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Our current intent to refill our back log of chapters and keep the story going, but the details (like a time line) are a bit foggy. At least for now. Luckily, as of our last check, there are around fifty chapters and 156,000 words of content available for any new readers who stumble onto the site during our hiatus.

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Miller #4: One Flew Over the Raven’s Nest

The parties were dispatched. The backup was in place. The game was afoot and Miller was wrist-deep in a potted plant. 

“Three sausages,” he muttered, digging his fingers into the dirt. “Or three per person? Stupid, stupid, Atalan. They have to cook them over a fire if they don’t get them from a dirty-aproned bartender. Obviously! You’ve read about this!”

“Miller?” said a slow drawling voice.

He spun around and hid his hands behind his back. 

“What are— Oh,” he sighed, “it’s just you, Hitch. That’s good.”

“Are you alright?”

Miller shrugged and examined his fingernails, hoping the dirt made him look less like a stay-at-home-can’t-get-a- date-and-reads-magazines-about- birds loser. 

“…why?”

“Cause he’s a bird. A real-life bird! Come on Hitch, use your head.”

“Ahh. Obviously,” the stout Aketsi said. “How does killing a plant impress him?”

“Cause I need to look tough! I need to look like someone who doesn’t mind getting their hands dirty for an investigation!”

“Dirty?” his partner said, taking the time to think through each word before letting it seep out like chilled molasses from a bottle. “Why literally dirt-y?”

“Cause, Jercash, he said that, like,  they go to doctors! They go to doctors if they get dirt under their nails!”

“Who?” 

“Losers!” he said, voice running together into one breathless tumble of anxiety, “Losers who can’t get dates, and embroider their underwear, and read magazine stories about birds!”

Hitch frowned. 

“Do you embroider your underwear?”

“No!”

The Aketsi gave him a look. 

“I don’t! Actually,” he paused, eyes losing focus, “Do you think I should show Jercash my underwear? But like, casually. Sag my pants, you know. Or bend down and show that I wear what a bird wears. Wait, what underwear does a—”

“Bye Miller, have fun,” his partner said, turning around at a pace that was (for Hitch) shockingly fast.

~~~

They left the Eyrie, and Jercash set off towards where his team had gone to eat.

“Miller, what with my delicate disposition and bird-like investigative skills, I wanted to ask; why the fuck are your hands covered in dirt? You trip into a plant or some shit?”

The diviner froze. 

Whoa. Jercash had deduced the exact origin of the soil just by seeing some particulate on his hands. 

What a bird.

“Uhhh?” What was a witty comeback? Fast, he had to be fast and snappy. And laconic (magazines always made them laconic). And tough. But mostly, fast. “Why don’t you have dirt on your hands?”

Jercash smirked from under the brim of his hat and shrugged off the blatant evasion, “Sorry son, only blood.”

They walked to a nearby place that had cheap food. While the raven gathered up his unit, Miller quickly ran down the street.

He came back to see the relatively small group huddled together in a circle. Altogether there were five of them, including Jercash. He was the raven, the leader, and he commanded three crows and one diviner. All of them were travel-worn, hard-edged, and looked ready to enact abrupt, jaded, and super laconic violence at a moment’s notice. 

One of them must have spotted him because Jercash looked over his shoulder before he made it all the way down the street. 

“What you got there, Miller?”

The skinny diviner hefted the twine-wrapped bundle of wax paper. 

“There’s a good butcher down the street, so I grabbed some sausage for this sausage party.”

Everyone went silent. Then, with the sort of eerie unity you only see in people who have spent years together, they all turned to Isa, the lone woman on the team, and roared with laughter.

Kit, their diviner, caught his breath just long enough to gasp, “What do you say, Isa? You getting enough sausage in your life? Or do you need what Miller’s packing?”

“Wha—”

Oh.

That moment. That exact moment, was when Miller realized that he had fucked up.

Isa snorted before grabbing at her trousers, “I’ve got more sausage than the rest of you combined.”

Oh no.

Sausage party wasn’t about the communal eating of greasy, meat-based products in a way that (Miller assumed) tough and/or rugged people did to bond. 

No. This was a sex thing. A genitals thing.

Isa pantomimed exactly how big her sausage was, with disturbingly evocative hand motions, and Miller felt his face heat up.

How had he not realized it was a penis thing!

Luckily, Jercash stepped in. He snatched the parcel of (obviously phallic) meat products from Miller’s hands and tossed it to Kit. 

The dirty jokes continued, though Miller stayed silent. Far to mortified to even look up. 

Was there an encyclopedia of sexual innuendos somewhere? He really needed to study. So he could curse like Crammerson, and to make sure something this embarrassing never happened again. 

Actually, they would probably call that sort of encyclopedia a dick-tionary.

Heh. Nice.

While he thought, they had passed by the Eyrie, dropped off the food, and headed to the part of town where their quarry had slipped away. 

It was right on the border between where the shops became expensive and where the poor people lived. The ones who stayed out of sight, and worked the unglamorous jobs that kept the wealthy patrons of these neighborhoods in peak comfort.

The last spot they had seen the suspect was in a confluence of alleys so overhung with awnings, laundry lines, and window boxes that the muddy gutters never saw enough sun to wholly dry. 

“This guy is Spring Court, right?” Miller asked.

“Yeah,” Jercash grunted as his team slowly stopped joking and wordlessly spread out to cover all the entrances to the alley. 

“What other types of magic have you seen him use?”

“Nothing much above the level of a control exercise. Float a knife behind his back sort of thing.”

They called the other diviner over. 

Despite being an egghead like Miller, Kit was the largest and most muscular of the whole team. He deep set eyes under a heavy overhang of bone that looked like it was meant for breaking through doors. He sat right on the edge of how fit a normal person could be without magical intervention. If his hair had been a strange color, or his eyes were at all unusual, Miller would have bet money that he had paid to have his body altered.

“How have you been tracking him?” Miller asked.

“I had a marker on him. Sort of thing a circle jockey shouldn’t have been able to sense.”

“Soul’s magic?” he said, thinking of the types of magic that the Spring Court and their spell circles tended to overlook.

“Souls?”

Miller’s mouth worked on auto pilot as he tried to imagine how someone could have slipped out of such narrow confines with a team of elite trackers after them. “Old word that the researchers like. It’s the soul bond, feeling-y, ghost sorta thing.”

“Yeah,” Kit nodded, “it’s that sorta.”

“Tell me more about him.”

“Short hair, had a beard, then shaved it. No one agrees on his height or voice. Steals new clothes all the time. People say he has a weird accent. Also—”

“Yeah yeah,” Miller interrupted, “but what does his magic feel like? How does he think?”

Kit just stared at him, but Jercash jumped in.

“He’s wrong in the head. His magic is smooth. Not technical, proper spell work, but advanced. Like Aketsi food. Recipe is all sorts of queer, but it still works anyway. But then, this guy, he deals with people and there’s none of that patience. None of the canny or willpower that goes into his spells. He just fuckin’ drains ‘em like a fruit and leaves the husks. At first, he cleans up, makes a den. But the longer he stays in one place, the sloppier he gets.”

“Is he getting lazy, or is he getting preoccupied?”

The raven’s face hardened, “It’s contempt. He doesn’t give a shit about people and doesn’t think anyone will catch him.”

From where he leaned against the mouth of an alley, Dentin, a crow with a missing tooth and the innocent, ruddy face of a farmer who just stumbled into town, said, “I’ve seen the bodies. Contempts right. Sick fuck likes the power.”

Miller nodded as all the information he had on their target swirled around his mind. The Bal DuMonte texts were supposed to be an innovative way to improve healing. But mixing healing with Night Court magic tended to make people go strange. The reality-bending beliefs you needed to change a person’s body could get poisonous. To have that level of conviction that you had the right to meddle in life and death, that you fundamentally deserved to control another person’s body… when it went wrong, it went badly wrong. 

A picture of who their suspect was as a person started forming like a collage in his mind. 

Miller reached for one of those holes he had drilled through his own sanity—a tunnel into the sort of fanatical, devoted belief that sneered at reality. 

He let himself remember that all the world was one. Everyone was one. And any two added together were, in fact, one. There was a brief moment of dissonance as the model he held in his head, the psychopathic convictions of their prey, clashed with the profound emphatic unity of the universe that his spell required him to believe in. 

If he had still been in classes, the clash of two worldviews would have made him lose the spell. But Atlan Johnson Miller was not in school. He was in the streets, chasing down a criminal. 

And he was a bird. A real-life bird. 

That trumoped everything. He summoned a massive surge of magic and threw it behind his convictions. For a second, the world resisted him. His own brain resisted him. But Miller clenched his hands and unbent his spine until it felt like he was physically growing larger.  

With a final flexing of will, a synesthetic trail of colors and patterns appeared in front of him. It told the story of magic—both as it had been in this location and as it currently was.

With his senses open, he immediately felt Isa with a painful sort of intensity. By far, she had the greatest amount of raw power. Also, she was an elementalist naturally dialed into a subset of water threaded with influences of fire. Being near her felt like a mist of burning, liquid flame dewing against his skin.

Jercash was also a powerhouse. So much so that Miller thought his skin must be buzzing to contain it all. Kit on the other hand was obviously a professional tier mage. Ordered, focused, and in possession of the sort of talent that brushed aside tricks able to fool ninety percent of the magic population. But, he was also clearly the weakest of them. And the enchanted items hidden underneath his clothes stood out like a beacon to Miller’s magically enhanced sight. 

If not for the feeling of purpose flowing through him, he might have stood and stared at the infinite complexities of magic for hours. But he was on duty.

Also, for all his evil training, and unnaturally long life, their target was about as subtle as a fire in the library. Which was a real bummer.

Miller had brought his ‘A’ game out. He was ready to tear through the ether. To  do complex analysis on every strand of power until he found one that matched their target’s personality and style. 

But he probably could have followed this guy (and Miller could taste that their target considered himself to be a guy) with his ‘C’ game. Maybe even his ‘D’ game.

Amidst the jumbled impressions of power like a burning river, and disappointment with their prey, Miller made a decision. Nay, a covenant. To never utter the phrase ‘D Game’ aloud. 

Not after the sausage party incident. 

Not again.

“Got him,” Miller growled, his throat feeling thick. Almost like he had just gotten over a cold. 

But, rather than getting an answer, he heard the sound of harsh whispering and someone spitting onto the street.

“Listen,” Jercash hissed to one of his people, “it’s a reality bender thing. Crammerson said he literally isn’t able to notice; even if we talk about it. So shut your mouth, buck up, and stop freezing him up.”

“It’s fucking weird,” Gordo said. He was their artificer and was one of those people who managed to both be skinny and have a protruding gut at the same time. 

“They’re all weird.”

Miller cleared his throat, “Who’s weird?”

Kit, who had been bent over in the corner of the alley, turned to face him while wiping something off his chin, “You! You with your kape kifting.”

“My hoop hefting?”

“YOUR SHAPE SHIF— ”

Miller put a hand to his head and winced. Something about his spell must not be balanced. He was getting an absolute beast of a headache. Also, he didn’t remember his jacket feeling so tight across the chest. Even his face felt weirdly stretched out. That was one of the reasons he didn’t like divine and detect patrol. When he was on the hunt, his civilian clothes always seemed so confining and claustrophobic.

“Sorry, what? I didn’t hear the last bit.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Jercash interrupted, glaring at Kit and Gordo. “You just, ahh, you get a different look about you when you’re on a trail.”

“I do?”

“Yeah,” Jercash grunted. “Just a whisker different around the eyes.”

“I don’t know what everyone’s complaining about,” Isa said, coming up and looping her arm through his. “This is a good look on you. The—” for just a second there was whining in Miller’s ears that made it hard to tell what Isa was saying, “ — process wasn’t the best. But maybe we can talk about that sausage party idea again.”

The diviner froze.

What?

What!

“But, ahh” he swallowed, throat suddenly dry, “you’re a bird.”

She grinned up at him, “I am. And do you know what a hawk eats when it gets into a chicken coop?”

“No?”

“The biggest co—”

Jercash probably saved the skinny diviner’s life. If he hadn’t interrupted then Miller’s might have died of a heart attack right there. 

Would have been worth it though.

“Miller! Move your ass!”

He blinked, trying to think past the shock and cacophony of magic around them, “I really need to go on more dates,” he muttered to himself.

“You had better focus on finding our man,” Jercash said, ”or you’ll have a date with my boot.”

“Your boot?”

“Yeah,” the wiry man gave him a smile that was not in the slightest bit kind or reassuring. ”You’ll treat it to dinner and wine, like a gentleman. ‘Cause if you don’t start moving, we’re gonna see just how far up your ass my boot will go”

It was such a bird thing to say. So much like Crammerson that Miller found himself grinning. It helped anchor him. Made him feel a little bit more grounded amidst all the intense sensory information benign channel into his brain. 

“Not the sort of action I’m into, sir,” he said, quoting a bit of dialogue from one of his favorite Rue DeLite stories. 

A quick glance showed him that their guy had used some ugly-looking magic to jump onto the roofs. Miller nodded his head towards the exit and took the lead.

With a sharp whistle, the raven summoned their team.

“Might not be what you’re into,” the man rumbled,, ”but you go empty-eyed like that again, and it’s the kind of action I’ll be ankle-deep in, you hear me?”

Miller shook his head.

Vulgar, threatening, snappy, and coarse. 

What. A. Bird.

Which made him more sad that this mage was so easy to track. He would have paid good money to watch a team like this scour the streets for a lead. 

They walked to the far side of the building. Miller could immediately see where their target had expended an (unnecessary) amount of his energy to jump to another roof before clambering down into the street.

“Sir,” he said, as they walked (no, stupid. They were birds. They stalked) down more streets, “why is it that Isa seems shorter?”

Jercash and one of the crows looked at him.

“You really don’t know, do you?” the raven asked.

“Don’t know what?”

The bird just shook his head and readjusted his wide-brimmed hat.

“Focus on this hunt. I want to be out of this town as soon as I can.”

Miller frowned, “You don’t like Istima?”

“Whole place puts my hackles up. Nothing about it is real. And the money,” even with his senses as wide open as they were, Miller could not sense emotions. But the hatred that the man next to him exuded was so strong it almost felt like he could. “Money means more than life here. And I can’t abide by that. This whole place is just a—” the man grimaced. “It isn’t right.”

Their team paused at an intersection and looked at him expectantly. 

To him the trail was so obvious it almost hurt his eyes. Really, considering how inefficient their guy was with his power, it wasn’t a surprise he needed to eat so many people. 

Sure, the specific types of magic the criminal used had switched, which might make it hard for other Diviners. But Miller could see the transition like a single ribbon shifting colors as it unspooled. It being red before and blue now didn’t stop him from seeing one long line pointing right at their prey as he had shifted from making himself stronger to moving his flesh around to look different. Which was clever. Most people assumed that shape shifting was the sole domain of the Night Court. But there were creative ways to get almost the same result with different court’s spells. 

Even so, despite the style of magic changing, the energy still had the same tainted flavor. And it still had the same odd mixture of complex structure with poor fundamentals. To him that was an easy trail. 

Maybe if the guy had the common sense to not use magic for every little problem like a first-year who just learned telekinesis, he would be harder to track. As it was, the only reason they had paused at all was to wait for a passing line of carriages.

Once they could cross the street, there were two options. They could follow a road on the left that would eventually lead into the Side Market, or go to the right down a pretty road full of successful and pristine-looking shops. 

To the right, people paid to keep the homeless away and for trash to never sit in front of their shops more than a few hours. It was where Miller’s preferred post office was. 

But, a few hard-to-spot turns away was the Side Market. Or at least one of the locations where the multi-headed market popped up. It was the place where you found less than licit goods. The people there provided for the fancy shops, gave them discounts on rare goods, supplied them with toughs when they needed guards for their shipments, and tried to hook as many of the store’s owners on wakefulness potions as they could.

“It just isn’t right,” Jercash sighed one last time, eyeing the opulence around them. Then the wide-brimmed hat tilted upwards just enough for Miller to see the Raven’s steely gaze. “But maybe you can change my mind, Miller. Impress me with what a fancy Istima bird like you can do.”

Impress him? 

The thin diviner clenched his fists and looked across the street. The trail very clearly went to the right, down the main avenue towards the beautiful shops and perfect restaurants. But they could, hypothetically, go into the Side Market and then exit right at the other end of the main avenue. Worst case scenario, they would walk back towards the intersection until he saw the trail again.

And Miller had studied the Side Market more closely than anyone else in Istima. There were so many raids, so much dark magic, and so many reports filed by his favorite birds in the Eyrie. He and Hitch rarely came this far, but after reading all those reports, he felt like he had lived here for years. There was hardly a shady shopkeeper whose name, business, favorite color, and preferred drug he hadn’t memorized.

It would be grimy, and tougher, and more bird-like. But it would take longer.

So, the question was, what would impress a real bird-of-the-streets? Demonstrate his skills with a fast, efficient, effortless hunt through one of the most beautiful parts of the city? Or show his street savvy and expertise with a drawn-out, tiring, dangerous crawl through the underbelly of sin?

“Well,” he said, eyeing the two options, “I don’t know about impressing you. But…”

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Yam 16

~~~~~~~~~

Next chapter will be a Miller interlude that I’m particularly excited about. Less evangelizing about The Power of Math. But a particular set of dumb jokes. I’m really looking forward to hearing what everyone thinks of them.

