Chapters

Cal 7

Cal nearly missed class the next day. She didn’t have the money to afford a clock, magical or otherwise. Instead, she relied on the noise of the street to wake her up. But after the job last night, she was so exhausted that she only woke up when the sun was high enough to hit her eyes. She stuffed her things into her satchel and ran, wincing as the new boots rubbed against her heels.

Breathless, she reached class. Teagan was mid-lecture, and didn’t even pause as Cal took a seat. She did, however, give her a look that could melt glass.

“—and that should explain why you can’t make organic matter with runes, Yaxley. Perhaps next time, you will employ critical thinking before you speak and save us all five minutes.” She lifted a canvas sack. “Now that that’s settled, let’s move on to your projects. It pleases me to see that most of you took this more seriously. As you have no doubt learned, only your best effort is good enough for the Summer Court. But only one of you can win a point for this assignment.” She rummaged through the sack and pulled out what looked like a bracelet. “A device worn on the wrist in order to tell time. Practical, if unoriginal.” She pulled out another unwieldy item, held together by leather straps and bent nails. “I fail to see how this is to be worn, so it is disqualified. The rest falls somewhere in between those two. With the noticeable exception of these.”

Cal’s heart skipped a beat as Teagan pulled a pair of worn leather boots out from the bag. Her boots.

“This device, while flawed, shows promise. Combining sound-dampening and kinetic redistribution in one. For her technical ingenuity, Callion wins this challenge.”

There were whispers and jealous eyes fell upon Cal, and she was more aware than ever that she looked like she’d just rolled out of bed.

“That will be all for today. No challenge for the next class. Use this time to prepare and study. Dismissed.”

The class began to disperse, and Cal stood slowly, feeling her legs cramp from running all the way to class. She grabbed her bag and Rathana appeared beside her.

“Congratulations, Callion!” He said. “I would have loved to win two in a row, but it pleases me that if anyone else was to win, it was you.”

“Thanks. That book of yours was a big help.”

“Then let us celebrate. There is an Aketsi bar I frequent, care to join me after class?”

“Sure, sounds good.”

“Excellent! The bar itself is located in the Aketsi Ward of the Falls District. I’ll be there from sundown onward. Please, invite Lady Alendra if you desire.”

“I’ll see if she’s free.” Cal turned and saw Teagan shoveling the projects back into the burlap sack. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to ask Teagan something.”

When she approached the central pedestal, the professor didn’t look up.

“Was there something you needed?”

“I, uh, just wanted to see if could get my boots back?”

“No,” Teagan said, continuing to pack up. “Anything else?”

“Why?”

“I’ll take it that means there’s nothing else.” She stood, hoisting the sack over her shoulder with a grunt. A stray lock of gray and brown hair fell out of her tight ponytail and into her face. “If you didn’t want to lose something, you shouldn’t have turned it in. Let that be a lesson.” She blew the hair out of her face. “Besides, someone of your… status can surely afford boots, yes?” She turned and left the room.

Later that night, Cal found the bar Rathana had mentioned. The Aketsi Ward was a cluster of buildings piled into a large block of the Falls District. The entrance was tucked in an alley, and led down a flight of stairs to a beaded curtain. She stepped through and was hit with a wave of oppressive heat. The air within the bar was hazy with sweet-smelling smoke and steam. Rune lights glowed dimly from sconces on the walls, mimicking the sun at dusk. The space was roughly divided into two sections; to the left was a cluster of tall tables, and to the right was a large pool of water tinted green by algae.

“Callion!” A voice called. Cal looked over and saw Rathana standing in a pool. He waded towards the steps, pushing through floating lily pads and climbed out. “Thank you for meeting me here.” 

“Thanks for the invite,” Cal said, looking around. “Is this what your land is like?” 

“Enough to make an Aketsi less homesick.” He grabbed a towel and wiped the moisture from his bare legs. “Few establishments in Istima do as well as Diang Kam Hcho.” 

“Uh, Dang kam hachoo?” Cal’s mouth contorted around the strange vowels. 

Rathana smiled. “A good attempt for a human. Give it a decade and you could be fluent.” 

“Pass.” Another Aketsi approached Rathana and began to speak in the clipped and tongue-twisting language. Rathana responded and the man left. “What was that about?” 

“That was Chirrum. The owner. He wanted me to tell you that he doesn’t make human food.” 

“Is it that different from what you eat?”

“No, but he does not get many outsiders in his bar. Follow me.” He led Cal to one of the small standing tables on the other side of the room. “Will Lady Alendra be joining us?”

“She said she’d try and make some time. The Fall Court’s got her all running ragged.”

“I apologize for the lack of seating.” 

“Standing is fine.” Chirrum returned, carrying a dish filled with steaming green bundles. “What are those?” 

“Mho. I suppose you could call it a comfort food. Fish, rice, and vegetables mixed with chutney, wrapped in saltfrond leaves, and then steamed.” 

“Huh,” Cal said, looking down at the little wrappings. She picked one up and took a bite. To her surprise, it was not only palatable, but good. Salty, savory, and just a little sweet. She wolfed down the remainder and grabbed another. 

“You enjoy the food?”

“S’ good,” Cal said between bites.

“I am glad. Most humans I have met do not wish to try our food. One even told me “leaves belong on trees, not on a plate.”

“Humans eat pig’s feet,” Cal said, grabbing her fourth Mho.

Rathana gave a little trill, something close to a laugh. “You would make a good Aketsi.”

They kept eating. Chirrum brought over tea and more dishes, each with a name more unpronounceable than the last. The Aketsi in the bar watched her with wary interest, perhaps bemused as Cal tucked away another full plate of Mho.

When they were done, Chirrum came back and exchanged more words with Rathana, pointing at Cal.

“He wants to know if you enjoyed his food,” Rathana said.

“It was amazing.” Cal poured the last of the tea from the pot. “Do you mind asking him if I can come back again?”

Rathana relayed the message and the barman made the trilling noise as he replied. “He says anyone who eats like you is a welcome customer.”

Cal looked down at the empty plates and her smile faded. “Shit. Hey, what do I owe you?”

“Please,” Rathana held up a hand. “I will pay. I still owe you for your help with Jasten.”

“Fine. But this is the last thing okay? I don’t like debts.”

“Very well.” The barman pulled out a small scale and placed the money-weights on it. It was a surprisingly small amount, maybe only five or six drams.

“That’s it?” She asked.

“Yes,” Rathana said, balancing the scales with gold shavings from a bottle. “Our food is filling, but simple.”

“I can get behind that.”

Just then, the beaded curtain parted. Alendra walked in, pausing as her eyes adjusted to the dim light within the bar. She caught sight of Cal and made her way over.

“Sorry for being late,” she said, lifting her bag off her shoulder. It fell to the floor with a wooden thud. “I’m trying to get required courses out of the way early, so I’m taking seven classes.”

“Seven?” Rathana said. “Remarkable, Lady Alendra. You must tell us more. Did you have a hard time finding the bar?”

“Not particularly. The Autumn Court keeps an up-to-date map of the university. Well, at least the top layers of the city.” She looked around the bar. “Diang Kam Hcho? Am I saying that right?”

“Your pronunciation is excellent!”

“”Oh good. I haven’t practiced Aketsi since I left home. And I was only really ever able to grasp the Quah-Tcho dialect.”

“I am native to the Nah-Vhang, but many in Istima are from Quah-Tcho. I have had to pick up phrases in order to find lodging and food within the Aketsi Ward. Here is a useful one—” He looked over to Chirrum and shouted for something. The barman nodded and began pulling cups out of a drawer.

“That was… bring drinks please?”

“Very good, Lady Alendra.”

An hour or two passed. It was hard for Cal to tell after the fourth glass. Whatever was in Aketsi liquor, it was strong stuff. The bar was beginning to fill up, and the volume of conversation grew as the sun set. Alendra knocked back her drink, wincing as she swallowed, and slammed her glass down.

“Applied Kinetics,” she raised a finger, “Theory of Energy, Administrative Logistics—”

“That’s not even magic!” Cal said.

“Shh,” Alendra said, “still important. Now…” she slowly put up three fingers. “Four more. Gravitokinesis, Introductory Sympathy, Magic and Economic Forces, and Practical Audiomancy.” She held up seven fingers and wiggled them back and forth.

“Bah!” Cal poured herself another drink. “And I thought potions sounded boring.”

“Well I like it.” She stared at her cup, then shook her head. “So who won the challenge this time?”

“Cal did,” Rathana said. If the alcohol had any effect on him, he wasn’t allowing it to show, though Cal saw he was blinking very slowly, as though he had just woken up.

“What!” Allie said. She turned to Cal and punched her in the arm.

“Ow!”

“That’s for not telling me! Here I was worried you’d drop out, and now you’re leading the class.” She paused, then started rubbing her hand. “Also, gods above, that hurt!”

“Ha! Your fancy tutors never taught you how to punch, did they?”

“Yours did, Cal?” Rathana asked. Cal froze, she’d let the mask slip.

“I, uh, got some self-defense training.” She pushed her glass away.

“Intriguing. Aketsi don’t have tutors.”

“Ugh,” Alendra said. “They’re the worst. I swear, I’ve learned more in a week here than I did in years back home.”

“Well I am glad we are all here now, Lady Alendra.”

“Allie. Just say Allie.”

“I did not wish to presume familiarity.”

“Rathana, we got drunk together. We can assume familiarity.”

“Speaking of which,” Cal said, shifting her weight. “It’s probably time to call it a night.”

“Yeah,” Alendra said. “I can’t feel my legs.”

“You would make terrible Aketsi,” Rathana said, making the little trill-laugh. “Can you make it home safely?”

“We’ll manage. Here.” Alendra pulled a tab of gold out of her pocket. “This should cover things, right?” Rathana nodded. “Thanks for inviting me. See you around.” She slung her arm over Cal’s shoulder. “C’mon, walk me home.” Leaning against each other, they made it out of the bar, only bumping into two other tables as they did.

After summiting the stairs, Cal looked up at the night sky. The crisp air helped to clear her mind, and as she breathed out, she saw her breath form a cloud.

“Gods, I think I live… that way?” Alendra said, slowly lifting a hand and pointing east.

“Think?”

“Shut up.”

“I live close by. You can stay with me.” Cal turned, half-stumbling across the street as she traced her way back to Sable and Burr’s.

“Y’know what’s crazy?” Alendra said. “I’ve never been drinking. I mean, wine doesn’t count.” She furrowed her brow. “I hate wine.”

“You’re babbling.”

“I’ve never been drinking. Never had anyone to drink with either, y’know? So thanks for that.”

“Anytime.” They had reached Sable and Burr’s. She reached for the handle and it was locked. “Shit.”

“What?” Alendra whispered.

“Forgot my keys.” She looked up at the roof. “I’ll have to get in through a window.”

“Hah. You really are a thief.” Alendra’s eyes widened. “I can help!”

“What?”

“Gravity magic. Remember? I’ve done it before!” She widened her stance and held up her hands.

“Allie, you’re drunk.”

“Not that drunk. C’mon, lemme help.”

Cal looked back at the building. The walls of the first two levels were smooth. When she first broke in, she’d been on the roof of another building. “Fine, just go slow, okay?”

“Got it.” Alendra tensed, concentrating.

For a moment, there was nothing. Then, Cal began to levitate. Alendra slowly raised her up past the first floor, then the second.

“Nearly there,” Cal said. She reached out, ready to grab the window sill.

“Wait…” she heard Alendra say from down below. “Wait, no!”

And then the weightlessness stopped. In a split second, Cal found herself falling. She cried out, grabbing wildly for anything… and she found purchase on a wooden beam covered in rusted nails.

“Cal!”

“I’m fine,” she said through gritted teeth. She felt heat and pain as the iron dug into the flesh of her palm. The window sill was only a few feet above her. With a grunt, she lifted herself up and through the window, falling onto the floor of her room with a thud. She rested for a moment, then brought herself upright and headed down to let Alendra in.

When she opened the door, Alendra flung her arms around her and sobbed.

“I’m so sorry! I don’t know what happened.”

“It’s fine, see? We’re inside.” Cal stepped back and gestured to the store.

“Gods, your hands…”

Cal looked down and saw they were slick with blood, oozing out of several ragged cuts where she’d grabbed onto the nails.

“Shit.”

A few minutes later, they were sitting on Cal’s makeshift bed.

“You should still see a healer,” Alendra said. She’d torn strips of fabric from the dust cover on the table and had begun wrapping them around Cal’s hands. “These are bad cuts. Between the dirt and grime, not to mention the possibility of infection—”

“If I promise to go, will you stop apologizing?” She winced as Alendra tied the bandage tight.

“Fine,” she fell back onto the bed. “Gods, you sleep on this?”

“Yup. Now quit complaining. We can’t all have feather beds and silk sheets.”

“Hmph. Well, next time this happens, we’re staying at my place.”

“Next time we get drunk you mean?”

Alendra laughed. “Yeah.”

Cal leaned back, suddenly feeling her eyelids get very heavy. Admittedly, this isn’t where she had expected to be when she first decided to come to Istima. She had hoped to get rich quick, not find friends and do well in classes, but as she closed her eyes, Cal had to admit, it didn’t feel half bad.

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Lyssana 6

Chapter 6: Playing with Fire

The sun was hidden behind large flurries that swirled in the chill breeze. Despite the intruder from the previous day, Lyssana had left the balcony doors open. She would not allow her enemies to believe they had scared her, though in truth she was frightened; but it meant she awoke to a stunning view of the school as it sprawled over the floating island The Storm Sea flashed with its ominous light. It was a stunning sight-and a fitting one. So much mystery permeated Istima, undercurrents of deceit behind smiling faces. Only two  weeks of classes had passed and already she had seen this side of the Winter Court  and if the stories she heard about the other Courts were true, then they were far worse.

The mugging she had witnessed the night before stuck with her as she readied for her day. It had seemed as though three separate parties had all converged without notice, and for some reason she could not shake this feeling of curiosity that came over her. She would visit the Summer Court again when the week ended and look around. 

The peace of her morning vanished with the grating whispers of her classmates as she walked to class. If people had moved from her path before, they now jumped out of her way. Word of what happened with Neal must have reached everyone by now and she groaned internally. At least that little stunt should make some of the students reconsider attempting to drag her down in rank. 

As she approached her desk, an image formed on its surface that appeared to be a crudely drawn depiction of a human male genitalia. Everyone watched to see her reaction, and so she gave none. She took her seat, refusing to notice the new decoration and pulled out her notebook. A huff of disappointment came from the far side of the room and then she did let the smile pull the corner of her lips. From her peripheral she noted their faces, ingraining them in her memory for later retaliation.

