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Hey everyone, the three of us who write this story wanted to let you know that we will be taking a break from posting for a while.

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

Feel free to leave comments or reach out to us even when we’re not posting. Hope to see you all soon.

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

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

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

“Miller?” said a slow drawling voice.

He spun around and hid his hands behind his back. 

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

“Are you alright?”

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

“…why?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?” 

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

Hitch frowned. 

“Do you embroider your underwear?”

“No!”

The Aketsi gave him a look. 

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

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

~~~

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

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

The diviner froze. 

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

What a bird.

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

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

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

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

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

“What you got there, Miller?”

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

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

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

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

“Wha—”

Oh.

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

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

Oh no.

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

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

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

How had he not realized it was a penis thing!

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

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

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

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

Heh. Nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They called the other diviner over. 

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

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

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

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

“Souls?”

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

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

“Tell me more about him.”

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

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

Kit just stared at him, but Jercash jumped in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he was a bird. A real-life bird. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not after the sausage party incident. 

Not again.

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

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

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

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

“They’re all weird.”

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

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

“My hoop hefting?”

“YOUR SHAPE SHIF— ”

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

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

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

“I do?”

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

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

The diviner froze.

What?

What!

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

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

“No?”

“The biggest co—”

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

Would have been worth it though.

“Miller! Move your ass!”

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

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

“Your boot?”

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

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

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

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

With a sharp whistle, the raven summoned their team.

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

Miller shook his head.

Vulgar, threatening, snappy, and coarse. 

What. A. Bird.

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

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

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

Jercash and one of the crows looked at him.

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

“Don’t know what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impress him? 

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

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

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Yam 16

