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.

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

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.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

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.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

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.

It is tremendously helpful, very useful for bragging, and a great excuse for leaving parties early when you follow this link to out TopWebFiction and hit boost.

~~~

(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.

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Yam 11

2.04

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

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

“You are an abomination,” Yam whispered softly. 

The little tail twitched. 

“You disgust me.”

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

“You make me believe in genocide.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A job there could be incredibly important for his plans. 

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

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

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

But that wasn’t the issue at hand!

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

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

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

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

Yam’s mouth fell open. 

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is—”

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

“Oh,” the ghost blinked, “my.” 

~~~ 

“And what is her name?”

“Abomination.”

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

“No. Just hideous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Why are you laughing?”

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

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

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

“I finished them some time ago.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And pink dyed fur. 

And a crust of garishly cut glass. 

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Interlude: Miller #1, A Bird’s Bird


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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

“Morning, Miller.”

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

The boy sighed and mumbled something under his breath. 

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

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

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

“Wait, can I get your autograph?”

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

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

“No. I mean, like, an autograph.”

“…Why?”

“You’re a bird.”

“…I’m an apprentice.”

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

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

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

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

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

~~~ 

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

On duty as a bird.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… Sir?”

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

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

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

“… Sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You hear what he said?”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s in another city. The one wi—”

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

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

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

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

~~~ 

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

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

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

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

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

He let himself grin. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How can I solve a crime like this!”

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

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

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

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

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

“So much!”

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

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

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

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

Something happened. It was hard to say what. 

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

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

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

“What did I miss?”

“Not,” his partner breathed, “much.”

“You explained it for me?”

“Yes.”

“Thanks, partner.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To the bottom floor of a lobby?”

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

“The body is the lobby of the soul.”

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

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

 “Who is The Secretary?”

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

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

“Hmmm, what number?”

“Seventy-two.”

“That’s a good number.”

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

Suspicious. Very suspicious. 

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

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

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

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

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

Being without his unit had been tough on him.

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

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

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

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

Miller all but jumped out of his boots.

“How did you know I poured the ink?”

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

“There’s a lot. A lot of ink.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Smeared between your fingers?”

“… maybe.”

“And the back of your hand?”

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

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

“I could have knocked over an ink well!”

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

“No,” Miller sighed, “I didn’t.”

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

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

“Thief!” someone called.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you threatening me?”

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

“Maybe we are.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get ‘em, partner.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It barely took three seconds.

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“I’m a bird.”

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

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

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

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

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

“He, literally, never is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just like in the publications.

Life was good.

Last Chapter                                                                                                     Next Chapter

Yam 10

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

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

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

~~~~~~~~~

 2.03

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

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

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

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

It was just safer to not have a partner around. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes sir! Let the torment begin!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded. 

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

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

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

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

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

“… thank you, sir.”

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nice person as well. 

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

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

“What’s wrong with the Spring Court?”

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

“Nothing wrong with sturdy clothes.”

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

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

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

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

Either way, Yam raised his own. 

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

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

“The Autumn Court has amazing things to offer.”

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

“Well, she was not very good at—”

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

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

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

Thomnas stared at him. 

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“It was the minimum I could do.”

“According to protocol?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heh, bargaining face back in place. It rhymed. 

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

“What about Winter?”

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

“Oh?”

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

“The scandal,” Yam said, voice flat. 

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

“Is the Spring Court any more civilized?”

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

“Why is that?”

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

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

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

“What sort of familiar do you want?”

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

Yam nodded. “Breathing fire would be superb.”

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

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

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

“Just imagine the burning talons,” Yam whispered.

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

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

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

“Yeah, but what about your first?”

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

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

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

His friend pushed his hat back in place and belched. 

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

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

~~~

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

“Yam. YAM!” His friend slurred. 

“Yes, Thomnas?”

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

“I heard you the last time.”

“Good. Then Yam…”

“Yes, Thomnas?”

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

“What do I gotta do, friend?”

“You gotta win.”

“Win what?”

“I can’t remember.”

“I can’t either.”

“That’s why we’re brothers.”

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Animals shouldn’t be treated like that.

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This.”

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

“I… uh, er, that is—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even though he hadn’t been talking? 

Humans made no sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this time he allowed her to. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers.” 

“Great. I’ll try and remember that.”

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

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

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

The magic he had been holding collapsed 

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

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

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

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

“Cal.”

“Of?”

“Nobody. Just Cal.”

“I see.”

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

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

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

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

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

He took the burlap off and—

It was disgusting.

Its eyes were horrifically large and shiny. 

Its fur looked revolting soft and fine.

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

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

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

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

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

And it chirped. 

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                         Next Chapter

Yam 9

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

It’s nuts. But thank you and please leave some comments for us. We want to know how you all would like to see this story develop, or who your favorite character is and why it’s Yam.

~~~~~~~~~

2.02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there was so much he could learn there…

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a conundrum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 

He couldn’t. 

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What. A. Beauty. 

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

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

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

He snuck through the door. 

It was another horrible decision. 

Oh well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they didn’t pause. 

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

It didn’t matter. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If the gods were kind—

“Hey! Anyone down there!”

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

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

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

It worked. At first anyway. 

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

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

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

“Wha—?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But no one called out after him. 

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                         Next Chapter

Interlude: A Study on Human Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter