Gravity did not take him as a mother taking her frightened child into her arms. Gravity took him like a professional wrestler or a violently incompetent masseuse. Perhaps like an organ harvester? One who had forgotten their tools and wondered what would fall out if they shook him hard enough.
It was hard to say, really. The experience itself precluded him from being able to focus well enough to describe it.
The point was that it sucked.
The only luck Yam had was that the ledge below him was not the only one. They poked out from either side of the shaft. First on the left, then a few feet down on the right.
The pattern repeated without anything ever overlapping in the middle. Which meant that the thin Len rattled back and forth between the two sides. Constantly impacting against a stony edge and twisting to rebound against the next one just a few feet later.
Due to entirely understandable circumstances, he was not able to say how long he fell, only that it was too long.
When he finally slammed against the ground, he had all the breath knocked out of him. Luckily, he had been able to lock himself into a ball with his arms protecting his head,
Even so, he was so thoroughly disoriented that he almost forgot why he had jumped into a dark, unknown cavern of indeterminate depth.
But the light reached him, and he remembered.
He scurried across the ground until he bumped into what felt like a huge boulder and was able to throw himself behind it.
Moments later, the magical flame raced down the shaft. Even with eyes closed, the light was enough to glow through his eyelids.
Once it had faded he found himself taking rapid desperate gasps of air. But he had curled into such a small ball, with his knees pressed so tightly against his chest, that it was hard to take a full breath.
Yam, being the calm, cool, and collected Ken Seeker he was, only hyperventilated for a few minutes. Which seemed entirely reasonable considering the day he was having. Then he moved from behind the stone, carefully feeling around him in the dark and desperately hoping he wouldn’t press his hand against fire-heated rock.
He was so focused on not screaming if he burnt himself, that it took an embarrassingly long time to remember that, as a mage, he could summon light. It took him even longer to remember that with all the twists, turns, ledges, and obstructions in the tunnel and shaft above, that a weak light wouldn’t be visible to Stanislov from the surface.
In fact, if no light reached him from above, then he was probably safe so long as the light he summoned was less bright than the section of the Understacks he had escaped. Right?
He found himself with a puzzle and desperately threw his mind into it. Because, now that he thought about it, he had to keep the light lower than above so it didn’t illuminate the crack in the fountain. If the darkness of the crevice lightened even slightly it would be noticeable, even if it was dimmer than the ambient light outside. Probably?
The young Len let himself sit on the floor, and for several minutes he just thought about how much illumination he could safely use.
Cautiously, Yam let a small bulb of glowing magic bloom in his hand. Deciding to err on the side of caution, it was very faint. Then, just like he had during his test to enter Istima, he sent it flying away from him. He was careful to keep it at a muted glow. Which required a deft regulation of his energy. One that might have tested him before all of the time spent on the school’s control exercises.
He found the entrance he had fallen through, a corner where several stone blocks had been removed to form an opening, and made sure to keep his light as far away from it as possible while he figured out where he was.
And where he was becoming abundantly obvious when he noticed how smooth the floor was. How, despite a rough texture, the walls were perfectly perpendicular to the ground, and how there were massive bookcases carved into the wall.
His light floated through the air and came across what was clearly the same archways between rooms that they had in the upper levels of the understacks. Though the design was slightly older and cruder. The archway had also been sealed shut by stone that seemed to have run upwards from the ground like a sheet of gravity-defying candle wax.
He tried to see what color had been painted on top of the arch, but his light always came out orange, and he had yet to master the control exercises that would allow him to make it a neutral white.
Either way, colored arch or no, he was puzzled. And Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers loved puzzles.
Barely considering if he would bring his own fiery death upon himself, Yam brightened his light and began exploring the subterranean room.
It was significantly bigger than his dorm room. Large enough that ten to fifteen people could have moved around it without entering each other’s personal space. Two of the walls, the longest two in a generally rectangular room, were filled with built-in stone bookshelves. The wall farthest from Yam had two doorways, each near the corners, and recessed at an angle so that they implied a branching path. Both of these doors were sealed with the melted-wax looking rock.