~~~~~~~~~

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

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

~~~~~~~~~

3.02

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

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

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

Well, he had tried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I beg to differ.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m just a poor boy—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was… fair.

Yam Hist did not want this to be fair.

“Are you so uncertain in your knowledge?”

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

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

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

“Charming company and camaraderie of the highest tier?”

“Will this second teacher cost me extra?”

Neal winced and mimed pulling a dagger from his heart.

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

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

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

Until Neal tipped his head back and started laughing.

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

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

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

“Reasonable, Lysanna! HA!”

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lying coward.

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

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

“Eat dirt, human.”

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

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

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

“Vertebrate.”

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

“Yeah! Scram you boney bint!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Calm down, friend.”

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

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

“I was just trying to—”

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

That was concerning.

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

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

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

“Sorry, I haven’t got a route there.”

“A route?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So I need to will a mage path?”

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

“Inherit?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cal 15

“If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times!” Teagan said as she marched into the room carrying a smoldering sack. “If you don’t properly anchor the runes on your projects, all you’ve done is hand in a fucking time bomb.” She reached in to withdraw a twisted hunk of metal before chucking it in the direction of a mountain of a boy sitting in the third row. It landed next to him with a dull crunch. Teagan leaned against her lectern and rubbed her temples.

“Gods below, Yaxley, students like you are the reason I drink!” She paused for a moment and frowned. “Alright… one of the reasons.”

She launched into her daily lecture. As usual, class took the form of Teagan explaining what mistakes were made in the last challenge. Sometimes, the mistakes were basic, such as Yaxley’s failure to anchor his runes, causing the energy contained within the magic to seek new and explosive means of expression. Other times, the issues were more esoteric. Many of the students would try and act like nothing she said phased them, but from the discomfort on their faces, it was apparent when Teagan was talking about their mistake.

“One of you turned in this design,” she continued, holding up a metal vest. Cal saw another student, a girl named Viraen, wince in recognition. “It is designed to be worn and to deliver an electric shock to anyone who strikes it. Fine, clever enough, and the runes serve their purpose.” Viraen relaxed slightly, which was a mistake. Teagan locked eyes with her.

“But there are three mistakes in the design. The first and most glaring is that there is nothing to stop the vest from shocking the wearer. Next, the runes are not protected, and even light damage to them could cause them to fail, or worse, cause a catastrophic discharge of energy. Lastly,” she held up the vest to her own torso, “what good would this do against a determined attack? It barely covers the vital organs, and the metal plating is so thin it might as well not even be there!” She tossed the vest back into the pile with the rest of the projects.

She sighed. “There is one additional problem that almost all of you had.” She looked around the room. “Your last assignment was to create something to defend yourself with. I would’ve thought the wording in this task was pretty clear, but apparently not.” She gestured at the pile of items. “Everyone, with the exception of Callion, handed in a defensive item. Or in Yaxley’s case, a tool I can only assume was designed to assist in suicide.” She scoffed. “Shields, means of escape, even a very loud whistle that is, and I quote, ‘supposed to alert the guards.’” Her piercing gaze could’ve melted ice. “Callion was the sole member of this class who decided to go on the offensive.” She withdrew Cal’s gravity crossbow and fired it at the wall. More than one student flinched as the bolt shattered the stone and sent a hail of shrapnel down upon them.

“A shield will not stop a sword, it will only delay it from reaching its target.” She gently set down the crossbow and turned to look each of her students in the eyes. “If you are attacked, stop them, subdue them, and while there are those higher up in the administration who would rather I not say this, kill them if you must. If you are unable to handle the inevitability of conflict, then you shouldn’t have joined. We are the Summer Court, you milksops!”

She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I think it goes without saying, Callion wins this challenge. For those of you keeping score, this puts her in second place for the whole class, one point behind Rathana.”

Cal sucked in air. When she’d first arrived, she’d thought partaking in the challenges would give her the appearance of a proper student. She hadn’t expected to do this well in them… or to enjoy them so much.

“What’s more,” Teagan continued, “I suppose I should congratulate all of you on having made it this far. We’ve reached the midpoint of your first semester at Istima, and only four out of twenty of you have dropped out. To those of you dragging your feet, it’s time to start thinking about advancement.  Only the top twenty-five percent of the class, based on points accrued, will move on. The rest may either try again or leave.” Her words hung in the air. With sixteen students in the room, only four of them could advance. Cal was aware of the eyes on her now.

“There is still half a semester left, and many things can change, even for those of you who haven’t won a single challenge.” She threw a pointed glare in Yaxley’s direction. “But, as of right now, Rathana, Callion, Viraen, and Lorrel would be the students moving up a rank. The next four closest to them are Jasten, Bachan, Koris, and Arden.”

Perhaps Cal was being paranoid, or perhaps she was beginning to understand how this ridiculous school worked. Teagan wasn’t just letting everyone know where they stood, but putting a target on the backs of the top four. Still, it felt good to see Jasten’s brow furrow in consternation. All semester, he’d lagged behind her, and his annoyance had begun to turn into anger.

“With all that in mind, this next challenge is special for three reasons. One,” she held up a finger, “you can make whatever you want. The only goal is to impress me.” She waited for the students to stop murmuring to each other. “Two,” a second finger went up, “there will be three winners.” The whispers were louder this time, and took longer to die down. “And three,” she extended a third finger, “each winner will receive three points.”

