Cal 13

“What’s the matter, Kid? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Renna smiled. “Come here!” She spread her arms wide and embraced Cal. When they let go, Renna slapped her hard on the back. “I haven’t seen heads or tails of you since Kalros.”

“I… that’s it?” Cal frowned. “I left you for dead!”

“And?” There wasn’t a hint of malice in her tone. It was as though Cal had said she was hungry, or that it was going to be cloudy tomorrow. All she did was flash her beautiful smile, and it only made Cal angrier. Why was she the only one upset by this?

“You should be furious with me!”

Renna shrugged. “It was the right move.”

“But how did you survive?”

Renna’s smile morphed into a scowl. “Cuolè,” she spat the name. “The bastard decided I’d suffer more if they kept me alive. He let me take the fall for the heist while he made off with the goods. Spent a few years in prison before I finally broke out.” She looked up and smiled again. “But, I’m more interested in how you got here.”

“It’s a long story.”

Renna lifted her mug. “My favorite kind.” She took a long swig. “Let’s start at the beginning. How’d you make it out of Kalros?

“When I went over the side of the roof, I was still holding an amulet from the loot. I left the city and sold the thing. After that, I fell in with a Len caravan for a bit. Then worked my way up the coast. Moving on whenever options ran dry.”

“Resourceful.” She nodded approvingly. Cal suppressed a smile from the praise. “So how’d you end up here?”

She explained the whole story. How she’d come across the rich girl in the tavern, how she’d found her body and the acceptance letter. Renna’s eyes got wider and wider as she went.

“Let me get this straight—you’re a student here?” She laughed. “That’s the funniest shit I’ve ever heard!”

“Keep it down!” Cal hissed. “You want everyone else to hear you?”

“Wow, since when have you been so uptight?”

“Look,” she said, her eyes swiveling around the room, “can we go somewhere else? Somewhere private?”

Renna smiled. “Your place or mine?”

Cal decided that bringing Renna back to Sable & Burr’s would be too conspicuous. Instead, she let Renna lead her out of the Falls District. They weaved their way through town until they were in an area Cal had never been, but recognized instantly. It hung in the air, and you could see it on the faces of everyone who she passed in the street. Every city had a place like this; where only the poorest and most desperate lived.

“Where are we?” Cal asked.

“The Toscan District. Locals call it The Stacks,” Renna said. The name rang a bell. Cal heard students who couldn’t even afford the Day Court’s accommodations ended up here.

The buildings were precariously tall and packed close together. It felt like the only thing holding them upright was that they had nowhere left to fall. It seemed like the streets had been cobbled once, but had long since been worn down and churned into a thin mud. Occasionally, someone would curse under their breath as their foot caught upon a stone hidden in the muck.

Cal frowned. The school actually let such squalor exist in the city?

Renna noticed her expression and laughed. “What,” she said, “you haven’t spent so much time up in the clouds that you forgot what living was like, did you?”

“I’m just surprised that, considering how big this place is, you choose to live here.”

“It’s a good place to get lost. And no one asks questions.” She led Cal down an alley. “And if you know where to look, you can carve out a nice little hideout.”

They climbed a set of rotting wooden stairs and entered a small, abandoned courtyard. The plants had long ago died, choked of sunlight by the tall buildings surrounding them. In the center, there was a dry, graffiti-covered fountain.

“Well,” Cal said. “I wouldn’t call it your usual home, but I suppose you could do worse.”

“Please, Cal, have some faith. This isn’t my place.” She pointed upwards, at a gaping hole in the side of one of the buildings. The edge of the hole was black with soot, as the wall had been blown outward. “That’s my place.”

Cal grinned. “That’s more like it.”

“You still climb, don’t you?”

“Better than you.”

“Oh?” Renna said. She took off running. Cal chased after her. They reached the wall and began to climb. The disintegrating mortar and uneven brickwork made for quick progress, and Cal reached the lip of the hole mere seconds before Renna.

“Well Kid,” Renna said as she hauled herself up, “at least playing the rich girl part hasn’t dulled your abilities.”

Inside of the hole, it was obvious to Cal that whatever had destroyed the wall was definitely magical. Some experiment or spell gone wrong. Rubble lay strewn across the floor of the ruined apartment, and the door which would have led further into the building was boarded up.

“Not too shabby,” Cal said. “I’ve definitely seen worse.”

“Yeah, it’s real homey in here.” Renna dusted off her hands and looked up at Cal. “Now, spill. You’re an honest-to-god student?”

“Yeah, I’m enrolled in classes and everything!” Cal laughed.

“Is this for some sort of job? Can you cut me in?”

“No job. Not yet. But, when else was I gonna get this kind of opportunity? I mean, there’s gold everywhere in this city!”

“I hear that. I’m just glad you aren’t actually a mage.”

Cal frowned. “Why’s that?”

“Cal, you serious?” Renna narrowed her eyes. “Did you forget what a mage did to us? To me?”

“No, I—”

“Good. Because I haven’t.”

Cal wanted to say something. After all, Alendra and Rathana weren’t like that. But… perhaps it was safer to leave that unsaid. She decided to change topics.

“What about you? Working on any jobs?”

“Oh, I’ve got a couple things lined up. Just need to get a crew together.” She raised an eyebrow. “You want in?”

“Definitely!”

“Good,” Renna said, relaxing her shoulders. She smiled again. “Frankly, I wasn’t sure you would. I’ve gotten you mixed up in some pretty hairbrained schemes before.”

“I’d follow you anywhere, Renna, you know that.”

“I knew that when you were younger. Back then, I couldn’t have gotten rid of you back in the day. Honestly,” she laughed, “I would’ve sworn you had a crush on me or something!”

Cal tried not to blush. “Actually, I do— well, I used to.”

Renna smiled again. “Used to? What, I’m not good enough anymore?”

“Well, thinking I betrayed you and left you to die horribly sort of puts a damper on things.”

“You always did get hung up on little things.”

Cal looked up at the darkening sky. “Shit. I better get back.”

“Aw, but you just got here!”

“I, uh, have to do some studying.”

Renna stared at her for a moment, as though unsure if Cal was being serious. “You sure you’re not becoming one of them?”

“Hey, I gotta play the part, don’t I?”

“Whatever you say,” Renna said.

“Night, Renna.”

“Night, Kid.”

As Cal traced her way back to the Falls District, she couldn’t help but feel confused. She should be glad! After all, Renna was back. But, something about her was different… darker. It would’ve been naive to assume that she would’ve stayed the same after all these years, and she herself had learned a lot since Kalros. From the Len, the streets, other urchins, but there was something in Renna’s eyes whenever mages got brought up. Like a wolf ready to strike. And she hadn’t said anything about what she’d done since she’d escape prison. Had she been hiding something?

Cal shook her head. This was Renna! She’d been with Cal through thick and thin. Whatever had happened, it didn’t change anything. Now that she was back in Cal’s life, things could only go up.

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Lyssana 11

Chapter 11: Friendship in the making

A quiet knock broke her attention from the words in front of her. She closed the book, setting it on the side table on the balcony. The sun warmed her back as she opened the front door to an anxious courier who handed her a sealed letter and scurried away, eying the hallway nervously. The brilliant green potion bottle on a sea of royal blue stood starkly against the ivory parchment and she felt her lips purse of their own volition. With a swift movement, the seal was broken and the letter opened. It contained two letters written in the same slanted script as the first letter: 

C.I.

She folded the paper with a sigh and turned to see both Corpegara watching her with heads tilted. A smile tugged at the corner of her lips. “I suppose you both would be up for an adventure this morning?” With a running start, their wings unfurled and they hurled their stone bodies from the balcony as she grabbed a cloak. 

Though snow rarely fell on the central island she had been raised on, the white flurries had become a welcome staple of her morning routine. Barren trees did nothing to filter the brilliant rays from the morning sun as it painted the landscape in warm color. It all vanished the moment she crossed the threshold leading to the market near the center of Istima. The weather here reflected the real weather of the outside world and the transition from crisp winter air to slightly humid warmth was always jarring. 

 The giant, golden gates that welcomed all to the Winter Court were scrolled and had intricate depictions of the elements. If you looked long enough, the wind seemed to move the grass and the waterfall flowed peacefully. Then you blinked and the scene was still once more. 

Each court had their own weather patterns and daytime/nighttime schedules. Though Lyssana had only been in the Winter and Autumn Courts, she had heard whisperings about the others. The Night Court was to be avoided if she valued her sanity, and the Day Court was full of abandoned dealings from the mages of old, so you never knew what would be found waiting around a turn there. She would avoid that as well. 

Sarpia flew past her, wings curled tightly around her body as she dove through the air. Halvard followed closely behind before they unfurled their wings and flew back into the sky above. A water mage she recognized from the food hall balked at the two, but Lyssana ignored her as she continued forward, hair swirling around her head in the artificial air currents. 

The market bustled as people hurried between the vendor stalls, each with their own basket of various foods and Knick knacks. Soon her own basket overflowed with colorful fruits and snacks. A bottle of spiced wine even made its way to her arms and she smiled at the mundane activity as the sun warmed her auburn hair. The Corpegara chirped above, gathering a small crowd that pointed as they swirled in the air. It was the most peace she had felt since her arrival, though she knew it was to be short lived. With a regretful glance at the final merchant on the street, she made her way to the bounty board. 

A few of the names she recognized from her previous visit to the board and made an effort to memorize the faces she saw drawn before her, in case she were to run across them in the street. Blazar, a muscular man with a nose that looked as though it had been broken several times through the years, sported a mop of curly hair and light eyes. Lyssana thought that if he wasn’t a wanted man, she could have found him handsome. A fair skinned man named Noland had dark eyes that seemed too close together. Finally an older woman named Moira who looked normal. Her face was perfectly symmetrical and Lyssana would have bet money that she was a beauty in her younger years. 

Chelgram Ingard was a gangly man with long, dark hair and beady eyes. His facial features resembled a weasel and she scoffed as she pulled the poster from the board. It would be counterintuitive to allow any one else to steal her bounty. She stuffed the paper into the bottom of her basket and began her walk home, enjoying the warmth of the zenith. 