It’ll be going live early for Patrons at our patreon. If you want to see it 11/15/2021 then we made a tier that only requires 1$. That way everyone can get post alerts, vote in polls, request side stories, and tell us what they would like to see explored.

~~~~~~~~~

3.02

Yam held his lips closed, nodded his head, and repeated his new mantra.

Do not correct the barbarians. Do not educate the barbarians. Politely, allow a barbarian to be barbarous.‘

“Your mother would be ashamed and your father should disown you. What forsaken god cursed you with bargaining skills like that.”

Well, he had tried.

Neal, for his part, laughed and gave Abomination an extra head scratch from where baby blue monstrosity had fallen asleep on his lap. The qupee was so fluffy and relaxed that it looked like a cloud from an illuminated text.

A promiscuous cloud. A cloud that would give his belly to any mage off the street.

Was it Neal who cleaned up Abomination’s messes? Was it Neal who bought strawberries with his own coin? No. Of course not. But the qupee was still willing to get on its back and beg for belly rubs at the first hint of attention.

“Promiscuous little slut cloud,” Yam muttered under his breath before lifting his eyes and examining the barbarian across the table from him.

They were, of course, at the Wandering Len. Yam had become familiar with its thick wooden tables, and the comforting way light passed through its window sand formed shafts of illuminated smoke (how could a tavern afford glass? Istima really was strange). The inside always tasted like a cook fire and a freshly lit pipe.

He also found it funny that he, a true man of the caravans, had routine sedentary meetings at the Wandering Len.

Neal had laughed when he first saw the name. Then the black-furred human had taken to his free meal with gusto. Luckily, Neal had enough tact to not order the most expensive food available. Just a cut of meat which was slightly more than Yam wanted to pay for. Which Yam, of course, respected greatly. He would have done the same were their positions reversed.

Now the two of them were nursing drinks, and he was fixing the full weight of his focus on this man who represented an in-road into the world of elementalism. And Neal, the aforementioned in-road, was smiling as he looked across the room at a physically fit woman of the Summer Court.

“Trousers,” Yam sneered, following his gaze and imagining what the elders in the caravan would have said about clothing that tight.

“Trousers,’  Neal sighed, making the word sound like the penultimate line of a poem.

“Yes, well, trousers aside,” Yam said, while Neal muttered something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like a wistful, ‘if only’, “your tutoring rates are absurd.”

“I beg to differ.”

“And I beg for the moons to drop drams and libraries to rent bedrooms. Neither seems to have changed reality. For instance, you are failing to account for all the benefits I would provide you as a student.”

“And you are failing to recall how deeply embedded in court politics one can become should their tutor be of poor temperament.”

Yam took a sip of his drink. It was an interesting puzzle. He was certain that there were many Winter Court students who needed money and would not bury him alive (again). But Neal not only seemed to have a good disposition but, more importantly, he seemed to have a massive weakness for women.

He needed to have connections to more mage’s with glaring weaknesses if he was going to steal magic from all the different courts. Also, for a barbarian, Neal wasn’t that bad. He had a particular kind of self-aware shamelessness that made playing a game of words with him much more enjoyable.

“I’m just a poor boy—”

“From a poor family?” Neal interrupted with a mocking grin, clearly seeing an attempt to undersell.

The young Len sighed and watched his qupee use its stubby forepaws to cajole Neal into more belly rubs. Maybe the other mage would spare him a life with that monstrosity. They seemed to be getting along well.

Either way, there was nothing to do but change the rhythm and take back control, “What all would you teach me for that much gold? How many secrets would I be purchasing for the ensuing privation and poverty?”

“Secrets? None. Information not available to the great majority of people? A huge amount.”

“Like what for instance?” he said, trying to get some commitments out of Neal before he began taking them for granted and pushing for more.

“Well my friend, I would be a poor tutor if I presumed your goals without consulting you. What do you want?”

“Power enough to crush the earth, sunder the skies, and heap fortune on me and mine.”

Neal, to his credit, didn’t blink. “We can certainly work on the earth part. But how, pray tell, would you specifically like to go about learning to ‘crush the earth’? What component lessons would lead to your dominance over our lovely lady Nature?”

Damn. The geomancer really wasn’t giving him much to work with.

The trick would be to ask for more than Neal would agree to, but not so much that his opponent immediately left. Anything else would leave no room for negotiation.

“I need tutoring on energy control, using my earth affinity, enough skill to leave permanent changes to stone, combat techniques, to raise a traveling shelter from the ground, and applicable information on how the Winter Court creates familiars.”

“Energy control, better geomancy, and familiars I can do.”

His heart pounded viciously against his chest, but he couldn’t give ground. “I don’t need improvement, I need results.”

“Well, I don’t know how much time it will take you to reach those results. I can hardly commit to teaching you until achievement when I don’t know if it’ll be two weeks or twenty years.”

That was… fair.

Yam Hist did not want this to be fair.

“Are you so uncertain in your knowledge?”

Neal beamed, “Of course not! I’m a delight and a prodigy. I do however have a very healthy doubt about everyone else. And, to be frank, there can only be so many young geniuses per year and I’ve already met one. The odds of you being another are perishingly small. Perishingly small, just like my little friend here!” he said, voice going higher as he started playing with Abominations paws and cooing.

Yam sneered and almost said that he wished the monstrosity was small enough to actually perish. But he held himself back with his trademark tact and social acumen.

“I’d no more pay you for a vague non-promise about questionable results than I’d pay jewels for copper. What, in most usual students, would I expect to take from these tutoring sessions?”

“Charming company and camaraderie of the highest tier?”

“Will this second teacher cost me extra?”

Neal winced and mimed pulling a dagger from his heart.

Yam grinned. But now was not the time and he was not a child. He hid the expression behind a manly quaff of manly ale and proceeded with his business negotiation. Like a man.

“If you already know a genius, maybe you should just direct me to him. You wouldn’t have steady pay, and you wouldn’t be able to count on having gold to burn as you studied. But a modest finder’s fee is better than getting absolutely nothing and being left despondent, penniless, and otherwise bereft, right?”

He stared at the other student and smiled a poisoned smile, waiting for the inevitable capitulation.

Until Neal tipped his head back and started laughing.

“You — HA! You want to study with Lyssana!”

The human roared with laughter to the point that Abomination woke up and scurried across the table to hide in Yam’s clothes.

“Well,” the young Len sniffed, “I have no idea what’s so funny about that. I’m certain that any reasonable mage—”

“Reasonable, Lysanna! HA!”

“I’m sure,” he said, teeth grinding, “that any reasonable mage would welcome my company and my coin. This Lyssana would undoubtedly— STOP LAUGHING!”

~~~

After settling on terms he went immediately toward his new quest.

The Night Court opened around him with its colored lamps —purple in this area— twisting roads, impossible buildings, and tasteful topiaries.

As always, the strongest students carried non-reality in their wakes. Though some were more stylish about it than others. And Yam, for the most part, focused on finding the first landmarks that he recalled from his visit to the elder Len.

It was more difficult than he remembered. The lights fought valiantly against an unending night, but he still felt like the buildings were hard to see clearly. Which made them all seem different than he recalled even though he knew he had taken the exact same turns. There were also the distractions.

Immediately upon entering, several students offered him free reading material and food until he realized that they were trying to recruit him into a cult.

And none of them were even able to give him better directions than the florist he had first spoken to. Neal needed an iridescent nightbloom flower. It was the keystone of their final tutoring deal. And, unless Yam was willing to go to a different country and into the feeding zone of an infamous magical predator, the only location they grew was in the night court by a certain fountain. One Yam vaguely recalled from his last journey.

The florist had no sense of magic to her and had been understandably adverse to retrieving the flower herself. Yam would likely be terrified if his first visit here hadn’t shown how harmless these people were. Most of them just wanted to get inebriated, think about reality from a different perspective, and pass their classes.

And now he stood, waiting for a dress-wearing man to stop speaking and wondering if he was being too subtle about wanting to find the flowers immediately. But the tambourine playing student he had asked directions from just kept talking.

He had promised to help Yam find the flower. Before that though, he was curious if Yam had ever read anything about madra? About how it could be used to increase his spiritual awareness, sexual performance, and connect him to a higher being. All it would take were some free meditation classes. Maybe a few private sessions with their teacher and some completely optional donations to their research group.

A research group that, Yam discovered after a few questions, was studying a deity and how to praise it.

Aside from the cultist lying to him, which was an insult worth blows by itself, it reminded him of his father’s situation. Which had led the young mage to becoming just mildly piqued.

“So tell me,” Yam hissed, eyes narrowed to slits, face inches from the flinching cultist, “after I’m done with you and your stitches have healed, will your god still want you then?”

The boy shook his head, face pale and hands twitching. It made Yam want to scream and break something. No more comments on what an ‘angry little fella’ he was now? No more laughing like Yam was joking or asking him to, ‘just calm down and lower his voice.’

Lying coward.

“You’re pathetic,” he growled, shoving his way past and only pausing long enough to kick the fallen tambourine.

Despite the show he had just put on, within a few steps another greasy-haired human called out to him, “Hello, my spring court brother. You look like you could use a guide. My prices are the most reasonable of all—“

“Eat dirt, human.”

“Well,” the boy laughed, “that would cost extra. But it’s better than braving dangers like the—“

Yam whirled around and twisted space. In a single step, he was standing chest-to-chest with the human, head craned upwards so he could stare him in the eyes, “If another human tries to swindle me then I’m going to dig my claws into you and toss us both off the side of the school. And I’ll make sure that you land on top when we hit the ground. That way you’ll survive long enough for something to smell the blood and fucking find you.”

Before he could get a response, an Aketsi wearing clothes dyed in a psychedelic swirl of colors cleared his throat, “I noticed you say that if a ‘human’ tried—“

“Vertebrate.”

There were no known sentient species that looked like a faintly glowthing, anvil-sized floating blob of flesh tone gelatin. That did not stop one from zipping through the air towards Yam.

“Yeah! Scram you boney bint!”

The rage in his chest felt like it was going to cook him alive. Even seeing shape shifting and self levitation, which he had only heard of in stories, barely made him pause for a second.

He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to speak as calmly as he could.

“I don’t want any guide. I have been to the court before.”

“Ah, but getting lost here is a costly—”

“I am no child!” he finally screamed, his rage only increasing when his voice broke.

“Calm down, friend.”

Magic he did not remember summoning suddenly filled the air around Yam and the lamps shifted from purple to a blazing orange.

“Have you EVER succeeded in calming someone down by telling them to, ’just calm down’?” He didn’t wait for a response, ”Of course not! No one has!”

“I was just trying to—”

”No! Listen closely. I will give you NO money, NO goods, and NO form of compensation at all! But I will give you pain. Pain if you respond by telling me anything other than where I can find an iridescent nightbloom flower. Got it?”

The blob’s glow became dimmer, its color slightly darker.

