Yam 13

(2.06)

Gravity did not take him as a mother taking her frightened child into her arms. Gravity took him like a professional wrestler or a violently incompetent masseuse. Perhaps like an organ harvester? One who had forgotten their tools and wondered what would fall out if they shook him hard enough.

It was hard to say, really. The experience itself precluded him from being able to focus well enough to describe it.

The point was that it sucked.

The only luck Yam had was that the ledge below him was not the only one. They poked out from either side of the shaft. First on the left, then a few feet down on the right.

The pattern repeated without anything ever overlapping in the middle. Which meant that the thin Len rattled back and forth between the two sides. Constantly impacting against a stony edge and twisting to rebound against the next one just a few feet later.

Due to entirely understandable circumstances, he was not able to say how long he fell, only that it was too long.

When he finally slammed against the ground, he had all the breath knocked out of him. Luckily, he had been able to lock himself into a ball with his arms protecting his head,

Even so, he was so thoroughly disoriented that he almost forgot why he had jumped into a dark, unknown cavern of indeterminate depth.

But the light reached him, and he remembered.

He scurried across the ground until he bumped into what felt like a huge boulder and was able to throw himself behind it.

Moments later, the magical flame raced down the shaft. Even with eyes closed, the light was enough to glow through his eyelids.

Once it had faded he found himself taking rapid desperate gasps of air. But he had curled into such a small ball, with his knees pressed so tightly against his chest, that it was hard to take a full breath.

Yam, being the calm, cool, and collected Ken Seeker he was, only hyperventilated for a few minutes. Which seemed entirely reasonable considering the day he was having. Then he moved from behind the stone, carefully feeling around him in the dark and desperately hoping he wouldn’t press his hand against fire-heated rock.

He was so focused on not screaming if he burnt himself, that it took an embarrassingly long time to remember that, as a mage, he could summon light. It took him even longer to remember that with all the twists, turns, ledges, and obstructions in the tunnel and shaft above, that a weak light wouldn’t be visible to Stanislov from the surface.

In fact, if no light reached him from above, then he was probably safe so long as the light he summoned was less bright than the section of the Understacks he had escaped. Right?

He found himself with a puzzle and desperately threw his mind into it. Because, now that he thought about it, he had to keep the light lower than above so it didn’t illuminate the crack in the fountain. If the darkness of the crevice lightened even slightly it would be noticeable, even if it was dimmer than the ambient light outside. Probably?

The young Len let himself sit on the floor, and for several minutes he just thought about how much illumination he could safely use.

Cautiously, Yam let a small bulb of glowing magic bloom in his hand. Deciding to err on the side of caution, it was very faint. Then, just like he had during his test to enter Istima, he sent it flying away from him. He was careful to keep it at a muted glow. Which required a deft regulation of his energy. One that might have tested him before all of the time spent on the school’s control exercises.

He found the entrance he had fallen through, a corner where several stone blocks had been removed to form an opening, and made sure to keep his light as far away from it as possible while he figured out where he was.

And where he was becoming abundantly obvious when he noticed how smooth the floor was. How, despite a rough texture, the walls were perfectly perpendicular to the ground, and how there were massive bookcases carved into the wall.

His light floated through the air and came across what was clearly the same archways between rooms that they had in the upper levels of the understacks. Though the design was slightly older and cruder. The archway had also been sealed shut by stone that seemed to have run upwards from the ground like a sheet of gravity-defying candle wax.

He tried to see what color had been painted on top of the arch, but his light always came out orange, and he had yet to master the control exercises that would allow him to make it a neutral white.

Either way, colored arch or no, he was puzzled. And Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers loved puzzles.

Barely considering if he would bring his own fiery death upon himself, Yam brightened his light and began exploring the subterranean room.

It was significantly bigger than his dorm room. Large enough that ten to fifteen people could have moved around it without entering each other’s personal space. Two of the walls, the longest two in a generally rectangular room, were filled with built-in stone bookshelves. The wall farthest from Yam had two doorways, each near the corners, and recessed at an angle so that they implied a branching path. Both of these doors were sealed with the melted-wax looking rock.

The opposite stretch of wall, the short one closest to him, had a fountain and a small research room. Just like above. The differencing being that this fountain still worked and that the research room’s lock refused to open to him. It wouldn’t even allow bone matter around the cracks so he could attempt to fineness his way in. Also, the corner of that wall had several stones pried away to form a shoddy entrance to whatever passage he had fallen down.

The ‘boulder’ he had hidden behind turned out to be the room’s centerpiece, a massive slab of stone with carvings in a strange language. There was a plaque attached to it, but it held nothing but a string of numbers and letters. It was the same sorting system they used for books in the return room. Though he couldn’t imagine anyone checking out a standing stone monument.

Though there were earth elementalists…

He tried to press his hand against the stone and found that while he was completely able to touch the object near its base, that an invisible field of energy stopped him from getting close to the actual carved letters.

In a flash, Yam reached into his pouch, carefully avoided the remains of the glass stirring rod that had broken during his fall, and went through all the various items he had smuggled in for his experiments. And, just as above, none of them made contact with the stone. With a sense of dread, he raced to one of the built-in bookcases and faced similar failures.

He ended up throwing his loop of copper at a wall and stalking away. He had nearly died at least three times, and he hadn’t even gotten a single book out of it.

But if he hadn’t been fuming, he might not have heard the sound.

His copper loops bounced off one of the sealed doorways and, moments later, he heard something move against the other side of the stone.

Stanislov’s words came back to him. The man had talked about creatures that ate scorpions. Things that were too dangerous to go to the surface and animals that were pests down here, but monsters in the school above.

Yam’s smile was brighter than any light he could have summoned.

Untamed. Hungry. Dangerous.

That sounded exactly like a familiar that was waiting to be tamed.

~~~

As he repeatedly said to himself and anyone else who would listen, Yam was a Ken Seeker. That meant many things. But it did not necessarily mean that he was so motivated by the pure, unbridled, virtuous pursuit of knowledge that he was willing to risk his life to discover strange new species. He did not love knowledge quite so much.

However, he had spent many days of his youth bedridden. Dreaming about a pet that would love him unconditionally and scare his bullies away. He was also a very young man and very resistant to the concept of his own mortality.

Even when it had almost burnt his fur off less than an hour ago.

All of which is to say, he would later tell himself that he was motivated by the noble impulse to pursue knowledge and virtue. But, in reality, he did not think twice about racing to the very intentionally sealed door, in the underground library, in a dangerous school of magic, guarded by a twitchy pyromancer, and staffed by a ghost. He did not even pretend to hesitate before seeing how hard it would be to break open the sealed door.

Yam was a Ken Seeker, not a wisdom seeker, and certainly not a common sense seeker.

He began knocking against the rock and found that, near the top of the archway, the stone sounded different.

Too excited to think about magic, he pulled out his not-for-eating knife and slammed the handle against the stone just slightly above his eye level. Within a few strikes, he saw small cracks forming in the rock.

He kept going, though he had to switch arms when he grew tired. Within two minutes, he had made a divot in the rock but not broken through. With each blow, the material had been pulverized like a flaky, unusually strong chalk. It was exactly like in his osteomancy class when someone failed to make the right honeycomb matrix. If the calcium was assembled too evenly, then it made clean lines where force could cause a split. Like building a wall and having the edges of all the boards lined up instead of interlacing them, which caused all the weak spots to be conveniently (or disastrously) grouped together.

The young mage paused. He frowned at his knife’s handle, his burning arm muscles, and slowly glanced around him. He blinked several times as a look of embarrassment spread across his face.

Yam cleared his throat and casually sheathed his knife before reaching out to the rock with his senses.

Osteomancy was a very unique combination of water and earth elementalism. He wasn’t sure of the details, but his experience said that he was very weakly connected to both elements, barely able to manipulate them at all, really. But he had just the right overlap between the two so that his ability to sense bone matter, both the calcium and the organic connective tissue, was stronger than either his hydromancy or geomancy alone. And with a great deal of finesse and control, he was just barely able to pull energy from the unique frequency of magic that resonated with bone matter.

For true elementalists it was like taping an endless barrel. Based on the frequency of their magic they reached out to the pure elemental powers of fire, or air, and once connected they drew on that energy for their workings. The only power they personally spent was in maintaining the connection to that source of elemental energy, regulating the flow, and exerting control over how it manifested.

Yam was not nearly so powerful. He was barely able to open a connection at all. As a result, instead of throwing boulders of melted bone, or lashing out with huge amounts of energy like Stanisolv, his magic was more like getting a thin coating of that elemental magic. Then spreading it like a glove over his own energies. It gave him ‘grip’, so to speak, on bone where his personal magic wouldn’t have otherwise.

His connection to water and earth were even weaker.

Weaker, but still there.

As such he was able to sense the unnatural evenness of the stone’s structure in the barrier. Whoever had made it had been careful enough to pattern the stone so that despite most of it being uniform to the point of weakness, there was a grid of stronger, less uniform rock under the surface. It strengthened the whole, like a wooden lattice behind plaster.

The melted-wax-looking stone had a thickness slightly greater than the palm of his hand. It would take ages to break through it without a proper tool.

Yam stepped back from the doorway and thought. He wasn’t properly equipped for this obstacle, and the longer he stayed down here the more the injuries from his fall made themselves known. Even as the thought crossed his mind one of his ankles gave a sharp stab of pain and he could feel bruises surfacing all over his body.

But he didn’t actually need to use his body to solve this problem.

Technically he didn’t need to solve this problem at all, but the young Len ignored that thought.

Carefully he cleared his mind and reached out with his senses. Just like when he used harmonic resonance to help refill his reserves, he reached out with his mind to feel the titanic tides of the Apaernore’s energy washing through the stone and dirt around him in slow motion.

Over the course of several minutes, he let the energy fill his perceptions until it was a target too large to miss. Then he reached for the sea of elemental earth magic with his own power.

For a long moment nothing happened. So he grit his teeth and tried to force half of his magic, half of his soul, to hold still while the earth aligned parts of him went forward.

The feeling was like using a limb that had gone numb. He knew it was possible, he knew it was there and even had an idea of what it should be able to do. But he could barly sense it until it began to move.

The control exercises paid off. With a ridiculous amount of effort Yam mobilized his geomancy. Though his sensitivity was so poor and his power so small that he exhausted himself flailing around before he was even able to hone in on the grid of reinforced stone in the wall.

Thankfully he didn’t need to do any proper geomancy. All he did was shift the structure of the stone so that a segment the size of his hand would be easier to break away.

With a gasp, he let the magic dissipate and massaged at his temples.

At least it hadn’t been hydromancy. He was even worse at that.

Once more he took the metal pommel of his not-for-eating-knife and went to work. The stone crumbled easily once he found the angle of the grain. In barely a minute he had broken through and was greeted by the scent of musty pages and leather book covers.

“Alright, beautiful,” he whispered, thinking about the sounds he had heard, “why don’t you come to see Uncle Yam.”

He produced another bulb of orange light and sent it into the new room.

The first thing he noticed was that the ceiling was much higher and that books went from the floor all the way up to the ceiling. In fact, the shelves were so high that anyone falling off the rolling ladders would break a leg.

The next thing he noticed was the floor. Or, more accurately the way a spear wall of familiar melted-wax stone had sprouted from the floor. They all pointed away from Yam, but as his light floated through the air he could very clearly see where something had smashed a path through and made a trail of destruction leading towards the sealed archway.

Then his light fetched against something curved and organic. Amidst the perfectly flat plains of the library, the bulbous mass stood out. It was an uneven oval slightly larger than his torso and appeared to be made of scarred skin, flaking strips of leather, and one section that looked disturbingly similar to a row of tightly clenched molars.

He sent his light closer and barely had time to examine it before it moved.

The row of dull herbivore teeth opened, but instead of seeing a throat or mouth, what he saw was the messy, honeycombed pattern of a hive.

And from that hive came out two defenders. Creatures that mimicked the appearance of life, but that nothing in nature would have ever produced.

They looked like mutated, hairless, rats. Neither was symmetrical, and neither one completely matched the other. Their heads had been transposed from the neck onto thick tails. Almost like a scorpion. Those heads had unusually large ears and snouts that were too long for a real rat. The bodies themselves were mammalian but with four oddly segmented legs whose joints formed distinctly bow-legged, un-rat-like arches reminiscent of a spider’s. Though they still terminated in a rat’s be-clawed feet.

Yam’s mouth fell open: what beauties. That would strike fear into the hearts of his enemies.

They sniffed at the air and, though their bodies stayed still, their tails quickly pointed the two heads at him.

Soundlessly the two mouths opened, and the creatures rushed towards him like poorly operated puppets.