Across the classroom, Cal saw Jasten sit upright. He couldn’t have been very far behind Viraen and Lorrel. Winning this challenge could put him into the top four. For almost everyone else, three points was at least enough to bring them back into the running. Teagan leaned back and smiled, pleased with the firebomb she’d just dropped on them.

“That’s it. Class is over. Everyone but Callion, leave the room.” Cal froze in place, raising an eyebrow in question. “We have something to discuss, my lady.” The title dripped off her tongue like acid.

As the rest of the students made their way out, Cal approached the lectern.

“Nice speech,” she said.

“Nice toy,” Teagan gestured to her gravity crossbow. “I think I’ll sell it.”

“I registered it with the Bank this morning,” Cal smiled. “But I’ll give you resale rights for, oh, say, a twenty-five percent take of the profits?”

The faintest hint of a smile formed in the corners of Teagan’s mouth. “So, the stuck-up little noblewoman can learn a thing or two.” She folded her arms over her chest. “How’d you learn you about these runes?”

“I’m no going to just—”

“No,” Teagan held up a hand, “I could hardly expect a student to divulge their source so easily. I ask because, despite my personal disinterest, I do have a responsibility to my students. Especially those who actually show promise, which unfortunately, you do. It doesn’t really matter where or how you found out about it, but just know that what you’re now working with is beyond most first-year students. Hell, there are second-years who still haven’t figured out how to make something like this. So be warned that this will get you the wrong sort of attention. In this place, knowledge kills as many as it helps. People may have already begun to see you as a way to get the information for themselves, or worse, as a potential threat.”

Cal wanted to laugh. Perhaps to Lady Callion Augurellia, that information would have been new, but it was a lesson Cal had learned long ago. “Thanks for the warning, but I can take care of myself.”

“It’s only the first semester, things will get far worse from here.” Teagan shrugged. “Sure, you’ve made it this far, I’ll grant you that. But still…” she grabbed the gravity crossbow and extended it out to her. “I’d say it’s best if you hold on to this one.”

“You’re… giving it back to me?” Cal’s brow rose in surprise. “And here I thought you wanted to get rid of me!”

“Would you just take the damned thing?” Teagan seethed.

She smirked, grabbing the weapon and tucked it in her bag. “See you next class.” 

Out of the classroom, she made her way down the hall and back into the blazing sunlight. She climbed the steep staircase back up to the main yard of the Summer Court and looked down the two hundred foot drop to the city below. She was glad the sight no longer gave her vertigo as she climbed, and at the top, she found Rathana waiting for her.

“Cal! Congratulations on your win.”

“Thanks!” She smiled. She could tell he meant it.

She hadn’t come to know anyone else in her class aside from Rathana, with the unfortunate exception of Jasten. The rest of the students avoided her, perhaps out of jealousy, or perhaps because she was supposed to be nobility. If it was the latter, Cal couldn’t see the appeal in it. It seemed a rather lonely life, especially if it meant her only potential ‘peer’ was the esteemed Lord Jasten Forthale. She grimaced at the thought. 

But Rathana had only ever been genuine with her. She didn’t know much about Aketsi, but they didn’t seem to have a concept of royalty, which suited Cal just fine. But as friendly as he was now, with time, would he become a rival like Teagan warned?

“It shames me that I did not see the meaning behind Teagan’s challenge,” he said with a smile. “I designed a shield meant to absorb the kinetic energy of blows.” He shook his head. “I thought it rather clever at the time.”

“It’s not a bad idea,” Cal said. “And you’re still ahead of everyone else in class.”

“For now. We will see what happens after this next challenge.” He sighed, shifting his body from one set of legs to the other. “I am sure you will do well. You have an extraordinary ability to think outside the confines of the challenge.”

“You mean… to think outside the box?”

“The box?” Rathana frowned. “Oh! An idiom, I see. Apologies, your language is… quirky.”

“And pronounceable,” Cal laughed. “I went back to Chirrum’s bar the other day. I still can’t pronounce a damn thing on the menu. Fortunately, he remembered how much I like mho.” She didn’t add that it was also the cheapest meal she’d been able to find in the city. Her trips to Chirrum’s were about the only thing separating her from starvation.

“Well, I’ll have to join you again sometime.” He looked up at one of the numerous clock towers visible in the city below. “I have class to get to. I will see you around!”

As he trotted off, Cal rested her hands atop the stone rail and looked out across Istima. If she squinted, she could just make out the outline of Sable & Burr’s from here.

What was she planning to do for the next challenge? Up until now, she’d lucked out using Rathana’s book and, most recently, stealing designs from the ring she’d bought. But considering how much this challenge was worth, everyone would be putting in more effort. She’d need something truly impressive. Perhaps she could steal a new book on artificing? She shook her head. If it was worth anything, it would have anti-theft enchantments on it. Out of principle and lack of funds, she refused to just buy a book. She turned and looked back across the semi-circle of buildings surrounding the yard. Near the middle, the imposing tower of the Bank stood.

Cal had gone there in the morning to register her design. The inside had been rather plain by Istiman standards, but after the clerk had finished processing her design, she got a peak through the door and saw a staircase leading down to who knows where. How much information was gathered in there? If everyone registered their designs, then just about anything imaginable. That was the real mother lode.

“Well, he seemed nice,” a familiar voice said. Cal was stirred from her thoughts and turned to see Renna leaning against the railing. Anywhere else, Renna would’ve looked inconspicuous enough, but without the robes of a Summer Court student, she stood out here.

“What are you doing here?” Cal hissed, backing up slightly.

“Just taking in the view.” Renna said, flicking a pebble off the ledge, sending it tumbling toward the buildings far below. She gave a short whistle.“Figures that the mages would keep the best view for themselves.”

“If someone were to see us together—”

“Relax, would you? I’ve seen plenty of people come and go through here, quite a few of them shadier than me. You panicking is more likely to draw attention than us talking together.”

Cal returned to the railing, but she didn’t relax. Up until now, she’d been able to pretty cleanly separate her school from the rest of her life. It just didn’t seem right for Renna to be here.

“Okay,” she said, “then talk.”

“I thought I’d check in on you, see if you’d found any leads. I mean, you’ve been going to classes here for a while, you’ve gotta have seen something, right?”

“I’ve had some ideas, just haven’t acted on any of them yet.”

“Yeah? Let’s hear it.”

It had been a lie. Sure, she had her job with Sable & Burr, but she wasn’t going to complicate that by bringing Renna in. She looked around in panic before her eyes settled once again on the Bank. Suddenly, it all became clear. Her next assignment, another job with Renna, and advancement in the court.

She turned back to Renna and smiled. “How about another heist?”

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Interlude: Professor Theodosia Amatar of the Night Court