Neal took the seat to her right and scoffed at the display on her desk with a snort. “Practicing your artwork?” The disappointment from the corner quickly turned into snickers and Neal turned around to glare at the two young men. “That’s pretty rude. If you want a lady to know you’re interested in her, you’re supposed to give a compliment, not display your inferior sex parts!” 

The entire class erupted into laughter and shock spread over the reddening faces of the two men. It was increasingly difficult to keep only the slight smile on her face, as she wanted nothing more than to punch Neal in the arm for interfering. 

Professor Hurst walked in then and the room faded once again to silence. His eyes fell to the art on her desk as he walked by, but his face remained blank as he continued to the front of the room. “Alright class, we have a lot to cover today, and human anatomy is not on the agenda.” A final round of stifled laughter made its way around the room before he began his lesson. “We’ve been discussing the different frequencies of each elemental ability and how they relate to each mage and their capacity to control their elements.” Lyssana flipped back through her notes to read along as he summarized, noting the elemental frequencies and the numerical system they had assigned to each. “Earth has the lowest frequency and fire the highest. The frequencies are directly related to how much baseline energy each element contains in its resting state. Earth by itself has very little energy, while the other elements are all high energy and more easily manipulated.” 

She turned to a blank page as he took up his chalk and began writing on the board. “Because Earth has the lowest base energy, we associate the numbers 1-3.9 with this element. 4-6.9 numerals are associated with water, 7-9.9 with air, and 10-12.9 with fire. Now, within these tiers, each elemental mage can fall anywhere within the range of their element. For example: Abby resonates at a frequency of 5.4 according to yesterday’s homework assignment. Her frequency is near the median of the water scale, which means her strength is water in solid form as this is the lowest energy, but she can also easily manipulate water in liquid form. Gaseous water is not something she will be able to manipulate easily, but if she could, then her resonance would be closer to 6.9. So you see, the first number in each category corresponds to the element in its lowest energy state, then the second number is the common rest state, and the 3rd is the most energetic state. Obviously each numeral can be accompanied by an infinite number of decimal places, but for the sake of simplicity each of you found your frequency to a whole number and a decimal.” 

He took a stack of papers and began handing back the assignments they had turned in and she stared at the  12.8 in her simple, bolded script. Neal proudly brandished his 3.5 with a crooked grin. “I can control all the earth things!” He wiggled his eyebrows and the black lines embedded in her desk wavered and lifted from the gross shape to twirl in the air and land in the shape of a flower on Abby’s desk. 

Professor Hurst murmured something about “defacing school property” as he handed the last paper to Abby and let the students discuss and compare their frequencies. 

A few minutes of muted chatter followed as the professor began writing notes on the front board for the second part of class, and a few people continued to snicker at the two boys who now hid their faces in shame. Perhaps Neal calling them out had been better revenge than Lyssana could have planned. 

Neal looked over his shoulder then and smirked. “Should have known you were a high frequency elementalist, not many people can heat metal the way you did the other day. So what else can you do besides throw people into walls?” The chuckle that followed his words let her know he wasn’t angry with her over their altercation yesterday, but the glare on Abby’s face said Lyssana was far from forgiven. Then again, Lyssana did not need forgiveness. Neal had known he was pushing her and the consequences of his actions did not leave her at fault. She would not apologize. 

“Pest control was always a specialty of mine.” A smirk took over the corner of her lips as she spoke and a grin broke across his face.

“I knew you had a sense of humor hiding under that tough girl facade!” Robust laughter erupted from him and the professor turned back to the class to signal for silence. 

“It’s not a facade…” Abby growled, her glare turning into a glower as Hurst turned to her and motioned again for silence. 

“Alright class, now that you all know your frequency proficiency, we can move on to bigger concepts. There are some elemental mages who can only manipulate a single frequency within an element – like a hydromancer who can only work with ice – and those that can work with two elements to concentrate on a more specific ability. Take Osteomancy for example: the use of water and earth are both required for mending bones, so many of those specific double elementalists are your healers.”

A curly haired woman at the back of the class raised her hand before asking “How does a mage know if they can be proficient in more than one element?” 

“Some people can go their entire lives not knowing they have a secondary proficiency, but our classes next week will help you all discover if you’re able to work with multiple elements. Some of you may have been tested by a Winter Court Admissions Officer upon your arrival at Istima, in which you were given an array of items to try and manipulate. Our class next week will be a lot like that, but it will be more closely tailored to specific tasks.” 

Lyssana spent the rest of class copying the notes on the board, knowing that the next class was going to be hands on and experimental, but she would have two days from the weekend to prepare. The Sakaarans had mages that were proficient in specific elemental abilities – usually the healers – but Lyssana had not paid much attention to these skills. Her focus had always been on the raw power that was fire. It would be interesting to learn of these more detailed, lesser abilities. 

As the students filed out, Neal shimmied beside her – with Abby on his other side – and grinned. “So do you have any plans for your rest days? Because we should all hang out and get to know each other better!” 

“I have to study for my advanced pyromancy class this weekend.” Her voice was blunt, though she tried to make it sound light and friendly. Abby snorted. 

“You have to study for the next two days? Entirely? With no food or anything? Lyssana it’s only the second week of school…”

It was her turn to shoot a glare at him and Abby added a jab with her elbow. For some reason that irked Lyssana and her eyes narrowed. “You’re right, food is important. We should all get together and eat at my place and just relax for a bit.” Her smile was plastered in a mockery of open friendliness, but Neal jumped at her offer. 

“That would be amazing! Abby and I will be there tomorrow evening! I’ll bring something sweet to eat after dinner.” He caught the sharp jab directed toward his stomach and smiled at Abby with pleading eyes. “It’s going to be a lot of fun, Abs, and we can finally see more into Lyssana’s mysterious life.” He wiggled his eyebrows.

“Okay, tomorrow evening works for me and I’ll bring refreshments.” Abby sounded dejected, but Neal gave her a charming smile and she brightened up. 

Lyssana muttered under her breath, but it would be good for the Corpegara to interact with more people, so at least there was a silver lining. “Very well. My rooms are on the top floor of the West Tower, you can’t miss them.” 

“Wait…rooms? As in more than one?”

“I thought the West Tower was reserved for higher level…rich… students?” 

Their voices spoke over each other and Lyssana hid an irritated smirk at their confusion. “See you both tomorrow.” She veered to the side of the courtyard, leaving them standing dumbfounded in the walkway as the crowd parted around in irritation. 

She entered her next class with a hint of apprehension, worrying over her conversation with Cavit the day prior. He made eye contact and gave her a small smile as she entered, but she gave him only a slight nod in return before taking her seat near the back of the room. Professor Lena entered shortly after and the room fell silent. 

Lena stopped at the front of the class and produced a flame in her palm about the size of a hand span. She handed it to the first student before speaking. “Today we will practice restraint and balance. Pass the flame to the student next to you, but be sure the fire does not waiver of change in size. The first student to let the flame waiver will be dismissed from today’s class.” 

Shocked murmurs were quickly hushed as concentration took over each student who accepted the flame from their peer. The fire passed across the front row of the classroom without a flicker, but the student accepting it on the second row had shaking hands and nearly let the flame dissipate before he caught it. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead and he all but threw the flame at his classmate. The professor shook her head and he let out a dejected sigh before collecting his things and walking out the door. 

Three more students in the next two rows failed to pass the test, but they were not required to leave as the first one had. Instead they were asked to stand at the front of the classroom and observe the students who passed it along correctly. The row Lyssana sat in came next and she watched as the flame came closer. She observed the heat at which it burned and her mind focused on the shape of the flame. As it was handed to her she seamlessly slipped a filament of her own energy into the fire as it touched her hand.. She felt her mind become one with the flame as she turned to pass it along to the woman beside her. As soon as she felt the additional energy from the other woman, she let hers go. It flickered as soon as it hit the other woman’s hand and she cursed under her breath, throwing a glare at Lyssana as though to blame her. Professor Lena tapped the students shoulder and she moved to the front of the room after passing the fire to the final row behind them. 

One more student faltered, making a total of six students that failed of the eighteen that attended the class. The professor  pursed her lips as she eyed the students at the front of the room and her eyes squinted. “Now that you’ve had a chance to observe the successful students, I’ll give you five another chance to pass the flame without letting it flicker.” She produced a yellow flame, hotter and larger than the last and Lyssana felt a twang of sympathy for the students. 

The first one to pass the flame let it cool as she took it, causing the color to darken and a slight flicker at the top betrayed her. The second was able to grow the flame again and bring it to stillness as he passed and was allowed his seat in the class again. The woman that sat beside Lyssana failed again to pass the flame correctly, but the woman she passed it to was able to hold it together. Only two of the five successfully passed their second chance and were allowed to sit again. 

“You three need to leave. I’ll see you next week once you’ve decided to put effort into this class.” Her voice was cool, but Lyssana caught a look of regret as the students filed out. “The purpose of this class is to hone your skills as a pyromancer. This means you need to have a pre-existing degree of control before you can expand your talents. You should be practicing daily on these basic exercises in order to succeed. Istima is not for the faint of heart or the weak, so you need to be stronger. Now, pair up.” Her voice grew harder with the last command and Lyssana found herself looking toward Cavit before she had time to realize what she was doing. He rose from his chair and took the empty seat beside her with a smile.

“Congratulations on passing that pop quiz,” he chuckled. “I’m surprised so many failed, but I suppose weeding out the weaker links is what Istima is all about.” 

“And to you,” she murmured, “your control is pristine and admirable.” 

“Such cold words from a lady of fury.” 

Her head whipped around to stare at him and her brows furrowed. “What do you mean?” She asked hesitantly. 

“Your name, did I translate incorrectly? Does it not mean ‘The Fury of the Sun?’”

A breath caught in her throat hearing the common tongue translation and she could only nod. So few knew the language of the Saakarans and she found herself wondering just who this Cavit truly was. “Forgive me,” she pulled her gaze away from his brown eyes and took a steadying breath. “Not many on the mainland are versed in the Saakaran language.” 

“Knowledge is power, and I like to know as much as I’m able. Not to brag, but I am versed in quite a few forgotten and sparse languages, as well as a few limited and forbidden subjects.” It sounded like an invitation for her questions, but she resisted and focused on Professor Lena as she began to speak.  

“Class, today you are going to be perfecting a skill that will help you with control. You and your  partner are going to take turns creating flames while the other mimics the flame you’ve created. You can have fun practicing with shapes, heat, color; make them as complex or simple as you like. Make note of features you have difficulty controlling so you know where you need to practice this weekend.” 

“I’ll begin.” Lyssana spoke as she held her palm toward Cavit, a brilliant blue flame swirling in the center. She could feel the heat of the flame on her face as she watched  him produce one of his own, the swirling of his fire mirroring hers. 

“Not bad, but now it’s my turn.” He grinned as a flaming silhouette of a horse pranced across his palms. The blue heat faded to match the orange of the figurine until a mirror image moved between her palms. A slow dance began with the horses as they circled each other, and Lyssana was sure to focus on the precise movements of each flame. 

“Complex, but how about this one?” Her eyes narrowed as she pushed the limits of her concentration. Three circling flames, each perfectly round and varying levels of heat to produce yellow, orange and red colors that she began to throw into the air and catch with her other hand. As Cavit created his own circles, she added three more in shades of blue. They must look like an odd pair, juggling an array of flames and staring in concentration. After a few more moments, she let them fade one by one until none remained. 

An echo of clapping surrounded them and she looked up to see every student staring. Cavit chuckled and gave a seated bow to the professor before turning back to Lyssana. “I’d say we certainly made an impression with the class. That’s not going to go well for you I imagine.” 

“What do you mean?” She asked sharply. 

“Well, I saw the way that girl glared at you when she was kicked out earlier, and with that stunt, I’d say you have a target on your back. Istima isn’t a good place to single yourself out.” 

“I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself, thank you. I am aware of the competition here at Istima and I am  fully prepared to do whatever I must to succeed.” 

“Perfect. That’s the attitude befitting the sun’s fury. You’ll need that.” He hesitated, stopping with his mouth open before abruptly shutting it and beginning to form a new flame in his hand. 

“If you’ve something else to say, speak it.” 

Again there was hesitation and the fire lingered in his hands. “If you really mean what you said about doing anything to survive here, I have something that may help.” His voice dropped significantly, and he watched the closer students from the corner of his eyes. “It’s not exactly on Istima’s curriculum, so it needs to be kept quiet, but I could use your help.”

She couldn’t stop the rising curiosity that flooded through her and she too made her voice quiet. “How much does this helpful thing differ from the curriculum?”

“A lot. As in it may or may not actually be forbidden…” 

She thought for a moment as she mimicked the scene of a tiny forest that came to life in his palms. Knowledge was power, he had said so himself, and if Cavit had access to secret knowledge that could help them both advance, then Lyssana needed to take advantage of it. She had been sent here to succeed, no matter the cost. “We can speak more about this tomorrow morning if you’d like? I know a place where words can fly freely with no fear of another listening.” 

He nodded and let the fire fade. “I can meet you behind the Courthouse at sunrise.” 

She opened her mouth to protest that there was no need to meet in plain sight, but the professor began to speak. 

“Very good class. I like the control I’m seeing from everyone, but most of you have significant room for improvement. Be sure to practice because there will be more competitive classes in the future.” 

They were dismissed shortly after, professor Lena saving their lesson for the new week since so many more had failed than she expected. It was a nice change of pace, getting out of class early and having more free time in her evening, and she planned a warm soak to ease the stress from the week. 

“Would you like to get dinner with me?” She had been so excited for the early release that she forgot Cavit was still beside her. He had gathered his things and was instantly keeping pace with her in the hallway as they spoke. 

“I’d rather avoid the dining hall, but I thank you for your offer.” 

“I know of a good tavern close by if you’d prefer?” 

She sighed before nodding and allowing him to lead the way. “I don’t drink alcohol, so I hope this tavern isn’t know only for their inhibiting concoctions.” She meant it as a joke, but clearly her humor was misread because Cavit frowned. 

“Why don’t you drink? Isn’t that what all of us upper class citizens do to handle the stress of heightened performance?”

It was her turn to frown at him. Was he joking in response to her? It was difficult to read this man. “I prefer meditation to handle my stress.” And throwing fire at the wall, but he didn’t need to know about that. “Purposefully impairing oneself is only asking for trouble. Especially here, where crime seems to go unpunished more often than not.” 

Cavit let out a snort and she whipped her head around to look at him. “You think anyone would dare attack us? We are two powerful fire mages that could handle anything thrown at us, impaired or not.” 