~~~

Yam stared in awe at the mini-monsters for a few seconds longer than was wise.

Then reality hit. With a jolt, he stepped back from the hole he had gouged in the sealed archway. He frantically looked for something he could plug the gap with.

He wasted his first few seconds reaching for one of the books on the shelves. But the defenses stopped him just as easily as they had for the last several weeks.

The scrabbling of claws drew his eyes back to the hole just as one of the creatures tried and failed to shove its body through.

In news that was both incredibly lucky and incredibly concerning, Yam discovered that he had underestimated the size of the not-rats. They were more than half the length of his forearm and very wide.

The light he had originally summoned briefly flared and flickered as he felt his heartbeat accelerate and his hands go clammy.

Then his will clamped down on the light and his panic both. He would not be trapped in the dark with these creatures. He steadied the orange light and belatedly remembered, for the second time in the last twenty minutes, that he was a mage.

Yam always kept a small pouch of left-over bones with him for practice. If he hadn’t left his backpack in the room upstairs he could even have brought out the significantly larger bone from last week’s lamb shank. As it was, he was left with the remains of several chicken wings and a rat skull that he had been able to gather from a trap in the dorm.

He ripped the pouch open and set the bones to circling his head with a thought.

The creatures stopped scrabbling and pulled back.

For just a moment the bones orbiting him stalled. Then the two tail-heads slithered their way through the hole, though their bodies stayed on the opposite side of the wall.

Whiskerless noses sniffed and over large ears rotated in quick jerky motions.

Yam’s thoughts whirled. Could he immobilize one of them? He didn’t think he could shape bone quickly enough to stop them from pulling their legs out. And what about the other one? Could they call for aid?

“Come on little friends,” he said, “why don’t you go back and I’ll visit you some other time. I’ll bring food. We can be buddies.”

Two sets of eyes homed in on him with eerie precision.

He found his mouth suddenly and inexplicably dry.

“Please?”

Both heads whipped back through the hole and Yam let out a sigh of relief.

Until he heard the wet sounds.

Hesitantly he sent a new globe of light through and carefully looked past the gap.

On the other side of the arch, he saw the two creatures on the floor. One of the heads was pressed to the other’s shoulder, grooming its fur.

Except the not-rats didn’t have fur.

The nibbling head pulled back, drawing a string of skin and muscle with it until the flesh snapped. Then the head went back to slowly chewing through its sibling’s leg.

Before Yam could see anything else the second head turned to meet his eyes. There was no expression on the creature’s face at all. It just stared at him, shifting minutely as it was tugged by the efforts of the comrade systematically mutilating it.

The young Len received no warning. No triumphant squeak or plopping sound as the discarded rear limb fell to the ground. In an instant, the newly three-legged not-rat scurried forward. With much scrabbling and assistance from its packmate, it crawled up to the hole in the archway.

In bare seconds it had wedged itself into the hole and began inching its way towards his face. Headless neck and shoulders wiggled as its claws pulled it forward.

Yam might have screamed. He couldn’t remember. In a sudden burst of terror, he pulled out his not-for-eating-knife.

“Please,” he whispered, hands shaking, “just go back.”

With a convulsive jerk, the creature pulled itself far enough forward that its front claws were able to grasp the lip of stone on his side.

Yam jumped, lifted his knife, and froze. Then in surge, he switched hands and tried to use the back of his knife to force open the creature’s claws and block the hole.

“Please,” he said, nearly sobbing, “I don’t want to hurt you.”

The dull edge of his knife succeeded once in dislodging the not-rat’s grip, but as soon as it sensed contact the creature froze.

For just a second hope came to Yam’s heart.

Then the clawed paw closed on the spine of his knife.

The skin on the smooth expanse of flesh between its shoulders pressed outward like a mass of pimples forming before his eyes. Then the skin burst and insects like massive ants started to crawl out of the hole even as more bubbles began bulging out of its flesh.

This time, Yam knew that he screamed. He let go of his knife and leaped back, hands flying forward.

The bones that had been floating around him responded.

Faster than they had ever moved before, they shot forward, liquifying as they went.

The thick, semi-solid paste crashed against the opening in the barrier and splattered like paint thrown on canvas. But Yam’s will refused to let a drop of the calcium go to waste. He clenched his fist and all the bone matter that had splashed around the hole raced back towards the gap, picking up the insects as it went, until it had tightened into a plug of semi-liquid sludge. He pushed the bone around the struggling creature, and into every crevice of the rock.

With a thought, he hardened the entire thing. But the moment he did he could see his trapped knife began shaking as the body trapped within it tried pushing further forwards.

Before the creature could make any progress, Yam reached out with his mind once more. He sent tendrils of bone down the hole like roots until they came out the other side and were able to spread across the stone and anchor the whole thing.

This time though, he didn’t just let the bone come back into a solid form. He forced the substance of it, the structures too small to see with the naked eye, to form the sturdiest matrix he possibly could.

It took minutes of frantically scrutinizing the whole room for any missed insects before his heart slowed enough that he was able to breathe properly.

Eyes still searching for tiny shapes, Yam stumbled to the opposite side of the room from the sealed doorways. He pressed his back against the wall, right by where he had originally fallen into this cursed room, and slid to the floor.

Terror, he was coming to learn, was absolutely exhausting.

When he had first escaped the Tooth and Claw, he had been twitchy for days.

The second time, he had slept for thirteen hours.

Now, having just escaped a solemn and murderous pyromancer twice, fallen to what he thought would be his death, and then almost immediately having his bruised and battered body attacked by what could only be flesh ants, he found himself to be so profoundly exhausted that it was nearly an out-of-body experience.

He pressed his hands to his face and shook silently as the last of the fear left him and his body started to shiver.

He had nearly died.

Again.

If Stanislov hadn’t burnt him alive then the flesh ants, the same ones he learned about in Tooth and Claw, would have burrowed into him, broken his body down, eaten him, and vomited up pseudo flesh that they would have used to construct more hives. Or to build more meat puppets that they could steer from the inside.

Those two not-rats had probably been defenders of the hive. Suicide ships meant to carry workers onto invaders or prey so they could tunnel through his body until they ate something he needed to keep moving.

Everything in him revolted against the thought. But, against his will he could see, all but feel, his body being slowly tunneled through and… processed.

He would bet that, even now, the creature trapped in the wall would be pulling itself out, or that its cargo of ants would disassemble it and then reassemble it back on the ground with its abandoned limb.

Yam stared at the plug of bone, the one still holding his knife, and wondered how well it could possibly do at stopping creatures whose core purpose was to break down and reconstruct biological matter.

He felt his body try to dump more adrenaline into his veins. It tried to give him the energy he needed to act on the deep, profound fear that turned his bones to ice and shook them until he wanted nothing so much as to sprint away so the painful buzzing terror could be spent.

But he just didn’t have it in him.

Instead, he pulled his knees into his chest, wrapped his arms around them, and buried his face.

He was so tired, and so scared, and his whole body hurt.

There was nothing Yam wanted at that moment more than to go to sleep and have someone else, some adult who knew what in the ever-loving fuck they were doing, to take care of things so he could feel safe again.

Nothing could have made this moment worse.

That was when he heard something from above, from the passage leading down from the fountain. A distant, droning, monotone screech that failed to achieve the volume needed to be anything more than an annoyingly piercing whine.

Nnnnneeeeeeeeeeeyyyyyyyyyyaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh—

Yam closed his eyes even tighter.

Nnnnneeeeyyyyyyaaaaahhhhhhh—

Plop.

Nnneeyyyaaahhhh—

Plop.

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

Nneeyyaahh—

Plop.

The sound repeated until finally, the high-pitched, breathy, groan-scream resolved itself and Abomination rolled head over heels from the corner Yam himself had tumbled out of not even an hour ago.

The young Len kept his eyes closed. But he still heard the delicate pitter-patter of the qupee’s waddling sprint as it threw itself against his leg and began frantically chirping and rubbing its snout against his fur.

“Of-fucking-course,” he whispered.

The chirping redoubled and he felt the fat little creature try to crawl up his clothes and into his lap before falling backward with a delicate squeak.

“… I hate you. So much.”

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Yam 11

2.04

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

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

“You are an abomination,” Yam whispered softly. 