A knock on the door interrupted her meditation and she cursed herself for letting so much time pass. She pulled her sore muscles from their cross-legged position in the fireplace and quickly stretched before opening the door with what she hoped would pass as a welcoming smile. Neal and Abby stood in the hallway awkwardly, how they were not used to the grandeur of the upper tower yet was beyond her, they had been here several times. She frowned at that thought, remembering that not long ago she had scoffed at the marble floors and arched ceilings. Maybe she should move to the lower rooms and remember humility. A year ago she was living in a leather tent on the central island, never imagining such a luxury as a copper tub to herself. 

They entered the seating room with less apprehension than their first time in her home, seeming to find themselves more comfortable as they made their way to the kitchen. 

“You’ve done some decorating. I love it!” Abby’s blue eyes sparkled as she looked around the main living space, taking in the plush carpet and basket of pillows that now adorned the previously barren room. “It feels more comfortable here already.” 

“Your last stay reminded me that some comforts are…necessary.” Not for herself of course. She was not so soft as to need a cushion against the marble floors, but she did grudgingly admit sleeping in a bed every night was growing on her. Slightly. 

“It’s very nice,” Neal agreed, eyeing the intricate swirls of orange and dark red. “Much more comfortable than before. I assume that means there will be more wine?” His voice had an eager pitch and he looked around the kitchen. 

“After we work on this assignment. One glass of wine and you are too incapacitated to think clearly enough for anything productive.” Lyssana smirked and pointedly put a pitcher of water on the table and three porcelain cups. 

Neal snorted in disagreement while Abby giggled behind her hand and poured water for herself and Neal. “So…” Abby started, “Where do we start with this assignment?”

“I already know my affinity. Fire is my primary and air my secondary. My first day here I felt a resonance with the lightning in the Storm Sea, so we just need to figure out yours.” 

They stared at her as though she had spoken of seeing a ghost. “Have either of you been able to work with another element?” She poured her own water and took a seat at the table, pen and paper ready to take notes at their word. 

“Wait, you felt the lightning in the Storm Sea around Istima?” Neal’s voice reflected the shock on his face. “I’ve never heard of anyone able to do that.”

Lyssana shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable with their stares. “And what of yourself?” 

It was his turn to shrug then, as he sat in silence. 

“This may be more difficult than I anticipated.” Abby muttered, looking to the floor in embarrassment. “I’ve never been able to move anything but water. Never any other form, just water.” She sounded defeated and Lyssana felt a pang of pity for her. 

“Well, I thought it might be some work, so I planned ahead.” She reached behind her to a basin in the center island of the kitchen and began putting bowls and small vials on the table. A glass vase with rose stems, a wooden bowl with rich dirt, a porcelain bowl of wood chips, a metal box with ice cubes, a vial with ground bone powder, a vial with ashes, a corked jar of green liquid, an empty glass vase, and a flat slate square. Her guests looked at the items with apprehension and she gave an encouraging nod to Neal. Remembering her own trial as a child, she guided him first. “Reach out your mind to each of the items, take as much time as you need. See if you can feel the energy of any.” 

The dirt in the bowl vibrated expectantly and a look of concentration filtered over his face as his eyes settled over one item at a time. He let out a frustrated sigh after making his way around the table and a look of defeat fell over him. 

Lyssana focused her attention on his energy, seeking out a different frequency beneath the earth that flowed through him. Her head tilted in concentration. His energy was slow moving, almost like sand beneath a rock that was being pushed down a hill. She looked further, finding a flash of warmth at the very core of his aura. Again, the tiniest flash, like a firework obscured by a dense cloud. It was fire, ever so slightly, it was fire. She let out a breath she did not realize she had been holding and began scribbling notes furiously for her report. 

“Neal, I know you have something in you. I felt it.” She reached for the corked vial and placed it in front of him, along with the empty glass vase. “Now, focus on the liquid inside the vial first. See if you can feel the warmth of it with your mind.” He looked at her skeptically, but she found a well of patience that was previously nonexistent. This research was exciting. 

“Okay, I’ll try.” He took a deep breath and placed his hand over the opening, closing his eyes and concentrating deeply. Lyssana watched his aura again, watching it seek out the resonance contained by the clay vial. He suddenly opened his eyes and smiled widely as the green liquid bubbled to the top of the vial. “I did it!” He jumped up and threw his fist in the air as Abby clapped excitedly. 

“Great job, Neal!” The blue-eyed woman congratulated him with an equally happy smile. 

Lyssana continued to write her notes as she watched the bubbling liquid fall back down into the vial. She quickly capped it and moved the vial back to the center of the table before the corrosive liquid could do any damage. 

“You manipulated acid, so your secondary element is fire.” She spoke slowly, finalizing her notes before looking up at him. “Welcome to the family.” He beamed even wider at her compliment and performed a celebratory dance.

It was Abby’s turn to try her magic and she took Neal’s seat, hovering her hand over the various containers. She adopted the same look of concentration and after a few minutes it became one of frustration. She looked to Lyssana hopelessly. “Can you help me?” 

Lyssana nodded and focused on Abby’s aura. The cool blue of her energy was deep and vast, like a crystalline lake with silt at the bottom. The silt was thin and wisped lazily in the water, but it was there. Lyssana wrote her notes and placed the jar of bone powder and the bowl of wood chips in front of the other woman. Abby eyed her with uncertainty, but held her hands over the bowls and closed her eyes. A few moments passed with nothing, but then the wood chips started to wilt and a single leaf sprouted from the largest in the bowl. Abby stared in shock at the greenery before she wiped the sweat from her face and laughed. “I did it!” She jumped up and Neal pulled her into a hug.

The final notes were complete and Lyssana began putting the vials and bottles back in the sink to be disposed of later. “And now we can drink.” Her smile was genuine as she pulled out the bottle of spiced wine from the market and three crystal goblets. Abby and Neal both mirrored her smile and took their seats at the table again. “So, now that you know your secondary proficiencies, how will you work on becoming more proficient?” 

“Well, do you think I could take that vial with me to practice?” Neal asked, almost sheepishly. 

She slid it across the table to him and he gave a small bow of his head in thanks. She was surprised by his genuine reaction. It was sweeter than she was used to, but still refreshing. 

“So…” Abby started, her voice hesitant. “I think we should all go out to eat one night. You know, dress our best and explore Istima, as a celebration of our success so far?” Her cheeks took on their signature blush again. 

“I absolutely agree!” Neal spoke zealously, turning to Lyssana and tilting his head toward Abby a few times in suggestion that she should also agree. 

“I suppose a night out would be good for all of us.” She spoke quickly, brows furrowed in hesitation from Neal’s expression toward her. “How about this weekend, Abby?” 

“That would be great! Though I suppose your best clothes would blow mine away…” The shorter woman murmured, trailing off into her wine. 

“I could bring you to the seamstress for a nice dress if you want.” The words were out of Lyssana’s mouth before she even had a moment to think, but the look on Abby’s face as she lit up with excitement warmed her heart enough to not even think about retracting the offer. “Great, we can go tomorrow after class.” 

“Really? Oh, thank you so much Lyssana! That would be a dream come true!” 

The rest of the night was filled with more laughter than usual, from all parties present, and Lyssana found herself smiling at Neal’s jokes and chuckling along with the stories Abby told of her childhood. The sun was well below the horizon before their laughter settled and she offered the living room to her guests before heading to sleep for the night. They took her offer gladly and pulled the cushions and plush blankets close for the night.

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Cal 12

Years ago…

It was just after dawn in the city of Kalros, and the heat was already enough to bake the rotting trash that filled the streets. The putrid smell on top of the sweltering humidity was normally enough to keep people inside til sunset, when the city cooled to a manageable warmth.

But today was not a normal day. Today, from every corner of the city there were bells and shouts as parades shuffled their way up and down the many stairs of the city of a million steps. Ribbons, bright bits of paper, and brilliant explosions of dyed powder filled the air, creating a storm of color that rained down upon the crowd. Thousands of voices mixed with every sort of instrument, combining their sounds into a cacophonous and constant song that echoed across the hilly cityscape.

High above, from the rooftop of a public bath, Cal watched the sea of bodies. The thought of being pressed in the throng made her feel claustrophobic. But, a part of her, the hungry street-rat, saw all the unguarded pockets to pick.

The only reason she wasn’t down there was because Renna had told her to come here. She said she had something big. Something better than anything she’d ever seen. Cal had never seen Renna so excited.

She heard someone land softly on the roof. She looked over her shoulder and saw a girl a few years older than her. She had sharp eyes and a wicked grin, with brown hair so dark, it was almost black. She was wearing loose linen robes lashed at the wrists and ankles with leather cording to keep it out of her way.

“Watching the party, Kid?” Renna said, squatting down next to her. “It’s quite a racket.”

“What are they celebrating?”

“It’s the Day of Martyrs. Biggest day of the year for the Ankari Church. They’ll be singing and drinking till well after sundown, even the priests.” She pointed to a pair of men in pressed white robes, already red-faced and drunk. “And since they’re all here, guess where they aren’t?”

“The temple!” Cal smiled. “That’s the job? We’re robbing the church, cause they’re all out?”

“Got it in one, Kid.” Renna winked. Cal beamed. “Come on, lemme introduce you to the crew.”

“Why can’t it just be you and me? We do fine on our own.”

“Not on something this big. We need the help to do it right.”

Cal frowned. “Can we trust them?”

“Of course not. But you trust me, right?” 

“Well, if you say so.”

“I do. Now let’s go.” She stood and took a running jump to the next rooftop.

Cal leapt up and followed the older girl. Her feet clattered across the clay tiles as she sprinted to keep Renna’s pace. She knew from experience that the older thief wouldn’t wait for her if she fell behind. Cal smiled as she ran, knowing that the revelers on the street below were completely unaware of the chase occurring above them.

Finally, breathless and sweaty, Cal caught up to her. Renna stood with her hands on her hips on the roof of a cafe.

“Thought I might’ve lost you there,” she said. “You’re getting faster.”

“Or you’re getting slower.”

“Not a chance.” She gestured at a group of three men. “These are the guys.” There was one old, one skinny, and one fat. “Cuolè, Shab, and Jau.”

“There ain’t much to her, is there?” Said the fat man, eying her.

“Well, there’s more than enough of you, isn’t there?” Cal shot back.

“She’s got bark!” The man chortled. “But we’ll see if she’s got bite.”

“Shut it, Jau.” Renna said, dropping her usual smile. “I said I’d vouch for her. And she might not have much muscle, but she’s slippery. Besides, I don’t imagine you’ll fit through the bars.”

“Hey, take a joke, will ya?”

“Can we get to business, please?” The old man said.

“Lets.” Renna said. She turned and her smile was back. She swept her arms out to the crew theatrically. “Gentlemen—and Cal—Today, we are robbing the Ankari Grand Temple. On our own, an impossible task, but together, only quite difficult. Now according to our info, we know that the best stuff is kept in a central chamber at the heart of the temple. To get there, we need to distract the guards, cross the rooftop, pick some locks, and get out the way we came without being seen. Sound good?”

“How can we trust this information?” Jau asked. “What’s your source?”

“One of the church’s own priests.”

“Horseshit!” The skinny man said. His pockmarked skin was covered in messy tattoos. “No way one of them would spill their guts. Where’s your proof?”

“You’re up, Cuolè.”

“Right,” the old man said, stepping forward. “I am the priest.” He rolled up his long sleeves to reveal the sacred brands signifying him as a third-rank priest of the Ankari Church.

“And you have no problem with us robbing your temple?”

Cuolè’s face scrunched up in disgust. “It’s not my temple. It belongs to heretics!”

“Our friend here is from another part of the church,” Renna said. “What was it again? A little disagreement over a mistranslation?”

“The Great Schism was hardly a ‘little disagreement,’ you impudent child!” Cuolè spat. “These disagreements go back generations—”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Still don’t care. Anyway, Cuolè here was able to slip into the temple and scout the place out, even the parts the public can’t access. His intel is legit.”

“But, we’re stealing relics, right?” Jau asked. “Isn’t that a problem for you?”

Cuolè sniffed. “Yes. But, I was promised that my pick of the spoils, which I will return to a temple of the true faith. I’d rather the rest end up in the hands of you gutter-trash than remain with the heretics.”

“Good enough for you, Shab?” Renna asked. The skinny man spat on the ground, and nodded. “Great. Cuolè’s already done his part, so the rest is up to us. Jau will go down to street level and cause a commotion at the front of the temple. With so many drunks out, a brawl wouldn’t be unusual. That should draw the attention of the guards long enough for Cal, Shab, and me to get across to the temple. Shab is our lockpicker, so he’ll handle any doors we can’t get through. If there’s anyone inside, I’ll deal with them.”

“And what about her” Shab pointed a bony finger at Cal. “If she gets a cut, she better earn it.”

“The relics are kept in a room deep in the temple, where the public can’t get to them. The room is permanently sealed by iron bars, and the only way in is between them. We don’t have time to cut the bars and Cal here, as you can see, is about as thick as a blade of grass. So she’ll be the one to get the relics out of the room.”

Cal’s heart skipped a beat. This was big. Bigger than anything she’d done before. Did Renna really trust her that much? She was only fourteen, and she could fleece pockets, clip coins, and outrun any guard in the city, but this seemed different.

“Right. Any questions?”

“What about magic?” Shab said. “We don’t got no way past that.”

“The heretics view magic as an abomination,” Cuolè said, “so they rely solely upon conventional defenses.”

“Give me some credit here, Shab,” Renna said, smiling. “I’ve got this thing figured out.” She turned to the others. “No other questions? Alright, let’s go!”

As the crew split up to get ready, Cal went over to the older girl. Renna noticed her concerned look.

“Nervous? Don’t be.”

“But what if we come across someone inside the temple?”

“I’ll take care of them.”

“You’re gonna kill them?”

“No. Remember, a good thief doesn’t have to kill.”

“Okay. If you’re sure.”

“I’m always sure, Kid. Trust me, by day’s end, we’ll finally be out of this stinking city, sipping fine wine on a boat on the way to a beach somewhere exotic.” She winked. “I was thinking Hrovati. Sound good to you?” Cal smiled and gave her a nod. “Good, then let’s get to that temple. We’ll meet Shab there.”

They made their way across the city, scaling walls and jumping over the narrow chasms between buildings, the crowd flowing like a slow river beneath them. Soon, they were staring at a building so big and ostentatious, it could only be a church.

The Grand Temple was a pentagonal building, with tall minarets that seemed to scrape the clouds themselves. The walls at street-level were brown and dirty from the hands of thousands of pilgrims, but as they rose, the bricks glittered gold in the sunlight. Shab stepped out of the shadows.

“Jau’s down there,” he said.

Down on the street, Cal could barely make out the large man pushing his way through the crowd. When he made it to the edge closest to the gates of the temple, he looked up and smiled at Renna. She gave him a nod and the big man decked the closest reveler, then the next. He turned and punched someone else. Soon, the whole street was engulfed in a massive shoving match. The temple guards on the walls above left their posts, running down to break up the fighting.

“That was quick,” Renna said. “We’re up.” She ran across the roof until she reached a string of flags that ran from the building to one of the minarets. She grabbed hold, swinging her feet up and onto the line. Then, hand over hand, pulled herself over. Cal followed her movements, albeit somewhat clumsier. Shab was third, crawling like a spider until he reached them. They landed on top of the high wall, next to one of the minarets.

“We’ve got a lock here,” Renna gestured to the tower door.

“On it,” he said. He knelt down and pulled out small metal tools. Within a few seconds, there was a click and the door swung open. They slipped through and into the temple.

Inside, it was blissfully cool. The floor, walls, and ceiling were covered in beautiful colored tiles, repeating in swirling geometric patterns. Small fountains were recessed in the walls, burbling water and sending droplets splattering across the ground.

“We go straight here,” Renna said, guiding them. She took the lead and jogged down the hall. Cal and Shab followed as she then went left, then right, then down a flight of stairs. Along the way, Shab had to get through two more doors. Soon, Cal was all twisted around. But Renna was as confident as ever. Eventually, they came to a stop in front of a barred archway. Beyond, Cal saw a room full of glittering objects.

“This is it,” Renna said, turning to her. “You’re up, Kid.”

Cal stepped forward and put her hand on one of the cold metal bars. She turned herself sideways and pushed herself through, breathing out to make herself as thin as she could. With a final squeeze, she popped out the other side.

She looked around the room. It was small, and pentagonal like the temple itself. Shelves lined the walls, Displaying a trove of useless looking baubles covered in a thick layer of dust. Gold boxes holding bits of burnt wood, a row of gem-encrusted crowns, and so much more.

“Pass through anything that shines,” Renna said, pulling out a burlap sack. “Hurry!”

Cal grabbed everything she could, passing through jewels and gold holy symbols, fine silk robes and strings of pearls. Anything of any value was handed over and stuffed in the bag.

“Alright, that’s all we can get! Let’s move!” Cal squeezed back through and Renna led them back up through the maze of corridors until they were back on the roof. On the street below, the temple guards were beating back the crowd with leather cudgels.

“Is Jau gonna be okay?” Cal asked.

“If he’s smart, yeah. Let’s go!”

They scurried back across the rope and landed on the other side. From there, it was simple enough to get back to where they’d started, the sack of treasures as it clattered and jangled against Renna’s back as she ran.

When they made it back, they were greeted by Cuolè and Jau, who was sporting a black eye and a grin missing two front teeth.

“Are we happy?” Jau asked.

“Oh, we’re happy,” Renna said. She tilted the bag out onto the roof. Jewels and gold shone fiercely in the sunlight.

Cal whistled as she reached down and picked up an amulet. “This is pretty!”

“Hey, just remember, I promised Cuolè first dibs.” She turned to the priest. “Well, what’ll it be?”

Cuolè hummed to himself as he picked through the pile, nodding approvingly. 

“I just can’t decide,” he finally said. Then he looked up with a vicious grin. “I think I’ll take them all.”

“That wasn’t the deal,” Renna said, hand on the hilt of her knife.

“The deal’s changed!” Cuolè snapped his fingers and something hit Cal in the side. The force pushed her off her feet and carried her to the edge of the roof. Cal slid over the edge, and just barely grabbed the lip of the roof. She struggled to pull herself up as a dark figure emerged from behind a tall chimney, arms outstretched.

“Cal!” Renna shouted. Jau roared and charged, but the figure twitched a hand and the man was pulled up into the air. With his other hand, the figure made a gesture, and Jau’s battlecry turned into a scream of pain. He clawed at his chest, which was beginning to smoke and sizzle. The smell of burning flesh filled the air as Shab pulled out a dagger and threw it at Cuolè. It too stopped in midair with a gesture from the figure.

“Get up, Kid!” Renna said. Cal tried to pull herself up, but she couldn’t. Her arms shook and refused to work. She watched in terror as Shab’s knife reversed course, spun, and lodged itself between the lockpicker’s eyes. Cuolè cackled madly as he scooped up the bag.

“Stop dallying and finish them off!” He looked over at Cal, his eyes hard and flat. “The little one too.”

In that moment, Cal’s arms finally gave out. Her hands let go of the ledge and she fell. Her fall was broken by an awning, which she rolled off of and then onto people on the street below. She pushed herself off the ground and then shoved through the crowd, tears streaming from her eyes. She bounced off the bodies of the parading priests and stumbled from street to street, trying to put as much distance between her and the rooftop as possible.

She didn’t stop until she’d reached the outskirts of the city. Her legs gave out as she fell into a pile of trash piled in an alleyway, her arms bruised and scratched from shielding herself as she was bumped and jostled by the crowd.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled to herself. “I’m sorry, Renna. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” She looked down at her hand and saw the little amulet she’d taken from the bag. It was all that was left of the haul. She’d need to fence it and use the money to get as far from here as possible.

The guilt of leaving Renna flooded Cal. But she knew there was no point in going back. That man was a mage. There was nothing she could do. Even if she did go back, there was no way Renna was still alive. Her friend was dead.

Cal wiped her tears. What would Renna tell her to do? Keep moving, of course. She stood up, forcing her legs to work as she took a shaky step, then another. That was how she’d make it. She’d keep moving forward.

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Lyssana 10

Chapter 10: Double Proficiency at a Glance 

The morning rays hit her face sooner than she would have liked, and an audible groan left her as she pulled herself from the silken mound of blankets. This school would make her soft  if she wasn’t careful. As she dug through her wardrobe and selected an orange dress with gold sunbursts embroidered on the bodice, a tiny scratch came from the other side of her door. She had slept in and the Corpegara were concerned. 