“That’s presumptuous.” She muttered. Under normal circumstances, he was likely correct, but she had people watching her every move with motives she was unsure of. Being caught intoxicated would likely not go well. “Worried about that target on your back?” He smirked over his shoulder at her and she shot him a confused look. “I understand your hesitation and respect your choices, I just don’t think you give yourself enough credit. You’re a powerful mage and you should own it.” 

She mulled over his words as they walked out of the pyromancer building of the court, two eternal flames beckoning students at the entryway. She made a mental note to study that, as she had half heartedly done every time the fires came across her path. “Perhaps another time when I do not have plans the following morning.” He seemed to accept this as a compromise and bid her goodnight. She sighed in relief, feeling like she had dodged a regrettable social interaction.

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Yam 6

1.06

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

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

Significantly. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. They seem quite peaceful.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bullying?”

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

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

“With will.”

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

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

“The Presence?”

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

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

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

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

“With will?” Yam guessed.

“With will.” The older student nodded.

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

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

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

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

“Really?”

“Yes. Rocks don’t scream right?”

“No, they do not”

“Do they whisper?”

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

“Sure.”

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

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

“How do they do that?”

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

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

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

“That’s it?”

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

“That’s how you cast spells?”

“That is how we cast spells.”

“And it works?”

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

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

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

“How do you do that?”

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

The Presence was unspeakable. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yam went unconscious again. 

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offensively… honest? 

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

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

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

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

It made his head hurt.

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

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

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

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

And all to an extent that was almost comical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh? And why would ‘some’ say that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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Cal 6

The walk back to Sable & Burr’s wasn’t entirely unpleasant. A lack of shoes was something Cal had grown used to during her childhood, though she had to admit it had been some time since she’d last felt the touch of stone under her feet. She left the warm night air of the Summer Court and stepped through the gate into the cold fog that enveloped the rest of the city.

Despite the chill, Cal liked the feeling of walking down the damp streets. The smooth stone bricks of the courts gave way to rough cobblestone as she made her way back home. Soon, the sound of rushing water and creaking waterwheels filled her ears as she entered the district known as The Falls.

Even this late into the night, the sound of hammers on anvils could be heard from the dozens of workshops that lined the canals. Cal saw a cobbler’s shop and thought about buying a new pair of shoes, but her coin purse was lighter than she’d have liked already. She pressed on, crossing a wooden bridge, and entered a bustling night market. Merchants sold fruit, candied nuts, and exotic meats under the unwavering light of enchanted lamps.

If this were any other city, this would’ve been a great opportunity for her to pickpocket. But the dram bars people carried were harder to get than coins would’ve been. Not to mention that most of them had magical protections against such casual thievery. Still, by the time she exited out of the other side, Cal had managed to snag an apple, a wedge of cheese, and a wineskin. She ate as she walked, crossing yet another bridge and turned onto Washpenny Lane.

She pulled open the door to Sable & Burr’s, causing a little bell to jangle.

“Sorry, we’re closed,” Sable said without looking up from his book.

“I live here,” Cal said.

“Yes,” Burr said, appearing from behind her and smiling. “But I’m afraid we have a strict policy about shirts and shoes.”

“Oh, good heavens, yes, where are your boots?” Sable said.

Cal shrugged. “They were my homework.”

“You’ve lost me entirely, my dear.”

“No matter,” Burr cut in. “We have a job for you.” He crossed over to the counter, reached behind, and pulled out a small cloth bundle. He tossed it to Cal. “Go ahead and open it up.”

Cal untied the drawstring and unwrapped a bottle full of brown powder. “What is this?” She asked.

“More importantly, what is it not?” Sable said. “To answer, it is not crushed Rudavian beetlewood, an ingredient both exceedingly rare and expensive.”

Cal uncorked the bottle and waved it in front of her nose. “Is that… cinnamon?”

“Yes. Almost identical in color and texture. Which is why we would like for you to switch it with the real beetlewood powder.”

“Why not simply have me steal the real stuff? Why go to the extra effort of making a fake?”

“Because in our business, reputation is everything,” Burr said. “When our competitor sells the fake, it won’t work, and buyers will be less likely to go to them instead of us in the future. Make sense?”

“Fair enough,” Cal said, rewrapping the bottle and stuffing it into her satchel. “Where do I need to go?”

“There’s a shop not far from here. We can provide a map.”

“And what if the shop is guarded?” Cal asked. “Or trapped?”

“Well then I suppose it’s a good thing Sable and I hired a thief with knowledge in those subjects,” Burr said with a smile.

It didn’t take long to find her target. It would’ve taken perhaps only twenty minutes using the roads, but Cal managed to cut that time in half by sticking to the rooftops. She stepped out onto the balcony outside her room and worked her way up onto the roof. Almost all the buildings in The Falls were built next to one another, making traveling across their tiled roofs easy as long as you didn’t lose your footing.

Catching her breath, Cal knelt down and sized up her target. It was an unassuming shop, so narrow that it looked as though it had been built in an alley between the two larger stores that surrounded it. Still, Cal had learned not to judge so quickly in Istima.

No light came from within the store, and Cal doubted that there was enough space for the owner to live there full time. She crossed over and used a drainpipe to slide down close to the second story window. There, upon the sill, she spotted small runes carved into the wood.

She cursed. What did the people in this stupid city have against normal, easy-to-pick, metal locks? Everything here had to be magic. As she looked over the runes, she surprised herself by recognizing at least half of them. It looked like the runes were written across the frame so that when the window was lifted… something would happen. That was as far as her knowledge went.

She shifted her weight and pulled out her knife. If what she knew was correct, than she could change some of the runes to bypass the trap. She carved out messy lines in the wood, chipping out several key runes. When she was finished, larges swathes of writing had been ruined, severing whatever link that had existed.

Cal tested the window and found that it wasn’t even locked. She opened it up and slipped inside. The building was even smaller-looking inside. The walls couldn’t have been more than eight feet apart, and musty, wooden crates that had been piled haphazardly up to the ceiling. The only path was a claustrophobic gap in the crates that Cal could barely squeeze through.

On the other side, the room opened up into a small sitting area. Two cracked, leather chairs flanked a wooden end table, atop of which was a tea set. Cal picked up one of the cups and looked it over. Despite the tarnish, it was real silver. She didn’t know if silver was valuable in Istima like it was everywhere else, but it was worth a shot. She stuffed the cups and the platter into her bag and pulled out the wrapped jar of cinnamon, and descended the ladder down to the ground floor.

She stepped off the ladder and looked around. At the far end of the room was the locked front door. Both walls were lined with small shelves filled with jars full of ingredients. She read the labels on the jars, searching for the one she was supposed to replace, but found nothing.

Cal frowned. Sable had said the beetlewood was rare. Perhaps rare enough to keep somewhere safe? She went behind the counter and felt around in the dark. Eventually, her hand settled on a small bottle. She pulled it out and saw that it was filled with fine, brown powder. This had to be it. She swapped the jars, carefully wrapping the real one back up and sticking it in her satchel. Somehow, Sable and Burr had managed to procure a bottle and label for their fake that matched the real one. Cal smirked. The two seemed rather silly, but clearly they knew what they were doing.

When she was done, she looked back to the ladder and stopped. She’d done the job, but who would notice if she picked up some stuff for herself? She turned back and searched. Most shops like this had some sort of cash box or—

A safe! She spotted the small, metal box sitting on a low shelf behind the counter. She knelt in front of it and reached for her lockpicks. But the safe had no keyhole. It didn’t have a handle either. As far as she could tell, it didn’t even have any runes. If it was magic, it had some sort of key that she didn’t understand.

Cal sighed, put away her tools, and went back up the ladder. Immediately, she smelled smoke. She sniffed the air. It smelled like burning wood. She looked over to the window and saw that the frame was smoldering.

“Shit!” She hissed, shimmying back through the path in the crates. The runes on the sill, the ones she hadn’t cut out, were burning like coals. It was still getting energy from somewhere. She pulled her knife back out and jammed it into the wood. Right before she began to break more of the runes, she stopped. Some part of her told her to stop and think.

Though she didn’t recognize the runes, Cal knew that it was still getting power from somewhere. Power that was currently leaking out and burning the wood. But if she wasn’t careful, if she broke the wrong runes, the energy would be released all in one burst.

In an explosion.

Cal slowly pulled her knife back, her thoughts raced. Working quickly, she carved new runes. A new anchor, a new link—she grabbed a wooden plank from one of the crates and scratched in  another anchor, an energy conversion system, and an output. If she was right, it would transfer energy into light. She then carved the second link and for a second, the room was flooded with a bright flash of light, then it faded. Cal blinked away the spots in her vision and looked back to the window sill. The runes were no longer glowing, their energy expended.

Cal sighed, dropping the plank of wood. She really wished she’d gone into one of the other schools, even if she wasn’t good at making people levitate like Alendra, or commanding water like a hydromancer, at least there was less chance of blowing herself up if she made a typo.

But she found a silver lining when she looked down at the crate she’d pulled the plank of wood from. The thin moonlight from the window was enough for her to see the shine of leather coming from within. She reached in and pulled out a set of boots. When she held them up to her bare feet, they looked too large, but it was better than nothing. She pulled them on, stepped through the window, and disappeared into the night.

“Do you have it?”

“Hello to you too, Sable,” Cal said as she entered the room.

“Yes. Good evening, dear,” Burr said. “Now, do you have it?”

“Did you doubt me?” Cal opened her bag, pulled out the jar, and handed it to Sable. The man opened it and held it under his nose. He grimaced, as though he’d tasted lemon.

“Yeah, that’s certainly beetlewood.” He coughed, handing the container to Burr, who gave it a sniff for himself before making a similar face.

“Goodness me, why is it that the more powerful the ingredient, the worse the smell?” He looked at Cal. “You’re a student, do you know?”

“Don’t look at me,” Cal said, holding up her hands. “I just started.”

“Well something tells me you’d go far if you made a potion of garlic, skunk juice, and Sable’s cooking.” He smiled. “In any event, you’ve done well.” He pulled out a small slice of gold an inch and a half long. “Here is your payment, 25 drams—minus rent, of course.”

“Of course.” Cal took the strip and bit it lightly, feeling the familiar give of pure gold. “Pleasure doing business with you.”

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Lyssana 5

Chapter 5: The Shadows Revealed 

A low growl pulled Lyssana from a dreamless slumber and she rose cautiously from the bed, instantly alert as her hand felt the  knife on the bed stand. A second growl echoed and she slid the bedroom door open quietly. Both Corpegara were outside the bedroom door facing the balcony with wings spread wide and low. The sheer curtains that were usually tied up now flowed in the snowy breeze. Beyond them the darkness shifted. Lyssana dare not risk throwing her knife lest she miss the target and fly into the night, so a flame as tall as her person was conjured to life from each of the torches beside where the darkness had moved. The figure did not flinch as the darkness under their hood was suddenly illuminated. 

Air fled her lungs as she caught sight of cracked gray skin and brilliant orange eyes before her flames were extinguished. She would know the face of a Saakaran anywhere. Were they the true spies following her all over the city? Did that mean her family wasn’t watching at all? Questions continued to manifest as she slowly approached the fluttering curtains. The torches along the rail came to life once more, casting the floor in a brilliant orange light. 

The words scrawled in the Saakaran Runes along the floor stopped her heart cold and she sank to her knees in terror. 

 “Are you worthy?”

She hadn’t slept at all the rest of that night, instead staying up to scrub the ashen words from the marble floor. Worthiness. That had been what the chieftain of her tribe demanded as payment for their brutal hospitality. She had thought they had released their hold on her when she left the island, but the realization that one prison had only been exchanged for another stole the breath from her lungs. 

No. She would be strong. She was trained from childhood to handle any situation thrown at her. She was the first outsider to be recognized by the tribe as a Saakaran and she had earned every rune carved down her spine, and every drop of blood that had resulted. With a final sigh she heaved herself from the cold stone floor and began to draw a plan. 

Sarpia and Halvard followed her pacing with their eyes, heads low and still on guard from the intruder. Every time she realized she was pacing, she forced her feet to stop, but the moment her mind continued the train of thought, so too did her feet. It was nearly time for her first class before she realized her morning had been overall unproductive in constructing a plan to figure out why she was being followed. Was this another test or were they making sure their efforts in teaching her were being brought to fruition? Very few at Istima knew she was raised on the Isles of Hrovati, but how high in the system were the ones who did know; and were they in contact with the Saakarans? Again she stopped her pacing with an irritated grunt and hurled a misshapen flame into the empty fireplace. It fizzled into black smoke that disappeared up the chimney, and she looked down to see one of the tasseled pillows beside her was now black with soot. She would be strong. 

The prior release of energy had helped to calm her enough as she walked to class, but she could still feel her emotions boiling below the surface of her skin. She was sure her eyes glowed specks of amber since any unsuspecting person who fell prey to their glance had hastily jumped out of her way. Still, she was trying to calm down, but the interrupted sleep did not help her mood any. 

“Good morning, princess!” Neal’s voice grated from somewhere behind her and she turned to him with a glare. “Woah! You look like you’ve been through hell. I’m guessing you didn’t sleep well?” The fact that he had immediately guessed her situation further boiled the energy in her veins, but she smoothed her face with an effort and turned back toward the classroom. 

“No, I did not sleep well, but I am fine. Thank you for asking.” A bit of snarkiness crept into her voice and she grimaced at the lack of control over her emotions. She needed to meditate.

 Or set something on fire. 

“I’m sorry to hear that.” His voice sounded genuine and she turned to him in startlement before catching herself and continuing forward. She could almost feel the smirk on his face at catching her off guard and she hated it. 

Neal was silent for the rest of the walk to class, staying just far enough behind her to take advantage of the parting crowd. Abby joined them right before they reached the classroom and started whispering quietly with the water mage. Lyssana only picked up a muffled “tired” and “cranky” from Neal before she stopped listening and took her seat. 

Professor Hurst walked in, sunny disposition clashing with her own stormy mood, and the class went quiet in anticipation. “Good morning, class! I assume you all had a productive day after we went our separate ways?” A sea of nodding heads and murmured “yes” echoed his words before silence fell once more. “Excellent, then I need you to gather into your groups and I’ll walk around as you show me what you’ve made.” The shuffling of metal chair legs grated against a rising headache and Lyssana grit her teeth into what she thought was a semblance of a smile. That is until the person sitting to her left gasped and quickly moved to a seat further away as their face drained of color. Lyssana cursed. This day could not end soon enough. 

The professor made his way around the room, listening to the students explain their projects. He seemed to be nodding with approval more often than not, which was a good sign, though he did grimace slightly at a wilted flower that was held up despairingly by a water and earth elemental pair. “We tried to grow it from a seed last night and this happened. We didn’t have time to do anything else. Sorry, professor.” The soft spoken boy looked like he was about to cry, but Professor Hurst gave him a fatherly grin. 

“Don’t fret, Dalain. This was only the first assignment, and I’m sure you’ve learned a valuable lesson about being sure to have enough energy to follow through with a task!” The boy nodded sheepishly and grinned before sighing with relief as the teacher turned his back to move on to the final table. “Now, what have we here?” Stopping before the group of three has leaned down to inspect the tangled mess of metal on the desk. 

“It’s a blacksmith puzzle.” Neal spoke confidently as he looked at the project proudly. He then lifted the mass from the table and handed it to Mister Hurst for a closer look. “Do you think you can solve it?” Lyssana raised a brow at him, but he pointedly ignored it, an arrogant grin plastered to his face. 

“Well, I do enjoy a good challenge!” The professor plucked the puzzle from Neal’s hand and stared at it for a moment before his hands began to deftly work the loops and rods. “The craftsmanship certainly is sturdy. If I didn’t know better, I would think this came right out of the forge.” He definitely had a glint in his eye as he moved the final loop, scattering the pieces over the desk. “Well done, students! Your use of the three elements certainly made a practical tool that could be sold for entertainment! I’m giving you each one point toward your ranking.” Silence. 

“Um, our what, Sir?” Abby asked quietly, voicing the thought that held all still. Still only silence answered. 

The professor turned to the class with a mischievous grin. “Come now, you’ve all been here for at least a full day and no one has explained the ranking to you?” Confusion and worry met his stare. “I bet at least one of you knows. Come! Speak!” His grin grew wider. 

Lyssana sighed. “Every student in the Winter Court is ranked against the other students. I’m unsure of the specifics, but I believe the ranking has to do with what level each student is in their classes. We are first level students since this is a first level class.” That was all she had managed to put together from the man in the library and the few pieces of conversation from her uncle. Evidently all knew about the ranks, but very few spoke of them. 

“You are very close, Lyssana, well done! However, I am afraid I must correct you on one point. Everyone in this class is a level one ranking with the exception of yourself. I do believe you have a second level class on your schedule, do you not?” He paused for her to nod, “That gives you a level two ranking, congratulations!” 

She could feel the eyes on her back, but refused to acknowledge them. 

“Now, Miss Terasu here is a special case that can lead to some ranking confusion. You see-” he turned to her and whispered “- you don’t mind if I use you as an example do you?” She didn’t really see any option to say no, so a curt nod was given as an answer. He winked and turned back to the class. “You see, each and every student within the Winter Court is given a class rank. Your exact ranking is known only to the Court Council Leaders, who continually watch and record your progress. Since you are all first level students – the ranking is given by class level and not year, as many students in our court cannot progress to the next level in a year.” 

Shocked gasps echoed from every desk save one, and Abby turned to look at her with furrowed brows. “Did you already know this?” Lyssana nodded and thought she saw hurt in the pale blue eyes, but their attention was drawn to the front of the room before she could speak again.

“Now now, no need to fret, students!” The professor’s hands went up in a soothing gesture as he tried to ease the distressed class. “You all knew when you signed up for orientation that Istima is the most prestigious university. There are some of you that will not excel to the degree that you hope. Only the most prestigious will make it to the top of the class. This does not mean those of you who do not make the top ranks are failures! Everyone learns at their own pace, and as you go up in level and rank, that pace will try and challenge every part of you to be the best that you can possibly be.” His words did nothing to sooth the air of the room, and panicked whispers erupted almost immediately. 

“What happens to those that don’t make the next level?” 

“How do we know our rank?” 

“I heard a student died last year trying to test for the next level!” 

Questions bombarded the man at the front of the room and he took a step back in surprise as they grew in volume. “Alright, quiet down! If you’ll let me finish the lesson, then all of your questions will be answered!” The students slowly quieted to silence and gave him their attention once more. “Okay, let’s start at the most basic level. New students arriving each year are given their rank based on their performance in orientation. That’s why the Head Master allows the students to do as they wish, so their talents and strengths can be showcased. Once all students have gone through orientation, the ranking begins. Now, this initial ranking within our court  is determined by the Lead Council, as is the final ranking at the end of each year. Throughout the year, the Court Council can add to your rank based on your class performance. They have eyes and ears everywhere, so your actions are always being watched and evaluated. You must achieve a certain ranking before you are allowed to advance to a higher level class. None but the Council knows what this rank you must achieve is, so you cannot know until you are awarded.”

“That means you’re on the Council!” Neal spoke up, eyes bright in the knowledge he had put the pieces together before anyone else. “You said you’d give us a point, but then you said only the Court Council can award points, so that puts you on the Council.” 

“Very clever, but I’m afraid I am not worthy enough to be on the Court Council.” 

“Wait, so if you’re not on the Council, then how are you allowed to give rank points?” The same meek boy as before, Dalain, spoke up with a hand partially raised. 

“Good question! Well, you’ll be surprised to know that each class also has a ranking system. Your position within the class rank is a factor in your overall rank, since it is reported to the Court Council. So, each class you attend has a rank, and each of those ranks contribute to your overall rank within the Hibernal Court. Due to the complexity of the ranking system, no student knows their exact rank at a given time, though the Council keeps a close watch on everyone. However, you will be given updates at certain checkpoints throughout the year! That way you generally know where you lie in the rankings. The checkpoints are never the same in consecutive years, and are assigned randomly to students. This means that Lyssana may receive her checkpoint two weeks ahead of Dalain here.” 

A girl in the back of the class raised her hand before speaking, “So if we don’t know our ranks but for a few times a year, then how are we supposed to know where we stand in regards to everyone else? The ultimate goal is to be the best, but how do we know exactly who it is that we are trying to beat?”

A smile curved slowly up Professor Hurst’s mouth, as though he had been waiting all class for this question. “Why, that’s easy. You all need to beat the best in your class, and then you can worry about the best outside of it. So you have to outrank Lyssana.”

All eyes swiveled to her and she openly glared at the professors back. A blade between the first and second vertical spinal bones would cause total paralysis, then he wouldn’t be teaching anyone… The thought caught her off guard and she let her eyes fall to the floor. The Saakaran ways were so ingrained in her being that she reverted to their savagery at the first slip of control. Anger flared at herself and when the gong sounded signaling the end of class, she threw herself out of her seat and flew past the other students. It was unfair of him to have put a target on her back like that! Every student in the class would now be trying to outdo her specifically. It was going to be like Hrovati all over again, and she would be ready. 

She was the first out the door, striding angrily down the crowded hallway. Professor Hurst had no right to call her out in front of everyone like that! She was beginning to resent the kind man. She distantly heard her name being called, but ignored the voice and continued forward, not wanting to cause a scene in front of so many people, who were already looking around for the person shouting. 

A hand suddenly grasped her arm and she reacted without thinking. A column of fire burst from her free hand, flinging the assailant against the opposite wall, along with whoever was unfortunate enough to not move quickly enough from her path. Her eyes widened to match the green eyes staring back, and she took a step forward, hand raised in hesitation. Neal just stared at her in shock as he stood up on shaking legs, rolling out the shoulders that were sure to have massive bruises by tonight. 

“You are not a very good people person, you know that?” 

Abby launched herself between them, then, hands outstretched as a barrier. “I think you’ve crossed a line here, Lyssana.”  The pyromancer opened her mouth to protest that it was reflex, but was cut off by the fiercest words to leave Abby’s mouth. “You should leave. Now.” 

She was surprised to see that people weren’t staring, but hurrying away with eyes diverted, practically running once they were out of sight. She sighed in irritation before stalking down the hall and out of the building. 

To say she was on edge was clearly an understatement. The appearance of the Saakarans had shaken her far more than she had admitted to herself, and so she decided to face them head on. Tonight she would seek them out and demand to know why they were watching her. Until then she would go home and try to sleep; a nap should help her head clear. 

She had not spoken a word since the incident this morning, instead opting for silence as she sat cross legged in the fireplace. Sleep had eluded her, and so she chose the second most soothing activity: meditation. Flames danced along her naked flesh as she channeled all anger and rage into the void of her mind. Runes carved into her skin flowed down her spine, helping her focus the energy she exerted. The Saakarans had thicker skin, and when they earned their runes, it became a part of them. Lyssana’s thinner skin had posed a problem when it came to her carving day, and so the runes were actually carved so deeply they cut into the bones of her back. Many years had passed and they were healed, but the focus they provided was vital in certain situations and helped her attune with outside energies. It also meant she was more volatile to those energies as they mixed with her own, and this new place held far too many different magics for her to filter out. Meditation would have to become a daily ritual if she was going to keep her calm. 

If the matriarchs had seen that display they would be ashamed, and she would have been forced to join the fishing boats on their next expedition. The thought of forcing a penance on herself had crossed her mind briefly, but there was no body of water large enough to isolate herself. A part of her was happy over this. Being water locked was as strenuous as an earth elemental being held in the air, arms and legs bound, or the water elementals being forced to the highest peak of the fiery mountain. The air elementals had it the hardest though, being buried in a box below ground for hours on end. The Saakarans were not a forgiving people. Their punishments were harsh, but their rewards were worth it. 

Being in a second level class in her first year proved that already, but now she would have to maintain and excel in her classes in order to rise in ranks. Now that she was feeling more rational, she realized that none in her first level class would be capable of outranking her without cheating, so she would need to be on guard at all times. Neal and Abby would likely not want anything more to do with her after the little display earlier, so she would have to hope that all future projects could be done by herself. A deep breath inhaled as she allowed her mind to clear, focusing only on the heat of the flames encompassing her. She would not fail. She would be worthy. 

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

Kelim Hurst smiled deviously as he watched her back disappear around the corner, watching closely to be sure no one saw the facade drop from his face. These new students would know soon enough the hardships this school had to offer, and just how kind the staff was. Truthfully he had been annoyed at his initial orders to make life hard on the girl, for what could be so special about another spoiled brat?  Now he realized why. Her strength was unlike any first year he had seen, and she would need to be pushed in order to unlock her full potential. Perhaps even broken. The child was not malleable enough yet, but Istima was good at bending students to their will. That Lyssana Terasu would be ensnared so deeply in the traps being set around her that she would never be allowed to leave. Kelim delighted knowing he would be rewarded handsomely for his role in this, if all turned out as it was supposed to. Otherwise he might find himself with a slit throat before any could protest. The next class began to file into the classroom and he smiled happily, greeting the students with a renewed fervor, mind mulling greedily over the possibilities.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Time passed quickly in the nothingness of the flames, and when Lyssana opened her eyes, the sun had passed its zenith and cast long shadows from the balcony. She stood easily, her vitality renewed and energy centered. It would be time for her next class soon. The Corpegara had taken posts to either side of the marble pit and stirred when she stood, ears twitching as their heads swiveled to meet her gaze. “I’m feeling much better now, my friends.” Her smile was genuine as they came to her, purring and chirping for attention. Halvard nuzzled her outstretched hand and a quiet laugh escaped her lips as she eagerly obliged, and the petting frenzy began. 

Her second class began without incident, and she threw all her attention to the continued lesson on energy frequencies. It was more mathematics than she had ever done in her life and she struggled to keep up. The concepts they had learned in the previous class were now all assigned numerical values, making the calculations for each frequency arduous and complex. The simplified version of the scale was an assigned number between 1 and 20, 1 being the hardest known rocks and minerals, and 20 being the hottest magma deep under the earth. Knowing these numerical assignments would help further in the class once the students were ready to learn which frequencies they most closely resonated, and they would eventually be able to fine tune their own energy reserves to focus on said frequency and be more efficient with their use of magic. It was quite fascinating, though she looked forward to moving away from the arithmetics and learning more of the elemental use as a whole. 

Her professor was just as kind and hospitable as the first few classes and Lyssana thought she would quite enjoy learning from the woman, who directed them to simply call her Educator Rosa. She was a short woman; her blond hair fell freely around her shoulders as she taught, and though her tone was always kind and patient, there was something about her that made Lyssana feel like she could be sharp when she needed to be. Lyssana was honestly just happy to be another face in the crowd and not singled out. She was sure her ranking in this class was the lowest, so hopefully none of the other students saw her as a threat. 

The class passed quickly, and since the students were unable to make their introductions their first time, Educator Rosa ended the class early so everyone could make their announcements. The teacher started with herself and instructed all to follow her lead. “My name is Rosa and I actually grew up here at Istima. My mother was an Educator and I grew up roaming these halls and dreaming of being where I am today. Teaching the next class of pyromancers is what I love to do, so I promise to give each and every one of you every opportunity to grow and learn and be the best you that you can be.” She ended with a smile as she gave them a small bow and then gestured to the student sitting closest to the front. 

A curly haired woman a little older than Lyssana stood up and faced the class, her hands wringing nervously in front of her as she spoke. “Hello everyone, I’m Kenali, I uh, moved around a lot growing up and got into Istima on my second round of orientation. This is my third year here and though it’s been a difficult journey, I wouldn’t trade it for the world!” Kenali’s reservoir stood somewhere on even ground with Abby, though it was difficult to make a comparison without seeing what her elemental ability was. 

The class continued to introduce themselves in order, each student claiming that Istima was their dream, or that they would fight to be the best. It was a lot of what Lyssana had heard in her other class, though she had to remind herself that these students were far more advanced than the beginner class she was in that morning. 

The strongest student stood then, a tall man with darker skin and pale brown eyes. “Hi all, I’m Cavit, and it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He avoided eye contact with everyone, staring just above their heads as he spoke. “I was actually adopted at a young age, so I’m not sure where I was born, but my family raised me for the purpose of coming to Istima, so it’s always been my life goal. Now that I’m here, I quite enjoy it, though I do miss my family quite a lot.” He seemed to realize he had been rambling and sat down as a red tint crept up his cheeks. 

Then it was her turn and she stood with all the confidence her afternoon had granted. “My name is Lyssana Terasu. I also am not sure where I was born, but I was raised by-” she hesitated a moment, searching for an explanation that would appease the curiosity of the class without giving anything away, “close family west of the Mountains of Angewine. I had heard stories of Istima growing up, but didn’t really know if I would fit in here, but I’m going to do my best to succeed.” It was brief and a lie. She had known her fate since young adulthood, but these people didn’t need to know that, and making herself seem uncertain would perhaps make her seem less of a threat. 