The little tail twitched. 

“You disgust me.”

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

“You make me believe in genocide.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A job there could be incredibly important for his plans. 

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

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

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

But that wasn’t the issue at hand!

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

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

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

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

Yam’s mouth fell open. 

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is—”

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

“Oh,” the ghost blinked, “my.” 

~~~ 

“And what is her name?”

“Abomination.”

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

“No. Just hideous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Why are you laughing?”

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

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

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

“I finished them some time ago.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And pink dyed fur. 

And a crust of garishly cut glass. 

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Yam 8

2.01

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wanted that. He wanted that terribly. 

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basic Osteomancy One

Exit CriteriaL

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

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

·      Cause bone matter to levitate in a sustained fashion

·      Cause any degree of replicable fusing of bone matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is your first module, right?”

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

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

“How long will that take?”

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

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

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

“Yes, we are,” said the male.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

Thankfully he was allowed to keep his own footwear.

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

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

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

How did they move?

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

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

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

But he was also not an exhibitionist human savage. 

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

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

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

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

“Yam, right?”

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

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

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

“No sir, I did not obfuscate my age.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only to find himself stalling halfway up. 

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

And stopped again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He let himself be led to the bleachers. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yam 7

1.07

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

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

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

“Your first time speaking with them?”

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

“Give me your letter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yam nodded politely and kept his face blank. 

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

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

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

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

It really was an excellent deal. 

“This is entirely unacceptable!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

Now that was a woman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like the person he was supposed to be. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He really had chosen his court well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yam 6

1.06

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

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

Significantly. 

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

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

Which was not a description that would have made sense anywhere other than Istima.

There were a few locations where students stepped off the ground and onto the walls without seeming particularly interested or bothered. Several other spots had people transition to swimming through the air, playing hopscotch without stopping their conversation, and one side street where everyone fell asleep for thirty seconds at a certain spot before standing up and continuing. 

To an extent, small anomalies like this showed up everywhere across the academy. But in the Night Court it seemed to be more of a rule and less of an exception.

The overall impression he received was that this place seemed like the painting of an almost child-friendly dreamworld. Nothing was consistent, very little made sense, but none of the oddities came across as overtly threatening or sinister. 

 Even with that, what struck him the most was the way it managed to look like a Len caravan felt.

Just like the Night Court representative from the tavern, who was serving as his current guide, the students around him had something very similar to a Len’s Presence. Whatever it was lacked the substance and the immediate impact on his body. If he had to describe it he would say it was like they played a similar tune on a different instrument. 

Those with the greatest pseudo-presence swept through the streets like royalty and the court swayed around them, leaving visible oddity in their wake. Plants grew in the footsteps of one such student, the world lost all color behind another and, for a particularly strong presence, everyone within ten feet of the student suddenly appeared as a giant arcane lizard beast wearing regular human clothes.

In an actual Len settlement, being caught in a powerful Presence felt like the world had turned on its head. Your body informed you with no room for questions that the other person was a Len, and what your relative status was compared to them. If someone with enough personal force told you the sky was red, it was hard to disagree. 

“You’re not screaming as much as I expected you too,” said his guide. 

“I am not screaming at all,” Yam replied calmly. 

“Odd. Testing. One two. One TWO!” His guide dug into his ear with a finger. He shook his head vigorously and turned back to Yam. “You’re right, you’re not the one screaming. My apologies.” The boy pointed to a group of students sitting in a circle, all bearing looks of inebriated concentration as they passed around a pipe burning something pungent. “Are they screaming?”

“No. They seem quite peaceful.”

His black-cloaked companion turned to the empty air opposite Yam. “Are you the one screaming?” 

He did not appear to get a satisfactory reply and they walked through the Night Court in a distinctly uncomfortable silence. 

Yam cleared his throat and tried to keep his speech professional. ”Yes, well… the displays of personal power seem quite flagrant here. Not like the other courts.”

“They’re side effects mostly. Not displays. Mostly.”

He had only wanted to break the tension, but Yam felt genuine interest stir in his chest, “Side effects of what?”

“Couldn’t tell you,” The senior student shrugged. ”Maybe the reality around here has gotten embarrassed. Decided to help us out so it can tell all of its friends that this was actually what it wanted to do the whole and that there was never any bullying involved.”

“Bullying?”

 “Sometimes. Other times flattery. Are those people screaming?”

“No, they’re just burning an effigy. How does one flatter reality?”

“With will.”

“Will? As in the power of personal determination?”

“Exactly. That and some magic. You’re Len, can’t you feel it?”

“The Presence?”

His guide pointed a finger at a student who made the ground bounce under his feet like a hungry Slime and who seemed to distort the air with the intensity of his gaze. “That isn’t a Presence. Humans don’t have all the ingredients to make one of those. But will is a part of Presence, and will is the basis of all Night Court magic.”

Yam stopped moving and his guide came to a halt as well. The young Len looked around the cobbled streets and matched the pseudo-Presences he sensed with the distortions that each student caused.

“What about chants and spell formulas and invocations? How can just will power be magic?” 

“Don’t know.” His guide said, focusing rather intently on plugging and unplugging each of his ears in an attempt to isolate the ‘sound’ that had been distracting him. “It probably isn’t. Unless you force it to be.”

“With will?” Yam guessed.

“With will.” The older student nodded.

“So, if you have an errant thought about walking upside down, your magic makes it happen? Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Danger is a complicated assessment that begs many questions about risk, causality, and advanced probability. But yes, that would be dangerous. Our magic just do that, so it’s not that dangerous; it’s a different dangerous. Provided, I’m assuming, that we’re referencing the same metaphysical thought construct for ‘danger’. ”

The young Len narrowed his eyes. “Is that the Night Court way of saying that you won’t explain your magic to me unless I bribe you?”

“No, but good guess. The magic systems are dead simple and ours is the simplest.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Rocks don’t scream right?”

“No, they do not”

“Do they whisper?”

“Will you tell me about the magic systems if I answer that?”

“Sure.”

“No. I’m sorry. Rocks do not, in fact, whisper.”

“Damn,” his guide glanced at a sundial, which was casting a shadow directly against the light of a nearby lamp. “Well, generally, the Winter Court makes magic at the frequency of their element and it’s like poking a hole in a cask. They pull loads of naturally-occurring elemental magic from that opening. They just have to sustain the hole and control what happens as it comes through. The Autumn Court uses words, incantations and gestures to cast their spells. The grammar and dialect interactions are supposed to be complicated. So they have to memorize exactly, be orderly, and be detail-oriented.” His guide shuddered in apparent revulsion as he said the word ‘orderly’, ”The Summer Court writes their magic out. But, unlike the Autumn Court, they can’t use willpower to intervene and correct gaps or inaccuracies. Everything happens exactly how they write it down. They also mix potions.”

“How do they do that?”

“Spoons. Sticks. Ladles.” Rhe guide shrugged, ”Depends on the container. The Spring Court does complex systems. So they use mind magic to make packets of pure understanding that know how to do a single specific task. Then they assemble a bunch of packets to handle all the different parts of a single complicated spell. The Night Court is simpler and subjectively objectively superior.”

Yam scratched the side of his head but decided not to interrupt. 

”We decide something is real, put some magic in our will, and then convince the world we’re right. If we win it more or less happens.”

“That’s it?”

“Yup. If you can conceptualize it, will it, or believe it, then you just do it.”

“That’s how you cast spells?”

“That is how we cast spells.”

“And it works?”

“The short answer is yes. The long answer is a philosophy class.”

“And, all you need to do is train your will?”

“You also need to change your mind so you can think of things more persuasively.”

“How do you do that?”

His guide glanced over his shoulder at another circle of students sharing a pipe and a girl who was dangling upside down from a tree limb while reading a book titled Social Constructs Adjusted and Demon Summoning Trusted: A Memoir.

“That’s the hard part. That and remembering which real you’re in.”

“As in the ‘real’, you are making with magic or actual reality?”

“I wish.” His guide sighed, seeming genuinely tired. ”Just finding your way out of the-real-you-don’t-know-you-made is hard enough. Let alone finding and remembering the realest reals without destroying the other reals you need to believe in for your older spells.”

~~~

The rest of the trip was an unintelligible explanation of other ‘reals’; how they overlapped, where they differed, and apparently how they tried to deceive you with their feminine wiles. It was fascinating, unintuitive and somehow painful to think about. 

And it was completely wiped from his mind the moment he felt who he was supposed to be meeting. 

The Presence was unspeakable. 

He did not know of numbers, or comparisons, or even mathematic functions based on comparisons, to express how large the Presence was. The moment he walked into range he blacked out and found himself with no memory at all of the journey he took to reach the individual. 

To say it was a Len was to say a four-limbed God was human. 

Its form was one he had never heard of, read about, or even imagined. 

His own father’s will had been unshakable, and he had found a hidden form one or two forks down the Reptilian path. Even people who went only a single step deeper down that mammalian path than Yam, had their Presence increased formidably. An advanced form like his father’s had multiplied the man’s already intense Presence until it felt like standing in the summer sunlight just to see him smile. Knowing the secret to reliably achieving that form had made his family virtual nobility among the caravans. 

But this, this, was many orders of magnitude greater. 

The being in front of him had chosen a body along the Mammalian branch, but it was so far from the first, default lupine-human mixture that Yam wore. 

The shape in front of him was like a centaur. The upper body was  perfectly human. Every feature was of flawless, elegant masculinity. The lower body was that of a bear with the addition of a long and agile tail.  However, what Yam had mistaken for a massive bearskin cloak, the head of the beast serving almost as a hat, shifted as the man saw him approach.

The being’s human upper body leaned forward, the fur cascading down his shoulders  folding forward like a cocoon, like a venus fly trap. The thick skin and dangling paws seemed to gain definition and volume. 

In a breath that human upper body was completely encased until a third set of bear legs, ones that had been hanging behind the man’s shoulders met the earth. The abruptly six-legged bear-creature moved forward, no trace of its human body visible.

The being’s second set of features had been mixed from the pride of a feline, the noble cast of a wolfhound, and all of that without losing an ounce of ursine gentleness. Though he did notice that its paws had opposable thumbs.