She didn’t have time to meditate as it normally took an hour as the sun rose, so she tossed two goat legs into the living room for the winged creatures and hurried out the door. She allowed herself a moment in the hallway to regulate breathing in a burst meditation before she continued at a brisk pace. 

Neal met her in the hallway outside their class, a beaming smile plastered to his face. “Good morning, my lady.” He gave a sweeping bow and she scoffed, walking past him into the room. 

“That was rude,” he muttered, grabbing his stuff off the ground and throwing himself in the seat next to her, “You know, you could be nice for one day.” 

“I am nice. I haven’t burned anyone alive recently.” She didn’t look up as she pulled the paper leaves from her bag to take notes and Neal burst into laughter. He was starting to understand her humor and Lyssana smirked while her head was down. 

“Okay, I’ll give you that, though it did seem like you tried the other week.”

“No,” she lifted her head to look into his green eyes, “You would be dead if I was trying.” She was the human who bonded to the lava in the heart of a volcano. Burning a man required an insignificant amount of energy in comparison.

Neal’s smile faltered under her gaze and she turned her attention back to  Professor Hurst walked in. 

“Class,” the professor began as he threw a stack of books onto the table at the front of the room, “today is my favorite lesson of the year, so I’m going to need undivided attention.” The books hitting the table echoed through the room and all chatter died down immediately. 

“Today we’re going to learn about double proficiency, which is when an elemental mage has the ability to control more than one element.” The room nearly vibrated with excitement that was barely contained. The intense stare from Professor Hurst was the only thing keeping the room hushed. “We have a lot of material to cover, so focus and learn. This subject can get complicated, but there will be time at the end of class to answer any questions you may have.” 

Lyssana pulled her papers closer and began to write as he spoke. “Every elemental mage has proficiency in an element. Each of you by now knows your element and should be able to manipulate it in some way, shape, or form. At this time, I’d like you to move around the class into four different groups, and I want you to join the group of mages that share your elemental affinity.” Murmurs rose around the room as chairs scraped along the floor. 

Four groups gathered in each corner of the room, with Neal and Abby sitting in the two largest groups respectively. Lyssana sat in the smallest group at the front of the class, joined by only two other pyromancers. They sat on either side, eying her uneasily. She ignored them. 

“Now, most mages also have the ability to touch another element, ever so slightly.” Hushed whispers broke out in every other corner of the room, but Professor Hurst seemed annoyed at the interruption and the noise died as quickly as it had started. “This secondary affinity is generally only able to be manifested as a blend for the primary element. For example, a  geomancy mage may have a secondary affinity to water, giving him the ability to manipulate wood or other plants. An aeromany mage can secondarily have water attunement to shape mist or steam. The list goes on endlessly. There are still rare abilities discovered that have never been documented before.”

Lyssana scribbled furiously to keep up with his quick speech, and she heard the echo of pens on paper all over the room. “Your homework is to research the primary and secondary affinities and the combination possibilities. Then, using this research, you’re going to come to class tomorrow and try to figure out the secondary ability of the members of your group. A well versed elemental can feel the ability in their fellow mages based on the energy signatures each of you possesses. Over time your skills will improve to the point of being able to feel the frequency of their Aura, but I expect this from no one in this room at this point.” He paused for a moment, seeming to consider his next words. “Well, none except for Lyssana. She is in an advanced pyromancy class for second level students, so she should be able to sense the ability in another.” 

She held her breath, dreading the words she knew would come from his mouth. “Lyssana, why don’t you come to the front of the room and try to guess the ability of one of your friends?” All eyes turned to her and she could feel the weight of their stares on her back. With an irritated grumble, she rose and strode to the front of the room, turning to face the sea of eyes that watched her. “Let’s try Neal. I know you worked together on a previous project, so you should be used to his energy and be able to feel the lesser ability. Look beyond the slow moving rhythmic wavelengths to see what lies beneath.” He quieted his voice, the silence stifled as everyone waited to see if she failed or succeeded. 

Her knowledge of this subject was limited in terms of technicality, but she had spent her entire life around strong elementals and knew the different resonances well. As soon as she started searching beyond the earth familiarity, she could feel high energy pulses of fire, like a tiny river of lava below a thick layer of rock. 

“Fire.” She said aloud, turning to Hurst with no expression. It was a stark contrast to the look of surprise in his eyes. He had wanted her to fail in front of everyone. 

“Correct. Whether Neal was aware of this ability or not, he has a smaller ability of fire along with earth. I’ll leave it up to you all to decide what the possibilities of his ability are. You may sit back down, Miss Terasu.” 

She gave him no acknowledgment, only moved back to her seat in the front corner and focused on the energy of the person to her right. The older woman had a faint ability with fire but Lyssana could feel the slightest current of air, the energy light and flowing with the warmth from pyromancy. It felt like the warm breeze hitting her face from the mouth of the volcano. To her left was the man her age, and she could pinpoint the geomancy ability quickly, a pebble beside a stoked campfire. As she allowed herself to focus, she let her attention wander around the room to each student, feeling the undercurrents and weights of various frequencies, each mingling in their own unique ways. They were all so unique, each defining in their own way. Then she reached Abby and stopped abruptly. The girl had only the flowing ebb of water around her, the gentle lapping waves on the beach, but there was nothing else. She frowned. 

The professor seemed to sense her confusion and he chuckled. “Now, not everyone has a double proficiency. Some mages are able only to control a primary element, and that’s perfectly normal. Because our energies are all unique, there are bound to be some that have no second function.” She wrote that down in a quickly scrawled script under her neat notes. “With that final bit of information, I will release you early to get a head start on your assignment.” 

The students gathered their papers and shuffled out of the room, making way for her into the hallway. Now that her mind was open to seeing the deeper complexity of an Aura, the currents flowed everywhere, some with greater intensity and others that were no more than a slight whisper. She had a difficult time discerning her own energy, it had always felt warm and overpowering, especially in comparison to the people in the hall around her. She would meditate on this tonight, but for now she would be the first in the library. 

The familiar third level student greeted her at the library desk as she requested directions and he made small talk while guiding her through the tall rows of shelves. “I remember learning double proficiency. I was horrible at it and it took me more than a year before I could feel the energy in others around me.” 

He paused, staring at her intently before continuing toward a shelf in the middle of the room and reaching for a book. “This one is the most helpful for your report, trust me.” He gave her a wink and started to walk away before looking back at her. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but your aura feels like a raging storm atop an active volcano. It’s…exhilarating and intimidating.” And with that he turned a corner and was gone. 

She added the book to her bag, along with a few others she found. By the time she left the man was gone from the desk at the front of the room and she checked herself out, writing her name beside the book titles she was borrowing. A Tale of Two Stones: Exploring the World of Elements, How to Learn Your Abilities; and More!, and Double Proficiency at a Glance. That last was the one he had handed her and she smiled slightly at the kindness, then frowned with suspicion before walking past the line of students waiting to check in. Lyssana could feel his energy return to the desk behind her as she left the library and started home.

“I tell ya what, this goes a lot deeper than I thought it would. At what point do we get the higher-ups involved?” A gruff voice whispered. It was followed by a deeper, even gruffer voice. 

“No. We can handle this situation. The minute word about this gets out, we’re done fer.” There was not quite the sound of panic, but the inflection in his voice increased, and the words were spoken quickly. 

The first man spoke again, his tone even more hushed. “What if we can’t—” 

“We will!” The second voice cut his off forcefully. “The administration don’t care most of the time. This isn’t gonna to be the thing that brings their attention to us.” 

The next set of words were mumbled under the first man’s breath and impossible for her to discern. “This just gives me an itchy feeling in the back of my head, yah know?”

“I know, but we’re gonna handle this discreetly, like we do everything else.”

The clarity in which Lyssana could hear the voices from the small gold disk in her ear was astounding. It was like being in the room with the two men, while remaining in the comfort of her home. The golden coin she bought from the creepy shop was already proving worth the gold ring she parted with, and she listened closely while walking across the court to her apartment. 

She heard ice clink in two glasses and the sound of liquid pouring, followed by a loud gulp and a cough. “The hell is this?” It sounded like the first man choking out the words. 

“Too strong for ya? Man up, or we’re never gonna get this shit done.” 

The man continued to cough and sputter. “What’s the next step?” 

“Lecht said he wasn’t working alone, that means he has his own higher ups to report to. Our next step is to find them. The only clue we have is ‘Hurt’. I s’pose it’s a name, but maybe that’s too optimistic. It could have just been a threat.” 

“Pretty sure that guys face was too broken ta speak proper – Al was in a mood – so maybe he couldn’t speak right at all.” 

“I didn’t tell ya to bust his face up so much he couldn’t talk!” The second man nearly shouted  and Lyssana winced as his voice echoed in her ear. “Interrogating a prisoner doesn’t do much good if they can’t give us tha information we need.” 

“We got a lil carried away is all. I’m sure he’ll talk more in a few days.” The words were mumbled, almost sheepishly by the first man and Lyssana let out a  snort of disgust. She couldn’t imagine ever being so emotionally weak as to mumble sheepishly to a superior. 

A student she walked past let out a help and scurried away quickly, avoiding her gaze and Lyssana let out an exasperated sigh. She thought this was a place for people to grow and become tough. How were so many at Istima soft? Her footsteps fell harder on the crisp winter snow as she irritatedly strode up the stairs to her rooms. 

A sigh whispered through the disk and she stopped on the stairwell to hear better. “Just keep trying to get something from him. We need more to go on than a name…or a threat.”

“Yes sir!” 

The sound of shuffling feet and a door closing ended the conversation, and she heard an empty glass slam to the table. “This case may just make me quit my job yet.”

She twirled the dark wooden pen around her fingers as she sat on her balcony, her mind tried to comprehend the information she had heard from the Eyrie. This was Acrocor magic –  that horrifying idea of tearing a person’s soul and Aura from their body; it had to be. Would she tell Cavit about this or proceed ahead on her own? The pen spun faster around her fingertips. She was becoming more precise in her magic everyday, and more resourceful with gaining her knowledge. Hurt, was it a name or a threat, or merely an observation at the state of the prisoner? Her mind raced. 

