the darkness behind the guard. She glided across the floor in perfect silence, her gaze constantly darting around the room, barely ever resting on the man but still somehow breathing in time with him so he wouldn’t hear any indicator of her approach. 

At least not until she sent a tremendous kick into the back of his knees.

She shoved the man, savagely twisting with the entirety of her body so that her small frame was able to topple the guard into a cage. His torch hit the ground and went out. 

The latch clicked shut and she was dragging Yam through the darkness in a moment. 

Fate help him, he was never coming back here. This place was awful and the fear was squeezing his heart, lungs, and bladder horribly. 

But, even as cold fear dripped down the inside of his ribs, some deep set of values took issue with what they had just done and demanded that he speak up.

“Wait!”  he turned back towards the injured and imprisoned guard, “I came here for a creature!” he said, giving voice to that most pure and righteous avarice that lived inside his heart. 

“No time!”  she said, pulling him through dim and barely visible hallways, twisting them around, and moving down corridors for no reason that he was able to discern.

“I need a familiar,” he muttered, more to himself than anyone else. 

After several flights of stairs, Yam’s legs, still tired from Coach Comb’s gentle sadism, were starting to weaken. His breath had become wheezing and he desperately wished he could bend space without giving himself away. 

Suddenly the girl stopped her endless silent jog and all but shoved him into a room full of small cages, telling him to grab an animal and stop whining. 

Even though he hadn’t been talking? 

Humans made no sense.

“But they’re so small!” The words slipped from his lips, not bothering to get permission from his brain. 

“Yeah… but they’re harder for anyone to reach, so maybe they’re more dangerous? Or more valuable?”

The young Len cocked his head. That actually made sense. Also, if these were infants then he might be able to raise one. Their bond would be far stronger like that.

“Come on, come on!” the girl growled. “Make up your mind.”

“Okay!” He made a quick circuit, feeling rushed and disjointed. No cage’s base was larger than a checkered game board, and some were covered in cloth, presumably to calm the creatures inside. He paused between two cages and lifted their covers. One of them held a puppy-sized creature whose fur wove itself into armored plates when it saw Yam. The other cage held what appeared to be a winged weasel made of interwoven vines. It looked at him and its entire torso opened up to reveal pink flesh lined with rows of needle-like teeth.

“It’s so hard to choose,” he whispered. ”Fate help me, it has so many fangs.”

“That’s the one!” The girl said, suddenly grabbing him by the belt and hauling him away. 

She tugged him towards the door and his hand closed on empty air instead of the cage’s handle. 

Without thinking he thrashed his whole being. It gained him just enough freedom to turn and lunge towards the cloth-covered cages. Then, with no apparent effort, she hauled him back with her single arm. 

And this time he allowed her to. 

Because this time, there was a cage clutched to his chest with the same paternal love his siblings had used on their most treasured dolls. 

In a blur, she guided them through tunnels and, somehow, onto the upper viewing levels. He moved, almost incapable of thinking between the heaviness of his aching body, the fear still clawing at his stomach, and the unfettered euphoria he felt from cradling the cage against himself. 

They exited the Tooth and Claw quickly. And, finally, came to a stop in the streets outside the venue. Yam doubled over, his legs aching and his lungs feeling uncomfortably tight. 

“There,” the thief girl said, not looking the faintest bit tired or winded, “that was easy.”

He wanted to collapse. But he refused. Instead, Yam pulled himself upright, careful not to jostle his new familar, and stretched the space between himself and the girl. 

“What was your name again?“ she asked. ”Tum? Past?”

“I am Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers.” 

“Great. I’ll try and remember that.”

“I am in your debt,” he said, intending only to signal his honesty prior to a negotiation, as was custom. But, to his surprise, he meant it. Something in his burlap-covered cage moved and he felt a warmth that reminded him of when his mother had introduced him to a new sister right after the midwife had left. He really did owe this arrogant girl. 

”If you want the ticket,” he said, not giving himself the time to think, “it’s yours.”

The girl blinked at him a few times then that annoying, superior smirk came to her face. “Well, about that,” her hand rose from her side, a familiar thick paper already in her fingers, “I already have it. Guess you’ll just have to owe me.”

The magic he had been holding collapsed 

“Thief!” He called, cradling his freshly liberated familiar and very pointedly not-thinking about the irony. 

“Oh please! I just happen to be better at it than you.” She pocketed the ticket. “Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll need patching up sooner or later. Then we’ll be even. Besides, you got what you came for.”

He glared daggers. “I suppose so. Will you tell me your name?”

He did not say it out loud, but he finished the rest of the sentence in his head, ‘so I can make sure I never have to see you again for the rest of my life’.

“Cal.”

“Of?”

“Nobody. Just Cal.”

“I see.”

“Great. Well, try not to get in any more trouble.” She nodded and walked off, her body language shifting between one step and the next so that she completely blended into the rhythm of the crowd.

He tried to place his anger at the theft, and the pain in his weary limbs, in some distant corner of his mind. He reminded himself that his first instincts about that ticket had been right. The Tooth and Claw was built on dark drives and evil ends. Such places could only pollute his virtue.

Still, his mind drifted to bone spikes crusted in blood, fleshy tentacles hiding long teeth, and streams of fire cooking flesh and setting acid tears alight. 

Yam sighed. It was for the best that he had lost his ticket. He would be a damn fool to return, but all men were made fools by beauty. 

Which reminded him. He turned from the street and slipped deeper into the alley. He smiled down at the cloth-covered box in his arms. Carefully, when he was sure no one could see what he was about to do, he set the cage down and crouched so he could greet his new companion; someone he hoped would become his first real friend in this savage place. 

He took the burlap off and—

It was disgusting.

Its eyes were horrifically large and shiny. 

Its fur looked revolting soft and fine.

It had a vile body. Almost completely spherical with tiny forelimbs and stubby legs. All covered in a dense coat of hateful baby blue fur with purple spots and a white belly. Its little snout seemed to smile at him, and the tip of a tiny tongue poked out from under a wet little nose. 

Those adorable eyes blinked and Yam saw that it had long, thick eyelashes that were a delicate shade of lilac.

It was the most horrifying, unholy being he had ever seen.

Yam fell to his knees, “Whe—”, he had to stop, feeling his gorge start to rise, “Where are the fangs?”

The creature cocked its head to the side for a moment. 

And it chirped. 

Its round little body actually bounced with the motion and it grinned lovingly up at him.

He couldn’t help it. A visceral abhorrence, some sort of last-ditch spiritual defense, rose up from the deepest and most true parts of his soul, and Yam vomited right there on the cobbles.

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Yam 9

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This is an extra long chapter. Thank you for all the views, the work on our TV Tropes page, and for our patron(s) at https://www.patreon.com/impracticalmagic

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2.02

When Yam stepped into the cavern under his dorm, finally wearing proper clothes again, he felt a great weight fall from his shoulders. Walking through the threshold marked, in his mind, the end of his nightmare at the gymnasium.

He was pleased to see no signs that anyone had come to the underground retreat, but it had only been a few days. So he restrained his optimism and, with the ease of long practice, stretched a length of cord across the entrance of his hideaway. It was hung with detritus that would rattle loudly if jostled; a common practice for Len sleeping away from the Caravan. 

It filled him with a powerful surge of longing for his home; for a place where he could feel his people around him instead of standing isolated in a world that felt oddly thin and unreal. Like life without Presence was a dream that hadn’t included a sense of touch or smell.  

Yam sighed as he sprawled across the cavern floor, not even bothering to adjust his great wrap or cross his ankles. He missed his siblings. He missed knowing every expression of his favorite vendors as they haggled. He missed eating food that wasn’t dry or burnt, and he missed his father’s deep voice and calm Presence. Talking with him felt like lying in a slow river and letting it float you downstream. If he was here, Yam was certain he would already be feeling better. 

His father always knew about the history of a piece of architecture, the legend behind a beautiful flower and, even when he didn’t know either, his father had mastered the  profound trick of seeing every sunset as something new and worth losing himself in. Yam could barely imagine what the wonders of Istima would look like to him. 

And that was why he was not allowed to be tired. Not when his father, his family, and his entire caravan needed him.  

With bone-deep weariness, the young Len unwrapped the cloth bandage on his left bicep and saw that the fur he usually kept shaved had grown in enough to obscure his tattoo. It was the standard Ken Seeker design with small variations. Those subtle differences would let Len from most regions of the country figure out his caravan and family. But the practice was not universal. Which was why he was able to let the fur grow in without it seeming too strange. At least not to others. To him, it was strange to the point of discomfort. 

He had spent years of his childhood dreaming of the day he would shave his arm and be entrusted with carrying the reputation of his people on his skin. Though Len from certain other regions didn’t follow the practice, it always made their adults seem oddly juvenile to his eyes.  

Strange that he now had to thank those man-children for normalizing what he was doing. 

He discarded the rolled cloth and scowled. It burnt to hide his heritage and his family. To announce with his actions that they were a shame. But he had to do it if he wanted to gain enough power to make the world acknowledge their Virtue. 

It was confusing, and paradoxical and it made his heart hurt. But his discomfort meant little compared to the needs of his family. And his weariness meant even less.

He opened one of the small pouches on his belt and pulled out a pill. Brush marks were visible on its surface where the pill maker had applied the exterior coating, and the smell was unpleasantly pungent. It was large enough that he would need to chew it in more than one bite.

The medicine had the energetic and wakefulness effects of black tea, but it was far more potent. In most villages, it would guarantee any man a living. But in Istima these pills were common, maybe even trite. Especially since it was made from relatively common herbs that had been ground together and bound in a sticky paste without any application of magic. 

Yam threw it into his mouth and let his mind go as empty as the cavern around him. He was so exhausted after the physical training that he didn’t even have the energy to wince at the taste. 

He spent some undefinable amount of time underground. His fingertips hummed with borrowed vigor even as his heart felt exhausted to the point of numbness. Being underground meant the elemental energy of the earth was more abundant. He let those soothing flows lull him into a stupor as he worked through the stack of papers he had gotten from Thomnas, the Autumn Court representative.

Even with advice and privileged papers, it took hours of eye-achingly monotonous work to complete the forms. And he had made several mistakes that required him to messily cross out words and draw lines to the margins where he scrawled his corrections. 

~~~

He woke up underground, feeling wrung out and with a horrible headache. 

Though he had slept soundly in the safety of the cavern, he had slept shallowly and was not refreshed. His first thought was that the pills weren’t strong enough and that he would need to look for something more potent. Maybe he could go back to the side streets.  

Thoughts for a later day. For now, Yam hauled his body up the ladder and into his room. It was horrible. His aching muscles hung off a stiff back and rattling bones. When he finally shambled past a window he was surprised to see that it was dark outside. He had to have been in the cavern for more than seven hours. 

It was a testament to the day he had just been through that he didn’t even have the energy to be angry at the time he had wasted sleeping. Instead, he just rearranged his pack. 

A surly and exhausted Yam made it to the proper hall in the Autumn Court. Waited in a perfectly straight line and filled out the papers needed for him to deposit his papers. Which at first seemed ironic but quickly provided the benefit of stoking his rage enough that he had something to power his feet with it. 

Before that fire guttered he stalked to the Day Court and found the uncanny bench from his brief stay there.

Yam glared at the eternally present and eternally cheerful sun. He could not be stopped. If he slept through the day, he would find his own sun to labor under! One bright enough, and viewed from a seat discomforting enough, to prevent him from sleeping while he tried to figure out how to salvage this flaming chamber pot of a day. 

So Yam sat, but not wearily nor resignedly. No, he gingerly placed himself on the seat with the assistance of both quivering arms and cursed about his aching bones; like a rebel. 

He was indomitable. Sore and craving tea, but indomitable. 

He would have liked to write a list, but paper cost money and none would be coming from his family. Instead, he held his options in his mind. His first option was to memorize more of the content given to him by the bookkeeper. It was tedious, but he wanted to impress the bookkeeper so he had access to all of the knowledge of the Understacks. 

There were other options though. He had mixed feelings about returning to the Night Court. Being in the Presence of someone who could kill him with a sneeze was horrifying. Worse, there would be no way to pretend that he was in control of fate through some application of cunning or sublime planning. The Archmage would get exactly what he wanted, and Yam could do naught hope for scrap and pray to avoid drawing the being’s ire. 

But there was so much he could learn there…

Luckily, or perhaps not (he still hadn’t made up his mind about his conscription), returning to the Night Court wasn’t an option. He would receive a summons at the ancient mage’s leisure. 

Instead, maybe he should walk to the lower city? It would be easy to follow the signposts hidden in graffiti until they led him to stronger wakefulness medicines. Finding them at night might even be a good way of seeing what quality the product was; never trust a skinny chef or a sleepy man selling energy potions. His mother had never said that, but he was certain she would if given the chance.

There was also the option to practice control exercises for his osteomancy module. Osteomancy was a powerful tool and a great way to differentiate himself within the Vernal Court. 

In fact, he could go to any of his modules that had listed sessions during the night. There was no set schedule and, aside from stagnating as well as the possibility of losing admissions next year, there was no punishment for not attending modules. This was all to say he might get exclusive access to teachers by attending modules at night. 

Idly his hand reached into the pouch at his side and touched thick expensive paper. The exact paper he had seen passed off by the bookkeeper’s surly assistant. 

He had already sold everything else from Nathanael’s buyer: the fop who had been blinded. But the card, the invitation, had caught his eye. It was not ostentatious, but it was well made. It was sturdy and bore a subtle design in the margins so, when light hit the ink just so, one could make out the silhouette of capering beasts.

It was a conundrum.

Len had a certain reputation. Most humans feared what was different, and it was impossible to see someone living virtuously without having to confront their own deficiencies. That fear and desperate avoidance of their own moral weakness turned into anger. Anger and persecution aimed towards the Len. 

It was infuriating, but his elders said he should work to understand that it was just a reflex; just humans seeking justification that would not imperil their beliefs and dishonor the (false) lessons taught to them by their own elders. In a sad way, it was as noble as they knew how to be. 

So Len tried to be above it. They welcomed humans to their markets. Offered a game of words as they would for a trusted friend. Haggled earnestly, and treated them as though they were the informed and competent adults they wished to be perceived as. In short, they pulled no punches and modeled a life lived in pursuit of the great intangibles like wisdom, honesty, knowledge, and earnest self-improvement. 

If such lessons came at the cost of lost mere money or wounded pride, then it was a cheap price to pay.

But, despite their temperance and willingness to teach, if Len were not indispensable craftspeople, they would have been cast out violently. Instead, they were grudgingly accepted, silently resented, and used as scapegoats. 

Which was all to say, that it was impossible for caravans to travel without having the darker elements of a town reach out to them. Their false reputations ensured it. That reputation also made it all but impossible to survive the ostracization of legitimate businesses without occasionally accepting offers from their… less inhibited competitors. 

As such, even with his successful family and their pristine reputation, Yam still knew immediately what the paper was; an invitation to a fighting ring for exotic animals and magic beasts. The sort of place his parents had forbidden and that Aehp the Eclectic Beast Lord, with his hundreds of treasured familiars, would have found repugnant. But it was also a place with powerful creatures he could bond with and a reservoir of first-hand knowledge fit to challenge any bestiary.

On the other hand, it would be a den of criminals who reveled in cruelty and bloodshed. It might give him knowledge, but it would certainly be dangerous. Worse, he didn’t know the city well enough to say how much more dangerous it would be for a Len. Would he be allowed in, even with a ticket? Would they force him into the ring because of his fur and teeth?

Yam took the mixed fear, excitement, and shame, and put it all to the side. He needed to think like a Ken Seeker. Especially when he was without guidance.

So what was the logic of this situation? His safety concerns were probably justified. It was an illegal venue glorifying violence. Such places would self-select for a certain type of patron. But he also refused to be someone who made their choices because of fear. That was a path that led to servitude and the sort of passivity that gave corruption tacit permission to grow. 

On the other hand, this would be a cruel place and anything he gained from it would taint his cultivation of virtue. That was no small thing for a properly raised young gentleman like himself to imperil. Virtue was what separated them from animals. 

He couldn’t say how long he sat, waging a silent war against the uncanny bench, but eventually, he came to a conclusion. The invitation was a small choice tangled with large questions he felt hesitant tackling at the moment. So, he made the most reasonable decision he could considering his goals: he should find out if there was a place he could gain guidance on his magical development and, if not, settle for doing what studying could be accomplished on his own. After all, he knew helping his family through learning and hard work was virtuous. He was a Ken Seeker after all. Literally a seeker of ken. 

Confident in his decision the young Len took out his notebook and skimmed through the cramped handwriting to see if any of his modules had night sessions. 

His body froze. There was one module that would be open: physical training.

No. 

He couldn’t. 

Yam’s lips twitched. His legs were still too tired. Surely, it would be a waste to go before he had recovered? And the clothes were scandalous. It wasn’t precisely impossible but… 

True, other students could go twice in quick succession. If they were able too he could as well, right? But he was a Ken Seeker! Not a fitness seeker! Plus with his long night and how hard things had been—

The excuses tumbled through his mind like water over a cliff. And the fact that he recognized them as excuses made it all the worse. This was cowardice. This was what a sick-bodied and weak-willed child would say to themselves. 

With a snarl, he threw himself to his feet, shoved his book back into the pack, and stalked away from the uncanny bench. Yam’s jaw was clenched so tight he felt his teeth groan under the pressure. Not caring who saw it, he reached into his pouch and ripped out the invitation for the Tooth and Claw.

To say he had a fully realized thought would be over-generous. However, if his thoughts could be characterized, they would be something along the lines of screaming ‘I’m not afraid of anything! Not even this!’ and, a much quieter train of thought, one hidden by the volume of the first, which was the mental equivalent of covering his eyes with his hands and saying, ‘Avoidance? Nope, I don’t see any avoidance here.’