Yam went unconscious again. 

~~~

He woke up with human eyes colored a  piercing jade looking at him. The Len’s animal body was once again folded back and draped over his shoulders like a bearskin cloak.

With an abruptness that left him dizzy the sense of Presence around him disappeared until it felt no stronger than a first form grandfather; warm, slightly senior to himself, but comforting in its pressure and completely unthreatening. 

Words left his mouth without his permission. “You can’t do that!”

The being cocked his head to the side and grinned. “No little one, your language is imprecise. What you meant is, ‘I have never known of the ability to retract my Presence’. And, as you will be working with the Night Court, I suggest adding the word ‘yet’ to any statement of limitation. It’s very motivational.”

“But I haven’t decided to work with the night court.”

“You haven’t decided. Yet. But don’t worry, I already have.”

On reflex, Yam steeled himself for a surge of Presence to batter against his mind. Instead, the older Len just smiled. 

“I won’t force you to obey. It would rob you of your drive.” Idly the man’s fingers flickered and a small ball of light began dancing across his hand and changing colors. It was odd to see such a basic control exercise being done by something so powerful. Though the strange Len appeared to be doing it without notice, like a tik. 

”Let me inform you of the situation as I see it,” said the ancient being. ”Then we can get to the meat of the issue.”

“I am powerful. Most powerful mages at Istima never leave their towers. Though it’s more accurate to say that most leave their bodies behind on the material plane where Istima’s towers are, and never totally return to them.  I took a break from my spire to spend a few years learning spatial magic. Your bloodline gift, or natural power, or whatever it’s called now, interests me. No matter what court you chose I would have you help assimilate the Night Court’s knowledge of spatial manipulation with the aid of your natural talent. I will study the process as well as the results, and use them for my own ends. So, tell me your aims and I’ll compensate you for your assistance.”

It was a rare experience for a Len to be struck speechless by another’s candor. In fact, it rarely happened outside of fables that were trying to show a hero’s extreme dedication to truth, forthrightness, and etiquette. 

Like any well-raised boy, Yam had been taught to express a great and potentially risky truth to demonstrate his respect and veracity. But this… this was so much free information.

“I haven’t told anyone what my ability is.” He muttered, still trying to process what he had just heard.

“You showed spatial manipulation at the entrance test. Didn’t you?”

“But,” he tried to swallow and found his throat bone dry, “I did it when it would look like teleportation and other magic. I was going to use the mystique for bartering.”

“Truly?” The ancient Len put his hands on his hips. “Doesn’t the current culture value intangibles like being offensively honest above everything?”    

Offensively… honest? 

Both words made sense on their own. But they seemed strange when placed next to each other. Like, ‘savory lemon’ or ‘carpeted kitchen’ or ‘too much money’. 

Yam found himself parroting a common phrase, once again robbed of his mental footing. “Honesty is the backbone of character, but it does not remove the obligation to listen for game and jest.”

One of the older Len’s bear arms stirred and passed through the air like it was wiping answers from a chalkboard. “I do not understand, nor do I have the inclination to do so at the moment. Just tell me what you want so we can get to the fun part.”

This was jus too strange. Though it was extremely rude to use your Presence to force someone to agree with you, and it was considered a subversion of a sacred bond between Len, Presence always colored a conversation. It was impossible not to be influenced when your bones hummed with the absolute certainty that the other person was above you. That was why the caravans operated so smoothly and so quickly. But, right now, there was nothing compelling him even though he knew for a fact that the being in front of him was unimaginably superior to himself. 

It made his head hurt.

Without the power dynamic of a strong Presence, the conversation felt oddly carefree and ripe for a game of words. But Yam found himself unable to even put on his bargaining mask. Not because he was shocked, though he very much was. What stopped him was the voice of his mother whispering to him from his memories. 

He felt like a toddler being gently reprimanded for some mischief he was too young to know he should be embarrassed by.

Whoever this man was, whatever this man was, he had been so direct. And it had been authentic. 

He was not ritually signaling his character. He was a good, virtuous person; upfront, honest, helpful, loving of knowledge, and generous with his fellow Len.

And all to an extent that was almost comical.

The idea of repaying such virtue with game or bargaining made him feel dirty. That was not the man his mother had raised him to be. 

Yam sighed and completely gave up on gathering his composure. “I am Study Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers and I have come to Istima so I can become a god.”

“Okay, okay.” The older Len rubbed his chin. ”To become a god or to become god-like? They are different. Both very reasonable, but also very different.”

Yam snorted. That was the first time someone had said his ambition was reasonable. “I need to become indistinguishable from Aehp the Eclectic Beast Lord.”

“Hmm. Never heard of him. Must be from after my time.”

“Some would say he is extremely new,” Yam said, feeling his amusement turn dark. 

“Oh? And why would ‘some’ say that?”

“Because some say that my father invented Aehp and the rest of his pantheon so he could make a profit peddling false religion.”

The being’s eyes glimmered and something ancient moved under his gentle grin. “And what do you say young one?”

Yam’s jaw flexed. Then deliberately he straightened his posture, schooled his expression, and forced himself to summon some of the dignity he had once been told was his birthright and his duty. “I say that if I become Aehp, then my father was no liar; he was just early.”

The moonlight reflected from two sets of smiling teeth and two pairs of emerald eyes. “You seek power to make your father into a prophet?”

Yam felt his own Presence stir and bared his teeth in a smile that was far less gentle than his companion’s. “My father was always a prophet. I just haven’t proved it. Yet.

Last Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

Yam 5

1.05

  It would be fair to say that Yam retreated deeply into studying. It would also be fair to say he read for two and a half days straight and almost needed medical assistance when he finally came to a stopping point. 

The texts the bookkeeper had given him were very strange. Three of them dealt with the cultivation of a non-physical type of magical. They called it Soul’s Work, and the books went through exercises and potions that would help cultivate the ability to sense soul’s magic as well as control drills. There were no techniques mentioned. 

Though the graphs and equations were oddly beautiful if you squinted your eyes. So there was that at least. 

The bookkeeper had only told him to return once he had read the books.

He would prefer to return to the Understacks triumphantly. Able to show his dedication with mastery over new magic. That would be the best way to show his value as a potential employee. But to learn even two of the cants he had seen would be incredibly difficult and expensive.

Yam slapped his legs and leapt to his feet. Difficult was not an excuse! Difficult was an obstacle, a test. He just had to remember why he was here, and where the path he was on would lead.

First things first, he could go through the shopping district and see how much additional texts would cost. He would not be assigned classes until he joined his Court and so his only real time commitment were meetings with different Court representatives. That left plenty of time to study magic.

With every intention of making a dramatic exit Yam crawled from the thick bushes he had camped in. Then he realized he hadn’t put his wrap back on and was dead naked. 

His second attempt at an appropriately heroic exit ended when he forgot his bag of drams. The third attempt was delayed by him tripping. He did not trip on anything in particular; not unless one counted sleep deprivation or malnutrition as ‘anything in particular’. 

That was when he decided that no matter what, he had to push through with his plan! Nothing would stop him from executing his will on the world. 

First step, amend the plan so it included sleep. Second, eat. Third, continue with his first draft of the plan. Maybe bathe too. 

With a self-satisfied nod Yam tried to stand so he could execute his plan and begin chipping away at fate with the force of his will alone. However his legs were still weak and he fell again. 

But he narrowed his eyes in an expression of stoic determination.

Then, heroically, Yam barrel rolled himself back into the bushes so he could execute step one of his master plan, and fall asleep in his clothes.

~~~

When he checked in with the front desk of his dorm, he was given a folded piece of paper that only he could open. With a magical sensation the rough equivalent of chewing mint leaves, his student identification number settled into his mind so clearly it was like he had already spent a week memorizing it. 

Written at the bottom of the letter was a note from the Autumnal Court saying they had expedited his paperwork and sincerely looked forward to his meeting with their representative. 

Yam moved on and sat on the uncanny bench from his last trip out of the day court, still unwilling to lose to its inexplicable and uncomfortable presence. He re-read the letter several times. To him it spoke of power and bribery via favors. 

Which was a novel experience; he had always wanted to be bribed.

Though Yam was still tired, his mood soared. Though, when he left the eternal sunshine of the Claral Court, the young Len was unpleasantly surprised to learn that nearly three days had passed. The day for his meetings with the Autumn Court had already arrived. 

As always, more information, more time to study, would have been better. But there were ways to compensate for that ignorance. 

He hurried through the streets, trying to move with the sort of confidence that told muggers he belonged here and was not a potential victim. That aura, in its own kind of magic, caused the crowds to part around him. It also helped that he frequently met the eyes of people surrounding him while fingering the hilt of his not-for-eating knife. 

Finally, he stepped through the archways of a different court and stopped dead. A warm summer breeze stirred his fur and the smell of flower fields danced under the scent of coal and chemicals. Massive be-scaled smokestacks rose into the sky. The air around them rippled with magic and heat. The head of each stack was shaped into that the visage a mythic beast opening its mouth and shooting smoke into the perfectly blue sky.  

He eventually greeted his contact, a professor who reeked of brandy and spoke grandly of the treasures of the Estival Court. His fine vest and crisp shirt were marked by grease and, under the reek of a high functioning alcoholic, the Young Len could smell oil and burning metal. 