The opposite stretch of wall, the short one closest to him, had a fountain and a small research room. Just like above. The differencing being that this fountain still worked and that the research room’s lock refused to open to him. It wouldn’t even allow bone matter around the cracks so he could attempt to fineness his way in. Also, the corner of that wall had several stones pried away to form a shoddy entrance to whatever passage he had fallen down.
The ‘boulder’ he had hidden behind turned out to be the room’s centerpiece, a massive slab of stone with carvings in a strange language. There was a plaque attached to it, but it held nothing but a string of numbers and letters. It was the same sorting system they used for books in the return room. Though he couldn’t imagine anyone checking out a standing stone monument.
Though there were earth elementalists…
He tried to press his hand against the stone and found that while he was completely able to touch the object near its base, that an invisible field of energy stopped him from getting close to the actual carved letters.
In a flash, Yam reached into his pouch, carefully avoided the remains of the glass stirring rod that had broken during his fall, and went through all the various items he had smuggled in for his experiments. And, just as above, none of them made contact with the stone. With a sense of dread, he raced to one of the built-in bookcases and faced similar failures.
He ended up throwing his loop of copper at a wall and stalking away. He had nearly died at least three times, and he hadn’t even gotten a single book out of it.
But if he hadn’t been fuming, he might not have heard the sound.
His copper loops bounced off one of the sealed doorways and, moments later, he heard something move against the other side of the stone.
Stanislov’s words came back to him. The man had talked about creatures that ate scorpions. Things that were too dangerous to go to the surface and animals that were pests down here, but monsters in the school above.
Yam’s smile was brighter than any light he could have summoned.
Untamed. Hungry. Dangerous.
That sounded exactly like a familiar that was waiting to be tamed.
As he repeatedly said to himself and anyone else who would listen, Yam was a Ken Seeker. That meant many things. But it did not necessarily mean that he was so motivated by the pure, unbridled, virtuous pursuit of knowledge that he was willing to risk his life to discover strange new species. He did not love knowledge quite so much.
However, he had spent many days of his youth bedridden. Dreaming about a pet that would love him unconditionally and scare his bullies away. He was also a very young man and very resistant to the concept of his own mortality.
Even when it had almost burnt his fur off less than an hour ago.
All of which is to say, he would later tell himself that he was motivated by the noble impulse to pursue knowledge and virtue. But, in reality, he did not think twice about racing to the very intentionally sealed door, in the underground library, in a dangerous school of magic, guarded by a twitchy pyromancer, and staffed by a ghost. He did not even pretend to hesitate before seeing how hard it would be to break open the sealed door.
Yam was a Ken Seeker, not a wisdom seeker, and certainly not a common sense seeker.
He began knocking against the rock and found that, near the top of the archway, the stone sounded different.
Too excited to think about magic, he pulled out his not-for-eating knife and slammed the handle against the stone just slightly above his eye level. Within a few strikes, he saw small cracks forming in the rock.
He kept going, though he had to switch arms when he grew tired. Within two minutes, he had made a divot in the rock but not broken through. With each blow, the material had been pulverized like a flaky, unusually strong chalk. It was exactly like in his osteomancy class when someone failed to make the right honeycomb matrix. If the calcium was assembled too evenly, then it made clean lines where force could cause a split. Like building a wall and having the edges of all the boards lined up instead of interlacing them, which caused all the weak spots to be conveniently (or disastrously) grouped together.
The young mage paused. He frowned at his knife’s handle, his burning arm muscles, and slowly glanced around him. He blinked several times as a look of embarrassment spread across his face.
Yam cleared his throat and casually sheathed his knife before reaching out to the rock with his senses.
Osteomancy was a very unique combination of water and earth elementalism. He wasn’t sure of the details, but his experience said that he was very weakly connected to both elements, barely able to manipulate them at all, really. But he had just the right overlap between the two so that his ability to sense bone matter, both the calcium and the organic connective tissue, was stronger than either his hydromancy or geomancy alone. And with a great deal of finesse and control, he was just barely able to pull energy from the unique frequency of magic that resonated with bone matter.
For true elementalists it was like taping an endless barrel. Based on the frequency of their magic they reached out to the pure elemental powers of fire, or air, and once connected they drew on that energy for their workings. The only power they personally spent was in maintaining the connection to that source of elemental energy, regulating the flow, and exerting control over how it manifested.
Yam was not nearly so powerful. He was barely able to open a connection at all. As a result, instead of throwing boulders of melted bone, or lashing out with huge amounts of energy like Stanisolv, his magic was more like getting a thin coating of that elemental magic. Then spreading it like a glove over his own energies. It gave him ‘grip’, so to speak, on bone where his personal magic wouldn’t have otherwise.
His connection to water and earth were even weaker.
Weaker, but still there.
As such he was able to sense the unnatural evenness of the stone’s structure in the barrier. Whoever had made it had been careful enough to pattern the stone so that despite most of it being uniform to the point of weakness, there was a grid of stronger, less uniform rock under the surface. It strengthened the whole, like a wooden lattice behind plaster.
The melted-wax-looking stone had a thickness slightly greater than the palm of his hand. It would take ages to break through it without a proper tool.
Yam stepped back from the doorway and thought. He wasn’t properly equipped for this obstacle, and the longer he stayed down here the more the injuries from his fall made themselves known. Even as the thought crossed his mind one of his ankles gave a sharp stab of pain and he could feel bruises surfacing all over his body.
But he didn’t actually need to use his body to solve this problem.
Technically he didn’t need to solve this problem at all, but the young Len ignored that thought.
Carefully he cleared his mind and reached out with his senses. Just like when he used harmonic resonance to help refill his reserves, he reached out with his mind to feel the titanic tides of the Apaernore’s energy washing through the stone and dirt around him in slow motion.
Over the course of several minutes, he let the energy fill his perceptions until it was a target too large to miss. Then he reached for the sea of elemental earth magic with his own power.
For a long moment nothing happened. So he grit his teeth and tried to force half of his magic, half of his soul, to hold still while the earth aligned parts of him went forward.
The feeling was like using a limb that had gone numb. He knew it was possible, he knew it was there and even had an idea of what it should be able to do. But he could barly sense it until it began to move.
The control exercises paid off. With a ridiculous amount of effort Yam mobilized his geomancy. Though his sensitivity was so poor and his power so small that he exhausted himself flailing around before he was even able to hone in on the grid of reinforced stone in the wall.
Thankfully he didn’t need to do any proper geomancy. All he did was shift the structure of the stone so that a segment the size of his hand would be easier to break away.
With a gasp, he let the magic dissipate and massaged at his temples.
At least it hadn’t been hydromancy. He was even worse at that.
Once more he took the metal pommel of his not-for-eating-knife and went to work. The stone crumbled easily once he found the angle of the grain. In barely a minute he had broken through and was greeted by the scent of musty pages and leather book covers.
“Alright, beautiful,” he whispered, thinking about the sounds he had heard, “why don’t you come to see Uncle Yam.”
He produced another bulb of orange light and sent it into the new room.
The first thing he noticed was that the ceiling was much higher and that books went from the floor all the way up to the ceiling. In fact, the shelves were so high that anyone falling off the rolling ladders would break a leg.
The next thing he noticed was the floor. Or, more accurately the way a spear wall of familiar melted-wax stone had sprouted from the floor. They all pointed away from Yam, but as his light floated through the air he could very clearly see where something had smashed a path through and made a trail of destruction leading towards the sealed archway.
Then his light fetched against something curved and organic. Amidst the perfectly flat plains of the library, the bulbous mass stood out. It was an uneven oval slightly larger than his torso and appeared to be made of scarred skin, flaking strips of leather, and one section that looked disturbingly similar to a row of tightly clenched molars.
He sent his light closer and barely had time to examine it before it moved.
The row of dull herbivore teeth opened, but instead of seeing a throat or mouth, what he saw was the messy, honeycombed pattern of a hive.
And from that hive came out two defenders. Creatures that mimicked the appearance of life, but that nothing in nature would have ever produced.
They looked like mutated, hairless, rats. Neither was symmetrical, and neither one completely matched the other. Their heads had been transposed from the neck onto thick tails. Almost like a scorpion. Those heads had unusually large ears and snouts that were too long for a real rat. The bodies themselves were mammalian but with four oddly segmented legs whose joints formed distinctly bow-legged, un-rat-like arches reminiscent of a spider’s. Though they still terminated in a rat’s be-clawed feet.