The smaller coin lay on the table beside her, the light of the fireplace dancing along the tiny etched runes. She had not the slightest idea of their meaning, but somehow they connected this disk to the larger one she had left on the bottom of the chair in the Eyrie. She supposed the runes on that one matched this one, but that was a magic system far beyond her comprehension, or beyond her desire to learn. 

The immediate irony of that thought hit her and she chuckled to herself. How easy it was to erase the memory of her own runes, carved into the skin that covered her spine. They helped her focus her energy, and they were given to all Saakarans on their naming days. As far as was known by her tribe, she was the only human to be included in their ranks. Nostalgia washed over her and she was momentarily taken back to those memories she often suppressed. 

Her skin was warm to the touch, her eyes blazing from reflected lava. The mountain had been hers, for a single moment and an infinite amount of time, she was one with the rage and anger of the earth. It had been a feat only 3 others in her group accomplished. Salani had not made it out, and she could hear the grieving cries of his mother behind her. She was last in the line of four, but she was there. All sneers that had been previously directed to her now faded to forced respect. She would be their equal soon. 

Rahvin cried out in pain as Elder Amana Klee began to carve the runes down his arm with the ceremonial blade. His blood ran vivid red rivers into the dirt at his knees, but when it was done he had been named Rahvin no more. He was now Hakan, Born of Fire. The mountain was a place of rebirth and the final challenge of growth for the Saakarans. 

Down the line they went, as Serapha rose to join the ranks, then Irilen. All had cried out when the blade pressed into their skin, but it was not an uncommon thing. She would not. She would be the strongest of the group and demand the respect she had proudly earned. 

Elder Amana Klee looked down in a moment of silence before kneeling at her back. She could feel the warmth of the blade between her shoulder blades only for a moment before the pain of each calculated stroke filled her senses. Her skin was being torn by the metal and she wanted to cry out as the others had. But she did not. Her jaw locked and she looked straight forward into the crowd around her. There was silence as all waited to hear her name. Lyssana Terasu. Fury of the Sun. 

Cheers were shouted into the air as the celebration began, four new adults joined the tribe. Salani’s mother reached out and helped Lyssana to her feet, pulling her into a welcome embrace. Finally, she was an equal. 

The memory faded as quickly as it had come and she found herself feeling warmer at the thought. It had been her proudest accomplishment, and the moment her life turned around. She was a respected member of the Saakaran tribe and she would be until her death. The skin on her back seemed to itch, but she rolled her shoulders and ignored the urge to feel the scar tissue. How different life was now that she had to start from the bottom of a new community. She would rise as she always had. The sun always did.

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Interlude: Miller #2, A Bird Among Birds

~~~

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

He stared at the recruit and frowned. 

“Sir?”

His frown grew deeper. 

“Uhh, I’m sorry…”

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

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

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

The sparrow’s eyes went very wide.

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

“Sir, I don’t smo—”

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

“Gruff?”

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

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

“Oh. Well, I mean, is this part of—”

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

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

“Howdy there, Atlan,” said the attendant. 

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

“Will I be getting it back?”

“Yes.”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“Si—”

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

“… yes?”

“Good. Let’s try again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really, sir?”

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

“Ah, yes. Of course.”

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Perfect!”

“Really?” the boy beamed.

“……”

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

“Blow it out your ear, what?

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

“Of course! Today is uniform day.”

“Like uniform inspections?”

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

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

“Do you have to—”

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

“Putting on your uniform?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He would not disgrace his uniform.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

“Faint,” Miller said with a grin. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

“I’m sorry, say again, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

Just like in the publications. 

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

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

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

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

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

Crammerson stared at him, face red and veins popping. 

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

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

“About being born?”

“ABOUT STARTING A FIGHT WITH STREET TOUGHS!”

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

“I’m sorry, what?”

Crammerson deflated and fell into his seat. 

“You didn’t hear a word I just said.”

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

Blink.

“Sir.”

Blink.

“Engraved?”

Chiseled.

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

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

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

Blink.

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

Miller waited in silence until the hawk spoke. 

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

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

The diviner nodded his head eagerly.

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

“I prefer Specialist Diviner.” 

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

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

~~~ 

They summoned Hitch into the office and tried again. 

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

“I really prefer specialist diviner.”

Crammer’s eye started to twitch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miller’s only response was to scowl. 

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

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

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

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

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

“Not,” Hitch drawled, “very often.”

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

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

“Just desserts are the only payment—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Miller!” Crammerson yelled. “Focus!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Bigger than the Night of Screams?”

“Significantly.”

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

“By an order of magnitude.”

“Wow,” Miller said. 

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

“Are we clear?” growled his superior.

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

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

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

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

“That’s the one.”

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

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

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

“Why?”

“The White Rose Plague.”

“What about it?”

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

The raven blinked at him. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I be there when you do?”

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

“And Crammerson—”

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

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Yam 12

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(2.05)

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

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

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

That evil bastard. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have some dignity,” Yam hissed. 

Abomination looked up at him, stumpy tail wagging. 

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

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

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

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

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

Abomination chirped and licked him on the nose. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But so was he.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

And lucky for him that he didn’t. 

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

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

Yam froze. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hear you.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Followed him up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until he fell. 

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

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

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

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

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

Better? No. Easier to work with? Certainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then gravity took him.

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Cal 11

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I want to give my thanks to one of our patreon subscribers for asking if Cal had a physical description yet. Looking through my chapters, I realized that the only one is a brief description in the Alendra Interlude chapter. With that in mind, I’ve added one to this chapter as well. Thanks again!

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To be fair, Jasten seemed just as surprised to see Cal in the store as she was to see him.

“Ah, Lady Callion,” he said, presenting her with a flourishing bow. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Nor I you, Lord Jasten,” Cal said, smiling through gritted teeth and curtsying.

“What brings you to this part of town.”

“Shopping around for clothes.”

“I see. And… is your current selection a new item, my lady?”

 She looked down at her outfit and cursed silently. She was in her thieving clothes. Dark cloth, padded leather boots, a small knife on her hip, and all of it covered in dust and mud from her recent escapade. None of it was very ladylike.

“Oh, this? No! Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t be caught dead in such rags, but this isn’t a friendly part of town after all. I believe you yourself had an unfortunate run-in with a brigand, did you not, my lord?

“Ah yes, that business. There were several of them, actually. I nearly had them, but I was ambushed from behind. Lucky for them, or I’d have their hides!”

“I’m sure,” Cal said coolly. “Have you recovered from your injuries yet?”

“There is some lingering pain,” Jasten said.

Good, Cal thought.

“But nothing I can’t handle.”

“So, what brings you here?” She asked.

He looked past her to Sable. “I, uh, have come to pick up an item.”

“Oh? What’s that?” She smiled sweetly.

“It’s… I, ah—”

“Buttons,” Sable offered, holding up a small envelope. He must’ve put the ticket in there while she’d been talking to the noble nitwit.

“Right! Buttons for my suit.” He reached for the envelope and Sable pulled it away.

“First, let’s discuss payment,” he said. He set a scale on the counter and began putting weights onto one of the two dishes. He set small led weights down one at a time, each one landing in the dish with a small, dull clink. The dish sank lower and lower, until it touched the counter.

Then he added a few more.

There was only the slightest crack in the mask of Jasten’s face as he watched. He turned to Cal. “I didn’t mean to hold you, my lady. I’m sure you have somewhere else to be?”

“I’m still looking around,” Cal said, “please, ignore my presence.”

“Ah, of course.” He turned back to the counter as Sable finally stopped. “Oh, come now, you can’t be serious!” He gave Cal a glance through the corner of his eye, then slicked back his hair and spoke again. “Surely, there must be some mistake here—”

“They are excellent buttons, m’lord.” Sable said with a smile. “Very rare, and acquired with great speed and at no small effort.” His smile disappeared. “But, if you are no longer interested—”

“No! Damn it all.” Jasten reached into his pocket and pulled out a bar of gold the size of his hand. He put the whole thing onto the scale and, very slowly, the weight began to measure out. “There, are we even?”

“Just a moment,” Sable got down on one knee, eyes level with the scale as it see-sawed back and forth. “It has to settle.”

“Goodness, Jasten, those must be some beautiful buttons to be worth so much. I would love to see them—”

“No!” He snapped. Then he froze and composed himself. “Ah, I can’t right now, my lady. But perhaps I could show you over drinks later?”

“Sorry, my lord, but my schedule is full up at the moment. You know how it is, I’m sure.”

He nodded. “That I do. Perhaps another time then.”

“Perhaps.”

“Now, are we even?” He shot a glare at Sable.

“It appears you’ve given me just a little to much, it you can shave down the bar—”

“I don’t have time, just take the damn thing!” He snarled, snatching the envelope from the counter and turning to leave. He paused at the door and gave Cal a brief bow before ducking out.

Cal counted to five before bursting out in laughter. Sable gave her a chiding look, but beneath it she saw him smiling too.

“Lady Callion?” He asked. “Oh dear, what have you gotten yourself into?”

“Something profitable, I hope,” she replied

“And you know that… miserable little man?”

“You have the honor of knowing Lord Jasten Forthale, son of Count Who-Gives-A-Shit. A classmate of mine.”

“They just let anyone into Istima nowadays, then?”

“As long as they’ve got money.”

“So it seems,” Sable said, grunting as he lifted the brick of gold. “A job well done, my dear. He took a small knife and shaved off a small portion. “Your cut, as promised.”

Cal looked at it. Compared to the brick, it seemed minuscule. “That’s it?”

“Minus rent, of course. Thirty drams this time.”

She sighed and grabbed the meager shavings, scooping them into a bottle with the rest of her money. Before she got here, it would’ve seemed like a fortune. In Istima, it was worth a few weeks of food and drink. It jangled against the glass as she shook it. She’d have to stuff some cotton in there to keep it from making noise while she worked. But that was a problem for another time. Right now, she needed a drink.

But first she went upstairs. Her bathroom had only a small, cracked mirror, but it was more than she was used to. It was surprising, Cal thought, how well she was able to pull off the look of a nobleman’s daughter. All her life, she’d done the best she could to avoid drawing attention to herself. Yet recently, she’d found it necessary to do just that in her newfound role. Her face was thin and angular, with large, chestnut eyes and thick, dark hair — in the right light the features certainly looked noble, perhaps even regal. She knew she should’ve cleaned up and made herself into a presentable young lady, but she was too tired and the bar was calling. Instead, she settled for wiping off her face and getting the straw off the bottoms of her boots.