~~~

As a mage, Yam’s mental fortitude and capacity for prolonged focus were exceptional. 

His single-minded focus carried him until bare moments before he walked into the Tooth and Claw. He was standing in line, waiting to show his pass to one of two Aketsi doormen, before the first doubt pierced his defense. Was he really going to do this? Was he really going to enter a room full of hard men and lawbreakers? Sure, once or twice, he had grabbed something left behind by an unwary shopper. And once his friends had even talked him into sneaking a pastry from a stall. There had also been the ferryman. But they were bigots and what he had done was more prank than theft. 

But this, this was an underground bloodsport! Though, apparently, even the underground animal fights in Istima were fancy. The sign above them was marble with glowing magic highlighting the name of the ‘covert’ establishment. The ticket men were also very polite, and, for Aketsi, they moved at a rapid pace. 

The extremely strange and aesthetically pleasing incongruities were probably the only reason he made it to the front of the line at all. If there had been a dirty alleyway or if dangerous thugs had manned the doors, he would have lost his nerve and fled. 

But everyone around him was wealthy. For people who didn’t have access to a Len master craftsman, they were the peak of class. Their poorly cut jewels were set inexpensive metals, and less than masterful embroidery stumbled across the rare material of their clothing. Their presence made it feel like he was in line for a play, and more than once, he checked his invitation.

Finally, he made it to the Aketsi feeling like his head was full of wool. The doorman took almost three seconds to smile and nod his head. Yam had never seen one move so quickly! At least when not chasing down a thief in the market. The doorman examined Yam’s pass without touching it and slowly waved him in, “EEnnjjooyy, ssiirr.”

It was startling. If he was looking for wakefulness pills, he may need to start here. Aketsi’s biology was made for standing and slow ceaseless labor in the same way that the Len were made for community and adaptation.

His lingering thoughts carried him through the door and into a large indoor stadium before he truly took in his surroundings. The Tooth and Claw had three rings of people set at three different elevations. The lowest was standing room only. The top tier, where he had entered, was full of comfortable chairs and wealthy clients. He naturally moved to the second tier. It was full of people who looked successful and cultured enough to be less accustomed to acting on drunken or violent impulses. Which made it better than the bottom floor. But it’s patrons were also not so wealthy as to have guards and family grudges against his people left over from negotiations that had been executed a bit too masterfully. Which made it better than the top floor.

So he sat on the wooden benches and spent an uncomfortable twenty minutes torn between being fascinated and repulsed by what he saw happening in the ring at the center of the stadium. Those poor creatures. 

But gods help him if they weren’t magnificent. After seeing a gorgeous beast maimed, one that would strike terror into his enemies and be a suitable companion for Aehp himself, Yam found himself wanting an alcoholic beverage. 

He was already here, really what more did he have to lose from one bad decision? He spent nearly thirty minutes trying to find a beverage counter that was not staffed by a Len. It took a tremendous amount of attention for him to not constantly re-check how hidden his tattoo was. As a result, he accidentally waited in the wrong line. He was too ashamed to admit his ignorance when the man behind the counter asked for his bet. 

He placed a single dram on the wooden counter, but the employee looked at him strangely and he ended up putting down enough money for a restaurant-quality meal before he could subdue his pride. 

Afterward, he wandered until something caught his attention. It was ferocious, possessing a disquieting number of claws, and seemed to have venom leaking from its eyes in a lethal rain of tears; Yam loved it more than he had ever loved anything in his entire life. 

The young Len watched the beauty being carted around and saw how docilely it accepted affection from a wealthy merchant supervising its transport. He could already imagine frolicking together underneath the dormitory and him becoming rich selling its venom. They would be the best of friends and their foes would weep to see Aehp and his fell companion. 

The magnificent creature was carried behind a set of unobtrusive doors and the young Len held completely still; just savoring the paragon of terror and destruction he had the privilege to have witnessed. 

What. A. Beauty. 

Then, before his poor heart could recover, an even more horrifying eldritch monstrosity was carried from behind the doors.

Where he had only been able to watch the fights for twenty minutes before needing a drink, Yam found himself spending nearly an hour staring at the door as every third beast made his heart skip with intermingled terror and avarice. 

There was a great deal of ‘analysis’ and internal ‘debate’. But from the moment he saw a creature that appeared to shapeshift from a small dragon with wings of green fire into a scorpion with a hooded cobra for a tail, the decision was made. It was just a matter of how long it took him for him to consciously acknowledge the executive decision his heart had made. 

He snuck through the door. 

It was another horrible decision. 

Oh well.

According to reason, he should have been a bent double with the weight of fear and caution. Instead, his eyes opened wide and he rushed through the back room he was very much not supposed to be in and was carried from cage to cage like a child at a toy store. 

Finally, maybe ten minutes later, fate, which always guards the stupid and insane, ceased protecting him. It had never occurred to Yam to wonder why he hadn’t seen guards in the extensive hallways, or why no one cared when they heard the sound of his feet scampering from cage to cage. In truth, he had been too enrapt for such a coherent and reasonable thought.

When fate left him (that cold bitch) he was holding a thick and well-worn bestiary in one hand, a pamphlet with care instruction for Flesh Ants in another, and had tied two more books together with a piece of twine that he held in his mouth. That was when he had a horrible realization. 

“Owh noe,” he said, freezing in place, eyes wide. 

He had wandered away from the most impressive beasts and was now in an area mostly full of tools and cleaning equipment. He was also quite lost. And, even if he wasn’t, he all but collapsed when he realized that he couldn’t carry out all the animals he wanted, even if he gave up the books he had found. 

Those would have been poor realizations by themselves. What was worse was when he heard voices coming from down the hall and his magnificent display of dumb luck officially ended. Before he could think he stuffed the pamphlet into his belt and darted inside a closet. He had barely managed to hide and peek through a crack in the door before two large guards walked into view.

His hand fell to his pouch and he sensed the bones within. But the young Len hesitated. He was in no way trained in combat. His only experiences with fighting were exactly what one would expect from a too-smart, book-loving child who was too weak to flee his frequently unsupervised peers. 

He didn’t know how to fight at all, let alone with osteomancy. His racing mind raced as he searched for options. He had not yet learned any cants from the bookkeeper’s assignment, and his body was too weak to outrun anyone but an Aketsi. Which only left one tool in his arsenal: his natural ability for spatial magic. 

But, untrained as he was, he had sharp limits on its usage. Before he could think enough to stop himself, he took the twine from his mouth and set aside the two books. He barely even let himself breathe as he watched the two guards step past the closet where he hid.

The two of them passed by so closely that he could smell the sour scent of alcohol on their sweat. He was certain they would notice him too. 

But they didn’t pause. 

The large man and his even larger female comrade reached the intersection at the end of the hallway and stopped. Yam almost screamed when the two leaned their backs against the stone wall and began talking. Instead, he waited to a count of two hundred before finally accepting that the guards wouldn’t be moving any time soon. His ramble must have accidentally coincided with guards’ shift change 

It didn’t matter. 

He ducked back into the closet and slowed his breathing. He had played games of hide-and-seek where he had pulled off maneuvers just like he was about to do. There was even a piece of fortune on his side. The door to his cramped sanctuary opened inwards.

The young mage shook out his hands and went back to the doorway. A quick glance confirmed that the guards were still there. So he retreated into the closet as far as he could while still being able to reach the door. He didn’t want to create a visible silhouette. 

Over the course of a slow count to forty-five, he inched the door open to the exact breadth of his shoulders and then added a few fingers width to account for his clothes. After shimmying sideways there was a perfectly straight corridor of unoccupied space the width of his shoulders that stretched from where he stood to the intersection at the other end of the hallway.

Then the young mage reached out with his magic. It was hard to describe exactly what he did. Most of it happened without his conscious direction and, historically, the more he focused on what he was doing, the more often it failed. Just like how someone could walk on a strip of colored paving stones without any problem. But, if they stood on a raised beam of the same width and started consciously trying to keep their balance, they would twist and flail. 

Though he didn’t completely understand what the magic did, in some ways it was like folding a piece of paper. Put a dot on either end of the paper and then fold until both points were right next to each other. Done correctly, you could have the same amount of paper between the two points, but not the same amount of distance. 

What he did now was like that except he had a tube of paper, one big enough for him to fit through, and instead of just bending the paper he folded the whole tube until it compressed like an accordion.  

And of course, the other big difference was that he folded space itself, not paper. 

Yam picked a point at the far end of the hall, just at an intersection, and he crumpled the space between where he was and that spot. With a single step, he passed over the folded space. It was no more than a half-inch wide and was not something he could see with his eyes. His arcane senses had to tell him where the fold was. 

As he passed over and through what he imagined to be a standing loop of accordion ruffled fabric, there was a brief blurring of lights and Yam found himself standing at the end of the hallway.

He immediately stepped around the corner, hoping that neither of the guards had been looking. 

If the gods were kind—

“Hey! Anyone down there!”

He should have known. By the time he became a god he probably would have learned to stop being kind to strangers too. 

Fate knew he wouldn’t be here in the first place if he hadn’t tried to help that blinded fop with the ticket. 

Yam ran. The moment he had a line of sight down the hallway he crumpled space once again and zoomed ahead of his pursuers. As he fled, he turned towards the faint smell of animals and magic-ed himself forward in as many tiny hops and skips as he could. 

It worked. At first anyway. 

The sound of feet grew further and further away and his magic reserves easily handled the costs of his subtle working. In fact, it worked so well that he almost couldn’t believe it when he stepped into an intersection and ran face-first into a completely different guard who was wearing a hardened leather vest. 

The man barely moved when the rather scrawny young mage ran into him. But Yam landed on his butt and slid backward with the force of it. 

The guard blinked at the be-furred humanoid who had suddenly appeared next to him. 

“Wha—?”

“Look a Len!” Yam yelled, pointing his finger down the hallway, 

The moment the guard looked away Yam turned his head to look back the way he had come and crumpled space yet again. Awkwardly, he hopped his butt off the floor and an inch to the left. That was all it took to clear the spatial fold. He ended up at the other end of the hall with barely enough time to scramble onto all fours before the man started running towards him. 

The young mage forced himself to wait a single moment so the timing could line up. Then, when it was just right, he threw himself flat against the wall. For a brief instant, four-fifths of the hallway’s width was unoccupied down its entire length. 

But Yam needed to see both points he was manipulating. So, while he was still throwing himself against the stonework, Yam stretched his eyes wide and stared at the opposite wall. Both the guard and the floor just behind him were both in his peripheral vision for a moment. 

Faster than he ever had before, he reached out and crumpled the hallway. The guard stepped forward and found himself several steps behind Yam. With another burst of magic, which was just now starting to make his mind ache, the young Len sent himself as far away as he could. 

With a few more space bending leaps he lost his pursuer. But the yelling guards drew help, even as his impossible steps grew shorter and as more burly men and women poured into the hallways. 

Hallways that, he was just starting to realize, went below street level and extended the length of at least three warehouses. Maybe dozens.

He ran, but his legs were weak and turned so watery that he was forced to walk. When that happened he used his ability constantly to keep ahead of pursuit. The pace of his casting sent his head to aching. And, for all of Yam’s efforts, the net only grew tighter. 

The guards knew the layout better than he did and eventually formed a blockade that prevented him from even seeing the cages that held the fighting beasts. The ones that had first lured him into this labyrinth. And the ones that marked his most likely exit.

He was shambling through a massive three-story-tall space with his hand pressed against the stitching pain in his ribs. The middle of the large room was filled with rows of shelves that held crates, cages, and various small creatures. The wall on his other side was dotted by doorways leading to small rooms. Some were set up with fine tables and chairs. Often next to them were rooms with bloody surgeons’ tables or offices that housed ledgers and be-spectacled men dutifully ignoring the commotion beyond their desks. 

Yam darted into one of the table and chair rooms. He slammed the door shut even though all the others were open and he knew it would draw attention. For a frantic thirty seconds, Yam searched the door for a lock. There was none. 

He considered wedging a chair under the doorknob, but didn’t know if that actually worked. Storytellers mentioned it often, but he had grown up with a severe lack of extraneous chairs that he could try to wedge under the equally rare extraneous doors in his people’s minimalist nomadic caravan. 

The only other thing in the room was a small writing kit on the table and a knock-off porcelain tea set. 

He backed away from the door, heart thudding and temples feeling like spikes were being driven into them. Then his back fetched against a hanging tapestry and he felt something strange. 

In a whirl, the young mage spun around and pushed the tapestry to the side. Underneath the thick fabric was a door made of crossed iron rods that had been welded together, like the cross-hatched cage of a prison cell. 

On the other side of the metal was another tapestry. Yam barely managed to squeeze his hand through a gap and push the richly colored fabric aside. For a flash, he saw a short hallway, perhaps three to five paces long, that led to the highest tier of the viewing stands. Then the fabric fell back into place. 

He wasted almost a full minute trying to throw the tapestry up so that it would give him the light and line of sight he needed to work with. Then he remembered that he had other magics at his disposal. 

Using pure control without any fancy spell work, he sent three bone beads flying from his belt. They hit the fabric on the other side of the door and pushed until it was pinned to the ceiling. He held them steady with a thought and took his first clear look at the door. 

Like he had thought, the door was primarily made of crossed iron bars welded together. But, more importantly, there was a visible gap between the door’s edge and the metal frame that extended from the wall 

Yam moved to the keyhole and crouched until his head was lower than the lock. Then he grasped his magic and did something he hadn’t even told his parents about. 

They knew that he wasn’t limited to crumpling space. But they also knew that stretching space was far harder for him to do. The material of the world was inherently pliable, and it did not necessarily resist nor encourage change. It simply responded to the factors influencing it. And it did require some energy to combat the circumstances that held it in its current form. 

Compressing space was really folding and, when he did so, Yam let the world do almost all of the work for him. Like using a carrot to move a donkey rather than pushing it. Or like digging a down hill tench next to a boulder so that it would fall and move itself. 

To compress space he just had to nudge at a few circumstances; make a few points slippery, a few others sticky, and suddenly it was easier for space to fall into the shape he wanted than to stay the same.  Stretching, on the other hand, took more out of him. The movement was not fueled entirely by his own power, he didn’t think any mortal had the sheer amount of magic that would take, but it did require him to alter far more of the tiny influencing factors; the tiny circumstances that commanded the shape of space. In terms of effort and expense, it was rather like bribing twenty border agents instead of only having to charm five. 

His parents had seen him make it so no matter how hard they reached for him they could never pull sweats from his fingers. They had also seen him jump across a massive field with a tiny hop. But for some reason, they had always made the assumption that he only bent space by changing the distance one could walk: by bending the horizontal plane.

With the same trick he once had used to enter their locked wagon and pour honey on his sister’s pillow, he walked through the iron door. Specifically, he stretched the gap between the edge of the door and the edge of the iron frame. 

He had to crouch very low. The moment he entered the distorted space between door and frame the tiny sliver of the latch holding the door closed seemed to become an iron bar that spanned a gap several paces wide to either side of him. And, even crouched until his knees brushed his chin, it was uncomfortably close to the top of his head. 

But there was nothing to be done about it. To his knowledge, it was impossible to change space two ways at the same time. Just like it was impossible to manipulate a point not in his direct line of sight. Which was to say, his intuitive knack for spatial magic didn’t include how to overcome those particular boundaries. 

Which was fine. He could fit between any gap and he could raise the height of any ceiling Just not both at once. Similarly, he could move in a single direction as far as he could see, but if he would have to step off the straight line to avoid an obstacle, like a table, then his compression wouldn’t let him walk through that solid object any more than if he was moving through natural space. Even with those limitations, he felt like he had gotten the better end of whatever bargain gave him his abilities.

He made it under the Tooth and Claw’s iron door with an undignified amount of panting and duck-walking. The moment he was clear, he waved his hand and the bone beads holding up the tapestry whizzed through the air. In a flash they had looped back and pinned the thick fabric to the ground, stilling its motion so as not to betray his passage. 

Then Yam turned down the short hallway and saw the elbow of a servant peek past the edge of the doorway. More civilized and far better dressed, but a guard nonetheless. 

The door to the room behind the tapestries was thrown open with a shout. 

Yam didn’t move. He leaned forward, eyes narrowed and, just as he saw the protruding stomach of a nobleman peek past the edge of the hallway’s entrance, he reached out with his magic and stepped. 

If the doormen had been looking forward, they would have seen him appear, as if out of thin air, an instant before his slight frame was eclipsed by the girth of the passing nobleman. 

For Yam’s part, he spun on his heel and kept pace with the large man. Letting silk-clad girth  screen him from the servant’s view. He painted boredom across his expression and began walking slowly. Like he was just another patron unimpressed with the area’s spectacle and looking for libation. 

Or at least that’s what he hoped he was doing. In truth, his heart was hammering and his skin was sweaty enough that he felt certain everyone in the room had noticed. 

But no one called out after him. 

Just before he stepped into the stairwell leading to the exit of Tooth and Claw, the young mage glanced over his shoulder. He glimpsed a servant craning their head down the short hallway they were stationed in front of. Their expression was puzzled. Possibly wondering why there were guards in the client conference room cursing.

Yam turned around and began moving away only slightly faster than proprietary would have otherwise dictated. Heart in his throat,  legs barely able to hold him up, he made his way to the establishment’s door. As he moved down the stairs, he barely remembered to flip his stolen book so the title was invisible and so it obscured the pamphlet he had stuffed in his belt. 

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Interlude: A Study on Human Culture

When applying reason and observation to the various properties, practices, and patterns of human societies, Len scholars have come to agree on the ‘Two Pillars Theory.’ Summarized, it supposes that the great majority of human cultures are based upon two underlying predilections: materialism and the fundamental need to remain stationary. 

As a result of these most strange species-wide obsessions, humans have developed equivalently strange practices. By means of example, humans will spend massive fortunes digging complex tunnel systems into the earth. Tunnels that they then relieve themselves into. Often these tunnels empty into rivers and have caused death and disease either for themselves or their neighbors. Neighbors who, are (somehow) unwilling to move to a more upstream location due to their species-wide phobia/fetishes.

Despite the abundant historical accounts detailing instances of plague, humans still build their cities directly atop these elaborate filth-labyrinths. In point of fact, living above their own collectively amassed excrement is considered a sign of societal advancement. This is because, humans devoid of excrement-tunnels, will empty their chamber pots into the street. No singularly nor secretly, but as a matter of general practice!

This is endured, by those who possess a robust enough health to endure it, so that they need only move the minimum amount from their permanent dwellings, and in spite of the certain knowledge that they will inevitably travel upon the streets where they have emptied their waste. 

Sedentary urges further engender Humans, excluding a very few nomadic tribes, towards developing the most strange of status symbols. They will construct massively large homes, beds more than 2.5 times their shoulder’s width (where a single individual of average size sleeps), high ceilings devoid of storage, and completely furnished rooms that are inhabited by visitors for less than three weeks per year. 

All serve as signs of wealth and social status. Of course, this is in addition to the wearing of physically impractical grab which serves to indicate that the human has enough wealth that they don’t need to leave their own dwelling. Indeed, it’s intense inconvenience implies that they can hire others to do simple chores, and, due to its fragility, the clothing also serves as evidence that they have not engaged in any activity more strenuous than moving between their many differently themed-rooms (please see chapter 6 to discusses examples such as ‘sitting rooms’). 

Though Len ourselves are not immune from the desire for finely crafted goods, humans will assign higher inherent value to items based on cost and material expense rather than history, craftsmanship, and usefulness. They will then amas as much as possible.

To support this shocking perversity, there is an entire industry built around making large permanent buildings whose only purpose is to hold items that are unnecessary. The industry is based around the certainty that humans will, as a matter of compulsion, buy more items than they can fit in their oversized personal residences. 

Rather than sell the trinkets and baubles, the species will sacrifice funds to have the useless possession kept away from them for prolonged periods of time in a ‘warehouse’. Which, as the name suggests, is a massive structure maintained solely for housing wares that are not needed. As a point of clarification, these are not season-specific tools or stores of food that are not currently needed. They are entirely unused. Either permanently or for multiple years. But they would, somehow, cause severe psychological distress if no longer owned by the human. This is in spite of the objects being hidden in a location that is, essentially, never visited or thought of.  

What is the purpose of this knowledge an intrepid reader of a less scholarly disposition may ask? By observing what fundamental differences in nature have led humans so far from the Virtuous Life, as described by the great philosopher Concratus, we can understand how to interact with their peculiarities and, mayhaps, aid their development. Like a young man assisting a simple relative or an aged grandmother who, despite being functionally challenged, possess enough goodwill and sentiment to be treated with sympathy. So too should we make efforts to understand the humans and aid them as possible.

In the spirit of goodwill and charity, this scholar puts forward that the underlying cause of aberrant human values lies in sensory deprivation, not an inherent lack of moral capability within the species. Phrased more directly, they are capable of Virtue, but are born with great obstacles and little to no guidance from those who have moved past them in such a manner as to provide tutelage. 

Indeed, for evidence of the severe moral damage inflicted by a lack of senses, look to the human form. Their body plans change to such a small extent that they have no means of knowing what their fellows value. Any child knows that an adult who has gone through the ritual to obtain a Reptile form is interested in longevity, mental pursuits, and lives a life comfortable enough that they need not gird themselves against undue environmental trials. Those of us who place our affections upon the pursuits made available by a hearty body, rapid healing, the ability to put aside sleep, and the desire to produce great feats of strength follow the mammalian path. 

Furthermore, an obvious supposition that must none the less be voiced, all Len know, for a fact, that we are one people due to Presence. Humans are deprived of such basic senses. 

The logical conclusions are thus; without access to bodies that can be adapted to their environments, humans fixate on the first safe location they can find and travel forth only with great trepidation. Often, they will suffer mass deaths from plague, reoccurring natural disaster, fire, and famine rather than brave the open road. And, please note, they will do so even when utterly believing in the forewarning of an impending disaster. 

Now herded together and deeply a feared of moving, we see the sad sensory affliction of the human condition made socially manifest. Without perceiving Presence human’s never know when they will be in the ‘out-group’ of another human and be categorized as a ‘Them’ or ‘Enemy’. To be categorized thusly is to be robbed of personhood in such a manner as to absolve the other party from any sort of punishment for enacting harm upon you; no matter how severe. 

As such, any singular human must desperately signal that they are simultaneously useful and possess group membership; both to convince the capriciously violent ‘society’ around them, and also to convince themselves they are safe. Otherwise, the unending emotional distress may be too acute to endure. 

In other words: by hoarding many items and wearing garish clothes they attempt to make a primitive, material-based Presence. One impossible to ignore or overlook.

They must spend so many resources, both material and mental, to achieve such basic communication that, from the onset, their pursuit of a Virtuous Life has been irreparably stunted. They are incapable of noticing elegance and subtly because their senses are distracted by the constant threat of otherhood should they miss a signal. The poor wretches, through no fault of their own, only possess enough left over-attention to engage with the more easily perceptible properties of quantity and garishness. Hence Len superiority in the realm of craftsmanship.

Furthermore, their weak social senses paired with their divisive nature dooms humans to employ pervasive deceit. It is like children who have decided that an act is good only because they will not be caught by someone who knows it is bad. From a young age, the ease of deceit makes it far too tempting to a young human and it is thus normalized by frequent use and success.

The tenants of a virtuous life: candor, brotherhood, dedication, generosity, respect for elders, and the pursuit of the great Enduring Intangible Gifts like knowledge, skill, love, elegance, expertise, and other such noble ends cannot exist in human society. At least not commonly or without intervention. The species put plainly, is born without vital qualities. 

To a Len, blessed as we are with senses and capabilities that remove us so far from base savageries, the world is wide and nuanced. Our senses and philosophies are as a team of well-maintained horses steered with a deft hand. Human’s work with vital senses removed and thus must blindly crack the reins and feverishly employ the whip against the only beast of burden able to move them; materialism and a stationary existence.

Though some claim that humans are doomed to create ever more elaborate and barbarous traditions as they grope in the dark for Virtue, this scholar believes it is our duty to reach out and help those who are willing. 

We should, as a people, meet discrimination with compassion. Knowing what sort of lives they live, do not begrudge Humans their need to degrade others so they can convince themselves that they are fortunate. Understand why those wretches, our siblings in personhood if not in Virtue, would not want to live constantly assailed by the knowledge that they are hostage to their own deficits. 

Instead, cast your mind to the wisdom of Concratus and think of how one can use a Virtuous Life to benefit the less enlightened around them.

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Yam 8

2.01

The people running the tutoring building had been very frustrated with him when he made himself a small fire in the corner of his room. Which, to be fair, had been inconsiderate even if the marble floor and open window meant nothing bad would have happened. 

It did end up being a bit of a miscalculation. They were annoyed enough to immediately eject him from the building when, thirty-six hours into his ‘single free tutoring session’,  they had finally found him asleep.

Yam took it with good cheer though. His channels were sore, his body ached, his back was stiff, and he felt an odd kind of existential pain that made him suspect his soul might be sore as well. 

Somehow, the slender Len was able to make it to his dormitory without getting lost or physically running into anyone. Once in his room he only stopped long enough to write himself a brief note: more black tea, schedule practice at Blood Ally, find food for room

He fell into bed with a toothy smile and looked down at his hand. With a flicker of light, a weak and wavering symbol made of light started floating above his fingers. It made his channels ache, but he watched as lines slowly spread to form a small spell circle with several open slots for more shorthand commands.

~~~

Yam woke with the sun and set to writing himself notes the moment he got out of bed. 

There had been so much knowledge given to him, but he had quickly discovered that the Vernal Courts teaching methods did not last long in the mind unless they were handled properly. Like meat that needed to be processed into jerky. 

Though that might be his fault for going to tutors without having completed any basic, preparatory lessons beforehand. As soon as his tutors had learned that he had no knowledge of medicine beyond common herbs and no training in anatomy beyond what it took to butcher food, they had been forced to teach him in an unusual way.  

The Spring Court’s domain was complex magic. Making small or vast changes to convoluted networks where everything was interconnected, like healing a body or altering the weather. His first tutors had decided to begin by teaching him the court’s trademark mind magic. They called it the Initial Collective. By accessing a strange, ephemeral flavor of magic they had reached out to him and bound the three of their minds together. Immediately, he had sensed their Presences, despite them being human. 

But, what was more interesting, he had sensed an odd space open up that was very much part of his own mind, but not within his mind. The sensation was incredibly strange, but he quickly figured out the trick of it. The Initial Collective made a sort of ‘shared room’, that connected to all the participants’ minds. At will he could expand a small amount of his magic and flex a part of himself that he had always associated with his Presence. Then he could put a thought, sensation, or piece of knowledge into the ‘room’. Anything in the room was shared by all participants.

It had taken him three separate rounds of tutors to figure out how to operate within the Initial Collective, but as soon as he did everything had changed. His lessons all took place, to some degree, within in the Initial Collective. His tutors would think in the shared space, route their magic senses through it, or drop bundles of understanding there for him to examine. For the more advanced lessons, they had shared while he followed them around one of the Spring Court’s small free clinics. 

At the five-hour mark, around his eighth or tenth round of rotating tutors, he had realized a critical mistake. Things placed in the Initial Collective did not last in his own mind unless he put in the effort to learn it himself. To tangle that magically shared knowledge into his own unique thoughts and memories. Like a spider web trapping an unusually large insect. Though it was simultaneously like having a book summarized for you. In the moment everything made sense, and with the other person there, all the information was at your disposal. But if you did not read the book yourself or in some way connect the information to your own experience, then it  faded away. Lost to your reach as soon as the other person left your presence. 

He had lost hours of anatomy, healing, and of instruction. His first reaction had been a fear so primal and overwhelming that it seemed like bands of magic were holding his lungs shut. Why couldn’t he remember? Was he too dumb? Too weak? Was he being attacked? What had he done wrong? Then came the anger. A rage so intense that he would have tore the building down around him if he had the power to do so. This was around the time that the administration was cautiously asking him when he planned on leaving. 

So, he started a fire, brewed the strongest tea he could, and told them he would leave an archmage or die trying. They had not been pleased with his answer, but that was their fault for not putting a time limit on his free lesson. 

To his ear ‘tradition’, ‘common practices’, and ‘being courteous with shared resources’ sounded a lot like ‘horse shit excuses to stop me from becoming a god’. And he treated them thusly. 

He started learning everything again. This time he rephrased what he had learned out loud. Constantly. No matter how many strange looks he received. When each session ended and he had to wait for the next pair of tutors to arrive he would compulsively go through everything he had learned. Trying to memorize the sensation, the knowledge, and the pure understanding that had been so vivid. 

As more hours passed he observed pairs or large groups enter the Initial Collective and collaborate to heal a body. The more invasive the healing, the more people in the collective. Though for serious surgery they went past the initial stage of the spell and he was unable to observe.

Still, it was fascinating. Those with the most acute senses or the best diagnostic spells became the eyes of the group. Others with superior dexterity would root out invisible pieces of corruption and disease from the blood. At the same time others would use their own specific spells to heal the gross physical wounds.

Still, for all its wonder, it was torture to watch as a Ken Seeker. To see a collective end and feel the perfectly elegant comprehension of magic, healing, and medicine only to have it fade. It was like having his own limbs taken away from him. While he was connected, he knew so much, and everything made sense. They thought together and communicated by sharing feelings, and resolve, and pure intent. It was like being in a Caravan and part of that great network of Presence again. But so much more intimate.

Outside the collective he was alone. Forced to scratch frantically at a notebook. Fighting his hardest to leave a faded, third hand representation of what he had briefly been a part of. No matter how hard he tried, or how fast he wrote, the loss was inevitable. There was just no way to keep everything from a collective.

And things were only more frustrating from then on out. As a Len he had a natural advantage when it came to mind magic. Which, he had learned, was what Presence was. A communal, organic, intuitive, mind magic that was inherent to being a Len. 

That being said, he had no native facility for healing. While in a collective, he understood it to his bones. Obviously. But when he was forced to actually produce the pattern of energy, to maintain the fine control of power and perception, it felt like playing a familiar instrument with numb fingers. He remembered exactly how the magic should feel, but the memories were not his own. Neither were the skill, nor the practice. In their place he held nothing but desire and incompetence.

It had taken hours and hours of guided control exercises before he could practice sealing even a minuscule cut. And he only did so by using the Initial Collective to borrow an understanding of the patterns of nerve, fat, under skin, and over skin need to address those shallow scrapes. 

Most of his thirty-six hours had passed by the time he was able to heal a cut three times in a row without failure. The tutor had then taught him the last piece of vital Spring Court magic. 

The way it had been described to him was as making a small golem in his mind. He could teach it, to the best of his understanding and skill, how to do a single task. Then, when he activated it and gave it magic to use, it would execute the task without any need for direction from him. But it would only work as well as he would have at the time of its creation and required direct intervention if he needed to improvise, or if any scenario came up that he had not been familiar with when he had cast the mind magic to ‘teach’ the golem. 

Yam was not capable of casting the spell by himself yet, but with help he could make his first Shorthand. The first step had been to memorize a standard spell circle. Which was a visual representation for how several different shorthands would interact. 

It should have been easy, but by that point the caffeine was not helping as much as it should have and his focus had grown quite weak.

Then, with his tutor handling the most complex pieces of spell formation from within an Initial Collective, all of his knowledge, skill and understanding was compressed into a single character. The Spring Court’s symbol for ‘heal laceration’. 

 His tutor had lightly cut her own arm, just enough to produce a few beads of blood. Yam had thought of the symbol, burning and eternal in his mind within its cocoon of mind magic, and fed it power. Then,  just like that, the spell circle had drawn itself in strands of light. His symbol had appeared, held safely in the circle. That separate fragment of his mind and understanding had healed the cut on his tutor’s arm with only the slightest need of guidance from him. 

Back in his room Yam wrote furiously. Trying to encapsulate the entire process, all the feelings, and steps, and insights in his own words so that they wouldn’t fade from his mind as he spent longer and longer away from the Initial Collective he had learned it in. 

In the end his remaining understanding felt shallow, and when he summoned the shorthand in his dormitory, he saw obvious flaws. Looking in on the preserved segment of his mind, he could see edges blurred by sleep deprivation and weaves of magic that could easily be simplified and made more efficient. Shore up leaking power here and put less energy into this section as it was obviously more of stabilizer than an active spell component. 

But other parts looked foreign to him. Like the many, many details of anatomy he hadn’t actually learned, and merely remembered from the collective when the shorthand was made. In general the shorthand felt shallow and difficult to process. Likely because, at the time he had made it, his knowledge had been shallow, difficult to process. Especially since it had been entirely reliant on the fading memory of the Initial Collective. 

Without that memory and several details he had only been able to memorize in the short term, it was difficult to read his own shorthand. Like a familiar language written in jargon he no longer remembered. 

He dismissed the spell circle with a thought and leaned back in his chair. It had been thirty-six hours well spent, but he would have to earn another tutoring session if he wanted to go back. Moreover, the spell circle had slots open to hold more the shorthand spell symbols. Places where he could add the fixing of muscle and nerve and blood once he had mastered those skills. Maybe even ways to block pain as he burnt corruption from a wound. 

That was one of the critical secrets to the Spring Court’s massive works of magic. One mage became an army. A general with thousands of specialists working on their behalf. They would be left with nothing to do but orchestrate the process from on high. Looking down on great circles redolent with a lifetime of shorthands and perfectly preserved moments of competence. At that point a single Spring Court mage became a collective in and of themselves

He wanted that. He wanted that terribly. 

But there was work that needed to be done first. He needed larger reserves, finer control, and stamina potions. Lots and lots of stamina potions. The next time he returned to the tutoring building it would not be for just thirty-six hours. 