Yam’s mouth fell open: what beauties. That would strike fear into the hearts of his enemies.
They sniffed at the air and, though their bodies stayed still, their tails quickly pointed the two heads at him.
Soundlessly the two mouths opened, and the creatures rushed towards him like poorly operated puppets.
Yam stared in awe at the mini-monsters for a few seconds longer than was wise.
Then reality hit. With a jolt, he stepped back from the hole he had gouged in the sealed archway. He frantically looked for something he could plug the gap with.
He wasted his first few seconds reaching for one of the books on the shelves. But the defenses stopped him just as easily as they had for the last several weeks.
The scrabbling of claws drew his eyes back to the hole just as one of the creatures tried and failed to shove its body through.
In news that was both incredibly lucky and incredibly concerning, Yam discovered that he had underestimated the size of the not-rats. They were more than half the length of his forearm and very wide.
The light he had originally summoned briefly flared and flickered as he felt his heartbeat accelerate and his hands go clammy.
Then his will clamped down on the light and his panic both. He would not be trapped in the dark with these creatures. He steadied the orange light and belatedly remembered, for the second time in the last twenty minutes, that he was a mage.
Yam always kept a small pouch of left-over bones with him for practice. If he hadn’t left his backpack in the room upstairs he could even have brought out the significantly larger bone from last week’s lamb shank. As it was, he was left with the remains of several chicken wings and a rat skull that he had been able to gather from a trap in the dorm.
He ripped the pouch open and set the bones to circling his head with a thought.
The creatures stopped scrabbling and pulled back.
For just a moment the bones orbiting him stalled. Then the two tail-heads slithered their way through the hole, though their bodies stayed on the opposite side of the wall.
Whiskerless noses sniffed and over large ears rotated in quick jerky motions.
Yam’s thoughts whirled. Could he immobilize one of them? He didn’t think he could shape bone quickly enough to stop them from pulling their legs out. And what about the other one? Could they call for aid?
“Come on little friends,” he said, “why don’t you go back and I’ll visit you some other time. I’ll bring food. We can be buddies.”
Two sets of eyes homed in on him with eerie precision.
He found his mouth suddenly and inexplicably dry.
Both heads whipped back through the hole and Yam let out a sigh of relief.
Until he heard the wet sounds.
Hesitantly he sent a new globe of light through and carefully looked past the gap.
On the other side of the arch, he saw the two creatures on the floor. One of the heads was pressed to the other’s shoulder, grooming its fur.
Except the not-rats didn’t have fur.
The nibbling head pulled back, drawing a string of skin and muscle with it until the flesh snapped. Then the head went back to slowly chewing through its sibling’s leg.
Before Yam could see anything else the second head turned to meet his eyes. There was no expression on the creature’s face at all. It just stared at him, shifting minutely as it was tugged by the efforts of the comrade systematically mutilating it.
The young Len received no warning. No triumphant squeak or plopping sound as the discarded rear limb fell to the ground. In an instant, the newly three-legged not-rat scurried forward. With much scrabbling and assistance from its packmate, it crawled up to the hole in the archway.
In bare seconds it had wedged itself into the hole and began inching its way towards his face. Headless neck and shoulders wiggled as its claws pulled it forward.
Yam might have screamed. He couldn’t remember. In a sudden burst of terror, he pulled out his not-for-eating-knife.
“Please,” he whispered, hands shaking, “just go back.”
With a convulsive jerk, the creature pulled itself far enough forward that its front claws were able to grasp the lip of stone on his side.
Yam jumped, lifted his knife, and froze. Then in surge, he switched hands and tried to use the back of his knife to force open the creature’s claws and block the hole.
“Please,” he said, nearly sobbing, “I don’t want to hurt you.”
The dull edge of his knife succeeded once in dislodging the not-rat’s grip, but as soon as it sensed contact the creature froze.
For just a second hope came to Yam’s heart.
Then the clawed paw closed on the spine of his knife.
The skin on the smooth expanse of flesh between its shoulders pressed outward like a mass of pimples forming before his eyes. Then the skin burst and insects like massive ants started to crawl out of the hole even as more bubbles began bulging out of its flesh.