The man’s magic felt weak, but his liquor went down smoothly, so Yam treated him with courtesy. When he outlined his plan the representative of the Estival court snorted and immediately called over a secretary to see to the details. 

~~~

“I am Study Yam Hist. Based on your rich accommodations and apparent knowledge of the Len, I expect subtle bribery of a high caliber from you.”

“Of course, of course.” The woman across from him nodded, “I am a Master of the Autumnal Court of Istima.”

Yam’s eyes widened. The woman across from him was plump with permanently red cheeks. If any other human had said that, he would have doubted that they understood what they were saying. But her decorum had been perfect, following the rules of etiquette to the letter. 

For someone with knowledge of the Len to claim to be a Master… 

A true master of a craft was uncommon and renowned. But she clearly knew the rules, and this was the greatest university in the known world. 

He reexamined her perfect silky robes and glanced at her hat. It was unusually tall and very ornate, which seemed to mean a great deal in the Autumn Court. 

“Thank you for your time, M’am.” Yam said, dropping his eyes. “What craft are you a Master of?”

“Within the Autumn court my titles are many, and I am considered to be a great source regarding the non-physical magics. However, to one not in the Autumn court, my titles would be meaningless and would only serve to make you feel ignorant and uncomfortable.”

Yam nodded seriously. Finally, a taste of civilization.

“You are here to negotiate with the Autumn Court?” She asked.

“Yes. I desire the skills of your court. In fact, you are one of the earliest parties I have visited today.”

“Of course, and what other Courts have extended you offers?”

Yam smiled politely, “I am rather disappointed so far. The Winter Court tested my magic and found me wanting. However, they did offer tutoring at a discount.”

“So, they believe you have insufficient natural talent, but a small chance at building skills.”

“And they want to keep eyes on me so they can maintain control of anyone who could execute their magic in public. Yes, that was my assessment as well. Luckily, my magic is pure enough of elemental influence that the Summer Court made me a modest offer.”

Though the woman had obviously studied the Len, but she was only human. He put a very particular emphasis on ‘modest’ and saw the muscles of her face twitch with displeasure. He had not been as diligent in gathering information on the different Court relations as he should have been. However, his impression of the Summer court was of lawlessness. They spoke with a gallows humor; every student checked the shadows for thieves while watching any hands that came near their bags. 

In contrast, the Autumnal Court had paperwork for everything. Their robes were meticulous even when ink stained. They lived by the rules and for the rules. From his talk with Thomnas it seemed as though they had been saddled with running most of Istima’s gritty details. 

He had not confirmed it, but he was willing to bet that there was no love lost between the two factions; they felt like natural opposites. 

“And what exactly did the Estival Court offer?” The representative asked, her voice holding a nearly imperceptible hint of strain. 

“Please,” he said, brushing the question away with a flick of his fingers, “I am here to speak about the wonders of the Autumn Court. I would not want to be improper.”

“Ooh, of course. At least not before you hear my starting offer.”

Yam’s only reply was a smile. 

She snorted, “Well, before I can give you details, it would help for me to know what specifically interests you about us.”

Images of telekinesis and acts of power that would awe a crowd played behind his eyes, but his pride as a Len would not let him be baited so easily. 

“It seems to me that the Autumn Court excels not just magically, but in their overall consistency. When choosing a master, doesn’t it seem prudent to consider the environment as well?”

He described with a careful mixture of rhetorical questions and general statements how the Autumn Court was sane and stable. How they kept the school running. He asserted that almost every student would benefit from a systematic approach to learning and the backing of a cohesive organization. 

He avoided saying that he was not almost-every-student. Nor did he mention that he had every intention of learning from every single school, in every single way, no matter if they approved of his decision or not. 

But he didn’t say that wasn’t the case; which was all that really mattered. 

“—leads to a clear conclusion that the Autumn Court has put the most thoroughly systematized approach behind their goals.”

The representative’s hand drifted to a book that was so tall that the spine had to be enforced with brass bands, “That is true. Our first semester curriculum has taken every contingency into account. But,” she said, pulling her hand away from the book with obvious reluctance, “What other aspects of our court are you interested in?”

“Aside from the organizational aspect? I am also intrigued by the creation of a familiar bond, telekinesis, mental magics, and the uses of souls magic.”

“Well,” the master said, a genuine smile coming to her face, “You have come to the right place. As I said earlier, I am considered to be an authority on many of the non-physical magics.”

Which was why he had not mentioned firing invisible missiles, summoning beasts, teleporting, or any of his other interests. 

“Truly?” he asked, his eyes going wide in apparent awe

The representative’s spine straightened, and her smile grew brighter. “Honest word. Though, I would be fascinated to discover how someone without a court had already learned about soul’s magic. But first, let me tell you how our court would help you learn those skills.”

She took out a sheet of parchment and levitated a quill to her hand from across the room. “First, we would give you accommodations close to the center of the court as well as a stipend. Then—”

“Excuse me, I’m sorry, but I am still fresh from the caravans and I am a Ken Seeker. Material comforts mean little to me.”

Rather than being flustered, the master gave him the exact same serene Len smile that he himself wore. “True, but you have not heard why those ‘material comforts’ are necessary. Though we do not have the ability to throw drams at every problem until it goes away, like other courts do, we have a system for building our students’ magic reserves. With our facilities you can spend far more time casting and learning.”

Yam caught himself leaning forward and quickly hid the motion by adjusting the back of his wrap.

“As you noted,” she continued, ”the Autumn Court is the life blood of Istima. And we could not run the school if we needed to burn drams for every spell. Barring the Winter Court and its unusual circumstances, you will hardly find a student outside of the Autumn Court that can match our magic reserves.”

Yam did not drool. He also did not grab her by her robe and shake her until her secrets fell out. Instead he replied in a calm and measured voice. “Truly? And how would you expand my reserves?”

“I am sorry young Study”, she smiled, ”but I shouldn’t say. Our training regime is rigorous, and one of our Court’s greatest assets.”

“That is a shame.” Yam sighed, pulling out the folded piece of paper he had gotten at the Summer Court and pinning it to the desk with a single finger. “Because I may have access to considerable funds in the future, and I find it difficult to believe I could not achieve similar results if I was willing to throw enough drams at it.”

His opponent’s eyes flickered to the very visible Estival seal on his paper and her mouth tightened. With a practiced economy she wet her quill and began writing out a list. 

“I cannot share the details, but some of the underlying principles are safe to discuss.”

Yam smiled as she made several columns on the paper. They were titled: Body, Phagic Regeneration, Auric Regeneration/Strain, Harmonic Regeneration, and Efficiency.

“These are the only ways to re-fill and advance the size of your magic reserve.” The representative said, posture perfect and handwriting a soulless, small, but easily readable script. “Obviously, you can just wait for age to naturally increase your reserve, but we have timetables to meet.”

“It begins with the body.” She said, ”The stronger your body, the more energy you can produce, channel, and the faster you will recuperate. Our Court has once weekly physical training to that end. But we are wizards, not laborers. So, we have other methods to speed recovery and enhance the reserve.”

She placed small dots next to Phagic Regeneration and Auric Regeneration. “We will routinely serve meals that are nutritionally, calorically, and magically dense. Either meat from magical creatures, fruits that naturally hold more life force or, on rare occasions, foods from ancient sources that have aged their own reserves to formidable heights. This will cause your power to recover faster and, if already full, some research suggests the strain will slowly expand your capacity.” 

He responded in a dry voice,  “So you will provide me with exercise and rich foods?”

“We will provide you with Fall Bear steak, fruit from Ancestral Magma Trees and,” she added, tapping at Auric recovery, “gold.”

Despite himself Yam’s eyes widened. He tried to reassemble his bargaining face as quickly as possible, but he could tell that she had seen his slip.

“Finally, we will teach you Harmonic recovery techniques. It is a slow unrewarding process similar to meditation, but you can speed how quickly you are able to recover magic from the ambient energy. Which is key for the final point; efficiency. Both in spell casting, in spell formulation, and in your bodies’ channels. Each time you go about our training, you will become more efficient in how you cast. A great wizard is able to split a bounder with the same energy it would take a student to levitate a single person.”

She spoke of a few more points but none of them changed the meat of her offer. And, despite how tempting the program sounded, the Young Len forced himself to think before responding. 

This woman was a master, or at least thought of herself as one. Even to Len there was a spectrum of mastery, and he doubted she was near the top end. Thomnas had surely intervened on his behalf, but she was still speaking to a novice who had yet to pick a court. That was not how the powerful and influential spent their time.  Which meant she was speaking with game in her words, and likely resided near the lower levels of mastery.

If that was true, and she was giving this information to one not yet in her court, then it might not be as valuable as she presented it to be. Which seemed impossible. It boggled the mind to consider that dense packet of secrets to not be worth a fortune. 

At the height of his family’s success they had hired a tutor from one of the lesser magic schools. That man had taught him simple control exercises and meditation, or harmonic recovery as he should start calling it, like they were the royal family’s own secrets. 

But this was the Istima. Brilliance was as common as dirt here. Maybe this information was only valuable to common people. 

There was no way to tell. So, he did the only thing he could: he checked his instincts and pushed on.

“Honored master, what you describe sounds wonderful but via… sources let’s say, I have heard of some of these principles already. And, while I’m sure your expertise would help the process, I still fail to see how exercise, good food, some gold, and a dedicated perusal of the library would not give me the same results you promise.”

With a smirk the woman turned over her paper and began doing sums. As she added the cost of various equipment, tutors, and the material costs of food, not even counting the research needed to determine which foods would work most efficiently or the risk of dying from improper cooking, and the expense quickly became staggering. 

If what she was saying was correct, then each and every mage walking through the Autumn Court could buy a horse just with what it cost to feed them.

The numbers only rose from there and she stared him in the eyes with a look of triumph. 

The rebuttal was well made, but rather than lowering his gaze, Yam raised a single eyebrow and slid the Summer Court’s offer across the desk to her. 

He felt her magic lick against the seal of the court and her expression dimmed. It was authentic. She opened the letter and read through it quickly. The look on her face when she saw the number at the bottom was a work of art. 

Before her hands could clench in rage, Yam plucked the letter from her grasp. 

“Ma’am, as I said before, I am of the Ken Seekers, material wealth meant little to me when I arrived. And now,” he tapped his finger against the letter, “it means even less. So, please help me. I want everything you have to offer. But how can I justify to myself, to my family, that I chose the Autumnal Court over all the other opportunities I’ve been given?”

From across the desk the master’s mouth tightened, and Yam laughed silently from ebhind the serene smile affixed to his bargaining face. 

~~~

He left negotiations after approximately two hours had passed. He would have stayed longer and gotten a second meal out of them, but his host had developed a small twitch in her left eye at around an hour and a half. 

In his experience that was a symptom of imminent pitch forks. Which usually meant little to him, but he couldn’t pack the caravan and leave Istima. As such, he made a graceful exit. Even if it stung his pride to let her off with the light treatment. 

His time hadn’t been fruitless though. Around the second or third time she had almost ended their negotiations, he had subtly guided her towards offering to give him common control exercises. 

Of course she thought it had been her own idea. Which made it even more impressive when he ‘miraculously’ mastered them in under a minute. Almost as if he had been doing those exact exercises for two hours a day, every day, since his family had first discovered his potential and bought a tutor. 

That had renewed her interest. Which was just enough negotiating power for him to get a book of cants as well as primers covering the theory of souls magic and familiars.

To a regular student those books would barely be useful at all. But, to a Len who planned on working in the Understacks, they could prove invaluable if they were well cited. 

Aside from the books he had also been given paperwork so he could request a limited number of tutoring sessions with a pre-set group of teachers in the Autumn Court. 

Those he had fought particularly hard for. 

Because, for all of his talk, he did not expect to make a second appointment with that woman. She was tight fisted with her resources and, ultimately, held all the power in their negotiation. 

Plus, he already knew which court he would join. 