~~~

The next day, he went to his first module. A module, not a class. There were no classes in the Vernal Court. Which sounded strange. But it was a school of unknowable secrets and reality bending magic. So an odd name was… good?

 When he had gone to the administrative office, he’d been told that for his current level of skill, he was allowed five modules but that he was only able to choose two of them until he passed his basic requirements. One of those slots was strongly, strongly encouraged to be the osteomancy course he had been offered by Mrs. Reed.

He was not allowed to take the massive book listing all possible courses home and it was too large to hide under his wrap. Instead, he checked read the schedules for his courses; Basic Osteomancy, Basic Physical Training, Sentient Species Anatomy, and Basic Control Exercises. With one choice left open for later. 

The book’s text shifted as he read it, magically updating information like class sizes, schedules, and other details. He quickly discovered that Basic Physical Training was available at all times throughout the week with various different instructors, but Basic Osteomancy would only be available at three different times on each of the three days it was held. Which, luckily included one session starting very soon. 

After a speed walk across campus that left him vaguely breathless, he found the correct room and entered his first module at Istima. 

One of his osteomancy teachers was a human-looking woman, aside from the small caps of bone on the tips of her fingers. She was accompanied by her partner, a rather plain looking human with short brown hair on his head. 

When he arrived, he was handed a single sheet of paper:

Basic Osteomancy One

Exit CriteriaL

·      Sense bone matter accurately from near range and mid-range (within arm’s reach and across a room)

o   Display the ability to sense bone matter of dimensions smaller than a standard Imperial 1 Jez coin 

·      Cause bone matter to levitate in a sustained fashion

·      Cause any degree of replicable fusing of bone matter

He skimmed the paper and went up to the front of the small classroom where the pair of bored senior students serving as teachers were answering questions and describing training exercises to other students.

“Excuse me.”, Yam said when he made it to the front of the line, being sure to make his language appropriately formal and respectful, “But I am able to accomplish all of these tasks, and this is my first class. What am I supposed to do?”

“Show me,” the brown-haired student said as he shoved an animal bone with visible fractures along its length towards Yam. 

Despite their boredom, as it turned out, the pair teaching the class were very helpful.

He levitated the bones they provided for him with almost no effort. They barely reacted. Which made sense since it was insultingly easy. They then asked him if he could liquidate sections of bone and fuse them back together. Yam was pleased to comply. 

When he had first discovered that he was elementally aligned with the specific earth and water combination that let him manipulate bones, his family had spent months trying to find a mage who would tutor him. In the end a wandering hedge witch had taught him a few basic control exercises and told him control of energy was the foundation of all magic. It determined the size, complexity, and fine detail of what one could accomplish. It also determined how efficiently and elegantly a spell was executed. According to her, most mages were seduced by flashy magic and maintained their control exercises at the bare minimum degree of competency. A mistake which put a flaw in their foundation and sharp limit on what they could do.

That was what she said. What Yam had heard was slightly different: ‘you can make everything you do better than everyone you will be competing against, if you are willing to be more disciplined in this one simple task. Everyone knows it, but no one cares enough to pull the full measure of profit from this knowledge.’

If that were a business deal measured in money, he was certain his mother would have put all of their savings into it at once.

So, for all that he lacked in magic theory and prestigious tutors, he was rewarded with compensatory time to spend on his foundations. He had meditated and cycled through control exercises for at least an hour everyday. Without fail. And four times that whenever he could. Everyday, every week, from the first time he met the hedge witch to the day he set foot in Istima.

He opened the particular set of senses that let him perceive bones, and found the one offered by his teachers. With all the efficiency and speed he had cultivated in his travels, he turned the entire small thigh bone into a liquid, only allowing it to become solid once it was in the shape of a perfect cube. 

He looked up, hoping he had understood them correctly and saw both of their mouths gaping.

With a sudden intensity they asked him to levitate AND make the bone spin. Then lift only one of these beads while letting the others rest. Then how many could he move at one time?

A few of the tests were unfamiliar and he struggled through them, but most seemed childishly easy. It had taken him almost a year before he could lift multiple bones at once and set them rotating around his head, but still he had figured that out as a rather young man. And he had done it while riding a moving wagon. Standing still in a silent classroom made the entire affair trivially easy. 

In the end they put him through  all of the requirements for Basic Osteomancy one, two, and three. However, he was unable to pass the sensory tests for the fourth level of the module. He had never been taught any exercises for perception. So while physically moving or reshaping was not difficult for him, no amount of effort let him will his way into sensing small hairline fractures and the underlying structure of different animal bones.  

The brown-haired boy turned to his companion who silently lifted a quill with the thumb and index finger of her right hand, the only digits that held no bone growth’ at their tips, and began writing. 

“This is your first module, right?”

“That is correct,” Yam said, still frowning at the perception tests. 

”Heavens preserve us,” the teacher said while shaking his head. ”Well, we will write your writs of success for these three Modules. You’ll be certified up to Osteomancy 3. Take them back to the administrative office. They’ll be added to your records and you can enroll in a new module.”

“How long will that take?”

“The writs rarely take more than fifteen minutes to process, and once they are the modules that list Basic Osteomancy three as a prerequisite will be open to you. Provided they have no other prerequisites.”

His face brightened, “Perfect, thank you very much”

Before he left they gave him various drills he could use to improve his perception: the sensory equivalent of her control exercises. He was just about to turn away when he remembered something, “I’m sorry to use any more of your time, but you are senior students, correct?”

“Yes, we are,” said the male.

“Then I was wondering, what would you do in my position? The module system seems quite confusing.”

Once again the two students shared a look. This time it was the female who spoke, her voice so soft it was difficult to hear. “It’s a mistake to try getting experience early. It’s impossible. Test out of as many basic’s as you can. No one wants help unless you are certified in anatomy, fine magic control, and have writs of success  for practical skills.  You should also take modules on harmonic restoration and physical fitness. It shows your magic reserve is large enough for applied work.”

“Thank you. Does that mean I should avoid entering another of these courses so I can spend more time on my prerequisites?”

She shook her head and dropped her eyes just long enough to drip hot wax onto the form she had filled out and press it with a seal. He saw a flicker of light as a spell circle briefly flared into existence while she pressed the otherwise simple but well made seal into the wax. 

“No”, she replied, ” Osteomancy is in demand. Learn it. Having skills other people need is how you get ahead.”

She handed her partner the paper and he spoke as he applied his own seal to the form, “After you pass through basic modules, trading favors, skills, and drawing the attention of specialists is vital for progression. Pass the basic osteomancy courses so you can enter the introductory classes. Those are the marketable skills. Also,” he said handing Yam his form, “get your Vernal uniform. It will matter soon. Especially the clothes for physical training.”

Yam accepted the paper and stared at it for several seconds before he responded. “You deserve more thanks than I have the time to give. I did not expect anyone in Istima to be helpful.”

That earned him a smile from his two student teachers, “You’re welcome,” said the one with brown hair. “There is competition here, but we are not the Summer Court.”

“Act well your part,” the female spoke the words with the cadence that only came from having repeated a motto thousands of times before.

~~~

Yam followed their advice and, after turning in his writ of success, used his stipend to buy clothing. There were no strict guidelines for uniforms. Just a long string of requirements. Clothing must be of a certain material. They must cover certain portions of the body. One must have items to stop hair falling into patients wounds, and the clothing could not impede the frequent tying on and replacement of butchers’ aprons. His main sets of clothing would not be available for several hours, but the merchant had Vernal Court physical training clothes that were pre-made in a variety of common sizes. 

That was how he ended up skulking through a gymnasium wearing a pair of short trousers like a gods-damned barbarian. 

They were horrible: confining, uncomfortable, and almost indecent. He had tried to buy a pair that were larger and less form-fitting, but the waist had been entirely too big for him. Instead he was forced to strap himself into the vile cloth contraptions. He felt the fabric pull against his legs and body as he moved. They showed entirely too much of his lower body and they made him look like a human child.

Even worse was the shirt. He had gotten a large shirt so that the hem hung down and covered some of his waist. But he was certain that when he took it off that it would catch on his fur, pull against the grain, and put everything into disarray. A man of his family was expected to have a certain amount of neatness. The same way none of his siblings in reptilian bodies would go out with dead skin and snarled scales, he refused to be seen with tufts of fur sticking out at odd angles.

Thankfully he was allowed to keep his own footwear.

He went to the gymnasium ready to argue about the need to wear these ‘clothes’. So, once he had stored all of his belongings in an enchanted locker, he straighten his spine, locked his jaw and stalked into the main area—

And stopped dead in his tracks when he saw that female students were in the same room and they had to wear the same uniform. He went back to his locker until the skin of his face was less heated. 

They must have custom tailored their training cloths to have them fit so tightly. 

How did they move?

Finally,  he was able to respectfully lock his eyes onto the floor and check in with a staff member at a small window by the gymnasium. He sensed no magic from her at all, which was more shocking than it should have been. Of course, Istima would not fill every menial position with mages. Otherwise there would be no reason to have an (almost) normal city grow around them. The magicless employee answered his questions and directed him to a corner of the room where a heavy set older gentleman was supervising a group of students.

Yam began walking towards one of the bleachers and waited for the clock to mark fifteen minutes as passed. At that point, he had been told, the instructor would give directions to any newcomers. For basic modules like this, the Spring Court tried to have classes running as close to constantly as possible. That way, students could drop in and do their work quickly without the administration having to make writs of exception for the module due to scheduling. 

Yam took a seat. But, even with his eyes down, he quickly noticed that student’s with clothes made of better material also had the clothing cut more tightly. Which immediately made him wonder if he had made a mistake in getting his large and billowing shirt. It wasn’t quite a tunic…

But he was also not an exhibitionist human savage. 

So Yam sat silently on the bottom tier on the benches where he could more easily keep his eyes on the floor. He was not sure if he should force himself to stare so he was desensitized or if it was more virtuous to keep his discomfort rather than lose his sense of propriety. He found no solutions. Instead he spent much of the time trying to tug the short trousers further down, wishing he had his belongings so that he could at least do control exercises while he waited. 

Finally, he was called up with a small group of other students. The instructor, Mr. Combs, was a gregarious and friendly man. He looked each student in the eye and offered his hand in the human fashion. Yam found himself liking him immediately. After giving a concise introduction the instructor asked for all of their ages so he could tell them their exit criteria. It was fairly simple, a certain number of pull ups, push-ups, sit ups, squats, and a short run. The requirements varied based on species, body plans, gender, and in one case, a thing called ‘reservoir conductivity’. Whatever that meant. Combs then explained the proper technique needed for each exercise, and that poor form would not be counted towards exit criteria.  

“Alright everyone, go to the stations and give it a try. If you think you meet exit criteria, or if you need help, I’ll be right here.”

Yam had only taken a few steps when Mr. Combs, or rather, Coach Combs, caught his eye. 

“Yam, right?”

“Yes sir,” he said warily, “is there anything I can do for you?”

“I didn’t want to do this publicly, but are you really fourteen? If the administration is under the impression that your age is higher than biologically accurate, then it won’t matter now. You’ve already been accepted.”

For the second time in a day Yam felt his face heat and his eyes drop. But he fought the impulse and kept his shoulders from drawing themselves up

“No sir, I did not obfuscate my age.”

“Alright. I’m only asking because I’ve never seen a furred Len who is so…” The instructor trailed off though his hands vaguely pantomimed around his chest and biceps, “… petite.”

Memories rose from the depths of his mind, but Yam viciously shoved them down. He felt a spark of anger and focused on it until it became a defiant blaze. 

“I,” he said, biting off his words, “had to choose the mammalian branch. I was born with a blood illness and needed a more robust body.”

“Ahh. I see. Well, if the illness still bothers you we can—”

“I do not need accommodations. My family is just naturally slender.”

“Alright. Well… If you need anything, I’ll be here”

“Understood,” he said, jaw tense. “Thank you, sir.”

Yam quickly turned and stalked to the nearest station. He wasn’t sure how long the line was but, lost in his anger, he suddenly found himself standing in front of a pull up bar. The flame of rage that had been burning so bright flickered for just a moment, and he felt a cold hand brush against his heart. 

Before it could take hold he shook his head and stoked the fire. He was not here to be pitied or stopped! Even if they put him in the clothes of a clown, even if he was denied the reptilian form of his family, he was not someone who could be stymied. For now he was a Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers, his fur a constant testament to the weakness of his body, but he would see the world burned if that is what it took to remake himself as a god.

Yam bared his teeth in defiance and threw himself up to the bar. His fingers closed and he yanked against the metal.

Only to find himself stalling halfway up. 

He pulled harder and clenched his jaw until he thought his molars would crack. He shifted up half an inch—

And stopped again.

No! He was not weak little Yam anymore. He did not need to be carried in anyone’s arms when his legs shook, or pretend like staying inside was his preference. He was a man and a mage of Istima!

Arms quaking, he bent his entire will to the task. 

But nothing happened and he could feel the eyes burning into his back. 

He pushed harder. Willing his body to obey him. He wasn’t weak anymore. This would not happen to him again. He willed his chin to raise until everything fell away and the burn in his arms was the only thing in the world. 

His fingers gave out and he fell with a snarl. Yam pounded the floor with his fists and leapt up again.

Within thirty seconds he fell, not able to get more than a quarter of the way up. He was just about to hurl himself up again when a hand gently rested on his shoulder. 

“Yam, that was a tremendous effort,” said Mr. Combs. “Why don’t we go over here and make a training program for you?”

“No!” he growled, feeling his magic spike. “I refuse to be beaten by this! I can—”

“Yam,” the older man interrupted, firm but not unkindly. “There are other people waiting for the equipment.”

The hand gently on his shoulder pulled him to the side and a tiny burst of air spasmed its way out of his lungs. 

“Here,” the coach produced a handkerchief, “wipe your… face. I’m sure you’re sweaty after that effort.”

Yam crumpled the handkerchief in his fist. He  hated the way his thin arms shook just trying to do that. How his face burned even under the hideous fur he had to wear. 

He let himself be led to the bleachers. 

“That’s it buddy. Remember, today is just the first step. We’ll make a plan and I’m positive that someone with your determination will test out.”

“Do you really think that?” he asked quietly. 

“Of course,” Combs looked down and gave him a small smile, “You’ve got the will for it. Haven’t you?”

The whispers of the other student’s sounded like a roaring waterfall to his ears. With his arms still watery and shaking, he used the handkerchief to dab at his forehead and casually wipe the moisture from his cheeks. 

“I don’t have a choice. I cannot stop here.”

“Exactly right,” the older man nodded his head. 

They walked silently until they made it to the far corner of the room. Mr. Combs hesitated briefly, before going to a knee. “Being sick is horrible, and it’s not fair. But as long as you promise to mind your limits and not do anything rash, we’ll get you there. This is Istima after all. You must always acknowledge your boundaries so you can live to grow past them. Sound like a deal?”

It took him longer to respond than he would have liked, and his voice was not as strident as befitted a soon to be archmage-deity. But he did respond. 

And he felt that little bonfire of rage stir in his chest. It was only embers now, but he stoked it and fed all the emotions, and weakness, and the whispers until those embers yielded a tongue of true flame. 

He would be damned if he let this hold him back a single minute more than it had to. 

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Yam 7

1.07

The representative of the Spring Court was an older woman who looked like she was built with sinew, bones, bags tattooed under her eyes, and no extra room beneath her skin to store even an ounce of pity.

“You are early for our appointment,” she said.

“I planned to spend significantly longer negotiating with the Night Court.”

“Your first time speaking with them?”

He nodded, and the Spring Court representative, Mrs. Reed, glanced at the secretary who had been eyeing him suspiciously for the last two hours while he stared at the wall. 

“Give me your letter.”

He pulled the parchment bearing a headache-inducing wax seal from his pouch and handed it to her. “How did you know I would have a note from them?”

She scanned his letter with a furrowed brow, “They are strange but not inconsiderate. The Night Court knows the impact they have on…”

The representative’s words trailed off as she read the note a second, then third, and even a fourth time. With a tightly controlled surge of magic, glyphs, spell circles, and various workings diagramed themselves on the air and flowed from her into the letter. She examined the seal with more than six spells before telling her secretary to move all her appointments back an hour and hauling him into her office.

“Eat this,” she ordered handing him an orange from a drawer in her desk. 

His voice came out dull and monotone, “Thank you for your generosity.” 

“I am a healer,” she said dismissively, “and you have come in contact with a very ancient mage if that letter is to be believed.”

“It is to be believed,” Yam took out one of his handkerchiefs and deposited the orange’s peels inside so he wouldn’t dirty his host’s desk. 

The woman grunted and they sat in a surprisingly comfortable silence as Yam ate. 

Finally, once he had finished, the woman spoke, “I’d have you tell me about the being you saw,” Yam opened his mouth but she interrupted him with a glare. “No. That will take time. Let’s discuss your joining of the court first and then move on.”

He glanced out the window and took in the position of the sun.

Mrs. Reed was perceptive, or maybe he was just not at his best,  “Don’t worry,” she said, ”Len are not unfamiliar to the court. Your people’s affinity for mind magic predisposes them to our approach. The negotiations will not take long.”

Yam nodded politely and kept his face blank. 

The negotiations wouldn’t take long? Maybe she just ‘had a Len friend’. Or she knew one who had been raised by humans.

“Yes”, she said, seeming to read his mind, “I know. Any Len who’s family can afford Istima is a better-trained negotiator than I. So I’ve learned to cut to the chase. We’ll start with my final offer.”

She handed him a piece of paper and he skimmed it briefly. It was shockingly reasonable (which really was a horrible place for her to start from). 

According to this document, he would live on the lowest floor of the new students building, be given two meals a day that were ‘conducive for magic training,’ have an entrance token to the physical training facilities, start with new student access to the Spring Court main library, and would be given limited special dispensation for books related to Osteomancy. There were several other concessions, such as a stipend for clothes appropriate to work in medical contexts, a single free tutoring session, and a certain amount of time in the study halls as well as  access to the training supplies therein. 

It really was an excellent deal. 

“This is entirely unacceptable!”

“Then tell me about the being you met and you can be on your way.”

Yam pulled his bargaining face into place and worked to make his diction more professional, “No. I still think there is promise in the Spring Court, but I just cannot accept these terms.”

“Then don’t,” the woman said, “That is my final offer.”

“You have no ability to flex? A mage of Istima must be able to offer a few drams for books at least?”

The representative sighed and glanced over Yam’s shoulder to look at a large mechanical clock on one of her book shelvesl, “I am a very busy woman. Lives are lost when I am not in the wards, and plagues profit each minute I am not in my lab. If you do accept our offer I would counsel you to not make your teachers repeat themselves. But,” she said, a frown tugging at the wrinkled leather of her face, “I am aware of your culture and will accommodate you . Give me the offers you gathered from the other courts. But, be warned, I will look at them once. If you try to schedule another meeting to show me counter offers then I will burn the papers and have you carried from my office.”

Yam kept his mask firmly in place but he felt a bead of sweat form on his temple. 

Still, he had always planned on showing the other other offers. He would prefer to drive the price higher and only use them to spur her onwards after  her first or second plateau, but with such a strong initial offer he was willing to be flexible. 

She looked over each paper, including her own, without expression. Finally, she set them side by side and began speaking. 

“The Summer Court,” she said pointing at the ‘offer’ with its fraudulently high sum, “Would not offer you so much money. Your magic is too tainted with elemental influence for their preferences and they would see you as spoiled and lacking ambition if you needed cajoling to join them. This sum is a joke, a trap, or you are blackmailing them. None of those scenarios mean I should waste money that could be used on  something of actual value like tsunami prevention research.”

Her finger moved to the Autumn Court’s offer, “They sent endless spies into our cohorts,” she scowled at the letter like it had personally wronged her, ”and none of them were the least bit competent while using up our resources. The physical training and nutrition research they ‘stole’ from us was thirty years out of date when we leaked it, and is ancient now. You already have a superior program in the mandatory physical education courses. The access to advanced texts they suggest? It would either be a waste of our time, or ruin your foundations and be a waste of your potential. If you submit yourself to the Spting Court we will not allow either.”

She calmly folded her hands into her lap and continued to speak in the same measured tone she had started with. But Yam caught her eyes darting impatiently to the clock on the mantle.

“If the Winter Court cared enough to offer you anything then your magic would be too contaminated to be of any use in healing. And you did not choose to speak with a weather mage or someone involved in agriculture, so you are stuck with my priorities as a healer. And, finally, if a mage from the upper spires, let alone one of the Night Court, has set its sights on you, then nothing living will stop them. Including my objections or your own.”

At some point,  during her monologue Yam’s eyes had grown very wide. 

“In conclusion,” said the Spring Court representative, “no. There is nothing that will make me increase my offer, though I am entirely capable of it. 

He open her mouth, but she cut him off before he could speak. 

“Bribes and family connection mean nothing to us. Any amount of healing, weather working, or ecosystem magic guarantees our very comfortable employment, for life. More importantly, the Vernal Court is a meritocracy. This,” her finger stabbed at the paper she had offered him, “is what you deserve because it is all you have earned. If I am mistaken then you can, quite literally, earn complete access to the library and take my office tomorrow. It merely takes displayed competence. And,” she said, once more looking to her clock,” it can all be done without wasting any of my time trying to talk about it.”