“Very good, thank you class. I look forward to the progression of the year and I hope we can all get to know each other better. Istima is a very good place to have friends to help you along the path.” Rosa’s tone changed just slightly then and Lyssana looked up to see the Educator looking directly at her, just long enough for a single moment of eye contact before turning to the other students. Lyssana almost wondered if she had imagined the underlying warning that seemed to be hidden in those words. The gong sounded and the students began to file out. 

Lyssana was just about to veer off down the hall when a throat cleared awkwardly behind her. She turned to see Cavit, arm slightly extended in greeting. “I’m Cavit, but you already know that from a few minutes ago.” She looked at his hand but did not accept. He pulled in back quickly and stuck it behind his back. “Um, sorry, I’m not good at making friends. Not that you’re a friend, but that uh-” He stopped, ears burning as he fumbled over his words. She felt confused. How could the most powerful student in the class have such an uncomfortable demeanor? “Educator Rosa said Istima is a place where it’s a good idea to have friends and I know this is your first year so I thought I’d offer to be an acquaintance. We are probably going to need partners in this class at some point and you’re the closest in strength to me, so I figured I’d properly introduce myself, if you’d be so inclined to accept, Miss Terasu?” His last words were more confident and she wondered if the awkwardness was an act. Could she trust him? Absolutely not, she couldn’t trust anyone, but having a partner would probably be more beneficial than not. 

“Lyssana. You can call me Lyssana.” His shoulders relaxed at her words and he offered a small smile holding out his hand once more and she hesitantly accepted it with a small shake. “Do not think I will be easy to take advantage of because I am a first year student.” She gave the warning in a pleasant tone and was satisfied to see him blink before answering. 

“I wouldn’t think of it. It takes guts to be allowed into a higher level class, and I don’t think you’re someone I’d like to have on my bad side.” 

“Then I think we will get along nicely.” Her tone dropped slightly as she offered a small smile and he chuckled quietly. 

“I’m not making a mistake by associating myself with you, am I? Because I don’t need a death count on my hands if I’m going to succeed!” He laughed aloud and it was a boisterous sound. Had he just made a joke? It was hard to say, but she decided to play along. 

“A death only counts if you’re caught.” Her tone lightened a little and she offered him a more genuine smile. “I suppose only time will tell if either of us has made a mistake.” 

“I suppose you are right. I will bid you a good evening, and I’ll see you in class tomorrow.” And with that he gave a small bow, turned on his heel and strode down the hall, back straight and head high. No, she did not believe that was a man she would trifle with.

Her evening was free since neither class had given assignments other than some reading and the Corpegara were more than happy to fly around the town as she walked along the rooftops. It was an easy walk as the roofs were mostly flat in this part of the market and close enough together that she could jump from one to the next with ease. It was good to be moving her body again, and the silk trousers and soft leather boots she had changed into were perfect for the job, plus it kept her out of the street and from being seen. 

She wandered long into the dying sun, the playful chirps reaching her ears as she occasionally checked on Halvard and Sarpia. The differences in the courts were distinct from her view and as the left one and entered the next, the roofs grew more sloped. They were not a problem for her deft feet, she was used to running laps around the island barefoot. Perhaps this would be her new exercise routine. More importantly than her footing, the changing of seasons as she passed through invisible lines awed her. How it could be always snowy in her court and always warm in the Summer Court she did not know, but it was a refreshing change, so she slowed her pace. 

Movement on the street below caught her eye and she noticed a spindly creature, surely one of the Len sneaking along as though stalking. She stopped and watched to see what they were after when she saw a robed figure in the alley ahead. Another in silk emerged and they seemed to be arguing before the robed one handed the silken clad figure a letter, in which they suddenly seemed friends. Her eyes narrowed as the Len began to stalk after the silk figure, and out of curiosity, so too did she. Long did she follow the shadowed figures, almost losing interest before they seemed to slow to a stop once more. 

Lyssana landed softly on a roof directly over the empty alley where the boy – she could see he was male now – stepped into the space with a cocky grin. A smaller figure crept into the ally behind the boy then, feet silent as the male did not turn from what held his attention. Suddenly the woman – it was a woman she thought – threw her hands in front of the silk boy’s face and a flash of brilliant light erupted followed by a scream. Lyssana raised her brows but made no move to help. This was not her fight. Then the woman was gone as quickly as she had come. It was quite impressive, really. 

The Len followed and tried to help the boy to his feet. How kind this one seemed, for she had also seen him give coins to the beggar. But the boy on the ground yelled something and the Len kicked his legs out from under him and stole the bag on his shoulder. She couldn’t help but stifle a laugh. Never insult a Len, even a child knew that. She was growing increasingly happy that this was not her court, if a chance encounter showed her this much cutthroat savagery, though perhaps she could use some of these people as friends to watch her back. More likely than not they would put a knife in it, but it was an idea to mull over. 

The moon had just begun its ascent when she closed the door to her rooms. She tossed the Corpegara some food and drew water for a bath. It was time to take advantage of this beautiful tub, and as she soaked, she read through the books of her second level class and started to understand the frequency algorithms, though her knowledge was faint at best. She would need to do better in order to pass this class. Perhaps Cavit could actually help her? He would be seeking something in return though, and she was unsure what she was prepared to give in exchange. Abby and Neal were clearly in it for her knowledge and power, if they were still on speaking terms, but this Cavit was stronger, so what did he have to gain? With a sign she closed the books and drained the tub, closing the bedroom doors as she crawled into bed. Hopefully tomorrow would bring a better day. All she could do was hope. 

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Yam 5

1.05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yam nodded seriously. Finally, a taste of civilization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yam’s only reply was a smile. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those he had fought particularly hard for. 

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

Plus, he already knew which court he would join. 