“… bold of you to assume I can feel pain you bone-sausage looking, calcium supremacist, motherfu—”

~~~

At first, he thought he was lost because he was still reeling from the Blob’s anger. But, formidable as its magic was, Yam realized that his guess was wrong very quickly.

After turning a particular corner and seeing the statue of what appeared to be a living candle holder overthrowing and stepping onto the face of a human, he realized his mistake. There should have been a building with a tooth-filled door there.

That was concerning.

When he went back around the corner to check his route and found that the walkway no longer led to the same street, it was no longer merely ‘concerning’. At that point, it was, officially, a Problem.

Luckily he had spent most of his life traveling, so it was not a Big Problem. There was some amount of pride that needed to be swallowed after having just lost a fight with the Blob because he didn’t want a guide. But asking for directions was just a part of life. City maps were for city guards, and he had never stayed somewhere long enough to know all the sordid alleys and streets in the perverse way humans did.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said to an older woman wearing wolf skin instead of a cloak. ”I’m trying to find a fountain. It has iridescent night bloom flowers around it. I’m told it is a massive tunnel-sized pipe that appears from a place you cannot remember looking at and leaks vaguely glowing water.“

“Sorry, I haven’t got a route there.”

“A route?”

“A route is the root of the problem, but I’ll be rooting for you.”

She walked away cackling, and Yam asked several more passersby.

It was predictably unproductive. At best most people seemed unhinged to one degree or another. And, at a few points, thet even made him feel unsafe. Some of these mages looked at him and he could all but see the label ‘lost’ and ‘vulnerable’ being written over his head.

It did not pay to be a lost and vulnerable Len in a city full of humans.

He refined his search and avoided those people who seemed clearly intoxicated, eccentric, or otherwise unattached to reality. For obvious reasons, it meant that he spent more time than he wanted to trying to get directions. There were just too few normal people in this court.

Though his parameters did loosen when he tried to see how much time had passed and found that he couldn’t use the moon or sky to help him.

No matter how much time he spent in the Day Court, something about not being able to tell time made him feel untethered. Like he had taken a step down the stairs and found himself falling instead of his foot ever catching solid earth.

So he didn’t hesitate when he saw a human male who walked with slow deliberateness and clean clothes. There were no stained wolf hides, no noxious glass tubes, no inebriated stagger. Just perfectly pressed clothes and dark, intense eyes.

“Excuses me, sir. I’m looking for a particular fountain.”

The man listened intently while Yam spoke, neither muttering to himself or having his face writhe with uncomfortably strong emotions like the other mages he had spoken to.

“Well,” the man said, lips quirking upwards as he scratched at a beard that was trimmed with the immaculately straight lines of a military cemetery, ”you can never stand in the same river twice, aye? You can’t expect to walk into the same Night Court without working for it.”

“I don’t understand. Isn’t that a metaphor about the changing nature of time?”

“Yes, but not here. If you know a route to be true, or have the will,” he said “then any path will lead you to where you believe it will go.”

“So I need to will a mage path?”

“Ahh,” the man said, weighing Yam with his eyes, “Forgive me. I sometimes forget how odd our talk can come across to outsiders. You can use magic or mental power to make any series of streets take you to the same place. At least for most public places. Otherwise, you just need to follow someone to a location and inherit the route they used.”

“Inherit?”

“Inherent,” he nodded. ”Belief is magic. You already know and believe that route to be true. No mind games or tricks of perspective needed. They take less will to make it true next time you use them.”

“Would you be able to show me a route to the fountain I need to find?”

There was a pause as the man looked around them with his serious eyes. His lips were still tilted in the impression of a smile. But those dark, intense eyes were clearly focused inward as he considered Yam’s request.

After an achingly long pause, the stern man with his perfect beard responded, “I don’t have a route that leads from here to there. But, if you would like, you can join me for a span. I’m putting a few routes together so I can get to a site I need for a spell. If you’re willing to help me collect some supplies then I can drop you off at the front gate along the way.”

Yam felt a burst of trepidation, but it was unlikely that any of the guides would recognize him from his outburst with the Blob. They probably had already found clients and were busy anyway. “I would appreciate that greatly. Thank you.”

“Don’t fret about it,” the man said, turning towards a particularly dark alley, “I’m sure your help will be invaluable.”

“Really? What exactly will I be helping with?”

The man glanced at him, “I’m summoning myself a new familiar. It’s a bit of a passion project of mine. Will that be an issue?”

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Yam 15

3.01

Another first-year student would be afraid of debating the price of tutoring with someone from The Winter Court. They were more amicable than any other faction when it came to inter-court tutoring. But their motto was, ‘Second to none but nature.’ That referred to the harshness of their lessons and the scale at which their anger made itself known.

Luckily, Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers was the very spirit of tact and social grace. 

“Without rancor or exaggeration, I can say that I have seen men sell their children for less. Your ego is big enough to serve as a local landmark. No second-year student is worth that many drams unless they shit silver, and piss liquid enlightenment. Make me another offer or I say you are a buffoon and not worth my time, let alone my gold.”

He felt a tremor go through the ground as the muscles in the young woman’s jaw flexed.

“Oh, truly now? You would call me that?” she said, the smile on her bargaining face laughably stiff. 

He nodded. 

“If you said that to a pyromancer, I’d hesitate to call you anything but an imminent burn victim.” 

“Luckily,” Yam grinned, spotting the game in her words, “I’m only talking to geomancer.”

Only a geomancer?” she said, going completely still.

“Only a geomancer,” he confirmed, folding his arms and leaning back.

His potential tutor clenched her jaw and glared. 

They were standing in a small courtyard near the entrance of her court and Yam was finding himself grateful for the thick and layered spring court clothes he wore. All the trees lining the scenic, bench-lined nook between buildings were leafless. They did live in perpetual winter after all. But the Hibernal court refused to let something as simple as a supernaturally inhospitable climate get in the way of their aesthetics. The trees were barren but still managed to be hauntingly beautiful, branches swimming through the air in cultivated sweeps and elegant lines as they searched for a non-existent pocket of warmth and sunshine.

The pause in their conversation only lasted a moment before the elementalist mastered herself and summoned her own bargaining face. 

Again, her smile was amateur. It came across as wide-eyed and feral rather than politely interested. But Yam was becoming used to how unpredictable human social cues were. 

She tilted her head to the side, disconcerting smile still on full display, “You said you wanted tutoring in control because you had difficulty moving more than a fist-sized stone?”

“Correct. Tutoring in control and general geomancy. There is rock I need to be able to move and reform on short notice.”

She stared him straight in the eye, not responding to his words. 

“… ma’am?”

Her smile widened, becoming sharp as a butcher’s cleaver and even less forgiving, “First lesson then. A Winter Court classic.”

“We haven’t agreed on a cost.”

“Oh, this one’s for free.”

~~~

Two days before, Yam had left the meal with his roommate and found that a double dose of the wakefulness potion was potent.

Phenomenally, euphorically, manically potent.

The seller had given him several small containers. A glass bottles barely the height of his thumb. All filled with an unappealingly thick liquid and kept shut with small corks. He was advised that the doses were for large humans and that half a vial would be more than enough for him. 

But he had also heard the wakefulness pills would keep him awake better than any black tea could. 

Two full vials later, his bones held the same impossibly fast rattle that he had felt as a child when he would run alongside a fence dragging a stick down the slats. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Going so fast his teeth seemed to buzz like a bee’s hive.

In some ways, his fervor had been enlightening. Yam felt like he was able to do anything. He was invulnerable, unstoppable, already a god, and seconds away from learning how to fly. 

Obviously, he had realized in a burst of inspiration, when a master craftsman took an apprentice they made them do hundreds of thousands of repetitions. They did not just read about how to weave, sew, or hammer metal. They did.

The way to be able to do something, was to start doing it. 

And Yam’s focus was unstoppable. He hardly had to think of a task before he found his body moving to do it.

If he had any idea how to make a familiar bond, then he would have run to the Understacks at that exact moment. With the amount of energy in him, he knew in his heart that he would have opened that whole doorway to the Flesh Ants in a single surge of magic. 

Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to make familiar bonds so he could start doing like a craftsman’s apprentice. And he couldn’t still the thunderstorm in his veins long enough to sit through a book on the topic. 

Instead, he cleaned and oiled the leather of his belt, sharpened his remaining knife, ran out into the moonlight to scrub all of his clothes in a fountain, and practiced control exercises ceaselessly. 

The control exercises were what gave him the idea. Yam had seen a  stubby building with stacks of crates piled against the wall. Immediately, he wondered if his work with Coach Combs had made him strong enough to climb to the roof. So he tried it. He had also picked up a foreign coin off the ground and known immediately he should practice control exercises. So he had. 

Doing both at the same time had been difficult, but he was unstoppable. 

Which resulted in him sitting with his legs dangling over the edge of a roof, fingers scratched and bloody, clothes still wet from washing, and using Autumn Court gravity manipulation so the coin would be lighter and easier to move with his geomancy. 

Then The Idea hit him like a horse’s hoof to the stomach. 

There were dozens of ways to levitate a coin. Hundreds of combinations of different court’s styles. That was the truth of control exercises. And realizing every combination he would need to master— it was so daunting that he actually cried. Right there on the roof, moons shining silver on his damp fur, he wept.

That was the truth about magic too, he realized. Like layering tissue paper until the overlap in the middle became dark and impossible to see through. That shape in the middle was reality. All these ‘natural laws’ falling unevenly, one over the other, until each individual factor had overlapped to make the shape of the world. 

The overwhelming massiveness of it bowled him over. The thought of confronting such immensity on his quest for godhood made his heartbeat so fast that he briefly thought he might be dying. Short of breath, chest aching, and dark thoughts whispered to him about his age, about how he couldn’t possibly master so many thousands of combinations, and about how his weak body would give up while he was still friendless and sleeping in a cave. 

It overwhelmed him. 

Until he leaped to his feet and started laughing so hard that the tears came even more heavily.

Because the truth about control exercises not only showed him his failure but the way forward. It gave him The Idea.

He could strain with all his might to fight directly against the shape of reality. Or, he could use the hundreds of spells, the thousands of combinations and the five types of magic to nudge all those different factors. To shift a few pieces of tissue paper and make the opaque shape in the middle of the pile one where what he wanted was easier: where god-like feats were almost natural. 

The key was to not tie himself to one approach.

Why just lift a boulder with nothing but telekinesis and raw power? He could reduce gravity to make it lighter, harden the air below it so it was rolled up a shallow incline, bend space so an inch of the movement shifted it a mile, and automate it all with mind magic. 

It would take a fraction of the power, and he would only need to be a passable novice at any of those skills, instead of being twenty years into the single-minded development of his telekinesis. 

That was the solution to the Flesh Ants. To familiars. To how he would become Aehp.

Under the effects of the potion, his confidence was as boundless as his energy. Mastering all of those disciplines was easily within his grasp.

The first step filled his focus like it was the only thing in the world: Flesh Ants. They would be his. The coin fell forgotten as he sprinted for the crates he would need to clamber down. It never occurred to him to look at the steep fall next to him as he skittered across the rooftop made slick by dirt and dust.

He would be, and with the potion still buzzing inside his skin he felt like he already was, Aehp the Eclectic Beast Lord. And obviously, Aehp was going to know every single way to make himself familiar. 

That was how he would learn the divine truth; how he would see all the ways of lifting a coin. One at a time put down a new piece of tissue paper and see the overlap. In this case, each piece of paper was a different approach to making a familiar. He would look at similarities and outcomes until he figured out the truest, most powerful, familiar spell there could be. All he had to do was find the best parts of each court’s magic, throw away the dumb pieces, and focus on the parts that were showed up repeatedly.

With that goal in mind, everything until the next morning descended into a single continuous blur of activity.

He woke up back in the underground cavern of his dorm, even though he had sworn not to go down there until he knew how to lock the entrance. The young mage found himself surrounded by nearly seven drams worth of paper covered in frantically written notes. Very few of them made sense. 

But, aside from learning that he really did only need half a vial of potion, he took one other important lesson from the experience. 