~~~

Lyssana chapters will be delayed for a while as her writer takes a hiatus. If you have any secondary characters or aspects of the world you would like to see in the interludes filling that posting slot than let us know. 

~~~

“Professor?” A quiet voice said. Theodosia Amatar, professor of the Night Court, looked up from her desk. A wispy girl stood before her. “I was told to come find you. It’s happened again.”

She sighed, setting down her quill and standing up. “Show me.”

Theodosia, was, perhaps, the sanest member of the Night Court faculty. She supposed that also made her the most useless, at least where her court was concerned. But her relative lucidity served an important purpose—someone had to fetch the students when they started walking on the walls.

Metaphorically and, sometimes, physically.

She exited her office, following the girl. She led her outside, leaving the warm, yellow rune-lights of the staff hall and stepping into the courtyard. As the name implied, the Night Court existed in a state of permanent night. Some people found it disorienting, especially when through the entrance to the court, the sun was still high in the sky. Theodosia, for one, found it calming. The fall air was crisp, just beginning to lose the sticky warmth of summer evenings. Pale blue lights marked the stone paths, casting long shadows across the dark grass of the courtyard.

She followed the girl into another building, this one a lecture hall. Through the doors and up a flight of stairs they went, before turning a corner and stopping in their tracks.

The architecture before them was, for lack of a better word, moving. The dark, stone blocks flowed past each other like leaves in water, swirling in eddies of brick and mortar. First-years stumbled through the twisting hallway, unsure of how to navigate the morphing terrain. More than one upper-class student simply walked through, seemingly unphased by the ever-changing paths. Even as errant bricks flew past their faces, they kept a steady pace, and without fail, one classroom door or another would appear in their path, and they’d disappear through it.

“I… this was a hallway earlier,” the girl said, her voice doubtful.

“Yes, it was, wasn’t it?” Theodosia replied with a sigh. She turned to look at the girl. “What’s your name?”

“Nara, Professor.”

“Please stand back, Nara.”

Theodosia turned back to the shifting hallway and closed her eyes. She was the weakest of the faculty, but she was still faculty. And here, that required a will of iron. In her mind, she pictured the hallway not as it was, but as she knew it to be. And when she opened her eyes once more, it was as her mind saw it. Floor, walls, and ceiling, all where she expected to find them. More than one first-year quickly made their way across the stabilized path, unsure of what they had just witnessed.

“Better,” Theodosia said, nodding curtly. “Now, where is the student?”

Nara pointed up. Theodosia followed her gesture and saw a boy sitting cross-legged in the middle of the ceiling. She recognized him as Cole, a first-year. He was in her introductory seminar course, the class students affectionately called ‘The Breaker’. All of the new arrivals to her court took it in order to expand their mind, to learn how to challenge the assumptions they had been taught about reality.

“Thank you, Nara, I’ll handle it.” Theodosia walked over to one side of the hall and, focusing her will, planted one foot on the wall, then the other. For a brief, nauseating moment, the world went sideways. Then, her mind adjusted. When in the Night Court, you learned quickly that it was best to think of whatever surface you stood on as ‘the ground’.

She walked upwards to the ceiling, and the world shifted again as she made the ninety degree transition. Theodosia frowned as her hair turned upward to the ground. The nausea returned, the sensation of wrongness, of realities clashing together. She was on the ground, so why would her hair be falling upwards? She knew for a fact that her hair was wrong.

The thought alone was enough to assert her will, and she smiled as her hair settled into place back on her shoulders. That was better. With reality back in order, she crossed over to where Cole was sitting and joined him, ignoring the crowd gathering on the ceiling below her.

“Hello, Cole,” she said. “How are you today?”

“It’s all wrong,” he muttered. “How can it all be so wrong?”

Theodosia smiled softly, feeling a sense of relief. This was a simple enough issue, and quite common to first-years.

Some people joined the Night Court because all they wanted to do was learn how to think differently, but some entered the court because thinking differently was all they knew. Cole fell into the latter category. Across the semester, Theodosia had seen him open up. He’d found friends and excelled in class.

But excelling in the Night Court didn’t come without its cost. The magic of this place required a strong will, a will strong enough to overrule the suggestions of ‘reality’. Sometimes, a student could reject reality, but fail to substitute their own. The end result was mind-lock; getting caught in a state where no reality was true.

“Cole, do you know where we are right now?”

“Nowhere.”

“What a lovely place to be,” Theodosia said. “Do you know why?” Cole turned to look at her, eyes dull. “Because when you’re nowhere, you ‘know where’ you are!” She chuckled at her own  joke. Then she furrowed her brow. “So what happened, Cole?”

“I… was trying to get to a class—Introduction to Probability with Professor Akham. But I couldn’t remember where it was.” He paused, frowning. “Or… I did know? The building isn’t right, it isn’t like it was before.”

Theodosia nodded. “As I warned you all earlier in the semester, that can happen here. Too many minds all projecting different versions of reality have a tendency to… muddy the waters, as it were. So what happened next?”

“I was lost, and now I was running late. Then I thought, well, I know the class is in here somewhere, so why not right here?” He pointed at the ground for emphasis. “Then the hallway… I don’t know what happened to the hallway.”

“You looked before you leapt. You decided that the reality you currently inhabit was no longer accurate, but you failed to create a replacement.”

“And now nothing is real.” Cole hugged his own legs tight against his chest.

“You know, some researchers believe that there are actually an infinite number of realities, and that what we in the Night Court do is simply pull the one that we want into our world.” She stared up at the ground. “Of course,” she shrugged, “it’s impossible to say for certain if that is the case, but do you know what it would mean?”

“What?”

“That all of the realities are true. You just have to pick one.”

“But in class you told me to deny reality, and I did. But if reality can be so easily denied, than nothing is real. Nothing has meaning.”

“Denying reality doesn’t deprive it of importance, Cole!” Theodosia leaned back, propping herself up on her elbows. “Reality is a useful fiction—a white lie—and lies hold great value, especially the lies we believe.”

He turned to look at her. “But, if you know it’s a lie, how can you choose to believe it?”

Theodosia shrugged. “You just do. The same way you choose to believe in the gods, or true love, or a just and caring universe. There’s no way to prove their existence, but we believe it all the same. Because in our hearts, we want these things to be true.”

“I… I suppose that makes sense.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Now how about we give it a try, hmm? Let’s start with something easy. Can you choose to believe you are in the Umbral Court?”

Cole thought for a moment, then nodded.

Theodosia smiled. “And just like that, you are.” She looked up at the floor. “How about another? Can you choose to believe we are on the ground?”

“But, Professor…” Cole frowned, “we are on the ground!”

Theodosia looked around. Somehow, they were sitting on the floor of the hallway. If she craned her neck up, she could see the spot on the ceiling where they had been just moments ago. The crowd of students who had been watching her from above were now standing around them, and her eyebrows went up in surprise.

“So we are,” she said, standing. “Last one, okay? This is a big one. Can you choose to believe that you will be okay?”

“I… I am okay.” Cole said, his voice growing firm with conviction. “I know I am okay.”

“I know you are too.” She looked around at the gathered crowd. “Just as I know that you all have other places to be!” The students evaporated like fog in the rising sun. She turned back to him. “Go on and head to class, it should be at the other end of the hall. If Professor Akhan needs an explanation, tell him to find me.”

“Okay,” Cole said, running off. “Thanks, Professor!”

Theodosia smiled. That boy was going to go far here. To some, that could be considered a tragedy. After all, getting far in the Night Court often led one down a path others couldn’t follow, let alone understand. But for those like her, or like Cole, most already didn’t understand. It was like being a bird amongst fish, no matter how hard you tried, you would never be able to breathe underwater. Better for these strange birds to come here.

Where they could learn to fly.

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Yam 15

3.01

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded. 

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

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

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

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

His potential tutor clenched her jaw and glared. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… ma’am?”

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

“We haven’t agreed on a cost.”

“Oh, this one’s for free.”