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

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

~~~

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

The anomaly stood out immediately. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a young woman materialized. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t touch me!”

“I’m sorry! Are you hurt—”

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

 There was a stutter in Yam’s chest. 

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

Just rage. 

Even in Istima. 

Even in the most educated place in the entire world. 

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

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

He had just stolen something from another student. 

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

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter

Cal 5

Lessons continued the next day. Aside from runes and potions, the Summer Court required students to take a smattering of random subjects. Cal was surprised to find that most of them had nothing to do with magic at all. History, natural science, chemistry, and other dull subjects made the day drag on.

In Runes, after Teagan concluded her lesson, she took out the projects students had handed in for the first challenge. She plucked one from the pile and looked around. “Who did this?”

Rathana raised his hand. “I did,” he said.

“Congratulations,” Teagan said. “Let this be a lesson to everyone else in the room. When I said ‘impress me,’ I did not mean for you to remake what we did in class, nor did I mean for you make it brighter, nor did I mean this.” She held up one lamp. “To whichever jackass in this room decided to simply hand in their project with a small envelope containing some gold, you might as well leave Istima now before you embarrass yourself further.” She tossed the offending project on her desk, causing something to break.

“In comparison, your classmate here actually went above and beyond. Watch,” she touched the lamp and it changed in color, changing from blue to deep red. “This is a good first effort, and impresses me enough to earn a point for this challenge.” She set the lamp down.

Cal smiled as she saw the embarrassed and upset faces around the room, especially from the students who had left early in the last class. Jasten’s contorted features were especially amusing.

Before they were dismissed, Teagan gave them their second challenge: build a tool that could be worn. This time, when she walked out of the room, the students took the hint and left without being told.

Cal thought about congratulating Rathana, but saw a small crowd forming around him to ask about details of his design, so she left. Besides, there was no potions class today, and Alendra was free for lunch.

“Gods above, you’re court sounds more like a pack of ravenous dogs than a school!” Alendra said. Somehow the stacks of books and scrolls that surrounded her had doubled in size since Cal had seen her last. “I don’t know why anyone would pay to expose themselves to that level of cutthroat barbarism.”

 “I can make it work.” Cal shrugged. “It’s not like I plan to advance anyway.”

“Still keen on your ‘in-and-out’ plan, I see,” Alendra said.

“Yup,” Cal took a bite of her meal. “Actually, I got a job.”

Alendra looked up from her book. “You? A job? An honest job?”

“Of course not. It’s a dishonest job. Speaking of which, let me know if you need any rare or illegal ingredients. I know some guys.”

“Thanks, but I’m good. Just be safe.”

“I’m always—“ Cal stopped as someone stumbled through the door to the tavern. “Rathana?”

The Akatsi saw her and limped over.

“Callion,” he said, breathing hard. “How fortunate.” He leaned against their table and Cal saw that he was bleeding from a gash on his forehead.

“What happened?”

“I was set upon by some men,” he said.

“Gods, you were mugged?” Alendra said. “Did they steal anything?”

Rathana looked to her. “No, nothing was taken.”

“Strange,” Cal said. “Isn’t that the point of a mugging?”

“Not the time, Cal,” Alendra said, shooting her a glance.

“I believe they were put up to it.” The Akatsi touched his forehead and winced. “I had a disagreement earlier with a fellow student. Callion knows him, I believe. Lord Jasten from Runes?”

“Yeah, I know that asshole. What was it about?”

“He wanted to pay me to make something for the second challenge. I said no and he was angered. An hour later, men accosted me on my way to the Day Court.”

“That’s terrible! Surely you could tell the administration of the college?”

Rathana shook his head. “The rules of the Summer Court allow students to get away with anything that cannot be traced back to them. Unfortunately, his actions constitute fair play.”

“Like hell it does!” Alendra said. “That’s just… Cal, where are you going?”

Cal paused, she was out of her chair and putting on her cloak. “I’m going to go have a word with him.”

“Please, Callion, that’s hardly necessary—”

“By the way, I’d like you to meet my friend Allie. Why don’t you get to know each other while I’m out. It won’t take long.”

Before anyone could stop her, she left the tavern and headed west. She’d spent an afternoon following the stuck-up rich boy; where he frequented and where he lived. She hadn’t gotten around to robbing him yet, but that wasn’t on her mind right now.

It didn’t take long to find him. It was early evening and he was moseying down the street, probably from one bar to another. Cal followed him, watching from a distance until he disappeared down an alley.

In truth, she didn’t have a plan beyond this. She was a good thief, but that meant she hadn’t been caught enough to have to learn to fight well. Besides, he had magic and she barely had any.

Still, she went down the alley, creeping up close enough to smell the nauseating combination of perfumes he had doused himself in. She needed to do something quick before he noticed her. If she were Alendra, she could lift him into the air and terrorize him, but she couldn’t, all she had was the little light show parlor trick.

It would have to do.

She reached out and clamped her hands over Jasten’s eyes. As he tensed, she let the energy within her arc through her nerves and into her palms. Jasten screamed as searing white light filled his vision, leaking out between Cal’s fingers.

She let go and jumped back as he slumped to the ground, clutching his face. She reached down and grabbed his silk coin purse, ripping it from his belt.

The magic had drained her, but all the same, she ran back to the tavern. Alendra and Rathana turned as she burst through the door.

“Callion!” The Akatsi said. “You returned.”

“With money,” Alendra said, “wonder how that happened.”

“I had a small chat and I believe he, uh, saw the light.” She looked down at the bag. There was probably enough gold in it to sustain her for a month or two, but… she held it out to Rathana. “Here, as reparation.”

“I—thank you, Callion. That was very kind of you to do.”

“Yes,” Alendra said, eyebrow raised. “Yes, it was.”

“Don’t act so surprised,” Cal said, slumping into her chair. Her food was stone cold by now, not that she had an appetite anymore.

“Allow me to repay you,” Rathana said. He reached into his bag and retrieved a book. “Here, this book contains the runes I used in my project. Perhaps it can help you in this next challenge.”

“Don’t you need it?”

“I may not be of much worth in a fight, but I have a quick mind.” Rathana tapped his forehead. “Everything worth knowing is already in here. Had Jasten asked nicely, perhaps this book would be his. Alas, he did not.” He held out the book. “Take it. Please. If only so that no one less scrupulous may reach it.”

Alendra opened her mouth, closed it, and then shook her head. “Well, perhaps Cal can use this to further her studies, if she plans to stick around, that is.”

“You intend to leave?” Rathana said. Cal still couldn’t read the expressions of the Akatsi well, but she saw sadness in his big, watery eyes.

“Nothing was decided yet,” Cal said, glaring at Alendra. “For the moment, I’m still very much a student.”

“Excellent! Then I cannot wait to see what you create for the second challenge.”

“Yeah,” Cal hefted the book of runes in her hand, “neither can I.”

That night, in her quiet, little room above Sable and Burr’s shop, Cal cracked open Rathana’s book of runes. Reading had always come easy to her, Cal’s childhood had been filled with what she deemed ‘practical’ reading: street signs, notice boards, and price tags. Alendra talked about reading as a source of joy, of being transported to distant shores and impossible fantasies, but Cal much preferred numbers. When it came to joys, there were few things that could beat counting a stack of stolen coins.

But the book, entitled “A Wise Grammatist’s Guide to Runic Lore,” was unlike anything Cal had ever seen. The writing was in a dense, flowery script, full of archaic prose and inventive grammar. The saving grace was the large woodcut diagrams of different runes and their functions. The book even specified that it had used dotted lines to ensure that the runes wouldn’t accidentally activate or bind to the page.

The challenge Teagan had given the class was to make something wearable. Cal flipped through the book until she landed on a section entitled ‘Absorption and Redirection.” She saw a diagram of the first rune and smiled. She grabbed her boots and her knife and set to work.

A few hours later, Cal was standing in the hallway within the administrative tower of the Summer Court. It had taken time, and at least one bribe, but she’d reached her destination: Teagan’s office. She knocked on the door and, after a few moments, it swung open.

“Yes?” Teagan said. She was wearing her usual apron, and her hair was in a tight braid. Cal couldn’t tell if the mess in her office was from some project or if that was its usual state.

“I’m handing in my project,” she said.

“Ah. Callion, I was wondering if you were going to skip out on this one challenge too.”

“You, uh, noticed that?”

“I did. So, where is your project?”

“I’m wearing it.” She lifted a boot.

“Alright,” Teagan crossed her arms, “show me.”

Cal stomped around a couple of times. Teagan raised an eyebrow.

“Is something supposed to be happening?”

“Actually, no,” Cal said. “In fact, they don’t make any noise at all.” She stomped again and the boots made no sound as the heel hit the stone floor. “The energy is stored and, when you click the heels together, released all at once to—”

“Jump to great heights, I see.” She nodded. “Let me see them.” Cal slipped off the boots and handed them over. The professor studied them closely, pouring over the runes. “Interesting. Vibrational energy is often overlooked, and the runes for it are uncommon. I don’t see any limiter on the release of the energy.”

Cal gave her a blank look.

“You have no way to control the jump. If you walked all day and then released it all at once… well, we’d probably have to scrape you off the cobblestones.”

“Oh.”

“A good mistake. You should learn from it. I’ll see you in class.” As she began to close the door, she paused. “Actually, there is one more thing.”

“Yes?”

“Did you blind another student?”

Cal kept her expression level as she shrugged. “From what I have heard, it was temporary, though I don’t know much about the situation.”

Teagan blinked. “Well, I commend whoever did it. Goodnight, Callion.”

Only when the door closed did Cal realize she’d just given over her only boots.

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Lyssana 4

Chapter 4: The Inner Workings of Winter

Though Neal had not left them waiting long, the time spent passed in near silence. Abby picked at her food while Lyssana sat reading her book about the Corpegara. The more she learned about them, the more of an enigma they seemed to be. Though their origins were still a topic of debate, the book seemed to be spot on for the remainder of the information. The Corpegara could be found in the wild at the highest peaks of the Eastern Angwynn mountain range. All lived in a single colony with as many as fifty individuals. She would have to make a future trip to visit them for study. 

She lost herself in the pages and aside from a few glances, Abby left her alone. Lyssana allowed herself to focus on the other woman only in her peripheral for the simple fact that the energy radiating from the water mage was calm and soothing – very much the feeling of standing on the beach as the tide ebbed and flowed, perfect ambiance for Lyssana to ignore the room around them.

A young man walked in then that shook the energy of the room to its core. His elemental reservoir matched Lyssana’s perfectly, and the room fell still as she looked up to find his gaze already on her. He gave a single nod of respect and she returned it with an equally respectful bend of her neck. Only then did the room seem to release a breath as people continued with their conversations, though the vibrating hum of energy now seemed to consolidate on either side of the two mages, no person wanting to be stuck in the middle of that torrent. Even Abby moved from the right side to Lyssana’s left, clearing her throat with an excuse of wanting to eat some of the roasted potatoes on that side of the table. 

It was easy to be drawn into another energy, especially if said energy was as powerful or more than your own, and so Lyssana could feel the resonance that charged like a raging storm, waves crashing violently against anything that dare stand in their way. It would be easy to find herself getting lost in that storm, but she did not let herself get close, instead pushing her thoughts to another subject. It was a subconscious ritual she had learned as a child, to avoid being pulled in and instead close your field of focus so the invading energy could not get in. She could still feel him, but it now was a haze of recollection, like looking at something in the strained fog at the edge of your vision. 

“Can you feel it too?” Lyssana looked over to Abby who was now openly staring at the young mage dressed in dark blue silk seated at the other end of their now empty table. “Of course you can, he’s as strong a you. I just don’t understand how you aren’t bothered by it.” Rose colored Abby’s pale cheeks as she spoke and her eyes dropped to avoid the fiery gaze of the other woman. 

“What does it feel like to you?” The question was arbitrary and could have been taken as rhetorical, but Abby answered anyway. 

“Well… it’s like – okay, so your energy is like-” She squinted at Lyssana, as though trying to find the right words. “-a volcano about to erupt. Like magma bubbling right underneath my feet. It’s quite overwhelming and chaotic, actually.” She moved her gaze to the man, looking away quickly as he raised his head in their direction. “His is harder to avoid, probably because he shares my element, but it’s just strong like a river barreling through a gorge.” 

Lyssana knew there was nothing that could be done and so she nodded before closing her book and sliding it back into the leather satchel she carried. The energy of the room had finally settled into pockets of like elementals and she smirked at the noticeable difference from before he had entered. People gravitated into groups that synchronized with their own energies, creating pockets that flowed around the room in varying intensities until the only open space was that at her table. 

Neal chose that moment to make the most obnoxious entrance, whistling a merry tune that fell flat in the high ceilinged room. “What’s got everyone so weird today?” He asked loudly, throwing himself into the seat opposite her and grinning at the state of the room. “You’d think they’ve never seen a little friendly competition. Though it looks like his resting face isn’t as mean as yours, so he’s got my vote.” 

She ignored the jest as she pulled out their class notes, scanning the pages as she tried to take over the conversation. “What do we want to compete for our tas-”

“We should do something over the top and make everyone else jealous!” He interrupted, that mischievous glint in his eye. She cringed at the thought of drawing even more attention and shook her head. “We have three of the four main elements, so our task options are many. It needs to be something that obviously uses all three elements without too much explanation when we turn it in tomorrow. I think we should look into metal work.” 

Neal seemed to contemplate a snide remark before he shrugged and looked between Abby and herself. “You the boss, fire babe.” 

“Call me that again and I’ll stab your face.” 

His hands went up defensively as he choked on a laugh and glanced at the forks gathered at the center of the table. “Too far, got it.”

Abby’s face broke into a grin and Neal threw a wink in her direction. An eruption of crimson covered her face and she stared at her lap as Neal turned back to Lyssana. “Working metal is good and all, but what are we going to make?”

“We can make a blacksmith puzzle!” Her face had lightened a few shades but it still held the reddened embarrassment that was becoming a staple of her personality. “I used to play with them when I was a child and it shouldn’t be too difficult to make one.” 

Neal agreed immediately, but waited for Lyssana’s approving nod before speaking. “I was going to keep this a secret for myself, but since we are a team, I guess I can share it with you lovely ladies.” Another blush from Abby and a narrowed gaze from Lyssana ensued before he continued. “It’s a cavern I read about in the library. I’ve only been once, but there’s a large iron ore deposit and a pool that gathers water at the center. It’s plenty big for all of us to work and I think it’s perfect.” 

Another nod from Lyssana and an excited smile from Abby was all he needed to jump out of his seat. “Well then what are we waiting for? Daylight is wasting, you know!” Both women stood more gracefully and gathered their things before heading toward the door. Neal paused only long enough to grab a roll of bread before taking the lead of the group with a smirk in her direction. 

The entrance to the cavern rested on a jagged edge on the abandoned north sector of the Claral Court. The sun here cast eerie shadows and seemed just bright enough to cause them to squint at the staircase leading down into the storm sea that surrounded the island. 

“This looks…safe.” The hydromancer’s voice wavered and her face seemed paler than usual as she peeked over the edge to oblivion. 

“Without risk, there is no reward!” Neal’s voice took on a lecturing tone as he strode toward the first step. “These steps are sturdy, I can personally attest to their structural integrity.” 

“Don’t strain yourself with a heightened vernacular.” Lyssana muttered as she motioned Abby behind him. If the woman was going to pass out, Lyssana wanted to be there to catch her. 

“I heard that!” Neal growled, upset that his professor voice had been broken. “See, I bet that other guy is a lot nicer than you. I’m going to be his partner next time.”

“He doesn’t even go to our class!” Abby snapped out of her panicked trance, though her hands pressed against the rock like a lifeline. “Are we almost there?” 

“Just a little further. I told you these stairs are sturdy, you aren’t going to fall.” 

Lyssana let the conversation fade from her focus as she felt the deep vibrations from the storm clouds they walked through. The energy beckoned to her, just waiting to be mixed with hers again. The temptation was strong, but she ignored it, focusing only on the way the air made the hair on her arm rise. It was exhilarating and a twinge of disappointment filled her as they slipped below the cloud line and onto a shadowed ledge. 

“This is it, just at the end of the tunnel. Lyssa, can I have some fire to light the path?” 

“Only if you use my name.”

“Please, Lyssana.” 

Abby rolled her eyes as a flame sprung to life in Lyssana’s outstretched palm and they followed Neal into the damp darkness. The tunnel was not long, but it seemed to oppress the light of her fire, making their shadows dance menacingly along the walls. There was also a noticeable lack of sound. No wind or echo of their footsteps, just complete silence. It was suffocating. The others noticed as well, but no one spoke, they only hurried through the tunnel until a large gash in the rock opened to a dark cavern. 

The sound of dripping water and cave crickets delighted their senses along with the smell of dampness and moss. The light of her flame reflected off the waters surface and threw patterns all over the cavern, giving enough light to see clearly. The pool at the center of the cave was crystal clear and seemed to be deceptively deep at the center where water trickled down from low hanging stalactites covered in green lichens. It was the most serene place she had been since her arrival at Istima and a feeling of peace washed over her. 

“Pretty impressive, huh?” Pride filled his voice, as though he had been the creator of this retreat. 

Abby could only nod as she looked around, her periwinkle skirts swirling as she turned. “It’s beautiful,” she choked, tears welling in her eyes. “Why do I feel like I could stay here forever with no worries?” 

“It’s most likely the result of an ancient enchantment, set here by whoever found this place first.” Her voice was steady and Neal watched her with a questioning look. “There is no telling what magics lie dormant here. I think we should be cautious while we work.” 

Neal ignored her and walked to the waters edge, holding his palm toward the ground. As his hand rose, so to did a pedestal of earth about 2 paces across with an indent in the middle; where Lyssana placed the flame. Abby took position closest to the water and she gathered streams around her from the pool. The water was even more crystalline up close and it seemed to refract the firelight into tiny rainbows across their faces. “We should get started if we want to finish by dinner.” His voice was clear as red-brown chunks of iron began to pull from the walls of the cave to converge in the upper flames of her fire. “Lyssana, I need the top portion of the fire hot enough to melt this, but try not to melt the stone beneath.”

She scoffed at the word try, though she did as he asked. The metal turned orange, then a straw yellow as Neal began to shape it into nine individual sections. Each piece was a thin rod the length of her pointer finger with varying sizes of hooks and loops on either end. Abby then started to direct the proportions and angles of each piece, submerging them with tendrils of water as they were complete and letting them cool at her feet. The sizzle of water hitting the metal echoed around the cave as they worked, and Lyssana saw the signs of strain on her companions as they continued the tedious work. Neal’s face was coated in a thin layer of sweat and Abby looked pale and exhausted in the flickering light and though Lyssana felt her energy dropping, she expressed no outward repercussions of the task. 

There was no way to tell how much time passed while they worked the strenuous details, but she estimated it couldn’t have been more than a few hours at the most. Her energy reserves had just barely drained when the final piece landed at Abby’s feet and she let the fire dim to a cooler flame. Abby sank to her knees and began assembling the pieces with deft fingers. 

“Wow, this is perfect! Great job Neal!” She looked up at him with a wide grin before hastily adding “and you Lyssana. Thanks for the fire.” 

Lyssana rolled her eyes and reached for the puzzle, giving it a once over before stuffing it into her satchel. “I’ll hang onto this until class tomorrow.” 

Abby looked about to object, but a glance of amber eyes shut her down quickly. “We should get a pretty good grade for this, being able to use three elements and all.” Her voice trailed off as she looked back down to the ground and Neal offered her a hand to help her up. 

“We don’t know the skill levels of the other students in our class, but I’m hopeful for the best.” He gave Abby a quick grin as she heaved to her feet and offered a small smile in return. “It was your idea after all, so I’m sure the professor will be impressed.”

Lyssana knew if Abby’s face wasn’t so pale from exhaustion that it would be flushed at the compliment, so she walked away, tired of their back and forth. “I have other things to do tonight, but I’ll see you both tomorrow. Sleep well.” She allowed a hint of sarcasm to touch her voice as she looked over her shoulder and saw both faces go scarlet at the insinuation. She took their silence as her leave and transferred the remaining fire from the pedestal to her hand before exiting into the dark tunnel. 

“You’re a jerk and I’m not going to feel any sympathy when she burns your eyebrows off one day.” 

“Me? I didn’t do anything to Lady Fire…besides, my face wouldn’t be perfectly symmetrical with no eyebro-” 

Giggles faded behind her as she made her way home. Her day was far from over as she had another class before dinner. Her steps slowed as she made her way up the spiral staircase separating the market level from the upper class residency buildings and a shadow caught her eye. Unnatural shadows swirled in the alley below her and as she watched, a figure seemed to move around the corner, taking the shadow with it. Her pace quickened as she made her way deeper into the Winter Court, satchel jingling with every step. These people following her would not get the opportunity to see her unhinged. With a set jaw she pushed it to the back of her mind. 

She doubted their grade would be as remarkable as Neal and Abby seemed to think, but it was a solid project for the provided parameters of a first level class. Her next class, however, was a level two class that she had placed into from her orientation performance. It was specific to fire elementals and she found herself the second strongest in the class as she took her seat in the back. 

She learned about the different frequencies in which the elemental energies rang, and why some mages were prone to one over the other. Fire, due to its natural state as high energy, was very volatile and moved faster than the other elemental resonances. Her notes were diligent as she listened to the experienced professor go through each element and describe its state and natural movement. Earth was solid and would not move unless energy was applied, making it the lowest elemental frequency.

 She hung on every word, happy to finally have a subject she knew little about. She understood the second level elemental classification as the lecture took a challenging turn with the numerical assignments to each frequency and the equations used to estimate each mage’s ability with a certain frequency. 

She was pleased when the lecture ended late and the class introductions were skipped. As she was about to slip from the class when her name was called by the professor to come to the front of the class. The other students glanced at her as they filed out of the room, leaving only her and the blond woman who taught the class. 

“I  am sorry we missed your introduction, I was very much looking forward to it.” Her voice matched the kindness that shone in her green eyes and Lyssana was  impressed to find that their energy levels were nearly equal in strength. “I wanted to take a moment to personally introduce myself and offer any assistance during my office hours should you need them. You are only the third student I’ve ever known to be allowed an advanced skip to a higher class, and I imagine such a jump can be difficult, so please don’t hesitate to see me if you have any questions about the lectures.”

“Thank you professor. I wish to succeed here at Istima and I am honored to be allowed a seat in your class.” She bowed her head in respect before being dismissed.

Such hospitality was uncommon in her experience at the school and she allowed herself a small smile in relief, though it quickly vanished in place of suspicion. She would have to keep a close eye on the professor until she discovered the ulterior motive to her introduction. 

With the collaborative assignment complete, Lyssana needed only to write a report for her second class using the equations taught to estimate her adjusted frequency to the fire elemental forms. Then the rest of her evening would be free to spend with the Corpegara and let them fly around after being cooped up all day. 

They were happy to do just that, cooing excitedly as she entered the apartment and she could not help but smile at their greeting. She opened the balcony doors and they took off over the Court, staying in sight of her rooms as she settled to write her report. Their loops and spins grew more intricate as the evening progressed and she chuckled once at a failed landing that had Sarpia rolling across the room, wings sprawled. She perked up at the laughter from Lyssana and immediately launched herself back at Halvard with a playful growl. 

Lyssana only stopped to eat when they both landed, seemingly content with their hours of play and watching her intently as she cooked three large fillets of the rainbow scaled fish. They consumed the fish in under a minute and settled for a night of sleep. She sat on the deck long into the night, reading by the light of the moon until the final page of her book closed. She knew now the Corpegara needed a balanced diet of both meat and bones to help regulate their density when flying and swimming, so as not to sink or crash.. Though not omnivorous in the wild, hers seemed to particularly enjoy these sour orange berries that she had no name for. Tomorrow night would be their time to fly around as she stocked up more food for the hungry beasts. The events that had transpired in the dining hall made her even more hesitant to return regularly. 

She changed from her silk dress before falling face first into the crimson sheets of her bed. Despite her hatred of the extravagant  cushions, she did admit the silk was much to be desired. Not even two weeks in and this school was already making her soft. With a grunt she pushed herself up and threw the sheets and cushions to the floor, opting to sleep on the mattress alone. She could not afford to be soft. She would not let this place break her. 

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Yam 4

1.04

It was with a weary body that Yam left the Wandering Len. He made sure to tip the staff generously.

While meandering down the dimmed but never dark streets, he was mulled over what he had learned. Or at least he tried. He was jarred from his thoughts when he stepped across the border of the Day Court and was greeted with an abrupt transition from a slightly chill night to a bright and balmy day. 

The brightness made his heart try to jump, but he was too tired. His building fatigue was like grease gradually thickening in his veins. The best he could do was stumble, rub at his eyes and string together a nonsensical collection of words that were delivered in a tone that made it clear he was trying to curse, though the results were mixed. 

He forced his legs to keep going. As he walked a few oddities began tickling at his mind. For instance, try as he might he never was able to spot the sun. It always seemed to be hiding behind a building while, somehow, still heating his face. 

That would not have been a problem if he didn’t find himself trying to check the time or his direction only to notice that the shadows had changed while he wasn’t looking. That the sun was behind a different building or, once, that it was behind more than one building at the same time. 

For all the wonders he had seen at Istima over the last few days the Claral Court felt somehow off. Something about the wearing of the roads. The slant of the different roofs, and something just a bit too-much about the plants.

He just couldn;t figure out exactly what it was. In general, the Claral Court was a place of stately buildings and cobbled roads. Everything was from different architectural styles, but somehow came together with little slices of green grass and inviting trees in a manner that felt exactly like a university should. 

Except for the sensation that there was a sound just below his threshold of hearing.

At one point Yam found himself examining a bench for almost half an hour, absolutely certain there was something strange about it, but unable to figure out what it was. In a fit of petty rebellion he decided to fight back and sat on the bench. The nagging sensation persisted but Yam leaned back, being as pugnaciously comfortable as possible: just out of spite.

The feeling did not leave. So Yam stayed sitting. 

While he fought his invisible war with the uncanny bench he slowly tuned in to the people around him. They all seemed like regular students. Books in their arms or floating behind them. Some swished by in the ink flecked robes of the Autumnal court, others, wearing the bright colors of the Hibernal Court, floated on cushions of air.

He spotted a few non-human students. Each one he spotted gave him a sense of vindication that he chose not to examine too closely. For several minutes he did nothing but watch everyone going about their business; talking in small clusters, sitting under a tree set to the side of the path, or covertly dipping their hands in a fountain and scrubbing at stains off their clothes.

It became increasingly obvious that everyone else was comfortable in the omnidirectional sun. Yam sighed and rubbed at his temples.  He must have spent too long trying to read the convoluted strings of influence, game, and motivation. For the entire day, he had been trying to notice something out of place and was suffering the hangover from it. 

As far as Yam could see the only strange thing was a set of stones, just slightly less worn than the cobbles around him that people always stepped or hopped over. Also a doorway set partially up a wall. No one looked at the door and even students with faces buried in books leapt over the skipping stone. 

Feeling somewhat foolish, Yam stood from the uncanny bench and went to his new student lodgings.

It took him longer than absolutely necessary to find them, but he managed to do so without pulling out a map and making himself look like a lost tourist or naive new student. It was an impulse that did not make any particular sense. But he decided not to look at it too closely. 

The building was a few stories tall, devoid of the decorations and ornate facades of other structures in the Claral court. Though, it was made of the same gray, flecked stone that seemed to be the primary material of all the surrounding buildings. 

Sitting at a small, folding table in the lobby was a person in the robes of the Autumnal court. His clothes were distinctly thinner, and his hat was noticeably less pointy than Thomnas’s. The student still managed to guide Yam through several stacks of paper work without ever making eye contact. Once the papers were finished he held them out and fed the sheaf to what the Len could only describe as a mouth made of bent and twisted space. 

The heat mirage-fun-house-mirror mouth chewed the papers and spat out a solid brass key. 

Yam went to his room on the second floor with his mind completely enraptured with the idea of having a familiar that existed by twisting the fabric of whatever space it happened to be moving through. Like a specter that made an impression of itself from underneath a long stretch of cloth, but was completely invisible and without physical substance underneath the fabric.

It was almost maddeningly exciting. Yam would either need to befriend that student, or see if he could bribe away the creature with more papers. 

Of course that was assuming it was a separate and sentient entity. And that he wouldn’t like the other student and not feel guilty about taking his pet. Or that he couldn’t find a more impressive one on his own. 

Following that twisted train of half formed thoughts, Yam stepped into his own small room and let habit guide his limbs while his thoughts were occupied. He formed a bundle of pillows under the blanket so it looked like a sleeping Len, stuck hairs across all the openings of his drawers, dresser, and closet to determine if they were tampered with. Then he opened the window, grabbed a drainage pipe and shimmied down to a set of bushes wondering what sort of exotic pet stores were in Istima.

The space under his window was set in between three walls, the two on either side pushed out from the main building and housed bedrooms. All the windows were covered by thick black cloth, presumably to block the sourceless sunlight, and looked over thick, untended bushes set behind a massive oak tree.

It was perfect. Yam took out his not-for-eating knife and hacked a small hollow into the bushes. Once inside he took the pin from his shoulder and undid his wrap. He refolded it and set it on the ground. Bed made, he pulled a wax paper wrapped bundle of rat jerky from his backpack and took out his for-eating knife. 

While he chewed Yam closed his eyes and let his other senses rove around him. The stone walls were dead to his perceptions in a way that spoke of potent magic protections. But the ground beneath him was not. Below him were some sunken cobbles, some foundation, but the greatest measure of the building’s weight was placed on porous stone that looked like a bee hive. In some sections the gaps were so small and tight that the naked eye would never see the holes. In other places they were so large that several men could walk shoulder to shoulder.

Connected to the earth as he was, the young Len took the time to sink into his own body and feel the resonance of the earth and bone. He relaxed his mind and let it slowly travel through those materials into the greater whole they were part of. 

In a far off way Yam felt, through the bones in his own body and the rat bones in his pack, all the bones in the world. Each and everyone connected to one pervasive flow of elemental power and meaning. Similarly he sunk into the earth, and through it, into the energy that made all matter know it was stone. 

Though he could feel that power, the deep profound currents of magic that were moving through the calcium frame of his own body, it felt untouchably far away. 

Instead of fighting that sensation Yam relaxed and let the feeling of such profound energy flow past him. 

The covetous parts of his mind wanted to grab that power. To pull it through his channels and command the forces of nature. But with an iron will he crushed that impulse and focused his whole mind towards moving close enough to feel the energy more clearly. 

That was the key. The difference between sensing that cataclysmic power and trying to take it was the difference between feeling the impact of a falling star through the ground instead of trying to catch it with a butterfly net.

He studied the flows, and focused on the faint aura around the torrents of power. Like mist from a crashing waterfall. With great care he let those wisps float across the paradoxical distance between himself and the main force. Then he took that aura into himself. 

That was the other key. One could get wet by jumping in a waterfall and being drown or simply by waiting in the mist of a waterfall.

Thanks to years of practice, the diffuse energy flowed through him calmly, and left behind trickles of itself. He took hold of those trace remains, the equivalent of droplets caught in his fur from a waterfall mist. Then he  distilled and progressively filtered those trace remains until only clean magic was being deposited into his reserves.

Yam was not patient, and this was only slightly faster than his natural recovery rate. Still, he pushed through. He had learned that this struggle was one where you had to play the long game. It was a battle of patience more than of will and force. 

You could not fight the earth. 

He let the sounds of brushing leaves, chattering students, and buzzing insects fall away and focused all of himself on making the magic inside of as pure as possible. On inching slowly closer to that limitless torrent of power his magic senses spied on through the peepholes that the stones under his legs and the bones of his own body had become. 

For now it was a bare trickle of power that reached him. 

For now his magic was of middling quality and only slowly settling into a more refined state, one drop of clarified power at a time. 

That should have frustrated him, made him seek power through easier methods and expensive solutions like most mages did.

But he stayed silent and smiled. Because, even though he was only able to touch a trickle of power for now. He was also only a mortal. 

For now.