He was not going to let the Flesh Ants win. And he could not afford to wait and read until a teacher told him how. The time to learn by doing was now. If he waited until he was prepared, until someone cared about his tragic backstory and tears, then he would wait until he was dead.

~~~

Two days later, and after nearly an hour of silent meditation and harmonic resonance, Yam was able to recover from his first flailing attempt at geomancy. At least well enough for him to bend space again. 

 The ground of the Winter Court had slid almost up to his waist. Or more accurately, the geomancer had made the ground open up so that he fell and was swallowed up by it.

It was a particularly harsh first lesson made all the worse by how cold the Winter Court was, and how the stone leached away his body’s heat. 

Either way, the now solid-stone had constricted the opening of his money pouch and pressed it both wide and flat against his side, like a disapproving mouth. With the lightest spatial manipulation, he was able to increase the distance between the two lips until his fingers could slip inside. 

Ideally, he would have pulled out the small, stiff leather tube where he stored the gold shavings; the change he used when his sticks of gold were just a little too heavy or too light for whatever he was purchasing. 

However, the width of the spatially-altered opening precluded him from pulling out something so wide, and he was forced to bring a small finger of gold rather than the shavings. 

It would do. 

“Excuse me, excuse me sir!” he called out to a nearby student. A boy who was taller than he was short, more blond than he was brunette, and very loud. 

Solitarily, and without equivocation, loud.

The student was speaking animatedly to a young woman who seemed politely disinterested in what he had to say. When Yam called, she interrupted to point out the young Len hailing them.

Though Yam could not hear what the boy said, he could swear he saw the student’s mouth from the words, ‘can’t be talking to us’.

“No!” he yelled, ”I am very much am talking to you!”

The young man turned his back and tried to continue speaking with the young lady.

”YOU! You the human mage who gives off the energy of an earth elementalist! I am YELLING at YOU!”

The boy hunched his shoulders and gave a very insincere laugh to his conversation partner.

“Young miss! Ma’am! I will give you gold,” he waved his money and spoke very loudly and very slowly, “if you, yes you, bring the earth elementalist over here. Right! Over! Here!”

The pointing and arm waving seemed to do the trick. She excused herself. The elementalist started to follow before she blocked him with a hand and left at a very determined pace. 

“Now that you are unoccupied!” he continued shouting, ”Could you—”

“I can hear you!” the student yelled, scowling ferociously, “what is so important?”

“Well, my…” Yam almost said ‘good sir’, but he was not yet desperate enough to speak a falsehood, “my young and aggravated earth elementalist, as you can see, I am stuck. Would you help me?”

Before Yam could begin implementing any of the four B’s (barter, batter, bribe, or berate) the earth mage stomped his foot, and Yam was launched to his feet. 

Where he immediately fell and, after the minimal justified amount of swearing, began massaging blood back into his legs.

“Ahh,” the boy winced, his posture less stiff than when he had been talking to the young woman, “I’m sorry. Should have remembered. You alright?”

“I am deeply uncomfortable, attempting to be angry, but also overwhelmingly glad that I did not die of dehydration.”

“Dehydration? No, the stone would have reasserted itself. Permanent changes are hard.”

“Yes, I had deduced as much?’

“Deduced?”

The young Len nodded, ”Originally I was buried to my ribs.”

The boy winced, “I know the feeling.”

“You do?”

“Of course. This is the Winter Court.”

“I don’t understand.”

The other student shrugged and came to his feet, “I’m sure you will. But I’m afraid that I really need to be—”

“Please,” Yam said, forgetting his stiff legs as an idea took hold of him, “I owe you a drink.”

The earth elementalist paused, “A drink?” 

“Yes, and a conversation.”

“Ohhh. Yes. About that—”

“Two drinks, I meant to say.”

“Well!” said the elementalist, with the exact same forced laugh he had used on the woman, ”Like I was saying, my most fecund and furry friend, I’m famished and really need to find a place to feast!”

“Of course,” Yam nodded, as the student laughed at his own alliteration, “I know of a nearby tavern. Would you like to join me?”

“Most assuredly!”

“And what was your name? I’m not sure I caught it,” he said, managing to avoid choking on the barbarian’s introductions, even though it made him feel like a child still learning their letters. 

“I’m Neal!” The elementalist said, throwing an arm around Yam’s shoulders and steering him towards the center of Istima. “And you’ll have to tell me about how you ended up chest-deep in the literal court of the Winter Court. Ha! I’m sure it’ll make a great story.”

“Well, it happened like this—”

“Wait, friend. I hate to be rude, but perhaps this story is best saved for when we have drinks in hand and food on the way?”

“You are quite persistent about your compensation,” the young Len nodded, face serious, “I respect that.”

“Exactly right! That’s what they say, ‘Neal is all about wine, women, and wanton acts of wizardry’ they say,“ the elementalist threw his head back and barked out a short, strong laugh. 

“Yes,” Yam said, surprised that his smile at the barbarian equivalent of humor was more genuine than not, “I have heard a person say that. Quite recently too.”

“Oh really. Was the person me?”

“Yes.”

Neal clapped him on the back and laughed again, “Very nice! I’m sure we’re going to be fast friends. You said the first three rounds were on you, right?”

Yam nodded and found himself oddly touched. Honestly, he had thought the man too dumb to notice the small game in his words. He certainly hadn’t expected him to immediately call it out without any attempt at subtlety or tact. Combined with how bold-faced he was about up-selling him on the drinks and Yam was finding himself to be pleasantly surprised. 

Not quite Len, but better than most humans.

Also, it would be a lie to say he hadn’t noticed that this boy’s magical presence was substantial. From his limited understanding of this court’s hierarchical system, that could mean that Neal was rather highly placed. Perhaps highly placed enough to know about how the Hibernal Court bound their familiars? 

No matter what, the potential knowledge he could gain from an amicable geomancer was great.

All he had to do was play it cool. Summon the good old bargaining face, use his impeccable knowledge of human norms, and turn up the charm. 

Poor barbarian didn’t stand a chance.

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Interlude Miller #3, There’s Always One Feather Brain in the Flock

Miller sat at a desk in the Eyrie and plied the full mental powers of an Istima trained mage so he could split his focus. Nay, bifurcate the very fabric of his mind. 

One half focused on Jercash giving gruff scowls, sharp orders, and eating an entirely mundane pastry from down the street. Miller personally thought it would have been more bird-like for him to be sipping scotch, but you couldn’t have everything. 

The second half of his mind was very concerned about the proper way for a tough bird-of-the-streets to sit. He felt fairly confident that he didn’t want to cross his legs. Intuitively, he knew throwing an ankle over his knee would only work if he could also slouch confidently. But Miller didn’t just want to be a fast-talking, wise-cracking bird. He wanted Jercash to know that he was tough. That he was merciless in the hunt, and that he was the perfect person to take under his wing (Heh. Bird pun. Classic).

The reed-thin diviner frowned. How did someone act like a tough, but ready-to-be mentored Bird?

Bringing an apple wasn’t the right move.

Bring a steak? Alcohol? Get into a very manly fistfight so they could become very manly friends afterward? From what he had read in magazines that was how tough manly men became tough manly friends.

He tried to sit like a tough (but ready-to-be mentored), competent, manly-man, laconic, bird while he also tried to think of where the closet butcher was. He’d always heard that when men became friends and hung out, they were supposed to have ‘sausage parties’. He himself preferred less fatty food, but he could probably find something spicy and hearty.

“—Miller!” Jercash said, waving a hand in front of his face. 

“Sorry, what?”

“I asked why you were scowling. And why you’re sitting like you need to make an extra-large donation to Istima City Sewage Committee.”

Oh no. 

He needed to change the topic. Faster than thought, Miller scanned the chalkboard diagraming their hunt and blurted out the first thing that came to mind. 

“Why Staylen?”

Jercash glanced at the board, “I heard he sewed up a few of your circle jockeys pretty tight last month.”

Miller blinked. Circle jockey?

Oh! Spring Court. Because of the spell circles they manifested. 

“Ahhh,” Miller said, moving to the chalkboard, “gotcha. But you lost your guy in the Stacks, right?”

“Yeah.”

He chewed at his lip for a second before wiping Staylen’s name off the board and replacing it with Millie’s, “Staylen’s best with runners. Millie’s who you want in the Stacks.”

“Millie? You mean The Machine?”

“Yes.”

The Raven frowned, “I heard the Machine was a heavy. We need a tracker, not a brawler.”

Miller nodded but didn’t take his eyes away from the rest of the names on the list, “Staylen has contacts everywhere within a few days’ ride of Istima. But he likes to pick his fights. Follows people for days, waits till they think they’re clear, and then spikes their drinks.” He tapped his piece of chalk next to the name he had just added, ”Millie’s numbers in the Stacks are the best in the whole Eyrie.”

“Numbers?”

“Numbers,” Miller nodded as he mumbled and switching a few other names. “She captures a higher percentage of people hiding in the stacks. A statistically significant higher percent.”

The Raven stalked forward and snatched the chalk from his hand, “What are you spewing?”

Miller didn’t even blink, just brushed the chalk dust off his fingers and whispered under his breath as he stared at the list. After a few more seconds he was able to tear his eyes away, though statistics, maps, stories, and schedules continued to flash through his mind’s eye. 

With a grunt, he motioned for the foreign bird to follow him and went back to his desk. They were already in the area used by the diviners so it only took a moment to skirt around the dust covered and neglected seat of a crow. Once at his own station, he rifled through the drawers and pulled out a massive book. It was fully a quarter the size of his desk even when closed. 

He flipped through it and came to a page that had Millie’s name underlined at the top. The first three pages after that were relatively clean and organized. But everything beyond those three pages was a jumble of notes, logs, calculations, and shorthand. All blended into a mess that was incomprehensible to anyone but Miller. 

“I’ve got records on Millie going back three years,” he said, marking the start of Millie’s section with a slip of paper and flipping through the pages until he hit Big Bernard’s page. “But look at this. If you look at Big Bernard, within two weeks of getting a case, he gets results seven out of ten times,” Miller went back to the blackboard and wrote down the fraction. “Then, if you look at four of the last five months, he got the same numbers, seven out of ten, but at the five-week mark. You know why?”

Jercash shook his head. 

“Dumb luck,” Miller said. “There’s some math you can do. You plug in the number of times something happens under two conditions, like how many times you get food poisoning from a festival booth compared to a street vendor. The math can tell you how likely it is that the difference between the two is due to dumb luck and randomness, or if the difference means something. You follow?”

Jercash grunted, eyes flickering as he scanned the figures Miller was pointing at. 

“So, you run the numbers, read the results, and see if it gets to the point where you take it seriously.” The diviner quickly circled the ‘two weeks’ and crossed out the ‘five weeks’ on the board. “The numbers at two weeks are statistically significant; it’s almost assuredly not due to chance. But the five-week results look like they could just be dumb luck. 

Then you look at Bernard’s file and you see he’s an artificer. After two weeks, the evidence is too old for the tools he made. They’re not sensitive enough. Then you see that he was barely given any cases the last few months. He spent most of the time helping the diviners build a new device. So, with so few cases, it was easy for him to get lucky on a couple, and suddenly it looks like something changed that mystically helps him around the week five.”

“So what’s your point? Seems like something you could have talked to Bernard about and figured out in two minutes.”

“First,” Miller said, making a little mark where he had added Big Bernard’s name to the list, “your guy only slipped away a few days ago. For the next week and a half, so long as it’s Bernard reading his own tools, there is a seven out of ten chance he’ll find him. Imagine that you’re at the racetracks and you’ve got a horse that only loses three out of every ten races. If you need a win, then those are odds worth betting on.”

For the first time Jercash’s scowl turned into a mere frown, “And your weird math says something about The Machine?”

“Yes!” Miller said, smiling and frantically scribbling on the chalkboard. “She’s helped out with plenty of searches, there’s always a student who needs a talking to. But if you look at her numbers, she seems to find people who hide in the Stacks more often than anyone else. So you think, ‘it’s probably just chance,’ right? Have us comb through the city enough times and people are bound to have hot streaks for no real reason. But no! If you run her numbers, then there is a meaningful difference between how she does in the Stacks compared to everyone else. And get this, it’s not just when you compare her to everyone else. If you compare her results in the Stacks to her results in the Falls District then, mathematically, she is different compared to her own self. Out of the Stacks, she’s actually worse than the average bird.”

“That’s… huh. That something.”

“I know!” Miller beamed, “Isn’t it fascinating!”

Jercash came back to the board and put a hand on his chin, eyes going sharp. “So you’re telling me that all of these people,” he waved his hand at the names the Diviner had changed. “They’re more likely, than literally any other bird in the eryrie, to help us find this sick fuck if we put them in the right place.”

“Not quite,” the diviner pointed at a few names. “These crows usually get put together because their training matches up well on paper. But if you sub out Salazar with Lee Shin then you get the same exact mix of training, plus Shin can receive distance messages from this diviner,” he said, tapping one of the original names. 

Jercash asked a few questions, and the two of them spent the next half hour going through each name. Most of the time the raven took his advice, but Miller was fascinated with the points where the other man didn’t. 

In that half hour, he learned more about the combat training and team tactics of the Crows than he had in months of his own research. 

By the end, they had a shortlist of people who would help them chase down the trail. They also had two strike teams that, in addition to Jercash’s own group, were ready to swoop in if things got heated.

“Miller,” the other man said, “this is good shit right here. Real good shit.”

“It’s going to be a real show of force,” the diviner said, eyes glittering as he imagined this star-studded cast taking to the streets. 

They were silent as Jercash examined the list one last time and Miller imagined how this story would be written up in one of his favorite magazines. 

“Why is it that the Machine does so well in the Stacks?”  Jercash suddenly asked. ”She grow up there?”

Miller shrugged, “No clue.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Look at Big Bernard’s record and it’s pretty obvious why two weeks makes such a difference. But the numbers don’t tell you why something happens, at least not these numbers. They just say how likely it is that a difference is meaningful.”

“Results, not reasons,” the other man said, baring his teeth in a lopsided grin, “I can get behind that. But where did you learn math games like this?”

“The Night court.”

“Night court? That’s what you all call reality benders right?”

“Maybe? All magic looks pretty reality-bending from a certain perspective.”

Jercash grunted, “I’m talking about the style where you believe something till it happens. That one?”

“Yes, that’s my school of magic.”

“Then why were they teaching you math? I thought you folks just got real high and read sad poetry until crazy stuff started making sense to you.”

“Sad poetry?”

“Am I wrong?”

Miller shook his head and got a far-off look in his eyes, “Believe me when I say that nothing will make you doubt the mechanisms of the world quite like math.”

The Raven didn’t look convinced.

“It’s much easier to imagine being able to fly than it is to realize that the world is made of numbers and equations. That they rule you whether you know them or not, that your brain calculated hours of advanced physics each time you toss a ball, and that the really advanced stuff says things you can’t understand but have no choice but to believe.”

There was a pause where the diviner stood with a emptyu look in his eyes. Then Jercash snorted, spit to side, and said, “Dunno, that sounded a lot like sad-boy poetry to me.”

Miller couldn’t help it, he laughed, “You sound like a bird from the magazines.”

Jercash gave him a knife-edged grin, “There’s no dandy with a quill alive who could think up the things my boys and I have done. No, I may be garbage, but I’m not that kind of trash.”

Once again, he felt his mind split. One half of him felt like he was outside of his body. Floating over the scene and watching the rough talking, casually offensive banter from his favorite stories played out on a theatre’s stage.

The second half realized that he read what those dandies with a quill wrote. That, in point of fact, he was part of an investigative fiction appreciation club, a Rue DeLite fan club pen-pal program, and that he needed to drop by the postmaster to see if a bundle of magazines had come in from a club member in a different city. 

“HA!” Miller barked, forcing his face to make a smile “Yeah. What sort of FOP would read THAT? I mean, I bet they don’t even go on dates.”

Jercash laughed, “Too busy trying to bugger the weekend comic sheet, I’d bet. Seven out of ten odds on that one for sure.”

The other man thumped him on the back, and Miller had to bite his tongue and pretend like it hadn’t hurt his shoulder. Or his feelings. 

“Yeah,” he grimaced, ”like, I mean, what do they even do?”

“Probably embroider their underwear and go to the healers if they get dirt under their nails.”

“HA!” Miller said, carefully hiding his perfectly manicured hands behind his back. 

“But enough grab assing,” Jercash said, fingers flexing like a cat testing its claws. “I’m tired of breathing the same air as this piece of shit. We’ll round everyone up, introduce you to my boys, and kick this hunt off. You ready, Miller?”

“Oh, I was born ready,” he lied, returning the raven’s blood-thirsty smirk while wondering where the nearest source of dirt was that he could get under his fingernails.

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Yam 14

~~~~~~~~~

This wraps up Yam’s second arc. If you can leave your thoughts about the chapter in the comments it would be awesome, and if you have any things you would like to see (or see explored) in arc three, just let me know.

Fun fact: following this link and clicking boost will cure world hunger, make you grow three inches overnight, and give you a dead lift of 4,000 pounds be really helpful and greatly appreciated.

We also made a patreon. You can find the page right here.

~~~~~~~~~

(2.07)

Bone would not hold flesh ants for long, even if its matrix was harder than any natural source should be. 

Yam spent at least an hour, probably more, coaxing a thin layer of stone from the wall and over his bone plug. Every single time he took a break and saw how little progress he had made, the young Len wanted to scream and weep and curse and quit. 

And every single time he pushed past his feelings and continued. He couldn’t let the creatures flood into the unsuspecting upper levels. Not because of his incompetence. 

And it only got harder as he went. Especially since the geomancy-induced migraine wouldn’t stop.

Yam found himself feeling more tired, alone, and young than he had let himself feel since he first left the caravans.

Back then, he had dreams about some hidden genius being exposed. How he would find a mentor who recognized his potential and who would guide him through the arcane at an accelerated rate. He imagined awards, luxurious libraries, and girls who would try to talk with him. He spent hours mentally choreographing the magic duels he would win, and deciding what he would learn first; how to fly or how to become invisible.

Pfft. Yeah, right. Some god he was shaping up to be. 

When he finally cajoled the stone up to the edges of his not-for-eating-knife, Yam found that he didn’t have enough left in him to remove the blade and fill in the gap. He left it there, sticking out of the melted-wax-rock of the archway.

Back aching, he picked up Abomination and made his way to the corner, with its blocks of stone stripped away up to the height of his collarbone to reveal a vertical passage.

The climb was horribly long for someone who was hurting and exhausted. But it was not nearly as tall or perilous as he had thought it was during his fall. Just annoying. Especially in the dark and when trying not to smush the Qupee tucked into the front of his wrap. He had to half-crouch and extend diagonally to reach the next step with his hands. Then hop across the small open space so his butt landed on the next stony ledge and he could scoot backward until he was in position to take the next hop up. 

Seeing it now, his fall probably hadn’t been much worse than tumbling down some stairs. But bowel loosening terror just had a way of spicing things up; of enhancing the flower’s bouquet so to speak.

He should have smiled at the thought, maybe a wry or defiant grin. That’s what a hero in campfire stories would have done.

But he didn’t have it in him.

Without any attempts at subterfuge, the disheveled Len made it to the light, walked through the bookshelves, grabbed his bag, and stumbled out of The Understacks. 

 It was early morning outside. The edge of the sun was not quite over the horizon but still colored the air in a prelude to its rise. He had enough sense to stick to the populated streets, to walk along gray stone avenues and dusty roads where vendors were already preparing their stalls. 

In that manner, he managed to avoid being mugged in a alley. Though it would have been incredibly easy for someone with light fingers to walk away with his purse. 

Not that there was much in it right now. He had needed to burn gold to power the geomancy. 

Fate help him, he was probably going to need to spend even more money to get herbs, wasn’t he? There was no way he could survive a workout with Combs unless he made himself a poultice for the bruises.

His slight figure, fur sticking up, wrap bulging around the chittering form of Abomination, shambled its way to the dorms and into the horrible olfactory assault of the downstairs bathroom. Like the world’s most unsanitary smelling salts, the scent (practically a taste it was so strong) woke him up enough that he was able to notice something amiss when he entered the hidden cavern. 

Nothing was overtly off, but he had left a few indicators to warn him of trespassers. A strand of hair stuck to the wall, a bit of dirt he wiped smooth before he left, and other such children’s tricks.

If any one or two had been altered he would have dismissed it. But four indicators showed that someone, or something, had entered his sanctuary. 

His sudden exhalation shuddered more than it should have on the way out, and he dropped his head. 

This place had been safe. This place had been his. 

But it seemed like he didn’t get to have safe places. Not in Istima.

With the soulless precision of a summer court golem, he hauled his body back up to the bathrooms, through the hallways, and to his assigned room. 

At least the door locked. Plus, he had been in the room so infrequently that, if someone was looking for the Len that had offended them or stolen their Qupee, it was probably the last place they would look. 

He leaned against the door as he opened it and stumbled through. 

“Oh,” said an unfamiliar voice. 

Yam’s head snapped up in time to see an adolescent human with wheat-colored hair, sun-darkened skin, and an athletic build sitting on the room’s other bed.

“I’ve been looking for my roommate,” the boy said, a warm smile coming to his face, “but this was the last place I expected to find you.” The other student came to his feet with a good-natured laugh and held out his hand, “Ironic, eh? Nice to meet you, I’m Rorick Groveman.”

Yam stared at the proffered hand of his roommate: his spring court partner, and the informant meant to stop any extracurricular experimentation.

“Gods-fucking-damn it.”