~~~

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

Phenomenally, euphorically, manically potent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It overwhelmed him. 

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

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

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

The key was to not tie himself to one approach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

It would do. 

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

Solitarily, and without equivocation, loud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I had deduced as much?’

“Deduced?”

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

The boy winced, “I know the feeling.”

“You do?”

“Of course. This is the Winter Court.”

“I don’t understand.”

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

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

The earth elementalist paused, “A drink?” 

“Yes, and a conversation.”

“Ohhh. Yes. About that—”

“Two drinks, I meant to say.”

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

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

“Most assuredly!”

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

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

“Well, it happened like this—”

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

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

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

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

“Oh really. Was the person me?”

“Yes.”

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

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

Not quite Len, but better than most humans.

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

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

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

Poor barbarian didn’t stand a chance.

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Cal 14

“She sounds dangerous.”

Cal looked up from her work. Alendra was sitting opposite her on the floor of the attic of Sable and Burr’s, surrounded by scrolls and tomes. They’d been studying in silence for over an hour since Cal had told her about Renna.

“She’s not that bad,” Cal said. “Plus, she taught me most of what I know. I’d have been dead in a gutter if it weren’t for her.”

“Well, ‘not that bad’ sounds like a ringing endorsement.”

Cal rolled her eyes. “Trust me, that’s better than most where I’m from.” She looked back down at her project. This week’s artificing challenge was to make something that could be used to defend yourself. So far, she was sitting around a pile of scraps and hastily scrawled notes.

“Do you want to take a break? I feel stuck.”

“Hold on a second,” Alendra stared intently at the page of a book. “Got it!” She jumped up and put her hands out in front of her, fingers splayed and tensed.

“Oh no,” Cal said, scrambling to her feet. “Not in my room!”

“Relax, I know what I’m doing.” The air began to tremor and smell of ozone as Alendra concentrated. Cal felt a pressure, emanating from an invisible point floating in the center of the room. The wood beneath the point creaked, and the papers and books scattered across the floor as though pushed by a wind that wasn’t there. The effect held for a few moments, but it disappeared just as quickly as it appeared. Alendra threw up her hands and scowled.

“Gah! What’s wrong with me? I’m doing exactly what the books said to do!”

Cal looked around at the room.“What just happened?”

“It was supposed to be an omni-directional non-terrestrial antigravitational effect spell,” Alendra muttered, regathering her displaced books.

“Allie, you’re doing that thing again? The one that we talked about?”

“Hmm?” She looked up from her book. “Sorry, what was that?”

“You went all… Fall Court on me.”

“Right. I was trying to make this stupid spell work. It’s supposed to create a point of anti-gravitational force—that is, pushing instead of pulling. That in and of itself is hard, but I can do it. The harder part is that the force isn’t in the direction of natural gravity, so you’re working to counteract that while also adding another direction of force at the same time. Third, it’s in all directions. That’s why everything moved away from the center of the room where I cast it.”

“Okay, I think I get it. But what’s the problem? You were doing it!”

“A few seconds that leaves me breathless is hardly ‘doing it’.” 

Cal tried and then failed to suppress a snicker. 

Alendra frowned. “What? What’s so—” She frowned as what she’d said dawned on her. “Oh, grow up, Cal!”

Cal let out a full laugh. A couple seconds later, Alendra joined in.

“So you want the spell to last more than a few seconds,” Cal said once they’d calmed down. “What’s the problem? Is it a… energy problem? Do you not have enough?”

“No, my reserves are fine. Plenty of sleep and I ate only a few hours ago. It just takes a lot of concentration. Basic spells are like training a muscle, but this is more like juggling.” She shook her head. “I think I’m getting too frustrated to think straight.”