~~~

Yam left the medical mage’s room almost as stunned as he had left the Night Court.

Now that was a woman.

If she was just twenty— well, maybe thirty years younger…

Fate help him, merchants would weep when they came for groceries and rival’s would quake to ask for even a cup of tea. 

He stumbled into the Spring Court’s main office and presented his official welcome letter to the Vernal Court. In quick, efficient motions he was provided keys to his lodging. He also received a stipend for spring court clothes as well as a list of requirements for the sort of attire he would eventually need. They even suggested reputable stores to buy them from. There were other instructions and booklets in his welcome package. An appointment was set for him to choose his classes and he hurried back to the day court. 

He was able to move all of his belongings, and the large pile of texts from the Bookkeeper, in a single trip. 

While walking between the two courts he thought. In the end, he had not been able to drive up the offer a single dram. But he didn’t let it bother him. His opponent at the bargaining table held all of the power and was exquisitely aware of it. 

Fate help him! But she really had been. If she had only been thirty—, well, maybe forty years younger…

Finally he was left sitting on a bed in an otherwise empty room. The floorboards of the dormitory were creaky, some of the nails were rusted and not quite flush, the desk was ink stained, fire stained, acid pocked, covered in craved initials, and smelled uncomfortably of reptilian blood.

It was amazing. He had never had entire bed to himself before! 

 He really had made it. He was finally in Istima, in the court he had wanted, and was about to start his training as a Healer; a shaper of flesh just like Aehp the Eclectic Beast Lord. 

Like the person he was supposed to be. 

Yam fell back against his own personal bed and let the moment wash over him. A bed to himself, the world’s greatest experts teaching him magic, and a literal pile of books

            The only thing that could make this better was if the caravan was here and the matching desk and bed in his room were not. 

            He had fought Mrs. Reed fang and claw over that. But he had been told without an ounce of pity that every member of the Spring Court was assigned a partner and that they would be together as much as physically possible. 

It would make covertly ‘acquiring’ magic from the other courts extremely difficult— which seemed to be the point. The Spring Court was apparently, ‘A hair’s breadth from falling into the depths of dark magic and perversity on its best day,’ according to Mrs. Reed. Power over life, death, poison, specialized mind magic, plague crafting, overcoming a body’s inherent resistance to magic tampering, and all manner of other skills were needed to save a life. The slightest experimentation or spur of the moment improvisation would leave you marked as a practitioner of black magic. And then it was only a matter of time until the Birds swooped in to arrest you while you slept.

On the bright side, if he caught his partner doing dark magic he would earn five free tutoring sessions! So at least there was that. 

Yam sighed and pushed himself out of bed. It was lumpy as a sack full of rocks but he had not seen a single bed bug and none of the hay poked through the linen to stab him. He should be grateful that the Spring Court coddled its new students so much, rather than complain about a partner he hadn’t even tried to bribe yet. 

With practiced movements, the young Len went about leaving physical and magical markers about the room so he could tell if someone other than himself had disturbed anything. He would have experimented with climbing out of his window, but it  was too narrow. Likely to stop young students from escaping their partners so they could secretly experiment with cursing sexually transmitted diseases onto thier competitors. 

Instead, Yam put on his back pack and began systematically walking through the hallways of the new student dorms. 

It took nearly two hours of feeling for air currents brushing his whiskers, questing out with his various magical senses, knocking on walls, going through closets, and checking behind wall hangings for the stagnant scent of earth before he found what he was looking for. 

There was an extra large stall in one of the communal bathroom/bathing facilities for the first floor. It was a horrid, putrid place. Only a brave few ventured in over the course of twenty minutes. Otherwise it was mostly occupied by those who were ill. Either through means mundane or, in the case of one student violently vomiting a strawberry scented rainbow, more magical afflictions. 

The large stall in the corner seemed to be made for Akatsi or other students with unusually large bodies. There was no toilet, just a hole in the ground that was far too narrow. And, as such, was crusted with things that were… unspeakable. Unexpected, unspeakable, and best left forgotten.

Inside the large stall was a small closet, more of a pantry really, filled with cleaning supplies that had long since been deemed inadequate to the challenge at hand, and abandoned. When Yam first found the pantry he had felt a subtle flow of air that was suspicious. He had to stand still for nearly ten minutes (holding his breath for as much of that time as was possible) before it came again. Butby then he was certain; the air was going towards the closet. Despite it having nowhere to go.

The little pantry was completely dead to his magic senses and he found no other obvious hints of subterfuge. Eventually he took two chicken wings he had picked clean for lunch and inserted them into a pair of deep scratches at the corners of the closet. Using osteomancy he then lifted the bones. It took wiggling in a very specific pattern but he eventually shifted the panel disguised as a wall to reveal a rough hewn tunnel and a degraded lip of beeswax that rats had obviously nibbled at. Had they not done so he would never have felt the air current that alerted him to the passage’s presence. 

In total he found more than five secret rooms that stank of lovers’ retreats, three tunnels leading outside of the dormitory, several collapsed passages, and a few other route of questionable safety that led into the underground cave systems. 

Apparently the student’s of the spring court took the practice of secret magics and (debatably) illegal arts, seriously. 

He really had chosen his court well.

Of the passages, he prefered the bathroom pantry. It was guarded by the horrid conditions of the shared bathroom, had extra protection in the form of whatever depravity had been visited on that standing toilet, and there was even an extra entrance. 

On the second floor there was a similar pantry, in a similar bathroom. Though this one was simply guarded by a magic construct that talked to you the entire time you were in the stall. It was distressingly intimate, knew his full name immediately, and, when it wasn’t intermittently screaming like a murder victim, it plyed Yam with subtly insulting implications and passive aggressive comments. 

The pantry on that second floor stall had a similar mechanism in the walls. This one opened to reveal a ladder going to the same passage the first floor entrance led to. Both routes terminated in a comfortably sized cavern with a waist high waterfall in the corner. The water was perfectly drinkable as far as he could tell. The cavern was excellent ventilated, softly lit by strange plants, and held some stretches of wall that were so perfectly smooth that he was certain they had been altered with earth magic. 

It seemed like the most secure place he could possibly set up camp. But, it was best to check. He set up indicators to see if any other students knew of the location. They were the same tricks he had used in his assigned dormitory to detect anyone tampering with his belongings.

That done, Yam closed his eyes and hummed happily to himself in his new hidden get-away. Surrounded by knowledge and escape tunnels was how he was meant to be. 

He was not able to linger for long though. He kept falling asleep and was forced to return to his room. Even though it felt incredibly vulnerable to sleep where everyone expected him to be. But he needed a window so that the sun could wake him in time for his next step. 

~~~

He awoke after fourteen hours of oblivion ready to exploit his free tutoring session. 

Awake, energetic, magic filled to the brim, Yam packed up his entire bag. He made particularly sure to place his black tea, food, and drams within easy reach at the top of the bag. Then he set off for the building where he would finally be introduced to the magic of the Spring Court. 

There was no doubt that others had noticed the same loophole that he had. The fact that it remained seemed to be implicit encouragement of his plan.

When he had discussed tutoring, Mrs. Reed had told him that tutoring pairs were senior students who rotated after certain stretches of time unless one had earned the privilege of scheduling private sessions. That being said, if one waited their room, the rotation would ensure that they learned from three pairs, six different perspectives! All within a ‘long’ three hour session. 

With a happy hum, Yam stepped off the cobbled path he was on and gathered some kindling that had fallen off a beautiful tree. With practiced motions he stripped all the leaves from the wood and wedged them into his traveling pack so it would neither knock against his cooking pot or dirty the great wrap that served as his clothes and bed roll.

Though a three hour session was ‘long’, one earned access to the tutoring building. Not, he had clarified, access to the building for a pre-determined amount of time.

The eternal spring sun warmed his fur as he filled two large traveling canteens with water from a fountain, and Yam couldn’t help but smile. 

Yes. Until they caught on, Istima really was the best place in the world for him to be.

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Yam 6

1.06

Yam’s next meeting was with the Night Court. He entered their territory deprived of sleep and sustaining himself with black tea he had left to steep for so long that its taste was a near physical assault on his mouth. 

However, once he walked through the gate to the Night Court, Yam quickly realized that he was far from the only person functioning on foreign substances. In fact, he would go so far as to bet that the people who had originally built the Night Court had been on significantly stronger substances in significantly larger doses. 

Significantly. 

Not that it was upsetting or horrifying. The court was set under a beautiful starry sky. All light not from the moon came from glowing orbs, torches, and the eyes of things swimming largely unseen through the perpetual night. 

Several of the buildings seemed to be alive. A few of them also appeared to be sentient. But not every sentient building seemed to be alive. And, at least at first glance, none of the buildings he had noted appeared to be either sentient or alive in the same way the others were.

Which was not a description that would have made sense anywhere other than Istima.

There were a few locations where students stepped off the ground and onto the walls without seeming particularly interested or bothered. Several other spots had people transition to swimming through the air, playing hopscotch without stopping their conversation, and one side street where everyone fell asleep for thirty seconds at a certain spot before standing up and continuing. 

To an extent, small anomalies like this showed up everywhere across the academy. But in the Night Court it seemed to be more of a rule and less of an exception.

The overall impression he received was that this place seemed like the painting of an almost child-friendly dreamworld. Nothing was consistent, very little made sense, but none of the oddities came across as overtly threatening or sinister. 

 Even with that, what struck him the most was the way it managed to look like a Len caravan felt.

Just like the Night Court representative from the tavern, who was serving as his current guide, the students around him had something very similar to a Len’s Presence. Whatever it was lacked the substance and the immediate impact on his body. If he had to describe it he would say it was like they played a similar tune on a different instrument. 

Those with the greatest pseudo-presence swept through the streets like royalty and the court swayed around them, leaving visible oddity in their wake. Plants grew in the footsteps of one such student, the world lost all color behind another and, for a particularly strong presence, everyone within ten feet of the student suddenly appeared as a giant arcane lizard beast wearing regular human clothes.

In an actual Len settlement, being caught in a powerful Presence felt like the world had turned on its head. Your body informed you with no room for questions that the other person was a Len, and what your relative status was compared to them. If someone with enough personal force told you the sky was red, it was hard to disagree. 

“You’re not screaming as much as I expected you too,” said his guide. 

“I am not screaming at all,” Yam replied calmly. 

“Odd. Testing. One two. One TWO!” His guide dug into his ear with a finger. He shook his head vigorously and turned back to Yam. “You’re right, you’re not the one screaming. My apologies.” The boy pointed to a group of students sitting in a circle, all bearing looks of inebriated concentration as they passed around a pipe burning something pungent. “Are they screaming?”

“No. They seem quite peaceful.”

His black-cloaked companion turned to the empty air opposite Yam. “Are you the one screaming?” 

He did not appear to get a satisfactory reply and they walked through the Night Court in a distinctly uncomfortable silence. 

Yam cleared his throat and tried to keep his speech professional. ”Yes, well… the displays of personal power seem quite flagrant here. Not like the other courts.”

“They’re side effects mostly. Not displays. Mostly.”

He had only wanted to break the tension, but Yam felt genuine interest stir in his chest, “Side effects of what?”

“Couldn’t tell you,” The senior student shrugged. ”Maybe the reality around here has gotten embarrassed. Decided to help us out so it can tell all of its friends that this was actually what it wanted to do the whole and that there was never any bullying involved.”

“Bullying?”

 “Sometimes. Other times flattery. Are those people screaming?”

“No, they’re just burning an effigy. How does one flatter reality?”

“With will.”

“Will? As in the power of personal determination?”

“Exactly. That and some magic. You’re Len, can’t you feel it?”

“The Presence?”

His guide pointed a finger at a student who made the ground bounce under his feet like a hungry Slime and who seemed to distort the air with the intensity of his gaze. “That isn’t a Presence. Humans don’t have all the ingredients to make one of those. But will is a part of Presence, and will is the basis of all Night Court magic.”

Yam stopped moving and his guide came to a halt as well. The young Len looked around the cobbled streets and matched the pseudo-Presences he sensed with the distortions that each student caused.

“What about chants and spell formulas and invocations? How can just will power be magic?” 

“Don’t know.” His guide said, focusing rather intently on plugging and unplugging each of his ears in an attempt to isolate the ‘sound’ that had been distracting him. “It probably isn’t. Unless you force it to be.”

“With will?” Yam guessed.

“With will.” The older student nodded.

“So, if you have an errant thought about walking upside down, your magic makes it happen? Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Danger is a complicated assessment that begs many questions about risk, causality, and advanced probability. But yes, that would be dangerous. Our magic just do that, so it’s not that dangerous; it’s a different dangerous. Provided, I’m assuming, that we’re referencing the same metaphysical thought construct for ‘danger’. ”

The young Len narrowed his eyes. “Is that the Night Court way of saying that you won’t explain your magic to me unless I bribe you?”

“No, but good guess. The magic systems are dead simple and ours is the simplest.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Rocks don’t scream right?”

“No, they do not”

“Do they whisper?”

“Will you tell me about the magic systems if I answer that?”

“Sure.”

“No. I’m sorry. Rocks do not, in fact, whisper.”

“Damn,” his guide glanced at a sundial, which was casting a shadow directly against the light of a nearby lamp. “Well, generally, the Winter Court makes magic at the frequency of their element and it’s like poking a hole in a cask. They pull loads of naturally-occurring elemental magic from that opening. They just have to sustain the hole and control what happens as it comes through. The Autumn Court uses words, incantations and gestures to cast their spells. The grammar and dialect interactions are supposed to be complicated. So they have to memorize exactly, be orderly, and be detail-oriented.” His guide shuddered in apparent revulsion as he said the word ‘orderly’, ”The Summer Court writes their magic out. But, unlike the Autumn Court, they can’t use willpower to intervene and correct gaps or inaccuracies. Everything happens exactly how they write it down. They also mix potions.”

“How do they do that?”

“Spoons. Sticks. Ladles.” Rhe guide shrugged, ”Depends on the container. The Spring Court does complex systems. So they use mind magic to make packets of pure understanding that know how to do a single specific task. Then they assemble a bunch of packets to handle all the different parts of a single complicated spell. The Night Court is simpler and subjectively objectively superior.”

Yam scratched the side of his head but decided not to interrupt. 

”We decide something is real, put some magic in our will, and then convince the world we’re right. If we win it more or less happens.”

“That’s it?”

“Yup. If you can conceptualize it, will it, or believe it, then you just do it.”

“That’s how you cast spells?”

“That is how we cast spells.”

“And it works?”

“The short answer is yes. The long answer is a philosophy class.”

“And, all you need to do is train your will?”

“You also need to change your mind so you can think of things more persuasively.”

“How do you do that?”

His guide glanced over his shoulder at another circle of students sharing a pipe and a girl who was dangling upside down from a tree limb while reading a book titled Social Constructs Adjusted and Demon Summoning Trusted: A Memoir.

“That’s the hard part. That and remembering which real you’re in.”

“As in the ‘real’, you are making with magic or actual reality?”

“I wish.” His guide sighed, seeming genuinely tired. ”Just finding your way out of the-real-you-don’t-know-you-made is hard enough. Let alone finding and remembering the realest reals without destroying the other reals you need to believe in for your older spells.”