 ~~~

The cramped room stood in silence, Yam barely through the door and already forcing the tall human to stand with the back of his knees pressed against the bed opposite his own.

Then Rorick laughed, “Don’t worry,” he said, hand dropping to his side, “I’m no spring court wet-nurse here to follow you around. But I am excited to have a roommate.” 

Yam stayed silent and trudged until he could lean against his desk and stare at the human.

“I don’t know any Len customs, is there a particular way your people do greetings?”

“Yes.”

“And what is it?”

Yam unclenched his teeth. He straightened his spine and pushed aside the fatigue as he switched to a more formal diction. He was a man of good breeding after all. “I am a Study of the Ken Seekers.”

“Does that mean I’m a study of magic?”

“No, you are old enough to pursue learning a craft and have picked an area to master; you are just ‘a Study’. And you are a son ‘of the Grovemans’.”

“Okay, so you’re a Study of the Ken Seekers and I’m a Study of the Grovemans. Got it. What comes next?”

Yam frowned, his poor, aching brain laboring to keep up with the conversation while simultaneously cataloging what evidence of his adventures was in his backpack and needed to be hidden or burnt.

“You did it wrong,” he said. “I say my position, you ask what knowledge I’m pursuing. Then I introduce my name and make a show of virtue. In response, you introduce your own position and I ask the question.”

“Alright, then. You’re a Study from the Ken Seekers. What are you studying at Istima?” 

An ember of annoyance flared to life in Yam’s stomach, and he latched onto it, tried to focus on it to the exclusion of everything else. “No. I’m a Study, who is a Ken Seeker. Obviously, I’m seeking ken; knowledge. You ask what knowledge I am pursuing.”

“Ahh, so this is like, a ritualized thing,” the boy said with an easy-going grin. “I spot what you’re sliding.”

He asked the question properly, but his smile still came across as inexplicably annoying. 

“I am Study Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers, and I am studying magic at Istima so I can step over the wishes of my less competent peers. Then I will force the world to heap prosperity and recognition on my family as well as my caravan.”

“Whoa,” Rorick blinked, “that’s raw.”

“Honesty is a virtue.”

“True, true. But yeah, I give my position now, right? Well,” Rorick cleared his throat, “I am a Study of the Grovemans.”

“And what knowledge are you pursuing?”

“I am at Istima studying magic because I’m naturally good at it and want to get an easy job where I can spend most of my time lazing around. Maybe learning an instrument or going on walks. Wherever the path takes me, you know?”

Yam’s mouth fell open and the other boy grinned in a very self-satisfied manner. 

“Pretty good display of honesty, right?”

“Yes,” Yam grimaced, unable to point out what specifically was making him angry, but finding himself increasingly certain that he hated Rorick.

“Thank you. Much appreciated, my friend. Though I may need you to walk me through the steps a few more times so I can remember.”

Yam stared and the other boy spoke when the silence had stretched for too long, “So, what if someone isn’t a Study? Do you—”

“Are you warming me up for negotiations?”

“Negotiations? No, I just figured—”

Yam’s eye’s narrowed and his words came out in a sharp burst, “Virtue does not stop after introductions.”

What?”

“There is no need to talk around issues, and we will know each other too well for false displays of concern to endure,“ he said, struggling to keep up the formal, business-appropriate speech when all he wanted was to sleep. “We both know that every member of this Court is one mistake away from being labeled as a dark mage. We are informants who will be rewarded for seeing the other fail. So, tell me, what do you want from me? What do we need to do so I can work in solitude and neither of us will wake to find ourselves face-to-face with a Bird?”

The other boy blinked, and Yam tried to take in all the details he could. The young Len strove to note anything that would let him read his opponent better during negotiations. 

Physically this boy, Rorick, was tall, with long athletic muscles and broad shoulders. His scalp was a mop of fur just long enough that he habitually twitched his head to the side to keep it from his eyes. There was an expensive-looking piece of shaped wood propped in the corner behind him. It was taller than the boy, an oval that tapered to blunted points at both ends, and it was professionally engraved. His clothes were decent, for a human, but well worn. His tan showed no pale patches that would indicate a love of jewelry.

“What do I want?” Rorick repeated.

“Yes.”

“Huh. Dunno, man. I guess I want to get a job helping plants. Maybe doing some weather stuff? Then just live life, you know?”

“Please, I am very tired and very sore. Either we have a frank discussion about how to handle this arrangement, or I’ll find somewhere else to sleep and you can leave me a note when you’re ready to talk terms.”

Walking away was always a valuable negotiating tool. Especially after you had done so at least once and proven your resolve. But Rorick reacted in a way Yam hadn’t expected; he laughed. 

“Oh, okay. I get it, I get it. It’s like you said, you’re here to heap rewards on your family, right? And it’s awfully easy to make a mistake that lands you in the cages.”

Yam’s mouth tightened. But he was quick in putting his bargaining mask in place. Whatever offer followed that threat wouldn’t get a reaction from him. He refused.

Rorick nodded his head, “Thing is, I’m not here to put anyone away.”

I’m not here to put anyone away. BUT…’, Yam said in his head, waiting for the follow-up.

“So, don’t kill anybody in front of me or do messed-up shit like that. But as long as you’re not doing anything that’s like, extra fucked up, then I say live your life. No bribery needed.”

“I… don’t follow. What are you asking for?”

“Nothing, man. I mean, I’d like to be pals. Maybe talk about pretty girls, or pretty boys, whatever butters your bread. Seriously though, I’m just here to enjoy the ride. And nothing makes a journey better than a-journeying with good friends, right?”

“You want me to purchase you… companionship?”

“No! I just want to hang out. I haven’t made many friends in school yet.”

“And how long would we need to spend ‘hanging out’ for you to not inform on me or inquire into my business? Would I be helping you negotiate deals, or writing essays while we ‘hang out’ ?”

Rorick puffed out a breath and plopped abckwards onto his bed. “Have you been spending time in the Summer Court or something? I mean, and take this very literally, that you don’t need to bribe me. Like, at all. I’m just trying to find some new buddies and enjoy being a student; drink a little too much, complain about teachers, go to parties, and those sorts of shenanigans.” 

The words almost didn’t make sense to Yam. Not that he didn’t know their meaning, more that he kept waiting for the next sentence. For the rational ending; the ‘but’. 

For instance: 

‘I don’t like money but I love being able to buy food.’

Or:

‘I don’t want to have a library, but I want to have already read all the books’

A moment passed. 

“But…” Yam said, “this is Istima.”

“And? It’s just a school.”

The wariness, the bruises, the memories of helplessness and fear, in a moment some strange alchemy his body transmuted all of those feelings into acid, fire, and pure explosive rage. 

“Just a school? Just a school!”

He flew across the room and shoved his finger in the other boy’s face, “I have almost died here! I have gone days without sleeping, weeks without eating a bite of civilized food. I have been constantly accosted by self-righteous exhibitionist barbarians. For weeks! This isn’t a fucking joke where you ride the tides of mediocrity to completion. Everyone here is fighting and competing and conniving to reach the top. And people will DIE based on those results. People will lose their families. And some of us are working ourselves to death so we can change our lives.”

With a snarl, he bared his sharper than human teeth, even though he knew it made him look like an animal, and pressed his face close to the other boys, “So you need to tell me. Right. Now. What it will take to keep you out of my business. Because I am here to win, and I would see your blood on the floor before I make my family spend an extra hour waiting for me to come back as an Istima mage.”

Rorick had slowly leaned back and Yam had followed him until the human’s back was pressed against the wall.

“Oh. Well then,” said Rorik, ”I, uhhh, I guess I do have something you can do.”

Yam pulled himself upright and laboriously smoothed his expression until his bargaining mask was back in place. 

“Then let us talk terms.”

“Yeah. I mean first off, I’m sorry you almost died. That’s raw and just like, super intense. That being said, try not to yell like that? I can get that nearly dying set you on edge but, maybe try not to be an asshole about it?”

And just like that, once again, the strange human’s words ceased making sense. 

“Also,” said Rorick, ”I’m about to swing by the dining hall, you should come.”

“What?”

“Cause, being all honest and forthright here,” he nodded to Yam as he referenced the virtue, “you’re acting like a bit of a prick. I’m not getting bad vibes from you though. Maybe you’ll be less cranky after you get some food. Also, I don’t know how old you are, and this may be a Len thing, but you definitely look like someone who shouldn’t be skipping meals.”

Yam collapsed onto his bed and covered his face with his hands. This would take so much time. He already couldn’t find enough hours in the day. How was he supposed to also convince someone to like him? 

“Can’t I just give you gold?”

“I mean, you can. But I’m still really curious about how you almost died.”

“Why are you so set on this?”

He heard the other boy shift and assumed he had shrugged.

“My dad’s still best friends with some of his old roommates. So, I always sorta wanted to see if… well, you know.”

Yam winced, and, for no reason he could explain, he felt his eyes start to burn. 

“Why couldn’t you have been a morally bankrupt gambler.”

“I know. Friendship is way harder than gold.”

“I’m not your friend though.”

“Pfft. Obviously. But it’s worth a shot. Go with the flow, follow the rhyme and see what happens, yeah?”

“No, I don’t know. I have never heard that saying in my entire life.”

“Really? Weird.”

They sat in silence for several minutes. Then Rorick cleared his throat.

“So, food? Also, we could call it a term if you want, but can you tell me what the thing is in the front of your… skirt-shirt? I actually don’t know what it’s called. Looks real comfortable though. But, point is, do you have a puppy in your shirt?”

~~~

He and Rorick separated, agreeing to meet each other in the Spring Court’s dining hall as Yam needed to stop by the market first. 

His roommate was very curious about the Len and about Abomination. Apparently, he had several Aketsi friends and had enjoyed learning about their people. 

In other circumstances, Yam would have loved to talk about his culture. Few enough humans made the effort to learn. And, with his family’s reputation, he had been forced to avoid other Len. 

He really should have been pleased, but Rorick’s questions just made him angry. He didn’t want to think about his family right now. To imagine how they would react to his string of failures. He certainly didn’t want to dwell on how much he missed home. 

All of those complex feelings clothed themselves in layers of insulating anger. Anger that was only made stronger by what he was wearing.

His great wrap was covered in dirt, dust and needed mending after his frantic retreat from Stanislov. Because of that, he was wearing his spring court garb. The tailor hadn’t been able to make him another wrap. The best he had been able to manage was a few tunics and trousers made of hearty canvas. It had also come with a stiff apron and comfortable underclothes.

He hated it. 

A great wrap went several times around the waist and then looped over one or both shoulders. In these restrictive human clothes his chest felt too hot. The trousers tugged against his knees with each step, and the layers caused entirely too much fabric rubbing, bunching, and wrinkling for him to manage. 

And it constantly disturbed the lay of his fur.

He stalked through the market, and his temper only worsened as he went store to store, stall to apothecary, and found no pills more potent than those that had failed him in the Understacks. 

Finally, after the third shopkeeper had spotted Abomination sleeping in his arms and asked to pet the Quepee, his patience broke. 

He had no time and soon he would waste even more trying to be friendly with the emotionally needy informer that had been assigned to share a room with him. All he wanted to do was to sleep or pull out the pamphlet he had stolen from the Tooth and Claw; the care instructions for Flesh Ants that he had never quite found time to read.

But it wasn’t safe to do that on the street.

And, apparently, it wouldn’t be safe to do in his own room either. 

Yam snarled and turned down a side alley. Decoding each patch of graffiti, he searched for symbols that would lead the informed to something stronger than simple wakefulness pills.

He no longer had a safe place to rest; so be it.

He had to waste time building a relationship with Rorick so the boy wouldn’t inform on him; fine.

He was a pansy whose blood betrayed him and made him pathetic enough to genuinely dread the prospect of a gymnasium; he would endure.

And he was so naive, so used to his privileged life as the well-bred son of a successful family, that he couldn’t even explore a library without tempting death?

It didn’t matter. He would try again. He would learn. And, so long as he planned on trying again, then his attempt hadn’t ended. Which meant that it certainly hadn’t ended with him as a failure.

Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers was many things, but he would be drawn, quartered, and burnt on a pile of books before he became a quitter. 

The odds against him were steep. He had always known that he wasn’t strong, or smart. But he was only now coming to realize that, at his core, he just wasn’t a good enough person to weather the temptations of Istima. That was a fact.

Viewed that way, the path forward was simple. Yam just fundamentally didn’t have much to offer. But that also meant he didn’t have much to lose.

He could willingly sacrifice his virtue, his hope of self-respect, to succeed. Because if he didn’t, what would there be to respect in the first place? 

So Yam would win by taking more punishment. By working harder than anyone else was willing to, and by sacrificing more of his comforts than anyone else could.

It wasn’t as though someone like him deserved to sleep anyway.

Yam turned a corner and saw an unhealthily skinny man sitting at the junction of two narrow streets. His lips were cracked, his eyes bloodshot, and nervous energy kept him fidgeting, scratching, or adjusting in constant subtle twitches.

But, more important to Yam, he saw the chemical stained hands, the burn-scarred arms, and the way his fingers deftly went through a bundle of flowers. Some were tossed to the side, others were pulled apart and separated into baskets.

To anyone who had ever visited a town where Len were not allowed in respectable apothecaries, the signs of a common man’s potion maker were clear as day. 

“Hello, sir,” Yam said, crouching in front of the twitchy human so their eyes were level, “what would you suggest for a student who wants to delay sleep and increase his energy and focus.”

”Depends,” the greasy-haired man said, eyes darting from the poppies he was de-seeding to Yam and then the streets surrounding them, ”how many drams is this student willing to part with?”

Yam’s bargaining mask slid into place. “As many as it takes. All you need to do is tell me your best estimation,” he said, a faint smirk coming to his mouth as he fell into a familiar cadence. “Then we can bargain, and find out how to come to a mutually beneficial accord.”

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Yam 13

(2.06)

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.

“Please?”

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.

Again.

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.

Nnnnneeeeeeeeeeeyyyyyyyyyyaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh—

Yam closed his eyes even tighter.

Nnnnneeeeyyyyyyaaaaahhhhhhh—

Plop.

Nnneeyyyaaahhhh—

Plop.

He squeezed his knees and tried not to break a tooth with how hard he grit his teeth.

Nneeyyaahh—

Plop.

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.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Interlude: Miller #2, A Bird Among Birds

~~~

Happy memorial day weekend, and thank you to all of those who served. Sincerely.

Here is a bonus interlude to celebrate them and because so many of you (like three people) seemed to love (have feelings slightly better than ambivalence towards) Miller. He will have a short run and a mini arc. We have a default release schedule in mind but let us know your preference. Or just leave comments in general, it really helps.