~~~

Yam was shocked to find that, after a nap, when he stepped out of the Claral court it was after dawn for the rest of the world. That shock was balanced by the relief of seeing the moon and finally having something he could orientate himself with. 

He had vague plans for finding food and exploring the other courts but, exactly seven steps past the border of the Claral Court, Yam saw a stone building. It seemed partially grey, particularly thick, and particularly academic. As soon as he noticed the students walking from the building with books in their hands he lost his train of thought.

Without recalling the steps that led him there Yam found himself slowly moving through the line. The inside of the building was just as grey as the exterior. Tapestries on the wall were faded, Yam’s nose smelled dust and must, and the ceilings were arched in a manner that left their peaks always shrouded in shadows. 

None of that mattered. 

There were books. 

The shelves were at least eight feet tall and stuffed with a variety of leather, treated skins, and cloth bindings. He did not to salivate; but it was close. 

At first glance the entire library appeared to fit in a space the size of a large ballroom. But students were continually moving in from the outskirts of the room and stepping from behind stacks. It quickly became clear that there were even more rooms full of books. 

It was almost too much to bear. Books were heavy and expensive and required careful maintenance to protect them from the environment. His entire tribe had enough books to fill perhaps two of these shelves. If you needed more you might have been able to buy something for the journey between towns. But, for the sake of space, they were always re-sold as soon as possible. So come the next town that particular book was gone and you were left hoping that you never forgot what those pages held.

But this! Even a quarter of this room must hold more information that could fit into an elder’s mind. And there were more rooms. The raw concentration of knowledge, of wisdom, of power in this one building. 

When Yam reached the front of the line the student manning the desk had to repeat himself twice before he was able to peel his eyes off the shelves. 

“I don’t have a student number,” he said, “I was only admitted yesterday.”

“Then you’ll need to come back when you have one.”

 “I’m sorry what?”

The student behind the desk was wearing a grey robe with leather pads sewn onto the elbows. He wore the sort of tall hat Yam was already coming to associate with the Autumnal Court. The material of his robe was not impressive and the decorations on his hat, while glittering and ostentatious, were clearly made of inferior materials. 

The student underneath the robe was young with baby fat in his cheeks and massive bags under his glaring eyes.

“I said,” repeated the baby faced boy, “that you need to come back when you have been given a student identification number”

“How long will that take?”

The human turned his eyes away from Yam.  “That’s not my department.” 

“Wait!,” Yam started fumbling with a belt pouch, “Just give me a moment and I will show you that I am a student. I just need—”

“No number, no entry.”

Yam finally pulled a fresh rat skull out, “Just watch, I’m sure there will be no doubt left-”

The baby-faced student came to his feet and slammed his hands against the table so hard his hat tipped to the side, “I said, no number no entry. I am not the admissions council, and I am not making an exception. For all I know, you’re just another cur off the streets.”

The nervous smile on Yam’s face flickered for a moment before reasserting itself. But this time a bit too sharp and showing slightly too much tooth. 

“I,” He said slowly and with a treacherous softness, “am no dog. I have told you I am a student. Are you saying that I would speak a lie?”

“I,” the other boy mimicked, “am saying that you do not belong here. And that I will not let a stray past my desk unless given incontestable proof that I must.”

A pressure grew in the air and the library’s greyness seemed to grow darker as Yam felt his mind sinking into his reserve of power.

The dimness lightened and a hand flickering with witches fire and dreamy colors fell on the desk between them. 

“Return to your duties, Nathanael. I will escort this honored guest through our stacks.”

The student, Nathanael, looked up at the figure floating next to him. The man was older, his wispy hair just going grey. Holding still he appeared absolutely normal. Except for his eyes, which had a quality that was not humanly possible. They were blue and not particularly striking nor rare. They were simply a blue so laced with magic that the color became tinged with something else. Something from another place. 

Nathanael looked up at the man and the contempt on his face grew until it imploded in on itself and the baby faced student’s expression was completely devoid of any emotion.