~~~

The rest of the trip was an unintelligible explanation of other ‘reals’; how they overlapped, where they differed, and apparently how they tried to deceive you with their feminine wiles. It was fascinating, unintuitive and somehow painful to think about. 

And it was completely wiped from his mind the moment he felt who he was supposed to be meeting. 

The Presence was unspeakable. 

He did not know of numbers, or comparisons, or even mathematic functions based on comparisons, to express how large the Presence was. The moment he walked into range he blacked out and found himself with no memory at all of the journey he took to reach the individual. 

To say it was a Len was to say a four-limbed God was human. 

Its form was one he had never heard of, read about, or even imagined. 

His own father’s will had been unshakable, and he had found a hidden form one or two forks down the Reptilian path. Even people who went only a single step deeper down that mammalian path than Yam, had their Presence increased formidably. An advanced form like his father’s had multiplied the man’s already intense Presence until it felt like standing in the summer sunlight just to see him smile. Knowing the secret to reliably achieving that form had made his family virtual nobility among the caravans. 

But this, this, was many orders of magnitude greater. 

The being in front of him had chosen a body along the Mammalian branch, but it was so far from the first, default lupine-human mixture that Yam wore. 

The shape in front of him was like a centaur. The upper body was  perfectly human. Every feature was of flawless, elegant masculinity. The lower body was that of a bear with the addition of a long and agile tail.  However, what Yam had mistaken for a massive bearskin cloak, the head of the beast serving almost as a hat, shifted as the man saw him approach.

The being’s human upper body leaned forward, the fur cascading down his shoulders  folding forward like a cocoon, like a venus fly trap. The thick skin and dangling paws seemed to gain definition and volume. 

In a breath that human upper body was completely encased until a third set of bear legs, ones that had been hanging behind the man’s shoulders met the earth. The abruptly six-legged bear-creature moved forward, no trace of its human body visible.

The being’s second set of features had been mixed from the pride of a feline, the noble cast of a wolfhound, and all of that without losing an ounce of ursine gentleness. Though he did notice that its paws had opposable thumbs.

Yam went unconscious again. 

~~~

He woke up with human eyes colored a  piercing jade looking at him. The Len’s animal body was once again folded back and draped over his shoulders like a bearskin cloak.

With an abruptness that left him dizzy the sense of Presence around him disappeared until it felt no stronger than a first form grandfather; warm, slightly senior to himself, but comforting in its pressure and completely unthreatening. 

Words left his mouth without his permission. “You can’t do that!”

The being cocked his head to the side and grinned. “No little one, your language is imprecise. What you meant is, ‘I have never known of the ability to retract my Presence’. And, as you will be working with the Night Court, I suggest adding the word ‘yet’ to any statement of limitation. It’s very motivational.”

“But I haven’t decided to work with the night court.”

“You haven’t decided. Yet. But don’t worry, I already have.”

On reflex, Yam steeled himself for a surge of Presence to batter against his mind. Instead, the older Len just smiled. 

“I won’t force you to obey. It would rob you of your drive.” Idly the man’s fingers flickered and a small ball of light began dancing across his hand and changing colors. It was odd to see such a basic control exercise being done by something so powerful. Though the strange Len appeared to be doing it without notice, like a tik. 

”Let me inform you of the situation as I see it,” said the ancient being. ”Then we can get to the meat of the issue.”

“I am powerful. Most powerful mages at Istima never leave their towers. Though it’s more accurate to say that most leave their bodies behind on the material plane where Istima’s towers are, and never totally return to them.  I took a break from my spire to spend a few years learning spatial magic. Your bloodline gift, or natural power, or whatever it’s called now, interests me. No matter what court you chose I would have you help assimilate the Night Court’s knowledge of spatial manipulation with the aid of your natural talent. I will study the process as well as the results, and use them for my own ends. So, tell me your aims and I’ll compensate you for your assistance.”

It was a rare experience for a Len to be struck speechless by another’s candor. In fact, it rarely happened outside of fables that were trying to show a hero’s extreme dedication to truth, forthrightness, and etiquette. 

Like any well-raised boy, Yam had been taught to express a great and potentially risky truth to demonstrate his respect and veracity. But this… this was so much free information.

“I haven’t told anyone what my ability is.” He muttered, still trying to process what he had just heard.

“You showed spatial manipulation at the entrance test. Didn’t you?”

“But,” he tried to swallow and found his throat bone dry, “I did it when it would look like teleportation and other magic. I was going to use the mystique for bartering.”

“Truly?” The ancient Len put his hands on his hips. “Doesn’t the current culture value intangibles like being offensively honest above everything?”    

Offensively… honest? 

Both words made sense on their own. But they seemed strange when placed next to each other. Like, ‘savory lemon’ or ‘carpeted kitchen’ or ‘too much money’. 

Yam found himself parroting a common phrase, once again robbed of his mental footing. “Honesty is the backbone of character, but it does not remove the obligation to listen for game and jest.”

One of the older Len’s bear arms stirred and passed through the air like it was wiping answers from a chalkboard. “I do not understand, nor do I have the inclination to do so at the moment. Just tell me what you want so we can get to the fun part.”

This was jus too strange. Though it was extremely rude to use your Presence to force someone to agree with you, and it was considered a subversion of a sacred bond between Len, Presence always colored a conversation. It was impossible not to be influenced when your bones hummed with the absolute certainty that the other person was above you. That was why the caravans operated so smoothly and so quickly. But, right now, there was nothing compelling him even though he knew for a fact that the being in front of him was unimaginably superior to himself. 

It made his head hurt.

Without the power dynamic of a strong Presence, the conversation felt oddly carefree and ripe for a game of words. But Yam found himself unable to even put on his bargaining mask. Not because he was shocked, though he very much was. What stopped him was the voice of his mother whispering to him from his memories. 

He felt like a toddler being gently reprimanded for some mischief he was too young to know he should be embarrassed by.

Whoever this man was, whatever this man was, he had been so direct. And it had been authentic. 

He was not ritually signaling his character. He was a good, virtuous person; upfront, honest, helpful, loving of knowledge, and generous with his fellow Len.

And all to an extent that was almost comical.

The idea of repaying such virtue with game or bargaining made him feel dirty. That was not the man his mother had raised him to be. 

Yam sighed and completely gave up on gathering his composure. “I am Study Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers and I have come to Istima so I can become a god.”

“Okay, okay.” The older Len rubbed his chin. ”To become a god or to become god-like? They are different. Both very reasonable, but also very different.”

Yam snorted. That was the first time someone had said his ambition was reasonable. “I need to become indistinguishable from Aehp the Eclectic Beast Lord.”

“Hmm. Never heard of him. Must be from after my time.”

“Some would say he is extremely new,” Yam said, feeling his amusement turn dark. 

“Oh? And why would ‘some’ say that?”

“Because some say that my father invented Aehp and the rest of his pantheon so he could make a profit peddling false religion.”

The being’s eyes glimmered and something ancient moved under his gentle grin. “And what do you say young one?”

Yam’s jaw flexed. Then deliberately he straightened his posture, schooled his expression, and forced himself to summon some of the dignity he had once been told was his birthright and his duty. “I say that if I become Aehp, then my father was no liar; he was just early.”

The moonlight reflected from two sets of smiling teeth and two pairs of emerald eyes. “You seek power to make your father into a prophet?”

Yam felt his own Presence stir and bared his teeth in a smile that was far less gentle than his companion’s. “My father was always a prophet. I just haven’t proved it. Yet.

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Yam 5

1.05

  It would be fair to say that Yam retreated deeply into studying. It would also be fair to say he read for two and a half days straight and almost needed medical assistance when he finally came to a stopping point. 

The texts the bookkeeper had given him were very strange. Three of them dealt with the cultivation of a non-physical type of magical. They called it Soul’s Work, and the books went through exercises and potions that would help cultivate the ability to sense soul’s magic as well as control drills. There were no techniques mentioned. 

Though the graphs and equations were oddly beautiful if you squinted your eyes. So there was that at least. 

The bookkeeper had only told him to return once he had read the books.

He would prefer to return to the Understacks triumphantly. Able to show his dedication with mastery over new magic. That would be the best way to show his value as a potential employee. But to learn even two of the cants he had seen would be incredibly difficult and expensive.

Yam slapped his legs and leapt to his feet. Difficult was not an excuse! Difficult was an obstacle, a test. He just had to remember why he was here, and where the path he was on would lead.

First things first, he could go through the shopping district and see how much additional texts would cost. He would not be assigned classes until he joined his Court and so his only real time commitment were meetings with different Court representatives. That left plenty of time to study magic.

With every intention of making a dramatic exit Yam crawled from the thick bushes he had camped in. Then he realized he hadn’t put his wrap back on and was dead naked. 

His second attempt at an appropriately heroic exit ended when he forgot his bag of drams. The third attempt was delayed by him tripping. He did not trip on anything in particular; not unless one counted sleep deprivation or malnutrition as ‘anything in particular’. 

That was when he decided that no matter what, he had to push through with his plan! Nothing would stop him from executing his will on the world. 

First step, amend the plan so it included sleep. Second, eat. Third, continue with his first draft of the plan. Maybe bathe too. 

With a self-satisfied nod Yam tried to stand so he could execute his plan and begin chipping away at fate with the force of his will alone. However his legs were still weak and he fell again. 

But he narrowed his eyes in an expression of stoic determination.

Then, heroically, Yam barrel rolled himself back into the bushes so he could execute step one of his master plan, and fall asleep in his clothes.

~~~

When he checked in with the front desk of his dorm, he was given a folded piece of paper that only he could open. With a magical sensation the rough equivalent of chewing mint leaves, his student identification number settled into his mind so clearly it was like he had already spent a week memorizing it. 

Written at the bottom of the letter was a note from the Autumnal Court saying they had expedited his paperwork and sincerely looked forward to his meeting with their representative. 

Yam moved on and sat on the uncanny bench from his last trip out of the day court, still unwilling to lose to its inexplicable and uncomfortable presence. He re-read the letter several times. To him it spoke of power and bribery via favors. 

Which was a novel experience; he had always wanted to be bribed.

Though Yam was still tired, his mood soared. Though, when he left the eternal sunshine of the Claral Court, the young Len was unpleasantly surprised to learn that nearly three days had passed. The day for his meetings with the Autumn Court had already arrived. 

As always, more information, more time to study, would have been better. But there were ways to compensate for that ignorance. 

He hurried through the streets, trying to move with the sort of confidence that told muggers he belonged here and was not a potential victim. That aura, in its own kind of magic, caused the crowds to part around him. It also helped that he frequently met the eyes of people surrounding him while fingering the hilt of his not-for-eating knife. 

Finally, he stepped through the archways of a different court and stopped dead. A warm summer breeze stirred his fur and the smell of flower fields danced under the scent of coal and chemicals. Massive be-scaled smokestacks rose into the sky. The air around them rippled with magic and heat. The head of each stack was shaped into that the visage a mythic beast opening its mouth and shooting smoke into the perfectly blue sky.  

He eventually greeted his contact, a professor who reeked of brandy and spoke grandly of the treasures of the Estival Court. His fine vest and crisp shirt were marked by grease and, under the reek of a high functioning alcoholic, the Young Len could smell oil and burning metal. 