Speaking of; going to TopWebFiction and voting every week, or as often as you’re able, also helps a huge amount. If you would like to keep us in the weekly rankings them follow this link and click ‘boost’.

~~~

Atlan Jonson Miller was greeted at the entrance of the Istima Eyrie by a different person than usual. 

A quick glance showed an apprentice bird’s badge. One that sported a single feather design compared to the two on Miller’s. 

“Excuse me,” the sparrow said, trying very hard to throw his chest forward and seem alert, “are you Specialist Miller?”

He stared at the recruit and frowned. 

“Sir?”

His frown grew deeper. 

“Uhh, I’m sorry…”

“Don’t apologize,” Miller snapped, taking in the perfectly ironed shirt and total lack of grime under the boy’s fingernails.“Not right,” he muttered, “not right at all.”

The boy tried to interrupt, but Miller clamped a hand over the other man’s mouth. He leaned in close. 

“Shhhhhh,” he whispered, putting a finger to his lips.

The sparrow’s eyes went very wide.

Still muttering to himself, he guided them out into the street. Once outside, he threw a handful of dirt onto the sparrow’s perfectly shined shoes, snatched a pipe from a passerby, and forced it into the new bird’s hands.  

“Sir, I don’t smo—”

“Stop,” Miller ordered, rubbing his chin and evaluating the boy with a critical eye. “Stop saying ‘sir’. You’re supposed to be a bird. A hard-boiled, gruff, bird-of-the-streets.”

“Gruff?”

“Gruff,” Miller nodded. After a few more seconds, he took the pipe out of the sparrow’s hand and returned it to the irate man he had borrowed it from. 

“Roll up your sleeves and ruffle your hair,” he ordered. 

“Oh. Well, I mean, is this part of—”

Miller didn’t respond. He didn’t even blink until the sparrow had complied. 

But even then something was missing. He grabbed the boy again and dragged him back inside to the front desk of the eyrie’s lobby. 

“Howdy there, Atlan,” said the attendant. 

“Morning, Delores. Can I grab a jar of ink?”

“Will I be getting it back?”

“Yes.”

“Will most of the ink be in the jar when I get it back this time?”

“Yes.”

The older woman shrugged and gave him a stoppered jar with a faint smile. 

Miller immediately took the cork out and got a drop of ink on the index finger. He grabbed the straight-laced sparrow (even thinking those words made his stomach clench) and carefully flicked his finger until there was a fine smattering of ink on the recruit’s hand. 

“Hmmm,” Miller said, rubbing his chin. “Tomorrow, you will come in with stubble and red eyes. Understood?

“Si—”

“You may call me Miller, Hoss, Boss Man, or an expletive. Understood?”

“… yes?”

“Good. Let’s try again.”

Without waiting for a response, the diviner grabbed his bag and walked more than three minutes down the street so he could re-enter the eyrie like he did every morning. 

Atlan Jonson Miller was greeted at the entrance by a different person than usual. 

A quick glance showed a bird’s badge. There was no stylized icon to declare him as being in leadership or in a specialized branch like the owl on Miller’s did. The boy’s badge only showed a single feather compared to Miller’s four: so a sparrow. 

“Excuse me,” said the sparrow, a hefty lad with once nice clothes that had been ruffled by hard work and a long night writing reports, “are you Miller? The diviner?”

Miller sighed. The sparrow looked like a bird from one of the publications. “Yes,” he smiled. ”Yes, I am. You’re here to take me to the locker rooms?”

“I’m supposed to ask if you know the way there.”

“I’m fine today. But come with me anyway. I’ve got some pointers for you.”

“Really, sir?”

Miller frowned, his fingers twitching, “Don’t ever call me sir unless you’re being sarcastic.”

“Ah, yes. Of course.”

~~~

“But,” Mordakai, the brand new sparrow, said from where he sat on the changing room’s bench, “how does one grunt laconically?”

“That’s the million-dram question, isn’t it?”

Everyone had cleared out of the locker room pretty quickly after they entered. Which had given Miller plenty of time to start teaching Mordakai the important parts of being a bird. 

He, like Miller himself, was at an immediate disadvantage just based on looks. 

Miller was thin with boring hair. But not whipcord-thin or made-of-rawhide-thin. He was just reedy like someone who forgot to eat. The kind of thin that required suspenders because his body was naught but flat planes and provided nothing that a belt could catch on to stop his trousers from falling. 

Mordakai was suffering from the exact opposite issue. He had a surplus of curves and an unfortunately acute eye for fashion. Which made him look altogether too soft and well put together. 

A bird could be thin if it was hard-bitten and hiding the strength needed to sock a bad guy right in the jaw. And they could be fat, but only the kind of deceptive, ruddy-faced fat that hid the muscles needed to kick down a door or, better yet, sock a bad guy in the kisser. 

Sadly, neither of their bodies projected the requisite face-punching potential. 

But Mordakai would get there. He just needed a little help.

“One more time,” the diviner said, ”how will you be greeting Specialist Miller tomorrow?”

Mordakai stood so he could lean one shoulder against the wall and tapped a foot impatiently. “Miller,” the boy grunted before giving a tiny and reluctant tip of the head. “Can you make it to the lockers yourself, or do you need someone to hold your hand?”

“Yes,” the diviner whispered, eyes sparkling, “yessssssss. Now all you need to do is—”

Still frowning, Mordakai snorted through his nose and spit to the side, eyes fixed balefully on the imaginary Miller. 

“Perfect!”

“Really?” the boy beamed.

“……”

“I mean,” Mordakai quickly slouched back against the lockers, “blow it out your ear.”

“Blow it out your ear, what?

“Blow it out your ear, sir,” he sneered.

The reedy diviner shook his head and snorted. That was just, like, such a hard-bitten bird thing to do. 

“Today really is a good day,” he said to himself, a smile warming his face even as he opened up his locker.

“Yeah?”

“Of course! Today is uniform day.”

“Like uniform inspections?”

“No. I’m not on divine and detect patrols today. So, I get to wear my uniform.”

Mordakai peeked over his shoulder as he started pulling out the well-polished shoes, a fine leather belt, and an undershirt.

“Do you have to—”

“Shush. This is the second-best part of the day.”

“Putting on your uniform?”

Miller didn’t say anything. Instead, he held up the trappings of a bird, a real-life bird, and felt something hot and fierce stir inside of himself. 

This was the uniform of a hero. This was the uniform of an Istima Bird. Rue Delite, one of his favorite birds from the publications, was written for the panels in a small-time newspaper’s illustration section every Saturday. Rue wished he came from an eyrie that was well funded enough to have a uniform. By now, Rue would already be walking the streets, chasing leads, and hunting dark mages. All so he could protect the world. And also so he would have enough money to replace his father’s failing pancreas. And to support his twin brother who had quit the League of Evil and was struggling with the curse they laid on him. And to pay for his dates with the local journalist. And to pay for his dates with the eyrie’s secretary. And really to pay for a lot of the other dates that he went on in the course of his investigations. It was his go-to information-gathering tactic.

Come to think of it, did Miller go on enough dates? He felt like birds were supposed to have grim attractions with dangerous women or beguiling men. Maybe he should go on a date? 

No. Stupid. He definitely needed to start dating. Someone who would ask him what he had been working on during all hours of the night with tears in their eyes. Then they could have a screaming match that resolved itself when an ominously bubbling potion was thrown through their window at the worst possible moment. That’s what real birds did.

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

Still holding up his uniform, he felt determination seize his heart. 

Atlan Johnson Miller was a screwup. He was a former Night Court student who had studied for a few years and jumped ship as soon as he thought he could try out for his dream job. He was a reed-thin, boring-haired, uninteresting shut-in who read too much. 

Specialist Diviner Miller was a bird. A real-life bird. 

Specialist Diviner Miller popped his neck to the side in a satisfying cascade of meaty cracks. 

Maybe it was his imagination, but he could swear he felt the pops travel down the entire length of his spine as a burning ultrabright sense of determination filled his skull— one so intense it was almost exactly like magic.

“Holy shit,” Mordakai gasped, his voice sounding oddly far away. ”Are you okay? What’s happened to your back…”

In a series of forceful motions, the diviner pulled his uniform on. The over-large shirt and pants bagging around his weak body.

But as the weight of fabric and responsibility settled over him, he felt that inner fire intensify.

He would be a real bird, no matter what the cost. He would not disgrace his uniform while he drew breath. 

Despite having just shaved, stubble rasped against the collar of his jacket, and as he cinched his belt, he felt like he was growing taller. Like his shoulders were filling out his uniform. Like his skin was writhing to settle on a new frame. The hard-boiled, grim-jawed, brooding-eyed frame of a bird.

He would not disgrace his uniform.

And suddenly Miller found himself fastening the last button and tugging his perfectly tailored jacket into place. He put his civilian shoes into the locker. They felt oddly small in his hands. Then he turned to Mordakai.

“Wha— hurp,” the sparrow gagged, “what happened to your body —”

 Miller blinked and found himself several steps further from his locker than he remembered. 

“What?” he rasped, throat clicking as the deeper and grittier voice of a bird issued from it.

Mordakai’s eyes went horribly wide, and his face paled. He raised a finger and pointed to the diviner. But, before he could speak, his eyes went dim and fluttery. Miller moved with the strength and surety of a bird, covering the distance between them in a few long-legged strides. He made it just in time to guide Mordakai to the ground as he fainted. 

“Don’t worry, pal,” he said, “I fainted my first day too. Same for most sparrows that I’ve seen.” He patted the unconscious apprentice’s shoulder and chuckled. “It’s just something about these locker rooms, about realizing that you’re going to walk into an eyrie full of birds. Burn me if every new recruit I’ve seen in these changing rooms hasn’t puked or fainted at least once.”

~~~

He escorted the pale-faced apprentice to a clump of birds that were waiting for them outside of the changing room. 

They took one look at the boy, and Al, a recently promoted crow, called out, “Puke or faint?”

“Faint,” Miller said with a grin. 

Half the crows started cursing violently while the other half whooped with joy and rushed forward to smack Mordakai on the back. 

“Good work Miller! You just won me five drams,” Al called.

“I didn’t do anything. Just caught him when he fell.”

Millie ‘The Machine’ yelled something rude about his body, but Miller couldn’t hear it over a sudden, inexplicable ringing in his ears. He checked one last time on Mordakai, who was too embarrassed to meet his eyes. Then he left the apprentice to the friendly ribbing of his new brothers and sisters in arms.

He kept his eyes on the ground so he wouldn’t get distracted by the eyrie and made his way to the first-best part of his day. A one-on-one meeting with his hawk. Not even a raven in charge of a team of crows or a heron. A full-on hawk of the Istima eyrie. 

He knocked on the man’s office door and was immediately called in. 

“What’s all the noise about?” said Crammerson.

His superior looked like what Mordakai should aspire to become. His hair was shorn short and steely gray. The man himself looked like he was made out of blunt-edged rectangles covered in a thin layer of clay. His forearms were so thick that he barely possessed visible wrists, and his stomach bulged out like a retired heavyweight boxer who had covered his muscles rather than losing them. He projected a constant air of annoyance and stubbornness that was complemented by blunt fingered hands, a neck wider than his head, and tiny eyes hidden under a heavy brow.  

Back in the day, they had called him the ‘Bloody Barber.’ And every once in a while, a contract would come out that required heavy-duty magic. When you needed the sky to open and a tangled knot of intrigue, criminal alliance, and dark magics to be cut out wholesale, the Bloody Barber would take wing from his office and answer the call. 

Miller had also found out, with some off-the-books extracurricular investigation, that Crammerson had a vegetarian husband, was something of a gourmet, and even with all his culinary exploits, the Bloody Barber was still the best in his recreational bowling league.

The diviner was thus, understandably, star-struck. The man could do anything.

“Oh, ahh,“ he said, still feeling a bit overwhelmed, ”well, the new sparrow passed out in the locker room.”

Crammerson frowned, “Did they have the new kid escort you in?”

“Yes?”

“Dammit! I told them to stop using your shape—”

Miller found himself sitting in front of Crammerson’s sprawling and chaotic desk without any memory of moving there, his ears once again ringing slightly. 

“I’m sorry, say again, sir?”

His hawk muttered something under his breath, but rather than respond, he waved the whole thing aside.

“Forget about it. You and I need to talk, again, about when a diviner should instigate a capture. So, Miller, tell me, do you know when a diviner risks confrontation?”

“When the honor of the eyrie demands it, sir!”

The muscles in Crammerson’s jaw clenched, “No, Miller. The answer is maybe, maybe, twice. Twice in their entire lives. Twice,” he said, voice rising into a tooth rattling bellow, “IN THEIR GOAT-GROPING, MOTHERF—”

Crammerson proceeded to describe things to Miller that would have given a healer night terrors. The sorts of things that involved sexually transmitted diseases you could only catch by carnally pounding a termite colony. He waxed poetic about death by office equipment and stupidity so profound that it may cause contagious illiteracy. 

Just like in the publications. 

In prose fit to traumatize a full-grown man, his hawk described sexual acts so explicit they would require alchemical lubricants, a complex series of pully’s, months of cardio training, and a crack team of priests willing to cover what was left of your body in salt, sage, and fire. 

Miller smiled the whole time and nodded eagerly. He took notes in his mind so that one day he might revisit and dissect the virtuoso display of profanity. 

Because, by all reasonable measures, putting that combination of words together should have just been a jumble of vaguely offensive sounds, not even proper language. But somehow, through sublime artistry, not only did Miller understand each sentence, he had a painfully clear mental image of what they described. That and a visceral understanding of just how weak his moral character must be for him to be capable of picturing such a scene. 

Crammerson really could do anything. What a man. What a bird. 

In a sudden crescendo of obscenity, his hawk slammed a fist on his desk, and Miller couldn’t help it; he leaped to his feet and started applauding. 

Crammerson stared at him, face red and veins popping. 

“Sir,” Miller said, mouth open and eyes wide, “thank you. I am honored. Just hearing that…” he shook his head. “I feel unclean. I feel like canceling my holiday plans, so my mother doesn’t have to look at me. I feel… I feel— Wow.” 

“Miller,” Crammerson growled, his voice dangerously soft, “would you happen to also feel repentant?”

“About being born?”

“ABOUT STARTING A FIGHT WITH STREET TOUGHS!”

The diviner put a hand to his ringing ears and smiled. What. A. Bird.

“I’m sorry, what?”

Crammerson deflated and fell into his seat. 

“You didn’t hear a word I just said.”

“I engraved each and every one of them into the vaults of my mind.”

Blink.

“Sir.”

Blink.

“Engraved?”

Chiseled.

“Of course. Tell me then, having chiseled, (‘chiseled,’ Miller whispered, clenching his fist) my words into your heart; are you going to do anything differently?” 

“Yes, sir! I’m doubling down. I’ll listen to more caravan guards. I’ll take notes on locker room talk and interview a courtesan so I can expand my cursing vocabulary. Also, I’ve started a new initiative in my training as a bird: I’m going to try to go on dates. Lots of them!

That way, someone will be waiting while I work deep into the grim hours of the night. And we can argue about how important my work is and if I’m taking care of myself. It. Will. Be. Fraught. And it will be dramatic. There will be multiple pauses with me staring out the window and plenty of desolate silences. Just like a real bird-of-the-streets.”

Blink.

Crammerson put two blunt fingers on the side of his massive neck and glanced at the Summer Court timepiece hanging on his wall. 

Miller waited in silence until the hawk spoke. 

“Now, I’m going to speak very calmly and very clearly. There will be no obscenity. I will neither bark commands at you nor tell you to extend a full measure of effort towards getting your SHIT TOGETHER!”

Crammerson closed his eyes and breathed deeply, fingers still pressed against the big vein in his neck, “I’m sorry. That was unprofessional. And this is purely professional. No drama at all. Just simple management of an employee. So, please, please listen closely.”

The diviner nodded his head eagerly.

“Good. Delightful. Wonderful, “Crammerson said, looking at the ceiling and taking a deep breath, ”Miller, you’re an owl, correct?”

“I prefer Specialist Diviner.” 

The grey-haired man just stared at him, so Miller took it as an invitation to continue. 

“I accept that slang is important. Very hard-bitten. Very streetwise. Very bird-like. I get it; I really do. But there’s this thing with thematic nomenclature schemes. You see, if A equals B and A equals C, then A isn’t effective in differentiating B and C. You can also think of it as a graph. The vertical axis is rank, like hawk, and the horizontal is specialization, like owl—”

~~~ 

They summoned Hitch into the office and tried again. 