“As you say bookkeeper”

Nathanial took his seat and ignored their existence all together. 

~~~

The bookkeeper motioned to Yam and drifted away. The moment he moved the cloak of normalcy crumbled. Every piece of him in motion gained a faint translucence and glittered with the subtle throb of witches fire. Like individual strands of it had been spun and then woven into shape of the bookkeeper.

He was a ghost, and clearly a powerful one. 

Yam followed after him allowing none of his shock and as little curiosity as possible show on his face. 

The bookkeeper glanced back at him and began patting his jacket and pants.

“Are you looking for something sir?”

“I’m just wondering if there was a steak falling out of one of the pockets. Perhaps that would explain the way you’re staring.”

Under his fur, the young Len’s skin heated. Before he could apologize the Bookkeeper burst into a peal of friendly laughter. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I couldn’t help myself. Have you never met a ghost before?”

Yam raised his eyes and saw the smile crinkling the Bookkeeper’s eyes, “Very few, sir.”

“Do you have any questions?”

“How many books can I check out at a time? How long can I keep them? is there a limit to how long I can stay in the library? How is everything sorted?howdoIfindabestiary,andabookontelekinesiandillusionsandshapeshiftingand—”

The bookkeeper’s eyebrows lifted higher and higher until finally the ghost  lifted a hand and interrupted, “I had meant questions about ghosts. I thought you would find that more interesting, little one.”

“Sorry, sir,” the young Len flushed, “There is just so much to learn here.”

A small grin spread across the bookkeeper’s face, the motion making patches of his skin become briefly translucent, ”Well, I suppose that is a reasonable reaction for one such as yourself.”

“Yes sir, my parents were committed members of the Ken Seekers.”

The two began moving again as the bookkeeper spoke, “The first thing to note, is that this is not technically a library. These are the Understacks. We hold duplicates, reference books, scrolls that have been transcribed, overflow, and copies of previous students’ dissertations.”

“How many books are in the Understacks?”

The bookkeeper held out his hand and a tangled clump of magic formed. It was tightly controlled, but still leaking into the visible spectrum at the edges. Yam looked into the glow and felt something foreign trace against the edges of his mind until a number seemed to float up to the top of his consciousness of its own accord.

He stared deeper but the number didn’t change. 

The fur along his spine stiffen and stand up. “How can so many fit in here?” He whispered.

“The Understack wanders more deeply than the average building.”

“Can I live here?”

“No little one, there are better ways to die and you should enjoy the sun while you can.”

The two of them stood in silence, Yam’s eyes tracing the spines of books that surrounded him and stretching up to the ceiling. 

The air all but thrummed with the weight of knowledge. 

“How does a student check out a book?” He asked.

“It depends on the student.”

When Yam’s face twisted into clear confusion the bookkeeper opened his hand and another flicker of magic flew away from them. It formed an illusory length of string that looked as though small lightening bugs were glittering along its length. 

Without speaking the bookkeeper floated forward, following the trail of magic until it terminated in a particularly dark side room.

“These are the common access introductory tombs.” The ancient ghost said, ”They hold brief primers needed to understand how each school’s magic works. Very little is usable beyond some basic cants. As such, any student may access these books. There is no fear that you will steal an artificer’s business because you have learned how to write a floating light command.”

Another line of magic appeared and they followed it deeper into the library, moving through small doors, a few side passages and, after almost five minutes of walking, into an area where the air was cooler, dryer, and the building’s decorations seemed subtly more antiquated. 

They finally came upon another shelf of books. The wood it had been constructed from was completely different from the shelves from the entrance to the Understacks. 

“These are teaching tomes discussing the various methods of creating familiars and specifically the Autumnal Court’s method of binding.”

Yam’s hands shot towards the shelves.

And, in a literal flash, they were knocked back. 

Something between a whine of pain and a growl came from his throat and the young Len tried again. Pushing his hand forward with a wave of mental power backing up the motion.

After perhaps thirty seconds of Yam trying to physically and magically punch his way through, the bookkeeper cleared his throat, or at least made the sounds a corporeal being in possession of a throat would make should they decide to clear it. 

“Ahem. As you may have noted, this information is restricted to students registered with the Autumnal court.”

Without any effort the bookkeeper reached past Yam’s clawed hands to adjust the tomes so that all of their spines were even and the bookend was more snug. “Should you wish to check out a book you would need to wait for your admissions to be processed, then for that information to reach the libraries, and then for your court to grant you access to whatever level of information they deemed you entitled to.”

With a feeling of horror Yam recalled library access being offered to the most prized first day students during the admissions. 

“They will try to limit how much I can learn!”

“Of course. Knowledge is the currency, power, prize, and punishment at Istima. Would you expect every student who can float a coin to immediately access books with a Catastrophe Curse or the exact manner of breaking through the school’s defensive wards?”

The bookkeeper’s magic line sparkled again and the pair followed it back to where they started. 

The rage in Yam cooled into a sort of resigned numbness. Of course getting into the school would not be the end of his journey. They would try to pull more out of him. More money, more work, and more debt. Why wouldn’t they? They had the power, and they controlled access to a vital resource. Given that sort of sublime bargaining position, who wouldn’t use it for all it was worth? 

Almost in spite of himself he pointed a claw towards the glittering thread of power they were following, “Is that some sort of bibliomantic librarian magic?”

“No. I am just a bookkeeper, not a librarian. This is simple organizational and bookkeeping magic.”

“You’re not a librarian?”

“The Understacks are not a library. And,” he added with a significant look at his flickering insubstantial body, “to be a librarian is a position of great power and prestige.” 

“Ahh, of course. A ghost cannot be safely oppressed or reviled without first limiting its ability to resist and grow.”

The bookkeeper flickered, “Pardon?”

“I believe you implied by your body language that you were discriminated against due to your species.”

“Well, that is rather blunt.”

 Yam smiled at the compliment and the bookkeeper continued, “But essentially correct.”

“Discrimination is a part of life.”

“I am sorry that you had to learn that so early”, the ancient ghost looked at him with his more than mortal eyes, ”You are of the Ken Seeker tribe?”

“I am a Study of the Ken Seekers.”

“And what is it you are seeking in Istima?”

“I am Study Yam Hist, my aspirations go beyond the heavens, but at this moment I want to know if I can work in the Understacks and have you teach me your book magic.”

“You want to work in the Understacks?”

“Yes.”

“You realize working in the Understacks can be seen as a mark of shame, that people will assume you were not trusted to work in your own court’s facilities?”

“I presume that due to my species that they wouldn’t trust me to work in a library.”

The ghost conceded the point with a wave of his hand. “It is beyond my abilities to teach you true library magic.”

“Mr. Bookkeeper, sir, I do not care if you have me plugging leaks with my fingers or tie me to the ceiling so I can clean the top of the shelves; is there anyway I could help with these books?”

Yam, noticed that he was staring into the bookkeepers eyes and forced himself to drop his gaze deferentially. Even so the determined set of his jaw remained unchanged and the way he balled his fist did not escape the ancient Ghost’s notice. 

“It isn’t possible for me to hire you until I have confirmation you are a student.”

“I understand, do you need other errands run or-“

“But,” the bookkeeper interrupted, “I will give you a task. If you would like to work for me, I will loan you a few books from my personal collection. As soon as you have read them all you may return here to me and we will see where you stand.”

“You are going to make me read books?”

“Will that be a problem?”

Yam blinked several times to hide the avarice in his eyes, “It is not the easiest task…. but I am in your debt.”

A grandfatherly smile sent a wave of translucent thought through the bookkeepers face. “Think nothing of it little one. Those in situations like ours need to look after each other.”

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Cal 4

That night, Cal knew that her classmates would be slaving away on their projects, but not her. Instead, she was in Washpenny Lane, one of Istima’s countless market streets. Perhaps, more accurately, she was atop one of the roofs of Washpenny Lane.

She’d been here a few times now, picking pockets and cutting purses, but the real money was inside the shops. The one Cal was watching right now was a clothing shop called Sable and Burr’s Garment Emporium. It was a tall and thin building, with each level jutting further and further out from the first, which gave the structure the unsettling appearance that it was about to tip over onto the street below.

Most towns Cal had ever been to closed down at sunset, but Istima was different. The magic lamps and ever-burning fires meant that it was well into the night before the market closed. When it finally did, she made her way across the roofs until she was atop the building beside her target. It was only when she was about to make the jump that she noticed something odd.

Something glittered on the roof of the shop, like a million tiny diamonds in the moonlight. She peered closer and raised an eyebrow. Someone had stuck shards of glass all across the edge of the roof, anyone trying to grab on from another building would end up slicing their hand to ribbons. Either the shopkeeper was paranoid, or they had something valuable to protect.

Usually, Cal preferred to work barehanded, but she carried leather gloves in the small bag strapped to her back. Once they were on, she backed up a few paces and, with a running start, leapt for the other roof. 

She heard glass crunch in her hands as she grabbed onto the tiles, and she quickly clambered up before anyone on the street below happened to look up. She wiped the shards from her gloves and surveyed the situation.

The building was four stories tall, the highest level had a balcony on the backside, facing a canal. That would be her entrance. Looking down, she saw it was empty, and there were no lights coming from inside. Satisfied, she hopped down, the running water from the canal masking the sound of her movement.

She went to try the doorknob and saw that it was covered in little runes. Damn, she thought, maybe I should’ve paid more attention to that lesson. She recognized an anchor rune, but the other symbols were unknown to her. There was a chance it was nothing dangerous, but that sort of thinking ended the careers of many would-be thieves.

Instead, she got out her knife and wedged it into the frame of the window beside the door. It took a little convincing, but eventually, she was rewarded with the soft click of the lock giving way. The window opened noiselessly and Cal clambered through. Her feet hit the ground inside and that’s when things went wrong.

Cal’s feet slipped out from under her as she was hurled upwards. She shielded her face as the ceiling rapidly approached and… then nothing. She opened her eyes and saw that she was hanging in the middle of the air.

She heard voices from somewhere in another room and then the sound of a door opening. She cursed, then cursed again when she saw her knife floating just out of her reach.

“Well, would you look at that,” a voice said beneath her. “It appears we have something caught in our flytrap.”

“Quite,” said another voice said. “Should we get her down?”

“One moment—I say, you there! Are you injured?” Was he speaking to her? “Come now, I know you can hear me! Are you injured?”

“I’m fine,” Cal said.

“Wonderful! Sable, if you would?”

Cal heard a click and gravity returned. She crashed to the ground, landing on a surprisingly plush rug. She groaned and rolled over, looking up at the ceiling. Two men appeared in her vision, one holding an elegant blade to her throat.

“I have several questions and I assure you it would be in your best interest to answer, agreed?” Cal nodded, feeling the steel of the blade at her neck. “First, how did you manage to get this far? Most thieves get caught by the first two traps, why not you?”

“Got lucky.”

“No such thing, darling,” the other man said with a smile. “In this city, that’s known as skill. But, we’ll have time enough to discuss that. Next question, what were you hoping to find in here?”

“What do most thieves come to find?”

“Clever answer,” said the first man. “Though you did just admit to being a thief. Points off for that. Final question, are you available for hire?”

“What?”

“What my colleague here means to say is that we are impressed with your abilities. If you are not previously engaged, we have a proposition to make.”

“Oh, Burr, we’ve confused the poor girl.” He pulled the knife back and slid it into a scabbard hidden in the lining of his jacket.

Cal sat up and got a better look at the two men. They were both thin, middle-aged, and incredibly well dressed. The man with the knife wore a white suit while his counterpart wore black.

“Perhaps we should start with introductions,” said the man in white. “I am Burr, and this is my partner Sable.”

“A pleasure,” said Sable, giving Cal a warm smile.

“And you are?”

“Cal.”

“Wonderful. You are sure you aren’t injured? You did fall from quite a ways up.”

“I’m fine. What’s going on exactly?”

“It’s actually rather simple, really. We are two businessmen looking to hire someone of your talents.”

“To do what?”

“Robbery, theft, and general skullduggery,” said Sable.

“But… why? This is a tailor’s shop.”

“It is,” Burr said with a nod. “Some would say the best in the city. But, we have other enterprises too. Enterprises which rely on discretion and a certain amount of moral flexibility.”

“And you’re offering me a job?” Cal’s head was still spinning.

“I do believe she’s got it, Sable!” Burr smiled. “Yes, a job is exactly the idea. Are you interested?”

“I… need to know the details.”

“Yes, yes,” he waved a hand. “All in good time. But first, would you care for something to drink?”

And so, Cal found herself sitting in the small apartment behind the shop she had intended to rob, waiting as the two men bustled about the kitchen.

“Sugar?” Sable asked, bringing her a cup of steaming tea. Cal shook her head, taking the drink from him. Burr followed close behind with a plate of small biscuits. The two men sat down across from her and watched intently.

“So… this business of yours,” Cal said, taking a biscuit, “what is it exactly?”

“We are suppliers,” Burr said. “The mages need all sorts of ingredients and materials for their various projects, but not all are easy to come by.”

“Or even legal,” Sable added.

“Quite right. We discretely provide customers with what they need and they pay us handsomely for it.”

“And where do I come into all this?”

“As I said, not all the things we acquire are strictly legal. In fact, some of them are carefully guarded by certain factions of the college. We need someone to retrieve items and make deliveries. You will, of course, be paid.”

“And why should I trust you?”

“Would you prefer we turn you over to the guard?” Burr shook his head. “It is a calculated risk for you to trust us, just as it is for us to hire a thief. But, this has the potential to be lucrative for both of us, don’t you agree?”

Cal hated to admit it, but she agreed. She was in the city as a thief anyway, so she might as well get paid a wage for it. “I’ll accept, but on one condition.”

“That is?”

“The room above the store, the one I broke into, I want to stay in it.”

“Stay? We aren’t a boarding house.”

“It’s not like you’re using it,” she said. “Think of me as your fourth alarm, should anyone else try and break in. Besides, it beats the Summer Court dormitory.”

“The Summer— hold it, you’re a student?” Burr looked to his partner. “No wonder she made it through the first two traps. Well then, as long as Sable is okay with it?” The man in the black suit nodded. “Then we are agreed! The room and wages in exchange for your services. We will, of course, deduct rent from your earnings.”

“Hang on a minute—“

“The deal is good, my dear, I would take it if I were you.” Sable smiled.

“Fine,” Cal said, crossing her arms.

“Excellent! Go ahead and get settled in, we’ll have something for you soon.”

Moving into her new room didn’t take much time. All of Cal’s belongings fit into the small trunk she’d brought with her to Istima. It was midnight by the time she got back to the shop, and the room was completely dark.

She cursed, wishing she’d asked Sable or Burr for a lamp. They probably had a spare magical lantern or something—it seemed everyone in the damned city did. If Alendra was here, she’d probably be able to do that glowing thing with her hands and—

Cal paused. Technically, she could do that. She looked at her hands and concentrated, then on the space above her hand. Like someone sparking flint, a small spark appeared. She poured in more energy and a small white flame burst into the air, illuminating the room with pale light.

It only lasted a few seconds before Cal felt a wave of fatigue, but it was longer than her last attempt. She smirked, it was a nice parlor trick, but it wouldn’t do.

Then another thought occurred to her. She opened up her pack and took out the small slate tablet she’d gotten in class. She began writing runes, trying to recall the lesson. What was it Teagan had said? Anchor and link, she drew the symbols. She hoped she was remembering the energy transfer system correctly.

The slate began to glow. A smile spread across her face, but faded when she felt the tablet get hot.

“Damn!” She said. Something was wrong. It was heating rapidly, Cal dropped the slate and backed up. She rummaged through her bag for her gloves as the rug beneath the tablet began to smoke and sizzle.

Putting on the gloves, she snatched the tablet back up and wiped away the transfer runes. The light disappeared, but so did the heat. I forgot the channeling. She drew the symbols again, this time, adding in the runes to funnel all the energy in the system into light. This time, when the slate glowed, it was brighter and remained cool to the touch.

It was a little victory, but now she could get a good look at her new room.

It was unfinished, with wood scraps and nails dotting the floor. On one side, below the window to the balcony, was the large rug she’d landed on earlier that night. On the other side of the room, beneath a sheet, she found a small table and two chairs. A thick layer of dust coated every surface.

Overlooking the lack of a bed, it was serviceable, especially compared to the rooms of the Day Court. She borrowed a broom from the shop downstairs and cleaned the debris off the floor, piling it in the far corner. With the floor clear, Cal took the rug and folded it on top of itself, then she covered it with the sheet she’d pulled off the table. It wouldn’t be the most comfortable sleep in the world, but it beat the floor.

She made a mental note to examine the traps on the doorknob and the floor beneath the window, but not tonight. Instead she fell onto her makeshift bed, and was asleep before she hit the blanket.

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