“Whenever I get that way, I go back to basics.”

Alendra raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t realize I was speaking to an expert in advanced spells.”

“Didn’t say I was.” Cal grinned. “But sometimes picking an easy lock gives you the confidence to pick a hard one.”

“Right. I’m sure that’s totally transferable to gravitic magic.” She rolled her eyes. “So, what, I should just lift some books?”

“You could, or you could teach me to.”

“Really? You want to try?”

“Yeah, why not? That light spell you showed me has come in handy already.”

“Okay, just the basics then. Nothing that’s Autumn Court specific.” She crossed over to the makeshift bed and sat down, gesturing for Cal to sit across from her. “You’ve been practicing the light spell?”

Cal thought back to the alley, to when she’d thrown her hands over Jasten’s eyes. She remembered his screams of pain and the light seeping through her fingers. “Yeah… I’d say I have that one down.”

“Good. We start with the same process. Energy from your body being put out into the world. Except, unlike light, gravity isn’t technically a force of energy.”

“It’s not?”

Alendra smiled, leaning forward.

“No. It’s a part of the universe and exists within all things, though we can’t see its effects in nature except for on a huge scale, like Apaernore itself.” She was speaking fast now. “But, everything attracts everything else. The books on the ground are constantly pulling on each other. The papers, this bed, the floorboards. There’s attraction between them.”

“What about you and me?”

Alendra nodded. “Definitely. People have gravity. And unlike light, for example, it’s constant. A lamp may run out of oil, but it will always be pulling on everything else.”

“So how come things don’t just slam into each other? And what about the sun? Or the moons? Why don’t they just fall into us?”

“That’s for a variety of reasons. I can explain some of it, and tell you some of it is Autumn Court secrets. But the part you should be concerned about is that gravity is weak and gets stronger the closer or more massive two things are. The celestial bodies are very, very far from us. Again, this is a simplification. So far, so good?”

A million questions swum in Cal’s head, and she wasn’t sure any of them had a good answer. Plus, it unsettled her to think that the sun was constantly pulling on Apaernore. “I’m just going to say yes so we can get to the fun part.”

Alendra laughed. “A good theoretical knowledge makes for a good working knowledge. But fine, we can move on to the fun part.” She grabbed a book off the floor and held it in her hands. “And while making things float is fun, antigravity is harder. The first thing to learn is how to amplify gravity in the natural direction. I’ll hold this book and I want you to try and make the book pull on the ground more.”

Cal frowned. “Not the other way around? Doesn’t the world pull the book?”

“Do you know how far it is from here to Tumaan?”

“What? I don’t even know where that is.”

“It’s halfway around the globe. And the answer is far. Very, very far. My point is that Apaernore is incredibly large. If you want to be the first mage to successfully bind the entire planet to do a basic spell, be my guest.” She cocked her head to the side and smiled. “If not, let’s stick with the book.”

Cal sighed. “Fine, let’s use the book, I guess.”

“Good. Like I said, gravity isn’t a force of energy. If two objects are drawn to one another, but cannot move closer, the object holds that as potential energy. When the object can move closer, their potential energy becomes kinetic energy. To increase the book’s gravitational pull, you have to pour energy into it. Just be careful, because I don’t want you setting this thing on fire. Last time, I said to focus on the heat of your palms, this time, focus on the weight.”

“Got it.” Cal held her hands out over the book, hovering inches above the leather cover. She concentrated on feeling the weight. The weight took on a new meaning with Alendra’s lecture on gravity. It wasn’t just a heaviness, it was a pulling sensation. Something tugging her extended arms down, and pulling up on the world itself. A desire for closeness.

She looked down at the book. She imagined pushing the weight she felt in her hands into the book.

At first, nothing happened. There wasn’t a light, like her first spell, and it was hard to see if anything was happening. Then, Alendra smile.

“I can feel it, the book seems heavier.”

“Really?” Cal said, her eyes snapped up, concentration broken.

“Yeah! That was it!” Alendra tossed the book aside and broke into a grin. “That was amazing!”

Cal laughed. “Well, I’ve got a good teacher.” She felt great, and not even the sudden wave of exhaustion following magic could bring her down.

“And I’ve got a good student.” She sat back, picking up the book again. “You know what? I think that helped. I’m gonna give the spell another go.” She stood up, arms towards the center of the room. The air became charged, and Cal felt the hair on the back of her neck stand upright. As Alendra concentrated, Cal felt herself being pushed backward toward the wall. She recognized the tug of gravity, but this was sideways.

She held her breath as the seconds passed and the sensation grew stronger. Soon, every item not nailed to the floor was pushed against the walls. Finally, Alendra lowered her arms and the spell ended.

“Oh my gods, I did it!” She turned and beamed at Cal. “It worked!”

“Now that was amazing,” Cal said as she stood. She was momentarily thrown off balance as Alendra wrapped her arms around her.

“Thanks, Cal.” As she pulled away, she looked around. “Oh… sorry about—”

“Nah, don’t worry about it. This place was a mess anyways.”

“If you’re sure.” She looked out the window. It was pitch black outside. “Shit, what time is it?”