“Miller,” the hawk said, “you are a specialist diviner, correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Now tell me, when has a diviner last executed a capture?”

“Oh wow, boss,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “That’s a big question. Do you want me to answer by year, region, or eyrie?”

Hitch raised a hand, and Crammerson nodded to him, jaw clenched shut. 

“Miller,” his partner said, speaking with the boundless deliberation of an Aketsi and his own slow drawling pace, “what’s the difference between crows and owls? Generally.”

“I really prefer specialist diviner.”

Crammer’s eye started to twitch.

“That debate,” his partner said, “is too long.”

“No, no. I’ve been thinking about it, and I think the crux of the issue is really—”

Before he could continue, Hitch lifted a finger, “Remember,” the Akestsi said, “a hawk is watching.”

“Damn it, you’re right!” With a conscious effort, Miller gathered himself back up. He made sure that he was slouching in his seat and put a hard-boiled scowl on his face— a hard-boiled bird scowl. 

In the publications, birds were always sparse with words when talking to their superiors. A real streetwise bird wanted to be pounding the cobbles, feeling the pulse of the town, and working over a suspect, not explaining their methods.

“Diviners, they’re the eggheads, amiright?” he said, using some hip new slang he had heard on patrol. ”And crows, they’re the muscle.”

Hitch nodded, “You’re an egg head. Correct?”

Birds, he reminded himself, did not frown petulantly, “I’m a bird.”

“A bird who is a specialist diviner. And a specialist diviner is an egghead. Correct?”

Miller’s only response was to scowl. 

Crammerson jumped in, “Crows capture dark mages. And even crows prefer to go in with a plan and research. Or with potions. Or with backup. Or with any actual combat training at all. Owls,” he continued, “are the ones who give crows the information they need so they do not die horrible deaths.”

“I’m not afraid of dying in the line of duty.”

“Yes!” Crammerson said, smacking his hand against the desk, “Exactly! That is exactly the problem.” He turned to Hitch, “Are you afraid of dying on a capture?”

Hitch barely paused at all, which for him meant he waited until a slow count of three before responding, “Yes.”

“Good. That’s reasonable. That’s downright prudent. But how often, when you’ve been with Miller, have you been able to calmly approach a target after doing the proper planning and preparation?”

“Not,” Hitch drawled, “very often.”

“I don’t see what the issue is,” Miller said. “Magic gets abused. Birds see the abuse. Birds stop the abuse, and then there’s less abuse.”

Diviners see abuse,” Crammerson said. “Crows stop abuse, and then birds get paid because there’s less abuse. Do you know how much money we made on your street toughs?”

“Just desserts are the only payment—”

“Shut your mouth, you mud-munching illiterate son of a snaggle-toothed sheep fucker!” Crammeson roared, jumping to his feet and jabbing a finger at Miller. ”We need money! Holding your panty-waist, useless captures lost us money! Not to mention, you are the only person on divine and detect patrols who needs a crow assigned to them. Do you know why?”

Miller opened his mouth, but the light around Crammerson literally warped under the weight of his anger. Which hinted to the diviner’s well-honed and delicate magical sensibilities that interrupting the Bloody Barber at that particular moment was, perhaps, not the best idea. 

“Because,“ his superior growled, “the others spend their time divining and detecting. Then they spend their time reporting and going the fuck home. Not dicking around with half-assed pickpockets that wouldn’t be worth the guards time, let alone a vulture’s. 

So, here’s the deal, Miller. We have a raid and can’t spare you a babysitter. If you didn’t have the spells you do, I would shove a steel wool brush so far up your ass it’d get caught in your teeth. Then I’d grab you by the throat and use it to scrub off the Cage’s floor. Instead, you’re going to help someone. Their diviner will be in charge, and you will follow. Every. Single. Order.” 

There was a faint rattling conducted through the wood of Miller’s chair and straight into his eye sockets a the smallest hint of the Bloody Barber’s magic slipped past his control, ”You will learn from them,” Crammerson continued, ”and if I hear a word about you running off halfcocked, then I’ll find you a job with a horse breeder who needs a fluffer. Am I clear?

There was a lump in his throat, and Miller had to swallow several times before he was able to answer, “Yes, sir. Crystal clear.”

“Good. Jercash!” his hawk roared. “Get in here!”

The foreign raven walked in and said… something. Miller didn’t pick it up. He was too distracted.

Jercash looked like he had fallen out of the news sheets. He was thin like Miller wanted to be thin. The kind made of whipcord and sharp angles. The hollows under his cheeks complemented the shadows cast by his wide-brimmed hat. 

The man slouched into the office, a bare trace of magic wafting off of him. He wore loose civilian clothes, just wrinkled enough to seem like a working man’s outfit, and his skin was red from exposure to wind and sun.

Miller would bet money that he socked street toughs right in the kisser. But, like, on a regular basis. He probably called them pal and grumbled one-liners while shaking off his fist afterward. In fact, he probably did it often enough that he had to hide the bandages from his significant other(s). 

Yeah, Jercash was the real deal. He was a bird’s bird.

“Miller!” Crammerson yelled. “Focus!”

The diviner jumped to his feet and saluted, the lines of his arm so sharp they could have been used to cut fruit, or cheese, or maybe bread. Point was, he had a picnic’s worth of sharpness in the gesture. 

Bet you that Jercash’s salute was laconic and sloppy. 

At the thought, Miller collapsed into his chair and tried to keep his face from twisting in shame. How could he be so stupid! 

Now everyone was looking at him. Crammerson closed his eyes and sighed. Hitch considered for several seconds before electing to frown and tilt his head in confusion. Jercash, for his part, darted a glance at Crammerson and smirked at the man’s ire. 

“Miller,” the gray-haired hawk finally said, “I need you to kindly leave my office. I find myself disturbingly sympathetic to the plight of spree killers at the moment. And I have no desire to see how many people I could kill by mounting you on a coat tree and using your skull as a bludgeoning weapon in what, I absolutely assure you, would be the most prolific murder-rampage this city has ever seen.”

“Bigger than the Night of Screams?”

“Significantly.”

“Bigger than the Elementalist who got turned into a chimera?”

“By an order of magnitude.”

“Wow,” Miller said. 

What a bird. The Bloody Barber really could do anything.

“Are we clear?” growled his superior.

“Perfectly, sir. No coat trees in the office. Understood.”

Jercash let out a harsh-sounding laug. He clapped Miller on his shoulder and guided him to his feet. 

“Come on. Can you still recognize the signature of that life stealer?”

“The one who tried to hide a body in a wall?” he said as they exited Cramerson’s office.

“That’s the one.”

“Yeah, I mean, it’s real generic; everyone who finds the Bal DuMonte forbidden texts figures out pretty much the same thing. But that won’t be a problem.”

The raven’s eyes flashed, “Bal DuMoney what?”

Miller shrugged, “It’s an older healers’ text that talked about merging Night and Autumn Court magic. Effective, from what I know, but the method was forbidden.”

“Why?”

“The White Rose Plague.”

“What about it?”

Miller tried not to frown, “The Breath Stealer Cabal?”

The raven blinked at him. 

“It was about two hundred years ago. Everyone was dying, no one wanted to die, and enough hedge mages came together that they were able to crack two healing techniques that only the magic academies should have been able to teach.”

“Ahh,” Jercash said, nodding his head even as his eyes habitually scanned the halls around them for threats. “The two mixed and turned into dark magic.”

“Very dark magic. One that left bodies with similar signs of death as the White Rose Plague.”

“Which just so happened to be the plague they were in at the time.”

“Exactly,” Miller said, “they stayed secret for longer than most cabals do and were real trouble when the birds found them.”

“And you know all of this just from looking at the scene?”

“Of course,” Miller said carefully, not mentioning that Grim Noir, Rue Delite, and Mori Ennui had all stomped out long-hidden remnants of that cabal in their stories. It was one of the most common tropes in popular fiction. And, back when he had access to the school’s libraries, he had spent a good chunk of time reading into the backstory while he waited on new editions to come out.

“Miller,” Jercash said, a predatory smile cutting across his face, “you’re going to tell me everything you know about this, and we are going to nab this son of a bitch.” 

“Can I be there when you do?”

The raven laughed, “Oh, believe me, you’ll be there. We’ve been following them for the last two months, and I will be burnt if I’m letting them slip away again.”

“And Crammerson—”

Jercash patted him on the shoulder, “He knows that we needed someone to follow the trail. But if the situation is urgent,” thin shoulders shrugged from under a wrinkled jacket, “We may just not have enough time for backup. And our poor little life-stealer may end up with a few less teeth than he remembered having if he makes it to the Cage.”

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Yam 12

You all have been amazing about boosting our story at TopWebFiction. It has multiplied our audience and our supporters by at least 10. So, uh, whoa. Thank you. Because of that and the feedback we’ve been getting from the comments, reddit, and our Patreon there will be a bonus chapter post next Friday.

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~~~

(2.05)

If it was possible to hate Coach Combs, then Yam would hate him to the point of violence he was sure.

He mimicked his coach in a high nasally voice, “Good job, Yam. You can do a real push-up now, Yam. Why don’t we celebrate by having you use the women’s weights, Yam? Eventually, you’ll even be able to do a pull-up like the other, less exceptional failures.”

And even worse, he had liked the praise. For just a second he felt strong. 

That evil bastard. 

The moment they were done he had snatched up Abomination, who had been very puzzled and concerned by Yam exercising. During each activity, she had chirped, walked under him, licked at him, and otherwise been a nuisance until Coach Combs had picked her up.

Now, sweaty, limbs weak, he stalked to the dining hall and forced down his food. The Spring Court offered delicious meals. But Yam had gone to the library and found, for once, that the information he wanted wasn’t restricted. A look at theories of nutrition and the impact of diet on the body’s magic had informed him which foods were most likely to help him refill and slowly expand his reserves. 

Combs, that charming piece of garbage, had also been incredibly helpful in guiding his diet. Currently, his tray was filled with a hodgepodge of ancient slimy kelp, pungent mushrooms that had to be served raw, oddly discolored milk from a powerful beast, and rice. There was nothing special about the rice. Coach Combs just said that rice, milk, protein, and fat would help him put on weight. Plus, if he hid his other, more magically conducive, foods in a big mouthful of rice he didn’t have to endure with their taste. Or, even worse, their texture. 

The benefits of this extra-disgusting assortment of foods were minimal. Every meal helped the development of the Spring Court’s young mages, even the palatable ones. They would allow nothing less. But Yam would be damned if he didn’t wring every single dram he could out of his deal with Istima. Plus, if it got him to godhood a day earlier, then it was worth it. 

His meal was a battle, and despite winning, his stomach churned in a way that felt like defeat. By the time he finished the only food left was a plate of strawberries that he gave to Abomination. 

The fluffy little embarrassment often tried to eat what Yam had picked for himself, but the effects on the beast’s stomach could only be described as volcanic based on their kinetic, viscous, and sulfurous results. The bookkeepers hadn’t exaggerated the indestructible, but temperamental nature of the creature’s stomach. Strawberries were one of the few foods that didn’t yield cataclysmic results. 

Yam sighed. He was stuffed to the point of near illness and his breath tasted like kelp-covered feet. Too bad strawberries didn’t have any beneficial magical properties. 

 But there was no time to waste. In between modules, the young Len stalked to a few stores and stalls. Despite a persistent headache and exercise weakened limbs that stiffened whenever he sat for more than ten minutes, he made sure to buy a variety of sundry materials for today’s extra-curricular experiments in the Understacks. Some copper wire, a glass stirrer, and twine made of animal hair were on tonight’s agenda.

Then he slipped into Basic Control Exercises Two and went to work. Control exercises were below even the level of cants. They were simple and direct applications of raw magic that strained one’s finesse. And, just as he had in osteomancy, Yam once again found his capabilities to be uneven.

Much of what his tutors from the caravan had taught him were control exercises, and he had practiced them obsessively. Especially during the many weeks when he was sick and confined to bed. With such a weak body to fuel his practice and so much time to fill, he had been forced to develop an exacting control over his minuscule reservoir of power. Even now, with a new and (relatively) powerful mammalian body, he practiced religiously.

As a result, he had felt like something of an expert. 

But never in his wildest dreams had he imagined there to be so many different control exercises. This was more than levitating bones and making metal slightly cooler to the touch. In the basic control module, he had to pump out pure magic at the exact rate to make a crystal glow but not vibrate. Or he would heat a sheet of paper until temperature-sensitive ink was visible without setting it alight. Then he would chill it until frost formed.

Was it Winter Court elemental magic? Was it Autumn Court energy manipulation? Was it Night Court force of will, or just moving the patterns of energy that dictated the world as the Spring Court advocated? 

Yam couldn’t say. For some of the little games, it was clearly more one than the other. But for other exercises, the answer could be all at once or none at all. He could choose to levitate a coin by manipulating the air under it, the metals in it, the gravity around it, by fine-tuned application of kinetic energy, or by pitting his will against the forces that said it shouldn’t rise from the table. 

Personally, he loved the module even as it savaged his self-confidence. Sure, he had mastered the exercises from his caravan days to a degree none of his peers could match. But there was so much he had never learned about, and in those new domains, he was mediocre at best.  

So, much as he had done in his osteomancy module, he refused to leave a single control exercise unmastered. In both cases, he probably could have advanced already, but Yam persisted in his refusal. Both out of spite and pragmatism. These were foundational skills. Foundations he would build his life on. And he was not building the foundation for a shift worker’s apartment, or even for a court mage’s summer lodge. He was building the foundation for the palace of a god. 

So he sneered at his competition as they tested out and pushed himself to dominate. Even though none of his classmates seemed to have realized that they were competing, let alone that he was winning. 

Which was good he kept telling himself. Let them enjoy their sleep, their blissfully mediocre meals, and their social lives. Each moment he endured while they relaxed was a moment he gained an advantage.

When he finally left the classroom his brain was alight with ideas, his memory was ruminating on his many failures, his emotions were churning with frustration, and his face wore a fevered smile.

Abomination had fallen asleep and he held her to his waist. Her stomach along the length of his forearm, limbs dangling. Yam’s mind raced through theoretical ways of mixing the different approaches to levitation. Idly his hands petted the quepee and he moved to his place of employment. He was too occupied to even notice his surroundings until he was in the staff room of the Understacks and putting his bag on a shelf. 

About five minutes later, he was dusting when he heard a familiar keening. Abomination had woken up in the staff room and, like she always did, had raced unerringly towards Yam. No one was around to see the way the young Len screwed his eyes closed and slowly thumped his head against the bookshelves. 

Especially when little limbs wrapped around his calve and Abomination started rubbing her head against his leg in unadulterated affection. 

“Have some dignity,” Yam hissed. 