The man’s magic felt weak, but his liquor went down smoothly, so Yam treated him with courtesy. When he outlined his plan the representative of the Estival court snorted and immediately called over a secretary to see to the details. 

~~~

“I am Study Yam Hist. Based on your rich accommodations and apparent knowledge of the Len, I expect subtle bribery of a high caliber from you.”

“Of course, of course.” The woman across from him nodded, “I am a Master of the Autumnal Court of Istima.”

Yam’s eyes widened. The woman across from him was plump with permanently red cheeks. If any other human had said that, he would have doubted that they understood what they were saying. But her decorum had been perfect, following the rules of etiquette to the letter. 

For someone with knowledge of the Len to claim to be a Master… 

A true master of a craft was uncommon and renowned. But she clearly knew the rules, and this was the greatest university in the known world. 

He reexamined her perfect silky robes and glanced at her hat. It was unusually tall and very ornate, which seemed to mean a great deal in the Autumn Court. 

“Thank you for your time, M’am.” Yam said, dropping his eyes. “What craft are you a Master of?”

“Within the Autumn court my titles are many, and I am considered to be a great source regarding the non-physical magics. However, to one not in the Autumn court, my titles would be meaningless and would only serve to make you feel ignorant and uncomfortable.”

Yam nodded seriously. Finally, a taste of civilization.

“You are here to negotiate with the Autumn Court?” She asked.

“Yes. I desire the skills of your court. In fact, you are one of the earliest parties I have visited today.”

“Of course, and what other Courts have extended you offers?”

Yam smiled politely, “I am rather disappointed so far. The Winter Court tested my magic and found me wanting. However, they did offer tutoring at a discount.”

“So, they believe you have insufficient natural talent, but a small chance at building skills.”

“And they want to keep eyes on me so they can maintain control of anyone who could execute their magic in public. Yes, that was my assessment as well. Luckily, my magic is pure enough of elemental influence that the Summer Court made me a modest offer.”

Though the woman had obviously studied the Len, but she was only human. He put a very particular emphasis on ‘modest’ and saw the muscles of her face twitch with displeasure. He had not been as diligent in gathering information on the different Court relations as he should have been. However, his impression of the Summer court was of lawlessness. They spoke with a gallows humor; every student checked the shadows for thieves while watching any hands that came near their bags. 

In contrast, the Autumnal Court had paperwork for everything. Their robes were meticulous even when ink stained. They lived by the rules and for the rules. From his talk with Thomnas it seemed as though they had been saddled with running most of Istima’s gritty details. 

He had not confirmed it, but he was willing to bet that there was no love lost between the two factions; they felt like natural opposites. 

“And what exactly did the Estival Court offer?” The representative asked, her voice holding a nearly imperceptible hint of strain. 

“Please,” he said, brushing the question away with a flick of his fingers, “I am here to speak about the wonders of the Autumn Court. I would not want to be improper.”

“Ooh, of course. At least not before you hear my starting offer.”

Yam’s only reply was a smile. 

She snorted, “Well, before I can give you details, it would help for me to know what specifically interests you about us.”

Images of telekinesis and acts of power that would awe a crowd played behind his eyes, but his pride as a Len would not let him be baited so easily. 

“It seems to me that the Autumn Court excels not just magically, but in their overall consistency. When choosing a master, doesn’t it seem prudent to consider the environment as well?”

He described with a careful mixture of rhetorical questions and general statements how the Autumn Court was sane and stable. How they kept the school running. He asserted that almost every student would benefit from a systematic approach to learning and the backing of a cohesive organization. 

He avoided saying that he was not almost-every-student. Nor did he mention that he had every intention of learning from every single school, in every single way, no matter if they approved of his decision or not. 

But he didn’t say that wasn’t the case; which was all that really mattered. 

“—leads to a clear conclusion that the Autumn Court has put the most thoroughly systematized approach behind their goals.”

The representative’s hand drifted to a book that was so tall that the spine had to be enforced with brass bands, “That is true. Our first semester curriculum has taken every contingency into account. But,” she said, pulling her hand away from the book with obvious reluctance, “What other aspects of our court are you interested in?”

“Aside from the organizational aspect? I am also intrigued by the creation of a familiar bond, telekinesis, mental magics, and the uses of souls magic.”

“Well,” the master said, a genuine smile coming to her face, “You have come to the right place. As I said earlier, I am considered to be an authority on many of the non-physical magics.”

Which was why he had not mentioned firing invisible missiles, summoning beasts, teleporting, or any of his other interests. 

“Truly?” he asked, his eyes going wide in apparent awe

The representative’s spine straightened, and her smile grew brighter. “Honest word. Though, I would be fascinated to discover how someone without a court had already learned about soul’s magic. But first, let me tell you how our court would help you learn those skills.”

She took out a sheet of parchment and levitated a quill to her hand from across the room. “First, we would give you accommodations close to the center of the court as well as a stipend. Then—”

“Excuse me, I’m sorry, but I am still fresh from the caravans and I am a Ken Seeker. Material comforts mean little to me.”

Rather than being flustered, the master gave him the exact same serene Len smile that he himself wore. “True, but you have not heard why those ‘material comforts’ are necessary. Though we do not have the ability to throw drams at every problem until it goes away, like other courts do, we have a system for building our students’ magic reserves. With our facilities you can spend far more time casting and learning.”

Yam caught himself leaning forward and quickly hid the motion by adjusting the back of his wrap.

“As you noted,” she continued, ”the Autumn Court is the life blood of Istima. And we could not run the school if we needed to burn drams for every spell. Barring the Winter Court and its unusual circumstances, you will hardly find a student outside of the Autumn Court that can match our magic reserves.”

Yam did not drool. He also did not grab her by her robe and shake her until her secrets fell out. Instead he replied in a calm and measured voice. “Truly? And how would you expand my reserves?”

“I am sorry young Study”, she smiled, ”but I shouldn’t say. Our training regime is rigorous, and one of our Court’s greatest assets.”

“That is a shame.” Yam sighed, pulling out the folded piece of paper he had gotten at the Summer Court and pinning it to the desk with a single finger. “Because I may have access to considerable funds in the future, and I find it difficult to believe I could not achieve similar results if I was willing to throw enough drams at it.”

His opponent’s eyes flickered to the very visible Estival seal on his paper and her mouth tightened. With a practiced economy she wet her quill and began writing out a list. 

“I cannot share the details, but some of the underlying principles are safe to discuss.”

Yam smiled as she made several columns on the paper. They were titled: Body, Phagic Regeneration, Auric Regeneration/Strain, Harmonic Regeneration, and Efficiency.

“These are the only ways to re-fill and advance the size of your magic reserve.” The representative said, posture perfect and handwriting a soulless, small, but easily readable script. “Obviously, you can just wait for age to naturally increase your reserve, but we have timetables to meet.”

“It begins with the body.” She said, ”The stronger your body, the more energy you can produce, channel, and the faster you will recuperate. Our Court has once weekly physical training to that end. But we are wizards, not laborers. So, we have other methods to speed recovery and enhance the reserve.”

She placed small dots next to Phagic Regeneration and Auric Regeneration. “We will routinely serve meals that are nutritionally, calorically, and magically dense. Either meat from magical creatures, fruits that naturally hold more life force or, on rare occasions, foods from ancient sources that have aged their own reserves to formidable heights. This will cause your power to recover faster and, if already full, some research suggests the strain will slowly expand your capacity.” 

He responded in a dry voice,  “So you will provide me with exercise and rich foods?”

“We will provide you with Fall Bear steak, fruit from Ancestral Magma Trees and,” she added, tapping at Auric recovery, “gold.”

Despite himself Yam’s eyes widened. He tried to reassemble his bargaining face as quickly as possible, but he could tell that she had seen his slip.

“Finally, we will teach you Harmonic recovery techniques. It is a slow unrewarding process similar to meditation, but you can speed how quickly you are able to recover magic from the ambient energy. Which is key for the final point; efficiency. Both in spell casting, in spell formulation, and in your bodies’ channels. Each time you go about our training, you will become more efficient in how you cast. A great wizard is able to split a bounder with the same energy it would take a student to levitate a single person.”

She spoke of a few more points but none of them changed the meat of her offer. And, despite how tempting the program sounded, the Young Len forced himself to think before responding. 

This woman was a master, or at least thought of herself as one. Even to Len there was a spectrum of mastery, and he doubted she was near the top end. Thomnas had surely intervened on his behalf, but she was still speaking to a novice who had yet to pick a court. That was not how the powerful and influential spent their time.  Which meant she was speaking with game in her words, and likely resided near the lower levels of mastery.

If that was true, and she was giving this information to one not yet in her court, then it might not be as valuable as she presented it to be. Which seemed impossible. It boggled the mind to consider that dense packet of secrets to not be worth a fortune. 

At the height of his family’s success they had hired a tutor from one of the lesser magic schools. That man had taught him simple control exercises and meditation, or harmonic recovery as he should start calling it, like they were the royal family’s own secrets. 

But this was the Istima. Brilliance was as common as dirt here. Maybe this information was only valuable to common people. 

There was no way to tell. So, he did the only thing he could: he checked his instincts and pushed on.

“Honored master, what you describe sounds wonderful but via… sources let’s say, I have heard of some of these principles already. And, while I’m sure your expertise would help the process, I still fail to see how exercise, good food, some gold, and a dedicated perusal of the library would not give me the same results you promise.”

With a smirk the woman turned over her paper and began doing sums. As she added the cost of various equipment, tutors, and the material costs of food, not even counting the research needed to determine which foods would work most efficiently or the risk of dying from improper cooking, and the expense quickly became staggering. 

If what she was saying was correct, then each and every mage walking through the Autumn Court could buy a horse just with what it cost to feed them.

The numbers only rose from there and she stared him in the eyes with a look of triumph. 

The rebuttal was well made, but rather than lowering his gaze, Yam raised a single eyebrow and slid the Summer Court’s offer across the desk to her. 

He felt her magic lick against the seal of the court and her expression dimmed. It was authentic. She opened the letter and read through it quickly. The look on her face when she saw the number at the bottom was a work of art. 

Before her hands could clench in rage, Yam plucked the letter from her grasp. 

“Ma’am, as I said before, I am of the Ken Seekers, material wealth meant little to me when I arrived. And now,” he tapped his finger against the letter, “it means even less. So, please help me. I want everything you have to offer. But how can I justify to myself, to my family, that I chose the Autumnal Court over all the other opportunities I’ve been given?”

From across the desk the master’s mouth tightened, and Yam laughed silently from ebhind the serene smile affixed to his bargaining face. 

~~~

He left negotiations after approximately two hours had passed. He would have stayed longer and gotten a second meal out of them, but his host had developed a small twitch in her left eye at around an hour and a half. 

In his experience that was a symptom of imminent pitch forks. Which usually meant little to him, but he couldn’t pack the caravan and leave Istima. As such, he made a graceful exit. Even if it stung his pride to let her off with the light treatment. 

His time hadn’t been fruitless though. Around the second or third time she had almost ended their negotiations, he had subtly guided her towards offering to give him common control exercises. 

Of course she thought it had been her own idea. Which made it even more impressive when he ‘miraculously’ mastered them in under a minute. Almost as if he had been doing those exact exercises for two hours a day, every day, since his family had first discovered his potential and bought a tutor. 

That had renewed her interest. Which was just enough negotiating power for him to get a book of cants as well as primers covering the theory of souls magic and familiars.

To a regular student those books would barely be useful at all. But, to a Len who planned on working in the Understacks, they could prove invaluable if they were well cited. 

Aside from the books he had also been given paperwork so he could request a limited number of tutoring sessions with a pre-set group of teachers in the Autumn Court. 

Those he had fought particularly hard for. 

Because, for all of his talk, he did not expect to make a second appointment with that woman. She was tight fisted with her resources and, ultimately, held all the power in their negotiation. 

Plus, he already knew which court he would join. 

At the thought his hand fell to his side where he now carried two very generous offer letters. Anything else, any bribes he would be able to cash in on, were just a bonus. The letters were what really mattered. 

No matter how much going easy on the representative hurt his pride, this was just preamble for the true negotiation, and he was going to take the Spring Court for all it was worth. 

~~~

Yam had hardly left the Autumn court when something sent a prickle through his fur. He kept walking while casting a covert eye to his surroundings.

The anomaly stood out immediately. 

Most figures left the Autumn court’s brisk air and dropped their hoods or opened their robes. But one figure had kept their hood high and, to make things even more interesting, Yam recognized the face hidden inside the hood. 

Nathanael, the library assistant, was not far behind him and he was keeping pace. 

The situation reminded him of something his mother used to say after returning from fruitful negotiations. Something he had heard since he was a toddler: one day they might realize what she had done, and one day they might be fast enough to lynch her for it, but that day was not today. 

Within a few minutes the canny Len was able to turn a corner, run to an open shop and dive inside before Nathanael could re-establish his line of sight. 

With brisk, efficient motions Yam hid himself behind a tapestry display and peered through the store’s eerily unblemished windowpane, until Nathanial came into view. He watched the other student and the smirk slowly left his face. 

Nathanael did not look up. He did not balk, and his head did not swivel. He continued trudging forward, face hidden. He only paused once to glance very furtively over his shoulder. 

Which was when the young Ken Seeker’s curiosity began to kindle. What could Nathanael be hiding? A shopkeeper was saying something to Yam and he let his mouth run on without checking what it said. 

There were very few Len in the area around the courts. They tended to frequent the more exterior portions of the city.  That would make it difficult to follow Nathanael without being noted. Worse, covert street surveillance was not one of his skills. Some people could follow a man into the very bed chambers of his mistress without ever being noticed. It was a good business, but that had never been Yam’s job. 

He had no training, and he did not know how violent the other boy could be if he spotted Yam. Overall it seemed like a poorly thought out and potentially dangerous idea. 

But, he wanted to know. So he did it anyway. 

As it turned out Nathanael’s incompetence just slightly outperformed Yam’s own. The cowled student always checked over the same shoulder and he grew progressively more comfortable as they came closer to the Summer Court. Finally, he came to an ally and waited just inside its mouth. 

Yam moved into a nearby parchment store and placed himself at a display with a view of the ally. It was not long before a young man wearing fine clothes, an entitled smirk, and the self-assured superiority of an easy mark stepped joined Nathanael. 

He immediately cuffed the cowled boy’s head and tossed the hood off. He berated him, presumably for lurking in a shadowed ally in the most suspicious manner possible. It was a very long, and very thorough browbeating.

Finally, Nathanael produced a slip of paper from inside his robes. His rich friend snatched it away and, after peeking inside of the brown paper wrapping, he patted Nathanael on the shoulder. The robed boy’s entire demeanor changed. He was all but quivered with happiness, like a dog finally being let inside. 

The other student quickly lost interest. They exchanged parting words and went their separate ways. Yam stepped outside and idly followed the rich prat. Within minutes the other student went into a store full of fruits and came out grimacing. As he walked, he placed berries from the store into his mouth, one at a time, and swallowed without chewing. 

Yam would bet his wrap that it was some of the magical fruit the Autumn court had been talking about. He kept following, hoping he would find similar stores, maybe a butcher of magic creatures even. 

There was no such luck. For the next half hour, the most interesting thing to happen was the boy dropping a kernel of mildly explosive magic into the cup of a beggar. His quarry walked away laughing and Yam made sure to drop a few day’s worth of money onto the beggar’s lap as he passed by.

After the long walk Yam was rapidly losing his interest. Then, even as he considered returning to his books, something fascinating happened. The rich prat turned into a street at the edge of two courts.

And a young woman materialized. 

It was not an act of magic. She could have been standing next to him the entire walk from the Autumn Court without him noticing. Something about her, the rhythm of her steps, the slouch of her shoulders, the expression of absolute soul-crushing indifference, was so perfectly in tune with the feel of the street that she was functionally invisible. 

Then, in a moment everything about her bearing changed, and the fur on spine stood on end. She seemed suddenly distinct, sharp-eyed, and entirely fixated. A half second later, like the girl had been looking to rich prat’s mind, he turned down the ally like street.

Yam was across the street and had actually lost track of the perfectly coiffed sadist for most of a block. But he was perfectly placed to see the girl step out of the flow of traffic, accelerate smoothly, and ghost her way after the boy. 

If anyone without street sense had been there, if Yam hadn’t been recently put on high alert by the thought of lynching, no one would have noticed a single thing. But he had just enough warning to run across the street and see a flash of light from the alley mouth. By the time he turned into the space between buildings the girl was already gone, and the rich boy was curled on the ground, screaming with his hands pressed against his eyes.

Yam ran over and tried to help him stand, “Are you alright?”

The boy started to respond, but when his hand met the young Len’s shoulder, he recoiled like he had been burnt. 

“Don’t touch me!”

“I’m sorry! Are you hurt—”

“Keep your baby-stealing paws off of me!” 

 There was a stutter in Yam’s chest. 

He felt his mouth move to say something along the lines of ‘that’s a myth’. But there was no air in his lungs. 

Just rage. 

Even in Istima. 

Even in the most educated place in the entire world. 

With a snarl he kicked the boy’s shin and shoved him to the ground. There was no money-purse on his belt but, out of sheer spite. Yam ripped the bag from the boy’s shoulder.

He made it several streets away before his anger cooled enough for him to realize what a dilemma he was in. 

He had just stolen something from another student. 

A rich student. A rich student with influence. One who already hated the Len. 

An awful sensation started to build in his stomach. He was only a few streets away. If he really had to, he could go back.

Keep your baby-stealing paws off of me! ’ a phantom voice rang in his head. Yam’s hands tightened on the thick canvas bag and he began walking towards a familiar piece of graffiti.

He turned away from the main street and looked for the next splash of color that would lead him to a sympathetic pawn shop. With one hand he rummaged through the bag until he pulled out a small parcel full of berries. They had a pleasantly bitter taste and as he chewed, he wondered what sort of tracking spells a spoiled prat might put into his luggage. 

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Yam 4

1.04

It was with a weary body that Yam left the Wandering Len. He made sure to tip the staff generously.

While meandering down the dimmed but never dark streets, he was mulled over what he had learned. Or at least he tried. He was jarred from his thoughts when he stepped across the border of the Day Court and was greeted with an abrupt transition from a slightly chill night to a bright and balmy day. 

The brightness made his heart try to jump, but he was too tired. His building fatigue was like grease gradually thickening in his veins. The best he could do was stumble, rub at his eyes and string together a nonsensical collection of words that were delivered in a tone that made it clear he was trying to curse, though the results were mixed. 

He forced his legs to keep going. As he walked a few oddities began tickling at his mind. For instance, try as he might he never was able to spot the sun. It always seemed to be hiding behind a building while, somehow, still heating his face. 

That would not have been a problem if he didn’t find himself trying to check the time or his direction only to notice that the shadows had changed while he wasn’t looking. That the sun was behind a different building or, once, that it was behind more than one building at the same time. 

For all the wonders he had seen at Istima over the last few days the Claral Court felt somehow off. Something about the wearing of the roads. The slant of the different roofs, and something just a bit too-much about the plants.

He just couldn;t figure out exactly what it was. In general, the Claral Court was a place of stately buildings and cobbled roads. Everything was from different architectural styles, but somehow came together with little slices of green grass and inviting trees in a manner that felt exactly like a university should. 

Except for the sensation that there was a sound just below his threshold of hearing.

At one point Yam found himself examining a bench for almost half an hour, absolutely certain there was something strange about it, but unable to figure out what it was. In a fit of petty rebellion he decided to fight back and sat on the bench. The nagging sensation persisted but Yam leaned back, being as pugnaciously comfortable as possible: just out of spite.

The feeling did not leave. So Yam stayed sitting. 

While he fought his invisible war with the uncanny bench he slowly tuned in to the people around him. They all seemed like regular students. Books in their arms or floating behind them. Some swished by in the ink flecked robes of the Autumnal court, others, wearing the bright colors of the Hibernal Court, floated on cushions of air.

He spotted a few non-human students. Each one he spotted gave him a sense of vindication that he chose not to examine too closely. For several minutes he did nothing but watch everyone going about their business; talking in small clusters, sitting under a tree set to the side of the path, or covertly dipping their hands in a fountain and scrubbing at stains off their clothes.

It became increasingly obvious that everyone else was comfortable in the omnidirectional sun. Yam sighed and rubbed at his temples.  He must have spent too long trying to read the convoluted strings of influence, game, and motivation. For the entire day, he had been trying to notice something out of place and was suffering the hangover from it. 

As far as Yam could see the only strange thing was a set of stones, just slightly less worn than the cobbles around him that people always stepped or hopped over. Also a doorway set partially up a wall. No one looked at the door and even students with faces buried in books leapt over the skipping stone. 

Feeling somewhat foolish, Yam stood from the uncanny bench and went to his new student lodgings.

It took him longer than absolutely necessary to find them, but he managed to do so without pulling out a map and making himself look like a lost tourist or naive new student. It was an impulse that did not make any particular sense. But he decided not to look at it too closely. 

The building was a few stories tall, devoid of the decorations and ornate facades of other structures in the Claral court. Though, it was made of the same gray, flecked stone that seemed to be the primary material of all the surrounding buildings. 

Sitting at a small, folding table in the lobby was a person in the robes of the Autumnal court. His clothes were distinctly thinner, and his hat was noticeably less pointy than Thomnas’s. The student still managed to guide Yam through several stacks of paper work without ever making eye contact. Once the papers were finished he held them out and fed the sheaf to what the Len could only describe as a mouth made of bent and twisted space. 

The heat mirage-fun-house-mirror mouth chewed the papers and spat out a solid brass key. 

Yam went to his room on the second floor with his mind completely enraptured with the idea of having a familiar that existed by twisting the fabric of whatever space it happened to be moving through. Like a specter that made an impression of itself from underneath a long stretch of cloth, but was completely invisible and without physical substance underneath the fabric.

It was almost maddeningly exciting. Yam would either need to befriend that student, or see if he could bribe away the creature with more papers. 

Of course that was assuming it was a separate and sentient entity. And that he wouldn’t like the other student and not feel guilty about taking his pet. Or that he couldn’t find a more impressive one on his own. 

Following that twisted train of half formed thoughts, Yam stepped into his own small room and let habit guide his limbs while his thoughts were occupied. He formed a bundle of pillows under the blanket so it looked like a sleeping Len, stuck hairs across all the openings of his drawers, dresser, and closet to determine if they were tampered with. Then he opened the window, grabbed a drainage pipe and shimmied down to a set of bushes wondering what sort of exotic pet stores were in Istima.

The space under his window was set in between three walls, the two on either side pushed out from the main building and housed bedrooms. All the windows were covered by thick black cloth, presumably to block the sourceless sunlight, and looked over thick, untended bushes set behind a massive oak tree.

It was perfect. Yam took out his not-for-eating knife and hacked a small hollow into the bushes. Once inside he took the pin from his shoulder and undid his wrap. He refolded it and set it on the ground. Bed made, he pulled a wax paper wrapped bundle of rat jerky from his backpack and took out his for-eating knife. 

While he chewed Yam closed his eyes and let his other senses rove around him. The stone walls were dead to his perceptions in a way that spoke of potent magic protections. But the ground beneath him was not. Below him were some sunken cobbles, some foundation, but the greatest measure of the building’s weight was placed on porous stone that looked like a bee hive. In some sections the gaps were so small and tight that the naked eye would never see the holes. In other places they were so large that several men could walk shoulder to shoulder.

Connected to the earth as he was, the young Len took the time to sink into his own body and feel the resonance of the earth and bone. He relaxed his mind and let it slowly travel through those materials into the greater whole they were part of. 

In a far off way Yam felt, through the bones in his own body and the rat bones in his pack, all the bones in the world. Each and everyone connected to one pervasive flow of elemental power and meaning. Similarly he sunk into the earth, and through it, into the energy that made all matter know it was stone. 

Though he could feel that power, the deep profound currents of magic that were moving through the calcium frame of his own body, it felt untouchably far away. 

Instead of fighting that sensation Yam relaxed and let the feeling of such profound energy flow past him. 

The covetous parts of his mind wanted to grab that power. To pull it through his channels and command the forces of nature. But with an iron will he crushed that impulse and focused his whole mind towards moving close enough to feel the energy more clearly. 

That was the key. The difference between sensing that cataclysmic power and trying to take it was the difference between feeling the impact of a falling star through the ground instead of trying to catch it with a butterfly net.

He studied the flows, and focused on the faint aura around the torrents of power. Like mist from a crashing waterfall. With great care he let those wisps float across the paradoxical distance between himself and the main force. Then he took that aura into himself. 

That was the other key. One could get wet by jumping in a waterfall and being drown or simply by waiting in the mist of a waterfall.

Thanks to years of practice, the diffuse energy flowed through him calmly, and left behind trickles of itself. He took hold of those trace remains, the equivalent of droplets caught in his fur from a waterfall mist. Then he  distilled and progressively filtered those trace remains until only clean magic was being deposited into his reserves.

Yam was not patient, and this was only slightly faster than his natural recovery rate. Still, he pushed through. He had learned that this struggle was one where you had to play the long game. It was a battle of patience more than of will and force. 

You could not fight the earth. 

He let the sounds of brushing leaves, chattering students, and buzzing insects fall away and focused all of himself on making the magic inside of as pure as possible. On inching slowly closer to that limitless torrent of power his magic senses spied on through the peepholes that the stones under his legs and the bones of his own body had become. 

For now it was a bare trickle of power that reached him. 

For now his magic was of middling quality and only slowly settling into a more refined state, one drop of clarified power at a time. 

That should have frustrated him, made him seek power through easier methods and expensive solutions like most mages did.

But he stayed silent and smiled. Because, even though he was only able to touch a trickle of power for now. He was also only a mortal. 

For now.