This time, Yam knew that he screamed. He let go of his knife and leaped back, hands flying forward.
The bones that had been floating around him responded.
Faster than they had ever moved before, they shot forward, liquifying as they went.
The thick, semi-solid paste crashed against the opening in the barrier and splattered like paint thrown on canvas. But Yam’s will refused to let a drop of the calcium go to waste. He clenched his fist and all the bone matter that had splashed around the hole raced back towards the gap, picking up the insects as it went, until it had tightened into a plug of semi-liquid sludge. He pushed the bone around the struggling creature, and into every crevice of the rock.
With a thought, he hardened the entire thing. But the moment he did he could see his trapped knife began shaking as the body trapped within it tried pushing further forwards.
Before the creature could make any progress, Yam reached out with his mind once more. He sent tendrils of bone down the hole like roots until they came out the other side and were able to spread across the stone and anchor the whole thing.
This time though, he didn’t just let the bone come back into a solid form. He forced the substance of it, the structures too small to see with the naked eye, to form the sturdiest matrix he possibly could.
It took minutes of frantically scrutinizing the whole room for any missed insects before his heart slowed enough that he was able to breathe properly.
Eyes still searching for tiny shapes, Yam stumbled to the opposite side of the room from the sealed doorways. He pressed his back against the wall, right by where he had originally fallen into this cursed room, and slid to the floor.
Terror, he was coming to learn, was absolutely exhausting.
When he had first escaped the Tooth and Claw, he had been twitchy for days.
The second time, he had slept for thirteen hours.
Now, having just escaped a solemn and murderous pyromancer twice, fallen to what he thought would be his death, and then almost immediately having his bruised and battered body attacked by what could only be flesh ants, he found himself to be so profoundly exhausted that it was nearly an out-of-body experience.
He pressed his hands to his face and shook silently as the last of the fear left him and his body started to shiver.
He had nearly died.
If Stanislov hadn’t burnt him alive then the flesh ants, the same ones he learned about in Tooth and Claw, would have burrowed into him, broken his body down, eaten him, and vomited up pseudo flesh that they would have used to construct more hives. Or to build more meat puppets that they could steer from the inside.
Those two not-rats had probably been defenders of the hive. Suicide ships meant to carry workers onto invaders or prey so they could tunnel through his body until they ate something he needed to keep moving.
Everything in him revolted against the thought. But, against his will he could see, all but feel, his body being slowly tunneled through and… processed.
He would bet that, even now, the creature trapped in the wall would be pulling itself out, or that its cargo of ants would disassemble it and then reassemble it back on the ground with its abandoned limb.
Yam stared at the plug of bone, the one still holding his knife, and wondered how well it could possibly do at stopping creatures whose core purpose was to break down and reconstruct biological matter.
He felt his body try to dump more adrenaline into his veins. It tried to give him the energy he needed to act on the deep, profound fear that turned his bones to ice and shook them until he wanted nothing so much as to sprint away so the painful buzzing terror could be spent.
But he just didn’t have it in him.
Instead, he pulled his knees into his chest, wrapped his arms around them, and buried his face.
He was so tired, and so scared, and his whole body hurt.
There was nothing Yam wanted at that moment more than to go to sleep and have someone else, some adult who knew what in the ever-loving fuck they were doing, to take care of things so he could feel safe again.
Nothing could have made this moment worse.
That was when he heard something from above, from the passage leading down from the fountain. A distant, droning, monotone screech that failed to achieve the volume needed to be anything more than an annoyingly piercing whine.
Yam closed his eyes even tighter.
He squeezed his knees and tried not to break a tooth with how hard he grit his teeth.
The sound repeated until finally, the high-pitched, breathy, groan-scream resolved itself and Abomination rolled head over heels from the corner Yam himself had tumbled out of not even an hour ago.
The young Len kept his eyes closed. But he still heard the delicate pitter-patter of the qupee’s waddling sprint as it threw itself against his leg and began frantically chirping and rubbing its snout against his fur.
“Of-fucking-course,” he whispered.
The chirping redoubled and he felt the fat little creature try to crawl up his clothes and into his lap before falling backward with a delicate squeak.
“… I hate you. So much.”