At the thought his hand fell to his side where he now carried two very generous offer letters. Anything else, any bribes he would be able to cash in on, were just a bonus. The letters were what really mattered. 

No matter how much going easy on the representative hurt his pride, this was just preamble for the true negotiation, and he was going to take the Spring Court for all it was worth. 

~~~

Yam had hardly left the Autumn court when something sent a prickle through his fur. He kept walking while casting a covert eye to his surroundings.

The anomaly stood out immediately. 

Most figures left the Autumn court’s brisk air and dropped their hoods or opened their robes. But one figure had kept their hood high and, to make things even more interesting, Yam recognized the face hidden inside the hood. 

Nathanael, the library assistant, was not far behind him and he was keeping pace. 

The situation reminded him of something his mother used to say after returning from fruitful negotiations. Something he had heard since he was a toddler: one day they might realize what she had done, and one day they might be fast enough to lynch her for it, but that day was not today. 

Within a few minutes the canny Len was able to turn a corner, run to an open shop and dive inside before Nathanael could re-establish his line of sight. 

With brisk, efficient motions Yam hid himself behind a tapestry display and peered through the store’s eerily unblemished windowpane, until Nathanial came into view. He watched the other student and the smirk slowly left his face. 

Nathanael did not look up. He did not balk, and his head did not swivel. He continued trudging forward, face hidden. He only paused once to glance very furtively over his shoulder. 

Which was when the young Ken Seeker’s curiosity began to kindle. What could Nathanael be hiding? A shopkeeper was saying something to Yam and he let his mouth run on without checking what it said. 

There were very few Len in the area around the courts. They tended to frequent the more exterior portions of the city.  That would make it difficult to follow Nathanael without being noted. Worse, covert street surveillance was not one of his skills. Some people could follow a man into the very bed chambers of his mistress without ever being noticed. It was a good business, but that had never been Yam’s job. 

He had no training, and he did not know how violent the other boy could be if he spotted Yam. Overall it seemed like a poorly thought out and potentially dangerous idea. 

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

As it turned out Nathanael’s incompetence just slightly outperformed Yam’s own. The cowled student always checked over the same shoulder and he grew progressively more comfortable as they came closer to the Summer Court. Finally, he came to an ally and waited just inside its mouth. 

Yam moved into a nearby parchment store and placed himself at a display with a view of the ally. It was not long before a young man wearing fine clothes, an entitled smirk, and the self-assured superiority of an easy mark stepped joined Nathanael. 

He immediately cuffed the cowled boy’s head and tossed the hood off. He berated him, presumably for lurking in a shadowed ally in the most suspicious manner possible. It was a very long, and very thorough browbeating.

Finally, Nathanael produced a slip of paper from inside his robes. His rich friend snatched it away and, after peeking inside of the brown paper wrapping, he patted Nathanael on the shoulder. The robed boy’s entire demeanor changed. He was all but quivered with happiness, like a dog finally being let inside. 

The other student quickly lost interest. They exchanged parting words and went their separate ways. Yam stepped outside and idly followed the rich prat. Within minutes the other student went into a store full of fruits and came out grimacing. As he walked, he placed berries from the store into his mouth, one at a time, and swallowed without chewing. 

Yam would bet his wrap that it was some of the magical fruit the Autumn court had been talking about. He kept following, hoping he would find similar stores, maybe a butcher of magic creatures even. 

There was no such luck. For the next half hour, the most interesting thing to happen was the boy dropping a kernel of mildly explosive magic into the cup of a beggar. His quarry walked away laughing and Yam made sure to drop a few day’s worth of money onto the beggar’s lap as he passed by.

After the long walk Yam was rapidly losing his interest. Then, even as he considered returning to his books, something fascinating happened. The rich prat turned into a street at the edge of two courts.

And a young woman materialized. 

It was not an act of magic. She could have been standing next to him the entire walk from the Autumn Court without him noticing. Something about her, the rhythm of her steps, the slouch of her shoulders, the expression of absolute soul-crushing indifference, was so perfectly in tune with the feel of the street that she was functionally invisible. 

Then, in a moment everything about her bearing changed, and the fur on spine stood on end. She seemed suddenly distinct, sharp-eyed, and entirely fixated. A half second later, like the girl had been looking to rich prat’s mind, he turned down the ally like street.

Yam was across the street and had actually lost track of the perfectly coiffed sadist for most of a block. But he was perfectly placed to see the girl step out of the flow of traffic, accelerate smoothly, and ghost her way after the boy. 

If anyone without street sense had been there, if Yam hadn’t been recently put on high alert by the thought of lynching, no one would have noticed a single thing. But he had just enough warning to run across the street and see a flash of light from the alley mouth. By the time he turned into the space between buildings the girl was already gone, and the rich boy was curled on the ground, screaming with his hands pressed against his eyes.

Yam ran over and tried to help him stand, “Are you alright?”

The boy started to respond, but when his hand met the young Len’s shoulder, he recoiled like he had been burnt. 

“Don’t touch me!”

“I’m sorry! Are you hurt—”

“Keep your baby-stealing paws off of me!” 

 There was a stutter in Yam’s chest. 

He felt his mouth move to say something along the lines of ‘that’s a myth’. But there was no air in his lungs. 

Just rage. 

Even in Istima. 

Even in the most educated place in the entire world. 

With a snarl he kicked the boy’s shin and shoved him to the ground. There was no money-purse on his belt but, out of sheer spite. Yam ripped the bag from the boy’s shoulder.

He made it several streets away before his anger cooled enough for him to realize what a dilemma he was in. 

He had just stolen something from another student. 

A rich student. A rich student with influence. One who already hated the Len. 

An awful sensation started to build in his stomach. He was only a few streets away. If he really had to, he could go back.

Keep your baby-stealing paws off of me! ’ a phantom voice rang in his head. Yam’s hands tightened on the thick canvas bag and he began walking towards a familiar piece of graffiti.

He turned away from the main street and looked for the next splash of color that would lead him to a sympathetic pawn shop. With one hand he rummaged through the bag until he pulled out a small parcel full of berries. They had a pleasantly bitter taste and as he chewed, he wondered what sort of tracking spells a spoiled prat might put into his luggage. 

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Yam 3

1.03

At first The Wandering Len hadn’t let him in. But, once the representatives arrived, Yam was quickly able to secure himself a room. 

A private room. 

With a view. 

And snacks. 

He was very conscientious about not smirking at the bigot behind the counter. 

His first visitor, the Summer Court, had not seemed terribly interested in him as a student due to the purity of his magic. But, with more game than was necessary, they implied rewards if he was willing to give them information on whichever court he chose to participate in.

After showing them to the door the young Len was finally given enough time to breathe. Slowly he walked towards the table, bent at the waist and pressed his entire upper body against the tabletop.

He groaned. The cool of the wood slowly oozed through his fur and helped his fevered skin. With no one to observe him let the shakes run their course. His magic reserves ached, his legs felt like he had run for miles, and he would punch a Rock Orc for some sleep.

Still even as his muscles quivered a smile spread across his face. He had never been able to burn so much gold before. Only small pieces at a time for practicing. Without doubt his channels would feel raw and stretched the next day, but it had been worth it. Not just the feeling of so much power running through him, like lightning being born in his veins, but seeing what he could do with that power. 

The warm memory was interrupted by the sound of a set of sentient avalanches mating. 

Before his stomach could voice itself further the young Len vaulted over the table and began assaulting the platter of complimentary finger food. He inhaled it, barely noting the taste. Immediately the faintest trickles of power being dribbling back into his reserves. The warmth in his channels did him good and the shaking in his hands decreased. Once done, he spent just enough time to brush aside the chunks of food that had fallen onto his chest and took an additional minute to comb his fur. When he was finished, he had a small ball of stress-shedding in his hand.

It was a surreal moment. 

Standing in the private room of a tavern in the Istima, trying to play all the courts against each other, stomach full of snacks he had bluffed out of an angry shopkeeper, and barely any magic left in his reserves.

 Yam looked at the ball of hair.

“Fortune help me, I hope I don’t go bald in this place”

He stuffed the fur ball under a cushion and opened the door to the main tavern with his bartering face firmly in place.

The bartender was massive, thick-knuckled, and had almost as much wiry hair on his arms as a mammalian Len. He spotted Yam exiting the private room. The man’s spine straightened and he looked left and right. As the young Len approached the bartender seemed to realize that there were no members of the Estival Court watching. His back slouched and a scowl bloomed. And that was the only word for his expression, it did not blossom like a flower, it bloomed like a mold. 

The man was serving him, but did appear older. So he did not drop his eyes, but he did keep his words polite,“Excuse me, sir, would you mind sending in more food?”

The bartender locked gazes with him and something ugly stirred behind his moldy scowl. 

A quiet voice came from next to them, “Yes, that would be nice”

Both the massive bartender and the slender Len turned to see two students on the verge of adulthood. They wore a combination of worn linen, well used leather, and overstuffed side pouches. They accessorized with strange tools, dangling monocles, and faintly visible scars. One of them, a short woman, had picked darker colored fabric and had a roll of tools strapped to her belt. The bags under her eyes were dark enough that it made Yam wonder if she had been in a fistfight.

The other student, a tall, pallid young man with flaxen hair was standing with his back to the bar. He was fiddling with a pair of leather gloves and staring at the stairwell, “We just came from a practicum. So, if you wouldn’t mind…”

With some reluctance the pallid young man turned from the stairwell and faced the bartender. His eyes were dead and small flecks of blood showed on his lighter clothes. 

“You have such lovely capillaries,” his companion muttered to the bartender. 

Yam watched in silence as the hirsute man went pale. Which caused the young woman to frown at his veins shrinking back from the surface of his skin. In a whirlwind of condolences, and wrung hands Yam was ushered back into the private room with three plates full of nuts, cheeses, thinly sliced apples, and other miscellaneous foods.

The two students barely sat before attacking the platter in front of them.  Had Yam not recognized the style of the Spring Court he would have sworn that the two students wore their leather aprons for no reason other than the way they ate. 

But he did know better. It brought a new set of shakes to his hands and forced him to keep a tight grip on his bartering face. 

The male student spoke without lifting his eyes from the plate, “You’re an osteomancer”

“Yes”

“We could use more of those.”

“Truely?”

“Yeah”

That, it turned out, was the most conversation he was able to pull from either student. He tried to offer food, accommodations, information, Yam even hinted at favors, but nothing stuck. It became quickly apparent that neither student completely trusted the other. No matter how he spoke he could tell they were always tracking each other out of the corner of their eyes. 