~~~

Yam was shocked to find that, after a nap, when he stepped out of the Claral court it was after dawn for the rest of the world. That shock was balanced by the relief of seeing the moon and finally having something he could orientate himself with. 

He had vague plans for finding food and exploring the other courts but, exactly seven steps past the border of the Claral Court, Yam saw a stone building. It seemed partially grey, particularly thick, and particularly academic. As soon as he noticed the students walking from the building with books in their hands he lost his train of thought.

Without recalling the steps that led him there Yam found himself slowly moving through the line. The inside of the building was just as grey as the exterior. Tapestries on the wall were faded, Yam’s nose smelled dust and must, and the ceilings were arched in a manner that left their peaks always shrouded in shadows. 

None of that mattered. 

There were books. 

The shelves were at least eight feet tall and stuffed with a variety of leather, treated skins, and cloth bindings. He did not to salivate; but it was close. 

At first glance the entire library appeared to fit in a space the size of a large ballroom. But students were continually moving in from the outskirts of the room and stepping from behind stacks. It quickly became clear that there were even more rooms full of books. 

It was almost too much to bear. Books were heavy and expensive and required careful maintenance to protect them from the environment. His entire tribe had enough books to fill perhaps two of these shelves. If you needed more you might have been able to buy something for the journey between towns. But, for the sake of space, they were always re-sold as soon as possible. So come the next town that particular book was gone and you were left hoping that you never forgot what those pages held.

But this! Even a quarter of this room must hold more information that could fit into an elder’s mind. And there were more rooms. The raw concentration of knowledge, of wisdom, of power in this one building. 

When Yam reached the front of the line the student manning the desk had to repeat himself twice before he was able to peel his eyes off the shelves. 

“I don’t have a student number,” he said, “I was only admitted yesterday.”

“Then you’ll need to come back when you have one.”

 “I’m sorry what?”

The student behind the desk was wearing a grey robe with leather pads sewn onto the elbows. He wore the sort of tall hat Yam was already coming to associate with the Autumnal Court. The material of his robe was not impressive and the decorations on his hat, while glittering and ostentatious, were clearly made of inferior materials. 

The student underneath the robe was young with baby fat in his cheeks and massive bags under his glaring eyes.

“I said,” repeated the baby faced boy, “that you need to come back when you have been given a student identification number”

“How long will that take?”

The human turned his eyes away from Yam.  “That’s not my department.” 

“Wait!,” Yam started fumbling with a belt pouch, “Just give me a moment and I will show you that I am a student. I just need—”

“No number, no entry.”

Yam finally pulled a fresh rat skull out, “Just watch, I’m sure there will be no doubt left-”

The baby-faced student came to his feet and slammed his hands against the table so hard his hat tipped to the side, “I said, no number no entry. I am not the admissions council, and I am not making an exception. For all I know, you’re just another cur off the streets.”

The nervous smile on Yam’s face flickered for a moment before reasserting itself. But this time a bit too sharp and showing slightly too much tooth. 

“I,” He said slowly and with a treacherous softness, “am no dog. I have told you I am a student. Are you saying that I would speak a lie?”

“I,” the other boy mimicked, “am saying that you do not belong here. And that I will not let a stray past my desk unless given incontestable proof that I must.”

A pressure grew in the air and the library’s greyness seemed to grow darker as Yam felt his mind sinking into his reserve of power.

The dimness lightened and a hand flickering with witches fire and dreamy colors fell on the desk between them. 

“Return to your duties, Nathanael. I will escort this honored guest through our stacks.”

The student, Nathanael, looked up at the figure floating next to him. The man was older, his wispy hair just going grey. Holding still he appeared absolutely normal. Except for his eyes, which had a quality that was not humanly possible. They were blue and not particularly striking nor rare. They were simply a blue so laced with magic that the color became tinged with something else. Something from another place. 

Nathanael looked up at the man and the contempt on his face grew until it imploded in on itself and the baby faced student’s expression was completely devoid of any emotion.

“As you say bookkeeper”

Nathanial took his seat and ignored their existence all together. 

~~~

The bookkeeper motioned to Yam and drifted away. The moment he moved the cloak of normalcy crumbled. Every piece of him in motion gained a faint translucence and glittered with the subtle throb of witches fire. Like individual strands of it had been spun and then woven into shape of the bookkeeper.

He was a ghost, and clearly a powerful one. 

Yam followed after him allowing none of his shock and as little curiosity as possible show on his face. 

The bookkeeper glanced back at him and began patting his jacket and pants.

“Are you looking for something sir?”

“I’m just wondering if there was a steak falling out of one of the pockets. Perhaps that would explain the way you’re staring.”

Under his fur, the young Len’s skin heated. Before he could apologize the Bookkeeper burst into a peal of friendly laughter. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I couldn’t help myself. Have you never met a ghost before?”

Yam raised his eyes and saw the smile crinkling the Bookkeeper’s eyes, “Very few, sir.”

“Do you have any questions?”

“How many books can I check out at a time? How long can I keep them? is there a limit to how long I can stay in the library? How is everything sorted?howdoIfindabestiary,andabookontelekinesiandillusionsandshapeshiftingand—”

The bookkeeper’s eyebrows lifted higher and higher until finally the ghost  lifted a hand and interrupted, “I had meant questions about ghosts. I thought you would find that more interesting, little one.”

“Sorry, sir,” the young Len flushed, “There is just so much to learn here.”

A small grin spread across the bookkeeper’s face, the motion making patches of his skin become briefly translucent, ”Well, I suppose that is a reasonable reaction for one such as yourself.”

“Yes sir, my parents were committed members of the Ken Seekers.”

The two began moving again as the bookkeeper spoke, “The first thing to note, is that this is not technically a library. These are the Understacks. We hold duplicates, reference books, scrolls that have been transcribed, overflow, and copies of previous students’ dissertations.”

“How many books are in the Understacks?”

The bookkeeper held out his hand and a tangled clump of magic formed. It was tightly controlled, but still leaking into the visible spectrum at the edges. Yam looked into the glow and felt something foreign trace against the edges of his mind until a number seemed to float up to the top of his consciousness of its own accord.

He stared deeper but the number didn’t change. 

The fur along his spine stiffen and stand up. “How can so many fit in here?” He whispered.

“The Understack wanders more deeply than the average building.”

“Can I live here?”

“No little one, there are better ways to die and you should enjoy the sun while you can.”

The two of them stood in silence, Yam’s eyes tracing the spines of books that surrounded him and stretching up to the ceiling. 

The air all but thrummed with the weight of knowledge. 

“How does a student check out a book?” He asked.

“It depends on the student.”

When Yam’s face twisted into clear confusion the bookkeeper opened his hand and another flicker of magic flew away from them. It formed an illusory length of string that looked as though small lightening bugs were glittering along its length. 

Without speaking the bookkeeper floated forward, following the trail of magic until it terminated in a particularly dark side room.

“These are the common access introductory tombs.” The ancient ghost said, ”They hold brief primers needed to understand how each school’s magic works. Very little is usable beyond some basic cants. As such, any student may access these books. There is no fear that you will steal an artificer’s business because you have learned how to write a floating light command.”

Another line of magic appeared and they followed it deeper into the library, moving through small doors, a few side passages and, after almost five minutes of walking, into an area where the air was cooler, dryer, and the building’s decorations seemed subtly more antiquated. 

They finally came upon another shelf of books. The wood it had been constructed from was completely different from the shelves from the entrance to the Understacks. 

“These are teaching tomes discussing the various methods of creating familiars and specifically the Autumnal Court’s method of binding.”

Yam’s hands shot towards the shelves.

And, in a literal flash, they were knocked back. 

Something between a whine of pain and a growl came from his throat and the young Len tried again. Pushing his hand forward with a wave of mental power backing up the motion.

After perhaps thirty seconds of Yam trying to physically and magically punch his way through, the bookkeeper cleared his throat, or at least made the sounds a corporeal being in possession of a throat would make should they decide to clear it. 

“Ahem. As you may have noted, this information is restricted to students registered with the Autumnal court.”

Without any effort the bookkeeper reached past Yam’s clawed hands to adjust the tomes so that all of their spines were even and the bookend was more snug. “Should you wish to check out a book you would need to wait for your admissions to be processed, then for that information to reach the libraries, and then for your court to grant you access to whatever level of information they deemed you entitled to.”

With a feeling of horror Yam recalled library access being offered to the most prized first day students during the admissions. 

“They will try to limit how much I can learn!”

“Of course. Knowledge is the currency, power, prize, and punishment at Istima. Would you expect every student who can float a coin to immediately access books with a Catastrophe Curse or the exact manner of breaking through the school’s defensive wards?”

The bookkeeper’s magic line sparkled again and the pair followed it back to where they started. 

The rage in Yam cooled into a sort of resigned numbness. Of course getting into the school would not be the end of his journey. They would try to pull more out of him. More money, more work, and more debt. Why wouldn’t they? They had the power, and they controlled access to a vital resource. Given that sort of sublime bargaining position, who wouldn’t use it for all it was worth? 

Almost in spite of himself he pointed a claw towards the glittering thread of power they were following, “Is that some sort of bibliomantic librarian magic?”

“No. I am just a bookkeeper, not a librarian. This is simple organizational and bookkeeping magic.”

“You’re not a librarian?”

“The Understacks are not a library. And,” he added with a significant look at his flickering insubstantial body, “to be a librarian is a position of great power and prestige.” 

“Ahh, of course. A ghost cannot be safely oppressed or reviled without first limiting its ability to resist and grow.”

The bookkeeper flickered, “Pardon?”

“I believe you implied by your body language that you were discriminated against due to your species.”

“Well, that is rather blunt.”

 Yam smiled at the compliment and the bookkeeper continued, “But essentially correct.”

“Discrimination is a part of life.”

“I am sorry that you had to learn that so early”, the ancient ghost looked at him with his more than mortal eyes, ”You are of the Ken Seeker tribe?”

“I am a Study of the Ken Seekers.”

“And what is it you are seeking in Istima?”

“I am Study Yam Hist, my aspirations go beyond the heavens, but at this moment I want to know if I can work in the Understacks and have you teach me your book magic.”

“You want to work in the Understacks?”

“Yes.”

“You realize working in the Understacks can be seen as a mark of shame, that people will assume you were not trusted to work in your own court’s facilities?”

“I presume that due to my species that they wouldn’t trust me to work in a library.”

The ghost conceded the point with a wave of his hand. “It is beyond my abilities to teach you true library magic.”

“Mr. Bookkeeper, sir, I do not care if you have me plugging leaks with my fingers or tie me to the ceiling so I can clean the top of the shelves; is there anyway I could help with these books?”

Yam, noticed that he was staring into the bookkeepers eyes and forced himself to drop his gaze deferentially. Even so the determined set of his jaw remained unchanged and the way he balled his fist did not escape the ancient Ghost’s notice. 

“It isn’t possible for me to hire you until I have confirmation you are a student.”

“I understand, do you need other errands run or-“

“But,” the bookkeeper interrupted, “I will give you a task. If you would like to work for me, I will loan you a few books from my personal collection. As soon as you have read them all you may return here to me and we will see where you stand.”

“You are going to make me read books?”

“Will that be a problem?”

Yam blinked several times to hide the avarice in his eyes, “It is not the easiest task…. but I am in your debt.”

A grandfatherly smile sent a wave of translucent thought through the bookkeepers face. “Think nothing of it little one. Those in situations like ours need to look after each other.”

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