“You think I can afford a clock?”

“Given your classes, it’d probably be easier for you to make one.” Alendra grinned. She stared out at the street and furrowed her brow. “I really don’t feel like making the hike back to my place.”

“Then crash here,” Cal said. “I don’t mind.”

“Thanks,” Alendra said, flopping down on the bed. She yawned and looked up as Cal sat down on the floor in front of her artificing book. “You not gonna sleep yet?”

“Not yet. I think I’m close to something.”

“Alright,” she turned over, “just don’t wear yourself out, okay?”

“Mmm,” Cal said, narrowing her eyes at the page. Something to defend yourself with, right? Cal would recommend not being stupid enough to get into the situation in the first place. That and know how to climb the walls in an alley.

But that wasn’t exactly something she could present to Teagan.

She’d scribbled half a dozen bad ideas on the page. Alendra would’ve been horrified at her treatment of the book. Using the mechanism from her jumping boots to make a punching gauntlet? There wasn’t a proper energy source, and it would do just as much damage to your arm as to the other person. Light had worked well against Jasten, but that was point-blank into his eyes. Flame… Cal wasn’t going to test a flame weapon in her wood room.

Cal’s mind wandered to the ring she’d first used to fake the entrance exam. Out of fear that someone would realize what it was, she’d stashed it under some shattered pottery on the balcony outside her room. She quietly slipped onto the porch and took out the ring.

Jewelry had never interested Cal beyond what value it had once fenced. The ring itself was rather plain, and if she didn’t know about the runes covering the inside loop, it wouldn’t even have been worth stealing if she saw it on the street. Now that she’d had artificing classes, she could actually pick out enough of the runes to know that this was more impressive than any mundane, gem-encrusted jewelry. What had the salesman called it? A gravitic-mitigation device?

Cal’s eyes widened. Runes for gravity! Her classes certainly hadn’t covered that! She hurried back inside, clutching the ring tightly. She flipped to another page in the book and started to trace out the runes on the ring. She was careful not to draw the links that would complete the enchantment.

The work was difficult. The runes on the ring must’ve been made using a magnifying glass, as they were almost impossible to pick out. By the time Cal had them all down, her eyes hurt. She stared down at the jumble of lines on the page. Some she knew, others she didn’t. It was easy enough to pick out the anchors, inputs, outputs, and even some triggers. She circled what she recognized, leaving only the unknown glyphs.

She gave only a moment’s thought to trying trial by error. The wrong circuit could set the room on fire, or explode, or something else even worse. With irritation, Cal realized her only choice was to do what she hated most.

She had to do it the “right” way.

So, grabbing her quill, she started to take notes, charting out what each part of the ring’s circuit did. There was the system to activate the ring’s power, as well as the signs for various fixed values, but the energy channeling didn’t make any sense. According to her drawings, the ring only used the heat of the wearer’s hand. That wasn’t nearly enough to create the weight-canceling effect. There was something going on here she didn’t get. At least not yet.

She moved on. This was clearly high-level artificing. As her head began to ache, she finally arrived at a rune that she knew had to represent gravity.

Using high-level magic was sure to earn marks in her favor, but what could she do with it? She started sketching concepts, but none of them stuck. She turned to a new page and started again. Still nothing.

Cal scowled, ripping the page from the book, balling up the paper, and tossing it away from her.

As it impacted softly across the room, she had an idea.

Systems worked on energy transference, right? Heat to light, light to sound, sound to kinetic. But these worked in both directions. If something could be made hot, it could be made cold. If something had kinetic energy pushing it in one direction, it could be made to move in the reverse direction. What about gravity?

Alendra has said that if two things were far apart, gravity was weak. The further apart they were, the weaker they were. If their energy was expressed as a number, like it could be in artificing runes, then it stood to reason that eventually, two things would be so far apart that their energy was essentially zero. So could they be less than zero?

Cal was making her own head hurt. She flipped to a new page in the book and started to draw in the margins.

First, she drew two circles. Objects. Because of gravity, these objects had potential energy, and if the objects moved toward each other, it transferred from potential to kinetic, didn’t it? She drew two arrows pointing at each other, each with the kinetic rune. So the potential energy due to gravity was transformed into movement, and the kinetic energy left the object when it could get no closer. Where’d it go? Well, into whatever it hit. Cal had fallen off enough roofs to know that tended to go badly for all involved.

But Alendra had also said gravity wasn’t a form of energy. If it wasn’t, then what was it? It was… a thing. A thing everything had. Just like weight, or shape, or color. It was a quality. A property.

Cal’s eyes snapped back to the ring. That’s why the energy transference hadn’t made sense! The ring didn’t use heat to lift objects; it used heat to power itself and used runes—runes Cal didn’t understand—to change the target object’s relationship to gravity!

Cal stared at her notes and frowned. They looked like the scribblings of a madman. But theoretically… it was sound.

Time to make it real. In one corner of the room, she’d started accumulating scraps of wood and metal, junk that she could practice with. She grabbed some pieces and scratched the runes in place. She didn’t know how late it was, but when she was finished, she felt pride. Sure, it was literally a piece of splintered wood covered in runes, but it might actually work!