They ate every scrap of food available and handed him a parcel inviting him to speak with a professor in the near future. As soon as he had the message in his hands, they recovered the envelope with the wax seal of the professor and set it on fire. 

Once both of them were independently certain that Yam knew where to go, that the professor’s seal had been completely immolated, and that there wasn’t a scrap of food left in the room, the duo made their exit.

Next was the Autumn Court. Immediately Yam felt a connection to them. Partially because of their simple name, the Autumn Court, actually sounded similar to their proper name, the Autumnal Court. 

Much easier to remember. 

He was also in favor of their garb. Flowing robes, pointed hats with various decorations, and ink stained hands. They looked like wizards, and the robes were close to the great wraps civilized people wore. 

The representative he spoke to was named Thomnas and he was one of the people who had sat near a person of real power during testing. Yam had noted him  for his overly expressive face, and for being trusted with papers but little else. He seemed the sort of easy to read person who would be handling information above his station.

Given a drink, Thomnas seemed willing to share much of what he knew. The problem became coherency. Thomnas was the Underviser to the Grand Siren of the 12th enclave in the 3rd branch of Admissions and Sanitation.

The young Len chose not to inquire how the two duties overlapped. At least not yet. After much plying with drinks, sympathetic conversation, and complaints about how hard it was to be a young man in an old system, the Len was left with a massively thick set of instructions and papers. Only some of it was directions to the Autumnal Courts office of admissions. 

He filled out five forms and was guaranteed a meeting in a few business days. Apparently a wait of less than one week was very difficult to come by. By the time Thomnas left Yam had absolutely no idea what his job was or who he worked for. But his new friend had also very covertly conjured up even more paperwork.

Papers that usually took months for a member of the Autumnal Court to request, but were absolutely trivial to someone who was an Underviser he was informed with a drunken wink and puffed chest.

Yam could bludgeon a Wraith Rider with the stack of forms. Still, he stored them carefully, taking special care with the pages where Thomnas had written advice on what answers to put in certain sections so he was more likely to gain library access. 

The final visitor was the Night Court since the Winter Court had refused to do more than have a letter sent to him. The Night Court representative spoke quickly and after confirming Yam’s skills provided vague instruction for how to meet with someone higher up in the court. When the young Len asked for directions that did not include phrases like, “turn away from the feeling of falling and towards the sound of yellow”, the man stared at him for close to a full minute before carefully saying he would understand once he was there. 

Throughout that entire conversation Yam kept his mouth in check and his eyes down turned. The Night Court representative did not have a true Presence like a Len, but he exuded a palpable presence none the less. A near tangible sense of authority and force of will. 

When Yam stood to show him to the door the man had just nodded to him and very calmly walked through the wall of the building like it was a heat mirage. There was a muffled curse as several massive dogs began barking from outside the tavern. The wall rippled in a disturbing fashion as the representative sprinted back inside the buildings, and made his way around the corner without stepping outside of the usually solid matter and risking attack by dogs. 

The Young Len kept his face blank and his eyes down, hands folded in front of his waist until the sense of power was far, far, away. Only then did he make his way to the door.

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Yam 2

1.02

Yam walked the entire way to the school with his teeth grit. It took all of his effort to keep his eyes on the ground and his posture submissive. He kept to the edges of the road and ensured that he never passed so close to a stand or street vendor that they could suspect  him of stealing. 

The street he walked on was clean and well maintained. Deceitfully so. 

He quickly found that if one spent even fifteen minutes walking away from the central street that the entire feeling of the city could change. There were pockets of people who would stop talking and stare whenever a stranger walked down their road. In those neighborhoods the piles of trash grew large before being removed, the walls weren’t scrubbed as often, and the truth was laid bare: this was a town of wealth and appearances. 

He followed the half hidden symbols and coded phrases painted onto the walls. Though he avoided Len signs, and detoured whenever he sensed a Presence, he did follow the more common symbols. The marks shared by wanders, hitchhikers, and the pursued. They led him to the town’s other face. These pockets of squalor were not as frequent as in some large cities. Istima moved too much gold and brought too many desperate tourists. Still the men and women who cleaned the mansions had to live somewhere. More importantly the failed students with their suspiciously covered windows, whispered promises of exam answers, pre-made potions, and low tier magic; they clung to the city like hungry Cape Beasts. 

With a sigh the young Len squared his shoulders and made his way back to the bright streets of the city. In many ways the less shining ally’s felt comfortable. There were dark corners, shouted slurs, and poor decisions. Yet it was all known. No one tried to pretend they did not live where they were; how they were. Though the thin man on the side of the street spoke with a game in his words, offering mem potions and ‘contusion curses’ for students wrecking a test’s curve. He did not pretend to be other than what he was. Or, at least, if a customer came who’s boots looked too clean, and who’s words were pronounced just a bit too forced, he pretended with such blatant absurdity that his deception turned into a joke. 

The main thoroughfare was different. Hawkers called out impossible claims with honest faces. He saw a man claiming to have handmade all the cloth in his stand. A quick glance showed fabric from three countries, patterns from two Len tribes, and levels of skill from entirely different decades of practice. 

The final straw was when he had climbed to the university proper, tried to buy himself a drink, and was kicked out of a pub named The Wandering Len. After that he was blind to the sights of the university. Even the most gorgeous, impossible things, felt like a lie. 

At least that was how he felt for much of the first day. He tried very hard to stay angry but, slowly, Istima wore him down. 

There were wonders that, in any other city, would draw pilgrims and make the city known. Dancing statues, holes that showed the the back of the person looking through them, and walls that you could walk through like water. The stuff of legends was everywhere.

And they were largely ignored. 

Though Yam still felt the weight of observation, and the battered pride of being lied to by every hawker, he ended up in the first-day test hall grinning and hungry for knowledge. 

The building was different from the one he would go to himself. His family was successful, but he couldn’t afford the first or second day of placement. That didn’t mean there wasn’t value in observing them though. 

It became quickly apparent that there were senses available to the committee that were not available to him. The most obvious was that whenever a representative of the Elementalists showed interest the people from the Summer Court would stop paying attention. Neither Yam, nor most of the others, could tell who would catch the Winter court’s attention. 

The fact that there were subtle games at play was good. It meant he could trade effort for advantage.

 What was not good was that he could only figure out a few levels of the games that were going on. Obviously there were admitances being made solely due to wealth. The courts did not have unlimited slots for students, but almost without exception those who could afford to audition the first day were offered a place. Even those who had obviously never exercised their magic enough to build a suitable reservoir. 

Occasionally during the offering process there was a back and forth between different courts. They offered library access, mentors, and competed on which level of which tower the student would live.

That was where he lost sight of the current. Many times offers were made that made no sense to him. Or offers increased abruptly for no discernable reason. Maybe personal reputation, magical power, or reputation was influencing going on in these bidding wars but Yam wasn’t ever able to pierce the issue. 

The offers happened after the candidate put on a performance for the counsel of representatives. Some did little other than say their name and produce a few witch fires. Others would put on complex demonstrations with the aid of the magic battery provided to each candidate.

It was good that Yam had arrived early. He spent much of the first day staring white knuckled at those feats of magic and trying to find talkative members of the audience to explain how and why all these things were being done.

The second day he was more composed and watched the reactions of those determining admissions and financial support. That day the competition did not include as many offers of mentorship. Library access was rarely mentioned. There were more offers of  access to batteries and a gold stipend started to be used as a bargaining chip.

He also observed that almost no strong elementalists showed up. Which was odd. 

Come the third day access to batteries became more difficult to earn. The lodgings offered were  in dormitories and not in towers. Stipends were more common, and there was rarely mention of tuition forgiveness. What really caught his attention were the occasions when tutoring and library access were mentioned. That was only for the most impressive and well connected candidates. Less impressive prospects were put on the waiting lists for different courts. 

He was watching the trials, trying to find those representatives most willing to bribe high, and learning the faces of the impressionable assistants who were seated near the people in power. They would be the soft targets. Just like new employees at a bazaar, they would have a great deal to prove and not enough experience to be wary. 

 While marking these people’s faces in his mind  he was summoned from the stands and to the waiting room. 

Other candidates paced. They muttered to themselves and practiced their routines. The young Len stayed silent and watched them all with half lidded eyes.

 He was screaming inside, obviously. But that was normal. 

Enough students were offered scholarships that he thought he knew what was being looked for. Still, three more days could have given him a more full understanding of all the factors at play. He should have accounted for the ferrymen when he left.

He let out a slow breath and kept his bargaining face in place. 

More time would have been ideal, but he hadn’t been raised to expect the ideal, just to pursue it. He was a Ken Seeker. And he had been told since his earliest days that knowledge the best tool for fighting fear.

What he knew was simple. The courts wanted gold so they could cast more magic. Wealth was important. They also needed skill. Those with large magic reserves and natural proclivities for certain Courts were offered entry quickly. Talent was also important. The more you already knew, the more work you had put in on your basics, the more likely you were of learning to be competent. Which was the least reliable way of bringing big knowledge, prestige, and money back to your Court; nothing compared to wealth and prodigy. 

The other factor he had noted was the courts themselves. Those who had proclivities for more than one court were fought for. Sometimes, even if their proclivity was weak, a court would fight just to deprive their rivals of talent. 

When he was finally summoned his bargaining face was well in place and his nerves were close to invisible. Just as his mother had taught him. 

He did not stride into the room, but he walked confidently, choosing not to comment on the callers mistake when they only announced him by his personal names. Surrounded by the spectators the space seemed much larger. It felt like he was being abandoned on a coliseum’s floor. 

Yam fought that feeling of helplessness by reminding himself that he already knew what the admittance board wanted. He only needed to show wealth, natural skill, learned talent, and proclivity for more than one court. If he did that then he would place himself in a prime position. 

He could not afford to ruin this opportunity with simple nerves if he was to make himself into a god. So he banished his fears with a final piece of knowledge; The Courts were fighting for students. Which meant they were competing for resources.

By definition, if they were competing for resources they were bargaining. 