Abomination looked up at him, stumpy tail wagging. 

Yam stared at the baby-blue oval of fur. Upon meeting his eyes the creature fell backward and presented its stomach for petting. 

“I welcome death,” he scowled as he crouched to scratch at Abomination’s favorite spot. ”I invite you, grim gatherer of souls. All I ask, that I beg, is for you to take me and leave this thing behind to live forever. To spare whatever damnation I’ve earned from its intrusion. Do that, and I will surrender without resistance. I will whistle and skip across the threshold into the end-of-all.”

The scrawny mage closed his eyes and waited. But his mortal coil persisted despite his dearest hopes. 

He cursed under his breath and, after another minute of petting, he picked Abomination up. 

“Dignity,” he hissed, smoothing out the little animal’s fur, “I’ve given up on usefulness, but could you at least dig up some damn dignity.”

Abomination chirped and licked him on the nose. 

Yam sighed and pulled open the front of his wrap so he could slip the little bundle of fur inside. 

“Godhood and a most fell companion of the fiendish inclination,” he grumbled as he snatched up the duster, “is that too much to ask?” 

For the next few hours, he muttered darkly to himself as he cleaned, reviewed the check-out ledgers, swept the floors, and refilled all the various stations with ink, paper, and blotting sand. 

Every once and a while, he stopped by the staff room to break off a little piece of hard bread from the cafeteria and gave the crumbs to Abomination. 

He only wanted to keep the fat little fiend in a semi-constant food coma. But he still made sure no one was around to see him in case they thought it was a sign of affection.

Once all of his primary duties were done, he went back to the staff room and studied a very small section of the library’s map. It only showed the ground level, and only the parts closest to the public entrance. Even so, the map held a huge amount of information and he suspected it would take him ages to memorize where everything went.

He studied until his eyes ached and weariness made itself known in his blurred focus and dropping head. He briefly considered taking one of his pills, but he resisted. They would be needed for tonight’s mission. Instead, he stood up and walked around the shelves, matching the layout he was memorizing with the actual physical experience of navigating from one section to another. 

Then, when no one was looking, he went to a knee and took out a small hook of copper wire. He reached forward until his hand met an invisible barrier that stopped him from touching the books on the shelf.  After checking over his shoulder, he carefully moved the hook forward. It went a finger’s breadth past his hand before it too was stopped.

Yam nodded once, mentally adding copper to the list that included four types of wood, six types of metal, all combinations of flesh, bone, and leather that he could think of, and, of course, string. Whatever Summer Court artificer had done the protections on the bookshelves had been thorough. 

But so was he.

With quick motions, he stowed the bent strand of copper, picked up his study material, and continued his circuit. Until, after he had gone five minutes without anyone seeing him, he knelt down again and repeated his experiment on a different shelf. The results were identical. 

After two more repetitions, he ruled out copper. After another round of testing, he learned that his books on qupees, which themselves had come from the Understacks, also couldn’t be used to touch other shelved books.

The rest of his shift went by uneventfully, testing each of the materials he had picked up from the stalls. Then he gathered all of his equipment, made sure to be seen saying goodbye to a few other assistants and made a show of leaving. 

The second he turned a corner and was out of sight, he doubled back and scurried into the deeper sections of the Understacks. 

He had not really found a limit to the facility. Part of that was because he was not authorized to go beyond certain points. His duties kept him to the common, populated areas. More senior assistants retrieved books, shelved returns, and occasionally dealt with pests.

So Yam had, naturally, snuck beyond where he was allowed almost immediately. 

The deeper he went into the Understacks, the more antiquated it became. The materials of the walls, the design, even the smell of the air, everything changed. There were rooms filled with pedestals holding ancient carved tablets, specimen cases with pinned insects, and most importantly, an ancient office just past a broken fountain.

He was very much not supposed to be in that part of the library. He could tell because the color of the decorations over the doorways had changed from white to yellow to green. And he was never supposed to cross the threshold of any door marked yellow. At least not yet. 

But he wanted to know, so he did it anyway.

The office’s lock was completely broken. So it was an easy thing for him to slip inside the door, and insert a bone chip that he reformed within the mechanism of the door’s latch to keep it from opening. 

Inside there was an old desk, small bookshelves meant to hold whatever reference tomes the researcher renting to room needed, and a few piles of unidentified materials that had degraded into mulch. Presumably, they were items from outside the Understacks; materials that didn’t benefit from the magic preserving the contents of the building. 

The office was perfect. It was a perfect place for Yam to hide if there was ever a mob chasing him. Which, given his caravan’s experience with powerful men and poor bargainers, happened at least once every three years. It was also the perfect place to sneak away with books so he didn’t need to smuggle them out of the building

Even better, the broken fountain just down the hall had a perfect hiding area for supplies or a sack full of books. It had once been a beautiful water feature of the sort he would have expected to be in a public courtyard. But whatever spouts fed water into the raised stone pedestal and basin had long since gone dry. Likely because of the hole in the wall behind it. Which was just a fraction less wide than his shoulders. 

Such damage was not precisely common, but it was also not unusual in this part of the Understacks. If Abomination hadn’t tried to crawl down the crevice, he would have dismissed it entirely. But, because of his suicidally incompetent pet, Yam was able to see that the gouge in the wall drifted slightly sideways and actually went a ways deeper than it appeared to when one walked by. 

It would be a perfect spot to stash contraband, maybe even extra gold or something like a Tooth and Claw ticket (not that he planned on ever trying to get one of those again).

Altogether, it was perfect for tonight’s mission. A nearby office to hide in, a location to secret away stolen books, and no one thinking he was in the Understacks. 

So, heart thumping, Yam set Abomination on the floor inside the abandoned office and pressed his ear to the door after taking a wakefulness pill. It was time for his vigil.

During the last few weeks of work, he had learned about one particular assistant who was approved to reshelve past the green. One who always seemed to take an incredibly long time to complete his work. The assistant’s name was Stanisolv. 

Stanisolv was due, sometime in the next shift, to take a cart full of books through this area. 

Yam had no luck at pulling books off the shelves. He had utterly failed to figure out a way past the artifacing that guarded the book-return, and the rooms where those returned volumes were checked-in and sorted were warded just as tightly as the shelves themselves. 

That being said, Yam had once had to sand some burns off the reshelving assistant’s book cart and apply a new layer of varnish. During that time, he had been able to sense that the magic on the carts was far weaker and more simple than the magic on the bookcases. 

So, Yam kept the door closed with a reshaped chip of bones and waited. Stanisolv would come by and, while he was distracted, or napping, or doing whatever it was that made him take so long, Yam would take a book off the cart. 

With nothing else to do, he closed his eyes, focused on his ears, and waited. Scenes of dancing horrors, friendly fiends, and disastrous demons cavorting through his imagination. 

~~~

He woke up face pressed against the floor, drool on his chin, and pain in his neck. 

The sound of a squeaking cartwheel came from right outside the door, barely a foot from his head, and he would have flailed to his feet if his legs weren’t numb. 

And lucky for him that he didn’t. 

Even the muted sound of him startling awake was enough to make the cart stop.

“Hello?” he heard Stanislovs’ slow melancholy voice call out. “Anyone there?”

Yam froze. 

He glanced around, trying to figure out what time it was, but there was no way to see the sun this deep in the Understacks. 

After a pause that felt like years, the cart started creaking away again. Yam carefully shook life back into his legs. A quick glance confirmed that Abomination was still asleep. 

The cart’s wheels stopped creaking, presumably as Stanislov started shelving. Yam reached for the doorknob. He was momentarily puzzled when it didn’t open. But, head still foggy, he realized that he had forgotten to reshape the bone shard jammed into the door’s latch.

He did so, trying to make the magic as subtle and silent as possible. The second the door was open wide enough, he twisted space and put himself behind a bookcase. It was harder to focus than it should have been and he found himself more disoriented than usual after moving across a fold. 

But, even groggy from his recent sleep, his eyes locked on the book cart with an immediate and ravenous hunger. Seeing that it was almost completely empty made his heart ache. 

Had he somehow slept through the assistant walking past him once already?

The plan only called for one book. But some secret part of him had been whispering that if he could get away with one, then surely three wouldn’t make a difference. 

But no, that opportunity had passed. A near-empty cart would make every missing book easier for Stanislov to notice. Getting an armful was out of the question and, honestly, he was tempted to call off the whole thing. Was it really worth the risk of a reprimand while he was still this early in his experiments with the shelves? Really, it’s not like he couldn’t spend a few more weeks experimenting? Plus his head was still foggy. His mother had always said his body needed more rest than normal boys. 

Yam bared his teeth, suddenly furious that he had given in to sleep and that the pills were so weak. The fire in his chest built and Yam let it carry him forward. If slow, sad Stanislov noticed then who cared? He was a Ken Seeker, not a comfort seeker. Let them try to catch him!

Still crouched, he took a waddling duck step forward and folded space under his feet.  He ended up one bookshelf closer to the cart. From down the row, the other assistant shuffled one step further away. 

Yam sharpened his ears and prepared himself. As soon as Stanislov turned a corner and lost sight of the cart, he would make his move. He absently riffled through the pouch on his belt that held the copper wire, as well as several other implements he might need to test against the cart’s protections. Any one of them may have been overlooked by whoever had set the parameters of the cart’s wards. 

Yam was just about to pull out a glass stirring rod when the other assistant spoke, though his voice was muffled by distance, and more than one layer of books stood between them.

“I hear you.” 

Yam wasn’t sure what felt it first, his magic senses, his skin, or his instincts. 

Either way, he threw himself backward and twisted space. The shelves blurred for a single second before his back slammed against the stone floor. But, even with him now being two rows away, he still felt the heat from the massive gout of fire that spread itself between his previous location and the cart. 

The fire was as tall as two men in the shape of a massive hand. The air was displaced with a rushing whoosh. Then nothing, not even a crackle as the elemental display of power burnt, fuelless, in the air between him and his prize.

“You mistook my apathy for weakness,” said Stanislov’s bland voice. “You shouldn’t have followed me up here.”

Yam didn’t pause to puzzle out the man’s words. He spun back towards the office door. But before he could move a thin line of flame unspooled from behind a shelf several rows down. It raced through the air between him and his goal. In a second the line of fire, no thicker than a string, became a rotating swirl of heat as big as a watermelon and right as chest level. 

A glance behind him confirmed that the hand had changed into a similar shape and a similar line flickered between the gaps in the shelves, boxing him on all sides. 

From the older assistant’s position came the sound of shuffling steps, each coming just as slowly and reluctantly as when Stanislov had been shelving dusty old books.

“I asked the bookkeeper to let your kind stay below,” the winter court mage sighed. “Little beasties like you are no threat to anyone allowed that deep. Might even eat some of the pests on those levels; no one likes scorpions, you know. But this high up?” Stanislov sighed again. “The students on the surface are too weak. You made a mistake. You really shouldn’t have followed me up here.”

Followed him up?

And just like that Yam realized that he really had made a mistake. By making everyone think that he wasn’t in the Understacks. By making them think that there weren’t any people who could be the shapes they saw darting between shelves. By forgetting that any human seeing his fur might think ‘monster’ before they thought ‘Len’. 

And he had made an even bigger mistake in forgetting what mages did to things that they thought were stalking them from the shadows. 

The thick bands of fire hemming him in seemed to pulse and grow hotter. The air above and below them rippling with unendurable heat as Stanislov took another slow step towards his position.

Fear is the destroyer of reason. It is the bane of harmony and virtue. A Ken Seeker knows that, in turn, the destroyer of fear is knowledge. That to rise above the pounding of your own heart, to see with dispassionate eyes guided by intellect and curiosity, would free them from any tribulations. 

Fear falls to fact. So all he needed to do was think calmly. To use his well-honed powers of reasoning. 

This was something that any Ken Seeker, including Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers, knew.

However, Yam was not just a Ken Seeker, he was also a boy young enough that his voice still cracked. So he very much didn’t do that. 

Instead, Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers panicked. He panicked mightily. 

He tried to scream, found no air in his lungs, and flung himself at the only other thing inside his cage of fire. With no thought of dignity or silence, he shoved himself through space and wiggled himself into the deceptively deep hole at the back of the dried-up fountain. He writhed and twisted. He may have even bent space to give himself more room. It was hard to say. There was too much fear to remember anything clearly.  

Mostly he was concerned with the thought of hiding and imagining himself curling up small once he hit the end of the deceptively deep crack. But he didn’t find that end

After two body lengths of panic crawling, the tunnel, and apparently, it was a full-blown tunnel, widened somewhat and he felt the smooth stone blocks underneath him turn into something smaller and grittier. There was also a slight downward tilting to the ground beneath him. Just enough to make him think (bellow an internal monologue that consisted primarily of screaming) that this crevice was surprisingly deep and he might need to be careful. 

For obvious reasons, he did not go more carefully or more slowly. In fact, when he realized that, trapped in a heat conductive stone tube as he was, that the fire would cook him from every direction like bread in an oven, he crawled even faster. 

Until he fell. 

Something shifted, he slid forward only to find his hands waving through empty air instead of fetching against more stone. His upper body fell into a great emptiness and the edge of the tunnel dug painfully into his stomach. 

Skinny arms spasmed wildly, trying to throw his balance backward. Some part of him reached out for magic and the power of creation. 

Obviously, he knew of no spell that would let him levitate backward, and it was doubtful if he could focus well enough to cast any of the magic he did know. However, what did happen was that he tensed his whole body in preparation for some titanic effort. By sheer dumb luck, his stance widened. His lower legs and the edges of his feet pressed against the sides of the tunnel, stopping him from slipping any further forward. 

The fact that he was safe did not register for several seconds. And even when it did, he couldn’t relax. The tension in his legs was the only thing keeping him from falling headfirst into who-knew-what. 

Seconds passed and his heartbeat slowed from an all-encompassing, boundless, wordless terror to more a mundane, rational terror. Less of an animalistic, vague fear of imminent fiery death and more of a specific, lingering fear of death alone in the dark. 

Better? No. Easier to work with? Certainly.

After what may have been the worst fifteen seconds of his life Yam recovered just enough mental capacity to slowly relax the muscles in his back so he could bend down and feel the tunnel around him. The thought of summoning a light occurred to him. But Stanislov might notice, so he deferred. 

Almost exactly an arm’s length below him he felt a ledge. Perhaps half a pace wide. He pushed against it with his hands and was finally able to relax his legs.

The young Len didn’t realize that he had started silently crying until shuffling steps slithered down the tunnel behind him and to his ears. 

Stanislav sighed another melancholy sigh, “I’m sorry, little one. I know how flames hurt. Believe you me, I know. But this is work, and everyone belongs in their place. Yours was down below. I’ll try to make this focused so it’s fast.”

Though Yam’s small frame filled up most of the tunnel, there were still enough gaps for light to slip past and project hellish slashes of red and orange on the far wall. Not enough to actually see by, but more than enough to notice the red turn orange, and then blue as Stanislav, true to his word, built up a charge hot enough to evaporate him before he ever felt the pain. 

Like it had never left, the terror rose back up until his throat was full of it and he couldn’t breathe.

Rational thought fled and Yam, the calm cool collected Ken Seeker he was, panicked mightily once again.

He pulled his legs together, gripped the edge of the ledged below him, and hauled forward with all his might. 

As his body lurched into the empty blackness, he had just enough sense left to wrap his arms around his head and curl into a little ball. 

Then gravity took him.

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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?”

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