In the end, she’d stolen a lot of the ring’s design. The body of the device she had made was a little like a crossbow, with a handle to hold and aim with. This is where she’d place a set of runes to collect heat from her hand while she held it. Next was the hard part. While the ring used fixed integer glyphs to lower an object’s gravity by a percentage, Cal had to make a system which reversed an object’s gravity. Not only that, but since gravity was so weak, she’d have to amplify the effect at the same time. She decided to give the weapon an equivalent effect to negative thirty times the planet’s gravity on a linked object. She fashioned a crude trigger that completed the circuit when pulled, activating the mechanism.

But now she had a weapon without any ammunition. She found a metal rod and scratched new runes into it, linking it to the gravity system.

When all was said and done, Cal’s hands were cramping and there was sweat on her brow. It was time to test. She loaded the rod, aimed at a wall, and pulled the trigger—

The rod shot out, lodging itself in the wall. At the same time, Cal was pushed back, knocking her to the ground. She cried out and Alendra jolted upright.

“What? What happened?” She said, raising her hands and preparing to cast a spell. She looked over at Cal, who was shrieking with laughter, then back at the wall where the rod had impacted. A spiderweb of cracks had formed around it. “Was that, uh, on purpose?”

“I didn’t think it would work!” Cal said, standing up. “Sure, I forgot to account for the effect it would have on the launcher itself, but that can be designed out.” She held up the device. “I reversed gravity!”

“Really?” Alendra blinked. A smile spread across her face. “That’s amazing!” Then, staring back at the rod, she frowned. “And then you used it to make a weapon?”

“Yeah!” She saw Alendra’s expression. “But don’t worry! It’s for class.”

“I know, it’s just…”

“What’s the problem?”

Alendra hesitated.

“What?” Cal asked again.

“Have… have you ever killed anyone?”

Cal cocked her head to the side. It seemed like an odd question. “A good thief doesn’t have to.”

“Is that a no?”

“I’m a good thief, aren’t I?”

“But could you do it?”

Cal thought for a moment. “Hard to say. I’ve never been in a position I couldn’t get out of before. But, I guess. If it came down to them or me, yeah, I think I could do it.”

“What about Renna?”

“I think she could too.”

“No, I mean, has she killed before?”

“I… no.”

“You don’t know, do you?”

“It’s been years since I’ve seen her. I don’t know what’s happened since then. Why?”

Cal saw the concern in Alendra’s eyes. “Like I said, she seems dangerous.”

“And as I said,” Cal said, scowling, “I’d be dead a dozen times over if it hadn’t been for her.”

“Okay, fine, forget I said anything.” She sighed. “Just promise me you’ll be careful, alright?”

“Don’t worry,” Cal held up her new weapon. “I’ve got this thing under control.”

Alendra turned back over in bed. “I wasn’t talking about that.”

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing an apple wasn’t the right move.

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

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

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

“Sorry, what?”

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

Oh no. 

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

“Why Staylen?”

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

Miller blinked. Circle jockey?

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Millie? You mean The Machine?”

“Yes.”

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

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

“Numbers?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jercash shook his head. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s… huh. That something.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miller shrugged, “No clue.”

“Really?”

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

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

“The Night court.”

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

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

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

“Yes, that’s my school of magic.”

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

“Sad poetry?”

“Am I wrong?”

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

The Raven didn’t look convinced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yam 14

~~~~~~~~~

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

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

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

~~~~~~~~~

(2.07)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he didn’t have it in him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” said an unfamiliar voice. 

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

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

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

“Gods-fucking-damn it.”

 ~~~

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“And what is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whoa,” Rorick blinked, “that’s raw.”

“Honesty is a virtue.”

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

“And what knowledge are you pursuing?”

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

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

“Pretty good display of honesty, right?”

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

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

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

“Are you warming me up for negotiations?”

“Negotiations? No, I just figured—”

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

What?”

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

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

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

“What do I want?” Rorick repeated.

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You want me to purchase you… companionship?”

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

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

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

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

For instance: 

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

Or:

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

A moment passed. 

“But…” Yam said, “this is Istima.”

“And? It’s just a school.”

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

“Just a school? Just a school!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Then let us talk terms.”

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“Can’t I just give you gold?”

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

“Why are you so set on this?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not your friend though.”

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

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

“Really? Weird.”

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

He hated it. 

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

And it constantly disturbed the lay of his fur.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cal 13

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

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

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

“You should be furious with me!”

Renna shrugged. “It was the right move.”

“But how did you survive?”

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

“It’s a long story.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renna smiled. “Your place or mine?”

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

“Where are we?” Cal asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cal grinned. “That’s more like it.”

“You still climb, don’t you?”

“Better than you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cal frowned. “Why’s that?”

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

“No, I—”

“Good. Because I haven’t.”

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

“What about you? Working on any jobs?”

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

“Definitely!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aw, but you just got here!”

“I, uh, have to do some studying.”

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

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

“Whatever you say,” Renna said.

“Night, Renna.”

“Night, Kid.”

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

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

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