Yam may not know the specifics of this exact market, but everyone knew what they said about bargaining with a Len.

When he came to the center of the room the smile on his face was just as genuine as the shaking in his hands. A few eyebrows were raised when they took in his sleek fur coat and the lupine cast of his features. Yam let them look before he began his piece. 

First he manifested a small ball of light. So simple as to barely be a spell. It was noted and quickly ignored. Yam sent the small ball of light to circle around his head. Now he would capitalize on the counsel’s lack of attention. 

In the wake of that weak start he  launched into one of the most difficult parts of his plan. He pointed a finger, split his focus, and caused a small rock, rubble from an earlier student, to raise into the air. 

Again his technical skill was noted and largely ignored. 

Perfect. Quickly, but without letting himself seem to rush, he pulled out the skull of a rat he had cooked the night before and held it up in his palm. With a surge of power the skull shuddered before collapsing in on itself. 

The crowd murmured. With a thought he sent the sphere of bone up to join the stone and the light circling his head. Still moving calmly he stepped over to the magic battery and turned to the faces judging him. 

The healers of the Spring court had leaned forward to stare at the osteomancy and the members of the Winter court were frowning with interest at his control over earth. Who knew what they were seeing with their hidden senses, but at least now they might misattribute his ongoing struggle with the pure earth element to multitasking. 

Yam had their attention. He had shown inborn skill for earth magic, and his hard earned talent via multitasking. Then he had created competition between two courts by displaying his Osteomancy. So, very deliberately, he pulled a hefty sum of gold from his pouch and held it up. Standing directly next to the magic battery he burnt through all of the gold in a moment.

The power hidden in the metal surged into him and an absolutely massive block of granite surged out of the floor and launched itself several feet into the air. It was large enough that someone could hollow it out and comfortably camp inside with a friend or two. A true elementalist could have done the same with no effort and much less magic. Yam was barely able to hold it in the air with the massive hunk of wealth he had sacrificed.

With the three sphere’s still circling he glanced at the massive cube of earth and deployed his secret weapon. He turned his eyes away and cut off all elemental magic to the block of stone. Not looking Yam wiped the black amd dusty remains of converted gold off his hands. 

He took a moment to appreciate the fine inscriptions on the magic battery before turning to the counsel.

“I am Seek Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers. However” he said, glancing to the granite block that was slowly floating back to the floor, “I suspect that I will soon be Study Yam Hist”

Everyone’s eyes followed his. The block floated delicately through the final inches, came to almost rest against the floor, and in the last half an inch accelerated so suddenly that it sent an impossibly massive  roar through the stadium. The entire building shook and a spray of chipped rock erupted from the floor.

Yam kept his bargaining face in place, knowing they wouldn’t have been able to sense even the faintest whisper of magic from in those last moments before impact. As soon as the air was clear he turned to the exit on the other side of the room, “You will find me at The Wandering Len

He took a single step and, without seeming to have crossed the space in-between, he appeared at the exit and called over his shoulder, “I’ll be happy to speak to each of you about your offers one-on-one in a more… discrete setting.”

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Yam 1

He made six days’ travel in three. There should have been plenty of time to explore the academy, set camp, seek the currents of the place. Once he knew what everyone was pursuing he would be armed. When one was armed with knowledge there were few negotiations that could be lost and even fewer doors they couldn’t be opened.

But when one was unarmed it was three days work just to find a ferryman who would carry a Len to the school.

At first the prices were too high. When he found no better offers he could use to haggle with, he agreed to pay. Then the seats were too full. When he came late in the night, when seats should have been open, the ferrymen said they had an urgent appointment to attend to. 

He walked away and watched them from afar. For two hours they chatted and took a single human across for a fifth the price he had been told was standard.

The shame of being lied to was too much to bear. He came back yelling and finally, finally, one of them had the integrity to speak his mind.

“Ain’t letting no fuckin’ Len on my boat just so he can piss on the floor and steal my sail”

“All Len are not thieves! We are—”

“Fucking savages!”

“My people are not thieves and not savages!”

That night he stole all the man’s money and relieved himself in his boat. 

He ran to the next cluster of ferrymen and used his new funds to bribe his way across the storm sea.

The moon was full and when the clouds cleared there was just enough light to look over the side of the air ferry into the writhing sea of black clouds. In those moments of light he swore that he saw tentacles move through the mist. Once he even peered down just in time for lightning to crack across the clouds below him. From the depths three bloodshot, glowing, red eyes set in a perfect line stared up at the boat. A foreign magic brushed against him.  The sheer might of it was crushing. It felt like having his blood freeze into thousands of vibrating needles that pierced his flesh. 

He whooped with joy. But, even after several fruitless minutes of throwing hunks of bread into the cloud, he came away without even seeing a hint of hungry teeth or  a single murderous roar. 

Still he sat back with a broad grin on his face.

The ferryman saw the look on his expression and shook his head.

That just made him smile bigger, “You must have seen some amazing things down there.”

“There are beasts that are beyond imagination.”

“Really?”

“Son, the things I’ve seen would chill a man’s heart and haunt his dreams.”

The young Len kept his face straight and his tone honest, “Wow. Isn’t it dangerous? Aren’t you ever frightened that they’ll come for your boat.”

Even from behind he could tell the ferryman was smiling. With a carefully studied nonchalance he turned his face to the side and purses his lips, “We’ve lost good men to the Storm Sea. A lot of good men.,” the ferryman paused to wipe at a phantom tear before glancing at him from the corner of his eye, ”But…”

“But?”

But real ferrymen have secrets; techniques to scare away the smaller monsters, and magic to make our ships invisible to the real terrors. Or, “he paused, staring into the mist with what he must have imagined a haunted stare would look like, ”at least some of them”

“You must have very strong magic if even the students need to pay you for crossing.”

“Not just the students! Even teachers need our services. Have you ever heard of the Storm Strider?”

“No”

“Well boy let me tell you—,” the Ferryman broke his dramatic vigil and spun around sporting the eager grin of a storyteller with a captive audience . Then, when he saw the not quite human leaning almost off the edge of his seat, the ferryman’s smile faded and a hand dropped instinctively to his coin purse.

His passenger saw the motion. They locked eyes, and it was clear that the ferryman had seen him notice the reaction, and they were stuck watching each other being watched. Still, it was something any Len, especially one who had traveled, grew accustomed to. The younger man forced the smile to stay on his face and tried to revive the conversation, “The Stormstrider? It must have a terrifying history.”

The invitation hung in the air. A small struggle played out across his guides face. 

“It’s bad enough,” the Ferryman finally said  shrugging his shoulders. 

The boy waited, but the silence endured until his own eyes fell.

“Not all of my people are thieves,” he murmured.

Doesn’t mean you aren’t one.”

The ferryman almost jumped out of his skin when his passenger started laughing. 

“Well caught! You have good ears! ”

For some reason this made the ferryman even more tense, “Quiet your barking. Didn’t I tell you about the dangers out there”

Immediately his passenger spotted the game and leaned forward with a glowing smile, “Ahh, you did mention the dangers, but you never mentioned the dangers of speaking.

“Just shut it”

Still smiling the Len pulled a small book from his backpack and closed the cover with a snap, “Yes sir! So what about the Stormstrider. Is it—”

“Shut your damn mouth, won’t you?”

“What?”          

“I said to shut your mouth before I find a muzzle for you”

The Len’s smile slowly faded, his hands twitching towards his fur. He tilted his head to the side and examined his companions’ words, trying to find the game in them. 

Slowly the boy’s face shifted. There was a flash of confusion, maybe even hurt, but it passed too quickly to be seen. Almost immediately his brows furrowed, his lips twitched back and he shoved his book into his pack with more force than necessary. 

When they finally arrived he stood to his feet, dusted off his wrap and turned to the ferryman, “Thank you for your services, I am glad you carried me here”

The ferryman just grunted and held out his hand. 

It was abrupt and a bit intimate, but the man was his elder, so the young Len leaned forward to clasp wrists.

“No!” the ferryman pulled his hand away like a snake was lunging for it, “the tip.” 

The Len started, “A tip?”

“Its custom provide extra money when a service is done well”

“I know what a tip is. You did not do well en—”

Before things could go any further a large scaled hand clamped onto his shoulder, and dragged him away.

He wanted to jerk his shoulder free of the grip. To go back and speak his mind. Maybe even yell his mind, but the sense of Presence exuded by the other person was too great. Not intense or particularly awe-inspiring, but it still outclassed his own Presence. Feeling that he grit his teeth and allowed the other Len haul him away.

When they had passed the dock he was spun around. The Len who had grabbed him was taller and slender. He had followed a different branch and a smooth coat of scales covered his body. They were a dull brown and accentuated the flatter features of someone who had taken the reptile path. 

“Please,” the older Len said, “think before you speak. What one does affects us all.”

The younger Len tore his eyes away from his companion’s scales and stuffed his envy away, not allowing himself to brush at his own fur, “I was not going to attack him. I was only going to tell him that he was an ignorant bigot who had already been paid three times an unfair fee. Also, that his boat was ugly”

“Yes, but you aren’t in civilization anymore. These people do not value honesty. To them a harsh truth is an attack.”

“But… How?”

The other Len shrugged, “We must take the higher path and not expect too much from them. But we are both being rude. I am an Employ from the Grace Seekers.”

Immediately upon hearing the title ‘Employ’ the shorter Len dropped his eyes and assumed a more respectful posture, “Your craft?”

“I am Employ Yut Good, a woodworker of middling talent and little drive,” he said with the well polished intonation of ritual, ”And you?”

“I am a Seek of the Ken Seekers, soon to be a Study.”

“And what knowledge are you pursuing?”

“I will be a student of magic here. Not all from the caravan believe in my ability to succeed, though I am certain I will.”

Yut looked at him for several moments, noting the omission of his persona names before the standard demonstration of candor. 

That thoughts visibly cascaded through the older Len’s face as he tried to figure out who in the Ken Seekers could afford the tuition for Istima University. Finally, after looking for distinguishing patterns on his wrap, Yut’s eyes fell to the cloth bandage wrapped around the smaller Len’s bicep. 

To his credit Yut spoke immediately and without tempering his words, “The Ken Seekers have had their reputation shit upon by a Teach who spread lies for his own benefit”

Yam did not respond.

Yut’s posture grew less welcoming, “Who are you?”

Again the smaller Len chose not to speak.

“Tell me who you are, and what you are doing here. Give me an honest word”

Like an echo, the phrase, ‘honest word’ hung in the air. The young man’s neutral silence transitioned from shock to insult, to smoldering resentment. The silence stretched impossibly long, even though it would only seem like a few moments to the casual observer. 

Finally, the shorter Len spoke through his own grit teeth. “I am Study Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers,” he said, shrugging off Yut’s greater Presence and staring at the older Len directly in the eyes, “and I am here to become a god.”

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