When she’d finished, she headed over to Madam Horatia’s Boarding House for Young Ladies, where Alendra’s room was. The place sounded like a prison.

When she got there, she found a stern-looking woman—Madam Horatia, presumably. She was squat, had a face like brick, and was sweeping hard enough to scratch the floorboards.

“If you’re looking for a room, we’re full up. Better luck next year.”

“No, I’m looking for someone. A friend who lives here.”

The woman looked up from her broom. “Is that so?”

“Her name’s Alendra Kaestellus. She just started renting—”

“She’s not in at the moment.” The woman went back to sweeping, as though that this was a sufficient place to end the conversation.

“How can you be so sure?” Cal frowned. “Can’t I at least go check?”

“I keep close eyes on my girls. And even if she were here, I wouldn’t allow you up.”

“Why?”

Madam Horatia scowled. “Because this is a respectable house, young miss! And I won’t have you trampling your filth in here!”

Cal fought back the urge to deck the red-faced hag. If she’d shown up in Callion’s clothes, she probably would’ve been welcomed with open arms. But in her current state, she was looked at like a stray found in the gutter. But she didn’t need to attract that sort of attention, especially not here. If this place was good enough for Alendra’s parents, who knows who else might be here? So she swallowed her pride and headed back out into the dim light of the setting sun.

With nowhere else to go, Cal wandered back to the Falls District. She didn’t know where Rathana was staying, otherwise she might try and find him and go back to that Aketsi place he’d shown her—the one with the good food. As it stood, she settled for the first bar she could find. In a city like this, it didn’t take long. Practically every other building sold some sort of booze.

The place she found was called ‘The Golden Goose,’ and was the dingiest, most rundown establishment Cal had ever seen. It must’ve been nearby to a tannery, because the smell was enough to make her gag. Fortunately, the bar was located in a basement, which blocked some of the odor. There were windows near the ceiling that peeked out at the street, providing an excellent view of everyone’s ankles as they passed by on the search for somewhere better. Cal descended the uneven stone steps and pushed open the door.

The inside of the Golden Goose wasn’t better. Small, jaundice-yellow candles flickered and trailed oily, black smoke into the air. It was hard to see, but what Cal could see wasn’t good looking. The clientele was made up entirely out of people who could be found in dark alleys late at night. Everyone was missing teeth, eyes, fingers, or some combination of the three.

Cal approached the bar and a grizzled-looking old man came up.

“Drink,” she said, pulling out one of the larger shavings of gold. “However much this’ll get.”

The man snatched the shaving and bit it. He nodded and set a wooden tankard of dark, lukewarm ale in front of her.

It tasted like ashes and week-old bread. She drank about half of it before setting it back down on the bar which, for reasons she couldn’t understand, was very sticky.

She smiled.

She’d never had a home, but just about every town she’d been run out of had a place like this. It wasn’t good, or wholesome, or honest, but it was reliable and straightforward. Hell, for old time’s sake, she could hustle a game or two of cards or darts—

“Now what is a pretty thing like you doing in a place like this?”

Cal scowled, placing a hand on the hilt of her knife and turning to look at whoever had spoken. But she froze when she saw a face she knew. A face she hadn’t seen in a very long time. The face of someone she’d left for dead.

“Hello again, Kid.” She said with a vicious smile. “Buy me a drink?”

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Lyssana 9

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We owe you all a huge thank you. And a particular thank you to J. Ander. Because of them, we were able to get listed on TopWebFiction. At the time of this post being set up, we are #21 on the Popular Stories List! The first week we made the front page we got as many views as in all of October. Now we’re beating our record-setting month by more than half the visitors. And almost all of it came in 2 weeks.

The support is absolutely humbling. Thank you, sincerely, from all three of us. Please keep voting for our story by clicking boost here. Apparently, it makes a difference since we now have enough patrons to look at world-building software. If you would like an interlude, or some other way for us to say thank you, then leave a comment and let us know.

Also, please check out J. Ander’s story here. They were very generous to a very wordy stranger on Reddit.

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Chapter 9: A Huntress is Born 

Long into the night had she read, both the book from Cavit and the advanced lessons for the day ahead. The amount of information was astounding and the forbidden book gave her the feeling of being unclean. To know a person had the ability to undo the very essence of another was a horrifying thought. Maybe that is what this M.L. had done? No, she did not believe the man depicted on the poster could have been capable of such a monstrous act. 

She was so distracted that she barely remembered her first class that day.  She simply nodded along to the conversation of Abby and Neal, who both seemed to be in high enough spirits to carry the conversation. Professor Hurst was uncharacteristically brief in his notes, but she had already done the take-home work ahead of time and simply turned it in early in order to leave before the rest of her class. No, this was not the class that was to take her energy today. 

Cavit stood leaning against the wall next to her second class, a crooked grin on his face as she approached. “Have a nice day off?” He asked casually, straightening to walk into the room with her. 

“It was very informative, and I have a proposition for you.” 

His eyebrows rose and the smile faltered. She had him in her trap. He would be thinking about this untold proposition all class until he couldn’t wait anymore, then he would walk with her from the room and ask to be indulged. She smiled. 

Their professor flounced in, today seemed to be a day of high spirits all around and instructed the class to partner up. She saw several students turn to her, but Cavit was already there to lay claim. “Partners?” 

She nodded and took the seat next to him. 

The note she had received earlier was passed to him and he frowned. “What is this?” 

“I thought you might know.” 

He looked at her skeptically and then nodded. “I don’t know, but if you’re showing me then you either assumed I sent this or you want my help.” She remained silent, watching his expression. “Or both.” 

“Both.” 

“Well I didn’t send it, so any other ideas?” 

She frowned. “Honestly? I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t know anyone.” Well, no one in Isima currently, but apparently people knew her. 

“So are you going to tell me what this is about or am I supposed to keep guessing?” He sounded annoyed and it almost brought a smile to her face. For the first time, she had an advantage over him with information. 

Pulling the wanted poster from her bag, she passed it to him and watched his eyebrows rise as he read. 

“That’s… more money than I make in a month. You really want to catch this man?” 

“I do. I do not know why, but I think he is important to our—” she searched for the right inconspicuous word “extracurricular research.” 

His eyes gleamed greedily. “So what’s the plan?” 

“I overheard one of the birds near the Eyrie and they know this man frequents several of the bars near the outer rim of Istima. We would need to leave the city at night and bring him in under the cover of dark.” 

A frown pressed his eyebrows into a wrinkle. “Sounds easy enough. We are both capable mages, so surely we can handle a single fugitive.” 

“I don’t think we should use our own magic. We need to try and be as inconspicuous as possible, what if this Lecht man has powerful friends? I don’t need another target on my back. I just want to catch him and turn him in as the note says.” 

That was probably the longest string of words she had spoken to Cavit since they had known each other, but he didn’t seem to mind. “Okay. Don’t judge me, but I know a place that may have things we can use…” His voice trailed off as they put their heads together, ignoring the lecture taking place around them. 

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Lyssana walked through the near-empty streets, her cloak pulled closely around her. She was dressed in dark brown and muted reds so as not to attract as much attention. The shop she sought was supposedly full of curiosities, and just maybe a thing or two that could aid in the capture of a fugitive. 

The Croon and Crown set centered against the alley walk and would have easily been overlooked if she hadn’t been looking closely. The shop windows looked dark with the exception of a single candle in the front window, lighting a hand-painted sign that said “Welcome, we are open” in a blocky script. She opened the deceivingly heavy door with a grunt and walked inside. 

The ceiling seemed endless as the rafters ended in shadow. Dark shelves lined the walls and clutter blocked the walkways. She picked her way through the shop gingerly, careful not to touch anything. “Hello?” Her voice sounded suppressed, as though the darkness muted the sound as it even left her lips. It felt almost like drowning; but if drowning were only a distant memory. A clock to her left chimed quietly at the ninth hour and Lyssana felt a chill run down her spine. 

Eyes seemed to be watching her from every corner, but when she turned there was only that same cluttered darkness. Only after the idle thought that she was going insane crossed her thoughts did a hunched woman shuffle out from behind a front desk that Lyssana didn’t remember seeing until now. “Can I help you, dear?” The woman rasped, her head tilted slightly as she wore a placated smile. 

“Yes,” Lyssana cleared her throat, “I’m looking for some very specific things and was told this was the place I could find them.” Her voice felt harsh and raspy like her throat was filled with smoke. 

“Well then, find them you shall. I do aim to please.” A laugh filled the air and echoed around her. Then, a dim light appeared on the shelf in front of her. It highlighted a fountain pen made of polished dark wood with silver runes carved up the handle. 

“The shop knows what you need.” 

Lyssana jumped as the woman appeared next to her, somehow out from behind the desk in a blink. 

“Go on, take it. The price will be made known.” 

“I have gold,” she stared, but the grey-haired woman was gone. A deep breath and she reached for the pen. It felt cold as ice under her touch and a voice seemed to whisper as she held it. “Open a gate…open a gate…it is the key to the gate that does not exist!” The words were faint but clearer than the conversation she had with the woman. 

The gate that didn’t exist? An image appeared in her mind, like a memory that belonged to someone else, of a man drawing a door onto a tree. A dim light showed around the drawing and he pushed on it, opening a now very real doorway that went through the tree. “Draw the gate that does not exist, then the gate will be the key!” The whispers grew excited and she grasped the pen firmly. This was exactly what she needed. But there was no price listed on the shelf? 

She spun around, looking for the older woman. There was no one. A slim gold ring with a bright blue sapphire slipped from her finger and bounced across the floor, rolling along until it had vanished into the dark. 

The price is paid. The deal is struck!” The whispers were frantic now and a sourceless breeze chilled her. Then she was alone once more. 

Lyssana stood there in the silence, watching every shadow for signs of movement. There was none. Only a single beam of light which landed on a coin she did not recognize. A smile fell across her lips as an overwhelming need filled her and she pulled another ring from her hand, this one an emerald, and replaced the coin on the shelf. 

A deal has been struck!” 

