Chapters

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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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.

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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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Lyssana 11

Chapter 11: Friendship in the making

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

C.I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yam 13

(2.06)

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

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

The point was that it sucked.

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

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

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

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

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

But the light reached him, and he remembered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though there were earth elementalists…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Untamed. Hungry. Dangerous.

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His connection to water and earth were even weaker.

Weaker, but still there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The creatures stopped scrabbling and pulled back.

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

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

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

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

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

He found his mouth suddenly and inexplicably dry.

“Please?”

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

Until he heard the wet sounds.

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

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

Except the not-rats didn’t have fur.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bones that had been floating around him responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second time, he had slept for thirteen hours.

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

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

He had nearly died.

Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he just didn’t have it in him.

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

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

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

Nothing could have made this moment worse.

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

Nnnnneeeeeeeeeeeyyyyyyyyyyaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh—

Yam closed his eyes even tighter.

Nnnnneeeeyyyyyyaaaaahhhhhhh—

Plop.

Nnneeyyyaaahhhh—

Plop.

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

Nneeyyaahh—

Plop.

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

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

“Of-fucking-course,” he whispered.

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

“… I hate you. So much.”

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Cal 12

Years ago…

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are they celebrating?”

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

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

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

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

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

Cal frowned. “Can we trust them?”

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

“Well, if you say so.”

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

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

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

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

“Or you’re getting slower.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, take a joke, will ya?”

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

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

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

“One of the church’s own priests.”

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

“You’re up, Cuolè.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right. Any questions?”

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

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

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

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

“Nervous? Don’t be.”

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

“I’ll take care of them.”

“You’re gonna kill them?”

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

“Okay. If you’re sure.”

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

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

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

“Jau’s down there,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Jau gonna be okay?” Cal asked.

“If he’s smart, yeah. Let’s go!”

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

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

“Are we happy?” Jau asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lyssana 10

Chapter 10: Double Proficiency at a Glance 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes sir!” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Interlude: Miller #2, A Bird Among Birds

~~~

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

He stared at the recruit and frowned. 

“Sir?”

His frown grew deeper. 

“Uhh, I’m sorry…”

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

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

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

The sparrow’s eyes went very wide.

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

“Sir, I don’t smo—”

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

“Gruff?”

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

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

“Oh. Well, I mean, is this part of—”

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

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

“Howdy there, Atlan,” said the attendant. 

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

“Will I be getting it back?”

“Yes.”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“Si—”

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

“… yes?”

“Good. Let’s try again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really, sir?”

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

“Ah, yes. Of course.”

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Perfect!”

“Really?” the boy beamed.

“……”

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

“Blow it out your ear, what?

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

“Of course! Today is uniform day.”

“Like uniform inspections?”

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

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

“Do you have to—”

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

“Putting on your uniform?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He would not disgrace his uniform.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

“Faint,” Miller said with a grin. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

“I’m sorry, say again, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

Just like in the publications. 

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

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

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

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

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

Crammerson stared at him, face red and veins popping. 

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

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

“About being born?”

“ABOUT STARTING A FIGHT WITH STREET TOUGHS!”

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

“I’m sorry, what?”

Crammerson deflated and fell into his seat. 

“You didn’t hear a word I just said.”

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

Blink.

“Sir.”

Blink.

“Engraved?”

Chiseled.

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

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

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

Blink.

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

Miller waited in silence until the hawk spoke. 

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

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

The diviner nodded his head eagerly.

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

“I prefer Specialist Diviner.” 

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

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

~~~ 

They summoned Hitch into the office and tried again. 

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

“I really prefer specialist diviner.”

Crammer’s eye started to twitch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miller’s only response was to scowl. 

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

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

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

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

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

“Not,” Hitch drawled, “very often.”

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

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

“Just desserts are the only payment—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Miller!” Crammerson yelled. “Focus!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Bigger than the Night of Screams?”

“Significantly.”

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

“By an order of magnitude.”

“Wow,” Miller said. 

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

“Are we clear?” growled his superior.

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

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

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

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

“That’s the one.”

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

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

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

“Why?”

“The White Rose Plague.”

“What about it?”

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

The raven blinked at him. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I be there when you do?”

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

“And Crammerson—”

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

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Yam 12

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(2.05)

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

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

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

That evil bastard. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have some dignity,” Yam hissed. 

Abomination looked up at him, stumpy tail wagging. 

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

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

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

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

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

Abomination chirped and licked him on the nose. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But so was he.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

And lucky for him that he didn’t. 

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

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

Yam froze. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hear you.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Followed him up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until he fell. 

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

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

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

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

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

Better? No. Easier to work with? Certainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then gravity took him.

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