She sat before the massive fireplace as a warm orange glow filled the room from the burning coals.  The Corpegara were sprawled at her feet, enjoying the warmth reflected from the marble.  She looked over the pen carefully, the dark wood felt smooth between the tiny carved runes that circled it. She had absolutely no idea what they meant or even how they worked. The way of that magic was foreign to her. “Open a gate,” the shop had told her, but how? There was no nib to hold ink, only that cold wood, like something that was only holding the image of a pen. Or pretending to be a pen. “It is the key to the gate that does not exist.” 

The only thing she could do at this point was try anything and see how it worked. She would need to figure it out before tomorrow evening, which was when Cavit would help create a plan. Lyssana stood and walked to the kitchen, opening the jar of dark ink on the counter. She dipped the wooden tip into the jar and drew an arched doorway on a scrap piece of paper. The lines she drew glowed a dull white before disappearing into the parchment. She frowned and tried again with the same result. Perhaps a different surface? She drew another door, this time directly on the counter top. Again, the black ink glowed and then disappeared. 

She was drawn from her concentration by a light knock at the door. It was the rug she had paid to be delivered. Two burly men ogled the apartment as she directed them to the main living area and they spread the massive carpet along the floor. It immediately made the room more welcoming and she applauded herself at choosing the vibrant red and orange designs that matched the decor perfectly. After tipping them a few drams, she was once again at the counter with the pen in hand. She tried once more with the ink on the counter and growled in irritation before hurling the pen onto the counter. Regret immediately filled her, but it was stopped short as the pen fell against the wall of her kitchen. A line was traced along the top of the pen and a vertical slit opened into the wall. She froze. A tiny orange glow radiated along the line and as she walked closer she could feel the fire from the other room. The line closed of its own accord and a triumphant grin tugged at the corner of her mouth. 

She picked up the pen and drew an arched doorway on the kitchen wall. The lines seemed to sink into the wall before falling away and creating an opening to the fireplace against the other side of the wall. A key to the gate that doesn’t exist indeed. 

    ~~~                    ~~~                        ~~~                        ~~~

They had been to several bars before finding their way to The Mage’s Doorstep. It was a dirty place with sticky tables and dim lighting. Cavit had given her the signal though, so she entered the room and sat at an unoccupied table, ordering a drink while she scanned the faces around her.

There he was. Michael Lecht. A mage with classified crimes who refused to be seen in court. His image was surprisingly similar to that of the poster, with high cheekbones, and curly hair plastered to his forehead. He seemed at first glance like a nobody; but she would drag him into the Birds feet first if she had to. 

Cavit sat across the room from her, watching the room carefully though he appeared to be resting lazily against a table. She noticed the man beside her eyeing her silk dress and she scowled at him, holding her gold pouch closer to her side. He grunted and turned away, pretending to lose interest. 

Having to set a mugger on fire would ruin her plans for the evening, so she would have to act soon. Lecht ordered another drink from his seat at the bar and she took a sip of her own. It was watered down to the point of being flavorless. 

They needed to intercept Lecht, but he had to stop drinking first. The man beside her slid closer, his hand falling to her leg as he drawled. “Wha’s a pretty lady like yourself doing in a not so pretty place like this?” 

A look of disgust came over her face and she twisted his hand by the pinky in a sharp motion. She used the heel of the same hand to pin his palm so he couldn’t shift to alleviate the pressure. He gasped at the sharp pain and tried to jerk his hand away, but she held him tightly. 

“Touch me again, and I will burn your hand from your arm.” Her voice came out in a low growl and a look of terror flashed across his face. She released his hand slowly and he all but threw himself out of the seat next to her and nearly ran out the door. 

She scoffed. Men. 

Lecht stirred in his chair and she saw him mouth the words “gotta piss” before he stumbled off to the bathroom, which in this fine establishment was nothing more than a room with a hole in the ground. She made her move. 

Rising from her chair, she glided past the man, pricking him with a thin needle through his shirt sleeve as she passed. He didn’t even notice. In a few minutes he would be stumbling around and she could go in for the final move. 

Cavit looked up as she joined him at the table and a mischievous smile split his face. “Hey, Hot Stuff, you come here often?” 

She snorted and took the seat across from him. 

“Very funny,” she muttered through a false smile stretching her lips. She was attempting to look like he had caught her eye from the other side of the room and that she had come over to introduce herself. It had been his idea; in case anyone remembered their faces, so they could be less memorable. It seemed to work, as no one even lifted their eyes at her movement. 

He nodded at her, watching the bathroom door for any signs of movement.  There were none. It had been several minutes and the poison would have taken effect by now. He mumbled a corny line about needing to “take a whizz,” but promised a speedy return so she better not go anywhere. 

A man next to them snorted and winked at her as Cavit left. 

She rolled her eyes. 

Cavit disappeared into the bathroom and she waited until the count of 25 before sighing and gathering herself to leave. The man beside her gave a frown as she stood up. She just shrugged and said something about the time before walking out the door. 

Lyssana hurried around the back of the building to see a figure lying in the shadow of the alley. It was Lecht. Cavit had been able to use the pen to open a hole in the wall and push the body out before closing the gate. He was probably inside the bar now exclaiming about his ‘hot date’ disappearing, and the overly-invested man who had winked at her was likely telling him that if he left now, he would probably be able to catch up to her. 

Sure enough, Cavit joined her in the alley a few moments later, eyes bright with excitement that their plan had worked so flawlessly. “We did it!” 

“Not yet, we still have to get him to the Eyrie.” With that, they each grabbed him under one arm and made their way to the ferries. The concerned ferryman was given a quick explanation: they needed to get their drunk friend back to his home. With a few extra drams, the ferryman nodded and they were on their way.

From the dock, it was an easy walk to the Eyrie. Well, easy if they hadn’t been dragging the dead weight of an unconscious man between them. Next time she was going to find an enchanted ring or something that would help her lift more weight. 

Next time? Was she going to start a habit of kidnapping unconscious men and turning them over to the authorities? The thought made her shudder. 

Cavit allowed her to take the lead once they made it inside the building and she presented the bounty paper to a rough-looking man at the front desk. It was late into the night by now, but the building still had a buzzing energy about it. 

The man in uniform grunted as he read the paper and stood up to examine Lecht’s face. “I’ll be damned, but it’s him alright.” 

A loud whistle summoned two more men who took the prisoner and carried him not so gently down a hallway. “Alright, let’s start the paperwork. Good job you two, this man has been on the run for two years.” 

Lyssana and Cavit were shuffled into an office where a seemingly important man with a shiny badge displayed on his breast read over the doorman’s paperwork. 

”Huh,” the man said, slowly counting their numbers and then comparing it to what was written in the file,  “and he didn’t kill any of you vultures?”

Cavit chuckled before realizing the man wasn’t joking and then gulped. 

“Fancy that, ” the bird said, though Lyssana could have sworn she heard him mutter something under his breath about there being a first time for everything.

He opened his desk drawer and handed them both silver pendants. The medallion was almost like the badge the man wore, only smaller and with a vulture inlaid rather than a hawk. 

“Gary at the front will get the reward and these will get you access to… better bounties.“ The bird said, something about his tone going strange at the end of his sentence. ”Welcome to the team.”  

“Better bounties?” Cavit asked, confusion written across his face. 

“Killed.” 

Lyssana blinked at his abruptness and he seemed to notice their confusion. The hawk  scratched his face, voice the same disinterested rumble one would use to discuss evening chores, “But yeah, could get you bigger bounties too.”  

“May I ask a question?” Her voice was strong and full of resolve. The gruff man shrugged and she continued. “The poster said his crimes were classified, but since we brought him in to face justice, I feel like we have a right to know.” 

Cavit stared at her incredulously but nodded in agreement. 

The man examined them, eyes level. “Fine, but loose tongues lose badges. And lives.” 

They both nodded in understanding. 

”He was a small fish trying to ride the coattails of people experimenting with evil magics.” 

She moved to the edge of her seat in anticipation, but the words seemed to catch on his tongue before meeting the air. “Lots of honest men dead ‘cause of them,” he finally said.

“How did they die?” Cavit asked, his voice apprehensive. 

For the first time since they had seen him, passion moved behind the gruff man’s eyes and his fist involuntarily clenched. “They had their souls harvested like meat from a fucking hog.” His voice seemed to echo in the room and Lyssana could feel bumps rise along her arms. Cavit visibly shivered. 

It was obvious this case was personal for him, and she almost felt sorry for the prisoner they had brought in.

“Thank you for your time, sir, but it’s getting late and we have class tomorrow.” She placed her palm under the chair, sticking a single object to the bottom of the seat while pretending to smooth her skirts. Neither man seemed to notice the subtle movement. 

The man grunted and moved to sit down. But he paused and turned back to them, “Don’t push your good fortune. But,” he said, something potent flashing across his face before he once again retreated behind his disinterested facade, “you bring us more of these… things, and you’ll not want for gold.” 

With that, they were ushered from the office and coin purses were placed in their hands by Gary before they were out in the night once more. 

“What the hell was that?!” Cavit turned to her. “Why would you even ask about a classified crime?” He watched her unwavering features. “You already knew. That’s why you wanted my help capturing him. Did you fabricate that note to lure me in with the mystery of it all?” 

She said nothing but opened the purse to count her profits. “Too bad we won’t be able to learn what they discover from Lecht.” Lyssana smiled as she walked toward her apartment, a baffled Cavit in tow. 

She had bought more than the pen device the other night, but he would never know. 

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Cal 10

In any other city, an establishment like The Tooth and Claw would’ve been found in some scummy alley, guarded by two enormous thugs with necks like tree trunks. But in Istima, things were a little different. There was a street entrance where two Aketsi were checking tickets. The door was framed by marble columns and a sign reading “The Tooth and Claw” hung overhead, glowing with magical light.  Burr was right, the only rule here was “don’t get caught,” and the owners of the club had clearly realized that the easiest way to do that was simply to pay off the guards.

But Cal couldn’t just stroll through the front entrance. So she waited and watched. It didn’t take long to observe that there was more than one way in. Those who went through the front all had something in common—they screamed wealth. Dresses and gowns, gems sparkling on their necks and in their hair. If she had the time, Cal could’ve gotten Callion’s dress and done her hair to pass as one of the patrons, but she still wouldn’t have a ticket.

Fortunately, a place like this would need another entrance. Once that would allow the riff-raff to enter without sullying the view for the blue-bloods. Cal found that entrance on the side of the building, down a flight of stairs. There were Aketsi standing at this entrance too, but they didn’t notice her slip past in the crowd. She made her way inside, and was hit by the smell of stale beer and body odor.

The place was massive, three rings of balconies looked down upon a ring of sand thirty feet wide. Inside the pit were workers, raking sand over several pools of fresh blood. On the first floor, it was standing room only, with a bar on one wall and some sort of stall for taking bets on the other. Peering up to the second floor, Cal saw rows of wooden benches; and on the third, seats so elaborate they might as well have been called thrones.

She brought her attention back to the first floor. There was a crush of bodies standing at the railing of the arena, as well as a crowd around the bar and the betting booth. Humans, Aketsi, even some Saakarans. There were only a few Len, and most of those that she saw were working behind the counter. But this was just one floor.

As Cal looked for a way up to the second balcony, she spotted something that gave her pause. It was a lone Len, who despite his best efforts, looked incredibly out of place. There was a certain aura you had to put off in these sorts of places. You had to act like you belonged here, like you’d always been here, and that if anyone tried to question you about it that they’d end up hurt. Cal could fake it pretty well, but it was obvious this Len couldn’t.

It was also pretty clear that he was the one who had treated her hands only the day before. He had the same skinny body, same wolf-like face, and even the same travel worn clothes.

As the next fight was announced, Cal watched him try to shuffle his way towards the railing. He was boxed out by the crowd, and had to contend with standing behind them and craning his neck.

“Laaaaadies and gentlemeeeen,” a voice called out. Whoever was speaking was using magic to project their voice, but Cal looked up and saw a man on the third balcony in robes of purple trimmed in gold. “You’ve had a snack, but who’s ready for the main course?” He spread his arms wide.

The crowd roared.

“In one corner, from way down south, hailing from the swamps of Aketsan, we’ve got a stinging stygiopede!” A heavy iron gate was lifted on one side of the area, and a long, flat, bug-like creature came crawling out. It was at least four feet long, and covered in shiny, black plates. It twitched its antennae and flexed a set of horribly sharp serrated mandibles.

“And in the other corner, a hometown hero, from the forest floor beneath the city itself, the fearsome karagor!” The second gate was lifted to reveal a hideous thing of fur and claws, its face a writhing mass of fleshy tendrils. Even from this distance, Cal could see its ribs poking out along its belly. It let out a howl and the audience went wild.

The handlers prodded their animals toward the center of the ring. When they came close enough, they seemed to notice each other and began to circle. In a flash, they set upon one another. The stygiopede slashing with black claws and the karagor rising up on its hind legs to try and pin its opponent down.

The fight was evenly matched. The stygiopede couldn’t easily pierce the matted fur of the karagor, and the karagor couldn’t easily crack the hard shell of the stygiopede. They grappled and broke off, circling again. All the while, the crowd jeered and screamed. Cal never did get blood sports. And not just because gambling was a waste of hard-stolen money either.

She looked over at the Len and saw that he was entranced, but not like the rest of the crowd. While everyone else was hungry for violence, the Len appeared to be… studying the animals. Cal also saw what looked like horror on his face. He winced each time the animals attacked.

“And there it is!” The announcer shouted. Cal turned back and saw that the karagor had managed to find a gap in the massive bug’s armor. It sunk its teeth in, releasing a disgusting spray of green fluid. The stygiopede squirmed and struggled, but it was over. “We have a winner!”

The crowd began to split; half heading to the betting booth to collect their winnings, and half heading to the bar to drown their losses. The Len took this moment to head for a side door. Cal followed him.

Past the door, the noise of the arena died down, echoing softly through the rough stone hallways. Cal stayed back, tailing the Len as he headed deeper in. It was clear he didn’t know where he was going, but he was looking for something. Occasionally, he’d peer down passages or into rooms before continuing on. Eventually, he seemed to find what he was looking for. He headed inside a room and Cal ducked in after him.

Inside were row after row of cages. Some were empty, but most held some manner of strange beast. The cages were spaced so that none of them could attack each other, or whoever was walking between them. Still, Cal saw spots of blood and claw marks on the floor.

The Len looked around, as though he was at a market. He’d pause occasionally, observing an animal before shaking his head and continuing. Eventually, he stopped in front of one long enough that Cal decided to make her move.

“Didn’t expect to see you here,” she said. The Len jumped, wheeling around to face her and raising his hands in some sort of vaguely defensive stance.

“I can expla—” he stopped, peering at her in the dim light. “Wait, it’s you! The one with the hands!”

Cal raised an eyebrow and looked at her palms. “Guilty.”

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

Cal laughed. “No. But I am working at the moment. I was hired to track down a stolen ticket… Know anything about that?”

“I know about lots of things,” the Len said reproachfully.

“Oh, cut it out! Just answer the stupid question.”

“I have a ticket, and I may have gotten it from someone.”

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Cal sighed. “Look, just hand it over and I’ll go away.”

“No!” The Len said. “I need it to come back.”

“Well I’m not leaving without it.”

From somewhere near the front of the room, above the noises of the animals, Cal heard footsteps. The Len heard it too. Cal looked around, but saw no other exit.

“Who’s there?” Said the approaching stranger. “I know someone’s in here!”

Cal ducked down. She turned to bring the Len down to hide with her but noted with approval that he had already joined her behind one of the empty cages.

“What’re we going to do?” The Len whispered.

“Oh, it’s we now, is it?” Cal shot back. “I don’t know about you, but I’m perfectly capable of making it out of here on my own.”

“Then you won’t get the ticket.”

Cal cursed under her breath. He had a point. And she couldn’t go back empty-handed.

“Fine. But you’re not off the hook.” The footsteps were getting louder now. They didn’t have much time. She looked around. Most of the cages in this area were empty. Not that releasing anything kept down here was a particularly good idea. Then she saw the cage nearest to them was not only empty, but the gate was open. The footsteps were nearly upon them. “Alright, I’ve got an idea.” She looked at the wide-eyed Len. “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.”

“Okay, what do I do?”

“This.”

Cal shoved the Len out into the open.

“Hey!” A voice said. “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—”

Cal stepped up behind the man. She gave him a kick to the back of his knees and he folded over, dropping his torch. Unable to see her, it was easy for Cal to then shove the crumpled man into the open cage and shut the latch.

“Come on!” She grabbed the Len’s hand and ran, dragging him along.

“Wait! I came here for a creature!”

“No time!”  She pulled him through the door. There were more voices down the hall from where they had come. The only choice was to head further in. They ran down the corridor, away from the noise. The tunnel ended at a winding staircase. She followed it up, hoping this was some back way to the surface. 

“I need a familiar,” the Len sulked. She ignored him and kept climbing. After a few more flights, Cal tried one of the doors. Inside was a small, round room filled with small cages.

“If it’ll shut you up, take one of these.”

“But they’re so small!”

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

The Len cocked his head.

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

“Okay!” He made a quick turn around the room. He lingered upon one cage, examining the creature within, then moved on to another. He pulled one out and looked inside. “It’s so hard to choose. Fate help me, it has so many fangs”

Cal heard shouts from down below. A group of people were charging up the stairs.

“That’s the one!” Cal said, pulling him out of the room. Together, cage tucked under his arm. they headed up further. The stairs terminated in a large wooden door. Cal burst through it and found herself on the top balcony.

The room was filled with well-dressed patrons sitting in the elaborate thrones. With her dark leathers and the Len’s rumpled clothes, they looked extremely out of place. Fortunately, another fight was taking place, and no one paid them any attention.

“Come on,” she hissed as they made theirway past the seats.

“Excuse me!” A voice called out. Cal looked and saw an elderly woman. She was wearing a rather large green dress and a thick layer of white makeup. “Do you work here?”

“We don’t—” Cal kicked the Len in the shins.

“I order my drink five minutes ago, and it still isn’t here. Won’t you be dears and take care of that?”

“Absolutely, ma’am,” Cal said, curtsying slightly.

“Good.” The woman turned back to the match.

Cal breathed out in relief and looked around. They must’ve come through a service entrance. The large entrance she’d first seen on her way in must be around here somewhere. She spotted it on the far side of the balcony. She nudged the young Len and pointed. He nodded, clutching the cage to his chest.

With the match going, people barely noticed as they made their way over. Soon, they were through the entrance. The guards didn’t give them much notice. After all, they were paid to keep people out, not in. After a few blocks, Cal pulled the Len into an alley.

“There!” She sighed.. “That was easy.”

The Len looked like he wanted to double over, but he didn’t refused to set down the cage in his hands. The burlap covering inside the wooden frame kept her from seeing what sort of creature, if any, was inside.

“What was your name again? Tum? Past?”

“Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers.”

“Great. I’ll try and remember that.”

“I am in your debt. If you want the ticket, it’s yours.”

“Well, about that,” Cal reached into her pocket and fished out the ticket. “I already have it. Guess you’ll just have to owe me.”

“Thief!” Yam hissed.

“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.”

“I suppose so.” He clutched the cage tightly. “Will you tell me your name?”

“Cal.”

“Of?”

“Nobody. Just Cal.”

“I see.” Yam frowned.

“Great. Well, try not to get in any more trouble.” She nodded and walked off in the direction of the Falls District.

As she left, Cal shook her head. Why had she even helped him? That wasn’t part of the job, after all. She could’ve taken the ticket and ran. The guards would’ve been so preoccupied with him that they wouldn’t have even noticed her slipping out.

Maybe she’d gotten soft. Or maybe Istima was already so cutthroat that it felt wrong to leave someone so clearly out of their element alone in there. Whatever it was, it wasn’t something she would’ve done even a month ago.

It took her the better part of an hour to get back to Sable and Burr’s. She took it slow, her legs hurt from sprinting up all those stairs. She also routinely doubled back to make sure she wasn’t followed. Finally, she made it to the front door. Sable and Burr were waiting inside.

“Ah, welcome back, darling,” Sable said, looking up from a half-finished tunic. “I trust you had a good evening?”

“Good? I wouldn’t say that. Successful, though.” She handed him the ticket.

“That will have to do I suppose.” A bell chimed, striking the hour. “And just in time. Our client should be here shortly.”

No sooner had he spoken then the door opened. Cal turned and went pale as she saw Jasten walk in.

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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.

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